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THE LAST INTERVIEW OF PAUL WITH THE ELDERS OF EPHESUS.
WHEN Paul had left Ephesus, in consequence of a popular tumult, he went to Macedonia and Greece. On his return from those countries, he landed at Troas, where he spent some days with the disciples, and celebrated the Lord’s supper on the first day of the week, In his voyage from Troas, he passed by Ephesus because he wished to arrive at Jerusalem before the feast of Pentecost and would not expose himself to the importunities of his friends, who might solicit him to stay. But, being now to leave this part of Asia for ever, he would not depart, till he had delivered to the pastors and rulers of the Church, his solemn counsels and exhortations. From Miletus, therefore, he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the Church.
In the style of the New Testament, an elder does not signify a person advanced in years, but one invested with authority. The title is given to the rulers of the Jews, who are frequently called the elders of the people, and to certain office-bearers in the Christian Church, of whom two classes are pointed out by Paul in one of his Epistles, elders who only rule or govern, and elders who both rule, and labour in word and doctrine. Of the latter description, I apprehend, were the elders of Ephesus, for they are exhorted “to feed” the Church; a duty of the pastoral office, which consists in preaching the gospel for the edification and comfort of the people. “I will give you pastors according to mine heart, which shall feed you with knowledge and understanding.” It deserves notice, that the same persons, who here receive the appellation of elders, are called, in the 320twenty-eighth verse, overseers or inspectors. The word, in the original language, is the same which is translated in other parts of the New Testament, bishops; and it is used in ecclesiastical writings, to characterize an office-bearer of a higher order than elders or presbyters, who exercised authority over the clergy of a whole province or diocese. It is evident, however, that this is a new sense affixed to the term. Although the episcopal form of government is of great antiquity, and traces of it may be perceived not long after the death of the Apostles; yet the distinction between bishops and presbyters, upon which it is founded, did not exist in the primitive times. In the Apostolical style, all the elders of Ephesus were bishops; and according to the genuine Apostolical constitution, there might be several bishops in the same Church.
Paul begins his address to the elders of Ephesus, by reminding them of his manner of life, during the course of his ministry among them. “Ye know from the first day that I came into Asia, after what manner I have been with you at all seasons, serving the Lord with all humility of mind, and with many tears, and temptations which befel me, by the lying in wait of the Jews.” Humility was a virtue, by which the Apostle was eminently distinguished. Elevated to the highest rank in the Christian Church, more learned than any of his brethren, and possessed of great natural talents, and of miraculous p6wers, he was not elated with an idea of his superiority, nor haughty and overbearing in his intercourse with others.
The pious reflection which he introduces in one of his Epistles, was always present to his mind, “By the grace of God I am what I am.” He did not dare to be proud of qualifications and privileges which he had not merited, but divine goodness had freely bestowed upon him. His ambition led him, not to assume a lordly dominion over the heritage of God, but to abound in labours for the honour and advancement of the gospel. He treated the disciples as his equals, mingled familiarly with them, meekly instructed the ignorant, and condescended to the infirmities of the weak. “We preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus sake.” His tears were expressive of his tender concern, for the souls of men, of the compassion with which he regarded those who were perishing in their sins, as well as of his sympathy with the disciples, in their common afflictions, and in their sufferings for religion. He was not a man of a stern unfeeling temper; but in him a tender heart was conjoined with a vigorous understanding. 321He did not preach the gospel with the indifference of a philosopher settling some abstract question of science, but with all those affections, which its important design and interesting doctrines were calculated to excite. Susceptible of the emotions of love and pity he was not ashamed to melt into tears, at the folly and perverseness of the ungodly. “Many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ.” Yet the humility and affection, with which he discharged the duties of his office, did not exempt him from persecution. The Jews, the implacable and unwearied enemies of Christianity, were animated with peculiar rancour against Paul, who had once been zealous for the law, but now discovered equal zeal in defence of the gospel. They not only opposed him by their objections and blasphemies, in Ephesus, as they had done in other places; but they seem to have formed plots against his life, to which he refers, when he speaks of “the temptations which befel him by the lying in wait of the Jews.” His faith, patience, and courage were tried, or put to the test by the perilous circumstances in which he was placed. But, although those trials were distressful, yet in the end, they redounded to his honour; for he was never induced by a regard to personal safety to shrink from his duty.
