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The Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mingled
Teachings from tragedies
We shall miss the very point of Christ’s teaching if we suppose that he meant to lessen our sense of the inseparable connection between sin and punishment.
What, then, did He mean? He meant this: That every personal visitation, whether by violence or by accident, is not to be regarded as a retribution for a personal sin; that we are too short-sighted to judge, and that we are too sin-stricken ourselves to overlook, in our condemnation of others, our own need of repentance. The main purpose of such startling events is to arouse individuals and society at large to a recognition and to a repentance of their own sins. He appears to me to have opposed on the one hand the levity of those who ignore the connection between natural and moral evil: and, on the other hand, He rebuked the narrowness of those who connected individual sorrows befalling others with individual sins. In all ages and in all lands this hydro-headed fallacy has asserted its power. The ordeal in mediaeval times was based on it (the noble having the ordeal of fire and the bondman the ordeal of water), and the “wage of battle” has not yet lost its hold on the nations, and even Christians regard war as a decisive appeal to the Lord of hosts, to show on which side right lies, though history abundantly shows that often might has won and right has lost. This is the principle on which people have constantly based their judgments, and do so still, though in different form. If you clamber the hills at the back of Penmaenmaur you will see the stones which are said by the people to be quiet players, who were petrified by the judgment of God for playing the game on Sunday. You smile at that; but there are multitudes now who, hearing of a disaster on the railway, will call it a judgment if it happens on Sunday, an accident if it happens on Monday.
I. THINK OF THE FOLLY OF THIS SHORT-SIGHTED JUDGMENT.
1. It presupposes that this is the world of punishment, whereas Scripture and experience alike testify that it is the world of probation.
2. The folly of these hasty judgments of ours also appears from their constant contradiction by unmistakable facts. It was of the wicked, not of the righteous, that the Psalmist said: “They are not plagued as other men.” Indeed, we should lose faith in a righteous God altogether if this world were the only stage on which His purposes are worked out. There is a good story told of John Milton which will illustrate this point, though-I do not vouch for its accuracy. It is said that when the great poet was living in Bunhill-fields, forsaken and blind, old and poor, one of the despicable sons of Charles I. paid him a visit, and said: “Do you not see, Mr. Milton, that your blindness is a judgment of God for the part you took against my father, King Charles.” “Nay,” said the poet of the Commonwealth, “If I have lost my sight through God’s judgment, what can you say of your father, who lost his head?” Well, that is a fair example of the confusions and contradictions which arise from endeavours to interpret, by our shortsighted notions, the far-reaching purposes of God.
3. And what will be the result if men are taught to look for Divine decisions now, before the appointed revelation of the righteous judgment of God? Why this that wicked men will be emboldened in wickedness so long as they seem to escape all rebuke and disaster--and they often do. They are profligate, but not punished: prayerless, yet crowned with blessings; dishonest, yet succeed all the better in their ventures; cruel and hard, yet make money faster because they are so; and soon they will call darkness light and light darkness; and will go on recklessly, amid the sunshine of prosperity, to a hell they do not believe in! Well might our Lord rebuke the hasty judgments of men on account of their folly.
II. But, apart from its folly, THERE IS SIN IN THIS HABIT TOO OFTEN, IF NOT ALWAYS.
1. It leads even religious people to a kind of untruthfulness which the King of truth always and everywhere condemns. They cannot help seeing the contradictions and anomalies I have alluded to, and they naturally shut their eyes to those which do not fit in with their theory. If, for example, helpless people are crushed in a theatre, it is a “judgment,” but if in a church, it is an “accident.” If an evil happens to themselves, it is a “trial”; but if it comes to another, it is a “warning.” But all this is untrue and unreal, and, therefore, it is abhorrent to our Lord. Yes, and it is detected by a sharp-eyed world, which adduces it as a proof of the unreality and unfairness of religious people, and so our testimony for the King of truth is weakened. Jesus meant what He said when He uttered those memorable words: “He that is of the truth heareth My words.”
2. Besides, there is often harshness in those judgments of ours on other people. We think and say that they are sinners above all others because they suffer such things. This hard condemnation of others was one of the chief sins of the Pharisees, and it called forth some of the sternest words our Lord ever uttered.
3. I am not sure but what the thought of other people’s sins is comforting and pleasant to us; presenting a contrast by which we may throw up into relief our own virtues. And such self-complacency was a third sin Jesus saw in His hearers. (A. Rowland, LL. B.)
A direct application
I. OCCURRING INCIDENTS SHOULD TEACH US SPIRITUAL TRUTHS (Luke 13:1; Luke 13:4).
II. IT IS THE TENDENCY OF THE HUMAN MIND TO JUDGE RASHLY (Luke 13:2).
III. THE SPIRIT OF CHRISTIANITY RESTRAINS THE RASHNESS OF HUMAN JUDGMENT. “I tell you, Nay.”
IV. WE SHOULD AT ALL TIMES LOOK AT HOME. “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” (A. F. Barfield.)
Judgments and repentance
I. We are to speak on the common, but erroneous idea, that THE SINFULNESS OF AN INDIVIDUAL MAY BE CONCLUDED FROM THE JUDGMENTS BY WHICH HE IS OVERTAKES. We can affirm it to be an axiom received by the men of every generation, that punishment and sin are so near relatives, that to perform the one is to incur the other. And the axiom is a true axiom, though in certain instances it may be wrongly applied. It is a truth, a truth to which hereafter the unrolled history of the universe shall bear witness, that human guilt provokes God’s wrath; and that the greater a man’s offences the sterner shall be the penalties with which he is visited. And we think it altogether a surprising thing that this truth should have retained its hold on the human mind; so that in the worst scenes of moral and intellectual degeneracy it hath never been completely cashiered. We think it a mighty testimony to the character of God as the ‘hater and avenger of sin that even the savage, removed far away from all the advantages of Revelation, is unable to get rid of the conviction that guilt is the parent to wretchedness, and that, let him but see a fellow-man crushed by an accumulation of disaster, and he will instantly show forth this conviction by pointing to him so branded with flagrant iniquities. But whilst the common mode of arguing thus leads to the establishment of certain truths, it is in itself an erroneous mode. This is the next thing which we go on to observe. The Jews concluded that the Galileans must have been peculiarly sinful, since God had allowed them to be butchered by the Romans. They showed, therefore, that they believed in an awful connection between sinfulness and suffering, and so far they were witnesses to one of the fundamental truths of Revelation. But, nevertheless, we gather unquestionably from Christ’s address, that it did not follow that because these Galileans were massacred they were sinners above all the Galileans. Now, if we would attend to the course and order of God’s judgments, we should presently see, that although wherever there is suffering there must have been sin, still nothing can be more faulty than the supposition that he who suffers most must have sinned most. There is no proportion whatsoever kept up in God’s dealings with His creatures between men’s allotments in this life, and their actions. On the contrary, the very same conduct which is allowed to prosper in one case entails a long line of calamities in another.
II. Now this brings us to our second topic of discourse. We have shown you the erroneousness of the inference drawn by the Jews; AND WE DO ON TO THE REPROOF WHICH THEY MET WITH FROM THE REDEEMER. We bid you, first of all, observe that Jesus, in no degree, denies the actual sinfulness of the murdered Galileans. He only sets himself against the idea which had been formed of their relative sinfulness. What they had suffered was, undoubtedly, a consequence of sin in the general--for if there were no sin, there could be no suffering. But the calamity which overtook them was no more necessarily the produce of particular sin, than was the blindness of the man concerning whom the disciples asked, “Who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Sinful, then, the Galileans were, and, because sinful, they also suffered. But of their sinfulness we all partake, and, what then is to exempt us from partaking of their suffering? We are taught by our text that if we repent we shall be delivered; if we repent not, we must perish. And I just wish to set before you, with all plainness and simplicity, THE EXACT PLACE WHICH REPENTANCE OCCUPIES IN THE BUSINESS OF OUR RECONCILIATION TO GOD. There has been much mistake abroad on this matter, and both repentance and faith have been wrongly exhibited by a diseased theology. A man is not pardoned because he is sorry for his sins. A man is not saved because he believes upon Christ. If you once say that it is because we do this or that, that we are accepted of God, you make the acceptance a thing of works, and not one of grace. If we say to an individual, Repent and believe and thou shalt be saved, the saying is a true saying, and has the whole of God’s Word on its side. But if we say, Repent, and because penitent, thou shalt be forgiven, we represent repentance as the procuring cause of forgiveness, and thus do fatal violence to every line of the gospel. Repentance is a condition, and faith is a condition, but neither the one or the other is anything more than a condition. In itself there is no virtue in repentance--in itself there is no virtue in faith. That repentance must precede pardon is clear from every line of the scheme of salvation; but that repentance must precede coming to Christ is a notion fraught with the total upset of this scheme. We deny not that a legal repentance, as it may be termed, is often beforehand with our turning to the Mediator; but an evangelical repentance is not to be gotten except from it. It is a change of heart--it is a renewal of spirit--it is the being translated from darkness to light, the being turned-from dead works to serve the living and true God. And if all this mighty renovation is to pass upon man, ere it can be said of him that he has truly repented, then he must have betaken himself to the Redeemer’s fulness in order to obtain the very elements of repentance, and this is distinctly opposed to his possessing those elements as qualifications for his drawing from that fulness. Of all things, let us avoid the throwing up ramparts between the sinner and the Saviour. I am bold to say that, if the gospel be conditional, the only condition is a look. “Look unto Me, and be ye saved.” (H. Melvill, B. D.)
The judgments of God
-This story is often used, it seems to me, for a purpose exactly opposite to that for which it is told. It is said that because these Galileans, whom Pilate slew, and these eighteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell, were no worse than the people round them, that therefore similar calamities must not be considered judgments and punishments of God; that it is an offence against Christian charity to say that such sufferers are the objects of God’s anger; that it is an offence against good manners to introduce the name of God, or the theory of a Divine Providence, in speaking of historical events. They must be ascribed to certain brute forces of nature; to certain inevitable laws of history; to the passions of men, to chance, to fate, to anything and everything, rather than to the will of God. No man disagrees more utterly than I do with the latter part of this language. For as surely as there is a God, so surely does that God judge the earth; and every individual, family, institution, and nation on the face thereof; and judge them all in righteousness by His Son Jesus Christ, whom He hath appointed heir of all things, and given Him all power in heaven and earth; who reigns, and will reign till He hath put all enemies under His feet. Our Lord does not say--Those Galileans were not sinners at all. Their sins had nothing to do with their death. Those on whom the tower fell were innocent men. He rather implies the very opposite. We know nothing of the circumstances of either calamity; but this we known that our Lord warned the rest of the Jews, that unless they repented--that is, changed their mind, and therefore their conduct, they would all perish in the same way. And we know that that warning was fulfilled, within forty years, so hideously and so awfully, that the destruction of Jerusalem remains as one of the most terrible cases of wholesale ruin and horror recorded in history; and--as I believe--a key to many a calamity before and since. Like the taking of Babylon, the fall of Rome, and the French Revolution, it stands out in lurid splendour, as of the nether pit itself, forcing all who believe to say in fear and trembling--Verily there is a God that judgeth the earth--and a warning to every man, class, institution, and nation on earth, to set their houses in order betimes, and bear fruit meet for repentance, lest the day come when they too shall be weighed in the balance of God’s eternal justice, and found wanting. But another lesson we may learn from the text, which I wish to impress earnestly on your minds; These Galileans, it seems, were no worse than the other Galileans; yet they were singled out as examples, as warnings to the rest. It is as if they were punished, not for being who they were, but for being what they were. History is full of such instances; instances of which we say and cannot help saying--What have they done above all others, that on them above all others the thunderbolt should fall? Was Charles the First, for example, the worst, or the best, of the Stuarts; and Louis the Sixteenth, of the Bourbons? Look, again, at the fate of Sir Thomas More, Bishop Fisher, and the hapless monks of the Charterhouse. Were they sinners above all who upheld the Romish system in England? Were they not rather among the righteous men who ought to have saved it, if it could have been saved? And yet on them--the purest and the holiest of their party--and not on the hypocrites and profligates, fell the thunderbolt. What is the meaning of these things?--for a meaning there must be; and we, I dare to believe, must be meant to discover it; for we are the children of God, into whose hearts, because we are human beings and not mere animals, He has implanted the inextinguishable longing to ascertain final causes--to seek not merely the means of things, but the reason of things; to ask not merely How? but Why? May not the reason be--I speak with all timidity and reverence, as one who shrinks frompretending to thrust himself into the counsels of the Almighty--but may not the reason be that God has wished thereby to condemn not the persons, but the systems? That He has punished them not for their private, but for their public faults? Looking at history in this light, we may justify God for many a heavy blow, and fearful judgment, which seems to the unbeliever a wanton cruelty of chance or fate; while at the same time we may feel deep sympathy with--often deep admiration for--many a noble spirit, who has been defeated, and justly defeated, by those irreversible taws of God’s kingdom, of which it is written--“On whomsoever that stone shall fall, it will grind him to powder.” We may look with reverence, as well as pity, on many figures in history, such as Sir Thomas More’s; on persons who, placed by no fault of their own in some unnatural and unrighteous position; involved in some decaying and unworkable system; conscious more or less of their false position; conscious, too, of coming danger, have done their best, according to their light, to work like men, before the night came in which no man could work; to do what of their duty seemed still plain and possible; and to set right that which would never come right more: forgetting that, alas, the crooked cannot be made straight, and that which is wanting cannot be numbered; till the flood came and swept them away, standing bravely to the last at a post long since untenable, but still--all honour to them--standing at their post. When we consider such sad figures on the page of history, we may have, I say, all respect for their private virtues. We may accept every excuse for their public mistakes. And yet we may feel a solemn satisfaction at their downfall, when we see it to have been necessary for the progress of mankind, and according to those laws and that will of God and of Christ, by which alone the human race is ruled. And we shall believe, too, that these things were written for our example, that we may see, add fear, and be turned to the Lord. (C. Kingsley, M. A.)
Accidents, not punishments
I. First, LET US TAKE HEED THAT WE DO NOT DRAW THE RASH AND HASTY CONCLUSION FROM TERRIBLE ACCIDENTS, THAT THOSE WHO SUFFER BY THEM SUFFER ON ACCOUNT OF THEIR SINS. NOW, mark, I would not deny but what there have sometimes been judgments of God upon particular persons for sin; sometimes, and I think but exceedingly rarely, such things have occurred. Some of us have heard in our own experience instances of men who have blasphemed God and defied Him to destroy them, who have suddenly fallen dead; and in such cases, the punishment has so quickly followed the blasphemy that one could not help perceiving the hand of God in it. The man had wantonly asked for the judgment of God, his prayer was heard, and the judgment came. And, beyond a doubt, there are what may be called natural judgments. You see a man ragged, poor, houseless; he has been profligate, he has been a drunkard, he has lost his character, and it is but the just judgment of God upon him that he should be starving, and that he should be an outcast among men. You see in the hospitals loathsome specimens of men and women foully diseased; God forbid that we should deny that in such a case--the punishment being the natural result of the sin--there is a judgment of God upon licentiousness and ungodly lusts. And the like may be said in many instances where there is so clear a link between the sin and the punishment that the blindest men may discern that God hath made Misery the child of Sin. But in cases of accident, such as that to which I refer, and in cases of sudden and instant death, again, I say, I enter my earnest protest against the foolish and ridiculous idea that those who thus perish are sinners above all the sinners who survive unharmed. Let me just try to reason this matter out with Christian people; for there are some unenlightened Christian people who will feel horrified by what I have said. To all those who hastily look upon every calamity as a judgment I would speak in the earnest hope of setting them right.
1. Let me begin, then, by saying, do not you see that what you say is not true? and that is the best of reasons why you should not say it. Does not your own experience and observation teach you that one event happeneth both to the righteous and to the wicked? It is true, the wicked man sometimes falls dead in the street; but has not the minister fallen dead in the pulpit?
2. The idea that whenever an accident occurs we are to look upon it as a judgment from God would make the providence of God to be, instead of a great deep, a very shallow pool. Why, any child can understand the providence of God, if it be true that when there is a railway accident it is because people travel on a Sunday. I take any little child from the smallest infant-class form in the Sunday-school, and he will say, “Yes, I see that.” But then, if such a thing be providence, if it be a providence that can be understood, manifestly it is not the Scriptural idea of providence, for in the Scripture we are always taught that God’s providence is “a great deep”; and even Ezekiel, who had the wing of the cherubim and could fly aloft, when he saw the wheels which were the great picture of the providence of God, could only say the wheels were so high that they were terrible, and were full of eyes, so that he cried, “O wheel!” If--I repeat it to make it plain--if always a calamity were the result of some sin, providence would be as simple as that twice two made four; it would be one of the first lessons that a little child might learn.
3. And then, will you allow me to remark, that the supposition against which I am earnestly contending, is a very cruel and unkind one. For if this were the case, that all persons who thus meet with their death in an extraordinary and terrible manner, were greater sinners than the rest, would it not be a crushing blow to bereaved survivors, and is it not ungenerous on our part to indulge the idea unless we are compelled by unanswerable reasons to accept it as an awful truth? Now, I defy you to whisper it in the widow’s ear. And now, lastly--and then I leave this point--do you not perceive that the un-Christian and unscriptural supposition that when men suddenly meet with death it is the result of sin, robs Christianity of one of its noblest arguments for the immortality of the soul? Brethren, we assert daily, with Scripture for our warrant, that God is just; and inasmuch as He is just, He must punish sin, and reward the righteous. Manifestly He does not do it in this world. I think I have plainly shown that in this world one event happeneth to both; that the righteous man is poor as well as the wicked, and that he dies suddenly as well as the most graceless. Very well, then, the inference is natural and clear that there must be a next world in which these things must be righted. If there be a God, He must be just; and if He be just, He must punish sin; and since He does not do it in this world, there therefore must be another state in which men shall receive the due reward of their works; and they that have sown to the flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption, while they that have sown to the Spirit, shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting. Make this world the reaping place, and you have taken the sting out of sin.
II. Now to our second point. WHAT USE, THEN, OUGHT WE TO MAKE OF THIS VOICE OF GOD AS HEARD AMIDST THE SHRIEKS AND GROANS OF DYING MEN?
1. The first inquiry we should put to ourselves is this: “Why may it not be my case that I may very soon and suddenly be cut off? Have I a lease of my life? Have I any special guardianship which ensures me that I shall not suddenly pass the portals of the tomb?” And the next question it should suggest is this: “Am not I as great a sinner as those who died? If in outward sin others have excelled me, are not the thoughts of my heart evil? Does not the same law which curses them curse me? It is as impossible that I should be saved by my works as that they should be. Am not I under the law as well as they by nature, and therefore am not I as well as they under the curse? That question should arise. Instead of thinking of their sins which would make me proud, I should think of my own which will make me humble. Instead of speculating upon their guilt, which is no business of mine, I should turn my eyes within and think upon my own transgression, for which I must personally answer before the Most High God.” Then the next question is, “Have I repented of my sin? I need not be inquiring whether they have or not: have I? Since I am liable to the same calamity, am I prepared to meet it? Do I hate sin? Have I learned to abhor it? For if not, I am in as great danger as they were, and may quite as suddenly be cut off, and then where am I? I will not ask where are they? And then, again, instead of prying into the future destiny of these unhappy men and women, how much better to inquire into our own destiny and our own state!
2. When we have used it thus for inquiry, let me remind you that we ought to use it also for warning. “Ye shall all likewise perish.” “No,” says one, “not likewise. We shall not all be crushed; many of us will die in our beds. We shall not all be burned; many of us will tranquilly close our eyes.” Ay, but the text says, “Ye shall all likewise perish.” And let me remind you that some of you may perish in the same identical manner. You have no reason to believe that you may not also suddenly be cut off while walking the streets. You may fall dead while eating your meals--how many have perished with the staff of life in their hands! Ye shall be in your bed, and your bed shall suddenly be made your tomb. You shall be strong, hale, hearty, and in health, and either by an accident or by the stoppage of the circulation of your blood, you shall be suddenly hurried before your God. Oh: may sudden death to you be sudden glory! But it may happen with some of us, that in the same sudden manner as others have died, so shall we. But lately, in America, a brother, while preaching the Word, laid down his body and his charge at once. You remember the death of Dr. Beaumont, who, while proclaiming the gospel of Christ, closed his eyes to earth. And I remember the death of a minister in this country, who had but just given out the verse--
“Father, I long, I faint to see
The place of Thine abode;
I’d leave Thine earthly courts and flee
Up to Thy house, my God,”
when it pleased God to grant him the desire of his heart, and he appeared before the King in His beauty. Why, then, may not such a sudden death as that happen to you and to me? (C. H. Spurgeon.)
1. We may hence learn to beware of rashly judging others. Let us think of the guilt which we should thus incur, and also of the retribution in kind, which we should thereby prepare for ourselves.
2. We may hence learn not to be too hasty in interpreting afflictive dispensations of Providence against ourselves. We may sometimes hear a person who is labouring under great reverses, or heavy bodily distress, express himself thus, “ Surely I must be a very great sinner, else such things could never have been laid on me.” If his meaning, in expressing himself thus, be that he is a great sinner in himself, that he suffers less than he deserves, that he might justly be cast off altogether, and that he ought to humble himself under the rod, and consider well what ought to be amended in his feelings and character--nothing can be more proper. But if his meaning be, that such sufferings are a proof that he is a sinner beyond others, and that he is still unpardoned and unrenewed, and that God is treating him as an enemy, and probably will cast him off for ever--nothing can be more hasty. The truth of the case may be the very opposite; and, if his humility be real, probably is the very opposite. Let all afflicted souls learn to seek to God for the sanctified use of their trouble, and support under it; and let none vex themselves with dark surmises whose trust is in the God of mercy.
3. We may hence learn to be thankful for our own preservation. When we hear of the heavy calamities, and the sudden removal of others, let us bless God for our own safety. What but His kind care has preserved us? Let us be thankful for our ordinary and daily preservation, and especially for signal deliverances. Let us be thankful, too, for our quietness and safety during our solemn religious services. When we think what blindness, unbelief, wandering of thought, and varied sinfulness, mix even with our very best services, and especially with our worst, how thankful should we be that the Lord has not broken in and made a breach on us, and mingled our blood with our sacrifices.
4. We learn from this passage, that it is our duty to mark and improve calamities, and especially violent and sudden deaths. It is right to speak of them to each other, with a view to our mutual benefit. When God’s judgments are abroad in the earth, the inhabitants of the world should learn righteousness. “Be ye also ready: for, in such an hour as ye think not, the Son of Man commeth.”
5. But there is one other lesson from this passage, on which I am especially desirous of fixing your attention, namely, the necessity of genuine repentance. Our Lord Himself, here says twice, “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” Consider, then, what is implied in repentance unto salvation; and seek to become possessed of it. (James Foote, M. A.)
The massacre of the Galileans
There is no account in Josephus, the only Jewish contemporary historian, of this massacre of the Galileans. The oldest account of it is in Cyril of Alexandria, about four hundred years after it occurred, and runs thus: “For these [Galileans] were followers of the opinions of Judas of Galilee, of whom Luke makes mention in the Acts of the Apostles, who said that we ought to call no man master. Great numbers of them refusing to acknowledge Caesar as their master were therefore punished by Pilate. They said also that men ought not to offer to God any sacrifices that were not ordained by the law of Moses, and so forbade to offer the sacrifices appointed by the people for the safety of the Emperor and the Roman people. Pilate, thus being enraged against the Galileans, ordered them to be slain in the midst of the very victims which they thought they might offer according to the custom of their law, so that the blood of the offerers was mingled with that of the victims offered.” It is also conjectured that this interference of Pilate in slaying these Galileans was the cause of his quarrel with Herod, who resented his interference until a reconciliation took place by his sending Christ to him as one under his own jurisdiction. (M. F. Sadler.)
An accident wrongly described
I remember that terrible accident which occurred on the Thames--the sinking of the “Princess Alice” steamboat. It appalled everybody, and we called it a “mysterious providence.” I remember reading in the newspapers that when the collision occurred the boat “cracked and crumbled like a matchbox”--that was the sentence used. Why did it do so? Not by a special providence, but because it was built like a matchbox--as slim and as flimsy: and the providence that ended so fatally was, as usual, not the providence of God, but the reckless greed of man. (J. Jackson Wray.)
Modern science has brought the world a fifth gospel. In it we read that God commands us to give Him our whole heads as well as our whole hearts, for that we cannot know Him nor obey Him till we discern Him in every minutest fact, and every immutable law of the physical universe, as in every fact and law of the moral. It is barely two hundred years since the great Cotton Mather preached a famous sermon called “Burnings Bewailed,” wherein he attributed a terrible conflagration to the wrath of God kindled against Sabbathbreaking and the accursed fashion of monstrous periwigs! For years after his time the Puritan colonies held fasts for mildew, for small-pox, for caterpillars, for grasshoppers, for loss of cattle by cold and visitation of God. They saw an Inscrutable Providence in all these things. But when their children had learned a better husbandry and better sanitary conditions the “visitations” ceased. When, in Chicago, a night’s fire undid a generation’s toil, spreading misery and death broadcast, was that horror in the least degree inexplicable? Every man who, within thirty years, had put up a wooden house in a city whose familiar breezes were gales, and whose gales were hurricanes, solicited that rain of fire. They who, hasting to be rich, fell into the snare of cheap and dangerous building, digged, every man, a pit for his neighbour’s feet as well as for his own. The inscrutable aspect of the calamity was that it had not come years before. And the Providential lesson would seem to be that laws of matter are laws of God, and cannot be violated with impunity. When the earthquake well-nigh swallowed up Peru, five or six years ago, men stood aghast at the mysterious dispensation. But heaven has not only always declared that tropical countries are liable to earthquakes, but had taught the Peruviaus through hundreds of years to expect two earthquakes in a century, travelling in cycles from forty to sixty years apart. The citizens of Arica have not only this general instruction, but that special warning which nature always gives. A great light appeared to the south-east. Hollow sounds were heard. The dogs, the goats, even the swine foresaw the evil and hid themselves. But the simple men passed on and were punished. Before the Alpine freshets come the streams are coffee-coloured. Even the tornadoes of the tropics, which are instantaneous in their swoop, so plainly announce themselves to old sailors that they reef sails and save ship and life, while only the heedless perish. The simoon gives such certain and invariable warnings that the caravan is safe if it be wary. Herculaneum and Pompeii were built too far up the mountain. And that the builders knew quite as well as the excavators of the splendid ruins know it now. But they chose to take the risk. And to-day their cheerful compatriots gather their heedless vintage and sit beneath their perilous vines still nearer to the deadly crater. St. Petersburg has been three times inundated, and after each most fatal calamity processions filled the streets and masses were said to propitiate the mysterious anger of God. Peter the Great, who built the city, was the successor of Canute. He ordered the Gulf of Cronstadt to retire, and then set down his capital in the swamps of the verge of the Neva. Whenever the river breaks up with the spring floods, the trembling citizens are at sea in a bowl. Only three times has the bowl broken, so much money and skill have been expended upon it. But when a March gale shall drive the tide back upon the river, swollen and terrible with drifting ice, drowned St. Petersburg will be the pendant for burned Chicago. (J. JacksonWray.)
Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish
True repentance is a change of mind, accompanied by a sincere renunciation of sin. Its evidences are--
1. A consciousness of the evil of sin.
3. A sense of unworthiness.
4. Great grief on account of the sin committed.
5. A truthful confession before God.
6. Prayer for power to resist temptation.
7. A mind open to good impressions.
8. Its emblem among plants is a “bruised reed.”
9. Its model among men is Christian weeping before the Cross, but afterwards Christian rejoicing in hope.
This is “repentance that needeth not to be repented of “I desire to die,” said Philip Henry, “preaching repentance; if out of the pulpit, I desire to die repenting.” (Van Doren.)
A faithful warning
A young woman, being requested to join a Christian Society, stated that she had a tract given her when a scholar in a Sunday-school, in which tract an account was given of a young woman who died happy. This girl in her illness called her sister to her, and affectionately said, “Sister, if you do not repent of your sins, and turn to Jesus Christ, where God is you can never come.” This so impressed the young woman that she never forgot it. She added, “Wherever I was, whatever I was doing, this was always on my mind, ‘where God is you can never come.’ I was very much distressed at-my situation, and could find no peace.” She eventually, came to Jesus, became happy in the enjoyments of the pardon of her sins, through faith in the atonement of Christ Jesus, and lived in the expectation of realizing what her faith anticipated.
All sin must be repented of
If seven robbers were to get into a man’s house, even though six of them were discovered and made prisoners, and sent off to jail, yet, as long as the seventh was known to be concealed in some secret corner, the master of the house could not well feel himself out of danger. Or, if a bird has fallen into a snare, and is only caught by a single claw; or, if any animal has been caught in a trap, though it should be only by the leg, yet they are both in as much danger as if their whole bodies were entrapped. Thus it is that certain destruction awaits us, unless all sin, even the very least, be repented of. Pharaoh, after having been smitten with many plagues, at last consented to let the people go, provided they left their sheep and cattle behind them. But this would not satisfy Moses. He, acting for God, says, “All the flocks and herds must go along with us; not a hoof shall be left.” So Satan, like Pharaoh, would keep some sin in us as a pledge of our returning to him again; and even though sin be taken away, he would wish the occasion of sin to remain. For instance, he might say, “Leave off gaming; but still there is no occasion to burn the cards and throw away the dice.” “You must not do your enemy any injury, but there is no occasion for you to love him.” But God’s language is of a different sort. He says that the occasion of sin, though it be dear as a right hand, must be cut off; if we retain an eye for Satan to put his hook into, he will be sure to insinuate himself, and the latter end may be worse than the beginning. (F. F. Trench.)
What repentance cannot do
Suppose I should preach the gospel in some gambling-saloon of New York, and suppose a man should come out convicted of his wickedness, and confess it before God, and pray that he might be forgiven. Forgiveness might be granted to him, so far as he individually was concerned. But suppose he should say, “O God, not only restore to me the joys of salvation, but give me back the mischief that I have done, that I may roll it out.” Why, there was one man that shot himself; what are you going to do for him? A young man came to Indianapolis, when I was pastor there, on his way to settle in the West. He was young, callow, and very self-confident. While there he was robbed, in a gambling-saloon, of fifteen hundred dollars--all that he had. He begged to be allowed to keep enough to take him home to his father’s house, and he was kicked out into the street. It led to his suicide. I know the man that committed the foul deed. He used to walk up and down the street. Oh, how my soul felt thunder when I met him 1 If anything lifts me up to the top of Mount Sinai, it is to see one man wrong another. Now suppose this man should repent? Can he ever call back that suicide? Can he ever carry balm to the hearts of the father and mother and brothers and sisters of his unfortunate victim? Can he ever wipe off the taint and disgrace that he has brought on the escutcheon of that family? No repentance can spread over that. And yet how many men there are that are heaping up such transgressions! (H. W. Beecher.)
I. THE CIRCUMSTANCES THAT LED TO THIS IMPORTANT TEACHING ABOUT REPENTANCE.
II. THE NATURE OF REPENTANCE.
1. The relation of repentance to faith. In order of time they spring up together in the soul. In order of nature faith must precede repentance. We cannot turn from sin without Christ, and we cannot come to Christ without faith.
2. Repentance consists of three elements.
(1) Godly sorrow for sin.
1. Not mere sorrow for sin, for there is much sorrow because sin is an evil and brings punishment, yet no godly element in it.
2. It is the sorrow of a man more concerned for his guilt than his misery, whereas worldly sorrow is more concerned for the misery than the guilt, and would plunge into deeper guilt to escape the misery.
3. Illustrations of worldly sorrow (Pharaoh, Ahab, Judas).
4. The true spirit of godly sorrow is that of the prodigal--“I have sinned before heaven, and in Thy sight.” Also David’s sorrow Psalms 51:1-4).
(2) Confession of sin.
1. This is an essential part of repentance. (Often a relief to guilty men to confess their crime.)
2. It must be very thorough and humbling and heart-searching.
3. It is connected with the continuous forgiveness of believers
1 John 1:7).
(3) Turning from sin to God.
1. The godly sorrow must have a practical result, in the way of proving its genuineness and attesting itself by fruits.
2. Necessity of reparation recognized by civil law (cases of libel). But there are injuries in which no reparation can be made (murder).
3. In cases of Pharaoh, Ahab, Judas, no turning from sin to God, though there may have been sorrow and confession of sin.
