« Prev Chapter IV. Saul and Sinai. Next »

68

CHAPTER IV.

SAUL AND SINAI.

"Saul was certain days with the disciples which were at Damascus. And straightway in the synagogues he proclaimed Jesus, that He is the Son of God."—Acts ix. 19, 20.

We have bestowed a great deal of attention upon the incidents at Damascus, because the conversion of Saul of Tarsus is more closely connected with the truth and authenticity of Christianity than any other event save those immediately connected with the life and ministry of our Lord Himself. We shall, however, in this chapter, endeavour to discuss the remaining circumstances of it which the Acts of the Apostles brings under our notice.

I. We are told in verse 17 of the visit of Ananias to Saul. "Ananias departed, and entered into the house; and laying his hands on him said, Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, who appeared unto thee in the way which thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mayest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost." This conversation with Ananias is largely expanded by St. Paul himself in the account which he gives us in Acts xxii., while in his speech to Agrippa in the twenty-sixth chapter he entirely omits all mention of Ananias, and seems to introduce our Lord as the only person who spoke to him, and yet there is no real inconsistency.69 St. Paul, in fact, in the latter address is intent on setting vividly before Agrippa the sum total of the revelations made by Christ. He ignores, therefore, every secondary agent. Ananias was Christ's messenger. His words were merely those which Christ put into his mouth. St. Paul goes, therefore, to the root of the matter, and attributes everything, whether uttered by our Lord or by Ananias, to the former alone, who was, indeed, the great Inspirer of every expression, the true Director of every minutest portion of this important transaction.

The ninth chapter, on the other hand, breaks the story up into its component parts, and shows us the various actors in the scene. We see the Lord Jesus consciously presiding over all, revealing Himself now to this person and again to that person. We get a glimpse for a moment behind the veil which Divine Providence throws around His doings and the doings of the children of men. We see Christ revealing Himself now to Saul and then to Ananias, informing the latter of the revelations made to the former; just as He subsequently revealed Himself almost simultaneously to Cornelius at Cæsarea and to Simon Peter at Joppa, preparing the one for the other. The Lord thus hints at an explanation of those simultaneous cravings, aspirations, and spiritual desires which we often find unaccountably arising amid far distant lands and in widely separated hearts. The feelings may seem but vague aspirations and their coincidence a mere chance one, but the typical cases of Saul and Ananias, or of Cornelius and St. Peter, teach the believer to see in them the direct action and government of the Lord Jesus Christ, turning the hearts of the fathers to the children and of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just. Surely we have an instance of such simultaneous operations of the70 Divine Spirit, and that on the largest scale, in the cravings of the world after a Saviour at the age and time when our Lord came! Virgil was then preaching in tones so Christian concerning the coming Saviour whom the world was expecting, that the great Italian poet Dante exempts him from hell on account of his dim but real faith. The Wise Men were then seeking Christ from a far country; Caiaphas was prophesying concerning a man who was to die for God's people. Mankind, all the world over, was unconsciously longing with a divinely inspired desire for that very salvation which God was then revealing; just as upon the narrower stage of Damascus or Cæsarea Jesus Christ inspired Saul and Cornelius with a Divine want and prepared Ananias and Peter to satisfy it. John Keble in his poem for Easter Monday has well seized and illustrated this point, so full of comfort and edification, turning it into a practical direction for the life of the human spirit:—

"Even so the course of prayer who knows?

It springs in silence where it will,

Springs out of sight, and flows

At first a lonely rill.

"Unheard by all but angel ears,

The good Cornelius knelt alone,

Nor dreamed his prayers and tears

Could help a world undone.

"The while upon his terraced roof,

The loved apostle to the Lord,

In silent thought aloof,

For heavenly vision soared.

"The saint beside the ocean prayed,

The soldier in his chosen bower,

Where all his eye surveyed

Seemed sacred in that hour.

71"To each unknown his brother's prayer,

Yet brethren true in dearest love

Were they—and now they share

Fraternal joys above."

