The Ancient Faith

Home               Salvation               The Church of Christ               Acceptable Worship               Christian Ethics               Doctrinal Issues     The Holy Scriptures               Special Pages



John W. McGarvey

      The twenty-fourth chapter of Acts of Apostles, and twenty-fifth verse:

      “Go thy way for this time, and when I have a convenient season, I will call thee unto me.”

      In four preceding discourses, I have endeavored to trace the inspired accounts of the conversion to Christ of four different persons, widely separated from one another in space and character. The first, as those will remember who have been here, was the Jewish treasurer of the Queen of Ethiopia, whose home was far to the south, in Africa. The second was a subordinate officer in the Roman army, located at the time in Cæsarea in Palestine. The third, a pious business woman in Philippi of Macedonia, on another continent—that of Europe; and the fourth, Saul of Tarsus, the fiery persecutor of the Church in Jerusalem. We endeavored to show the working of God’s plans and devices—if we may so speak of Him—by which he brought about the conversion of these four persons.

      We now have before us a man in regard to whom we are safe in saying, that God laid plans of the same kind, and brought to bear the same kind of influences for his salvation; but that the whole resulted in a failure. The man was left in his unregenerated state, and so passed on to eternity.

      I propose to trace the history of this case after the same method which we followed in the others, and we will try to discover why it is that the same divine influences, the same workings of divine providence and grace, that saved the other four, failed to save him.

      Let us first then consider the man as he was before the Gospel was brought to him. Felix, before he was appointed Governor of Judea, was a slave; he was one of the household slaves of Agrippina, the mother of Claudius, then the reigning Emperor. Whether he was born in slavery or had been reduced to it in later years, we are not able to say; for the accounts that are given of him by early writers are very brief. But you can see at once that a slave in a heathen court, where his mistress was a heathen woman, where all his associates were heathen, and where all the vices that have ever been known round about a throne were ripe and rank, had very little chance to cultivate a good character. He became a favorite of Claudius Caesar, the son of his mistress, who, when he became Emperor, elevated Felix immediately from the position of household slave to be the head of one of the provinces of the empire, and that province inhabited by the ancient people of God. What a strange position for such a man to occupy!

      He had been in his province but a short time, when by some accident he fell into company with Drusilla, the young and very beautiful wife of Aziz, the king of Emesa. The latter ruled with the title of king over a very insignificant little kingdom, which lies out between Palestine and the desert. This Drusilla belonged to the Herod family. She was the oldest child of that Herod who beheaded the Apostle James, shut up Peter in prison intending to kill him, murdered the soldiers from whom Peter escaped, and then died by the hand of an angel shortly afterwards. She was an elder sister of King Agrippa, of whom I will speak to you tonight. Bad blood. Having seen this woman, and become enamored of her, Felix went deliberately to work, by means of a sorcerer whom he made his go-between, to entice her from her lawful husband. She, being filled with the passions that characterized all the Herods, love of power and love of gold, was persuaded to abandon her humble husband, though he bore the title of a king, for the higher and more lucrative position of wife of a Roman procurator. This transaction alone would tell us what kind of a man Felix was. It reveals a great deal of his private character.

      Like all the Romans, he was fond of military display and prowess. Consequently, as we learn from Josephus, with a small army at his command he succeeded in driving out from the mountains of Judea, some bands of robbers who had infested the land for several generations. In the meantime, we are told by Tacitus, one of the fairest minded of all the Roman historians, that Felix, “with all manner of severity and lust, exercised the authority of a king with the spirit of a slave.” In those few words, this great writer attempts to depict the character of his administration of the government; and we find that the story in our text sustains this judgment of the historian; for it was for the purpose of extorting money from Paul, that he held him in prison for two whole years after he had become perfectly satisfied that Paul was innocent of any crime, and ought to be set at liberty.

