Great Texts of the Bible
The Lash of the Law
And as he reasoned of righteousness, and temperance, and the judgement to come, Felix was terrified, and answered, Go thy way for this time; and when I have a convenient season, I will call thee unto me.—Acts 24:25.
Waiting for the Sermon
1. The scene of this incident was Cæsarea. The sermon was preached in the presence of Felix, the Roman governor of the province. Look at him, as he sits there, with a woman of extraordinary beauty at his side. He has made her his own by ruthlessly breaking up the domestic circle of another. She is only eighteen years of age; a princess by birth, and, though she knew it not, soon to die. She was a Jewess by nation, and there was at that time a Jew in prison at Cæsarea, for Christ’s sake. What more natural than that Drusilla should wish to break in upon the tedium of official life by hearing Paul plead? Felix had told her of the speech of the orator Tertullus, and of Paul’s answer. Her curiosity was stirred; she wished to see and hear this countryman of hers, whose fame was so widely spread. And so it was arranged that Paul should appear before Felix and Drusilla.
2. It needs courage to preach to only one or two persons. There are those who can preach to the crowd. It takes a man with the vision of the Cross to preach to two people. It takes courage to preach to the man who sits in a high position, when he is close to you, when he is in his own house and you are sitting at his table, or in his own room face to face.
3. It was the glory of St. Paul that he “became all things to all men”; we are here helped to understand what he meant by this boast. Had he seen before him one of the weary and heavy-laden—a Philippian jailor, crying out of the depth of a contrite and penitent heart, “What must I do to be saved?”—the Apostle would have changed his voice, would have brought other things out of his treasure-house. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved”—“Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world”—so had he reasoned of the faith in Christ to him. But he saw none such here; on the contrary, a proud stout-hearted sinner, sitting in the seat of judgment, but executing unrighteous judgment there, and to this man “he reasoned of righteousness, and temperance, and the judgement to come.”
The Appropriate Sermon
The details of the argument we do not know, the heads we do. Probably there would be an appeal to the Jewish Scriptures, with which Drusilla could not fail to be familiar; probably also to the Stoic and Epicurean maxims which floated in the then atmosphere of Roman thought, and could not have escaped the notice of Felix; certainly there was the intensity of a living conviction; certainly also a masterly division of the subject into heads of the deepest and largest interest. There are three heads.
“He reasoned of righteousness”; perhaps it is more true to say he reasoned of justice. Doubtless righteousness has to our minds a larger sense, but St. Paul’s expression on the whole implies more generally what we mean by justice.
Justice! It is one of those fundamental and primary intuitions, of the existence of which in the human mind we can give no rational account, except that it is there by the will of the Creator. It is simply a fact about man—a fact which gives the lie to materialistic philosophy—that he is conscious—certainly more or less conscious—of the power of the moral law and of the absolute obligation laid upon him to obey it. Now, justice is a fundamental principle in the moral law. It has been defined to be “the constant and perpetual will to render to every man his right.”
Were I certain that one prayer and only one was to be granted to me, I would breathe it for the righteousness of the king, as the best means of reaching the interests of the world at large.1 [Note: Abdullah bin Al Mubarak.]
But Justice has two aspects—Justice to Man and Justice to God.
1. Justice to Man. Let us look at some of the rights of man which are safeguarded by justice.
(1) First of all a man has a simple, a most elementary right to his own property. It is a mistake to suppose that the laws which govern and repress dishonesty are sufficient to ensure this elementary right as against those who disregard it. Here is a man who fancies that he should like to become the owner of something which he sees in a shop; perhaps he is moved by some passing whim, perhaps he wishes to make money out of it, perhaps he is driven to desperation by the pangs of hunger. He watches his opportunity, he appropriates the property, and finds himself convicted as a thief in the strong clutches of outraged law. But here is a man, well dressed, well supplied with the necessaries of life, moved by no unbearable pangs of hunger, who passes the same shop, is moved with the same desire of acquiring; and he, instead of stealing the article, goes in and buys it, but does not pay for it, knowing that he cannot pay for it then, and, perhaps, will have some difficulty in paying for it at all. In the sight of God he has virtually stolen those goods. And people who can ill afford it are deprived of their means of livelihood because he holds what is really their property.
Now we must know that every excellence which is peculiar to a thing is lovable in that thing: as in a man to be well bearded, and in a woman to have her face entirely free from hair; or in a setter to have a good nose, and in a greyhound to be fast. And the more peculiar to a thing the excellence is, the more lovable it is. Hence, although every virtue is lovable in man, that is the most lovable in him which is the most human; and this virtue is justice, which is so lovable that, as Aristotle says in the Ethics, even her enemies love her, namely, thieves and robbers.2 [Note: Dante, Conv. ii. 2 (trans. by Toynbee).]
(2) And if man has a right to his property, much more has he a right to his life. It is strange how long the system of slavery lingered on with its systematic disregard of the most elementary rights of man. The slave as the living machine, without rights and without recognition, remained as one of the most gigantic monuments of the perversion of the idea of justice in the minds of those who, on the whole, loved justice and conceived themselves to be just. And we must remember that slavery still exists even in the most free countries. There are those who are enslaved by the advancing tide of luxury, which demands more and more ministers to its selfish enjoyment. Men and women crowded together without decent accommodation, forced to live close to those to whose luxuries they minister, men and women who toil day and night to make luxuries cheaper for those who insist on having more and more of them and paying less and less for their enjoyments, who are dressed in finery which represents the lives of men, and eat and drink the good things which have been purchased from barely remunerated labour. There is the slavery, again, which lives on the sin and degradation of others, one of the most appalling spectacles of modern civilization—men who profess to believe in Christ, or who at least live in a Christian land, openly despising and degrading souls for whom Christ died. No more fearful denunciation runs through the pages of the Bible than this: “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come: but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!”
In Birmingham one of the principal home industries is carding hooks and eyes. First the eyes are stitched on to the card. Then the hooks are linked into them, and finally stitched on to the card—384 hooks and 384 eyes have to be linked together and stitched on to a card for the munificent wage of one penny! And the worker has to provide her own needles and thread. With incessant work she may earn three shillings a week. What wonder that the children, even at the age of five years, are pressed into the work. One mother said: “You must either make the children work, or let them starve.” A machine has been invented to do this work, but it is cheaper to employ low-paid human labour. In this industry, as in many others, the workers, who are often widows with young families, are able to live only through outdoor relief, or charitable gifts. They do not earn their living: they are subsidized out of the rates, and their subsidy is really a grant in aid of wages, and so long as it is given, will keep down wages.1 [Note: D. Watson, Social Problems and the Church’s Duty, 118.]
(3) If a man has a right to his life, he has also a right to that which makes for happiness in life. How very little we think in our ordinary conversation of the value to our neighbour of his reputation, his character, or his position. The smallest caprice is looked upon as sufficient to justify the sarcastic cut, the cynical stab, the damaging suggestion which demolishes, to our satisfaction, our neighbour’s too exuberant life.
When over the fair fame of friend or foe
The shadow of disgrace shall fall; instead
Of words of blame, or proof of thus and so,
Let something good be said.
Forget not that no fellow-being yet
May fall so low but love may lift his head:
Even the cheek of shame with tears is wet
If something good be said.
No generous heart may vainly turn aside
In ways of sympathy, no soul so dead
But may awaken strong and glorified,
If something good be said.
And so I charge you, by the thorny crown,
And by the cross on which the Saviour bled,
And by your own soul’s hope of fair renown,
Let something good be said.
2. Justice to God. But if Justice is the virtue which bids us do that which right requires in our dealings with our fellow-men, Christianity, in the higher light which she has thrown upon these virtues, has felt even more that Justice is the virtue which bids us do what is right in our dealings with God. Every Christian, who thinks at all, feels that God has a right to the service and obedience of His creatures.
(1) God has a right to our ambition. Life itself is, or should be, carried out in obedience to vocation. Let us ask ourselves, Are we giving God His due in this respect? Are we doing what we ought for the Great Being who sent us into this world, not to eat and drink and be crammed with useful knowledge, and then push and struggle again, and perhaps die exultant because we had beaten a companion in the competitive examinations of life, and stood one step higher on its dizzy ladder? The idea is wrong in itself, it is not the profession but the vocation that we have to consider. If we have got God’s call, and recognize our duty to Him, then it matters not where we work. The servant of God will glorify a cabin, a man who forgets God will degrade a palace. Let us cease the mere struggle to get on, and put God first. Am I glorifying God by my actions in honest, serious life, lived in His sight? Is this world the better because I am alive? Is society purer because I move in it? Is the place of business more worthy because I am there? Justice within my heart assigns the first place in life to God who made it.
O patient Christ! when long ago
O’er old Judæa’s rugged hills,
Thy willing feet went to and fro
To find and comfort human ills—
Did once Thy tender, earnest eyes
Look down the solemn centuries,
And see the smallness of our lives?
Souls struggling for the victory,
And martyrs, finding death was gain,
Souls turning from the Truth and Thee,
And falling deep in sin and pain—
Great heights and depths were surely seen,
But oh! the dreary waste between—
Small lives, not base perhaps, but mean:
Their selfish efforts for the right,
Or cowardice that keeps from sin,
Content to only see the height
That nobler souls will toil to win!
Oh shame! to think Thine eyes should see
The souls contented just to be—
The lives too small to take in Thee.
Lord, let this thought awake our shame,
That blessed shame that stings to life,
Rouse us to live for Thy dear name,
Arm us with courage for the strife.
O Christ! be patient with us still;
Dear Christ: remember Calvary’s hill,—
Our little lives with purpose fill!1 [Note: Margaret Deland.]
(2) God has a right to our activity. How sad it is to count the number of those who sit idly looking on as the pushing, anxious stream grinds its way past them. There they sit, men and women, who seem to have lost energy for everything and to have missed their place in life. “My Father worketh hitherto and I work.” To be idle is to fail in one of those marks of resemblance which ought to distinguish man made in the image and likeness of God as the son of His Heavenly Father. To us all, whether early in the morning or at midday, or even at the eleventh hour, the voice of God speaks through our slumbering sense of Justice, and says: “Why stand ye here all the day idle?” “Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right that shall ye receive.”
If, as a flower doth spread and die,
Thou wouldst extend me to some good,
Before I were by frost’s extremity
Nipt in the bud;
The sweetness and the praise were Thine,
But the extension and the room
Which in Thy garland I should fill were mine
At Thy great doom.
For as Thou dost impart Thy grace,
The greater shall our glory be.
The measure of our joys is in this place,
The stuff with Thee.
Let me not languish, then, and spend
A life as barren to Thy praise
As is the dust, to which that life doth tend.
But with delays.
All things are busy; only I
Neither bring honey with the bees,
Nor flowers to make that, nor the husbandry
To water these.
I am no link of Thy great chain,
But all my Company is a weed.
Lord, place me in Thy concert; give one strain
To my poor reed.1 [Note: George Herbert.]
(3) God has a right to our homage and worship. This we offer to no one else; but Justice demands that we should offer it to Him. Do we realize that God has a right to our prayers and praises and our worship? It is not a question of our inclination, but of God’s due, whether or not we say our prayers. It is not a matter of our own whims and fancy, but of God’s honour, whether or not we “come before His Presence with thanksgiving, and show ourselves glad in Him with psalms.” God has a right to one day in seven which He claims as His due. He has a right to at least a small portion of our time every day in the morning and in the evening. It is the very least we can give as a recognition of Him who gives us all, and who never yet received the gifts of His creatures without returning to them a bountiful interest in that which enriches life and happiness.
Bright shadows of true Rest! Some shoots of blisse;
Heaven once a week;
The next world’s gladness prepossest in this;
A day to seek
Eternity in time; the steps by which
We climb above all ages; Lamps that light
Man through his heap of dark days; and the rich,
And full redemption of the whole week’s flight.2 [Note: Henry Vaughan.]
1. The largeness of the word. The second topic on which St. Paul reasoned was temperance (R.V. margin “self-control”). The presence of Drusilla by the side of Felix was in itself a proof of how he had failed in this virtue, for the Greek word is specially applicable to continence from sensual pleasures. Our modern use of the word temperance falls far below the meaning of the word employed by St. Paul. That of which St. Paul reasoned with Felix was the larger virtue of self-restraint, of self-command, generally. He taught him—still occupying the ground rather of nature and reason than of Revelation and the Gospel—that every man ought to be able to command himself; to say “No” to appetite when it passes its just limit; to bridle inclination; to coerce lust; to say to himself, This I will do, because it is right, and, This will I not do, because it is wrong. Temperance is the holding of the reins of conduct in the hand of the will, and the regulating of that will itself by the ordinances of reason and of God. The absence of this power, or the loss of it, is the cause of all the sins and of all the miseries which have made this world a scene of suffering and of desolation.
2. There are certain well-defined stages in the development of temperance. For let no one believe for one moment that a virtue like this grows up in us without effort, or is inherited with transmitted qualities.
(1) Know Thyself. To him who would possess the virtue of temperance there comes first of all this message to the soul, “Know Thyself.” It is a great moral help to know ourselves, to know our history, to know our constituent elements, to know the ills to which we are exposed, and the Divine help which it is ours to welcome. It is being freely discussed now whether or not it is desirable to warn young people beforehand in a definite way of the dangers that must inevitably cross their path. It is a question beset with difficulties, and, in view of the priceless and irreparable value of innocence where it can be maintained, a question which can be entertained only as the lesser of two evils; but at the same time there is no doubt that a wise estimate of his own peculiar dangers, a prudent calculation of his force, and a just appreciation of the enemy’s real strength would help a man.
(2) Control Thyself. A man once asked his spiritual adviser what was the meaning of “dying unto sin,” and he was told in a symbolical manner that it was to behave like a dead man in the presence of that which moves or excites to sin. This state of deadness to desire is temperance, but it can only be attained through the constant application of self-control all through life. Does anything pass within the portals of our heart of which the will has no cognizance, or is powerless to resist? You remember how the Apostle spoke of a self-control which brings every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ?
I do not ask for any crown
But that which all may win,
Nor try to conquer any world
Except the one within.
Be Thou my Guide until I find,
Led by a tender hand,
The happy kingdom in myself,
And dare to take command.
(3) Deny Thyself. “Know thyself,” “Control thyself”—these are good and essential; but further, from her throne of excellence, Temperance cries, “Deny thyself.” The will must not wait to be attacked, the will must not wait to show that it is master in days of turbulence, and in the fierce blasts of passion. Before the attack comes, while all is peaceful, when no tempter is in sight, while all is calm, the will must exercise herself in her discipline by self-denial. The way to resist indulgence in things unlawful is to accustom the powers and faculties to obedience in giving up even things lawful.
3. Christian Temperance. When, through the cross of Christ, we get the right attitude towards God, when our life fronts God, all is changed, and temperance becomes not a negative virtue, but a positive one. Then everything is beautiful, pure, every wish, every motive, every purpose, every imagination, every fancy clothed in a white robe.
But as I sat scrawling these silly figures on brown paper, it began to dawn on me, to my great disgust, that I had left one chalk, and that a most exquisite and essential one, behind. I searched all my pockets, but I could not find any white chalk. Now, those who are acquainted with all the philosophy (nay, religion), which is typified in the art of drawing on brown paper, know that white is positive and essential. I cannot avoid remarking here upon a moral significance. One of the wise and awful truths which this brown-paper art reveals is this: that white is a colour. It is not a mere absence of colour; it is a shining and affirmative thing: as fierce as red, as definite as black. When (so to speak) your pencil grows red hot, it draws roses; when it grows white hot, it draws stars. And one of the two or three defiant verities of the best religious morality—of real Christianity, for example—is exactly this same thing. Chastity does not mean abstention from sexual wrong; it means something flaming like Joan of Arc. In a word, God paints in many colours, but He never paints so gorgeously—I had almost said so gaudily—as when He paints in white.1 [Note: G. K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles.]
iii. The Judgment to Come
Every Coming of the Lord is associated with judgment; inevitably and necessarily the Coming of Christ to any soul is the judgment of that soul; it was so when He was here on earth; souls were judged by His very coming. “This child,” said Simeon to the astonished Mary in the temple, “is set for the falling and rising up of many in Israel; and for a sign which is spoken against.” And so it came to pass. By His mere presence He divided men and separated them. There was a “judging” wherever Christ appeared. Men’s characters stood revealed. The bias of the soul declared itself. Men classified themselves; tried by the touchstone of His character, of their own accord, they took their stand, some on the right and others on the left. “God sent not his Son into the world,” says John, “to judge the world,” and yet the actual result of His coming was a judgment. “This is the judgment,” he goes on to say, just a sentence or two further down, “that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light, because their works were evil.” He judged the world by His presence in it. The essential goodness of Peter and John and James and Zacchæus, and the essential evil of the chief priests and scribes, stood disclosed by contact with Jesus. And every coming of the Lord involves judgment still. His coming to us as individuals in the appeals and strivings of His Spirit implies a judging. The good heart and the evil heart stand revealed by the answer given to His pleadings and calls. Suppose that at this moment Jesus presents Himself to us; and suppose we bow Him out of our heart and life; suppose we say to Him in effect, “We will not have Thee to reign over us.” The judgment has taken place! We have declared ourselves amongst the goats upon the left hand. And His coming to a nation in the great crises of its history implies and involves a judging. As Lowell says—
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah,
offering each the bloom or blight,
Parts the goats upon the left hand,
and the sheep upon the right,
And the choice goes by for ever
’twixt that darkness and that light.
But in the Creed we have the statement that Christ who is seated at the right hand of the Father will come “to judge the quick and the dead.”
1. Let us first look at the Certainty of this Judgment.
(1) What does Scripture say? “And as Paul reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgement to come”—no, that is not precisely what Luke wrote. Read the verse again in the Revised Version: “Paul reasoned of … the judgement to come.” It was no misty idea of a coming judgment that floated dimly through the speaker’s mind; he thought of “that day” when the books would be opened and God should judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ. And to this bear all the Scriptures witness. Let us turn to the Old Testament and read those many anticipations of the “day of the Lord” to be found so often in the writings of the prophets. Then let us open the New Testament, and immediately the truth rises before us in sharpest and most unmistakable distinctness. “When the Son of man shall come in his glory”—they are His own words—“and all the angels with him, then shall he sit on the throne of his glory; and before him shall be gathered all the nations; and he shall separate them one from another, as the shepherd separateth the sheep from the goats; and he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.” And if from the words of Jesus we turn to the records of the early Christian Church, to the Acts of the Apostles and the various Epistles that follow, the result is the same. It would be impossible, says Dr. Denney, to overestimate the power of this final judgment as a motive in the primitive Church. When Peter went to expound the Gospel for the first time to a Roman centurion, this was how he summed up the sacred commission given to him and the other disciples: “He charged us to preach unto the people and to testify that this is he which is ordained of God to be the Judge of quick and dead.” When Paul proclaimed the Gospel in Athens an essential part of his message was this: “God hath appointed a day in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by the man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.”
(2) But it may be doubted whether the expectation of a judgment is more a point of natural or of revealed religion. Certainly, if revelation declares, conscience ratifies. The sense of accountability is one of those ultimate facts of human nature, inconceivable upon the modern molecular hypothesis, which any teacher who professed to deal remedially, or even philosophically, with that nature—Socrates as well as Christ—could not but recognize. And so it is stamped deep and legible on every page of the Gospel. We shall be judged according as our works have been; and the conscience, whatever its testimony may be worth, echoes, “We shall be so judged.” Our Master may seem to have gone for a while into a far country, but “He will return,” He says, “and reckon with His servants.”
2. If the Final Judgment is a certainty, its character becomes most vital to us. Amid the thousand false, low standards upon the commonest matters of morality accepted and acted upon by the young, the pleasure-seeking, the fashionable, the money-getting, the ambitious, it is well to try to accustom the mind to set before itself clearly and distinctly the principles that will govern—that we feel must govern—“the righteous judgment of God”; well to anticipate, to make ourselves seem to hear that terrible sentence which we know will be passed against us if we are deliberately leading impure, selfish, false, dishonest lives—if we are resisting God’s call to repentance and doing despite to the Spirit of Grace.
(1) This Judgment will often mean the reversal of human judgment. A Day of Judgment means that once at least we shall be judged perfectly, that all things will be seen as they really are. Here and now we hide ourselves from one another; often we hide ourselves from ourselves; as Morley truly says, “People have understandings with themselves here.” But then all disguises will drop off, the heart’s counsels will be made manifest, the life’s long-kept secrets revealed.
In one of Dean Church’s letters, a letter written not long before his death, there is a sublime figure, not unworthy, as Morley says, of the Dante which its author so much loved and so well understood: “I often have a kind of waking dream,” he wrote: “up one road,” the image of a man decked and adorned as if for a triumph, carried up by rejoicing and exulting friends, who praise his goodness and achievements; and on the other road, turned back to back to it, there is the very man himself, in sordid and squalid apparel, surrounded not by friends, but by ministers of justice, and going on, while his friends are exulting, to his certain and perhaps awful judgment.1 [Note: G. Jackson.]
(2) That Judgment which will mean the reversal of many of our judgments will be itself final and irreversible. What may happen between death and the judgment we know not. That which theologians call the intermediate state lies for the most part in shadow, and, save for a few fitful and uncertain gleams, the New Testament itself leaves the darkness unbroken. But all Scripture agrees in representing the judgment of the great day as final. Of any change, of any revision beyond that, it gives no hint, it holds out no hope. Indeed, may we not almost say that in the nature of things it must be final, for it is the judgment of perfect wisdom and perfect love?
It is impossible to dogmatize. The “larger hope,” as people term it, is only a “hope” at the best. The thing about which Scripture leaves us in no shadow of doubt is the immense, critical, and decisive influence of this life. Upon the life we live momentous and eternal issues hang. We do not know what may happen in the endless ages of eternity; what we do know is that it is the gentle Christ who tells us that the broad way leads to destruction; that sin entails the worm that dieth not and the fire that is not quenched; that some go to eternal punishment and some to eternal life. “You seem, sir,” said Mrs. Adams to Dr. Johnson, in one of his despondent hours, when the fear of death and judgment lay heavy upon him, “to forget the merits of our Redeemer.” “Madam,” replied Johnson, with his usual blunt honesty, “I do not forget the merits of my Redeemer, but my Redeemer has said that He will set some on His right hand and some on His left.”
I remember as a child seeing my mother examine a piece of cloth or dress fabric in the evening under the gaslight, and then she would say, “Wait until the morning till we see how it looks by daylight.” Let us take heed we are not deceived by how things look in the glare and glitter of the lamps of time; let us resolve to see them in the clear steady radiance of etemity.1 [Note: G. Jackson.]
3. Let us thank God that He has made the Judgment to come a matter of revelation.
One who has since passed within the veil often said to me, “I thank God that there is a judgment to come.” At the time I could hardly say Amen! Judgment scarcely seemed to me a theme for a doxology; yet he was right—it is a thing to thank God for! It nerves all virtuous endeavour, it is the pulse of patience, the soul of perseverance, the safeguard against the bitterness of despair—this appeal to a higher tribunal. And from the earliest ages the Church of Christ has felt that she could not only solemnly say, but reverently and gratefully sing it too—
We believe that Thou shalt come to be our Judge,
We therefore pray Thee help Thy servants
Whom Thou hast redeemed with Thy Precious Blood!2 [Note: J. M. Gibbon.]
When with these eyes, closed now by Thee,
But then restored,
The great and white throne I shall see
Of my dread Lord;
And lowly kneeling, for the most
Stiff then must kneel,
Shall look on Him, at whose high cost
Unseen, such joys I feel.
Whatever arguments or skill
Wise heads shall use,
Tears only and my blushes still
I will produce.
And should those speechless beggars fail,
Which oft have won,
Then taught by Thee I will prevail,
And say, Thy will be done!3 [Note: Henry Vaughan.]
The Effect of the Sermon
i. Felix was terrified
1. Paul knew that there was in every man something that would respond to the manifestation of the truth. He knew that he had a message for Felix—even God’s message; and presently there was that in the bearing of the man whom he addressed which abundantly justified his confidence. “Felix was terrified.” He may have shared, he probably did share, in the widespread scepticism or unbelief of the educated heathen of the age. He had overlived all faith in the things which his own religion taught him, of the rewards laid up for the good, of the punishments reserved for the wicked. Tartarus and Elysium, Minos and Rhadamanthus with their seats of judgment, the wheel of Ixion, the stone of Sisyphus, the whips of the Furies, all these, no doubt, were poets’ fictions, old wives’ tales, dotards’ dreams for him. Dismissing these, he may have long since dismissed with them the truth which was behind them all, that kernel of truth whereof these were but the husk and outer covering. But now at Paul’s words, that truth, so old and yet so new, revived in him again—just as by some chemical applications the writings on parchment, long since apparently effaced by age, may start into life again. Besides the voice of the Apostle, there was another voice in his own heart, deep calling unto deep, which told him that this was true, which compelled him to set his own seal to the Apostle’s words; and “Felix was terrified.”
2. The awakened conscience is just like the sense of pain in the physical world, it has got a work to do, and a mission to perform. It is meant to warn us off dangerous ground. Thank God for pain! It keeps off death many a time. Felix was on the high road to utter hardness and blindness of heart, but he had not arrived at that condition yet. For this is the strange characteristic of sin, when carried to the extent of producing spiritual blindness and hardness of heart, that those solemn glimpses of an unseen world, those feelings of horror at the thought of the loss of God’s favour, become at length like the dreams of infancy, and are regarded as little; but Felix “was terrified.”
3. But impulse is not to be a resting-place. Emotion is not the goal. Is that altogether a needless warning? It is possible to cultivate a spurious emotionalism, a luxury of emotions, which may come to be regarded as the marrow and essence of true religion. True religion is not merely the enjoyment of certain feelings; it is the translation of them. There is a wide difference between good impulse and good life, and the work of true religion is to translate the one into the other. We have to take the impulse, given us by God, and translate it first into resolution and then into action. That is religion, to take divine impulse, and, by the process of living, translate it into finished and eternal achievement.
Dr. Wayland Hoyt tells the story of a captain whom he met in the pilot-house of a Missouri River steamboat, and who asked his judgment concerning his conduct. He said that when he was a young man, and was first married, his wife was a Christian, and to please her he began to go to church; he never could hear singing and not be moved; the songs they sang in the church touched him strongly. They brought up forgotten memories and unloosed the springs of feeling; he was overcome. Because he wept, they thought he had become a Christian. His wife, the minister, and many friends pressed him to join the church. “But,” said the captain, “I could not. I told them I had simply been stirred by songs as I always am. I knew I had not given up my evil ways.”
ii. Felix put off Decision
1. “Felix answered, Go thy way for this time; and when I have a convenient season, I will call thee unto me.” Felix broke off the audience, saying that when he found another opportunity he would summon Paul again for a public audience. But Paul remained in Cæsarea two full years waiting for the second hearing. Felix did indeed send for Paul again—but we do not read that he felt any emotion again. He communed with him often. But why? Was it to deepen his impression? Was it that he might obtain more perfect knowledge of the way of Christ? Was it that he might better learn how to flee from that wrath of God at which he shuddered? The sacred historian shall tell us why he sent for Paul, and communed with him often. “He hoped that money should have been given him of Paul, that he might loose him.” All that was meanest, all that was basest, all that was most unrighteous in the man had revived again, and in all its old strength and malignity.
If we take a bit of phosphorus and put it upon a slip of wood, and ignite the phosphorus, bright as the blaze is, there drops from it a white ash that coats the wood, and makes it almost incombustible. And so when the flaming conviction, laid upon our hearts, has burnt itself out, it has coated the heart, and it will be very difficult to kindle the light there again.1 [Note: A. Maclaren.]
The great bell of Moscow, the largest bell in the world, was east more than two hundred years ago, and has never been raised, not because it is too heavy, but because it is cracked. All was going well at the foundry, when a fire broke out in Moscow. Streams of water were dashed in upon the houses and factories, and a tiny little stream found its way into the bell-metal at the very moment when it was rushing in a state of fusion into the colossal bell-mould, and so the big bell came out cracked, and all its capacity of music was destroyed. The historic incident presented itself as a symbol of our thought. Here is a divinely-given impulse, like soft and molten metal, just flowing into the mould of our first thought, and hardening into noble and steadfast decision. And an insidious doubt or compromise is allowed to have its way, and trickle in at the vital moment when impulse is just shaping into the image of the divine likeness, and all is spoilt, and the bell of heavenly impulse does not ring out the music of a redeemed and sanctified life. It is this intrusion of the compromise that works such destruction in our spiritual life. Life would abound in heavenly bell-music if we took every divine impulse and offered it the mould of a ready and willing decision. “Teach me to do Thy will.”2 [Note: J. H. Jowett.]
Take my feet, and let them be
Swift and beautiful for Thee.
2. What is a convenient season? It is a season when you can do a thing just as easily as not. When a friend asks you to do something, if convenient, you answer: “Oh yes; it is entirely convenient. No trouble at all.” That is what is meant by a convenient season. Well, does a convenient season ever come to repent? It never does. A man has to put himself to great inconvenience when he makes the change.
The Apostle spake of judgment just,
And certain unto men as death;
Prince Felix felt as if the thrust
Of deadly arrows stayed his breath:
“I’ll hear thee at convenient time,”
He said, his terror to dissemble;
But when can guilt conveniently
Invite the truth that makes it tremble?1 [Note: T. T. Lynch, The Rivulet, 143.]
3. “Go thy way,” said Felix. If only we could be sure that a voice was God’s, we would obey it swiftly and gladly; but the pain of life is that its silences are so long, and so seldom broken by a voice which we can with confidence welcome as divine. But is that voice so very rare? or is it not rather that we have not schooled ourselves to understand the language in which it speaks? For it sometimes speaks as a rising terror in the heart. “Go away,” cries Felix, in a sudden access of terror. It is to Paul that he is speaking, but what are those awful words but a tragic farewell to God—the God who was pleading with him through the mighty presence of Paul?
The peasants of southern Russia say that an old woman was at work in her house when the Wise Men of the East, led by the star, passed on their way to go and seek the infant Saviour. “Come with us,” they said. “We are going to find the Christ so long looked for by men.” “Not now,” she replied. “I am not ready to go now; but by and by I will follow on and find Him with you.” But when her work was done the Wise Men had gone, and the star in the heavens which went before them had disappeared.2 [Note: L. A. Banks.]
There are two sworn enemies of my soul. Their names are Yesterday and To-morrow. Yesterday slays his thousands. What he seeks to do is to plunge me down into darkness and despair. “You have had your chances,” he says, “such golden chances, and you have trampled them all under foot. There will be no more priceless opportunities for you.” Ay, but To-morrow slays his tens of thousands. He has recourse to just the opposite expedients from those of Yesterday. Brave vows and valiant promises that will never be fulfilled; good resolutions that may lull my conscience into sleep,—these are his deadly weapons. When I have a convenient season, he bids me say to the Saviour and the Spirit of God, I will send for Thee. And how pitifully often the convenient season never dawns.1 [Note: A. Smellie.]
4. “Go thy way.” Let us think what reasons influence us to make this reply.
(1) First, there is the instinctive, natural wish to get rid of a disagreeable subject,—much as a man, without knowing what he is doing, twitches his hand away from the surgeon’s lancet. So many of us do not like these thoughts of the old Book about “righteousness and temperance and the judgement to come,” and make a natural effort to get our minds away from the contemplation of the subject because it is painful and unpleasant. But would it be a wise thing for a man, if he began to suspect that he was insolvent, to refuse to look into his books or to take stock, and let things drift, till there was not a halfpenny in the pound for anybody? What would his creditors call him? And is it not the part of a wise man, if he begins to see that something is wrong, to get to the bottom of it, and as quickly as possible to set it right? What do we call people who, suspecting that there may be a great hole in the bottom of the ship, never man the pumps or do any caulking, but say, “Oh! she will very likely keep afloat until we get into harbour”? Would it not be a wiser thing, if, because the subject is disagreeable, we should force ourselves to think about it until it became agreeable?
(2) Some of us say to the messenger of God’s love: “Go thy way for this time,” because we do not like to give up something that we know is inconsistent with His love and Service. Felix would not part with Drusilla, nor disgorge the ill-gotten gain of his province. Felix therefore was obliged to put away from him the thoughts that looked in that direction. Felix was ambitious. He was unpopular with the Jews, but this was in his favour at Rome. He might become emperor. Who could tell? To turn Christian would ruin his prospects. His duty was clear enough, but just now it stood in his way of personal elevation.
(3) Some of us fall into this habit of putting off the decision for Christ, simply by letting the impressions made on our hearts and consciences be crowded out of them by cares and enjoyments and pleasures and duties of this world. And if some stray seed here and there remains and begins to sprout, the ill weeds which grow apace, spring up with ranker stems and choke it. We did not intend it to go, we simply opened the door to the flocking in of the whole crowd of the world’s cares and occupations, and away went the shy solitary thought which, if it had been cared for and tended, might have led us at last to the Cross of Jesus Christ.
(4) But the fourth reason brings the most grist to the Devil’s mill. It is the inherent tendency in men to procrastinate and to compromise. Remember the foolish virgins who found it too late to enter in; the guests called to the feast, who chose rather to look after their worldly interest, and thus were shut out from the kingdom of God; the people whom Christ called, and who wanted first to attend to their friends and business, and with whom Christ would allow no delay. Can we help seeing that what makes people put off in worldly business and put off in religion is exactly the same thing, namely, a dislike to what has to be done, and that the dislike is not likely to become less by this waiting for a more convenient season?
The Lash of the Law
Banks (L. A.), Paul and his Friends, 121.
Burrell (D. J.), A Quiver of Arrows, 172.
Church (R. W.), Village Sermons, 1st Ser., 231.
Forbes (A. P.), Are you being Converted? 69.
Fraser (J.), University Sermons, 118.
Goodwin (H.), Parish Sermons, 2nd Ser., 179.
Hobhouse (W.), The Spiritual Standard, 130.
Little (W. J. Knox), The Journey of Life, 64.
Little (W. J. Knox), Manchester Sermons, 62.
M‘Fadyen (J. E.), The City with Foundations, 221.
Maclaren (A.), A Year’s Ministry, i. 165.
Price (A. C.), Fifty Sermons, iv. 17.
Smith (Gipsy), As Jesus Passed By, 139.
Spurgeon (C. H.), The New Park Street Pulpit (1858), No. 171.
Trench. (R. C.), Westminster and other Sermons, 32.
Vaughan (C. J.), The Church of the First Days, 534.
Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit), i. No. 296.