4. There must be a turning from all sin--from the love and the practice of that which is sinful.
III. THE NECESSITY OF REPENTANCE.
1. Jesus spoke-the words of the text in a spirit of prophecy. (Forty years after, at siege of Jerusalem, the Jews felt the meaning of the “likewise” of the text.)
2. Preachers cannot now say that, but they can say that if you do not repent you will perish everlastingly. (T. Croskery, D. D.)
The necessity of repentance
1. That those who meet with more signal strokes than others, are not, therefore, to be accounted greater sinners than others. The Lord spares some as great sinners, as He signally punisheth. I tell you, nay. Reasons of this dispensation of Providence:
1. Because of God’s sovereign power and absolute dominion, which He will have the world to understand--“Is it not lawful for Me to do what I will with Mine own?” (Matthew 20:15.)
2. Because we are now under the mixed dispensation of Providence; not the unmixed, reserved to another world, when all men shall be put into their unalterable state.
3. Because the mercy of God to some is magnified by His severity on others.
4. Because in very signal strokes very signal mercies may be wrapped up.
5. Because this dispensation is in some sort necessary to confirm us in the belief of the judgment of the great day.
USE 1. Then learn that unordinary strokes may befall those that are not unordinary sinners; and therefore be not rash in your judgment concerning the strokes that others meet with.
2. Then adore the mercy of God to you, and wonder at His sparing you, when ye see others smart under the hand of God.
3. That the strokes which any meet with, are pledges of ruin to impenitent sinners. But “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.”
Reasons of this are--
1. Because they show how hateful to God sin is, in whomsoever it is Isaiah 42:24).
2. Because they show how just God is. He is the Judge of all the earth, and cannot but do right.
3. Because whatever any meet with in the way of sin is really designed for warning to others, as is clear from the text (see 1 Corinthians 10:11-12).
4. Because all those strokes which sinners meet with in this life are the spittings of the shower of wrath that abides the impenitent world, after which the full shower may certainly be looked for.
USE 1. Be not unconcerned spectators of all the effects of God’s anger for sin going abroad in the world; for your part and mine is deep in them. There is none of them but says to us, as in the same condemnation, “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.”
2. Consider, O impenitent sinners, how can ye escape, when your ruin is insured by so many pledges thereof from the Lord’s hand, while ye go on in sin?
3. The strokes that others meet with are loud calls to us to repent. That is the language of all the afflicting providences which we see going on in the world.
To confirm this, consider--
1. God does not strike one for sin with a visible stroke, but with an eye to all.
2. Thereby we may see how dangerous a thing sin is to be harboured; and if we will look inward, we may ever see that there is sin in us also against the God of Israel.
3. How much more do strokes from the hand of the Lord on ourselves call us to repent? (Hosea 2:6-7).
USE 1. We may see that none go on impenitently in a sinful course, but over the belly of thousands of calls from Providence to repent, besides all those they have from the Word.
2. Impenitency under the gospel cannot have the least shadow of excuse. The calls of Providence common to the whole world, are sufficient to leave the very heathens without excuse (Romans 1:20); how much more shall the calls of the Word and Providence, too, make us inexcusable if we do not repent? I come now to the principal doctrine of the text.
I. EXPLAIN THE NATURE OF REPENTANCE.
1. What it is in its general nature.
2. How it is wrought in the soul.
3. The subject of true repentance.
4. The parts of repentance.
I come now to the application of the whole. And here I would sound the alarm in the ears of impenitent sinners, to repent, and turn from their sins unto God. O sinners, repent, repent; ye are gone away to your lusts and idols, turn from them; ye have turned your back on God, turn to Him again. In prose curing this call to repentance, I shall--
1. Endeavour to convince you of the need you have to repent.
2. Lay before you a train of motives to repentance.
3. Show you the great hindrances of repentance. And--
4. Give directions in order to your obtaining repentance.
(1) Labour to see sin in its own colours, what an evil thing it is Jeremiah 2:19). What makes us to cleave to sin is false apprehensions we have about it.
To see it in itself would be a means to make us fly from it. For this end consider--
1. The majesty of God offended by sin. Ignorance of God is the mother of impenitency (Acts 17:30).
2. The obligations we lie under to serve Him, which by sin we trample upon.
3. The wrath of God that abides impenitent sinners.
4. The good things our unrepented-of sins deprive us of.
5. The many evils which are bred by our sin against the honour of God, our own and our neighhour’s true interest.
(1) Be much in the thoughts of death. Consider how short and uncertain your time is.
(2) Dwell on the thoughts of a judgment to come, where ye shall be made to give an account of yourselves.
(3) Meditate on the sufferings of Christ.
(4) Pray for repentance, and believingly seek and long for the Lord’s giving the new heart, according to His promise (Ezekiel 36:26). (T. Boston, D. D.)
Nature and necessity of repentance
1. Repentance implies godly sorrow for sin.
2. Repentance involves hatred of sin.
3. Repentance includes reformation. This, as it respects both the affections of the heart and the conduct of the life, is the crowning excellence of this evangelical virtue.
II. NECESSITY. “Except … perish.”
1. This is the decision of God respecting all men.
2. The facts point this way. Sinners have perished--sinners distinguished by no peculiarity of guilt--sinners, therefore, in whose case there was no more reason to anticipate the righteous judgments of heaven than there is to anticipate it in other cases. What God has done in these instances, there is every reason to believe He will do in others like them. This is the argument of our Lord, and it comes to us in unabated force.
3. The moral government of God requires it.
4. Also the moral character of God. Sin is abhorrent to His nature. As a holy God, He must regard it with absolute abhorrence and ceaseless displeasure. To suppose otherwise is to suppose God either to approve or to be indifferent to what is directly opposite to Himself, and worthy of His eternal rebuke. It is to suppose God to hate, or wholly disregard His own perfections and glory. But can a spotless God hate Himself? Can His own infinite perfection become an object of indifference to Himself? Can He fail to abhor sin with a measure of indignation proportioned to the purity and infinitude of His nature? (N. W. Taylor, D. D.)
We should labour to make good use to ourselves of God’s judgments on others. Why? God expects it; this is the way to prevent the execution on ourselves. How?
1. “Learning righteousness” (Isaiah 26:9); faith, seeing Him execute threatenings; fear, beholding His severity; obedience, sure want of that is the cause; love, whilst we escape.
2. Forsaking sin: “Sin no more” (John 5:14). All sin, because every sin is pregnant with judgment; therefore it summons to search and try, etc., especially those sins which brought wrath on others. Observe providences; use means to discover what is the Achan, &c. We have great occasion to practise this. Wrath is kindled and burns, &c.; the cup of indignation goes round; the sword has had a commission, &c.; the scars and smarting impressions continue in bodies, estates, liberties. Let us learn to believe, to tremble, to love. Let us forsake sin, our own; the sins that have unsheathed the sword, mixed this bitter cup. Make not this warning ineffectual with the Jews’ supposition. Rather hear, believe, apply what Christ says, Except I repent, &c.
I. FROM THE ADMONISHER, CHRIST, IN THAT HE TEACHES REPENTANCE. Repentance is an evangelical duty; a gospel, a new-covenant duty. This should not be questioned by those who either believe what the gospel delivers, or understand what it is to be evangelical; but since it is denied, let us prove it. And first from this ground.
1. Christ taught repentance. But He taught nothing but what was evangelical.
2. It is excluded by the covenant of works. No room for repentance there.
3. It is required in the gospel (Acts 17:30).
4. It was preached by the apostles (Luke 24:47; Acts 2:28; Acts 3:19).
5. It was the end of Christ’s coming (Matthew 9:13) to call sinners.
6. It was purchased by Christ’s death (Acts 5:31).
7. It has evangelical promises.
8. It is urged upon evangelical grounds (Matthew 3:2; Mark 1:14-15).
9. It is the condition of the prime evangelical mercy. God offers, gives remission of sins, upon condition of repentance. What Christ commands us, Himself does practise (Luke 17:3). If he repent, forgive him. So Acts 3:19, and Acts 2:38.
10. It is confirmed by the seal of the covenant of grace. Baptism is the seal of repentance.
11. It is a fundamental of Christianity (Hebrews 6:1).
12. It is the way to life (Acts 11:18).
1. It reproves those who reject this duty as legal. Certainly those who find not this in the gospel, have found another gospel besides that which Christ and His disciples preached.
2. Exhort. To practise this duty evangelically, that is most congruous. Directions:
(1) Undertake it for evangelical ends. The end gives nature and name to the action. If your aims be legal, mercenary, the act will be so. Go not about it only to escape hell, avoid wrath, satisfy justice, remove judgments, pacify conscience. Ahab and Pharaoh can repent thus, those who are strangers to the covenant of grace. How then? Endeavour that you may give God honour, that ye may please Him, that you may comply with His will, that you may never more return to folly. Confess, to give honour, as Joshua 7:19, get hearts broken, that you may offer sacrifice well pleasing.
(2) Let evangelical motives lead you to the practice of it. Act as drawn by the cords of love. The goodness of God should lead you to it (Romans 2:1-29.).
(3) In an evangelical manner, freely, cheerfully, with joy and delight; not as constrained, but willingly.
(4) Repent that ye can repent no more. This is an evangelical temper, to be sensible of the defects and failings of spiritual duties.
(5) Think not your repentance is the cause of any blessing: it is neither the meritorious nor impulsive cause; it neither deserves any mercy, nor moves the Lord to bestow any.
(6) Think not that your repentance can satisfy God, or make amends for the wrongs sin has done Him.
(7) Ye must depend upon Christ for strength, ability to repent; all evangelical works are done in His strength.
(8) Ye must expect the acceptance of your repentance from Christ.
(9) Think not your repentance obliges God to the performance of any promise, as though He were thereby bound, and could not justly refuse to bestow what He has promised to the penitent; for He is not obliged to fulfil it till the condition be perfectly performed. Imperfect repentance is not the condition; God requires nothing imperfect. If He accomplishes His promise upon our weak detective endeavours, it is not because He is by them engaged, but from some other engaging consideration. Now our repentance is defective, both in quantity and quality, measure and manner, neither so great nor so good as is required. Why, then, does God perform? How is He obliged? Why, it is Christ that has obliged Him; He makes good the condition. When we cannot bring so much as is required, He makes up the sum; He adds grains to that which wants weight. He has satisfied for our defects, and they are for His sake pardoned, and therefore are accepted, as though they were not defective.
(10) Expect a reward, not from justice, but mercy.
II. Thus much for the admonisher, “I tell you.” PROCEED WE TO THE ADMONITION. And in it--
1. The correction, “nay.” Hereby He corrects two mistakes of the Jews:
(1) Concerning their innocency. They thought themselves innocent, compared with the Galileans, not so great sinners (verse 2).
(2) Concerning their impunity, grounded on the former. Because not so great sinners, they should not be so great sufferers, nor perish as they in the text.
From the first. 1.
(1) Impenitent sinners are apt to think themselves not so great sinners as others; to justify themselves, as Pharisees in reference to others; like crows, fly over flowers and fruit, to pitch upon carrion; say as Isaiah 65:5, “Stand by thyself,” &c.
(a) Because never illuminated to see the number, nature, aggravations of their own sins, how many, how sinful; examine not their hearts and lives; judge of sins according to outward appearance, not secret heinousness.
(b) Self-love. They cover, extenuate, excuse their own; multiply, magnify others.
(c) Ignorance of their natural sinfulness. In which respect they are equally sinful as others. Seed-plots of sin; have a root of bitterness, an evil treasure of heart; a disposition to the most abominable sins that ever were committed, such as they never thought of, nor will ever believe they should yield to (2 Kings 8:11-12); want nothing but temptation, a fit occasion.
Take heed of this. It is a sign of impenitency. Paul counts himself the chief of sinners: “If you judge yourselves,” etc. (1 Corinthians 11:31).
(2) From their conceit of impunity. Sinners are apt to flatter themselves with the hopes they shall escape judgments. If they can believe they are not so great sinners, they are apt to conclude they shall not perish: “Put far from them the evil day” (Amos 6:3), threatened (verse 7); cry Peace, &c. Satan has blinded them. Beware of this. It has been the ruin of millions. Those perish soonest who think they shall longest escape (Amos 6:7; 1 Thessalonians 5:3; “Be not deceived, God is not mocked,” &c. Believe the Lord threatening rather than Satan promising.
2. The direction--“Repent.” Repentance has such a relation to, such a connection with, life and salvation, as this cannot be expected without that; for though it be neither merit nor motive, yet consider it as it is, an antecedent and sign, qualification, condition, or means of life and salvation, and the truth will appear.
(1) An antecedent. So there must be no salvation till first there be repentance. Sown in tears before reap in joy.
(2) Sign. A symptom of one being an heir to salvation.
(3) Qualification. To fit for life. He that is in love with sin is not fit for heaven. No unclean thing enters there. Neither will God Himself endure him to be there.
(4) Condition. For that is, without it, never see God: “Except ye,” &c. This is the condition, without which ye shall not escape.
(5) Means and way to life: Christ’s highway. “Repentance to life” (Acts 11:18). Peter directs them to this (Acts 2:38). What is it to repent? Why must they perish that do not?
To repent, is to turn; to return from former evil ways (Ezekiel 14:6).
1. Sorrow for sin. To repent, is to mourn for sin (2 Corinthians 7:9-10).
(1) Hearty, such as greatly affects the heart. Not that of the tongue, which is usual, I am sorry, &c.; nor that of the eyes neither, if tears spring not from a broken heart; not verbal, slight, outward, superficial, but great, bitter, cordial humbling; such sorrow as will afflict the soul.
(2) Godly sorrow (2 Corinthians 7:9-10), sorrow for sin, as it is against God; not as it is against yourselves, prejudicial to you; as it brings judgments, exposes to wrath, makes you obnoxious to justice, brings within the compass of curses, and in danger of hell.
2. Hatred of sin. This is an act of repentance, and that indeed which is principally essential to it. This hatred is
3. Forsaking sin. Terror to impenitent sinners. Hear the doom in the text: “Except ye repent,” etc. Those that do not, will not repent, must perish, shall perish. There is no way without repentance to avoid perishing, and these will not repent, mourn, hate, forsake sin.
What will become of them? Christ, the righteous Judge, gives sentence, they shall perish, certainly, universally, eternally.
1. Certainly. For Christ has said it. He speaks peremptorily; not they may, but they shall.
2. Universally. All, and every one, without exception, whatever he be, have, do, or can do, “Except,” &c. Christ speaks to the Jews, and to all without exception--all perish. If any people in the world had any ground to plead exemption, sure it was the Jews; no people ever in greater favour, none ever had greater privileges. Whatever you can plead why this should not concern you, they had as much ground to plead.
3. Eternally. Soul and body, here and hereafter, now and for ever, must perish without redemption: For who shall redeem from it but Christ? and Christ cannot do it except He will act against His own Word, except He will deny Himself. The sentence is passed, and none in heaven will, none in earth can, recall it. Exhortation: To the practice of this duty. Christ urges it, and under such a penalty. These should be sufficient enforcements. But there are many more considerations to stir up to this duty.
I shall reduce them to three heads: some concerning--
1. Sin to be repented of.
2. Christ that urges repentance.
3. Repentance itself, the duty urged.
1. Concerning sin.
(1) No creature ever got, nor can get, any advantage by sin.
(2) The least sin is infinitely evil. When I say infinite, I say there is more evil in it than the tongue of men or angels can express, than their largest apprehensions can conceive. When I say infinite evil, I understand it is a greater evil than the greatest in the world besides it.
(3) The least sin deserves infinite punishment, i.e., greater than any can endure, express, or imagine.
(4) The least sin cannot be expiated without infinite satisfaction.
(5) It is the cause of all the evils that we count miseries in the world. Whatsoever is fearful, or grievous, or hateful, owes its birth to sin. Were it not for sin, either no evil would be in the world, or that which is now evil would be good.
(6) It is the soul’s greatest misery. Those evils which sin has brought into the world are lamentable, but the miseries wherein it has involved the soul are much more grievous.
(7) It is God’s greatest adversary; it has done much against the world, more against man’s soul; aye, but that which it does against God is most considerable, as that which should move us to hate, bewail, abandon it, above all considerations. It has filled the world with fearful evils, the soul with woeful miseries; but the injuries it does to God are most horrible.
(8) Consider the multitude of your sins. If any one sin be so infinitely evil in itself and in its effects, oh how evil is he, what need to repent, who is guilty of a multitude of sins
2. Considerations from Christ, who enjoins repentance. If our sins were occasion of sorrow to Him, great reason have we to mourn for them. But so it is; our sins made Him a man of sorrows. The cup which He gives to us, He drank Himself; He drank out the dregs and bitterness, the wormwood and gall, wherewith this sorrow was mixed. That which He left to us is pleasant. The cup which Christ gives us, shall we not drink it? Nay, the cup which Christ drank, shall we refuse to taste? Our sins made Him weep and sigh, and cry out in the anguish of His spirit; and shall we make a sport of sin?
3. Considerations from repentance, the duty enjoined. That is the time when all happiness begins, when misery ends, the period of evils; the time from whence ye must date all mercies. Till then, never expect to receive the least mercy, or have the least judgment, evil, removed without repentance. (D. Clarkson, B. D.)
Take heed to thyself
There is a peculiar point and pregnancy of import in these words, which may be wholly overlooked in making them a simple basis for the general affirmation that all sinners must repent or perish. This, true and awful as it is, is rather presupposed than positively stated. To confine ourselves to this, as the whole meaning, is to lose sight of two emphatic words--“ye” and “likewise.” Assuming, as a truth already known, that all men must repent or perish, the text affirms that they whom it addresses must repent or perish likewise, that is, like those particularly mentioned in the context. Another feature of the passage which is apt to be neglected is, that it not only teaches the necessity of repentance to salvation, but presents a specific motive for its exercise, or rather teaches us to seek occasions of repentance in a quarter where most of us are naturally least disposed to seek them; nay, where most of us are naturally and habitually prone to find excuses for indulging sentiments as far removed from those of penitence as possible; uncharitable rigour and censorious pride.
1. That suffering is a penal consequence of sin seems to be a dictate of reason and conscience no less than of revelation. At all events, it is a doctrine of religion which, above most others, seems to command the prompt assent of the human understanding. They who acknowledge the existence of a God at all, have probably no impressions of His power or His justice stronger than those which are associated with His providential strokes, and more especially with death as the universal penalty. War, pestilence, and famine are regarded by the common sense of men not merely as misfortunes, but as punishments, and nothing more effectually rouses in the multitude the recollection of their sins than the report or the approach of those providential scourges. In all this the popular judgment is according to the truth.
2. What is thus true in the aggregate must needs be true in detail. If all the suffering in the world proceeds from sin, then every Divine judgment in particular must flow from the same source. Wherever we see suffering we see a proof not only that there is sin somewhere to account for and to justify that suffering, but that the individual sufferer is a sinner.
3. And yet it cannot be denied that there is something in this doctrine thus presented, against which even the better feelings of our nature are disposed to revolt. This is especially the case when we contemplate instances of aggravated suffering endured by those who are comparatively innocent, and still more when the sufferings of such are immediately occasioned by the wickedness of others. Can it be that the dying agonies of one who falls a victim to the murderous revenge or the reckless cupidity of others are to be regarded as the punishment of sin? Against this representation all our human sympathies and charities appear to cry aloud, and so intense is the reaction in some minds that they will not even listen to the explanation.
4. This feeling of repugnance, though it springs from a native sense of justice, is mistaken in its application because founded upon two misapprehensions. In the first place it assumes that the sufferings, in the case supposed, are said to be the penal fruits of sin committed against man, and more especially against the author of the sufferings endured. Hence we are all accustomed to enhance the guilt of murder, in some cases, by contrasting the virtues of the victim with the crimes of the destroyer. And in such a state of mind not one of us, perhaps, would be prepared to hear with patience that the murder was a righteous recompense of sin. But why? Because at such a moment we can look no further than the proximate immediate agent, and to think of him as having any claim or right of punishment is certainly preposterous. But when the excitement is allayed, and we have lost sight of the worthless and justly abhorred instrument, we may perhaps be able to perceive that, in the presence of an infinitely holy God, the most innocent victim of man’s cruelty is, in himself, deserving only of displeasure; or, at least, that no difficulties hang about that supposition, except such as belong to the whole subject of sin and punishment.
5. If any does remain, it probably has reference to the seeming disproportion of the punishment to that of others, or to any particular offence with which the sufferer seems chargeable in comparison with others. But there is no authority for holding that every providential stroke is a specific punishment of some specific sin, or that the measure of men’s sufferings here is in exact proportion to their guilt, so that they upon whom extraordinary judgment seem to fall are thereby proved to be extraordinary sinners.
6. The effect of this last error is the more pernicious, and the cure of it more difficult, because the doctrine which it falsely imputes to Christianity is really maintained by many Christians as well as by many who make no such professions. It often unexpectedly betrays itself in a censorious attempt to trace the sufferings of others back to certain causes, often more offensive in the sight of human censors and inquisitors than in that of a heart-searching God. But even where the sin charged is indeed a sin, its existence is hastily inferred from the supposed judgment, without any other evidence whatever. This uncharitable tendency can be cured only by the correction of the error which produces it.
7. But in attempting this correction there is need of extreme caution, as in all other cases where an error has arisen, not from sheer invention or denial of the truth, but from exaggeration, or perversion, or abuse of truth itself. Let us not, e.g., attempt to vindicate the ways of God to man by denying the doctrine of a particular providence. No distinction can be drawn between the great and small as objects of God’s notice and His care, without infringing on the absolute perfection of His nature by restricting His omniscience.
8. Nor must we deny any penal or judicial connection between particular providential strokes and the sins of the individual sufferer. To deny that the bloated countenance, the trembling limbs, the decaying mind, the wasted fortune, and the blasted fame of the drunkard or the libertine, are penally consequences of sin, of his own sin, of his own besetting, reigning, darling sin, would be ridiculous, and all men would regard it in that light. And the same thing is true of some extraordinary providences. When a bold blasphemer, in the act of imprecating vengeance on his own head, falls down dead before us, it would argue an extreme of philosophical caution or of sceptical reserve to hesitate to say, as the magicians said to Pharaoh when they found them selves confronted with effects beyond the capacity of any human or created power, “This is the finger of God.” What, then, it may be asked, is the error, theoretical or practical, which Christ condemns, and against which we are warned to be for ever on our guard?
If it be true, not only that suffering in general is the fruit of sin, and that every individual sufferer is a sinner, but that particular sufferings may be recognized as penal retributions of particular sins, where is the harm in tracing the connection for our edification or for that of others?
1. Even if the general rule be granted the exceptions are so many and notorious as to render it inapplicable as a standard or criterion of character.
2. This is a matter which God has not subjected to our scrutiny.
3. The tendency of such inquisitions, as shown by all experience, is not so much to edify as to subject--not so much to wean from sin as to harden in self-righteousness, by letting the censorship of other men’s sins and other men’s punishment divert our thoughts entirely from those which we commit, or those which we are to experience. Here, then, is the use which this instructive passage teaches us to make of the calamities of others, whether those which fall on individuals in private life, or those which strike whole classes and communities. The whole secret may be told in one short word--Repent. As the goodness of God to ourselves ought to lead us to repentance, so ought His judgments upon others to produce the same effect. Every such judgment should remind us that our own escape is but a respite--that if they who perish in our sight were guilty, we are guilty too, and that unless we repent we must all likewise perish. The words are full of solemn warning and instruction to us all. They give a tongue and an articulate utterance to every signal providence, to every sudden death, to every open grave, to every darkened house, to every scattered fortune, to every blighted reputation, to every broken heart in society around us. They command us, they entreat us to withdraw our view from the calamities of others as proofs of their iniquity, and to view them rather as memorials of our own, of that common guilt to which these manifold distresses owe their origin, and in which we, alas! are so profoundly and so ruinously implicated. (J. A. Alexander, D. D.)
The naturalness of God’s judgments
Now the principle that every judgment of God is connected, in the way of ordinary cause and effect, with the sin or error therein condemned, destroys at once the notion that plague or famine are judgments upon us for infidelity, or rationalism, or sabbath-breaking, or our private sins, for there is plainly no natural connection between the alleged sin and the alleged punishment. For example, the town which takes due sanitary precautions may refuse to give one penny to missions, but it will not be visited by a virulent outbreak of cholera. The town which takes no sanitary precautions, but gives £10,000 a-year to missions, will, in spite of its Christian generosity, become a victim to the epidemic. The lightning will strike the ship of the good man who chooses to sail without a lightning-conductor, it will spare the ship of the atheist and the blasphemer who provides himself with the protecting rod. There is, then, always a natural connection between the sin and the punishment, and the punishment points out its own cause. It is my intention this morning to show the truth of this principle in other spheres than that of epidemic disease. If we can manifest its universality, we go far to prove its truth. Take as the first illustration the case of the moral law. The commandments have force, therefore, not because they are commanded by a God of power, but because they are either needful for, or natural to, human nature. Nor is the judgment which follows on their violation any more arbitrary than the laws themselves. As they have their root in our nature so they have their punishment in our nature. Violate a moral law and our constitution protests through our conscience. Sorrow awakes, remorse follows, and remorse is felt in itself to be the mark of separation from God. The punishment is not arbitrary, but natural. Moreover, each particular violation of the moral law has its own proper judgment. The man who is dishonest in one branch of his life soon feels dishonesty--not impurity, not anything else but dishonesty--creep through his whole life and enter into all his actions. Impurity has its own punishment, and that is increasing corruption of heart. Take, again, the intellectual part of man. The necessities for intellectual progress are attention, perseverance, practice. Refuse to submit to these laws and you are punished by loss of memory or inactivity of memory, by failure in your work or by inability to think and act quickly at the proper moment. Again, take what may be called national laws. These have been, as it were, codified by the Jewish prophets. They were men whose holiness brought them near to God and gave them insight into the diseases of nations. They saw clearly the natural result of these diseases and they proclaimed it to the world. They looked on Samaria, and saw there a corrupt aristocracy, failing patriotism, oppress/on of the poor, falsification of justice, and they said, God will judge this city, and it shall be overthrown by Assyria. Well, was that an arbitrary judgment? It was of God; but given a powerful neighbour, and a divided people in which the real fighting and working class has been crushed, enslaved, and unjustly treated--and an enervated, lazy, pleasure-consumed upper class, and what is the natural result? Why, that very thing which the prophets called God’s judgment. God’s judgment was the natural result of the violation of the first of national laws--even-handed justice to all parties in the State. The same principle is true in a thousand instances in-history; the national judgments of war, revolution, pestilence, famine, are the direct results of the violation by nations of certain plain laws which have become clear by experience. For these judgments come to teach nations what is wrong in them, and the judgments must come again and again while the wrong thing is there. We find them out by punishment, as a child finds out that he must not touch fire by being burnt. The conclusion I draw from this is, that all national judgments of God come about naturally. But there are certain judgments mentioned in the Bible which seem to be supernatural--the destruction of Sodom, of Sennacherib’s army, of the Egyptians in the Red Sea, the plagues sent upon the Israelites, and others. These are the difficulty. How shall we explain them? or shall we seek to explain them at all? First, we must remember that the writers had not the knowledge capable of explaining them; that nature to them was an insoluble mystery. They naturally, then, referred these things to a direct action of God, or rather, because they were out of the common, to an interference of God with nature. They were right in referring them to God, but it is possible that, owing to their ignorance of nature, they were wrong in their way of explaining them. Secondly. There is a thought which goes far, if it be true, to explain these things--it is that the course of human history may be so arranged, that, at times, healing or destructive natural occurrences coincide with crises in the history of a nation. For example, we might say that the sins of Sodom had reached their height at the very period when the elastic forces which were swelling beneath the plain of the Dead Sea had reached their last possible expansion. Or that the army of Senncherib lay encamped in the way of the pestilential wind, which would have blown over the spot whether they had been there or not. Thirdly. Whatever difficulty these things present to us in the Bible, the same difficulty occurs in what is profanely called profane history. There is not the slightest doubt, were our English history written by a Hebrew of the time of the kings, that the eclipse and the thunderstorm at Creci, and that the storms which broke the Armada on the rocks of England and Scotland, would have been imputed to a miraculous interference by God with the course of nature. We do not believe these to have been miraculous; but we do believe them, with the Jew, to be of God. But we must also believe that they are contained in the order of the world--not disorderly elements arbitrarily introduced. That is, while believing in God as the Director and Ruler of human affairs, we must also believe in Him as the Director and Ruler of the course of nature. We see in all things this law holding good--that God’s judgments are natural. There is another class of occurrences which have been called judgments of God, but to which the term judgment is inapplicable. There are even now some who say that the sufferers under these blows of nature suffer because they are under the special wrath of God. What does Christ say to that? He bluntly contradicts it! “I tell you nay”--it is not so. There are not a few who still blindly think that suffering proves God’s anger. Has the Cross taught us nothing better than that, revealed to us no hidden secret? There is no pain, mental or physical, which is not a part of God’s continual self-sacrifice in us, and which, were we united to life and not to death, we should not see as joy. But, say others, God is cruel to permit such loss. Three thousand souls have perished in this hurricane. Is this your God of love? But look at the history of the hurricane. “Could not God arrange to have a uniform climate over all the earth?” We are spiritually puzzled, and, to arrange our doubts, God must make another world l We know not what we ask. A uniform climate over all the earth means simply the death of all living beings. It is the tropic heat and the polar cold which cause the currents of the ocean and the air and keep them fresh and pure. A stagnant atmosphere, a rotting sea, that is what we ask for. It is well God does not take us at our word, When we wish the hurricane away, we wish away the tropic heats in the West Indies and along the whole equator. What do we do then? We wish away the Gulf Stream and annihilate England. How long would our national greatness last if we had here the climate of Labrador? Because a few perish, is God to throw the whole world into confusion? The few must be sometimes sacrificed to the many. But they are not sacrificed without due warning. In this case God tells us plainly in His book of nature, that He wants to keep His air and His seas fresh and clean for His children to breathe and sail upon. The West Indies is the place where this work is done for the North Atlantic and its borders, and unless the whole constitution of the world be entirely changed, that work must be done by tornadoes. God has made that plain to us; and to all sailing and living about warm currents like the Gulf Stream it is as if God said, “Expect my hurricanes; they must come. You will have to face danger and death, and it is My law that you should face it everywhere in spiritual as well as physical life; and to call Me unloving because I impose this on you, is to mistake the true ideal of your humanity. I mean to make you active men, not slothful dreamers. I will not make the world too easy for My children. I want veteran men, not untried soldiers; men of endurance, foresight, strength and skill for My work, and I set before you the battle. You must face manfully those forces which you call destructive, but which are in reality reparative.” Brethren, we cannot complain of the destructive forces of nature. We should have been still savages had we not to contend against them. (S. A. Brooke, M. A.)
The case of passing judgment concerning calamities examined: What kind of judgment on such occasions is innocent and just ascertained; and the culpable extremes noted and censured
I. I shall observe WHAT KIND OF REFLECTIONS OR CONCLUSIONS WE MAY JUSTLY RAISE UPON ANY CALAMITIES WHICH BEFALL OTHER MEN.
1. In the first place, we need not be scrupulous of thinking or saying that the persons so visited are visited for their sins. Our blessed Lord finds no fault with the Jews for suggesting or supposing that the Galileans were sinners, and were punished by God for their sins. All mere men are sinners, and all afflictions whatever have a retrospect to sins committed, and are, in strictness of speech, punishments of sin.
2. That all calamities whatever are to be understood as coming from the hand of God. The Jews looked upwards to a higher hand than his, supposing Pilate to be the minister or executioner only of the Divine vengeance; and in this they judged right.
II. To TAKE NOTICE OF THOSE EXTREMES WHICH MANY SO RUN INTO, BUT WHICH WE OUGHT ABOVE ALL THINGS CAREFULLY TO AVOID. There are two noted excesses in this matter: one the text expressly mentions, the other is omitted, or only tacitly pointed to. That which is mentioned, is, the drawing rash and uncharitable conclusions from greater sufferings to greater sins; as if they who have suffered most must of consequence have been the worst of sinners. The other, which is not mentioned, but yet is tacitly condemned, is, the being positive and peremptory as to the particular sin, or kind of sin, that draws down God’s judgments upon any particular person or persons. That which I now intend to treat of, is the pointing out, or specifying the particular sin or sins, for which we suppose God’s judgments to have fallen upon any particular person or persons. The motives for doing this are many and various, as circumstances vary, though all centering in self-flattery, or partial fondness to ourselves. Sometimes it is vanity and ostentation, while we affect to make a show of more than common sagacity in discovering the hidden springs of events, and in interpreting the secrets of Divine providence. Sometimes party prejudices and passions have the greatest hand in it; while we are willing to measure God by ourselves, and to fancy that He takes the same side that we do. If our opposers or adversaries fall into troubles or disasters, how agreeable a thought is it to imagine that it was a judgment upon them for their opposition to us. But the most common and prevailing motive of all for censuring others in this manner on account of their afflictions, is to ward off the apprehension of the like from our own doors, and to speak peace to ourselves. Observe it carefully, and you will scarce find a man charging a judgment of God upon others for any particular sin, and at the same time acknowledging himself guilty in the like kind. No, he will be particularly careful to pitch upon some vice, which he himself, in imagination at least, stands clear of, and is the farthest from. The designs of providence are vast and large; God’s thoughts are very deep, His judgments unsearchable, His ways past finding out.