Of his constancy and fidelity he has given an account, in the verses which are next to be considered. “And how I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have showed you, and have taught you publicly, and from house to house, testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.” In this summary of Christianity, repentance is of the same import with conversion, and signifies that change of views, disposition, and principles, which takes place when the soul is regenerated, and terminates in the sincere dedication of the heart and life to the service of God. It is this repentance, and not transient remorse for sin, or partial and temporary reformation, which the gospel proposes to accomplish. It calls upon the prodigal son to return to his offended but merciful Father; it teaches him who has strayed in pursuit of the low and polluted pleasures of the world, to elevate his desires to the pure joys of religion. This design it effects by means of faith in Jesus Christ, whom it exhibits as the Mediator, whose blood has reconciled God and man, and opened a friendly intercourse between them. The love of God displayed in the dispensation of grace, melts the heart into genuine 322penitence; the merit of the Saviour raises it from a state of despondency, and inspires a humble yet confident hope of mercy; and the sinner thus attracted and encouraged, devotes himself to God, with a fixed purpose never again to forsake him. Repentance towards God, or conversion is the end; faith in Jesus Christ is the mean. “I am the way and the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father but by me.” Such was the doctrine of Paul, who testified both to the Jews and to the Greeks, that our restoration to the divine favour, and the sanctification of our souls, upon which genuine practical religion is founded, are attainable only by Christ, whom the gospel exhibits as the hope of guilty men.
The instructions of Paul were not confined to a few favourite topics, but comprehended a complete system of necessary truths. “I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you.” Those who are influenced by selfish considerations are in constant danger of forsaking the path of rectitude. Instead of preaching those doctrines which would be profitable to others, they are tempted to preach such only as are profitable to themselves. The Apostle was a man of a different spirit. To the suggestions of worldly prudence he paid no attention; his counsellor was conscience; and the source of his actions was a benevolent heart, which sought the salvation of others with an ardour little inferior to that with which it laboured for its own. Contenting himself with the consciousness of upright intention, and the approbation of his Master in heaven, he did not hesitate to bring forward, in the proper season, whatever would contribute to the instruction and establishment of those to whom he ministered. If his doctrine should ultimately be productive of salutary effects, he was satisfied, although, in some instances, it should awaken temporary displeasure. In religion, as in medicine, things are often wholesome which are not agreeable to the taste; and the physician of the soul may occasionally expect, like the physician of the body, to incur the censures of the patient. But, he who is bound by his office, as well as prompted by his feelings, to do good to others, must be superior to every consideration but that of his duty. He must even undertake the ungracious task of endeavouring to serve them in opposition to their wishes, and at the risk of offending them in the mean time; trusting to their wiser thoughts and subsequent experience for the justification of his conduct, or calmly waiting the sentence of God, who, in recompensing his servants, will regard their intention, and not their success.323
The diligence of the Apostle was not confined to his public ministrations. He taught the Ephesians “from house to house;” and, we may presume, pursued the same plan in other Churches. In his private intercourse with the disciples, he inculcated the doctrines and duties which he had delivered in their religious assemblies. In their own houses, he could descend to a more detailed exposition, and a more personal application of the truth, than the nature of his public discourses would admit. He could inquire into their spiritual state, their temptations, their perplexities, and their sorrows, and tender such counsels, and reproofs, and encouragements, as the case of individuals demanded. Like a good shepherd, Paul looked well to the state of his flock.
He proceeds to inform the elders of Ephesus of the object of his present voyage. “And now behold, I go bound in the Spirit unto Jerusalem.” The expression “bound in the Spirit,” has been considered as importing his earnest desire, or his fixed purpose, to visit that city, a purpose from which no ordinary occurrence would divert him. But, it may be understood to signify a strong impulse upon his mind from the Holy Ghost, which will appear the more probable sense, if we reflect, that the Apostles, in choosing places for exercising their ministry, were, in several instances recorded in this book, directed by the Spirit of God. And, when we consider the important consequences of this journey, we shall the more readily believe, that it was undertaken by particular command.
Of the things which should happen to him in Jerusalem, he had received no information. He did not, however, flatter himself with the hope of a favourable reception from his countrymen; but was prepared to expect persecution, in consequence of a general intimation by the Spirit. “Not knowing the things that shall befall me there; save that the Holy Ghost witnesseth in every city, saying, that bonds and afflictions abide me.” When Jesus Christ commanded his Apostles to go and preach the gospel to the world, he sent them upon a mission full of difficulty and danger. His religion, although it breathed the spirit of love and peace, kindled war wherever it came. It found an enemy in every man, who was enslaved by his passions, and was unwilling to renounce the pleasures of sin. Peaceable as was the demeanour of his ministers, and benevolent as were their intentions, they were treated as the foes of the human race; and a conspiracy of Jews and Gentiles was formed for their destruction. Of the hardships which they should 324sustain, and the perils which they should encounter, in the dis. charge of their duty, the eleven were forewarned by our Saviour himself, and Paul, by a particular revelation. Unlike artful and designing men, who entice others to concur with them, by showing the advantages of the enterprize, while they carefully conceal its difficulties and hazards, our Lord gave them a distinct and full view of the nature of his service, that they might have no cause afterwards to complain of having been deceived, and that no man might become his disciple, but from deliberate choice. It is a proof of the sincerity of the Apostles, and of their firm conviction of the truth of Christianity, that they embraced it with a perfect knowledge of the consequences. We never hear a single word from them, which might lead us to suspect, that they had repented of their conduct; we do not observe one of them discovering an inclination to abandon his post. “None of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God.”
This is not the language of one of those lying philosophers, who pretended that pain is not an evil, and affected to smile amidst exquisite tortures. Paul felt as a man, and never attempted to disguise his feelings. But, the afflictions which awaited him in every city, did not so move him as to turn him aside from his purpose. They did not intimidate him, nor cool the ardour of his zeal, nor prevent him from going to any place, to which Providence called him. Although he understood, that new sufferings were reserved for him in Jerusalem, he was resolved to prosecute his journey in obedience to the command of the Spirit. Even life itself he was willing to offer up as a sacrifice to the glory of his Saviour. “All that a man hath,” it has been said, “will he give for his life;” but the assertion is not universally true. A coward, a person void of principle and honour, a man of this world, whose views rise no higher than himself, and whose hopes are confined within the narrow boundaries of time, may part with every thing as the price of deliverance from death. But, a Christian would not injure his conscience to preserve his life; he would not save it at the expense of renouncing the service of Christ, or of neglecting the least of his commandments. To a good man, truth, duty, and the approbation of his own mind, will appear incomparably more valuable than a long series of years, spent in the sunshine of prosperity. “I know,” 325said Paul, “the value of life as well as any other man; and I am not insensible to the various blessings with which it is sweetened. But, there is one thing which I prefer to it, the glory of my Redeemer: in whose service I am engaged. My first object is to run my race well, and to finish my course. This is my highest aim; and I shall rejoice, if I can accomplish it, by expiring in the flames, or upon the scaffold.” Behold, my brethren, a Christian hero!
The Apostle now proceeds to the great design of his speech; and that the elders of Ephesus, and all those who were present, might give the more serious attention to it, he declares that he is now addressing them for the last time. “And now behold, I know, that ye all, among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom of God, shall see my face no more.” That these prophetic words were verified by the event, there is no reason to doubt. Upon his arrival at Jerusalem, as we shall afterwards see, he was apprehended by the Jews, and was sent to Rome, by the governor of the province, to appear before the tribunal of Nero; but, although he regained his liberty, and afterwards spent some time in preaching the gospel, it should seem, that he never returned to Ephesus or Miletus.
At the moment of final separation, the Apostle makes the following solemn appeal to his hearers. “Therefore I take you to record this day, that I am pure from the blood of all men.” The language is metaphorical, for Paul is not asserting his innocence in respect of murder, but of the perdition of souls. As the shedding of blood signifies, in the style of the Scriptures, the taking away of the life of another by injustice or violence, the same phrase is used to express the guilt of destroying the souls of our brethren. In this sense, he was free from blood. Individuals had, perhaps, perished in sin under his ministry, but their ruin was entirely owing to themselves. No man could charge him with negligence and unfaithfulness. That minister alone can adopt the same language, who is not accused by his conscience of having omitted any thing, which he might have done for the salvation of his people; who has not lulled them into security by his doctrine or his example, nor flattered them in sin, nor withheld necessary counsels and admonitions, how unwelcome soever they were likely to prove, nor ceased to urge and beseech them to mind “the things which belonged to their peace.” “When I say unto the wicked, Thou shalt surely die; and thou givest him not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his 326wicked way to save his life; the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand.”
