James Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary
WHAT IS THE GOSPEL?
‘The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’
As God the Father gave His Son to be the Saviour of the world, so He also appointed faithful witnesses to teach men the salvation procured for them by Christ. Mark here gives a summary of what he intends to write. He says, in effect, that he is going to expound the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, which was begun in the manner the ancient prophets had predicted, and the progress of which corresponded in all points with what they foretold concerning it.
I. Define the term ‘Gospel.’—The word signifies glad tidings. The subject-matter of these tidings must be sought for in the writings of the Apostles. St. Paul (Romans 1:16) calls this Gospel ‘the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth.’ Perhaps the fullest and clearest definition of the Gospel is contained in 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 : ‘All things are of God, who hath reconciled us to Himself by Jesus Christ,’ etc. John in like manner describes the Gospel as being the testimony concerning Jesus Christ of those who had seen, handled Him, etc. (1 John 1:1). The Gospel announces that God has fulfilled all the promises made to the Fathers by His Son Jesus Christ, Who became a man, undertook our cause, atoned for our sins by His death, conquered death by His resurrection, reconciles us to God, and consecrates us to His service by the obedience of faith. The Gospel, indeed, includes everything bearing upon our salvation.
II. Wherein does the preaching of the Gospel consist?—Look at the express teaching of Christ Himself, Who before His ascension said (Luke 24:46-47) ‘Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer.’ This definition of Gospel preaching contains—
(a) A record of facts, including both the Passion, and the Resurrection. It was with a view to these that the whole mystery of the Incarnation took place.
(b) The practical bearing of these facts, including Repentance and Remission of sins. He was exalted that He might give repentance and remission of sins (Acts 5:31). These are preached in His name.
III. What is the end or design of Gospel preaching?—The obedience of faith (Romans 1:16; 2 Corinthians 10:5). By faith we acknowledge Christ as our only Saviour, and such a confession of Him produces obedience to Him. In this are comprehended all the duties which He requires of us, and indeed all true religion; our whole life is to be framed according to the rule prescribed by Christ in the Gospel. Mark calls Christ expressly the Son of God. He is speaking of Him as the source of salvation, and by calling Him the Son of God shows that He is so not as a man simply, but as co-eternal and co-essential with the Father. He places this at the very beginning of his Gospel, in order to show that Christ is able to save us, inasmuch as all things were made by Him.
IV. The method and scope of Christ’s life, teaching, and work.—Mark says it began and was carried on as the prophets had foretold. His purpose by this remark seems to have been to meet the objections of those who affirm that the doctrine of Christ was a novelty and an innovation. Novelties in religion have among all nations been strongly objected to, and Satan has taken advantage of this fact to prejudice men’s minds against the Gospel. Mark accordingly makes at once the announcement that the Gospel narrative agrees in all points with the ancient prophets. The way of salvation propounded in the Gospel is the most ancient of all doctrines, for it is contained in the first promise (Genesis 3:15), which is expanded and developed in all subsequent promises made by God to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
(1) ‘As long as the twelve were still at Jerusalem, they were in themselves abiding witnesses to the facts which they announced; and if we may believe the accordant traditions of the early Church, it was not till they were scattered, and their work of preaching well-nigh finished, that the first authoritative record of the Gospel was composed. Thus Mark is said to have written down the substance of St. Peter’s public preaching. “Luke,” in like manner, “committed to a book the Gospel which Paul used to proclaim”; and though this rests upon a later authority, Matthew, when he was about to go to a fresh field of labour, left his Gospel to supply the place of the oral teaching in Palestine. The Gospel of John belongs to a yet later period, and is wholly separated from the cycle of oral narratives.’
(2) ‘In Mark we have not so much as in Matthew, the point of convergence of the prophetic rays in the Messiah, the son of Abraham and David. Not so much as in Luke, the fairest of the children of men, Priest and Victim, the Teacher of grace and forgiveness. Not so much as in John, the Eternal Word made flesh, floating in a robe of heavenly light. It is the Gospel whose emblem is the Lion, whose Hero is full of Divine love and Divine strength. It is the Gospel which was addressed to the Romans, to free them from the misery of scepticism, from the grinding dominion of superhuman force unguided by a loving will. Here, brief as it is, we have, in its essential germs, all the theology of the Church. Had every other part of the New Testament perished, Christianity might have been developed from this.’
(3) ‘The words, “the Son of God,” conveyed far more to Jewish minds than they do to ours. They were nothing less than an assertion of our Lord’s divinity. They were a declaration that Jesus was Himself very God, and “equal with God” (John 5:18). There is a beautiful fitness in placing this truth in the very beginning of a Gospel. The divinity of Christ is the citadel and keep of Christianity. Here lies the infinite value of the satisfaction He made upon the cross.’
(4) ‘Mark has the special gift of terse brevity, and of graphic painting in wonderful combination. While on every occasion he compresses the discourses, works, and history into the simplest possible kernel, he on the other hand, unfolds the scenes more clearly than Matthew does, who excels in the discourses. Not only do single incidents become in his hands complete pictures, but even when he is very brief, he often gives, with one pencil stroke, something new and peculiarly his own.’
THE GENESIS OF THE GOSPEL
I. Christ’s incarnation was a great beginning for humanity.—What birth is to a man, our Lord’s Incarnation was to the human race. Humanity then commenced a fresh lease of life—passed from infancy into manhood. It was the birthday of immortal hope. This was a moral evolution, an epoch in human development. Jesus Christ Himself is our Gospel. ‘God was in Christ’; this is the marrow of the ‘good news.’ Had not the Son of God become a Son of man, the sons of men had ne’er become the sons of God.
II. This beginning had its hidden roots in the past.—To the narrow horizon of our vision, it seems an event altogether new. Yet it was the natural outcome of the past. It was but another step in the unfolding of God’s eternal purpose. All the history of the past was culminating in the birth of Jesus Christ. Sinai foreshadowed Calvary. We can begin a new chapter in life; nevertheless, we cannot suddenly break with the past. Some thread of continuity, perhaps concealed, will bind the two parts.
III. This new creation is both like and unlike the old.—It is like, in that it opens with a voice. Attention is challenged for the message, not for the man: it is a Voice. The man is a cipher; the doctrine everything. It is unlike in the fiat uttered. In creation it was, ‘Be done!’ Now it is, ‘Prepare!’ Still that voice resounds ‘Prepare!’ To enjoy larger discoveries of God, Prepare! To receive richer donations of blessing, Prepare! For life’s tremendous responsibility, Prepare! For the heavenly scene and service, Prepare!
IV. Beginnings are often attended with pain.—The desert-life of John, with its ascetic austerities, was painful. The beginning of the Gospel was struggle, battle, upheaval, overthrow. The birth of the new means the death of the old.
V. The Gospel of Christ is a beginning without an end.—In the kingdom of Messiah, the prophecy becomes fact. ‘Thy sun shall no more go down.’ Where shall the reign of this Gospel end? In man’s reconciliation with God? in regeneration of character? in sonship? in elevation to heavenly seats? These are but successive steps in exaltation. ‘We shall be like Him!’ The Gospel is power—infinite power. Is there no limit to man’s development? None. By virtue of Christ’s Gospel, we are always beginning.
THE VOICE IN THE WILDERNESS
‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness.’
In dealing with the character and work of John the Baptist as the forerunner of our Lord’s first coming, it may be pointed out that neither the man himself, nor his work, and the effects it produced, are, perhaps, sufficiently regarded. Archbishop Trench, following Augustine, has pointed out that John only claimed to be the Voice, while our Lord was the Word, and that ‘a voice is nothing unless it be also the vehicle of a word,’ but ‘goes before it in the act of communication,’ and, ‘this being accomplished, the voice has passed away,’ as John did so soon as he had accomplished his mission. Yet we must never forget that our Lord said of him that ‘amongst them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist.’ A man of the deepest humility and self-abnegation, he was fired by an intense earnestness and fearless courage which winged his direct and plain-spoken appeals to the hearts and consciences of all; and the whole nation was stirred by his mission to its very depths.
I. Whose the voice was.—Isaiah prophesied of ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness’ (Isaiah 40:3), and this was now being fulfilled in the ministry of our Lord’s forerunner. Note these particulars of John the Baptist:—
(a) He was the son of Zacharias and Elizabeth his wife. Born six months before Christ, he entered on his ministry of preparation six months earlier than our Lord did on His.
(b) His dress betokened the prophet. ‘Clothed with camel’s hair,’ that is, with a mantle of camel’s hair. Elijah wore such a mantle (2 Kings 1:8), which he gave to Elisha to show that the prophet’s office descended to him (2 Kings 2:13); he had ‘a girdle of a skin’=a leathern girdle worn round the waist over the inner clothing.
(c) His food was the plainest and commonest, just what Nature supplied: locusts, an insect which when dried forms a palatable food, permitted by the law (Leviticus 11:22), and wild honey, the produce of wild bees, for which the land was famous (Deuteronomy 32:13).
II. Where the voice spake.—‘In the wilderness of Judea,’ a wild, rocky, desolate region between Hebron (probably John’s birthplace) and Dead Sea, stretching north along valley of Jordan to the fords of Jordan, opposite Jericho, where he baptized. Probably he lived there some time (Luke 1:80). The place was suitable for the man and for his work—alone with God, with time for prayer and quiet meditation.
III. What the voice said.—This voice delivered God’s message. John ‘did preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins’; that is, the need of repentance in order to receive forgiveness. If we search we may find out a little more of what the voice said.
(a) ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord’ (Mark 1:3), the Lord whose kingdom was at hand. Under this figure Isaiah (Isaiah 40:3-4) pictured the work of the Baptist, a work of preparation, to make the Lord’s progress easier.
(b) ‘Repent ye’ was the keynote of his teaching (Matthew 3:2). Repentance=change of mind, accompanied by sorrow of heart and leading to newness of life.
(c) ‘A mightier One is coming’—mightier in His Person (the Son of God), His preaching (He was ‘the Word,’ John only ‘a voice’), His miracles (‘John did no miracle,’ John 10:41), and in the effect produced. ‘I indeed have baptized you with water,’ which only washes the surface; ‘He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost,’ who will melt the heart and change the life. So he pointed to Jesus.
IV. How the voice was heeded:—
(a) It was listened to.
(b) It influenced the people.
(c) It led to confession of sins.
(d) It led to baptism.
—The Rev. R. R. Resker.
‘Within that rugged exterior, the grace and power of the Holy Ghost dwelt, though, unlike Christ, John the Baptist had no authority to convey that grace to others. His call to his special work was internal. He preached because he must. It had become an irrepressible necessity of his nature. No tirade against Temple abuses do we hear. The hermit-preacher directs his artillery against men’s personal sins. He is blunt, direct, earnest, fervid. In his intense earnestness about “the one thing needful” he makes men forget all passing disputations; all minor distractions. As if he were a herald direct from heaven, he fixes all eyes on their inward need—their need of righteousness. His words seem like red-hot bullets. Men’s duty is summed up in one word—“Repent.” But the climax of all his preaching was Christ. Like every true messenger, John hid himself in the shadow of his Master.’
THE BAPTISM OF REPENTANCE
‘The baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.’
John ‘baptized with the baptism of repentance’; in other words, those who accepted his baptism declared thereby that they repented of their sins, and were willing to forsake them, and enter upon an entirely new life. But he ‘baptized with the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.’ What do these words mean? Not that then and there they received ‘remission of sins’; but that it was a step towards it. That they confessed their need of forgiveness and their expectation that it was coming. ‘The baptism of repentance’ for that which was at hand; that which John foretold and heralded,—Christ coming; Christ dying; Christ atoning. It was all that the converts at Ephesus knew when St. Paul said unto them, ‘Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed?’ (Acts 19.)
Now ‘the baptism of repentance’ is an expression which conveys several thoughts concerning penitence.
I. Is penitence a baptism?—Then there must be a Baptizer. That Baptizer can be none other than the Holy Ghost. To baptize with repentance belongs to no human power. Recognise that truth as your aim. Do you wish to repent of your sins? Ask the Holy Ghost to do it in you. Ask Him to baptize your soul with His sweet influence. It is His office and His prerogative to pour repentance into your soul. Do not dare to attempt to do it yourself without Him! Without the Holy Ghost you may be ashamed, you may feel sorry and afraid for sin, and sin’s consequence; but you will never feel the true nature and consequence of sin as grieving God and crucifying Christ! You will never be able to say, with David, ‘Against Thee, and Thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Thy sight!’
II. If repentance is a baptism, it must pervade the whole heart.—The cleansing, purifying power must touch every particle of the heart and life. There must not be a spot unwashed—unwashed by His grace and your tears! It must reach every affection, every thought, every, the smallest, word and act—alike the holiest and the commonest. What you have done, and what you have left undone—in your social life; in your family life; in your solitary life; in the mart; in the festive scene; in the church; in the closet—your whole being—‘body, soul, and spirit’—else, how could it be baptism?
III. There must be an effect at once.—Something must be the cleaner for it—as water does its work at once. If you are not the cleaner now, you will not be the cleaner presently! The meaning of ‘repentance’ is not sorrow, but change of mind. Therefore, not only be very minute, but be very practical. Measure your repentance by facts; facts that you can show. In what am I really different? To what can I appeal as evidence of repentance? What has my repentance done for me? What is washed out? What is white that once was black? Where is my baptism?
And what will this ‘baptism of repentance’ be? Salvation? pardon? peace? No; but it will be a step to Jesus.
Rev. James Vaughan.
(1) ‘It has been much disputed whether John’s baptism was a novelty. There seems, however, little doubt that the rite had been used by the Jews before this for the admission of Gentile proselytes. The question of the priests and Levites (John 1:25) clearly implies that they would not think it strange for the Messiah or Elias to baptize.’
(2) ‘It is very necessary for us to understand clearly what sin is, because sin is an idea which can hardly be found outside the Bible; it is something which God by His Holy Spirit taught the Jews. Other nations, of course, have had their ideas of right and wrong, but of an imperfect kind. The Romans felt that a man owed a duty to his country and his father; that he ought to be brave and to obey the laws. The Greeks felt that a man owed a duty to himself not to do foul or unseemly things. Some said that a man should try and develop all his powers as perfectly as possible, so that he might reach the highest ideal of perfection for himself. Some, no doubt, thought of a duty to the gods also; but in their notion of wrong there was something wanting which we have in our sense of sin. With sin all thought of wrong to ourselves, or our friends, or our relations, or our country, is lost sight of. We think of an act of sin only as something deliberately done which we know God has forbidden, or a thing deliberately neglected which we know God has ordered us to do. When we sin we feel that it is against God only we have sinned, and that we have done the wickedness in His sight.
CHRIST’S BAPTISM AND ITS RESULTS
‘Jesus came from Nazareth, of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan. And straightway coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon Him; and there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased.’
The first public act of a man is often a sample of the whole. Within the space of these few verses we have an epitome of Christ’s life. The first act of His ministerial life was a veritable surprise, and all future unfoldings were surprises also. The Baptist had scarcely ceased to speak of Him as One having the prerogative to baptize with the Holy Ghost, when, lo! He comes to ask for baptism at John’s hands. The Baptist had described himself as unworthy to be His menial slave; lo! he is required to render Him official consecration.
I. Christ’s baptism.—The Baptist had well spoken of the incomparable greatness of his successor, but little did he imagine how that greatness would at first display itself. The Blessed Master was content to be the lowliest of all. This is true nobleness—never to think of self-superiority. But why should our Lord ask for baptism? That He might lend the sanction of His authority to John’s ministry? No. ‘I have need,’ said the Baptist, ‘to be baptized of Thee’; and in our Lord’s reply we find the secret of this act of His. ‘Suffer it to be so now,’ said He, ‘for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness’—every duty.
II. And its results.—Can we question that such an act was a crisis in the life of our Lord? Holy and pure before sinking under the waters, He must yet have risen from them with the light of a higher glory in His countenance. His past life was closed; a new era had opened. Hitherto the humble villager, veiled from the world, He was henceforth the Messiah openly working amongst men. Past years had been buried in the waters of Jordan. He rose from them the Christ of God.
(a) Fresh revelations gained. ‘The heavens were opened.’ ‘Straightway,’ writes the historian. It followed as a matter of course. Given this sublime consecration, there follows sublime manifestation of heaven. The nearness of the spirit-land was revealed. Earthly scenes were flooded with radiant light and beauty. There was new disclosure of truth; especially there was the enlargement of vision. The glory to be gained by self-sacrifice was more clearly beheld. Vast expanses of glorious possibility burst upon the view.
(b) New gift imparted. ‘The Spirit like a dove descended upon Him.’ He Who had been begotten of the Holy Ghost now obtains a fresh communication. The baptism of water is instantly followed by the baptism of the Spirit. As water cleanses the body, promotes its health, prolongs its life, so the grace of God’s Spirit purifies the soul; gives it true life and health. The intellect, the emotions, the will, the active powers are all now possessed and energised by Him. There was some phenomenon visible to the human eye, yet the similitude must be taken as pertaining to the descending motion, rather than the object. The Divine Spirit is incapable of representation by any living creature. This was an accommodation for the instruction and comfort of the Baptist. Henceforth he could point Him out as the Son of God and the Paschal Lamb.
(c) New witness enjoyed. ‘There came a voice from heaven saying, Thou art My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased.’ This act of self-dedication to the redeeming work obtained the instant recognition of God. This consecration was Godlike, was the outcome of the filial nature. Jesus had said, ‘Lo! I come … to do Thy will, O God.’ And the response was prompt: ‘Thou art My beloved Son.’ From a past eternity the Son had been the object of immeasurable love; now the Father feels the thrill of a new delight; now the Son becomes the recipient of new grace. ‘Therefore doth My Father love Me, because I lay down My life for the sheep.’
The miraculous element in this incident offers no difficulty to childlike faith. ‘He Who formed the eye, can He not see?’ He Who fashioned in man the organ of speech, is He incapable of articulate utterance? If honest-minded men are staggered here, they need to enlarge their conception of God. Omnipotence is the key to miracle.
(1) ‘The life of Jesus Christ comprised all the extremes of circumstance. He was hooted at as a felon; He was acclaimed as a King. His first resting-place was the asses’ manger, yet a choir of angels descended to chant His natal song. “There was no room for Him in the inn,” yet His birth shook the throne of Herod. All the accessories of majesty and of meanness clustered round His path. His chosen companions were fishermen and tax-gatherers, yet Moses and Elias left their celestial seats to converse with Him. He raised others from their graves, and then slept in a borrowed tomb Himself. He was with the wild beasts in the desert, yet angels came down and made it Paradise. He received baptism, as if He had been a sinner; but lo! the heavens open, and the Eternal God stooped to applaud the deed. “This is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased.’
(2) ‘Jesus had been waiting for the fit moment for leaving His thirty years’ obscurity in Nazareth, and presenting Himself before the herald who had been unconsciously proclaiming Him. Though cousins, the Baptist and the Son of Mary had never seen each other.… But the Baptist must have been daily expecting Him to put in His claims. His appearance, wholly different from that of those who had thronged to his ministry, at once arrested the prophet’s eye.… The light, as of other worlds, shining from the depths of those calm eyes; the radiance of a soul free from all stain of sin, transfiguring the pale face—full, at once, of highest beauty, tenderest love, and deepest sadness, was hereafter, even when dimly seen by the light of midnight torches and lanterns, to make the accusers shrink backwards and fall, overcome, to the ground.… The soul has an instinctive recognition of goodness, and feels its awfulness. Spiritual greatness wears a kingly crown which compels instant reverence.… John, for the first and last time drew back.’
(3) ‘Christ’s baptism is the example of a perfect consecration and of its effect. Not always, by any means, does the guidance come so immediately as it did in Christ’s case. Not always does the power for work come down so soon. But come they do. The Father’s voice speaks: the Holy Spirit is poured forth; the consecration is accepted; the life work shown. What does it all point to in our own case? The personal consecration of ourselves for His work, how He will, when He will; only this consecration must be a real and a present thing. It is not enough for us to have been offered at baptism or at confirmation. Such times are only types and patterns of what ought to be done now. After all, some years have probably gone by since the latest of these. The question is, What is our present state? For pardon is free, but consecration ought to be its result; and such consecration as this will be accepted, and the Father’s call for work will come, at the time He will, and of the character He will. It is not for us to dictate to God how we shall serve Him, or when we shall enter on the work He gives. Our duty is to consecrate ourselves to Him, leaving to Him the how of our life, leaving to Him the choice of when He shall definitely bid us take up the special work He has for us to do. Let us consecrate ourselves, and eventually the heavens shall be opened, the Spirit poured out, the Father’s voice recognised.’
‘And immediately the Spirit driveth Him into the wilderness. And He was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan.’
In the desert country the Manhood of our Saviour was as completely isolated as it could be from contact with humanity, yet that long retreat was but a still more emphatic example of that retirement which we often find our Lord desirous to obtain.
I. The fast of Lent.—It was in the great Fast of forty days that His withdrawal of His Humanity from human contact was the most marked; this withdrawal lasted as long as the Fast; from this we see that the fasting was in secret. From the same fact we may notice that, if our fasting is to be spiritually profitable, it must be coupled with some degree of withdrawal or isolation of ourselves. We need not find an actual desert country to which to betake ourselves in the body during Lent; but seclusion and retirement there must be if Lent is to teach us its real lessons. Perhaps some may shrink from being alone with God. To evade the warning of the Voice within is a fearful danger. To endeavour to escape from a sense of the Divine Presence is as ungrateful as futile. Let us, therefore, see that in Lent we have our times of seclusion, for thorough searching of heart, mind, and soul.
II. The trials of Lent.—The Temptation and Fast of Jesus were full of bitterness, and our own spiritual withdrawals into the desert country must, therefore, have these trials. Shall we say then, ‘What shall Lent profit a man?’ Nay, look again, and see in the sorrows of the Son of God both His joy and our own! There must have been a gleam of joy in the heart of Jesus even amid the sorrowful trials of His Temptation and Fast in the wilderness.
III. Spiritual benefits of Lent.—Herein we may see the benefits accruing from a right use of Lent—spiritual joys growing out of sorrows. Assaults of Satan there may be in times of isolation and seclusion, loss, too, of temporal pleasures—but instead thereof (a) what increased opportunities for holding communion with our Maker, (b) what an insight into the true nature of things, (c) what a rending asunder of the veil which hides spiritual realities from us in times of worldly ease, (d) what lifting up of heart and mind into the domain of the spirit-world, (e) what loosening of fleshly ties, what shaking off of sensual encumbrances, what strengthening of the pulse of the soul’s life.
Rev. C. G. C. Baskcomb.
