The Wish of Paul in Chains: Part 1

Acts 26  •  9 min. read  •  grade level: 7
Acts 26
It is much, dear friends, to say with Paul to Agrippa, “I would to God that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost and altogether such as I am, except these bonds” (ver. 29).
There is what the apostle could say from the bottom of his heart to those who surrounded him, that they might be such as he was without his bonds. He might have answered to Agrippa (who had said to him, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian” ver. 28), “Would to God that thou wert.” The answer would have been good and according to charity; but it would not have presented us with a state such as that expressed by the words of the apostle, whose heart, full of joy, overflows with his wish of love. A happy heart does so naturally.
The apostle was pressed to say what he knew, that is, to express what was passing in a heart which enjoyed its position in God. His soul was so happy, that he could desire for others the same thing of which he had the consciousness for himself. Joy is always full of good-will; divine joy of love. But more, this wish describes to us the state of the apostle's soul, notwithstanding his circumstances. In the face of his confinement, which had already lasted more than two years, his heart was completely happy; and it was a happiness of which he could render himself a reason; and all that he could desire was that those who heard him, even the king, were such as he was except those bonds.
Such is the effect of the strange happiness that is produced in a soul wherein Christianity is fully received. It possesses a happiness which in principle leaves nothing to be desired, and which is always accompanied by that energy of love which is expressed by the wish that others were such as itself. We see moreover here, that it is a happiness that outward circumstances cannot touch; it is a fountain of joy springing up within the soul. The whole outward position of the apostle was but ill calculated to produce joy. It was long since he was prepared to expect bonds and tribulations; but none of these things moved him, neither counted he his life dear unto himself, so that he might finish his course with joy, and the ministry he had received to testify the gospel of the grace of God (see Acts 20).
Paul had been taken and led to the castle because of the violence of the people. He had been dragged from tribunal to tribunal. He had languished two years in prison, obliged to appeal to Cesar. And, to sum up his history, be was a man that might have been supposed to be worn, harassed as he was, pressed on all sides by all that can break the heart and daunt the courage. But there is nothing of this. He speaks before the tribunal of what he came to do at Jerusalem, and not of his sufferings. He was in the midst of all these things, as he says himself, exercising himself to keep always a conscience void of offense before God and man. All the difficult circumstances through which he passed were idle to him, and did not reach his heart. He was happy in his soul; he desired nothing but this happiness for himself or others; and the happiness which fills with perfect satisfaction is surely a remarkable happiness. True, he was bound with chains, but the iron of his chains reached not his heart: the Lord's freedman cannot be bound with chains. And he desired nothing else, either for others or for himself, save this complete enfranchisement by the Lord. All he could wish was that all might be altogether such as he was without his bonds.
We are going to examine what gives this happiness, this tranquility, which leaves nothing to be desired. We may have joy to a certain point, but not peace, when there is something yet incomplete. In Paul was to be seen a perfect happiness. A free and ardent love was found in it. Doubtless, he had not already attained to perfection, as he said himself, “I count not myself to have apprehended;” but there was happiness and love. He possessed a perfect happiness; and, being “before kings and governors,” surrounded by all their pomp, he wished for them that they might be such as he was: and his testimony was so powerful, that Agrippa could say to Paul, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.”
Persons may be found here, all whose circumstances are painful, who have anguish of heart. Well, Paul was in a position to be “of all men most miserable:” not only did he suffer, but his work was stopped; he could not attend to what concerned the dear flock of the Lord. Every spring of happiness that he might have sought in these cases as a resource failed him; and although, according to man, he might have had good reason to complain, he is there a model of happiness. That which he enjoyed was independent of all outward circumstances, for they were not what rendered him happy.
There are persons who imagine that, if such and such circumstances met together, they might be happy. But that could not have procured Paul the happiness which he possessed: God alone was the source from whence he could have drawn it. We may have sorrows, but the happiness which we have just spoken of will not be troubled by them; and we have need, dear friends, of the firmness of this happiness. For if we knew the circumstances of this life, whether among the rich or among the poor, we should see that sorrows never fail. But to return to relations with God, we are going to see the source whence Paul drew his happiness.
Before his conversion, he possessed not this happiness. His privileges as a Jew could not give it him. He had a good conscience as a man, but ill enlightened; he did things which he thought he ought to do against Jesus (vers. 9, 10). Conscience is so often falsified by education (and this was his case), that he followed its directions and obeyed its dictates; and, through that very thing he opposed Christ with all his might. He did conscientiously what was the greatest possible iniquity. As for the rest, he was well instructed in the religion of his fathers, a “Pharisee after the straightest sect.” very active, and distinguished for his zeal. He had been taught at the feet of Gamaliel, he was directed by the high priest (ver. 12), and in open war with the Lord Jesus (vers. 14, 16). With all our conscience, our religion, our learning, and the approbation of the doctors of this world, we may be at open war with the Lord.
The enjoyment of all these advantages does not hinder us from being bankrupt before God. Now it is a terrible and painful thing to be bankrupt before God; and so much the more, as the things we have so much esteemed not only do not support us, but are found to have been the instruments of the blinding of our souls. Although the apostle had a good conscience, was pious and directed by wise men, all these advantages had served in the issue only to place him in open war against God. One may boast and glory, “nobody can say anything against us” (and it is the saying of many people), yet finally one discovers that all has led us to make war against the Lord.
The flesh has its religion, as its lusts; it does everything to hinder the conscience from meeting God. When Paul acted in the flesh, he was satisfied with himself, and, with the help of the good he did, that settled his affair. The religion that the flesh uses is put into the balance to make weight. If conscience says, “Thou hast not been quite what thou shouldst have been,” this religion, which adds certain forms, certain ceremonies that the flesh can accomplish, puts the whole in the balance, tranquillizes itself, and rests there.
This is not faith, for faith draws nigh to God. One has no religion before God; one has a conscience convicted of sin, and one is too much occupied about the judgment of God upon it to think of one's religion; rather, it is all gone; and there is not a person here who, if he were in God's presence, could think of his religion. Worldly piety only serves when we need it not. When we do need it, whether before the justice of God or on account of a broken heart, it is naught. It has only served as a means to turn us away from the consciousness of our need as sinners. But this consciousness, through the grace which produces it, would have led us to the true remedy, to that which would have done us real service in the hour when it would have been necessary for us.
What made Paul happy? It was indeed the truth, but not immediately; for he found he had made war against God, when God met him on the way to Damascus. Hitherto he had been content, but he is so no more (see chap. 9). The Lord Jesus manifests Himself to him in glory, and convinces him of sin. He is three days without eating or drinking, upset as he was by meeting the Lord; he was not then in a position to say, “I would that not only thou, but all that hear were such as I am.”
The Lord sends him to Damascus to hear the word of truth, and after three days' sufferings (produced by the conviction that the Jesus against Whom he wrestled with so much fury was the Lord) this same Lord sends Ananias to him and then we see how complete was his conversion. From an enemy be becomes the friend of Jesus, and the apostle of grace. That is what God does: of a persecuting “Saul” he makes a “Paul,” a powerful witness of the love of Jesus.
(To be concluded, D.V.)