Forasmuch as many have taken in hand
St. Luke’s preface
These four verses arc a preface, and a very valuable preface, because they are a declaration from the author himself of the manner in which we are to regard his work.
I. St. Luke gives us to understand that HE HIMSELF WAS NOT AN EYEWITNESS OF THE EVENTS HE IS ABOUT TO RECORD, but that ha had taken pains to inquire, and had a perfect understanding of all the history of the Lord Jesus Christ.
II. St. Luke tells us that he had undertaken to write his Gospel BECAUSE MANY HAD UNDERTAKEN TO DO THE SAME THING BEFORE. The question arises whether he means us to understand that he is adding one more to authentic and trustworthy histories already existing, or whether he intended rather to supersede and correct unauthorized and imperfect histories. Possibly neither the one view nor the other is entirely and exclusively true. It may be that St. Luke was aware that authentic histories were already in existence, but he may have known also that other and spurious accounts had been composed, and therefore have been desirous of helping Theophilus to choose the true and reject the false by setting down for his use such an orderly account of the life of Jesus Christ as he himself had been able to collect.
III. Again, WHO WAS THEOPHILUS? Some have thought that the name, signifying as it does “one who is dear to God,” does not refer to any one particular person; it is probable, however, that Theophilus was a real person, perhaps an important man at Antioch, St. Luke’s city, for whose confirmation in the faith St. Luke was induced to write. Quite in keeping with the general scheme of God’s government that this should have been so. Works which are instinct with the Spirit of God often go far beyond their immediate aim. The Epistles, which are the precious inheritance of the universal Church, were addressed originally to particular portions of the Church, some of them only to individuals, and the greater number of them were called forth by circumstances which have long passed away. And so we need not be surprised to find that a Gospel addressed to Theophilus has become the possession of all throughout the world who follow his good example.
IV. Lastly, let it be noticed that St. Luke did not write to Theophilus with the purpose of giving him his first notions of Christian truth, BUT ONLY OF ESTABLISHING HIM IN THE KNOWLEDGE OF THOSE THINGS IN WHICH HE HAD BEEN ALREADY INSTRUCTED OR CATECHIZED. This was almost of necessity the course which would be followed in the time of the apostles; but it is also the course which is generally followed by ourselves now: we do not gain our first notions of Christian truth from Scripture or indeed from any written book; we are instructed and catechized by our fathers and mothers and teachers, and when we come to years of discretion, and are able to think for ourselves, we find from careful study of God’s Holy Word that those things which we have learnt as children are indeed the truth of God which is able to make us wise unto salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. (Bishop Harvey Goodwin.)
The purpose of the Gospel
I. THE INTRODUCTION TO THIS GOSPEL IS THE HIGHEST AUTHORITY FOR THE ACCOUNT OF THE PURPOSE OF ITS COMPOSITION. Theophilus, whoever he was, was already a disciple, and had been instructed in the things which were most surely believed in the Church. He desired to know the certainty of those things. St. Luke believed that it was his vocation to give him what he wanted. If Theophilus was an individual, he represented the need of the Church generally. That which was good for him might, if God pleased, be good for ages to come.
II. MANY, ST. LUKE SAYS, HAD ATTEMPTED THIS TASK BEFORE HIM. They had taken in hand to set forth A DECLARATION of the things, &c. The declaration had been made already--contained in the preaching of the apostles and their helpers. What was wanted was a continuous narrative of the things which made the substance of the declaration, for it was a declaration of things, not of opinions. The preaching concerned a Person, the narrative must exhibit a Person. Who the “many” were St. Luke does not say. Nor does he pronounce upon the merits or demerits of his predecessors. That was not his calling. There was a better judge than he of the genuine and the spurious. We may safely affirm that he was not afraid if the experiments to produce a life of our Lord were ever so numerous; if some of them were ever so confused and erroneous. He could not believe the word which he preached unless he had confidence that what was true would live, that what was false would be, sooner or later, divided from it.
III. The next clause of the introduction has perplexed many, perhaps has given pain to some. WHAT! ARE WE NOT ABOUT TO READ THE STORY OF AN EYE-WITNESS? St. Luke does not claim that character. He has received these records from those who were eye-witnesses. He has examined their reports carefully. He does not say that he ever saw Christ whilst He was walking in Galilee or Judaea. He seems to imply the contrary. Now here is a difference between him and some of the other evangelists, perhaps between him and all the other three. Is it a difference which puts him below them? According to their own judgment and confession, assuredly it is not. They tell us that they did not understand the words and acts of Jesus whilst they were walking with Him, whilst they were eye-witnesses of what He did. They misapprehended the particular words and acts. They misapprehended their relation to each other. They misapprehended the Person who was the Speaker of the words and the Doer of the acts. What they all say--what no one says so frequently as the beloved disciple--is, that the things which they could not understand at first came to them with full power and revelation when they saw Him no more. No doubt to be eye-witnesses of a fact or a person is an honourable distinction, but an eyewitness may glorify himself on that distinction, and attribute a worth to it which no careful student of evidence will concede. There are qualities necessary in an eye-witness besides his eyes. One who possesses these qualities may tell us what they do not tell, may open to us the very sense and purpose of what they do tell. It is so in all cases: if we believe the evangelists--those of them who were eye-witnesses--it is preeminently so in this case.
IV. WHAT DOES ST. LUKE MEAN BY THE WORD? If the expression occurred in St. John’s Gospel it would cause no perplexity. We should assume at once that he was speaking of the Word which was in the beginning and was made flesh. But it has been customary to assume that no other of the evangelists ever fell into this kind of language. I cannot doubt that the apostle who survived to the end of the age was specially appointed to remove confusions which had haunted the readers of the earlier Gospels. But every Jew could read, as well as St. John, that the Word of God had come to Isaiah, or Jeremiah, or Ezekiel. Every Jew who read their prophecies believed they had conversed with this Word as with a living person. The thought, “He with whom we have conversed is that same Person--He has in human flesh revealed Himself to us,” was not a strange speculation, the refinement of a later age. It was the simplest way of connecting the old world with their day. It was the great escape from the rabbinical traditions which buried the Divine Person under the mere letter of the books. Formally to assert the force of the prophetical phrase--to make it prominent before all others--was not St. Luke’s calling.The King, the Christ, is his subject. If we admit any direction of the minds of those who wrote these books--indeed, any special callings of men in this world at all--we can perceive why the tasks of the different evangelists should be different. We can perceive also why each should inevitably at times adopt forms of speech which appear more characteristic of another.
V. “IT SEEMED GOOD TO ME ALSO.” Some may cry, “Was he not then taught by the Spirit of God?” I imagine that he who described the Day of Pentecost, and referred the whole existence and work of the Church to the Spirit of God, had quite as awful a feeling of His government over himself as any of us can have. The freedom of his language shows me how strong his feeling was; our sensitiveness and unwillingness to connect the Spirit with the operations of the human intellect, indicate the weakness of ours. We ask for distinctions about the degrees and measures in which the Spirit has been or will be vouchsafed. The Evangelists make no such distinctions. I think they dared not.
VI. The next clause teaches us much on this subject, and would teach us more if it had not been unhappily perverted in our version. What St. Luke says is that it seemed good to him to write, HAVING FOLLOWED OUT ALL THINGS WITH CAREFUL DILIGENCE FROM THEIR SOURCE, JUST as a man traces the source of a river from its mountain-bed through all its windings. Instead of being absolved from this diligence by the presence of the Divine Spirit, he felt himself obliged by that Spirit to spare no labour, not to omit the most solicitous examination of what he heard, not to give himself credit for understanding it at the first, but to wait for that clear, penetrating light which could distinguish between his own impressions and the truth of things,
VII. There is one word more in this preface which I cannot pass by. St. Luke professes to write to Theophilus IN ORDER. The narrative is to be an orderly or continuous one. Can we then discover that order? Clearly it is very different from that of common biographers. I think you will find that what the evangelist traces are the steps by which a King claimed dominion over his subjects; how they were prepared for Him; how He was prepared for going forth among them; how He manifested the powers of His kingdom; how He illustrated the nature of it; what kind of opposition He encountered; what battles He fought; who stood by Him; who deserted Him; how He seemed to be vanquished; how He prevailed at last. The more steadily we keep before ourselves the thought of a Kingdom of Heaven--a kingdom actual in the highest sense, explaining the nature and forces of every kingdom that has existed on the earth, showing what in those kingdoms must abide, what must pass away--the more shall we adhere to the letter of the Gospels, the more shall we enter into their spirit. (F. D. Maurice, M. A.)
1. The reason which Luke gives for writing this Gospel would seem at first sight to be an excellent reason for not writing. It is thought by superficial persons to-day that there are already sufficient religious books before the world. What is the error of such reasoning? Forgetfulness of the fact that Christianity presents different aspects to different minds, so that no statement of it can ever exhaust its intellectual and spiritual riches. Every Christian student writes a life of Christ for himself. The facts of Christianity are few and simple, but the truths arising out of them are innumerable and profound. The preaching of the Word can never be the same by any two men who diligently inquire into its meaning for themselves and fearlessly express the results of their investigation.
2. At the time of Luke’s writing, the facts of Christianity were not only known as matters of current turnout--they were most surely believed. Not enough that the events of the Christian history be not discredited. They must be received with all faith and love, and become elements of our own spiritual life. When this is realized a new emphasis will characterize the tone of the Church.
3. Noticeable that Luke enters upon his work with the utmost candour and fearlessness. Does not propose to evade anything or skilfully slur over anything. Distinctly says that he will begin at the beginning, and trace the whole history through all its windings, difficulties, and successes. This is precisely what is wanted for our own day, viz., a distinct and complete idea of the ground which is occupied by Christian history.
4. The principle of tradition runs through this prefatory note in a remarkable manner. First of all come the eye-witnesses and ministers of the Word; then come the writers with whom they were immediately associated; then come such men as are represented by the “most excellent Theophilus;” and afterward would come the persons to whom Theophilus communicated the information with which he had been put in trust. Thus one age becomes the debtor of another, and we ourselves are to-day the treasurers of the ages. (Joseph Parker, D. D.)
The preface to the Gospel
I. From this preface to St. Luke’s Gospel we learn, first, THAT THERE WERE ALREADY EXISTING IN THE EVANGELIST’S DAY MANY “GOSPELS”: “Forasmuch as many have undertaken to draw up a consecutive account concerning those matters which have been fully established among us.” Christianity has ever been the grand inspirer of Christendom’s literature. Probably more has been written about Jesus Christ, His character and teaching and work, than about all other things put together. For it is not in religious books alone that we see the signs of His presence and sway. We can scarcely take up a volume on any grave subject--ethical, philosophical, historic, biographic, aesthetic--without ever and anon catching at least glimpses of the passing shadow of the Son of Mary. The unconscious tributes of literature to Jesus the Nazarene arc surprisingly many and emphatic. And, observe, our evangelist does not censure these attempts at biography. He does not hint that those memorabilia are to be rejected. For aught we know, some of these sketches were as truly inspired as the Gospel of St. Luke himself. What though they have not come down to us? There is reason for believing that some Scriptures--for instance, a letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians--have been lost. But this does not detract from the worth of those we do have. Eternity will not exhaust what memoirs of the Divine Man we do have.
II. From this preface to St. Luke’s Gospel, we learn, THE SOURCE OF THE GOSPELS: “Even as they delivered them unto us, who from the beginning were eye-witnesses and ministers of the Word.” The source and basis, then, of these primitive Gospels was the contemporaneous oral gospel or tradition of the original apostles. Need I add that it is still the only kind of tradition which the Church is at liberty to accept as the authorized gospel and doctrine of Jesus Christ?
III. From this preface to St. Luke’s Gospel, we learn, THAT INSPIRATION IS COMPATIBLE WITH FREE-WILL: “It seemed good to me also to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus.” So far as his own consciousness was concerned, he seems to have set himself to his task spontaneously, and arranged his narrative as seemed to him best. Yet the judgment o! the Christian sense from the beginning has been that in thus composing his recital he was Divinely inspired. These facts cast light on the doctrine of inspiration. They show that one may be inspired, and yet act with entire freeness. The sacred writers have often been compared to AElolian harps, played on by the Holy Spirit or Divine Breath of God. The comparison is beautiful and just, so far as it goes. But it does not cover the whole truth; it fails to recognize the human element in inspiration. But let the sacred writers be compared to different musical instruments, for example, a flute, a cornet, a trumpet, an organ, &c., played on, indeed, by one and the same Divine Breath, but giving forth different melodies, according to the character of each distinct instrument; and the comparison becomes more complete and just. The source of the melody is Divine, and common to them all; the character of the melody is human, varying according to the temperament and peculiarity of the writer.
IV. From this preface to St. Luke’s Gospel we learn THAT OUR EVANGELIST WAS QUALIFIED TO WRITE A GOSPEL: “Having traced the course of all things accurately from the first.” His habits of observation as a physician would naturally lead him to scrutinize closely all alleged facts. He at least would know whether the Church of his day was following cunningly devised myths. In short, he exercised the “critical faculty.”
V. From this preface to St. Luke’s Gospel we learn our EVANGELIST’S PURPOSE IN WRITING: “That thou mightest know the certainty concerning the things wherein thou wast instructed.” For knowledge of facts rather than theories was then, as it still is, the need of the times. Such is the preface to the Gospel according to St. Luke. And as St. John’s prologue may be taken as the prologue to the Gospel, so St. Luke’s preface may be taken as the preface to the Gospels. And this suggests our first concluding thought: The advantage of having several Gospels. And herein is an immense advantage. First, the having several Gospels is a key to the detection of imposture: where the testimony is false, it is perilous to multiply witnesses. Again, the having several Gospels helps us to understand better the myriad-sided Divine Man. And yet the four Gospels are but one Gospel. This is the circumstance which makes it so profitable for us to study the Gospels in synchronous lessons. The habit protects us from partial and unsymmetrical views; for the Gospels, like stones in mosaic, are mutually complemental. Secondly, let us thank God that He prompted His servants to note down, so early in the Christian era, statements of the apostolic testimony; for the rich result is that, instead of uncertain and fickle tradition, we have permanent contemporary records. Lastly, be thou thyself a Theophilus, Friend of God; and the Spirit will write a Gospel to thee also. (G. D. Boardman.)
The four evangelists are so called, not in same sense as Ephesians 4:11, but to designate them as evangelical historians. The nature and degree of correspondence between the four furnish a strong proof of the credibility of each and all.
I. THE AUTHOR OF THIS GOSPEL UNIVERSALLY ACKNOWLEDGED TO BE LUKE. Companion of St. Paul (Acts 16:1-40. to end; 2 Timothy 4:11). A physician (Colossians 4:14). Said also to have been a painter, but no more authority than a very late tradition for this statement. If, however, he did not paint the faces of the Virgin and her Son with the colours of the limner, he did what was of much more importance; he, in this book, drew to the life an exquisite portraiture of their character, which continued with us long after the masterpieces of the ancient painters have vanished, and which will continue to the end of time--the antidote of superstition, the guide of the serious inquirer, and the admiration of all good men.
II. THE DIVINE AUTHORITY OF THIS GOSPEL.
1. The Church took great care to distinguish genuine Gospels from spurious. Clear testimony to the universal reception of these four, and only these, as canonical from the beginning.
2. If Luke was one of “the seventy,” then was he also miraculously qualified to compose this history; if not, yet both his human and Divine qualifications for the work might be safely rested solely on his being called to preach the Gospel, and to act and write under the eye and approval of St. Paul.
3. Various circumstantial particulars respecting the destruction of Jerusalem, foretold in this Gospel, and nowhere else, have been exactly fulfilled.
4. Mutual dependence and connection of this Gospel and the other three. (James Foote, M. A.)
The power of truth
St. Luke had no authority to suppress these other Gospels, nor does he reprehend or calumniate them; but he writes the truth simply, and leaves it to outswear falsehood; and so it has done. Moses’ rod has devoured the conjurors’ rods, and St. Luke’s story still retains the majesty of the Maker, and theirs are not. (Dr. Donne.)
Luke and Theophilus
Luke a physician, like the few; Theophilus a patient, like the many. (J. J. Van Oosterzee, D. D.)
Historical belief in the Divine truth of Christianity
1. Its necessity.
2. Its certainty.
3. Its insufficiency when unaccompanied by a living faith. (J. J. Van Oosterzee, D. D.)
1. The predecessor of believing searchers.
2. The condemner of unbelieving searchers of Scripture. (J. J. Van Oosterzee, D. D.)
The highest aim which a Christian anther can propose to himself
1. To correct what is faulty.
2. To strengthen what is weak.
3. To arrange what is confused. (Ibid.)
Most excellent Theophilus
Civil dignities and honours not destroyed, but ennobled, by citizenship in the kingdom of God. (J. J. Van Oosterzee, D. D.)
The fear of God makes men truly great and excellent. (Starke.)
St. Luke’s preface
Luke is the only one of the synoptists who begins his Gospel with a preface. His preface is historico-critical, while the introduction of John is historico-doctrinal. The prominent points in this short preface are--
1. It cautions us against erroneous or defective statements of facts.
2. It directs us to the apostles as eye-witnesses of the life of Christ.
3. It proves the faithfulness of the evangelist in tracing the facts to the primitive source.
4. It brings out the human side in the origin of the sacred writings.
5. It teaches that “faith cometh by hearing,” and that the gospel was first taught by catechetical instruction or oral tradition, but then written down by reliable witnesses for all ages to come. This written Gospel is essentially the same with the preached Gospel of Christ and the apostles, and together with the Epistles is to us the only pure and infallible source of primitive Christianity. (P. Schaff, D. D.)
The order in Divine things
From faith to knowledge; from knowledge to still firmer faith. (Van Oosterzee.)
Other narratives of Christ’s life
It appears from this that narratives of the actions of Jesus, and of the events connected with His life and ministry, had been written by many individuals before Luke composed his history. This fact proves that the actions ascribed to Jesus had made a great noise in the world, and that a high degree of curiosity had been excited to peruse everything recorded concerning Him. Can we then suppose that Luke refers to these writings or to the other Gospels? We have reason to believe that Matthew’s Gospel was originally written in Syro-Chaldaic, which was the language spoken by the Jews in our Saviour’s time, and that it was not translated into Greek till some time afterwards. Mark’s Gospel was short, and John’s was not published till many years had elapsed after the destruction of Jerusalem. But as the evangelist says that many had undertaken to record the actions attributed to Jesus, it is evident that he alludes to more than one or two productions. Besides, though not asserted, it is implied, that the writings referred to were either defective or incorrect, for if they contained no arrors, nor were marked by great defects, the fact that they were numerous was a reason against adding to their number. We conclude, then, that Luke does not here refer to any of the other Gospels. Who, then, could be the writers of those narratives of which the evangelist did not approve? Were they the friends or the enemies of Christianity? There is no reason for supposing that the Scribes and Pharisees ventured to publish anything in writing against Jesus or His religion. They seem at first to have been satisfied by circulating false reports respecting His Resurrection, and afterwards by endeavouring to overwhelm Christianity by the strong arm of persecution. It is probable, therefore, that the objectionable narratives to which Luke refers were written by the friends of Christianity. But the zeal of friends has frequently been more injurious to the Christian religion than the malice of its enemies. We can easily conceive the pernicious consequences that may have arisen from erroneous statements, exaggerated facts, and fanciful explanations, given by honest but ignorant or ill-informed writers. The most judicious and effectual remedy was accordingly adopted by St. Luke. It consisted in making a proper selection and accurate statement of the most important facts as procured from the most undoubted authority. This, accordingly, was done; and the consequence has been that all the defective or erroneous accounts of our Saviour which were then circulated have entirely disappeared, as darkness flies at the approach of the morning sun, while the Gospels which contained the only correct history have been duly valued, copied, and preserved. (J. B. Thomson, D. D.)
Many workers needed
Luke undertook to be very minute and exhaustive in his statement of gospel facts. He was going to do better than many other writers had done. He says so with cool frankness: “Forasmuch … to me also.” That is a curious expression. We expected him to say, Forasmuch as many have done this work, there is no need for me to do it. But he makes the very fact that there were other writers, a reason why there should be one more. That was good reasoning; it should prevail in all the lines and departments of Christian life and action. The contrary policy often supersedes it, and brings ministers and churches into great discomfort and enfeeblement. Men will say, You have so many helpers, you have no need of me. They are always more or less dishonest men--not intentionally so; intentional dishonesty is perfectly vulgar and wholly detestable, and nobody lays claim to it; but when men say, There are so many preachers, I need not be one: so many deacons, I need not be another: so many helpers, there is no need of me--they are not conducting a Christian argument, they are with all their graciousness unconsciously jealous and spiteful. Luke reasoned in the right way; he said, Many men are taking up this subject, I will do what I can in it; I think I can beat some of them. (Joseph Parker, D. D.)
The preface the best part of the book
Will the book be as good as the preface? I fancy not--when the subject is Jesus Christ. The first sentence is often the best. Why? Because the subject grows. No man can ever prepare his imagination for the glory of that theme. The young preacher feels this; he buckles to with a brave heart, and says he will work honestly all day, and pray most of the night, and produce such discourses as will satisfy his best ambition. He empties his inkhorn, does all he can, and then puts his young hand upon his mouth and says, Unprofitable! I have failed. I had an ambition high as heaven, bright as the unclouded noon; but I have failed! He does not do justice to himself. The Lord does not pronounce that judgment upon him. He says, Thou hast not failed; industry never fails; conscience always succeeds; thou hast won a right bright crown I Cheer thee I It is not the man who has failed; it is the God who has exceeded all ever thought of in prayer, all ever dreamed of in poetry. Still, we expected more from Luke than from the others, and we get more. He does not see some things as Mark saw them. It is fashionable--shall we say, with due mental reservation, pedantic?--to point out that Luke was the observing writer. Mark observed a good many things that Luke never saw, or at least never recorded. Matthew also had his own way of looking at things; and as for St. John, what was he looking at? Apparently at nothing, for his inner eyes were fastened on the soul of Christ. If Luke had sharp eyes, what ears John had! for he heard whisperings of the heart, throbbings and beatings and sighings: and what a gift of expression I for he turned all that he heard into noble, sweet music for the soul’s comforting in all the cloudy days of Church time. But Luke says he will set down things “in order”; the others have been good historians, but a little wanting in the power of grouping and classifying; good historians, but poor editors; Luke will break things up into chapters, and verses, and paragraphs, and sections, and he will attend to chronological sequence. We need mechanical men in the Church, people who know when to begin a new paragraph, and to codify laws, and to do a good many useful little things. (Joseph Parker, D. D.)
Religion a reality
In spite of our professions and general convictions, we do not give to the truths of the gospel their full weight as infallible certainties; we do not embrace them as realities.
I. IT IS A REALITY THAT GOD IS SUPREME THE UNIVERSAL SOVEREIGN, AND THAT HE RIGHTFULLY CLAIMS THE LOVE AND THE ENTIRE ALLEGIANCE OF ALL HIS CREATURES.
II. IT IS A MOST AWFUL FACT THAT A POSITIVE REBELLION AGAINST THE ETERNAL KING HAS TAKEN PLACE IN THIS WORLD, AND THAT WE ARE ALL DEEPLY INVOLVED IN ITS CONSEQUENCES.
III. THE REDEMPTION OF SINNERS, UNDER THE ALARMING CIRCUMSTANCES ABOVE DESCRIBED, BY THE SON OF GOD IS A MOST MERCIFUL PACT ANNOUNCED TO US IN THE HOLY SCRIPTURES. IV THAT THE ACCEPTANCE OF THIS GREAT REDEMPTION, ON YOUR PART, MUST BE A REALITY.
V. RELIGION IS A REALITY IN ITS GREAT AND HAPPY EFFECTS, WHICH ARE SANCTIFICATION AND SALVATION. (Essex Remembrancer.)
To write unto thee in order
A work wall shaped into an artistic whole a history advancing by well-marked steps, and systematically progressive; an inter-connection easily perceptible of causes and effects--these for a Greek mind constituted the best material for carrying conviction. Now it is precisely this kind of evidence which is to be drawn from the third Gospel. And the preamble leads us even to think that such was the deliberate intention of the author. (Professor Godet.)
If it be said that Luke says that he wrote “in order” ( ἐν ταξει), I answer that there are other orderly arrangements besides those of time and place; and that if a work is a religious memoir, the arrangement would be regulated, though not exclusively, by the reference of the facts to the religious end in view. (Prebendary Row.)
Most excellent Theophilus
Most excellent Theophilus
The person to whom the Gospel is addressed. The name “Theophilus” signifies a lover, or beloved of God; but it would be very unnatural to suppose, with some, that the word is here used as a feigned name, to signify any Christian. Though this method has been adopted by other writers, it is not agreeable to the practice of the inspired. Theophilus is plainly the same real individual to whom the book of the Acts of the Apostles also is addressed. He is here styled “most excellent.” This was an honorary title bestowed on persons high in office, and of nobility, somewhat similar to the title of “excellency” with us. Thus it is given to Acts 23:26) and to Festus (Acts 26:25). Theophilus, therefore, was not only a Christian, but a nobleman, and probably high in office. Thus, though “not many mighty, not many noble, were called,” yet some such were called from the first; and thus some such are still found among the faithful. Such instances ale highly important and pleasing. Not but that the soul of the meanest peasant is, in itself, as precious as the soul of the most illustrious nobleman--not but that the salvation of every soul transcends in importance every worldly consideration; but in reference to the probable effect on others, there is an undeniable difference. Every good man may be of some service to the cause of Christ; but when rank, office, wealth, and talent are engaged, God may be considered as Himself putting more powerful means in operation; and when His own blessing is superinduced, the good effects are correspondingly extensive. (James Foote, M. A.)
From this form of address, used by an inspired writer, may be fairly deduced the lawfulness and propriety, generally speaking, of giving to men the ordinary titles of respect. As to our Lord’s teaching His disciples not to be called rabbi, and to call no man father, or master, on earth, Scripture must be interpreted consistently with itself, and that passage, of course, consistently with such as this; and this rule of interpretation leads to the conclusion that Christ forbade, not the use of common terms in common life, but the assumption, on the one hand, and the yielding, on the other, of any human authority in matters of religion which might at all interfere with His own. They err, therefore, who think there is any propriety or religion in assuming a singularity in such things, or in sturdily refusing what are usually considered marks of civility and respect. It is unworthy at once of the Christian and of the man to be guilty of hollow hypocrisy or fawning servility; but it is both dutiful and adorning to be courteous, and to give honour to whom honour is due. (James Foote, M. A.)
Dedication of books
It has been usual with authors to dedicate their works to particular persons, sometimes with the design of securing their patronage, sometimes merely as a mark of respect and affection, and sometimes with a particular view to the benefit of the individuals themselves. The dictates of inspiration needed not, it is true, the support of any human authority; yet it would not have been unworthy of Divine wisdom to have adopted such secondary means. While this dedication is
Most excellent Theophilus
I. HUMAN TITLES HAVE A PECULIAR SIGNIFICANCE WHEN APPLIED TO RELIGIOUS MEN. Many called “excellent”; this “friend of God” was “most excellent.”
II. RELIGIOUS MEN MAY BE ILLUSTRIOUS, YET LITTLE KNOWN.
III. TITLED BELIEVERS FEW IN NUMBER--one Theophilus.
IV. WELL TO HAVE A GOOD NAME--“Theophilus”; better to deserve it--“most excellent.”
V. Such EXCELLENCE HAS ITS MARKS.
1. Anxious to know things of Christ from beginning.
2. To know their certainty.
VI. SUCH EXCELLENCE HAS ITS ADVANTAGES.
1. Approved of God--such friendship is not one-sided.
2. Approval of the highest order of men--Luke.
3. The honour of having an authentic and inspired history of Christ dedicated to him.
4. His name thus rescued from utter oblivion (Biblical Museum.)
This name, of Grecian origin, though it is sometimes used by the Jews, leads us to suppose that the noble person who bore it was a Greek. We must add that, in dedicating this work to him, St. Luke was probably not thinking only of the use he would personally make of it. The publication of a book was at that time a much more costly undertaking than it is now, since every copy had to be made by hand. By accepting the manuscript which was dedicated to him, the wealthy Theophilus became what was called the patron or, as we should now say, the sponsor of the book. He undertook to make it known, to have copies made of it, and to circulate these amongst those about him, or who belonged to the same nation as himself. The ancient Judaeo-Christian romance, entitled, “ The Clementines,” of about the year 160, makes Theophilus a man of high position in Antioch, who, after having listened to the preaching of Peter, gave up his palace to be used as a church. (Professor Godet.)
The certainty of those things
Part of the value of this short and simple introduction consists in its quite undesigned manifestation of the true historic character of Christianity. In the good sense Luke was a sceptic first, in order that he might be a rational and strong believer. Anything more truly scientific than his method I cannot imagine. It is the method of every candid historian who wishes to set down only what is genuine and authentic. When he speaks here of “the certainty” of some particular things, he means substantially what the Apostle Paul means when he speaks of “the gospel of God,” “the gospel of which he was not ashamed,” and of “Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” Is that first “certainty” enough for us still? Everything, we are told, is being tried by this practical test, by what it can do, and by the honest feeling men have to it, and we must not complain if the test is applied even to supernatural religion. We do not complain. It is quite true that we ought to be able by this time to furnish much practical corroboration of the truth and worth of Christianity which did not and could not exist in the apostolic days. I will therefore mention some of the practical and secondary “certainties” which, when duly considered, will tend greatly to confirm and enforce those which are primary and principal.
I. IT IS CERTAIN THAT NO STYLE OR TYPE OF HUMAN CHARACTER IS HIGHER THAN THE CHRISTIAN TYPE THAT NONE IS SO HIGH. Theoretically it ought to be so. Practically it is so.
II. IT IS CERTAIN THAT THE CHRISTIAN FAITH ENABLES THOSE WHO REALLY HAVE IT TO BEAR THE STRAIN AND PRESSURE OF LIFE--the sorrow, the pain, whatever they may be, as they could not be borne without it; and it is quite certain that we do not know of anything else which has the same upholding and consolatory power.
III. IT IS CERTAIN THAT CHRISTIANITY ALONE KEEPS AN OPEN DOOR FOR US OUT OF THIS WORLD INTO ANOTHER AND A BETTER.
IV. IT IS CERTAIN THAT, AT THIS MOMENT, THERE IS ONLY ONE RELIGION IN THE WORLD THAT CAN, FROM ITS VERY NATURE, BE EXTENDED TO EVERY PART OF IT only one religion which, as a matter of fact, is being diffused by those who believe in it and adhere to it, in a spirit of entire impartiality, “ among all nations, kindreds, peoples, and tongues.” Christianity is, as it has ever been, the only really missionary religion in the world. The poor Turk has no missionary in any Christian country. Educated Hindoos come to our universities, but although they can speak our language as well as we ourselves, and although they know that there is entire religious freedom in this country, who among them preaches Hindooism, or seeks a footing for it among the English people? On the other hand, every Christian individual and every Christian community stand committed, in simple fidelity to their Master, and in obedience to the very law of their life, to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. (Alexander Raleigh, D. D.)
The tone of the New Testament on certainty in religion
The more closely this tone of certainty is studied the more soul-striking the phenomenon becomes, both in its substance and in its accessories. What led these four evangelists, and these writers of the letters on doctrine and life, to speak one and all in this uniform style of intense belief? Was it the blind certainty of ignorant fools? Was it feigned all through? Were they deceived by appearances? They at least believed what they wrote. They seem utterly regardless of calumny and misrepresentation, like men who know that they are right. They speak with a strength of persuasion and assertion which still moves the world. They teach--
1. That man has lost himself by losing She knowledge of his God; and that he can recover himself, with the knowledge of his own nature and eternal destiny, only by recovering the knowledge of his Maker.
2. That God is to be loved through being known in His work of nature and redemption.
3. That certainty is essential for the peace of the soul.
4. That certain knowledge of God’s works and ways is essential to growth in Christian character.
5. That the quality of the moral excellence required by the gospel under such a character is impossible of attainment apart from confidence in the possession of God’s love and life eternal. (Edward White.)
Importance of a firm religious belief
I envy no quality of the mind or intellect in others, be it genius, power, wit, or fancy; but I should prefer a firm religious belief to every other blessing, for it makes life a discipline of goodness; creates new hopes, when all earthly hopes vanish; and throws over the decay, the destruction o! existence, the most gorgeous of all lights; awakens life even in death, and from corruption and decay calls up beauty and divinity; makes an instrument of torture and shame the ladder of ascent to Paradise; and, far above all combinations of earthly hopes, calls up the most delightful visions of palms and amaranths, the gardens of the blest, the security of everlasting joys, where the sensualist and the sceptic view only gloom, decay, annihilation, and despair. (Davy.)
The Bible really believed
The son of Selina, the Countess of Huntingdon, whose zeal in the extension of the gospel is well known, was unhappily an unbeliever, but reverenced his pious and venerable mother. “ I wish,” said a peer to him, “you would speak to Lady Huntingdon; she has just erected a preaching-place close to my residence.” His lordship replied, “Gladly, my lord; but you will do me the favour to inform me what plea to urge, for my mother really believes the Bible.” (Baxendale’s Illustrations.)
The Christian faith is founded on facts
It is important from time to time to be reminded that the real claims of the Christian faith, speaking of it in its largest sense, upon our obedience and reverence are founded on facts which hardly any one of any name or fame disputes, and which, in fact, have hardly ever been disputed. (Dean Stanley.)
The tone of certainty
Apart from criticism as to its cause, this is the most wonderful phenomenon in all literature. If the New Testament is not “ the judge that ends the strife, when wit and reason fail,” at least it speaks in that tone of absolute and invariable certainty which we should expect to accompany a revelation from the living God. And, as a matter of fact, it is this certainty which armed the martyrs of Christ in the early centuries to confront the direst sufferings in defence of the faith; as it is also this which makes it so exceedingly difficult in our times to overthrow Christianity by a set of mere critical peradventures, which are like brittle glass spears breaking against a shield of diamonds. (E. White.)
The witnesses of the gospel facts
These first spectators of “the heavenly vision” of “God manifest in the flesh” are themselves gradually raised into transcendent certainty; and then their testimony, and teaching, and life, transfuse that certitude into those who receive their word. That is according to the general law of life. The generations of men are related intellectually and spiritually. There is a vital unity in humanity--what the French call a solidarity. What human nature once really saw, subjected to every test, and was compelled to believe, humanity still sees through the organs and perceptions of its former members. Inheritance in all departments runs through the world. We believe all our national histories because “our fathers have told us.” But this is only the first stage of belief. Honest souls can test the traditional and historical by spiritual insight, and then they say--to the all-perceiving and all-reporting humanity--“ Now we believe not because of thy saying, for we have seen Him ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world.” (E. White.)
Testimonies of experience
At night, when a railroad train, having stopped at a station, is about to start again, in order that the conductor may know that everything is as it should be, the brakeman on the last car calls out through the darkness, “All right here!” and the next man takes up the word, “All right here!” and the next echoes, “All right here!” and so it passes along the line, and the train moves on. It does me good to sit here while you speak of the life you are guiding through the world’s darkness, and pass the word from one to another, “All right here!” All is right everywhere when the heart is right. (H. W. Beecher.)
Power of personal testimony
Thomas Bilney was aa ardent young convert, and longed to do something for his Master. Hugh Latimer was a zealous Roman Catholic priest, who preached against the Reformation. Bilney went to him, and told him that he wished to confess. In the privacy of the confessional, he told him the whole burning story of his conviction, conversion, and new-found happiness. The Spirit helped, and Latimer’s heart was probed and changed. From that hour Latimer gave his life to the cause he had before opposed, and sealed his testimony with his blood.
Infidels neglect to examine the Bible
Sir Isaac Newton set out in life clamorous infidel; but, on a nice examination of the evidences for Christianity, he found reason to change his opinion. When the celebrated Dr. Edmund Halley was talking infidelity before him, Sir Isaac Newton addressed him in these or the like words: “Dr. Halley, I am always glad to hear!you when you speak about astronomy, or other parts of the mathematics, because that is a subject you have studied, and well understand; but you should not talk of Christianity, for you have not studied it. I have; and am certain that you know nothing of the matter.” This was a just reproof, and one that would be very suitable to be given to half the infidels of the present day, for they often speak of what they have never studied, and what, in fact, they are entirely ignorant of. Dr. Johnson, therefore, well observed that “no honest man could be a Deist, for no man could be so after a fair examination of the proofs of Christianity.” On the name of Hume being mentioned to him, “No, sir,” said he, “Hume owned to a clergyman in the Bishopric of Durham that he had never read the New Testament with attention.” (Student’s Handbook to Scripture Doctrines.)
Conspicuous in John Randolph’s library was a family Bible. Surrounding it were many books, some for, and others against, its truthfulness as an inspired revelation. One day Mr. Randolph had a clergyman as his guest, and the family Bible became a topic of conversation. The eccentric orator said, “I was raised by a pious mother (God bless her memory!), who taught me the Christian religion in all its requirements. But alas! I grew up an infidel--if not an infidel complete, yet a decided Deist. But when I became a man, in this, as well as in political and all other matters, I resolved to examine for myself, and never to pin my faith to any other man’s sleeve. So I bought that Bible; I pored over it; I examined it carefully. I sought and procured those books for and against it; and when my labours were ended, I came to this irresistible conclusion--the Bible is true. It would have been as easy for a mole to have written Sir Isaac Newton’s treatise on “Optics,” as for uninspired men to have written the Bible.”
Christianity courts examination
But I am anxious you should never let slip the fact that Christianity itself puts the scales and weights into your hands, and starts you on this universal verifying process. When I was a senior scholar I was dazed and bewildered by a man three times my age seeking to shake my faith in the Gospel by assuring me that the Bible was averse to investigation, shrunk from the full light of day, and could only maintain its ground with those who were prejudiced in its favour. Glad was I to find that Christianity rejoices in all light, welcomes it from every quarter, accepts with thankfulness the aid of all the sciences and arts, and urges us to imitate the Bereans, who did not assent to Paul’s words without searching the Scriptures and using the best test they knew, so that they might only believe what was absolutely true, and hold nothing fast except that which was undeniably good. Forget not, then, it is Christianity itself that says, “Prove all things. Examine thoroughly. Get at the core of things. Be not deceived by appearances. Go from facts principles, from the letter to the spirit. Be not cheated by any alloys. Light the fires of examination, put on your crucible, cast in your metallic ores, and heat the furnace to its hottest, and then take away with you the pure gold of goodness and truth.” (J. Clifford, D. D.)
The Bible tested
The Bible has been tried in the ages of the past by godless men like Voltaire; it has been tried by the best classes like Wilberforce; it has been tried by educators like Alexander; it has been tried by men in every conceivable position, in prosperity and in adversity, and it has stood the test. You need not be afraid to build your hopes upon it for time and for eternity. (Dr. John Hall.)
Afraid of being convinced
At Cairo, Gobat entertained high hopes of the conversion of a learned Mohammedan teacher, Sheik Ahmed, which were doomed to disappointment. After many interviews, in which be appeared deeply impressed and ready to receive Christ as his Saviour and God, Gobat lost sight of him. Three months later he says, “I met him one day in the street. I asked him why he had not called for so long a time, to which he naively replied, ‘The last time I was with you I felt that if I went to you again I should be convinced of the truths of Christianity, and be consequently obliged to avow myself a Christian, for which I should have been killed. I therefore resolved to see you no more until my heart should be hardened against your arguments.’” (Memoirs of Bishop Gobat.)
Triumph of the Word
In the diamond fields of South Africa a diamond was found, celebrated lately under the title of fly-stone; placed under a magnifying glass you see enclosed in all its brilliancy a little fly, with body, wings, and eyes in the most perfect state of preservation. How it came there no one knows; but no human skill can take it out. So in Holy Scripture the Spirit of God is found in a place from which no power of man can remove it. Infidelity and criticism have now done their utmost, and it is a kind of satisfaction to know that more powerful advocates of infidelity can hardly be found in the future than there have been in the past. All kinds of weapons have been employed, but the result has been triumph for the Word. (Dr. McEwan.)
A certain priest named Zacharias.
--Mark how immediately the historian betakes himself to the collateral line. Something very suggestive in this. No one life independent of other lives. As every text has its context, so every life has relationships and associations which must in some degree be understood before itself can be made altogether intelligible. Hence we find that biography is much indebted to its background of contemporary and incidental events. The particularity of Luke’s statements is noticeable. He does not hurry his reader over names and circumstances which a critical inquirer would like to know something about. On the contrary, he sets down the names of kings, priests, and others, and so gives the critic the utmost opportunity of testing his accuracy by the light of collateral history. (Dr. Joseph Parker.)
The priestly descent of the Forerunner
Whereas, alike in narrative and apostolic argument, the Lord Himself is “separated” in His lineage from the priestly race (see Hebrews 7:14), it is otherwise with John the Baptist. By father and by mother he was descended in the “priestly” line. This twofold fact seems to me worth accentuating in three elements of it.
1. It strikingly differentiates historically the priesthood of our Lord from the ancient priesthood, which was a thing simply of inheritance by blood.
2. It is to be emphasized in that John the Baptist never claimed that priestly succession that he might have done as the son of Zacharias and Elisabeth. Surely this declinature to enter himself heir to so august an office is extremely noticeable! It was self-chosen, but also Divinely ordered, seeing that John was to usher in that very kingdom of grace that was destined to unconsecrate and abolish the old order of things.
3. I call attention to it further, because it could scarcely fail that the “blue blood” of the priesthood in John would have its influence in winning him audience and giving him authority with the multitudes who flocked (later) to his imperious summons. (Dr. Grosart.)
Priesthood in the davis of our Lord
As the office was hereditary, the number of the priesthood had become very great in the days of our Lord, so that, according to the Talmud, in addition to those who lived in the country, and came up to take their turn in the temple services, there were no fewer than 24,000 settled in Jerusalem, and half that number in Jericho. This, however, is no doubt an exaggeration. Josephus is more likely correct in estimating the whole number at somewhat over 20,000. But even this was an enormous proportion of clergy to the population of a country like Judaea. They must have been a more familiar sight in the streets of Jerusalem, and in the towns and villages, than the seemingly countless ecclesiastics in the towns and cities of Spain or Italy at this time. (Dr. Geikie.)
“Of the course of Abia”
Abia--Abijah in the Old Testament. When the priests had become numerous, David divided the whole body into twenty-four classes or “courses,” which were appointed to do service in weekly rotation, so that each of the courses had to attend at the temple twice in the year for a week each time. Of the twenty-four courses that of Abijah was the eighth. Of the number that went into captivity only four of the courses returned, and that of Abijah was not one of them. But these four were divided into twenty-four, in order to reproduce the former distribution; and, to render the analogy more complete, they received the same names as the original courses. (Dr. Kitto.)
The priestly orders
The word ephemeris means first “a daily ministry” (Hebrews Mishmereth), and then a class of the priesthood which exercised its functions for a week. Aaron had four sons, but the two elder, Nadab and Abihu, were struck dead for using strange firs in the sanctuary (Leviticus 10:1-20.). From the two remaining sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, had sprung in the days of David twenty-four families, sixteen from the descendants of Eleazar, and eight from those of Ithamar. To these David distributes by lot the order of their service from week to week, each for eight days inclusively from sabbath to sabbath (1 Chronicles 24:1-19; 2 Chronicles 31:2). After the Babylonish exile only four of the twentyfour courses returned--a striking indication of the truth of the Jewish saying, that those who returned from the exile were but the chaff in comparison of the wheat. The four families of which the representatlves returned were those of Jedaiah, Immer, Pashur, and Harim (Ezra 2:36-39). But the Jews concealed the heavy loss by subdividing these four families into twenty-four courses, to which they gave the original names, and this is alluded to in Nehemiah 13:30 (“I… appointed the wards of the priests and the Levites, every one in his business”). This arrangement continued till the fall of Jerusalem (A.D. 70), at which time, on the ninth of the month Abib (August 5th), we are told by Josephus that the course in waiting was that of Jehoiarib. Reckoning back from this, we find that the course of Abijah went out of office on October 9, B.C. 6. The reader should bear in mind that our received era for the birth of Christ was only fixed by the abbot Dionysius Exiguus in the sixth century, and is probably foul years wrong. (Archdeacon Farrar.)
There may be succession in a forsaken Church. It remained when Christ was crucified, the Spirit quenched. (Van Doren.)
Both righteous before God
Observance of God’s ordinances
“By walking in the ordinances,” they walked likewise “in all the commandments of the Lord; “ that being the means whereby they did this.
Performance of duties
God communicates Himself with great variety to His saints, now in this ordinance and now in that, on purpose that He may keep up the esteem of all in our hearts. Take heed, therefore, Christian, that thou neglect not any one duty. How knowest thou but that is the door at which Christ stands, waiting to enter into thy soul (Jn 2 Thessalonians 3:16)? (W. Gurnall.)
All God’s commands to be observed
God’s commandments hang together; they are knit and woven together like a fine web, wherein you cannot loosen a single stitch without danger of unravelling the whole. If a man lives in the breach of any one of God’s commandments, if he allows himself to indulge in any one sin, none can tell where he will stop. There is no letting any one devil into our souls without the risk of his going and fetching “seven other devils wickeder than himself”; and the purer the house may hitherto have been, the more eager will they be to come and lodge in it. (A. W. Hare.)
Unity of Zacharias and Elisabeth
They were one in--
3. Christ. (VanDoren.)
A model coupler
1. The sweet harmony of this religious couple in the ways of God; they both walked in the commandments of God. It is a happy match when husband and wife are one, not only in themselves, but in the Lord.
2. The universality of their holiness and obedience: they walked, not in some, but in all the ordinances and commandments of the Lord. Such as will approve themselves to be sincerely religious must make conscience of every known duty, and endeavour to obey every precept and command of God.
3. The high commendation which the Holy Spirit of God gives of this their religious course of holiness and obedience: they are pronounced blameless. To live without gross sin is our holiness on earth; to live without any sin will be our happiness in heaven. Many sins may be in him that has true grace; but he that has truth of grace cannot allow himself in any sin. Truth of grace is our perfection on earth; but in heaven we shall have perfection as well as truth.
4. A pattern for their imitation who wait at God’s altar, and are employed in and about holy things. All ministers of the gospel ought to be what Zacharias and Elisabeth are here said to be, blameless; that is, very innocent and inoffensive in their daily conversation. (W. Burkitt, M. A.)
Like stock, like fruit
It is not in the power of parents to traduce holiness to their children; it is the blessing of God that feoffs them in the virtues of their parents, as they feoff them in their sins. There is no certainty, but there is a likelihood of a holy generation when the parents are such. Elisabeth was just as well as Zachary, that the forerunner of a Saviour might be holy on both sides. If the stock and the graft be not both good, there is much danger of the fruit. It is a happy match when the husband and the wife are one, not only in themselves, but in God; not more in flesh than in the Spirit. Grace makes no difference of sexes; rather the weaker carries away the more honour because it has had less helps. (Bishop Hall.)
It may or may not carry benediction with it to be born into a household historically and by hereditary office renowned; but, coeteris paribus, it is a beatitude to have both father and mother “righteous” as before God, and “blameless” as before the world. How mournful to very tragedy is falsification of such a godly lineage, words are poor to tell I It is to set the whole home-life to sweetest music to have husband and wife, father and mother, agreed in religious faith and character, as it is to introduce inevitable discords when both are not so--when, perchance, children and servants see the husband (father) living “without God,” and the wife (mother) bearing an aching heart as she enforcedly goes alone to “the sanctuary,” and alone has “prayer” in the household. (Dr. Grosart.)
Zacharias and Elisabeth
Parentage of great men interesting. Parental influence generally determines intellectual, social, and largely moral standing. Introducing the story of one who was pronounced by the highest authority to have no superior among his predecessors or contemporaries Matthew 11:11), the sacred writer detains us a little with the character of his parents. View the text as a beautiful exhibition of personal and family religion.
I. A REPRESENTATION OF PERSONAL RELIGION. Their religion was--
1. Sincere--“before God.”
2. Irreproachable--“blameless” (Philippians 2:15).
3. Practical--“walking in all,” &e.
II. A PICTURE AND PLEDGE OF FAMILY RELIGION. What is said of one is said of “both”--a pious pair. Look at this in its bearing upon--
1. Their mutual comfort. Christian young men and women, let this be one of the first things at which you look seriously when you begin to contemplate the life union.
2. Their domestic life. Imagine them at their rural home in the hill-country. Mutual kindness, united prayer, quiet ways of doing good, &c.
3. Their parental duties. Surely their personal piety had something to do with their selection as parents of forerunner. Personal religion the main qualification for training of children. (John Rawlinson.)
Characteristics of true righteousness
In order to this we must be “justified by faith through our Lord Jesus Christ,” for “the man unto whom the Lord will not impute sin, is he whose transgression is forgiven.” Another characteristic of the righteous man is that, “in his spirit there is no guile,” or, as the Irish boy expressed this, he must be “dane inside.” See how David prayed for these blessings (Psalms 51:1; Psa_51:7; Psa_51:10). Then those who are righteous have all right principles in them (Galatians 5:22-23). A king of England once took a Romish fighting-bishop prisoner. The Pope sent a demand, “Set my son free.” In reply, the king sent the bishop’s helmet and coat of mail, and asked, “Is this thy son’s dress?” Those who are righteous before God will also be righteous before men. (H. R. Burton.)
Transparent in character
In the cathedral of St. Mark, in Venice--a marvellous building, lustrous with an Oriental splendour far beyond description--there are pillars said to have been brought from Solomon’s Temple; these are of alabaster, a substance firm and durable as granite, and yet transparent, so that the light glows through them. Behold an emblem of what all true pillars of the Church should be--firm in their faith, and transparent in their character; men of simple mould, ignorant of tortuous and deceptive ways, and yet men of strong will, not readily to be led aside, or bent from their uprightness! A few such alabaster men we know; may the great Master Builder place more of them in His temple! (C. H.Spurgeon.)
The blameless pair
I. To consider and illustrate the character described in the text; and--
II. To present some reasons why all who have entered the marriage state should endeavour to make it their own.
1. The first thing which demands attention in the character of this truly excellent and happy pair is, that they were righteous before God. It is, indeed, very easy to be righteous in our own estimation; nor is it very difficult to be righteous in the estimation of our fellow creatures; but it is by no means equally easy to be righteous in the estimation of God. He is constantly with us; He sees our whole conduct; nay, more, He reads our hearts. To be righteous before Him, then, is to be really, inwardly, and uniformly righteous. It is to be the same persons in every situation, and on all occasions: the same at home and abroad, in solitude and in society. Try yourselves by this rule. Would men think you righteous, did they know you as perfectly as God knows you?
2. Again: this pair walked in all God’s commandments and ordinances blameless. It is mentioned as an effect and a proof of their being righteous.
These two words, though nearly synonymous, are not perfectly so. The commands of God are His moral precepts, or those precepts which are designed to regulate our temper and conduct on all occasions. By His ordinances are meant those religious rites and institutions which He has directed us to observe. Some pretend to obey God’s commands, while they neglect His ordinances. Others visibly observe His ordinances, but neglect His commands. The term walk signifies a course of life. To walk in God’s commandments and ordinances, is to have the heart and life constantly regulated by them. It is not to step occasionally into the path of duty, and then take many steps in a different path; but it is to pursue this path with undeviating steadiness and perseverance. This pious pair did not select such commandments as were easy, or reputable, and neglect others. Nor did they observe those only, which they had little temptation to omit; but, to use the language of the psalmist, they had respect to all God’s commandments.
What is now, under the Christian dispensation, implied in walking in all the ordinances and commandments of the Lord, blamelessly?
1. It implies the exercise of repentance toward God, and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. These are the two first and great commands of the gospel. Until we begin to perform these duties, we cannot be righteous before God, nor walk in any of His commandments or ordinances; for inspiration hath declared, without faith it is impossible to please Him.
2. Walking in all God’s commandments and ordinances blamelessly, implies great diligence in seeking a knowledge of them. No man can regulate his conduct by a rule, with which he is unacquainted. As well might a mariner find his way to a distant port, without ever looking to his chart or compass. That copy of the Old Testament, which Zacharias and Elisabeth possessed, was doubtless worn with frequent use. It must have been their daily counsellor and guide.
3. Walking in all God’s commandments and ordinances blamelessly, implies a careful performance of all the duties which husbands and wives owe each other.
4. Walking in all the commandments and ordinances of God blamelessly, implies a careful performance, on the part of parents, of all the parental duties which He has enjoined.
5. Walking in all God’s ordinances and commandments blamelessly, implies the maintaining of the worship of God in the family.
6. Walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly, implies a suitable concern for the present and future happiness of servants, apprentices, and dependents.
7. Walking in the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly, implies a careful performance of all the duties which we owe our neighbours.
8. Walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly, implies a proper use of the temporal good things which are entrusted to our care. Lastly: Walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly, implies a sacred observance of the Sabbath, a diligent attendance on the public worship of God, and a commemoration of Christ at His table. Having thus considered and illustrated the character brought to view in the text, I proceed, as was proposed--
II. To state some reasons why all who have entered the marriage state should endeavour to make it their own.
1. God approves, and requires you to possess, such a character. He commands you to be righteous before Him.
2. Consider how much it would promote your present happiness to possess such a character. Where can happiness be found on earth, if not in such a family as has now been described?
3. Permit me to remind you how greatly such a family would honour God and adorn religion. It would, indeed, in such a world as this, be like one of those ever verdant islands, which rise amidst the wide ocean of Arabian sands, and whose constant verdure leads the weary and thirsty traveller to seek for the hidden spring which produces it. It is, perhaps, impossible for an insulated individual to exhibit all the beauty and excellence of Christianity; because much of it consists in the right performance of those relative duties, which he has no opportunity to perform. But in a religious family, a family where both husband and wife are evidently pious, religion may be displayed in all its parts, and in the fulness of its glory and beauty; and one such family will do more to recommend it, and to soften the prejudices of its enemies, than can be effected by the most powerful and persuasive sermon. (E. Payson, D. D.)
In this short account there is much to interest and instruct us; “ they were both righteous.” The priest maintained the sanctity of his character by marrying a daughter of Aaron; a daughter of Aaron’s piety as well as of his flesh. The union, cemented by affection, was strengthened by piety. Thrice happy pair! united to God and to each other! who can separate you? what can harm you? Life with all its trials; death with all its terrors; all things shall work together for your good. If congeniality is necessary to happiness in any state, surely in that which is most interesting and important. “How can two walk together except they be agreed?” Besides, if the families of God’s people are to be the nurseries for the Church, it is indispensable that both parents should be righteous.
I. THE PRINCIPLE OF THEIR OBEDIENCE--“They were righteous before God.”
II. THE RULE OF THEIR OBEDIENCE--“The commandments and ordinances of the Lord.”
III. THE UNIVERSALITY OF THEIR OBEDIENCE--“Walking in all the commandments,” &c. Religion, wherever it exists, will leave its own entire impression upon the character; not one feature, but every feature of the “new man” will be developed; the duties to man, as well as those we owe to God, will be conscientiously regarded.
IV. THE CONSISTENCY OF THEIR OBEDIENCE. The text adds to the preceding description of their character “blameless;” not sinless. Happy is it for the interests of the Church when a blameless consistency marks its professors, more especially when its professors, like Zacharias and Elisabeth sustain public and important stations; the priest emphatically should be “blameless;” if the tongue of slander should attack him, it should meet with no second accuser. To be thus “blameless” requires a constant dependence upon the grace of God. (Essex Remembrancer.)
And they had no child
Virtue rewarded after long trial
This holy pair, Zacharias and Elisabeth, were fruitful in holy obedience, but barren in children; a fruitful soul and a barren womb are consistent, and often meet together. This religious couple made no less progress in virtue than in age, and yet their virtue did not make their age fruitful.
II. Elisabeth was barren in the flower of her age, but much more so in old age. Here was a double obstacle, and consequently a double instance of Divine power in the birth of John the Baptist, showing him to be a prophet very extraordinary, and miraculously sent by God.
III. When Almighty God in old time did long delay to give the blessing of children to holy women, He rewarded their expectation with the birth of some eminent and extraordinary person. Thus Sarah, after long barrenness, brought forth an Isaac; Rebecca, a Jacob; Rachel, a Joseph; Hannah, a Samuel; and Elisabeth, St. John Baptist. When God makes His people wait long for a particular mercy, if He sees it good for them, He gives it at last with a double reward for their expectation. (W. Burkitt, M. A.)
Opposite wonders in the conception of Christ and of John
A just soul and a barren womb may well agree together. Among the Jews barrenness was not a defect only, but a reproach; yet, while this good woman was fruitful of holy obedience, she was barren of children; as John, who was miraculously conceived by man, was a fit forerunner of Him that was conceived by the Holy Ghost, so a barren matron was meet to make way for a virgin. (Bishop Hall.)
Here was desolation without murmuring. Blessings long withheld are more intensely prized. (W. H. Van Doren, D. D.)
The society of children
We are all brought nearer to Christ through childhood. Dr. Arnold used to say that no one could continue long in a healthy religious state unless his heart was kept tender by mingling with children, or by frequent intercourse with the poor and the suffering.
The grief of being childless
But, notwithstanding all the satisfaction and inward peace of innocent and godly lives, in spite of the natural pride they, doubtless, felt in the consideration that must have been shown them, as born of a priestly ancestry, stretching back through fifteen hundred years, and though they must have had round them the comforts of a modest competency, there was a secret grief in the heart of both. Elisabeth had no child, and what this meant to a Hebrew wife it is hard for us to fancy. Rachel’s words, “Give me children, or else I die,” were the burden of every childless woman’s heart in Israel. The birth of a child was the removal of a reproach. Hannah’s prayer for a son was that of all Jewish wives in the same position. To have no child was regarded as a heavy punishment from the hand of God. How bitter the thought that his name should perish was for a Jew to bear, was seen in the law which required that a childless widow should be, forthwith, married by a dead husband’s brother, that children might be raised up to preserve the memory of the childless man, by being accounted his. Nor was it enough that one brother of a number acted thus: in the imaginary instance given by the Sadducees to our Lord, seven brothers, in succession, took a dead brother’s wife, for this object. The birth of a child was therefore a special blessing, as a security that the name of his father “should not be cut off from among his brethren, and from the gate of his place,” and that it should not be “put out of Israel.” Ancient nations, generally, seem to have had this feeling, and it is still so strong among Orientals, that after the birth of a first-born son, a father and a mother are no longer known by their own names, but as the father and mother of the child. There was, besides, a higher thought of possible relations, however distant, to the great-expected Messiah, by the birth of children; but Zacharias and Elisabeth had reason enough to sorrow at their childless home, even on the humbler ground of natural sentiments. They had grieved over their misfortune, and had made it the burden of many prayers, but years passed, and they had both grown elderly, and yet no child had been vouchsafed them. (Dr. Geikie.)
While he executed the priest’s office
The priest’s office
The duties of the priests were many and various.
It was their awful and peculiar honour to “come near the Lord” (Exodus 19:22). None but they could minister before Him in the Holy place where He manifested His presence: none others could “come nigh the vessels of the sanctuary or the altar.” It was death for any one not a priest to usurp these sacred prerogatives. They offered the morning and evening incense; trimmed the lamps of the golden candlestick, and filled them with oil; kept up the fire on the great altar in front of the Temple; removed the ashes Of the sacrifices; took part in the slaying and cutting up of victims, and especially in the sprinkling of their blood, and laid the offerings of all kinds on the altar. They also announced the new moons, which were sacred days like the Sabbaths, by the blowing of trumpets. But this was a small part of their duties. They had to examine all cases of ceremonial uncleanness, especially leprosy, clearing those who were pure, and pronouncing others unclean; to estimate, for commutation, the value of the countless offerings made to the Temple, and to watch the interior of the Temple by night. They were required, moreover, to instruct the people in the niceties of the law, and to give decisions on many points reserved, among us, to magistrates, The priests, in fact, were, within certain limits, the judges and magistrates of the land, though the Sanhedrim, which was the supreme court in later Jewish history, was composed of chief priests, laymen, and scribes, or Rabbis, in apparently equal numbers. (Dr. Geikie)
When a course came up to relieve the one that had served the preceding week, the particular services of the priests were determined by lot. Certain services were accounted more honourable than others, and in this way all contention respecting them was avoided. The most honourable of all was that of going into the Holy place to offer incense upon the golden altar. And on the occasion before us this distinguished office devolved upon the aged Zacharias. (Dr. Kitto.)
The providence in chance
How often it happens that that which falls to our lot by apparent chance, does in reality so fall by the guidance of God’s hand! (Bishop Goodwin.)
How solemn the service in which Zacharias is now employed! The sacrifice being slain, whose smoke was now ascending to heaven, and every preparation being made in the court, he proceeds to transact for the nation, and particularly for the assembled multitude, whom he leaves behind him. Advancing with slow and solemn step, and with the smoking censer in his hand, towards the sanctuary, he puts aside the outer curtain and disappears from their sight. Imagination follows him in, where, except on pain of destruction, no other mortal could enter. What must be his feelings in going on with the service of the incense! All without is silent as death, and all within is so stilly impressive, that he is almost afraid to draw his breath. No mortal eye beholds his conduct; but the eternal Jehovah, who will be sanctified in them that draw nigh, surrounds him with His more immediate presence. Take heed, Zacharias, to thy demeanour, lest thou be smitten in the greatness of thine iniquity, or lest thy hand, stretched forth rashly, be withered; or lest, through any fault of thine, the Lord deny His blessing to the people. He places on the golden altar the censer with the incense, with whose cloudy perfume the apartment is filled and rendered fragrant, that the Lord may smell a sweet savour. (James Foote, M. A.)
Zachariah’s prayer heard
The answer to Zachariah’s prayer was--
1. Earnestly desired.
2. Long delayed.
3. Promised in a surprising manner.
4. Incredulously waited for.
5. Gloriously vouchsafed. (Van Oosterzee.)
Order in the performance of religious duties
1. That none but a son of Aaron might offer incense to God in the temple; and not every son of Aaron either; nay, not any of them at all seasons. God is a God of order, and hates confusion no less than irreligion. And as under the law of old, so under the gospel now, no man ought to take this honour upon him but he that is called of God, as was Aaron.
2. That there were courses of ministration in the legal services, in which the priests relieved one another weekly. God never purposed to burden any of His servants with devotion, nor is He pleased when His service is made burdensome, either to or by His ministers.
3. That morning and evening, twice a day, the priests offered up their incense to God, that both parts of the day might be consecrated to Him who was the Maker and Giver of their time. This incense offered under the law, represents our prayers offered to God under the gospel. The ejaculatory elevations of our hearts should be perpetual; but if twice a day we do not present God with our solemn invocations, we make the gospel less officious than the law; and can we reasonably think that Almighty God will accept of less now that would content Him then? (W. Burkitt, M. A.)
Joint offering of priest and people
1. While the incense was burning, the people were praying: while the priest sends up his incense in the temple within, the people send up their prayers in the court without. The incense of the priest and the prayers of the people meet, and go up to heaven together. It is a blessed thing when both minister and people jointly offer up their prayers for each other at the same throne of grace, and mutually strive together in their supplications, one with, and one for, another.
2. Observe how both priest and people keep their place and station: the priest burns incense in the holy place, and the people offer up their prayers in the outward court. The people might no more go into the Holy place to offer up their prayer, than Zachary might go into the Holy of Holies to burn incense. Whilst the partition-wall stood betwixt Jew and Gentile, there was also a partition betwixt the Jews themselves. But now under the gospel, every man is a priest to God, and may enter the Holy of Holies by the blood of Jesus. But, Lord! what are we the better for this great and gracious freedom of access to Thee, if we want hearts to prize and improve our privilege from Thee? (W. Burkitt, M. A.)
Supplication the Church’s power
At the moment when the effectual work of propitiation and intercession goes forward within the temple--what is seen without? The whole multitude of the people, bending in silent awe, seconding the priestly office and making it in some sense their own, joining their faith to the sacrifice, and lifting their hearts with the rising incense-cloud, are in supplication before God. This can represent nothing else than the power of the united prayers of the Christian congregation, aiding and supporting the official work of the threefold ministry and the holy offices of the Church, in declaring Christ to the world The question before us, then, thrown open in its broadest form, will be this: Are we using the devotional power of the Church in due proportion to its other powers? If in any of our undertakings we fail, there is very little doubt that we fail because we did not expect enough and ask enough of God--for that expectation is only another name for faith; and that asking is prayer. Men say, “Religion is a thing between a man and his Maker”; and though it is often said to palliate some inexcusable neglect of an open religious confession before men, yet it is profoundly true. There are two parties, and only two. The business of religion, therefore, is to bring offerings to Him, and, in answer to our prayers, to take blessings from Him. This, with the sacred sentiments, affections, and actions which belong to that holy intercourse, is the first business of the Church. So, Christians, we stand, in this sacred and redeemed creation, always at a temple door. No doubt there are mysteries. What temple was ever without its suggestion of mystery? Even a very deep and strong human love has its mysteries. But nevertheless, the Light falls down from the Throne. God is there. The door is swung open. We are near to Him; He is near to us. The Mediator and Intercessor is praying there for us. Our prayers are joined with His. The reconciliation is accomplished. The next step follows irresistibly. Every movement of religious life among us must get its power and direction from the Spirit of God. If you would find the true secret of spiritual success, you need not seek for it in the admirableness of the plan, the shrewdness of the management, the numbers that subscribe, or the eloquence of the advocates. You might better seek it in some very obscure chambers, some out-of-the-way corners, some closets with the doors shut, where men or women, or children in whose breasts God has a Temple of His own-never heard of at the public meetings, poor and simple-hearted and of stammering lips--kneel with their great-hearted and prevailing petitions, not discouraged by the slowness of the answer, trusting not in themselves but only in the Lord Almighty. These are the “multitude praying without.” The finest and firmest machinery in the world is so much dead material without these prayers. I suppose most of you have seen some elaborate and costly specimen of mechanism, standing still: every little screw and bolt of the complicated system in its place; every post and bar, flange and transom, secure; every bright lever and arm, wheel and tooth, tempered and tested--the whole a splendid embodiment and trophy of intellectual ingenuityand determination--yet silent and inert as icicles, till some lifted gate or open valve lets in the mysterious motive-power which makes it a sure and mighty servant of a purpose beyond it. So are all our best religious measures, till the breath of the church’s prayers joins them to the Spirit from on high. We look into the Bible records of the beginnings and growth of God’s kingdom on the earth. On every spot where that kingdom struck root we see a group of men bending in prayer. When the Eastern magi were brought by the star to Bethlehem, all their intellectual strength bowed itself down to a little Child; they taught nothing, proposed nothing--they did not even speak; it was simply an offering; the signification of it was the submission of knowledge to faith. It was worship. From page to page, in the Acts of the Apostles, they are shown to us together looking upward. When an order in the ministry, an apostle, or a missionary, was to be set apart or sent out, special prayer signalized the ceremony. At the meeting and parting of Christian friends, on their sacred errands, they knelt and prayed. If one of their number was imprisoned, prayer was made for him day and night. The whole fiery heart of the Church of Christ was in instant communication with its ascended Head. And what followed? Why, this was the period when the Church grew before men’s eyes with such swiftness that a thousand converts were gathered in the time that it takes us to gather ten. And so the periods of prayer have always been the periods of life. A lingering doubt casts up its faithless suggestion at these words: “Is not the Church constantly praying? Yet where is the fulfilment of the promise?” The answer is found under another word, “the prayers of faith.” We may be sure that the measure of the faith is the measure of the power of the prayer, and that the measure of such prayer is, sooner or later, the measure of the blessing we receive. We very often mistake the strength of our desire for the strength of our faith. (Bishop F. D. Huntingdon.)
Symbol of united prayer
In some of our most familiar illustrated newspapers there were, a little while ago, beautiful pictures of the recently-completed Cologne Cathedral. Looking at it very attentively there came back to mind thoughts and suggestions which are always started by the presence of a large Gothic building; and these have been so long associated with our cathedrals and spired churches, that we have almost ceased to question whether they really embody the essential idea of the Gothic architecture. Surely such a building as we have in mind is the illustration in stone of the idea of “United Prayer.” It is a series of points and pinnacles, from the ground to the top of the great spire. Every window is a pointed arch; every buttress goes up to a point; every roof ridge is guided off into little uplifting spires; the great roof itself points up; and the whole building seems to unite in the great spire, which pierces away into the sky, and seems to carry the united cry of the whole building up to God. (R. Tuck.)
Remarkable effect of united prayer
Well-known are the immediate and lasting effects of the sermon, entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which President Edwards preached at the time of “The Great Awakening.” It was believed that the sermon owed much of its success to the earnest petitions of a few believing persons, who spent the whole of the previous night in a prayer-meeting in the vicinity (Enfield). These prayers were made the more earnest by the fear that God, who was blessing other places, would in just indignation pass them by. (Hervey’s “Manual of Revivals.”)
The social feelings in large gatherings
If we were all cold units like stones, and could take cur places side by side with no sense or consciousness of the presence of another, how chilled the thing would bet If, coming together, each was conscious that on his right or left was an enemy present--a carping critic, a cold atheist--how those who care at all for the thing would be chilled and withered! You all feel that, having a common purpose and a living sympathy, heart blends with heart and mind with mind. Ay, and thus Divine mercy uses and sanctifies one of the mightiest forces of human life. Men never know the fulness of their life and force except in sympathy. They catch the contagion of a prevailing temper. They grow warm by friction with those who are in active movement. They become confident and resolved by reason of the concensus of numbers. The drops that make up the ocean wave become mighty and resistless when united and swayed in one direction. (J. Aldis.)
An angel of the Lord
The angels will come to us when we are doing the Lord’s business--even though that business be routine, and we have become almost weary with its mechanical repetition, yet the radiant messenger can find us in our obscurity, and open before us new and enchanting prospects.
Are you impatient for the coming of the angel? Then by so much you are leaving incomplete the work to which you have been Divinely called. It is better to work steadily for the Master than to be waiting fretfully for the vision of angels. (Dr. Parker.)
Absence from the sanctuary
Suppose Zacharias had not been there. Suppose that his functions had been to him nothing except perfunctory services, and he had absented himself. Might not the great annunciation have been transferred? Instead of Zacharias might not Simeon have been chosen? and instead of Elisabeth, Anna? I pause to put the question, for I wish to arouse your half-day attendants in God’s house, to a recognition of how possible it is to miss of a special blessing when we are not in the way, and place, and time of religious duty. I knew of a case wherein an “anxious inquirer” would have heard the sermon that brought deliverance and peace to her five years sooner had she been in God’s house on the day it was originally preached. As it was she walked for five years in gloom, and at last heard it semi-accidentally. (Dr. Grosart.)
Intercourse between visible and invisible world
The narrative of an angelic visitation does not bring us into a supernatural region. We are in one already. The Temple-worship meant nothing if there were not an actual established intercourse between the visible and invisible world. (F. D. Maurice.)
Angels present in church
I think I see in this passage that a more special blessing attends the prayers offered up by God’s ministers at the hours appointed by the Church, and that angels are more particularly present to carry up the sacrifice of prayer and praise then offered by the priest, on which hang (as it were) the supplications of the whole congregation. Consider this, O my soul, and let it be a constant incitement to thee never to forsake the house of thy God, when opportunity offers for thee to join thy prayers with those of all thy fellow-Christians. (Dean Hook.)
The angels as observers and witnesses
The holy angels of God are observers of our prayers and good actions on earth, and the relaters and remembrancers of them in heaven. Not but that the all-seeing God of Himself knows and takes notice of all the good actions of men, and records them to perpetuity in the most faithful register of His Omniscience; but He would have His holy angels to be conscious of our good actions, not only that they might congratulate our happiness, as fellow-servants and members with us, under Christ, their and our Lord and Head, but also and especially that they might be the witnesses of His righteous judgment at the last day, when His Son shall come in His glory with millions of His holy angels to judge the world. (Bishop Bull.)
Seeing the angels
According to Holy Scripture, we are surrounded by angels (2 Kings 6:17; Psalms 34:7), whom God employs to defend us; but in our ordinary condition we have not the perception necessary to make us aware of their presence. For this we need a peculiar state of receptivity. That was the state of Zacharias at this time. He had been prepared for it by the sanctity of the place, by the solemnity of the service which he was about to fulfil, by his lively sympathy with those who prayed for national deliverance, and finally by the sense of his own domestic trial. (Prof. Godet.)
Reality of the spirit world
To me the spirit world is tangible. It is not peopled with ghosts and spectres, shadows and outlines of beings, but with persons and forms palpable to the apprehension. Its multitudes are veritable, its society natural, its language audible, its companionship real, its love distinct, its activities energetic, its life intelligent, its glory discernible; its union is not that of sameness, but of variety brought into moral harmony by the great law of love, like notes which, in themselves distinct and different, make, when combined, sweet music. Death will not level and annul those countless differences of mind and heart which make us individual here. Heaven, in all the mode and manner of expression, will abound with personality. There will be choice, and preference, and degree of affinity there. Each intellect will keep its natural bias, each heart its elections. Groups there will be, and circles; faces, known and unknown, will pass us; acquaintance will thrive on intercourse, and love deepen with knowledge; and the great underlying laws of mind and heart prevail and dominate as they do here, save in this, that sin, and all the repellance and antagonisms that it breeds, will be unknown, and holiness supply in perfect measure the opportunity and bond of brotherhood. (Murray.)
Character of the angels
“The very names assigned to angels,” says Dwight, “by their Creator, convey to us ideas pre-eminently pleasing, fitted to captivate the heart and exalt the imagination; ideas which dispel gloom, banish despondency, enliven hope, and awaken sincere and unmingled joy. They are living ones; beings in whom life is inherent and instinctive; who sprang up under the quickening influence of the Sun of Righteousness, beneath the morning of everlasting day; who rose, expanded, and blossomed in the uncreated beam, on the banks of the river of life, and were nourished by the waters of immortality. They are spirits, winged with activity, and formed with power, which no labour wearies and no duration impairs; their faculties always fresh and young, their exertions unceasing and wonderful, and their destination noble and delightful, without example, and without end. They are burning ones, glowing with a pure and serene, with an intense and immortal flame of Divine love; returning, without ceasing, the light and warmth which they have received from the great central Sun of the universe, reflecting with supreme beauty the image of that Divine luminary; and universally glorious, although differing from each other in glory.”
The annunciation to Zacharias
Ah, friends, if God were as strict to punish us for our distrust of His word as he was to punish Zacharias for his, how many of us also would He strike dumb! Who knows but that some of the calamities which befall us are really punishments for our own unbelief? This incident of the annunciation to Zacharias is rich in lessons. I will mention but two. First, the ministration of angels. In fact, the Bible from beginning to end is radiant with angels. And as it was in the past, so it is to-day. Angels are still ministers of God, executing His will alike in the physical and in the spiritual world. What though we do not see angels? It does not follow that, because they are invisible, they are therefore, according to our scientific tests, unreal or inoperative. In fact, it is the invisible things which are the most real. Did any human being ever see the Holy Spirit? Yet what Christian doubts His existence? Were our spiritual eyes open, as were the eyes of Elisha’s servant at Dothan, doubtless we also would see all around us horses and chariots of fire circling to protect us. Lastly: Hours of worship are hours of angels’ annunciation. Not that we may ever expect in this teen of the world to behold visions of angels; for ours it is to have something better than to have glimpses of supernatural figures; ours it is to have the presence of the Holy Spirit Himself.
He was troubled
Terrifying effect of supernatural appearances
Such has usually been the effect of supernatural appearances, even on good men, as is exemplified in Manoah, David, Paul, and others.
1. Man’s weakness is incapable of easily bearing the glory of such appearances.
2. His sinfulness naturally makes him afraid that the heavenly messenger may be sent to him in displeasure. Hence appear the wisdom and goodness of God in employing, as the heralds of gospel salvation, not angels but human beings, whose terror does not make us afraid. If, however, we shall be so wise for ourselves as to receive the gospel, and to take the Lord of angels for our Lord, then we shall be prepared without fear to meet, not one angel, or a few angels, but the whole angelic host, with the Lord at their head--that host from which the ungodly will shrink in dismay, but which the ransomed shall gladly join round about the throne, to the number of ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands. (James Foote, M. A.)
Angelic glory awakening fear
It was partly the suddenness, partly the unexpectedness, and partly the glory of the apparition, that affrighted this good man. Glorious and sudden apparitions do affright even the holiest and best of men. We cannot bear the sight and presence of an angel without consternation and fear, in our frail and sinful state. O happy hour when, mortality and sin being taken out of our natures, we shall not only behold the glorified angels without fear, but the glorious God with delight and love I Lord! let me now see Thee by faith, hereafter by sight. (W. Burkitt, M. A.)
Sight rather than faith the cause of fear
He that had wont to live and serve in the presence of the Master, was now astonished at the presence of the servant; so much difference is there betwixt our faith and our senses that the apprehension of the God of spirits by faith goes down sweetly with us, whereas the sensible apprehension of an angel dismays us. Holy Zachary, that had wont to live by faith, thought he should die, when his sense began to be set on work; it was the weakness of him, that served the altar without horror, to be daunted with the face of his fellow-servant. In vain do we look for such ministers of God as are without infirmities when just Zachary was troubled in his devotions with that wherewith he should have been comforted: it was partly the suddenness and partly the glory of the apparition that affrighted him. (Bishop Hall.)
But the angel said unto him, Fear not
Human life on earth known in heaven
From the speech of Gabriel it is clear that human life, in its beginning’, course, purpose, and destiny, is known in heaven before it is manifested on earth.
This is not the case with exceptional men only, but with all men. This should throw a joyous solemnity around life. Human life is intended to be the realization of a heavenly plan. Inquire what it is, accept it with all thankfulness or submission, as the case may be, and live in God. John was to be as conspicuous amongst men as a mountain is conspicuous amongst the lowlands. But did not God make the valleys as well as the hills? In great lives we only see the lines of Divine movement and purpose more clearly because of their apparent exaggeration; in humbler lives the lines are all there. This communication made by Gabriel suggests two inquiries.
1. Has every life a guardian angel?
2. Is every life reported in heaven by the angelic watcher? (Dr. Parker.)
Light will arise in due time
The barrenness necessitated the annunciation. The annunciation transfigured the barrenness. Is it not often exactly thus with trying and bitter and “reproach” bringing experiences of the believer? We are denied what we fain would have; we have what we would fain have been denied. We feel ourselves of those who “walk in the darkness,” and have “no light.” Well! do we “trust” in the Lord, and “stay ourselves upon God”? If only we do, sooner or later, I am satisfied increasingly, “light will arise.” It may not come when we wished it, nor as we wished it, but come it does. (A. B. Grosart, LL. D,)
Consider the exquisite connexion of the whole, the gradually-attained climax of the Divine message from the lips of the angel from before the throne. The messenger of joy begins with the mention of the accepted prayer, promises a son, gives him a high name, foretells for him a distinguished office. But the greatest tidings are yet to come: the longed-for coming of the Messiah, whose forerunner this child is to be. To quote Pfenninger: “How tenderly interwoven, how intimately connected, the Divine with the human story I It is one of the chief perfections of a drama that all its occurrences should essentially hang together; that none of them should appear extraneous or isolated; and where are these conditions better observed than in the Divine narratives of Holy Writ? The grandest, Divinest story in the world blended at its first most human commencement with the human heart-history of a childless wedded pair, who pray to God for a son.” This is certainly true, although the prayer here referred to can hardly have been confined to such a petition. The heavenly message, however, retrospectively includes former prayers, and has three separate clauses--first, the birth of a son to Zacharias; last, the coming of the Lord Himself; and as connecting link between the two, the announcement that this son shall make ready the way of this very Lord. (Rudolph Stier)
The “Fear-nots” of the Bible
The “Fear-nots” of the Bible provide an all-sufficient vade-necum for the timid and distressed. There is no apprehension possible to man which has not its complementary reassuring promise in God’s Word. (Anon.)
The prayer of Zacharias was most probably an old prayer, going back many years, ere Elisabeth was old. But apparently unanswered prayers are not disregarded prayers. Old, very old prayers often and often bring down blessings unexpected. (A. B. Grosart, LL. D.)
The Bible abounds in assurances that all faithful earnest prayer will be heard, cannot but be heard. And Christian experience proves the truth of the Divine assurance. Let us rejoice
Disappointed and weary suppliant, fear not, thy prayer is heard. And to know that it is heard is to know that in God’s good way and time it shall be answered. (Anon.)
Prayer heard though not immediately answered
I can stand in the rooms of my office in New York, and communicate with the men in the fifth story. If I want to speak to the foreman of the printing office, I go and blow the whistle, and talk through the tube. And I know that the message has got up there and that he heard it. I do not see him, and he does not answer back; but I have no doubt that, having received the message, he will attend to my wants. Soft seems to me that sometimes we speak to God in heaven, as it were through an invisible medium. He does not answer immediately, but, nevertheless, we know that He is there, and that, even if we do not conceive of Him, He conceives of us; and we send our thought or prayer up, and let it alone, and do not fret or worry about it. (H. W.Beecher.)
Unanswered prayer accepted
Prayers which are not answered at once, nor, perhaps, for a long time afterwards, may nevertheless be accepted. God’s people are apt to forget this; and that it is with prayer, to borrow an illustration from commercial transactions, as with a bill, which, though accepted, is often not paid till months or years have elapsed. Our heavenly Father knows best what to give; and also how, and where, and when to give it. Were its answer always to follow prayer, as the peal roars upon the flash, I suspect that we would be as ready in spiritual as we are in earthly matters to look only to secondary causes, and forget God’s hand--coming to look upon our prayers as being the cause of the answer, as much as we are in the habit of regarding the flash of lightning, without any reference to God, as the cause of the peal of thunder. (T. Guthrie, D. D.)
And thy wife Elisabeth … John
This promised son is added to a series whose birth has already been miraculously foretold. Isaac, Samson, Samuel. The significant names of both Zacharias [The Lord remembers] and Elisabeth [God of the oath, or covenant] are mentioned by the angel, to point out the rich fulfilment of their prophetic meaning, but the appointed name of this promised son transcends theirs. An era of new and fuller grace begins with him. Later, the name (=the grace of God) receives its special explanation, in that the stern preacher of repentance is found only to lead from grace to grace. John is the last but one of the seven names [Ishmael, Isaac, Solomon, Josiah, Cyrus, John, Jesus] given by God in Holy Scripture to those still unborn, and the seventh name is Jesus. (Rudolf Stier.)
1. Observe how apprehensive this good angel was at Zachary’s surprising fear, and encourages him against it. The holy angels, though they do not express it in words, yet pity our frailties, and suggest comfort to us. The evil angels, if they might, would kill us with terror; the good angels labour together for our tranquility and cheerfulness.
2. The comfortable words spoken by the angel to Zacharias. God sometimes hears our prayers, and bestows His mercies, when we least expect; yea, when we have given over looking for what we asked. 3: The name which the angel directed Zachary to give his son: John, which signifies gracious; because he was to open the kingdom of grace, and to preach the grace of the gospel through Jesus Christ. The giving of significant names to children has been an ancient and pious practice; names which either carried a remembrance of duty or of mercy in them. (W. Burkitt, M. A,)
Acceptable prayer defined
Prayer is the offering of our sincere desires to God. It involves a sense of our unworthiness and necessities.
1. Penitence (Psalms 51:17).
2. Faith (Hebrews 11:6).
3. Sincerity (Jeremiah 29:13).
4. Fervency (James v 16).
5. Love (1 Timothy 2:8).
6. Delight in God (Isaiah 25:9).
7. Perseverance (Ephesians 6:18).
8. Humble submission to God’s will (Micah 7:7).
9. In the name of Christ (Ephesians 3:12).
10. With confession of our sins (1 John 1:9). Jewish prayers were chiefly praise and benedictions. Always answered, but in
God’s sovereign way. (W. H. Van Doren, D. D.)
The efficacy of prayer
“Then you have not been modified in any way as to the efficacy of prayer?” asked his visitor. Mr. Spurgeon laughed. “Only in my faith growing far stronger and firmer than ever. It is not a matter of faith with me, but of knowledge, and everyday experience. I am constantly witnessing the most unmistakable instances of answers to prayer. My whole life is made up of them. To me they are so familiar as to cease to excite my surprise; but to many they would seem marvellous, no doubt. Why, I could no more doubt the efficacy of prayer than I could disbelieve in the law of gravitation. The one is as much a fact as the other, constantly verified every day of my life. Elijah, by the brook Cherith, as he received his daily rations from the ravens, could hardly be a more likely subject for scepticism than
I. Look at my Orphanage. To keep it going entails an annual expenditure of about £10,000. Only £1400 is provided for by endowment. The remaining £8000 comes to me regularly in answer to prayer. I do not know where I shall get it from day to day. I ask God for it, and He sends it. Mr. Muller, of Bristol, does the same on a far larger scale, and his experience is the same as mine.” (Pall Mall Gazette.)
Prayers answered at last
During a long course of years, even to the closing fortnight of his life, in his last sickness, Dr. Judson lamented that all his efforts in behalf of the Jews had been a failure. He was departing from the world saddened with that thought. Then, at last, there came a gleam of light that thrilled his heart with grateful joy. Mrs. Judson was sitting by his side while he was in a state of great languor, with a copy of the Watchman and Reflector in her hand. She read to her husband one of Dr. Hague’s letters from Constantinople. That letter contained some items of information that filled him with wonder. At a meeting of missionaries at Constantinople, Mr. Schauffler stated that a little book had been published in Germany giving an account of Dr. Judson’s life and labours; that it had fallen into the hands of some Jews; and had been the means of their conversion; that a Jew had translated it for a community of Jews on the borders of the Euxine, and that a message had arrived in Constantinople asking that a teacher might be sent to show them the way of life. When Dr. Judson heard this his eyes were filled with tears, a look of almost unearthly solemnity came over him, and, clinging fast to his wife’s hand as if to assure himself of being really in the world, he said, “Love, this frightens me, I do not know what to make of it.” “To make of what? “ said Mrs. Judson. “Why, what you have just been reading, I never was deeply interested in any object, I never prayed sincerely and earnestly for anything, but it came; at some time--no matter how distant the day--somehow, in some shape, probably the last I should have devised, it came! “ What a testimony was that I It lingered on the lips of the dying Jud-son; it was enbalmed with grateful tears, and is worthy to be transmitted as a legacy to the coming generation. The desire of the righteous shall be granted. Pray and wait. The answer to all true prayer will come. In Judson’s case the news of the answer came before he died, but it was answered long before. So we may know of the results of prayers and toils even while we sojourn here; but if not, what sweet surprises shall await us in the great beyond! (North-Western Christian Advocate.)
Many shall rejoice at his birth
An ideal child
Could some parents foresee how wicked some of their children would become, instead of rejoicing, they would grieve at their birth; they would wish they had never been born.
John, however, was to be a great comfort and honour to his parents. And many besides of their acquaintances, and of the people at large, were to rejoice when they should see that the circumstance of his birth, and of his early life, prognosticated that he was to become a public blessing. Four leading particulars are mentioned, on account of which men should rejoice.
1. His eminence in wisdom and piety. “Great in the sight of the Lord.” A holy and devoted servant of God, and preacher of righteousness.
2. His unworldliness. A Nazarite (Numbers 6:1-27.). Not only the ministers, but all the people of God, should abstain from sin, be temperate in all things, superior to earthly pleasures and cares, and a peculiar people in all respects, distinguished from men of the world.
3. His spiritual-mindedness. Conceived in sin like others, yet “filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb.” Argument in favour of infant baptism: born in sin, and capable of regeneration, why should they not be admitted to the sacrament? Happy they who are indeed filled with the Holy Ghost and sanctified from infancy! They never know what it is to have a mind altogether dark, or a heart altogether depraved. They cannot remember the time when there was not in them a prevalent tendency to what is good.
4. His usefulness. Resembling Elijah
(a) in the bent of his mind;
(b) in the success of his ministry. (James Foote, M. A.)
Prophetic description of the Baptist
Here the angel declares to Zachary, what kind of son should be born unto him, even one of eminent endowments, and designed for extraordinary services. The proof of children makes them either the blessings or crosses of their parents. What greater comfort could Zachary desire in a child, than is here promised to him?
1. He hears of a son that should bring joy, to himself and many others; even to all who expected the coming of the Messiah, whose forerunner the Baptist was.
2. That he should be great in the sight of the Lord: that is, a person of great eminence and great usefulness in the Church. A person of great riches and reputation is great in the sight of men; but the man of great ability and usefulness, integrity and serviceableness, is truly great in the sight of the Lord. They are little men in the sight of the Lord, who live in the world to little purpose; who do little service to God, and bring little honour and glory to Him.
3. It is foretold that he should drink neither wine nor strong drink; that is, he should be a very temperate and abstemious person, living after the manner of the Nazarites, though he was not separated by any vow of his own, or his parents, but by the special designation and appointment of God only. It was forbidden the priests under the law to drink either wine or strong drink, upon pain of death, during the time of their ministration Leviticus 10:9). And the ministers of Christ under the gospel are forbidden to be lovers of wine (1 Timothy 3:3).
4. He shall be filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother’s womb; that is, he shall be furnished abundantly with the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit, which shall very early appear to be in him, and upon him.
5. His high and honourable office is declared; that he should go before the Messiah, as His harbinger and forerunner, with the same spirit and zeal and courage against sin, which was found in the old prophet Elias, whom he so nearly resembled.
6. The great success of his ministry is foretold; that he should “ turn the hearts of the fathers,” &c. (W. Burkitt, M. A.)
There is a joy which overflows the domestic goblet, and goes out to make strangers glad. Every life ought to be a social bless-rag. The religious man always is so--necessarily, because he does not live unto himself. (Dr. Parker.)
How many I could quote to whose labours we owe the precious discoveries which daily add to our welfare and our comfort! Who has not rejoiced at the birth of him who discovered the art, at once so wonderful, and so easy, of printing. What an agent of progress that man has been, and what treasures of knowledge he has helped to spread all over the world. And which of us, when hurried along at full speed over some of our railways towards those we love, or on a pleasant trip to some beautiful country, has not blessed the memory of Papin, the unlucky inventor of the steam engine, who suffered so much for the sake of science. (A. Decoppel.)
For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord
What is greatness?
Scarcely two persons among us would give the same reply to that question. All would admit that it denotes pre-eminence, but each would have his own preference as to the department in which it was to be manifested. Some would associate it with power, some with courage, some with eloquence, and some, perhaps, with wealth; yet each would think of it as conferring an advantage on its possessor, and so putting others at a corresponding disadvantage. The really great man is he whom holiness and love combine to inspire for the service of his generation by the will of God.
1. He who wins this greatness does not attain it at the expense of others.
2. We may win this greatness anywhere.
3. This greatness is satisfying to its possessor.
The highest commendation one can earn is this--“He hath done what he could;” and the noblest life-record is that which comes nearest to His of whom it was said that “He went about doing good.” That is fame, though no earthly herald may trumpet it abroad, for Christ shall proclaim it on the day of days before the assembled universe. (Dr. W. M. Taylor.)
Character of John the Baptist
He was no selfish lover of his own soul, too fearful of pollution to touch society, but a magnanimous reformer, great in his love alike of man and of righteousness. He was too much the pupil of Divine freedom and discipline to be the child of any school, the spokesman of any sect. His faith was the fruit of inspiration as opposed to experience. His education made him a preacher who lived as he believed, possessed of the courage to summon men to a like life and faith. (A. M.Fairbairn, D. D.)
A strange greatness
The child was to be great in the sight of the Lord. According to the verdict of our Lord passed afterwards, he was the greatest of those born of women until His time. Yet what a strange greatness! A poor man, living in the wilderness the life of an anchorite, and at length beheaded by a wicked king, buried by his disciples, and nothing more heard of him! There is another person mentioned in this chapter who was also called great. Herod the king, mentioned in the fifth verse, is commonly known as Herod the Great, but he was not great in the sight of the Lord, only great in the sight of himself and of his court, and of those who admired his skill in adding to his kingdom. Which was the really great man? Which will appear to be great when the magnitude of men is tested by God, and when men are weighed in the righteous balances of God’s judgment? (Bishop Goodwin.)
In the sight of the Lord
We are what we are in God’s sight, not what men think us, not what we think ourselves, but what He sees and knows that we are, nothing more, nothing less. (Dean Church.)
And shall drink neither wine nor strong drink
His drink was water of the river. He lived on locusts and wild honey. Men felt in him that power of mastery which is always granted to perfect self-denial. (Archdeacon Farrar.)
And he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost
Take it as a broad fact in nature that there is no such thing as emptiness. If any corner of the world is vacated even for an instant, something else will come in instantaneously to fill up the empty space. So by the constitution of human nature there is no possibility of emptiness in the soul of man. The spiritual nature “ abhors a vacuum.” If a man will not let good into his life, evil must and will possess it. If he would eject evil from his life, he can only do so by letting good into it. The most striking recognition of the principle occurs in Paul’s letter to the Christians at Ephesus. He is taking them to” task with reference to certain abuses which had crept into their Church. Prominent among these was drunkenness. “Be not drunk with wine,” says the apostle, “but be filled with the Spirit.” Wine versus the Spirit! The disease was not drunkenness. The drunkenness was a casual episode. The souls of these men had an empty chamber which must be filled. Their legitimate food was God. This was rejected or neglected. But the void remained. That could not be neglected. It must be filled with God or with a substitute. We may choose this substitute for ourselves, but we cannot not-choose it, for nature abhors a vacuum. The Ephesians had made their choice--it was wine. This was what Paul saw. To cure it how was he to proceed? He could not enjoin abstinence. The problem was not the drink, but the vacuum. He must make some proposal, therefore, about the vacuum. “Fill yourselves,” he says, “with the Spirit of God.” There is a valid relation between the stimulus of intoxicants and the stimulus of religion. Either, so far, will carry out the law of filling the vacuum. But merely to adjure a man not to be filled with wine is to command an impossibility. You must give him another stimulus equally absorbing, intenser, richer, and when the sensual passion is high and strong your substitute must be supreme. There is only one thing which will absorb it quite--the more abundant life of God. (Professor Drummond.)
The choice is not between God and an empty heart. Man is like a house situated between two winds. On the one side comes the wind from a dreary, bleak desert, laden with fog and disease, blowing across things foul and rotten. The other side of the house fronts the sunlight, and winds that blow from the wide, fresh sea, and over gardens, orchards, and blooming fields. Every one must decide to which side he is going to open. Both doors cannot be shut. You can only get the dismal, fatal door shut by opening wide the door that looks to the sea of eternity, and the sunshine of God. The wind blowing in through this open door keeps that door of ruin shut. (Dr. Joseph Leckie.)
And many of the children of Israel, &c.
I. To be “children of Israel” not necessarily equivalent to being spiritually “sons of Abraham” (John 8:39).
II. As a historical fact the children of Israel over and over again turned from the Lord, and at the beginning of the Baptist’s ministry nearly the whole nation had sunk into religious formalism.
III. But repentance was still possible to Israel after ages of unfaithfulness. Still they might turn to the Lord their God. John’s message was “Repent!” and his preaching produced the effects here foretold (see Luke 3:7-14).
IV. “He shall turn.” Recognition of human instrumentality in the doing of the work which only the Spirit of God can do--the production of conviction leading to conversion. (J. R. Bailey.)
Goodness is greatness
“Nothing can make a man truly great, but being truly good, and a partaker of God’s holiness.” “A dram of goodness is worth more than all worldly greatness.” Wealth, honour, power, may constitute a person great in the estimation of man; but faith, love, and true holiness are necessary to secure for us God’s approbation. (Henry R. Burton.)
Abstinence and promotion
When General Grant was in command of the army before Vicksburg, a number of officers were gathered at his headquarters. One of them invited the party to join in a social glass; all but one accepted. He asked to be excused, saying that he “never drank.” The hour passed, and each went his way to his respective command. A few days after this the officer who declined to drink received a note from General Grant to report at headquarters. He obeyed the order, and Grant said to him, “You are the officer, I believe, who remarked the other day that you never drank?” The officer modestly answered that he was. “Then,” continued the General, “you are the man I have been looking for to take charge of the Commissary Department, and I order that you be detailed to that duty.” He served all through the war in that responsible department, and afterwards, when General Grant became President, the officer who never drank was again in request. The President, needing a man on whom he could rely for some important business, gave him the appointment. (Christian Chronicle.)
Abstinence and health
Before I became an abstainer I was much subject to fainting fits. I even fainted in the pulpit, and my life was a burden; and when I had made up my mind to abstain my medical man came from London and said, “If you do you will probably die. You want the ‘whip’ for your constitution.” I did not believe him, and I said, “Very well, doctor, then I’ll die, and there’s an end of it.” But I have not died. And when I met that medical man in London three days since I said, “Now, doctor, what do you think of it?” He said, “You beat me altogether. I was never more mistaken in any case in my life. And now let me tell you that if there was no such thing as alcohol I should have to put up my shutters.
Nearly all the illnesses that come before me have, in one sense or another, come from that; not always from the personal indulgence of the patients, but because this is hereditary.” (Canon Basil Wilberforce.)
A great man
A man who can be satisfied with nothing less than that which is real and right; who is content to count all things loss for the attainment of a spiritual aim, and to fight for it against all enemies; who deems truth the bread of life and makes its pursuit his daily labour--he is a great man.
Personal influence in conversion
Dr. Tyng, speaking of personal influence, mentions a young lady whom no storms of snow or rain ever kept from her class. One after another of her scholars, he says, would come to him, and when he would ask the question, “What has led you to seek a Saviour’s love?” they would mention her name, until, he says, “ I traced twenty.five, at least, of my young people who were converted through her prayers and labours, and among them that beloved son of mine, at whose bedside I sat for sixteen long hours, wondering why God had taken him and left me behind. This was the character of that girl. Nothing kept her back.”
Conversion must be a complete surrender
When Henry VIII. had determined to make himself head of the English Church, he insisted upon it that Convocation should accept his headship without limiting and modifying clauses. He refused to entertain any compromises, and vowed that “he would have no tantrums,” as he called them. Thus when a sinner parleys with his Saviour he would fain have a little of the honour of his salvation, he would save alive some favourite sin, he would fain amend the humbling terms of grace; but there is no help for it, Jesus will be all in all, and the sinner must be nothing at all. The surrender must be complete, there must be no tantrums, but the heart must without reserve submit to the sovereignty of the Redeemer. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Importance of one conversion
It is impossible to overrate the importance of the conversion of one soul to Christ, or of the hardening of one heart in sin An old Puritan doctor writes a book more than two hundred years ago, called “The Bruised Reed,” which falls into the hands of Richard Baxter, and leads his penitent spirit to its trust in Christ. Baxter’s ministry is like that of a giant in his strength, and when he dies his “Call to the Unconverted” goes preaching on to thousands to whom Baxter himself had never spoken with human tongue. Philip Doddridge, prepared by his pious mother’s teaching, hears this piercing “Call,” devotes the summer of his life to God, and becomes a “burning and a shining light.” Doddridge’s “Rise and Progress” fell into the hands of Wilberforce, and led him to thought and to prayer. Wilberforce’s “Practical View” cleared the faith and fired the zeal of a clergyman in the sunny South, and he wrote the simple annal of a Methodist girl, which has borne fruit of blessing in every quarter of the globe; for who has not heard of Legh Richmond and “The Dairyman!s Daughter”? And then the same book had a ministry in the bleak North, and in a country parish found out a Scottish clergyman who was preaching a gospel which he did not know, and he embraced the fulness of the glad tidings, and came forth a champion for the truth, “furnished in all things and ready,” until all Scotland rang with the eloquence of Thomas Chalmers. (W. M. Punshon, D,D.)
Character and work of John
Much of the wisdom of Providence appears in fitting the instrument to the work. The work appointed to John was to reclaim the nation from its departure from God, to rouse a people sunk in insensibility and impenitence, to preach repentance, to proclaim the approach of the kingdom of heaven, to usher in a higher economy, a new dispensation; and for all this he was admirably qualified. He was endued with the spirit and power of Elias. His spirit was undaunted and unyielding; he rebuked the pride of kings. He was indifferent and insensible alike to the charms of pleasure, the allurement of pomp, the smiles of power, and the frowns of greatness. His whole soul was concentrated in his object. He was superior to the world; its forms and fashions made no impression on his mind, and left no traces. He was austere in his manner, abstemious in his food, rustic in his apparel; he partook of the wildness of the wilderness in which he first made his appearance. (Robert Hall.)
The hearts of the fathers to the children
Science tells us that the best defence against lightning in a thunderstorm is found, not in defiance of it, but in a silent discharge of it.
Go right towards it fearlessly with a pointed plantina wire, and it will follow a fixed law of harmless dispersion. Is there any way by which the power of one of God’s curses can be drawn, so as to avert the terrible stroke of Divine wrath? Let us see. This text refers us directly back to the final utterance of the Old Testament. There are four books in the Bible which end with a curse: Malachi, Lamentations, Isaiah, and Ecclesiastes. The Hebrew scribes were always accustomed to repeat the verse just before the last in these cases, so as to close the reading with something besides a malediction. It is not easy to see how that helps the matter in the present instance, for the preceding prediction seems to have been uttered merely to introduce the warning. And perhaps it is just as profitable to believe that the best way to avoid the judgments of God is to guard carefully against deserving them. After the last seer under the ancient dispensation had spoken the words which the evangelist quotes, the heavens were closed for four hundred years. Jehovah had not another message to send. His people had offended him. Justice comes almost fiercely forth, and bars the gate of revelation, because children are despised. And not until four centuries of silence had given time for repentance, would those bolts be withdrawn. Even then it is a little child who advances to turn the massive key. History wanders sadly in confusion among the captivities and Maccabean usurpations. Only an infant can join the Testaments. Luke is the next man to Malachi. The sternest of all Israel’s prophets reappears in the sternest of all heralds to the Church … A wild threat, four hundred years old, is suddenly removed in a flash of benediction. The curse of Malachi is omitted in Luke--the lightning is drawn. The gospel fulfils the law when it accepts children. God receives the fathers into favour and communion again, when their hearts are turned to their offspring … How much are you doing in this day of gospel privilege to bring the hearts of fathers back to their children? Do we need another prophet, with his hairy raiment and his leathern girdle, to come forth from the wilderness? (C. S. Robinson, D. D.)
The pioneer of the gospel
Whereas Matthew and Mark introduced John Baptist to the notice of their readers at the advanced period of his preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and his baptising his followers in Jordan, Luke commences with the Baptist’s genealogy and birth, and states many particulars relating to his early history, which, though they had been far less remarkable in themselves, would have been interesting in reference to one who afterwards became so conspicuous, but which are peculiarly important as additional evidences of the Divine mission, and additional illustrations of the office both of the Baptist himself, and of that illustrious Deliverer and King before whom he was to proceed as a pioneer to clear the way. (James Foote, M. A.)
The prepared people
All life is a preparation to meet God. This is the clue of life’s labyrinth. Preparations are often confused things. They are times of unsettling, full of noise and disorder, and apparent contradiction; till the end comes, and explains it all. So this world--it is made up of strange things, which move above us and within us, and seem to have little purpose and no concert. They range wildly. There are beginnings without endings; and there are endings without beginnings. A great many things do not fit. It is hard to tell what it all means. It is a pleasant thought to remember that your preparation, as it goes on, day by day, is only a reflection of what is going on in the other world. There, too, it is all preparation. The saints and the angels are all busy preparing. The preparations of earth are to meet the preparations of heaven. He has prepared His mercy, and He has prepared His truth. It is a prepared heaven; it is a prepared kingdom; a prepared city; a prepared throne; a prepared seat. And when both preparations are complete--a prepared soul, and a prepared heaven--what perfectness! what love! what rest! what quietness! What and if the Pure should come, and find impurity? What and if the Holy should come and find irreverence? What and if the Spirit come, and find nothing but flesh? What and if Wisdom come, and find ignorance? What and if Love come, and find selfishness and unkindness? First, you must be prepared to know your Lord when He comes. This John taught very expressly. He placed the people in a position that they should know and recognize Christ when He should arrive. You must have read Him in the prophecies--you must have walked with Him in the gospel--you must have sat with Him in all the manifestations of His grace--you must have traced Him in His reflections about the universe--you must have felt His inward dwelling in you by the Holy Ghost. Then He will be no new, strange Christ to you when He comes. And if you would be “prepared for the Lord,” you must have a deep sense of sin. “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” No one must stand there who has not learnt to stoop very low. Thirdly, you must be exact, faithful, diligent in your daily proper duties--doing whatever you do heartily--a man of large charities--a man of unselfish habits--a man of strict integrity in business--a man of self-government--a man of moderation--a man of content--a man of humility. “Hethat hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise.” “Exact no more than that which is appointed you.” Fourthly, you must be baptized--not with the baptism of water only, but with the baptism of the Spirit; and not with the baptism of water and of the Spirit only, but with the baptism of shame, of scorn, of suffering, of death--“baptized with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.” And fifthly, you must be much in the use of the ordinances--loving the shadows till the substance comes. (J. Vaughan, M. A.)
The spirit and power of the Baptist
The spirit and power of Elijah rested upon the Baptist, and the same gift is needed by us now. For, what is the end and purpose of all the religious activity we see abroad and at home, but to turn people’s hearts to wisdom, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord? Let us see, then, what was this spirit and power which made the Baptist so successful? And notice, to begin with, it was nothing wonderful, nothing out of the way. We are expressly told that “John did no miracle.” The spirit and power of the Baptist is, therefore, a gift within the reach of every one of us.
I. OBSERVE, FIRST, HIS DECISION FOR GOD. No halting between two opinions. The Baptist was not “ a reed shaken with the wind,” but one who had considered matters well, and comes to a firm decision respecting the salvation of God.
II. NOTICE, NEXT, HIS SEPARATION FROM THE WORLD. He lived as much as possible in retirement, communing with his own soul and with God, While in the world, he was never of the world.
III. CONSIDER, ONCE MORE, HIS BOLD, CONSISTENT TESTIMONY TO THE TRUTH.
1. Before all classes of his countrymen, from the lowest to the highest.
2. In spite of opposition and persecution. Conclusion: Such qualities as these made the Baptist a power for good, and thus was he in the spirit and power of Elias.
Are we following in his steps? There must be found in us these same qualities, if our life is to be as grand a moral success as was his.
1. The same decision. Half-heartedness is of no use at all in what concerns the soul.
2. The same unworldliness. Not necessarily separation from the world--that is for the few; but (what is found by many to be a far harder thing) living in the world, doing its duties faithfully and well, and at the same time living the higher life that is hidden with Christ in God, and looking for the new heaven and the new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness.
3. The same stedfast witnessing to the truth.
An upright and honest life is the best testimony to the spirit and power in which we move, and it will carry us triumphantly over every obstacle and difficulty that we encounter, until we reach the peaceful haven where we would be, and bask in the perpetual sunshine of the presence of God. (George Low, M. A.)
The wisdom of the just
Let us try the wisdom of the religious choice by the happiness which follows.
I. There is a content and satisfaction in the mind, from the very consciousness and remembrance of our having listened to the voice from heaven.
II. I next observe, that the gospel brings happiness to every sincere believer, by giving him the blessing of peace in the assurance of pardon.
III. The wisdom of the just, however it may be called in question, however reviled, by unconverted or ungodly men, who cannot possibly appreciate or understand it, is manifested through the whole course of the believer’s life. “He that walketh uprightly, walketh surely.” “The way of the wicked is as darkness: they know not at what they stumble: “ they are continually encompassed with evil, without ascertaining the cause or the cure. “But the path of the just is as the shining light, which shineth more and more unto the perfect day.”
IV. But the wisdom of the just is not to be fully known on this side the grave There will come a day, when it will appear even to the slowest of belief, without a shadow and without a doubt. “When the Lord comes to make up His jewels,” the preciousness of those jewels, and the joy of being gathered amongst them, will be perfectly manifest, both to friends and foes; to the one, by their admission into His heavenly kingdom; to the other, by their being cast away. (J. Slade, M. A.)
The spirit and power of Elias
whom John closely resembled in--
1. The endowments of his mind.
2. The habits of his life.
3. The exercise of his ministry. (C. Simeon.)
How, and in what sense, was Malachi’s prediction of the Messenger fulfilled in John the Baptist? To this question the New Testament furnishes a singularly full and abundant reply. It really seems as though, not only the mind of the Baptist, but also the minds of all who speak of him, were steeped in the prophecy of Malachi, and saturated with it. There is hardly a word said of or by him which does not take new meaning and force so soon as we read it in the light of Malachi’s lamp. In St. Matthew’s Gospel (chap. 3.), we have our fullest account of the Baptist’s appearance and ministry. We are there told that his first word, his master-word, was “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”; that is, “Take a new view; get a new mind; think; think back on your habits and ways, and mend them; for the King, long promised to your fathers, is about to appear.” This was the very mission which Malachi ascribed to the messenger of the Lord. John’s peculiar mode of life, as described in the same chapter, tends to the same conclusion (Matthew 3:4). Doubtless John assumed these outward marks of resemblance to the great Tishbite, in order to call attention to the inward resemblance between them as a sign that he had come “in the spirit and power of Elijah.” The same reason for a sad and austere life existed in both eases. The “preacher of repentance” should himself be a penitent. Elijah and John, each in his turn, came forth as a personification of repentance, showing the people, in his own conduct, what their conduct should be. Both these austere voices from the wilderness called men to repent, both sought to “turn the hearts of men back again” to God. (Samuel Cox, D. D.)
A father reconciled to his son
A mother in New York whose son had got into dissipated and abandoned habits, after repeated remonstrances and threats, was turned out of doors by his father, and he left vowing he would never return unless his father asked him, which the father said would never be. Grief over her son soon laid the mother on her dying bed, and when her husband asked if there was nothing he could do for her ere she departed this life, she said, “Yes, you can send for my boy.” The father was at first unwilling, but at length, seeing her so near her end, he sent for his son. The young man came, and as he entered the sick-room his father turned his back upon him. As the mother was sinking rapidly, the two stood on opposite sides of her bed, all love and sorrow for her, but not exchanging a word with each other. She asked the father to forgive the boy; no, he wouldn’t until the son asked it. Turning to him, she begged of him to ask his father’s forgiveness; no, his proud heart would not let him take the first step. After repeated attempts she failed, but as she was just expiring, with one last effort she got hold of the father’s hand in one hand, and her son’s in the other, and exerting all her feeble strength, she joined their hands, and, with one last appealing look, she was gone. Over her dead body they were reconciled, but it took the mother’s death to bring it about. So, has not God made a great sacrifice that we might be reconciled--even the death of His own dear Son? (D. L. Moody.)
I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God
“I am Gabriel.
” Names of angels
The name Gabriel signifies “The mighty messenger of God.” The Bible knows of only two heavenly personages who are invested with a name: Gabriel (Daniel 8:16; Dan_9:21), and Michael (Daniel 10:13; Jude 1:9, &c.). This latter namesignifies, “Who is like God? “Here the critic asks sarcastically whether Hebrew is spoken in heaven? But these names are evidently symbolical; they convey to us the character and functions of these personalities. When we speak to any one, it is naturally with a view to be understood. When heaven communicates with earth, it is obliged to borrow the language of earth. According to the name given him, Gabriel is the mighty servant of God, employed to promote His work here below. It is in this capacity that he appears to Daniel when he comes to announce to him the restoration of Jerusalem; it is he also who promises Mary the birth of the Saviour. In all these circumstances he appears as the heavenly evangelist., The part of Gabriel is positive; that of Michael is negative. Michael is, as his name indicates, the destroyer of every one who dares to equal, i.e., to oppose God. Such is his mission in Daniel, where he contends against the powers hostile to Israel; such also is it in Jude and in the Apocalypse, where he fights, as the champion of God, against Satan, the author of idolatry. Gabriel builds up; Michael overthrows. The former is the forerunner of Jehovah the Saviour; the latter, of Jehovah the Judge. (F. Godet, D. D.)
“And Zacharias said unto the angel,”
The circumstances under which Zacharias doubted, seem to have been very much like those under which Abraham believed; and as Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness; so Zacharias disbelieved, and it was counted to him for sin. And if it be thought that such a sin was heavily punished, it is to be observed
“I am Gabriel,”
We have heard of this angel before, and we lose something unless we look back to the circumstances with which he was previously connected. This, then, was the same angel who appeared to Daniel, to explain to him the time that was to elapse until the coming of the Messiah (Daniel 9:21-27). This being the case, we see at once the special fitness that the same angel should be employed to announce the near accomplishment of that which he had so long predicted. It is the same angel, moreover, who was sent a few months later to announce the birth of the Messiah Himself, as now of His harbinger. The same considerations apply to both transactions. (Dr. Kitto.)
The judgment on Zacharias
Zacharias is a striking example of the ills a good man may have to suffer as the result of his unbelief.
I. CONSIDER HIS CHARACTER AND POSITION. He was a genuine believer. He was well instructed and greatly enlightened. He held a high office as priest. He had been peculiarly favoured. Soothing comfort had just been administered to him. This comfort had been given in answer to his own petition. He staggered at a promise which others implicitly believed.
II. WHAT THEN WAS THE FAULT OF ZACHARIAS? His fault was that he looked at the difficulty.
III. CONSIDER HIS PENALTY. Mercy tempered judgment. He was not struck dead, and the chastisement did not invalidate the promise. Do not be satisfied with being weak in faith. Let the utter unbeliever tremble. If a good man was struck dumb for unbelief, what will become of you who have no faith at all? (C. H. Spurgeon.)
If incredulity, much more open doubt and disbelief, were now thus dealt with, how awfully numerous would be the additions to the family of the dumb! (A. B. Grosart, LL. D.)
He had seen a vision
But evidently this was not the ecstasy of a visionary man who imagined simply what he desired; for when the promise was made, he doubted and questioned. (Lyman Abbot.)
“He beckoned unto them”
To have a child thou deem’st so strange a thing,
That thou art made a child for wondering.
Whilst for a sign too eagerly thou dost call,
Except by sign thou canst not ask at all.
That tongue which moved the doubt, must be tied up. He shall ask no more questions for forty weeks. (Bishop Hall.)
Telling the news at home
I can conceive the rapid gladness with which Zacharias, when his office for the week was fulfilled, sped up Olivet and across the rolling plain towards Bethlehem, and up to the hill-country of Judaea, with the strange and wondrous message that a twenty or thirty years’ old prayer was about to be answered in God’s gift of a son to them. How Elisabeth received the intelligence is left, with fine modesty, in silence. His “stylus” would tell what his tongue could not. (A. B.Grosart, LL. D.)
Grieving because of unbelief
1. Christians are saying to the world either that God is false to his promises, or that God is true. You dishonour him by unbelief. You honour him by faith, the utmost honour you can give him. A German writer gives this incident in the life of Johannes Bruce, the founder of the order of the Carmelites, who, though a Romish priest, was a saint indeed, distinguished for his love to God and his faith. The convent was poor; and the friars, dependent on charity for daily bread, were often compelled to console themselves with the passage, “Man does not live by bread alone.” One day the brethren found, when they had assembled for dinner, that their whole stock of food was a single piece of dry bread. They sat down; they asked God’s blessing upon their crust. Then Johannes arose, and poured forth such words of encouragement and consolation concerning the love of Christ and the great promises He had given His people, that all of them arose delighted and refreshed, and, without partaking of their bread, returned to their cells. They had scarcely reached them, when the bell rang at the convent-gate, and a man entered with a large basket of provisions, which were carried, with a letter, to the prior, who was on his knees praying. He read, the letter dropped from his hands, and he began to weep bitterly. The porter, surprised, said, “Why do you weep? Have you not often said that we should weep for nothing but our sins?” Johannes replied, “Brother, I do not weep without reason. Think how weak the Lord must see our faith to be, since He is unwilling to see us suffer want a single day without sending visible aid. He foresaw that before evening we should despond, unless He sent immediate help to our faith by means of this charitable gift. It is because we possess so little confidence in the rich Lord in whom we are encouraged to trust, that my tears flow.” (From sermon by Charles Finney.)
Unbelief a sin
Mr. Marshall, author of a treatise on Sanctification, in his early years, was under great distress for a long time, through a consciousness of guilt and a dread of the Divine displeasure. At last, mentioning his case to Dr. Thomas Goodwin, and lamenting the greatness of his sins, that able divine replied, “You have forgotten the greatest sin of all, the sin of unbelief, in refusing to believe in Christ, and rely on His atonement and righteousness for your acceptance with God.” This word in season banished his fears. He looked to Jesus, and was filled with joy and peace in believing! (Handbook to Scripture Doctrines.)
As soon as the days of his ministration were accomplished: Trusting God and continuing in duty
A friend of mine once asked the wife of Havelock how her husband bore himself during the terrible conflicts in India. She replied, “I know not. But I know he is trusting in God and doing his duty.” These glorious words may bind us all together; wherever we are, if those who know us best can say with certainty, when asked about us, “ They are trusting in God and doing their duty,” we shall have the blessed peace that was given to Havelock. (Dean Stanley.)
Sticking to duty
An artilleryman at Waterloo was asked what he had seen. He replied that he saw nothing but smoke. The artilleryman was next asked what he had been doing. He replied that he had “just blazed away at his own gun.” (T. Guthrie, D. D.)
Here is a sign for incredulity: he had been as good have believed without a sign. (Bishop Andrewes.)
If, then, utter unbelief is utter repression of the best in man, and if further partial belief is partial escape from this galling bondage, what must complete faith in God be, entire acceptance of His Son as Eternal Righteousness, unclouded hope in the perpetuated life of the soul, but the free expression, the joyous utterance, the complete realization of the whole spiritual life of man? Whatever destroys the best in human life cannot be true. It is impossible to believe that the best life of the individual, the family, the nation; it is impossible to believe that the heroism of the solitary soul fighting its solitary but momentous battles, the purity and sweetness and selfsacrifice of home, the advancing righteousness of our land and all lands--spring out of beliefs that are a fountain of lies. Whatever destroys human life must be a lie; whatever builds it into strength and beauty must be true. Human life, in order to complete realization of its best possibilities, needs a God, needs a Christ, needs a hereafter, needs Supreme Love as its minister, needs a supreme manifestation of that Love, and a timely future in which to do its will and enjoy its ministrations. The Jewish priest asked for a sign whereby he might know the angel’s message to be true. The sign came. Dumbness was his sign. The amazed soul, trying to believe, and yet afraid, in accepting the faith of its fathers, of building its hope upon a dream, asks for a sign. The sign is given; the dumbness that falls upon the speaking, singing spirit is the sign that unbelief is disease. The priest silent at the altar, with his prayers unsaid, his thoughts unspoken, his praise unsung, his worship unuttered, is but the type of the soul in the dumbness of doubt, in the paralysis of unbelief, its whole best life denied expression, and shrivelling under the doom of an eternal sentence of repression and death. The priest at the altar, but no longer silent; the priest at the altar, naming his firstborn, his tongue loosed and uttering in sublime, prophetic strains his whole grateful life--is a type of the soul that has found the utterance of faith, from which all paralysis, all dumbness, has passed away, whose thought, feeling, and volition, mind, heart, and will, are winning their noblest expression; whose whole life is in the attainment of its eternal satisfaction. (G. A. Gordon.)
And hid herself five months
Modesty a retiring grace
Desirous of plucking one of the elegant sea-anemones, you extend your hand; but, at the slightest touch, its beautiful coronet begins to curl, and incurve in the form of a cup.
If further annoyed, the rim of this cup contracts more and more, until the animated blossom, now transformed into a shrivelled, shapeless mass, and receding all the time from the rude assault, retires under the cover of its rocky fortress, or clings with such tenacity to the stone to which it is attached, that you will sooner tear it to pieces than make it forego its grasp. (Hartwig.)
Virgil, who was called the Prince of the Latin Poets, was naturally modest and of a timorous nature when people crowded to gaze upon him, or pointed at him with the finger with raptures: the poet blushed, and stole away from them, and often hid himself in shops to be removed from the curiosity and admiration of the public. The Christian is called indeed to let his light shine before men; but then it must be with all meekness, simplicity, and modesty. (Buck.)
And the virgin’s name was Mary
The messenger sent from heaven to publish the news of the conception of the Son of Gad--an angel. An evil angel was the first author of our ruin; a good angel could not be the author of our restoration, but is the joyful reporter of it.
2. The angel’s name--Gabriel, the power of God.
3. The place the angel is sent to--Nazareth. An obscure place, little taken notice of; “yea, a city in Galilee, out of which arises no prophet: even there the God of prophets condescends to be conceived. No blind corner of Nazareth can hide the blessed virgin from the angel. The favours of God will find out His children wherever they are withdrawn.
4. The person to whom the angel is sent--a virgin espoused. For the honour of virginity Christ chose a virgin for His mother; for the honour of marriage, a virgin espoused to a husband.
5. The message itself. The angel salutes the virgin as a saint; he does not pray to her as a goddess. Full of grace she was then, full of glory she is now.
6. The effect which the sight and salutation of the angel had upon Mary--she was afraid. But in her case, as in all, the fears of holy persons end in comfort.
7. The character which the angel gives of Him who should be born of her--“Great … Son of the Highest.” Great in respect of
We have very little to guide us in our conception of the scene. Scripture never quite withdraws the veil which protects, quite as much as it conceals, the life of the mother of our Lord; but we venture reverently to arrange and draw together some side-lights which it is permitted us to catch. There is quiet Nazareth itself, nestling (as only villages in Palestine do) high up in a circlet of protecting hills, like one of those flower-baskets, with creepers hanging over the sides, which we see sometimes caught up between projecting points in a rockery garden.
Nazareth, so still, so shut in from the world around, that it is not once mentioned in connection- with any single event in the whole of the Old Testament; not once in the Talmud, where names of obscure places occur in plenty; fist once even in the pages of garrulous Josephus, who enumerates no less than 204 towns and cities in Galilee. “Verily, Thou art a God that hidest Thyself,” we feel constrained to say, as we contemplate the future home of Jesus; and we ask for notching better than to enter into the tranquil spirit of the hush of the little mountain town as we venture now to look more closely at her whose home it was. Mary was a “virgin betrothed”; that is all, as yet, that we know about her. To us she is literally “without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days nor end of life.” We have absolutely no clue at all to the interior or the surroundings of her village home. Was she spinning at her wheel, or grinding at the mill, or reading some roll of the prophets? Or was she just then sitting and musing over the great event of the last few days-her betrothal? The last we fancy most likely; for angels’ visits, like dreams that are hallowed, argue a preoccupation of the mind in some direction kindred to their holy purpose. So Mary may have been looking back and looking forward: back on the past even, uneventful life, over which now there has moved a spirit of change, and which she can scarcely believe, perhaps does not even wish, ever to be quite the same again: and forward to she hardly knows what; only she is vaguely conscious of new aspirations, timid forecastings, undefined fears. And then, as all faithful Jewish women rightfully might, she would allow herself in some dim dreams of motherhood, and it might even be up for coming events cast their shadows before--that the unbidden thought would just creep across her mind that her betrothed husband and herself were both of the tribe of Judah; and was she to blame for taking to herself the sacred hope which was the heritage of every mother who belonged to the tribe that Jacob had blessed? Then came the angel, familiar to us now in name and mission, but none the less a sign and a wonder at his actual appearance. What form did the angel take? In what voice did he speak? How was he known to be an angel at all? are questions which rush into our minds at once. They will never be answered; we know no more than is written, and the inspired narrative lays upon us the responsibility of unquestioning faith. One point is left to our imagination--the angel’s look. We fancy that his kind, steady, searching gaze must have been more eloquent almost than his prefatory words: “Hail, Accepted, the Lord be with thee; blessed thou among women.” (E. T. Marshall, M. A.)
Their airy and gentle coming may well be compared to the glory of colours flung by the sun upon the morning clouds, that seem to be born just where they appear. Like a beam of light striking through some orifice, they shine upon Zacharias in the Temple. As the morning light finds the flowers, so they found the mother of Jesus; and their message fell on her pure as dewdrops on the lily. To the shepherds’ eyes they filled the midnight arch like auroral beams of light; but not as silently, for they sang more marvellously than when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy. They communed with the Saviour in His glory of transfiguration, sustained Him in the anguish of the garden, watched Him at the tomb; and as they had thronged the earth at His coming, so they seem to have hovered in the air in multitudes at the hour of His ascension. The occasions of their appearing are grand, the reasons weighty, and their demeanour suggests and befits the highest conception of superior beings. Their very coming and going is not with earthly movement. They are suddenly seen in the air, as one sees white clouds round out from the blue sky on a summer’s day, that melt back even while one looks upon them. (H. W. Beecher.)
The mother of Jesus--a woman’s sermon to worn
All we know about Mary should appeal very forcibly to the heart and the imagination. The Child, and not the mother, is the chief theme of our talk and our thought, it is true; but no woman, and certainly no mother, can talk of the wonderful events of Bethlehem without thinking with tenderness as well as awe of Mary the mother of Jesus. From first to last she holds our eyes and moves our hearts, presenting us, as she does, with a perfect delineation of womanhood and motherhood; and our lives would probably be more full of love and helpful ministries if we gave more time to the study of her character. It may be asked, Why, when every pious Hebrew matron would have been thankful for the high and unique honour of being the mother of the Messiah, a poor, unknown, and retired virgin should have been chosen. A very little thought will suffice to show the suitability of Mary, and will also direct the mind to the womanly qualities which God honours.
1. Humility. It was this which made Mary great. Never did she obtrude herself upon the world, or try to get to herself the least share of her Son’s glory. The part given her, she was content to perform with absolute self-abnegation and obedience. Lowly she was when the angel made his wonderful announcement to her; and meek and lowly of heart she remained to the end.
2. Submission. She accepted her lot, whatever it might be, without any complaint, or any attempt to have things otherwise.
3. Quietness. She was always more ready to be silent than to speak. From how many mistakes must she thus have been saved.
4. Fidelity. Not only at first, but to the very last, she rose to the tasks imposed upon her, and fulfilled the commands of God. “Not what I wish, but what I ought to do,” was the rule she followed.
Mary to be held in honour
Probably there was never any created being of-all the created worlds, put in such honour as this woman, chosen to be the Lord’s mother i all the more truly our mother, that from her begins the new-born human race. To her it is given, even to grow the germ-life of the Divine Man, Son of the Father, in its spring. And her behaviour is beautiful enough to even meet an occasion so high. That grace of bearing, that sweet, devout modesty, such as became the motherhood of everlasting innocence; that watching of her miraculous Boy, that could so easily be telling His wonders, with a weak mother’s fondness, in the street, but which still she was treasuring in her heart; that wondrous propriety of silence at the cross, allowing her no wail of outcry in that hour, lest she might be making herself a part of the scene. O ye lilies and other white harbingers of spring, culled so often by art to be symbols of her unspotted motherhood, what can ye show of silent flowering in the white of purity, which she does not much better show herself? We seem just now, in these modern times, to be assuming that Mary is gone by, and the honours paid her ended; and if we choose to let our hearts be barbarized in the coarse, unappreciating prejudices that have been, so far, our bitter element, there certainly are finer moulded ages to come. Is it too soon even now to admit some feeling of rational shame, that we have been weak enough to let our eyes be so long plastered with this clay? Doubtless it must be the first thing with us, after we have entered the great world before us, to get cleared, and assured, and at home in our relations to the Son of Man Himself. After that our next thing, as I think, will be to know our mother, the mother of Jesus; for no other of the kingdom, save the King Himself, has a name that signifies more. And I make no question that, when the great hierarchs and princes of other worlds and ages, who are challenged to pay their hosannas in the highest, throng in to meet us, they will ask, first of all, for the woman by whom, under God’s quickening overshadow, Christ the Eternal Son of God, obtained His life-connection with the race, and His birth into practical brotherhood with it. As the sages of the East, guided by the star, brought out their tribute to the Child at her knee, so these ancients of God will come in with us, wanting above all to know the woman herself, at whose royal motherhood, and by it, Immanuel the King broke into the world and set up His kingdom. And higher still is she raised by the recognition of her Son Himself; for as she is yearning always fondly after Him, so will He never disallow His old time filial feeling towards her, but will ever clothe her with such honours, really Divine, as fitly crown the part she bore in His wonderful story. (Horace Bushnell, D. D.)
Mary’s true place in Christian esteem
It is impossible to worship the Virgin, because the very exquisiteness of her character stands in her being a perfect type of human nature, pure and simple; her native womanly grace and innocence are her chief charm. Deify her, and, besides other things, you wrong the whole human race; you depose her from her rightful place at the head of Christian women; you cheat Christ’s sisters of their sweet queen, and say, in effect, that you can do nothing with a pure life and a humble spirit but make an idol of it. Give us back the mother of our Lord; we want her here with us on earth, that our maidens and our matrons, feeling her to be one of themselves, may learn from her, in each event of life, how to receive God’s will about themselves. It is a presumptuous interference with God’s own ordering of the Incarnation, to take the mother of Jesus out of the category of earthly women, and to set her already on a throne in heaven. Was Christ born of a woman or was He not? If He was, let us accept the mystery with all its consequences, reverently limiting our thoughts and fancies by the extent to which God has thrown back the veil … It should be equally impossible to tolerate unscriptural legends about Mary. Men do not gild gold, or paint white frames for snow-wreaths; and do they not see what violence they do to the most retiring character in the world by dragging it to the front, and setting it on a throne, and making it an arbiter of the destinies of men? It is because we feel so strongly that Mary is just as God would have her in herself that we resent all apocryphal accounts of her doings, and deplore all unauthorized additions to her life; these fancied embellishments of the loveliest of womankind, only serve to hide from us what she really and genuinely was from God. We can forgive the false taste of a worship which professes to be sensuous; but we feel bound to protest against the tampering, in faith and doctrine, with the character and very being of her who is the cherished heritage of every Christian soul. (E. T. Marshall, M. A.)
The blessed among women
1. Poor, yet rich.
2. Troubled, yet meditative.
3. Proud, as a virgin, yet obedient as a wife.
4. First doubtful, then believing. (Van Oosterzee.)
Blessed of God
The angel’s salutation of Mary may be applied to Christians in all the holy seasons of life, such as baptism, confirmation, the time of chastening, the day of death. (Wallin.)
Encouragement to the humble
It ought to be highly encouraging to those whose lot is cast in the quiet walks of life--who occupy quiet, private, and unobtrusive stations--to observe how great honour was put on one humble as themselves; and how, in the faithful discharge of simple duties, and the making use of the appointed means, such piety has been attained as has never been surpassed, and perhaps rarely equalled. Mary had undoubtedly poverty to struggle with, and she was not placed in any conspicuous part, where great things were to be done and endured for God. Up to the time of the visit from the angel she had probably lived in the unaffected life which presents daily the same duties--perhaps daily the same hardships--the life of that great mass of human beings of whom the world never hears--who, some with more, others with less, of external pressure, rise in the morning to begin a round of humble occupations, of which, if night brings the close, the morrow will bring the repetition. Yet, living such a life as this, performing the daily duties which devolve on members of low, and perhaps straitened, families--duties on which there is nothing to throw splendour, and which may seem little favourable to deep spirituality--did Mary grow so rich with the graces of piety, as to be the fittest for the high honour which God had in store for woman. After this, let no one repine at not being called to eminent station, as though it were necessary to be great in office in order to being great in the virtues or rewards of religion. It has been well said that no man is to complain of want of power or opportunity for religious perfection. The devout woman in her closet, praying, with much zeal and affection, for the conversion of souls, is in the same order of arrangement, as to grace in general, as he who, by excellent doctrines, put it into a more forward position to be actually performed. (H. Melvill, B. D.)
Blessed among women
Next to the blessed Child, the Virgin Mother is the central figure of the Nativity. She is one of the noblest and loveliest characters in the Bible.
I. The saddest page in the world’s history, is THE STORY OF WOMAN’S WRONGS. The law of strength has been always the world’s rule of conduct, the weaker has had to go to the wall. Woman, because of her more delicate physical organization, has been the victim of man’s superior strength, the prey of his basest passions, the slave of his injustice and tyranny. To justify himself in his oppression he has represented her as worthy only of contempt. Hesiod calls women “ an accursed brood, chief scourge of the human race.” AEschylus speaks of her as, “the direst evil of State and home.” Socrates thanked God daily that he had been born a human being and not an animal; free and not a slave; a man and not a woman. “Slacken the rein,” said Cato, “and you will afterward strive in vain to check the mad career of that unreasoning animal.” Seneca calls her, “an imprudent, wild creature, incapable of self-control.” The Romans habitually spoke of the majesty of man, the imbecility, weakness, and frivolity of women. “Better that a thousand women should perish, than that one man should cease to see the light.” But with Christianity new ideas of the dignity and glory of womanhood came into life. The Son of God was born of a woman. “Christ,” says Augustine, “was born of a woman, that neither sex might despair.” By its reverence for the Virgin Mother the Christian Church wove into its deepest thought a new conception of womanhood, and did much to cancel the contempt thrown upon her in the person of Eve. If woman was guilty of the world’s first sin, on her breast its Redeemer was nourished; and Bethlehem atoned for Eden. Eve was withdrawn as the representative of woman, and the mother of Jesus replaced her. Hence among the early Christians the position of woman was greatly changed. She shared with man the responsibilities of religion, the sufferings of persecution, the love of God, the hope of Heaven.
II. But this is not all that the worship of the Virgin meant. Before Christ came, IT WAS THE QUALITIES ESPECIALLY CHARACTERISTIC OF THE MALE SEX WHICH WERE WORSHIPPED AS DIVINE. Force, strength, courage, mental concentration--these were the qualities regarded ‘as of highest worth. But Christ proclaimed the Divine nature of qualities quite the opposite of these--meekness, gentleness, patience, purity, obedience, love. It is the peculiar feature of Christianity, that it exalts, not strength, intellect, courage, but gentleness, lovingness, helpfulness, purity. But these are especially womanly virtues--qualities of character in which women usually surpass men. So this worship of the virgin grew up in a world wearied by violence and passion and selfish strength, of masculine ambitions and grasping resolves, sighing for some form of strength and glory which should be consistent with tenderness, and gentleness, and sweet affection. In a world trodden by armies, corrupted by lust, dominated by ambition, this worship of the Virgin was a strong and living protest against force and war and sensuality; a silent assertion of the glory of purity, goodness, and love. When the attributes of God and Christ were lost from view, that sweet and beautiful idea of womanhood shed gentle lustre amid dungeons and scaffolds and battlefields, and did something at least to mitigate their cruelties. It hung upon the walls of the churches, it looked down from chamber and from hall, it pleaded at the corners of the street, and it melted through the imagination of cruel and sensual men, as a heavenly vision pleading for humanity. Mrs. Jameson, in her “Legends of the Madonna,” says: “In the perpetual repetition of that beautiful image of the Woman highly favoured, there, where others saw only pictures or statues, I have seen this great hope standing like a spirit beside the visible form--in the fervent worship once given to that gracious presence I have beheld an acknowledgment of a higher as well as a gentler power than that of the strong hand, and the might which makes right; and in every earnest votary one who, as he knelt, was in this sense pious beyond the reach of his thought, and devout beyond the meaning of his will.” And woman greatly encourages his error when she accepts his estimate of worth rather than Christ’s, and bestows her admiration upon the lower and more masculine attributes, instead of recognizing the higher glory of her own womanhood. Gail Hamilton’s sarcasm, “Come girls, let us be men,” finds an echo in much of the life of to-day, when it ought to carry its own refutation. The Bible gives woman a glory of her own. Let her take up and wield the spiritual sovereignty that is her everlasting birthright. Let man learn to be grateful to woman for this undoubted achievement of her sex--that she, often in despite of him, has kept Christendom from lapsing into barbarism, has kept mercy and love from being overborne by those two greedy monsters, money and war. Let him remember that almost every great soul, which has led forward and lifted up the race, has been inspired by some noble woman. “A man discovered America, but a woman equipped him for the voyage.” The noblest qualities of both are blended in Jesus Christ. In Him is the woman’s heart and the man’s brain; womanly gentleness, manly strength. We do not worship Christ and Mary, for in Christ we find all that was sought in Mary.
III. There is still another truth striving for utterance in this worship of the Virgin, and this is, THE NEED WHICH THE HUMAN HEART FEELS OF A HUMAN AS WELL AS DIVINE SAVIOUR. (J. H. McIlvaine, D. D.)
In the introduction of Jesus Christ to the world it would seem as if all laws of nature were to be suspended, that He Himself might be the crowning miracle of the universe. Even in the birth of His forerunner, God took the case into His own hand in a manner which excited the surprise and provoked the unbelief of servants who were walking in all His own ordinances and commandments blameless. In the birth of Christ law was not only suspended, but treated as if it had never had any existence, showing how easy it would have been for the Almighty to have founded society upon a totally new basis. The value of these miracles is seen as to their scope or purpose most vividly in the life of Jesus Christ. From the very beginning, in itself and in its surroundings it was to be a life distinct from all other existence. The manner in which both Elisabeth and Mary received the communications is precisely that in which the heart receives the tidings of the great salvation. The idea of salvation overpowers all who apprehend it with any distinctness. It would seem as if every soul had to undergo a period of questioning and doubt and wondering before it realizes the ineffable peace and cloudless radiance of perfect trust. The reply which the angel made to Mary’s question, “How shall this be? “ shows distinctly that there are questions arising out of spiritual revelation which may be put with out violating the Divine purpose of secrecy. Mary’s point of rest must be ours; wonder was not allayed, nor was difficulty removed, yet the heart was given up to the possession of the Almighty. The gospel is to be received in the same way. Its doctrines will excite surprise and provoke inquiries, and it is possible that the answers to human questioning may but carry the mind to some higher plane of mystery. There it must rest, not in knowledge, but in faith, and the eyes of the heart must be opened when the vision of the understanding is unequal to the light. The whole incident may be used as teaching--
1. That human life is accessible to angelic ministry.
2. That the great surprises of life should be held in check by religious faith, lest they unbalance the mind, and unfit it for ordinary occupations.
3. That the omnipotence of God should be regarded as the solution of all mystery and the guarantee of all safety. (Dr. Parker.)
Mary, the mother of Jesus
1. There has been a large recoil of unbelief from these first chapters of Matthew and Luke. How comes it, many ask, if this be any proper history of facts, that it is made up so largely of poetic material?
2. At this point my subject, which is Mary, the mother of Jesus, takes a most remarkable turn. Suddenly she drops out of improvising, out of song and singing joy, into a very nearly total and dumb silence; giving us to hear no spoken word again, save in a very few syllables, and but twice in her whole after-life. Not by the poverty of her nature that she is silent. Self-retention is the almost infallible token of a strong, deep character.
3. Jesus, a Man of thirty years old, goes to a wedding. And there we are let into a new chapter, at the very hinge of His public life, and the new relation He is to have to His mother. No reprimand, however, in His words to her (“Woman, what have I to do with thee?”) save under the English idiom.
4. Look now for a moment at the home-basis Mary has provided for Jesus in the prosecution of His ministry. We see His mother’s family all engaged for Him and with Him, and even if they do not believe in Him, they will stick fast by Him, we can see, in divinest and most faithful love.
5. Mary’s behaviour at the cross fitly ends her story. She “ stood”--a word of strong composure. Doubtless she remembers the word of Simeon--“Yea, a sword shall pierce through thine own soul also.” But there shestands, in the beloved disciple’s company, holding fast the decencies of sorrow, as if the proprieties of the worlds were upon her. How long after this she lived we do not know. But we could most easily believe that when her mind was opened at the Pentecost, to the meaning of her Son’s great mission, she was at once so astounded and exalted by the awful height of her relationship, that her soul took wing in the uplift of her felt affinity with the Highest, and was gone! But we have no such traditions.
6. Her disappearing from us, however, does not bring her story to an end; it only prepares our final appearing to her, on a higher plane of life, where she will most assuredly be the centre of a higher feeling than some of us may have imagined. Probably there was never any created being of all the created worlds put in such honour as this woman, chosen to be the Lord’s mother; all the more truly our mother, that, from her begins the new-born human race. “Hail, thou highly favoured!” “Blessed art thou among women.” (Horace Bushnell, D. D.)
“Thou hast found favour,”
Mary is not a dispenser of favour, but a recipient of it, with and for the rest of us; the type and germ of the Church. (Rudolf Stier.)
Mary a typical Jewess
Being of royal lineage, Mary undoubtedly cherished in her bosom the traditions of her house with that secret fervour which belongs to enthusiastic natures. Like all Judean women, we are to suppose her intensely national in her feelings. She identified herself with her country’s destiny, lived its life, suffered its sufferings, and waited and prayed for its deliverance and glories. This was a time of her nation’s deep humiliation. The throne and sceptre had passed from Judah. Conquered, trodden down, and oppressed, the sacred land was under the rule of Pagan Rome; and Herod, the appointed sovereign, was a blaspheming, brutal tyrant, using all his power to humiliate and oppress; and we may imagine Mary as one of the small company of silent mourners, like Simeon, and Anna the prophetess, who pondered the Scriptures and “looked for salvation in Israel.” (Harriet B. Stowe.)
Mary the flower of a selected race
In part, our conception of the character of Mary may receive light from her nationality. A fine human being is never the product of one generation, but rather the outcome of a growth of ages. Mary was the offspring and flower of a race selected, centuries before, from the finest physical stock of the world; watched, trained, and cultured, by Divine oversight, in accordance with every physical and mental law for the production of sound and vigorous mental and bodily conditions. Her blood came to her in a channel of descent over which the laws of Moses had established such a watchful care--a race where marriage had been made sacred, family life a vital point, and motherhood invested by Divine command with an especial sanctity. As Mary was, in a certain sense, a product of the institutes of Moses, so it is an interesting coincidence that she bore the name of his sister, the first and most honoured of the line of Hebrew prophetesses--Mary being the Latin version of the Hebrew Miriam. She had also, as we read, a sister, the wife of Cleopas, who bore the same name, a custom not infrequent in Jewish families. It is suggested that Miriam, being a sacred name, and held in high traditionary honour, mothers gave it to their daughters, as now in Spain they call them after the Madonna as a sign of good omen. (Harriet B. Stowe.)
God’s presence with His people
How important to have God with us everywhere! The late John Wesley, after a long life of labour and usefulness, concluded his course in perfect peace and holy triumph. A short time before his departure, when a person came into his room he tried to speak to him, but could not. Finding his friend could not understand him; he paused a little, and then with all his remaining strength he cried out, “The best of all is, God is with us.” And then raising his feeble voice, and lifting up his dying arm in token of victory, he again repeated, “The best of all is, God is with us.” Paul, when a prisoner, had the presence of God. Turn to 2 Timothy 4:16-17 : “At my first answer no man stood with me, but all men forsook me: I pray God that it may not be laid to their charge. Notwithstanding, the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me.” It was a noble saying of his (Romans 8:31): “If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Henry R. Burton.)
The glory of Mary
No woman that ever lived on the face of the earth has been an object of such wonder, admiration, and worship, as Mary, the mother of our Lord. Around her, poetry, painting, and music have raised clouds of ever-shifting colours, splendid as those around the setting sun. Exalted above earth, she has been shown to us as a goddess, yet a goddess of a type wholly new. She is not Venus, not Minerva, not Ceres, nor Vesta. No goddess of classic antiquity, or of any other mythology, at all resembles that ideal being whom Christian art and poetry presents to us in Mary. Neither is she like all of them united. She differs from them as Christian art differs from classical, wholly and entirely. Other goddesses have been worshipped for beauty, for grace, for wisdom, for power. Mary has been the goddess of poverty and sorrow, of pity and mercy, and as suffering is about the only certain thing in human destiny, she has numbered her adorers in every land, and climate, and nation. In Mary, womanhood, in its highest and tenderest development of the mother, is the object of worship. Motherhood, with large capacities of sorrow, with the memory of bitter sufferings, with sympathies large enough to embrace every anguish of humanity! Such an object of veneration has inconceivable power. (Harriet B. Stowe.)
Calmness of Mary
We see in all this that serious, calm, and balanced nature which was characteristic of Mary. Habitually living in the contemplation of that spirit-world revealed in the Scriptures, it was no very startling thing to her to see an angel standing by her; her thoughts had walked among the angels too long for that, but his enthusiastic words of promise and blessing agitated her soul. (Harriet B. Stowe.)
Absence of self-consciousness
One morning, according to the old legend, “as she went to draw water from the spring or well in the green open space at the north-west extremity of the town,” the Angel met her with the Salutation. And Mary was troubled at the tidings and the praise. It was the trouble of a beautiful unconsciousness. She had never thought of herself, never asked herself whether she were pure or lovely, did not care what people thought of her, made no effort to appear to the little world of Nazareth other than she was A rare excellence in man or woman, this fair unconsciousness!--rarer than ever now. Our miscalled education, which looks chiefly to this, how a young girl may make a good figure in society, destroys often from the earliest years the beauty of unconsciousness of self. There are many who have never had a real childhood, never been unconscious, who possess already the thoughts and airs of womanhood, and who are applauded as objects to admire, instead of being pitied as victims of an unnatural training. Their manners, conversation, attitudes, are the result of art. Already they tremble, as we do, for the verdict of the world. They grow up and enter into society, and there is either a violent reaction against conventionality, or a paralyzing sensitiveness to opinion, or a dull repose of character all but equivalent to stagnation. We see many who are afraid of saying openly what they think or feel, if it be in opposition to the accredited opinions of the world; we see others who rejoice in shocking opinion for the sake of making themselves remarkable--perhaps the basest form of social vanity, for it gives pain, and does notspring from conviction. Both forms arise from the education which makes the child self-conscious. It is miserable to see how we actually take pains to root out of our children the beauty of the Virgin’s early life, the beauty of a more Divine life in Christ--the beauty of unconsciousness of self. (Stopford A. Brooke, M. A.)
The Angel does not say, observe, that the favour of God has found her, but that she has found favour with Him, The expression, it is true, may be used in either way, to indicate what God has undertaken to do for her, or what she has obtained by the suit of her gentle, sweet-minded prayers. It is most naturally taken in this latter way; giving us to see how she has been waiting before Him, from her tender girlhood onward, asking of Him grace for a good life, and questioning His oracle as to what she is to do, or to be. She has read the prophets too, as we may judge, and her feeling, like all the religious feeling of her nation, is leavened in this manner, by infinite yearnings for the coming of that wonderful unknown Being called Messiah. And so her opening womanly nature has been stretching itself Messiahward, and configuring itself inwardly to what the unknown Great One is to be. Sighing after Him thus, in the sweet longings of her prayers, she is winning such favour, and becoming inwardly akin to Him in such degree, as elects her to bear the promised Child of the skies, and be set in a properly Divine motherhood before the worlds! Ah, yes, Mary, canst thou believe it? That which the prophets of so many ages drew you into praying for; that which angels in God’s highest and most ancient realms have been peering from above to look into, that for which the fulness of time has now come--that special thing of God’s counsel, supereminent favour, His greatest miracle, His unmatched wonder, His one thing absolute, which lets nothing ever come to pass that can be put into class with it-even that thou hast gotten a call from God to mediate for tim world, bearing it as thy Holy Thing, the fruit of thy sweet and maidenly prayers. (Horace Bushnell, D. D.)
Call His name Jesus
The name “Jesus”
Bernard has delightfully said that the name “Jesus” is honey in the mouth, melody in the ear, and joy in the heart.
I rejoice in that expression on my own account, for it gives me my share of the delight, and leads me to hope that, while I am speaking, the sweetness of that precious name may fill my own mouth. Here also is a portion for you who are listening: it is melody in the ear. If my voice should be harsh, and my words discordant, you will yet have music of the choicest order, for the name itself is essential melody, and my whole sermon will ring with its silver note. May both speaker and hearer join in the third word of Bernard’s sentence, and may we all find it to be joy in our hearts, a jubilee within our souls. Jesus is the way to God, therefore will we preach Him; He is the truth, therefore will we hear of Him; He is the life, therefore shall our hearts rejoice in Him. His transporting name is an ointment poured forth, and its scent is varied so as to contain the essence of all fragrances.
I. THE NAME OF JESUS IS A NAME DIVINELY ORDERED AND EXPOUNDED. Like Himself it came down from heaven, for an angel brought it.
1. It is the best name He could bear. To be the “ Saviour” is His glory.
2. It is the most appropriate name He could receive. God the Father, who knows Him best, sees this to be His grand characteristic, that He is the “Saviour,” and is best represented by this name.
3. It is a name which must be true, since Infinite Wisdom has selected it. A “Saviour” He must be upon a grand scale, continually, abundantly.
II. OUR LORD WAS ACTUALLY CALLED BY THE NAME “JESUS” BY MAN. The God of heaven by His angel appoints the Child’s name, but He leaves it to Joseph and Mary to announce it. Those who are taught of God, joyfully recognize that Christ is salvation, and without a question name Him thus.
III. THE NAME HAD BEES TYPICALLY WORN BY ANOTHER, BUT IS NOW RESERVED FOR HIM ALONE. Jesus and Joshua are the same word: Joshua the Hebrew form, Jesus the Greek. The son of Nun was a type of the son of Mary. Jesus of Nazareth alone can save fully from sin.
IV. THIS NAME IDENTIFIES OUR LORD WITH HIS PEOPLE. He declares His relation to them. It is to them that He is a Saviour (Matthew 1:21).
V. THE NAME “JESUS” IS ONE WHICH INDICATES HIS MAIN WORK.
1. He “saves” by taking all the sins of His people upon Himself.
2. He “saves” His people by bearing the penalty due to their sins.
3. He “saves” by driving out the vipers of sin from the heart, and implanting in their stead fresh and holy objects, ambitions, motives.
VI. THIS NAME IS ONE WHICH IS COMPLETELY JUSTIFIED BY FACTS. Given Him before He had done anything, while yet a babe, has He not earned it? Does He not well deserve the name He bears?
VII. THIS NAME IS CHRIST’S PERSONAL NAME FOR EVER.
1. It is a home name. Given Him by His own mother.
2. It is a heart name. Full of the music of love--moving our affections, and firing our souls.
3. It was His death name. Written over the cross.
4. It is His resurrection name.
5. It is His gospel name.
6. It is His heaven name.
There He is ever adored as the “Saviour.” Let us go and tell of this name; let us continually meditate upon it; let us love it henceforth and for ever. (C. H.Spurgeon.)
The Incarnation was--
1. A fact, revealed in life, words, works.
2. An unfathomable miracle, unprecedented, intimate, voluntary union of Divinity with humanity.
3. A glorious benefit; it is the glory, the light, the life of men.
Signification of the name Jesus
Means Saviour. Salvation is the beginning and end of revelation Substance of gospel truth.
Christ was and is a Saviour such as the world needs, not as the Jews expected. (Van Doren.)
The name of Jesus
1. Jesus, the Babe of Bethlehem.
2. Jesus, the Saviour of the world
3. Jesus, the Mediator between God and man.
4. Jesus, the Judge of all man kind. (A. F. Barfield.)
The miraculous conception
Had the narrative of the miraculous conception occurred in the literature of a heathen nation, it would justly have raised doubts. But in the sober verses of the Gospels, written by Jews, it takes a far different character. The idea was altogether foreign to the Jewish mind. The Hebrew doctrine of the unity of God, and of the infinite elevation of the Divine Being above man, the profound regard of the Jews for the married state, and their abhorrence of unwedded life, make it impossible to imagine how such a thought could ever have risen among them. The improbability of its being invented by a Jew is heightened by the fact, that, though lofty thoughts of the nature of the Messiah were not wanting in some Israelites, the almost universal belief was that He was to be simply a man, who would receive miraculous endowments on His formal consecration as Messiah. (Dr. Geikie.)
The name “Jesus”
An old divine has somewhere said: “There is majesty implied in the name ‘God.’ There is independent being in ‘Jehovah.’ There is power in ‘Lord.’ There is unction in ‘Christ.’ There is affinity in ‘Immanuel;’ intercession in Mediator;’ and help in ‘Advocate;’ but there is salvation in no other name under heaven but the name of’ Jesus’” (Acts 4:12). A Freedman’s teacher writes of a coloured woman who, having learned her alphabet, said, “Now I want to learn to spell Jesus, for ‘pears like the rest will come easier if I learn to spell the blessed name first.’ A good many things “ come easier when we learn that name first.” (Student’s Handbook to Scripture Doctrine.)
Fulness of meaning in the name Jesus
So the name of “Jesus,” the Saviour--a word often pronounced with little estimate of its meaning--will grow in the experience of believing hearts, the hearts of the redeemed, as all “the height, and depth, and length, and breadth” of its unspeakable tenderness, and patience, and love, are more and more in the lapse of ages disclosed to faith; till that name shall be as much more precious than all human names of tenderness and love, as the whole material universe, if crystalized into one huge diamond, would be more precious than one atom of common dust! Do not think we exaggerate. It is impossible to exaggerate the glory of the love “which passeth knowledge,” the value of the “riches” which are “unsearchable. (G. W. Heacoek.)
The lock of the heart
A lock was shown to Gotthold, constructed of rings, which were severally inscribed with certain letters, and could be turned round until the letters represented the name “Jesus.” It was only when the rings were disposed in this manner that the lock could be opened. The invention pleased him beyond measure; and he exclaimed, “ Oh that I could put such a lock as this upon my heart! “Our hearts are already locked, no doubt, but generally with a lock of quite another kind. Many need only to hear the words “gain,” “honour,” “pleasure,” “riches,” “revenge,” and their heart opens in a moment; whereas to the Saviour and to His holy name it continues shut.
The divinity of the name Jesus
“Jesus” was to be the special and peculiar name of the virgin’s Son. It fulfilled prophecy (Isaiah 42:2).
1. This name was new to the Saviour, who was before called “The Word of God,” “The Son of God,” “The Wisdom of the Father,” &c.
2. It now gained a significance it never heretofore possessed.
3. It became the antitype. Joshua as leader of the chosen people into the Promised Land, and Josedech as high priest, are eminent types of Jesus Christ. By Divine appointment our Lord received this name, implying--
I. THE SUBORDINATION OF THE SON. A name to be imposed upon any one, implies the subordination of the recipient to the giver. God the Father alone could have any proper right or authority over Jesus Christ.
II. THE PERFECT KNOWLEDGE OF THE FATHER. He alone perfectly knew the office, end, and effects of the Son coming into this world.
III. A SIGN OF SPECIAL PRIVILEGE. A God-given name always means special favour and goodwill to the person it is bestowed on. Abraham, Jacob, Samson, Peter, Paul, &c. Conclusion: This name of Jesus being Divine must be--
1. Reverenced and honoured.
3. Obeyed. Then will its salvation become our own.
The preciousness of the name Jesus
Jesus! Name stupendous and venerable; a font of mercy; an abyss of judgment; wishing to be loved rather than feared. He took the name of Saviour rather than that of Judge. The sinner must hide as did Adam, or despair as did Cain, when he is without Jesus; but with Him he repents in hope, and rejoices in pardon and grace. This name of Jesus is--
1. Of the highest import to the faithful (John 1:12). The power by no work of ours; which we cannot take away; a grace given to the willing only; by the conformation of the will and love wholly to God.
2. The one refuge for the penitent.
3. The security in conflict. This name supported many martyrs in their fierce trials. It acts upon the unseen powers of sin.
4. A loving yearning in those using it. It brings before the mind all the cost, agony, and suffering by which our salvation was wrought out by Jesus.
5. An ineffable joy to those loving it. It tells of a past work, a present gain, a future glory. (P. von Hartung.)
The efficacy of this name
The name of Jesus--
1. Consoles the afflicted. Honey in the mouth; melody in the ear; joy in the heart. It speaks of love, pardon, peace.
2. Arms against dangers.
3. Quiets the soul.
4. Renders all prayer profitable. Engrave this name on thy tongue, and if that fail on thy heart, have it ever in thy hand; by it direct thy every thought, word, deed. (M Faber.)
The name of Jesus a New Year watchword
Name of Jesus a watch word for New Year. An excellent and precious treasure; a treasure-house, full of all help, guidance, and comfort.
1. To prodigals, unconverted, ungodly (Acts 4:12; Act_3:16).
2. To disciples--partakers of the righteousness of God in Him--full of fightings without and fears within, “the name of the Lord,” &c. Proverbs 18:10).
3. To Christian Church-workers (Colossians 3:17).
4. To the bereaved and afflicted, missing this year from the family and Church well-beloved names (Hebrews 13:8). Take this watchword in four different applications.
I. IN CHURCH LIFE. Perilous times, owing to sinful lives and divided interests of those belonging to the Church. Ship toiling through heaving waves, storm-tossed, timbers strained, sails rent; but look at her name, “ Jesus,” and know that she must crest every wave, and weather every storm, till the haven be reached. The name of Jesus teaches of holiness and unity; truly borne, it will rebuke sin and division; known in its saving power, it will make Christians holy in Him, and one in Him.
II. IN THE WORLD. We have to live in the world, unsympathizing, scoffing, persecuting. We must not tolerate or countenance sin. Go into the world with the name of Jesus in your heart, and let it not be tainted with evil; hallow the world’s work by it, and let the world’s habits and customs testify of it. As Columbus leaped to plant the banner of Spain upon the new-found world, plant on the unknown land of the New Year the Cross--seize the year for Jesus; carry His name everywhere; let everything bearits impress. The name of Jesus teaches of purity and resolution; truly known it will make the Christian in the world pure in heart, and resolved to stand his ground.
III. IN TIMES OF TROUBLE. That were a strange year which should bring us no trouble. As well might we look for a year of undimmed sunshine, without clouds or rain. There will be dark, dreary days, biting frosts, heavy storms and tempests and it is for our good in reaping the fruits of the earth that it is so. In like manner afflictions, trials, sicknesses, losses, disappointments, will come, and for our good, to the bringing forth of the peaceable fruits of righteousness. What does the Christian say to such prospects? He trusts in the name of Jesus and fears no evil, He knows in whom he has believed. The name of Jesus is his comfort and stay and peace. It teaches him resignation and unshaken trust.
IV. IN THE HOUR OF DEATH. This may come during the present year. The name of Jesus is the password to heaven. It teaches, in the moment when this world passes away, simple faith in His merits and mediation, by whom alone we can be saved. Other experiences may or may not be ours: death must be. How shall we meet it? Leaning on what rod or staff? The name of Jesus, and faith in His name, is the only sure refuge, and the only secure hope, (Thos. H. Barnett.)
He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest
The greatness of Jesus
The title of “Great” is one which the wisdom of this world recognizes, though I am not sure that it always gives the title fairly.
We have Alexander the Great, Charles the Great, Frederick the Great, and so on. The epithet has usually been applied to those whose great powers have been manifested chiefly in the subjugation of their fellows to their own will. This kind of manifestation is the most conspicuous, it involves the most open exercise of power, and is most mixed up with the gratification of human ambition, and pride, and vanity; but, undoubtedly, those who have most permanently and extensively influenced their fellows, have been those whose conquests have been in the regions of thought, in things spiritual--the founders of religions, the authors of philosophies, the great discoverers, the great teachers. A man like Alexander has ceased for centuries to be a living power in the world; but the great founder of Buddhism, e.g., is still affecting the daily lives and habits of something like a quarter of the whole population of the world. A great captain is like a brilliant meteor, but the author of a new thought, or a new system of thought, is like a fixed star.
I. THINK OF CHRIST’S GREATNESS AS A MAN. Estimate in any just way the influence produced upon the world’s history by His life and deeds; can there be any doubt that He is the greatest man who ever lived? Whose life has been the most like a seed in this world, rising up with the irresistible power of growth, and bringing forth fruit after its kind? Whose religious teaching has been practically most potent in subduing to itself the highest intellects the human race has produced? In the most tattered rags of humanity, Jesus Christ stands forth so conspicuously as the King of men, that there are few, who do not, in Some form or another, bow the knee before Him.
II. CHRIST’S GREATNESS AS GOD. It is the light of Divine majesty and condescension shining through the rags of humanity, that makes the whole history intelligible. “He shall be great! “ nay, He is great in the midst of the humiliation of the Cross itself. That humiliation was self-sought, and only adds emphasis to the declaration and promise of the text.
III. CHRIST’S GREATNESS IS TO INCREASE. He is great now. But He is to be greater still--not absolutely, but relatively--in the magnitude of His Kingdom and the universality of His sway.
IV. ALL MAY PROMOTE THE GREATNESS OF CHRIST. This is the noblest aim of man. Men are willing enough to make themselves great, to get themselves on in the world, to promote their own interests, wealth, glory, and within reasonable limits it is right that this should be so but the privilege of the believer is to transfer his zeal for promoting his own greatness to the promotion of the greatness of Christ. (Bishop Harvey Goodwin.)
The grandeur of Christ
This subject far transcends all utterance. Jesus is such a One that no oratory can ever reach the height of His glory, and the simplest words are best suited to a subject so sublime. Fine words would be but tawdry things to hang beside the unspeakably glorious Lord. I can say no more than that He is great. If I could tell forth His greatness with choral symphonies of cherubin, yet should I fail to reach the height of this great argument. I will be content if I can touch the hem of the garment of His greatness.
I. HE IS GREAT FROM MANY POINTS OF VIEW. I might have said, from every point of view; but that is too large a truth to be surveyed at one sitting Mind would fall us, life would fall us, time would fail us; eternity and perfection will alone suffice for that boundless meditation. But from the points of view to which I would conduct you for a moment, the Lord Jesus Christ is emphatically great.
1. In the perfection of His nature. Peerless and incomparable; Divine, and therefore unique. He is all that God is; and He is all that man is as God created him. As truly God as if He were not man; and as truly man as if He were not God.
2. In the grandeur of His offices. He comes to rebuild the old wastes, and to restore the fallen temple of humanity. To accomplish this He came to be our Priest, our Prophet, and our King; in each office glorious beyond compare. He came to be our Saviour, our Sacrifice, our Substitute, our Surety, our Head, our Friend, our Lord, our Life, our All. He is the Standard-bearer among ten thousand. Who is like unto Him in all eternity?
3. In the splendour of His achievements. He is no holder of a sinecure; He claims to have finished the work which His Father gave Him to do. Is it not proven that He is great? Conquerors are great, and He is the greatest of them. Deliverers are great; and He is the greatest of them. Liberators are great, and He is the greatest of them. Saviours are great, and tie is the greatest of them. They that multiply the joys are men truly great, and what shall I say of Him who has bestowed everlasting joy upon His people, and entailed it upon them by a covenant of salt for ever and ever?
4. In the prevalence of his merits. He has such merit with God that He deserves of the Most High whatsoever He wills to ask; and He asks for His people that they shall have every blessing needful for eternal life and perfection.
5. In the number of His saved ones.
6. In the estimation of His people.
7. In the glory of heaven.
8. On the throne of the Father.
II. “He shall be great,” and He is so, for HE DEALS WITH GREAT THINGS.
1. It was a great ruin He came to restore, great sin that He came to do away, great pardon that He came to bestow.
2. He has great supplies to meet our great wants.
3. He is a Christ of great preparations. He is engaged before the throne, today, in preparing a great heaven for His people; it will be made up of great deliverance, great peace, great rest, great joy, great victory, great discovery, great fellowship, great rapture, great glory.
III. HIS GREATNESS WILL SOON APPEAR. It now lies under a cloud to men’s bleak eyes. They still belittle Him with their vague and vain thoughts; but it shall not always be so. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
The greatness of Christ
The Saviour of men, and the example for all, must be the isolated one, the unparalleled Man in human history. He must be both like us and unlike us--like us in so far as His human nature is concerned: He must be born, He must increase in stature, be in subjection to His parents, and be subject to all the ordinary conditions of human nature as it develops itself from infancy to manhood. In all this He is like us--for otherwise He could not be our pattern and our Saviour. Then, again,He must be unlike us, or how could He be that One whom we are to imitate, and of whose fulness we must all partake? Christ as a Man was unlike all other men. He alone of all great men is the unparalleled One of all history; and the conviction of this truth suggests that more than man is here--more than a great and unparalleled man: it is none other than the “ Sonof the Highest.” (Bishop Martensen.)
The plan of salvation is likened unto a vine which has fallen down from the boughs of an oak. It lies prone upon the ground; it crawls in the dust, and all its tendrils and claspers, which were formed to hold it in the lofty place from which it had fallen, are twined around the weed and the bramble, and, having no strength to raise itself, it lies fruitless and corrupting, tied down to the base things of the earth. Now, how shall the vine arise from its fallen condition? But one way is possible for the vine to rise again to the place from whence it had fallen. The bough of the lofty oak must be let down, or some communication must be formed connected with the top of the oak and at the same time with the earth. Then, when the bough of the oak was let down to the place where the vine lay, its tender claspers might fasten upon it, and, thus supported, it might raise itself up, and bloom, and bear fruit again in the lofty place from whence it fell. So with man: his affections had fallen from God, and were fastened to the base things of earth. Jesus Christ came down, and by His humanity stood upon the earth, and by His divinity raised His hands and united Himself with the Deity of the Everlasting Father: thus the fallen affections of man may fasten upon Him, and twine around Him, until they again ascend to the bosom of the Godhead, from whence they fell. (Watts.)
The higher life
In one of his essays upon the phenomena of nature, Bacon tells of a mountain so high that no storm ever disturbs its air. Its climate knows little vicissitude. The clouds cannot float so high. The sunshine is constant by day, and the night comes late and the morning comes soon. So peaceful is that summit that a traveller having written some words in the white ashes of his camp fire, found the words still there after a score of years had passed. What an Elysian field is that I far above tornado and lightning shafts, and the miasma of the marsh and the battlefields of men. A fable in part, but an emblem of those heights where dwell those mortals who have reached the widest and deepest education and affections and the purest ethics. As in classifying physical beauty we feel constrained to make distinctions between a violet and an oak, or between a cascade with its murmur and mist, and a cathedral with its spire and arches, and between a trailing vine and a range of mountains, and must change our words with the change of feeling in the soul, and to the rose say “beautiful,” to the oak “grand,” “pretty” to the violet, and “ sublime” to the mountain, so we must divide into many parts the attractiveness of humanity, and must confess some to be witty, some pretty, some beautiful, some learned, and then when already the heart is full of admiration it perceives one more class rising above all other grades of mortality--those morally and mentally great. In this grouping all ages may meet. The infinite love of the Creator is in nothing more manifested than in this, that He has made this moral height accessible to all. Not all can be rich, beautiful, witty, young; but all can climb upward to the higher life. It is not the mere privilege of all, but the pressing duty of all. The heights are large, and voices full of mercy and of alarm are bidding those in the valley to “go up higher.” God is represented as being in the holy mountains, and thither He expects His children to come. The heights are everywhere. They are seen in each profession and pursuit. There are merchants who grovel in the mire and whose gains stand for fraud, and there are merchants whose wealth tells of the industry, and growth, and welfare of the people. There are lawyers low and high--lawyers who are always upon the side of criminals, and concerning whose health and presence criminals are said to make inquiry before they plan a new crime; other lawyers, to whom men repair for help when they feel that their cause is just, and the points of law and equity must be placed clearly before jury or bench. There are writers low, and writers who are lofty. The former are witty and verbose in the defamation of character and in detailing the sins of society--these are the remains of human coarseness that are being slowly but steadily eliminated from all written thought, and therefore in greater multitude appear the writers of the pure school whose editorials, or essays, or books, or poems come into all homes as welcome as the beams of the morning sun … Said one of the greatest poets: “ On every height there lies repose.” This peace is not found elsewhere. It is not a sleep, not an easy existence of inaction, but a repose that comes from the sublimity of the landscape, and from the matchless purity of the air. It is not to be wondered at that the human mind, while sitting in the long past ages at the loom of thought, wove for the Deity such an attribute as “ The Highest.” And it is not robe wondered at, that when Christ came with His faultless words and deeds, with His boundless friendship and upper forms of thought, the admiring world felt that He was a Son of the Highest--figures of speech which should be taken up afresh by our far-off age. We have read in the ocean and in the storm and in the stupendous size of the universe, that the Creator has power. We have seen in the marvellous laws of mind and material that He has wisdom. We read the Divine love in the entire pageant of life, animal and rational, and we read the Divine eternity in the awful age of the universe, which drinks up millions of years as the sun dries up dewdrops; but we have omitted to ]earn from the high in thought, and industry, and art, from their eternal beauty and repose, that God is also “ The Highest.” Far above the sun, far above the suns to us unseen, is enthroned the world’s God--the God of all worlds--on a height undreamed of by mortals. His mansions are there. Compared with this summit, the mount in the poetic philosophy of Lord Bacon sinks down and becomes a part of time’s vale of tears. God is on the heights, and all those minds in this lower world which love the higher life arc steadily walking up the slope of this range, hidden now perhaps by mist, but covered with light beyond the clouds. (David Swing.)
Forgotten great ones
What a roll of greatness should we have were there tables of marble, or brass, or gold in which were engraven the names of those who in all times and places have attempted to attain mental and spiritual excellence. It is a sad thought that what is called history is only a page from a vast, grand, but lost, volume. Violence and reckless ambition impressed into service all the chroniclers of the past, and that kind of greatness we see in Christ was not often asked to sit for its picture, It was too high for the surrounding kings and their hosts of sycophants. It would require a whole London of Westminster Abbeys to hold the urns of the noble ones whose very names are forgotten. The loss is great to the present, for many minds see a preponderance of evil in our age, and are not sure that our world was planned by benevolence, to which desponding minds an adequate conception of the continuous glory of man would be a welcome inspiration. There has been a succession of minds on the heights, and these have signalled to each other in all the years of man upon our globe. What ones are visible, are only a few wanderers from the mighty herd. Solon and Moses studied at the Egyptian Heliopolis indeed, but of the many thousands of men always studying there, it cannot be possible that the honours were all borne away by a Hebrew and a Greek. At that educational centre, thousands and tens of thousands came and tarried and went while centuries passed along. It must be that the few names that have come to us are only types of a great army which was scattered over the prolific East. Aspasia was not the only intellectual powerful woman of the age of Pericles. She was the one brought into the foreground by her alliance with a powerful king; others having her education and her beauty and power lived and died in a fame that could not cross the gulf of many centuries. Nor was Cleopatra the only Greco-Egyptian woman who could speak and write in all the tongues of the Mediterranean coast, but she was one made historic by the accidents of crowns and vices, leaving us to assume that there were other women, many who equalled her in learning, and passed far above her in all higher worth. Thus history is only a page out of a lost volume. As those who dig in the sands of the Swiss lakes, or in the deserted cave-homes of man and beast, or who explore the ruins of Mycenae, toss out a few implements or a few carved bones or a few jewels worn once by beauty, so history casts up out of the vast sepulchre where the ages sleep traces only of an absent world. (David Swing.)
Jesus not a fabrication
“We can learn,” says Theodore Parker, “ but few facts about Jesus. But measure Him by the shadow He has cast into the world, and by the light He has shed upon it, and shall we be told, that such a man never lived--that the whole story is a lie? Suppose that Plato and Newton never lived, that their story is a lie; but who did their works, and thought their thoughts? It takes a Newton to forge a Newton. What man could have fabricated a Jesus? None but a Jesus.”
Christ the ideal representative of humanity
It is no use to say that Christ, as exhibited in the Gospels, is not historical, and that we know not how much of what is admirable is superadded by the tradition of the followers. Who among His disciples, or among their proselytes, was capable of inventing the sayings ascribed to Jesus, or of imagining the life and character revealed in the Gospels? Certainly not the fishermen of Galilee; as certainly not St. Paul, whose character and idiosyncrasies were of a totally different sort; still less the early Christian writers, in whom nothing is more evident than that the good which was in them was all derived from the higher source. About the life and sayings of Jesus there is a stamp of personal originality combined with profundity of insight, which, if we abandon the idle expectation of finding scientific precision where something very different was aimed at, must place the Prophet of Nazareth, even in the estimation of those who have no belief in His inspiration, in the very first rank of the men of sublime genius of whom our species can boast. When this pre-eminent genius is combined with the qualities of probably the greatest moral reformer and martyr to that mission who ever existed upon earth, religion cannot be said to have made a bad choice in pitching on this man as the ideal representative and guide of humanity; nor even now would it be easy, even for an unbeliever, to find a better translation of the rule of virtue from the abstract in the concrete than to endeavour so to live that Christ would approve our life. (John Stuart Mill.)
Divine humanity realized in Christ
Dr. Philip Schaff mentions the testimony of Dr. De Wette, one of the ablest and most learned sceptical critics of Germany. After all his brilliant scepticism Dr. De Wette wrote, a few months before his death: “I know that in no other name can salvation be found than in the name of Jesus Christ, the Crucified; and there is nothing loftier for mankind than the Divine humanity realized in Him, and the kingdom of God planted by Him.
And He shall reign--
Christ’s everlasting kingdom
The everlasting kingdom.
There is no reason to doubt that the right and true and the holy shall have the victory. All dominions hostile to Christ must give way. All kingdoms incompatible with His must be dissolved. The kingdoms of this world have their symbols in the lion, the bear, the leopard, and the fourth dreadful and terrible beast: and by a law universally proved, their passions and discord shall precipitate their own destruction. But Christ’s kingdom has nothing anarchical, because it has nothing sinful in it; it has not one element of decay, because into it nothing that defileth can enter. Suns shall grow pale, stars shall become dim; the crescent shall wane, the crucifix shall fall from the hands of him that holds it; and Christ’s kingdom shall extend over all the earth, and all shall bless Him, and be blessed in Him. We see already tokens of that day. I take a bright view of the coming days. What progress do knowledge, science, education, Christianity, the Bible, make everywhere throughout the world at this moment? Do we not see the whole human family drawing nearer to each other? Do we not see the two great nations, America and England, speaking a tongue that promises more and more every day to become the tongue of the whole world? Do we not see all languages, however diversified, becoming reducible to two, three, or four at the very most,--Christians becoming less earthly, and Christianity less alloyed? What are these but the tokens of the approaching glory; voices in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord; messengers sent before to announce that the bridegroom cometh? I see flowers of paradise begin to bloom in many a desert. I see upon all sides the sea of barbarism and superstition begin to ebb, and many a dove take wing, and fly over the length and breadth of the world’s chaotic flood, giving tokens that the Prince of Peace is on His way, warning us that the sound of His approach already breaks upon the ear. Let us hail the twilight; let us urge on, as far as we can, the coming day. (Cummings.)
Christ the key to the world’s history
The great Swiss historian, John Von Muller, gives the result of his life-long labours, extracted, he says, from seventeen hundred and thirty-three authors, in seventeen thousand folio pages, in this striking confession: “Christ is the key to the history of the world. Not only does all harmonize with the mission of Christ; all is subordinated to it. When I saw this,” he adds, “it was to me as wonderful and surprising as the light which St. Paul saw on his way to Damascus, the fulfilment of all hopes, the completion of philosophy, the key to all the apparent contradictions in the physical and the moral; here is life and immortality. I marvel not at miracles; a far greater miracle has been reserved for our times, the spectacle of the connection of all human events in the establishment and preservation of the doctrine of Christ.” (Prof. Henry B. Smith.)
The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee
Of Christ’s Incarnation
These words are the angel’s answer to Mary, who, understanding the angel as speaking of a thing presently to be done before Joseph and she should come together, desires to know how she, being a virgin, should conceive.
1. The angel tells her how she should “ conceive and bring forth a Son,” namely, by the power of the Holy Ghost, which is the power of the Highest, the Spirit of God being the true God, and so the Highest. The way of the Spirit’s powerful working to this miraculous conception, is denoted by two words. One is, that the Holy Ghost should come upon her, not in an ordinary way, as in the conception of all men (Job 10:8, “Thine handshave made me, and fashioned me together round about)”; but in an extraordinary way, as on the prophets, and those that were raised to some extraordinary work. The other is, that the power of the Highest, which is infinite power, should overshadow her, to wit, make her, though a virgin, to conceive by virtue of the efficacy of infinite power, by which the world was created, when the same Spirit moved on the waters, cherished them, and framed the world.
2. He shows what should follow on this miraculous conception, namely, that the fruit of her womb, the child she should bear, should be called “the Son of God.” Where the angel teaches two things.
I. I AM TO SHOW WHO SHE WAS THAT WAS THE MOTHER OF CHRIST AS MAN. Christ as God had no mother, and as man no father. But His mother as man was Mary. She was the seed of Abraham; and so Christ was that seed of Abraham, in whom all nations were to be blessed (Galatians 3:16). She was of the tribe of Judah (Luke 3:33), and of that tribe Christ by her did spring (Hebrews 7:14). She was also of the family of David, as appears by her genealogy (Luke 3:1-38.), and therefore Christ is called the Son of David, as the Messiah behoved to be. She was, however, but a mean woman, the family of David being then reduced to a low outward condition in the world, having long before lost its flourishing state; so that our Lord “sprung up as a root out of a dry ground “(Isaiah 11:1; Isa_53:2).
II. I COME TO SHOW WHAT WE ARE TO UNDERSTAND BY CHRIST’S BECOMING MAN. It implies--
1. That He had a real being and existence before His incarnation. He truly was before He was conceived in the womb of the virgin, and distinct from that being which was conceived in her. “What and if ye shall see the Son of Man ascend up where He was before?” (John 6:62). Yea, He was with His Father from all eternity, before any of the creatures came out of the womb of nothing.
2. That He actually took upon Him our nature. He assumed the entire nature of man into the unity of His Divine person, with all its integral parts and essential properties; and so was made or became a real and true man by that assumption. Hence it is said (John 1:14), “The Word was made flesh.” But though Jesus Christ had two natures, yet not two persons, which was the error of Nestorius, who lived in the fourth century. Again, though “the Word was made flesh,” yet it was without any confusion of the natures, or change of the one into the other: which was the heresy of the Eutychians of old, who so confounded the two natures in the person of Christ, that they denied all distinction between them. Eutyches thought that the-union was so made in the natures of Christ, that the humanity was absorbed and wholly turned into the Divine nature; so that, by that transubstantiation, the human nature had no longer being. But by this union the human nature is so united with the Divinity, that each retains its own essential properties distinct. The properties of either nature are preserved entire. It is impossible that the Majesty of the Divinity can receive any alteration; and it is as impossible that the meanness of the humanity can receive the impression of the Deity, so as to be changed into it, and a creature be metamorphosed into the Creator, and temporary flesh become eternal, and finite mount up into infinite. As the soul and the body are united, and make one person, yet the soul is not changed into the perfections of the body, nor the body into the perfections of the soul. There is a change indeed made in the humanity, by its being advanced to a more excellent union, but not in the Deity; as a change is made in the air when it is enlightened by the sun, not in the sun which communicates that brightness to the air. Athanasius makes the burning bush to be a type of Christ’s incarnation; the fire signifying the Divine nature, and the bush the human. The bush is a branch springing from the earth, and the fire descends from heaven. As the hush was united to the fire, yet was not hurt by the flame, nor converted into the fire, there remained a difference between the bush and the fire, yet the properties of fire shined in the bush, so that the whole bush seemed to be on fire. So in the incarnation of Christ, the human nature is not swallowed up by the Divine, nor changed into it, nor confounded with it: but they are so united, that the properties of both remain firm: two are so become one, that they remain two still; one person in two natures, containing the glorious perfections of the Divinity, and the weakness of the humanity. The fulness of the Godhead dwells bodily in Christ.
3. Christ’s becoming man implies the voluntariness of this act of His in assuming the human nature.
III. I proceed to show that CHRIST WAS TRUE MAN. Being the eternal Son of God, He became man, by taking to Himself a true body and a reasonable soul. He had the same human nature which is common to all men, sin only excepted. He is called in Scripture “man,” and” the Son of man, the seed of the woman, the seed of Abraham, the Son of David,” &c.; which designations could not have been given unto Him, if He had not been true man. The actions and passions of His life show that He had true flesh. He was hungry, thirsty, weary, faint, &c. For certainly if the Son of God would stoop so low as to take upon Him our frail flesh, He would not omit the nobler part, the soul, without which He could not be man. We are told that Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, the one in respect of His body, the other in respect of His soul. The sufferings of His body were indeed very great; it was filled with exquisite torture and pain; but His soul sufferings were much greater, as I observed in a former discourse.
IV. I come now to show WHAT WE ARE TO UNDERSTAND BY CHRIST’S BEING CONCEIVED BY THE POWER OF THE HOLY GHOST IN THE WOMB OF THE VIRGIN MARY. To open this a little three things are to be considered here.
I. The framing of Christ’s human nature in the womb of the Virgin. The matter of His body was of the very flesh and blood of the virgin, otherwise He could not haw been the Son of David, of Abraham, and Adam, according to the flesh. Indeed God might have created His body out of nothing, or have formed it of the dust of the ground, as He did the body of Adam, our original progenitor: but had He been thus extraordinarily formed, and not propagated from Adam, though He had been a man like one of us, yet He would not have ban of kin to us; because it would not have been a nature derived from Adam, the common parent of us all. It was therefore requisite to an affinity with us, not only that He should have the same human nature, but that it should flow from the same principle, and be propagated to Him. And thus He is of the same nature that sinned, and so what He did and suffered may be imputed to us. Whereas, if He had been created as Adam was, it could not have been claimed in a legal and judicial way. The Holy Ghost did not minister any matter unto Christ from His own substance. Hence Basil says, Christ was conceived, not of the substance, but by the power, not by any generation, but by appointment and benediction of the Holy Ghost.
2. Let us consider the sanctifying of Christ’s human nature. I have already said that that part of the flesh of the Virgin, whereof the human nature of Christ was made, was purified and refined from all corruption by the overshadowing of the Holy Ghost, as a skilful workman separates the dross from the gold. Our Saviour was therefore called “ that holy thing “ Luke 1:35). Now this sanctification of the human nature of Christ was necessary.
3. We are to consider the personal union of the manhood with the Godhead. To clear this a little, you would know--
person in the glorious Godhead did take the human nature into a persons! union with Himself, by virtue whereof the manhood subsists in the second person, yet without confusion, as I showed already, both making but one person Immanuel, God with us. So that though there be a twofold nature in Christ, yet not a double person. Again, as it was produced miraculously, so it was assumed integrally; that is to say, Christ took a complete and perfect soul and body, with all and every faculty and member pertaining to it. And this was necessary, that thereby He might heal the whole nature of the disease and leprosy of sin, which had ceased upon and wofully infected every member and faculty of man. Christ assumed all, to sanctify all. Again, He assumed our nature with all its sinless infirmities: therefore it is said of Hebrews 2:17), “In all things it behoved Him to be made like unto His brethren.” But here we are to distinguish between personal and natural infirmities. Personal infirmities are such as befall particular persons, from particular causes, as dumbness, deafness, blindness, lameness, leprosies, &c. Now, it was no way necessary that Christ should assume these; but the natural ones, such as hunger, thirst, weariness, sweating, bleeding, mortality, &e. (Romans 8:3). Again, the human nature is so united with the Divine, that each nature still retains its own essential properties distinct. The glory of His Divinity was not extinguished or diminished, though it was eclipsed and obscured under the veil of our humanity; but there was no more change in the hiding of it, than there is in the body of the sun, when he is shadowed by the interposition of a cloud, And this union of the two natures in Christ is an inseparable union; so that from the first moment thereof, there never was, nor to all eternity shall there ever be, any separation of them.
V. I now proceed to show way CHRIST WAS BORN OF A VIRGIN. That Christ was to be born of a virgin, was prophesied and foretold many ages before His incarnation, as Isaiah 7:14. The Redeemer of the worldbehoved to be so born, as not to derive the stain of man’s nature by His generation. It was most conformable to the infinite dignity of His person, that a supernatural and a Divine person be concerned as an active principle in it. By His being born of a virgin the holiness of His nature is effectually secured. Christ was an extraordinary person, and another Adam; and therefore it was necessary He should be produced a new way. Thus we may be thoroughly satisfied--
1. That Christ had a true human body; and that though He was made in the likeness of sinful flesh, He had not merely the likeness of flesh, but true Luke 24:39; Hebrews 2:14).
2. That He had reasonable soul, which was a created spirit, and that the Divine nature was not instead of a soul to Him.
3. That Christ’s body was not made of any substance sent down from heaven, but of the substance of the Virgin (Galatians 4:4). He was “the seed of the woman” (Genesis 3:15), and the fruit of Mary’s womb Luke 1:42), otherwise He had not been our brother.
4. That the Holy Ghost cannot be called the Father of Christ, since His human nature was formed, not of His substance, but of that of the Virgin, by His power.
5. That though as to the nativity of Christ there was nothing as to the way of it extraordinary, but He was at the ordinary time brought forth as others Luke 2:22-23), and that as a general truth. “A woman, when she is in travail, hath sorrow, because her hour is come” (John 16:21), yet He was born without sin, being “that holy thing.” He could not have been our Redeemer, had He not been so (Hebrews 7:26).
6. That the reason why Christ was born without sin, and the sin of Adam did not reach Him, was because He came not of Adam by ordinary generation, not by the blessing of marriage, but by a special promise after the fall.
I shall conclude all with some INFERENCES.
1. Jesus Christ is the true Messiah promised to Adam as the seed of the woman, to Abraham as his seed, the Shiloh mentioned by Jacob on his deathbed, the Prophet spoken of by Moses to be raised from among the children of Israel, the Son of David, and the Son to be born of a virgin.
2. Behold the wonderful love of God the Father, who was content to degrade and abase His dear Son, in order to bring about the salvation of sinners.
3. See here the wonderful love and astonishing condescendency of the Son, to be born of a woman, in order that He might die in the room of sinners. What great love to sinners, and what unparalleled condescension was here!
4. See here the cure of our being conceived in sin, and brought forth in iniquity.
5. Christ is sensibly touched with all the infirmities that attend our frail nature, and has pity and compassion upon His people under all their pressures and burdens (Hebrews 2:17-18). (T. Boston.)
The life of separation
The question that is uttered by Mary is not for a moment an utterance of incredulity. It is really the utterance of a believer who accepts the message that God has sent her, but who is conscious of difficulties in the way of its fulfilment. “How can I ever “be a mother, how can I ever be a mother of the Messiah Christ? The conditions--the fixed, the unalterable conditions--of my life make that to be for me an impossibility. ‘How can this be, seeing I know not man?’” The words, of course, teach us this truth, that Mary was conscious that there was to the Divine promise and its fulfilment in her what seemed like a mighty barrier. We cannot say for certain whether the old legend is true; but it has always seemed to me that these words of our Lady bear out its truth in a most remarkable way. I refer to the old story that when St. Mary was quite a child she was taken up by her parents to the Temple, and that she there dedicated herself to serve God by a life of separation, and in the state of lifelong virginity, under the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit of Love. And certainly that there was the existence of some such special barrier as this seems to be recognized and confessed in the question we are now considering. For just consider what her position was. She had been already espoused unto an old man called Joseph; and if their union was to have been the marriage union under its ordinary conditions, the message of Gabriel to Mary would simply have been under, stood by her in this way, that she should be, in the course of nature, the mother of David’s Greater Son. We know quite well that one of the great longings of every Jewish maiden down through the ages had been to become the mother of the Messiah; and it was this longing that made the thought of virginity utterly abhorrent to the whole spirit of Judaism. If, then, Gabriel had come to Mary when she was about to enter the married life under ordinary conditions she would never have been staggered by the Divine promise, and would never have seen any difficulty in the way of its fulfilment. In her humility she might have felt unworthy of it, but she would have bowed her head in pure and simple submission, and would have said--not the first--but her second word: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to Thy word.” But what she says is this: “How can this be, seeing I know not man.” What does this lead me to recognize? This fact, that already the love of God had done this for Mary--it had led her to a life of separation, it had led her to deliberately turn away from the state of life which was the common longing of the daughters of Israel; that she had already separated herself from man as a necessary preliminary condition of consecrating herself to God; and that the motive of this had been the love of God. Mary is emphatically revealed to us in the Bible not simply as a woman of devotion, but a woman whose devotion takes especially the contemplative form. “She kept all His sayings and treasured them in her heart;” she was one who was continually looking up at God with the fixed eye of wrapt contemplation; she was the pure in heart, and she saw God. And as she gazed on the vision of God’s beauty and lived in the recognition of God’s love, the love of God took possession of her heart in wondrous fulness and power; and as she gave herself up to be moulded by that love her first response to its working was the response of separation. Now Christian life is always a life of separation. That is its first aspect. We are taught this by the lessons of olden times. If you go back to the history of Israel, the Chosen People could only consecrate themselves to God in the Church in the wilderness and in the land of Canaan when they had come out of Egypt and had been separated from it by the separating waters of the Red Sea. Why, the very term whereby the Christian society is known shows this,--I mean the Greek equivalent to our word “Church.” Now what is the Ecclesia. The Eccleisa is a people called out. Out from what? Out from the world. As long as the present condition of things continues, the Church and the world can never be coextensive terms. The Church will always be found to be an Ecclesia, an election; in other words a people of separation, separate by privilege of course, but separate by responsibility also. And separation is the first essential feature of every true Christian life. In this separation there are two things to be remembered. In the first place, the separation is the act of God. It is God who separates, as He teaches us, when speaking to His people of old He says to them, “Be ye holy, for I am holy, who have separated you to be My people.” God separated His people to Himself, first, by the passage of the Red Sea, and then by the sprinkling of the blood when Moses came down from Mount Sinai. And so it is with us. We are separated by God’s act. The great act of separation with us is the act of Holy Baptism. We have been separated by God’s act, and we are to respond to it now by coming out and by being separate. Separate from what? Now here we must be very careful as we work our way, for we have to avoid two distinct difficulties. We have to avoid practically making the Church and the world the same, and saying that the Church has, so to say, to put a gloss over the world; and, on the other hand, we have to avoid an unpractical, uncommon sense trancendentalism, which is contrary to the example of Christ and the spirit of His gospel. That marvellous Eucharistic prayer of our Lord seems to teach the plain truth about this matter: “I pray not that Thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that Thou shouldest keep them from the evil.” What He prays for is this--not that He may have a people living in absolute isolation from society, but that He may have a people going out into the society of their day, living lives of loyalty to Christ where Christ’s name is denied, living lives of bold obedience to principle while passion sways the conduct of the many. Well, then, what we understand by the world is society as far as it is swayed by passion and desire, and not by principle and loyalty to Christ. In other words, the world is godless and corrupt society; and from that we must come out and be separate. Woe be to us if we fail in loyalty to Christ here. We shall bear, to our own shame before men, angels, and God, the brand of moral cowardice, and a more degrading brand than that cannot be stamped on any man or woman’s brow. Again, what are we to understand by separation? Well, we know in the Jewish days there were different degrees of separation. There was, for instance, the separation of the tribe of Levi for the diaconate, the separation of the family of Aaron for the priesthood, the separation of the Nazarites for a life of special strictness. Then, above all, there was the life of separation which marked off every Jew from the Gentiles as he obeyed the requirements of the Jewish law. So, again, in the Church there are different forms of separation.
I. To mention the highest of all, THERE IS THE SEPARATION TO WHAT WE CALL RELIGION. There are those to whom the voice comes which has found its expression in the 45th Psalm, verses 10 and 11. There is a state of life created by Christ in His Church, to which men and women are attracted to follow Him in poverty, in chastity, and in obedience; and of all forms of separation, that of the religious life is the most intense in its expression.
II. Then, again, THERE IS THE SEPARATION OF PROVIDENTIAL CIRCUMSTANCES. I want to mention three especially.
1. First of all, come family ties. Always think highly of the family. There is no sphere in life in which woman can minister better, in which she can do greater work for God, for the Church, and for those for whom Christ lived and died, than within the limits of the home.
2. Then there are those who are called aside by sickness, those whom God in His wonderful way leads by constrainings that must be submitted to, to a separation not only from the world outside, but sometimes even from the family within. As the world would say, they are apparently useless for life. But Do; they are led by God within the veil. Like the priest of Israel who twice daily entered into the Holy Place, and stood by the alter of incense alone and offered its sweet savour to God; so these are led by God by a wonderful separation to do a higher work than that of ministering, and that is the work of intercession.
3. Then, again, I cannot help thinking that there is a third way in which God separates some in His providential leadings, and that is by a retiring disposition. I do not for a moment say that you ought to give way to that self-consciousness which to many makes intercourse with the world one long agony. But there are many of you who go through life sorely weighted by that shyness, that self-consciousness, which makes you always think that nobody cares for you. It may be that even this temperament is a revelation of the will of God for you, and that by it he has separated you from much social joy and from many opportunities of exercising visibly holy influence, in order that you may be numbered with that hidden band whose ministry is the secret ministry of intercession rather than the ministry of open work. And, believe me, all these family ties, all these providential visitations of sickness and of temperament, are separations created by God, to which it is our wisdom, as it is our duty, to be submissive and obedient.
III. Then, again, THERE IS THE SEPARATION OF OBEDIENCE TO THE INNER LEADINGS OF THE SPIRIT, “We are not under the law, but under grace.” Many, we know, would like to have a definite law telling them what they may do and what they may not. You may go to a concert, but not to a theatre, you may,go to a dinner party, but not to a ball--everything put down as clear as it can be. And we know that in former days Puritanism did attempt something of the kind; but it ended in failure, as it was bound to do. For we have not simply to deal with abstract laws, but we have to deal with individual characters. Cannot you see how it may be harmful for one to go where to another it would not only be not harmful, but positively helpful. So, outside the great Moral Law, God does not lay down any hard and fast rule, He does not legislate for our amusements. He put us under the guidance of the Spirit. Some people go with a clear conscience where others cannot go but with a guilty conscience. The great law of Christian life here is this--always be true to conscience; never allow yourself to do what you believe to be contrary to God’s Will for you, but do not limit another Christian’s liberty by your own rule of conduct or your own conviction as to what is lawful or expedient. Ah! be sure of it, separation will always mark off those whose lives are ruled by principle where lives are generally ruled by passion. What is the great principle that rules conduct in the world? Is it not undisciplined desire? That is the one great thing men live for--to gratify desire. But when Christ really comes into the heart the pain of pains is to grieve Him, and the joy of joys is to please Him, because we love Him. In no mere metaphorical language, we really love Him, and to give Him joy is our joy. How can we henceforth go out into the world and deny Him, and not rather there own Him gladly, by proved obedience to His manifested will? Last of all, love separates in yet another way. Love melts. It first renews, and then inspires, and then it melts. It has often happened even in the love of this world, that intercourse has begun with revulsion, but then love came in after a time, and the one who has been misunderstood is seen as she really is; and then comes grief for all the past, and with that grief comes of necessity the desire for reparation, the ready confession of wrong-doling and full purpose of amendment of life. And so it is with us. We loved not God, we knew not what He was; and then came a revelation of Him in Christ, and then the free gift of His Spirit in our hearts brings upon us a deep grief. I grieve that I should have sinned against a love so great, so long enduring--this recognized love of God melts me down into contrition, it makes me hate all my past life, until continuance in it is an impossibility, it brings me to his feet in confession, it raises me to go forth and show my sorrow for a life conformed to the world in the dead past by separation from the world in the living present. Such is the first thought that we have to notice. The life of a Christian is a life of separation because it is a life lived in the power of the love of God. (Canon Body.)
The miraculous conception
I. THE IMPORTANCE OF THE DOCTRINE AS AN ARTICLE OF THE FAITH. It is evidently the foundation of the whole distinction between the character of Christ in the condition of a man and that of any other prophet. Had the conception of Jesus been in the natural way, His intercourse with the Deity could have been of no other kind than the nature of any other man might have equally admitted; than the prophets enjoyed, when their minds were enlightened by the extraordinary influence of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Scriptures speak a very different language: they tell us, that “the same God who spake in times past to the fathers by the prophets, hath in these latter days spoken unto us by His Son;” evidently establishing a distinction of Christianity from preceding revelations, upon a distinction between the two characters of a prophet of God, and of God’s Son. Moses bore to Jesus, as we are told, the humble relation of a servant to a son. And lest the superiority on the side of the Son should be deemed a mere superiority of the office to which He was appointed, we are told that the Son is “higher than the angels; being the effulgence of God’s glory, the express image of His person; “the God whose throne is for ever and ever, the sceptre of whose kingdom is a sceptre of righteousness.” And this high dignity of the Son is alleged as a motive for religious obedience to His commands, and for reliance on His promises. It is this, indeed, which gives such authority to His precepts, and such certainty to His whole doctrine, as render faith in Him the first duty of religion. But we need not go so high as to the Divine nature of our Lord to evince the necessity of His miraculous conception. It was necessary to the scheme of redemption, by the Redeemer’s offering of Himself as an expiatory sacrifice, that the manner of His conception should be such that He should in no degree partake of the natural pollution of the fallen race whose guilt He came to atone, nor be included in the general condemnation of Adam’s progeny. On the other hand, it were not difficult to show that the miraculous conception, once admitted, naturally brings up after it the great doctrines of the atonement and the incarnation. The miraculous conception of our Lord evidently implies some higher purpose of His coming than the mere business of a teacher. The business of a teacher might have been performed by a mere man enlightened by the prophetic spirit.
II. Having seen the importance of the doctrine of the miraculous conception as an article of our faith, let us, in the next place, consider THE SUFFICIENCY OF THE EVIDENCE BY WHICH THE FACT IS SUPPORTED. We have for it the express testimony of two out of the four evangelists,--of St. Matthew, whose Gospel was published in Judea within a few years after our Lord’s Ascension; and of St. Luke, whose narrative was composed (as may be collected from the author’s short preface) to prevent the mischief that was to be apprehended from some pretended histories of our Saviour’s life, in which the truth was probably blended with many legendary tales. It is very remarkable, that the fact of the miraculous conception should be found in the first of the four Gospels,--written at a time when many of the near relations of the holy family must have been living, by whom the story, had it been false, had been easily confuted; that it should be found again in St. Luke’s Gospel, written for the peculiar use of the converted Gentiles, and for the express purpose of furnishing a summary of authentic facts, and of suppressing spurious narrations. Was it not ordered by some peculiar providence of God, that the two great branches of the primitive Church, the Hebrew congregations for which St. Matthew wrote, and the Greek congregations for which St. Luke wrote, should find an express record of the miraculous conception each in its proper Gospel? Or if we consider the testimony of the writers simply as historians of the times in which they lived, without regard to their inspiration, which is not admitted by the adversary,--were not Matthew and Luke--Matthew, one of the twelve apostles of our Lord, and Luke, the companion of St. Paul--competent to examine the evidence of the facts which they have recorded? Is it likely that they have recorded facts upon the credit of a vague report, without examination? (Bishop Horsley.)
The difficulty of Mary’s situation
It is not, commonly, sufficiently seen what an advance these words are upon the angel’s previous announcement, and how simply appalling they must have sounded to the trembling listener. There had been nothing as yet which suggested a single step beyond the ordinary course of nature, and mothers are proverbially capable of believing in any the most exalted future for their children; but now words had been spoken which proposed to change the whole tenor of her life and being, and demanded little short of an agony of faith. Nay! may she acquiesce without sin? Her betrothal--what can it mean?--is to be ignored, and her child is to recognize no earthly father. What will the world say, that little world--all the more terrible because it is so little--of society in Nazareth? And how shall she break it to Joseph? And, then, she may remember some dreadful story she has overheard her elders tell in low, stern tones; how some betrothed maiden had been suspected of what she herself was now called upon to brave, and how there had been a trial, and she had been pronounced guilty; and then they had brought her out to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city had stoned her to death: the only way, they said, of putting away evil from among them. And she was conscious that she must brave all this, practically, alone; there was no prophet, in her case, who would make himself responsible for her integrity, and explain it all to the people, and give them a sign, and convince them that it was all from God. The angel there before her might be very real to her, but when he has disappeared and left her--people do not very readily believe in angels’ visits to their neighbours; will she ever be quite sure herself? (E. T. Marshall, M. A.)
Rome--her new dogma, and our duties
First, then, WHAT IS THE DOCTRINE? It is, that the Blessed Virgin Mary was herself, by a miraculous interposition of God’s providence, conceived without the stain of original sin. That the nature, therefore, with which she was born into this world was, from the first moment in which she began to exist, not that nature which all inherit who “ naturally are engendered of the offspring of Adam,” but another nature; free from that fault and corruption which, as an hereditary taint, infects every member of the fallen race who is naturally born into this world.
II. And now let us see, secondly, THE PENALTIES UNDER WHICH THIS DOCTRINE IS PROMULGATED. They are those of the Church’s anathema and the condemnation of God. Whosoever henceforth shall deny it is condemned as an heretic. “Let no man,” says the decree, “interfere with this our declaration, pronunciation, and definition, or oppose or contradict it with presumptuous rashness. If any should presume to assail it, let him know that he will incur the indignation of the Omnipotent God, and of His blessed apostles Peter and Paul.”
III. Thirdly, let us consider OUR REASONS FOR OBJECTING TO THIS PROMULGATION. First, then, we object to it as the unlawful addition of a new article to the Creed. And here, first, we must establish that it is such an addition. There can be no mistake as to this matter. Before the promulgating of this decree, any one within the Roman communion might, as she teaches, deny, with St. Bernard and St. Augustine, the doctrine of the immaculate conception of the virgin and be saved; since that 8th of December, whosoever denies it must be lost. It is, therefore, on their showing, anew and necessary article of a Christian man’s faith. Every lawful addition then to the Creed must be made in accordance with these conditions. And now, if we try this newly-propounded article by these conditions, we shall be able to prove its unlawfulness. For, first, it lacks the condition of the assent of the whole body of the faithful. It is assented to neither by the Eastern, nor by our own branch, of the universal Church. It is true that this argument will not weigh with Rome, because, after the exact pattern of the old Donatist schismatics, she claims to be exclusively THE catholic body, and makes, as they did, communion with herself the one condition of communion with her Lord. But to all beyond these comparatively narrow limits, this argument against her intrusive article is of itself unanswerable. But next it falls under the same condemnation, because it is not the old truth held from the beginning, but a new proposition, which was not received by the primitive Church. To prove this, we need but to compare a few of the plainest facts of history with the very words of the decree by which this dogma has been now promulgated. “The Church,” it declares, “has never ceased to lay down this doctrine, and to cherish and to illustrate it continually by numerous proofs, and more and more daily by splendid facts. For the Church has most clearly pointed out this doctrine, when she did not hesitate to propose the conception of the Virgin for the public devotion and veneration of the faithful. By which illustrious act she pointed out the conception of the Virgin as singular, wonderful, and very far removed from the origins of the rest of mankind, and to be venerated as entirely holy; since the Church celebrates festival-days only of the saints.” Here, then, we have
IV. But once more, and above all; since the canon of Holy Scripture was complete, No DECLARATION OF DOCTRINE COULD EVER BE INSERTED IN THE CREEDS, WHICH COULD NOT BE SHOWN TO ACCORD WITH THAT WRITTEN WORD OF GOD. And when tested by this rule, the unlawfulness of this attempt will be most clearly proved. For not only is there no passage which can be alleged as even tending to prove it, but against it stand arrayed the clearest sentences of Holy Writ. “For,” says St. Paul, after examining the case alike of those without the law, as the heathen, or under the law, as the mother of Christ; “For there is no difference, for all have sinned”--and therefore Mary--“and come short of the glory of God; being justified,” not by immaculate conception, but “freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” And again, “There is none righteous, no, not one.” But next
V. we object, not only to any introduction of a new dogma, but we object also in particular to this as, to say the least, HAVING DIRECT TENDENCIES TO HERESY. For it is no mere speculation; it is full of deadly consequences. For, first, if in the course of the Divine process for working out our salvation, our fallen nature was pure from spot of sin in any one before that in the person of Jesus Christ our Lord it was through the operation of the Holy Ghost, sanctified wholly by the union of His Godhead with it, then is that one, and not He, the first fountain of new life to our corrupted race.
This teaching, therefore, points us not to Christ, but to Mary, as the wellhead of our restored humanity; and thus does it directly shake the great doctrine of the incarnation. And then, further, if that nature which He thus took in the womb of His virgin mother was not that which she, like others, inherited from Adam, but one made by God’s creative power to exist under new conditions of original purity, how can we say that He indeed took from her our very nature? Then was that quarry whence was dug that flesh which He united to His Godhead, not of our fallen, but of a new and different, nature; and then is His perfect brotherhood with us destroyed. And yet once more: this last conclusion leads us to another reason why, in God’s name, we protest against this dogma. For it is not merely accidentally that it thus endangers our faith in the true incarnation of our Lord, and points our eyes from Him to His mother as the medium between God and us; but this dangerous delusion is a part, and the crowning part, of a whole system which really places on the Mediator’s throne the virgin mother instead of the incarnate Son. For this is the grand characteristic of the whole Roman system of Mariolatrous imposture. It does confer upon the Virgin Mary the Mediator’s office. The whole system of Rome does make the Virgin Mother the special mediator between God and man. It teaches sinners to look to her as more tender, more merciful, more full of pity, more able to sympathize with their infirmities, than is that true High-priest, who is such as “became us,” because He is fitted by the perfect holiness, and yet true brotherhood with us, of the nature He assumed, “to have compassion upon the ignorant, and upon them that are out of the way.” Amongst all its defacement of the truth of Christ, this is perhaps the plainest and one of the most hideous features of Roman superstition.
VI. Lastly, brethren, suffer me to lay before you SOME OF THE DUTIES WHICH, AS IT SEEMS TO ME, ARE ENFORCED UPON US BY THIS SAD SPECTACLE OF DEEP CORRUPTION WITHIN THE ROMAN CHURCH.
1. The first is that which, however inadequately, I have felt bound to attempt this day to discharge. It is to protest anew against this monstrous effort to corrupt, by man’s additions, the revealed truth of God.
2. Next, surely it is our duty, with all sadness of soul, to make on behalf of those who have so deeply fallen, our humble intercessions with our long-suffering Lord.
3. Again, the sight of this evil surely enforces upon us another duty. For the sake of truth and for the love of souls, we, whose rule of faith is God’s
Word, and whose interpreter of Scripture is true catholic consent, are bound to hold faster than ever to these our real principles.
4. But we have yet another duty, as we contemplate this fearful spectacle; we have to separate ourselves from its evil. (Bishop Samuel Wilberforce.)
Nothing shall be impossible
It certainly is not possible for us to be in a position where omnipotence cannot assist us.
God hath servants everywhere; and, where we think He has none, His word can create a multitude. There are “ treasures hid in the sand,” and the Lord’s chosen shall eat thereof. (C. H.Spurgeon.)
The scorn of impossibility
It is not a lucky word, this same impossible: no good comes of those who have it so often in their mouth. Who is he that says always, There is a lion in the way? Sluggard, thou must slay the lion, then; the way has to be travelled. In art, in practice, innumerable critics will demonstrate that most things are henceforth impossible; that we are got, once for all, into the region of perennial commonplace, and must contentedly continue there. Let such critics demonstrate; it is the nature of them: what harm is in it? Poetry once demonstrated to be impossible, arises the Burns, arises the Goethe. Unheroic commonplace being now clearly all we have to look for, comes Napoleon, comes the conquest of the world. It was proved by fluxionary calculus, that steamships could never get across from the farthest point of Ireland to the nearest of Newfoundland: impelling force, resisting force, maximum here, minimum there, by law of Nature and geometric demonstration. What could be done? The Great Eastern could weigh anchor from Bristol Port; that could be done. The Great Eastern, bounding safe through the gullets of the Hudson, threw her cable out on the capstan of New York, and left our still moist-paper demonstration to dry itself at leisure. “Impossible” he, cried Mirabeau, “ne me dites jamais ce bete de mot” (Never name to me that blockhead of a word). (Thomas Carlyle.)
Behold the handmaid of the Lord
Mary’s quiet acceptance of greatness
Nothing impresses us more than the calmness with which, after the first trouble was past, the virgin received the message of the angel.
She was not dazzled nor excited by her glorious future. She was not touched by any vanity. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord.” In nothing more than in this is the simple greatness of her character displayed. What was the reason of this? It was that the thought of God’s presence with her destroyed all thought of self. She could not think of her greatness otherwise than as bestowed by God. “ He that is mighty hath magnified me.” She could not feel the flutter of vanity. It died in the thought of the glorious salvation which was coming to her country and the world. She was nothing; God was all. Do you want a cure for that false humility, that mock modesty, which says, “ I am not worthy,” and trumpets its denial till all the world knows that an honour has been offered; which, while it says with the lips, “It is too great for me,” feels all the time in the heart that self-consciousness of merit which betrays itself in the affected walk and the showy humility? Would you be free from this folly? Learn Mary’s secret. Feel that God is all; that, whether He makes you great, or leaves you unknown, it is the best for you, because it is His work. Do you want a cure for that unhappy, restless vanity, ever afraid, yet ever seeking to push itself forward; ever shy, yet ever trembling on the verge of impertinence; which shows itself to inferiors in rank in a bustling assumption of superiority which suspects it is not superior, and to superiors in rank by an inquietude, an ignorance of when to speak and when to be silent, sometimes by a fawning submission, sometimes by an intrusive self-assertion? Learn Mary’s secret. Feel that you are the child of God, not the servant or the master of any man, but the servant of Christ, who was the servant of all. Vain! What have any of us to be vain of? Rank? wealth? beauty? pomp of household? dress? splendour of appearance? A few years, and we are lying in the chill earth of the churchyard; our eye dead to admiration, our ear to praise; and the world--whose smile we forfeited eternal life to court--regrets us for an hour, and then forgets. And that is human life! No; it is the most miserable travesty of it. We stand in the presence of God. What are all the adventitious advantages of rank or wealth to Him, or to us in Him? Only the tarnished spangles, the tinsel crowns, the false diamonds, which are the properties of this petty theatre which we call the world. Once be able to say in your heart, “ behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me as He will,” and vanity and all its foolish fluttering tribe of small victories over others, of pushing meannesses, of restless desires, of little ostentations, will abandon your heart for ever. The true greatness, wealth, nobility, is to be at one in character with the everlasting goodness, truth, and love of God; to be great with the magnanimity of Christ, to be rich in all the eternal virtues, to be noble among the aristocracy of the best men. He who possesses these can never be vain, and the way to possess them is the Virgin’s way--to be the servant of God, to do His will. (Stopford A. Brooke, M. A.)
Ready acquiescence in God’s will
How fit was her womb to conceive the flesh of the Son of God, by the power of the Spirit of God, whose breast had so soon, by the power of the same Spirit, conceived an assent to the will of God! and now, of a handmaid of God, she is advanced to the mother of God. No sooner hath she said, “Be it done,” than it is done; the Holy Ghost overshadows her, and forms her Saviour in her own body. (Bishop Hall.)
Mary’s answer exhibits
1. Genuine humility, with joyful faith.
2. Quiet resignation, with active zeal.
3. Faithful love, with unwavering heroism. (Van Doren.)
Reasons for submission to the will of God
I. THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD. It is that of a Father. Whatever we have, it is God’s more than ours.
II. THE RIGHTEOUSNESS AND JUSTICE OF GOD.
III. THE MERCY AND GOODNESS OF GOD.
IV. THE ALL-SUFFICIENCY OF GOD.
V. THE UNCHANGEABLENESS OF GOD. (D. Beaumont.)
The call of God
It was the answer of profound and humble obedience to the greatest call ever addressed from heaven to a mortal creature. Sudden, undreamt of, overwhelming--interrupting in the most startling manner the daily curse of an obscure human life, breaking in on its privacy, and laying on it the most awful of charges--it was a call to prepare for being the instrument of the final and complete accomplishment of God’s highest words and most amazing work. It was a call to be the last link in a chain which, beginning from God Himself, and composed of that august line of chosen souls who in all ages had carried forward His purpose and His promise, was to end in man brought at last to the utmost and most inexpressible closeness unto God--the human mother of the Eternal Son. It was a call to such a pinnacle of unearthly and unapproachable greatness that the consequences involved in it, and the price which it might exact, must have confounded and baffled all anticipation and forethought. What might have to come before the glory, who could conjecture? What might she not have to be, to endure, to surrender, to look forward to, who in a moment learned, in the depth of her obscurity, that she had been chosen, and was called out of all mankind, to be the mother of the “Son of the Highest,” the “Son of God,” the “Christ.” It is idle, it is profane to attempt to imagine the mind and soul of a human being like ourselves at such a moment. In its sudden translation and lifting up out of all the ordinary conditions of human life, in the tides of honour and rapture, of crushing shame and consciousness of the Divine election, of possible sacrifice and certain triumph, it could be like nothing that man has ever gone through. But whatever passed before the thought of that blessed one while the angel’s words were setting before her the lot to which she had been appointed, and the place she was to fill in the eternal history, her instant expression of character was that of absolute self-surrender to all that she was called to--of perfect readiness for all that might be required of her. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, &c.” (Dean Church.)
When Mary uttered these words of sweet and humble sublimity, she at once received the rankling sword-thrust into her soul, and steeped her soul in a balm that healed, and more than healed all possible sword-thrusts. (Professor Warfield.)
The handmaid of the Lord
I. Let your attention be called to THE GRAND EVENT HERE DESCRIBED AND MADE KNOWN. It is clear that He who was to be a perfect sacrifice must have a purer origin than fallen man; supernatural. “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee,” &c.
II. MARY’S ANSWER TO THIS GRACIOUS COMMUNICATION. “Behold the handmaid,” &c.
1. That this obedient saint was using the language and expressing the sentiments of God’s people in all ages. The title of Moses was “ the servant of God” (Daniel 6:20; Psalms 116:16). Ready obedience.
2. We are not less bound to the service of God under the gospel; the titles of servants and handmaids do as much befit us, as they did the people of old. St. Paul and St. James style themselves “servants of God.”
3. A word to those who can say, “Whose I am, and whom I serve.” This is your world of trial, and you may expect difficulties to draw you aside. The Master’s rule is best found in His word, “Be it unto me according to Thy word.” Let us receive with humility and gratitude the entire Word of God. With what delight must the angel have received Mary’s pious answer to his communication: and when he returned and told it in the court of heaven, there would be joy in the presence of the rest of the angels of God: so when your hearts respond to the messengers of grace. (J. Slade, M. A.)
Blessedness of resignation
I have at times caught a glimpse of the comfort which it yields to the spirit when I merge my will into God’s will, when I resolve to have no will of my own separate from God. I feel quite assured that this renunciation of self and entire devotion to God’s service would give a simplicity and grandeur to my existence; would throw an unclouded sunshine over all my ways; would raise me above the cares and provocations of this life; would enhance even my sensible gratifications, and superadd those gratifications of a higher order, which constitute the main and essential blessedness of heaven. O, my God, may it be thus with me! (Dr. Chalmers.)
The life of consecration
As Mary uttered this word, she laid herself upon God’s altar in absolute abandonment to God’s will, that He might do in her, and through her, whatever pleased Him.
I. If we consider the CIRCUMSTANCES THAT PRECEDED AND LED UP TO THIS GREAT UTTERANCE, we shall see, in Gabriel’s conversation with her, three arresting things.
1. Gabriel made clear to her what her vocation was. This is the first condition of a rightly lived life--it must be lived in obedience to the recognition of the vocation of God. Each of us has been created for a definite end, and to fill a special sphere in life.
2. Gabriel’s converse with Mary revealed also the power in which that vocation was to be realized. She must abandon herself to the power of the Holy Ghost.
3. Gabriel indicated also the condition under which alone the Divine vocation could be realized, and that was by the consent of her own will. God could not take possession of Mary without her free response to His call.
II. THE LIFE OF REGENERATION IS OF NECESSITY NOT SIMPLY A LIFE OF NEGATIVE SEPARATION FROM THE WORLD, BUT A LIFE OF POSITIVE CONSECRATION TO GOD.
1. If consecration to God is the condition of a rightly-lived life, since it is an action, it is an action which must take place at some time in our lives. It must be definitely entered into.
2. If this life of consecration is one which we definitely enter into, it must be continuously persevered in. You cannot consecrate yourself in a moment, so as to secure perseverance in a consecrated life. We can only live the consecrated life when, having entered into it by an act of self-surrender, we live in obedience to consecrating grace.
3. The life of consecration must be lived in a God-assigned sphere. If Mary had turned aside from the vocation of God, and with all possible zeal had sought to serve Him elsewhere, and in other spheres than He had appointed, her life would have been a life, not of consecration to God, but one of self-pleasing. For you must remember this, that it is quite possible for a religious life to be a self-pleasing life. We may be apparently leading the most heroic lives of self-sacrifice, and, after all, our lives may be lives of self-pleasing all the time, for they are lived in a self-chosen sphere; and the question which every one who seeks to be consecrated to God must ask himself is this--Lord, where wouldest Thou have me to be? And then--Lord, what wouldest Thou have me to do? And then--Lord, what wouldest Thou have me suffer? We must be where God would have us be, we must do what God would have us do, we must suffer what God would have us suffer, if our life is to be consecrated to God, and not dedicated to self. It is so important that we should remember that all right spheres in life are God-assigned. God calls one man to the priesthood, another to serve Him in lay life; God calls one to religion, another to secular life; God calls one to serve Him in married life, and another to serve Him in single life; God calls one to serve Him in wealth, and another in poverty; but the essential law of living a life of consecration to God is a hearty, generous embrace of the God-assigned sphere of life. Hearty, generous embrace--no mere resignation. What have we Christian people to do with resignation? We have to rise to something much higher than resignation; we have to leap forward in response to Divine vocation, because it is the vocation of God.
III. THE CONDITION OF RESPONDING TO THE DIVINE VOCATION IS ABANDONMENT TO THE HOLY GHOST. What is God’s great purpose in putting us in the sphere of life in which we are? I do not answer this question with dogmatic confidence, but my belief is that the primary purpose of God’s dealing with His people is--formation of character; that we are placed in our spheres of work, wherever they may be, rather for what God means to do in us than what God means to do by us. I know quite well that wherever God places us He means to do a work by us; but--I repeat it--I believe that God’s primary purposes of His dealings withus is not the work He does by us, but the work He wills to do in us.
IV. CONSECRATION IMPLIES PAINFUL SACRIFICE. Mary would naturally shrink back from response to this vocation for two reasons.
1. The call might seem too high for her. How many there are who shrink back from living generous, Christian lives in the world because they think that, if they are really to make up their minds to live lives consecrated to Christ and of loyalty to God “in among the haunts of men,” they will be taking up a position which is too hard and difficult for them to maintain. What underlies many a poor, miserable, dwarfed Christian life is this cowardice which is so common among us. It is undeniably the fact that whole surrender to God does of necessity involve painful consequences; for they who thus give themselves up to God are called to know the fellowship of Christ’s suffering. It is quite true that consecration to God is going to Calvary. Unless we are prepared to know the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings, we cannot really and truly say this second word of Mary’s.
2. But there is another thing that would have made her shrink back from her vocation, and that was the suspicion and calumny that would follow upon her consecration. Ere long men were pointing at her with the finger of scorn, and even Joseph was thinking of putting her away. And one thing is certain--is it not?--that men who go out into the world to try to lead a godly life often find themselves exposed to its calumny. Its hatred of goodness will make it only too ready to believe any scandalous story that is spread abroad about any one who lives for God. It is a fear of the condemnation of the world which holds so many back from God. Yet Mary faced it all; though her response meant such awful nearness to God, though it involved such great sacrifice as to bring upon her intense shame, boldly she said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to Thy word.”
IN CONCLUSION, let me point out how that this life of consecration is the fruit of love. It is love that consecrates. Love is based on gratitude, and Mary recognized the-fact gratefully that God had the right to claim her to use as He willed. “Behold the handmaid,--the slave of the Lord--be it unto me according to Thy word.” “O God, I am Thine handmaid, Thy slave; Thy right over me is absolute; I cannot for a moment refuse to obey Thy voice.” And so it is. God has upon us a threefold claim, each springing from an act of love.
1. The first is the claim of creation. Here we are in God’s world not of our own will, but of His will.
2. But God has a second claim upon us, and that is the claim of redemption. The eternal Christ, the Son of God, came into the world, became the Child of Mary, and passed to the cross. He gave Himself--every portion of Himself--upon the tree for us--His mind, His heart, His will, each member of His sacred body. Behold it quivering upon the cross! Why? That He might buy us for His own.
3. But there is one other reason, and that is gratitude for regeneration. O mystery of mysteries! To think that you and I, sin-stricken as we are, should not only have been redeemed, but that we should have been “married to the Lord!” To think that He who in His humanity is the fairest of God’s creation, should have stooped from the height of His Father’s throne to the deep depths of our fallen state, and not simply have brought us forgiveness, but that He should have embraced us in His arms, and brought us to His sacred heart, and made us with Him one--bone of His bone and flesh of His flesh! To think of this, and all this as within the bounds of truth! Grasp the mystery of regeneration, and what follows? Consecration to God, abandonment to Christ. As the wife consecrates herself to her husband, so the regenerate to the great Bridegroom of the Church. Whole surrender is my duty; whatever He asks, that I yield. Creation, redemption, regeneration--revelation after revelation of God’s love, kindle in my heart gratitude, and then lead me to take myself wholly up to God’s altar and lay myself down there a living sacrifice at God’s feet, as I cry, “ Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to Thy word.” (Canon Body.)
And Mary arose in those days and went into the hill country
The home of Zacharias
Juttah, an ancient priestly town, is held by the Greek Church to be the birthplace of St.
John the Baptist, and as such it is the goal of pilgrimage to thousands of Greek Christians each year. Support to this view is believed to be found in the words of St. Luke, which, in our version, speak of the Virgin Mary as journeying “ into the hill country with haste, to a city of Judah.” This, it is held, should be “ to the town Judah “ or Juttah, since it would be vague in the extreme to speak merely of “a city of Judah.” On this ground, so great authorities as Reland, Robinson, and Riehm think this place was actually the residence of Zacharias and Elisabeth, and the birthplace of the Baptist it is a large stone village, standing high on a ridge; but some of the population live in tents. Underground cisterns supply water, and on the south there are a few olive trees, but the hill and its neighbourhood are very stony, though the vine must in ancient times have been extensively cultivated, since rock-cut winepresses are found all round the village. There are, besides, some rock-cut tombs, which also date from antiquity. But, poor though the country looks and is, the population are very rich in flocks, the village owning, it is said, no fewer than seven thousand sheep, besides goats, cows, camels, horses, and donkeys. The hills everywhere are very rugged and stony, consisting of hard crystalline limestone; but the valleys, which are numerous, have good soil in them, some of them being especially fertile. The vineyards and olive plantations on the west, north, and south of Hebron--for the east side of the town has none--appeared like a great oasis in the desert, though the Negeb is very far from being a desert as things are judged in such a land as Palestine. (C. Geikie, D. D.)
Went into the hill country: Mary’s journey
It will prove an interesting exercise to trace on the map the route which this Jewish maiden must have taken in going down across the plain of Esdraelon, from Nazareth southward. It was doubtless the same general path to which she had been accustomed, from her ordinary journeys to the Holy City, at the solemn annual feasts. But just now her mind was in a strange new frame of feeling. Each familiar locality, so crowded with history and devout reminiscences of her nation’s annals, would, under these present circumstances, make on her imagination a far deeper impression than usual. We must remember this, for it gives help in the interpretation of her song. Out from under the shadows of western hills, she would come into full view of the whole country, quite across to Mount Carmel, on the desolate ridge of which Elijah defied and conquered the priests of Baal. Megiddo, where Josiah lay dying; Jezreel, where Ahab sinned; the brook Kishon, beside which Deborah sang, after Sisera was slain--these were close at her feet. Before long she would arrive at Shechem, and seem to hear the old burden of cursing and blessing echoing from Ebal and Gerizim. Perhaps she paused a moment beside Joseph’s grave; perhaps she sat to rest, and quenched her thirst at Jacob’s well. A little further down she would reach Jerusalem, “beautiful on the sides of the north,” and catch glimpses of the golden-roofed temple shining in the sun. Diminutive Bethlehem next would have to be passed, and her tired feet would tread the lonely path that goes by Rachel’s tomb. Her eyes would roam over the verdured fields where David tended his father’s flocks, and caught the starry figures of the eighth and the nineteenth psalms. And while she lingered on such a spot, she would think of Ruth returning with Naomi after bidding Orpah farewell. Hard hills are those which now she would have to climb, before she could reach the cave of Machpelah, or discover the small houses of Hebron in the distance. Of this we have no detail. But it aids us much afterward to keep it in mind; for it shows how she went thinking all the way to her destination. We meet her first in the story in the presence of Elisabeth, dwelling, perhaps, almost beneath the shade of Abraham’s oak in Mamre. (C. S. Robinson, D. D.)
The power of sympathy
The dialogue is brief; those two women talked together as only two women could talk who perfectly understood each other. Mary heard Elisabeth hay, “Whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Her troubles had been so hard, her joys had been so great, and her silent heart had been so full of both of them, that her relief must have been sudden and overwhelming. When the sweet face of that pure, unmarried maiden saw in the joyous countenance of that incorruptible Jewish matron the sign that she would be welcomed as faultless and true, oh, in that supreme moment, she could answer only with a song, and pour forth her gratitude in nothing less than the inspired numbers of a New Testament psalm! (C. S. Robinson, D. D.)
When serious persons are met together, the example of Mary and Elisabeth teaches them how they ought to be employed. Let not the time be wasted on trifles: but needful and becoming attention being paid to the demands of courtesy and common life, let the concerns of religion occupy a prominent place in their conversation. Such intercourse is most acceptable to God, and will be most advantageous to yourselves.
1. It will be the means of your being better informed, for “ the lips of the wise increase knowledge.”
2. It will operate as a check on all that is evil, and as a stimulus to all that is good.
3. It will give an opportunity of comparing your experience, which will greatly encourage and edify you in the faith and obedience of the gospel.
4. It will elicit many a latent spark of affection and zeal.
5. It will support your mind under temptation, and steel your heart with resolution to act a decided part in life; for it will convince you and keep you in mind that there are some of the same sentiments with yourself, anxiously watching your conduct, and deeply concerned for your stability. Nor can you deem it a light matter that you will find those who will be safeguards to you in the time of prosperity, and will not forsake you in trouble. The hour of sorrow, sickness, dissolution, is drawing on apace--an hour in which worldly associates would withdraw, as conscious of their unfitness for such a scene; or, if they remained, would prove but miserable comforters; but an hour in which those who know and love the truth would delight to stand by you, to suggest comforting and edifying thoughts, and assist in cheering the last moments and smoothing the pillow of death. Seek the society of the pious, and you form a friendship which, although interrupted for a season by death, will be renewed with increased endearment, where infirmity no longer troubles, nor separation divides. (James Foote, M. A.)
Mary’s visit to Elisabeth
The next step taken by Mary is in accordance with the calmest practical good sense, and displays an energy and a control over other minds which must have been uncommon. She resolves to visit her cousin Elisabeth in the mountain country. The place was supposed to be near Hebron, and involved a journey of some twenty miles through a rugged country. For a young maiden to find means of performing this journey, which involved attendance and protection, without telling the reason for which she resolved upon it, seems to show that Mary had that kind of character which inspires confidence, and leads those around her to feel that a thing is right and proper because she has determined it. (Harriet B. Stowe.)
The subordination of personal joys
Remarkable that Elisabeth allowed herself to be swallowed up in the greater icy of Mary. Did not felicitate herself, but pronounced the mother of her Lord blessed among women. Her ecstatic reference to her own babe is in marked consistency with the whole tone of her spirit. These were some of the real blessings of the advent of Jesus Christ. Before He was yet born the promise of His coming sent gladness into human hearts. The mother rejoiced, and her coming child seemed already to share His mother’s ecstasy. All this typical. The coming of Christ should always be associated with the creation of new and higher joys. The exclamation of Elisabeth shows how possible it is for all our tenderest interests and proudest hopes to be absorbed in noble Christian emotion. If ever a woman could be tempted to exalt her own comforts and expectations, so as to shut out from her view the condition of other people, Elisabeth was surely exposed to such a temptation. The case, however, was not one of each woman rejoicing in selfish anticipations of her own happiness; already there was a payment of homage when homage was the price of self-suppression--a beautiful proof this, that the work that was done in the case of Zacharias and Elisabeth was the work of the Holy Ghost. Probably there is no finer test of the religiousness of our spirit than the subordination of our personal joys to the gladness which is demanded by the presence and claims of Jesus Christ. (Dr. Parker.)
The speech of Elisabeth must be regarded as an inspired speech
St. Luke seems to assert as much when he says that she was “filled with the Holy Ghost,” and that she spake out with a loud voice and described the blessed virgin as the mother of her Lord. And observe that in this inspired speech Elisabeth addresses Mary in the very phrase which the angel had already used, “Blessed,” &c. Observe also the manner in which Elisabeth speaks of the blessed virgin’s faith. There is a peculiar emphasis in the phrase, “Blessed is she that believed.” It was her faith, in the one great instance in which it was tried, which made her, as it were, a fellow-worker with God, and gave her the high honour and privilege of being something more than a mere passive instrument in the great work of human redemption. (Bishop Goodwin.)
Happiness communicated doubles itself
The blessed maid, whom vigour of age had more fitted for the way, hastens her journey into the hill-country to visit that gracious matron whom God had made a sign of her miraculous conception. Only the meeting of saints in heaven can parallel the meeting of these two cousins: the two wonders of the world are met under one roof, and congratulate their mutual happiness. When we have Christ spiritually conceived within us, we cannot be quiet till we have imparted out” joy. (Bishop Hall.)
Blest earth, whereon she trod,
Put forth your fragrance sweet:
Blest hills that felt her feet,
The mother with her God.
More blest ye friends, whose guest
She now doth silence break,
Of heavenly things to speak,
And where her footsteps rest.
And blessed is she that believeth,--
Blessedness of firmly believing
Doubting nothing! That is the secret of liberty, of efficiency, of success in every work which is undertaken by men: a confidence in the practicability, in the value of the work, in the Divine authority which imposes it upon us as an obligatory work, and in the Divine providence and power which will bring it to a successful performance.
It is the secret of success, of enthusiasm in any secular enterprise. You see it in the inventor who is perfectly certain of the combination of instruments by which he is to accomplish a certain result--a result which is of value and importance to mankind. Nothing can hinder his endeavour, nothing can obscure or damp his enthusiasm, because he is certain of ultimate success. You see it in the teacher who knows that he has a truth to communicate to men, a truth which it is of importance to them to apprehend and to understand, who is not groping among uncertainties as he speaks it, who is not vaguely feeling after conjectures while he utters it, who is able to affirm it to others, because he has it affirmed in his own intelligent and intuitive spirit--the principle which he is declaring to the world. Kepler said: “God has waited so many centuries for an observer of the heavens, I can wait for years for an interpreter of those observations.” And every man who as certainly knew that he had apprehended truth and had it conveyed to others has been reinforced, inspired by this confidence, and gone to his work doubting nothing. See it in the soldier who knows, because he knows the commander, that the order which has been given is wise, practicable, needful; that no life will be wasted which can be saved, and no endeavour commanded which is not indispensable to the great result. See it in the sailor who trusts his clock and his compass, and is absolutely certain that the sun, of which he takes the meridian observation, will not tell him a lie, but will point out exactly the point on the ocean where the ship at that moment is; and he goes on his course, after his observation, doubting nothing, knowing where he is as exactly as if the commerce of nations had built at that very spot a beacon and had labelled it in immense letters of light in all the languages of the world: “This is at such a point on such a meridian.” He knows as certainly as he could know then, when he has caught the ray of the sun upon his instrument, where he is on the ocean, which to others seems pathless and intricate. Everywhere, then, this confidence is the condition of enthusiasm and of success, and in Christian enterprises, precisely as in secular enterprises, it is a confidence not merely in the usefulness of the work, but in the Divine authority which connects itself with that work, and the Divine care and the Divine affection, the Divine impulse which attend us in our endeavours to perform it. (R. Storrs.)
I. IN THE SIMPLICITY OF ITS NATURE.
II. IN THE IMPORTANCE OF ITS OBJECTS.
III. IN THE SUFFICIENCY OF ITS GROUNDS.
IV. IN THE PROPRIETY OF ITS ACTS.
V. IN THE BENEFITS OF ITS EXERCISE. “Blessed is she that believeth; for there shall be a performance,” and only a performance when we believe. (William Dawson.)
Trust in God
Mary’s faith, astounding in itself, the most supreme example probably of perfect trust in God and absolute self-devotion to Him that human flesh has ever given, was all the more striking to Elisabeth on account of its contrast with the unbelief of her own husband under a far less severe trial. No wonder that when Mary appeared before her spirit-illuminated eyes, she seemed the embodiment of Faith--that modest virgin, with clasped hands, whom Hermas saw in vision, though whom the elect of God are saved, and from whom spring all the Christian graces as fair daughters of a fair mother. Mary is thus, in Elisabeth’s eyes, the most blessed of women, because the most faithful; and it suits well that the first psalm of the New Testament should take the form of a praise of the fundamental evangelical virtue. (Professor Warfield.)
My soul doth magnify the Lord
Mary was on a visit when she expressed her joy in the language of this noble song.
It were well if all our social intercourse were as useful to our hearts as this visit was to Mary. “Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.” Mary, full of faith, goes to see Elisabeth, who is also full of holy confidence, and the two are not long together before their faith mounts to full assurance, and their full assurance bursts forth in a torrent of sacred praise. This praise aroused their slumbering powers, and instead of two ordinary village women, we see before us two prophetesses and poetesses, upon whom the Spirit of God abundantly rested. When we meet with our kinsfolk and acquaintance, let it be our prayer to God that our communion may be not only pleasant, but profitable; that we may not merely pass away time and spend a pleasant hour, but may advance a day’s march nearer to heaven, and acquire greater fitness for our eternal rest.
I. MARY SINGS.
1. Her subject is a Saviour. She hails the incarnate God.
2. Her peculiar delight was that this Saviour was to be born of her.
3. The choice poem before us is a hymn of faith. No Saviour was yet born: nor had the Virgin any evidence as yet, such as carnal sense requires, that He would be. But faith has its music as well as sense--music of a diviner sort. If the viands on the table make men sing and dance, feelings of a more refined and ethereal nature can fill believers with a hallowed plentitude of delight.
4. Her lowliness does not make her stay her song; nay, it imports a sweeter note into it. The less worthy I am of His favours, the more sweetly will I sing of His grace.
5. The greatness of the promised blessing did not give her an argument for suspending her thankful strain. Although she appreciated the greatness of the favour, she did but rejoice the more heartily on that account.
6. The holiness of God did not damp the ardour of her joy. On the contrary, she exults in it. She weaves even that bright attribute into her song.
7. Mark how her strain gathers majesty as it proceeds.
8. She does not finish her song till she has reached the covenant--the softest pillow for an aching head, the best prop for a trembling spirit.
II. SHE SINGS SWEETLY.
1. She praises her God right heartily. Evidently her soul is on fire.
2. Her praise is very joyful.
3. She sings confidently.
4. She sings with great familiarity. It is the song of one who draws very near to her God in loving intimacy.
5. While her song was all this, yet how very humble it was, and how full of gratitude. She wants a Saviour; she feels it; her soul rejoices because there is a Saviour for her. She does not talk as though she should commend herself to Him, but she hopes to stand accepted in the Beloved. Let us take care that our familiarity has always blended with it the lowliest prostration of spirit, when we remember that He is God over all, blessed for ever, and we are nothing but dust and ashes. He fills all things, and we are less than nothing and vanity.
III. SHALL SHE SING ALONE? Yes, she must, if the only music we can bring is that of carnal delights and worldly pleasures. The joy of the table is too low for Mary; the joy of the feast and the family grovels when compared with hers. But shall she sing alone? Certainly not, if this day any of us, by simple trust in Jesus, can take Christ to be our own. If Christ be thine, there is no song on earth too high, too holy, for thee to sing; nay, there is no song which thrills from angelic lips, no note which thrills archangel’s tongue, in which thou mayest not join. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
My soul doth magnify the Lord
The keynote of a choice sonnet. When your own heart is lifted up, then lift up the name of the Lord. Exalt Him when He exalts you. If you cannot magnify God, it is probably because you are magnifying yourself. May the Lord cut self down, and make nothing of you, and then you will make everything of Him. When you sink in your own estimation, God will rise in your esteem.
I. HERE IS AN OCCUPATION FOR ALL GRACIOUS PEOPLE. All who know the Lord, and have been born into His family, may “magnify “ Him.
1. It is an occupation which may be followed by all sorts of people. None are too humble or lowly to do this.
2. This occupation can be followed in all places. The occupation sanctifies the place.
3. It can be fitly performed in solitude.
4. It requires no money.
5. It does not require great talent. The soul may sing, although the voice cannot.
6. It is the grandest occupation that mortals can engage in.
II. A REMEDY FOR SELF-CONGRATULATION. Mary had received a great promise. Nature would have bid her magnify herself; grace taught her to “ magnify the Lord.” Following the prompting of grace, she dealt a deathblow to the temptation to pride, and rendered praise where due.
III. A FRUITFUL UTTERANCE FOR HOLY FEELINGS. This was evidently the overflow of a full soul.
5. Calm thought. Mary’s utterance is full, many-sided, and natural, and yet most spiritual. It breathes the purest and the holiest emotions.
IV. A REASON FOR HOFELFULNESS. It Would be well to be wrapped up in this spirit with regard to everything.
1. Our own providential condition.
2. Our glances into futurity.
3. The salvation of our fellow-men.
V. A GUIDE IN OUR THEOLOGY. This will keep us right. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Rejoicing in God
When Mary speaks here of her soul and her spirit, she means to describe exhaustively the whole inward immaterial being of man--its higher and its lower elements--the seat of reason and personality, as well as the seat of affection; that which we have in common with the lower animals, as well as that which distinguishes us from them as immortal beings. The whole inward being, she says, enters on this work of joyful praise--soul and spirit alike. And the reason is that the human soul is so constructed that contact, real contact, with God affords it the highest pleasure, of which such language as Mary’s is the natural, the unexaggerated, expression. Without God, man, viewed on the highest side of his nature, is but a spent force--incomplete, inexplicable. With God, he attains the complement, the explanation, of his mysterious being. These words express--
I. THE SATISFACTION WHICH MAN’S REASON EXPERIENCES AT CONTACT WITH GOD. God satisfies some of the deepest yearnings of our intellectual nature, e.g
1. The desire to find some common principle and comprehensive law explaining seeming irregularities.
2. The desire to know the real causes of things.
II. THE SATISFACTION WHICH GOD YIELDS TO THE AFFECTIONS OR EMOTIONS.
1. The emotion of awe. God alone is great in Himself, distancing all possible competition.
2. The love of beauty.
3. Filial affection.
III. SATISFACTION TO THE CONSCIENCE. God supports and justifies conscience. He gives to conscience basis, firmness, consistency. He relieves its anxieties. He reconciles by a fuller revelation its questionings about Himself. (Canon Liddon.)
1. Clear eye to estimate God’s works.
2. A glad heart to rejoice in them.
3. A loosened tongue. (Van Doren.)
I. Thankful joy.
II. Humble joy.
III. Hopeful joy.
IV. God-glorifying joy. (Van Doren.)
Mary’s praise is very joyful--“My spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.” The word in the Greek is a remarkable one. I believe it is the same word which is used in the passage, “Rejoice ye in that day and leap for joy.” We used to have an old word in English which described a certain exulting dance, “a galliard.” That word is supposed to have come from the Greek word here used. It was a sort of leaping dance; the old commentators call it a levalto. Mary, in effect, declares, “My spirit shall dance like David before the ark, shall leap, shall spring, shall bound, shall rejoice in God my Saviour.” When we praise God, it ought not to be with dolorous and doleful notes. Some of my brethren praise God always on the minor key, or in the deep, deep bass; they cannot feel holy till they have the horrors. Why cannot some men worship God except with a long face? I know them by their very walk as they come to worship: what a dreary pace it is! How solemnly proper and funereal indeed! They do not understand David’s Psalm--
“Up to her courts with joys unknown,
The sacred tribes repair.”
No, they come up to their Father’s house as if they were going to jail, and worship God on the Sunday as if it were the moat doleful day in the week. It is said of a certain Highlander, when the Highlanders were very pious, that he once went to Edinburgh, and when he came back again he said he had seen a dreadful sight on Sabbath, he had seen people at Edinburgh going to kirk with happy faces. He thought it wicked to look happy on Sunday; and that same notion exists in the minds of certain good people hereabouts; they fancy that, when the saints get together, they should sit down and have a little comfortable misery, and but little delight. In truth, moaning and pining is not the appointed way for worshipping God. We should take Mary as a pattern. All the year round I recommend her as an example to fainthearted and troubled ones. “My spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.” Cease from rejoicing in sensual things, and with sinful pleasures have no fellowship, for all such rejoicing is evil. But you cannot rejoice too much in the Lord. I believe that the fault with our public worship is that we are too sober, too cold, too formal. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
The Magnificat--its structure and contents
A majesty truly regal reigns throughout this canticle. Mary describes first her actual impressions (verses 46-48a): then she rises to the Divine fact which is the cause of them (verses 48b-50): she next comtemplates the development of the historical consequences contained in it (Luke 1:51-53); lastly, she celebrates the moral necessity of this fact as the accomplishment of God’s ancient promises to His people (Luke 1:54-55). The tone of the first strophe has a sweet and calm solemnity. It becomes more animated in the second, in which Mary contemplates the work of the Most High. It attains its full height and energy in the third, as Mary contemplates the immense revolution of which this work is the beginning and cause. Her song drops down and returns to its nest in the fourth, which is, as it were, the amen of the canticle. This hymn is closely allied to that of the mother of Samuel (1 Samuel 2:1-36), and contains several sentences taken from the Book of Psalms. Is it, as some have maintained, destitute of all originality on this account? By no means. There is a very marked difference between Hannah’s song of triumph and Mary’s. While Mary celebrates her happiness with deep humility and holy restraint, Hannah surrenders herself completely to the feeling of personal triumph, in her very first words breaking forth into cries of indignation against her enemies. As to the borrowed Biblical phrases, Mary gives to these consecrated words an entirely new meaning and a higher application. The prophets frequently deal in this way with the words of their predecessors. By this means these organs of the Spirit exhibit the continuity end progress of the Divine work. Every young Israelite knew by heart the songs of Hannah, Deborah, and David; they sang them as they went up to the feasts at Jerusalem; and the singing of psalms was the daily accompaniment of the morning and evening sacrifice, as well as one of the essential observances of the Passover meal. (F. Godet, D. D.)
The Magnificat--external characteristics
It is worth much just in itself as a Christian hymn.
1. Begin with the poetry of it. It strikes us with wonder in these modern days that a peasant woman of Galilee should be able to chant in so exalted a strain. But we know “a pure heart makes the best psalter.” And she was speaking out of the abundance of hers. Yet never was such an occasion, never was such an angelic preparation; never--surely never before--was such a theme! Israel’s Messiah was on His way, God was about to manifest Himself on earth in the flesh!
2. Observe also the Israelitish aspect of the song. It would be easy to parallel almost every expression in Mary’s poetry by an utterance very similar in the anthems of the temple service. The mechanical structure is not very difficult, for the Hebrew and Syrian languages are easily wrought into rhymeless verses. There is extant now a Gospel in Hebrew; those who can read it are interested in noting the idioms followed here in the Magnificat, The mind of this woman was filled with the old prophets’ imagery. Her whole thoughts were tinged with what she had studied and committed to memory. So this song has been exquisitely compared to what might have been expected from “some ideal Puritan maiden,” whose mind was so imbued and saturated with the Scriptural forms of expression, that it would fall unconsciously into inspired phrases when she spoke.
3. Then observe the femininity of this song. No one but the queen of her sex could possibly have composed it. Mark the delicacy of turn in the sentences, the mingling of dignity with humility; the majesty, as sublime as Ezekiel’s, and the tenderness, more gentle than John’s. For this shows the mind and heart of just the one woman whom Elisabeth could call the “Mother of her Lord.” (C. S. Robinson, D. D.)
The Magnificat--internal characteristics
1. Mary’s instant devotion. She does not pause to return Elisabeth’s greeting; she dues net wait to pass back the congratulation; she seems to think only of God above.
2. Her evangelic faith. She felt the need of a Saviour, just as much as any one else. A great word this, Saviour. Here first it appears in the New Testament; the word which the heathen orator said afterward he found on a tomb that he passed on one of his journeys, “Salvator, a new word, but very beautiful as it appears to me.”
3. Her personal humility. How sweetly she says, “He hath regarded the low estate of His handmaiden.” What was this Galilean damsel, poor and lonely now, that she should have been singled out for so exalted a lot? There is in her whole demeanour, during this pathetic part of her history, an unusual poise and serenity. She was not even frightened or abashed by the angel; she meekly received his announcement, neither overcome nor unduly elated in her prospects. As she acquiesced then, she sings now.
4. Her lofty ambition. Her heart rises to its supreme elevation. “From henceforth,” &c. She is glad with her whole heart that the chance is going to be given her to become a blessing. She is peerlessly ambitious, not to De rich, prospered, honoured, famous, but--to do good.
5. Her voluminous praise. Mary makes each Divine attribute in succession record God’s glory in a new light. Holiness, grace, power, justice, beneficence.
6. Her magnificent patriotism. She passes almost unconsciously from God’s attributes to God’s people. The finest thing in the Magnificat is this adoring ascription of praise to God for what He had done for her country and her race. “He hath holpen,” &c. (C. S. Robinson, D. D.)
Mary’s song of praise is--
1. The climax of all the hymns of the old covenant.
2. The beginning of all the hymns of the new. (Van Oosterzee.)
This hymn exhibits deep conviction of the reception of the highest favours combined with personal humility. (C. S. Robinson, D. D.)
All the perfections of God glorified in the gift of the Saviour
6. Faithfulness. (C. S. Robinson, D. D.)
This is the first canticle, or song of praise, recorded in the New Testament, composed by the Blessed Virgin with unspeakable joy, for designing her to be the instrument of the conception and birth of the Saviour of the world. Observe--
1. The manner of her praise. Her soul and spirit bear their part in the work of thanksgiving. As the sweetest music is made in the belly of the instrument, so the most delightful praise arises from the bottom of the heart.
2. The object of her praise. She does not magnify herself, but the Lord; yea, she does not rejoice so much in her Son as in her Saviour.
3. Observe how she admires and magnifies God’s peculiar favour towards herself, in casting an eye upon her poverty and lowly condition; that she, a poor, obscure maid, unknown to the world, should be looked upon with an eye of regard by Him who dwells in the highest heavens. As God magnified her, she magnifies Him.
4. She thankfully takes notice that it was not only a high honour, but a lasting honour, which was conferred upon her, “All generations,” &c. She beholds an infinite, lasting honour prepared for her, as being the mother of a universal and everlasting Blessing, which all former ages had desired, and all succeeding ages should rejoice in, and proclaim her happy for being the instrument of.
5. Observe how she passes from the consideration of her personal privileges to the universal goodness of God. She declares the general providence of God towards all persons; His mercy to the pious, His justice on the proud, His bounty to the poor. Learn, hence, the excellency and advantageous usefulness of the grace of humility; how good it is to be meek and lowly in heart. This will render us lovely in God’s eye; and though the world trample upon us, He will exalt us to the wonder of ourselves and the envy of our despisers.
6. Observe how she magnifies the spiritual grace of God in our redemption--“He hath holpen His servant Israel,” i.e., blessed them with a Saviour, who lived in the faith, hope, and expectation of the promised Messiah; and this blessing she declares was--
The visit of Mary to Elisabeth
In glancing at the Magnificat, observe, first, that it is marked by that peculiar characteristic of Hebrew poetry known as parallelism. Our rhythm is the rhythm of metre, our rhyme is the rhyme of sound. The Hebrew rhythm was the rhythm of clause or statement, the Hebrew rhyme was the rhyme of thought and sentiment; or, as Ewald beautifully expresses it, “The rapid stroke as of alternate wings,” “The heaving and sinking as of the troubled heart.” Hebrew poetry is as much nobler than the classic as rhyme of thought is nobler than rhyme of sound. When will our colleges teach Job, and David, and Isaiah, and Habakkuk, as well as Homer, and Virgil, and Dante, and Shakespeare? Again, observe the intensely Jewish character of the Magnificat, alike in its phraseology and in its reminiscences. Once more, observe how, in the holy strains of the Magnificat, the Old Testament glides into the New. Mary’s cadences are the interlude between law and gospel--at once the finale to the old covenant and the overture to the new--and so linking Sinai and Calvary, temple and church, Moses and Jesus. Very beautiful is the picture, this mutual greeting of aged Elisabeth and youthful Mary; it is the emblem of the mutual greeting of type and antitype, of law and grace. Such is the story of the visitation. All deep feeling is essentially poetical. And as there is a profound relation between devotion and poetry, so there is a profound relation between devotion and music. Accordingly, music is an essential, vital part of public worship. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; in all wisdom teaching and admonishing, one another with psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts unto God” Colossians 3:16). But devotion is even more than a song, it is a life.
And here even the deaf and dumb may sing, singing and making melody in their hearts to the Lord. Oh, how many spiritual Beethovens there are!
There are in this loud, stunning tide
Of human care and crime,
With whom the melodies abide
Of the everlasting chime;
Who carry music in their heart
Through dusky lane and wrangling mart, Plying their daily task with busier feet, Because their secret souls a holy strain repeat. What God is like our God, who giveth songs in the night, turning the raven’s croak into the nightingale’s warble! God be praised! there is such a thing as rhythm of life, an inward life-psalm, and so an outward--heaven the phone, earth the anti-phone. Our heavenly Father, Thy will be done, as in heaven so on earth! The real liturgy, after all, is the service of daily character. (G. D.Boardman.)
Bible contains accounts of three remarkable women whose lips broke forth into a song of pious exultation and profound gratitude. Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1), and Mary, mindful of the honours and benedictions with which she is about to be crowned as the mother of the Messiah. It is a threefold expression of mercy.
I. THIS INCOMPARABLE SONG EMBODIES MARY’S SENSE OF THE DIVINE MERCY SHOWN TO HER PERSONALLY.
II. THE SONG REHEARSES THE DIVINE MERCY TO OTHERS IN GENERAL.
III. THE SONG POINTS OUT GOD’S SPECIAL MERCY TO HIS PEOPLE. (Dr. Dolittle.)
The song of Mary
I. THE PROPHETIC ELEMENT IN IT.
1. That all generations would call her blessed.
2. That her Son would be a blessing to Israel.
II. HER REASONS FOR THANKFULNESS.
1. That God did not regard the conventional distinctions among men (Luke 1:48).
2. The greatness of the blessing (Luke 1:49).
3. That God had cast dishonour on pride and vanity, and had honoured humility (Luke 1:50-52).
4. That God gives favours through His mercy (Luke 1:54), not through His justice, &e. Helplessness is the strongest argument to secure Divine help.
5. Because of the blessing which was to come to Israel through God’s remembrance of His promises (verse 54-55). Her heart had yearned that Zion and her nation might be blessed.” (Preacher’s Monthly.)
A new song
This song is in its substance the fit utterance of all hearts in whom Christ is born the hope of glory. It must never be forgotten that whenever Christ has entered into the human heart, a new song has been put into the mouth of the believer. Christianity in the heart means music in the life. A religion without joy is a landscape without the sun. Christianity without elevation is as an eagle with broken wings. Christianity has given to the world more poems, hymns, anthems, and manifold utterances of triumph and joy than any other influence which has touched the nature of mankind. Truly it has made the dumb man eloquent and turned silence itself into singing; and as for those of low degree and no account, it has in innumerable instances brought them to the front and invested them with supreme attraction and commanding influence. (Dr. Parker.)
The Virgin’s character
1. We have here a type of that character in which Christ is for ever being born. To the pure, the humble, and the unselfish, the Blessedness of blessedness was given. When the angel appeared to her she was troubled at the tidings and the praise. It was the trouble of a beautiful unconsciousness. A rare excellence in man or woman this fair unconsciousness I rarer than ever now. The unconscious life of Mary--what a charm those who possessed it might exercise upon the world!
2. Look next at the Virgin’s quiet acceptance of greatness.
3. Her idea of fame.
4. This large conception of womanly duty this which is the patriotism of the woman, was not absent from the Virgin’s character. She rejoiced in being the means of her country’s blessing (Luke 1:54-55). She forgot her own honour in God, she forgot herself in her country. And this is that which we want in England-women who will understand and feel what love of country means and act upon it. This is the woman’s patriotism, and the first note of its mighty music--a music which might take into itself and harmonize the discord of English society--was struck more than 1800 years ago in the song of the Virgin Mary. (Stopford Brooke.)
I. THE PLEA OF THE PENITENT,
II. THE SONG OF THE SAVED.
III. THE STAFF OF THE PRODIGAL.
IV. THE ANTHEM OF HEAVEN. (Stems and Twigs.)
The beatitude of Mary, the mother of the Lord
These words contain at once--
(a) A prophecy;
(b) a command, because spoken in the fulness of inspiration;
(c) a revelation. Why should all generations call her blessed?
I. THE FIRST BROAD AND GENERAL ANSWER IS THIS: She occupies in one--and that a subject of the highest importance--a unique position as the example.
1. There was a strong and vivid faith.
3. The entire simplicity of self-surrender.
II. The fulfilment of this beatitude is to be found, above all, in THE DIGNITY OF HER OFFICE. Mary was called in the beginning of redemptive love to co-operate, by the grace that was given to her, in the effecting of the mystery of the Incarnation, which is the foundation-truth of Christianity.
III. She was THE MOTHER OF THE SON OF GOD. That strikes the keynote of the beatitude. Beautiful picture always--the mother and her child; and the great prototype is that heavenly vision--nay, that historical reality--Jesus and Mary. Nearness and devotion to Jesus were her beatitude, and may be ours. (Canon Knox Little.)
The Magnificat, as it exemplifies the life of joy
You know the circumstances under which it was uttered. Recall them briefly to mind. In the cottage of the Annunciation the call of God had come to her; she had responded to it; she had given herself by a magnificent act of abandonment into the manipulation of the Divine Hand: “ Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to Thy word.” And even as she spoke--for there is no delay with God--the mystery of mysteries was wrought out, and the Incarnate had taken up His dwelling within her very person, and she was the shrine, the ark, of the Eternal Son of God. It cannot have been that she could have undergone such a crisis as this without its having an effect upon her inner being. Could Christ have been in her without illuminating her intellect, without communicating fervour to her heart, without acting mightily on her will? Who should be the first to taste the reality of the Incarnation? Who but the earthly instrument through whom it is wrought out. Who should first sing the hymn that tells of the thrilling experiences of those who know the touch of the Incarnate? Who but the dear mother in whom He abode. But for the moment her lip is sealed; she cannot speak as yet. There is within her a thought too big for utterance, and she cannot speak of it until she has received some confirmation from without. She has got a secret; with whom shall she share it? With whom but her cousin Elisabeth. She rises and goes from Nazareth into the hill-country with haste, into a city of Judah where Elisabeth is dwelling with her husband Zacharias, and as she enters the house she salutes Elisabeth, and hereupon Elisabeth utters her beatitude, “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Thus the mystery that has been wrought out in her has been by God revealed to another; it is no longer a secret that she must keep to herself; she may share it with another; she may know the joy and sympathy of communicating it to another. As thus the message of Gabriel is confirmed, Mary said, “ My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.” Cannot you follow, step by step, the whole of this wondrous experience that led up to the utterance of this hymn of hymns? And yet how was it that Mary was thus enabled to utter this wondrous hymn? It is an unique hymn. Amidst all the poetic compositions which are the treasure of the world to-day, is there one hymn which in its chaste and wondrous beauty surpasses the Magnificat? Why, its loveliness has attracted generation after generation, and its beauty is as intensely felt to-day as in any previous age of the Church. And who was it who composed it? A poor, simple, peasant maid, probably some sixteen years of age, untrained in all the culture which generally precedes the composition of a hymn so exquisitely perfect and so beautiful as this. Whence was this poor, simple maiden of Galilee enabled to give utterance to a hymn which through eighteen centuries of Christendom has expressed fully, and more than expressed, all the adoring worship of mighty spirits in their vision of the Incarnate God? Mary was taught this undoubtedly by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Yes; but how? By the action of the Spirit upon her whole being, upon her whole nature, her soul, her Psyche, and then upon her spirit, her Pneuma--the emotional and moral part of her nature; and then upon her very lips. Her lips were touched with a live coal from God’s altar, and in perfect language they gave expression to the perfect music of her sanctified inner nature as it thrilled under the touch of the Holy Ghost, “ My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.” What illumination there is in it, how deep she saw into the mystery of the Incarnation, how, above all, was she enabled to look forward and prophetically to foretell its magnificent results! What fervour there is in it, chastened, I know, but how intense! And whence came this rapt fervour that finds expression in this hymn? Surely she who is revealed to us in it cannot be a maiden in her early youth! What a strength there is in it! Whence comes it all but through the action of the Spirit, giving fervour, giving love. Yes; it was the Spirit of God that drew forth from Mary’s nature all the wondrous music that finds expression in her unequalled hymn. And again, what is it that fills Mary with this joy that inspires her with this hymn? What inflames, what energizes her whole being? It is the vision of Jesus Christ. She looks within--not around, not above, but she looks within, and the eyes of herunderstanding, enlightened by the Spirit of God, fall upon the wondrous vision of the Babe indwelling. She is indeed Christopheros--the Christ-bearer. O mystery of mysteries, within her tabernacles the very Eternal Son of God Himself, and every step she treads from Nazareth she bears within herself the burden of her Incarnate God! And as she looks on the Presence of Jesus Christ dwelling within her, her whole being thrills with a joy hitherto untasted by the sons and daughters of men. For her joy is not primarily joy in God as He is in Himself, but it is primarily joy in God Incarnate. Why? There is in Mary, first of all, as she gazes on Jesus, joy in the revelation of the love of God. She knew what God had wrought for man; she knew that God had taken in her very person, lowly as she was, human nature into union with the personality of the Divine Son, and she knew why. Now, if you look at the Magnificat, you will see what were the three elements in her joy in her vision of Christ.
1. She rejoiced in the revelation of God’s saving love.
2. She rejoiced in Christ as revealing God’s ennobling love. “I am high and lifted up, I have been magnified; but my magnificence is an act of God’s grace, it is the result of God’s condescension. God has come to me not simply to set me free from the trammels of sin by His saving love, but, having set me free from sin by His gift of salvation, He has embraced me, He has brought me near to Himself in close and mystic union.” And Mary’s second joy in the vision of her Child was the joyful recognition of her elevation.
3. But more than that, there was in her vision of Jesus a third joy, the joy of union with God, and that a twofold union. First the joy of the union of contemplation. As Mary looked upon Jesus she saw mirrored in Him the beauty of God. There she sees the vision of His might--God is powerful. There is then the vision of His holiness--God’s power is blended with righteousness. There is then the vision of His mercy--it is tempered by His compassion. There is then the revelation of His wisdom underlying His mysterious elections. There is the revelation of His justice, showing that He deals with men according to their moral position. Above all, there is the revelation of His faithfulness, for ever true to His blessed word. And as Mary gazed upon her Son she saw God--God in all the beauty of His perfection, and, as she saw God in Christ, God took possession of her whole being, and she rejoiced in the union of contemplation. But more than that, she rejoiced in her co-operation with Him. As she gazed upon Jesus, she knew that she had responded to God’s call; and, therefore, her life was a life of joy; in the knowledge of her union with her God as His chosen instrument in His great work. And so we learn this great truth, that the life of Mary was a life of joy. Before we con-elude, we may pass on to one other thought in connection with her life of joy--it was not a selfish joy. It is remarkable how, in the Magnificat, Mary begins with her personal experiences, but soon passes on from that to identify herself with the human race. Mary looks ahead and sees what the effect of the birth of her Son is to be on the world, how it is to ameliorate the whole condition of human life, how the oppressed are to be set free from their oppression, the hungry to be fed, the helpless to be assisted. And as she looks forward and sees the effect of the Incarnation on the race, Mary rejoices with the joy of a perfect charity, with the joy of the second Eve of our race, with each member of which she was so specially identified, because she was the mother of Him who is indeed the Son of Man. And so it ever is. Christian life is truly a life of joy. What strikes the keynote of life in the Church? Is it not the Holy Eucharist? What does the term mean? Joy, thanksgiving. It is not penance that strikes the keynote of Christian life. True, as we shall see next week, there is an under-current of the note of penance for ever blending with the thanksgiving of the Church on earth; there is a sorrow that tempers and beautifies its joy; but for all that, it is not at the tribunal of penance that the keynote of Christian life is struck. It is struck at the altar morn by morn, and it rings out there clear and distinct in the Holy Eucharist. We are baptized into Christ that we may live our lives beneath the shadow of the altar; we are baptized into Christ that we may live lives that are true to the Eucharistic note that there is struck; we are baptized into Christ in order that the experience of Mary may be our abiding experience, and the song, Magnificat, be our continuous song. Is it not so? What did Mary rejoice in as she sang Magnificat? In the indwelling of Jesus Christ. And in strange real mystery the blessing of Mary becomes the blessing of her children. Did not our Lord once say--“ Whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is My brother, and My sister, and mother.” What do you understand these words to mean? Are they not words which cannot be fully understood outside the limits of His Church and divorced from the mystery of the Eucharist? But in His Eucharist their meaning is clear and distinct. For what was the privilege of the Incarnation? That Mary was the Christ-bearer. What is the joy of the Eucharist? That we each become a Christ-bearer. “He that eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood dwelleth in Me and I in him. So, then, as we go forth on our way into the world from the altar of God we bear about within us Christ. “I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” (Canon Body.)
The reverence due to the Blessed Virgin
I. CONSIDER IN WHAT RESPECTS THE VIRGIN MARY IS BLESSED.
1. In her the curse pronounced on Eve was changed into a blessing. Eve was doomed to bear children in sorrow, but now this very dispensation was made the means of bringing salvation into the world. All our corruption can be blessed and changed by Christ. The very punishment of the fall, the very taint of birth-sin, admits of a cure by His advent.
2. When Christ came as the seed of the woman, He vindicated the rights and honour of His mother. From that time, marriage has not only been restored to its original dignity, but even gifted with a spiritual privilege, as the outward symbol of the heavenly union subsisting betwixt Christ and His Church.
3. Mary is doubtless to be accounted blessed and favoured in herself, as well as in the benefits she has done us. Who can estimate the holiness and perfection of her who was chosen to be the mother of Christ? If to him that hath, more is given, and holiness and Divine favour go together (and this we are expressly told), what must have been the transcendant purity of her, whom the Creator Spirit condescended to overshadow with His miraculous presence? What, think you, was the sanctified state of that human nature, of which God formed His sinless Son--knowing, as we do, that “what is born of the flesh, is flesh,” and that “ none can bring a clean thing out of an unclean”?
II. This being so, WHY ARE WE NOT TOLD MORE ABOUT THE BLESSED VIRGIN?
1. Scripture was written, not to exalt this or that particular saint, but to give glory to Almighty God. Had Mary been more fully disclosed to us in the heavenly beauty and sweetness of the spirit within her, she would have been honoured, her gifts would have been clearly seen; but the Divine Giver would have been somewhat less contemplated, because no design or work of His would have been disclosed in her history. He would have been seemingly introduced for her own sake, not for His, and we should have been in danger of resting in the thought of her, the creature, more than God the Creator. Thus it is a dangerous thing, it is too high a privilege, for sinners like ourselves, to know the best and innermost thoughts of God’s servants. It is in mercy to us that so little is revealed about the blessed virgin, in mercy to our weakness, though of her there are “ many things to say,” yet they are “hard to be uttered, seeing we are dull of hearing.”
2. The more we consider who Mary was, the more dangerous will such knowledge of her appear to be. Other saints are but influenced or inspired by Christ, and made partakers of Him mystically. But, as to Mary, Christ derived His manhood from her, and so had an especial unity of nature with her; and this wondrous relationship between God and man, it is perhaps impossible for us to dwell upon without some perversion of feeling. For, truly, she is raised above the condition of sinful beings, though by nature a sinner; she is brought near to God, yet is but a creature; and seems to lack her fitting place in our limited understandings, neither too high nor too low. We cannot combine in our thought of her all we should ascribe with all we should withhold. Hence, we had better only think of her with and for her Son, never separating her from Him, but using her name as a memorial of His great condescension in stooping from heaven, and not abhoring the virgin’s womb. Nothing is so calculated to impress on our minds that Christ is really partaker of our nature, and in all respects man, as to associate Him with the thought of her, by whose ministration He became our brother. (J. H. Newman, D. D.)
True womanly fame
A true woman’s thought I For so far as a woman is sincere to the nature God has given her, her aspiration is not so much that the world should ring with her fame, or society quote her as a leader of fashion, but that she should bless, and be blessed in blessing. It is not that she should not wish for power, but that she should wish for a noble, not an ignoble power. It is not that she should not wish to queen it in this world, but that she should wish to queen it, not by ostentation of dress or life, nor by eclipsing others, but by manifestation of love, by nobility of gentle service, by unconscious revelation in her life and conscious maintenance in others by her influence, of all things true and pure, of stainless honour in life, of chivalrous aspiration in the soul. At home or in the wider sphere of social action her truest fame is this, that the world should call her blessed. The music of that thought sounds through every line of the virgin’s psalm. And there is no sadder or uglier sight in this world than to see the women of a land grasping at the ignoble honour, and rejecting the noble; leading the men, whom they should guide into high thought and active sacrifice, into petty slander of gossip in conversation, and into discussion of dangerous and unhealthy feeling; becoming, in this degradation of their directing power, the curse and not the blessing of social intercourse--becoming what men in frivolous moments wish them to be, instead of making men what men should be; abdicating their true throne over the heart to grasp at the kingdom over fashion; ceasing to protest against impurity and unbelief, and giving them an underhand encouragement; turning away from their mission to bless, to exalt, and to console, that they may struggle through a thousand meannesses into a higher position, and waste their Divine energy to win precedence over their rival; expending all the force which their more excitable nature gives them, in false and sometimes base excitements day after day, with an awful blindness and a pitiable degradation; exhausting life in amusements which fritter away, or in amusements which debase, their character; possessing great wealth, and expending it only on self, and show, and shadows; content to be lapped in the folds of a silken and easy life, and not thinking, or thinking only to the amount of half a dozen charitable subscriptions--a drop in the waters of their expenditure--not thinking that without “their closed sanctuary of luxurious peace,” thousands of their sisters are weeping in the night for hunger and for misery of heart, and men and children are being trampled down into the bloody dust of this city, the cry of whose agony and neglected lives goes up in wrath to the ears of God. This is not our work, you say, this is the work of men. Be it so if you like. Let them be the hands to do it; but who, if not women, are to be the hearts of the redemption of the poor from social wrong? As long as the women of England refuse to guide and to inspire, as long as they forget their nature, and think of pleasure instead of blessing, as long as they shut their ears to the agony of the cities of this land, that they may not be disturbed in their luxury, and literature, and arts, so long men will, as they have ever done, take the impulse of their lives from them and do nothing chivalrous, nothing really self-sacrificing, nothing very noble and persistent for the blessing of the world. The regeneration of society is in the power of the woman, and she turns away from it. All future English generations might call her blessed, and she prefers that they should call her fashionable! (Stopford A. Brooke, M. d.)
The Virgin Mary; or, true blessedness
The Virgin Mary is the woman of all others whom truly to contemplate is to revere. She stands alone among the women of the earth. She occupies a position that is unique in the history of the world--the most illustrious of all her sex, “whom all generations shall call blessed.
I. IN DWELLING UPON THE CHARACTER OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN, THERE ARE TWO ERRORS TO BE AVOIDED.
1. The error of the Roman Church--“Mariolatry,” i.e., the exaltation of Mary to a position that no created being can occupy, a position scarcely inferior to that of Christ Himself, the appealing to her to bring her influence to bear on her Son, as though He needed thus influencing, as though any one could be more tender, more compassionate, more truly sympathetic than that all-merciful High Priest, who is “ touched with the feeling of our infirmities,” having been “tempted in all things as we are,” “bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh.”
2. On the other hand, there is the opposite error, which is doubtless a reaction, a recoil from this undue exaltation of the Blessed Virgin--I mean the error of the puritanical school of thought, which, by a kind of rebound, throws itself into the opposite extreme, and, almost dreading the very mention of her name, seems to deny to her the respect which is surely due to her, and which is claimed for her in Holy Scripture.
II. CONSIDER WHAT THOSE SPECIAL VIRTUES WERE THAT SHONE FORTH IN THE VIRGIN MARY, those graces and characteristics that give such beauty to our conception of her saintliness.
1. Humility. The burden of the Magnificat is the greatness of God and her own littleness, the marvellous condescension of “the high and lofty One who inhabiteth eternity,” in stooping so low to visit one so poor and so humble as she was. Humility, what a beautiful virtue it is! and yet how difficult to acquire! How easy it is to mistake it. There are so many spurious imitations of it; there is so much dissimulation in the world that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between a mock humility and the genuine virtue. It is so necessary that the motive be the right one. True humility consists not merely in appearing lowly to others, it is the being lowly, lowly in one’s own estimation, lowly in heart. It is to recognize what God is, and what we are. It is the only garb that befits weak and erring mortals such as we are.
2. Simplicity of character. How much this grace is needed among us--in words, in dress, in demeanour.
3. Faith. “Blessed is she that believed.” Faith, what is it? It is to take God at His word, it is to rest the soul on Him, to trust Him, to surrender the whole being, body, soul, and spirit, to His keeping. A person strong in faith is one who can rise above the poor paltry objects of this earth, and “endure as seeing Him who is invisible.” Conclusion: If we would do the will of God, if we would be blessed as Mary, there must be in us the qualifications that Mary possessed--humility, simplicity, faith. Humility, that God may dwell in us; simplicity, that we may be true children of God; faith, that God’s voice may be heard and obeyed. Oh, how beautiful must such a life as this be! the life of God in the soul--“I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” (Rowland Ellis, M. A.)
Every burst of true religious life is accompanied by its burst of religious poetry. This is marked in our own most popular hymn-books by the names of Luther, Wesley and Whitfield, Keble and Newman. St. Luke’s Gospel shows us that it was so just before our Lord’s appearance. All through that Gospel, indeed, an attentive ear can catch choral vibrations. Its close is anthem-like. But more especially is this the case with its opening chapter. The air is full of song. The whole field is in flower.
I. LET US LOOK AT THE HISTORICAL FRAMEWORK IN WHICH THE MAGNIFICAT IS SET. Mary was misconstrued by the world. She was called upon to bear the cross which is heaviest for the purest souls--a cross of shame. In Nazareth she could not remain. She turned to the spot towards which she seemed to be invited by an angel’s lips, and pointed by an angel’s finger. A light twinkled for her among the hills. If, as seems most probable, Elisabeth lived at Hebron, the journey would be, for a traveller supplied with the best horses of the country, one of seven or eight hours; for one unable to procure such help, about twice that length of time. The journey lies through one of the sternest and wildest routes in Palestine. The solitude is the most desperate which travellers of experience have ever traversed. The scenery is so stern that the very mountains of Moab, touched as they are with a beautiful rosy tint, present a contrast which is almost a relief. At the end of her second or third day’s journey--probably late on the third--lines of blue smoke, piercing a sky touched by the twilight shadows, told the Virgin that she was drawing near to Hebron. The softer and more humanised character of the landscape might insensibly communicate a measure of relief to that aching heart. Yet Hebron was a spot which could scarcely be entered without solemn associations, by one whose spirit habitually breathed and moved in the atmosphere of the Old Testament Scriptures. It not only included the grotto of Machpelah, the last resting-place of Sarah, of Abraham, of Isaac, Rebekah, Leah, Jacob. Its foundation ascended to an antiquity which just exceeded that of Tanis, in Egypt. Long before the Canaanites came, the gigantic shapes of Anakim and Rephaim moved through the primaeval forests by which it was surrounded. The Canaanites gave it the name of Arba, a great warrior of the Anaks (Kirjath-arba). These distant and marvellous recollections must impress the least susceptible imagination. However this may have been, there must have beer a pathos in the quiet worn of the gentle maiden as she saluted Elisabeth. Elisabeth, for her part, knew her cousin’s voice, even before she saw her pale and suffering face. And in the power of the Holy Spirit, the babe within her quickening, and seeming to leap into joyous life, she spoke with a thrilling and exultant voice, that swelled and rang out in ecstatic welcome to the mysterious incarnation into whose presence she was brought. Two thoughts here naturally occur.
1. It was nothing but a brief, unrecorded salutation, probably of one or two words, which drew out the amazing and magnificent acknowledgment, that came home to Elisabeth with the power of the Holy Ghost, and, for a while, stirred her very frame, elevated her spirit, ennobled and transformed the tones of her voice into a rich and stately music. Here, as is so often the case, God’s work is done by an unconscious influence going forth from His servants. Even handkerchiefs and aprons lead to high manifestations of the powers that are lodged in the gospel. When souls are steeped, day by day, in prayer and prolonged realization of the presence of God, more especially when they are in sorrow, or bearing the cross, a sweet contagion goes forth from them. A mere act of common courtesy and affection perhaps, as in the case of Mary’s salutation, touches the deepest spiritual chords in other hearts.
2. It certainly should not be overlooked that, in the presence of the incarnate Lord, Elisabeth’s child leaped and quickened beneath her leaping heart. It is strange, then, that believing people should assume that very young children are necessarily insusceptible of grace. Such an assumption is not reasonable. “The first springs of thought,” said a great philosopher, “like those of the Nile, are veiled in obscurity.” What influences may be made to stir those unknown springs, what elements may be mingled with those obscure waters, we cannot tell, and therefore we are not in a position to deny, in the presence of a counter-affirmation of the Word of God.
II. WE NOW PROCEED TO THE MAGNIFICAT ITSELF. After the prominence given to the loud ecstatic utterance of Elisabeth (verse 42), it seems certain that the delicate pencil of St. Luke presents us with a real contrast in a single word. “And Mary said.” Elisabeth’s utterance and supernatural possession by the Holy Ghost was instantaneous; it was a single and exceptional burst, a momentary elevation. But, during those months, when her very frame was the shrine of the Christ of God, Mary was habitually steeped in the Spirit, habitually absorbed in the great Presence by which she was inhabited. There is a noble quiet in the one word said. But that quiet does not exclude a great and special joy, which gushed up within her soul and spirit at the words of Elisabeth. For those words are pervaded not only by enthusiastic acknowledgment of Mary’s purity, but by enthusiastic recognition of the secret in her soul, of the truth of which she was the favoured depositary. Every one who is possessed by a great unpopular truth, finds that unpopularity one of the severest of trials. He may, indeed, and he must bring it forth to others; but he will be plied with sarcasms in the world, with texts and anathemas even in the Church. There is a joy of the purest and rarest kind, when some one at last says, “The truth which possesses you has taken possession of me also. I understand you.” Such was Mary’s joy when she said, in the rhyme-thought of Hebrew poetry, the second rhythm at once repeating and passing beyond the first--“My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit did exalt upon that God who is my Saviour.” Let us examine the personal traits, and the general religious principles, by which the Magnificat is pervaded.
1. Of these personal traits, humility is, no doubt, the chief. Mary, in the Magnificat, does not profess humility; she practises it. Favoured, indeed, she is. Yet (as the word so translated implies) she has no thought of that which she is--only of that which, in God’s free grace, she has received. In the second line she counts herself among the lost whom He has brought into a state of salvation. Her joy and exultation repose upon that God who is her Saviour. Her woman’s heart does, indeed, throb as it thinks of the cry which arises from the heart of redeemed humanity, as it turns to the grace which she has received--“For lo! from hence on, all the generations shall call me blessed.” But why? “For He that is mighty hath done to me great things, and holy is His name.” “He who hath a gift,” writes an excellent old divine, “and is puffed up by it, is doubly a thief; for he steals the gift, and the glory of it also; and both are God’s.”
2. The religious principles by which the Magnificat is pervaded are these. Mary’s soul is full of faith in the tenderness and power of God--in the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. And she believes intensely in the victory of that Incarnation: in the sure triumph of God. With the instinct of a prophetess, she sees an outline of all history, and compresses and crushes the vast drama into four strong rugged words--still as the rocks, obscure as the mists or troubled sunlights that veil them, the secrets of God, whose meaning men see when a great revolution is over, and which then goes back into silence for centuries again. “He hath put down the lords of dynasties from thrones.” That dethronement includes not Herod only, though it may have begun from the Idumaean usurper. Scribes and Pharisees, men of action and science; pontiffs, powerful with a power not of God; men of action which is not heavenly, and science which is not true; Mary sees them sink, or their thrones stand untenanted, if they stand at all. Not always by the earthquake of war and revolution. In an old Greek city, a modern engineer once remarked a mass of stone, many tons in weight, lifted up for several feet from the ground, and hanging, as if suspended in the air. On looking more closely, he saw that the root of a huge fig-tree had performed this achievement. By exercising an even, continued pressure, every moment of the twenty-four hours, for about three centuries, it had fairly lifted off this stupendous weight. Something of this strong, yet gentle and gradual work is done by the influence of Christianity. A miracle of lifting is performed. The tyrant is hurled from his throne, “not by might, not by power.”
III. WE MAY PROCEED TO DRAW SOME LESSONS, ECCLESIASTICAL AND PERSONAL, FROM THE MAGNIFICAT.
1. It will not, we think, offend those earnest Christians who object upon principle to parts of the English Liturgy, or even to liturgies in general, if we venture--surely in no spirit of offence or controversy--to give expression to the reasons which probably induced our Reformers to retain this poem in the Reformed Prayer-book. A manual of public prayer, they doubtless thought, would scarcely be complete without the Magnificat, and other poems of the New Testament. A Scriptural service should reproduce the Bible essentially. In the Old Testament it should incorporate the Psalms. In the New Testament there are but few Divine songs. But there are some, and surely they are there for good reasons. We can scarcely fail to remark that there is much caprice in the taste for hymns. It is, in the midst of fluctuation and mutability, a great thing to have some hymns in public service whose permanence is insured by their being strictly scriptural.
2. Not without propriety is the Magnificat placed in the public service. It comes after the Old Testament lesson. Now the Magnificat was breathed by Mary with the Old Testament promise fully before the gaze of her soul. “In remembrance of His mercy,” she exclaims, “as He spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.” She stood, as her song stands with us, between the two Testaments.
3. By using the Magnificat we fulfil her own prophecy, “All generations shall call me blessed.” Some, in a superstitious horror of superstition, forget this. She is blessed. Blessed because chosen out from all the mothers of Israel, and of the earth, to an inconceivable privilege. Blessed, because consecrated as a temple for the Eternal Word; by ineffable conjunction, uniting to Himself that human nature which was conceived and born from her.
4. Personal lessons. We may well apply Mary’s words to ourselves for a mercy common to all. Jesus Himself teaches us that her blessedness is ours; that so there is a strange family likeness between us and her (Matthew 12:48-50). In a family which possesses some one specially gifted member, we often see looks of him in others. So the likeness of Christ is reproduced, generation after generation, in all the children of God. Again, praise should be our work. The brute rolling in the dust of our roads is said to have inherited associations of the free desert sands. The dog, scraping and turning before he lies down to rest, similarly acts from a blind reminiscence of progenitors in the prairie grass. Much more do men inherit the instinct of that praise, of which the Magnificat is the purest expression.
Once more, joy and peace are part of our purchased inheritance. When we read or join in the Magnificat, let us see to it, that that peace is ours which will make its words true for us. (Bishop Wm. Alexander.)
The Virgin Mary’s joy
The events in Mary’s life which lead to this burst of joy.
I. The first event to be noticed in her life, IS THE HIGH HONOUR GOD UNEXPECTEDLY PUTS ON HER. We find her, in an earlier part of this chapter, living at Nazareth, a city or town of Galilee. Little, however, is said of her rank or condition there. But suddenly comes down an angel from heaven to her, salutes her as the highly favoured of Jehovah, and announces to her that she is the destined mother of the world’s Saviour. We often tell you, brethren, that there may be many an unexpected affliction and sorrow awaiting you in the future; we may tell you now that there may be too in that future many unlooked for joys and honours awaiting you. These things, like all others, are in the hands of a sovereign God, and in His wise and holy sovereignty He often pours them out abundantly where they are the least expected. “He hath regarded the lowliness of His handmaiden,” says Mary, as though recognizing the pleasure He takes in exalting the humble, and surprising them with manifestations of His love.
II. We see next in Mary’s life THE PAINFUL TRIAL WITH WHICH THIS HIGH HONOUR WAS ACCOMPANIED. One moment’s thought, brethren, will bring this to your minds. The angel appeared to her privately. None saw or heard him but herself. When she tells of his visit and message, who will believe her? and if she is not believed, what in a short time will be her situation: Her character ruined, the world scorning her, her friends mourning over her, and worse--her betrothed husband, the object perhaps of her warmest youthful affections, lost to her, loving her still but casting her off may, her very life endangered, for she will be charged with an offence which, by a Jewish law, is death. Dearly, some would say, will she pay for the honour intended her. But when does God bestow honour on any one without calling on him to pay something for it? We could not bear the Divine mercies, were it not for the afflictions, the sorrows and mortifications, which generally accompany them.
III. Observe next in Mary HER SUBMISSIVE ACQUIESCENCE BOTH IN THE HONOUR AND IN THE TRIAL ALLOTTED HER. Moses, when God Himself appears to him at Horeb, and makes known to him that He has chosen him to be the deliverer of His people, begins to debate the matter with God, telling Him He has made a mistake, and chosen a wrong instrument for the accomplishment of His purpose. “Who am I,” he asks, “that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt? “ Mary rises above it all. The angel delivers his message to her. There is no bidding him pass her by and go elsewhere, no telling him of her unworthiness, no obtruding of herself or her own feelings in any way. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord,” she says: “be it unto me according to thy word.” And that is real humility, which leads us to regard ourselves as God’s servants. But Mary was a thoughtful as well as an humble woman. It is more than probable, therefore, that all the consequences which must naturally follow the honour designed for her, rushed at this moment into her mind. The tone of her answer seems to intimate this. And a word from her, we are ready to say, would have averted these consequences. “Go,” she might have said to the angel, “to my parents, or go to some of my neighbours and friends, or go to Joseph and tell him what is to happen to me. Save those kind hearts from sorrow, and me from shame.” But not a word of the kind comes from her. She looks on honour and dishonour, evil report and good report, with the same calmness. “Come what will,” she seems to say, “be it unto me according to thy word.” We must now look at her joy.
1. It is clear that it was a joy ACCOMPANIED WITH BOTH AFFLICTION AND SUBMISSION. At Nazareth, Mary’s home, all was still dark as before. Ye! Mary is happy; she magnifies the Lord and her spirit rejoices. But what is the promised joy of the gospel? It is abounding joy in abounding tribulation. You must wait, therefore, for your tribulation to abound, before you are warranted to complain or wonder that your spiritual joy does not overflow. But are your trials severe? Then you have to learn that there is no abounding joy for you, till you are perfectly content to have them severe; till your minds are completely reconciled to them; till all murmuring, and rebellion, and impatient struggling to get rid of them, are come to an end. The soul often keeps up a long effort in affliction to make terms with its God. Tribulation must work patience before it can work joy, or hope, or anything pleasant.
2. And this joy before us is A DEEPLY SEATED JOY. “My soul doth magnify the Lord; my spirit hath rejoiced.” It was no superficial, transient pleasure, excited in her by Elisabeth’s words or kindness; it was a joy lodged deeply within her, filling her heart and soul; quickened and called into outward expression indeed by the sympathy she had experienced, but existing in perfect independence of that sympathy and of all outward things. It is evident that, young as she was, she had a mind and feelings of unusual strength. Her joy partook, therefore, of the character of her mind and feelings. It was a powerful joy. Light minds will have light joys They are not spacious enough for the joy of the Holy Ghost to dwell largely in them. A child must not wonder that it can take little or no share in the pleasures of a man.
3. This joy again IS A SINNER’S JOY IS A SINNER’S GOD. It is joy in a Saviour. Holy as she was, she felt herself a sinner; and her highest joy was not in Elisabeth’s kindness, though that must have been at this time a balm indeed to her; nor in the honour the Lord had put on her, though in that she exults; it was in this--that she had found for her guilty soul a mighty, a Divine Saviour. And was there anything wonderful or peculiar in this? Nothing peculiar, for the saints of God in all ages have felt the same. “My heart shall be joyful in the Lord; it shall rejoice in His salvation;” had said her father David long before. The reason is, the Lord in all His dispensations with us deals with us as sinners. There is a peculiarity in His dispensations towards us. He will have a corresponding peculiarity therefore in our conduct and in our feelings towards Him. The worship that He requires of us, is a sinner’s worship; the praise we offer Him, must be a sinner’s praise; and the joy too we feel in Him, will be a sinner’s joy. Nor is this wonderful. Consider what salvation is. It is the restoration of a ruined soul. It is the taking of us from the very gates of hell to heaven. “I would not forget God as my Preserver, my Benefactor, my Comforter, the sole Author and Giver of all my blessings; but if I magnify Him, my soul must magnify Him the most, and if I rejoice in Him, my spirit must rejoice in Him the most, as God my Saviour.”
4. And this also we must notice in this joy--it was A JOY THAT WAS THE FRUIT AND EFFECT OF FAITH. It is as a Saviour that we must chiefly rejoice in Him, and His salvation is a future thing, not one of us has received more than an earnest and foretaste of it. Faith therefore becomes a necessary pre-requisite to joy. It is the eye of the soul, which enables it to discern the beauty, and excellency, and glory, of its unseen God; and the reality, greatness, and certainty, of the salvation and blessings He has promised us. We turn to Mary, and in her we see this faith exemplified. As we repeat her words in our service, we are ready to imagine that they must have come from her with the infant Jesus in her arms, that they were a young mother’s first words of joy over her new-born babe. But that Jesus is as yet unborn. She is singing here a song of almost pure faith. She is placing God’s promises before her mind, and in them she is exulting. And here, brethren, lies the great secret of almost all a Christian’s joy--he is living, not a life of sense, but a life of faith. Many of you look to what you have for comfort and happiness; he looks to what he is to have, to what God has promised him, to what the rolling years are to bring him ages and ages hence. This is no delusion, brethren. It is not, as you may suppose, an ideal thing. It is a real thing. There are those now around you, who could tell you that it is a real thing. The joy of Mary’s soul in God her Saviour, is a joy they can understand as well as you can understand a parent’s joy in his children, or a friend’s joy in his friend, or a thirsty man’s joy in a fountain, or a weary traveller’s joy in his home. It is a joy they have known and felt. (C. Bradley, M. A.)
Magnifying the Lord
“My soul doth magnify the Lord.” Here is an occupation for all of us who know the Lord, and have been born into His family. It is an occupation which may be followed by all sorts of people. This humble woman speaks of her low estate, and yet she could magnify the Lord. All believers, of every rank and condition, can attend to this work. This is an occupation which can be followed in all places. You need not go up to the meeting-house to magnify the Lord, you can do it at home. You may be tossed about upon the sea in a storm, but you may trust His name, and be calm, and so magnify Him. Or, you may be no traveller, and never go a hundred yards out of the village in which you were born, but you may magnify the Lord just as well for all that. This is not an occupation which requires a crowded congregation, it can be fitly performed in solitude. I suppose this sonnet of the Virgin was sung with only one to hear it, her cousin Elisabeth. There is quorum for God’s praise even where there is only one; but, where there are two that agree to praise God, then is the praise exceeding sweet. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Living in God a source of joy
What a blessing is a cheerful spirit! When the soul throws its windows wide open, letting in the sunshine, and presenting to all who see it the evidence of its gladness, it is not only happy, but it has an unspeakable power of doing good. To all other beatitudes may be added, “Blessed are the joy-makers.” I have power in my soul which enables me to perceive God. I am as certain as that I live that nothing is so near to me as God. He is nearer to me than I am to myself. It is part of His very essence that He should be nigh and present to me And a man is more blessed or less blessed in the same measure as he is aware of the presence of God. (John Tauler.)
Joy under unfavourable circumstances
When some of its tribe have migrated to lands where the frost never sets, and the snow never falls, the sweet little Robin with its red breast, and its warm brown plumage, its cheerful chirp, and nimble movements, never seems to lack any good thing, but in frost and snow is daily fed, and is seldom found dead from cold or hunger, or even wearing the appearance of a famished state. The peasants wonder how the robin lives, and in some districts they call it “God Almighty’s bird,” because they suppose that by some special providence it is sustained and fed. There are many like this feathered creature; their outward circumstances always wear a wintry aspect, and yet they are always cheerful, they never complain, they never seem to want any good thing. (Samuel Martin.)
Joyous workers do most for God
Joy. God delights in joy; and His desire for His people is that they should be trustful and joyful--and this both for their own sakes and for His glory. God needs vigorous workers, and He can only have these by bestowing on them a joy adequate to the greatness of the work. In joy the apostles went forth to work for God, and they found that the joy of the Lord was their strength. It is joy then, not sorrow, that is our strength; and they that have done most for God, have been those who have had most joy in God. (H. Bonar, D. D.)
Billy’s whole life was spent in praising the Lord, and for the most part aloud. He couldn’t help himself; with a heart always in tune, every influence, every breath shook from its tremulous chords some note of thanksgiving. “As I go along the street,” he said, “I lift up one foot, and it seems to say ‘Glory!’ and I lift up the other, and it seems to say ‘Amen!’ and they keep on like that all the time I walk.” Probably you would have come upon him singing. “Bless the Lord, I can sing,” he would say; “my Heavenly Father likes to hear me sing. I can’t sing so sweetly as some, but my Father likes to hear me sing as well as those who can sing better than I can. My Father likes to hear the crow as well as the nightingale, for He made them both.” (Life of Billy Bray.)
Happiness of confiding in God
There once lived in an old brown cottage a solitary woman. She tended her little garden, and knit and spun for her living. She was known everywhere, from village to village, by the name of “ Happy Nancy,” She had no money, no family, no relatives, and was half-blind, quite lame, and very crooked. There was no comeliness in her, and yet there, in that homely, deformed body, the great God, who loves to bring strength out of weakness, had set His royal seal. “Well, Nancy, singing again?” would the chance visitor say, as he stopped at her door. “O yes, I’m for ever at it.” “I wish you’d tell me your secret, Nancy. You are all alone, you work hard, you have nothing very pleasant surrounding you; what is the reason you’re so happy?” “Perhaps it’s because I haven’t got anybody but God,” replied the good creature, looking upward. “You see, rich folks like you depend upon their families and their houses; they’ve got to be thinking about their business, of their wives and children; and then they’re always mighty afraid of troubles ahead. I ain’t got anything to trouble myself about, you see, ‘cause I leave all to the Lord. I think, well, if He can keep this great world in such good order, the sun rolling day after day, and the stars shining night after night, and make my garden things come up the same, season after season, He can certainly take care of such a poor thing as I am; and so you see I leave it all to the Lord, and the Lord takes care of me.” “Well, but, Nancy, suppose a frost comes after your fruit-trees are all in blossom and your plants out; suppose” “But I don’t suppose--I never can suppose--I don’t want to suppose, except that the Lord will do everything right. That’s what makes you people unhappy--you’re all the time supposing. Now, why can’t you wait till the suppose comes, and then make the best of it?” “Ah, Nancy, it’s pretty certain you’ll get to heaven, while many of us, with all our worldly wisdom, will have to stay out.” “There you are--at it again,” said Nancy, shaking her head; “ always looking out for some black cloud. Why, if I were you, I’d keep the devil at arm’s length, instead of taking him right into my heart. He’ll do you a desperate sight of mischief.” She was right. We do take the demon of care, of distrust, of melancholy foreboding, of ingratitude, right into our heart. We canker every pleasure with gloomy fear of coming ill. We seldom trust that blessings will enter, or hail them when they come. We should be more childlike to our Heavenly Father, believe in His love, learn to confide in His wisdom, and not in our own and, above all, wait till the “suppose” comes, and make the best of it. Depend upon it, earth would seem an Eden if you would follow Happy Nancy’s rule, and never give place in your bosom to imaginary evils. (Student’s Handbook to Scripture Doctrines.)
The greatest blessedness is to be a follower of Christ
“All generations shall call me blessed.” So sang Mary, when the greatness of her mother-joy was made known to her. Yet her highest blessedness, after all, was not so much because she was the mother, as because she was the disciple, of Jesus Christ. It was a great favour to be His nurse, but a far greater to be His follower. (J. Stringer Rowe.)
In these words we see, as in the song of Hannah, the exaltation of a purely unselfish spirit, whose personal experiences merge themselves in those of universal humanity. One line alone expresses her intense sense of the honour done her, and all the rest is exultation in her God as the helper of the poor, the neglected, the despised and forgotten, and the Saviour of her oppressed country. No legend of angel ministrations or myths of miracle can so glorify Mary in our eyes as this simple picture of her pure and lofty unselfishness of spirit. (H. B. Stowe.)
Christianity and women
The position of yemen in Christian society is directly traceable not only or chiefly to our Lord’s teaching, but to the circumstances of His birth. Before He came woman, even in Israel, was little better than the slave of man. In the heathen world, as in Eastern countries now, she was a slave to all intents and purposes. Here and there a woman of great force of character joined to hereditary advantages might emerge from this chronic oppression--might become a Deborah or a Semiramis, or a Boadicea, or a Cleopatra, or a Zenobia--might control the world by controlling its rulers. But the lot of the great majority was a suffering and a degraded one. But when Christ took upon Him to deliver man, He did not abhor the virgin’s womb. In the greatest event in the whole course of human history, the stronger sex had no part whatever. The Incarnate Son was conceived by the Holy Ghost and was born of the Virgin Mary, and therefore in, and with Mary, woman rose to a position of consideration unknown before, in which nothing is forfeited that belongs to the true modesty and grace of her nature--by which a larger share of influence in shaping the destinies of the Christian races was secured to her in perpetuity. It was the Incarnation which created chivalry and those better features which sweeten our modern life, and which are due to chivalry. (Canon Liddon.)
Greatness of God
When Massillon pronounced one of those discourses which have placed him in the first class of orators, he found himself surrounded by the trappings and pageants of a royal funeral. The temple was not only hung with sable, but shadowed with darkness, save the few twinkling lights on the altar. The beauty and the chivalry of the land were spread out before him. The censers threw forth their fumes of incense, mounting in wreaths to the gilded dome. There sat Majesty, clothed in sack-cloth and sunk in grief. All felt in common, and as one. It was a breathless suspense. Not a sound stole upon the awful stillness. The master of mighty eloquence arose. His hands were folded on his breast. His eyes were lifted to heaven. Utterance seemed denied to him. He stood abstracted and lost. At length, his fixed look unbent; it hurried over the scene, where every pomp was mingled and every trophy strewn. It found no resting-p/ace for itself amidst all that idle parade and all that mocking vanity. Again it settled; it had fastened upon the bier, glittering with escutcheons and veiled with plumes. A sense of the indescribable nothingness of man “at his best estate,” of the meanness of the highest human grandeur, now made plain in the spectacle of that hearsed mortal, overcame him. His eye once more closed; his action was suspended; and, in a scarcely audible whisper, he broke the long-drawn pause--“There is nothing great but God.” (Sermons by Dr. Hamilton.)
God’s continuing mercy
What a comfort to remember that the Lord’s mercy and lovingkindness are to be continued. Much as we have experienced in the long years of our pilgrimage, we have by no means outlived eternal love. Providential goodness is an endless chain, a stream which follows the pilgrim, a wheel perpetually revolving, a star for ever shining, and leading us to the place where He is who was once a babe in Bethlehem. All the volumes which record the doings of Divine grace are but part of a series “to be continued.” (C. H. S.)
An ignominious fall
How proudly in history sounded the name of William the Conqueror I Intimidator of France and Anjou and Brittany, victor at Hastings sustaining the English crown, driving people from their homes that he might have a game forest, making a Domesday Book by which all the land was put under despotic espionage to avenge a joke at his obesity, proclaiming war, trampling harvest-fields and vineyards under cavalry hoof, until nations were horror-struck. But at that apex of renown, while he was riding one day his horse put forefoot on a hot cinder and plunged, wounding the rider against the pommel of the saddle so that he died, his son hastening to England to get the crown before his father’s breath ceased. The imperial corpse, coffinless, carried in a cart, most of the attendants leaving it in the street at a fire alarm, that they might go and see the conflagration. The burial in the church, built by the Conqueror, interrupted by some one who cried: “Bishop, the man whom thou hast praised was a robber; the very ground on which we are standing is mine, and is the site where my father’s house stood. He took it from me by violence to build this church upon it. I reclaim it as my right, and in the name of God I forbid you to bury him here or cover him with my glebe.” “Go up,” said the ambition of William the Conqueror. “Go up by way of a throne; go up by way of criminality; go up by way of revenge.” “Come down,” says God. “Come down by the way of a miserable death; come down by the way of ignominious obsequies; come down in the sight of all nations; come clear down; come for ever down!” (Dr. Talmage.)
Pride the master sin
“Pride is the great master sin of the human heart.” Ruskin says, “In general, pride is at the bottom of all great mistakes.” Napoleon declared, “Pride never listens to the voice of reason, nature, or religion.” “God resisteth the proud.” “Those that walk in pride He is able to abase.” David, Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, and Herod experienced this. (See Daniel 4:5; Acts 12:23.) Charles V. was so sure of victory when he invaded France, that he ordered his historians to prepare plenty of paper to record his exploits. But he lost his army by famine and disease, and returned crest-fallen. A South-American farmer had such large herds of horses, that he boasted, “I’ll never want horses, not even if God wished it.” Soon after, an epidemic destroyed them every one. “He that exalteth himself shall be abased.” (H. R. Burton.)
Pride before destruction
As weeds naturally grow in rich soil, so pride is commonly engendered by prosperity. The devil and his angels when they were in heaven, and desired to usurp the place of God; our first parents when they were in Eden, and aspired to be as gods; Haman when he was the favourite of Ahasuerus, and wished everybody to honour him; David when he became great, and commanded Joab to number Israel that he might know how mighty a king he was;--are Scripture illustrations of pride and its results. Bajazet, Sultan of the Turks about five hundred years ago, was a great conqueror, till at length he was completely defeated by Timur, the Emir and general of the Tartars. In reply to Timur’s question, “ Had you conquered what would you have done with me?” Bajazet haughtily answered, “Put you in an iron cage, and exhibited you wherever I went.” “Proud man,” angrily replied Timur, “it shall be done so to thee;” and for about three years Bajazet was exhibited like a wild beast, till, in his misery, he killed himself by beating his head against the bars of his cage. When the first Napoleon was preparing to invade Russia, a lady, trying to dissuade him, said, “Man proposes, but God disposes;” “Madame,” he proudly answered, “I dispose, as well as propose.” It was remarked that from that time he never prospered. “Great gifts are beautiful as Rachel, but pride makes them barren as she was.” “A proud heart and a lofty mountain are never fruitful.” (H. R. Burton.)
With marked effect Mr. Moody narrated the following incident, communicated to him by Pastor Monod: A friend of mine in Paris said that when Prussia was at war with France, they went out one night after darkness had come to bring in the wounded men. They were afraid to take out lights for fear of getting a bullet from the enemy. When they thought they had gotten all the wounded, and were ready to retire into the city, a man got on the top of a high spot of ground and cried in a loud voice, asking if there were any who wished to be taken into Paris, and telling them the ambulance was ready to go. Before he spoke it was silent; not a voice was heard. But the moment he had ceased speaking, and the men knew that there was help, there was a cry all over the field. I come today to tell you that there is One willing to save, that there is help. Let a cry go up: “Shepherd, save me from death and hell.” This is the gospel.
Copiousness of God’s mercy
God’s pity is not as some sweet cordial, poured in dainty drops from a golden phial. It is not like the musical water-drops of some slender rill, murmuring down the dark sides of Mount Sinai. It is wide as the whole scope of heaven. It is abundant as all the air. If one had art to gather up all the golden sunlight that to-day falls wide over all this continent, falling through every silent hour; and all that is dispersed over the whole ocean, flashing from every wave; and all that is poured refulgent over the northern wastes of ice, and along the whole continent of Europe, and the vast outlying Asia and torrid Africa--if one could in anywise gather up this immense and incalculable outflow and treasure that falls down through the bright hours, and runs in liquid ether about the mountains, and fills all the plains, and sends innumerable rays through every secret place, pouring over and filling every flower, shining down the sides of every blade of grass, resting in glorious humility upon the humblest things--on sticks, and stones, and pebbles--on the spider’s web, the sparrow’s nest, the threshold of the young foxes’ hole, where they play and warm themselves--that rests on the prisoner’s window, that strikes radiant beams through the slave’s tear, that puts gold upon the widow’s weeds, that plates and roofs the city with burnished gold, and goes on in its wild abundance up and down the earth, shining everywhere and always, since the day of primal creation, without faltering, without stint, without waste or diminution; as full, as fresh, as overflowing to-day as if it were the very first day of its outlay--if one might gather up this boundless, endless, infinite treasure, to measure it, then might he tell the height, the depth, and unending glory of the pity of God! The light, and the sun, its source, are God’s own figures of the immensity and copiousness of His mercy and compassion. (H. W. Beecher.)
Power of a true Christian woman
We are told that this sacred visit lasted three months. A mythical legend speaks of a large garden, pertaining to the priests’ house, where Mary was wont to walk for meditation and prayer, and that bending one day over a flower, beautiful, but devoid of fragrance, she touched it, and thenceforth it became endowed with a sweet perfume. The myth is a lovely allegory of the best power of a true and noble Christian woman. (H. B. Stowe.)
Take heed of abusing the mercy of God
Suck not poison out of the sweet flower of God’s mercy: do not think that because God is merciful you may go on in sin; this is to make mercy become your enemy. None might touch the ark but the priests, who by their office were more holy; none may touch this ark of God’s mercy but such as are resolved to be holy. To sin because mercy abounds is the devil’s logic. He that sins because of mercy, is like one that wounds his head because he hath a plaister; he that sins because of God’s mercy, shall have judgment without mercy. Mercy abused turns to fury. Nothing sweeter than mercy, when it is improved; nothing fiercer when it is abused; nothing colder than lead, when it is taken out of the mine, nothing more scalding than lead, when it is heated; nothing blunter than iron, nothing sharper when it is whetted. Mercy is not for them that sin and fear not, but for them that fear and sin not. God’s mercy is a holy mercy; where it pardons, it heals. (T. Watson.)
The Christian’s exaltation
I have read of Ingo, an ancient king of the Draves, who, making a stately feast, appointed his nobres, at that time pagans, to sit in the hall below, and commanded certain poor Christians to be brought up into his presencechamber, to sit with him at his table, to eat and drink of his kingly cheer; at which many wondering, he said, “ that he accounted Christians, though never so poor, a greater ornament to his table, and more worthy of his company, than the greatest peers unconverted to the Christian faith; for when these might be thrust down to hell, those might be his consorts and fellow-princes in heaven.” Although you see the stars sometimes by their reflections in a puddle, or in the bottom of a well, aye, in a stinking ditch, yet the stars have their situations in heaven. So, though you see a godly man in a poor, miserable, low, despised condition for the things of this world, yet he is fixed in heaven. (T. Brooks.)
The coming of Jesus is
1. The exaltation of the lowly.
2. The putting down of the mighty.
3. The satisfying of the hungry.
4. The leaving empty of those who regard themselves as spiritually rich. (Van Oosterzee.)
It is the nature of God to make something out of nothing; therefore, when any one is nothing, God may yet make something of him. (Luther.)
It might be imagined that thoughts like these would be too universal for a simple Jewish maiden. But remember she was espoused to one in whose veins ran the blood of Abraham, whose fathers had been kings in Jerusalem. Joseph was a Hebrew of the Hebrews, and in him she was linked to all the glorious past of her nation. From the hill-top, too, of Nazareth she saw daily the peaks of Hermon, Tabor, and Carmel, and the mist above the distant sea. So wide a prospect is scarcely seen in Palestine; and as the woman walked at eventide, the beauty and glory of her land must have grown deeply into her heart, till love of country was mingled with the life-blood in her veins. And now, inspired with the thought of the blessedness coming on her nation, the whole past and future of her race, from the tents of the wandering patriarch to the church of the Messiah to come, lay before her patriotic eyes, so blessed at last through Him who should be born of her. The heart of the Virgin broke into a song of joy. She forgot her own honour in God who gave, she forgot herself in her country. And this is what we want in England--women who will understand and feel what love of country means and act upon it; who will lose thought of themselves and their finery and their pleasure in a passionate effort to heal the sorrow and to destroy the dishonour, dishonesty, and vice of England; to realize that as mothers, maidens, wives, and sisters, they have but to bid the men of this country to be true, brave, loving, just, honourable, and wise; and they will become so, as they will become frivolous, base, unloving, ashamed of truth and righteousness, if women are so; to be not content to live only for their own circles, and to be self-sacrificing and tender there, but to take upon their hearts the burden of the poor, the neglected, and the sinful, for whom many of the most influential now exercise a dainty distant pity and no more. This is the woman’s patriotism; and the first note of its mighty music--a music which might take into itself and harmonize the discord of English society--was struck more than 1800 years ago in the song of the Virgin Mary.(Stopford A. Brooke, M. A.)
The prophecy of the Magnificat
The Magnificat is recognized, by the judgment and the heart of Christendom, as the noblest of Christian hymns.
1. It is in the third strophe of the hymn that Mary’s feeling seems to attain its highest point of elevation. She has already referred in tender, solemn, and reserved language to the great things which God has done for her. And now she is, as it were, looking out across the centuries at the mighty religious revolution which would date from the appearance of her Divine Son on the scene of human history. She uses past tenses, because she reads off what she sees intuitively, as if it were already history. Gibbon felt the power of Mary’s words, when, as he tells us in his autobiography, he sat musing amid the ruins of the Capitol, while they were chanting the vesper service in what had once beta the Temple of Jupiter; and the idea of writing the Decline and Fall of the city first presented itself to his mind. That which met his eye was a comment on the language of the Magnificat, as it fell upon his ear: “He hath put down the mighty from their thrones.” Pagan Rome was succeeded by Christian Europe; and since that astonishing revolution, the last clause of this strophe of Mary’s song has been continually fulfilling itself. The old civilizations receive nothing, century after century, from the Master of the feast; while simple and comparatively rude peoples, such as the New Zealanders and the Melanesians, are brought into the fold of Christ, and filled with the good things of the everlasting gospel.
2. But while we may thus with fair probability connect these clauses of the Magnificat with successive stages in the history of the Church, it is unquestionable that they are or may be in course of fulfilment, at any one period and simultaneously; that each and all of them is or may be realized perfectly in every age. The “proud,” the “mighty,” the “rich” of the Incarnation hymn are always here; to be scattered by the arm of God; to be put down from their thrones; to be sent empty away. This is true in the private and spiritual, as well as in the political and public sphere. And the question arises, why is it true? Why is there this intrinsic antagonism between the revelation of God on the one hand, and so much that is characteristic of human nature and energy on the other? The answer is, that Christianity presupposes in man the existence of an immense want, which it undertakes to satisfy; and further, that this want is so serious and imperative, that all honest natures must crave for its satisfaction. Happy they who in this world experience the sentence of the Magnificat; in whom pride and self-reliance is put down from its seat, and spiritual hunger is rewarded; who discover ere it is too late that they are poor and blind and naked, and who take the Divine counsel to buy raiment and fine gold and eyesalve from the Son of Man.
3. It would be easy to show how intimately our prospects of improvement in all departments of human activity and life must depend upon our faith in the continuous fulfilment of the words of the Magnificat. The temper which is there fore-doomed is in reality the great obstacle to the attainment of our best hopes for the future. (Canon Liddon.)
The hungry and the rich
Mary has, as she sings, two classes of persons before her--the hungry and the rich. She employs these words in their spiritual meaning. By the hungry Mary means those who have a sense of spiritual need, those who are dissatisfied with their present attainments. By the rich she means those who are conscious of no want, the self-satisfied.
I. THE REWARD OF SPIRITUAL HUNGER. “He hath filled,” &c. Mary touches upon a principle of very wide range, applicable to the needs of mental, of moral, and of physical life. If a living being is to benefit by nourishment in body, mind, or spirit, there must be the appetite, the desire for it. The soul must desire God as its true life, if God is to enlighten and strengthen it. Without this desire He will do nothing for it. It will be sent empty away. The one condition of true spiritual enrichment is a humble, earnest, persistent desire for the graces which God has to give.
II. THE PUNISHMENT OF SPIRITUAL SELF-SATISFACTION--“Sent empty away.” The “rich” were the most numerous class in the days of the Incarnation. The people did not--the mass of them--feel any sense of religious want, but were very well content with themselves. There was but a small minority who waited for the consolation of Israel. The rich still abound in the race of Israel.
III. A man, to have the presence of God in his soul, must FEEL HIS NEED OF GOD--he must be hungry. God gives to every creature a sort of preliminary endowment which creates in the soul a longing for Himself. The vast differences between man and man in later life depend upon almost unobserved acts which encourage or repress spiritual hunger in early years. Like other tastes, a hunger for spiritual things is strengthened by exercise--weakened by neglect. We cannot afford the eternal loss of God. Let usask Him to give us a strong desire to enjoy Him for ever. (Canon Liddon.)
Now Elisabeth’s full time came that she should he delivered
The nativity of John the Baptist
That which was miraculous at the beginning became natural towards the close.
This is seen in the case of Elisabeth, as recorded in the fifty-seventh verse. True also of spiritual generation. Begins in mystery and proceeds to prove itself by all that is practical in behaviour. The work of the Holy Ghost in the heart of man can never be explained; it will ever be as miraculous as the overshadowing of Mary, or the overruling of nature in the case of Elisabeth; but, as the motherhood of Mary and Elisabeth was never doubted, so Christian life in all its tempers and charities will establish itself in the confidence of men notwithstanding the miracle in which the new life began. The neighbours and cousins of Elisabeth were proceeding upon the usual plan of naming the child. They would have dragged down the miraculous to the ordinary, and surrounded this speciality of Divine favour with all that was ancient and traditional in the family. They knew not that another and better kindred was about to be inaugurated, and in fact that the whole law of kinship was about to undergo revolution and sanctification. Think of the particularity of Divine providence in giving this child’s name. Did not God say unto Moses, “I know thee by name”? Did not Jesus call Zacchaeus by name? Could not God give every child his name, as well as number the hairs of his head, and take charge of all his going in the world? Zacharias confirmed the decision of Elisabeth, and so determined the name of the child, notwithstanding the wonder and apparent opposition of the neighbours and cousins. When the mouth of Zacharias was opened, the language of praise and exultation seemed to pour from his grateful and thankful lips like a river which for a season had been impeded. This speech gives us insight into the meaning of inspiration, for it is distinctly said that Zacharias was filled with the Holy Ghost and prophesied. What then is the meaning of Divine inspiration? Mark the pure and sublime religiousness of the speech. From beginning to end it lives and glows with the name of God. Any professed inspiration that leads men down to superficiality and contracted views of life, and to the praise of secondary causes, is presumptively false. Any inspiration that leads men to profounder reverence, to higher aspiration, to nobler charity, is presumptive]y true. The inspiration of Zacharias recognized most emphatically the preceding inspiration with which God had favoured His Church. Zacharias seems to be standing in the midst of that summer of which Old Testament times were but the spring. And as, on the one hand, his inspiration seemed to contract the past until Abraham lived but yesterday; so, on the other, it contracts the future, and makes John already the full-grown messenger and herald of the Messiah. This is what inspiration does for a man; when it does less it may be suspected or denied. The child grew! The child waxed strong in spirit 1 The child lingered in the deeper parts of the wilderness until the time of his showing forth unto Israel had ripened! “He that believeth shall not make haste.” The days we spend in silence and obscurity are not wasted, for what man ought to hasten into the Lord’s work as if the Lord had been waiting for him in the weakness of impatience? We shall be better prophets as we become better students. In the silent time we are gathering elements, consolidating character, and undergoing discipline, all of which will be wanted when the trumpet calls us to the battle. (Dr. Parker.)
The birth and training of John the Baptist
Such is the story of the birth and training of the Harbinger. The story suggests many lessons. I will mention but two.
I. It is a fine illustration of the proverb, “COMING EVENTS CAST THEIR SHADOWS BEFORE.” It was meet that the King of kings, in making advent, should have His avant-courier. Yes, it was meet that the Sun of Righteousness should have His morning star.
II. THE PLACE OF ASCETICISM IN THE CHRISTIAN LIFE. For it cannot be denied that Christ’s religion demands as one of its essential conditions self-denial. Presupposing a fallen, inverted nature, where the outward has usurped the inward--the flesh, the spirit--Christianity undertakes a restoration of the primal order, proposing victory in the very sphere of defeat. Thus, St. Paul himself buffeted his own body, and brought it into bondage. It was true of Moses, of David, of Daniel. Our blessed Lord Himself went into the wilderness, and fasted forty days and forty nights. So, also, many of the noblest characters in Christian history have been ascetics: witness a Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, Chrysostom, Jerome, Columba, Augustine of Canterbury. Their power lay, in part at least, in their asceticism. It certainly was so in the case of John of the Desert. His hermit-life gave him simplicity of manners, freedom from the entanglements of society and the elaborate artifices of a complicated civilization. It also gave him self-reliance, fortitude, courage. An ascetic life is ever apt to make what in some respects is a grand character. Yet an ascetic life is fraught with perils. It tempts to self-righteousness, morbid gloom, and fanaticism. We only need recall the abominable vices of the mediaeval monks--their indolence, avarice, hypocrisy, and sensuality--to be certified that monasticism has no just place in the Christian economy. Happy the day for those European countries when the monasteries were suppressed! No, man was made for man. He may escape society, but in escaping society, he disowns duty. The leaven of the kingdom must be put into the meal of the world. The asceticism which Jesus Christ, alike by word and by example, demands is self-denial, not for self-denial’s own sake, but for the sake of others. (G. D. Boardman.)
I. THE NAMING OF JOHN. “His name Is John,” not may be, or ought to be, but is. And why was it so clearly, fully, and inevitably settled? Simply because God had decided the matter, and good old Zacharias never dreamt for a moment of questioning that decision. The Word of God settles matters, and allows of no appeal.
II. THE GODFATHER OF JOHN. “John” signifies the grace, or gift of God. And who but the eternal God Himself could give him such a name as this?
III. THE CHARACTER OF JOHN. He was the “gift of God” in a peculiar sense. He was a man “sent from God,” too, for a special purpose. But his character was undoubtedly “ the gift of God,” and an instance of His grace and mercy. How entirely he seems to have lost himself in his office! Are you showing, by a holy and consistent and unblameable walk, that your name of “Christian” has been given from above? (Study and Homiletic Monthly.)
These opening chapters of Luke very jubilant
Heaven and earth sing, angels and men. The high occasion justifies it. Song even from the dumb! Yes. He had doubted the word of the angel, and so was stricken dumb. Unbelief cannot sing. But Zacharias is rebuked; no longer of doubtful mind. Now he sings, rises into rapture. His song rather of Christ than of John. No wonder. Who ever stops thought with the herald, the ambassador? There is a psalm of life as well as song of the hour; and all hour-songs are to deepen that life-psalm. (G. B. Johnson.)
Naming a child
It was likewise not customary among the Arabs to give the children names which had never been borne by any person in the family. When, therefore, on the seventh day after Mahomet was born, his grandfather invited the members of the tribe of the Koreischites to a feast, the guests asked, after the conclusion of it, what name he would give his grandson, on whose account he had treated them so magnificently; when he said, Mahomet. They replied, “Then you mean to give him a name alien to his family.” The same custom prevails among some North American tribes. Lafitua says, “Among the Hurons and Iroquois they always retain in every family a certain number of names of the ancestors of the family, both of men and women. These names are quite peculiar to them, and it is presumed to be generally known that they belong to such or such a family. Now in every family it is the custom, as it were, to revive, to call back to life, those members of it who have made themselves famous. They therefore look out at the same time the names of those whom they revere, and give them to such of their descendants as are to represent them. The latter acquire more or less consideration in proportion as those who formerly bore these names were distinguished for their qualities, virtues, or deeds. The Jews had, in the same manner, certain names in every family which they took care to preserve; and these were taken only from the father’s family, as appears from what passed, according to the Scripture, at naming John the Baptist. But among the Hurons and Iroquois the names of the boys are at present taken, as formerly among the Lycians, from the family of the mother only.” (Biblical Treasury.)
Birth and naming of the Baptist
Three-fourths of a year before portentous events had intimated the return of prophecy and miracles to Israel--Zacharias in the temple. One-fourth of a year since, another manifestation from heaven--Mary and Gabriel. Expectation high! Gleam of sunshine in darkness, Music in storm. Hills of Zion shining with early rays of twilight. And now “the morning star” shining bright in the cold, chilly dawn, heralds the speedy rising of the Sun of Righteousness with health and healing in His wings! For it was now to be seen that what God promised should be performed.
I. THE BIRTH OF JOHN.
1. Remember circumstances of his being promised, and the astonishing testimony to the divinity of future Jesus, when the two mothers met.
2. Now the promises begin to be accomplished. John born. Neighbours and kinsfolk rejoice with her. A subject of attention, for it was
II. NAMING OF CIRCUMCISION.
1. Circumcision, eighth day. A duty. Analogy in baptism (Colossians 2:11-12). Baptism also should be in infancy.
2. Naming took place then. So Christian name is given at baptism, not by registration.
III. THE MIRACLE (verse 64). Reward to faith.
IV. ZACHARIAS’ SONG OF PRAISE. Christ came, not to make men sullen, low, morose, desponding; but to pour out blessings in rich abundance, and to turn the captivity of His people “ as the rivers in the south.” Has this song been realized in you? Is God visiting you? Has darkness vanished, and the true light shone in you? Make sure! Don’t grasp the shadows of time, and lose the substance of eternity. (G. Venables, S. C. L.)
The dumb learning to praise God
A beautiful incident occurred only a short time since in the school to teach mutes articulation and lip-reading, at Mystic River, Connecticut. Miss P., an interesting graduate of one of the oldest institutions for the education of deaf mutes, having a desire to learn to speak and read the lips of her speaking friends, was recommended by her old principal to try Mr. Whipple’s school, and she entered it last term. She made rapid progress, and was much aided by the natural alphabet, the invention of her teacher. This alphabet curiously suggests sound, or the right position of the organs to utter sound, as well as form; and whenever a mute pupil can read and write it, he or she can generally give any of the forty sounds of our difficult language with great precision and discrimination, and often with remarkable correctness. This young lady, filled with enthusiasm at every step, mastered the alphabet with little difficulty, and one day came to her teacher with something written on her slate, which she asked him to correct, her mind being agitated with emotion. It proved to be the Lord’s Prayer, put into the language of articulation. Perceiving her agitation, the teacher could scarce restrain his own tears as he corrected a few unimportant errors of pronunciation, and delicately returned it. The next morning the young lady came exultingly to her teacher, exclaiming: “I prayed last night for the first time in my life with my voice;” and neither of them could restrain their emotions. He ventured to ask her if she had ever prayed before. “Oh, yes; I have thought my prayers, but I never spoke before.” “My lips shall praise Thee, O God.” “Attend to the voice of my supplications, O Lord.”
“Praise is the rent-charge we owe to God” for His blessings. David said, “As long as I live I will praise the Lord,” In ancient places of Christian worship it was arranged that one set of worshippers should keep on praising God, till another set came, so that praise might always be going up to heaven, night and day. Commodore Good-enough, when dying, said, “I have not breath left to praise God for all His mercies.” Mr. Wesley’s last words were, “I’ll praise! I’ll praise!” Swiss herdsmen at sunset call forth, “Praise ye the Lord!” This shout is repeated from one to another till every valley, peak, and hill reverberates with the ascriptions of gratitude to the Giver of all good. In the last four Psalms, how many exhortations we have to praise God! In the last verse of the last Psalm we read, “Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord.” (H. R. Burton.)
What manner of child shall this be?
When a child is born (as we say) to the purple; when an heir to the throne is announced; or when we stand beside the cradle of some unconscious little successor to a great historic title, to a vast estate, or to accumulated wealth of other kinds--how do we busy ourselves with speculations as to what may be in store for such a child? Descending to lower strata in social life, how common it is to forecast a great future, if the child should early display great ability, high intellectual gifts, special aptitudes for a particular branch of study! Yet very often, in such cases, the thoughts we harbour are but the most foolish “ castles in the air.” We direct our hopes to external things; we dazzle our imagination with splendid prospects of a great career; and by “greatness” mean publicity, honours, wealth, rank, and a frequent mention in the newspapers. Ah, how mistaken, how ill-judged, how far below (not above) the true mark are our fond anticipations for our children. Let us try to learn this lesson from the text. What was it, probably, that the friends and neighbours of this distinguished priestly family expected for the new-born child? We can hardly doubt what it would be, when we reflect on the circumstances of the time. So pious a circle, and one so conversant with the Temple and its services, as these familiar friends of the priest Zacharias, would be sure to tinge all their thoughts with religion. And, therefore, in their answers among themselves to this question, we may confidently assume that a high spiritual destination would be assigned to him as a champion of Israel against the world. “Surely this child,” they may have said, “will become--as Joab was to David--a mighty and unconquered captain in the armies of the coming Messiah; his sword will be red with the blood of Jehovah’s enemies; and, like the heathen before Judas Maccabaeus, so the bated Roman legions will go down before his avenging onset.” Or, should their thoughts take a more peaceful turn, “The child,” they might say, “will be (like his father) a faithful priest of God; and will fulfil, in the future history of our nation, as prominent a part as Zadok and Jehoiada in the days of old. At the very least, he will be a writer of books--such as ‘Daniel,’ or ‘The Book of Enoch’--books that will touch the heart of Israel to the very quick; or, it may be, a preacher, a prophet, an Elijah--a prominent, a powerful, a striking, an impressive personage, ever to the front when some conflict shall be imminent with the false priests of Baal, or when the modern Jezebels and Ahabs are to be publicly smitten with the curse of an avenging God.” But if such dreams were among their sanguine anticipations for this wonderful child, we know how utterly they were mistaken. The event has taught us how much more spiritual, how much more worthy of all these wonderful antecedents, was the result than these pious Jews had been able to imagine. The result was this: first, for many long years no publicity at all, but a quiet and meditative life in the wilderness; and after that preparation was complete, even then no protracted public ministry amid obedient and awe-stricken crowds, but a brief mission to prepare the way for Him who was to come, abruptly closed by imprisonment; and after that, no dramatic execution, while tearful multitudes pressed around the scaffold to dip their handkerchiefs in the martyr’s blood, but only a swift stroke amid the dungeon’s gloom, a ghastly comedy of horror when a dancing-girl brought in upon a charger the prophet’s head, and a secret burial by a handful of terrified disciples. Such is the irony of history. Such is the answer to the question of the text. (Canon G. H. Curteis.)
Internal history of the Baptist
There are, for every man that lives upon this earth, two histories unfolding simultaneously. There is the external history of his career; and there is the internal history of his character, of his soul. In the case of the Baptist, as in every other case, we can only read the mysterious secrets of the “ hidden man,” by the few visible tokens that are given us. Now, in the Gospels we have five tokens given, by the help of which we can reconstruct the whole character of the man.
I. WE HAVE THE FACT OF HIS FAITHFUL, UNSELFISH SURRENDER OF PRIVACY AND OF SWEET, SERENE MEDITATION ALONE WITH NATURE AND WITH GOD, AT THE CLEAR CALL TO IRKSOME PUBLIC DUTY. It is no easy task to preach repentance to swaying and restless crowds. It is not pleasant to stand as a public target for questioners of every kind, and casuists of every degree, to shoot their arrows at. Yet thus stood John the Baptist. His answers in public show that he had not misused his opportunities in retirement.
II. ANOTHER TOKEN OF HIS PERSONAL CHARACTER, WHICH IS FURNISHED IN THE GOSPELS, IS HIS LOYALTY. “Look not to me, but to another who is greater than I.” A sign of the noblest self-devotion. This worship of a higher Being guards the heart against all approaches of vanity and self-worship, and repels every base thought of self-interest.
III. THERE IS YET ANOTHER CHARACTERISTIC IN THE BAPTIST, WHICH BRINGS HIM INTO VERY CLOSE CONTACT WITH MANY LOYAL YET TROUBLED SOULS AT THE PRESENT DAY. It seems that, at one time, he was even afflicted with doubt (Matthew 11:2-3). Most kindly, gently, and patiently was that question answered by our Lord. And we may, therefore, gather encouragement for ourselves under any similar difficulties. We may be sure that if we, in like manner, take an honest and straightforward course, not letting our doubts withdraw us from our Saviour, but rather bring us nearer and closer to Him, we shall receive the same gentle and sufficient reply, an appeal to personal experience, to what we have ourselves “ heard and seen.”
IV. ANOTHER CHARACTERISTIC OF THIS SAINTLY MAN IS TO BE FOUND IN HIS COURAGEOUS REBUKE OF SIN, EVEN WHEN IT WAS DRAPED AND GILDED AND DISGUISED UNDER WELL-SEEMING NAMES, IN THE PALACES OF RINGS.
V. BUT THE MOST STRIKING FEATURE OF ALL IN HIS CHARACTER WAS HIS SELF-EFFACEMENT. We know too well that even self-denial is a virtue of high and difficult attainment. Much more difficult is a genuine and unaffected self-humiliation. But most difficult of all is self-effacement in Christ--“that spiritual” “depth, attained also by. St. Paul, which says (feeling what it says) “I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me. The Baptist is a type of those who resolve, at all risks, to discharge their duty and to deliver the message entrusted to them by God, without one single thought of self, or one transient wish to appear themselves in the matter. No indolence; no cowardice; but they are content to be only “a voice ‘--to preach God’s Word, not their own, to pursue some truth which is not to enhance their own reputation; to advocate some cause which is not to redound to their own advantage. (Canon G. H. Curteis.)
The future of a child
Stars have been interrogated and thought to prophesy and proclaim the future of a child, so that to this day “born under an unlucky star” is passed into a proverb.
I. THE DEVELOPMENT OF CHILDHOOD. “What, then, shall this child be?”
1. What God designs it. God had a plan of life for this child of Zacharias and Elisabeth.
2. What training makes it. The fashioning power of parents and teachers is very great. God’s plan may be marred in our hands. The life of John Stuart Mill proclaims the wonderful power that a parent can wield over the plastic nature of the child, and how instruction and training may shape a life. Great men owe much to pious parents like Zacharias and Elisabeth.
II. THE PROVIDENCE OF GOD WITH CHILDHOOD. “For the hand of the Lord was with him.” This stimulated the question. Curiosity as to the future of a child becomes greater when there are--
1. Marks of the supernatural. This was the case with John.
2. Tokens of the Divine protection. The myth of Romulus and Remus, suckled in their infancy by a she-wolf, enshrines a truth--those destined for greatness are under the special protection of the Almighty. The apostolic John Wesley was miraculously saved in childhood from a burning house.
3. Early evidences of greatness. Providence is shown in such evidences, leading, as they often do, to special care in education. This is what all should desire for their children, that the hand of the Lord may be with them. (Canon Vernon Hutton, M. A.)
A question and answer at the birth of a child
1. The natural question--“What manner of child shall this be?”
2. The satisfactory answer- “The hand of the Lord will be with him.” (Van Oosterzee.)
“What manner of child shall this be?”
1. How far above our asking is the Divine gift very often!
2. How wonderful are the possibilities for weal or woe in a child! Shall our children prove John Baptists, voices for Christ? or shall they falsify our own allegiance to Him?
3. How blessed it is to have a child associated with Christ from the outset! I covet for our children this association with the Lord. I would have His name, His story, His words, His gospel, their earliest memories and their dearest child-experiences.
4. What of kindred dedication of children to-day? Where are the Abrams, Hannahs, and Zachariases of this age? How few Christian parents yield their children up to the service of God?
5. How many of those who “feared” and asked “What manner of child?” &c., received him and received the Lord? One asks wistfully, whether, when the thirty years were passed, and John the Baptist, and then the Lord came forth, many or any watched for their coming and welcomed their manifestation. I gladly believe that some would, some must. (A. B.Grosart, DD.)
A sermon to parents
“What manner of child shall this be? “ Will it grow up to manhood or womanhood, or will the flower be nipped in the bud? And if it grow to man’s estate, what kind of a man will it make? Wise, virtuous, useful; or foolish, vicious, profligate? Such questions as these associated with the birth of childhood. The true parent will not be content simply with asking “What manner,” &c., but realizing that the answer to that question depends very largely upon home-training and influence, will set to work to make that training and influence of such a character as will, under God, produce the best results. To assist you in this work will now be my aim. I begin by reminding you that your child is fearfully and wonderfully made. It is a “ Trinity in Unity.” It is made up of three parts. And each of these parts must be cultivated and developed in order to a complete and noble manhood.
I. YOUR CHILD HAS A BODY THAT REQUIRES TO BE BUILT UP AND PERFECTED.
II. YOUR CHILD HAS A SOUL THAT NEEDS TO BE DEVELOPED AND CULTURED. By the soul I mean that moral and intellectual part of your child’s nature which distinguishes it from, and raises it above, the brutes that perish.
III. Your CHILD HAS A SPIRITUAL NATURE WHICH NEEDS TO BE ENCOURAGED AND FOSTERED AND CAREFULLY AND PRAYERFULLY WATCHED OVER. Observe--
1. This threefold development should be simultaneous.
2. We should begin early, should look for signs of early piety, and should interpret these as indications that God Himself is at work in their young hearts. Our children have visions of God much earlier than we are accustomed to think. Let us encourage them to foster these visions, to listen to the voice of God within, to respond to the wooings of His love. This done, we need not trouble ourselves with the question, “What manner,” &c., but may safely and joyfully leave our children in God’s hands, feeling assured that
His grace will prove more than sufficient for all their needs, that His love will never see them want any good thing, and that His spirit, which has begun the good work in their souls, will carry it on to perfection. (W. Fox.)
A sermon to children
Every boy and girl might well ask about himself or herself, “What manner,” &c. I want you to think about what you are going to be. It is not chance that decides. The fruit comes out of the blossom; the flower out of the bud; the man out of the child. You are beginning now to be the men and women that you will be. Here are some things that you can do, or get done for you. For we can go for help to One who is able to do very much more than we ask or think.
I. MEND THE LITTLE FAULTS NOW.
II. BE NOW WHAT YOU WOULD LIKE TO BE WHEN YOU ARE GROWN UP.
1. Be truthful.
2. Be kind and pleasant.
III. TAKE WITH YOU TWO THINGS MORE WONDERFUL THAN ANY OTHER GIFTS THAT YOU EVER READ OR HEARD OF.
1. A golden key--PRAYER.
2. A charm which I would have you wear not next to your heart, but in the heart itself. The charm is this--try always to please Jesus.
IV. And yet the most wonderful part remains, that if we come to Jesus, and seek Him as our Saviour and Helper, the child will become an angel of God. (Mark Guy Pearse.)
Indications in childhood
“Childhood shows the man as morning shows the day.” Moses, Joseph, Samuel, David, Obadiah, Josiah, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, John the Baptist, John the Apostle, Timothy, Washington, John Wesley, and multitudes of other goodly children have lived to be men famous for their godliness and usefulness. The Arabians put an ant into the hand of a new-born infant and say, “May the boy turn out clever and skilful.” We pray that from the childhood blossoms we have in our homes and schools there may develop flowers which will fill every circle where they move with fragrance, spiritual beauty, and joy; or that, in other cases, the buds now attach ing themselves to some branch which is joined to the True Vine, may be twigs or branches themselves in years to come, bearing fruit for the glory of God and the benefit of mankind. (H. R. Burton.)
A child misjudged
A poor doctor, who had met with great misfortunes, lay on his deathbed, saddened by the thought that he was leaving a large family behind him, without any provision for its maintenance. Not long before his death, his youngest child was born, a scrawny, puny babe, weighing five or six pounds. The mother was worn out, and was apparently to be left poor, friendless, and alone, with her great family of little ones. But--that baby! Every one said: “What a mercy if that child should die! What can she do with it? What a blessing if it should die!” The poor mother almost thought so too. But the unwelcome babe would not die. He made a struggle for life, and won the battle. To-day his memory is revered as that of Dr. John Todd, the author of “The Student’s Manual,” and of other works of eminent usefulness, by means of which, “being dead, he yet speaketh.” No mother knows what she has in her cradle. (Baxendale’s Anecdotes.)
The mystery of moral development
The beginning of Nero’s reign was marked by acts of the greatest kindness and condescension; by affability, complaisance, and popularity. The object of his administration seemed to be the good of his people; and when he was desired to sign his name to a list of malefactors that were to be executed, he exclaimed, “ I wish to heaven I could not write I” He was an enemy to flattery, and when the Senate liberally commended the wisdom of his government, Nero desired them to keep their praises until he deserved them. Yet this was the wretch who assassinated his mother, who set fire to Rome, and destroyed multitudes of men, women, and children, and threw the odium of that dreadful action upon the Christians. The cruelties he exercised towards them were beyond description, while he seemed to be the only one who enjoyed the tragical spectacle. Oh, human depravity, what a monster! Divine grace alone can change it and make it holy. (Handbook to Scripture Doctrines.)
And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Ghost
The song of Zacharias
Preliminary questions. In the opening portion of St. Luke’s Gospel, there is a definiteness of time, place, and circumstance, which makes us feel that we are not breathing in the air or looking through the deceptive light of legend. We are not travelling in dreamland, for we can measure distances. The objections which have been made in modern times to this statement are derived from two elements in the narrative--
1. As to the angelic appearance in these opening chapters. Unquestionably here, as elsewhere, throughout, and to its very close, St. Luke’s is the Gospel of the holy angels. The existence o! angels rests upon the same witness as the whole supernatural life. There must be something of fitness in the times of their manifestation, and in the persons to whom they make themselves known. In a material age they cease to appear. There must be a certain saintly second-sight--a something angelic in the angel seen. All depends upon the initial point of view. From ours it is not incredible, but rather probable, that Gabriel should have come to Zacharias and Mary; that songs of acclamation should have rung out over Bethlehem. We are come to an innumerable company of angels. Well, too, may we be impressed by the gravity and reserve of the scriptural account of angelic appearances. Man receives no random invitation to a heedless intimacy on the one hand; to a Socinian heresy of angel cultus on the other. Of all the countless hosts of heaven, Scripture condescends to make but two known to us by name--Gabriel and Michael.
2. But, in reference to these opening scenes of St. Luke’s Gospel, it has further been objected that these sacred songs, these bursts of Hebraic poetry, are unmistakably like art, or legend; that the critic is irresistibly impelled to see them in a piece of fancy work, like the songs in Tennyson’s “Queen Mary.” There are a few considerations which remove this obstinate prejudice of modern criticism. If labour and genius are the only possible creators of any form of literature, these songs, of course, can scarcely be genuine. But if, as a matter of fact, prophecy exists; if Jesus Christ be its chief and central subject, it is only natural that, after an interval of 400 years, it should awaken again, just as he was about to visit the earth; that the father of God’s chosen servant, who was to go as a messenger before Messiah’s face, should be filled with the Holy Ghost, and prophesy.
II. We proceed to draw some lessons from the song itself.
1. It is well to remember who and what Zacharias was. Zacharias was a holy and religious priest. The employment of Zacharias was that of a minister of a Divinely ordained ritual. Now true revelation does not deal with the spirit of man mechanically. The thought and utterance take the mould and colour of the mind, which the spirit freely uses. The form of the revelation is adapted to the natural tendencies and whole condition of him who is the Holy Ghost’s voice or pen. The prophet priest Ezekiel views the Church under the image which would naturally occur to one who had been trained in such an element--the image of a temple. The priest prophet Zacharias views the life of all the emancipated children of God as one continuous worship, one endless priestly service--“That we, fearlessly, having been once for all delivered from hand of enemies, should continually do Him worship. In holiness and righteousness before Him all the days that we have.” This is the essence and use of all the true ritualism of God. One word summed up the whole meaning and purpose of the priestly life of Zacharias--to do God service, to be worshipping Him. This word, this Ich Dien of the faithful priesthood, he makes the Ich Dien of every child of God. The one true priest, whose coming is so near, shall enable all the redeemed people to perform the true service of priests, to celebrate God’s worship in the long festivity of a perpetual freedom. The motto of Christ’s kingdom of priests comes fitly from the lips of an inspired priest. The meaning of the Old Testament ritual is given, as best became the fitness of things, by one who was “of the order of Abia.” These words are sung in hundreds of churches. It is well that singers should be taught to sing “gracefully,” as well as heartily, to the Lord. But both choirs and congregations should keep the words of Zacharias ever before them, “Without fear to do Him the worship and service of a life.”
2. The place which is occupied by the Benedictus in the reformed Prayer Book is significant and interesting. It is placed immediately after the second lesson at morning service, which is always from one of the Gospels, Epistles, or the Apocalypse. Zacharias was the first New Testament prophet; and this is almost the first gospel hymn. The voice and song of such a one may fitly be heard immediately after our first reading from the New Testament. It does not, perhaps, seem a mere fancy to see in the contents of the Benedictus a reference to the work of the Christian ministry. Zacharias was a father as well as a priest. He turns, with a burst of joy, which was not merely natural, to his babe, and places him among the goodly company of the prophets--“ And thou too, child, shalt be called prophet of the Highest. For onward thou shalt go, on, in front of the Lord, to prepare His ways; To give knowledge of salvation to His people.” But what was to be done by the child of Zacharias is to be done by Christ’s ministers, who “prepare and make ready a people for His second coming.” And the simple reading of the simple gospel in the second lesson is a specimen, as it were, and epitome of all this work.
III. This utterance of Zacharias is something more than a song or poem. It is a treatise on salvation.
1. Its Author--“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, For He hath raised up a strong salvation for us.”
2. Its cause--“On account of the tender mercy of our God.”
3. Its essence--“ Salvation, consisting in remisssion of sins.”
4. Its blessedness and privileges--“Being delivered out of the hand of our enemies, to serve Him without fear.”
5. Its consequence--“In holiness and righteousness before Him all our days.” All who have ever understood the Psalmist’s deeply pathetic cry, “Make the reproach which I am afraid of to pass over,” will also understand the preciousness of the privilege. We conclude by citing the image with which the song concludes. It is derived from a caravan which has lost its way, when the wayfarers “sit down” in the darkness, which is like the shadow of death, to perish in their helplessness. Then, in the high heavens, a glorious star makes its Epiphany. So often as we sing this hymn with true spiritual worship, with hearts full of the sense of that salvation which consists in remission of sins, the old song may be as full of life and joy as any new hymn. The Hymn of Zacharias is the strain of the “Pilgrims of the Night.” (Bishop Willliam Alexander.)
1. Observe that no sooner was Zachary recovered and restored to his speech, but he sings the praises of his Redeemer, and offers up a thanksgiving to God. The best return we can make to God for the use of our tongue, for the giving or restoring of our speech, is to publish our Creator’s praise, to plead His cause, and vindicate His honour.
2. The subject matter of Zachary’s song. What is the particular and special mercy which He praises and blesses God for? It is not for his own particular and private mercy, namely, the recovery of his speech, though undoubtedly he was very thankful to God for that mercy; but he blesses and praises God for catholic and universal mercies bestowed upon His Church and people.
3. In this evangelical hymn there is a prophetic prediction, both concerning Christ and concerning John.
(a) He blesses God for the comprehensive blessing of the Messiah--“visited,” i.e., in the incarnation of Jesus.
(b) The special fruit and benefit of this gracious and merciful visitation--the redemption of a lost world.
(c) The character given of this Saviour and Redeemer--“horn of salvation,” i.e., a royal and glorious, strong and powerful, Saviour to His Church and people. The horn in Scripture signifies glory and dignity, strength and power; as the beauty, so the strength of the beast lies in his horn; now Christ being styled a horn of salvation intimates that He Himself is a royal and princely Saviour, and that the salvation which He brings is great and plentiful, glorious and powerful.
(d) The nature and quality of that salvation and deliverance which the Son of God came to accomplish for us. Not a temporal deliverance, as the Jews expected, from the power of the Romans; but spiritual, from the hands of sin and Satan, death and hell; His design was to purchase a spiritual freedom and liberty for us, that we might be enabled to serve Him without fear, i.e., without the servile and offending fear of a slave, but with the dutiful and ingenuous fear of a child. Learn hence, that believers, who were slaves of Satan, are by Christ made God’s freemen; and, as such, they owe God a willing, cheerful, and delightful service without fear, and a constant, persevering service all the days of their life.
(e) The source and fountain from which this glorious Saviour and gracious salvation arose and sprang, viz., from the mercy and faithfulness of God.
(a) The nature of His office.
(b) The quality of his work. He was to be a herald and harbinger to the Most High; as the morning star, foretelling the glorious arising of the Sun of Righteousness.
4. Zachary, having spoken a few words concerning his son, returns instantly to celebrate the praises of the Saviour, comparing Him to the rising sun, which shone forth in the brightness of the gospel to enlighten the dark corners of the world. (W. Burkitt, M. A.)
Deliverance at hand
When an English garrison, during the Indian Mutiny, was besieged at Lucknow, and was almost momentarily expecting the fall of the city, a sick woman started up from her slumber, crying, “We’re saved! Don’t you hear the music? They’re coming! They’re coming!” No one else could hear that music; yet, in a few hours, a relieving force arrived, and the garrison was saved. This prophecy of Zacharias is like the far-off music of the coming salvation. Compare in Motley’s “Dutch Republic” the account of the relief of Leyden. The state of the world before the coming of Christ may be compared to that of shipwrecked men clinging to a rock in the midst of the sea. There is no safety for them where they are, and no safety in themselves. With what joyous eyes is it that they behold a boat coming to their rescue from the distant land! So in the case of lost humanity, salvation had to be brought. A man crossing a heath one dark night fell into a pit. He tried in vain to get out, calling loudly for assistance all the while. Soon people gathered to his assistance, and a rope was lowered to him. He grasped it, and was drawn up into the light. So mankind cannot be uplifted from the pit of sin, except by salvation brought from above. (Sunday School Times.)
Like the song of Mary, this prophecy of Zacharias tells of God’s faithfulness in His promises. In ancient times there was a beautiful rite of hospitality. Friends residing in different countries gave each other emblems, on the presentation of which each could claim the hospitality of the other. And when they both were dead, the son of one could call upon the son of the other for the same hospitality by presenting his emblem. The promises made to the father were fulfilled to the son. So down through the ages the Jews waited for the fulfilment of the promises made to Abraham. But to us it is given to see in clearer light their complete fulfilment, and how that came neither too late nor too soon. (Sunday School Times.)
The song of Zacharias
I. Let us join Zacharias in his song of praise for that great deliverance of which John was the harbinger. The blessings here celebrated were not confined to Jews, but are common to all God’s “ people. Salvation is ever the same in substance, and much the same in its form and means.
II. It becomes us to be thankful that the light of the gospel has visited our own land in particular. Through God’s mercy we have been lifted out of idolatry, impurity, and misery, into the knowledge of the truth. Let us see that the “light” is shining into our hearts, and that we are walking in it.
III. Deliverance from enemies through the gospel. Saved from sin; taken out of the power of our spiritual foes.
IV. Serving God without fear.
1. External peace and security.
2. Internal state of mind produced by religion. At peace with God; delighting in Him as a Father and Friend. (James Foote, M. A.)
The parental relationship
There are men and women known in history chiefly by their relation to their children. They were godly men and women; men and women of ability and usefulness in their day; but their pre-eminent place in the world is as parents. This fact should be a stimulus and a source of hope to every parent. Whatever a father or a mother may have done or have failed to do up to the present hour, there is that child to be looked after, to be loved and cared for, to be trained and prayed over, to have faith in behalf of. In that child there may lie the hope and the joy of multitudes, and the hope and the joy of the parents as well. How this ought to nerve us and give us cheer as we toil and pray for the child of our hearts. That child may rise up to call us blessed, and, for his sake, all generations may call us blessed. It is for us to do our duty by our children. It may be for us to have a reward in them beyond all other rewards we have in and for our earthly course. You are the father, or the mother, of that child. How much of good does that portend to him? How much of good it may portend to you! (H. C.Trumbull.)
The source of true power
“Filled with the Holy Ghost”--that was fitness for praising God acceptably, and for proclaiming His truth acceptably, in the days of Zacharias. It was not that Zacharias was filled with enthusiasm, filled with earnestness, filled with knowledge, filled with poetic fervour; but that he was filled with the Holy Ghost. That gave his words power, and, because of that fact, his words are in our ears and on our lips to-day. There is no other source of true power in God’s service in this age, or in any age. To be a good parent, a good teacher, a good preacher, a good Bible student, a good man, or a good woman, one needs to be filled with the Holy Ghost; there is no substitute for this. (H. C.Trumbull.)
Songs composed under stress of deep feeling
On the night before her execution, Mary Queen of Scots composed a short prayer, and sang it over by herself because she could not sleep. The words are very musical in the Latin which she used, expressing the passionate wish of a captive to escape:
“O Lord God Almighty! my hope is in Thee!
O Jesus beloved, now liberate me!
In durance the drearest, in bonds the severest--
My desire is to Thee!
In sighing and crying, on bended knees lying,
I adore--I implore Thou would’st liberate me!”
When Madame Guyon and her faithful maid were imprisoned, she composed songs for her comfort. “And then,” says she, “we sang them together, praises unto Thee, O our God! It sometimes seemed to me as if I were a little bird, whom the Lord had placed in a cage, and that I had nothing to do now but sing!”
Religious value of song
Bishop Jewel, writing to Peter Martyr, March, 1560, says: “Religion is now somewhat more established than it was. The people are everywhere exceedingly inclined to the better part. Ecclesiastical and popular music has much conduced to this result. For as soon as they had once commenced to sing publicly in only one little church in London, immediately not only the other neighbouring churches, but even the towns far distant, began to vie with each other in the same practice. At times you may see at Paul’s Cross, after sermon, six thousand persons, old and young, of both sexes, singing together and praising God. This sadly annoys the priests and the devil, for they see that by these means the sacred discourses sink more deeply into men’s minds, and that their kingdom is shaken and shattered at almost every note.”
The song of Zacharias
It is emphatically the song of a man whose tongue is unloosed; who for the first time has entered into the meaning of the books which he has been reading since his childhood, of the services in which he has been engaged ever since he became a priest. A speech may be invented with tolerable success for a general on the eve of a battle, though such as have really come down to us stir the blood far more; but the mimicry of this kind of feeling must have been odious and contemptible. I know not where you could find the stamp of fraud more clear and ineffaceable than on a document which attempted it. If the words of Zacharias have lasted to our day, and have been accepted by men of different races as vital and true words--as words which speak to and speak forth the human heart within them--I cannot persuade myself that they bear that stamp of insincerity. (F. D. Maurice, M. A.)
Spontaneous spiritual song
One can’t help thinking that the mind and heart of Zacharias during all those nine months had been filling with this song. And now it bursts forth at once--as a flower suddenly bursts out where there was but a green-sheathed bull yesterday. This song is as spontaneous as that of a lark, and as lyrical. As David found a prayer in his 2 Samuel 7:27), so Zacharias found a song in his. (A. B.Grosart, D. D.)
It is a wonderful scene in the house of the old priest Zacharias that we are permitted to witness. The priest’s lips had long been sealed. In silence he had awaited the fulfilment of the Divine promise. His tongue was not to be loosed till the word of the Lord had been fulfilled, that his first utterance might be praise to God for His wonderful works. It was manifest that a new era was beginning--the era of the long-expected redemption of Israel. This is the strain of Zacharias’ hymn of praise. Just as a mountain stream, which, after being long hemmed in, finds at last an outlet, leaps along in tumultuous gladness, so does the long pent-up emotion of Zacharias’ heart flow forth in a rapture of praise, “Blessed be the Lord,” &c. We feel that this is not the expression simply of his own personal, fatherly gladness. It is the rejoicing song of all who looked for redemption in Israel, thus finding utterance through him. We observe that it was--
I. A Tree OF FULFILMENT (verses 67-70), and--
II. A TIME OF SALVATION (verses 71-79). (Professor Luthardt.)
Emotion breaking out into speech
A vivid emotion of love and gratitude is very apt to break out into speech, either in the form of a public testimony for Christ, or in the voice of song. I have known a prayer meeting, at a time of awakening, to become like an aviary, for God had put a new song into scores of mouths. (T. L. Cuyler.)
Changed by the Spirit
No man or woman amongst you knows what he might be if he were filled with the Spirit. What is that rough Luther? He is only fit to have been a killer of bullocks, or a feller of oaks in the forest; but fill Luther with the Holy Spirit and what is he? He takes the bull of Rome by the horns, slays wild beasts of error in the great arena of the gospel, and is more than a conqueror through the might which dwelleth in him! Take John Calvin--fit naturally to be a cunning lawyer, cutting and dividing nice points, judging this precedent and that, frittering away his time over immaterial niceties; but fill him with the Holy Ghost and John Calvin becomes the mighty master of grace, the reflection of the wisdom of all past ages, and a great light to shed a brilliant ray even till the Millennium shall dawn I Chief, and prince, and king of all uninspired teachers, the mighty seer of Geneva, filled with the Spirit of God is no more John Calvin, but a God-sent angel of the Churches! (C. H.Spurgeon.)
Visited and redeemed His people
To visit is the work of one that comes to do a charitable office to a sick person, according to that place (Matthew 25:1-46.), “I was sick and ye visited Me.” So Christ came into this world because it languished of a sore disease.
2. To give a visit to another is a voluntary courtesy, an act of kindness that hath no compulsion or unwillingness in it: for he that visits any place or persons, if he did not like them he might keep away; but you cannot imagine more promptness and readiness in any one than there was in our Saviour, to be humbled to that baseness to take our nature upon him.
3. There is not only willingness, but friendliness in the appellation: no man visits another but in the profession of a friend; therefore St. Paul says upon the Incarnation (Titus 3:4), “the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared.” (Bishop Hacket.)
1. Now captivity must be presupposed on our part, because we did await and expect redemption.
2. As his goodness is amplified from our captivity, so the redemption is the more valuable, because none else could have plucked us out of those fetters but the Holy One, our Lord and Master.
3. And let it make a third animadversion, that the manner of our redemption doth greatly exaggerate the most meritorious compassion of the Redeemer; there hath been redemption wrought by force and victory, so Moses brought the Israelites with an high hand out of the slavery of Egypt: there is a redemption which is wrought by intercession and supplication; so Nehemiah prevailed with King Cyrus, to dismiss the Jews out of the Babylonish captivity: or thirdly, either gold, or silver, or somewhat more precious is laid down to buy out the freedom of that which is in thraldom; that’s the most costly and estimable way when value for value is paid; or fourthly, the body of one is surrendered up for the ransom of another, life for life, blood for blood; and greater charity cannot be shown than to bring redemption to pass by such a compensation. So St. Peter extols that act in our Saviour; says he, “Ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, but with the blood of Christ, as a lamb undefiled.” So out of His own mouth (Matthew 20:28).
4. As all mankind that is flesh and blood in every man and woman is honoured by His visitation, so all without exceptions are beholden to His redemption. Zachary the priest with all his innocency, who is said to have been blameless and righteous before God, yet he blesseth God that he was redeemed. Having thus spoken of the benefits of visitation and redemption, I should leave my treatise very imperfect if I should not speak of the receivers; very briefly therefore concerning them upon whom all was conferred, “ He hath visited and redeemed His people.” It is certain that the generations of mankind are meant by this word, the sons and daughters of Adam, and none others. (Bishop Hacket.)
Difficulty of defining redemption
If you should expect from me a discourse in which I should explain redemption, I must follow the example of that philosopher of ancient times who, when some asked a definition of God, said I must first ask for a week to prepare my reply; after that week is passed I must ask a second, and again a third, and so on till I had at last declared that I never could end my demand for time. For the more that philosopher meditated on God, the less was he able to give a definition; and the more I meditate on redemption, the less can I explain it. (Adolphe Monod.)
Dean Stanley tells us that Dr. Arnold used to make his boys say, “Christ died for me,” instead of the more general phrase, “Christ died for us.” “He appeared to me,” says one whose intercourse with him never extended beyond these lessons. “to be remarkable for his habit of realizing everything that we are told in Scripture.” (Life of Dr. Arnold.)
God’s great redemption
John Frederick Oberlin put off all earthly comfort to redeem a barren district of France from poverty and ignorance, with his own pick axe beginning the building of a high road from Ban de la Roche up to the city of Strasburg. But here was a highway to be constructed from the squalor of earth to the heights of heaven. Clarkson pleaded before the English Parliament, and the Russian Emperor, against the slave trade. But here was the question of deliverance for a hundred thousand millions of bondmen. Aye! it was the pounding off of an iron chain from the neck of a captive world. I think it was the greatest and most absorbing thought of God’s lifetime. I do not think that there was anything in all the ages of the past, or that there will be in all the ages of the future, anything to equal it, The masterpiece of eternity I There were so many difficulties to be overcome! There were such infinite consequences to be considered! There were such gulfs to bridge, and such heights to scale, and such immensities to compass! If God had been less than omnipotent, He would not have been strong enough; or less than omniscient, I do not think He would have been wise enough; or less loving, would have been sympathetic enough. There might have been a God strong enough to create a universe, and yet too weak to do this. To create the worlds, only a word was necessary; but to do this work required more than a word. It required more than ordinary effort of a God. It required the dying anguish of an Only Son. (Dr. Talmage.)
As he spake
All God’s promises are fulfilled
Look over your lives, O Christians I and you cannot find one hour when God’s promises have failed you.
Look over the history of His people, and it is full of promises fulfilled; but there is not a fragment of a broken promise to be found. When Elisha’s servant was afraid because the armies of Syria were besieging them in Dothan, Elisha prayed that his eyes might be opened; and the servant saw that the mountain was full of horses and chariots round about Elisha. If God touches our eyes, we too shall see all our own life and all history full of God’s fulfilled promises round about us. As when Milton’s archangel spoke--
“To confirm His words, out flew
Millions of flaming swords, drawn from the thighs
Of mighty cherubim.”
So God speaks a promise, and out fly millions of facts and experiences to confirm His words.
Faithfulness of God
Far, far above all comprehension is the truth and faithfulness of God. He never fails, nor forgets, nor falters, nor forfeits His word. Afflictions are like clouds, but the Divine truthfulness is all around them. While we are under the cloud we are in the region of God’s faithfulness; when we mount above it we shall not need such an assurance. To every word of threat, or promise, prophecy or covenant, the Lord has exactly adhered, for He is not a man that he should lie, nor the son of man that he should repent. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Mercy of God boundless
Like the ethereal blue, it encompasses the whole earth smiling upon universal nature, acting as a canopy for all the creatures of earth, surmounting the loftiest peaks of human provocations, and rising high above the mists of mortal trangression. Clear sky is evermore above, and mercy calmly smiles above the din and smoke of this poor world. Darkness and clouds are but of earth’s lower atmosphere: the heavens are evermore serene, and bright with innumerable stars. Divine mercy abides in its vastness of expanse, and matchless patience, all unaltered by the rebellions of man. When we can measure the heavens, then shall we bound the mercy of the Lord. Towards his own servants especially, in the salvation of the Lord Jesus, He has displayed grace higher than the heaven of heavens, and wider than the universe. O that the atheist could but see this, how earnestly would he long to become a servant of Jehovah! (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Immovableness of the Divine promises
A swallow having built its nest upon the tent of Charles V., the Emperor generously commanded that the tent should not be taken down when the camp removed, but should remain until the young birds were ready to fly. Was there such a gentleness in the heart of a soldier toward a poor bird which was not of his making, and shall the Lord deal hardly with His creatures when they venture to put their trust in Him? Be assured He hath a great love to those trembling souls that fly for shelter to His royal courts. He that buildeth his nest upon a Divine promise shall find it abide and remain until he shall fly away to the land where promises are lost in fulfilments. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
The oath which He sware
The purpose of God’s oath
God doth not give it to make His word or promise sure and steadfast, but to give assurance and security to us of their accomplishment.
Every word of God is sure and certain truth itself, because it is His; and He might justly require of us the belief of it, without any further attestation. But yet, knowing what great objections Satan and our own unbelieving hearts will raise against His promises, at least as to our own concerns in them, to confirm our minds, and to take away all pretences of unbelief, He interposes His oath in this matter. (John Owen.)
A covenant is a contract, or a compact, between two agreeing parties, that, on certain conditions being observed by one party, the other will do as specified. God made a covenant of works with our first parents, that if they obeyed His commands they should enjoy His favour and blessings. Since the fall, God has made a covenant of grace by faith with mankind, that, trusting in Him, through atonement, they should be saved and blessed. God entered into covenant with Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 17:2-14). God covenants with us that He will answer our believing prayers; that He will teach and guide those who are willing and obedient; that He will fulfil to us all His exceeding great and precious promises, if we perform the simple, easy, reasonable conditions attached to them. Then God will ever be faithful to His engagements. “Suppose,” said one, “God were not to fulfil His promises to you.” “Then,” was the reply of the Christian lady addressed, “He would lose more than I should.” This would be the fact, for in such a case God would lose the glory of His Divine faithfulness, truth, holiness, justice, mercy, love, &e. But this is an utter impossibility. God “cannot lie,” therefore we may each say, with David, “He hath made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things, and sure.” (H. R. Burton.)
Being delivered out of the hand of our enemies
Delivered from the hand of the enemy
While labouring among the wild tribes of the Druses, a messenger from one of their chiefs, whose influence it was important to secure, sent a message entreating Mr.
Gobat to visit him. The latter, however, was unable to do so in consequence of indisposition, h second messenger repeated the invitation, but still, contrary to Mr. Gobat’s expectations, he was prevented from complying with the chief’s wishes, h third messenger prevailed on him to set out, by the assurance that if he went at once he might spend the night with the chief, and be ready to return in the morning, so as to join a ship about to sail for Malta, in which Mr. Gobat was anxious to embark. On their journey the guides lost them selves in the mountain paths. Having at last, with some difficulty, regained their route, they suddenly saw by the light of the moon that a hyena had laid itself down across the path exactly in their way. They threw stones to frighten it, when the animal sprang up and ran along the path which the party were to travel. A superstition is prevalent among the Druses, that “the way a hyena goes is an unlucky one.” The natives refused, accordingly, to go farther, and Mr. Gobat had to retrace his steps, greatly perplexed at the obstacles which had hindered a journey apparently of so much consequence to his mission. When in Malta he received a letter from a friend in Lebanon, stating that he had been visited by the chief, who, with much agitation, had spoken to him as follows:--“ Your friend is truly a servant of God, and God has preserved him; for I wished to draw him to my village in order to murder him. Therefore I sent message after message to him; but God has delivered him from the hand of his enemies.” (Memoirs of the late Bishop Gobat.)
In a Western cabin, far away from all other residences, there sat a Christian mother rocking her babe to sleep. The husband and the father had been called suddenly off on business, and there had been no defence provided for that house that night in the wilderness. As the mother sat there in the cabin rocking her babe to sleep, miles away from any other tenement, glancing to the floor she saw a ruffian’s foot projecting from under the table. Having rocked her child to sleep she put him in the cradle, and then knelt down and said: “Oh I Lord, keep this child; keep me. Oh! Thou who never slumbereth, watch over our cabin tonight. Let no harm come to us. If there be those abroad who wish us ill, bring them to a better mind. The Lord have mercy upon all wanderers, all who do deeds of violence and death. Bring them to Thyself--bring them to pardon and to heaven.” As she arose from the prayer the ruffian came out from under the table and said: “There will be no harm to you to-night. Pray for me, I am the wanderer that you spoke of. Pray for me.” Years passed on, and that Christian woman sat in a great meeting called in the interest of reform. There was a great orator that day to be present, and as he preached righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come, his eye fell upon the countenance of that woman. His cheek was blanched and he almost failed in his speech. At the close of the meeting they joined hands, and a few words of conversation passed, and some one said: “Why, where did you form the acquaintance of that orator?” “Never mind,” she said, “I have known him many years.” Who was it watching the mother that night? Who was it watching the babe? Who was tit that brought the ruffian to God in repentance for his sin? Who is it that watches all our cradles, and all our tables, and all our homes, and all our way? Blessed be His glorious name for ever. He is a shelter to which we may all run. He is a fortress in which we may all be safe. (Dr. Talmage.)
Might serve Him without fear
Serving the Lord in holiness
I. The conveyance made in this covenant--“That He would grant unto us,” &c.
II. The benefits secured to us in this conveyance. Let us then attend--
I. TO THE CONVEYANCE MADE IS THIS COVENANT. In this two things may be observed.
1. The parties in whose favour this conveyance is made. Us, the seed of Abraham. So in this gospel, the Covenant is held out to you all, as heaven’s blank bond for grace and glory, that whosoever will, may fill his own name in it, by applying the same to himself in the way of believing.
2. The manner of the conveyance. It is by way of grant or gift, for so the word is. But observe the gift is to us, and so it is to be understood in respect of us, to be a free gift. In respect of the Lord Jesus, it is not so. All the benefits of the covenant, to be bestowed on His spiritual seed, are made over to Him on a valuable consideration. God gives us to serve our Redeemer, because Christ served Him perfectly in our room and stead.
II. To THE BENEFITS SECURED TO US IN THIS CONVEYANCE, even the sum of the benefits of the covenant of grace.
1. The principal benefit, which stands here under the notion of the end, namely, serving the Lord. “That He would grant unto us, that we being delivered out of the hands of our enemies, might serve Him.” O that men would learn this lesson, that any service we do to God, if right service, it is a benefit of the covenant, bestowed On us, for Christ’s sake. Then would they learn that God is not debtor unto them for it, but they are debtors to free grace on that very account. And the more they do for God, and the better that they do it, they are always the deeper in debt to free grace, Ephesians 2:8-10). This benefit of the covenant, that we might serve Him, imports three things:
1. The privilege of God’s service. God is a master of infinite glory and power, so that to be admitted into His service is the greatest privilege. How do men value themselves, in that they are of an earthly king’s household, servants to one who wears a crown? But what a small thing is that, in comparison of this, to be the fellows of angels, in being taken into the service of Jehovah, the Lord of heaven and earth. It is a great part of heaven’s happiness. “For there His servants shall serve Him.”
2. Strength and ability for His service. “And I will strengthen them in the Lord, and they shall walk up and down in His name, saith the Lord.” “He that abideth in Me, and I in him,” saith Jesus, “the same bringeth forth much fruit; for without Me ye can do nothing.” “For His grace is sufficient for us, and His strength is made perfect in weakness.”
3. Acceptance of the service. For without faith it is impossible to please God. Concerning this covenant service, two things are further to be remarked.
1. The kind of service to God, in which sinners are instated by the covenant of grace; for there is a great difference of services. Now--
2. To the qualities of the service. They are these:
This may also direct you in your management of this solemn occasion of grace and salvation.
1. If ever you would be capable to serve the Lord, seek that you may be delivered from your spiritual enemies, taken out of their hands who keep you in bondage.
2. If ever you would obtain that deliverance from your spiritual enemies, seek it in the covenant, in a way of believing. “And if the Son make you free, you shall be free indeed.” Lastly, Seek that deliverance, that you may serve the Lord. Many seek deliverance by Christ, that they may live at ease in the embraces of their lusts, free from the fear of hell. (T. Boston.)
Serving the Lord in holiness
I. THE COVENANT DELIVERANCE BESTOWED. We, being delivered out of the hands of our enemies. I shall reduce these to four.
1. They are delivered from the law. Not from the law as a rule of life in the hand of a Mediator, standing in the covenant of grace; but from the law as a covenant, under which all men are in their natural state (Romans 6:14-15). They are delivered from the curse of it. From the commanding power of it. For how can it have a commanding power over them who are not under it? But they are as completely freed from it, as death can make a wife free from her husband.
2. From sin. Though they are not free from the indwelling of it in this life, and molestation by it, yet they are freed from its guilt of eternal wrath, by which it binds over the sinner to the revenging wrath of God. “There is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus.” They are freed also from the dominion of sin. “Sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under the law, but under grace.”
3. From death. Our Lord’s words are, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, if a man keep My saying, he shall never see death.” Lastly, from Satan, though not from molestation by him in this life; yet from under his power and dominion. Let us now--
II. Take notice of the covenant service, WHICH IS THE DESIGN OF THIS DELIVERANCE and not only the design of the deliverance, but also of the deliverer: which, therefore, shall certainly take effect in the delivered. I take it up in three things, according to the text. They shall serve the Lord--
1. As sons serving their Father. Love to their Father will set them to work.
2. They shall serve Him universally. “Then shall I not be ashamed, when I have respect to all Thy commandments.” They will serve the Lord internally and externally.
3. They will serve Him constantly. “I have inclined my heart to perform Thy statutes alway, even unto the end.” Let us--
III. SHOW THE NECESSARY CONNECTION BETWIXT THE COVENANT DELIVERANCE AND COVENANT SERVICE.
1. None can serve the Lord in this right manner, till once in the first place, they are delivered: no more than a dead corpse can rise and serve you Ephesians 2:1-10).
2. The soul being once thus delivered, will certainly serve the Lord “ in holiness and righteousness before Him.”
Use 1. The sanctification of sinners is the chief subordinate end of the covenant of grace, or of the gospel, standing next to the glory of God.
Use 2. They in whom the spirit of legalism, hypocrisy, and apostasy reigns, have no part nor lot in this matter. Lastly, as ever you would evidence yourselves God’s covenant people, partakers of this deliverance, serve no more the devil and your own lusts. (T. Boston.)
The practical nature of Christianity
I. The first blessing resulting from the Incarnation of Christ is DELIVERANCE FROM OUR ENEMY. Man’s worst enemy is the devil and sin. In one sense it may be said we are not freed from these, for temptation besets the path of the Christian all through life; and the best and holiest men must with shame confess that they day by day offend. Yet is it true that since the coming of Christ the power of the devil on earth is much diminished, our Lord having seen him like lightning fall from heaven, and having by His descent into hell triumphed over the dismal powers of despair and hell. Strong as temptation is, we know that no one is tempted beyond what he is able to resist, and if he have recourse to the passion of Christ he will obtain not only a victory but a crown.
II. The next result of Christ having come in the flesh is, THAT WE MAY SERVE HIM WITHOUT FEAR. To every son of Adam sufficient grace is given to save him, though, alas I we see too many neglect so gracious a gift. But if the work of Christ be thus enabling, what an obligation it lays on all to occupy with that precious talent. God has done all this to enable you to render to Him that service, which is not only perfect freedom, but the true end and happiness of the creature, the very purpose for which all things were called into being. And this service is without fear. The relation with God into which we are brought through His Divine Son is a filial one. We have received the adoption of sons, and therefore the more we act as dutiful children, the more we shall love our kind parent; and when love is perfect, then, we are told, it casts out fear. The fear thus cast out is distrust of God’s goodness and mercy, or the dread of ever being separated from His holy care. But we are not for a moment to believe that any supposed advance in the spiritual life entitles us to take liberties with the honour of Him, at whose sight the whole earth trembles.
III. THIS SERVICE IS IN HOLINESS AND RIGHTEOUSNESS. Holiness has been defined to be purity and strength, the clean heart and the strong will dedicated as an offering to God; and righteousness is the same as justice, and may be taken either for that one great quality, whereby we render both to God and to man what is due, or else for that habitual charity, which contains the whole cycle of the Christian duties.
IV. THIS SERVICE IS PROGRESSIVE AND CONTINUOUS--“All the days of our life.”
1. No man is really safe till his trial is over. A blight may come over the soul; temptation, hitherto successfully resisted, may at length be succumbed to; conscience drugged, the soul may finally be lost.
2. We must be ever advancing. It takes a long and a weary time to destroy the traces of old gin, and form ourselves upon the model of the new man. Even at the end we shall be far short of the ensample proposed to us, but there is comfort in the thought that even if we are not now what we ought to be, there is no necessity for staying as we are. God is ever calling us, and aiding us in our faintest efforts to obey that call. He mercifully deals with us both by prosperity and by adversity, if we only will submit to His loving discipline. (Bishop A. F. Forbes.)
Delivered from fear
How safe Noah, his family, and all the creatures in the ark were when God shut them in, and took them under His protection! A man dreamed that he was enclosed in a steel house, and though enemies came with guns, bayonets, and swords to kill him, he was perfectly safe. How much more secure are those who have God for their Refuge, Shield, and Protector. During a terrible storm at sea, a Christian officer was perfectly calm and fearless. His wife expressed surprise at this, when he drew his sword, and placing the point close to her breast, said, “ I could kill you.” “But,” she replied, “I am not afraid, because I know you love me, and you won’t hurt me.” ‘“So I fear not,” responded he, “because God loves me, and He won’t hurt me.” Knox was said never to have feared the face of any man. Chrysostom said once, “Go, tell her,” (Queen Eudoxia) “that I fear nothing but sin.” (H. R. Burton.)
Serving God and the fear of man
“Where in my deep distress I determined to call on God I wanted to be sure that no one should hear me. I went to the woods, where, at the foot of a large tree, I had pled alone a thousand times without the least fear of intrusion. But now I could not feel alone. Some one was on the other side of the tree. I walked round it, but still felt that some listener, eluding me, was on the other side. In this way I actually walked several times around the tree. Stopping, I said: What are men or devils that I should quail before them when seeking Jehovah? Then I prayed, and if the assembled universe had been there I should have prayed.” (Dr. Finney.)
Tormenting fear of God
And as I was brought up under the influence of fear of my parents, so I was also brought up under the influence of fear of God. I do not believe that there is any creature in India that goes before monstrous-mouthed idols with more quaking than I felt when I thought of Jehovah. I used to read those hymns of Watts, where he threw blood on the blazing throne, and quenched indignation, and brought forth love and mercy; and if I have not been through purgatory under the experience bred by the view presented in those hymns, nobody has I That which I hungered for and needed from the beginning was not terror. I was terrified enough. I had too much fear. And I remember perfectly--all eternity will not burn it out--when a change came over my feelings. I was walking near [Jane Seminary (where I studied theology without a hope), and was working over a lesson that I was to hear recited; and the idea dawned on me, not that there had been a covenant formed between God and His Son, but that Christ revealed the nature of God, whose very soul was curative, and who brought Himself and His living holiness to me, because I needed so much, and not because I was so deserving; and that instant the clouds rose, and the whole heaven was radiant, and I exclaimed, “I have found God!” and it was the first time I had found Him. Good His name was; and I went like one crazed up and down through the fields, half crying, half laughing, singing and praying and shouting like a good Methodist. (H. W. Beecher.)
All the days of our life
The holy and their heavenly prospects
True, all our lives long we shall be bound to refrain our soul and keep it low; but what then?
For the books we now forbear to read, we shall one day be endued with wisdom and knowledge. For the music we will not listen to, we shall join in the song of the redeemed. For the pictures from which we turn, we shall gaze unabashed on the beatific vision. For the companionship we shun, we shall be welcomed into angelic society and the communion of triumphant saints. For the pleasures we miss, we shall abide, and evermore abide, in the rapture of heaven. It cannot be much of a hardship to dress modestly, and at small cost, rather than richly and fashionably, if, with a vivid conviction, we are awaiting the “white robes of the redeemed.” And, indeed, this anticipation of pure and simple white robes for eternal wear may fairly shake belief in the genuine beauty of elaborate showiness, even for such clothes as befitted in the present distress. (Christina G. Rossetti.)
What is the base line of the Bible? It is sin. And it is not one of the chief reasons why the Bible is made so little of that men do not realize what sin is--how dreadful and how fatal it is? What is the horizontal line of the Bible? It is holiness. That is where earth and heaven meet. But on that horizon line there is only one point of sight, it is where God and man meet in Christ, in whom alone holiness can be found. (John Munro Gibson.)
Ambition to excel in holiness
“There is nothing,” it might have seemed when the first settlers of Massachusetts established the English race on the cheerless shores, the barren rocks, the trackless forests of this continent. Yet there was everything; there was the hope of a new world; there were the elements of a mighty nation, if only those who followed after sustained the high spirit and great resolves of those who had gone before. It was but two days ago that I read in the close of a volume written by the founder of the venerable village of Concord, a sentence which ought to bring at once the noblest encouragement and the sternest rebuke to every citizen of this Commonwealth. “There is no people,” says Peter Bulkley, in his Gospel Covenant, in the year 1646, to his little flock of exiles, “There is no people but will strive to excel in something. What can we excel in if not in holiness? If we look to numbers, we are the fewest; if to strength, we are the weakest; if to wealth and riches, we are the poorest of all, the people of God throughout the whole world. We cannot excel, nor so much as equal, other people in these things; and, if we come short in grace and holiness, we are also the most despicable people under heaven. Strive we therefore to excel, and suffer not this crown to be taken away from us, (Dean Stanley.)
To give knowledge of salvation
Source of salvation
All great rivers, unlike some great men who have begun life in lowly circumstances, boast a lofty descent.
It is after the Alpine traveller has left smiling valleys beneath him, and toiling along rugged glens and through deep mountain gorges, reaches at length the shores of an icy sea, that he stands at the source of the river, which, cold as the snows that feed it, and a full-grown torrent at its birth, rushes out from the cavern of the hollowed glacier. Yet such a river, in the loftiness of its birth-place, is but an humble image of salvation. How high its source! “He showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb.” (T. Guthrie, D. D.)
God a great forgiver
Mr. Fleming, in his “Fulfilling of the Scriptures,” relates the case of a man who was a very great sinner, and for his horrible wickedness was put to death in the town of Ayr. This man had been so stupid and brutish a fellow, that all who knew him thought him beyond the reach of all ordinary means of grace; but while the man was in prison the Lord wonderfully wrought on his heart, and in such a measure discovered to him his sinfulness, that, after much serious exercise and sore wrestling, a most kindly work of repentance followed, with great assurance of mercy, insomuch that when he came to the place of execution he could not cease crying out to the people, under the sense of pardon and the comforts of the presence and favour of God, “ Oh, He is a great forgiver! He is a great forgiver!” And he added the following words: “Now hath perfect love cast out fear. I know God hath nothing to lay against me, for Jesus Christ hath paid all; and those are free whom the Son makes free.” (Arvine.)
Nature silent concerning salvation.
On one occasion the late Dr. Newton was travelling in a railway carriage, when he found himself in the presence of an infidel, who soon began to obtrude his opinions upon his fellow passengers, declaring his contempt for the Bible, adding that he did not need it; the book of nature affording him all the information that he required on religious and moral subjects. Dr. Newton, observing a young man in the company who might receive some injury from these remarks, deemed it his duty to interfere. Looking at the infidel, he said, “ The book of nature, sir, that you have mentioned, is a large volume, and he is a very learned man that is acquainted with all its contents. Yet there is one subject on which I think it gives no information.” “Indeed,” said the infidel, “what is that?” “What is that,” rejoined Dr. Newton, “ it is salvation.” “Salvation!” exclaimed the infidel. “Aye, salvation,” rejoined the Doctor. “Every man is sensible from what passes in his own conscience that he has done wrong, and that that which all people confess to be morally wrong, everywhere meets our sight. To do wrong renders us liable to punishment, and therefore we need salvation. But where do you find anything about salvation in the book of nature? Do you find it in the grass of the fields, either when it grows or when it fades away? Do you find it in the ever-varying surface of the sea? or in the clouds as they pass over your head? The book which you too exclusively admire was written too soon for the purpose of instructing men with respect to the nature and method of salvation. It was written before there was sin in the world, and therefore before salvation was needed.” The infidel stood aghast, and said not a word.
Through the tender mercy of our God
A VERY AFFECTING VIEW OF THE STATE OF MANKIND BEFORE CHRIST CAME. “Darkness and the shadow of death.”
1. Ignorant of the moral character of God.
2. Ignorant of the purity of God’s law.
3. Ignorant as to the evil nature and dreadful consequences of sin.
4. Ignorant as to the true source of happiness.
5. Ignorant regarding the future state.
II. A VERY INTERESTING DESCRIPTION OF THE SAVIOUR. “The Dayspring.”
1. The great source of light;
2. The dayspring is gradual and progressive.
3. The dayspring is certain and irresistible. The darkest moral clouds must eventually succumb to the bright beams shed by the Sun of Righteousness.
4. The day-spring is free, and common to all.
III. A VERY ENCOURAGING REPRESENTATION OF THE DESIGN OF CHRIST’S MISSION.
1. TO give light. He has shown Himself
2. To give peace.
Notice in conclusion:
1. The infinite condescension of Jehovah in inter posing on our behalf.
2. The Christian’s duty and privilege.
3. The miserable state of those who hear the good news, and yet hold aloof.
4. If the pleasures of religion be so great upon earth, what must be the enjoyment of believers in the upper world? (Dr. Scott.)
The tender mercy of our God
The original is, “The mercy of the heart of our God.” This seems to mean not only tenderness, but much more. The mercy of the heart of God is, of course, the mercy of His great tenderness, the mercy of His infinite gentleness and consideration; but other thoughts also come forth from the expression, like bees from a hive. It means the mercy of God’s very soul. The heart is the seat and centre of life, and mercy is to God as His own life. Mercy is of the Divine essence; there is no God apart from His heart, and mercy lies in the heart of God. Nor is this all; the mercy of God’s heart means His hearty mercy, His cordial delight in mercy. Remission of sins is a business into which the Lord throws His heart. He forgives with an intensity of will and readiness of soul. God made heaven and earth with His fingers, but He gave His Son with His heart in order that He might save sinners. The eternal God has thrown His whole soul into the business of redeeming men.
I. God shows His tender mercy in that HE DEIGNS TO VISIT US. He has not merely pitied us from a distance, and sent us relief by way of the ladder which Jacob saw, but He has Himself visited us.
1. God’s great visit to us is the incarnation of our blessed Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
2. The proclamation of the gospel in a nation, or to any individual, is a visit of God’s mercy.
3. He has visited some of us in a more remarkable manner still, for by the Holy Spirit He has entered into our hearts, and changed the current of our lives. He has turned our affections towards that which is right by enlightening our judgments. He has led us to the confession of sin, He has brought us to the acceptance of His mercy through the atoning blood; and so He has truly saved us.
II. God shows His tender mercy in that HE VISITS US AS THE DAYSPRING FROM ON HIGH He does not come to us in Christ, or by His Spirit, as a tempest, as when He came from Paran, with ten thousand of His holy ones, in all the pomp of His fiery law; but He has visited us as smiling morn, which in gentle glory floods the world with joy. He has come, moreover, not as a blaze which will soon die down, but as a light which will last our day, yea, last for ever. After the long dark and cold night of our misery, the Lord cometh in the fittest and most effectual manner; neither as lightning, nor candle, nor flaming meteor, but as the sun which begins the day.
1. The visitation of the Lord to us is as the dayspring, because it suits our eye. Day, when it first breaks in the east, has not the blaze of burning noon about it; but peeps forth as a grey light, which gradually increases. So did Christ come; dimly, as it were, at first, at Bethlehem, but by and by He will appear in all the glory of the Father. So does the Spirit of God come to us in gradual progress. The revelation of God to each individual is made in form and manner tenderly agreeable to the condition and capacity of the favoured one. He shows us just so much of Himself as to delight us without utterly overwhelming us with the excess of brightness.
2. The visits of God are like the dayspring, because they end our darkness. Our night is ended once for all when we behold God visiting us in Christ Jesus. Our day may cloud over, but night will not return.
3. Christ’s coming into the world is as the morning light, because He comes with such a largeness of present blessing. He is the Light which lighteneth every man. There is other light.
4. Christ’s coming is as the dayspring, because He brings us hope of greater glory yet to come. The dayspring is not the noon, but it is the sure guarantee of it; and so the First Advent is the pledge of the glory to be revealed.
III. There is another instance of great tenderness in this, that THE LORD VISITS US IN OUR WRY LOWEST ESTATE. God comes to us as the morning, which does not wait for man, nor tarry for the sons of men. He gives with gladness to those who have no deservings of any kind (Romans 5:6; Rom_5:8). He comes to us when we are--
1. In our sins.
2. In darkness.
3. In ruin.
IV. Our God shows His tender mercy, in that HE VISITS US WITH SUCH WONDERFUL AND JOYFUL RESULTS. Imagine a caravan in the desert, which has long lost its way, and is famishing. The sun has long gone down, and the darkness has caused every one’s heart to droop. All around them is a waste of sand, and an Egyptian darkness. There they must remain and die unless they can find the track. They feel themselves to be in a fearful case, for hungry and thirsty, their soul fainteth in them. They cannot even sleep for fear. Heavier and heavier the night comes down, and the damps are on the tents, chilling the souls of the travellers. What is to be done? How they watch! Alas, no star comforts them! At last the watchmen cry, “The morning cometh!” It breaks over the sea of sand, and, what is better, it reveals a heap which had been set up as a waymark, and the travellers have found the track. The dayspring has saved them from swift destruction by discovering the way of peace. Conclusion: If the tender mercy of God has visited us; let us exhibit tender mercy in our dealings with our fellow-men. (C. H.Spurgeon.)
The gradual development of redemption
Our subject matter is the gradual development of redemption, like the sun, “shining more and more unto perfect day.”
I. THERE IS A GRADUALNESS IN ALL THE WORKS OF GOD. In the physical sphere, gradual development is a universal law. At first, all was a chaos of lifeless matter, then vegetable life appeared, then low forms of brute life, then the mammal, and then the man. The world did not reach its present state in a few seconds--the chaos did not become a cosmos in an hour. In the first day’s work we only see power; but in the second day’s work we see wisdom; and in the third day’s work we see goodness; and thus from step to step we advance, until the sixth day brings forth the crowning glory, man, the lord of creation, filled with the harmonies of the skies. Creation is not a fungus-growth, but a gradual oak-growth In the intellectual and moral spheres there is gradualness. Even our consciousness develops. Natural consciousness develops gradually, and the reflective consciousness of the profound thinker is only a further development of the natural. We grow step by step. Our education proceeds gradually. The prince and the pauper must begin with the alphabet and the multiplication table, and then onward, “line upon line, and precept upon precept.” Our great discoveries have been gradual. How slowly did the astrology of the ancients develop into our nineteenth-century astronomy! How gradually did the alchemy of the fathers grow into the modern chemistry of a Faraday! And, again, in the moral sphere there is gradual development. The new man in Christ Jesus is not made of full stature all at once. For a time, he is “a little one in Christ,” then he “grows in grace,” and, finally, he reaches unto “the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.”
II. WE REASON FROM ANALOGY THAT THE GRADUALNESS WE FIND IN NATURE AND MAN MAY ALSO BE EXPECTED IN THE PROGRESS OF REDEMPTION, FOR GOD IS THE AUTHOR OF BOTH. The God of the rock and star is also the Cod of the Bible, and we are not surprised to find this gradual development in Revelation four thousand years intervening between the fall of the first Adam and the advent of the second Adam. Redemption grew as the world grew--it grew as the human grace grew--slowly. As far as we know, God was powerful enough to bring aboutredemption sooner; but for some wise purpose, He left the world in the dim starlight for forty centuries. Why this slowness? He is never in a hurry, for He “seeth the end from the beginning.” The march of the Hebrews from Egypt to Canaan, if they had taken a direct route, would have only occupied them a few months; but the Lord kept them in the lone desert for forty years. The Divine is never in a hurry. Jesus Christ spent thirty years on earth before He performed one miracle--no hurry! And, indeed, we rejoice in this gradualness. We cordially thank God for it. And why? Simply because a full-orbed revelation all at once would overwhelm us. If the natural sun were to reach its meridian at once, the tender green of earth would be reduced to ashes. “O God, how gracious Thou art to reveal Thyself gradually unto us in a manner adapted to our weak capacities. It is no punishment to withhold these mighty mysteries from us, but a mercy.” And, besides, friends, we would not be satisfied with a little Christ, that could be fully and completely revealed in a century or two. We are great sinners, and we need a great Christ to save us--a Christ that demands, not six thousand years, but all the countless years of eternity to reveal Him to the full. And, blessed be God, that Christ is to be found in our glorious gospel. And let us not think that the development of relation is yet at an end. No, far from it.
III. THE DEVELOPMENT OF REDEMPTION FROM STAGE TO STAGE. (J. O.Davies.)
Waiting for the dayspring
Many a hoary seer longed for the dayspring, but saw it not. A sweet Welsh evangelist has a very striking illustration on this point. About Christmas time, John the elder brother is expected home from London by the midnight train. All the younger children are in ecstasy, and they all wish to stay up until his arrival. “Pray, father, let us stay up to wait John home,” is the universal petition. But the reply is, “No, my dear ones, it will be too long for you to wait; you must go to rest; you shall see John in the morning--not sooner.” Friends, the ancient prophets expected a Saviour--their Elder Brother Jesus. How delighted they would be to see Him in the flesh; but they were compelled to enter the cold bed of the grave before His arrival. David cried, “Father, let me see the Horn of Salvation of which I sang so well.” “No, My child, you must retire.” Job implored, “Father, let me see my living Redeemer.” “No, My child, you must retire; but you shall see him after you awake on the resurrection morning.” Malachi cried, “Father, I am about the last of them all; do let me see the Sun of Righteousness of which I sang so sweetly.” “No, My child, you must retire to rest; it will be too long for you to wait.” And they silently retired into their cold graves to rest. But at last, hoary-headed Simeon advanced, and earnestly implored, “Oh! my Father, the train is nearly in, according to my brother Daniel’s table; do let me stay up to see the Consolation of Israel.” “Yes, My child, thy request is granted,” said the Father, and the old saint was allowed to see the daybreak, and so delighted was he with its splendour that he prayed for death--(what a strong saint!)--“Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people--a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel! “Thank heaven, the Sun has risen, and the world is now enveloped in a glorious day! (J. O. Davies.)
The mercy of God
A living sense of the tender mercy of God should actuate us in the path of duty, and on the way to heaven. In what respects the tender mercy of God is displayed towards His creatures.
I. IN THE CHARACTER WHICH GOD HAS THOUGHT FIT TO ASSUME TOWARDS HIS DEPENDENT CREATURES. He feels towards us as a parent for His offspring Who but a father would have devised such a scheme of redemption?
II. IN THE TEMPORAL GOOD HIS TENDER MERCY IS MANIFEST. The merciful arrangement which marks the course of human life. For instance, an infant is more dependent upon the aid of others than any other creature; to meet this necessity, God has graciously made the strongest of all human instincts that of a mother’s affection for her child. Here His tender mercy is abundantly shown. Again, as we advance in life, God’s mercy is no less exhibited. It was necessary for Him to mark His disapprobation of sin by what is called a curse. Instead of bodily deformity and constant pain, the curse was that we should labour, which is at once a great source of health and happiness. Even death is so introduced to us that he ceases in his approach to wear the aspect of the king of terrors, and is regarded as a kind friend come to relieve us of weariness and pain. The mercy of God is evident in the affections incident to life; saints, apostles, and martyrs have experienced the blessedness of suffering. Then think of the positive blessings with which God has, in His mercy, chosen to sweeten the cup of mortal existence. We are born in a Christian land; health, &c. How improving to our souls must be a right consideration of the Divine mercies. (A. Garry, M. A.)
God’s mercy towards a dark world
I. THE CONDITION OF THE WORLD PREVIOUSLY TO THE ADVENT OF CHRIST.
1. A state of ignorance.
2. A state of danger.
II. THE MERCY OF GOD TOWARD THE WORLD IN THAT CONDITION.
III. THE MANNER IN WHICH THE MERCY OF GOD WAS MANIFESTED.
1. He sent His son to enlighten it in its ignorance.
2. He sent His son to guide it in its danger. (G. Brooks.)
Darkness and danger
There are beneath the suburbs of the ancient city of Rome many dark and narrow passages, excavated in the soft stone. These are called the catacombs, and were used as burial places by the early Christians. These passages are very many, crossing and re-crossing each other, and stretching for an immense distance underground in a most bewildering manner. So complicated and puzzling is this labyrinth of subterranean galleries that it is most dangerous to explore them without a guide. A young artist once ventured to visit them alone, taking with him a few candles, and ensuring his safe return by a ball of twine, one end of which he fastened securely outside. After a time, he sat down to sketch in one of the gloomy recesses, having, as he thought, made his end of the clue safe under a stone. But rising suddenly to alter his sketch, he overturned and extinguished his candle. He hastened to strike a match, but found that through some forgetfulness only two or three remained, and in his nervous haste he failed to get these to ignite. He now hurriedly sought the line to guide him back to the entrance, but he could nowhere find it. It had slipped from its place. In vain he sought for it; casting himself on the ground, he felt for it in every direction, but could nowhere discover it. He despaired of ever again reaching the daylight; he thought he must die of hunger, wandering through the hopeless maze of those dark passages; but just as he threw himself in utter despondency once more on the earth, he felt something beneath his hand. It was the twine--and he was safe! Thus the Gentiles “sat in darkness”; thus the heathen world groped after truth. They were lost in the gloomy recesses of ignorance and doubt. But the good news of a Redeemer came like a guiding clue, leading them into the warmth and light and sunshine of Christianity. (W. Hardman, LL. D.)
The necessity and glory of Christ
The dayspring signifies the sun. The worship of the sun was the greatest of the heathen worships. How glorious the sun is! How necessary! An apt emblem of the necessity and the glory of Christ. Without Him we could have no check, no conscience, and therefore no peace, and no confidence. But then, if Christ be so necessary, how is it that men can live in ignorance of Him? Are there not blind men in the world? They are very apt images of unbelievers The sun brings up corn and fruit for them as for us. They feel his warmth, and seek it out, not to see him, but because it is warmer. So men of the world are helped and comforted by the virtues of Christians, and what goes on unseen by themselves. And so they are honest, and so forth, because it is the best policy, and sheds a sunny glow over their lives. And all the while they have never seen or known Him, and have only heard of Him with the hearing of the ear. The blind do not see the sun in summer rising higher in the heavens; they only feel that it is warmer. So these do not see Christ’s kingdom enlarging itself, but only rejoice that there is more honesty and kindliness abroad. In this way the world feels and knows that it is the better for Christ’s coming. Very different is it with those whose eyes are opened, and who really see. They know in whom they have believed. They are guided into the way of peace. (Bishop E. Steere.)
The dayspring from on high
We may notice three things in the text:--
I. A DECLARATION OF A MOST BLESSED FACT--“The daypring from on high hath visited us.”
II. THE SOURCE AND ORIGIN OF THAT BLESSED FACT “Through the tender mercy of our God.”
III. ITS DIVINE FRUITS AND CONSEQUENCES.” TO give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death; to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
I. In looking at these three points connected with, and springing out of the text, I shall rather invert their order; and consider, first, the original spring and source of the blessings mentioned in the text. This is set forth in the words, “Through the tender mercy of our God.” Mercy is the source and fountain of all our spiritual blessings. But what is mercy? It embraces several particulars.
1. It embraces a feeling of pity and compassion. But pity and compassion do not fill up the whole idea of mercy; for we read, that God’s “tender mercies are over all His works” (Psalms 145:9). Thus the Lord, in sparing Nineveh, “remembered even the cattle (Jonah 4:11). And when He caused the waters of the deluge to assuage it was because he “ remembered Noah, and every living thing, and all the cattle that was with him in the ark” (Genesis 8:1). There is in the bosom of their Creator mercy and pity even for the brute creation. As full of mercy, He also “relieveth the fatherless and widow” (Psalms 146:9); and “loveth the stranger, in giving him food and raiment” (Deuteronomy 10:18).
2. We must, therefore, add to the idea of pity and compassion, another mark, that of pardon, in order to show what mercy is as extended to the family of God. For the Lord’s people are sinners; and as such, being transgressors of God’s holy law, need pardon and forgiveness.
3. But in order to complete the full description of mercy, we must ever view it as flowing through the blood and obedience of Immanuel. Mercy, was not, like creation, a mere display of an attribute of Jehovah. If I may use the expression, it cost the Godhead a price: “Ye are bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:20). But there is an expression in the text that heightens, and casts a sweet light upon this mercy. It is there called tender mercy; literally, as it is in the margin, “bowels of mercy.” Not mere mercy; but “tender mercy.” Not cold and naked mercy; but mercy flowing forth out of the bowels of Divine compassion. Now nothing but “ tender mercy” could ever look down with compassion upon the sons of men, or pluck out of the depths of the fall such ruined wretches. But to view mercy in its real character, we must go to Calvary.
II. But we pass on to consider that solemn declaration, that blessed fact contained in the words--“ Whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us.” There is a connection, you will observe, betwixt the “tender mercy of God,” and the visiting of “the dayspring from on high.” The “tender mercy of God” is the fountain, and the “visiting of the dayspring from on high” is the stream. Let us then endeavour, if God enable us, to unfold the mind of the Spirit in the words. First. What is meant by the expression “dayspring?” By “dayspring” is meant the day-dawn, the herald of the rising sun, the change from darkness to light, the first approach of morn; in one word, the spring of the day. But what is this “dayspring” spiritually? It is the intimation of the rising of the Sun of Righteousness. It is not the same thing as the Sun of Righteousness; but it is the herald of His approach; the beams which the rising sun casts upon the benighted world, announcing the coming of Jesus, “the King in His beauty.” This expression was singularly applicable in the mouth of Zacharias. The Lord of life and glory had not then appeared; He was still in the womb of the Virgin Mary. But His forerunner, John, had appeared as the precursor, the herald of His approach, and was sent to announce that the Sun of Righteousness was about to arise. But there is another, an experimental meaning, connected with the words. “The dayspring from on high” is not to be confined to the approach of the Son of God in the flesh; but it may be extended to signify the appearance of the Son of God in the heart. Now, “the dayspring from on high” visits the soul with the very first Divine intimation dropped into the conscience respecting the Person, work, love, and blood of the Son of God. Until this day-dawn beams upon the soul, it is for the most part ignorant of the way by which a sinner is to be saved. But the first “dayspring from on high” which usually visits the soul is from a view by precious faith of the glorious person of Immanuel. Until we see by the eye of faith the glorious Person of “Immanuel, God with us,” there is no day-dawn in the heart. But, in looking at the glorious Person of the Son of God, we catch a faith’s view of His atoning blood, and see it to be of infinite dignity. So also with respect to the glorious righteousness of Immanuel. But what a sweetness there is in the expression, “visited us!” What is conveyed by it One idea contained in it is, that it is the act of a friend. If I have a friend, and I visit him, my visit is a mark of my friendship and affection. But another idea connected with the word “ visit,” is that of unexpectedness. Is it not so sometimes naturally? We have an unexpected visit. We may have been looking for our friend to call; but the time passes away, and no well-known rap is heard at our door. We wonder why our friend delays his coming so long. But perhaps, when we are least expecting it, the form of our friend appears. So spiritually. We may be longing and languishing, hoping, and expecting the visit of the day-spring from on high;” but it does not appear; the Lord delayeth His coming; there is no intimation of His appearing, no putting in of His hand by the hole of the door, no looking in through the lattice, no glimpse nor glance of His lovely countenance, But perhaps, when least expected, and least anticipated; when the mind is so deeply sunk as scarcely to dare to hope, so shut up in unbelief as hardly able to vent forth a sigh, “the dayspring from on high” will visit the soul, and be all the more precious for coming so suddenly and unexpectedly.
III. But this “day-spring from on high” visits the soul to produce certain effects. Two of them are specified in the text. “To give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death;” that is one: “to guide our feet in the way of peace;” that is the other.
1. “To give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death.” Is this what “the dayspring from on high” visiting us is to do? Must we not then know something of the experience here described to be blest with the visit? But let us look at the words a little more closely. “To such as sit in darkness.” What is the darkness here spoken of? Is it merely what I may call moral darkness? Natural darkness? No; it is not the darkness of unregeneracy; it is not the darkness of sin and profanity; nor is it the darkness of a mere empty profession. These things are indeed darkness, gross darkness; but those who are thus blinded by the god of this world never sit experimentally in darkness. They are like the Jews of old, who said, “We see; therefore their sin remaineth.” “We dark? we ignorant? we scorn the idea.” Such is the language of empty profession. Bat the Lord’s
own quickened, tender-hearted family often painfully know what it is to sit in darkness. But whence does this darkness arise. Strange to say, it arises from light. Darkness as darkness is never seen. Darkness as darkness is never felt. Light is needed to see darkness; life is required to feel darkness. There are children in Hungary born and bred at the bottom of a mine. Do these children ever know what darkness is, like one who comes down there out of the broad light of day? Were they not told there was a sun above--did not some tidings of the light of day reach their ears, they might live and die ignorant that there was a sun in the heavens. So spiritually. Man, born and bred in the depths of nature’s mine, does not know that he is dark; but when Divine light enters into his soul, that discovers to him his darkness; for it is the light which makes manifest all things; as the apostle says, “But all things that are reproved are made manifest by the light; for whatsoever doth make manifest is light” (Ephesians 5:13). Thus, it is the light of God’s teaching in a man’s conscience that makes him know his darkness; and Divine life in his soul makes it felt. But what does darkness imply? The absence of everything that brings light and peace into the heart. But there is one word in the text which conveys to my mind much, that is, “sitting in darkness.” They are not represented as standing; that might imply a mere momentary transition from light to darkness. They are not represented as running; that might imply they would soon get out of the darkness. They are not represented as lying down; that might lead to suppose they were satisfied with their darkness. But they are represented as sitting in darkness. Then surely they are not dead. Nor do they sit at ease and at rest; but are in that posture, because they can neither move backward or forward, nor turn either to the right hand or to the left. In ancient medals that were struck when Jerusalem was led captive by the Romans, she is represented as sitting on the ground. The same thing is intimated in Psalms 137:1-2. “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down; yea we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.” Sitting was with the ancients the posture of mourning. Job “sat down among the ashes;” (Job 2:8); and his friends “ sat down with him upon the ground” (verse 13). “Her gates,” says Isaiah Isaiah 3:26), “shall lament and mourn; and she, being desolate, shall sit on the ground.” Sitting implies also a continuance in the state; a waiting, a watching, a desiring, a looking out for the light to come. But again. There is another word added, which throws light upon the character of those who are visited from time to time with “the dayspring from on high.” They sit not only in darkness, but in the shadow of death. How expressive this word is--“the shadow of death!” There are several ideas, in my mind, connected with the word. We will look, first, at the idea contained in the expression “death.” Death with respect to the family of God wears two aspects. There is death experimental in their hearts, that is, deadness in their frames; and there is death temporal--the separation of soul from the body. Each of these kinds of death casts at times a gloomy shadow over the souls of God’s people. The word is very expressive. They are not sitting in death: were they sitting there, they would be dead altogether; but they are sitting in the shadow of death. Observe, death has lost its reality to them; it now can only cast a shadow, often a gloomy shadow, over their souls; but there is no substance. The quickening of the Spirit of God in them has destroyed the substance of death spiritually; and the death and resurrection of Jesus has destroyed the substance of death naturally. Yet, though the gloomy monster, deadness of soul, and that ghastly king of terrors, the death of the body, have been disarmed and destroyed by “Immanuel, God with us;” yet each of them casts at times a gloomy, darkling shadow over the souls of those that fear God. Is not your soul, poor child of God, exercised from time to time with this inward death? Deadness in prayer, deadness in reading the word, deadness in hearing the truth, deadness in desires after the Lord, deadness to everything, holy, spiritual, heavenly, and divine? Do you not feel a torpidity, a numbness, a carnality, a worldliness, that seem at times to freeze up every desire of your soul? I do. O how this cold, clammy monster death seems to wrap its benumbing arms around a man’s soul! I have read of a voyager, who, whilst looking for shells on a desert rock, was suddenly caught in the arms of a huge polypus, a sea monster. The sickening sensation produced by this cold and clammy monster clasping him with his huge suckers, and drawing him to his jaws to devour him, he describes as being unutterable, and he was only rescued by the captain’s coming to his aid with a knife. I may compare, perhaps, our frequent deadness of soul clasping its arms around every desire of our heart, to the clasping of this poor man in the clammy arms of the sea monster. How it benumbs and paralyzes every breathing of our soul Godward! How all prayer, all panting desire, all languishing affection, all spirituality and heavenly-mindedness, all solid worship, all filial confidence, all the fruits and graces of the Spirit are blighted and withered by the deathliness that we so continually feel!
2. But there is another word added, another result of the visiting of “the dayspring from on high”--“to guide our feet into the way of peace.” The way of peace? Does not that comprehend all? Do those that fear God want anything but peace? What do we want? The way of war, of enmity, of rebellion, of restlessness? No. We want the way of peace. But what is implied in the expression? Peace implies two things. It implies, first, reconciliation from a state of enmity; and secondly, the felt enjoyment of this reconciliation in the heart. But we want guiding in the way. And when “the dayspring from on high” visits the soul, it guides the feet into the way. There is something very sweet in the expression. It does not drive, does not force, but opens a door, and enables the soul to enter in; discovers the way, and gives the soul faith to walk in it. (J. C. Philpot.)
The tenderness of God
God is not only energetic, but tender also in action. He is the God of the dewdrops, as well as the God of the thundershowers; the God of the tender grass blade, as much as of the mountain oak. We read of great machines which are able to crush iron bars, and yet they can touch so gently as not to break the shell of the smallest egg; as it is with them, so it is with the hand of the Most High: He can crush a world, and yet bind up a wound. And great need have we of tenderness in our low estate; a little thing would crush us; we have such bruised and feeble souls, that unless we had One who would deal tenderly with us, we must soon be destroyed. There are many soul diseases to which a tender hand alone can minister; just as there are many states of body which need tender and patient nursing, and which cannot otherwise be successfully dealt with, even by any amount of skill. This tenderness we see continually in action, in woman’s ministrations in ordinary life. Her voice has notes more sweet and soft than can be distilled from any instrument of music; her hand has a touch more delicate and fine than ever the breath of any summer’s breeze; it is to her that man carries the stories of his sorrows; it is she that has to soothe his heavy, aching head; well as he thinks he can do without her, in the more exciting scenes of life, he finds he is not independent when the time comes for suffering and grief. And what makes woman equal to sustaining the heavy burden thus cast upon her? How comes the ivy to be able to sustain the oak around which it used to cling, ornamenting it, while it owned its lordship and strength I She does all in the power of the tenderness of her nature; rugged and uncouth would life indeed be if such tenderness were withdrawn. But pass away to Divine things--from woman, to Him that was born of woman, and what do we find but tenderness of action in Him? That tenderness which in any of mankind is but a spark from the fire, is perfect in His bosom; its fulness is there; and it is continually being shown to them. (P. B. Power, M. A.)
Explanation of the imagery
A caravan misses its way, and is lost in the desert; the unfortunate pilgrims, overtaken by night, are sitting down in the midst of this fearful darkness, expecting death. All at once a bright star rises in the horizon and lights up the plain: the travellers, taking courage at this sight, arise, and by the light of this star find the road which leads them to the end of their journey. (F. Godet, D. D.)
The night of humanity
It may seem strange that we should call the condition of our race before Christ’s appearance night--darkness and shadow of death. But what is the meaning of its being night? It is night where the light is wanting that lightens our way, in whose brightness we are able to distinguish and understand the value of the things around us; that light that shows us where there are ways to walk in, the aims which we should pursue, and the means by which we may attain them. Where there is such certainty of knowledge and work there is day; where that is wanting, the light can only be a dim one; even with open eyes, all knowledge is only fancy, all work only groping in the dark. There no life can bring forth fruit; it may be filled with all kinds of beautiful dreams, but only with dreams; but upon the dream follows an awakening with more bitter pain the more beautiful the dreams were Was it really night upon the earth, before the Saviour came? Yes, we dare not judge otherwise: it was night. Men had indeed attempted to make artificial light, but it did not really illuminate. The focus in which at last all rays must converge, in order to show themselves as truth, was wanting. It was really night--cold, dark, unlovely night. (R. Rothe, D. D.)
The Dayspring from on high: Christ as the Dawn
This splendid figure of speech is taken from the dawn of morning on the night. And in order to understand fully the force of the rhetoric, we must bear in mind one of the natural phenomena of those eastern regions. So pure is the atmosphere there, so far south, that clouds in the sky are not usual save in the rainy season. There seems really nothing to hinder the sun’s going down, nothing to get in the way of his rising again. When he sets, he goes abruptly behind the adjacent hill; when he rises, he comes up unannounced, and in a quick moment is altogether on hand for his daily work--that is to say, there is positively no twilight, as we describe it, in those latitudes. The instant the day reaches its natural close, the sun appears to slide down the sky without any leave-taking. Just so when the dawn starts. When yesterday’s monarch dismisses himself, and it is time for to-day’s to succeed him, there he is, unheralded and serenely unhurried, calmly seated in his shining pavilion of clear Mr. Zacharias seizes this astonishing figure, and turns it to account. For four centuries it had been dark--dark with sin, ignorance, oppression--and now in one excited instant of disclosure, the Sun of Righteousnesshad risen with healing in His wings. No wonder his heart was full; no wonder his dumbness gave way, and his glad voice lifted such a song! Let us keep singing on, and always singing on about the dayspring from on high which has visited us. The light of the gospel is a gleam of the light of heaven. Oh, what will the full splendour of the noon be by and by? When the Gauls had tasted the wine of Italy, they began to ask where the grapes grew, and they would never be quiet till they came there. (C. S.Robinson, D. D.)
The sun an emblem of Christ
The sun is the fountain of light to this lower world. Day by day it rises on us with its gladdening beams, and with the return of light is connected the sense of reviving power in ourselves; invigorated health and cheerfulness; renewed and willing application to appointed duties. God Himself has made it the ruler over the day. All nature seems to own its influence. The flowers that drooped, or closed their leaves during the night, expand themselves again when the sun arises. The gorgeous colours with which the clouds that were lately dark are now illuminated, bespeak the return of the absent king; and the clouds themselves are scattered at his approach. The loathsome or savage creatures that love darkness now “get them away together, and lay down in their dens. Man goeth forth to his work and to his labour until the evening.” Christ is to the moral world what the sun is to the natural world; the source of life, and health, and motion. He is the “Sun of Righteousness,” because the robe of righteousness in which His people “shine” is the light from Him which they reflect; and on this account His Church is said to be “clothed with the sun.” And the inward righteousness also, in which they are created anew after the image of God, is derived from His illuminating presence in their hearts. And He rises on us “with healing in His wings,” because He brings with Him, day by day, spiritual health to those who are diseased in soul, comfort to those who mourn, rest to the weary and heavy-laden. The world had long lain in darkness and the shadow of death, waiting with earnest expectation for the first tokens of the “dayspring from on high,” even as travellers in a starless night, or as they that watch in loneliness and weariness, wait with eager longing for the burst of morning. At length the Sun of Righteousness arose, when He who was with the Father from all eternity was born at Bethlehem, and took our nature upon Him. And as the light from the morning sun travels with inconceivable speed to the remotest corners of the earth, and penetrates into the darkest recesses, so did the light from the Sun of Righteousness penetrate the dark places of the earth. It scattered the mists of ignorance and sin, and called forth from the garden of God’s Church those fruits and flowers which it could never otherwise have borne. Nor is His power to heal and comfort diminished by the lapse of years. As the sun in the heavens has the same quickening and cheering power over the material world, as in the day when God first formed it and set it in the heavens; so have the beams of the Sun of Righteousness the same efficacy to heal the wounded conscience, and to comfort the afflicted soul, as when they first shone upon His humble followers. (Bishop Trower.)
Safety in the light of day
A band of fugitives were crossing an eastern desert. The night was dark, but they determined to push on. Soon they lost their way, and had to spend the night in anxiety and fear. It seemed as if the night would never pass. But almost all at once the sun arose, bringing daylight and showing the way of safety. Not one of them ever forgot that sun-rising. So to us, in our wanderings, the Dayspring has arisen, pointing out the way of safety. Illustrate by the case of a man in an open boat, or a traveller crossing a moor at night, and uncertain of his way A cloud passes from the sky, and the polestar is seen. Then he knows the way of safety. (Sunday School Times.)
Christ our Dayspring
How pertinent is that question of the Almighty as it breaks from the whirlwind, “Hast thou commanded the morning since thy days, and caused the dayspring to know his place?” He who has adjusted the movements of all the orbs of light, brings the glow of the newborn day to gladden those who wait for the retiring darkness. Christ our dayspring burst upon the world in the prophetic period of the Divine arrangement. Our spiritual sun-rising, so long waited for, came for the banishment of sin, and the introduction of all righteousness. Christ is the only dayspring of light to the darkened soul. The visible creation, conveying by symbols and material manifestations the thoughts of God, can bring to rest to a soul in which there is a constant strife between conscience and passion The political aspects of society will afford little hope; success in measures of reform will seem hardly valuable enough to compensate for their outlay of exertion, science, in all its departments, will appear but as a perplexing maze, till our dayspring, knowing its place in the counsels of Infinite Wisdom is seen above them all, heralding the splendours of redemption. Agnosticism would be the sad inheritance of all, just leading us to know that we could not know; that the secrets of the universe could never be explained; that we, ourselves, were but perplexities and contradictions, if our dayspring, shining above all science, over all human wants and industries, above all human ignorance, will, and pride, could not be seen by faith, verified by fact, and relied upon by experience. (John Waugh.)
God’s tender mercy
My proclamation certifies to thee, O trembling heart, that this mercy is tender mercy. Thy bones are broken to-night, thy heart is wounded, thy spirits are dried up, and thou art ready to despair; but I tell thee that God has tender mercy for such as thou art. As I sat in the hospital, yesterday, and saw the many cases of maimed limbs and gushing wounds, I could but think how tender the nurses ought to be, and how downy should be the surgeon’s finger as he set the broken bone or bound up the sore. Doubtless there are some persons who have iron bands and hard hearts, and so, while they are bone-setting or binding up wounds, they do it roughly, and cause the patient much pain. But, O sinner, therein is the tender mercy of our God set forth, which, like a dayspring from on high, hath visited us; “a bruised reed will He not break, nor quench the smoking flax.” He crowneth us with loving-kindnesses, and with tender mercies; He bindeth up the broken in heart, and healeth all their wounds. Like as a mother comforteth her children, even so doth the Lord comfort His people, and like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear Him. My Lord is as gracious in the manner of His mercy as in the matter of it. Glory be to His name! O sinner, come to the gentle Jesus and live. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
We think that all our city folk ought somehow to get every week a few hours in the clear, unmixed sunshine as the Lord pours it out of the heavens. Last Sabbath was a day of unusual duties, and Monday morning, with loud-clamouring work all about us, we said our call this morning is to the fields. We made a bold dash, and at a speed that no one dared halt, we were soon beyond the city limits. As we hastened past, a brother clergyman shouted, “Whither away?” We answered--“In quest of sunshine!” And was there ever a brighter luxury? The cup of the morning had been washed out by a shower; the leaves, autumn-turned, shivered their fiery splendour across the path; the hum of the city became fainter, and we found what we wanted floating on the lake, tangled in the bushes, rippling among the green grass, dripping from the sky--sunshine. Glorious sunshine! With it we filled our eyelids, our mouth, our hands. We opened our entire physical capacity to take it in. We took out our soul and saturated it in the lush light. We absorbed it in all our pores, and rolled it around our nerves; and after we could hold no more inside, lifted our face and held it so aslant that it ran down over us--the sunshine. What do the blind do without seeing it? How can the factory employees get on without feeling it? Let all the ministry on Monday morning be turned out into it. By the following Saturday night it will ripen all the acidity out of the sermons. The world wants more sunshine in its disposition, in its business, in its charities, in its theology. For ten thousand of the aches, and pains, and irritations of men and women, we commend the sunshine. It soothes better than morphine. It stimulates more than champagne. It is the best plaister for a wound. The good Samaritan poured out into the fallen traveller’s gash more of this than wine and oil. Florence Nightingale used it on Crimean battle-fields. Take it into all the alleys, on board all the ships, by all the sick-beds. Not a phial full, nor a cup full, nor a decanter full, but a soul full. It is good for spleen, for liver complaint, for neuralgia, for rheumatism, for failing fortunes, for melancholy. We suspect that heaven itself is only more sunshine. (Dr. Talmage.)
Philosophy and Christianity
Philosophy, in the night of Paganism, was like the fire-fly of the tropics making itself visible, but not irradiating the darkness. But Christianity, revealing the Sun of Righteousness, sheds more than the full sunlight of those tropics on all that we need to see, whether for time or eternity. (Coleridge.)
Beholding the sun
I have read that near the North Pole, the night lasting for months and months, when the people expect the day is about to dawn, some messengers go up on the highest point to watch; and when they see the first streak of day they put on their brightest possible apparel, and embrace each other and cry, “ Behold the sun!” and the cry goes through all the land, “Behold the sun!” Some of you have been trudging on in the darkness of sin. It has been a long and wearisome night for your soul; but now I cry, “Behold the Sun of Righteousness rising with healing in His wings!” or, to quote from the chapter that I read at the beginning, “The Dayspring from on high hath visited us to give light to them that are in darkness.” Behold the sun! Behold the sun! Would God that every blinded eye might now see it! (Dr. Talmage.)
A light in a dark place
A steamboat was once carrying a load of passengers up one of the Western rivers. It was a very dark night. The waters were dark, the soil was black, and not a star was to be seen. The air was full of sleet and mist, and altogether it made a night when “the darkness could be felt.” The steamboat had struck a snag, and was leaking very fast and beginning to sink. The captain at once ran her ashore and lashed her to the bank. The plank was thrust out, and everybody was requested to go ashore just as quickly as possible. It was thought that if all could only lighten the boat they might save it, while if all remained on board, all would soon go down together. But it was so dark, the passengers could not see either the plank or the shore. The sleet was falling thick and covering everything with ice. The cold wild waters of the river were rushing past beneath, and not offering a very warm reception to any who might fall over. So the company all stood still, not daring to move. Like Paul, they chose “to stay with the ship.” They seemed to feel that it was better to stay and share the fate of the boat than to step off--they knew mot where; “better to endure the ills they had, than to fly to those they knew net of.” The captain was as much perplexed as the people. To urge them to hurry off might produce a panic, and make them rush off and push one another into the river. Yet he knew they could not remain long on deck without danger. But he was equal to the emergency. Calling from the upper deck, he told them to be quiet and wait, and he would land them all safe on shore. He then leaped on to the bank with some of his men, and, taking a basket of pitch coal and arranging it in a proper place, he struck a match and lit it. In a few moments it blazed up bright and clear, and, in the words of John Hay.
“Burnt a hole in the night.”
The whole hillside, and bank, and boat, and river, just glowed in the brightness. It was a wild but beautiful scene--darkness everywhere but just there where they needed light. All excitement and fear ceased, and the people calmly and safely passed one by one over the plank to the solid shore. Never did light seem so grateful and so beautiful as it did shooting up there in that dark place. The expression, “light in a dark place,” gained a new meaning to all who felt its blessedness on that dark and perilous night. The Bible speaks of Christ as a “light to them that sit in darkness,” and His truth as a “light that shineth in a dark place.” There are a great many dark places in our life, but there is no darker place than our sins. Everybody has been troubled about these, and nobody ever knew what to do with them. A great many people don’t think anything about them. So those men on that steamboat might have lain down and gone to sleep. They might say, “We cannot see the way off, and we may just as well take our ease.” So men often forget their sins and feel easy about them. But whenever they do think of them, they are troubled and don’t know what to do with them. They don’t know how to get rid of them, and the wisest men have been just as much in the dark as the most ignorant. This has always been a very dark place. The river is very wild, the shore is unseen and the way to it is unknown. A great many people have stood here, like those men on the steamboat, waiting for light and not knowing what to do. Christ lets light shine right on this dark place. He shows how men can get rid of their sins and be forgiven. He shows us the way. He is the way. The river is just as deep, and the shore is just as far off as it was before, but we can see it all, and find our way to where it is safe and solid. When we come to see how fearful it is to be in the dark, and not know what to do, we can then know how beautiful and grateful it is to have a “light shining in a dark place.” (R. Cordley, D. D.)
We notice then
I. THE ORIGIN OF OUR REDEMPTION--“the tender mercy of our God.” But though it be true that all the attributes of God were engaged in planning and in executing the work of our redemption, it must be observed, that the mercy of God appears by far the most conspicuous. What is its nature? Mercy is the pity of the heart; that I believe will be admitted by all to be a fair and correct rendering of the word. Is there not misery enough on the part of man to excite the mercy and compassion of God? We ask, again, to what extent was the mercy of God exercised in the work of human redemption? It extends to the utmost limits of the human family. Mercy then, originated the plan of human salvation. Let us consider--
II. ITS PROGRESS. This plan was not developed all at once; it was communicated under different dispensations and by progressive degrees, as the minds of men were prepared to receive it. The dayspring from on high, the great light, the great luminary of our world, is come. Now, light is remarkable for the power of communication: everything, you know, is tinged and irradiated by the light of the sun. The light which the sun sends forth, as the great medium of light, diffuses itself everywhere; and here we have a fair representation of the power of communication which Jesus Christ possesses, in reference to the knowledge which is essential to the happiness of man; for wherever He is, there is light; wherever His word is, there is truth; and it is said of this word of His, “the entrance of it giveth light.” Light, again, is remarkable for the rapidity of its flight. Display but a glimmering taper on the summit of a mountain, and it reaches the eye, placed at any given distance, in a moment. And here we may be reminded of the rapidity of the flight of mercy, to meet the misery of man. And we may be reminded here, too, of another important fact, connected with this part of our subject--the disposition there ever is, on the part of the Saviour, to meet the case of a poor penitent sinner, or an afflicted believer. But again, light is remarkable for its purity and grateful influence. The influence of light is the most agreeable, notwithstanding the velocity with which it moves, to that most delicate of all our organs, the eye. It is a pleasant thing to behold the sun. When this light directed you to the Lamb of God, and when, in the exercise of your faith, you availed yourselves of the benefits resulting from His redeeming acts, how grateful was its influence! It communicated light to your understanding, and peace and joy unspeakable to your hearts. But the text tells us that it came “from on high.” Why, then, Jesus Christ Himself must have existed before He came into this world; and if He existed before He came into the world, He must have existed as God Almighty. Now, that this was the case, is very clear, from various parts of Scripture. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God: the same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made.” But, in the text, we read of Him in regard to His human nature. The dayspring from on high assumed the nature of man below, and in that nature became man’s suffering substitute. He came from on high--He visited us for this purpose. I stated before, and I must now recur to it, that the light to which our text alludes, was gradual in its communication. There was a ray of it to shine on the patriarchs, a brighter ray still shone on the minds of the prophets; but it was when the types received their accomplishment in the plains of Bethlehem--that the words of this text were literally verified. “The dayspring from on high visited us,” coming to this world of ours to diffuse His light and life, and liberty, and salvation, from one end of the earth to another.
III. THE GRAND DESIGN OF THIS AMAZING EVENT--“To give light,” says the inspired writer--to whom? “to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.” By this darkness we arc to understand the ignorance which is common to man; and, by death, we are to understand that moral death which reigns in the minds and spirits of men, together with that eternal death, to which, as sinners, we are exposed. Now, where a shadow is, the substance cannot be far off. We need not here go into the state of the heathen world, at the time of our Saviour’s advent, for it must be generally known to every one now hearing me: it was indeed a state of darkness and death; nor into the state of the Jewish people, for it too, was a state of ignorance. But, on what subjects does He enlighten men? First of all, touching the being and perfections of God. If you go into the records of the wisest and best of the heathen philosophers, whether of Egypt, Greece, or Rome, you find no clear and distinct revelation existing respecting God tie came, next, to enlighten men touching their own moral state and condition. Now, that all is not right with man must be obvious. Is man happy? He is not--he is miserable as well as wicked. Well, then, there must be something wrong; something must have happened to our world. Let us, then, thank God that, in the midst of darkness and misery, we have the great light shining upon us, telling us how sin entered our world, the end to which it would lead, and the extent to which it would prevail, if we were not delivered from its power. But He came to give light upon another subject--He came to give the light of salvation. If He had merely discovered to us our disease and left us to perish in it, we should have been the worse, in place of being bettered, by our knowledge. But we come, brethren, to the light; and here we find mercy and truth met together, and righteousness and peace embracing each other--truth inflexible as a rock, and mercy, tender as a parent’s tears, yearning over you with infinite compassion. He came to give light upon another subject--namely, the rule of our duty. What, then, must be the rule? Take it, first, in reference to God, it commands us to love Him supremely; take it in reference to man, and it enjoins thus much upon us--“Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.” But Christ came to give light on another subject--a future state. But Jesus Christ came to give more than light: He came to give peace--“to guide our feet into the way of peace.” I can merely mention particulars here. To procure peace was the grand object of our Saviour’s advent. He was to be called “the repairer of the breach--the restorer of the paths to dwell in.” And as He came to procure peace, He came also to apply it. You will easily perceive a difference between peace procured and peace applied. He came to give peace--He came also to maintain it in the hearts of His people, causing it to grow and increase more and more, until the subject of it is, at last, brought home to himself to be one with the Lord. Did our salvation, then, originate in the mercy of God? Let us learn from it a lesson of humility. But again, were the developments of this mercy gradual? Did it not all shine out at once? What lesson ought we to derive from this circumstance? Mark this, then; your Christianity ought to be progressive--purer, and having more of principle to-day than yesterday; and more of principle, purity, and disinterestedness to-morrow than to-day. It should be gradual and progressive in its progress, both as to principle and practice. Lastly: Was this light sent for the good of the whole world? Then let us endeavour to diffuse it universally throughout the world. (W. Toase.)
And the child grew
John’s secluded life
Not in sandy deserts like those of Arabia, but in the wild, waste region south of Jericho and the fords of Jordan to the shores of the Dead Sea.
This was known as Araboth or ha.Arabah. This region, especially where it approached the Ghor and the Dead Sea, was lonely and forbidding in its physical features, and would suit the stern spirit on which it also reacted. In 1 Samuel 23:19, it is called Jeshimon, or “the Horror.” John was by no means the only hermit. The political unsettlement, the shamelessness of crime, the sense of secular exhaustion, the widespread Messianic expectation, marked “ the fulness of time.” Banus the Pharisee also lived a life of ascetic hardness in the Arabah, and Josephus tells us that he lived with him for three years in his mountain cave on fruits and water. But there is not in the Gospels the faintest trace of any intercourse between John or our Lord and His disciples, with the Essenes. The great Italian painters follow a right conception when they paint even the boy John as emaciated with early asceticism. In 2 Esdras 9:24, the seer is directed to go into a field where no house is, and to “taste no flesh, drink no wine, and eat only the flowers of the field,” as a preparation for “talking with the Most High.” (Archdeacon Farter.)
Satisfactions of solitude
Charles the Fifth, after a life spent in military exploits and the active and energetic prosecution of ambitious projects, resigned, as is well known, his crown, sated with its enjoyment. He left these words, as a testimony, behind him:--“I have tasted more satisfaction in my solitude in one day than in all the triumphs of my former reign. The sincere study, profession, and practice of the Christian religion have in them such joy as is seldom found in courts and grandeur.” (Baxendale’s Anecdotes.)
Solitude a good teacher
St. Bernard said, in writing to a pious friend, “If you are seeking less to satisfy a vain curiosity than to get true wisdom, you will sooner find it in deserts than in books. The silence of the rocks and the pathless forests will teach you better than the eloquence of the most gifted men.” (Fenelon.)
Solitude helps to mature thought
Whenever Michael Angelo, that “divine madman,” as Richardson once wrote on the back of one of his drawings, was meditating on some great design, he closed himself up from the world. “Why do you lead such a solitary life?” asked a friend. “Art,” replied the sublime artist, “is a jealous god; it requires the whole and entire man.” During his mighty labour in the Sistine Chapel he refused to have any communication with any person, even at his own house. (L D’Israeli.)
The youth of John the Baptist
I. INQUIRE INTO THE REASONS WHY THE YOUTH OF JOHN WAS SPENT IN OBSCURITY.
1. Purity of his mind shrank from a society so devoid of true religion
2. Privations fitted him for the self-denial with which he afterwards attracted the people.
3. Arrangements also well adapted to prevent any such intimacy with Christ in His youth, as might have excited suspicion of a collusion betwixt them.
4. In such retirement John enjoyed, undisturbed, that communion with the Deity so delightful to eminent piety like his.
II. CONSIDER THE INSTRUCTIONS WHICH THIS ACCOUNT OF JOHN’S YOUTH HOLDS OUT TO THOSE WHOSE VIEWS ARE POINTED TO THE CHRISTIAN MINISTRY. Entire seclusion not required of them, but let them retire as often as they can, and prefer the calm of solitude to the bustle of dissipation.
III. CONSIDER THE LESSONS HELD FORTH BY THE YOUTH OF JOHN TO THE YOUNG IN GENERAL. The wisdom and advantage of frequent retirement.
1. What opportunities of improvement solitude will present to you.
2. From what temptations it will detach you.
3. To what solidity of character it will form you.
4. How it will prepare you for the seclusion of days of darkness. (Dr. Belfrage.)
The retirement of John was
I. A RENUNCIATION OF HIS PRIESTLY RIGHTS.
II. A BREAKING-OFF FROM THE THEN JUDAISM.
III. A UNIQUE REALIZATION OF THE TRUE NATURE OF GOD. He believed that there, in the desert, as really as in the Temple, was the “God of the Temple” to be found and worshipped.
IV. Observe that GOD THE HOLY SPIRIT MINISTERED TO HIM IN THE DESERTS. (A. B. Grosart, LL. D)
Every life has its desert period
Those grand solemn days when God calls us out of the world’s noises to commune in deep consultation with Him until the soul’s purposes are shaped, and the characters of our immortal spirits formed. These are the days of destiny, the birth-hours of all that is really great in us, times when we are truly born again, if we will be, or when we rush back and plunge into the troubled sea of unregenerate existence, never to find rest. If we look back down the long line of God’s heroic ones, each had his wilderness. Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, dwelt all their lives in the grand deserts of existence, and tabernacled with God. Moses, David, Daniel, Elijah, Jeremiah, yea, all God’s great ones, were caused to turn their backs on a world and face the truths of the living God, until those truths rose up to them to march in triumph, through the opposition of men and devils, to glorious victory. Now, as then, God calls us to the wilderness-school--calls us out to uncover the great purposes of truth before us, and sends us back to stand up for Him, regardless of all the surgings of sin, applause, fear, or death. Here, and here alone, is the safety of any Church, age, or man, in “the kingdom of God within,” trueness to the ideal of life realized, as the soul in its lone consecration stretches itself on the naked will of God, and feels the strong beatings of His eternal purposes of truth, justice, and love. (Bishop Penriek,)
Waxed strong in spirit
We need strong men--Elijah-like, John-the-Baptist-like men in these “perilous times,” and “spiritual” strength is incomparably the strongest, the most celestial, the most Christly of all strength. (A. B. Grosart, LL. D.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Luke 1". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Easter