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Of all births this Bethlehem birth was the most unique. A superhuman life demands a superhuman birth. Let us gaze reverently into the abyssmal depths of that manger-cradle in the Bethlehem-khan.
I. The first question that presents itself to us is this: 'Was it necessary that God should more fully reveal Himself to man?' We reply in the affirmative. Man had quarrelled with God; and to a rebel sinner the dim light of Nature and Providence was wholly insufficient. Everywhere it was adamantine order, inflexible law, and iron sternness. 'Nature's infinite order was the poor sinner's infinite despair.'
II. Our next question is this: ' Could God favour the human race with a fuller revelation of Himself?' He could, because His power was as infinite as His love. ' Would He do so?' His love and righteousness enable us to reply: 'Yes, with all His heart'. The infinite is never so great as when He stoops down to the lowliest and minutest.
III. And now, we are met by another question: 'How could the Infinite and Eternal best reveal Himself to humanity?' (1) It was necessary that He should reveal Himself through the finite. He must stand within the limits of our faculties before we can grasp Him. (2) It was not only necessary for God to reveal Himself through the finite, but also through the familiar.
IV. And now we come to another question: 'What was the best possible medium through which God the Infinite could reveal Himself to man the finite?' (1) Was physical nature the best medium, with its suns, and moons, and stars, and seas, and mountains? We take no jaundiced view of nature, but we think not; for the religion of nature puts great questions which it cannot answer; and the world keeps on crying with the dying German poet: ' Mehr licht !' The moral cannot be fully revealed through the material. (2) Were books or written words the best of God's revealers? Words, whether spoken or written, constantly change in value and meaning. Carlyle in real life and Carlyle in his books were two very different men. A dogma has no heart. (3) Would an angel have better revealed God? Our reply is: 'To angel "Yes," but to man "No"'. 'How then could the Infinite and Eternal best reveal Himself to the human race?' Our unhesitating reply is: 'The Word must be made flesh'. God must reveal Himself to man through a life human 'at the red-ripe of the heart'.
J. Ossian Davies, The Dayspring from on High, p. 120.
References. IV. 4. R. J. Wardell, Preacher's Magazine, vol. xix. p. 222. Expositor (4th Series), vol. v. p. 28; ibid. vol. viii. p. 266; ibid. vol. x. p. 36; ibid. (5th Series), vol. ii. pp. 164, 181, 244; ibid. vol. iv. p. 399; ibid. vol. viii. p. 443; ibid. (7th Series), vol. vi. p. 382.
The Mission of Christ
I. The fact of Christ's mission into the world implies three things, as here stated: (1) His pre-existence as the Son. (2) The Divine origin of His Gospel. (3) The infinite preciousness of His salvation.
II. The time of His mission, as here described, implies: (1) That God had fixed a definite time for it, which had to be reached by the filling up of the period between the formation and the execution of the Divine decree. (2) Until the fulness of the time came Christ could not come, and the world was not ready for Him. (a) Man's inability to save himself had to be amply and variously shown. (6) Time had to be given to bring out the depths of depravity into which man could plunge. (c) God's longsuffering had to be manifested. (d) The world had to be providentially prepared.
III. The condition under which His mission took place: (1) He was made, or 'born,' of a woman. (a) His proper Manhood. (6) Not created, like the first Adam, but born. Therefore like us in all things except sin; therefore could take our responsibilities. (2) Born under the law. A true member of the Jewish race; an Israelite indeed. The representative man belongs to the representative nation. The greatness of His condescension. His pledge to fulfil all righteousness for us.
IV. The object of His mission was: (1) To redeem them that were under the law. His primary purpose was to save the Jews, who were Abraham's seed, and who were under those obligations which He willingly took on Himself. (a) They were in bondage (ver. 3). (6) He redeemed, delivered by ransom; gave Himself. (2) To give us the adoption of sons. His secondary purpose as regards both Jews and Gentiles. His being born under the law made Him peculiarly the Redeemer of them that were under the law. His being born of a woman gives His redemption a wider bearing, and opens up the adoption of sons to all men. The adoption of sons is not the condition of sons, for we are children; but a formal and real adoption, which takes us, as it were, out of minority, and the bondage to tutors and governors; the state in which though heirs, we differ practically little from slaves. It confers on us the rights, privileges, liberties, and dignities of full-grown sonship to God.
1. Let us grasp, then, with faith the great fact of the mission of the Son of God.
2. Let us adore the wisdom and power of God, which sent Him at the most fitting time, and had prepared the world for His coming.
3. Let us realise the condescension of our Lord in humbling Himself to be born of woman, and to be subject to His own law.
4. Let us accept His redemption from the curse and bondage of the law, and so enter upon the enjoyment of the adoption of sons.
The Coming of the Saviour
The coming of Christ into the world on His saving mission is the grand central event of its history. The event is here presented in three aspects.
I. The Period at which Christ Came. 'The fulness of the time.' Men would have expected Christ's coming to follow closely on man's ruin; but four thousand years were allowed to run their course. Christ came at the very period originally decreed by God not a day later or earlier. Hence it is called 'the fulness,' or filling up, 'of the time'.
(a) It was the fulness of prophecy. The dying Jacob had predicted: 'The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come' Who was therefore to appear before Judea became merged in the Roman Empire (Genesis 49:10 ). The glory of the second Temple was to exceed that of the first, built by Solomon, by the arrival in it of Jesus, 'the Desire of all nations,' implying that Christ was to come before the destruction of the Temple by the Romans under Titus (Haggai 2:6 ; Haggai 2:9 ).
(b) It was the fulness of preparation. Christ was ever ready to come, but man was not prepared to receive Him; and the ages which intervened between the Fall and the Incarnation were tasked with the maturing of the necessary preparations. These corresponded in extent with the magnitude of the event.
(c) It was also the fulness of expectation, mankind being not only ready for Christ, but looking for Him. This was true of the Jews, as seen, not only in such saints as Simeon and Anna, but in the nation generally, a deputation being sent to John the Baptist to inquire: 'Who art thou? Art thou the Christ?'
II. The Manner in which Christ Came. Now look at the manner in which Christ came. He came
(a) By Divine commission. 'God sent forth His Son.' It was by the Father's will and good pleasure that Jesus came, no less than His own; and the sacrifice which God made in sending His Son could not have been less than that of the Son in coming. Christ is God's Christmas gift, and the costliest He ever sent us.
(b) In human nature. He was 'made of a woman'. By this we are to understand His assumption of our nature, His profession of true humanity. Man having sinned, it must be man who suffers. To win our confidence, Jesus must wear our nature, and take upon Him the heavy burdens of life, and drink its bitter cup, going down into the depths into which we had fallen to raise us out of them. Let woman gratefully hail the arrival of that Divine babe, for the distinction conferred on her in the person of Mary has more than wiped out the dishonour she inherited from Eve.
(c) Under legal subjection. He was made under the law that He might endure its penalty and obey it for us, and fully satisfy all its claims. For the law was dear to God, and a sacred thing, as the transcript of His own holy image.
III. The End for which Christ Came. Finally for what purposes did He come?
(a) Redemption. 'To redeem them that were under the law.' And what is the essential element of law? Not mere direction, or advice, or precept; but command enforced by penalty.
(b) Adoption. He came also to secure for us adoption, 'that we might receive the adoption of sons'; not only deliverance from the greatest evils, but the possession of the highest honour and blessedness.
IV. Two Personal Questions. 1. Has Christ been received into our hearts? 2. Do we yield Christ the gratitude and homage He claims?
The Hour, and the Divine Deliverer
I. The Period of Christ's Manifestation. It has often been pointed out that when certain characters are wanted they inevitably appear. When the hour strikes the man arrives, the man exactly suited to the hour. Christ is the centre of the history of the world, and there could be no error in the date of His appearance. The race had proved its inability to restore itself to lost truth, purity, and happiness. Nothing in nature is more wonderful than the way in which complementary things and creatures arrive together; and in history the same phenomenon is repeated. 'God's trains never keep one another wait ing'! The Incarnation is the crowning example of the dramatic unities of history.
II. The Nature of this Manifestation. 'God sent forth His Son.' 'Born of a woman.' God manifests Himself in nature, history, and conscience; but here is a supreme, personal, and unique revelation of Himself the Divine clothing Himself with the human that He might redeem the human. (1) There is nothing in this manifestation contrary to the Divine greatness. His greatness is that of supreme wisdom, righteousness, and love; and with these perfections He is equally great, whether invested by the splendours of the heavens, or manifested in the simplicity of 'The man Christ Jesus'. (2) There is nothing contrary to the Divine honour. (3) There is nothing contrary to the Divine purity.
III. The Design of this Manifestation. The purpose of the Incarnation was to convert the slaves of sin into the sons of God (Romans 8:3-4 ). We once heard an Oriental relate that when he was converted to Christianity his old angry fellow-religionists treated him as a dead man, building his tomb, and following a bier to the graveyard. It was the glorious truth in a parable. He who is truly converted by the grace of Christ is dead to sin, and all the vices follow his bier. The devil follows as the chief mourner; the rabble of the vices weep and blaspheme; and the epitaph reads, 'How shall we who are dead to sin live any longer therein'? But out of this grave rises a new man in the power of Christ's resurrection.
W. L. Watkinson, The Ashes of Roses, p. 268.
References. IV. 4, 5. R. W. Church, Village Sermons (2nd Series), p. 29. Expositor (4th Series), vol. vii. p. 212. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Galatians, p. 126. IV. 6. A. B. Bruce, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xliv. p. 131. H. M. Butler, Harrow School Sermons, p. 298. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxiv. No. 1435. Expositor (4th Series), vol. vii. p. 429; ibid. vol. viii. p. 275; ibid. (6th Series), vol. ix. p. 71. IV. 6, 7. H. Woodcock, Sermon Outlines (1st Series), p. 231. C. Bradley, Faithful Teaching, p. 158. C. Kingsley, The Good News of God, p. 61.
Son and Heir!
I. What shall we mention as the first of the ingredients in heavenly sonship? Will you be astonished if I begin with Reverence? That may appear to be a very grey element, but it is the groundwork of all the rest. There can be no true sonship when there is flippancy at the core of the life. At the very centre of the life there must be a little chapel, serene and untroubled, where the wings are quietly folded and the sou] is prostrate in ceaseless adoration. In the great chapter which tells the story of a prophet's call and ordination, the seraphim are described as creatures with six wings; 'with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly'. I think we can claim kinship with the seraphim in that we are in possession of the pair of wings with which to fly! Never were Christian people more busy in flying about than they are today! I have said more than once that our popular vocabulary leeks with perspiration! We are for ever on the move, and busy doing this and doing that from morning until night. But I am not quite sure whether we could claim kinship with the seraphim in respect to the other wings. I think we are gravely lacking in those folded wings which suggest an amazed sense of the Highest, and which betoken reverence, awe, silence, and reserve. Reverence never hinders service it enriches and perfects it. Perhaps if we had the folding, covering wings our very flying would have more serviceable results. Service which is devoid of reverence ever tends to run to superficial waste. If life has no holy of holies, then the whole of life is apt to become a mere shop, the sphere of common barter, or an entertainment house, the domain of flippant pleasures, or an open refreshment room, the place of a carnal feast. Henry Drummond once went out alone into the high Alps. He was there in the early morning. The stupendous heights encompassed him on every side. He was awed by their majesty. His soul was bowed in reverent worship. And then what happened? He broke out into loud and exuberant laughter! The succession was not accidental, it was the fruit of a hidden root. The man who begins with the reverent recognition of the holiness and majesty of God will rise into a buoyancy of spirit in which all the merry-making powers will have free course to be glorified. Our Lord's Prayer teaches us that before we can pass into the gracious liberty of forgiveness and conquest we must begin with the awed and reverent stoop: 'Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name'. In the heart of a laughing, exuberant, and healthy sonship there is a quiet and retired retreat where the incense of adoration rises both night and day.
II. Now look again into the casket of this wealthy and comprehensive sonship. Here is the second jewel which I would like to display to you. Surely one of the primary elements in sonship is the privilege of intimate communion with the Father. I was one of a party who visited Chatsworth the other day. We were allowed the privilege of going through the noble house. But our liberties were severely restricted. We were allowed to pass rapidly through what is called 'the show-rooms,' but we were rigidly excluded from the 'living-rooms'. In many places there were red cords stretched across inviting passages, and our progress was barred. If I had been a son of the house I could have passed into the living-rooms, the place of sweet and sacred fellowships, the home of genial intercourse, where secrets pass from lip to lip, and unspoken sentiments radiate from heart to heart. 'Thou art no longer a bondservant, but a son!' Then I, too, am privileged to enjoy the fellowships of the living-rooms, and no barrier blocks my way to the secret place. As a son I, too, am permitted to enter into a gracious intimacy with my God.
III. Sonship is not only distinguished by liberty of communion in the secret place, but by an emancipation from many kinds of bondage and restriction with which the world is burdened and oppressed. Sonship is conspicuously and radiantly free. The sons of God ought to fascinate and win the world by the range and grandeur of their freedom. Where others are bound they must reveal themselves to be free. 'But now thou art no longer a bondservant, but a son,' and because a son thou art free to defy the crowd and be alone! One with God is in the majority. And the real son is free from the fear of death. His life moves on, not to expected defeat but to ultimate triumph. The approaching shadow does not mark a terminus, but a point of transition into the larger and immortal life. In all these ways the son of the Almighty is 'called unto liberty'. Such is sonship, marked by reverence, distinguished by intimacy, and glorious in its liberty. By our lives do we placard this sonship before our fellows? By our very manner of life does this sonship flame before the world? Do we move about like those who constantly realise the Presence of the Infinite? Is every spot a piece of holy ground? Are we sharing confidences with the Father? Has the burden of the oppressor been loosed from our backs, and are we standing erect in joyful freedom? Then are we sons, and sons indeed! 'Now thou art... a son!' 'Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us that we should be called the sons of God.'
J. H. Jowett, The Transfigured Church, p. 73.
References. IV. 7. T. Arnold, Sermons, vol. ii. p. 230. Bishop Westcott, Village Sermons, p. 49. Expositor (4th Series), vol. vi. p. 253; ibid. vol. viii. pp. 268, 280.
It is hard, we say, to have faith; but do we realise what a task a man imposes on himself if he attempts to live without faith.... Instead of treating a religious faith as though it were a good thing to be added to life's capital, I would raise the question rather, whether a man will have capital enough for life left if he lets a Christian faith go?... The hardest thing for the Apostle was, not to keep his faith in a risen Lord, but to conceive how anyone to whom the Gospel had come, should ever dream of doing again without it.
Newman Smyth, The Reality of Faith, pp. 45 f.
References. IV. 9. T. Sadler, Sunday Thoughts, p. 189. Expositor (4th Series), vol. ix. p. 342; ibid. (5th Series), vol. vi. p. 68. IV. 13. Ibid. vol. vi. p. 379; ibid. vol. viii. p. 416; ibid. (5th Series), vol. i. pp. 131, 390; ibid. vol. vi. p. 302; ibid. vol. ix. p. 98. IV. 14. Ibid. vol. ii. p. 373; ibid. vol. x. p. 2. IV. 15. Ibid. vol. vi. p. 381.
Both Blass ( Rhythmen der asianischen und römischen Kunstprosa, 1905, p. 210) and Könnecke ( Emendationen zu Stellen des NT, 1908, pp. 29-30) change ὥστε into ὡς δέ , and read the sentence as a statement, not as a rhetorical question. Zahn and Mr. Rendall, though retaining ὥστε , similarly refuse to take the sentence as interrogative. But the socalled consecutive ὥστε with the indicative offers no great difficulty, and the proposed alteration does not give any better sense to the passage. Taken as a reproachful question, it runs thus: 'After all our happy relations, my trust in you and your devotion to me, has it come to this, that I am (judged by you to be) your enemy because I have dealt faithfully and plainly with you ( i.e. on my previous visit)? 'Paul cannot reproach himself with any undue severity in this case. He had to point out the failings and errors of his friends for their own sakes, and he had done so in love ( cp. Ephesians 4:15 ), without any trace of personal feeling. The Galatians could not plead the excuse of their friend having shown temper. They were guilty of a childish petulance in attributing hostile motives to the well-meant remonstrances of their Apostle. They could not conceive of a friend being obliged to differ from them for their own sake, and their wounded pride rebelled against any reflection being cast upon their conduct. Compare the preface to Baxter's Reformed Pastor, in which he observes: 'It is the sinful unhappiness of some men's minds that they can hardly think well of the best words or ways of those whom they disaffect; and they usually disaffect those that cross them in their corrupt proceedings, and plainly tell them of their faults. They are ready to judge of the reprover's spirit by their own, and to think that all such sharp reproofs proceed from some disaffection to their persons or partial opposition to the opinions they hold. But plain-dealers are always approved in the end; and the time is at hand when you shall confess that those were your truest friends.'
The precise sense of the words is not quite certain, ζηλοῦσθαι being rather ambiguous. But they may fairly be taken, in general, as a protest against instability of character. The Galatians, Paul says, were all right so long as they had their Apostle's strong influence bearing upon them. But when that was withdrawn, they relapsed. Their religion was too much a matter of association and companionship.
It is some credit to be influenced by a good man. Susceptibility to a fine character and admiration for a strong nature should count for much. But this ought to produce eventually a strength of personal conviction which can stand by itself, and such a result is the aim of every influential man. He seeks to create not adherents of his own opinion but continual followers of the truth. Genuine religion must be more than an enthusiastic devotion to the person of anyone who first impresses us with a sense of the reality of God. However powerful may be the impression he makes, faith must strike its roots deeper than personal admiration or the acceptance of another's lead. Otherwise our character simply becomes an echo of the last strong personality with whom we have been thrown in contact; and as a strong influence is not always identical with a wise and sound impulse, the character lacks any steadfast and continuous principle. This, says Paul, is not good (Galatians 6:3 ; Galatians 6:7 ).
The twofold province of self-deception, in relation to the wrongdoing (a) of others, and (b) of oneself.
(a) After speaking of the duty of Christian forgiveness, Paul sharply adds a word against the danger of censoriousness. If a man think himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceives ( φρεναπατᾷ ) himself. If he prides himself upon his own integrity, in contrast to the stained and broken character of a brother, he is making an immense mistake. He is the dupe of his own folly. It is self-deception to plume oneself upon being holier than one's neighbour. That is only to feed one's vanity, which is an empty nothing. It is an entire delusion, says Paul, for the religious man to entertain a lofty self-esteem, or to foster a sense of his own exceeding merit by dwelling censoriously upon the lapses of his brethren.
(6) Similarly, with regard to a man's own wrongdoing. Be not deceived ( μὴ πλανᾶσθε ), the Apostle insists; no pretences will prevent the law of retribution overtaking a man, for all his fine words and position. Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.
The Reincarnation of Christ
In dealing with the Galatians, St. Paul was dealing with a distinct decline from the faith as he had preached it to them. The Apostle uses every means of persuasion in order to recall them to their allegiance, not to himself but to his Master and theirs, to whom they had plighted themselves. The very form of the sentence suggests mingled rebuke and appeal. There is a sting in that word 'again,' a sting of unavailing love for Paul, a sting of rebuke for them.
I. St Paul's sorrow and panic of fear has had many subsequent illustrations in the history of the Church. Many like Pliable have started with Christian in the new way, and turned back at the first obstacle. The passion of Christ and the passion of Christ's servants will not be over till there be evidence of perseverance unto the end, till Christ be formed in them, and they grow up into the full stature of Christ.
II. This is the great Christian task
Though Christ a thousand times in Bethlehem be born
But not within thyself, thy soul shall be forlorn;
The Cross of Golgotha thou lookest to in vain
Unless within thyself it be set up again.
This is the eternal truth of all mysticism. This is also the essential meaning of the great solemn act in Holy Communion. It stands for a far deeper mystery and a more wondrous miracle than transubstantiation, the changing of the bread into the actual body of our Lord. Not that the bread is changed into the body of Christ in the Real Presence, but that we who eat the flesh of the Son of Man are changed spiritually, and the very Christ is formed in us. This is the purpose of the Sacrament, and the purpose of the faith itself, till for each of us it is no longer I but Christ that liveth in me.
III. This is the goal, but it is not to be postponed and put away by us as some far-off event that may be looked for in the future. It is a present task. Would we know the method of attempting the task? It is a simple secret. The practical working of it for us is that we bring every thought into subjection to the obedience of Christ. A practical implication of this high doctrine, and one which suggests duty, and responsibility, is that Christians are Christ's representatives on earth. Are we in any vital sense stating the case for the King?
Hugh Black, Edinburgh Sermons, p. 22.
References. IV. 19. S. A. Tipple, The Admiring Guest, p. 60. IV. 20. Expositor (5th Series), vol. x. p. 278; ibid. (6th Series), vol. i. p. 205. IV. 21. Ibid. vol. viii. p. 63. IV. 21-31. Ibid. vol. x. p. 23. IV. 22-31. Ibid. (4th Series), vol. ii. p. 96. IV. 24. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. ii. No. 69. IV. 25. A. P. Stanley, Canterbury Sermons, p. 344. Expositor (5th Series), vol. ii. p. 154; ibid. (6th Series), vol. vii. p. 133. IV. 26. John Hunter, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xliii. p. 24. R. F. Horton, ibid. vol. lxxviii. p. 225. IV. 28. C. Bradley, Faithful Teaching, p. 1. IV. 29. J. Keble, Sermons for Lent to Passiontide, p. 298. Expositor (5th Series), vol. i. p. 17; ibid. vol. vi. p. 335. IV. 30. R. W. Church, Village Sermons (3rd Series), p. 93.
Bondage and Freedom
In this Epistle St. Paul carries our thoughts back to the pathetic scenes associated with the names of Hagar and Ishmael. It is a beautiful story, and St. Paul finds in it spiritual significance. The two women in the story are, he tells us, the two covenants, the old and the new. Hagar represents all that gathers round Mount Sinai, all that mass of Jewish law and ritual which had grown up in the course of centuries and upon which the Pharisaic mind laid 6uch great and resolute emphasis. Sarah is symbolical of all that comes by promise, all that takes the place of the first covenant, all that is after the Spirit and not after the flesh. In other words, Ishmael, the son of the handmaid, stood for Judaism; Isaac, the son of the freewoman, stood for the Christian kingdom.
I. Israel's Bondage. We know how the word 'bondage' grated on Jewish ears. 'We be Abraham's seed, and have never yet been in bondage to any man,' was the angry reply to our Lord on one memorable occasion. None the less, bondage there was, besides the worst and supreme bondage of sin bondage which the Israelitish mind could not really forget or ignore, whatever Israelitish pride might pretend. There was the bondage of a foreign yoke. Roman soldiers had their garrison in Jerusalem. A Roman tribunal had power over life and death. Roman agents levied the imperial taxes, Roman penalties were inflicted on evildoers. Jerusalem was indeed 'in bondage with her children,' and in this passage St. Paul may well have been thinking of her political degradation in addition to her spiritual misery. And over against this bondage was the freedom of the city beyond the grave, the city into which the Messiah would gather all His elect, the city of which all believers were already citizens, the city which should hereafter be manifested in all her splendour. Yes! the end was to be the victory of the Church of the Messiah, just as in old days Sarah had been successful in expelling Hagar, and Isaac had been preferred to Ishmael. But for awhile the antecedents of that victory must be borne with. Hagar in her exultation had insulted Sarah; Judaism now persecuted Christianity. But this persecution should not last. Its issues were foretold in the fate of Hagar.
II. Christian Freedom. 'Children... of the free.' 'Children of the freewoman'! That is the grand claim which St. Paul puts forward for Christian believers. That is the claim which the world so often refuses to admit. 'Leave your doctrinal imprisonment,' it says, 'and walk in the path of mental and spiritual liberty.' What shall we say in answer? There is no doubt a sense in which we may all admit may be thankful and proud to admit our bondage. More than once does St. Paul himself express and testify to it. 'Paul a bondservant of Jesus Christ' 'Paul a bondservant of God.' To such a bondage our Saviour Himself invites us. 'Take My yoke upon you and learn of Me.' But the acceptance of this bondage brought with it redemption from bitter and humiliating subjection. To be the servant of Christ crucified, risen, ascended was to be free indeed. The Apostle was thinking of the old dispensation. Yet what he says surely has its message for ourselves. The Gospel of Christian freedom never grows old. The Christian claim to bring freedom is as valid today as in the first century. The immediate application of St. Paul's phraseology is indeed to the past rather than to the present: but it is capable of application to the present For what was, in its essence, the bondage which St. Paul feared, and from which the Gospel promised escape? Was it not the bondage which came from imperfect communion with God? Until a man was brought into the closest union with the Almighty and Eternal, he was not free with the liberty of an accepted and obedient son. He was till then in the position of Ishmael. He had till then not realised and appropriated the calling of Isaac. And we too except we are in communion with God through the mediation of Christ are children of bondage. It is the restoration of that communion through the Redeemer's cross which brings true emancipation. We ourselves could not have earned it. It is only by our unity with our Saviour that we gain it. In Christ we are of the lineage of the freewoman. Out of Him we are (as it were) of the family of Hagar the Egyptian.
III. The Tyranny of Evil. We need to remember what a dread tyranny evil is, what an appalling curse it is, what fearful mischief it can do. It can effect our everlasting ruin. We need to bear in mind what it meant for the world in old days, before the Incarnation and Passion, before the price was paid and the ransom achieved. It meant nothing less than this that there was a measure of severance between man and God, an awful fact separating in part the two, a terrible heritage preventing and forbidding the joy of perfect intercommunion. Man had fallen. Whatever the circumstances of that fall, there it was and its issues were, humanly speaking, irremediable. But the Son of God came and, gathering all that life into Himself, made atonement. He broke the power of Satan and rescued man from a slavery which was binding him ever tighter and tighter, which was dragging him down ever lower and lower, which was crushing him ever more and more completely. Before Christ the history of the world is, broadly speaking, the history of a disaster culminating in a collapse which those who beheld it might well think to be irretrievable. After Christ the history of the human race is in the main the history of a gradual recovery, though of a recovery which has been broken into by periods of dark and hideous faithlessness. And the crucial question for us is, Are we the children of that disaster or of that recovery, of the handmaid or of the freewoman?
Limitations and Freedom
Galatians 4:31 ; 2 Corinthians 3:17
Christian liberty does not mean the right to do as we like. It is strictly limited. Bishop Westcott wrote, 'True freedom is not license to do what you like, but power to do what you ought'.
I. Limited by Want of Power. Our freedom is limited by want of power. Whether it be in physical or temporal or spiritual power, the extent of our freedom is limited by the extent of our power. There is no such thing as real freedom without power. There is no such thing as absolute freedom without almighty power. What is the use of my being free to do anything, if I have power to do nothing? Would it not be well for us to seek power rather than search fruitlessly for a false freedom? The power we need most is the power over our corrupt, sinful nature. 'I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members,' is not the experience of one man only. Where are we to seek for power? 'Ye shall receive power from on high.' We need the power of the Holy Ghost within us. 'Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty,' and nowhere else in the world is there true liberty.
II. By the Extent of our Knowledge. But our freedom is also limited by the extent of our knowledge. No one can be absolutely free without perfect knowledge. What is the use of having the liberty to do what you like if you do not know whether you will like it when you have done it, and have scarcely any means of knowing what to choose to do? Where are we to get this knowledge? 'When He, the Spirit of Truth, is come, He will guide you into all truth... and He will show you things to come.' You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. 'Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.' When a man or woman is endowed with power from on high, when a man or woman is filled with the Spirit of Truth, He will guide him or her into all truth. Then you have something like real liberty. 'Not license to do what you like, but power to do what you ought.'
III. By the Strength of our Will. There is another limitation the strength and stability of our will. Even the powerful and the wise are limited in freedom by their wills. How many a man, for instance, has the power and the means of providing a happy home for himself, and knows full well the immense benefit of a happy home-life, and yet he does not have it because he has not control over his will. He has not the will to carry out what he has otherwise the power to do, and what he knows he would be the happier for doing. Under the same heading I may include the limitations of our desires.
It is only by doing God's will that we can accomplish anything, only by attuning our wills to His.
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Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Galatians 4". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany