free while helping to build churches and support pastors in Uganda.
Click here to learn more!
The Beginning of Faith
As we hear these words we seem to penetrate down through all the differences and distinctions of outward forms and ceremonies to that which lies at the very root and foundation of religion the sense that beyond and behind the visible there is an invisible; that all that we see is but a reflection, a broken image of an unseen Divine ideal; that all around us and above us and within us there are mighty agencies ever working, regulating, creating, controlling not only our own little lives, but the entire universe of things from eternity until now, and from now until eternity.
I. This is the Beginning of Faith. Without such a consciousness religion does not and cannot exist Before man can take any step at all in religion he must feel convinced of the reality of the unseen world and of spiritual things. He must not only have a mere vague belief in their possibility, but he must learn to feel as sure of this as he is of his own existence. And when once this assurance becomes realised, then, but not before, is the foundation solid on which to rear the superstructure of that definite creed, the materials for which are provided in that revelation of Himself which it hath pleased the High and Holy One Who inhabiteth Eternity to make to us Himself in the pages of the Book which is known to us as the Bible or Holy Scripture.
II. It follows as a Corollary to this that it is because such faith is either altogether wanting or very imperfectly developed that the attitude of so many minds towards the Holy Scriptures as a Divine revelation, towards the creeds which are the Church's authoritative interpretation of the teaching of those Holy Scriptures, is one of critical suspicion and aloofness, more or less hostile and incredulous. Many even of those who have in a hazy and halfhearted way received the Gospels as a Divine revelation, and who would resent the imputation that they were not Christians, yet shrink from any positive definition of belief, and they are affrighted when called upon to make public avowal that the Catholic Faith is this that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons nor dividing the substance, accompanied by the declaration that the holding of this faith is necessary to sound spiritual health. Such a tenet, they say, is incapable of demonstrated proof.
III. The Main Cause of Difficulty Lies in the Misapprehension of that which you say you cannot comprehend. It would be much more strange if you could comprehend it In the book of Proverbs there are many striking sayings, and in the present connection I will adapt one to my text and say, 'Take this short piece of advice, "Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise"'. We all know what marvellous little creatures ants are, and how in their diminutive way they reproduce many of the features characteristic of human life different classes of society, regulated industry, mutual help. These creatures must have considerable intelligence and more reasoning power, and yet within their confined space, to which of necessity their experience extends, what can they comprehend of the vast globe, with its oceans and its continents, on which they dwell, still less of the Being whose dominion stretches over all its lands and seas, Who could at a single blow overthrow the place of their habitation and bury them in its ruins? And yet the distance between the ant and the man is as nothing compared with that between man and his Creator. We cannot go beyond or outside God's own revelation of Himself to man as it is gradually unfolded in Holy Scripture.
Progress in Religious Conviction
All religious conviction proceeds from God and cannot proceed from man, because whatever there is in man that is good is put into him by God.
I. The First Stage Repentance. The first stage in the progress of spiritual conviction is repentance; a man has to find out that he is in the wrong before he can be set right. The foundation of all spiritual conviction rests in a knowledge of one's sins, because we shall never desire new things until we have found out our inability to do good or to act rightly without the grace of God. We must know our true selves to bring about this change; to reach this stage in spiritual conviction. We see that spiritual conviction is to find out our true selves, and, by the grace of the Spirit of God we change our minds and we see our selves to be miserable sinners undeserving of anything but death, for 'the wages of sin is death'.
II. The Second Stage Faith. We will take for granted that we have all changed our minds about ourselves now, and we will pass on to examine the most glorious passage in spiritual conviction, which I trust every member of this congregation will be able to lay to heart. 'Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.' Why is faith absolutely necessary? The reason is given to us in this very chapter: we are told that without faith it is impossible to please God. No words can be stronger. When St. Paul is imprisoned in the city of Philippi, and there is a terrible earthquake, and the doors of the prison are opened, the Philippian jailor, a man who had never troubled his head about religion, fears that his prisoners are lost to him, and knowing that he will be put to death if this proves to be the case, determines to make an end of himself. Just as he is in the act St. Paul sees him, and says, 'Do thyself no harm, for we are all here'. No doubt the man had never met with such speech as that, and conviction takes hold of him, and he realises that he himself is a sinner, and what would have happened if he had put an end to himself in his condition. So he turns to the Apostles and says, 'Sirs, what must I do to be saved?' And St. Paul makes answer, 'Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved'. If the Apostle had said, 'You must do some good work; you must do something that is pleasing to God,' we should not have connected with it faith, which is the one thing necessary. Is it not true that faith is the one thing? I know that we must do the work, and we must wrestle and fight and pray, but there is one thing needful when we have been convicted of our sin, and that is faith in the blessed work of our Saviour.
III. The Third Stage Assurance. Let us take the words just as they stand! 'Faith is the substance of things hoped for.' What is substance? There is a great deal of difference between a mere speculation and reality. Substance is reality. We say that, as we are met together in the name of the Lord Jesus, He is present with us. Perhaps some of you say that you hope. He is present. I can go further than that; I can say that He is here. He is here in the spirit and we are in the body, and so cannot see Him; there is the necessity for faith.
To walk staunchly by the best light one has, to be strict and sincere with oneself, not to be of the number of those who say and do not, to be in earnest this is the discipline by which alone man is enabled to rescue his life from thraldom to the passing moment and to his bodily senses, to ennoble it, and to make it eternal. And this discipline has been nowhere so effectively taught as in the school of Hebraism. The intense and convinced energy with which the Hebrew, both of the Old and of the New Testament, threw himself upon his ideal of righteousness, and which inspired the incomparable definition of the great Christian virtue, faith the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen this energy of devotion to its ideal has belonged to Hebraism alone.
Matthew Arnold, preface to Culture and Anarchy.
'He had faith in God,' says Dr. John Brown, in Horae Subsecivae, of Dr. Chalmers; 'faith in human nature faith, if we may say so, in his own instincts in his ideas of men and things in himself; and the result was, that unhesitating bearing up and steering right onward "never bating one jot of heart or hope" so characteristic of him. He had "the substance of things hoped for". He had "the evidence of things not seen".'
Contrast Mr. R. H. Hutton's verdict upon George Eliot ( Modern Guides of English Thought in Matters of Faith, p. 278): 'There were some of her characteristics which were in the deepest sense Christian; but by this powerlessness to believe that of which she had no immediate evidence before her, whether in things human or Divine, George Eliot was exceptionally distinguished. The "substance of things hoped for" was to her no substance at all; she had no buoyancy in her nature. "The evidence of things unseen" was a shadow as to the various possible causes of which she could speculate at large with little confidence and no satisfactory result.'
The true martyrs and all the saints, who by their holy practice under great trials declare that faith which is the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen, can speak in the style of witnesses; need not only say that they think the Gospel is Divine, but say that it is Divine, giving it as their testimony because they have seen it to be so.... There is no true or saving faith, or spiritual conviction of the judgment of the truth of God, that has nothing in it of this manifestation of its internal evidence in some degree. The Gospel of the blessed God does not go abroad a-begging for evidence, so much as some think; it has its highest and most proper evidence in itself.
Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections (pt. iii. ch. v.).
References. XI. 1. J. T. O'Brien, The Nature and the Effects of Faith, p. 27. Archbishop Temple, Christian World Pulpit, vol. liii. p. 66. T. Arnold, Sermons, vol. ii. p. 1. J. Laidlaw, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlix. p. 102. J. Cumming, Penny Pulpit, No. 1608, p. 263. E. J. Hardy, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lvi. p. 123. Expositor (5th Series), vol. i. p. 153; ibid. vol. vii. p. 392.
Good men are the stars, the planets of the age wherein they live, and illustrate the times. God did never let them be wanting to the world: as Abel, for an example of innocency, Enoch of purity, Noah of trust in God's mercies, Abraham of faith, and so of the rest. These, sensual men thought mad because they would not be partakers or practisers of their madness. But they, placed high on the top of all virtue, looked down on the stage of the world, and contemned the play of fortune.
Ben Jonson, Discoveries (LXXXVI.).
Reference. XI. 2. J. Cumming, Penny Pulpit, No. 1633, p. 109.
