The Biblical Illustrator
Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Thou art permitted to speak for thyself.
Paul before Agrippa
Here is all that Christianity ever asked for: an opportunity to speak for itself; and its answer is the one which must always be returned: “I beseech thee to hear me patiently.” Christianity always appears in person, its witnesses are always at hand, the court is never disappointed, the judge has never to wait. But Christianity must be heard patiently. Only the candid hearer can listen well. If we have put into our ears prejudices and foregone conclusions, the music of Christianity cannot make its way. We should allow the Word free course through the mind, and, when it has completed its deliverance, then we may make reply, and then should be willing to return the courtesy and to hear what reply can be made. Here is the only answer which is universally available. As Christian Churches and preachers, we ought to take our stand just here, and when Paul is done, we should say, one and all, “That is our answer.” Here is--
I. Personal testimony. Paul talks about nobody else but himself. If we have nothing to say out of our own consciousness we cannot preach. But we are afraid to speak about ourselves; and, in truth, I am not surprised at the fear. We allege, however, that our experience is something between ourselves and God. Paul never thought so; he was not so humble as we are; we rebuke him, we shame him.
II. Personal conversion. Are you ashamed of that old word? Men used to be converted; now they change their opinion and their standpoint and their attitude. Mountebanks! See where he began--“which knew me from the beginning.” That was the starting point; what was the end? “I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.” That is what we mean by conversion. Paul was not a profligate to be touched by emotions. His was not a vacant mind, ready for any new impression. He was not a fanatic, fond of exciting adventures. Here is a conversion based upon a distinct history. Ours is not so romantic, but is quite as real. The incidents were individual and local, but all the significance is universal. Christianity meets men on wrong courses. Saul was on his way to Damascus, intent upon doing a wrong thing. Are we not also on the wrong road with a wrong purpose, armed by the power of a wrong authority? Christianity fights with the weapon of light: “I saw in the way a light item heaven.” I have seen that light; this is my own experience. I see it now! I see the hideous iniquity, the shameful ingratitude, the infinite love, the sacrificial blood. That is conversion. Christianity is the religion of mental illumination and liberation.
III. A new mission. “Rise, and stand upon thy feet,” etc. Christianity does not perform in the mind the miracle of eviction without furnishing the mind with thoughts, convictions, and sublimities of its own. The reason why so many people have turned away from Christ is, that, though they have seen the light, they have not discharged the ministry. We must keep up visions by services; we must maintain theology by beneficence. Instead of sitting down and analysing feelings and impressions, in order to find out whether we are really Christians or not, we should go out and call the blind and the halt and the friendless to a daily feast, and in that act we should see how truly we are accepted of God. If Paul had retired as a gentleman of leisure he might have forgotten the vision, or have contracted it into an anecdote; but he made it the starting point of a new life; and in war, suffering, and agony, he got the confirmation of his best impressions. A working Church is a faithful Church; an honest, earnest, self-sacrificing Church is always orthodox.
IV. Divine inspiration. “Having therefore obtained help of God, I continue” Conversion is followed by confirmation. Paul did not eat bread once for all: he sat daily at the table of the Lord; he obtained help of God. He needed it all; every night he needed the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost to sustain him after the wearing fray. Ministers, that is how we must live; we must obtain help from heaven; then we shall be able to say, “Though the outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.” (J. Parker, D. D.)
Paul before Agrippa
I. This interview took place under circumstances of unusual magnificence (Acts 25:23). All the majesty and splendour of the Roman provincial government were collected on the occasion. On the other hand, the apostle was a prisoner, and certainly the very last man with whom any then present would have wished to change places. But now who is there that would not rather have been Paul, than either Agrippa, or Festus, or any of their train?
II. When the apostle has leave given him to speak, purely in self-defence, he conducts that defence so as to expound “the truth as it is in Jesus.” This was the case with all the primitive disciples. They taught in synagogues and in the markets, if men would let them; but, if they dragged them before magistrates, they turned the courts of law into preaching places, and instead of pleading for themselves, pleaded for their Master.
III. The energy and zeal that distinguished his address. This was so eminent that the governor broke in upon him with a rude and unceremonious interruption (Acts 26:24).
IV. The dignity, wisdom, and energy of Paul’s reply, which of itself is not only a complete refutation of the charge of madness, but a full vindication of religion in that respect, both as to its doctrine and its spirit. It is not easy for a man who is noisily interrupted to retain his self-possession, much less to take advantage of it, so as to increase the power and impressiveness of their discourse.
V. His appeal to Agrippa (Acts 26:26-27). Every competent judge of eloquence will admit that this is one of the finest apostrophes that ever proceeded from the lips of man. It takes advantage of the common opinion of the Roman people, that the best defence that an accused person could make was to appeal to the knowledge and conscience of his judge. How much more of this sort the apostle might have uttered, it is impossible to say; but Agrippa had already heard more than enough. He interrupted the apostle, and then left him abruptly. Little as Agrippa thought it, that day was for him one of those critical seasons which occur to some men but once, to others often, on which hinges the dreadful alternative, whether a man shall be saved or lost.
VI. Three degrees of condition in relation to Christianity. Here is--
1. The Christian altogether.
2. The man who is a Christian almost.
3. The man who is a Christian not at all. (D. Katterns.)
Paul before Agrippa
Here we have--
I. The secret of Paul’s success. “I think myself happy.” You do not hear any man until he is happy. Speaking under constraint, he cannot do justice to himself, nor to any great theme. Paul is happy: we shall therefore get his power at its very best. Conditions have much to do with speech and with hearing. Paul seems to have liked a Roman hearing. There was something in the grandeur of the circumstances that touched him and brought him up to his very best (Acts 24:10). Hearers make speakers: the pew makes the pulpit.
II. His method of using opportunities for speaking. Paul is permitted to speak for himself; what does he do? He unfolds the gospel. “But he was not asked to preach.” But Paul cannot open his mouth without preaching; we expected that he would have defended himself according to Roman law. Paul makes no reference to Roman law. Paul always took the broad and vast view of things, and looking upon all life from the highest elevation, he saw it in its right proportion and colour and measure. Consider the opportunity and then consider the use made of it. Paul is all the while speaking about himself, and yet all the while he is preaching such a sermon as even he never preached before; he is rebuilding all the Christian argument and re-uttering in new tones and with new stretches of allusion and meaning the whole gospel of salvation. This should be a lesson to all men. We may speak about ourselves and yet hide ourselves in the glory of Another.
III. His peculiar, but ever-available way of illustrating religious mysteries. By relating personal miracles. Observe what a wonderful connection there is between the Acts 26:8; Acts 9:1-43. Suddenly Paul breaks out with the inquiry, “Why should it be thought a thing incredible with you, that God should raise the dead?” Then as suddenly be reverts to his own case: “I verily thought with myself” Observe the word “thought” in both verses. Paraphrased, the case might stand thus: “I know it is a marvellous thing that God should raise the dead, but I was dead in trespasses and in sins, and God raised me; if, therefore, he has raised me, I can see how the same God could work the same miracle on another ground and under other circumstances.” God asks us to look within, that we may find the key to His kingdom. There is not a miracle in all the Bible that has not been wrought, in some form of counterpart or type, in our own life. You can steal my Christianity if it is only a theory; you cannot break through nor steal if it is hidden in my heart as a personal and actual experience.
IV. His method of testing heavenly visions (Acts 26:19). By obeying them. Paul sets forth a very wonderful doctrine, namely, that he was not driven against his will to certain conclusions. Even here he asserts the freedom of the will--the attribute that makes a man. “I was not disobedient.” I am content to have all theology tested by this one process. You say you believe in God; what use have you made of Him? Take the Sermon upon the Mount: the way to test it is to obey it. Prove prayer by praying; prove the inspiration of the Scriptures by being inspired by their speech.
V. His way of proving his sanity: by being what the world calls mad. Festus did not know the meaning of the word inspiration--a word as much higher than information as the heaven is high above the earth. Festus, therefore, thought Paul was mad. So he was from the point of view occupied by Festus. Christianity is madness if materialism is true. It is one of two things with us: we are either right, or we are--not merely wrong--mad. (J. Parker, D. D.)
Paul’s defence before Agrippa
I. That the thing for which they accused him was the great relief of the Jewish nation (Acts 26:6-8).
1. The Messiah in whom he believed was the grand “hope” of the Jewish people. It was a hope--
(a) In its extent: “Our twelve tribes”--the whole Jewish people.
(b) In its intensity: “Instantly serving God day and night.” Even to this day the hope of the Messiah burns in the heart of the Jewish people. The disappointments of ages have not quenched it.
2. The resurrection of Jesus demonstrated that He was this Messiah (Acts 26:8). They would not accept the fact of Christ’s resurrection, though they could not deny it. The language implies that it was to the last degree absurd for them to consider the thing “incredible.”
II. That the cause he now espoused he once hated as much as they did. He understood their prejudices, for they were once his own (Acts 26:9-11).
1. As a well-known Pharisee, he conscientiously set himself in opposition to Jesus of Nazareth. Conscientiousness is not virtue.
2. He manifested his opposition by the most violent persecution of Christ’s disciples.
III. That the change effected in him, and the commission he received, were manifestly Divine.
1. The change (Acts 26:12-15).
2. The commission (Acts 26:16-18). (D. Thomas, D. D.)
Patti’s defence before Agrippa
I. Interesting features in Paul’s character.
1. His marked courtesy (Acts 26:2-3). True courtesy is--
(a) A just recognition of the respect due to others.
(b) A proof that our reliance is upon the merit of our cause, and not upon brute force.
(a) The grand law of Christianity is this: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.
(b) Because Christianity demands of its disciples conformity to the example of the Lord.
(c) Because discourtesy is a violation of every instinct of a holy and meekly life.
2. Paul’s candour (Acts 26:4-6). Candour--
(a) Openness to inspection.
(b) Readiness to confess and abandon any evil.
(c) Desire to deal fairly with all.
(a) Because that to have a conscience void of offence before God and man is essential.
(b) Because concealment of facts, when necessary to be known, is inconsistent with the profession of a disciple of Christ.
3. Paul’s courage (Acts 26:6).
II. Instructive facts of Paul’s life (Acts 26:8-19).
1. The fact that the apostle had once been a bold and cruel opposer of Christ and of Christianity (Acts 26:9-11).
(a) “Many of the saints did I shut up in prison.”
(b) “When they were put to death I gave my voice against them.”
(c) “I punished them oft in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme.”
(a) “And being exceedingly mad against them.
(b) I persecuted them even unto strange cities.”
(c) This confession of hate on the part of such a man as Paul afterward became, is almost incredible; but shows the terrible power that sin in any form has over anyone who yields to its regnant sway.
2. The great fact which led to the conversion of the great apostle (Acts 26:12-19).
(a) The well-known shekinah brightness of paradise, the Red Sea deliverance, the tabernacle mercy seat, and the Transfiguration of Jesus, is here suggested.
3. The practical disposition of the true convert (Acts 26:20).
1. The conversion of Saul is a demonstration of the Divine powers of Christianity, and of the resurrection of Christ.
2. The resurrection of Christ demonstrates the grand realities which constitute the basilar facts of Christianity:
Paul’s defence before Agrippa
I. What Agrippa knew (Acts 26:3)--the questions concerning which Paul was accused. The first requisite in a judge is knowledge, without this sincerity, impartiality, etc., are wasted. It is not too much to demand, therefore, that those who sit in judgment on Christianity should first of all be sure of their facts. But how often is this requisite ignored.
II. What the Jews knew. Paul’s consistency (Acts 26:4-5). It was a bold thing to draw upon the knowledge of his adversaries. But Paul was confident that from all they knew of him they could prefer no true charge against him. Our manner of life has been known for long by many--neighbours, friends, relatives. How many of us could make this bold appeal?
III. What Paul knew.
1. That he had met with Jesus.
2. That he was turned from darkness to light, from Pharisaism to Christianity.
3. That he received a worldwide mission.
4. That he was obedient to the heavenly call: These were not fancies, dreams, but facts of consciousness. The Christian argument is based upon experience. Other evidences stand in the second rank.
IV. What Festus thought he knew--that Paul was mad. Which was simply a confession of ignorance. He could have satisfied himself about what Paul stated, but did not care to trouble himself about “such manner of questions,” consequently their strangeness to him suggested insanity on the part of the man who knew them true. A common trick today.
V. What Agrippa might have known--what it was to be a Christian; but like many others refused to embrace the opportunity.
VI. What all were obliged to know (Acts 26:31). What a testimony after these repeated investigations. (J. W. Burn.)
Paul’s sermon before Agrippa
I. The pulpit. Paul had stood in the Areopagus, in the Temple, in synagogues, but never in circumstances apparently more unfavourable than those here. A prisoner, his arm chained to that of a Roman soldier, he yet makes that prisoner’s bar a pulpit from which with unrivalled energy he proclaims Christ as the Saviour of men. Nay, the very clanking of the chain becomes eloquent as he said, “Except these bonds.” So around us everywhere are God’s imprisoned preachers--men and women upon the arm of whose efficiency are the chains of poverty, physical weakness, etc., and yet who preach from the couch of the invalid, the bare garret and the lonely hovel, sermons which carry with them the eloquence of lives that are “as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing,” etc. Their example teaches us that there are no circumstances so unpropitious that a loving consecration may not find in them opportunity for witness bearing for Christ.
II. The audience. A vast concourse of Jews, Romans, and barbarians, patricians and plebeians, citizens and soldiers. But in a more special sense it consisted of but a single soul. Paul’s words are addressed particularly to Agrippa, one of Paul’s “own kindred after the flesh,” whose conversion would set in motion influences for good the measure of which it would be impossible to foretell. There is many a patient, prayerful teacher who, as he looks Sabbath after Sabbath into the face of the one or two boys who come regularly to his class, grows disheartened at the smallness of the audience; but let him remember Paul’s interest in Agrippa, and bear in mind the fact that one of those boys may be some chosen instrument through whom he will bring thousands into the kingdom. A single lever sets in motion whole acres of machinery, and so a single soul, inspired through your agency, may become a factor in the world’s conversion.
III. The sermon.
1. Its method.
2. Its matter.
IV. Its results. The visible results were not of a character to afford much encouragement. Agrippa was the only one who gave any evidence of conviction, and his convictions only led him to say, “Almost thou persuadest me.” Yet who can tell what harvest may have afterward come from the seed sown that day apparently in most unfriendly soil? Let the faithful worker for Christ take courage. (T. D. Witherspoon, D. D.)
Paul’s stretched-out arm
I. A warning signal for all the great of the earth: Attend to the things which belong to your peace (verse 3).
II. A way mark for all the erring: Jesus receiveth sinners (verse 9-18).
III. A banner for all the preachers of the gospel: Endure hardship as good soldiers of Jesus Christ (verses 21:27).
IV. A rope of hope for all the lost: Be ye reconciled unto God (verse 29). (K. Gerok.)
After the most straitest sect of our religion, I lived a Pharisee.
That many rest upon a strict way of religion, which yet cometh not up to, but often is besides, the appointment of the Word
The text is part of that narrative which relates to St. Paul’s past conversation, wherein he described himself from the religious condition he then was in, and that, first, more generally, then more particularly. Generally: He was after the most strict way of religion. The original for religion, Plutarch tells us, cometh from the Thracians, eminently taken notice of for their devotion: and it is used sometimes in a good sense, sometimes in a bad sense, as it degenerateth into superstition. The original for sect is heresy, and so the several sects among philosophers were called heresies. It is the opinion of some that this word is always taken in an ill sense in the Scripture; but this place, with two or three more in the Acts, seems to imply the use of it in a middle or indifferent sense, any particular way that a man shall choose different from the road, although in the Epistles it is used in an ill sense. Therefore Tertullian calls it Sects Christianorum, the sect of the Christians. Now, this way Paul walked in is aggravated in the superlative sense; and so Josephus speaks of the Pharisees as those that were most accurate in the observance of instituted and traditional obedience: more particularly his way is described by its denomination, a Pharisee. Now, the Pharisees were called either, as some say, from a word to open and explain, because they expounded the Scripture, or from a word to separate and segregate. Therefore, to be a Pharisee was to be a scrupulous, anxious man, who did subtly examine all things. Hence they were so strict that they would not sleep upon any easy thing, lest they should have any vain or indecent thoughts so much as in their very dreams; and because of this strictness it was that they were so admired among the people. From the text we may observe that an extraordinary strict way taken up in religion is thought a sure and a good foundation by many for their eternal happiness. To discover this false sign several things are considerable, as--
1. The way to heaven is a strict and exact way, and all our duties are to be done with a curious circumspection. Our prayers are to be exact prayers, our obedience exact obedience. The Scripture makes it an exact course, and therefore my dissolute, careless, negligent walking can no more claim a title to heaven than darkness to light. Attend to this, you whose lives are as most of the world are, proud as they, profane as they, contemning of religion as they.
2. Now, that godliness must be strictness appeareth partly from the nature of grace, which is contrary to our affections, and so doth with prevailing power subdue them to the grief of the unregenerate part. Hence the Scripture calls it mortifying and crucifying the old man, which implieth the pain and agony our corrupt part is exercised with by grace.
3. Again, godliness must needs be exact--
4. As the way to heaven is a most strict and accurate way, so the Word of God doth only declare and reveal what that exactness is. So that as in matters to be believed there is no doctrine can be urged as necessary which is not contained in that writing, so in matters to be practised there is no degree or high strain of holiness that is a duty which is not also commanded in God’s Word: those two commands, one negatively, “Thou shalt not lust,” the other affirmatively, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and soul, and strength,” do command for matter and manner all that possibly can be done by man, and therefore can never be fulfilled in this life, because of those innate and adherent corruptions in us.
5. Hence all strictness introduced that is not according to Scripture, how specious and glorious soever it may seem to be, yet it affords no true solid comfort to those that are employed therein.
Use 1. Is there indeed a true Scripture strictness, without which heaven cannot be obtained? Then see what a gulf there is between heaven and you who live in all looseness, negligence, and careless contempt of what is good. The fire of God’s wrath will be heated seven times hotter for such opposers as thou art.
Use 2. Of admonition to examine and judge wisely of all strictness commanded to thee, for the devil may seduce thee in thy zeal, as well as in thy profaneness; and do not persuade thyself of grace, because of a more strict opinion or Church practice thou conceivest thyself to be in, for this is not the Scripture strictness in which the essence of godliness consists, for that lieth in the inward circumcision of the heart, in the powerful mortification of the affections, in walking humbly, in living by faith and heavenly-mindedness. (A. Burgess.)
Why should it be thought a thing incredible with you that God should raise the dead?
Why is the resurrection incredible
I. Incredulity has many causes and justifies itself with many reasons. It has never seen a resurrection, and it thinks it believes only what it sees. There have been plenty of funerals, but nothing more, so far as its experience goes. Some appear to have merely the rudiments of a soul, and are scarcely conscious of superiority to the brute creation. One such said to a minister, “Your preaching does me no good; I have no soul; I want no one to talk to me about an imaginary hereafter; I shall die like a dog.” Others shrink from the righteous retributions of the future. They resist the evidences of judgment, and fight the thought of justice. The sophistries of self-sufficiency; the solicitations of curious and overweening ambition; the deceptions of pride; the superstitions of the ignorant and credulous; the whisperings that emanate from the father of lies; all marshal their forces to crucify hope. There are those who count the thought of resurrection too good to be true. Others dwell so narrowly upon the mechanical and material side of life, that they forget the spirit. Natural science and its literature are fettered with earthly limitations.
II. Natural religion balances the improbability with its own probability. Negative evidence is worthless. Fifty millions of people did not see Garfield shot, but they could not clear Guiteau. Love is not measured with a yard stick, or focused under a microscope, but that does not breed scepticism. The soul expects immortality, and hungers for it with a Divine and deathless famine. Analogies prefigure it. It seems within the boundary of the thinkable to say that the Creator has power to recreate. It taxes no one’s faith to believe that the watchmaker is able to repair his handiwork. Probabilities prevail on a priori grounds. Pantheism with its impersonal mysticism, has its Nirvana. Hellenic verse has its Elysian fields. The Arctic Circle has its Walhalla. The antipodal aborigines have their happy hunting grounds; and Judaea had its Paradise.
III. Christ brings many infallible proofs to corroborate and confirm the hopes of benighted peoples. It is very common to demonstrate that certain things are impossible, but that amounts to nothing in the presence of facts. While science was showing that the Sirius could not carry coal enough to take her over the Atlantic, she crossed. While men were proving that lightning rods, railroads, gas, telegraphs, cables, and telephones were visionary, inventors were realising their dreams. No fair and honest man can discredit the witness of the best book on earth, nor can he invalidate the testimony of the only sinless man who ever lived. What does this history and this witness prove? Christ answered the hopes of the patriarchs. Job stood on the chasm between the quick and the dead, saying, “I know that my Redeemer lives.” Christ promised to rise again. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will build it up again.” The empty tomb is evidence. The soldiers could not account for it. The Romans were baffled. The Jews were nonplussed. The disciples were most amazed of all. Witnesses testified to what they knew. Their testimony could not be silenced. There is absolutely nothing to discredit their story. Their testimony convinced the prosecution. Within fifty days three thousand men changed front. The Sabbath is evidence of the resurrection. The first day of every week is an Easter. Christendom is evidence. It is a nineteenth century miracle. (J. B. Donaldson.)
The resurrection of the dead
It would be difficult to explain how the identity of the body can be preserved while the matter composing it is changed; but our difficulty in explaining can present no reason for denying the fact.
I. It is neither against the power, the wisdom, nor the will of God. God wills nothing that is not wise and good, and whatever He wills He has the power to accomplish. He has performed greater things than raising the dead.
II. We see vital exemplifications of it daily. The matter of our bodies undergoes a change every seven years, yet our body’s identity is preserved. Look at trees and plants in winter time, and see them when the breath of spring has touched them into life. Study the insect, at first a crawling worm. The hour arrives when it bursts its cerements and becomes a pure-winged, beautiful creature, sailing in sunny skies. Paul saw our grave in the furrow of the plough; our burial in the corn dropped in the soil; and our resurrection in the grain bursting its sheath to wave its head in summer sunshine.
III. The resurrection of the body is less inexplicable than its creation. It is not the same thing to rekindle an extinguished lamp and to show fire that has never yet appeared.
IV. The Lord Jesus Christ purposely rose again in His human body as a pattern and first fruit of our resurrection. (Homiletic Monthly.)
The resurrection of the dead
The strength of Christian evidence consists in this--that its leading truths rest on facts, and that those facts rest chiefly on sonic form of sensible demonstration. The resurrection respects a fact of which the witnesses must have been competent to speak if they were but honest; and dishonesty in the first Christians is out of the question. If it were so, it was a dishonesty which sought everyone’s good but their own. And as far from all rational probability is the alternative supposition that the witnesses were incompetent to testify concerning this fact. “In the mouth of two witnesses shall every word be established,” it is declared. What, then, shall it he in the mouth of five hundred? Why should it he thought incredible?
I. It supposes no greater amount of miraculous power than is required for the ordinary operations of nature. It is no greater miracle that a body should have a second existence, than that it should have a first; that dry bones should, at God’s bidding, put on holy and bright forms, than that a dead seed should have power to fill the air with perfume, or a torpid chrysalis burst forth into new activity and life. The only difference is that the one is a familiar miracle, the other we have yet to see.
II. It puts honour on that human nature which the son of God condescended to assume. The work of redemption throughout may be called a work of substitution and interchange of relations between Christ and His people. He took the form of a servant that we might receive the adoption of sons; He is made sin for us that we may be made the righteousness of God in Him; He is humbled by assuming the fashion of our bodies; we are to be exalted by being fashioned into His. Noble therefore as our body is by the original designation of its Author, nobler still as it has become by association with incarnate Godhead, it is, until it has put on its resurrection form.
III. The deliverance of the body from death is necessary to the completeness of Christ’s victory. The redemption of man may be considered either as virtual or as actual. We are virtually redeemed when the covenanted price has been paid, but actual redemption takes place only on the complete liberation of the captive. The former of these describes our present condition. We are bought with a price; we are the freedmen of Christ; but actually liberated we are not, because we are “waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of the body”; when the spoils of death shall be given up, and the captive of the grave shall be set free, and, with the rising of saints that sleep, shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory.” Indeed we cannot conceive of Christ’s taking away sin without taking away also the death that came by sin. The enemy must have nothing--not even man’s dust.
IV. It is necessary to the confirmation of our hopes of a blessed immortality. I mean not to say that there could have been no immortality to the soul without the body rising, but that the body being raised is to be to us an assurance that the soul should live also. I much doubt whether ignorance on the part of the ancients of this doctrine did not lie at the foundation of all that troubledness, and obscurity, and myth which we see connected with all merely philosophical views of a life to come. Their conscious, intelligent life was connected with a visible substance, and that substance they saw went to decay, and had received no intimation that that decay could ever pass away? How, then, was this snapped thread of personal identity to be joined again? Can we, then, marvel to find in every page of the New Testament traces of the godly jealousy entertained by the apostles about this one doctrine? They felt it was the very keystone of the Christian arch--the life, and power, and strength of our revealed system--the one visible door opening into immortality. Matthias might be a great man and a good, but he must not be of the number of the apostles unless he had been a witness of the resurrection. The Corinthians might have strong faith and good preachers, but faith and preaching were alike vain if Christ were not risen. (Daniel Moore, M. A.)
The credibility of the resurrection
The resurrection is credible because--
I. Possible. It is exhibited in the Bible, not as a speculative truth which must be believed because taught, but as so intimately bound up with our salvation that to prove it false were to prove the human race unredeemed. “If Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins.” The question is, whether there lie such objections against its possibility as justify us in rejecting the testimony of Scripture. But, then, nothing short of distinct impossibility would bear us out in such rejection. It is not its stupendousness, nor that it countlessly outmatches all finite ability, which will warrant our questioning it. The alone point is, Can we demonstrate that the effecting of it would surpass the Omnipotent? If the Bible had ascribed it to a finite agent the disproportion between the thing done and the doer would furnish ground enough for rejecting it. But will anyone say that it exceeds the capabilities of Him who is to achieve it? We cannot see why the work should be reckoned too great for God, unless we are prepared to say the same of the other works confessedly His. I look out on the wonder workings of creative wisdom and might, and I gather from the magnificent spectacle witness in abundance that a resurrection is possible. It is possible that that august Being, who cannot be perplexed by the multiplicity of concerns, may, yea, and must, take cognisance of each atom of dust, as well as of every planet and of every star; and why should He be unable to distinguish what hath belonged to man, and to appropriate to each individual his own?
II. It rests on sufficient evidence. Christ rose, why should not we? It is impossible that the apostles wilfully propagated a lie. Who would undertake the advocacy of falsehood, if, instead of being a gainer, he was certain to be a loser? We have only then to decide whether their belief rested on sufficient proof. The length of their previous acquaintance, and the ample opportunity of after identification, concurred to secure them against taking a person for Christ who was not Christ. If, then, they were neither deceivers nor deceived, we prove, with a kind of mathematical precision, that they must have been both rightly intentioned and informed. And when you add to this, that the number of these witnesses is greater than is required for the establishment of a matter in a court of assize, we think that the vindication of the credibility of their testimony is to be set aside by nothing short of an obstinacy which will not, or an infatuation which cannot, be convinced.
III. In the details which are given as to the body in which the dead shall appear. The grand characteristic of the resurrection body is to be likeness to the glorified body of Christ, seeing that St. Paul declares of the Saviour that He shall “change our vile body,” etc., and there is every reason for concluding that Christ, when transfigured, appeared in that glorified humanity in which He now sits at the Father’s right hand. And if so, we learn that our bodies, though made wondrously radiant, shall be distinguished as now, the one from the other, by their characteristic features. We, then, shall be changed, but not so changed as to interfere with recognition. And if we would examine more minutely into the change which shall pass upon our bodies, enough is told us by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:1-58, to satisfy all but a presumptuous curiosity. “It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption,” etc. (H. Melvill, B. D.)
The resurrection of the dead
I. The credibility of this doctrine.
1. The resurrection of the dead is not in any way incompatible with the power of God, by which, according to the representation of the Scriptures, it is to be accomplished. Where, we ask, a few years ago, were the particles which now exist, organised and animated in the person of any individual in this assembly? Were they not as scattered as ever death and the grave can make them?
2. However great and amazing as an event, the resurrection of the dead is not dissimilar to many of those renewals which we witness in nature. Doth God take care for flowers? and will He abandon man, His last, His fairest, His most loved workmanship, to an everlasting winter in the tomb?
3. The resurrection of the dead is indispensable in order to give rectitude and perfection to the retributive government of God.
4. Stupendous as this event must be, it has already in some instances taken place. How big with instruction, how confirmatory of our faith, are those examples recorded by the evangelists!
5. The resurrection of the dead forms one of the leading and peculiar doctrines of the new covenant dispensation, taught by many unequivocal, incontrovertible words, as well as by historical record.
II. The consolation which this doctrine is calculated to afford. This great truth, ever delightful and consolatory to reflect upon, is especially so on two very solemn and important occasions.
1. The first of these is the loss of our friends by death. Is there in this assembly a mother who, in the course of providence, has been called to part for a term of years with her little son, to be apprenticed or educated far from home, or perhaps to go on the long, long voyage. It was not without a struggle of feeling, not without many tears, that she could take the parting look at the lad, although she knew that his absence was both for his and for her advantage. During that absence many a thought, many a wish, is sent after him; the months and the weeks are counted; and their slow advance is cheered by the reflection he will return, and every day brings it nigher. At length the day arrives; the youth enters his parent’s dwelling, and stands fair and full in his mother’s view. What that mother feels as her eye wanders in ecstasy over his figure--so much taller, so much stouter, so much improved! what that mother feels as in transports of tender delight she presses her offspring to her bosom! that or something like that! that or something more pure, more exquisite, more Divine, is what we shall feel when in the day of God we shall meet with those who are gone before, and meet to part no more!
2. The second occasion on which the strong and holy consolations of this doctrine will doubtless be required is the season of our own death. With a conscience washed in the atoning blood of Jesus Christ, and a soul firmly believing His resurrection, and ours through Him, we shall be prepared to meet sickness, and death, and the grave, with sweet composure and holy triumph. Oh! grave! I have misconceived thy character! Since Jesus has descended into thy dreary regions, the passage to them is smoothed, they are illumined, they are sanctified. Oh! how is thy character changed! Thine is now the sweetest pillow on which the wearied head ever reclined! Thine the safest retreat till this storm be over-past! Soon wilt thou faithfully return the inestimable deposit, and return it to “glory, and honour, and immortality.” (James Bromley.)
The resurrection credible
Concerning the souls of our departed Christian friends we suffer no distress. Our main trouble is about their bodies. Even the perfect Man could not restrain His weeping at Lazarus’ tomb. The doctrine of the Resurrection teaches us that we need have no trouble about the body, it has not gone to annihilation. The Lord’s love to His people is a love towards their entire manhood. He took into union with His Deity both soul and body, and redeemed both, and both are sanctified by the Divine indwelling. So our complete manhood shall have it in its power to glorify Him forever. This being our hope, we nevertheless confess that sometimes the evil heart of unbelief cries, “Is it possible?” At such times the text is needful.
I. Let us look this difficulty in the face. We rejoice in the fact that there will be a great change in the body; that its materialism will have lost all its grossness and corruption, and that it will be adapted for higher purposes; but there shall be an identity between the body in which we die and the body in which we rise. Not, however, that identity is the same thing as absolute sameness of substance and continuance of atoms. We are living in the same bodies which we possessed twenty years ago; yet no single atom remains that was in it then. Admit the like identity in the resurrection, and it is all we ask. Now this hope is naturally surrounded with many difficulties, because:--
1. The large majority of dead bodies have been utterly dissolved.
2. Think how widely diffused are the atoms which once built up living forms.
3. The difficulty increases when we reflect that all men will rise again. Think of the myriads who have passed away in countries like China, of those who have perished by shipwreck, plague, and war.
4. The wonder increases when we remember in what strange places many of these bodies now are. In fact, where are not man’s remains? Blows there a single wind down our streets without whirling along particles of what once was man?
5. And, moreover, to make the wonder extraordinary beyond conception, they will rise at once, or perhaps in two great divisions (Revelation 20:5-6). Where shall they stand? What plains of earth shall hold them?
6. And then this resurrection will not be a mere restoration, but in the case of the saints will involve a remarkable advance. We put into the ground a bulb, and it rises as a golden lily; we drop into the mould a seed, and it comes forth an exquisite flower; even thus, the bodies, which are sown in burial, shall spring up by Divine power into outgrowths, surpassing all imagination in beauty.
7. One of the difficulties of believing it is, that there are positively no full analogies in nature by which to support it. Some have seen in sleep the analogy of death, and in our awakening the resurrection. But a continuance of life is manifest to the man in his dreams and to all onlookers. The development of insects is quoted as a striking analogy. But there is life in the chrysalis, organisation, in fact, the entire fly. Nor is the analogy of the seed much more conclusive, for a life germ always remains, and the crumbling organisation becomes its food from which it builds itself up again. The resurrection stands alone; and, concerning it, the Lord might well say, “Behold, I do a new thing in the earth.” Here, then, is the difficulty. Is it a credible thing that the dead should be raised?
II. Remove the difficulty. It might seem incredible that the dead should be raised, but why should it seem incredible that God should raise the dead? Grant that God is, that He is omnipotent, and that He has said the dead shall be raised, and belief is no longer hard but inevitable. Difficulty is not in the dictionary of the Godhead. Is anything too hard for the Lord?
1. When Paul uttered our text he was speaking to one to whom he could say, “Believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest!” It was, therefore, good reasoning to say, “Why should it be thought a thing incredible with you?” etc. For, as a Jew, Agrippa had the testimony of Job--“For I know that my Redeemer liveth”; and of David (Psalms 16:1-11); of Isaiah (Isaiah 26:19); of Daniel (Daniel 12:2-3); of Hosea (Hosea 13:14).
2. To us as Christians there has been granted yet fuller evidence (John 5:28; John 6:30; Romans 8:11; Philippians 3:21; 1 Corinthians 15:1-58).
3. At the same time it may be well to look around us, and note what helps the Lord has appointed for our faith.
III. Our relation to this truth
1. Comfort one another with these words. You have lost those dear to you. Sorrow ye must, but sorrow not as those that are without hope.
2. Let us cheer our hearts in prospect of our own departure.
3. Expecting a blessed resurrection, let us respect our bodies. Bodies that are to dwell forever in heaven, should not be subjected to pollution here below.
4. The ungodly are to rise again, but it will be to a resurrection of woe. “Fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (C. H. Spurgeon.)
I verily thought with myself that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth.
St. Paul’s thought with himself
1. Emerson verily thought with himself that every subject was to be brought before him for his individual approval or disapproval. In nearly the last sermon he ever preached, he said, that how plainly soever such an ordinance as the Eucharist might seem, to others, to have been appointed by Christ Himself, unless it commended itself to his own judgment, he should have nothing to do with it. Paul condemned Christianity because it did not commend itself to his private judgment. He went much farther, too, than the philosopher. He not only thought, but did many things “contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth.” A formidable example this of the extreme lengths to which the mind will go, when it decides against Christianity, not by testimony from without, but by the impulses of corrupt and obstinate self-will within. Then it falters not before the most terrific issues. It will try to demolish Christianity, and if it cannot accomplish quite so much in an age like this, when Christianity has become incorporate with the framework of civil society, it will, nevertheless, do its utmost in levelling its doctrines to its own equality, and pronouncing upon them as if questions of mere expediency, subject to its arbitrary and final settlement. What a parallel to Paul’s “havoc of the Church” is the havoc which a man’s thinking with himself is making in that time-honoured system of the Faith which the Church Catholic, in “the ages all along,” has upheld and sanctioned.
2. What cured Paul of his thinking for himself, and converted him into a believing and obedient Christian? His very first exclamation, after his restoration to moral soundness, furnishes the reply. He acted now in the spirit of that pledge which our Saviour made, when He said, “If any man will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God.” A pledge this so natural, that it was at once assented to by an Indian. “He that is above,” said Wesley to the Creek Indians, “will not teach you, unless you avoid that which you already know is not good.” One of the Indians answered, “I believe that. He will not teach us while our hearts are not white.” So then we must be content to receive the faith, as prepared for us by God’s own hands, and not manufactured out of our inward light, our unassisted mental resources. Then we shall make the grand discovery about which multitudes now fail, that the soul, when she surrenders at discretion, and leans on God, and on God’s providences to His Church, with a child’s implicit trust, has a sustenance and support before undreamed of; and which reason, fretting for certainties, and often groping in the dark, or seeing as by the light of a tallow candle never can supply. (T. W. Colt, D. D.)
Fallibility of conscience
Conscience in your fallen state is as likely to be wrong as your clocks and watches, and you cannot be sure of the time of day unless you go to some infallible standard of time, so you cannot decide upon right and wrong by simple reference to your own convictions. It is not a full justification of your conduct to say your conscience approved what you did. What, my brother, is the state of your conscience? You know that even with the sundial you might take to it an artificial light, and throw from the gnomon upon the figures and lines a shadow that would not index the true time of day. And if your conscience act under the artificial light of the habits and customs of mankind, and not under the power of the light of God’s light, it is no guide as to your duty. What is it that governs your conscience? Is it the will of God, or the will of man? If God do not control it, then it is no correct index of what you ought to do, or of what you ought not to do. “I thought,” said Saul of Tarsus--“I thought that I ought to do many things contrary to Jesus of Nazareth.” These were the things over which, in the course of a little time, he had most bitterly to mourn. (S. Martin.)
Paul’s doctrinal petrifaction
In one sense, there is nothing that will hold a man more snugly prisoner than his own thought will. We weave the silken threads of the cocoon that we call our theology, and when we get through we are on the inside of it, as neat a prisoner as ever slept in a gaol. Some men are small simply because their ideas are small, and have been on so long, and have been put on so tight that they have not been able to burst them. Ideas are dangerous things. The possibilities of the direst bondage are in them. Probably we cannot get along in our religious life without having some system of doctrine, but I wish we could. But the next thing to it is to hold our formulae of doctrinal opinion purely as a provisional arrangement. When! say hold them as a provisional arrangement, I mean hold them just as we do the rounds of a ladder, clinging to each succeeding round only as something that will help to brace us for a new pull upward. What we want to say frankly and appreciate intensely, is that we have reached no finality in these things. And there will be no finality before eternity’s sundown. But it is retorted upon me that this is to deny the tenability, and even the respectability, of any doctrinal position that any man under any circumstances can hold. Not a bit of it. A man trusts his sincere convictions, and he is bound to do so, but he is bound to trust them just exactly as in mountain climbing I put confidence in the rock that I plant my foot upon, trusting to it, trusting my whole weight to it, as something that will hold me steady till I have time to get my ice axe thrust so securely into a crevice in the overhanging cliff that I shall be able to draw myself up another length, and then plant my foot on some more rock. Now that is constructive. There is no suggestion of the negative about it. It is the only constructive theology there is. It is the only live theology. All other is either wired skeleton or stuffed skin; at any rate, a curiosity for the museum, rather than living ingredient in a live Church. That is not saying that, as expansive Christian thinkers, we are obliged to abrogate every old form and phraseology of doctrine. That would be neither sense nor Scripture. In order to be a live man you do not have to put on a new body every time you get up. But you live and enlarge, because, although your body may be old, it is the theatre of an expansive life that wins a new increment of fulness from the very morning that you wake up under. In order to have a live tree, you are not obliged to put in a new trunk every time it blossoms or unpacks a fresh leaf. The old trunk may be good enough, but the old trunk with fresh life poured into it till it rungs over and the drippings crystallise into verdure and flowers. The point in that illustration is that the life uses the trunk instead of the trunk being so rigid and gritty as to mew up the life, so that as soon as the life can get a little new influx and a little deepening of its current it is bound to break its way out into liberty and leaves. In this second sense, then, Christ is our Emancipator. The entrance of His Spirit into us enlarges us to the rending of the old shackles of indurated opinion that we have either put upon ourselves or had put on us, and so lets us out into a wider reach of truth and into a broader sweep of prospect. That is all perfectly illustrated in the case of Saul on his way to becoming Paul. Saul was a tough old fossilised Jew. His theological views, that at one time we may suppose to have been young and tender and plastic, had chilled and dried and hardened into so much doctrinal petrifaction. Anything like new, enlarged, and progressive thought we may suppose to have been arrested. The convictions he had already acquired lay in the way of more acquisitions of the same kind. His mind bounded back as from a wall, from the casing of opinion in which during all those years he had been slowly immuring himself. He was in that particular like a river which will sometimes dam its own flow by the very material which it has itself deposited. Worm and cocoon! And yet when once the power of Christ had come upon him, and the Spirit of Christ, who is the Truth, had become a swelling reservoir within him, the embankment gave way, and the new accumulation from out the sky broke forth over wide areas of new theological fertility; the inward Divine replenishment, like the deepened currents of vegetable sap in the spring, punctured the bark and let itself out all over Paul in fresh theological buds. And wherever there is a fresh increment of the Christ-Spirit made over to a Christian thinker, that is to be counted on as a certain issue. (C. H. Parkhurst, D. D.)
It is often said it is no matter what a man believes if he is only sincere. This is true of all minor truths, and false of all truths whose nature it is to fashion a man’s life. It will make no difference in a man’s harvest whether he think turnips have more saccharine matter than potatoes, whether corn is better than wheat. But let the man sincerely believe that seed planted without ploughing is as good as with, that January is as favourable for seed sowing as April, and that cockle seed will produce as good a harvest as wheat, and will it make no difference? A child might as well think he could reverse that ponderous marine engine which night and day, in calm and storm, ploughs its way across the deep, by sincerely taking hold of the paddle wheel, as a man might think he could reverse the action of the elements of God’s moral government through a misguided sincerity. They will roll over such a one, and whelm him in endless ruin. (H. W. Beecher.)
Compelled them to blaspheme.
You, perhaps, know what that means--compel them to blaspheme. The Roman way of doing it was to say, “Curse Christ.” Often and often did the Roman Emperor command the martyrs to curse Christ, and you remember Polycarp’s answer--“How can I curse Him? Sixty years have I known Him; He never did me a displeasure, and I cannot and I will not curse Him.” Then the whip was applied, or the hand was held over burning coals, or the flesh was pinched with hot irons, and then the question was put again--“Will you curse Christ now?” Paul says that he, though probably using milder means, compelled the professor of Christ’s faith to blaspheme. And there may be some such here--the husband who persecutes his wife for Christ’s sake; the father who charges his child, upon his obedience, never to go to the sanctuary of the Lord again; the master who plagues his servant, mocks and jeers, and can never be content, except when he is saying hard things against him. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Whereupon as I went to Damascus.
The conversion of Saul of Tarsus
I. His character before his conversion.
1. He was a moral man (Philippians 3:6). Yet he needed conversion. The necessity of conversion arises from the depravity of human nature, and not from a greater or less degree of immorality.
2. He was a Pharisee. He was zealous for his religion, made long prayers, and did many deeds of charity. And have you any better religion?
3. He was a hater of Christ, notwithstanding his morals and his zeal. So still men will attach such undue merit to their own actions, that salvation through Christ alone becomes offensive.
4. He was a persecutor of the people of God. As from love to Christ springs love to His people, so from hatred to Christ springs the spirit of persecution to His people. The spirit of Saul is inherent in the human mind (Galatians 4:29). Can you despise and revile the devout spirit of the true believer?
II. The evidences of the truth of his conversion.
1. Penitence. He fasted three days. What a change from the haughty Pharisee! If God the Spirit has changed our hearts, we shall have a deep sense of sin. We shall “look on Him whom we have pierced and mourn.”
2. Prayer. The prayer which evidences conversion is humble, sincere, fervent, and offered only in the name of Christ.
3. Humility. From this time the man who had previously said “I thank God that I am not as other men,” felt himself to be the chief of stoners, and less than the least of all saints.
4. Faith. Ananias was sent to baptize him--to initiate him into the Christian faith.
5. Love. We have seen his enmity to Christ and His people. Now they form the objects of his warmest affections. With regard to Christ, he could sincerely say, “I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord,” etc. With regard to the people of God, “I endure all things for the elects’ sake.”
6. Obedience. “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?”
III. The ways of God manifested in his conversion.
1. Sovereignty. Was there ever a more unlikely subject? God accounts for his conversion on this principle. “He is a chosen vessel unto Me” (Acts 9:15).
2. Power. What but the power of an almighty arm could have wrought so wonderful a change?
3. Mercy (1 Timothy 1:12-17). And who shall despair of mercy when Saul of Tarsus obtained it?
4. Wisdom. How were the designs of the devil and the malice of men here defeated? Not by destroying the enemy, but by converting him.
1. Let the true convert strive to gain more adoring thoughts of God’s ways towards him, and aim to become more holy and live more to the glory of God.
2. Let the unconverted guard against mistaken notions of conversion, and seek the influences of the Spirit, to create within them a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within them.
3. Let the careless and the obstinate be sure that their damnation will be just, if they live and die in the neglect of a God so gracious, and a salvation so great.
4. Let the sceptic consider the unreasonableness of his objections to the gospel. (Essex Congregational Remembrancer.)
The conversion of Saul: its genuineness
It cannot be explained by the supposition that the account was in any way forged. What motive had St. Paul for inventing it? Was it, as has been supposed, some private pique or annoyance with the Jews, that led him to change his religious profession, and to account for the change in this kind of way? But there is no trace of any feelings of this kind in his early life. It would have been a sin against natural feeling, since the Jewish people had singled Paul out for a place of special confidence and honour; and, as a matter of fact, when the Jews were persecuting him afterwards to death he expressed in more ways than one his deep love for his countrymen. He deplores their blindness; he excuses their conduct as far as he can. Even if, in one place, he paints it in dark colours he would gladly, he says in another, were it possible, he accursed in their place. Was it the spirit of a sensitive independence which will sometimes lead men to assert their own importance at the cost of their party or their principles? That, again, is inconsistent with his advocacy of the duty of subjection to existing authority, in terms and to a degree which has exposed him to fierce criticisms from the modern advocates of social and political change. Was it, then, a refined self-interest? Did the young Jew see in the rising sect a prospect of bettering himself? But Christianity was being persecuted--persecuted, as it seemed, to the very verge of extermination. It had been crushed out by the established hierarchy in Jerusalem itself. It was doomed to destruction, every intelligent Jew would have thought, as well by the might of the forces ranged against it as by its intrinsic absurdity. It had nothing to offer, whether in the way of social eminence or of literary attraction. It was as yet, in the main, the religion of the very poor, of the very illiterate. On the other hand, the young Pharisee had, if any man had, brilliant prospects before him if he remained loyal to the synagogue. The reputation of his great master, his own learning and acuteness, his great practical ability, would have commanded success. If his object was really a selfish one, no man ever really made a greater, or more stupid mistake, to all appearance, for no Jew could have anticipated for a convert to Christianity, within a few years of the Crucifixion, such a reputation as that which now surrounds the name of St. Paul. (Canon Liddon.)
My object is to trace the stages of the process set forth here, and to ask you if you, like Paul, have been “obedient to the heavenly vision.”
I. The first of these all but simultaneous and yet separable stages was the revelation of Jesus Christ. The revelation in heart and mind was the main thing of which the revelation to eye and ear were but means. The means, in his case, are different from those in ours; the end is the same. “Saul! Saul! why persecutest thou Me?” They used to think that they could wake sleep walkers by addressing them by name. Jesus Christ, by speaking his name to the apostle, wakes him out of his diseased slumber. What does such an address teach you and me? That Jesus Christ, the living, reigning Lord of the universe, has perfect knowledge of each of us. And more than that, He directly addresses Himself to each man and woman in this congregation. We are far too apt to hide ourselves in the crowd, and let all the messages of God’s love, the warnings of His providences, as well as the teachings and invitations and pleadings of His gospel, fly over our heads as if they were meant vaguely for anybody. And I would fain plead with each of my friends before me to believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ is meant for thee, and that Christ speaks to thee.
II. Secondly, notice, as another stage in this process, the discovery of the true character of the past. “Why persecutest thou Me?” Saul was brought to look at all his past life as standing in immediate connection with Jesus Christ. Of course he knew before the vision that he had no love to Him whom he thought to be a Galilean impostor. But he did not know that Jesus Christ counted every blow struck at one of His servants as being struck at Him. Above all, he did not know that the Christ whom he was persecuting was reigning in the heavens. If I could only get you, for one quiet ten minutes, to lay all your past, as far as memory brought it to your minds, right against that bright and loving face, I should have done much. One infallible way of judging of the rottenness or goodness of our actions is that we should bring them where they will all be brought one day, into the brightness of Christ’s countenance. If you want to find out the flaws in some thin, badly-woven piece of cloth, you hold it up against the light, do you not? and then you see all the specks and holes; and the irregular threads. Hold up your lives in like fashion. Again, this revelation of the past life disclosed its utter unreasonableness. That one question, “Why persecutest thou Me?” pulverised the whole thing. If you take into account what you are, and where you stand, you can find no reason, except utterly unreasonable ones, for the lives that I fear some of us are living--lives of Godlessness and Christlessness. There is nothing in all the world a tithe so stupid as sin. Wake up, my brother, to apply calm reason to your lives while yet there is time, and face the question, Why dost thou stand as thou dost to Jesus Christ? You can carry on the questions very gaily for a step or two, but then you come to a dead pause. “What do I do so-and-so for?” “Because I like it.” “Why do I like it?” “Because it meets my needs, or my desires, or my tastes, or my intellect.” “Why do you make the meeting of your needs, or your desires, or your tastes, or your intellect, your sole object?” Is there any answer to that? Further, this disclosure of the true character of his life revealed to Saul, as in a lightning flash, the ingratitude of it. “Why persecutest thou Me?” That was as much as to say, “What have I done to merit thy hate? What have I not done to merit, rather, thy love?” But the same appeal comes to each of us. What has Jesus Christ done for thee, my friend, for me, for every soul of man?
III. Lastly, we have here a warning of self-inflicted wounds. The metaphor is a very plain one. The ox goad was a formidable weapon, some seven or eight feet in length, shod with an iron point, and capable of being used as a spear, and of inflicting deadly wounds at a pinch. Held in the firm hand of the ploughman, it presented a sharp point to the rebellious animal in the yoke. If the ox had readily yielded to the gentle prick given, not in anger, but for guidance, it had been well. But if it lashes out with its hoofs against the point, what does it get but bleeding flanks? Paul had been striking out instead of obeying, and he had won by it only bloody hocks. There are two possible applications of that saying, which may have been a proverb in common use. One is the utter futility of lives that are spent in opposing Divine will. There is a great current running, and if you try to go against it you will only be swept away by it. Think of a man lifting himself up and saying to God, “I will not!” when God says, “Do thou this!” or “Be thou this!” What will be the end of that? It is hard to indulge in sensual sin. You cannot altogether dodge what people call the “natural consequences.” It is hard to set yourselves against Christianity. But there is another side to the proverb of my text, and that is the self-inflicted harm that comes from resisting the pricks of God’s rebukes and remonstrances, whether these be in conscience or by any other means; including, I make bold to say, even such poor words as mine tonight. For if the first little prick of conscience, a warning and a guide, be neglected, the next will go a great deal deeper. And so all wrong-doing, and neglect of right-doing of every sort, carries with it a subsequent pain. (A. Maclaren, D. D.)
Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?--
Christ and Paul
I. The question. It was personal. When I preach to you, I am obliged to address you all in the mass. But not so our Master. If He had spoken in general terms, it would have glanced off from the heart of the apostle; but when it came personally--“Why persecutest thou Me?”--there was no getting off it. I pray the Lord to make the question personal to some of you. There be many of us here present who have bad personal preaching to our souls. Do you not remember, dear brother in Christ, when you were first pricked in the heart, how personal the preacher was? I remember it well. It seemed to me that I was the only person in the whole place, as if a black wall were round about me, and I were shut in with the preacher, something like the prisoners at the Penitentiary, who each sit in their box and can see no one but the chaplain. I thought all he said was meant for me; I felt persuaded that someone knew my character, and had written to him and told him all, and that he had personally picked me out. Why, I thought he fixed his eyes on me; and I have reason to believe he did, but still he said he knew nothing about my ease. Oh, that men would hear the Word preached, and that God would so bless them in their hearing, that they might feel it to have a personal application to their own hearts.
2. It contained some information as to the persecuted one. If you had asked Saul who it was he persecuted, he would have said, “Some poor fishermen, that had been setting up an impostor.” But see in what a different light Jesus Christ puts it. He does not say, “Why didst thou persecute Stephen?” but “Me?” Inasmuch as you have done this unto one of the least of My brethren, you have done it unto Me.
3. It demanded an answer. “What have I done to hurt thee? Why art thou so provoked against Me?”
II. The expostulation. “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” For--
1. You do not really accomplish your purpose. When the ox kicks against the goad, it is to spite the husbandman for having goaded him onward; but instead of hurting the husbandman it hurts itself. If thou thinkest, O man, that thou canst stop the progress of Christ’s Church, go thou and first bid the universe stand still! Go, stand by the winds, and bid them cease their wailing, or bid the roaring sea roll back when its tide is marching on the beach; and when thou hast stopped the universe, then come forth and stop the omnipotent progress of the Church of Christ. “He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh,” etc. But put it as a personal matter, have you ever succeeded in stopping the work of grace in the heart of anyone? Aye, young man, you may laugh at your own shop mate, but he will beat you in the long run. If Christians are but faithful, they must win the day. It is no use your kicking against them; you cannot hurt them.
2. You get no good by it. Kick as he might, the ox was never benefited by it. Suppose you say you don’t like religion, what have you ever got by hating it? You have got those red eyes sometimes on the Monday morning, after the drunkenness of the Sunday night. You have got that shattered constitution, which, even if you had now turned it to the paths of virtue, must hang about you till you leave it in your grave. But you are moral. Well, have you ever got anything even then by opposing Christ? Has it made your family any the happier? Has it made you any the happier yourself? Will it quiet your conscience when you come to die that you did your best to destroy the souls of other people?
3. But kick as the ox might, it had to go forward at last. If anyone had told Saul when he was going to Damascus, that he would one day become a preacher of Christianity, he would, no doubt, have laughed at it as nonsense; but the Lord had the key of his will, and He wound it up as He pleased. “Then why persecutest thou Me”? Perhaps you are despising the very Saviour you will one day love; trying to knock down the very thing that you wilt one day try to build up. Mayhap you are persecuting the men you will call your brothers and sisters. It is always well for a man not to go so far that he cannot go back respectably.
III. The good news. Paul, who persecuted Christ, was forgiven. He says he was the very chief of sinners, but he obtained mercy. Nay, more, he obtained honour. He was made an honoured minister of Christ, and so may you. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.--
Kicking against the pricks
I. The conduct with which Saul was upbraided. He was involved in one continuous struggle against the will, the power and the cause of Christ. The expression does not mean striving against the convictions of his own judgment, for Saul acted upon principle, and was most conscientious when he was most bigoted. Hence he says, “‘ I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth.” This expression indicates one main ground of the apostle’s prejudice. Like Nathanael, he was persuaded that no good thing could come out of Nazareth, and that it was his duty to seek the extirpation of the rising sect. In Acts 22:8, express notice seems to be taken of this. Hence we discover, not only the amazing grace vouchsafed in the work of his conversion, but the consummate wisdom displayed in its mode. Saul’s grand error had been the entertaining low thoughts of Christ; it was essential, therefore, that the new apostle should be possessed with a deep sense of the power of Christ, as risen and received into glory. The conduct thus exposed is not peculiar to Paul. We kick against the goads--
1. When we seek to stifle the convictions of conscience and strive against the constraints of Divine grace. Saul was not guilty in this respect; but are none of us?
2. When we rebel against the dispensations of God’s providence.
3. When we oppose the truth of God, or hinder the work of God.
II. The warning which he received may be considered to characterise his course as--
1. Sinful. Saul might have learned this from the counsel of his master Gamaliel.
2. Foolish; for his resistance was fruitless.
The ox and the goad
Jesus even out of heaven speaks in parables, according to His wont. To Paul He briefly utters the parable of the rebellious ox. Note the tenderness of the appeal: it is not, “Thou art harming Me by thy persecutions,” bat, “Thou art wounding thyself.” He saith not, “It is hard for Me,” but “hard for thee.” Observe--
I. The ox. A fallen man deserves no higher type.
1. You are acting like a brute beast, in ignorance and passion. You are unspiritual, thoughtless, unreasonable.
2. Yet God values you more than a man does an ox.
3. Therefore He feeds you, and does not slay you.
4. You are useless without guidance, and yet you are unwilling to submit to your Master’s hand.
5. If you were but obedient you might be useful, and might find content in your service.
6. You have no escape from the choice of either to obey or to die, and it is useless to be stubborn.
II. The ox goad. You have driven the Lord to treat you as the husbandman treats a stubborn ox.
1. The Lord has tried you with gentle means--a word, a pull of the rein, etc. by parental love, by tender admonitions of friends and teachers, and by the gentle promptings of His Spirit.
2. Now He uses the more severe means--
3. You are feeling some of these pricks, and cannot deny that they are sharp. Take heed lest worse things come upon you.
III. The kicks against the goad. These are given in various ways by those who are resolved to continue in sin. There are--
1. Early childish rebellions against restraint.
2. Sneers at the gospel, at ministers, at holy things.
3. Wilful sins against conscience and light.
4. Revilings and persecutions against God’s people.
5. Questionings, infidelities, and blasphemies.
IV. The hardness of all this to the ox. It hurts itself against the goad, and suffers far more than the driver designs.
1. In the present. You are unhappy; you are full of unrest and alarm; you are increasing your chastisement, and fretting your heart.
2. In the best possible future. You will feel bitter regrets, have desperate habits to overcome, and much evil to undo. All this if you do at last repent and obey.
3. In the more probable future. You are preparing for yourself increased hardness of heart, despair and destruction. Oh, that you would know that no possible good can come of kicking against God, who grieves over your infatuations!
1. Yield to the discipline of your God.
2. He pities you now, and begs you to consider your ways.
3. It is Jesus who speaks; be not so brutish as to refuse Him that speaks from heaven.
4. You may yet, like Saul of Tarsus, become grandly useful, and plough many a field for the Lord Jesus. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Striving against conviction
This sentence was one of the oldest of Greek proverbs, and being addressed to Saul in the Hebrew language, is an instance of the voice of Religion rightly using the tones of everyday life. That Christ should use a figure here was consistent with His habit, who used His parables to speak to men in figures. And doubtless the statement applied to many of Paul’s recent experiences, which were finding their climax in that crisis. Doubtless the reflection of one who knew the Scriptures as Paul did, and who had the warning Gamaliel gave him, and the recollections he must have had of the martyrs he was making, and preeminently his recollection of Stephen, must have brought many misgivings like so many goad thrusts, which found their full force in the vision and voices of that hour. Anyhow, the text tells that, whether for a longer or a shorter time, Paul had been resisting conviction. This is--
I. Common. We see it--
1. In continuance in outward sin which is felt to be evil.
2. In cherishing secret evils known to be wrong.
3. In postponing allegiance to claims of religion felt to be just.
II. Painful. It is “hard” because a man is--
1. In collision with the best social influences--in church, in godly family, etc.
2. In conflict with his own higher nature. Reason, conscience, have been goad-thrusts.
3. In opposition to God.
1. It is “fighting against God.” So Gamaliel warned.
2. It is persecuting Jesus. The noblest, tenderest, best Being. (U. R. Thomas.)
The sinner his own enemy
The first glance at the words shows us a proverb. Even from heaven, God, if He speaks at all, must adapt His speech to man’s usages. The risen and ascended Saviour spake not on earth only in parables. That before us is taken from the very commonest life of man. With a goad in his hand, headed by a long sharp spike of iron, the farmer drives before him the reluctant animal which would loiter or deviate from its way. In the obstinacy of an untamed will, the bullock unaccustomed to the yoke will even kick against his driver; and then the iron, otherwise harmless, enters into the recalcitrant foot. So in human life, in the affairs of the soul, there is a Hand which directs, and there is also a wilt which it seeks to guide. So long as the human will moves along the straight furrow of duty, so long the goad of punishment is unfelt. But if man will refuse the Divine influence, and stop or hedge aside, the guiding impulse must become a painful goad of discipline, and resistance must be coerced and, if necessary, punished into acquiescence.
1. “The way of transgressors is hard.” So speaks Solomon. He had found it so. And so speaks Christ. The young man thinks it a sign of independence to forget God that made him, and to walk in the way of his own heart. He learns to forsake the rule of his father, and to despise the law of his mother. He forms new associates; his habits become more and more such as a Christian parent would mourn over. Does he find his new life a freedom? Are his new ways ways of pleasantness? He calls them so in his hours of mirth. But somehow he feels to be more in bondage than ever. The old rules of his parents, if they were restraints, at least had no sting in them. But now, these pleasures of sin, not only are they short lived, they are anxious in the indulgence, and torturers in the retrospect. His conscience is ever warning and lashing him. And when sickness comes, when grey hairs are upon him, when death is imminent; how then? Young men--young women--be persuaded of this; that there is a God over you; if you will have it so, a God of love; if you will not have it so, then at least a God of power! It is hard for thee now, as well as dangerous eventually, to kick against the pricks.
2. There are those who are kicking against the goad of a fatherly discipline, who do not understand and love the method by which God is training them for Himself. They are denied many things which they desire: they are subjected to many things which they dislike. When they seemed to have even attained, the prize was wrenched from them. When they did attain, the coveted fruit has turned to ashes in the mouth. By these means the world was made a world of nothingness to them. Perhaps they were too eager for it. They were of that nature which would have been satisfied to “sit by the fleshpots and eat bread to the full.” And therefore the discipline needful for them was desert life. Sinai, with God speaking from it, was necessary to their soul’s safety. And yet scarcely were they in it, when they began to find fault. Their “soul loathed this light bread,” the bread of eternity and of the Spirit. The smitten rock yielded only a spiritual supply; and they were athirst for something more luscious, more earthly. Thus again and again they were rebellious against the hand that guided, and forced it to become a hand that drove. Why? “Even because He had a favour unto them.” To kick against that Hand, even if it was forced by their waywardness to hold a goad, was rebellion as much against happiness as against strength. I address some tonight who are in definite trouble. My friend, “it is the Lord. I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil.” “Shall the thing formed say to Him that formed it, Why hast Thou made me thus?” “Humble yourselves” rather under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time. It is hard for thee, painful now, eventually ruinous, to kick against the goad.
3. There is yet a further use of the proverb, that in which it was originally spoken. St. Paul was moral and conscientious; but be was kicking against the goad because he was refusing the revelation of Christ. He saw not his own sinfulness. He knew not his own want of a Saviour. He was not willing that others should trust in One whom he knew not. Can there be any here whose sin is that of Saul? Certainly there are those who are willing to take everything of the gospel save the very gospel itself; moral, conscientious, earnest men, yet who suffer themselves to repudiate altogether the revelation of the forgiveness of sin through the Atonement, and of renewal by the Holy Spirit. Depend upon it, you are kicking against a goad. You do want a Saviour for forgiveness, cleansing, strength, comfort and grace in daily life. Why, then, will you keep out of your heart that bright light? Why will you compel Him to drive, who would lead and guide? Conclusion: Scripture gives us examples of every kind of direction. Mark the order.
1. There is the sharp iron for the refractory. “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”
2. There is the bit and bridle for the unreasoning.
3. There is the voice of the Shepherd, known and loved by the docile flock.
4. There is the guidance, not even of voice, but of the eye only, which suits the ready, anticipating will of the entirely tractable and sympathising child.
To kick against the goad is the extreme of disobedience; to watch the guiding eye, to wait not for the word or the sign, much less for the spur of authority, is the perfection of obedience. In all senses, may that last be ours! (Dean Vaughan.)
Opposition to the truth fatal
The swordfish is a very curious creature, with a long and bony beak projecting in front of his head. It is also very fierce, attacking other fishes, and trying to pierce them with its sword. The fish has been known to dart at a ship in full sail with such violence as to pierce the solid timbers. But what has happened? The silly fish has been killed outright by the force of its own blow. The ship sails on just as before, and the angry fish falls a victim to its own rage. But how shall we describe the folly of those who, like Saul, oppose the cause of Christ? They cannot succeed: like the swordfish they only work their own destruction.
Opposition to the truth, self-destructive
Dr. John Hall compares the attacks of infidelity upon Christianity to a serpent gnawing at a file. As he kept on gnawing he was greatly encouraged by the sight of a growing pile of chips; till, feeling pain, and seeing blood, he found that he had been wearing his own teeth away against the file, but the file was unharmed.
But rise, and stand upon thy feet; for I have appeared unto thee to make thee a minister and a witness.
If you had given you what was asserted to be a speech made long ago by your father, the first reading of it would settle the matter. Knowing your father, his sentiments, his mode of expression, you would be able to say instantly whether the speech was authentic or fabricated. We ought by this time to know enough of Christ’s manner to be able to say whether any speech purporting to be His was actually ever spoken by His lips. Is this? Let us see. Christ is reported as saying--
1. “I have appeared unto thee for this purpose.” Here I recall the words which made the first ministers, “Follow Me.” He is as personal as ever.
2. “I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make--” Here I remember the word, “I will make you fishers of men.” Jesus Christ is still Creator. The speaker does not propose to modify, add to, rearrange.
3. “To make thee a minister”--that is a new word--“and a witness”--that is an old word. “Ye are,” said Jesus Christ, “witnesses of these things.”
4. Proceed still further: “a witness both of these things which thou hast seen.” Why, that is the old method: “Go and show John again those things which ye do hear and see.” We speak as eyewitnesses; we are not quoters from authors of an ancient date.
5. Proceed further: “and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee.” Jesus said, “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now.” There is no end to the meaning of revelation. There is no end to the literature of the alphabet. The letters are but six-and-twenty in number, and no man attempts to add another! It is the same with the New Testament. Observe, nothing is added to the revelation. However large the book, it is all in the alphabet; however magnificent the unfoldment of the truth by human eloquence, the truth itself is the distinct and direct gift of God alone.
6. Proceed now to verse 17: “Delivering them from the people and from the Gentiles.” Here is the Lord’s own speech: “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves,” etc. It is a marvellous thing if this was invented. It is impossible, considering Saul’s antecedents, that he could have invented a speech so perfect, not only in the letter, but in the spirit.
7. The eighteenth verse is a summary of all that Jesus began both to do and to say. The miracles and the gospels are all there. For example, “To open their eyes.” That is what Jesus Christ was always doing. He could never be at rest in the presence of the blind. Again and again He said, “According to your faith, be it unto you.” Christ will not have any blind followers.
8. “To turn them from darkness to light.” When did He ever turn men from light to darkness? Whenever He visited a town, the inhabitants were startled by an excess of intellectual lustre; old thoughts stood up in new meanings when He breathed them; the law itself became a kind of gospel when He repronounced its awful words.
9. “And from the power of Satan unto God.” When did He ever reverse that process? His first battle was with the devil in the wilderness, and His last battle was with the devil on the Cross.
10. Go further: “that they may receive forgiveness of sins.” That is His very word: “Son, daughter, thy sins, which are many, are all forgiven thee.” That is not the kind of word which a bad man would be likely to invent.
11. But how was this forgiveness to be accomplished? and how was it be followed? By “inheritance among them which are sanctified.” The whole process is set down to the action of “faith.” Have we ever heard that word before? Why, the word is the keyword of Christ’s ministry. Conclusion: So far the speech is self-proving. I find in it no syllable or tone that is not in vital accord with everything we have read in the Gospels ever spoken or done by the Son of God. This is a field of evidence to which I would invite every student of the Scriptures. Read the Book carefully through with a view to see how far its parts are confirmed by one another, and how far even apparent discrepancies admit of a kind of reconciliation which adds infinite force to the substantial argument for the unity of the Scriptures. Perhaps a more vivid instance of confirmation could hardly be produced than the one which is now before us. Paul is supposed to be in a fanatical state of mind; he is struck down to the ground, blinded, disabled; he is supposedly the victim of an hallucination of the most complete kind; yet when he himself reports what happened to him, no slip or flaw can be found in his evidence which throws the slightest doubt upon the identity of the doctrine of Jesus Christ, as revealed in the accepted Gospels. More than Chat, everything is here which is needed. Take this as a programme for the revolution, regeneration, and perfecting of the world, and add to it one line that is not involved in its unfathomable wisdom. It cannot be done. (J. Parker, D. D.)
Why am I saved
1. Notice the swiftness of the revelation of God’s purpose as to the apostle of the Gentiles. An ordinary call to the ministry usually involves long processes of self-examination and observation of God’s guiding providences.
2. The distinctness with which Paul comprehended his mission is notable. He continually declares his one, only aim in life to “apprehend (or lay hold of) Him,” he says, “who has laid hold of me.”
3. This obedient spirit deserves distinct mention. “I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision.” He never was. At the end of his life he wrote, “I have kept the faith.” But turning away from these and other lines of discussion, let us accentuate the proposition that God has a purpose in our salvation. We ought to know what that purpose is. Am I saved merely to have my name entered on a Church roll? to keep up a form of godliness?
No; I am saved for a two-fold purpose--viz., to glorify God’s grace in my personal salvation and sanctification, and also to advance the kingdom of God in the world.
1. We infer, first of all, the need of the illuminating light from heaven to make us realise our high calling of God.
2. Again, we see our obligation to fulfil Christ’s purpose in our salvation as Paul saw the purpose of his salvation and accomplished it. (G. E. Reed.)
The objects of the Christian ministry
I. The object of the Christian ministry is the exhibition of the character of God. That there is a God, “all Nature cries aloud through all her works” (Psalms 19:1-4; Romans 1:20). But “Nature is a speechless beauty, waiting in silence till man shall find leisure and inclination to he instructed by dumb signs.” She discloses some traces of his wisdom, goodness, and power; but a sinner, under a sense of his guilt, might remain in her presence for ages, without discovering what is essential to his relief. It was reserved to the gospel to reveal the character of Him whose perfections are unceasingly adored in the world of light, whose will is law, to whose designs all beings and all events are subservient, whose hands supply the wants of every creature, whose heart compassionates the children of sorrow, whose frown is hell, whose smile is heaven. Even the Old Testament afforded but partial discoveries of Him. A veil still remained over Him; which veil the gospel has drawn aside. His holiness, His justice, and His mercy, shine in the clearest light; there, if genuine Christians, we effectually discern the doctrines which demand our faith, the privileges which claim our gratitude, the promises which encourage our hope, the principles which compose our character.
II. The Christian ministry is designed to promote the destruction of the kingdom of satan and the establishment of that of Christ. The dominion of Satan commenced at an early period. Its foundation was laid in falsehood. The supports of his throne are delusion and depravity, wrought into a thousand fantastic and ten thousand odious forms. But the usurper was not permitted to reign without control. His final defeat was predicted in the very scene which had been disgraced by his victory. Then was the assurance given, that “the seed of the woman should bruise the serpent’s head.” At length the Messiah came, for the glorious purpose of recovering this colony of rebels to the duty they had renounced, and the felicity they had forfeited. His triumphs began in the wilderness, where He foiled the tempter, and compelled him to retire; they were extended, when “the seventy returned with joy, saying, Lord, even the devils are subject to us through Thy name.” But it was after His resurrection and ascension that this mighty Conqueror shone forth in the splendour of His sublimest achievements. The commission with which He invested the apostles was accompanied with power from on high; and He “bare them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles and gifts of the Holy Ghost.” A thousand delusions were scattered by the beams of truth; the slumbers of insensibility were shaken off; the rock of impenitence was melted; faith opened to the moral wanderer a heavenly prospect; peace cheered the bosom that had throbbed with anguish; and the sceptre of righteousness was swayed over the faculties, passions, and appetites, that had been perverted and enslaved by the tyranny of hell.
III. The Christian ministry is established for the purpose of leading those among whom it is exercised to the practise of “pure and undefiled religion,” and thus effecting the most important change that can be introduced into the condition of mankind (verse 18). Accordingly, we find the same apostle afterwards stating (Titus 2:11-12). Such is the influence of the gospel on the character of everyone by whom it is cordially received. It not only reveals a Saviour, but is the instrument of conveying salvation. Through the medium of the gospel the Holy Spirit enlightens the understanding, subdues vicious propensities, restores the Divine image, and prepares the frail tenant of earth for the inheritance reserved in heaven.
IV. The Christian ministry will result in the brightest manifestation of the Saviour’s glory. To Him it owes its origin, its support, its conductors, and its efficacy. He is the Subject of it. Apart from His dignity and condescension; His virtues and sufferings; His doctrines, commandments, and promises; the miracles which He wrought, the atonement which He made, His triumph over His death, His constant intercession, and the grace which flows from His inexhaustible fulness--the Christian ministry were a mere name, and those who engage in it only beat the air. But when a man, saved from eternal ruin ascends before a congregation inspired with grateful astonishment, and anxious to see every hearer a participant of his own felicity, how can he forget his Divine benefactor, or allude to Him in obscure language, and with faint regard! Behold Him, and all who, being honoured with the same office, press forward in the same spirit, continually insisting on the all-important theme. They are the servants of Jesus Christ, and they urge His authority; they live upon His smile, and they want words to express the magnitude of the privilege; they are the almoners of His bounty, and they beseech, as on the bended knee, their fellow mortals to receive it. Great is the reward which awaits them all. (O. A. Jeary.)
God’s work upon minister and convert
I. A work wrought by God upon the minister.
1. Subjugation. While a man is a rebel, the Lord does not appoint him an ambassador; while he is dead in sin, a preacher of the way of life. Paul was struck down; for if he had not fallen, he would not have known how to lift others up. He remained blind for three days; otherwise he would not have been qualified to deal with others in darkness. See what God does in His ministers to fit them for your conversion. In order to slay your sins the shaft has been polished. Each of the best locks made by our eminent locksmiths is unique, and each needs its own special key: so God fits certain men for reaching certain men.
2. Encouragement. “Rise, and stand upon thy feet.” Men can hardly be very useful till they cease to be despondent, and become energetic and hopeful. I have noticed that those who do not believe that they will be successful seldom are so; but those who rise and stand upon their feet, and manfully expect that God will bless them, are not disappointed.
3. Ordination. And to this end he must see the Lord for himself. Our Lord’s appearing--
4. Continuous instruction. He is to be a witness not only of those things which he has seen, but also of those things in the which the Lord will yet appear unto him.
5. Constant preservation. “Delivering thee from the people,” etc. Paul’s life was always in danger, and yet never in real peril, for the Lord was his keeper. So shall every true servant of Christ be kept as with a garrison from all evil.
II. The work wrought in the hearer.
1. Illumination: the Lord sends His servant “to open their eyes.” Men are born blind, and continue blind till, by the power of Jesus, sight is given to them. Your education and surroundings have perhaps placed a film of prejudice over your eyes; if a candid, childlike spirit were given you, you would see. Or possibly some favourite sin is like a cataract upon the eye of your conscience, and you cannot see the evil of sin or the beauty of holiness. Or it may be that unbelief darkens your soul.
2. Conversion: “to turn them from darkness to light.” What a blessed turning is that which makes us face truth, and goodness, and God, and heaven; and leave ignorance, sin, and hell behind.
3. Translation. As the soul is brought into a new element, so is it also brought under a new government. “From the power of Satan unto God.” Somebody says, “I do not understand how this can be performed in a minute.” Well, two men are fighting, and we beg them to leave off. Do you recommend them to leave off gradually? If anybody held a pistol at my head, I should not say, “Take it away by degrees.” Changes of mind such as are necessary to conversion had need be quick when sin is to be forsaken, for every moment deepens the guilt. It may seem a very gradual process by which a man who was dead comes to life; but for certain there is a point at which he left the dead and became alive, and that point God sees very clearly, even though we do not.
4. Complete forgiveness. The same moment that we receive Christ, we “receive forgiveness of sins and inheritance among them which are sanctified.” What a blessing to become an heir of God! To what choice company is a sinner introduced when he believes in Jesus! He is a freeholder among the burgesses of the New Jerusalem.
5. And all this has for its certificate and mark of genuineness these words--“By faith that is in Me.” The whole process of salvation is by faith.
III. A work which must be done by the hearer himself. This text speaks of Paul being an instrument in the hands of God of opening men’s eyes, etc., and they seem to be passive; but now they are called upon to be active. We are created thinking, intelligent beings, and we are saved as such. Never let us forget either the free agency of man or the purposes of God. Grace reigns not over slaves, but over obedient children.
1. You must repent. It is not the work of God the Holy Ghost to repent for you, but to lead you to repent.
2. You must turn to God. Your prayer may be, “Turn thou me, and I shall be turned”; but the command is, “Turn ye, turn ye, why will ye die?” God will turn you, but you have willingly to yield, and thus turn yourself.
3. You must do works meet for repentance; for wherever there is true faith there will be corresponding works, such as these: restitution if you have wronged anyone, reconciliation if you are at enmity with anyone, acknowledgment if you have spoken falsely, giving up of evil habits, and an earnest endeavour to be pure and holy. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
I. Its theme. What had he to testify?
1. All that he had seen of Christ. He had seen and heard great things amidst the bright light which struck him to the ground.
2. All that he should see of Christ. He would receive many more communications. A true minister will be always receiving fresh communications of truth, and he must proclaim the new as well as the old.
II. Its beneficence. He had to effect--
1. The highest good.
(a) The moral blindness of the sinner.
(b) The restorative character of Christianity--it does not give new eyes, but opens the old ones.
(c) The genuineness of Christ as a reformer--the design of impostors is to close eyes.
(a) Legitimate possession--having a kind of right to it.
(b) Social intercourse “among them,” not a scene of isolation.
(c) Moral purity “sanctified.” The Christian circle is holy.
2. The highest good by a simple method. By no onerous labour or costly sacrifices, but by “faith that is in Me”; not in priests, not in human creeds, not in the opinions of men about Me. Faith in Christ is not a mere thing of the intellect; it involves the deepest sympathies of the heart. Nor is it even a thing of thought and feeling combined; it takes the form of living acts; it moulds the life.
III. Its fulfilment. “I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision.” He discharged this commission.
2. Continuously. He began when he was converted, and went on. This is the true order. Begin with those nearest at hand.
3. Reformatively. His grand aim was spiritually to reform men, which includes two things--
Christian ministry defined
This is the kind of ministry which Christ wishes to establish. No other statement is needed. This conception is such as never entered into the uninspired mind, and, in particular, never could have entered into a mind constituted as was Saul’s.
I. “Rise and stand upon thy feet.” Here is the typical manliness of the Christian ministry. We do not want crawling, fawning men, but men who can stand up and show their stature and force. The minister, realising Christ’s conception, does not apologise for his existence: he stands upon his feet. Jesus did not speak to Saul as he lay down in the dust. He will not send frightened things about His messages and errands; He will have the whole man at his best. But what kind of manliness? Only that manliness which is made possible by Christ. To stand without permission to stand is impertinence; to stand in obedience to Divine injunction is humility. God can make men sit down, roll in the dust of the ground; and it is out of such lying that the true strength comes. If we have not first been laid down by the Divine power, we cannot stand in the Divine strength. The command is a royal command. He who has stood before Christ may well stand before kings. We get over all our nervousness when we are with the Lord. Fear God, and have no other fear.
II. “For I have appeared unto thee to make thee a minister.” Then ministers are not man made; they are not turned out by machinery. Only Christ can make ministers. We have forgotten this; we have taken to making a species of ecclesiastical pottery. We do not read, “I have appeared unto thee to make thee an equal, a priest,” but “a minister”--i.e., a servant, a slave. There is no mistaking the minister which Christ makes. The seal of Christ is not always the kind we like; but somewhere there is the indubitable sign--in one man in the intellect, in another in the tender heart; here in the eloquence that fills the ear with delight, and there in the pleading, holy intercession that lifts the listening soul into the quietude of heaven.
III. Christ must not only find the minister, He must find the sermon.
1. “A minister and a witness of these things which thou hast seen.” Not “those things which thou hast imagined,” invented; so that a man denying thy ministry must first deny thy character. Wondrous ministry! the soul continually upon oath, the voice forbidden to utter anything for the sake of uttering it, and charged to tell what the soul has already heard. No man could have imagined such a call, and especially no man like Paul.
2. “Of those things in the which I will appear unto thee.” There is a growing revelation. Christianity has a future as well as a past. Expect the vision; wait for the additional revelation. It will not be anything new in the sense of unrelated, but new in the sense of development, progress from the thing already in the soul. Sometimes we say of a sermon, “How large a sermon from so small a text!” No. In every acorn there is enough to clothe all the mountains of the earth with umbrageous oaks--forests out of which navies might be cut and palaces might be built. There is nothing new in the oak; everything was in the acorn. It is so when Jesus comes to us--the same Jesus, the same grace, the same Spirit, but growing in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
IV. “Delivering thee from the people and from the Gentiles.” Shall I, then, be in the clutch of evil men? Yes; but thou shalt be delivered from them. Every minister has his stormy career if he be a faithful minister. Sometimes a minister will tell you--as if he were preaching his own funeral sermon--that he never had a difference with any human creature. What an awful life to have lived! Hear the light saying, “I never had a battle with darkness!” The true minister cannot have a peaceful and luxurious life. Who wants the minister in his proper capacity? Not the makers of ill-gotten gain, profane men, worldly men, self-idolaters, nor men whose books have never been audited by pure sunlight. Many want him as a companion, a man as well-read as themselves, exchanging the pleasant word; but who wants him as a representative of the throne of God? Let any minister try that course, and he will soon see that it is impossible to be popular. (J. Parker, D. D.)
To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light.
The effects of the gospel
I. The opening of the eyes to let in the truth. The gospel shows us our dark, lost, and needy state, and the willingness and ample means of God to deliver us.
II. The new bias of the soul, as a consequence.
1. A turning away the mind from darkness and sin. “Men love darkness rather than light” in their natural state.
2. An opposite yearning towards God.
III. The grand object of that new bias is that the soul may receive additional blessings.
1. The forgiveness of sins--the crisis of the whole matter.
2. The gift of the inheritance. (E. Craig, M. A.)
Should anyone ask, “What does Christianity want to do in the world?” point the inquirer to this verse--
I. “To open their eyes.”
1. Any religion that proposes to open our eyes is presumptively a true religion. Superstition says, “Keep your eyes closed.” Christianity, then, does not want to shut me up in some prison, priest-locked, roofed in with superstition, wound round with darkness.
2. There are no blind Christians. The Christian is a wide-awake man--all reason, all life. Christianity is rationalism because it opens the eyes.
3. Do not, however, suppose you understand it in a moment. This is a daily process in our education--namely, seeing things more clearly, noting their relations, proportions, and final issues.
4. There is no mission so sublime! It is almost like creating a man to give him sight. The greatest gift of man to man is the gift of idea, thought, new vision. To open the eyes is to give wealth. The poet cannot give me the acres of my lord, but he can give me the landscape that belongs to the poorest of the children of men.
II. “To turn them from darkness to light.” That is upon the same line of thinking? Not to open their eyes to see the darkness as seven fold greater than they dreamed it to be. Yet men will follow any demagogue who will delude and befool them, and turn their back upon the man who wants to lead them out of darkness into light. What a turning is this! Who can measure the distance from darkness to light? These are terms that transcend arithmetic.
III. There is another turning--namely, “From the power of satan unto God.” Christianity is the upward movement of the world. “Nearer God!” is the watch cry. We know what is meant by “the power of Satan”--the power that victimises us, that gives us promises which end ever in disappointments; the power that unmans us, breaks upon our self-control, mocks our prayers, and points us to the grave as the sad end.
IV. So far this is in some sense negative. Now we come to what may be termed a blessing more positive: “That they may receive forgiveness of sins.” No man ever invented that! Man has invented forgetfulness of sins; but Christianity will not administer narcotic to me; it will fight the battle right out, and the end shall be “forgiveness.” “The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin.” Conclusion: Is it worth our while trying to open men’s eyes, etc. In this faith I would serve and count all other programmes mean as lies. Then will come the “inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me”--new character, new brotherhood, new riches. This is what Christianity wants to do; and when this work is done, earth will be heaven. (J. Parker, D. D.)
The commission of the Apostle Paul
I. The purposes of St. Paul’s mission. It was--
1. “To open their eyes.”
(a) By means of his miracles, which tended to awaken their attention, and convince them that his mission was from God.
(b) By his discourses, informing their understanding and conscience.
(c) By his unblameable, holy, and useful life, overcoming their prejudices--partly by affecting their hearts, and exciting their sympathies with his sufferings.
2. “To turn them from darkness to light.” The heathen, even the learned Greeks and Romans, were in a state of great darkness, i.e., ignorance and error, as to spiritual things. By the preaching of the gospel and the influences of the Spirit, men are translated from this darkness. In equal darkness are involved the present heathen, Mahomedans, Jews, Papists, and many Protestants! Now missionaries are sent abroad, and ministers are labouring at home to enlighten them.
3. “From the power of Satan unto God.” Satan, who is “the prince of darkness,” “the ruler of the darkness of this world” (Ephesians 6:12), obtains his power over mankind through their ignorance. Through ignorance of the true God, they worshipped false gods (Romans 1:21-23); through ignorance of His purity, mercy, truth, and righteousness, they were filthy, cruel, and false. Hence their dreadful corruption of manners (Romans 1:24-32). And why did the Jews crucify the Lord of glory? Because they knew Him not (Acts 3:17; 1 Corinthians 2:8). Why have so many nations embraced the Mahomedan delusions? From the errors with which their minds were blinded (Revelation 9:2-3). Whence the superstitions of popery (1 Timothy 4:1; 2 Thessalonians 2:3-9). And whence is it that among almost all descriptions of persons, even among us, the body is preferred to the soul, earth to heaven, the world to God; sin, the greatest evil, to holiness, the greatest good; Belial, the worst master, to Christ, the best! All this is from darkness, and the power of Satan exercised thereby. The gospel, by enlightening men, rescues them from his power, and brings them to the experimental and saving knowledge of God.
4. Hence, being “turned from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God,” they “receive the forgiveness of sins”; being delivered from the dominion of them, they are exempted from their penalty. They do not merit this as a reward or debt, but they receive it as the effect of Divine mercy and grace (Titus 3:4-5); obtained through Christ’s sacrifice and intercession (Romans 5:9-10); received by faith in Christ (John 3:14-18; Galatians 2:16), and sealed on the heart and conscience by the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13).
5. “And an inheritance among them which are sanctified.” Sanctification is an internal change wrought by the Holy Ghost (1 Peter 1:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:13), by means of the Word (John 17:17), and faith in Jesus (see the text and Acts 15:9). This implies a deliverance from sin, and from the world, a dedication to God in heart and life, in soul and body, in our faculties and members, our all being employed for Him; a conformity to Him, a participation of the Divine nature (2 Peter 1:4); and hence walking with God (Genesis 5:24), and communion with Him, living and walking in His Spirit (1 John 1:3; Galatians 5:25). How great is this blessing! They obtain “an inheritance among the sanctified” here and hereafter. Thus they have a lot among the wisest, best, holiest, the most honourable and blessed of the human race in this world and another; yea, among angels with Christ and God.
II. The infinite importance of His mission. These ends never were, and never will be obtained in any other way, than by the preaching of the gospel. Some few of the heathen had a degree of knowledge and virtue (chap. 10:35; Romans 1:19-20), and might attain some degree of happiness after death, but not the proper Christian salvation as here set forth. Hence the command of Christ, that His gospel should be preached to every creature (Mark 16:15; Matthew 28:19; Luke 24:47). Hence this wonderful miracle wrought in the conversion of St. Paul (verse 16; Acts 9:15). Hence the great sufferings to which he was exposed (Acts 9:16; 1 Corinthians 4:9-13; 2 Corinthians 4:8-12). Hence, likewise, Christ requires all His disciples, and especially His messengers, to “deny themselves,” etc. (Matthew 16:24; Matthew 10:37-39; Luke 14:26). Nay, the Lord Jesus Himself was born and came into the world, and lived and died to “bear witness to the truth.”
III. Inferences. What, then, shall we think of--
1. Those Christians, so called, who, like the Jews in St. Paul’s day, forbid the preaching of the gospel to the heathen (1 Thessalonians 2:15-16)?
2. Those who are so attached to their worldly wealth that they cannot be induced to sacrifice a little of it to promote the salvation of the heathen? May not one properly use the words of Peter to such characters, and say, “Thy money perish with thee!”
3. Those pious young men, who have reason to think themselves called to missionary work, but are backward to offer themselves to this service?
4. Those, who, having set their hands to the plough, look back, and give up such a cause after they have undertaken it? (J. Benson.)
The work of man and the gift of God
I. The direct work of the Christian ministry. “I send thee to open their eyes.” The work is described, and the power is in the sending. If Christ sends, He will also give the power.
