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2 Corinthians 3:1-5
Do we begin again to commend ourselves?
or need we … epistles of commendation?
A pastor’s claim
1. The voluntary relations of men are founded upon mutual confidence, and even those which are involuntary require reciprocal reliance. The parent who does not duly trust his children will soon ruin them, and the child who does not rely upon his parents will certainly become prodigal. Distrust in a master will make him a tyrant, and want of confidence in a servant will produce miserable eye-service. The suspicious prince is always cruel, and the distrustful subject is a revolutionist; and the functions of the ministry are nullified by distrust in the Churches and in the world.
2. This confidence is easily disturbed and soon destroyed. A whisper “on ‘Change” against the credit of the successful merchant will sometimes gather force and sweep him into ruin. A question addressed in an incredulous tone to a master about the fidelity of an honest servant will make him watch that servant with an eagle’s eye. In like manner may the confidence of the Churches of Christ in their chosen pastors be impaired or crushed. Of the danger to which confidence in this case is exposed, these Epistles to the Corinthians afford illustration. Note--
I. The grounds of a Christian pastor’s claim upon the confidence of the Churches.
1. There is a peculiar writing on the tablet of the Christian’s soul. The old covenant was engraven upon slabs of stone, but the new covenant is written upon the sensitive and everlasting tablet of the heart. On this is written the good news that God so loved the world and spared not His own Son. There is other writing. Science writes. But science, beautiful writer though she be, and wise and useful, cannot write about the highest subjects, nor can she reach by her pen the fairest tablets of the human soul.
2. The writing on the tablets of the true Christian’s soul is effected for Christ by the Holy Spirit.
3. In writing, the Spirit employs men--pastors and teachers--as pens.
4. Those upon whose hearts Christ has written are Christ’s chief means of communicating with the outlying world. In plain language, the works of the true pastor bear witness of him, and establish his claim to loving confidence. We ask, then, firm and loving confidence for the proved ministers of Christ. To require this from their own converts is to ask a small thing. To no creature on earth or in heaven is a man so largely indebted as to the instrument of his conversion. But say that you have no such personal obligations to the true ministers of Christ, they may claim confidence for their work’s sake. Give us your confidence for your own sake, for without it we cannot minister to your profit; for your children’s sake, for, if they detect distrust, in vain do we try to help you bring them up; for our work’s sake among the ungodly. I do not say that we cannot work without it, but I do say that we can work more hopefully with it.
II. The ground of a pastor’s own confidence with respect to his work.
1. The confidence of any worker with respect to his work is essential to his success. The basis of such confidence may be either his own independent resources or the help which he obtains from those stronger than himself. The latter is the foundation of the confidence of Christ’s ministers. Their sufficiency is of God. To say God is sufficient is only like saying God is God, but to declare our sufficiency is of God is to exhibit a spiritual fact which among the children of men is exceedingly rare. This is not to sit talking of the Almighty God, but to walk leaning upon God’s arm, and to work, God working with us. This is to take such advantage of the Divine resources as this special work demands. Without this, a man may be scholarly, eloquent, and popular, but in the sight of God he must be a failure. The work of the true pastor can only be done as God would have it be done, as our sufficiency is of God.
2. Why, then, are we not filled with the fulness of God? It may be that we prefer the cistern to the fountain, and that we cleave to it after it has become leaky, and it may be because of our many false gods. One thing is certain--we are always half mad about something which, however good, is not God. The organisations and associations, better psalmody, more ornate architecture, a denominational press, wealth, are the false gods after which we too often have gone a-whoring. Why are we not filled with the fulness of God? It may be that we do not sufficiently recognise the mediation of Jesus Christ and the ministry of the Holy Ghost; it may be because our sins have separated us from God. One thing is certain--we could do our work with God if everything external and circumstantial which now we have were taken clean away. The first preachers and teachers had none of our appliances, and yet succeeded, because their sufficiency was of God.
3. And now let me entreat you to commend your pastors in ceaseless prayer to the help of God.
4. Our sufficiency is also yours. (S. Martin, D. D.)
Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men.--
“Self-praise is no recommendation,” and the “sounding of one’s own trumpet” is not to be applauded. False teachers had entered into the Corinthian Church, and they had found it necessary to have letters of recommendation, but Paul needed no such introduction. Truth and righteousness recommend themselves in the work they accomplish. Our translation admits of another rendering--namely, “Ye are our epistles written in your hearts,” and this would imply that Paul had been enabled to pencil something in the hearts of others which could be read by all men; and it is with this idea I shall deal in speaking about sacred penmanship.
I. Observe the requisites for writing. The accessories must be provided, however, for a letter to be written, and let us briefly notice these--pen, ink, and paper.
1. In the third verse we have the pen: “Forasmuch as ye are declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us.” Here is the instrument in the hand of God. The Church was divided, for one said, “I am of Paul,” another, “I am of Cephas”; but these good men were only the pens whereby God, through His Spirit, had written upon the fleshy tables of their hearts. Among these instruments there must ever be a variety. The rough and rude can, however, be made to write well. Paul, though he was not eloquent of speech, but somewhat blunt, had power to get hold of men’s hearts, and he wrote upon them, with dark, indelible lines, great truths. Apollos could speak with eloquence of diction, and finely pencil the Scripture, so that the Jews were mightily convinced that Jesus was the Christ. John was another such instrument. Soft in love, sketching in poetry the wonderful revelations he had of “the better land,” he would win hearts for Jesus.
2. Then there must be the ink. The sacred fluid is the Spirit of God. “Written, not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God.” The mysterious influence that flows through us is not of earthly manufacture.
3. The next requisite is the paper. It is not written upon stone, but “in fleshy tables of the heart.” A soft heart best absorbs the ink, a living tablet best retains impressions. Lord, write first in us, and then make us as the “pen of the ready writer,” to make our mark on others.
II. The readers of the writing. “Known and read of all men.” The writing is real--no fiction, for the author is Christ. We are the autograph letters of our Lord, and bear His signature. The writing is clear, for we are “manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ.” Now, this document is a public one. Believers are the library for the world; they are a Christian literature; each saint is a volume to expound the grace of God. “Known and read of all men.” We may consider the readers of this writing to be of three classes--
1. The intelligent. Many are real students of Christian character, desirous of gaining knowledge for their own good in spiritual attainments.
2. Then there are the interested readers--our friends who like to see if we make progress in Divine things. The “first series” of Christian experiences are interesting, and are studied with deep anxiety by those who love young converts.
3. The last class I have called the inquisitive. They only peruse to find fault. Ours must be so correct an epistle that fault-finders shall find it difficult to gratify their morbid taste. The schoolmaster says to his boys, “Be sure you dot your i’s and cross your t’s”; and we too must be mindful of little things. (Charles Spurgeon.)
Paul’s testimonials; their publicity
The conversion and new life of the Corinthians were Paul’s certificate as an apostle. They were a certificate, he says, known and read by all men. Often there is a certain awkwardness in the presenting of credentials. It embarrasses a man when he has to put his hand into his heart pocket, and take out his character, and submit it for inspection. Paul was saved this embarrassment. There was a fine unsought publicity about his testimonials. Everybody knew what the Corinthians had been; everybody knew what they were; and the man to whom the change was due needed no other recommendation to a Christian society. (J. Denney, B. D.)
Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ.--
Christianity written on the soul is Christianity--
I. In the most legible form.
II. In the most convincing form. Books have been written on the evidences of Christianity; but one life permeated by the Christian spirit furnishes an argument that baffles all controversy.
III. In the most persuasive form. There is a magnetism in gospel truth embodied which you seek for in vain in any written work. When the “Word is made flesh” it is made “mighty through God.”
IV. In the most enduring form. The tablet is imperishable. Paper will moulder, institutions will dissolve, marble or brass are corruptible.
V. In the divinest form. The hand can inscribe it on parchment or stone, but only God can write it on the heart, (D. Thomas, D. D.)
The epistle of Christ
I. The designation of Christian people.
1. An epistle is a fact of production. No epistle is self-produced. It must have a writer. Nor is it a creation; all the elements existed before. So with the epistle of Christ.
2. An epistle is a production of intelligence. An epistle must have a direct intelligent end, must be worth reading and knowing.
3. A letter is the expression of the thoughts and purposes of the writer. So Christians are the transcript of Christ’s design, morally impressed with the counterpart of His principles and character as their Exemplar.
4. A letter is a medium of communication. So what is communicated to Christians must be communicated by them to others. It must be communicated as it is; it must not be obliterated or shown partially.
II. The writing agent, and the manner in which the epistle is composed. “The Spirit of the living God,” etc., who--
1. Works according to His own plan.
2. By the use of suitable means, and according to established laws. The act is not a thing done in some rare instances, but in the heart of all good people.
3. By the concurrence and co-operation of man himself--the object of His work. Man is an agent of his own culture and all which belongs to him in life. He is also the agent of his own salvation. If he neglects his work, no one can do it for him.
III. The instrumental means “ministered by us.” The ministry of the gospel--
1. Brings the materials of truth and salvation to men.
2. Prepares also the pages of the soul to receive true impressions and the blessings offered in the gospel. There are stains to be erased, misconceptions to be corrected, habits and prejudices to be destroyed, before clear and true writing can be made.
3. Brings the human soul and Divine truth face to face, so by Divine light and love a photographic image is printed upon the whole soul. Whilst it is a Divine power it is a Divine art, printing upon the human heart and life a true image and right language.
4. Perpetuates the means of truth and right life.
IV. The tablet of record, “the fleshy tables of the heart.” As the heart is the centre of our natural life, it is also, in a moral sense, the centre and base of our spiritual life.
1. The work of God in the heart is carried on quietly and secretly, but is powerful in its results, like the forces of God in nature. What more secret than thought, love, faith? but what more powerful and clear in their results? The letter is secret in the writing, but known in the reading.
2. Though unseen to sense, ii is nevertheless a matter of consciousness to the subject of it,
3. It is a process which purifies and develops human affection. The end is to make the heart belier and larger.
4. It is a process intended to govern the springs of human life. Mankind is governed through its heart. It is a happy and high state when the sentiment of the heart is one with reason.
5. Whatever is good and happy, if written on the heart, is an immediate source of life and comfort.
6. It is a thing to be highly estimated and remembered. When we wish to gain esteem, we try to reach the heart; when we desire not to be forgotten, we try to print our name on the tablet of the heart. (T. Hughes.)
The epistle of Christ
I. The Christian is an epistle of Christ.
1. Its writer. “Christ.”
2. Its purport, Christ has blotted out “guilty” and written in “no condemnation.” He has erased “earthly” and supplied “heavenly.” Licentiousness has given place to purity, profanity to prayerfulness, selfishness to love, etc. We judge of the authorship of an epistle, not merely by the penmanship and signature, which a clever forger might imitate, but also by its contents. A hypocrite, a false professor, is like forged letter.
3. Its design. To convey the mind of Christ to men. Men may refuse to listen to the gospel, but they cannel ignore the testimony of a consistent Christian life.
II. The responsibility devolving on the Christian as an epistle of Christ.
1. As a letter is written for the purpose of being seen, a Christian should let his Christianity be visible. We do not write letters merely for the sake of writing them, but that they may be read. So, if Christians do not let their Christianity be seen in their lives, they defeat one chief end which Christ had in view in making them what they are. Those who are Christians in name only are in no sense of the term epistles of Christ; ii were vain to exhort such to let what Christ has written in them be seen by men, for they have nothing to show.
2. A letter being written for the purpose of being read should be legible. A letter may be so written that it is impossible to make out the writer’s meaning. Such a letter may be worse than useless, for, owing to its illegibility, it may convey a wrong meaning. When the letters of men are illegible ii is the fault of the writers, but this is not the case with Christ’s epistles. He never writes illegibly. The fault lies on the side of the epistles themselves. Note one or two things which render writing illegible.
(1) Indistinctness of character. One word may be mistaken for another, and thus the whole meaning of a sentence may be altered. And Christians may be illegible as epistles of Christ through the wavering, unsteady character imparted to the writing that is in them by their want of decision for Christ and their compromises with the world. What we want is boldness on the part of Christians in testifying for Christ in their everyday lives.
(2) Blots. Perhaps the most important word in a sentence is completely hidden by a blot. Alas! in how many cases is the testimony of a Christian for Christ made of none effect by the unsightly blot of some gross inconsistency, some dark sin, which the eye of the world rests continually on, and refuses to see anything else.
3. A letter is written that it may be understood. What prevents letters from being intelligible?
(1) Omissions. Were the little word “not,” e.g., left out, the meaning of a sentence would be entirely reversed. In like manner, the lack of one essential Christian grace-charity, e.g.--if it do not render the character of a Christian unintelligible, makes it less easily understood.
(2) Contradictions. We cannot possibly make out the meaning if one sentence says one thing and the next the opposite. And haw can men understand our testimony for Christ if we have one kind of conduct for the Church and another for the world? (J. Bogue, M. A.)
Epistles of Christ
I. The epistle.
1. How it is written.
(1) The apostle does not speak of a vague oral tradition, or of shifting impressions, but of a written epistle. The material on which this epistle is written is the heart of man. Not merely in his understanding, for he may know what is right and yet not do it; not merely in his conscience, for he may acknowledge his duty, yet neglect it; but in his heart, that it may be his desire and his delight, the very law and tendency of his being.
(2) Like the pages of this book when they came from the hands of the manufacturer, the mind of man by nature is a perfect blank in regard to Christ, or rather like the material from which these pages were manufactured--filthy rags, foul, tattered, and discoloured. To become an epistle of Christ it must be prepared and written on. It must be purified, and characters traced on it.
2. Its contents. Christ is its grand and all-pervading theme. Observe--
(1) Paul did not say of all the disciples, “Ye are epistles of Christ,” but, “Ye are the epistle of Christ.” Collectively you constitute the one epistle, just as there are many copies of the Bible in many foreign languages, but only one Bible. Different as the Laplander and the Indian may be, yet, when taught by the Spirit, they testify the same things of Christ.
(2) Nor did Paul say of any individual, “Thou art the epistle of Christ.” As there are many imperfect or mutilated MSS. of the Bible, and as in all there are errors of the pen or the translator, so also there are imperfect and unfinished copies of the epistle of Christ. And as it is only by collating and comparing many versions that we can say, “This is the Word of God,” so also we must collate and compare many Christians ere we can say, “This is the epistle, the image, of Christ.”
3. Its purpose.
(1) The salvation of those in whose hearts it is written.
(2) To recommend Christ to men. As samples of His work, you will be either letters of commendation or of condemnation to Him.
II. How we may so use this epistle that it may serve the purpose for which it was written. We may commend Christ--
1. With our lips. Our conversation may be an epistle to make known His praises. The circulation of the epistle written with ink--the printed Bible--is our duty. Even so it is our duty to publish the living epistle. It was intended to be an open letter, known and read of all men. How many are there with whom we daily associate who never read the written Bible, the only hope of whose salvation is that they may read or hear the living epistle! By our silence we conceal that epistle from them, and leave them to perish.
2. By our lives. It is in vain that we speak of Christ with our lips if our lives belie our words. Our actions, like a pen full of ink, trace certain characters, leave certain impressions on the mind and memory of those who see them. In beholding our actions, have men been led to say of us, “These men have been with Jesus”?
3. By our character. A man’s outward manner may be in direct opposition to his inward character. To be true epistles of Christ we must reflect His image, not in word only, or in action, but in our dispositions and desires. (W. Grant.)
Epistles of Christ
From the example of the Master Paul had acquired the habit of gliding softly and quickly from a common object of nature to the deep things of grace. The practice of asking and obtaining certificates seems to have been introduced at a very early period into the Christian Church, and already some abuses had crept in along with it. We gather from this epistle that some very well recommended missionaries had been spoiling Paul’s work at Corinth. Virtually challenged to exhibit his own certificates, he boldly appeals to those who had been converted through his ministry, and now he glides into a greater thing--Christians are an epistle of Christ. Regarding these epistles, consider--
I. The material written on.
1. Many different substances have been employed in writing; but one feature is common to all--in their natural state they are not fit to be used as writing materials. They must undergo a process of preparation. Even the primitive material of stone must be polished ere the engraving begin. The reeds, and leaves, and skins, too, which were used by the ancients, all needed preparation. So with modern paper, of which rags are the raw material. These are torn into small pieces, washed, cast into a new form, and become a “new creature.” A similar process takes place in the preparation of the material for an epistle of Christ. You might as well try to write upon the rubbish from which paper is made as to impress legible evidence for the truth and divinity of the gospel on the life of one who is still “of the earth, earthy.”
2. The paper manufacturer is not nice in the choice of his materials. The clean cannot be serviceable without passing through the process, and the unclean can be made serviceable with it. Let no man think he can go into heaven because he is good; but neither let any one fear he will be kept out of it because he is evil.
II. The writing. It is not Christianity printed in the creed, but Christ written in the heart. A person’s character may be gathered from his letters. How eagerly the public read those of a great man printed after his death! Our Lord left no letters, yet He has not left Himself without a witness. When He desires to let the world know what He is, He points to Christians. Nay, when He would have the Father to behold His glory, He refers Him to the saved: “I am glorified in them.” A Christian merchant goes to India or China. He sells manufactured goods; he buys silk and tea. But all the time he is a living epistle, sent by Christ to the heathen. A Christian boy becomes an apprentice, and is now, therefore, a letter from the Lord to all his shopmates.
III. The writer. “The Spirit of the living God.” Some writings are easily rubbed off by rough usage or with age. Only fast colours are truly valuable. The flowers and figures painted upon porcelain are burned in, and therefore cannot be blotted out. No writing on a human spirit is certainly durable except that which the Spirit of God lays on. In conversion there is a sort of furnace through which the new-born pass. In the widespread religious activity of the day some marks are made on the people--not made by the Spirit of God--shown by the event to have been only marks on the surface made by some passing fear or nervous sympathy.
IV. The pen. In photography it is the sun that makes the portrait; yet a human hand prepares the plate and adjusts the lens. A similar place is assigned to the ministry of men in the work of the Spirit. Printing nowadays is done by machines which work with a strength and regularity and silence that are enough to strike an onlooker with dismay. Yet even there a watchful human eye and alert human hand axe needed to introduce the paper into the proper place. Agents are needed even under the ministry of the Spirit--needed to watch for souls.
V. The readers.
1. The writing is not sealed or locked up in a desk, but exposed all the day to public view. Some who look on the letters are enemies, and some are friends. If an alien see Christ represented in a Christian, he may thereby be turned from darkness to light; but, if he see sin, self, and the world, he will probably be more hardened in his unbelief. Those who already know and love the truth are glad when they read it clearly written in a neighbour’s life, are grieved when they see a false image of the Lord held up before the eyes of men.
2. Many readers, however, fail to see the meaning of the plainest letters. None so blind as those who will not see. Considering how defective most readers are either in will or skill, or both, the living epistles should be written in characters both large and fair. Some MSS. are so defectively written that none but experts can decipher them. Skilled and practised men can piece them together, and gather the sense where, to ordinary eyes, only unconnected scrawls appear. Benevolent ingenuity has produced a kind of writing that even the blind can read. Such should be the writing of Christ’s mind on a Christian’s conversation. It should be raised in characters so large that even the blind, who cannot see, may be compelled, by contact with Christians, to feel that Christ is passing by. (W. Arnot, D. D.)
Epistles of Christ: imperfect and spurious
The Bible is God’s book for the world, only it shuts it. But the world will read you. Masters, your servants read you; servants, your masters read you; so will parents children, etc. Do they read in you what they ought to read? A Christian should be a Bible alive. Never mind though a man has not learned his letters; he will be able to read you fast enough. All men can read justice, mercy, and truth, or the opposite of them.
1. One day a thought flashed into my mind that I did not want to lose, and, having no paper at hand except a letter from a friend, I just wrote between the lines of it; and when I had done that the fancy struck me to read through the writing as it stood, one line of my friends and one of my own, and you cannot think what nonsense it was! Ah! there are some characters like that. I dare not say there was nothing about them that Christ had written, but they have sadly allowed the devil and the world to underline them; there is no coherency or consistency in them.
2. I remember, when I was a little boy at school, if I by any chance managed to make the smallest blot, as sure as I took the book up to my master, the first thing he looked at was the blot; and, as sure as I took it home, the first thing anybody looked at was the blot. My letters may have been made very gracefully, but nobody said a word about them; but everybody said something about the blot. Ah! I have known some people very good on the whole, but they have had sad blots--blots of temper, vanity, and worldliness. The sun himself is looked at more during the few minutes he has a black spot on his face than on all the days of the year besides. The world has an eagle glance for your spots, and if you have a spot on your character people will look more at it than at all the beautiful things that are there.
3. I got a letter one day which had been sent to a committee. For the life of them they could not read it, and they sent it to me to try to make it out. It was a difficult task, and when I had made out the words I could scarcely make out the sense. It was a letter, but a very unintelligible one. I have known some characters like that, and if I preached to such I should have to take the text, “I stand in doubt of you.” These are not like the epistles spoken of in the text, “known and read of all men,” Endeavour to keep clear of such a character that nobody can tell what list to put you in: avoid being so quaint and difficult that nobody can tell what to make of you. May it be said of you, as it was said as I passed the door of a godly man who had lately died, “If ever there was a Christian, that man was one.”
4. I remember, just before I left my last circuit, that I looked over a great number of old letters, some of which, at the time I received them, were so precious that I put them away to preserve them, and several of these had become so creased and dirty and illegible that I was obliged to throw them into the fire, though once they were so precious to me. I should not like that any of you who had been real letters of Christ’s own writing should become so careless and worldly that the writing became marred. I should not like that you should get into such a cold, backsliding state that all the beautiful letters that once were put upon you should become illegible, and that at the last Christ should say, “Cast them into the fire.”
5. I was once in an assize court where a man was being tried for forgery. The individual whose writing, it was suspected, had been imitated, was dead, and so a large letter-book, full of what was known to be the writing of the deceased, was produced in court, to test the alleged forgery by it. If you are letters of Christ you will resemble His writing. The very name Christian implies that you profess to have Christ’s name written upon you. But it is no use to profess to be Christ’s epistle if you are not like Him. Suppose I picked up a letter which professed on the face of it to be a letter from Jesus Christ, but recommended this congregation to be worldly-minded, to love gold, to be fretful and peevish, and to be guilty of evil-speaking and slander. Of course I should know that it was no letter from Jesus Christ. I wonder whether all present who profess to be Christ’s epistles ever do that which Christ would not put His name to? Are you genuine letters? A friend of mine went to the bank to pay in some money. Amongst it there was a ten-pound note. The clerk looked at it carefully, and then stamped “Forged” right across it. What a sad thing it would be if any of you who profess to be epistles of Christ now should at the last be disowned of Him, and He should say, “You are none of Mine--forged”! (S. Coley.)
Living epistles of Christ
I. “An Epistle of Christ” is the title of every believer. In the N.T. Epistles we have the promised further revelation of Christ. We call them for convenience the epistles of Paul, or of Peter, etc.; but they are the epistles of Christ, from and concerning Him. So believers are a revelation of the Redeemer to the world; and as these apostolic letters carried light wherever they went, so the world is to read on the Christian the mind and grace of Jesus.
1. Christ’s work will necessarily witness to Him. The world cannot look on any true servant of Christ without receiving an impression of the Master.
2. Christ’s purpose concerning the world requires that every Christian be an epistle of Christ. With multitudes the gospel will be powerless until its truth is proved by its effects.
3. Christ’s love to His people affords this usefulness to all of them. For to help others to Him is to enter into the joy of our Lord, and He would deprive none of His beloved of that. One of the Florentine princes commanded Michael Angelo to fashion a statue from the drifted snow before his palace, and the great artist, ignoring the scorn, wrought at the task as though he chiselled the enduring marble; and when it began to melt at the sun’s touch, and the contemptuous prince laughed at what he thought the vanity of the toil, the sculptor solaced himself with the reflection, “The thought I threw into that snow shall stir this gazing people when their gaze is done.” Our common tasks are fleeting, yet we may throw a piety into them whose memory will abide for good with those that saw it to distant years.
II. Think of Christ writing this epistle.
1. There must be the erasure of the old writing. In ancient monasteries the monks would take old parchments, and, removing the writing they bore, write sacred truth on them instead; so it happened that, where before men read annals of conquest, or heathen laws, or pagan blasphemies, then they read the Word of God. Till the old heathen writing on us be removed, there is no room for the new, nor would it stand much chance of being seen. So Christ removes it. We cannot; no human skill can cleanse the blotted page of an evil character.
2. There must be the impression of His will on the character by fellowship with Him. In fellowship with Christ a subtle influence is exerted on us which must leave its mark; we cannot be with Him without acquiring a hatred of sin, without His peace possessing us, without our love and courage being inflamed, which must show themselves when we pass out to men again.
3. When He has done that there may remain the bringing out of some of His deepest writings by fire. For as great secrets have been written on that prepared surface which conceals the writing till it is exposed to heat, and then line after line of unsuspected story appears, so some of Christ’s most sacred messages only steal out in the lives of His people in the hour of trial. The chamber of Christian sorrow has many a time been the place of Divine revelation.
III. Then, surely, having written his epistle, he sends it. To write a letter without sending it were vain. The Bible is God’s letter to the world; we may think of His people as supplementary letters to individuals.
1. Then He will see it comes to them. This is the meaning of many of His providential dealings with us.
2. We may expect Him to call their attention to us whom He means us to reach. He will not suffer that to be unread which He has written; His Spirit works with His providence, and turns men’s eyes where He would have them look.
3. And that shows God’s special mercy to some. When they have failed to read the Bible He has given them, He is so earnest for their redemption that He sends a letter to themselves.
IV. He who writes and sends their waits the answer! (C. New.)
This is one of those felicitous turns of expression which show the true genius; the sudden availing one’s self of an adversary’s argument against himself. “Ask for my letter of commendation? Well, who has such a letter as I can show? Ye are our epistle.” Demosthenes uttered nothing finer than this, or so convincing.
I. In what respects may men resemble an epistle, known and read of all?
1. The prime characteristic of a letter is its containing the mind of the writer. Can Christians represent the mind of Christ, as a letter contains your mind?
(1) A perfect Church is not needed for this; for the Corinthian community, like a defaced epistle, was blotted with serious imperfections. Still their general conduct could exhibit such an approximation to the Spirit of Christ that the apostle could afford to spread it open before all men, asking them to read and know it. It is not, therefore, our infirmities and sins which disqualify us from being epistles of Christ. A good writer can, when pressed, write on very unpromising material. It is not the kind of paper, but the writing, which men are anxious to see.
(2) The great difficulty with us all is the obstinate restlessness which keeps us from being written upon. But where this is overcome, and we present ourselves to the Lord, He will write His will concerning us so legibly that all shall acknowledge the finger of God--like the Pharisees, who “took knowledge of Peter and John, that they had been with Jesus.”
2. When our Lord said, “I call you not servants but friends,” He implied that they would be an epistle, the contents of which would command their intelligent sympathy. Not like a letter-carrier, who knows nothing of what he carries, but like a friend charged with a message of reconciliation in which he is warmly interested.
3. The great requisite of the epistle which we are considering is that it be manifestly from a living Writer. There are good letters whose authors are dead. Valuable; you keep them as curiosities. The religious life may present a faultless epistle of this kind--an evident regard to the will of Christ, but not to a living will. A conscientious executorship, but it is fulfilling the wishes of the dead! The life shows what Christ was, not what He is; what He said, not what He says. But we want to show letters of Christ of to-day. How different your manner when you bring me a letter on pressing business, and when you open a cabinet and produce a letter of Milton’s! Now the former letter on business is what we want. Can I be the manifest epistle to others of a living Saviour? I know whether a man speaks to me as an antiquarian or as a believer, whether he comes to me with good news or to amuse me with information. You all know the difference between a lecture on Christianity and faith in a personal Redeemer; between a lecture on fire-escapes and making use of one when the house is burning. Let us speak, then, less of Christianity and more of Christ. Let Him show in us what He is. All sacrifice, all self-denial for His sake, is a most legible epistle of Christ. You know whether any one is repeating a lesson or speaking from his heart; whether he talks about business, or art, or science as from books or from experience or affection. Thus we shall show the hardly dry letter of Christ to men, or we shall show an old dry parchment copy, as we live day by day under the eye of our Lord and dwell in fellowship with Him by prayer and duty.
II. The recommendation of things and persons contained in these living epistles. “Ye are our epistle.” Your conduct serves as a letter of commendation--yea, better than a thousand! “Ye are my letter written in my heart.” “we can prove this man to have been sent of God; our lives show what God has wrought through him. Receive him.” Every Christian, every Church, is intended to be a letter of commendation. Certainly a minister is highly honoured with a good letter of introduction of this kind. An ignorant or wicked man hears a minister preaching the gospel. He says, “Why should I listen to that man? What recommends him to my confidence?” Now it is a great thing for him to read of holiness, purity, and love in the people who are associated with that minister. On the other hand, every inconsistent hearer cripples the minister, and resembles one of those Bellerophon’s letters, where a person carries a letter of introduction containing a caution to beware of him. He is a public refutation of the preacher. He is a letter containing, “Do not believe a word he says.” Conclusion:
1. The apostle does not say that the individual Christian is an epistle of Christ, but they are collectively declared to be so. Each is a word or sentence; all make up the letter. Sentences which are unmeaning, often in their connection make a grand meaning. Christ often makes great use of one person, as tie often uses one word or verse to console or teach. But the force of that word depends very much on its being known to be part of an inspired book. Let us all try together to form “the epistle of Christ.”
2. Let people see and read the whole. Do not our passions, our selfishness, our indolence make us withhold it? Let us not incur the great sin of preventing poor sinners from seeing their Friend’s own handwriting! Who can tell the effect it might have upon them?
3. But for this end we must all be in our place, like the separate words of a letter; one word blotted or missing often makes a great difference to the meaning. Keep the end of Church life in view; not comfort, but the exhibition of the letter. (B. Kent, M. A.)
The living epistle
A letter implies--
I. An absent person who sends it; for in the actual presence of friend with friend letters become unnecessary. Now Christ is for a time absent, having gone into the heavens. In His absence He does not forget the world, but communicates with it by letters written on the hearts of His saints.
II. A person or persons to whom it is sent. There is no class to whom Christ’s message is not addressed. It may be a message of warning to the unconverted, of caution to the careless, of guidance to the perplexed, of comfort to the saddened, of hope to the desponding. Shall we not take care that it is a full letter that Christ sends by us, written all over, and rich in instruction and encouragement? Shall we not see that it is a well-written and legible letter? Let the life, the character, the conduct, all be so plain and consistent that none shall doubt whose we are, and to whose grace we bear witness.
III. Messages. What are those which should be read in the heart and life of a Christian?
1. The freedom of the Saviour’s love towards a sinner. The characters of converted men, and their histories before they were converted, may be infinitely various. But they are all alike in that they are sinners, and sinners saved, and all of grace, from the first moment of solemn conviction till the time that they found peace. Would we see Christ’s love to the sinner and His power to save?--Look at them. May it not be with many of them, as with St. Paul, that for this cause they obtained mercy, that in them first Christ Jesus might show forth a pattern of all long-suffering? Would we know that the love of Christ is free as the air we breathe, and broad as universal man? Would we know that there is no sin so deep as to be beyond the merits of the atonement, no spiritual ruin so absolute as to be beyond the power of grace? Learn it all here in these saved sinners; read the message of the Saviour in these loving epistles of Christ, “written with the Spirit of the living God.”
2. The sufficiency of Divine grace--the power of the Spirit of Christ to regenerate the heart, and to turn the proud and stubborn will to God. What the strength of sin is we know in our personal experience only too well; but we never really know till we know it by experience, just as a mall may gaze long on a swollen river as it rolls its fall waters towards the cataract below, and yet may never know its fatal strength till he is himself upon the current, vainly struggling with all his might to stem the fatal force which is hurrying him onwards to his death. I fancy that there are none, not excepting the most reckless of men, without some experience of the power of evil over them. Where, then, shall be your hope but in the Spirit of God? But how shalt thou know that the unseen Spirit is willing to help thee, or, if willing, competent to make thee a conqueror? Why, here is the epistle of Christ to assure thee of it. Look at this saved man. The whole course of his nature is changed, and flows towards God. He now loves what once he hated, hates what once he loved. He was once just like thyself.
3. The certainty of the promises and the deep inward peace and joy which are the inheritance of the children of God. Who has ever heard a Christian man say that he was disappointed in Christ, or did not find Him the precious and perfect Saviour he had believed Him to be? Ask the man of the world if he has found happiness in excitement, in wealth, iii honour and ambition, and he will frankly tell you, with a sigh, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” (Canon Garbett.)
The posted system in its beneficent and religious aspect
An “epistle” is a letter. “Epistle” is a word formed from the Greek; “letter” from the Latin. “Epistle” does not occur in the English Old Testament; there is always “letter,” or (quite as often and quite as correctly), in the plural form, “letters.” “An epistle of Christ,” then, is “a letter of (from) Christ.” We do not possess any letter of Jesus Christ’s. There was a spurious correspondence, known to the early Church, between Christ and a prince of Mesopotamia, who applied to Him for help in sickness, but it was a forgery. Indeed, by the nature of the case it must have been so, for there were no Christians in Mesopotamia till Christ Himself was gone back to heaven. The nearest approach to an actual epistle of Christ is found in the addresses to the seven Churches in the Book of Revelation. The text was suggested to me by the occasion. We are welcoming this afternoon to the mother church of the diocese a large company of men whose every-day life connects them with the postal service of the country. It seems natural to inquire whether there is anything about your work in the Bible. There is more about it there than you might suppose. A Concordance will present a somewhat full record under the heads of Epistle, Letter, and Letters. Many of the entries are sad and sorrowful ones. The first (I think) of all is that fatal letter of King David to his unworthy confidant, Joab, about Uriah. See there what a letter may have in it--a cruel and treacherous edict of murder. And the next in order is like it. It is the letter of the wicked queen Jezebel to the elders of Jezreel about Naboth. But let it just show us what you may be carrying in that sacred budget of the daily letters. Let it give an element of awe, of solemnity, to the daily ministration. There may be corruption in that bundle, and you may be innocent of it. Soon after we come to the threatening letter of Sennacherib. Momentous issues hang upon that daily stamping, sorting, delivering. Issues, not all of evil-some of eternal good, to give an expected, a blessed end. Three centuries ago there was no post-office in England. Why, indeed, should there be, when so few people could write? People dwelt apart, managed their own little dwellings, cared not for news of their country’s welfare or their country’s relations with foreign countries, bought and sold in their own little hamlets. London and Edinburgh were a week apart as to tidings of battles or revolutions. Thus the world vegetated, thus the world slept. I will bid you to think but of three of the departments of life to which you, in the exercise of a laborious and often depressing service, minister.
1. Think of it in its business aspect. What would happen if that daily sorting and stamping and carrying were but for one day intermitted? Why, the wheels of the world would be stopped by its stoppage.
2. Think of it in its family aspect. Communications passing week by week between the home and the schoolboy son, or the servant son, or the sailor or soldier son, or the colonist son, or the exile son for fault or no fault of his. You, you are ministering to these sweetest and most beautiful instincts of nature as you tread your weary round.
3. Its business aspect and its family aspect. Has not your work yet one more--its religious, its Christian, its Christlike aspect? Oh, the influence breathed by letters upon solitary, straying, tempted lives! I do not think it is always the religious letter--strictly so called and ostentatiously so labelled--which does this work of works. No; there are letters--from mother, from sister, from brother, from friend--which even name not the name of God, and yet do Him service in the heart’s heart of the receiver. I need not here warn any one against corrupting by letters. “A curious thought strikes me,” Dr. Johnson said, a century and more ago, to his biographer--“a curious thought strikes me--we shall receive no letters in the grave.” Yes, this is one of the thoughts which make the state beyond death so bare and blank to our conception. “No letters?” Then no information (is it so?) as to the state of the survivors--their health and wealth, their prosperity or adversity, their marriages and deaths, their joys and sorrows, their falls and risings again. “We shall receive no letters in the grave.” Then let us so live as not to miss them. Let us have a life quite within and above, quite independent of, and extraneous to, the life of earth and time. Let us have so read and so written our letters, while we can, as to have no remorse for them in the world beyond death. (Dean Vaughan.)
An epistle of Christ
A missionary in India was so feeble mentally that ‘he could not learn the language, After some years he asked to be recalled, frankly saying that he had not sufficient intellect for the work. A dozen missionaries, however, petitioned his Board not to grant his request, saying that his goodness gave him a wider influence among the heathen than any other missionary at the station. A convert, when asked, “What is it to be a Christian?” replied, “It is to be like Mr.
,” naming the good missionary. He was kept in India. He never preached a sermon, but when he died hundreds of heathen, as well as many Christians, mourned him, and testified to his holy life and character. (S. S. Chronicle.)
2 Corinthians 3:5-6
Not that we are sufficient of ourselves … our sufficiency is of God.
The sufficiency of God
The all-sufficiency of God is the essence of all Christian experience, it has been the support of the faithful in all ages of the Church; it gives strength to patience, solidity to hope, constancy to endurance, nerve and vitality to effort.
I. The nature of this sufficiency. The sufficiency of God may be considered either as proper or communicative. By His proper sufficiency we mean that He is self-existent, self-sufficient, independently happy. It is, however, of the sufficiency of God in relation to His creatures that we have now to speak. He is sufficient--
1. For the preservation of the universe. “The heavens were made by Him, and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth.” And as nothing earthly has within it the power to sustain itself, tie upholdeth all things by the word of His power. Reason refers all this to the operation of second causes; piety looks through the complications of the mechanism to the hand that formed it. The whole universe is one vast laboratory of benevolent art, over every department of which Deity presides; a sanctuary, every part of which Deity inhabits--a circle, whose circumference is unfathomed, but whose every section is filled with God.
2. For the preservation and for the perpetuity of the gospel plan is the salvation and ultimate happiness of every individual believer.
(1) Christianity is not to be viewed by us merely as a moral system; it is a course of Divine operations. We are not to regard it as a mere statement of doctrine, we must remember the Divine agency by which it is always conducted and inspired. Human eloquence and reasoning are persuasive and powerful things; they can charm a Herod, make a Felix tremble; but they can do no more. Inanimate truth can produce no abiding change. Pardon and sanctification are not the necessary consequences of statement of doctrine. Scripture cannot produce them. But let the Spirit animate it, and it has the power of God. Hearers who sit under the ministration of the truth without the Spirit may be likened to a man standing upon the brow of a hill, which commands the prospect of an extensive landscape. The varied beauties of field and dell are before him, but there is one drawback--the man is blind. So the truth is in the Bible, but the man has no eyes to see it. Prevailing truth is not of the letter, but of the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:6).
(2) There will be considerable difficulties about the mode of procedure. Man is a moral agent, and God has endowed him with talents, and invested him with an immense delegation of power in the distribution of those talents, in the exercise of that power. He has got such a respect for the will that He has placed within us, that He will never force an entrance. He will do everything else. But notwithstanding opposition, the gospel shall triumph. We can conceive of no enemies more powerful than those it has already vanquished. God is with the gospel--that is the great secret of its success. She does not trust in her inherent energy; She does not trust in her exquisite adaptation to the wants of men; she does not trust in the indefatigable and self-denying labours of her ministers. God is with the gospel, and under His guidance she shall march triumphantly forward reclaiming the world unto herself. And, oh, what a comfortable doctrine is this! If this gospel is thus to be conducted from step to step in its progressive march to triumph, I shall share, surely, in its succours and salvation by the way. It guarantees individual salvation and individual defence. Thy sufficiency is of God. What frightens thee--affliction? God is thy health. Persecution? God is thy crown. Perplexity? God is thy counsel. Death? God is thine everlasting life. Only trust in God, and all shall be well; life shall glide thee into death, and death shall glide thee into heaven.
II. The authority which believers have to expect this sufficiency for themselves. We have a right to expect it, because it is found and promised in the Bible. It is not my Bible, your Bible, it is common property, it belongs to the universal Church.
1. Listen, “Thus saith the Lord, who created thee, O Jacob, and formed thee, O Israel; fear not, for I have redeemed thee; I have called thee by thy name.” Now think of all this, believers, past, present, and future, and then come and hear God saying, “I have called thee by thy name,” to every one out of that mass; “Thou art not lost in the crowd. Thou art mine. When thou passest through the waters I will be with thee; through the rivers--deeper than the waters--they shall not overflow thee,” etc. “The Lord God is a sun and a shield,” light and defence; we do not want much more in our passage. “He will give grace and glory”; and if any of you are so perversely clever that you can think of some blessing that is not wrapped up either in grace or glory, “No good thing shall He withhold from them that walk uprightly.”
2. Are you still dissatisfied? God condescends to expostulate with you upon your unbelief. “Why sayest thou, O Jacob, and speaketh, O Israel, My way is hidden from the Lord?” How often have you said that! Are you still distrustful? Then ponder Scripture examples--Abraham on Moriah, Israel at the Red Sea, Nehemiah building the wall.
3. But you are not satisfied yet. You say, “Those are all instances taken from the Old Testament times.” Well, come into common life. In that house a man is dying. He is a Christian, and knowing whom he has believed, he is not afraid to die. But the thought that he will leave his family without a protector pressed upon his spirit somewhat, and when you look at him there is a shade of sadness upon his countenance. But you gaze awhile, and you see that shade is chased away by a smile. What has wrought the change? What! why, a ministering angel whispered him, “Leave thy fatherless children, I will preserve them alive.” You call the next morning; the widow is sitting in sorrow. But she too is a Christian, and flies to the Christian refuge, and her eye traces these comfortable words, “Thy Maker is thy husband, the Lord of Hosts is His name.” (W. M. Punshon, LL. D.)
God the sufficiency of man
Self-confidence is the great outstanding feature of the natural character. Almost all its words and actions bear this impress--“I am sufficient of myself.” You will wait in vain for any recognition of the hand of God. But the self-sufficiency of fallen man is perhaps most strikingly displayed in the way in which he deals with those truths which affect the salvation of his soul and his hopes for eternity. He has his own notions of God’s character and law and arrangements, and has adopted a plan of his own, which he imagines suits his case better than the one which Infinite Wisdom has appointed. Thus, self-sufficient is every one who has not been enlightened by the Spirit of God. But how different is it with Paul in the passage before us!
I. And I remark in the first place that our sufficiency is of God in respect to our temporal blessings and everyday mercies. We are wholly indebted to Him for the past, and wholly dependent on Him for the future. Have we a comfortable home to live in, and does not peace reign in our household? These blessings are of the Lord’s bestowing. Nor should we imagine that our sufficiency in temporal blessing is less of God in ordinary circumstances than in extraordinary occasions.
II. But I remark secondly that our sufficiency is of God in respect of our spiritual privileges.
1. In respect of justifying righteousness. We are not sufficient to work out a righteousness for ourselves.
2. Our sufficiency for holiness is of God. Old principles must be forsaken, and new ones adopted. Old habits must be given up and new ones formed. New tastes are to be cultivated and new desires cherished. But are we able to perform these duties of ourselves? Assuredly not. But what then? Does our inability excuse unbelief, impenitence, or indolence? No, verily; for while we are without strength in ourselves, there is strength in God if we will take hold of it.
3. Our sufficiency is of God in respect of usefulness (J G. Dalgliesh.)
2 Corinthians 3:6
Who hath made us able ministers of the New Testament.
An able minister of the New Testament
Two things are implied.
I. First, Gifts--natural endowments. A minister of the New Testament ought to have intellectual qualifications.
II. But now, in the second place, there are spiritual qualities which are higher, more wonderful, and even more essential. One would rather have a feeble intellect with a pure and devout heart than the brightest intellect without these glorifications of the soul. What are these spiritual qualities which unite to make an able minister of the New Testament?
1. First and most manifest is that which Paul himself indicates in the account of his own mission. The man who is to preach so as to move men’s hearts must preach out of the depth of the faith that is in his own heart; he must be a man of faith. How can a man preach the New Testament unless he believes it?
2. Yet, again, a man who would be an able minister of the New Testament must be one who is emphatically true. What a mighty force is the man to whom, as we listen, our secret heart says, “We know that he believes and feels all that.” The transparency of truth is one of the grandest qualifications for a New Testament preacher.
3. Yet, again, another qualification for such work is courage. If he sees error he must point it out, even though he may wound some in doing it; if he sees fashionable folly and sins drawing men away from the simplicity that is in Christ, he must expose them.
4. And then, finally, an able minister of the New Testament will think only of Christ and not of himself. (J. G. Rogers, B. A.)
For the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.--
The “letter” and the “spirit” in the ministry of Christianity
1. The New Testament means God’s revelation through Christ, in contradistinction to His revelation through Moses. Though both are admitted to be “glorious,” the latter is shown to be “more glorious”; for the one is the dispensation of “righteousness,” the other of “condemnation”; the one is permanent, the other is “done away”; the one so opens the spiritual faculties that the mind can look at it “with open face,” the other through the prejudices of the Jewish people was concealed by a “veil.”
2. This Christianity is the grand subject of all true ministry.
(1) Not naturalism. Had man retained his primitive innocence nature would have been his grand text. But since the Fall men cannot reach the spiritual significance of nature, and if they could, it would not meet their spiritual exigencies.
(2) Not Judaism. Judaism, it is true, came to meet man’s fallen condition; it worked on for centuries and rendered high services. But it had its day, and is no more; it is “done away.” Note--
I. The twofold ministry. I do not think that Mosaism and Christianity are here contrasted. It would scarcely be fair to denominate Judaism a “letter.” There was spirit in every part; think of the revelations of Sinai and of the prophets. Christianity itself has “letter” and “spirit.” If it had no “letter,” it would be unrevealed, and if it had “letter” only, it would be empty jargon. All essences, principles, spirits, are invisible, they are only revealed through letters or forms. The spirit of a nation expresses itself in its institutions; the spirit of the creation expresses itself in its phenomena; the spirit of Jesus in His wonderful biography. The text therefore refers to two methods of teaching Christianity.
1. The technical. The technical teachers are--
(1) The verbalizes, who deal mainly in terminologies. In the Corinthian Church there were those who thought much of the “words of man’s wisdom.”
(2) The theorists. I underrate not the importance of systematising the ideas we derive from the Bible; but he who exalts his system of thought, and makes it a standard of truth, is a minister of the “letter.” Can a nutshell contain the Atlantic?
(3) The Ritualists. Men must have ritualism of some kind. What is logic but the ritualism of thought? What is art but the ritualism of beauty? What is rhetorical imagery but the ritualism of ideas? Civilisation is but the ritualising of the thoughts of ages. But when the religious teacher regards rites, signs, and symbols as some mystic media of saving grace, he is a minister of the “letter.”
2. The spiritual. To be a minister of the spirit is not to neglect the letter. The material universe is a “letter.” Letter is the key that lets you into the great empire of spiritual realities. To be a minister of the spirit is to be more alive to the grace than the grammar, the substances than the symbols of the book. A minister of the “spirit” requires--
(1) A comprehensive knowledge of the whole Scriptures. To reach the spirit of Christianity it will not do to study isolated passages, or live in detached portions. We must compare “spiritual things with spiritual,” and, by a just induction, reach its universal truths. Can you get botany from a few flowers, or astronomy from a few stars, or geology from a few fossils? No more can you get the spirit of Christianity from a few isolated texts.
(2) A practical sympathy with the spirit of Christ. We must have love to understand love. The faculty of interpreting the Bible is of the heart rather than the intellect. Christianity must be in us, not merely as a system of ideas, but as a life, if we would extend its empire.
II. The twofold results.
1. The result of the technical ministry of Christianity.
(1) The verbalist “kills.” “Words are the counters of wise men, but the money of fools.” Words in religion, when they are taken for things, kill inquiry, freedom, sensibility, earnestness, enthusiasm, moral manhood.
(2) The theorist kills. The Jews formulated a theory of the Messiah; He did not answer to their theory; so they rejected Him. Souls cannot feed upon our dogmas. The smallest seed requires all the elements of nature to feed on and grow to perfection; and can souls live and grow on the few dogmas of an antiquated creed?
(3) The Ritualist kills. The ceremonial Church has ever been a dead Church. “Letter teaching” reduced the Jewish people to a “valley of dry bones.”
2. The result of the spiritual ministry of Christianity. “It giveth life.” “It is the Spirit,” said Christ, “that quickeneth,” etc. He who in his teaching and life brings out most of the spirit of the gospel will be most successful in giving life to souls. His ministry will be like the breath of siring, quickening all it touches into life. Such a ministry was that of Peter’s on the day of Pentecost. Words, theories, rites, to him were nothing. Divine facts and their spirit were the all in all of his discourse, and dead souls bounded into life as he spoke (D. Thomas, D. D.)
Ministry of the letter and of the spirit
I. The ministry of the letter.
1. The ministry of Moses was a formal ministry. It was his business to teach maxims and not principles; rules for ceremonials, and not a spirit of life. Thus, e.g., truth is a principle springing out of an inward life; but Moses only gave the rule: “Thou shalt not forswear thyself,” and so he who simply avoided perjury kept the letter of the law. Love is a principle; but Moses said simply, “Thou shalt not kill, nor steal, nor injure.” Meekness and subduedness before God--these are of the spirit; but Moses merely commanded fasts. Unworldliness arises from a spiritual life; but Moses only said, “Be separate--circumcise yourselves.” It was in consequence of the superiority of the teaching of principles over a mere teaching of maxims that the ministry of the letter was considered as nothing.
(1) Because of its transitoriness--“it was to be done away with.” All formal truth is transient. No maxim is intended to last for ever. No ceremony, however glorious, can be eternal. Thus when Christ came, instead of saying, “Thou shalt not forswear thyself,” He said; “Let your yea be yea, and your nay, nay”; and instead of saying, “Thou shalt not say, Fool, or Raca,” Christ gave the principle of love.
(2) Because it killed; partly because, being rigorous in its enactments, it condemned for any nonfulfilment (2 Corinthians 3:9). “He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy.” And partly it killed, because technicalities and multiplicities of observance necessarily deaden spiritual life. It was said by Burke that “no man comprehends less of the majesty of the English constitution than the Nisi Prius lawyer, who is always dealing with technicalities and precedents.” In the same way none were so dead to the glory of the law of God as the Scribes, who were always discussing its petty minutiae. Could anything dull the vigour of obedience more than frittering it away in anxieties about the mode and degree of fasting? Could aught chill love more than the question, “How often shall my brother offend and I forgive him”? Or could anything break devotion more into fragments than multiplied changes of posture?
2. Now observe: No blame was attributable to Moses for teaching thus. St. Paul calls it a “glorious ministry”; and it was surrounded with outward demonstrations. Maxims, rules, and ceremonies have truth in them; Moses taught truth so far as the Israelites could bear it; not in substance, but in shadows; not principles by themselves, but principles by rules, to the end of which the Church of Israel could not as yet see. A veil was before the lawgiver’s face. These rules were to hint and lead up to a spirit, whose brightness would have only dazzled the Israelites into blindness then.
II. The ministry of the New Testament.
1. It was a “spiritual” ministry. The apostles were “ministers of the spirit,” of that truth which underlies all forms of the essence of the law. Christ is the spirit of the law, for He is “the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth.” And St. Paul’s ministry was freedom from the letter--conversion to the spirit of the law. Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty.
2. It was a “life-giving” ministry.
(1) Note the meaning of the word. It is like a new life to know that God wills not burnt-offering, but rather desires to find the spirit of one who says, “Lo! I come to do Thy will.” It is new life to know that to love God and man is the sum of existence. It is new life to know that “God be merciful to me a sinner!” is a truer prayer in God’s ears than elaborate liturgies and long ceremonials.
(2) Christ was the spirit of the law, and He gave, and still gives, the gift of life (2 Corinthians 3:18). A living character is impressed upon us: we are as the mirror which reflects back a likeness, only it does not pass away from us: for Christ is not a mere example, but the life of the world, and the Christian is not a mere copy, but a living image of the living God. He is “changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.”
3. Now such a ministry--a ministry which endeavours to reach the life of things--the apostle calls--
(1) An able--that is, a powerful--ministry. He names it thus, even amidst an apparent want of success.
(2) A bold ministry. “We use great plainness of speech.” Ours should be a ministry whose very life is outspokenness and free fearlessness, which scorns to take a via media because it is safe, which shrinks from the weakness of a mere cautiousness, but which exults even in failure, if the truth has been spoken, with a joyful confidence. (F. W. Robertson, M. A.)
Letter and spirit
I. The relation between letter and spirit.
1. A letter is a sign of a certain sound; an integral pert of a word, with no meaning out of a word; and if one should occupy himself with any one letter, even all the letters in succession, and never form the word, he misses the purport for which the letters exist. On the other hand, if you take away the letters of a word, thinking them nothing, you find yourself at last without the word. The vocable is gone, and what comes of the meaning?
2. Everything that God has made has a letter and a spirit. The sun, stars, flowers, brooks, and the great sea itself are letters. And God has taken care to keep us from looking at these things as only letters. He has surrounded them with a certain glory which is continually reminding us that they are intended to be formed into words and sentences to express great truths regarding God. What idea would infinitude convey to me unless I had the picture in the great vault of heaven or the wide sea? Yet there are some who go through the world and recognise only one letter and another. To them a tree is only a tree, the sea only a body of water, and the sky a great concave in which the stars appear to be. Others perceive a connection between the different facts. Others go farther and observe law. Others, however, see the grand truth which the whole was made to teach regarding the character of God and His will, and the natural and moral history of man. He only sees the spirit who sees this.
3. As opposed to spirit, then, the letter means
(1) Outwardness. He who confines himself to form, whether as to the world, the Bible, worship or conduct, is a man of the letter. The Pharisees were such, and failed utterly to see the spirit, and lost all wish for it. All O.T. worshippers who saw nothing in the ceremonial higher than the ceremony; those who imagine that a mere outward observance of God’s laws is all; those who think their presence in the church, or their bodily communicating at the Lord’s table is all that is required, all belong to the letter. Extreme partisans of the spirit are perhaps not more exempt from this danger than others. The cry for spirit may be a phrase by which painfully solid things are made nebulous, and little left strong and certain but self. The last degradation of the word is reached when it indicates a superfine way of making things that are too real--thin, hazy, and uncertain.
(a) Take a letter of a word and place it out by itself. It was more than a letter while in the word, but now it is only letter. So with a word taken out of a sentence, a sentence out of a paragraph era passage out of a book. The meaning of each separate part is that which is intended to be expressed by the whole.
(b) This holds in the book of nature. Take a tree, e.g. Can it be understood without reference to air and light and soil? But its meaning is visible when placed in the general economy of nature. So it is with the stream that runs down the hillside, the bird that sports in the air, etc. There is no object so small that you can grasp it by itself. For the understanding of a blade of grass you require a knowledge of all the sciences.
(c) The principle holds, too, as to the Bible. No word, or phrase, or chapter of it has its true meaning looked at apart from the rest. The spirit of the Bible is the meaning of the whole Bible. The spirit of Christianity is its grand central idea and purpose of bringing men to God’s likeness and fellowship, and glorifying God in the salvation of men. In this gospel there are many parts, and all are needed, but all have only one end and aim, and that one end and aim is the spirit; and if the separate parts are taken away from this one end and aim, they become letter. Hence, if any one part is contemplated habitually apart from the great aim, it becomes letter. If a man take up any promise, commandment, doctrine, or ceremony, and think of it as if it were the be all and the end all, he is making it letter. Any attribute of God by itself is letter, for God’s attributes are not separate existences, but each is in reference to all. It is doubt, less to guard us against this ever-pressing danger that the Word of God mixes up ideas in a way almost unparalleled in human literature. Doctrines are intertwined with duties, and so blended with facts that it is often a task of difficulty to sunder them and look at one by itself.
4. The way to reach the spirit is not by destroying or making light of the letter--or any letter. It is by the letter and all the letters that we reach the spirit; and our concern ought to be to know what is genuine letter, and to keep every letter in constant connection with the central spirit. Suppose a scholar spend his time on the mere words of his lesson, without trying to grasp the meaning, would the remedy be to erase the words? Or because some might dwell exclusively on pictures in the book, meant to illustrate the text, and never think of the meaning--would that be a good reason for taking out the pictures? And yet this minimising process forms nearly the whole plan of many for getting at spirit. Their recipe is short and simple--destroy the letter. Let them apply this to the study of human institutions, to the study of botany or astronomy, and see what wealth of insight into law and principle will accrue. Do the millions of stars, the multiplicity of herbs and flowers, seem intended for such a formula?
5. All the letters of a word are, or ought to be, needful to the word. Sometimes the only difference between two words that mean very different things is found in one letter. And no letter, nor any number of letters, will ever be anything without the grand spirit of the whole; but no letter, however trivial it look, is poor with the spirit in it. The greatest truths shine in a single rite or word when filled with the spirit of the whole, as the laws of light and gravitation are shown in a single drop of dew. The little creek, so insignificant and even unseemly when the sea has ebbed, is a fine sight when it is filled and brimming with the swelling tide. That is the water of the great sea that floods it, and there, too, great ships that have crossed the ocean can float.
II. The opposite influences of letter and spirit.
1. “The letter killeth,” not, of course, in virtue of its being letter, for God made the letter, which was never intended by Him to kill, but to give life by leading to the spirit. But--
(1) Letter kills when men take it as the whole and never go beyond it, or when they are so much occupied about it as to have no thought for the spirit. Thus, the very grandeur of the material universe leads some men to rest in it. Many are so occupied with the arrangements and laws of nature that they never think of its spirit. And many more are so engrossed in the material business of the world that they seldom think of any significance in it at all. Some are killed by the beauty of the letter, some by the wonderful shape and order of the letters, others by the immediate utility they find in the letter. Do not imagine that it is only the letter of God’s Word that kills; the letter of His works kills also. And the letter of other books often kills men mentally. When men read without thinking, or for amusement, or for the sake of reading, or, worst of all, of being able to say that they have read; they will certainly by and by have the capacity of thought dwarfed or quite killed out. It is known even that men have been intellectually killed by a liberal education. The faculties are so gorged with facts and words, which remain only facts and words, that they never play spontaneously and naturally again. So, men are killed by the letter in a far more serious sense when they look merely to the beauty of the Bible, or when they dwell on some other external aspects of it, or when they lose themselves in forms and ceremonies and outward observances. Sometimes they cherish hostility to the truths that dare to seem to rival their favourite doctrines, or come in the least competition with them. Whenever men arrive at this they are in process of being killed.
(2) The abundance of letter kills. It is well known how dangerous to the spirit a multitude of Ceremonies is. And a great number of doctrines marked off with minute logic, and pressed upon the soul, has the like effect.
(3) The letter kills with certainty when formally installed in room of the spirit, as it was in our Lord’s time. The Jews, as a whole, clung so fondly to the letter that they hated the spirit.
(4) The letter kills by being made hostile to the spirit through disproportion and caricature, as when the doctrine of the Divine Sovereignty is so held as to be in actual opposition to the grand revelation that God “willeth not that any should perish,” etc. If God is love, what can His Sovereignty mean, but the reign of love? The letter kills, when the doctrine of Justification by faith is so held as to clash with the imperative and absolute obligation on all to obey always all the commandments of God.
2. The spirit gives life.
(1) It alone mingles with our spirits. This is the great reason. We live on meaning, not on form or husks. And it is not any partial sense, but the central idea of the whole that sustains. The Spirit of God does not use the mere outward observance, but the drift or object of it.
(2) The spirit of the Bible gives life, for the spirit is Christ. “The Lord is that spirit.” The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of the Bible; and the spirit of the Bible gives life, because when one imbibes the spirit of the Bible he embraces Christ. Let our idea of Christ be drawn from all parts of the Bible, and let the idea of Christ in turn illuminate and vivify all; thus only, and thus surely, shall we escape from the letter that killeth to the spirit that giveth life.
(3) The spirit gives life by awakening love to God, which is life. (J. Leckie, D. D.)
The letter killeth, the spirit giveth life
The text teaches--
I. The powerlessness of Divine commands alone to produce obedience. This does not prove any imperfection in the law, which, being Divine, is perfect. The failure of obedience is due to the imperfection of human nature, which does not yield to the obligation. The conscience, indeed, is on the law’s side, but such is the strength of the lower nature that the man is hurried by animal impulse to sin.
1. Then one of two things happens. Either the habitual failure of the conscience produces habitual wretchedness, in a consciousness of powerlessness against evil, which may well be named death, or the law becomes the occasion of sin. The appearance of prohibition provokes the lower nature and irritates it to impatience of restraint. Now the consciousness of sin renders the man reckless, and to get rid of the uneasiness, the rider is thrown. When conscience thus loses dominion and ceases resistance, the man is given over to the licence of self-will and undergoes moral death.
2. On the other hand, the Spirit which characterises Christianity has a quickening power. The Spirit of Christ quickens--
(1) By means of a perfect and most moving instance of obedience. In the Old Testament we do not meet with any such instance. Christ not only obeyed the law as it was intended to be obeyed, but opened it in a new and sublimer meaning, so that the imitation of Him is a new command. His example is presented in a form most intimate and intelligible, and it is the example of One who, in His very obedience, binds us to Himself by the tie of the tenderest and mightiest gratitude. And then, since Christ is God, and the revelation of the Father, the gratitude which He inspires becomes Divine love, and throws its full strength into obedience to the Divine commands.
(2) By a secret influence on the heart. He is the Creator, and His noblest creative work is the moral regeneration of the human soul. He renders the heart perceptive of the beauty of Christ’s character, and sensitive of the proper impressions. Thus our higher nature receives an incalculable increase of power. Conscience is re-enthroned and governs, but the law is obeyed not so much because it is obligatory, as because it is loved.
II. The intellectual deficiency and mischievousness of mere writing as a means of instruction.
1. As a vehicle of meaning, writing is immeasurably inferior to a living presence. The correspondence of distant friends is but a poor comfort in their separation. It is often obscure, and is liable to misunderstanding. If the writing in question is holy writing, the evil arising from ignorance or misunderstanding is augmented. To receive a falsehood as God’s word is intellectual and moral death. Spiritual death is sometimes the effect of the letter of theological system. Technical terms are regarded by many with a reverence as great as are the words of Scripture. There are congregations to whom a man may preach with living eloquence the very truths which kindled the zeal of St. Paul and St. John, but his audience, not hearing the familiar dialect, are deaf to the music, blind to the glory, and dead to the spirit of the discourse.
2. Knowledge of the author, and sympathy with him, is indispensable to the understanding of his writings. Unless we had something in common with writers, not a line of the literature of the world would be intelligible. By the human nature, common to all ages, we understand the writings of Greece and Rome; but a higher than the spirit of man is necessary to the reading of Holy Scripture, even the living Spirit of truth and holiness, by whom it is inspired. (Homilist.)
The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life
I. The letter, or the law, killeth, because--
1. It denounceth death.
2. It can only convince and condemn.
3. It awakens the sense of sin and helplessness.
4. It excites sin and cannot either justify or sanctify.
II. the Spirit, or the Gospel, giveth life, because--
1. It declares the way of life. It reveals a righteousness which delivers us from the law and frees us from the sentence of condemnation.
2. It is that through which the Spirit is communicated as a source of life. Instead of a mere outward exhibition of truth and duty, it is a law written on the heart. It is a lifegiving power.
3. The state of mind which it produces is life and peace. The Spirit is the source of eternal life. (C. Hodge, D. D.)
The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life
By the letter is meant the moral law. Note--
I. How and why the letter kills.
1. By its manifestation of that disruption which lay concealed under the happy outflow of young and brimming life. That strong energy, which is the core of our human nature, is brought up sharp by a relentless voice that refuses it its unhindered joy. It clashes against the obstinate resistance which bars its road with its terrible negative, “Thou shalt not covet”; and, in the recoil from that clashing, it knows itself to be subject to a divided mastery. It knows itself to be capable of violent variance with God, to be somehow spoilt, disordered, corrupt. The unity of sound organic health has suffered rupture. It has in it the evidences of a disorganisation and a dissolution, which is death. “I was alive without the law once; but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died.”
2. And the law not only declared sin to be there, but it also provoked the sin, which fretted at its checks, into a more abundant and domineering extravagance. “Sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence.” Curiosity, imagination, vanity, impulsiveness--all are set astir to overleap the barrier, to defeat the obstacle that so sharply traverses its instinctive inclinations. “The law entered that offence might abound,” and where offence abounded, death reigned, for the end of sin is death.
3. And the letter killed also by convicting. Over against the very men whom it irritated into revolt it stood as a judgment which could not be gainsaid nor denied. And they knew the sting of its terrible truth. Its wrath unnerved them, and-its presence confounded. They were shut up within the prison-house of a criminal doom, and that justly. It killed, and this by God’s own intention. “Yea, sin, that it might appear sin, worked death by that which is good, that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful.” Better far that the secret poison should be brought out into violent action. Its sickness, its pain--these are, after all, proofs of capacity to struggle; these are methods of liberation. The body is releasing itself from disease through these bitter experiences; and let, then, the letter kill. Let death dig in its fangs. Let the doom deepen and darken. So only shall at the last the spirit of the resurrection quicken.
II. Through sin the letter slew, and what is more, there was no hope of relief or escape through man’s spiritual advance, for the higher the law the sharper its sword of judgement. As man’s apprehension grew more spiritual, the discovery of his fall become more desperate. The law slew because it was just and pure and holy, and the quickened spiritual instincts would but learn the touch of a more biting terror; so that when at the last hour of that old covenant there stood upon the earth a Jew greater than Moses or Abraham, who accepted the hereditary law and promulgated it anew, with all the infinite and delicate subtlety which the mind of One who was one with the Giver of the law could convey into its edicts, so that it comprehended the entire man in its grip, why, such a gospel, if that Sermon of the Mount had been all, would have struck the very chill of the last death into the despairing soul, who listened and learned that not one jot or tittle of that law could fail. The sermon that some lightly affect to be the whole gospel of Christ would be by itself but a message of doom.
III. Man lies there dead before his God--dead, until--what is it, this sweet and secret change? What is it, this breaking and stirring within his bones, as when the force of the spring pricks and works within the wintry trunks of dry and naked trees? As he lies stung and despairing, there is a change, there is an arrival. Far, far within, deeper than his deepest sin, behind the most secret workings of his bad and broken will, there is a breaking and a stir, there is a motion and a quiver and a gleam, there is a check and a pause in his decay, a quickening is felt as of live flame. What is it? He cannot tell; only he knows that something is there and at work, strong and fresh and young; and as it pushes and presses and makes way, a sense of blessing steals into his veins, and peace is upon his hunted soul, and the sweet soundness of health creeps over his bruises and his sores; and he who has faith just suffers all the strange change to pass over him and to work its goodwill, as he lies there, feeding on its blessedness, wondering at its goodness, sending up his heart in silent breaths of unutterable thanks. So it is come. St. Paul saw those lame and impotent men rise and leap and sing at the coming of the new force, under the handlings of the new ministry; and, so seeing, he knew the full meaning of the Lord’s promise that the Spirit should come, and that every one born of the Spirit should be even as the Spirit. And the essence of the change is this--that God, Who in His manifestation of the letter stood there over against man, has now passed over on to the side of the men whom His appeal has overwhelmed. He, the good Father, is bending over the sinner, and entering within his human spirit by the power of His own Holy Spirit, is inspiring him with His own breath. God Himself in us fulfils His own demands on us. God Himself moves over to our side to satisfy the urgency of His own will and word. In Him we do what we do, and we are not afraid, though the Son of God has come “not to destroy that law, but to fulfil it “--yea, even though from us is required a righteousness exceeding that of Scribe and Pharisee. We are not afraid for “the Spirit giveth life.” God has come over to our side, but He has not ceased to stand over there against us. There He still stands as of old, and His demands are the same; still it is true as ever that without holiness no man shall see the Lord. The revelation of the letter of the moral law holds good for us as much as for the Jew; and it is because that letter inevitably holds good that God has Himself entered within us, and striven for its fulfilment. (Canon Scott-Holland.)
2 Corinthians 3:7-11
But if the ministration of death … was glorious
The peculiar glory of the gospel
That contrasted with the law as “the ministration of condemnation” the gospel is the “ministration of righteousness.” That the law was “the ministration of condemnation” will require little proof. The very glory which attended the publication of it struck terror into the beholders. Its unequivocal language was, “the soul that sinneth it shall die” (Exodus 19:16; Hebrews 12:21; Ezekiel 18:4; Ezekiel 18:20; Galatians 3:10). Against this awful alternative the Mosaic dispensation provided no effectual resource (Hebrews 10:4). But herein is the incomparable glory of the gospel displayed: it is, “the ministration of righteousness.” Not as some have most erroneously represented it, a remedial law; neither as others would call it, a less rigorous dispensation, relaxing our obligations to duty. And hence we are led to notice what may be regarded as the peculiar glory of the gospel, that it discovers to us a way in which sin may be pardoned, and yet sinners be saved. The gospel alone reveals a righteousness sufficient for this purpose. The gospel is also the ministration of righteousness, because it enjoins and secures the practice of righteousness among men.
II. That contrasted with the law as the ministration of death, the Gospel is the ministration of the Spirit. The Christian as contrasted with the Jewish dispensation may be called the “ministration of the Spirit,” not only on account of its more spiritual nature, and as containing the spirit and substance of ancient rites and figures, but chiefly because it is distinguished by the clearer revelation of the Divine Spirit, and the more abundant communications of His influence to the children of men. Let us, then, attend to the surpassing glory of the gospel in this view. We have already seen that the law, which is the ministration of death, made no effectual provision for the justification of transgressors; and as little did it provide for their sanctification. All precepts, and threatenings, and promises, were insufficient for this purpose, without the quickening and renewing influence of the Holy Ghost. How refulgent, then, the glory of the gospel, when we consider that the Spirit, of whom it testifies, is Himself the eternal Jehovah! Under the ministration of the Spirit, how marvellous the success which attended the preaching of the apostles, amidst the combined opposition of earth and hell! Still farther, under the ministration of the Spirit the Church has been preserved in succeeding ages, since the apostles’ days to the present time. Finally, under the ministration of the Spirit, and by His benign influence, the Church throughout succeeding generations shall become gradually more enlightened, and sanctified, and enlarged. Is such, then, the glory of the gospel?
1. What an unspeakable honour is conferred upon those who are allowed to be the ministers of it!
2. Again, is such the glory of the gospel; how inestimable is your privilege? The Lord has not dealt so with every people. Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear, what many prophets and righteous men desired to see and to hear but were not permitted.
3. Still farther, is such the glory of the gospel? Let its ministers learn to be more and more faithful and earnest in declaring and recommending it.
4. Let me beseech you who attend on our ministrations to consider, that in proportion to the glory of the gospel must be the condemnation of those who do not esteem and improve it.
5. Once more, is the gospel the ministration of the Spirit? Let us all be solicitous to experience His saving influence on our own souls; and let us be earnest also for the communications of His grace to others. (D. Dickson.)
The ministrations of law and gospel
I. The law was a ministration of death, but nevertheless it was glorious.
1. There must ever enter into our thought on matters of religion continued reference to the unchangeableness of God. If we were setting ourselves to scrutinize the arrangements of a finite, and therefore changeable agent; if we found that at one time he had given a law to his inferiors which worked out their death, and that afterwards he had sent forth another law which allowed of their life, we might conclude that he had, in the first instance, been making an experiment, and that, warned by its failure, he had turned himself to a new course of treatment. But we must not so reason in regard of God. He knew perfectly well when He issued the law that it would prove a ministration of death. And if the law and the gospel had been altogether detached, there would have existed great cause for marvel at God’s appointing a ministration of death. But when it is remembered that the law was introductory to the gospel, so that the covenant of works literally made way for the covenant of grace, all surprise ought to vanish. From the earliest moment of human apostasy, God’s dealing with the fallen had always reference to the work of atonement. Though by itself the law was a ministration of death, yet those who live under it were not necessarily left to die. Know we not that whilst this legal dispensation was in the fulness of its strength, there passed many an Israelite into the kingdom of heaven? We carry you to the scenes of temple-worship, and bid you learn from the emblematical announcement of redemption that no man died because living under the ministration of death; but that, even whilst the moral law was unrepealed, as a covenant it could weigh no one down to perdition who looked onward to the long-promised sacrifice.
2. But while the Divine goodness in the appointment of a ministration of death is thus vindicated, the law was actually a ministration of death. Could man, with all his industry, obey truly the moral law? If not, then the ministration of the law must have been a ministration of death, seeing, that if it cannot be fulfilled, it must unavoidably condemn. You shall take the Crucifixion as an answer to all questioning on the law being aught else than a ministration of death. Why, if man had a capacity for working out by his own strivings obedience to the law, and he could win to himself a crown of glory--why did Divinity throw itself into humanity, and achieve, through the wondrous coalition, the mastery over death, and Satan, and hell?
2. Though the law was thus a ministration of death, it was nevertheless glorious. It was mainly as a consequence of its own perfection that the law proved a minister of death. Had the law been a defective law, constructed so as to be adapted to the weakness of the parties on whom it was imposed, and not to the attributes of Him from whom it proceeded, it is altogether supposable that the result might not have been the condemnation of mankind. But if a law had been constructed which man could have obeyed, would it have been glorious? You tell me, in the fact of its being a practical and saving law, and allowing the wretched to work out deliverance from their wretchedness. Then it is glory that the law should make loop-holes for offenders, in case of being a rampart against offences; while the whole of the universe must have been shaken at God’s overlooking of sin. We say not, it was glory that man should perish; but we do say it was glorious that the moral law was the transcript of the Divine mind.
II. The gospel as the ministration of the Spirit; and as, therefore, far exceeding the law in its glory.
1. The ministration of the Spirit is set in antithesis to the ministration of death. The great work which Christ effected was the procurement of life to those who were dead in trespasses and sins. We are legally dead--because born under the sentence of eternal condemnation--and we are morally dead, because insensible to our condition; and, if insensible, totally unable to reanimate ourselves. The legal death the Mediator may be said to have annihilated, for He bore our sins in His own body on the tree; and the moral death-for the destruction of this He made the amplest provision, procuring for us, by the merits of His passion, the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life.
2. The gospel in its every department is a ministration of righteousness, and therefore of spiritual life. It is the mightiest display of God’s righteousness. Where has God equally shown His hatred of sin, His settled determination to wring its punishment from the impenitent? It is a system, moreover, whose grand feature is the application to man of the righteousness of Christ; “Christ is made unto us of God, wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption,” and therefore is He our life. And this gospel, moreover, while displaying a perfect righteousness which must be wrought for us, insists peremptorily on a righteousness which must be wrought in us by God’s Spirit--the ministration of the Spirit thus making our own holiness, though it can obtain nothing in the way of merit, indispensably necessary in the way of preparation. (H. Melvill, B. D.)
The dispensations of the law and gospel compared
I. The law was glorious.
1. The perfection of the moral law was a favourite subject with the saints of old (Nehemiah 9:13; Psalms 19:7). But this glory, as regards God, made it to man, if he rested in it, the ministration of condemnation. It set before men a perfect rule of conduct, and therefore required more than fallen man could fulfil. Yet it pronounced a curse upon all who did not perfectly answer to its demands (Galatians 3:10; Romans 3:19-20; Romans 7:9-11).
2. But the ceremonial law is also glorious, not in itself, but as it borrowed light from the gospel and prefigured it. Whereas the moral law doomed all under it to death, the ceremonial taw gave them some faint indications of mercy. The ceremonial law, then, must be greatly inferior to the gospel, inasmuch as Christ is the substance of all its types and shadows. Since He is come it has lost its glory. It is chiefly useful to show the necessity of atonement.
II. Wherein consists the glory of the gospel?
1. It is a republication of the moral law; therefore, what glory the law has the gospel has likewise. But it possesses far higher glory, inasmuch as it is the ministration of righteousness. As the law denounces all who rest upon it as a covenant of works to death, so the gospel, by its gift of righteousness, conveys life to all who receive it in faith. The law shows the holiness of God, and is therefore glorious, but the gospel shows the holiness, justice, and mercy of God in an inconceivable degree by the very method in which it freely dispenses righteousness, and therefore it is transcendently glorious.
2. It is superior to the law, as it is the ministration of the Spirit, who is the life and soul of the whole system. We may descant about the righteousness of Christ, and the demands of the perfect law, but we never could have attained to that righteousness unless the Spirit of God had been likewise bestowed, to write these truths in our hearts, and to bring home these doctrines with power.
1. As regards the law--
(1) Do not neglect it by taking up your own rule of life, such as the customs of men and worldly maxims afford. The law of God is the only rule of duty (Matthew 19:17), and is still our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ.
(2) Do not abuse it by looking to be saved by your own obedience to its commands.
2. As regards the gospel--
(1) Do not neglect it. It is God’s method of saving sinners; His mercy now flows in this one channel; if you seek His mercy in any other way, you will find yourselves in an evil case (Thessalonians 1:8).
(2) Do not abuse it. Remember that while Christ came to provide forgiveness, He came also “to purify to Himself a peculiar people zealous of good works.” (H. J. Hastings, M. A.)
The two ministrations
Why should the law be described as “the ministration of death” or “the ministration of condemnation”? Are not the terms unnecessarily harsh? Do they not suggest a false idea of the dignity of law? My first object is to defend a negative answer to this inquiry. The very fact of penal law being established presupposes either power or disposition to do that which is wrong. The simplest of illustrations shall bring the meaning of the assertion, that law defines and limits liberty, within the comprehension of a child. For a length of time you have been in the habit of regarding certain fields as common property; again and again you have struck your course across them to shorten or vary a journey. The idea that you were trespassing never occurred to you. So far as you knew there was no law whatever in the case. In process of time, however, the proprietor determines to assert his right to his own land. With this end in view he gives public intimation that all persons found upon his property will be dealt with as trespassers. He proclaims a law. He sets up in his field a ministration of condemnation. From that hour the whole question of your liberty undergoes a fundamental change. Yet, why should the law be designated “the ministration of condemnation” and “the ministration of death”? When the law is based on rectitude, what possible relation can it sustain to death or condemnation? All punishment stands on the plane of death. Death, absolutely so called, is the ultimate penalty; but the very gentlest blow, nay, the very shadow of a frown, is death in incipiency; that is to say, it belongs to the kingdom of death, and not in any sense to the kingdom of life; death is in the penalty as truly as the plant is in the seed. That law is correctly designated “the ministration of condemnation,” and “the ministration of death,” may be shown by another simple illustration. Let me suppose that as heads of houses you had not for a long time felt the necessity of requiring all the members of your households to be at home by a fixed hour. In the working of your family life, however, you find it necessary to determine an hour at which every child shall be with you. To that effect you proclaim your law. In process of events, I further suppose, one of your children is a mile off when the well-known hour strikes. What is the consequence in his own experience? He hears stroke after stroke without alarm, until, alas! the legal hour is pealed off. How that stroke shakes him! how reproachful the shivering tone! A week before he could have heard the same hour strike, and nothing would have alarmed him. He now feels that the law is “the ministration of condemnation.” He says, “I am late; I should have been at home; my father’s eye will reprove me; I had not known sin but by the law, for I had not known irregularity in time, except the law had said, Thou shalt be punctual.” Take the world’s first case of law. There was law in the Edenic life. There was a “Thou shalt not” in the programme of the world’s first experience of manhood, and over it fell the shadow of threatened death. Liberty was made liberty by law. Up to the very moment of touching the forbidden fruit, Adam knew not what was meant by the “ministration of condemnation” but the moment after, how vast his knowledge! The law said nothing to Adam of “condemnation” until he had broken it. So long as he kept the law he knew nothing of death, except by Observation. Fools are they who cavil because Adam did not physically expire. Is death a question of frozen marrow? Every man knows the killing power of sin. In darkness you have done some deed of iniquity. Your heart condemns you. When you come forward to the light, you feel yourself dead, your moral vitality is gone. Another inquiry is now suggested. Under circumstances so appalling, how can “the ministration of condemnation” be said to be “glory”?--for that is the royal word of the text. I answer, the glory is not in the condemnation and the death, except in the immediate connection with the law. That there is glory in law is open to decisive demonstration. The establishment of law implies authority on the part of the lawgiver. Law is the declared will of the superior. How is it amongst ourselves? Does the servant give law to the master, or the master to the servant? By whose authority is the table of regulations put up in all your great hives of industry? I repeat, then, that law implies authority on the part of the lawgiver. Carry these illustrations forward to the case argued in the text, then the “glory” will at once kindle upon us, and, like the children of Israel, we shall need the protecting veil. Recall the dread days of Sinai. Almighty God alights, and the mountain shudders at His presence. Every utterance of the eternal mind must have its own peculiar glory; alike the utterance designed to produce physical results and the utterance intended to operate in the moral kingdom: each shines with a glory distinctively its own, and in proportion as the moral is superior to the physical, so does the glory of the one exceed the glory of the other. When, therefore, I contemplate the dread issue of an infraction of God’s law, I can understand the apostle when he calls that law “the ministration of condemnation”; and as I further contemplate the sublime purpose of that law, I can understand how, upon such a “ ministration,” there shone a “glory” which must have beamed from heaven! The gospel is described as “the ministration of righteousness,” and is affirmed to “exceed in glory.” In giving the law, God did not accommodate Himself to human weakness by imposing easy or elastic conditions and regulations. He declared that which was absolute in rectitude. The law rendered supremely important service to man if it did nothing more than bring him to the consciousness that he was powerless to fulfil requirements so holy. The law showed him the height to which he must ascend, and he trembled, and owned his weakness. “Do we make void the law through faith? God forbid. Yea, we establish the law.” “The law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.” The law was not designed to give life. It had but a schoolmaster’s work to do. There was an epoch of law; there is now an epoch of faith. Faith is younger than law; hence, “before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up into the faith which should afterwards be revealed.” As the law was antecedent to faith, so also it stands in perfect contrast; “the one being “ the ministration of condemnation,” the other “the ministration of righteousness.” Yet what is meant by asserting that the law was antecedent to the gospel? I mean antecedent merely in the order of open manifestation. The promise that Christ should come into the world takes precedence of all other promises. The Lamb was slain before the foundation of the world. Love is from everlasting, law is but of yesterday; law is for a season, love is for ever;law is a transient flame, love an eternal orb. Sublime beyond full comprehension is the fact that the gospel is “the ministration of righteousness.” Those who exercise repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ are not merely pardoned; that would be much--infinitely more, indeed, than the law could ever do--but they are made righteous, they are cleansed, they are sanctified, they are transformed into the image of God. Law had no blood in its iron hand to apply to the depraved and guilty nature of man. It is impossible that law could forgive, law only can condemn. Here is the moral contrast in all its breadth. The law is weak, the gospel is mighty; the law touches the outer man, the gospel penetrates the heart. The ministration of righteousness exceeds the ministration of condemnation “in glory.” This is in strict harmony with God’s general method of government. He never goes from the greater to the less, but ever from the less to the greater. We thought nothing could exceed the splendour of Sinai, yet it was eclipsed by the transcendent magnificence of Calvary. The law was veiled under types and shadows, but the Son of God has been crucified before our eyes. The exceeding glory of the gospel, then, is seen in this, that while it comes to condemn sin, it also comes to destroy its power, and save those whom it has brought into bondage. The gospel has no word of pity for sin, or of extenuation for error, but it melts with infinite compassion as it yearns over the sinner. The law never had a loving word for the transgressor--it was stern, inflexible, rigorous. Some are endeavouring to reach heaven through obedience to the law. Are you wiser than God? Is the atonement a mistake? A man passes from one “ministration” to another, and so is brought nearer and nearer to God, we should remind ourselves that the advancing ages multiply our responsibilities. We cannot live under the “exceeding glory “ without incurring proportionate obligations. (J. Parker, D. D.)
Divine revelation more glorious in Christ than in Moses
Note three facts in the context--
1. The infinite Father has made a special revelation to man. This is a fact answering to the a priori reasonings and intuitions of humanity.
2. That this special revelation has mainly come through two great general sources--Moses and Christ.
3. That while the essence of the revelation is the same, the forms differ, and the forms it assumes through Christ are most “glorious.”
I. This special revelation as it came through Moses was glorious. Note--
1. The wonderful display of Divinity attending the expression of it on Mount Sinai. The apostle seems to have had an eye to this in his reference to the supernatural brightness that rested on “the face of Moses” (Exodus 34:29-30). What wonderful things did Moses hear and see during the forty days he was up on that mountain! What overwhelming display of glory there must have been when from His hand went a “fiery law”! (Exodus 19:1-25; Exodus 20:1-26; Hebrews 12:18-22).
2. The magnificence of its religious scenes and celebrations. The temple, how splendid in its architecture, materials, and furniture! The priesthood, how imposing in their costume and their services! The psalmody, how sublime! etc. “Glorious things are spoken of the city of the living God.”
3. The stupendous miracles that stand in connection with it. The wilderness was the theatre of great wonders.
4. The splendid intellects which were employed in connection with it. The philosophy of Solomon, the poetry of David, the eloquence of Isaiah, the imagery of Ezekiel, the strains of Jeremiah, etc. Divine revelation, as it stands hi connection with Moses, is associated with the most brilliant of human geniuses.
II. This special revelation is more glorious as it appears in connection with Christ.
1. The Christian form of Divine revelation is more adapted to give life than the Mosaic. Compare the effect of the words of the revelation as it came from Christ, addressed by Peter on the day of Pentecost, to the moral effect of the preaching of any of the prophets under the law, and you will find that the one may justly be called a “ministration of death” as compared with the other.
2. The Christian form of Divine revelation is more emphatically spirit than the Mosaic. It is called here “the ministration of the spirit.” There was much spirit in the Mosaic; but Christianity throbs through every sentence with the eternal spirit of truth. Then, too, the smaller amount of the spirit in the Mosaic was so overlaid with ceremony that it was almost buried out of sight; whereas the greater amount of the spirit of truth in connection with Christianity is stripped almost entirely of ceremony. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are all.
3. The Christian form of Divine revelation is more restorative than the Mosaic. The apostle speaks of one as the ministration of “condemnation,” and the other, that of “righteousness.” The Mosaic revelation had an aspect of terrible severity. Contrast the “curses” of Moses (Deuteronomy 27:15-26) with the beatitudes of Christ (Matthew 5:3-12).
4. The Christian form of Divine revelation is more lasting than the Mosaic. Christianity is the final revelation of God to our world.
Conclusion: The subject serves--
1. To expose the absurdity of making Moses the interpreter of Christ.
2. To show the wrongness of going to Moses to support opinions you cannot get from Christ.
3. To reveal the immense responsibility of men living in gospel times.
4. To indicate the serious position of a true minister. (D. Thomas, D. D.)
The glory of the gospel
I. The description of the law.
1. “The ministration of condemnation.”
2. “The ministration of death.” Its sentence is a death sentence. “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” Now from the execution of this sentence the law provides no resource. Sacrifices for sin, it is true, were provided raider the Mosaic dispensation; but they were merely typical of that great sacrifice for sin, which was to form a part of another and more glorious dispensation. “It is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins.”
II. The description of the gospel.
1. It is the “ministration of righteousness,” because it provides for the believing sinner a complete satisfaction for the offences he has committed against the law of God, and an obedience perfectly commensurate with its demands, and so saves him from condemnation and death.
2. It is “the ministration of Spirit,” because of the great outpouring of the Spirit with which it commenced, and the abundant communication of the same Spirit with which it has ever since been attended.
III. The superior glory of the gospel above that of the law. The Jewish dispensation was glorious. It bad a glorious Author. Its object was glorious, viz., to unfold the infinite justice, purity, and majesty of God. It was published in a glorious manner. But, notwithstanding all this, the glory of the law sinks into nothing when compared with the gospel. The names which are here applied to the law and the gospel show us at once the propriety of this language. But the superior glory of the gospel may be made clear by other considerations.
1. It offers greater blessings to man than were offered by the law. The Mosaic dispensation had a reference principally to the present life, and most of its promises were temporal promises. The gospel places within our reach a share of that very joy which satisfies the Redeemer for “the travail of His soul.”
2. It offers these blessings more extensively. The promises of the law were confined to one nation, and even of this nation it was but a little remnant that inherited the spiritual benefits of the dispensation under which they lived. The blessings of the gospel, on the contrary, are thrown open to all the world.
3. It has a greater influence on the hearts of men. The law had no power to touch the heart, and to cause men to love and obey it. The gospel, on the contrary, was no sooner published than it made glorious changes in the characters and lives of multitudes who embraced it.
4. It has a glory which will last for ever.
5. It is a brighter display of the Divine law.
1. How honourable an office is that of a minister of Christ!
2. How great is the privilege which we enjoy in living under the dispensation of the gospel!
3. How great a debt of gratitude and praise does every Christian owe to his crucified Lord!
4. How unwise are they who hope for pardon and salvation on the ground of their partial obedience to the law of God!
5. How ignorant are they of the gospel of Christ who make the influence of the Spirit the object of their scorn!
6. How anxiously should every hearer of the gospel desire that it may be made the ministration of the Spirit to himself, that he may experience its softening and purifying influence in his own heart! (C. Bradley, M. A.)
The glory of the gospel
I. The character of the Mosaic dispensation.
II. The excellent glory of the gospel.
6. Inviting. (W. W. Wythe.)
The gospel is
I. A ministration of the spirit. It was foretold that it should be so. “The days come when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel,” etc. Then, respecting Him who is the head of the new dispensation, His holy body was the immediate product of the Holy Ghost, at His baptism “the Holy Spirit like a dove descended upon Him,” His ministry was conducted by the power of the Spirit, He spake to the apostles of the Holy Ghost, and the last thing He said to them on earth was, that “they should wait for the promise of the Spirit.” On the day of Pentecost it was fulfilled. And whatever light and grace and purity there has been in the Church from that day to this has been by the same influence and power. What, then, was the ministry of Moses, compared with that economy at the head of which appeared Jesus Christ with this great title--“He that baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire”?
II. A ministration of righteousness.
III. A ministration of life. The first Adam was made a living soul, the second a quickening spirit. We were dead in trespasses and sins, but we are said to be “quickened.” “Christ hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”
IV. A ministry of plainness (verses 12, 13),that is, clearness of manifestation--not the obscurity of a type--not the difficulty of a prediction. All the gospel is as plain as language can make it. And having the light and plainness of the instruction of the N.T., the writers speak with confidence; they say, “We know whom we have believed,” etc.
V. A dispensation treat is to abide. “Of the increase of His government there shall be no end.” (J. Stratten.)
How shall not the ministration of the Spirit be rather glorious?--
The ministration of the Spirit
Who does not yearn over the long-lost joys of his boyhood--the light heart, the game, the holiday, and the prize? And yet we think manhood a nobler thing even with the wrinkles on its brow. Who does not long for the simple faith of his early years? Yet those who have gone through the agonies of honest doubt know that the faith which can survive such a test is worth more than that which never suffered a pang. The springing corn with its emerald glow of fresh young life is glorious; but the rich harvest is rather glorious. A scaffolding is sometimes a thing of beauty, but the building which it surrounds deprives it of permanent interest. There is a disposition to praise the good old times; yet no man of competent mind can say that the times of limited education, restricted commerce, slow transit and spiritual despotism were better than these. There is, however, and always has been this conservative tendency, and the Church has never been freed from it. Even in the days of Paul there were Gentile Christians whose very Christ had come to them so dressed up in Jewish garments that they were anxious to retain as much as possible of the older dispensation. So Paul had to reassert here the spiritual nature of the gospel he had been the first to proclaim at Corinth. In order to understand the ministration of the Spirit--
I. Contrast spirit with body.
1. If we see several things united to each other by some secret bond, and subserving some secret purpose, we speak of them as a body, and that purpose as their uniting spirit. So a company of individuals instinct with a common idea are spoken of as bodies of men, and their common object as the spirit which actuates them. This arises, doubtless, from our consciousness that we are ourselves compounds of many parts over which a presiding spirit rules. Paul often speaks of the Church under this image--it is the Body of Christ inhabited by His Spirit.
2. Under the old dispensation a similar body grew up, and the religion of Moses, Samuel and Solomon, might be termed a ministration of the body. It consisted of innumerable regulations for the external management of the individual and the community. But the prejudices of the Jews led them to suppose that the body was of more consequence than the spirit; and directly the body considers itself the chief end of existence, the spirit is impaired. The man who sinks into such a condition becomes a morbid valetudinarian, a slave of his poor body; the institution thus perverted becomes obstructive of the end that called it into existence; and the Church that does so quenches the Spirit of God. When the Spirit works upon us we can never rest satisfied with the most careful attention to the most venerable rubric, but shall be moved to live a Divine life.
3. We have many institutions and societies, the body of which has sprung into existence under the direction of the Spirit. In proportion as they are imbued with that Spirit, they are parts of His scheme of mercy for a ruined world. But if we in our vanity make our own sanctuary or schools, organisations, church principles, etc., ends rather than means we deplete them of all their power.
II. Contrast the spirit with the letter.
1. Take any word--of what does it consist? Of a few strokes in themselves, utterly unmeaning. Pronounce the word? It is a sound having no meaning in itself. You and others agree to represent certain ideas by that word; but there is no necessary connection between the word and the meaning; for the same word may convey ideas utterly dissimilar to different people or nations. Thus though the letter has great value, it is transitory, accidental, liable to change; but the thing connoted, or the spirit conveyed may have an undying worth.
2. We speak of the letter and the spirit of a law or a testament. The one may be observed while the other is violated. Often has the letter of the Divine law been kept, while its spirit has been trifled with, and vice versa. A Divine spirit penetrated the rules of the O.T. dispensation; the spirit of that covenant has been ministered afresh in the gospel, but the letter in which it has been conveyed by Moses and Christ has widely differed.
(1) At one time the nation and government of Israel was the form in which God’s love and providence were made known to the world; but now the holy nation is found wherever hearts beat with childlike love to God.
(2) So the spirit of sacrifice was seen in the thank and burnt-offerings; but while the mode of expressing this is changed the spirit is not lost.
(3) The idea of holiness--separation to Divine use--was traced out in a marvellous detail, which has been for the most part superseded; yet the gospel puts holiness on an even higher elevation, exhibits it to our view in an embodiment of its loftiest perfection, and assures us that the same Spirit that was given to Christ is sent forth into our hearts.
III. The contrast between the spirit and the flesh, i.e., the dwelling in us of a living Christ, overpowering both the lower and more cultivated passions by Christlike and heavenly longings--the quickening of our whole spiritual being and alliance with God Himself. Now we must not forget that the ministration of the flesh, i.e., all that man has been able to achieve unaided by the Divine Spirit, has been in some respects glorious. There is an appalling grandeur in the efforts of men. The daring of Prometheus, the wisdom of Confucius, the conscience of Socrates, the mental affluence of Aristotle, the insight of Plato, the self-sacrifice of Buddha--still all this has no glory by reason of the glory that excelleth. The spirit soars into a region where the flesh in its most refined form cannot penetrate; it deals with problems that science cannot solve, and induces in human nature a new series of forces transcending reason, satisfying conscience, glorifying God.
IV. The contrast between the ministration of death and that of the spirit.
1. The ministration of the body was a ministration of that which is perishable and must die, and hence it is a ministration of death. The ministration of the flesh is a ministration of that which has no real vitality in it, and hence it, too, is a ministration of death. The ministration of the letter of the law was a ministration of threatening and destruction. But the ministration of the Spirit is eternal.
2. The whole of the ministration of death had a glory of its own. The Lord of life employed it to teach mankind lessons of life and happiness; but as sunrise is more glorious than the sublimity of the midnight storm, and the dayspring than the dazzle of the lightning, and the smile of spring than the magnificence of iceberg or desert mirage, so does the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory all the ministration of death. (H. R, Reynolds, D. D.)
2 Corinthians 3:9-11
For if the ministration of condemnation be glory.
Condemnation and righteousness
here replace death and life, because it is through condemnation that man becomes the prey of death; and the grace which reigns in him to eternal life reigns through righteousness (Romans 5:21). The contrast of these two words is very significant for Paul’s conception of the gospel: it shows how essential to and fundamental in his idea of righteousness is the thought of acquittal or acceptance with God. Man is sinful, under God’s condemnation; and he cannot conceive a gospel which does not announce, at the very outset, the removal of that condemnation, and a declaration in the sinner’s favour. Mere pardon may be a meagre conception, but it is that without which no other Christian conception can exist for a moment. That which lies at the bottom of the new covenant, and supports all its promises and hopes is this, “I will forgive their iniquities,” etc. Of course, righteousness is more than pardon; it is not exhausted when we say that it is the opposite of condemnation; but unless we feel that the very nerve of it lies in the removal of condemnation, we shall never understand the N.T. tone in speaking of it. It is this which explains the joyous rebound of the apostle’s spirit whenever he encounters the subject: he remembers the black cloud, and now there is clear shining. He cannot exaggerate the contrast, nor the greater glory of the new state. The stars are bright till the moon rises; the moon herself reigns in heaven till her splendour pales before the sun; but when the sun shines in his strength there is no other glory in the sky. All the glories of the old covenant have vanished for Paul in the light which shines from the Cross and from the throne of Christ. (J. Denney, B. D.)
The glory of the gospel
Our estimate of any object is considerably enhanced by comparing it with others of inferior excellence. The size and capacity of the vessel which we say is the largest afloat are by an inexperienced eye more clearly discernible when she is seen in company with one of much smaller dimensions. By such comparison, however, we do nothing more than determine the relative value or properties of an object. Christ, for example, in asserting of Himself that, in respect of wisdom, He was greater than Solomon, instead of wishing us to depreciate the attainments of that illustrious king, intended us to consider him as by far the wisest of uninspired men; and our estimate of the wisdom of the one depends upon our acknowledgment of the great wisdom of the other. Paul says of the gospel, that it is a “better testament, a more glorious dispensation than the Mosaic”; but, in so expressing himself, he does not seek to lessen the worth, or to deny the Divine authority of the legal economy.
I. The superiority of the christian over the Mosaic dispensation will be apparent if we consider the persons by whom they were respectively introduced. In tracing the origin of the Jewish economy we are led to ascribe its authorship to God. But although God may thus, in strict propriety of speech, be said to be the founder of the Old Testament dispensation, yet instrumentally may we assign this honour unto Moses. Moses was but a man, but Christ was God; the one was only a servant, the other was a Son over His own house. The fact of the incarnation gives a glory to the gospel which never could be claimed for the law. How important must that system have been in the estimation of the Infinite Godhead which demanded that the second person in the Trinity should be the immediate agent in publishing it to the world. Moses was not without his faults. No blemish attaches to Christ’s character. Moses could teach the law of God, and institute His ordinances, but he could not enforce the one nor render the other available to salvation. Christ’s words are spirit and life. The unequalled glory of Jesus must be diffused over His gospel.
II. The superiority of the Christian over the Mosaic dispensation is evinced by the character of its revelations. However suited the institutions of Moses were to the time at which they were appointed, they are in their nature, and in the benefits which they procured, greatly inferior to those of Christ. The most precious truths were deposited under obscure symbols; the most imperative acts of worship were performed in expensive rites and burdensome ceremonials. Christianity, as a light from heaven, has brushed away the veil which concealed those things which man’s interests required should be clearly unfolded. She comes to us in the form of mercy, and speaks in words of the tenderest compassion. The darkness is past, and the true light now shineth. Turn, too, to the intolerable yoke of ceremonies which marked the Mosaic dispensation, as compared with the easy yoke of Jesus--how burdensome the one, how light and gentle the other!
III. The superiority of the Christian over the Mosaic dispensation is apparent from the more extensive diffusion of its blessing. The religion of Moses was exclusively the religion of the Jews. It was intended not for the whole world, but only for one nation. Very different, however, is it with regard to the gospel. Devised and published for the exclusive benefit of none, but aiming at the happiness of universal man, its field is the world. Adjusted to the peculiarities of none, it seeks the salvation of all. As the acorn cast into the soil becomes the giant oak, so the gospel, originally small as a grain of mustard seed, is now the wide-spreading tree. Nor is its extension yet completed.
IV. The superiority of the Christian over the Mosaic dispensation is evident from its perpetuity. (J. Jeffrey.)
For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious--
The pre-eminence of the gospel above the law
1. Now, first, as to the knowledge of God, His nature and attributes; that there is a God, that there is but one God of infinite justice, wisdom, and goodness, the supreme governor of the world, and a gracious rewarder of those that seek Him, is absolutely necessary to be known by all who would attain eternal life. And it cannot be doubted but that the faithful from the beginning of the world had this knowledge of God; but men had not so certain, so clear a knowledge of these things before the coming of Christ as we have now under the gospel. The doctrine of the ever blessed Trinity may perhaps be discerned in the writings of Moses and the prophets; but it is so legibly written in the writings of the apostles that there is no need of learning to discover it. The believers under the law were persuaded that all things were governed by an all-wise and all-powerful being; and yet the most enlightened of them were at a loss to account for the justice of Divine providence in suffering the wicked to prosper, and the righteous to be afflicted; but every common Christian is able to solve this difficulty by the help of what he hath learned from the gospel. Thus doth it appear that the knowledge which the Jews had of the nature and attributes of God was very short of ours.
2. And as the gospel gives us a more distinct account of the origin and demerit of sin than the law doth, so also doth it furnish us with a brighter discovery of the methods whereby the guilt of it is atoned. And, indeed, it would be no way to our advantage to be informed so fully of the malignity of our disease if we were not also instructed by what remedies it is to be cured. Such a manifestation as this of the mystery of our redemption was proper, after it was actually wrought; but so clear a knowledge of it was neither necessary nor expedient before it was effected.
3. And as we Christians have clearer notions of the expiation of sin than had the Jews, so by consequence must our assurances of our being justified, or having our sins pardoned, be stronger than were theirs.
4. And as the assurances given to us of this inheritance are greater than were afforded to the Jews, so, lastly, is the inheritance itself much more plainly revealed to us in the gospel than it was under the law. Thus have I given you a summary account of some of those great advantages which we enjoy under the dispensation of the gospel, above those which were held forth to the Jews under the economy of Moses. Great reason we have to thank God for these glorious privileges. (Bp. Smalridge.)
The superior glory of the Christian over the Mosaic economy
I. The glory of the Mosaic economy. Its design was to maintain among the Israelites the knowledge of the one living and true God, and to prepare them for the coming of the Messiah. The glory of the dispensation consisted in its establishing these two great ends. That glory appears--
1. In the purity of the principles which it inculcates. At the period of its promulgation the whole world had apostatised from the worship of the Most High; and idolatry led to the most ferocious cruelty, and sanctioned the basest pollutions. Now, it was the glory of the Mosaic economy that it opposed all this.
2. In the typical significance of the rites and ceremonies it appointed. It is Christ who holds the key of these types, and reveals all their fulness and significancy. At the same time the pious Israelite could penetrate through these, adumbrations and see their spiritual intention.
3. In the illustrious support it received from the attestation of miracles, and from the successive statements of inspired prophets.
II. The glory of the gospel dispensation is superior to that of the law.
1. In the clearness of the revelation given by it as to those truths which are most important to salvation. We have seen that the Mosaic dispensation was typical. It taught the first elements, but not religion itself, in the plenitude and lucidness of its discoveries.
2. In the spirituality of its nature. The religion of the Jews was national; there was but one temple, and that was at Jerusalem. The blessings bestowed on that people were mostly temporal. But this state of things no longer exists. Place is nothing in the estimation of God, and all the blessings of the gospel are spiritual.
3. In its universality. The Jewish system excluded from its benefits those who were not the children of Israel, but in the gospel none are excluded.
4. In its perpetuity. (W. H. Murch.)
The permanent elements of faith
1. Our lives are full of fever and restlessness. In truth is quietness, and God only never changes. It is not simply that we and our works are passing; we might bear better all that if it were not for the changes which shake our beliefs.
2. But none of us have ever seen greater changes than Paul. The law seemed to him permanent: the sun might have been darkened, but the glory of Israel was for ever. Yet in a few short years and he is thinking of that glory as something which is done away, and seems to have gained a faith which soared above these passing things. He forgets to mourn over the glory which passeth away as his eye gladdens with the sight of a glory which excelleth. In all religion there are transient forms, and there are permanent elements.
I. Note the several successive steps by which a candid mind may come to some certainty in the substance of things to be believed and loved.
1. We reach assurance in faith only as we find for ourselves the way up to Christ as the supreme authority of faith. We may approach the Divine Man--
(1) Through the constitutional wants and capacities of our own souls. Our hearts are such echoes of Divinity that we should listen in expectation for the voice from above to speak again. Given the first man, Adam, and it is in order to expect the second Man, the Lord from heaven. Christ is the only perfect fulfilment of human nature; and we do need Him.
(2) Through the world which seems to have been made for a Christ to come. The direction of the creation from the beginning has been ever to something higher and diviner. At first there was matter and motion; then worlds and life; then instinct, and life rising to self-consciousness; then reasoning, and thoughts of the spirit searching beyond the stars; and what wonder then if we see, standing at the end of it all, One in the form of man, yet having the glory of the Father’s person. One who finishes the whole creation, as, in His own person, He binds it to the throne of God.
(3) Through history, where we come upon increasing signs of a leading and gathering of events according to come higher law. Take the books of Moses, and compare them with contemporaneous traditions and beliefs! The Bible grows, according to some higher law, and for some perfect fruit to come, just as a plant which springs up from the ground feels the impulsion of something above the ordinary forces of the soil and the gravitation of the earth in which it strikes its roots. Follow this growth until you come to the age of its great prophecies, and you will find it more difficult still to explain it as a merely human product. When you reach the age of Isaiah, you see that all this growth is after a Messianic law. It is for a Christ to come. That is the law of the type of the whole dispensation. So we come to the gospels, and the presence of Jesus Himself. Nature and history have pointed towards Him that should come; and when He stands among men, declaring that in Him the law and the prophets are fulfilled, He is His own witness. He stands in the centre where all lights converge. Having this record of the Son of God on earth, it is easy to add the confession--never man was born as this Man; never man rose from the dead, and ascended, as this Man.
2. We have found the Messias; now how can we come down from Him to the present, so that we may know, for surety, amid the world’s changes and confusions, that we have His mind?
(1) Many men saw and heard and knew Jesus of Nazareth. They told others what they had seen and heard. Then many began to write out their knowledge of Jesus. The same power which prepared the world for, and led prophecy up to, secured a fitting representation of the Christ.
(2) Under the law of the Spirit of Christ there were gathered up the writings of apostolic men. These men were fitted both by their personal position with Jesus, and by the special working in them of the power of the Holy Ghost, to be to us authorities for Jesus, and the first interpreters of the mind of Christ. We believe, accordingly, that this written Scripture is our supreme authority.
(3) We must receive something of His Spirit ourselves. We must read tits words, and understand these authorities for Christ, in the spirit of Christ. The Bible is a gift of God to the spiritual mind of the Church. We live in the dispensation of the Holy Ghost.
II. Christ, the scriptures, and the Christlike heart, are the means given to men of knowing the abiding realities, the true God and eternal life. And this is precisely what John said in John 21:20, “We know that the Son of God is come”; that was the disciple’s positive knowledge of the historic Christ, “and hath given us an understanding, that we may know Him that is true”; that was the disciple’s spiritual discernment of Jesus; “And we are in Him that is true”; that is the full and final security of Christian faith and truth.
III. Note the direct bearings of all this upon present things.
1. A child once said to me, “Perhaps I shall not believe when I am a man all the things which you believe.” Surprised for a moment, I reflected, Why, if it be true to itself and its God, should it not grow in its day beyond us in knowledge of Divine truth? I revere the fathers; but some things which they held belonged to the glory which was passing, not to the more excellent glory of that which remained. This, accordingly, has one application to parents who are sometimes troubled by the new questions which their children are asking.
2. The surface of religious life is now rippled with breezes of discussion, and one duty seems urgent. We should live and abide, as much as possible, with our own hearts in those truths which to us are most real and vital. For our own quietness and inner truth of faith we need to look away from this present, and to cherish in our thoughts those elementary Christian truths which belong to the heart of the Christian faith in all the ages. And these are not passing away.
(1) The belief in God is not--how can it?--from the soul of man who is God’s child. But from all our questionings we are learning, perhaps never before so deeply, what those old Hebrew words mean--the living God!
(2) Again, men are disusing expressions of belief once common concerning the atoning work of Christ; and some say, So passes the glory of the Cross. Not so. The glory of the Cross can never pass, because it is the eternal glory of the love of God. Still upon our lips, although in simpler words of human love and need, you will hear the song of the ages, “Worthy the Lamb that was slain.” God’s Spirit is bringing closer home to our hearts the need there was for such sufferings as Christ’s in the forgiveness of the sin of the world.
(3) Again, there seems to have fallen over our pulpits a great silence upon the subject of the judgment-day. Perhaps God has seen fit to make this silence that our confused echoes of Jesus’ gospel might die away, and men listen again with hushed hearts to His eternal words. We had to cease repeating the father’s sermons upon sinners in the hand of God, at which once indeed the souls of men trembled, but by which now they are not moved, in order that we might begin to preach again, according to the warnings of our own hearts, the fearful wickedness and doom of a soul flying with wilful selfishness into the face of the glory of the loving, Christian God.
(4) Neither are the motives to repentance and a godly life passing from us. The more we learn of our own evil nature, and our own weakness and need of being put and kept right, the more reason have we for the humble prayer of the heart for the forgiveness of sins, and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. (Newman Smyth, D. D.)
The glory of the gospel
The gospel is pre-eminently glorious, because it continues without change, and affords blessings in perpetuity to all who are willing to receive them. This perpetuity and unchangeableness are not the mere results of arbitrary power; but belong to it as a system suited in its nature to bless man at all times, and in all stages of his existence. It possesses the character of Him whose name is love and who never changes. Systems of religion, it is said, have risen up and had their day. Why may not this be the case with Christianity? The answer is easy. Because Christianity differs, in many material points, from every other form of religion.
1. It addresses itself directly to reason and conscience.
2. It puts no inordinate value on outward observances.
3. It not only disclaims fanaticism and superstition, but affords the only real security against those desolating evils.
4. It lays no restraints the design of which is not clearly benevolent.
5. The great founder of this religion has made all the duties which grow out of man’s various relations a part of His system. As long as there are husbands and wives, parents and children, neighbours, etc., so long Christianity will be adapted to the circumstances of man. But it also institutes new relations. It makes, indeed, the human race all one family, offers to all one Saviour, and encourages all to say, “Our Father which art in heaven.” Thus, then, there is no other religion like Christianity. So the passing away of dissimilar systems affords no presumption that this, which differs from them all, will also pass away. Because the places of sand and seaweed on the shore are changed by every rising tide, it does not therefore follow that the solid rocks will be removed.
I. Christianity is adapted to all climates, periods, conditions of human existence, and produces, wherever it prevails, the same effects. It has in every age secured converts among--
1. All races.
2. Every variety of human character.
3. All classes and ranks.
II. The gospel is adapted to all parts of man’s intellectual and moral nature.
1. It applies the strongest stimulus to the human mind, and gives the widest range to human thoughts.
2. Mark its treatment of man’s affections and passions.
(1) Take love. Its ordinary effects, when supremely fixed on worldly objects, are too well known. It is the religion of the Bible only, which turns it at once on objects worthy to be loved by rational and immortal beings.
(2) Take hope, the mainspring of the soul. How important it is that man should have his hopes wisely directed. But in this case all human wisdom has utterly failed. Men have hoped for things unattainable, or for things which, when attained, have disappointed their expectations. But the gospel fastens the hopes of man on infinity and eternity, and gives for their warrant the sure promise of Jehovah, and the redeeming love of the Saviour.
(3) Take the desire of pleasure. Here is one of the most fearful dangers to which human nature is exposed. The religion of Christ gives to the Christian pleasure without pollution. It allows everything which is not injurious, and adds joys which flow from the everlasting fountain of joy in heaven.
III. The beneficent and wise adaptation of this religion to the nature of man is apparent from its operation on his conscience.
1. Conscience, from want of proper discipline and exercise, may be inert and feeble. Hence it is of unspeakable importance that we should have access to truth, which has power to awaken the slumberer within us. The Bible has that power, and it has been exerted times without number. It strikes on the heart of the sinner, even “when dead in trespasses and sins,” and sends a thrill of powerful feeling through his whole soul.
2. By the communication of knowledge respecting our Creator, our relation and obligations to Him, and to one another, our conscience is most wisely directed.
3. No religion knows what to do with the guilty and troubled conscience, but the religion of the gospel.
IV. The gospel is wonderfully adapted to the nature of man, because the unlimited reach of its truths is suited to the progress of our intellectual and moral faculties. Such is the nature of man, that when he has attained an object, and ascertained its extent, and found just what it can do for him, he is at once disgusted. But the truths of Christianity are ever enlarging before the mind of the believer. The same is true in regard to the Christian’s progress in holiness. Notice in conclusion some special blessings conferred by the gospel.
1. It confers upon individuals an elevation of character otherwise unattainable.
2. It gives to domestic life its choicest blessings.
(1) By making marriage a Divine institution.
(2) By determining the relative situation of husband and wife, parent and children.
3. It bestows its peculiar blessings on social life. Purifying all its fountains, and producing that gentleness and meekness, those “kind designs to serve and please,” which give the highest charms and the most enchanting graces to social intercourse.
4. It confers inestimable benefits on man in the relations of civil life. Complete civil and political liberty never can be enjoyed by any people without the influences of pure Christianity. In the most celebrated republics of the heathen world there was nothing like the degree of true, rational, well-balanced, and well-secured freedom, which is now the birthright of the people of this country.
4. It affords the only security for the preservation of the dearest right of a freeman--his religious liberty. (J. H. Rice.)
2 Corinthians 3:12-18
Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech
The duty of outspokenness on religious questions
True religion is very simple and very deep.
A s simple as this statement, “God is good”; as deep as life and death. But it has ever been hard for men to receive religion in all its simplicity and in all its depth. They want something they can touch and handle, something to fill the imagination, something with many colours to attract the eye. And human teachers have ever been ready to adapt themselves to this craving, and have put their teaching into a shape in which they thought it most likely to be received. And yet it is sometimes the part of the Christian minister, in following the example of Christ and of St. Paul, to “use great plainness of speech”: to tell the people, not what they most wish or expect to hear, not what is most in accordance with their previous ideas and prejudices, but what he himself thinks and knows, what he has found in his own experience to be of lasting value, or, in Scriptural language, the truth which he believes that he has heard of God. St. Paul made the greatest effort that was ever made by any one, excepting only Christ, to bring men to receive a spiritual religion. He strove to show to the Jew that God in Christ was the Father of all men, and not of the Jew only; that righteousness meant not the mere outward performance of certain acts, but a right attitude of the heart towards God. And we read in this Epistle to the Corinthians that this teaching of St. Paul was “to the Jews a stumbling-block and to the Greeks foolishness.” Now, why was this? Let us try to imagine how they must have felt in listening to him. Let us imagine the Jew being told that the law of Moses was abolished and done away, that the blood of bulls and goats could not take away sin; that the Passover, the commemoration of the great deliverance that had first made the Jews a nation, was only a type and a shadow which was vanishing; that the peculiar people must no longer think that Jehovah had any special regard for them, but must learn to embrace the Gentiles, who for half their lives had been polluting themselves with abominations of idols. Was this, the Jewish objector might say--was this, indeed, to stand upon the ancient paths and to restore the desolations of many generations? Was it not rather to remove the landmarks, to tear up the foundations? Such then was the nature of the offence which the teaching of St. Paul gave to the Jew. Let us now turn and ask what impression it was likely to produce upon the Gentiles. I think I hear one of them crying, “What will this babbler say? And are we not to worship the sun going forth as a giant to run his course, nor the moon walking in brightness, nor the earth, nor the glorious heaven that smiles on us with pure radiance in the daytime and gazes on us with a thousand eyes at night? The Diana of the Ephesians, the Jupiter of Lystria or of Athens, these are to be nothing to us. Those are no gods, you tell us, that are made with hands. Would you take from them the only stay, the only consolation which they have amid the miseries of their feeble life, and offer them instead an unseen God, to be comprehended only with the mind! Take heed that you are not destroying what you cannot restore.” Now St. Paul was not the first nor the last who in teaching a spiritual religion, in trying to open a way between the soul of man and the Spirit of God, had won for himself amongst the people of his own time the name of a godless and irreligious man. Isaiah is heard proclaiming in the name of God, “Your new moons and your appointed feasts My soul hateth, they are a trouble unto me, I am weary to bear them. Bring no more vain oblations. Cease to do evil, learn to do well: seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.” And Ezekiel is heard to cry, “The son shall not bear the iniquity of his father. The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” But Isaiah fell a victim to the idolatrous fanaticism of his countrymen, and of Ezekiel the people said, “Doth he not speak parables?” And so all the Hebrew prophets, one by one, bore witness equally against the formalism and idolatry of the people, and were rejected equally. And what of Christ Himself? Was He not put to death for blasphemy: because He had said, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up,” and because He told the Chief Priests that “The hour was coming when the Son of Man should sit on the right hand of Power”? We need not fear, then, or be discouraged, if it should be found that in some matters either of doctrine or of custom and tradition there is still a veil upon the people’s heart which clouds for them the perfect vision of the righteousness and goodness, the justice and mercy, of Almighty God: nor should the Christian teacher, who thinks he sees it is so, shrink from trying to remove the veil: if he may hope thereby to bring the minds of his countrymen nearer to a pure and spiritual religion. Least of all is he to be deterred by the imputation of impiety, or of infidelity and atheism, which has been shared by all religious teachers who have had anything to tell mankind, including Christ Himself. But still the unveiling of Divine truth to human apprehensions must be a gradual process, and is not to be completed in this life, and the same St. Paul who says, “That we all, beholding with open face the glory of the Lord, are transformed into the same image, from glory to glory,” had already said to this same Corinthian Church, “Now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then shall I know even as I also am known.” (Prof. Lewis Campbell.)
But their minds were blinded.--
Moral insensibility of sinners
I. Its figurative representation. This moral blindness)is--
1. Criminal--the result of a sinful course.
2. Dangerous--a most alarming moral disease.
3. Temporary--the heart must one day be quickened.
II. Its universal symptoms. Want of spiritual--
2. Perception. A thick haze of sin hides the spiritual from the soul’s eye.
III. Its grand discovery. Man’s awful moral insensibility is seen in--
1. His opposition.
2. His indifference to the gospel. But yet this will be done away in Christ. (D. Thomas, D. D.)
But even unto this day when Moses is read, the vail is upon their hearts.--
How is it that the number of those who believe the gospel is so small compared with the number of those who do not believe in it? Our nation has had the gospel in it more or less now for the space of one thousand six hundred years. Week by week the gospel has been expounded and enforced by all sorts of agencies, yet in no town is there one-half of the population found within the walls of Christian sanctuaries, and there are few congregations in which the unbelievers do not out-number the believers. How is this? We propose to look at the answer to this question as given by St. Paul. The veil is on the heart. The vision of an object may be rendered impossible in either of two ways at least. There is a mountain that rears its majestic head to the sky; you may spend weeks in its neighbourhood, and yet never see it once. It may be shrouded in mist. The veil is then on the mountain. Or, the mountain may be still unseen, for the eye may be covered with thick films. The veil is then on the eye. This latter case is the one which fitly illustrates the language of the apostle, “The veil is upon the heart, not upon Moses; he is read, but he is not understood; the veil is upon the heart.” Let us look at a few of the veils which are on the hearts of men now.
I. The veil of human depravity or natural corruption. No one surely will say that even the best man we know would reflect credit upon his Creator, had he been made exactly as he now is, with so many sinful tendencies in him. Nor do I see how any thoughtful man can maintain the theory which affirms that we all came into the world with a clean, pure soul, and which accounts for what we are, entirely upon the principle of the influence of circumstances and education. How any one who has had to deal with children can maintain such a theory passes my comprehension. It may sound a very plausible principle. “Teach men the truth, and they will believe it; teach men the right, and they will do it.” But does any one seriously believe that ignorance explains all the wickedness of the world? Ignorance of what? Ignorance that it is wickedness? Is it so, then, that man is now doing wrong with the consciousness that it is wrong? To say that men would not drink” if they knew better is to trifle. They do know better. Where, then, is the veil in such a case which prevents their reformation? It is not over the consequences of their sin. It can only be upon their heart. The vice is indulged because it is loved. And what is true of this vice is true also of man’s general alienation from what is good. The carnal mind is enmity against God, etc.
II. The veil of conceit or intellectual pride. This is closely connected with the one we have just considered. It is, in fact, one of its folds. There is a peril in our times arising from the almost exclusive attention which is being directed to the study of the wonders of external nature. It is obvious that the fascinations of scientific investigation may blind the mind to the claims of higher truth, which depends for its understanding on qualities of heart rather than of intellect. The mathematician may dwell so long in the region of figures and formulas that he may never dream of a world in which they play no part whatever. The chemist may so busy himself among acids, and alkalies, and crucibles, and retorts that he may deign no thought to anything which he cannot fuse or analyse. The Bible introduces the philosopher into a world which is all but entirely new. It does not require his calculus, or his crucible, or his battery, or his microscope. Its truths are different from any that can be reached by these processes of investigation. What can they tell us about sin? The Bible does not create sin, it finds it. It deals not only with sin as a fact, but guilt as a feeling. This, too, is not created by the Bible. The Bible deals with the idea of a nobler life. Even this idea it did not wholly create. It deals with death, and with death in its moral aspects, and with eternity. The Bible tells us of the incarnation, and of the Cross, and of the resurrection. Now the reason of man could tell us nothing of these things apart from the Bible. That profound mysteries are mingled up with this revelation is admitted. But it surely is not for the human intellect to proudly turn away from it on this account. How many doors of nature it has knocked at? how many subtle forces it has sought to seize, and see in their inmost essence, but in vain? Does it hear and obey the voice which nature utters, “Hitherto shalt thou go, but no further”? and does it resent such a limitation in the domain of the Divine Word? Then it becomes not the reason which is reverent, but the reason which is proud. It will not accept the truth on which the light shines full, because there is truth which lies in darkness. But where in this case is the veil? The veil is on the heart.
III. The veil of prejudice and tradition. There are few vices of the mind which are more common and invincible. What a fearful amount of evidence a prejudice can resist! Now prejudice often assumes the form of holding fast to a traditional faith. This was the very case with the Jews, who held fast not to the true Moses, but to the Moses as he had been represented to them by their authoritative teachers. Had they listened to the true Moses, they would have been prepared to welcome Christ. But when Moses was read in their hearing, or by themselves, he was read, not through a clear medium as when one sees objects through the pure air by the light of the sun, but he was read through a jaundiced eye and a medium which distorted him. They brought their conceptions with them, and made their own Moses in a large degree. They were like men who consult the oracle, and tell the oracle what shall be his response, or who speak in an echoing vault, and find their voice returned to them. Things are to us in great measure what we are to them. And if we bring prejudice or a traditional faith with us, a faith, I mean, which we have not ourselves tested and proved, and which does not live within us and support our life, then we need not expect to see the truth. Let us have a better reason for our faith than that we have always held it, or that our father held it. It was because the Jews had no better reason that they called Christ Beelzebub--that they crucified Him: and that even to the days of Paul, yes, and even down to our own days when Moses is read, the veil is on their eyes.
IV. The veil of lust, self-interest, or any other sin which has acquired a mastery over the heart and life. There is nothing that can so darken the eye of the soul as a sin, and hence no man who is addicted to sin can see so clearly as the man whose soul is pure whether in fact or in aspiration. Who is sanguine in his endeavours to persuade a man to relinquish a traffic, however mischievous, provided only it brings in ample gains? He sees no evil in the traffic, why should he? He compels no one to buy; and they may buy as little as they choose. Besides, if he did not sell some one else would. Thus he reasons, but those arguments did not lead him to begin the traffic, or to continue in it. They never occur to him except when he is put on his defence. The one abiding and omnipotent motive is that the trade is lucrative. This is the veil which is before his eyes, and which no amount of light will suffice to penetrate. Conclusion: Will you submit to this blinding process? Or, will you cry to the Great Healer, and say to Him, “Lord, that I may receive my sight”? The veil, you will remember, cannot remain for ever. The hand of death will tear it away; but the light which then will fall upon your eyes will not be the light of salvation, but that which discovers to you, when too late, the blessedness which you have bartered for the pleasures of a day. (E. Mellor, D. D.)
The apostle in the text contrasts the state of believing Christians with that of the unbelieving Jews, for the former, all with open face, behold the glory of the Lord. Now the language here employed admits of some latitude of interpretation. The word “open” means unveiled, and this shows that a contrast is intended. And the phrase may either be rendered “with open face,” alluding to the face of the beholders, or “in an open face,” referring to the face of Christ, as contrasted with that of Moses. For at the sixth verse of the next chapter the apostle expressly says that “God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” If, then, we understand the words in the former sense, the spiritually enlightened Christian is contrasted with the carnal and prejudiced Jew. But if we understand the words in the latter sense, the objects contrasted are the Christian and Mosaic dispensations, implying that the beholders have now the advantage, externally, of a far more glorious revelation. Christ did not put a veil on His face like Moses, but openly reflected the glory of the Lord. Now, in whichever sense the words ought to be grammatically explained, we apprehend that both ideas are included in the view of the apostle. He obviously means, that however it was in former times, and however it might be still with blinded, unbelieving Jews, both the veil of Moses and the veil of the heart were now taken away in reference to the Christian believer. There was no longer an obstructing medium interposed between them and the sublime truths of redemption. The light fell at once upon the eyes of their understanding and the object of their contemplation, and nothing tended any longer either to obscure it or to intercept its progress. There was neither a diseased organ of vision in the beholder nor a concealed object.
I. In the first place, it becomes us to reflect, with unfeigned gratitude to God, on the peculiar advantages of our own external situation in regard to the means of grace. There are many heathen nations in the world who have never enjoyed the light of Divine truth in any degree. And how obscurely was it possessed even by the ancient Israelites! Yes, the way of salvation is now patent and plain. The glory of the Lord, the excellent glory of His Divine mercy and love, as seen in the whole series of His dispensations, and reflected from the word of His grace, is now placed fully in our view.
II. But it becomes us to consider the state of our own hearts in reference to the privileges we enjoy. In our day there is no veil upon the truth, but is there none upon our own minds? Do we now distinguish that glory of the Lord which emanates from the plan of redemption? Do we discern the moral beauty, and feel the blessed influence of the doctrines of grace? If so, then the internal veil has surely been removed from our hearts. But if not, let us remember that the fault is our own, and that the blindness is in ourselves, for the glory of the Lord has been openly revealed. And if we discern it not the veil must be still upon our hearts. This was the case with many among the Jews even after Christ had come, And, alas! how many among professing Christians in the present day have the same veil upon their hearts. For otherwise, how shall we account for the dimness of their perception in discerning the real nature and bearings of Divine truth? Why do they not see sin in all its native deformity and soul-ruining consequences? Why do they not see the beauty and excellency of holiness, and the pure and spiritual happiness with which holiness is connected? Why do they not recognise the claims of God upon the devoted affection? Or why do they not feel and acknowledge the unspeakable obligations under which they are laid to the infinite love and grace of the Redeemer? Why do they not see the magnitude of the gospel salvation, and the aggravated guilt and infatuation of neglecting it? And why do they form such erroneous, unworthy, and unscriptural conceptions of that salvation? Were it only a cloud of ignorance which overshadowed their understandings, it might easily be dispelled, and could not long remain with all the abundant means of instruction they enjoy. But, alas! it is a dark cloud, not of ignorance merely, but of prejudice. It is the influence of pride, stirring up the enmity of the carnal mind against the humiliating doctrines of the gospel; it is the cherished indulgence of some favourite sin; it is the inveterate love of this present evil world. But it is the peculiar privilege of the true believer to behold the glory of the Lord with open face in the mirror of the gospel. Savingly taught by the Holy Spirit, he has been delivered from his native ignorance and unbelief; he has obtained the gift of spiritual discernment, and he beholds wondrous things out of the Divine law. He sees a majesty and a glory in the Scriptures, a high importance and excellency in spiritual subjects, to which he was originally blind. (R. Brydon.)
Our study of God’s truth must be with the heart
1. In this passage the intellectual blindness of the Jews is traced up to the wrong state of their hearts. Indeed, even without this statement we could have gathered as much. The miracles of our Lord, and the close agreement of His career with prophecy, must have carried the convictions of the Jews by force, had there not been a predisposition in the heart not to believe. As soon, therefore, as this predisposition shall be removed, they shall forthwith be convinced, and “the veil shall be taken away.”
2. Men are well aware that the understanding is liable to be prejudiced by the heart. “Love,” they say, “is blind.” We should exclude from the trial of a man’s cause both his friends and his foes, because we account strong sympathies or antipathies prejudicial to the judgment. But the proverb extends to our judgment of things. The mind of man--the faculty by which he discerns truth--may be compared to an eye placed above a fuming caldron, which can see nothing clearly, because the vapours intercept the vision. The heart is the caldron, and sends up the vapours which distort the view. Now in seeking to reform human nature, the philosophers of antiquity either did not notice this fact, or did not see how the difficulty which it presents could be surmounted. At all events, by way of persuading men to virtue, they made their appeal to the understanding, and sought to carry their point to convincing the mind. As far as the understanding went, nothing could be more effective than such a method. But what if men do not, as notoriously they do not, conclude moral questions affecting themselves, on the mere verdict of the understanding? What if they set the will on the judgment-seat? Unless you can rectify the will and its prepossessions, you only argue before a corrupted judge, and in the sentence the argument goes for nothing.
3. Christianity, in seeking to reform mankind, makes its first appeal to the affections, which are the springs of the will, and through them clears and rectifies the understanding. What may be said to have been the main scope of our Lord’s teaching? This--“God so loved the world,” dee. Was not the apostolic exhortation only a prolonging of the echoes of the Saviour’s voice: “We pray you … be ye reconciled to God”? Now the facts of the life and sufferings and teaching of Christ are the implements with which Christianity works. Let any one read the gospel records with thorough simplicity, and he cannot fail to be touched by them in a salutary way, especially by the concluding part of the great story.
4. But not only did Christianity commence with an appeal to the hearts of men; but this is the order which grace observes in its work on each individual soul. The Scripture says, “With the heart man believeth unto righteousness.” Justifying faith is not a mere intellectual conviction of the truth; but an operation of the heart, and by consequence of the will, involving a movement of the affections towards Christ in trust or love. And every forward step in Christian life must be made on the same principle as the first. It is quite as true to say, “with the heart man is edified,” as it is to say, “with the heart man believeth.” Now let us develop this truth, that edification is through the heart, and not through the mind.
I. Testimony is borne to it by the universal experience of Christians. What is that impalpable something, which if an inferior sermon has, it succeeds in doing good, but if a superior sermon lacks, it fails of doing good? We call it “unction”--a fervent way of throwing out Divine truth, corresponding with the fervent character of that truth. Unction would be no merit at all, but the reverse, if the gospel were to be received by the intellect rather than the affections. But men know that the gospel is designed to meet their sympathies; and if it should be presented to them in such a manner as not to do this, they feel that it is wronged and misrepresented.
II. Owing to our not perceiving this truth, religious exercises abe sometimes taken to be edifying which are not so. Shall I say that much of our ordinary reading of Holy Scripture comes under this head? that it often resolves itself into a mental exercitation, and that not of a very high order? What a misuse of terms is there in the phraseology so often applied to things got by rote, of which we say that they are “learned by heart”! So far from being learned by heart, such things are often not even learned by mind, for sometimes they are most deficiently understood; and the very utmost that can be said in favour of such learning is that it lodges truth in the memory, which may expand and serve a good purpose at some future time. Has our study of Scripture given any bias to the will in the path of holiness? Has it at all stimulated the affections to the love of God, or of our neighbour? Has it nerved us against temptation? supported us under trial? prompted a prayer? or stirred in us a holy ambition? By these and the like questions must its influence upon the heart be tested; and unless it has had some influence upon the heart, there has been no edification in it.
III. Let our studies turn more and more on that which is the core and centre of the Bible. The Bible is a revelation of God; and the core and centre of God’s revelation is Christ crucified. (Dean Goulburn.)
Nevertheless, when it shall turn to the Lord, the veil shall be taken away.--
The shining of Moses’ face
When Moses spoke of old to their fathers, the veil was upon his face; but now when he is read to them, the veil is upon their hearts. In old time it was God’s doing; the Scriptures were made obscure for a time on purpose, the types and prophecies could not be understood till their fulfilment: but it is now the Jews’ own doing; it is their own perverseness, refusing to see Christ in their Scriptures. Thus St. Paul speaks; thinking, most likely, as in many other places, of his own history, and of God’s dealings with him in particular. You know, in his early days, he was a sort of figure and type of the whole Jewish nation, in his great and bitter enmity to Jesus Christ. His face was not towards the Lord. When he read the law he saw only the outward sign; he knew nothing as yet of its end and hidden meaning. But our Saviour, in compassion to his well-meaning but blind zeal, called to him from heaven and touched his heart by His grace. When St. Paul’s heart had thus turned to the Lord, then the scales fell from his eyes; then he saw the purpose and drift of the ceremonies and sacrifices, the temple and tabernacle, the crown on David’s head, and the anointing oil on Aaron’s. And here we must observe well what “knowing Christ,” and “turning to Him,” mean in such places as these. It was not simply knowing that there was such a person, attending to what they heard and saw of Him; “turning to Him,” means turning to His Cross, taking it up and following Him. When a person had done this sincerely, he would find quite a new light break in upon places in the Old Testament, which before he had no true knowledge of. He would learn what was meant by a lamb without spot or blemish. Again, he would understand the meaning of circumcision; how it marked men as belonging to Him. He would see why the people were fed with manna, to signify the true bread from heaven. He would understand why the tabernacle and temple had two parts, the holy place and the most holy, and why the most holy can only be entered once a year, and then not without blood. But does this saying apply to Sews only, and to the reading of the Old Testament only? or is it so, that we also, though we have been Christians many years, may have a veil upon our hearts, and -that, in the reading of the New Testament as well as the Old, of the gospel as well as of the law, of St. Paul and the epistles as well as of Moses and the prophets? Surely it may be our case too; after all that has been done for us, we may but too easily, if we will, yet go on in stumbling and in ignorance. Is it not too plain that very many of us come often to hear God’s Holy Word; we are present at the reading of chapter after chapter, and yet we make no real improvement in our knowledge of holy things? And the cure for this must be the same as in the other case. When a man turns unto the Lord, that is, unto Christ, then the veil is taken away. Then a new light and an unaccustomed glory will break out and shine round our Bibles and in our Churches, and we shall begin to feel something of what the holy patriarch felt when he cried out, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I knew it not.” But, as I said, to obtain this blessing, to see so much of heaven on earth, a person must turn habitually to the Lord. And what is “turning to the Lord”? I will answer in the words of an ancient writer. “The better to know what it is to be turned to the Lord, let us first state what it is to be turned away from Him. Every person who, while the words of the law are in reading, is occupied with matters of ordinary talk, is turned away from the Lord. Every one who, whilst the Bible is reading, is indulging thoughts of worldly business, of money, of gain, he too is turned away. Every one who is pressed with cares about his possessions, who strains himself eagerly after wealth, who longs after worldly glory and the honours of this life, every such person likewise is turned away.” Who follows Divine meditations with as much zeal and labour as human? and how then dare we complain of our ignorance of that which we never tried to learn? Then again he reproves them for their carelessness about what is read in Church, and says of those who talk during the service, that when the Holy Scriptures are read, not only a veil, but even a partition, if one may call it so, and a wall, is upon their hearts.” The veil, he says, of the sense is the sound of the words; but not even so much as this comes to them, who either stay away from the solemn assemblies, or come there and behave inattentively. Thus you see what strict attention “turning to the Lord” was then supposed to require, Now merely to attend may seem to some a simple thing enough: but those who have tried know it to be no small effort. But then we must well observe what else is implied in that turning to the Lord which the apostle mentions as the condition of the veil being withdrawn. Attention by itself is not enough; children we see will sometimes attend to their lessons in order to be rewarded; or out of a sort of curiosity, just to know what is said; it must be accompanied by prayer, and must be itself of the nature of prayer. Christian obedience is a great condition of all the promises we have heard. Without this, turning to the Lord is but a mockery, and it is vain to think of the veil being taken away. And, finally, as Moses at our Lord’s transfiguration saw that in course of real accomplishment, which in shadow God had showed him in Mount Sinai long before--saw the skirts of the glory of God, the Incarnate Son glorified, and partook himself in His brightness; so shall it be one day with all who faithfully turn to Christ; and in the meantime His Spirit is with them to change them, unknown to themselves (for Moses wist not that the skin of his face shone), after the one image, from glory to glory. (Plain Sermons by Contributors to the Tracts for the Times.)
2 Corinthians 3:17
Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.
Christ the Spirit of Christianity
I. Note the great principles in the text.
1. Christianity is a spirit.
(1) There is a “letter” and a “spirit” in everything. These two things are quite distinct. The letter may be changed, the spirit may be unchangeable. The same spirit may require for its expression to different minds different letters. The spirit may not only cease to be represented, but may be positively misrepresented, by its form. Christ, e.g., enjoined the washing of one another’s feet where washing the feet was a common service; but we smile at the professed obedience to this precept every year of his holiness of Rome.
(2) The Old Testament was a letter in which there was a spirit. The very idea of a letter supposes that something is written. And, further, that spirit, so far as it went, was the same as in the gospel; the law represented the same ideas and sentiments as the gospel, but in a different way, and with different results, so as to justify the calling of one a “letter” and the other a “spirit.” The first, though not without spirit, had more letter in it; and the second, though not without letter, has more spirit in it. Christianity is like a book for men, which assumes many things that children must have in most explicit statement. It is more suggestive than explanatory, trusts more to conscience than to argument, and appeals more to reason than to rule. Its doctrines are principles, not propositions; its institutions are grand outlines, not precise ceremonies; its laws are moral sentiments, not minute directions.
2. Christ is the Spirit of Christianity.
(1) The fact of there being a revelation at all is owing to Christ. But for Him the beginning of sin would have been the end of humanity, But God had, in anticipation of the fall, devised a plan of redemption. Forfeited life was continued because of Christ. Whatever was done was for Him. The great events of past times were preparatory to Him. Prophets spoke of Him, kings ruled for Him, priests typified Him. According to Christ’s contemplated work men were treated. But if the law was through Christ as its grand reason, how much more is the gospel! For now He is not the secret but the revealed agent of God’s providence. What was done before was done because of Him, what is done now is done directly by Him. He realised the conceptions expressed by Judaism, made its figures facts, its predictions history.
(2) Christ is the Spirit of Christianity, as He is the personal representation of its truths. The gospel is Christ. It shines in Him as in a mirror, it lives in Him as in a body. Is God the prime idea of all religion? “He that has seen Me has seen the Father.” Is the moral character of God as important as His existence? Behold “the image of the invisible God” as “He goes about doing good.” Is reunion with God the great need of humanity? It is consummated in the Incarnation. Do we want law? “Walk even as He walked.” Do we die? “Christ, the firstfruits of them that slept.” Are we sighing for immortality? “This is the eternal life.”
(3) The Holy Spirit, by whom spiritual blessings are conveyed, is emphatically the Spirit of Christ. This Spirit, the closest and most quickening contact of God with our souls, is the fruit of the reconciliation with God effected by Christ. That effected, Christ went to heaven that He might give us this “other Comforter, even the Spirit of truth.”
3. Christ, as the Spirit of Christianity, is the Spirit of liberty.” The genius of a spiritual life is to be free. “The law was not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient.” The more spiritual men are, the less do they require external regulations; and one of the most striking features of Christianity is its comparative freedom from such. It is a “law of liberty,” in the sense of leaving us at liberty upon many points; moral excellence is its requirement, not ceremonial exactness. Its law is summed up by love to God and man. You do not need to fetter a loving child with the rules you lay upon a hireling. The gospel is spiritual in its form, because it is spiritual in its power. In the following verse a sublime truth is set before us. The liberty of the gospel is holiness. “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death”: only the Spirit can do this. The letter may keep sin down, but the spirit turns it out. The letter may make us afraid to do it, the spirit makes us dislike to have it. And is not that liberty, when we are free to serve God in the gospel of His Son, free to have access to Him with the spirit of adoption, free to run the way of His commandments, because “enlarged in heart”? He is the slave whose will is in fetters; and nothing but the Spirit, the Lord, can set that free.
II. The subject is fruitful in reflections and admonitions.
1. The text is one of a large class which intimate and require the divinity of Christ. The place assigned to Christ in the scheme and providence of God is such that only on the supposition of His Divine nature can it be understood and explained. Destroy Him, take Him away, and you do not merely violate the language, but annihilate the very life of God’s covenant. If Christianity be what we are accustomed to regard it, He who is its Spirit, in the way and for the reasons which itself explains, can be no other than the “true God and eternal life.”
2. We see the greatness of the privileges with which, as Christians, we have been favoured, and the source of their derivation. The apostles do employ language severely depreciating in its tone, when contrasting previous economies with our own. “Darkness,” “flesh,” “letter,” “bondage,” “the world,” are set against “light,” “spirit,” “grace,” “liberty,” and “the kingdom of God” and “of heaven.” And the reason of our being so blessed is to be found in Christ. Shall we not be grateful? And shall not gratitude express itself in holiness? “Ye are not under the law, but under grace,” and the great worth of this position is in the facilities for sanctification which it affords.
3. Let us give to the personal element in Christianity its proper place and power. In the apostles’ writings there was an indestructible connection of every principle of the gospel with the personal Christ. Everything was “in Him.” Christ was Christianity. He is “the Truth,” “the Way,” “the Life,” the “peace,” “hope,” and “resurrection” of men; He is their “wisdom,” “righteousness,” “sanctification,” and “redemption.” Religion is not merely a contemplation of truth, or a doing of morality; it is fellowship with God and with His Son. We are to love Christ, not spiritual beauty; to believe in Christ, not spiritual truth; to live to Christ, not spiritual excellence.
4. Our subject instructs and encourages us in connection with the diffusion of our religion through the earth. The gospel is a spirit. Well, indeed, might we despond, when contemplating the powers of darkness, if we could not associate with our religion the attributes of spirit. But, said Christ, “the words that I speak unto you are spirit and life.” And our subject also teaches charity. Can there be any heart unaffected when the promise of “liberty,” in its highest state and completest measure, is before us? Can you dwell upon the hard bondage of the souls of men, both in civilised and uncivilised conditions, and not long to “preach deliverance to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound”? (A. J. Morris.)
Liberty of the spiritual life
The heavenly life imparted is liberty and truth and peace; it is the removal of bondage and darkness and pain. So far from being a mechanical constraint, as some would represent, it is the removal of the iron chain with which guilt had bound the sinner. It acts like an army of liberation to a down-trodden country, like the warm breath of spring to the frost-fettered tree. For the entrance of true life or living truth into man’s soul must be liberty, not bondage. (A. Bonar.)
The spirit of liberty
1. It is remarkable that, when our Lord expounded in the synagogue of Nazareth, He chose a passage of which two-fifths related to “liberty.” Between that passage and my text there is a singular connection. “ The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” etc. “ Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.”
I. We are all of us so constituted that there must be a certain sense of freedom to make a play of the affections.
1. Satan knew this quite well when he destroyed the loving allegiance of our first parents by introducing first into their minds the thought of bondage. “Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not cat of every tree of the garden?” And so the poison had worked. “You are not free.” In catching at a fictitious freedom the first Adam lost the true. The second Adam made Himself a “servant of servants,” that He might restore to us a greater freedom than Adam lost.
2. But still the same enemy is always trying to spoil our paradises by making us deny our freedom. He has two ways of doing this. Sometimes he gives us a sense of bondage, which keeps us back from peace, and therefore holiness. Sometimes he gives us an idea of imaginary “liberty,” of which the real effect is that it leaves us the slave of a sentiment or of a passion.
3. Some persons are afraid of “liberty,” lest it should run into “licentiousness.” But I do not find in the whole Bible that we are warned against too much “liberty.” In fact, it is almost always those who have felt themselves too shut up who break out into lawlessness of conduct. Just as the stopped river, bursting its barrier, runs into the more violent stream.
II. That you should “stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ makes his people free,” understand what your real “liberty” is.
1. “By and by,” somebody says, “when I have believed and prayed a little more, and lived a little more religiously, then I hope God will forgive me.” So every night he has to consider whether he is yet good enough to justify the hope that he is a child of God; and the consequence is that man prays with no “liberty.” But, all the while, what is the fact? God does love him. All he wants is to take facts as facts. It needs but one act of realisation, and every promise of the Bible belongs to that man. This done, see the difference. He feels himself a child of God through God’s own grace, and his “liberated” mind leaps to the God who has loved him. Now the right spring is put into the machinery of his breast. He works in the freedom of a certainty. And from that date that man’s real sanctification begins.
2. There are many whose minds are continually recurring to old sins. They have prayed over them again and again, but still they cannot take their thoughts off them. But the freeman of the Lord knows the meaning of those words--“He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit.” All he feels he has to do is to bring his daily sins to that Fountain where he has washed all the sins of his former life. And do not you see that that man will go with a lightened feeling?
3. See the nature of that man’s forgiveness. To obey the command of any one we love is pleasant, but to obey because it will please him, though he has not commanded it, is much happier. The spirit of the law is always better than the law. Deuteronomy is better than Leviticus. Now this is the exact state of a Christian. He has studied the commands till he has reached to the spirit of the commands. He has gathered “the mind of God,” and he follows that. A command prescribes, and whatever prescribes circumscribes, and is so far painful. But the will of God is an unlimited thing, and therefore it is unlimiting.
(1) And when man, free because “the Son has made him free,” goes to read his Bible, like a man who has got the free range of all its pastures, to cull flowers wherever he likes, he is free to all the promises that are there, for he has “the mind of Christ.”
(2) Or hear him in prayer. How close it is! How boldly he puts in his claim!
(3) The fear of death never hurts that man. Why? Because his death is over.
(4) And, because he is so very free, you will find there is a large-heartedness and a very charitable judgment in that man. He lives above party. (J. Vaughan, M. A.)
The liberty of the Spirit
How much is made of earthly liberty--the shadow of true freedom. How true it is that, whilst many men “profess to give liberty to others, they themselves are the slaves of corruption.” Men are content to be slaves within who would be very indignant at any attempt to make them slaves without. The apostle, speaking of the bondage of the law, said that, when the heart of the Jew shall turn to the Lord, then, and not till then, shall they come to the true freedom. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is--
I. Liberty from condemnation. If a man is under sentence of death he cannot find liberty. He may forget his imprisonment in mirth and feasting, but it is not the less real because he forgets it. The morning will come when he will be dragged off to his fearful doom. We are under the sentence of God’s broken law. “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” How beautiful, then, the language of the apostle! (Romans 8:1).
II. Liberty from law. The law knows nothing of mercy and forgiveness, nor does it afford the least help to holiness. Its command is, “Do this, and live; break this in the least, and die.” Therefore, “by the deeds of the law “ shall no man have peace with God. But “what the law could not do,” etc. (Romans 8:2-4).
III. Liberty to obey. Many think they are free, and that they will do as they like; but they do not like to do what they ought to like, and therefore they are slaves after all. The way in which a man may convince himself of his slavery is to try to be what he ought to be. He can do nothing of himself, and he must be brought to feel that he can do no good thing without God. But what the flesh cannot do the Spirit will enable him to do. “It is God which worketh in us, both to will and to do of His good pleasure”; therefore “work out your own salvation,” etc.
IV. Liberty to fight the good fight of faith. A man can do battle with his corrupt nature, he can win the victory over the principalities and powers of darkness, and his sword is a sword of liberty. The drunkard becomes sober, the impure chaste, the vindictive forgiving, by the power of the Spirit of God.
V. Liberty of access to God. The one true and living way is open, but it cannot be discerned except a man has it revealed to him by the Spirit of God. Through Christ we have access by one Spirit unto the Father.
VI. Liberty of holy boldness and fortitude in the service of God. (H. Stowell, M. A.)
The freedom of the Spirit
1. To possess the Lord Jesus Christ is to possess the Holy Ghost, who is the minister and guardian of Christ’s presence in the soul. The apostle’s conclusion is that those who are converted to Jesus have escaped from the veil which darkened the spiritual intelligence of Israel. The converting Spirit is the source of positive illumination; but, before He enlightens thus, He must give freedom from the veil of prejudice which denies to Jewish thought the exercise of any real insight into the deeper sense of Scripture. That sense is seized by the Christian student of the ancient law, because in the Church of Christ he possesses the Spirit; and “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.”
2. The Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of Christ because He is sent by Christ, and for the purpose of endowing us with Christ’s nature and mind. His presence does not supersede that of Christ: He co-operates in, He does not work apart from, the mediatorial work Of Christ. To possess the Holy Spirit is to possess Christ; to have lost the one is to have lost the other. Accordingly our Lord speaks of the gift of Pentecost as if it were His own second coming (John 14:18). And, after telling the Romans that “if any man have not the Spirit of Christ he is none of His,” St. Paul adds, “Now if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin.” Here Christ’s “being in” the Christian, and the Christian’s “having the Spirit of Christ,” are equivalent terms.
3. Freedom is not an occasional largess of the Divine Spirit; it is not merely a reward for high services or conspicuous devotion. It is the very atmosphere of His presence. Wherever He really is, there is also freedom. He does not merely strike off the fetters of some narrow national prejudice, or of some antiquated ceremonialism. His mission is not to bestow an external, political, social freedom. For no political or social emancipation can give real liberty to an enslaved soul. And no tyranny of the state or of society can enslave a soul that has been really freed. At His bidding the inmost soul of man has free play. He gives freedom from error for the reason, freedom from constraint for the affections, freedom for the will from the tyranny of sinful and human wills.
4. The natural images which “are used to set forth the presence and working of the Holy Spirit are suggestive of this freedom. The Dove, which pictures His gentle movement on the soul and in the Church, suggests also the power of rising at will above the dead level of the soil into a higher region where it is at rest. The “cloven tongue like as of fire” is at once light and heat; and light and heat imply ideas of the most unrestricted freedom. “The wind” blowing “where it listeth”; the well of water in the soul, springing up, like a perpetual fountain, unto everlasting life--such are our Lord’s own chosen symbols of the Pentecostal gift. All these figures prepare us for the language of the apostles when they are tracing the results of the great Pentecostal gift. With St. James, the Christian, no less than the Jew, has to obey a law, but the Christian law is “a law of library.” With St. Paul, the Church is the Jerusalem which is “free”; in contrast with the bondwoman the Christian is to stand fast in a liberty with which Christ has freed him; he is “made free from sin, and become the servant of righteousness.” St. Paul compares “the glorious liberty of the children of God” with the “bondage of corruption”; he contrasts the “law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus,” which gives us Christians our freedom, with the enslaving “law of sin and death.” According to St. Paul, the Christian slave is essentially free, even while he still wears his chain (1 Corinthians 7:22). Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is--
I. Mental liberty.
1. From the first God has consecrated liberty of thought by withdrawing thought from the control of society. Society protects our persons and goods, and passes judgment upon our words and actions; but it cannot force the sanctuary of our thought. And the Spirit comes not to suspend, but to recognise, to carry forward, to expand, and to fertilise almost indefinitely the thought of man. He has vindicated for human thought the liberty of its expression against imperial tyranny and official superstition. The blood of the martyrs witnessed to the truth that, where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is mental liberty.
2. In the judgment of an influential school dogma is the enemy of religious freedom. But what is dogma? The term belongs to the language of civilians; it is applied to the imperial edicts. It also finds a home in the language of philosophy; and the philosophers who denounce the dogmatic statements of the gospel are hardly consistent when they are elaborating their own theories. Dogma is essential Christian truth thrown by authority into a form which admits of its permanently passing into the understanding and being treasured by the heart of the people. For dogma is an active protest against those sentimental theories which empty revelation of all positive value. Dogma proclaims that revelation does mean something, and what. Accordingly dogma is to be found no less truly in the volume of the New Testament than in Fathers and Councils. It is specially embodied in our Lord’s later discourses, in the sermons of His apostles, in the epistles of St. Paul. The Divine Spirit, speaking through the clear utterances of Scripture, is the real author of essential dogma; and we know that “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.”
3. But is not dogma, as a matter of fact, a restraint upon thought? Unquestionably. But there is a notion of liberty which is impossible. Surely a being is free when he moves without difficulty in the sphere which is assigned to him by his natural constitution. If he can only travel beyond his sphere with the certainty of destroying himself, it is not an unreasonable tax upon his liberty whereby he is confined within the barrier that secures his safety. Now truth is originally the native element of human thought; and Christian dogma prescribes the direction and limits of truth concerning God and His relations to man.
(1) Certainly the physical world does not teach us that obedience to law is fatal to freedom. The heavens would cease to “declare the glory of God” if the astronomers were to destroy those invariable forces which confine the movement of the swiftest stars to their fixed orbits. And when man himself proceeds to claim that empire which God has given him over the world of nature, he finds his energies bounded and controlled by law in every direction. We men can transport ourselves to and fro on the surface of this earth. But if in an attempt to reach the skies we should succeed in mounting to a region where animal life is impossible, we know that death would be the result of our success. Meanwhile our aeronauts, and even our Alpine climbers, do not “complain of the tyranny of the air.”
(2) So it is in the world of thought. Look at those axioms which form the basis of the freest and most exact science known to the human mind. We cannot demonstrate them, we cannot reject them; but the submissive glance by which reason accepts them is no unworthy figure of the action of faith. Faith also submits, it is true; but her submission to dogma is the guarantee at once of her rightful freedom and of her enduring power.
(3) So submission to revealed truth involves a certain limitation of intellectual licence. To believe the dogma that God exists is inconsistent with a liberty to deny His existence. But such liberty is, in the judgment of faith, parallel to that of denying the existence of the sun or of the atmosphere. To complain of the Creed as an interference with liberty is to imitate the savage who had to walk across London at night, and who remarked that the lamp-posts were an obstruction to traffic.
4. They only can suppose that Christian dogma is the antagonist of intellectual freedom whose misery it is to disbelieve. For dogma stimulates and provokes thought--sustains it at an elevation which, without it, is impossible. It is a scaffolding by which we climb into a higher atmosphere. It leaves us free to hold converse with God, to learn to know Him. We can speak of Him and to Him, freely and affectionately, within the ample limits of a dogmatic definition. Besides this, dogma sheds, from its home in the heart of revelation, an interest on all surrounding branches of knowledge. God is everywhere, and to have a fixed belief in Him is to have a perpetual interest in all that reflects Him. What composition can be more dogmatic than the Te Deum? Yet it stimulates unbounded spiritual movement. The soul finds that the sublime truths which it adores do not for one moment fetter the freedom of its movement.
II. Moral liberty.
1. There is no such thing as freedom from moral slavery, except for the soul which has laid hold on a fixed objective truth. But when, at the breath of the Divine Spirit upon the soul, heaven is opened to the eye of faith, and man looks up from his misery and his weakness to the everlasting Christ upon His throne; when that glorious series of truths, which begins with the Incarnation, and which ends with the perpetual intercession, is really grasped by the soul as certain--then assuredly freedom is possible. It is possible, for the Son has taken flesh, and died, and risen again, and interceded with the Father, and given us His Spirit and His sacraments, expressly that we might enjoy it.
2. But, then, we are to be enfranchised on the condition of submission. Submission! you say--is not this slavery? No; obedience is the school of freedom. In obeying God you escape all the tyrannies which would fain rob you of your liberty. In obeying God you are emancipated from the cruel yet petty despotisms which enslave, sooner or later, all rebel wills. As in the material world all expansion is proportioned to the compression which precedes it, so in the moral world the will acts with a force which is measured by its power of self-control.
3. As loyal citizens of that kingdom of the Spirit which is also the kingdom of the Incarnation, you may be really free. “If the Son shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.” Political liberty is a blessing; liberty of thought is a blessing. But the greatest blessing is liberty of the conscience and the will. It is freedom from a sense of sin when all is known to have been pardoned through the atoning blood; freedom from a slavish fear of our Father in heaven when conscience is offered to His unerring eye by that penitent love which fixes its eye upon the Crucified; freedom from current prejudice and false human opinion when the soul gazes by intuitive faith upon the actual truth; freedom from the depressing yoke of weak health or narrow circumstances, since the soul cannot be crushed which rests consciously upon the everlasting arms; freedom from that haunting fear of death which holds those who think really upon death at all, “all their lifetime subject to bondage,” unless they are His true friends and clients who by the sharpness of His own death has led the way and “opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.” It is freedom in time, but also, and beyond, freedom in eternity. In that blessed world, in the unclouded presence of the emancipator, the brand of slavery is inconceivable. In that world there is indeed a perpetual service; yet, since it is the service of love made perfect, it is only and by necessity the service of the free. (Canon Liddon.)
Liberty is the birthright of every man. But where do you find liberty unaccompanied by religion? This land is the home of liberty, not so much because of our institutions as because the Spirit of the Lord is here--the spirit of true and hearty religion. But the liberty of the text is an infinitely greater and better one, and one which Christian men alone enjoy. He is the free man whom the truth makes free. Without the Spirit of the Lord, in a free country, ye may still be bondsmen; and where there are no serfs in body, ye may be slaves in soul. Note--
I. What we are freed from.
1. The bondage of sin. Of all slavery there is none more horrible than this. “O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me” from it? But the Christian is free.
2. The penalty of sin--eternal death.
3. The guilt of sin.
4. The dominion of sin. Profane men glory in free living and free thinking. Free living! Let the slave hold up his fetters and jingle them, and say, “This is music, and I am free.” A sinner without grace attempting to reform himself is like Sisiphus rolling the stone up hill, which always comes down with greater force. A man without grace attempting to save himself is engaged in as hopeless a task as the daughters of Danaus, when they attempted to fill a vast vessel with bottomless buckets. He has a bow without a string, a sword without a blade, a gun without powder.
5. Slavish fear of law. Many people are honest because they are afraid of the policeman. Many are sober because they are afraid of the eye of the public. If a man be destitute of the grace of God, his works are only works of slavery; he feels forced to do them. But now, Christian, “Love makes your willing feet in swift obedience move.” We are free from the law that we may obey it better.
6. The fear of death. I recollect a good old woman, who said, “Afraid to die, sir! I have dipped my foot in Jordan every morning before breakfast for the last fifty years, and do you think I am afraid to die now?” A good Welsh lady, when she lay a-dying, was visited by her minister, who said to her, “Sister, are you sinking?” But, rising a little in the bed, she said, “Sinking! Sinking! Did you ever know a sinner sink through a rock? If I had been standing on the sand I might sink; but, thank God! I am on the Rock of Ages, and there is no sinking there.”
II. What we are free to. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty,” and that liberty gives us certain rights and privileges.
1. To heaven’s charter. Heaven’s Magna Charta is the Bible, and you are free to it--to all its doctrines, promises, etc. You are free to all that is in the Bible. It is the bank of heaven: you may draw from it as much as you please without let or hindrance.
2. To the throne of grace. It is the privilege of Englishmen that they can always send a petition to Parliament; and it is the privilege of a believer that he can always send a petition to the throne of God. It signifies nothing what, where, or under what circumstances I am.
3. To enter into the city. I am not a freeman of London, which is doubtless a great privilege, but I am a freeman of a better city. Now some of you have obtained the freedom of the city, but you won’t take it up. Don’t remain outside the Church any longer, for you have a right to come in.
4. To heaven. When a Christian dies he knows the password that can make the gates wide open fly; he has the white stone whereby he shall be known as a ransomed one, and that shall pass him at the barrier. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Signs of spiritual liberty
Wheresoever the Spirit of God is, there is--
I. A liberty of holiness, to free us from the dominion of sin (Luke 1:75). As children can give a bird leave to fly so it be in a string to pull it back again, so Satan hath men in a string if they live in sin. The beast that runs away with a cord about him is catched by the cord again; so, having Satan’s cords about us, he can pull us in when he lists. From this we are freed by the Spirit.
II. A blessed freedom and an enlargement of heart to duties, God’s people are a voluntary people. Those that are under grace are “anointed by the Spirit” (Psalms 89:20), and that spiritual anointment makes them nimble. Otherwise spiritual duties are as opposite to flesh and blood as fire and water. When we are drawn, therefore, to duties, as a bear to a stake, for fear, or out of custom, with extrinsical motives, and not from a new nature, this is not from the Spirit. For the liberty of the Spirit is when actions come off naturally, without any extrinsical motive. A child needs not extrinsical motives to please his father. So there is a new nature in those that have the Spirit of God to stir them up to duty, though God’s motives may help as the sweet encouragements and rewards. But the principle is to do things naturally. Artificial things move from a principle without them, therefore they are artificial. Clocks and such things have weights that stir all the wheels they go by, and that move them; so it is with an artificial Christian. He moves with weights without him; he hath not an inward principle of the Spirit to make things natural to him.
III. Courage against all opposition whatsoever, joined with light and strength of faith, breaking through all oppositions. Opposition to a spiritual man adds but courage and strength to him to resist. In Acts 4:23, seq., when they had the Spirit of God, they encountered opposition; and the more they were opposed, the more they grew. They were cast in prison, and rejoiced; and the more they were imprisoned, the more courageous they were still. There is no setting against this wind, no quenching of this fire, by any human power. See how the Spirit triumphed in the martyrs. The Spirit of God is a victorious Spirit (Romans 8:33-34; Acts 6:10; Acts 6:15).
IV. Boldness with God himself, otherwise a “consuming fire?” For the Spirit of Christ goes through the mediation of Christ to God. That familiar boldness whereby we cry, “Abba, Father,” comes from sons. This comes from the Spirit. If we be sons, then we have the Spirit, whereby we cry, “Abba, Father.” (R. Sibbes, D. D.)
2 Corinthians 3:18
But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image.
Mirrors of Christ
1. We should substitute “reflecting” for “beholding.” Christians are represented not as persons looking into a mirror, but as themselves the mirrors. They who uncover their souls to the influence of Christ reflect His glory, and by continuing to do so they attain to that glory. It is as if by some process the image of a person who gazes into a mirror should not be merely reflected for the moment, but permanently stamped upon it.
2. Recall the incident which suggested the figure. When Moses came down from the Mount his countenance shone so as to dazzle beholders; he acted, as it were, like a mirror to the glory of God. But Moses knew that the reflection would pass away, and therefore he put on a veil, that the people “might not see the end of it.” Had they done so they might have supposed that God had retired from him, and that no more authority belonged to him, and therefore Moses put on the veil; but when he returned to receive new communications from God he met God with unveiled face. But, says Paul, the wrong-headedness of the Jews is perpetuating this veil. When the O. T. is read, there is a veil preventing them from seeing the end of the glory of Moses in Christ; they think the glory still abides in Moses. But when they return, as Moses used to return, to the Lord, they will lay aside the veil as he did, and then the glory of the Lord shall shine upon, and be reflected by, them. This reflection will not fade away, but increase from one glory to another--to perfect resemblance to the original. This is a glory not skin-deep like that of Moses, but penetrating the character and changing our inmost nature into Christ’s image.
3. The idea, then, is that they who are much in Christ’s presence become mirrors to Him, reflecting more and more permanently His image until they themselves perfectly resemble Him. This assertion rests on the well-known law that a reflected image tends in many circumstances to become fixed. Your eye, e.g., is a mirror which retains for a little the image it has been reflecting. Let the sun shine upon it, and wherever you look for a time you will still see the sun. The child who grows up with a parent he respects unconsciously reflects a thousand of his attitudes, looks, and ways, which gradually become the child’s own. We are all of us, to a great extent, made by the company we keep. There is a natural readiness in us all to reflect and respond to the emotions expressed in our presence. If another person laughs, we can scarcely refrain from laughing; if we see a man in pain, our face reflects what is passing in him. And so every one who associates with Christ finds that to some extent he reflects His glory. It is His image which always reawakens in us a response to what is good and right. It is He who saves us from becoming altogether a reflection of a world lying in wickedness, from being formed by our own evil-heartedness, and from persuading ourselves we may live as we list. His own patient lips seem to say, “Follow Me; be in this world as I was in it.” Our duty, then, if we would be transformed into the image of Christ, is plain.
I. We must associate with him. Even one thought of Him does some good, but we must learn to abide with Him. It is by a series of impressions that His image becomes fixed in us. As soon as we cease to be conscious of Christ we cease to reflect Him, just as when an object passes from before a mirror, the reflection simultaneously goes with it. Besides, we are exposed to objects the most destructive to Christ’s image in us. As often as our hearts are exposed to some tempting thing and respond to it, it is that reflection which is seen in us, mingled often with the fading reflection of Christ; the two images forming together a monstrous representation.
II. We must be careful to turn fully round to Christ. The mirror must be set quite square to that which it is to reflect. In many positions you can see many other images in a mirror without seeing yourself. And so, unless we give our full front, our direct, straightforward, whole attention to Christ, He may see in us, not His own image at all, but the images of things abhorrent to Him. The man who is not wholly satisfied in Christ, who has aims or purposes that Christ will not fulfil for him, is not wholly turned towards Christ. The man who, while he prays to Christ, is keeping one eye open towards the world, is a mirror set obliquely; so that he reflects not Christ at all, but other things which are making him the man he is.
III. We must stand in His presence with open, unveiled face. We may wear a veil in the world, refusing to reflect it; but when we return to the Lord we must uncover our face. A covered mirror reflects nothing. Others find Christ in the reading of the Word, in prayer, in the services of His house, in a number of little providences--in fact everywhere, because their eyes are unveiled. We may read the very same word and wonder at their emotion; we may pass through the same circumstances and be quite unconscious of Christ; we may be at the communion table side by side with one who is radiant with the glory of Christ and yet an impalpable veil between us and him may hide all this from us. And our danger is that we let the dust gather upon us till we see and reflect no ray of that glory. We do nothing to brush off the dust, but let Him pass by and leave no more mark on us than if He had not been present. This veil is not like a slight dimness occasioned by moisture on a mirror, which the warm presence of Christ will itself dry up; it is rather an incrustation that has grown out from our own hearts, thickly covering them and making them thoroughly impervious to the light of Heaven. The heart is overlaid with worldly ambitions; with fleshly appetites; with schemes of self-advancement. All these, and everything which has no sympathy with what is spiritual and Christlike, must be removed, and the mirror must be kept clean, if there is to be any reflection. In some persons you might be tempted to say that the mischief is produced not so much by a veil on the mirror as by a lack of quicksilver behind it. There is no solid backing to the character, no material for the truth to work upon, or there is no energetic thinking, no diligent, painstaking spiritual culture. Conclusion:
1. Observe the perfectness of this mode of sanctification. It is perfect--
(1) In its end; it is likeness to Christ in which it terminates. And as often as you set yourself before Christ, and in presence of His perfect character begin to feel the blemishes in your own, you forget the points of resemblance, and feel that you cannot rest until the likeness is perfect. And so the Christian goes from glory to glory, from one reflection of Christ’s image to another, until perfection is attained.
(2) In its method. It extends to the whole character at once. When a sculptor is cutting out a bust, or a painter filling in a likeness, one feature may be pretty nearly finished while the rest are undiscernible; but when a person stands before a mirror the whole face is at once reflected. And in sanctification the same law holds good. Many of us take the wrong method; we hammer and chisel away at ourselves to produce some resemblance to Christ in one feature or another; but the result is that either in a day or two we quite forget what grace we were trying to develop; or, succeeding somewhat, we find that our character as a whole is more provokingly unlike Christ than ever. Consider how this appears in the moulding men undergo in society. You know in what class of society a man has been brought up, not by his accent, bearing, conversation, or look alone, but by all these together. The society a man moves in impresses on all he does and is a certain style and manner and tone. So the only effectual way of becoming like Christ in all points is to be much in His society.
2. Some of us lament that there is so little we can do for Christ. But we can all reflect Him, and by reflecting Him we shall certainly extend the knowledge of Him on earth. Many who do not look at Him, look at you. As in a mirror persons (looking into it from the side) see the reflections of objects which are themselves invisible, so persons will see in you an image of what they do not directly see, which will cause them to wonder, and turn to study for themselves the substantial figure which produces it.
3. The mirror cannot produce an image of that which has no reality. And as little can any man produce in himself dud of himself the character of Christ. (M. Dods, D. D.)
The gospel the reflective mirror of the glory of the Lord
I. We must explain the object of vision. “The glory of the Lord.” Every discovery which the Lord has made of Himself to His rational creatures is for the manifestation of His own glory. The works of creation were intended to show forth His glory. In process of time the Divine Being gave a more complete revelation of His glory, by the ministry of Moses, to a nation whom He had ordained to be the repository of His truth.
II. The reflective medium. A glass or mirror. Divine revelation is a mirror in which we perceive, and from which is reflected, the glory of the Lord. The ministration of the Spirit exceeds in glory the ministration of death and condemnation, inasmuch as--
1. Its discoveries are more satisfactory.
2. The miracles by which they were attested were more benevolent.
3. The grace of the latter is more abundant than that of the former. By grace here we mean the bestowment of spiritual life and salvation to the souls of sinful men. If we look at the general character of the Israelitish nation, from the time of Moses to the coming of Christ, we shall perceive but little manifestation of genuine piety towards God. But how abundant was the grace when Christ appeared, “in the fulness of time,” “to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself!” Then Jews and Gentiles received the gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit in so copious a manner as to fulfil the beautiful predictions of the prophet: “Until the Spirit be poured on us from on high, and the wilderness be a fruitful field, and the fruitful field be counted for a forest.”
III. The distinctness of its perception. “With open” or “unveiled face.”
IV. The transforming power of this vision. “Changed from glory to glory.” Thus faith in Divine revelation is a holy perception of the mind, by which the glory of God in Christ is discovered, and this discovery has a powerful reaction upon the soul, and as the object is more distinctly perceived, the progressive sanctification of good men is advanced till they possess the perfect image of their Lord.
V. The divine agent by which this is effected. “The Spirit of the Lord,” or “the Lord the Spirit.”
1. Here the personality and divinity of the Holy Spirit are asserted.
2. None but a Divine Being could accomplish His work. The Spirit of God creates the soul of every converted man anew.
In improvement of the subject we have been considering I shall make only two observations.
1. How great is your privilege, and how awful your responsibility i
2. The Christian has to leave reflective mirrors for the full vision of the Saviour’s glory. (W. Jones.)
Mirrors of Christ
I. In every reflector there must be an exposure of itself to the sun, so that the light may fall full upon it. So if we would reflect the glories of God, we must make a full presentation of ourselves to God. How many of us fail to shire just because of some spiritual obliquity of aim and purpose!
II. A reflector can only answer its purpose when there is nothing interposed between it and the source of light. We need to have our face unveiled in order to receive the light as well as to reflect it. The introduction of some substance renders the reflector useless. Now observe, the sun is very seldom eclipsed, but when that is so the world itself is in no way accountable; another orb is interposed between the earth and the sun. Even so the Christian’s light may sometimes be eclipsed, not because of any fault of ours, but for some wise purpose which God has in view. But it is otherwise with self-caused darkness. The sun, while seldom eclipsed, is frequently beclouded, and by clouds which are due to exhalations arising from the earth. Alas! how many Christians live under a clouded sky, for which they have only to thank themselves.
1. Here is one who lives under the ominous thundercloud of care.
2. Here is another who dwells in the fog of earthly-mindedness.
3. Here is yet another who is wrapped round in the cold mist of doubts and fears, steaming up from the restless sea of human experiences.
III. If a mirror is to reflect it must be kept clean. I saw an ancient mirror of polished steel in an old baronial hall. There it was, in just as good condition as when fair ladies saw their faces reflected in it in the days of the Plantagenets. But its preservation in the damp atmosphere of Cornwall was due to the fact that generation after generation of servants had always kept it clean. Just think how one small spot of rust in all these hundreds of years would have marred that surface for ever. Oh, Christian, no wonder that thou hast lost thy reflecting power. Thou hast been careless about little things; but nothing can be smaller than the dust which robs the mirror of its reflecting power. Or perhaps thou hast allowed the rust spots of evil habits to spoil thy surface. Let us see to it that we keep the mirror bright and unsullied! The most virulent corrosive acid can do but little harm to the surface of polished steel, if wiped off the moment it falls; but let it remain, and very soon an irreparable mischief is done. Even so you may be overtaken even in a very serious fault; but when it has been promptly confessed and put away, the truth is realised: “If we walk in the light, as He is in the light,” etc.
IV. Note the way in which the ancient mirrors were formed. The metal had to be smoothed and polished by friction.
1. And are we not God’s workmanship in this respect, and does He not employ our trying experiences here just to induce this end?
2. The mirror needs to be polished by a skilled hand; and as long as we are in God’s hands, He can, and will, polish us for Himself. But when we take ourselves out of His hands, and only see chance or circumstances or stern old mother Nature, in our experiences, these clumsy operators only scratch the surface, which needs to be polished.
V. But there comes a point when the figure breaks down, for the mirror always remains a mirror--dark itself, however much light it may reflect. But it is otherwise with the true Christian.
1. The light not only falls on but enters into him, and becomes part of himself. The true Christian is not only a light-giver--he is light. “Now are ye light in the Lord.” The Christian who puts a veil on his face because he does not care to give, will find that he is also precluded by his veil from receiving; but he who both receives and gives will also find that he keeps.
2. And that which he keeps proves within him a transforming power by which he is changed from glory into glory. Thank God for our capacity of change. There are some who seem to be proud of never changing.
3. We are familiar with the idea that God is to be glorified in each fresh stage of spiritual experience, but are we equally familiar with the thought that each fresh acquisition that faith lays hold of brings new glory with it to him by whom the acquisition is made? From glory unto glory.
(1) Is it not glory when first the sinner, dead in trespasses and sing, hears Christ say, “He that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live”?
(2) Time passes on, and the soul cries again “Glory to God!” as he makes the discovery that the redemption of Christ entitles him to be free indeed from the tyrant power of sin.
(3) Time flies on, and still we change. “Glory to God!” cries the working Christian, as he presents his body a living sacrifice, and feels the living fire descend and consecrate the offering. “Glory to thee, My child,” the Saviour still seems to answer; “thou art a worker together with Me; thy labour is not in vain in Me thy Lord.”
(4) Still we change. “Glory to God!” cries the advancing saint, as he sees the prize of his high calling, and presses towards it. “Glory to thee, my child,” is still the Saviour’s response; “as thou hast borne the image of the earthly, so shalt thou bear the image of the earthly, so shalt thou bear the image of the heavenly.”
(5) Thus we press on from glory unto glory until it is all glory. “Glory to God!” exclaims the triumphant soul as he enters the eternal home. “Glory to thee, my child!” still seems the answer, as Christ bids His faithful follower share His throne. Oh, may we thus reflect His glory for ever! (W. Hay-Aitken, M. A.)
The transforming influence of faith
I. The contemplation of Christ. “We all with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord.”
1. The object beheld. “The glory of the Lord,” “He is the Lord of all”--of all men, of all creatures, of all things. He is the rightful Proprietor of the universe. The primary meaning of glory is brightness, splendour; and the secondary meaning is excellence displayed, according to its subject, and the nature of the object to which it is ascribed. In which of these senses is glory here ascribed to the Lord Christ? In the latter, not in the former sense. It is not the glory of His might, nor the glory of His majesty, nor even the glory of His miracles, of which His personal disciples were eye-witnesses; but the glory of His moral perfections. God is “glorious in holiness,” and “the glory of the Lord” is His moral excellence, comprised and displayed in all His moral attributes. The former are displayed in His works; the latter shine brightest in His Word. In a word, the glory of the Lord was the manifestation of His Divine philanthropy--“of the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward men.”
2. The medium in which His glory is beheld. “Beholding as in a glass,” or rather, as in a mirror. What, then, is the mirror which receives the image, and reflects back on the eye of the beholders, the glory of the Lord? What, but the gospel of Christ. And Christ is at once the Author, the subject, and the sum of the gospel. It derives all the glory it possesses and reflects, from the glory of the Lord. It receives its being, its name, its character, and its efficacy from Him. It originates nothing; all that it is, all that it says, and all that it does, is from Him, about Him, and for Him. And the image of Him which the gospel receives as the image of the invisible God, the brightness of His glory, and the express image of His person, it reflects back as from a burnished mirror, in all its lineaments, and fulness, and glory, and distinctness. The glory of the gospel of Christ, as a mirror, contrasts strikingly with the law as “a shadow of things to come.” The good things to come were seen by the Old Testament saints in the types and ceremonies of the law. The view was dim as well as distant; indistinct, uncertain, and unsatisfying. But the sight of the glory of the Lord in the mirror of the gospel is near and not distant, luminous and not dark, distinct and not obscure or uncertain, and transforming but not terrifying.
3. The manner. “With open face.” The face is said to be open when it is guileless, ingenuous, and benevolent, and not sinister, crafty, or malicious; or, when the face itself is fully exposed, and not covered. This last is obviously the meaning of the expression employed. With open, that is, with unveiled face. Those who apply it to the face of the Lord make a slight transposition of the words to make the sense more apparent. Thus: “We all, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord with unveiled face.” His face is unveiled, and His glory is thus undimmed. It shines forth in all its splendour. If the “unveiled face” be understood of the beholders, according to our version, then the reference is to the more immediate context in the fifteenth verse, and the contrast is between them, and “the veil which is upon the heart” of the unbelieving Jews. Now, all this serves to show that, while the most obvious reference may be to the veil over the face of Moses as contrasted with the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, it is not to the exclusion of the veil upon the heart of the Jews as contrasted with the open, unveiled face of the beholders of the glory of the Lord. “Which veil is done away in Christ?” Indeed, both veils are now removed, and done away in Christ:--the obscurity caused by the former is removed by the luminous exhibition of the gospel of Christ, and the blindness of mind caused by the latter is removed by the ministration of the Spirit.
4. The beholders. Who are the persons indicated by, and included in the “we all” who thus behold the glory of the Lord? Is it all we apostles only? or even all we whom He hath “made able ministers of the New Testament”? The expression includes all who are subjects of the new covenant, who are under grace, and in a state of grace, “all who have turned to the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:16). Not only do all who turn, or are converted to the Lord, possess, exercise, and maintain their Christian liberty, but they are all “light in the Lord.” The light of the glorious gospel of Christ, the medium of spiritual vision, is not only held up as a mirror before their eyes, as before the eyes of the world; but the organ of spiritual vision is opened, unveiled, and directed to the image beheld there, radiant with beauty, and reflecting back the glory of the Lord on the eyes of the beholders.
II. Conformity to Christ. The change thus produced is--
1. Spiritual in its nature. All the glory seen on the summit, and around the base, of Mount Sinai, was of a material and sensible kind. Moses saw the glory of the Lord with his bodily eyes; the shekinah, or symbol of the Divine glory, made the skin of his face to shine. It is otherwise with the glory beheld, with the medium, the manner, and the organ of vision here--all is spiritual, and not material in its nature. The gospel reveals, and holds up to view, the things of the Spirit. And spiritual things must be spiritually discerned. They do not act as a charm. Nothing can possibly affect, impress, or influence us mentally, any longer than it is in our thoughts; or, morally, any longer than it is in our memory and in our heart. The gospel of Christ operates according to the attention and reception given to it, and the use we make of it.
2. Transforming in its influence. It is a law in nature, and a truth in proverb, that “like produces like.” The man who is much at court, naturally and almost unconsciously catches the air, impress, and polish of the court, so that he become courtly, if not courteous in spirit, in address, in manners and deportment. In going to the house of mourning, which it is better to go to than to the house of feasting, we almost insensibly catch the spirit of sympathy, and feel the spirit of mourning creeping over us. The heart softens; the countenance saddens; the eye moistens. Constituted as we all are, how can it be otherwise? Looking steadfastly and intently at such moral excellence we admire; admiring we love; loving we long to imitate it; imitation produces likeness to Him in mind, in disposition, in will, in walk, and way. Do we thus behold the love of Christ? “We love Him, because He first loved us.” Do we behold Him as “the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world”? We become “dead to sin, and alive to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
3. Glorious in its progress. The glory of Moses’ countenance became more and more dim, by distance of time and of place from the scene and sight of glory, till it entirely disappeared. But the glory of the Lord remains the same, and the glory of the gospel reflecting it remains the same, and the more steadfastly and earnestly we behold it, the more will we be changed into the same glorious image. The expression employed is an evidence that grace and glory are not only inseparable, but in substance identical. So far from differing in kind they are so essentially the same, that the sacred writers sometimes use the words interchangeably. Paul here uses “glory” for grace in speaking of the glorious transformation of believers from grace to glory; and Peter uses “grace” for glory in speaking of the glory “ that is to be brought unto us at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” And the reason is no less plain than the lesson is instructive and important. The partaker of grace is “also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed.”
4. Divine in efficiency, “Even as by the Spirit of the Lord,” or as the margin has it more literally and properly. “Even as by the Lord the Spirit.” It is His prerogative, and it becomes His spiritual dominion to open and unveil the heart, to enlighten the eyes of the understanding, to fix them on the glory of the Lord, to quicken the spirit, and thus to make His subjects “a willing people in the day of His power.” This subject sets before us the privilege of gospel hearers, and the honour of gospel believers, and the doom of gospel despisers.
1. The privilege of gospel hearers. All who have the Word of God, who read or hear the gospel of Christ, are “not under the law, but under grace.” They are more highly privileged than were the Jews who were under the law, or the Gentiles who have not the law, and know not God.
2. The blessedness of gospel believers. They are the blessed people who know the joyful sound; they walk in the light of God’s countenance.
3. The doom of gospel despisers. They make light of the gospel of Christ; despise the Saviour it presents, and the salvation it proffers, and turn away from “the glory of the Lord.” (Geo. Robson.)
The physiognomy and photography of Christianity
I. The physiognomy of the text.
1. The open face. This is the antithesis of the covered face of Moses, and must therefore be Christ’s (2 Corinthians 4:6). The idea is physiognomical, face reading. Men profess to comprehend each other’s temperaments and dispositions by the study of their faces. Thus a man’s face is his character, at least the key to it. In this face of Jesus Christ shines the resplendent glory of God; it is an index of the Divine mind and feelings towards a sinful world. The human face becomes a profound mystery apart from the soul within. Its wonderful expressions cannot be understood except on the supposition of an indwelling spirit. When the sky is overcast, suddenly, maybe, a beam darts through, shedding a glow of beauty over the spot upon which it gleams. The mystery of that ray could not be solved except by the existence of a sun behind. It is only in the same way that the character of Christ can be understood. Denied His Divine nature Christ becomes a profounder mystery than when regarded as God incarnate.
2. It is an open face in a glass. Once it was an open face without any intervening object, when “He dwelt among men and they beheld His glory.” But now that His bodily presence has departed we have His face reflected in the gospel-mirror (2 Corinthians 4:4). It is through Christ we know God, and it is through the gospel that we know Christ. The sun, when it has set, is invisible to us. We then look up to the heavens, and there we observe the moon, which reflects the, to us, invisible sun. This moon is the sun’s image. Again, looking into the placid waters of the pool, we observe in its clear depth the moon’s reflection. God is imaged in Christ, and Christ is imaged in the gospel. Now, the superiority of the gospel over the Old Testament is represented by the difference between the glass and the veil. The veil obscures the face, the glass reveals it. In fact the mirror is of all instruments the one which gives the most correct representation of the original. The idea of a person conveyed by a mirror is immeasurably superior to that conveyed by the best painting. The face in the painting may represent a dead one, but the face in the mirror must represent a living one. If the mirror excels so much the best painting, how much must it excel a shadow! The Old Testament was only a “shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things.” A person’s shadow will give but a very indifferent idea of him. What, however, would be thought of the person who essayed to draw a picture of another from his shadow? Yet, this the Jews attempted to do in relation to Christ. So “to His own He came, and His own received Him not,” because His appearance did not harmonise with their preconceived conceptions of Him drawn from His shadow. Men, therefore, should seek Him in the gospel mirror, where alone He can be seen as He is.
II. The photography of the text. “But we all … are changed into the same image,” etc. Here the apostle explains the effects of this transparent clearness of the gospel teaching. Beholding the Lord in the gospel transforms the beholder into His own image. This is in accordance with the analogy of natural photography. The light falls upon the object, that object again reflects it in its own form upon the prepared glass. The resplendent glory of God falls, so to speak, upon Christ in His mediatorial character; Christ reflects it upon the believing mind; the mind beholding Him in faith. The mind thus reflected upon by the incomparable beauties of Christ’s character is transformed into the same image. The work is progressive, but the first line of it is glory, and every additional one the same--“from glory to glory.” (A. J. Parry.)
I. The image. We must lay Exodus 34:33, etc., alongside of this chapter. So the sight of Christ’s glory does far more for us than the sight of God’s glory did for Moses. The skin of his face was lighted up; but our very souls are changed into likeness to Christ; and this change does not soon pass away, but continues growing from glory to glory, as might be expected, seeing it is the Spirit of the Lord who works the change in us.
1. Christ, as we see Him in the New Testament, is the most perfect image in the world. Only a little of God’s glory was revealed by Moses, but Christ is “ God manifest in the flesh.”
(1) God is Light, i.e., that is holiness, and how plainly that glory is imaged in the sinless Jesus!
(2) God is Love, and that love is made perfectly plain by the life of Christ from the cradle to the cross. A poor African could not believe that the white man loved him. His heart was not won by cold far-off words about a far-off people. But love for the African became flesh in David Livingstone, and his life was a glass in which they saw the true image of Christian love.
2. This image is not like the image of the ascending Christ, which faded into heaven while the disciples gazed after it on the Mount of Olives. This is an unfading portrait. Age cannot dim it, earth’s mildew cannot discolour it, man’s rude hand cannot destroy it; it only grows brighter as it gathers fresh beauty from the blessed changes it is working in the world.
II. Beholding of the image. I never saw the beauty of the sun so well as one day in a Highland lake, whose surface was like a mirror of polished glass. To see the naked sun face to face would have blinded me. When John saw Christ’s glory directly, though ii was only in a vision, he fell down as a dead man, and the same glory blinded Saul of Tarsus. The Bible is a glass in which you may gaze without fear upon the glory of the Lord therein reflected, Moses was the one privileged man in his day. But now all Christians can draw as near to God as Moses did, for where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is this liberty, How can I rightly behold the glory of the Lord?
1. With an open or unveiled face, just as Moses took Off his veil when he turned to speak with Jehovah. A lady visiting a picture gallery on a wintry day shields her face from the biting blast with a thick veil; but, upon entering the gallery, she lifts up her veil that with open face she may fully behold the images created by sculptor and painter. Many veils hide Christ’s glory. The god of this world is busy blinding our minds by drawing a veil of prejudice, false shame, ignorance of an earthly mind over them (2 Corinthians 4:4).
2. You are to behold the image in the glass of the Bible. A picture or statue often serves only to remind me that the man is dead or far away, not so the image of Christ in the Bible, Some images, however, fill us with a sense of reality. Raphael painted the Pope, and the Pope’s secretary at first took the image for the living man, knelt and offered pen and ink to the portrait, with the request that the bill in his hand might be signed. The image we behold is drawn by the Divine hand, and should be to us a bright and present reality, 3, This beholding must be steady and life-long. Unless you look often at this image and love to do so, you will not get much good from Christ. Even man-made images impress only the steady beholders of them.
III. The beholders.
1. “They are changed into the same image.” Some people think that the beholding of beautiful pictures must do great good to the beholders; but when Athens and Rome were crowned with the most splendid pictures and statues, the people were the most wicked the world has yet seen. But the right beholding of this image gains a life of the same make as Christ’s. We become what we behold. Two boys had been poring over the life of Dick Turpin and Jack Sheppard. In that glass they beheld the image of lawless adventurers. They admired: they would be bold heroes too. They are soon changed into the image they gaze upon from shame to shame, even as by the spirit of the devil. Here is a gentle, lovely girl. Her mother is to her the very model and mirror of womanly perfection. She gladly yields herself up to her mother’s influence, and the neighbours say, “That girl is the living image of her mother”; for she receives what she admires, and silently grows like what she “likes” best. When some newspaper compared Dr. Judson to one of the apostles, he was distressed, and said, “I do not want to be like them. I want to be like Christ.”
2. This change is to be always going forward from glory to glory.
3. Your beholding of Christ and likeness to Christ are both imperfect on earth. In heaven there shall be a perfect beholding, and so a perfect likeness to Christ (Psalms 17:15). There as here being and beholding go together. We see this change growing towards perfectness in the martyr Stephen as he stood on the borderland between earth and heaven. Even his foes “saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.”
4. Christ’s people are to be changed so thoroughly into His image that they shall have a soul like His, and even a body like His. For “as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.” (J. Wells, M. A.)
The Christian’s transfiguration
I. We are all transfigured. If you look back a verse or two it is clearly seen that St. Paul means by these words to include all Christian men. “We all”--the words stand in vivid contrast to the literalising Jew of the apostle’s day; the Jew, who had the letter of Scripture, and worshipped it with a veil upon his heart; so that when Moses was read in his hearing, he could not see the meaning of the Old Testament, nor look one inch beyond the letter of the book. His religion was stereotyped, so his heart and life could not be transfigured. A religion of the letter cannot produce growth; it has no beautifying power, it cannot transfigure. In Christ, the case is far otherwise; where He is, there is liberty; where Christ is, there must be growth. Paul could not believe it possible that a Christian life could remain stagnant. Wherever there is growth, there must come, in the end, transfiguration. St. Paul felt that every believer must re-live in some measure the perfect life of Jesus. Here is the secret of transformation--Christ within, Christ about us as an atmosphere of moral growth. Fellowship with His perfect life gives human nature honour and dignity. The Thames is beautiful at Richmond, at Twickenham, at Kew, but not always so. At times the prospect, as you walk from Twickenham to Richmond, is spoiled by ugly flats of mud, and the air is not over pleasant, when the heat of summer draws the miasma from the sedgy bank. You may walk upon the bank and see but little beauty there. Wait a few hours, the tide will return and change the entire aspect of the river. It will become beautiful. The smallest river or tidal basin is beautified by connection with the sea. The pulse of ocean, if it raise the level but a few inches, adds dignity and beauty wherever it is felt. The river repeats, on a smaller scale, the larger life of the ocean, answering in its ebb and flow to what the sea has done before. So Paul felt that our nature is glorified because, through the Divine humanity of Jesus, it is connected with the ocean of eternal power and grace. The incarnation, the life, and the sacrifice of the Son of God have lifted human life to higher levels; they have created new interests and fresh currents in our thought and feeling. If our life flow onward towards Christ, and better still, if His fulness flow back upon us, we must, at flood tide, partake of His cleansing and transforming power. St. Paul does not here refer to the resurrection, his tenses are all present, and point to a change now taking place in our imperfect existence: “Changed from glory to glory.” There is a glory of Christian character which we may possess even now. “From glory to glory” implies steps and stages. There is a measure of beauty, of strength, of holy character, of transfiguration, possible to the feeblest Christian--transfiguration of heart and life, a glory now, a foretaste of the eternal glory, a firstfruits of the Spirit.
II. The cause of the change and the means of its attainment. It is brought about by looking at Christ. “We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory, are changed.” To be like Christ, we must look upon Him intently. Then, on the Divine side, there is the inward change. As we look, the Spirit works within. Both things are necessary. As we gaze, the Divine influence comes down upon us imperceptibly. We are all much affected by the things we look at from day to day. A man will find sights congenial to his heart and mind. If he be artistic, he will be on the look-out for pictures and sculpture, or beautiful scenes in nature. If he have a turn for science, he will find objects of study and delight in every field and wood. If we are affectionate, with strong social instincts, our principal attractions will be found in human society. Now all these objects, in turn, react upon us. The artistic mind grows and expands by the study of beauty. The scientific man becomes more scientific by the study of nature; while the social and affectionate disposition deepens in the search and attainment of its object. Apply this to the gospel. Again, we must not forget that the way we look is also important. Our manner of looking at Christ affects us. St. Paul says, we look with “unveiled face.” He here contrasts the Jewish with the Christian Church. Look at Christ, look daily, look appreciatively, lovingly, in tender sympathy, and the spirit of Christ will possess you. We may not be able to tell how the change comes about, nor why, neither need we anxiously inquire, provided we look at Christ and feel the Spirit’s power. God has many ways. Stand before the mirror, and you will see the light. We care not at what angle you gaze. Look at Christ through tears of penitence, look in hope, in joy, in love; let His light stream into the heart through any one of the many avenues of thought and feeling. (G. Walker, B. A.)
The change produced by faith in Jesus
I. The beholding.
1. By beholding we are to understand faith in one of its liveliest and most important exercises. Faith is a living principle. It hath eyes, and it beholds Christ. This beholding does not consist of a single glance, of a passing survey. “Looking” is not a single act, but the habit of his soul. “Looking unto Jesus,” etc.
2. With open face. Under the Jewish dispensation Christ was exhibited, but it was as it were through a veil. There was a mystery attached to it. But now, when Christ came, the mystery which had been hid for ages is revealed. At the hour when Jesus said, “It is finished,” the veil that hid the holiest of all, and the innermost secrets of the covenant, was rent in twain from top to bottom.
3. As in a glass. We, whose eye is dimmed by sin, cannot see God as the spirits made perfect do in heaven. “No man hath seen God at any time.” Moses desired on one occasion to behold the glory of God. But the request could not be granted. “No man can see God and live.” Yet God gave him a signal manifestation of His presence (Exodus 34:5). Such is the view which God gives to the believer, of Himself in the face of His Son, as a just God who will by no means clear the guilty, and yet the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus--a gracious and encouraging view, not indeed of His essential glory, which the sinner cannot behold, but of His glory as exhibited in His grace, and on which the eye of the believer delights to rest.
II. What is beheld. “The glory of the Lord.” The Lord, as the whole context shows, is the Lord Christ--the proper object of faith. We look into the Word as into a mirror to fix our attention on the object reflected. In Him as thus disclosed we shall behold a glory. In His person He is “the brightness of the Father’s glory and the express image of His person.” In His work all the perfections of the Divine character meet as in a focus of surpassing brilliancy. There was a glory in His incarnation which the company of the heavenly host observed as they sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will to the children of men.” There was glory in His baptism, when the Holy Ghost descended upon Him, and the voice of the Father was heard declaring, “This is My well-beloved Son.” There was an imposing glory in His transfiguration. There was a glory, too, in His very humiliation in His sorrow, in the cursed death which He died. There was an evident glory in His resurrection, when, having gone down to the dark dominions of death, He came up a mighty conqueror, bearing the fruits of victory, and holding death in chains as His prisoner; and angels believed themselves honoured in announcing that “the Lord is risen.” There was a glory in His ascension. “Thou hast ascended on high, leading captivity captive” (Psalms 24:1-10.) He is in glory now at the right hand of God, which glory Stephen was privileged to behold. He shall come in glory at the last day to judge the world. He shall dwell in His glory through all eternity, and the saints shall be partakers with Him of that glory, Now all this glory is exhibited in the volume of the Book, just as we have seen an expansive scene of sky and cloud, of hills and plains, of streams and woods, reflected and exhibited before us in a mirror, and we all with open face behold as in a glass the glory of the Lord.
III. The effect produced.. This transforming power of faith arises from two sources not independent of each other, but still separable.
1. Faith is the receiving grace of the Christian character, and the soul is enriched by the treasures poured through it as a channel. Herein lies the great efficacy of faith; it receives that which is given it, and through it the virtue that is in Christ flows into the soul, enriches and satisfies it, and changes it into the same image.
2. Faith produces this effect, inasmuch as it makes us look to and copy Christ. The Spirit carries on the work of sanctification by making us look unto Jesus, and whatever we look to with admiration and love we are disposed willingly, sometimes almost involuntarily, to imitate. We grow in likeness to Him whom we love and admire.
IV. The agent. “The Spirit of the Lord.” Note--
1. The harmony between the work of the Spirit and the principles of man’s mind. He does not convert or sanctify sinners against their will, but by making them a willing people in the day of His power. What He does in us He does by us. It is when we are beholding the glory of the Lord Christ that the Spirit changes us into the same image from glory to glory.
2. The harmony between the work of Christ the Lord and the work of the Spirit of the Lord. The Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, who takes of the things that are Christ’s and shows them unto us. The Spirit directs our eyes to Christ, and it is when we look to the Lord Christ that we are changed into the same image. (J. McCosh, D. D.)
Transformation by beholding
I. The Christian life is a life of contemplating and reflecting Christ. It is a question whether the single word rendered in our version “beholding as in a glass,” means that, or “reflecting as a glass does.” But, whatever be the exact force of the word, the thing intended includes both acts. There is no reflection of the light without a previous reception of the light. In bodily sight, the eye is a mirror, and there is no sight without aa image of the thing perceived formed in the perceiving eye. In spiritual sight, the soul which beholds is a mirror, and at once beholds and reflects.
1. The great truth of a direct, unimpeded vision sounds strange to many of us. Does not Paul himself teach that we see through a glass darkly? Do we not walk by faith and not by sight? “No man hath seen God at any time, nor can see Him”; and beside that absolute impossibility have we not veils of flesh and sense, to say nothing of the covering of sin. But these apparent difficulties drop away when we take into account two things--
(1) The object of vision. “The Lord” is Jesus Christ, the manifested God, our brother. The glory which we behold and give back is not the incomprehensible, incommunicable lustre of the absolute Divine perfectness, but that glory which, as John says, we beheld in Him who tabernacled with us, full of grace and truth.
(2) The real nature of the vision itself. It is the beholding of Him with the soul by faith. “Seeing is believing,” says sense; “believing is seeing,” says the spirit which clings to the Lord, “whom having not seen” it loves. A bridge of perishable flesh, which is not myself but my tool, connects me with the outward world. It never touches myself at all, and I know it only by trust in my senses. But nothing intervenes between my Lord and me, when I love and trust. He is the light, which proves its own existence by revealing itself, which strikes with quickening impulse on the eye of the spirit that beholds by faith.
2. Note the universality of this prerogative: “We all.” This vision does not belong to any select handful. Christ reveals Himself to all His servants in the measure of their desire after Him. Whatsoever special gifts may belong to a few in His Church, the greatest gift belongs to all.
3. This contemplation involves reflection. What we see we shall certainly show. If you look into a man’s eye, you will see in it little pictures of what he beholds; and if our hearts are beholding Christ, Christ will be mirrored there. Our characters will show what we are looking at, and ought, in the case of Christian people, to bear His image so plainly that men cannot but take knowledge of us that we have been with Jesus. And you may be quite sure that, if little light comes from a Christian character, little light comes into it; and if it be swathed in thick veils from men, there will be no less thick veils between it and God. Away then with all veils! No reserve, no fear of the consequences of plain speaking, no diplomatic prudence regulating our frank utterance, no secret doctrines for the initiated! Our power and our duty lies in the full exhibition of the truth.
II. This life of contemplation is therefore a life of gradual transformation.
1. The brightness on the face of Moses was only skin-deep. It faded away, and left no trace. Thus the superficial lustre, that had neither permanence nor transforming power, becomes an illustration of the powerlessness of law to change the moral character into the likeness of the fair ideal which it sets forth. And, in opposition to its weakness, the apostle proclaims the great principle of Christian progress, that the beholding of Christ leads to the assimilation to Him.
2. The metaphor of a mirror does not wholly serve us here. When the sunbeams fall upon it, it flashes in the light, just because they do not enter its cold surface. The contrary is the case with these sentient mirrors of our spirits. In them the light must first sink in before it can ray out. They are not so much like a reflecting surface as like a bar of iron, which needs to be heated right down to its obstinate black core, before its outer skin glow with the whiteness of a heat that is too hot to sparkle. The sunshine must fall on us, not as it does on some lonely hillside, lighting up the grey stones with a passing gleam that changes nothing, and fades away, leaving the solitude to its sadness; but as it does on some cloud cradled near its setting, which it drenches and saturates with fire till its cold heart burns, and all its wreaths of vapour are brightness palpable, glorified by the light which lives amidst its mists.
3. And this contemplation will be gradual transformation. “We all beholding … are changed.” It is not the mere beholding, but the gaze of love and trust that moulds us by silent sympathy into the likeness of His wondrous beauty, who is fairer than the children of men. It was a deep true thought which the old painters had when they drew John as likest to his Lord. Love makes us like. We learn thai even in our earthly relationships. Let that pure face shine upon heart and spirit, and as the sun photographs itself on the sensitive plate exposed to its light, and you get a likeness of the sun by simply laying the thing in the sun, so He will “be formed in you.” Iron near a magnet becomes magnetic. Spirits that dwell with Christ become Christ-like.
4. Surely this message--“behold and be like”--ought to be very joyful and enlightening to many of us, who are wearied with painful struggles after isolated pieces of goodness that elude our grasp. You have been trying half your lifetime to cure faults, and make yourselves better. Try this other plan. Live in sight of your Lord, and catch His spirit. The man that travels with his face northwards has it grey and cold. Let him turn to the warm south, where the midday sun dwells, and his face will glow with the brightness that he sees. “Looking unto Jesus” is the sovereign cure for all our ills and sins.
5. Such transformation comes gradually. “We are changed”; that is a continuous operation. “From glory to glory”; that is a course which has well-marked transitions and degrees. Be not impatient if it be slow. Do not be complacent over the partial transformation which you have felt. See to it that you neither turn away your gaze nor relax your efforts till all that you have beheld in Him is repeated in you.
6. Likeness to Christ is the aim of all religion. To it conversion is introductory; doctrines, ceremonies, churches, and organisations are valuable as auxiliary. Prize and use them as helps towards it, and remember that they are helps only in proportion as they show us the Saviour, the image of whom is our perfectness, the beholding of whom is our transformation.
III. The life of contemplation finally becomes a life of complete assimilation. “Changed into the same image, from glory to glory.”
1. The likeness becomes every way perfecter, comprehends more and more of the faculties of the man; soaks into him, if I may say so, until he is saturated with the glory: and in all the extent of his being, and in all the depth possible to each part of that whole extent, is like his Lord. That is the hope for heaven, towards which we may indefinitely approximate here, and at which we shall absolutely arrive there. There we expect changes which are impossible here, while compassed with this body of sinful flesh. We look to Him to “change the body of our lowliness, that it may be fashioned like unto the body of His glory”; but it is better to be like Him in our hearts. His true image is that we should feel, think, will as He does; that we should have the same sympathies, the same loves, the same attitude towards God, and the same attitude towards men. Wherever there is the beginning of that oneness and likeness of spirit, all the rest will come in due time. As the spirit, so the body. But the beginning here is the main thing, which draws all the rest after it as of course. “If the Spirit of Him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you,” etc.
2. “We are all changed into the same image.” Various as we are in disposition and character, differing in everything but the common relation to Jesus Christ, we are all growing like the same image, and we shall come to be perfectly like it, and yet each retain his own distinct individuality. Perhaps, too, we may connect with this idea that passage in the Ephesians in which Paul describes our all coming to “a perfect man.” The whole of us together make a perfect man; the whole make one image. No one man, even raised to the highest pitch of perfection, can be the full image of that infinite sum of all beauty; but the whole of us taken together, with all the diversities of natural character retained and consecrated, being collectively His body which He vitalises, may, on the whole, be not a wholly inadequate representation of our perfect Lord. Just as we set round a central light sparkling prisms, each of which catches the glow at its own angle, and flashes it back of its own colour, while the sovereign completeness of the perfect white radiance comes from the blending of all their separate rays, so they who stand round about the starry throne receive each the light in his own measure and manner, and give forth each a true and perfect, and altogether a complete image of Him that enlightens them all, and is above them all. (A. Maclaren, D. D.)
The transfiguring vision
I. The mirrored glory.
1. Glory is the effulgence of light; the manifested perfection of moral character.
2. In the gospel we have an exhibition of the blended righteousness and compassion of God; so it is called “the gospel of the glory of the blessed God.” And since these attributes shine with softened splendour in Christ, it is called the “gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
3. And we may all behold it. Like the famous fresco in the ceiling of the cathedral, which was brought within easy reach by reflecting mirrors on the floor. We could not all be contemporaries of the living Jesus. But now, in the fourfold biography, we may all at our leisure behold the glory of the Lord.
II. The transfiguring vision. In the very act of looking we are “metamorphosed.” The same Greek word used to describe the transfiguration of Christ.
1. Some gaze and are not changed. They have never so felt the evil of sin as to put the whole soul into a look. So multitudes of hearers have their minds filled with Christian truth, but they do not gaze so long, fixedly, lovingly, as to experience the interior and radical transformation.
2. Others gaze and are changed. Flinging away obscuring veils, and fixing the steadfast gaze on Jesus, they are transfigured.
(1) This change is moral. By the law of our inner life we come to resemble what we love. Love to the Lord Jesus makes us like Him.
(2) This change is gradual, progressive, “from glory to glory.” The initial change may be the work of a moment; the complete process is the work of a life-time. Comforting thought to those who grow weary and disheartened after painful struggles to reach an ideal goodness which ever seems to elude their grasp. Cease from working; sit still and look; let His image sweetly creep into the eye and prospect of your soul.
III. Its Great Author. “The Lord the Spirit.” When the veil of unbelief is taken away, the Lord Himself obtains access to the heart and imparts Himself. Where He is, there, too, is the Holy Ghost. He effects the marvellous transformation. He supplies the-needed illumination. He reveals the saving sight, removes obscuring veils, purges the spiritual perceptions, and dwells within as source of the transfiguring and assimilative power. (A. Wilson, B. A.)
True human greatness
1. Every man has a strong natural instinct for greatness and applause.
2. A wrong direction of this instinct originates enormous mischief.
3. The mission of Christianity is to give a right direction to this instinct. Of all the systems on earth it alone teaches man what true greatness is, and the way to attain it. The text teaches three things concerning it:
I. The ideal of true greatness is divine. What is the glory of the Lord? (See Exodus 18:19). This passage teaches that the Eternal regarded His glory as consisting not in the immensity of His possessions, the almightiness of His power, or the infinitude of His wisdom, but in His goodness. The true greatness of man consists in moral goodness.
1. This greatness is soul-satisfying--and this alone.
2. This greatness commands the respect of all moral intelligence--and this alone.
3. This greatness is attainable by all persons--and this alone.
4. This greatness we carry into the other world--and this alone.
II. The path of true greatness is moral transformation. How is man to come into possession of God’s glory? t. By means of an instrument--glass. What is the glass? The mirror that reflects the glory of God. Nature is a glass. Judaism is a glass. Christ is a glass. He is the brightest glass of all--reflects more Divine rays upon the universe than any -other.
2. By means of attention to that instrument. “By looking.” Men look at the glitterings of worldly glory, not on the glowing beams of the Divine, and hence they are not changed into the Divine. Observe--
(1) A concentrated looking on Christ commands admiration.
(2) Admiration commands imitation. Christ is the most inimitable being in the universe, because His character is the most admirable, the most transparent, the most unchangeable.
(3) Imitation ensures assimilation. Here, then, is the path to true glory--a path clear as day, certain as eternity. All who tread this path must become glorious.
III. The law of true greatness is progressive. “From glory to glory.” Glory in God is unprogressive, but in all intelligent creatures it is ever advancing. Two things show that the human soul is made for endless advancement.
1. Facts in connection with its nature.
(1) Its appetites are intensified by its supplies.
(2) Its capacities augment with its attainments; the more it has the more it is capable of receiving.
(3) Its productiveness increases with its productions. Not so with the soil of the earth, or the trees of the forest, all wear themselves out.
2. Arrangements in connection with its history. There are three things which always serve to bring out the latent powers of the soul.
(1) A new relationship. The wondrous powers and experiences slumbering in every human heart of maternity and fatherhood are brought out by relationship.
(2) New sceneries. New sceneries in nature often start in the mind feelings and powers unknown before.
(3) New engagements. Many a man who was thought a mere dolt in one occupation, transferred to another has become a brilliant genius. These three soul-developing forces we have here, we shall have for ever.
IV. The author of true greatness is the Spirit of God. How does He do it? As He does everything else in creation--by means; and the means are here stated, “Beholding as in a glass.” Conclusion: How transcendently valuable is Christianity, inasmuch as it directs the human soul to true glory and indicates the way of realising it! (D. Thomas, D. D.)
The unfolded glory
Man has an instinct for glory. Religion therefore to adapt itself to this instinct. Hence the glorious character of the two dispensations whereof the last is the greater.
I. The gospel is a reflection of God’s glory.
1. The person of Christ reflects the Divine nature.
2. The ministry of Christ reflects the Divine mind.
3. His death reveals the Divine heart.
II. The believer reflects the glory of God.
1. Spiritual mindedness (2 Peter 1:4).
2. Immortal life.
III. Beholding and reflecting the glory of the Lord is progressive (2 Peter 2:5-7). (T. Davis, Ph. D.)
Our moral nature is intensely assimilative. The mind gets like that which it feeds on. Alexander the Great was incited to his deeds of conquest by reading Homer’s “Iliad.” Julius Caesar and Charles the Twelfth of Sweden derived much of their military enthusiasm from studying the life of Alexander. When a sensitive, delicate boy, Cowper met with and eagerly devoured a treatise in favour of suicide. Can we doubt that its plausible arguments were closely connected with his four attempts to destroy himself? If, however, we cherish thoughts of the good and the noble, we shall become both. “Beholding, as in a glass, the glory of the Lord, we are changed into the same image.” Ecclesiastical tradition declares that St. Martin once had a remarkable vision. The Saviour stood before him. Radiant with Divine beauty, there the Master appeared. One relic of His humiliation remained. What was it? His hands retained the marks of the nails. The spectator gazed sympathetically and intently. So long did he look that, when the apparition ceased, he found that he had in his own hands marks precisely resembling those of Christ. None but the superstitious believe the story; nevertheless, it “points a moral.” It reminds us of the great fact that devout and affectionate contemplation of our Lord makes us Christ-like. (T. R. Stevenson.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "2 Corinthians 3". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25