Great Texts of the Bible
Visions and Obedience
Wherefore, O king Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision.—Acts 26:19.
1. To the critic of the Christian religion there has always been one insuperable difficulty. That difficulty is St. Paul. Wherever the critic goes, and however successful he may find or fancy himself elsewhere in explaining and analysing, that strange, heroic figure stands before him on every path. How came St. Paul to be converted? How came this learned and dogmatic Pharisee to be the most devoted champion of a despised and rejected Christ? No adequate answer has ever been found to those questions, save the answer of St. Paul himself: that in one way or another he had seen a “heavenly vision,” and had not been “disobedient” to the call.
2. The scene suggested by the text is worth recalling. It was about the year a.d. 60, and Paul lay a prisoner in the Prætorium of Cæsarea. Two years he had been there, suffering on the most vexatious and frivolous of charges. Felix had little doubt of his innocence; and his conscience had been roused to painful activity by the Apostle’s arguments on righteousness, on the duty of self-restraint, and on the certainty of coming judgment. But a habit of self-seeking had long asserted its sway over conscience, and, to curry favour with the Jewish fanatics, Felix had gone out of office, leaving Paul bound.
Festus had come. Paul had naturally declined his unfair proposal to be tried at Jerusalem, and had appealed to Rome. Festus may have been annoyed at such rejection, but he was a man of sufficient capacity to recognize the high intellectual gifts and commanding character of the prisoner. Agrippa and his sister Bernice had come to pay court to him, and in conversation Festus mentioned the case of St. Paul. It excited the interest of Agrippa, who expressed a desire himself to hear the prisoner plead. It was an opportunity for Festus—an opportunity for hearing the opinion of a Jew of distinction upon a question so perplexing to a Roman official as the law of heresy; an opportunity, also, for paying a compliment to his distinguished friends, and using Paul to “make a Roman holiday.”
The audience took place in the Prætorian Palace. Very striking the scene must have been. In the chair of state, and in the splendid hall, sat Festus, wearing the robes of office and representing the majesty of Rome. The hall was filled with soldiers; the procurator was attended by the officers of his guard and of the legions in their military accoutrements, and by the representatives of civic authority in their official robes. Then came the Jewish sovereign and his sister with the fullest pageantry of State. They were young, and Bernice was beautiful with the personal beauty which seemed to belong to the race of the Herods, in striking contrast to their moral depravity. Nothing that could make the occasion splendid and impressive was wanting. When all was ready the prisoner was called.
Paul appeared manacled and was conducted between guards to the judgment-seat, and the hearing began. The prisoner spoke of his earlier life and convictions; of his unflinching opposition to the nascent Christian sect; of his treatment of Stephen; then of the light which flashed upon him, convincing him of his mistake and showing him the truth; and then of his after action. “Whereupon,” he said, as he related the turning-point in his career—“Whereupon, O king Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision.”
i. The Visions and Ideals of Life
1. “I was not disobedient,” he says, “unto the heavenly vision.” St. Paul is speaking of an experience which has come, in some form or other, to all great and good men—the dream, the vision, the sudden illuminating conviction of a Divine strength and a Divine consolation—the sense of a finger pointing and of a voice calling upward to a higher life, “This is the way, walk ye in it.” Those moments of light and inspiration will be found, sometimes in strange shapes, in the life of every great prophet or reformer. All the leading men of Old Testament history—Jacob, Elijah, Isaiah, Ezekiel—had some experience similar to St. Paul’s: Jacob when he wrestled at Peniel with that mysterious Presence, and would not let Him go until He had blessed him with a new name, a new and serious thought of life and its deep meaning; Elijah when, from the darkness of his lonely cave amid the mountains, he heard a still, small voice, and was comforted; Isaiah when he saw the Lord sitting enthroned in His temple, and felt the angel lay upon his lips the live coal taken from the burning altar; Ezekiel when, as he sat captive by the river of Chebar, the heavens were opened upon him, and he saw visions of God—the four Cherubim coming out of the whirlwind, and the glory of the sapphire throne.
2. Now, the revelation that is made to the understanding and the heart, to the spirit and the will, is the same whether it be made, as it was to Paul, through a heavenly vision; or, as it was to the other Apostles, through the facts of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, which their senses certified to them; or, as it is to us, by the record of the same facts, permanently enshrined in Scripture. Paul’s sight of Christ was for a moment; we can see Him as often and as long as we will, by turning to the pages of Scripture. Paul’s sight of Christ was accompanied with but a partial apprehension of the great and far-reaching truths which he was to learn and to teach, as embodied in the Lord whom he saw. To see Him was the work of a moment, to “know Him” was the effort of a lifetime. We have the abiding results of the lifelong process lying ready to our hands in Paul’s own letters. And we have not only the permanent record of Christ in the Gospels instead of the transient vision in the heavens, and the unfolding of the meaning and bearings of the historical facts in the authoritative teaching of the Epistles; but we have also, in the history of the Church founded on these, in the manifest workings of a Divine power for and through the company of believers (as well as in the correspondence between the facts and doctrines of Christianity and the wants of humanity), a vision disclosed and authenticated as heavenly, more developed, fuller of meaning and more blessed to the eyes which see it than was poured upon the persecutor as he reeled from his horse on the way to the great city.
