John Kitto Evening Bible Devotions: November 5

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John Kitto Evening Bible Devotions: November 5

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The Heart of Flesh


We have more than once directed attention to the great change which was wrought in Saul by his conversion to Christ. This change affected not merely his views and sentiments, but his temper and character, his mind and heart.

In the belief that there are few scriptural topics more truly edifying than the consideration of this change—than the contemplation of the truly Christian character built up by Divine grace in this illustrious apostle, we shall this evening request attention to another of its aspects.

Let us suppose for a moment that the record of Saul’s history ceased with the ninth chapter of the Acts, and that we possessed no autographic intimations in the Epistles of his later temper and conduct—knowing only the general fact, that he became a great apostle, and labored with extraordinary diligence and success in the Lord’s vineyard; what then, with our knowledge of his previous career, with our recollection of its violence, injustice, and cruelty, would have been the idea we should be likely to form of his subsequent character? It seems likely that, with these recollections, and with our knowledge of the fact that great men are not always amiable, that good men are not always kind, that pious men are not always tender-hearted—we should conceive of Saul as one who, in the midst of all his greatness, goodness, and usefulness, was probably a harsh, austere, and exacting man, incapable of much tenderness towards others, or consideration for their infirmities.

Yet the reverse of all this is the fact. The man has not lived who more than Saul, after his conversion, manifested a gentle, loving, and forbearing temper; or who showed more tender consideration for others, more generous pity for their temporal and spiritual wants. It would be little to say of Saul, that after his conversion he was no longer illiberal in his reproaches, or severe in his accusations; that he reviled no man; that he wronged no man; that he oppressed no man—nay, that he preserved a conscience void of offence; or even that he adhered strictly to the laws of truth and justice, integrity and faithfulness, in the whole of his conversation and deportment. He was far more than all this. He had learned of his Divine Master lessons of meekness and forbearance, gentleness and kindness; and had imbibed much of His lowly and lovely spirit. He exemplified it by his patience, in the midst of severe afflictions, in necessities, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in watchings, in fastings, 2Co_6:4-5. In one word, he had “put on Christ,” and in putting Him on had “crucified the flesh with its affections and lusts,” its natural tendencies and impulses, and stood forth complete in Him—a new creature—a far better, and nobler, and more loving creature. His history and his writings abound in proofs of this. Note: The instances in proof of this have been collected by Dr. Stephen Addington, in his Life of Paul the Apostle. London, 1784; by Miss Hannah More, in her Essay on the Character and Writings of St. Paul; and by the Rev. A. Monod, in his Saint Paul. London, 1853. Little more, therefore, has here been necessary than to reproduce their instances in a combined and condensed shape.

In this view of Saul’s character after the heart of stone had been exchanged for a heart of flesh, there is nothing more worthy of notice than that consummate knowledge of human nature, no less than that tenderness of heart, which led him to encourage in his young converts every opening promise of goodness. He carefully cultivates every favorable symptom. He is “gentle among them, as a nurse cherisheth her children.” He does not expect every thing at once; he does not exact that a beginner in the ways of religion should start into instantaneous perfection. He does not think all is lost if an error is committed; he does not abandon hope if some less happy converts are slow in their progress. He protects their budding graces; he fences his young plants till they have had time to take root. If he rejoices that the hardy are more flourishing, he is glad that the less vigorous are nevertheless alive.

There is scarcely a more lovely part of his character, though it may be less obvious to unobservant eyes, as being more tender than great, than the gentleness exhibited to the Corinthian converts in his second Epistle to them. He is anxious, before he appears among them again, that every breach may be healed, and every painful feeling done away, which his sharp reproof of an offending individual may have excited. He would not have the joy of their meeting overshadowed by any remaining cloud. Want of consideration is an error into which even good men sometimes fall. They do not always enter intimately into the circumstances and character of the persons they address. But Saul writes to his friends like one who felt, because he partook of the same fallen humanity with them; like one who was familiar with the infirmities of our common nature; who could allow for doubt and distrust, misapprehension and error; who expected inconsistency, and was not deterred by perverseness; who bore with failure where it was not sinful, and who could reprove obduracy without being disappointed at meeting with it. The apostle’s tenderness for his converts was, doubtless, increased by the remembrance of his own errors—a remembrance which left a compassionate feeling on his softened heart. It never, however, led him to be guilty of that mischievous compassion of preferring the ease of his friends to their safety. He never soothed where it was his duty to reprove. He knew that integrity was the truest tenderness; that a harsh truth which might tend to save the soul, had more humanity than a palliative which might endanger it.

The intimate feeling of his own imperfections is everywhere visible. It makes him more than once press on his friends the Christian duty of bearing one another’s burdens, intimating how necessary this principle of mutual kindness was, as they themselves had so much to call forth the forbearance of others; and in his usual strain of referring to first principles, he does not forget to remind them that this was fulfilling the law of Christ.

In his most severe animadversions this apostle does not speak of any with hopeless harshness. He seldom treats the bad as irreclaimable, but generally contrives to leave them some degree of credit. He seems to feel that by stripping erring men of every vestige of character, he should strip them also of every glimmering of hope, of every incitement to reformation. Thus, although Timothy is exhorted to have no company with him who obeys not the word of Paul’s epistle, the prohibition is only in order “that he may be ashamed;” yet is he not to be accounted as an enemy, but admonished as a brother.

His sorrows and joys, both of which were intense, never seem to have arisen from anything which related merely to himself. His own happiness or distress were little influenced by personal considerations. The varying condition, the alternate improvement or declension of his converts alone, could sensibly raise or depress his feelings. With what anguish of spirit does he mourn over some, “of whom I have told you often, and now tell you weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ.” Mark, again, his self-renouncing joy—“We are glad when we are weak and ye are strong.” Again, “Let me rejoice in the day of Christ, that I have not lived in vain, neither labored in vain.”

Self-denial in all things lay at the root of his regenerated character. We find him willing to forego the most innocent and lawful gratifications, rather than grieve or offend the weak. “If meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend”—be an occasion either of his offending, or of his being offended, for the original word may perhaps be taken in either of those senses.

It may likewise be remarked, that although he neither courted the smiles, nor shunned the frowns of men, by any servile or dishonorable concessions, yet he considered it as the part of wisdom and duty, to accommodate himself in everything consistent with truth and a supreme regard to the will of God, to the weaknesses and even the prejudices of those with whom he had to do. But this was merely to secure opportunities of serving them, manifesting hereby that true philanthropy which is the genuine spirit of the religion of Jesus.

His soul, now become truly Christian, was sufficiently enlarged to comprehend all mankind; and although (or rather because) himself a follower of Jesus on principles never to be shaken, he felt most strongly and tenderly for those he had left behind, entangled in the fetters of Jewish prejudices. Language—even his own nervous and comprehensive language—could not express in terms sufficiently strong and tender, the affectionate good wishes of his soul on their behalf. “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved,” Rom_10:1.

But the benevolence of the apostle was not confined within the narrow limits of country or friends. He felt great tenderness and compassion for the unbelieving in general; he poured out his soul in earnest expostulations with them, and in the most earnest prayers to the Father of mercies and God of all grace in their behalf. Truly, concerning such could Saul say with David, “Rivers of water run down mine eyes, because they keep not thy law;” for in his Epistle to the Philippians (Php_3:18) we find this parallel declaration—“Many walk of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ”

But while the zeal of the apostle was thus tenderly solicitous for the spiritual welfare of our entire communities, this did not absorb his warm attachment to individuals; nor did his ardent regard for their highest interests lead him to overlook their personal concerns.

We might produce in proof of this the large number of brethren and sisters who are mentioned by name at the end of most of his epistles, and are greeted one by one with the most delicate manifestations of Christian and faithful love. There is a Priscilla and an Aquila, his fellow helpers in the work of the Lord Jesus Christ, who have exposed their lives for his; there is an Andronicus and a Junia, his relations and companions in prison, who were in Christ before him; there is a Persis, much beloved by him, for she had labored much in the Lord; and a Rufus, chosen in the Lord, whose mother, he says, is mine. From this point of view, these chapters of salutations, which are often passed over as of no general interest, offer us a study most attracting and instructive, by enabling us to penetrate into the apostle’s private life, and into his dearest relationships. But this is not all. Among the numerous Christians who surround him, there are some for whom he reserves a special affection—Luke, the historian, so faithful and affectionate; Barnabas, his fellow laborer, his love for whom had not been cooled by a temporary alienation; Philemon to whom he writes with a liveliness of affection which the pen of the most loving woman could not surpass; Epaphroditus, whom God had restored to health in answer to his prayers, lest “he should have sorrow upon sorrow;” Epaphras, Tychicus, and above all the others, Timothy and Titus—Timothy, than his second epistle to whom no mother ever wrote a letter to her son more full of tender solicitude—Titus, “his own son in the faith,” of whom he writes that when he came to Troas, “I had no rest in my spirit because I found not Titus, my brother.”

In short, all that Saul said, and all that he did, from the day of his conversion to that of his death, was one striking and beautiful comment upon his own declaration to the Philippians—“God is my witness, how earnestly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ.”