Zeal Transfigured

From “The Conversion of St. Paul,” Characteristics of the Gospel Miracles, 105-110 (1859)

St. Paul saw the Lord, and when next he looked up it was to confess himself a Christian. With the other apostles the transition from earth to heaven was the final climax of their lives; but with St. Paul this was already realized in his conversion. That which was gradual and progressive in their case was abrupt and momentary with him. They were prepared by the teaching and works of ‘the Son of Man’ to become witnesses of his resurrection, but he was at once confronted with the blinding majesty of ‘the Son of God.’

They clung to old forms with a tender affection which rendered the last homage to a transitory dispensation; but he passed at once from the extreme bondage of Judaism to the fulness of Christian liberty. The death of the other saints, whether in persecution or in quiet, was, in the language of old writers, their ‘birthday;’ but the ‘birthday’ of St Paul was the time when ‘he died that Christ might henceforth live in him forever.’ For if we regard the testimony of his language and the tenor of his after-course, his conversion was a true death, a real martyrdom, the pattern of that to which we are called, the participation in the Passion of Christ, the death of earthly will, the martyrdom of action. He died to his former feeling; he died to his former wisdom; he died to his former religion. From the moment of the change his life was one long witness to the Savior in sufferings and labors above measure…

The Conversion of St. Paul is not only the common miracle, but also the common martyrdom of humanity. For once the living is presented to us in the majesty of a higher being. An apostle is clothed on earth with the emblems of the martyr’s triumph. An ideal death is the passage to nobler action.

As death itself to the Christian is the prelude to the resurrection, so his spiritual death was to St. Paul. He died to his former zeal. He died, and as the persecutor was changed into the apostle, his zeal was transfigured to the image of Christian love. The same spirit which bore him to Damascus to vindicate even there the purity of his national faith, carried him to countries where Christ was not named, that all men might hear the tidings of the new Gospel. The same spirit which held him as a willing witness to the death of Stephen, made him ready to be devoted for his countrymen if by that means they might be saved.

He died to his former wisdom. He died, and found all that he had gained in the schools of Tarsus or Jerusalem consecrated to Christ. The processes of philosophy and the interpretations of the rabbis gained a new significance as they became vehicles of eternal truth. Nothing was lost in the transference, but all was changed. Formulas were at length quickened with life, and vague instincts were fulfilled in felt realities.

He died to his former religion. He died, and as he looked upon the new world open before him, he found the heavenly antitypes of the ancient ritual, the eternal foundations of the ancient law. Because he had felt deeply one limited form of truth, he felt ‘the truth’ more deeply. Because he had been a Pharisee “of the straitest sect,” he vindicated the completeness of Christian liberty. Because he had lived blameless by a legal standard, he affirmed with the noblest earnestness the sovereign prerogatives of faith.

He “died, and behold he lived,” yet “not he, but Christ lived in him.” He gave all to Christ; and even in this life received back a hundredfold, a zeal more tender as well as more burning, a wisdom past expression save in the words of the Holy Spirit, a religion which already anticipated the fulness of fellowship with Christ. The beginning of his mission answered to its fixture character. With a power beyond that of the old prophets he proclaimed the truth of God; for he had not only received the Word of God, but had seen Him who is the Word in the fulness of His perfected manhood.

Brooke Foss Wescott (1825-1901) was a British biblical scholar and theologian, and served as Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, and, from 1890, as Bishop of Durham. He was the author of several influential commentaries and, with F. J. A. Hort, a pioneering critical edition of the New Testament. His teaching had a mystical character, but he was also a committed Christian socialist. He prepared the sermon “The Conversion of St. Paul” to be preached before the University of Cambridge.

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