      This, now, is the character whose attempted conversion to the Lord Jesus Christ, we are to consider. A great contrast to that good Ethiopian eunuch, who, as he rode along the public highway, was reading the word of God. A great contrast to that Roman soldier, who was a devout man, who feared God with all his house, and prayed to God always. A great contrast to Lydia, who, when the Sabbath day dawned in a heathen city, left her place of business and spent the day on the river bank outside the city, with other women, in prayer. And, even a great contrast with Saul of Tarsus, who, though a bloody persecutor of the Church of God, was able to declare afterwards, when he could not be suspected of an uncandid statement, that he did it in all good conscience, and verily thought that his duty to God required it. Here is a man now, in contrast to all these, who is thoroughly corrupt in his private life, and thoroughly corrupt in his administration of the government that has been entrusted to him. Very little hope of the salvation of such a man under any ordinary circumstances. Will this man ever go to church? Those who are in the highest positions of authority in this world, are not often churchgoing people. I have seen it stated, that, although Mr. Spurgeon was for a long period of time the greatest preacher in all the realms over which Queen Victoria rules, she never heard him; and that none of her household ever went inside of his tabernacle. Kings and queens, and the great men of this earth, often choose some man to come and preach to them, some man who will be altogether pleasing and acceptable. They very seldom go where any of their sins might become the topic of discourse. Of course, then, this heathen Felix, with all the corruptions and abominations in which he lives, may never be expected to go where he will hear an apostle or evangelist preach the Gospel. Will not some of them dare to go to him then? Not at all likely. Who would feel called upon to go and force himself into the presence of such a man as that, to present to him the Gospel of righteousness and peace and everlasting life? He would be afraid of being driven from the door. How poor the opportunity then for such a man as Felix to have what we would ordinarily call a fair chance for his salvation. But God was determined to leave even him without excuse. The Saviour said to the apostles before He died, “Ye shall be brought before governors and kings and councils for my name’s sake, for a testimony to them and to the Gentiles.” It was a part of the divine purpose and plan to allow those faithful men of God to be brought before such rulers, in order that they might have an opportunity to present to them the story of Christ, which otherwise they would never hear. And there is just as much reason for saying that God went to work by a plan and purpose in the case of this man, as to save either of the four of whom I have spoken. He did not send an angel to him, telling him to call for a preacher, as in the case of Cornelius; he did not send an angel to the preacher telling him to go to the man who was to hear the Gospel. Neither did the Lord appear himself, as in the case of Saul of Tarsus. But, very much as in the case of Lydia, God guided in a strange and mysterious way, the footsteps of the great Apostle Paul, until he was brought face to face with this ungodly man. While Felix was at Caesarea, managing the affairs of the government and indulging his lusts, the apostle was in Jerusalem. Some old enemies, seeing him in the temple, raised an outcry against him and stirred up the violent passions of a mob, who seized him and dragged him out through the gate, intending to put him to death. Paul was near his end, when the uproar attracted the attention of the chief captain in the castle overlooking the temple court, who, rushing down with a body of Roman soldiers, rescued him, crying out, “What has this man done?” The mob, like many other mobs, did not know. Some cried one thing and some cried another; so the Roman officer was uncertain what might be the charge against him. He orders the soldiers to rush him up into the castle. The mob rush to try to take him from the soldiers, but he is thrown across the shoulders of two of the strongest, and up the stairs they go. They are about to enter the door, which would be closed on him he knew not how long, when Paul says to the chief captain, “Wilt thou not permit me to speak to the people?” At that request, he was allowed to address the mob. The Roman officer stood listening to that speech, hoping that in the course of it he would find out what charge was laid against the prisoner; but to his amazement, the prisoner delivers a sermon intended to convince and convert the crowd, instead of trying to vindicate himself; and the officer does not learn what he is charged with. When the sermon is ended, he orders the centurion to take him inside the castle, tie him down to the whipping post, and scourge him until he confesses the crime with which he is charged. Oh! how our spirits revolt against such a procedure as that! But it was very common in the Roman Empire.

      As they were strapping him down to the whipping post, he calmly said to the centurion, “Is it lawful for thee to scourge a Roman citizen?” Immediately the straps were dropped. The centurion hurries into the inner room where the chief captain is, and says, “Take heed what thou doest to this man. He is a Roman.” The captain says to Paul, “Art thou a Roman?” “I am.” “For a large sum of money,” he says, “I obtained this freedom.” “But I was born free.” Those who were about to scourge him left, and the centurion was alarmed and frightened now, because he had come so near scourging a Roman citizen. But he has the man in his hands. He does not know with what he is charged. He does not know what to do with him. There never was a poor man more completely nonplussed than Lysias was. In order to determine the matter, he ordered the Jewish Sanhedrin the next day to come together; he takes the prisoner down under a guard; puts him in the prisoners’ dock; demands now an investigation in his presence, so that by the proceedings he may determine whether to keep the man a prisoner or not. The proceedings end in a row—a terrible row between the Sadducees and Pharisees that Paul stirred up on purpose to prevent them from doing him injustice. He orders the soldiers to take the man back to the castle. Now, what can he do?

