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The Acts of the Apostles
The keynote to the book of the Acts of the Apostles lies in the word ἢρξατο of the first verse. That ἤρξατο is not pleonastic. It is the acts 'which Jesus began,' but has not finished .
Dr. John Duncan, Colloquia Peripatetica, p. 138.
Reference. Expositor (4th Series), vol. vi. p. 162.
Witnesses of the Resurrection The Message to a Few
It would seem that our Lord gave His attention to a few, because, if the few be gained, the many will follow. To these few He showed Himself again and again. These He restored, comforted, warned, inspired. He formed them unto Himself, that they might show forth His praise. This His gracious procedure is opened to us in the first words of the book of the Acts. 'To the Apostles whom He had chosen He showed Himself alive after His Passion by many infallible proofs; being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.' Consider, then, if we may state the alternative reverently, which of the two seems the more likely way, even according to a human wisdom, of forming preachers of the Gospel to all nations the exhibition of the Resurrection to the Jewish people generally, or this intimate private certifying of it to a few? And remember that, as far as we can understand, the two procedures were inconsistent with each other; for that period of preparatory prayer, meditation, and instruction, which the Apostles passed under our Lord's visible presence for forty days, was to them what it could not have been, had they been following Him from place to place in public, supposing there had been an object in this, and mixing in the busy crowds of the world.
J. H. Newman.
References. I. 1. Newman Smyth, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xliv. p. 387. Expositor (6th Series), vol. iv. p. 238. I. 1, 2. A. Maclaren, The Wearied Christ, p. 9.
It is these Easter commands of our Lord Jesus Christ that I want to bring before you. They have all to do with service and with active work. They are very different to the Gethsemane commands. The Gethsemane commands had to do with resignation, with submission, with warfare. 'Watch and pray.' 'Pray that ye enter not into temptation.' 'Put up thy sword into the sheath.'
I. The first Easter command, the great Easter command, we had almost said the only Easter command, because it stands out pre-eminently above all the rest, is simply this: Go and tell. It is repeated again and again, but, alas! not once too often, as the lethargy of the Christian Church for nineteen hundred years doth signify. It is addressed to all classes. Go and tell. And the command comes to us today. It is given to all, to the women, to the men, to the Magdalene, to the Apostles, to the whole Church.
II. The second Easter command you will find in the twenty-fourth chapter of St. Luke, and in the thirty-ninth verse. 'Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; handle Me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see Me have.' Jesus Christ will not have you go forth and obey the first command without having given you the means, first of all, to satisfy yourself as to the truth of the message which you are to deliver. You are to be thoroughly convinced yourself.
III. The third command you have in the twentieth chapter of St. John, and in the twenty-second verse. Jesus Christ, we read, 'breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained.' This third command seems to teach me this: If you are to Go and tell, you must not only be intellectually convinced, you must be essentially united to your Lord and Master Himself, you must have His life flowing through your life.
IV. The fourth command is in the twenty-fourth chapter of St. Luke, and in the forty-ninth verse. 'Behold, I send the promise of My Father upon you; but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high.' Christian work is no mere fanatical enthusiasm, Christian work is no mere feverish running hither and thither. Christian work is going forth calmly and quietly, living, speaking, working in the power of God the Holy Ghost.
E. A. Stuart, The True Citizen and other Sermons, vol. ix. p. 177.
References. I. 2. Expositor (4th Series), vol. ix. p. 314; ibid. (7th Series), vol. vi. p. 235. I. 3. H. Bailey, The Gospel of the Kingdom, p. 42. Bishop Westcott, Village Sermons, p. 147. G. Bellett, Parochial Sermons, p. 177. Scottish Review, vol. ii. p. 412. Expositor (7th Series), vol. v. pp. 145, 508.
The Promise of the Father (For the Sunday after Ascension Day)
In old time this Sunday was sometimes called Expectation Sunday, because on it the Church recalls our thoughts to the disciples of our Lord waiting in expectancy for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. We are told that those days of waiting were days of gladness and rejoicing, days of worship and prayer and praise. But surely they must also have been days tinged with anxiety, days of wonder when the great experience of which they had been warned would take place. Those men and women had passed through great experiences, moral and spiritual, during the year or two that was passed. Entirely new views of life and religion had opened out to them. Sin and moral evil had acquired new aspects. They had learned that God was to them a Father tender, loving, patient, forgiving, claiming and seeking the response of their devotion. They were coming to see that as they stood related to Him whom they had owned as Teacher and Friend, so they were related to God and to eternity. But they had had experiences of another kind also. They had had great hopes, and their hopes had often been disappointed. Once indeed on the dark day of Calvary their hopes had been utterly dashed to pieces. Then came the unspeakable thrill of the unimagined surprise of the Easter Day. Surely that must be the climax, they would think. Could there be anything greater or richer or fuller in human experience than the moment when they saw the risen Lord? Then followed the wonderful experiences of the Forty Days, so blessed, so reassuring, when all unexpected Jesus would be standing in their midst, breathing upon them His benediction of peace, teaching them that they lived on the frontier of two worlds, or, if you prefer it, teaching them that this firm, solid earth was interpenetrated by the spiritual. And so experience upon experience was theirs, and yet there was still a greater, the greatest of all, to follow the coming of the Spirit. How could they help asking questions? How could they forbear wanting to know more? What may be the end of it all? Direct answers were denied them. They were told to wait to wait and see to endure the discipline of expectancy which would in the Providence of God unfold its revelation and bring its own experience and power and blessing.
