"There stood by me this night the angel of God, whose I am and whom I serve."—Acts xxvii. 23.
A Great common calamity is very apt to dethrone officials and bring a strong man to the front. It is extremely natural, though it has been thought unhistorical, that in the shipwreck Paul should become counsellor, inspirer, and a tower of strength, and that centurions and ship's officers, who had lost their heads, should fall into the background. Innate force of character, strengthened by faith that brought calmness, made him the leader of the frightened crew. The secret of his serenity was in his consciousness, as expressed in the words at the head of this page, that he belonged to God, and that the angel of the Lord was with him. The words are a short but suffi cient confession of faith, unveiling the source of his tranquillity in the storm. One can scarcely help contrasting this shipwreck—the only one in the New Testament—with the other in the Old Testament. Contrast Jonah with Paul, the guilty stupor of the former, down "in the sides of the ship," cowering before the storm, with the calm behaviour and collected courage of the latter. The vision of which the Apostle speaks does not concern us here. But in the words under consideration there are several noteworthy points. They bring vividly before us the essence of true religion, the bold confession which it prompts, and the calmness and security which it ensures.
Here is a clear declaration-of the essence of true religion. Paul is speaking to "heathens," and his purpose for the moment is not to preach the Gospel, but to make his own ground of confidence plain. Therefore he waives the question of who the God whom he serves is, and simply sets forth his own relation to Him. His quiet words cover the whole ground, for to belong to God expresses the essence of inward religion, while to serve Him is the sum of religion in practice.
We belong to God as His creatures, as the wellknown Psalm, rightly rendered, declares when it sings: "It is. He that hath made us, and we are His." But Paul meant much more than that. God had claimed Him for His own, and he had yielded to the claim. Not creation, nor continuous outward mercies showered upon us, but the one transcendent act of God's love which gave itself to and for us, wins us to be God's in the only real sense. "Ye are not your own, ye are bought with a price." God counts us as His when we consciously yield ourselves to Him, for it is love and only love that brings about the possession of spirits by spirits. The sweetest, truest mutual possession that earth knowQ is a shadow of the sweeter, reciprocal possession of us by God and of God by us, and that is mediated by His love giving itself to us in Christ, and our melted hearts flowing out in yielding love to Him. So, when Paul says, "Whose I am," he was thinking that he would never have belonged either to God or to himself unless, first of all, God, in His own Son, had given Himself to Paul. The divine ownership of us is only realised when we are consciously His, because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. God does not count that a man belongs to Him simply because He made him—if the man does not feel his dependence, his obligation, and has not surrendered himself. He in the heavens loves us too well to care for a formal and external ownership. He desires hearts, and only they who have yielded themselves unto God, moved thereto by the mercies of God, and especially by the encyclopasdiacal mercy which includes all the rest in its sweep, belong to Him, in the estimate of the heavens.
To belong to God thus is to cease to belong to ourselves. Either God or my wretched self is my centre. And if we are swept, as it were, out of the little orbit that we move in when the latter is our centre, and are drawn by the weight and mass of the great sun to become its satellites, then we move in a nobler orbit, and receive fuller and more blessed light and warmth. If we do not, we shall be, cometlike, pursuing a wide elliptical course, which will carry us into blackness of darkness and more than icy cold.
This yielding of one's self to Him, swayed by His love, and this surrendering of will, purpose, and affection, and all that makes up our complex being, leads directly to the true possession of Him, and the true possession of ourselves.
There is a wonderful alternation of giving and receiving between the loving God and His beloved lovers; first the impartation of the divine to the human, then the surrender of the human to the divine, and then the larger gift of God to man, just as in some series of mirrors the light is flashed back from the one to the other, in bewildering manifoldness and shimmering of rays from either polished surface. We get God when we give ourselves to God. "And this is the covenant that I will make with them after these days, saith the Lord. I will be their God, and they shall be my people."
And in like manner we never own ourselves until we have given ourselves to God. A man is like some feudatory prince, dependent upon an overlord. His subjects in his little territory rebel, and he has no power to subdue the insurgents, but he can send a message to the capital, and get the army of the king, who is his sovereign and theirs, to come down and bring them back to order, and establish his tottering throne. If we wish to be able to govern the kingdom within, we must put ourselves into God's hands and say, "I am Thine; hold Thou me up, and I shall be safe."
The outward life followed the inward surrender. Paul "served" God because he belonged to God. The word used is employed to describe service which is worship, not that of a slave. As this man's inward nature had yielded itself to God, so his life was one long act of priestly service. He was serving God there in the ship, amidst the storm and the terror of others. In all its acts, attitudes, and aspects our visible life should be the manifestation and register of our inward devotion to, and ownership by, God. God's priests are never far away from their altar, and never without "somewhat to offer," so long as they have the activities of daily conduct to lay before His pure eyes and perfect judgment.
We have further an instance here of the bold confession which true religion requires. People find out a great deal about their fellow-voyagers. Character is not easily hid on shipboard. And that fortnight of tossing up and down in Adria, with death looking over the bulwarks of the helpless vessel, would bring out what each man was made of. Paul durst not have professed that he was God's servant, if he had not known that he had been behaving like one. That confession is incumbent on every Christian. We are not to be always displaying our religion before people's faces. There is very little fear ol the average Christian of this day blundering on that side. But we are still less to be always hiding it away. One hears a great deal from certain quarters about a religion that does not need to be vocal, that shows what it is without the necessity for words. Blessed be God! there is such a religion, but we generally find that the people who have it most truly are the people that are least tongue-tied when opportunity arises; and that, if they have been witnessing for God in their quiet discharge of duty, with their hands instead of their lips, they are quite as ready to witness with their lips when it is fitting that they should do so. And surely if a man belongs to God, and if his whole life is to be the manifestation of the ownership that he recognises, that which specially reveals a man—viz. his own articulate speech—cannot be left out of his methods of manifestation.
Action is a more powerful way of inviting others to serve God than direct appeals, but it must be backed up by a life according with it. How the centurion and the crew would have laughed at Paul, if this had been the first time that they had had any reason to suppose that he was not, like them, a worshipper of Rome's gods! They would have answered, "The God, whose you are, and whom you serve! Why, you are just the same kind of man as if you bowed down to Jupiter like the rest of us."
We have, further, an instance of the calmness and security which true religion brings—Paul's promptitude, his serenity in danger, his absolute certainty of safety, and his unselfish thoughtfulness about his companions in peril—all were the direct results of his entire surrender to God, and of the consistency of his daily life. The angel in the vision assured him that his life would be spared. But whether the angel had ever spoken or not, and though death had been close at his hand, the composure and the peaceful assurance of safety which come out so beautifully in the story would have been there all the same. The man that can say "I belong to God" does not need to trouble himself about dangers. He will have to exercise his common sense, as the Apostle shows us; he will have to use all the means that are in his power, for the accomplishment of ends that he knows to be right and legitimate. But having done all, he can say, "I belong to Him, it is His business to look after His own property. He is not going to hold His possessions with such a slack hand as that they shall slip between His fingers, and be lost in the mire. Thou wilt not lose the souls that are Thine in the grave, neither wilt Thou suffer the man whom Thou lovest to see corruption." God keeps His treasures; and the surer we are that He is able to keep them "unto that day," the calmer we may be in all our trouble.
And the safety that followed was also the direct result of the relationship of mutual possession and love, established between God and the Apostle. We do not know to which of the two groups of shipwrecked men Paul belonged; whether he could swim, or whether he had to hold on to some bit of floating wreckage or other, and so got "safe to land." But whichever way it was, it was neither his swimming nor the spar to which, perhaps, he clung that landed him safe on shore. It was the God to whom he belonged. Faith is the true lifebelt that keeps a man from being drowned in any stormy sea. And if we feel that we are His, and live accordingly, we shall be calm amid all change, serene when others are troubled, ready to be helpers of others even when we ourselves are in distress. And when the crash comes, and the ship goes to pieces: "So it came to pass that, some on boards and some on broken pieces of the ship, they all came safe to land;" and when the Owner counts His servants and possessions on the quiet shore, as the morning breaks, there will not be one that has been lost in the surges, or whose name will be unresponded to, when the muster-roll of the crew is called.