1. Sometimes the primary reasons, or moving causes of the Divine judgments, lie remote and distant in place or in time; several years, perhaps, or even gererations, backwards. God may “visit the sins of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Him. He has at any time full power and right to take away the life which He gives, or any worldly comforts which Himself bestows; and if He sometimes chooses to exercise this right and power on account of things done several years or ages upwards, there can be no injustice in so doing; but it may more fully answer the ends of discipline, and God may show forth His wisdom in it. This I hint, by the way, as to the reason of the thing: the facts are evident from the sacred history. When King Ahab had sinned, God denounced His judgments against him, but suspended the execution, in part, to another time; assigning also the reason for deferring it: “Because he humbleth himself before Me, I will not bring the evil in his days, but in his son’s days will I bring the evil upon his house”: which was accordingly executed, in the days of him son Jehoram, about fifteen years after.
2. It may further be considered that sometimes the best sort of men are permitted to fall a sacrifice to the rage and violence of the worst; and this either because the world is not worthy of them, or because God gives them up, that their malicious persecutors may fill up the measure of their iniquities. In either view the thing is rather a judgment of God upon the wicked who remain, than upon the righteous so taken away.
3. Supposing we were ever so certain that any person is visited for his own sins only, without any respect to the sins of his ancestors, or of any man else; yet great mistakes may be committed in conjectures made about the particular sins. We have a very remarkable instance of it in Shimei’s censure upon King David.
III. To POINT OUT THE PRACTICAL USE AND APPLICATION OF THE WHOLE.
1. Let it be observed that religious and righteous men are often grievously afflicted. In which case it is most evident that, though they may and do deserve as great temporal afflictions as can be laid upon them, yet they do not deserve them more, nor so much as those worse men that escape. God, for many wise reasons, may sometimes punish good men in this life, and spare the ungodly. The sins of the former, being of a smaller size, may be purged away by temporal calamities; while the greater transgressions of the latter are reserved for an after-reckoning, a more solemn and dismal account. Good men may retain some blemishes, which want to be washed away in the baptism of afflictions. Or, God may sometimes serve the interest of His Church, and set forth the power of His grace, and the efficacy of the true religion, by the sufferings of good men; which is the case of martyrs or confessors who have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake.
2. Suppose we certainly knew that any person who is under trouble, or who has remarkably suffered, and died by the hand of God, had been a wicked and ungodly man; yet we cannot justly conclude, that he was at all worse than many who had not so suffered. For in some cases it may be an argument rather in his favour, to prove that he was not so bad as others. First, I observe, that in some cases the afflictions which a bad man suffers may be an argument in his favour, as affording a probable presumption that he is not so bad, but rather better, than those who escape. Now, I say, when God punishes a sinner in such a way as affects not his life, with a view to his amendment (whether it be by extreme poverty or disgrace, or bodily hurts or diseases, or whatever else it be), in these cases it may serve for an argument in his favour, to prove that he is somewhat better than many others that are spared. For God, who sees into the hearts of all men, may know what effect His visitation will have upon him; and may therefore mercifully mark him out for sufferings, as foreseeing of what use they will be towards the bringing him to a sense of his sins and to be a serious repentance: whereas others, who are more hardened in their vices and follies, He may totally reject as past cure; and so may let them go on and prosper for a time, until death comes and brings them a summons to a higher and more dreadful visitation. But here, perhaps, you might ask, Why should such or such sinners be singled out for examples rather than others, and refused the privilege of a longer time to repent in, if they were not greater and more grievous sinners than the rest? To which I answer: First, supposing them to have been all equally guilty (which was indeed the supposition I have proceeded upon), yet it might be necessary to cut off some, and some rather than all; and, in such a case, God might choose to single out such as He saw proper to animadvert upon, while His mercy is free to pass by others. But further, it should be considered that those who are spared, except they repent, are in a worse condition than those who have already suffered; their judgment is respited only, and deferred for a time, to fall the heavier at the last. So that, though they have some favour shown them, in being spared so long, they have the more to account for; and, without repentance, will at length pay dear for their privilege. But, I must add thirdly, that, supposing the offenders not to be equally guilty, yet God may, if He pleases, and very justly too, cut off the best first, and spare the worst, for two very plain reasons: one, because the best may sufficiently deserve it, and God may do as He pleases. The other, because that, if it were His constant method always to take vengeance upon the worst first, many would be thereby encouraged to go on in their sins, as long as they should imagine there were yet any men left alive more wicked than themselves. (D. Waterland, D. D.)
In the days of Whitfield, Thorpe, one of his most violent opponents, and three others, laid a wager who could best imitate and ridicule Whitfield’s preaching. Each was to open the Bible at random, and preach an extempore sermon from the first verse that presented itself. Thorpe’s three competitors each went through the game with impious buffoonery. Then, stepping upon the table, Thorpe exclaimed, “I shall beat you all.” They gave him the Bible, and by God’s inscrutable providence, his eye fell first upon this verse, “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” He read the words, but the sword of the Spirit went through his soul in a moment, and he preached as one who scarce knew what he said. The hand of God laid hold upon him, and, intending to mock, he could only fear and tremble. When he descended from the table a profound silence reigned in the company, and not one word was said concerning the wager. Thorpe instantly withdrew; and after a season of the deepest distress, passed into the full light of the gospel, and became a most successful preacher of its grace.
Love in warning
That father who sees his son tottering toward the brink of a precipice, and, as he sees him, cries out sharply, “Stop, stop!”--does not that father love his son? That tender mother who sees her infant on the point of eating some poisonous berry, and cries out sharply, “Stop, stop I put it down!”--does not that mother love that child? It is indifference that lets people alone, and allows them to go on every one in his own way. It is love, tender love, that warns and raises the cry of alarm. The cry of “Fire! fire!” at midnight, may sometimes startle a man out of his sleep, rudely, harshly, unpleasantly. But who would complain if that cry was the means of saving his life? The words, “Except ye repent, ye shall all perish,” may seem at first sight stern and severe. But they are words of love, and may be the means of delivering precious souls from hell. (Bishop Ryle.)
Terror not necessary to repentance
There are those who will not come into God’s kingdom unless they can come as Dante went into paradise--by going through hell. They wish to walk over the burning marl, and to snuff the sulphurous air. If a man has done wrong, his own thoughts should turn him to reparation; but if they do not, the first intimation from the injured friend should suffice. (H. W. Beecher.)
1. Repentance is a difficult work, God must work it. It is not in man’s 2 Timothy 2:25). And He peradventure will give it, no man is certain of it. It is a supernatural grace not only above nature corrupted, but nature created; for man in innocency had no need of it.
2. It is a necessary work. Our Saviour before showed the necessity of it--“Except you repent, you shall all perish” (verses 3, 5). So Matthew 3:10. Turn or burn, there is no remedy.
3. And it is a most excellent grace. A fair daughter of a foul mother. She looks backward, and moves forward; is herself a dark cloud, yet brings a fair sunshine. Is this a riddle to you? I will read it. Sin is the mother, repentance is the daughter, the mother is black and ugly, the daughter fair and lovely: God is the Father of repentance, and He could never endure the mother sin, but hates her society; being born, she slew her mother, for by repentance sin is slain, and in so doing God doth bless her; she no sooner receives breath, but she cries for pardon and forgiveness. Miracles she works. The blind eyes are by her made to see the filthiness of sin; the deaf ear she causeth to hear the word of truth, the dumb lips to cry out for grace, and the heart that was dead, becomes now alive to God, and the devil that ruled in it is now expelled. She looks backward to sins past, and is humbled for them, yet she moves forward to holiness and perfection. In short, repentance is herself cloudy, and made up of sadness, yet everlasting joy and happiness doth attend it. (N. Rogers.)
Or those eighteen
Errors respecting the providence of God
It is probably in part the cause, and partly the effect, of the idea of gloom and sadness that we are far too apt to associate with religion, that we regard God so much as if He were only the sender of evil and not of good, as if He indeed sent the dark cloud that occasionally casts its shadow across our path, but had no concern with the bright and gladsome sunshine that habitually enlivens it. Judge for yourselves. Suppose that some being that knew nothing of God were to become an inmate of one of our dwellings, and were to derive all his knowledge of Him from our conversation, is not the probability that he would first and oftenest hear His name mentioned in connection with some calamity, and that he would form the idea that we regarded Him as some mysterious power who had to do only with sickness, and death, and funerals? Now, it is doubtless well that we should recognize the hand of God in the evils that befal us; and a most blessed thing it is that we can resort to Him in the day of sore distress, when our hearts are ready to sink within us, and we feel that all others than He are miserable comforters; but surely it is not well that we should shut Him out from our thoughts when all goes well with us. We treat God very much as an unkind husband treats his wife, giving her the blame of all that goes amiss in the domestic affairs, forgetting that it is to her prudence and good management that he is indebted for innumerable and often unthought of comforts. Another misconception into which we habitually fall respecting the Divine Providence is to think of it as only having to do with the great and striking events of our lives, and not with the daily and hourly occurrences, which are individually small and scarcely thought of, but which, in the aggregate, make up very nearly the whole of our lives. It may have happened to some of us to be delivered from great and imminent danger, in circumstances in which it was almost impossible to avoid recognizing the finger of God; and it is well if we have felt due gratitude for such a deliverance. But if we viewed the matter aright, ought we Hot constantly to be filled with gratitude to Him for keeping us from falling into danger? Is the continuance of health not as great and as special a blessing as the recovery from sickness? When some harrowing calamity occurs in our neighbourhood, we feel that those who have been in the midst of it, and who have escaped unscathed, have a laud call addressed to them for thankfulness and praise; but does it ever occur to us, that if there be any difference, the call is still louder to us for gratitude, because we have been kept out of the danger itself? Depend upon it, that for one great event in our lives in which we see the hand of God’s providence visibly at work, there are ten thousand small events in which it is not less really, though less manifestly, at work. It was a received maxim amongst a particular sect of the old heathen philosophers, that Jupiter had no leisure to attend to small affairs; but it is our blessed privilege to know regarding Jehovah, that, whilst He counts the number of the stars, and calls them all by their names, He superintends the fall of every raindrop, and directs the course of every sun-ray, and clothes the lilies of the field with glory, and feeds the young ravens when they cry to Him; that, whilst He rules over the destinies of states and empires, He watches over the flight of every sparrow, and numbers the very hairs on the heads of His people. (T. Smith, D. D.)
The bad and good use of God’s signal judgments upon others
I. THE WRONG USE WHICH MEN ARE APT TO MAKE OF THE EXTRAORDINARY AND SIGNAL JUDGMENTS OF GOD UPON OTHERS; AND THAT IS, TO BE UNCHARITABLE AND CENSORIOUS TOWARDS OTHERS, WHICH IS COMMONLY CONSEQUENT UPON A GROSS AND STUPID NEGLECT OF OURSELVES. For men do not usually entertain and cherish this censorious humour for its own sake, but in order to some farther end; they are not so uncharitable merely out of spite and malice to others, but out of self-flattery and a fond affection to themselves. This makes them forward to represent others to all the disadvantage that may be, and to render them as bad as they can, that they themselves may appear less evil in their own eyes, and may have a colour to set off themselves by the comparison. It is the nature of guilt to flee from itself, and to use all possible art to hide and lessen it.
II. MORE PARTICULARLY CONSIDER SOME OF THE RASH CONCLUSIONS WHICH MEN ARE APT TO DRAW FROM THE JUDGMENTS OF GOD UPON OTHERS, WHETHER UPON PUBLIC SOCIETIES AND COMMUNITIES OF MEN, OR UPON PARTICULAR PERSONS.
1. It is rash, where there is no Divine revelation in the case, to be peremptory as to the particular sin or kind of it; so as to say, that for such a sin God sent such a judgment upon a particular person, or upon a company of men, unless the judgment be a natural effect and consequent of such a sin; as, if a drunken man die of a surfeit, or a lewd person of a disease that is the proper effect of such a vice, or if the punishment ordained by law for such a crime overtake the offender; in these and such-like cases, it is neither rash nor uncharitable to say, such a mischief befel a man for such a “fault; because such an evil is evidently the effect of such a sin: but in other cases, peremptorily to conclude is great rashness. Thus the heathens of old laid all those fearful judgments of God, which fell upon the Roman empire in the first ages of Christianity, upon the Christians, as if they had been sent by God on purpose to testify His displeasure against that new sect of religion. And thus every party deals with those that are opposite to them, out of a fond persuasion that God is like themselves, and that He cannot but hate those whom they hate, and punish those whom they would punish, if the sway and government of things were permitted to them.
2. It is rash, likewise, for any man, without revelation, to conclude peremptorily, that God must needs in His judgments only have respect to some late and fresh sins, which were newly committed; and that all His arrows are only levelled against those impieties of men which are now upon the stage, and in present view. This is rash and groundless; and men herein take a measure of God by themselves, and because they are mightily affected with the present, and sensible of a fresh provocation, and want to revenge themselves while the heat is upon them, therefore they think God must do so too. But there is nothing occasions more mistakes in the world about God and His providence than to bring Him to our standard, and to measure His thoughts by our thoughts, and the ways and methods of His providence by our ways. Justice in God is a wise, and calm, and steady principle, which, as to the time and circumstances of its exercise, is regulated by His wisdom.
3. It is rash to conclude from little circumstances of judgments, or some fanciful parallel betwixt the sin and the punishment, what sinners, and what persons in particular, God designed to punish by such a calamity. There is scarce anything betrays men more to rash and ungrounded censures and determinations concerning the judgments of God, than a superstitious observation of some little circumstances belonging to them, and a conceit of a seeming parallel between such a sin and such a judgment. In the beginning of the Reformation, when Zuinglius was slain in a battle by the papists, and his body burnt, his heart was found entire in the ashes; from whence (saith the historian) his enemies concluded the obdurateness of his heart; but his friends, the firmness and sincerity of it in the true religion. Both these censures seem to be built upon the same ground of fancy and imagination: but it is a wise and well-grounded observation which Thuanus, the historian (who was himself of the Roman communion), makes upon it--“Thus” (says he) “men’s minds being prejudiced beforehand by love or hatred (as it commonly falls out in differences of religion), each party superstitiously interprets the little circumstances of every event in favour of itself.” Everything hath two handles; and a good wit and a strong imagination may find something in every judgment, whereby he may, with some appearance of reason, turn the cause of the judgment upon his adversary. Fancy is an endless thing; and if we will go this way to work, then he that hath the best wit is like to be the best interpreter of God’s judgments.
4. It is rash, likewise, to determine anything concerning the end and consequence of God’s judgments.
5. And lastly, It is rashness to determine that those persons, or that part of the community upon which the judgments of God do particularly fall, are greater sinners than the rest who are untouched by it. And this is the very case our Saviour instanceth here in the text. And this brings me to the--
III. Third particular I proposed, which was to show HOW UNREASONABLE IT IS FOR MEN TO DRAW ANY SUCH UNCHARITABLE CONCLUSIONS FROM THE JUDGMENTS OF GOD UPON OTHERS, THAT THEY ARE GREATER SINNERS THAN OTHERS; AND LIKEWISE, HOW FOOLISH IT IS FROM HENCE TO TAKE ANY COMFORT AND ENCOURAGEMENT TO OURSELVES THAT BECAUSE WE ESCAPE THOSE CALAMITIES WHICH HAVE BEFALLEN OTHERS, THEREFORE WE ARE BETTER THAN THEY. Our Saviour vehemently denies that either of these conclusions can justly be made from the remarkable judgments of God which befall others and pass by us--“I tell you, Nay: but except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.”
1. It is very unreasonable for men to draw any such uncharitable conclusions concerning others, that because the judgments of God fall upon them, that therefore they are greater sinners than others. For--
(1) What do we know but that God may inflict those evils upon those particular persons for secret ends and reasons, only known to His own infinite wisdom, and fit to be concealed from us? What do we know but He may afflict such a person in a remarkable manner, purely in the use of His sovereignty, without any special respect to the sins of such a person as being greater than the sins of other men; but yet for some great end, very worthy of His wisdom and goodness?
(2) What do we know but that God may send these calamities upon some particular persons in mercy to the generality; and upon some particular places in a nation out of kindness to the whole? It is foolish likewise to take any comfort and encouragement to ourselves that, because we have escaped those sore judgments which have befallen others, therefore we are better than they are; for (as I have shown) these judgments do not necessarily import that those upon whom they fall are greater sinners, and that those who escape them are not so: but suppose it true, that they were greater sinners than we are, for any man from hence to take encouragement to himself to continue in sin, is as if, from the severe punishment which is inflicted upon a traitor, a man should encourage himself in felony; both these sorts of criminals are by the law in danger of death, only the circumstances of death are in one case more severe and terrible than in the other; but he that from hence encourageth himself in felony, reasons very ill, because he argues against his own life. The only prudent inference that can be made, is, not to come within the danger of the law, which punisheth all crimes, though not with equal severity. Thus I have done with the filet thing I propounded to speak to from these words, viz.: The wrong use which too many are apt to make of the signal and extraordinary judgments of God upon others. I proceed to the second thing I observed in the text, viz.: The right use we should make of the judgments of God upon others; and that is, to reflect upon our own sins, and to repent of them, lest a like or greater judgment overtake us. This our Saviour tells us in the next words, “But except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” I shall only draw an inference or two from what I have already discoursed upon these two heads.
1. Let us adore the judgments of God, and instead of searching into the particular reasons and ends of them, let us say with St. Paul (Romans 11:33).
2. Let us not be rash in our censures and determinations concerning the judgments of God upon others; let us not wade beyond our depth into the secrets of God: for “who hath known the mind of the Lord, or who hath been His counsellor?” (Archbishop Tillotson.)
Lessons from accidents
I. THE CONTRADICTION OF A GREAT ERROR IN JUDGMENT. Our blessed Redeemer here teaches us by example to seize upon the events which transpire around us, and to turn them to the improvement of those who hear of them. Some ungenerous Jews informed Him of the barbarous and impious way in which Pilate had taken vengeance upon some Galileans, “mingling their blood with their sacrifices”; in reply to whom Jesus referred them to another case, not of Galileans, but of “dwellers at Jerusalem,” not by the hands of man, but by the hand of God; that from these two together He might draw two very important lessons.
1. The accident which befell those eighteen. They were buried alive beneath the ruins of a falling tower. A melancholy end! Death, come at what time and in what form it may, is dreadful, except to those who by grace are raised above the fear of it--a very few. The approach of it is most appalling to human nature. It is not natural to man to die; it is no part of the original constitution of his being; and nothing can reconcile most men to it. And it becomes still more revolting as it is aggravated by circumstances not common.
2. The inference drawn from this accident. The Jews argued that their sufferings were the proof of their sins; that their rare doom was evidence of their rare guilt. This was a common notion among them; and there was some reason in it, for if left to argue out our own principles, without information or experience, we should conclude that God would always reward men according to their deserts, and that, as all suffering is the offspring of sin, the one would be proportioned to the other, so that the amount of one would indicate the amount of the other. This notion was greatly confirmed in the mind of the Jew by the peculiar government which God exercised as the King of Israel, under which His providence did often indicate His pleasure or displeasure, dispensing present blessings and curses according to His promises and threatenings by Moses. And though this was with the nation rather than with individuals, there were on record in their Scriptures particular instances of evident reward both of evil and good which led them to make the general rule. We, in the same way, knowing that “the curse of the Lord is in the house of the wicked, but He blesseth the habitation of the just,” are apt to come to their conclusion, and to regard the death of those who perish miserably as a marked punishment. Therefore we must ponder the third thought in the text--
3. The denial which our Lord gives to this inference. We are Dot expressly told what was the intention of those who related to Jesus the cruel assault of Pilate upon the Galileans at the very altar of God. But we can gather it from the answer of the Great Teacher, which is evidently not the answer that they desired. He plainly showed their supposition to be that which I have assumed, by His direct contradiction of it. “Suppose ye,” He said (meaning’“ Ye suppose “) “that these Galileans were sinners above all the Galileans because they suffered such things? I tell you, Nay “--which He confirmed by the parallel question and answer in our text. And if there were any triumph of party spirit in these bearers of evil tidings, Jesus took it away well by thus turning their attention from the despised Galileans to their fellow-citizens--teaching them that if the inference were just in the one case it would be so in the other, yet with Divine impartiality denying it in both. And this forbids all to draw such an inference, even in thought. Which prohibition let me strengthen by a fourth consideration--
4. The reasons which there are against such conclusions. It ought to be enough to know that the principle upon which they are founded is often false, and that it is not in our power to ascertain whether it be true or false in most cases. Yet I would deepen the impression by reminding you that such inferences are apt to harden our feelings and take away our pity--a great evil for us. We cannot but have more sympathy with an innocent sufferer than with one who is guilty; yet should human misery in every form and in any man at once awaken our unfeigned and generous compassion, and keep this alive as long as it lasts.
II. THE SUGGESTION OF A MOST IMPORTANT PERSONAL THOUGHT. Some might suppose from the line of argument which I have now followed that I do not believe in the special providence of God (though I have really asserted it), and ask, “Is there evil in the city, and the Lord hath not done it?” or if not, does He act without reason? Then I reply, that my unwavering faith is, that whether there be good or evil done in this way, it is the Lord’s doing; but persuaded that every event which transpires is the appointment of His providence, I perceive also that He does not make His appointments known to us to gratify our curiosity or to justify our censures; “for He giveth not account of any of His matters,” not willing that we should judge His servants in the present state of our ignorance. Moreover, I have followed, not the dictate of my own mind, but the course indicated in the text, the great object of which is to teach us to consider ourselves rather that to censure ethers; for in it Jesus says, “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” Awful as was their end, such an end awaits you if you avert it not. In which saying there are three things worthy of notice.
1. The solemnity of this warning. The catastrophe to which our Lord referred was both instant and terrible; and it was the type of that which befel the hapless multitudes dwelling in Jerusalem at the time of its utter destruction. We tremble at the tale, and should have grown sick and faint at the sight, like so many stout men who witnessed it. And does any such doom await any among us? Many, ay, all, but for the grace of God.
2. The reasonableness of this warning. Whether we see it or not, there is reason in everything that God does, and in everything that Christ says. In the last great day, however, the reason shall be evident why some perish and others are preserved; all men shall discern it. It is intimated in our text; they will perish who would not repent, though space was given them for repentance. But where is the necessity for this? One short word is the answer--Sin.
3. The universality of this warning. (J. Williams.)
Sudden and signal calamity improved
I. Now, first, let us inquire what are those FALSE CONCLUSIONS which men are apt to draw from the stirring and startling events of providence.
1. The first feeling in the mind of man, when God sends afflictive dispensations, is to lose sight of Divine providence altogether. This is to drive God out of His own world--to refer the thing altogether to second causes. “Oh! it was an accident; it was some chance event; it was some unfortunate circumstance; or it was something which occurred from carelessness, want of watchfulness, want of circumspection, want of foresight and provision”; forgetting a Divine hand, losing sight of an almighty Providence.
2. And this is the second remark I have to make--that when the event which occurs is so marked and peculiar that man cannot altogether lose sight of Divine providence or of the Divine hand, he then is disposed to attribute some special guilt or some special misfortune to the sufferers themselves. He tries to find out some particular circumstances in the case which has occurred that may apply peculiarly and expressly to the parties concerned.
II. But now I come, in the second place, to inquire into those SOLID AND IMPORTANT LESSONS which these events are really designed to teach us.
1. Now, of the lessons which this solemn event is intended to teach, the first is this--that we are all standing on the brink of an eternal world. Beloved brethren, it does not require any mighty effort of Jehovah, any vast convulsion of nature, to destroy us or to carry us out of the world. A single spark will do it; a little smouldering spark getting amongst combustible matter, or thrown into any other circumstances in which these accidents by fire occur, is a sufficient agent in the hand of your God to destroy life. A little disorder in any part of the animal frame can do the same. The air you breathe is impregnated with disease. The very ground on which you walk may prove your death. A fall, a stumble--a thousand minute accidents--may kill you.
2. This event reminds us of the punishment due to sin.
3. A loud and most solemn call to repentance. (D. Wilson, M. A.)
A certain man had a fig-tree
The barren fig-tree
THE FAVOURABLE POSITION IN WHICH THIS TREE WAS PLACED. In a “vineyard”; not on some neglected waste-ground. Under culture and care. This is the condition of those favoured with the privileges and blessings of the gospel dispensation. This is especially the condition of those who are members of the Christian Church.
1. Who have been professedly brought out of the world into the Church.
2. Who are favoured with the spiritual means and ordinances of the gospel.
3. Who are the subjects of the especial and rich promises of the new covenant.
4. Unto whom the graces and blessed influences of the Holy Spirit are freely imparted.
5. Who are the objects of the Divine care and complacency. We are directed--
II. To THE EXPECTATIONS OF THE PROPRIETOR. He came seeking fruit (Luke 13:6). This expectation was reasonable. God expected this from the Jews. He required them to be more wise, and holy, and obedient, than the heathen who surrounded them. God requires this from all favoured with the privileges and blessings of the gospel economy. He particularly requires and expects it from His own professing people--the members of His Church. He expects--
1. Their hearts to yield the fruits of holy graces.
2. Their lips to yield the fruit of thanksgiving and praise.
3. The fruits of obedience in the life.
4. The fruits of usefulness, by the employment of their powers and talents in His service.
III. THE PROPRIETOR’S DISAPPOINTMENT.
IV. THE COMMAND THE PROPRIETOR ISSUES. “Cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground?” (Luke 13:7).
1. This sentence was not a hasty one. There had been three years’ care, and labour, and forbearance. God exercised His great long-suffering towards the Jews. So to men in general. So to fruitless professors in the Church. To all God manifests patient and enduring forbearance.
2. A sufficient reason is assigned for the order given. “Why cumbereth it the ground?” It was worthless in itself. It occupied precious ground. It took up the nutritive portions of the soil, that useful fruitful trees required.
V. THE REQUEST THE VINE-DRESSER PRESENTS. “He said, Lord, let it alone this year also,” etc. (Luke 13:8). He denies not the allegations of the owner. He vindicates not the final continuance of the tree. But he entreats--
1. For a short period of suspense of the sentence. One year. One year only! One round of the seasons. One year’s showers and sunshine.
2. He engages to give it special attention. “I will dig about it, and dung it” (Luke 13:8). I will try and search out the cause, and use all reasonable means to remedy it. He further adds--
3. His willingness then to obey the order of the proprietor. This is not only implied, but directly stated. “If it bear fruit, well”--well for the tree, the proprietor, and the vine-dresser; “And if not, then thou shalt cut it down” (Luke 13:9). This pleading for the cumberer has often been verified in the prayers of the parent, the friend, the minister; but it is true in the highest and best sense of the Lord Jesus. He ever lives to intercede. (J. Burns, D. D.)
The barren fig-tree
I. Notice THE SITUATION OF THE TREE, the place where it stands. It is in God’s vineyard, and our Lord tells us how it came there. The vineyard was not its natural situation. It did not spring up there, nor was it brought there by accident. God Himself had it planted there. An emblem, brethren, of our situation at this hour, and of the way in which we came into it.
II. See next WHAT IS EXPECTED FROM THIS TREE. Is it that it shall take root and grow where it is planted, and receive the showers of heaven as they fall on it? We may say, “Yes”; but God says, “No, this will not satisfy Me; what I want of it is fruit--not wide-spreading branches and luxuriant foliage; the wild fig-tree of the desert will give me these. I must have of that tree something answering to the situation in which I have placed it, and to the care and pains I have bestowed on it. I come to it seeking fruit.” And what is this fruit? It is not those things which some of us perhaps have now in our minds, the social and moral virtues, charity, honesty, and such like. These are all good in their way, but these are fruits of nature’s growth. The wild fig-tree will produce them. The heathen and idolater will bring them forth. The tree our Lord speaks of is a tree in a vineyard, a planted and cultivated tree, and something more than fruit of this common kind is expected from it. God wants fruit from us corresponding to the privileges He has bestowed upon us; not only more fruit than any heathen could render Him, but fruit of another kind-Christian fruit, such fruit as nothing but the gospel of Christ can produce, and none but men planted in His Church, and brought under the influence of that gospel, ever yielded Him.
III. And now go on to another point in the parable--THE SCRUTINY THIS FIG-TREE DRAWS ON ITSELF. Observe, the owner of the vineyard does not forget the tree when he has planted it, nor does he sit at home waiting for his servants to bring him the produce of it when there is any; he is described as coming again and again into his vineyard, and going up to this tree and examining it. “ He came and sought fruit thereon”; he was anxious about the matter, anxious, not only to gather the fruit if he could find any, but also not to overlook it if there should be some. None watch us like God. We do not see Him as He stands by our side; the great Observer of us is invisible and His scrutiny a silent one; we think no more of Him perhaps than a tree in our garden thinks of us as we walk by it; but He marks every one of us every hour with the most searching attention. He listens to our words, He acquaints Himself with our doings.
IV. Observe THE MARVELLOUS PATIENCE OF GOD WITH THIS UNFRUITFUL TREE. “Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig-tree, and find none.” There is surprise, you observe, expressed in this language; surprise, it may be, at the unfruitfulness of such a tree in such a place; but still more, it is surprise at God’s patience towards Him, that these words seem chiefly to express. The Lord speaks in them as though He Himself were wondering at His own patience.
V. But mark THE DISPLEASURE EXPRESSED AT LAST AGAINST THIS UNFRUITFUL TREE. It is a displeasure which has long been kept under. It comes upon us after long forbearance with us. It is something which has triumphed over great love and great patience; not the flowing of a stream that has always had a free course, moving along in an unobstructed channel, it is a river bursting through harriers which have long damned it up, and pouring forth its accumulated waters in a desolating heap. Look here. The patient owner of this tree becomes all at once determined on its destruction. For three years he goes up to it, searching among its leaves for fruit; he comes away disappointed, but yet silent. There is no blaming of the tree, no complaining of it. The people in the vineyard, who have witnessed all this, may have ceased to notice it, or if they still notice it, they may say, “That tree is safe. Unfruitful as it is, for some strange reason our master loves it, and so well does he love it that he will never remove it.”
But all at once comes the command, “Cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground?”’ And what follows? Is the tree at once levelled? No; for notice--
VI. THE INTERCESSION MADE FOR IT. The dresser of the vineyard answering, said unto him, “Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it and dung it; and if it bear fruit, well; and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down.” Here, doubtless, a heavenly scene is laid open to us. There is but one Mediator who can interpose effectually between God and man. Ministers, parents, and friends, may say concerning this or that sinner, “Lord, let him alone”; but Christ is not thinking here of any of these. He has Himself in His thoughts; He is anticipating His employment at His Father’s right hand whither He is going. He is the vinedresser who pleads for this worthless tree to save it from destruction. And how natural and touching are the terms in which His intercession is made! Not one word does He utter against this barren tree. Not one word does He say of all the labour He has bestowed upon it. With a wonderful pity and condescension, He seems to trace its long unfruitfulness to His own neglect. “Lord, let it alone. The fault may be mine. I have not done for it all I might. Henceforth I will do more. It shall become the special object of My labour and care.” And then comes in these words a glance at all the glorious consequences that would follow. “If it bear fruit, well,” our translators say, but there is no word answering to “well” in the original. Our Lord does not say what would follow the fruitfulness of this tree. He breaks off as though He could not say. It seems as though all the glory and delight resulting to His Father and Himself from a sinner’s salvation had rushed into His mind and silenced Him. “If it bear fruit--O, the happiness for that poor sinner, and O, the unutterable joy for Thee and Me!” But, mark you, it is only a year that the Intercessor asks for this tree, one year, a limited season. After that, He says, He will interpose no longer; and more--He will acquiesce in the sentence of its destruction; “Thou shalt cut it down.” I know not, brethren, how this language may strike some of you, but there seems to me something very fearful in it. Who is it that promises here to acquiesce after a little in the entire destruction of every unfruitful hearer of God’s truth among us? It is none other than He who has shed His heart’s blood for our salvation, and who has all our life long been pleading that we may be spared. It is painful to have a kind earthly friend give us up, but to be given up, and given up to certain destruction, by the blessed Jesus, the kindest of all friends, One who bears with and loves us as none but Himself can bear and love--think what we will of it, there is something appalling in this. It is like a father who has cherished fondly a son, a worthless son, while all around have been calling out for justice on him--it is like that father’s being at last forced to say, “I can hold out no longer. I can do no more. Let justice have him.” (C. Bradley, M. A.)