We prescribe Him limits, we lay continuall siege unto His power by our reasons. We will subject Him to the vaine and weake appearances of our understanding: Him Who hath made both us and our knowledge. Because nothing is made out of nothing: God was not able to frame the world without matter. What? hath God delivered into our hands the keyes, and the strongest wards of His infinit puissance? Hath He obliged Himselfe not to exceede the bounds of our knowledge? Suppose, oh man, that herein thou hast been able to marke some signes of His effects. Thinkest thou He hath therein employed all He was able to doe, and that He hath placed all His power and ideas in this peece of worke? Thou seest but the order and policie of this little cell wherein thou art placed. The question is, whether thou seest it. His divinitie hath an infinit jurisdiction far beyond that This peece is nothing in respect of the whole.
Montaigne ( Florio ) II. 12.
References. XI. 3. C. J. Graham, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lix. p. 147. J. Gumming, Penny Pulpit, No. 1659, p. 311. Expositor (4th Series), vol. ii. p. 250; ibid. vol. ix p. 79; ibid. (5th Series), vol. iv. p. 156. XI. 3, 4. W. J. Knox Little, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlix. p. 212.
The Faith of Abel
The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews begins the series of examples, by which he illustrates his conception of faith, with the case of Abel. There are various difficulties raised by the passage into which I need not enter, since I have discussed them elsewhere. Nor do I deal with the problems which the narrative of Genesis presents, since I am concerned not so much with it as with the view taken of it by the author. It is not clear in what he considered the superiority of Abel's sacrifice to lie, but probably it was for him less a question of quantity than of quality. In other words, while his language might well be interpreted to mean that Abel presented a more lavish sacrifice than the niggardly offering of Cain, it is perhaps rather more likely that he laid the stress on the fact that it was an animal and not a vegetable offering. The sacrificial efficacy of blood is prominent in his thought, and it is quite natural that the distinction in the material of the offerings should seem to give the clue to the acceptance of one and the rejection of the other.
While the death of the animal and the manipulation of its blood could not liberate man's conscience from the burden of his guilt or restore to him communion with God, it brought home to him the fact of guilt and the problem of reconciliation. It thus prepared the way for the supreme sacrifice of Christ by which the problem received its adequate and final solution. And its very inadequacy was itself an unconscious prophecy, for the tormenting sense of alienation from God which it expressed was itself a prediction that God would ultimately deal with the question in a radical way. The constant reminder which men received of their sins and their helplessness in dealing with them deepened the sense of sin and quickened the longing for an adequate redemption. It would not therefore be contrary to the general drift of the writer's argument to consider that he detected in Abel's selection of an animal victim the outcome of his faith.
I. This faith did not go without Divine recognition. The word of God bore witness to him. We read, 'And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering'. The writer apparently understood this to mean that Abel's sacrifice secured the approval of God because it exhibited the quality of faith. This is suggested by what he says in connection with the next example, that without faith it is impossible to be pleasing unto Him. The problems which this raises were, perhaps, not before the writer's mind, though they can hardly fail to strike ourselves. At present, however, it is our task to look at things from his point of view. That witness was borne to those who had faith is a thought which has been already expressed in the words, 'By it the elders received a good report,' and much the same is said with reference to Enoch.
II. The author proceeds to tell us that through the faith he thus manifested he still speaks to us. In order to understand this we must bear in mind the writer's doctrine of Scripture. Scripture is for him the living and active word of God, so that its utterances belong not simply to the past but to the present. And therefore, although from the point of view of the historian the speech of Abel might seem to belong to the past, to the author it belongs to the present in virtue of its record on the page of Scripture. The voice of Abel is the voice of his blood which called to God from the ground. It is a thought for which we have many parallels that blood spilt upon the earth cries for vengeance. We find it in Job's passionate appeal to the earth not to cover his blood and thus stifle his cry, and in Ezekiel's reference to the blood of Jerusalem which had been set on the bare rock by God that it should not be covered and thus go unredressed.
III. To ourselves no doubt the words of the author convey more naturally the impression that even though he is dead, Abel still speaks to us by his example. And though this does not quite hit his meaning, the thought itself is one which ought not to be forgotten. Shakespeare put into the mouth of the sophistical Antony the words:
The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is soft interred with their bones.
Happily that is not the case. While it is true that evil things and evil memory are a baleful legacy left by the wicked, yet it is also true that the memory of the just is an inspiration and their deeds are still potent for good after they have been taken from us. And thus the memory of those who, in the dim twilight of revelation, were faithful to the light they received and prepared for the coming of the dawn, has still its message for us whose lot is cast in a happier time and on whom the ends of the ages have come.
A. S. Peake, The Heroes and Martyrs of Faith, p. 30.
Men cannot benefit those who are with them as they can benefit those who come after them; and of all the pulpits from which human voice is ever sent forth, there is none from which it reaches so far as from the grave.
Ruskin, Seven Lamps of Architecture (VI).
References. XI. 4. J. Cumming, Penny Pulpit, No. 1681, p. 487. D. Young, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lvi. p. 350, and vol. liv. p. 54.
The Escape From Death
I. Although the author gives us no explicit help in solving the problem why the treatment of Enoch was so exceptional, we can perhaps detect to some extent the link that was in his mind between the faith of Enoch and his translation. Faith, I have said, is a conviction of the unseen realities. In the next place, it is a stronger power than hope, since it makes the future present Even before the veil is removed, it, so to speak, abrogates it. It carries us in spirit within the veil, and makes us even now participate in the joys of the world to come. Then as the wings of faith grow more feeble, our strong flight draws to its close, and we find ourselves back again on the earthward side of the veil.
Perhaps, however, it might be possible, the writer may have thought, for that faith which gives us this transient experience of heaven to secure a permanent triumph. Thus a man whose faith was of unusual intensity might escape to the unseen realm without passing through death, and find in it his abiding home. The thought may seem fanciful, but it may be along these lines that we ought to look for our solution. The statement that he walked with God helps us rather more. It testifies to the close, unbroken intercourse between God and His servant which death could not destroy. The thought that faith conquers death comes out elsewhere in the chapter. Yet we are told of others, to whom this exceptional privilege was not vouchsafed, that they walked with God. I have accordingly no complete explanation to offer of the unique experience through which Enoch is said to have passed.
II. It was not unnatural that the words 'Enoch walked with God' should have led to the belief that God took him into His confidence, and revealed to him many mysteries. These mysteries, which touched the constitution of the universe, the fate of the wicked, the world's future history, were enshrined in an elaborate literature which began to grow up about him in the second century before our era. Quotation is made from it in Jude, but not elsewhere in the New Testament It is possible that the original text of 1 Peter contained a reference to an experience of the patriarch. Some scholars have suggested that the preaching to the spirits in prison was really a preaching by Enoch to the angels imprisoned on account of the transgression recorded in the sixth of Genesis, and Dr. Rendel Harris has recently championed this view with great vigour.
The correction of the text involved is quite easy, and its acceptance would remove a really serious difficulty. My main reason for hesitating to accept it is that in the following chapter we have the statement that the Gospel was preached to the dead. I find it hard to believe that the two passages refer to entirely different events. But it is obvious that the latter has no reference to Enoch's preaching to the imprisoned angels, for this was a preaching of condemnation, and they could not be described as 'the dead'. Accordingly I think we must allow the passage in Jude to stand by itself in the New Testament At the same time it is hardly likely that the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews can have been ignorant of this literature. Dr. Charles, in fact, thinks that our passage must depend in some way upon the book of Enoch, though this view does not rest on very strong grounds. But whether this be so or not, it is, at any rate, noteworthy that the author makes no allusion to Enoch's initiation into the secrets of God. He lays the stress on conduct rather than on knowledge. His silence reminds us that in our study of Scripture we should direct our attention not only to what it says but to what it does not say.
III. When we consider the story of Enoch's escape from death and try to draw a practical lesson from it for ourselves, we must remember how different our attitude towards death is from that current among the Hebrews. The view which dominated their attitude throughout almost the whole of the Old Testament was of a very gloomy character. For them death was no mere incident, still less a granting of fuller light and more intimate fellowship with God. The dark and hopeless night closed in even after the happiest and the longest day and put a period to man's communion with God. The later Old Testament writings disclose to us the gradual lifting of the shadow and relief from the horror coming along various lines. The deepest thought which the saints of the Old Covenant achieved grew directly out of their religious experience. Their immediate sense of the love and the grace of God was so strong that their faith rose to the great conviction that this love was stronger than death.
Thus they could have anticipated Paul's ringing declaration that not death itself can separate us from the love of God. But Paul could add 'in Christ Jesus our Lord,' and thus give the weakest Christian a confidence which may have been a comparatively rare experience among the saints of the Old Covenant In creating this loftier Jewish doctrine I think that the story of Enoch had its part to play. In the forty-ninth Psalm the words 'For He will take me' are, I believe, a direct allusion to the words 'God took him' in Genesis.
A. S. Peake, The Heroes and Martyrs of Faith, p. 38.
References. XI. 6. J. Bannerman, Sermons, p. 1. Penny Pulpit, No. 1687, p. 533. XI. 6, 6. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxii. No. 1307.
'Faith,' says Lacordaire in one of his Paris Conferences, 'is not only a virtue that is to say, a generous and efficacious effort towards what is good it is the sacred portico through which all the virtues pass. There is no act of devotedness, no act of love, no honourable or holy action which was not at first an act of faith.... Therefore when St. Paul pronounced that sovereign sentence, "without faith it is impossible to please God," we may add and men.'
References. XI. 6. R. J. Campbell, City Temple Sermons, p. 1. J. Laidlaw, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlix. p. 214. S. Cox, Expositions, p. 226. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. iii. No. 107; vol. xxxv. No. 2100; vol. xliii. No. 2513, and vol. xlvii. No. 2740. J. Keble, Sermons for Septuagesima to Ash Wednesday, p. 75. S. Baring-Gould, Village Preaching for a Year (2nd Series), vol. ii. p. 33. J. Cumming, Penny Pulpit, No. 1690, p. 559. J. Stalker, Christian World Pulpit, vol. liv. p. 188. Expositor (5th Series), vol. i. p. 429. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Hebrews, p. 106.
He Condemned the World
Noah had to maintain his faith in face of an unbelieving world. He alone among his contemporaries was pronounced righteous by God. The narrative gives us no hint of active opposition. It is often a stimulant to a man's faith when he has to suffer persecution and hostility. He is thrown on his defence, his combative instincts are aroused. It may not always be easy to face a frowning world, but it is certainly much harder to face a scoffing world.
I. When we consider the lapse of time, the constant wear to which his faith was exposed from trivial incident and unheroic commonplace, the strain placed upon it from the prolonged and prosaic character of his task, the keen shafts of ridicule, and the wet blankets of indifference, we may rate highly the patience of his faith. The things of which he was warned were not seen as yet when the warning was given, but they still remained unseen through all the slow process of construction until the whole was complete. And still no sign was made as, amid the blank unconcern or the unrestrained hilarity of his doomed contemporaries, he entered into the ark. Then, when he was safe, the windows of heaven were opened, that the waters from the heavenly ocean above the firmament might pour through, and the fountains of the great submarine abyss might be broken up. Thus the waters which had been separated at Creation were mingled once more, and Chaos for a brief period resumed her ancient sway.
II. The writer tells us that thus Noah condemned the world. He does not mean that by constructing a shelter simply for himself and his family he doomed the rest of mankind to destruction. His thought is rather that the faith of Noah stood out in glaring contrast to the world's unbelief. Just as Lot seemed to those who were to marry his daughters as a mere jester when he told them that God would destroy Sodom, so Noah must have seemed to those who heard his prophecies of disaster. They could not believe his prediction of judgment, they met it all with incurable optimism. And so in our Lord's words, 'They ate, they drank, they married, they were given in marriage until the day that Noah entered into the ark, and the flood came, and destroyed them all'. And how often history repeats itself, how many there are whose blind infatuation has carried them gaily forward to the very brink of ruin, and cast them down to destruction in a moment!
III. Noah condemned the world by the spectacle of his unshrinking faith, but he made no impression upon it. And it is this quality in the world which makes the effort to reform some people seem so hopeless. I always feel that we have least hope of success with those whom we cannot get to take life seriously. Those who are set in their antagonism to goodness, who throw themselves into active opposition, are less to be despaired of. For with them there is a certain earnestness and seriousness, a concentration of purpose, though directed to wrong ends. In short, they have character, though it be bad character. And there are numerous examples to show what valiant and loyal soldiers of righteousness they may prove if they can once be brought into captivity to the obedience of Christ. But what are we to do with the flippant and the frivolous, in whose nature there is no depth, no reserve to which one can appeal? What can be done with the shallow, irresponsible people to whom the gravest moral and spiritual issues are less than an idle tale? There are many Sunday school teachers who would gladly prefer the bad boy, as he is called, to the frivolous boy, and too often the frivolous boy becomes a frivolous man.
It is now many years since I read a passage in Demosthenes which made a permanent impression on me. The great orator, looking back over the time when the power of Philip was steadily growing, says that the Greek States realised that trouble was coming, only, he adds, 'not upon themselves'. In other words, they could read the signs of the times with sufficient clearness to perceive that the power of Macedonia threatened the independence of the other Greek communities, but they could never bring themselves to believe that they would be the victims of the same disaster. Such is the unwillingness of human nature to face the stern realities of life, such men's incredulity that the disaster they see to be inevitable for others will overtake themselves.
By our noble seriousness we may condemn the world's frivolity. By our steadfast conviction of the unseen we may reprove its crass incredulity, and become heirs 'of the righteousness which is according to faith'.
Belief in principles is the only intelligible interpretation I have ever been able to attach to the word faith. A man with faith in principles, even if they be not first-rate, is sure to succeed. The man who has no faith in them is sure to fail. Nothing finer, after all, can be said of faith than that which is said in the Epistle to the Hebrews, and no finer example can be given of it than that of Noah there given. Noah was warned of God that destruction would visit the impious race by which he was surrounded. He quietly set to work to build his ark. There is no record that it was built by miracle, and he must have been a long time about it... Would it come true? Would he have to walk out again down those planks with the clean beasts and unclean beasts after him, amidst the inextinguishable laughter of all his pagan, God-denying neighbours? But in a week he heard the first growl of the tempest. He was justified, God was justified; and for evermore Noah stands on a Divine type of what we call faith. This is really it. What we have once heard, really heard in our best moments, by that let us abide. There are multitudes of moments in which intelligent conviction in the truth of principles disappears, and we are able to do nothing more than fall back on mere dogged determinate resolution to go on; not to give up what we have once found to be true.'
Mark Rutherford in The Deliverance, pp. 162, 163.
References. XI. 7. H. P. Liddon, Sermons Preached on Special Occasions, p. 243. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxxvi. No. 2147. Expositor (6th Series), vol. vi. p. 319. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Hebrews, p. 112. XI. 8. J. G. Rogers, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xliii. p. 139. T. F. Crosse, Sermons, p. 213. W. H. Hutchings, Sermon-Sketches, p. 313. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxi. No. 1242; vol. v. No. 261; vol. xxxvii. No. 2195. F. W. Aveling, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlv. p. 21. A. S. Peake, The Heroes and Martyrs of Faith, p. 57.
The Tent and the City
The faith which we profess should dominate us as Abraham was dominated. That man is not to be reckoned a religious man whose religion is shown in a few shining hours. Like the glow of health which spreads through a man's whole being, it must show itself in every deed and every day. The temple may manifest it, but so must the tent Abraham, then, was a dweller in a tent; that fact had made a deep impression on the writer; and immediately he tells us the secret of that tent-life he looked for a city whose builder and maker is God.
I. It is the tent which makes the city precious. We see at a glance that it was so with Abraham. It was the very insecurity of that tent-life, the isolation of it and its thousand perils, that made the dream of a city so infinitely sweet After all the important thing is not what we live in; the supremely important thing is what we look for. If life is to be redeemed from sense and time, and brought under the powers that are eternal, the eyes must be opened somehow to God's city. How shall I open them? says the Almighty. How shall I make the unseen city precious? The answer to that lies in the tent of Abraham so insecure, so perilous and so frail. From which I learn that much of life's harder discipline, and many a dark hour that men are called to, is given to humanity, by Abraham's God, that hearts may begin to hunger for the city. (1) For example think of sickness in that light. Is it not often the tent that makes the city precious? (2) In the same light also we may look on death. (3) Nor can I leave this subject without pointing out how it bears evangelically upon the fact of sin. Many a man is brought to see his need of Christ by the same experience as was vouchsafed to Abraham.
II. It is the city which explains the tent You will never understand that tent, never know why Abraham chose it, until you are told the secret of his heart. It is his vision which interprets his conduct. You will never know a man until you know the hopes which animate him. It is because we are ignorant of the secret of our brother, and of all that is stirring and calling in his heart, that so often we judge him very falsely. It makes all the difference in the world what you and I are looking for. It is by what our hearts are set on and by what our thoughts are given to that the tent we dwell in is glorified or cursed.
G. H. Morrison, The Unlighted Lustre, p. 122.
References. XI. 9, 10, Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxxix. No. 2229. A. Maclaren, Exposition of Holy Scripture Hebrews, p. 120.
I am a wanderer: I remember well
One journey, how I feared the track was missed,
So long the city I desired to reach
Lay hid; when suddenly its spires afar
Flashed through the circling clouds; you may conceive
My transport. Soon the vapours closed again,
But I had seen the city, and one such glance
No darkness could obscure: nor shall the present
A few dull hours, a passing shame or two,
Destroy the vivid memories of the past.
'By what methods,' asks Carlyle in his essay on Boswell's Johnson, 'by what gifts of eye and hand, does a heroic Samuel Johnson, now when cast forth into waste Chaos of Authorship, maddest of things, a mingled Phlegethon and Fleet-ditch, with its floating lumber, and sea-krakens, and mud-spectres shape himself a voyage; of the transient driftwood, and the enduring iron, build himself a sea-worthy Lifeboat, and sail therein, undrowned, unpolluted, through the roaring "mother of dead dogs," onwards to an eternal Landmark and City that hath foundation? This high question is ever the one answered in Boswell's Book... Glory to our brave Samuel! He accomplished this wonderful problem; and now through long generations, we point to him and say: Here also was a Man; let the world once more have assurance of a Man!'
The vision of the prophets differed from the vision even of the greatest of the philosophers in the ever increasing clearness with which its reality was apprehended. The spirit of hope, so distinctive of the Jewish people, the invincible optimism which survived every disappointment, sustained them to the last. They laid hold of the future as their own possession with a confidence unapproached by any other nation, unless we may find a distant parallel in the exhilaration of tone with which the Roman poets forecast the imperial greatness of Rome. To the Greeks the future is dim and inscrutable. The future is the secret belonging to the gods, and it were presumptuous for man to seek to penetrate it. His duty is to seize the present with its limitless possibilities, and to use it with that rational energy and forethought which are born of an enlightened experience. It is a temper of mind wholly unlike that of the Jew, the loss of whose earthly country seemed to point him forward with a more victorious certitude to the city which hath foundations, to the heavenly Jerusalem.
Prof. Butcher in his Harvard Lectures on Greek Subjects, pp. 40, 41.
References. XI. 10. J. A. Alexander, The Gospel of Jesus Christ, p. 458. XI. 12. Expositor (5th Series), vol. iii. p. 271.
'And thus closes,' says Sir James Stephen, in his essay on the Clapham Sect, 'though it be far from exhausted, our chronicle of the worthies of Clapham, of whom it may be said, as it was said of those of whom the world was not worthy, "these all died in faith". With but very few exceptions, they had all partaken largely of those sorrows which probe the inmost heart, and exercise its fortitude to the utmost.... They died in the faith that for their descendants, at no remote period, was reserved an epoch glorious, though probably awful, beyond all former example. It was a belief derived from the intimations, as they understood them, of the prophet of Israel.'
All true good is Christian by its goal and by its origin, though neither may be seen by the doer, Christ, 'whom He hath appointed heir of all things' (the goal), 'by whom also He made the worlds' (the origin). The development of the race corresponds to this. There was a world travelling to Christ, of which it is said, 'These all died in faith'. They were judged by their direction.
Dr. John Ker, Thoughts for Heart and Life, p. 107.
Speaking, in the fourth chapter of his volume On Compromise, of these 'who attempt, in however informal a manner, to construct for themselves some working system of faith, in place of the faith which science and criticism have sapped,' Mr. Morley adds: 'In what ultimate form, acceptable to great multitudes of men, these attempts will at last issue, no one can now tell. For we, like the Hebrews of old, shall all have to live and die in faith, 'not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and being persuaded of them, and embracing them, and confessing that we are strangers and pilgrims on the earth'.
References. XI. 13. T. Arnold, Christian Life; Its Hopes, p. 231. T. Stephens, Sermons by Welshmen, p. 340. R. W. Church, Village Sermons, p. 268. Expositor (5th Series), vol. i. p. 143. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Hebrews, p. 129. XI. 13, 14. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxxi. No. 1825. XI. 13-16. Archbishop Maclagan, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lviii. p. 337. J. J. Blunt, Plain Sermons (2nd Series), p. 216. XI. 14. H. M. Butler, Harrow School Sermons (2nd Series), p. 282. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Hebrews, p. 138.
In Defoe's Seasonable Warning and Caution, he expostulates thus with Britain on her tendency to relapse into Popery. 'Let us reason a little together on these Things, and let us inquire a little, why, and for what Reason, Britain so lately the glory of Europe; so lately the Terror of France, the Bulwark of Religion, and the Destroyer of Popery, should be brought to be the Gazing-Stock of the World? And why is it that her Neighbours expect to hear every hour that She is going back to Egypt, and having given up her Liberty, has made it her own Choice to submit to the Stripes of her Taskmasters, and make Bricks without Straw.'
Reference. XI. 15, 16. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xviii. No. 1030.
After preaching (at Alnwick) I rode on to Newcastle. Certainly, if I did not believe there was another world, I should spend all my summers here; as I know no place in Great Britain comparable to it for pleasantness. But I seek another country, and therefore am content to be a wanderer upon the earth.
Wesley's Journal (4th June, 1759).
References. XI. 16. J. J. Cox, A Lent in London, p. 93. J. J. Blunt, Plain Sermons (3rd Series), p. 26. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xlv. No. 2633. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Hebrews, p. 147.
'The faith of Abraham,' says Mr. Gladstone, 'with respect to this supreme trial, appears to have been centred in the one point, that he would trust God to all extremities, and in despite of all appearances..... He who had probably learned through the tradition of Enoch that God had modes of removal for his children other than death, may well have believed that some such method would at the critical moment be devised for Isaac; and what is commended in him by the Bible is not the intention to slay his own son with his own hand, but the ready assent to the privation he was to undergo in the frustration of the promise that the Messianic line should descend from him.'
Hebrews 11:20 ; Hebrews 11:22
There is a peculiar eminence attaching to a deathbed faith, to the faith which triumphs over the weakness of nature; and, while the vital forces are dying down to a glimmering spark, itself burns with a clear and steady flame. It is faith maintained under supreme difficulty. And whereas a deathbed repentance implies a previous life of sin, the kind of deathbed faith to which I am referring implies that faith has been the rule of life. It must have strong roots in a man's past to face unbroken the final storm. Hence, when the author singles out in the case of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph the closing scene, he is tacitly saying to us that here we have a life of faith on which death placed a fitting crown. Indeed, he has already told us as much about two of them when he said that Abraham dwelt in tents, with Isaac and Jacob heirs with him of the same promise. Their faith in God's fulfilment of His promise had been manifested in this that, like Abraham, they clung to the nomad's mode of life, refusing to seek on earth a fixed abode. And in the case of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph it is specially with the promise that the author is concerned.
I. Of the first we read, 'By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau, even concerning things to come'. At first sight the statement is very puzzling, for the story in Genesis tolls us that Isaac blessed Jacob in mistake for Esau. The whole story jars upon us as we read it. First of all, there is the favouritism betrayed by the parents towards their children. In the case of Isaac this quality, always reprehensible, seems to become even contemptible because of the reason which is given for it Esau was a hunter, who gratified his father's selfish love for savoury food, and on this squalid basis his preference for Esau reposed. But Jacob turned away from the adventurous life which charmed his brother, and led a quieter, tamer life. In the author's significant words, 'He sod pottage'. He was what we should call a domesticated man; he dwelt in tents, we are further informed, and we can read between the lines that he had won his mother's heart, and become her favourite by stopping at home and helping her in the house-work.
We need have no hesitation in recognising that the faith of Isaac was at least displayed in this, that he held fast to the confidence that God's promise would be fulfilled. The fact that he made a mistake as to the Divine designation is not of such moment. It is true that we may put down his mistake to a lack of insight, yet his lack of insight is of an intellectual rather than of a spiritual kind. And there was much to suggest that Jacob could not be the heir to the promise. Yet it is true that he blessed Jacob by faith; for, when he was undeceived and learnt how he had been duped, he did not call back his blessing and substitute a curse. Indeed, the whole attitude of antiquity towards the curse and the blessing would have been against his doing so. Men of the ancient world thought of the curse and the blessing as passing beyond a man's control once he had uttered them. And Isaac also felt that, once the blessing had been pronounced, he could not recall it: it would surely work out its own accomplishment. 'I have blessed him, yea, and he shall be blessed.' We may indeed suppose that, in the exalted utterance with which he had blessed his son, he saw the evidence of an inspiration higher than his own. At any rate, he had the faith to recognise that Jacob, and not Esau, was the chosen of God. Yet he also blessed Esau. At first he shook under the shock of his discovery and saw, with cruel lucidity, all the pathos and tragedy of Esau's rejection. He could see no alleviation. And even the words of his blessing sound, at first, more like a curse. Far away from the fatness of the earth and the dew of heaven Esau's dwelling is to be, his living must be won by the sword, and he shall be in bondage to his brother. But the blessing comes at the end. He is at last to break loose and shake his brother's yoke from his neck.
II. From the case of Isaac the author passes to that of Jacob, and in this instance also he speaks only of the last scenes. If it is not paradoxical to say so, there are two things which seem surprising. One is that, Jacob being what he was, the author should have included him at all; the other that, having selected him for inclusion, he should say no more about him.
The story of Jacob leaves upon the modern reader, at any rate, a singularly unpleasant impression. In some ways he is one of the most repulsive characters in Biblical history.
Yet it would be a mistake were we to turn from Jacob with loathing, and give him no credit for loftier qualities. The fact remains that Jacob, and not the more attractive Esau, was chosen to be the heir of the promise, and the reason for this we should seek to understand. And this leads me to the second point which I have described as surprising. When the author had once decided to include Jacob, we are astonished that he made so little of him. For while Jacob stands very low in the moral, he stands high in the religious scale, and peculiarly in the very quality which the author commends to our notice. With Isaac, the blessing, according to the view of antiquity, has something magical about it it brings about what it predicts. But in Jacob's blessing a higher note is struck. The crossing of his hands is not caprice or favouritism, it is a reverent recognition of the Divine choice, in harmony with which he acts. Thus, at the close of a life which he describes as a pilgrimage, whose days have been few and evil, in Canaan a wanderer, for long years a sojourner in the East, and now a dweller in Egypt, he yet holds fast to his belief in the promise. Not only does he see for his descendants a return to Canaan, but a lofty destiny for the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh.
III. It is the same interest which leads the author to select the closing scene in the life of Joseph. He too joined with his father in the belief that God would bring them out of Egypt, and, as the author tells us, he gave commandment concerning his bones. In that hour of triumph when they escaped from Egypt, he desired, so far as that could be, himself to participate. To our point of view, for which all lands are alike sacred, Joseph's desire appeals much less. For us, too, the physical tabernacle which we shed at death is not of such significance as it was in Egypt; perhaps in his request we may detect the influence of the Egyptian environment. There is one point of interest which may be touched on in closing. Jacob wishes to be buried in Canaan by his sons; Joseph, however, desires that his body may abide with his people till the Divine summons to leave Egypt should come to them. Perhaps nothing more is implied by this than that Jacob had ties with Canaan much closer than those of Joseph.
A. S. Peake, The Heroes and Martyrs of Faith, p. 82.
References. XI. 21. J. Banuerman, Sermons, p. 41. Spurgeon, ibid. vol. xxiv. No. 1401. XI. 22. Ibid. vol. xvi. No. 966. A. S. Peake, The Heroes and Martyrs of Faith, p. 99. XI. 23. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxiv. No. 1421.
The Choice of Moses
It is noticeable that the Old Testament heroes mentioned in this chapter are exhibited to us, not in the general tenor of their lives, but each at a single turning-point The light is flashed always upon one moment in the story.
Here, then, one moment in the life of Moses, like the rest, is lifted into the light. We are made to see the crisis at which he decisively flung himself on God's side, so fixing the destinies of life.
I. Note first the choice asked of Moses. It was a choice rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season. To put it otherwise, his act was not the outcome of mere impassioned heat; it had a moral meaning; it was based on resolute and grave determination. The blow that struck down the petty tyrant may have fired the mine unexpectedly; nevertheless what the two parties before him stood for was clear enough. On the one side the people of God, unresisting, craven, trodden under foot, but with a destiny stretching out illimitably in the future; on the other side, sin, with its fleeting pleasures, in the court and life of Egypt This was the parting of the ways for ever; and we have to think of him weighing the issue, reckoning the price 'this accomplished courtier, this child of luxury and pride, this man of letters and of mighty deeds'.
In the essentials of the matter it might have happened yesterday; perhaps it did happen yesterday, to you or me. Human nature changes little with the ages, and moral issues never vary. The distinctions of right and wrong, faced by these old fathers of grey time, are like the stars or the mountains to which they lifted up their eyes, and on which men look still and find them eternal and unchanging. Then or now, he who would buy everlasting life must pay for it with sacrifice. The gate that leads to life is narrow; which signifies at least this, that many things must be left outside that we would fain carry through. To a few the sacrifice is easy; by some happy gift of nature they find an instinctive joy in choosing Christ; but to many more, perhaps to most, the thing is hard. How often is a noble life built on the grave of a darling sin!
II. Note, secondly, some features of Moses' act.
(1) Mark, for one thing, that the sacrifice was made at the acme of his powers. He was forty. The harvest of life was just beginning to be reaped; youth's hasty fervours had subsided; he had arrived at that age when, as Froude observes, 'ambition becomes powerful in men, and takes the place of love of pleasure'. Is it not a great thing when those begin to serve God upon whom life has heaped its bounties lavishly?
(2) Then besides that, Moses made this surrender just when the people's lot was at its lowest. Look on him now, at this turning point, and that word of his later promise glows wonderfully into meaning: 'A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you, like unto me'; for in the silent grandeur of his self-abnegation he is indeed a far-shining type and symbol of a greater far than he, One who for our sakes became poor, that we through His poverty might be rich.
III. What is the dominating note in Moses' great act? How shall we name it briefly? In a word, it is renunciation. It is the casting away of that which is full of charm and sweetness, the adoption of a neglected and despised cause.
Note the underlying motive of faith. And here the first words of my text reach over and join hands firmly with the last: 'By faith Moses... had respect unto the recompense of the reward'. 'The reward' some one will say; why, then, after all Moses was not wholly disinterested. Even his eye was fixed and bent upon the coming profit. It is as we said; unselfish religion is a dream.
But stay one moment. His eye was bent upon the future; that, of course, is part simply of what is meant by faith. But that very future, how must it appear? Could it promise anything to tempt ambition or gratify mere self? Nothing, as we have seen; nothing but labour, grief and disappointment, and at last a friendless grave. Yet none the less there was a great reward, a recompense past all computation. Look deeper, and it becomes plain that inwardly he was ever more and more possessed, inhabited by God; and for him that was enough. Yes! though in the end every human face withdrew, and not a hand was left to close his eyes, for this man it was enough that he had God and that God had him.
H. R. Mackintosh, Life on God's Plan, p. 15.
References. XI. 24-26. C. Perren, Sermon Outlines, p. 143. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xviii. No. 1063, and vol. xxxiv. No. 2030. J. Bunting, Sermons, vol. i. pp. 234, 243 and 258. E. H. Bickersteth, Thoughts in Past Years, p. 151. XI. 24-27. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Hebrews, p. 156.
In the preface of his essay on Milton, De Quincey speaks of the sacrifice cheerfully made by the English poet in returning from Italy's pleasures to take part in his own country's service. 'The sacrifice was that he renounced the heavenly spectacle of the Ægean Sea and its sunny groups of islands, renounced the sight of Attica, of the Theban districts, of Judea; next of that ancient river Nile, the river of Pharaoh and Moses, of the Pyramids, and the hundred-gated Thebes; finally he renounced the land of Syria, much of which was then doubtless unsafe for a Frank of any religion, and for a Christian of any nation. But he might have travelled in one district of Syria, viz., Palestine, which for him had paramount attractions. All these objects of commanding interest to any profound scholar, Greece, the Grecian isles, Egypt, and Palestine, he surrendered to his sense of duty; not by any promise or engagement, but by the act then and there of turning his face homewards; well aware at the time that his chance was small indeed, under his peculiar prospects, of ever recovering his lost chance.'
Only those who despise the pleasures can afford to despise the opinion of the world.
R. L. Stevenson.
A man will undergo great toil and hardship for ends that must be many years distant such as wealth or fame but none for an end that may be close at hand as the joys of heaven.
References. XI. 26. R. Glover, Christian World Pulpit, vol. li. p. 150. J. Bunting, Sermons, vol. i. p. 276.
The Secret of Greatness
What we call public men, men who are in the public eye, are well known to us all, yet in another sense they are unknown. In their official public life they are known to us, but in what is called the inner life, the hidden life of the soul, they are absolutely unknown. In this inner life they are known thoroughly and truly only to God. In it they hardly know themselves. And it is in this inner life that the power of God is made manifest. So lung as man is true to his spiritual life and inspiration, so long will his public life be regulated by God. Moses was what is called a public man. All his actions in the sight of the people were dictated by God.
I. If we Look to the Inner Life of this Great Man we find the key to his greatness. I think we find the key to it in this text, 'He endured as seeing Him Who is invisible'. He lived by faith. He lived the hidden life of the soul. He was no mere organiser, no mere materialistic performer; he had an intense love for the spiritual life. He might have said with St. Paul, 'The things that are seen are temporal, and the things which are not seen are eternal'. Moses endured that life which you all know so well. He went on day after day, week after week, month after month, with all the trials and troubles and worries which then, as now, are the characteristics of a statesman's life. He endured. He endured because he had the power which comes of spiritual being. He saw Him who is invisible.
II. It is for us to see Him Who is Invisible. We all believe, and rightly so, in making the very best use of our talents, but we must not lose sight of the great moving principle of the spiritual life which is found in the lives of these men of old, who were all lovers of the inner life of the soul. Let us pray that we may follow in their footsteps. In their lives and in their death they were devoted to the Lord Jesus. There is a far better death than the physical death; there is the death which makes man a new man. Let us pray to God that in the hour of death we may live truly live. Let us pray that after we have gone through what man calls death we may leave this land of our earthly lives and dwell with Him in Paradise. In our Church life and in our life of our daily calling we must ever remember that He is before us. As we live our daily lives, what road are we on? Are we loving God and the hidden life of the soul? Do we realise that we are, through God, members of Christ and inheritors of the kingdom of Heaven? Do we look upon the prayers we utter as a matter of course? Yet prayer is our most great and glorious privilege, as it brings us into close union with Him. God moves in a mysterious way. He tries so many ways and means to bring us to Himself. And we on earth can please God as one family in Christ joined together with one heart and one voice in the service and praise of God, and endure joy, strength, and hope in this world of ours, as seeing Him Who is invisible.
What is the outward discipline for him who, bidden to travel on the highways of life, can take no step heavenwards, unbeset or unobstructed by wealth, power, admiration, or popularity? How shall faith preserve her dominion over Him to whom the world is daily offering whatever can most kindle the imagination, engage the understanding, or gratify ambition? There is but one corrective. It is to be found in that unbroken communion with the indwelling God, in which Mr. Wilberforce habitually lived. He 'endured as seeing Him Who is invisible,' and as hearing Him Who is inaudible. When most immersed in political cares, or in social enjoyments, he invoked and obeyed the voice which directed his path, while it tranquillised his mind. That voice... taught him to rejoice as a child in the presence of a Father whom he much loved and altogether trusted, and whose approbation was infinitely more than an equivalent for whatever restraint, self-denial, labour or self-sacrifice, obedience to his will might render necessary.
Sir James Stephen, Essays in Ecclesiastical Biography.
The conceptions of most of us are dull; the power of presenting the future to our minds (in the accurate and analysed sense of the expression), of making it present to us, of 'seeing Him Who is invisible,' is a faculty whose strength depends greatly on training, which is vouchsafed to different individuals in very different measure, and to most of us in very scanty measure.
W. Rathbone Greg, Enigmas of Life, p. 248.
References. XI. 27. H. H. Henson, Godly Union and Concord, p. 113. H. P. Liddon, University Sermons (2nd Series), p. 361.
'It is surely very remarkable,' wrote Mr. Gladstone in his essay on Ingersoll, 'that, in the whole of this recital, the Apostle, "whose feet were shod with the preparation of the Gospel of peace," seems with a tender instinct to avoid anything like stress upon the exploits of warriors. Of the twelve persons having a share in the detailed expositions, David is the only warrior, and his character as a man of war is eclipsed by his greater attributes as a prophet, or declarer of the Divine counsels. It is yet more noteworthy that Joshua, who had so fair a fame, but who was only a warrior, is never named in the chapter, and we are simply told that "by faith the walls of Jericho fell down, after they had been compassed about seven times".
'Up to his time,' says Newman, 'many instances as there were of the faith of saints, there is no instance recorded of the faith of a sinner.... Down to Joshua's day, no instance appeal's but of the faith of saints, but in the next verse, and in Joshua's history, we have a different specimen.'
Such men are raised to station and command,
When Providence means mercy to a land,
He speaks, and they appear; to Him they owe
Skill to direct, and strength to strike the blow,
To manage with address, to seize with power
The crisis of a dark decisive hour.
So Gideon earned a victory not his own,
Subserviency his praise, and that alone.
Cowper, Table Talk (355 f.).
References. XI. 28. A. S. Peake, The Heroes and Martyrs of Faith, p. 143. Expositor (7th Series), vol. v. p. 348. XI. 30. H. P. Liddon, University Sermons (2nd Series), p. 222. XI. 31. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. iii. No. 119, and vol. xviii. No. 1061. A. Martin, Winning the Soul, p. 47. Expositor (5th Series), vol. vii. p. 98; ibid. (6th Series), vol. iii. p. 419.
'It is not a little remarkable,' says Mr. Gladstone in the fifth chapter of his Impregnable Rock of Holy Scripture, 'that the enumeration by name of the great historic heroes of faith, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, ends in the person of King David, with the first youth of the monarchy. The only later instances referred to are the prophets, named as a class, who stood apart and alone, and were not as a rule leaders of the people, but rather witnesses in sackcloth against their iniquities. Taking the history from the Exodus to the exile as a whole, the latter end was worse than the beginning, the cup of iniquity was full; it had been filled by a gradual process; and one of the marks of that process was a lowering of the method, in which the chosen people were governed; it became more human and less Divine'.
References. XI. 32. A. S. Peake, The Heroes and Martyrs of Faith, p. 162. XI. 32, 33. Ibid. p. 161.
Faith's Heroic Doing
Compress it as much as he would the writer of the great history of the heroic deeds of faith felt that it was impossible to tell half the story. Time would fail even to run through the names of the Old Testament saints, and show how faith shaped the lives of those great workers, and laid the foundation of their heroic exploits.
I. The crowded canvas teaches that every life devoted to God is an illustration of the power of faith. The writer who wishes to inculcate this lesson of faith is able to lay his hand on every life of the Old Testament which was acceptable to God, and to show that it was an illustration of that principle. These are the names of men whose heroism sends a thrill of wonder through every heart. Each of the names that he mentions lives for evermore, and names that he has not been able even to mention rise to one's mind as the glorious passage rolls on. No truly acceptable life but is an illustration of the might of faith. Into all the various walks of life which God's providence calls us to tread we may bear the Spirit which will win us a place in the roll of faith's heroes. II. The great deeds of faith include the loftiest achievements in every field. Set together here they dazzle mind and heart. All the great workers were men of faith; all these great deeds, for which the annals of the world have no parallel, were trophies of faith's mighty working. What realm of life is not lighted up by the heroic deeds of faith? The grandeur of these results overwhelm us. What light shines around the saddest and roughest road when we remember what faith has done! No trouble can overwhelm, no enemy can overthrow the life that has this foundation. Faith was strong for these great deeds because she had hold of the arm of God. She moved the arm that moved the world. Be strong in such thoughts for your life-struggle.
J. Telford, The Preacher's Magazine, vol. v. p. 269.
There is a remarkable chapter in the Epistle to the Hebrews, in which the writer unfolds to his countrymen what is in fact a National Portrait Gallery, as he enumerates, one by one, the heroes and saints of the Jewish history, and adds to his catalogue these inspiring words: 'And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of those... who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens'. And finally he draws this conclusion from his long retrospect: 'Wherefore, seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us'. How much of the philosophy of history is condensed into that single sentence! It is suggestive to us of the ethical purpose which should dominate all our historical teaching. To what end do we live in a country whose annals are enriched by the story of great talents, high endeavours, and noble sacrifices, if we do not become more conscious of the possibilities of our own life, and more anxious to live worthily the inheritance which has come down to us?
Sir Joshua Fitch, Educational Aims and Methods, p. 28.
The Cranmers, Hampdens, and Sidneys: the counsellors of our Elizabeth, and the friends of our other great deliverer, the third William is it in vain that these have been our countrymen? Are we not the heirs of their good deeds? And what are noble deeds but noble truths realised? As Protestants, as Englishmen, as the inheritors of so ample an estate of might and right, an estate so strongly fenced, so richly planted, by the sinewy arms and dauntless hearts of our forefathers, we of all others have good cause to trust in the truth, yea. to follow its pillar of fire through the darkness and the desert, even though its light should but suffice to make us certain of its own presence.
Coleridge, The Friend (IX.).
These old Jewish heroes did fill my whole heart and soul. I learnt from them lessons which I never wish to unlearn. Whatever else I saw about them, this I saw that they were patriots, deliverers from the tyranny and injustice from which the child's heart... instinctively, and, as I believe, by a Divine inspiration, revolts. Moses leading his people out of Egypt, Gideon, Barak, and Samson slaying their oppressors; David hiding in the mountains from the tyrant, with his little band of those who had fled from the oppression of an aristocracy of Nabals; John executing God's vengeance on the kings they were my heroes, my models; they mixed themselves up with the dim legends about the Reformation martyrs, Cromwell and Hampden, Sidney and Monmouth, which I had heard at my mother's knee. Not that the perennial oppression of the masses, in all ages and countries, had yet men on me as an awful, torturing, fixed idea. I fancied, poor fool! that tyranny was the exception, not the rule. But it was the mere sense of abstract pity and justice which was delighted in me. I thought that these were old fairy tales, such as never need be realised again. I learnt otherwise in after years. I have often wondered since why all cannot read the same lesson as I did in those old Hebrew Scriptures that they, of all books in the world, have been wrested into... proofs of the Divine right of kings, the eternal necessity of slavery!
Charles Kingsley, Alton Locke (ch. I.).
In his speech at the London banquet to Lloyd Garrison, 29th June, 1867, John Bright told of an article by Harriet Martineau upon 'The Martyr Age of the United States,' in which the great names connected with the abolitionist cause were chronicled, and then added: 'When I read that article and the description of those men and women there given, I was led, I know not how, to think of a very striking passage which I am sure must be familiar to most here, because it is to be found in the Epistle to the Hebrews. After the writer of that Epistle has described the great men and fathers of the nation, he says: "Time would fail me to tell of Gideon and of Barak... and of the prophets... who turned to flight the armies of the aliens'. I ask if this grand passage of the inspired writer may not be applied to that heroic band who have made America the perpetual home of freedom?'
The man who accepts a crown may be more noble than he who lays one down and retires to the desert Of the worthies who do things by faith, some are sawn asunder, and some subdue kingdoms. The look of the thing is nothing.
George Macdonald, in The Marquis of Lossie (ch. XLII.).
The Grapes of God
There are three religious ideas, the connection of which with one another I will try to set forth: Promises, Faith, Prayer.
I. Promises. What are the promises? Those of you who are diligent readers of the Bible do not need to be told that a large proportion of God's Word consists of promises. All who can discern the inspiration of the Scriptures at all would allow that nowhere is Divinity more visible and unmistakable than in these passages. The very mind of God, the very heart of the Most High comes out in these promises, and it is not only by this that their Divinity can be recognised, but also by their humanity. In reading a book on the teaching of Jesus, I recently came across this remark: 'If Godly people keep books of promises, why do they not also keep books of commandments, especially the commandments of Jesus?' I venture to say that if you want the commandments to be well attended to, the best thing you can do is to attend well to the promises. If the promises of religion have free course and are glorified, there is little fear but the commandments will get their chance likewise.
II. Faith. Faith is the second idea to connect in your minds with the promises. Faith is that in man which corresponds to promises in God. It is the human hand which grasps the promises as they hang down from on high, or rather, if I might say so, the mouth of the infant exactly fashioned so as to fit to the fountains of Divine nourishment These promises are so numerous as to be practically innumerable, and if your faith is going on from one to another, exploring its depths and its sweetness, you have practically before you an endless progress, in which your faith will be as happy visiting promise after promise as a bee on a summer's day is in visiting flower after flower. I can imagine a thoughtful hearer saying: 'But is that not substituting a book for a person? Is not Christ the object of faith? It is to Christ and not to books we are to cling.' Most true; I would preach that with all my heart if it were necessary, and yet it is in the texts that Christ presents Himself to our faith.
III. Prayer. Prayer is just faith in action. If any of you have difficulties about exercising your faith, as I know many Christians have, you cannot do better than turn your effort into prayer; that will do admirably. Just as our prayer lives and moves as it attaches itself to the promises, so our prayers receive a new life when we attach them to the promises, and you cannot have a better definition of prayer than the pleading of the promises.
J. Stalker, Christian World Pulpit, vol. LXXIV. p. 9.
Gerard Roussel, the learned but timid Canon of Meaux, who was the friend of Bishop Briconnet and Margaret of Angoulême, left Meaux for Strasbourg in 1525. He was too cautious to join with men like Farel, Zwingli, and Œcolampadius. To the last of these three reformers he wrote, after reciting the list of his opponents the bishops, the doctors, the universities, the populace, the Parlement Quid faciet homuncio adversus tot leones ? 'What shall a little man do against so many lions?' Prof. Baird, in quoting this letter, remarks: 'A reference to the book of Daniel might have enabled the Canon of Meaux to answer his own question'.
References. XI. 33. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. viii. No. 435. J. G. Rogers, Christian World Pulpit, vol. liv. p. 312. Expositor (6th Series), vol. x. p. 361.
Heroes and Martyrs
From the persons whom he has just mentioned, the Judges, David, Samuel and the Prophets, the author passes to their achievements, not confining himself to those whom he has mentioned, but embracing in his view the dazzling triumphs and the still more wonderful endurance exhibited by the heroes and martyrs of faith down the history of Israel till the time of the Maccabees. He had no pinched or contracted view of faith; he includes in the range of it some things that we with our more secular habit of thought might be tempted to exclude.
I. First, there were the great military exploits of Israel's leaders. More than once he touches on this aspect of Hebrew history 'subdued kingdoms,' 'waxed mighty in war,' 'turned to flight armies of aliens'. All of these sanctify the calling of the soldier as exhibiting faith, in a way which corresponds to the Old Testament rather than to the New Testament ideal.
Yet with all the imperfection which to ourselves seems to cling about this ideal, we ought not to blame the writer for reversion to a lower type. It would show a lack of historical imagination to expect Old Testament characters to conform to a New Testament standard as yet unrevealed. All we can expect is that they should place their life under the sanction of religion; and, since war was to them part of the natural order of things, it provided a fitting field in which their faith might be exercised. We may, of course, feel that there is a difference between wars of conquest and wars in self-defence. But the Hebrews thought that religion justified their conquest of Canaan, and David no doubt imagined that his wars of aggrandisement raised the prestige of Israel's God. But we turn with more sympathy to the efforts made by Israel to shake off the Philistine yoke, or to the splendid and thrilling story of the Maccabean struggle to save the national religion from extinction.