(1) ‘It is not without special instruction that it was immediately after His baptism that Christ was “led,” or as Mark says—to show how painful the ordeal was—“driven by the Holy Ghost to be tempted of the devil.” He had just received the Holy Ghost, and was anointed by Him “without measure” in His three great offices; when, directly the new grace is put to a severer test. Satan, jealous and provoked, attacks Him with exceptional violence and malice! The whole history of the saints of the Catholic Church bears testimony that, in lonely hours and quiet seasons, the Evil One has been the nearest, and the battle has been the severest! One might have thought that a man fasting in the wilderness would have been safe from danger. But no place is safe, no time is safe; and the unlikeliest is the most likely, because Satan always takes advantage of improbabilities.’
(2) ‘The associations of the number forty in this connection are interesting and significant. Moses is represented as having thrice fasted for this period: when he received the law in the mount (Exodus 24:18), and twice afterwards. The three occasions are gathered together in Deuteronomy 9:9; Deuteronomy 9:18; Deuteronomy 9:25. Elijah went fasting to Horeb during forty days (1 Kings 19:8). The symmetry of the use of the number forty in this relation, taken along with its evidently approximate use in other connections, cannot fail to suggest that a symbolical meaning is attached to it. It certainly here means a fast prolonged to the utmost known in human experience, and beyond the utmost limit of endurance possible to human nature in the normal state and level of its life.’
CHRIST AND THE CHRISTIAN
Christ was a representative Person. In no instance of His life did He act other than in His official relation. Thus all He taught, did, and endured had a substitutionary reference to His people, and in no instance was exclusively of a personal and private character. That our Lord’s Temptation was of such a character cannot be doubted.
I. The Tempter.—Mark’s language admits of no reasonable misconception. Yet there are individuals who, in their judicial blindness and supercilious self-conceit, have found it convenient and soothing to ignore the positive existence of Satan altogether, affirming that there is no devil! Others reject the idea of personality, substituting for it the vague, incoherent notion of a principle of evil—an impersonal influence—a phantom of power! That our Lord was not acted upon by an abstract principle of evil—a shadowy, impalpable foe—all the circumstances of His most wonderful Temptation clearly demonstrate. O Christian! forget not that in the great moral conflict in which you are enlisted, you are opposed by no mere principle, or influence, or phantom of evil, but by a Foe possessing a distinct personal existence, to whom—without the slightest deification—we ascribe an intelligence, power, and presence second only to the Divine Being Himself. ‘Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God.’
II. The occasion of the Temptation.—Our Lord, as the Mediator of His Church, had lessons to learn which could only be learned in this fiery conflict—a fitness to be attained as the sympathising High Priest of His people, which only could be acquired as He Himself was tempted in all points as we are. No wonder, then, that, while His robes were yet streaming with the baptismal waters, and the halo of the Spirit’s glory yet encircled His head, and the cadence of His Father’s voice yet lingered upon His ear, that He should be led into the depths of the forest—the abode of wild beasts—to battle with the ‘Prince of Darkness,’ surrounded and backed by the confederated host of countless demons! Is not this often the experience of the believer? In nothing, perhaps, is the identity of Christ and the Christian more signal. Have not some of our sharpest temptations, and sorest trials, and heaviest afflictions, immediately succeeded a season of high, holy, spiritual exercise?
III. The Spirit and the Temptation.—The relation of the Holy Spirit to the Temptation of Christ—and thus His association with us in all our temptations—is a most remarkable and instructive feature. In the symbol of a dove He had just appeared in the baptismal scene of our Lord; and now, in a not less remarkable and significant way, He appears on the field in one of the most important events of Christ’s life. The forms of expression which record it vary, yet all agree as to the personal and actual relation of the Holy Spirit with the circumstance. Mark expresses it thus: ‘the Spirit driveth Him into the wilderness.’ But whatever the force which the Holy Spirit employed, enough that He was personally connected with our Lord in His conflict with the Evil One—sustaining, comforting, and crowning Him with victory. Descending upon Him in the emblem of a dove at His baptism, He now appears in the closest sympathy with His Temptation—a twofold baptism thus imparted to our Lord—the baptism of water, and the baptism of the Spirit! And thus, associated with all our temptations, is the Holy Spirit our Shield and Comforter. Not a shaft can touch, not a temptation befall us, but the Holy Spirit, dwelling in us as His temple, is present to quench the dart, or, if it wounds us, to heal, comfort, and sanctify.
Rev. Octavius Winslow, d.d.
‘A rope is strained to prove its strength, an engine is tried to test its power; nothing which is to be of service is used without proof of its reliability. A thing may look fair enough on the outside, but it may have a flaw which makes it useless. The greater the work for which a thing shall be used, the greater the test to which it must be put first. In the great work of saving the world, and leaving us an example which should never lead us wrong, Jesus Christ had to be tested, proved, to show He was fit; and the greatest and best reason for us to remember is, He can take His place by the side of us, and feel for us when we are tempted to go wrong. “He was in all points tempted like as we are,” so He can feel and be sorry in our hardest fight, for He can remember His own.’
THE MINISTRY OF ANGELS
‘And the angels ministered unto Him.’
The doctrine of the Ministry of Angels is one which appeals strongly to our religious sentiment. We delight to think that ‘God’s Messengers of Love’ are always about us; that—it may be—each individual soul is the special care of one particular heavenly guardian. Sometimes our thoughts will take a wider range. How far are what we call the laws of Nature in reality due to the obedient and faithful ministrations of unseen personalities, offering up to the Most High the sacrifice of endless and perfect service?
I. Endorsed by Christ.—Faith in angelic aid and supervision receives support from the narratives of the Evangelists. Not only do we read of such ministrations in connection with the Temptation in the Wilderness, but we hear of them in relation to the Incarnation, the Agony in Gethsemane, the Resurrection, the Ascension. Mary received her calling from an angelic visitant. There were ‘deathless’ angels ‘seated in the vacant tomb.’ Our Lord Himself uses such expressions as ‘the holy angels’ or ‘the angels in heaven.’ He declares that He will come again with them ‘in the glory of His Father.’ He refers to them as nescient of the time of the Advent. He describes them as moved with joy over the repentance of ‘one sinner.’ Children are spoken of by Him as having their angelic representatives before the throne of thrones. Angels are pictured in one of His parables as ‘carrying away’ the soul of Lazarus ‘into Abraham’s bosom.’ In those last crowning hours—that awful climax of His own ministry of redeeming love—He reminds His Apostle of the possibility of angelic interference, if only He were willing to avail Himself of it. The Ministry of Angels is, therefore, a doctrine which comes to us not only with the clear warrant of Scripture, but plainly endorsed by our Saviour Himself.
II. But with reserve.—Christ’s teaching, however, on this subject, like all His teaching with regard to the other world and the life to come, is marked by its strict reserve. He does not, indeed, accept the standpoint of the Sadducees. On the other hand, there is no countenance given by Him to the exaggerated angelology of a section of the Judaism of His day. Unfortunately, the members of His Church have not always been willing to keep themselves within the limits prescribed by Him. In the first century the fault showed itself in an alarming form. The Colossians, it seems, classified the angels into grades such as ‘thrones, dominations, princedoms, virtues, powers’; and they appear to have assigned to each class the precise degree of worship due from man to those who composed it. In his Epistle to the Church at Colossæ St. Paul sets against such imaginary divisions and their consequences the spiritual supremacy of Christ. The ministry of angels is a Christian truth in which we do well to rejoice; but there is no real scriptural authority for what is sometimes taught as Christian angelology.
