Blessings In Unexpected Ways
The text calls us to meditate upon some of the sudden and unexpected changes in divine movements. Sometimes heavenly blessings come to us, so to speak, by steps so clearly marked, so orderly, and so natural, that we can almost calculate how and in what measure they will descend upon us. Sometimes God gives us blessings to our reason; we have thought about them, prepared for them, felt assured that by a kind of gracious necessity they must be ours, and sometimes he has given us blessings in sudden and startling ways. We have been in a position, again and again, to expect our blessings. We have looked for them as for friends that were pledged to come; and we have been able to say, almost with positive certainty, when they would come, and how they would come, because God has appointed channels of communication with his creatures. There Isaiah, then, if I may say Song of Solomon, a division in the divine government about which men can calculate, and reason, and foretell with almost perfect certainty; and there is another division in the divine government about which we know nothing—sudden breakings out upon us, startling innovations upon our life, voices that we never heard before, and manifestations for which we were entirely unprepared. So I am not going to look at the commonplace and ordinary method of the divine movement, but to turn aside, and look at some of what are to us God"s sudden, unexpected, mysterious visitations, in ways that we never thought of as being accessible, except in the way of judgment and retribution. Sometimes you can say in the morning that it will rain today. You say that the wind is in this quarter, or in that, and the clouds are gathering, and there are evident signs that we shall have rain; and sometimes we say, "Oh that rain would come!" "Oh that out of this great Arch of Summer a baptism of rain would come!" but there is no sign of any such blessing. And perhaps quite suddenly, baffling all the speculations and calculations of the meteorologist, as if out of the very fire of the scorching summer, there has come down upon us an unexpected and gracious rain. So it is in the divine movement. Sometimes we are enabled to say, We shall have a blessing today. Such and such preparation has been made; such and such endeavours have been maintained, and the natural result of this process is blessing, grace, peace, triumph. And then, again, on the other hand, we have said, "There shall be nothing today." "The heart is barren, the inner voice is smitten with sudden dumbness; there will be nothing for us today but stony silence. It will be a day of fasting and sorrow." And, quite unexpectedly, God has sent his angel with blessings we had never thought of; and when we looked for a dreary day, a day of fasting and gloom, God has opened the windows of heaven for us, and given us blessings that it had never entered into our calculations to imagine. It is so with many of the divine movements; and yet we often vex God when he comes to us by unwonted ways. Though he has come to us through the pathway of a thousand storms, yet we still tremble before the gathering gloom, as if God had forgotten to be gracious. Though he has come to us with the wings of many a fire, we have still dreaded, the flame, as if it tabernacled no God. Have you thought about that department of your sins I have thought of it many a time. We will not let God have any extraordinary methods of manifestation to us. We will have yesterday repeated today, and today is to be the image and prophecy of the morrow. And yet God will not have it so. He will come to us, not always by the great grand staircase of his daily providence, when we can see him as it were descending in all the pomp of his infiniteness; but he will come to us along passages, and down by lanes, and will start up before us suddenly and unexpectedly; and it is then we become so weak as oftentimes to grieve him, as if he had not ten thousand ways into his universe beside the one way that we speak of as his peculiar path.
Now, here is one of the instances of unexpected blessing, of unexpected movements, of movements that escape all calculation, and set aside all that the heart would have predicted. I propose, therefore, to look at this text in the first instance as reversing our own notions of the divine movement. "It is expedient for you that I go away." We cannot see that. It does not look so to us. Let us, therefore, be fair and candid with the spirit of the text. It looks to us exactly the contrary of that; and we should therefore say it is inexpedient for us that Christ should go away. It the blackest and direst calamity that can befall us that Christ should go away; and yet he says expressly, in words that a little child may understand, It is expedient for you that I go away. Here, then, is an upset of our ordinary notions. We should have said this, viz, "Jesus Christ must remain upon the earth until the very last soul is saved. He must be the last to go away. He must stand by the grave until he sees every saint pass through it—until the last little child is winged as a cherub—and then, when he has seen all this done, let him go." That is how we should have talked; and not, I think, without common-sense, viewing the subject in a purely earthly light. Walking in the light of our own understanding—in the light of daily fears, in the light of what is called prudence and discretion—we should have said, Blessed Saviour, thou must remain until the very last gleam of day, and when thou hast seen the very last of thy recovered lambs enfolded in the high mountains of Israel, then thou must also come and complete the great assembly in heaven. Instead of that he says, I must go first; I must go now, and it is expedient for you that I go away. And so God is constantly, in all the processes of our daily life, upsetting our notions; this we do not like, and it takes a great deal of hard and terrible drill to bring a man to this point, viz, "God is King, let him do what seemeth good in his sight." It would appear that God will not have our calculations. It would appear as if he took special delight in proving our calculations to be mistakes. So we can never get on two days at a time. We say, To-morrow shall be as this day, and more abundant, and the third day we shall go into this and yonder city; and God says, No, I will break your days in two, and where you expect prosperity you shall find a grave. So God will not have our long-headed calculations, and he will not have our deluded predictions as to this event and that. It would seem, I repeat, as if he took special delight in reversing all our ordinary methods, and training us to wisdom by first convicting us of folly. It is Song of Solomon, for example, in our social life. We should have said this, "God will never take away the head of a house until all the children have been trained, educated, and established in life. God will certainly see that the father of the family remain until his last little child leaves his roof a Prayer of Manasseh, a woman." And yet God says, "No, the head of the family must go first;" and he says this also, "It is expedient for you that your father go;" and the heart cannot say, "It is well." No, that cannot be. But God is always doing that; always turning our ideas upside down, and appointing us blessings where we expected despair. We should have said that God will allow every man to bring his work to something like completion; he will never go and break the little bud off the stem; he will never allow a man to work up his column, and not to put the capital on; he will never allow an author to begin a volume without allowing him also to finish it, to revise it, to attach his signature to it by way of endorsement, and to hand it to society as a complete thing. And yet he is doing exactly the opposite of this. You say, Here is a beautiful little bud, and it shall be nourished with light and with dew, and become the best flower in the garden; and God comes in at night, and nips it off, and in the morning we have tears and sorrow. We begin to build our pillar, and it is growing under our touch, and we say, This shall be a beautiful column, a noble pillar; it shall be capped in the most elaborate style of sculpture; and God takes us away just as we are putting on the head, and our purposes are broken off. And as for the author, poor man! just as he dips his pen to finish a sentence, God says, That will do; and he punctuates the paragraph with Death. That is a fact; but this is what we are perplexed by, viz, when God takes away the little blushing bud, and breaks the column in twain, and arrests the hand of genius in its wondrous fabrications, and then says, It is expedient for you that it be so. And it is at this point that we either become strong men by the triumph of faith, or we succumb as the captives of unbelief.
