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The Baffling of the Spirit
Paul was on his second missionary journey when he was hindered thus by the Spirit of his Lord. He had made up his mind to go northward to Bithynia, when somehow he was Divinely checked. How the door was thus shut on him we are not told: it is one of the wise reticences of Scripture. Perhaps he was warned by some prophetic voice, or visited by irresistible conviction. On the other hand, if one prefer it so, we may think of the pressure of circumstance or health, for Paul would never have hesitated to find in these the checking power of the Holy Ghost. Whatever form the prohibition took, you may be sure it was very dark to the Apostle. Paul was not at all the kind of man who took a delight in being contradicted. When he had set his heart on going northward, not selfishly, but in the service of his Lord, it was a bitter experience to be so checked, and to have the door shut in his face.
But the point to note is that though it was dark for Paul, it is bright as the sunshine of a summer morn for us. He was never more wisely or Divinely guided than in the hour when he thought that he was baffled. What would have happened to him had the door been opened and he suffered to go into Bithynia? He would have turned away home again through lonely glens, with his back to the mighty empires of the West. He would never have landed on the shore of Europe; never have lifted up his voice in Athens; never have preached the riches of his Saviour beside the Roman palace of the Cæsars. Paul was a true Jew in this respect: he had no ear for the calling of the sea. He would a thousand times rather have lived in inland places than by the surge and thunder of the ocean. And it was only when every other path was barred that he was pushed unwillingly to Troas, where for him and for Europe everything was changed by the vision of the man from Macedonia. He was checkmated, and yet he won the game. He was thwarted, and it led him to his crown. Eager to advance with his good news, there rose before him the Divine 'No Thoroughfare'. And yet that hour when he was hindered so was the hour when God was honouring him wonderfully, and leading him to such a mighty service as at his highest he had never dreamed of.
G. H. Morrison, The Return of the Angels, p. 268.
Bithynia and Jerusalem (A New Year Sermon)
Acts 16:7 ; Luke 9:51
'They assayed to go into Bithynia: but the Spirit of Jesus suffered them not.' 'He set His face stedfastly to go to Jerusalem.' We take Bithynia and Jerusalem as places in the geography of the spirit. At the beginning of a new year it is well to think where we are, about the aim and drift of our lives. The year, for multitudes of us, has been good. Many can close it with the voice of passionate praise, and in every Christian heart there should at least be a religious joy and gratitude. Life may have been higher and richer for us than we figured it in our early dreams, or, more likely, it may have been darker, and full of frustration. We love our own wills and our own forecastings often better than the better thing that has taken their place. At this stage the most successful see many failures, while others make no secret even to themselves of the fact that they have not succeeded. The kind, deceiving light no longer deceives, and the misfortunes of the past and the terrors of the future often come upon us with a fresh and sudden rush of feeling at a time when we ought to be strongest. Those who know us merely from the outside know very little. 'It is in the soul that things happen,' and we have appeared unto men to rejoice when the storm was loudest in our spirits. Take the life history suggested by these phrases, and see whether it has not a parallel and a lesson for us at this new year.
I. We assayed to go into Bithynia, and we could not There was an obstacle against which we beat our wings in vain. We can define Bithynia for ourselves. It recalls our aspirations, our disappointments. Most likely it means the land of outward prosperity, or it may mean the land of love, or it may mean that land in which we felt that our best work could be done. However it may have been, we were foiled. All that could be done was done, but as wave after wave falls baffled from a rock-bound coast, so all we did came to nothing. The charges of the fierce and condensed will were repulsed. Perhaps we imagine that now we see what we should have done in order to succeed. But we did not succeed, and we shall see at last that we were not meant to succeed. How large a part of life this word covers we assayed to go into Bithynia! If we could say with the sacred writer, 'the Spirit of Jesus suffered us not,' all might be lightly borne, but there may be twenty-five hard years between the first part of the sentence and the second. We assayed to go into Bithynia, that is all we are able to say. But the Kind Spirit suffered us not. When we can say that, the sting is drawn from the pain. But how hard it is to say it with a full and joyous sense of its truth!
II. What are we to say and do meanwhile? Let us follow the way of Jesus, who set His face steadfastly to go unto Jerusalem. Jerusalem, our dear Mother, is within our reach. It is not possible for us to attain it by way of Bithynia, as we had once hoped to do. By a rougher road and through gloomier lands we must betake ourselves to the city. But we are to seek it, and we may find it, and finding it we shall have all. So, then, we are not to chafe with restrained passion, and far less are we to suffer the passion to darken into despair. These dreams, we say, are vanished and outworn, but there is one goal we may reach. It may all end with us God grant it may in the light and triumph and peace of the city of the morning.
Nor is this journey to be pursued with mere resignation, without hope of happiness in this world. There is something that touches the heart in the homesickness of the great mediaeval writers. The appellation of man, Viator the Traveller, the application of the word Patria as a technical name for heaven, the use of such words as illic and ibi without any other explanation, as if there could be but one there to a Christian, are very notable. But life outside of Bithynia is full of merciful wonders, of gladdening surprises. Even here those who stand still may see the salvation of the Lord. There is to be no weariness of life. Dr. Maclaren has pointed out the significant connexion of the words, 'We have an Altar.... We have no continuing city.' We have no continuing city, that is true, but we have an Altar, and therefore we have enough for life and for praise. Much that surrounds us is not of the everlasting order, but the Altar is the Altar to which we can have recourse continually, and of which we are to eat.
Nevertheless it remains, 'They that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country'. We are to seek Jerusalem, and to be found it must be sought. He set His face steadfastly to go to Jerusalem the words spoken of the earthly city are as true of the heavenly. That is, we must choose one life-object, and collect and concentrate our forces round it.
W. Robertson Nicoll, Sunday Evening, p. 315.
References. XVI. 7. Newman Smyth, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlv. p. 99. A. Rowland, ibid. vol. xlvi. p. 83. Expositor (6th Series), vol. vii. p. 93. XVI. 7, 8. R. H. Coats, Baptist Times, vol. liv. p. 515. XVI. 8. J. M. Gibbon, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xliii. p. 283. XVI. 8-10. A. M. Fairbairn, ibid. vol. li. p. 273.
It is not expressly said that this vision given to Paul was supernatural; but that it was so is certainly the most natural inference from the words of the historian in the tenth verse: 'Immediately we endeavoured to go into Macedonia, assuredly gathering that the Lord had called us to preach the Gospel unto them'. We cannot, therefore, place quite on a level with that anything of a similar nature that may come to ourselves. But yet within certain limits we may speak of those beckonings toward future labours in life, or achievements in character, which may be given to us in God's ordinary Providence, which become our ideals for the time, and after which we strive with all the earnestness and enthusiasm of our souls as visions not unlike that which was here given to Paul. Now concerning these visions, we may learn two things from the case of Paul in my text.
I. The first is that they commonly take their colour from the character, history, and habits, of the individual before they come to him. It is to the heart already ambitious that the visions of conquest and imperial honour come. Just as the landscape shapes itself differently according to the disposition of the spectator, seeming to one enfolded in melancholy and to another bright and jubilant with gladness, so the vision is as the soul that sees it. What a man is, therefore, has a great deal to do with determining the sort of visions which will be forceful, or if you will forgive the word, fateful in his life.
II. Visions of the kind of which I have been speaking, very largely dominate the lives of those who have received them. A man is ruled by his ideals. Now if these things be so, if our ideals dominate our lives, and if our ideal are themselves rooted in our character, habits, and history, what a powerful motive have we in these considerations for giving good heed to the character which we acquire, the habits which we form, and the history which we make. Suffer me now to gather up and preserve for you, as pointedly as I may, a few important principles worthy of being constantly remembered. (1) It is bad to have no ideal in life, for then your life will be little better than mere existence. (2) But it is worse to have a bad ideal. (3) It is a sad thing when a man has overtaken his ideal. Let us see to it, therefore, that we adopt an ideal that we shall never lose by overtaking, and that is to be found alone in the character and example of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is absolute perfection.
The Cry of the Heathen
It seems strange, at first sight, that you should have here this appeal, 'Come over... and help us'. It is Europe appealing to Asia, 'Come over... and help us'. There was a time, doubtless, when we should not have been astonished at the appeal. Long before the time that Homer sang of Achilles and Agamemnon, Asiatic monarchs consolidated mighty empires, Asiatic sages tried to solve the mysteries of human life. But this was now all past and gone. The balance of power had passed over from the sons of Shem and the sons of Ham to the sons of Japheth. Rome had at this time long ruled the world. Greek art had spread beauty and culture. Greek philosophy had laid the foundations of many truths. And yet in this man of Macedonia, see cultured Europe crying out to despised Asia, 'Come over... and help us'. And was it not just the help which this man of Asia could bring that Europe wanted at this time? It is so in all ages. The best help that you can give to any nation is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Greek art, Greek philosophy, Roman power all wanted this help which the Apostle Paul alone could give. Here is the cry, 'Come over... and help us'. In what spirit are we to go?
I. We are to go, in the first place, in the spirit of faith. It is no use our going to save men unless we firmly believe that which we profess to believe. It is good advice which an American preacher gives to his young men: 'Young men,' he says, 'believe your beliefs and doubt your doubts, but never fall into the habit of doubting your beliefs and believing your doubts'.
II. In the second place, you must go in the spirit of obedience, absolute surrender. We speak of crosses. Now you will never find crosses (in the plural) in the Bible. There is only one cross in the Bible, and that cross is selfsacrifice for your brother's sake, it is the cross which Jesus Christ endured, it is the cross which He calls all His followers to take up, to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their brethren.
III. And, thirdly, you must go in the spirit of love. You must not go as a member of a superior nation. As the great General Gordon said to the three missionaries whom he welcomed at Khartoum: 'If you want to win my people you must love my people'. And the world is calling out for such men.