III. Its subordinate position.—Another not less important and noteworthy characteristic of our Lord’s teaching upon that doctrine is the completely subordinate position which He assigns to it. In this respect He corrected some of the religious thought with which He found Himself confronted. One of the cardinal features of His preaching was His insistence upon the nearness and accessibility of God. Men were not to look upon their Maker as dwelling in ‘aloofness.’ Men were not to turn away from the contemplation of God to lose themselves on the one side in faith in the creature rather than in the Creator, or on the other in superstitious fear of evil agents ever scheming for the ruin of mankind. Our Lord’s doctrine of God was incompatible with an exaggerated trust in angels, and equally incompatible with a craven terror of demons. Do we altogether realise the full wonder and beauty of that doctrine? The exaggeration of angelic ministrations may be such as to come between not merely ourselves and our Heavenly Father, but also between us and the Divine Son.
IV. The supremacy of Christ.—Loyalty to the Gospel demands that we should seriously and earnestly set ourselves to grasp it in something of its real length and breadth and depth. We can at least do so to this extent—we can at least learn to repeat with heartfelt sincerity that most touching, most moving, line of Charles Wesley’s: ‘Thou, O Christ, art all I want.’ Thou, and not another! Thou, and not angel or archangel! Thou, and not saint or martyr! Thou, even thou! ‘Under the shadow of Thy wings shall be my refuge’—both now and hereafter, both in life and in death, both in the hour of temptation and in the Day of Judgment,
Cover my defenceless head
With the shadow of Thy wing.
There is no inconsistency between such fervent faith in God and belief that there are ministering spirits who have their work to do in connection with us. The inconsistency begins and becomes serious when the greater trust is in a measure displaced by the lesser.
—Rev. the Hon. W. E. Bowen.
‘That last assault of the prince of the world might well have a stunning effect even upon Jesus. Its flash of dazzling revelation might tax the balance even of His super-ordinary steadiness. So, when the challenge comes, “Fall down and worship me,” we see Jesus avert His eyes from the tempter’s brilliancy; and while He says, “Get thee gone,” He turns to God and stretches forth His hands to seek and claim the delivering grasp of rescue from a fearful strait. That moment of appeal saw the escape of Jesus from Satan’s importunities. The final incitement to treason so stirred His loyalty to God that the links that bound Him to heaven were drawn tight and close in a spasm of yearning desire. His soul reached out to God, and His heart clave to Him. It was thus that the angels came. They were not sent to make up any lack in the power of Jesus to resist in the crisis of His trial. It was simply that He so recoiled from the inducements of hell, and so sought the fellowship of heaven, that the one went and the other came, spontaneously and of necessity.’
THE COMING OF THE KINGDOM
‘Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.’
The belief in the coming of some anointed one, to be at once king and prophet, was universal even in the darkest days of Jewish history, however unworthy may have been the conception of his mission and office. And now at a time of deep depression, and in a generation which was destined to see the destruction of Jerusalem, the sacred capital of the nation and the centre of all its religions associations, Jesus begins in the distant provincial towns of Galilee to declare openly that the foreordained season has arrived, and that the Kingdom of God has actually come nigh.
I. Is the ideal fulfilled?—But can we now, after the lapse of nineteen centuries from the first Advent of Jesus Christ, say that the grand ideal which the scriptures of the New Testament set before us has been realised? What is the visible manifestation of the triumph of the Kingdom? Where is its unity, its universality, its sanctity? Alas! we must confess that there is a wide divergence between the actual and the ideal. Spiritual kingdoms, which own a far different king than Christ, still sway whole peoples and languages. The Kingdom, so far as it is manifested in the Church, is divided against itself. Eastern, Roman, Anglican Christianity, and vast organisations of religious communities external to all these, divide Christendom. The sole kingship of Christ in His Church has not been duly recognised; in days of degeneracy the Church has forgotten that she is not of this world, though her mission is in the world, that the weapons of her warfare are not carnal, and has failed to act upon the precepts of her Founder; her rulers have too frequently sought for themselves worldly influence or wealth, instead of pursuing disinterestedly the moral and spiritual improvement of those committed to their charge. The immorality of the unregenerate world has found its way into what purports to be the kingdom of righteousness. If we are terribly disappointed at the sad contrast between what is and what might have been, we may find some consolation in the reflection that Jesus Himself never gave men reason to expect the speedy and unopposed triumph of His Kingdom. Nay, He even condemned as premature the attempt to separate utterly the evil and the good. Men are apt to hurry on events; God’s purposes move slowly through the ages.
II. Unattached Christians.—It may, however, be wise for us to reflect that if it was the declared purpose of Jesus Christ to establish a kingdom, of which His Church was to be in the world the chief organ of manifestation, it ought not to be a matter of indifference to any whether they associate themselves in fellowship with that Church, and endeavour to promote its high and noble ends. It is a spurious liberality, professing to be wiser than Christ Himself, which holds itself aloof from communion with the great spiritual society, and leads men with some affectation of personal superiority to boast of being Christians unattached. If such a profession of Christianity claims to be in accordance with precedents of the New Testament, we repudiate that claim as unsustained by facts. Christ taught a doctrine which we believe on His authority, but He also founded a kingdom which, though in its full completion it is yet invisible, He led us to believe would be visible in a society of men, who were to form the body of which He would ever remain the Head. Is it not melancholy that, in our own time and country, multitudes of those who profess and call themselves Christians separate themselves so far from their fellow-Christians that they never join with them in such high acts of devotion as Holy Communion; that intelligent and educated men and women will allow attendance at some highly ornate musical service on a Sunday afternoon to be almost their sole outward profession of Christianity; that they will adopt language which implies that they are patrons and friends from without of the Church, rather than members of that great society by whose laws they ought to govern their conduct, and whose mission in the world ought to be shared by themselves?
III. The Kingdom in political and social life.—If the Kingdom of God is to vindicate its claim to universality and ultimate triumph, it must aim more earnestly than as yet it has ever done at the permeation of all political and social life with Christian principles of action. We all admit that in the conduct of individual life nothing is more fatal to the true realisation of religion than the divorce between religion and morality: but it is no less disastrous to banish religion from the social life of politics and commerce. The eternal principles of righteousness and unselfishness, which are the distinguishing marks of the Kingdom of God, must govern the relations of nation towards nation, and of governing powers towards all the various classes in each separate political community. The Church, if it is to be the true representative of the Kingdom, must bear witness against tyranny and oppression, and an aggressive policy of natural aggrandisement. In commercial life the Church must not, through cowardice or through adulation of wealth and power, forbear to proclaim that the law of Christ demands that we should do unto others as we would they should do unto us. Inculcating love, sympathy, goodness, gentleness, she must endeavour to evoke a true sense of brotherhood in Christ. The Kingdom of God will never reign widely if it should appear that the Church is always on the side of the rich and the strong and the noble. Is it too much to hope that it may be reserved for the Church of Christ, working from within, to solve the social problem?
Rev. Professor Ince.
‘“As a king,” wrote Bishop Westcott, “Christ received His earliest homage in the manger at Bethlehem. As a king He died ‘reigning from the cross.’ The message which His herald was commissioned to proclaim, the message with which He Himself opened His ministry, was the advent of the Kingdom. After His resurrection He spoke with His disciples the things pertaining the Kingdom of God. And they in turn carried the glad tidings wherever they went beyond the borders of Judæa. It was of a kingdom St. Philip spoke at Samaria: of a kingdom St. Paul spoke at Antioch, Thessalonica, Ephesus. And the last historic glimpse which we have of the apostolic working, shows us the same “prisoner of the Lord” preaching the Kingdom of God in his captivity at Rome. In every part of the New Testament, in every region of early Christian labour, the teaching is the same. The object of redemption is set before us not simply as the deliverance of individual souls, but as the establishment of a Divine society: the saving not only of man, but of the world: the hallowing of life, and not, characteristically, the preparation for leaving it.”’
THE OLD, OLD SERMON
‘Repent ye, and believe the gospel.’
It is important to notice the nature of Christ’s preaching. He came saying, ‘Repent ye, and believe the gospel.’
I. The old sermon.—This is that old sermon which all the faithful witnesses of God have continually preached from the very beginning of the world. From Noah down to the present day the burden of their address has been always the same—‘Repent and believe.’ St. Paul told the Ephesian elders, when he left them for the last time, that the substance of his teaching among them had been ‘repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Acts 20:21). He had the best of precedents for such teaching. The Great Head of the Church had given him a pattern. Repentance and faith were the foundation stones of Christ’s ministry. Repentance and faith must always be the main subjects of every faithful minister’s instruction.
II. The necessities of human nature.—All of us are by nature born in sin and children of wrath, and all need to repent, be converted, and born again, if we would see the Kingdom of God. All of us are by nature guilty and condemned before God, and all must flee to the hope set before us in the Gospel, and believe in it, if we would be saved. All of us, once penitent, need daily stirring up to deeper repentance. All of us, though believing, need constant exhortation to increased faith.
III. What do we know of this repentance and faith?—Have we felt our sins, and forsaken them? Have we laid hold on Christ, and believed? We may reach heaven without learning, or riches, or health, or worldly greatness. But we shall never reach heaven if we die impenitent and unbelieving. A new heart, and a lively faith in a Redeemer are absolutely needful to salvation. May we never rest till we know them by experience, and can call them our own!
—Bishop J. C. Ryle.
(1) ‘“How may I know that my repentance is of the right kind, and that it will be accepted by God?” This is a very natural question, and one which calls for an answer. We have simple but real marks given us, by which we may test whether our repentance is real. By its fruits ye shall know it. Has it drawn you near to God, and led you to forsake all other helpers? Has it made you turn from sin, as the one thing you hate and strive against? Has it led you to an open, grateful confession of the Saviour? These are the “fruits meet for repentance,” which will be found in us if our repentance is genuine. Oh, that ours may be, not the sorrow of the world, which worketh death, but rather that godly sorrow for sin, which worketh repentance unto salvation not to be repented of!’
(2) ‘If the sacrifice of Christ removes all the obstacles which appear to us to lie in the way of forgiveness, there can be no difficulty in admitting the suitableness of faith to be combined with repentance as a condition; for faith is simply that through which, as an instrument or hand, we lay hold on, and appropriate, the results of Christ’s obedience and death. Believing in the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, we pass into a position, not indeed of actual innocence, for nothing can destroy the fact that we have sinned, but we pass into a position in which no claim can be substantiated against us, which we cannot show to have been fully met and fully discharged.’
CONDITIONS OF SUCCESSFUL SERVICE
‘And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after Me, and I will make you to become fishers of men.’
The Saviour’s promise is most reassuring. Christ was the Master Fisher of men, and He undertakes to make us ‘fishers’ like Himself, if only we will come after Him. What then are the conditions for serving Christ?
I. There must be personal devotion to the Lord Jesus.—Our service must be all for Christ. We are all called to serve. All our service must be unto Him. Love for Christ, not enthusiasm for humanity, must be our motive. We are His soldiers and servants, bought by His redeeming love. The importance of this devotion to Christ lies in many directions:—
(a) It keeps us from being too much engrossed in our own corner of the vineyard. It delivers us from a narrow sectarian or congregational spirit. If we are working primarily for Christ, we shall recognise as fellow-labourers all others who are working for Him. It is only natural that our church, our schools, our branch of work should have a large place in our hearts, but let us see that Christ has always the first place.
(b) Then it keeps us from being too anxious as to results. If our work is for Him, faithfulness is everything; success may be as Christ thinks best. Some men are set to plough and sow, others to reap and gather the harvest. It is enough for the servant if he is sure that he is doing the Master’s bidding. Duties are ours, results belong to God.
(c) It keeps us working on right lines. We are often tempted to think that the end justifies the means, and in our anxiety to win men we may use means that God cannot bless.
(d) Then we shall live behind our work, not upon it. We shall live upon the Master, not upon our service. This is most important.
II. There must be increasing dependence upon God the Holy Ghost.—This follows from our devotion to Christ. Our dependence upon the Holy Spirit should be so absolute that in one sense the Holy Spirit is the agent, and we are only instruments. Our aim is to be ‘meet for the Master’s use.’ It is the Master who uses. The vessel can do nothing except hold and carry what it receives. In a double sense it is not its own. It cannot lift or move itself.
III. We must be filled with true love for men.—Not every philanthropist is a Christian, but every true Christian is a philanthropist. If our love spring from the right source, it will flow out in true love for men. We shall ‘love one another with a pure heart fervently.’ This love of men will show itself in many ways.
(a) We shall have an intelligent sympathy with their real needs. If asked for bread we shall not offer a stone. There is only one Bread of Life. We shall have nothing to do with modern substitutes for the Gospel.
(b) There will be a magnificent hopefulness about our work. Love is always hopeful. Our love for men will make us cling to them, and never give up. What a splendid programme is the programme of the Gospel! We have it sketched out in the text of our Saviour’s first sermon at Nazareth. See the persons reached—the poor, the brokenhearted, the captives, the blind, the bruised. To these we are sent.
(c) And there will be plenty of aggressive enterprise.—When He gives the word we shall not fear to launch out into the deep.
Rev. F. S. Webster.
“The nature of the call is unique. It is wonderfully absolute and authoritative. It asks entire submission—perfect obedience. It invites to a position of subordination. “Come after Me.” It is not—Come with Me; enter into partnership with Me, that we may together carry out and carry forward this great enterprise—“the Kingdom of God.” No; that is not it. A kingdom He had come to establish, but it was not to be an oligarchy; and as little was it to be a republic. It was to be a monarchy. So Christ begins, as He means to proceed. He is King, and will be; and besides Him there is, and there will be, no other. All in the Kingdom come after “Him.” It was so, it is so, and it evermore will be so.’
THE VOICE OF AUTHORITY
‘And they went into Capernaum; and straightway on the sabbath day He entered into the synagogue, and taught. And they were astonished at His doctrine: for He taught them as one that had authority, and not as the scribes.
Where men assemble there is always opportunity for service. Wisdom delights to dwell in human convocations. Jesus Christ, the model worker, readily found a field for wise activity. He instantly adjusted Himself to His surroundings. The time, the place, the expectations of the people, indicated that the present need was teaching; so ‘He taught.’ He did not strain after novelties, not court attention by eccentricities. He began where the scribes and rabbis began, viz. at the text of the Hebrew Scriptures. But then He went deeper than did they. The old words became alive with new meaning. With the key, possessed only by Himself, He unlocked the treasury and brought forth the hidden riches. A strange light strayed into the hearers’ minds; a new power quietly penetrated every soul. Their dreams of worldliness were disturbed. The fetters of evil habit were loosened. Quiet convulsion, occult upheavals of feeling and purpose followed. The superior and irresistible authority, which clothed His utterance, was an authority native to the message.
I. Christ’s authority.—It is not all authority which the enlightened and the free, the honourable and the just, can revere. Even righteous authority may deserve but partial reverence. Christ’s authority is not based upon force, or craft, or popular regard; but upon right and upon conscience.
(a) His words are authoritative, because they are true.
(b) His commands are authoritative, because they are righteous.
(c) He wields the personal authority of peerless love.
(d) In all, His authority is Divine, as He is.
II. Advantages which follow its acknowledgment:—
(a) For the individual, the fulfilment of his true being, the harmony of obedience with liberty.
(b) For the human race, its one only sure and Divine hope.
III. Christ’s authority affects all.—The message of heaven is, indeed, an invitation and a promise. But it is also a command. It is wrong to overlook the just claim of Christ upon the faith and obedience of men. Men have no right to disbelieve and disobey the Son of God. In receiving the Gospel the repenting sinner acknowledges the just authority of an omnipotent Friend, a Saviour, not only gracious, but supreme, Divine!
(1) ‘The synagogue was emphatically the place of teaching; here the people assembled to receive instruction. It was permitted even to strangers to speak a “word of exhortation” to the assembly, and of this privilege the first preachers of the Gospel frequently availed themselves, for it afforded them with valuable opportunities for setting forth their doctrines. Our Lord’s frequent use of this privilege is also mentioned in the Gospels (Matthew 4:23; Mark 1:21; Luke 4:15; Luke 6:6; Luke 13:10; John 6:59; John 18:20). When Paul and Barnabas entered the synagogue at Antioch in Pisidia, “after the reading of the law and the prophets the ruler of the synagogue sent unto them, saying, Ye men and brethren, if ye have any word of exhortation for the people, say on” (Acts 13:15).
(2) ‘In the life of Emilio Castelar occurs a singular illustration of sudden fame. In September, 1854, when revolt was ripening in Spain, distracted by the sorrows of his country, he wandered into a large meeting of the disaffected in Madrid. It was late. Many orators had spoken, and the audience, already tired, and annoyed at seeing a mere youth (he was then barely twenty) rising to speak, began to move away. Before he had spoken many words a few began to listen, and the impatient “Hush” which rose from the lips of the listeners secured the attention of those who were about to depart. Then, as there fell from the pale-faced, dark-eyed Andalusian speaker accent and utterance as never before had been heard in such a gathering, they grew agitated with enthusiasm, which at length burst into thunderous applause. In an hour Senor Castelar had become a celebrity; and the next morning hundreds and thousands of copies of his speech were being distributed over Spain.’
AN ACT OF POWER
‘And there was in their synagogue a men with an unclean spirit.’
All unobserved, a poor demoniac had entered the synagogue at Capernaum when our Lord was speaking with authority. Perhaps he came thinking it to be a sanctuary, where for a moment he might be soothed by memories of Sabbath days passed away for ever. Suddenly the air is rent by his shriek of terror; each worshipper is struck dumb with fear. The crowd heard the shriek, they saw the ghostly vision of the unclean demoniac, but were helpless. In tones almost of anger, but with a word of power, the Lord bids the unclean spirit come out.
I. The interest which the miracle evoked.—The little flock gathered there was filled with admiration and enthusiasm; no wonder that forthwith His fame spread abroad throughout all that country.
II. The effect upon the men of Capernaum.—It seemed that their whole heart had been conquered. Their amazement knew no bounds, their conviction was absolute as the demoniac lay before them healed.
III. Yet in a few days all was forgotten, and they who had the unspeakable blessedness of hearing Christ’s words spoken from His own lips, they who beheld one of His most startling miracles, heard soon after that most awful woe, ‘Shall be brought down to hell.’
IV. Let us be warned by the sad history of Capernaum so often repeated. The mere enjoyment of hearing God’s voice, or joining in services or sacraments, will not do anything for us save increase our condemnation, unless we join together earnest prayer to God the Holy Ghost and stern resolution of a braver, truer, higher life, and begin at once to do the will of God.
Rev. Canon T. B. Dover.
‘The miserable victim to this awful malady would seem to have been at the mercy of many evil spirits, now speaking in the plural, now in the singular number. The special characteristic of the possession was impurity. The demon recognised Jesus at once as the “Holy One of God.” His one desire was to be let alone, undisturbed in his tyranny, with a shuddering consciousness that in the end this awful mastery of evil was to be put a stop to. See here the close connection between mental and moral disease. Trace back any sin of the intellect and you will generally find that it has its spring in a sin of the heart. See also how the one thing which impurity hates more than any other is holiness. We can find parallels more or less exact to this demoniacal possession now. In heathen lands travellers and missionaries come upon appalling cases of demonism. In our own land doctors who are constantly dealing with mania are brought face to face with triumphs of wickedness over the body, the mind, the whole moral nature. Body, mind, and moral nature are all parts of one whole. The unclean heart, the enslaved intellect, the torn body, all witness to the power of sin. The trembling demon, muzzled (for such the word used in Mark 1:25 means), and driven out, leaving the victim at peace once more, all witness to the greater power of Christ.’
A DOMESTIC DRAMA
‘But Simon’s wife’s mother lay sick of a fever, and anon they tell Him of her. And Be came and took her by the hand, and lifted her up; and immediately the fever left her, and she ministered unto them.’
In these verses we have a brief, beautiful, and interesting drama. The more dire dispensations of Providence may nevertheless be those around which may circle, and out of which may grow, many blessings.
I. Telling Jesus.—The Saviour knew all about the mother-in-law of Simon; yet He had to be ‘told.’ May we not safely infer that Christ expects us to make known to Him our own and other people’s wants?
(a) At once they told Him. Some people go to Jesus only as a last resource. But Jesus looks not to the time of our going, but to the spirit in which we go. Told Him at once. They were wiser with respect to this woman’s bodily complaint than men frequently are with respect to spiritual disease. Unlike men who talk of ‘doing the best they can,’ they did not wait till they had ‘used the means at their disposal.’ The fact is, they knew a better, a speedier way out of their difficulty.
(b) All of them had a hand in it. ‘They tell Him of her.’ Sometimes, indeed very often, what is everybody’s business is nobody’s business. The effectual fervent prayer of one righteous man availeth much. But, for all that, our prayers should ascend unitedly for all sin-sick and body-sick ones.
(c) They told Him in their own language and in their own way. Whatever else we may be unable to do, we can all pray. Prayer is just talking to Jesus out of the fullness of our hearts.
II. What Jesus did.
(a) He came. In this instance He came at once. He did not always so act. In the case of Mary and Martha, Jesus, after being sent for, ‘abode three days where He was.’ It is ours to go to Him; it is His to determine the time and manner of His coming. And yet Jesus always comes when sent for, though sometimes, through not coming as we expect, we fail to recognise Him.
(b) He took her by the hand. This is His practice still. He comes when sent for, and when He comes it is to take poor sin-sick souls by the hand that He may lead them in those ways which are ways of pleasantness, and in those paths which are paths of peace. Men are lost through having no one ‘to take them by the hand.’ Some men, through patronage, rise to fame, who without help had died in obscurity. What is true with reference to human help is true of all men with respect to Divine aid.
(c) And lifted her up. Such is the power of the Gospel that it enables men to stand morally erect. We cannot rise to true, because moral, manhood unless we be reconciled to God; and Jesus is at once the Way, the Truth, and the Life. ‘Immediately the fever left her.’ Pardon is ours at once when we grasp the hand of Christ.
III. The restored woman’s ministry.—‘She ministered unto them.’ There is an amplitude and completeness about all that God does. He is the ‘Lord that healeth’ all our diseases; He delights in mercy; He saves unto the uttermost. This woman was more than convalescent, she was made whole. Then it was she ministered unto them. This showed her gratitude. We are saved to work. ‘Freely ye have received, freely give.’ Two ways this can be done: by precept and by example.
All this arose out of a cure of sickness. The whole creation groans and travails in pain, and Christ says, ‘Look unto Me, and be ye saved.’
‘A touching incident in the “Life of Dean Hook” shows in a humble way that true gratitude will find expression. When he was leaving Leeds a fund was raised to present him with a testimonial. Among other gifts was the sum of fourpence (“fourpenny-pieces” were then in circulation) from a pauper woman. Twenty years before Dean Hook had been used of God to the conversion of this poor woman’s daughter.’
IN A SOLITARY PLACE
‘He went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed.’
We have only to turn over the pages of the Gospel and note, as we go, the similar allusions, and we feel that we have here what is in fact an incidental glimpse into the habitual practice of our Lord’s secret and separate life.
I. Private prayer part of the common life.—In this passage we read that He departed into a solitary place, and there He prayed; in another, by and by, that He departed into a mountain to pray; and then again that He spent the whole night in prayer; and we see all this not in some crisis of His life, but as a part of that which corresponds to the common daily round in your life or mine. And the inference to be drawn, the lesson to be learnt from it is, I think, sufficiently obvious. This secret, separate devotional exercise of the soul was His habitual spiritual food. It was thus that He recruited His moral and spiritual forces, those forces of the spiritual life which constitute at once the beauty, the attraction, the power of His character, and His Divine and awe-inspiring separateness.
II. If Christ needed these exercises, these secret and silent hours, what shall we say of our own lives? And what do we expect to make of our moral and spiritual character unless we, too, are careful to cherish under all circumstances some such recurring moments in our round of life and occupation, at which we retire into the sanctuary of separate communion with God the Father? You may take it as a moral certainty, proved by all experience, that unless you hold to a fixed habit of thus bringing your life into the secret and separate presence of God, in private prayer and thought, you incur the risk of sinking to any levels that happen to be the ordinary levels, and of drifting with any currents that happen to prevail.
‘The spiritual is always near us. But in the solitude of nature, where all is peaceful, and pure, and lofty, our heart is often made more accessible, accessible as it had not been, to the impressions and inspirations of the spiritual. Having departed to a solitary place, there He prayed; there, at last, the distant visions passed down into His soul, put Him above all fretting, all fuming thought and care. There He was able to pray to His full clearing and calm, as He could not in His chamber in the town. There He felt anew the overreaching and encompassing of the Father, and poured Himself out in prayer, which was all that He wanted to set Him right. And how only another place or other surroundings now helps us sometimes, helps us to think more healthily, helps to bring us to a better mood, to raise us aloft above what we are!’
STRENGTH AND SYMPATHY
‘And Jesus … touched him.’
There is a terrible disease of which we, in England, happily know nothing, the disease of leprosy. The leper can only be described as a broken, helpless, hopeless man. A leper came to Jesus. He had doubtless heard of Him and of His wonderful cures, for he kneels down before Him and says, ‘If Thou wilt, Thou canst make me clean.’ He had cured others. He had cast out devils, He could, if He would, cure the leper. It is easy for us to say so; it was a very different thing for a leper to say so.
I. Look at the man’s faith.—People puzzle over this word ‘faith.’ What does it mean? How are we to get it? Have we got it? See this leper. ‘Jesus has cured others,’ he says; ‘He can cure me. I will go and ask Him.’ That is faith, to believe in the power of Christ and to go and ask Him to help us. It was a wonderful faith, and yet, observe, it was a very imperfect faith. ‘If Thou wilt, Thou canst.’ He was sure of the power, but he was not sure of the will.
II. The Lord’s touch.—What does the Lord do? The very last thing that the leper would have hoped or dared to ask. He touches him. No hands but leper hands had touched that man for long years past. His own mother dare not touch him. What did that touch mean? It meant that the Lord’s will was as ready as His power. He touches him; then He is willing. Before He speaks a word, He touches him. He changes the man’s whole faith towards Him. He completes his faith. He believes now in His will to help him as well as in His power. That touch has told him already what the words go on to explain to him, ‘Be thou clean.’ And straightway the leprosy went out of him, and he was made clean. It was the same power come into play again, and with the same result. It carried everything before it; but observe the new lesson which this story gives us. He must get into perfect sympathy with the man. He must, as we say, come into touch with him before He can help him.
III. Strength and sympathy.—This narrative reveals to us a new feature of the character and work of Jesus Christ. It shows us that His strength was equalled by His sympathy. Mere power never yet reached the heart of man. Strong characters are often unsympathetic, just as gentle characters are often weak; but here is strength, perfectly blended with gentleness, arousing in hearts that have long been dead to hope the response of a living trust. The power of Christ had been enough to stir the hope in the leper’s heart, enough to bring him to exercise faith and kneel before the Lord, but his faith was not the full confidence of perfect trust. It brought him to the feet of Jesus, and then the utterly unexpected thing happened. He touched him. So his faith was completed, and a new life raced through his blood and drove disease before it and restored him to perfect health.
IV. This is the very Gospel.—This miracle of healing is a parable of our life, of its leprosy and its defilement, its failures, its disappointment. The Divine power cannot but terrify us, the Divine power and the Divine purity are even more terrible together. They plunge us into the deep abyss. The Divine love must be manifested as well in such a way as to awaken a response of trustfulness. God must be seen in perfect sympathy with man. Out of the heaven of heavens, He must come to get near to man on the earth. The Son of God became the Son of Man. He did not despise the Virgin’s womb, the manger-cradle, the carpenter’s shop, and then, when He went forth to seek for whom He would save, He found him leprous and broken-hearted. He put forth His hand and He touched him.
—Dean J. Armitage Robinson.
‘It is related in the legend of Count Fulc the Good, how that, journeying along the Loire towards Tours, he saw a leper full of sores, who put by his offer of alms and begged to be borne to the sacred city. Amid the gibes of his courtiers, the good count lifted him in his arms and carried him along bank and bridge. As they entered the town, the leper vanished from their sight, and men told how Fulc had borne an angel unawares. In many an old legend a kindred truth is embodied. We are never so like Christ as when we are kind and pitiful to some of God’s needy children.’
RESERVE IN RELIGION
‘And He straitly charged him, and forthwith sent him away.… But he went out, and began to publish it much.’
Our Lord, having healed the leper, charged him to be silent about the cure. He was not to make it known, except to the priest; and even if any of his comrades saw the wondrous change that had come over his once withered limbs, he was not to reveal to them the method by which it had been wrought. Christ knew the healed man would be sure, with good and glad intention, to make known the cure that had been wrought upon him; He likewise knew that the welfare of His mission required that at present the glory of His Divine works should be hidden; hence the command here given. Here is a pattern for all great moral workers. They must be content that their best deeds shall be concealed from the popular knowledge, and that their own personal aggrandisement and fame shall be rendered subservient to the advancement of Divine ideas.
I. Wise reserve should be exercised in reference to the inner experiences of the soul.—This wise reserve should be exercised—
(a) Because unwise talk about the inner moral experience is likely to injure the initial culture of the soul. The dignity as well as the safety of the early experience of the soul renders wise silence a necessity of daily life. The preservation of the sanctity of our moral experience is the highest discipline.
(b) Because unwise talk about the inner moral experience is likely to awaken the scepticism of the worldly. Pearls must not be cast before swine. We must not invite the ridicule and unbelief of men by unwise talk about the doctrines and experiences of the Christian life.
(c) Because unwise talk about the inner moral experience is likely to be regarded as boastful. True religion is ever modest in its speech. It does not chatter to the crowd about the degree to which its moral ill is cleansed, but makes its life the evidence of its cure. The world will soon reproach a talkative soul with lack of modesty in sacred things, and with exaggeration of their natural meaning and operation. It is a certain evidence of moral weakness, and a sure token of speedy fall, when men talk loudly of the hours they spend in prayer, of their charitable deeds, and of their celestial moods of soul.
(d) Because unwise talk about the inner moral experience is likely to impede the welfare of Divine truth. The cause of Christ has often been hindered by immature representation of vital truth, and by the indiscreet words which have been spoken in reference to it.
II. Yet this reserve must not interfere with obligations to the sanctuary.—Men must evince their moral cure to the authorities of the Church, and present to the Author of it the best they can command, not only of material things such as silver and gold, but the higher things of the soul—even its love and service; with this no reserve of temperament or words can be allowed to interfere.
Let us endeavour ever to speak about our inner experience at the right time, in the right place, under the right circumstances, with becoming reverence; and then our words will be to edification, and not a peril to ourselves and others.
Tuesday, March 28th, 2017
the Fourth Week of Lent
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