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Think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, nay: but except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. In one day the nay will command a ready assent: but the warning added, and the character with which it stamps such events as foreshadowings of judgment, will not readily be entered into.
The Call to Repentance (For Lent)
I. The Voice of the Love of God. Let us make quite sure that the call which comes to us now is the voice of the love of God, seeking to awaken those who are asleep in careless sin, seeking to bring back those who have wandered, to set free those who are tied and bound by the chains of evil habit. The voice of God is even now calling us to search and examine our hearts and lives only because He loves us and would lead us into the paths which lead to perfect peace.
II. Its Universal Application. If there should be any one who thinks that this matter has no meaning or importance for him, if there be any who intend to put aside all thought of Lent as regards their own inner life, or who are content to go on as they are without any prayerful self-examination, without any effort of self-discipline, I would ask them very seriously to take to heart what St. Paul says on this subject. He was no self-indulgent idler, and yet, after perhaps twenty years of devoted service, he says, 'I keep under my body and bring it into subjection'. Is there any one here whose past life has been so wholly given to Christ that he can dare to say that he has risen above the need of that self-discipline which St. Paul found necessary for the safety of his soul?
III. The Lesson Needed. We have in the words of our text a striking instance of the way in which our Lord answered the thoughts rather than the words of those around Him. He laid down for all time this rule, that we are not to judge of the misfortunes of others as to how far they may be the result of their own misdeeds; we are not to claim for ourselves any merit or favour because we have been shielded from loss or suffering.
IV. Make-believe Repentance. Repentance had become too much a mere matter of words, an empty show for what had no real existence in the heart. We seem to gather this from our Lord's own teaching with regard to the make-believe repentance of the Pharisee. Let us be quite sure, and especially at this season of Lent, that our repentance is real, that it is in the sight of God, and not merely a show to man. It will be well for us to be on our guard against some of the common imitations of repentance, which may suffice to silence a conscience which has never been really aroused, but which cannot bring peace to a troubled soul.
(a) The first of these imitations of repentance, because the most common, is to be satisfied with a sorrow for the consequences of sin and not for the sin itself.
(b) Another danger is that we should be satisfied with a general confession of our evil deeds, merely repeating the words that we are miserable sinners. That is good but it is not enough.
(c) And one more caution, let us be very careful to take God's standard and not the world's. How many silence their conscience by saying they are no worse than their neighbours! How can such an excuse stand before the great white throne? In their early years young people will not think; in the busy, active prime of life they do not think; when the heart becomes hard and worldly they cannot think; and then perhaps, when the realities of death and eternity are close at hand, they dare not think. Surely then it is well for us to have a special time appointed when we may force ourselves to think of sin and death and judgment.
References. XIII. 3. E. A. Bray, Sermons, vol. i. p. 90. XIII. 3-5. J. A. Alexander, The Gospel of Jesus Christ, p. 431.
'We cannot tell what is a judgment of God; 'tis presumption to take upon us to know. Commonly,' adds Selden, 'we say a judgment falls upon a man for something in him we cannot abide.'
Addison moralises on this in the Spectator for 13th September, 1712. 'One would think,' he observes. 'that several of our own historians, in particular, had many revelations of this kind made to them. Our own English monks seldom let any of their kings depart in peace, who had endeavoured to diminish the power or wealth of which the ecclesiastics were in those times possessed. William the Conqueror's race generally found their judgments in the New Forest, where their father had pulled down churches and monasteries.'As the essayist observes, in conclusion, the presumptuousness of such a temper is evident from two considerations 'First, that, generally speaking, there is no calamity or affliction, which is supposed to have happened as a judgment to a vicious man, which does not sometimes happen to men of approved religion and virtue'. And secondly, 'It is impossible for us to know what are calamities, and what are blessings'.
The common, trashy mind of our generation is still aghast, like the Jews of old, at any word of an unsuccessful virtue. Job has been written and read; the tower of Siloam fell nineteen hundred years ago; yet we have still to desire a little Christianity, or, failing that, a little even of that rude old Norse nobility of soul, which saw virtue and vice alike go unrewarded, and was yet not shaken in its faith.
R. L. Stevenson, Preface to Men and Books.
References. XIII. 4. Expositor (6th Series), vol. ii. p. 330. XIII. 6-9. C. Perren, Revival Sermons in Outline, p. 324. H. Howard, The Raiment of the Soul, p. 30. Expositor (6th Series), vol. ii. pp. 220-366.
The Barren Fig Tree
This parable, one of the shortest, is yet one of the fullest of Divine teaching. It was spoken, primarily, about the Jewish nation. But it refers also to the individual, and the teaching is also to the individual. We notice three things about it.
I. God is Working out a Mighty Plan. God's plan is this. His vineyard, His Church, His Kingdom is to extend all over the earth. His Gospel to be preached to every nation: 'that every man should know Jesus as his Saviour'. Such is God's plan. We are only units in God's mighty plan, only fig trees in God's vineyard. He has a right to expect something of us, and so He comes and inspects us.
II. A Fruitless Tree. If God finds the Christian not living as he should, not bearing the fruit that was expected of him, there can be only one result. That Christian must be taken up, cast out, and destroyed. There can be no room in God's vineyard for the sluggard; he must be destroyed, forgotten, driven away from God. Let us apply that to ourselves and let us keep that thought close before us. We are fig trees in God's mighty vineyard. God has put you and me just where we are at present. He has not forgotten our whereabouts. He has tended us carefully, He has given us capacity of body and of mind. He has expended upon us all this loving care; and in return He makes inspection of our state at unexpected moments, and so finds out the result of this wonderful care. I tell you these are solemn times when God does this, when He comes very near to us.
III. The Cause of Barrenness. Let us take another glance at the fig tree of the parable. Why was it barren? It had received every attention, had been carefully nurtured, its externals were healthy, it made a good show. Why did it not produce fruit? There was no power in it. It did not possess that life-producing sap which could percolate from the roots and produce the fruit. There was something retarding this flow of the sap which produces fruition, something which had caused it to dry up. Outwardly, it looked well; inwardly, it was unhealthy. Is that what God means us a part of His Church to be, a fig tree barren of fruit? He has given us all those blessings, and the result is nothing, or very little at best. Can we say why there are so many weak Christians, why our lives are so barren? Yes, because there is no power no power of the Holy Ghost.
References. XIII. 7, 8. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xi. No. 650. XIII. 8. T. F. Crosse, Sermons (2nd Series), p. 230. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxv. No. 1451. XIII. 8, 9. Bishop Bethell, Sermons, vol. ii. p. 213. XIII. 9. Brooke Herford, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xliv. p. 362. J. Stuart Holden, The Pre-Eminent Lord, p. 197- XIII. 10-13. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxiv. No. 1426; vol. 1. No. 2891. XIII. 10-17. Expositor (4th Series), vol. vi. p. 272. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture St. Luke, p. 1. XIII. 12. W. P. Balfern, Lessons from Jesus, p. 103.
In Sylvia's Lovers (chap. xxx.) Mrs. Gaskell describes Sylvia after her marriage and change from the country life to that of a town. 'Sitting in the dark parlour at the back of the shop, and doing "white work," was much more wearying to her than running out into the fields to bring up the cows, or spinning wool, or making up butter. She sometimes thought to herself that it was a strange kind of life where there were no outdoor animals to look after; the "ox and the ass" had hitherto come into all her ideas of humanity; and her care and gentleness had made the dumb creatures round her father's home into mute friends with loving eyes, looking at her as if wistful to speak in words the grateful regard that she could read without the poor expression of language.'
References. XIII. 16. Expositor (7th Series), vol. vi. p. 557. XIII. 18. Llewelyn Davies, The Prayers of God, pp. 41-54. XIII. 18, 19. J. Laidlaw, Studies in the Parables, p. 81. R. Winterbotham, The Kingdom of Heaven, p. 52. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxxv. No. 2110. XIII. 18-34. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xlv. No. 2630. XIII. 19. Expositor (4th Series), vol. ii. p. 421. XIII. 20. A. G. Mortimer, The Church's Lessons for the Christian Year, pt. iv. p. 249. XIII. 20, 21. R. Winterbotham, The Kingdom of Heaven, p. 70. J. Laidlaw, Studies in the Parables, p. 81. XIII. 21. Expositor (4th Series), vol. ii. p. 380. XIII. 22-30. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture St. Luke, p. 8.
The Question of Folly
This question may no doubt be asked from different motives. Nevertheless it is a foolish question. When it comes from the head it always is so; only when the heart lends it its tenderness and anxiety can it be profitably asked. And Jesus treats it as a foolish question: He does not respond to the speaker's curiosity or speculative interest; turning away from him to the others who were present, He says: 'Strive to enter in at the strait gate; for many, I tell you, shall seek to enter in and shall not be able'. It is the same word, no doubt, which we find in a fuller form in the Sermon on the Mount: 'Enter ye in at the strait gate, for wide is the gate and broad is the way which leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat; because strait is the gate and narrow is the way that leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it'.
I. Question and answer alike recognise, what is recognised by every unsophisticated conscience, that there is such a thing as salvation, and that it cannot be taken for granted. In other words, what is put before us in this life is an alternative. There are two gates, two ways, two goals, two sides of the throne, two kinds of foundation for the house we build; and we have to make our choice between them. We can go in at the strait gate, or at the wide gate, but not at both. We can travel in the broad way or the narrow way, but not in both.
II. The strait gate, as we see from the Sermon on the Mount, is so called in opposition to the wide gate, and the wide gate is not so hard to understand. A wide gate is one through which you can pass easily, carrying what you please, and no questions asked. That, Jesus tells us, is the kind of gate which opens on the way that leads to destruction. Anybody can go in, and take what he likes along with him. The wide gate is always busy; the broad way thronged with travellers. You can drift in with the stream, you can have the pleasant sense of being well supported, you can maintain a certain self-respect by pointing to the large numbers of people, of all possible capacities, tastes, and characters, who have taken that way. Nevertheless, it leads to destruction.
III. What, then, is meant by the strait gate which opens on the path of life? It is a gate, as the name suggests, which excludes much. You can carry a thousand things to hell which you must lay down before you can take the first step on the way which leads to heaven. In one sense it is wide enough; it can admit any man; it can let the whole human race pass through, if they come one by one, and strip at the outside; but it is not wide enough for anything else. The question has sometimes been asked, 'What, in one word, is the strait gate?' and various answers have been given. It has been called Repentance, Faith, Christ, and what not. Even if these answers are in some respects true, as they are, they are misleading; they divert the mind from the very point which Jesus wishes to emphasise. His purpose is to make us feel that the entrance to the path of life is an entrance in front of which man becomes suddenly, profoundly, perhaps startlingly conscious, that if he is ever to pass through there he must leave much behind him. If there is one word which expresses this, it is Renunciation.
IV. Jesus takes it for granted that every one has something to part with. The gate is a strait gate for all who go up to it. There is not a man on earth who can be saved as he is: he has something to renounce before he can enter into life. This is one of the indirect ways in which Jesus assumes the natural sinfulness of the human heart. The heart may have the capacity of heroism, and of making the great renunciation which is required; but no heart is spared renunciation; no man enters the kingdom without the sense of sacrifice and constraint. And it is because the renunciation is painful and requires a great effort that Jesus says with such solemnity and urgency: ' Strive to enter in at the strait gate; for many, I say unto you, shall seek to enter in and shall not be able'.
James Denney, Gospel Questions and Answers, p. 120.
References. XIII. 23. A Scotch Preacher, The Strait Gate, p. 27. XIII. 23, 24. J. T. Bramston, Fratribus, p. 72. S. Bentley, Parish Sermons, p. 85. G. W. Brameld, Practical Sermons, p. 236.
The Narrow Door
What are the things against which men have to strive to enter into God's kingdom?
I. That against which most people have to strive, if they would enter into life, is the pride of their own heart. There is no hindrance standing between more people and God than that of pride, and there is no sin which people are more anxious for others to think them guiltless of than pride. Therein lies its subtlety. How is pride manifested? Pride manifests itself in a refusal, first, to accept the Divine estimate of the heart's condition; and secondly, and consequently, pride manifests itself in a refusal to obey the first Divine injunction 'Repent'.
II. There are those who will have to strive against false confidences. There are those who are trusting in their observance of law; those who are trusting in the fact that they have never openly broken the commandments of the Decalogue. There are those who are putting confidence in a profession of Christianity, putting confidence, moreover, in Christian service.
III. Many are being kept out of the kingdom by some false conception of God; who are being kept out of the kingdom by some doctrinal difficulty. To speak of the knowledge of God and of the counsel of God as a reason for your indifference and your continuing in sin, is to attempt to grasp within the compass of your finite mind infinite things which cannot be, and is to disregard and disobey the tender, compassionate voice of the Omnipotent One who calls you to personal, individual, immediate responsibility, and says to you 'Your business is to strive to enter in'.
IV. Some one else is not a Christian because they believe that if a man does his best God is so good that He will save him. That is not true. And why not? Because a man is best when he is worthless. Because man's best in the sight of heaven is unholy.
V. Many are not Christians because they are afraid of the strife. People have said to me: 'I would like to be a Christian, but I could not keep it'. Their idea of Christianity is that they make a start, and then have to keep it. Once you have made a start you do not keep Christianity, Christianity keeps you. Strive to pass the narrow door, and beyond the place where it swings upon its portal, find the breadth and the magnificence, the sweetness and the light of God's kingship and comradeship with Christ.
G. Campbell Morgan, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lxi. p. 241.
Strive to Enter in
I. Vagrant desires are not enough without a settled earnest purpose. Be in earnest.
II. Desires to be in the kingdom are not enough, unless you seek the right way. Be in earnest in the right direction. Christ is the Door. To enter in we need (1) Humiliation. (2) Repentance. (3) Faith.
III. Future seekings all vain. This is the time.
References. XIII. 24. C. Perren, Outline Sermons, p. 150. G. Bellett, Parochial Sermons, p. 65. J. Keble, Sermons for Sundays after Trinity, pt. i. p. 128. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. viii. No. 475. J. Laidlaw, Studies in the Parables, p. 191.
There is no scarcity of faith now, such as it is; for ye shall not now light upon the man who will not say, he hath faith in Christ. But, alas! dreams make no man's rights.... I verily think that the world hath too soft an opinion of the gate to heaven, and that many shall get a blind and sad beguile for heaven. For there is more ado than a cold and frozen 'Lord, Lord'. It must be a way narrower and straighter than we conceive. It were good to take a more judicious view of Christianity. For I have been doubting if ever I knew more of Christianity than the letters of the name.
References. XIII. 25. W. H. Brookfield, Sermons, p. 25. XIII. 26, 27. J. J. Blunt, Plain Sermons (3rd Series), 155. XIII. 27. A. R. Ashwell, God in His Work and Nature, p. 59. Expositor (5th Series), vol. vi. p. 410.
Envy will not always prevail envious scoundrels may chuckle for a time at the seemingly complete success of the dastardly arts to which they have recourse, in order to crush merit but Providence is not asleep. All of a sudden they see their supposed victim on a pinnacle far above their reach. Then there is weeping and gnashing of teeth with a vengeance, and the long melancholy howl. Oh, there is nothing in this world which gives one so perfect an idea of retribution as the long melancholy howl of the disappointed envious scoundrel when he sees his supposed victim smiling on an altitude far above his reach.
From Borrow's, Wild Wales, chap. xxxvii.
References. XIII. 28. Expositor (5th Series), vol. x. p. 340. XIII. 29. F. W. Symes, Preacher's Magazine, vol. xvii. p. 511. Expositor (6th Series), vol. viii. p. 140. XIII. 30. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. li. No. 2934. Expositor (7th Series), vol. v. p. 334. XIII. 31. J. Stalker, Christian World Pulpit, vol. liii. p. 54. XIII. 31, 32. D. Fraser, Metaphors in the Gospels, p. 202. XIII. 32. J. Baines, Twenty Sermons, p. 91. XIII. 32, 33. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture St. Luke, p. 14. XIII. 33. Newman Smyth, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlvii. p. 267. C. F. Aked, ibid., vol. lix. p. 323. Expositor (4th Series), vol. i. p. 27; ibid. vol. iii. p. 133; ibid. vol. v. p. 15; ibid. (5th Series), vol. v. p. 16. XIII. 34. D. Fraser, Metaphors in the Gospels, p. 209. Expositor (6th Series), vol. i. p. 238; ibid. vol. vii. p. 133. XIII. 34. A. T. Robertson, Epochs in the Life of Jesus, p. 120.
If it is not a tragical life we live, then I know not what to call it. Such a story as that of Jesus Christ the history of Jerusalem, say, being a part of the Universal History. The naked, the embalmed, un-buried death of Jerusalem amid its desolate hills think of it.
Compare the apt use made of this in Tennyson's Aylmer's Field, with its closing cry:
Christ ere His agony to those that swore
Not by the temple but the gold, and made
Their own traditions God, and slew the Lord,
And left their memories a world's curse 'Behold,
Your house is left unto you desolate.'
References. XIV. 1. W. C. Wheeler, Sermons and Addresses (2nd Series), p. 163; Christianity in Daily Conduct, p. 227. XIV. 1-14. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture St. Luke, p. 23.
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Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Luke 13". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://www.studylight.org/
the Sixth Week after Easter