DEATH OF THE APOSTLE PAUL.
Details almost unknown.—Loss sustained when a great man dies.—Traditional account of Paul's death.—Scene of it.—Death to him a gain.— Equally so, to all believers.—Concluding remarks.—The life of Paul a part of the world's history. —His natural endowments; as a thinker; an orator; a worker; a man of high principle; and a man of tender feeling. —His religious character;—publicly,—and personally.—His title to the designation "martyr."—A choice unregretted to all eternity.
"As always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain."
Ph1l. i. 20, 21.
WE know little respecting the death of the Apostle Paul. We have no record of the manner in which he met the final stroke. Yet I wish to make his death the subject of a few remarks; and to find in it, if possible (and it certainly ought to be possible), something that may suggest important thoughts on a subject which must soon be of great personal interest to us all.
It is a great event when such a man as Paul dies;— when a mind sagacious to plan, wise to impart counsel, vigorous to execute great designs, is withdrawn from the earth; when lips, once eloquent in the cause of truth, become silent; when he who guided the young, warned the wicked, strengthened the feeble, comforted the sorrowful, animated the desponding, is seen no more; when he who brought the richness of his experience, and the maturity of his judgment, to aid the great interests of truth and humanity, has passed away. Influence is of slow growth, and is of inestimable value. The world has no wealth to be compared with this, when employed in the cause of righteousness. Influence is that in a man's known talents, learning, character, experience, and position, on which a presumption is based that what he holds is true; that what he proposes is wise.
And as there is nothing more valuable in society than this, so there is nothing more difficult to replace. A city burned may be built again; the rubbish will be cleared away; the streets will be widened and straightened; long lines of private dwellings and public warehouses will rise from the ruins; and a busy population will soon again drive on the affairs of commerce, of manufacture, of trade. Lands which have been visited with drought are soon fresh and green again; the hills and valleys are clothed with verdure and flocks, the yellow harvest falls before the reaper, and the wains groan heavily-laden with sheaves. From the fields where armies have encamped or fought, where the harvest has been trodden down by the passing and repassing legions, where the torch of war has made everything desolate, all traces of conflict are soon removed ; for trees are planted, and the earth is rendered fertile by blood, and the little mounds of earth which marked the place where brave men fell and died are levelled, and the plough passes over Marathon and Waterloo, as it did before the battle. But not so, when a great man dies. His place cannot soon be supplied. The world has never been able to find one who could fill the place of the Apostle Paul.
Of the actual manner of his death, we know only what may be stated in few words. Tradition says that it was by being beheaded; and all the circumstances of the case render that probable. The fact that he was a Roman citizen would exempt him, under Roman laws, from death by lingering torture, in the forms in which it was inflicted on many of his Christian brethren. It would save him from the ignominy of crucifixion, and would thus distinguish his death from that of Peter, who had no claims to Roman citizenship, and who, wherever he died, was probably put to death, like his Master, on a cross (comp. John xxi. 18). There were two modes of beheading among the Romans:—the one by the lictor's ax; the other by military execution with the sword. In the former case, the criminal was tied to a stake, scourged with rods, and then beheaded;1 in the latter case, the executioner was commonly one of the Imperial bodyguards, and the execution was performed in presence of a centurion, whose duty it was to see the sentence carried out. It is every way probable that Paul was executed in this latter mode.
The place where he was put to death is fixed with some degree of certainty. "It was not uncommon to send prisoners, whose death might attract too much notice in Rome, to some distance beyond the city,