I. The Age-Long Lesson. 'Wait for the promise of the Father.' This is the agelong lesson that each generation of man has to learn as it steps on the stage of human history, and it is a lesson that seems as difficult to learn now as ever it was in the far-off Old Testament times, when the years and the centuries went by and the redeemer came not. In every age the hearts and hopes of earnest men are strained to breaking-point because it seems to them that the cause of the Christ moves too slowly, and that the apparently unheeding God seems not to hear nor to answer. How good men must have felt this impatience in the fourth century, when the Arian heresy was ever raising up its head! How good men feel it today when they consider the difficulties and the slowness which beset the advance of the kingdom of Christ in the world, or hinder the reunion of our divided Christendom! But the truest goodness is content to wait for the promise of the Father, casting its burden upon the Lord, knowing that the cause is His, and that, to use Bishop Butler's words, 'He accomplishes His ends by slow, successive steps'.
II. The Command to Wait. 'Wait for the promise of the Father' that is the word, the impression that I would seek to leave with you. Wait! Ah! of course we have to wait, you may cry, for we cannot help ourselves; but none the less does our nature rebel against the delay. We hate the word and method alike in our hurrying, impatient time, when we desire to solve our problems and win our experiences the day after tomorrow. Yet it is both Christ's Word and Christ's method. It is the Word and method we need, not only for our great public questions, whether of Church and possibly of State, but certainly for the inward experiences of the soul's life. Who of us is not seeking fuller, richer personal knowledge of God and of His Holy Spirit's working? Who of us does not long to be more sure of Christ as Saviour and Lord, more sure of the things which are unseen and eternal? We sometimes look up with straining eyes and ears, but the heavens are as brass above us. What can we do? One thing it is clear we cannot do. We cannot force or manufacture spiritual experience any more than the disciples could by themselves obtain the Spirit which only God could bestow. Like them we must 'wait for the promise of the Father'. But like them we must learn, if we would go on from strength to strength, that waiting is no mere idle, listless dreaming or gazing up into heaven, but rather the maintenance of the attitude, the making of the atmosphere, in which alone the still small voice of the Spirit of God may reach our consciences, and strengthen our wills, and purify our affections, and inspire our souls.
The Primus of Scotland (Dr. Robberds, Church Family Newspaper, 2nd June, 1911).
Waiting (For Ascension-tide)
That deep spiritual intention, which we have seen to underlie all the incidents of Christ's life, extends itself, no less, to that remarkable interval of 'ten days' that followed its close. That parenthesis between the ascension of our Lord and the coming of the Holy Ghost, in other words, between the visible and the spiritual presence of Christ in His Church, always appears to me a passage which it is very important to read aright It was a singular one at least, it must have appeared very singular to the disciples at the time. Look at the circumstances, place yourselves in the disciples' position, and you will reel the peculiar character of that 'waiting'.
God appoints intervals, intervals as they relate to our little minds, though all an equal part in His great plan; and the right view and the proper duty of these intervals is an essential part of the Christian's education.
I. It may be you are a Man Lately Awakened to a deep sense of sin You have gone, as you never went before, as a sinner to Christ you have cast yourself at His feet you have believed on Him as your Saviour, and assuredly you are at this moment a forgiven man. You have entered into the promise. God loves yon, and you are quite safe. But do you feel it? Do you realise your forgiveness and your acceptance? Are you forthwith happy? Perhaps not at all. You cannot receive it. You are at peace with God; but you do not feel you are at peace. You are reconciled; but you are not comforted. Jesus has done all for you; but you do not know it. And this may go on for, what seems to you, a weary while. I cannot say how long. Forgiveness, but no joy grace, but no rest till the Spirit comes till the Spirit comes and reveals it to your heart, and makes you to see and feel that all along it was a fact, but it was a fact hidden from you, till the Spirit showed it you that Christ is yours and you are Christ's. Need I say that that interval between Christ's cleansing and. the Spirit manifesting it is a very critical period in a believer's life?
II. Or you have been Praying, and that for a strictly promised thing. It has not been for anything worldly; it has not even been for another's soul; it is not for any imaginary good; but it has been for a covenanted grace to your own soul. Say, it has been for a victory over a particular sin say, it has been for some gift, in which you feel yourself particularly deficient. The prayer has been repeated often earnestly, trustingly, importunately. It has gone up, again and again, in the commanding name of Jesus. But you have no response. You are none the better. The struggle is as severe the sin is as strong the desired gift is as far off as ever. What shall we say? It is another interval subject to that law. It is a repetition, in your heart, of the history of Ascension and Pentecost.
III. How are those Intervals to be Used?
(a) It is well to have in the mind that it is an interval an ordained interval with a defined boundary line; as much a part of God's counsel in the matter, as the issue, when it comes; or the means that you are now employing to obtain it.
(b) Being God's own 'waiting time,' we must watch carefully; and we must honour Him. Shall the great God, all-wise and prudent, be hurried by one such as us? 'Tarry thou the Lord's leisure.' It is the path of reverence.
(c) Do, in the interim, just what Christ told His little Church to do in the great model of a 'waiting time' keep in the appointed path of duties and ordinances. Be where all good comes. 'Stay in Jerusalem'
(d) Look to it that you are united, like them, among yourselves 'with one heart'.
(e) And, above all, be much in prayer. Nothing passes time like prayer. Nothing provokes the great actions of heaven like prayer. And, as far as may be, united prayer that prayer has a double promise.
(f) And let it be always the most determined in your minds that, however late it may seem to you, you do nothing but what God has told you to do till you have your answer.
Do not be in a hurry to set out. Do not let the man who has his hand on the bow of prayer be in haste to stop his arrows till he is 'endued with power from on high'.
References. I. 4. F. B. Cowl, Preacher's Magazine, vol. xviii. p. 238. R. W. Hiley, A Year's Sermons, vol. i. p. 274. Expositor (5th Series), vol. viii. p. 98; ibid. (7th Series), vol. vi. p. 112.
The Baptism of the Spirit
We do ill to brush aside the thought of the Trinity as a mere speculation of religious metaphysics. It is the most practical thing in the world. By it is measured not so much the distance between Christianity and other religions that might be purely intellectual but the difference between Christianity as a theory or scheme of thought, and Christianity as a living and potent experience. Have ye received the Holy Ghost? is a question in life rather than in theology.
