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The Hidden Life
The Apostle is always practical. He was never so eloquent, in the noblest sense of that term, as in the Epistle to the Colossians, and the Epistle to the Ephesians. These two Epistles, which ought to be read one after the other, seem to show Paul in his amplest power, wisdom, and religious joy. He always had a short way back from the highest ecstasy to the most simple practical exhortation. He had wonderful command of voice: when he was so vehement that the whole creation might have heard him, the next moment he was so quiet, yet without any violence of transition, that wives and husbands, children and fathers, masters and servants all could hear him utter some words of practical wisdom.
His conception of the Church is that it is risen with Christ. The resurrection is not only personal, it is ecclesiastical; not indeed in any formal sense, but in the sense in which the Church is the very body of Christ. Mark here the close identity between Christ and his Church; it is his body: could he have any soul without it? would he not be lonely without the Church? The Church is the Lamb's Bride. Talk of identity as indicating somewhat of closeness of relationship, it goes infinitely farther; it indicates oneness, indivisibleness, mutual necessity, so that if the one shall be wounded the other shall be hurt; if there is disgrace in the one case, there is double dishonour in the other: no ingenuity has invented even an intellectual instrument fine enough to get between Christ and the Church, without hurting them both. But the exhortation belongs to us, and not to Christ. Here is a mystery of separation or distinction. None ever exhorted Christ; no Sinai thundered its commands upon him; no Zion encouraged him in the way of virtue, heroism, self-denial: all righteousness and self-sacrifice was in him; not a transplantation, but a growth in the paradise of his heart.
What is the exhortation addressed to us? "If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above." What are they? That is the glory of it, that they cannot be catalogued. Yet they cannot be mistaken. Every soul knows what it is to aspire, to breathe up, to desire things that lie beyond the visual line. Who gives us assurance that there are such things? The assurance is in the heart itself; the heart is in every sense its own theologian, and its own philosopher, and its own adventurer. You cannot keep the heart at home, you cannot find the heart really satisfied with the whole earth; when it has taken in the very last inch of the globe, it says, There is another country, name it how you will; I want it all, and until I get it I cannot know the blessing of contentment. Why waste time in seeking to define the expression "those things which are above"? We can know them without naming them. We know when we are mean. Sometimes, if any friend could speak one word to us, we should break right down, and ask to be admitted into everlasting darkness as the only proper place for us, because we need no witness against ourselves: a look will sometimes kill the soul. On the other hand, we know what it is to belong to the city of light, to the brotherhood of angels; we know what it is to have the liberty and the whole franchise of heaven and immortality: these are times of spiritual riotousness that holy wantonness of soul which eats up whole festivals at once, and cries for banquets in endless succession. Then we are in our highest moods; our wings are no longer little buds of power, but great pinions of strength, by which we flap our way through the yielding air to our proper destination.
"Set your affection on things above": literally, Be heavenly-minded. We know what that is in experience, although it is difficult to express it in words. Sometimes we care nothing for the earth, yea, sometimes we look upon it with contempt that cannot be expressed; we lift up all its attachments as a slave might lift a chain, we shake that chain and long to escape its bondage. He who is heavenly-minded needs no label upon him to that effect: his smile is his certificate, his allusions are of the nature of aspiration, and of the nature of religious appreciation and praise; his rebukes are invested with terribleness, because they come, not from anger a little spark that expires but from wounded righteousness, the eternal flame. By what figure shall we express this flight towards heaven? The eagle is a bird much praised for soaring. Do not join in the eulogium without reserve. The eagle only goes up that he may look down. We should say in some frenzy of poetic feeling, Behold the royal bird seeking the sun! Not he; he does hot care for the sun: but from some unmeasured elevation that burning eye of his can better see the prey. It is even so that some men go up. But it is difficult for us to be other than men: we are men, even in prayer. How can we be other than human? which means now broken, fractional, shattered, selfish. God knows us all, and he will account everything to our credit that can be set down on that side. It would be well for us to write on the debtor side ourselves; fill up that page do not heed about the other side; that will be written by another hand and when we have written out our debts, and God has written out on the other side all that his love suggests and his wisdom discerns, when the statement is laid before us we shall find at the foot of it these words "Where sin abounded grace did much more abound." He knoweth our frame, he remembereth that we are dust; he says of us, They are but a wind that cometh for a little time, and then passeth away. He knows what life is, what a furnace, what a hell: but he will redeem us from the power of the enemy.
See this great man, swinging his way rather than walking it, he is seeking his father's asses. He has had enough of the journey, he proposes to the servant to go home, on the subtle plea that perhaps his father will be thinking more of the child than of the asses. We are inventive when we are selfish. Saul never thought so much about his father's solicitude as at that time; the reason was that Saul himself was tired of the affair, and wanted to get out of it. How considerate we are when we are selfish! The servant would make one more effort; he spake beautifully to his young master, and described a man of God as man of God was never described before, for fulness and beauty, massiveness and tenderness, a perfect delineation of an ideal soul. When Samuel saw Saul he said, Think no more of the asses, they are found: on thee is the desire of Israel. And that huge Adam, baby-man, looked at the prophet, the seer, and was much bewildered. It is thus that one business is displaced by another, one desire by another, one pursuit by another. We come to points where there are sharp divergences; sometimes we curve our way gently into new paths: but there is always a moment of more or less stupefaction, blindness: another Saul was struck down by a white flame at the gate of Damascus, and was led away as a blind man. The angel has met you and me often, and said to us, Never mind the asses, the affairs of this world; they are found: seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you. On you is the desire of heaven; let your citizenship be in that city, and hence on know that you carry only a dead body waiting final interment. There is a temptation to go after small things. That temptation must be resisted. What did Cleopatra say to Mark Antony? She said, "It is not for you to be fishing for gudgeons, but to be taking forts, towns, citadels." She was indeed an eloquent preacher; we need her ministry every day, because we are always doing the things that somebody could do quite as well, and are neglecting the greater, grander task for which we have special faculty, for the doing of which we were called up from eternity and set on the platform of time. But men like gudgeon-fishing. There have been kings that have liked nail-making, and working with a lathe, turning square pieces of wood into round pieces. Blind fools! they were made to do far greater things. Will they be excused on the plea that they have been very busy, that they have never wasted one moment? whereas, they have wasted every moment. Yet not in the sense of idleness as commonly understood, but in the sense of doing things which there was no need for them to do. Every man should ask why he came into the world. No man ever came into the world to take up the room of another. Every man came into the world at God's call to do his own particular work in his own particular way. There are men who can do nothing but fish; by all means let them enjoy the heritage of river and sea. There are men who can only sing as blind Homer, and blind Milton, and night-interpreting Dante, and others; let them sing; they cheer the world, or affright it, or lure it from mood to mood in all the mystery of growth and progress. Let not the one worker mock the other; each has his call of God: but all men are called to aspire, to "seek those things which are above." This is the true advancement of men. If any one has said to you, even in the most pious tone, "Be content in that station of life in which it hath pleased Providence to place you," ask for a definition of the terms. The Lord never meant any man to stay where he was born. It would indeed be a neat economy if we could always keep every man just where we want to keep him: but the Lord will not have it so. Blessed be God for the spirit of unrest, when it is devout, trustful, beneficent; when it seeks higher things, not for selfish uses, but that it may taste the mystery of growth and the blessedness of enlargement. "It doth not yet appear what we shall be." So said the stones in the quarry; when the quarrymen sundered them with gunpowder, and smote them with sharp iron, they said to one another, We are going to be part of a cathedral. Said the one to the other, What is a cathedral? and the reply was, We do not know, but we shall know presently; it is something better than a quarry: we shall express great ideas, and be associated with noble services, and enter into a kind of fellowship with beings higher than we have yet conceived. And the stones were thankful to be thus sundered, shattered, and shaped to new uses. "It doth not yet appear what we shall be": we cannot rest here, we cannot be holden of death; souls such as we sometimes realise cannot suffer corruption. In that high passion that only burns consciously now and then, read thy destiny, O child of time.
How can all this aspiration be realised? Only by realising our right relation to Christ. First of all, "Ye are dead" dead to time, dead to sense, dead to the world, dead to everything that can give even a moment's enjoyment down here. "Ye are dead." We know what it is to see a man dead on one side; there he can feel nothing, and yet be very living and sensitive on the other side: so in a figure we are to understand the relation of the body to time, and the relation of the soul to eternity. If we are in Christ we are dead and buried. Said Paul, "I am crucified with Christ"; said he again, "I am dead unto the world, and the world is dead unto me." When he wrote his theology he only wrote it because he lived it; when Paul wrote he dipped his pen in the ink-horn of his heart. Secondly, "Your life is hid with Christ in God." First, there is a negative relation, indicated by the word "dead"; secondly, there is a positive relation, indicated by the word "your life is hid with Christ in God." How can that be illustrated so that a child may comprehend the mystic, measureless meaning? Perhaps thus. Here is a tree in winter: how leafless, how bleak, how almost ghastly, but for an anatomy that indicates in every fibre the touch of a master-hand! We say, Is this a tree? And the tree says, In outline. Can you be more than this? The tree laughs in all its branches, and says, You cannot imagine what I shall be. Where is your life? Hidden in the root: if you were to take that root out I should fall wounded, but so long as the root is there I live. What is in that root you cannot imagine; you must wait until the developing spring has acted upon me, and then, when I have had dew enough, rain enough, air enough, light enough, I shall be a house beautiful. It is even so with this human life, properly understood and regulated: it is hidden with Christ in God; out of sight, but it has a root life. There may not be much to see on the outside, because this is winter; but who can tell what is in the root of the very simplest flower? You take the root out of the ground, and look at it, and say, There cannot be much here. We do not understand roots: give them their right place and their right relation to the world, and give them time according to God's purpose, and out of the blackest, humblest root there shall come a flower that only a child or an angel should pluck: so beautiful, so tender. So again and again we say, as if uttering the refrain of a song, "It doth not yet appear what we shall be."
Then the Apostle says, Now, brethren, after all this exaltation of mind, "Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth": keep on killing yourselves; whenever anything rises in you that ought not to rise, off with its head. If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off; if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out: mortify make dead, and deader still, everything that does not belong to the soul's immortality.
The Apostle, by a beautiful exercise of religious imagination, often puts his correspondents into an ideal state, saying, as in this case, "But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communications out of your mouth. Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; and have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him." What a soul had this pastor! He almost looked the Corinthians into angels; and they were about as base a set of men as ever constituted a Church. He was like the Master, he always saw the man within the man. The Master never took up the shell and said, This is very poor: put it away. He opened the shell and said, Under such a rough exterior see what an angel of music throbs and glows. He who could thus read human nature shall see of the travail of his soul and shall be satisfied.
How would the Apostle have us clothed? He would have us "Put on" "kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; and above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body: and be ye thankful." The great Spartan lawgiver said he would not write in his book any law against unthankfulness. On being asked why he would not write a law against unthankfulness, Lycurgus answered, "Because unthankfulness is impossible." So one would say. Yet it stalks the earth every day weird, gaunt, soulless; it troubles every family under the sun. Christ knew human nature through and through; he need not that any should testify of man. Christ therefore makes a place for unthankfulness, and when he would magnify God, he says, "He is kind also to the unthankful." Who can define unthankfulness? We can define bareness, bleakness, barrenness; we can define dust wind-swept, and that never had root or flower in it; we can define a wilderness in which no green, lovely thing ever grew; but all these images would fall short of describing unthankfulness on the part of man. When was the grave thankful? When did the sea say to the cloud, Rain no more: I thank you for your showers, but I can take no more, the vessel overflows? Never. The great briny deep could swallow up all the clouds, and roll on as sullenly as before. When did the horseleech say, I am sated with blood. The unthankful heart passes through spring, summer, autumn, without singing one little song.
Then the Apostle begins to exhort wives, husbands, children, fathers, servants. All that comes as a matter of course. Get the soul right in its relation to Christ, and there will be no difficulty with wives, husbands, children, fathers, servants. Let God have his right place in the family, and all the household falls into music. Even the servants will know that there is a touch of heaven somewhere in the house. There were servants in Paul's days: there are no servants now. In the Apostle's days the word "servant" meant bond-slave; and to tell a man who was a slave to be right, and do right, and look up, required all the mystery and energy of the Cross of Christ.
Paul would have a singing Church, a self-instructing Church, a Bible-reading and Bible-loving Church. Here is Paul's Church in outline: "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord." There is music at home, there is wisdom of the highest type and quality. The people had to be "teaching and admonishing one another," not in lectures and exhortations and reproaches, but "teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs." We have never sung in the Church yet. Oh, what jingles we have had all over the Church-world! poor little jingles: but the time shall come when music will be the chief festival. We have now in the churches, especially in some new countries and in some very old countries, what are termed "choristers." I do not remember meeting with that word in the Bible "choristers" what is the meaning of that term? Paul says, "teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" a musical riot. I would go farther than many in the uses of music in the sanctuary. There is a time when we can be profitably sung to, but there is also another time when we can profitably sing all together, congregationally, sympathetically, and enthusiastically. Any tune that everybody does not know, or cannot know in five minutes, is a bad tune; it is a man-made tune, a rigid little piece of mechanism. All the great songs belong to everybody, and a child hears them as if it had heard them in some other world.
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Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Colossians 3". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week of Advent