1 Missi lictores ad sumendum supplicium, nudatos virgis csedunt securique feriunt.—Livy ii. 6.
under a military escort, for execution." Tradition affirms that, in the case of Paul, this occurred beyond the city walls, on the south-western side of the city, on the road which led to Ostia, the port of Rome. That road was a great thoroughfare when Rome had some commerce; and though outside of the metropolis, and thus free from the dangers of popular tumult and excitement, it would be the most public and conspicuous of all the places in the vicinity of the great city. The traveller now as he goes out of Rome in the south-western quarter, through the gate which opens to the ancient road leading to Ostia, passes at the gate the tomb of Caius Cestus. A pyramid to mark that tomb, the only pyramid in Europe, had been erected in the time of Augustus Caesar, and consequently not long before the time when Paul was beheaded. Around that pyramid is now the Protestant burial-ground,—" unconsecrated ground," in the estimation of the inhabitants of Rome. Outside that gate, and in sight of that pyramid,—the only thing still there which it is certain was in existence at that time,— Paul probably suffered martyrdom. Not far from that spot now rises a magnificent structure,—the unfinished church of St. Paul; and near to it the small and ancient church of the "Three Fountains,"—the church erected on the spot where tradition says he was beheaded.1 As to the manner in which his body was disposed of, we have no knowledge. One legend says that a noble matron
1 S. Paolo alle tre fontane. The head of the apostle, say the monks, bounded three times, and the three fountains of water sprang up where it struck the earth.
named Lucina buried it on her own land, beside the Ostian road; the more common tradition is that it was conveyed to the Catacombs under the city—" those subterranean labyrinths, where, through many ages of oppression, the persecuted church found refuge for the living, and sepulchres for the dead."1 Probably no reliance is to be placed on either of these statements.
We have none of the dying words of the apostle Paul; we have no account of the melancholy procession to the place of death; we know not whether he was attended by any of his friends, or whether there were any Christians present to witness the closing scene, and to sustain him by their presence and their prayers. It would, indeed, be interesting if we could know that when the time came, and he saw the ax about to descend, he repeated his own triumphant language, "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?" But the importance of such utterances in the dying hour has been vastly overrated. Paul, in his own writings, never refers to such dying expressions as proofs of personal piety. Those proofs he found in the lives of believers, not in their feelings or their expressions on a bed of death. To the apostle Paul, we know that "to die" would be "gain" (Phil. i. 21). He esteemed it as such, not indeed for all men, as if the mere fact of dying necessarily introduces them into a better state; but for himself he regarded it as a gain or advantage (1cfpSoe). He uses the same word in another place in the same epistle (Phil. iii. 7), in reference to what he had "gained," or sought as gain, in
1 Conybeare and Howson, voL ii. p. 517.
his early life: "What things were gain to me—(1cfpSjj) —those I counted loss for Christ." To die would be, in respect to his permanent happiness, what he had supposed that those things would be when he had sought them,—things which now he had freely sacrificed for the sake of obtaining that higher good to which he was looking forward, and which would be real gain. It is easy to see that to die would be a "gain" or benefit to him, if the religion which he professed, and which he defended, was the true religion —a religion from God,—and if he was personally interested in it, or was a true believer. If there was such a heaven as that which he anticipated, a world of perfect and eternal glory, then it would be better to be there than to be in a world of sin and sorrow,—of tears and of death.
What Paul thus affirmed of himself is true, and must be true, of all who are in the same circumstances; all who have the same character; all who have truly embraced the same religion. To the martyr, death must be "gain." To the poor, the persecuted, the down-trodden, it must be so. To those whose life is, from any cause, a life of sorrow, it must be so. This is plain. But more than this is true. It will be "gain" for a rich Christian to leave his wealth, and go to heaven. It will be "gain" for the Christian who dwells in a palace to leave his splendid abode, and enter the mansions above. It will be "gain" for the monarch on his throne, if a true Christian, to lay aside his crown, his robe, and his sceptre, and be raised to the condition where all are kings unto God; it will be "gain" for the man who has won the widest reputation, and "gain" for her who moves in the most attractive circle of social life, if they are Christians, to die:—yes, to die, and to leave all. Though there be a coffin, and a shroud, and a grave, though there be corruption and decay, yet to die is "gain." We find it indeed difficult to feel that this is so; we find it difficult even speculatively to believe that it is so. It may be doubted whether, for the most part, our lives are not framed on the feeling that it is better to live than to die. Yet it is a truth that for a good man,—honoured, beloved, useful,—with all around him that God ever gives to His children here;—nay, with all that God could give him of earth, it would be "gain" to die. Heaven is a better, a happier, a more desirable world than this is or can be.
I have now finished what I designed to bring forward in illustration of the "Scenes and Incidents in the Life of the Apostle Paul." I shall close with a few reflections on his character, and on the sources of his influence and power.
The life of the Apostle Paul is a part of the history of the world, and cannot be detached from it. We cannot explain that history without admitting the fact that helived, and that he exerted an important influence in making the world what it has been, and what it is, and what it is to be. No great mind is ever made which does not affect and mould the future. Homer still sings; Demosthenes still pleads for liberty; Socrates still speaks to men; Solon and Lycurgus still live in the laws of nations; and even the ancient warriors still affect the destiny of mankind. Saul of Tarsus has influenced more minds than they; and any one of them would be less missed in the history of the world than he would be. If all the results o. his living could be taken into the account, it would probably be found that no man of that age—orator, soldier, philosopher, statesman, poet, or legislator—did as much to affect the permanent condition of the world in future times as he did. The influence of most of those who were his contemporaries was limited to a particular country ; his influence has extended far already over the nations of the earth, has been augmenting constantly since his death, and will live on to the end of time. When their names shall all die away, his will remain in fresh and ever-enduring and ever-enlarging vigour. In eighteen hundred most eventful years, there has not been a generation which has not been influenced by him.
It is true, indeed, that he owes much of that permanent influence to the fact that he was converted to the Christian religion; and that his influence, vast as it has been, is the proper influence ot that religion. But still, the fact that he has had an influence so vast in connexion with that religion may be referred to as showing what his influence might have been in any other department 01 human action. The memory of most of those who took part in propagating Christianity has died away; and not one other engaged in that work, has so widely spread and perpetuated that religion as Paul.
I. Looking at Saul of Tarsus, then, in respect to those natural endowments, which would have made him great, whatruer his religion or calling, the following things are apparent:—
(a.) He was characterized by profound thinking; and as a rcasoncr, he would have had a memorable place among men who have influenced the world. It is fair to infer from what he has written though on the subject of religion, and though directed by inspiration, what his powers of mind were in this respect. Jonathan Edwards, who in regard to the mere faculty of reasoning is admitted to stand at the head of the race, as Newton does in science, has done but little more than enlarge and expand the reasoning of the Apostle Paul. Beyond all question, Christianity possesses in one of its original propagators and defenders a man who is entitled to stand by the side of the great rcasoners of the world.
(b.) He was endowed with a power of lofty eloquence. It was not, indeed, eloquence of voice and manner; for, like the greatest of secular orators, Demosthenes, he had some very prominent natural defects as a public speaker. "I was with you," he says, "in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling; and my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man's wisdom" (1 Cor. ii. 3, 4). In respect to grace of language and manner, he was sensible of the strong contrast between himself and the orators whom the Greeks were accustomed to hear. It was charged upon him—a charge which he did not attempt to deny—that "his bodily presence" was "weak, and his speech contemptible" (2 Cor. x. 10). But the man who could deliver the discourse on Mars' Hill, or the defence before Agrippa, might, as a public speaker, have placed his name by the side of the most celebrated orators of the world.
(c.) Not less eminent was Paul for native zeal and ardour. When he set an object before him, no matter what, it was accomplished if it lay within the power of man. Whether it was the destruction of the Church by persecution, or the extension of that Church over the whole world, the sole questions were, Could it be and ought it to be done? Obstacles were no consideration in the way of his undertaking the task, and no thought of them was ever allowed for a moment to embarrass the undertaking. Had he been a warrior, a reformer, a founder of an empire, this trait would have distinguished him in all he did.
(d.) Paul was a man who was controlled by a conviction of what was right; by a sense of integrity; by elevation above everything mean, grovelling, low. This is apparent in all that he has left us in his writings; this would have been his characteristic, even if he had not been a Christian. Stern, severe, rigorous, bigoted, he might have been; but no plan would have been accomplished by trickery; principle would never have been sacrificed to expediency; nor would he have owed his success to cunning, deceit, or fraud. An orator he was, having great objects to accomplish; but he was not a sophist, and he would have disdained to owe his triumph to false reasoning, or mere appeals to the passions or prejudices of men. He might have been a statesman; he never would have been a mere politician.
