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Heaven's Teaching on Earth's Duties
The experience of Moses on Mount Sinai, to which our text refers, was a remarkable example of communion between God and man. We may thankfully accept it as a symbol of spiritual truth, and typical of recurring experience. Fellowship with God is not peculiar to any age, or clime, or race; and access to the Father is now far more generally enjoyed than in Mosaic times; for since then the world has seen and heard Him who said: 'I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no man cometh unto the Father, but by Me'. This verse reminds us
I. That nothing is too trivial for God to notice. Moses was instructed in the mountain about the making of bowls, and dishes, and spoons, and staves, and tables. And if this fact suggests no other truth, at least it may remind us that the God of Jews and Christians is essentially unlike the God imagined by Epicureans ancient and modern; for there is nothing too insignificant to be cared for by Him. Human knowledge, especially of late years, has been going in the direction of the trivial. While the Son of God was on earth, what small things He cared for! He who spoke with angels noticed children playing in the marketplace. Now, if this be so, we ought not to wait before going to Him for help until some crushing sorrow comes to break us down.
II. We may speak to God about ordinary affairs in seasons of highest communion. If we are conscious that Christ goes with us, as He went with His disciples, to street, and marketplace, and home, we may speak to Him about every grief and anxiety that comes.
III. Even slight deviations from Divine directions are forbidden. I fear we must acknowledge with shame that even professedly Christian people, in dealing with those outside the Church, have sometimes deliberately set aside the principles they profess; and the Sermon on the Mount has been condemned as impracticable and absurd. If it be true that even slight deviations from Divine directions are forbidden, we must guard ourselves against those forms of sin which we generally condone.
IV. What God calls us to do has more depending on it than we suppose. God expects of His servants what we, with less right, expect of ours absolute fidelity and thoroughness in work, even though we do not see the object of it
A. Rowland, The Burdens of Life, p. 209.
The Pattern in the Mount
Here is a man who has left the multitude, with all its disturbing heats and clamours, and has sought the unperverting coolness of solitude, and on the cloud-capped height has found communion with his God. Now, one of the richest gifts with which God has dowered the race is the gift of mountain-men, men whose dwelling-place is on high, to whom the rarified atmosphere is their native air, who are finely perceptive of heavenly callings, and who are keen-eyed to discern the ideal tracings of the finger of God. There are the poets. What are these but mountain-men? And, then, there are the prophets, men again who have been cloistered on the heights with their God, and who descend into our mean discords with 'the voice of the great eternal' ringing in their mighty tones. There are mountain-moments in every life, when our tiny circle is immeasurably enlarged, when the cloud-rock breaks, and we see things as they are in the radiant glory of God.
I. Now in those mountain-moments we are all idealists. For what is an idealist? An idealist is one who sees the true idea of a thing. (1) In our mountain-moments we see the true idea of life. We see that the ideal life is a life of sublime fellowship, with sensitive perceptions and correspondences with the Highest. (2) And in these mountain-moments we see the true idea of the means of living. (3) And in these mountain-moments we see the true idea of society, as being a sacred fellowship, a gracious combination where competition does not poison or bruise, a fertile altruism in which the individual surely finds his appointed crown. (4) And so, too, we have the true idea of the fallen, the idea of the prodigal and the Magdalene, the pattern in the mount for her and him; God's design in heaven for thee and me. (5) And we have the true idea of little children, as princes and princesses of royal blood, who are called to sovereign eminence and service in the inheritance of the saints in light The command is laid upon us as upon the men to whom the words were first spoken: 'See that thou make all things according to the pattern showed to thee in the mount'.
II. And how are we to set about the task? (1) Let us keep our imaginations freshly and vividly furnished with the ideal we wish to realise. A great friend of Westcott's wrote this great word about him: 'He was only strong because he saw, and took time to see'. Amid all our jostling and clamouring realities let us take time to contemplate the vision on the mount (2) If we would retain the vision of the ideal, and be ministers of its incarnation, we must avoid all disgusting habits, whether the vulgarity be obtrusively bold or concealed beneath thin and superficial refinements. Above all, we must cultivate the fellowship and the friendship of the Lord Jesus Christ in that glorious communion, in that supreme ministry of grace, it is possible for us to keep a clear eye and a ready and obedient hand.