      The next day a nephew of Paul, who happened to be in the city, finds admission to the prisoner and tells him that forty men of the Jews have bound themselves under a great curse that they will neither eat nor drink until they have killed him. They have requested the chief captain Lysias to send thee down again tomorrow, that they may inquire more particularly about thee, and they are lying in wait to kill thee. Their plan was, to lie on some cross street until the soldiers marched along, then make a rush from both sides, and kill him before the soldiers would know what was going on. They could do it very easily. Paul’s life is in peril again. He calls the centurion and says, “Take this young man to the chief captain; he has something to tell him.” He told the chief captain the story. He said, “Now, young man, you go back and do not say a word to anybody about what you have told me.” Then he calls two centurions, saying, “Get ready two hundred spear-men, two hundred common soldiers and seventy horsemen, by the third hour of the night. Take this man and bear him off to Caesarea to Felix the governor.” It was done. He wrote a letter to Felix, telling him about his prisoner, and all he could say about the charges laid against him was, “I do not find him accused of any such thing as I supposed—nothing that is worthy of death or bonds.” He explains why he had sent him. Felix reads the letter; looks at his prisoner; sends back orders for the Jews to come down and accuse him; and orders him to be kept under guard. Now the preacher and the sinner are pretty close together; and this is the way the preacher has been sent by the providence of God, so that he may have an opportunity, which otherwise, in all probability, he would never have had, to preach the Gospel to Felix.

      His accusers come down, and there is a trial of the case. Felix learns from the trial little except the same thing that Lysias had learned, that there was nothing even charged against Paul to justify imprisonment or death. Then his duty was to set him free. But if he had done that, Paul would never have had an opportunity to preach to Felix—he would have gone off preaching somewhere else. Why didn’t he set him free? The fact that he did not is explained by a single remark made by Paul in the course of his defense. In order to explain how he happened to be in Jerusalem at that time, he said to Felix, “After many years” (that is, of absence,) “I came up to Jerusalem to bring alms and offerings to my people.” That caught the ear of Felix. This man came from distant lands up to Jerusalem to bring alms for a nation; to bring money enough to feed the poor people of the country. He must have some way of getting money in large quantities. I must have some of it. If he could raise money that way to feed a nation when they were in distress, how easy it will be for him to raise a large sum to get himself out of prison so that he can go on with his preaching. I will keep him until I get a good fat fee to release him. Now here is the purpose fully set forth, of the man upon whom the power of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is to be brought to bear, and we shall see the result.

      After some days Felix ordered Paul into the presence of himself and Drusilla, that he might hear him concerning the faith in Christ. I wonder what he cared for the faith in Christ. I don’t suppose he cared much; but all the land of Judea was ringing with the question about the faith in Christ; many other lands were ringing with it; and Felix was a man who wanted to know what was going on in the world. How many men in our own time, in our own community, who do not care a snap of your finger about the faith in Christ, but if some very noted preacher of it comes to town, they will condescend to go out and hear him. They want to hear that man. They have some little curiosity to know what it is that is producing all this commotion, and attracting the attention of the people all over the country. And I suppose, from my knowledge of human nature, that it was some such thought as that that caused Felix to send for Paul. Paul comes. His audience is made up of those two persons. Think again, now, what kind of persons they were. Paul has, of course, the choice of his subject. He is to preach on the faith in Christ, but he can take any part of the whole range of the faith that he thinks best, as the particular theme of his discourse. And what topic does he take? The sermon is not reported like some other of Paul’s sermons. I wish it had been. Perhaps it is a foolish wish. But the heads of the sermons are reported, and, like many modern sermons it had three heads. The first was righteousness; the second, temperance—self-control being the more accurate rendering; the third, the judgment to come. Preach on righteousness to such a man and such a woman! Preach on self-control! Preach on the judgment to come! Who would have thought it, except the bold Apostle to the Gentiles? What modern preacher would have selected a subject which Felix must have regarded as a personal reflection, and which Drusilla might have regarded as an insult to a lady. Somehow or other those ancient apostles and preachers, and those old prophets of Judea of whom we read in the Old Testament, always addressed themselves to their audiences. They never stood up before one audience and began to speak of the sins and the crimes and the follies of somebody the other side of the river, If they spoke of sins, it was the sins of the persons they were addressing. If they spoke of the eternal judgment, it was to make those whom they were addressing realize the terrors of it.

      When Paul spoke of righteousness, there was a contrast between that which he set forth and everything that characterized the life of both of his auditors. When he spoke of self-control, he condemned them at every word; and when, having thus exhibited these two lines of thought, he carried them forward to the day when God will judge all men in righteousness, condemning the wicked and saving only those who are redeemed by the blood of Christ, what a fearful picture that was! Some preachers in our day do not believe in preaching the judgment. They are afraid, apparently, that they will scare somebody into the kingdom of heaven. But there are some men who will never get there unless they are badly scared. A bold, daring, wicked man, trampling God’s laws under his feet day after day, and moving on in defiance of earth and heaven in his wicked course, can be checked by nothing except the terrors of the judgment. Make him realize that which is awaiting him; then he may pause to hear you. He may begin to think then that there is some value in the mercy and the grace of the gospel of the Son of God.

      What was the effect of this sermon on Felix? You would naturally suppose that the effect would be to throw him into a rage. That is the effect it has on some men to point out their sins, and press down hard and severely and earnestly upon them. You would expect he would order Paul back to his prison in a fearful fit of anger and resentment. No; he does not do that. It is said, to the supreme credit of Felix, and the most creditable thing ever said about him, that while Paul reasoned of righteousness, temperance and judgment to come, Felix was terrified. And well he might be: When his guilty soul ran back over the course of his life, away back to his boyhood, and the ghosts of all the awful crimes of his career stood up with glaring eyes before him, and he thought of the eternal judgment that was coming, and of a righteous God condemning him to the fate he deserved, he would have been made of iron if he had not been terrified. I tell you, my friends, there is not a wicked man on this earth who would not be terrified, if he were made by some circumstance to face his sins and the eternal judgment. It is because they hate to be terrified, that they do not think about such things. It is because they do not like to be terrified, that they are not well pleased when the preacher presses such themes upon them. But it must be done, or they will go on to perdition without the warning which God desires that they should have.

      He was terrified. How strikingly like the condition of the people who heard Peter’s first sermon on Pentecost. He bore down on their souls and their consciences by his story of the Lord Jesus Christ, until he reached the point where he said, “God hath made that same Jesus whom you have crucified, both Lord and Christ;” and such was the effect upon their consciences that they cried out, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” They were terrified. Felix was brought to the very point and state of feeling that the three thousand were brought to, who were saved on the day of Pentecost. God put no difference between him and them. He did all for Felix that he had done for them, but there the lines of the two parted.

      They cried out, “What shall we do?” Peter told them what to do, and they did it. When Felix was terrified, instead of crying out, Oh, Paul, what shall I do? he summoned up sufficient nerve to command his voice, perhaps with a calm tone, and perhaps with a kindly expression in it, “Go thy way for this time, and when I have a convenient season, I will call thee unto me.” That meant, Paul, I see the direction to which your speech would carry me. I see the course that it would have me take, but it is not convenient to do it today. And was not that true? When he thought of this guilty woman by his side, whom he had seduced away from her husband, and that to go in the way Paul would have him, would be to leave her behind—to cast her off—it was not a very convenient thing to do. It was exceedingly inconvenient to get rid of her. And how often it is today, that men, in pursuing a wicked course, have gotten themselves tied up in alliances and forms of iniquity that they do not feel able to break when their consciences tell them they ought to serve the Lord. And all of those other wicked habits; how inconvenient to break them all off at once. Paul, wait for a convenient season.