(e.) Withal, Paul had a heart as gentle, as tender, and as confiding as any man that ever lived. His soul was made for friendship; and he owed much of his power as an orator to his tenderness of feeling. Of his kindred . according to the flesh, he could say, in view of their danger in rejecting the Saviour, that he could wish himself accursed from Christ for their sakes (Rom. ix. 3). His was a heart, which could also expand and embrace the whole human family with a tenderness of which the benevolence of Howard and Wilberforce was but a humble and distant imitation.
2. Equally marked was the religious character of Paul, and equally fitted to affect the destiny of men, and the condition of the world.
(a.) His religious principle was absorbing and entire, fixed and immovable. It was with him (whether as a Pharisee or a Christian) the supreme thing; every thing else was made subordinate to it. After his conversion to Christ, he was still the profound thinker,— having subjects to think upon better fitted to develope his powers of thought. He was still the profound reasoner,—having subjects to reason upon more worthy of his great powers. He was still the man of eloquence,—having subjects better adapted to call forth his talent; for the power of speech is most noble, and reaches its highest results, when employed in preaching the gospel. Whitfield at the Collieries, was greater in the results of his speaking than Burke amid the splendours of Westminster Hall on the trial of Warren Hastings, or than Patrick Henry was when summoning the American colonies to freedom. So Paul, when proclaiming Christian truth on Mars' Hill, was greater than Demosthenes when thundering against Philip.
(b.) It is not difficult to characterize the religion and the religious system of Paul as a Christian. The grand idea —the central point is the universality of the Gospel. Every barrier between men is broken down by the fact that Christ died for all. They are no longer divided into Jews and Gentiles; into Greeks, Barbarians, Scythians, bond, and free. There is one God; one Saviour; one family; one baptism; one ground of hope; one heaven; one great scheme of salvation. That is to be made known to all the world. That is ultimately to triumph in the earth. In the gospel scheme, according to Paul, God is all and in all; supreme and absolute; having His own plans to execute, and having formed those plans before the foundation of the world. Man is fallen and ruined. He is under the curse of the law in this life, and he is exposed to its eternal penalty in the life to come. As a fallen being, he has no germ of goodness; no holiness. There is nothing in his nature which can by cultivation and developement become true religion. He must, therefore, be regenerated by the Spirit ot God, and begin to live anew. He has no merit of his own, but is to be saved wholly by the merit of his Redeemer. His own works are of no avail in the matter of salvation; but his sole ground of hope is to be found in the Saviour. The benefits of the work of Christ are bestowed upon men freely in accordance with an eternal plan, and so bestowed that the glory is of God and not of man: in such a manner that God in all things will be honoured, and His government best established over the world.
(e.) In regard to personal religion, Paul was humble, earnest, sincere, prayerful. Principle, not feeling—truth, not emotion,—was at the foundation. Duty, honesty, integrity, sincerity, characterized the whole. And all this was connected with an energy that never tired, a love that never became cold.
3. Paul was a martyr, and one of the most eminent of the martyrs. He was not the first, but he was one of the first, for his very life may be considered as a martyrdom. The simple idea in being a martyr is that of bearing testimony, or being a witness; and the word is applied to " the martyrs" as such, because they bore witness to the truth of the Gospel in the face of all that was employed to deter them from it. Through suffering, persecution, poverty, sorrow, Paul thus bore faithful testimony to the truth of the gospel; and when the time came for him to seal his faith with his blood, he did not refuse to die.
In conclusion. Paul in heaven has seen more than he could have seen on earth as to the results of his conversion to Christ, and of his labours in his Master's service. Can we think that he now regrets the choice which he made, the change which he underwent, when he identified himself with the cause of the Saviour? No :—not now, nor ever will he for one moment in the long eternity before him.
And I would say to those especially who are entering on life with high hopes and brilliant worldly prospects, that they also, if they would renounce all these for Christ, would never repent the decision. No: come poverty; come disappointment; come toil; come care; come persecution; come obloquy, reproach, and scorn; come death in its most fearful form,—the time never would arrive when you for one moment would regret that you had taken such a step. Living, dying, and for ever, you would rejoice that you had been able to give up all For Chr1st.