3. Besides “outward and ordinary means,” there are also golden moments of inspiration and encouragement; and such moments we all can and ought to watch for. Dull indeed, or very depraved, is the life that never knows them. Even the most apparently commonplace career is often lightened by them, unknown to men; and many are the channels through which God sends them into the twilight in which we move. Sometimes they come through the conversation of a friend, sometimes through the appeal of a noble life; now it is the voice of conscience that brings them, now it is the pathos or terror of some passing event; or, again, we receive them from a poet’s art, or from a wandering melody, or even from a purple blossom of the woods. There is no mysticism, no idle dreaming here: men have been strangely guided by such things ere now; they are strangely guided by them to-day. Doubtless we are the creatures of a mood: but then it is the higher moods that we have to seek, and these are some of the ways in which we find them.
A short time ago, at a Convention in which I had to take some part, a working man rose to give a testimony. He told us that he was the son of a Dorset labourer, that twenty years ago he came to Lancashire to work in the mill, that he was converted in the church where we met, and that ever since he had been a worker in the church. But last year he was stricken with an illness, and his spiritual joy left him. The depression was almost unbearable. One morning he started out for the moors. It was a beautiful May day, and the air was filled with the singing of the birds, and the heather was lit up with sunshine. The impulse to pray came upon him, and for an hour—to use his own words—“for an hour upon my knees I held a conversation. Suddenly I was wonderfully conscious of the Divine Presence. Christ spoke to me. He showed me the print of the nails and the wounded side, and my heart exclaimed, ‘My Lord and my God.’ ” Then said he, “Account for it as you may, but there streamed in upon me a heavenly joy which I had never known before, and which has never left me. It fills me with song. It transfigures my work. It gives me power.” Such was his testimony.1 [Note: W. Redfern.]
4. Of course we must not look for heavenly visions of a miraculous kind. Our unimportance in the history of the world would not warrant us in indulging in any such vain anticipations. But in due measure and in proportion to that which we are, those very dreams of youth which inspire us to think and then to plan and to work, are God’s way of arousing us to fill worthily that place in life towards which He is calling us; and we should in that sense accept and obey “the heavenly vision” that is granted to us. Such day-dreams are often enough disfigured and degraded by elements of mere selfish and earthly ambition; but it is the province of religion to purge our ideals, while the ideal itself would perhaps be too little attractive if at the first it revealed itself to us in that austere form which on closer acquaintance we find that it really possesses.
Nobody is without ideals of heroism, of self-devotion, or disinterestedness. They are very common in books; they are not uncommon in life. Everybody knows some men and women whose hearts are touched with a profound pity for the infinite sorrows of humanity, whose lives are more or less governed by that pity; who count it a better thing (when opportunity offers) to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction than to spend a merry evening among their own. Everybody sees what a beneficent thing a woman’s life may be when it is wholly given up to the service of humanity and of God. You may be as keenly alive to the errors and mischiefs of Romanism as any one; but when you take note of one of those little Sisters of the Poor and the kind of life they lead, you perceive at once that they have seen a very heavenly Vision and are entirely obedient to it. Their active devotion to the needs of others belongs not in any sense to Romanism; it belongs to Christianity pure and simple. If one should compare their life with the life of an ordinary woman of fashion in this city, one sees that it possesses unspeakably more of nobility, more of happiness, more of reward, even in this world. No one can miss that.1 [Note: R. Winterbotham.]
I fear not Thy withdrawal; more I fear,
Seeing, to know Thee not—hoodwinked with dreams
Of signs and wonders—while, unnoticed, Thou,
Walking Thy garden still, commun’st with men,
Missed in the commonplace of Miracle!2 [Note: Dora Farncomb, The Vision of His Face, 4.]
5. But it is not by the gift of ideals only that God’s hand is found in our lives. It is by their constant surrender and the acceptance of higher ideals in their place. There was a vision before the eye of Saul of Tarsus, of this earth, and, in part, of his own creating. It took shape in a great measure out of the circumstances of his birth; it was such a vision as would naturally be seen by one who was “of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews.” Moreover, the vision took the colour of “that strictest sect of the Jews’ religion” to which he who saw it belonged. It was the vision of a justification wrought out for the man by the man himself, a salvation of his own obtaining; the dream of a life by which he would become “touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.” Perhaps, too, there rose before the mind of Saul a vision of fame and renown. His Epistles point him out as a man of profound intellectual power; his life’s story declares him a man of marvellous energy, daring, persistency. He had attached himself to the most illustrious rabbi of his day, one of the most celebrated in the records of Judaism. Might not this young Pharisee hope to succeed to some measure of the fame and influence of his master Gamaliel, and to be written on the same roll of merit with those whom his nation and generation delighted to honour—Simon the Just, Abtalyon, and the great Hillel? Circumstances favoured such ambition; he was “a young man,” but apparently he was already wielding influence in the ecclesiastic councils of his people—giving his vote, and entrusted with inquisitorial powers. Probably if one part of this self-made earthly vision glowed with brighter hues, it was the destruction of the Nazarene heresy: against this, to use his own words, he was “exceeding mad.” But there rose before him another vision; no longer a self-made and earthly, but, as he terms it, “a heavenly vision.” It showed him the men and women, whom he would hale to prison, would condemn to suffering or death, or compel to blaspheme: but he—Saul of Tarsus—was of that martyr-throng. It showed him that Jesus, whom they acknowledged as the Messiah and the Son of God as persecuted by Saul, and demanding, “Why persecutest thou me?”
Many the fields we reap,
And the secrets we divine;
We sink where the dim pearls sleep,
And soar where the planets shine,
While the race, with its restless heart, doth creep
Toward the far, grey limit-line.
The treasures we’ve won are nought,
The treasures to win are all;
The thing that the seeker sought
Is held—and then let fall;
For the prize well-grasped is not worth a thought
When the ungrasped gives a call.
The best is but the best
While it lies beyond the hand;
The subtle joy of the quest
Is the hope by the questing fanned;
And no man loveth the land possessed
As he loveth the promised land.
Thus doth the life indeed
Call to the life that seems;
Ever a larger creed
Stands writ in the land of dreams,
And read when the gloom of a wordless need
Is pierced by a far world’s gleams.
Thus it hath ever been,
And thus shall it ever be—
This spell of the “things not seen”
Cast over the things we see—
Till the gain and the praise of the days look mean
In the dream of eternity.1 [Note: P. C. Ainsworth, Poems and Sonnets, 12.]
It has been pointed out by the great Brighton preacher, Frederick Robertson, that it is largely by illusions that God in His mercy leads us on; as we find to have been the case in the story of His chosen people. And this same thought is also well illustrated in two verses (one of them autobiographical) written by Cardinal Newman about the year 1836–
Did we but see,
When life first open’d, how our journey lay
Between its earliest and its closing day,
Or view ourselves, as we one time shall be,
Who strive for the high prize, such sight would break
The youthful spirit, though bold for Jesus’ sake.
But Thou, dear Lord!
Whilst I traced out bright scenes which were to come,
Isaac’s pure blessings, and a verdant home,
Didst spare me, and withhold Thy fearful word;
Wiling me, year by year, till I am found
A pilgrim pale, with Paul’s sad girdle bound.
The dreams of boyhood are mostly dreams of realized ambition; and such dreams need, it is true, purification by the motives of religion; yet they are not to be despised; for ambitions are often noble in themselves, and the youth who in a kind of vision sees himself as a man living and acting as he would wish to live and act is really helped towards the realization of his ideal by the thrill of mingled hope and triumph that affects his whole frame when he pictures to himself the moment when he will have reached that climax of his hopes, which it is wholly honourable in him to desire to reach. Without some such “heavenly vision”—for these things are from God, or are at any rate permitted by Him—many a man who has served God and his country well would have frittered away his energies in useless or in ignoble pursuits, and, unmanned by depression, would never have achieved anything at all.1 [Note: A. W. Hutton.]
I go down from the hills half in gladness, and half with a pain I depart,
Where the Mother with gentlest breathing made music on lip and in heart;
For I know that my childhood is over: a call comes out of the vast,
And the love that I had in the old time like beauty in twilight is past.
I am fired by a Danaan whisper of battles afar in the world,
And my thought is no longer of peace, for the banners in dream are unfurled,
And I pass from the council of stars and of hills to a life that is new:
And I bid to you stars and you mountains a tremulous long adieu.
I will come once again as a master, who played here as child in my dawn,
I will enter the heart of the hills where the gods of the old world are gone.
And will war like the bright Hound of Ulla with princes of earth and of sky.
For my dream is to conquer the heavens and battle for kingship on high.1 [Note: “A. E.,” The Divine Vision, 24.]
ii. The Source of our Visions
1. Great ideals are the glory of man. No other creatures here can have them; only men may receive an inspiration that shall raise them above themselves. This being so, whence comes the ideal? It is not of man himself, obviously, but of God. So Moses could have no inspiring ideal of what Israel might be, and should be one day, an ideal that should possess his imagination, and fill his soul with a holy gleam of hope, abiding with him day and night, and making him strong to endure and to do, unless the pattern had been shown to him in the mount. But there God had unveiled to him all the possibilities of that people of Israel, and thenceforth Moses set himself, by God’s help, to make the vision real. In like manner, Paul could not have portrayed for himself the glowing picture of a regenerate Roman world, all bowing in adoration to the Crucified, had not the glory, beyond the brightness of the sun, shone from the heavens, blinding, for a while, the natural vision, but photographing itself indelibly on the soul; so that thenceforth only “one thing” could he do—traverse city and country, land and sea, toil-tired but untiringly, and endure infamy and death, if only he might reduce vision to fact, and make his high imaginations actual realities. So all man’s true ideals, of personal life and of service for man’s sake, are of God.
2. Our ideals may come to us mediately. They shine before us in the lives of noble men, they burn with quenchless fire in the poems of the ages, they lift their fair beauty before our view in the manifold Scriptures of God, and they show themselves as at once ideal and real in the glory of the Only Begotten, “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). But, mediately as these ideals may thus be presented to us, they must take immediate hold of our imagination, and kindle the fervours of our own soul—even as though we ourselves were in the mount alone with God, or were struck by the sudden glory from the skies. Otherwise, their Divine purpose will be unfulfilled, and our life largely unblessed.
The heavenly vision to which St. Paul was obedient was the vision of the Divine Son of God, who in human form appeared to him on the road to Damascus. And the heavenly vision to which we are called upon to be obedient is ever the vision of Christ manifesting to us Divine excellences which He would have abiding in our hearts and shown forth in our lives. All through life this vision presents itself to us in varying ways, and in aspects varying according to our changing needs. All through life we as Christians are ready to acknowledge that our aim should be to become Christlike, to live a Christlike life. The word Christlike cannot with any efficacy present itself to our thoughts unless to our inner sight there presents itself at the same time the image of Christ, bearing just that aspect of divineness which we at the time have the greatest need of attaining to the possession of. That which we gaze upon with our inward eyes is a heavenly vision, to which we are called upon to render obedience—to which like the Apostle Paul we must not be disobedient.
What was the secret of St. Paul’s great and strenuous life, to which more than to any other our Western world owes the fact that it is Christian? Whence did this comparatively independent labourer in the Master’s vineyard obtain the force that enabled him to accomplish such things? How was it that he “laboured more abundantly” than the rest? They had been privileged, in a way that he was not, to hold three years’ close companionship with their Lord. To St. Paul the Master appeared, more than once, it would seem, but as a kind of afterthought, “as to one born out of due time”; but then he “was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision.” Obedience to the heavenly vision—that was the secret of it all. And so, if we wish to express in one simple phrase the secret of this great man, whose courage and genius as well as his faith and love raise him so high above the level even of the greatest of men, we cannot do better than recall the words spoken humbly but firmly in the presence of an unbelieving king: “I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision.” That is the explanation of it all.
1. There must be both the vision and the obedience, and they must be in that order. St. Paul had no magic secret that kept labour sweet to him; he had only vision and obedience. But he had them in that order—vision first, and obedience following from it. It is not mere action that is the secret of a healthy life, but action performed in loyalty to something we have seen. All the effective activities of men around us are just processes for turning thought into action—one’s own thought, or the thought of others. In every art and craft and enthusiasm the supreme secret of mastery is to know what you are doing. Architecture is simply thought which has expressed itself in stone, or else it is sheer abomination. True healing comes not from routine prescription, but finds its sources deep among the springs of the physician’s heart and imagination and experience. Social reform is either the most useless dilettantism, or it is the creation of a new earth upon the lines of a pattern already clearly seen. So it is with all good work. It may be of many various kinds and there may be very many different ways of doing it, but this is characteristic of them all, that a man is carrying out into deed what he has seen in his mind. Vision ever goes before action, and true action is loyalty to vision.
How full the Bible is of visions that lead to tasks! Abraham must see the vision of the great nation which was to spring from him, “numerous as the sand upon the sea-shore,” ere he can leave his native land and become a pilgrim and a sojourner on earth. Moses must see the burning bush on the slopes of Midian before he has the strength to attack Pharaoh’s hard heart and re-awaken the passion for freedom in his fellow-countrymen’s drooping souls; and he must be taken to see the “pattern in the mount” ere he can formulate the practical code of government for them afterwards. Isaiah must see the Lord “high and lifted up” in the temple before his lips are touched with fire, and the message of grace and judgment can be uttered by him to the world. All the galaxy of heroes whose story is told us in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews were men who were sustained all through their trials and sufferings by a vision, a promise, a dream, that ever fled before them, but which sufficed to keep up their faith and courage under unimaginable hardship and suffering. And we are told of Jesus Himself that He, too, was upheld and strengthened for His tasks by a dream—“who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame.”1 [Note: E. Griffith-Jones.]
(1) The Vision comes first. There goes out from every life upon those around it, a constant and subtle influence which is determined almost wholly by the inner life of vision—the life of imagination and thought. Thoreau has wisely said: “If ever I did a man good … it was something exceptional and insignificant compared with the good or evil I am constantly doing by being what I am.” A man’s atmosphere and spirit are always more powerful influences than his deeds and words. Thus it is not surprising that the matter on which Christianity lays most stress is vision. The thoughts and imaginations of the heart; a taste for fine and clean things, and an instinctive shrinking from their opposites; above all, a clear conception of Jesus Christ and a definitely accepted relation between the soul and Him—these are the Christian fundamentals. Christianity has vindicated the rights of the imagination on its own account, apart from its outward expression; and insisted that a man may lose his honour and respectability there, without going farther afield. Christ amazed His contemporaries by the value He set upon the life of vision: He shifted the centre of attention from outward respectability to inward seeing and light.
The most impracticable man is he who ignores the soul and its knowledges as the eventual basis of power. The prophets, the inventors, the great painters, sculptors, musicians, architects, philosophers, statesmen, philanthropists—all are interpreters of the power and reality of the idea. Columbus, Leverrier, Harvey, Newton, Hamilton thought it and then showed it. Vision is the vital thing in Plato, Dante, Bunyan, Goethe, Tennyson. This it is that “pries far into distant worlds.” High patriotism is this—prophecy. The men of greatest vision are the seers. The false men are those whose vision is unheavenly. Saul might have been such a one; was until he saw reality. They are many. One of them was Robespierre, of whom there is a picture; he squeezing over a wine-cup a human heart. All treason to mankind lies in a false view of God.1 [Note: M. W. Stryker.]
(2) Obedience follows. Many who have a fine vision and who dream great dreams do nothing else. When in the mood, they are filled with splendid conceptions and ideals, in which they revel with large emotion and passionate enthusiasm; but when they turn from the airy fabric of their vision, and touch hard fact, and see the task awaiting them as the legacy of the dream, their heart fails and they are helpless. These are the idealists of the world, who can plan great things for others or for themselves, but who cannot execute. Their lives are almost always barren of results and full of disappointments. Those who create great expectations, but who fail to realize them, are rightly banned with the name of visionaries; men who can see much, but who do nothing.
There is no such grand failure in all the history of that mankind which genius has created for the world, as Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. And the abysmal depth into which he falls, the wide roads of agony which his very powers place in front of others, the whole sad missing of life’s great end, come from his weakness at a single point—the point where Paul made connexion, vital and faithful, between his every vision of truth and his duty which waited to be done—the point where he was obedient to the heavenly vision. Every man of fine powers of thought is tempted by his powers, at that very point. It is so easy for a bright thinker to think so interestingly and so interestedly that thought becomes life and destiny to him. Our age, which has the two dangers of over-consciousness in the midst of tasks which it has set itself to do, an age whose best man has a temper which either meditates exclusively or acts exclusively, has for its finer souls, for its Hamlet or its Paul, no more subtle temptation than the attractions of a purely ideal life.1 [Note: F. W. Gunsaulus.]
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.
2. What is that which makes a man obedient or disobedient? It is the man’s own will. For there are two mysteries in life, the one that men can, and the other that men do, resist Christ’s pleading voice. As to the former, we cannot fathom it. But do not let any difficulty deaden the clear voice of our own consciousness. If I cannot trust my sense that I can do this thing or not do it, as I choose, there is nothing that I can trust. Will is the power of determining which of two roads I shall go, and, strange to say, it is incapable of Statement in any more general terms than the reiteration of the fact; yet here stands the fact, that God, the infinite Will, has given to men, whom He made in His own image, this inexplicable and awful power of coinciding with or opposing His purposes and His voice.
Our wills are ours, we know not how;
Our wills are ours, to make them thine.
For the other mystery is, that men do consciously set themselves against the will of God, and refuse the gifts which they know all the while are for their good. It is no use to say that sin is ignorance. No; that is only a surface explanation. We know too well that many a time when we have been as sure of what God wanted us to do as if we had seen it written in flaming letters on the sky, we have gone and done the exact opposite. There are men and women who are convinced in their inmost souls that they ought to be Christians, and that Jesus Christ is pleading with them at the present hour, and yet in whose hearts there is no yielding to what, they are certain, is the will and voice of Jesus Christ.
You will say, perhaps, “I have not been obedient because I could not; I was not in a position to be so.” If the Vision bade you do what you are not in a position to do, it was not a heavenly Vision at all; it was a product of your own fancy. Do you suppose the Lord Jesus does not know your circumstances, does not allow for your difficulties, does not consider your duties? If you want to follow the heavenly Vision, you can. If you want to love your neighbour, you can; God helping you. If you want to do him good, you can; if you are willing to take the trouble. If you want to make sacrifices, you can; if you are willing to pay the price. If you want to lay down all your life, little by little, bit by bit, at the Master’s feet, in the service of humanity, you can; if you find grace to help in time of need.1 [Note: B. Winterbotham.]
But, above all, the victory is most sure
For him, who, seeking faith by virtue, strives
To yield entire submission to the law
Of conscience—conscience reverenced and obeyed,
As God’s most intimate presence in the soul,
And His most perfect image in the world.2 [Note: Wordsworth, The Excursion.]
3. How does obedience to our visions affect us?
(1) It affects our thinking. From the writings of St. Paul we gather that two ideas had come prominently before his mind, and were borne in upon his soul, since his conversion, with astonishing sharpness and force. (a) The one was the idea of sin. Always the great Apostle had been a man of keen moral perception. He had studied, indeed, to much effect the moral Law. But until he realized “the heavenly vision,” and entered into the mystery of the Cross of Christ, there was little of that sensitive consciousness of sin which is one measure of spiritual attainment in a serious Christian soul. Sin in its intrinsic dreadfulness; sin in its subtle approaches; sin in its essential contradiction to the Divine nature; sin in its mysterious power, to slacken which in human souls required nothing less than the sacrifice of the Son of God; sin in its awful chemical force for corrupting character; sin in the horror of its possible triumph, in the glory of its possible defeat; sin in its power to beget its train of weird and hideous children—pain and sorrow, moral misery and the wretchedness of death; sin in itself and in its consequences; sin in the mysterious secrecy of its beginning, in the awful vision of doom revealed as its close;—these things, from the vision on the Damascus wayside, bit deep into the heart of Paul. (b) And along with these a glorious hope, a glorious revelation—the revelation of the love of God. We who have heard the phrase so often can hardly imagine the joyful vividness with which that revelation broke upon the mind of Paul. The love of God, in its depth, its unmeasured greatness, its tenderness, its minute considerate sympathy, its personal application, its unfailing loyalty, its unflagging patience, its abounding resources, its wide-sweeping comprehensiveness, and above all in this fact, that it was made known, possible to realize, possible to embrace tenderly human although so exaltedly Divine, in the life, the, character, the death, the sacrifice, the intercession, and the reign in glory, of Jesus Christ. To be loved, tenderly loved, suffered for and delivered,—this brought home to Paul the awfulness of the enemy from whom deliverance had been necessary even at such a price, and the dearness, and goodness, and kindness, and mercy of Him who “spared not his own Son,” when that sacrifice was necessary, but “freely gave him for us all.”
If we have dreamed a dream which we have reason to think is from the Lord, let us spare no effort to realize it, though it may take a lifetime to do it. If we have a thought which is in advance of our times, and at first sight perhaps a little Utopian, let us keep at it, if so be something may come of it. If some great design suggests itself to our mind, do not let us drop it because it is considered somewhat visionary, but work away at it till we get it brought within the region of the practical. In his beautiful poem of “Merlin and the Gleam” Tennyson has embodied, in the form of an allegory, his faith that “the ideal is indeed the vera lux which must lead the world”; and our duty to the “heavenly vision” was never more tersely expressed than in the closing couplet:
After it, follow it,
Follow the Gleam.1 [Note: S. L. Wilson.]
(2) It affects our work. The work of any man, on whatever material he has to exercise himself, is in fact the expression of his character. The change showed itself in the Apostle’s work. It was not that there was greater diligence; Paul’s diligence was unflagging, but so it had been before. His intensity and vigour made that certain; but it showed itself in an evidently keener sense of spiritual proportion. Perspective is often wanting in spiritual vision, and the sense of proportion is marred or destroyed. Benozzo Gozzoli, in the window adornments of the Ricasoli Palace, realized, as great masters had never done before, the power of perspective, and in doing so added keenness to his sense of proportion. Time, a narrow national aspiration, the slavish fulfilment of a preparatory law, a hard and rigorous monotheism, had widened out suddenly before Paul’s astonished gaze into the wide horizons of eternity, and the tender and glorious landscapes of the kingdom of God. Great thoughts henceforth led him necessarily to the careful fulfilment of small duties. If he soars into the seventh heaven henceforth, it is to bring down the energy and love and considerate sympathy by which to help the runaway slave; to send kindly messages of reproof or affection to the pious ladies of Rome or Philippi; to open the treasures of his sympathetic tenderness to his young men converts—his “own sons”; to arrange for the offertories in Macedonia and Corinth; to manage the progress of his trade of tent-making so that he might honestly pay his way. Half the thoughts of men are out of proportion. Big measures and great questions are apt to seem to them the whole of life. “Obedience to a heavenly vision” means the habit of high thinking with scrupulous loyalty to small duties.
In every way may men by looking unto Jesus in the heavens—and by discerning in Him the divineness necessary for the furtherance of their own individual salvation—become revealers to the world of divineness. The artist may discern in Jesus the Divine beauty of which he is called upon to be a setter-forth to the world. The poet may, by looking upon the heavenly vision, be guided into discerning the tenderer aspects of Divine truth. The man of science too may be enabled to carry on his researches into the great world of Nature, and to recognize it more and more as the very outcome of God’s own life; even he may be enabled to do this by looking upon the heavenly vision of the Divine Aider of all reverent seekers after knowledge of His ways and works.1 [Note: H. N. Grimley.]
Quixotism, or Utopianism: that is another of the devil’s pet words. I believe the quiet admission which we are all of us so ready to make, that, because things have long been wrong, it is impossible they should ever be right, is one of the most fatal sources of misery and crime from which this world suffers. Whenever you hear a man dissuading you from attempting to do well, on the ground that perfection is “Utopian,” beware of that man. Cast the word out of your dictionary altogether. There is no need for it. Things are either possible or impossible—you can easily determine which, in any given state of human science. If the thing is impossible, you need not trouble yourselves about it; if possible try for it. It is very Utopian to hope for the entire doing away with drunkenness and misery out of the Canongate; but the Utopianism is not our business—the work is. It is Utopian to hope to give every child in this kingdom the knowledge of God from its youth; but the Utopianism is not our business—the work is.2 [Note: Ruskin, Architecture and Painting, 89.]
(3) It affects our character. The change showed itself in St. Paul’s work: it was in his character. There was, no doubt, the beautiful foundation long laid in his nature and his conscientious life; he could scarcely help being sincere, possessing delicacy of tact, being in the widest sense strongly and sweetly true. But his sympathies were enlarged; he was to an unparalleled degree identified with human nature. He could say as few could, “Nihil humanum a me alienum puto.” What was human, since he had known the Divine and human Christ, was near and dear to Paul. There is sometimes a danger in sympathetic characters of some flaw of weakness. Not a touch of weakness in him. Strong, unflinching, unswerving, decided. Probably never, except in his Divine Master, was there such a combination of tenderness and strength. Think of his woman-like tenderness towards Timothy! Think of his lion-like strength in the face of Galatian treason to Christ! Certainly in his nature there was a very wonderful combination of qualities; but here they are reinforced, chastened, extended, when once he has impressed upon his soul the personality of Christ, when once he is “not disobedient to the heavenly vision.”
Remember that it is not saints and heroes alone who are privileged to see visions; it is ordinary folk like ourselves who hear these voices from heaven and these calls to duty. Men become heroes and saints, in God’s eyes if not in men’s, by obeying those calls. Father Damien was not a saint when he went to Molokai, nor Livingstone a hero when he went to Africa. The visions came to them when they were as undistinguished as ever. But then they obeyed the call: and still to-day men obey the call.1 [Note: J. M. Wilson.]
The Reward of Obedience
The reward of obeying one vision is the gif t of another. There were five visions given successively to the Apostle Paul. There are five visions graciously granted to every one who is obedient. And when the fifth vision comes, which is the vision of Ministry, it comes in four different ways for four different purposes.
i. St. Paul’s Visions
1. First, St. Paul was obedient to the heavenly vision that arrested him, that convicted him, that changed the whole current of his being, and adjusted his whole life towards God. That is the vision of our text. Its experience is usually spoken of as the Conversion of St. Paul.
2. But St. Paul was also obedient to the heavenly vision that enlightened him, that equipped him, that empowered him for holiness, witness, and all aspects of service. “Behold, he prayeth” (Acts 9:12),” and hath seen in a vision a man named Ananias coming in, and putting his hand on him, that he might receive his sight.” Then the seventeenth verse: “And Ananias went his way, and entered into the house; and putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way that thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and he filled with the Holy Ghost.” He was enlightened, equipped, and empowered for witness and for all service.
3. St. Paul was obedient also to the heavenly vision in which he saw his self-life crucified and slain, and his heart cleansed for the enthronement and reign of Christ. The passage is 2 Corinthians 12:1-10. Marvellous vision it is, with a wonderful combination of realities in it: paradise, the third heaven, balanced by the thorn in the flesh, a vision closing with a sufficiency of grace, wholly grace, only grace, self and self-life renounced and crucified, that the power of Christ alone might rest and work through His servant.
4. And St. Paul was obedient to the heavenly vision in which he saw the appalling condition of a lost world, and took up and carried to the last the burden, not of theological problems, but of perishing souls. This vision was obtained at Troas. He saw a man of Macedonia, who prayed him, saying, Come over into Macedonia, and help us.
5. Last of all, St. Paul was obedient to that heavenly vision in which he saw the finished course securing the Master’s approval, in which he saw the mark for the prize of the high calling in his own perfect conformity and likeness to his Master, and in which he saw the prize itself in the gift of the crown by his Master. Study that wonderful passage, 2 Timothy 4:8, and you will see these things, and study it in connection with the third chapter of the Epistle to the Philippians 1 [Note: George Wilson.]
ii. Our Visions
1. First there is that vision of the Lord which marks the opening of the soul to God. There are those in whom the life of God has begun so early, so sweetly, and so gradually that they can no more tell when they began to know the Lord Jesus Christ as their Saviour than they can tell when they first saw their mother’s smile. The question is, Have we now a sight of Christ in our soul?
2. But if we were obedient to this vision we got another vision. When we tried to follow in the footsteps of Christ, we were conscious of the infinite distance between Him, the Holy One, and ourselves, full of all uncleanness; Him, the Loving One, and us, full of all selfishness; Him, the Humble One, and us, full of pride and vanity. And as we tried to follow Him, we also found that we dared not approach God, because we felt by the side of Christ our own pollution, our own wickedness, and not only our wickedness, but our guilt. And as we studied the teaching of Christ, we saw that Christ does not simply say, Do as I do, and it shall be well, but “the Son of Man came to seek and to save that which is lost.” Then we heard the voice of John the Baptist saying, “Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world.” Then we had a vision of One hanging upon a Cross for us, and we felt that the majesty of God’s law was never more revered and honoured than on that Cross. And the infinite love of God through Christ crucified was poured upon us in boundless streams of mercy. What a vision that was! Have we been obedient to that vision?
3. If we have been obedient to that heavenly vision, then we have had another vision after a while. We find not only that Christ is the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world, but that He claims to be our Lord and Master. By His redemption He has not only delivered us, but purchased us. We are bought with a price. We are not our own. And then, perhaps, comes a great struggle. We are willing enough to have our sins forgiven and give some of our heart and time and gifts to Christ. But He must have everything.
4. Then we have another vision. We are astonished to find out that although we have received Christ as a Sin-bearer and as a Master, though it seems to us that we have the best intentions and desires, yet the law of sin in our very members makes us cry out, “O, wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from this body of death?” Christ shows us that the secret lies in fellowship with Him, fellowship with Him in His resurrection and in His power. That is no easy thing. But He will make it easy. When we see that it is the gift of God, when every man has been crucified with Him, when we accept death as a gift as we accept life, all things are made new. Then it seems as though we began the Christian life over again. We say with the Apostle, “I through the law am dead to the law, that I may live unto God. I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.”
5. We have considered Christ in succession first as Leader, then as Lamb, then as Lord, then as Life. There is yet another vision—a vision of duty and of blessedness. And in this vision we enjoy Likeness. Was it not said of Him that He went about doing good? Is this not the last characteristic and likeness between Father and Son, that “My Father worketh hitherto and I work”?1 [Note: Theodore Monod.]
iii. The Visions of the Servant
The fifth of the visions already considered is both for St. Paul and for us a vision of Service. That vision needs fuller consideration. It is in four parts.
1. Of the four visions which more or less seize the imagination and fire the heart of Christ’s ministers, first comes the vision which summons us to be the living voice of the Divine oracles, the ministers of reconciliation between God and men. This was Isaiah’s vision. “I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me.”
2. The second vision is the vision that sends us. It points us to the place where we are to labour, and to the people whom we are to serve, and to the fellows with whom our work is to be done, and it may be to those who are to train us in doing it. St. Paul is our pattern here. “After they were come to Mysia, they essayed to go into Bithynia; but the Spirit suffered them not. And they passing by Mysia came down to Troas. And a vision appeared to Paul in the night; there stood a man of Macedonia, and prayed him, saying, Come over into Macedonia, and help us. And after he had seen the vision, immediately we endeavoured to go into Macedonia, assuredly gathering that the Lord had called us for to preach the gospel unto them.”
3. The third vision deepens, widens, expands, matures us, turning youth into manhood, and summoning us to the midsummer of life. It was St. Peter’s at Joppa. The vessel descending out of heaven with all manner of fourfooted beasts, and the accompanying voice, “Rise, Peter, kill and eat,” and the significant monition, “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common,” had set the Apostle thinking and wondering, when suddenly the messengers of Cornelius stood at his door, and the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men seek thee.” That vision with all that came out of it, meant the immediate opening of the Gentile world to Christ. It was also a new era of idea, of duty, of conquest for the Apostle. The struggle it must have meant for a conscientious Hebrew Christian it is very hard for us adequately to measure. But growth with pain is the very principle of life; pain not only of body, but of soul—not only of soul, but of mind.
4. The fourth vision is the vision which sustains us. It was St. John’s. “After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands.” This vision sustains because it inspires. It inspires us with hope for the future, and that hope, being sure and steadfast, sustains us in the present.1 [Note: A. W. Thorold.]
Visions and Obedience
Alexander (S. A.), The Christianity of St. Paul, 61.
Campbell (R. J.), Sermons to Young Men, 115.
Cuckson (J.), Faith and Fellowship, 65.
Greenhough (J. G.), The Mind of Christ in St. Paul, 241.
Grimley (H. N.), The Temple of Humanity, 256.
Gunsaulus (F. W.), Paths to the City of God, 215.
Hutton (A. W.), Ecclesia Discens, 41.
Keen (J. O.), The Emphasis of Belief, 26.
Kelman (J.), Ephemera Eternitatis, 34, 39.
Knox-Little (W. J.), The Light of Life, 246.
Lockyer (T. F.), The Inspirations of the Christian Life, 137.
Maclaren (A.), The Unchanging Christ, 236.
Maggs (J. T. L.), The Spiritual Experience of St. Paul, 9.
Roberts (J. E.), The Lord’s Prayer, 46.
Thorold (A. W.), The Gospel of Work, 17.
Wilson (J. M.), Sermons in Clifton College Chapel, ii. 154.
Winterbotham (R.), Sermons in Holy Trinity Church, 329.
Christian World Pulpit, xiii. 360 (Macleod); xxii. 234 (Rosevear); xxxix. 37 (Lunn); xlii. 241 (Monod); xlvi. 81 (Bradford); lxiii 84 (Knox-Little); lxiv. 68 (Griffith-Jones).