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Good Words 1860
Saul of Tarsus, A Choice Vessel


It is a fact, hard indeed to explain, but beyond dispute, that man, though fain to choose his own path in life, and free to do so, is yet evermore led, by a mysterious overrulement, to take the course and perform the function previously marked out for him in God's providential plan. ''A man's heart deviseth his way, but the Lord directeth his steps:"—

"There's a Divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will."

In the case, indeed, of men who never rise above the crowd, the marks of such Divine overrulement are not always discernible. For the bulk of men play too obscure a part in the grand drama of Providence to admit of our observing the Divine casting of the parts. But in the case of those who fill a great sphere in the Church, or in the world, there is usually enough to shew us that, despite their conscious freedom and seeming independence, they are but the tools or instruments by which the Divine Worker effects His predetermined ends. How, indeed, the Supreme Governor, without trenching on their moral liberty, can make free agents fulfil His purposes, and work out His plans, the same as if they were mere passive machines, is a problem beyond our solution—a mystery above our comprehension. But that He actually does so is one of the absolute certainties of history.

In Saul of Tarsus we have a signal example of a man selected and prepared by the Lord for a special work. "He is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel." And as we happily possess ample information regarding the facts of Saul's history and experience during the three chief stages of his life, so we are able, with some degree of certainty, to trace the manner in which, through the prearranging and directing hand of the Lord, he became "a vessel unto honour, sanctified and meet for the Master's use."

The more the matter is considered, the clearer must it appear that the work of bearing Christ's name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel, was one which none but a man of very rare and peculiar endowments could effectually perform.

To be able to bear Christ's name even before the children of Israel, a man obviously required to unite in himself various things seldom found in the same person. For one thing, he required to be a Jew; for the Jews would not have listened for a. moment to any religious teacher not of their own race. For another thing, he required to be a Jew of pure descent; for a Jew of Greek or foreign extraction was held in contempt by the pure Jews, and even forbidden to enter their synagogues. For a third thing, he required to be a Pharisee; for the Pharisees had everywhere such influence and credit with their countrymen, and so completely ruled Jewish opinion, that only a teacher trained in their schools, and conversant with their sentiments, could act effectually on the Jewish mind. And then, that he might be able to meet and remove the honest objections of the Jews to the new religion, it was further requisite, or, at least, desirable, that he should see these objections from the same point of view as the Jews saw them; or, in other words, that he should be a man who had himself at one time honestly entertained these very objections, and conscientiously opposed the gospel of Jesus.

But the work to be done was not that alone of bearing Christ's name before the children of Israel; it was that also of bearing it before the Gentiles; it was that, especially, of bringing to the knowledge of the truth the Greeks—a people the very antipodes of the Jews—a people sharp in intelligence, refined in taste, and conversant with the subtlest distinctions in philosophy. Other qualifications, then, were needed by our preacher besides those already named. How could he reach the Gentile mind if he had only a Jewish training—if he knew only the Hebrew tongue, and the tenets and traditions of the Pharisees? What possible hope could he entertain of gaining the ear of the subtle and fastidious Greeks, if he was unacquainted with their literature and philosophy, and unable to address them with ease and propriety in their own wonderful tongue? No one, it is obvious, but a man who was at once a master of the Greek language, and an adept in Greek dialectics, had any human chance of persuading the men of Athens or of Corinth to turn from dumb idols to serve the living God.

And two other things were needed. How was our preacher to procure necessary food and raiment during his missionary journeys in countries where, in the first instance, he could have no friends to help him? Was it not requisite, to this end, that he should be able with his own hands to provide for his maintenance ? or, in other words, that he should be a man who had been bred in his youth to some sort of handicraft ? And how, again, was he to be secured from the risk of bonds, and imprisonment, and death at the hands of those whom his doctrine offended? As a seceder from Judaism, he was certain, wherever he went, to encounter the determined hostility of the Pharisees. As a preacher of the strange doctrine, that those were no gods which the Greeks ignorantly worshipped, he was equally certain to provoke the enmity of the classes whose worldly interests were bound up with the maintenance of idolatry. He might count, therefore, on being sometimes dragged before magistrates, as a disturber of the public peace. He might count on having his mission at any hour arrested, or even brought to an untimely end. How was he to be shielded from such imminent perils? There was but one thing which could shield him; and that was—Roman citizenship. If he were a Roman citizen—a freeman of any Roman city, then he would be in a position to protect himself by his privilege of appeal to the central authority at Rome. For imperial Rome guarded, with even more than British jealousy, the rights of her citizens in every quarter of the world, and no local magistrate had power, till such appeal was heard, to condemn and punish any citizen, however poor and mean, who stood upon his rights.

