J. N. Darby.
The captain permitting Paul to speak to the people, the apostle relates the story of his conversion, then that which brings to light his submission to the superstitions of the Jewish Christians. This was the result of personal amiability, grace, and condescension to his brethren, but not of the direction and power of the Holy Ghost. His position was a false one; and in a false position it is impossible to do well. Though the grace of God may support, and sustain those so placed, yet the Holy Ghost cannot act in free power by their means. It is in sovereignty that He acts, and the instrument is like blind Samson, the power exercised being the end of his own career, as well as that of his enemies.
What is seen clearly in Paul is the absence of this power. The Lord's grace was always there. Thus, what he did in the temple was the effect of the counsels of the elders, not of the direction of the Spirit.
Captured now by the captain, he is allowed to speak to the people. As Paul addresses them in their own language, they listen in silence, while he relates the story of his conversion, of the revelation he had had of the glory of Christ, as well as that given to Ananias, a devout Jew. The moment he reaches the cardinal point of his discourse, however, the fury of the audience breaks out with a violence which the presence of the captain and soldiers cannot check. "I send thee far hence unto the Gentiles. And they lifted up their voices, and said, Away with such a fellow from the earth." It was precisely what the Lord had said to him, "They will not receive thy testimony concerning Me." What then was he doing at Jerusalem? The word that had sent him away from Jerusalem on his glorious mission is fulfilled when he re-enters it, to the ruin of his work, making him once more a Jew, bound by the law.
430 Like Jesus, Paul is condemned on account of the truth of his mission; but in the apostle's case, in a position that contradicted the mission itself. But the Jews complete their sin by rejecting, and giving up to the Gentiles, the grace offered to them. The word that raised the tumult was also the occasion of his imprisonment among the Romans. This was the proof, that as an apostle he had nothing to do at Jerusalem. He loved his people, and that deeply; for he had returned to Jerusalem, in spite of all that had been said to him. Desiring to bear witness there, he had reasoned with the Lord; but the Lord had replied that he ought not to go there. He excuses himself to the Jews, without doubt; but if they would not receive his testimony, what was the necessity of saying that the Lord had sent him? This discourse is the main point of the apostle's history, on which all the rest depends.
Paul justifies himself before the Jews, declaring how like themselves, he had persecuted the Christians even unto death, and that they and the high priest were witnesses of it. Then he relates how all had been changed by the appearing of the Lord in glory, who had declared Himself as Jesus, and shewn him how, in persecuting the Christians, he was persecuting the Lord Himself; and lastly the part that Ananias, the devout Jew, had taken in the affair. All this they tolerate, but when the apostle speaks of a mission to the Gentiles, their wrath breaks forth. They complete their sin. "Forbidding us," had said the apostle, "to speak to the Gentiles - to fill up their sins already; for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost, 1 Thess. 2:16.
There are three degrees in their sin. First, they crucified the Lord of glory, and were guilty of the ten thousand talents (Matt. 18); but Christ intercedes for them on the cross, and the Holy Ghost responds to this prayer by the mouth of Peter (chap. 3), declaring that if they repented of their sin, Jesus would return. But they stopped the mouth of Peter, and then stoned Stephen who bore testimony to the glory of the Son of man at the right hand of God. This was the second degree; they would not believe in a glorified Saviour, when the Spirit bore witness to Him.
431 All this happened among the Jews. But Paul had a mission among the Gentiles, since the Jews would not have the grace offered to them. They would have been willing enough to enjoy the promises made to Israel, although they had rejected Him in whom all the promises were fulfilled; but of having compassion on His servant, they did not even think. It was the end; all was finished; the debt of the ten thousand talents weighed down on them. Jerusalem would neither have grace itself, nor leave it to others. Judgment will come upon it. The patience of God, long-suffering patience, at length came to its end for hearts that refused to surrender to the perfect grace of God. But the judgment of God is only pronounced at Rome (Acts 28); a judgment already announced eight hundred years previously (Isaiah 6). But in the patience of God, this was not executed till they opposed themselves openly to His grace.
But judgment had to be executed. Christ in humiliation worked by the power of God; then Christ having been glorified, the Holy Ghost was sent into the world. Paul was afterwards raised up to carry the gospel to the Gentiles; and all having been rejected, nothing remained but judgment. The mystery of the union of Jews and Gentiles in one body was promulgated by Paul, and was the true point of progress of his testimony. It was grace itself that was rejected. God permitted the journey of Paul to Jerusalem, so that all might come to an end. Grace ever continues, even during the period of his captivity at Rome; and the mystery itself is fully unfolded by him in the Epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians: and then he has given us the true Christian character, the practical fall of the system (Phil. 2:21), and the superiority of faith to all the circumstances in the Epistle to the Philippians. In 2 Timothy, the walk of the faithful Christian amid a scene of ruin, is clearly taught.
It will be worth our while to notice a few particularities in the apostle's discourse. The Lord still calls Himself Jesus of Nazareth. We know that He was glorified, but this makes Him shine with a light more brilliant than that of the sun. He is ever the same benign and gentle Man who learned human sorrows in the midst of men. He thinks of others, and considers all Christians as part of Himself. "I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest." Infinitely precious truth! Then we find in Paul the same liberty as we have seen in Ananias. He reasons with the Lord (v. 18-21), saying that more than any other he was fit for testimony at Jerusalem. And this makes his sincerity evident. Yet in this he might perceive the Lord's wisdom, for he is bearing witness against his own presence at Jerusalem. And here too we see what a perfect conscience is, by grace and by the blood of Christ. He recounts to Christ all his sins, and the hatred which at the beginning had been in his heart to the Lord's name; how he had persecuted the members of Christ, and taken part in the death of Stephen; and all this he presents to the Lord as a motive for his mission to the Jews. But his conscience was pure now.
432 I believe we have spoken of a little difficulty which Paul's words present here, but I shall not err in repeating it. The companions of Paul saw the light, but did not hear the voice of Him who spoke with him. In chapter 9 we read that they heard the voice, but saw no one. They did not see the Lord, nor did they hear His words, but they saw a great light, and heard a voice without being able to distinguish the words. This is just what was necessary. They were undeniable witnesses that the vision was true and real, but the communication was for Paul alone. Only he saw the Lord (Acts 22:14-15). For he had to be taught by Him, and bear testimony as an ocular witness that he had seen Him.
Moved by the violence of the multitude, the captain desires that Paul should be led into the castle, and commands him to be examined by scourging, but, already covered with stripes, Paul takes advantage of his rights as a Roman citizen. It was not lawful to bind such. He is not scourged therefore. On the morrow, loosed from his bands, he is brought before the Jewish Council, that they might know of what he was accused. And now Paul, who a little before had represented himself as a Jew in order to escape the prejudices of the Judaizing Christians, declares himself a Roman citizen in order to avoid unjust punishment from the Gentiles. It was not a sin, for he was really a Roman; but where was the power of the Spirit? Where is the Christian who would not do likewise?
433 Acts 23.
Brought before the Council, the apostle begins by declaring his innocence. "And the high priest, Ananias, commanded them that stood by to smite him on the mouth." This undoubtedly was violence; yet produced not by testimony borne to Christ, but by self-justification. Paul replies with an insult, calling the high priest a "whited wall." He had merited this, it is true; but such an answer did not display the meekness of Christ. Being reproved, Paul owns his fault; but his defence tells us of the absence of the power and of the knowledge of the Holy Ghost. "I knew not," is not what the Holy Ghost would say. All is true; but we do not find the energy of the Spirit of God. Moreover, he is not now merely a Jew and a Roman, but also a Pharisee. Such a title he counts no longer dross and dung, it has become once more a gain.
However, God makes use of this to liberate Paul from the hands of the Jews. Full of zeal for their opinions, and of wrath against one another, the Council begin to dispute; and the discussion becoming warm, the captain fearing Paul might be pulled in pieces amid the tumult, commands the soldiers to go down and take him by force from among them. In the hands now of the Gentiles, he is taken by the soldiers to the castle; there we find the perfect grace of the Lord towards his faithful servant, in bringing him through trying circumstances without the consciousness that he was suffering for the testimony of God. For Jerusalem all was finished; and the Lord, knowing that Paul must go to Rome, appears to him the night following, saying, "Be of good cheer, Paul; for as thou hast testified of me in Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also at Rome." What grace! He encourages His servant. It is possible that his position was not the effect of the action of the Spirit; nevertheless, even had he not drawn down the hatred of the Jews on himself, he would have been in peril.
The cross, and grace towards the Gentiles, had made him the object of the enmity of this people. He had confessed Christ glorified, as revealed on his way to Damascus, and declared his mission to carry the name of Christ the Saviour to the Gentiles. The Lord does not remind him of the faults he had committed, but of his faithfulness. He encourages him, and makes him understand (and this was the more necessary, since he was a prisoner, and might say, "I have failed, I have not hearkened to the warning of the Spirit") - makes him understand, I say, that whatever might happen, he was under His hand and His care. Watched over in Jerusalem, he would arrive in safety at Rome, and there be permitted to bear witness to Him. What consolation for the heart of His poor servant! And what grace on the Lord's part! The apostle might have said to himself, "Now my testimony is over, and I myself am the cause of it. Ah! why did I not follow the counsel of the Spirit? The end of my work is come, and I have done it!" But the Lord manifests Himself. Paul is in His hands, and Jesus owns him still as a witness to His name. And shall we not recognise him whom the Lord owned? Assuredly. It is possible that the spiritual power of the witness is not displayed; it is possible that such a warning ought to have stayed his steps, and made him ask the Lord what he should do; but still the hand and heart of the Lord were with him. The grace is the more remarkable, as such a position had deprived him of the power of the Spirit of God.
434 The hatred of the Jews only hastened the liberation of Paul from their hands. Many conspiring for his death, the captain sends him to Caesarea, the residence of the governor. God has everything at His disposal. Here, therefore, for the first time we learn that the apostle had a nephew and a sister. Though he knew no longer anyone after the flesh, yet God knew his danger, and made use of the natural affection of a relation. Paul concerns himself little either about the young man or the peril he was in, but sends him to the captain, and the conspiracy is frustrated.
But amid the circumstances in which he was placed - though the lowest in his history - how grand the figure of Paul appears! if we compare him with those by whom he was surrounded - priests dominated by base passions, without conscience and without heart, and seeking only their own importance. In the captain, bound to subdue the passions of a people whom he despised, we see, in his sending Paul to the governor, a worldliness full of duplicity and contempt for the rights of others. Such, alas! are everywhere the ordinary, though base feelings of poor mortals. In Paul, though oppressed, and occupying a false position, integrity and grandeur of soul shine out; from a soul sustained by the great things with which he had been in relation; from the thought of a glorified Lord, and of a mission from Him for the salvation of poor sinners. Such things his persecutors could not understand (which shews that his position was a false one), but which issued naturally from a heart filled with them. But all he does is to throw what was holy to dogs, and pearls before swine. Nevertheless these things enlarge and illuminate the apostle's figure in the scene we delineate, where, though scorned and trampled upon, he stands out in relief from among all the great ones, for the beauty and grandeur of his moral figure.
435 We now find the apostle in the hands of the Gentiles; and though there may have been no free action of the Spirit in Paul himself, yet the providence of God cares for him, ordering everything for the testimony he was to bear; and His favour is with him. The implacable enmity of the Jews only produces the fulfilment of the counsels of God, and debases them in the eyes of all who possess a noble heart. Though their desire was to gain possession of his person, yet he was to remain no longer in their power, and he is therefore conducted to Lysias, to Felix, to Festus, to Agrippa, and at last to Caesar. Such was the intention of God. Such too the means employed by Him to present the gospel to the governors and to the great; not by raising up, as many frequently think, men of the world to do so; but God makes a prisoner His servant, in order that the gospel might be carried to the knowledge of governors and kings. "But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are, that no flesh should glory in his presence," 1 Cor. 1:27-29.
Paul then, under a guard, journeys by night (for the captain was distrustful of the Jews), with a letter representing matters in a light favourable to himself, introducing him as a Roman, and preparing a good reception for him by the governor.
Instead of abandoning their inimical endeavours, the Jews go down to Caesarea to accuse Paul. The accusation is what our narrative itself suggests - his acts among the Jews in countries beyond Palestine. and his profanation of the temple. For confirmation of their allegation, they refer to the captain. The dignity of Paul's reply is self-evident. While speaking with the respect due to the governor, he does so with perfect independence, with simplicity, and with a good conscience, as one innocent. His faith as a Christian - which the Jews called heresy - and particularly his belief in resurrection, it is not requisite to confess. Formally denying what they accuse him of, he demands that his adversaries prove what they say. The only thing of which they could accuse him, was of having spoken of the resurrection in such a way as to raise a tumult in the council, and this they were little disposed to bring to light. Their violence on that occasion had obliged the captain to rescue Paul out of their hands. Felix, accustomed to Jewish habits, and knowing that the dispute arose out of the doctrine of Christianity, which had by that time acquired publicity, defers his judgment till Lysias should descend from Jerusalem to Caesarea. Meanwhile, Paul is set at liberty, and his friends are permitted to minister to him.
436 Some days later, Felix, who seems to have been absent with his wife Drusilla, a Jewess, calls for Paul, to hear him concerning the faith in Christ: for now the new doctrine had spread everywhere, and was attracting the attention of all. Felix, as well as his wife, being well versed in the things of the Jews, desired to know from its original source what Christianity was; and therefore summon Paul for this purpose. But Paul, ever occupied with souls and Christ, speaks to the conscience of the governor, telling him of judgment to come. Felix then, trembling, remands the apostle till "a more convenient season." Thus divine testimony is borne to the council, Lysias, and to the governor. Besides this, the governor hoped that Paul would give him money to be liberated. But to such dealing Paul does not consent, and therefore remains a prisoner. Felix, having to go away, and desiring to leave a favourable impression on the minds of the Jews, leaves Paul bound. Though aware of his innocence, and able to set him free, he cared nothing for justice. Money and public opinion were of more importance to him. God's intention, however, was that Paul should appear before other governors and kings, and at last before the Emperor himself. And this therefore is what happened.
437 Acts 25.
Festus, the new governor, after three days goes up to Jerusalem. There the chief of the Jews inform him against Paul, and propose to have him brought to Jerusalem, intending to kill him on the way. But Festus will not consent, saying that he would return soon to Caesarea, and that then they could go there and accuse him.
Here again, God, in His providence, watches over His servant. Arrived at Caesarea, Festus makes Paul appear before him, and in order to gratify the Jews who accuse him, proposes to him to go up to Jerusalem. This he had before refused to the Jews; but now, in order to gain popularity, he proposes it. These two years had neither lessened the hatred, nor awakened the consciences of the Jews; and in the Roman (Festus), only base motives existed - love of self and of his own importance.
Paul upholds his integrity, and is watched over by God. He denies once more the things his accusers could not prove. Festus thinks nothing of justice, but only of gratifying the people. Paul replies with great dignity, that Festus was well aware that he had done nothing amiss, that he had not the right to give him up to his enemies, and concludes by appealing to Caesar. Such was the fulfilment of God's purpose, that, conducted to Rome by His providence, Paul should there bear witness before the Emperor himself. This was not the thought of Festus, nor of the Jews, nor yet the testimony of the Spirit in Paul. But the will of God is accomplished without that of men.
We have seen that Paul was both a Roman and a Pharisee. With him it is no longer the weak things, the base things, and the things which are despised, the things that are not, that bring to nought the things that are. All is no longer dross and dung. Paul now makes use of these things to avoid injustice and death; and God employs them to conduct the apostle to Rome there to be a witness of the truth before the great of the world. Such too the cause of his audience with Agrippa, and of his journey to Rome. Having appealed to Caesar, he must of necessity be sent to Caesar; and Festus therefore decides accordingly.
But while these things are happening, the king Agrippa and Bernice come to salute the new governor. The latter relates to them the history of Paul, giving himself (as we find everywhere in the world, as well as in this instance) a character for equity and fidelity to the principles of justice and honour. But the story of the resurrection was only a Jewish superstition. Agrippa, one of the Herods, and king of the southern part of Palestine, was by race an Edomite, but a Jew by profession. He was consequently well-informed as to the religious questions of the country; and curious to know clearly, and from a reliable source, what the Christianity might be that had produced such a movement of spirit in the people of his country, asks to hear Paul. Festus, well knowing that the accused was not guilty of anything, and anxious to obtain some pretext for sending him to Caesar, accedes to his request. Of Paul's innocence we have the testimony of the governor, in his address to Agrippa, as well as of the others who listened to him. He did not know what to write to the Emperor, and so brings Paul before this audience in the hope of discovering something to say.
438 Acts 26.
Paul now shews that it is on account of the promises made to the fathers that he stands charged, and this too was the ground of the Jews' accusation. "Why should it be thought an incredible thing with you that God should raise the dead?" He had thought that he should do many things against the name of Jesus, and zealous like the other Jews against the Christians, had persecuted them unmercifully, even into strange cities. Then he relates the appearing of the Lord Jesus on the way to Damascus, whither he was going to imprison Christians - how he had been arrested by the glory of the Lord in heaven, and learned that it was He Himself he was persecuting, since all Christians were one with Him. It was then that the unity of believers with Jesus was for the first time declared, a truth more fully unfolded afterwards by means of the apostle.
But the conversion itself was effected by two things; first, the heavenly glory of the Man, Jesus Christ the Lord; Paul, seeing this first, and then learning that it was Jesus; and secondly, that all Christians were united in one body with Him. Paul was persecuting Jesus Himself. But thenceforward he was to be a witness both of the things he had seen, and of those in which He who had been revealed to him would yet appear unto him. He had been separated from his own people, the Jews, and from the Gentiles, to whom now he was to be sent. He was no longer a Jew, but yet had not become a Gentile. He was associated with the Lord of glory, and was sent out from Him as a witness of His glory, and of the grace that could take up an open enemy, and make him the expression and witness of the perfect grace that had converted and saved him. His mission, as God's workman, was to open the eyes of the Gentiles, and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they might receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them that are sanctified - the whole by faith in Jesus. "By faith that is in me" (v. 18), applies more particularly to forgiveness and inheritance, though as a matter of fact, the words extend to the entire sentence. Obedient to the heavenly vision, he had preached repentance everywhere, beginning with the Jews, exhorting them to turn to God, and do works meet for repentance. Though the Jews had sought to kill him, yet by the help of God he had continued till that day, saying none other things than those which the prophets had said should happen - that Christ should suffer, rise from the dead, and shew light to the people and to the Gentiles.
439 To Festus, all this was mere fanaticism. But Paul replied with perfect dignity and propriety, in a way which was the best proof that he was not beside himself, but that he spoke the words of truth and soberness. Such a testimony, however, to an unconverted Gentile, whose conscience had not been reached, was nothing but pure madness. At all events, Festus felt that these things were entirely beyond his knowledge. He saw that Paul could not be charged with any misdemeanour. He understood nothing about the matter. The formal politeness he had at first shewn now disappears, as well as the propriety of his position. The power of what Paul had said has sufficed to reduce him to his natural state of soul. But Paul maintaining both dignity and propriety, places Festus anew in the position of governor, and addresses himself to Agrippa, who knew the truth of these things, and before whom therefore he could speak freely. Turning towards the latter, then, he asks, "King Agrippa," appealing to his conscience, "believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest."