The parable of the barren fig-tree
I. FROM THE SCOPE OF THE PARABLE WE MAY NOTE--
1. That temporal judgments inflicted on some should excite others to fear God’s Divine wrath and vengeance.
2. No person ought to be rash to censure others on whom temporal judgments befall: there is no knowing either love or hatred by anything that is under the sun.
II. EXPLAIN THE TERMS.
1. By “a certain man,” is meant the great God.
2. By “vineyard” is meant the Church of God.
(1) The Church is taken out of the field of this world.
(2) Walled or fenced in.
(a) Defended by special providences, etc.
(b) By holy angels.
3. But why does our Lord compare professors of religion to fig-trees?
(1) He may allude to the practice of those who had vineyards in the land of Canaan, in which they frequently planted not only vines, but fig-trees.
(2) It may be because a fig-tree that brings forth good figs requires much heat of the sun. So professors of Christianity cannot thrive so as to bring forth good fruit, but under the Divine and warm influences of the Sun of Righteousness, and the blessed gospel of God’s grace.
(3) Because no tree is commonly more fruitful than the fig-tree.
(4) A fig-tree bears choice fruit.
(5) Fig-trees bear fruit all the year (see Jeremiah 17:7; Psalms 92:12-14).
(6) There are some barren fig-trees; they are not of the right kind, but seem a bastard sort of plants. So some professors, who, though they are planted in Christ’s vineyard, yet are barren or fruitless; they are not true believers, but mere counterfeits, professors, that have the name of spiritual fig-trees, but not the nature.
4. “Came and sought fruit thereon.”
(1) God takes notice of every particular person that is planted in His vineyard.
(2) God expects fruit from each.
(3) If there be but one member in the Church that is fruitless, God will soon find him out.
5. By “three years,” I understand to be meant that time God is pleased to afford to a people, a certain time being here mentioned to denote an uncertain.
(1) The first year may denote the beginning of the means of grace, which God affords to men.
(2) The second year, the proper time that fig-trees bear fruit, if not the first year, then it is expected that it brings forth fruit the second.
(3) Or it may imply that God expects sinners should bring forth quickly after they sit under the means of grace.
(4) Moreover, it may denote that the means of grace may not be of long continuance.
(5) Also it may signify God’s patience.
6. “Cut it down,” &c. God will not always bear with fruitless professors.
(1) God may direct His speech to His Church, and to the subordinate vinedressers. “Cut it down” by excommunication.
(2) Or God may speak to Jesus Christ. Smite his root, let him wither.
(3) Give him up to his own heart’s lust.
(4) Leave him to delusions.
1. Let such as are planted in God’s vineyard tremble if not fruitful in grace. The Church will be no sanctuary to such.
2. Some who are in Christ’s vineyard were never planted there by God.
3. Men may have leaves, and even the appearance of fruit, and may seem to grow and flourish for a time, yet, nevertheless, may not bring forth the true and saving fruits of the Spirit.
4. The barren soul shall not stand long in God’s vineyard.
7. The reason why this barren fig-tree is cut down.
(1) It is good for nothing.
(2) Another tree might grow where it stands.
(a) Barren professors cumber poor ministers by their cross and peevish spirits.
(b) They cumber the spirits of their pious parents.
(c) They cumber the minds of serious Christians, members of the same Church, who are ashamed to hear of their pride, passion, idleness, &c.
(d) They are a sad incumbrance to the whole vineyard.
(e) They are cumbersome to God Himself (Isaiah 1:14).
(f) They grieve and afflict the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ.
(g) They grieve the Holy Spirit.
8. “Let it alone this year also.”
(1) Barren souls are spared through Christ’s prayer and intercession.
(2) God is slow to anger, unwilling immediately to cut down unfruitful professors.
9. Why does Christ intercede for sinners?
(1) Because He died for them.
(2) Because He ever lives to make intercession with the Father.
(3) Because He knows that if He interceded not, no sinner could live a moment longer. (B. Keach.)
The fig-tree spared another year
I. OF THOSE WHO HAVE A PLACE IN THE CHURCH OF CHRIST, SOME ARE BUT BARREN PROFESSORS. Even among the twelve there was a traitor; and Christ has forewarned us that there will always be hypocrites mingled with His people. By the barren fig-tree, however, is meant, not only the plausible hypocrite, but all merely nominal Christians; all who, having the means of grace, do not improve them. Yes, my brethren, all of you are included, who, while you attend in this house of God; while you bend the knee before Him; while, sabbath after sabbath, you hear the gospel-sound, listen to its warnings, its invitations, its free and gracious promises; to whom, monthly, are offered the sacramental pledges of redeeming love: still continue far from the kingdom of God; by your life and conversation show, that you are none the better for the opportunities you enjoy; still live in indulged sin, or, at least, bring forth no fruit to the glory of God; are still careless, irreligious, worldly, vain.
II. THE BARREN PROFESSOR CANNOT ESCAPE THE SEARCHING EYE OF GOD. He sees the heart and inmost thoughts. He cannot, and will not, be mocked.
III. GOD EXPECTS FRUIT FROM US. And justly so.
1. Ask yourselves, then, brethren, do you bear fruit answering to your profession of repentance? Are you risen from an unconverted state, and walking in newness of life?
2. Do you bear fruit answerable to your profession of faith? You profess to believe in Him who has bought you with His blood. Are you living no more to yourselves, but to Him who died for you?
3. Is the fruit you bear suitable to the opportunities and means of grace which you enjoy? Highly are you favoured, brethren; you are members of a pure Church; you assemble to a pure form of worship. The Word of God, the sacraments are yours; to you is the gospel preached. Might not the Lord of the vineyard have laid the axe to the root? Why is it thou art spared? Because God is patient long suffering, merciful, and He would have thee repent.
IV. OBSERVE THAT IN JUDGMENT GOD REMEMBERS MERCY. Well might justice say, “Cut it down.” But there is an Advocate in heaven. Behold One interceding at God’s right hand: “Let it alone this year Also, till I shall dig about it and dung it: and if it bear fruit, well.” Blessed be God, for us mercy hath rejoiced against judgment. We are yet spared; and to what end hath Christ Jesus been thus long-suffering? It is that He may show yet richer goodness; that He may try more abundant means. “Let it alone, till I shall dig about it, and dung it.” “And if it bear fruit, well.” All care and pains will have been well bestowed, if, after all, the sinner bear fruit to God. God’s mercy will be magnified; His grace exalted.
V. And now, lastly, OBSERVE THE SURE DOOM OF THOSE WHO CONTINUE STILL UNFRUITFUL:--“If not” (if the tree then bear no fruit), “then after that thou shalt cut it down.” It is, then, possible to weary out the patience of God Himself. It is possible, by a hard and impenitent heart, to let the day of grace go by. There may, there will come a time, when mercy shall cease to plead, and leave room for judgment only; when Christ Himself will give up His intercession. O, awful state I when the Saviour Himself withdraws; when His Spirit, grieved, resisted, quenched, finally quits the stony heart. Then follows death-like insensibility--a fearful apathy to all spiritual things, or, it may be, a daily growth in all iniquity, till at length the sinner’s cup is full. (E. Blencowe, M. A.)
The barren fig-tree
I. THE PLANTATION OF THE FIG-TREE.
1. This “certain man” denotes God. To Him everything belongs. “The earth is His, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.” But the Church is peculiarly His, as it is called by His name, and formed to show forth His praise.
2. But who is intended by the fig-tree? It cannot be a real Christian. All the truly regenerate are fruitful. They are not equally, but they are really, fruitful. The character here intended is a man placed in the external and visible Church, and enjoying all the privileges of such a favoured situation. It was once the highly favoured Jew. It is now the highly favoured Christian, blessed with all the religious advantages of Judaism, multiplied, improved, perfected: it is now the highly favoured Briton, born not only in a land of freedom and science, but of gospel grace. It is thou who wast brought up in a godly family, and favoured with the prayers, the instructions, the examples, the tears, of pious parents. It is thou who hast a name and a place in His sanctuary, from Sabbath to Sabbath, where “thine eyes see thy teachers: and thy ears hear a voice behind thee, saying, This is the way, walk ye in it, when you turn to the right hand, and when you turn to the left.”
II. THE COMPLAINT OF THE PROPRIETOR.
1. His observation.
2. His disappointment.
3. His patience. “These three years.” Why did He not complain the first year? Why did He not destroy it the second year? Why does He bear with it to the end of the third? Why?--To teach us-that judgment is His strange work--that He delighteth in mercy; that He waiteth to be gracious; that He is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.
III. THE SENTENCE OF DESTRUCTION--“Cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground?” Here we see--
1. That they who derive no benefit from the means of grace are detrimental.
2. Unprofitableness under the means of grace is exceedingly provoking to the Most High. And can we wonder at this when we consider what a waste it is of time; what an abuse it is of privilege; what a contempt it is of the Divine goodness; what a disregard it is of the soul and eternity I Sin is to be estimated not by its grossness, but its guilt. And what aggravates guilt? The light we possess; the obligations we are under; the restraints we break through.
3. God possesses justice as well as mercy; and though He bears long, He will not bear always. “Sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily”; and, as the consequence, the heart of the sons of men is often fully set in them to do evil. But how absurd, as well as dangerous, is such perverse reasoning! Is forbearance forgiveness? No.
IV. THE INTERCESSION OF THE VINE-DRESSER.
1. He pleads for the suspension of the stroke. “Let it alone this year also.” Thou hast borne with it long, I own, already; oh! bear with it a little longer. And why is He so desirous of sparing the sinner a little longer in this world? Because, in order to our having the grace of repentance, it is necessary that we should have space for repentance: because while there is life there is hope; but “when once the master of the house is risen up, and hath shut to the door,” opportunity is over, importunity vain.
2. He engages to use additional means to produce fertility--“Till I dig about it, and dung it.” The Word shall be preached with more fervour than before. The minister shall be particular in describing his case, in alarming his fears. Friends shall warn, admonish, invite. Conscience shall awake and reprove. Disappointments shall show him the vanity of the world. Sickness shall invade his frame. Death shall enter his family, and smite a connection by his side. The day in which he lives shall be dark and cloudy. He shall hear of “distress of nations with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken.” And can he retain his ungodliness through such a year as this?
3. Here is the supposition of future produce. “If it bear fruit, well.” Well for the owner (John 15:8). Well for the vine-dresser, as his labours will be rewarded. Well for the vineyard; it will be adorned, enriched, and replenished. Well for the tree itself, as it will escape the punishment of barrenness, and obtain the blessing of fruitfulness.
4. Here is the doom of final impenitence. Even the patience of the Saviour may be exhausted. (W. Jay.)
Judgment threatening, but mercy sparing
I. To all unprofitable, untruthful sinners, we utter this hard, but needful sentence: TO CUT YOU DOWN WOULD BE MOST REASONABLE. It is right and reasonable to fell barren trees, and it is just as right and reasonable that you should be cut down.
1. This will appear in the first place, if we reflect that this is the shortest and the surest way to deal with you; it will cost the least trouble, and be most certainly effectual in removing you from the place to which you are an injury rather than a benefit.
2. Another reason makes the argument for judgment very powerful, namely, that sufficient space for repentance has already been given.
3. Sinner, I argue thy case somewhat harshly, thou thinkest. All this while there has been no sign of improvement whatever in thee.
4. But there are other reasons why “Cut it down” is most reasonable, when we consider the owner and the other trees.
(1) First of all, here is a tree which brings forth no fruit whatever, and therefore is of no service. It is like money badly invested, bringing in no interest; it is a dead loss to the owner. What is the use of keeping it? The dead tree is neither use nor ornament; it can yield no service and afford no pleasure. Cut it down by all manner of means. And even so with thee, sinner; what is the use of thee?
(2) But there is a worse consideration, namely, that all this while you have been filling up a space which somebody might have been filling to the glory of God. Where that barren tree stands there might have been a tree loaded with fruit.
(3) Moreover, and to make bad worse even to the worst degree, all this while ungodly men are spreading an evil influence.
II. Our second most solemn work is to remind thee, O impenitent sinner, that FOR GOD TO HAVE SPARED YOU SO LONG IS A VERY WONDERFUL THING. That the infinitely just and holy God should have spared you, unconverted man, unconverted woman, up till now, is no small thing, but a matter for adoring wonder.
1. Let me show you this. Consider, negatively, God is not sparing you because He is insensible towards your sins: He is angry with the wicked every day.
2. It is not because the offence is at a distance, and therefore far from His observant eye.
3. Mark, sinner, He has spared you not because He was unable to have destroyed you. He might have bidden the tiles fall from the roof, or the fever might have smitten you in the street; the air might have refused to heave your lungs, or the blood might have ceased its circulation in your veins. The gates to death are many. The quiver of judgment is full of sharp arrows. The Lord has but to will it, and your soul is required of you. You will be no more missed than one sere leaf is missed in a forest, or one dewdrop in a thousand leagues of grass. Judgment needs but a word to work its utmost vengeance, and withal you are so provoking that the marvel is that Divine severity has spared you so long. Admire and wonder at this longsuffering.
4. Remember that this wonder is increased, when you think of the fruit He deserved to have had of you. A God so good and so gracious ought to have been loved by you.
5. And ah, my hearers! I have to touch upon a very solemn part of the business now, when I notice again that some, perhaps, here present have been guilty of very God-provoking sins. Shall God be always provoked? Shall mercy be preached to you for ever in vain? It is a marvel, it is a wonder that these God-provoking sins have so long been borne with, and that you are not yet cut down.
III. And now, WHAT IS THE REASON FOR ALL THIS LONGSUFFERING? “Why is it that this cumber-ground tree has not been cut down? The answer is, because there is One who pleads for sinners. But what has been the secret cause that you have been kept alive? The answer is, Jesus Christ has pleaded for you, the crucified Saviour has interfered for you. And you ask me “Why?” I answer, because Jesus Christ has an interest in you all. (C. H.Spurgeon.)
Lessons from the fig-tree
1. This parable cuts up all pleas of negative goodness. Unproductiveness is decidedly criminal.
2. This parable calls on you to examine yourselves, whether you be barren or fruitful; and to follow out the result aright, whatever it may be.
3. This parable calls on us all to be thankful to the Lord for sparing us hitherto. It gives this call to us without exception, and especially if any of us have been spared in the time of great danger, restored from severe sickness.
4. Let none of us so abuse God’s sparing mercy as to presume on it for the future; but let us all improve the present season without delay, and hold ourselves in constant readiness for death. (James Foote, M. A.)
The barren fig-tree
The principles underlying this parable are, briefly, these: That much will be required of those to whom much has been given; that, if those to whom much has been given fail to meet that which is required of them, sentence of destruction will be pronounced against them; and that, though the execution of this sentence may be deferred at the intercession of Christ, it will certainly be carried out if there be no repentance and amendment manifested.
I. GOD HAS PLACED US IN THE MOST FAVOURABLE CIRCUMSTANCES FOR THE BRINGING FORTH OF FRUIT. The privileges of the Jews were small in comparison with those which we enjoy. They had the prophets; we have the Son of God. Let us never forget that responsibility is proportional to privilege.
II. GOD EXPECTS EXCEPTIONAL FRUIT FROM A TREE ON WHICH HE HAS BESTOWED SUCH EXCEPTIONAL ADVANTAGES. If we have so much more than others, we ought to be just so much better than they. The fruit in this case is that of character--what we are rather than what we do: what we do only in so far as that is the genuine outcome and spontaneous revelation of what we are. Righteousness, meekness, fidelity--in a word, moral excellence springing from our faith in Christ, and our devotion to Him--that is the fruit which God expects to find in us as the occupants of His vineyard.
III. GOD PRONOUNCES SENTENCE OF DESTRUCTION ON ALL WHO, HAVING HAD SUCH PRIVILEGES, BRING FORTH NO FRUIT (see John 15:6;Matthew 7:19). The Jews are one example of this; the seven Churches in Asia are another. If we wish to secure permanent prosperity, we must remember that we can do so only by maintaining constant fruitfulness in works of faith and labours of love, and holiness of character. When these disappear, and barrenness sets in, then there will come the sentence, “Cut it down.”
IV. THIS SENTENCE, PRONOUNCED ON THE BARREN FIG-TREE, IS NOT AT ONCE CARRIED INTO EXECUTION. For all such respite as interposes, in any case, between evil desert and its immediate punishment, men are indebted to the intercession of Christ.
V. A RESPITE IS NOT A PARDON. Only a postponement. Take care not to regard God’s forbearance, which is meant to give space for repentance, as an actual manifestation of indifference, or approval. Guilt after such forbearance, and against it, will be greater than before. (W. M. Taylor, D. D.)
Of Christ seeking fruit, and finding none
Those who enjoy the means of fruitfulness should bring forth fruit; those who are planted in the Lord’s vineyard, and have a standing under the means of grace, should be fruitful. This is clear in the words, and indeed in every part of this parable.
1. They are planted in the vineyard for this purpose. That is the proper place for fruit-trees; another place than the vineyard would serve them, if they were not set there for fruit.
2. The Lord, who gives them place here, expects it. He is said to come and seek fruit (Luke 13:6-7). It is that which he has just cause to look for.
3. He heinously resents it when he finds no fruit, and expresses his resentment to the dresser of his vineyard. It is an abuse of his patience; the longer he bears with such barrenness the more it is abused. It is a provocation that he will not bear long with. After three years’ forbearance, he passes that severe sentence,” cut it down.”
4. It is an injury to the place where they stand. They cumber the ground, that is the reason of the sentence (Luke 13:7). It takes up that room which might be better employed; it sucks away that moisture which would make others fruitful; it overdrops the plants that are under it, hinders the spreading and fruitfulness of others. A better improvement might be made of the ground; it is a loss to the owner of the vineyard, when such a plant is suffered, καταργεῖ; which may signify the spending the heart of the ground to no purpose (Luke 13:7).
5. Those who have most tenderness for such, can have no ground to seek a long forbearance of this barrenness. The dresser of the vineyard will venture to beg no more forbearance than one year, after that he yields it up to excision (Luke 13:8-9).
6. All labours and pains, all care and culture, in digging about and dunging it, is lost upon it. Those whom the Lord employs to use all means for their improvement, have nothing left them in the issue, but occasion of sad complaint, that they have laboured in vain, spent their strength for nought Isaiah 49:4).
7. Such will certainly be ruined. Where fruit is not found, nothing can be expected but cutting down. The lord of the vineyard will not spare them, and the dressers of the vineyard will not longer intercede for them. All in a little while agree in that fatal conclusion, “cut it down.” All these, and each of them, make it evident, that those who are planted under the means of grace, are highly concerned to bring forth fruit. The most pertinent and profitable inquiry, for further clearing of this truth, will be, what fruits it is they should bring forth? What we are to understand by fruit, and that fruitfulness which is so much our duty? And of this I shall give you an account by the quality, quantity, and continuance of it. To these heads we may reduce those severals, whereby the Scriptures express to us what this fruit is.
I. FOR QUALITY. It must be good fruit. Grapes, not “wild grapes.”
1. Real. A show, an appearance of fruit will not suffice. If it be not real, it has not a metaphysical goodness, much less a moral or spiritual. The fig-tree in the gospel made some show of fruit; but Christ finding none upon it really, He cursed it, and it withered (Matthew 21:19). It must not be like the apple of Sodom, which has nothing to commend it, but only a fair outside. Fair appearances may delude men, and pass for better fruit with them than that which is good indeed. But God is not, cannot be mocked; it is He that comes to seek fruit, and it is not the fairest shows will satisfy Him, it must be real.
2. It must be such as imports a change of the soul that brings it forth.
3. It must be distinguishing fruit; such as no trees can bring forth but those that are good, and such as will make their goodness apparent (Matthew 7:16; Matthew 7:20); such as may approve ye to God and your own consciences to be trees of righteousness, the planted of the Lord, and such as may make this known to men too, so far as by visible acts it may be known; such as may carry a conviction with them to the consciences of others, that you are indeed what you profess yourselves to be, such as will leave them no just exception against it (1 Peter 3:16).
4. Seasonable. That it may be good fruit, it must be brought forth “in due season” (Psalms 1:1-6.; Matthew 21:41). The lord of the vineyard looks for fruit in his season (Mark 12:2; Luke 20:10). There is a season for everything (Ecclesiastes 3:1), and then, if ever, it is good.
5. Sound. A fair skin is not enough to commend fruit for good, if it be rotten within. And so is our fruit, if the inward temper and motions of the heart be not correspondent to the outward actions and expressions.
II. For the QUANTITY. It ought to be much (John 15:5; John 15:8). There should be--
1. A fulness of fruit. Those that enjoy the means, must not only bring forth fruit, but be fruitful; should bear abundance. Heart and life should be filled with it (Philippians 1:11).
2. A proportionableness to the means of fruitfulness, to the plenty and power of them. So much as will answer the care and pains is taken with them. If a man take more pains, and be at more charge in opening the roots of a tree, and dunging it, and pruning it, in fencing and watering it, and it bring forth less or no more fruit than another that has no such care and pains taken with it, it will scarce pass for a good, a fruitful tree. That is barren ground, which brings forth less, after all care and culture, than that which has less tillage.
3. An increase. Those who enjoy the means of fruitfulness, must grow more and more fruitful. The longer they stand in the vineyard, and continue under the means of grace, the more fruit they should bear. You expect not much of a tree the first year; but after it is of standing to bear, you expect that it should every year increase in fruitfulness, and bring forth more and more. So the Lord expects from us.
4. Variety. Their fruit must not only be much of some sort, but of every sort. They must not only abound in some kind of fruit, but must bring forth fruits of all kinds.
III. For CONTINUANCE. It must be lasting fruit. Of which in three particulars.
1. The fruit they bear must continue, It must not wither and come to nothing before the Lord of the vineyard come to reap it.
2. They must continue bearing fruit. The good ground did approve itself to be good, because it brought forth fruit” with patience” (Luke 8:15). They only are good and fruitful ground, who persevere and hold out in bearing fruit.
3. They must be bearing it always; not only semper, as a tree that fails not of fruit once a year, but ad semper, as if a tree should bear fruit all the year long.
Use 1. This leads us to take up a lamentation for the barrenness of the place, the unfruitfulness of the people of this land.
Use 2. For exhortation. If those that enjoy the means of fruitfulness ought to bring forth, then are you highly concerned to take notice of it as your duty, to be fruitful, and to comply with the Lord herein. (D. Clarkson, B. D.)
The parable of the fig-tree
I. Those whose lot it is to live within the pale of the visible Church, are a highly favoured people. Compared with the rest of mankind, they are like an enclosed field or garden, in the cultivating or adorning of which the proprietor lays out great pains and expense.
II. God requires, and has a right to expect, that those who are so highly favoured should bring forth fruits of a corresponding kind. It is the peculiarity of the gospel that privilege precedes duty, but it is always taken for granted that duty shall follow.
III. There is often great ground for lamentation and complaint, that those who are favoured by God, in point of privilege, fail in rendering Him homage. How many are there who despise the goodness, and long-suffering, and forbearance of God! How many are there who know not this the day of their merciful visitation!
IV. God is justly and sorely provoked by such conduct. “ Cut it down,” says He, “why cumbereth it the ground? “ What is the use of its remaining longer, but to fill up room in that garden on which I have bestowed so much pains, to intercept the light of the sun from the other trees that are bearing fruit, to draw away the sap from them?
V. God is pleased to spare unprofitable members of the Church, and to extend their day of grace, notwithstanding all their provocations. (T. McCrie, D. D.)
Bringing forth fruit
Every man is expected to be fruitful in some way or other; there is no situation in which a man cannot bring forth some good fruit. Servants may bring forth good fruit before their superiors. I heard, the other day, of a servant, a godly person, who wished to change her place. “Has your master been unkind? Did he not give you wages enough?” “No; he gives more than I shall have elsewhere; but they are so wicked, I can’t bear their ways. I would rather work harder, with less wages, than stay to see their evil doings.” Dear brethren, I pray this for you--that God would teach you to hate sin wherever you see it, and that you would not jest at it, or wink at it. I wish to make you all good Christians under the influence of that grace that can alone make you wise to salvation. Masters, you may do much good. I once heard an anecdote of a poor servant maid. She went to live in a house, but after some time wanted to leave her place. She was recommended to stay, as they were religious people. “Oh,” said she, “I will go to no such house as this again; for, while master and mistress pretend to be very pious when they are out, they are devils at home. Let me rather go where the righteous are a sneer, and where righteousness is utterly despised.” I tell you that true righteousness creates heaven in men’s houses; and where the fear of God is there is righteousness in every department, and it is the glory of the family circle.
(Rowland Hill, M. A.)
The figless fig-tree
In regard of God, we ought to be fruitful. First, for that He hath deserved it. Secondly, He seeks for it. Thirdly, and when He finds it, He counts Himself honoured and glorified by it. First, HE HATH
DESERVED FRUIT FROM US, in that He hath bought us at a dear rate from our vain conversation, to serve Him all our days in holiness and righteousness; He hath chosen us to be “a peculiar people unto Himself, zealous of good works,” and make choice of us before others, that we should be fruitful, and that our fruit should abide and abound. He hath made us His own workmanship, by the effectual calling of grace, and
“created us to good works to walk in them.” He hath planted us, hedged us about, manured, us, watered us with the sweet dews of His Word and gospel from heaven; trimmed us with His pruning hook of judgments and corrections. “And what could He do more for us that He hath not done?”
God hath set in hope, planted in hope, watered in hope, of some answerable return, and shall it be denied? or canst thou imagine that God hath took all this pains with thee, and bestowed all this cost upon thee, that thou shouldest bear green boughs or gay blossoms only? Secondly, HE
HATH SOUGHT IT OF US, as our text speaks. Now seeking implies divers things: First, an earnest desire to find the thing sought for, as Luke
Matthew 13:45. Such an earnest desire hath God to find fruit on us, whom He hath planted in His Church, as appears by those pathetical speeches which He uses, Deuteronomy 32:29; Deuteronomy 32:29; Psalms 81:13;
Hosea 6:4. And in this chapter, Luke 19:41-42; Luke 19:41-42. By all which, and many such like, it appears that He doth seek seriously and fervently for fruit, and is much grieved when He is deceived in His expectation. Secondly, Seeking imports diligence and frequency. It is no rare but a continued act. So Song of Solomon 3:1-4; Luke 15:8; 2 Timothy 1:17. Thus God comes and seeks for fruit, not once, not twice, and then gives over, but He comes often. Thirdly, Seeking implies mildness and gentleness, Thirdly, WE SHOULD BRING FORTH FRUIT, FOR THAT GOD
HOLDS HIMSELF GLORIFIED BY IT. “Herein is My Father glorified” (saith Christ) “that you bear much fruit” (John 15:8). Secondly, We ought to have a special regard to the credit of the gospel, which is the doctrine of
God’s grace, and teacheth men to be fruitful, “in denying all ungodly lusts, and in living soberly, righteously, and godly in this evil world” (Titus 2:11-12). Thirdly, God will have a special care of us. The Israelites in their conquests were forbidden to lift up an axe against any tree that bare fruit Deuteronomy 20:19-20). God will provide for all fruitful Christians in public calamities (Ezekiel 9:4). Fourthly, “It shall be unto us according to our fruit” (Jeremiah 17:10).. We read that Xerxes adorned the plane-tree, and hung it with many rich and precious jewels, because He delighted in the shade thereof; much more will God adorn fruitful trees, for that He delights in the fruit thereof. In this life He will reward with glory and honour. A fruitful Christian carries a heaven in his heart, joy and comfort Song of Solomon 7:7), a happy and blessed communion that is between Christ and him; and hereafter there is a blessing abides him for Hebrews 7:8). And thus you have heard what reason we have to be fruitful, both in respect of others, and of ourselves as well as others. Lastly, If we cast our eyes upon the whole creation, and every creature therein that God hath made, we may be stirred up and provoked to fruitfulness. The heaven, the earth, the sea, and all therein, are fruitful in their kind; and shall man be barren and fruitless, for whom all these are fruitful? (N. Rogers.)
God the Owner of the vineyard
Now briefly of the owner’s peculiar interest and propriety therein. It is His vineyard. How His? Is He the owner and possessor of no more but that? and the fig-tree mentioned thereon growing? “The whole earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof; the round world, and they that dwell therein,” saith the Psalmist (Psalms 24:1), and yet in regard of the affection that He bears unto the Church, He doth in a manner count Himself owner of nothing but this. The Church is the peculiar inheritance of the Lord, He doth more respect it than He doth all the world besides. “The Lord’s portion is His people, Jacob is the lot of His inheritance,” saith Moses (Deuteronomy 32:9); they are His peculiar ones (Exodus 19:5-6); His glory (Isaiah 46:13); Hisornament (Ezekiel 7:20); His throne (Jeremiah 4:21); His diadem Isaiah 62:3); His Hephzibah (Isaiah 62:4); His only delight is in her.
1. He hath chosen them from the rest of the world. “Only the Lord hath a delight in thy fathers to love them, and He chose their seed “after them, even you above all people, as it is this day,” said Moses to Israel Deuteronomy 10:15). The Lord “hath chosen Zion, He hath desired it for His habitation” saith David (Psalms 132:13-14). “Ye are a chosen generation” saith Peter (1 Peter 2:2). God chooseth for His love, and loves for His choice; they are called His by election.
2. He hath purchased His inheritance with a great price; the whole world cost Him not so much as His Church did, it was bought with blood. He hath entered into a league and covenant with His Church, to become their God, and take them for His people, and so He hath not with the world besides (Hosea 2:13; 1 Peter 2:10). Man is frequently resembled to a tree in Scripture; so Job 19:10; Daniel 4:20; Daniel 4:20; IsaJe 11:19; Ezekiel 17:24; Matthew 12:33; Matthew 12:33. The resemblances are many; take we notice of some.
1. In respect of shape, a tree hath its root, trunk, or body, boughs, branches, and smaller twigs issuing from thence. Man’s head is his root, his body answereth the trunk or stock of a tree, his arms and legs are his boughs and branches, his fingers and toes the smaller twigs. Only here is the difference, man is arbor inversa, a tree turned upside down, saith the philosopher. For the root or head of a tree standeth on the earth, and extendeth itself towards heaven in the stock, boughs, and branches of it. But man (this mystical tree) hath his head upwards, as his root; and his branches and boughs grow downward to the earth: to teach us (saith one) whence we have our sap, moisture, and nourishment, not from the earth below, as the tree hath (which was Esau’s blessing), but from the dew of heaven, which was the blessing of Jacob (Genesis 27:28-29).
2. In respect of growth, there is some good resemblance. A tree is first tender in the twig, then stiff in the stock; and lastly, withered and doating in the age of it.. So man in his childhood and infancy is flexible, easily inclining to virtue or vice, as he is taught and instructed. Like wax, he is apt to receive any impression that shall be put upon him, and (as Pliny speaketh of the fir-tree) the nearer it is to the root, the more smooth it is, and less knotty. So the nearer man is to infancy and childhood, the less sinful and freest from vicious courses; but when he once comes to be stiffened, and confirmed in the strength of his stock by man-age, then he waxeth more tough and violent in his courses (as did Rehoboam and Joash): the cider we grow, usually the worse we are. Adam was worse in his breeches than he was before; so is it with his sinful posterity. And as man grows thus in his youth, so he is drooping in his age. Let him be as strong as the oak, as tall as the cedar, as straight as the pine-tree, as green and flourishing as the laurel or bay-tree; when age seizeth on him, his strength is weakened, his tallness abated, his straightness crooked, his greenness withered.
3. There are several sorts and kinds of trees; some greater than others, and some taller; some straighter, some broader; some younger, some elder; some barren, some fruitful; so is it amongst men. All are not of the same rank and quality, some are of high degree, others low (Psalms 61:2). Some exalted, others brought down. Saul was a tall tree, “higher than others by the head and shoulders.” Zaccheus was a low tree, lower than the people by head and shoulders. Absolom was a goodly green, straight tree, none in Israel to be compared with him for beauty. Mephibosheth was a tree lame and crooked from his childhood, by a fall that he got out of his nurse’s arms. Some are fruitful, others unfruitful. Of which more hereafter.
4. In respect of outward state and condition the resemblance holds. High trees are subject to greatest dangers, being exposed to the violence of the winds, blasts of lightning, the dints of thunderbolts, and usually the higher the less fruitful. Low trees are subject to the browsing of beasts, trampling down with feet, and twenty other annoyances. The tree of a middle stature is chiefly safest, and beareth the best fruit. Thus it is with man. Those in high place he open to the winds of alteration, to the lightnings of disasters, to the thunderings of envy and malice. “How are the mighty overthrown” (said David in his epitaph for Saul). Oh! “how are they fallen?” how often are they split with the weight and greatness of their own boughs?
5. Trees are not without their diseases, as Pliny showeth, nor is man without his. The same author tells us that, to that time, three hundred several diseases were discovered, which man was subject unto (some philosophers say two thousand, and that there is two hundred to which the very eye of man is incident). Sure I am, there is no tree subject to so many diseases as the body of man is.
6. In respect of the use, man may be resembled unto a tree; some trees are for building, others for burning, being once felled. So it is with all mankind, being felled by death; some are for the building up of “that house which is not made with hands” (2 Corinthians 5:1), others for fuel in hell, “their end is to be burned” (Hebrews 6:8). Other resemblances we might acquaint you with, but I must observe measure. Let not this that hath been said be passed over without some useful application. (N. Rogers.)
It was no ordinary nor trivial tree, but of a noble and generous kind (called upon by other trees to be king over them), and brought forth sweet and delicious fruit (Judges 9:10). Why a fig-tree should be mentioned rather than any other tree, some reasons may be rendered, as this in general: The fig-tree was very common in Judea, and frequently planted in their vineyards, for that the vine delighteth much in its neighbourhood and shade; and thence is it that we so frequently find them joined together in the Scripture (Deuteronomy 8:8; 1 Kings 4:25; Psalms 105:33; Joel 2:22; Joel 2:22; Amos 4:9; Haggai 1:12). More particularly, in reference to the synagogue of the Jews, and that state, the fig-tree, above other trees, did best set forth their condition. The fig-tree is a succulent plant, full of leaves and luxuriant branches; so did that nation come out, and spend its sap in outward observations and ceremonies, contenting itself with the fair leaves of out ward profession, crying out, “The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord,” drawing near with their lips when their hearts were far off. Again, the fig-tree is the first that buddeth, but the last whose fruit is ripe; the Jews budded long before the Gentiles (and it is to be prayed for that the time of their ripe fruit may be hastened), but the fulness of the Gentiles must come in before their ripening can be expected, as the apostle shows (Romans 11:25-26). In reference to the Christian Church under the New Testament, the fig-tree is named in respect of sundry properties, wherein it doth hold resemblance.
1. The fig-tree is full of sap and moisture, it is the most juiceful of any tree, the root of it doth abundantly feed it; so doth Christ His Church, He is the Root of it, and on the Root depends the firm standing thereof, and the life of every branch; from this Root we have our radical moisture, from His fulness we derive grace, and grace for grace (John 1:16).
2. The fig-tree is fruitful above other trees. It hath fruit one under another, insomuch that one fig thrusts off another, through its abundance. The Egyptian fig-tree (saith Sclinus) bears fruit seven times in a year; pull off one fig, and another breaks forth in the place thereof very shortly after. So fruitful is the Church of God and every sound member of it; they are “filled with the fruits of righteousness” (Philippians 1:11).
3. The fruit of the fig-tree is a most delicious fruit: “Shall I leave my sweetness?” said the fig-tree (Judges 9:11). And such is the fruit ofevery good Christian, acceptable and pleasing both to God and man. What the apostle speaks of the works of charity (Philippians 4:8; Hebrews 13:16) may be said of every other gift and grace, “it is an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing unto God”; we are “a sweet savour unto God” (saith the apostle). The fruits of our graces are God’s dainties (Song of Solomon 6:2).
4. The fig-tree is forward in putting forth; it foretells a summer, as our Saviour shows (Matthew 24:32). God’s people are “a willing people” Psalms 110:3). Forward to every good work that God requires to be Galatians 1:16; 2 Corinthians 8:10; 2 Corinthians 9:2). Even in this sense the godly may be said to be Primitive Dei, the first-fruits of God. And this their forwardness promiseth a summer; it brings a blessing upon a nation.
5. The fig-tree makes not so glorious a show as do other trees, it neither blooms nor blossoms, and yet bears abundantly: so is it with the sound Christian, he makes not that show that the hypocrite doth, but he is more fruitful (Matthew 6:6; Matthew 6:6; Luke 18:11-14). The harlot exceeds the chaste matron in gaudy attire, as the Church of Rome doth ours.
6. The fig-tree best bears the brunt of winter storms, and is freest from summer’s thunder (saith Pliny), that never strikes it. Sure it is that the godly Christian is best armed for hard weather, and best enabled to go through variety of conditions (Philippians 4:12-13). Nor do the thunderbolts of an angry God ever strike him; that thunder and lightning which comes from the throne comes through the rainbow, the covenant of grace and mercy, before ever they come at him (Revelation 4:5).
7. Amongst all trees there is none whose leaf doth so much resemble the hand of a man as doth the fig-tree’s. The leaf of the asp resembles the tongue, but the leaf of the fig-tree, man’s hand. Christianity sets us to work; it stands, not in a verbal profession, but in action (Mt John 13:17; James 1:22). (N. Rogers.)
The heathens of old were idolatrous in multiplying gods to themselves, even to the number of thirty thousand (saith Hesiod); whatever they best liked, that they created a god, and so of whatever they most feared. Of a clap of thunder they made a Jupiter, of a tempest at sea they made a Neptune, of an earthquake they made a Pluto, &c. And to these their created gods they erected temples, altars, and consecrated the goodliest and fairest trees that they met withal; which ancient practice of dedicating this and that kind of tree to several gods as proper and peculiar to them was always observed (saith Pliny), and yet remaineth to this day. Thence Lucian took occasion to deride the practice of those times, feigning their idol-gods to sit in Parliament, and every one making choice of that tree which he most fancied. Jupiter makes choice of the oak for its strength, Apollo of the bay-tree for its greenness, Neptune of the poplar for its length, Juno of the eglantine for its sweetness, Venus of the myrtle tree for its beauty. Minerva sitting by, demanded of her father Jupiter what might be the reason, that seeing there were so many fruitful trees, they all made choice of those trees which were fruitless. He answered her, Ne videamur fructu honore vendere, that we may not be thought to chaffer our honour away for fruit. “Well,” said Minerva, “do you what you please; I, for my part, make choice of the olive for its fatness and fruitfulness. All commended her choice, and were ashamed at their own folly. This you will say is but a fiction; and it is no other, but it discovered the folly of men of that generation, and so it may do of ours. In elections and choices fruitful trees are least of all regarded. The ambitious he seeks after unprofitable honour, high place, rule, and government, and would be advanced above the rest of his brethren; he affects the cypress for its tallness (a tree that great men much esteem of, and nourish in their walks, but it is hardly made to grow), and when it is come up, the fruit is good for nothing, the leaves of it are bitter, the scent strong, neither is the shade thereof wholesome. The young gallant is for the double-coloured poplar, all for form and compliment. Oh, there is much of a gentleman in that, the leaves of this tree are soft, and full of down, which soon flies away like the down of the thistle into the air; this tree is an emblem of dissimulation. The flattering courtier likes well the clasping ivy, which yet is an enemy to all trees and plants, it undermineth walls, and is good only to harbour serpents and venomous creatures, insomuch that Pliny wonders it should be honoured by any, or counted of any worth; and yet heathen emperors have used to make them garlands of it, and wear them on their heads. Rehoboam too much affected these ivy codds (1 Kings 12:8). And it is the fault of greatness. The covetous worldling prefers the ash to all other trees; he loves to bear the keys, and delights in being the jailer of his wealth. The body and bulk of this tree is hard and tough, and the leaves unwholesome to any beast that doth not chew the cud. In short, some choose for beauty, some for sweetness, some for greatness, some for greenness, but where is he or she that makes Minerva’s choice, to choose for fruitfulness? As Samuel said of the sons of Ishai (one having a goodly stature, another a goodly countenance), “Surely now the Lord’s anointed is before me.” So we think of these goodly and tall trees (but fruitless in grace), if honour comes, wealth comes, beauty comes, &c., This is the anointed of the Lord; this must be he. But “God seeth not as man seeth”; man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart, as was told Samuel. (N. Rogers.)
Others there are that bring forth fruit as well as buds and leaves, and yet their fruit shall not be accepted.
1. For that it is not natural and kindly fruit, but degenerate. In the creation every seed and plant brought fruit after its kind; so it is in the regeneration, good trees bring forth fruit answerable to the stock wherein they are engrafted, and the sap they thence receive, and the profession that they make; but these men walk after the lusts of the Gentiles, and bring forth the fruits of the flesh (such as those mentioned, Galatians 5:19), no manner of way answering to the seed that hath been sown in them by the ministry of the Word, which they have heard, and the doctrine which they have been taught.
2. Say it be fruit of a better kind, yet it is not seasonable fruit. It may be that they are ten or twenty years in blooming, so long before they come to any good resolution to leave their vicious ways and courses; and then they trust to latter springs and showers for the perfecting and ripening of it, and so neglecting the due season of fruit, it happens that, with Esau, they find “no place for repentance, though they seek it carefully with tears.”
3. Their fruit is not sound fruit, but rotten at the core (however it be goodly and fair to look upon), like those apple-trees in Assyria (of which Solinus writes), the fruit whereof is yellow as gold, but being touched is rotten; or like the apples of Sodom, beautiful to the eye, but being touched they fall to cinders. Zealous they seem outwardly, when they are cold at heart or else lukewarm. Their aims and ends in all their devotions is self.
4. Their fruit is not fair, it is shrivelled up, either in some few duties of the first table, as hearing, reading, praying, &c., but in the duties of the second table they are very tardy (Isaiah 58:3; Isaiah 58:5-6). So the Pharisees made long prayers, and under that pretence “devoured up widows’ houses” Matthew 23:14), and such is the fruit of all hypocrites. Or else they are observant in the duties of the second table, with neglect of the first (as Matthew 23:23), and such is the fruit of the civilian and moral man.
5. Their fruit is not lasting; it holds good for the summer season of prosperity, but when the winter of adversity and persecution comes, it fails Luke 8:13). And such is the fruit of the temporary believer and time-serving Christian; his fruit lasts not all the year, not during term of life, when, as a good fig-tree is never without some figs hanging on the tender boughs, winter nor summer, a good Christian, like the palm-tree spoken of, Psalms 92:12, grows fat and flourishing even in old age. Let these and all such other be advised not to flatter themselves nor suffer themselves by vain pretences to be undone. It is not a fair blossom, a green leaf, nor fruit of outward profession, external reformation, common illumination, or any
of the like nature, that will satisfy God’s expectation. He looks for fruit, and good fruit too, from every fig-tree, and at your hands He will require it. Wherefore, be exhorted to be fruitful Christians, that you may answer God’s expectation. Let your fruit be the fruit of righteousness (Philippians 1:11), “fruit unto holiness (Romans 6:22), “fruit unto God” Romans 7:4), that is, to the glory and praise of God, and such as He will accept of. Now that this use may be the more profitable, I shall acquaint you with three particulars.
1. With the properties or qualifications of that fruit that shall find acceptance.
2. With the means that must be used for the producing of fruit so qualified.
3. With the motives that may stir us up to the bringing forth of such fruit. Of each of these briefly, and in order. (N. Rogers.)
A fig-tree planted in his vineyard
That the Church is a spiritual vineyard is a truth that hath strong confirmation from Scripture. In the Old Testament we find it so styled (Psalms 80:15; Psalms 80:15; Song of Solomon 8:11-12; Isaiah 5:7; Isaiah 5:7; Jeremiah 2:21). The like in the New Matthew 21:33; Matthew 21:33; Mark 12:1; Luke 20:10). But why is it resembled to a vineyard, rather than to another thing? It is compared to many other things in Scripture, besides a vineyard, as to a house, to an orchard, to a garden enclosed, to a field in tillage, to a threshing-floor, &c. But of all other resemblances of earthly things none doth so fully express and set forth the nature and condition of the Church as this of a vineyard, which, that it may appear the better, let us take notice of some particulars, wherein this spiritual vineyard, the Church, doth hold resemblance with the other.
1. A vineyard is a place separated and enclosed from other grounds. No vineyard is naturally a vineyard; hand and heart must go to make it so. The Church is called and separated from the world, both in life and conversation, as appears, Leviticus 20:26; Leviticus 20:26; Numbers 23:9; Deuteronomy 14:2; John 15:19.
2. No vineyard is in its perfect glory so soon as it is taken in. Her plants being set, come not presently to perfection and growth, but by degrees. So it is with the Church (Ephesians 4:11-12). Divers workmen and labourers are ordained to be employed about it, for the perfection of it, even after it is planted.
3. A vineyard, when it flourisheth and is come to some perfection, is a place of great delight, both in respect of the pleasant smell that it yieldeth, and comfortable shadow that it affordeth; so is the Church (Hosea 14:6-7). “The smell of it is like unto a field that the Lord hath blessed.” Her vines and tender grapes give a good smell (Song of Solomon 2:13-14). Her graces are compared to things most sweet (Song of Solomon 4:13-14).
4. To a vineyard it may be compared in respect of the fertility or fruitfulness thereof. It bears much fruit, and fruit of the best kind. A vineyard is stored with divers plants (one plant maketh not a vineyard); and those plants are laden with fruits, they bring forth in bunches and clusters, and not a berry here and another there, but the load is such that the branches bear, that it seems many times to exceed the strength of the branch that bears them. The Church is fertile of children; there are multitudes of them that believe. So fruitful is the Church of children as that she wonders at her own increase, and saith, “The place is too strait for me: give place to me that I may dwell. Who hath begotten me these, seeing I have lost my children and am left desolate” (Isaiah 49:19-20; Isaiah 54:1).And as a vineyard is more fruitful than any other plantation, so it yieldeth the best fruit of any other. No fruit is more delectable to the taste, nor more comfortable to the heart, than that which comes from the grape. And what fruit can be compared with the fruit that a Christian bears? All other fruit that grows without this fence is but sour and bitter, seem it never so fair and glorious to the eye, yet it is but hedge fruit, or like unto the grapes of Sodom and clusters of Gomorrah (Deuteronomy 32:32).
5. A vineyard is a well-ordered place, there the hillocks may be seen equally swelling, the stakes pitched in a good height and distance, the vines handsomely pruned, the ground cleanly kept, and well hoed, all things are well ordered in it. And so is it in the Church, insomuch that Balaam himself could not but admire at it, and in a rapture cry out, “How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israeli As the valleys are they spread forth, as gardens by the river’s side,” etc. (Numbers 24:5-6.)
6. To a vineyard the Church may be compared, in respect of the imbecility and weakness of it. No possession, said Cato, requires more pains about it than a vineyard cloth. Corn comes up and grows alone of itself, without the husbandman’s care (Mark 4:17). But the vine is a frail kind of plant, it must be supported, sheltered, daily dressed and attended, else it soon waxeth luxurious, and is in danger to grow wild, after it once waxeth wanton.
7. A vineyard is very subject to be annoyed and wasted by the beasts of the wood and foxes of the field, which love to burrow under it, and delight to be cropping and pilling of her plants, and eating of her grapes, as Solomon intimates (Song of Solomon 2:15). So is the Church, her enemies are many that conspire against her (Psalms 83:2-13). (N. Rogers.)
The ill requital that we have made to God for all the good we have received from Him hath been in part discovered. Now give me leave to discover unto you the vileness of this vice, ingratitude, that we may shun it and hate it; and the rather, because we have been foretold that it is one of those sins that renders these times perilous. And so, first, take notice that it is a compounded sin; it hath many poisonous ingredients in it which makes it extremely evil, and amongst others these--
1. Ignorance, and such an ignorance as whereunto mercy is denied Isaiah 27:11). He that made them will show them no favour, being a people of no understanding, it being wilful and affected. Thus God complains of Israel, “Israel doth not know” (Isaiah 1:3), and Ho
2. Idolatry. Ingratitude doth not only pass by without notice-taking of good bestowed, but ascribes all to others. Thus Israel ascribed all their plenty, their bread, their wine, their wool, their water, dec., to their lovers or sweethearts, that is, to their idols and false gods (Hosea 2:5).
3. Pride is another sinful ingredient that goes to the composition of it. “Their hearts were exalted,” saith God of ungrateful Ephraim, “ therefore have they forgotten Me” (Hosea 13:6). And this is rendered as the reason why Hezekiah returned not to God according to that he bad received--“His heart was lifted up in him” (2 Chronicles 32:25).
4. Envy, that is the daughter of pride, and will wait upon her mother; where the one is the other will be; we grudge no men the praise of their kindness but whom we envy and hate. And by experience we have found that true, which Tacitus saith of extraordinary favours, which, lighting upon ill minds, cause hatred instead of love.
5. There is much of sacrilege in it. The ungrateful man robs God of that honour which is due unto Him, and which He hath reserved to Himself, nor will He give it to any other. God is content that we should have the good of all, but the praise of all He looks to have Himself.
6. There is atheism in it. Thus those ungrateful wretches, mentioned by Job, whom God hath blessed with temporal abundance, ask, “What is the Almighty that they should serve Him” (Job 21:25). Secondly, it is a sin that all law condemns. The law of nature is against it. For naturally every effect is brought back to its cause (as all waters come out of the sea, so all return thither again). Now God is the cause of all things and persons, therefore, whatsoever we have and whatsoever we are must be ascribed unto Him. (N. Rogers.)
The dressing of the vineyard
For the better accomplishing and perfecting whereof there are three principal virtues (as implements) which are necessarily requisite in these dressers of the Lord’s vineyard.
1. Skilfulness and ability to do this work that he is called unto. This is required (2 Timothy if. 2; 1 Timothy 3:2).
2. Faithfulness and sincerity--“He that hath My word, let him speak My word faithfully,” saith God (Jeremiah 23:28).
3. Care and vigilancy--“Be diligent to know the state of thy flocks, and look well to thy herds,” saith Solomon (Proverbs 27:23). (N. Rogers.)
Cumberers of the ground
Barren professors are cumbersome; unprofitable burdens they are to the vineyard of the Lord.
1. They are sterile and barren in themselves, and in that respect cumbersome, and a burden to the earth.
2. As they do no good, and are cumbersome in that respect; so they do much harm, and so become unprofitable burdens, and that many ways.
(1) To the soil whereon they grow, the very earth is the worse for a fruitless fig-tree. It was the sin of man, at first, that caused God to curse the earth to thorns and thistles, and ever since He hath turned “a fruitful land into barrenness, for the wickedness of those that dwell therein.” The sins of those within the pale, are they for which a land doth mourn Hosea 1:4). So is it in the vineyard of the Lord. Let a barren and unprofitable fig-tree have his standing, wheresoever the ground shall be the worse and not the better for him. Let Rehoboam be rooted among the kings in the land of Judah, and the shields he finds of gold he will leave of brass. Let Balaam be numbered among the prophets, and Judas among the apostles; and the vineyard of the Lord shall find cause enough to say of such a fig-tree, that it cumbers the ground. The Church suffers by the growth of such trees; it loseth her heart and fatness. Her beauty and glory is much blemished by the growth of such plants in it.
(2) Such barren trees are cumbersome and burdensome to other trees and plants that grow, or might grow, in the vineyard; and that divers ways.
(a) A barren tree possesseth the place of a better, and by its good will would not suffer any to grow near it. The best rooms at feasts, the chief seats in synagogues, proud Pharisees will take up; nor is there any place for better guests till they be removed lower, and commanded to give place, and so room made, by their removal, for others that are invited. The like may be seen in David’s case, who was annointed to be king over Israel long before his instalment. Saul sat yet upon the throne, and David must be content to stay a while for that, till Saul be removed; and, that being done, then he shall be planter and seated in his room, in Hebron. So whilst Judas supplies the place of an apostle, honest Matthias shall be kept out; his place must be voided, before another take “his bishopric (Acts 1:20). The Jews they must be broken off before the Gentiles be grafted in (Romans 11:9). And whilst those ungrateful farmers of the vineyard held their lease it could not be taken by others, who would gladly have hired it, and “rendered the fruit thereof in due season” (Matthew 21:43).
(b) Such as are barren and unprofitable in their places, devour not only equal nutriment with him that beareth, but many times starve other inferior plants within their reach; drawing away the heart and fat of the soil with their suckers and feeders. What a breadth beareth some great ash or oak! How far do their roots spread, albeit underground and unseen? Yet it may be perceived by their soaking of the ground and drawing away nourishment from corn and plants that are near unto them. It is thus with many an unprofitable and barren Christian, he is a soaker, and that in respect both of things that concern this life and a better; and so cumbersome. Such are to be found in the Church. In private families likewise there are many such burdensome plants to be found; many a fair estate is consumed by pride and luxury, voluptuousness and prodigality.
(c) They are troublesome and cumbersome to other plants by their unprofitable shade, over-topping and over-dripping them, and keeping the influence of heaven from them, so that they cannot enjoy the warm beams of the sun, which brings healing with it under its wings.
(d) They are cumbersome, in harbouring under their branches things hurtful to ether plants. None shall be harboured under their shade unless it be a stinging nettle, or some sullen weed, or some venomous and poisonous creature.
(e) They are burdensome to the Lord of the soil, and owner of the vineyard, who complains of such barren plants (Isaiah 1:14; Isaiah 1:24; Isaiah 7:13,Amos 2:13). God complains of their burden; they are cumbersome unto Him; He finds a pressure under them; He is dishonoured by them and cannot long endure it.
(f) The dressers of the vineyard are burdened and cumbered by them. Christ, the principal Dresser, laments the barrenness of Jerusalem Luke 19:41; Matthew 23:34; John 11:38). Christ groaned, as it seems, under the Jews’ malice. (N. Rogers.)
The patience of God
Be persuaded to make the right use of the patience and long-suffering of the Lord, as the apostle directs (Romans 2:4), and let it lead thee, as it were by the hand, to true repentance, remembering--
1. How long God hath trusted thee with His patience, and given thee time to make thy peace, and sue out thy pardon. Should a traitor that is condemned as thou art have a reprieve granted him for half so many years as thou hast lived (albeit he had no promise granted of a final pardon), upon his good carriage and behaviour; how thankful would he be, and how happy would he think himself in that.
2. Forget not how many have suffered for those sins that thou art guilty of long since; who had not that patience showed unto them that thou hast had, but were taken away and carried to execution, upon the very act of their sinning, as Zimri and Cosbi, who were smitten in the act of their lust; Ananias and Sapphira in the very act of lying, &c.
3. In not making the right use of God’s patience and profiting by it thou despiseth it; and in despising it thou despiseth goodness. (N. Rogers.)
God’s patience not inexhaustible
God’s patience hath a period; it hath its bounds and limits beyond which it will not pass. For proof, read Amos 8:2 --“The end is come, I will not pass by them any more”; that is, I will have no more patience towards them. So Jeremiah 1:11-12 --“I will hasten My word to perform it”; that is, to make good the judgments that I have denounced. And that text should still be sounding in our ears--
“An end is come, an end is come; behold it watcheth for thee, behold, it is come it is come” (Ezekiel 7:5-16) Should God always bear with sinners, He should suffer in all His attributes; His justice would be wronged and blemished, which by no means will endure that the wicked should be held as innocent (Exodus 34:7; Jeremiah 44:2). “He is a jealous Exodus 20:5; Deuteronomy 4:26). Now, should God perpetually bear with sinners, it would be a disgrace unto Him. His jealousy will not endure that sin should ever go unpunished (Psalms 50:21; Malachi 3:15). He is a most wise God, “God only wise” (1 Timothy 1:17). Albeit, He bears and spares and shows mercy to sinners, it is ever moderated with wisdom. He forbears as long as there is hope (Jeremiah 51:9). But when men become incurable, His wisdom will not suffer Him to bear any longer (Isaiah 1:5). He is a good God; and being good, Hemust needs love goodness and hate iniquity (Psalms 45:7). Now, God should not be good, if He should be ever good to those that will never be good; His goodness will not suffer Him ever to spare those that hate and despise goodness. So we might show of His other attributes. (N. Rogers.)
Privilege not prescriptive right
However legal or usual the presence of a fig-tree in a vineyard may be, it is not, as in the case of a vine, a matter of course, and Christ must have had a reason for introducing it, and the reason can only be found in the didactic significance of the emblem. What, then, was the reason? On our view of the drift of the parable it is not difficult to answer the question. The fig-tree is chosen to represent Israel as a tacit yet effective protest against the notion of her possessing a prescriptive right to occupy in perpetuity the place she held in God’s favour. The supposition is directed against the pride and self-importance of an elect race, prone to think that Israel and God’s kingdom were synonymous, or as intimately and essentially related to each other as are vineyard and vine. To have used the vine as an emblem of Israel might have seemed to concede this claim, but by selecting the fig-tree as an emblem Christ said to His countrymen in effect, “Ye have no natural or necessary place in the sphere within which God’s grace manifests itself, like a vine in a vineyard, without which the vineyard can hardly be conceived: Ye are but a fig-tree in the vineyard, legitimately, suitably enough there, yet there by accident, or by free choice of the owner, and there only so long as ye serve the purpose for which He put you there.” (A. B. Bruce, D. D.)
It was one; not vineyards, many; and from hence we may conclude that the Church of Christ is one, and but one. The multiplicity of particular churches do not hinder the unity of the catholic; all these are but parts of it, as one tree that hath several arms and branches. Many stones make bus one house, many houses one city, many cities one kingdom; so, many men one particular congregation, many congregations one visible Church, many Churches one catholic one. Or as the ocean-sea is but one in itself, yet running by divers countries and coasts, hath the name according to the coast it runs by; as the English Sea, the Irish Sea, the German Sea, &c., yet all but one sea. So we distinguish of Churches, yet all is but one and the same, one catholic Church and no more. It is very true, that God is resembled to man in Scripture. He likeneth Himself to man, and speaks after the manner of men unto us. Yet we have somewhat more to take notice of, for God is pleased not only to liken Himself to man, but He takes upon Him the profession of an husbandman, resembling Himself to a careful and painful vinitor, that had a fig-tree planted in his vineyard, &c. (N. Rogers.)
The fruitless fig-tree
I. THE FIG-TREE WAS FAVOURED. NO other fig-tree was so favoured. For it was not there by chance like a berry-bush in the woods, or a tree on the top of an old tower, the seed of which had been carried on the wings of the wind, or by a bird that, on the way to its nest, frightened by a hawk, had dropped its mouthful. The owner had deliberately planted this tree in his vineyard. You are planted, not in the open unsheltered waste, but in the Church of Christ, and in a Christian home. You are not like a little dying boy, who said to the Christian friend visiting him, “O sir, do ye think I would hae ony chance wi’ God? ye see I canna read ony”; or like an untaught carter I knew, who used to give a boy a penny to read to him “blads o’ the Bible.” That dying boy, that carter, was like a fig-tree growing on the road-side. You are like a fig-tree planted in a vineyard. What could have been done for you that has not been done?
II. THIS FIG-TREE WAS FRUITLESS, THOUGH SO FAVOURED.
III. THIS TREE, FAVOURED THOUGH FRUITLESS, IS YET SPARED. Many poets speak of trees as having life, as thinking, feeling companions, for whom they cherish an almost human attachment. The trees of our boyhood are dear to us, because interwoven with memories of bright days. I have known a wood spoiled, because the proprietress would not permit the cutting down of trees which she regarded as the friends of her girlhood. She seemed afraid of “wronging the spirit in the woods.” The feeling is natural. The keeper of the vineyard had planted the fig-tree, and watched its growth. It is his own, and he has a longing, lingering feeling for it. He won’t give up hope of it. President Garfield, when a boy, was wonderfully saved from drowning. “ Providence thinks it worth while saving my life,” he said to himself, when he stood panting and dripping on the deck of the canal boat, and the fire of noble resolve then began to burn within him. Lord Clive and Wallenstein, in boyhood, made some wonderful escapes, and burst forth into an exclamation that surely they were reserved for something great. Many have had the same feeling.
IV. THE FIG-TREE, FAVOURED THOUGH FRUITLESS, AND SPARED, IS YET TO BE JUDGED. God’s patience is most wonderful, it goes far beyond all our thoughts and dreams, but it has limits. To be fruitless is a greater calamity than befell those slain by Pilate at the altar, or buried under the tower of Siloam; it is the only real calamity; for it is to be an eternal failure. (J. Wells, M. A.)
The penalty of ignoring the end of existence
Just as when any article, as a pen, a watch, an engine, or anything else which will not work, or answer the end for which it was made, is thrown aside as useless; or as a fruit-tree which will not bear fruit is cut down as a cumberer of the ground, so those who do not answer this end of their existence--glorifying God--may be set aside or otherwise punished. (H. R. Burton.)
A warning to useless lives
I. CONSIDER THE COMPLAINT ALLEGED IT IS THAT OF UNFRUITFULNESS. Fig-trees are generally three years before they bring forth any fruit to perfection; but this was perpetually barren, and likely to remain a cumberer of the ground.
1. Observe the patience and forbearance of God in His conduct towards the barren fig-tree, the barren and unprofitable professor. He endures with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted for destruction.
2. Though the Lord suffers long and is kind, He strictly observes all our conduct, and keeps an account of the advantages we enjoy, and the use we make of them.
3. Great as is the danger of unfruitfulness, nothing but heavenly culture, nothing but Divine influence can produce in us the fruits of righteousness.
4. Divine forbearance, though long continued, will finally have an end. Though He bears long, He will not bear always. The longer the storm has been gathering, the heavier it will fall; the longer the sword has been whetting, the sharper it will cut, and the deeper it will wound. Longsuffering on God’s past, if it do trot lead to repentance, will be followed by more grievous suffering on our part.
II. THE DOOM THAT IS PASSED UPON THE BARREN FIG-TREE: “Cut it down, why cumbereth it the ground.”
1. A sentence like this is sometimes passed against unprofitable characters, even in the present life.
2. The barren fig-tree is cut down at death, when it is not only cast out of the Church, but out of the world.
3. The stroke will fall still heavier in the day of judgment, when the barren tree shall not only be cut down, but cast into the fire.
III. THE REASON GIVEN FOR THE AWFUL SENTENCE; THE FIG-TREE WAS NOT ONLY UNPRODUCTIVE, BUT INJURIOUS; it “cumbereth the ground.”
1. It was unprofitable, and so is every sinner that does not bring forth fruit unto God.
2. The fig-tree was injurious, as well as unprofitable; for it encumbered the ground, and occupied a place which might be filled to more advantage. (B. Beddome, M. A.)
Unfruitful professors cut down as cumberers of the ground
I. To show WHO ARE THE UNFRUITFUL IN GOD’S VINEYARD, TO BE CUT DOWN.
1. Dead trees. They being still in their natural state, are spiritually dead in trespasses and sins. The gospel is the means of life to a dead world, called therefore the word of life (Philippians 2:16). It is by it that the Spirit of life is conveyed into the dead soul. This Spirit is received by the hearing of faith. Thereby faith comes whereby the soul is united to Christ the fountain of life. But alas! many continue dead under quickening means, destitute of the Spirit and of faith. So they cannot bring forth the fruits of holiness, they can do nothing that is truly good, more than a dead man can move and act.
2. Rotten trees. Dead souls are spiritually rotten also. “They are altogether become filthy.” This speaks reigning vanity and worthlessness, as the rotten tree is light. How many such are in God’s vineyard, whose mind is vain.
3. Withered trees. When the tree has lost all sap and is withered away, it cannot bring forth fruit, but must be cut down. Many that sometimes looked green and promising under the means of grace, have lost all now. Their convictions are stifled, their affection to the things of God is gone, and the gospel is become tasteless to them.
4. Barren trees, that have leaves but no fruit.
5. Degenerate trees bringing forth evil and noxious fruit. To such God says, “Yet I had planted thee a noble vine, wholly a right seed: how then art thou turned into the degenerate plant of a strange vine unto me?” These bring forth the fruits of the flesh in abundance, that are deadly like the wild gourds of the wild vine.
II. How AND IN WHAT RESPECTS DO THESE CUMBER THE GROUND.
1. They take up room, precious room, that might be better occupied.
2. There is no advantage to the owner from that part of the ground which they occupy.
3. There is no comfort to the vine-dressers from that part of the ground such occupy, though otherwise much might arise from it, if it was planted with other trees. The pains of the labourers is lost upon such trees.