All the things now named were manifestly needed to fit a man for bearing Christ's name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel. How unlikely that they should all be found combined in one individual! Yet, singular to say, Saul of Tarsus possessed every one of them. By the ordination of Providence he was born of parents both of them Jews; so that he was a Jew of pure descents—"a Hebrew of the Hebrews." He was born, too, not in Palestine, but at Tarsus, the capital of the Roman province of Cilicia; so that he had by birthright the citizenship of Rome. And, Tarsus being then one of the chief seats of Greek learning, he had also the opportunity of becoming acquainted with the literature, and philosophy, and modes of thinking of the Greeks. It fell to him likewise, in accordance with the rule of Jewish education, to be taught a trade by his parents; so that in after life he was able to earn a livelihood by tent-making. And, as it further happened to him to be transferred, towards the close of his youth, from Tarsus to Jerusalem, so he enjoyed the additional advantage of sitting at the feet of Gamaliel, the greatest Rabbi of the time, and acquiring that mastery of Hebrew and Rabbinical lore, which soon gained him a foremost place in the sect of the Pharisees. Entering, too, upon public life under the auspices of the Pharisees, it was but natural that, when the first persecution arose against the followers of Jesus, he should be found among the antagonists of the new religion. And he was so found. Nay, he soon became the most active of its persecutors. Nor was it till he had gone over the length and breadth of the land, making havoc of the Church, that that wonderful interposition of Heaven occurred, by which he was brought to renounce his hereditary creed for the faith of the despised Nazarene.

Now, just look at these antecedent provisions in the case of Saul; and say if they do not bespeak the forecasting purpose and directing hand of the Lord. His Jewish birth in a Pagan city; his education, first at a seat of Greek learning, and then in the metropolis of Judaism; his trade as a tent-maker; his right of Roman citizenship; his experience as a Pharisee, and as a persecutor,— what were all these but things manifestly prearranged, with an express view to his ultimate fitness for the place and function marked out for him in the Divine purpose? Saul, indeed, did not know, and could not know at the time, for what these things were preparing him. But with the Lord, who seeth the end from the beginning, and calleth the things which are not as though they were, the whole was manifestly the result of prescient design—part and parcel of that grand providential plan, which evermore, as it opens, shews an infinite forecast.

Hitherto we have spoken only of Saul's training prior to his conversion to Christianity. But the Divine process of fitting the chosen vessel for the Master's use did not then terminate. The hand of the Lord is equally manifest in his conversion itself.

It need scarcely be said that Saul's conversion to Christianity was not of his own seeking. Assuredly, when he took his journey to Damascus, armed with authority from the Sanhedrim to apprehend, and bring bound to Jerusalem, all whom he might find professing the faith of Christ, he had no intention of embracing that faith himself, or even the slightest idea that he ever would or could embrace it. Firmly persuaded that, by persecuting the Christians, he was doing God service, he went on his way, thinking only of the high commission he bore, and of the victory and triumph awaiting him at Damascus. And had any one ventured to suggest, even in sport, that he might become a Christian, he would have spit upon the suggester, with all a Hebrew's bitter scorn. Yet this very thing occurred. On the way to Damascus he was arrested by a voice from heaven, and in an instant constrained, not only to abandon his cruel enterprise, but to bow as a humble suppliant at the feet of Jesus. Instead of entering the city in official state, as the accredited champion of Judaism, he arrived at its gates in the deepest humiliation and helplessness—a blind man, led by the hand, and fain to hide himself in the obscure dwelling of a Christian. Nor did the scales fall from his bodily eyes until, by the operation of heavenly power, the eye of his faith was opened to see and appreciate the divine character and claims of Jesus.

