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Some Dangers Indicated
Colossians 2:1-9 .
Why should Paul the Apostle enter into any "conflict" about people or concerning people whom he had never seen? It is to be remembered that the Apostle Paul is writing to persons who had never seen him in the flesh, whom he had never seen, and with whom he had only opened indirect communication by a fellow-labourer. Yet he says he has a "great conflict" for the Colossians and the Laodiceans and the dwellers in Hierapolis. Why this conflict? Why not let the people alone? Why not be concerned simply for those who are round about you? What is this passion in the sanctified heart that will go out to the ends of the earth, clothed in charity, burning with Christly ardour? If there be any persons who are strangers to this passion they cannot enter into the music of the Apostle's Epistle to the Colossians. They may call themselves practical people, they may find refuge in narrow maxims, such as, "Charity begins at home." Christianity knows nothing about such maxims. Christianity takes in all time, all space, all human nature; Christianity is not willing to sit down to the feast so long as there is one vacant chair at the banqueting table: Christianity never ceased to say, "Yet there is room"; specially is there room for those who least think of it, or who least suspect their fitness to occupy it. There is no room for the self-contented, the pharisaical; there is always more room for the broken-hearted, the self-renouncing, the Christ-seeking soul. Paul lived in conflict: on the other hand, we are amongst those who avoid everything like controversy, friction, and sharp, mutual confrontage. We love quietness. Yet we do not know what quietness is; we think that quietness is indifference, carelessness, indisposition to concern oneself about anybody's interests. That is not quietness, that is more nearly an approach to death: peace is not indifference, it is the last result of the operation of ten thousand conflicting forces. We are only at peace after we have been at war, and after we have accepted the music of the will of God.
What is this conflict? The term would seem to mean battle, antagonism, decisive and unchangeable hostility in relation to some other object. That is not the whole meaning of the word in this connection. In another verse the Apostle defines the conflict "striving," saith he, "in prayer." There is a conflict at the throne of grace, there is a time when man wrestles with the angel of God. It would seem from an outside point of view as if they were thrown together in deadly combat: which shall go down, the human or the Divine? the man or the angel? And the angel always allows himself to be thrown in that holy controversy, that he may bestow upon the successful combatant a new name, a new franchise, a sacred, blissful immortality. Until we so enlarge our prayers we shall not know what the privilege of prayer is. Confining our petitions to little concerns, to petty and immediate affairs, we shall never know the range and the sacred urgency and violence of prayer. We must pray, as it were, more for those whom we have never seen than for those who are nearest our personal love; there are so many things that may occur to our poor imagination to prevent our ever seizing with the right of Divine proprietorship all that lies beyond. Paul would not pray only for those who, like the Philippians, had been round about him and enriching him night and day; but for the citizens of Colosse and Laodicea and Hierapolis, for those who were far away from himself. But all men are equally near to God. Here we have Christian passion seen in its sublimest exercise; the man enlarging himself into a whole priesthood, a soul burning with love for souls he had never seen. Until the Church is thus large, inclusive, solicitous, involving the whole world in its prayer and its desire until this miracle is accomplished, we shall hold small controversies about the answerableness and the utility of prayer. How can men who have never prayed argue the question of prayer? How can they who have limited their prayers to small areas know the meaning of intercession, which so stirs the soul that it can have no rest until the last wanderer has returned to his Father? Pray more, and argue less.
Here occurs the name of the city of Laodicea the richest and proudest of the three cities in whose religious interests Paul is now most deeply concerned. Of the cities of Colosse, Laodicea, and Hierapolis, Laodicea was by far the strongest, richest metropolis. What do we know of it now? Where now its fame? Laodicea has become a term signifying lukewarmness, tepid zeal, a condition of the soul which is neither hot nor cold. Laodicean wealth, pomp, festivity, are all forgotten, and Laodicea lives only to represent the lukewarmness of men who have lost their first love. So may fame perish! "Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall." The man who is to-day most famous for the highest powers and the sublimest influence may fade out of human recollection, or may be buried with a nameless burial. We cannot live in yesterday's goodness, we can only live on to day's active piety; not what we did years ago, but what we are doing now, determines our character, and settles our fitness for heaven.
What does the Apostle desire for those whom he had never seen in the flesh? "That their hearts might be comforted." What do we mean by the word "comfort"? Perhaps we know more clearly our conception of the word comfort than we can explain it in terms. Every one will naturally think that he knows what comfort means: when you comfort a heart you soothe it, pacify it, pronounce a blessing upon it; you cause it to nestle warmly in your own heart, that thereby it may be warmed and stilled, and be led into a sense of deep and sweet tranquillity. That is not the meaning of the word here. The English language deprives us of the force of the word which Paul employed. Almost everywhere in the New Testament when you comfort men you do not lull them or soothe them: a comforting preacher is a rousing preacher. We speak of a Boanerges and a son of consolation; we think of the Barnabas of the Church as a very quiet man, singularly insusceptible to public excitement; a man who is always pronouncing beatitudes, and so exorcising the spirit of unrest as rather to bring upon the Church a spirit of slumbrousness, quietness, which sees God in his minor but not less tender aspects. That is not the meaning of the word "son of consolation." Barnabas was not a quiet speaker, Barnabas was not a man who pronounced beatitudes; "the son of consolation" meant that he was an exciting, inspiring, rousing, dominant preacher; encouraging the heart to new braveries, straining the soul to new tension, that it might give itself with larger and more perfect consecration to the service of the Cross. Thus words have been abased, impoverished, perverted; and men have been called sons of consolation who ought to have been described as dead asleep. When the Apostle prayed that the people might be "comforted,", he prayed that they might be encouraged, stimulated, excited; that they might have all their faculties roused up. Put on thy strength, and thus be comforted.