Ananias, guided by Divine Providence, enters into Saul's presence, states his mission, lays his hands upon him and restores him to sight. Ananias is careful, however, to disclaim all merit so far as he is himself concerned in the matter of this miracle. His language is exactly the same in tone as that of the apostles Peter and John when they had healed the impotent man: "Why marvel ye at this man? or why fasten ye your eyes on us, as though by our own power or godliness we had made him to walk?... By faith in His name hath His name made this man strong," were their words to the people. "In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk," was their command to the man himself. And so in the case of Ananias, he attributes the healing power to Jesus Christ alone. "The Lord Jesus, who appeared unto thee, ... hath sent me, that thou mayest receive thy sight." The theology and faith of the Church at Damascus were exactly the same as those of the Apostles and Church at Jerusalem. And what a confirmation of Saul's own faith must this miracle have been! It was then no passing vision, no fancy of a heated imagination which he had experienced; but he had the actual proof in his own person of their objective reality, a demonstration that the power of Jesus of Nazareth ordered all things, both in heaven and earth, healing the bodily as it could illuminate the spiritual eye.

II. Ananias restored Saul's sight. According to the ninth of Acts his mission was limited to this one point; but, according to St. Paul's own account in the72 twenty-second chapter, he made a much longer communication to the future Apostle: "The God of our fathers hath appointed thee to know His will, and to see the Righteous One, and to hear a voice from His mouth. For thou shalt be a witness for Him unto all men of what thou hast seen and heard. And now why tarriest thou? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on His name." Ananias predicted to Saul his future mission, his apostleship to all nations, and the fact that the Apostle of the Gentiles would find the root and sustenance of his work in the force of personal conviction with which his miraculous conversion had endowed him. Personal knowledge, individual acquaintance with the things of the eternal world was then, as it is still, the first condition of successful work for Jesus Christ. There may be intellectual power, intense energy, transcendent eloquence, consummate ability; but in the spiritual order these things avail nothing till there be joined thereto that sense of heavenly force and reality which a personal knowledge of the things unseen imparts. Then heart answers to heart, and the great depths of man's nature respond and open themselves to the voice and teaching of one who speaks as St. Paul did of what "he had seen and heard."

There are two points in this address of Ananias as reported by St. Paul himself to which we would direct special attention. Ananias baptized Saul, and used very decided language on the subject, language from which some would now shrink. These two points embody important teaching. Ananias baptized Saul though Christ had personally called him. This shows the importance which the Holy Scriptures attach to baptism, and shows us something too of the nature of73 Holy Scripture itself. St. Luke wrote the Acts as a kind of continuation of his Gospel, to give an account to Theophilus of the rise and progress of Christianity down to his own time. St. Luke in doing so tells us of the institution of the Eucharist, but he does not say one word in his Gospel about the appointment of baptism. He does not record the baptismal commission, for which we must turn to St. Matthew xxviii. 19, or to St. Mark xvi. 16. Yet St. Luke is careful to report the baptism of the three thousand on the Day of Pentecost, of the Samaritans, of the eunuch, and now of St. Paul, as afterwards of Cornelius, of Lydia, of the Philippian jailor, and of the Ephesian followers of John the Baptist. He records the universality of Christian baptism, and thus proves its obligation; but he does not give us a hint of the origin of this sacrament, nor does he trace it back to any word or command of the Lord Jesus Christ. He evidently took all these things as quite well known and understood, and merely describes the observance of a sacrament which needed no explanation on his part. The writings of St. Luke were intended to instruct Theophilus in the facts concerning our Lord's life and the labours of certain leading individuals among His earliest followers; but they make no pretence, nor do the other Gospels make any pretence, of being an exhaustive history of our Lord's ministry or of the practice of the earliest Church; and their silence does not necessarily prove that much was not known and practised in the early Church about which they have no occasion to speak.5252   Archbishop Whately used to make an important distinction between things anti-Scriptural and things un-Scriptural. Things anti-Scriptural cannot be tolerated by the Church, because they contradict the Word of God. Things un-Scriptural, that is, things about which Scripture is silent and for which no direct warrant can be produced, may be right or wrong, useful or vicious. Sunday schools, for instance, are in this sense unscriptural. The Scriptures are silent about them, and if direct warrant with chapter and verse be required for them, none such can be produced. Hooker, in his Third Book, ch. v.-viii., has a powerful argument upon this subject as against the ultra-reformers or Puritans of his day, who would have tied the Church within much tighter bonds than ever Judaism submitted to. The74 words of Ananias and the obedience of Saul show us the importance which the Holy Spirit attached to this sacrament of baptism. Here was a man to whom Christ Himself had personally appeared, whom Christ had personally called, and to whom He had made long-continued revelations of His will. Yet He instructed him by the mouth of Ananias to receive the sacrament of baptism. Surely if any man was ever exempted from submission to what some would esteem the outward ordinance, it was this penitent and privileged convert! But no: to him the words of God's messenger are the same as to the humblest sinner, "Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins." I have known of truly good men who showed their want of spiritual humility, or perhaps I should rather say of spiritual thought and reflection, in this direction. I have known of persons aroused from religious torpor and death by powerful though one-sided teaching. God has blessed such teaching to the awakening in them of the first elements of spiritual life, and then they have stopped short. They were called, as Saul was, in an unbaptized state. They had never previously received the sacrament of regeneration according to Christ's appointment, and when Christ aroused them they thought this primal blessing quite sufficient, and judged it unnecessary to obey the full commands of Christ and be united by baptism to His75 Body the Church. They judged, in fact, that the blessing of conversion absolved them from the sacrament of responsibility; but such was not the view of the primitive Church. The blessing of conversion as in St. Paul's case, the visible and audible descent of the Holy Ghost as in the case of Cornelius, hindered not the importance nor dispensed with the necessity of the sacrament of baptism, which was the door of admission to the Divine society and to a higher level in the Divine life than any hitherto attained. Persons who act as those misguided individuals of whom we have spoken stop short at the first principles of the doctrine of Christ, and they attain to none of its heights, they sound none of its depths, because they bend not their wills, and learn not the sweetness and the power involved in spiritual humiliation and in lowly self-denying obedience taught by the Master Himself when He said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."5353   I have known cases where baptism was rejected avowedly on these grounds. This is of course a natural result of the pushing individualism in religion to an extreme, and is often found among what we may call extreme Protestants. It naturally results from two errors. First of all, from a rejection of the article of the Apostles' Creed, "I believe in the Holy Catholic Church." Such men reject the doctrine of a Church as a great fundamental article of the Creed, one of the necessary articles of the Christian faith, and therefore they reject baptism which is the door of entrance into the Divine society. And, secondly, they reject the true definition and idea of a sacrament. They view baptism, for instance, as the expression merely of a faith already received, and as nothing more. If, then, they express this faith sufficiently by their life and actions, baptism seems to them an empty and vain ceremony. But surely this was not St. Paul's view, either when he received baptism at the hands of Ananias, or when he wrote in the sixth of Romans "We were buried therefore with Him through baptism into death."

The language, again, of Ananias about baptism sounds strange in some ears, and yet the experience of missionaries76 is a sufficient explanation of it. What is that language? "Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins." These words sound startling to one accustomed to identify the washing away of sin with the exercise of faith, and yet there they stand, and no method of exegesis will avail to make them say anything else than this, that baptism was for Saul the washing away of sin, so that if he did not accept baptism his sins would not have been washed away. The experience, however, of those who labour in the mission field explains the whole difficulty. Baptism is the act of open confession and acknowledgment of Christ. St. Paul himself teaches the absolute importance of this confession: "With the heart man believeth unto righteousness; with the mouth confession is made unto salvation."5454   Romans x. 10. Pagan converts are even still abundantly found who are willing to accept the pure morality and the sublime teaching of Christianity, who are willing to believe and see in Jesus Christ the supreme revelation of God made to the human race, but who are not willing to incur loss and persecution and trial for His sake by the reception of Christian baptism and a public confession of their faith. They may believe with the heart in the revelation of righteousness and may lead moral lives in consequence, but they are not willing to make public confession leading them into a state of salvation. They are, in fact, in the position of Saul of Tarsus as he prayed in the house of Judas, but they will go no farther. They will not act as he did, they will not take the decisive step, they will not arise and be baptized and wash away their sins, calling on the name of Jesus Christ. And if Saul of Tarsus had been like them and had acted77 as they do, he might have received the vision and have been convinced of the truth of Jesus Christ and of His mission, but yet his moral cowardice would have spoilt the whole, and Saul would have remained in his sins, unpardoned, unaccepted, reprobate from Christ, because he remained unbaptized. Christianity, in fact, is a covenant, and forgiveness of sins is one of the blessings attached to this covenant. Until men perform its conditions and actually enter into the covenant the blessings of the covenant are not granted. Baptism is the door of entry into the covenant of grace, and till men humbly enter within the door they do not exercise true faith. They may believe intellectually in the truth and reality of Christianity, but, till they take the decisive step and obey Christ's law, they do not possess that true faith of the heart which alone enables them, like Saul of Tarsus, to obey Christ and therefore enter into peace.