And wherefore was Saul thus converted ? Wherefore, but that he might be yet further qualified for the work which the Divine purpose had marked out for him. Indeed, hut for this conversion, the whole of the Divine expenditure on his previous preparation would have been thrown away. Of what possible advantage to the cause of the gospel would have been his Jewish descent, his double education, his Roman citizenship, his experience as a Pharisee, if he had still remained unconverted? In that case, all that the Lord had previously done for him—all the furniture of his mind, and all the harvest of his experience, would have been only as materials collected for a building never to be reared —as armour and ammunition prepared for a war never to be waged. And hence no needless step—-but, on the contrary, a most necessary step—did the Lord take when He met Saul on the way, and made the Pharisee a Christian.

But was Saul's conversion from Pharisaism to Christianity all that was needed to render his previous endowments available for the work of bearing Christ's name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel? No; endowments and qualities distinctively Christian were also needed. Over and above all he had previously received, he required to have three additional things; he required to have an apostolical commission, apostolical gifts, and an apostolical spirit. And accordingly, in the superaddition of these to his previous qualifications, we may perceive fresh evidence of the wonderful counsel and excellent working of the Lord.

To qualify a man for the apostolical office, it was essential that he should be an eye and ear-witness of Jesus. And so, that Paul might be on a level in this respect with his fellow-apostles, there was vouchsafed to him a sensible manifestation of the Lord. He heard the voice of Jesus on the way to Damascus, and he saw the person of Jesus in a vision in the temple.

To qualify an apostle for his office, it was further essential that he should be endowed with supernatural gifts, and especially with the gift of prophecy or inspiration—the power of preaching "the truth as it is in Jesus," unerringly and infallibly. And accordingly Paul was so filled with the Holy Ghost, that he was able, in common with the other apostles, to say, "We have the mind of Christ; we speak the things which are freely given us of God, not in the words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth."

But, even with a Divine commission and with miraculous endowments, Paul would have been insufficiently furnished for his arduous enterprise, had he not also been endued with an evangelistic spirit—a spirit of ardent devotion to the cause of Christ, and of unconquerable solicitude for the salvation of men. And does not his eventual career shew that such a spirit was also vouchsafed? Even prior to his conversion, Paul had exhibited several qualities of great promise for his future vocation. By nature and constitution, he was a man of ardent temper, of energetic will, of thorough integrity; and though his career as a persecutor seems but little to comport with the idea that he had also a tender heart, yet, from his subsequent history, we may safely infer that there really lay deep down within him, though yet unopened and undisclosed, a wellspring of true human affection, which had but to be touched by Christ's grace, as the rock in Horeb by the prophet's rod, in order to send out a perennial stream of healing water. And, besides these constitutional qualities, he had the advantage of having been, from his earliest years, environed with religious influences, and trained to godly habits. We speak, and rightly speak, of his conversion on the way to Damascus as the commencement of a new and better era in his history. But it would be wrong to suppose that, previous to that-great change, Paul was an irreligious man. He was the contrary. From his youth up he had been no mere professor of the ancient faith, far less a hypocrite, but a devout worshipper of the God of his fathers—greatly mistaken, indeed, in his views of the method of acceptance with God, but thoroughly honest and conscientious in believing and doing what he supposed to be of Divine authority. There were thus elements and qualities in Paul, which, despite the spiritual blindness and prejudices by which they were overlaid, only required to be invigorated and purified in order to make him "a vessel sanctified and meet for the Master's use." And accordingly it is just in the enhancement of the good qualities, and the elimination of the bad, that we behold the plastic hand of the Lord.

As one example, take Paul's zeal for the conversion of the Jews. Before he became a Christian, he was ardently attached to his countrymen. But then at that time they were on the same side with him; they admired him; they were proud of him; they loaded him with their adulation. It was quite another thing to be equally zealous for their interests when they had become his calumniators, his persecutors, his unrelenting foes. And yet it was just when their rancorous assaults on his character and life might have been expected to estrange his affection, that he evinced the deepest concern for their wellbeing. "I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost, that I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart; for I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh." Could such have been the temper of Paul's mind towards his countrymen had not the Lord touched his heart, and elevated his constitutional into Christian patriotism? "I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh." Why, this is an aspiration so generous, so disinterested, so steeped in the spirit of Him who wept over foredoomed Jerusalem, nay, so superhuman, that it actually startles us, and all but transcends our sympathy. It manifestly bespeaks an afflatus from on high.