But, Paul had warned his hearers, for “he had not shunned to declare unto them all the counsel of God;” and for the truth of this assertion, he boldly appealed to those who had been the objects of his ministry, and the constant witnesses of his conduct. “All the counsels of God,” is equivalent to the whole system of revealed truth. The Apostle was not one of those preachers, whose discourses run the perpetual round of a few subjects, which exhaust their poor stock of knowledge, or are selected, because they are easily discussed, and are the best fitted to gain popular applause. As his mind was capable of taking a comprehensive view of the various doctrines and duties of Christianity, so he exhibited them in their order and connexion, carefully adapting his instructions to the diversified characters and circumstances of the members of the Church, and leading them on to perfection. “This scribe who was instructed unto the kingdom of heaven, was like unto a man that is an householder, which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old.” He was a wise as well as a faithful preacher; and as he never obtruded subjects unseasonably upon the Church, so he did not conceal any truth which he was called to publish, how contrary soever it might be to the ideas and inclinations of those to whom he ministered. What painful study, what profound meditation, what extensive knowledge of the Scriptures, and of other subjects which throw light upon them, what intimate acquaintance with the human heart, and experience of the ways of men, are necessary to enable a minister of the gospel to tread in the footsteps of Paul! “Who is sufficient for these things?” is a reflection which will often occur to the preacher, who bas been most diligent and successful in his preparations. What, then, shall we think of those presumptuous intruders into the sacred office, who are not qualified to explain, in a satisfactory manner, a single doctrine of religion?
The Church of Ephesus was no longer to enjoy the instructions and pastoral care of so able and faithful a minister of Christ. On the eve of his departure, therefore, he exhorts the elders “to take heed unto themselves, and to all the flock, over which the Holy Ghost had made them overseers, to feed the Church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.” They are required first “to take heed to themselves,” that they might not be diverted from their duty by the cares and amusements of life, nor through indolence 327and remissness let slip opportunities of doing good; that they might always perform their functions from pure motives, with a proper sense of their importance, and an ardent desire to accomplish their design; and that their conduct might uniformly serve to illustrate and enforce the doctrines which they taught. The duties of the ministerial office are so various and weighty, the temptations are so great, and the consequences of error and negligence are so fatal, that incessant vigilance is indispensably necessary. It surely concerns those who are the guides of others in religion, to be themselves possessed of a lively faith of the gospel, and to cherish in their own hearts the devotional sentiments which they are daily recommending. This attention to themselves, which Paul enjoined upon the elders of Ephesus, was preparatory to the due care of the Church; for he immediately adds, “Take heed to all the flock.” The general injunction is limited to the duty of “feeding” it, by the preaching of the word, and the dispensation of the other ordinances of the gospel, which are the means of communicating spiritual nourishment to the soul. The design of the ministry is “to perfect the saints, and to edify the body of Christ;” to impart instruction and consolation to believers, to assist their progress in faith and piety, and, by this holy discipline, to train them for eternal life. The care which is requisite for these important purposes, must be extended to all the flock, or to all the individuals of which it is composed. Respect of persons is condemned in those who are invested with a public character, and it is peculiarly offensive and incongruous in the Church, because every member of it stands precisely in the same relation to the pastor, and the souls of all are equally precious. If any distinction is made, it should be in favour of those who are the most apt to be overlooked, the humble, the diffident, the weak, and the disconsolate. Jesus Christ has given an example of condescension and tender sympathy to his servants. “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead them that are with young.”