I. Christianity, as it appears in the New Testament, is identified with the reception of the Spirit. Christianity itself, once emptied of this meaning and power, is as lifeless as Buddhism, and may become as corrupting. Some of the ancient Churches, from which the Spirit is withdrawn, the Syrian Church in India, the Coptic in Egypt, the Nestorian in Persia, are not only powerless, but seem to lie like an incubus on the populations. The Christian life, wherever it is real, means a freshening tide of life which flows like a river and the river flows from under the throne of God. And this life of the Spirit, as it comes from the experience of salvation, issues in the salvation of others.
II. But as we recognise the very definite result, and realise the equally definite cause; as we see that Christianity is a spirit-filled life, a life which begins, and is continued and ends in the Spirit, we cannot too resolutely set our hearts on that experience which constitutes all the difference between a dead and a living religion. Come, let us, like that man of a stout countenance in the Pilgrim's Progress, buckle on our armour, and set our face to battle our way through.
III. And now, what are the conditions of this heavenly baptism? They are the same conditions as those on which all God's gifts depend, Faith and Obedience. They are the simplest conditions possible, if the will is set on fulfilling them; they appear difficult and even impossible until the will is summoned to undertake them. (1) 'He therefore that ministereth to you the spirit,... doeth he it by the works of the law or by the hearing of faith?' (Galatians 3:5 ). It is certainly by the hearing of faith. (2) But hand in hand with faith goes obedience. 'The Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them that obey Him,' we read in Acts 5:32 . Faith without obedience is illusion; obedience without faith is blindness. It is not so much an act as an attitude of obedience. To use an image, it is the soul emerging from the slough of self and planting a foot on the rock of the will of God. There are two wings on which the soul mounts to heaven, says the Imitatio, purity and obedience.
R. F. Horton, The Trinity, p. 211.
References. I. 5. J. Keble, Sermons for Ascension Day to Trinity Sunday, p. 197. I. 5-12. Expositor (7th Series), vol. vi. p. 110. I. 6. H. S. Holland, God's City, p. 273. Expositor (6th Series), vol. v. p. 413. I. 6-8. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxxix. No. 2330. I. 7. Expositor (5th Series), vol. ii. p. 349; ibid. vol. x. p. 121; ibid. (6th Series), vol. ii. p. 411; ibid. vol. iv. p. 380; ibid. vol. vi. pp. 246, 398. I. 7, 8. Bishop Wordsworth, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lv. p. 324. I. 7-10. Expositor (6th Series), vol. i. p. 377.
I. The question of all questions- for each of us to consider is: 'How am I to make my life the home and embodiment of this power from above?' If we turn to our Lord's own example, or to the life of Paul or any other of His followers, or to any life we have known and felt to breathe around it this same power of the Spirit, some things become at once very obvious and clear to us. (1) That supreme example and those lives declare that whoever desires to have his soul purified and invigorated, to be charged with this Divine electric influence, must have something of separateness and independence in his life; he must feel himself as not merely one of a crowd moved by the desires, aims, hopes, tastes, and ambitions which may chance to prevail around him, but as a separate soul in direct communion with the Spirit of God. (2) But if we are to realise this in our own life, it means that our times of daily prayer, whether in private or in public, are times at which we lay open our secret life to the Divine presence and influence; it means that we give some real thought and meditation to this presence of God in our life, and that we thus feed our souls continually on wholesome spiritual food.
II. But the hindrances that are always acting to undermine or destroy any such spiritual power in us are manifold, and seldom far away from our life. (1) The world outside is always with us and acting in this way, distracting thought, setting up its own standards, drawing us into its channels, and deadening the spirit in us. (2) We contract a dullness of spirit, so that spiritual things have no interest and faith has no living power in the heart; and all this very often not because any person or anything outside of us can be said to have led us away and entangled us, but simply because we have taken no pains to keep our life within the range of spiritual influences; we have let prayer slip out of it; we have lived in no spiritual companionship; we have done nothing to keep our soul alive in us. (3) But worst of all hindrances to the indwelling of God's Holy Spirit in any life is the harbouring of sensual appetite or craving, passion or indulgence.
Bishop Percival, Sermons at Rugby, p. 179.
The Witness of Personal Service
These words have no exhausted their meaning; they are still the living message of the living Christ.
I. Surely these words mean nothing less than this that we who have received the gift of power, in whom the Spirit dwells, shall witness for Christ by our protest against all that tends to lower the standard of human life.
II. But mere protest, mere refusal is not enough. There is a call to each to active participation in that ministry of personal service for which Christ gives us the power of the Spirit. This ministry of personal service will mean (1) Sympathy. (2) Then your time and money. (3) And then to some the Saviour's command means much more; it may mean the surrender of a life, of earthly prospects, and much that you now deem absolutely necessary, in order that you may be free to give your whole being to Christ in this ministry of personal service.
Bishop Cornish, Church Family Newspaper, vol. xv. p. 728.
A Witnessing Church
In these words we have defined for us the mission of the Church of Christ in the world. She is to represent her Master upon earth, while He represents her in heaven. She is called to be a witness for her risen and ascended Lord. 'Ye shall be witnesses to Me.' The great need of the Church today is to discharge more simply her office of a witness.
I. Qualifications for Witnessing. There are three qualifications which are necessary to constitute a witness.
a. The first is knowledge. A witness must have personal experience of the facts to which he deposes.
b. The second qualification is courage. A witness must speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and to do this under all circumstances is not so easy, especially if the truth in question be unpopular. 'Not to shun to declare the whole counsel of God,' requires courage. Happy he who so lives in the presence of God as always to exhibit it.
c. There should be found in every witness consistency.
II. Power for Witnessing. All 'God's biddings are enablings'. He never sends us to battle at our own charges. What is this power with which Christ promises to endue His witnesses? It was the Holy Ghost power. But you say, 'These men were converted men, had they not received the Holy Ghost already?' We answer 'Yes,' and 'No'. Yes, for 'no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost' (1 Corinthians 12:3 ), and they could say it, and did say it, 'We believe and are sure that Thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God' (St. John 6:69 ); and No, for as yet the Holy Ghost had fallen upon none of them (cf. Acts 8:16 ). There is all the difference in the world between receiving the Word of God for life (Acts 8:14 ) and receiving the Holy Ghost for purification (Acts xv.) and for power (Acts 1:8 ). Well, but you say, 'If I have Christ I have all'. Again we answer, look at the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Is He not the Eternal Son? When He was born of the Spirit as man would you not have said He had all? Did not the Holy Spirit dwell in Him from the moment of His birth; and yet what do we read of Him? That He did not enter upon His public ministry, upon His missionary career, until He was 'anointed with the Holy Ghost and with power' (Acts 10:38 , with St. Luke 4:18-42.4.21 ).
The Church is languishing for lack of a Pentecost, and while she is disputing the world is laughing, and contrasting 'the foundations of Christianity with its superstructure'. And no wonder, for it is not the Gospel, but the Gospel preached with the Holy Ghost sent down from Heaven (1 Peter 1:12 ) that is the power we need today.
The Marks of the Saintly Life (For All Saints' Day)
What does it mean? First
I. The Witness of Faith. We think of those who have gone before us in the way; what was the secret of it all, of that patience, that high courage, that steadfast endurance? The secret of it all was the vision of God; they saw Jesus. Sometimes when the light of faith grew dim they yet had been able to see beyond the dark clouds the face of God. If we are to follow the way of all the saints we must pray God to give us clear vision, that we may see Him, that we may bear witness by our faith.
II. The Witness of Worship. The saints! ah yes, you turn your pages over and you read story after story; here in some fascinating, beautiful way the life of a great saint is given to you, and you are enamoured of it, charmed by it. Such wonderful stories, such varied experiences of rich and poor, young and old, learned and simple, they are all there; but they are all one in this, that they found the inspiration of their life in prayer. You come to it again and again, the life of prayer, the life of communion, the witness borne by worship. And it must be so, must it not? How is the world to be won? it can be won only through the constant bearing of the witness to the truth as it is in Jesus.
III. The Witness of Suffering. The word is indeed the word 'martyr'; ye shall be My witnesses, My martyrs not only because the bearing of the witness must so often lead to the baptism of blood, but because none can bear witness truly who has not the martyr spirit. The mark of a saint, says Bishop Westcott, is not that he is free from faults, but that he has wholly surrendered his will to God. It is true, as we know, for thousands who 'loved not their lives unto the death'; true in our own time in Milanesia or Central Africa, or China, or Japan; true here in England today of some lad in an office who comes to his Communion and is guiding his life by the thought of the Lord's indwelling presence; of the woman in society who wishes above all other things to remember her Lord, His day, His church, His rule of life.
IV. The Witness of a Holy Life. Saints; there is something of the reflection of the Divine image in those who have been with their Lord. A holy life: we cannot explain it; you and I look on, but it stimulates while it shames us; we long to be something like that, we long to follow such an one as he follows Christ.
Witness for Jesus
I. It at once strikes us that our Lord Himself in His sacred Person is the truth, the reality, the glorious power to which His servants are to bear their witness.
II. But you ask, How can we bear witness to a Person?
Let me suggest another question in turn. Can we be witnesses to each other? Unquestionably we can, for we can know each other. And by this knowledge we mean not knowledge of the form and colour of the body or features, but knowledge of that which gives to features or form their interest knowledge of the invisible spirit which underlies them. That which interests man lastingly in his brother man that which is the seat and the object of human interest is the soul. The eye can rest on nothing beneath the sun so deeply interesting as the face of any child of Adam. Every human face is a point at which we obtain an insight into an unseen world; since every human face, not less by its reserves than by its disclosures, records the play of thought and person within a subtle immaterial spirit. Through a man's language, his actions and his countenance, his soul speaks to the soul of his brother man; and while the essence of the soul is still necessarily hidden, the outward effects of its action convey a living and accurate impression of its secret life.
III. Now in Jesus Christ, God made use of this provision of His creative wisdom to enter into communion with His creatures. That He might embrace His fallen creatures with a revelation of His beauty so intelligible and so captivating that resistance and rejection should seem wellnigh impossible; therefore, that in characters which from long practice man would read at sight, God might reveal to man His inmost life; the Most High robed Himself in a human body and a human soul. This was the Incarnation.
One only has succeeded in creating an impression which is as fresh in the hearts and thoughts of His true disciples at this moment as it was eighteen centuries ago; and as we listen to His words and watch His actions, and almost seem to gaze on His face, irradiated with superhuman beauty in the pages of the Gospels, we feel that He, as none other, had a right to command distant and unborn generations to echo the enthusiasm of His first followers, and to say to us Englishmen of the nineteenth century, 'Ye shall be witnesses unto Me'.
IV. It is a most solemn question; is there anything in our life, or our language, anything that we do, or anything we endure, that really bears witness before the eyes of our fellow men to the life and work of our ascended and invisible Saviour?
This witness is the debt which all Christians owe to Jesus Christ our Lord.
In the witness of suffering, and of silent persevering obedience, we see the central element of the growth and victory of the Church. Argument may have done something, but the masses of men have no time for argument, and are inaccessible to its force. Miracles actually witnessed may have done more, but the Gospel history itself may convince us that the evidence of miracle cannot alone carry conviction to a stubborn unbeliever; he has many resources for evading it. But the Christian life, in which the love of Jesus Christ has dethroned and cast out the natural selfishness of the human soul, exerts a silent but resistless fascination over at least a large number of those who are brought into close contact with it It is not the influence of high education or of vigorous intellect, or of vigorous will. It is moral beauty which is seen, as you gaze at it, to be true and to be strong, and which compels first admiration and love and afterwards reverence and submission.
