"For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh."
Few characters more remarkable than that of St. Paul, are to be found in history. He is introduced to our acquaintance on a tragical occasion -- the martyrdom of Stephen, where he appears an accomplice with murderers -- "he was standing by and consenting to his death, and kept the raiment of them that slew him."
The circumstances of Paul's conversion to Christianity were very remarkable, and afford strong evidence of its truth. He was not an ignorant youth, who could be easily deluded. He had all the advantages of education which that enlightened age afforded. He was born indeed at Tarsus, a city of Cilicia; but sent to Jerusalem for an education, and "brought up at the feet of Gamaliel," a famous Jewish Rabbi, who is said to have been many years president of the Sanhedrin; and renowned for wisdom and erudition.
Paul's mind was not only early imbued with general science, but he was particularly instructed in the Jews' religion, and became a zealous member of the pharisaic sect -- verily believed the truth to be with them -- thought it to be his duty to inculcate their sentiments, both scriptural and traditionary, and oppose all who did not fall in with their views, and help to increase their influence, and spread their principles. Therefore his hatred of Christianity, and determination to destroy it from its foundation -- Therefore his implacable aversion to Christians, and unwearied endeavors to reduce them from the faith, or compel them to blaspheme, or where he failed in those attempts, to destroy them from the earth.
But lo! the triumphs of divine grace! This arch enemy, while pursuing the followers of the Lamb, even to strange cities, is met by the glorified redeemer, while on his way to Damascus, whither he was going, "breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples!" Arrested in his course! Convinced of his madness! Brought to believe on that Jesus whom he had reviled and blasphemed! And even changed into a preacher of that gospel which he had been so eager to destroy!
We know the strange process by which these events were effected -- how this proud adversary was subdued and melted into a humble, penitent believer! We know the zeal with which he entered on the gospel ministry -- what he did -- what he suffered, to build up the cause he had destroyed!
How he persevered to the end, and sealed his testimony with his blood! -- What a trophy of divine power and mercy! "These were the Lord's doings, and marvelous in our eyes."
But why marvelous? Why should we wonder when we consider the agent? God is wont to subvert the purposes of his enemies; and often uses those means and instruments which were prepared and intended against him, to accomplish his purposes.
Egypt is said, at a particular period, to have dreaded a deliverer, then expected to arise in Israel -- therefore the edict for thy destruction of the male children which should be born to the Hebrews, thinking to destroy the deliverer among them. But while that edict was in operation, as though in contempt of infernal malice, and Egyptian policy, Moses, the savior of his people, was born. And mark what followed. Lo! The daughter of Pharaoh becomes his mother. The house of Pharaoh his asylum! The learned Magi of that hostile empire, his instructors! And all to fit him for the work for which heaven designed him. *
* Hunter Vol. ii. Lect. xviii.
So here; this Moses of the New Testament -- this destined chieftain among Christians, is educated among Pharisees; the great enemies of Christ -- instructed by their greatest teacher -- inspired with a double portion of their zeal and rancor against the cause of the Redeemer, and sent forth to destroy. But lo! This mighty Abaddan of diabolical and Jewish malice, is arrested in his course -- changed into another man, and all his zeal and learning from that hour directed to buildup the cause of God! The energy instructed and furnished, but heaven directed the use and application!
God's purposes stand and will stand. None can stay his hand, or reverse his decrees. The means chosen to subvert, are used to build his cause and kingdom. "He taketh the wise in their own craftiness, and the purposes of the froward are carried headlong."
While Paul remained a Pharisee he was the idol of his nation; but no sooner did he become a Christian, than their love was turned to hatred. No other was so abhorred as he. Against no other did they unite with such determined rancor. Numbers soon leagued together, and even "bound themselves under a curse not to eat or drink till they had slain him." But all their machinations were vain. "Obtaining help from God, of whom he was a chosen vessel, to bear his name to the Gentiles, and kings, and the people of Israel," he continued many years, and did, perhaps, more than any other perform in the cause of Christ. Jewish rancor towards him never abated, but he caught no share of their bitter spirit? the temper of Christ governed in him? he loved his enemies, and did them good. Like another Moses he bore Israel on his heart before God, and made daily intercession for them, weeping at a view of their sad state, and the evils coming upon them.
Such is the spirit of the context. "I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost that I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. -- for I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ, for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh".
The depressing occasion of his grief, was the infidelity and obduracy of his nation -- that they refused to hearken to reason and evidence -- were resolved to reject the only Savior; and the evils temporal and eternal, which he foresaw their temper and conduct would bring upon them -- therefore his "great heaviness and continual sorrow."
In the text -- I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ, for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, the apostle hath been thought to imprecate evil on himself for the benefit of his people! All the expositors we have seen on this passage, conceive him to have wished some sore calamity to himself for the advantage of his nation! Though they have differed respecting the magnitude of the evil which he wished to suffer for their sake.
Doct. Doddridge considers him, as "wishing to be made a curse for them, as Christ hath been made a curse for us, that so they might be delivered from the guilt which they had brought on themselves, and be entitled to the blessings of the rejected gospel."
Doct. S. Clark views him, as "desirous of suffering the calamities to which his people were doomed for rejecting and crucifying the Savior, so that, could they all centre in one person, he wished to be the person, that he might thereby procure salvation for them!"
Grotius and Pool understand him, as "wishing to be separated from the church of Christ for the sake of the Jews!" Which differs little from Doct. Hunter's sense of the passage -- to which Doct. Guyse adds, "a desire of every indignity of man, and to be cut off from communion with Christ, for the sake of Israel;" whom he strangely considers as prejudiced against Christianity in consequence of their prejudices against Paul!
But why should the apostle wish evil to himself for their sakes? What possible advantage could his sufferings have been to his nation? Is it possible that those learned expositors should conceive that pains and penalties inflicted on him could have made atonement for their sins, and expiated their guilt! They must never have read Paul's epistles or never have entered into the spirit of them, who could entertain such views as these; or even suspect that aught, save the blood of Christ, can atone for human guilt. It is strange, therefore, that they could have imagined that he wished to suffer with this view. And it is no less so, that it should be thought that prejudices against Paul could have occasioned Jewish prejudices against Christianity, when it is so evident that their prejudices against Paul were wholly occasioned by his attachment to Christianity -- he having been high in their esteem till he became a Christian.
David once asked to suffer in Israel's stead; but the circumstances of the case were then totally different from those of the case now before us. Israel were suffering for his sin in numbering the people; "I have sinned and done wickedly; but these sheep, what have they done? Let thine hand, I pray thee be against me." -- But Paul had not sinned, to bring evil on his people -- the guilt was all their own.
Expositors having mistaken Moses' prayer "to be bloated out of God's book," seem generally to have had that prayer in their eye when they have attempted to explain the text; and supposing that Moses prayed to be made sacrifice for Israel, have thought that Paul had the same spirit, and here followed his example! But that neither of them ever entertained the thought of suffering to expiate the sin of their people, and that the two passages bear no kind of relation to each other, we conceive indubitably certain.
But let us consider the text and judge for ourselves the meaning.
Perhaps the difficulties which have perplexed it may have chiefly arisen from the translation. The silence of expositors on this head, while puzzled with the passage, is strange, if the difficulty might have been obviated by amending to the original. The translation is plausible solely from this consideration.
Mr. Pool is the only expositor we have ever seen, who hath noted the difference between the translation and the original; and he labors hard to bring them together, but, in our apprehension, labors it in vain.
The passage literally translated stands thus? For I myself boasted that I was a curse from Christ, above my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh. *
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* Euxoman gar autos ego anathema einai apo tou xristou uper tou adelphon mou suggenon mou kata sarxa.
Euxoman, rendered in translation by I could wish forms in the imperfect of the indicative mood, in the Auic dialect. Mr. Pool was too accurate a scholar not to observe the disagreement of the translation with the original. Some read it as in the indicative; but it is generally considered as in the optative, and altered by a figure which takes on iota from the middle, and cuts an an end of the word forming Euxoman, instead of auxoiman an. +
But what warrant have we for these alterations? They only serve to darken a difficult text.
The most natural and common construction of euxoman, derives, is, to glory or boast. Gloriar is the first word used to express the meaning of it in Schrevelius' Lexicon; and the meaning euxos, the theme of this verb justifies the construction, in preference to that used by the translators. And the Greek preposition uper, which is rendered for, is often used to signify above, or more than.
+ Vid. Pool in loc.
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For the justice of the criticisms we appeal to the learned. If they are just, our sense of the text will be admitted.
If we consider the context, and the part which had been formerly acted by the apostle, it will not be difficult to ascertain his meaning, nor strange that he should express himself as in the text. He begins the chapter with strong expressions of concern for his nation, who had rejected him "whose name alone is given under heaven," for the salvation of men. If they continued to neglect the grace offered them in the gospel, he knew that they could not escape. And when he looked on them and mourned over them, the dangers which a few years before had hung over himself, rose up before him. He had been an unbeliever, a blasphemer, and a persecutor of the church of Christ; had boasted his enmity to Christ and opposition to the gospel; in which he had even exceeded the body of his nation -- he had taken the lead against Christianity -- been unrivalled in zeal against the cause, and rancour against the followers of the Lamb. When warned of his danger, and admonished to consider what would be his portion, should Jesus prove to be the Messias, he seems to have derided the friendly warnings, and imprecated on himself the vengeance of the Nazerene! -- to have defied him to do his worst! to pour his curse upon him!
It is not strange that witnessing the temper of his nation, should call these things to his remembrance -- that the consideration should affect him -- that he should shudder at the prospect of the destruction which hung over them, and at the recollection of that from which himself had been "scarcely saved" -- that he should exclaim, "God and my conscience witness my great heaviness and continual sorrow, when I look on my brethren the Jews, and consider the ruin coming upon them, from which I have been saved, so as by fire! Lately I was even more the enemy of Christ than they, and boasted greater enmity.. against him! And should have brought on myself a more intolerable doom, had not a miracle of power and mercy arrested me in my course!" That such considerations and a recollection of the share which he had formerly taken in strengthening the prejudices of his nation against the truth, should deeply affect him, and draw such expression from him as we find in the text and context, is not strange. They appear natural for a person circumstanced as he was at that time; and especially to one divinely forewarned of the devastation then coming on his place and nation.
These we conceive to be the feelings and views expressed by the apostle in the beginning of this chapter -- but that he should wish to be put into the place of Christ; or madly with evil to himself, from which nobody could be benefited, cannot be suspected; unless with Festus, we suppose him to have been "beside himself," and not to have known what he wrote, when he expressed himself as in the text.
I. In Paul's conversion how wonderfully apparent are the wisdom and power of God? When we view Saul of Tarsus making havoc of the church in Judea, and soliciting permission to pursue its scattered members even into exile, we consider him as a determined enemy of Christ. Who then would suspect that he should be made to feel the power of divine grace? That he would become a Christian? Yea, a prime minister of Immanuel! But lo! For this cause did God raise him up! For this work was he training while drinking at the fount of Science, and learning the Jews' religion in the school of Gamaliel! While unsanctified he was a destroyer; but when melted by divine influence into the temper of the gospel, all his powers and all his acquisitions were consecrated to the service of God and the Redeemer.
To affect this change in Paul, however unexpected, was not beyond the power of God; and it was done of God! Neither was it delayed till Paul had spent his best days in the service of Satan. At setting out to destroy, he was met of the ascended Savior, transformed by the renewing of his mind, and from that time devoted to the service of God; and continued faithful unto death. Many were his trials -- severe his sufferings for the gospel which he preached; but "none of these things moved him; neither did he count his life dear to himself, that he might finish his course with joy, and the ministry which he had received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God."
II. The temper manifested by St. Paul when contemplating the state of his nation, how worthy of imitation? Like his divine Lord, "when he beheld them he wept over them." Neither was the view unprofitable. It served to remind him of his own past guilt and danger, and the mercy which had been exercised toward him. His guilt and danger had been great. In high handed opposition to heaven, he had even exceeded "his kinsmen according to the flesh." Witnessing their state brought these again to his remembrance, and the grace of God which had stopt him in his course, and saved him from destruction, causing him at once, to rejoice and tremble!
Many of the children of God when they witness the security of sinners; how they neglect the great salvation, and harden themselves in sin, may remember when they did the same themselves and some of them, in a higher degree than most of those who appear to be walking the downward road.
Those who have found mercy cannot refrain from mourning over those whom they see hardening themselves in sin; nor should they cease to warn them from their way, and to cry to God in their behalf. But their attention is not wholly taken up from home; it often reverts thither, and stirs them up to grateful acknowledgments of divine goodness to themselves. WHO is he that maketh me to differ from the thoughtless sinner? is a consideration which often rises in the good man's mind, while looking on the careless and secure. It is a proper and a profitable consideration -- tends to keep him humble and mindful of his dependence.
Sense of past dangers serve to enhance the value of present safety. The greater dangers we have escaped, and the more wonderful our deliverances have been, the greater should be our love to our deliverer, and the greater our care to make him suitable returns. If we entertain just views of these things, such will be the effect. Those to whom most is forgiven love the most.
By reflecting on the riches of divine mercy, we should stir up our souls to love the Lord. If witnessing the unconcern of others, while in the broad road, serves to excite us to gratitude for divine goodness shown to us, "the wrath of man is thereby made to praise the Lord." Such was the effect which a view of Israel's hardness had on Paul -- May all Christ's disciples cultivate the same temper.
III. In Paul's conversion we see God distinguishing among his enemies, and calling one into his kingdom who was, from principle, a destroyer of his saints. Paul was a Pharisee and the son of a Pharisee. No sect among the Jews was more bitter against Christ -- no other so eager and active in their endeavors to crush his cause and subvert his kingdom. Yet numbers of that sect obtained mercy. The same did not happen respecting the Saducees. No instance of a Saducee brought to repentance, can be adduced. Why this discrimination?
There may be reasons not revealed; but some are discernible.
The Pharisees "had a zeal for God, though not according to knowledge." Saul, the Pharisee, "verily thought, that he ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus" -- he did not sin against the light of his own mind. The same was doubtless the case with many others of that sect. The Saducees were devoid of principle -- had rejected first principles -- those taught by the light of nature. While first principles are retained, such was the belief of a divine existence -- a difference between good and evil -- a future state, in which men will receive the deeds done in the body, and the like, there remains a foundation on which religion may rest; but where these are rejected, the foundation is destroyed. Of the former who have erred in lesser matters of faith, and been thereby seduced into practical errors, many have been reclaimed, and brought to repentance: Not so the latter. "One among a thousand have we not found." And those whose sentiments border on atheism, or infidelity, are seldom called of God.
There is a certain point of error in opinion, from which a return is rare. Those who reach it are commonly given up to strong delusions, which lead to destruction.
And practical errors, especially those which are opposed to conviction, are highly criminal, and exceedingly dangerous -- they fear the conscience, and provoke God to leave sinners to themselves -- "My spirit shall not always strive with man -- the times of ignorance God winked at, but now commands all men every where to repent."
Saul of Tarsus speaks of himself as a chief of sinners "because he persecuted the church of God;" yet he obtained mercy! But those who sin against the light of their own minds, can draw little encouragement from thence. He hath declared the reason of the distinguishing mercy shown to him -- "because I did it ignorantly in unbelief." * No sooner was he convinced of his mistake, than he returned with, "Lord what will thou have me to do?" -- So do not those "who know their master's will and do it not." WOULD we share the blessedness of believing Saul, we must share his repentance; so shall we find mercy with God. "For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek; for the same Lord over all, is rich unto all that call upon him." +
* 1 Timothy i.13. + Romans x.12.