Paul at Rome
Francis Bourdillon, 1881
"And so some were convinced by what he said, but others disbelieved." Acts 28:24
It was as a prisoner that Paul arrived at Rome — and as a prisoner he lived there. It might be thought that no circumstances could be more unfavorable for preaching the gospel — yet never perhaps did he do so much for his Master as during his stay in that city. Many of his epistles were written there, and he preached freely to high and low.
Let none say, "I have no opening; circumstances are at present against me; I can do nothing!" We are not so much the creatures of circumstances as is often supposed. A zealous heart is not easily hindered by outward things. God can turn any circumstances into the furtherance of His work.
Wherever Paul went, whether to Rome or elsewhere, and in whatever circumstances He was placed — favored or persecuted, a prisoner or free — he proclaimed Christ. This was his work, his aim, that which he lived for. It ought to do us good to read of so devoted a life, such singleness of heart and purpose. This was to live indeed.
No sooner then had he reached Rome, than he began to proclaim Christ. Three days after his arrival, he called together the chief of the Jews, to see them and to speak with them and to tell them that it was "for the hope of Israel," that is, for Jesus Christ — that he was a prisoner. Then on an appointed day, many came to him, "From morning until evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus, both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets." Not that they were promising hearers. Far from it. For they began by saying, "For with regard to this sect, we know that everywhere it is spoken against." But he was not discouraged by this from setting forth Christ to them.
What was the result? We read it in the text: "Some were convinced [believed] by what he said, but others disbelieved." It is probable that most, if not all, of those who are here said to have believed — believed really. Not only was their understanding convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, but their hearts received Him as such. Most likely they at once joined themselves to the apostle as disciples of Christ. But the rest believed not — and perhaps from this time were more decided than ever against the gospel.
And so the words of the prophecy of Isaiah were fulfilled in them: "Keep on hearing — but do not understand; keep on seeing — but do not perceive." These were probably more in number than those who believed, for from that time, Paul began to preach to the Gentiles at Rome, as though the great body of the Jews there had rejected the gospel. It was in fact, the turning point. The offer was made and either accepted or refused. It was a great division. Some believed, and some believed not.
In this account, we read of what happened in a distant country eighteen hundred years ago. Yet the very same thing is now taking place among ourselves continually. Whatever difference there is, it is chiefly, if not wholly, in the circumstances — not in the thing itself.
Christ is still proclaimed as the only Savior for Jew and Gentile. The very same gospel as Paul preached — is preached among us. The same Savior whom he on that day set forth to the Jews at Rome — is set forth to us continually. Through all the ages since, that blessed gospel has never ceased to be preached — that one blessed, saving, gospel. It has been hated, persecuted, corrupted — but never lost. In every age there have been those who held it, prized it, and preached it. As in the days of Elijah, when true religion seemed almost extinct — there were yet seven thousand in Israel who cleave to God. In the same way, in the darkest times of the Christian Church, there have been some true Christians and some faithful preachers. That same gospel is still proclaimed. There is nothing new in it. We need nothing new. We hear the same glad tidings again and again. They cannot be heard too often by those who believe — for they are their joy and stay. Not too often by those who believe not, for they need still to have "line upon line," if so be they may at length believe unto salvation.
The great question with us all, is whether we believe or not. All who hear the gospel are classed thus: those who believe — and those who believe not. There is no middle class. There is no one in between.
I said that whatever difference there is between the case of those Jewish hearers and our own, is mainly a difference of circumstances. There is a difference; for they were divided not only with regard to a saving faith, but even as to outward belief — some believing that Jesus was the Christ, and some not. We on the contrary, are all agreed on that point. The point of division among us — is whether there is a heart-belief in Christ, or a merely notional faith. In this sense as well, some believe — and some do not believe. And these two classes make up the whole of every congregation: all hearers, all readers, of the gospel. There are none who do not belong to one class or the other.
In the judgment of Him who knows every heart, all hearers and all readers are divided thus. They may sit side by side and may listen to the same words. But oh, the vast difference in the sight of God! One believes savingly — another believes notionally. To one, Jesus is a Savior — known, believed in, and loved. By another, He is only heard of — not received, not embraced, not made His own by saving faith.
And this difference, this great division, is a difference which will last forever — unless the unbeliever is brought to believe. It is, in fact, the very same difference as that between the wheat — and the tares, the sheep — and the goats; it is the difference between the saved — and the unsaved, between those who will be welcomed to Heaven — and those who will be shut out from Heaven.
How is it with you? Do you believe — or do you not believe? Are you in doubt upon this point — unwilling to say that you do not believe — yet afraid to say you do? Do not leave so great a matter in doubt. If, with all your past attention to religion, your serious thoughts, and your deep impressions — you are still in doubt whether you have yet believed with the heart — then set that point at rest now. Make sure from this time that you do believe. Still the gospel comes to you. Still the Savior offers Himself to you freely. Receive Him. Open your heart to receive Him. Believe in Him now. Approach Him, and say, "I believe — help my unbelief!"
But are you careless about the whole subject — not much concerned as to whether you believe or not? Then certainly you do not believe. For none who truly believe, are careless about it. But oh, consider what a state this is. Living in the midst of gospel light, again and again hearing of Jesus — yet not believing and not even troubled by the thought that you do not believe. Will all these hearings and readings go for nothing? Paul turned from the unbelieving Jews — to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. You are running a great risk of having that gospel which you will not believe, taken away from you! It may seem to you a slight difference now, between believing and not believing. But what will you think of it in the day "When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and . . . before Him will be gathered all the nations, and He will separate people one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And He will place the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left"? (Matthew 25:31-33). Will the difference seem small then? Will you still be unconcerned? Oh! seek to be numbered now among those who believe in the Lord Jesus, that you may not shrink from Him in shame at His coming!