In this part of his address, Paul introduces several considerations, admirably calculated to excite the elders of Ephesus, and others upon whom the same office has been conferred, to exercise a watchful care over the Church. It is the “Church of God,” that is, of Jesus Christ, who is “God over all blessed for ever,” as we learn from the last part of the verse, where God is said “to have purchased 328it with his own blood.” It is a society composed of persons intimately related to him, as members of his body; and he claims a greater interest in it than in any other association. God redeemed the Israelites from the bondage of Egypt by his mighty power; but Jesus Christ has redeemed the Church by laying down his life for it. As it is manifest that the Church, purchased with this invaluable price, is unspeakably dear to him, it is a high honour to any man to be entrusted with a charge so precious. With what unremitting activity should he exert himself for its welfare! With what solicitude should he guard it against injury! Over that part of this spiritual society which resided in Ephesus, the Holy Ghost had made the elders whom Paul was now addressing, “overseers,,” or bishops. If we suppose him to refer to an extraordinary appointment of those men to their office, by a suggestion or revelation of the Spirit, who said, on another occasion, “Separate me Barnabas and Saul, for the work whereunto I have called them;” their vocation to the ministry was express, and the obligation to perform its duties must have been strongly felt. But, every man, who is duly qualified for the sacred function, and has been regularly set apart to it, may be justly considered as made a bishop by the Holy Ghost; and to consider himself in this light, will be a powerful excitement to unwearied diligence. Let him remember, that there are no sinecures in the Christian Church, and that the names of office are not empty titles of honour. A pastor should feed the flock; an overseer is bound to inspect, with a vigilant eye, the affairs committed, to his trust.
Besides these considerations, which are of the same force in every age, there was a particular reason which induced Paul, to enjoin upon the elders of Ephesus strict attention to their charge. He foresaw the approach of perilous times. “For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock.” There is no reference in these words, as some have supposed, to the persecution of Nero, which commenced some years after; but they are an evident prediction of the rise of heresies, by which the Church was very early infested. In the book of Revelation, we read of the sect of the Nicolaitans, whose licentious tenets Jesus Christ abhorred.
Cerinthus, who vented many wild and blasphemous opinions, is said to have been contemporary with the Apostles, or at least with John, who survived his brethren; and when we look into the Epistles 329of Paul, particularly his Epistle to the Colossians, we observe several allusions to the doctrines which were afterwards propagated by the Gnostics, of all heretics the most impious and absurd. “Also of yourselves shall men arise, speaking perverse things.” It has been supposed, that he had particularly in his eye Hymeneus and Philetus, who affirmed that the resurrection was already past, and some other false teachers, who are mentioned in the Epistles to Timothy, which were sent to him, while he was residing in Ephesus. The Apostle calls those heretics “grievous wolves,” referring to his former description of the Church under the image of a flock; and it is with manifest propriety that such men are compared to those ravenous animals, because their doctrine is of a pernicious nature, and makes havock of the souls of men. The harmlessness of error is a modern discovery. But, according to our Saviour’s representation, they are often “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” concealing their real character and intentions from the simple and unwary, under the garb of modesty, candour, and piety. Yet, to the attentive and intelligent, they betray themselves by their doctrine, for they speak “perverse things.” However specious it may seem, and with whatever arguments drawn from Scripture and reason it may be apparently confirmed, it is a perversion of the oracles of God. It is supported by detached expressions of Scripture, interpreted without regard to the connexion, and to other passages in which the same subject is treated, and by such wresting of the words of inspiration from their obvious sense, as, if attempted upon any other writing, would subject the commentator to the charge of stupidity or dishonesty. By such methods, the divinity and atonement of Jesus Christ, and the personality and operations of the Holy Ghost have been opposed. Finally, it is stated to be the design of the false teachers, “to draw away disciples after them.” We know, from the history of the early ages, with how much success their exertions were crowned. The spirit of proselytism is common to all parties; but it has existed, in peculiar vigour, among the teachers of error. The Pharisees “compassed sea and land” to make one proselyte. The missonaries of Rome have travelled into the most distant regions of the earth, to persuade the natives to acknowledge the Pope, and to worship saints, instead of the Gods of their fathers. In ancient and modern times, heretics have signalized themselves by their activity. The solitary enjoyment of their discoveries is not a sufficient reward. Heresy, which is the offspring of pride of understanding, 330fondness for novelty, and a desire for distinction, courts the attention of the public, and the applause of partisans. Perhaps, in some instances, the mind still hesitating between its old and its new opinions, seeks the decision of its doubts in the suffrages of others. Whatever be the cause which stimulates the zeal of the heretic, scarcely any man whose brain has hatched a new conceit, however silly or absurd, can be content, unless he see a crowd as foolish and giddy as himself, following in his train.