440 Being above all circumstances, Paul is completely master of the occasion. Agrippa is confused by the apostle's question, since he was a Jew by profession, though nothing in heart! and ashamed of being placed in a corner before such company by his simple but powerful words, tries to parry the blow, and says jestingly, "Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian." But Paul, whose large heart is occupied only with the reality and happiness of Christianity, replies, "I would to God that not only thou, but all that hear me this day, were both almost and altogether such as I am except these bonds." Such was the beautiful expression of a heart full of grace, and therefore of love for others, and of the consciousness of a happiness that two years' captivity had rather strengthened than weakened. But how highly by his nearness to God, is he, the poor prisoner, the despised Jew, elevated above both governors and kings! He treats them with deference and respect, as was his duty, but because he was able to do so from his place of moral superiority to them, which he had by faith in a glorified Saviour. Humble, and at peace, when the opportunity presented itself, he could display the greatness of what was in his soul, and utter desires for the great who only possessed outward splendour.
For the pagan Festus, who only relished human grandeur, he was nothing but a madman; for Agrippa, nothing but a trouble and vexation of spirit. He had desired to know what this Christianity that was attracting the attention of all around him, and that pretended to come from God and demand the submission of all with His authority, might be; but he did not expect himself to be challenged so personally. For Paul the prisoner, it was eternal life and the presence of God who had saved him, and the earnest of the glory to which he was heir. His testimony had been given.
The effect on king Agrippa is evident. Not that he was converted - far from that - but his conscience was touched. He speaks to Festus as a little king to a governor, not as feeling lightly, nor despising the truth and Christianity, but is careful to declare that Paul might have been set at liberty if he had not appealed to Caesar. Two things are thus made manifest; the innocence of Paul, since Agrippa fully understood the truth of his case, and that his appeal to Caesar was the only hindrance to his liberation. It was the will of God that he should go to Rome, but if he had not made use of his worldly rights to regain his liberty, he might have gone there free. Yet the hand of God was in all this, for the one who had given his decision in the matter had listened to the testimony through this appeal to Caesar; and from his knowledge of the ways of the country, was able to declare with confidence, that it was only the appeal that prevented him from being set free. It is manifest in what light the apostle's faith considered the effect of his captivity; Phil. 1:12-13, 19. Moreover, the Epistles to the Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and to Philemon, are the precious fruit of his captivity at Rome. But his mission to the Gentiles, as far as the Spirit speaks of it, is now at an end. Yet, though his mission is over, the apostle remains a bright and blessed object. We shall find the condemnation of the Jews closing our history.
441 Acts 27.
It having been decided that Paul should be sent to Italy, he is consigned with other prisoners to the charge of one Julius, a centurion of Augustus' band. They set out with the intention of sailing along the coast of Asia.
Aristarchus accompanies the apostle. He had already been with Paul in former journeys. We have met him at Ephesus (Acts 19), with Gaius, who at Corinth was the apostle's host. Julius treats Paul courteously at Sidon, giving him liberty to visit his friends. God cared for his servant, and granted him leniency on the part of this officer. Besides, the authorities were well aware that he was not guilty of anything. They were obliged to send him to Rome in consequence of his appeal to Caesar.
They continue their voyage then, though slowly, the wind being contrary, till they reach a place called "the fair havens," in the island of Crete, and near the city of Lasea. It was already the month of November, and the navigation dangerous; and the port belied its name, being much exposed to the wind. The port and ruins of Lasea are still discoverable. Human wisdom advised departure, the master of the ship hoping, with a favourable wind, to reach Phenice, a better port, and there winter. This place has also been recognised in modern times. Of the two winds which prevail in that latitude, the one is soft but capricious, and the other very violent.
442 Here again we discover the apostle's nearness to God, his intimacy with Him, and the Lord's abundant grace towards His servant; and through this communion, Paul becomes master of the situation. On the authority of God, he is able to forewarn the sailors and captain of the vessel what is to happen. But this revelation was expressed in general terms, and the centurion placed more confidence in the owner and pilot than in what Paul said. To him, this was a mere human prediction. And when the south wind blew softly, they thought they had gained their desire of reaching Phenice. But God holds the winds in the hollow of His hand. The soft and favourable wind that tempted them to set sail, did not continue; and soon a tempestuous wind, called Euroclydon, which blows from Greece, and even more from the east, sprang up, and drove them towards the south-west, threatening to cast them on the quicksands of Africa, which lay almost in the direction in which the wind was driving them. After much difficulty, they succeeded in getting the boat on board, but this after all, proved useless in saving them. God was not willing that the many souls in the vessel should be saved by human means, but that Paul's word should be accomplished, and he himself be the occasion of the safety of all.
It is useless to enter into the details of the voyage. Everything possible was done to save the ship, but in vain. The description given us is perfectly exact, and even technical. Carried by the tempest, they are cast on the island of Malta. But what is important for us is the position which the apostle occupies. All hope of escape was gone. But now God interposes, and by means of a revelation made to Paul, revives the failing courage of the sufferers. The apostle reminds them of what he had said at the "fair havens," telling them that they ought to have followed his advice, and that now they were reaping the fruit of refusing it, and trusting to the knowledge of the sailors. But they were to be of good cheer, for there would be no loss of life, but only of the ship. As before governors, Paul, the servant of God, held morally the superior position, so now he occupies the same place, amid perils sufficient to reduce the crew of the ship to despair. God was watching over Paul. It was necessary that he should appear before Caesar; and full of grace, the Lord had given him all those who were with him.
The ship being driven by the force of the wind near to the land, the sailors cast four anchors out of the stern. Then, as all are looking anxiously for day, the crew, thinking only of themselves, endeavour to escape in the boat, under pretext of getting out an anchor from the forward end of the vessel. But Paul is there, observes all, and directs everything on the part, one may say, of God. It was necessary that he should save them. Paul had now acquired full influence over those in authority. The presence of God, and the divine knowledge he had received of what was to happen, had gained for him the confidence of all. Cutting therefore the ropes of the boat, the soldiers let her drop off. Their salvation was to depend on God, and this had to be owned. If any could have been saved by human means, all might. But all would have perished if the sailors had not remained on board. All the work had to be performed by God.
443 If we follow the counsels of God through His word, we shall avoid many mistakes. He can save us still when we err, but it will be through suffering and loss. Israel refused to ascend the hill of the Amorites, and had therefore to remain thirty-eight years in the desert. Here, Paul's companions would not listen to his words, which were those of God, and they lost everything, except life. Their deliverance, it is evident, came from God alone, and was effected for the honour of His servant, whose words they had despised. It is always important for us to ascertain the will of God before entering any untried path. If we are assured of this, the difficulties will be only difficulties; and the help of God is enough to overcome them. But if we are not sure about His will, then doubt and weakness arise in the heart, because faith to count on God for help is not there, since we are not certain that the path is according to His will.
Paul then comforts them, and persuades them to eat, for the storm had prevented them from taking any regular meal for fourteen days. On the authority of God, he assures them that not a hair of their heads shall perish. He then gives thanks, and eats himself, in order to encourage them. Then all take heart, and eat also. Sufficiently refreshed (for they eat with the more courage, being cheered by that of the one who walked with God, and with whom was His secret), they begin to lighten the ship by throwing the grain overboard. It was not wrong to do so. God can take up the means and the intelligence of men and use them; but these means did not do much good; the hand of God did everything. The ship is then run aground at a place where two seas met, and while the fore part remains fast the stern is broken by the violence of the waves.
444 But God is faithful to His promise. The soldiers desire to kill the prisoners, so that none may escape; but the centurion, moved by all that had happened, and guided by God, wishes to save Paul, and therefore does not permit them to do so. According to his command, those who can swim cast themselves into the sea, while the others reach the shore on pieces of the ship. God paid this tribute of honour to His servant. He who governs the winds and seas, brings all through the tempest, though through their own fault, in order to manifest the apostle's nearness to Himself, and saves all, as Paul had foretold, who therefore shines here as elsewhere, for the power of his faith, and the simplicity of his confidence in God. The wisdom of man went for nothing in the deliverance of the crew and the others. All had to resign themselves to God for salvation; and they were saved. All power to avail of this necessity was frustrated by the word of Paul.
God honours His servant on the island where he and his companions had been cast. He works miracles, and receives no hurt from the viper which fastens itself to his hand. Paul had brought captivity on himself by his appeal to Caesar, but still God was with him. It was necessary that he should bear witness before Caesar. God made use of his journey to Jerusalem (where, it is true, the power of the Spirit was not manifested in Paul) in order to bring him before Caesar himself; and this could not otherwise have been accomplished. Far from abandoning him, He displays His grace and power to him most fully.
I have already mentioned that his public testimony, as far as we learn from the Bible, was now at an end. The last testimony to the Jews had been given, and their judgment sealed; but the Lord's grace does not fail now; He comforts and sustains His servant in every circumstance in which he is placed. The weakness of man is found, it is true, even in Paul; but also the grace and the wisdom of God. It is remarkable that the church of the city of Rome was not founded by any apostle. Before Paul's arrival, there were already Christians in Rome; and the gospel in its apostolic power came in captivity.
445 The voyage is continued without incident of importance. Brethren, however, are found at Puteoli, and here the apostle remains for seven days. From thence, he goes on to Rome. The brethren there must have heard that Paul was coming, as they come out to meet him. He was probably left at Puteoli, while the centurion made known his arrival in Italy to the authorities. The rumour of this would then reach the brethren. But here we meet once more with the apostle's experiences. The love of the brethren constrains them to go to meet him. Paul, seeing them, thanks God, and takes courage. He was then cast down - I do not say discouraged - but he needed to take courage. Here we find a difference in the experimental state of Christians, which it is important to remark. On the one side, there is the state of the soul in itself, and on the other, its strength in the presence of difficulties and the power of the enemy, and in the labour required for the gospel in a world the prince of which is the devil; although these two things react on each other. Though we may have a deep sense of feebleness, and be filled with perplexity, yet, if we walk with God, if confidence in His faithfulness and His goodness do not fail us in the work, and before our enemies we lose sight of self, then the power of God will work in us, and act against that of the enemy, and amid the unbelievers among whom we labour.
Thus it happened to Moses. Leaving Pharaoh's court, he went down among the people of God in slavery. Faithful and blessed, he was owned by God in what he did; but he carried human power with him; and when he had killed the Egyptian, he fled for fear of the king's anger. Forty years in the desert dissipated this human confidence, though lack of faith in God was mingled with the sense of weakness. He was not eloquent, he said, not fit to appear before Pharaoh. But when sent from God, he presented himself before the king, it was neither in false fleshly energy, nor in the sense of weakness. The power of God was there; and as we read, he represented God to Pharaoh, overcame all obstacles, and delivered the people from his oppression.
Paul himself, when called to labour amid a rich and corrupted populace, said, "And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling," 1 Cor. 2:3. Feeling the difficulties and the power of the evil, he threw himself on the aid of God, and the work was accomplished in demonstration of the Spirit and in power. It is in human weakness that the Lord's strength works, and is made perfect. How the Lord, perfect in everything, went through all the sufferings of His heart with His Father in Gethsemane, before drinking the cup! He did not then drink the cup, nor make propitiation for our sins: but as man, He contemplated all that lay before Him. The power of Satan was there to hinder Him from persevering till the end in the path of obedience. His soul was exceeding sorrowful, even unto death; but He told all to His Father; and when the enemies came, was as calm as in the days of His service. Here our wisdom is to present all to God, in the conflicts that may be before, as in our service. Then He will be with us when the work is over. Though our weakness may be sensible to us, yet the power of God will be with us. Paul, full of this when with others, and in the most difficult circumstances, feels the painfulness of his own situation, and is encouraged by the presence and love of the brethren.
446 Paul goes then to Rome, where the centurion places him, with the other prisoners, in the hands of the captain of the guard. But the apostle is under the care of, and guarded by the hand of God. He is allowed to live by himself, with a soldier to guard him. The conduct of the Jews had not alienated the apostle's noble heart (I say noble, because he was a chosen vessel; compare Matt. 25:15) from his people, the people of God. He sends and calls for them; but only that they may hear for the last time their condemnation foretold. Still, some believe. Here we find the end of the ways of God towards Israel, and that of the labours of Paul, the prisoner at Rome. The threatenings of God, prophesied by the mouth of Isaiah, eight hundred years before (Isaiah 6) are now accomplished. His long-suffering, the gift of His Son, the many warnings of the prophets, all had been in vain. And though judgment had been deferred for a time through the intercession of Christ on the cross, yet they were not more willing to recognise Christ glorified, than in humiliation. It was mercy that prolonged the testimony of grace, sending it even to countries at a distance from Jerusalem, among those of the dispersion, after Jerusalem had rejected the divine blessing. But no effect was produced on these; and judgment fell on the unbelieving nation, till the sovereign grace of God shall call them to enter into the privileges of the new covenant, and the Lord Jesus shall come, bringing the better blessing of pure grace. But the history of Israel in its responsibility is over, as well as that of the gospel in its free power. God has never ceased to preserve a testimony on the earth; and has given power and fruit according to the good pleasure of His will; His name be praised! But the work of liberty and apostolic energy is over.
447 The gospel is captive at Rome! But the providence of God watches over the truth, maintains testimony, and does not allow it to be entirely hidden. There have been evil times, in which iniquity and superstition have prevailed, and truth has been persecuted; and others in which God has held the door open, and given full liberty. Often, however, faith and steadfastness shine more brightly in evil days that in times of peace and tranquillity. Elijah, who was caught up to heaven without dying, is not found in the reign of Solomon; and when he himself could find none faithful in Israel, God maintained and guarded His seven thousand in the midst of the unbelieving and apostate people.
Though it pleased God to allow Paul to remain a prisoner, yet He held the door open for souls. For two whole years he dwelt in his own hired house, preaching the kingdom of God, and the things of Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him.
Such is the touching end of the public career of the apostle of the Gentiles, faithful above all, large of heart, able by grace to understand the wonderful counsels of God as a grand whole, and to feel their perfection and their greatness; and equally capable of entering into the circumstances and relationships of a fugitive slave with his master, with an affection and a delicacy without example. Bound to the Lord with a heart that led him to suffer all for Him, and for souls dear to Him; bold even to fearlessness; tender and affectionate as a mother for her babes; energetic and patient, he suffered all things for the elect's sake, that they might obtain salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. As truly risen with Christ, he knew no man after the flesh, being separated from both Jews and Gentiles, and united to a glorified Christ, his strength and hope, his all in all.
If he possessed a fault - he was a man, and displayed his manhood fully - it was in loving too much the ancient people of God, his brethren after the flesh. For this fault he was made prisoner, but the ways of God were carried out according to His wisdom. If we would know the effect of his confinement, at least of his being made prisoner, let us read the beginning of the Epistle to the Philippians 1:12 to 20. It is beautiful to see the faith and courage of the apostle after two years imprisonment. He might have reproached himself, and said, "Ah, if you had not gone to Jerusalem, if you had not appealed to Caesar, you might still have been preaching everywhere, have gone to Spain," etc. But such was the will of God; and He was with him in his trouble. Submitting to this will, he rises above circumstances, renders thanks to God for all, finds that His wisdom is better than liberty, and works where God has placed him. Faith and confidence through grace raise him above his position to be with God, to act on His part, in whose presence he dwells.
448 We ought to be thankful to God, we and the church, for ever, for the fruit of this period, in which the apostle was free from constant labour. The epistles to the Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, were written at this time. Two are profound dissertations on the privileges of Christians and of the assembly. Another is the expression of the experience of a godly soul led entirely by the Holy Ghost. Then the fourth is the outflow of the apostle's personal affection for a soul he has won to the Lord and to eternal life - a poor slave, it is true; but he says, a son whom he has begotten in his bonds. Generally speaking, they are letters in which the highest truths of Christianity are unfolded, and in which we learn what is not to be found elsewhere in the New Testament - at least, not fully taught, though the truths themselves are spoken of, but only in part, and introduced by the way. These scriptures complete the circle of the revelation of God.
The career of the apostle Paul was more remarkable than that of any other. His fellow apostles accomplished the work of the Lord within the narrow limits of Judaism. The starting-point for him was the Lord in glory, and that all Christians were recognised as being one with Him. "Why persecutest thou me?" the Lord had asked him. This glorified Lord, salvation, and the kingdom that was to come, he preached to every creature under heaven. Then, for the completion of the word of God, he unfolded and taught what the church was. He developed the truth as to her position, the union of believers with Christ, the presence of the Spirit in believers and in the church, establishing them as the temple of God on earth. The revelation of the church, or assembly, put an end to Judaism, since there were no longer either Jews or Gentiles, but Christians united in one body to Christ. Paul was thus the head, as servant of Christ, and founder of a new economy; and he also presented himself as a model whom converts were to imitate in their walk and ways.
449 No other apostle held such a position. The twelve followed Jesus Christ while He was in the world; but this Paul did not do. Then they saw Him taken up to heaven, and believed that He was glorified at the right hand of God. Paul, till then an enemy to Christ, but converted through sovereign grace, while acting in the violence of his enmity, began with the vision of the Lord in glory, who had made Himself known to him as Jesus of Nazareth. What he preached, he called his gospel, the gospel of the Lord's glory. The knowledge and revelation of the counsels of God were confided to him; and he was caught up to the third heaven, and there heard unspeakable things which it was not lawful for a man to utter. His apostleship was to the Gentiles, to the whole world; and to this he was called by the Lord in glory, and sent expressly by the Holy Ghost. He began with the Jews, the people beloved of God, the possessors of the promises; but, according to the prophecy of Isaiah 49, he turned towards the Gentiles, when the former rejected the testimony of God. Of the church, as the body of Christ on earth, and habitation of God through the Spirit, no apostle except Paul speaks. See Col. 1:23-29.
In the apostle's character, we find both good and bad features which stamp him a man as we are. None of these things were seen in Christ, entirely and alone perfect in every respect. But as a man of like passions to ours, Paul, the servant of Jesus Christ, had no equal. Although in captivity at Rome, the word of God was not bound. God watched over it, and Paul, dwelling in his own hired house, received all who sought after truth, and taught them with perfect liberty the gospel so dear to him. In all times, God has made it public, more or less, in order to give life through faith; but its history, begun by the marvellous power of the Holy Ghost at Jerusalem, terminated at Rome, where, in the person of Paul, to whom it had been entrusted, it lay a prisoner. Judaism crucified the Lord, and imprisoned the gospel of the glory, but God, in spite of the efforts of Satan, disseminates it, especially in these times - His name be praised! In respect to the church, it remained bound till the present day. But though preachers have little strength, yet the Lord holds the door open, and no man can shut it.
[END OF EXPOSITORY - VOL. 4.]