Phil. 1:23, 24.
The fact that Paul was led of the Holy Ghost in the pages of inspiration to put his own example before the saints of Corinth, Philippi and Thessalonica respectively, for their observance, gives a divine value to the exercises of his soul which has no parallel in the word of God. His conversion, we read, was a delineation of the ways of Christ in others (1 Tim. 1:16); his service for Christ was for imitation of the Lord's labourers (1 Cor. 4:16); in his giving offence to none, but seeking to please all for their profit that they might be saved, he imitated Christ, and was a pattern for all saints in their inter course with those around (1 Cor. 10:32, 33; 1 Cor. 11:1); in his own personal walk he was their model (Phil. 3:17); and his sufferings put him into blessed companionship with his Lord and Master, as yet another example to any who were enduring fierce persecution for His name's sake. (1 Thess. 1:6.) This being seen, it will at once be admitted that we have not only to accept Paul's teaching, but we have sedulously to observe Paul himself. Nor will any who are spiritually-minded either repudiate the obligation or weaken its force, because God has been pleased to put upon record what indicates that Paul was not always in the direct current of the Holy Ghost; for none can deny that in the same Scriptures He has furnished a sufficient safeguard for every exercised heart against the danger of following blindly in the path of His servant. We thankfully reflect too, that the defects seen in so wonderfully distinguished a witness for God, only bring into more striking relief and beauty by the enforced comparison we make, the precious and divine perfections of the peerless One whose steps he followed - "THE faithful witness." Nor must we omit to recognize that what we term Paul's failures, far from being lapses from rectitude in doctrine or practice, consisted in the pursuit of some divine but subsidiary object, or the pursuing a normal object in another way, rather than that which the Spirit of God had in view at the time in accordance with the call of Christ; in a word, a lower line of action and of testimony than he was entitled to pursue, but which, nevertheless, was so far sanctioned of God as to be overruled for the accomplishment of blessed issues for His glory.
He writes to his beloved Philippians, telling them how his life trembled in the balance. He is in the metropolis of the Gentiles, and ostensibly (how little really!) he is under Caesar's power - that of the fourth empire. The great apostle of the Gentiles and the fourth beast of Daniel's dream, the head of Gentile authority, are upon the scene together; and what shall be the issue? Will the "great iron teeth," represented by Nero and Imperial Rome, tear in pieces, on this occasion or upon a later one, God's wonderful witness of mercy to these very Gentiles? We shall see. Sooner or later the head of Gentile dominion shall do this for Paul, as had the leaders of the Jews "killed the Lord Jesus." Jerusalem, the spiritual Sodom, in her usage of the Master shall be followed by Rome, the spiritual Babylon, in her treatment of His elect servant, thus successively consummating their guilt, and in so doing giving effect to Paul's doctrine: "there is no difference; for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God."
Meanwhile; how impressive in its moral grandeur is Paul's noble resolve, as sober as sublime, the elevated utterance of a "prisoner of Jesus Christ" - Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether by life, or by death." In this sense the issue was the same in either case, Christ should have His glory - Nero and the power of Satan, exerted or restrained, should compass no other end. His life had been the exalted expression of his thoroughness for Christ; his death would be that of Christ's thoroughness for His servant: either way Christ would be magnified, and neither the emperor nor the adversary could frustrate it.
Further, not only whether living or dying was he the Lord's, but so thoroughly was there self-abnegation on the one hand, and on the other personal identification with his Lord's interests and path and spirit, that to him life upon earth was fairly and fully expressed by only one word - "Christ," and to die still more so; for he would go direct to Him; the enfranchised spirit would then enter into retreat with Himself in the paradise of His own immediate presence. He had already "suffered the loss of all things" of which man could deprive him; nay, had he not rather bartered them away for the winning of Christ, and in this been the gainer? What he had lost he counted "filth," whereas his gain was the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus his Lord!
But his life remained; all else was gone. Would it be no loss to have his life taken? This also would be gain. Long before, in writing to the saints at Corinth, he had scheduled death as forming part of the personality of the believer's estate. It were better then to be under Caesar's sword than Caesar's sceptre. Did he do his worst, he but brought Paul the sooner into the presence joys of his Lord. But another consideration now arises. How would it affect these dear saints whose love and bounty he was acknowledging? nor them only, but the assembly at large? Could he forget them in weighing which he should choose? That which he was writing about becomes a painful exercise of soul in the beloved apostle. He was going through this strait with God, and its exercises were deeply felt. Should he choose life, that was "Christ," and in his body Christ was magnified. Should he choose death, he gained, he went to Christ, and Christ should be magnified in his departure. This latter was that to which his soul impulsively turned; it was his real, his ardent desire, the being with Christ. So much better was it than remaining in the flesh, that, did he consult his own heart, he would court death, he would covet to depart; for then would he be in the unclouded presence of the One he lived and laboured to win. But the gratification of his own heart, even in so inestimable a way, must be subordinated to the interests of the beloved saints he addressed; his continuance in the body was more necessary for their sakes. This then was his strait; he had liberty to choose, God thus exercising his soul, that He might test his strength and his motive, and for the moment he hesitates. Will he gratify these purely spiritual instincts of the new man? Will he indulge the divine desire of his own heart? Will he delight his spirit with the ineffable blessedness which only the glory can transcend? No. He finds in Christ Himself motive enough to enable him to forego his most ardent personal desire. Did he choose death, it would be for his own sake; he would choose life for his Master's sake. Did he choose death, it would be gain to him; but life would be gain to Christ. His own interests should therefore be subservient to the interests of his Lord. Gladly would he have laid down his life for the brethren; was it not a greater thing in his case to live for them, spending and being utterly spent on behalf of those for whom Christ had died? His Lord had continued voluntarily with His disciples, being seen of them forty days after His resurrection, speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God for their furtherance and joy of faith. Paul had caught the spirit of his Master, and thus records the solution of the divine problem: "Having confidence of this, I know that I shall remain and abide along with you all for your progress and joy in faith; that your boasting may abound in Christ Jesus through me by my presence again with you."
How much can we say we know of exercises such as these? The strait which the apostle had passed through was the exact admeasurement of his spiritual strength, the crucial test of his self-denial for Christ's sake, and the unimpeachable proof how pure was his governing motive. Oh wonderful servant of an infinitely more wonderful Master! Blessedly did he issue from the trial, becoming a pattern for us in this also, and a witness of what the grace of Christ can do in an earthen vessel, when the interests of that glorified Man on high rise paramount above everything else, eclipsing every lesser interest, because the heart has Him only for its object. Can any of us venture to say that we are thus bent upon the interests of Christ touching His members below? That this one thing, and only this one thing, so far as our choice is concerned, detains our souls away from His desired presence? That, well knowing how very far better it is to depart and to be with Him than being here, preferring His gain to our own, we elect to continue in this dark scene, since here alone we can further in our little measure, for His own sake, the interests of Him who is infinitely more to us Himself, both as object and motive, than is even the personal blessedness we should find in His presence? May He tutor our souls, as He loves to do, both by precept and example, in these lessons of denying self for His own sake! W. R. D.