The scattered company of His faithful witnesses are the true monument of the Lord Jesus; they represent to other men something of the glory of their invisible Lord.
H. P. Liddon.
References. I. 8. T. Parr, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lviii. p. 74. Bishop Stonewigg, Church Times, vol. lix. p. 799. C. Perren, Revival Sermons in Outline, p. 118. Preacher's Magazine, vol. xvii. p. 229. H. Bailey, The Gospel of the Kingdom, p. 26. The Record, vol. xxvii. p. 2. Bishop Winnington-Ingram, A Mission of the Spirit, p. 139. Expositor (4th Series), vol. x. p. 9; ibid. (6th Series), vol. i. p. 120; ibid. (6th Series), vol. iv. p. 20; ibid. vol. viii. p. 235; ibid. vol. ix. p. 268.
Clouds That Hide Christ
The Ascension is the final and crowning event in the redeeming life of Christ. What I want to bring before you is that though 'The cloud received Him out of their sight'; though they ceased to behold Him with the eyes of sense, they had Him in their heart; losing Him did not fill them with sorrow, with alarm, with hopelessness, as we should have thought it would have done. The angel's message filled them with a new courage. Now this cloud which received Jesus out of their sight, and concealed Him from their eyes, is a kind of parable. It is a parable which is going on now. There are three directions in which I wish to indicate its force and value.
I. First of all as to the fact of His Being. Nobody doubts that Jesus of Nazareth once was bora into the world; was the greatest phenomenon the world has ever seen; lived a life that all admired, and died a death which all deplored. The question is what happened afterwards. There are three possible interpretations three possible answers to the question of questions which underlies all revelation of faith in God; and that is this Where is Jesus Christ? There is one possible answer of which I have disposed already. That He is still living on the earth, no one thinks that for a moment; but the two other answers divide what we may call the thinking world between them. One is that He is still in Joseph's tomb, and the other is that He is at the right hand of God in heaven. Why do you and I rest on the fact that Christ ascended, and that a cloud received Him out of sight? (1) The visible Church. (2) Because He lives in our hearts.
II. There is another respect in which a cloud hangs over the Church and the world. We cannot get behind the throne to see the sceptre in the King's hands, to observe and to understand the wheels of His providence. If there is a cloud upon the wisdom of God's providence, even on the righteousness of His providence, let us be quite sure that it is only a cloud, and that behind the cloud the sun is shining.
III. There is one other matter upon which a cloud seems to hide Jesus from us, and that is the reality of His love.
IV. Let me impress upon you what the Apostles did, and what we have to do. The angel did not exactly rebuke the disciples for looking up to heaven after their Master. Still there is a sort of latent admonition, with something of a rebuke about it, when they said: 'Why stand ye here gazing up into heaven?' It was what we call a practical lesson. What it meant was you will not get any good from that. You have got to work, you have got to pray; to wait for the promise of the Father; to found a Church in the world. (1) The first lesson we learn is the power of prayer. (2) The duty of active exertion for Christ. (3) Hope.
Bishop Thorold, The Preacher's Magazine, vol. v. p. 289.
A New Point of View (The Ascension Day)
The story of the life of Jesus falls into three parts: (1) a man on earth like other men; (2) still on the earth, but now unearthly and occasional; (3) free from the earth and identified with the life of God. The Ascension narrative marks the change from the second to the third of these, cutting off His earthly from His heavenly life. The stories of the days after the Resurrection tell of an experience which was indeed comforting but yet perplexing. Men were sure that Jesus still lived, but they needed a further assurance which would give stability and the sense of permanence to faith. They had been living, both before and after His death, in the constant expectation of surprises. But now no surprise could happen any more. Peace had come, such as can come only when the Best is also the Highest, when the Son of God is at God's right hand.
The eye cannot follow Him on that day when a cloud receives Him out of our sight. But certain things remain, truths about God and our human life, for which the story stands. Four of these are:
I. Earth's View of Heaven. ('Gazing up into Heaven.') Heaven has ever seemed a place inaccessible to earth. The truth is, when we speak frankly, that spirituality is beyond us. Some chosen spirits make us feel that for them the heavens are impatient; and these, with their pale, eager faces of the dying, show us far glimpses through the open gates.
But above all the dying, Jesus Christ did this for us when He went to His own place. As the Resurrection silences for ever all talk of a 'lonely Syrian grave,' so the Ascension keeps us from losing Him among the sombre mysteries of death.
II. Heaven's View of Earth. ('Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature.') Earth's view of earth is always local. We see the part around our feet, but from the rest we are hedged in by all manner of barriers. But the Ascension of Jesus has taught us the heavenly point of view for earth, at which all local barriers are lost sight of.
III. The Power of the Unseen. ('All power is given unto Me,' etc.) One would think that power, in the sense of influence, must be measured by visibility. What we see most clearly we feel most powerfully. Yet even in the material world there is abundant evidence that the greatest powers surrounding us are the invisible forces of nature. And the access of spiritual power that came upon Christians after Jesus was no longer visible to their eyes, is one of the most remarkable facts in history.
IV. The Presence of the Absent. ('Lo, I am with you always.') The parting of Jesus from His friends really united them to Him. The earthly life had set limits of all kinds upon Him. He was here and not there, cut off from His friends by absence of the body. Now, He was free in the spiritual land. He was with them always, not occasionally as before.
John Kelman, Ephemera Eternitatis, p. 131.
The Ascension of Our Lord
Luther said: 'It was a marvellous thing that Christ should ascend out of the sight of the Apostles. What did these good comrades think? "We ate and drank with Him, and now He is hidden from us, carried away on high! What if He were a mere juggler!" I love Jonas, but if he were now to ascend into the air, and pass away out of our sight, what should I think?... I cannot believe it and yet I teach others. I know it is true, but I cannot grasp it. I think sometimes, "You do teach the truth; you are in the ministry and vocation, and you bring profit to many and glory to Christ, for we preach neither Aristotle nor Caesar, but Jesus Christ." But when I consider my infirmity that I eat and drink and jest and am a good companion, then I begin to doubt. Ah, if one could only believe it!'
E. Kroker, Luther's Tischreden (1903), No. 7.
References. I. 9. G. St. Clair, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xliii. p. 203. F. D. Maurice, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 1. E. J. Boyce, Parochial Sermons, p. 311. Expository Sermons on the New Testament, p. 127. S. Baring-Gould, Village Preaching for a Year (2nd Series), vol. i. p. 252. A. Maclaren, After the Resurrection, p. 116. I. 9, 10. J. M. Neale, Sermons on the Apocalypse, p. 176. I. 10. E. White, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlvii. p. 388. I. 10, 11. F. Bourdillon, Plain Sermons for Family Beading, p. 185. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxxi. No. 1817.
This Same Jesus (A Good Friday Sermon)
How edifying to bring together the whole spectacle of the Crucifixion the Birth, the Resurrection, the Cross in the middle. We shall miss much of the spiritual music and spiritual figure if we think of the Birth as a solitary event, and the Crucifixion as a solitary event, and the Resurrection as an event by itself; we shall gain stimulus and edification if we think of the three events as a most pathetic and tragic series of occurrences. How wonderfully alike they are, especially the Birth and the Resurrection!
I. Putting the two angelic ministries together, the singing angels and the speaking angels, we get two great facts, that the Gospel is music, and that it is doctrine. Notice the angelic ministry, therefore, in both cases, for both events were announced by angels. 'Glory to God in the highest!' sang the angel band; 'He is not here, He is risen!' sang the angel apostles; see the place where the Lord lay, the very tomb, the forsaken rock. Who knows what part the angels take in the ministry of grace in our own day? Are the angels empowered by God to stimulate the mind of man and to make that mind abound in true reason, philosophy and gospel, perception and love? Where do the ideas come from? Who are the letter-carriers of heaven who bring the ideas, thoughts, impulses, enthusiasms, which make a great religious service the grandest function possible to the mind and the heart of man? Who are we that we should by some broom of our own making sweep the shore-line clear of the angels and live within the boundary of our own sand and pebble shore? Why not throw open the windows and invite the breezes and hail the coming sunlight, and look out for the angels? There are no angels to the blind heart; there are no flowers to the blind eyes: the blind must not rule us; we must follow the seeing ones, not the blind ones.
II. In all the religions of the world man is seeking God; in the religion of Christ God is seeking man: a complete definition, a most pictorial contrast. Paganism cries out for God, known or unknown, stone or tree or shining star; in the Christian Gospel God is always seeking man. God is a Spirit, and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth; the Father seeketh such to worship Him. It is not enough that we should be seeking God; undoubtedly that is a point to begin with, and undoubtedly it is a real and pregnant point; no paganism ought to be ruthlessly or wantonly despised; the idol ought not to be taken from the arms of the idolater until you have something better to put within that hug; but the Gospel notion is that all men have gone astray and God has come after them that He may recover them from their sin; God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. Paganism comes down; the Gospel extends and ascends and conquers because it is full of love. A do trine that has no tears in it will never save the world.
III. The difference, furthermore, between the Birth and the Resurrection may be found in the fact that the Birth was a promise, the Resurrection was a command. Something had been done, from Bethlehem a great process was about to start; how it would end was more or less matter of speculation, wonder, conjecture, but when Jesus Christ came back again from the dead He said, 'All power is given to Me in heaven and in earth'. What, then, dear Lord? what wilt Thou make of all power? wilt Thou smite Pilate blind? wilt Thou send paralysis upon the mob that hanged Thee? Hear the answer: 'Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations'. The Resurrection thus became a command, the final sign, the Serbal that lifted itself up to the great clouds from the top of which all-conquering sorrow proclaimed the gospel of all-redeeming love. It is a marvellous consummation! The Incarnation a problem, the Resurrection a solution, and the solution was worthy, worthy of the occasion. We rejoice at Bethlehem, we are glad at the garden tomb vacated by the triumphant Lord, but what about the intervening day? Have we been crucified with Christ? If we have not been crucified with Christ we can never rise with Him, it is crucifixion that must precede resurrection. It is not enough for me to sing about my Lord's sorrow, I must enter into it, and in my degree feel what He felt. Christianity is first an agony, then an anthem and an immortality.
The feast of the Ascension is the feast of the desire for heaven. Jesus has finished His life; He has redeemed the world by His sufferings, by His cross; the hour of His glory and of His eternal rest is come. He ascends before the eyes of the Apostles, and enters into His heavenly kingdom. What an emptiness in the heart of the Apostles who were left alone upon earth! what an emptiness above all in the heart of Mary! The Scriptures show them to us with their eyes fixed upon that heaven into which their loved Master has just disappeared, and from which they are unable to withdraw their gaze. An angel has to come and dismiss them, so to speak, reminding them that they must work and suffer for Christ before they can share His glory.
Lettres de l'Abbé Perreyve, p. 364.
References. I. 11. W. F. Shaw, Sermon Sketches for the Christian Year, p. 72. W. C. Wheeler, Sermons and Addresses, p. 181. J. Keble, Miscellaneous Sermons, p. 85. J. J. Blunt, Plain Sermons (3rd Series), p. 187. H. H. Almond, Sermons by a Lay Head Master, p. 247. D. Heagle, That Blessed Hope, p. 15. R. J. Campbell, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lxxii. p. 369. Expositor (4th Series), vol. iii. p. 422. I. 12. G. A. Bennett, Preacher's Magazine, vol. xix. p. 405. Expositor (6th Series), vol. ii. p. 211; ibid. vol. viii. p. 429; ibid. vol. xi. p. 172.