1. So then, before Him who looks on it from heaven, humanity lies as it were sleeping. The eye is closed: the eye of the understanding, of the heart, of the soul. Very remarkable is the contrast between this and the tempter’s promise. “Then your eyes shall be opened.” He prevailed, and the eyes of them “both were opened--they knew that they were naked. That opening was to a consciousness of shame. To everything save wretchedness it was a closing. As Christ looks on from heaven, He sees man blind. He sends Paul “to open their eyes.” It was the first thing done for Paul himself. “Brother Saul, receive thy sight.” Look up, the word is, see again! What Saul needed man needs now.
2. The came eye may be opened to some things and closed to others. The very clearness of its vision for some things--say, for near objects--may be a mark of its dulness as to the mere distant. A man may be quick to discern his own rights, interests, pleasures, in the life that is; and yet utterly mistaken, or indifferent, as to his highest interest, happiness, duty, as a being born for immortality. Oh, how dull oftentimes is the man of business, politics, literature, or philosophy, when the thing presented to him is the work of Christ or the hope of heaven! He, too, needs to have his eyes opened.
3. And this is the office, we here read, of the Christian ministry. As Christ’s witness, if he cannot say, as St. Paul could say, “Listen tome, for I have seen Jesus Christ”; at least he should be able to say, “Listen to me; for I know Jesus Christ; I have heard His voice, I have talked with Him in my soul, and He by His Spirit has set me free from the law of sin and death.” It is here that we fail. We bring a hearsay message, but we have not felt it ourselves, and therefore we have no evidence to bring of facts known, of things seen. Alas! it is too much with us, as it was with the prophets of old, who “prophesied out of their own hearts, followed their own spirit, and had seen nothing.”
4. In a true sense, all of us have at least seen the light. Light, the true light, is come into the world, but “some love darkness rather than light,” etc.
II. That work has a further object; in which not the minister, but the hearer, must be the agent.
1. That they may turn. Turning, or conversion, follows upon the opening of the eyes. The communication of light, by the faithful preaching of the gospel, is the work of another; but this turning is (under God) a man’s own work. A minister may enlighten, but he cannot convert. That is (under God) an act of the will, of the individual will, consequent upon conviction. “I see that this is true. Now therefore, seeing the light, I must turn to it. Therefore I awake and arise, and Christ shall give me light. I will walk in this light which He has brought to me. I will accept this two-fold blessedness which He offers me, of a forgiven past and a cleansed future.” That is conversion. Oh, how unlike the dreams of many; who have mistaken the opening of the eyes for the turning to the light; more often a startled, feverish, fleeting feeling, for a deliberate self-surrender to a forgiving Saviour and a holy God!
2. But we must not exaggerate man’s power, or forget the difficulty of that change. Satan has great “authority.” Let a man honestly turn from darkness to light, and then, if never before, he will become conscious of the strong grip of evil. Habits of life, habits of mind, habits of feeling, are not changed in a day. Let him turn, then, not only from the darkness to the light, but also from the authority of Satan unto God. There is a Stronger than the strong man armed.
III. The ultimate object of the work is that men may turn to God so that they may receive--
1. Forgiveness of sins. I know how lightly sin can sit upon the conscience of a transgressor. He has only to keep out of the light, and he may travel smoothly enough along a considerable stage of life’s journey. But let the light penetrate, let conviction come, and then see whether it is an easy thing to bear, or an easy thing to escape, that sense of sin! If it he true, as men say, that nature has no forgiveness; that the body and the life of man must still and forever be found out by iniquities long past, long repented of or forgotten; how much more does this magnify the unspeakable gift of God. He who heartily turns receives at once forgiveness, yea (for it is the very meaning of forgiveness) dismissal, of sins. Where, save in Christ, will you find this?
2. Dismissal of the past: and now an inheritance. Properly, a lot; and so an allotment; a portion falling to one by lot. It may remind us of those chapters of the Book of Joshua, in which we read of the assignment by lot to the tribes of Israel of their inheritance in the land of Canaan. And so in the Psalms, “The lot is fallen unto me in a fair ground: yea, I have a goodly heritage.” The inheritance itself waits to be bestowed: but there is an earnest and a foretaste of it now.
3. Who are the sanctified? The consecrated; those whom God has taken to be His own; free from the contaminations of sin, and from the profanenesses of the world. This is not an attainment of man, but a gift of God. The word denotes not those who have made themselves holy, but those whom God has set apart for Himself by anointing them, as His kings and priests, with the Holy Ghost. We all have received the sign and pledge of this in baptism: which of us has the reality of it?
4. “By faith that is in Me.” He who speaks from heaven, still, even as when He spake on earth, makes faith everything. (Dean Vaughan.)
In the State House at Albany is an old worn letter, an autograph pardon granted by President Lincoln. Its story is a short one. In the time of war a soldier was arrested, charged with desertion, and, though stoutly protesting his innocence, he was promptly tried, condemned, and sentenced to a deserter’s death. With emphatic remonstrance, he bravely prepared to meet his doom. The facts were laid before the merciful President, who was so affected by them that he was convinced that injustice had been done, and, taking his pen, wrote an autograph pardon for Boswell McIntyre of Co. C, 6th Regiment, New York Volunteers, on condition that he return to and remain with his regiment until it was mustered out of the service. We can better imagine than describe the joy of this man, as the pardon reached him just as he was preparing to die. In the busy activities of army life in Virginia, this incident was apparently forgotten. After the last battle of the war had been fought--the engagement that forced Lee ultimately to surrender--the battle of Five Forks, when the field was being cleared of the dead and wounded, the bullet-riddled body of Boswell McIntyre was found with that autograph pardon of the great president next his heart. Do we who have accepted the atonement of Christ wear His Divine pardon next the heart?
Faith that is in me.
Faith in Christ
1. It is commonly said that what are called the distinguishing doctrines of Christianity are rather found in the Epistles than in the Gospels, and the reason is that Christ came not to speak the gospel, but to be the Gospel. Yet if anybody asks us where did Paul get the doctrines which he preached, the answer is, Here, on the road to Damascus, when he saw his Lord, and heard Him speak. These words spoken then are the germ of all Paul’s Epistles. Man’s ruin, man’s depravity, the state of darkness, the power of Satan, the sole redemptive work of Christ, justification by belief in that, sanctification coming with justification; and glory, and rest, and heaven at last--there they all are in the very first words that sounded upon the quickened ear of the blinded man when he turned from darkness to light.
2. To the one part of this comprehensive summary I turn. The word “faith” is so often on our lips that it has come to be almost meaningless in many minds. These keywords of Scripture meet the same fate as do coins that have been long in circulation. They pass through so many fingers that the inscriptions get worn off them.
I. The object of faith is Christ.
1. Christianity is not merely a system of truths about God, nor a code of morality deducible from these, but the affiance and the confidence of the whole spirit fixed upon the redeeming, revealing Christ. True, the object of our faith is Christ as made known to us in the facts of His recorded life and the teaching of His apostles. Apart from them the image of Christ must stand a pale colourless phantom before the mind, and the faith which is directed towards such a nebula will be as impotent as the shadow towards which it turns. Thus far, then, the attempt which is made to establish a Christianity without doctrines on the plea that the object of faith is not a proposition, but a person, must be regarded as nugatory; for how can the “person” be an object of thought at all, but through the despised “propositions”? But notwithstanding this, it is He, and not the statements about Him, who is the object of faith.
2. Look at His own words. He does not merely say, Believe this, that, and the other thing about Me; but believe in Me! “He that cometh to Me shall never hunger, and He that believeth in Me shall never thirst.” I think that if people rightly grasped this truth, it would clear away rolling wreaths of fog and mist from their perceptions of the gospel--that Christ is it, and that the object of faith is not simply the truths that are recorded here in the Word, but He with regard to whom these truths are recorded. The whole feeling and attitude of a man’s mind is different, according as he is trusting a person, or according as he is believing something about a person.
3. What a strong inference with regard to the Divinity of Christ is deducible from this! In the Old Testament you find constantly, “Trust ye in the Lord forever”; “Put thy trust in Jehovah!” Religion has always been the same in every dispensation. It has always been true that it has been faith which has bound man to God, and given man hope. But when we come to the New Testament, the centre is shifted. With calm, simple, profound dignity, Christ lays His hand upon all the ancient and consecrated words, and says, “They are Mine--give them to Me! That ancient trust, I claim the right to have it. That old obedience, it belongs to Me. I am He to whom in all time the loving hearts of them that loved God have set. I am the Angel of the Covenant, in whom whoever trusteth shall never be confounded!” And I ask you just to take that one simple fact, that Christ steps into the place filled by Jehovah; and ask yourselves honestly what theory about Christ’s nature and person and work explains that fact, and saves Him from the charge of folly and blasphemy? The object of faith is. Christ; and as object of faith He must needs be Divine.
II. The nature and the essence of the act of faith itself.
1. If the object of faith were certain truths, the assent of the understanding would be enough; if unseen things, the confident persuasion of them would be sufficient; if promises of future good, the hope rising to certainty of the possession of these would be sufficient; but if the object be a living person, then it follows that faith is the personal relation of him that believes to the living Person its object, viz., trust.
2. By laying hold of that simple principle, we get light upon the grandest truths of the gospel. It is the very same kind of feeling, though different in degree, and glorified, as that which we all know how to put forth in our relations with one other. When the child looks up into the mother’s face, the symbol to it of all protection; or into the father’s eye, the symbol to it of all authority, that emotion by which the little one hangs upon the loving hand and trusts the loving heart is the same as the one which, glorified and made Divine, rises strong and immortal in its power, when fixed and fastened on Christ, and saves the soul. The gospel rest upon a mystery, but the practical part of it is no mystery.
3. And if this be the very heart and kernel of the Christian doctrine of faith, all the subsidiary meanings and uses of the Word flow out of that, whilst it cannot be explained by any of them. People are in the habit of setting up antitheses betwixt faith and reason, faith and sight, faith and possession. But the root from which springs the power of faith as the opposite of sight, as the telescope of reason, as the confidence of things not possessed, is the deeper thing--faith in the Person, which leads us to believe Him whether He promises, reveals, or commands, and to take His words as verity because He is “the Truth.”
4. And then, again, if this personal trust in Christ be faith, then there come also, closely connected with it, certain other feelings in the heart. For instance, if I am trusting to Christ, there is inseparably linked with it self-distrust, and it will obviously have for its certain and immediate consequence, love.
III. The power of faith. If a man believes, he is saved. Why so? Not as some people sometimes seem to fancy--not as if in faith itself there was any merit. What is that but the whole doctrine of works in a new form? When we say we are saved by faith, we mean, accurately, through faith. Faith is simply the channel through which there flows over into my emptiness the Divine fulness, or the hand which is held up to receive the benefit which Christ lays in it.
IV. The guilt and criminality of unbelief. People are sometimes disposed to fancy that God has arbitrarily selected this as the means of salvation, but the principles that I have been trying to work out help us to see that it is not so. There is no other way of effecting it. God could not do it in any other way than that, the fulness being provided, the condition of receiving it should be trust in His Son. And next they show where the guilt of unbelief lies. Faith is not first and principally an act of the understanding; it is not the mere assent to certain truths. It is the will, the heart, the whole moral being, that is concerned. Why does a man not trust Jesus Christ? Because he will not; because he has confidence in himself; because he has not a sense of his own sins; because he has not love in his heart to his Lord and Saviour. Unbelief men are responsible for. Unbelief is criminal, because it is a moral act. And therefore Christ, who says, “Sanctified by faith that is in Me,” says likewise, “He that believeth not, shall be condemned.” (A Maclaren, D. D.)
Whereupon, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision.
The heavenly vision
This is Paul’s account of the decisive moment on which all his own future, and a great deal of the future of Christianity and of the world, hung. The Voice had spoken from heaven, and now everything depended on the answer made. Will he submit or resist? The text makes us spectators of the very process of his yielding, “I became not disobedient”; as if the “disobedience” was the prior condition. Surely there have been few decisions big with larger destinies.
I. This heavenly vision shines for us too. Paul looked back to this as being equally available as ground for his convictions as were the appearances of the Lord to the eleven after His resurrection. And what we see and know of Christ is as valid a ground for our convictions as this. For the revelation that is made to the understanding and the heart is the same whether it be made, as it was to Paul, through a heavenly vision, or, as it was to the other apostles, through their senses, or, as it is to us, by the Scripture. Paul’s sight of Christ was for a moment; we can see Him as long as we will by turning to the Book; it was accompanied with but a partial apprehension of the great and far-reaching truths he was to learn; we have the abiding results of the life-long process.
II. The vision of Christ, howsoever perceived comes demanding obedience.
1. The purpose for which Christ made Himself known to Paul was to give him a charge which should influence his whole life. And the Lord prepared the way for the charge. He revealed Himself in His radiant glory, in His sympathetic unity with them that loved Him, in His knowledge of the doings of the persecutor; and He disclosed to Saul how the thing that he thought to be righteousness was sin. And so whatsoever glimpse of the Divine nature, or of Christ’s love, nearness, and power, we have ever caught, was meant to animate us for diligent service. So the question for us all is, What are we doing with what we know of Jesus Christ? It is not enough that a man should say, “Whereupon I saw or understood the vision.” Sight, apprehension, theology, orthodoxy, they are all very well, but the right result is, “Whereupon I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision.”
2. But notice the peculiarity of the obedience which the vision requires.
(a) Upon the vision of Jesus Christ enthroned, living, bound by ties that thrill at the slightest touch to every heart that loves Him and making common cause with them.
(b) Upon the shuddering recognition of Paul’s own unsuspected evil.
(c) Upon the recognition of pity in Christ, who, after His sharp denunciation of the sin, looks down with a smile of forgiveness, and says, “But rise and stand upon thy feet, for I will send thee to make known My name.”
III. This obedience is in our own power to give or to withhold. Paul shows us the state from which he came and that into which he passed--“I became--not disobedient.” It was a complete, swift and permanent revolution, as if some thick-ribbed ice should all at once melt into sweet water. But whether swift or slow it was his doing, and after the Voice had spoken, it was possible that Paul should have risen not a servant, but a persecutor still. Men can and do consciously set themselves against the will of God, and refuse the gifts which they know all the while are for their good. It is no use to say that sin is ignorance. Many a time when we have been sure of what God wanted us to do, we have gone and done the exact opposite. There are men and women who are convinced that they ought to be Christians, and yet there is no yielding.
IV. This obedience may, in a moment, revolutionise a life. Paul fell from his horse a bitter enemy of Jesus. A few moments pass. There was one moment in which the crucial decision was made; and he staggered to his feet, loving all that he had hated, and abandoning all in which he had trusted. His own doctrine that “if any man be in Christ he is a new creature,” etc., is but a generalisation of what befell himself on the Damascus road. There are plenty of analogies of such sudden and entire revolution. All reformation of a moral kind is best done quickly. It is a very hopeless task, as everybody knows, to tell a drunkard to break off his habits gradually. There must be one moment in which he definitely turns himself round and sets his face in the other direction. Christ cured two men gradually, and all the others instantaneously. No doubt, for young people who have grown up in Christian households, the usual way is that slowly and imperceptibly they shall pass into consciousness of communion with Jesus Christ. But for people who have grown up irreligious, the most probable way is a sudden stride out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God’s dear Son. So I come to you all with this message. No matter what your past, it is possible by one swift act of surrender to break the chains and go free. (A. Maclaren, D. D.)
Visions of the soul
Have you ever reflected upon the wonderful gift of sight? The Bible is also full of spiritual seeing--looking. I need not quote any passage, though I might quote a hundred in succession. There is a spiritual vision, and by that vision we see spiritual things. It is a very strange fact that some persons should find it so difficult to believe that there is a spiritual vision. People will believe in material vision, in the optic nerve, and not believe that there is a spiritual vision. The Apostle Paul had many a vision of one kind or another. Do you not remember how Christ Himself lived on earth; and He is our Example, is He not, most of all in the spiritual life? “Verily, verily, I say unto you, the Son can do nothing of Himself but what He seeth the Father doing: for what things soever He doeth, these the Son also doeth in like manner.” Thus He represents His inner life as a constant looking to a pattern and reproducing that pattern. That is spiritual vision. One of the most influential thinkers of the present day--and he belongs to Switzerland, Professor Secretan--wrote quite lately a sentence something like this: “Never shall I forget that night in December when, under the light of the stars, the love of God shone into my heart.” And that was when he was quite a young man. Have you had your vision? Do you know what it is to have a vision of God? To have a sight of spiritual things? The Apostle Paul had that sight of Christ. He did not need to be told who it was. We are apt to think that Paul was entirely and exclusively passive in that matter. He shows us that he was not: “I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision.” God does not want simply to pour love into us and through us, and then receive it again. He wants to be loved by us. Paul was not disobedient. Very likely he had some temptation even then to disobey. He may have said to himself at the first instance, “What is this? Can this be Christ indeed?” Then he began to think of consequences. “What is that dazzling brightness? Perhaps the sun itself has been acting upon me in such a way that I have that sort of thing which is called ‘a vision,’ but is an entirely different thing. Christ is the enemy of Moses, the enemy of the temple. Besides, if I do proclaim myself a disciple of the Nazarene, what becomes of me? All my prospects go. I will take time to think about it. Things will be seen in a clearer light tomorrow.” Paul might have found very many reasons. But he did not resist. He was obedient. What would he have lost? Now we come to ourselves, and I say, Have you had your heavenly vision? The question is, Have you now a sight of Christ in your soul? Not the name of Christ in the Bible or Prayer book, but a sight of Christ in your soul. Do you know the difference between having the light of Christ in your heart and not having it, as we know the difference between having the sunshine and the rain? Do you know that it makes a difference to you? One of you young men, when you began to reflect, you met that history of Christ in the Gospels, and you could not help saying, “Why, if moral power is anywhere, it is in that Man. If moral beauty is anywhere, there it is. And if God is anywhere to be found, He is in the heart and life of Jesus Christ. And I wish I was more like Him.” Were you obedient to that vision? But if you were obedient to the vision you got another vision. When you tried to follow in the footsteps of Christ, you were conscious of the infinite distance between Him, the Holy One, and you, full of uncleanness. Then you turned to Christ again. Then you heard the voice of John the Baptist saying, “Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world.” Then you have a vision of One hanging upon a Cross for you, and you feel that the majesty of God’s law was never more revered and honoured than on that Cross. And again, that the infinite love of God through Christ crucified is poured upon you in boundless streams of mercy. What a vision that was! Were you obedient to that vision? But if you have been obedient to the heavenly vision, then you have another vision after a while. You have found that Christ is not only the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world, but that He is, and claims to be, your Lord and Master. By His redemption He has not only delivered you, but purchased you. You are bought with a price. You are willing enough to have your sins forgiven and give some of your heart and time and gifts to Christ. But what, shall He have everything? Is He nay Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ? Shall I accept Him as my Master? If I do so, then I cease to belong to myself. And you have trembled, as well you might, at the thought of being disobedient. If you obey, what then? Then you find that the Lord is the gentlest of masters, far gentler than those who love us best. But then, again, after a little time you have another vision. Then He reveals Himself as He who is not only your Lord, but your Life. Then He shows you that He first of all gives you that which He asks of you. Every one of His precepts is bound up with a promise. You will observe that we have considered Christ in succession first as Leader, then Christ as Lamb, then Christ the Lord, then Christ the Life. And, perhaps, I may say that there has come to us here another vision--another vision of duty and of blessedness. (T. Monod.)
The heavenly vision
The heavenly vision came to Agrippa as he listened to Paul speaking. “Believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest,” says the great preacher, and at that moment the possibilities of a new life presented themselves. Had he been obedient, his influence for good might have ranked with that of the greatest apostles. Let us revert to Paul’s case, and consider in what the heavenly vision consisted that had so mighty an influence over his life.
1. It was first of all a revelation of self and of sin. “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?” The light which shone down upon him on that Damascus road showed him very plainly how much there was in the innermost recesses of his heart that was antagonistic to the God whom he thought he was serving. “I am Jesus, whom thou persecutest.”
2. It was a revelation of self and sin, but it was also a revelation of Christ. How full and how complete that revelation was we only know from the writings of his later life.
3. It was a revelation of self, it was a revelation of Christ, and, above all, it was a revelation of duty. To whom much had been forgiven from him much was to be expected. In some form, at some time or other, the heavenly vision comes to every man.
4. Let us consider the effect of obedience to the heavenly vision, and, first of all, let Us consider its effect upon character. It destroys existing ignoble traits. We see this very clearly and vividly in the life of the Apostle Paul. When once the heavenly vision possesses a man fully and completely, there is no room in his life for the low aims which have previously directed his actions. He has now learned to say with the apostle, “This one thing I do,” etc.
5. It is difficult to overstate the influence of obedience to the heavenly vision upon the life of him who is thus obedient. The memory of that vision ennobles life amidst the most ignoble surroundings. It makes the poor slave Onesimus a worthy subject for one of the great apostle’s Epistles.
6. They who would obey the Divine call have constantly to contend with the objections of those who endeavour to measure eternal issues by temporal standards, and who estimate the value of lofty actions of heroism and self-denial in the scales of a hard utilitarianism, or what they are pleased to call a matter-of-fact common-sense. Such persons tell us that obedience to the ideal involves waste, that it is far better to act always in the cold, clear light of reason, than to allow ourselves to be guided by what they are pleased to call “sentiment.” The life in which there is no obedience to the heavenly vision, no faithfulness to the highest ideals of duty, may be successful if judged by the sordid rule of a hard utilitarianism, a selfish and self-complacent common sense, but such a life can lift no man, can do nothing to make the world better. The world has been, is now, and ever will be saved from corruption by those who, at all costs, are true to their ideals and obedient to the heavenly vision. (H. S. Lunn.)
Obedience to the heavenly vision
1. God could address each one by name, and thus indicate what we should believe and do. He could speak to us by dreams or visions, as He did to Abraham, Isaac, and Eliphaz; He could address us by a voice, as He did Samuel; He could send a special messenger to us, as He did to Ahaz, Ahab, David, and Hezekiah; He could direct an angel to convey a message to us, as He did to Daniel, Zacharias, and the Virgin Mary; He could call us to His service by an internal voice, as He did Jeremiah and Ezekiel; or He could speak to us in His glory, as He did to Isaiah, to Saul, or to John.
2. There were reasons, however, why this should not be the usual method by which He addressed mankind. Such a mode, while it might have the advantage of determining at once the question of duty, would to a great extent render useless the faculty of reason, designed to aid us in investigating truth, and take away the stimulus to human effort in the search after what is right.
I. As we cannot rely on dreams, visions, etc., to guide us, what methods are there by which our Maker makes known His will to us?
1. By His Holy Word. The Bible does not address each one by name, but it gives directions adapted to our common nature, and applicable to all the situations in which man can be placed. A case has never occurred in relation to which some principle could not be found in the Bible that would be a true indication of the will of God.
2. Our rational nature. We cannot suppose that God would so endow man as to lead him astray; nor that any direct statements from Himself by a revelation would be contradictory to what man’s reason compels him to regard as true. Reason never lends its voice in favour of irreligion or crime. When, indeed, it attempts to penetrate the counsels of the Almighty and to form a system of religion which shall supersede that of revelation, it errs, for it has departed from its appropriate sphere. But it does not err when it speaks of the obligations of virtue, justice, and truth; when it directs the mind up through His works to God Himself.
3. The voice of conscience. Its province, indeed, is often mistaken; and hence, like reason, man makes it an unsafe guide. It is not given to be a revelation, for it communicates no new truth. In its own place, however, it is a method by which God communicates His will, and is as true to its office as the magnet to the pole. It urges to duty; it condemns wrong; and, when we have done what is right, it expresses approbation in a manner which we cannot but regard as the voice of God Himself. It is a way in which God is speaking to millions; and in such a manner, that if they would follow His counsels according to the laws of this arrangement, they would be in no more danger of erring than was Saul of Tarsus when he yielded obedience to the heavenly vision.
4. The events of Divine Providence. Every one may find in his own life not a few events that were designed to indicate to him what was the will of God. The Providence which commits to his care an aged parent, an unprotected sister, which lays at his door the afflicted, so speaks to him that he is in no danger of mistaking the Divine will. The Providence, too, which has given to a man wealth or learning, or which takes away an endeared object of earthly affection which stood between the heart and God, is an intimation as clear as if the lesson were written with a sunbeam. So a man in one pursuit in life finds his plans blasted, encounters obstructions; and he may find in these things an intimation that he is in a wrong path as clear as was that in the case of Saul.
5. The calls of the gospel--when the minister brings before a man undoubted truth in such a form as to be adapted to the particular circumstances.
6. The voice of a stranger. So it was when the eunuch was addressed by Philip. And so, now, on a steamboat, on a railroad car, in a remote hut where a traveller may tarry for a night, in a Christian sanctuary casually attended, the feet of the stranger may have been guided in order that he might speak about the way of salvation.
7. The influences of the Holy Spirit: a teaching and a guidance superadded to all the others, and without which none of them would be effectual. Life is made up of thousands of suggestions from some unseen quarter, starting some thought of what is wise and right. Sometimes they come with the gentleness of the evening zephyr; sometimes with the fury of the storm; sometimes when we are alone, or in the crowded place of business; or under the preaching of the gospel; and sometimes when there are no apparent causes giving a new direction to the thoughts. Can anyone on any other supposition explain how it was that Saul of Tarsus, Augustine, Luther, Bunyan, John Newton were converted? Can any mere philosopher explain how it was that John Howard was led to spend his life in the dungeons of Europe, that he might relieve the sufferings of the prisoners? or how it was that Clarkson and Wilberforce were directed to the evils of slavery? And can we be in danger of error in supposing that the same Spirit breathed into the hearts of Morrison, and Schwartz, and Henry Martyn, a desire for the conversion of the world; and that God by His Spirit appeals now to the sinner by a voice as real as that which addressed Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus?
II. To what does God call us in these various methods? Let us learn from the example of Saul. As in his case, so now, God calls the sinner--
1. To forsake the ways of sin.
2. To faith in the Saviour.
3. To prepare for another world; to be ready to give up their account to Him.
4. To devote themselves to His cause. (A. Barnes, D. D.)
Heavenly visions and human duty
An experience on the very threshold of Paul’s spiritual life! An experience rare, it is to be feared, and uncommon--realised by few--fulfilled by still fewer! What is it? Never to disobey the heavenly visions, never to run counter to the heavenly voices, never to resist the heavenly influences.
I. Our possession of “heavenly visions.” Here it was a voice and a vision too--it was the face and voice of Christ. And this is just as true for all of us. Behind the heavenly influences that play about our paths from veriest childhood, that try to arrest and touch and move us behind them all; in and through them all we, too, can hear these words of power and pathos, “I am Jesus.” Behind light, and voice, and vision, there is to be traced the personal agency of the personal Lord. Let us thank God for such visions, and voices, and influences; providences, if you like, adapted to serve God’s purpose and His will concerning us. Where would Paul have been, and what would he have become, but for this voice and vision from heaven? This is God’s way of coming into contact with man. We are not to be left utterly to ourselves. Voice or vision shall declare to us what we are to be and do, and where to go. But for these heavenly visions and voices we should stand still in blankest ignorance or doubt, God knows whether. Thank God, lights do flash, and fingers do point, bright visions do make the face to smile, and the heart to rejoice, and set the being all astir with a tumult of joy and wonder. Then add to these the vision and voice that looks out and speaks from out the pages of the written Word. Add to this those ideals of higher Christian life; of duty and sacrifice, that come to us in those solemn pauses of life.
II. Our attitude towards these “heavenly visions.” Paul’s was obedience. How, then, shall we act if we obey the heavenly visions? Turn back, if He bids us, from our worldward wanderings! give up, if He bids us, our life of rebellion; throw down, as did Saul, the weapons of our hostility to Christ and truth. It may be they may never come back again to us. The bright light that flashed across the paths of earlier years, and the voice that then arrested us may never call us again by name. (Theodore Hooke.)
But showed … to the Gentiles that they should repent and turn to God and do works meet for repentance.--
Preaching to the Gentiles
It is difficult for us to realise what Paul’s message to the Gentiles--“That they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance”--actually meant to the world that lay between Rome and Asia Minor. Tertullian (Apol. 12-15) gives a picture of that ancient world and its religion, which may not be repeated here. Suffice it to say, that the heathen gods were conceived of by their worshippers as guilty of the most shameful crimes; and while the philosopher scoffed at the popular religion, the crowd eagerly followed it, and the vicious and degraded pleaded the examples of the gods as an excuse for their own excesses. Divine worship was in many cases an exhibition of the most shocking immorality. The dishonest man prayed at the shrine of Mercury for a blessing on his dishonesty; the debauchee, at those of Bacchus and Venus. “Men generally,” says Canon Rawlinson, describing the period, “looked to this life as alone worthy of their concern or care, and did not deem it necessary to provide for a future, the coming of which was uncertain … Death, ever drawing nearer, ever snatching away the precious moments of life, leaving men’s stores perpetually less and less, and sure to come at last and claim them bodily for its victims, made life, except in the moments of high-wrought excitement, a continual misery. Hence the greatness and intensity of the heathen vices; hence the enormous ambition, the fierce vengeance, the extreme luxury, the strange shapes of profligacy; hence the madness of their revels, the savageness of their sports, the perfection of their sensualism; hence Apician feasts, and Capuan retirements, and Neronic cruelties, and Vitellian gormandism; they before whose eyes the pale spectre ever stood, waving them onward with his skeleton hand to the black gulf of annihilation, fled to these and similar excesses, to escape, if it might be for a few short hours, the thought which haunted them, the Terror which dogged their steps.” It was into this world where religion was divorced from morality that Paul carried his proclamation of a God who punished all sin, and to whom men should turn, bringing forth fruits meet for repentance. (S. S. Times.)
The three stages of the spiritual life
are accurately noted:
1. The repentance for past sins, which is more than a regret for their consequences.
2. The “turning to God,” which implies faith in Him, as far as He is known, and therefore justification.
3. The doing works meet for repentance (we note the reproduction of the Baptist’s phrase; see Matthew 3:8), which are the elements of a progressive sanctification. (Dean Plumptre.)
The arguments on both sides of the question concerning the validity of a death bed repentance
All men would be happy; and in consequence of an inclination so natural and invincible, there are few persons but design at least one time or other to repent and turn to God. But it is not so generally agreed whether it be absolutely necessary to the salvation of penitent sinners that they should do works meet for repentance or live to discover the effects of it in their future reformation; for a great many are of opinion so they do but in their last moments confess their sins in a humble manner to God and sincerely resolve upon a new course of obedience such a resolution will recommend them to His favour, though they have no time wherein to evidence the sincerity of it.
I. The chief arguments on both sides the question concerning the validity of a late or death-bed repentance.
1. I begin with the opinion of those who represent the case of a sinner that defers his repentance to a death bed as wholly desperate, even though we could suppose it to be sincere. As harsh as this doctrine may seem, yet it must be owned the reasons where by it is supported are by no means contemptible; for--
2. To lay before you the reasons of those who are of opinion that a late or death bed repentance, if it be sincere, may come within the conditions of the new covenant, upon which the pardon of sin and eternal life are promised.
II. Take what side of the question you please, it is the highest folly men can be guilty of to delay their repentance to the last and concluding scene of their lives.
1. If you do believe that he only who leads a holy and religious life can have hope in his death, and that a sinner who does not timely repent and turn to God, so as to do works meet for repentance, is excluded the covenant of grace, why then, considering the uncertainty of life, you have in effect, every moment you continue in a sinful state, the sentence of death, of eternal death, in yourselves; and should you happen to die, as you cannot foresee you shall not, by a sudden disease or accident, by your own principles and out of your own mouth shall God judge you.
2. Because sinners are more generally of opinion that a death bed repentance may, if it be sincere, at last save them, I shall more particularly apply what I have to say to such persons, and desire them to go along with me in the following considerations:--
Repentance should be immediate
Should not goodness rule at once? Two men are fighting, and we beg them to leave off. Do you recommend them to leave off gradually? Shall they take an hour or two over it? Why, they might kill one another in that time. A fire is about to consume your house--do you say to the firemen, “Get it out gradually”? If my house were on fire I should long to see the flame quenched at once. If anybody held a pistol at my head I should not say, “Take it away by degrees.” I would wish him to remove the revolver at once. Yet all these things are matters which could be prolonged over a space of time without such risk as would be involved in a slow process of conversion. Changes of mind such as are necessary to conversion had need be quick when sin is to be forsaken, for every moment deepens the guilt. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Having therefore obtained help of God, I continue unto this day.
The grace of perseverance is, then, a very precious one. It is the continuance of life in your soul. I have seen little chickens that have died in their shells, without hatching out. They did not pick vigorously enough, or resolutely enough, at the thin white wall that shut them from the sun and air. They gave it up as hopeless, the breaking through of the shell, in which they could see no rift and so they died. There is many a good intention that dies like an unhatched chick. All that is wanted to perfect it is perseverance, a determination to go on in spite of obstacles, to work on in spite of restraint. Persevere in good, and obstacles wilt give way and obstructions crack and fall before you. Only he who fights the good fight of faith, and having done all he can, stands on his ground, not driven from it, will be rewarded as a victor. (S. Baring Gould.)
The nature of the gospel ministry
I. The strength of the gospel ministry is of God. There is an acknowledgment here--
1. That the preservation of life and health is from God. It is very evident that a reference is here made to the wonderful deliverances by which his career had been marked.
2. That the preservation of consistency, faithfulness, and zeal is of God. We know well that that God who imparted spiritual life is alone able to preserve and to consummate and to complete it. One great truth must be remembered here--viz., the great importance of our seeking the help of God in prayer.
II. That the topic of the gospel ministry is Christ. Note the very careful and emphatic endeavour of the apostle to state the perfect identification of the great subject of his own personal ministry, with the arrangements of the early economy (verses 5-7; Acts 22:14-15). The only difference between the law and the gospel consisted not in nature but in degree. That was the type, this was the antitype--that was the shadow, this was the substance--that was the prediction, this was the fulfilment--that was the first fruits, this was the harvest--that was the dawning of the morning, this was the splendour of the day. Now, the one grand topic that is here mentioned is that the excellency of the two united dispensations of Divine mercy is found in the person and work of Christ. In the Mosaic economy, the various arrangements which there were made were all concentrated in Christ; and Moses delivered Codes by which the attention of mankind was to be directed to Him. Ceremonies, sacrifices, predictions, and events were all made to offer one united testimony to Him (Luke 24:25-27; Luke 24:44). Here is Christ--
1. In His mediatorial humiliation. “That Christ should suffer.” It was fixed in the eternal purposes that the Messiah, when He came in the fulness of time, should be given, to suffering and to death, and accomplish the object of the great sacrifice for sin which, through the medium of faith, should be the one ground of pardon and eternal salvation. From the creation of the world this great object was declared. All the victims whose blood was shed upon the Patriarchal and Jewish altars were only so many signs and symbols of that great offering which, in the fulness of time, was presented on the summit of Calvary. And if we refer to the prophets, did not David speak of the sufferings of Christ? (Psalms 22:1-31.). Did not Isaiah speak of Him who was to be wounded for our transgressions? etc. Did not Daniel testify that the Messiah should be cut off, but not for Himself? Did not Zechariah tell of Him who was to be pierced? The great doctrine of the Atonement by the sufferings of Christ is one upon which both men and angels delight to dwell. It is a doctrine which graces all the perfections of Jehovah. It is a doctrine which chases away the clouds of despair, and sheds around the tomb the brightness of life and immortality.
2. In His mediatorial glory. “And that He should be the Firstborn that should rise from the dead.” The types of the resurrection of Christ might be found in the ceremonial law, more particularly in the reappearance of the high priest on the great day of annual atonement. That this was one great topic of the prophetic writings must be evident to every person reading Acts 13:1-52, and one which occupied much space in the ministry of the apostles. That Christ, in our text, should be said to be the first to rise, cannot be considered in the sense of priority in point of time; for it is well known that several persons were raised before; and therefore it must signify a priority in point of dignity and importance. He is elsewhere called the Firstborn from the dead, that in all things He might have the preeminence, signifying that He was more illustrious and dignified than anyone restored, or to be restored, from the abodes of the sepulchre. With regard to the precise purposes for which Christ’s resurrection in His mediatorial capacity was accomplished, He rose--
3. In His mediatorial influence. “And that He should show light unto the people,” etc. Light, in this application, is a figure frequently used in the Scriptures (Isaiah 49:6). And when Simeon held the infant Redeemer in his arms, he said, Mine eyes have seen Thy salvation,…a Light to lighten the Gentiles, and the Glory of Thy people Israel.” Here, it will be observed, that light is the emblem of knowledge opposed to ignorance, of holiness opposed to impurity, of happiness opposed to misery; and these blessings are held through the administration of our gracious Messiah to be imparted to the nations of the earth.
III. That the objects of the gospel ministry are all mankind. “Witnessing both to small and great.” This commission was precisely accordant with the general commission which our Redeemer gave to all His apostles, and through them to all His ministers to the end of the world. (J. Parsons.)
Man dependent upon God for natural and spiritual life
Memorials of mercies received, and deliverances experienced, appear to have been common in every age of the world; whether dedicated, in the enlightened sincerity of true religion, to the honour of the only Jehovah, or appropriated, by mistaken superstition, to the idolatrous reverence of some imaginary Deity, the work of men’s hands, wood, and stone (see Genesis 8:20; Genesis 13:18; Joshua 4:1-9; 1 Samuel 7:12). Altars and temples, statues and pictures, arches and obelisks, hospitals and churches, nunneries and convents, schools and almshouses, have abounded in all ages as marks of the founder’s vanity or thankfulness. Where they testified the undissembled sincerity of the latter feeling it well demands our respect and imitation. The gratitude due to God for the bounties of His providence, or the higher and nobler gifts of His grace in Jesus Christ, may not be recorded upon tables of stone, to attract notice, and challenge admiration. But no mercy should be received, no blessing enjoyed without its recollection being engraven on fleshly tables of the heart; that He who seeth in secret may read the memorial.
I. It is, then, because you have obtained providential help of God that you continue in life unto this day. Amidst perils of every description, by which the life of a persecuted man could be beset, Paul was still delivered. Hazard less apparent, danger less imminent, may have accompanied you in your journey through life. But preserved as you are from the pestilence that walketh in darkness, and from the destruction that wasteth at noonday, while thousands have fallen at your side, and ten thousands at your right hand, to what is your safety owing, except to the unslumbering watchfulness of Him who called you into being, and whose providence has been your guard. Visited, as many of you have been, by sickness--nearly as you have viewed, and closely as your feet have trodden the borders of the eternal state, it is of the Lord’s mercy that you have not been consumed. Will anyone presume to say that he hath continued unto this day by some of those lucky combinations of fortuitous circumstances, by which a ship, deprived of mariners, sails, rudder, and compass, might float upon the ocean, the sport of every wind, and yet escape shipwreck and utter loss? Shall we not rather confess that He who, in the person of His dear Son, bought our dying souls with the sacrifice of Himself, and would save us from everlasting woe, did we flee to the refuge of His Cross, now upholds us in life? Shall we not glory to acknowledge that, however long may be the chain of second causes, and however invisible its termination, God, as He sits upon the throne of providential dominion, holds every link in His hand? Are you in prosperity? it is the gift of God; in adversity? it is His messenger of reproof and love; in health? it is His loan; in sickness? it is His memorial. He is providentially with you; He ministers to the life He gave: and however little His interference may be discerned, or His love acknowledged, it is because you have received help from God that you continue unto this day.
II. I turn now to matter of still higher and more solemn import. Let me then admonish any here who are living insensible of their soul’s danger, prospect, and hope, and careless of the salvation of Jesus Christ that, only because you have obtained from God the help of His long-suffering mercy, and of His unmerited, unsought, undervalued forbearance--you continue unto this day, blessed with the gospel, and not separated forever from its redemption. Saul, the injurious blasphemer, continued his daring career, when a single word from on high would have freed the suffering Church from his malice, and hurried him before the judgment throne of that Saviour whom he had persecuted in ravaging His Church. Now, who among you is living in the spirit and temper of Saul, unbelieving and unconverted? Who among you is a law unto himself? Who has preferred his sin to his salvation, or been a lover of pleasure more than a lover of God? Whence, then, is it that you continue to this day? Whence is it that the Spirit is still pleading with you, that ministers, conscience, the Scriptures, and the voice of God, uttered in almost every mode in which He speaks, and man can hear, are soliciting you to be happy? It is simply because, insensible and disobedient as you are, you have received help from God, and therefore continue to this day. It is because He would not that any should perish, but that all men should come to repentance and live. Oh see, then, ye whom it may concern--see, while yet sight may profit, that ye receive not this grace of God in vain.
III. And now, who are believing, obeying, and journeying heavenward, with the patient undivided perseverance enforced in Paul’s motto, This one thing I do--let me remind you (although I know your own hearts in the humility and thankfulness of Divine experience will gladly own it) that, having received help from God, you continue unto this day. You feel for the danger in which those to whom I have just spoken are placed by their insensibility to the salvation of Christ. Why, such were some of you: but ye are washed; but ye are sanctified; but ye are justified, in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God. Whence, then, is this good derived? Was it wrung, as it were, from the hand of the Most High, as the merited price and purchase of your own godliness, virtue, piety, and love? No, it is with you, as with the apostle, you have obtained help from God; and therefore you continue to this day to run the way of His commandments, and to live by faith on His Son, who loved you, and gave Himself for you. It was His Spirit which found you in unbelief, and rooted out the infidelity, deeply seated as it was; and enabled you to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, that you might be saved. That same Spirit, in mercy, subdued the enmity of the carnal heart, mortified the love of sin within you, and made the love and service of Jehovah your pursuit and your delight. His goodness induced you to flee for refuge to the hope set before you. You were not sufficient of yourselves to think anything as of yourselves, but your sufficiency was wholly of God. While, therefore, I earnestly exhort you to believe that this is the true grace of God wherein you stand, I as affectionately beseech you to believe that you still continue in it, only because you have received help from Him. Are you liberated from all need of working out your own salvation, because you know that God worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure? Far, very far otherwise. The same Paul who declared, “By the grace of God, I am what I am,” was not a whit behind the very chiefest of the apostles; nay, he laboured more abundantly than they all, though he added, “Yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.”
1. Let me now commend the obvious deduction from this Scripture “to those who live in entire disregard of that help from God, upon which alone depends the life of the body and the life of the soul.” Let me say to each of them, “Truly as the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, there is but a step between thee and death.” If you continue to neglect the gospel pardon and redemption, there is no other refuge whither the endangered spirit may betake itself and live. The compassions of heaven, however, still wait, although their wings may be plumed for flight; because they are unwilling to forsake and carry the last hope away with them forever: “Why sit ye here then until ye die?”
2. In conclusion, I affectionately exhort those whom the help of God, in the provisions of His Son’s mercy, hath quickened to newness of life, to run the way of His commandments with earnest zeal, and yet with simple reliance upon the effectual power of His grace. (R. P. Buddicom, M. A.)
The gospel ministry
I. In what lay the strength of St. Paul’s ministry? “Having therefore obtained help of God I continue unto this day.” The apostle clearly alludes to his ministry in past years, and acknowledges--
1. That both his life and his health were preserved by God: and who can review the apostle’s history without observing the truth of this? And which of ourselves can look back to the years that are passed and not discover the same merciful care and protection of God manifested to ourselves? Our spared lives, the many trials and difficulties which have awaited us, both as minister and people, and through all of which we have been safely conducted, loudly proclaim that our mercies have been many and great: they call for our gratitude to the Father of mercies, and ought to inspire us with the feelings of the Psalmist (Psalms 116:13).
2. But the words of the apostle may equally imply that God had preserved him in his zeal and faithfulness for the truth. The principle which he fell within him, and which animated him in all his labours, was the “constraining love of God”; “it was shed abroad within the apostle’s heart,” and in the midst of his most trying difficulties it was the buoy that upheld and encouraged him in his work. And the same principle of love to God must inspire and animate every minister in his work and duty, and which alone will enable him to labour with success, and to triumph over his difficulties, and “in the end to lead him on his way rejoicing.” In the most trivial circumstances of life, unless God be with us, how can we prosper? “Except the Lord build the house, their labour is but lost that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.” But in the far more important concerns of the soul, how much more needful is prayer! “It is God that worketh in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure.” And is not prayer equally needful to keep alive within the Christian’s heart that spark of spiritual life, so easily quenched and so ready to become dormant and sluggish, if not carefully watched over and cultivated by the spirit of meditation and prayer? How needful also for the minister of the gospel, considering the many temptations and trials that beset his path! It was this feeling of the need of prayer which led the apostle, together with his fellow labourers, on one occasion to exclaim, “We will give ourselves continually to prayer and the ministry of the Word.” Oh, for more of this spirit of prayer to descend upon us who are your ministers; and upon you who are our people! Oh, that each one amongst us this day may be directed in the spirit of David to say, “We will lift up our eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh our help”; and with him also to feel “that our help cometh from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”
II. What was the subject of the apostle’s ministry? He tells Agrippa that it was Christ. He clearly sets before Agrippa and the Jews that they accused him without just grounds--“that he said none other things than those which the prophets and Moses did say should come, that Christ should suffer”--that they could not fairly condemn him, without at the same time condemning their own writings,--that the gospel which he preached was not different from that which their own prophets and Moses had declared--that they could not, as they received and acknowledged the writings of the Old Testament, justly condemn him for preaching Jesus.
III. To whom was the apostle to direct his ministry? who were to be the objects of it? All mankind: “witnessing both to small and great.” Wherever the apostle went, in whatever situation he was placed, he called the attention of sinners to the same great truths, telling them that if they repented and believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, they should be saved. Conclusion: The subject is full of instruction, equally important to the minister and to his hearers.
1. To the minister. It reminds him of his high calling and responsible position, that he may occasionally be placed in a difficult position in upholding his office.
2. And to you who hear the subject before us is not without a word in season likewise: it reminds you of your duty to receive the truth in affection, and to pray for it, “that it may have free course.” (J. L. F. Russell, M. A.)
And as he thus spake for himself, Festus said with a loud voice, Paul, thou art beside thyself.
The effects of Paul’s defence on Festus
I. The charge of Festus. He did not denounce Paul as a hypocrite or a knave, but rather as a brainless fanatic. This impression, though false, might have been sincere. The charge of madness against the earnest advocates of Christianity is very--
1. Easy. It requires no thought. Nothing is less difficult than to dispose of great questions in this way.
2. Common. It is what the careless and the profligate are constantly alleging against earnest teachers.
3. Foolish. Because no class of men are influenced by higher reason than the genuine advocates of religion. Posterity has long since decided who was the madman, Paul or Festus.
II. The reply of Paul.
1. He respectfully denies the charge.
2. He describes the true character of his teaching. “Truth” here stands opposed to falsehood, and “soberness” to mental derangement. “I speak,” as if Paul had said, “the words of reality and the words of reason.”
3. He obliquely rebukes Festus. He turns from him as if he would ignore his existence, and addresses himself to the king. As if Paul had said to Festus, “It is not surprising that you cannot understand me; you are not a Jew. You have already misunderstood me. I am not speaking to you, but to the king; for the king knoweth of these things,” etc. In thus acknowledging the king’s acquaintance with the subject, Paul’s aim was not to flatter the monarch, but to humble Festus. (D. Thomas, D. D.)
Paul and Festus--a contrast
1. It was no even-handed contest in which the apostle found himself engaged. It was the occasion of a great state ceremonial, a Dhurbar, when the Imperial Viceroy received the welcome and the homage of the most powerful native prince. Just at this time he had a quarrel with the Jews and was anxious to secure the support of Festus. He had recently added to the palace of the Herods a lofty dining hall from which his guests could look down upon the inner temple. The priests and guardians of the sacred precincts resented this act, and therefore built up a high wall, and shut out the king’s view. Agrippa resented this indignity, and endeavoured to get the restriction removed. He applied to Festus for aid; and Festus warmly espoused his cause. All this we have on the authority of Josephus. I mention the fact here for two reasons. It illustrates--
2. The attitude of Festus towards St. Paul more especially demands our attention. Festus was not a man whose opinion could be lightly disregarded. We have not here to do with the sceptical, worldly, cynical Pilate, or a cruel, reckless profligate like Felix; but with a just, sincere, outspoken, prompt and vigorous ruler, the very man to whom in the common affairs of life we should entrust our case with confidence. Nothing could be more upright than his treatment of the prisoner from first to last. But he has no ideas and no aspirations beyond. When the future and the unseen are mentioned he is lost in confusion; he is as helpless in dealing with such topics of thought as one who is blind in discriminating the hues of the rainbow. He is blunt, even to contempt, when he refers to “one Jesus which was dead whom Paul yet affirmed to be alive.” This was decisive to his mind. Could any sane man maintain an absurdity like this! He listens for a time with patience while Paul pleads his cause, but at length he can no longer restrain himself. He is confirmed now in his first surmise. He rudely interrupts the prisoner, shouting rather than speaking, “Thou art mad, Paul!” All this talk about sin and repentance, and forgiveness and salvation, what is this but the very phantom of a diseased brain? This story of the apparition on the way to Damascus with the light and the loud voice has nothing in common with the solid experiences, the stern matter-of-fact duties of the Roman magistrate, and, in short, with the acknowledged realities of human life.
3. Yes, it was sheer madness--
4. So, then, two wholly irreconcilable views of life confronted each other in Festus and Paul. Paul was sincere. Festus was also sincere. And yet between the two there is a yawning and impassable gulf. If Festus is right, Paul is mad. If Paul is right, Festus is blind.
5. From an evidential point of view this scene would suggest not a few important reflections.
6. But it is a practical and not an intellectual conviction which I would wish to enforce upon you--the magnitude of the alternative. No ingenuity or indifference can bridge over the gulf which separates the view of human life, taken by Festus, from the view of it by St. Paul--the view taken by the upright and reasonable man of the world, who lives only in the present, and the view taken by the Christian, whose whole soul is dominated with the presence of God, with the consciousness of sin, and with the conviction of eternity. God forbid that we should speak meanly of honesty, truth, uprightness, whatever in human life is lovely and of good report. But still the fact remains. Here are two antagonistic views of human life and human destiny. Men may strive to patch up a hollow compromise between them, but no truce can be real because no meeting point is visible. It is the alternative of sanity and madness, of light and darkness, of life and death. If you have decided that the Christian view is sanity, is light, is life, then it must not, it cannot be inoperative in you. It will pervade your whole life, and breathe the breath of heaven into the work of earth. All this stands to reason. It cannot be a matter of indifference whether you are responsible in your actions only to the judgments of human society or to an all-seeing Eye, who overlooks, misinterprets misjudges nothing. It cannot be a matter of indifference whether wrong-doing is simply a violation of order, attended with inconvenient consequences, or whether it is sin, that is, a rebellious defiance of an all-righteous, all-holy, Father in heaven; whether He who walked upon our earth eighteen centuries ago was a lunatic; or whether He was indeed the only begotten Son of God; whether this life is our entire life, or whether there is an eternal hereafter before which the triumphs of the present are just nothing at all. This, then, I say, this is the tremendous alternative. There is no halting between two opinions here; the chasm is broad and fathomless. Accept, therefore, the alternative which you have chosen; accept it with all its consequences, think over it, master it, live it. Men will taunt you with your inconsistency; but be not discouraged by this. Let the taunt nerve you to greater efforts. The inconsistency must necessarily be greater as the ideal is higher. Festus, no doubt, was a much more consistent man than St. Paul. The standard of Festus was the ordinary standard of honourable men, and it would seem he did not fall far short of it. The standard of St. Paul was absolute self-negation, and he is constantly bewailing his shortcomings. The mere voluptuary is far more consistent than either. His aim is sensual pleasure, and he devotes himself to it heart and soul. Endure to be called madman when you stand before the judgment seat of Festus. That is inevitable; only remember meanwhile that you are the sons of God, heirs of eternity. (Bp. Lightfoot.)
Illustrious fools and madmen
In one of his works the late Charles Kingsley makes the suggestive and vigorous remark that “there never was anyone who spoke out the truth yet on the earth, who was not called a ‘howling idiot’ for his pains at first.” And to anyone who is at all acquainted with the general facts and teachings of history, the remark will appear by no means too sweeping. It may not perhaps be very difficult to get at the root and reason of this ascription of folly and madness to men of strong religious earnestness and devotion. The madman, for instance, is very frequently a man of one idea. Some one oppressive thought has burnt itself into his brain, absorbs his attention by day, and colours his dreams by night, and he seems to know and care for nothing beside. And it is not therefore much to be wondered at that men of the world, to whom money, power, pleasure, luxury, are the sole ends of existence, should transfer this aspect of a disordered mind to those who have lived and laboured under the impulsion of strong religious enthusiasm, and brand them as monomaniacs. “Heretic!” “Fool!” “Fanatic!” “Madman!” “Antichrist!” those and many more such-like epithets of choice, ecclesiastical Billingsgate were shot at Luther from the catapults of the Pope and the priests of Rome. John Wesley, the great religious reformer of the last century, did not escape being placed in “shame’s high pillory”; while the great leaders and pioneers of the modern missionary movement, as we know, took very high rank in the category of reputed “fools and madmen.” The mission of William Carey to India was publicly characterised in the British House of Commons by one of its aristocratic members, as “the mission of a madman”; and even such a man as Sydney Smith, the witty canon of St. Paul’s, found in the first batch of missionaries that went out for the evangelisation of the heathen, what he thought fit targets for the arrows of his caustic wit and satire. “Little detachments of maniacs!” was the only sentence which his Christian charity could find wherewith to label them. In the domain of science we have the case of Robert Bacon, of whom it has been said by Dr. Friend that “he was the miracle of his age, and possessed perhaps the greatest genius for mechanical science that has been known since the days of Archimedes.” And how was this brilliant experimental philosopher of the thirteenth century treated when he had made known those wonderful discoveries in chemistry, astronomy, and mechanics, which were all anticipations of the inventions and findings of modern science? Why, as all readers of English history are well aware, he was accused by the ignorant monks of his order of being possessed with the devil. It was affirmed that he was a practiser of the black art, and was aided in his search for the philosopher’s stone by infernal spirits. These accusations, together with eleven or twelve years’ close confinement in a cell, were the rewards which his bigoted and fanatical contemporaries meted out to the “early star preceding dawn” of experimental science and philosophy. And the same rule we shall find holding good in relation to others who were conspicuous pioneers and factors in the social and material progress of the people. Especially was this the case with regard to the discoverers and propounders of the propelling power of steam, and to its practical application in the form of locomotive steam engines, steam vessels, and the like, for the promotion of more expeditious modes of travelling. The germ idea of the steam engine is doubtless to be traced to the machines, diagrams, and writings of Solomon de Caus; although the Marquis of Worcester is generally acknowledged to be the inventor. And yet both these men were accounted lunatics by their contemporaries, because of their doctrine concerning the moving power of steam. The former, we are told, “travelled from Normandy to Paris to present a treatise to Louis XIII on the subject. His minister, Cardinal Richelieu, dismissed the applicant, and on account of his importunity imprisoned him as a ‘dangerous madman.’” And the latter, the Marquis of Worcester, was accounted not only a quack, but an impostor, and had to suffer the most bitter reverses on account of his advocacy of the brilliant discovery which his observing genius had made. Those who followed in the footsteps of these men, and who carried out their theories and principles to such glorious issues, may not have had to encounter quite such bitter persecution; nevertheless they had to run the gauntlet of the mockery and opposition of those whose ignorance prevented them from perceiving, or whose interests precluded them from entertaining, such so-called “mad” and impracticable projects. When Fulton proposed to navigate the river Hudson in a steamboat he was met with rude jokes, incredulous smiles, and contemptuous sneers by the wiseacres of his day, who charitably denounced his idea as the silliest that ever entered a silly brain. And when George Stephenson, the “Father of English Railways,” proposed to run a train from Woolwich to London at the amazing rate of fourteen miles an hour, he was not only regarded by many as an impracticable dreamer, but by some as betraying premonitory symptoms of fitness for Bedlam and a straitjacket. It was the old trick of calling a man mad who is in advance of his fellows, until the madness becomes contagious and the tables turn; then, like the good boy in the fairy tale, on whose head the fool’s cap, placed there by his scoffing brothers, turned into a crown, the jeers of opponents become transmuted into praise, and the very nicknames of such madmen become glorious. Additional and similar illustrations of the point we are seeking to set out lie ready to hand for gleaning in other field s of human thought and activity, but which can only be indicated. It is, for instance, a well-known fact that Mesmer, the discoverer of animal magnetism, was thought to be possessed of Satanic agency when he propounded his theory and made known his wonderful discovery; and had he lived at one time in England he would in all probability have been burnt to death at the stake as a wizard. As it was he was bitterly persecuted, his life threatened, and for a time he suffered imprisonment. The annals of political reform would also supply striking examples of the same thing, as the cases of Cobden, Bright, and Villiers would abundantly testify, who were branded as “fools and fanatics” for the part they played in the abolition of the Corn Laws, by which the death-knell of protective monopolies was rung, and the cheap loaf placed upon the poor man’s table. So, too, with the records of the great Temperance reform. The pioneers of that great social movement had to pay the penalty of men in advance of their time, of being looked upon and labelled as “fools and madmen.” (J. Cuttell.)
The world’s estimate of Christianity
I. The world’s opinion.
1. What it is. That earnest Christians are beside themselves. The world has no objection to act upon the principle “live and let live.” If Christians will only quietly go their own way they are welcome to it--to all their strange worship, doctrines, mode of living, hopes, etc. But when all this is pressed upon the devotees of business, pleasure, politics, etc., and declared to be the one thing needful, it evidences insanity and must be called by its proper name. What have practical common-sense men of the world to do with such dreams?
2. By whom it is entertained--
3. Upon what it is founded.
II. The Christian answer.
1. A strange thing is not necessarily the sign of madness nor the setter forth of them a madman. Otherwise Festus’s charge would hold good in regard to some of the greatest men who have ever lived. What great discoverer, scientist, inventor, philanthropist, has not at first been thought mad--e.g., Colombus, Galileo, Stephenson, Howard, Wilberforce, etc.
2. Were it otherwise with the Christian the charge might well be substantiated. Knowing what Paul did, would he not have been beside himself if he had not acted as he did. To feel the greatness of the gospel facts and issues, and to suppress them or be indifferent to them--that is madness.
3. Who would not rather be mad with Paul than sane with Festus when we compare the character of each, and the service each rendered to the world?
4. Whether Christianity is insanity or truth and soberness can be tested by its effects. Does it drive men mad, or does it make them truthful and sober? Let Christian lives, institutions, literature, furnish the reply. (J. W. Burn.)
Christian enthusiasm, its reasonableness
Once, at Wotton, Rowland Hill was carried away by the impetuous rush of his feelings, and exclaimed, “Because I am in earnest men call me an enthusiast, but I am not; mine are the words of truth and soberness. I once saw a gravel pit fall in, and bury three human beings alive. I shouted so loud for help that I was heard at the distance of a mile; help came, and rescued two of the poor sufferers. No one called me an enthusiast then; and when I see eternal destruction ready to fall on poor sinners, and about to entomb them irrecoverably in an eternal mass of woe, and call aloud on them to escape, shall I be called an enthusiast now?”
A preacher’s sanity questioned
When Dr. Chalmers was converted, the change in his ministry was quickly apparent to all. The rationalists, to whose class he had belonged, commonly said: “Tom Chalmers is mad.” Some years after, when he was settled in Glasgow, a lady and gentleman on their way to hear him met a friend, who asked where they were going. On being told, he said, “What! to hear that madman?” They persuaded him to go for once and do the same, promising never to dispute with him about that title again, if he were inclined to apply it to the preacher after his sermon. To the surprise of all three, when Dr. Chalmers gave out his text, it was, “I am not mad, most noble Felix, but speak forth the words of truth and soberness.” The sceptical hearer was not only convinced of the preacher’s sanity, but he was likewise converted to faith in Evangelical truth.
Who is the madman
Lieutenant Watson, a godly officer, in the Peninsular War, had to halt with his regiment for some minutes in the presence of the French, and in the prospect of immediate battle. “While so circumstanced,” he said, “several wounded men were carried by, the blood streaming through the stretchers on which they were borne. I was standing near several young officers who had often made me a subject of ridicule. I thought it a good opportunity to speak a word which might prove in season, and began by remarking, “You have often called me a fool and a madman, but a few moments may decide the question, with whom is madness and folly, in the presence of Him who is the Dispenser of life and death.” A solemn awe seemed to impress them for the moment, and I went on to speak of Him who had deprived death of its sting, by receiving it in His own body on the accursed tree. They begged and entreated of me to stop, and said at such a time it was cruel to torture their minds with such things.”
Who is mad Paul or Festus
Who is mad?
I. The Christian who--
1. Founds his faith on the sure revelation of God and the experience of the heart;
2. Regulates his life according to the commands of God, and makes sure steps on the narrow path of holiness;
3. Places his hopes on an eternity, which, amid all the changes of time, is ever before his eyes?
II. Or he who is not a Christian who--
1. Blindly derides what he cannot comprehend with his senses;
2. Staggers, the sport of his passions, helplessly on the broad road that leads to destruction;
3. Seeks his happiness in the present, which vanishes like a dream, and leaves nothing behind but a terrible awaking? (K. Gerok.)
As soon as Berridge, of Everton, began to preach in a different strain from the neighbouring clergy they felt hurt at the emptiness of their own churches and the fulness of his. The squire, too, was much offended; he did not like to see so many strangers, and be so incommoded, and endeavoured to turn Mr. Berridge out of his living by a complaint to his bishop. Berridge being sent for by his lordship, was accosted thus: “Well, Berridge, they tell me you go about preaching out of your own parish; did I institute you to any other than Everton?” “No, my lord.” “Well, then, you preach where you have no right to.” “It is true, my lord; I remember seeing five or six clergyman out of their own parishes playing at bowls.” “Pho, if you do not desist, you will very likely be sent to Huntingdon jail.” “As to that, my lord, I have no greater liking to a jail than other people; but I had rather go there with a good conscience, than be at liberty with a bad one.” Here his lordship, looking hard at Berridge, gravely assured him, “he was beside himself, and that in a few months he would be better or worse.” “Then,” said he, “my lord, you may make yourself easy in this business; for if I am better, you must suppose I shall desist of my own accord; and if worse, you need not send me to jail, as I shaft be provided with an accommodation in Bedlam.
But he said, I am not mad.
Earnest Christianity vindicated from the charge of madness
I. The charge. “Thou art beside thyself.”
1. It is urged by the avowed infidel against the professor of Christianity. The idea of regenerating society by means of the gospel is looked upon as being an insane dream.
2. It is urged by the nominal Christian against the earnest practiser and propagator of Christianity. Religion is quite right in its place, but let it keep there, else it will become a bore. Do not bring it into social life. Be religious quietly and respectably.
II. The vindication. “I am not mad, most noble Festus.” The vindication is polite.
1. The earnest Christian proves his superior wisdom by the end at which he aims--the regeneration of the heart, and the perfect development of the whole man.
2. The earnest Christian proves his superior wisdom by the means which he employs. These means are two fold.
(a) Personal surrender. “Ye are Christ’s.”
(b) Enthusiastic service - advocacy, giving, and working.
Admitting, then, the aim to be flight and wise, art not the means exclusively suitable? What but Christianity can regenerate and perfect man? Cold consent to a creed cannot do it. Enthusiasm has done every good thing that has been done in this world. Formalism hinders.
3. The earnest Christian proves his superior wisdom by the success which he achieves.
Conclusion: Who is the madman, the accused or the accuser? The accuser assuredly.
1. The avowed infidel is a fool. He is not sure that Christianity is a delusion or an imposition. He is resting upon a most improbable supposition.
2. The nominal Christian is a greater fool. He says he believes in the existence of God, in the Divinity of the Bible, in the claims of Christ, in the realities of eternity; yet he lives as though he believed them not. His practice belies his profession. (Thomas Baron.)
A moral duel
Concerning the two duellists in the text, notice--
1. Both were signally able men. The speech of Festus (see Acts 25:27) shows this, and the high position to which his abilities had raised him. Paul was not less able, but even more so.
2. Both were well known.
3. Both had distinguished spectators. There were present Agrippa, the king, “the chief captains,” and the principal men of the city.”
I. As secularism represented in the attack of the one. Festus was a man of the world, a worldling, a strong, enlightened, talented secularist. Two remarks concerning this attack.
1. It was dealt out by a man of distinguished power.
2. It was prompted by motives that seemed reasonable.
II. As Christianity represented in the defence of the other. Two remarks are suggested.
1. The defence was direct. Paul says, “I am not mad.”
2. The defence was rational. He says, “I speak forth the words of truth and soberness.”
3. The defence was respectful. Paul addresses his accuser as “most noble [R.V., excellent] Festus.” (Homilist.)
The sanity of Paul
I. His manner all through this trying time. He had endured enough to turn the strongest brain. The violence of the mob; the narrow escapes from scourging and assassination, with all the tremendous anxieties connected therewith, and with his trials before the various tribunals; the hope deferred by the policy of Felix; the strain involved by the appeal to Caesar, and now his arraignment before a crowded and distinguished court. Who else could have endured all this without mental derangement? Yet we see Paul uniformly calm, courteous, courageous, conciliatory, quick to see and prompt to seize every favouring opportunity, and adapting himself with an ease amounting to genius to every circumstance in which he was placed. If this is madness, who then is sane?
II. The matter of his defence. Two or three years had passed since his defence on the stairs, and nearly a quarter of a century since the event he describes. The slightest touch of insanity would be easy to detect in the inevitable variation of some important details. Yet all these accounts are consistent. No lapse of memory, no mental indistinctness or weakness is observable. No man ever gave the same account of an hallucination twice, and no man ever suffered for one as Paul did for his vision of Christ, or ever utilised it for the benefit of the race.
III. The effects of his conduct on the world. What madman has turned the course of history, which was running in a wrong direction, into the right? To morally revolutionise the world, to secure for his Master a following which no man can number of the very elect of the race, and to secure a place in the affections of untold millions, are hardly effects which we should attribute to the work of a madman.
IV. The common consent of the wisest and best of the past eighteen centuries who have found in Paul’s words salvation from sin, comfort in sorrow, stimulus to high endeavour and hope in death. (J. W. Burn.)
The wise answer
Does a man speak foolishly?--suffer him gladly, for you are wise. Does he speak erroneously?--stop such a man’s mouth with sound words which cannot be gainsaid. Does he speak truly?--rejoice in the truth. (Oliver Cromwell.)
Most noble Festus.--
The upper classes
1. Years ago an attached domestic, presuming on the privilege accorded to his class, roundly reproved his master for the sin of swearing, and gave a broad hint about the judgment to come. The laird, feeling that he had not a leg to stand on, cut the matter short by the remark, “It has pleased Providence to place our family in a superior position in this world, and I trust He will do the same in the next.” This is a real case, but in our day a rare one. On the other side there are everywhere many who wear coronets and pray. But between the two extremes of good and evil in the upper ten thousand how many diversities there are in character and circumstances.
2. Paul could appreciate another man’s difficulties, and sympathise with those whose position magnified the offence of the Cross. There was strength in him, but there was sensibility also. He can neither be weak nor rude. He knew that it was harder for the Roman governor than for a meaner man to obey the gospel. He will not flatter him, nor suggest that there is a private door to admit him to heaven; yet in his polite address lies a principle permanent, precious, practical.
3. We speak of aristocracy in no narrow or technical sense, but of the uppermost state of society, whether birth, wealth, energy, intellect or learning may have been the immediate cause of their elevation. Now, while it is true that such need and get the offer of salvation on the same terms as those who stand on a lower platform, it is also true that some temptations peculiar to themselves increase their difficulty of accepting the gospel.
4. One of our Lord’s sayings in reference to the aristocracy of wealth throws light on our theme (Matthew 19:23-24). Assuming that the needle’s eye represents the low, narrow door through the wall of a fortified city for use by night or time of war, when the great entrance must be shut--you have here a passage from danger into safety, not impracticable in its own nature, but impracticable to a camel because of its huge bulk. Thus the elevation of the highest class makes their entrance into Christ’s kingdom more difficult. Of this difficulty Jesus speaks with tenderness, and Paul follows His steps. “Most noble Festus,” he said, observing that the dignity of the governor was holding high the head of a sinful creature, and hindering him from bowing before the Cross of Christ, and he said it to gratify the great man’s feelings, and so to get the lost man saved.
5. From the style of the apostle’s address a lesson shines, sending out its light beams, teaching two opposite classes of men.
I. For ardent Christians of every rank and especially Christians of humble station. If you are true disciples, none will dispute your nobility. If you are born again, you are high born, how low soever your place in the registers of earth. But beware of presuming upon your place and privilege. Be conscious of your defects, and meek in your deportment; be all things to all men that by all means you may save some. In particular, beware of throwing a stumbling block in the way of the noble, the rich, or the refined, by any species of rudeness. Take care lest you mistake vulgarity for faithfulness, and your ignorance for the simplicity that is in Christ. There are some near you who have not yet submitted to the gospel; their elevation makes it harder for them to bow down and go in by the strait gate. Had you stood on an equal height, perhaps you would not have been within the gate today. Be careful; what if they should turn away from Christ because of some rudeness they saw in you. Think of their peculiar difficulties; do not make them greater; take some out of the way if you can. He that winneth souls is wise.
II. For the “most noble” of every class there lies a lesson here. We frankly own that there are nobles among men. We address our chiefs, as Paul addressed Festus, and give the title of respect which is due. Sirs, you cherish a high sense of honour, you have a refined taste, you have exercised your understanding, and cannot pay any deference to mere assertion. Well, what follows? Great and good though these attainments be, what are you profited if you lose your soul? Strive to enter by the strait gate, for your attainments may be so worn as to imperil your salvation. Finally, beware of allowing the rudeness and other defects of those who profess to be Christians to scare you away from Christ. It will be no consolation to you if you are not saved, if you are able to convict Christians of faults. You are not asked to believe in Christians but in Christ. (W. Arnot, D. D.)
This thing was not done in a corner.
The publicity of Christianity
I. What? Christianity in--
1. Its history.
2. Its institutions.
3. Its influence. Much of this in its working is necessarily quiet and unobtrusive, but in its effects it is most manifest.
II. Why? Because--
1. There is nothing to hide. Christianity is no imposture demanding darkness for its manipulation. Being truth itself, it seeks the light. Its challenge at all times and everywhere is, “Come and see.”
2. There is nothing to be ashamed of. Goodness courts publicity. Christianity is no evil work of darkness. It were strange indeed if with its sole aim of blessing humanity it should hide itself in a corner.
3. There is nothing to fear. Courage is ever open, whatever adversaries may be in the way. Confident of victory, Christianity threw down the gauntlet to the world, the flesh, and the devil, and has won all along the line.
III. Wherefore let your light shine before men. Otherwise--
1. You are out of harmony with the whole genius of Christianity.
2. Christ will publicly discard you at the great day. (J. W. Burn.)
The gospel openly published
1. When our Saviour began to publish the gospel, He did not, as deceivers do, vent His new doctrines, or pretend to perform His wonders in places where there was nobody fit to oppose the one or to disprove the other. From the first He appeared publicly, and throughout the whole course of His ministry He addressed Himself constantly to multitudes, and in the most frequented parts--the streets, market places, temple and synagogues--where His life and doctrine and miracles might, by His professed enemies, be narrowly observed and examined.
2. He pitched upon such persons for the subjects of His miraculous cures whose infirmities were notorious and of a long standing; one who had been blind from his very birth; another diseased with an issue of blood twelve years; and a third troubled with a palsy for thirty-eight years; so that there could be no possible confederacy in a case where the person cured was known to have laboured under that distemper some years before our Saviour was born.
3. He so ordered the matter that some of those He healed should immediately repair to the priests, his inveterate enemies, and give them an opportunity of detecting the fraud, if there were any.
4. As He had lived, so He died in public. When buried, He had a public guard set upon His grave, and He arose from thence in the presence of that very guard, and to their astonishment. He appeared afterwards to five hundred brethren at once, to the twelve disciples frequently; ate, drank, and conversed with them for forty days, and was at last taken up into heaven in their sight by a slow and leisurely ascent. In all respects and circumstances the gospel of Christ showed itself to proceed from the great “Father of lights, in whom is no darkness at all.” As its Founder once appealed to His disciples, and said, “Handle Me and see,” so may the doctrine itself make a like challenge to its enemies. Learn then--
I. How great an advantage the Christian religion hath, on this account, over all other religions. Scarce any religion ever set up in the world without pretending to derive its authority from miracles. But then, either those so-called miracles have been acted confessedly in secret, or, if said to have been done in public, the account came too late to deserve credit. Mahomet boasted of receiving several chapters of his Alcoran from the angel Gabriel; and when miracles were demanded of him he at first (as his followers have done ever since) appealed to the Alcoran itself as to the greatest and most convincing miracle. The Jewish religion was indeed published by God in a very open and solemn manner. Yet still infidelity finds room to object that the truth of this revelation depends upon the testimony of friends only; and that the scene is laid in a place where nobody could be present but the persons concerned. And should any of these persons have been inclined to contradict it they could not, because they all perished in the wilderness ere a correspondence was as yet opened between them and any other people. Such objections, it is true, are of no weight, laid in the balance with the evidence given for the truth of those facts; yet it is some advantage to the proof of gospel miracles not to be liable even to those exceptions.
II. How inexcusable they are who, notwithstanding that open, incontestable manner in which the Divine authority of the gospel, was manifested, continue still to stand out against it.
III. The vanity of those pretences which are made to miracles in the Romish communion. A miracle is, in the nature of it, somewhat done for the conversion of infidels (1 Corinthians 14:22). And yet it so happens that Popish miracles are generally done at home, before believers, where there is little or no need of them, or if abroad, at such a convenient distance as not to lie within reach of confutation. In China and Japan these wonder workers may pretend to have done as many miracles as they please, without the fear of a discovery; in Spain and Italy they may venture, now and then, to set up for them where there are so many always ready to favour their pretences and to run into any pious fraud that can be contrived for them. But in heretical countries they are very shy and sparing of their talent this way.
IV. To reject all pretences to the spirit, to private visions and inward illuminations, by which enthusiastic or designing men endeavour to establish their opinions, and to give them a sacred authority.
V. How it comes to pass that miracles have been so long discontinued. They were performed at first in so conspicuous, exuberant, and convincing a manner as to render a continual repetition of the same proofs utterly needless (Luke 16:31).
VI. That the more any doctrine affects secrecy and declines trials of any sort the more reason we have to suspect and to examine it (John 4:11). This reflection cannot but put us in mind of those articles of the Roman Catholic faith, by which it stands distinguished from the faith of all other Christians. We are not allowed to doubt of them, or to reason upon them. They are to be received implicitly, without any particular discussion and inquiry; from the great doctrine of infallibility they proceed, and into that they are finally resolved. Now this is the greatest prejudice imaginable against the truth of the doctrines of any Church, or the sincerity of its pretences; for if what it proposeth to us be true and reasonable, why should it decline the examination and judgment of reason? If all be true gold, without alloy, how comes it thus to fly the touchstone? It is the property of error only to skulk and hide its head; but truth, we know, is open and barefaced, like our first parents, in the state of innocence and happiness, naked, but not ashamed.
VII. To make our practice of the gospel, like the first proofs of it, conspicuous and plain; and endeavour, with all our power, to recommend the doctrine we embrace to the hearts of men, as openly and powerfully by our good lives and actions as the first planters of it did by their miraculous performances. So shall we best put to silence the ignorance of foolish men, and be able, in the most convincing and effectual manner, to make an answer to our blasphemers. (Bp. Atterbury.)
King Agrippa, believest thou the prophets?
Paul before Agrippa
1. Agrippa may know the prophets, and still not know Him of whom the prophets testify. An acquaintance with Christ’s forerunners or an intimacy with Christ’s followers is not an acquaintance with Christ Himself.
2. Agrippa may even believe the prophets without believing on Christ. Many a man thus accepts Christ impliedly and rejects Him practically.
3. Agrippa, like many another unbeliever, dismisses this most important matter with a flippant remark. How many souls have been lost by just such unwillingness to be candid with the truth!
4. Paul is dead in earnest, however flippant Agrippa may be. Christ’s followers cannot afford to answer sneer with sneer, or jest with jest. The question of a soul’s salvation is a supremely serious matter.
5. Paul is willing to do little or to do much to win a soul for Christ. Too many of Christ’s followers have manifested a strong preference for doing little toward that end.
6. Paul knew he was better off than Agrippa and his court, despite their rank and freedom. Envy is a decidedly unchristian quality--the true Christian has nothing to envy.
7. Paul was not vindicated--he vindicated himself. That the Christian must ever do if it is done at all. He can employ no defence so strong as self-defence. He can present no plea so convincing as that of his own walk and conversation in presence of the scornful Festus and sneering Agrippa.
8. Paul vindicated Christ’s cause in vindicating himself. In every Christian’s enterprises Christ is a partner, and His credit gains or suffers according as the human partner does his best or his worst. (S. S. Times.)
Paul before Agrippa,
or Christianity in contact with the unconverted heart of one professing to believe in a revelation.
I. In what circumstances do such cases occur?
1. There are those who, like Agrippa, have been favoured with a religious education, and who have no serious doubt of the truth or value of revealed religion. They have been often almost ready to take the decisive step; almost persuaded to come out from the world, and to give themselves to God.
2. Those who, by argument, have been convinced of the truths of religion. He that was a sceptic is now “almost” persuaded to be a Christian. He may now be appealed to, as Paul appealed to Agrippa, on the ground of his belief that the Bible is a revelation from God.
3. Those who have been brought to see their personal sinfulness and their need of a Saviour.
4. Those who are visited with calamity, and who are then almost persuaded to be Christians.
II. Why persons in this state of mind do not carry out their convictions and become altogether Christians.
1. The love of some particular sin. In one it may be pride; in another, ambition; in another, sensuality; in another, covetousness. Many a resolution may have been made in regard to this sin; many a purpose may have been formed to forsake it; many other sins may have been relinquished; but this one the man has never been quite willing to forsake; this one has prevented, still prevents, and may prevent forever his surrendering himself to God.
2. The love of the world. I refer to the love of office, distinction, fashion, gaiety. This is often avowed as the reason why the heart is not wholly devoted to religion, but it is oftener felt than avowed.
3. The fear of shame. That this was one of the reasons which prevented Agrippa from becoming altogether a Christian is more than possible.
4. A desire to be free from the restraints and obligations of religion. Such a man does not purpose to live in open sin; he does not intend to be regarded as an infidel. But he desires to be more free in his pursuits than if he were bound by the obligations of Church membership.
III. The proper grounds of appeal to be made to persons who are in this state of mind.
1. The state of mind itself. In the case of Agrippa, it was not needful for Paul to speak as if he had been addressing a heathen. Though Agrippa’s faith did not extend to the point that Jesus was the predicted Messiah, yet the main difficulty was overcome; and it seemed to Paul, if the fact was admitted that the prophets were inspired, there was but a step to the conclusion that Jesus was indeed the Christ. It is hardly necessary to remark that there must be a great difference between approaching a sceptical mind, and a mind speculatively convinced of the truth of the Bible. In the former case, all the work is to be done from the foundation. In the latter case, as in that of Agrippa, we have only to ask men to carry out in all honesty the convictions of their own minds.
2. We may appeal on the ground of consistency. They avow all, in the understanding, which we ask them to receive in the heart. Admitting the truth of the Bible, they admit the fact of their own depravity; the need of regeneration, of repentance, of faith, the doctrine of the atonement, the claims of a Saviour, the obligations of prayer and of holy living. If they would simply act out their own admitted principles, all that we seek to secure would be gained. To all such we say, Your reason, your conscience, your judgment are on the side of religion; and we merely ask you to carry out these admissions and convictions. In the conduct of the infidel there is a melancholy consistency. The sceptical sensualist and voluptuary is only carrying out his principles when he says, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” But is this consistent for a man who believes that there is a God; that he himself has an immortal soul; that he is made to be a religious being; that he must live forever; that a Saviour died to redeem him; and that man’s great interests are beyond the grave?
3. A third ground of appeal is that their own guilt and danger must be increased by the fact of their admitting these obligations while yet practically disregarding them.
Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.--
I. How does one become almost persuaded? Various motives influence us to seek religion. Early training is a powerful motive. Good men, books, institutions--as the prayer meeting, the Sabbath--are so many voices calling us to Christ. We are placed in special circumstances of poverty, sickness, danger. Some, untouched by other motives, are shaken by revival. Yet this is only the lesser part of the explanation of the actual persuasion of a sinner; in these influences is no adequate account of a phenomenon so extraordinary. While one is agitated, why are others wholly unmoved? But one explanation can be given. The power which operates through so many various channels is the personal energy of the Holy Ghost. Note some of the motives through which the Spirit works.
1. The ruling motive with many is fear, characterised by some as an unworthy influence. Yet how many have been driven to Christ! And is it unreasonable for a person in a burning house to be frightened by fire into frantic efforts to escape?
2. Some, again, are moved by love. A little child had clambered out at a window, made its perilous way along the edge of the roof, and seated itself with its feet in the eaves spout. There its father, coming up the street, heard the baby voice, and saw the hands reach eagerly towards him. As he stood paralysed with terror, expecting every instant to see the wee thing topple over into the court below, he saw the mother standing in the window, pale, but smiling and reaching. He saw the child turn. It delayed. That was a frightful moment. But love prevailed. Slowly, on hands and knees, it crept up the steep roof as if upon the parlour floor. A swift clasp, and it was safe. Love is ever holding men back, as they stand on the perilous edge of the abyss, drawing them towards the reaching Saviour. If they yield, a swift, outstretching clasp, and they are saved.
3. Others are principally affected by calm and rational exhibitions of truth. It is not strange that this should be so. Though the preacher had no special aptness in appeals to fear or love, well might this message move by its own weight.
II. What is the value of this word “almost” in its connection?
1. It indicates a hopeful condition. It is a great advance upon indifference. But what Security does it give against relapse into deeper indifference? The expression is, “in little.” In a little time, a little space, going a little further, a little more, you would persuade me. The great difficulties are overcome. Almost, with a little additional persuasion, the heart would yield.
2. We shall further see the value of “almost” in regarding some of those who have been almost persuaded. How many of the antediluvians were moved by Noah’s faithful appeals! How many half-finished arks were lifted from the stocks by the rising waters of the flood--the work of the almost persuaded! Lot’s wife, Pharaoh, the rich young ruler, who would not give up his property; the foolish virgins; Herod, who after all had John beheaded; Judas, who after all betrayed Jesus; Pilate, who confessed His innocence, and gave Him up; and Felix, who trembled; these are but a few out of the great army of the almost persuaded. To be only almost persuaded is to be lost.
III. Why is it only “almost” persuaded? The answer is simple. The sinner will not submit to God.
1. Some claim to need more light. There are those with whom this is a genuine difficulty. It is never a sufficient excuse, however genuine. But if it were, it is not the hindrance of the almost persuaded. All the great gospel truths they know.
2. Others profess to need leisure to think of religion. Of many, it is true. The want of a little leisure imperils multitudes of souls. But this is not the want of the almost persuaded. They have passed the need of leisure. They have an immediate duty. It requires not time, but decision.
3. There are some who profess to need more stirring appeals. Sometimes, it may be, a powerful preacher, a revivalist, is needed, through whom the blessings denied to other labourers may be obtained. But not by the almost persuaded. If it were powerful preaching that would make the almost an altogether, Paul would have succeeded and Christ would never have wept over Jerusalem. (G. R. Leavitt.)
The language of the king was the language of a scornful and contemptuous rejection of the idea that he could become Christian. “Am I to sink to so low a condition as that?” The two words rendered “almost” mean “in a short time,” or “with little effort,” i.e., easily. This was the most critical moment in Agrippa’s life. He was challenged by the apostle; he answered with a sneer.
I. How unexpected and sudden is the coming of the decisive hour of destiny and Divine visitation.
1. Herod Agrippa came to Caesarea on a visit of ceremony and pleasure. The prisoner offered a diversion in the midst of the gaiety. The king’s presence gave a chance to Festus of extricating himself from a dilemma, for he did not know how to state a case. It never entered into their minds that the hour spent in hearing Paul would be an hour big with destiny. Agrippa was called to decide not the prisoner’s fate, but his own. Forty years after he died as he had lived.
2. The mode in which the gospel was presented to him in the experience of Paul illustrates the same principle. With the same suddenness, at the height of his fame, Paul was called to decide his own fate. Now the persecutor is the persecuted preacher of the faith he once destroyed.
3. It is the same still. All life may be called a day of visitation, but there are also opportunities of a richer, rarer kind, in which we receive calls more express, solemn, weighty, decisive.
II. How near God’s grace may come to a man only to be rejected. Paul made a favourable impression on Agrippa, but the spiritual testimony was disdainfully rejected. How often is this history repeated.
1. There are those who are brought to acknowledge the reasonableness of Christianity, but who yet reject it as the spiritual rule of their lives. Persuasion has overpowered the intellect, but it has not overcome the pride of the heart.
2. There are those who acknowledge all Divine revelation and the marvellous beauty of the gentle life, who yet stand aloof from it and reject its grace. This does not arise from pride and self-sufficiency, but from a mean and degraded clinging to the fleshly lusts which war against the soul.
3. There are those who have neither doubts nor pride nor gross habits overcoming their convictions who yet do not become decided Christians. Some were impressed when young, but their impressions have become like the morning cloud. Subsequent impressions fare no better. The reason for this lies in the wilful waywardness of disposition. Conclusion: Almost a Christian is the equivalent of not. Almost stands without and loses all Christianity’s inestimable boons. (W. H. Davison.)
To those who are almost persuaded
I. The great object of the Christian minister’s persuasions. The apostle never persuaded Agrippa to be almost a Christian. Agrippa never was an almost-Christian, his life and character displayed a spirit very far removed from that condition. There is a great difference between being almost a Christian and being almost persuaded to be a Christian. A man who is almost an artist knows something of painting, but a man almost persuaded to be an artist may not even know the names of the colours. The preaching of the gospel minister should always have soul winning for its object. May it never be an object of ours to dazzle and astonish, but to persuade you to be Christians. Neither would the apostle have been content if he could have persuaded Agrippa to take the name of a Christian, or to be baptized as a Christian. His object was, that he might in very deed be a Christian. To seem is nothing, but to be is everything. Thus should we labour in seeking converts; the adoption of a certain dress or mode of speech is little; union with our denomination is almost as unimportant; the true embracing of Jesus as the Saviour of men is the vital matter. If you desire a definition of a Christian, the apostle has given you it in verse 18.
II. The apostolic manner of persuading.
1. Paul made constant appeals to Scripture. This ought to be a powerful argument with you. You believe the Bible to be true, and the Bible says that it is your highest wisdom to be a follower of Christ. If you did not believe the Bible, no argument drawn from it could have any force with you; but granted that you accept it as God’s Word, as Agrippa did, the apostolic form of reasoning from that Word ought to persuade your hearts.
2. His persuasion of Agrippa lay mainly in his personal testimony to the power of grace in his own soul. Personal testimony ought always to weigh with men. Convince me that a man is honest, and then if he bears witness to facts which are matters of his own personal consciousness, not merely the gleanings of hearsay, I am bound to believe him; and especially if his testimony be backed up by others. A great part of the preaching of every Christian minister should lie in his bearing his personal testimony to what Christ has done for him.
3. He made a clear statement of the gospel (verse 23). Where the gospel statement is clearly given, even if no reasoning is used, it will, under God, frequently convince, for it is so marvellously self-evidencing.
4. He did not close until he had made a home appeal to Agrippa. “King Agrippa,” said he (in something like the style of Nathan when he said, “Thou art the man!”), “believest thou the prophets?” The minister must know how to take the scaling ladder, and fix it against the wall of the conscience, and climb it sword in hand, to meet the man face to face in sacred duel, for the capture of his heart.
III. The differing degrees of success attending such persuasions. How did Paul succeed.
1. Note that he failed with Festus, one of the most respectable of the Roman governors, the type of those common-sense people, who are very practical, very fond of facts, who consider nothing to be worth their thoughts that has anything like sentiment in it, or that deals with abstract truth. “Thou art beside thyself.” Wherever the gospel is preached there are people who say, “Toleration--by all means; and if people like to believe this, or that, well let them believe it. We have more practical and rational business to attend to.” If such men bring grief to the preacher nowadays, he must not marvel, for such was Paul’s burden in his day.
2. Now let us turn to Agrippa, a man of very different mould. He had always taken an interest in religious questions. He was sprung of a family that, with all their frightful vices, had trembled before the voice of prophecy and Scripture, and like the Herod who heard John gladly, he listened with great attention and interest to Paul. As he weighed the arguments, he felt that there was a great; deal to be said for Paul’s view of the question. He did not half know but what Paul might be right. Still he had an “if.” He would rather not think that the prisoner before him was better informed than he, or that such stem teaching demanded obedience from him, and, therefore, he closed the discourse with a remark intended to be pleasing to the orator, and he went his way. Oh, these Agrippas! I would almost sooner deal with Festus, for I know what Festus means, and one of these days it may be, the Lord will direct an arrow between the joints of Festus’s harness; but Agrippa deceives me; he is a fair blossom that never knits, and so turns not to fruit; he is almost persuaded.
3. I wonder whether in Paul’s congregation there was a third sort of hearer! Perhaps while Paul was failing with Festus and disappointed with Agrippa, there sat somewhere in the back seats a centurion, or a private soldier, or a Jewish ruler, upon whom the truth was falling like dew, and into whose heart it was being received as the ocean absorbs the falling shower.
IV. Why the half-convinced hearer was only “almost persuaded.” It was not the fault of the preacher’s matter or manner. Nothing could have been more powerful in either case. Where, then, did the fault lie?
1. On the right hand of Agrippa was a very excellent reason why he is not convinced, for there sat Bernice. The reason why sinners are not persuaded is, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, their love of sin! Bernice was beyond all doubt a shameless woman. Agrippa’s public and ostentatious associating with her proved at least that he was in evil company. This is quite sufficient to account for his never being altogether persuaded to be a Christian. Evil company is one of Satan’s great nets in which he holds his birds until the time shall come for their destruction.
2. Then there was the influence of Festus. If Festus calls Paul mad, Agrippa must not go the length of being persuaded. How could he go and dine with the governor if he became quite convinced? What would Festus say? “Ah! two madmen! Is Agrippa also beside himself?” Alas, how many are influenced by fear of men!
3. Do you not think, too, that Paul himself had something to do with it? Not that he was to blame in the case, but he wore decorations which were not of a pleasing character to a man of Agrippa’s taste. Though better than golden ornaments were his chains, Paul seems to have perceived that Agrippa was shocked at Christianity in that peculiar garb, for he said, “Except these bonds.” It often happens that looking abroad upon the sorrows of God’s people, ungodly men refuse to take their portion with them. They find that righteous men are frequently sneered at, and they cannot run the risk of such inconvenience. Oh that men were wise enough to see that suffering for Christ is honour, that the truest dignity rests in wearing the chain upon the arm rather than endure the chain upon the soul!
V. The evil that will follow upon being “almost persuaded.”
1. He misses altogether the blessing which full persuasion would have brought him. A passenger was almost persuaded not to trust his life in a leaky ship, but he did so and perished. A merchant was almost persuaded not to have shares in a bubble speculation, but he bought the scrip, and his estate went down. A person exceedingly ill heard of a remedy, and he was almost persuaded to take it, but he did not, and therefore the disease grew worse and worse. You cannot have the blessing by being almost persuaded to have it. Your hunger cannot be appeased by almost eating, nor your thirst quenched by almost drinking.
2. He contracts additional guilt. A person has rebelled against the government, but he is afterwards very sorry for it, and he asks forgiveness; let mercy have free course. But another has been shown the impolicy of treason; he has seen the evil of taking up arms against the commonwealth, and he has been almost persuaded to be loyal. I say when he becomes a rebel, he is a traitor with a vengeance, to whom no mercy can be shown. The man who is almost persuaded to be honest, and yet deliberately becomes a thief, is a rogue ingrain.
3. To have been almost persuaded will lead to endless regrets. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
The danger of indecision in religion
I. It is of no avail to be only almost persuaded. The almost persuaded sinner is still at an infinite remove from salvation.
II. The guilt and danger of the sinner are enhanced by being only almost persuaded. Agrippa lost his one opportunity.
III. Eternity will be greatly embittered by such an experience as Agrippa’s in this life. It immensely aggravates a loss to know that it might have been avoided. (Homiletic Review.)
St. Paul before Agrippa
That his could not be enthusiasm two arguments plainly prove:--
1. An enthusiast’s delusion would naturally have fallen in with the state of his excited feelings. It is contrary to all our experience of human nature. An enthusiastic Pharisee, instead of imagining he had received a commission to preach Christ Jesus, would have been persuaded of the contrary, and would have been more and more confirmed in his zeal and bitterness against it.
2. We find that the persons who accompanied him, the officers of justice, were all strongly affected with the miraculous vision. And now to bring this subject home to ourselves. Let us contrast this conduct of Agrippa with that of many professing Christians of our own day, whose only distinguishing mark of Christianity is their name. Let us take, for instance, the proud, self-conceited man, puffed up in his own wisdom and fancied superiority to his fellow creatures, arrogantly assuming to himself the right of sitting in judgment upon the actions and counsels of God; daring to call in question the wisdom of the Almighty, and rejecting whatsoever his limited understanding is not able fully to comprehend; a ray of light flashes into his mind, and makes the darkness visible to him, in which he is enveloped: he is on the point of conviction--he is almost persuaded to be a Christian. But here, like Agrippa, he pauses: his vanity takes the alarm, his pride steps in, the ridicule of the world--all, all conspire to resist the convictions of truth. Or, again, let us view the ambitious and worldly-minded man--the slave of this world’s goods, whose god is upon earth, who bows down before the idol of vanity or the god of Mammon, who is in the way to the acquisition of power, or is storing up his goods for many years. He may have been awakened to a sense of the insubstantiality of all this world can afford. Like Agrippa, he too is almost persuaded to become a disciple of Christ. But here, perhaps, the tempter assails him; “shows him the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them”; promises him honours and wealth; represents that the service of Christ is hard, that His doctrines are humiliating. Mammon is preferred to Christ. Or let us take the sensualist--the man of riot and extravagance and mirth and debauchery, sunk in the lusts of the flesh, “whose god,” in the emphatic language of Scripture, “is his belly”; one of those foolish, miserable beings, who exclaim, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” In the midst of his sensual course he perhaps has been suddenly arrested by the effects of his follies. But then he must give up his beloved sin; then he must wash him and be clean. “This is too much,” his depraved heart begins to exclaim; this is too great a sacrifice for him. (J. B. Smith.)
The almost Christian
I. Delineate the character of the almost Christian. He may--
1. Have much speculative knowledge of religious truths.
2. Have great and splendid spiritual gifts.
3. Make a high profession of religion, unite himself visibly with the Church, and be frequent in the worship of God.
4. In some degree mourn for his sin, from the common operations of the Spirit upon his mind, and from a fear of the wrath of God.
5. Have some desires of grace, and of the blessings which God communicates to His children.
II. Inquire what is still wanting to such a man? I answer, Everything that radically forms the Christian. He wants--
1. The Holy Ghost to dwell within him, for “If any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His.”
2. That new birth by which he must be made spiritual.
3. Deep humility of heart.
4. The life of faith.
5. That serious belief of the world to come, which causes the soul to take it as its happiness and treasure.
6. A universal hatred to all known sin, and an actual victory over it.
7. Unfeigned love to a life of holiness; a delight to meditate on the law of God, with an intention to obey it.
Conclusion: These are solemn truths, let us be led by them--
1. To examine our own state. Professors of the religion of Jesus, are you real, or only almost Christians?
2. Salvation is not so easily obtained as the men of the world imagine. “Strive, therefore, to enter in at the strait gate,” etc.
3. If those that advance so far shall perish, what shall be the doom of the openly profane? (H. Kollock, D. D.)
Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian
Unhopeful was the way in which King Agrippa came to hear the message from his God. St. Paul accordingly, throughout his appeal to the king, refers to his own experience. Who knows but that Agrippa too might have obeyed, that his “almost” might have been “altogether” a Christian? Agrippa believed in the prophets. He must have heard, in some measure, how manifoldly their words were fulfilled in our Lord. He could not then but suspect that Jesus might be the Christ. How, then, does he come to hear the apostle deliver what he must have known might be a message from his God? He came as a judge of Him who shall be his Judge. “I also would hear the man myself.” Outwardly, he seemed to be judging the apostle; in deed and in truth, he was judging Christ. He came, associated with his sister Bernice, a shame to her sex, of whose sin he was thought to be partaker, to hear the message of the All-Holy God. He came, in great pomp, to hear of Him who, being God, humbled Himself to become man. Thus, fenced around and guarded from the access of the truth Agrippa heard the apostle of truth, as a civil judge, impartially. He bore him witness, which might do credit to a Christian judge, if he had to stem the tide of popular clamour and popular injustice. “This man doeth nothing worthy of death or of bonds.” So far from its being any gain to a soul to have been, or to be, “almost a Christian,” far better, if it stop there, never to have heard the name of Christ. Whatever light a man has, that very light, if he come not wholly to Christ, is his condemnation. The greater the light, the deeper the damnation. Once more, increase of light, if rejected, increases condemnation. “If I had not come and spoken to them,” saith our Lord, “they had not had sin, but now they have no cloke for their sin.” Who then, you ask, are these “almost persuaded to be a Christian”? I will ask you, in turn, Who or what is a Christian? You will say readily, “He who believes in Christ, who loves Christ, hopes in Him, and obeys Him; and that, with all his mind and soul and strength, owning no other Lord, but only Christ.” Then I must say to you, whoso wilfully falls short of this, in faith, or love, or obedience, is not a Christian, is hanging on only to Christianity. Whatever that thing is which holds him back from that complete self-surrender, that it is which hinders him from being “altogether” a Christian. The hindrance may be in faith or life, from the world or the flesh. In faith thou mayest be “almost persuaded to be a Christian,” but as yet art none if thou wilfully withhold thy belief from any doctrine which God has revealed. The world will tempt you in this way, if it have not already tempted you. The world is the enemy of the gospel, in faith as well as in life. Tolerant of every form of error, it is intolerant of the exclusive claim of truth. It bears with all “opinions,” it hates faith. And so there are afloat hundreds of Christianities. You have Christianity without Judaism, Christianity without facts, Christianity without doctrines, Christianity without anything supernatural, Christianity which shall only be an “idea,” Christianity with fallible apostles, fallible prophets (alas! that one must give utterance to the blasphemy), a fallible Christ! In life there are more ways in which a person may be almost persuaded to be a Christian, and yet not be a Christian, because there are more varied ways of self-deceit. But, for the most part, those who are almost persuaded to be Christians have much, often very much, in common with Christians; only this is mostly nature, temperament, feeling, not grace, or if it be grace, it is grace admitted only for a time, to be thrust or jostled out afterwards. What more common than for a man to hope well for himself because he wishes to turn to God hereafter? If thou desirest to turn to God hereafter, then thou bearest witness against thyself that thou art not His now. Again, no man has all temptations. Compared to the very bad, the young may think themselves, at least, passing good. They have not had time to become altogether bad. Nay, they have many fine fresh feelings, warm hearts, generous purposes; zeal, at least, against what is base, or (perhaps) for the good of others and against evil, These very things, if you look at them and build upon them, will lead to the most fatal self-deceits. Your trial does not lie in them. These things, too, will become corrupted and debased hereafter, if you flatter yourselves as to them, and neglect your real trial. The main trial of each of you lies in one single thing, your master passion. When you take account of yourselves, or when conscience smites you for having again yielded to your master sin, he would persuade you to look away from it, and would suggest to you that you are kind-hearted, or gentle, or noble-minded, generous, soon-for-giving, or the like. As if one, sick of consumption, were to think well of himself because his heart was sound; or one dying of fever were to hope for life because he had no atrophy! Fear of the world and of man’s opinion is thy bane. Fear of the world is stronger in thee than the love of God. Break off from society which is too strong for thy better self. This weakness is it which hinders thee from being altogether a Christian. Hast thou, in earlier days, allowed thy imagination to be corrupted. Or didst thou allow some wrong habit to grow over thee, which, although it may not injure others, thou didst afterwards, when it had gained strength, learn to be deadly sin? Or dost thou allow sloth to creep over thee? Or despisest thou truth, when it suiteth thee, in exaggeration, to give life to thy conversation, or to avoid some serape or some passing shame, or to exalt thyself? Or does vanity and love of personal appearance or the wish to vie with those of larger means tempt thee to contract debts which thou canst not pay, and knowest not how thou ever wilt pay? Called by this name thou couldest not say that such an one as thou art is a Christian. Whatever it be of these or other sins, as pride, anger, covetousness, which thou wilfully and habitually choosest, thou must give up thy sin or thou givest up God, thou must in will and deed renounce thy sin or thou renouncest Christ. Seemeth it to you a hard thing that any one of these things can hinder thee from being owned in God’s sight as a Christian? Is it a hard thing that God who created thee, redeemed thee, sanctified thee, hath set His love upon thee, and will not have from thee less than thy whole self? God loveth with no half-love. Thou wouldest not, thyself, have any half-love. Let God or thyself be thy measure to thyself. If God has dealt with thee by halves, if Christ half-died for thee, if God, who is love, half-loveth thee, if Satan or the world half-created thee, then requite God with His own, then do thou halve with God; then half love God, half the world: then be half a Christian. Then, when you have tried it, you will know how sweet, peaceful, joyous a thing it is; wholly, without reserve to have surrendered yourself to the loving will of God. As a half-Christian, you have neither the miserable, feverish joys of the world, nor the solid, peaceful joy in God. Only entire self-surrender, only full obedience has joy in God. (E. B. Pusey.)
To be religious is one thing, to be a Christian is another. In this country, as in other countries, there is very much of religiousness which is not Christianity.
I. What is a Christian? A man may be an ecclesiastic without being a Christian. In answering the question, What is a Christian? my private opinion and yours are not of any authority. We must go to the New Testament; there is no other authority for the Christian religion than that which we have in the New Testament. A Christian is one who has accepted Jesus Christ as the basis of his faith and the rule of his life. In one aspect Christ Jesus is the foundation on which a man builds; in another aspect He is a law according to which a man thinks and feels. The man brings his thought, that is to say, and his feeling to the test of what he finds in Christ Jesus. This Christ, therefore, becomes the law of his thought and of his feeling, and when anyone adopts Jesus Christ as the law of his thought and feeling, he is undoubtedly a Christian--a Christian not by heredity, but by his own individuality. Life is made up of these two things, thought and feeling. There is nothing else in life but that in the last analysis. As in the material body, if I were speaking physiologically, I might talk about the blood and its circulation, remembering that the life is in the blood, when I had said all that was needful about the blood and all that was possible, someone might say: “That is a very strange thing, for a man to be talking solely about the blood; you would suppose there were no veins, no arteries, no muscles, no bones, no lungs, no brains”; yet, mark you, if I had talked exhaustively about that one thing, the blood that is in the human body, everything essential would have been said upon all these things; so it is in theology.
II. Ought I to be a Christian? This is the question for every man to whom Jesus Christ is preached. That word “ought” is a serious word; it suggests obligation. Am I under obligation to be a Christian? How are we to determine what obligation rests upon a man? I think we must investigate the man himself; we must explore his nature; we must try to find out what design there is hidden in that nature, for every organism carries in it a suggestion of the end for which it was intended. If I look at a hippopotamus, for instance, I know perfectly well that the huge, heavy creature was not intended to do the work of a thoroughbred horse. Now, when I ask the question, Ought I to be a Christian? the answer must be hidden away in my nature. When I study Jesus, and all that He is, and all that is said about Him, and His relation to God and to man, and put it alongside the necessities of my nature, then, and not till then, do I find out that not more accurately does the die seem fitted to the seal than Christ Jesus to my necessities. I am forced to the conclusion that constitutionally we are made to be Christians. Our manhood was fore-ordained by God to take on the type we call Christian. A Christian cannot be made in an hour, nor in a day, nor in twenty days. It is thought that Christianity is something added to the original man, something not essential, something ornamental--clothing, polish, painting, or gilt of some kind--but that a man is a man without it. No, not in God’s idea. When God said, “Let us make man,” He meant a Christian. But this I say, that a man who has all the light necessary to be a Christian, all the facilities and opportunities for it, and is not a Christian, that man makes a violent arrest of himself at a line which doubts and dishonours God. It all depends on the direction in which a man’s face is set, as to whether he is increasing and multiplying in the quality and quantity of his life or not. A man has no right to say, “Thus far will I go and no farther.” No man has a right to say how far he will go along the line of Divine allegiance. Whenever a man or woman nurtured under the illumination of Christian principles and facts stops short of voluntary Christian discipleship, there is a self-willed arrestment of development, and the nature becomes deformed and dwarfed; it does not grow in well-balanced relation of one part to another. All parts of the nature ought to move together. Christianity gives us the June atmosphere in which souls grow into strength and beauty. You know perfectly well you cannot grow roses in a December atmosphere. You cannot grow souls in an atmosphere of atheism; you cannot grow souls in an atmosphere of materialism; you can grow animals; you can grow devils; but you cannot grow Christian souls. Now it is needful to recognise that a man may be a Christian disciple without having attained to Christian character; otherwise we may do great injustice to men and women, and especially to children and young people.
III. When is anyone a Christian? The answer in its fulness would be, of course, when he has a Christian character. But is not he a Christian till then? Is not a man a Christian when he begins to belt? Am I not on the journey the very first step that I take? Am I not a pupil the first hour I spend in the school? Am I not a student as soon as my will is fixed to be one? Am I not in England the very first moment I put my fool on its soil? Most assuredly. I say a man is a Christian when he is willing to be one. “Willing” implies choice. It is more than desire. There are many people who say, “I desire to be a Christian”; but there is a great difference between desire and will. Really and truly, when the will is converted the man is converted. What is Christian character? It has three features which dominate it. They are expressed in those three familiar but profound words--faith, hope, love. Where there is no love there is no God. “He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love.” Then we ask a supplementary question--Ought not all life to be nurtured under the most congenial conditions? Is there a place so suited to the nurture of the Christian life as the Church? Is not that its design, its intention? Ought not its atmosphere to be a compound of love and light? There is but one answer to these questions. But there are some persons who are converted intellectually--that is to say, they cannot bring any argument against Christianity that can stand. There are others who are converted as to feeling. They feel all right--that is to say, one day they do, and the next they do not. Feeling is the most unreliable thing for a foundation you can possibly have. What we want is the will to choose Christ definitely and openly. Why do not Christian disciples all do this? There are some persons who desire other things much more than Christ and His salvation. Oh, when God looks upon man’s excuses for not being a Christian, they will be as the frost on the window pane; when the sun looks upon it, it all vanishes. I never was more impressed with this fact of the necessity sometimes of refusing all argumentation, and putting the Christ of God and the truth of God simply before the human mind, than I was some months ago when I went to see an old lady who was ninety-two years of age. Her niece told me that she had lived all that long life of hers with a kind of religiousness; she sometimes read her Bible; but she had been of a very fault-finding disposition, and would always turn to those parts of the Bible where there were threatenings, never regarding the promises at all. She never looked upon those passages that are full of love and the light that are in Jesus Christ, but always searched for the difficulties. That is the way some people have. If she could find a difficulty anywhere she would hunt it, like a huntsman a fox, until she caught it and flourished up the brush before the minds of others who came into contact with her. The young lady had read a printed volume of mine, and she came and asked me what she could do. I said, “I cannot tell unless I go and see her.” She said, “She lives four miles away”; but I said, “I must see her,” and when I saw this old lady of ninety-two. I said to her, “I have heard from your niece something about you; I have an hour to stay: I give you half an hour to tell me all you have to tell; the other half will legitimately belong to me.” She began and told me about her religious experience, and how she stumbled at this, that, and the other text in the Bible, and about the books she had read, and it all amounted to not seeing, not doing, not believing. When she got through, I said, “Your half hour is up. The first thing I will ask you is this, Whether you do not think you have had stumbling enough for these ninety-two years, and have hunted difficulties long enough? You are not to argue with me and not to speak. You have told me about your sinfulness; I have heard it all. Nothing has happened to you but that which is common to man and woman; but now I am going to charge you at ninety-two years of age with a sin greater than anything you have confessed: it is the sin of going through that Bible time in and time out, year in and year out and never seeing a passage like this and appreciating it: ‘God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should have everlasting life’; ‘He is able to save to the uttermost them that come unto God by Him.’” I prayed with her, and then I said, “Good morning. God bless you! I do not suppose I shall see you again in this world, but remember what I have told you.” The next Friday evening prayer meeting came, and I said to her niece, “How is the old lady?” “Oh, I have had such a week as I never had in my lifetime! I do not believe she has grumbled once.” The third Friday evening meeting came, and I said, “Well, how is our old lady?” “She went from us this morning, rejoicing in God’s eternal love; and she left this message for you: ‘Just tell him that if in my ninety-two years of life I had done so much good to my fellow creatures as he did in one hour, I should thank God.’” (R. Thomas.)
The almost Christian
1. The scene before us is a meeting between the old world and Christ’s new kingdom. Here, on the one side, were the solemn insignia of the mighty Roman empire, by which it had subdued the world; and with these all the pomp of royal magnificence: and on the other, the apostle, with nothing which the unenlightened eye could trace, beyond that ardent zeal which might spring from the holding fast some master truth, or which might be the fanatical delusion of a brain-sick enthusiast.
2. Such was the outside aspect of that day. But for the unsealed eye how much lay beneath it! how much was there for the eager gaze of those unfallen ministers of God’s will who watch the unfolding of His purposes of love in their continual strife with moral evil! What issues hung upon that hour! Once, at least, the message of the gospel reached this Roman governor. Festus and Agrippa must accept it or declare against it; they cannot be neutrals; they are singled out for this high trial. And by one of these, at least, that struggle was acknowledged. To enter into it we must have clearly before us what was the state of Agrippa’s mind.
3. His half-Jewish descent, and his knowledge of the Jewish Scripture, had undoubtedly prepared him for the apostle’s teaching. Then, again, he was still young, and the whirlpools of indulged passion had not yet utterly polluted the currents of his life. There was within him still the tenderness of a youthful heart; the volcano’s fires had not yet blazed fiercely forth, to leave upon his soul, after their tumultuous outbreak, the hard crust of sensuality or the bitter ashes of a low ambition. And young as he was, life had looked in upon his soul in some of its sterner and more appalling characters. The career of the great founder of his line showed to those within the circle the signs of unrelieved suspicious misery, and had notoriously ended in a death of agony. The wretched life and violent end of Aristobulus must have been familiar to him: and, but just before, in the full splendour of its midday brightness, his father’s reign had abruptly ended, with the startling accidents of sudden and exceeding suffering. And he could not but note the uncertainty of such dependent sovereignty as his, which, at a moment, the people’s violence, or the emperor’s caprice, might turn into the dungeon, exile, or the scaffold.
4. Thus prepared by outward circumstance, he listened to the words of Paul; he was brought beneath the influence of the Holy Spirit. To a certain degree his in most soul answered to the call. New, strange wishes were rising in his heart. The Mighty One was brooding over its currents, was stirring up its tides, was fain to overrule their troubled flow. And he himself was evidently conscious of the struggle; he was almost won; he well-nigh yielded.
5. What the issue was, we know. The world was too strong within him. We meet him again no more in Holy Writ. Like ships which, when night is spread over the sea, emerge for a moment from the darkness as they cross the pathway of the moonbeams, and then are lost in the utter gloom, so was it with him. He stands before us here in the brightness of that light of truth which fell upon him for a season, and then he passes out of sight into the thick shadows of a merely worldly life. We know, therefore, little farther of him; but miserable is that little both for him and for Bernice. Such was the issue of great opportunities neglected; of God’s merciful intentions wilfully resisted; of self-chosen darkness in the midst of light; of the world’s conquest in his heart. For it was this which made his ear deaf to the heavenly message. It is clear that, to a certain extent, he did count the cost; so much his words distinctly intimate. He did see the freedom and the blessedness which was within his reach; he was almost persuaded to lay hold of them: that which stood between him and them was manifestly the necessary sacrifice which he must make to be a Christian. His Jewish prejudices, his Idumaean throne, his youthful passions, his mounting ambition, the ties of family, the frown of society--all stood between him and this bright and blessed life which now rose before him. He felt that he must make a choice, and he made the wrong choice. Perhaps, like Felix, he waited for fuller convictions and a more convenient season: perhaps he meant, when he was older and had enjoyed somewhat fuller draughts of pleasure, when he had secured some farther step upon the ladder of his hopes, then to listen to this voice of wisdom. Perhaps he thought that his peculiar situation would excuse his putting by the message; that he was not to be judged by ordinary rules, or tried by the common measure of all men. By some such decent falsehood he no doubt stilled the unquietness of an awakened conscience. But, in doing this, he put salvation from him. He chose for time--he chose for eternity. He was almost a member of His kingdom, amongst whose first laws these are written plain: “He that is not with Me is against Me”; “Ye cannot serve God and Mammon.” Agrippa was but a type of a common class. Many agree with him--
I. Is his choice. Every one of us, at some time or other, has to come to this conclusion: “I will, or I will not, be altogether Christ’s.” Sometimes it gathers itself up into one signal choice between the world and Christ. Oftener, perhaps, no such great necessity of direct and immediate decision awakens all our vigilance; but we go on choosing throughout a multitude of small occasions. In little concessions to passion, or to self-indulgence, or to seeming expediency, we are casting in our lot with the world: and though no one instance may rise above the ordinary level, yet we are, upon the whole, aware that the course of our life is in one direction; and therefore we are truly conscious that we are making the choice of being “almost” His who will accept no “almost” servants. This “almost” choice tends to quiet conscience; that which is our shame and our danger is made, by the heart’s deceitfulness, our comfort and excuse. We do feel; we all but resolve; we think we shall resolve another day: we are so near the kingdom of heaven that we are contented without pressing into it; so close to the door, that we bear, almost without misgiving, to see it shut against us.
II. In its cause. We cannot bring ourselves to make all the needful sacrifice. The world we have to give up may not be so great as his was, but it is our world. The details will vary infinitely, but its master spring is one. This man cannot bring himself to give up some evil habit; another cannot face the jeer of his fellows; another feels inwardly that he is called to a higher and more self-denying life than he can bring himself to lead: and so all these men, for Agrippa’s old reason, make his choice. They respect religion in others; they will not join with Festus in reproaching Christ’s witnesses with madness; they even wish that they could rise themselves to the same nobleness of aim, and act, and character; but with broken wing, they do but gaze where they ought to soar; they do but faintly feel when they should determinately act.
III. In its end. It is a downward course; a course of increasing evil, of growing dulness, of strengthening chains, of fainter aspirations; of evil choices multiplied; of God’s grace slighted, grieved, and quenched; of a heart less striven with, almost deserted, and then, at last, abandoned, and so--reprobate. Conclusion” Note--
1. The exceeding danger of shrinking back from any call of God.
2. Our need of seeking most constantly the aid and guidance of God’s Holy Spirit. (Bp. S. Wilberforce.)
The almost Christian
I. What is meant by an almost Christian? One who wavers between Christ and the world.
II. Why so many are no more than such. Because of--
1. False notions of religion.
2. Servile fear of man.
3. Prevailing covetousness.
4. Love of pleasure.
5. Instability of character.
III. The folly and danger of such a condition. It is--
1. Ineffectual to salvation.
2. Prejudicial to others.
3. Ungrateful to Christ. (G. Whitefield.)
Almost a Christian
I. Man’s character is not naturally Christian. Evident from--
II. To become a Christian should be man’s supreme aim: because--
1. It is God’s will.
2. Man’s privilege and necessity. Only thus can he realise the true end of his being and reach heaven.
III. Man may almost become yet still fall short of being a Christian.
IV. For the non-possession of the Christian character man will be culpable. (W. Johnson.)
Almost a Christian
There are some characters in Scripture whose history is brought up to a point at which the interest becomes intensely awakened; and then we hear no more about them. Felix--did he ever see that convenient season he talked about? The young man, who went away from Christ sorrowful, did he ever come back again? Agrippa, did he die an “almost Christian,” or did he go back and become an unbeliever quite? About these things Scripture has told us nothing, and we may be sure there are good reasons for its silence. In applying the passage we must bear in mind the difference between what it is to be a Christian in our day, and what it was to be a Christian in the days of the apostle. Hence a distinction, forced upon us by these altered circumstances, between a nominal Christianity and that which is vital and spiritual. Christians of the nominal sort we call Christians only by a kind of courtesy. We make a charitable supposition about them, and hope for the best. But such Christians as Paul earnestly desired Agrippa might become are few among us. Many are beyond the nominal stage; but there is a constant stopping short. Like the Scribe, they are not far from the kingdom of God, and yet they never get actually to it. Note--
I. The promising qualities of life and character which may consist with such a state.
1. There may be a great deal of religious knowledge in such a person. This was evidently the case with Agrippa. We may be aforehand of many around us in religious intelligence, sound in all our views, and yet, by reason of all this knowledge being unapplied, may be no better Christians than this Agrippa was. What was Balaam, with all his visions of God, with all his far-seeing glimpses into the day of Christ, but as a trumpet strange to the music of its own sounds, or a candlestick not knowing the light it bears? No, the knowledge which enlightens is not always the knowledge that saves. The tree of knowledge is not the tree of life.
2. More than once, he may have been brought under the power of deep religious convictions. Agrippa must have struggled long before, or he could not have made the admission which he did. And so few of us go for long together without the conviction coming very close home to us that, if weighed in the balances, we should be found wanting; and for the time we set about some outward reforms as Herod did, resolve that we will go and hear that preacher again as Felix did, and confess that we are beginning to think differently upon the subject of religion as Agrippa did. All this time the great truth has not been mastered by us, that conviction is not the same thing as conversion. Convictions are but means to an end. And thus it is that our stinted and stunted Christianity frustrates the grace of God. We halt, and do not suffer His work to speed in the heart.
3. Other qualities of head and heart will easily occur as marking the religion of an almost Christian--such as amiableness of disposition, tastes, studies, feelings, tendencies, which, if nothing were told us to the contrary, we should be ready to conclude were hopeful indications of Christian character. There must have been something amiable about this Agrippa. Josephus has preserved a tender and touching address of his on the misery and wickedness of war, which must have read very strangely from one of Herod’s line; whilst in the son of him who was eaten up with worms for his impiety we should little expect to have found what the apostle evidently attributes to him--the habit of a reverent study of the Jewish Scriptures. The remark may, at all events, suggest the reflection how much nature, temperament, and outward circumstances may do, in producing a result which, after all, shall be only a semblance and counterfeit of the work of grace. And the counterfeit deceives many--very often deceives ourselves.
II. Why it is that people persuaded to go so far cannot be persuaded to go further. “Almost”--but not altogether--“I have some reserves which I cannot give up yet, some difficulties which you have not overcome yet.”
1. The reason of it is that given by our Lord, “Ye have not the love of God in you.” All half-and-half Christianity resolves itself into this. The religion of the almost Christian would go farther if his prayers were loved prayers, his service love service, his sacrifices loved sacrifices. Religion is never worth anything till you come to take some pleasure in it for itself. Everything you do is but duty service before that, and God cannot away with such sacrifices. Defects, errors, faults, He can bear, so only that we can say with shame-stricken Peter, “Lord, Thou knowest all things--with all my shortcomings and defects--Thou knowest that I love Thee.”
2. But this absence of love is not the only reason. There is the predominant love in the heart of something else. There is some secret thing with you, a reserve which God must not touch, an inner chamber into which He must not intrude. You will give up a great deal, but not all.
III. What is the moral value of the state described? If I am proceeding on a long journey, it may be some comfort to be told that I am almost at the end of it. If I have all my life been proposing some great object, it is something to be told I am almost within sight of its accomplishment. But in these cases the supposition is, that I am making further way every day; whereas the spiritual condition contemplated is that of a person standing still, year after year, in the same dead state; seeking to enter in at the strait gate, but never striving; ever learning, but never coming to the knowledge of the truth. And the question is, What is the man the better for his pains? What good will his “almost” do for him? The ten virgins knocked at the door very soon after the bridegroom had entered in; were they any the better for having been so very near? We read of some who could not enter into the promised land because of unbelief. Did it stand them in any stead that, though not entering in, they had pressed close up to the very borders? No; the great truth that stands out everywhere in God’s Word is, that in the future world there are two states only. We read nothing about a middle condition, nothing about a heaven for the almost saved. And so if we must fix a value on such a persuasion as Agrippa had, it must be this--that it had been better for him never to have been persuaded at all. It seems as if, in another world, the reflection would be insupportable to us that our everlasting ruin should have turned upon an almost. (D. Moore, M. A.)
Almost a Christian
I. What is a Christian? Let Scripture say.
1. Take, e.g., the text in the first instance. It is evident that with verses 17, 18 ringing in his ears, Agrippa must have caught some notion of Christianity as a spiritual force. There are the affirmations that the world is in the dark touching its relations and its duties to God; but that light has come which reveals at once the distance from God and the reconciliation to Him. Then there is the proclamation that the sad thrall of sin under which the world has groaned for ages need not continue--but that there is a power that can turn men from Satan unto God. Then there is the announcement of conscious pardon, in whose strange, thrilling joy men can rest without presumption, and a holiness in which they are purified by faith. Then there is the living witness that all these blessings are conferred upon us by Christ. To be a Christian implies living faith in those transforming truths.
2. Take next Acts 11:26. This adds to living faith in doctrinal truth the publicity and avowed confession of Christ. The disciples had a conduct so blameless that it brought no reproach upon their creed. The record tells us that the messengers who were sent to visit them rejoiced in their exemplary piety. And this is just the requirement that Christianity still demands. To believe in and not to confess Christ is a sign either of unworthy compromise or of a recreant soul. If you are a Christian indeed, you cannot keep it concealed. It does not need that men should see the rose always on its stem; its fragrance will be sure to tell of its neighbourhood. Clouds gather sometimes about the sun, but men know that he is there always by the light and comfort of the day.
3. Take 1 Peter 4:16. This adds to faith and publicity readiness to suffer if need be for the cause of Christ. If there is to be a pure transcript of the truth as it is in Jesus, there must be the martyr’s heart although there may be no martyr’s agonies. Our lot has fallen upon more merciful times, yet in the disputes of every day there is an agony coming down into the Christian heart fiercer than any of the ancient gladiators knew. These are the three things that constitute the Christian, the absence of any one of which detracts from the perfection of the whole.
II. How it is that men are only almost persuaded to be Christians.
1. The king did not hesitate on account of any lack of evidence. He was convinced, but not persuaded; his understanding surrendered at discretion, but his heart secretly rebelled; and this is just the mystery of unbelief. Conviction, signifying an intellectual satisfaction with the harmonious evidences of truth, is within the reach of any candid mind which will take the trouble to inquire; but persuasion has greater difficulties to encounter and to overcome. The heart is not only the fountain of impurity, but the stronghold of unbelief. There is an old proverb about a man being convinced against his will If reason and passion meet in combat, reason has a small chance of gaining the mastery unless it be shielded. If your will only ceases its opposition you are won to Christ.
2. It is possible that the value of human praise, and the fear of human censure, prevented Agrippa’s decision. It would involve the forfeiture of power, of position, of influence. And are there not multitudes yet who are thus influenced? You are convinced and wishful. But there is a public opinion which you dare not brave.
3. The main cause of Agrippa’s indecision, and that which influences thousands still, was the wish to continue a little longer in the indulgence of sin. He would grasp the present while he could, in the hope that yet by and by, when it palled upon the senses, he might enjoy the future. Conclusion: This Bible is true, or it is false. Do you believe it? If so, then you believe that just beyond you there is a heaven of blessedness and a hell of doom, and yet you are only almost persuaded to escape the one and to secure the other! Do you know the imminent risks that you run by delay? Death at hand! and you almost prepared to meet it! The Grand Assize! and you almost ready for the trial! The Judge at the door! and you almost persuaded that it is time to get ready for His coming! Eternity flashing or darkening upon your sky! and you almost beginning to think that it may possibly be true! Heaven opened for the ransomed and the ready! and you almost at the gate before it shuts! The last sheaf of the harvest gathered--the last flower of the summer plucked! and you almost saved! (W. M. Punshon, LL. D.)
The somewhat Christian
Many persons will be disturbed at being told that the “almost Christian,” however common an object, is not found in this passage. Agrippa’s celebrated saying is, in the Greek, quite ambiguous, and so is Paul’s reply. No one can determine with certainty what is the real meaning. “Somewhat” is the most probable interpretation, and agrees best with the character of Agrippa. “In some measure,” “somewhat,” makes it a polite answer, expressing interest in what has been said, and a disposition to admit that Christianity has really some claims, especially as presented by so able a speaker. The “somewhat Christian” is oftener to be met with in our congregations than the “almost Christian.”
I. What led Agrippa to make this civil reply.
1. After completing the account of his conversion, Paul declares (verses 19-23) that he had ever since been trying to act according to the Divine instructions.
(a) That the Messiah must be not a worldly conqueror, as the Jews expected, but a sufferer, as in Isaiah 53:1-12.
(b) That He must rise from the dead.
(c) That, in consequence of His death and resurrection, He will proclaim spiritual light--instruction and hope.
2. The two leading persons among his hearers now speak to Paul, and he replies to each with great wisdom and earnestness (verses 24-29).
II. How many, like this young king, are only “somewhat Christians”! Here is a youth who has been taught to respect Christianity, who has affection for some pious people; sometimes the words of his pastor, his friend, stir in him a transient interest, and if he were to express his feeling, it would be, “I am really impressed by all this; I am somewhat disposed to become a Christian myself.” Here is a child whose tender heart is touched by the story of Jesus, and who inwardly says, “I think I’ll get to be a Christian before long.” Here is a man growing old, who goes to church and listens with outward decorum, and then goes away without any apparent result; but some day the pastor makes a special appeal, and the man says to a friend as they turn away, “I don’t know but some of these days they’ll get me into the Church after all.” In numerous cases, we must not speak harshly as to the insufficiency of such an interest and purpose, but must strive to encourage, and to deepen, and strengthen it. Yet we must never forget that Christian piety is a very decided and positive thing; that Jesus Himself solemnly said, “He that is not with Me is against Me.” (J. A. Broadus, D. D.)
Me a Christian
This Agrippa was son of the other Herod of whom we hear in the Acts as a persecutor. This one appears, from other sources, to have had the vices, but not the force of character, of his bad race. He was weak and indolent, a mere hanger-on of Rome, to which he owed his kingdom, and to which he stoutly stuck during all the tragedy of the fall of Jerusalem. But he knew a good deal about the Jews, about their opinions, their religion, and about what had been going on during the last half century amongst them. On grounds of policy he professed to accept the Jewish faith. So the apostle was fully warranted in appealing to Agrippa’s knowledge, not only of Judaism, but of the history of Jesus Christ, and in his further assertion, “I know that thou believest.” But the home thrust was too much for the king. His answer is given in the words of our text. They are very familiar words, and they have been made the basis of a great many sermons upon being all but persuaded to accept of Christ as Saviour. But, edifying as such a use of them is, it can scarcely be sustained by their actual meaning. Most commentators are agreed that our Authorised Version does not represent either Agrippa’s words or his tone. He was not speaking in earnest. His words are sarcasm, not half melting into conviction. And the Revised Version gives what may, on the whole, be accepted as being a truer representation of their intention when it reads, “With but little persuasion thou wouldest fain make me a Christian.” He is half amused and half angry at the apostle’s presumption in supposing that so easily, or so quickly, he is going to land his fish. “It is a more difficult task than you fancy, Paul, to make a Christian of a man like me.” That is the real meaning of his words.
I. First, then, I see here an example of the danger of a superficial familiarity with Christian truth. As I said, Agrippa knew, in a general way, a good deal not only about the Prophets, and the Jewish religion, but the outstanding facts of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul’s assumption that he knew would have been very quickly repudiated if it had not been based upon fact. Mark the contrast between him and the bluff Roman official at his side. To Festus, Paul’s talking about a dead man’s having risen, and a risen Jew becoming a light to all nations, was such utter nonsense that, with characteristic Roman contempt for men with ideas, he breaks in, with his rough, strident voice, “Much learning has made thee mad.” There was not much chance of that cause producing effect on Festus. He was bewildered at this entirely unintelligible talk. Agrippa, on the other hand, knows all about it. And was he any better for it? No! He was a great deal worse. It took the edge off a good deal of his curiosity. It stood in the way of his apprehending the truths which he thought that he understood. And although you and I know a great deal more about Jesus Christ and the gospel than he did, the very same thing is true about thousands of people that have all their lives been brought into contact with Christianity. Superficial knowledge is the worst enemy of accurate knowledge. For the first condition of knowing a thing is to know that we do not know it. The ground is preoccupied in our minds with our own vague and imperfect apprehensions. You fancy that you know all that I can tell you. Very probably you do. But have you ever taken a firm hold of the plain central facts of Christianity--your own sinfulness and helplessness, your need of a Saviour? These are but the fundamentals, the outlines of gospel truth. But you see them, far too many of you, in such a manner as you see the figures cast upon a screen when the lantern is not rightly focussed, a blurred outline. And the blurred outline keeps you from seeing the sharp-cut truth as it is in Jesus. Then there is another way in which such knowledge as that of which the man in our text is an example is a hindrance, and that is that it is knowledge which has no effect on character. What do hundreds of us do with our knowledge of Christianity? Our minds seem built in watertight compartments, and we keep the doors of them shut very close, so that truths in the understanding have no influence on the will. “Agrippa! believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest.” “Yes! believest the prophets; and Bernice sitting by your side there--believest the prophets, and livest in utter bestial godlessness.” What is the good of a knowledge of Christianity like that?
II. Now, secondly, notice how we have here the example of a proud man indignantly recoiling from submission. There is a world of contempt in Agrippa’s words, in the very putting side by side of the two things. “Me! Me,” with a very large capital M--“Me a Christian?” He thinks of his dignity, poor creature. It was not such a very tremendous dignity after all. He was a petty kinglet, permitted by the grace of Rome to live and to pose as if he were the real thing. And yet he struts and claps his wings and crows on his little hillock as if it were a mountain. “Me a Christian?” “The great Agrippa! A Christian!” As if he said, “Do you really think that I--I--am going to bow myself down to be a follower and adherent of that Christ of yours? The thing is too ridiculous! With but little persuasion thou wouldst fain make me a Christian. But you will find it a harder task than you fancy.” Now, the shape of this unwillingness is changed, but the fact of it remains. There are two or three features of what I take to be the plain gospel of Jesus Christ which grate very much against all self-importance and self-complacency. I just run them over very briefly.
1. The gospel insists on dealing with everybody in the same fashion, and regarding all as standing on the same level. Many of us do not like that. Let us get away from Agrippa and Palestine. “I am a well-to-do Manchester man. Am I to stand on the same level as my office boy?” Yes! the very same. At any rate, we are not to be classed in the same category with the poor and the ignorant and the sinful and the savage all over the world. But we are so classed. Do not you and the men in Patagonia breathe the same air? Are not your bodies subject to the same laws? Have you not to be contented to be fed in the same fashion, and to sleep and eat and drink in the same way? “We have all of us one human heart”; and “there is no difference, for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” The identities of humanity, in all its examples, are deeper than its differences in any. We have all the one Saviour, and are to be saved in the same fashion. It is a humbling thing for those of us that stand upon some little elevation, real or fancied. We all need the same surgery, and we must be contented to take it in the same fashion. So some of us recoil from humbling equality with the lowest and worst.
2. Then, again, another thing that makes people shrink back from the gospel sometimes is that it insists upon everybody being saved solely by dependence on Another.
3. And another thing stands in the way--namely, that the gospel insists upon absolute obedience to Jesus Christ. Agrippa fancied that it was an utterly preposterous thing that he should lower his flag, and doff his crown, and become a servant of a Jewish peasant. A great many of us, though we have a higher idea of our Lord than that, do yet find it quite as hard to submit our wills to His, and to accept the condition of absolute obedience, utter resignation to Him, and entire subjection to His commandment. We say, “Let my own will have a little bit of play in a corner.” “I, with my culture; am I to accept what Christ says as the end of strife?” Yes! absolute submission is the plainest condition of real Christianity. “Thou wouldst fain persuade me to be a Christian,” is the recoil of a proud heart from submission. Let me beseech you that it may not be yours.
III. Again, we have here an example of instinctive shrinking from the personal application of broad truths. Agrippa listened half-amused, and a good deal interested, to Paul, as long as he talked generalities, and described his own experience. But when he came to point the generalities and to drive them home to the hearer’s heart, it was time to stop him. That question of the apostle’s, keen and sudden as the flash of a dagger, went straight home. And the king at once gathers himself together into an attitude of resistance. Ah! that is what hundreds of people do. You will let me preach as long as I like--only you will get a little weary sometimes--you will let me preach generalities ad libitum. But when I come to “And thou?” then I am “rude,” and “inquisitorial,” and “personal,” and “trespassing on a region where I have no business,” and so on, and so on. And so you shut up your heart if not your ears. And yet what is the use of toothless generalities?
IV. Lastly, we have here an example of a soul close to the light and passing into the dark. Agrippa listens to Paul; Bernice listens to Paul; Festus listens. And what comes of it? Only this, “And when they were gone aside they talked between themselves, saying, This man hath done nothing worthy of death or of bonds.” May I translate into a modern analogy: And when they were gone aside they talked between themselves, saying, “This man preached a very impressive sermon,” or, “This man preached a very wearisome sermon,” and there an end. Agrippa and Bernice went their wicked way, and Festus went his, and none of them knew what a fateful moment they had passed through. Probably they never heard the gospel preached any more, and they went away, not knowing what they had done when they silenced Paul and left him. Now you will probably hear plenty of sermons yet. You may, or you may not. But be sure of this, that if you get away from this one, unmelted and unbelieving, you have not done a trivial thing. (A. Maclaren, D. D.)
Almost saved, if it be no more, is, in the end, altogether lost, and that, too, in the most melancholy of circumstances. When, after safely circumnavigating the globe, the Royal Charter went to pieces in Moelfra Bay, on the coast of Wales, it was the melancholy duty of a minister in Liverpool to visit and seek to comfort the wife of the first officer, made by that calamity a widow. The ship had been telegraphed from Queenstown, and she was sitting in the parlour expecting her husband, with the table spread for his evening meal, when the messenger came to tell her he was drowned. “Never can I forget the grief, so stricken and tearless, with which she wrung my hand, as she said, ‘So near home, and yet lost!’ That seemed to me the most terrible of human sorrow. But ah! that is nothing to the anguish which must wring the soul who is compelled to say at last, ‘Once I was at the very gate of heaven, and had almost entered in, but now I am in hell!’” (W. M. Taylor, D. D.)
Almost saved--but lost
A boat went over the Niagara cataract with two men in it, leaving another clinging to a log which lay against a weir, just above the edge of the descending flood. The morning which rose upon the night of disaster revealed the imperilled man. Thousands gathered upon the banks of the river, and every invention was tried to save him. Lifeboats were swept away until the day began to decline. At length a frail skiff was brought by ropes from each shore to his side. Hope shed its light upon all faces, and shone on no feature so brightly as upon his who lifted his foot to step into the last means of rescue. With the footfall the boat shot upward and backward into the boiling waters, and then downward to the abyss of destruction below went the victim of pleasure. Almost saved! What agony of feeling that expression declares!
The nature and causes of irresolution in religion
I. Describe the case of those who are almost persuaded, but not altogether.
1. Some have strong convictions of the truth and reasonableness of religion.
2. Some have also, at particular seasons, very serious and lively impressions made upon their hearts by Divine truths.
3. Some are sometimes so far persuaded as to entertain resolutions, and yet cannot bring themselves to a fixed determination to become Christians in earnest.
4. Some are so far persuaded that they actually take some steps towards being Christians.
II. Whence it is that they are not altogether persuaded.
1. Not for want of sufficient reasons, but for want of consideration, and attending to them.
2. On account of the prejudices they have imbibed against religion.
3. Fondness for the world, its pleasures, and other advantages.
4. The power and prevalence of some particular lust.
III. Represent their unhappy state.
1. To such persons their own consciences will be a terrible witness against them, as soon as they find time and leisure to bethink themselves; and a long time and leisure they will find for it in the other world if they could not before.
2. That they had been so near the kingdom of God, and yet fell short of it, will be another source of most severe reflections and tormenting agonies. (S. Clark, D. D.)
The effect of Paul’s defence on Agrippa
I. The mighty power of gospel truth. This is here seen--
1. In shaking the religion of the monarch.
2. In strengthening the heart of the apostle. What was it that braced up the soul of the apostle with so much unconquerable energy? Gospel truth. And does it not always act thus? While it overcomes the sinner with conviction, does it not fill the Christian with joy and peace in believing?
II. The grand aim of gospel truth. To elevate, to stir the mind to action, to dispel its ignorance, correct its errors, remove its opposition; but its grand object is to make men Christians. But what is it to be a Christian? Is it to be orthodox in creed? No; there are many wicked spirits profound theologians. Is it to be regular in our attendance on religious ordinances? No; the Scribes and Pharisees were so. Is it to be attached to the person, character, and ministry of God’s servants? No; Herod heard John gladly. Is it conviction of sin? No; Judas repented, Felix trembled, and Agrippa was almost a Christian. What, then, is it to be a Christian? Paul answers the question--to be as I am.
1. He accepted the atonement of Christ as the only hope of salvation.
2. He made the will of Christ the rule of his conduct. “What wilt Thou have me do?” was the first question he asked.
3. He cherished the love of Christ as the inspiration of his life. These three things made the apostle what he was, and are the essential elements of a Christian. Are you a Christian? Then there is oneness between you, Christ, and every holy spirit--you live in the sympathies of the good, and in the arms of redemptive mercy; the great God is your Father, Jesus is your brother, angels are your servants, and heaven at last will be your home; you can look and claim an interest in all. “All things are yours.” How benevolent that wish of the apostle’s, “I would to God,” etc.; a nobler never entered a human heart. From it we learn that a Christian in chains is freer, happier, and nobler than a king upon his throne.
III. The practical method of gospel truth. How does this powerful truth attain this sublime object? By sentimental rhapsody, priestly interpositions, theatrical ritualism, noisy declamations? No. These may rouse the emotions, but cannot convince the judgment. By legislative enactment? There is no way by which coercion can travel to a man’s soul, and touch the moral springs of action. What, then, is the method? Moral suasion. This implies two things--
1. The existence of evidence to convince the judgment. Before I could persuade an infidel to love and obey God, I must convince him by evidence of the being, excellency, and claims of the Great One. Before I can persuade a sinner to seek salvation in Christ, he must be convinced of his sin and danger, and of the suitability and willingness of Christ as a Saviour.
2. The existence of motives to change the will. Motives gathered from life, death, time, eternity. The presenting of these motives is persuasion--is the means by which men are to be made Christians. This persuasion is a peculiarity of our religion. The religion of heaven needs no persuasion--the spirits there have only to know their duty in order to perform it. Other religions on earth are too false to depend upon it. If the religion of the “false prophet” is to be propagated, it must be by the sword; if popery, by mystification; if deism, by the construction of fallacies. All Christianity wants is to be presented fairly to the mind, in humble dependence upon that Spirit that has pledged to crown it with success.
IV. The solemn failure of gospel truth. Only “almost.” What was the reason he did not yield entirely? Because he did not think sufficiently and rightly upon it. The power of argument depends upon the consideration you give it.
V. The philosophic genius of gospel truth. Paul’s reply has a moral grandeur beyond description. Here is a spirit of the highest philanthropy.
1. It was a praying philanthropy: “I would to God.”
2. It was a forgiving philanthropy.
3. It was a universal philanthropy. (D. Thomas, D. D.)
Paul before Agrippa
A chemist who is experimenting with some newly-discovered element keeps a record showing the various reactions which occur when this element is brought into combination with other substances. The book of Acts is largely a diary of spiritual chemistry: it shows what happened when the gospel of Jesus Christ was brought into contact with different classes and conditions of men. When Paul presented it to Festus and Agrippa it was received in a peculiar way and had peculiar consequences. This was an unpromising audience for the preaching of the gospel of Christ. But Paul believed that gospel was meant for great as well as small (verse 22), for profligate as well as virtuous, for the whole sinful world.
I. The character of the address. Paul now, as often before as after, told in a simple, straightforward way the story of his own life. There is no evidence for Christ more convincing than that of Christian experience.
1. God and man worked together in Paul’s Christian life (verse 19).
2. Paul’s mission. He was called for a Divine purpose. This he recognised himself at the very time when he had the vision, for his first words were, “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?”
3. Paul’s persistence in his calling.
4. The contents of his preaching concerning Christ are given. He preached--
II. The reception of Paul’s address.
1. Festus. He interrupted Paul with a loud voice. The resurrection was a piece of nonsense of which he did not care to hear any more.
III. General lessons.
1. There are voices of God everywhere. No soul but hears them. Are we obedient unto them?
2. Christ is the centre of Christian truth and life and work. From Him should come our thoughts, our emotions, and our deeds. Let life be to us Christ.
3. The heart of man is desperately wicked. Who could resist Paul’s preaching? Festus and Agrippa did. It is possible to resist the preaching of the Spirit of God. (D. J. Burrell, D. D.)
And Paul said, I would to God that not only thou … were both almost and altogether such as I am, except these bonds.
Paul’s prayer before Agrippa
I. His decision intimated in the words--“such as I am.” What, then, was Paul? A Christian.
1. What is included in this? Not knowledge merely, nor a plausible profession, but living faith, holy love, and spiritual operative life.
2. It avails not what you are, unless you be Christians--were you ever so rich, highly respected in society, or beloved by your friends, an affectionate obedience of Jesus Christ.
3. It is not in the power of man to bring you to this, for it was not in the power of Paul effectually to persuade Agrippa.
II. His enjoyment. This is evident.
1. He was satisfied with the choice he had made. He had no misgiving that in embracing Christianity he had done foolishly.
2. He was happy--much more happy in his fetters than all the splendid audience which he addressed. A man is happy not according to his rank, but the state of his heart. Joseph, calumniated and imprisoned, was not anxious in the least; for “the Lord was with him, and showed him mercy.” Daniel and his three friends were perfectly composed; for their confidence was in God, and their salvation was from Him.
III. His benevolence.
1. The goodwill of this apostle first regarded Agrippa, but it did not rest with him: it was diffusive, it spread through the whole company. In one respect, it is true, he desired no resemblance: “except these bonds.” It is well to judge of the religion of Jesus Christ by its effects.
2. Observe how the benevolence of Paul was expressed; not by mere words, the impulse of momentary feeling: the text is a prayer. From this learn, that no place is unsuitable for prayer, no time is unseasonable for the exercise. Benevolent wishes should be matured into prayers, and ought to be expressed by pleading with God. But prayer was not all. The apostle spent his life in active kindness, and he, who thus prayed for Agrippa and the court of Festus, was ready in every way to prove the benevolence which he expressed. And with our prayers let us unite exertion, or what evidence have we of their sincerity?
1. How wide the difference between the spirit of Christianity and the spirit of the world!
2. How striking the contrast between the reality of the gospel and the pretensions of infidelity!
3. How highly desirable is proficiency in religion, in opposition to a languid and wavering profession of it! (T. Kidd.)
The philanthropy of the Apostle Paul
I. Paul’s character. In his reply we have the words, “Such as I am.” What, then, was he when he stood face to face with Agrippa? Paul was a Christian--a Christian in the highest, deepest, broadest meaning of the term--a loyal, loving disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. Such was his character when he stood face to face with Agrippa.
II. Paul’s circumstances. In his reply we have the words, “except these bonds.”
III. Paul’s wish. “I would to God,” etc. This was not the false wish of a proud, self-righteous Pharisee, but the true wish of a real Christian philanthropist. He wished that Agrippa resembled him in character, but not in circumstances. From this wish we infer--
1. That Paul never regretted becoming a Christian. When he stood before Agrippa he was an old man; he had been a disciple of Christ for very many years; a death of martyrdom was before him; and yet, withal, he would not have exchanged positions with Agrippa.
2. That what Paul was it was possible for Agrippa to become. (J. F. Smythe.)
A preacher’s best wish for a king
It is not always easy, by the mere sense of hearing, to decide whether the report of artillery indicates a shotted gun or a complimentary salute. Even so, you are often at a loss to decide whether certain men speak in earnest or jest. The words of Agrippa have suffered from a like uncertainty. Was he in earnest or ironical? The common view is that, so far as a Herod could be earnest, Herod Agrippa was on that day. But whatever was the depth or shallowness of his utterance, it did not satisfy St. Paul. He knew that it was not enough for the foundering ship to have almost reached her port; that it did not save the man slayer to have almost gained the gate of the city of refuge before the avenging kinsman overtook him. Observe--
I. How perfectly certain Paul was that he was a Christian. Agrippa had professed to be “almost persuaded.” The apostle says, “I would to God that thou wert both almost and altogether”--what? “Such as I am.” Could anything show more clearly that St. Paul had not the shadow of a doubt that he was a Christian? This is not so with many Christians. Even when others behold the evidence in their daily walk, they themselves can only say that they “hope.” They are following on in the path to peace as nearly as they can find it, but whether it ends in assured glory, they can only know when the gates of the celestial city have closed behind them. It was not so when Christianity was young. This doubt and uncertainty is like our gorgeous churches, where the poor have no place; like our fashionable preachers, who glorify human nature instead of Christ; like our fashionable congregations, where dress and display attract the eye: it belongs to modern, not to ancient Christianity. Then men knew whom they had believed. Look at this confidence as displayed by St. Paul. He did not wish that they were what he “hoped” he might be, not what he “desired” to be, not what he “thought” he was. He wants them to be what he then and there is sure that he himself is--a Christian. Is such a certainty something which God only permitted the primitive believers to realise? Or, is it a privilege which all may know in personal experience? The whole question hangs on the character of Christ. You may be perfectly confident if Jesus is one who does not break His word. Such a confidence is exceedingly desirable. I do not see how St. Paul could have been so eager, unless he had the clearest convictions that he was himself saved. Moses could not have said to his brother-in-law, “Come thou with us and we will do thee good,” if he had possessed no certain confidence that he and the people were on their way to Canaan. So does assurance of faith make working Christians.
II. What a grand thing Paul evidently esteemed it to be a Christian! There are some men who undervalue their blessings. St. Paul was not one of that class. It was a cause of thanksgiving that by the grace of God he was what he was. Who were they that heard him?
1. In that assembly were men of wealth. And yet this poor prisoner cries out, “I would to God that all that hear me, were both almost and altogether what I am.” To him Christianity was worth more than the riches of a Roman procurator.
2. There were men among those who heard him that day who had a home. And he who stood at that tribunal like his Master, “had not where to lay his head.” He wrote, “We have no certain dwelling place.” Yet it was this homeless man who cried out, “I would to God,” etc. His Christianity was to him worth more than even a home.
3. Above all these were men of high rank and social position. And here was a man whose rank was to be counted as “the offscouring of all things,” who yet cried out in such an august assembly, “I would to God,” etc. Such was St. Paul’s estimate of the worth of his Christianity. He could do without a home; he could dispense with the wealth of Festus; he could live without the crown of Agrippa, but he could not do without Christ, to him “the hope of glory.” Today does he regret his estimate of his heritage? Today the wealth of God’s glory is his. Today the home of God’s saints is his portion. Today he reigns as king, a crown of glory on his brow. (Bp. Cheney.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Acts 26". The Biblical Illustrator. https://beta.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25