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Expositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts online

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and blessed is he, a prisoner, that he can wish nothing better for any
than to be like him in his faith. He hints his willingness to take any
pains and undergo any troubles for such an end; and, with almost a
smile, he looks at his chains, and adds, 'except these bonds.'

Did Festus wince a little at the mention of these, which ought not to
have been on his wrists? At all events, the entertainment had taken
rather too serious a turn for the taste of any of the three, - Festus,
Agrippa, or Bernice. If this strange man was going to shake their
consciences in that fashion, it was high time to end what was, after
all, as far as the rendering of justice was concerned, something like a
farce.

So with a rustle, and amid the obeisances of the courtiers, the three
rose, and, followed by the principal people, went through the form of
deliberation. There was only one conclusion to be come to. He was
perfectly innocent. So Agrippa solemnly pronounced, what had been known
before, that he had done nothing worthy of death or bonds, though he
had 'these bonds' on his arms; and salved the injustice of keeping an
innocent man in custody by throwing all the blame on Paul himself for
appealing to Csesar. But the person to blame was Festus, who had forced
Paul to appeal in order to save his life.



'THE HEAVENLY VISION'

'Whereupon, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly
vision.' Acts xxvi. 19.

This is Paul's account of the decisive moment in his life on which all
his own future, and a great deal of the future of Christianity and of
the world, hung. The gracious voice had spoken from heaven, and now
everything depended on the answer made in the heart of the man lying
there blind and amazed. Will he rise melted by love, and softened into
submission, or hardened by resistance to the call of the exalted Lord?
The somewhat singular expression which he employs in the text, makes us
spectators of the very process of his yielding. For it might be
rendered, with perhaps an advantage, 'I _became_ not disobedient'; as
if the 'disobedience' was the prior condition, from which we see him in
the very act of passing, by the melting of his nature and the yielding
of his will. Surely there have been few decisions in the world's
history big with larger destinies than that which the captive described
to Agrippa in the simple words: 'I became not disobedient unto the
heavenly vision.'

I. Note, then, first, that this heavenly vision shines for us too.

Paul throughout his whole career looked back to the miraculous
appearance of Jesus Christ in the heavens, as being equally availably
as valid ground for his Christian convictions as were the appearances
of the Lord in bodily form to the Eleven after His resurrection. And I
may venture to work the parallel in the inverse direction, and to say
to you that what we see and know of Jesus Christ is as valid a ground
for our convictions, and as true and powerful a call for our obedience,
as when the heaven was rent, and the glory above the midday sun bathed
the persecutor and his followers on the stony road to Damascus. For the
revelation that is made to the understanding and the heart, to the
spirit and the will, is the same whether it be made, as it was to Paul,
through a heavenly vision, or, as it was to the other Apostles, through
the facts of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus,
which their senses certified to them, or, as it is to us, by the record
of the same facts, permanently enshrined in Scripture. Paul's sight of
Christ was for a moment; we can see Him as often and as long as we
will, by turning to the pages of this Book. Paul's sight of Christ was
accompanied with but a partial apprehension of the great and
far-reaching truths which he was to learn and to teach, as embodied in
the Lord whom he saw. To see Him was the work of a moment, to 'know
Him' was the effort of a lifetime. We have the abiding results of the
lifelong process lying ready to our hands in Paul's own letters, and we
have not only the permanent record of Christ in the Gospels instead of
the transient vision in the heavens, and the unfolding of the meaning
and bearings of the historical facts, in the authoritative teaching of
the Epistles, but we have also, in the history of the Church founded on
these, in the manifest workings of a divine power for and through the
company of believers, as well as in the correspondence between the
facts and doctrines of Christianity and the wants of humanity, a vision
disclosed and authenticated as heavenly, more developed, fuller of
meaning and more blessed to the eyes which see it, than that which was
revealed to the persecutor as he reeled from his horse on the way to
the great city.

Dear brethren, they who see Christ in the word, In the history of the
world, in the pleading of the preacher, in the course of the ages, and
who sometimes hear His voice in the warnings which He breathes into
their consciences, and in the illuminations which He flashes on their
understanding, need ask for no loftier, no more valid and irrefragable
manifestation of His gracious self. To each of us this vision is
granted. May I say, without seeming egotism to you it is granted even
through the dark and cloudy envelope of my poor words?

II. The vision of Christ, howsoever perceived, comes demanding
obedience.

The purpose for which Jesus Christ made Himself known to Paul was to
give him a charge which should influence his whole life. And the manner
in which the Lord, when He had appeared, prepared the way for the
charge was twofold. He revealed Himself in His radiant glory, in His
exalted being, in His sympathetic and mysterious unity with them that
loved Him and trusted Him, in His knowledge of the doings of the
persecutor; and He disclosed to Saul the inmost evil that lurked in his
own heart, and showed him to his bewilderment and confusion, how the
course that he thought to be righteousness and service was blasphemy
and sin. So, by the manifestation of Himself enthroned omniscient,
bound by the closest ties of identity and of sympathy with all that
love Him, and by the disclosure of the amazed gazer's evil and sin,
Jesus Christ opened the way for the charge which bore in its very heart
an assurance of pardon, and was itself a manifestation of His love.

In like manner all heavenly visions are meant to secure human
obedience. We have not done what God means us to do with any knowledge
of Him which He grants, unless we utilise it to drive the wheels of
life and carry it out into practice in our daily conduct. Revelation is
not meant to satisfy mere curiosity or the idle desire to know. It
shines above us like the stars, but, unlike them, it shines to be the
guide of our lives. And whatsoever glimpse of the divine nature, or of
Christ's love, nearness, and power, we have ever caught, was meant to
bow our wills in glad submission, and to animate our hands for diligent
service and to quicken our feet to run in the way of His commandments.

There is plenty of idle gazing, with more or less of belief, at the
heavenly vision. I beseech you to lay to heart this truth, that Christ
rends the heavens and shows us God, not that men may know, but that men
may, knowing, do; and all His visions are the bases of commandments. So
the question for us all is, What are we doing with what we know of
Jesus Christ? Nothing? Have we translated our thoughts of Him into
actions, and have we put all our actions under the control of our
thoughts of Him? It is not enough that a man should say, 'Whereupon I
_saw_ the vision,' or, 'Whereupon I was _convinced_ of the vision,' or,
'Whereupon I _understood_ the vision.' Sight, apprehension, theology,
orthodoxy, they are all very well, but the right result is, 'Whereupon
I was _not disobedient_ to the heavenly vision.' And unless your
knowledge of Christ makes you do, and keep from doing, a thousand
things, it is only an idle vision, which adds to your guilt.

But notice, in this connection, the peculiarity of the obedience which
the vision requires. There is not a word, in this story of Paul's
conversion, about the thing which Paul himself always puts in the
foreground as the very hinge upon which conversion turns - viz. faith.
Not a word. The name is not here, but the thing is here, if people will
look. For the obedience which Paul says that he rendered to the vision
was not rendered with his hands. He got up to his feet on the road
there, 'not disobedient,' though he had not yet done anything. This is
to say, the man's will had melted. It had all gone with a run, so to
speak, and the inmost being of him was subdued. The obedience was the
submission of self to God, and not the more or less diligent and
continuous consequent external activity in the way of God's
commandments.

Further, Paul's obedience is also an obedience based upon the vision of
Jesus Christ enthroned, living, bound by ties that thrill at the
slightest touch to all hearts that love Him, and making common cause
with them.

And furthermore, it is an obedience based upon the shuddering
recognition of Paul's own unsuspected evil and foulness, how all the
life, that he had thought was being built up into a temple that God
would inhabit, was rottenness and falsehood.

And it is an obedience, further, built upon the recognition of pity and
pardon in Christ, who, after His sharp denunciation of the sin, looks
down from Heaven with a smile of forgiveness upon His lips, and says:
'But rise and stand upon thy feet, for I will send thee to make known
My name.'

An obedience which is the inward yielding of the will, which is all
built upon the revelation of the living Christ, who was dead and is
alive for evermore, and close to all His followers; and is, further,
the thankful tribute of a heart that knows itself to be sinful, and is
certain that it is forgiven - what is that but the obedience which is of
faith? And thus, when I say that the heavenly vision demands obedience,
I do not mean that Christ shows Himself to you to set you to work, but
I mean that Christ shows Himself to you that you may yield yourselves
to Him, and in the act may receive power to do all His sweet and sacred
will.

III. Thirdly, this obedience is in our own power to give or to withhold.

Paul, as I said in my introductory remarks, puts us here as spectators
of the very act of submission. He shows it to us in its beginning - he
shows us the state from which he came and that into which he passed,
and he tells us, 'I _became_ - not disobedient.' In his case it was a
complete, swift, and permanent revolution, as if some thick-ribbed ice
should all at once melt into sweet water. But whether swift or slow it
was his own act, and after the Voice had spoken it was possible that
Paul should have resisted and risen from the ground, not a servant, but
a persecutor still. For God's grace constrains no man, and there is
always the possibility open that when He calls we refuse, and that when
He beseeches we say, 'I will not.'

There is the mystery on which the subtlest intellects have tasked their
powers and blunted the edge of their keenness in all generations; and
it is not likely to be settled in five minutes of a sermon of mine. But
the practical point that I have to urge is simply this: there are two
mysteries, the one that men _can_, and the other that men _do_, resist
Christ's pleading voice. As to the former, we cannot fathom it. But do
not let any difficulty deaden to you the clear voice of your own
consciousness. If I cannot trust my sense that I can do this thing or
not do it, as I choose, there is nothing that I can trust. Will is the
power of determining which of two roads I shall go, and, strange as it
is, incapable of statement in any more general terms than the
reiteration of the fact; yet here stands the fact, that God, the
infinite Will, has given to men, whom He made in His own image, this
inexplicable and awful power of coinciding with or opposing His
purposes and His voice.

'Our wills are ours, we know not how;
Our wills are ours, to make them Thine.'

For the other mystery is, that men _do_ consciously set themselves
against the will of God, and refuse the gifts which they know all the
while are for their good. It is of no use to say that sin is ignorance.
No; that is only a surface explanation. You and I know too well that
many a time when we have been as sure of what God wanted us to do as if
we had seen it written in flaming letters on the sky there, we have
gone and done the exact opposite. I know that there are men and women
who are convinced in their inmost souls that they ought to be
Christians, and that Jesus Christ is pleading with them at the present
hour, and yet in whose hearts there is no yielding to what, they yet
are certain, is the will and voice of Jesus Christ.

IV. Lastly, this obedience may, in a moment, revolutionise a life.

Paul rode from Jerusalem 'breathing out threatenings and slaughters.'
He fell from his warhorse, a persecutor of Christians, and a bitter
enemy of Jesus. A few moments pass. There was one moment in which the
crucial decision was made; and he staggered to his feet, loving all
that he had hated, and abandoning all in which he had trusted. His own
doctrine that 'if any man be in Christ he is a new creature, old things
are passed away and all things are become new,' is but a generalisation
of what befell himself on the Damascus road. It is of no use trying to
say that there had been a warfare going on in this man's mind long
before, of which his complete capitulation was only the final visible
outcome. There is not a trace of anything of the kind in the story. It
is a pure hypothesis pressed into the service of the anti-supernatural
explanation of the fact.

There are plenty of analogies of such sudden and entire revolution. All
reformation of a moral kind is best done quickly. It is a very hopeless
task, as every one knows, to tell a drunkard to break off his habits
gradually. There must be one moment in which he definitely turns
himself round and sets his face in the other direction. Some things are
best done with slow, continuous pressure; other things need to be done
with a wrench if they are to be done at all.

There used to be far too much insistence upon one type of religious
experience, and all men that were to be recognised as Christians were,
by evangelical Nonconformists, required to be able to point to the
moment when, by some sudden change, they passed from darkness to light.
We have drifted away from that very far now, and there is need for
insisting, not upon the necessity, but upon the possibility, of sudden
conversions. However some may try to show that such experiences cannot
be, the experience of every earnest Christian teacher can answer - well!
whether they can be or not, they are. Jesus Christ cured two men
gradually, and all the others instantaneously. No doubt, for young
people who have been born amidst Christian influences, and have grown
up in Christian households, the usual way of becoming Christians is
that slowly and imperceptibly they shall pass into the consciousness of
communion with Jesus Christ. But for people who have grown up
irreligious and, perhaps, profligate and sinful, the most probable way
is a sudden stride out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of
God's dear Son. So I come to you all with this message. No matter what
your past, no matter how much of your life may have ebbed away, no
matter how deeply rooted and obstinate may be your habits of evil, no
matter how often you may have tried to mend yourself and have failed,
it is possible by one swift act of surrender to break the chains and go
free. In every man's life there have been moments into which years have
been crowded, and which have put a wider gulf between his past and his
present self than many slow, languid hours can dig. A great sorrow, a
great joy, a great, newly discerned truth, a great resolve will make
'one day as a thousand years.' Men live through such moments and feel
that the past is swallowed up as by an earthquake. The highest instance
of thus making time elastic and crowding it with meaning is when a man
forms and keeps the swift resolve to yield himself to Christ. It may be
the work of a moment, but it makes a gulf between past and future, like
that which parted the time before and the time after that in which 'God
said, Let there be light: and there was light.' If you have never yet
bowed before the heavenly vision and yielded yourself as conquered by
the love which pardons, to be the glad servant of the Lord Jesus who
takes all His servants into wondrous oneness with Himself, do it now.
You can do it. Delay is disobedience, and may be death. Do it now, and
your whole life will be changed. Peace and joy and power will come to
you, and you, made a new man, will move in a new world of new
relations, duties, energies, loves, gladnesses, helps, and hopes. If
you take heed to prolong the point into a line, and hour by hour to
renew the surrender and the cry, 'Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?'
you will ever have the vision of the Christ enthroned, pardoning,
sympathising, and commanding, which will fill your sky with glory,
point the path of your feet, and satisfy your gaze with His beauty, and
your heart with His all-sufficing and ever-present love.



'ME A CHRISTIAN!'

'Then Agrlppa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a
Christian.' - ACTS xxvi 28.

This Agrippa was son of the other Herod of whom we hear in the Acts as
a persecutor. This one appears from other sources, to have had the
vices but not the force of character of his bad race. He was weak and
indolent, a mere hanger-on of Rome, to which he owed his kingdom, and
to which he stoutly stuck during all the tragedy of the fall of
Jerusalem. In position and in character (largely resulting from the
position) he was uncommonly like those semi-independent rajahs in
India, who are allowed to keep up a kind of shadow of authority on
condition of doing what Calcutta bids them. Of course frivolity and
debauchery become the business of such men. What sort of a man this was
may be sufficiently inferred from the fact that Bernice was his sister.

But he knew a good deal about the Jews, about their opinions, their
religion, and about what had been going on during the last half century
amongst them. Or grounds of policy he professed to accept the Jewish
faith - of which an edifying example is given in the fact that, on one
occasion, Bernice was prevented from accompanying him to Rome because
she was fulfilling a Nazarite vow in the Temple at Jerusalem!

So the Apostle was fully warranted in appealing to Agrippa's knowledge,
not only of Judaism, but of the history of Jesus Christ, and in his
further assertion, 'I know that thou believest.' But the home-thrust
was too much for the king. His answer is given in the words of our text.

They are very familiar words, and they have been made the basis of a
great many sermons upon being all but persuaded to accept of Christ as
Saviour. But, edifying as such a use of them is, it can scarcely be
sustained by their actual meaning. Most commentators are agreed that
our Authorised Version does not represent either Agrippa's words or his
tone. He was not speaking in earnest. His words are sarcasm, not a half
melting into conviction, and the Revised Version gives what may, on the
whole, be accepted as being a truer representation of their intention
when it reads, 'With but little persuasion thou wouldst fain make me a
Christian.'

He is half amused and half angry at the Apostle's presumption in
supposing that so easily or so quickly he was going to land his fish.
'It is a more difficult task than you fancy, Paul, to make a Christian
of a man like me.' That is the real meaning of his words, and I think
that, rightly understood, they yield lessons of no less value than
those that have been so often drawn from them as they appear in our
Authorised Version. So I wish to try and gather up and urge upon you
now these lessons: -

I. First, then, I see here an example of the danger of a superficial
familiarity with Christian truth.

As I said, Agrippa knew, in a general way, a good deal not only about
the prophets and the Jewish religion, but of the outstanding facts of
the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul's assumption that he
knew would have been very quickly repudiated if it had not been based
upon fact. And the inference from his acceptance without contradiction
of the Apostle's statement is confirmed by his use of the word
'Christian,' which had by no means come into general employment when he
spoke; and in itself indicates that he knew a good deal about the
people who were so named. Mark the contrast, for instance, between him
and the bluff Roman official at his side. To Festus, Paul's talking
about a dead man's having risen, and a risen Jew becoming a light to
all nations, was such utter nonsense that, with characteristic Roman
contempt for men with ideas, he breaks in, with his rough, strident
voice, 'Much learning has made thee mad.' There was not much chance of
that cause producing that effect on Festus. But he was apparently
utterly bewildered at this entirely novel and unintelligible sort of
talk. Agrippa, on the other hand, knows all about the Resurrection; has
heard that there was such a thing, and has a general rough notion of
what Paul believed as a Christian.

And was he any better for it? No; he was a great deal worse. It took
the edge off a good deal of his curiosity. It made him fancy that he
knew beforehand all that the Apostle had to say. It stood in the way of
his apprehending the truths which he thought that he understood.

And although the world knows a great deal more about Jesus Christ and
the Gospel than he did, the very same thing is true about hundreds and
thousands of people who have all their lives long been brought into
contact with Christianity. Superficial knowledge is the worst enemy of
accurate knowledge, for the first condition of knowing a thing is to
know that we do not know it. And so there are a great many of us who,
having picked up since childhood vague and partially inaccurate notions
about Christ and His Gospel and what He has done, are so satisfied on
the strength of these that we know all about it, that we listen to
preaching about it with a very languid attention. The ground in our
minds is preoccupied with our own vague and imperfect apprehensions. I
believe that there is nothing that stands more in the way of hundreds
of people coming into real intelligent contact with Gospel truth than
the half knowledge that they have had of it ever since they were
children. You fancy that you know all that I can tell you. Very
probably you do. But have you ever taken a firm hold of the plain
central facts of Christianity - your own sinfulness and helplessness,
your need of a Saviour, the perfect work of Jesus Christ who died on
the Cross for you, and the power of simple faith therein to join you to
Him, and, if followed by consecration and obedience, to make you
partakers of His nature, and heirs of the inheritance that is above?
These are but the fundamentals, the outlines of Gospel truth. But far
too many of you see them, in such a manner as you see the figures cast
upon a screen when the lantern is not rightly focussed, with a blurred
outline, and the blurred outline keeps you from seeing the sharp-cut
truth as it is in Jesus. In all regions of thought inaccurate knowledge
is the worst foe to further understanding, and eminently is this the
case in religion. Brethren, some of you are in that position.

Then there is another way in which such knowledge as that of which the
king in our text is an example is a hindrance, and that is, that it is
knowledge which has no effect on character. What do hundreds of us do
with our knowledge of Christianity? Our minds seem built in watertight
compartments, and we keep the doors of them shut very close, so that
truths in the understanding have no influence on the will. Many of you
believe the Gospel intellectually, and it does not make a hairsbreadth
of difference to anything that you ever either thought or wished or
did. And because you so believe it, it is utterly impossible that it
should ever be of any use to you. 'Agrippa, believest thou the
prophets? I know that thou believest.' 'Yes, believest the prophets,
and Bernice sitting by thy side there - believest the prophets, and
livest in utter bestial godlessness.' What is the good of a knowledge
of Christianity like that? And is it not such knowledge of Christianity



Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 53 of 57)