"Being knit together in love." Who knows the meaning of "being knit together"? Would it not signify close union, unanimous co-operation, perfect identity of feeling as between man and man throughout the whole Church? There is no objection to that definition, but that is not the definition of the term which the Apostle Paul used. This is rather a logical than a moral term. Paul would have all the people carried together in a common persuasion, parties to a common agreement, consenting to the statement of truth, as being the best possible presentation for the time being of that truth, knit together like a closely compacted and finely reasoned argument: yet not argument in a controversial and exasperating sense, but argument with love at the basis, love at the heart, love at the crown; the right kind of argument; not that overwhelms by mighty appeals only, but that persuades so as to gain the consent of head and heart and hand in the establishment and propagation of truth. Paul would have an educated Church in the right sense of the term; he would have all the Colossians "knit together in love, and unto all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the acknowledgment of the mystery of God, and of the Father, and of Christ; in whom arc hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." There is a full theology; there is a part of the Scriptures we never saw before: to this men are called, to this complete equipment and satisfaction are men to be persuaded. This mystery of Christ is not an acquisition which any man can attain to in a moment, this is not an education that can be completed in a day or two. With Paul, Christian thought was not something to be referred to once a week; he did not keep his Christianity locked up in the Church. All the other things were little: Christ alone was great. As for our business, our commerce, our adventure, all our civilisation in its largest and most impressive aspects, all that he reckoned among the et-cætera: the thing to be done was to be united to Christ, to God through Christ, to have Christ dwelling in the soul, and to be ready for all the elevation awaiting redeemed souls. We have inverted all that, we have made a classification of our own. If a man were to speak about Christ during the transaction of his business, he would be branded as a fanatic or a hypocrite. This is how we treat the greatest mystery in the universe. We appoint special times, and we abbreviate those times to the utmost possible extent, and we refer rather indirectly than distinctively to Christ as the Redeemer of the world. Paul could not live now. He would tear the Church to pieces. Nothing would surprise that ardent mind so much as to find certain persons calling themselves Christians. He would tear the Christian pulpit asunder, he would drive out many Christian preachers and teachers; as for the Church-roll, what would become of it under those burning fingers! Paul said, Christianity is all, or it is nothing. Paul said in effect, I can understand the man who curses God or denies God, or mouths the heavens in foul blasphemy, and I can understand the man who says, "God forbid that I should glory, save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ: for me to live is Christ: this one thing I do": but I cannot understand the man between, who is neither the one nor the other, or the man who makes his piety an investment, his Christianity an element in his social progress.
To this passion we must come back, or the battle is lost. There is no doubt on my mind that the Christian battle has been lost by lukewarm Christianity. The infidel has done us little harm, the atheist has made no progress; but the man who has undertaken to patronise Christianity, and who has choked it by his favours, has cost the Christ of God a thousand redoubled crucifixions. Why do you not give up Christianity? why have anything to do with it? Why crush it with your patronage? why choke it with your embrace? Renounce it, thus help it; curse it, and thus bless it. On the other hand, who can forget that to-day there are men as consecrated, as self-sacrificing, as probably ever lived since the days of the Apostle: missionaries abroad who are daily hazarding their lives for the Lord Jesus; missionaries who have no object in life but to exalt the Cross? A missionary is a continual rebuke to a domestic minister; the man who has gone out to the heathen to fight the devil on his own battleground, the man who has entered the densest darkness that there he might introduce the light of the Gospel, is a man who puts to shame ministers who study new adaptations of language to suit the perverted fancy and the perverted taste of persons who simply luxuriate in the intellectual enjoyment of Christianity. We need not humble our own age unnecessarily, yet he would be an unjust man who would assert broadly that the Apostle Paul would be satisfied with the representation of Christ which is to be found in the Christian Church this day.
Yet the Apostle has a word of warning; he sees two dangers ahead. The first is: "And this I say, lest any man should beguile you with enticing words." He is not indicating an open hostility, he has no fear of the great battle-axe, it is not a battering-ram that excites his solicitude; it is a process of beguilement. What is the meaning of that term? A process of leading away little by little, a short step at a time; an assent, a casual suggestion, one small omission of duty; and especially that wicked practice of attaching different meanings to the same words. There is a sophistry that is ruining the soul by allowing the use of a double dictionary, so that a word shall mean this under some circumstances, and something different under a totally different class of conditions. The Apostle will have men simple-minded, frank-hearted, meaning what they say, saying what they mean, living the white life; candidates enrolled in robes white as snow. "Enticing words" are words that lead astray; words that say, Unquestionably you are on the right road, and not for one moment ought you to think of leaving that road permanently; yet how much you might learn it you would turn aside one little step, to see this new flower, to hear this new bird, to behold this new sight. We are only safe in our steadfastness. Only he who says, No! broadly, proudly, ringingly, can be right. He would be called very narrow-minded, puritanical, pharisaical, self-righteous, legal, and so forth. He can bear all such descriptives because his own heart doth not condemn him. He says, I will not turn to the right hand or to the left, I will walk steadfastly towards the polar star. Happy he! "My son, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not."
Another danger is indicated in the eighth verse: "Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit." What is the meaning of the word "spoil" in this connection? Suppose we read the text thus: Beware lest any man mar the beauty of your Christian simplicity or your pious excellence: Beware lest any man should blight that which is fair, or disfigure that which is proportionate. The sense would be good, but it would not be the sense of the Apostle Paul in this particular connection. Here we have a military phrase: Beware lest any man take you as spoil, take you at the spear-point, and lead you away the victim of philosophy and vain deceit. We might therefore read the text thus: Beware lest in the battle of life any man should so far conquer you as to make you a victim of philosophy and vain deceit; despoil you as an enemy besieging a town despoils its ramparts and takes its citizens in war. What is the spirit to which we may become thus subservient? It is called "philosophy and vain deceit" Christianity is not a mere philosophy. The theologians of a certain school, narrow and mechanical, have nearly killed Christianity. They will make a system of it, they will map out the heart of God into private garden-ground; it begins here, it ends there, and between the origin and the conclusion the life may be described thus. When men undertake to parochialise the infinite, they are no longer wise, they have become fools before God. Christianity is too big for any philosophy. Love cannot be scheduled. For want of knowing this the colleges, seminaries, and theological universities have very nearly blotted out the blood-stained ground called Calvary. We have now theories of God's love, systems and schemes and plans of salvation. What can stand against such mechanical treatment of the divine force of redeeming love? It is not to be measured. I will tell you what you may measure if you like measure the wind! There will I leave you: buy tape enough, buy miles of it, and borrow all you cannot buy, and when we meet again tell me the extent of the wind that blows through the space occupied by the earth. I will tell you what to measure measure the light! Make some new photometer that shall exactly, to one little inch, mete out the sunlight that fills the space round about us. Borrow and buy once more, and when we meet again tell me how much light there is in the space above and around. But do not measure God's love. Oh, the depth! said one; oh, the breadth, the length, the height! His arithmetic was lost, his geometry was dumb. Feel it; never attempt to express it adequately in words: respond to it as a passion; but never attempt to follow it as a decorated and erudite philosophy. Here is the greatest presence we know of, which comes every day and takes up no room. What a mystery is that! The greatest presence known to our senses takes up no space. A child requires his little inch of foothold, an insect casts its tiny shadow on the plant whose virtue is its food: but here is the greatest, sublimest, vastest presence know to our senses, and yet it takes up no room, does not rob the child of its foothold or the insect of its little area of operation. What is that greatest presence? It is the light. It is here and there and yonder, high as heaven, and yet it takes up no room, hinders no traveller, obstructs no progress, lives, moves, and blesses all, without asking for any hospitality or accommodation in return. So it is with the love of God. Measure the speech of man, fix its value, determine its limits; but when God speaks be silent that you may hear his music, "The Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him." When a man becomes a philosopher, be sure he is nearly about becoming a fool. There is no word that plagues a man's vanity so much as "philosopher." He thinks he would like to be a philosopher; he does not know the meaning of the word, but it looks such a very ornamental word: it is so roomy, so capacious, so hospitable, that he thinks even he may find at least momentary accommodation under its sheltering roof.
My lord Bacon saith, "A little learning inclineth to atheism, but great learning bringeth men to the footstool of God." If we could have a complete philosophy or scheme of wisdom, that indeed would be welcome to all minds; but for any man to describe philosophy as having a beginning and end, is for that man to indicate in the plainest terms that he knows nothing about it. If Christianity were only a philosophy, it would be like ten thousand other propositions, schemes, or suggestions.
What, then, is Christianity? It is a life, an experience, a passion, a Cross. The men who are ruining Christianity are the men who are comparing it with other religions. They give Mahomet a place, and Confucius a place, and Buddha a place, and Christ a place, and Socrates a place. This is not the position which Christianity will accept. Christianity is distinctive, it is sui similis , it is like itself; "only itself can be its parallel." It exists in its own unity, personality, identity; not as a thing schemed out and scheduled forth by clever managers of words, but life that loves, and lives in sacrifice. Will you therefore come to the aid of the Cross by simply saying, "God be merciful to me a sinner"? When you tried to understand the Cross, you lost your salvation; the moment you said, Now I will put this into logical form, then you limited the Holy One of Israel. Yield yourselves to all the influences of God, and go whither the Spirit drives you, and you will find that in the end you have come into the summerland of heaven. There are those, of course, who are great in insisting upon definiteness. They will be ruined by the very definiteness which they adore. There is something grander than definiteness of the mechanical kind, and that is definiteness of assured love of Christ. Let a man say, I cannot explain Christ, I cannot argumentatively defend Christ against many cunning users of words, but, my God, thou knowest that I love him and he is a Christian; all the rest will come, by patient continuance in well-doing, by noble moral self-discipline; by living in the spirit of the Cross of Christ, he will come little by little to know more of the doctrine of Christ. Thus will his education be completed.
Almighty God, we pray thee to show unto us more and more of thy truth; then we shall know that our life is increasing more and more, and by the increase of life we shall be able to confirm and enjoy the increase of truth. Forbid that our information should exceed our enthusiasm; may they both go together; may all we know burn with a sacred ardour; may our lives be as shrines of the Holy One, which men seeing may take knowledge of, and draw near, and hear from our lives some message from on high. We bless thee for all thy love; no tongue can tell its amount, its tenderness, its spontaneousness; we feel it, but cannot express it in words; we can say with our whole heart, God is light, God is love, God is goodness. May we hold fast to these truths, and grow up from them as from roots, until we become great fruit-bearing trees, glorifying God, not only in the vastness of our growth, but also in the abundance and richness of our fruit. Our prayer we say in the dear, sweet name of Christ Jesus, Lamb of God, Saviour of man. Amen.
This ought to be a commonplace; the merest truism in Christian speech. The announcement of such a text should awaken no attention, or excite no curiosity or special interest, because the words themselves are trite. To be human is to love; to be men is to be knit together; to be alive is to be in brotherhood. So we should say, if we had no experience to go by: but all experience, alas, contradicts our theory, and instead of having a commonplace to deal with we are face to face with a miracle. That miracle will appear to be the greater and the more suggestive, if we think once more of what ought to be a mere commonplace in human history. When man meets man he must hail his brother; two men cannot pass one another on a journey without recognition; to be sick is to evoke the help of the whole neighbourhood; to be in distress is enough to bring to our aid all who hear of it. So it would seem, for we are men educated, cultured, refined men. The priest will never pass a wounded man, nor will a Levite; they will say, seeing a wounded brother, All church systems must stand still until this man is once more upon his legs; there shall be no bell-ringing, or cup-washing, or ceremonial observance, until this man's wounds are healed, until this dying man can join the holy worship. This would be philanthropy, love of man, beautiful benevolence, most tender and helpful sympathy, and the world will be full of it as it is full of sunshine in summer midday. We cannot deny the testimony of experience upon these matters. When you were sick, and in prison, and naked, and an hungered, and athirst, who cared for you? Is not the world a great, cruel world? Has it time to cast but a brief and furtive glance at suffering men, and then to roll on in its cumbrous chariot to keep the feast-time or to enjoy the harvest of pelf? Why should Paul be in conflict about distressed hearts? Why should he desire that they should be "knit together in love"? The thing will come naturally. Where does it come naturally? The ground will grow wheat here, and fruit trees yonder, and rich meadows in a third locality, and every spot of earth will have its own flower-bed: let things alone. Where do these miracles occur? It would be as difficult to find them in Nature as it is to find them in human society. Behind all true appearances that is, appearances expressive of reality you must find cultured character, sanctified disposition, divinely inspired and controlled instinct and feeling.
This being knit together in love is not only a miracle, it is Christ's miracle. It is not a conjuror's trick; it is the miracle of God. Surprising, indeed, that we should require the interposition of Omnipotence to bring us together in love, in all its union and trustfulness, in all its sympathy and helpfulness. In reality, man hates man; in reality, there is no beast in the jungle so cruel-hearted as man: his cruelty is practised, not to satisfy an instinct that in itself is good, but an instinct that in itself is bad; it is not the necessary cruelty which must sometimes be perpetrated on savage beasts, but a calculated cruelty, set out upon an arithmetical basis, arranged by a calculus adapted to the anticipation of events and the possibility of bearing burdens; a mean analysis of life, and fact, and possibility; quite a triumph of selfish genius. When we hear of man loving man, where are the facts, apart from the Christian religion? Let us go to some sunny land where man loves man, and study the amazing miracle. It will not be enough to show us a flag, red as blood, fringed with silver, and on it written, "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity"; we are not flag-hunting, we are in quest of the land where man loves man, and in a land where Christ was never heard of. It is the Christian contention that philanthropy is the practical philosophy of Christian doctrine. That is the plain, frank, generous issue. Until we love God we cannot love man in any profound and all-enduring sense: the whole prophecy of revelation, and the whole meaning of God, you will find in the two commandments Love God and love thy neighbour.
There are many kinds of union, many circumstances under which men are knit together, without being knit together in love. Were we to omit the condition under which our hearts are to be knit together, we should omit the whole text. Men may be knit together involuntarily; circumstances may have brought them together for the accomplishment of a given purpose; they may have no liking for one another in any other relation, but they are necessary to each other in the carrying out of a certain conclusion. There is a being knit together in selfishness: we get more by being knit together than we could get in solitude: co-operation is profitable; union is an investment. Then there are unions that are but temporary; they are political, they are mechanical, they are constructed in order that a certain issue may be the more quickly brought about. In this case we have association rather than union. For proximity is not union, of necessity. There is no union in things that are brought together and are held together by some outside force. True union amounts to almost identity, to subtle, sympathetic, complete amalgamation. This union is to be a union of love. What other union is possible in the Church? There is a quasi-union possible, which is founded upon opinion. Upon opinion no lasting, vital, sacrificial union can ever be founded. Opinion ought, in a very large sense, to be independent, the outworking of individual thinking; it should indicate the personal accent of individual character. Who is the man that wishes that his opinion should rule the whole world, and be accepted in the verbal form in which he states it? That truth can be stated in ten thousand ways is a tribute to truth itself, as well as to the fertility of the human mind. To write an opinion and demand subscription to it, what is that but stark popery without the name? We must not believe in authority unless we believe in it altogether. And besides, in whose authority are we to believe? Where is the man with the tiara on his head, which God set there in token of infallibility? Is the human mind intended to run in one mould and to express one set of convictions and opinions and thoughts? May there not be unity in diversity? May not one man see an aspect of the truth peculiar to himself, and other men see aspects of the truth equally vividly? And may not all the aspects be required to make up the sum total of truth? If we found our union upon opinion we shall have continual controversy of an angry kind, not the useful attrition of mind upon mind which expresses its utility in sparks and flashes of light; we shall have hostility, antagonism, opposing creeds and beliefs, and shall consider him the wise man who can talk most eloquently and obstinately in defence of his peculiar shibboleth. There is a kind of union, also, founded upon custom. That union is of no value. It is the union of meeting together under the same roof occasionally, and of passing through the same forms of worship and ceremony, as if unanimously; a union which comes of having been in the habit of going to this place or to that, and obeying certain behests, and passing through a definite ritual. That is not the union for which Paul prayed: there is no vitality in it; it may be association, proximity, a coming together for an occasion and a purpose, but real brotherhood there is none in such mechanical relationship.
Where, then, is unity possible? Only in love. What can love do? It can bear the greatest strain. Love never gives way. Men can be very hot about their opinions, extremely pedantic, and can claim very much in the name of infallibility without a distinct avowal of Papacy; but only love can stand all weathers, go through all the seasons blithely and hopefully, find flowers in the deserts, and pools among the rocks. Take away love from the Church, and you destroy the Church. Paul says love "beareth all things... endureth all things" beareth all things in the sense of a roof bearing the storm, that those who are under it may not be drenched with its waters; not bearing in the sense of enduring, for that comes in afterwards, but bearing in the sense of outputting; an outkeeping, precisely as the roof bears the tempest: so love bears all the brunt and storm and rattle and shock of things, and those who dwell under it dwell under the roof of a sanctuary, and enjoy an inviolable security and brotherhood. Love is not indiscriminate; love is critical, dainty, electric. Every heart has its own affinities. They are wise who follow those affinities without disparaging or discrediting other fellowships. Around some teachers we can gather as we could not gather around others. That is no reason for being angry or hostile towards those whose teaching we cannot receive. Some teachers seem to know us, to search us with a kind hand, to hold the light just where we dread it most, and yet we bless them for their fearlessness, for we say, The man could not be so critical if he did not mean in his degree to be equally redemptive; he searches and tries that afterwards he may make up, and heal, and bless, and crown. Love cannot make friends of every one in an equal degree. There is a law of affinity, both spiritual, and, in a more modified sense, social and physical. We know those whom we love at once. We do not require to know them long years, and bethink ourselves whether we shall at the end of a probationary period feel inclined to unite with them; we know the grip of the hand, the look of the eye, the tone of the voice, the whole character at once, and we say with the discernment of spirit which belongs to the genius of love, Accept our fellowship, and give us yours.
What is it, then, that we love in one another? As Christians, it is the Christ within one another that we love. We see him in various lights and aspects as we study one another. Christ does not reveal himself in the same way through every one of his children; he accepts the instrument and makes the most and best of it. Some seem to give but a very imperfect revelation of the Son of God; but they would give an imperfect revelation of anything else or any one else, for they give a very imperfect revelation of human nature itself. We cannot account for them; how they came to be born we do not know; as a matter of fact, there they are, and they have to be dealt with as entities and factors in human life. When we look upon them and wonder why they represent Christianity, we do injustice to Christianity itself if we do not go farther; we should say, If these men are so ungainly and uninviting with Christianity, what would they have been without it? If we could compare the two personalities, the non-Christian and the Christian, we should see that a miracle has been wrought in bringing up these very men, even to the point of attainment at which we find them, and which we regard with so positive a discontentment. So with the nations of the world. Christ will reveal himself according to national characteristic, temperament, culture, and opportunity. When the African is converted, his Christianity will not be like the Christianity of the long-cultured Hindoo, the man who represents ages of civilisation: in one case you may have frankness, mere surface, the kind of Christianity that can express itself in words of one syllable, and in sentences of the shortest and curtest kind; in the other, there may be mystery, subtle eloquence, faraway thinking, great intellectual compass, and that kind of hesitancy which comes not from doubt, but from seeing so much that it is impossible to condense it into brief and epigrammatic periods. Thus we must learn that Christianity accepts the mould of the individual through whose character it expresses itself; for the value is not in the mere method, or in the figure which that mould impresses, but in the fact that it is Christianity that is represented, how imperfectly soever.
"Knit together in love." Then they will never believe evil of one another; they will never take any outside report about one another: they will dwell with themselves, they will live the life of brotherhood; the world will have no right to pronounce any opinion upon any one of them. The merely worldly man, whose vision is bounded by the horizon and whose objects are served by the earth under his feet, will never be allowed to express an opinion about any Christian man: his criticism would be worthless; he would begin at the wrong point, look at the wrong things, attach a false estimate to everything which he attempted to appraise, and all his judgment would be smiled at as would be the judgment of a blind man who wrote a report about a picture-gallery: the man is not in the masonry, or music, or fraternity, or fellowship; he does not understand its passwords, tokens, signs, pledges, badges; he pronounces upon that which he understands not. "Knit together in love." Who can estimate the strength of the binding force? What has love not done? If we loved one another we should see the virtues rather than the vices, the excellences rather than the defects and infirmities. Take a mother's estimate of her worst child. She will allow that society has some right to criticise him, but if they knew him as she knows him they would be less severe in their judgment than they are. She may not be critically right, but she is redeemingly and sympathetically and divinely right; and she has a right to take that ground, because she can see farther into the case than any outsider can possibly do. Receive the interpretations of love gratefully. There is plenty of criticism in the world, pedantic, selfish, hostile, bitter, clamorous criticism. There is nothing so easy as to find fault; the veriest fool may take high prizes in that art. Some men, unfortunately, are cursed with a disposition which makes everything as sour as itself. It is most unfortunate; it is, indeed, unspeakably calamitous; still, we must show the strength of our love by even encouraging such to strive against themselves, if haply by the united force of the triune God even they may be saved in the end.
Christianity is nothing without love, and love is not a mere sentiment. We cannot sing it all and be done with it. Love sits up all night; love never accounts that anything has been given so long as anything has been withheld; love is inventive in sacrifice; it can always see another cross on which it may die in order that some poor sinner may live. It is recorded of a Catholic saint, of long life, and multifold and patient endurance, that he was visited by his Lord, the Son of God, whose countenance was marred more than any man's; and the Lord asked him what he would that should be done to him for his honour and comfort. The aged, all-enduring saint, seeing the image of his Lord and observing what suffering could do, replied with ineffable sweetness, "Lord, that I might suffer most!" What can make a face like suffering? What can make a man like sanctified endurance? What can enrich and ennoble a life like sorrow accepted in the right spirit? It takes out every trace of the old Adam, it brings upon the human face the very lustre of God
"Knit together in love." We must remember that love is to be cultured, developed, strengthened. Love does not come once for all as a mere sentiment or passion and say, I have come, and there will be no more of me: I will abide here just as you see me now. That is not the way the flowers come; the flowers say to the botanist and the gardener, You can make anything of us you like; you can bring us together, and we shall produce new colours and new forms; you can so treat us that we shall be miracles of beauty: do not disdain us, or allow us to live solitary lives, but study our characteristics and our botanical features, and we will answer all your tender care. So it is with Christ's sweet love: now it is a missionary asking for the widest sea and the stormiest water, that he may cross the deep to blow his silver trumpet in the hearing of those who have never heard it; and now it is a veiled angel, going stealthily about in the night time, knocking at doors, climbing creaky stairs up to the sick-chamber, where affliction and poverty are beating out their pulses in unknown distress; now it is a heroic enthusiasm of preaching, so that the whole land vibrates under the music of new voices and the resonance of new appeals; now it is domestic, going quietly about the business of the week so silently, unobservedly, unostentatiously, beneficently, doing a thousand little things of which nobody takes heed or puts down to the credit of love; still, they are all done, and the doing of them helps the floral beauty of the world. Wherever we find this love, we cannot be mistaken for a moment about its origin and its quality. Who can mistake fire? Who can be cheated by a painted ceiling to believe it is God's own sky, unrolled by his hand and studded with stars by his finger? Who can mistake the summer for aught but a Divine creation? It is even so with this Christian love: there is a reach about it, a subtlety, a mystery, a majesty, above all things a self-sacrificing passion in it and about it, which establish its identity beyond all dispute. Where there is a heart possessed by anything but love, let that heart pray mightily all the day, all the night, that the demon may be killed: and not killed only, but twice killed; and not twice killed only, but buried, not in earth, but in its native hell.
Dreadful is the life that is unblessed with love a cold, mean, poor life; its bread is unsanctified, its very prosperity is but the higher aspect of failure, and all its ambition is an irreligious prayer addressed to an irreligious god. Rich is the life that is full of love: it shall never want; its sufferings shall be a new form of joy; it will bless the little and the great; it will be welcomed as light is welcomed after a long night of darkness; it will never be discontented, critical, in any foolish or invidious sense; it will see the very beginning of the day, and no sooner will the opal appear in the east than it will begin to declare that the day has come; and even when it looks upon the grey, sullen, murky fog, it will say, This is but an underclothing of the earth; the sun is just as bright as ever he was, and the heaven as blue as at midsummer, and as for all these under-phenomena they are but for a moment, they will pass away, and we shall forget them and never wish to recall them. Herein is the strength of the Church. Love will sustain every burden, see a way through every difficulty, have a happy answer to every enigma, and will hold out a helpful hand to every case of necessity. Say we are knit together in opinion, and growing minds will arise amongst us and alter the whole relation in which we stand; say we are united in custom, and some great revival may occur which will throw the mechanical customs of the Church into desuetude; but say we are knit together in love, and we say in other words that we are knit together for time, and for eternity; for earth, for heaven: for love is the universal language, and love, like its Author, can never die.
The Science of Christian Education
Men are of different capacities. No two men can contain exactly the same quantity (if that term may be permitted) of Christ: each man has his own portion. This is a fact which is overlooked, and in consequence of its being overlooked we have no end of conflict and soul-distressing controversy. We cannot all contain the same quantity of nature. The earth is enough for some; others seem to be able to take in the whole heaven; whether they are poets or mystics or rhapsodists or saints, we stay not to inquire; they shame us by a capacity which seems to extend every time it presents itself for new gifts from the Cross and from the throne. Let a man know what his capacity is, and let him rejoice that, according to the measure of that capacity, he is filled up with Christ, has all the God he can hold. What a doctrine is that, what a consolation, what an inspiration! The Lord has not started us all with the same intellectual or moral capacity. Some men have hardly any mental capacity, and some men seem as if they were doomed never to be morally right. We cannot understand these mysteries, nor are we called upon to explain them; ours is not the judgment-seat, it is God's.
"... which is the head of all principality and power." Paul persists in extending the sovereignty of Christ beyond what we know as earth, time, space, and Church. He will not have Christ confined in his ministry to any one spot in space; wherever there is a life he will find a subject of Christ's crown; wherever there is a soul Paul will find a psalm of homage to him who bore the Cross and died upon it. We are not complete in one another, we are complete in Christ; yet we cannot do without one another, such is the action of sympathy, the comforting, sustaining, and animating result of trustful fellowship in Christ.
Now the Apostle turns to all things preparatory and symbolic, and speaks of them thus:
"In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ" ( Col 2:11 ).
The meaning is that there was an earlier circumcision done with hands, a kind of surgical operation; nothing in itself, but very much in its significance; it was the mark of a Divine covenant. But in Christ there are no such marks; we enter into liberty, joy, transport, consciousness of the Divine presence, which enables us to judge everything, and to escape all criticism of a humiliating kind ourselves. Circumcision was not done away, it was consummated; that is to say, it was brought up to all its meaning, it realised all its significance; so we are now of the circumcision, not the circumcision of the knife or the sharp-edged stone, but the circumcision which is wrought by the Spirit: we, too, bear signs and marks and tokens, but wholly of a spiritual kind.
"Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead" ( Col 2:12 ).
What baptism was this? Not of water, for then Judas was baptised, and Judas rose again with his Lord. Said Christ, "I have a baptism to be baptised with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished!" That is the baptism in which we are buried with Christ. Your self-conceited, pompous ritualism must be banished from the Church, whether circumcision or baptism, and the great spiritual thought must be realised in all the fulness of its glory. If there be those who imagine that being put into so much water they are buried with Christ in baptism, then they know not the spirit of the Christianity which has been given to them. We are buried with Christ when we are one with him, in spirit, in resignation, in obedience, in the consciousness that only by sacrifice can certain great spiritual results be realised. It would indeed be a cheap form of burial with Christ to go down into a reservoir, or to be submerged for a moment in some classic river: only they are buried with Christ in baptism who have been buried with him in Gethsemane; only they know the baptism of Christ who have said in speechless, blanched agony, Thy will be done. It is at that point we must join Christ. We do not come in after the victory and enjoy all the fruits of triumph; we do not go up to a risen Lord and say, Now that the resurrection has taken place we will join thee in thy kingdom; we see now where the power is, and where the light shines, and where all the sovereignty will consummate itself in eternal dominion, and therefore we have come to offer ourselves to thee. That would be the worst infidelity, the meanest, basest patronage. We join the Church in Gethsemane, we become Christians where we sweat great drops of blood: we cannot have those who come in and say they will subscribe to a thousand dogmas; only they can come to this feast of victory who come through the garden, through Gethsemane, and over Calvary. We must be buried with him in his baptism of blood, we must be crucified with Christ. We are not to confer a favour upon a crowned Victor; we are to join a soul in paroxysms of agony. We, too, must pass through the valley of the shadow of death to the eternal city, full of light, full of summer, full of God.
Is there, then, aught of merit due to us? are we self-raised? Let the Apostle answer:
"And you, being dead in your sins, and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him" ( Col 2:13 ).
The action is Divine. When we confess our sins we but obey a Divine inspiration; when we have lain down in all the deepest humiliation of soul, it is not that we have covenanted with ourselves to win a prize, but that we have seen the abominableness of sin, and have come to hate it in every aspect and issue. If we are raised again we are miracles of God: every new thought is a Divine gift, every aspiration that is determined to find out what is beyond the clouds is a creation of Divine power; whenever any soul said, "I will pray," it was not the soul that said it, or only the soul as the medium of the Holy Ghost. The more we get rid of ourselves in all these particulars the truer shall be our humility, and the more rational our piety and our homage.
What then became of the old deeds?
"Having forgiven you all trespasses; blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, who was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his Cross" ( Col 2:14 ).
How easy to read these words! how impossible to comprehend this ocean of love! How easy to say "forgiven you all trespasses"! This was not the act of a sovereign, this was the act of a priest: here is no sovereign pomp, here is a suffering God. If God could forgive as a Sovereign, there were no need of the Cross. God needed the Christ as much as we did: he needed the Christ in relation to righteousness, holiness, law, the music and harmony of his universe; and we needed the Christ, because there are times in the soul's history when we want something to cling to, something to look at, something about which we can say, That is the hope of my soul. Into these mysteries there is no door through language: the door opening upon such glories opens in the consciousness of the soul, for which there is no adequate speech: we leave this mystery, and thus come to understand it in some degree. As to our omitted ordinances, the grace that is in Christ Jesus covers up all the past of our neglect; as for the handwriting that was against us, it is cancelled, it is removed by blood; as to the whole covenant that we had broken, it is taken out of the way, and nailed to the Cross. It is supposed that in ancient times the nailing of a bond meant its cancellation; a nail was put through it, the meaning that the bond was fulfilled, cancelled, or dismissed. To-day we signify such results by perforation in some cases. The figure is graphic, striking, and memorable: there was a written paper against us, we had written it and signed it with our own hand; it was ours, and we could not deny it without stultifying ourselves: how was it to be got out of the way? Christ took it, and nailed it to his Cross; and he only could do this.
"And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it" ( Col 2:15 ).
Having spoiled all wickedness, all diabolical presences, and ministries; having gone into the spiritual world, and searched out every foe, and killed him, his triumph was clean and complete. There is a singular idea in this word "spoiled," an idea of stripping, as if he had thrown off the body, the only thing that principalities and powers could get hold of in his case. They could not touch that soul of purity, ineffable, impeccable, everlasting; they could make some assault on the flesh, so he stripped it, threw off all the medium and surface on which principalities and powers could operate; he said, Take the body, make of it what you will. So he worked out the mystery of reconciliation with God. So we may read, Having conquered all principalities and powers, either by discipline, or by sheer spiritual energy, or by ineffable holiness, having proved himself to be master, he has given us all the advantage of his sovereignty.
What, then, are we to do now that Christ has risen and proved himself to be the Lord of all? We have to enter into and claim and justify a great liberty:
"Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ" ( Col 2:16-17 ).
All littleness, meanness of method, smallness of literal discipline, was to be done away in the liberty that is in Christ Jesus. We are no longer Jews, ritualists, observers of times and seasons; we have escaped the region of narrow and false criticism, and we have entered into the glorious liberty of the sons or God. We have not entered into licence; we have entered into certain rights of personal conscience, and in the exercise of those rights we are to realise what Christ meant by liberty. We have not done with meat or drink or holydays or new moons or Sabbath days, or with any shadows; if they can help us, let their help be made welcome: but no man is to come into the Church and say his way is the right way, and that if we do not submit to his plan we are aliens against the commonwealth of Israel. A new court of arbitrament has been set up, the conscience has been re-created; in every man who helps Christ there is a power of the Holy Ghost, by which he can judge all things for himself. Who art thou, then, that judgest thy brother?
"Let no man beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels, intruding into those things which he hath not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind" ( Col 2:18 ).
There had been a great scheme of morality and discipline and self-preparation, whereby the soul could draw upon God as if by right of merit. "Voluntary humility," studied modesty; humility at the mirror, looking at itself and wondering how much nicer it could make itself, how much humbler it could make its humility, and in what attitude it might go forth, so as to attract the attention of others, who should say concerning it, Behold what beautiful modesty, what really exquisite humility is this! We are not brought into this kind of discipline, but into unconscious humility; sometimes into humility so unconscious that it is mistaken by others, who know not that an erect form may be perfectly consistent with a prostrate soul. Then the "worshipping of angels" had to be done away with. There has always been in the Church a sect which believed in angelology. They built their theories and hopes upon odd expressions in the Scriptures; they know that we receive the law by the disposition of angels; they say, Are not all angels ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation? There are innumerable passages of Scripture in which the word "angels" occurs; and these have been all brought together, and have been made to constitute what is termed angelology. All this has to be done away, and we are to stand face to face with Christ: the medium destroyed, the Lord himself immediately realised by every soul. So there must be no encroachment into things not seen, no spirit of trespass, no standing at the door, saying, I will enter here, or I will be outside for ever. There is to be nothing of that kind, but all other things are to be absorbed in "holding the Head, from which all the body by joints and bands having nourishment ministered, and knit together, increaseth with the increase of God" ( Col 2:19 ). Why do not men go immediately to the Eternal himself? Why palter with spirits when you might speak to The Spirit? Why wait for angels, however bright they may be, when you may speak to their Lord? Why the dark seance, waiting for vagrant spirits to talk nonsense to you, when you might hold communion with the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost? How much men are upset or beguiled by details! There shall be this possibility in human life, which is so laughable, so absurd, as to be incredible, that men will betake themselves to such association as they think will enable them to hear the goings of spirits, when they might advance into the very centre of the sanctuary, and say, We have come to see God, God the Spirit literally, God is the Spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth. Why this illegitimate spiritualism when we might have the vital association with God who is offered us in the Gospel of Christ? Why chaffer with the servants when you might banquet with the Lord? These are the great inquiries urged upon us by Christian doctrine and expostulation. But such is the littleness of man, that he prefers some little intercommunion of his own with anonymous spirits to the prayer that takes heaven by sacred violence. Do we then destroy spiritualism? Nothing of the kind: we qualify it, we lift it up to its right meaning and use. We should condemn the man who stands outside talking to the servants of the monarch, when the monarch himself is waiting to receive that very man and give him direct communications. What would be thought of any one who came to the metropolis, and had been assured that the monarch wished to see him, if that traveller contented himself with making external inquiries? What would be said of him when he went home again? Did you see the monarch? No: but I conversed with the monarch's servants. Did not the monarch send for you? Yes. Why did you not go? Because I felt that I would like to talk with the monarch's servants. A fool's answer, a fool's policy: such a statement as that would be received with ridicule, and the man who made it would be hooted out of society: he had the chance to confer with the monarch, and he went behind doors and chaffered with the servants. Yes, all the angels are ministering spirits; yes, all the air is full of holy ones as it is full of light; yes, the wind is the sanctuary of immortals, creatures that have been with the Lord long and much, creatures that are watching over creation in his name and on his account, but I do not want to see one of them, or speak to one of them, or have any sign from one of them, if I can have an interview with the King himself. Take me to head-quarters! If you have access to the throne, to the throne I appeal. This is the offer that is made in the Christian Scriptures. We do not condemn any idea of spirituality or spiritualism, we think it is an idea in the right direction; but when men ask us to stop there we say, No; we will not sacrifice the greater privilege for the smaller opportunity: if we can see God the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, admit us to that sacred Presence, that we may commune immediately, and not intermediately, with the God of our creation.
Thus does Paul speak in this Epistle, and thus does he make it out that Christian education is a kind of science. Read the verses through which we have gone up to this point, and see what Paul thinks of Christian culture. See how he asserts that Christian culture was daily, personal, searching discipline. How ruthless he is in his requirements that we should attend to every detail, as if everything depended upon the very least action of our lives. Hear what words he uses as to Christian progress: "In all wisdom and spiritual understanding" ( Col 1:9 ); "Increasing in the knowledge of God" ( Col 1:10 ); "Every man perfect in Christ Jesus" ( Col 1:28 ); "Rooted and built up in him, and stablished in the faith" ( Col 2:7 ). Then the cautions: "Lest any man should beguile you" ( Col 2:4 ); "Beware lest any man spoil you" ( Col 2:8 ); "Let no man beguile you" ( Col 2:18 ). This is Paul's idea of progress; this is Christian science. Surely there is a science of conduct. Is conduct, the end for which all means were made, to be spoken of generally, jauntily? or is it to be regarded as the sum of a thousand processes, every one of which is watched with an eager criticism? Let no man imagine that he can easily pass on to perfectness of character. He who would be perfect in Christ Jesus must work at the detail, at the habits of life, and at all the little excitements which make up the urgency of need. And he must omit nothing; the one element which he omits will be the element that will wreck him in the end. In Christian culture there are to be no omissions.
Almighty God, we bless thee that through Jesus Christ thy Son thou hast now spoken unto us. He is the last speaker. We know that these are the last times; thou wilt send no more vision upon us, for thou hast given us thy Son, the express image of thy Person. May we hear thy Son, and understand somewhat of his meaning. Thy voice unto us is clear, saying, This is my beloved Son, hear ye him. Oh, for the hearing ear! Thou wilt give us the hearing ear, thou wilt also give us the understanding heart. We have not heard thy Son; we want to hear all that he says: not only would we hear his voice, we would hear the hidden music of his tone, which is kept from all but those who listen with their hearts. We have heard the words but not the music; we have listened with the outward ear but not with the attention of the soul: may we listen to this Master of speech, and wonder at the gracious words which proceed out of his mouth; yea, may we notice their graciousness, their soft, river-like flow; may we hear what they mean; may they bring with them their own interpretation, may the tone that reaches us be such that no man must speak afterwards. We bless thee for the manner of the speech; now so mysterious, weird, ghostly, like voices in the wind at night-time; and now so simple, clear, childlike, and winning, as if all meant for little hearts and opening minds and childlike souls; and now so solemn with judgment and rebuke that the most dauntless of thy servants must exclaim, I exceedingly fear and quake! Never man spake like this man. He could speak to men, and to women, and to little children, and they could all understand him in their hearts, though not in their minds; they felt him to be the Son of God. May we look, therefore, for the eternal meaning; may we watch with continual and thankful interest all changefulness of method and form, and yet find under all changefulness the abiding thought of love divine. Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Colossians 2". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28