St. Paul the Apostle - Pompeo Batoni (1740)

“If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern my infirmities.”  -I Cor. 11-30

The Sanhedrin was the governing body of Israel. It embraced within itself legislative, executive and judicial functions. It made the laws and enforced them and it was the court of last appeal. It consisted of seventy-two members. The highest honor in Jewry was to be elected to this august body.

Seven years after the ascension of our Lord there was among the illustrious gray-beards of the Sanhedrin a young man of remarkable gifts and culture. He was not above thirty-three years of age, but, having distinguished himself for learning at Gamaliel’s school, he had already been made a Rabbi. Since his election to membership in this venerable body he had shown a remarkable zeal for the Jewish faith. On all sides a glorious future was predicted for him.

At this time — 37 A.D.– the Sanhedrin was greatly perplexed with reference to the religion of the Nazarene Prophet. The crucifixion of Jesus, which it had been hoped would put an utter end to this pestilent heresy, had been futile. Since that event his disciples had multiplied; on a single Pentecostal occasion not less than three thousand had been added to their number. The new religion was making itself conspicuous, particularly in the synagogues and at the great festivals. It was obvious that something must be done forthwithto arrest it. The mind of the Sanhedrists was favorable to the setting up of an inquisition. It was resolved to burn out the heresy. Saul of Tarsus, the young Sanhedrist, was chosen chief inquisitor; he was in no wise averse to the task. He “made havoc of the Church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison.” Learning that the religion of the Nazarene was making rapid strides in the city of Damascus, he directed his attention that way.

At noon Saul, “breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord,” was riding with a company of horsemen along the highway to Damascus, when a great thing happened which changed the current of his life. A light from heaven fell upon him above the brightness of the sun and he fell to the earth blinded. A voice said to him, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” He answered, “Who art thou. Lord?” The voice replied, “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest”; and Saul, trembling and astonished, said, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?”

Up to this time the life of Saul of Tarsus seems to have been one of uninterrupted prosperity. But with his new life he began to tread the narrow road of suffering — a lane without a turning, until he entered upon his eternal rest.

The first of Paul’s sorrows was the temporary blindness which befell him at his conversion. It was not without a purpose that this darkness closed him in. He was blindfolded for initiation into the mysteries of the gospel of Christ.

It is not an extraordinary thing for God to seclude his people in this way; closing their eyes to the outer world in order that they may look in upon themselves and upward to him. John Milton dreamed of creating a glorious epic, but his dream would never have been realized, had not God withdrawn him, as he says, from the pleasures of youth and the vapors of wine, and curtained his soul in blindness. Then came his visions of the celestial world. Of all he ever wrote, there is nothing more beautiful than his “Ode on my Blindness.”

“When I consider how my light is spent

Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,

And that one talent, which is death to hide.

Lodged with me useless, though my soul were bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

My true account, lest he returning chide;

“Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?”

I fondly ask: But Patience, to prevent

That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need

Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best

Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best; his state

Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed.

And post o’er land and ocean without rest;

They also serve who only stand and wait.

While Saul of Tarsus was thus temporarily shut up within himself he saw some things which otherwise would never have come to him. He perceived, to begin with, that all his former life had been wrong; that his energies had been misdirected and wasted. He saw again the face of Stephen, to whose death he had consented, shining like an angel’s face as he lifted it toward heaven under the shower of stones hurled upon him outside the wall, and heard him cry: “I see the heavens opened and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.” He saw how grievously he himself had misunderstood the prophet of Nazareth. He had thought of him as a root out of dry ground, having no form nor comeliness nor beauty that he should desire him. Now he knew that this Jesus was the very Christ, the long-looked-for Messiah of Israel, the veritable Son of God. He saw him chiefest among ten thousand and altogether lovely; the disguised King. He knew now that the story of his resurrection was no fable, for he had seen Jesus in light and glory unapproachable, the very Jesus whom he had hated and whose followers he had persecuted unto death, now reigning in the heaven of heavens, having upon his vesture and thigh a name written: “King of Kings and Lord of Lords!”

While he meditated upon these things sadly, and yet with the dawning joy of a great discovery, one of the followers of the Nazarene stood beside him, saying, “Brother Saul, receive thy sight”; his eyes were opened and, behold, the world was new; the new Presence had come into it, and henceforth Saul of Tarsus would know nothing but Christ and him crucified. From this time onward he was to go about declaring that this Jesus is the Christ. Was his a singular experience? Nay; the world is new to every soul when the living Christ has entered into it.

The second of Paul’s sorrows was surrender; for now, like a captive king who puts off his crown and purple and passes under the yoke, he lays down all. If ever a man knew the meaning of unconditional surrender at the beginning of the new life it was this Saul of Tarsus. A great gulf opened between him and the past. He was disowned and ostracized; home, kindred, former friendships, all gone. Those who had been proud of knowing him now passed him on the Street without a word of greeting. The fond dreams and ambitions of his former years were gone. No more looking forward to preferment in the Sanhedrin; no more thought of immortality in the chronicles of Israel. Saul of Tarsus had thrown away his opportunity; he had fallen in with the company of those who followed the crucified carpenter. The pride of his Jewish birthright and the honor of his Roman citizenship were gone. He must begin life over again and build on a new foundation. Most lamentable was the loss of his former religious connections, his ecclesiastical birthright. How he had loved the temple and its imposing ceremonial! How he had loved the Talmud and its rabbinical lore!

And was there compensation for this loss? He stood within the temple and saw its walls receding; he felt himself in a vaster and more glorious fabric. Ecclesia! The Church! The great assembly of all who love truth and righteousness. The walls of separation are down; the veil is rent asunder; the doors are open wide; a voice is heard, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all ye ends of the earth”; and the voice of the goodly fellowship responds, “One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all.” The soul of the new convert is exalted to an unspeakable joy. Ring out the old! ring in the new! A world of new interests opens before him. Truth, righteousness and benevolence are everything now. The face of his new Master shines above and there is no trace of sorrow in the words with which he responds: “I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord; for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, and be found in him, not having my own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; if by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead. I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.”

The third of his sorrows was poverty. It would appear that he was the son of a well-to-do family in Tarsus; but if so, by the Jewish custom, he was now stripped of his patrimony “cut off with a shilling.” As a Rabbi he had received his livelihood from the temple treasury; this also was gone. And what had he to fall back upon? Fortunately it was required that every Jewish boy should learn a trade, and Saul, in his early life, had learned the art of tent-making. At Corinth he applies for work at the shop of Aquila and Priscilla, and there we find him plying his needle. The white hands of Gamaliel’s scholar are callous with toil, but he assures us that in all this he rejoices that he was ” chargeable to no man.” While working with his needle he preached the gospel to his shopmates; when working hours were over he found his way to the synagogue and there reasoned with the people that Jesus was the Christ.

And what was his compensation for this loss of patrimony and competence, for this reduction to the level of common toil? “I have all things and abound,” says he. Oh, the riches of grace! the unsearchable riches of Christ! Riches! Riches! Riches! Every day brought its reward, a penny at evening. A penny only! Ay; but it bore the image and the superscription of the King. The smile of the Master made his penny more than the millionaire’s wealth. It is said that Han Qua of Peking is worth sixteen hundred millions of dollars. Go into his vaults and look about you; gold, silver, in bags and boxes, thousands, millions — nothing! Nothing to the riches of grace. Dust and ashes. Go out of these vaults of perishable treasure and stand beside the Apostle and hear him rhapsodize on the immeasurable wealth of the kingdom: the hills are all of silver, the rivers are molten gold, the stars of night are Koh-i-noors, and all are his and all are mine and all are yours, if Christ is ours. “All things,” says Paul, ”are yours; the world, life, death, things present, things to come, all are yours, for ye are Christ’s and Christ is God’s.”

The fourth of his sorrows was his thorn in the flesh. It is not of supreme importance that we should know precisely what this was. It may have been a dimness of sight, a lingering trace of the blindness that befell him on the Damascus highway. It may have been, as Cajetanus says, “a hostile angel sent of Satan to buffet him.” It may have been a besetting sin, a passion or appetite coming over from the old life and ever striving to get the better of him. Whatever it was, he tells us he besought the Lord thrice that it might depart from him and the Lord said, “Nay; but my grace shall be sufficient for thee; for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” This was better than the removal of the cause. They tell us that the Gold Cure takes away the appetite for drink, but God in his grace does that which is far better; he leaves the appetite, but gives a man the power to overcome it. Is there a greater joy in all human life than this, to beat down our baser nature and triumph over it? Is not this manhood? Is not this the very summit of character?

So says the Apostle: “I will most gladly glory in my infirmities that the power of Christ may rest upon me: I will take pleasure in my infirmities, for when I am weak then I am strong.” Grace is Paul’s sign-manual; his fourteen Epistles close with it. There is nothing better in the world than the gift of this heavenly grace. This is that “fragrant myrtle “of which Pliny speaks, “If it be held in the hand, it will sustain strength and relieve all weariness.” “I can do all things,” says Paul,” through Christ which strengtheneth me.”

The fifth of his sorrows was persecution. This began with his excommunication. He was branded as an apostate. Then the long catalogue of suffering: “Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one; thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned; in journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of mine own countrymen, in perils of the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in cold and nakedness — “if I must needs glory, I will glory in the things which concern mine infirmities!”

In all these he was comforted by the thought that he was thus received into the fellowship of his Lord: “I rejoice,” he says, “in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ.” The marks of his suffering are the scars of an honorable service under a glorious captain: “Henceforth,” he cries, “let no man trouble me, for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.”

On one occasion, when Paul was on his way to Jerusalem, a certain prophet named Agabus took the Apostle’s girdle and bound his own hands and feet and said: “So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man that owneth this girdle and deliver him into the hands of his foes.” Then the friends of the Apostle began to entreat him not to continue his ominous journey, to which he answered: “What mean ye to weep and break mine heart? for I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” He counted this to be his chiefest honor; to be permitted to enter into the fellowship of the sufferings of Christ, that he might also reign with him.

The last of his sorrows was restraint. If ever a man needed room, it was Paul. Yet much of his life was spent in prison; under restrictions so narrow that he could touch the borders of his parish with his finger tips. Two years in prison in Cesarea; two years in the Praetorian Camp at Rome; a further season of confinement, probably in the Mammertine jail. Meanwhile he was by no means idle. Out of his prison door went his Epistles like leaves fluttering from the tree of life. He preached the gospel to the guard who was chained to his wrist. His rejoicing was, that despite his own fetters and manacles, the word of God was not bound.

Then he was summoned before Nero the Lion. He laments that on this occasion no man stood with him but all forsook him, and adds, ” Notwithstanding the Lord stood with me and strengthened me.” It is said that the presence of Garibaldi, during his Italian campaign, was of inestimable value to his brave men. The battle over, he passed through the hospitals where the wounded were groaning and shrieking; and when he laid his hand upon the fevered brow, the patient would look up, and murmuring, “Garibaldi!” would set his teeth and suffer in silence. So was the heart of Paul strengthened by his Lord’s presence in the supreme hour of need.

On the occasion of his first trial Paul was delivered out of the mouth of the Lion; but after a brief respite, he was summoned again before the Imperial Court. Then came the death sentence, but the Lord stood with him and strengthened him. He was led out beyond the walls to the place of execution; on one side of him stood the headsman with his gleaming sword, on the other side stood his Lord strengthening him and saying, “Be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee the crown of life”; the sword flashed for an instant, fell, and the next moment Paul the Apostle beheld the King in his beauty.

One lesson: “No affliction for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous; but in the end it worketh the peaceable fruits of righteousness to them that are exercised thereby.” We are asked, “Does God send trouble?” No and yes. He is a poor father who will, on occasion, chasten his children for their good. It is safe to say, nevertheless, that much the larger portion of our sorrow comes not from above, but from the Prince of Darkness who desires to buffet us. Let us rejoice, however, in the assurance that God is stronger than Satan and able to overrule all his designing, so that all things shall be made to work together for our good, if we love God. Were it not for these sorrows that befall us we should be like the bees of Barbadoes. Darwin says that these little insects, having been taken thither for the advantage of the luxuriant flora, found the weather so fine and the perfume so abundant, that they became profligate after the first year, ate up their capital, and worked no more, but went flying about like indolent butterflies. Let us, glory, therefore, in our infirmities, for in them the strength of God rests upon us A great joy awaits those who subsidize all the conditions of this present life to the building up of character and goodness. “I reckon,” says Paul, and he was quite competent to speak in these premises having considered the matter pro and con out of a rich personal experience- “I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.

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