PHILIPPIANS i.21. In connection with ACTS ix.1 -- 18.
THERE is no more significant sign of the days in which we live than the interest society seems to be taking in the biographies of great men. Almost all the more popular recent books, for instance -- the books which every one is reading and has to read -- come under the category of biography; and, to meet the demand, two or three times in each season the market has to be supplied with the lives, in minute detail, of men who but for this would perhaps have lain in unnoticed graves.
This thirst for memoirs and lives and letters is not all to be put down to the hero worship which is natural to every heart. It means, perhaps, a higher thing than that. It means, in the first place, that great living is being appreciated for its own sake; and, in the second, that great living is being imitated. If it is true that any of us are beginning to appreciate greatness for its own sake -- greatness, that is to say, in the sense of great and true living -- it is one of the most hopeful symptoms of our history. And, further, if we are going on from the mere admiration of great men to try and live like them, we are obeying one of the happiest impulses of our being. There is indeed no finer influence abroad than the influence of great men in great books, and all that literature can do in supplying the deformed world with worthy and shapely models is entitled to gratitude and respect.
But a shadow sometimes comes over this thought of the magnetic attraction which greatness is having upon our age -- the further thought how hard it is to get our greatness pure. The well is deep, may be, and the fountain sparkles to the eye; but we ask perhaps in vain for a guarantee of quality. Each new ideal we adjust our life to copy turns out to have its adulteration of selfishness or pride, like the one we studied last, till the pattern we sought to follow surprises us by becoming a beacon for us to shun.
There are a few biographies, however, where men may find their greatness pure; and amongst them is one familiar writing which, though seldom looked at as biographical in this sense, really contains the life and letters of the greatest man probably of human history. That man was Paul. The life of Paul the man, apart from the theology of Paul the Apostle, is a legitimate and fruitful study from the mere standpoint of the biography of a great and successful life. Judged by his influence on human history, no single life is entitled to more admiration for what it has done, or is indeed more worthy of imitation for what it was. And in our quest after a true life, a worthy and satisfying life, there may be some light for us in this old biography which we have missed perhaps in the lives of later men.
If we were to begin by seeking an appropriate motto for Paul's life, we should not need to go further than the quotation which forms our text. This fragment from one of his own letters lets us in at once to his whole secret. The true discovery of a character is the discovery of its ideals. Paul spares us any speculation in his case. |To me to live,| he says, |is Christ.| This is the motto of his life, the ruling passion of it, which at once explains the nature of his success and accounts for it. He lives for Christ. |To me to live is Christ.|
Now here at the outset is a valuable practical point settled in this biography. When we turn to the biographies of most great men, we find either no key or a very complex one; and we rise from the perusal with nothing more than a vague desire to do better, but with no discovery how. We gain stimulus, indeed, but no knowledge and this is simply injurious. We are braced up enthusiastically for a little, and then do nothing. At the end of it all we are not better, we are only exhausted. This is the reason why biography-hunters often, after long dogging the footsteps of greatness, find that they are perhaps no further on the road to it themselves, but rather more inclined than before to lie down where they were.
But Paul explicitly announces to us the working principle of his life. If the lines are great lines, there is nothing mysterious about them. If we want to live like Paul, we have simply to live for Christ; Christ our life on one side, our life for Christ on the other, and both summed up together in Paul's epitome: |To me to live is Christ.|
This being the clue to Paul's life, the instructive question next arises, What exactly did Paul mean by this principle, and how did he come to find it out? But the question, |What is this object of life?| is so closely bound up with how Paul came to have this object of life, that the answer to the last question will form at once an explanation and an illustration of the first.
Therefore let us go at once for the answer to the life itself. Great principles are always best and freshest when studied from the life, and it so happens that a circumstance in Paul's life makes it peculiarly easy to act on this rule here.
That circumstance was that Paul had two lives. Many men besides Paul have had two lives, but the line is cleaner cut in Paul's case than in almost any other biography. Both lives were somewhere about the same length, so far as we know, but so distinct in their general features and details that Paul had not only two lives, but, as if to mark the distinction more strikingly, two names. Let us look for a moment at the first of these lives -- the reason will appear presently.
Paul's first life, as we all know, was spent under the most auspicious circumstances, and it will be worth while running over it. Born of a family which belonged to the most select theological school of that day, the son was early looked upon as at once the promise of his parents and the hope of their religion. They sent him when a mere lad to Jerusalem, and enrolled him as a student in the most distinguished college of the time. After running a brilliant college career, and sitting for many years at the feet of the greatest learning the Jewish capital could boast, we find him bursting upon the world with his splendid talents, and taking a place at once in the troubled political movements of the day. It was impossible for such a character with his youth's enthusiasm and his Pharisee's pride to submit to the tame life of a temple Rabbi, and he sees his opportunity in the rise of the Christian sect. Here, at last, he would match his abilities in a contest which would gain him at once a field of exercise and a name. So far, doubtless, he thought his first life great.
Into his work of persecution he seems now to have entered with all an inquisitor's zest. His conspicuous place among the murderers of the first martyr stamped him forthwith as a leader, and gave him the foretaste of a popularity which, but for the interruption of the hand of God, might have ended disastrously to the struggling Christian Church. His success as an inquisitor is recognised in the highest quarters of the land; and the young man's fortune is made. Perhaps no Rabbi of that time had such prospects now as Saul. |He is a man raised up for the emergency,| said all Jerusalem, and henceforth the Jewish world was at his feet. Courted as the rising man of his day and flushed with success, he left no stone unturned to find fresh opportunities of adding to his influence and power. And as he climbed each rung of the ladder of fame, we can imagine, as a great student of Paul has said, how his heart swelled within him when he read these words at night from the Book of Wisdom: |I shall have estimation among the multitude, and honour with the elders, though I be young. I shall be found of a quick conceit in judgment, and shall be admired in the sight of great men. When I hold my tongue they shall abide my leisure, and when I speak they shall give good ear unto me.| Such was the man who afterwards said, |To me to live is Christ.|
Upon the little Church at Jerusalem he has already wreaked his vengeance to the full. The town and neighbourhood at last are well nigh ridded of the pest; and -- unlooked-for calamity -- in the height of his triumph Saul finds his occupation gone. Dispersed in all directions, members of the little band have made their way in secret through Judaea and Samaria, through Syria and Phoenicia, even into strange cities. And Saul finds round about Jerusalem no fuel to feed the martyrs' fire, and thus to add more lustre to his own name.
But there is no pause in the pursuit of human fame. The young lawyer's reputation can never end in an anti-climax like this. And with the ambition which knows not how to rest, and in the pride of his Pharisee's heart, he strikes out the idea to reverse the maxim of the crucified Leader of the hated sect and to go into all the world and suppress the gospel in every creature. He applies to the high-priest for commission and authority, and, breathing out threatenings and slaughter, the man who is going to live for Christ starts out on his Christless mission to make havoc of the Church.
This is the last act of Paul's first life. Let us note it carefully. We are on the bridge which separates Paul's two lives. What marks the transition is this: hitherto his life has been spent in public. It has been one prolonged whirl of excitement and applause. But no sooner have the gates of Jerusalem closed upon him than Saul begins to think. The echoes of the people's praises have died away one by one. He has gone out into the great desert. It is strangely silent and soothing, and the lull has come at last upon his soul. It is a long while, perhaps, since he has had time to think; but Saul was far too great a man to live long an unthinking life. His time for reflection has come. And as he wanders with his small escort along the banks of the Jordan or across the solitary hills of Samaria, his thoughts are busy with the past. And if Saul was far too great a man to live an unthinking life, he was also too great a man to think well of his life when he did think. Each new day as he journeyed away from the scene of his triumph, and looked back upon it all from that distance -- which always gives the true perspective to man's life -- his mind must have filled with many a sad reproach. And as he lay down at night in the quiet wilderness his thoughts must often have turned on the true quality of the life to which he was sacrificing his talents and his youth. With his quick perception, with his keen trained intellect, with his penetration, he must have seen that after all this life was a mistake. Minds of lesser calibre in the applauding world which he had left had told him he was great. Now, in his calmer moments, he knew he was not great. The eternal heavens stretching above him pointed to an infinity which lay behind them all; and the stars and the silence spoke to him of God. He felt that his life was miserably small. Saul's thoughts were greater than Saul's life. How he had been living beneath himself -- how he had wasted the precious years of his youth -- how he had sold his life for honour and reputation, and bartered the talents God had given him for a name, he must have seen. He had been dazzled, and that was all. He had nothing really to show for his life, nothing that would stand the test of solid thought. It was all done for himself. He, Saul of Tarsus, the rising man of his time, was the sole centre of it. |After all,| perhaps he cried in agony, |To me to live is Saul,| |To me to live is Saul.|
Paul's first great discovery, as we have seen -- and it is the discovery which precedes every true reformation of life -- was the discovery of himself. When Paul said, |To me to live is myself,| his conversion was begun. There was no retreat then for a man like him. He was too great to have such a little centre to his life; or rather, he felt life too great to be absorbed with even such a personality as his.
But the next element in the case was not so easily discovered, and it is of much more importance than the first. His first achievement was only to discover himself. His second was to discover some one better than himself. He wanted a new centre to his life -- where was he to find it? The unseen hand which painted his own portrait in its true colours on the dark background of his mind had painted every other life the same. The high priests at Jerusalem, the members of the Sanhedrim, his own father at Tarsus -- all the men he knew were living lives like himself: They were no better -- most of them worse. Must the old centre of Paul's life remain there still? Is there nothing better in all the world than himself?
It may be conjecture, or it may be nearer truth, that while such questionings passed through the mind of Paul, there came into his thoughts as he journeyed some influences from another life -- a life like that for which his thoughts had longed. Paul's best known journeys are his missionary tours, and we generally associate him in our thoughts with the countries of Asia and Italy and Greece. But this time his way leads through the Holy Land. He has entered the country of Christ. He is crossing the very footsteps of Jesus. The villages along his route are fragrant still with what Jesus said and did -- not the bitter things that Saul had heard before. Kind words are repeated to him, and tender acts which Jesus did are told. The peasants by the way-side and the shepherds on the hills are full of stories of a self-denying life which used to pass that way a year or two ago, but now will come no more. And the mothers at the cottage doors remember the Stranger who suffered their little children to come unto Him, and get them to repeat to Saul, perhaps, the children's blessing which He left behind. Perhaps, in passing through Samaria, the traveller meets a woman at a well, who tells her strange tale for the thousandth time, of a weary Man who had sat there once and said He was the Christ. And Galilee and Capernaum, and Bethsaida, and the lake shore at Gennesaret, are full of memories of the one true life which surely even then had begun to cast a sacred influence over Saul. At all events, there seems a strange preparedness in his mind for the meeting on the Damascus road, as if the interview with Jesus then were not so much the first of his friendship as the natural outcome of something that had gone before. And no doubt the Spirit's silent working had been telling on his mind during all these quiet days, leading up his thoughts to the revelation that was to come and preparing a pathos for the memorable question, with its otherwise unaccountable emphasis, |Why persecutest thou Me?|
What went on between Paul's heart and God we do not know. We do not know how deep repentance ran, nor where nor how the justifying grace came down from heaven to his soul. Whether just then he went through our formula of conversion -- the process which we like to watch and describe in technical words -- we do not know. But we know this -- there came a difference into his life. His life was changed. It was changed at its most radical part. He had changed centres. During the process, whatever it was, this great transfer was effected. Paul deliberately removed the old centre from his life, and put a new one in its place. Instead of |to me to live is Saul.| it was now, |to me to live is Christ.|
Of course, when the centre of Paul's life was changed, he had to take his whole life to pieces and build it up again on a totally different plan. This change, therefore, is not a mere incident in a man's life. It is a revolution, a revolution of the most sweeping sort. There never was a life so filled up with anti-Christian thoughts and impulses, brought so completely to a halt. There never was such a total eclipse of the most brilliant worldly prospects, nor such an abrupt transition from a career of dazzling greatness to humble and obscure ignominy.
Let those who define conversion as a certain colourless experience supposed to go on in the feelings, blind themselves to the real transition in this life if they will. Let them ask themselves if there ever was a more sweeping revolution in any life, for any cause, than in Paul's, when he abandoned himself, literally abandoned himself, and subordinated everything, evermore, to this one supreme passion -- |to live for Christ.|
The stages by which this transcendent standpoint is to be reached are now plainly before us. They are, the discovery of self and the discovery of Christ. These two discoveries between them exhaust the whole of life. No man truly lives till both these discoveries are made -- for many discover themselves who have not yet discovered Christ. But he that hath not the Son hath not life. Whatever he has, existence, continuity, he has not life. The condition of living at all is to live for Christ. |He that hath the Son,| and he alone, and no one else, |hath life.|
1. Paul takes special care indeed that we should fully understand the altogether different quality of the two lives which a man may live. In his view, the first life, the ordinary life of men, was altogether a mistake. |What things were gain to me| he tells us, |I counted loss for Christ.| That brilliant career of his was loss; that mission, noble and absorbing once, was mere waste energy and mis-spent time. And he goes further still. His life was death. It was selfishness pure and simple; it was the carnal mind pure and simple; and to be carnally minded is death. We shall understand the theology of these letters better if we think of the writer as a man escaping death. And with this horrible background to his life we can see the fuller significance of his words, that for him to live was Christ.
Another thing is also made plain to us.
The ceaseless demand of the New Testament for regeneration is plain to us when we study the doctrine in such a life as this. It was not Saul who wrote the letters; it was a different man altogether -- Paul. It was one who was in a totally different world from the other. If it were Saul, he must have been born again before he could have done it. Nothing less could account for it. His interests were new, his standpoint, his resources, his friendships. All old things, in fact, had passed away. All things had become new. In a word, he was a new creature. The pool, polluted and stagnant, has found its way at last into the wide, pure sea; the spirit, tired of its narrow prison, disgusted with ambition which ended with itself, reaches out to the eternal freedom, and finds a worthy field of exercise in the great enterprise of Christ.
There is one class to whom this biography of Paul has a special message. The people who need Paul's change most are not those, always, who are most thought to need it. The really difficult cases -- to others, but especially to themselves -- are the people who fail to see really that their life could be much better. There are thousands who do not see exactly what conversion could do to them. And their great difficulty in changing their life has just been this: |What, after all, should we really have to change? Our lives at present can scarcely be distinguished from the real Christians around us. Had we been irreligious, or profane, or undutiful, or immoral, conversion might do something for us; but we belong to the class who feel how well we have been brought up, how much our interests are gathered round religion, and, generally, how circumspect and proper our entire outward life has been. We do not really see, indeed, what change conversion could make.| Now this is a class who seldom get any sympathy, and none deserve it more. Religious people and religious books are always saying hard things of the |religiously brought up| -- bitterly hard and undeserved things -- until they almost come to feel as if their goodness were a crime. But there are secret rendings of the heart within these ranks -- longings after God perhaps purer than anywhere else outside God's true family. And there are those who feel the difficulty of changing amid surroundings so Christian-like as theirs; who feel it so keenly that despair sometimes leads them to the dark thought of almost envying the prodigal and the open sinner, who seem to have more chance of finding the kingdom than they.
Now the change in Paul's life is exactly the case in point for them. Paul himself was one of these characters who wonder what use conversion could ever be to them. He was one of the |religiously brought up.| Touching the law he was blameless. There was no man stricter with his religion in all Jerusalem than Saul, no man took his place more regularly in the temple, or kept the Sabbath with more scrupulous care. Touching the law he was blameless -- just the man you would have said who never would be changed, who was far too good to be susceptible of a change. But this is the man -- not far from the kingdom of God, as every one thought him to be -- who found room in his most religious heart for the most sweeping reform that ever occurred in a life.
Let those who really do not know very well what religion could do for them take a little quiet thought like Paul. Let them look once more, not at the circumference, but at the centre of their life. Let them ask one question about it: |Is it Christ?| There is no middle way in religion -- self or Christ. The quality of the selfishness -- intellectual, literary, artistic -- the fact that our self s centre may be of a superior order of self, does nothing to destroy this grave distinction. It lies between all self and Christ. For the matter of that no centre could have been more disciplined or cultured than Paul's. In its place it was truly great and worthy, but its place was anywhere else than where Paul had it for the full half of his life. This question, then, of centres is the vital question. |To me to live is| -- what? |To me to live is myself!| Suppose that it is so. What kind of an aim for a life is this? How much nobler a centre our life is worthy of -- our one life, which is to live for evermore; which is to live with a great centre or a mean one -- meanly or greatly for evermore! Think of living with oneself for ever and for ever. Think of having lived, living now, and evermore living only for this. Consider Him who endured such contradiction of sinners for our sake, who made Himself of no reputation, who gave up form and comeliness; who humbled Himself and emptied Himself for us. Then look, if we can, with complacency on such a life --
|I lived for myself, I thought for myself,
For myself, and none beside,
Just as if Jesus had never lived,
As if He had never died.
2. This leads naturally to the other point -- the discovery of Christ. And here once more we draw abundant encouragement from our biography of Paul. And it brings us not only to a hopeful thought, but to a very solemn thought. We have all in some way made the discovery of Christ; we know more about Christ than Paul did when he became a Christian. When he made Him the centre of his life, he knew less of Him perhaps than most of us. It is a startling truth, at all events, that we are as near the centre of life -- the centre of the universe -- as Paul. We have heard of Him from our infancy; the features of His life are as familiar as our own; we have no hatred to Him as Paul had once. And if the few days' quietness in the Holy Land, which Paul had on the threshold of his change, were in any way a preparation for the crisis of his life, how much more has our past life been a preparation for a change in ours! We call Paul's change a sudden conversion -- we do not know how sudden it was. But if our life were changed to-day, it would be no sudden conversion. Our whole past has been leading up to these two discoveries of life. Our preparation, so far as knowledge of the new centre goes, is complete. The change, so far as that is concerned, might happen now. We have the responsibility of being so near eternal life as that.
The question comes to be then, finally, a simple question of transfer. To me to live is myself, or to me to live is Christ. To live for Christ is not simply the sublime doctrine which it includes of Christ our life. It is not so much Christ our life, but rather our life for Christ.
Shall it be, then, our life for Christ? |To me to live is Christ.| Contrast it with all the other objects of life; take all the centres out of all the great lives, and compare them one by one. Can you match the life-creed of Paul -- |to me to live is Christ|?
|To me to live is -- business|; |to me to live is -- pleasure,| |to me to live is -- myself.| We can all tell in a moment what our religion is really worth. |To me to live is| -- what? What are we living for? What rises naturally in our heart when we press it with a test like this: |to me to live is| -- what? First thoughts, it is said, are best in matters of conscience. What was the first thought that came into our heart just then? What word trembled first on our lips just now -- |to me to live is| -- was it business, was it money, was it myself, was it Christ?
The time will come when we shall ask ourselves why we ever crushed this infinite substance of our life within these narrow bounds, and centred that which lasts for ever on what must pass away. In the perspective of Eternity all lives will seem poor, and small, and lost, and self-condemned beside a life for Christ. There will be plenty then to gather round the Cross. But who will do it now? Who will do it now? There are plenty of men to die for Him, there are plenty to spend Eternity with Christ; but where is the man who will live for Christ? Death and Eternity come in their place. Christ wants lives. There is no fear about death being gain if we have lived for Christ. So, let it be: |To me to live is Christ.|
There is but one alternative -- Paul's alternative, the discovery of Christ. We have all in some sense, indeed, already made that discovery. We may be as near it now as Paul when he left Jerusalem. There was no notice given that he was to change masters. The new Master simply crossed his path one day, and the great change was come. How often has He crossed our path? We know what to do the next time: we know how our life can be made worthy and great -- how only; we know how death can become gain -- how only. Many, indeed, tell us death must be gain. Many long for life to be done that they may rest, as they say, in the quiet grave. Let no cheap sentimentalism deceive us. Death can only be gain when to have lived was Christ.