And it came to pass, that, when I was come again to Jerusalem, even while I prayed in the temple, I was in a trance;…
This passage has an interest and a solemnity of a peculiar kind. This interview is not previously recorded, and but for the special circumstances that now arose it might never have been mentioned at all.
2. Paul introduced it because he wished to convince his former co-religionists that just as he had become a Christian preacher because he could not help himself, so when his heart was set upon labouring among his people, he was obliged to undertake what otherwise he would have utterly shrunk back from. Which of them, if they had been in his position, could have dared to say, "No"? Observe —
I. THE REJECTION OF THE GOSPEL PREPARING THE WAY FOR THE WITHDRAWAL OF IT (vers. 17, 18).
1. The narrative refers to Paul's first visit to Jerusalem after his conversion. He must have returned with very strange and mingled feelings. He left the Holy City the proud champion of Judaism; he came back to it the humble disciple of Christ. He left it with a heart full of hatred to the faith of Christ; he came back ready to lay down his life in defence of it. And yet, as by a kind of instinct, he betook himself to the old place of prayer; and it was fitted to impress his Jewish hearers in his favour that it was there that he received the charge that had given its colour and direction to all his afterlife.
2. I can fancy his Jewish hearers saying, "We can so far understand your own change of view and feeling, but what connection is there between that and your making common cause with the Gentiles?" "I did it," says Paul, "by express revelation. He said to me, Hasten and go quickly out of Jerusalem, for they will not receive thy testimony about Me."
3. Much might have been said in favour of his remaining. Were conversions not as important at Jerusalem as in Asia Minor and Europe? Should charity not "begin at home"? Was it not time enough to think of converting the heathen abroad when they had got all the people converted at home? Such considerations must have had weight then, as they have with some now.
4. But not only was there a perishing world outside, needing if not waiting for the good news, and who therefore had a right to the one remedy for its deadly ailment; there was another reason. The Jewish people had enjoyed their opportunity. If it could be said in Isaiah's time, surely much more then, "What can I do for My vineyard more that I have not done in it?" But they would not have Christ nor His gospel. And now that a new witness was raised up, the charge to him is," Don't stay here. Jerusalem has had its day." It was a terrible message. No wonder that Paul, who loved his people so intensely, was loath to obey it, and humbly argues against it.
5. And yet it is in keeping with what has been elsewhere and at other times. The light has shone brightly for a time among a people, and when they rejected or extinguished it, they were left in the darkness which themselves had chosen. Africa is witness to this, as are those lands in which Paul himself once held up the lamp of truth. It seems to be God's way to give the opportunity, and if it is not improved to withdraw it. So it was, in more recent times, in France, Hungary, Bohemia, Italy, and Spain.
6. Our own country and Germany seem now to be on their trial. The light of Reformation truth has shone in both; yet what multitudes in both lands are rejecting Christ, and abandoning themselves to carelessness and unbelief and open sin! And, as Hosea said, "Yea, woe also unto them, when I depart from them!" there may be something analogous to this in our own case. But, short of this, there are some who think that there has been such an expenditure of effort in some parts of the home field , often with very little in the way of result, that, without neglecting home, the stream of effort might now be legitimately diverted to the great harvest field abroad.
7. Are there not some who have had every advantage of a spiritual kind that could well be? And they have put off the great decision, or they have resisted, and made it next to impossible to venture on any further advances to them. It may be that they have had their "day," and that the Divine word regarding them is, "Make haste, and get thee quickly away, for they will not receive thy testimony concerning Me."
II. THE DIVINE CALL OVERRIDING OUR OWN VIEWS OF DUTY (vers. 19, 20). Paul could not silently acquiesce in this word. He thought that what had convinced him would convince others. How could they resist the force of such evidence as he had to bring? Did they not know his intense and inextinguishable hatred of the name and people of Christ? What did he need to do but just to present himself, as himself the best argument he could use? But there was one who knew human nature better than he. As He had once said to Ezekiel, so He now says to Paul, "But the house of Israel will not hearken unto thee, for they will not hearken unto Me." An analogous ease is familiar to everyone. When Melanchthon had the truth opened up to him he thought he could not fail to commend it to others, but soon he had to make the confession that "old Adam was too strong for young Melanchthon!"
III. THE IMPERATIVE CLAIMS OF THE HEATHEN WORLD ON THE CHURCH OF GOD (ver. 21).
1. Paul stands at the head of the whole Christian army. Such a man would, of course, be set apart to the work which the Master regarded as most important. Just as in a great warfare our best general would be despatched to occupy what was the key to the whole position, so wherever we find Paul, there, we may conclude, the Church's great battle is to be fought, the Church's great work is to be done. Now, to human eye, such a man seemed supremely desirable at Jerusalem. Reason would say, "Above everything, make sure that the Church is strong at the centre. The best you can do for the extremities is to do the best that can be done for the heart. Do not, on any account, let Paul go. Anything will do for the outposts; anyone will do for a missionary." But the very form in which the charge is given is enough to show that the Church's greatest and most pressing work is the making known of Christ among the heathen; and so from that point Paul's life was unceasingly devoted to this end.
2. That was the great work of the Church then, and it is the great work now. Every reason might have been urged for keeping Paul in Jerusalem then that could have been pleaded for retaining him in Christendom now. Say what you will about the needs and claims of home, the fact is undeniable that there are comparatively few at home who have not the opportunity of knowing Christ, while three-fourths of the world are as ignorant of Christ as they were then; and the inevitable inference is that the Lord, who left the sheep that were safe in the fold and went out after that which was lost, is saying to His Church now, "Depart, for I will send thee far hence unto the heathen."
3. Has the Church been acting upon that conviction? What of the vast empire of China? What of India? How much have we given of thought, or heart, or trouble, or time, or means, or prayer, to the work that lies nearest to the heart of Christ? How many of us sympathise with a young Christian lady who, when a friend remarked that it was a far way to go to Japan, replied, "Yes, very far, if it was only to make money; but not too far to tell the heathen about Jesus!"
(J. H. Wilson.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And it came to pass, that, when I was come again to Jerusalem, even while I prayed in the temple, I was in a trance;