Paul's Character and Mission

J.R. MacDuff

(Preached on board a ship in the Mediterranean sea, on the way to Palestine.)

"But the Lord said to Ananias: Go! This man is My chosen vessel to carry My name before the Gentiles and their kings, and before the people of Israel!" Acts 9:15

I have selected this text because some of us here present have, this last week, for the first time in our lives, been in the footsteps of the glorious company of the apostles, and the noble army of martyrs. We have stood in the ruined amphitheaters of Southern France. We have seen the arenas where God's faithful servants were torn by wild beasts, or the catacombs which for eighteen centuries have held their honored dust.

Since then, we have been for several days on the track of the Prince of apostles and martyrs in this "great and wide sea" the sea whose waves wash the shores of his birthplace in distant Asia Minor the sea which forms the scene or margin of his future life and labors. In one sense, indeed, the Mediterranean may be called "the diocese of the apostle Paul." These same ships of Tarshish, recently familiar to us, were familiar to him. We have touched the island of his shipwreck, which has received from his presence and deeds an imperishable interest; and we have thought of the thousands on thousands morally shipwrecked, who have, through his glowing utterances and deeds, been brought to a better haven.

These words I have now read form the commencement and inauguration of Paul's mighty ministry. Let us ponder them, with some feeble desire to imbibe his spirit, that we may at last participate with him in his glorious reward.

I need not pause to connect the passage with the preceding context, where we have the account of Paul's conversion. The Lord Jesus had appeared to him on his way to Damascus, in a glory above the brightness of the sun and arrested him for His service. The whole current of the persecutor's thoughts is changed. He can no longer fight against God. The Captain of the Lord's Host had stood before a moral Jericho with the sword drawn in His hand. The vast citadel of Pharisaic pride is in a moment laid in the dust. The lion has been transformed into the lamb; the furious bigot becomes the lowly disciple. All old things have passed away, and all things have become new.

Let me, with God's blessing, direct your thoughts to these two points here brought before us Paul as the Chosen believer, and as the Converted missionary.

I. We have his honorable designation set forth by God Himself in the text, as A CHOSEN VESSEL. The separate words are suggestive.

1. He is CHOSEN.

Here we have the grace of God, and the wondrous sovereignty and freeness of that grace. Although He owns and honors human instrumentality, yet He sometimes wishes to show His independence of human means and human agency that He works when, and where, and how He pleases. "He is found of those who sought Him not." "It is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy." Nay, that He can work, when He sees fit, even contrary to means.

It was so in the case of Paul, where all the mightier moral and spiritual elements were in a state of conflict and antagonism. In that bosom there was everything one would have thought incompatible with the lowly spirit of the Gospel: inveterate hatred, sectarian bigotry, educational prejudice, the pride of intellect, and, worse than all, the pride of self-righteousness!

But "what is this great mountain before Zerubbabel? It shall become a plain!" The grace of God shall level it. "He has chosen the weak things of this world to confound the things which are mighty . . . that no flesh should glory in His presence."

Brethren, after this, who shall despair? That persecutor, breathing out his blasphemies, stands forth to every sinner and to all time as a monumental trophy and triumph of Divine irresistible power! He tells us himself, this was the great end his God had in view. "For this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first" (not first in point of time, but first in point of guilt"), "in me first Jesus might show a pattern to those who would hereafter believe to everlasting life."

Who among us, who have been sinning against grace, striving against convictions, scorning mercy, fighting against God need despair? The Holy Spirit records this as a pattern a glorious testimony to the free grace and sovereign mercy of Him whose "ways are not as man's ways, and whose thoughts are not as man's thoughts." Here is apparently one of those vessels of wrath He elsewhere speaks of, fitted for destruction. God transmutes it by a touch into a vessel of gold, "fitted," as an old writer expresses it, "for the high palace of His glory." And what is the secret of that marvelous transformation? "Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, says the Lord Almighty."

2. But this chosen believer is further spoken of as "a VESSEL." "He is a chosen vessel." With what is the vessel filled? In other words, what are some of the new elements in Paul's character some of his new-born spiritual attainments? Let us select two out of many.

Mark how he is filled with HUMILITY. He, indeed, combined more than any living contemporary the wealth of intellect, and the wealth of Christian experience in the one. He was Gamaliel's pupil, the acute thinker, the profound reasoner, who could stand amid Athenian philosophers, or in the dwellings of Imperial Rome, or amid the merchant princes of Corinth pleading the cause of his Lord and Master. Or, in point of spiritual attainment, "counting not his life dear unto him that he might finish his course with joy."

What a claim, one would have said, had this great servant of the Most High to the possession of an archangel's throne! He might well be entitled to share the eagle symbol of his brother Apostle, and soar to the highest peaks of the Alps of God, his own abounding merits, the perches in his flight. The breast of no earthly hero assuredly might have been more thickly studded with star and insignia than Paul.

If the fame of the Roman conqueror had been his ambition, which it was not, he might have had his triumphal procession along a truer Via Sacra; yes, and amid a host more glorious than earth's fickle multitudes.

Yet in the prospect of martyrdom, when he is just grasping his crown, he takes care to avow that every jewel there sparkles with a luster not its own. With self-renouncing lowliness he casts it at the feet of his Lord, saying, "Not unto me, not unto me, but unto God be all the glory. By the grace of God I am what I am!" As we read his Epistles, the key to his inner life, every doctrine and precept, and duty and promise, seems to tend towards one grand point: "Of Him, and through Him, and to Him are all things!" He takes to himself all the blame of what was blameworthy, and gives to God all the praise of what was praiseworthy. "O wretched man that I am! I thank God, through Jesus Christ our Lord!"

Yet, again, when he speaks of his labors in the cause of truth, and with honest sincerity of heart and humble gratitude exclaims: "I labored more abundantly than they all. . ." he checks the forbidden thought. Laying self in the dust, he appends the explanatory words, "Yet not I; but the grace of God which was with me!"

Golden vessel as he was, he has but one designation for himself, which embraces past and present: "I WAS a persecutor; I AM the chief of sinners!"

I observe, once more, this chosen vessel was filled with LOVE. The love of God in Christ had captured and subdued him. And that love, in its turn, was responsive, and acted with a constraining power. It became the paramount force in his new-born nature. Being forgiven much he seemed to love all the more. There had been no place for the love of God it could have no existence so long as he was the proud, self-righteous Pharisee, and made it his boast that, concerning the righteousness which is of the law, he was blameless. We cannot love a God to whom we owe nothing.

We love Him. Why? Because He first loved us. The self-righteous man cannot love the Being with regard to whom it is his constant struggle to be independent, and to whom it is his habitual feeling or desire, at least, to feel that he is not indebted.

We hear of "breathing sculpture." Even the noblest productions of the chisel, although few can fail to admire none can be said to love them. However noble the symmetry, however graceful the proportions, however godlike the silent expression we cannot love the cold marble. There can be no interchange between it and the human heart.

Even so with God the self-righteous man may admire Him, in a certain sense: His holiness may awe him, His power may overwhelm him but he cannot love the Being from whom he has received no love. To him that Being is little better than the block of marble, possessing a number of abstract qualities and attributes, but with none of which he stands personally connected, and therefore which cannot elicit his gratitude or obedience or moral esteem.

That principle can be evoked only from a sense of God's pardoning mercy. The first spark of that new affection was kindled in Paul's bosom on the way to Damascus. From that hour it seemed to increase and brighten in intensity, until he came to bathe in the floods of infinite love before the Throne.

Nor must we omit to add that it was not only love to God which formed a reigning passion in his regenerated heart. This was further manifested in its complement of love to man. The furious and narrow-minded zealot became the large-hearted Christian. He once trusted in himself, that he was righteous and, as a consequence, despised others.

See him now, the fervent philanthropist, with a glow of sympathetic interest in the wide family of believers, drinking deep at the fountain-head of Divine love. He calls on divided Christians and divided churches, "Dearly beloved, as much as lies in you, live peaceably with all men."

Brethren, the deeper the love of God is in our hearts the wider will be the sweep and circumference of our Christian affections. It is because we are far from the central Sun that we are often moving in such frigid and distant orbits. Christians and Christian churches have often been compared to the pools of water on the rocky shore, each standing separate and apart. It only needs, in its glorious fullness, the mighty tide of a Savior's love to sweep over them that they may be intermingled, and that His own valedictory prayer may have its blessed and triumphant fulfillment, "That they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You."

II. Let us pass now very briefly to consider Paul's great and important work as the DEVOTED MISSIONARY

"This man is My chosen vessel to carry My name before the Gentiles and their kings, and before the people of Israel!" The great Apostle was a living comment on the words of Christ to Peter, "When you are converted, strengthen your brethren." No sooner had the chosen vessel been set apart for the Master's use then he who persecuted in times past, now preached the faith which he once destroyed.

This noble and gifted spirit had for long, like a ship, lain stranded on the shore; but no sooner did the tide of grace, of which we have been speaking, come rolling from the ocean of God's eternal love, than not only was it set floating on the waters, but with every sail hoisted to the breeze, we see it borne from port to port and from shore to shore, freighted with the unsearchable riches of Christ!

And the same humility, tenderness, and love which characterized him as the Apostle, distinguished him as the Apostle-missionary. Though resolute in every danger, boldly confronting the perils of an unknown wilderness, the angry surges of the Mediterranean and the Adriatic, unflinchingly sending his message to the courtiers of Caesar's palace, and himself standing in Caesar's presence, speaking God's word before kings and not being moved yet mark his sensitive tenderness over scorners of Divine mercy, and his importunate earnestness for man's salvation.

Though dungeons and chains, and watchings and fastings, and death itself could move him not, in delivering these tidings of salvation to sinners he tells us that he did it "night and day with tears." What a life of self-abnegation and self-surrender! As we see him bounding over these same waves now around us, or traversing the shores they lave, which were hereafter to be his home, his own motto was no vain boast, "This one thing I do!" His heart and eye were single. He looked only at "this one thing" as he pursued his Christian course, and therefore his whole being was full of light.

Is there no lesson for us from Paul's great and unceasing labors? Every member of the Church of Christ who has, like him, felt the regenerating power of Divine grace must, as a necessary result, have been brought under the influence of the same expansive spirit. If there are only a few Aholiabs and Bezaleels who are qualified for the costlier and more arduous work in the tabernacle yet the humblest may do something. Each, as a chosen vessel, has something to bear yes, and something to give out to others, whether it be in the shape of money, or influence, or example.

Remember, the great Lord of the Temple requires in His sacred courts, vessels of small quantity as well as of great quantity "cups" as well as "flagons." And the question on the Great Day will be, not what the size of the vessel was, not how many or how brilliant our talents have been but has the vessel, such as it was, not only been kept full, but a dispenser of blessings? Have the talents, such as they were, not only been carefully guarded, but diligently employed, and traded on, and blessed for the well-being of others?

Paul, as a signally honored vessel, had a wider and grander mission, an altogether unique and specific work to which he is here designated, "to bear My name before the Gentiles." It is this, I repeat, which vividly associates him with the sea on which we are now borne to Eastern lands. We know that he always felt strongly the claims of his fellow countrymen. "To the Jew first," were the marching orders of this good soldier of Christ. His patriot spirit was not likely to overlook "the Israelites, to whom pertained the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the Law, and the service of God and the promises." But pleading voices had reached him from a hundred heathen shores, "Come over and help us!"

If he had listened to some modern arguments occasionally urged, he might have toiled only within the walls of Jerusalem, or his footsteps lingered around the Sea of Galilee. But the shores of this Mediterranean are henceforth to be his home. And when we see him, with his life in his hand, bounding over its waves, his own impassioned appeal seems sounding in our ears, "Is He the God of the Jews only, and not of the Gentiles! Yes, of the Gentiles also." Had his been a narrow and less expansive spirit and outlook, our own island home would not have been, as it now is, the sanctuary of truth and peace the holy influences of Paul's character and Paul's Gospel radiating from it to earth's circumference.

And now, my brethren and fellow-voyagers, I close. I am a stranger to you all. We have met for the first time; we never may, we never can, meet again, until the solemn day when this ocean around us shall surrender its trust its teeming sepulchers give up their dead. Let us give heed to the solemn question which formed the keynote of our devotions and meditations this morning, "Where are you?" God says, "Call the sinner! Let him be cited before My righteous tribunal." "Where are you?" There is no reply: The Divine voice summons the thunders to rend the rocks and the mountains, the dens and caves of the earth, to discover if he has taken shelter there. Still there is no reply.

The same Omnipotent voice commissions the lightning to sweep these caverns of the deep. Still there is no reply. At last the accents ascend, "I heard Your voice, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself." "Hid yourself where?" "Hid myself in Christ; hid myself in the clefts of the Rock of Ages."

It is enough! The Judge asks no more. The Books are closed; the inquiry is hushed.

"Rock of Ages cleft for me,
 Let me hide myself in Thee."

"May the Lord grant unto us that we may find mercy from Him on that day!"