And after five days Ananias the high priest descended … with a certain orator named Tertullus.
Paul before Felix--a picture of barristerial depravity
1. From his Roman name we judge that Tertullus was a Roman barrister of signal abilities, and perhaps of great reputation. The Jews, probably, for the most part being ignorant of Roman law, employed Roman lawyers to represent them in the courts of justice.
2. The charge is threefold.
(a) Implies that the Sanhedrin would have judged Paul righteously if Lysias had not interposed.
(b) He gets the Jews to assent to all he had stated.
3. This piece of history presents to us a picture of a corrupt barrister. We see him doing things which disgrace his profession.
I. Venally adopting a bad cause. What was his motive? Love of right--chivalry? No, money. He sold his services to the cause--
1. Of the strong against the weak.
2. Of the wrong against the right. The English courts exhibit something analogous to this sometimes. There are eminent members of the bar, some of whom are wonderfully pious in public meetings, whose services in a bad cause can be easily secured by a handsome fee.
II. Wickedly advocating a bad cause. In his advocacy we discover--
1. Base flattery (verses 2, 3).
2. Flagrant falsehood. He lays, as we have seen, three false charges against him.
3. Suppressed truth. He said nothing about the conspiracy (Acts 23:14-15). The man who suppresses a truth when its declaration is demanded by the nature of the case is guilty of falsehood, is a deceiver. (D. Thomas, D. D.)
The other day Paul was mistaken for “that Egyptian, which before these days made an uproar,” etc. Today a hired orator describes Paul as “a pestilent fellow,” etc. Does this tally with what you know about him?
1. There is no cause too bad not to hire an advocate to represent it. This Tertullus was the genius of abuse; the worse the cause the glibber his tongue. He lives today, and takes the same silver for his flippant eloquence.
2. How possible it is utterly to misconceive a great character! There is a key to every character, and if you do not get the one you never can understand the other. The difficulty of the man of one idea is to understand any other man who has two. Some of us are so easy to understand, simply because there is so little to be comprehended. No character was so much misunderstood as Jesus Christ’s; and He said, “If they have called the Master of the house Beelzebub, how much more shall they call them of His household!”
3. Here, too, is the possibility of excluding from the mind every thought characterised by breadth and charity. It does not occur to the paid pleader to say, “This man is insane, romantic, has a craze about a theory too lofty or immaterial for the present state of things.” Sometimes a charitable spirit will take some such view. But Tertullus knew that he was talking to a man who could only understand coarse epithets, for he himself, though a judge in those times, was the basest of his tribe. Yet, without viciousness, there may be great narrowness. You will contract that narrowness if you do not sometimes come out of your little village into great London. I am not wishful to make every man into a Tertullus who opposes apostolic life and thought. It is possible honestly to oppose even Paul, but the honesty itself is an expression of mental contractedness. What is perfectly right to the eye within given points may be astronomically wrong when the whole occasion is taken in. So men may be parochially right and imperially wrong; men may be perfectly orthodox within the limits of a creed and unpardonably heterodox within the compass of a faith.
4. How wonderful it is that even Tertullus is obliged to compliment the man whom he was paid to abuse!
5. What is the inevitable issue of all narrow-mindedness. Falsehood (verse 6). Imagine Tertullus being excited regarding the purity of the temple! How suddenly some men become pious! What a genius is hypocrisy! You cannot misrepresent the people in the temple and yet be concerned honestly for the temple itself. Conclusion: The incident would hardly be worth dwelling upon were it confined to its own four corners, but it is a typical instance repeated continually in our day. The good develops the bad ever. Let a George Fox arise, and how will he be characterised, except as “a pestilent fellow,” “a mover of sedition,” and “a ringleader of a sect”? Let a John Wesley arise, or a George Whitefield, a John Bunyan, or a John Nelson; read the early annals of English Christianity and evangelism; read the history of the early Methodist preachers, and you will find that every age that has brought a Paul has brought along with him a Tertullus. Thank God! nothing but epithets can be hurled against Christianity, yet Christianity stands up today queenly, pure, stainless--every stone thrown at her lying at her feet. (J. Parker, D. D.)
The opening statement of a prosecuting, counsel
The statement of Tertullus was supposed to convey to the judge an impartial description of the prisoner, and a just outline of his offence. Anyone not acquainted with Paul would conclude that he was a sort of Barabbas. And if one had remonstrated with the eloquent lawyer he, with a bland smile rippling over his countenance, would have justified himself by repeating the stereotyped phrase, “Sir, I have spoken according to the instructions given me in my brief.”
The speech of Tertullus
I. Shows that even then noble men connected with the gospel were branded with a name of scornful contempt. Coining a name of scorn is not a modern invention. As a rule--
1. In the name there lies concealed a pain-inflicting sting. What a sting was in the name “Nazarenes!”
2. And such names are generally published and circulated by persons who might be expected to act differently--Priests, Scribes, Pharisees and religious persons. And today it is not from atheists, but from persons nominally religious, that Christians receive the cruellest thrusts of scorn.
II. Reminds us that different interpretations may be given of the work done by one man. Here Paul was a walking pest, a scatterer of contagious evil; elsewhere men could not find words strong enough to express the grateful joy they felt as they witnessed the apostle’s work. Thus is it today.
III. Starts the reflection that the position and pursuits of a man may be the opposite at one period of life from what they have been at another. Twenty-five years before Paul was the ringleader of the opposition raised by priests and Scribes against the sect of the Nazarenes. Such a change is not of rare occurrence now.
IV. Gave indirect testimony to the thoroughness of the life and work of the apostle. As Paul heard himself spoken of as being “a pestilent fellow,” etc., a moment’s reflection would help him to gather the honey of consolation from the lawyer’s rhetoric. All that was said against Paul testified to his zeal and influence as a Christian worker. Had he been an idler the enemies of the Cross would not have thought it necessary to haul him to a bar of justice. If a man finds the world fraternising with him, he may suspect that he is not so loyally zealous in Christ’s cause as he should be; but if some worldly Tertullus storms at him he may console himself that his service is a work which incenses a sin-loving world.
V. Suggests that sectarian zeal may blind men to their true and best interest. The priests could not conceive it possible that Paul might be right, and they, after all, might be wrong. In fact, they would rather see Paul put to death than have their useless creed and ritual superseded by a gospel which would bring to light life and immortality. The same spirit reigns rampantly among the bigots who today ask, “Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (C. Chapman, M. A.)
Paul and Tertullus: or false eloquence and true
1. False eloquence is flattering: it speaks to please the hearers (verse 3). True eloquence does not flatter: it addresses the heart and conscience.
2. False eloquence is hypocritical: it dwells only on the lips; it is honey in the mouth and gall in the heart (verses 5, 6). True eloquence does not dissimulate: it proceeds from the heart and speaks as it feels (verses 10, 14-16).
3. False eloquence is deceitful: it makes black white and white black (verses 5, 6). True eloquence does not lie: it denies only what is false (verse 13), but confesses what is true (verses 14, 15), and makes the matter speak instead of the words (verses 16-20). (K. Gerok.)
Eloquence true and false
Eloquence, considered as the power of giving a luminous and impressive statement of truth; of marshalling our arguments in distinct and forceable order; of portraying virtue in all its charms, and vice in all its deformity; of defending the innocent against oppression and calumny, and dragging forth the wicked to execration and punishment; eloquence employed in these important offices, and uniting with the clear deductions of reason and experience, all the energies of language, and all the ornaments of an ardent and cultivated imagination, is undoubtedly one of the noblest and most enviable talents which a mortal can possess. It may uphold the religion and morals of a nation; it may save a sinking state from ruin. But when it aims at exciting the passions, without enlightening the mind; when, with its false colouring, it makes the worse appear the better cause; when it corrupts the imagination and undermines the principles of morality; when, like a base prostitute, it offers itself to every person who demands its assistance; when it flatters where it should reprove, and condemns what it ought to applaud and defend; it is more noxious than the pestilence which infects the air that we breathe, or than the lightning which blinds us with its glare and overwhelms us with its irresistible force. (J. Dick, D. D.)
Eloquence is the gift of God; but eloquence in a bad man is poison in a golden cup. (St. Augustine.)
Orators and preachers
God’s preachers are not orators of acquired words, but witnesses of revealed facts. (R. Besser, D. D.)
We have a class of speakers in this country who are silent on all great social and cosmopolitan topics, but make themselves heard and felt the moment any matter of warlike fascination comes to the surface. All other questions float down the stream of public opinion without causing them even to indicate their existence. They remind one of those animals noted for their bloodthirstiness in the warm regions of Africa--the caribitos (Serrasalmo). Their haunts are at the bottom of rivers, but a few drops of blood suffice to bring them by thousands to the surface; and Humboldt himself mentions that in some part of the Apure, where the water was perfectly clear and no fish were visible, he could in a few minutes bring together a cloud of caribitos by casting in some bits of flesh. With equal ease we can collect all our war orators if we only give them one sanguinary pretext. (Scientific Illustrations.)
Lawyers without a perception of justice
Lawyers generally know too much of law to have a very clear perception of justice, just as divines are often too deeply read in theology to appreciate the full grandeur and the proper tendencies of religion. Losing the abstract in the concrete, the comprehensive in the technical, the principal in its accessories, both are in the predicament of the rustic who could not see London for the houses.
Seeing that by thee we enjoy great quietness.
Be thankful and do not rest
These words were addressed by a professional flatterer to one of the worst of Roman governors. Both speaker and listener knew that he was lying; but both knew that the words described what a governor ought to be. They suggest--
I. The grateful acknowledgement of personal worth. A life like that of Queen Victoria’s, touched with many gracious womanly charities, not strange to the homes of the poor, quick to sympathise with sorrow, sternly repressive of vice in high places, and not ignorant of the great Comforter, nor disobedient to the King of kings--for such a royal life a nation may well be thankful; and if it be true that twice the Queen has kept England from the sin and folly of war, once from a fratricidal conflict with the great New England across the Atlantic, then we owe her much.
II. A wider view of progress which has coincided with her reign. Let me touch upon the salient points of that progress for which, as members of the nation, it becomes us, as Christian people, to be thankful. English manners and morals have been bettered, much of savagery and coarseness has been got rid of; low, cruel amusements have been abandoned; the national conscience has been stirred in regard to the great national sin of intoxication; a national system of education has come into operation; newspapers and books are cheapened; political freedom has been extended and “broadened slowly down,” as is safe, “from precedent to precedent”; religious thought has widened, the sects have come nearer each other. Then, if we look upon our Churches, whilst there is worldliness to be deplored, there is also springing up amongst us a new consciousness of responsibility for the condition of the poor and the degraded around us. Only let us remember--
1. That that sort of talk about England’s progress may very speedily become offensive self-conceit, and a measuring of ourselves with ludicrous self-satisfaction against all other nations.
2. That such a contemplation of the elements of national progress may come between us and the recognition of the highest source from which it flows, and be corrupted into forgetfulness of God. “Beware lest when thou hast eaten and art full,…thy heart be lifted up, and thou forget the Lord thy God,” etc.
3. And beware lest the hosannas over national progress shall be turned into “rest and be thankful,” or shall ever come in the way of the strenuous and persistent reaching forth to the fair ideal that lies so far before us.
III. What yet remains to be done. A remarkable difference of opinion has been expressed by two of the greatest minds and clearest heads in England; one of our greatest poets and one of our greatest statesmen. The one looking back over sixty years, sees but foiled aspirations and present devildom and misery. The other, looking back over the same period, sees accomplished dreams and the prophecy of further progress. It is not for me to enter upon the strife between such authorities. Both are right. Much has been achieved. “There remaineth yet very much land to be possessed.” Whatever have been the victories and the blessings of the past there are rotten places in our social state which if not cauterised and healed will break out into widespread and virulent sores. The ideal for you Christian men and women is the organisation of society on Christian principles. Have we got to that yet, or within sight of it? Does anybody believe that the present arrangements in connection with unrestricted competition, and the distribution of wealth, coincide accurately with the principles of the New Testament? Will anybody tell me that the state of a hundred streets within a mile of this chapel is what it would be if the Christian men of this nation lived the lives they ought to live? We may be thankful for what has been accomplished, but uppermost there had need to be penitent recognition of failure and defect. And I lay it on the consciences of all that listen to me to see to it that they do their parts as members of this body politic of England. A great heritage has come down from our fathers, pass it on bettered by your self-denial and your efforts. And remember, the way to mend a kingdom is to begin by mending yourselves and letting Christ’s kingdom come into your own hearts. (A. Maclaren, D. D.)
We have found this man … a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes.
The Nazarene and the sect of the Nazarenes
(text, and Matthew 2:23):--
1. Our Saviour, though born at Bethlehem, was commonly known as Jesus of Nazareth, because Nazareth was the place where He was brought up. This was a place very much despised, and the people were the boors of the country. More than that, you will generally find everywhere some town made the butt of ridicule. The name signifies “sprouts,” and the Jews, who were great at puns upon names, threw it as a jest at the people who came from that town. And Matthew refers to Isaiah 11:1, where it is said that a rod shall come out of the stem of Jesse, and “a Netzar, a Nazarene, a Branch shall grow out of his roots.” Perhaps Nazareth was called “branch” because trees flourished there, and not much else; or because they thought the people rather verdant, and they therefore called them “sprouts” and “greens,” as the vulgar do at this day when they wish to express contempt.
2. As Nazarene was a term of contempt in the olden times, so it has continued to be. The apostate emperor Julian always called our Lord the Galilean; and when he died, he cried, “O Galilean, Thou hast vanquished me.” This is still the name given to our Lord by the Jews, and Christians are called among Mahometans, Nazarenes.
3. Our Lord was never ashamed of this name: He called Himself “Jesus of Nazareth” after He had risen from the dead. Notice our Redeemer’s condescension. It was a marvel that He should live on this earth at all; but if He must, why is He born in Judaea? Why not in Rome? Yet if born in Judaea, why must He live in Galilee? And if He must live in Galilee, why not at Capernaum? Why choose Nazareth, and be a carpenter’s son, and be rejected by His fellow townsmen? Was there ever such condescension as this? Verily “He emptied Himself.” Nothing was left Him of honour or respect.
I. Our Master, the Nazarene, was, and is despised.
1. He was despised because--
2. Christ is as much despised as ever. How frequently you will find in newspapers, and magazines contempt poured on the doctrine of justification by faith, the Atonement, etc.
II. Christ’s followers must expect to bear a measure of the indignities poured upon their Leader. If you follow Christ fully you will be sure to be called by some ill name. They will say--
1. How singular you are! “Mine inheritance,” says God, “is unto Me as a speckled bird. The birds round about her are against her.”
2. How old-fashioned! You believe those old Puritanical doctrines. Do you not know that the world has made a great progress and has entered upon the nineteenth century? Will you never move with the times? Will you get as far as Moses, and Jesus, and John, and stick there?”
3. How credulous! They say, “You simple-minded people have great capacity for believing! We are far too sensible to feel sure about anything. As to this Spirit of God that you trust in, it is sheer enthusiasm. Be rational.”
4. How enslaved! “You dare not go to the theatre; you dare not drink.” No; but you need not say that we have no liberty because we do not feed out of the swine trough, for such liberty we never desired. We have liberty to serve God and do good, and this is the freedom which we covet.
5. What company you keep! Keep to “society,” and society will smile upon you; but if you attend meetings where so long as people love Christ you count them the best of company, then you are low and vulgar, a Philistine, or a Nazarene.
III. There is, after all, nothing despicable in either Christ or His people.
1. What is there to be ashamed of in Him? He is the Son of the Highest. His is the sublimest of all lives, and even His enemies have been struck dumb by the splendour of the love that moved Him to stoop so low.
2. There is nothing to be ashamed of in being a Christian. I am afraid that there are some Christians that we have need to be ashamed of, and that we ourselves do many unworthy things. Christians ought to be reflections of Christ, but I fear they often cast reflections upon Christ. But the fact is that the ungodly usually revile those who are true to Christ. Well, when they do, there is nothing in that to be ashamed of. Shall I be ashamed because I try to do what is right? Shall I be ashamed of chastity and truth? (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Prejudice in authority
On the occasion of some visits to Ireland, when Charles Wesley and other preachers were furiously assaulted by the mob, the depositions of the victims were laid before a grand jury. That body, after considering them, came to the following conclusion: “We find and present Charles Wesley to be a person of ill fame, a vagabond, and a common disturber of His Majesty’s peace; and we pray he may be transported.” (J. F. B. Tinling, B. A.)
Then Paul, after that the governor had beckoned unto him to speak, answered.
Paul’s defence before Felix
I. The Christianity of old Judaism. The apostle--
1. Worshipped the Jews’ God. “So worship I the God of my fathers.” He propounded no new Divinity.
2. Believed in the Jews’ Scriptures. “In all things which are written in the law and in the prophets.” He not only did not reject them; through Christ he saw them in a new and higher light.
3. Believed in the Jews’ resurrection (Acts 24:15). The resurrection, which was dimly seen by the Hebrews, he saw in clear reality through the resurrection of Christ. Christianity is Judaism ripened into fruit, and brightened into noon.
II. The characteristics of a great man.
1. He is not ashamed of an unpopular cause (Acts 24:14). All new sects have been heretics, seceders, schismatics. Thus Luther and Calvin were rank heretics in the eyes of Rome; the Puritans and Methodists in the eyes of the Episcopal Church. Thus every new offshoot is a sect, a heresy from the old stock. Providence permits all this refinement from age to age in order that the Church at last might be without spot or blemish.
2. His highest aim is moral rectitude (Acts 24:16). Note here--
3. He is frank in explanation of himself. The apostle now reverts to the purpose of his journey to Jerusalem, and to the charge as having come as a mover of sedition.
Paul before Felix
In this straightforward narrative two characters are disclosed in sharp contrast. The outlines of each are made distinct by the presence of the other. Paul is the embodiment of moral strength. He shows the manly vigour of an ideal Christian. Each spectacle is valuable. The example of Paul attracts to an earnest and courageous Christian life; the example of Felix repels from a career of sin.
I. Paul, the strong servant of God. Paul stood before the highest tribunal in Judaea. His accusers were his own countrymen, his judge was an unprincipled Roman. According to Tacitus, Felix “exercised the power of a king with the temper of a slave.” Drusilla was another man’s wife whom he bad enticed from her husband. Jonathan, the high priest, had ventured to remonstrate with this immoral ruler, and forthwith assassins sought out the reprover and struck him down in the sanctuary. It required fortitude for an accused Jew to be calm before Felix the unrighteous. Of justice for Paul there was no hope; a low self-interest would shape this judge’s decision. Paul had no Tertullus to speak for him; he made no plea for clemency, but boldly maintained his innocence. Here was genuine courage. Before this example of heroism all shivering cowardice in the Lord’s service should loathe itself. Something braver than running to a hiding place when threatened is expected of true Christians. Christ is not satisfied merely with our repentance and submission. He would arouse us to lofty and Divine courage. “Be not afraid of them that kill the body.” The example of Paul in the circumstances before us ought to impel us to the active virtues, courage, self-reliance, zeal. We cannot but admire it, and we ought to be moved to imitate what we admire.
1. There is pressing need of such virtues. Sin is about us in force: it must be resisted and put down. Are we to wait motionless for a deliverer? We do ourselves and others a deep wrong when we represent the power of sin, strong as it is, as so great that the soul is helpless before it. Besides this personal struggle against evil, there is an arduous positive work to be done for righteousness on earth. The conflict between good and evil is continually at full heat. Here is the gospel: it must be lived and preached. Multitudes around us wait to be won to God. Earnestness and self-sacrifice must be had for their salvation. What labour, demanding zeal and persistency, is called for to evangelise the world!
2. Such courage and self-reliance are not opposed to reliance on God. Precisely with the men who have self-reliance God elects to work, men who count it but reasonable that they should put their utmost exertion into effort on which they crave the blessing of Heaven. God will bless our efforts if there are any worthy efforts to be blessed. Why the perpetual complaint by Christians of deficiency and weakness? Are God’s people the feeblest folk on earth? Who is not weary of this plaintive cry of feebleness from the lips of God’s saints? Moral strength does not come up in a night even in the heart of a saint. The shout of courage should be oftener heard in our camp. A different ideal of true humility must grow luminous before our imagination. The apostle supplies this. He deemed a certain reliance on self justifiable and obligatory, because into that self God had put so much of His own power. Is the sacred fire burned in vain? Is there not a new hero’s devotion kindled, a new conqueror fitted for achievement? Manly reliance on self is, for the Christian, only reliance on what God has already done to equip him for service.
II. Felix, bold only in delay. The preacher had not left it uncertain that what God demands is repentance. Felix trembled, but he did not repent. Sin never before seemed to him so perilous, and he decided that sometime he must leave it. There is not one hint in Scripture that Felix ever became a Christian. Here is warning against putting off repentance.
1. Repentance may never come.
2. With Felix before us, we will consider this weighty truth, too seldom urged, that impenitence every day it lasts produces irreparable loss. Delayed conversion means continued sin, and sin damages the sinner himself and others. We drag along into the Christian life the enfeebled will, the grown-up selfishness, the impaired capacity which we acquired in the years of impenitence. Forgiveness releases us from Divine condemnation; it does not at once, if ever, repair the damage of a sinful course.
3. Again, the ill influence of the old bad life on others is not arrested. Delaying repentance, we throw the weight of our example against our friends’ conversion and encourage others in sin, and our pardon does not undo what we have thus done.
4. Delayed conversion means lost opportunities. Along our path from childhood to age there are many occasions for heavenly deeds. The hours require a soul loyal to God, instantly ready to speak and act with firm courage, able to look sin into shame. How often, when called, have we been unprepared for such holy achievements? We could not be heroic, for we still wore captive’s chains, and the opportunities were lost. The precious season of preparation for future power may be wasted by daily disobedience to God’s call. It is clear that in secular life neglect of preparation in youth stands at many a parting of ways in later years and forbids a man’s choice, saying, “You cannot take the path up the heights. You must go the lower road.” Many a man in such case has bowed to the inevitable, sorrowing in vain over his loss. But men dream that in the spiritual life, under redemption, they may escape in later years the weakness resulting from youthful impenitence. (T. E. Bartlett.)
Paul before Felix
I. Felix’s impression of Paul.
1. Paul’s address. He was in trouble. There had been a tumult. As to the cause of it there were two sides to be heard. Every advantage had been taken of whatever in the circumstances seemed against Paul. Paul’s reply has in it four heads.
2. The characteristics of this speech probably made a deeper impression on Felix than its contents.
3. What was the effect of this speech upon Felix?
II. Felix’s impression of Christianity.
1. He had some curiosity about it, and after certain days came and sent for Paul and heard him speak about Jesus Christ.
2. Paul’s speech.
(a) Righteousness is the aim of the Christian life. Christ died that He might purify from us the guilt of sin and impute to us His own righteousness. To be holy as God is holy, and so to glorify Him by reflecting His excellence, is the chief end of man.
(b) Temperance, or self-control; referring to the subjugation of the passions and the holding of the whole life in submission to the will of God. This in a certain sense is the negative side of the righteousness which Paul has just mentioned.
(c) Judgment to come. Christianity derives its hold upon many men by appealing to high motives and ambitions.
3. No wonder that Felix was convicted by this address, No wonder his heart was smitten with fear. He had been used to association with sycophants, who would flatter him in the face and stab him in the back. What a privilege to truly know one’s self, even if it be to find defects, for that is the way to perfection. But such an experience is not comfortable.
III. Felix’s disposal of Christianity.
1. He let the bad elements in him prevail.
2. Consequently he was led to postpone his dealing with the matter of his relation to God.
3. Why is it that postponing the receiving of salvation is so apt to be its complete rejection? Because--
1. The Word of God is sharper than a two-edged sword. It searches us out. It “finds” us (as Coleridge said).
2. Selfishness is the cause of men’s rejection of Christ. They love their sinful ways too well to deny self and follow Him.
3. The great lesson is that postponing the acceptance of Christ is eternally dangerous. Suspect every motive that keeps you from Christ. No such motive is adequate and justifiable. (D. J. Burrell, D. D.)
Paul’s defence before Felix
I. Generally. Paul defended himself--
1. Cheerfully, because he knew he was defending a good cause.
2. Skilfully, knowing that one is not excused for using bad arguments, because he is engaged in defending a good cause.
3. Confidently, having already been tried and acquitted at the bar of his own conscience.
4. Defiantly. Right-doing calls for no apologising. To submit is to admit, when one is openly charged with evil-doing.
5. Paul made his defence defiantly, knowing that he had given no occasion for the accusations brought against him. Conscious innocence makes a man bold; conscious guilt makes a man bluster.
1. He confessed Christ (verse 14).
2. He served God (verse 14).
3. He reverenced the Old Testament (verse 14).
4. He believed in the resurrection (verse 15).
5. He sought a clear conscience (verse 16).
6. He helped the needy (verse 17).
1. “I confess.” What Paul had done he was ready to acknowledge. No man should be slow in pleading guilty when he is charged with being a follower of Christ.
2. “They call a sect.” What if they do? Fear not the cry of sectarianism so long as only Christ’s enemies are raising it against you.
3. “Believing … the law.” Has that law been repealed? Then remember that it demands your allegiance as much as it did Paul’s.
4. “Hope toward God.” Toward God is the true direction for hoping. Hopelessness Godward means blank despair manward.
5. “Exercise myself.” It requires constant effort to follow Christ closely. But it is the best kind of exercise. It made of Paul a giant in moral strength.
6. “Conscience void of offence … alway.” Some one has wisely said, “It is always term time in the court of conscience.”
7. “I came to bring alms.” Paul had come among the Jews on an errand of mercy, and the merciless Jews had straightway sought to slay him.
8. “Certain Jews … ought to have been here.” But they were not there. Such men prefer haranguing a lawless mob to testifying in a court of law. The devil’s agents are constitutional cowards. (S. S. Times.)
Paul’s defence before Felix
1. A straightforward account is an honest man’s best defence.
2. In such a case it is in the knowledge and not the ignorance of a judge that safety will lie (verse 10,11). Apply this to the Great Judgment Day.
3. Christianity is involved in and anticipated Judaism (cf. Hebrews 11:1-40)
4. The Christian believes not less, but more than the Jew (verses 14, 15).
5. Whatever our intellectual opinions may be, our moral character should be blameless (verse 16).
6. Never does the world commit greater blunders in violation even of its own laws, than in persecuting the faith (verse 19).
7. Many inquiries are made about the gospel through curiosity, and without a personal concern for sin (verse 24).
8. A true preacher will seize every available opportunity for proclaiming the gospel; every sinner ought to fear the gospel; we ought not to delay coming to Christ (verse 25).
9. People’s motives with respect to Christ and His cause often get strangely mixed (verses 25, 26).
10. In religion, as in many other things, it is true that “he that delays is lost.” His heart hardens, and circumstances entangle him.
11. Christians are called into various experiences and situations for testimony and service (verse 27). (A. F. Muir, M. A.)
Paul’s defence before Felix
I. That God protects His messengers. On one side was a multitude of enraged Jewish rulers, who had wealth, prestige, power, an eloquent advocate to plead their cause. On the other side, Paul alone was accused before a corrupt judge. How small the possibilities of his success! Yet God had promised that His messengers, when brought before governors, should be taught by the Spirit what to say. Here is one actual fulfilment of that promise. Paul showed triumphantly that what was criminal in the charge against him was not true, and that what was true was not criminal.
1. He was accused of exciting seditions among the Jews; but he showed that only twelve days before he had passed through Caesarea on his way to visit Jerusalem for the first time in many years.
2. He was accused of heresy. He replied, “I confess that I follow the opinion which they call a sect, and thus worship the God of my fathers.”
3. He was accused of profanation of the temple. He replied that the object of his pilgrimage to Jerusalem was to worship in the temple; that the Jews found him in it purified in fulfilment of a special vow. The bold way was the safe way. If he had secretly gone to Jerusalem, and had secretly taught, he would have thrown away his defence, and have prejudiced his cause. The cause of Christ has nothing to do with secrecy. Only the open follower of Christ can claim His promises of protection.
II. God furnishes His messengers with opportunities to do His work. Paul’s object was to spread the gospel through the world. But how could the gospel have reached the ears of Roman rulers except through Christian prisoners? Paul used his defence as an opportunity to preach Christ. The Christian measures his success by opportunities to spread saving truth. Paul’s most glorious opportunities were in prison. The Christian often remembers scenes of suffering as the most wonderful marks of God’s favour.
III. The Christian grows in grace while fighting outward foes (verse 16). If you press the gospel on others, you will have the greater motive to illustrate its power over yourself by abstaining from sin, and showing the peace, joy, charity, which are its fruits. (A. E. Dunning.)
The Christian’s defence against the accusations of the world
I. When should he defend himself.
1. If the Lord is reviled and not himself.
2. If he may hope to conciliate men’s minds and not to increase their bitterness.
II. How should he defend himself.
1. Without fear of men.
2. Convincingly by a good conscience. (K. Gerok.)
The Christian’s defence against the accusations of the world
1. The Christian will keep himself pure from reproach, that the gospel be not blasphemed on his account.
2. He will, by the joyful confession of his faith, put to shame the groundless enmity of the world.
3. He will point to his life, that it may bear witness to the truth of his faith. (Lisco.)
The Christian’s best defence against calumny
I. A joyful confession (verse 14).
II. An UNVIOLATED conscience (verse 16).
III. A blameless life (verses 17-20).
IV. A righteous judgment of God (verse 15). (K. Gerok.)
Paul’s encouragement in Felix’s intelligence
Paul was encouraged, while on trial, by the fact that he was before an intelligent judge. It is always a satisfaction to know that a man whom you want to convince of a truth is well informed on the subject in question. As a rule, the less a man knows, the more bigoted he is. And the more he knows, the readier he is to revise his opinions on fair evidence or sound argument. A lawyer with a good case prefers a learned judge or a well-informed jury. A clergyman has hope of convincing his hearers just in proportion to their intelligence. A competent teacher finds that the more his scholars know to begin with, about the lesson, the more he can teach them. There is nothing more discouraging, when you want to get a new idea into a man’s head, than to find that his head is now empty. (H. C. Trumbull, D. D.)
Paul’s inspired method
We begin to see the gigantic stature of Paul’s mind; but the loftiness of the mountain must not lead us to overlook the fine mosses and delicate flowers with which its base is so exquisitely enamelled. The character of Paul is as fine in texture as it is vast in bulk. Observe--
I. The contrast between Paul’s introduction and the preface of Tertullus. Christianity makes gentlemen; it is the religion of refinement. Wherein we are vulgar, we do but show the space which Christianity has yet to conquer. Tertullus began cringingly, fulsomely, falsely. Felix had been judge more than about twice the usual time, and Paul recognised that fact, as it was the only compliment he was able to pay the corrupt governor. Christianity is courteous--never rough; recognising whatever can be recognised in the way of excellence, or continuance of service, but never stooping to drag its own crown in the mire.
II. The temper which Paul displayed under Tertullus’ hurricane of abuse. There is no excitement in his reply, no resentment; he contents himself with denial and with challenging proof. Fury would have created suspicion, and resentment would have been an argument on the other side; but the quietness of the consciousness of innocence must be taken as contributing to the establishment of an irrefragable proof that an innocent man was in the presence of Felix.
III. The manner in which the personal defence is made to create room for the doctrinal exposition. Paul does not spend much time upon himself. He will not tarry over little things; he is in haste to accomplish a sublime purpose. In his view, the whole world was only made for the one purpose of receiving the kingdom of Christ. Why do we not take our rule from his magnanimous method? Do not defend yourself, but preach and live, expound and exemplify the truth. The cruel part of it all is that some persons imagine that if stones are thrown at you, you deserve to be stoned. Do not let that trouble you.
IV. How Paul keeps hold of his audience, by preaching Christianity without so much as naming Christ. That would not suit a modern audience, because a modern audience is foolish. Inspiration guides a man quite as much in teaching him what not to say as in teaching him what to say; inspiration has to do with method as well as with matter. Is Paul, then, not preaching Christ? He is preaching Him all the time. He is developing a certain state of mind; he says mentally, “It is enough now to touch curiosity, to create interest; by and by I shall speak to that procurator in a way he never heard mortal tongue deliver itself; but now I have to answer this mean hireling, who would plead my cause if I only paid him enough to do so.” So the merchant can be preaching Christianity in his business without ever letting it be known that he ever spent one moment on his knees. Men can preach Christianity and defend the Cross in temper, actions, family and commercial relations, and beget a state of mental wonder on the part of the observers as to how such things happen to be as they are. By and by such men may be sent for, that they may speak concerning the mystery.
V. How Paul keeps to the Scriptures (verse 14). This was so much gained; but it was a generality that wanted accent, so he proceeds, in verse 16, to supply the accent which was required. This was moral preaching? I would to God we had more moral preaching, then! The man who is severe with his own conscience will know how to treat the consciences of other men. Paul gives us a hint of the power which he will exercise by and by when he confronts Felix alone. Nothing will stand in the world’s estimation forever but down-right in-and-out goodness. (J. Parker, D. D.)
The good confession
The charge brought against Paul included three particulars. He was guilty of sedition, and so of disloyalty to the Roman government; of heresy, the ringleader of a sect, and so a renegade from Judaism; of profaning the temple, and thus of affronting a worship which was under the protection of Rome. The charges were the old ones: familiar to us already in the cases of Stephen and Christ. The time came for the apostle’s defence. He begins by selecting the only ground on which he could count himself fortunate in being tried before Felix. He could depend at least upon his acquaintance with the rites and customs of Judaism. Felix knew the day of that feast of Pentecost for which St. Paul had gone up to Jerusalem, and that it was but twelve days since. It was a short time for the commission of this triple crime; and already five of them in prison! How had the other seven been spent (verses 12, 13)? Note--
I. The manner of his address.
1. He stands before a wicked ruler; yet he pays to him the respect due to his office. It is the same man who wrote lately to the Romans, “Render therefore to all their dues; fear, to whom fear; honour, to whom honour.” There is all the difference in the world between servility and courtesy; between the flattery of Tertullus, and the manly respectfulness of St. Paul. Insolence to rulers is no part of the religion of Christ. “Render unto Caesar,” our Lord said, “the things which are Caesar’s,” etc.
2. The present was dark, the future was ambiguous: and yet he answers for himself “cheerfully.” If we are in Christ’s hands, on Christ’s side, what circumstance is enough to justify despondency? Pain of mind or body, want, weakness, anguish, impending death; all shall be well: for “I am Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.”
II. The matter.
1. We find two of the three charges calmly and earnestly repelled. The charges of sedition and sacrilege are refuted by an appeal to fact. None can dare to say of him, that his brief time in Jerusalem had been spent in creating insurrection. His supposed desecration of the temple was the opposite of truth, for he had frequented its courts to show his respect for the law.
2. But one charge he rather qualifies than repels. If it be a schismatical thing to be a Christian, then he avowed it and gloried in it. St. Paul worshipped God according to a particular system; not vaguely as the Creator and Preserver, not merely as the Lawgiver and the Judge, but definitely and precisely as revealed in Christ. What is there to mark our confessions, prayers, praises, thanksgivings, as offered according to the way of Christ? Does Christ really enter into all? And is there anything in our habits of speech and action which recognises and reminds men of our faith in the way of Christ?
3. But observe how Paul claims for himself, all the time, the position of the truly orthodox; the God whom he worships is “the God of his fathers.” He “believes all things written” in the Old Testament Scriptures, and it is just because he does so he is a Christian. The true revelation of God is never at variance with itself. Everything which God has ever spoken will be true forever. His voice in nature, in reason, in conscience, to the Patriarchs, in the law, the prophets, the gospel, are all consistent and harmonious. Each one of these completes, fulfils something, in the one before it; but it destroys and it contradicts nothing. He who affects, unlike St. Paul, to despise Old Testament Scriptures, proves himself by that contempt to be not a full-grown man, but a very babe in Christ.
4. Paul claims for Israel under the law a glimmering at least of that hope, for which, as a Christian and an apostle, he was himself bound with his chain (verse 15). It suited the occasion and the purpose of this heroic defence, to trace the hope of the resurrection to a dispensation earlier than the Christian. And we too must accept the declaration, and give thanks for it, that even the Old Testament is not silent as to this great restitution of all things.
5. The resurrection of the just is an expression used by our Lord. But He stopped not there, nor could Paul. There is also a resurrection of the unjust. The resurrection must be either the hope, or the fear, of each one of us. And which? (Dean Vaughan.)
But this I confess unto thee, that after the way which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers.
What is heresy
I. Here is the case of men holding high office in the Church of God, yet mistaking truth for error, and branding as heresy that which is Divine. These men have had many successors, who at various points in the Church’s history have, in the name of religion, inflicted the most inhuman cruelties on the noblest saints of God. Nor can these foul deeds be declared the sole heritage of any one Church. Nor can we look calmly into history without seeing that the barbarities inflicted in the name of orthodoxy have arisen largely from a mistaken estimate of heresy. What is heresy? Judging from history, heresy might be defined as “the faith of the minority.” The word “heretical” has been loosely held to the opposite of “orthodox.” Orthodoxy has been held to mean “the commonly received opinions.” But this is an abuse of words. Orthodoxy means right opinions, whether held by the few or the many. Again, heresy is not confined in its application to opinions, but includes anything that takes from the truth; and truth is not only formulated in opinion, it is also revealed in feeling and embodied in life. By blindness to this truth, the Church has sinned grievously. Let me emphasise this important truth by showing--
1. That heresies of heart and life are unspeakably the more vital. Doctrine is important only as it points to duty and fruits out in life. Of necessity, therefore, it holds a second place. Heresy of creed may be the result of many influences acting on the mind from childhood, and may exist along with entire loyalty of heart to Christ. But heresy of spirit and life can only be the offspring of a depraved heart. The honour of our Master and the interests of His kingdom are far more seriously imperilled by that which is un-Christly in the behaviour of His followers, than by what may be defective in their doctrines.
2. Heresies of heart and life are unspeakably the more prevalent. In what land is membership in a Christian Church accepted as any guarantee of integrity? Where is the line of demarcation in society, which separates the Christian and non-Christian? Is it not a fact that even among prominent Christian professors there are found features of conduct which can only be regarded as grievous heresies of life. And Churches have shared this grievous guilt. How often have they dealt a grievous blow to vital religion, by manifesting a burning concern for orthodoxy in the order of worship, or creed, and yet a loose indifference as to heresies of spirit and of life?
II. Here is the case of a single man, strong in his own conviction, daring the many who brand him a heretic. This persecuted apostle reveals a grand manliness here. Though a prisoner before the magnates of the Church, and the potentates of the state, yet does he stand boldly forward, and without halt or hesitation declare, “This I confess unto thee,” etc. Why? Because the heresy had become the voice of God in his soul. It had been burned into his being and become part of himself. Now this daring the public authorities and the popular voice in obedience to conscience--
1. Is seldom met with in our time. And this not because persecution, open and in public courts, is rare in our day, but chiefly because so few think for themselves. It is the custom to go with the crowd. The vast multitude have never made their own those truths which they profess to hold. They are content to use language which they have never examined--to sing songs which they do not feel, and to give their adhesion to declarations which so far as they know may be the very truth of God or the merest drivel.
2. Requires noble and heroic elements of manhood.
Lessons: Let us--
1. Cultivate more definite personal convictions.
2. Not fear to avow our convictions whoever may gainsay.
3. Guard heart and life as the chief exponents of the truth.
4. Cultivate charity towards all men. (J. B. Wylie.)
Paul before Felix
Two things are of prime importance in this scripture;
1. Paul’s answer to the charge of heresy; and--
2. Paul’s preaching to the Roman governor and his lady.
I. Paul’s answer to the charge of heresy or of being the ringleader of a sect. A heresy is an opinion which someone chooses to hold, and which becomes conspicuous because it is not the commonly held opinion. Paul freely acknowledges that his way is the way which “they call” a sect or a heresy. He does not accept the popular and prevailing views. He confesses the sin, if it be a sin, of being in the minority. But having made that acknowledgment, he proceeds to defend that heretical way as the way of the old faith and hope. Paul’s trouble was not that he did not believe enough, but that he believed too much. “That is the sum of my offence”--he says--“that I believe in all things which are according to law and which are written in the prophets.” “I belong to a sect!” he indignantly cries, “much more a leader of it! Nay; but I serve the God of our fathers, and I accept the revelation which He gave them in all its fulness.” That is a noble defence to make against such a charge, if it be a true defence, That has been virtually or actually the defence of the whole line of prophets and reformers from the days of Elijah down. The Church of God has from time to time settled down to a half belief in both His law and His love. A few earnest souls accept the message and apply it to their consciences and lives. Soon the cry of “heresy” and “a sect” is raised. But it is only the forgotten truth which was always in the Book, and which has been overlaid by the rubbish of neglect or overgrown by the weeds of sinful indulgence and its consequence, which has been brought to light. It is so easy to disbelieve some of the contents of the law and the prophets. Here was one party in this Jewish Church who had given up all belief in the supernatural, and another party who, putting it all in their creed, allowed it no weight in the conduct of their lives. Paul says, “I keep to the old faith, and the whole of it; and that is my offence.” Paul also defends his way as that of the old hope. He believes in the resurrection both of the just and the unjust. There is glory in being a heretic when the common faith is lifeless and the common hope is dumb. But no one can be called a leader of a sect who in the decay of faith goes back to a vital faith. He represents the old faith and the old hope, and not a new. Paul also defends his way as that of the old righteousness. With this belief in the totality of revelation and this hope based on it, the apostle was striving to live a truly righteous life. He does not say that he has fully attained it, but he is seeking after it. He exercises himself “to have a conscience void of offence toward God and man alway.” He is following the light of conscience enlightened by God’s Word, and he follows it without fear or faltering. His heresy is too great moral earnestness; too large a receptivity for the whole truth of God.
II. Paul’s preaching to the Roman governor (George M. Boynton.)
The charge of sectarianism
To be charged with schism and sectarianism is not the worst thing for a Christian believer. Paul was not afraid of that reputation; nor was John Huss, nor John Wycliffe, nor Martin Luther, nor Hugh Latimer, nor Nicholas Ridley, nor John Calvin, nor John Knox, nor John Wesley. Calling a man a sectarian is no proof that he holds any error in religious doctrine. The real question is, What is the truth? not, Does this man agree with the majority of Christians in the statement of truth? (H. C. Trumbull, D. D.)
Believing all things that are written in the law and the prophets.
Here is Paul’s apology; faith at the bottom, hope as the immediate effect and product of it, and an holy conversation as the fruit and consequent. The same method is observed in 1 Timothy 1:5, and 2 Peter 1:5-6. Note.--
I. The expressions here used.
1. Concerning faith.
(a) A knowledge or full instruction in the things which we believe (1 John 4:16); first known and then believed.
(b) A due conviction of the certainty of them (Luke 1:4; John 6:69; John 17:8).
(c) Practical trust and affiance; for Christianity doth not only propound bare truths to be assented unto, but joyful, comfortable truths suitable to our necessity and desires (Hebrews 3:6).
(d) Application, that we may know for our good (Job 5:27).
2. Concerning hope.
(a) The fruit of regeneration (1 Peter 1:3).
(b) Built upon experience (Romans 5:4-5).
3. Concerning his manners and conversation (verse 16). Observe--
(a) Interpreters expound this, in the meantime, till faith be turned into vision, hope into fruition (Hebrews 6:12).
(b) Again, by virtue of this faith and hope. Faith and a good conscience are often coupled (1 Timothy 1:5). We cannot keep the one without the other.
(a) Sincerity. For his conscience was in it, and a good conscience; and the goodness of conscience consisteth in its ability to do its office, in its clearness, purity, tenderness, quietness, peaceableness.
(b) Strictness and exactness.
He would keep this good conscience “void of offence.” It may be understood--
(a) Passively, that conscience be not offended, or receive wrong by any miscarriage of ours, for it is a tender thing. The least dust in the eye hindereth its use, so doth sin offend and trouble the conscience.
(b) Actively, that we offend not, nor offer wrong to others.
4. The laborious diligence wherewith he carried it on: “I exercise myself.” We must make it our constant labour and endeavour--
(a) By a serious resistance and mortification of sin (Matthew 5:29-30; Galatians 5:24).
II. The reasons why this is true Christianity.
1. The necessity of it. It is a great question how far obedience belongeth to faith, whether as a part or as an end, fruit and consequent. I answer--Both ways. Consent of subjection is a part of faith, actual obedience a fruit of it.
2. The comfort of obedience to us. We cannot make out our evidence and plea but by a uniform, constant, and impartial obedience.
3. It is for the honour of Christ (2 Thessalonians 1:11-12; John 15:8; Philippians 1:1). (T. Manton, D. D.)
Herein do I exercise myself to have a conscience void of offence.
A conscience void of offence
I. There are certain states of mind which may be mistaken for a conscience void of offence. It has been wisely said that the office of conscience is to testify to every man the quality of his actions, and to enable him to regulate his conduct agreeably to some standard of right or wrong. Hence the importance of being acquainted with that code of morals which Almighty God has revealed to us, and of acknowledging His Word to be the sole standard of our faith and duty. Without this, we may mistake an unenlightened conscience for a conscience void of offence. Such a conscience may, indeed, faithfully testify against many things which are wrong: but, so long as its regulating principle is defective or erroneous; it cannot be depended on. We may also mistake a dormant conscience for a conscience void of offence. There are, unhappily, persons whose object seems to be to pass as smoothly as possible down the stream of life, and carefully avoid subjects which might awaken the conscience, and disturb their imaginary peace. We have often seen persons in this frame of mind visited by afflictive dispensations, which were obviously designed to lead them to reflection and prayer; but, alas! no such result has followed. Their trials have produced no other effect than to lead them to endeavour, by change of scene and other such means, to shake off as soon as possible the remembrance of their sorrows. There is also such a thing as a seared conscience, and even this may be mistaken for a conscience void of offence. It is said that there have been men who have persevered in stating falsehoods till they believed them to be true, and we must all have observed how certain persons will advocate an erroneous system of religion, with a measure of zeal and self-denial which seems to indicate a belief in its truth. To such St. Paul refers when he tells us that men shall arise “speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their conscience seared with a hot iron.” The expression was apparently intended to warn us that perseverance in error must produce a like effect upon the mind that cauterising does upon the body, and conscience, which was designed to be a faithful monitor, ceases to bear its testimony, and becomes seared as with a hot iron.
II. We inquire wherein it is that a conscience void of offence may be said to consist. The Bible clearly teaches that the first step towards this is the awakening of the conscience. “Conscience,” says a distinguished writer, “seems to hold a place among the moral powers, analogous to that which reason holds among the intellectual”; and although in its natural condition its province appears to be to convey to us a certain conviction of what is morally right or wrong, independently of any acquired knowledge, yet viewed in connection with the great work of man’s renewal in righteousness, it is needful that the conscience be awakened to perceive the infinite holiness of Almighty God, the spirituality of His law, and the fallen and sinful state of man. This can only be attained through the instrumentality of the Word, accompanied by the enlightening influences of the Holy Spirit. We must see the moral perfections of the Most High, and the exalted purity of His law; and we must acknowledge and confess that “we have erred and strayed from His ways like lost sheep, and there is no health in us.” But the conscience thus awakened must be cleansed from its sense of guilt in the presence of an infinitely pure and holy God. It is here that revelation comes to our aid. It makes known to us the great atonement, propitiation, and satisfaction which our blessed Redeemer has offered for us upon the Cross, and it invites us to “Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world.” A conscience thus cleansed St. Paul enjoyed. He knew that his sins were pardoned through the merit of his Lord, but he also knew his own shortcomings and infirmities, nay, he knew that when he would do good evil was present with him; and anxious to live near to God, and thirsting after pure and uninterrupted communion with Him, he exercised himself to have always a conscience void of offence toward God and toward men. He “exercised” himself. This expression implies that even an apostle found a continual effort to be needful. It was so with him and it is so with us all, so long as we are in the body. Our fallen wills and corrupt affections, the temptations that are in the world, and the fiery darts of our spiritual adversary--all unite to make the life of faith a constant struggle to maintain a good conscience. St. Paul’s first concern was to have always a good conscience “towards God.” He knew that God hath not called us to uncleanness but to holiness, that He pardons that He may purify, and justifies in order that He may sanctify the soul. Nor did he forget what was due to his fellow men. The man who lives by faith must show his faith by his works; the man who professes to be constrained by love to God, must take heed that he love his brother also. On points such as these a truly enlightened conscience will admit of no compromise, and he who would have the Spirit bearing witness with his spirit that he is a child of God, and an heir of the kingdom of heaven, must exercise himself to have always a conscience void of offence, not only towards God, but also towards men. (Wm. Niven, B. D.)
The happiness of possessing a conscience void of offence
I. What are we to understand by “a conscience void of offence”?
1. Not that it is void of offence merely because it does not accuse. There are many so immersed in cares or pleasures, that they never reflect on the state of their souls (Hosea 7:2); and, if at any time their conscience be alarmed, they instantly endeavour to check its clamour and restore its tranquillity. Others persuade themselves that they have no cause for fear, and that they shall have peace, notwithstanding all their sins (Jeremiah 8:11; Deuteronomy 29:19). Others have, by resisting, quenched the light within them; and thus have reduced themselves to a state of awful obduracy (1 Timothy 4:2). Such persons have no other than an evil conscience.
2. Nor is a conscience necessarily void of offence even though it should approve. Many propose to themselves a false standard of right and wrong: by conforming to their own principles, they may gain the approbation of their own minds; but it does not, therefore, follow that they are innocent. Error may extenuate, but cannot remove their guilt (cf. Acts 8:3; Acts 9:1, with 1 Corinthians 15:9, and 1 Timothy 1:13; 1 Timothy 1:15)
3. To be truly void of offence, conscience must have a clear discovery of the rule of duty. The rule of duty is concise and plain (Matthew 22:37-40).
4. It should be able also to testify, upon good grounds, that there is a correspondence between that rule and our actions. It should be able to appeal to God for the truth of its testimony; that, after the strictest search, it can find no sin habitually indulged, or duty allowedly neglected.
II. That every true Christian labours to maintain it.
1. This is certainly the character of one who feareth God. The Christian maketh but little account of man’s judgment (1 Corinthians 4:3). He knoweth that the eye of God is upon his heart (Hebrews 4:13), he therefore studies to approve himself to God. He hath respect to every part of his duty, toward God and man (James 3:17), and this, not at certain seasons only, but always. Nor will he be deterred by any regard to ease, or interest, or fear; inquiring only, “What is duty?” (Acts 21:39).
2. Nor can anyone be a true Christian who hath not attained it. Every pardoned sinner is supposed to be without guilt (Psalms 32:2). All in the primitive Church are spoken of in this light (Philippians 1:10; Philippians 2:15; 1 Thessalonians 5:23). St. Paul did not hesitate to affirm that this was his character (Acts 23:1; 2 Corinthians 1:12); and the same is ascribed to one who was far inferior to him (John 1:47). Nor is anyone in a state of salvation who hath not attained it. Many things may conspire to rob a Christian of the comfort of such a conscience; but a just ground for such a conscience he cannot but possess. This is expressly asserted by David (Psalms 66:18) and St. John (1 John 3:8-10). (T. Hannam.)
St. Paul’s exercise
That there is no cause so bad, but some will plead it; no man so good, but some will slander him; no case so clear, but some will question it; nothing so false, but some will swear it. Judges, then, had need to do as their ancients did, first sacrifice, then sentence. Thus the context: for the text, every man must chiefly look to this, that his conscience be not offended. Men, be they pleased or not pleased, conscience must not be displeased. This is the main, and for our briefer despatch of this point, this order will be taken, first, the terms must be unfolded, next the proposition confirmed, and then applied. In St. Paul’s action and our proposition, three things come to be considered--the subject, object, end. For the first, no more but this: we infer from Paul’s exercise each man’s duty. It is true he was a preacher, but he is not now considered as a preacher, but as a man; and in my text his life is mentioned, not his faith or function. For the second it is conscience, a word of great latitude and infinite dispute. For the first, I take conscience to be both a faculty, and a distinct faculty, too, of the soul. The schools reject that, others this; but besides reason, the written Word bends most that way (1 Timothy 1:1-20). It is distinguished from the will (Titus 1:15), from the mind, and if we mark it, conscience is so far from being one of both, or both in one, as that there is between them first a jealousy, then an open faction; the other powers of the soul, taking conscience to be but a spy, do what they can first to hide themselves from it, next to deceive it, after to oppose it, and lastly to depose it. Conscience, on the other side, laboureth to hold its own, and, till it be blinded or bribed, proceeds in its office in despite of all oppositions, it cites all the powers of Nature, sits upon them, examines, witnesseth, judges, executes. Hereof come those λόγομοις self conferences, or reasonings, as St. Paul terms them (Romans 2:1-29.), thence those mutual apologies, and exceptions amongst themselves, when conscience sits. I know the words are otherwise carried; but μεταξὺ ἀλλήλων will hardly brook any other bias that is set upon them. For the second, the common subject of conscience is the reasonable soul. The third thing is its end and office. It is set in man to make known to man in what terms he stands with God, thence its name; therefore fitly termed the soul’s glass, the understanding’s light. Conscience therefore is a prime faculty of the reasonable soul, there set to give notice of its spiritual estate, in what terms it stands with God. Now secondly, it is taken sometimes more generally, sometimes for the whole court and proceedings of conscience, by the fathers; sometime for the whole soul of man, either stooping to conscience, or reflecting upon itself. The third followeth, without offence. It is the conscience that carries the soul as the foot the body, through all ways and weather, therefore St. Paul would be as chary of this as the traveller of that. Conscience should not be offended lest it should offend in its fit constitution and working, or managing of its proper actions, which as Paul delivers them are--
4. And now accidentally since the fall, accusing and tormenting.
And for its constitution it stands in clearness, tenderness, quietness, and when it is either so blinded or dazzled, feared, lamed, that it cannot do its office, then it is said to be offended. Every Christian must be carefully watchful that his soul, spirit, or conscience be no way grieved by sins. Now follows the proof, and that is most easy. First, from precept. Above all keepings keep thy heart, saith Solomon (Proverbs 4:23). Next, from example. We have a cloud of witnesses, prophets, apostles, martyrs, who would hazard themselves upon the angry seas, lions, flames, rather than upon a displeased conscience. Thirdly, from reason. First, for God’s cause we should make much of conscience, that being His officer, and therein standing the chiefest of His image and man’s excellency. The perfection of man is his knowledge; the perfection of knowledge is the knowledge thereof, which is conscience. Secondly, for our peace sake, conscience being like a wife, the best of comforts if good, the worst of naughts if bad. For first deal friendly with conscience, and it proves the best of friends, next God. First the truest, that will never flatter, but make thee know thyself. Secondly, the surest, that will never start, it lies with thee, it sits with thee, it rides with thee, it sleeps with thee, it wakes with thee, it walks with thee in every place beyond all times. Thirdly, it is the sweetest friend in the world. If natural cheerfulness be so good a housekeeper to a good man, that it feasts daily, as Solomon saith, oh, then what be the banquets of conscience sanctified and purified! what joys those which will carry a man above ground, and make him forget the best of Nature’s comforts? Secondly, offend conscience, and it will prove as the inmost, so the utmost enemy. First, unavoidable; do what thou canst, thou canst not shake it off; when thou goest it goes, when thou fleest it runs. It meets thee in the dark, and makes thee leap; it meets thee in the day, and makes thee quake; it meets thee in thy dreams, and makes thee start, in every corner. Secondly, insufferable, it strips one of all comforts at one time; if a sick stomach will make one weary of chairs, beds, meats, drinks, friends, all, oh, what will a sick conscience do! Next, it puts one to intolerable pains, it racks the memory, and makes it run backward twenty years, as Joseph’s brethren; yea, it twinges for sins of youth, as Job complains, it racks the understanding, and carries it forward beyond the grave, and makes it feel the very bitterness of death and hell before it sees them; it racks the phantasy, and makes it see ghosts in men. And shall such a thing as this, so near, so great a neighbour be offended?
Use 1. We have done with proofs, we now apply. Wherein, first, shall we chide or weep, to see the wickedness of these times, and the infinite distance betwixt Paul and us? Oh, Paul, thou art almost alone; thou studiest conscience, we of this age craft; thou didst gauge thine own, we other men’s; thy care was to please conscience, we the times; thine to walk evenly before God and man, ours to serve ourselves on both; thou everywhere was for conscience, we almost nowhere; thou wouldst see conscience take no wrong, now wit out reasons it, wealth outfaces it, money outbuys it, might overmatches it, all undervalue it.
Use 2. As for you present, be entreated to two things: First, talk with your hearts alone, and in case conscience be angry with you once, agree, else never safe; nor field, nor town, nor bed, nor board, nor life, nor death, nor depth, nor grave can render you secure. Secondly, be of Paul’s mind. First, set conscience at a high price, consider what it will be worth in the day of trouble, of death, of judgment, and resolve to beg, starve, burn, die over a thousand deaths to save conscience’s life. Next, use Paul’s means, look to God and man. For God; first, with Paul, we must believe what is written. Faith and conscience are embarked in the same ship (1 Timothy 1:5; 1 Timothy 3:9). Secondly, for man; if we have given our voice or hand against the innocent, with St. Paul, we must retract it.
Use 3. Now we have some special errands yet to deliver. First, to you of lower rank. Do you stand in the face of judgment this day with Paul’s conscience? Though my house and land be yours, yet whilst I breathe, I will be none but mine own and God’s. But I cannot live without Him. But thou canst die without Him; and it is better to die a thousand deaths than to stab one conscience. Whatever becomes of your places or estates, so walk, so go, as may be for your peace. Next, to you of higher rank I have a double suit. First, that you will have some mercy on ether men’s consciences; next, on your own. Secondly, we in the ministry are in places of trust, the gospel is committed to us, as to St. Paul. Oh happy we, if we can say after him, “We preach not as pleasing men, but God which tries the heart.” We are men of conscience, let conscience rule and master us. (Robert Harris, D. D.)
What we are to understand by a good conscience, and how it may be attained; with the blessing of it
A conscience is one of those terms which are common in the world, but of a very doubtful and uncertain, and sometimes of a dangerous signification. Some men understand nothing by it but a blind and hardy zeal for the opinion they espouse, which perhaps they have been confirmed in by the prejudice of education, or have taken up out of some motive of worldly interest or vanity. Others mean nothing by it but a scrupulous tenderness about things of little or no moment; things which, considered in themselves, are not of the substance, but only to be looked upon as decent circumstances of religion; which yet conscience is many times more nice and tender about, than the most weighty and important of religious duties. Thus we see conscience, according to the different tempers, passions, and prejudices of men, is made to signify very different things. And whereas it is the character of a good and well-informed conscience, to be void of offence towards God and towards man; as some persons understand conscience, nothing is more injurious or offensive, either to God or man.
I. As to the first inquiry, what is meant by a conscience void of offence towards God and towards man? We may easily come to a resolution if we do but consider what is the rule of conscience, or how we ought to proceed in regulating the judgments we make of our own actions. For not only the reason of the thing, but the very word conscience, in its proper signification, imports that there ought to be some law by which our conduct is to be tried, and the error or rectitude of it determined. When we know that our actions have been conformable to such a rule, we have a good and well-informed and inoffensive conscience; but if we depart from our rule, how specious soever our pretences may be, of a good intention or zeal for God’s service and the interests of religion, in order to palliate or the better to set off a sinful action; yet the principle upon which we act cannot properly be called conscience; for conscience, in the proper sense of the word, always supposes a conformity between the rule and the action. It is therefore only private judgment or opinion upon which we proceed in such cases; and, strictly speaking, can no more be called conscience than I can be said to concur with another person in any design or action wherein I directly oppose him. Yet it must be granted that as men are willing to impose upon themselves by false names and appearances, and to call that conscience wherein they act in direct opposition to their rule; the apostle is sometimes pleased to express himself in compliance with this ordinary but improper way of speaking (1 Timothy 4:2; Titus 1:15). There is a necessity indeed of this distinction, concerning conscience in a strict and in a popular and a large sense, to account for that very plea of our apostle (Acts 23:1). For it is evident, if we are to understand conscience according to its genuine signification, of a man’s acting agreeably to a known and certain rule, the apostle, in this sense, could not be said to have had a good conscience in persecuting the Church of God, because in so doing his zeal was not according to knowledge, but he acted ignorantly, and beside his rule. By conscience, therefore, he could here intend no more than his private judgment or opinion, which, though in some measure, and in proportion to our weakness or ignorance, it may excuse an irregular or sinful action, yet will by no means justify it (1 Corinthians 15:6; Titus 1:13). Whatever pretensions men make to religion, how conscientious soever they apprehend themselves to be, or would appear to others, yet if they do not regulate their actions by the law of God, we may, notwithstanding, say of them, according to the fore-cited words of the apostle, that their very mind and conscience is defiled. Now this law of God, by which our actions are to be regulated, may be considered either as that natural law written on the table of our hearts; or else it may be understood of the revealed will of God discovered to us in the Holy Scriptures. In most cases, indeed, we need only put the question to our own hearts, and they will direct us what we are to do and what to forbear. The great lines of our duty towards God and man are so plain and visible to the eye of natural reason that those who do not see them must be sunk into the last degree of corruption or given up to a judicial blindness of mind. The apostle observes this concerning the heathens, who had no other light to direct them but that of their own minds (Romans 2:14-15). But because in this degenerate state of human nature the faculties of our souls are disordered, so that we do not always see the truths of religion in a clear light or reason justly concerning them, therefore God has been pleased to make a plain and standing revelation of His will to us in the Holy Scriptures. So that upon the whole matter, to have a conscience void of offence is to act conformably and knowingly according to that law which God has prescribed as the rule of our actions. If upon examining our conduct by this law we find there is a good agreement between them, then we may safely conclude we have done what we ought and that our own minds have no offence to reproach us for either towards God or towards men.
II. Some rules and directions in order to our obtaining such a conscience.
1. The first thing I would recommend to this end is a careful and diligent reading of the Holy Scriptures. For if the Scriptures be the rule by which our judgments in matters of conscience are to be informed and directed, and from which we cannot depart, then the only way to have a conscience void of offence is to consult and apply this rule to our particular cases and circumstances. And they are not only a rule to instruct men in their duty, but a powerful means to persuade them to a conscientious discharge of it. As the saving truths and principles of religion are only to be learned from them, so they furnish us with the most strong and invincible arguments to enforce the practical duties we owe both to God and man (Psalms 19:7-8). And this power of the Holy Scriptures to open the hearts as well as the understanding of men, discovers itself in the good effects it often has, even upon those persons who are the least disposed to comply with it. We cannot fail, if we do not shut our eyes against the light or wilfully reject the motions of God’s grace, to have, with St. Paul, always a conscience void of offence towards God and towards men.
2. In the next place, if we take care of the very first motions and beginnings of sin. For in this corrupt state of human nature our innocence is so weakly guarded, that it is for the most part much safer to prevent a siege than to run the hazard of an attack. Or if we happen to be attacked, which is sometimes unavoidable, what we have to do is to repel the enemy with all the vigour we can. If we give way in the least to him, we know not what further advances he may make.
3. I shall but lay down one direction more in order to our having and preserving a conscience void of offence; and it is this: That we should frequently state accounts between God and our consciences, and inquire what sins we have committed and what duties we have done or omitted to do.
III. Some proper motives and arguments.
1. With respect to this world there is nothing can afford us any true, solid, or lasting satisfaction without a good conscience. The pleasures of sin are always dashed with one impure bitter ingredient or other, besides that they are of a short duration, and go off with an ungrateful relish. But the pleasures, on the other hand, arising from the conscience of our having done what we ought, as they are pure and unmixed, so they last as long as the remembrance of those actions which occasioned them. Had we with this blessed apostle a conscience void of offence, it would be an unspeakable comfort to us under all the troublesome accidents and disappointments of this life. Whatever our condition might be in it, we might then say with him (2 Corinthians 1:12). And indeed if we can sincerely say this, we ought not to be much concerned at what befalls us in a life which is not designed for a perfect state of happiness, but only to prepare and train us up for it; and if God in His wisdom sees fit that through much tribulation we should enter into His kingdom, I am sure we shall at the last have no reason to complain.
2. But this leads me to represent to you in the next place the great blessing and advantage of a good conscience with respect to another world, and that both as it is a condition of our future happiness and a necessary qualification for it.
I. The facts of conscience.
1. We have a discernment of the difference between right and wrong.
2. We approve of the one, and disapprove of the other, as of good and bad laws.
3. We condemn ourselves for what conscience disapproves in our states and acts.
4. We are impelled by conscience to do what is right, and deterred by it from what is wrong. Conscience, therefore, is not a single faculty. It is a collective term for those exercises of our rational nature which concern moral good and evil. It includes cognition and judgment of approbation and disapprobation. And it is an impulse, as desires and affections are. It is not a mere decision as to truth.
II. Its characteristics.
1. It is independent of the understanding and will. No man can force himself by a volition to approve of what he sees to be wrong. Nor can conscience be perverted by mere sophistry of the understanding. If a man honestly thinks a wrong thing to be right, his conscience will approve his doing it; but no man can argue his conscience out of its convictions. Nor can it be silenced.
2. It is authoritative. It asserts the right to rule our hearts and lives. We may disregard and rebel against this authority, but we must admit it to be legitimate.
3. It does not speak in its own name. It is the representative of God, and brings the soul before His bar.
4. It is avenging, and is made so by God. Remorse is a state produced by conscience.
III. Our duty in regard to it.
1. To enlighten it. It is not infallible in its judgment. Men differ widely as to what is right or wrong, and our thinking a thing right does not make it right.
2. To obey it. No man is better than his conscience; no man is as good. Conscience is to be obeyed not only in particular eases, but in all as the ruling authority; i.e., we must act not from impulse, self interest, inclination, feeling, in matters small and great. The ground of this obligation to obey conscience is--
I. The keynote of the whole sentence is that word conscience.
1. What is conscience?
2. The word occurs more than thirty times in the New Testament, and of these more than twenty are in St. Paul’s unquestioned writings.
II. The conscience after which St. Paul strove was an unstumbling one, not striking against stumbling stones.
1. He does not speak here of preserving his life from stumbling, but his conscience. He is determined that his perpetual judgment upon himself shall not find itself embarrassed in its course by evil done and the good left undone; shall not trip here over a hasty or uncharitable word, and there over a neglected duty, and there over an injured soul, and there over a corrupt imagination: its course shall be clear as it judges: the straight and smooth and unstained surface of the life and soul shall present nothing for the self-cognisance to dash against as a condemning object.
2. There are two chief departments of this unstumbling conscience; corresponding to the two great divisions of human duty. When the thought of God is presented, the self-judgment is not staggered: and when the thought of man is presented, still the self-cognisance is not beset by monuments of reproach or evil. Some men are not afraid of the second table. Like the rich young ruler they can say, “All these commandments have I observed from my youth.” But when the attention of the inward judge is turned to the first table, then surely the self-deceiver will be unmasked to himself: the conscience is not void of offence: its course, as it hears the case, is not smooth but stumbling.
III. St. Paul’s effort after the attainment of this conscience. “Herein,” on the strength of the hope of the resurrection. “I exercise” or train myself as an athlete. We are apt to think that, whatever other difficulties the apostles had to contend with, they had none within. How strongly does St. Paul combat this error! “So fight I, as not beating the air: but I keep under my body.” It did not come naturally to him to have a conscience void of offence. He had to train himself for it, by daily buffetings of his own body, mortifications of his own inclination, and crucifixions of his own will. The hope of a glorious resurrection bore him up, and in Christ’s strength he went forward conquering and to conquer. The subject is its own application.
I. What is conscience? There are certain phenomena of our moral nature of which all men are conscious.
1. The perception of moral distinctions.
2. A sense of moral obligation.
3. A feeling of approbation and disapprobation in regard to self and others. Whether and how far these exercises belong to the cognitive faculties, and how far to the susceptibilities--reason or feeling--is hard to determine. They are rational in so far as they suppose a rational nature and involve the exercise of reason. But every cognition when its object, moral or aesthetic, is not an act of the pure reason, involves feeling as well as knowledge.
II. Its attributes. It is--
III. Conditions of a healthy conscience.
1. Knowledge, which is light. Conscience needs this just as taste needs correct principles. Some knowledge is original and intuitive, other is acquired.
2. Due susceptibility. Men differ much as to this point. It may be excessive or deficient, but for a healthful conscience due susceptibility is necessary. So that moral distinctions do not concern light matters, or trifles give as much concern as serious matters.
3. Strength to constrain obedience. Sickly sentimentality is very different from a sound healthful conscience.
IV. Its diseases.
1. Perversion. This is due either to wrong principles, or to prejudices and passion. The cure is to be found in knowledge, objective and subjective.
2. Obduracy. Cause--ignorance and crime; cure--knowledge, regeneration, sanctification.
3. Scrupulosity. Cause--either weakness of conviction or undue sensibility, not really moral, but a sensitiveness analogous to false shame, bashfulness, etc. Cure--growth in strength. Be strong in faith.
4. Wounded conscience. The only cure is, the blood of Jesus, confession, restitution, reformation.
V. The immense importance of the subject. On it depend--
1. Our excellence.
2. Our happiness.
3. Our usefulness. (C. Hodge, D. D.)
A conscience void of offence
I. What is conscience?
1. The name. It is called--
(a) The knowledge that several have of the same thing, so God knows with us (Job 16:20).
(b) The knowledge we have of several things (1 Samuel 24:5; 1 Corinthians 4:4).
2. The thing conscience is a habit of the practical understanding, whereby the mind of man applies the knowledge it hath to its own particular actions, by discourse of reason.
II. Its offices.
1. To apply general truths to ourselves (2 Samuel 12:7; Jeremiah 8:6).
2. To bear witness (Romans 2:15) of--
3. To comfort us in our obedience (Isaiah 38:3).
4. To accuse us of sin (Romans 2:15; Revelation 20:12).
5. To judge (Psalms 4:4)--
III. The conscience void of offence.
1. Conscience is God’s vicegerent in the soul.
2. Rightly enlightened it dictates nothing but God’s commands.
3. All God’s commands concern Himself or our neighbour (Matthew 22:37-38).
4. When we do what it commands our conscience excuses and comforts us (2 Corinthians 1:12).
5. It accuses for nothing but sin.
6. Therefore when we do nothing offensive to God or man our conscience is void of offence (Acts 23:1).
IV. How we must carry ourselves towards God and man so as to have a conscience void of offence.
1. To God.
(10) Praise Him for all your mercies (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
(11) Perform all His commands. (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
(12) Aim at His glory in all your actions (1 Corinthians 10:31; Romans 14:6).
2. To man.
(a) Love all (Matthew 5:44; Hebrews 10:24).
(b) Pray for all (1 Timothy 2:1).
(c) Do good to all (Galatians 6:10).
(d) Forgive all the injuries they do us (Colossians 3:13; Luke 11:4).
(e) Be courteous to all (1 Peter 2:17; 1 Peter 3:8; Romans 12:10).
(f) Be just to all.
(a) Love them above others.
(b) Do good to them especially.
(a) Pity them (Song of Solomon 8:8).
(b) Reprove their sins (Leviticus 19:17; Matthew 18:15).
(c) Use all means to bring them to Christ.
1. Get your conscience regulated by God’s Word (Psalms 119:105).
2. Directed by His Spirit (Psalms 119:133; John 16:13).
3. Well grounded and settled (Romans 14:5; 2 Peter 1:12).
4. Do nothing against conscience (Romans 14:22-23).
5. Do everything from conscience (Romans 13:5).
6. Avoid secret as well as open sins (1 John 3:20).
7. Choose the greatest sufferings rather than do the least sin.
8. Balk no duty.
1. A good conscience will be a comfort in all troubles (Proverbs 15:15; 2 Corinthians 1:12).
2. An evil conscience will be a trouble in all comforts (Proverbs 18:14).
3. Unless we keep a good conscience it will be a witness against us hereafter, and be our tormentor forever (Mark 9:43-44), but a good conscience will be our eternal joy. (Bp. Beveridge.)
A conscience void of offence
I. That we may rightly understand this matter, we must consider a little what it is to have a conscience void of offence, which was the ground of the apostle’s plea. The office of conscience is two fold: to direct one in acting, and then to pass a censure upon his actions. Before the thing is done, conscience serves as a tutor to advise and teach; and after the fact is over it serves as a judge, either to acquit or to condemn him for it. So that to have a conscience void of offence is, in the apostle’s sense, to be powerfully governed by one’s conscience in the faithful discharge of his duty, and so to follow the light which is in his understanding, as not to fall into any known sin, nor to act anything which will wound his mind in the consequence. This the apostle protested now in open court was his constant exercise. But this must be understood chiefly of the time after his conversion to Christianity. For while he was yet a Jew and a zealous Pharisee his conscience was not void of all offence. We know what his sins were, and with what penitence and freedom he lamented them afterwards. But when he came to be thoroughly enlightened by the Sun of Righteousness, and his conscience was set to rights, it was his fixed endeavour to keep it more charity than the apple of his eye. As a man that has once broken his bones by chance is very careful lest he slip again, so was the apostle, after his conversion, industriously bent upon keeping his conscience from the least wound or blow. He valued no stripes as long as they did not touch that tender part. And this shows us all what ought to be the great care and business of our whole life; for whether conscience be well or ill kept, a man shall be sure to hear of it at last; he will certainly find the effects of it at home; let him take what course he pleases, his conscience will bear him company, and in the end prove his comfort or his plague. ‘Tis true a man’s conscience may not accuse him or fly upon him presently. How evil soever it be, it may lie quiet for a time. For a time it may be still and quiet, like a clock that stands when the weights are down, but one time or other the hand of God will wind it up again, and then every wheel and movement will stir to purpose. We should not trust, no, not our own hearts, because in the end our worst enemy will be that in our own bosom.
II. But there are three cases especially wherein it highly concerns men to have a conscience void of offence.
1. First, in case of public dangers, when the face of the world looks uncomfortable and dismal. Seldom do the things of this life continue at a stay. However, some are so hardy as to scoff at religion, and strive to wear out of their minds the sense of God, yet nothing can carry a man out in the day of trial but holy principles. And whoever he be that relieth upon these principles, and upon examining his actions, finds good reasons to believe that his heart is sincere and upright, he must needs be danger proof in a very high degree. You have an instance here in St. Paul, though the Jews had bound themselves under a curse that they would kill him; though Ananias used his authority and Tertullus his eloquence against him; though men and devils conspired to destroy him; yet his rejoicing was this, that his constant exercise was to have a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward man. Such evil days and times of danger every one of us is very apt to put far off from himself by reason of the uncertainty of them.
2. Secondly, there is another case which every day occurs against which a wise man will be well provided--the case of sickness, when we should have little else to do but to trim up our lamps and exercise our graces, and so to repose ourselves in the bosom of a faithful God and a merciful Redeemer. Now, he that makes a conscience of his ways, and studies to carry himself without offence toward God and man, will at that time have nothing in comparison to do but to wait God’s pleasure, for as he foresees that such a day will come, so he prepares for it beforehand.
3. There is another case yet which I must mention, because from the highest to the lowest we must every one of us come to it in our order, for it is appointed unto all men once to die, and after death to go to judgment. What is it to die? Of what infinite importance is it to die well? What will become of us when we are dead and gone? Such religious meditations would prove very powerful restraints to keep men within the compass of their duty; for how slightly soever some have spoken of morality, I am confident no man ever yet repented of it on his death bed, nor can anything be a greater comfort to a man at the last than to consider that the care of his life has been to keep a conscience void of offence. It is a comfort that will stick to him to endless ages.
II. To offer briefly these few things, the point being altogether practical.
1. That we give all moral diligence to inform our consciences rightly of the lawfulness of all we do. This was the fault of St. Paul before his conversion, that he took things upon trust and went upon presumptions. Therefore to have a conscience void of offence, it is absolutely necessary to use all proper means for the removing and curing of mistakes, such as unprejudiced meditation, reading of good books, conference with skilful and upright teachers, and the like.
2. Our endeavours being thus honestly employed, the next way to have a conscience void of offence is to follow its dictates. Great is the power which everyone’s conscience hath over him. It hath by the appointment of God Himself the immediate government of us, so that the very Word of God doth not otherwise guide us than by the light which it affords the conscience. Though the Divine will be the supreme rule, yet conscience is the inward and immediate measure of our actions; and on that account the command is so peremptory that everyone is to be fully persuaded in his own mind, and the determination is so positive that whatsoever is not of faith is sin.
3. To despise the world when it stands in competition with our duty is another sure way to keep one’s conscience void of offence, because nothing is more apt to corrupt men’s minds and to rifle them of their integrity than the lust of the eyes and the pride of life.
4. And so to resist the first temptations unto Bin; to get such a mastery over our own wills as to arm ourselves with firm purposes against it; to pray daily and heartily unto God not to lead us into temptation; and, above all, to have God always before our eyes. (E. Pelling, D. D.)
A conscience void of offence
Conscience is that within us which pronounces upon the moral character of our actions, and which justifies or condemns us accordingly. It is the Holy of holies in human nature--the majestic shrine in which God Himself is enthroned.
I. A conscience void of offence. Such--
1. Must be enlightened. The sin of man has darkened his mind, and to have his conscience void of offence he must labour to obtain the fullest information about all moral questions. He must be on his guard against ignorance of the teaching of the moral law itself, and error as to the way in which that law is to be applied to the life. Micah the Ephraimite ( 17:1-13; 18:1-31) had an ignorant conscience. Saul of Tarsus (Acts 26:9) had an erring conscience. And how many Christians in our time need to have their consciences instructed about many important matters of morals? How many, for example, about the use of minced oaths, the petty falsehoods of trade, the use of the means of grace?
2. Must be purified. Man, being guilty, endures the misery of an evil conscience. There is no torment comparable to the pangs of remorse. Even the sin-hardened are made “cowards” by it, and confess that “conscience is a thousand swords.” “This disease is beyond the practice” of Lady Macbeth’s physician. (These quotations remind us that our greatest poet is emphatically the poet of the conscience.) But the same necessity exists for all, even for those who are “not far from the kingdom of God.”
3. Must be kept sensitive and tender. A healthy conscience will allow its possessor no peace so long as sin is indulged in or duty neglected. But how many there are, who, instead of cherishing a sensitive, vigilant conscience, prefer rather to lull the monitor into a state of coma! They say with the murderer in the tragedy, “There’s few or none will entertain it. I’ll not meddle with it. It is a dangerous thing. It makes a man a coward. ‘Tis a blushing shamefaced spirit that mutinies in a man’s bosom. It fills one full of obstacles,” etc. And even a believer may sometimes allow his conscience to sink into a stupor. Lot did so when he went to live in Sodom, and David after his great transgression, and Peter until his Master’s look of loving reproach awoke it. Thank God, there is such an awakening for every gracious soul. But the Bible speaks of those who have their “conscience seared with a hot iron,” as the effect of persistent unbelief and sin. Such seems to have been the case with Pharaoh, Saul, Caiaphas, and Judas.
4. Must receive its rightful place of supreme authority in the soul. The intuitions of men in all ages have convinced them practically of this truth. Our nature tells us that conscience is a magistrate from whose decisions there should be no earthly appeal; and that these anticipate a still more effectual sentence, which shall proceed from the Judgment throne. To shape one’s course according to another man’s conscience is the very spirit of Popery. Paul was preeminently a conscientious man all his life through (Acts 23:1; 2 Corinthians 1:12). And the noble avowal of our text we can parallel with the brave words of Luther, “My conscience is a captive to God’s Word: and it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.” The man who makes this the law of his life will succeed in having “a conscience void of offence.” It will be so toward God (Psalms 26:1-12.) and toward men (1 Samuel 12:3; Acts 20:33).
II. The exercise necessary in order to have such a conscience. The word “exercise” applied to the body denotes severe and bracing physical training; applied to the mind suggests assiduous intellectual drill and discipline. Paul’s assertion, therefore, is that he makes the gymnastics of conscience his daily study and care. Let us inquire by what means this “exercise” is to be prosecuted.
1. To enlighten conscience, we must exercise ourselves with the study of Divine truth. The only rule of conscience which the heathen have is the “law written on their hearts”; but the Christian rule of right and wrong is the Word of God. God’s Word lays bare to us our half-buried and forgotten moral convictions. It is the chisel which restores the defaced and worn inscriptions upon gravestones of our sin-dead hearts. We must therefore “search the Scriptures.”
2. To purify conscience we must exercise ourselves with the application of the blood of Christ, which “purges the conscience from dead works” and “sprinkles the heart from an evil conscience.”
3. To keep conscience tender, we must exercise ourselves with constant watching and prayer (Psalms 139:23-24). To give conscience its place of supreme authority we must exercise ourselves with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. His grace is the one power which can make conscience regnant. (C. Jerden, M. A.)
A conscience void of offence
I. What is implied in a conscience void of offence?
1. Conscience is the secret testimony of the soul, whereby it approves things that are good and condemns those that are evil. A good conscience is purified by the blood of Christ (1 Timothy 1:5; Hebrews 9:14). An evil conscience is loaded with guilt (Hebrews 10:22); and a hardened conscience does not feel the evil of sin (1 Timothy 4:2).
2. To have a conscience void of offence three things are necessary. First, a good rule of conduct; secondly, an impartial comparison of our conduct with that rule; and thirdly, a conviction that there has been a conformity of conduct to our rule.
3. That man who has a conscience void of offence towards God is inwardly pious, and practises all the duties of piety.
4. He who has a conscience void of offence towards men carefully follows two rules. First, he injures no man, either in his person, in his property, or in his character; and, secondly, he does all the good which is in his power to every man with whom he is connected, both in word and deed.
II. How should we exercise ourselves to have a conscience void of offence?
1. Let us use those means by which we may obtain an enlightened conscience, that we may understand our duty both to God and men.
2. It should be an invariable rule with us to do nothing at any time, or under any circumstances, contrary to the dictates of conscience. When we act contrary to our views of things we are self-condemned.
3. In this holy exercise we should abstain from the appearance of evil; for if we yield to anything which our own mind condemns, or to anything which appears evil in the eyes of wise and good men, we shall soon fall into great and gross sins (1 Thessalonians 5:22).
4. That we may keep a conscience void of offence, let us be careful not to enter into temptation.
5. As a farther help in this important work, let us be vigilant.
6. To watchfulness let us add prayer. Let us pray for wisdom to conduct us safely through difficult circumstances (James 1:5).
7. It is essentially necessary, in this blessed exercise, to avoid secret sins. These are fully known to God (Psalms 90:8).
8. While we set God before us, in His justice and purity, and in His awful majesty and glory, we shall be careful to keep a conscience void of offence.
9. Let us be conversant with death and judgment. (Theological Sketchbook.)
Freedom from self-condemnation
There is nothing that men so often mistake as what we call conscience. With a Scotchman it is frequently obstinacy; with an English man, snobbishness; with a Yankee, prejudice. Conscience is not the thing that guides men, but the thing by which men justify themselves when they have made up their minds! They set their watches and then look at the time of day. It is difficult for some people to find their own pulse--that which marks the ebb and flow of that red tide of life which surges back and forth within them. So hard it often is for a man to put his finger on the real motive of his conduct. Men clip coin and then try to pass it for the genuine currency of the realm. The difference between men as good and bad is the difference in their treatment of conscience. A self-knowledge that is void of self-condemnation: this is the subject I shall discuss.
I. I remark that there is nothing more wonderful in man than his power to know himself. It is the most fearful and wonderful thing in him. If he wants to get the temperature of his own body he must use a thermometer; if he wants to count his own pulse he must hold his watch in his hand. But the temperature of the man within, the pulse beat of the man within, he must find from a standard within. Conscience is the self-registering thermometer of the soul. Joseph’s brethren never had lost their self-consciousness, their self-recognition--never, day or night, year in, year out. They knew themselves. It is a thing which cannot be lost, this conscience of self. But let them do the deed; let conscience make its registry respecting that deed, and they may wake and sleep; they may change their place of residence and traverse seas and deserts; years may pass over their heads, but they never can be rid of their own self-recognition. It is no longer like the mists of the morning. It is like the sin of Judah; it is written with a pen of iron and the point of a diamond upon the tables of the heart. It will carry its own deep self-knowledge throughout all eternity.
II. There is no higher aim for a man made in God’s image than to keep this self-consciousness the source of comfort and support to himself. It is like keeping the prow of the vessel pointed to the polar star. If a man maintains his self-respect it makes little difference what are his outward surroundings. They cannot affect his inward worth any more than the setting of a jewel affects its intrinsic value. Joseph was just as near to God and to the throne of God in Egypt as in the house of his father. His feet was hurt with fetters, but he could still run in the way of God’s commandments.
III. This keeping of self-consciousness serene and undisturbed is never the result of a happy accident, but of a settled purpose and masterly aim. The apostle’s phraseology in the text is very strong: “And herein do I exercise myself to have always a conscience void of offence toward God and toward man.” If a man means to make his living by the use of his arms he trains the muscles of his arms; if he means to make his living by the use of his voice he exercises his lungs so that he can produce voice; and so of his ears and his eyes, as his calling may require. In other words, he takes gymnastics which are suited to his necessities. Peace of conscience is not an accident, but an acquisition; is not a matter of temperament, but of attainment. I suppose the popular conception of the life of such men as St. Paul is that being so eminent in spiritual endowments, the Christian life in a sense takes care of itself. But I do not get any such conception of the apostle’s language. It is not a Sabbath day experience. Notice that one word--always! It was his habitual method, the habit of his life. The conscience is the vision of the spiritual man. It determines duty for him. And the Saviour says, “If thine eye be single thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil or divided thy whole body shall be full of darkness.” There is no darkness like the darkness which springs from a benighted conscience. There are no blunders like the blunders committed in the name of conscience. This is what the apostle means by a conscience void of offence, a conscience which does not make him stumble, because it has a clear vision for the inward man.
IV. Every man’s conscience has to do with his carriage toward God and toward man. It is like the eye--two organs and one sight. Some people think conscience has mainly to do with the inward walk, with regularity in the exercise of the spirit in what would be called worship and service. It was just this kind of conscience that Saul of Tarsus had when, like a bloodthirsty beast of prey, he was putting to death the members of the little flock of the Good Shepherd at Jerusalem. Then he exercised himself to have a conscience void of offence toward God, and stopped there. I do not think there can be a more merciless condition of the soul than for a man to try and keep a conscience void of offence toward God without reference to his fellow men. It accounts for all the awful things done in the way of persecution, done in the name of God and for the glory of God. Piety and humanity are the two necessary poles in all Christianity. The truth is that the highest Christian development is not possible if we do not have a warm side in us--the side where the heart is--toward humanity. If you think of it a moment, the Son of God was also the Son of man. A man cannot keep his conscience void of offence toward his fellow man by adopting another man’s conscience as his standard--sinning under cover of another man’s shield. This is the temptation which comes from improper intimacies in business and in social life. Since the death of Christ every man living has a new valuation. He is one for whom Christ has died. If a man be dishonest, he is dishonest toward one for whom Christ died. (J. E. Rankin.)
A good conscience
I. The determination and persistence of the apostle to keep his conscience void of offence. It is all in that word “exercise.” The word literally means to go into training. This is what he really says, “I am not careless in this great matter; I do not live in any heedless fashion; I fight stains from my conscience as gladiators fight weakness; what my conscience cannot approve that I away with.”
II. The apostle, thus exercising himself to keep a conscience void of offence toward God and man, would not trifle with his conscience. Remember what he tells King Agrippa: “Immediately I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision.”
III. This delicacy of conscience in the apostle led him necessarily to a thoughtful and generous regard of the consciences of others. “A man’s first duty is never to trifle with his own conscience; his second duty is never to trifle with the consciences of those who, like himself, are in a world of responsibility and trial. Paul’s manner of managing the matter of eating meat offered to idols (2 Corinthians 10:25-33).
IV. As conscientious as Paul was he did not believe his conscientiousness could save him. For salvation there must be trust in the atoning Christ, and such shining conscientiousness is but the test that one has really trusted. (Homiletic Review.)
A conscience void of offence
I. The extent of a good man’s practice as it respects God and man. And this distribution is frequent in Scripture (Exodus 20:1-26; Matthew 22:38).
II. His constancy and perseverance in this course. Paul exercised himself at all times. We must not only make conscience of our ways by fits and starts. There are some that will be very strict at some seasons, and perhaps for a little while after, then let themselves loose again to their former vicious course: but religion should be a constant frame of mind, discovering itself in the habitual course of our lives and actions.
III. A very earnest care and endeavour to this purpose. “Herein do I exercise myself.” He applied himself to this business with all his care and might, and so we must take great care to understand our duty, and when we know it, we must be very careful in the performance of it.
IV. The principle and immediate guide of our actions, which St. Paul here tells us was his conscience. Conscience is the great principle of moral actions, and our guide in matter of sin and duty. It is not the law and rule of our actions; that the law of God only is. Now, in common speech, every man is represented as having a tribunal in his own breast, where he tries himself and all his actions: and conscience, under one notion or other, sustains all parts in this trial; the court is called the court of a man’s conscience, and the bar at which the sinner stands impleaded is called the bar of conscience; conscience is also the accuser; it is the record and register of our crimes, in which the memory of them is preserved; it is the witness which gives testimony for or against us; and it is likewise the judge which declares the law and passes sentence. But I shall only consider conscience as the judgment of a man’s own mind concerning the morality of his actions.
V. Rules and directions for the keeping of a conscience void of offence.
1. Never in any case to act contrary to the persuasion and conviction of conscience.
2. Be very careful to inform conscience aright, that we may not mistake concerning our duty. And this rule is the more necessary because men are apt to think it a sufficient excuse for anything, that they did it according to their conscience. But this will appear to be a dangerous mistake.
3. In all doubts of conscience endeavour to be impartial.
4. Suspect all pretences of conscience which are--
5. Be sure to mind that which is our plain and unquestionable duty--the great things of religion, and the things “which make for peace, and whereby we may edify one another,” and let us not suffer our disputes about lesser matters to prejudice and hinder our main duty.
VI. The great motive and encouragement to this (verse 15). If we believe the resurrection of the dead and a future judgment, we ought to be very careful to discharge a good conscience now, in order to the rendering of a good account hereafter. (Abp. Tillotson.)
St. Paul’s self-exercise
It is not a trifle, this self-exercise: it is a strenuous matter of business, whenever it is carried on as it was carried on by the saintly Paul. It ought to be maintained in a similar way to that wherein earnest men strive after earthly objects. An artist, athirst for eminence in his pursuit, craving fellow fame with the great names that emblazon the history of painting and sculpture, will devote himself with affecting eagerness to the quiet of his studio: he will almost worship the glorious works of the master with whose style he would fain be imbued and ingrained; and, when the world is at rest, the light still burns in his room, and he still hangs over the canvas, the chill hand grudging to hold palette and brush at the fiat of the over-tasked brain. That he might but enroll his name among the Murillos and Correggios, oh, he would exercise himself day and night! And so the ambitious politician will spend daylight over statistics and tabular returns, and consume evening and midnight in exciting debate. And so the worshipper of Mammon will sit at the door of Mammon’s temple and worship its golden pavement through life’s prime and its decrepit age, by sunlight and by starlight a constant votary, intent on the lucre that a spiritual philosophy has defined to be “the root of all evil.” Well, the Christian must learn a lesson from all this self-exercise: he must “walk by the same rule,” though God forbid that he should “mind the same thing”! In devotion to the great object before him, that of a pure conscience, let him take a leaf from the book of the enthusiast in art, in public life, in money making: all whatsoever they teach, in reference to singleness and fervency of aim, let him observe and do; but let him not do after their works: let him rescue a splendid quality, that of earnestness in self-exercise, from the claims of the perishable, and consecrate it to the demands of heaven. The children of this world are, in this respect, more advanced than the children of light. These things ought not so to be, for there is no province so full of scope for earnestness as that tenanted by the believer in Christ’s New Testament. We are sadly apt to treat religion with stiff, formal courtesy, as some periodical visitor who must be entertained politely while present, and forgotten till next advent; whereas it is meant to be identified with ourselves, inwrought in our nature, part and parcel of our being. (F. Jacox, B. A.)
I. We will first make a few remarks on the meaning of the word conscience. It means, properly, the knowledge with one’s own self. It is that power of the human mind which discerns between right and wrong, and decides for itself, independently of the opinion of others. It makes man his own judge. It is by the means of this that God as it were speaks directly to us. And when we have learned to perceive the use of conscience, we shall see also its power. If it is the agent or instrument used to accuse and convict us of what is wrong, it is indeed a powerful one. It is intended to be the engine for completely crushing a man; and if it does not always exercise its full sway while the sinner is upon earth, he will not have to wait long in his iniquity before he finds its awful tyranny, when it becomes the gnawing worm of conscious guilt, as he wears away a weary eternity. But behold the man under a deep conviction of sin. Look at the man who has hitherto been honest and truthful, see him after the first breach of his principles, when his tongue has uttered almost his first lie, then you will outwardly witness the effects of the accuser within. Witness the Scripture case of the jailer at Philippi, as he rushed before Paul and Silas, saying, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Yes; none can properly tell, save those who have experienced, the great--I may say the mighty--power of conscience when the Holy Spirit’s influence has awakened it to a deep sense of hell-deserving guilt. Let us go on to observe the property of conscience. It is immortal: it will never be extinguished. It is not a member of your body, which will return to dust: it is a faculty of your soul, which is never to die. If, therefore, it is at the present time the judge and the accuser within, so it will continue to be; so will it be forever and ever. Thus, then, we are led on to notice the quality of conscience. When viewed in its full extent (i.e., as the judge of a man’s whole life, not confining its use and power to any particular sins)
, it must be either what is commonly called good or bad.
II. And now, passing on to another branch of our subject, we are led to inquire the nature of a good conscience; what is it? Does it mean, simply, that we are free from any great crimes or open wickedness? Does it mean that we are not murderers or drunkards or liars? This is only a very small part of its meaning. It must be “void of offence” both “toward God and toward man.” How often is this quite overlooked! People say, “Oh, I have a good conscience; I am happy; I am safe; for I never do those great sins which I see others commit. I do not lie, nor swear, nor injure my neighbour in any way. In fact, I am anxious to do all the good I can towards my neighbour.” They never care first to inquire how their conscience is towards God. They seem to think that conscience only relates to this world and those in it. They forget that, whatever their human virtues, while they are living away from the gospel of Christ they are guilty, before God, of the greatest of crimes, for they are wilfully despising His love and His mercy. Of what use, then, their flattery to themselves that their consciences are good? A good conscience “toward God” must be without offence. The word offence properly means stumbling block; when it is used, as in this place, with reference to God, it simply means sin--a conscience clear of wilful transgression. But when we come to notice the conscience void of offence also “toward man,” we see the full force of the word “offence.” We must not put the stumbling block in our neighbour’s way. We must not do those things which may be hindrances to his religion. We must not lead him astray; but do all we can for his temporal, but most particularly for his eternal, welfare. And the case of St. Paul, when he spoke the words of the text, shows this to be the meaning of his words. He was charged with the very crime of leading people astray by his preaching and his conduct. But he declared that the opposite was his object, and that his conscience was void of offence, quite clear of any design against man’s good.
III. But we must hasten on to a third consideration--the method of obtaining a good conscience.
1. And here, in the first place, we are reminded of the primary requisite, viz., that our sins be removed. We cannot possibly have a good conscience before God while our hearts remain blackened with the sins of our nature and the aggravated sins of our practice. “How much more shall the blood of Christ, who, through the eternal Spirit, offered Himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God!” “Let us draw near with a true heart, in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience.” The primary meaning, then, of a good conscience is that it has been cleansed by the Redeemer’s blood; that through the influence of the Spirit of God it has been convinced of sin, and shown the provision made for its cleansing; and that through grace it has been led to take full advantage of the great Fountain; has by faith washed and been made clean.
2. And in connection with obtaining a good conscience, we see in our text the method of keeping it viz., by exercise: “Herein I exercise myself,” saith the apostle. He thus teaches us that, when we have been renewed in the spirit of our minds, it remains for us to keep in exercise the new powers and graces given to us. The health and muscular strength of the body are maintained and improved by proper exercise; so are the gifts and graces of the religion of Christ Jesus. We have difficulties to overcome: they must be subdued by exercise. We have higher attainments to reach: they must be got at by exercise. We must be diligent in our exercise of prayer to the Author of all help, that we may be able to resist and overcome evil. We must be diligent in our exercise of watchfulness. Let the consideration of this word “exercise” stir us up, lest we get idle, too trustful in our privileges.
IV. And now, lastly, the value of a good conscience.
1. Look at it, first, with regard to time, to the mere short-lived existence in this world. Just consider the blessings of that peace which it engenders. Thus you are enabled to feel God indeed as your Father in every need, in every sorrow. And is there not pleasure also in the exercise to keep the conscience void of offence towards those around us, by bringing into action our efforts for their present and eternal welfare.
2. And if a good conscience is of value in this life, conveying even here peace and comfort and rest, of how much greater value shall it be in that eternal existence where it is to spend its blissful immortality! If conscience, or consciousness, will be the ever-continuing torment of the future punishment, will not the same faculty be the agent of happiness in the future world of joy and glory? (R. H. Davies.)
Conscience deals only with personal actions
The moral sense, conscience, is the final arbiter. But of what is it that conscience does its arbitration? On what does it pass its exclusive judgments? On persons only. On things, never. The sea, the star, the hawk, the scorpion are as though they were not in the realm of morals. For them we have no condemnation; for them we have no claims. A pestilent fungus, a deadly microbe, seizes on your dear and only child, and by its dread vitality strikes it down to agony and death; but you cannot curse that microbe as base. There is no immorality in its act. The venomed fang of the cobra slays your friend, but you dare not call it wickedness. The stealthy tiger springs upon some loved one and rends him in the jungle, but you must not call it immorality. The liquid lustre of the sapphire--we do not count it virtue, nor do we count the sweet influence of the Pleiades as their character. We admire, we do not approve, the opal’s melting colour; we dislike, we do not condemn, the unexpected acidity of the fruit. In them there is no merit, and there can be no demerit. But with irresistible impulse we approve, we disapprove of human actions.
Why? Because we know that they are the self-directed acts of persons with a knowledge of right, with a perception of wrong, with a will free and with a perception of wrong, with the will free and with a deep and mighty sense within--“I ought,” “I ought not.” If men were living machines no power in heaven or earth could ever make them moral. There might be beauty in their lives, but there could not be virtue. A machine may produce benefit, it may produce mischief, but it cannot produce character. If men could not help being good, where would be the virtue of goodness? Because a machine produces a superb fabric in silk or in paper is it a virtuous machine? Has it character? Verily not. You do not praise a summer because it gives you the autumnal wealth of golden harvest. You do not blame. You do not blame the lightning flash because it rent your parish church tower. No. It is man’s moral personality that has made him sovereign in this earth and throws upon him a responsibility that, is awful; not compelled obedience even to right, but in life’s unceasing conflict the choice of the good rather than the evil, the conscience before God and man unclouded. (W. H. Dallinger.)
Conscience implies freedom
Take an illustration. You are rich. Your wealth is imperilled. Hitherto your whole life has been honourable. You have preserved your conscience cloudless. Now you see you can by an act of dishonour which none can ever detect, which no earthly mind can ever know of--in that act you can save your wealth. Now conscience is the court of appeal. You alone deliver judgment. The solicitations to dishonour are subtle and siren-tongued. Nay, they are mighty, they are there. On the other hand, the moral instinct points to the grandeur of right, the horror of wrong. Conscience, with the blessedness of eternal duration in its mission, says, “No. You ought. You owe it to your character and your God not to do this great wrong.” Fellow men, in such a case you know that it is you, it is I, apart from all She forces of temptation, that determine which it is that we will yield to. It is you, it is I, that issue the mandate “I will” or “I will not.” The will is free for practical purposes, or moral judgment is impossible. It is when two incompatible impulses appear in our souls and contest the field that the strength and patience or the weakness and depravity of our manhood appear; for we are made aware of their difference, and are driven to judge between them. And the sensibility of the mind to the graduations of contrast between good and evil is what we mean by conscience. Conscience is a critical moral organ, and blessed is he that has trained his conscience under the companionship of the Cross of Christ, and who, with a brave heart like the great apostle, strives to keep it before God and before man, void of offence. (W. H. Dallinger.)
Reason for conscientiousness
A man was once asked why he was so very particular to give good measure--over good--and he replied, “God has given me but one journey through this world; and when I am gone I cannot return to correct mistakes.”
Conscience, a blameless
I. What is included in it?
1. A conscience void of offence, not only toward men, who see what is before their eyes, but also before God, who looks at the heart.
2. Not only toward God, whose judgment Eternity only discloses, but also before men, who judge by fruits.
II. How is it to be obtained?
1. By believing knowledge of the way of salvation from the word of God.
2. By walking in that way with a life of holiness. (K. Gerok.)
Conscience, a guilty
Bessus, a native of Pelonia, in Greece, being seen by his neighbours pulling down birds’ nests, and destroying their harmless young, was severely rebuked for his cruelty. His excuse was, that their notes were insufferable to him, as they never ceased twitting him for the murder of his father. Poor birds I they were innocent enough in the matter; but it was a guilty conscience which muttered its ceaseless reproaches in the ears of the wretched parricide. (J. N. Norton, D. D.)
Conscience, its office
This was beautifully set forth in the ring which the famous magician is related to have presented to his prince. The ring usually appeared like any other ornament of the sort, but so soon as its wearer formed an evil thought or desire, the golden circlet became a monitor, suddenly contracting, and by pinching the finger, warned him of sin. (J. N. Norton, D. D.)
There are three classes of men:
1. The conscientious, who always ask, What is right?
2. The mass of men, who do what is agreeable, or what promotes their interests.
3. Those who in great matters are conscientious, but not in small.
I. The nature of conscientiousness. Acting from a sense of right, as opposed to acting from expediency or for self-indulgence.
II. Its difficulty. Because of--
1. The strong opposing principles within.
2. The opposing influences without--those of friendship, party, example.
3. The moral courage and firmness of character it requires.
III. Its sphere.
1. Personal religion.
2. Domestic life.
3. Business occupation.
4. Church activity.
IV. Its aids.
1. A fixed purpose. The power of the will is great.
2. Living near to God.
1. We are doing right.
2. It purifies the heart.
3. It gives power, because it secures influence and respect. (C. Hodge, D. D.)
And after certain days, when Felix came with his wife Drusilla … he sent for Paul and heard him.
Felix and Drusilla
When Herod Agrippa I died at Caesarea (Acts 12:23), he left behind him a son and three daughters as heirs of the ancestral name and virtues. The son was the Agrippa of chaps, 25, 26, then a handsome and accomplished youth of seventeen, detained at Rome by Claudius. The girls were Berenice (sixteen), Mariamne (ten), and little Drusilla, only six years of age. Pitiful to think of them!--heiresses of such a name, station, temptations, personal beauty and fascination of manner, and ungovernable passions! It was quite consistent with the traditions of the Herod family that Berenice should, while still a girl in her teens, be given in marriage to her uncle Herod of Chaleis, old enough to be her father. At twenty, a widow with two children, she came to Rome to the house of her brother; and there was nothing, either in his character or in hers to prevent horrible suspicions of them from being entertained in the society and the literature of the capital. To avert scandal, she was married to Polerno, a petty king in Asia Minor, whom she soon deserted, and returned to the society of Agrippa, at his two seats, in Caesarea Philippi and Jerusalem. A dozen years after the hearing before Festus, when more than forty-two, twice a widow, and of infamous reputation, her fascinations had so captivated the heart of Titus that he was hardly dissuaded by the indignant clamours of the Romans from making her empress. The story of Mariamne, the second sister, is happily brief and uneventful. But here is this poor little Drusilla, named for her father’s old friend at court, Drusus, son of Tiberius. At the time when her brother set up business as king on a small scale at Caesarea Philippi, she, only fifteen, and a famous beauty, is married to Aziz, another little king, lording it at Hamath, a few days’ journey to the north. And now, to bring in another character, we go back to Rome, to the year 44, with which we started. The back stairs influence of the palace was in the hands of two smart, capable brothers, by the names of Pallas and Felix. They had been, several years before, purchased by Antonia, mother of Claudius. Pallas became her confidential servant, and by and by the brothers received from her their freedom. At her death they transferred their services to her son, to whom they succeeded in making themselves indispensable. Pallas became a sort of major domo on the Palatine hill; and Felix (who took the name of Claudius out of compliment to the emperor) had rapid promotion in the army. In 52 a delegation of Jews arrived with a most grave complaint against the wretched administration of Cumanus, governor of Judaea. Naturally they took counsel at once with young Agrippa, and they drew Pallas into their interest by proposing to petition the emperor to give the governorship to Felix; and so the former house servant of the dowager Antonia became the procurator of Judaea. His administration was worthy of his antecedents. “With all manner of ferocity and lust,” says a famous sentence of Tacitus, “he wielded the power of a king with the temper of a slave.” He had no scruple against employing the basest treachery against public or private enemies. The upright Jonathan, to whom he owed his office, ventured to “reason with him of righteousness,” and he hired assassins to murder him. The last public service which he had rendered just before the arrest of Paul was in the case of an Egyptian leader of “four thousand men who were robbers” (sicarii, dagger men). He dispersed the banditti; but “that Egyptian” had escaped, and they were looking for him. Felix had been about a year in his government, when young Agrippa came to be his next neighbour--a delightful accession to the provincial society, especially when the house of Agrippa was enlivened by the visits of the youthful and beautiful Queen of Hamath! It was not unreasonable in the libidinous old slave (he must have been well advanced towards sixty) to mistrust the power of his personal fascinations; and in looking for some ally in his criminal design, he found, all ready to his hand, a certain magician named Simon, in whom we recognise our old acquaintance Simon Magus. This appropriate agent plied his arts of seduction to such purpose on the young bride, that she abandoned her husband, and gave herself to be the so-called wife of the mean and servile old debauchee at Caesarea. This act of the drama fits closely with the death of the deserted husband, Aziz, a few months later, at his desolated palace between the ranges of Lebanon. Whether he died of a broken heart or not we can only conjecture. Such was the pair before whom, invited to give them a private conference on the subject of faith in Christ, Paul “reasoned of justice and continence and coming judgment.” Caesarea, a seaport town with a population divided between Jews and Gentiles, was liable to furious outbreaks between the parties. One such took place towards the end of Paul’s two years’ imprisonment, when Felix filled up the measure of his iniquities. There went up to Rome complaints that he had not only caused wanton slaughter, but had used his opportunity for private plunder. He had considered himself safe in any crime, it was said, so long as his brother Pallas continued near the ear of Nero. But this time he had ventured too far. To the inexpressible relief of the Jewish people, in 60 he was recalled to Rome; whither he promptly departed, accompanied by Drusilla, and by Simon Magus (as a sort of domestic chaplain), and followed by a deputation of Jews to prosecute him. The prosecution succeeded so far as to compel him to disgorge much of his plunder; but the influence of Pallas screened him from severer punishment. Felix and Drusilla both vanish out of history at this point, and Felix never appears again. But about nineteen years afterwards we get a glimpse of a faded beauty of forty years haunting the voluptuous Roman watering places by the Bay of Naples, in whom we may not easily recognise the little Drusilla. In her company is her grown-up boy, Agrippa. It seems as if the world were threatened with the infestation of yet another generation of the accursed race of Herod. But God is merciful. The awful eruption of Vesuvius that overwhelmed Pompeii amid its debaucheries blessed mankind by burying beneath the storm of suffocating ashes the princess Drusilla and her only child. Many have seen, among the remains of that great catastrophe, the perfect contour of a woman’s form moulded in the ashen soil, within which the flesh had withered away and perished, and the skeleton had fallen bone from bone. It needs no wild effort of the fancy to imagine, as we look on these sorrowful relics, that we are in presence of what remains of the beautiful and guilty princess of the royal house of Herod. (L. W. Bacon, D. D.)
Paul before Felix
I. The preacher. “Paul.” Faithful, fearless, sympathetic, uncompromising, heroic. A man unsurpassed in native and acquired ability, and a match for the proudest philosopher of his day. Here he stands before us with the enemy at bay, and the world beneath his feet; a conqueror, not a captive. Though his limbs were manacled, his spirit revelled in a liberty which no prison walls could circumscribe.
II. The hearers. “Felix and Drusilla.”
1. Officially high. Felix was governor of Judaea.
2. Socially great. In those days, as well as now, money or office cleared a man’s social standing ground, and without inquest for character, or intelligence, he was admitted into the best society.
3. Morally corrupt. There are few crimes of which Felix had not been guilty. Drusilla was no better.
4. In reputation bad. With the stains of cruelty, robbery, adultery and murder upon them, their reputation grew worse and worse, until driven from the country into exile and disgrace.
III. The sermon.
1. Its style. “He reasoned.” Christianity thrives best in the unclouded light of reason, and has nothing to fear from the merciless rigours of logic.
2. Its divisions.
IV. The effect. “Felix trembled.” Gospel preaching is Divinely intended to--
1. Convince the intellect;
2. Stir the sensibilities;
3. Affect the will.
There is in every man the instinct of retribution, and ever and anon the imagination comes flying back from the future pale with the tidings it brings; and from before these spectres the mind recoils and the knees smite together.
V. The failure. “Go thy way.” He was powerfully moved; he felt a great crisis was upon him. Why did he not yield? Indisposition to stop sinning was the cause. So is it always. Drusilla was the stumbling block. (T. Kelly.)
Paul before Felix
I. The possibility of hearing the gospel from wrong motives (verse 24). Felix sent for Paul, not from a sincere desire to know the truth, but to gratify his own whims. We hear the gospel from wrong motives--
1. When we regard it as a pleasing change in the daily routine of life. It afforded diversion for Felix and Drusilla.
2. When we hear it from interest or curiosity in the preacher, or service, or subject.
3. From a desire to please or oblige others.
4. From self-interest. Felix looked for ransom money (verse 26).
5. From a false conception of the gospel, as moderating the severity of the law, and giving license to sin.
II. The possibility of hearing the gospel from wrong motives demands the utmost faithfulness of the preacher. Paul knew the character of his audience, and saw the vast importance of the opportunity. He reasoned of--
1. “Righteousness” to the venal judge--a man on whose favour he was humanly dependent, but whom faithfulness will not permit him to flatter.
2. “Temperance”--soberness, chastity, to this immoral pair.
3. “Judgment to come”--to the unrighteous judge.
III. Faithfulness in the preacher will certainly be influential. “Felix trembled.” He had not expected such a discourse, and never before heard such, particularly from the lips of a prisoner.
1. His conscience was aroused. He trembled--a proof that there was something good in him that felt itself drawn by the good. There is hope in such cases, if the conscience stricken will put forth suitable effort.
2. The power of God’s Word was vindicated (Psalms 119:120; Hebrews 4:12-13).
IV. The utmost faithfulness may fail of absolute success. “Go thy way.” How hard to break away from sin! He hesitated--postponed--and was lost. Felix is a sad representation of many hearers.
1. He trembled.
2. And yet he remained as he was. (The Lay Preacher.)
Paul before Felix
At the beginning of this interview Paul stood a captive before Felix, but at the close Felix stood a moral captive before Paul. The world rests its success upon men; God rests the foundation of His kingdom on the truth. It was not Paul who made Felix tremble, but rather truth blazing in the apostle’s words. In connection with this, observe--
I. The power of truth in statement apart from personal example. There is a marvellous force in words, even apart from the person who uses them. Every man’s life tends to strengthen or weaken that force, but cannot destroy it. Paul’s example, of course, was a tremendous power, but he stood before Felix a stranger, and it was while he reasoned on the faith in Christ that Felix trembled.
II. The nature of Christian truth and faith. It is not needful that we seek out the reason of Felix sending for Paul. He had doubtless anticipated a pleasure in hearing what this Nazarene had done, when Paul confronted him with the fact that faith in Christ always includes the human conscience. “What shall I do to be saved?” asked the jailer of the same apostle. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ,” was his answer; and his exposition of the same Christian faith to the other who had summoned him from a dungeon included the golden rule, the Sermon on the Mount, and the preparation for the Judgment Day, all put into practice. A light thing to believe--a light thing to have faith in Christ! Not that--not so thought Felix. Faith means the human choices and the deeds that shall be sealed in the presence of God.
III. Man’s true nature is subserved by the truth. Godlessness is the dwarfing of man’s nobler nature; impurity is poison. Against this place the faith in Christ, which includes righteousness and purity, and the preparation for the right account, and we have what man needs. Paul made known to Felix the one thing needful. The whole aim of revealed truth is to develop in man his nobler nature. We need God, and all other blessings such as we need will come.
IV. The rejection of Christian truth is sin against self. If the acceptance of revealed truth is what we need, then to slight it is self-infliction of a personal injury. Eternal punishment means eternal sin. The judgment day book on which God writes retribution is man himself, or, rather, God seals what man has written on his own heart. If the worm keeps boring at the root of the tree, the leaves will soon fade and the tree die. If the rats keep gnawing on the plank, the music of the waters outside will be ended in the sound of despair. If the canker keeps on eating, it reaches the vitals soon. Sin, when it is finished, brings forth death upon the sinner--this is the eternal law, a law no man can set aside.
V. Delay is confession. “Go thy way for this time,” means a recognition of the truth in what has been said. Putting off duty is confession of duty--duty deferred. The excuse simply declares a love for sin--an unwillingness to give it up. Paul found it convenient to drag his chains into Felix’s presence to testify of his hope. What if Paul had said, “When I have a convenient season I will obey!” (D. O. Mears, D. D.)
Paul before Felix; or, the contact of Christianity with a heart of corruption and a life of guilt
I. The truths which Christianity has to address to such a man.
1. Righteousness. Nothing could be more appropriate in respectfully addressing one appointed to administer justice, or be more likely to arrest the attention of one so venal as Felix. It would embrace the nature and the requirements of justice in the relations which man sustains to his fellow men; and it would, at the same time, lead the mind up to justice in the higher sense--in that which pertains to God and to His administration.
2. Temperance. The power of self-restraint, self-government. This topic, too, was eminently appropriate. Not indeed an intemperate man in the modern sense, he yet had not the corrupt propensities of his nature under control, and gave free indulgence to carnal appetites.
3. Judgment to come. Addressing wicked man, who must, like other men, soon appear before the bar of his Maker, it was eminently proper that this should be a prominent topic. And these are proper topics for preaching anywhere and everywhere.
II. What is the natural and proper effect of such truths on the mind?
1. All men are aware that, when nature acts freely, there are certain marks of conscious guilt which convey to those around us the knowledge of that which is passing within. The blush, the paleness of the cheek, the averted eye; a trembling and agitated frame; a restless, suspicious, fearful look, are marks of what is within. They cannot be transferred to another kind of conduct--to the consciousness of a noble deed; to purity of purpose.
2. The design of this arrangement, as a part of our constitution, it is not difficult to understand.
III. In what manner are these impressions often met and warded off? Felix “trembled,” but he did not yield. The jailer at Philippi “trembled,” and yielded. The original Greek is, “Taking time, I will call for thee”; that is, I have it not now; I will secure it at some future period. So men, engaged in the world, plead that they have not time to attend to the matter now. So the young delay the subject to a future period, when it will be more suitable than at present. So the gay and thoughtless ask for delay with a promise or a hope that the time will come when religion will be more appropriate, and when--the pleasures of life past--they may find leisure to prepare to die. I do not say that the purpose to attend to it is never carried out. Felix found time to consider the subject, for he “sent for Paul often.” It is not for us to say that a man who has neglected a present opportunity of salvation never is or can be saved. But that it may be the last opportunity no one can doubt; for death may be near. (A. Barnes, D. D.)
Felix, a mixed character
In this incident we see--
I. Good conduct inspired by a good motive.
1. Felix trembled, which was good as far as it went, and was infinitely better than insensibility, flippancy, infidelity, or obstinacy. It is the first step in a new direction--if the next is taken.
2. Felix trembled under a genuine conviction that Paul was right, and the trembling shows a momentary desire to put himself in the right.
II. Bad conduct with a good motive.
1. Felix was animated with a strong desire to release Paul. He liked the man and knew that justice was on his side. What better sign than a desire to be of service to a good man.
2. But Felix sought to compass his desire in a wrong way. Why not say that the case against him had broken down, and that his right to be released must be recognised. But no; Felix’s cupidity was stronger than his amiable desires and his sense of justice. He would do good if bribed to do it. The apostle tells us that their condemnation is just who do evil that good may come.
III. Good conduct with a bad motive.
1. Felix communed with Paul. If evil communications corrupt good manners, how much must good communications improve them. A man is known by the company he keeps, and to exchange the company of Drusilla for that of Paul--what a hopeful sign.
2. But why did Felix commune with Paul? To get money out of him--the reason why many a wolf puts on sheep’s clothing, and why many worldly and wicked men attend Church.
IV. Bad conduct from a bad motive. The true man comes out at last.
1. Bad in conduct. He left Paul bound--in spite of spiritual convictions, sense of justice, communings.
2. Bad in motive. “Willing to show the Jews a pleasure.” Conclusion: “Ye cannot serve God and Mammon.” The man who begins to try to do so ends by wholesale service of the latter. (J. W. Burn.)
Felix and the jailer
(text and Acts 16:27-31):--Let us mark--
I. The points of resemblance.
1. They were wicked men when the apostle became acquainted with them.
2. They were hearers of the gospel. Ungodly though they were, they did not refuse to hear God’s Word. This was well. Gospel was and is the very thing for sinners. “I came not to call the righteous,” says the Saviour, “but sinners to repentance.”
3. They had a desire to know the gospel. This was a farther step. The gospel is, to many of its so-called hearers, an object of complete indifference.
4. They trembled from spiritual conviction.
5. They were delivered from their fears. Before the night had passed the jailer was rejoicing with all his house; and Felix did not tremble long. Thus far the cases correspond and have a hopeful aspect.
II. The points of contrast. They differed as to--
1. The motives which induced them to hear the gospel. The jailer’s motive was anxiety to be saved. Did Felix ever ask, “What must I do to be saved?” Never. Curiosity to hear of the new faith from so famous a teacher may have had an influence. But venality was at the bottom of what he did. He wanted a bribe, and he became a gospel hearer, to give Paul opportunity and encouragement to offer it. Here our thoughts naturally turn to the motives by which people are induced to hear the gospel among ourselves. Remove from our congregations all those who come to gratify an idle curiosity--all who come to acquire a name of respectability, by which their temporal interests may be served--and all who come without any anxious desire to be saved, and how many will remain?
2. As to the nature of their convictions. Both were in deep alarm. Felix saw that God would punish sin. But that was all. He did not see that God was just in doing so. His heart clung to sin, while his spirit was quaking at the thought of the Almighty wrath to which sin exposed him. The jailer saw whence the danger came, and what it was that had brought him to the brink of perdition; that it was sin that was his enemy, rather than God.
3. As to the tendency of their convictions. Felix trembled and Bent Paul away; turned his back upon God’s ordinance of preaching, and rejected the instrumentality that might have led to the salvation of his soul. The jailer trembled to better purpose. His convictions brought him to the apostle’s feet. Hearers of the Word! are any of you awakened? Do not turn your back upon the ordinances that have disturbed your slumbers. This difference farther appears with regard to sin. The convictions of Felix produced no change upon his life; but the jailer became a new man.
4. As to the issue of their convictions. The heart of Felix was hardened; the jailer’s was broken.
5. In the mode of deliverance from their fears. The fears of Felix were overcome by unbelief: those of the jailer were banished by faith.
6. In important particulars of their conduct.
7. In fine, if Felix died as he lived, which we have no reason to doubt, there is a crowning difference now. The terrors of Felix have returned; the jailer is with Jesus in paradise, awaiting the redemption of the body. (Andrew Gray.)
Paul’s private speech
We have often seen Paul in public; we have now to study somewhat his private ministry. It is easier to speak upon Mars’ hill to a great crowd than to speak in a gilded chamber to two eminent personages. Will Paul be the same man in both places? Look at the case in detail.
I. The auditors are great people, yet the gospel does not spare them. Here is the true apostle face to face with evil; he smites it with both hands alone. These are the instances that commend the gospel to our confidence. We cannot dwell too long, too gratefully, upon the moral dignity of this gospel. There is no greatness before it. Because the gospel speaks in this tone it lives forever.
II. The auditors were but two in number, yet the gospel sought to save them. When Christianity takes the census it counts every man one, and says to despairing preachers, “Let him know that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death.” Christianity despises no one. Other religions go by numbers; the individual life is a fleck, a drop of a bucket. But the religion of Jesus Christ having found that one of the lambs has gone astray, will neither eat, nor drink, nor sleep, until the wanderer is back again. So, every man is a congregation. Earnestness can always speak to the individual. If one soul is within ear shot, he constitutes the supreme occasion of any ministry. Jesus often spoke to the one hearer and made revelations to individual hearers greater than any he ever made to the crowd.
III. The auditors asked for entertainment; yet the gospel gave them judgment. The gospel has no entertainments. Felix cared nothing for the faith in Christ himself, for he was a Roman; but Drusilla was a Jewess, and had heard of Jesus of Nazareth, and would hear somewhat of her eccentric compatriot. So we become interested in certain sides and aspects of questions. Drusilla could have no interest in the spiritual Christ; but she had intellectual interest, or the interest of curiosity in the historical magician, the prince of the wonder workers. Paul was an expert, a devotee; he would know about the whole case and would be able to explain it, and now he was at liberty to tell the tale. “And as he reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment.” Is that the faith that is in Christ? Is that Christian preaching? Verily; and the preaching we want every day. Men are delighted with high theological cobweb speculation, and call it marvellous. It is not Christian preaching. The true preaching makes the robber empty his pockets, makes the bad man white with inward accusation, makes the oppressor turn uneasily on his seat as if he were sitting on thorns and fire, turns the bad man mad, and makes him say foamingly at the church door that he will never come back again. The audience should always suggest the subject. This was Paul’s method, and was the invariable method of Jesus Christ Himself. The audience is the text; this is where our speakers fail so much. What do our hearers want with speculations they cannot follow, with dreams they never heard of? He who would preach to the times must preach to the broken-heartedness of the day, to the criminality of the hour, to the inconstancy of the times, to the disloyalty of the army. This advice will never make popular preachers: it will make Pauline preachers. May the Lord of the harvest thrust into His harvest field many such preachers! We are not sent to make theologians, but Christians; we are not sent to build up a system, but to build up a character. (J. Parker, D. D.)
And as he reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and Judgment to come, Felix trembled.
Paul’s reasoning before Felix
I. The manner of Paul’s preaching. He did not utter dogmatic assertions nor deal in vague declamation, in airy speculation which might please but not profit, in the artifices of rhetoric in order to produce effect.
1. He addressed man as a rational being; his great object was to enlighten the mind and carry conviction to the judgment. True, until the heart be moved no good can be done. But as in nature, so also it is in grace--light must first be created. It would be like tracing figures on the sand, to be effaced by the returning wave, if we excited the feelings of the heart without having beforehand imparted knowledge to the head.
2. “He reasoned.” But “What,” asks the infidel, “is there in the Christian religion to reason about? It is the religion of babes, not of men.” True our religion is fitted for babes; and it is its greatest glory that “a wayfaring man, though a fool, shall not err therein.” But this is also as true, that among its disciples it tells of a Locke, a Newton, and a Bacon. And on what occasion did ever Christianity shrink back from inquiry?
3. “He reasoned.” He did not leave the individual, as the saying is, “in the hands of God.” On the contrary, he bent his whole soul to produce conviction and conversion in the mind of Felix.
II. The topics of which he thus preached. Faith and practice; and what God hath joined together let no man put asunder.
1. “He spake concerning the faith in Christ.”
2. “He reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come.”
III. The effect which this sermon produced.
1. That sermon is worthless which does not reach the heart; and that heart must have been hard indeed that could have withstood the reasoning of an inspired apostle and on such important subjects. Felix felt, not grief for sin, only terror on account of its punishment. The apostle had entered with the candle of the Lord into the recesses of his bosom, and disclosed all those images of wickedness which, with all the cowardice of conscious guilt, Felix had striven to conceal from himself. “He trembled,” like the meanest criminal that ever stood at his own tribunal; like the benighted traveller, when all on a sudden the lightning discloses the awful precipice whose brink he is approaching; like the man under sentence of death, when in his cell at the midnight hour he hears the knocking of the hammer erecting the scaffold on which he is to die on the morrow: “he trembled”--like Belshazzar when he saw the handwriting on the wall that proclaimed his days to be numbered and his kingdom to be departed from him.
2. These impressions were the result of God’s Spirit; but they were of short duration: like one suddenly awakened out of his sleep, he felt a moment’s alarm, but he again folded his arms to slumber. Could the apostle have told him how he could be happy without requiring to be holy--how he might escape hell and enjoy earth--gladly would Felix have listened to his message. But since the apostle could preach no gospel but that which proclaimed salvation, not in sin, but from sin, Felix dismisses the preacher, but retains his Drusilla. (W. Auld, jun.)
Of the universal sense of good and evil
I. We learn from this history that there is, even in the worst of men, a natural conscience of good and evil, which may be darkened, perverted, and very much defaced, but is hardly ever quite obliterated and lost. There are certain seasons, which check the insolence of the passions and dispose for gravity and consideration, in which it revives, and represents the malignity of irregular and vicious excesses in a clear and strong light.
II. We may observe from the text what a miserable thing it is to have a conscience burdened with guilt, in that a man dares not trust himself to think for fear of being alarmed and filled with terror and confusion. As long as, men are amused with company or engaged in a hurry of business, or can keep their passions inflamed and silence the voice of reason and natural conscience by a course of intemperance, they may continue stupid and insensible. But when anything happens that damps their gaiety, gives a shock to the mind, and puts them upon thinking, they are soon roused out of their lethargy and entertained with none but dark and gloomy prospects. And nothing, surely, can be a more perverted state of mankind than to derive all their relief, all their peace, from the suppression or extinction of reason. Besides, as guilt is such an enemy to consideration, there is this dreadful circumstance attending it farther to aggravate and enhance its misery, that it cuts off in a great measure the only possible means of the sinner’s recovery.
III. It is a very natural inference from the text that inculcating the great duties of morality and enforcing the practice of them from a regard of the future judgment is true gospel preaching, and answers in the most effectual manner the excellent design of Christianity. To preach Christ is universally allowed to be the duty of every Christian minister. But what does it mean? It is not to use His name as a charm, to work up our hearers to a warm pitch of enthusiasm, without any foundation of reason to support it. ‘Tis not to encourage undue and presumptuous reliances on His merits and intercession, to the contempt of virtue and good works. No, but to represent Him as a Lawgiver as well as a Saviour, as a preacher of righteousness, as one who hath given us a most noble and complete system of morals enforced by the most substantial and worthy motives, and to show that the whole scheme of our redemption is a doctrine according to godliness.
IV. A sense of guilt makes those things the objects of aversion and horror which, naturally, yield the highest delight and satisfaction. We have an instance in the text of one that was shocked at the strict obligations of justice, without which there can be no pleasure or convenience in human life, and the whole frame of civil societies must immediately be dissolved. It mortifies the epicure and the adulterer to be told of the rules of temperance and chastity, which are absolutely necessary to the health of our bodies, the rectitude and vigour of our minds, and the grand security of what is most dear and sacred to us; and the cruel and revengeful to hear of gentleness, beneficence, and the soft impressions of humanity, though they form the most excellent and amiable character we can possibly conceive of. In like manner, the future judgment of mankind is in itself far from being an object of terror; for that we are moral, accountable creatures is owing to our superior capacities, which are the distinguishing dignity of our nature; and nothing can be a more comfortable reflection to a well-disposed mind than that its integrity will be tried and rewarded by a Being of unerring wisdom, inflexible justice, and unlimited goodness. But to a guilty sinner this is so tremendous a scene, that the mere prospect of it fills him with agony and confusion. He does not consider it as honourable to human nature, because it threatens his vices; can’t think of abiding by the sentence of unchangeable rectitude and infinite benevolence itself; and the sum of his wishes is to die like a brute. The future judgment is not revealed with a view to alarm and confound the mind, but to restrain those irregular practices which are the surest ground of melancholy suspicions and inward horror. (James Foster.)
Paul’s sermon before Felix
I. The appropriate sermon. I can conceive that Felix expected to have a grand disquisition upon some recondite themes of the gospel. This was not the place nor the time for that.
1. I can imagine how Paul would bring before the mind of Felix the widow who bad been defrauded of inheritance, the fatherless children who were left to beg their bread, the many bribes that he had taken, the false decisions that he had given.
2. Then gently turning to the other subject, I can imagine how he would fix his eyes upon Drusilla and bring the most powerful motives to bear upon her lascivious heart; and then turning to Felix, would remind him that adulterers have no inheritance in the kingdom of God.
3. I can conceive how Felix would bite his lips. Paul gave him no time for passion; for in a fury of impassioned eloquence he introduced the “judgment to come.” He made Felix think he saw the great white throne, the books opened, and himself arraigned before his Judge; and what the apostle did every minister ought to do. He selected topics appropriate to his audience. But some will say, “Ministers ought not to be personal.” Ministers will never be true to their Master till they are, I admire John Knox for going, Bible in hand, to Queen Mary, and sternly upbraiding her. I do not exactly love the way in which he did it, but the thing itself I love.
II. The affected audience. What is it that makes men tremble under the sound of the gospel? Some say it is their conscience. Doubtless it is in some sense. But I believe that what some people call natural conviction is the work of the Spirit. In some men’s hearts He works with restraining grace, and the trembling of Felix is to be accounted for by this quickening his conscience and making him tremble. But what shall be said of some of you who never tremble?
III. The lamentable disappointment. “It is wonderful,” said a good man once to a minister, “to see a whole congregation moved to tears by the preaching of the Word.” “Yes,” said that minister, “it is wonderful; but I know a wonder ten times greater, viz., that those people should so soon wipe away their tears and forget what they have beard.” ‘Tis wonderful that Felix trembled before Paul; ‘tis more wonderful that Felix should say, “Go thy way.” Stop, Felix; let Paul speak to thee a minute longer. Thou hast business; but hast thou no business for thy soul? Dost thou reply, “Nay, I must attend to Caesar.” Ah! Felix, but thou hast a greater monarch than Caesar. I know what thou durst not say. Felix, thou art turning aside again to indulge in thy lascivious pleasures. Go, and Drusilla with thee! But stop! Darest thou do that, with that last word ringing in thy ears, “Judgment to come”? You, too, many of you, have often been impressed under the ministry, and on Monday you have said, “I must attend to business.” Think of men that are dying every day, saying, “We must live,” and forgetting that they must die! Another replies, “I must have a little more pleasure.” What! can there be pleasure in turning suicide to thine own soul? But the usual reply is, “There is time enough yet.” The young man says, “Let me alone till I grow old.” And you old men, what do you say? “When do you hope to find a convenient season? The young may die, the old must! But still the common cry is, “There is time enough.” What for? Surely you have spent time enough in sin? What! time enough to serve a God that laid down His life for you? No! eternity will not be too long to utter His praise. Thou sayest, “Another time.” How knowest thou that thou wilt ever feel again as thou feelest now? This morning, perhaps, a voice is saying in thy heart, “Prepare to meet thy God.” Tomorrow that voice may be hushed. How do you know that you shall live to be warned again? Oh! why will you then dare to procrastinate? Will your soul ever be saved by your saying, “Time enough yet”? Tillotson well says, “A man may say, ‘I resolve to eat,’ but the resolve to eat would never feed his body. A man might say, ‘I am resolved to drink,’ but the resolve to drink would never slake his thirst.” And you may say, “I am resolved by and by to seek God,” but your resolve will not save you. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Paul preaching before Felix
Whatever may have been the motives of Felix and Drusilla, we have before us the singular fact that profligate persons, with not the smallest intention of forsaking their profligacy, could send for a preacher that he might preach to them concerning the faith in Christ. It is a fact which altogether forbids us inferring the piety of the multitude from the earnestness to which they flock to the preaching of the Word. What is there to assure us that in an assembly of eager and riveted listeners there may not now be the Felix and Drusilla, who associate themselves with the hearers of the gospel, and seem to take a deep interest in its announcements. It might well make us tremble to think what profligate characters may be found in the house of God, all apparently hearkening with the most earnest attention to what the preacher has to advance. Note--
I. The topics on which St. Paul expatiated.
1. Although Felix had sent for Paul to hear about the faith in Christ, it was not concerning this faith that the apostle chiefly spoke; he rather dealt with topics which belong to natural as well as revealed religion. He knew that comparatively no moral advantage is obtained by prevailing upon men to take this or that tenet into their creed if they do not suffer it to be influential on their conduct; and therefore it was no object with him to get reception for fresh truths whilst he knew that there were old truths which, though theoretically acknowledged, were practically without power. Felix and Drusilla expected that the apostle would enter at once on controverted points and on some abstruse speculation which might engage the understanding but not touch the conscience. And if it were wisdom in the apostle thus to confine himself to the truths that were acknowledged by his hearers, and so to give them no opportunity to escape, must it not also be so in the modern preacher?
2. But it were unpardonable to speak of Paul’s wisdom and overlook his intrepidity. Oh, for his spirit, that there might be no fear of men! The sin which is most likely to prevail in a congregation is the sin against which the preacher should direct most of his preaching. In this way he will be most likely to do good, though he be most likely to give offence; for the courtiers will sit most approvingly and contentedly whilst the vices of merchants are lashed, and merchants whilst those of courtiers; but once let the sermon have a marked reference to the audience, and there will be uneasiness, and in most cases displeasure.
II. The effect which his sermon produced. Of Drusilla you are told nothing. A woman, when she has abandoned herself to wickedness, is far harder to reclaim than man; and it may be proof of the truth of this remark that, whilst Felix trembled, Drusilla was unmoved. Probably he was surrounded by a princely retinue, and did he suffer soldiers and subjects to see him disconcerted by the insolence of a forward enthusiast? Ah! it is not in the pompous train or in armed battalions to give courage when the conscience is once roused. There is no cowardice like the cowardice of guilt, and no power like the power of truth. But, alas for Felix! in place of being moved by his fears in the immediate search after safety, he had recourse, with sinners of every age, to procrastination. He did not entreat the apostle to point out the way of escape, as he had pointed out the danger, but dismissed him. He did not deign to take no further care of the matter; he only deferred what by his trembling he had confessed it right in him to do. And he was not without an excuse. When was the sinner ever at a loss when his sins were to be palliated? He waited for a convenient season. It was not fitting to repent suddenly; there ought to be deliberation. He had, moreover, much business to attend to; he must put public affairs into a little better train, then would he be at leisure for the weighty duties of amendment. And did a convenient season come? Yes, he had many interviews with St. Paul, but with what object? Great God! is it possible! It had been whilst he disclaimed against extortion and avarice that Felix had shook with apprehension! And now this very Felix sends for the apostle, hoping to wring from him a bribe. We ask, Is this possible? Why not? The whole transaction is repeated in our own day, and amongst ourselves. Felix having by delay got quit of his fears, could look upon St. Paul merely as upon one likely to gratify his lust of money; and the man whom the preacher has once made to tremble, but who has crushed the conviction which had in it the germ of conversion, may afterwards look upon the preacher merely as upon one likely to gratify his love of excitement. (H. Melvill, B. D.)
Our text brings before us a very extraordinary scene. The prisoner at the bar seems to be exercising the functions of prosecutor, witness, jury, and handing over his judge, as a condemned culprit, into the hands of the supreme Judge of all, while the judge is neither able to defend or excuse himself. It is not an unusual thing in criminal trials to see the prisoner trembling. Here is a prisoner for whom his judge has no terrors. It is not unusual to see a judge dignified and self-possessed, but here sits a poor trembling wretch on whom the words of the prisoner fall like a death sentence. At last he can stand it no longer. Why should he make himself miserable? If the arguments of the apostle could not be answered, at any rate he might be silenced. But I want to call your attention to the fact that what made Felix tremble was not an exhibition of impassioned rhetoric, but it was a solemn appeal to his reasoning faculties. I by no means disparage appeals to the feelings, inasmuch as we all have hearts, but the strength of these lies in the presence of an intellectual conviction affecting the conscience of those whom we address. I can imagine the governor, prepared to find his prisoner a half-crazy fanatic, commencing his inquiries, while a cynical smile played over his sinister countenance: “I understand, Paul, that you are an ardent adherent of one Christ. Can you now explain to me why you make so much ado about this person, who was executed as a common felon?” This gave St. Paul his opportunity. “In order that I may the better explain to you what Christ is to me, it will be expedient that I should first touch upon certain subjects connected with religion and morality, with respect to which we may probably be able to understand each other.” So now it is necessary to form just opinions on those subjects, in order that we may be led to feel our need of Christ. Paul reasoned--
I. Concerning righteousness.
1. The word has its root in the word right. Righteousness springs from that great law of right which pervades all the relations of man to his Maker and to his fellow man. The recognition of these rights and the fulfilment of the claims which they carry with them is righteousness.
(a) We are taught that of Him, and by Him, and for Him are all things. He, as the Author of our being, has created us for His own purposes; and therefore we are under an obligation to respect His intentions in thus allowing us to enjoy it. Not to do this is to wrong God, to defraud Him of His rights in us, and thus to break the fundamental commandment of the law of righteousness.
(b) As these claims of God are not arbitrarily imposed, so He cannot withdraw them. George III, when pressed by his prime minister to give his assent to a measure of which he did not approve, exclaimed, “I’ll not sign it, Mr. Pitt; it goes against my conscience!” “Then, sir,” replied his minister, “I have no course open to me but to resign.” “Very good, Mr. Pitt, very good; you can resign if you like, but I can’t.” The story may serve to illustrate our present point God cannot resign.
(c) As the result of the existence of these rights of God in us, He must needs claim it of us first, that we should make a full and willing surrender of ourselves to Him, to live for His glory and in accordance with His will; and secondly, He must needs claim it of us that we should abstain from anything that is opposed to His proper relations with us and His will concerning us.
2. How much of the law of righteousness do most men seem to recognise? Only one part out of four. How common a thing it is when we press men about their spiritual condition to meet with the reply, “Well, I’ve never done any harm to anyone.” Granted; does that mean that you have performed your positive or negative duty towards God? or that you have performed your positive duty to your fellow man? The words convey no such idea. The priest and Levite did no harm to the half-dead man, but they failed to do him any good; and you do not even affirm that you have lived to benefit your fellow man any more than they. What then? To put the thing in a familiar form: you pay, or think you pay, five shillings in the pound, and then claim a quittance of the whole debt. That would hardly pass muster in a London bankruptcy court; and can you think that such a composition will be accepted at the last great assize? And what if the five shillings proves to have been paid in base coin? How few of us are there that can truly affirm that we have done no harm to anyone? Where is the godless man that has not done some injury to those around him?
3. We are now in a position to judge ourselves as to whether we are righteous. Does our own heart condemn us? You can judge for yourselves whether it be possible that these claims can be either modified or withdrawn. If they cannot, then you will of necessity begin to feel your need of that which St. Paul found in Christ. When once his eyes had been opened to see what the claims of righteousness really were, and hence to discover his own unrighteousness, there was no rest for him until he had found a new and better righteousness in Christ Jesus.
II. Concerning temperance. As righteousness has to do with the rights which others have in us, so temperance leads us to consider the rights which we have in ourselves. The word conveys the idea of self-mastery--capacity to govern oneself in accordance with the dictates of sound reason.
1. There are within our complex nature certain elements which are obviously designed to be supreme, while there are others that are intended to be subject to control. That this must be so is clear; for if every element within were to assert its own supremacy, our human nature would be like a house divided against itself. We may conclude with sufficient confidence--
2. In the maintenance of this supremacy also lies the only security for our well-being, and even for our safety; for while God has made special provisions to prevent the lower animals from falling a prey to their own incontinence by establishing certain checks, He has not thus hedged round man. He is possessed of a moral freedom, and hence can either, by the right exercise of his faculties, rise to a higher level than the animal can aspire to or can sink to as much a lower level by their abuse. We do the animals an injustice when we speak, e.g., of the intemperate man as a drunken brute. Who ever knew of a brute that was of its own will drunken? So, then, there are certain faculties or elements of our nature which should be supreme, and others which should be under control. Where this order exists, there moral harmony ensues; and this is what we understand by temperance. When it is transgressed, moral anarchy must be the result; and this is what we understand by intemperance.
3. Man’s moral nature may be compared to a commonwealth, in which there are ignorant and incapable multitudes who need to be governed with a view to their own good, and also intelligent and able men who are fit to govern. Now it has sometimes happened that the supreme power has passed into the hands of an ignorant and fanatical mob, and then have followed the worst and most frightful forms of anarchy. Then, again, it has often happened that from amongst the mob there has arisen some single tyrant who, beginning with being the idol of the mob, has gone on to become its most ruthless enemy; and then sometimes follows the last woful sequel of this inversion of the proper order of things--invasion, a foreign thrall, followed ultimately by national extinction. So when these elements of our nature, which ought to be subject to control, are allowed by the frailty of our will to arrogate to themselves an authority to which they have no claim, man becomes subject to a sort of inward mob rule. Then it not unfrequently happens that from the general moral confusion there emerges into an unholy prominence some specific besetting sin which becomes a sort of tyrant, and brings all our powers and faculties under its own grim and terrible sway. Such a tyrant power is drunkenness, or lust, or avarice, when once it lays hold upon man’s nature and becomes a confirmed habit. And this miserable condition invites hostile intervention from without. There is an enemy at the gates who finds our divided and self-betrayed nature at his mercy, and who can thus take possession of our being, and in the end, unless we are delivered out of his hands, procure our utter and irremediable ruin.
4. What hope is there under such circumstances that by the mere action of a will already enervated the captive can break his chains and set himself free?
III. Concerning judgment to come.
1. A belief in this may be regarded as a corollary to a belief in the existence of God Himself. If there be a Moral Governor of the universe, we cannot do otherwise than conclude that there is a judgment to come.
2. Now, when I turn to revelation, I find not only the statement that there shall be such a judgment, but also indications of some of its more prominent characteristics.
I. The nature of this trembling. We must distinguish between a sanctifying fear (Proverbs 16:6) which is a grace, an habitual disposition of the soul (Isaiah 66:2; Ezra 10:3), and the fear which only troubles us for the present.
1. Holy fear is a voluntary work excited by faith believing God’s threatening, and by love which is troubled at the offences done to God. A fear like that of Felix is an involuntary impression arising from the spirit of bondage and irresistible conviction, which for a while puts its subjects into the stocks of conscience, but they seek to enlarge themselves as soon as they can.
2. They differ in their grounds. To be troubled for the offence done to God is a good sign, but to be troubled merely for the punishment due is the guise of hypocrites (Hebrews 12:17; Mark 10:22).
3. They differ in their effects. Sometimes--
II. Its cause--the Word.
1. The matter.
(a) Partly because of its Author, whose impress is on it (Hebrews 4:12).
(b) Partly because of its clearness to a natural conscience if it be not blinded (2 Corinthians 4:2-18).
(c) Chiefly because of the concomitant blessing (John 16:8; 2 Corinthians 4:6).
(a) This made their access to the heart more easy because of its suitableness to natural light (Romans 1:32).
(b) This most befriends the great discovery of the gospel, justification and pardon through Christ, by submitting to His instruction. If He be our Judge we should take the law from His mouth.
(c) This best solves doubts about present providence (Ecclesiastes 8:4).
2. The manner. The Word must be applied--
III. Its effects. It may come to nothing through--
1. Levity (Hosea 6:4, cf. Proverbs 4:18).
2. Addictedness to lusts which is greater than affection to religion (Luke 8:14).
3. Unskilfulness in handling wounds of conscience.
4. Want of God’s grace, which is forfeited by those who have common helps.
1. Information. We learn--
(a) An unbeliever.
(b) A judge who humbled under his prisoner. Outward disadvantages should not discourage us.
(c) A depraved man. We should despair of none.
(d) A man glutted with worldly happiness. The thoughts of the next world will sour all the sweets of this.
(a) Impartial (Revelation 20:12).
(b) Strict and just (Acts 17:31).
(d) Every minute brings it nearer (James 5:9),
(a) It may be lost partly by delays and dreams of a more convenient season (Luke 14:18), and partly by relapses into our old crimes, as here.
(b) Reasons. It is very dangerous--iron often heated and quenched is the more hard (Proverbs 29:1). You lose the season wherein God will be found (Hebrews 3:7; 2 Corinthians 6:1-2).
The awakening of conscience
Those who have seen Holman Hunt’s picture of the “Awakened Conscience” will not soon forget it. There are only two figures--a man and a woman, sitting in a gaudily furnished room, beside a piano. His fingers are on the instrument, his face, which is reflected in a mirror, is handsome and vacant, evidently that of a man about town, who supposes that the brightest part of creation is intended to administer to his amusement. A music book on the floor is open at the words “Oft in the stilly night.” That tune has struck some chord in his companion’s heart. Her face of horror says what no language could say, “That tune has told me of other days when I was not as I am now.” The tune has done what the best rules that were ever devised could not do. It has brought a message from a father’s house. (W. Denton.)
Go thy way for this time; when I have a convenient season I will call for thee.--
Frivolities render men callous to the gospel
When Bonaparte put the Duke d’Enghien to death, all Paris felt so much horror at the event that the throne of the tyrant trembled under him. A counter revolution was expected, and would most probably have taken place, had not Bonaparte ordered a new ballet to be brought out, with the utmost splendour, at the Opera. The subject he pitched on was “Ossian, or the Bards.” It is still recollected in Paris, as perhaps the grandest spectacle that had ever been exhibited there. The consequence was that the murder of the Duke d’Enghien was totally forgotten, and nothing but the new ballet was talked of. After this fashion Satan takes off men’s thoughts from their sins, and drowns the din of their consciences. Lest they should rise in revolt against him, he gives them the lusts of the flesh, the vanities of pride, the cares of this world, or the merriment of fools, to lead away their thoughts. Poor silly men are ready enough for these misleading gaieties, and for the sake of them the solemnities of death and eternity are forgotten. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
The sinful dismissal
I. A guilty rejection. “Go thy way.”
1. Its reason.
2. Its guilt.
II. A prevailing temptation. “When I have a convenient season.”
1. It supposes a more suitable time than the present. Though surrounded by religious privileges, numbers are ensnared.
2. It estimates religion as a secondary matter. Dreadful thought that religion should be set aside for earthly pleasures and profits--the poor trifles of a day!
III. A fatal delusion. “I will call for thee.” But did he? The delusion is apparent, inasmuch as--
1. Those who have stifled convictions are the most hardened--Noah’s hearers, Sodom, and the Jews in our Lord’s day.
2. No sinner will call for light unvisited by the Holy Spirit.
3. It is not certain that a future “call” will prevail.
Ordered back to the guard room
Felix sent Paul back and adjourned the subject of religion because--
I. He did not want to give up his sins. There was Drusilla; if he became a Christian, he must send her back to Azizus, her lawful husband--the case with many practically today. Tonight, some of you will have to decide between unlawful amusements and eternal salvation. Delilah sheared the locks of Samson; Salome danced Herod into the pit; Drusilla blocked up the way to heaven for Felix; and unless some of you repent, you shall likewise perish. Yet I fear some of you will say, “Don’t be so precipitate. I have a few tickets yet that I have to use. I have a few engagements that I must keep. Go thy way for this time.” I know that it is easier when you are in a boat to pull with the stream, but what if, tonight, you should be within a few yards of the vortex? Turn your boat around, and, as with a death grip, pull for your eternal life, crying, “Lord, save me, I perish!”
II. He was so very busy. In ordinary times he found the affairs of state absorbing, but those were extraordinary times. The whole land was ripe for insurrection. And so some of you look upon your goods, profession, memorandum books, and you see the demands that are made upon your time, patience, and money, and while I am entreating you about your soul and the danger of procrastination, you say, “Go thy way for this time,” etc. Oh, Felix, you might better postpone everything else, for do you not know that the upholstering of Tyrian purple in your palace will fade, and the marble blocks of Caesarea will crumble, but the redemption that Paul offers you will be forever? and yet you waive him back to the guard room.
III. He could not give up the honours of the world. He was afraid he would compromise himself. Yet what were those honours worth when in two short years they were torn from him, and when he disappeared covered with infamy? Conclusion: Have you never seen men waiting for a convenient season? I say to a boy, “Seek Christ.” He says, “No; wait until I get to be a young man.” I say to the young man, “Seek Christ.” He says, “Wait until I come to mid-life.” I meet the same person in mid-life, he says, “Wait until I get old.” I meet the same person in old age, and he says, “Wait until I am on my dying bed.” I am called to his dying couch; and yet he whispers, “I am--waiting--for--a more--convenient--season”--and he is gone! I can tell you when your convenient season will come. It is now. Do you ask me how I know this? I know it because you are here; and because the Holy Spirit is here; and because the people of God in this church are praying for you. Now is the best time, as it may be the only time. (T. De Witt Talmage, D. D.)
The convenient season
1. The man who does not listen to a strain of sweet music may be pardoned for not appreciating it; but the man who listens, only to respond with a shuffle, must be very cold and dull. Yet such seems to be the outrage which the man commits who interrupts the loving overture which calls him to the feast, with the earth-croak of his farm, his merchandise, his yoke of oxen, or his marriage peal. Felix is just in the same position as the people who made light of the call; that is, he is called to make up his mind concerning the same privileges. But he certainly is not so cold as those who make light of it or those who make excuse. They were more or less at ease, but Felix trembles. An uneasy conscience, however sad a thing, is more hopeful than placid deadness or blithe indifference. There is more chance for a man who is on the rack than for one who is dead. There is more hope of a man with the hot-ache than of one who is frozen. Here is a man trembling under the truth. Surely that is better than one who is callous to it or laughing at it. Still it is a condition eminently unsatisfactory. It is a shuffle after all, for it proceeds on a fallacy. The plea of convenience is a delusion. It is never convenient to cut off an arm or to pluck out an eye, and yet it may be imperative. To send away the messenger of truth, however painful the news he brings, will not change his tidings or alter the necessity of receiving it. When a man begins to tremble at his conscience, there is no convenient season for getting the trembling calmed; but there is one wise and sure season, and that is now.
2. We have sometimes heard this incident dealt with in a strain which has seemed to render but scant justice to Felix himself. The common way is to represent Felix as sending Paul away to get rid of him; that the convenient season never came; and that it was simply, “out of sight, out of mind.” Then this is followed out into an analogy between sending away the messenger because the message is despised, and stifling conscience, resisting and grieving and quenching the Spirit. Now this (without qualification) amounts to an injustice, by putting a stern construction on his conduct when a milder one would be equally natural. It seems possible, and even probable, that his motive was that he might go away and reflect alone upon what he had heard, and seek further instruction when less excited and more able to appreciate it. And here we hit a blot upon the methods of some of our more zealous teachers. They are impatient of a calmness which may be more devout than mere excitement. They do not leave room for the exercise of the judgment. They reiterate the emphatic “now” with a passion which sometimes overacts itself. They cannot wait for the leaven to work. If a man turns away and says, “I can’t go farther now; I will see you again tomorrow,” it is a common thing to hear an exclamation, “Oh, tomorrow may never come; today is the day of salvation.” Now, in a sense, this is true, but not in the sense intended. Conviction of sin, and righteousness, and judgment to come, may be a momentary, or it may be a gradual thing; and at least it requires time to work out its effects and results. God’s method is one of calm appeal: “Come now, and let us reason together.” The physician sees his patient again and again, and watches his case carefully.
3. We have tried to do justice to Felix, and we would fain do justice to you. We have ventured the hypothesis of an honest motive for his dismissal of the pleader. But the honesty or otherwise of your motive will prove itself in one of two ways. You will seek to put yourself within reach of the argument again when the season of solitary reflection has passed. If the convenient season never comes, that will be proof that you stifled the argument to still your fears. And you will put yourself into communication with the messenger to say, either that you want to be taught further, or else that you have tidings for him that a greater Teacher has been with you in your solitude; and looking out of self to Christ, the light came, the righteousness was sealed to you, and the judgment to come has passed away. Take today as the convenient season for this. Put nothing that is important off till tomorrow. If you tremble at righteousness and judgment to come, seek your assurance by accepting the righteousness and redemption which have already come, and which Christ is offering you today. Don’t raise impediments, don’t raise the old cry of being unworthy and wicked. Accept Christ; and, whatever it may cost you, do it now. Is it not true that putting off decision does make the ear grow heavy and the eye grow dim? Is it not true that there was a time when the music of the gospel rang more sweet to you than now, and the smile of Jesus had a fairer charm than pleases you today? And why? Not because the tune is altered or the visage changed. But because you have heard, but have not listened; have looked, but have not loved. (Arthur Mursell.)
Delay of repentance
I. The longer we delay returning to God and seeking His mercy through the Saviour, we must increase our guilt and add to that condemnation which we have already incurred.
II. By delay we must diminish the blessings and increase the evils of our present condition.
III. Delay may produce such insensibility to sin and its consequences as to render it improbable that sinners should awaken to a sense of their danger, repent, and lay hold of the hope that is set before them. Far be it from us to fix limits to the mercy of the Most High. He may, without doubt, have mercy on whom He will have mercy, and if it so please Him He may change even in death the heart of the most hardened sinners; yet small reason, surely, have such sinners to expect at such a period so peculiar an interposition; and to delay repentance now, and to rest their salvation on the hope of it, is of all infatuations the greatest and most fearful. Yet even this hope, faint as it is, may not be granted.
IV. Consider the shortness and uncertainty of human life. The work is great which is given us to do. The object is higher than all others for which we are to prepare, and it is during our stay on earth alone that this work can be done and this preparation can be made. And is the period of our continuance here so long that it should be wasted in vanity and sin, or that we should shorten by delay the time which is assigned for a purpose so unspeakably important? (S. MacGill, D. D.)
The convenient season
A man always finds a convenient season for doing what he loves best. Whether it is working, or eating, or sleeping, or pleasure seeking, or money getting, or place hunting, if it has his heart he will find time for it. If he does not find a convenient season for accepting the offer of salvation, it is because he values something above that. He thinks more of the life that nor is than of the life which is to come. He fails to realise how much more of joy there is in the present life to one who has Christ for his Saviour, than to one who is not at peace with God. The convenient season for taking hold of the richest treasure God can give to man, and for receiving the best of blessings, is now. He who is not ready to be saved when the lifeboat is at the wreck will never have a more convenient season for his rescue. This hour is your convenient season for that which is best worth your attention and doing. (H. C. Trumbull, D. D.)
The convenient season
Felix’s excuse is that of those--
1. Who know indeed the vanity of the world, but are too indolent to tear themselves from its pleasures.
2. Who feel indeed the disgrace of the slavery of sin, but are too weak earnestly to repent.
3. Who have experienced indeed, in a measure, the power of the Word of God, bus are too frivolous to resign themselves entirely to it. (Leonhard and Speigelhauer.)
Now, now!--Not by and by
Felix had sent for Paul evidently not as a judge, but partly with a view to try to get a bribe out of him, and partly because he had some kind of languid interest, as most Romans then had, in Oriental thought, and perhaps too in this strange man. Or he and Drusilla were possibly longing for a new sensation. So they called for the apostle, and the guilty couple got a good deal more than they bargained for. Christianity has sometimes to be exceedingly rude in reference to the sins of the upper classes. As Paul goes on, a strange fear began to creep about the heart of Felix. It is the watershed of his life that he has come to, the crisis of his fate. Everything depends on the next five minutes. The tongue of the balance trembles and hesitates for a moment and then, but slowly, the wrong scale goes down. “Go thy way for this time.” Ah! If he had said, “Come and help me to get rid of this strange fear,” how different all might have been! The metal was at the very point of melting. What shape would it take? It ran into the wrong mould, and, as far as we know, it was hardened there.
I. This incident is an example of the fact that men lull awakened consciences to sleep and excuse delay in deciding for Christ by half-honest promises to attend to religion at some future time. Felix’s anxiety is to get rid of Paul and his disturbing message for the present. But he does not wish to shut the door altogether. So he gives a sop to his conscience to stop its barking.
1. Let me remind you that however beautiful the message of God’s love in Jesus Christ is, there is another side to it which is meant to awaken men’s fears. You bring a man like Felix, or a very much better man, into contact with “righteousness, temperance, judgment to come,” and the effect of a direct appeal to moral convictions will always be more or less to create a dread that if I set myself against the law of God, that law will crush me. The fear is well founded, and not only does the contemplation of God’s law excite it. God’s gospel comes to us, and just because it is the best “good news,” it begins often by making a man feel what a sinful man he is, and how there hang over him consequences bitter and painful.
2. The awakened conscience, like the sense of pain, has got a work to do--to warn you off dangerous ground. Now have you used that sense of wrong-doing to lead you to Christ, or what have you done with it? There are two men in this book who pass through the same stages of feeling up to a certain point, and then they diverge. Felix becoming afraid, puts away the thing that disturbs him; the Philippian jailor becoming afraid (the phrases in the original being almost identical), like a sensible man, says, “What must I do to be saved?” The fear is of no use in itself. It is only an impelling motive that leads us to look to the Saviour.
II. Some of the reasons why we fall into this habit of self-deceiving indecision and delay.
1. 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 a great many of us do not like these thoughts about “righteousness, and temperance and judgment to come,” and make an effort to get our minds away from the subject because it is unpleasant. Do you think it would be a wise thing for a man, if he began to suspect that he was insolvent, to refuse to look into his books, and let things drift. And what do you call people who, suspecting that there may be a great hole in the bottom of the ship, say, “Oh! she will very likely keep afloat until we get into harbour”? Certainly it is not wise to shuffle a thing out of sight because it is not pleasing to think about.
2. The notion that it is time enough to be religious when you get a bit older, and that religion is all very well for people that are turned sixty, but that it is quite unnecessary for you. Some are tempted to regard thoughts of God as in place only among medicine bottles, or when the shadows of the grave begin to fall on our path. “Young men will be young men”; “We must sow our wild oats”; “You can’t put old heads on young shoulders”--practically mean that godlessness belongs to youth, and virtue and religion to old age, just as flowers to spring and fruit to autumn. I beseech you not to be deceived by such a notion.
3. The habit of allowing impressions to be crowded out by cares, enjoyments and duties of this world. If you had not so much to do at college, if you had not so many parties and balls to go to, if you had not your place to make in the warehouse, if you had not this, that, and the other thing to do, you would have time for religion. Here tonight some serious thought is roused; by tomorrow at midday it has all gone. You did not intend it to go, you 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 that, if it had been cared for and tended, might have led you to the Cross of Jesus Christ.
4. Because you do not like to give up something that you know is inconsistent with Christ’s love and service. Felix would not part with Drusilla, nor disgorge his ill-gotten gain. He was therefore obliged to put away from him the thoughts that looked in that direction.
III. Some reasons for present decision.
1. Delay is really decision the wrong way.
2. There is no real reason for delay. No season will be more convenient than the present. Every time is the right time to do the right thing.
3. There is nothing to wait for.
4. Every time that you delay to accept this message you make yourselves less capable of receiving it another time. If you 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 your hearts, has burnt itself out, it has coated the heart, and it will be very difficult to kindle the light there again. Felix did send for Paul again, and repeated the conversation, but we do not know that he repeated the trembling.
5. Delay robs you of large blessing. Why should you postpone possessing the purest joy, the highest blessing, the Divinest strength?
6. Delay inevitably lays up for you bitter memories and involves dreadful losses. There are good Christian men and women who would give all they have if they could blot out of the tablets of their memories some past hours before they gave their hearts to Christ. I would have you ignorant of such transgression.
7. No tomorrow may be yours. Delay is gambling, very irrationally, with a very uncertain thing--your life and your future opportunities. (A. Maclaren, D. D.)
If unbelief has slain its thousands, procrastination has its ten thousands. Where one sinner is frightened into religion, a hundred are deceived to ruin by the siren’s voice crying Tomorrow. The devil cares not how moral a man is, nor how anxious he is about his soul, so long as he is disposed to wait on a future opportunity. Procrastination is both “the thief of time” and the great harvest gatherer of lost souls.
I. Tomorrow has no place in the economy of salvation. From first to last, with God and His offered mercy, it is now, today! There is not one promise in the Bible for tomorrow, or the next opportunity.
II. Today is the most favourable season any sinner will ever have to seek God in the way of repentance. A “convenient season” to repent of sin and return to God will never come. Repentance is a bitter cup to all. To love what one has hated, and hate what one has loved, will never be found convenient. Come when it will, it will be crucifixion, a going counter to all the strong currents of human nature. And if you have not resolution, strength, for this today, you will have less inclination and strength for the distasteful service tomorrow.
III. The law of habit comes in here as a tremendous factor. It cost you a struggle to resist conviction the first time God’s Spirit wrought upon you. But now it has grown into a habit, under its fell power you can resist every appeal without effort.
IV. The means of salvation, when resisted, lose more and more of their power, till finally they cease to have any saving influence. The Word of God ceases to alarm. The voice of conscience is hushed. The tender heart is gone. The striving Spirit is grieved away. The Sabbath and the sanctuary lose their charm. Chastisements no longer check the downward trend. Awful monitions of a hastening doom!
V. Meanwhile the outward obstacles to salvation are continually augmenting both in number and in influence over the sinner. Evil habits, associations, entanglements, the infirmities of age, etc., block up the way of life and draw with the strength of a leviathan towards perdition. (J. M. Sherwood, D. D.)
There was a man in Chicago who twice determined to give his heart to God, but never had the courage to acknowledge Christ before his ungodly companions. When recovering from a long sickness, he still refused to come out boldly on the side of Christ, saying, “Not yet; I have got a fresh lease of life. I can’t be a Christian in Chicago. I am going to take a faith in Michigan and then I will profess Christ.” I asked him, “How dare you take the risk?” He said, “I will risk it; don’t you trouble yourself any more about my soul. I have made up my mind.” The very next week he was stricken down with the same disease. His wife sent for me, and said, “He don’t want to see you, but I can’t bear that he should die in such an awful state of mind. He says, ‘my damnation is sealed, and I shall be in hell in a week.’” I tried to talk and pray with him, but it was no use; he said his heart was as hard as a stone. “Pray for my wife and children, but don’t waste your time praying for me.” His last words were, “The harvest is past,” etc. (D. L. Moody.)
It is a solemn thing to say tomorrow, when God says today; for man’s tomorrow and God’s today never meet. The word that comes from the eternal throne is now, and it is man’s own choice that fixes his doom. (D. Matheson.)
Delay: reasons for
An Indian and a white man became Christians. The Indian, almost as soon as he heard the gospel, believed and was saved; but the white man struggled on in darkness for a long while before he found light. After their peace in Christ, the white man said to the Indian: “Why was it that I was kept so long in the darkness, and you immediately found peace?” The Indian replied: “I will tell you. A prince comes along and he offers you a coat. You look at your coat and you say: ‘My coat is good enough,’ and you refuse his offer; but the prince comes along and he offers me the coat, and I look at my old blanket, and I throw that away, and take his offer. You, sir,” continued the Indian, “are clinging to your own righteousness; you think you are good enough, and you keep your own righteousness; but I have nothing--nothing; and so when Jesus offers me pardon and peace, I simply take it.” (T. De Witt Talmage, D. D.)
Delay in religion
I. General remarks.
1. That kind of preaching which tends to alarm the soul is far from being agreeable to the carnal mind. The sluggard does not like to be awakened out of his slumbers, nor the epicure to be called from his revels; neither does the thoughtless sinner wish to be roused from his sloth and carnal security. He dreams that all is well, and he chooses to dream on. He says “to the seers, See not; and to the prophets, Speak unto us smooth things.” “The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means, and my people love to have it so.” Ahab said of Micaiah--“I hate him: for he never prophesieth good unto me, but always evil!” The upright Christian loves a soul searching ministry. “Let the righteous smite me, it shall be a kindness,” etc. But the language of the hypocrite, or self-soothing sinner, is like that of Felix. Such characters have no objection to hear of the love of God to a sinful world, but do not like to hear of His wrath. But let them remember that the time is coming when the contempt they have cast on faithful ministers will only tend to aggravate their guilt and ruin (Isaiah 30:10-11; Jeremiah 5:31; Matthew 3:10; 2 Chronicles 25:16; 2 Chronicles 18:7; Psalms 141:5; Ezekiel 2:5).
2. Those who are merely the subjects of convictions generally do what they can to stifle them. They love their ease, and would chase away what they call melancholy reflections. Saul, under distress of mind, calls for music. Cain, in much the same situation, goes and builds a city. And thus today one gets rid of his terror by involving himself in a hurry of business, and another by plunging himself into dissipation and excess (Hosea 6:5.)
3. There are few men so hardened in sin, but they design to attend to the concerns of their souls at some time or another. “When I have a convenient season,” etc. Thus many resolve to reform and repent at some future period. It is time enough for them to thick about religion when they are settled in the world, or to think of dying when death knocks at the door. It is easy to swim with the tide, and vain would be the attempt to swim against it: they will therefore enjoy themselves while they may. Few men are lost for saying they will not repent; but many for saying they will, but not yet. The young man who seemed resolved to follow Christ wanted first to go and bury his father. And the excuses for not coming to the marriage supper do not intimate an absolute refusal, but only a delay.
II. The folly and danger of neglecting the concerns of our soul, and putting them off to a more convenient season.
1. The concerns of our souls are of the greatest importance, and therefore ought not to be trifled with. Some things are profitable, and others pleasant; and many such things may engage our attention; but “one thing is needful,” and must be attended to.
2. Life is very uncertain. The rich man talks of having goods laid up for many years, etc. Many men seem never to be convinced that they have souls till they come to lose them; or to think of a future state till they are just entering upon it. They put far off the evil day; but it must come, and may come when it is least expected. Satan, who now tempts us to delay a little longer, will hereafter persuade us that we have delayed too long.
3. Delays increase difficulties. The heart becomes more hardened, the conscience more seared, convictions return less frequently, and sinful habits are more and more strengthened and confirmed. God also, provoked by our negligence and contempt of His mercy, may justly say of us as He did of Ephraim: “He is joined to idols, let him alone!” (B. Beddome, M. A.)
Uncertain of tomorrow
Said a little girl who had just been reading the newspaper account of an explosion, “Mother, don’t you think that people who work in powder mills ought to be pious?” There was a good deal of human nature in that question. The world, like the little girl, thinks that all who are especially exposed ought to be prepared for sudden death. But is not the whole world a vast powder mill? Is it not filled everywhere with the elements of destruction? The very air we breathe may become poisonous and slay us. The water we drink may contain some deadly ingredient which neither sight nor taste can detect. We are encompassed ever by unseen dangers. We are never certain of tomorrow. Then should we not be prepared, whatever our age, our business, or our locality, for sudden death?
Self-interest rebukes indecision
You have said this often to the Spirit of grace; but you would not treat anyone thus unceremoniously who should call upon you to minister to your happiness. If a friend should indicate to you the means of acquiring a fortune, or open before you some new avenue to honour and pleasure, how eagerly would you listen to his conversation, and examine with deliberation its every detail. You would not dismiss him from your presence until he had satisfied your minutest inquiries; and even then you would urge him again and again to revisit you. Your interest would be the more deeply excited if he presented before you two distinct objects of acquisition, both of which could not be procured, and between which a choice on your part were absolutely essential. And yet, when a heavenly inheritance is presented, and you are told of its permanency, and happiness, and bliss, you hesitate, as you contrast it with earthly fame and fortune, and know not which to choose!
Some years ago, a young man sat in one of these pews before me. He listened to an impassioned sermon from the preacher who that night occupied the pulpit, urging them, and pleading with them to give their hearts to Christ. This young man was much affected, and when the after meeting was intimated, he turned to a companion and said, “I will stay to it. I do not care though they do speak to me, they can only bring me to Christ, and that is what I want.” But his companion laughed at him. “Man, you are a fool; if you stay here everyone will laugh at you.” The young man made a feeble effort to resist his friend; but at last permitted himself to be led out, doubtless pacifying his conscience with the thought that at some other time he would have the matter settled once and for all. Foolish fellow, lost opportunities are never regained, and similar ones seldom occur. The next day was spent in a public house, where the name of Christ was never heard except as an oath. Going home late in the evening, he and his companion had to cross the railway. Their senses were too dulled with their carousal to observe the lights of an express train as it approached them, until with a swoop and a flash it was upon them, and in another moment this young man who the night before was “almost persuaded” lay dead upon the railway track. For him it had been the last opportunity, as this may be to some of you, to whom I can only give God’s message, “Now is the accepted time.” (W. Ross.)
Causes in court are adjourned, sometimes because the witnesses are not ready, or because the plaintiff is not ready, or because the defendant is not ready, and sometimes because the judge is not ready, until the bill of costs is ruinous--so there are men and women who have adjourned the cause of the soul’s salvation from youth to middle life, from health to sickness, from prosperity to adversity, until death eternal will be the bill of costs to pay. (T. De Witt Talmage.)
Physicians tell us that the constant use of sedatives slowly but surely deadens the energies and saps the vital force. Good resolutions for tomorrow are a pleasant soothing syrup for our conscience today, but there is a danger lest its activity be injured, and its power of remonstrance destroyed: we want mental tonics, not sedatives. (Dora Hope.)
Procrastination in Russia
“Sei tchas! sei tchas!’’ Don’t believe what the priest or the dictionary tells you about the meaning of that expression. The dictionary will tell you that it means “immediately,” but that’s all nonsense. In the mouth of a Russian it means “in an hour,” “next week,” “in a year or two,” “never”--most commonly, “never.” Like many other words in Russian, “sei tchas” can be only understood after long experience. (Mackenzie Wallace.)
Felix trembled but procrastinated. And so many now are affected by their state and danger, but they put off seeking religion till they become indifferent about it, and till it be too late. Ministers are often not sent to visit persons till they are dying, or unconscious, or quite unable to attend to the conditions of salvation, just as medical men are sometimes not applied to till the disease is past remedy. It is often a calamity to be too late for the post, too late to meet a friend, too late to catch the train, or the ship which has to sail. But it will be an eternal and infinite misery to delay seeking salvation till the door of mercy is forever closed. “The road of by and by leads to the town of Never.” “Today is the day of mercy, tomorrow may be the day of doom.” (H. R. Burton.)
The danger of delay in religious decision
In a pastorate of twenty years in one of the oldest churches of this commonwealth, three hundred and eighty persons joined the church. The minister made note of certain facts concerning each. Of this three hundred and eighty, three hundred and five joined the church before the age of thirty; thirty-eight between thirty and forty; twenty-two between forty and fifty; eight between fifty and sixty; three between sixty and seventy; three between seventy and eighty; one between eighty and ninety. As the decades pass the numbers rapidly decrease; and as the years pass we know that the intensity of the desire, that the frequency of the coming of the desire to love God lessens. The desire may fade at an early age: it may never depart in a life that rounds the century. But, remember, it may fade any year; remember, it must grow fainter as time passes; remember, it may cease, and cease forever. (G. P. Thwing.)
He hoped also that money should have been given him.
It is a wonderful characteristic of the Bible that all its characters are still with us. The men of the Bible were types.
I. Felix was sated with flattery; no man dare say one critical word to Felix. Are there not men whose minds are narrowed and perverted by always living in the sickly atmosphere of adultation? I am distinguishing in my own mind between just appreciation and foolish idolatry--between the praise which is due to character and the hypocrisy which is offered to mere position.
II. Felix was interested in religious discussions. That Felix is still alive--the bad man who likes to go to church once a day, who likes to spice his life with religious metaphysics and controversies. Who can explain it that a man, whose life is wholly given to the earth, should, now and again, desire to hear a prayer, listen to a discourse, and have his “views”? What a contradiction is man!
III. Felix lived in sin: he did not dabble in it, he was no retail criminal, yet he sent for an apostle to speak “concerning the faith in Christ.” It is not only possible, it is the daily use of men. Herein we are to some extent all in the same condemnation. Only yesterday we shattered every commandment of Heaven, and today we are--outwardly at least--standing at heaven’s gate! There is hope in this contradiction. Do not let us take wholly the black view of it. We can look at the sin until we see Felix turning into a devil; or we can look at him, sending for Paul, until we see spots of whiteness even on the black disc of his character.
IV. Felix was morally impressible. He trembled. Then there is hope of him. Are there not such men amongst us who never hear a sermon without weeping, men who like it the more when it wrings their conscience and turns them white with fear? There is a possibility of becoming too familiar with that kind of emotion, of measuring services by its presence. Marvellous that we like to be vivisected We call the preacher faithful, and, having paid him the compliment, we go to repeat the sin he has rebuked.
V. Felix was open to bribery amidst all this conflict of emotion. He, perhaps, did not know that it was criminal, as we understand that term. Men become accustomed to crime until they repeat it as a kind of virtue. It is the custom of the trade; it is always expected that it should be so. We do not always take the bribe in the form of money, and if the act were isolated, we could detest it. Paul was often sent for, but Paul never suspected the design. Evil be to him who evil thinks. Paul might receive the invitations as expressive of a real desire to know more about these religious mysteries.
VI. Felix was kind to preachers (Acts 24:23). Some of the most generous friends I have ever had have been men who made no profession of religion and who yet liked to come to church, and who loved the preacher with even a fond affectionateness. Herein the preacher has an infinite advantage over other men.
VII. Felix was procrastinating (Acts 24:25). It was not a rude dismissal; there was a longing for the very whip that scourged him. The procrastinating man is in every Church. He dose not mean to give it up; he says, “I will return in the evening.” Conclusion: In Felix I see that double action which is so characteristic of every man, which excites the observer, and indeed, excites the subject himself. Sometimes the good is uppermost, and then the bad, and then again the good; and we say, looking on, “Which will win?” Let us this day, in God’s strength, so act as to give joy in the presence of the angels of God over many a sinner that repenteth. Left to ourselves, the struggle can only go one way; aided by Christ, it is still a struggle, but a struggle that must end in victory. (J. Parker, D. D.)
You would not think a man who had held high office in the State for long years would descend to mean and paltry tricks to obtain still more power. But he will. You would not believe that a vast capitalist would go out of his way to grab at the farthing which the rough hand of toil is endeavouring to hold. But he does. Power is avaricious alike in birds and men. The more the man has the more he wants. These men who thus display the avarice of power are the white-headed eagles of society. During spring and summer the white-headed eagle follows a course to procure sustenance which you would judge very little suited to a bird as well able to supply itself without interfering with other plunderers. No sooner does the fish hawk make its appearance along the Atlantic shore, or ascend the numerous and large rivers, than the eagle follows it, and robs it of the hard-earned fruits of its labour. Perched on some tall summit in view of the ocean, or of some water course, he watches every movement of the osprey while on the wing. When the latter rises from the water with a fish in its grasp forth rushes the eagle in pursuit. He mounts above the fish hawk and threatens it by actions well understood, when the latter, fearing, perhaps, that its life is in danger, drops its prey. In an instant the eagle, accurately estimating the rapid descent of the fish, closes its wings, follows it with the swiftness of thought, and the next moment grasps it. The white-headed eagles of society pursue their course with equal disgrace to themselves; and their method is not more exalted. They take advantage of their strength, and the great elevation to which fortune has raised them, for the greedy purpose of discovering the movements of those who are below them, the better to rob the more humble of even the little they possess. (Scientific Illustrations.)
Though selfish kindness is a paradox, its existence is a reality. There are people who are really kind towards us and others, but are so from no creditable motive. Father Ripa, in the account of his sojourn near the mouth of the Ganges, tells us of a set of religionists who are very kind to all sorts of animals and insects, which they neither kill nor eat, but, on the contrary, tend them with great care. Indeed to such a pitch do they carry their kindness, that they have hospitals for lice and fleas, and pay liberally by the hour those who will allow the insects to feed on their blood. They are also most kind to sheep and cows. And why all this? Not because they possess disinterested kindness, but because they believe in the transmigration of souls, and that after death they will pass into the body of some animal more or less offensive according to the good or evil actions of their past life. And further, because they believe after death that a great river must be passed which can only be done by holding on fast to the tail of the sheep or cow. So that in this, as in a number of other instances to be met with in civilised society, there is really a complete absence of real unselfishness in the act, which, however, may be kind enough in its way. Here we have the expectation of some future advantage as the actual basis of the act. Numbers of deeds which pass for genuine kindness are the result of a complex mixture of motives, amongst which pure charity is not found. Where is the kindness which lends, which does, and which gives, expecting nothing as reward in return either in this world or the other? (Scientific Illustrations.)
A poor man in Smyrna claimed a house which a rich man usurped. The former held his deeds to prove his rights; the latter provided witnesses to invalidate his title, whose testimony he sought to support effectually by a present of five hundred ducats. When the day arrived for hearing the case, the poor man told his story, and produced his writings, but could not bring witnesses; the other rested the whole case on his witnesses, and on his adversary’s defect who could produce none. He urged the Cadi, therefore, to give sentence in his favour. Whereupon the judge calmly drew from under his sofa the bag of ducats, saying very gravely, “You have been much mistaken in the suit, for if the poor man can produce no witnesses in confirmation of his right, I can produce five hundred.” He then threw away the bag with indignation, and decreed the house to the poor plaintiff. Such was the noble decision of the Turkish judge, whose disinterestedness was the reverse of the unjust time-serving Felix. (Biblical Museum.)
But after two years Porcius Festus came into Felix’s room.--
Paul’s two years’ imprisonment in Caesarea
Or the painful yet blessed resting and waiting times of the servants of God. Compare Joseph in prison, Moses in the wilderness, David in the mountains, Elijah at the brook Cherith, John the Baptist in prison, John the Evangelist in Patmos, Luther at Wartburg, faithful preachers in sick beds.
1. To the servant of God whose hands are bound.
2. For the congregations of the Lord who are deprived of their pastors.
1. For the servant of God.
2. For the Church..
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Acts 24". The Biblical Illustrator. https://pro.studylight.org/
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34