Let us look at the text, then, in another light, viz, as showing the superiority of the spiritual over the material. It was a great thing to have the visible Christ; it is a greater to have the spiritual Christ. This is a most difficult point in human education, viz, to proceed from the letter to the spirit—from the material to the immaterial. And this is the difference in scholarship—one man is learned in the letter, another is learned in the spirit; the one is a reader, the other is a genius. In proportion as we get spiritual power are we rich for ever. You lose your friend, but you never lose his friendship. Death breaks up the assembly, but he never impairs the fellowship. Death hushes the communications of the lips; he cannot silence the more eloquent interchanges of the heart. Those whom we truly love are always with us—not always audible, but always present. You have not lost that child of yours you buried years ago. The little creature is still with you. And oh, what talks you have together now! When you go out alone, the little one seems to know where you are and to come to you; and your face does so brighten, and your breast does so heave with unwonted and blessed emotion, as you talk over the days that are gone. And even that prodigal child of yours is with you today. You cannot see him—you may not, perhaps, know his address—you may be unable to write to him, yet the lad is close to your heart. You see him when you retire to rest; you look at him in the morning as he is standing by your bedside; and he is with you all the day, notwithstanding his sin, and perhaps (so wonderful are the mysteries of the heart) the nearer because of his sin. There seems to go out after him a realising love, deep and agonising; and if he would but come back again, there would be more joy in your heart over that recovered one than over all the family that never gave you a moment"s pain. But I want to fix the mind upon this point, viz, the realising power of love. My friend has gone away from me over the sea and beyond the mountain, but I have him in my heart; his thoughts, his views of life, his behaviour under given circumstances, his noble impatience, magnanimous scorn of all that is low and mean, never leave me; they will mould my life, they will save me in many a temptation. He is with me always because of the realising power of love. And this that we know something about in friendship, in the family circle, in literature, reaches its highest consummation in Jesus Christ; for though he has gone away from us, he says, "I am with you always, even unto the end of the world." Though we cannot see him, yet he says, "I will never leave thee nor forsake thee." Though we would gladly lay hold of his wounded hand, he says it is better not. It is expedient for you that fleshly contact cease, and that you lay hold of him by the tendrils of your love. For what if we did grasp hands, Death would break up our union; but if we grasp hearts, we are one for ever.
Now, do not expect young Christian people at once to get up into that high line of Christian experience. I am not unwilling that you should continue the child"s Song of Solomon,—
It is a poor prayer that you will come to dislike more and more the longer you live, though it is a beautiful song for children. You will come to know what it is to say you are glad that Christ is known to you no more after the flesh, but now is known to you through the hunger of eager love, through the thirst of your heart, through the desires of an unquenchable life.
Then let us look at this text in the third place, as conveying blessing to us through the medium of a trial. It must have been a trial for these simple, unlettered men to lose the presence of the visible, personal Jesus Christ. It could not have been an easy thing for such men. Try to realise their circumstances, if you would get really into the spirit of the text. It could not have been an easy thing for them to acquiesce in this bereavement, and yet Jesus Christ distinctly points out that he was going away for their sakes, and not for his own. He did not say, "My brethren, I am weary; this world is too heavy a load for me; I have seen you for a little while, and my heart is sickened and sore and weary, and I must go away again." He did not speak about himself at all. He said, "It is expedient for you that I go away." And do not let us think this strange, because we ourselves have had experience that may help to illuminate the mystery of this separation. For example, here is a mother who is teaching her little child to walk. You know what a pleasure it is to see a little creature taking its first walk from one chair to another! I do not think I shall ever forget the first time I taught a little child to walk, and the joy I had in seeing the little toddling creature manage to go three steps without my help. There came to me a sense of triumph, a sense of something done. Well, here is a mother teaching her child to walk from one chair to another, and she begins by holding the child"s waist gently with both hands, and as the little thing steadies itself, and seems to have found its feet, she just takes away her hands little by little. Why does she take away her hands? Does she say, "I am tired; I do not like this posture of embracing thee, or of holding thee"? No, but she says in effect, "It is expedient for thee, my little child, that I take away this motherly support; thou must learn to walk by thyself;" and so the hands go away, not because the mother is weary, but because the child must bo taught, sooner or later, self-reliance.
Here is a father sending his boy to school, and there is such a dreary night before he must go. The father and the mother half think they may never see him again. He has never been out of their sight for twenty-four hours, and now they are going to send him away to a distant school, and the mother hardly sleeps all night, and the father gets up at an unusually early hour, and altogether there is a general sense of a sort of domestic earthquake in the house, because the youth is going to be sent to school. Now, why all this discomfort? Why do they not keep him at home? Why do they not keep him constantly in their sight? They say it is expedient for him that our presence be withdrawn; it is expedient that he escape the temptations of home; it is expedient for him that he undergo drill and discipline; it is expedient for him that he meet his equals in the great scholarly contest; it is expedient for him, and on that principle the father strengthens himself, and the mother makes herself a strong woman, and they bid him good-bye, not with delight, and yet with a secret comforting conviction that it is for the youth"s good that he should undergo this separation. So then we know something of this—we know something of trial in this direction; and this kind of trial reaches the perfection of its meaning in Jesus Christ"s bodily separation from his Church. He says, It is expedient for you that I go away; I shall always be with you, nevertheless; yet by my bodily absence you will be trained to thought, you will be trained to spiritual realisation; the highest faculties of your nature will be called into exercise; and in order that this may be Song of Solomon, I shall no sooner go away than I shall send down upon you the Holy Ghost, for the Holy Ghost is better than the dying body; the Holy Spirit of God better than these pierced feet and these wounded hands.