J. H. Jowett, The British Congregationalist, 4th June, 1908, p. 554.
'Emerson,' says Mr. Santayana in Poetry and Religion (p. 218), 'was not a prophet who had once for all climbed his Sinai or his Tabor, and having there beheld the transfigured reality, descended again to make authoritative report of it to the world. Far from it At bottom he had no doctrine at all. The deeper he went and the more he tried to grapple with fundamental conceptions, the vaguer and more elusive they became in his hands.'
References. VIII. 6. T. M. Morris, Christian World Pulpit, vol. li. p. 314. B. J. Snell, The Virtue of Gladness, p. 121. Bishop Westcott, The Incarnation and Common Life, p. 141. W. Moore Ede, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lviii. p. 332. Expositor (4th Series), vol. i. p. 437; ibid. (5th Series) vol. vi. p. 381. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Hebrews, p. 29. VIII. 6. Ibid. vol. x. p. 237. VIII. 8. W. H. Simcox, The Cessation of Prophecy, p. 168. VIII. 9. Expositor (4th Series), vol. iii. p. 119.
The Articles of the New Covenant
1. God's Writing on the Heart
We can scarcely estimate the shock to a primitive Hebrew Christian when he discovered that Judaism was to fade away. Now, the great object of this Epistle is to insist on that truth, and to calm the early Hebrew Christians under it, by showing them that the disappearance of the older system left them no poorer but infinitely richer, inasmuch as all that was in it was more perfectly in Christ's Gospel.
I. Let us first try to ascertain what exactly is the meaning of this great promise. These two clauses mean two things the clear perception of the will of God, and the coincidence of that will with our inclinations and desires. (1) How is that wonderful change upon men to be accomplished? 'I will put, I will write.' Only He can do it. (2) It comes to substitute for all other motives to obedience the one motive of love. The secret of Christian morality is that duty is changed into choice, because love is made the motive for obedience. (3) This great promise is fulfilled in the Christian life, because to have Christ shrined in the heart is the heart of Christianity, and Christ Himself is our law. (4) This great promise is fulfilled, because the very specific gift of Christianity to man is the gift of a new nature, which is 'created in righteousness and holiness that flows from truth'.
(5) This great truth has to be held with caution.
(6) There is nothing in this promise which suspends the need for effort and for conflict.
II. Note the impassable gulf which this fulfilled promise makes between Christianity and all other systems. It is a new covenant, undoubtedly an altogether new thing in the world. For whatever other laws have been promulgated among men have had this in common, that they have stood over against the Will with a whip in one hand, and a box of sweets in the other, and have tried to influence desires and inclinations, first by the setting forth of duty, then by threatening, and then by promises to obedience. There is the inherent weakness of all which is merely law. But here is a system which says that it deals with the will as from within, and moves, and moulds, and revolutionises it. The peculiarity of the Gospel is that it gives both the knowledge of what we ought to be; and with and in the knowledge, the desire; and with and in the knowledge and the desire, the power to be what God would have us to be. St. Augustine penetrated to the very heart of this article when he prayed: 'Give what Thou commandest, and command what Thou wilt'.
III. Note the freedom and blessedness of this fulfilled promise. Not to do wrong may be the mark of a slave's timid obedience. Not to wish to do wrong is the charter of a son's free and blessed service.
IV. The condition of the fulfilment of this promise to us. What is there to do? First, and last, and midst, keep close to Jesus Christ. When the astronomer wishes to get the image of some far-off star, invisible to the eye of sense, he regulates the motion of his sensitive plate, so that for hours it shall continue right beneath the unseen beam. So we have to still our hearts, and keep their plates the fleshy tables of them exposed to the heavens. Then the likeness of God will be stamped there. Be faithful to what is written there. This is a promise for us all.
A. Maclaren, Triumphant Certainties, p. 80.
The Articles of the New Covenant
2. Their God, My People
'I am thine: thou art mine,' is the very mother-tongue of love, and the source of blessedness. This mutual surrender, and, in surrender, reciprocal possession, is lifted up here into the highest regions. 'I will be their God, they shall be My people.' That was the fundamental promise of the Mosaic dispensation laid at Sinai, 'Ye shall be unto Me a people for a possession'. So, the writer here, falling back upon the marvellous prophecy of Jeremiah, regards this as being one of the characteristics of Christianity, that what was shadowed in Israel's possession of God and God's possession of Israel, is, in substance, blessedly and permanently realised in the relations of God to Christian souls, and of Christian souls to God.
I. 'I will be to them a God.' That is God's gift of Himself to us. The words go far deeper than the necessary Divine relation to all His creatures. (1) All that lies in that majestic monosyllable, which is shorthand for life, and light, and all perfectness, lived in a living person who has a heart, that word God, all that is included in that name, God will be to you and me, if we like to have Him for such. (2) It says, too, that all that Godhood, in all the incomprehensible sweep of its attributes, is on my side, if I will. (3) This giving of God to us by Himself is all concentrated in one historical act. He gave Himself to us when He spared not His only begotten Son.
II. And now we have to take the giving God and make Him our God.
III. We have to give ourselves to God. God comes first with the love that He pours over us poor creatures, and when 'we have known and believed the love that God hath to us,' then, and only then, do we throb back the reflected, ay, the kindred love. What is the surrender of the man who receives the love of God? In what region of my nature is that giving up of myself most imperative and blessed? In my will. The will is the man.
IV. God takes us for His. That is wonderful. It sometimes seems to me that it is more wonderful that God should take me for His than that He should give me Himself for mine.
A. Maclaren, Triumphant Certainties, p. 90.
On 22nd June, 1655, Cromwell wrote thus to Fleetwood: 'Dear Charles, my dear love to thee; and to my dear Biddy, who is a joy to my heart, for what I hear of the Lord in her. Bid her be cheerful, and rejoice in the Lord once and again: if she knows the covenant, she cannot but do so. For that transaction is without her; sure and stedfast, between the Father and the Mediator in His blood: therefore, leaning upon the Son, or looking unto Him, thirsting after Him, and embracing Him, we are His seed; and the Covenant is sure to all the seed. The compact is for the seed; God is bound in faithfulness to Christ, and in Him to us: the Covenant is without us; a Transaction between God and Christ. Look up to it. God engageth in it to pardon us; to write His Law in our hearts; to plant His fear so that we shall never depart from Him. We, under all our sins and infirmities, can daily offer a perfect Christ, and thus we have peace and safety, and apprehension of love, from a Father in Covenant, who cannot deny Himself. And truly in this is all my salvation; and this helps me to bear my great burdens.'
References. VIII. 10. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xliii. No. 2506. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Hebrews, p. 36; ibid. p. 46.
The Articles of the New Covenant
3. All Shall Know Me
In old days there had been some direct communication between God and a chosen few, the spiritual aristocracy of the nation, and they spake the things that they had heard of God to the multitude who had had no such communication. My text says that all this is swept away, and that the prerogative of every Christian man is direct access to, communication with, and instruction from, God Himself.
I. I ask you to look with me at what this great promise means.
'They shall know Me.' We all know the difference between hearsay and sight. We all know the difference between hearsay and experience. To come still closer to the force of my text, we all know the difference between hearing about a man and making his acquaintance.
There is all the difference between knowing about God and knowing God; just the difference that there is between dogma and life, between theology and religion. We may have all articles of the Christian creed clear in our understandings, and may owe our possession of them to other people's teaching; we may even, in a sense, believe them, and yet they may be absolutely outside of our lives. And it is only when they pass into the very substance of our being, and influence the springs of our conduct it is only then that we know God. I maintain that this acquaintance with Him is what is meant in our text. The whole case for Christianity cannot be appreciated from outside. 'Taste and see.'
II. Notice how far this promise extends. 'They all, from the least to the greatest, shall know.' This is the true democracy of the Gospel the universal possession of the life of Christ through the Spirit.