Or take, as a second example, his devotion to the cause of the gospel. No sooner did he receive his apostolical commission, than he went forth on his new errand, not knowing whither he went, but prepared to go wherever the Lord pointed the way. Hindrances beset him at every step—hindrances in the enmity of his own countrymen—hindrances in the jealous policy of rulers—hindrances in the proud scorn of philosophers—hindrances in the self-interest of a crafty and long-established priesthood— hindrances in the brutal violence of a superstitious populace. Yet none of these things moved him; nor did he at all heed what befel himself, if only he might "fulfil the ministry which he had received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God." "Never," as has been truly said, "did warrior, swelling with the love of fame, pant so ardently for a field whereon to signalise his prowess, as Paul panted to unfurl the banner of Christ. Never did conqueror, flushed with victory, press on so eagerly to subdue new kingdoms and gather fresh laurels, as Paul pressed on to multiply the bloodless triumphs of the Cross." Prom the commencement to the close of his career, he laboured incessantly and unflaggingly, teaching from house to house—preaching in season, and out of season—passing from country to country—planting church after church—unmoved by difficulty, undeterred by danger, undismayed by the prospect of a violent death. Whence such unconquerable devotion to the cause of the gospel? Whence, but from the communicated grace of the Divine Head of the Church? Naturally, indeed, Paul was a man of indomitable energy. But his energy could never have taken the direction, and surmounted the obstacles it did, had not the grace of the Lord Jesus baptized, purified, sustained it. Nothing less, and nothing else, than "power from on high," could have transfigured the sectarian zeal of Saul the persecutor, into the Christ-like devotedness of Paul the apostle.

Or take, as a last example, his tenderness of heart. His zeal, energy, and courage could not, if alone, have accoutred him for a work which required him to gain men's hearts, and, through human love, win them to Christ. It is "one touch of nature makes all the world kin;" and had not Paul been a man whom men could love—a loving, weeping, tender-hearted man—he must have failed, despite his other great qualities, to bring either Jew or Gentile to the faith, and love, and obedience of Christ. But Paul, as we know, was, from the beginning to the end of his apostolical career, pre-eminently a tender-hearted man. He was ever ready to rejoice with them that rejoiced, and to weep with them that wept. His preaching was often interrupted by his tears. His epistles bear the traces of the great drops that fell from his eyes while he penned them. Recollect how tenderly he wrote to Timothy, addressing him more like a father than an ecclesiastical superior, and, even amid "the care of all the churches," manifesting a lively concern for his homeliest personal comforts—"Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thine often infirmities." Or recollect his touching words to the brethren at Cassarea, when they implored him with tears not to endanger his life by going up to Jerusalem—"What mean ye to weep and to break mine heart!" He could withstand the king of terrors, but he could not withstand the tears of his Christian brethren. Oh, how came Paul to acquire such a tender, loving heart?—Paul, whose human affections had been so wholly frozen up by Pharisaic bigotry?—Paul, who, ere the Lord met him on the way, was breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the brethren? How came Paul to be so transformed? How, but through the operation of that Holy Spirit of the Lord, which turns the heart of stone into a heart of flesh?

Thus, all along the course of Paul's chequered and eventful life—alike before his conversion, at his conversion, and after it—alike in his preliminary training, in his miraculous change, and in his subsequent endowments—do we find unequivocal evidences of the fact that he was "a chosen vessel," selected and prepared for the work to which the Divine purpose had destined him. And with this view of the matter, let it be added, his own testimony—again and again most solemnly recorded— entirely coincides—"It pleased God, who separated me from my mother's womb, and called me by his grace, to reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen." "By the grace of God, I am what I am; and his grace which was bestowed . on me was not in vain; for I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was given me." Let us glorify Christ in Paul.


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