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THE OWNER AND HIS SLAVES
The institution of slavery was one of the greatest blots on ancient civilisation. It was twice cursed, cursing both parties, degrading each, turning the slave into a chattel, and the master, in many cases, into a brute. Christianity, as represented in the New Testament, never says a word to condemn it, but Christianity has killed it. ‘Make the tree good and its fruit good.’ Do not aim at institutions, change the people that live under them and you change them. Girdle the tree and it will die, and save you the trouble of felling it. But not only does Christianity never condemn slavery, though it was in dead antagonism to all its principles, and could not possibly survive where its principles were accepted, but it also takes this essentially immoral relation and finds a soul of goodness in the evil thing, which serves to illustrate the relation between God and man, between Christ and us. It does with slavery as it does with war, uses what is good in it as illustrating higher truths, and trusts to the operation, the slow operation of its deepest principles for its destruction.
So, then, we have one Apostle, in his letters, binding on his forehead as a crown the designation, ‘Paul,’ a slave of ‘Jesus Christ,’ and we have in my text an expanded allusion to slavery. The word that is here rendered rightly enough, ‘Lord,’ is the word which has been transferred into English as ‘despot,’ and it carries with it some suggestion of the roughness and absoluteness of authority which that word suggests to us. It does not mean merely ‘master,’ it means ‘owner,’ and it suggests an unconditional authority, to which the only thing in us that corresponds is abject and unconditional submission. That is what Christ is to you and me; the Lord, the Despot, the Owner.
But we have not only owner and slave here; we have one of the ugliest features of the institution referred to. You have the slave-market, ‘the Lord that bought them,’ and because He purchased them, owns them. Think of the hell of miseries that are connected with that practice of buying and selling human flesh, and then estimate the magnificent boldness of the metaphor which Peter does not scruple to take from it here, speaking of the owner who acquired them by a price. And not only that, but slaves will run away, and when they are stopped, and asked who they belong to, will say they know nothing about him. And so here is the runaway’s denial, ‘denying the Lord that bought them.’ Now I ask you to think of these three points.
I. Here we have the Owner of us all.
I do not need, I suppose, to spend a moment in showing you that this relationship, which is laid down in our text, subsists between Jesus Christ and men, and it subsists between Jesus Christ and all men. For the people about whom the Apostle is saying that they have ‘denied the Lord that bought them’ can, by no construction, be supposed to be true Christians, but were enemies that had crept into the Church without any real allegiance to Jesus Christ, and were trying to wreck it, and to destroy His work. So there is no reference here to a little elected group out of the midst of humanity, who especially belonged to Jesus Christ, and for whom the price has been paid; but the outlook of my text in its latter portion is as wide as humanity. The Lord--that is, Jesus Christ--owns all men.
Let me expand that thought in one or two illustrations which may help to make it perhaps more vivid. The slave’s owner has absolute authority over him. You remember the occasion when a Roman officer, by reflecting upon the military discipline of the legion, and the mystical power that the commander’s word had to set all his men in obedient activity, had come to the conclusion that, somehow or other, this Jesus whom he desired to heal his servant had a similar power in the material universe, and that just as he, subordinate officer though he was, had yet--by reason of the fact that he was ‘under authority,’ and an organ of a higher authority--the power to say to his servant, ‘Go,’ and he would go; and to another one, ‘Come,’ and he would come; so this Christ had power to say to disease, ‘Depart,’ and it would depart; and to health, ‘Come,’ and it would come; and to all the material forces of the universe, ‘Do this,’ and obediently they would do it. That is the picture, in another region, of the relation which Jesus Christ bears to men, though, alas, it is not the picture of the relation which men bear to Christ. But to all of us He has the right to say, wherever we are, ‘Come,’ the right to say, ‘Go,’ the right to say, ‘Do,’ the right to say, ‘Be this, that, and the other thing.’
Absolute authority is His; what should be yours? Unconditional submission. My friend, it is no use your calling yourself a Christian unless that is your attitude. My sermon to-night has something else to do than simply to present truths to you. It has to press truths on you, and to appeal not only to your feelings, not only to your understandings, but to your wills. And so I come with this question: Do you, dear friend, day by day, yield to the absolute Master the absolute submission? And is that rebellious will--which is in you, as it is in us all--tamed and submitted so as that you can say, ‘Speak, Lord! Thy servant heareth’? Is it?
Further, the owner has the right, as part of that absolute authority of which I have been speaking, to settle without appeal each man’s work. In those Eastern monarchies where the king was surrounded, not by constitutional ministers, but by his personal slaves, he made one man a shoeblack or a pipe-bearer, and the man standing next to him his prime minister. And neither the one nor the other had the right to say a word. Jesus Christ has the right to regulate your life in all its details, to set you your tasks. Some of us will get what the world vulgarly calls ‘more important duties’; some will get what the world ignorantly calls more ‘insignificant’ ones. What does that matter? It was our Owner that set us to our work, and if He tells us to black shoes, let us black them with all the pith of our elbows, and with the best blacking and brushes we can find; and if He sets us to work, which people think is more important and more conspicuous, let us do that too, in the same spirit, and for the same end.
Again, the owner has the absolute right of possession of all the slave’s possessions. He gets a little bit of land in the corner of his master’s plantation, and grows his vegetables, yams, pumpkins, a leaf of tobacco or two, or what not, there. And if his master comes along and says, ‘These are mine,’ the slave has no recourse, and is obliged to accept the conditions and to give them up. So Jesus Christ claims ours as well as us--ours because He claims us--and whilst, on the other hand, the surrender of external good is incomplete without the surrender of the inward will, on the other hand the abandonment and surrender of the inward life is incomplete, if it be not hypocritical, without the surrender of external possessions. All the slave’s goods belonged to the owner.
And the owner has another right. He can say, ‘Take that man’s child and sell him in the market!’ and he can break up the family ties and separate husband and wife, and parent and child, and not a word can be said. Our Master comes, not with rough authority, but with loving, though absolute authority, and He sometimes untwines the hands that are most closely clasped, and says to the one of the two that have grown together in love and blessedness, ‘Come!’ and he cometh, and to the other ‘Go!’ and she goeth. Blessed they who can say, ‘It is the Lord! Let Him do what seemeth Him good.’
Now, dear friends, this absolute authority cannot be exercised by any man upon another man, and this unconditional submission, which Jesus Christ asks from us all, ought not to be rendered by any man to a man. It is a degradation when a human creature is put even in the external relation of slavery and servitude to another human creature, but it is an honour when Jesus Christ says to me, ‘Thou art Mine,’ and I say to Him, ‘I am Thine, O Lord, truly I am Thy servant; Thou hast loosed my bonds.’ In the old Saxon monarchies, some antiquarians tell us, the foundation of our modern nobility or aristocracy is found in that the king’s servants became nobles. Jesus Christ’s slave is everybody else’s master. And it is the highest honour that a man can have to bow himself before that Lord, and to take His yoke upon him and learn of Him. So much, then, for my first point; now a word with regard to the second.
II. The sale, and the price.
‘The Lord that bought them.’ You perhaps remember other words which say, ‘Ye are bought with a price; be not the servants of men’; also other words of this Apostle himself, in which he speaks, in his other letter, of being ‘bought with the precious blood of Christ, as of a Lamb without blemish and without spot.’ Now notice, Christ’s ownership of us does not depend on Christ’s Divinity, which I suppose most of us believe, but on Christ’s sacrifice for us. It is perfectly true that creation gives rights to the Creator. It is perfectly true that if we believe, as I think the New Testament teaches, that He, who before His name was Jesus was the Eternal Word of God, was the Agent of all Creation, and therefore has rights. But Christ’s heart does not care for rights of that sort. It wants something far deeper, far tenderer, far closer than any such. And He comes to us with the language that is the language of love over all the universe, as between man and woman, as between man and man, as between man and God, as between God and man, upon His lips, and says, ‘Thou must love Me, for I have died for thee.’ Yes, brother; the only ground upon which absolute possession of a man can be rested is the ground of prior absolute surrender to Him. Christ must give Himself to me before He can ask me to give myself to Him. So all that was apparently harsh in the relationship, as I have been trying to set it forth to you, melts away and disappears. No owner ever owned a slave as truly as a loving woman owns her husband, or a loving husband his wife, because the ownership is the expression of perfect love on both sides. And that is the golden bond that binds men’s souls to Christ in a submission which, the more abject it is, the more elevating it is, just because ‘He loved me, and gave Himself for me.’
I do not dwell upon any cold theological doctrine of an Atonement, but I wish you to feel that deep in this great metaphor of our text there lie the two things; first, the price that was paid, and, second, the bondage from which the slave was delivered. He belonged to another master before Christ bought him for Himself. ‘He that committeth sin is the slave of sin.’ Some of you are your own despots, your own tyrants. The worse half of you has got the upper hand. The mutineers that ought to have been down under hatches, and shackled, have taken possession of the deck and clapped the captain and the officers, and all the sextants and log-books, away into a corner, and they are driving the ship--that is, you--on to the rocks, as hard as they can. A man that is not Christ’s slave has a far worse slavery in submitting to these tyrant sins that have tempted him with the notion of how fine it is to break through these old-womanly restraints and conventional fads of a narrow morality, and to have his fling, and do as he likes and follow nature. Ay, some of you have been doing that, and could write a far better commentary than any preacher ever wrote, out of your own experience, on the great words, ‘Whilst they promised them liberty, they themselves are the slaves of corruption!’ Young men, is that true about any of you--that you came here into Manchester to a situation, and lonely lodgings, comparatively innocent, and that somebody said, ‘Oh, do not be a milksop! come along and see life,’ and you thought it was fine to shake off the shackles that your poor old mother used to try to put upon your limbs? And what have you made of it? I will tell you what a great many young men have made of it--I have seen scores of them in the forty years that I have been preaching here: ‘His bones are full of the iniquity of his youth, which shall lie down with him in the dust.’
There is a slavery which is blessedness, and there is a slavery which at first is delightsome to the worst part of us, and afterwards becomes bitter and deadly. And it is the bondage of sin, the bondage to my worst self, the bondage to my indulged passions, the bondage to other men, the bondage to the material world. Jesus Christ speaks to each of us in His great sacrifice, by which He says to us, ‘The Son will make you free, and you shall be free indeed.’ The Lord has bought us. Have you let Him emancipate you from all your bondage? Dear friends, bear with me if I press again upon you, I pray God that it may ring in your ears till you can answer that question, Jesus Christ having bought me, do I belong to Him?
III. And now, lastly, notice the runaways.
Did it ever occur to you what a pathetic force there is in Peter’s picking out that word ‘denying’ as the shorthand expression for all sorts of sins? Who was it that thrice denied that he knew Him? That experience went very deep into the Apostle; and here, as I take it, is a most significant illustration of his penitent remembrance of his past life, all the more significant because of its reticence. The allusion is one that nobody could catch that did not know his past, but which to those who did know it was full of meaning and of pathos:--’Denying the Lord, as I did on that dismal morning, in the High Priest’s palace. I am speaking about it, for I know what it comes to, and the tears that will follow after.’
But what I desire to press upon you, dear friends, is just this: That in that view of the lives of people who are not Christians there is suggested to us the essential sinfulness, the black ingratitude, and the absolute folly of refusing to acknowledge the claims of Him to whom we belong, and who has bought us at such a price. You can do it by word, and perhaps some of us are not guiltless in that respect. You can do it by paring down the character and office of Jesus Christ, and minimising the importance of His sacrifice from the world’s sins, and thinking of Him, not as the Owner that bought us, but as the Master that teaches us. You can do it by cowardly hiding of your colours and being too shamefaced, too sensitive to the curled lip of the man that works at the next bench, or sits at the next desk, or the student that is beside you, or somebody else whose opinion you esteem, which prevents you from saying like a man, ‘I belong to Jesus Christ, and whomsoever other people serve, as for me, I am going to serve Him.’ And you can do it, and many of you are doing it, by simply ignoring His claims, refusing to turn to Him, not yielding up your will to Him, not turning your heart to Him, not setting your dependence upon Him. Is it not a shame that men, whose hearts will glow with thankfulness when another man, especially if he is a superior, comes to them with some gift, valuable, but nothing as compared with the transcendent gift that Christ brings, will yet let Him die for them and not care anything about Him? I can understand the vehement antagonism that some people have to Christ and Christianity, but what I cannot understand is the attitude of the immense mass of people that come to services like this, who profess to believe that Jesus Christ’s love for them brought Him to the cross, and yet will not even pay the poor tribute of a little interest and a momentary inclination of heart towards Him. ‘Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by,’ that Jesus Christ died for you? He bought you for His own. Let me beseech you to ‘yield yourselves’ servants, slaves of Christ, and then you will be free, and you will hear Him say in the very depth of your hearts, ‘Henceforth I call you not slaves, but friends.’
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MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on 2 Peter 2". Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29