IN many respects, and it may be that, in the highest sense, Paul was the most distinguished man that was ever in the Church of Christ. No man, at this day, can tell the difference there would have been in this world if Paul had not lived in it. He was a young man of distinction and note before he was in Christ, and this is simply what he was as a man, without Christ and his apostleship. In the first place, he had a good natural endowment, or understanding; or, as we express it in our westernish style, good common sense, which is the best sense in the world. Added to this, he had a first-rate education for his time. He was brought up at the feet of Gamaliel, or was educated under his tuition, and trained in all the learning of his time, specially in all questions of the law, or of Judaism. His good natural endowment and fine education gave him great note and distinction, and gave him immense power for good or for evil, as he might turn it to this or that use.
He was a man of most untiring and sleepless vigilance, not only after he became a Christian and an apostle, but before; he was an embodiment of activity and industry; he idled away no time; he did not win his way to such notoriety and distinction, as he had attained before he turned to the Lord, without doing something. He made his mark. It is proper, then, to consider how he stood before his turn.
There are some who say: "Whatever any man thinks is right, that is right to him." What did Saul think was right, or what did he think he ought to do? Alluding to what he thought before he was a Christian, he says: "I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Which thing I also did in Jerusalem." He not only thought, but verily, or most assuredly thought, he ought to do these things. What were these things that he verily thought he ought to do? To arrest the saints, and persecute them, and when they were being put to death, to give his voice against them; to compel them to blaspheme the name of Christ; to imprison them. Did it become right for him to do these things because he verily thought he ought to do them? It was wrong for him to do these things, no matter what he thought about it. Men are as liable to think wrong as to do anything else wrong, and are held responsible for their wrong thinking as much as for wrong acting. He did it ignorantly, in unbelief. The main sin was his ignorance. He was in reach of better knowledge, and he did not know what was right because he did not try to know. He did not believe because he did not examine the evidence; did not seek nor try to find the evidence. He blindly, but persistently, pushed on without trying to know the truth.
Again, some suppose if they will follow the leadings of conscience they will always go right. But this is also uncertain. Saul lived "in all good conscience" when he was exceedingly mad against the disciples, breathing out threatenings against them and persecuting them. In all this he did not violate his conscience. His conscience approved him all the time. The truth in this matter is, that conscience is no teacher, and no guide. It is not a rule to determine right and wrong; but it simply approves us when we do what we think is right, and disapproves us when we do what we think is wrong. It is a painful sensation that arises from violating our convictions of right, or a pleasant sensation that arises from following our convictions of right. The pleasant sensation does not teach what is right, but arises from doing what we think is right. Nor does the painful sensation teach what is wrong, but arises from doing what we think is wrong. When Saul was pursuing the saints, binding and imprisoning them, he was doing what he verily thought he ought to do, and his conscience approved him all the time. The pleasant sensation, arising from doing what a man thinks is right, rose up in his breast.
Again, persons insist that if a man will follow his feelings he will do right. No doubt Saul followed his feelings as implicitly as any man ever did when persecuting the followers of Jesus; but no man thinks he was doing right when thus following his feelings.
Here, then, we find in Saul a man doing what he thought was right; what he verily thought he ought to do; doing what conscience approved, and what he felt like doing! What was he when doing all this? He says himself he was "the chief of sinners." What a man thinks is right is no guide, useless he thinks rightly--thinks as the oracles of God. Conscience is no guide; teaches nothing, and may approve a man when doing wrong, if he is only so deceived that he thinks the wrong he is doing is right. Nor is feeling any guide. It does not tell what is right, but good feeling results from doing what we think is right. We do not know we are right because we feel well, but feel well because we think we are right.
Saul had much for a Jew to build on before he knew the Lord, and much to surrender after he knew the Lord. He could boast in the flesh as much as any of them. If any had whereof he might glory in the flesh, he had more. He could boast that he was circumcised the eighth day; that he was of the stock of Israel; of the tribe of Benjamin; a Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law a Pharisee; concerning zeal he persecuted the Church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. He had all any man could claim by blood, by the law, and zeal in persecuting the Church. When others of his Jewish brethren had been idle and slumbering, he had been engaged with sleepless vigilance in fighting the new sect, as he regarded it, rising and carrying away thousands of his brethren. He waited not to investigate the grounds of the new body rising, nor to examine its claims; but regarded it as a settled thing that his religion was from God, but that the new religion was not, and he determined to rid the country of all that called on the name of Jesus. Not content with what he could do in his own immediate section of country, he went to the elders of Israel and requested them to grant him letters that he might extend his operations as far as Damascus; arrest, bind and bring to Jerusalem to be punished all that called on the name of Jesus, of both men and women. The elders thought he was a noble young man; they were proud of him and readily granted him the letters.
He did not go alone, but selected men to go with him, probably young men like himself. Imagine you see these men setting out from Jerusalem, with the blackness of rage and fury pictured in their countenances with the determination to spare neither sex nor age; and imagine, too, the poor, helpless and defenseless disciples of the Lord, scattered through the country, in fear and dismay at the thought of these ruthless men coming and letting loose their fury on their devoted heads! What prospect could any man see of the man at the head of this becoming a Christian; of his ever identifying himself with the people he thus hated. Evidently on the day he set out from Jerusalem on this career of desolation to the Church, he had no idea that he would ever be a follower of the Nazarene. Most unquestionably he may not be expected to give up his position; his honor among his nation and people; his associations with the friends of his life and all the fortunes of his Church; turn from the powerful persecutor and from all the hatred of the Christians he had, and go over to a people "everywhere spoken against," poor and penniless, unpopular and despised, and put his fortune with them, without a reason. Every worldly consideration is against his making such a turn; and not a living man can think of a worldly interest that could, by any possibility, be favorable to such a turn.
He had the intelligence to see, in some degree, the persecution that awaited him in view of his turning; he could calculate what would be lost; he was able to examine the evidence and decide on its merits; he was in the country where the main events interwoven in the rise and founding of the New Institution had occurred; it was not long since they had occurred; he could see thousands who saw Jesus in person, and thousands more who could tell him of the signs and wonders that accompanied him. But he had more than this; he had, as we shall see presently, more than faith; he had a reason for turning. He would not have turned without a reason; a reason, too, that left no doubt.
No event occurred, apparently, demanding the attention of the sacred historian, till the company drew near to Damascus. Nor did the main transaction take place in the night, in the darkness, nor in the presence of the friends of the Lord, but in the open blaze of the light of noon-day. Suddenly the company had their attention arrested by such a visitation as their eyes never beheld. There was a great "light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun," that shone round about them. They all fell to the ground, and a voice, speaking to Saul, in the Hebrew language, said: "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?" Though fallen to the ground, he was in his senses, and appropriately inquired, "Who art thou, Lord?" He desired to know who it was that addressed him. The Lord answered: "I am Jesus whom thou persecutest?" He says, in his letter to the Church in Rome, "Faith comes by hearing." There is a good reason for his saying this, for it is true in itself; and then his own faith came by hearing the words: "I am Jesus whom thou persecutest." When he heard this he believed it. His faith came by hearing, and hearing the word of the Lord spoken to him.
How it must have gone home to his heart to hear the words of the Lord, "I am Jesus whom thou persecutest." Before this he was an unbeliever, persecuting and wasting the Church of God; putting saints to death; compelling them to blaspheme, and exceedingly mad against them. He did not believe that Jesus had risen from the dead, anti looked on the whole affair of the religion of Christ as a most contemptible anti foolish thing. But now he is confronted by the appearance and the voice of the living Jesus. As already said, he has more than faith now. He saw the Lord, and was enabled to say, as he did many years subsequently, "Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord?"
The Lord told him what he appeared to him for in the following words: "I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee; delivering thee from the people and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee, to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me." What did the Lord appear to him for? Or, it might be profitable to inquire negatively, What did he not appear to him for? He did not appear to him to preach the gospel to him, tell him what he must do, pardon his sins or convert him; but to make him a minister and a witness, not only of what he had just seen, but those things in which he would appear to him subsequently, and to show him how great things he should suffer for the name of the Lord, not for his own good, but for the good of others.
Nor does the Lord stop at this, but tells him to whom he sends him as a minister and a witness, and the purpose for which he sends him: "To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me." The Lord intended him for a certain work, and appeared to him in person to make him a minister and a witness, and send him to that work. He was, then, specially called and sent to that work.
When he heard who it was that had appeared to him; that it was Jesus of Nazareth whom he persecuted, it roused him to think of his own condition personally, and of his own safety, and he cried out: "What shall I do, Lord?" This is new language from him. It is the language of a subdued heart, an humble spirit, and one willing to receive instruction; it is the language of a convicted man before his superior. The Lord did not condescend to tell him directly what to do, but told him to arise and go to Damascus, and there it should be told him what he must do. No doubt this gave some relief to his mind, and kindled some hope that he might obtain mercy. He did not say he could not go to Damascus, nor call for the Lord to send down power to enable him to go, but arose and went into Damascus, as directed. Here he waited for further orders.
The Lord then appeared to "one Ananias, a devout man according to the law, having a good report of all the Jews which dwelt there," and commanded him to go to Saul, explaining where he would find him. Ananias answered: "Lord, I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he hath done to thy saints at Jerusalem: and here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on thy name. But the Lord said unto him, Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel: for I will show him how great things he must suffer for my name's sake." He explained further, "Behold, he prayeth." This falls short of the full explanation; for there was nothing new merely in the words, "He prayeth;" but, as some translate it, there is: "He prayeth to me." No doubt he prayed many times before, as a Jew and a Pharisee--it may be standing on the corners of the streets, to be seen of men; but he never prayed to Jesus before. When Ananias heard this explanation; that he was a chosen vessel; that the Lord had appeared to him, and that he was praying to Jesus, his fears were disarmed; and he went to the place where the Lord said he should find him, "and entered into the house; and putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Spirit."
He styled him "brother," no doubt, in view of their relation as Jews, and not as a Christian. How beautiful the kindness shown in the manner of Ananias! He did not address him in harsh and reproachful terms, nor refer to his previous violence and cruelty toward the friends of Jesus, but in the kindest and gentlest terms. In love and affection he calls him "Brother Saul." And then, added to these words of kindness and affection, how it relieved him to hear the words that followed: "The Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Spirit." His sight was gone, and, for anything he knew to the contrary, gone permanently. It must, then, have been most welcome intelligence to learn that the object, at least in part, of the visit of Ananias was that he might receive his sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit. Still, this did not cover the whole ground. When the Lord appeared to him he promised him that it should be told him what he must do. As yet he has heard nothing on this--nothing as to what he must do.
This brings us to an important item--that is, to learn what the chief of sinners must do to come to the Lord and be accepted of him. Let us follow the clear language of Scripture. Ananias proceeds: "And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord." Does some one say, "Hold! hold! You are proceeding too fast with that man? that he has been a vile and bitter persecutor, and that his hands are crimsoned with the blood of saints? that he should be put on trial for six months, till we see how he will behave himself? whether he will cease his persecuting?" That sounds plausible, and, at first view, reasonable; but there are several things clearly against it. In the first place, the procedure we are following is divine. We can not improve on it; we must accept it as the wisdom of God, and follow it implicitly. This is sufficient with those who follow the precepts and examples of Scripture. But, if you must reason on it, do men repent gradually? Or does not a man repent at once? Repentance is a change of mind, of will, or purpose. Is that change gradual? Is it a slow process, or something that takes place at once? On Pentecost it went before baptism, and the baptism took place the same day. This shows that they repented in very little time. It not only went before baptism on Pentecost, but is before baptism in every case, in the divine arrangement or order. It never occurred before faith, or after immersion, in the divine order. There is no case recorded where the hearing of the word for the first time and the immersion were further apart than in the case of Saul, thus showing that the repentance was always a short process, or that it occurred in a very little time.
Even the amendment of life, or reformation, that invariably follows repentance, and is really the fruit or result of it, is not a gradual work. The drunkard does not drink a little less, and a little less, each day, till he quits drinking entirely, but he quits at once, if he quits at all. The swearer does not swear less and less each day, till he swears none at all, but he ceases at once. Saul did not persecute less and less, till he ceased persecuting altogether, but he ceased at once. The enmity and hatred in his heart, that caused him to persecute, were destroyed by the faith of Christ, and he at once resolved to cease his persecuting; changed his mind, and determined to persecute no more. This ended his persecuting, and determined him to break off all his sins by righteousness; to "cease to do evil and learn to do well."
But some man is ready to say that he would like to have propounded a few questions to him, ascertaining something of the state of his heart before baptizing him; that he would not have been willing to see him hurried into baptism, as the language of Ananias seemed to indicate. That might do for human wisdom, if we had no Bible, but Ananias was guided by the wisdom of God. That is authority--absolute authority. To it we must reverently bow in submission. We can not improve on the wisdom of God. Let the language of Ananias stand, then, as authority; and if our views are not in harmony with the wisdom of God, we must change them, and not change the divine law. "Why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord." To this divine instruction he yielded himself, and thus entered into covenant with God.
Some man says, "I am glad he said, 'Arise, and be baptized,'" and infers from that that he was baptized standing up, and, therefore, must have had water poured or sprinkled on him. It will he difficult to see the force in that inference. No matter whether he was lying down or sitting when Ananias put his hands on him and said, "Arise, and be baptized," there was no need for his rising to have water poured or sprinkled on him. Water could have been sprinkled or poured on him lying or sitting as conveniently as in any other position he could have assumed. But, as Ananias did not intend to sprinkle or pour water on him, but to immerse him in water, and as he could not do this without his arising, he commanded him to arise and be baptized, or be immersed, and wash away his sins, calling on the name of the Lord.
But you say, you do not believe water can take away sins. Surely it can not. The language does not say it can; nor can baptism take away sins; nor can prayer take away sins; nor anything man can do. Man can not take away sins; not even faith can take away sins. God can cleanse from sin in the blood of the Lamb. The saints will ascribe the praises to Him who has washed us from our sins, in his own blood, forever and ever. How, then, comes it to stand here so closely connected with baptism? Because we are baptized "into his death"--the death of Christ. In his death his blood flowed to cleanse us from sins; and when we are baptized into his death we come to his blood that cleanses from all sin. Not only so, but we are "baptized into one body," and the Spirit is in the body. The life is in the body, and when we are baptized "into his death," we come to the blood of sprinkling, and it cleanses us forever from sin; and, coming into the body, we come to the Spirit and the life. This brings us to the remission of sins, or salvation from sins, to the Spirit and the life of Christ.
Why did the Lord select one learned man and make him an apostle? Some have thought it was that he might meet the philosophers of Greece and Rome. But this is not satisfactory. It required as much learning to meet the Jewish doctors of the law as the Pagan philosophers. Then we have the clear statement that God chose the weak things of this world to confound the mighty. He could make the illiterate fishermen wise and strong enough to meet anybody, and he did this. In selecting these weak and illiterate men, that all men knew had no talent, learning or power in themselves to do what they did, and then clothing them with power that the world could not withstand, and their doing a work that could not have been done without this great power, proved that the power was from God. But in selecting one man, possessed of a large share of the wisdom and learning of the world, and overwhelming him with the glories of the Lord, showed that the new religion had lengths and breadths, heights and depths, sufficiently to fill the soul and engage the whole being of one of the greatest men of earth, and cause him to say: "What things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, and be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; if by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead."
And then again, overwhelmed, he breaks forth in the following: "O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counselor? or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory forever. Amen." In the person of Saul the Lord demonstrated that there is enough in Christ, and what he has given to man, to engage the attention, fill the mind and the entire capacity of the greatest of human beings; and then, when they have known all they can know, comprehended all they can, and their capacity has been filled, they simply know and comprehend enough to satisfy them that there is yet back of all vast unexplored heights and depths, lengths and breadths of wisdom and knowledge, and they find themselves standing in amazement and awe in the midst of the immensity and variety of the work of the great Creator in the redemption of man.
While the Lord Jesus has come down to the humblest capacities of man, in the gospel of his grace, and adapted himself to the lowly, he has also risen to the loftiest heights that human intelligence ever conceived, above and beyond all they can grasp, and thus in the same gospel filled the souls of the most lowly and humble that ever came to him, and made them immeasurably happy; and also met and filled the capacities of the tallest intellects among the sons of men and made them feel the littleness and emptiness of all they know or can know, in view of the wonderful things he has prepared for them that love him. Here is room for everlasting gratitude in view of the redemption that is in Christ.
In the cases of Saul of Tarsus and Cornelius the Centurion we have the two extremes; on the one hand, the chief of sinners, and, on the other, one of the best of men out of Christ; and we find, on the one hand, salvation in the gospel for the chief of sinners, and, on the other hand, that the gospel was needed to save the best man not in Christ. This covers the whole ground, showing, on the one side, that the chief of sinners can be saved by the gospel, and, on the other side, that the best man out of Christ must obey the gospel to be saved. There are none, then, who have never been converted such great sinners that they can not be saved by the gospel, and none so good as to be saved without the gospel, or so good as not to need it. It is able to save any one, and no one can be saved without it.
Could a person be soundly converted in such a short time, and by such simple process, as we have now found in the case of Saul? Only a short space elapsed from the time the Lord appeared to him and said, "I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest," and the time of his immersion. Four days at the outside covered the entire space. Was he soundly converted in that short space of time? Let us consider.
1. His persecuting at once and forever ceased. This was a tremendous change. This was "an outward sign of all inward grace" of great significance. His mad and infuriated career of making havoc of the followers of Jesus had ended. What a relief to the disciples of the Lord, and how they must have praised God in view of what had been done!
2. He leaves the old persecuting Church; he is seen no more in it. Some think the old and the new Church all one--the same; but they did not think so at the time of Saul's conversion. He left the Church of his father and mother, though he had a good. birthright membership in it; he counted that all nothing and laid it all down at the feet of Jesus, for the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ.
3. He left the company of persecutors and deliberately took his stand and fortune with the persecuted. He did not make this change without a reason. He must have had his mind on something beyond this world, or something invisible to this world. Nor did he take his stand here temporarily, but permanently. He put his fortune here, not for a little time, to experiment, try it and see how he would like. it, but permanently--in prosperity and adversity, living and dying. To this he stands till he breathes the last breath. This appears like sound conversion!
4. The next thing you hear of him, he is preaching boldly, in the name of the Lord, the faith which once be destroyed. Do you object to his preaching so soon? Hear him defend himself in, this: "Whereupon, O king Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision: but showed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance."-See Acts xxvi. 19, 20. Further on he says: "Having therefore obtained help of God, I continue unto this day, witnessing both to small and great, saying none other things than those which the prophets and Moses did say should come: that Christ should suffer, and that he should be the first that should rise from the dead, and should show light unto the people, and to the Gentiles." This, language does not appear much like giving up. It is a settled thing with him that he is going to preach. This is another clear evidence of sound conversion. He can not be turned from his purpose. He will preach!
5. But further on he gives stronger evidence of sound conversion. He falls into the hands of enemies; they demand of him to recant--to renounce the whole affair and curse Christ, or they will lash his body--lay thirty-nine lashes on his bare flesh. This would try a man's soundness, or at least it would test his sincerity. Had he been a Universalist, he evidently would have given up preaching. He could easily have justified himself in doing so. He could have reasoned with himself, saying, "All will be saved whether I preach or not, and if they will be saved without my preaching as certainly as with it, why need I suffer in this way for the privilege of telling them that they all will be saved? I will simply deny Christ, avoid this suffering, and we will all be saved at last." But he was not a Universalist. He believed the Lord: "Whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven." "He who loveth his own life more than me, can not be my disciple." "He that findeth his life" (by denying me) "shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake" (by confessing me) "shall find it." He confessed the Lord Jesus, and in wrath and most awful cruelty they laid the terrible stripes on his flesh! How wonderful the faith that sustained this wonderful man of God in this great trial! But even this did not stop him. The next thing they hear of him he is preaching again. They tried him in this way five times over and he would not stop; they beat him with rods three times; he was shipwrecked and was a day and a night in the deep; he was stoned in one instance till they thought he was dead; he was in perils among robbers, and among false brethren. All this did not stop him, turn him against the Lord, his cause or people.
They charged him of "turning the world upside down," so wonderful was the revolution he carried out among men. What patience and endurance it required to thus continue from thirty-five to forty years, and who can doubt the soundness of the conversion of this man? No man ever gave greater evidence of sincerity and honesty than he. He had settled convictions, established principles, and could not be turned aside from them by any earthly power.
After passing through all these wonderful trials and tests of his faith and integrity to the Lord Jesus, what kind of a letter would he be expected to write to a young preacher? Let us consider a few words from him to a young preacher. To Timothy he says: "Thou hast fully known my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, long-suffering, charity, patience, persecutions, afflictions, which came unto me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra; what persecutions I endured: but out of them all the Lord delivered me. Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution. But evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived. But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them; and that from a child thou hast known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus."--2 Timothy iii. 10-16. There is no discouragement in all this, but the same full assurance of faith we see all the way along through his wonderful life. There is no giving up nor misgivings in this language; he is looking ahead and going ahead. Let us hear him again--a few words:
"I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom; preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long-suffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned into fables. But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry."--2 Timothy iv. 1-6. In his first letter he has a most fearful and awful charge to the same man, and through him to all evangelists. After speaking of "perverse disputings," the "love of money," and other evils, he says: "But thou, O man of God, flee those things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness. Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, whereunto thou art also called, and hast professed a good profession before many witnesses. I give thee charge in the sight of God, who quickeneth all things, and before Christ Jesus, who before Pontius Pilate witnessed a good confession; that thou keep this commandment without spot, unrebukable, until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ."--1 Timothy vi. 11-14.
Now hear him in an allusion to the past, the present, and the future. What does he see in the past from which to draw any comfort? He has three great items. 1. "I have fought a good fight." What a satisfaction, when his warfare was about over, that he could look over it and pronounce it a good fight. He had struggled long and hard, through prosperity and adversity, and could see that it was a good fight. 2. "I have finished my course." How glorious to get to the end of the course and see it finished! 3. "I have kept the faith." What an item this, in view of the trials he had gone through! With all the menacing of enemies, the threatening, stripes and imprisonments they had inflicted, thus trying him, to induce him to give up the faith, they utterly failed, he had kept the faith. Thanks to God who gave him the victory. So much in reference to the past.
Now hear him in reference to the present. He is brief on this. "I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand." All his previous labor in the kingdom had been in order to reach this point. He had now obtained it. "I am now ready." How glorious the venerable hero! He was not in the least shaken; these things did not move him.
Now hear him in reference to the future." Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord the righteous Judge shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing." Here is the secret. He, had, by faith, been looking to this crown of righteousness all the time, and aiming at it; he had now got near to it; he could almost reach it. He had accumulated nothing in this world; he had nothing to bind him here; nothing but bonds and imprisonments awaited him; he could easily give up all there was here. It was far better to be absent from the body, and forever be with the Lord. For the event of the change he was ready.
Among his last trials, that master of cruelty and disgrace to his race, Nero, had him apprehended in Ephesus, and confined long months in a loathsome prison. Tradition has it that he was here thrown to wild beasts, and that it was to this he alluded when he says: "I have fought with wild beasts in Ephesus," and when he again says, "God delivered me from the Jaws of the lion." Whether this is all literally true or not, it is certain that he was imprisoned and suffered "great things," as the Lord said he should when he called him to the ministry. Through it all he hold on to the faith and never wavered.
Finally he visited Rome, the seat of cruelty and blood; since designated the Seven-Hilled City, and styled by the Papacy the "Eternal City." The edicts that have issued from there have caused the blood of fifty millions of the best people of their time to flow. It was fitting that the blood of Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, should consecrate the ground of this wonderful seat of cruelty and slaughter-ground of the saints of the Most High. Nero had Paul apprehended again, and for the last time, and imprisoned. Long months the noble man of God, the great sufferer for the name of Jesus, lies in a loathsome prison, as if he had been a felon. As the appointed time drew near, he evidently looked to the time of his deliverance with joyful emotion. The day for his execution arrived; the great assembly came together, and the officer brings out of the prison the victim of their vengeance. The people thirsted for his blood. It is said that he was a small man, uncomely in his personal appearance, not five feet in height. He is not now young Saul, but Paul the aged; his hair, it may be, is white; his body bent under the pressure of years and his wonderful labors and sufferings; he stands before the people for the last time; before him is a huge block, and an ax that will cut off a man's head instantly of its own weight; he is called on to recant, to deny Christ and curse him. No! he can not do this; he can die, but he can not deny his Lord and Redeemer. He once said," Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? "and he could say, "Bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus;" and again, "I have received abundance of revelations from him."
His neck is deliberately laid on the block; the great ax is raised over it; all stand in breathless silence; instantly the ax falls; the head of Paul is cut off. It falls over on one side of the block and his body on the other side. His warm heart's blood runs down on the ground, and the smoky vapor rises as a sweet incense toward heaven. Men walk away from that scene, inquiring, "What has that man done? Why was he beheaded?" Others talk viciously, exclaiming, "Away with him! He ought to die!" Thus ended the transaction. But what was left? A life and a name that martyrdom could not blot out. Through the ravages of eighteen centuries the name and life of Paul have come down, and to-day they are known to more people and shine brighter than at any former period. They fill a broader space in the history of the past, and are more interwoven in the literature of the civilized world, than any other name this side of the name that is above every name that is named, in heaven or on earth; the name for which Paul suffered the loss of all things; the name he loved and for which he laid down his life--the name of the Lord Jesus, Emmanuel, or God with us.
He enjoyed the learning of his time, and the honors and preferments of the world were open before him; but when he was brought to know his Lord and Redeemer, and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, it lifted his soul far above all earthly learning, all human sciences and philosophies, to the spiritual and divine, the enduring and imperishable; "an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens;" "a rest remaining for the people of God;" "glory, honor, immortality and eternal life;" his "crown of rejoicing, in the day of the Lord Jesus."
What are the prospects of the men of wealth compared with the prospects of such a man as Paul? At death the fine things of wealth take their flight; the title to them holds them no longer; they seek new owners, take wings and fly away. The former owner, if not in Christ, is miserable, poor, blind and naked! Alongside of this man, what can be said of the man that was too great a coward to confess the name of Jesus before men? or what of the man who never became sufficiently interested in the matter to come to Christ at all? or the poor, timid creatures that did not have moral fortitude enough to come out on the Lord's side at all? Can such an one expect to walk the streets of the everlasting city with such a man as Paul, or to hear the welcome plaudit that will evidently greet Paul, "Well done, good and faithful servant?" Surely not. Such timid creatures could not hold up their heads in the presence of such a man.
What a beautiful matter for contemplation, that now that Paul is about eighteen hundred years from the termination of his trials, he is no nearer to any termination of his reward than on the first day after he entered it! The "eternal weight of glory," held in contrast to what he styled "these light afflictions, which are but for a moment," is still looming up in the future without limit, transcending all that human intelligence can conceive, or even the most vivid imagination picture to the mind.
The turning of this wonderful man to the Lord, and his whole life after his turning, form one continuous and unanswerable argument in favor of the divinity of Christ and his religion. There is no accounting for such a conversion and life without the divinity of Christianity.