II. We are on ground more congenial to ourselves in the phrase 'obtained promises'. For here, although military triumphs may be partly in mind, the thought is by no means limited to these. It is not simply that they received promises, but that they obtained their fulfilment The making of the promise may be entirely independent in the first instance of the recipient's faith. It is God who takes the initiative in graciously setting before His servants some alluring prospect But promises are naturally not unconditional, they imply believing response on the part of the recipient, and therefore if the promise is to be realised faith is necessary for its attainment There is a sentence in Genesis with reference to the faith of Abraham which has left its mark deep upon the New Testament: 'Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness'. It is true, of course, that lack of faith does not always cancel the fulfilment of the promise itself. The New Testament assures us that our lack of faith does not make void the faithfulness of God.
III. From the great conquests of faith the author passes to its even nobler triumphs of endurance. There is far less heroism displayed in exploits of daring valour. Here the flush of excitement, the conviction of success, the consciousness of admiring spectators, nerve the courage for a loftier flight. But in the experience of persecution the romantic and exhilarating supports of heroism are withdrawn. The hero can no longer feel the intoxication of conflict or 'drink delight of battle with his peers'. He has first to wait, and then to endure. And the torture of suspense is itself enough to make the strong quail in the agony of apprehension, especially when it is long drawn out, when everything is uncertain the time, the manner, the intensity of the torment when the mind has no fixed point of contemplation on which to rest It is then that the battle may be almost lost before it is even joined. The tormentor well knows the horrors of suspense, and carefully calculates to break his victim's spirit before ever his body is brought into the torture-chamber. And when suspense and fearful apprehension have done their worst, when the courage is sapped and the imagination has played freely on the ghastly future, then physical torture is enlisted to complete the fiendish work which imagination has begun. Through it all the victim is quite helpless and passive; he can do nothing, he can only suffer.
In our own soft and sentimental age, an age of vivid imagination, of nerves, anaesthetics, and cowardly shrinking from physical pain, the stories of the torture-chamber touch us with amazement if we are able to enter with sympathy into all the cruel misery they involved. We cannot help the reflection, if the old time of persecution were to come back, though in the more terrible form which the ingenuity of modern science on the one hand and the profounder knowledge of the human body on the other would make possible, how would the Churches of the present day meet the crisis? It can hardly be doubted that the first effect would be to sift the Churches to a faithful remnant, though it is not to be questioned that reserves of courage would be found in some where we should least expect it But we should have at least this assurance, that the power of faith in which they triumphed would remain our chief hope; the firm hold on spiritual realities would be our surest safeguard against defeat of the spirit on the physical battlefield.
A. S. Peake, The Heroes and Martyrs of Faith, p. 186.
References. XI. 34. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xii. No. 697, and vol. xxxvii. No. 2209.
The suffering of martyrdom was in some respects peculiar. It was a death, cruel in itself, publicly inflicted: and heightened by the fierce exultation of a malevolent populace. When we are in pain, we can lie in peace by ourselves. We receive the sympathy and kind services of those about us; and if we like it, we can retire altogether from the sight of others, and suffer without a witness to interrupt us. But the sufferings of martyrdom were for the most part public, attended with every circumstance of ignominy and popular triumph, as well as with torture. Criminals indeed are put to death without kindly thoughts from bystanders; still, for the most part, even criminals receive commiseration and a sort of respect. But the early Christians had to endure 'the shame' after their Master's pattern. They had to die in the midst of enemies who reviled them, and in mockery, bid them (as in Christ's case) come down from the cross. They were supported on no easy couch, soothed by no attentive friends; and considering how much the depressing power of pain depends on the imagination, this circumstance alone at once separates their sufferings widely from all instances of pain in disease. The unseen God alone was their Comforter, and this invests the scene of their suffering with supernatural majesty, and awes us when we think of them. 'Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me. ' A martyrdom is a season of God's especial power in the eye of faith, as great as if a miracle were visibly wrought It is a fellowship of Christ's sufferings, a commemoration of His death, a representation filling up in figure, 'that which is behind of His afflictions, for his Body's sake, which is the Church'. And thus, being an august solemnity in itself, and a kind of sacrament, a baptism of blood, it worthily finishes that long searching trial which I have already described as being its usual forerunner in primitive times.
J. H. Newman.
References. XI. 37. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxvi. No. 1628. Expositor (6th Series), vol. x. p. 118.
Describing, in Under the Syrian Sun (vol. II. pp. 357 f.), the martyrs of Babism in Persia, Mr. A. C. Inchbold observes that 'the Bab proclaimed the new faith, of which he openly avowed himself the Divine mouthpiece, during six years of persecution conducted on lines of a drastic, unparalleled severity. Among his immediate apostles and general adherents were counted many intellectual men of good position, and holding enlightened views. These people were hunted down like wild beasts, put to death by the most horrible torture that the ingenuity of fiendish man could devise. Like the Christian martyrs of old, "they were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were slain with the sword; they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; they wandered in deserts and in mountains and in dens and caves of the earth".'
It is for the suppression of freedom that tortures have always been expressly used. For freedom of life and mind men and women have suffered more than for the filthiest crimes. 'They were tortured,' says the old writer, 'not accepting deliverance. Others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings; they were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword; they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented.' And having reached that point, unable to restrain his admiration any longer, he throws in the words 'of whom the world was not worthy'. It was the same cause of freedom and the same heroic mind that filled the torture chambers of Europe from Domitian down to Bomba. Always the worst suffering has been reserved for liberty.
From The Nation, (4th May, 1907), p. 375.
References. XI. 38. J. G. Rogers, Christian World Pulpit, vol. liv. p. 328. H. M. Butler, Harrow School Sermons, p. 411.
Man Perfected Through Suffering
I. The words teach that the fundamental gifts of the religious life can be received by the individual in isolation and obscurity. We may be ready to ask the question, Was it not hard that these early believers, who had so nobly satisfied God's demand upon their faith, should be shut out from their full and final blessedness for ages? Let it suffice to reply that they received, without a single exception, compensations that in the meantime more than filled up the measure of their desires. (1) Their comparative ignorance and detachment did not bar them from the possession of this precious rudimentary grace. (2) In the absence of the fully accomplished promise, a witness of some sort was vital to their sustained fidelity. The God who had called them to His service could not well leave them destitute of it. (3) And then God could not leave an unnecessary burden on the conscience of His people.
II. The crowning gifts of the religious life can only be received in common with the completed Church of the elect. 'That they without us should not be made perfect.' (1) The life of nature is social, and its different parts are perfected together. God seems to delight in the magnificence of aggregate effects. And is it not so also in the spiritual world? Not till the golden chime is heard that proclaims the approach of God's ripe summer will the life of all the separate ages receive its highest glory and development. The higher you ascend in the scale of life, the more pronounced is this principle of interdependence. (2) With the setting up of the New Dispensation some new effusion of light and knowledge and spiritual victory has come to the Old Testament saints in the region of the unseen. Progress is not the monopoly of those who are in the flesh. Christ's mediatorial sacrifice was for patriarchs, prophets, and righteous men of old, and it has brought them abreast of us in privilege and insight and power. (3) Besides the richer effusion of joy that came to the first generation of God's servants through the work of God's Incarnate Son, their joy is further perfected with the progressive perfecting of human history. (4) The text suggests that there is a larger fulfilment of the Covenant in the last great day, for which the spirits of the Old and the New Dispensation must alike wait. The noble army of martyrs can only be fully crowned when the last pale recruit to their numbers shall have come in. (5) The fact that God should have determined to perfect the men of all ages together shows how much He thinks of those great principles of mutual association and fellowship which we sometimes esteem so little. He shows honour to those lowly disciples and followers of His Son whom we do not sufficiently honour. (6) God seems to be teaching us in this way the humility which can be best learned and exercised through fellowship. It is a check to our pride to be reminded that we can only be crowned in common with the rest. (7) And then by perfecting His servants together God seems to remind us of the graciousness and beauty of patience. Disembodied saints of the olden time are waiting for us, and we shall have to wait for them. (8) And then God has ordained that the perfecting of our destinies shall be in common, because He wishes to set forth His grace and power upon a scale of incomparable magnificence. The canvas on which God's hand is to work its consummate miracle must be stretched to its utmost dimensions.
References. XI. 39, 40. Bishop Boyd-Carpenter, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lvi. p. 40, and vol. lix. p. 17. John Thomas, ibid. vol. lviii. p. 120. Expositor (5th Series), vol. vi. p. 160. XI. 40. J. R. Bailey, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlviii. p. 164.
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Hebrews 11". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany