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So sudden a transformation of character as this narrative presents, must surely be acknowledged to deserve a thorough investigation by all who conceive the principles of human conduct a proper object of attention and inquiry. It is surely natural to look into the cause of such a change, as well as to consider the effects which it produced, and the issue to which it tended.
Every christian is so well acquainted with the sufferings and labours of this chief of the apostles, and has contracted so sacred a friendship with the name of Paul, that the circumstances which led to so great a revolution in his character, cannot fail to be interesting.
Let us then, in dependence on divine assistance, take a review of the most striking particulars of this transaction, and endeavour to raise such reflections as the subject may naturally suggest.
I. Let us consider his previous character and conduct, and the actual state of his mind immediately before the change took place.
1. Of the incidents of his early life, we are not furnished with very full and distinct information. We learn that he was a native of Tarsus in Cilicia, a city famous for its schools of philosophy, as well as for having given birth to some of the most eminent philosophers. His extraction, both on the side of his father and mother, was purely Jewish ; but, owing to some benefit conferred on his ancestors, he was entitled by his birth to the privileges of a Roman citizen. His education was learned; for he was born at Tarsus, and spent his first years there. He came at an early period to Jerusalem, and was brought up at the feet of Gamaliel, a member of the Sanhedrim, and a celebrated doctor of the law. This was that Gamaliel who, by his temperate and judicious advice, restrained the violence of the Jewish council, who were determined to put Peter and John to death. His young disciple, Saul, seems to have imbibed nothing of his moderation, but to have been uniformly instigated by a most implacable fury against the christian cause. From his earliest youth he was of the “ strictest sect of the Pharisees,” who were not satisfied with complying with every punctilio of the Mosaic law, but adopted a multitude of traditions and ceremonies, of human invention, which they placed on the same footing, and deemed equally certain.
In common with the greater part of his countrymen, he held the perpetual and eternal obligation of the Mosaic law, and depended on his legal · performances entirely for salvation. Though the sacrifices ordained under the law pointed to the atonement of Jesus Christ, he overlooked this reference; and, full of a confidence in his own rectitude, abhorred and disdained the idea of being indebted for salvation to a crucified Messiah. The poverty and meanness of Christ was an offence to his proud and haughty spirit; and the cross, which he endured for the expiation of sin, was a stumbling-block. He believed, no doubt, in a Messiah ; but the person he expected under that character was a great and victorious prince, invested with secular pomp and glory; who was to break asunder the Roman yoke, and raise the Jews to the pinnacle of human greatness : and therefore, when he observed that Jesus was so far from accomplishing these hopes that he died the death of the meanest malefactor, he regarded him as a mean and detestable impostor. When he heard the apostles testify his resurrection, assure him that he was exalted at the right hand of God, and that salvation and the remission of sins were to be sought solely through his blood, his prejudices rose to the utmost violence; and he resented a doctrine which he considered as offering an insult to the whole Jewish nation. As he was taught to look upon the Jews as the distinguished favourites of the Most High, while he considered the Gentiles as reprobate and accursed; he abhorred the thought of that new doctrine which threatened to break down the “ wall of partition,” and to admit Gentiles and Jews to participate in the same privileges. He knew that the apostles were wont to denounce the judgements of God on the Jewish nation, for their rejection of Christ; and though they would naturally maintain a prudent reserve on the subject of their approaching calamities as a nation, they must have been well aware, from several of our Lord's parables, and particularly from his last prophecy, that the time was approaching when the temple at Jerusalem
would be destroyed, its services abolished, the holy city trodden under foot, and the Jewish people be carried captive into all nations. It was some intimation of this kind, in the discourses of Stephen, which gave birth to the accusation—“ We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses, and against God.” They set up false witnesses, which said, “ This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law : for we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us.” Under these impressions, Saul looked upon the christian sect as directly opposed to the dignity and perpetuity of the temple, the Mosaic law, and all the ceremonies and privileges by which the descendants of Abraham were distinguished from pagan nations.
All the prejudices of education, all the pride of a Jew, and the self-righteousness of a Pharisee, conspired with the violence of youth, and eager ambition to acquire the esteem of his superiors, and hurried him to the utmost excesses in opposing the cause of Christ. He seems to have devoted his life to one object,—the utter extirpation, if possible, of the christian name. Stephen was stoned, he was consenting to, or rather felt a pleasure in, his death; and so zealous did he appear on this occasion, that the witnesses laid down their clothes at his feet while they engaged in this work of blood. The death of
Stephen was the signal of a general persecution, in which Saul appears to have taken a very active part: “As for Saul, he made great havoc of the church,” saith St. Luke, “ entering into every house, and haling men and women, committed them to prison.”* Having received a commission from the high priest, he went on the same errand to Damascus; that if he found there any “ of the same way” he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. During his journey he was revolving with delight the confusion and misery he should produce among the defenceless followers of Christ; and when he drew near enough to Damascus to take a view of the city, he no doubt exulted at the idea of being so near his prey. He feasted in the prospect of scattering the sheep of Christ, of dissolving their assemblies, and inflicting upon them the severest sufferings his malice could devise: “he breathed out threatenings and slaughter. of Little did he think of the change he was about to undergo ;little did he [anticipate] that astonishing scene of things which was about to be laid open to his view. He had hitherto confined his persecutions to Jerusalem and its immediate environs : he had now procured a more enlarged commission, which extended to a remote city. Damascus was nearly two hundred miles distant from Jerusalem. [It was in Syria; and was at that time under the dominion of Aretas, king of Arabia Petræa, a prince tributary to the Roman empire: under him * Acts viïi. 3.
† Acts ix. 1.