4. The sap of the ground which barren trees draw to them, of which they are yet nothing the better, might nourish fruitful trees. Lastly, they hinder the fruitfulness of other trees in the vineyard; drawing the sap from them. So they are not only not profitable, but hurtful.
III. INQUIRE WHY CUMBERERS OR THE GROUND ARE SPARED SO LONG.
1. For to try if they will mend.
2. For the prayers of the godly.
3. For the sake of their seed designed for vessels of mercy.
4. That impenitent sinners may be wholly inexcusable. There is a measure of iniquity to be filled up, and so long the Lord will bear with sinners, and no longer (Romans 2:5; Genesis 15:16). It remains--
IV. To CONSIDER THE IMPORT OF CUTTING DOWN. It denotes--
1. Patience at an end.
2. Never fruit more to grow upon them.
3. The sharpness of the stroke.
4. The suddenness of the stroke.
5. The destructiveness of it.
6. The casting of it out of the vineyard.
7. That the barren tree is to be cast into the fire.
1. The unfruitfulness under the gospel prevailing in our land, forbodes a time of hewing and cutting down. Our privileges have been signal ones, our misimprovement signal; so will our stroke be likewise.
2. Impenitent sinners have a dangerous station in God’s vineyard. A barren tree may be much safer in the wood than in the garden.
3. Take heed what part ye act in God’s vineyard. Be concerned to know for what use you are in it. Beware of being cumberers of the ground.
4. Lay no more weight upon external Church privileges than they will bear. Happy are they that dwell in God’s house, if they learn the true manners of the house. But if in God’s house they live ungodly lives, it had been better for them they never had known it. Lastly, consider what fruit ye bring forth under the means of grace; and do not overlook the privileges which you enjoy. Ministers sow the seed, Christ Himself will look after the fruit, and will notice who bring forth the fruit of a preached gospel, and who cumber the ground. (T. Boston, D. D.)
These three years
He comes to particular man three years. First, in youth. I have planted thee in My vineyard, given thee the influence of My mercies; where is thy fruitfulness? Alas! the young man sends him away with a Nondum tempus ficorum--It is too early for me to fall to mortification; would you put me to penance before I have had the leisure and pleasure to offend? He is ready to send Christ away in the language of that foul spirit, “Art Thou come to torment me before my time?” But whose charge is it to “Remember thy Creator” diebus juventutis?. Then the conquest is most glorious, because then it is most difficult. You say, It is never too late; but I am sure it is never too soon, to be gracious and holy. Secondly, in middle age; and now the “buying of farms,” and “trying of beasts,” the pleasures of matrimony, the cares for posterity, take up all the rooms of the soul. Men rather busy themselves to gather the fruits of earth than to yield the fruits of heaven. Here is strength of nature and fulness of stature, but still a defect of grace. Perhaps Christ hath now some fair promises of fruits hereafter, “Let me first go bury my father, then” (Luke 9:61). Thirdly, in old age. Now the decay of body should argue a decay of sin. The taste finds no relish in riot, the ears cannot distinguish music, the eyes are dim to pleasing objects, very “ desire fails”: now all things promise mortification. He that cannot stir abroad in the world, what should he do but recollect himself, and settle his thoughts on the world to come? Now fruits, or never. Not yet; morosity, pride, and avarice, are the three diseases of old age. Men covet most when they have time to spend least; as cheating tradesmen then get up most commodities into their hands when they mean to break. Still He comes seeking fruit, and is returned with a Non invents. But doth He forbear all trees thus long? No; some are snatched away in the flower and pride of their life; yea, they be not few that will not allow themselves to live, but with riot and intemperance hasten their own ends, before they have well begun or learned what life is; like bad scholars, that slubber out their books before they have learned their lessons. That instead of Non est fruetus, we may say, Non est ficus, the tree itself is gone. And that goodly person, which like a fair ship hath been long a-building, and was but yesterday put to sea, is to-day sunk in the main. We do not eat, drink, and sleep, and take such refections of nature, ut non moriamur, that we might not die--that is impossible--but that we should not die barren, but bear some fruits up with us to Him that made the tree. (T. Adams, D. D.)
God and man dealing with unfruitfulness
A farmer, who had turned his attention to the raising of fruit, said to a friend as they sat at table, “I have cut down over fifty peach-trees to-day.” “Why is this?” “Because the fruit was not good. The peaches were too small.” Afterwards, walking through the orchard, the friend saw where the trees had stood, and also the spot where, after being cut down, they had been burned. This procedure brought to his mind at once the Saviour’s parable of the fruitless fig-tree. Oh, if God dealt with men as they deal with the trees in their orchards, what a fearful destruction of our race would ensue.
Nothing is created for itself, but so placed by the most wise providence, that it may confer something to the public good, though it be but as the widow’s two mites to the treasury, The poorest creature yields some fruit, wherein it doth imitate the goodness of the Maker. We know not readily what good serpents and vermin may do; yet certainly they have their fruit, both in sucking up that poison of the earth, which would be contagious to man; in setting off the beauty of the better pieces of creation--for though the same hand made both the angels in heaven and theworms on earth, yet the angels appear the more glorious, being so compared- besides their hidden virtues abstracted from our knowledge. Of stones they make iron, rubbish serves to raise bulwarks, the small pebble for the sling, worms and flies are baits for fishes; everything iS enabled with some gift for the universal benefit, and so to produce those fruits is their natural work. The sun comes forth of his chamber like a bridegroom, fresh and lively; and rejoiceth as a giant, to run his diurnal course, to lighten us with his refulgent beams, to generate, cheer, and mature things with his parental heat: this is his fruit. In his absence, the moon and stars adorn the canopy of heaven, reflecting their operative influence to quicken the lower world: this is their fruits. The curled clouds, those bottles of rain, thin as the liquor they contain, fly up and down on the wings of the wind, delivering their moist burdens upon the earth, teats whereon the hungry fields and pastures do suck; yet they expect no harvest from us: this is their fruits. The subtle winds come puffing out of their caverns, to make artificial motions, wholesome airs, and navigable seas; yet, neither earth, air, nor sea return them recompense: this is their fruits. The earth, in a thankful imitation of the heavens, locks not up her treasures within her own coffers; but without respect of her private benefit, is liberal of her allowance, yielding her fatness and riches to innumerable creatures that hang on her breasts, and depend upon her as their common mother for maintenance. Of the beasts that feed upon her, kine give us their milk, sheen their wool; every one pays a tribute to man, their usufructuary lord: this is their fruits. Fruit-bearing trees spend not all their sap and moisture upon themselves, or the increase of their own magnitudes; but the principal and purer part of it is concocted into some pleasant fruits, whereof neither they nor their young springs ever come to taste; but they proffer it us, and when it is ripe, they voluntarily let it fall at their masters’ feet. Never did the olive anoint itself with its own oil, nor the vine make itself drunk with its own grapes, nor the tree in my text devour its own figs: yet they all strive to abound with fruits. Let me raise your meditations from earth to heaven: the holy angels there are called “ministering spirits”; those royal armies fight for us against our enemies; like nurses, they bear us up in their arms, and, though unseen, do glorious offices for us: this is part of their fruit. The blessed Trinity is always working: “Hitherto my Father worketh, and I work” (John 5:17). The Father by His providence and protection, the Son by His mercy and mediation, the Holy Ghost by His grace and sanctification; all dividing the streams of their goodness for the best behoof of the world. The more anything furthers the common good, the more noble is its nature, and more resembling the Creator. The earth is fruitful; the sea, the air, the heavens are fruitful; and shall not man bring forth fruits, for whom all these are fruitful? While all the armies of heaven and earth are busied in fructifying, shall man, of more singular graces and faculties, be idle, a burden to the world and himself? Both the Church of God for the propagation of piety, and the world itself for the upholding of His state, require our fruits. If happiness consisted in doing nothing, God, that meant Adam so happy, would never have set him about business; but as paradise was his storehouse, so also his workhouse: his pleasure was his task. There is no state of man that can privilege a folded hand. (T. Adams.)
None? Haply not so thick with fruits as the “vines of Engedi”; every land is not a Canaan, to flow with milk and honey. But yet some competent measure, enough to pay the landlord rent for the ground it stands on; no, “none.” If there be none to spare, whereof the owner may make money, yet sufficiat ad usum suum, ad esum suum--that he may eat the labours of his own hands; no, “none.” If the number be not “as the sand,” yet let there be “a remnant” (Romans 9:27). If there cannot be a whole harvest, yet let there be “a tenth” (Isaiah 6:13). If not a tenth, yet let there be some “gleanings” (Micah 7:1); and that is a woeful scarcity. If the gleanings be not allowed, yet let there be here and there a fig, a grape, a berry, “on the outmost branches” (Isaiah 17:6), that the plantermay have a taste. It is too defective, when non florebit ficus--the tree doth not flourish; but quando non erit uva in vitibus, non ficus in ficulneis Habakkuk 3:17)--when there shall not be “a grape on the vine, nor a fig on the tree” (Jeremiah 8:13), this is a miserable sterility. Something hath some savour, but none is good for nothing. Indeed, all trees are not equally loaden; there is the measure of a hundred, of sixty, of thirty; an omer and an ephah; but the sacred dews of heaven, the graces of the gospel, bless us from having none! “I find none.” None? Peradventure none such as He looks ,for, no fruits delicate enough for the Almighty’s taste. Indeed, our best fruits are never perfect and kindly ripened; still they relish sour and earthly, and savour of the stock from which they were taken. They are heavenly plants, but grow in a foreign and cold climate; not well concocted, not worthy the charges and care bestowed upon us. Set orange or fig-trees in this our cold country, the fruit will not quit the cost of the planting and maintaining. But the complaint is not here of the imperfection or paucity of fruits, but of the nullity: “none.” Some reading that text with idle eyes, that after all our fruits, we are still “ unprofitable trees” (Luke 17:10), because they can find no validity of merit in their works, throw the plough in the hedge, and make holiday. But shall not the servant do his master’s business, because he cannot earn his master’s inheritance? Shall the mason say, I will share with my sovereign in his kingdom, or I will not lay a stone in his building? Net good fruits have their reward; though not by the merit of the doer, yet by the mercy of the accepter. Sour they be of themselves, but in Christ they have their sweetening; and the meanest fruits which that great “Angel of the Covenant” shall present to His Father, with the addition of His own “precious incense “(Revelation 8:4), are both received and rewarded. In their own nature they may be corrupt; but being dyed in the blood of Christ, they are made pleasing to God: yea, also profitable to the Church, and useful to men, seem they never so poor. Even a troubled spring doth often quench a distressed soldier’s thirst; a small candle doth good where the greater lights be absent; and the meanest fruit of holy charity, even a cup, though it be not of the juice of the grapes out of the vineyard, but of cold water out of the tankard, in the name of Christ, shall have its recompense (Matthew 10:42). But here the complaint is not of the meanness or fewness, but of the barrenness--none at all. (T. Adams.)
Unfruitfulness aggravated by privilege
Howsoever God may endure barrenness out of the Church, in want of means, yet He will never endure it under means. It is better for a bramble to be in the wilderness than in an orchard; for a weed to be abroad, than in a garden, where it is sure to be weeded out, as the other to be cut down. If a man will be unprofitable, let him be unprofitable out of the Church. But to be so where he has the dew of grace falling on him, in the means of salvation, where are all God’s sweet favours, to be a bramble in the orchard, to be a weed in the garden, to be noisome in a place where we should be fruitful, will God, the great Husbandman, endure this? Whatsoever is not for fruit is for the fire Matthew 3:10). (R. Sibbes.)
A gentleman once entered a hall with his little son, when they saw a number of well-dressed people, some of them standing together in groups, while others sat at their ease. The lad’s attention was arrested by a pleasant-looking man, in gaudy dress, and he inquired of his father who it could be. “Ask the gentleman who stands near you,” answered the father, with unmoved gravity. “If you please,” said the boy, addressing the stranger, “can you tell me who that gentleman opposite is?” No answer was given, and the lad looked amazed. At last the father said to him, “Those things which so much resemble men and women are only wax figures. There is no life in them, natural as they appear. Fair to look upon, they are without soul; all outside, and nothing else.” Are mere nominal Christians much more than these wax figures? We may admire the artistic skill which can fashion matter into forms of beauty; but what are all the outside appearances of religion in the deceitful Pharisee compared with the holiness of life in the heart of the true believer? Happy would it be for us if we all sought for “the fruit of good living” in our own lives before God Himself comes to seek it. The ancient Greeks used to quote the proverb that “The feet of the avenging deities are shod with wool,” intimating thereby the noiseless and unexpected manner in which they approach their victims. Thanks to God’s tender forbearance, He always gives us timely warning before the fatal blow is struck. The parable of the barren fig-tree, from which the text is taken, was designed by our blessed Lord to be a warning to the Jewish nation, whose mercies, had been so many, but whose day of grace was so soon to end. It is, however, no less applicable to all, of every age and country, who have the opportunity of receiving the means of grace, and of securing the hope of glory. (J. N. Norton, D. D.)
How many who are called Christians live lives so utterly fruitless that they might have such obituaries written of them as this: “While professing to be followers of Him ‘ who went about doing good,’ they were never known to go out of their way to speak kindly to the poor and the friendless, or to invite any stranger to church. Fields of usefulness close to their own dwellings were often pointed out to them, but they showed no ambition to be imitators ‘of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises.’ An enlarged charity may hope that theirs is the blessedness of those who ‘die in the Lord,’ but we cannot add (in the apostle’s expressive words of commendation) that they ‘rest from their labours,’ and that ‘ their works do follow them.’” (T. Adams.)
Lord, let it alone this year also
The sentence suspended
I. THE INTERCESSION OF JESUS--ITS MERCIFUL NATURE.
1. The ground of the plea is in Himself. God spares the sinner for Jesus’ sake.
2. The prospective efficacy of the plea lies in what the Saviour has done for the sinner. Thoughts of peace concerning him have revolved within His breast. He has laid down the plan of his recovery. A life of the sweetest virtue, and the most complete self-sacrifice, has been expended to work out the plan.
II. THE INTERCESSION OF JESUS--ITS SPECIAL END. The roots are at fault; the sinner’s heart must be changed.
1. The power of the means. Historically the record is grand; intrinsically the power is the same to-day. The stoutest hearts have been broken, and the most guilty consciences have been washed.
2. The stubborn heart may relent. Unprolific trees have been started, some by a very hard winter, others by a very warm summer, to yield fruit. Once the sap was thrown into its proper channel the tree continued to bear. So God’s dealings with men are means to move the heart. Even Ahab is not beyond His reach. The furnace of affliction has melted many. God sent His people to Babylon, and said, “Behold, I will melt them, and try them; for how shall I do for the daughter of my people”? All other means had failed. There are, therefore, probabilities of side influences producing such changes in men’s condition, so as to leave with us possibilities that the truths of the gospel will in the end produce the greater changes unto life.
III. THE INTERCESSION OF JESUS--LIMITED AS TO ITS TERMS. “But if not, thou shalt cut it down.” This is the solemn voice, not of righteousness, but of the intercession itself.
1. Such a state of impenitence is fearful to contemplate. The end of it is the hardest part. The uninterrupted course of wickedness leads to inevitable destruction.
2. The sentence carried out. “Cut it down.” We would gladly close our eyes and not witness the scene, but the authority of the text bids us still look on. God ceases to be a Father, Christ is no longer a Brother, the light is put out for ever, the soul is cast into outer darkness, and the heart pierced with a thousand regrets. “Cut it down,” being fruitless; burn it, being useless. Let such a warning as this serve to quicken thought, so that we may observe the time of mercy. (The Weekly Pulpit.)
Mercy in sympathy with righteousness
The restriction of the intercession of the vinedresser for a prolongation of the experiment to a single year indicates Christ’s own sympathy with this Divine rigour. He is the vinedresser, and His ministry of grace and truth is the means whereby it is faintly hoped Israel may yet, at the eleventh hour, be made spiritually fruitful. But, full of grace though He be, He neither expects nor desires an indefinite extension of Israel’s day of grace. He knows that though God is long-suffering, yet His patience, as exhibited in the history of His dealings with men, is exhaustible; and that in Israel’s case it is now all but worn out. And He sympathizes with the Divine impatience with chronic and incurable sterility. For though He preaches with enthusiasm a gospel of grace, He does so with the aim of producing in the recipients of the good tidings holiness, and in the conviction that belief in the gospel is the most efficient cause of holiness. A kingdom of God must be a kingdom of righteousness, and if Jesus presented it to view as a kingdom of grace, it was because He believed that was the most direct way of reaching the ideal. It was made a kingdom of grace to begin with, that it might become a kingdom of righteousness to end with. In this respect there is absolute agreement between Christ and Paul. The Herald of the kingdom, not less energetically than the apostle of the Gentiles, repudiates the idea that men might sin with impunity because grace abounded. The intercession put into the mouth of the vinedresser is a solemn act of repudiation, similar in import to Paul’s protest in the sixth chapter of his Epistle to the Romans. “Let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it; and if it bear fruit next year, well; and if not, thou shalt cut it down.” (A. B. Bruce, D. D.)
The mercy of new probation
I. HERE ARE SET FORTH THE CONDITIONS AND RESPONSIBILITIES OF LIFE UNDER THE GOSPEL.
1. The individuality of God’s gracious dealings.
2. A picture of gracious provisions enjoyed.
3. The responsibility involved in the possession of gospel blessings.
II. THE MISUSE OF GOSPEL PRIVILEGE AND OPPORTUNITY AS IT IS HERE DECLARED. Instead of fruitfulness there was barrenness. The gospel grace proves in many instances to have been all in vain. Faults are not corrected. Sins are not put away. The new life is not lived. Salvation is not enjoyed.
1. Now this resultlessness of the ministry of the Word does not imply any necessary defect in its human presentation, especially where barrenness is seen side by side with growing strength and abundant fruitfulness. Neither does it imply any withholding of any single gracious or Divine element necessary to the result. Neither does it imply any decree or principle limiting the application of what is admitted to be an adequate and universal remedy. When we ask why men are and remain unsaved under the sound of a faithful and full gospel ministry, we cannot find refuge either in the Divine intention, in the character of the provision, in the mode of its presentation, or the absence of the power of the Holy Spirit of God. We exhaust all possible reasons, and have to come back to one, and one only--human wilfulness. The will-not of unbelief makes the grace of God of none effect.
2. The second thing here is the Divine patience with these unfruitful hearers.
3. The mischiefs which attend the unfruitful and are wrought by them. “Why cumbereth it the ground also?” The “also” was left out of the older version, and the sense thereby weakened. The idea expressed is not only that the tree is useless, but that it is also baneful. The word “cumber” means now to occupy a place disadvantageously. But it had a more extensive sense of old, and the word here really means that it marred, poisoned, did mischief to the soil. Its shade was injurious. But also it drew to itself the fatness of the soil, the nourishment which other trees needed, and impoverished both them and it.
III. THERE IS A SPECIAL TIME OF GRACE, WITH A CERTAIN CATASTROPHE IF IT BE NOT IMPROVED TO GOOD PURPOSE.
1. The benefits of intercession on behalf of those who are unbelieving and fruitless.
2. The extended season and increased facilities for fruitful growth which are thus afforded. (The Preachers’ Monthly.)
The secret orderings of the soul’s life
O could there be laid out before our eyes the secret and wonderful workings, the incessant and anxious care, of which the inner life of any one soul is the object, how should we be lost in amazement at the unmerited, the marvellously constant, love of God! Who can speak as he should of the intricate, the minute ordering of the events of daily life, so disposed and governed that each may do its part in training us for our true rest? Who can tell of the secret drawings of love, the hidden inspirations, the discipline of sorrow, the lessons of chastisement, which are brought to bear upon us one by one? God speaks to us at one time amid the sweet breath of heavenly consolation, at another in the midst of the furnace of affliction; He multiplies around us the means of grace; He brings us within the influence of holy seasons, or places, or persons; He presents to us motives which are strong enough to overcome anything but the most hardened impenitence; He pursues us with the solicitations of His love; He does everything short of taking from us our freewill, that will whose power freely to choose its own highest happiness of necessity involves the alternative of rejecting it. And when apparently nothing more remains to be done, when even the energies of Divine love seem to have exhausted themselves in vain upon the hardness of a heart which is resolutely bent upon sin; even in that supreme moment, that crisis of the soul’s destinies, when the cry goes forth from the Eternal Justice, “Cut it down, why cumbereth it the ground?” there rises up from the depth of Divine compassion which dwells in the heart of the Redeemer the pleading petition for a yet further extension of the day of grace, “Lord, let it alone this year also.” Some healing remedy may yet be found, some appeal may even yet obtain an entrance--the door before which the Lord has been so long standing and knocking in Divine patience and sorrow may even yet be opened to Him, that He may enter in and sup--the dresser of the vineyard will once more dig about the fruitless tree and dung it--and if it bear fruit--well. If it bear fruit--well. Yes, my brethren, but there is an alternative, a possibility, terrible to dwell upon, but which yet forms an important part of the teaching of this parable, and one which we may not overlook. “If not, then after that thou shalt cut it down.” Yes, there arrives a moment hidden in the eternal councils of the Most High, at which even the voice of the Great Intercessor ceases to plead, and acquiesces in the righteous judgment of God. (S. W. Skeffington, M. A.)
This year also
The interceding vine-dresser pleaded for the fruitless fig-tree, “let it alone this year also,” dating, as it were, a year from the time wherein he spoke. Trees and fruit-bearing plants, have a natural measurement for their lives: evidently a year came to its close when it was time to seek fruit on the fig-tree, and another year commenced when the vine-dresser began again his digging and pruning work. Men are such barren things that their fruitage marks no certain periods, and it becomes needful to make artificial divisions of time for them; there seems to be no set period for man’s spiritual harvest or vintage, or if there be, the sheaves and the clusters come not in their season, and hence we have to say one to another, “This shall be the beginning of a new year.”
I. The beginning of a new year SUGGESTS A RETROSPECT. Let us take it, deliberately and honestly. “This year also”--then there had been former years of grace. The dresser of the vineyard was not for the first time aware of the fig-tree’s failure, neither had the owner come for the first time seeking figs in vain. God, who gives us “this year also,” has given us others before it; His sparing mercy is no novelty, His patience has already been taxed by our provocations.
1. Years of great mercy.
2. Years of sharp affliction.
3. Opportunities for usefulness, which have come and gone.
4. Unfulfilled resolutions.
II. The text MENTIONS A MERCY. “This year also”--a grant from infinite grace, as the result of love’s pleadings, and in pursuance of love’s designs.
1. The wicked man should count that the Lord’s longsuffering points to his salvation, and he should permit the cords of love to draw him to it. O that the Holy Spirit would make the blasphemer, the Sabbath.breaker, and the openly vicious to feel what a wonder it is that their lives are prolonged “this year also”! Are they spared to curse, and riot, and defy their Maker? Shall this be the only fruit of patient mercy? The procrastinator who has put off the messenger of heaven with his delays and half promises, ought he not to wonder that he is allowed to see “this year also”? The believer is kept out of heaven “this year also” in love, and not in anger. There are some for whose sake it is needful he should abide in the flesh, some to be helped by him on their heavenward way, and others to be led to the Redeemer’s feet by his instruction. Surely, for the sake of souls, for the delight of glorifying our Lord, and for the increase of the jewels of our crown, we may be glad to wait below “this year also.”
III. “This year also” IMPLIES A LIMIT. Even when Jesus is the pleader, the request of mercy has its bounds and times. There will come a last year to each one of us: therefore let each one say to himself--Is this my last? (C. H.Spurgeon.)
Another year granted
I. PROLONGED LIFE IS MAINLY VALUABLE FOR THE ENLARGEMENT OF SPIRITUAL OPPORTUNITY.
II. THE NEGLECTED OPPORTUNITY FURNISHES REASON WHY THE VERY INTERCESSOR HIMSELF WILL ACQUIESCE IN OUR CONDEMNATION. (S. Robins, M. A.)
God’s forbearance of the barren fig-tree
I. THE VINE-DRESSER’S PETITION AND REQUEST.
1. The matter of the request--“Lord, let it alone.” It is the special duty of faithful ministers and pastors and labourers in God’s vineyard, to divert and keep off that wrath, vengeance, and judgment which He threatens, and which is near to their people (see Joel 2:17; Joel 2:17; Isaiah 62:6-7). The ground hereof is this.
1. Because ministers are middle persons, as it were betwixt God and the people: they mediate and deal betwixt both; as it is declared expressly of Exodus 19:1). This is one thing which makes for this work to be performed by them; and then, which we may add hereunto, the affection which does belong unto them from this relation. This it makes for it also. When a child is in any danger, who should sooner speak for it than the father? When a sheep is ready to be swallowed up, who should sooner interpose than the shepherd? When a city is ready to be betrayed, who should sooner bestir himself than the watchman and governor of it? Why thus it is now with those who are ministers and pastors of the Church. They are fathers, they are shepherds, they are spiritual watchmen, and what not to work them, and to engage them hereunto. This very expression in the text carries an argument with it, wherein they are called dressers of the vineyard, who are much concerned in the safety of those trees that belong unto it, as a piece of their own handy-work. This it first of all shows us, how that ministers not only serve to instruct God’s people, but to protect them; not only to show them their duty, but to keep off their ruin.
2. The determination of the time for the exercise and continuance of this forbearance--“This year also.”
(1) This implies that He had for some time let it alone already (see Genesis 6:3; 2 Chronicles 36:15-16). This the Lord is pleased to do upon divers considerations.
(a) Out of His nobleness, and royalty, and generosity of mind, as we may so express it. To show that He does not take pleasure or delight in the death of sinners, as He hath sometimes told us. He loves not to destroy there where He can any way spare.
(b) The Lord does thus with many people, that thereby He may leave them so much the more inexcusable, and may be justified in His proceedings against them, when He comes to judgment indeed; that all men’s mouths may be stopped, and that they may believe so much the more fully in God.
(c) Sometimes, to exercise this patience of the vine-dressers themselves, which labour and take pains about these fig-trees, God will hereby sometimes prove them, and God will sometimes hereby trouble them; as St. Paul observes it in himself, from the non-proficiency and impenitency of the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 12:1-21. ult). And by His own patience and forbearance of such persons, God will leave them His ministers to a spirit of patience and forbearance in themselves, in conformity to God’s own example.
(2) This implies a further desire of continued patience and forbearance; which proceeds upon these grounds.
(a) That speech, love, and affection, which they bear unto them. Hatred is all for destroying; and that out of hand. But love, it is desirous of sparing, and preserving of the party beloved, as long as it can.
(b) There is ground for this desire and request of ministers in the behalf of their people, from that hope which they are willing to conceive of their amendment and reformation.
(c) This disposition in ministers proceeds out of respect to themselves, and a holy jealousy and suspicion which they may conceive of their own neglectfulness.
II. THE CONDITIONS WHICH THIS PETITION PROCEEDS UPON. These are twofold. The one is taken from himself “Till I shall dig about it, and dung it.” And the other is taken from the fig-tree, upon supposition, either of amendment or incorrigibleness. “If it bear fruit, well; if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down.” We begin first of all with the former, viz., that which is taken from himself--“Till I shall dig,” etc. Where there are two things observable of us.
1. The phrase or expression.
2. The doctrine or notion which is contained under it, and is exhibited to us from it. For the First: The phrase or expression. We may here take notice of the nature and condition of a minister’s work and employment; which, because it is expressed to us by digging and dunging, is hereby signified to be a very difficult and laborious service. Now, Secondly: For the thing itself, or notion. Taking this passage in the scope and connection of it, there is so far hereby signified and intimated unto us the efficacy and advantage of the ministry to such a purpose as is here expressed. “Till I shall dig about it, and dung it”; as who shall say, that would do it. From whence we may note thus much: That the labour and pains of the ministers is a means whereby God hath sanctified and appointed for the good and edification of the people. If anything do them good, and make them to be that which they should be, this is that which must do it--preaching and taking pains with them. The second is taken from the fig-tree, by way of a double supposition. Either, first, of future fruitfulness. “If it bear fruit, well”; or, secondly, of further incorrigibleness; and, “if not, then,” &c. First, to speak of the former; to wit, the supposition of future fruitfulness. “If it bear fruit, well.” This word, “well,” it is not expressed in the original text, but it is necessarily supplied here in our English translation, to make the sense complete. First, “Well”: that is, well for the Lord and Master of the vineyard: well for thee; it shall be well. So, when the fig-tree bears fruit, it is well for him that owns it (Proverbs 27:18). And so it is here; when a people prove fruitful, God Himself is so much the better for it. This must not be taken strictly and rigorously, but by way of dispensation. God reckons and accounts Himself profited when we do that which is our duty before Him; when we are active and fruitful in goodness, and answer those gracious opportunities and advantages of being better which God in goodness affords unto us, we do thereby the more honour God and express His grace in us, as it becomes us to do. “Herein is My Father glorified, in that ye bear much fruit,” says Christ Himself to His disciples (John 15:8). Secondly, “Well”: that is, well for the husbandman and dresser of the vineyard. “Well,” that is, well for thee. It is well for the minister when the people thrive in goodness, and are fruitful in every good work: namely, upon this account; because he sees some good success and effect of his labour amongst them. Thirdly, well for the vineyard, and the rest of the trees in it. One barren and unfruitful fig-tree may spoil a whole set and row of trees besides. It prejudices other plants which are near it. On the other hand, when any are fruitful, and active, and zealous in goodness; their zeal, it provokes many others so much the more to piety. And so it is well for the vineyard. Lastly, and more especially; well, for the fig-tree itself. It is well for every particular person, when of barren, he comes to be fruitful in every good work (Psalms 128:2). And so much may suffice to be here spoken of the first supposition mentioned; to wit, of future fruitfulness, in these words, “If it bear fruit, well.” The second is, of further incorrigibleness; in these; “and if not, then, after that, thou shalt cut it down.” Which words, “after that,” seem to carry a double reference and respect with them. The one is to the Lord of the vineyard; patience and forbearance towards it. “After that”; that is, after that thou hast let it alone for one year longer, as I desire of thee; if after that it shall still prove unfruitful, then do thus and thus with it. The second is, to the vine-dresser’s pains and labour about it. “After that,” that is, after that I have digged about it, and dunged it; if after that it shall yet prove no better, but remain barren and unfruitful still; then, I say, no more of it, but this; that “thou shalt cut it down.” And here, again, this expression--“Thou shalt cut it down,” it hath a double emphasis with it. First, an emphasis of prediction; and secondly, an emphasis of permission. An emphasis of prediction “Thou shalt cut it down,” that is, thou wilt cut it down: there is nobody that can hinder thee. An emphasis of permission--“Thou shalt cut it down”; that is, thou mayest cut it down; there is nobody will hinder thee. From both together, we have these two points observable of us: First, that a people’s continued unfruitfulness, after God’s long expectations from them, and forbearance of them, makes His judgments to fall unavoidably and irrecoverably upon them. After that, thou wilt cut it down; it is a word of prediction or commination. Secondly, that a people’s continued unfruitfulness, after long enjoyment of the means and labours of the ministers amongst them, it takes off the prayers and intercessions of the ministers for them. After that, thou mayest cut it down. And so it is a word of permission, or submission, to the will and mind of the Lord of the vineyard. (Thomas Herren, D. D.)
The use of prolonged discipline
I think something may be gained here by descending into the particulars. One of these agricultural operations imparts to the tree the elements of fruitfulness, and the other enables the tree to makes these elements its own. Digging gives nothing to the tree; but it makes openings whereby gifts from another quarter may become practically available. The manure contains the food which the plant must receive, and assimilate, and convert into fruit; but if the hardened earth were not made loose by digging, the needed aliment would never reach its destination. Similar processes are applied in the spiritual culture: certain diggings take place around and among the roots of barren souls, as well as of barren fig-trees. Bereavements and trials of various kinds strike and rend; but these cannot by themselves renew and sanctify. They may give pain, but cannot impart fertility; the spirit much distressed may be as unfruitful as the spirits that are at ease in Zion. These rendings, however, are most precious as the means of opening a way whereby the elements of spiritual life conveyed by the Word and the Spirit may reach their destination. The Lord, who pours in the food for the sustenance of a soul, stirs that soul by His providence, so that grace may reach the root and be taken in. As the constituents of fruit, held in solution by air and water, cannot freely reach the plant whose roots lie under a long unbroken and indurated soil, so the grace of God contained in the preached gospel is kept at bay by a carnal mind and a seared conscience. It is when afflictions rend the heart, as a ploughshare tears up the ground, that the elements of life long offered are at length received. It is thus that providence and grace conspire to achieve the purpose of God in the salvation of men. In this work mercy and judgment meet; and saved sinners, on earth and in heaven, put both together in their song of praise (Psalms 101:1). (W. Arnot.)
Pleading for a respite
“If any particular circumstance might be considered as making a more deep, lasting, and serious impression than others, it was a dream which I had when at school. I felt the apprehension of the approach of the last great judgment day. After I had perceived vast multitudes of the human race appearing before the throne of Christ, some being approved, and others rejected, I at length beheld my beloved father and mother, and several of the family. I heard them distinctly examined, and as distinctly heard the Judge say, ‘Well done.’ At this period my whole soul was filled with horror, being conscious that I was not prepared to pass my final scrutiny. At length my name was announced, and I felt all the agonies of a mind fully expecting to be banished from the presence of God. The Judge, then, in language which struck me with mingled shame and hope, said, ‘Well, what sayest thou? ‘I fell at His feet, and implored mercy, and prayed, ‘Lord, spare me yet a little longer, and when Thou shalt call for me again, I hope to be ready.’ With a smile, which tranquillized my spirits, the Lord replied, ‘Go, then, and improve the time given thee.’ The extreme agitation awoke me; but so deep was the impression, that I have never forgotten it.” (Herbert Mends.)
More time for repentance
John Hardonk, while on shipboard, dreamed one night that the day of judgment had come, and that the roll of the ship’s crew was called except his own name, and that this crew were all banished; and in his dream he asked the reader why his own name was omitted, and he was told it was to give him more opportunity for repentance. He woke up a different man. He became illustrious for Christian attainment. (Dr. Talmage.)
Fruit sought by God
The first thing which strikes us, perhaps, in the transaction, is ITS INDIVIDUALITY. There must have been many vines and many fig-trees in the vineyard; but the story is told as if the whole vineyard were for that one tree alone; and as if the great Proprietor concerned Himself only with it. Whether we recollect how soon He began, or how often or how long He has been, He does not forget, He has catalogued it, and registered it. “Behold”--it implies that the person addressed is very conscious how lengthy the time has been, and how very anxious and very patient the Dresser has been--“Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig-tree, and find none: cut it down.” Oh! it is a very humbling recollection--those years of love and care--it is very humbling, if it is not more, those years of unfaithfulness and emptiness which God all along has been counting. And observe it--it is the Dresser who has been the searcher, and He who did all for you is the one who has been looking for something from you. And the true measure of the emptiness is the extent of the culture. Had the dressing not been what it is, the wonder would have been less. WHAT IS “FRUIT”? What is it which is to a man what the figs are to the fig-tree? I answer, first, it would be something appropriate to his nature, accordant with his being. “For men do not gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles.” And what is the nature of the being of a man? Physical, intellectual, impassioned, spiritual. Such, then, must fruit be, real and tangible, visible and felt, reasonable, thoughtful, balanced, affectionate, earnest, spirit going forth to spirit, assimilating itself to God. And it must be “fruit” in its season. We do not expect man’s fruit at child’s age. There may be separate fruit for a man, and separate fruit for a woman. And every man has his own special fruit, which he ought to bear. And next, it must be in the man as it is in the natural tree. The tree takes up of its own soil, and by a strange process of transformation, what it took up in one form, earthy, comes out at last in another--for beauty and for usefulness--heavenly. So must it be in a man. What he is to give to God is not angelic service, but human. He must draw it from “the earth, but it assumes a character different, not its own. How does that take place? The sap flowing from the root through the stem, runs into the branches, and there diffusing itself to every tendril, makes a deposit, and so forms fruit. Just so, the Holy Ghost, flowing from the eternal love of the Father, through the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, makes His way to every grafted member in the mystical body, and goes out into every, the weakest, the minutest, part of man--each feeling, each thought, each word, each motion, making holiness. But many a storm, and many a sunshine; many a dark night, and many a bright day; many a wind, and many a rain, and many a chill, go to do each their own proper work, till the blossom is set; and when it is set, on and on, till the bud becomes “fruit,” and this fruit, till it is sweet. It must have its own true, proper flavour. So it is with you. You must pass through all the changes of your moral atmosphere, you must know various discipline, till, little by little, by that sap, which is the Spirit of God, coming to you through Jesus Christ, you get love, the love of God, the sweet savour of love, without which nothing is fruit. (J. Vaughan, M. A.)
Fruit, or no fruit
Now supposing the predestined interval pass away, and you are not a fruit-bearer? There will be no more notice, it will come quietly, solemnly, instantaneously, abrupt, irrevocable, “Cut it down.”
Then “the axe will be laid at the root,” and you will go up to your bed, and you will begin to decline and fade away. Or a blow will do it in a moment, and you will lie down, a thing that has never fulfilled its intention of life; then how is it to live for ever? But if otherwise, if you begin now, in any degree, really to live for God, and repay God’s care, and honour Him, what will you have then? There is no answer given in the original. We have put in “well.” God had left it a blank, for every one to fill in just as he likes; and we cannot fill it in with too much. But let it stand, “well.” “If it bear fruit, well.” “Well,” all health, all joyous health for the soul, “well.” “Well” will it be to live well, to die well, to meet God well. “Well” will it be to go on bearing more fruit for ever and ever. “Well “ will it be for you to be eternally happy, and Christ to “see of the travail of His soul in you, and to be satisfied.” “Well.” Then what is the conclusion? Do not go on living a useless life. Let God have some satisfaction in you. Begin at once. Do something. Let there be some” fruit” seen--at home, in your temper, in your intercourse, in your daily conduct, in your own family. Let there be more “fruit” in our own closet, in more real communion with God in private. Let there be a “fruit” in the world, in something taken up and done definitely for the Lord Jesus Christ. Let there be a “fruit” in the Church--truer worship, more frequent use of ordinances, more sympathy and love shown to all the brethren. And let there be a “fruit”--fruit best of all, in your own soul--more of Jesus there--a humility, a tenderness, a holy singleness, which shall show Jesus, just as the grapes shows the vine. (J. Vaughan, M. A.)
Fruitfulness the gauge of value
Years ago in Men tone they estimated the value of land by the number of olive trees upon it. How many bearers of the precious oil were yielding their produce? That was the question which settled the value of the plot. Is not this the true way of estimating the importance of a Christian Church? Mere size is no criterion; wealth is even a more deceiving measure, and rank and education are no better. How many are bearing fruit unto the Lord in holy living, in devout intercession, in earnest efforts for soul winning, and in other methods by which fruit is brought forth unto the Lord? Jesus looks for fruit (Mark 11:13), His operations upon us are intended to produce fruit (Luke 13:9), and if there be none in a Church we may expect to hear Him say of it as He did of old--“And now go to; I will tell you what I will do to My vineyard: I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be eaten up; and break down the wall thereof, and it shall be trodden down: and I will lay it waste: it shall not be pruned, nor digged; but there shall come up briers and thorns: I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
A woman, which had a spirit of infirmity eighteen yearn--
Observe one thing at the outset: HOW MANY ANONYMOUS BELIEVERS THERE ARE IN THE BIBLE RECORD WHO GIVE HELP ALL ALONG THE AGES. Put alongside of this story the account previously given of the man healed of leprosy, and the other man at the same time cured of palsy. Of this last we have precisely the same record--“And immediately he rose up before them, and took up that whereon he lay, and departed to his own house, glorifying God.” In close connection with these cases there are mentioned “multitudes,” but no personal particulars are furnished. The pages of God’s Word are crowded with such incidents. The woman of Samaria, the man of God that came to Eli, the lad who gave his bread and fishes at Tiberias--all these have had a mention, but nothing more to identify them in the inspired annals. It is really of little consequence who we are; it matters more what we are.
II. Observe, in the second place, THAT EVEN IN EXTREME HOPELESSNESS OF DISEASE ONE MAY EXHIBIT A SUPREME AND ILLUSTRIOUS FAITH. This woman was evidently in a most deplorable condition; she was actually doubled up with deformity. When a believer is smitten terribly, he is not always just in the mood to be reasonable. Every nerve is quivering with agony; he cannot see the wisdom nor the fairness of its infliction. The more common danger for a Christian under trial is that he shall sink into a state of stupor, of listlessness, or despair. A great numbness settles upon the soul. There are pains which lie a great distance lower than the bottom of the grave. The poet Cowper, tearing out a leaf from his own awful experience, says, “There are as truly things which it is not lawful for man to utter as those were which Paul heard and saw in the third heaven; if the ladder of Christian life reaches, as I suppose it does, to the very presence of God, it nevertheless has its foot in the very abyss.” Now against both of these baleful postures of mind, the passionate and the listless, does this thought of preaching the gospel from a pulpit of patient suffering for the great glory of God array itself. It is wise to keep in mind the fact that souls may be won to the Cross by a life on a sick-bed just as well as by a life in a cathedral desk. Pure submission is as good as going on a foreign mission.
III. Right here, therefore, observe, in the third place, AN EXPLANATION IS OFFERED OF THE MYSTERY AND THE PURPOSE OF SUFFERING. Pain is a sort of ordination to the Christian ministry. It furnishes a true believer with a new pulpit to preach from. A wise man will do better to learn this lesson early. I am anxious now to bring this thought close to our own minds and hearts at once. In the rooms of the American Tract Society, in New York, were until lately standing two objects which I studied for some meditative years, once a month, at a committee meeting. One is a slight framework of tough wood, a few feet high, so bound together with hasps and hinges as to be taken down and folded in the hand. This was Whitefield’s travelling-pulpit; the one he used when, denied access to the churches, he harangued the thousands in the open air, on the moors of England. You will think of this modern apostle, lifted up upon the small platform, with the throngs of eager people around him; or hurrying from one field to another, bearing his Bible in his arms; ever on the move, toiling with herculean energy, and a force like that of a giant. There, in that rude pulpit, is the symbol of all which is active and fiery in dauntless Christian zeal. But now look-again: in the centre of this framework, resting upon “the slender platform where the living preacher used to stand, you will see a chair--a plain, straight-backed, armed, cottage-chair; rough, simple, meagrely cushioned, unvarnished, and stiff. It was the seat in which Elizabeth Wallbridge, “the dairyman’s daughter,” sat and coughed and whispered, and from which she went only at her last hour to the couch on which she died. Here again is a pulpit; and it is the symbol of a life quiet and unromantic and hard in all Christian endurance. Every word that invalid woman uttered--every patient night she suffered--was a gospel sermon. In a hundred languages the life of that servant of God has preached to millions of souls the riches of Christ’s glory and grace. And of these two pulpits, which is the most honourable is known only to God, who undoubtedly accepted and consecrated them both. The one is suggestive of the ministry of speech, the other of the ministry of submission.
IV. Hence, WE MAY EASILY LEARN WHAT MIGHT BE ONE OF THE MOST PROFITABLE OCCUPATIONS OF A CHRONIC INVALID. NO one can preach from any pulpit without the proper measure of study. Sick people are always in danger of becoming egotistic and selfish, and the best relief from that is for each child of God to busy himself in labouring for others’ salvation. Said the intelligent Doddridge, even while he was lingering in the last hours of his life, “My soul is vigorous and healthy, notwithstanding the hastening decay of- this frail and tottering body; it is not for the love of sunshine or the variety of meats that I desire life, but, if it please God, that I may render Him a little more service.” Such a purpose as this will lead a Christian to thoughtful examination of what will make his efforts most pertinent. He will study doctrine. He will study experience too.
V. SOME PEOPLE RECOVER FROM LONG ILLNESS; CHRIST HEALS THEM, AS HE DID THESE MEN IN THE STORY. SO there is one more lesson for convalescents--what are they going to do with their lives hereafter? (C. S.Robinson, D. D.)
The lifting up of the bowed down
I. Our first subject for consideration is, THE BOWING DOWN OF THE AFFLICTED. We read of this woman that “she had a spirit of infirmity and was bowed together, and could in no wise lift up herself.”
1. Upon which we remark--first, that she had lost all her natural brightness. Alas, we know certain of the children of God who are at this moment in much the same condition. They are perpetually bowed down, and though they recollect happier days the memory only serves to deepen their present gloom.
2. This poor woman was bowed towards herself and towards that which was depressing. She seemed to grow downwards; her life was stooping; she bent lower and lower, as the weight of years pressed upon her. Her looks were all earthward, nothing heavenly, nothing bright could come before her eyes; her views were narrowed to the dust, and to the grave. So are there some of God’s people whose thoughts sink evermore like lead, and their feelings run in a deep groove, cutting evermore a lower channel. You cannot give them delight, but you can readily cause them alarm. “All these things are against me,” say they, for they can see nothing but the earth, and can imagine nothing but fear and distress. We have known certain prudent, but somewhat unfeeling, persons blame these people, and chide them for being low-spirited; and that brings us to notice next-3. That she could not lift up herself. There was no use in blaming her. Of what use is it to advise a blind person to see, or to tell one who cannot lift up herself that she ought to be upright, and should not look so much upon the earth? This is a needless increase of misery. Some persons who pretend to be comforters might more fitly be classed with tormentors, h spiritual infirmity is as real as a physical one.
4. Note further about this poor woman, that bowed down as she was both in mind and body, she yet frequented the house of prayer. Our Lord was in the synagogue, and there was she.
II. I invite you, secondly, to notice THE HAND OF SATAN IS THIS BONDAGE. We should not have known it if our Lord had not told us, that it was Satan who had bound this poor woman for eighteen years.
1. He must have bound her very cunningly to make the knot hold all that time, for he does not appear to have possessed her. You notice in reading the evangelists that our Lord never laid his hand on a person possessed with a devil. Satan had not possessed her, but he had fallen upon her once upon a time eighteen years before, and bound her up as men tie a beast in its stable, and she had not been able to get free all that while. The devil can tie in a moment a knot which you and I cannot unloose in eighteen years.
2. Satan had bound the woman to herself and to the earth. There is a cruel way of tying a beast which is somewhat after the same fashion. I have seen a poor animal’s head fastened to its knee or foot, and somewhat after that fashion Satan had bound the woman downward to herself. So there are some children of God whose thoughts are all about themselves; they have turned their eyes so that they look inside and see only the transactions of the little world within themselves. They are always lamenting their own infirmities, always mourning their own corruptions, always watching their own emotions. The one and only subject of their thoughts is their own condition. If they ever change the scene and turn to another subject it is only to gaze upon the earth beneath them, to groan over this poor world with its sorrows, its miseries, its sins, and its disappointments. Thus they are tied to themselves and to the earth, and cannot look up to Christ as they should, nor let the sunlight of His love shine full upon them.
3. This poor woman was restrained from what her soul needed. She was like an ass or an ox which cannot get to the trough to drink. She knew the promises, she heard them read every Sabbath day; she went to the synagogue and heard of Him who comes to loose the captives; but she could not rejoice in the promise or enter into liberty. So are there multitudes of God’s people who are fastened to themselves and cannot get to watering, cannot drink from the river of life, nor find consolation in the Scriptures. They know how precious the gospel is, and how consolatory are the blessings of the covenant, but they cannot enjoy the consolations or the blessings. Oh that they could! They sigh and cry, but they feel themselves to be bound.
4. There is a saving clause here. Satan had done a good deal to the poor woman, but he had done all he could do. He can smite, but he cannot slay. The devil may bind you fast, but Christ has bound you faster still with cords of everlasting love, which must and shall hold you to the end. That poor woman was being prepared, even by the agency of the devil, to glorify God.
III. I want you to notice in the third place THE LIBERATOR AT HIS WORK. We have seen the woman bound by the devil, but here comes the Liberator, and the first thing we read of Him is that--
1. He saw her. His eyes looked round, reading every heart as He glanced from one to another. At last He saw the woman. Yes, that was the very one He was seeking. We are not to think that He saw her in the same common way as I see one of you, but He read every line of her character and history, every thought of her heart, every desire of her soul.
2. When He had gazed upon her, He called her to Him. Did He know her name? Oh, yes, He knows all our names, and His calling is therefore personal and unmistakable.
3. When the woman came, the great Liberator said to her, “Woman, thou art loosed from thine infirmity.” How could that be true? She was still as bent as she was before. He meant that the spell of Satan was taken off from her, that the power which had made her thus to bow herself was broken.
4. Our Lord proceeded to give her full enlargement in His own way: He laid His hands on her. She suffered from want of strength, and by putting His hands upon her, I conceive that the Lord poured His life into her. The warm stream of His own infinite power and vitality came into contact with the lethargic stream of her painful existence, and so quickened it that she lifted up herself. The deed of love was done: Jesus Himself had done it.
IV. I will not linger there, but invite you now to notice THE LOOSING OF THE BOUND.
1. She was made straight we are told, and that at once. Now, what I want you to notice is this, that she must have lifted herself up--that was her own act and deed. No pressure or force was put upon her, she lifted up herself; and yet she was “made straight.” She was passive in so much as a miracle was wrought upon her, but she was active too, and, being enabled, she lifted up herself. What a wonderful meeting there is here of the active and the passive in the salvation of men.
2. The most remarkable fact is that she was made straight immediately; for there was something beyond her infirmity to be overcome. Suppose that any person had been diseased of the spine, or of the nerves and muscles for eighteen years, even if the disease which occasioned his being deformed could be entirely removed, what would be the effect? Why, that the result of the disease would still remain, for the body would have become set through long continuance in one posture. But this woman was cured entirely, instantaneously, by the power of the Lord.
3. The cure being thus perfect, up rose the woman to glorify God. What did she say? It is not recorded, but we can well imagine. It was something like this: “I have been eighteen years in and out among you; you have seen me, and know what a poor, miserable, wretched object I was; but God has lifted me up all in a moment. Blessed be His name, I have been made straight.” What she spoke with her mouth was not half of what she expressed. No reporter could have taken it down; she spoke with her eyes, she spoke with her hands, she spoke with every limb of her body.
V. Fifthly, let us reflect upon our REASON FOR EXPECTING THE LORD JESUS TO DO THE SAME THING TO-DAY as he did eighteen hundred years and more ago. What was His reason for setting this woman free?
1. According to His own statement it was, first of all, human kindness. Tried soul, wouldst thou not loose an ox or an ass if thou sawest it suffering? “Ay,” sayest thou. And dost thou think the Lord will not loose thee? Hast thou more bowels of mercy than the Christ of God?
2. More than that, there was special relationship. He tells this master of the synagogue that a man would loose his ox or his ass. Perhaps he might not think it his business to go and loose that which belonged to another man, but it is his own ass, his own ox, and he will loose him, And dost thou think, dear heart, that the Lord Jesus will not loose thee He bought thee with His blood, His Father gave thee to Him, He has loved thee with an everlasting love: will He not loose thee?
3. Next, there was a point of antagonism which moved the Saviour to act promptly. He says, “This woman being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan hath bound.” Now, if I knew the devil had tied anything up I am sure I would try to unloose it, would not you? We may be sure some mischief is brewing when the devil is working, and, therefore, it must be a good deed to undo his work. But Jesus Christ came into the world on purpose to destroy the works of the devil; and so, when He saw the woman like a tied-up ox, He said, “I will unloose her if for nothing else that I may undo what the devil has done.”
4. Then think of her sorrowful condition. An ox or an ass tied up to the manger without water would soon be in a very sad plight. Pity it, poor thing. Hear the lowing of the ox, as hour after hour its thirst tells upon it. Would you not pity it? And do you think the Lord does not pity his poor, tried, tempted, afflicted children? Those tears, shall they fall for nothing? Those sleepless nights, shall they be disregarded? That broken heart which fain would but cannot believe the promise, shall that for ever be denied a hearing? Hath she Lord forgotten to be gracious? Hath He in anger shut up the bowels of His mercy? Ah, no, He will remember thy sorrowful estate and hear thy groanings, for He puts thy tears into His bottle. (C. H.Spurgeon.)
The infirm woman in the synagogue
I. Our first reflection, as we look at this brief narrative, is that it furnishes us, on the part of the woman, with an illustration of ATTACHMENT TO THE PUBLIC WORSHIP OF GOD. A characteristic of devout and earnest religion in all ages. Public worship bears on it the stamp of Divine approval. See you neglect it not.
II. Our second reflection is, that the text supplies an illustration of THE COMPASSION AND POWER OF JESUS CHRIST. Not only was the woman in the synagogue with her ailments; the Lord was there also with His wondrous grace. He did not neglect external ordinances. Jesus, then, was in this synagogue, and as usual He was on the look-out for some good work to do. He had a quick eye for suffering and sorrow. No sooner did He see this woman, than He healed her. What power, and what compassion! He exercises the same today. Earth has no sorrow that He cannot heal. And besides curing diseases, He can heal sins.
III. I observe, next, that the text supplies an illustration of THE BLESSED ADVANTAGES OF BEING FOUND IN THE WAY OF DUTY. TO the synagogue, at the time of worship, this woman went. Likely enough she was tempted to absent herself for one reason or another, just as we are tempted now; but she refused to listen to the temptation. She chose the better part of obeying God’s law, and in doing so she was blessed beyond all expectation or hope. Little did she think, when she left home, what mercy was in store for her. Had she stayed in the house, or gone to see her friends, or been anywhere but where she was, she would have missed it all. So may we always, when in the way of duty, expect a blessing.
IV. I remark, once more, that the text supplies an illustration of THE GRATITUDE OF A HEART ALIVE TO THE BLESSING BESTOWED ON IT. As soon as the woman was made straight, she “glorified God.” Even if she had never spoken a word, she would have been a monument to the Divine praise. Sun and moon and stars, as they shine in the heavens, declare the glory of God. All great productions glorify their author. So this healed woman glorified her Healer. And not only so, but also audibly, there and then, before all. (W. Walters.)
An infirm woman cured on the Sabbath
I. THE STATE OF THE WOMAN. Diseased in an extraordinary degree, and for a very long period.
II. THE CHANGE PRODUCED BY THE POWER OF JESUS. This case presented no difficulty to Him. Yet, to new-model the diseased frame, to make straight what was crooked, to relax what had been rigid for many years, required a power as great as that of creation.
III. THE MEANS EMPLOYED. He used no resources of art, no remedies whatever; He even employed no means to astonish or surprise; He made no display of His power. He said nothing of the violence or inveteracy of the disorder; nothing to influence the imagination either of the woman herself or of the spectators. Conscious of possessing the power of curing all diseases, He exercised it by merely declaring the simple fact that her disorder was removed; while she exhibited the most undeniable proofs of complete restoration, by standing in a firm and erect position.
IV. We have next to observe THE IMPRESSION PRODUCED BY THIS MIRACLE, first, on the woman, and then upon the ruler of the synagogue.
1. The effect on the woman was highly pleasing. She was delighted with the change which she instantly experienced; and her heart rose in gratitude to God, who alone, she was convinced, could have effected so wonderful a cure.
2. How different was the effect of this miracle on the mind of the ruler of the synagogue! Instead of directing his attention to the display of power, such as he had never witnessed before; instead of thinking of the goodness which had voluntarily removed so distressing a disease from a person so helpless; instead of sympathizing with the unexpected and rapturous happiness of the woman, he thought only of the captious objections which an enemy might raise.
V. We have, lastly, to inquire, WHY THIS MIRACLE WAS DOSE ON THE SABBATH? Our Saviour graciously condescended to reason, and He reasoned, as upon all other occasions, in the clearest and most conclusive manner. His mode of reasoning is always best adapted to the object which He had in view. Here it was sufficient to show, that the ruler of the synagogue, and all other Jews, did actions every Sabbath deliberately and intentionally, which, though humane and unavoidable, were not more so than the relief which He had just conferred upon the unfortunate woman. “Hypocrites;” said He, “who is there among you, that doth not on the Sabbath loose his ox or his ass from the stall, and lead him away to watering? And must not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan hath kept bound these eighteen years, be released from this bond on the Sabbath-day?” Thus our Saviour argues from the practice which they themselves sanctioned, which led to the conclusion that the action He had done was still more laudable, because an act of greater humanity. (J. Thomson, D. D.)
The crooked woman made straight
I. THE AFFLICTED WOMAN.
1. The nature of her complaint. Probably her spine was affected, so that she could not stand erect. Such a deformity, while humiliating to all, would be particularly trying to a female.
2. Its duration. A sharp affliction, if short, is much easier borne than a lighter one that is long continued, as in this instance.
II. THE UNEXPECTED CURE SHE RECEIVED.
1. Where she was cured. In the synagogue. In spite of her deformity, she did not absent herself from the sanctuary. Well for her that she did not!
2. The manner in which she was cured. Two things are mentioned.
(1) The gracious words which our Saviour uttered. As in the case of the ten lepers, she is declared to be cured before the act was performed. But with Christ, purpose anal accomplishment, willing and doing, are identical. When He speaks, the thing is as good as done; when He commands it is sure to stand fast.
(2) The condescending act He performed.
3. How she felt when cured. It is said that “she glorified God,” by which is meant that she adored and magnified His holy name for the wonderful deliverance she had experienced. There are many ways in which we are to glorify Him, and this is one of the most important. It might have been supposed that all present would have joined with her in praising God; such, however, was not the case. Other feelings than those of grateful homage and adoration were called forth, which leads us to the next particular, namely--
III. THE REFLECTIONS WHICH HER CURE OCCASIONED. In this, the concluding part of the narrative, we have--
1. The charge.
2. The defence.
3. The result. It is shown in regard to two classes.
(1) The ruler and his party. “And when He had said these things all His adversaries were ashamed.” They felt that no answer could be given to what Jesus had been saying; they were therefore speechless and confounded.
(2) The multitude. “All the people rejoiced.” The miracle had been so signal, and the subsequent vindication had been so complete, that they gave unequivocal demonstrations of their gladness and delight. In applying this subject there are three classes to which it more especially speaks.
1. The wretched vassals of sin and Satan. The condition of this poor sufferer may be regarded as emblematic of every individual who is tied and bound with the chains of his iniquities. Let the sinner’s cry therefore be, Lord, loose this miserable soul of mine, which Satan hath so long bound in his slavish fetters.
2. Those whose minds are too much enthralled by earthly affections. It was the misfortune of this woman that her eyes were bent downward, but what was her unavoidable calamity is our wilful sin. Our souls cleave to the dust, and we seek, not the things above, but the vain and perishable objects of time and sense. O how important is it that we Should be lifted up from such a grovelling condition, and be liberated, in order thereto, from the thraldom of this present evil world!
3. The downcast and sorrowful. (Expository Outlines.)
A daughter of Abraham
Set me to look at a downright extraordinary creature, not merely plain but positively ugly--like the woman whom Christ healed, who had been plagued with a devil of infirmity eighteen years, and was now doubled up, hideous--and tell me whether if you look at that woman long enough you will see her beauty. No! The more I look at her, the less I like her--the longer I behold her, the faster I run away from her. But I am called back to her by one little touch. Christ claims for her no beauty, invests her with no fancied fairness. “She, too, is a daughter of Abraham.” This is all. But this was enough; for Christ knew that by this appeal He lifted the poor, stricken, bowed creature of infirmity, and gave her a place with the rest of Abraham’s children. He called upon the patriotism of the Jews--and they had a patriotism, though but a narrow one. Their cavilling was put an end to at once. This is the secret. The only way to conquer natural disgust at ugliness and sickness and disease, is to set these unsightly objects in the light of Divine Love. “One is your Master, even Christ, and all ye are brethren.” Bring these poor degraded wretches, and ask us to love them individually, and we fail to do it. To lift them out of the misery in which they rest, and to make them lovable, you must set them in the light of the great Fatherhood of God and His passionate love of humanity. A man goes into a sickroom, and there poor humanity is at its worst; there you may find the bottom of all man’s meanness, his cowardice, his want, and his weakness; there you may see nature in decay, as ugly as the working of a continual want and weakness can make it, But as you cross the threshold of the sickroom, the great need of the patient is more than all; and if you come as the angel of healing, as the angel of true service, the heart is too full and the hand too busy for you to stop to look either for beauty or for ugliness, and that love which prompts to the duty makes labour light. The poor sick person is not less tiresome, or less offensive, or less tedious, but the feeling which prompted disgust has gone. When men declared the possibility of walking on hot iron if the heart were pure and the conscience unstained, they did but figure the great power of Innocence. Una with her lion is but weak, but Una in her innocence is strong. And that which Innocence is thus so truly fabled to do, Divine Love surely does, overleaping difficulty and overcoming disgust. Christianity does not ask us to believe that ugly things are lovely; but, filling man with true love and holy enthusiasm, makes him able to endure the sight of foulness and meanness, that he may cleanse and raise the foul and mean. Thus “one touch of nature makes the whole world kin.” Is not this poor woman a daughter of Abraham? Is not this poor degraded wretch a brother? I remember that before England got rid of her great disgrace of slavery, the abolition people used to distribute handbills, headed with a picture of a chained negro; the poor thick-lipped black asking, “Am I not a man and a brother?” We all acknowledged the claim. But if he had said, “Am I not a beauty?” I should have answered, “ No, my brother; you are certainly not a beauty. I decline to admire you.” Should he reply, “This is all a matter of taste,” I should answer in turn, “I don’t believe a word of it. To my eyes you are very particularly ugly.” But when he kneels there before me, and lifts up his poor chained wrists, and puts up that plea for his own humanity--“Am I not a man and a brother?” then, poor, scourged, broken, jaded as he is, I own him. He has a spark of true manhood in him, and shall be scourged, reviled, and sold in bondage no longer. Thus the scheme of the Christian religion completes itself. It has the manliest scorn for meanness, and the manliest pity for weakness. (G. Dawson, M. A.)
Freedom realized through believing
Once the Emperor of Russia had a plan by which he was to liberate the serfs of that country. There were forty millions of them. Of some of them, their whole time was sold; of others, only a part. The emperor called around him his council, and wanted to have them devise some way to set the slaves at liberty. After they had conferred about it for six months, one night the council sent in their decision, sealed, that they thought it was not expedient. The emperor went down to the Greek Church that night and partook of the Lord’s Supper, and he set his house in order, and the next morning you could hear the tramp of soldiers in the streets of St. Petersburg. The emperor summoned his guard, and before noon sixty-five thousand men were surrounding that palace. Just at midnight there came out a proclamation that every slave in Russia was for ever set free. The proclamation had gone forth, and all the slaves of the realm-believed it. They have been free ever since. Suppose they had not believed it? They never then would have got the benefit of it.
The highest emancipation
A very old Greek myth represents Prometheus chained to a rock by command of Jupiter, who then sent an eagle to feed upon his liver in the daytime, which the god caused to grow again at night. Hercules, however, it was said, killed the eagle, and set suffering Prometheus at liberty. Let this fable, or the narrative in your lesson, remind you that naturally you and all are bound by Satan to his slavery and drudgery, by evil tempers and passions, by bad habits, and in other ways. How the drunkard is enthralled by his craving for drink; the miser by his thirst for gold; and others by their minding of earthly things! And how disappointments and anguish, like evil birds, prey upon their spirits. But Christ looses from every infirmity of the soul caused by sin or Satan. And just as a freed bird warbles its joy-throb in the note of thrilling gladness, so we should praise God with joyful lips, as well as glorify Him by our life and best service. “Massa, me will be your slave for ever,” said a negro to the kind Englishman who, at great cost, had emancipated him. What shall we do for Jesus, who delivers us from such greater evils? (Henry R. Burton.)
Unto what is the kingdom of God like?
On the kingdom of God
The kingdom of God is an expression of various significations in the sacred volume. Sometimes is meant by it the universal dominion of the Deity; sometimes the final blessedness to which the saints are heirs; and in a more confined sense it frequently signifies the gospel state, or Church of Christ. In this last sense, it is used in the text; and the thing signified is illustrated by a comparison, remarkable for that aptness and beauty, with which all our Saviour’s parables are distinguished.
I. We are first led by the resemblance, to which our Saviour likens His kingdom, to remark THE SMALLNESS OF CHRISTIANITY IS ITS BEGINNING. Seeking for the symbol with careful consideration, He chooses one, proverbial among the Jews for littleness, the smallest object possessed of life and expansive force. Small as is the symbol, it is not smaller than the thing it was designed to represent. An obscure prophecy was the first germ of Christianity, and its only label, a simple rite: the prophecy-God’s promise to the woman, and sacrifice--the rite. We have ever to bless our God that-as early as death laid claim to our race, the seed, whose fruit is to nourish us into immortality, was sown by His hand; and in due season made to spring up into lively appearance before an expecting and wondering world.