In the prospect of the perils to which the Church should be exposed, the Apostle exhorts the elders to watch. It was not a time for the shepherds to sleep, when wolves were ready to break into the fold. It would not, indeed, be possible, by the utmost care, to prevent the Church from being, in some degree,. injured by the doctrines of false teachers; but their mischievous tendency might be, in a great measure, counteracted by timely and vigorous resistance. Paul proposes his own conduct as an example to the pastors of Ephesus, and reminds them of his admonitions and his tears, to excite them to the same fidelity, and the same affectionate concern for the souls of men. “Therefore watch, and remember that by the space of three years, I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears.”
Finally, “he commends them to God, and to the word of his grace, which was able to build them up, and to give them an inheritance among all them that are sanctified.” By “the word of his grace,” some are of opinion, that Jesus Christ is meant, who is the “Word of God,” and may be called the word of his grace, because by him divine grace was revealed to the world. “Grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” And to whom is it so fit, that Christians, whether ministers or people, should be commended, as to him who died for their salvation, and intercedes in heaven, that their faith may not fail? Others think, that “the word of his grace” is the gospel, which in the twenty-fourth verse of this chapter, is called “the gospel of the grace of God;” and it must be acknowledged, that this is the most obvious and natural meaning. There is, indeed, something unusual in commending Christians to God and to the gospel: but, with respect to the latter, nothing more can be understood than a reference to it, or a direction attentively to consider it, as containing the promises, which are the objects of their faith, and the sources of their consolation, and as furnishing the most powerful motives to steadfastness in their profession, and 331the performance of personal and official duties. It is certain, that the properties which are here ascribed to “the word of grace,” do belong to the gospel, which is the instrument of building up the people of God in faith, sanctifying them, and “making them meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light.” The best preparation for an approaching trial, is a serious consideration and firm belief of the truth; for thus Christians are furnished with the evidence of experience, by which the sophistry and allurements of error will be resisted and overcome. He who perceives the excellence of the gospel, and feels its influence in tranquillizing his conscience, and comforting his heart, is in little danger from those who lie in wait to deceive. It would be a hopeless undertaking, to persuade the man who is rejoicing in the light, that darkness is preferable.
The diligence of Paul in ministering to the Church did not proceed from a selfish or mercenary principle. He was entitled, indeed, in justice and reason, to a recompense from those who enjoyed the benefit of his labours; but, in many instances, he chose rather to support himself by his own industry. Let it not be said, that as the first Christians were so poor, that they could not reward their teachers, the generosity of Paul was the effect of necessity. The representation is not agreeable to truth. Some of them had possessions of houses and lands; and the zeal of them all was so fervent, that, like the Galatians, “they would, if it had been possible, have plucked out their own eyes, and have given them to him.” But, the Apostle, who was desirous to recommend the gospel by every lawful expedient, willingly declined the exercise of his right, when his self-denial would procure a favourable reception to his doctrine. “What is my reward then? Verily, that when I preach the gospel, I may make the gospel of Christ without charge, that I abuse not my power in the gospel. For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more.” In this disinterested manner he had acted in Ephesus; and he could say, in the presence of the elders of that Church, “I have coveted no man’s silver, or gold, or apparel. Yea, you yourselves know, that these hands have ministered unto my necessities, and to them that were with me.”
His conduct was not intended to be a precedent to the ministers of religion in every situation, but was accommodated to the circumstances of the time, and was an illustration by example of those lessons of generosity and love, which he had inculcated 332upon others. “I have showed you all things, how that so labouring ye ought to support the weak; and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Charity is incumbent not only upon the rich, but upon those also who earn their subsistence by the labour of their hands: and the latter ought to increase their industry, that out of their greater gain they may be the more able to assist their indigent brethren. This is obviously the meaning of the words, although, when thus understood, they enjoin a degree of active benevolence, rarely exemplified, and I may add, rarely conceived. Who thinks it his duty to labour not for his own advantage alone, and for the maintenance of his family, but to acquire the means of relieving the necessities of others Where is the man, who, having made ample provision for his personal and relative wants, would pursue business with a design to replenish the source of his liberality, that it might be more widely diffused? How few believe, or, indeed, ever reflect upon the words of our Saviour, “It is more blessed to give than to receive?” As they are not found in any of the Gospels, we may presume, that Paul had learned them by revelation, or from the other Apostles; and being delivered to us by him, they are equally authentic as if they had been recorded by one of the Evangelists. To most men it appears to be more blessed to receive than to give. The increase of their treasures affords them pleasure, and it is with pain that they see them diminished. They are not acquainted with the feelings of a benevolent heart, to which the happiness of others is a source of purer and more exquisite delight than the selfish man can derive from his solitary enjoyments. The influence of the gospel makes the Christian capable of tasting this pleasure. Religion refines our sentiments, and expands our affections. It forms us after the pattern of the divine goodness, and restores the empire of love in the soul. It is more godlike to give than to receive; it is a feature in the character of our heavenly Father, “whose tender mercies are over all his works.”
Here Paul closed his address. And now, like a pious and affectionate father, who is about to take the last farewell of his family, he knelt down in the midst of the elders, and in a solemn prayer commended them to God. The historian has said nothing of his feelings on this affecting occasion; but we know that a man of so tender a heart, could not separate, without lively emotions of grief, from those whom he dearly loved. The tears which the disciples 333shed in abundance, were expressive of their sorrow at parting for ever with a friend, whose sympathy they had experienced in their perplexities and distresses; with a teacher, to whom they had often listened with pleasure and advantage; with a spiritual father, who “in Christ Jesus had begotten them through the gospel.” In heaven, pious friends will be re-united; but the interval of separation is gloomy, and nature will let fall some tears, even while the heart feels the cheering influence of hope.
From this portion of the history of Paul, we learn what will give us comfort in the solemn hour, which shall terminate our intercourse with those whom we love. All earthly relations are of temporary duration; the pastor must leave his spiritual flock, and the union, which has been cemented by an interchange of good offices, during many years, must be dissolved. It will alleviate our grief, if when we look back upon our past connexions, our consciences bear witness, that we have faithfully endeavoured to perform the duties be longing to them. A retrospect of our mercies will give us no pleasure, unless they have been improved. The reflection that they have been neglected and abused, will prove a sting in our hearts, which will exasperate our natural feelings, and overwhelm us with sorrow and remorse. How dreadful the thought to a minister of religion, that he has slept over his charge, and suffered immortal souls to perish in ignorance and vice! How would it rend the heart of a father, when looking at the lifeless body of his son, to remember that he had treated him with harshness and cruelty! How much more bitter his anguish, if, at this awful moment, conscience should lift up its voice, and accuse him of having done nothing for the salvation of his child; and if the terrible idea should rush into his mind, that, perhaps, his own offspring, in a state of torment, is cursing him as the cause of his eternal perdition! Happy the dying saint who can say, “I am free from the blood of all men. I have endeavoured with much imperfection, indeed, but with sincerity and diligence, to serve my generation according to the will of God. Lord! thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold I have gained besides them five talents more.”
Farther, The example of Paul shows us in what manner every Christian should study to acquit himself, in the station which Providence has assigned to him. We see a man intent upon the performance of his duty, indefatigable in his exertions, and acting 334from the purest motives, whose courage was undaunted, and whom no consideration could turn aside to the right hand or to the left. How unlike him are the most of us! Should we not blush to think of our languid and interrupted obedience, of the mixture of selfishness in our actions which have the fairest show of disinterestedness, of our cowardice when danger occurs, of the facility with which we deviate from the path of duty to enter upon some other pursuit! Yet, we serve the same master, whom Paul served, and profess to be equally sincere. We have the same promises of divine assistance, and the same glorious prospects to animate us. Let us be ashamed, that we are so much inferior in zeal and activity. It is a powerful excitement to those efforts which are necessary to the attainment of excellence, to keep constantly in our eye the finest models, the most perfect patterns. Conformably to this plan, the Scripture directs us to contemplate first the example of Jesus Christ, and next that of the most eminent saints. “Being encompassed with a great cloud of witnesses,” we are exhorted to run with patience the race which is set before us.” Let us propose for imitation not the dwarfish virtues of the majority of Christians, but the heroic deeds of Paul and other illustrious men, that, if we cannot hope to equal them, we may, at least, rise to higher degrees of holiness than we should have attained, if we had fixed a lower standard. We should account nothing done while any thing remains to be done. “Let us not be slothful, but followers of them, who, through faith and patience, inherit the promise.”335
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