We shall have a poor notion of life if we regard it as being a blessing only in proportion as it is a succession of sunny scenes. That is not life; it is but one aspect of it. No great life is made up of all sunshine; we get strong by discipline, we grow by strife. The great storm rocks us into rugged power, and by this power of endurance we come into the grace of gentleness. Great sorrows make tender hearts. We are softened and refreshed by the dew of tears. When we are weak, then are we strong. You never can be great and reliable, full-grown men, till your hearts have been crushed within you, and God has taught you in the gloomy school of a thousand disappointments.
This leads me to say, no true manhood can be trained by a merely intellectual process. You cannot train men by the intellect alone; you must train them by the heart; and this shows the fundamental mistake which is being made by some modern teachers. You can never train a Church out of the head; you may have a Church Song of Solomon -called, and you may open halls and bring to them the most scientific men in Europe, and you may lecture on all scientific topics, yet you can never make a Church out of the head. You must take hold of manhood by the heart, if you would train it into strength and dignity and usefulness. A Church, then, can only come out of the heart. Song of Solomon, if you have been training yourselves only by the intellect, I do not wonder at your being a poor and shrivelled Church. I never find a Church that takes hold of the head alone going forward, I find it progressing backwards; and I thank God that I see it shrivelling out of existence. But in a Church whose fundamental principle is this, With the heart man believeth unto righteousness, I find tenderness, nobleness, benevolence, and divinity; and this is the secret of Christ"s power over man. He does not come to discuss with them some empty conundrum, some wretched enigma, that challenges only the intellect; he sets himself down in the heart, and trains that, brings that, into the liberty of his blessed captivity, and out of the heart there comes his kingdom, which never can be moved. So I have no fear about people who are setting up Churches of Progress, and Churches of Science, and Churches of Literature; I have no fear of them emptying Christian sanctuaries, because a man is not all head. If he Isaiah, he is not all man. You must lay hold of his heart, and by his affections and by all his moral sympathies you must train him, and then he will be ready to receive all the light, all the knowledge you can possibly convey to him; but if you train only his intellect, you do but plant flowers upon a ghastly tomb,
One word, finally. The text may be regarded as giving the proper explanation of Jesus Christ"s bodily absence—I go away. The words must be regarded as revealing part of a plan—I go away; I am not sent, I am not surprised away; I am moving according to a scheme, a plan. There are no unexpected thoughts in the mind of God. The changes that are strange and startling to us are links in the chain of God"s own fashioning. Lay hold of this, and you escape the atheism of chance, and come into the peaceful region of familiar trust. Therefore, in proportion as I think of God"s government as a plan am I at rest. In proportion as I take it to pieces and discuss it in detail am I vexed, and troubled, and disappointed. When I think of God building a great temple, I say, Give him time till he brings the topstone on, and says it is finished. And be careful, too, lest you mistake the scaffolding for the temple. God often requires, as it were, laborious scaffolding; and when I come to look at his unfinished temple and see nothing but these great beams, and posts, and planks, I say, "There is no temple here; there is nothing but confusion;" but God says to me "Wait, wait." And I come back and back; and when I return on the last day to look at it, all the scaffolding is gone. Then shall I find the floor laid with fine gold, and the roof lighted with such beauty as was never painted by the brush of the artist.
Some need this lesson. I speak in the presence of some among us who are mourners, and they need to be gently reminded that God is working out a plan—one thing belongs to another—that there is nothing fragmentary and detached and isolated in God"s movement. Where we see confusion, he sees a plan, and he is working it out. You need that gentle hint. May it fall like morning-light on your troubled hearts!
Though the Saviour has gone away, he has made a path into the heavenly kingdom for us. He will not suffer us to rest short of his own Throne. "Where I Amos, there shall ye be also." Could we but see things as they are, we should see the whole Church all over the world move in one grand procession towards the gate of the Upper City, a band of freemen, an army of conquerors, having banners dipped in light, and singing of the Cross that gives them the right of way to their Father"s house. We cannot see things as they are. This is the day of cloud and gloom; the full brightness is not yet.
The Conviction of Sin
When Hebrews, that is the Spirit of truth, is come, he will reprove, he will convince the world of sin. He will show the sinfulness of sin; he will work in every sinner"s heart the torment of self-conviction. He will accuse the world of sin, and will prove the accusation. The work of the Holy Ghost, in reference to sin, is first a work of revelation and then a work of conviction. He will show sin to the sinner—show it until the sinner is startled, ashamed, self-pierced, self-condemned. The Holy Ghost will reveal the unholy man. The revelation of sin is distinctly and specially a spiritual act. It can be done completely, with all necessary clearness and terribleness, only by a Ghost, and only by a Ghost that is Holy, and only by a holiness that is perfect as God. The Ghost of God sees things as they are; sees essences, realities, hidden tendencies, remote possibilities; sees the soul in its nakedness, and knows the thought of man afar off. When that Ghost comes into any heart, he will reprove, convince that heart of sin.
Let us try to work our way to some approximate idea at least of the intensity and agony of that conviction. Take the case of a man who is reeling in the streets under the influence of strong drink. That man does not require the Holy Ghost to convince him of sin. There is no common man on the road side that would not instantly turn upon him and say, "That is a sinner." No ghost is needed to make such a revelation. Every child, seeing the reeling man coming near, will instantly feel that he is in the presence of a sinner. God is not required to come down to the earth and say to the drunkard in his drunkenness, "You are a sinner;" to the blasphemer in the madness of his profanity, "You area sinner;" to the adulterer in his uncleanness, "You are a sinner." All these things are known by the common morality, the non-christian instinct which is in every Prayer of Manasseh, and which teaches him to distinguish—though not always minutely and spiritually—between right and wrong.
Let us dismiss all those foul and vicious characters whose moral nature is plainly written on their foreheads, and look in the next place at a person of the utmost social respectability. Examine his conduct from week to week in the marketplace, and there is not a man who comes in contact with him who can justly bring any charge against his behaviour. The man is diligent in business, punctual in his appointments, straightforward in all his dealings; a man who, by the continuousness of his probity, has earned for himself a position of confidence in the commercial world; his speech is the speech of an honourable Prayer of Manasseh, so far as all the affairs of this world are concerned, and so far as his intercourse on matters of business is concerned. He is a member of a Christian church; he sometimes engages in prayer; he contributes to charitable objects. Altogether, I repeat, he is a man of the utmost social respectability. What is required to convince that man of the real state of his heart? A ghost! If you and I were to speak to him, taking cognisance of his character, he might resent the intrusion, and dare comparison of our own life with his daily conduct and behaviour. The Holy Ghost enters him, and finds in him a faint trace of lust, evil desire, having reference to some forbidden object or other. The man never named it, never confessed it to himself, never ventured to whisper it in the most subdued breath; but there it Isaiah, in the depths of his nature; and the Ghost of God works upon that, reveals it, develops it, shows what it really Isaiah, expands it in all its horribleness—until the man whose outward character was irreproachable, whose behaviour could challenge comparison with the average behaviour of the world, trembles, burns under the influence of an internal fire, and dare hardly fall down upon his knees to ask God to forgive an enormity so great! He never would have known what that faint, hardly describable vein of evil desire was but for the ministry of the Holy Ghost. He would shrink from the presence of an unclean person; he would denounce in the most emphatic terms the irregularities of the drunkard; he would shudder when he heard the profanities of the blasphemer. But the Ghost of God cut him in twain, and pierced even to the dividing asunder of all within him that was secret and most compact, and took up this vein and said, "That is you!" until a speck became a mountain, until a single speck, an atomic, microscopic speck—nay, such a microscopic speck as the eye of God alone could discern—grew into proportions overshadowing and overwhelming. And the Prayer of Manasseh, outwardly so respected, praying in prayer-meetings and giving to charities, cried out, "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" No man can come to that experience—can know anything at all about it in its torment, in its killing agony—until the Holy Ghost has been at work upon his heart.
Here is a man who is equally respectable—a man of excellent standing, a man against whom nobody can utter a single reproach justly, a man equally honourable and upright and straightforward with the man whom we have just delineated. The Holy Ghost comes into him and shows in him a secret, subtle, unexpressed selfishness, in ways that the world cannot take note of. Remote acts of selfishness? Nay, not acts; when it comes to acts then anybody can sit in judgment upon them. But thoughts of selfishness,—little, tormenting, urging, importuning dreams of selfishness,—something between a thought and a thing, trembling, hovering in that border-land,—sometimes almost personifying itself, then shrinking back again into impalpability! The Holy Ghost shows him what he would be under certain circumstances, if certain fears could be taken away, if certain possibilities could be set aside,—all that unspeakable atmospheric spiritual pressure which never can be defined and only can be felt. And when he sees the thing in its reality, as illuminated and expanded by God the Holy Ghost, all his cry Isaiah, "God be merciful to me a sinner! Nobody thinks me a sinner. I can walk up the main aisle of the church to-morrow and there would be subdued applause at my presence. Many a man would speak well of me if called to testify in open court concerning my standing. But oh! thou God the Holy Ghost—thou piercing, cleaving Spirit—thou hast shown in me one hidden vein that I never knew of, and I see it in the blaze of thy fire! God be merciful to me a sinner!"
The great difficulty in conducting spiritual education in our own hearts, and in the hearts of those who wait upon our ministry, is this: To see the difference between sin and phases of sin; between wickedness in the heart, in the thought, unexpressed and unconfessed to ourselves, and the mere accidents of wickedness which relate to time, place, or form. There are many men to be found who would condemn worldliness of spirit, Song of Solomon -called; condemn, perhaps, certain amusements which other people accept with all innocence and with legitimate enjoyment. There are those who say the Church is fast becoming like the world; men who will not play at this game, or go to that amusement, or sit in this society, or identify themselves with yonder movement, because they suppose that all these things savour more or less of worldliness. Very well. One of these men who is so unworldly and so exemplary shall be heard in his tea-table talk. He says unkind words about his neighbour; slanders his minister, is a sneak when sneaking will win him what he calls success; he is a traitor when treachery will bring him thirty pieces of silver, more or less; there is no meanness he would not stoop to; there is no length of censure and censoriousness to which he will not go. Yet that man condemns another who rides on a fine horse and goes to find some of his amusement in a painted house! What is required to show the man what he really is? The Ghost of God, to show him that an unkind whisper may be murder; that a shrug of the shoulder may be incipient assassination; to take him by the hand, and condemn him in the sight of God, for a villainy too refined for common morality and too subtle to be taken note of by any of the magisterial tribunals of the land! Only the Holy Ghost can pierce a man with such reflections and convictions as these. It is not the profane oath, it is the profane heart; it is not the open, overt, deadly deed, it is the feeling of needless, exaggerated, unrighteous anger; it is not the hand wet with blood, it is the spirit that longs for some measure of revenge and some degree of retaliation. It is when we get into these essences of thought that the Holy Ghost alone can be our perfect teacher, showing us what sin is without its accidents of time, place, and form,—the wickedness of sin in the sight of the holiness of God.
We have to guard against seeing the sinfulness of other people without seeing the beam that is in our own eye. We need the Holy Ghost to enlighten us on these matters. We are so sensitive in some particulars, we shudder so revoltingly in the presence of certain forms of sin, without perhaps feeling that sin, if it never took form at all, or was never heard in speech at all, is as hateful in the sight of God as if it came out in the blaze of day and defied the judgment of nations. The religion of Christ is spiritual, the religion of Christ is intense; the word of God searches the heart, and tries the reins of the children of men. Who then can be saved? If the blink of an eye may mean profanity, uncleanness, rebellion against law, determination of secret enjoyment of sin; if the holding up of a finger be in God"s estimation, under some circumstances, terrible as the drawing out of a sword and the defiance of the Most High; if he searches our thoughts, if he reveals the secrets of our hearts,—who then can be saved? "I never oppressed the poor; but I once had a thought which must have broken the heart of God. I never uttered a profane word; but once I gave a look that was blasphemy! I have prayed long vehement prayers; in my heart I have had desires I dare not name to woman, priest, or God." If a man"s experience be anything like that, and that experience be illuminated by the Holy Ghost, and forced back again upon the Prayer of Manasseh,—oh! how terrible the accusation,—how heart-breaking! Who then can be saved?
Now, if this doctrine be laid down, and in the heart be deeply and intensely realised, four consequences will follow. All attempts to establish life upon a basis of mere morality will be abandoned. Morality is impossible apart from theology. Theology is impossible apart from the direct spiritual continuous teaching of God the Holy Ghost. You say, "I challenge you to criticise my deeds." I reply, " Sirach, it is not first and last a question of deeds: it is a question of motive, intent, impulse, secret desire." "Have not I given fifty pounds to this charity?" You have with your hand, but not a penny with your heart: it is what is given with the heart God accepts. "Have not I prayed often and long?" Yes; but never a word went beyond the roof under which you uttered your empty mocking words, because whilst your lips were eloquent your heart was dumb. The Lord seeth not as man seeth. Man looketh on the outward appearance; the Lord looketh on the heart. Where, then, is our morality? which, being interpreted, is our system of manners, our way—often, indeed, a skilful and artistic way—of putting our life into certain angles and showing it under given lights. Morality is often but an effort of art. Morality is often a study of the way of putting things. But the sincere man—the man who lives in the tabernacle and sanctuary of God—never says, "How will this look?" His life gushes out of him into activity and form and service; and knowing that his spirit and motive are right, he says, "It is a small thing to be judged of man"s judgment."
Some of us have taken a long time to be persuaded that our morality is less than nothing and vanity,—our chief sin. Not until we get rid of our morality can we be made moral. It is that overweening conceit about our own nice way of doing things that keeps us back from the Cross of Christ, from the mystery of the Atonement. "If the light that is in us be darkness, how great is that darkness!" If our very morality be our curse, how ponderous is the millstone which will drag us into the depths of the sea! Not until a man comes without price in his hand, without self-hope in his heart, without self-praise in his mind and says, "God be merciful to me a sinner," can he ever know how worthless is his own morality, how despicable and vain are his noblest deeds.
The man confesses himself a sinner—not much of a sinner; not a sinner in certain lights and in certain degrees; not a sinner hardly so sinful as other people—but a sinner! Vast in its concentration is that confession. Overwhelming is that utterance in its very simplicity. When men feel themselves to be what the Spirit of God describes them as being, they want no epithet, no qualifying adjective, to define their position. "A sinner" expresses more in its simplicity and concentration than could be said by the minutest elaboration of speech.
Where the true idea of sin is realised under the ministry of God the Holy Ghost, the necessity of the sacrificial work of Jesus Christ will be understood, realised, and will form the one foundation of human hope. I have much to say on this point and I cannot say it. The idea has long been floating before my mind, and I have found no words to speak it to others; but it is the stay of my life, it is the strength of my ministry, it is the secret of any earnestness I may feel in preaching the everlasting gospel, namely this: The Atonement I do not receive merely as a grammarian, logician, metaphysician, theologian. I cannot understand that Cross—great, rugged, melancholy Cross—if I look at it only from the eminence occupied by the scholar, the philosopher, the theologian. But when I feel myself in my heart of hearts a sinner, a trespasser of God"s law and God"s love; when I feel that a thought may consign me to everlasting destruction, that a secret unexpressed desire may shut me out of heaven and make me glad to go to hell to be out of the way of God"s shining face,—and some man tells me that Jesus Christ was wounded for my transgressions,, bruised for my iniquities, that the chastisement of my peace was laid upon him; I press my way through all the grammarians, logicians, philosophers, theologians, saying, "If I perish I will pray, and perish only at the foot of the Cross; for if this be not sufficient, it hath not entered into the heart of man to solve the problem of human depravity and human consciousness of sin."
The sinner does not ask for explanation—minute, critical, and technical—when he comes into that state of heart before the dear bleeding Christ. He leaves all questions of criticism, technical and formal theology, to be settled by-and-by. In the meantime he feels this: That if the blood of the Son of God cannot reach those secret sins, those unexpressed desires, then no river thai flows through the earth can wash him clean, no detergent discovered by industrious morality can ever take out of him the deep stain and taint! Sometimes we look at the work of the Lamb of God without feeling that we are sinners. Then we have a thousand difficult questions to put about it. At other times the burden of our sin is so heavy upon us, we see the sinfulness of sin so clearly, we get away so entirely from all mere accident of time, place, and shape, so far as they relate to sin,—we see sin as God saw it and as God ever must see it, then we say, "O Lamb of God, thou didst not shed one drop too much of thy precious blood; thou didst not endure one needless pang! We see sin now in some measure as thou didst see it. We understand what thou meanest when thou didst say, "My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death." We know what is meant by the glorious gospel that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners!"
If I might address brethren in the ministry, students of letters, grammars, philosophers, theorists, and speculators, I would venture to say, that there is much in such studies that may be fruitful of good; they are not to be contemned and passed by as utterly valueless. At the same time we ourselves as preachers cannot understand the Cross of Christ till we understand ourselves as sinners. No man can be led to the Cross by the hand of mere philosophy. He must go up the dolorous way, with his eyes blinded with penitential tears, his heart choked and suffocated by inexpressible emotion, then there will be a writing above the superscription of Pilate; "This is the Son of God. Whoso cometh unto me, I will in no wise cast out."
Wherever this view of sin is truly realised and received in all its simplicity, an intense earnestness for the world"s salvation will be excited. Do you ask, "Are the Chinese not happy without your gospel?" I say, Probably they are happy without the gospel, so far as they understand happiness. "Are the people of India not rich and prosperous without the gospel?" Probably they are. Why should you go and break up households and separate the father from the Song of Solomon, and the mother from the daughter, and the daughter-in-law from the mother-in-law? Why should you send fire upon the earth and a sword through the nations of mankind? I tell you, because of what the Holy Ghost has taught us about sin. It is not a question of civilisation, of a gilded surface, of a material prosperity and of a Song of Solomon -called social happiness. If the Holy Ghost has correctly revealed to us the nature of sin, then I must go; I cannot rest until I have taught other people what has been communicated to me of the spiritual, not of a terrible enormity, not of a bloody deed, not of an outspoken blasphemer, but of secret thoughts and unexpressed desires which are foreign to the nature of God.
This is the secret of our missionary enterprise,—this is the inspiration of our moral service. If it were a question of this world only, let the Chinese alone! They enjoy themselves after a certain fashion; they have their own notions of civilisation and success. Do not trouble them. The same with Africa and India; the same with the most distant portions of the globe. Let them alone! But when we know, by the teaching of the Holy Ghost, what sin Isaiah, a responsibility conies along with the revelation; and in proportion as we realise it, that responsibility will never tire of breaking up households if need be, of sending a sword into families, and kindling fires upon the earth!
Then, last of all, if we had truly spiritual notions about Sirach, we should regard one another with a gentler charity. You do not sin as I sin. Shall I therefore vehemently condemn you, and seek a character for my own morality by the urgency and impetuosity of my condemnation of your particular sin? I do not do as you do when you criticise worldliness, but I may speak an unkind word about a brother minister. I will not speak an unkind word about a brother minister, but I may stoop to any ignoble deed in order to realise my own schemes. I will not stoop to any sneaking, underhand method of doing things; but I may never forgive an enemy; I may pursue him to the death, and half a century after the deed my anger shall burn as on the first day. Is it so with us? You would not go to a theatre, but you are vain as a peacock. I am not vain, but I will do things in secret that I would not like my dearest, truest earthly friend to know. So indeed it is. We must get to know what sin Isaiah, not the accident of sin! We must not be vehement about the accident when we are comparatively indifferent about the essence. When we feel sin to be what it Isaiah, our mouths will be shut; there will never be an hour of unkind judgment in our whole lives; we shall all be in the same condemnation. Who art thou that speakest against another man? will be a sore question that will pierce us and cut us in two whenever words censorious and slanderous shall rise to our lips.
May God the Holy Ghost show us sin till we hate it,—show us the reality of sin until we feel our need of the Cross! May he show us the fulness of the love of Christ, until we know what is meant by Christ"s ability to take up our sin, our secret sin,—take it up in his pierced bleeding hands and cast it away for ever, and present us unto himself a glorious Church! This is a great mystery, but in Christ all such mysteries are solved. He Isaiah, in very deed, the Light of the World!
"The third example of our Lord"s discourses is that which closes his ministry—"Now is the Son of man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God be glorified in him, God shall also glorify him in himself, and shall straightway glorify him" ( John 13:31-32). This great discourse, recorded only by St. John, extends from the thirteenth to the end of the seventeenth chapter. It hardly admits of analysis. It announces the Saviour"s departure in the fulfilment of his mission; it imposes the new commandment on the disciples of a special love towards each other which should be the outward token to the world of their Christian profession; it consoles them with the promise of the Comforter who should be to them instead of the Saviour; it tells them all that he should do for them, teaching them, reminding them, reproving the world; and guiding the disciples into all truth. It offers them, instead of the bodily presence of their beloved Master, free access to the throne of his Father, and spiritual blessings such as they had not known before. Finally, it culminates in that sublime prayer (ch. xvii.) by which the High Priest as it were consecrates himself the victim; and so doing, prays for those who shall hold fast and keep the benefits of that sacrifice, offered for the whole world, whether his disciples already, or to be brought to him thereafter by the ministry of apostles. He wills that they shall be with him and behold his glory. He recognises the righteousness of the Father in the plan of salvation, and in the result produced to the disciples; in whom that highest and purest love wherewith the Father loved the Son shall be present, and with and in that love the Son himself shall be present with them. "With this elevated thought," says Olshausen, "the Redeemer concludes his prayer for the disciples, and in them for the Church through all ages. He has compressed into the last moments given him for intercourse with his own the most sublime and glorious sentiments ever uttered by human lips. Hardly has the sound of the last word died away when Jesus passes with his disciples over the brook Kedron to Gethsemane; and the bitter conflict draws on. The seed of the new world must be sown in death, that thence life may spring up.""—Smith"s Dictionary of the Bible.
The Difference Between Christ and Christians
"All things that the Father hath are mine." We often speak of the union between Christ and his disciples, as if these terms were mutually equivalent. It may be well to look upon the distinctions which separate Christ from his disciples, in order that we may learn our true relation to the Son of God. This may turn out to be but another aspect of union, though at first sight the discourse will seem to be one upon the divisions and contrasts which separate so widely the Lord and his followers. We must not get into that easy way of thinking that Jesus Christ and his people are practically one, in any sense which denotes equality as between them; as if a Christian were a Christ, and as if Christ were but a Christian, differing in some sense in degree, it may be, but identical in quality. All that line of thought needs sifting, defining, and guarding, lest we lose reverence, and loyalty, and sense of what is due in worship, and trust, and sacrifice. Jesus Christ was very condescending, but in his condescension there was a majesty, unequalled and uncomprehended. The very stoop of Christ was more majestic than the enthroned attitude of any monarch. We should therefore dwell now and again, yea, frequently, upon the contrast which is established between Christ and his supreme apostle; we should, as it were, calculate the difference, which is really incalculable in degree and in quality, between the Son of God and those whom he has saved by the shedding of his blood. His words are full of significant accent and meaning when he dwells upon this subject. Hebrews, himself, is indeed now and again most frank about it; if he should appear to come near to us, and associate with us on terms of equality, he suddenly rises from the feast, and leaves us to feel for a moment what we should be were he to withdraw altogether. We become so accustomed to the light that we take no heed of it: we expect it; we reckon upon it, as one of the certain quantities in the whole arithmetic of life; but the sun has only to hide himself for a few moments, and he stops the traffic of the world.
Let us hear some words of Jesus Christ bearing upon this matter, in which he will not allow any one to share his glory; in which his personality shall stand out in its singular and unapproachable solitude. We think so often of Jesus Christ as meek, and lowly, and condescending, that we are apt to forget his majesty. The sight of the noonday sun may be instructive and gladdening.
"I am the Vine, ye are the branches." There is no identity there in the sense of equality. The vine can do without the branches, but the branches cannot do without the vine. "Without me ye can do nothing." It is as if a unit were talking to all the ciphers in creation; the unit says to the assembly of ciphers, "Without me ye can do nothing": you may put yourselves into a great line, and you will signify at the end what you signified at the beginning, and that is nothing; but when I stand at your head my relation to you fires you every one, gives you personality and value and meaning. This was the speech of the meek and lowly in heart, the poor in spirit, the Man of sorrows, the Man acquainted with grief. He would not have shed tears with us upon an equality, saying, Your sorrow is great, and so is mine, and we are found in a world of woe together, and therefore together we must mourn and weep. In his tears he was alone; when his soul was sorrowful he threw into nothingness the grief of all other life.
"I am the good Shepherd." Is there only one? Jesus Christ assures us that there is only one Shepherd, and that he is the one himself. Then all the apostles and martyrs, apologists and missionaries, preachers, teachers, Christians—what are they? They are the flock, the sheep, under his care. Is the flock equal to the Shepherd? Can any sheep in all the flock say to the Shepherd, I will take thy place, and thou mayest rest awhile? Is there a more pitiable spectacle upon the earth than sheep without a shepherd? Are not sheep chosen as the very image of silliness, helplessness, imbecility, when God describes his people after they have detached themselves from his government and shepherdliness? Observe always that this was the speech of him who was meek and lowly in heart Yet never does he allow his singularity to be pluralised.
"I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life." There again Christ stands alone. There is none to divide his honour; there is none even to reflect his glory in some of these higher ranges of his personality and priesthood. Where now the thought of condescension, lowliness, abjectness, self-immolation, in the sense of putting away crown and sceptre and throne, and being only a man? These terms are not permissible in any one who is in any sense only equal to his brethren. They cannot be passed by without notice, or regarded as hyperbolical, or as being coloured with a poetical imagination; they are too distinct and graphic and practical. They are only to be accepted on one of two theories: either the man was mad, or he was God. When a man describes himself saying, "I am the Light of the World; I am the Vine; I am the good Shepherd; I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life," he does not offend against modesty; he violates truth, and he violates the reverence which is due from the finite to the infinite. We ourselves have no difficulty about going up to him and saying, My Lord and my God, if I have any crown I will take it and cast it at thy feet, for thou only art worthy of the honours of infinite and eternal sovereignty."
Hear, however, how he speaks: "All things that the Father hath are mine." No man must be allowed to talk that language without rebuke. If there is some hidden sense in which it may be made to appear to be true, that hidden sense must be revealed and defined; otherwise we shall have spreading amongst us the very spirit of presumption, infallibility, and mock divinity. Who can claim to hold in his hands what God holds? Who dare say, "All things that the Father hath are mine," without qualification, and yet only be meaning in some far-off and semi-spiritual sense that he is part-proprietor of the universe? There is a morality of language. Men ought not to be allowed to speak hyperbole which is falsehood. Within the acknowledged limits of rhetoric, they may take what figures of speech they like, but they must declare them to be figures of speech, that we may distinguish between truth and falsehood. "Therefore said I, that he [the Paraclete] shall take of mine, and shall show it unto you." Even the Holy Spirit is here represented as the minister of Christ. Ask for the text upon which the Holy Spirit discourses, and the answer Isaiah, he speaks evermore upon one text, namely, Jesus Christ. When he speaks of doctrine, it is the doctrine of Christ; of righteousness, it is the righteousness of Christ; of sin, it is the sin for which Christ died. Ought we to allow a man to speak Song of Solomon, with no other than a merely rhetorical meaning? A book, part of a larger volume, containing such words ought to be torn out of the volume of which it is a part, and burned with unquenchable fire. If we admit a rhetorical criticism we may have to admit by-and-by a rhetorical Christianity, which means a rhetorical morality: words will be emptied of their meaning, and all speech will become but sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. According to the twenty-third verse, prayer is to be offered in Christ"s name. "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you."
Where is meekness and lowliness of heart in any sense which means simple equality with human nature? Observe what Jesus Christ does in these words: he pledges the Father. The words are most emphatic, "Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you": I pledge his existence, and his honour, and his throne. Again and again we must remark, This is not the language which any man must be allowed to use unless he can vindicate its use by qualities so sublime as to make the use of that language obviously appropriate. The language must fit him like a robe; there must be no discrepancy between the word and the thing, the symbol and the substance; here and there in this life there must be an outshining of glory which justifies the use of language so sublime—nay more, which shows that even language so sublime pitifully fails of its object in expressing a dignity ineffable. Jesus Christ guarantees the answer. He speaks as the inhabitant of eternity, as the custodian of the riches of the universe, as one who lays his hand familiarly upon everything and says, Ask for it, and the Father, through me, will give it; I will take it up with my own hand and pass it down until it reaches your hand. This is not the language of a mere man; it must not be admitted as such. We must not get into the frame of mind which will allow us to pass a man like this, saying, He does not mean what he says, or he has some signification far short of the obvious interpretation of the common language. Then we could only retain our religion at the expense of our morality; we could only cling to Christ by giving up the first principles of honesty.
Then, again, he declares a divine descent for himself. "I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world." This cannot be a mere commonplace. If there is a sense in which every man may be said to have come from the Father, then the words of Jesus Christ lose all their special significance. He does not say, Brethren, we all came forth from the same Father, and we are all returning to him. He speaks in his own name, and speaks of a common human nature, and declares that he "came forth from the Father, and am come into the world"—implying a kind of accommodation to the smallness of the space, as if he should say, I have so related myself to the world that I can find room enough in it for the little time that I shall be here. Having built the world, I have built a door into it, through which I have passed through momentarily visible ministry, and presently I shall be gone again, and leave what little room there is to be occupied by yourselves. This is blasphemy if it is not divinity. This is rant if it is not infinite reason. The Church will lose all vigour when it comes to the paring down of words so as to rid them of their rhetoric, in order to give them commonplace meanings.
The weak-minded disciples thought their opportunity had come. They were but children—half-grown, untaught, inexperienced. What faces they wore when the Master talked to them! They wanted to appear to be intelligent when they were not fully comprehending the meaning of the speaker; they loved him with strange admiration and passion; they were quite sure he was right, though they could not follow his high strain of thought and speech—looking as they might have looked upon an eagle gradually mounting into the dim air, keeping sight of him for awhile, and now the great black wings passing away from the visual line; they are quite sure he is flying, and the moment they see the reappearing wing they will exclaim as children utter their delight. So in this case. Jesus Christ has been taking a flight into the highest regions of spiritual thought, and his disciples have been looking on with awed amazement, and half-anticipation that they might never see him any more; but now he is coming within their horizon, and when he says, "I leave the world, and go to the Father," they exclaim, "Lo, now thou speakest plainly "—now we know what thou dost mean; now we are quite sure about thee; now we feel as if upon a measured equality with thee: remain on that plane of thought, and never leave us alone any more. It was a momentary bubble on the river of their life. They looked at one another with a kind of vacant delight. They could only exclaim; they could not explain. Jesus—piteous, tender, compassionate—descended to their level, and said, "Do ye now believe?" You think you do: poor souls, you cannot understand a word I have spoken to you. God"s method is to lay up a great deal in the mind which history has to explain in due time; so that the Old Testament is searched by the New Testament, and is read in the illuminating glory of the latter days. You think you understand me, and I see your childish pleasure. Now listen, "The hour cometh, yea, is now come, that ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave me alone." You will know whether you understand me or not when you have to suffer for me. Do not imagine that heaven has begun; I observe your delight, I cannot but feel sympathetically with you. It is no pleasure of mine to rid you of your immediate joys, but as I look upon you I see you already being driven forth into desert places. I observe your condition, and it is that of sheep being pursued by wolves; in the dark night you must receive explanation of all this mystery.
So the contrast remains as broad at the end as at the beginning. Jesus Christ never mingles with others as an equal. When he is counted one of a number, he is the one, the others are the unmeaning ciphers. This being the case, some practical questions immediately rush upon the mind, and some fears, indeed, threaten to leap upon the spirit and quench its trembling hope. There need not be any alarm of that kind. Though the difference between Christ and his disciples is the difference between infinity and infiniteness, there need be no hindrances to communion. The little earth communes with the great sun: the earth never found room for the sun, or hospitality, or entertainment, for one brief day. The difference between them is an abiding distinction which can never be lessened; they never change places. The earth is always little, and cold, and naked, and the sun is always what he is in the summer-time and in the winter, the origin of such heat as the earth receives and utilises, and such light as makes earth"s poor little grey day. The earth might say, were we to personalise it and give: it faculty, and reason, and speech, "I am so little and can do nothing. I will take myself away, and fall into the oblivion which best becomes my insignificance." But the earth makes no such speech; rather does it say, "I am little and the sun is great; the sun might do without me, but I cannot do without the sun. O thou great Light, let me see thee every morning; let me feel thee when I cannot see thee; warm me, cheer me, enlighten me, bless me, and make me fruitful, that I may grow all that is needful for the hunger of man and beast. I am but little, spurn me not, but rather fill me with thy light, and make me do my duty in my little sphere with gladsomeness and music and gratitude." It has pleased Christ to make his people the light of the world, but only in some reflective sense. The moon is the light of the world, but only at night. She knows the time and the limit of her shining, and sweetly does she run the round of her gentle ministry. "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven."
Not only is this distinction no hindrance to communion, it is a positive guarantee of blessing—"These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace." I have not shown you my majesty that I might dazzle you, but that I might comfort you; I have not blazed and burned upon you from heavenly heights that you might close your eyes and run away into the congenial and healing darkness, but to show you that whatever may come of you, in me ye shall have day and summer, and light and beauty, riches unsearchable. When the rich man displays his wealth to the poor man it may be to keep the poor man at arm"s length, saying, Who are you? for you have no wealth to compare with this. Be satisfied with your situation, and keep at the other end of the staff, nor venture to look upon me as an equal. But when Jesus Christ displays his riches he says, These are yours because ye are mine; and because of your faith and love, your trust and service, my wealth shall be at your disposal, and you can never be really poor whilst I live. Some such word as this was needed at the end of such a discourse. Having companied with Christ so long, if we put ourselves into the place of the disciples, we may say we had become almost familiar with him: we have seen him when he was weary and weak; we have seen the great tears standing unshed in his gentle eyes; many a time we have helped him and done our best to comfort him amid the woes darkening upon his life, and so accustomed have we been to his coming and his going that we have looked upon ourselves as in some sense his equals and fellow-labourers. But now, suddenly, he has become a strange man to us; he has changed the whole tone and scale of his speech; he does not even use the common simple little words that used to pass between us as the currency of love. He seems to be seated upon a throne, and to be talking from heaven to earth, and gradually separating himself from us, and we cannot bear it. Whilst such hearing overpowers the listener, the great divine Speaker says, These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace, assurance of plenty, confidence of unexhausted spirit, and the tranquillity which arises from these profound assurances. Say now, Christ is mine, and I am his; and because of the union between us, all that he has I have, and so long as he can lift an arm no foe shall overwhelm me. I have no confidence in myself, in my poor little strength, in my mean resources, but I live in Christ; I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. I can do all things through Christ which strengthened me. If we make that reply to the sermon which Christ delivered, we shall understand what he meant when he said, "These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace."
Then he concludes with an assurance that the conquest is already won. "Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world." Why should we be of good cheer on that account? Have we ourselves not yet to overcome the world? Why should we joy in another"s gladness because he has triumphed when we ourselves are left in the thick of the fight? Therein we reason erroneously, and altogether mistake the real condition of the case. When Jesus Christ says that he has overcome the world, he means that his conquest is the pledge of ours. If he had failed we could not have succeeded. It is because he has succeeded that we cannot fail. These are Christian promises; these are Christian delights; these are the joys of the sanctuary. My soul, when thou art afraid because of the war, put thyself into the keeping of the all-conquering Lord; when the chariots against thee are a million, and are all made of iron, and when the horses are down upon thee like lightning, hide thyself in the Rock of Ages, draw upon the stock of the infinite store. "What time I am afraid I will trust in God." I know by this meditation how vast is the difference between Jesus Christ and myself. If I had been guilty of the presumption of thinking that he had made me an equal, I feel that the mistake has been entirely on my own side. He has not made me an equal, nor can omnipotence do so. There is but one infinity. The difference between the creature and the Creator can never be reduced to nothingness. But this can be made of it: a means of communion, a fountain of blessing, an assurance of protection. That is enough! Poor little earth, do not distract thyself because thou canst not be the great sun. Keep in thy place; roll on in thy peaceful course, and keep thyself open to receive morning messages of light and evening assurances of defence.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on John 16". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Sunday after Epiphany