E. A. Stuart, The New Commandment and other Sermons, vol. vii. p. 73.
The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel was founded in the reign of William III. Dr. Stoughton says that there was prepared in 1701 'a symbolical seal, representing a ship in full sail, with a gigantic clergyman, half-mast high, standing by the bowsprit with an open Bible in his hands, whilst diminutive negroes, in an attitude of expectancy, are sprinkled on a hilly beach. Overhead is one of those awkward scrolls, devised to convey words uttered by the persons introduced; and here it contains in Latin the Macedonian prayer, which the little blacks are supposed to be offering: "Come over and help us". At the top is a face surrounded by sunrays, apparently intended to denote the presence and benediction of God vouchsafed to the undertaking.'
History of Religion in England, vol. v. p. 261.
References. XVI. 9. T. J. Lawrence, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lv. p. 387. H. R. Heywood, Sermons and Addresses, p. 174. Christian World Pulpit, vol. lii. p. 67. Preacher's Magazine, vol. xix. p. 133. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. iv. No. 189. F. W. Macdonald, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lix. p. 142. XVI. 9, 10. T. Davies, Sermonic Studies, p. 143. J. Warschauer, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lxxiii. p. 341. XVI. 10. Expositor (4th Series), vol. iii. p. 230. XVI. 10-17. Ibid. vol. vii. p. 343. XVI. 11. Ibid. (6th Series), vol. ix. p. 31. XVI. 12. E. White, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xliii. p. 374. Expositor (5th Series), vol. vi. p. 320; ibid. vol. x. p. Ill; ibid. (6th Series), vol. i. p. 105; ibid. vol. ii. p. 335. XVI. 13. Ibid. vol. iv. p. 29; ibid. vol. v. p. 22. XVI. 13, 14. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. ix. No. 544. XVI. 14. F. Bourdillon, Plain Sermons for Family Beading (2nd Series), p. 146. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxxvii. No. 2222. XVI. 14, 15. H. Woodcock, Sermon Outlines (1st Series), p. 83. XVI. 19. B. J. Snell, The All-Enfolding Love, p. 113. XVI. 23. Expositor (4th Series), vol. x. p. 17. XVI. 28. J. Reid, Preacher's Magazine, vol. xix. p. 73. XVI. 29. H. S. Holland, Old and New, p. 23. XVI. 29-31. F. D. Maurice, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 255. A. Bradley, Sermons Chiefly on Character, p. 94. XVI. 30 H. S. Holland, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xliii. p. 337. C. Perren, Revival Sermons in Outline, p. 278. R. W. Hiley, A Year's Sermons, vol. iii. p. 35. R. W. Church, Village Sermons, p. 47. T. Arnold, Sermons, vol. i. p. 1. W. E. Skinner, A Book of Lay Sermons, p. 261.
Paul and Silas
We read that one of the early Methodists, John Nelson, was flung into a filthy dungeon at Bradford. He says: 'My soul was so filled with the love of God that it was a paradise to me. I wished my enemies were as happy in their houses as I was in the dungeon.'
A New History of Methodism, vol. 1. p. 315.
Assurance of Salvation
I. To be saved by Christ means that He brings in His hand to the penitent soul a pardon signed and sealed for the offences of the past. It may be admitted at once that no one understands the full meaning of the Atonement, and that no genius has as yet been able to construct a theory which leaves no difficulty to the thoughtful mind. Nevertheless, thank God! we receive our pardon not from any theory of the Atonement, but by reason of the fact of it; and even if no other statement had been made by the Saviour when He came, this should have been enough 'The Son of man is come to give His life for many,' for the sins of the whole world.
II. Belief in our Lord Jesus Christ admits us into a fresh power of life. Heaven is not full of merely pardoned felons, but of holy saints, and we become holy by the life of Christ within us.
III. A living faith in Jesus Christ lights up the valley of the shadow of death, and dissipates the pessimism of the man who seems to see everything lying under the dominion of ruthless chance. Do we ask how this great moral miracle comes to pass? Simply because Christ Himself is to the faithful as a great rock in a weary land.
Bishop Winnington-Ingram, Under the Dome, p. 86.
References. XVI. 30, 31. A. Maclaren, After the Resurrection, p. 281. J. Warschauer, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lxxiii. p. 243. XVI. 31. J. T. O'Brien, The Nature and the Effects of Faith, p. 1. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. vi. No. 293. F. B. Woodward, Sermons (1st Series), p. 22. O. Bronson, Sermons, p. 165. XVI. 32-34. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xvii. No. 1019. XVI. 33. J. Wright, The Guarded Gate, p. 67. XVI. 33, 34. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxxviii. No. 2275. XVII. 1. F. D. Maurice, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 269. Expositor (6th Series), vol. iv. p. 33. XVII. 1-3. T. Binney, King's Weigh-House Chapel Sermons, p. 113. XVII. 2, 3. G. F. Irwin, The Record, vol. xxvii. p. 732. XVII. 3. Expositor (4th Series), vol. ii. pp. 110, 256; ibid. (6th Series), vol. ix. p. 123. XVII. 6. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. iv. No. 193. R. S. Drummond, Faith's Certainties, p. 361.
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Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Acts 16". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany