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Sketches From The Life of Paul

by Ellen G. White

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Chapter 30: Paul Before Nero

With more than human eloquence and power, Paul presented the truths of the gospel.
With more than human eloquence and power,
Paul presented the truths of the gospel.

Illustration © Pacific Press Publ. Assoc.

When Paul was summoned to appear before the emperor for his trial, it was with the near prospect of certain death. The aggravated nature of the crime charged against him, and the prevailing animosity toward the Christians, left little ground for hope of a favorable issue.

It was the practice among the Greeks and Romans to allow an accused person an advocate to present his case in a court of justice, and to plead in his behalf. By force of argument, by his impassioned eloquence, or by entreaties, prayers, and tears, such an advocate would often secure a decision in favor of the prisoner, or failing in this, would mitigate the severity of his sentence. But no man ventured to act as Paul's counsel or advocate; no friend was at hand, even to preserve a record of the charges brought against him by his accusers, or of the arguments which he urged in his own defense. Among the Christians at Rome, there was not one who came forward to stand by him in that trying hour. [p. 311]

The only record of the occasion is given in the words of Paul himself, in the second letter to Timothy: "At my first answer no man stood with me, but all men forsook me; I pray God that it may not be laid to their charge. Notwithstanding, the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me; that by me the preaching might be fully known, and that all the Gentiles might hear; and I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion."

Paul before Nero—how striking the contrast! The very height of earthly power, authority, and wealth, as well as the lowest depths of crime and iniquity, had been reached by the haughty monarch before whom the man of God answered for his faith. In his power and greatness, Nero stood unrivaled, unapproached. There were none to question his authority, none to resist his will. The kings of the earth laid their crowns at his feet. The most powerful armies marched at his command. The ensigns of his navies upon the seas betokened victory. His statue was set up in the halls of justice, and the decrees of senators and the decisions of judges were but the echo of his will. Millions of subjects bowed in obedience to his mandates. The name of Nero made the world tremble. To incur his displeasure was to lose property, liberty, and life. His frown was more to be dreaded than the pestilence. Yet while surrounded by all the outward semblance of earthly pomp and greatness, adored and reverenced as a god in human form, he possessed the heart of a demon.

Paul the aged prisoner, without money, without friends, without counsel, had been brought forth from a loathsome dungeon to be tried for [p. 312] his life. He had lived a life of poverty, self-denial, and suffering. With a sensitive nature that thirsted for love and sympathy, he had braved misrepresentation, reproach, hatred, and abuse; shrinking with nervous dread from pain and peril, he had fearlessly endured both. He had been, like his Master, a homeless wanderer upon the earth; he had lived and suffered for the truth's sake, seeking to relieve the burdens of humanity, and to exemplify in his life the life of Christ. How could the capricious, passionate, licentious tyrant, who had no conception of the value of a self-denying, virtuous, noble life, be expected to understand or appreciate the character and motives of this son of God?

Paul and Nero face to face!—the youthful monarch bearing upon his sin-stamped countenance the shameful record of the passions that reigned within; the aged prisoner's calm and benignant face telling of a heart at peace with God and man. The results of opposite systems of training and education stood that day contrasted,—the life of unbounded self-indulgence and the life of utter self-sacrifice. Here were the representatives of two religions,—Christianity and paganism; the representatives of two theories of life,—the simplicity of self-denying endurance, ready to give up life itself, if need be, for the good of others, and the luxury of all-absorbing selfishness, that counts nothing too valuable to sacrifice for a momentary gratification; the representatives of two spiritual powers,—the ambassador of Christ and the slave of Satan. Their relative position showed to what extent the course of this world was under the rule of the prince of darkness. The wretch [p. 313] whose soul was stained with incest and matricide, was robed in purple, and seated upon the throne, while the purest and noblest of men stood before the judgment-seat, despised, hated, and fettered.

The vast hall which was the place of trial was thronged by an eager, restless crowd that surged and pressed to the front to see and hear all that should take place. Among those gathered there were the high and the low, the rich and the poor, the learned and the ignorant, the proud and the humble. Yet all alike were destitute of the true knowledge of the way of life and salvation.

Again the Jews urge against the prisoner the old charges of sedition and heresy, while both Jews and Romans accuse him of instigating the burning of the city. While his enemies were vehemently urging their accusations, Paul preserved a quiet dignity; no shade of fear or anger disturbed the peaceful serenity that rested upon his countenance. The people and even the judges beheld him with surprise. They had been present at many trials, and had looked upon many a criminal; but never had they seen a man wear such a look of holy calmness as did the prisoner before them. The keen eyes of the judges, accustomed as they were to read the countenances of their prisoners, searched the face of Paul for some hidden trace of crime, but in vain. When he was permitted to speak in his own behalf, all listened with eager interest to his words.

Once more Paul had an opportunity to raise aloft before a wondering multitude the banner of the cross of Christ. With more than human eloquence and power, he that day urged home upon their hearts the truths of the gospel. The wisdom of God was revealed through his servant. [p. 314] As Paul stands before the emperor of the world, his words strike a chord which vibrates in the hearts of even the most hardened, and which thrills in unison with the mission of angels. Truth, clear and convincing, overthrows error and refutes falsehood. Never before had that company listened to words like these. Light was shining into darkened minds that would gladly follow the guidance of its precious rays. The truths spoken on that occasion would never die. Though the utterance of a feeble and aged prisoner, they were destined to shake the nations. They were endowed with a power that would live through all time, influencing the hearts of men when the lips that uttered them should be silent in a martyr's grave.

As Paul gazed upon the throng before him,—Jews, Greeks, Romans, with strangers from many lands,—his soul was stirred with an intense desire for their salvation. He lost sight of the occasion, of the perils which surrounded him, of the terrible fate which seemed so near. He looked above all this, to Jesus, the Divine Intercessor, the Advocate pleading before the throne of God in behalf of sinful men. Earnestly he pointed his hearers to the great Sacrifice made in behalf of the fallen race, and presented before them man in his true dignity and value. An infinite price had been paid for man's redemption; provision had been made that he might be exalted to share the throne of God and to become the heir of immortal riches. By angel messengers, earth was connected with Heaven, and all the deeds of man, good or evil, were open before the eye of Infinite Justice.

Thus pleads the advocate of truth; faithful [p. 315] among the faithless, loyal and true among the disloyal and disobedient, he stands as God's representative, and his words are as a voice from Heaven. There is no trace of fear, sadness, or discouragement in countenance or manner. Strong in his conscious innocence, clothed with the panoply of truth, he rejoices that he is a son of God. His words are like a shout of victory above the roar of the battle. The cause of truth to which he has devoted his life, he makes appear as the only cause that can never fail. Though he may perish for the truth's sake, the gospel will not perish. God lives, and the truth will triumph.

His countenance glows with the light of Heaven, as though reflecting the rays of the sun. Many who looked upon him in that hall of judgment "saw his face as it had been the face of an angel." Tears dimmed many eyes that had never before been seen to weep. The gospel message found its way to the minds and hearts of many who would never have listened to it but for the imprisonment of Paul.

Never had Nero heard the truth as he heard it upon that occasion. Never had the enormous guilt of his own life been revealed to him as it was revealed that day. The light of Heaven had pierced the sin-polluted chambers of his soul. He quaked with terror at the thought of a tribunal before which he, the ruler of the world, should be arraigned, and where his deeds should meet a just reward. He was afraid of the apostle's God, and he dared not pass sentence upon Paul, against whom no accusation had been sustained. A sense of awe for a time restrained his bloodthirsty spirit. [p. 316]

For a moment, Heaven had been opened before him by the words of Paul, and its peace and purity had appeared desirable. That moment the invitation of mercy was extended even to the guilty and hardened Nero. But only for a moment. The command was issued for Paul to be taken back to his dungeon; and as the door closed upon the messenger of God, so the door of repentance was forever closed against the emperor of Rome. Not another ray of light was ever to penetrate the dense darkness that enveloped him. There needed only this crowning act of rejection of divine mercy to call down upon him the retributive justice of God.

It was not long after this that Nero sailed on his expedition to Greece, where he disgraced himself and his kingdom by the most contemptible and debasing frivolity. He returned to Rome with great pomp, and in his golden palace, surrounded by the most infamous of his courtiers, he engaged in scenes of revolting debauchery. In the midst of their revelry, a voice as of a tumult in the streets was heard, and a messenger was despatched to learn the cause. He hastily returned with the appalling news that Galba, at the head of an avenging army, was marching rapidly upon Rome, that insurrection had already broken out in the city, and the streets were filled with an enraged mob threatening death to the emperor and all his supporters, and rapidly urging their way toward the palace.

The wretched tyrant, as cowardly as he was cruel, was completely unmanned. He sprang from the table at which he had been feasting and drinking, overturning it in his blind terror, and dashing the most costly wares to fragments. [p. 317] Like one beside himself, he rushed hither and thither, beating his forehead, and crying, "I am lost! I am lost!" He had not, like the faithful Paul, a powerful, compassionate God to rely upon in his hour of peril. He knew that if taken prisoner he would be subjected to insult and torture, and he considered how he might end his miserable life with as little pain as possible. He called for poison, but when it was brought, he dared not take it; he called for a sword, but after examining its sharp edge, he laid it also aside. Then, disguised in woman's clothing, he rushed from his palace, and fled through the dark, narrow streets to the Tiber; but as he looked into its murky depths, his courage again failed. One of the few companions who had followed him, suggested that he escape to a country-seat a few miles distant, where he might find safety. Concealing his face, he leaped upon a horse, and succeeded in making his escape.

While the emperor was thus ingloriously fleeing for his life, the Roman senate, emboldened by the insurrection and the approach of Galba, passed a decree declaring Nero to be the enemy of his country, and condemning him to death. The news of this decision being brought to Nero by one of his companions, the monarch inquired what manner of death he was to suffer, and was told that he was to be stripped naked, to be fastened by his head in the pillory, and to be scourged to death. The monster who had delighted to inflict upon Christians the most inhuman torture, shrank with horror at the mere thought of enduring like torture himself. He seized a dagger, and again endeavored to nerve himself to plunge it into his heart; but the prick [p. 318] of the instrument was all that he could endure. As he threw it aside with a groan of despair, horsemen were heard approaching. His retreat was discovered; a few moments, and he would be in the power of his enemies. Terrified alike at the thought of torture and suicide, he still hesitated, and was compelled at last to let a slave help his trembling hand force a dagger into his throat. Thus perished the tyrant Nero, at the early age of thirty-two.

God in his infinite mercy bears long with the transgressors of his law. In the days of Abraham he declared that the idolatrous Amorites should still be spared until the fourth generation; for their iniquity was not yet full, and he could not give command for their destruction. For more than four hundred years he spared them, but when, instead of turning to repentance, they hardened their hearts in iniquity, and made war upon his people, their day of probation closed, and the mandate went forth for their utter extinction. With unerring accuracy, the Infinite One keeps a record of the impiety of nations and individuals. Long is his mercy tendered to them, with calls to repentance; but when their guilt reaches a certain limit, which he has fixed, then mercy ceases her pleadings, and the ministration of wrath begins.

Click here to read the next chapter: "Paul's Last Letter"


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