SERMON XII.—PAUL AND FELIX
And as he reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come, Felix trembled, and answered, Go thy way for this time; when I have a convenient season, I will call for thee.
This is a well-known text, on which many a sermon has been preached, and with good reason, for it is an important text. It tells us of a man who, like too many men in all times, trembled when he heard the truth about his wicked life, but did not therefore repent and mend; and a very serious lesson we may draw from his example.
But even a more important fact about the text is, that it tells us what were really the fundamental doctrines of the Christian religion in those early times, about twenty-five years, seemingly, after our Lord's death; what St. Paul used to preach about; what he considered was the first thing which he had to tell men.
Let us take this latter question first. About what did St. Paul reason before Felix?
About righteousness (which means justice), temperance, and judgment to come.
I beg you to remember these words. If you believe the Bible to be inspired, you are bound to take its words as they stand. And therefore I beg you to remember that St. Paul preached not about UNrighteousness, but righteousness; not about INtemperance, but about temperance; not about hell, but about judgment to come; in a word, not about wrong, but about right. I hope that does not seem to you a small matter. I hope that none of you are ready to say, 'It comes to the same thing in the end.' It does not come to the same thing. There is no use in telling a man what is wrong, unless you first tell him what is right. There is no use rebuking a man for being bad, unless you first tell him how he may become better, and give him hope for himself, or you will only drive him to recklessness and despair. You must show him the right road, before you can complain of him for going the wrong one.
But if St. Paul had reasoned with Felix about injustice, intemperance, and hell, one could not have been surprised. For Felix was a thoroughly bad man, unjust and intemperate, and seemingly fitting himself for hell.
He had begun life as a slave of the emperor in a court which was a mere sink of profligacy and villainy. Then he had got his freedom, and next, the governorship of Judaea, probably by his brother Pallas's interest, who had been a slave like him, and had made an enormous fortune by the most detestable wickedness.
When in his governorship, Felix began to show himself as wicked as his brother. The violence, misrule, extortion, and cruelty which went on in Judaea was notorious. He caused the high-priest at Jerusalem to be murdered out of spite. Drusilla, his wife, he had taken away from a Syrian king, who was her lawful husband. Making money seems to have been his great object; and the great Roman historian of those times sums up his character in a few bitter words thus: 'Felix,' he says, 'exercised the power of a king with the heart of a slave, in all cruelty and lust.'
Such was the wicked upstart whom God, for the sins of the Jews, had allowed to rule them in St. Paul's time; and before him St. Paul had to plead for his life.
The first time that St. Paul came before him Felix seems to have seen at once that Paul was innocent, and a good man; and that, perhaps, was the reason why he sent for him again, and, strangely enough, heard him concerning the faith in Christ.
There was some conscience left, it seems, in the wretched man. He was not easy, amid his ill-gotten honour, ill-gotten wealth, ill- gotten pleasures; and perhaps, as many men are in such a case, he was superstitious, afraid of being punished for his sins, and looking out for false prophets, smooth preachers, new religions which would make him comfortable in his sins, and drug his conscience by promising the wicked man life, where God had not promised it. So he wanted, it seems, to know what this new faith in Christ was like; and he heard.
And what he heard we may very fairly guess, because we know from St. Paul's writings what he was in the habit of saying.
St. Paul told him of righteousness—a word of which he was very fond. He told Felix of a righteous and good God, who had manifested to man his righteousness and goodness, in the righteousness and goodness of his Son Jesus; a righteous God, who wished to make all men righteous like himself, that they might be happy for ever. Perhaps St. Paul called Felix to give up all hopes of having his own righteousness— the false righteousness of forms, and ceremonies, and superstitions— and to ask for the righteousness of Christ, which is a clean heart and a right spirit; and then he set before him no doubt, as was his custom, the beauty of righteousness, the glory of it, as St. Paul calls it; how noble, honourable, divine, godlike a thing it is to be good.
Then St. Paul told Felix of temperance. And what he said we may fairly guess from his writings. He would tell Felix that there were two elements in every man, the flesh and the spirit, and that those warred against each other: the flesh trying to drag him down, that he may become a brute in fleshly lusts and passions; the spirit trying to raise him up, that he may become a son of God in purity and virtue. But if so, what need must there be of temperance! How must a man be bound to be temperate, to keep under his body and bring it into subjection, bound to restrain the lower and more brutal feelings in him, that the higher and purer feelings may grow and thrive in him to everlasting life! Truly the temperate man, the man who can restrain himself, is the only strong man, the only safe man, the only happy man, the only man worthy of the name of man at all. This, or something like this, St. Paul would have said to Felix. He did not, as far as we know, rebuke him for his sins. He left him to rebuke himself. He told him what ought to be, what he ought to do, and left the rest to his conscience. Poor Felix, brought up a heathen slave in that profligate court of Rome, had probably never heard of righteousness and temperance, had never had what was good and noble set before him. Now St. Paul set the good before him, and showed him a higher life than any he had ever dreamed of—higher than all his viceregal power and pomp—and bade him see how noble and divine it was to be good.
But it is written St. Paul reasoned with Felix about judgment to come.
We must not too hastily suppose that this means that he told Felix that he was in danger of hell-fire. For that is an argument which St. Paul never uses anywhere in his writings or speeches, as far as we know them. He never tries, as too many do now-a-days, to frighten sinners into repentance, by telling them of the flames of hell; and therefore we have no right to fancy that he did so by Felix. He told him of judgment to come; and we can guess from his writings what he would have said. That there was a living God who judged the earth always by his Son Jesus Christ, and that he was coming then, immediately, to punish all the horrible wickedness which was then going on in those parts of the world which St. Paul knew. St. Paul always speaks of the terrible judgments of God as about to come in his own days, we know that they did come.
We know—God forbid that a preacher should tell you one-tenth of what he ought to know—that St. Paul's times were the most horribly wicked that the world had ever seen; that the few heathens who had consciences left felt that some terrible punishment must come if the world went on as it was going. And we know that the punishment did come; and that for about twenty years, towards the end of which St. Paul was beheaded, the great Roman Empire was verily a hell on earth. If Felix lived ten years more he saw the judgment of God, and the vengeance of God, in a way which could not be mistaken. But did judgment to come overtake him in his life? We do not altogether know; we know that he committed such atrocities, that the Roman Emperor Nero was forced to recall him; that the chief Jews of Caesarea sent to Rome, and there laid such accusations against him that he was in danger of death; that his brother Pallas, who was then in boundless power, saved him from destruction. That shortly afterwards Pallas himself was disgraced, stripped of his offices, and a few years later poisoned by Nero, and it is probable enough that when he fell Felix fell with him: but we know nothing of it certainly.
But at least he saw with his own eyes that there was such a thing as judgment to come, not merely thousands of years hence at the last day, but there and then in his own lifetime. He saw the wrath of God revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness of men. He saw the wicked murdering and destroying each other till the land was full of blood. He saw the Empress-mother Agrippina, who had been the paramour of his brother Pallas, murdered by her own son, the Emperor Nero; and so judgment came on her. He saw his own brother first ruined and then poisoned; and so judgment came on him. He saw many a man whom he knew well, and who had been mixed up with him and his brother in their intrigues, put to death himself; and so judgment came on them.
And last of all he saw (unless he had died beforehand) the fall of the Emperor Nero himself—who very probably set fire to Rome, and then laid the blame on the Christians,—the man of sin, of whom St. Paul prophesied that he would be revealed—that is, unveiled, and exposed for the monster which he was; and that the Lord would destroy him with the brightness of his coming; the man who had dressed the Christians in skins, and hunted them with dogs; who had covered them with pitch, and burnt them; who had beheaded St. Paul and crucified St. Peter; who had murdered his own wife; who had put to death every good man whom he could seize, simply for being good; who had committed every conceivable sin, fault, and cruelty that can disgrace a man, while he made the people worship him as God. He saw that great Emperor Nero hunted down by his own people, who were weary of his crimes; condemned to a horrible death, hiding in a filthy hole, and at last stabbing himself in despair; and so judgment came on him likewise; while the very heathen felt that Nero was gone to hell, leaving his name behind him as a proverb of wickedness and cruelty for ever.
So Felix, if he were alive, saw judgment come. And yet more: he saw, if he were alive, such a time follow as the world has seldom or never seen—civil war, bloodshed, lawlessness, plunder, and every horror; a time in which men longed to die and could not find death, and, instead of repenting of their evil deeds, gnawed their tongues for pain, and blasphemed the God of heaven, as St. John had prophesied in the Revelation.
Yes, if Felix lived only ten years after he trembled at St. Paul's words, he saw enough to show him that those words were true; that there was a God in heaven, whose wrath was revealed against all unrighteousness of men; who was coming out of his place to judge the earth, and punish all the tyranny and pride and profligacy and luxury of that Roman world.
God grant that he did remember St. Paul's words. God grant that he trembled once more, and to good purpose; and so repented of his sins even at the last. God grant that he may find mercy in that Day. But we can have but little hope for him; it is but too probable that he was put to death with his brother, within five years of the time when St. Paul warned him of judgment to come,—too probable that that was his last chance of salvation, and that he threw it away for ever, as too many sinners do.
What do we learn then from this sad story? We learn one most practical and important lesson, which we are all too apt to forget.
That the foundation of the Christian religion is not forms and ceremonies, nor fancies and feelings, but righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come. Judgment, I say, to come whensoever it may seem good to Christ, who sits for ever on his throne judging right, and ministering true judgment among the people. A dreadful judgment, says the Commination Service, is always hanging over the heads of those who do wrong, and always ready to fall on them, without waiting for the last day, thousands of years hence. It was by telling men that—by telling them that Christ was righteous and pure, and desired to make them righteous and pure like himself; and that Christ was a living and present judge, watching all their actions, ready at any moment to forgive their sins, and ready at any moment to punish their sins—by that message the Apostles converted the heathen. It was by believing that message, and becoming righteous and good men, temperate and pure men, and looking up in faith and hope to Christ their ever-present Judge and Lord, that the heathen were converted, and became saints and martyrs. And that religion will stand, and bring a man through the storm safe to everlasting life, while all religions which are built on doctrines and systems, on forms and ceremonies, on fancies and feelings, on the godless notion that sinners are safe enough in this life, for God will not judge and punish them till the last day, are built on a foundation of sand; and the storm when it comes will sweep those dreams away, and leave their possessors to shame and misery.
Therefore, my friends, let no man deceive you. God is not mocked. What a man soweth, that shall he reap. The wages of sin are death, as Felix found too well; but the fruit of righteousness is everlasting life, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Therefore follow after innocency, and take heed to the thing which is right; for that, and that only, shall bring a man peace at the last.