(1) Now, if that be so, then it is by no means a truth to be kept simply for the purpose of fighting against ecclesiastical or sacerdotal encroachments and denials of it, but it ought to be taken as the candle of the Lord, by each of us, and in the light of it we ought to search very rigidly, and very often, our own Christian character and experiences. (2) But whilst thus the great promise of my text, in its very blessedness and fulness, does carry with it some solemn suggestions for searching self-examination, it also points in another direction. For consider what it excludes, and what it permits, in the way of brotherly help and guidance. It certainly excludes, on the one hand, all assumption of authority over the consciences and the understandings of Christian people, on the part either of churches or individuals, and it makes short work of all claims that there continues a class of persons officially distinguished from their brethren, and having closer access to God than they. (3) But brotherly help is not shut out.
III. The means by which this promise is fulfilled. (1) Jesus Christ's blood, the seal of the Covenant, is the great means by which this promise is fulfilled, inasmuch as in that death He sweeps away all the hindrances which bar us out from the knowledge of God. (2) By His mission and death there is given to the whole world, if it will receive it, and to all who exercise faith in His name, the gift of that Divine Spirit who teaches in the inmost spirit the true knowledge of His Son. (8) The one way by which every man and woman on earth may find him and herself included within that 'all, from the least to the greatest,' is simply trust in Christ Jesus.
A. Maclaren, Triumphant Certainties, p. 98.
The Articles of the New Covenant
4. Forgiveness the Fundamental Blessing
The introductory 'for' in my text shows that the fulfilment of all the preceding great promises depends upon and follows the fulfilment of this, the greatest of them. Forgiveness is the keystone of the arch. Strike it out, and the whole tumbles into ruin.
I. Forgiveness deals with man's deepest need. It is fundamental, because it grapples with the true evil of humanity, which is not sorrow, but is sin. The true notion and essence of forgiveness, as the Bible conceives it, is not the putting aside of consequences, but the flow of the Father's heart to the erring child. If a man has sinned, no Divine forgiveness will ever take the memory of his transgressions, nor their effects, out of his character. But the Divine forgiveness may so modify the effects as that, instead of past sin being a source of torment or a tyrant which compels to future similar transgressions, pardoned sin will become a source of lowly self-distrust, and may even tend to increase in goodness and righteousness. When bees cannot remove some corruption out of the hives they cover it over with wax, and then it is harmless, and they can build upon it honey-bearing cells. Thus it is possible that, by pardon, the consequences which must be reaped may be turned into occasions for good. But the act of the Divine forgiveness does annihilate the deepest and the most serious consequences of my sin; for hell is separation from God, the sense of discord and alienation between Him and me; and all these are swept away.
II. This forgiveness is attained through Christ, and through Him only.
The Christian teaching of forgiveness is based upon the conception of Christ's work and especially of Christ's death, as being the Atonement for the world's sin. Of course, my text itself does show that the very common misrepresentation of the New Testament evangelical teaching about this matter is a misrepresentation. It is often objected to that teaching that it alleges that Christ's sacrifice effected a change in the Divine heart and disposition, and made God love men whom He did not love before. The mighty 'I will' of my text makes no specific reference to Christ's death, and rather implies what is the true relation between the love of God and the death of Jesus Christ, that God's love was the originating cause, of which Christ's death was the redeeming effect.
III. This forgiveness is fundamental to all other Christian blessings.
A Christianity which does not begin with the proclamation of forgiveness is impotent A Christianity which does not base forgiveness on Christ's sacrifice is impotent also. A Christianity which does not build holiness, delight in God's law, conscious possession of Him and possession by Him, and deep, blessed knowledge of Him on forgiveness, is woefully imperfect.
A. Maclaren, Triumphant Certainties, p. 109.
References. VIII. 12. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxviii. No. 1685. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Hebrews, p. 62. IX. 1. J. Caird, Sermons, p. 272. Expositor (6th Series), vol. iii. p. 136. IX. 1-10. Ibid. (5th Series), vol. v. p. 379. IX. 4. Ibid. (4th Series), vol. viii. p. 194. IX. 5 . Ibid. (6th Series), vol. viii. p. 337. IX. 7. Ibid. (4th Series), vol. i. p. 88; ibid. (5th Series), vol. ii. p. 158; ibid. (7th Series), vol. v. p. 56.
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Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Hebrews 8". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany