"And the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man's feet whose name was Saul. And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep. And Saul was consenting unto his death. "—Acts 7:58-60; 8:1.
THAT a young man," whose name was Saul," was present at the martyrdom of Stephen, is the first mention in history of a man who ultimately will be found to have exerted as wide an influence on human affairs as any one of the race that shall have lived. "The life of a great man, in a great period of the world's history, is a subject to command the attention of every thoughtful mind." Indeed, there is nothing more worthy of consideration than such a life; for there is nothing on which the progress of the world more depends, or which enters more into the great changes that mark the world's history. It is, in a great measure, by raising up and endowing great minds that God secures the advance of human affairs, and the accomplishment of His own plans on earth. All minds have their origin in God; and great minds seem to be created by Him as" He creates great oceans, great mountains, great worlds," as proofs of His own greatness,—and under an arrangement, also, not less fitted to the relations of things, and to His own purposes, than are such great oceans, mountains, and worlds. The earth's history has made progress not merely by slow development, by quiet and steady growth, by the silent accumulations of experience and observation digested into rules to guide and govern the future, but (in connexion with these things) by bringing upon the stage from time to time some mind qualified by high original endowment to give a new impulse to human affairs; to lift up the race to a higher level; and to perform, in a single generation, what might have been otherwise the slow work of centuries, or what might not have been done at all. Some great thought is to be suggested, containing "the seeds of things," some new discovery is to be made, or some new invention to be struck out, which shall at once place the world far in advance of what it was, and shall materially and permanently affect the affairs of mankind. Such a mind is created for the occasion; though to human view it seems to be made by the occasion. It appears just at the time when it is needed, accomplishes the work which is needed, and then passes away. But not so the invention, the discovery, the great thought that has marked the age. These become the property of mankind,—the enlarged" capital" which constitutes a basis for the new enterprize of the world.
Saul of Tarsus was one of those men. Christianity needed such a mind; and the world had reached a point where it needed such a mind. Christianity was in such a state that it was desirable—may we not say, indispensable—that there should be some such mind employed in its propagation and its defence. Saul of Tarsus has exerted more influence in spreading Christianity, in explaining and vindicating its doctrines, in adapting it to the world (if the expression may be allowed) and the world to it, in developing its great principles, in giving to it systematic form, in settling and establishing the faith of mankind for all coming time, than any other of the apostles, or perhaps than all of them combined. One of the entire books of the New Testament—" The Acts of the Apostles "—is to a great extent a mere record of his travels, sermons, and labours; no less than thirteen, and probably fourteen out of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were written by him, or at his dictation.
The character of those books, also, is as remarkable as is their relative place in the New Testament. They are not historical;—for the historical records of Christianity—the life of the Author, and the history of the early propagation of Christianity, are found elsewhere. They are not a collection of public discourses, or orations in defence of the new system of religion,—for we have none of those except what are preserved by the fellow-traveller of Paul, in the Acts of the Apostles. They are, in the main, an explanation and defence of the doctrines of Christianity; the most full, able, and comprehensive, that we have in the New Testament They are an inspired exposition of the great plan of the Author of the Christian system, which He did not Himself choose fully to unfold, but which He left to be explained by him who was called to be a disciple and an apostle after His own death. A full defence and an illustration of what was intended to be accomplished by that death—by the atonement—could not be so well made before He died as afterwards, since the statement could be made more clear, and could be more easily comprehended after the great facts had occurred on which the statement was to rest, than before. That statement He chose should be made, in the main, by Saul of Tarsus—a man who, so far as we know, had never seen Jesus of Nazareth; a man, therefore, who could testify to nothing from his personal observation; a man who had not had the advantage of the long training, under His own eye, which had been afforded to the immediate apostles whom the Lord Jesus had chosen. It is remarkable that they were not selected to be the instruments in explaining His religion; and yet, perhaps, a reason for this may be found in the character, the training, the learning of Saul of Tarsus.
Certain it is, however the fact may be accounted for, that if we were to take from the New Testament all that was written by Saul of Tarsus, we should remove no small part of that which has gone to form the religious opinions of mankind. Certain it is that we should leave the system as it is in the remaining books of the New Testament, difficult of explanation, arrangement, and comprehension. It could, indeed, by no means be said that the system could not be comprehended, or that knowledge enough could not be derived from the Gospels, from the Acts of the Apostles, and from the Epistles of James, Peter, John, and Jude, to answer the great question," What shall I do to be saved?" but it would still be true that we should feel the need of some such full and comprehensive exposition of those doctrines as we have now in the epistles of Paul, and that the faith of mankind in the doctrines of Christianity (or the shape which that faith would take) would be far different from what it is now. One thing is clear—that there has been no one of our race who has done so much to determine the theological opinions of mankind as Paul has done.
A similar remark may be made in regard to the influence of his opinions on the world at large. He has already influenced more minds than Plato ever did; in the end, he will have influenced far more than Plato, and Bacon, and Kant, and Locke, combined:—than all the Greek, the Persian, the Egyptian, the Roman priests and sages united. In his own day he came in contact on more points with the mind of the world than any other living man. He travelled farther than Herodotus had done; he sought more than any other man the great central points of influence in the world; and at Jerusalem, at Damascus, at Antioch, at Ephesus, at Philippi, at Athens, at Corinth, at Rome, he left impressions of his presence and power such as no other man made, and destined to be of longer continuance than any opinions which influenced the men of that generation. He came in contact with human bigotry, superstition, philosophy; with the pride, the wickedness, and the voluptuousness of the world; with heathen customs and laws sanctioned by ages; and more than any other man, he contributed to the inauguration of a new system of things, the results of which are to be seen in the yet future history of mankind, extending onward to the consummation of all things.
As he appears before us, as described in Acts vii., he is a young man; and in an attitude fitted to rivet the attention, yet painful to contemplate. It is a scene of fury, rage, and violence. A man guilty of no crime,—who had done nothing to provoke this outburst of wrath,—who had merely stood up for the defence of a new system of religion,—who had said nothing which prophets had not said before,—who had affirmed that he had seen, whether in reality or in fancy, "the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God, "—was assailed by a mob (stopping their ears, as if they would not hear such blasphemy), was dragged violently out of the city, and stoned to death. It was the first martyrdom under the Christian religion. Saul of Tarsus was there;—why, we know not. He looked calmly on. He took no part in the affray. He threw not a stone. He said not a word. If he was a young man of violent passions, he restrained them. If he sympathized with these murderers, he said nothing to encourage them. If there was then that in him which at some future time might manifest itself in a form of persecution more violent than this, it was held in check. So far as the record goes, there was not a word, a look, an action, which could lead any man to infer that in a few days he would himself be one of the most furious of persecutors, and would surpass all living men in the energy, the fire, the zeal, and the ability, with which he would endeavour to extinguish the new religion. Yet he was manifestly regarding this deed of violence with interest and with approbation; he approved the thing, whatever might be his views of the mode. Those who were engaged in the act of persecution knew him. They understood somehow that his heart was with them, so that they might safely lay down their "clothes" at his feet,—the outer "garments" laid aside on such an occasion. Many years afterwards he refers to this scene, and says, as if he had at the time been a real participator in the persecution of Stephen," I also was standing by, and consenting unto his death, and kept the raiment of them that slew him" (Acts 22:20).
Even if the matter ended here, and we knew no more of that young man, we could not but feel an interest in inquiring, Who was he? what had been his training? what were the principles which he held? why had he such a real and well-understood sympathy with these murderers? and why was he then restrained from expressing that sympathy by joining with them in those deeds of violence and blood? The question also would probably occur to our minds, What would he be likely to do, if such scenes were to be often repeated?
What is left to us of his early history, as gathered from intimations made in his subsequent life, may perhaps enable us to answer each of these questions. Let us place ourselves, therefore, at this" stand-point"—this his first appearance in history—and see if we can find anything in his early training which will account for the fact that he sympathized at heart with this work of death, and nevertheless was restrained then from ail active participation in it; which may explain the reason why he so soon became an active persecutor himself; and which, at the same time, under the overruling providence of God, and in the accomplishment of the Divine purposes, was secretly fitting him for the great work that he was to do as the most eminent among the apostles.
There are three things bearing on this subject among the incidental intimations which we have in respect to the early history of Saul, viz.:—the character and position of his father; his own early training in a Grecian city; and his subsequent training under Gamaliel at Jerusalem.
I. The character and position of his father. In a speech which he subsequently made in his own defence (Acts 23:6), he says, with emphasis, and as if he attached much importance to the assertion, "I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee" Of his father's name, indeed, we know nothing. Of his rank, as we shall see presently, we have information which may be of importance in determining some things in regard to Paul himself. But we are now to inquire what would be the influence of his being trained up under the guidance of a father who was a strict and conscientious Pharisee.
It would, indeed, assist us much in estimating the character of Saul of Tarsus, if some knowledge had been left us of his early training under the influence of a mother. But it is remarkable that in all his writings he makes no mention of her. He speaks of himself as set apart by God" from his mother's womb" (Gal. 1:15, 16); but this is the only allusion to his mother which occurs. We have notices of a sister, for we read of his "sister's son" who rendered him important aid in a time of peril (Acts 23:16), and of some more distant kinsmen who were converted to the Christian faith (Rom. 16:7, 11, 21); but we know nothing of that relative upon whose influence on the opinions and conduct so much commonly depends.
It is, doubtless, true that the influence of a mother, as it is the earliest, is also the most material and important of the things which go to form the character of a man. It is, doubtless, true that a large proportion of those who have become eminent for piety and usefulness have been able to trace that effect to the example, the prayers, the instruction, the influence of a pious mother. The instances are innumerable where the influence of such early training has gone into the entire subsequent life, and where a mother, kept by her position and the proprieties of life from open and active service in the Church, has sent forth a son as her representative, imbued with her spirit, taught by her life, and converted in answer to her prayers, to accomplish great effects on the theatre of human affairs, giving direction to talent and influence of inestimable advantage to the Church and the world. It would be very easy to refer to a long catalogue of illustrious names, among the most illustrious in the Church,—embracing (if not beginning with) the great name of Augustine,—the value of whose influence, and consequently the value of the influence of a mother, no one can now estimate. It is needless to state on what this depends. She, the mother, has the first moulding of the mind of the child. She is constantly with him. She wins his heart by a thousand tender offices and kindnesses. She hears his little stories of trouble when perhaps the father would not; she listens to all his statements if he is injured, or fancies himself to be so; she comforts him in what seem to him to be great sorrows; she opens her ears and her heart to things which, perhaps, even he would not regard as of sufficient importance to trouble his father with; she teaches him to kneel down and pray; she watches beside him by day and by night when he is sick; in her heart he has always a sanctuary and a home,—a place to which he may flee, and where he will be sure to find sympathy and pity, whoever may despise him, or wrong him, or ridicule him, or neglect him. We are not to be surprised, therefore, that God has committed early religious training, in a great measure, to a mother; nor that, in so many instances, we can trace eminent piety and usefulness in subsequent life directly to her influence and prayers.
But it is also to be said that there are cases where the influence of a father is much more direct and material in forming the character. It may be exerted in a more advanced period of boyhood, but may be such as effectually to mould all the future of the man. The mind of the father may be more comprehensive and better informed than that of the mother; the elements of his character may be more decided; there may be more that the son would wish to incorporate into his own future life. Firm, calm, thoughtful, sagacious, his example comes prominently before the mind of the boy just at the time when the real character is forming in reference to the world. The nursery character has been formed. The lessons of religion in childhood have been learned. For domestic life—for home—for boyhood—the character is moulded and matured. But the character requisite for the great world—for the profession—for the warfare of life—for the race of ambition—for wealth—for permanent distinction—is now to be formed, and the boy may now come wholly under the influence of the father with reference to the opinions and conduct that shall go to make up that struggle and warfare. If his principles coincide with those of the mother, all will be well; if they differ, he may now counteract much or all of her teaching; and even when they do coincide, he may do more than she has done in making the future man what he is to be.
Of the character of Paul's father in this respect—whether as coinciding with that of the mother, or not—whether as fitted to carry out the early lessons which she inculcated, or not—whether as being more adapted to mould such a mind as that of Saul of Tarsus when a boy, or not,—we can now know nothing. We know only that Paul himself referred with emphasis, and, it would seem, with a significant emphasis, to the fact that he was" the son of a Pharisee." What would this lead to? Can we find any influence from this which will serve to explain the position in which he first appears?
What was a Pharisee? A man in whom the sentiment of religion, or religiosity, was most deeply imbedded; a man who was a firm believer in revelation; a man who was a stern advocate for the authority of law, and consequently of government; a man who, by theory at least, was opposed to irregular outbreaks of passion; a man who professed to aim at strict morality, and to be guided by its rules; a man who was a zealous propagandist in religion; a man who was bigoted in his attachment to his own opinions, to the traditions of the fathers, to all that pertained to religion, in its forms, its ceremonies, its doctrines; a man who was intolerant of the opinions of others, but who, if he carried out his principles, would be a persecutor only in accordance with law, and not under the force of popular excitement. Such was the paternal influence under which Saul of Tarsus was trained; whom we now see, not actively employed in persecution, but" keeping the raiment" of those who, regardless of all forms of law, were engaged in a furious work of death.
There was another thing pertaining to his father, which may do something to explain what occurred in the subsequent life of Paul. It was the relation which he sustained to the Roman government. Though he was a Jew, most pure in his descent, so that Paul could say afterwards of himself that he was "an Hebrew of the Hebrews" (Phil. 3:6), yet (as was not then uncommon for a foreigner) his father had obtained the rights of a Roman citizen; and therefore, when appealing to the Roman authority as a protection from persecution by his own countrymen, he could say," I was free born, "—or, I was born with this right of protection by the Roman law, (Acts 22:28.) In what way this right had been obtained by his father, whether, as in the case of the "chief captain," to whom Paul appealed in the case just referred to, it had been "purchased," or whether it had been bestowed (as is most probable) on account of some service rendered to the Roman cause during the civil wars, is unknown, and cannot now be determined. In whatever way it had been acquired, it evidently was regarded as an honourable distinction for a Jew; it was a ground of protection in time of danger; and it gave a security (similar to what is now derived from a "passport" in foreign lands) in any part of the Roman empire. Paul more than once appealed to this as a ground of protection; and in virtue of this, he ultimately took his own cause away from Hebrew tribunals, and even from proconsular tribunals, and carried it at once up to the Emperor himself, Acts 16:37; 22:25-29; 25:10, 11.
II. His birthplace. Another fact to be noticed as to the training of Saul, and as bearing on the work to which he had been designated in the Divine purposes, was that he received his early education in a Grecian city. Tarsus in Cilicia, on the banks of the river Cydnus, by which it maintained an extensive commerce, was a distinguished seat of Greek philosophy and literature, and, from the number of its schools and learned men, is ranked by Strabo (xiv. pp. 673, 674), with Athens and Alexandria. Though now a poor and decayed town inhabited by Turks, not numbering more than thirty thousand, yet it was, in the time of Paul's youth, a busy haunt of commerce. St. Basil has recorded that" Tarsus was a point of union for Syrians, Cilicians, Isaurians, and Cappadocians." It was the resort of Greek and Roman merchants; and the youthful Saul, on the wharves of the Cydnus, would mingle with men, in different costumes, from almost every part of the then known world.
He was indeed a Jewish boy, and would doubtless be trained and educated in Jewish schools, and under Jewish influence. But there is another kind of education than that which a boy obtains in school. It is the education of the place; of associates; of playmates: of the language which is spoken around him; of the books which he reads. You cannot separate the one from the other. You cannot tell how much of the one or the other has gone into the character of the educated youth; but often that which is derived from without is more important than that which is inculcated at the fire-side and in the school. Under the direction of a father who was a Hebrew, Saul would be taught Hebrew letters and Hebrew learning; in accordance with wise Jewish maxims, he was taught, as we know, a "trade, "—in his case, that of a "tent-maker" (Acts 18:3); but still he was among a Greek people; he would mingle with those who spoke the Greek language; and, directly or indirectly, he would become, to a greater or less extent, acquainted with Greek literature. The ready and appropriate manner in which he afterwards referred to Greek poets (Acts 17:28; Titus 1:12; 1 Cor. 15:33), shows that in early life he was not a stranger to Greek learning.
It is easy to see the bearing of this on his future life as an apostle. The Greek was spoken in almost all the countries in which he was to travel. His public discourses were mostly to be in that language. All that he would write, to be preserved to the Church and to the world, was to be in that language. He was to meet Greeks everywhere; to preach to them, to explain to them, and to defend before them, the new system of religion. He was to stand amidst their sages; he was to" encounter" their philosophers in the very seat of their influence and power (Acts 17:18); and what is most material, he was (as we have seen) more than any others of the apostles, to make a permanent record of the doctrines of the Christian religion. It cannot have been without design on the part of Him who directs all things by His Providence, that the early years of Saul should have been spent where that language, learning, and philosophy prevailed.
III. There is a third thing to be noticed in regard to the early life of Saul—his training under Gamaliel.
He himself tells us (Acts 22:3), that he was "brought up, "—ἀνατεθραμμένος, nurtured, educated—in Jerusalem" at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers." This language would imply that he had been placed there at quite an early period of his life. The same thing is implied also in another expression which he uses (Acts 26:4), when he says," My manner of life from my youth" —ἐκ νεότητος—" which was at the first, "—ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς, from the beginning—"among mine own nation at Jerusalem, know all the Jews." At the age of thirteen, a Jewish maxim required that children should be taught the" law."
We know the reason for which he was sent to Jerusalem. It was the act of a Jewish father, a" Pharisee," designing that his son should be trained up in the most perfect knowledge of the law, and placing him, for that purpose, under the instruction of the most celebrated Jewish teacher of his time,—for Gamaliel was to the Jews what Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and Bonaventura, were among the Schoolmen, and as the titles" Angelic doctor," and" Seraphic doctor," were conferred on such illustrious men, so the title "the Beauty of the Law," had been conferred on Gamaliel. Possibly, also, it might have been the wish of his father to separate him, at the forming period of his life, from influences in a Greek city that might tend to weaken his attachment to the Hebrew faith.
We know what the character of Gamaliel was; and we can estimate what would be the nature of his influence on the mind of a young man like Saul of Tarsus.
(a.) Gamaliel was a man characterized by candour and coolness of judgment. A remarkable instance of this occurs in his defence of the Apostles, as recorded in Acts 5:34-40. The Sanhedrim were determined to condemn the apostles to death, and it required no small degree of firmness to stand up even to argue the case, and to subject oneself to the charge of being their friend; but the character of Gamaliel, his ability, his position, commanded respect; and his counsel was eminently prudent, wise, sensible. He stilled the rage of the Sanhedrim; he secured the discharge of the persecuted men. He was, indeed, a Pharisee. But he was not trammelled by the narrow prejudices of his party. He dared to act from principles of justice and truth. As such a man he had secured in an eminent degree the confidence of his countrymen, and we are not surprised to be told that he was "had in reputation among all the people" (Acts 5:34). He was of the class to whom Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus belonged:—a man thoroughly religious; thoroughly a Jew; thoroughly, and on principle, a Pharisee, as opposed to other Jewish sects; yet a man of noble principles, and well fitted as an instructor to form a mind to large and liberal views.
(b.) Tradition has described him as a man who was distinguished above most of his countrymen by his attainments in Greek learning, and by his respect for it. If so, his own mind would be liberalized by those studies; and the influence of that fact on one who had been trained in his childhood in a Greek city, and who had known something of Greek authors, may be readily imagined. No one can fail to see what may have been the effect of this on one who was to spend so large a portion of his active public life in the very centres of Greek philosophy, learning, and power.
(c.) As a Pharisee, most eminent, he had a high regard for authority. He was a teacher of law. He was an expounder of law. He was a Jew to the heart's core. But, as opposed to all the excitements of passion, to all tumults springing out of such excitements, to unjust and tyrannical measures prompted by mere will and by popular feeling, he was a man who would stand firm to the principles of law and of order.
(d.) He did not, as far as we know, become a Christian. With all his candour, with all his learning, with all that there was of liberal influence on his mind, derived from Greek literature, it could not be affirmed that Gamaliel would never justify persecution. There is even a prayer on record which is supposed to have been written by him, or to have received his sanction, and which, if it was his, shows that he approved the destruction of apostates. But if ever he were to be engaged in persecution, we know that it would be only as justified by law, and conducted by public authority.
It is easy to trace the influence of these traits of character on the whole of Saul's public life—alike as a Jewish persecutor, and as a defender of the faith which he at first laboured to destroy. We can see how he would be likely to sympathize in heart with persecutors; how confidence could be reposed in him in that respect; how he would abstain from acts of open violence and lawlessness,—and yet how, under the sanction of law, he might become (as he was) one of the most violent and dreaded of the enemies of the Church.
There is always danger to a young man in regard to his morals when, for the sake of education, or in the pursuit of wealth or honour, he leaves the restraints and influences of the domestic circle. Saul of Tarsus would be exposed to such perils in leaving the home of his childhood; in being separated from a father's presence and immediate authority; in visiting even Jerusalem. Many young men, religiously trained, are ruined in such changes; but more young men—great as is the absolute number of those who are ruined—are safe. Their early virtue, their religious principles, their respect for law and for religion, are successful and triumphant in the new scene of trial. Saul of Tarsus was of that number. In his old age, and when he regarded it as possible that he would soon be put to death,—looking back to this period,—he could say of his moral character all through his youth, "Touching the righteousness which is in the law, BLAMELESS" (Phil. 3:6).
Such had been the influence of his early training. Such was he, as he now appears in the persecution of Stephen;—a Jew; a Pharisee, a young man, conscientious, religious, moral; one restrained now, as he ever would be afterwards, from deeds of lawless violence, yet ready to engage most furiously in persecution whenever it could be done under the authority of law. It was not so done in the case of Stephen, for this was the violence of a mob; yet his heart was there. In how many things done by others, of which we secretly approve, are we restrained from active participation, either by prudence, or the principles of our education, or because they are not done in the manner which we approve; and yet our heart is there! The raiment of the evil-doers would be safe in our keeping!