The Zealots were a knot of political irreconcilables, fiercely opposed to the dominion of Rome. Their name may have been suggested by the words of the dying Mattathias, the father of Judas Maccabæus: 'Now, therefore, my sons, be ye zealous for the law, find give your lives for the covenant of your fathers'. In their attitude to the established government of the day, they may be compared to the Carbonari of Italy in Mazzini's time. It was to this band of political enthusiasts, that Simon once belonged; he left them to join the disciples of Jesus.
I. Never be ashamed of your enthusiasms. For all of us there should be a something by which we can be rapt clean out of ourselves, a something that can awaken all 'the slumbering host' within us. All this is, I know, clean contrary to some persons' notions of what is right and proper. Their ideal is to be 'faultily faultless, icily regular, splendidly null'. Such a temper ends at last in cynicism, to which all things, even the best, are vanity. Let us never lend a hand to damp down the fires of any man's enthusiasm. We owe far more to one of these hot-headed, blundering men men like Peter, for example who sometimes err along the line of their real greatness, than to a whole regiment of respectable nobodies, who never violated a single law of propriety. 'For God's sake,' cries Robert Louis Stevenson, 'give me the young man who has brains enough to make a fool of himself.' If only the Church of Christ had always known how rightly to use her enthusiasts how to direct their wise extravagances, their magnificent indiscretions.'
II. Keep the strength of your enthusiasm for the best things. What is best at one time is not always best at all times. 'The true wisdom is to be always seasonable.' He only has rightly learned to live who has learned how to distribute himself, where to place the emphasis, when to give and when to withhold. Are we making the most of what is most worthy? Let your zeal be according to knowledge.
III. Consecrate your enthusiasm to the service of Jesus Christ. The service of Christ calls for, as it is worthy of, our loftiest enthusiasm. Few things are to be more lamented today than that so little a mere trickle of the daring, the enterprise of the modern commercial world has found its way into the Christian Church. 'Mr. Chairman,' cried an enthusiastic colleague of mine once in a Church meeting, 'I move we move the world.' Magnificent! The early Christians not only moved the world; they turned it upside down, as even their very enemies confessed.
You who have not yet yielded yourselves to Christ, remember He can find room in His service for every gift you possess.
Jackson, First Things First, p. 147.
References. 1.13. J. Keble, Sermons for Ascension Day to Trinity Sunday, p. 135. I. 14. Christian World Pulpit, vol. 1. p. 247. J. Keble, Sermons for Ascension Day to Trinity Sunday, p. 143. Bishop Jacob, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lx. p. 21. S. Chadwick, ibid. vol. lxxii. p. 187. Expositor (5th Series), vol. i. p. 404; ibid. (7th Series), vol. vi. pp. 37, 468. I. 15. Ibid. (6th Series), vol. vii. p. 113. I. 16-25. Ibid. vol. i. p. 388. I. 18. C. Perren, Outline Sermons, p. 194. Expositor (4th Series), vol. iii. p. 221; ibid. (5th Series), vol. i. p. 131; ibid. vol. ii. p. 215. I. 19. Ibid. p. 10.
It seems very probable that St. Matthias' Day is fixed for 24th February, so that, as a rule, this Saint's day may fall in Lent, and there must necessarily be, as it were, a Lenten gloom associated with the observance of the festival, for when we come to think of St. Matthias being appointed to be of the number of the Twelve Apostles, our thoughts naturally turn to him in whose stead St. Matthias was appointed. So that we commemorate not only the choice of another Apostle, but also the tragedy of Judas Iscariot. Both the Collect and the Epistle for St Matthias' Day connect together the light and the darkness.
I. The Fall of Judas. An Apostle fell who had all the advantages of a Saviour's example and a Saviour's teaching, and how can men presume to say or to think, as some do say and think, that they are safe, and that they cannot possibly fall from grace? Judas had all the opportunities of close association with Jesus Christ; yet, as other disciples came closer, he the more and more receded. He gave way first of all to his besetting sin, for he was a thief and had the bag, and so it was that gradually the purity and the holiness of Jesus which attracted others repelled him. He slighted all warnings, he was without excuse, a terrible example to those who today prefer their besetting sin, and are not attracted by the spectacle of the purity and the holiness of Jesus. We must advance or we must recede, and if we are not advancing, then we must be going back in the spiritual life. The history of Judas is to be read, not so much with pity or with abhorrence as with fear and with awe, as being a warning to ourselves, with watchfulness against our own shortcomings and for our own safety, lest, after all, we too should be
II. God's Dealings with Others. Look for a moment at God's dealings with others who disobeyed the law. Turn back, for instance, and see the story of Saul, King of Israel. He was chosen by God; he had great opportunities, yet just as Judas was cast out, and as Matthias was elected to his place, so Saul was condemned, and David came in as King over Israel. Or look at the story of Eli which we read on St. Matthias' Day. Eli did not fall in himself, but he was weak in his behaviour towards his sons. What a warning to the parents of today! Turn again to the Seven Churches which were in Asia to whom St. John sent messages. These churches, which had most likely been all of them founded by St. Paul, and were later presided over by St. John, should have had a glorious future. And yet the messages sent by St. John were full of stern warning and reproof. They were already leaving their first love; they broke the covenant, they turned away from the strait path, and so their candlestick was removed out of its place. Visit those coasts today, and what will you find? Some few Christians, indeed, a remnant, but they are broken, poor, and downtrodden, the Turk holds sway, and not yet have they expiated their apostacy. And how many other churches are there like them and like Judas who have forsaken God and God has forsaken them. When they ceased to let their light shine before men, then their light was put out. Where is the once thriving Church of Carthage? Where is that most learned Church of Alexandria over which St. Mark at one time presided? The whole of the north coast of Africa as it borders the Mediterranean was at one time the site of many flourishing local churches, churches which showed how that the African, though he may be black, can produce instructed and devout Christians. Where are all these churches today? They have disappeared, swept away by the deluge of Mohammedanism which offered them death or apostacy. Many of them chose apostacy, and few chose death.
III. God's Warning to the Church. So as we think of these things we are reminded of the words of St. Paul, 'Behold the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but towards thee, goodness, if thou continue in His goodness; otherwise thou also shalt be cut off'. God then gives us warning both as a Church and as individuals.
References. I. 22. Expositor (4th Series), vol. viii. p. 141; ibid. (5th Series), vol. i. p. 406. I. 23-26. James Moffat, The Second Things of Life, p. 89. I. 24, 25. S. Baring-Gould, Village Preaching for Saints' Days, p. 79.
His Own Place (For St. Matthias' Day)
It was not Judas alone that went to 'his own place'. St. Matthias, when he gloriously ended his course, being shot to death with arrows, went to 'his own place'. St. Paul, who 'laboured more abundantly than they all,' when he was beheaded for the name of Christ, went to 'his own place'. St. Peter, the greatest of the Apostles, when he was crucified with his head downward, went to 'his own place. Our Lord Himself, when He had cried 'It is finished' and again, when He had said, 'Father, into Thy hands I commend my Spirit' He also, I say it with all reverence, went to 'His own place'.
So we are taught that every man is preparing an 'own place' for himself hereafter every one is making ready a home for himself by the deeds he is doing here, whether they be good or bad. What our home is in the other world depends on what we are doing in this.
I have read of a dream which a wicked man once had, and which, whether it were true or not, may at all events read us a lesson. He was one who was altogether given up to the engagements of this earth, putting all his pleasure in it, caring for nothing beyond it, wishing that it might last for ever. He slept, and in his dream he thought he was in hell. It was a large, magnificent room, like a nobleman's drawing-room, with gold, and lights, and music; and he thought to himself: 'Then what they have always told us about hell is not true; it is not a place of misery after all'. He saw numbers of people whom he had known; drunkards sitting over their wine; gamblers playing at cards or dice, the little heaps of gold rising or falling at their sides; men whom he remembered to have led lives of pleasure still engaged in their amusements, and their tales, and their jestings which are not convenient. At last he stepped up to one of his friends, and asked him to leave off his game for a few minutes, and to talk to him. 'No,' he said, with a look of anguish, 'what we would do on earth, we must do here. We rest not day nor night. That which was our pleasure in the world is here our exceeding and eternal torment. We have no power to stop; we must go on; we cannot pause; and so it will be for ever and ever.' The dreamer woke; God's grace touched his heart, and he became a different man from that day forward.
J. M. Neale, Sermons in Sackville College Chapel, vol. ii. p. 256.
The Sureness of God's Ways
There is one marked difference between St. Matthias and the rest of the Apostles. He was not appointed by our Lord in person. He was elected by the eleven to fill the place of Judas. As our Lord was busied during the great forty days between Easter and the Ascension in teaching His Apostles how to found His kingdom, we cannot imagine they would have filled it up if He had not bidden them to do so. Still, the remarkable point is that He left them to do it, and did not do it Himself.
I. The Ministry. It seems, then, first of all that in this history we have God the Holy Ghost intending to teach us that Christ intended that His Church should have with her always persons whom she was to regard as successors of the Apostles, even though not visibly appointed by Him who chose the first Apostles. It would have been so easy as we say for Christ, in one of those conversations with the Apostles, to have chosen some one to take the place of Judas, or at least to have said whom He would choose to fill it. But He did not do that. This is our standing lesson for all time, and every year, as St. Matthias' Day comes round, we should think of Christ taking care that the new Apostle should be appointed in the ordinary way of things, and then be numbered with those whom He had appointed by His own word, in order that we may learn that every time His Church with prayer and faithfulness fills up a vacant place, she is only doing what St. Peter and the others then did under His sanction and guidance.
II. Method of Election. How did they elect? They chose two, they cast lots, they took the one on whom the lot fell, believing thoroughly that he must be the right one to take. Casting lots, or drawing lots, was in those days so perfectly the regular way of proceeding that it was the natural thing to do under the circumstances quite as natural as our ways of electing are with us. It would be strange and unusual now. It was the common way then. The Apostles took whatever was the common customary way, nothing doubting but that Christ would guide them right, through the means which the custom of the times dictated. It was as easy for Christ to guide the lot so as to fall upon the name which He had chosen as for Him to signify His pleasure in any other way. The Apostles believed this and acted on it. Common custom, when followed in the fear of God and with the prayer of faith, may be trusted to without fear and without rashness.
III. The Sureness of God's Ways. It is a very comforting lesson that such a history as this should come so soon after Christ had left His Apostles and disciples alone, as they might call it, in the hostile world. For years they had been led by Him in all things. Now all was changed. They had seen Him go away into heaven, and they were left to be His witnesses. Doubtless they would remember His last great Intercession. They would remember His bidding that whatsoever they should ask, in His name, would be granted them. But they could not help feeling the difference at first, even though faith would triumph over feeling. And what was His first lesson to them? What was the first instance, so far as we are told, of the united body of the faithful making its petition unto Him? It is the history of this day's Epistle, when in what we call chance the whole body of His disciples committed themselves to His promised guidance and decision.
This great lesson of God's hand in all the changes and chances of life is at least one of the many teachings of this day's commemoration. There are many of us who say, 'If I could but be sure that so and so were God's will about me, then I could be content'. But the questions are, What comes most naturally to you in the course of Providence? And are you leading a prayerful life? If you are, then what comes to you in the natural course of things (as men call it) cannot help being God's real will about you.
References. I. 26. H. J. Wilmot-Buxton, Holy-tide Teaching, p. 70. J. M. Neale, Sermons for Some Feast Days in the Christian Year, p. 56. I. 33. Expositor (7th Series), vol. vi. p. 176. II. Ibid. (4th Series), vol. ii. p. 111.
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Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Acts 1". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany