The first notice we get of Paul, then called Saul, is at the stoning of Stephen. " The witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man's feet, whose name was Saul." Paul refers to this afterwards (Acts 22: 20): " And when the blood of thy martyr Stephen was shed, I also was standing by, and consenting unto his death, and kept the raiment of them that slew him." The prominence he gives to this, indicates the greatness of the change wrought in him through grace. The more truly any one is in the life and spirit of Christ, the more thoroughly is he a contrast to what he was in natural religion, " alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them." It is the religious aim which so peculiarly betrays the nature of the enmity of the natural mind against God; and it is here where the mind of Christ is most distinctly expressed in contrast to it. I suppose that in nothing is the enmity of the natural mind against God so disclosed as in religion. Man in his endeavour to establish his own righteousness has not submitted himself to the righteousness of God. Hence the respectable Pharisee was farther from God than the publican, the outcast of society. The Lord tells His disciples, " They shall put you out of the synagogues : yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service," John 16: 2. The more man embraces the idea that, like Cain, he can remove the distance between himself and God, the more he hates God's way of removing the distance. Therefore Cain cc slew his brother ... because his own works were evil, and his brother's righteous." Hence we are warned of those who go in the way of Cain. No one would for a moment suppose that a wicked man could claim any countenance from God; but the religious man, like the young man in the gospel, would sorrowfully give up Christ rather than take up his cross and follow Him.
It is important to bear in mind the condition of a soul before conversion. Paul tells us that he lived in all good conscience to that day. He had no sense of sin, because he had not openly broken the law ; and the more he vaunted in his moral excellence, the more he depreciated and opposed the teaching that salvation was through faith in the death and resurrection of Christ. Saul must have heard Stephen's defence ; but the more the light of Christianity came before him, the more his self-righteousness was assailed, the more incensed he was, and the more determined was his resistance.
Thus was it with Saul, for the next time we hear of him his opposition is at its height. " And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, and desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem," Acts 9 : 1, 2. In his rage he leaves the land and journeys to Damascus-a strange city. It is deeply affecting to mark the course of "the chief of sinners " at this moment. He is on his way to Damascus breathing out cruelty, intolerant in his purpose to waste the church of God. Who could form any adequate idea of Saul's rage against Christ at this crisis? The will of the human heart in self-righteousness has culminated to the utmost ; and then, when the religious man is at his worst, in opposition to God's chief interest at this moment, the grace of God shines forth in all its brightest lustre. A light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shines round about him ; not the light of the glory to demand righteousness, but the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, to disclose to the " chief of sinners," in the height of his wilfulness, that he has a Saviour in the glory of God. The self-righteous man has no place before the glory of God ; he falls to the ground, and then hears the voice of the Son of God, in the ever memorable words, " I am Jesus whom thou persecutest." Surely no one could describe the moral revolution which is now at work in Saul's soul ; his vaunted religiousness all goes for nothing. He falls to the ground before the light of God's glory ; and yet in that very light his ears are opened to hear that the selfsame Jesus, who was the life and the rest of Stephen, to whose death he had consented because of his faith in Christ, is his own Saviour; and that, religious and morally upright man as he was, the great aim of his life had been to persecute Him through His members here on earth ; for now was divulged the secret that Christ's body was on the earth. Thus Saul, whose conduct was most exemplary, as far as the natural conscience could see, and though he had not done any moral wrong by which he would have seen the corruption of his heart, now discovers himself to be the chief of sinners, because he had wrought diametrically opposite to God's will, and by every means in his power, in contravention to the chief interest and will of God at this time. What a humiliation to the self-righteous Pharisee! If the best conducted man is the chief of sinners, surely it is easy to say, " In me (that is, in my flesh), dwelleth no good thing." Surely such an one does not require to learn by transgression the evil of his nature, when by his will, and not by breach of the law, he is condemned as the chief of sinners.
May our hearts be able to follow him into the region of light into which he now enters; he is sensibly blind to everything in this world; existing in it, but with no ability to apprehend or enjoy anything in it, excluded from everything here by the " glory of that light "-he spends three days " without sight, and neither did eat nor drink." It is deeply interesting to us to trace the course of education which this great servant is brought through, and to bear in mind that the same grace is for us as for him. We can form some idea of the exercise of soul which he passed through during those three days. We all, in our measure, pass through a like experience when the heart is exclusively occupied with our Paschal Lamb; when shut in under the shelter of His blood, we appropriate, to our intense relief, what He bore in His death, as Israel ate the lamb, roast with fire and with bitter herbs. To Paul were concentrated in those days the exercises which are often spread over years of our lives ; so intense was the hold on his heart that his very bodily necessities are forgotten he neither did eat nor drink. At length the exercise is over ; he scales the height to which the work of Christ entitles him ; he is accepted; he prays ; he is in the day of salvation, now is the accepted time. The proof that one is in the accepted time is that he prays. " For this shall every one that is godly pray unto thee in a time when thou mayest be found." Ananias is now sent to fit him for this new sphere. He comes and says to him, " Receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost." Saul is now in divine power, able to enjoy his Saviour in the glory of God; and forthwith he goes into the synagogue, and preaches that Jesus is the Son of God-the first time I suppose that this great truth was so fully presented. This ends what I may call the first chapter in this eventful history.
After this public declaration in the synagogue, that Jesus is the Son of God-the great source and pivot of the present ministry-it appears that Saul went into Arabia for two years; Gal. I : 17. It had pleased God to reveal His Son in him, and from this Person, outside and above every one, he derives everything. In general we are not sufficiently conscious that He is Son of God, we believe it but we do not realise it, and yet it is only as we apprehend Him in the dignity of His Person that we apprehend the divine nature of either our position or our state. Believing on the Son of God, I am consciously a living stone. " Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God? " " He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself " (i John 5 : 5, 1 0) ; and to this all ministry tends-" till we all come in the unity of the faith, and the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a full-grown man," etc. I have dwelt long on this because the greater the knowledge committed to a servant, the more necessary and important it is that he should be much alone with God about it, in order that he may realise the nature and effect of it on himself before he undertakes to make it known to others. This rumination is of the deepest importance. We have no clue to the way in which Saul spent these two years in the isolated region of Arabia, but we can apprehend and learn from it the nature and effect of such a discipline. It rebukes the haste and readiness with which many now enter on the ministry, attempting to impress others with a measure of the truth which they have not proved for themselves. Surely the servant should ever be ab le to say: " I have believed and therefore have I spoken." The Joshua-the Spirit of Christ-is always the leader now; or, as it was with Moses forty years in the wilderness before he was called to lead Israel through it. It is sometimes thought that it would be a loss of time if a servant were to spend two years in solitude before entering on public service. Evidently the Lord did not think so with respect to Saul, even though the exigencies of the time were very great, and there was great need of his services. It is better to lose time as to work in preparing for service than to lose time in repairing one's mistakes in undertaking a work for which one is not competent.
Saul afterwards returns to Damascus, and he was so fervent and faithful to the Lord, that the Jews watched the gates of the city day and night to kill him. The governor Aretas joined the Jews in their wicked purpose. Thus it is, that all who live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution. The more you are for the Lord, the more will the enmity of man be armed against you. The self-righteous Jew, nominally the people of God, and the power of the world in heathen darkness, combine together to destroy the light of God, and the man in whom it shines. He escapes from Damascus in a most humiliating way, a great contrast to the way he had journeyed to it a few years since ; and now he proceeds to Jerusalem. In his solitude in Arabia he was confirmed in " the mark "-the goal where Christ is, and he has also tasted in his own person the bitter hatred of man to the exalted Christ.
Thus prepared in mind and practice he goes to Jerusalem to see Peter; Gal. i : 18. There he was subjected to very peculiar discipline. He had doubtless come, as we can easily conceive, with a longing to see Peter, and to be with the assembly at Jerusalem ; but the disciples were all afraid of him; Acts 9 : 26. What a check and pain to him 1 He who was called to be a master builder in the temple of God must experience in himself the godly jealousy which hesitated to receive him. He had to be commended; Barnabas effects his happy service for him. He had come to Jerusalem the very opposite to the accredited persecutor of the church as he once was-a marvellous contrast! He now preached the faith which once he destroyed, he spake boldly there in the name of the Lord Jesus, disputing with the Grecians who went about to kill him.
But this is not all: we find that it was at this time, that praying in the temple, he was in a trance, and the Lord appears to him, saying, " Make haste, and get thee quickly out of Jerusalem: for they will not receive thy testimony concerning me," Acts 22: 17-21. His own people will not receive him. The word to him-" Depart: for I will send thee far hence unto the Gentiles," must have been a sore trial to him. He had been more successful as a persecutor than as a preacher of the gospel of God. How varied and peculiar are the exercises by which a servant is prepared for his Master's pleasure! He escapes from Jerusalem, and comes to Tarsus-his native place. The servant of God is bound to make known to his own house and to his neighbours and friends the great things the Lord hath done for him. It is considered that he remained there some years ; Gal. I : 2 1. But when the gospel went out to the Greeks (not Grecians) (Acts I I : 20), Barnabas having been sent from Jerusalem to Antioch, " who, when he came, and had seen the grace of God, was glad," departed to Tarsus to seek Saul. " And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch " (V. 26). Thus Saul is connected with the first assembly where the distinction between Jews and Greeks is merged in the one common name of Christians.
After a year there, a significant period, Barnabas and Saul go to Jerusalem. (See Acts i i : 29, 30.) How beautiful is the course in which the servant of the Lord is led! Saul returns to Jerusalem, to be the bearer, conjointly with Barnabas, of temporal relief to the brethren which dwelt in Judea-a lovely testimony to grace. The Jews had rejected heavenly blessings, and now the Gentiles who had received the heavenly blessings minister to them in earthly things.- " And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem, when they had fulfilled their ministry, and took with them John, whose surname was Mark," Acts 12: 25.
We now come (Acts 13) to a very important epoch in the history of this servant of Christ. It is supposed, that now, consequent on his being sent forth by the Holy Ghost in the assembly, his rapture into paradise occurred. I cannot assert it with authority, but it tallies with the time given in 2 Corinthians 12. It appears to be very probable that it, occurred at this time. We find in this chapter (13 : 1-3) that the assembly was in great vigour. There were prophets and teachers, and " As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them." It is deeply interesting that these servants, and especially Saul, should receive his direction in the assembly. He had been called for a special work, but now he is directed by the Holy Spirit in the assembly, not by the apostles in Jerusalem, to enter on it. The start is always important. The beginning has a great effect on one , s course. What a blessed way to enter on service, and service for the assembly! In the house of God to be openly called upon by the Holy Spirit to enter on his work ; a moment surely that he could never forget during all his service. It is too much overlooked in this day that it is in the assembly and by the Holy Spirit the servant should be directed to any special line of service. I know how fallen we are, alas I but still I believe that if the Lord's servants were more in heart in the assembly as the centre of Christ's interests on earth, they would receive (though less openly than Barnabas and Saul) distinct direction from the Spirit of God, and would go forth like them, commended by the assembly, though not in the same conspicuous way. I say this, because while we should justly shrink from being conspicuous where we have failed, yet the intrinsic power remains, because the Holy Ghost is here, and Christ is in the midst of His own gathered together to His name.
They go forth to Salamis in Cyprus, and having passed through the whole island (there is always an exercise of patience in service) they encounter a remarkable sample of the obstruction of the enemy. A Jew, a magician, is with the chief man of the place a Gentile, but intelligent. He called Barnabas and Saul to him and desired to hear the word of God, but Elymas opposed them, seeking to turn away the proconsul from the faith. But Saul (" who also is Paul ") is by the Lord's power equal to the occasion. This is a very fine lesson for him just as he had entered on his service: he is confronted with a nature of opposition, the greatest which lay in his course. The Jew instead of helping the Gentile to " the right way of the Lord," endeavours to turn him away from the faith. Paul filled with the Holy Spirit exposes his terrible wickedness, and in inflicting blindness on him for a season indicates the moral blindness of the Jews. This event was no doubt a great confirmation to the apostle in the service to which he had been appointed.
How little one may see the way in which each servant has to be led in order that he may be fitted for the Lord's service! As obstacles arise, as surely they must, in a world of evil, the exercised servant learns in the strait the sufficiency of the Lord ; and then he can say, " By the strength of my God I have leaped over a wall." The efficient servant, as a rule, first learns for himself the path, and the power in which he has to lead the saints. Faith is always tested, and as it is, experience follows. Moses was forty years in the wilderness before he was called to lead Israel through it. The apostle is, however, cheered by the conversion of the proconsul.
He then comes to Perga. Here Mark, who had accompanied them from Jerusalem, leaves them. Though we are not told the reason, we gather from other scriptures that it was from some Jewish predilection, for subsequently, when Barnabas insisted on taking Mark (his kinsman) with them, Paul refused, " And the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder one from the other." I note this especially, because it shows that the help and support we may receive and be very thankful for at a particular juncture, may entirely fail when we least expect it. We can see what a gain all these exercises are to the servant, as has been said-" God wants life and not habit." Hence, no sooner have we learned the grace suited for one set of circumstances, than we are placed in totally new ones. But thus the servant is in measure, is was our apostle, fitted to comfort others as he himself was comforted of God. Every occurrence, as the servant walks with the Lord, makes him more fitted for service.
After this lengthened missionary tour we find our apostle at Antioch in Pisidia (chap. 13 : 14), a most important stage in his mission. Here in the synagogue he includes in his address, " Israelites, and ye that fear God." The burden of his discourse is the remarkable way in which God has favored Israel, winding up with the warning from Habakkuk: " Beware therefore, lest that come upon you, which is spoken of in the prophets; Behold, ye despisers, and wonder, and perish : for I work a work in your days, a work which ye shall in no wise believe, though a man declare it unto you," chap. 13 : 40, 41.
It is an important moment. The Jews reject their testimony; the Gentiles receive it. Paul and Barnabas shake off the dust of their feet against them, and turn boldly to the Gentiles. It is very interesting to note the way the true servant is led. With all Paul's natural feelings for the Jews, how graciously and distinctly is he led on to see, as Stephen had declared, " Ye do always resist the Holy Ghost."
I pass over the labours of the apostle recorded in Acts 14, and turn for a moment to his return to Antioch, from whence he had started, being commended by the grace of God, a season of particular satisfaction to the servant of God. " And when they were come, and had gathered the church together, they rehearsed all that God had done with them, and how he had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles. And there they abode long time with the disciples," Acts 14 : 27, 28.
Now in Acts 15 : 13 2, occurs a great crisis in the apostle's history. " And certain men which came down from Judea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question." Now the opposition is from within. The servant must always be the first in suffering, in the place of Christ's rejection. He must learn to overcome each varied form of hostility before he can be able to teach others the grace of God which only can support one at such a juncture. Paul confronts this new opposition. Directed by revelation he goes to Jerusalem, and there he had a conference privately with Peter, James-, and John. What a remarkable time it was! They recognise that as the gospel of the circumcision was committed to Peter, so was the gospel of the uncircumcision committed to Paul, and they gave him the right hand of fellowship. At the centre of all Jewish interests the matter is discussed by the apostles and elders, and their judgment was then agreed to by the whole church: " That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well. So when they were dismissed, they came to Antioch : and when they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the epistle " (vs. 29, 30). This decision is of great moment ; it is the dawn of a new day for Christians. They are freed from the law of Moses, and they are restricted only by divine and fundamental principles.
But this great prosperity (as doubtless it was regarded by the apostle), as always, was the opportunity for new and unexpected suffering and opposition. Peter had, it appears, accepted the new line so fully that he was quite social with the Gentiles-he ate and drank with them, until certain came from James ; then he withdrew, fearing them of the circumcision. Paul had to withstand him to the face because he was to be blamed. What a painful duty for the apostle, and this with reference to one he had regarded as a pillar! But sad as this was in this bright moment for the church, there was a deeper sorrow concurrent with it, even that Barnabas, his loved companion, was drawn away by Peter's dissimulation, and, as is always the case when legality works, there is a yielding to one's own predilection more than to Christ's interests ; consequently Barnabas insisted on taking his kinsman (Mark) with him, and sailed to Cyprus. Paul thus chequered, and with a new companion (Silas), departed, being recommended by the brethren unto the grace of God.
According to the decree at Jerusalem the Gentiles were not to be subjected to the Mosaic ritualism. A great yoke had been removed. Paul himself had been acknowledged by the chiefest apostles as the one to whom the gospel of the uncircumcision had been committed (Gal. 2) ; he, too, had learned in his heart, through the disaffection of Barnabas, the unreliable element which exists where there is any cleaving to the law, because the flesh must be tolerated when the law is accepted. It is good for us, as we read over the history of the apostle, and see the varied and touching ways in which he was made a servant to suit his Master, to ask ourselves whether we have been emptied from vessel to vessel, and whether we have taken to heart the varied exercises through which the Lord has passed us. As we are placed by the work of Christ in the presence of the Father as Christ is Himself-not a shade of the distance, nor the cause of it remaining, the great thing for the saint, and still more for the effectual servant, is to be practically free from his own will, that he may be ready at every turn to do his Master's will. Surely Paul had to say now, The will of the Lord be done.
Greatly crossed, and we might say disappointed, he enters on his mission. A great mark of divine favour is now vouchsafed to him. At Lystra he meets with Timothy. The Lord graciously provides for His servant in the person of Timothy, the very help he requires, and largely compensates him for the loss he had sustained by the defection of Barnabas. How very touching are these peculiar instances of the Lord's succour and care for His servant! Paul can write of Timothy years afterwards, " I have no man like-minded, who will naturally care for your state." "As a son with a father, he has served with me in the gospel," Phil. 2. Thus favored of the Lord, he pursues his work. Forbidden to preach the word in Asia, he is called in a vision by night to come into Macedonia. The servant is to be ready for any orders, whether they involve a circuitous route or any other inconvenience.
Paul enters Europe, a fact of great significance. He was urged to come by a man of Macedonia in the vision, but no man appears to receive him. He had assuredly gathered that the Lord had called him to preach there, but for a long time there is nothing or very little to prove that he was doing the Lord's pleasure. " On the sabbath we went out of the city by a river side, where prayer was wont to be made ; and we sat down, and spake unto the women which resorted thither," Acts 16 : 13. Here the Lord opened the heart of Lydia of Thyatira (one of the proscribed territory), and " she besought us, saying, If ye have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house, and abide there. And she constrained us " (v. 15). Thus the apostle had found a home in the place. There was no appearance of any opening among the Macedonians. At this juncture, 44 a certain damsel possessed with a spirit of divination met us, which brought her masters much gain by soothsaying: the same followed Paul and us, and cried, saying, These men are the servants of the most high God, which shew unto us the way of salvation." Consequent on the apostle's refusal to accept the countenance of Satan, a terrible commotion occurred. It is worthy of note, that it was in Europe that the church openly accepted the support of the world. Paul not only refuses this proffered support, but in the name of Jesus Christ he drives out the evil spirit. Consequent on this, every power in the place-the multitude, the mob-rose up against them, and the magistrates rent off their clothes, and commanded to beat them. Eventually they were cast into prison, and the jailer thrust them into the inner prison, and made their feet fast in the stocks. The opposition seemed to have succeeded. The jailer retires to rest. Paul and Silas prayed and sang praises to God, and the prisoners heard them. For the Lord's sake Paul had refused all countenance from the world, and then the world was determined to crush him; but the Lord now proves that " them that honour me, I will honour." At midnight, " suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken: and immediately all the doors were opened, and every one's bands were loosed." The blessed God not only vindicates His faithful servant, but the man of Macedonia, in the person of the keeper of the prison, is before him seeking salvation. Paul directs him to the Saviour. The word is blessed to him, and he believes, and rejoices in God with all his house.
Blessed discipline for the servant of God 1 May it be better known. The world's co-operation is absolutely refused, though severe persecution is thereby incurred from the selfsame world ; but this night of sorrow and suffering was broken in on by a marvellous manifestation of the mighty hand of God-a table prepared in the presence of his enemies ; his heart reassured. " If God be for us, who can be against us? "
Acts 17. Paul having left Philippi reaches Thessalonica, the capital of Macedonia. There he went into the synagogue, and " three sabbaths reasoned with them out of the scriptures," with such an effect that " some of them believed, and consorted with Paul and Silas ; and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few " (v- 4). We shall find that, in this chapter and the following ones, Paul is being taught the utter depravity of the Jew. We read, " the Jews which believed not, moved with envy," raised a great disturbance. They troubled the people and the rulers of the city, so that the apostle says in i Thessalonians 2 : 14-16, that they had " suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews : who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us ; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men: forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins alway: for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost." Paul in this passage declares the judgment he has arrived at, which he had been acquiring by degrees during his ministry. It is to be remarked that as the heart is set by the Holy Spirit on the right object or purpose, it is not only that the purpose is more explicitly before the soul, but circumstances ordered of God conspire to convince you that you are right, so that any temptation to waver is removed.
Paul was sent away by the brethren by night to Berea. There many believed, " but when the Jews of Thessalonica had knowledge that the word of God was preached of Paul at Berea, they came thither also, and stirred up the people " (v. 13). The Jews again hinder the work of the Lord. Little can we apprehend the painful impressions thus day by day growing in the apostle by the unrelenting enmity to Christ of His own people after the flesh. Paul's heart, by the Holy Ghost, was set on Christ, but doubtless God allowed the malicious hatred of the Jew to wean him from the natural love he had for his nation that he might be undistractedly given to the circle of Christ's heart.
Paul next goes to Athens, where his experience is quite new. It is interesting to note how the apostle is subjected to such a variety of circumstances, emptied indeed from vessel to vessel. The things that we try are made a trial of us. Here in the centre of learning of the pagan world the apostle discovers the true state of the pagan. They, after their natural wisdom, lest they should leave out the god of any nation, had erected an altar " To the unknown God." This affords the apostle an opportunity when he stood in the midst of Mars' hill, to deliver the most compendious summary of God's ways towards man: not the gospel simply, though it includes the gospel, but what we may term the Proclamation, as used in 2 Timothy 4: 17.
Paul now comes to Corinth ; Acts 18. It is not easy to describe or even to apprehend all that this great servant has acquired by the varied phases through which he has passed, but it is extremely interesting to us to know, that as they were ordered of God, they were conspiring to make him a more efficient servant to the church. Here Paul, " pressed in the spirit, testified to the Jews that Jesus as Christ. And when they opposed themselves, and blasphemed, he shook his raiment, and said unto them, Your blood be upon your own heads ; I am clean : from henceforth I will go unto the Gentiles " (v. 6). This was a great step ; he has so far learned that the church is entirely distinct from the synagogue of the Jews. The Lord, as we see from verse 8, encourages him in a very special way. " And Crispus, the chief ruler of the synagogue, believed on the Lord with all his house ; and many of the Corinthians hearing, believed, and were baptised." The Corinthians were a very voluptuous people. The grace of God was exceeding abundant to them, but their nonconformity to the truth disclosed to the apostle how the flesh evades the word of God, and the deplorable excesses men highly gifted of God may descend to, when the cross of Christ, in its practical effects, is overlooked. Paul's epistles to them are of the deepest interest. They tell us on the one hand of the blessing in which they were set, " come behind in no gift; waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ " ; while, on the other hand, in every circle at home and abroad, in the church and in the world, they had been selfish and unholy.
We next hear of Paul " having shorn his head in Cenchrea : for he had a vow." He is not yet emancipated from the rites and rules of the law. We are too insensible of how very gradual is the way in which any one of us is set free from our ruling tastes, and, still more, of any religious prejudice, because it has laid hold of the conscience.
Paul now comes to Ephesus, but he did not remain. "When they desired him to tarry longer time with them, he consented not; but bade them farewell, saying, I must by all means keep this feast that cometh in Jerusalem : but I will return again unto you, if God will. And he sailed from Ephesus" (vs. 20, 21). It is to be remarked here that when Paul did not remain at Ephesus, Apollos came there ; and, as it appears from the next chapter, he was blessed there, for Paul finds certain disciples there. They receive the Holy Ghost ; the number of the men was about twelve. Here Paul is more decided than at Corinth. " When divers were hardened, and believed not, but spake evil of that way before the multitude, he departed from them, and separated the disciples, disputing daily in the school of one Tyrannus," chap. 19 : 9. He is definitely separate now; and Ephesus becomes the great centre of his work in Asia, as also the assembly most highly favored of God. It had a most interesting start ; the devotedness of the saints is very marked, and they truly received the "manifold more," as we see from the epistle to the Ephesians. The apostle was there in great power. (See verses 11, 12.) We gather from i Timothy the special interest Paul took in the saints at Ephesus. There he was confronted with the violent opposition incited by Demetrius. The whole city was filled with confusion. Demetrius had appealed to their bigotry in order to prevent his trade being damaged. Thus the apostle adds to his experience a painful sense of the nature of pagan intolerance.
Probably about this time Paul wrote to the Galatians. As he had to correct the Corinthians for their laxity, to whom all grace had been vouchsafed, so now he has to expostulate with the Galatians for turning to the law to repress the flesh ; after having begun in the Spirit, seeking to be made perfect in the flesh. Strange and inveterate are the efforts of the flesh to give itself a place. It is literally with it, " Skin for skin, yea, all that a man hath will he give for his life." What blessed discipline for the apostle to be not only confronted with these devices to vitiate or neutralise the work of God, but that he should be taught to annul them by a special word from the Lord. If the Corinthians had to learn the death of Christ with which they were identified here at the Lord's table, so also had the Galatians to learn that the Spirit of God lusteth against the flesh, and that if you walk in the Spirit you shall not fulfil the lusts of the flesh ; Gal. 5.
In Acts 20 : 16 we get a touching instance of the apostle's interest at Ephesus. " From Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church " (v. 17). The apostle reminds them of his labour and teaching among them (and this before he wrote the epistle to them), and also tells them that they should see his face no more.
Now we come to the deepest and saddest discipline to which the apostle was ever subjected. He is on his way to Jerusalem ; he stays at the house of Philip the evangelist, and there the prophet Agabus " took Paul's girdle, and bound his own hands and feet, and said, Thus saith the Holy Ghost, So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man that owneth this girdle, and shall deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles. And when we heard these things, both we, and they of that place, besought him not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, What mean ye to weep and to break mine heart? for I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus. And when he would not be persuaded, we ceased, saying, The will of the Lord be done. And after those days we took up our carriages, and went up to Jerusalem," chap. 21: 11-15. Paul insists on going to Jerusalem : this is a very remarkable occurrence affecting the service of the apostle. It is not a precedent, but peculiar to Paul that he should persist in going to Jerusalem. The Lord evidently allowed that His servant should learn for himself that the people who had rejected Christ when on the earth, and had committed the unpardonable sin in resisting the Holy Ghost in the stoning of Stephen, were as inveterately opposed to the free grace of God as ever. Paul learns this for himself. He comes to Jerusalem. James counsels him, " Do therefore this that we say to thee: We have four men which have a vow on them; them take, and purify thyself with them, and be at charges with them, that they may shave their heads, and all may know that those things, whereof they were informed of thee, are nothing ; but that thou thyself also walkest orderly, and keepest the law." Paul did so. (See verse 26.) " And when the seven days were almost ended, the Jews which were of Asia, when they saw him in the temple, stirred up all the people, and laid hands on him." The chief captain rescues the apostle out of the hands of the mob, who went about to kill him, and eventually from the stairs of the castle he addressed the crowd in the Hebrew tongue. He recounts how the Lord had called him, as it is recounted in Acts 9, but here he makes especial additions to affect his audience-the Jews-as in chapter 26 he relates it as especially affecting the Gentiles. We read, " And they gave him audience unto this word, and then lifted up their voices, and said, Away with such a fellow from the earth: for it is not fit that he should live. And they cried out, and cast off their clothes, and threw dust into the air," etc. ; chap. 22 : 22, 23. That is the result; nothing but deadly hatred is evoked. And the chief captain, the representative of the power in man's hand, was but too ready to co-operate with them.
Paul, in chapter 23, is placed before the council, the same great tribunal before which Stephen stood and suffered. The issue was as recorded in verse 10. " And when there arose a great dissension, the chief captain, fearing lest Paul should have been pulled in pieces of them, commanded the soldiers to go down, and to take him by force from among them, and to bring him into the castle." They could not agree among themselves. The executive rescued Paul from their hands. " And the night following the Lord stood by him, and said, Be of good cheer, Paul: for as thou hast testified of me in Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also at Rome " (v. i i). The Lord thus in the most gracious way acknowledges His suffering servant. But the Jews, with unrelenting hatred, " banded together, and bound themselves under a curse, saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul." More than forty of them, a conspiracy in which the chief priests and elders are implicated, nay More, they act deceitfully ; they prostitute truth to malice. They are ready to use their influence with the chief captain to give effect to their diabolical plot, but they were defeated., and Paul escaped. But what a heart-break to him to have learned of their malice through one of his nearest of kin! Paul is now handed over to the Roman governor, and, as he had appealed unto Caesar because of the unjustifiable trimming and connivance of the Roman governor to the chief priests, he sails for Rome. The shipwreck in Acts 27 portrays the thorough break-up of everything of an earthly order for safety on earth, while those who sail with Paul escaped safe to land. And so it is now in the higher or spiritual way.
Paul comes to Rome; a prisoner in the hands of the Gentiles in whom the power which God gave man was now vested. Here he is cut off from everything he valued on earth. Now, doubtless, unhinderedly as to aught here, his whole attention is directed to the glorious time that he spent years before in the third heaven. The perfection and beauty of that scene could not be increased, but for years, many years, he had been subjected to every kind of discipline to dissociate him from all earthly tendencies, and to render him in every way consistent, and in correspondence with the heavenly calling of " a man in Christ " ; and we shall see farther on how fully and clearly he presents what he had learned then; and how the discipline to which he had been subjected, fitted him for the service ; so that he was in full accord in mind and manner with his teaching; not only enunciating heavenly sentiments but he was personally heavenly.
It is not easy to conceive the mind of the apostle when he realised before the Lord all that he had passed through. It is very peculiar the discipline he had endured. Attached to Israel, not merely as a man would be to his own family, but attached to them as the people of God of whom Christ was born he clung to them to the last, in hope that Jerusalem would be the great Christian centre, and in his own person he was allowed of God to prove that all hope was over. But now all hope of the coming in of Israel at Jerusalem being dispelled, to him - a prisoner in Rome, the capital of the Gentile power-the beauty and magnitude of the church as the body of Christ is opened out. The discipline was effectual; it had removed the thing which in any degree barred or clouded the great mystery that was committed to him. Surely as the natural desire for Israel's blessing was quashed, and as his heart was directed to the great disclosures made to him in Paradise, no one who has not experienced something of the kind can comprehend the effect produced when an object which could claim a great amount of attention, and one at the same time most naturally attractive, has been so completely removed out of sight, that you are quite free to contemplate the only object in the ascendant, and which now has no rival. If Paul had longed that his nation should share in the blessing of the church, he has now most painfully learned that it was inveterately opposed to Christ, and that consequently he is a prisoner at Rome, now contemplating in a cloudless atmosphere the full beauty and grandeur of the great mystery.
It is very interesting to see the effect of the discipline in our apostle. There are no expressions of disappointment that we hear of, but now a prisoner in Rome, he writes the epistle to the Ephesians. Some would say that this was a circular letter ; whether it was or not is of secondary importance ; the great interest to us is that in this epistle we have the fullest opening out of the great mystery - Christ and the church. If Israel, God's earthly people, were once the centre of all His ways here, now, the church, the body of Christ, is infinitely more so. The apostle, severed from every link that would connect him with Israel, is now conducted by the Spirit to apprehend fully, and in practical detail, the secret of God, which had been kept secret from the foundation of the world.
There are two great things peculiar to the mystery : one is that we all-Jew and Gentile-are raised together and made to sit together in heavenly places in Christ ; the first thing is that we are heavenly; and the second is, that in the same power which raised Christ up we are raised up. That is a power entirely outside and beyond everything of man ; and consequently on this, or resulting from it, there should be, because of this power working in us, a growing up to Him, the Head in all things; and this with absolute and decided victory over all the power of the devil, so that it is not merely the height to which we are raised out of all here, but the immense moral superiority in which we are placed here on earth, the place of our alienation from God. Brought to the greatest height (heaven) by the greatest power, the power which raised Christ, and because we are heavenly, competent to be descriptive here of Christ, from the highest circle-the assembly, down to a slave, and at the same time superior to the wiles and the power of the devil. How entranced the apostle must have been as all this by the Spirit came by inspired words before him. Surely he justified God for all the discipline to which he had been subjected in order to make him a vessel fit to impart the greatest communication ever made to a man. We little understand all the pains, as I might say, which the Lord takes with us to render us in any measure suited for His work. He only knows what is fitting, and that this fitness could not be procured by any other means but by the discipline which He who knows behind and before administers. It is most touching to hear the apostle writing " to make all men see the economy of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God "; and in which the angels now learn the manifold wisdom of God ; Eph. 3 : 9, 10. " And to make all men see what is the administration of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ: to the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God."
The remainder of the apostle's life seems to have been divided into two parts : one, in which he was led into the height and blessedness of the mystery, and his own experience as entering into it as detailed in Philippians ; and the other, the terrible declension (2 Tim.) how he was deserted, as we find in chapter 4, and how he helps us in such a time.
It is very interesting and helpful that we have in the epistle to the Philippians the experiences of the apostle at this time. There are, as it seems to me, two parts : the first, the beginning of his imprisonment, when he was enjoying the blessed results of God's calling, as described in Ephesians ; while at the close, when the departure from the truth was almost overwhelming, when all in Asia had turned away from him, he was peculiarly supported and cheered by the Lord, and thus a guide to us. Each is of deep interest to us. The one to show us the sublime happiness which is ours in the most trying circumstances. The prisoner at Rome not only sees and writes of things of infinite magnitude, but he tells us also (led to do so by the Spirit) his own experiences at the time. In Philippians i, " To be with Christ, which is far better," is the first desire of his heart ; but as it is good for the saints that he should remain, he knows that he will remain; but his expectation now, as always, is that Christ should be magnified in his body by life or by death.
Chapter 2. To be like-minded to Christ, to be a servant as He was, would fulfil his joy.
In chapter 3 Christ is his object ; he surrenders all that was naturally of gain to him for Christ, and forgets the things which are behind, pressing on to the goal-the high calling of God in Christ Jesus ; a citizen of heaven, looking for Him to come to change this body of humiliation into a glorious body like Christ's own glorious body. And finally, in chapter 4, he has learned that in whatever state he is to be satisfied in himself, and he can do all things through Him who strengtheneth him. Thus his desire is-First, to be with Christ ; secondly, to be a servant like Him ; thirdly, Christ is his sole exclusive object; and lastly, Christ is the power to carry him over everything here. These four great experiences are generated from the two sides of the calling.
Before we pass from the first part of his imprisonment, we cannot overlook the important allusion he makes in Colossians 2 : i to the conflict he had for the Colossians. It unfolds to us his inner life, and how he, a prisoner, was pleading for the blessing of souls, and how he was led of the Lord to expose the beginning of a leaven which has permeated the church everywhere ; and at the same time to set forth the blessed and only way by which they could be preserved from it. It is very encouraging to place oneself as it were beside the apostle in his chains, and apprehend in some degree the deep conflict through which he was passing in order that the saints might be preserved from this great leaven-a compound of religiousness and mentality. What a contrast are his life and times with the Lord (so blessed and so bright) with his circumstances in the eyes of men! Most blessed to know that holding the Head-Christ everything and in all-clears and preserves us from all this leaven.