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The Changeable and the Unchangeable
Have we in our experiences, apart from the religious life, any knowledge of such a distinction? Is it real, or is it fanciful? Is the distinction found in law, in institutions? Is it within the lines of the Church itself? Are all things temporal? are all things eternal? Or is there a specific difference between the one and the other? If we find the distinction in our daily life, without regard to Bible or Church or altar, we may be prepared to affirm it in all the higher ranges of spiritual speculation and outlook. What if society itself could not exist but for the distinction found in the text between things temporal and things eternal? It will be like the Bible, if it get hold of us in this way, saying that without knowing it nay, sometimes in the very act of denying it we are adopting its very philosophy. The Bible waits patiently until men have had opportunity of accumulating sufficient experience to justify them in constituting it into a basis of reasoning and inference; then it stands up before them quite suddenly, and says, How is it that ye do not understand? I have been waiting here all this time, I could have told you all this from the very beginning, but you would not have heeded my voice; so now you return from your own experiences and confirm what I was sent to declare: come now, let us reason together; if you have proved me upon the earth, I may be able to carry you to heaven; complete your own logic, and let us see whether there be not a line of permanence in an atmosphere of fickleness, an eternal quantity not to be moved or modified by the clouds which roll around it. We may begin at any point.
For example, here is a written creed drawn up by the finest genius of the Christian Church. Still, it is a human composition. Every line bears traces of critical and most pious care, but at the same time the whole was done as the result of human counsel and human co-operation. How shall we place this creed? We may instantly place it among things which are temporal, not therefore useless or without value; with very great utility and very great value attached, but still amongst things which are temporal. A creed is a kind of telescope through which men look upon the distant and the otherwise invisible; a most useful instrument, but it is not the heavens which it reveals. The telescope is not the star; the distance between the lens and the planet is a distance of infinity. What then is it which is by its nature opposed to this thing which is temporal, and is therefore to be reckoned amongst things eternal? The answer is Faith. The difference between a creed and faith is the difference between things which are temporal and things which are eternal. Faith is not a human creation, a human contrivance, to be tampered with by human genius and skill: faith is of God, faith is heaven-born; it is the crown of manhood, it is the perfection of life, it is the up gathering, the focalising, and glorifying, of all the highest and purest elements of manhood. Where shall we put faith! Amongst things which are eternal. The creed will vary, faith will abide. One creed cometh and disappeareth after another, but faith abideth for ever. There may be a creed without faith, but there cannot be faith without a creed: but faith holds the creed for convenience' sake, saying, I will use you thus to-day; tomorrow I will take you down and reconstruct you, because language advances, science is coming quickly up, new thoughts demand new expressions. The thing that never changes is the spirit of trust, the spirit of faith. Or, we may begin institutionally, and then the matter will stand thus: a benevolent institution, founded for the relief of the sick and helpless, is to be ranked with things which are temporal: it is man-made and man-directed; it was created for the purpose of meeting a particular set of circumstances; so long as it can meet those circumstances it vindicates its right to be and to work; it is thus a living institution in immediate and helpful sympathy with human hearts; still, it is to be put in the category of things which are temporal: what is the quantity which is immediately opposed and which abides for ever? Its name is Philanthropy, love of man. That never changes. Philanthropy handles all the institutions, audits their accounts, revises their methods, reconstructs them when it pleases; says, This institution is not fit to live, or, This institution has outlived itself, or, There is need for some larger method and instrumentality than this, and therefore all these institutional appointments must be revised and redistributed and revitalised. Philanthropy never changes; love of man is part of the very being of God. When the institution is greater than the philanthropy, then you have all manner of mismanagement and mischief and disaster; then you have a man who is addicted to selfish policy and purpose; but when the philanthropy is larger than the institution and uses the institution for beneficent purposes, you have fresh air, morning dew, morning light, reality of feeling and reality of sacrifice.
So then, in these matters we make a palpable distinction between things which are temporal and things which are eternal. We may come nearer to the core of the Church still, and put the matter illustratively thus. Denominationalism is to be ranked with things which are temporal. One man says, I am of Episcopalianism, another, I am of Presbyterianism, another, I am of Congregationalism. So be it; that is right; all that, indeed, expresses a psychological mystery; we must have diversity of opinion, and therefore diversity of relation. What is the quantity which is set in direct opposition as being permanent, yea everlasting? Its name is Worship, religious homage, religious loyalty, praise of God, and consecration to his service. Denominationalism, like all our little systems, has its day; it serves a most useful purpose; it is not to be held in contempt, unless it bring itself into contempt by misuse, and unwisdom, and unreasonableness, but as a thing considered by itself for momentary uses and convenience, it is of high value. But worship endures; sometimes so sublime as to be silent; sometimes so joyous as to be almost ecstatic: always so reverent as to be courageous. Denominationalism you may assign to the list of things which are temporal, worship you must assign to the list of things which are eternal. So long as the worship is superior to the denominationalism all will be well, but when denominationalism is exaggerated, thrust out of its place, it may quench the spirit of worship and issue in angry controversy, wordy frays, misapprehensions of one another, and all manner of mischief and evil.
We may apply the same principle to a religious institution. Let us say the Sabbath. Some say that the Sabbath should be on Saturday, and some that it should be on Sunday. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. The mere day must be set amongst things which are temporal: whether it begin at the cock-crowing or at the dawn, or the evening before, and be stretched over until the evening following, all these are matters of calculation and opinion, upon which the widest liberty of judgment may be permitted. What is it that is eternal? Rest. You can appoint the day if you please to be Saturday, to be Creation day, or Resurrection Day, or Pentecostal Day, but the thing you cannot trifle with is God's gift, God's command of rest. Blessed, gentle Father, thou dost see about us having rest: men may quibble as to when it is to take place, they may make a chronometric question of it, as to whether it shall begin at seven o'clock in the evening or at seven o'clock in the morning, but, Father of us all, thou wilt see to it that thy command shall stand, and that all thy creatures shall have rest; or if they will not have it, it shall be at the expense of loyalty to thy throne, it shall be at the cost of violation of the most sacred things of heaven. With perfect reverence we may apply the principle to the Bible itself. Looking at the Bible externally, it is a book which men made: they made the paper, they cast the type, they manufactured the ink, various men wrote the book at various times: it is a gathering up of things from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south, from old times and from nearer years; some of the writers never read what the other writers wrote, or had any opportunity of doing so. The Bible, therefore, considered as a book, a manufacture, must be ranked amongst things which are temporal: it has its human aspects, it was written by human hands, it expresses human individuality of religious genius and religious power, and by so much it is to be reckoned amongst things which are temporal. Then what is it that is eternal? The answer is: the thing which is eternal is Revelation, the contact of the Divine mind with the human mind, the specific communication from heaven of heaven's high purpose; a revelation of the nature of God, the economy of providence, the whole scheme of life, with all its mystery of sin, and all its sublimer mystery of atonement. You may redistribute the authorship of the book; you may say Moses wrote none of it or wrote much of it, or could not have written this or that portion of it; you may say that the books of the Bible might be rearranged with advantage chronologically that this prophet should not be first, but that; that some of the minor prophets should be at the beginning of the book; in all this region the greatest liberty of judgment must be permitted: but the thing which abides is that God has at sundry times, and in divers manners, spoken unto the fathers by the Spirit, and has in later times spoken unto men by his Son: God has not left the world without illumination, without spiritual instruction, without spiritual inspiration; the Word of the Lord endureth for ever, criticism comes and goes, enlarges, dwindles, corrects itself; but revelation, as indicating a certain communication between heaven and earth, abides, and must be assigned to the list of things which are eternal.
A number of illustrations will occur on the suggestion of these; the whole system of things instantly yields as a lock to the right key; we see all life partitioned into things which are temporal and things which are eternal. These illustrations supply the preacher with an application of the most healthful and pungent quality. Let us see if this be not so. In the fields of controversy we should assent to things eternal. What does controversy inter-meddle with? With things that are temporal. Controversy takes up little subjects, minute points; displays its shrewdness and cleverness in the detection of flaws or discrepancies in human economies. What talent has been lavished upon church economies, denominational differences, polities of this kind and of that kind, and in the midst of this controversy it may be that the eternal thing has been neglected. The motto quoted from the great bishop is right: "In things essential, unity; in things doubtful, liberty; in all things, charity." What a ground of union we have discovered now in things which are eternal! Who does not in all the Christian Church believe in the necessity of faith, worship, philanthropy, revelation? Yet who has not allowed himself to be driven off into adjacent lines, that he might fight angry battles about unimportant things? When denominationalism is properly understood, and is pervaded by the right worship, it will be found that denominationalism does not represent the pettiness of a difference but the vastness of a subject. If religion were less, denominationalism would be less. It is because the subject is infinite that the variety is immeasurable. But if we dwell upon the variety and forget the infinity, then we busy ourselves with things which are temporal to the neglect of things which are eternal. Then in religious inquiry we should assent to things which are eternal. There are those who say, There are so many denominations that we do not know which to choose. There the inquirer betrays a frivolous state of mind. You have nothing to do with the multitudes of denominations: if you are in earnest, you want to be saved, to be reconciled to God, to be at peace with the great laws of creation; you want to be a child of the most High. Fix your mind upon that line. You have nothing to do with squabbles and differences, and with rearrangements and varieties of forms of religion: your cry is I would see Jesus! and the more the people outside are talking about other things, the clearer should be the ring of your voice, saying, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" Keep to your point. You are in quest of things which are eternal, and when you say you have been inquiring of this church and of that church, and have been going from this pulpit to that pulpit, you betray frivolity of mind, not earnestness of soul. Thou whited sepulchre! If we were in earnest about things eternal they would be shown to us; if we closeted ourselves with God he would show us the way, the truth, the life; then would come minor questions as to attachment to this particular denomination or that, but the great question must be settled between the soul and God himself, saying, Father, I know thee through thy Son. I seek to meet thee at his Cross. There is no difference there. Do not plead the differences of other men as an excuse for your own irreligion; do not live a lie, saying, by suggestion, What an excellent man I would be if other people could only settle their differences: if I go to hell it will be because clever men in the Church cannot adjust their polities and reach a unanimous conclusion. That I must for one never permit: I cannot have your condemnation charged upon the differences of other men regarding things which are temporal. All the men you talk about are one at the Cross, are one in prayer, are one in trusting to the living Christ for redemption, forgiveness, and purity. Let us have no shuffling upon this matter that you would be such patterns of excellence if other people would but settle their ecclesiastical or theological differences.
In coming to God in prayer, we should fix the mind upon things which are eternal, and regulate our prayer by their wide sweep. We are not to ask for things which are temporal, with any desire to insist upon them. We may mention them, we may say we want fine weather, means to live upon, restored health, and a happy and prosperous voyage over life's uncertain waters; but when we have done all that we must remember that we have been praying about things which are temporal and of no consequence whatever. It is of no consequence whether you die in the workhouse, or die in a king's palace; it is of no consequence whether you live a life of daily pain and disease, or whether you never have a headache to the rest of your days: all that is trifling with God; it may be referred to, it may be regarded as an expression of poor human weakness and selfishness: the thing to ask for is acquiescence in the Divine will: there you pray for things which are eternal, there prayer will be answered. Your fine days for your harvest, or for your holiday even, your prayer that your health may be good, and that your course may be prosperous are things which might be treated with some degree of contempt when unduly expressed, when impiously exaggerated; but when you say, "Father, thy will be done," you stand upon an eternal rock: when you say, "Come fair weather, come foul, but let me live in thee," no man can take your crown, and no enemy can defeat your prayer. The controversy about prayer is all about things which are temporal, setting tests for God, building competitive hospitals, making mechanical arrangements for the entrapping of the Divine Being: but when you come to sum up all your prayers in the Lord's Prayer namely, "Nevertheless, not my will, but thine, be done" your heart must tell you whether your prayer is answered. The very men who deny things eternal, actually recognise them and make factors of them in things temporal. This is the grievous inconsistency! The agnostic has his things eternal; the atheist distinguishes between things which are temporal and things which are eternal. Let me repeat an opening sentence here, which was given in the form of an inquiry, that society itself could not exist but for this vital distinction. What of the State? We have a saying that the king never dies. Why make any arrangements for next year for the next decade of years? We are all dying we may be all dead tomorrow. That is true individually. But the State lives. Why should we trouble ourselves about any question that covers a space of twenty-four hours, when our breath is in our nostrils and we may be taken away before we have signed the agreement? Yet, though we are perfectly conscious that we only hold our breath for a moment, all our greater arrangements involve and assume permanence, which on its own level may be regarded as symbolic of eternity. And without this eternity the present would not be worth living. Men die, but Man lives. The teacher dies, but the lesson goes on. One generation cometh, and another generation goeth, but the word of the Lord abideth for ever. Thus, in our political economies, in our state constructions, in all these matters, we have things which are temporal and things which are eternal, the one individual being always a thing temporal, but the sum-total humanity being the thing eternal. What of our family arrangements? Why make a will? Why assign any property? Why mortgage by anticipation any future day? We may all die to-day. Whilst all that is assented to, yet the most brazen-foreheaded atheist makes a will, saying in the very act of doing so, There are things, which are temporal, and I am one of them; if I were a thing eternal I would not need to make a will at all; it is because I am a thing temporal that I am making my last will and testament. But who is to get your property? Those who are coming on. Coming on! Yes: man is eternal. So would the atheist talk. It is enough for Christian purposes that this distinction in some form, under some modification, in some way or other, is recognised through and through civilisation. Is the Christian preacher, then, to be deterred if his soul within him says, Press the people that they make things which are eternal their chief concern? Is he a lunatic, a fanatic, an unwise man, when he says, By so much as you care about things which are temporal, increase your care concerning things which are eternal? The temporal is but symbolic: if you are careful about it, you ought by that very fact to be proportionately careful about things eternal. It seems to me that the Christian preacher occupying this ground touches the very summit and crown of reason, and has within his power an instrument which he might use, and ought to use, for the good of his fellow-creatures.
Oh men, men, men: hear the word of the Lord. Do not busy yourselves so exclusively with all things which are temporal as to let pass by in neglect things which are eternal. Acquaint now thyself with God, and be at peace with him. Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all things shall be added unto you. "Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal" flickering for a moment, fluttering in a dying spasm "but the things which are not seen are eternal" calm with the peace of God, guaranteed by the very duration of his Throne.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 4". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25