By J.R. Miller
Saul the Pharisee, who consented to the death of Stephen (Acts 8:1), immediately gave himself to persecuting the Christians. Unless all he had been taught was false, every believer in Christ was a transgressor of the law, and to the support of the law--Paul had devoted his life. Only when his eyes were opened by Christ, did he see his mistake. This should be remembered when we are tempted to be uncharitable in our interpretation of motives which we condemn. Many of those with whose conduct Christian men and women disagree, are not willfully wrongdoers--some of them are merely misguided. This does not excuse them--but it is a claim on our charity.
Years after Paul had learned his error, he told Agrippa the story of his conversion. He described the vision and told of the words of Christ. It was a vision of Christ that Paul saw. He knew now that Jesus was the Messiah, and turned at once to follow Him. Heavenly visions come to people, inviting them away from evil and from worldliness, to pure, good, true and divine things. The Christian mother's teachings, as she holds her little one on her knee and talks to it of Jesus--places before the young eyes a vision of the Savior in His beauty and grace and love. Every sermon in which Christ is lifted up--sets the vision before the young listener. How often do the tears of childhood and youth flow as the Savior is seen in mental vision on the cross? The Holy Spirit also brings the vision in all its vividness before the eyes--the lovely, suffering, dying, glorified Jesus.
Doddridge, in his life of Colonel Gardiner, describes the conversion of the wicked soldier. He was waiting near midnight, the hour fixed for a sinful meeting with another, and was carelessly turning over the pages of a religious book, when suddenly he saw before him, vivid and clear, the form of the Redeemer on His cross, and heard Him Speak, "All this I have done for you; and is this your return?" Like Paul, he was not disobedient to the heavenly vision--but from that moment followed Christ. That is what every one of us should do; when we see Christ and hear His voice, we should straightway leave all and go after Him.
Not only at the beginning--but all the way through life, God sends us visions to guide us. Every time we see in a verse of the Scripture a glimpse of something beautiful commended, it is a heavenly vision given to us to lead us to the beauty it shows. Every fragment of loveliness we see in a human life--is a heavenly vision sent to woo us upward. Wherever we see beauty which attracts us and kindles in us desires and aspirations for higher attainments, it is a vision from God, whose mission is to call us to a higher life. We should not prove disobedient to any heavenly vision--but should follow every one--as sent from heaven to woo us nearer God.
It is thus every true artist works. He dreams dreams and sees visions, and then seeks to put on canvas or in marble, his dreams and visions. Every great and noble thing anyone does, is first a vision in his soul, to which he surrenders himself. All of Paul's life, was but a struggle toward the realization of the vision that he saw at Damascus. "One thing I do, forgetting the things which are behind, and stretching forward to the things which are before, I press on toward the goal unto the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus." He saw ever before him, the vision of the perfect character of Christ, and put forth every energy of his life to realize it in himself. So should we all do.
Soon after Paul saw his vision, he began the work of preaching Christ, whose followers he had persecuted. He went to the people of Damascus and Jerusalem and Judea, Jews and Gentiles alike, and "declared ... that they should repent and turn to God." Repenting is not merely giving up one's sins; it is also turning to God. The sinner needs to turn to God for mercy and for refuge from the divine wrath against sin. He must also return to God as a prodigal returns to his father and his home. He must turn to God in life, in obedience, in heart, in love, in spirit. A Christian is one who has truly left his sins and is now walking with God, doing God's will and growing into Christ's likeness. Therefore, repentance is not a mere passing emotion of regret. It is not mere sorrow that the sin has been found out. It is really an abandonment of the old life--and the reception of Christ as the Master of the new life, and the turning of heart and soul after Him.
But Paul preached that people must also "prove their repentance by their deeds." We have a right to ask every professing Christian to prove that he is a Christian. His mere statement is not sufficient. He must give the evidence in his life; and the evidence that will prove it beyond doubt, will be faithfulness in every day's duties, consistency in every day's conduct, and the moral beauty in all the developments of the character. True religion is very practical. Christian life is nothing at all--if it is only a fine sentiment. It must touch and affect every part of our being. It must work into all the relations, experiences and duties of our common days.
"I have had God's help to this very day, and so I stand here and testify to small and great alike." Acts 26:22. When Paul stood before Agrippa, it was twenty-five years after his conversion. They had been years of toilsome life, amid enemies and dangers; but the heroic old apostle had never given up, never faltered, never turned aside. It was a great record--but he takes no praise to himself. The help came from God--for all these years of faithful witnessing.
Many Christians fear that they will not be able to stand faithful and true to the end. Here is an encouraging word for all such: They shall obtain help from God for every duty, for every hour of danger, for every struggle. They need only to be faithful day by day, doing the day's duty quietly, and trusting God. This help will come from Him, silently, secretly, just as it is needed, always sufficient grace, so that they shall be able to stand faithful year after year. God never puts a burden on us--without giving us the strength we need to carry it. The way to obtain help of God--is to go faithfully and promptly forward in the way of duty, asking for the help, and sure of getting it. It will not come if we wait to get it before we set out to do His will. "I am sure of this, that He who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." Philippians 1:6
"I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen--that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles." Acts 26:23. Paul explained to Agrippa that he had not abandoned his old religion for a new one. Christianity is the ripe fruit of which Judaism was the bud and blossom. Moses and the prophets preached the same gospel that Paul did. The Bible is one book. The same streams of promise and hope flow through all its parts, only that in the Old Testament they flow underground, and in the New they burst out in the sight of all men! Abraham was saved just as we are, only he saw Christ merely by faith, and dimly, a Savior promised; and we see Him clearly, a Savior who has come and finished His work.
"At this point Festus interrupted Paul's defense: You are out of your mind, Paul! Your great learning is driving you insane!" Acts 26:24. That is the way earnestness in religion is rewarded by the world. Even Christ own family thought He was crazy--"When his family heard what was happening, they tried to take him home with them. 'He's out of His mind!' they said." Mark 3:21
Festus said that Paul was insane. But who was the madman that day--Paul, who believed on Christ and was living for eternal realities; or Festus, who sat there and sneered? Who is the madman now--the devout and the fervent Christian, or the worldly scoffer and reviler? There is no insanity like that which disbelieves in the realities of eternity and rejects the glorious gospel of Christ. Men really only come to their right minds--when they awake to their true condition as lost sinners--and return to God their Father.
Agrippa seems to have been affected differently. He said to Paul, "You almost persuade me to be a Christian." Acts 26:28. Perhaps we cannot be absolutely sure whether these words were a sneer or whether they were meant to hide conviction. No matter; it was Agrippa's one great opportunity for salvation--and he threw it away! Such opportunity comes to all. Every lost one was at one time on the very edge of salvation. Fear drives some almost to the point of fleeing to Christ. Or, the love of Christ almost wins them. Or, the truth faithfully presented and pressed into their hearts, leads them almost to decision. They reach the door--but do not enter. There is a story of a prodigal who turned homeward and traversed weary miles, until he had his hand on the knocker of his father's door, and then withdrew it, and turned away again, plunging into deeper sin and shame. To be "almost a Christian" is not a safe condition.
A woman was lost in the mountains. All night she wandered, seeking the way home. At length she sank down and died as the dawn was breaking. In the morning they found her but a few steps from the door of the hotel, which she had been struggling to reach. Close about heaven's gates, millions of souls perish--almost saved, yet lost! God wants us to be altogether Christians. Almost will not avail. How terrible the thought, forever, to the lost sinner, that he was once almost saved--and yet lost for all eternity!
Paul's answer to Agrippa came from the heart. "I would to God ... all who hear me ... might become such as I am, except for these chains." It is not enough that we are saved ourselves; we must be propagators of the gospel; we must try to save our lost fellows. Paul knew he had something which Agrippa and the others had not.
Sometimes Christians forget that they are children of God and heirs of God, that they have eternal life, that heaven is theirs. They go about hanging their heads in the presence of those who are not Christians, almost as if apologizing for being Christians. But even in the presence of a king, the governor, and the other people of rank--Paul was conscious that he was far richer than they were, had a higher rank. He had something they had not, and to possess which, would greatly add to their happiness and honor. If all Christians had this realization of their dignity, honor and noble rank--it would greatly add to their power in impressing Christianity upon the world and in urging others to come with them into the same blessed life.
Perhaps Agrippa's answer to Paul's earnest words showed how he was impressed, "This man might have been set at liberty, if he had not appealed unto Caesar." So it looked as if Paul had made a mistake in appealing to Caesar. This made it necessary that he should be sent to Rome. It would have seemed better, that he should at once be released from prison that he might go out to preach. But there was another Hand, not a human hand, that was at work unseen those days amid the complicated movements of things. God's plan was being wrought out in spite of, even in and through, men's enmities and persecutions. God had a mission for Paul in Rome. He was needed to carry the gospel there.
Had he been released at this time he would probably have been seized again by the Jews and might have fallen a victim to their rage and hatred, thus ending his work. His appeal made it necessary that the Roman Government should take him to Rome. Thus he was sure of protection and was carried to the world's capital without expense, that he might there preach the gospel! Thus Rome itself became a helper in extending Christ's Kingdom. We shall see, as we read on, what good and blessing came out of this, which seemed that day an unfortunate thing, a hindrance. God's plan for our lives are always good, and we need only submit to them.