III. The next step taken by the Apostle is equally plainly stated: "Straightway in the synagogues he proclaimed Jesus, that He is the Son of God." But, though the words of the Acts are plain enough, it is not so easy to reconcile them with St. Paul's own account, as given in the Epistle to the Galatians (i. 15, 16, 17), where he states, "When it was the good pleasure of God to reveal His Son in me, immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood, but I went away into Arabia, and again I returned to Damascus." In the ninth chapter of the Acts we find the statement made that immediately after his baptism he preached Christ in the synagogues of Damascus, while in his own biographical narrative he tells us that immediately after his baptism he went away into Arabia. Is there any way in which we can reconcile them? We think so, and78 that a very simple one. Let us first reflect upon the story as told in the Acts. St. Luke is giving a rapid history, a survey of St. Paul's life of public activity. He is not telling the story of his inner spiritual experiences, his conflicts, temptations, trials, revelations, as St. Paul himself set them forth. He knew not of them, in fact. St. Luke knew merely the exterior public life of which man had cognisance. He knew nothing, or but little, of the interior life of the Apostle, known only to himself and to God. St. Luke therefore tells us of his early work at Damascus. St. Paul himself tells us of that early work, but also shows us how he was prepared for that work by his retirement into Arabia. Both agree in the main point, however, and place the scene of his earliest Christian efforts in the very spot, Damascus, which he had in his human prevision destined for himself as the field of his bitterest antagonism to the faith of the Crucified. This is an important point. St. Luke wrote his historical narrative twenty-five years or thereabouts after St. Paul's conversion. He may have often visited Damascus. Tradition makes Antioch, a town of the same district, his birthplace. St. Luke must have had abundant opportunities of consulting witnesses who could tell the story of those eventful days, and could describe St. Paul's earliest testimony to his new convictions. But these men only knew St. Paul as he appeared in public. They may have known very little of the inner history of his life as he reveals it in his Epistle to the Galatians when vindicating his apostolic authority and mission.5555   St. Luke's informants, twenty-five years after the events, would naturally only remember the leading points, the most striking events of St. Paul's early Christian career. Few people realise how hard it is to recall the events of twenty-five years ago in anything like consecutive order. We preserve upon the whole a lively and a true impression; but till we go and consult documents, diaries, journals, etc., it is almost impossible to state the succession of events in accurate order. I was trying the other day to recall the events of my own public life twenty-five years ago anent the controversy which raged about the disestablishment of the Irish Church, into which I plunged with the vehemence of early manhood, and I failed to distinguish events which must have been separated by months and even by years. How much more easily must others have failed accurately to follow details of St. Paul's life known only to himself!

79

Let us now see whether we cannot harmonise St. Paul's autobiographical narrative in the Epistle with the Evangelist's narrative in the Acts; always remembering, however, that an imperfect knowledge is never more completely felt than in such cases. When we try to harmonise an account written from the subjective side by one individual with an objective and exterior narrative written by some one else, we are like a man looking at a globe and trying to take it all in at one glance. One side must be hidden from him; and so in this case, many circumstances are necessarily concealed from us which would solve difficulties that now completely puzzle us. But let us to our task, in which we have derived much assistance from the commentary of Bishop Lightfoot upon Galatians. St. Paul, we are told in ch. ix. 19, received meat after the visit of Ananias and was strengthened. St. Paul was never one of those high-wrought fanatics who despise food and the care of the body. There was nothing of the Gnostic or the Manichean about him, leading him to despise and neglect the body which the Lord has given to be the soul's instrument. He recognised under all circumstances that if the human spirit is to do its work, and if God's glory is to be promoted, the human body must be sustained in80 force and vigour. When he was on board ship and in imminent peril of shipwreck and death, and men thought they should be at their prayers, thinking of the next world alone, he took bread and blessed and set the crew and passengers alike the healthy example of eating a hearty meal, and thus keeping his body in due preparation for whatever deliverances the Lord might work for them; and so, too, at Damascus, his spiritual joy and hallowed peace and deep gratitude for his restoration to sight did not prevent him paying due attention to the wants of his body. "He took food, and was strengthened." And now comes the first note of time. "Then was Saul certain days with the disciples which were at Damascus. And straightway (εὐθέως) he preached Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God." The very same expression is used by St. Paul in Galatians, where, after speaking of his conversion, he says, "Immediately (εὐθέως) I conferred not with flesh and blood, but went away into Arabia, and again returned unto Damascus." Now my explanation, and not mine alone, but that of Bishop Lightfoot, is this. After the new convert had rested for a short time at Damascus, he retired into the Sinaitic desert, where he remained for several months, perhaps for a whole year. During this period he disappeared from the sight and knowledge of men as if the earth had opened its mouth and swallowed him. Then he returned to Damascus and preached with such power that the Jews formed a plot against his life, enlisting the help of the governor on their side, so that even the gates were watched that he might be arrested. He escaped their hands, however, through the assistance of his converts, and went up to Jerusalem.5656   Mr. Lewin, in his St. Paul, vol. i., p. 72, argues that the governor or ethnarch, as he is called by St. Paul in 2 Cor. xi. 32, was the Jewish chief magistrate of Damascus, appointed to that post by Aretas, King of Petra, who then held Damascus. The Jews were allowed by the Romans to have chief magistrates of their own wherever they lived in large colonies. At Alexandria, for instance, where they occupied a large portion of the city, the Jews were ruled by an Alabarch. Mr. Lewin shows in the same place a picture of the exact spot in the walls where St. Paul is by tradition said to have escaped.

81

But here another difficulty arises. The Acts tells us that "when Saul was come to Jerusalem, he assayed to join himself to the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple," whereupon Barnabas, fulfilling his office of mediation, explanation, and consolation, took him and introduced him to the Apostles; while on the other hand in the first chapter of Galatians St. Paul himself speaks of his first visit to the Jerusalem Church thus: "Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and tarried with him fifteen days. But other of the Apostles saw I none, save James the Lord's brother." Now the difficulty consists in this. First, how could the disciples at Jerusalem have been suspicious of St. Paul, if at least a year and a half had elapsed since his conversion? for the Jewish method of counting time would not require three whole years to have elapsed since that event. Secondly, how could Barnabas have brought him to the Apostles as the Acts states, if St. Paul himself says he saw none of them save Peter and James? As to the first difficulty, we acknowledge at once that it seems at first sight a very considerable one, and yet a little reflection will show that there are many explanations of it. If St. Paul kept quiet, as we believe he did, after his conversion and baptism, and departed into the solitudes of Arabia, and then upon his return to Damascus, perhaps82 after a year's retirement, began his aggressive work, there may not have been time for the Church at large to get knowledge of the facts. Communication, again, may have been interrupted because of the contest between Herod and Aretas, in which Damascus played no small part. Communication may not have been possible between the two Churches.5757   All thought about Saul and his doings may just then have been swallowed up in the national excitement about Caligula and his attempt to set up his statue in the Temple. The trouble connected with the Nazarene sect would seem to every true Jew but a small matter compared with the outrage to Jehovah threatened by the mad emperor. See more about this in the next chapter. Then, again, the persecution raised by Saul himself seems to have practically extirpated the Jerusalem Church for a time. "They were all scattered abroad except the Apostles," is the account given of the Christian community at Jerusalem. The terror of that persecution may have lasted many a long month. Numbers of the original members may never have ventured back again to the Holy City. The Jerusalem Church may have been a new formation largely composed of new converts who never had heard of a wondrous circumstance which had happened a year or two before to the high priest's delegate, which the Sanhedrin would doubtless desire to keep secret.5858   It is expressly said in Acts ix. 26 that when Saul came to Jerusalem he tried to join himself to the disciples. They, knowing only of his record as a persecutor, were afraid of him. Then Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles.

These and many other considerations offer themselves when we strive to throw ourselves back into the circumstances of the time and help to a solution of the first difficulty which we have indicated. Human life is such a complex thing that the strangest combinations may83 easily find place therein. In this particular case we are so ignorant of the facts, so many hypotheses offer themselves to account for the seeming inconsistencies, that we hesitate not to identify the visit to Jerusalem mentioned in the Acts with that recorded by St. Paul in the Epistle to the Galatians. The second difficulty to which we have alluded is this, How could Barnabas have brought him to the Apostles, if St. Paul himself states that he saw none of the Apostles save Peter and James the Lord's brother? We must remember, however, that St. Luke and St. Paul wrote with two distinct objects. St. Paul, in the Galatians, wished to show the independence of his revelations as regards the Apostles of the circumcision, the Twelve technically so called. Of these Apostles he saw not one, save St. Peter. St. Luke is giving a broad external account of the new convert's earliest religious history, and he tells us that on his first visit to the Holy City his conversion was acknowledged and guaranteed by the apostles,—not the Twelve merely, but the apostles, that is, the senior members of the Christian community, embracing not merely the original company chosen by Christ, but all the senior members of the Church, like Barnabas, James, and others who may have formed a supreme council to guide the affairs of the infant society. The word apostle, in fact, is used very variously in the New Testament; sometimes in a limited sense as confined to the Twelve, sometimes in a wider and more general sense, embracing men like Barnabas, as in Acts xiv. 4, 14; St. James, the Lord's brother, as in 1 Cor. xv. 7; Andronicus and Junias, as in Rom. xvi. 7, and many others. It is quite possible, then, that Barnabas may have brought Saul to the Apostolic council, and told there the tale of his conversion84 though not one of the original Twelve was present save St. Peter.5959   See Bishop Lightfoot's dissertation upon St. Paul's first visit to Jerusalem, and the use of the term apostle in the New Testament in his Commentary on Galatians, pp. 91-101. Cf. Volume I. of this Commentary, p. 348.

We have now endeavoured to explain some of the difficulties which a comparison of St. Paul's own autobiographical narrative with the Acts discloses. Let us look again at the retirement into Arabia. This retirement seems to us full of instruction and pregnant with meaning for the hidden as well as the practical life of the soul. St. Paul as soon as he was baptized retired into Arabia; and why, it may be asked, did he retire thither? Some of the ancient expositors, as St. Chrysostom and St. Jerome, both of whom wrote about the same period, A.D. 400, thought that St. Paul retired into Arabia in order that he might preach to the Arabians. St. Chrysostom, for instance, comments thus: "See how fervent was his soul, he was eager to occupy lands yet untilled. He forthwith attacked a barbarous and savage people, choosing a life of conflict and of much toil." And the explanations of Hilary, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret, and Œcumenius, all of them ancient and acute expositors, are of exactly the same character. Now this would have been a reversal of the Divine order in one important aspect. The power of the keys, the office of opening the kingdom of heaven to the Gentiles had been committed to St. Peter by Jesus Christ. He had not as yet baptized Cornelius, and thus formally opened the door of faith to the Gentiles. If St. Paul had preached to the Arabians, he would have usurped St. Peter's place and function. We believe, on the other hand, that God led85 the converted persecutor into the deserts of Arabia for very different purposes. Let us note a few of them.

The Lord led Saul there for the purpose of quiet and retirement. The great commentators and expositors of the early Church, as we have already noted, used to call St. Paul by the special title of "Vas Electionis," the chosen vessel par excellence, chosen because surpassing in his gifts and graces and achievements all the other Apostles. Now it was with the "Vas Electionis" in the New Testament as with many of his types in the Old Testament. When God would prepare Moses for his life's work in shepherding, ruling, and guiding His people through the deserts of Arabia, He first called him for many a long day into retirement to the Mount of Horeb and the solitudes of the Sinaitic desert. When God would strengthen and console the spirit depressed, wounded and severely smitten, of his servant Elijah, He brought him to the same mysterious spot, and there restored his moral and spiritual tone, and equipped him with new strength for his warfare by the visions of the Almighty lovingly vouchsafed to him. The Founder or Former of the Jewish Dispensation and the Reformer of the same Dispensation were prepared and sustained for their work amid the solitudes of the Arabian deserts; and what more fitting place in which the "Vas Electionis," the chosen vessel of the New Dispensation, should be trained? What more suitable locality where the Lord Jesus should make those fuller and completer revelations of Christian doctrine and mystery which his soul needed, than there where lightning-blasted cliff and towering mountains all alike spoke of God and of His dealings with mankind in the mysterious ages of a86 long-departed past? The Lord thus taught St. Paul, and through him teaches the Church of every age, the need of seasons of retirement and communion with God preparatory to and in close connexion with any great work or scene of external activity, such as St. Paul was now entering upon. It is a lesson much needed by this age of ours when men are tempted to think so much of practical work which appears at once in evidence, making its presence felt in tangible results, and so very little of devotional work and spiritual retirement which cannot be estimated by any earthly standard or tabulated according to our modern methods. Men are now inclined to think laborare est orare, and that active external work faithfully and vigorously rendered can take the place and supply the want of prayer and thought, of quiet study and devout meditation. Against such a tendency the Lord's dealings with St. Paul, yea more, the Divine dealings with and leadings of the eternal Son Himself, form a loud and speaking protest. The world was perishing and men were going down to the grave in darkness and Satan and sin were triumphing, and yet Jesus was led up of the Spirit into the wilderness for forty days, and Saul was brought out into the deserts of Arabia from amid the teeming crowds of Damascus that he might learn those secrets of the Divine life which are best communicated to those who wait upon God in patient prayer and holy retirement. This is a lesson very necessary for this hot and fitful and feverish age of ours, when men are in such a hurry to have everything set right and every abuse destroyed all at once. Their haste is not after the Divine model, and their work cannot expect the stability and solidity we find in God's. The nineteenth-century extreme is reproved by St. Paul's87 retirement into Arabia.6060   We may apply this typical fact in primitive Church history in a very modern direction. It would be very well if candidates for the sacred ministry always imitated St. Paul's departure into Arabia. I have known a great many promising careers spoiled because young deacons would select a heavy, laborious town or city charge for the opening work of their ministry. They know nothing of life or the world. They know nothing of preaching or pastoral work. They have, too, all their mistakes to make, and they select the most public place for their perpetration. But this is not the worst. They form habits of busy idleness and of mental dissipation which never leave them. The first two or three years of a young clergyman's life generally determine his whole career. His life never recovers the effect of the initial movement. I think the great outcry, in the Church of England at least, against sermons largely owing to the decay of study resulting from premature activity on the part of the junior clergy. Premature development in any direction is ever followed by premature decay, and when a young priest or deacon is engaged every day and every night in the week from an early service at 8 a.m. till night-school is finished at 10 p.m. in external work, how can he prepare for teaching an educated congregation on Sundays? And surely there ought to be some little consideration for thinking men and educated women as well as for others. Man is, however, such a creature that if he avoids one extreme he generally tumbles into another. And so it is in this matter. Men have been ready to push this matter of retirement into an extreme, and have considered that they were following St. Paul's example in retiring into the Arabian and similar deserts and remaining there. But they have made a great mistake. St. Paul retired into Arabia for a while, and then "returned again unto Damascus." They have retired into the deserts and have remained there engaged in the one selfish task of saving their own souls, as they thought, by the exercises of prayer and meditation, apart from that life of active good works for the sake of others which constitutes another department of Christianity equally vital to the health of the soul.

88

The history of Eastern monasticism is marked from its earliest days by an eager desire to follow St. Paul in his retirement into Arabia, and an equal disinclination to return with him unto Damascus. And this characteristic, this intense devotion to a life of solitude strangely enough passed over to our own Western islands, and is a dominant feature of the monasticism which prevailed in Great Britain and Ireland in the days of Celtic Christianity. The Syrian and Egyptian monks passed over to Lerins and Southern Gaul, whence their disciples came to England and Ireland, where they established themselves, bringing with them all their Eastern love of solitary deserts. This taste they perpetuated, as may be seen especially on the western coast of Ireland, where the ruins of extensive monastic settlements still exist, testifying to this craving. The last islands, for instance, which a traveller sees as he steams away from Cork to America, are called the Skelligs. They are ten miles west of the Kerry coast, and yet there on these rocks where a boat cannot land sometimes for months together the early monks of the fifth and six centuries established themselves as in a desert in the ocean. The topography of Ireland is full of evidences and witnesses of this desire to imitate the Apostle of the Gentiles in his Arabian retirement. There are dozens of town lands—subdivisions of the parishes—which are called deserts or diserts,6161   See Joyce's Irish Names of Places, vol. i., p. 325. because they constituted solitudes set apart for hermit life after the example of St. Paul in Arabia and John the Baptist in the deserts of Judæa. While, again, when we turn northwards along the western seaboard of Ireland, we shall find numerous islands89 like the Skelligs, Ardoilen or the High Island, off the coast of Connemara, and Innismurry off the Sligo coast, where hermit cells in the regular Egyptian and Syrian fashion were built, and still exist as they did a thousand years ago, testifying to the longing of the human mind for such complete solitude and close communion with God as Saul enjoyed when he departed from Damascus.6262   I have touched upon the subject of the connexion between Syria and Egypt and Oriental monasticism on the one hand, and Gaul, England, and Ireland on the other, during the period which elapsed between A.D. 400 and 900, in Ireland and the Celtic Church, chs. ix. and xi. I have discussed it at greater length and with fuller details in two papers upon the Knowledge of Greek in Gaul and Ireland, read before the Royal Irish Academy in February 1892, now published in the Proceedings of that body; and also in two papers, one upon the Island Monasteries of Great Britain and Ireland and the other on St. Fechin of Fore, published, the former in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland for 1891, and the latter in the same Journal for April 1st, 1892. The monks of ancient times may have run into one extreme: well would it be for us if we could avoid the other, and learn to cultivate self-communion, meditation, self-examination, and that realisation of the eternal world which God grants to those who wait upon Him apart from the bustle and din and dust of earth, which clog the spiritual senses and dim the heavenly vision.

We can see many other reasons why Paul was led into Arabia. He was led there, for instance, that he might make a thorough scrutiny of his motives. Silence, separation, solitude, have a wondrous tendency to make a man honest with himself and humbly honest before his God. Saul might have been a hypocrite or a formalist elsewhere, where human eyes and jealous glances were bent upon him, but scarcely when there alone with Jehovah in the desert. Again, Saul was led90 there that his soul might be ennobled and enlarged by the power of magnificent scenery, of high and hallowed associations. Mountain and cliff and flood, specially those which have been magnified and made honourable by grand memories such as must have crowded upon Saul's mind, have a marvellous effect, enlarging, widening, developing, upon a soul like Saul's, long cribbed, cabined, and confined within the rigorous bonds of Pharisaic religionism. Saul, too, was led up into those mysterious regions away from the busy life and work, the pressing calls of Damascus, that he might speak a word in season to us all, and especially to those young in the Christian life, who think in the first burst of their zeal and faith as if they had nothing to do but go in and possess the whole land. Saul did not set out at once to evangelise the masses of Damascus, or to waste the first weak beginnings of his spiritual life in striving to benefit or awaken others. He was first led away into the deserts of Arabia, in order that there he might learn of the deep things of God and of the weak things of his own nature, and then, when God had developed his spiritual strength, He led him back to Damascus that he might testify out of the fulness of a heart which knew the secrets of the Most High. The teaching of Saul's example speaks loudly to us all. It was the same with Saul as with a greater than he. The Eternal Son Himself was trained amid years and years of darkness and secrecy, and even after His baptism the day of His manifestation unto Israel was delayed yet a little. Jesus Christ was no novice when He came preaching. And Saul of Tarsus was no novice in the Christian life when he appeared as the Christian advocate in the synagogue of Damascus. Well would it have been for many a91 soul had this Divine example been more closely copied. Again and again have the young and ignorant and inexperienced been encouraged to stand up as public teachers immediately after they have been seriously impressed. They have yielded to the unwise solicitation. The vanity of the human heart has seconded the foolish advice given to them, and they have tried to declare the deep things of God when as yet they have need of learning the very first principles of the doctrine of Christ. Is it any wonder that such persons oftentimes make shipwreck of faith and a sound conscience? Truth is very large and wide and spacious, and requires much time and thought if it is to be assimilated; and even when truth is grasped in all its mighty fulness, then there are spiritual enemies within and without and spiritual pitfalls to be avoided which can be known only by experience. Woe is then to that man who is not assisted by grace and guided by Divine experience, and who knows not God and the powers of the world to come, and the devious paths of his own heart, as these things can only be known and learned as Saul of Tarsus knew and learned them in the deserts of Arabia. There was marvellous wisdom contained in the brief apostolic law enacted for candidates for holy orders in words gathered from St. Paul's own personal history, "Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil."


« Prev Chapter IV. Saul and Sinai. Next »



| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |