It is much, dear friends, to say with Paul to Agrippa, “I would to God that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost and altogether such as I am, except these bonds,” v. 29.
There is what the apostle could say from the bottom of his heart to those who surrounded him, that they might be such as he was, without his bonds. He might have answered to Agrippa, who had said to him “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian,” v. 28. Would to God that thou wert. The answer would have been good and according to charity; but it would not have presented us with a state such as that expressed by the words of the apostle, whose heart, full of joy, overflows with this charitable wish. A happy heart does so naturally.
The apostle was pressed to say what he knew, that is, to express what was passing in a heart which enjoyed its position in God. His soul was so happy that he could desire the same thing for others of which he had the consciousness for himself. Joy is always full of good-will; divine joy, of love. But more; this wish describes to us the state of the apostle’s soul, notwithstanding his circumstances. Notwithstanding his confinement, which had already lasted more than two years, his heart was completely happy; it was a happiness of which he himself could render a reason; and all that he could desire was that those who heard him, even the king, were such as he was, except those bonds.
Such is the effect of the strange happiness that is produced in a soul wherein Christianity is fully received. It possesses a happiness which in principle leaves nothing to be desired, and which is always accompanied by that energy of love which is expressed by the wish that others were such as itself. We see moreover here, that it is a happiness which outward circumstances cannot touch; it is a fountain of joy springing up within the soul. The whole outward position of the apostle was but ill calculated to produce joy. He had long been prepared to expect bonds and tribulations; but none of these things moved him, neither counted he his life dear unto himself, so that he might finish his course with joy, and the ministry he had received to testify the gospel of the grace of God; See Acts 20.
Paul had been taken and led to the castle because of the violence of the people. He had been dragged from tribunal to tribunal. He had languished two years in prison, obliged to appeal to Caesar. And, to sum up his history, he was a man that might have been supposed to be worn, harassed as he was, pressed on all sides by all that can break the heart and daunt the courage. But there is nothing of this: he speaks before the tribunal of what he came to do at Jerusalem, and not of his sufferings. He was in the midst of all these things, as he says himself, exercising himself to keep always a conscience void of offence before God and man. All the difficult circumstances through which he passed were idle to him, and did not reach his heart; he was happy in his soul; he desired nothing but this happiness for himself or others, and the happiness which fills with perfect satisfaction is surely a remarkable happiness. True, he was bound with chains, but the iron of his chains reached not his heart; God’s freed-man cannot be bound with chains. And he desired nothing else, neither for others nor for himself, save this complete enfranchisement by the Lord. All he could wish was that all might be altogether such as he was, without his bonds.
We are going to examine what gives this happiness, this tranquillity, which leaves nothing to be desired. We may have joy to a certain point, but not peace, when there is something to be desired. In Paul was to be seen a perfect happiness. A free and ardent love was found in it. Doubtless, he had not already attained to perfection, as he said himself, “I count not myself to have apprehended”; but there was happiness and love. He possessed a perfect happiness, and, being “before kings and governors,” surrounded by all their pomp, he wished for them that they might be such as he was; and his testimony was so powerful, that Agrippa could say to Paul, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.”
Persons may be found here, all whose circumstances are painful, who have anguish of heart. Well, Paul was in a position to be “of all men most miserable”; not only did he suffer, but his work was stopped. He could not attend to what concerned the dear flock of the Lord; every spring of happiness that he might have sought in these cases as a resource failed him. But although, according to man, he might have had good reason to complain, he is there a model of happiness. That which he enjoyed was independent of all outward circumstances, for they were not what rendered him happy.
There are persons who imagine that, if such and such circumstances met together, they might be happy. But this could not have procured Paul the happiness that he possessed: God alone was the source from whence he could have drawn it. We may have sorrows, but the happiness which we have just spoken of will not be troubled by them; and we have need, dear friends, of the firmness of this happiness, for if we knew the circumstances of this life, whether among the rich, or among the poor, we should see that sorrows never fail. But, returning to relations with God, we are going to see the source whence Paul drew his happiness.
Before his conversion, he possessed not this happiness. His privileges as a Jew could not give it to him. He had a good conscience as a man, but ill enlightened: he did things which he thought he ought to do against Jesus; v. 9, 10. Conscience is so often falsified by education (and this was his case), that he followed its directions and obeyed its dictates; and, through that very thing, he opposed Christ with all his might. He did conscientiously what was the greatest possible iniquity. As for the rest, he was well instructed in the religion of his fathers, a Pharisee after the “most straitest sect,” very active, and distinguished for his zeal. He had been taught at the feet of Gamaliel, he was directed by the high priest (v. 12), and in open war with the Lord Jesus; v. 14, 15. With all our conscience, our religion, our learning, and the approbation of the doctors of this world, we may be at open war with the Lord.
The enjoyment of all these advantages does not hinder us from being bankrupt before God. And it is a terrible and painful thing to be bankrupt before God; and so much the more, as the things we have so much esteemed not only do not support us, but are found to have been the instruments of the blinding of our souls. Although the apostle had a good conscience, was pious and directed by wise men, all these advantages had served in the issue only to place him in open war against God. One may boast and glory, no one can say anything against us (and it is the saying of many people); and finally one discovers that all this has led us to make war against the Lord.
The flesh has its religion, as its lusts; it does everything to hinder the conscience from meeting God. When Paul acted in the flesh, he was satisfied with himself, and, with the help of the good he did, that settled his affair. The religion that the flesh uses is put into the balance to make weight; if conscience says, Thou hast not been quite what thou shouldst have been, the religion which adds certain forms, certain ceremonies, that the flesh can accomplish, puts all into the balance, tranquillises itself, and rests there: this is not faith, for faith draws nigh to God. One has no religion before God, one has a conscience convicted of sin, and one is too much occupied about the judgment of God upon it to think of one’s religion; rather, one has none; and there is not one person here who, if he were in God’s presence, could think of his religion. Worldly piety only serves when we need it not. When we do need it, whether before the justice of God, or on account of a broken heart, it is nought; it has only served as a means to turn us away from the consciousness of our need as sinners, which consciousness, through the grace which produces it, would have led us to the true remedy, to that which would have done us true service in the hour when it would have been necessary for us.
What made Paul happy? It was indeed the truth, but not immediately, for he found that he had made war against God, when he met the Lord on the way to Damascus. Hitherto he had been content, but no farther. See chap. 9. The Lord Jesus manifests Himself in glory to him, and convinces him of sin. He is three days without eating or drinking, upset as he was by meeting the Lord; he was not then in the position to say, “I would that not only thou, but all that hear, were such as I am.”
The Lord sends him to Damascus to hear the word of truth; and after three days’ sufferings, produced by the conviction that this Jesus, against whom he wrestled with so much fury, was the Lord, the same Lord sends Ananias to him, and then we see how complete was his conversion. From an enemy he becomes the friend of Jesus, and the apostle of grace. This is what God does: of a persecuting “Saul” He makes a “Paul,” powerful witness of the love of Jesus.
Paul had been conscientious and very zealous for the religion of his fathers; but with all his conscience and his religion an enemy of God. He was the most wicked, and, as he says himself, the “chief” of sinners. And, nevertheless, there he is; he becomes in three days the most remarkable apostle of grace—and how did that happen? It is a very simple thing. He had become acquainted with Jesus. He could not at once manifest what he would be; for he had been terrified at seeing the state of death wherein he was, but he had heard in his heart the voice of Jesus.
Jew or Gentile, it is all the same, while the soul is unstripped, the conscience unconvinced of sin, and the man has not understood that all his religion is but enmity against God. The conviction of sin does not come to all in the same way; there are different circumstances, but it must always be that result in the soul being stripped, and that Christ reveals to the soul His relations with His own.
There are poor Christians, dishonoured by those who are in consideration, designated by injurious titles; well, to these persons despised and pointed at because of their faith, the Lord reveals His relations with them in a manner most positive and clear. The revelation that Jesus made to Paul is, that they are entirely identified with Himself. He says, I am all those men whom thou persecutest. Paul sees the glory, and he is arrested; no doubt that it is the Lord. But this Lord is Jesus, who shews him that he persecutes Him in persecuting the Christians. It is Myself, says Jesus, “whom thou persecutest.”
There were in those days differences in faith, patience, and piety, amongst the Christians; but Jesus bears them all on His heart. He says, It is Myself. And there is a complete revolution in Paul, learned, religious, and a persecutor. The more there is of religion of the flesh, the greater enemies we are to Jesus. The finer the outside, the more honest and brave I give myself out for, exactly so much the more I am God’s enemy, and so much the more opposed to the grace of Jesus. He who wallows in sin will not pretend to be the friend of God, to be reconciled with Him.
But as for those who have believed, Christ identifies Himself with them. In this room there are those who believe, and others who do not believe. Amongst those who believe there are (without doubt) many degrees of spirituality, but I can say of all these latter ones, they are one with the Lord Jesus. It is evident that this simple truth changes all in the state of the soul—the being one with Him who is in glory.
Paul has been later caught up to the third heaven, and had precious revelations. When he was arrested on the road to Damascus, he had yet much progress to make, for he even thought himself lost, till Ananias had explained and made him understand that Jesus wanted of him. See Acts 22:14. Then Ananias said to Paul, “The God of our fathers hath chosen thee, that thou shouldest know his will and see that Just One, and shouldest hear the voice of his mouth. For thou shalt be his witness unto all men of what thou hast seen and heard.” But from the moment that he truly knew the Lord Jesus, he was one with Him, and he knew it.
Whatever, then, might be the circumstances of Paul, whether at Jerusalem, at Caesarea, before Festus, or before Caesar, he could say, “I would that you were such as I am, except these bonds”; for he knew what he possessed in Christ. It was a question of this truth, the being one with Christ. Of course, Paul had yet a great deal to learn of the Lord, but in spite of that, he was one with Him; he had understood that in persecuting the Christians, the beloved of Jesus, he was persecuting Jesus: “Why persecutest thou me?” The nearer we are to the Lord Jesus, the better we understand that he who touches His brethren “toucheth the apple of his eye.”
I will add a few words more on what we are in Jesus. All in us has been enmity against God, our religion, our works, our whole conduct, so that in this state it is impossible to please Him. It is sad, but, after all, it is true. Paul admits it; he no longer esteems what he thought was “gain”; on the contrary, he looks upon it “as dung.” But he understands that by faith all are one in Christ. Faith makes him take his place with them. He does not ask if he has faith, he does not begin a metaphysical discussion to know what faith is; but he becomes a Christian, because he believes that Christians are one with the Lord. And this is the life and joy of our souls, to comprehend that Christ has not asked us if we have faith, but that He has said, I am one with thee.
All was sin in this world. There was no longer any means of entering into relations with God, and it was necessary, in order that these relationships should be re-established, that Jesus should come into the world to accomplish the will of God, and to manifest to sinful men the deep interest that God took in them. But in this case I have nothing to do but to weigh what Christ is for me, and that is all my business. I find in Him that which takes away all my mistrust, because He knows me altogether. He knows my sin better than I know it myself; in going to Him, my heart is free, because He knows all, and that He is come expressly for that. I find all liberty, all grace, and all goodness in Him.
Moreover, knowing that He is God, I know Him as the Saviour God. And what a revolution takes place in the soul which knows that it has to do with the God who never denies Himself, and who is love! Not only is He come to relieve me, but more, to save me. And what is exceedingly precious is, that when I have met the man Jesus, I have met God; I am one with Him, not upon the cross (there He had taken my place), but in all His privileges. He has taken up the cause for me as a sinner, and has given Himself as a propitiatory victim for sin. God cannot sue again for my salvation, because I am one with Christ there in heaven; and if I torment myself, it is only with myself, for I cannot have the least uneasiness before God.
Satan has done all he could, but it is only to shew that his power is destroyed for ever; there is nothing remaining which can disquiet me before God. He has everything to be the source of life and joy. I find all in Jesus, in whom “dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.” I find in Him all grace for my need, my strength, and my righteousness.
Another righteousness has succeeded that of man; it is the righteousness of God. Christ is become Head of all things, and all the glory is manifested at the right hand of God, as a consequence of the expiation which has been made for my sin. Thus all the fulness is manifested, and Jesus had said, being glorified, that He is one with us, and that He has sent His Holy Spirit to make us understand it. Christ has said of us, It is I. And I have only to examine what Christ is, and to rejoice too in seeking to manifest what He is, since He has said of His own, It is I.
The Holy Spirit is given to be in the heart of these poor worthless ones, the “seal” and the “earnest of the inheritance.” When one has the Holy Spirit, is one not uneasy about oneself? Quite the contrary; for then we are one with Christ, who considers us as “his own flesh,” and who looks after us; sometimes, perhaps, He must wound it a little, but He does so because He cannot neglect it, since it is His flesh. And the Holy Spirit makes us alive to all that, with which Jesus is not satisfied in us as being one with Him, His body; and the nearer we are to Him, the more alive we are to these things. Besides the fact of being one with Jesus, in order fully to enjoy this privilege, and that the heart might overflow with joy in the consciousness of possessing it, the Holy Spirit must not be grieved. If the heart of Paul had not been set at liberty, although the truth of his oneness with Christ remained, he could not have said, I would that all should be such as I am. His understanding would have recognised the truth of it, apart from sin; his heart could not have said it by the Holy Spirit; but the Holy Spirit is not crushed either by prison or by any kind of tribulation. Nothing hinders Paul from enjoying the grace of Jesus. He was able to call himself happy in every circumstance, and to say to those who heard him, I would that all were such as I am, etc.
When Agrippa says to Paul, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian,” if this had been addressed to us, what had been our answer? Perhaps we should have said, Would to God that thou wert! but could we have said, I would that thou wert such as I am, etc.? This shews the inward happiness he possessed. Oh! happy is the man that can say so! and all can say it in Christ, for Christ has said of all, “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest!” But, if we are not close to Christ, in Paul’s state, we are not at liberty.
Alas! there may be many things in the life of the poor Christian which oblige Christ to chastise him, and there is a diversity in the manifestation of His love, but this changes not the truth. He is one with me. The Christian sees in God all goodness towards him, and, as a sinner, nothing but grace. There is in Christ the righteousness of God, the life of God, the glory of God, and that in Christ which declares him one with Him, and which says of him, It is I. He has the Holy Spirit that he may understand Him, and enjoy Him, and that he may know by this “earnest” that the fellowship and happiness of God are his for ever, and according to the sweetness of the peace which assures him of it. Is it, then, astonishing that, filled with love, he cries out, “I would to God that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost, and altogether such as I am, except these bonds!”
Being in the presence of God destroys whatever we have put to hinder the conscience from being alive. With all your religion, would you be naked before God, before whom every veil is rent? All that we put before us to hinder us from seeing God, all the care, all the pleasures, all our religion, disgust us, when the conscience is awakened.
Are you content that your consciences should be naked before God? If it be so, Christ can say to you, You are one with Me, and God is occupied about you, because you are one with Me, like those of whom He said, “I am Jesus, whom thou persecutest.”
May God give us grace, dear friends, to comprehend this truth, so powerful, so blessed to our souls.