      Did you ever pause, you have heard this text commented on hundreds of times—it is a favorite with preachers, always has been and always will be—did you ever pause to ask yourself what a convenient season is? Why, of course, it is a season when you can do a thing just as easily as not. When a friend asks you to do something, if convenient, you answer: “Oh, yes; it is entirely convenient. No trouble at all.” That is what is meant by a convenient season. Well, do you suppose a convenient season ever comes to a wicked, bad man, convenient season to repent? It never does. He has to put himself to a great inconvenience when he makes the change. Do you believe that a convenient season to turn away from wickedness to serving the Lord, ought to come? I don’t. I think if a man has trampled God’s laws under his feet, and defied heaven and the rights of his fellow men, and shown himself a wicked, abandoned wretch, I think that he ought to have to go through some fearful agony in coming back to the right faith. He deserves it. He ought not to expect to get out of it just as easily as sitting down when you are tired. “Perfectly convenient to do it.” I do not believe God will ever allow a man of that kind to have a convenient season to repent. He will always find, if he repents at all, that he must do it at a sacrifice—with struggle and pain and trouble.

      But, “I will wait for a convenient season.” Did the convenient season ever come to Felix? Week after week, month after month, year after year, till two years were gone, Paul lingered in that prison, when he ought to have been a free man preaching the Gospel and saving hundreds and thousands; but the convenient season did not come. Felix sent for him and conversed with him again and again, but it was inconvenient to repent. He wanted some money from him that he might let him go free. And Paul could have gotten the money, could have paid his way out, if he had thought it right to do so. Oh! brethren, how gladly hundreds of thousands of Christian men would have given the last dollar they had to get Paul out so he could go on preaching. But Paul despised a bribe-taker, and he was not willing to be a bribe-giver. Rather lie in prison until the Lord’s time came for him to be freed, than to be a bribe-giver. It never came. After two years, Felix left the province because accusations had been brought against him at Rome. He was disgraced and banished to what was then called Gaul—now France—and there he died, and the convenient season never came. Once face to face with the apostle; heard him preach until terrified; but because it was not convenient to turn to the Lord, he would not do it and he went to hell. Oh, how many have done the same from that day to this! I will venture to say there are very few men living in sin here in your town, who have not some day or other heard the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and been terrified. They have done precisely the same thing that Felix did, and are on the way with him to perdition.

      I once fell in with a lady on my way to church, of whom I inquired if she was a Christian. She said, “No.” She said, “A good many years ago I was attending a meeting, and was so impressed by the preaching that I resolved at the morning service to obey the Gospel that evening. I started to church with the full intention of confessing the Saviour, but something was said on the way that turned my thoughts in another direction, and from that day to this, though I have gone to church regularly, I have never felt the slightest inclination to obey the Lord.” My dear friends, you do not know what you are doing, when you are tampering with God’s commands; with your consciences roused and stirred at times; with your own better nature; and putting off for a convenient season that will never come, the salvation of your immortal soul. Will you follow Felix’s example this morning? Or, will you rather pursue the course of the Apostle Paul? When he met the truth on the way to Damascus and heard the voice of the Lord, it was an extremely inconvenient season for him to stop his mad career of persecution, and turn round, and become a persecuted preacher of the Gospel which he had hated; but he did not hesitate. He at once surrendered to the Lord. That is the way for a sinner to do.

      Now, if there is any soul here this morning, who has been, or is now, terrified by the thought of the day of judgment, and can gain your own consent to bend your stubborn will, come to the Lord Jesus Christ, and confess His name before heaven and earth, we give you the opportunity while we sing the hymn announced.

[This was taken from J.W. McGarvey’s Sermons Delivered in Louisville, Kentucky (1894). Subtitles were added for reading ease].

 Recommended articles:

Introducing the Church of Christ – Ronny Wade

God’s Sevenfold Unity – Jerry Cutter

Repentance – J. W. McGarvey


The Ancient Faith website is a thematic collection of scholarly yet simple Bible essays and sermons, many of which were composed by Restoration preachers such as J.W. McGarvey, Moses Lard, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Campbell. These courageous men of faith through hours of Bible investigation studied themselves out of denominationalism, asking for “the old paths” (Jer. 6:16) and seeking to return to “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). We hope you will join with these men in their fervent plea to restore “the ancient order,” “the ancient gospel” or, as it was sometimes called, “the ancient faith.”