Almighty God, may we, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, be counted worthy at the last to take part in the song of Moses and the Lamb. We have hope that this shall be Song of Solomon, if our hearts condemn us not. We believe that thou dost speak through them the word of confidence. We feel that we must take part in the song which praises thee, for our whole life answers thy life, our whole nature rises in response to thy light. We love thee; we love thy Song of Solomon, by whom alone we know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent. Knowing the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, we would praise the great Three-One now and evermore. May we not lose the inspiration of the sanctuary, but rule the whole week with it, controlling and subduing everything by its holy power. Spirit of the living God, dwell in our hearts, burn in the sanctuary of our love, and let the radiation of thy glory touch every point of our life and make us beautiful with light. Sometimes we are standing quite near thee: we are upon the mountain whilst the dew is there; we are lifted up so high in soul that we can see beyond the boundary and hear voices from upper lands. These are the days of the Son of man upon the earth; these are the times that transfigure our life and make it burn with transcendent glory. Then we come down to fight the battle—to be stunned by the tumultuous fray in the valley; then we forget the glory and cease to think of thee, and miss not, as we ought to do, the presence Divine. But thou knowest it all; our life is not hidden from thee. Thou didst make it in all its curiosity and mystery, and strange wonder and terrible painfulness. It is thy life, not ours; it is part of thine own eternity. Thou hast entrusted it to us; and we know not, oftentimes, what to make of it. We say we would not live alway; we pine for rest, we cry for sleep: we know that unconsciousness has its blessing as well as consciousness. So thou dost take us aside awhile; thou hast made a bed for us—soft and warm; thou dost lay us down in our weariness and watch us in our helplessness, and in the morning we start again with new youth and new hope. This is thy way; half day, half night is our life—half battle, half sleep. This is thy love, thou God of light. Thou dost recover us in sleep; thou dost redeem our life by rest. Thou art alway redeeming the children of men. We bless thee for all upward ways; for all hills lifting themselves towards the blue sky—they are helps. To climb is to pray; to ascend the mountain is to get away from the place of graves. Thou hast set the mystery of thy mercy round about us, and within us and above us, and every place is the gate of heaven. We have come together to be blessed, to feel forgiven through the infinite love of the Son of God. We have brought our burdens, knowing that we shall not take them away again. We will try to sing thy praise, for thou art worthy to receive our adoration and our love for all thou hast done for us. We pray always for one another; we find words for each other"s speechlessness; we pray in the language of our friends, and in their sighing we intercede. Give the old man to know that there is no old age, that life is one ascent into eternal youth. Let the beginner know that there are no endings in thy circle, and charm him with the confidence that in thy strength he will make his life a victory. Speak to the man bent on wrong courses; strike him down, not with lightning, but with light, so that though he be blind for a day or two, he may by-and-by receive his vision. Let the little ones be first remembered, for thou lovest them most of all. They are thy Church, though we know it not. We are still turning the children away, away from thy table because they do not understand it—as if a child did not understand it better than a grown man. Behold the little ones here and at home, and make them glad with purest joy, and hopeful because of thy presence and strength. As for those who are putrid—dead—thou art the Resurrection and the Life. O Christ! we must leave our dead at thy feet. We tried to save them and we failed—they would die. We leave them in thy hands. Comfort the poor sick ones who want to be with us today, but are bowed down by weakness. Bless every one who goes out to try to make the world better by teaching and proclaiming thy word, by offering prayer in ears unaccustomed to hear the sacred eloquence. And the Lord grant that at the eventide we may be stronger than in the morning, and that having fought the battle, we may be but the eagerer to renew the fray. Amen.
1. Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Thou art permitted to speak for thyself. Then Paul stretched forth the hand, and answered for himself:
2. I think myself happy, king Agrippa, because I shall answer for myself this day before thee touching all the things whereof I am accused of the Jews:
3. Especially because I know thee to be expert in all customs and questions which are among the Jews: wherefore I beseech thee to hear me patiently.
4. My manner of life from my youth, which was at the first among mine own nation at Jerusalem, know all the Jews;
5. Which knew me from the beginning, if they would testify, that after the most straitest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee.
6. And now I stand and am judged for the hope of the promise made of God unto our fathers;
7. Unto which promise our twelve tribes, instantly serving God day and night, hope to come. For which hope"s sake, king Agrippa, I am accused of the Jews.
8. Why should it be thought a thing incredible with you, that God should raise the dead?
9. I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth.
10. Which thing I also did in Jerusalem: and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them.
11. And I punished them oft in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange cities.
12. Whereupon as I went to Damascus with authority and commission from the chief priests,
13. At midday, O king, I saw in the way a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shining round about me and them which journeyed with me.
14. And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.
15. And I said, Who art thou, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.
16. But rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee,
17. Delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee,
18. To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me.
19. Whereupon, O king Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision:
20. But shewed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Juda, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance.
21. For these causes the Jews caught me in the temple, and went about to kill me.
22. Having therefore obtained help of God, I continue unto this day, witnessing both to small and great, saying none other things than those which the prophets and Moses did say should come:
23. That Christ should suffer, and that he should be the first that should rise from the dead, and should show light unto the people, and to the Gentiles.
24. And as he thus spake for himself, Festus said with a loud voice, Paul, thou art beside thyself; much learning doth make thee mad.
25. But he said, I am not mad, most noble Festus; but speak forth the words of truth and soberness.
26. For the king knoweth of these things, before whom also I speak freely: for I am persuaded that none of these things are hidden from him; for this thing was not done in a corner.
27. King Agrippa, believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest.
28. Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.
29. And Paul said, I would to God, that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost, and altogether such as I Amos, except these bonds.
30. And when he had thus spoken, the king rose up, and the governor, and Bernice, and they that sat with them:
31. And when they were gone aside, they talked between themselves, saying, This man doeth nothing worthy of death or of bonds.
32. Then said Agrippa unto Festus, This man might have been set at liberty, if he had not appealed unto Csar.
Paul Before Agrippa
Here is all that Christianity ever asked for: an opportunity to speak for itself. This is just what Christianity wants the Agrippa of all time to say: "Christianity, thou art permitted to speak for thyself." The answer of Christianity is the answer which must always be returned: "I beseech thee to hear me patiently." In that high courtesy the noble discourse begins. Christianity always appears in person, its witnesses are always at hand, the court is never disappointed, the judge has never to wait: Christianity is an incarnation; not an argument in words, but logic in life. But Christianity must be heard patiently. Only the candid hearer can listen well. If we have put into our ears prejudices, foregone conclusions, obstinate convictions, through such impediments the music of Christianity cannot make its way. The mind must say, "For the time being I put myself at thy disposal; write upon me what thou hast to write; I will hear thee to the very end." That is the difficulty which we have to contend with. We are troubled by interruption. Who can sit still? Though we do not loudly and audibly interrupt, we may interrupt silently and mentally. We should allow the word free course through the mind, and, when it has completed its deliverance, then we may make reply. It seems so easy to listen; and yet there is nothing more difficult. It may be questioned whether six men in any congregation ever do listen. To listen is a discipline. We hear the broad sounds, not the fine ones; we pick out the great words—that Isaiah, words of bulk and great size—but not all the little beautiful jewels of speech that make up the wealth of the glorious exposition and appeal. Christianity simply wants to be heard—to be heard candidly, patiently, thoroughly; and, when Christianity has ceased to ply us with her exposition and exhortation, she will be willing to return the courtesy and to hear what reply can be made. This is what Christianity cannot get—the opportunity of making itself heard. She has to speak in the crowd, to compete with the clatter of machinery, to make her voice penetrate through the rattle of wheels on hard pavements. The world that should make a theatre for her, and sit without breathing till the magical eloquence is done, listens with impatience, and therefore does not listen at all—interrupts vocally or mentally, and therefore spoils the wizardry; and so the one speech that could and should convert the world, the world never hears. There should be but one sermon—one day with Christ should have converted the world if the world would have listened.
Here is the only answer which is universally available. The defence of Christianity stands precisely at this point today, in so far as it is effective. This is the only answer that ever made any converts. Other answers make defenders and controversialists and pedants; this answer makes Christians and workers. But the world wants something larger—the world likes to be imposed upon by bulk. As Christian churches and Christian preachers, we ought to take our definite stand just here, and when Paul is done, we should say, one and all, "That is our answer."
Let us examine it.
It is personal testimony. Paul talks about nobody else but himself. He says, in effect, "This happened to me; had it occurred to some one beside, I might have mistaken the statement. I might have dropped some links of the chain, I might have misconceived the purpose of the speaker; but this happened to me. If you contradict this statement, you contradict me; you make me a false witness." That throws new elements into any great controversy, and Christianity alone can bear that application of the personal element. It swallows up all egotism. If we have nothing to say out of our own consciousness and experience, we cannot preach. He only can preach who can say, "I was struck with light and made blind; for three days I saw nothing, and then new sight was given to me." "If Christianity were a wrangle in words, I cannot tell who might arise to make new terms and to insist upon new definitions, but I stand," says the great Pauline preacher, "not upon ever-changing opinions, but upon indestructible instincts and indisputable facts." We are afraid to speak about ourselves; and, in truth, I am not surprised at the fear. We are so humble that we dare not speak about our experience; we think it ought to be something between ourselves and God. Paul never thought so; he began in the morning by saying, "By the grace of God, I am what I am"; and at night, when he put away the sword and the shield for the day, he said, "God forbid that I should glory, save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ." He was not so humble as we are; we rebuke him, we shame him.
Not only was this personal testimony, but it was an instance of personal conversion. Are you ashamed of that old word? Men used to be converted; now they change their opinion and their standpoint and their attitude. Mountebanks! In the old time souls were converted—turned right round—and of this heroic time Paul is the most illustrious instance and example. See where he began—"which knew me from the beginning, if they would testify, that after the most straitest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee." That was the starting-point; what was the end? "I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified." That is what we mean by conversion. The definition is concrete and absolute. Paul was not a profligate to be touched by emotions, for a moment to cry over his sins and for another moment to affect contrition for them. Paul"s was not a vacant mind, ready for any new impression, anxious to receive one, earnestly desirous for some new thought to come and take possession of the unfurnished brain. Paul was not a fanatic, fond of exciting adventures, as there may be amongst ourselves, persons who go the round of the sects, who make friends today and renounce them tomorrow, and rush with irrational enthusiasm into new alliances on the third day. This is the kind of man he was: "my manner of life from my youth"—I go back to first days—"after the most straitest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee." He was stubborn, haughty, utterly convinced; his mind was verily preoccupied. "I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Which thing I also did in Jerusalem: and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them." That was the man at the first; at the last what was that same man? Ready to be offered, looking for the crown of righteousness which the Lord Christ, the righteous Judges, would give to him. That is what we mean by conversion—that is to say, turning right round and going straight away in the other direction. And if the Christian Church does not affect that kind of good, I know not that any other kind of good is really worth effecting, except as a means to an end. But with how bad a skill have we modified the word "conversion." We move now on a pivot; we turn round and round and call it progress. If any one should ask us what we mean by conversion, we would point to the case of Paul.
Here is a conversion based upon a distinct history. Ours is not so romantic, but it is quite as real. This is our life. The incidents were individual and local, but all the significance is universal, both as to nature and as to place. Look at those incidents. Christianity meets men on wrong courses: Paul, then called Saul, was on his way to Damascus, intent upon doing a wrong thing. Are we not also on the wrong road with a wrong purpose, armed by the power of a wrong authority? There is nothing so romantic in this as at first we may have supposed. So far, I have been with this very man; I remember him, I remember his distended nostrils, his fire-lighted eye, the fierce blow of his fist; I once touched him, I was once mistaken for him—a man on the wrong road. "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way." Do not fasten your attention upon the word Damascus and say you were never there. Damascus in this history is a symbolical word, and stands for wrong courses, wrong purposes, wrong destinies. Christianity fights with the weapon of light: "I saw in the way a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun." I have seen that light; this is my own experience. Where is the Song of Solomon -called romance? I remember the moment of illumination; my mind goes back to the point of intensity; I exclaimed, "I see it now! I see the hideous iniquity, I see the shameful ingratitude, I see the infinite love, I see the sacrificial Blood—yes, I see it!" That is conversion. Christianity is the religion of light, the religion of mental illumination and mental explanation and mental liberation. Never did you find Christianity lead man from a great place into a little one, from a grand view to a circumscribed point. Christianity never made any man less than he was before. Christianity is the religion of evolution in respect of bringing men up to their higher selves, their nobler powers, their sublimer capacities. Man does not know what he is until he has been touched by the full meaning of the Cross of the Son of God.
Christianity entrusts with new missions. "Rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister." Christianity does not perform in the mind the miracle of eviction, casting out of the mind all that was in it, without furnishing the mind with thoughts, convictions, and sublimities of its own. The reason why so many people have turned away from Christ Isaiah, that, though they have seen the light, they have not discharged the ministry—they were content with the vision; they forgot the obedience. The grandest sermon may be forgotten; the brightest vision from heaven may become but an impression gradually fading away upon the inattentive memory. We must keep up visions by services; we must maintain theology by beneficence. We cannot live upon the sublime incidents of external life; we can only persevere in grace by persevering in goodness. Are we certain that we have seen the light? We cannot be certain unless we are quite sure that our last action in life was to do some good to mankind. Instead of sitting down and analysing feelings, frames, moods, sensations, and impressions, in order to find out whether we are really Christians or not, we should go out and call the blind and the halt and the poor, the maimed and the friendless to a daily feast, and in that act we should see how truly we are accepted of God. If Paul had retired as a gentleman of leisure, he might have forgotten the vision, or have contracted it into an anecdote; but he made it the starting-point of a new life, and in war, suffering, and agony, he got the confirmation of his best impressions. A working Church is a faithful Church; an honest, earnest, self-sacrificing Church is always orthodox. This is the argument which can be translated into all languages, adapted to all intellectual capacities, and pressed upon all sorts of hearers, so as utterly to silence their objections. There is no reply to self-sacrifice for Christ"s sake.
Christianity sustains by Divine inspirations. Paul said in the twenty-second verse, "Having therefore obtained help of God, I continue—" Conversion is followed by confirmation. The great point of illumination is sustained by continual gifts from heaven to the waiting and obedient heart. Paul did not eat bread once for all: he sat daily at the table of the Lord; he obtained help of God. He needed it all; every night he needed the Father, the Song of Solomon, and the Holy Ghost to sustain him after the wearing fray. His life was oozing out of him, his nerves were shattered, his hopes were put to a greater distance; the enemy seemed to be stronger than he was, so much Song of Solomon, that tomorrow he could not have gone out had he not obtained help of God. Ministers, that is how we must live; we must obtain help from heaven; then we shall be able to say, "Though the outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day," and out of the grave of the night must come the resurrection of the morning. Then shall we be to ourselves and to our friends a surprise of power, a revelation of the sustaining grace of God.
This is the answer of Christianity to ever-questioning Agrippa. Difficult argument there is none; verbal refinement and curiosities there are none. There is experience, there is faithfulness to the facts of life, there is the assignment of a cause equal to the sublimest effect We have wandered from these lines; hence our loss and weakness. We ourselves have ceased to be the living logic, the incarnate argument. We now refer the inquiring Agrippa to the ponderous volume he has no heart to read, instead of pointing him to a life pure as light, undivided as love, unreserved in sacrifice.
Almighty God, thou art always giving unto us a new hope. Thou art the God of hope; thou art pointing us every day to the day that is yet to come—the bright day, the Sabbath day, the day without night. This hope have we in thy Son. He hath abolished death and brought life and immortality to light. So now our conversation is in heaven, our expectation is in the skies. We expert the Lord Jesus, who shall change our common body and make it like unto his own glorious body, according to the power whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself. The power is one; the power is infinite. All power, in heaven and on earth, was given unto him on the third day, and that power is the defence of his redeemed. We abide under the shadow of the Almighty; we do not trust to our own weakness—it is a daily disappointment and humiliation—we trust to the Infinite Strength, the eternal Son of God—the One Priest, whose prayer is our intercession. We bless thee for every ray of light: it is always a kindly surprise; the morning always exceeds our expectation and finds our imagining at fault. We cannot overtake the splendour of thy light; we know not the fulness of thy glory. When we think we have seen it all, behold, a new gleam throws all other light into darkness, and we stand in the rapture of a glad amazement. Thou hast yet more light to break forth; we have not seen the morning of which all other mornings are but types. We shall be satisfied, when we awake, with thy likeness. In the presence of that likeness, we shall need nor sun, nor moon, nor summer day, for thy countenance is its own noontide, and thy smile is our heaven. For all thy training of our life how can we bless thee? We have not understood it; sometimes we have appeared to resent it; we did not know what thou wast doing with us. Thou didst cause us to be driven away into the wilderness, to be sold into far-off lands, to undergo captivities and humiliation; thou didst strip us and rob us and beat us with great violence; and we knew not that we needed it all to make us men. The chastening for the time being was not pleasant or joyous, but grievous; but now, even in this little afterward, we begin to see somewhat of its gracious intent, and by-and-by, when the light is sufficient and our vision is enlarged and purified, we shall see thy purpose, we shall kiss thy rod, we shall bless thy chastisements. We pray thee for the great outlook, for the eyes that can see the unseen, for the great and Divine heart that knows without learning, that sees without looking—that secret, sympathetic power which knows and feels and rejoices by a law which men have not yet put into words. Give us an unction from the Holy One, and we shall know all things, and know them not the less that we are wholly unable to explain them. We bless thee that our explanation runs short; we thank thee for fountains that have no equivalent vessels. We bless thee for these inner knowings—these charges of knowledge and of power which we cannot express in words, and have weighed in scales made by men. We know that we know. Our knowledge is an inspiration, our attainment is a gift of the Holy Ghost; we have communications from the skies. Enrich us with all needful knowledge in Christ Jesus, thy dear Son. May we grow in acquaintance with the purpose of his heart; may we burn with Christ; may we sometimes be almost unable to say what is the difference between him and ourselves because we are so absorbed in his love, so filled with his spirit, so desirous to obey his will. Comfort the weary; give joy to those who sit in desolation; bring back the sunny hope that has fled from the young heart for a little while; make our houses homes; in the grate may a fire burn that does not consume the dwelling, but which shall interpret to us, in a thousand agonies and beauties, the Great Fire—thy very Self—that warms the universe. As for our sin, thou hast answered it. We bring it to thee, for thou alone canst heal the leper-heart; with thee is all cleansing, thou dying, rising, triumphing, interceding Son of God. Amen.
Paul Before Agrippa
Paul uses an expression which is full of significance in regard to all speakers:—"I think myself happy." Now we shall hear him! You do not hear any man until he is happy. Speaking under constraint, you get a wrong idea and measure of the Prayer of Manasseh, for he cannot do justice to himself, nor can he do justice to any great theme. Paul is happy: we shall therefore get his power at its very best; the audience fits him: he can fly in this firmament. Conditions have much to do with speech and with hearing. The man is not the same man under all conditions. We say about other things—and say truly—"Circumstances alter cases." Paul seems to have liked a Roman hearing. There was something in the augustness and imperial grandeur of the circumstances that touched him and brought him up to his very best. Even before Felix he said he would the more cheerfully answer for himself because that bad procurator had been a judge for a longer period than others. Before Agrippa he says, "I think myself happy." Now he will spread himself out; he will spare nothing; we shall hear all the music of his soul. It should mark a crisis in a life to hear Paul"s defence. Why do we not make more red-letter days in our life? To read this defence sympathetically, to get into the swing and rhythm of this noble eloquence, should make us young again with hope and fearlessness and confident triumph, at the last, in Christ. Hearers make speakers: the pew makes the pulpit. Give any apostle an opportunity of feeling happy, and you will at once evoke from his soul music which would otherwise lie dumbly and hopelessly within him. We are to hear a happy speaker. The opportunity given to Paul is to speak for himself; how does he do it? By unfolding the Gospel. "But he was not asked to preach." But Paul cannot open his mouth without preaching—to speak is to preach, to breathe is to pray, to be is to plead for Christ. "But the audience, as to its judicial structure, is a Roman one." No matter; Paul makes known the riches of his Lord"s grace. When Agrippa said unto Paul, "Thou art permitted to speak for thyself," we expected that Paul would have defended himself according to Roman law. Paul makes no reference to Roman law. Paul always took the broad and vast view of things, and looking upon all life from the highest elevation, he saw it in its right proportion and colour and measure. He was never overwhelmed by details: he had the great religious art of putting things right back from him that he might look at them as they really were. These details leap upon us, clutch us, sting us, take away from us a large portion of our best strength. We have not that sovereign power, that sacred spiritual energy which can take hold of them and say to them, "Stand back, till I see what you really are in number, force, and value." Consider the opportunity and then consider the use made of it. Paul is all the while speaking about himself, and yet all the while he is preaching such a sermon as even he never preached before. He keeps to the point and yet takes a long tether; he never leaves the first personal attitude and relation, and yet all the while he is rebuilding all the Christian argument and reuttering in new tones and with new stretches of allusion and meaning the whole Gospel of salvation. This should be a lesson to all men. We may speak about ourselves and yet hide ourselves in the glory of Another. We need not make our experience egotistic—even the use of the first personal pronoun need not imply any self-consciousness: it may be used without being abused. If we could have heard Paul say "I," we should have seen that it but helped him to hook himself on to the Christ in whose being his own was lost. There is a way in all things; there is a manner self-explaining. The thing to be noticed Isaiah, that Paul never glories except in the Cross of Christ. Standing before kings, he never changes his theme. Happy in his opportunities, he is only happy because he can draw a fuller portraiture of the One Saviour of the world.
In the next place, observe Paul"s peculiar, but ever-available way of illustrating religious mysteries. Paul illustrated religious mysteries by relating personal miracles. Observe what a wonderful connection there is between the eighth verse and the ninth. Suddenly Paul breaks out with the inquiry, "Why should it be thought a thing incredible with you, that God should raise the dead?" Then as suddenly he reverts to his own case: "I verily thought with myself—" Observe the word "thought" in both verses: first, "Why should it be thought a thing incredible"; and then, "I verily thought with myself"—about myself—"that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth." What is the argument? Evidently this: there are incredible things in theology, but there are also incredible things in personal history; seeing that the incredible things in personal history occur every day—face us and challenge us at every turn of life; seeing that we must accept them—why should it be thought a thing incredible that along theological lines there should be mysteries equally direct and equally stubborn as to apprehension and solution? That is the key of true learning. Paraphrased, the case might stand thus: "I know it is a marvellous thing that God should raise the dead, but God has raised me from the dead; I was dead in trespasses and in sins, I was the captive of death—quite dead—and God raised me; if, therefore, he has raised me—having worked a miracle of resurrection or regeneration in my heart—I can see how the same God could work the same miracle on another ground and under other circumstances." Such is the way to lay hold upon religious mysteries and their sacred and infinite meaning. We must avail ourselves of personal analogies, experiences, and wonders wrought in our own heart and life. God asks us to look within, that we may find the key to his kingdom. Where we have erred so much and lost so much is that we have been looking for the key in the wrong place. We ourselves are witnesses. There is not a miracle in all the Bible that has not been wrought, in some form of counterpart or type, in our own life. Paul got such a view of himself as to entitle him to set against outward religious mysteries the miracles which had been wrought in his own nature. You can steal my Christianity if it is only a theory; you cannot break through nor steal if it is hidden in my heart as a personal and actual experience. There should be less discussion and more life; there should be less challenge to the controversial foe and more beneficence, humbleness of mind, snow-white pureness of soul; and with these you may strike the most audacious enemy dumb. If you come to consider the resurrection of the dead from a merely intellectual point of view, it cannot be explained. Everything that is merely intellectual Isaiah, more or less, either a difficulty in the way of the resurrection or a circumstance which renders it impossible. The resurrection of the dead does not come within the reason of the mind. I will therefore search my life, and I find that I myself, a. Christian Prayer of Manasseh, may say I have been raised from the dead. There is nothing more remarkable in the rising of the sheeted dead from the deep grave, than in my being what I now am as compared with what I once was. This is Paul"s argument. He said, "When they were put to death, I gave my voice against them. And I punished them oft in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange cities—and now I count myself unhappy, except in their society. The God that did that can raise the dead. I am myself a miracle, and therefore, from the height of my own experience and in the bliss of my own consciousness, I can receive as an august article in my theological creed the article that God can raise the dead." Paul drives the inquiry home. "Why should it be thought a thing incredible with you?"—you limit the Holy One of Israel; you enlarge yourselves at the Divine expense; you put things wholly out of right relation and colour; in doubting the resurrection of the dead, you set up the idolatry of yourselves. We must not measure the Divine by the human, but the human by the Divine. Deepen your Christian experience, enlarge and ennoble your intercourse with God in the secret places of the sanctuary; draw to him more wrestingly and lovingly, and, rising from the altar where you have been lost to time and sense, you will see all things in a new light, and when objections and difficulties are put in your way you will be able to reply, "With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." We deal with weak men when we deal with persons who have no answer in themselves. You may have lost your argument because you had to take down a book to prove it, and the book was not in the library when you wanted it. When shall we get rid of the notion that Christianity is to be defended by books? It is to be illustrated by them; it is to be magnified, in some of its human aspects, by books; but the defence of the Christian mystery must be in the Christian consciousness. In this great argument, grace is genius, experience is eloquence. So it is with all preaching and teaching: we do but recite a lesson unless we speak out of the deep, true experience of the renewed and sanctified heart and will.
Paul, having thus shown us his way of regarding religious mysteries, proceeds to reveal his method of testing heavenly visions. In the nineteenth verse Paul said, "Whereupon, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision." The argument Isaiah, that visions are to be tested by obeying them. Visions will break down in the obedience if they are only nightmares. You cannot keep a nightmare about you for a long time with any consent of the will, with any sympathy of the soul, or turn it to any high utility. Then Paul sets forth a very wonderful doctrine here—namely, that he was not irresistibly converted—driven against his will to certain conclusions; scourged to the stake; made to go. Even here he asserts the freedom of the will—the attribute that makes a man. Plainly, Paul consented to this: "I was not disobedient"; in other words: "Whereupon I obeyed, I answered affirmatively, I gave my consent; I consented to the vision as certainly as I once consented to the death of the Christians." The way, then, to test all visions is to take them into the life, and see how they will bear the agony of daily strain. I am content to have all theology tested by this one process. You say you believe in God; what use have you made of him? You insult God by merely intellectually entertaining him. He says, "I must go with you"—in the going he proves himself. "Where wilt thou go?" "Everywhere!" That is the proof. If your god will not submit to that test, he is but a Baal, on whom you cannot safely rely—a Baal who will shame you on Carmel, who, when he finds you a hundred strong, will let you cry to the empty heavens, and take no notice of your piteous appeal. The God of the Bible says, "I will go with you: now we will go to business; now we will go out into the summer fields, and read the apocalypse of nature; now we will suffer in the sick-chamber; now we will go into the churchyard, and lay our dear dead down there; now it is dark, you must sleep, and I will watch you." That is the God in whom I want to believe. His appeal is its own proof; what he wants to do is the thing that proves his reality. So it is with all Christian doctrine. Take the Sermon upon the Mount: the way to test it is to obey it. Some of us have fallen short of that high mark. What we have done with the Sermon upon the Mount is this: we have analysed it, we have parsed its grammar, we have discussed its theories, we have marvelled at its liquid music, we have admired it, we have recited it, we have bound it in leather and in gold;—having so treated it, any man can steal it from us. But if we were to obey it—make it part and parcel of the substance of our nature—if we were to regulate the step of our life by its solemn music, it would become so inwrought into the very fibre and tissue of our nature as to be inseparable from us; we would live the wondrous speech, and be an epistle known and read of all men. You are troubled in your theology because you are disobedient in your heart. If you would only live your theology, you would put an end to all controversy. Prove prayer by praying; prove the inspiration of the Scriptures by being inspired by their speech. Obedience, let us say again and again, is the true confirmation of vision and of knowledge; and where the obedience brings joy, rest, hope, strength—where it lifts us up to a new stature, broadens us with a nobler expansion, attunes us to a Diviner music—we may be sure that the vision which originated it was a vision that shone from heaven.
Here is also Paul"s way of proving his sanity: by being what the world calls mad. Festus had never heard such a speech before; Festus was not as happy as Paul; Festus was out of this high running. He "said with a loud voice"—quite startled out of his cold Roman propriety—"Paul, thou art beside thyself; much learning doth make thee mad." Festus thought it was learning—that Isaiah, letter-learning, book knowledge, a marvellous upgathering and focalising of information and pieces of wonderful news. Festus did not know the meaning of the word inspiration—a word so much higher than information as the heaven is high above the earth. Festus, therefore, thought Paul was mad. So he was from the point of view occupied by Festus. Christianity is madness if materialism is true. If this world is all; if that distant, grey, mocking thing you call the horizon is the boundary; if the stars are mere glints of wandering fire that cannot be accounted for, and that are working out no purpose; if the heaven is an infinite emptiness; if the Cross of Christ is not the means of saving the world—then there can be no such madness as spiritual religion, Christian faith, and Christian hope. It is one of two things with us: we are either right, or we are—not merely wrong—mad; obviously and scandalously wrong, absurd, frantic, imposed upon, and impostors in relation to other people. I know that we have fallen into a tepid state; I am aware that we have lost our first love, and have taken up with some new philanthropising; but in the days that revealed Christianity, in the days that created the Church, no man—Festus, Felix, Agrippa—no Prayer of Manasseh, however low or high, could look at the Christians without feeling that they were the great men of the world. They gave up everything: "they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented." Poor fools! they might have dined at good tables, they might have drunk foaming wines, and they might have made quite a figure in many a social circle; but "they were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword." Then they were mad, or inspired!
Almighty God, thou hast given welcomes unto the children of men, and we now respond to the welcome of thy love and sit down at the feast spread by thine own hands, and we desire to eat and drink abundantly according to the terms of thy bidding. The light is thine—the immeasurable glory of the day; the infinite light, chasing all darkness, driving it away like an enemy—and in that light we see the symbol of thy love, so great, so glorious, so impartial, so free. Behold, thy love is high as heaven. who can reach it? wider than the earth: who can lay his measuring lines upon it? Thy mercy endureth for ever. These words fill our little life; they overflow the necessity which we thought to be so great, and by their abundance they make our want seem so small. Where sin abounds grace doth much more abound; and where hunger pinches thou dost multiply the bread of heaven. Thou art kind to the unthankful and to the evil. This is the miracle of thine heart. We have seen the miracle of thine hands, and it is great beyond all imagining; but the miracle of thine heart is the eternal wonder, the amazement of angels, the astonishment of men. Thou hast spared our life as if thou didst take pleasure in it. Surely thou understandest us better than we understand ourselves. Even our sin does not cut us off from thy presence, until a long time. Thou dost see through our sin; thou dost say: "The sinner is greater than his sin, and must, if possible—even at the cost of blood—be saved." We are thy workmanship: the prints of thy finger are upon us: we are not our own. When thou dost fill our minds with these thoughts, we begin to see the meaning of the Cross, to hear the appeal of the sacrificial blood, and to behold the opening of heaven"s door to grant admission to wandering, but now penitent and contrite, souls. Show us revelations this day. Come from behind the cloud, and let one beam of thy glory fall upon our life; and though it may blind us, yet shall we stand upon our feet at thy bidding and hear thy holy charge. We do not bring into thy courts clean hands, for we do not bring clean hearts. Create within us a clean heart, O God, and renew within us a right spirit. Let every soul in thy presence feel that he is looking upon his Father"s face. May the enemy lose all his power today. May our souls have open access to the throne of God, through the way of the Cross. Fill our minds with light and our hearts with grace, and inspire our will with the spirit of obedience, and let great blessing rest upon us all. Guard the old and the young, the busy and the suffering, the prosperous and the desolate; and send messages from thy house and a portion of meat in due season. Speak comfortably to those who are unknown, neglected, misunderstood. Help the struggling man to wrestle more bravely with all evil, and may he at last throw it, and, in thy strength, destroy it. Bless the stranger within our gates—the man who hardly understands our language, but is at one with us in our sentiment and purpose; the friend from distant shores; the loved one come to take our pledge and see how we fare; the child from school—every one. Let the blessing of the Lord fall upon each as upon an only child; and let there be rapture because there is forgiveness.
Now we wait the beam from heaven, the Voice from the cloud, the shining of the Eternal Father. Then shall the house be too small for us; then shall the walls stand back upon the gleaming horizon, and the lower roof lift itself to the heavens, and our life shall be one grand liberty. Amen.
15. I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.
16. But rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in which I will appear unto thee;
17. Delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee,
18. To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me.
If you had a writing given to you copied and asserted to be a speech made long ago by your father, what would you do with it if you were desirous to ascertain its authenticity? The first reading of it would settle your mind. Knowing your father—his sentiments, his mode of expression, the peculiarity of style which made the speech what it was—you would be able to say instantly whether the speech was authentic or fabricated. We ought by this time to know enough of Jesus Christ"s manner to be able to say whether any speech purporting to have been delivered by him was actually ever spoken by his lips. His style cannot be counterfeited; it will break down at some point, will any attempt to reproduce that inimitable eloquence. The words may be well chosen, the simulation may be quite a work of genius; but there will be something wanting—an accent, a touch, a breathing peculiarly his own. It is intensely interesting to have handed to us what purports to have been a speech made by Jesus Christ after his ascension. Here is a speech reported by a man who never saw Jesus Christ in the flesh, or communed with him, or was received into his fellowship. Had Saul been a daily attendant upon the ministry of Jesus Christ, he might, to some extent, have imitated his style with considerable skill; but even that circumstance was wanting in this case. We shall see what change death has made upon our Master, and resurrection and coronation. Is this the Jesus whom we have known so well? I think it can be shown that we have in this little speech a recapitulation of the four Gospels. On this speech might be founded a powerful argument for the inspiration of the Christian Scriptures. This is the New Testament in miniature; this is a condensed form of the Gospel revelation. If Paul is right here, he may be right in other places. He cannot be allowed to pass off this speech flippantly or incidentally: we will detain him here and cross-examine him, and turn over his witness page by page and examine it line by line, and if he is strong at this point, it will be so much in his favour.
What says Jesus Christ? "I have appeared unto thee for this purpose." Here I recall the words which made the first ministers: "Follow me." None was with him; no presence was allowed to turn that singular into a plural. He is as personal as ever, as unaccompanied as before; as grand in solitude, as majestic in completeness.
"I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make—" Here I remember the charming word, "I will make you fishers of men." The word is the same: Jesus Christ is still Maker, Creator. That word, O Saul of Tarsus! was well chosen, that word "make." It is a king"s word; it is a Divine term. It goes back to origins and sources, to beginnings and springs; there is a marvellous original power in it. The speaker does not propose to modify, adapt, add to, rearrange: "I will make," I will create. So far I can identify the Master in the quotation of the servant.
"To make thee a minister"—that is a new word—"and a witness"—that is an old word. "Ye are," said Jesus Christ, "witnesses of these things."
Proceed still further: "a witness both of these things which thou hast seen." Why, that is the old method; that is exactly the answer which he returned to the inquiring Baptist: "Go and show John again those things which ye do hear and see." We speak as eye-witnesses; we are not quoters from authors of an ancient date, we are witnesses of "things which we have seen." This is the power of Gospel speech. It is an incarnation: a man who speaks affirms in his own name and in his own person; he is a witness of things which he himself has seen.
Proceed further: "and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee." That opens a wide field of possible revelation. So it does. That is exactly what Jesus Christ did in the days of his flesh. Said he to his disciples: "I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now." Jesus Christ did not put down a full stop, saying, "This is the end." There is no end to the meaning of revelation. There is no end to the literature of the alphabet. The letters are but six-and-twenty in number, and no man attempts to add another letter to the alphabet; but into how many forms, through how many permutations, may these letters be thrown or passed! It is the same with the New Testament: the alphabet is here, the beginning of Christian thought, life, purpose, power; who can tell into what phases this alphabetic symbol may be passed? Observe, nothing is added to the revelation; there is no invention of a merely human kind admitted into this great outlook. However large the book, it is all in the alphabet; however magnificent the unfoldment of the truth by human eloquence, the truth itself is the distinct and direct gift of God alone.
Proceed now to the seventeeth verse: "Delivering them from the people, and from the Gentiles." Surely that is new. What occasion is there to deliver a preacher "from the people, and from the Gentiles"? Here is the Lord"s own speech: "Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues; and ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them and the Gentiles.... Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul." Truly this seventeenth verse was spoken in the tenth chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew. It is a marvellous thing if this was invented. It is impossible, considering Saul"s antecedents and Saul"s religious prejudices, that he could have invented a speech so perfect, not only in the letter—which might have been a mere trick of eloquence—but so spiritual in the penetration and sympathy. So far, I see it every whit as a reproduction of the matter and manner with which long study has made us so familiar.
The eighteenth verse is a summary of all that Jesus began both to do and to say. The miracles and the Gospels are all in this eighteenth verse. For example: "To open their eyes." That is what Jesus Christ was always doing. He could never be at rest in the presence of the blind; instantaneously he felt the near presence of the blind man. When did he ever leave the blind man in darkness? Again and again he said, "According to your faith be it unto you." He opened the eyes of one that was born blind; he opened the eyes of the blind beggar who called to him from the wayside. Jesus Christ will not have any blind followers. This reference, of course, is not to the opening of the physical eyes, but to the opening of the mental vision. Still it is in exquisite harmony with the whole purpose and method of the Saviour: he will give light, more light; in him is no darkness at all, and from us he will drive away every cloud and shadow.
"To turn them from darkness to light." When did he ever turn men from light to darkness? Never. Whenever he visited a town, the inhabitants were startled by an access of intellectual lustre; sometimes they were dazzled, sometimes distressed—they were always surprised. Things appeared so much larger to them after he had touched them; old thoughts stood up in new meanings when he breathed them; the law itself became a kind of gospel when he repronounced its awful words. Enlargement is a characteristic of the incoming of Christ.
"And from the power of Satan unto God." When did he ever reverse that process? He came to bruise the head of the serpent; he came to destroy him who had the power of death. He was the continual enemy of the devil: his first battle was with the devil in the wilderness, and his last battle was with the devil on the Cross. He would turn men to God, give them new ideas concerning the origin of things. He would ennoble all thought, enlarge all life, glorify all destiny by associating the whole with the name and sovereignty of the Living God.
Go further, "that they may receive forgiveness of sins." That is his very word: " Song of Solomon, daughter, thy sins, which are many, are all forgiven thee"; "Forgive us our trespasses"; "Father, forgive them." That is not the kind of word which a bad man would be likely to invent; bad men have not such holy dreams. "Forgiveness of sins" is a phrase which never occurred in the nightmare of wickedness and imposition. Some fruits can only grow in certain climates; they cannot grow otherwhere; they seem to say, "We belong to this land, and to this land alone; men have attempted to rear us in other places, but we could not live there: it was not our native clime." It is the same with some doctrines. You cannot develop the doctrine of forgiveness of sins in a heart that is sinful through and through—so sinful as to invent a religion that is itself a lie. We seem to hear the Saviour himself at this point. Who ever said "forgive" in his tone? Surely this is none other than the speech of the Son of God!
But how was this forgiveness to be accomplished? and how was it to be followed? By "inheritance among them which are sanctified." The whole process is set down to the action of "faith." Have we ever heard that word before? Did we ever hear it really until Jesus Christ spoke it? Does the word "faith" ever occur in the Old Testament in the sense of a religious and spiritual exercise with a view to spiritual results and blessing? Jesus Christ is the maker of this word in its Gospel uses; faith is a fruit only to be plucked in the Gospel garden; that word is his. Surely we know it. Said Hebrews, "According to your faith be it unto you"; "If ye have faith as a grain of mustard-seed"; "How is it that ye have no faith?" "O ye of little faith!" "Believe ye that I am able to do this?" Why, the word "faith" is the key-word of Christ"s ministry and doctrine. It is the last of the senses, it is the sixth sense—all the others gathered up into one power and glorified.
So far the speech is self-proving. I find in it no syllable or tone that is not in vital accord with everything we have read in the Gospels ever spoken or done by the Son of God. This is a field of evidence to which I would invite every student of the Scriptures. Read the Book carefully through with a view to see how far its parts are confirmed by one another, and how far even apparent discrepancies admit of a kind of reconciliation which adds infinite force to the substantial argument for the unity of the Scriptures. Perhaps a more vivid instance of confirmation could hardly be produced than the one which is now before us. Paul is supposed to be in a fanatical state of mind: he is struck down to the ground, blinded, disabled; he is supposedly the victim of an hallucination of the most complete kind; yet when he himself reports what happened to him, no slip or flaw can be found in his evidence which throws the slightest doubt upon the identity of the doctrine of Jesus Christ, as revealed in the accepted Gospels. Thus, every examination of Scripture, part with part, wholly, gives us a more sure word of prophecy. More than that, everything is here which is needed. Let invention do something; make room for fertile genius; now come and amend, enlarge, complete this statement. Take this as a programme for the revolution, regeneration, and perfecting of the world, and add to it one line that is not involved in its unfathomable wisdom. It cannot be done. Not a single line was changed, comparing the commission given to the original apostles and the commission now entrusted to Saul. Jesus Christ is in this, as in other respects", the same yesterday, to day, and for ever. The Gospel never changes. No new terms have been invented; no original doctrine has been conceived since the ascension of the Prince of Life; the foundation is the same tried, precious, elect Corner-stone. No new instrument was proposed—the instrument is still "faith that is in me." "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved." "Whosoever believeth shall not perish, but have everlasting life." Education has advanced, civilisation has proceeded, the fellowship of nations has increased in intimacy and in trustfulness; but faith remains the same, and is being proved, alike by civilisation and by religion, to be the only thing that can touch the highest life and unite the grandest interests of man. Faith is a word with grace. Faith is itself a mustard-seed term—small at the first, yea, almost insignificant—but as the ages multiply in number and increase their energy and their influence, the word "faith" grows along with them, calls them to higher effort, to nobler endeavour, to larger sacrifice. It is a word which vindicates itself as the necessities of men develop and the powers of men rise towards the completeness of perfection.
I am glad to have had this speech submitted to me. It is the speech of Jesus Christ; it is full of the spirit of Jesus Christ; it recapitulates with burning condensation all that Christ ever said. Give me those three verses, and you give me the whole New Testament.
Almighty God, we have come into thy house to find rest unto our souls. There is no rest outside. The peace of heaven is within the sanctuary of God. Lord, that sanctuary is thy Son Jesus Christ—Blessed One, Prayer of Manasseh, Woman, Child; the wondrous Life, the mysterious Being, Alpha and Omega. We come by that door, for other entrance there is none. It is a wide door; Welcome is written upon it; it opens at a touch. Lord, give us an abundant entrance and a long time in the sacred house. Here we would leave our weariness, and here we would leave our sin. Is there not a River into which a man may plunge himself and there leave all the leprosy of his life? We bless thee for the quiet day with a light above the brightness of the sun, with a hush deeper than the calm of the earth—the sweet day, the day of rest and hope and light and youth; thine own day, made by thyself for thine own purpose. May it enter into our souls. May there be Sabbath in the heart, a great holy rest in the secret places of the life. May we enter into this mystery through the resurrection of our Lord, who rose again from the dead. He must visit them for a moment and leave them to return to the living, that the living and dead may both be one in him, the Resurrection and the Life. May our hearts know the meaning of resurrection—rising again from a death in trespasses and in sins, and standing up in the immortal strength of renewed and sanctified manhood. May this be our joy—an inward pleasure, a gladness that cannot express itself in words, but in raptures and ecstasies and unspeakable utterance of triumph. This joy have all thy saints. It is madness to the cold reason of the world; it is the wildness which earthly prudence cannot comprehend. We would be found in the Spirit on the Lord"s Day, saying things we do not understand, declaring things that cannot be proved by words, but that need no proof because of the joyous consent of the willing and thankful heart. Show us the treasures of thy Wisdom of Solomon, grace, and righteousness, and tell our hearts that all thou hast they have—yea, unsearchable riches, an incorruptible inheritance. We bless thee for the green spaces of our life. We would, sometimes, they were larger; but they are of thine own making, and thou dost fix their four corners; the bounds of our habitation are fixed and appointed of God. But we love the green places, the verdant meadows, the blossoms that tell of spring, the singing birds that come with the gospel of summer. If thou dost drive us away from these places into rocks and deserts and caves of the earth, it is still well: the earth is the Lord"s, and the fulness thereof; thou art preparing us for the greener heaven, the immortal spring, the summer that cannot die. We lay hold upon this hope, feed upon it, hide it in our hearts, recur to it in the dark and cloudy time, and renew our confidence under its warm and tender light. Help us to do our work better than ever, with a more willing heart, with a more industrious hand, with a more hopeful spirit. Sometimes we feel that some parts of our work are not worthy of us; then do we begin to realise our true quality—yea, thou hast appointed us this drill and discipline, this weary work, that our patience may be perfected and that our confidence may be seriously tried. Help us to accept all work as from the Living God, and to do it as if eating and drinking the Holy Sacrament. Make our houses all that homes ought to be. May there be a fire in every room, light in every window, welcome on every door, rest on every couch; may the table be of thine own setting, and the appetite made keen by thyself; and thus in confidence—sacred, loving, growing—may our handful of days upon the earth be spent. Nurse the dear invalid; shake the pillow with thine own gentle hand, for we cannot make it soft enough for the weary head. Speak a word when our voices are choked with tears, and shed a light that can touch the eye-balls of the soul. Go after the prodigal thyself today, and bring him home at eventide. Then will we stir the fire and beat the drum and sound the trumpet and spread the feast, because in our house we have seen the Resurrection. Amen.
16. But rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee;
17. Delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee,
18. To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me.
Christian Ministry Defined
This is the kind of ministry which Jesus Christ wishes to establish in the earth. I will stake everything upon it that is dear to Christian faith and hope. No other statement is needed; no explanation is possible. The only competent exposition of these words can be found in their repetition. Say them over and over again in every tone possible to the heart, and you will find the result a complete knowledge of Christ"s meaning. I am prepared to maintain that this conception of the Christian ministry proves the deity of Jesus Christ, for the reason that it is such a conception as never entered into the uninspired mind, and, in particular, never could have entered into a mind constituted as was the intellectual nature of Saul of Tarsus. Reading those three verses is like roaming in a vineyard on an autumn afternoon. This is the Lord"s planting. Every syllable bursts out with new wine. If men would ask you what the Christian ministry aims at, point them to the twenty-sixth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth verses. That is the answer. Let us note the particulars just as they occur, without inventing an order of our own.
"But rise, and stand upon thy feet" Here is the typical manliness of the Christian ministry. A noble challenge this! We do not want crawling men, fawning, crouching, disabled men, but men who can stand up and show their stature and their force. The Christian minister, realising Jesus Christ"s conception of the ministry, does not apologise for his existence, does not account for himself as one of the units of mankind, does not beg a corner on which to spend his dying life: he stands upon his feet, a man every whit—bold, courageous, well-defined; a figure, a force, a factor not to be ignored. A beautiful incidental instance this of the quality of the ministry. Jesus did not speak to Saul as he lay down in the dust, a smitten and blighted thing, crushed with a new burden of light: he would speak to him, as it were, on equal terms, face to face. He is the Man Christ Jesus. He will not send frightened things about his messages and errands—blind, blighted things that cannot tell their tale—he will have the Prayer of Manasseh, the whole Prayer of Manasseh, the man at his best. That is the call today: the call for standing men, upright, forceful men; they can always make their own way under the Divine inspiration. But what kind of manliness? Only the manliness which is made possible by Christ. He gives the power to rise. This is not a carnal manliness, a thing of the flesh, an invention of the sense, an attitude, a posture, but an inspiration. That is the vital difference. You cannot stand up alone. Your very standing is an acceptance of the law that rules the universe. You can do nothing of yourself. If a man suppose that when he stands up he is doing something of his own accord, he is therein foolish. At whose bidding do we stand? What right have we to stand? This is a holy attitude, acquiring all its majesty from its humbleness—a mystery of posture, formed from within, shaped from the centre. "Stand, therefore, having your loins girt about with truth." The manliness, therefore, is a Divine creation. To stand without permission to stand is impertinence; to stand-in obedience to Divine injunction is humility. Here is power coming out of weakness. God can make men sit down, lie down, roll in the dust of the ground; he can seal their eyelids with light; he can deafen their ears with thunder. It is out of such lying and blindness and deafness that the true strength comes. It we have not first been laid down by the Divine power, we cannot stand in the Divine strength. We must have a momentary fall. The day of weakness must never be forgotten; the soul must say to itself, "Remember that noontide when you were overwhelmed, struck down, thundered upon from an infinite height; and remember that the Power which struck you down bade you stand up; the Voice was the same, the Power was identical, the experience was continuous and coherent." He does not know what it is to see who does not know what it is to be blind. Vision becomes a commonplace to the man who has always seen; but what must it be to have the eyes opened and to see the whole visible creation all at once! It is through this experience that the ministry must come—must have its hours of lying flat down—light-struck, stunned, dazed, disabled; able only at least to ask questions with the tone of fear and yet with the accent of suppressed or concealed expectation.
These words cannot be without meaning. The very command to "rise, and stand upon thy feet," is a royal command. The old tone is not taken out of the Voice with which we were familiar in the days of his flesh. We know that tone, there is none like it—the rainbow tone that has in it every tint and flush of vocal colour; the grand imperative that makes all language quake, "Rise, and stand upon thy feet." He who has stood before Christ may well stand before kings. We get over all our nervousness when We are with the Lord; having risen at his command and looked at him straight in his very eyes—eyes of judgment, eyes of love, wells of heaven—we cannot be intimidated by face of clay. You would have been fearless of men if you had been more fearful of God. Fear God, and have no other fear.
"For I have appeared unto thee to make thee a minister." Then ministers are not Prayer of Manasseh -made, they are not manufactures, they are not turned out by machinery. "I have appeared unto thee to make thee a minister." This is our strength. Only Christ can make ministers. We have forgotten this we have taken to a kind of minister-making ourselves—a species of ecclesiastical pottery. "I have appeared unto thee to make thee a minister." He never makes other than ministers. We do not read, "I have appeared unto thee to make thee an equal, a master, a priest," but "a minister," which, being interpreted, signalises a servant, a slave. "This also cometh forth from the Lord of hosts, which is wonderful in counsel, and excellent in working." He chooses whom he will: "Not many wise, not many mighty, not many noble; but things that are foolish, and things that are despised, yea"—mathematical mystery—"and things which are not"—nothings—"to bring to nought things that are: that no flesh should glory in his presence." There is no mistaking the ministers which Christ makes. There is a touch no other hand can give. We do not know where it began, or where it ends, or what it is. Who can define the aroma? Who can take off the bloom and put it back again? Who can clutch the light and hide it in his bosom? The seal of Christ is upon every minister of his own making—not always the kind of seal we like. Jesus Christ writes his autograph in a thousand ways—yea, as the chariots of the Lord are twenty thousand in number, and he may go forth in any one of them at his pleasure, so he hath chosen twenty thousand ministries, but each bears the signature and the touch Divine. I do not speak of ministers in the pulpit only, but all ministers, at home and in the market-place—ministers who do not speak their sermons, but live them. We are all ministers, if we have been with the Lord, struck down at his feet, raised by his voice, charged with his Spirit. Never can I lose an opportunity of resenting the mischievous lie that only a certain class of men are the ministers of Christ. We are all God"s ministers, Christ"s apostles—some in one way, some in another—a sweet lute, the brazen telling trumpet made to summon things from the horizon. We are all instruments, ministers, agencies, through whom God speaks and illustrates His living and redeeming Word. A most blessed thing indeed that Christ"s stamp is upon every agent he sends out! His initials are burned into the character; somewhere there is the indubitable sign—in one man in the intellect, in another in the tender heart; here in the eloquence that fills the ear with delight, and there in the pleading, holy intercession that lifts the listening soul into the quietude of heaven. Do not misjudge the Divine call. It is an infinite variety; it is not an invariable monotony.
"A minister and a witness"—of what? Christ must not only find the minister, he must find the sermon. He never finds the one without the other; so he makes the minister and he makes the text. "A minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen." Not "those things which thou hast imagined;" not "those things which thou hast invented"; but, emphatically, "these things which thou hast seen"—so that a man denying thy ministry must first deny thy character. That is the strong argument. We have seen it in other instances; we see it again in this. To deny a sermon is to deny the man; to question the argument wherein it is factual is to question the character. Wondrous ministry! the soul continually upon oath, the voice forbidden to utter anything for the sake of uttering it, and charged to tell what the soul has already heard. We do not want an inventive ministry, an imaginative ministry, but a listening ministry and a truth-telling ministry, a pulpit that will only say over again, with exactitude and punctiliousness of recollection, what itself has heard. The man who preaches or teaches pledges his character, not his genius. No man could have imagined such a call, and especially no man like the Apostle Paul. He was so strong in mind, naturally so sagacious, so penetrating; he was gifted with that lightning mind which instantly burns its way through all difficulties. You must, in estimating the value of this call for evidential purposes, keep steadily before your mind the kind of man that Paul was in other directions. You have now to deal with a strong-minded Prayer of Manasseh, with a resolute will, with a highly-trained intelligence; and a man so qualified and characterised tells us that he was called, not to stand upon a velvet knoll in an earthly paradise, to speak amid circumstances which are themselves luxuries, but called upon to lay down his life in attestation of the truth of the statement which he made. This never entered the human mind. Many a man might dream that he was called upon to marry the king"s daughter, to ride in the king"s chariot, to divide the king"s throne, to sun himself in the king"s favour—dreams of that kind are not wanting in human history—but that a man should dream that he was called to make statements every one of which would be contradicted, every one of which would be turned into a penalty which would be inflicted upon himself, is the difficulty with which we have to grapple. If we were dealing with a superstitious mind, we might, to some extent, account even for that dream; but you must take the Apostle Paul as you have found him in this history, day by day—a man whose acquaintance ought to make us proud, the shaking of whose hand should form an epoch in our history; a man whose every look was a Revelation, whose every tone was a gospel—he says, long after the event, that he was light-struck, thrown down, raised up by the Jesus who smote him, charged directly with a certain ministry, and that that ministry involved daily pain, cold, hunger, nakedness, desertion, certain cruel death. This never entered the human imagination.
But Jesus says, not only "of those things which thou hast seen," but "of those things in the which I will appear unto thee." There is a growing revelation; there is an expanding firmament. Christianity has a future as well as a past. The vision will return, the vision will enlarge, the vision will illuminate itself with higher and intenser glories. Expect the vision; wait for the additional revelation. It will not be anything new in the sense of unknown and unrelated, but new in the sense of development, progress from the thing already in the soul. Sometimes we say of a sermon, "How large a sermon from so small a text!" No text is small; you make a mistake in the statement, but the mistake relates to the text. Who would say, looking upon Bashan shaded by a thousand oaks, "How great a forest from so small an acorn!"? No acorn is small; in every acorn there is enough to clothe all the mountains of the earth with umbrageous oaks—forests out of which navies might be cut and palaces might be built. There is nothing new in the oak; everything was in the acorn. If the acorn could speak, it might say, "This is what you called a little thing; this is my proper self; I was wrapped up and condensed when you saw me, but this is what I meant—all this strength, pomp, colour; all this was in me when you took me in your hand and rubbed my polished shell." It is so when Jesus comes to us—the same Jesus, the same grace, the same Spirit, but growing in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
How beautifully the seventeenth verse is put in! a verse of some two lines standing between two long verses: "Delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles." "Delivering"—that is a suggestive word. Shall I be bound? Shall I be a prisoner? Shall I be in the clutch of evil men? Yes, that is the meaning of it; thou shalt be delivered from them. Every minister has his stormy career if he be a faithful minister. Sometimes a minister will tell you—as if he were preaching his own funeral sermon—that he never had a difference with any human creature. What an awful life to have lived! What a terrible epitaph! Hear the light saying, "I never had a battle with darkness!" He could not tell so huge a lie. The life of light is a battle; it lives by fighting; it says to darkness, "Thou art my enemy—stand back!" The true minister cannot have a peaceful and luxurious life. I do not know who wants him; I know many who would be glad to get rid of him. Who wants the minister in his proper capacity? Not the makers of ill-gotten gain; they cannot bear the sight of the fellow. He has a gold test, and that they cannot tolerate. Says Hebrews, "This sovereign you wrung out of hands that could ill spare it." "O my God!" says the man who is being tested, "if all my tens of thousands of sovereigns have to be tested in that way!—I cannot bear it!" "This is the exorbitant rent you forced out of the poor creatures who had to starve themselves to pay it." "Cease!" "This was taken in the dark." "Go!" Ay, who would be a minister? who dare to be a minister? There are thousands of preachers; there are few ministers. Who wants a minister of Christ? I don"t know. Not profane men, not worldly men, not self-idolaters, not men who have curtained themselves with secrecy and do not want to be disturbed; not men whose books have never been audited by pure sunlight. Who wants the minister in his distinctive and inspired capacity? Many want him as a companion, a man as well-read as themselves, exchanging the pleasant word with a religious accent; who wants him as a Judges, a critic, a divider, a representative of the throne of God? Let any minister try that course, and he will soon see that it is impossible to be popular.
Almighty God, let light fill our minds, and let love excite and ennoble our emotions. Thy gospel is light. Jesus Christ, thy Son. is the Light of the world. In him, as in thyself, is no darkness at all. The darkness fleeth at his approach. He is the Child of the day, the Glory of the summer, the Lustre that fills all space. Yea, heaven itself shall have no need of the sun, because the glory of the Lamb will be the light thereof. Thou hast, in thy Song of Solomon, Christ Jesus, turned us from darkness unto light. Our eyes are now open; we see somewhat of the reality of things. Once we were blind; now we see. A Man that is called Jesus anointed our eyes, and we do see. We owe all our knowledge to thy Son; we owe our liberty to the Cross of Christ. The Son has made us free; therefore are we free indeed. This is a glorious liberty; it is our heaven begun below; it is the liberty of large, keen, clear sight. We are not deceived by shape and figures now—by bulk and nearness: we see the things that are not seen; we are living in the invisible; we are on the earth, yet in heaven; and we bring the power of an endless life to bear upon the question of the dying hour. This is our inheritance among them that are sanctified; this is our sonship by adoption; herein is the great grace of God abounding over sin, opening up a way into a blissful and pure eternity, and giving us to glory in tribulation also. The night is far spent; the day is at hand—glorious day! cloudless day! the reign of light, the sovereignty of pure splendour. This is the realisation of faith; this is the fruition of hope. For all religious uplifting of the soul we bless thee; for all the emotion that cleanses the heart we thank God; for the tears that come into our eyes and take out of them all earthly sights we bless thee as for great gifts. May we, having enjoyed the Christian feeling, go forward to do the Christian work, and thus confirm in action what we have enjoyed in fellowship. Show us what our duty is. Point us to the plough thou dost intend each of us to use. May there be no shrinking from the appointed labour; with a true heart, a responsive love, a soul all trust, may we answer the call of God. Thou dost appoint our habitation, thou dost fix our business, thou dost cut our bread for us, and say, "It is enough," and thus rebuke the voracity that would destroy what it professes to nourish. Thou knowest how many coats apiece we need, and how many staves and swords, and how much of purse and scrip. May we take our whole life role from God, and have no will or wish or thought but to love the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ with perfect love. Great peace have they who love thee; inner and eternal joy, not to be touched by thievish hand, have they who live in Christ, who move and have their being in the Son of God. This is heaven! this is immortality! We have what we ask for; we are where we wish to be. Regard us as having many needs, all of which are nothing in the presence of the fulness of thy river. May we not look to our necessity, but to the fulness of God. Carry away our sins by a way thou hast thyself appointed, full of mystery, full of grace. Bring us every night to the Cross; remind us every day of thy love. When the spirit of duty calls us to sacrifice, may the spirit of grace call us to triumph. Bless all old travellers and all young pilgrims; all lookings back upon battlefields and roads well worn, and all dreamy forecasts of the future, shapeless and unknown. Be the Physician of the sick. Speak to the disappointed man who holds a blighted life in his hand, and tell him that this is not the end, yea, hardly the beginning, and may he take heart again. Be with those whose way lies through the grave-land, who are more in the cemetery than out of it, who are skilled in digging graves, yet get not accustomed to the wearing sorrow. The Lord himself stand by them; breathe messages of peace into their hearts, and speak those great words never invented by the makers of human speech. The Lord have us, every one, like an only child, in his own keeping; the Lord point out the road, fix the rate of travel, make us lodge where he pleases—in the palace, or in the open air, or under a sheltering tree—a stone a pillow; where thou wilt and as thou wilt, only may our eye be fixed upon the star which leads lo the Infinite Light. Hear us, every one—for ourselves, our loved ones; for the present, for the absent; for those whose life is needful to us, and for whose love we vainly pine. Good Lord, thou wilt enlarge thyself, rather than there should be no room for even one of the least of the countless host.
Hear our prayer at the Cross, made powerful by the intercession of the Priest, and whilst we say, Amen, let thine answer be hidden in our hearts. Amen.
To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me.
Words fail to express my personal appreciation of this magnificent charge. This is the New Testament. Everything is in the eighteenth verse. No man ever invented that verse: it is a house not made with hands. I pause before it as before an object of infinite sublimity. Should any one ask, "What does Christianity want to do in the world?" point the inquirer to the twenty sixth chapter of the Acts, and the eighteenth verse. That is our answer. We do not attempt to amend it; we accept it just as it stands there. We take no banner out on which we do not write these words in light. Would God we could enter into the spirit of this charge! It is not in the heart of man to invent that verse as an imposition. This is the centre of reason, the centre of health, the seal of God. Sometimes we want a concise expression—an easily quotable explanation of what we are and what we want to do. You cannot find any words so full, so bright, so tender, as you find in Acts 26:18. Write them at the head of every sermon; write them in gold, brightened with diamonds, around every pulpit. This is what our Lord Christ wants to do. Is it worth doing? Would the world be the better for the doing of it? Is it worth my while—your while—to take up this programme? Let us examine it in detail, and then we shall know the fulness and the value of the Divine reply.
Picture the scene. A strong man is thrown down—a man capable of all but inveterate prejudice, invincible in will, cultivated in mind; a man of rare intellectual penetration and great moral sternness. Bidden to stand up, he receives a charge from an invisible speaker. I will not stop at the mystery of the invisibleness until I have mastered the moral purpose of the words that were spoken. We may spend so much time over the invisibleness as to overlook or neglect the beneficence. Let us stand at the point best fitted to our reason and our whole faculty, and then advance into the transcendental and the infinite. What does the invisible speaker want this man to do? To go to the Gentiles, the heathen peoples of the world. What does he want this man to do when he reaches the far-off lands? Everything depends upon this revelation. First, "to open their eyes." My confidence is already turned towards this speaker. He is not the inventor of a superstition. Any religion that proposes to open our eyes is presumptively a true religion. Superstition says, "Keep your eyes closed; put a hood over your reason; do not make any inquiries; take my report of everything, and be contented and satisfied with it." That is superstition. Christianity says to every Prayer of Manasseh, "Stand up, I will open thine eyes; thou shalt see the bigness of the universe, the reality of things, the magnificence of life, the solemnity of destiny. Stand up, I will make a luminous man of you; thou shalt have sight—faculty of criticism; thou shalt have a large estate, a glorious appeal to the eye." Christianity, then, does not seek to befool me; Christianity does not want to envelop me in darkness, to shut me up in some prison,—priest-guarded, priest-locked, roofed in with superstition, wound round with darkness. Verily not. There are no blind Christians. In proportion as they are blind, they have not received the benefit of Christ. The Christian is a wide-awake man—all reason, all life. If any had supposed him to be a dotard, a superstitious fanatic, they have misunderstood the faith, if they have not misinterpreted the man. A rationalist? That is what I am! If any man outside Christ"s great revelation propose to be a rationalist, I call him a false man—a thief. He has stolen a livery that does not belong to his court; he wears a crest he has purloined. I claim that Christianity is rationalism because it opens the eyes. Marvellous is that expression! Do not suppose you understand it in a moment. It has in it a whole firmament of light and possibility, education, growth, development. This is a daily process in our education—namely: seeing things more clearly, with a happier and more satisfactory distinctness, noting their relations, proportions, interdependences, and final issues. Christ has no blind followers. If any man want to follow Christ, he must first have his eyes opened. That was Christ"s way in the days of his flesh. He did not say to blind men by the wayside, "Grope your way after me, and we may see about your vision by-and-by." No; he stopped, gave eyes to the blind, and then passed on. Christians are not blind men, but men whose eyes have been divinely opened. Is it worth my while giving up what strength I may have, or faculty, to open men"s eyes? Why, there is no mission so sublime! It is almost like creating a man to give him sight. The man blesses you with a grateful, overflowing heart; he says he owes the universe to you, as the instrument of God: for before it was a great night, now it is a sun-lit, glowing day. The greatest gift of man to man is the gift of idea, thought, new vision, the enlargement of the critical, judicial, and appreciative faculty. To open the eyes is to give wealth. The poet cannot give me the acres of my lord, but he can give me the landscape that belongs to the poorest of the children of men.
"To turn them from darkness to light." That is upon the same line of thinking? Precisely: that is the Divine logic. Not to open their eyes to see the darkness as sevenfold greater than they dreamed it to be, but "to turn them from darkness to light." What superstitious religion ever proposed to increase the day? One wonders that men, hearing this to be Christ"s purpose, do not stand up and say, "King of kings! Lord of lords!" They will follow any demagogue who will delude and befool them, and turn their back upon the man who wants to lead them out of darkness into light. This is the proof of the Divinity of the Christian religion. It is the religion of light; it cries, "Light! more light! cleanse the whole firmament of clouds and let all the light of God shine without interception." What a turning is this from darkness to light! The phrase may go for less than its value because of its very simplicity. The white diamond does not attract the untrained attention so much as some muddily-coloured stone quite valueless: the diamond is neglected because of the very quality which gives it value. Is there a religion in this world that even proposes to turn men from darkness to light? I accept that religion at once on that very profession. Who can measure the distance from darkness to light? This is one of the immeasurable distances finding its counterpart in the expression, "as far as the east is from the west." These are terms that transcend arithmetic. The writers would have borrowed arithmetical numbers to express their ideas but that arithmetical numbers have no relation to such stupendous distances. Darkness imprisons, darkness brings fear, darkness enfeebles, darkness contracts the mind. Jesus never said, "Take away the light; or if you light a candle, put it under a bushel." Contrariwise, he said, "I am the Light of the world," and "ye, my disciples, are the light of the world.... Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven." Because Christianity fights the darkness, loves the light, calls for midday, I accept it as the fullest and strongest philosophy of life yet made known to me.
There is another turning—namely: "from the power of Satan unto God." Christianity is the upward movement of the world. "Nearer God!" is the watch-cry; "Away from the enemy; further from the destroyer; upward, out of his reach"—that is the sublime charge, that the Divine inspiration. We know what is meant by "the power of Satan"—the power that victimises us, that dupes us, that gives us promises which end ever in disappointments; the power that unmans us, takes away our crown, breaks upon our self-control, mocks our prayers, and points us to the grave as the sad end. We know that power. It never gave us any education, it never took us to school; it never offered us any new book written by genius and inspired by purity. It always said, "Avoid school, keep out of the library; turn your back upon the Church, never mind the preacher; feed yourself: drink where you can, eat what you can get hold of; obey me, and I will give you the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them"—a figure as large as the lie.
So far this is in some sense negative: "To open their eyes, turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God." Now we come to what may be termed a blessing more positive: "that they may receive forgiveness of sins." No man ever invented that! Man has invented forgetfulness of sins; man has brewed certain drinks which he will give to himself in order to dull the recollection of his iniquities. But this is dew from heaven; no fingers ever moulded these translucent drops of celestial purity. Christianity makes the greatest of all offers. It will not lull me, it will not administer opiate or narcotic to me: it will fight the battle right out; it will adapt means to ends; it will bring the eternal to bear upon the temporary, the Divine upon the human, the sacrificial blood upon the human sin; and the end shall be "forgiveness." Sweet word!—infinite in its depth of meaning, infinite in its height of promise. An incredible word! That is its difficulty with me: I know my sin so well that I know it cannot be forgiven—I am speaking now within the bounds and observation and consciousness of a personal and social kind. You can throw flowers upon it; you can employ men to come with instruments of iron and throw clay and sand and rocks upon it; you can bring all the great seas of the globe and pour their infinite floods upon it; but you cannot forgive it. Christianity says to me, in this mood of dejection and despair, "You can be forgiven, and I have come to tell you how." I am touched by the sublimity of the offer. If it were possible, I would accept it; but to accept it would be to contradict all my own consciousness and all my own observation, and all the efforts of every empiric who has come to practise his nostrums upon me. Christianity replies: "I am well aware of that; this will be no compromise; my action is building upon original foundations: the blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin." My reply to that speech is a great flood of tears; I say, "Would God that were true, thou sweet angel!" and I look suspiciously at the radiant mother-preacher. Can it be? What is it that cleanses from all sin? "The blood of Jesus Christ." I want that to be true! O angel, radiant one—making the snow ashamed of its imperfect whiteness by the lustre of thy purity—I would thou couldst make me feel the Gospel thou hast made me hear!
Is it worth our while trying to open men"s eyes, to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins? In this faith I would serve and count all other programmes mean as lies. Then will come the "inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me"—new character, new brotherhood, new riches. This is what Christianity wants to do. Fly abroad, thou mighty gospel! When this work is done, earth will be heaven.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Acts 26". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany