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—ACTS 9:1-19.—APRIL 18—
HAVING already noted the establishment of the Gospel in Judea and Samaria and the opening of the door of opportunity to the Gentiles, we come now to the consideration of the spread of the message amongst the Gentiles. This brings us into touch with the great Apostle Paul, whose labors in the ministry will be the theme of the International Lessons for the remainder of this year.
The Apostle to the Gentiles had two names, Saul and Paul. Of Jewish parentage he was named after Israel's first King, Saul; but, as his father was a Roman citizen, it was proper that he should receive a special name with such and Paul was chosen—possibly because in the Greek language the name Saul (Saulus) signified "waddling." We find that after St. Paul's ministry reached to foreign lands he adopted and used his Roman citizenship name exclusively.
His family stock was strongly Jewish and religious—Pharisees. This accounted for his not being sent to the University of Tarsus, but instead to Jerusalem to the School of Gamaliel. Nevertheless, quite probably his early association with learned Greeks helped to give him mental poise, which [R4355 : page 85] was afterward helpful to him when he addressed all classes.
Tradition has it that his parents were quite wealthy, as their position of Roman citizenship implies. Paul's education in Gamaliel's School further implies this, as that was an advanced School or Seminary, attended by few except the sons of the rich. It is surmised that Paul's conversion to Christianity isolated him completely from his home and family and deprived him of an income previously enjoyed, all of which he gladly forsook for Christ's sake. The fact that he had a trade at tent-making is not out of harmony with this, for it is the custom of the rich to give their sons trades. The fact that St. Paul was poor and needed to use his trade seems to imply that his financial allowances were discontinued. His later condition, on the contrary, seems to imply that he afterward inherited a patrimony, which enabled him to live in his own hired house, with numerous conveniences, enjoyed at that time only by the wealthy, and surely not by prisoners in general. It is remarkable that money matters are scarcely mentioned in connection with our Lord and the Apostles, the coins in sufficient amount for taxes and the collection of donations for sufferings at Jerusalem at one time being the only exceptions we recall. We are glad to follow this same course in connection with the present Harvest Work and to commend it to all the Household of Faith everywhere.
Although St. Paul declared, as his enemies would be inclined to say, that in bodily presence he was weak and his speech contemptible, nevertheless, in offset to this, we recall that at Lystra the populace compared him to their god Mercury and thus impliedly complimented his general brilliancy and vigor of manner or both. Dr. Peloubet summarizes this great man's character in the following glowing terms, which we fully endorse:—
"He was deeply religious, whole-souled, ardent, energetic, persevering, broad-minded, affectionate, loving. He was great in more ways, probably, than any other man of human history. He was a great traveler, a great author, a great orator, a great organizer, a great missionary, a great philosopher. All of this genius was yielded in absolute consecration to Jesus Christ. He is the Moses of the New Testament. The two stand supreme amongst men."
We must not use this word conversion in its ordinary sense. We must remember St. Paul's own words to the effect that he was a strong believer in a true God and fully consecrated to his service, not in a formal or nominal sense, but heartily, energetically, with a zeal which persecuted the Church. He had a zeal toward God, but it was not according to knowledge. When God supplied him with the knowledge, it did not change his heart, his impulse, his devotion; it merely changed the direction of his activities. The word convert signifies to turn around. Paul was not turned from a wrong condition of heart to a right one, but he was turned about in his course of action. He served the same God, and with the same zeal, but intelligently and correctly. It is important that we note this carefully, so that we shall not expect God's dealings to be after this manner with unbelievers. He does not smite them down, but, as the Scriptures say, draws them. And he draws only such as are in the right attitude of heart—"Feeling after him."—Acts 17:27.
St. Paul's experience may find more of a parallel in the Christian Church, amongst those consecrated to the Lord, but blinded by superstition. Such may violently persecute those of "this way," and may do so in all "good conscience," as did St. Paul. There is hope for all such, that in some manner the Lord will cause the eyes of their understanding to open. We have more hope of the conversion from error to Truth of those who, in their blindness, are bitter persecutors of "this way," than we have for those who are cold and indifferent or lukewarm. The Lord stands pledged to help those whose hearts are right toward him. True, many, like St. Paul, may weep bitter tears in future years over their misdeeds of ignorance, over their failure to give proper heed to the instructions of the Scriptures, but in the end the Lord will deliver them. On the contrary, however, there is little hope for any who have once tasted of the good Word of God and the powers of the coming age and been made partakers of the holy Spirit—if such shall fall away we may do all in our power for their recovery, but cannot have much hope. As the Apostle remarks, it will be impossible to renew those who have gone to this length.
The previous lesson narrated the progress of the Truth, the Lord blessing the activities of its followers; but still Saul of Tarsus was energetically opposing the Lord's followers and, as an authority in the Law before the Sanhedrin and the high priest and the people, he was carrying the persecution with a high hand. It was evidently because of his consent that Stephen was stoned. His latest move was to get orders from the high priest to bring the Christians of Damascus to Jerusalem to be tried before the Sanhedrin, rather than that they should be tried in their local synagogue. The authority had been secured and Paul, as a representative of the highest Jewish authority of the time, accompanied by a band of men, possibly zealots like himself or possibly commissioned servants, a sort of police squad, neared Damascus at about midday. Suddenly, in the midst of the noonday brightness, came a still brighter light, which fell specially upon Saul, and in the midst of which he sank to the ground quite overcome. Was it a sun-stroke? No! It was a vision "Above the brightness of the sun at noonday"—a vision of the Christ, the Son of God in Glory. A voice was also heard, not only by Saul, but by his companions, though they comprehended not the words as he did. He heard in the Hebrew tongue the message from the Lord, "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?" The bewildered Saul queried, "Who art thou, Lord?" And the answer came, "I am Jesus, whom thou persecutest." [The remaining words, "It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks; and he, trembling and astonished, said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?" are not found in the old manuscripts.] "Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do."
What an opening of the eyes of Saul's understanding occurred at that moment, when he lost his natural sight by reason of the Lord's mercy upon him! We can better imagine than explain what must have been the course of his reasoning. With a self-righteousness he had been a believer in God against heresy and heretics. He had thought of himself, doubtless, as having a specially large degree of Divine approval, because of his untiring zeal—and now suddenly to be told that Jesus was really the Messiah! This was the significance of our Lord's first reproof, "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me!" Saul thought verily that he had been doing God service in persecuting those whom he believed were a little band of heretics, amongst whom were not many great, wise, learned or noble. Now, to his astonishment, he found that the Glorious One of the vision claimed generally the unwise, ignoble, poor as his brethren, his "members," whose sufferings were a part of his own.
The zealous Pharisee, loyal and appointed to the putting down of heretics, who so prided himself upon his zeal for the Lord, in one moment was humbled to the dust, not only literally falling to the ground, but crest-fallen in his mind and [R4356 : page 85] self-esteem. The city of Damascus, which he had expected to enter with great dignity as the representative of the Jewish High Priest, the head of the Jewish religious system, he entered very differently. Opening his eyes after the voice had told him to go into the city, Saul found himself totally blind, so that he required to be led by the hand. So overwhelmed was he that for three days he did neither eat nor drink. He was doubtless acquainted at Damascus or possibly stopping at a hotel, but evidently on the most aristocratic street of the city, called "Straight," because it was really straight, as were so few of the streets of old-time cities. It was a very noble thoroughfare for those times of narrow streets. Its width was one hundred feet and it had a colonnade of marble columns separating the roadway from the building.
If one mentioned Ananias in the Scriptures was convicted of falsity toward the Lord, another of the same name was found faithful. He resided at Damascus. To him the Lord appeared in a vision directing him fully as to how he [R4356 : page 86] should find Saul and what he should do to him for the opening of his eyes. Ananias protested that there must be some mistake, because this man Saul had done much evil to the saints of Jerusalem. He knew also the purpose of his visit to Damascus.
The Lord's commendation of Saul to Ananias was, "Behold, he prayeth!" Ah! how much of a story is told in those three words! How sure we may be that those who similarly humbly address the Almighty are in no injurious mood! True, there are hypocritical prayers, just as our Lord illustrated in the parable of the Pharisees and the publican, but, taken as a whole, private prayer may be considered a sure index to an honest, contrite heart. In our estimation, only the praying ones, even of the Lord's consecrated people, are at all likely to win the prize. If they do not love the Lord enough to render thanks for his mercies and to approach the throne of the heavenly grace and obtain mercy and strength to help in every time of need, then they are not likely to have sufficient strength to stand the trials and tests. We wish that we could feel sure that all of our readers are faithful and earnest in the practice of prayer. We are sure of many of them, but as we long for their progress, we urge them to embrace this great privilege heartily.
Ananias is the first one accredited with the use of the word "Saints" in connection with Jesus' followers. As we well understand, the word signifies "holy ones," "sanctified ones." Surely it is a fitting name for all who profess and endeavor to follow in the footsteps of their Master. Let us each try to be worthy of the name, whether it ever be applied to us or not.
In answer to Ananias' protest, in the vision the Lord said to 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." Saul was peculiarly fitted by birth, by education and by temperament for the service for which the Lord chose him. He was a chosen vessel, and one of large capacity. And yet he was only a vessel. The good things that vessel was to carry were the Divine message of love and mercy. So it is with all the called "members" of the Church. We are merely vessels. The excellency, the merit, the worth, is of our Lord. We are merely servants to him and to his Church. We are not to understand that Saul was chosen to go to heaven, but chosen to be a vessel of mercy. But even in this respect his choice was dependent upon his own willingness. Speaking of the matter himself he declares, "I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision." Elsewhere the Apostle tells us that the "Lord called me from my mother's womb." Presumably he meant that the Divine providence evidently had ordered and arranged that he should be born under certain conditions and environments which tended to make of him just such a vessel for the Gospel as he now was. This choice did not interfere with his free agency, however. He himself declares that he might still become a castaway, even after he had preached to others. The same lesson is appropriate to all of us. The Lord may order our affairs so as to give us special opportunities and privileges in connection with his work, but he never interferes with our hearts—to be in his service against our will. We may at any time draw back from the service, "But," said St. Paul, "if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him."—Heb. 10:38.
We can see the propriety of preaching to the Gentiles first in order. We can see also that such a person as St. Paul had special opportunities for serving the Truth, on such occasions as those in which he appeared and reasoned before Felix, Augustus, Agrippa and others—possibly before the Emperor Nero. (2 Tim. 4:16,17.) His commission also mentioned Israel, and we remember how his preaching in various quarters was "to the Jew first."
How strangely it sounds, "For I will show him how great things he must suffer for my name's sake!" Is any other service than that of our Lord ever entered on these terms—promises of suffering? Surely not. Yet how honest for the Lord not to call his disciples under any misapprehension of the facts! We are called to suffer with him—to sacrifice ourselves, our earthly interests—to share his Cross and, by these experiences, to prove that we have been begotten of his Spirit, and that it has been shed abroad in our hearts and constituted us copies of God's dear Son. Faithfulness to this cause insures the reward of joint-heirship with our Redeemer in his Kingdom; nor can those Kingdom honors be hoped for on any other terms. The Apostle understood this and seems to give the thought, also, that the more any of the Lord's followers can share of the sufferings of Christ, in the flesh, proportionately will be his share in the glory which by and by shall be revealed to us—in the "members of his Body."
The expression, "For my name's sake," is comprehensive. It includes everything connected with the Divine Plan, of which Jesus, the Messiah, is the center. It includes sufferings for the Truth's sake, because the Truth is vitally connected with the "only Name." It includes the brethren because they have named the name of Christ and they are under his name as members of his Body. It includes all the work of the Millennial Kingdom because he is the Head of it all, and his name, his honor, is associated with it all. Let us, therefore, be glad of any sufferings which come to us directly or indirectly, because of our faithfulness to the "precious name" and these various interests which are associated with it.
Assured by the Lord's leadings that the way was open to him to serve the Truth, Ananias hesitated no longer. In full confidence of faith he addressed Saul in the most kindly terms, saying, "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." (V. 12.) Promptly there fell from Saul's eyes something resembling fish scales. Evidently the intense light had destroyed the surface of the eye, which now peeled off. His sight was restored, though to what degree of perfection is questionable. It seems evident that for the remainder of life he was afflicted with weak eyes, which hindered his writing his own epistles, except one which, he remarked, was written in large characters. We can fancy the disadvantage he would be under in some respects by reason of this affliction, that his bodily presence would be much less attractive than before, and that nothing but the Truth behind his words could longer influence his auditors.
We can fancy the sympathy which St. Paul's affliction called forth among the loving brethren. "I bear you witness, that, if it had been possible, ye would have plucked out your own eyes, and have given them to me."—Gal. 4:15.
The Apostle as a chosen vessel was to have a very conspicuous part in the Divine program, in the introduction of the Gospel, and his own humility was a very essential matter. Doubtless the Lord foresaw that this remnant of his eye trouble would ever keep him in remembrance of the great blunder he made in his zeal without knowledge, and of the Lord's mercy to him. These two thoughts would doubtless keep him humble and trustful and probably provide a great blessing to him, even though he entreated for its removal, until the Lord indicated otherwise, saying, "My grace is sufficient for thee." (2 Cor. 12:9.) Ah, says the Apostle, if having this affliction means more Divine grace, then I am content to keep it and would be sorry to part with it. Let us, dear friends, view our trials, persecutions, difficulties, thus—as of Divine permission for our good. Let us be assured that he who has accepted us in the bonds of love and who has begotten us with his Spirit and called us sons, is not unmindful of our highest interests and would not suffer us to be tried and tempted except as he would make all such experiences work out harmoniously to our highest welfare.
Saul had been praying and fasting for three days and nights and now realized the Lord's forgiving love, as manifested in the sending of Ananias, in harmony with his dream and with a recovery of a measure of his sight. With this evidence of Divine favor he would start afresh. First he would be baptized and thus symbolize his allegiance to the [R4357 : page 87] Crucified One. Then he would eat for the refreshment of his body that the strength might be used in the service of his new Master.
We read that forthwith Saul preached Christ in the synagogue of Damascus. We admire his courage, his honesty! We do well to let the illustration quicken our own minds and hearts with appreciation that we may be fortified for similar and all emergencies—to use every opportunity to serve the Lord and to undo anything that we have previously done amiss. Presumably the Apostle felt his need of special preparation for the ministry of the Cross of Christ. At all events it is presumed that it was shortly after his conversion, shortly after his preaching at Damascus, that he turned aside into the desert of Arabia. It is possible that those three years were spent studying out the various features of the Divine Program. Doubtless there he received visions which filled him with enthusiasm for the work of his great message, the blessings of which have come down through all age and are still with us.