II. This brings me to remark, from the image which Christ furnishes in the text of “the kingdom of God,” ITS PROGRESSIVE CHARACTER. In the visible ministry of the Messiah and promulgation of the gospel it assumed its definite appearance. This took place under the most unfavourable circumstances. The soil in which it appeared was incongruous with its nature, and the clime inclement. In its genuine state Christianity had to withstand many a blast; to endure both chilling cold and scorching heat; to encounter everything which could threaten to check its growth, and crush it in the dust. But it was a plant of an inherent vigour, which no climate could kill, nor rudeness impair; and, under the fostering care of Him who rules all seasons and disposes all events, it grew daily, it rose in height, and spread the wonder of the world; it became established.
III. This brings me to observe, THAT THE PARABLE CARRIES US FORWARD TO A PERFECTED GROWTH AND TRIUMPHANT STATE OF THE GOSPEL KINGDOM. Though now it presents the sure refuge to all people, its branches are not filled; there is room for much further growth, and dread occasion for much pruning. As yet, defiling vines cling to the stately tree, obstructing its spread, and defacing its beauty. As yet, the Jews “look” not “on Him whom they pierced”; and to many Gentile tribes, the Cross is “foolishness.” As yet, there is need to cry to the children of men, “Know the Lord”; and many of them are fluttering wildly, and wandering into dangers, for want of the places in which they may find rest and shelter. But the figure by which the Church is described, and which has appeared hitherto so apt and exact, apprises us of a mature and triumphant state of our Redeemer’s kingdom. The plant of the little seed, through its progressive growth, is to attain to a perfect height, and strength, and greatness. It is to become a “great tree”; yea, greater than all the trees that are in the earth. Its root is fixed; and it shall continue to extend its growth till all the inhabitants of our world rejoice in the shadow of the branches of it. The Christian religion is composed of such elements; there are in it such principles and arrangements as suggest of themselves that if it be true it is designed for universal extension and perpetual duration. We have now considered the beautiful and exact resemblance furnished by Christ of “the kingdom of God.” There are inferences from this subject of great weight and variety. Let me entreat your patience while I adduce only a few which are too instructive to be omitted.
1. The first is, that this is one of those singularly important comparisons or parables which are not only illustrative but prophetic.
2. Another important inference from what has been said is, that the gospel is the object of constant providential care.
3. The last inference I shall make from our Saviour’s lively representation of His kingdom is, the encouragement it is calculated to afford to His pious people. (Bishop Dehon.)
It is like a grain of mustard-seed
“The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard-seed--which indeed is is the least of all seeds.” It is no exception to the law of growth which prevails throughout nature, and exemplifies how what is mightiest is often the product of what is apparently feeblest. Not only the giant oak, capable of defying the fiercest storms, but whole forests which yield materials for a nation’s fleets, may have lain wrapped up within a single tiny acorn. In history, whatever has been most enduring and has exerted most influence, has been born in obscurity and feebleness, and grown up by almost imperceptible stages--whereas, whatever has, like the gourd of Jonah, arisen to its full height of a sudden, has withered and died away with the same rapidity that it arose. But Christianity is the most striking instance of the kind. Its fountain-head is the manger of a stable in a small Judeau town. There is a strange unobtrusiveness about the character and mission of the Author and Finisher of our faith. When we know who He was, the only begotten Son of God, and what His purpose was--the salvation of the world--we might expect to see Him take up a position full in the world’s view, attracting to Himself man’s whole attention, making kings His deputies, and philosophers His apostles, and orators His heralds, and armed captains His attendants. But no! the manger of a stable was His cradle--poverty, hard labours, great sorrows, keen sufferings, were His constant companions. It was the little seed-corn which had to be dropped into the ground and die ere the earth could bear a harvest of righteousness and peace. It was that by the preaching of which a few poor, illiterate Galilean fishermen were called upon to brave anal overcome the opposition which all the wealth, authority, antiquity, military force, taste, and philosophy, as well as ignorance and sin, of the world, could muster against them, to conquer the prejudices of the Jews, to undermine the superstitions under which Rome had grown up to be the mistress of the world, to confound the subtleties and wisdom of the Greeks, and to dispel the darkness of heathenism. It looked the most hopeless of tasks. There are instruction and warning for us in that. The gospel is the most emphatic protest against judging of things by their outward appearance. It is the solemn and decisive testimony of God to the superiority of spiritual principle over material magnificence. It casts down power and might to exalt spirit and truth. Many persons have an eye only to behold external and worldly greatness. There is no hope for any one, however, so long as he persists in looking at things with that dull, unspiritual eye. The gospel, in all that is distinctive of it, is spiritual, and can only be spiritually discerned. The parable having told us that the gospel in its origin is small, weak, and apparently insignificant, proceeds to speak of its growth, of its amazing progress. From the least of seeds it becomes the greatest of herbs; from an almost invisible grain it rises into a tree, where the birds of the air find shelter. It is unnecessary to insist that the history of the last eighteen hundred years has amply verified this representation. The Church, which at Pentecost only numbered a few score of persons, soon counted its adherents by thousands, burst the trammels of Judaism, and, even in the lifetime of its first apostles, established itself, without any other instrumentality than the foolishness of preaching, in all the large towns of the civilized world. All Europe and America are now more or less under its sway, and it is advancing with slow but sure steps to the conquest of the entire earth. It is more important to observe, as the text specially calls on us to do, that this long history is throughout a growth--that it may be fitly likened to a seed becoming a tree. Let us so look at it for a little, and see what lessons it has for our profit.
1. This is the first. The whole of Christianity, in so far as it is true, once lay in a small compass. All the truths, all the institutions, all the virtues which it embodies, may be traced back to a single life as their germ. The mustard tree was wholly in the mustard-seed. The oak, great although it now is, once lay wrapped up entire in the acorn. All that properly belongs to it lay folded there. Nothing save what is foreign and hurtful, nothing save excrescences and parasites, have come from any other source. The influences of light and heat, and wind and dew, have only brought out what was there from the first, It is so, likewise, with Christianity. It has grown up through eighteen hundred years, it covers now a very large portion of the earth, but all that truly belongs to it even at this hour has sprung from the lowly life of Jesus. All that is good in its creeds, its institutions, the conduct it inspires, has germinated from some word of His--has lain as a thought in His mind or an affection in His heart; and whatever man has introduced of his own into religious belief or practice is only an excrescence, a parasite, a cause of weakness and decay. The lowliest life ever lived on earth has thus been infinitely the most fruitful. The least of all seeds has become the greatest among herbs.
2. The seed has not only all the rudiments of the future tree within it, but the life which unfolds them and sends out first the root and trunk, and then the branches, leaves, blossoms, and fruit. And the word of the gospel has likewise an indestructible principle of vitality, which cannot be repressed, cannot be arrested. It grows by the very necessity of its nature, under the influence of grace, just as the living seed, by the very necessity of its nature, under a genial sky cannot remain in the ground, but sends up blade and bud and branch. There is in this assertion no latent fatalism. Although the gospel has indeed been in history like a tree growing out of a living seed, it follows not that human will has had nothing to do with its progress.
There is nothing in history, properly so called, with which human will has not had to do. Every improvement it tells of has been effected by human self-denial and toil. The country we live in was once covered with putrid morasses and gloomy forests, and yielded only a scanty and impure subsistence to a few hordes of wandering savages. Now its morasses are dried up, its forests cleared away, large cities stand thick strewn over it, its well-cultivated plains yield food enough for millions, and its industry produces an annual revenue the most enormous. What has wrought the change? Labour, and labour alone--labour of mind and of body. Not an inch of conquest has been won without mental exertion and physical toil, without anxious thought and an active hand. Religion is no exception to this rule, but its most striking example. It has had nobler and more numerous martyrs and missionaries--has called forth more heroic labours and costlier sacrifices--than all other causes together. And this is quite consistent with the fact that the gospel grows by a life of its own--that though man’s labour is needed to apply and diffuse it, he neither makes it nor puts life and fruitfulness into it--that he receives it with these in itself, so that if he cast it into the ground it will spring and grow up of its own Divine energy, and according to its own Divine laws.
3. Growth implies increasing divergence and definiteness of parts and functions. It is a separation of the one into the many, a change from the simple to the complex, from the vague to the distinct. The seed out of which a plant issues is at first uniform in tissue and composition, but soon it divides into two parts, afterwards new contrasts appear in each of these, and it is by endless such changes that the complex combination of tissues and organs in a perfect plant is produced. While the parts are thus increased in number, each of them becomes more prominent in itself, more sharply distinguished from others, and more strictly confined to its own special use. Wherever growth takes place, this is the process traceable. It is what we see in every herb, in every animal, in civilization, in government, language, science, and art. Different as all these are in themselves, there is only the one way in which they can grow, in which they can truly progress. The kingdom of God conforms to the same conditions. Its history has consisted throughout in the evolution of doctrines, institutions, and modes of life, out of a very simple germ. Our elaborate systems of theological science so far as true, our manifold institutions for religious and benevolent purposes so far as good, our endlessly diversified modes of social being so far as right, are developments of the living word of the gospel, in which, however, they lay enfolded only as the tree in its seed, as results in their principle, as special and definite dogmas in broad and general statements.
Those who say, “Let us cast to the winds our creeds, our systems, our definite dogmas, and return to the primitive simplicity of apostolic men,” forget that God has not left it to the world’s own will to return of a sudden, or to return at all, to the point from which it has taken eighteen centuries for it to advance. They might as well counsel us to throw off all the laws and institutions, all the countless arrangements of the elaborated civilization in which we live, and retrograde to the rude and simple life of the earliest dwellers in Asia and Europe. We are where we are, where long ages of thought and toil have placed us, and, even if ungrateful enough to desire it, there is no going back for us now.
4. The growth of the kingdom of God has been continuous. We may fail to measure its progress from day to day, because it is not rapid, but slow, not with observation, but without it. There is still another truth involved, and it is one which we must not despise because it is simple. Growth requires time. God has everywhere placed that as an inevitable separation between germination and maturity, between the seed and the perfect tree. Let us conform, then, to the condition. When we are despondent or angry because our labours in a Christian cause are not crowned with immediate success, we are no wiser than the little child who deposits a seed in the ground and is grieved not to see it springing up on the very day it has done so. (R. Flint.)
The mustard-seed and the leaven
I. THE GERM OF THE KINGDOM.
1. It is something new. Watch that sower: he takes the seed and plants it in his garden. The seed suits the soil, but it was not in the soil at first. It came from above, out of the sewer’s hand.
2. The germ is small at first: “like to a grain”--a very small particle--“of mustard-seed, which a man took.”
II. ITS GROWTH.
III. THE GLORY OF THE KINGDOM.
1. The kingdom is one, though it belongs to all ages and nations. Christ speaks of a kingdom, never of kingdoms. A tree is a unity, for though it has many leaves and branches, it has but one root and one life-sap. Those who are sundered by seas, and ages, and thousands of influences, are all made one by Christ.
2. It is a world-wide kingdom. As the tree is for every bird from any quarter of heaven that wishes its shelter, so Christ’s religion is for all sorts of people.
3. And it blesses, and only blesses. It creates and increases all that is bright and joyous. Christ’s is a kingdom of love, of help, of grace, of salvation, and heaven is its end.
4. It will become very great though very small in its beginnings. (J. Wells, M. A.)
The external progress of the kingdom as illustrated by the growth of the mustard-seed
It is ever important to remember that Christianity, at first like a small grain of seed, spread throughout the world, until the nations of the earth came to flock like birds to its protecting shelter, by no aid except its own inherent spiritual power. There was nothing to help it in the character of its early teachers. There was nothing to make its progress easy in the conditions of the Jewish and Gentile worlds. It came to the Jewish world, and found it saturated with thoughts of Jewish exclusiveness, and full of hopes of an earthly Deliverer. There was nothing in the teaching of this Messiah to appeal to the one, or to pander to the other. It told the Jew that his dreams of a temporal Messiah were futile, that it was a kingdom of spiritual power--not supported by external force or conquering by arms--which it had come to establish amongst men. Thus, though it appealedto no religious or national instinct in the Jew, though it was hostile to both, Christianity triumphed. Nor, again, in the Gentile world, represented by the two great nations of Greece or Rome, was there any congenial soil for the little seed of early Christendom to take root in, and find its sustenance. The Greek world was full of the pride of intellect, and the worship of sensuous beauty, and to it Christianity came with no scheme of a newfangled philosophy, with no subtleties of scholastic ethics. The preaching of the Cross of Christ, the teaching of a religion of self-sacrifice and love, so simple that the child could understand it, was its message. It presented as the object of their adoration and worship no incarnation of physical beauty, no image of physical strength, but a Nazarene upon a cross--His features so marred with sorrow that there was no beauty in Him that they should desire Him. And yet this Christianity had an inherent force of its own, before which the intellectual pride and the philosophic genius of Greece had to bow at last in submission. St. Paul preached at Athens, and not a few but felt as they listened, within sight of their own Academy, and beneath the shadow of honeyed Hymettus where the sages had trod, that this new preacher taught, with a power not of this world, a grander faith, which must outlast even the city of the Violet Crown. The wave spread still westward to Rome--proud mistress of the world. It fared as ill with her material and political strength as it had done with the intellectual force of Athens. To those who worshipped force and were glutted with military conquests, this new faith came preaching tenderness, forgiveness, charity. To Rome, who saw her eagles swoop in the farthest east and west, it proclaimed the supremacy of spiritual triumphs-it preached the deliverance of the captive--the brotherhood of nations. At first only whispered in prison cells, or flung to the beasts of the arena, or its holy symbol grasped in feeble hands, and pressed to dying breasts of martyrs, the religion of Christ soon won its way over every obstacle, and at last Christianity entered the imperial palace, and wore the diadem of the Caesars: Now, when we turn from these triumphs of Christianity to examine what means she employed for her propagation, we can find nothing, humanly speaking, to account for it. Twelve men--Jews, without hereditary distinction; without political influence; without (except in one or two cases) intellectual acquirements--these were the men who--without any aid on earth; with a gospel that was opposed to every national, and philosophic, and religious prejudice of Jew, and Greek, and Roman; which was hostile to every feeling of pride and selfishness in the human heart--accomplished the grandest and most stupendous revolution the world had ever seen. People say sometimes that they find it hard to believe the miracles on which Christianity is based--surely the grandest, greatest miracle is the existence of Christianity itself. If, then, there were nothing in the outside world to which it appealed; nothing in the natural hearts of men which it came to satisfy: if we cannot discover in the characters of those who preached it any human reason to explain its progress--how are we to account for the spread of Christ’s kingdom, except by attributing it to some spiritual power of its own? (T. T. Shore, M. A.)
It Is like leaven
The hidden leaven
The kingdom of heaven, or the work of God in the soul, is like leaven.
1. It at once occurs to us that leaven is something foreign to and different from the meal in which it is hidden; that it does not spring from or arise out of any fermentation in the meal; for, if left to itself, the meal would decay, and would never become leavened. Leaven has therefore to be introduced. It must be inserted, or, as the word here expresses it, “hidden.” And this implies that “the kingdom of God cometh not with observation.” Yet it comes, it is not there, it does not grow in a man, it does not come in the natural birth, it is not born “of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God”; therefore, wherever there is the work of holiness in the soul of the sinner, it is “a new birth unto righteousness,” he is “delivered from the power of darkness and translated into the kingdom of God’s dear Son.”
2. Then, it is clear, in the next place, that grace in the heart will be an abiding work--it will be energetic and permanent. Howsoever and wheresoever a man receives grace, whether in regeneration, at baptism, in approaching God’s table, in the reading or the preaching of the Word, through the instrumentality of sickness or tribulation; whatever the time, or the date, or the circumstance, it will be active, and it will put forth energy in the soul. The very purpose and object of it is that it may leaven and produce a revolution, a rejuvenation, a transformation in the heart in which it is lodged. Therefore, brethren, we have no saving grace, unless it is working in our souls, and working mightily and effectually.
3. Next, it is clear that the result will be in those in whom it is hidden that it will be assimilated, and that it will produce effects similar to itself. Though the leaved be a foreign infusion into the meal, yet the leaven acts upon the meal, and makes it partake of its flavour, and like the leaven in taste, and action, and result; so that it assimilates. And is it not so in regard to grace got into a man’s heart? It is not to be upon him as a mere scion--tied to a tree, but not incorporated with the tree; but it is to be in him, as a graft inserted in the stock and incorporated with the stock, so that it is no longer the old graft, but it is producing genuine fruit; instead of the crab, the apple from the garden of Eden shall be the result. Even so the grace of God in the soul of man works in him.
4. But it is a comfort to think, in the next place, that the assimilating operation of this leaven is gradual and progressive. It is not all at once. It is what may be in existence some time before it is discoverable in its results. Its progress is slow, but certain.
5. And it is pervasive. The leaven leavens on until it pervades the whole mass. A man, if he has the grace of God, cannot be good in one week and bad in another.
6. And then, brethren, the crown of the whole is, that the leaven shall ultimately pervade the whole mass. Before it is complete the whole mass is assimilated, and prepared, and so the kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven hid in meal. Yes, brethren, this is indeed the ground of our encouragement. He is faithful, “who also will do it”; and again, “God is faithful” who will “perform”; and again, it is said, God “worketh in you both to will and to do”; and, if He works in you, can the work fail?” (R. Hall, M. A.)
The growth of the kingdom
You tell your child that this pine-tree out here in the sandy field is one day going to be as large as that great sonorous pine that sings to every wind in the wood. The child, incredulous, determines to watch and see whether the field-pine really does grow and become as large as you say it will. So, the next morning, he goes out and takes a look at it, and comes back and says, “It has not grown a particle.” At night he goes out and looks at it again, and comes back and says, “It has not grown a bit.” The next week he goes out, and looks at it again, and comes back, and says, “It has not grown yet. Father said it would be as large as the pine-tree in the wood, but I do not see any likelihood of its becoming so.” How long did it take the pine-tree in the wood to grow? Two hundred years. Then men who lived when it began to grow have been buried, and generations besides have come and gone since then. And do you suppose that God’s kingdom is going to grow so that you can look at it and see that it has grown during any particular day? You cannot see it grow. All around you are things that are growing, but that you cannot see grow. And if it is so with trees, and things that spring out of the ground, how much more is it so with the kingdom of God! That kingdom is advancing surely, though it advances slowly, and though it is invisible to us. You will remember our Master’s beautiful parable, where He says, “The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till the whole was leavened.” I suppose you know what that means. I go into your kitchen when you are baking bread, and ask, “What is that you are stirring into that flour?” You say, “It is yeast.” I ask, “What is it for?” You say, “It is to raise the bread.” I imagine that it is to raise it in a way that shall be perceptible to my senses, and say, “Let me see it do it.” You set the bread away in a warm place, or at the south, in a cool place, if you can find one, and you say, “Now it will rise.” After watching it closely for a while, I say to you, “I do not see that it has risen at all.” You say, “Bless you, my child, you cannot see it rise!” I go away, and stay till I think it will have come up, if there is any such thing as its coming up, and then go back, but I cannot see that it has undergone any change. I wait and wait and wait, and at last say, “I do not believe it is going to rise.” And you say, “It has risen already,” and tear it open; and lo! it is full of holes; and you say, “Now do not you believe that it has risen? It has been rising all the time, only you could not see it rise.” Christ says that His kingdom is just like that. It is a great kingdom, which extends all over the world, and into which He has put the leaven of Divine grace. That grace is like yeast, and it works in this kingdom of Christ. You cannot see it, even if you watch for it; but there it is; and if, after a while, you go and look at it, you will be convinced that it has been working, by the results which it has produced. You will find that things have been done, though you could not see them done. Men are becoming better the world over, though you cannot trace the process by which they are becoming better. Christ’s kingdom goes forward from age to age, though you cannot discern the steps by which it is going forward. While men, as individuals, pass off from the stage of life, God’s work does not stop. (H. W. Beecher.)
I. THE KINGDOM OF GOD IN THE HEART IS LIKE LEAVEN HID IN MEAL. It is SO, first of all, because something which does not belong to human nature, something which does not originate there, is introduced into it. The leaven was not in the meal from the first, did not inherently belong to it; on the contrary, a woman took the leaven and hid it in the meal. The meal did not change itself: and no more does man change himself. It is only a power not his own which can change him. Bug the doctrine of the Cross is indeed in a heart as leaven in meal. It is as if hid in the heart. You cannot see it. You cannot touch it. It ferments within, concealed from feeble human sense; a secret power of life at the centre of the soul; a silent, unobtrusive power slowly but surely working its way outwards. Before the gospel can change the heart in any degree, before it can act either quickly or slowly, it must of course be in the heart, actually in it, and not outside of it, however near to it. The leaven did not, and could not, produce any change in the meal until the woman opened the mass of meal and put the leaven into the midst of it. Leaven in one comer of a room will not leaven meal in another; and no less absurd is it to suppose that, if the gospel be merely in your intellects, and the world be in your hearts, the gospel so placed will renew your hearts and sanctify your lives. The manner, also, in which leaven acts on meal illustrates singularly well the manner in which the gospel of the kingdom, the truth as it is in Christ, acts on the heart and life. Leaven changes the nature, yet does not destroy the substance of meal. Meal leavened remains meal, but endowed with new properties, and adapted for new uses. It acquires another character, another appearance, another fragrance and taste. So the gospel does not destroy any inherent power or faculty of the mind, but gives to all its powers and faculties a different character, a new direction. It does not even destroy the natural peculiarities distinctive of individuals. Again, different men have been endowed with intellect, sensibility, and will, in very different proportions. In one man intellect greatly preponderates; in another sensibility; and in another will. There are some who seem, as it were, all intellect, who analyze everything, reason out everything--who can find no rest until they see clearly the naked truth--who must have their grasp firmly on principles before they can proceed at all, but who are exceedingly self-contained as to the expression of feeling, and from whose lips anything like sentiment or poetry would sound unnatural and unreal. There are others whose minds, although far inferior in closeness of intellectual grasp and keenness of intellectual penetration, yet possess a delicacy and depth of feeling which render them, perhaps, still more worthy of admiration. There are others who with very moderate endowments, either intellectual or moral, command the greatest respect, and win implicit confidence through their force, decision, and rectitude of will. Now, one of these forms of character may be more desirable than another, and a better form than any of them, an ideally best form, might be one in which the three elements--intellect, sensibility, and will--were equally mingled. But certain it is that all the forms exist, and that their distinctive features have their ground in the original constitution of individuals. Certain it is also that the gospel does not reduce these forms to one common type. It has no tendency even to lessen any of their characteristic peculiarities. Again, the gospel acts like leaven, because it works from within outwards in all directions. Leaven diffuses itself through the mass in which it is hid equally all round until the whole is leavened. So the gospel is a power which does not exert itself, as it were, only in one straight line, but in every direction all through the nature. It does not seize on one faculty of the soul and change it, and then advance to another faculty and change it, and so on till the whole man is changed. It does not deal with the will at one time, with the feelings at another, and the intellect at another, waiting until it has affected a complete conquest in the one region of human nature before it proceeds to the others; but it grasps all the elements and faculties of the soul at once, and works on all simultaneously. This diffusion of the gospel through the life is like that of leaven in meal, secret, gradual, and complete. It is secret. The operation of the Spirit in the regeneration of man is as invisible as the operation of leaven in the conversion of meal into bread. No eye but that of God can trace it.
II. Having thus endeavoured to show that the gospel works in the heart of the individual like leaven in meal, I have now to show THAT IT WORKS AFTER THE SAME MANNER IN SOCIETY. It is a twofold process--special and general. There is a special action of part on part, and also a general action of the whole on each part. There is a special action of part on part. Christ, when He had communicated of His life and Spirit to His apostles, for instance, enabled them too, poor and despised and unlearned as they were, to communicate of the same to others, and so to become in their turn the leaven of the world. In a mass of meal subjected to the action of leaven, each leavened particle acts upon all those in immediate contact with it, leavening more deeply the only partially leavened, and conveying the leaven to those which have not previously come under its power; and not otherwise is it in society, where every individual who has experienced in himself the efficacy of the gospel becomes for the circle of his influence, as leaven, to work still farther. He communicates of the grace which he has received. Besides this special action of part on part, of individual on individual, there is also, as I have said, a general action of the whole on each part of society, on the individual. The gospel is not without influence even where it is not closed with as the power of God unto salvation. It so far imbues, or at least modifies, by its spirit all the laws, institutions, and usages of society, that none, not even those most hostile to it, live as they would have done if it had not been. It improves both the characters and conduct of men in every case, although it may be only seldom that it works a genuine conversion in them. It demonstrates its energy more or less even on those who count themselves unworthy of eternal life. Let us draw from history an illustration or two. The civilizations of antiquity rested on force. Slavery was their central fact. It is only slowly, only step by step, that society has emancipated itself from this condition of things. St. Paul sent back a fugitive slave to his master, the runaway convert Onesimus, to Philemon; and neither in the Old Testament nor the New is there any explicit statement against slavery. The spirit of the gospel condemns it, but not the letter. The spirit of the gospel, however, gradually put forth its Divine power. Little by little the slave of antiquity gave place to the serf of the Middle Ages, attached to the soil, but also protected by it; little by little feudal Europe ripened into industrial Europe, and the serf became the hired labourer; little by little free labour and commerce rose into importance, and brought with them security of person and property, the spirit of independence, the sense of human equality, the power of self-government, a truer conception of justice, the arts of peace, a new and broader and far more Christian civilization. Our own day has seen the ancient tyranny of man over man, in its double form of pure slavery and of serfage, receive two signal and heavy blows, one on the old continent and the other on the new, and on both, in Russia and in America alike, the present has proved itself stronger than the past--what is pagan has had to succumb before what is Christian. Take another example. See what the gospel has done in the domestic circle. The pagan family, with its deplorable degradation of the woman, continued for generations within the Church. That was cast off at length, but the grave error of despising and depreciating domestic life was introduced. The Reformers were gradually led to perceive that the family required not to be suppressed, but only to be sanctified; yet their views of it were pervaded by a narrow and legal spirit which has borne bitter fruits, and which society has been ever since outgrowing. The true conception of the family is of far more recent date than the Reformation, and is still vague and imperfect. If we ask to whom this progress is due, no one can distinctly tell us, for it is a silent and secret movement which has been little if at all associated with individual and party names. It comes of that unceasing purpose which runs through the ages, widening the thoughts and sympathies of men. It comes of that invisible power which dwells in the gospel and works through humanity, leavening it more and more, transforming it more and more into the holy, beautiful, and glorious kingdom of God. (R. Flint.)
I. GRACE OUT OF US. The leaven was not in the meal to begin with, but was put into it by the woman. And so we must go out of ourselves to find the source and supply of grace. We are glad to know that this leaven is sometimes in young hearts very early, before they can remember, even from their birth; but in every case it is the same heavenly leaven. It brings a new life into the soul.
II. GRACE FOR US. The leaven is for the meal: anywhere else it is useless, lost. Planted in the soil, it decays; left in the open air, it wastes. As God has made leaven for the meal, so all His grace is for the soul of man. And God’s grace is for the sinful only. God the Father does not need it; Jesus Christ does not need it; the Holy Ghost does not need it; the angels in heaven do not need it--they have no sins to be forgiven, no wants to be supplied; the angels who fell have it not in their offer. The riches of God’s grace are all to be used, and to be used by sinners like us.
III. GRACE IS US. The woman in baking opens up the meal with her hands, puts the leaven in the centre, and covers it over. The Roman Catholics seem, many of them, to forget that the leaven must be in them. The Italian brigand wears carefully on his breast a cross and charms which the priest has blessed. He must have the sign on the breast, though he has not a particle of the thing signified within. You have heard of “the Holy Stairs” at Rome. They belonged, it is said, to the house of Pontius Pilate, and were mounted by our Saviour on the last day of His life. One of the popes granted nine years of indulgence for each of the twenty-eight steps, to every one who climbed them on his knees, with a contrite heart. Pius VII. in 1817 “renewed this indulgence, but perpetually, and declared that it may be applied also to the souls in purgatory”; and the last pope approved of that declaration. It is most humbling to see hundreds at the present day climbing these stairs on their knees and kissing them, and fancying that their souls have somehow got much profit by the exercise. The marble steps have been severed three times with wood to protect the marble from being worn away I and you notice that the marble in the centre has been worn down two or three inches. Luther was climbing these stairs, when the words flashed upon him, “The just shall live by faith.” Filled with shame, he rushed off, and from that day remembered that grace is something within and not without the man. In the Middle Ages wicked kings often gave orders that they should be buried in a monk’s frock. Wearing such a dress, they hoped that Peter would be deceived, and would let him into heaven. And Popish errors often lurk among Protestants; for all the errors of Romanism have their origin in fallen human nature. Lord Macaulay tells that a Colonel Turner was hanged for burglary fully two hundred years ago. At the gallows he told the crowd that he had received great comfort from one reflection: he had never entered a church without taking off his hat. Ah! you may find traces of such mistakes nearer home. There is room in your little heart for the whole kingdom of heaven; but it must be in your heart, else all the outward observances in the world won’t profit you. For the leaven never leavens till it is hid in the meal. So grace has no power till it is planted in your inmost part.
IV. GRACE SPREADS IN US. It has been found out quite lately how the leaven spreads. It grows like a plant with the most amazing rapidity. When the meal has enough of water and warmth, the leaven multiplies itself on every side. Though it seems dead and small, it is yet a living thing with an enormous greed of growth, which is one of the greatest wonders in the wonder-world of chemistry. Leaven does not spread in unground grain, for the hard covering resists its entrance. And so the coatings of our pride must be taken away, and our spirits must be made contrite, and then shall the leaven spread. O my God, is Thy leaven in me? Is it spreading within me?
V. GRACE SPREADS, OR SHOULD SPREAD, THROUGH AND THROUGH US. For it is like leaven hid in three measures of meal till the whole was leavened. Your tea-table yields a good illustration of a spreading power like that of leaven. The melted sugar goes through every drop of your tea and sweetens it; the cream mixes itself with the whole cupful, and colours it. God’s grace should likewise give a heavenly sweetness and colouring to the whole life. It does more than touch, it influences; it does more than influence, it controls all. We may take the three measures of meal for the three chief parts of our nature--the body, the mind, and the heart. Our nature is not diseased as an apple or a potato is diseased, but as the blood is diseased when poison courses through the whole. Nor is our nature like those newly-built ships, which have many watertight compartments, one of which may be filled with the inrushing sea, while the rest remain dry. The parts of our nature lie together like the three measures of meal, so that the leaven can pass easily from the one to the other, and so through all. Grace will thus mix itself up with your home-life, your school-life, and by and by, with your public life. Spreading silently through the whole, it will, by uniting all the graces upon you, make your character gracious and graceful.
VI. GRACE SHOULD SPREAD THROUGH US INTO OTHERS. The leaven wins over all the meal to its own side, and makes it like itself. A clerk who hated swearing entered one of our large offices where nearly all were profane. Soon not an oath was heard. His example, by a happy contagion, prevailed among all his associates. A minister, whose church was situated near the barracks, one day said to a soldier, “I wonder at you soldiers; you can go up to the cannon mouth, and you have not courage to pray before your comrades.” “You are mistaken,” was the reply. “A recruit lately came into our room, and the first night he knelt down to pray. A shower of pillows, belts, and shoes fell upon him. He did so for five nights. On the fifth night, one of the wildest men in our company shouted, ‘Halt, lads! that’s enough; he can stand fire!’ That wild man knelt down by his side, and now most of the men in our room engage in prayer, and several of us have become professors of Christ.” (J. Wells, M. A.)
Lord, are there few that be saved?
Unpractical questions about religion
The man that asked this question has long been dead, but the character lives, and it is not among the rarest exhibitions that we see. We carry to the Bible, if not the very same question he put to the Saviour, yet questions as unpractical and irrelevant, or if not in every sense irrelevant, yet premature and of minor importance; and so it is when you have the opportunity of conversing with clergymen and others, for whose theological knowledge and science in the Scriptures you have some respect. Your questions are such as these, “What is likely to be the future condition of such as die in infancy?” Cannot you trust them in the hands of God? Are you afraid that He will do them injustice? “What is the probability of the salvation of the heathen?” And why do you wish to estimate that! Is not this one thing clear, that their condition for the present life, and their prospects for the life to come, would both he far better, provided they had the gospel? And is it not manifestly your duty to do all that is in your power to send them the gospel? What, then, do you want more? Why expend all your charity in wondering, and wishing, and hoping, and pitying? Let it rather flow forth in its appropriate channel, in action. Do something. Promote foreign missions. That is the way to care for the heathens. Another is curious to know if we shall recognize each other in heaven. That is taking it for granted that we shall get there. Let us make sure of heaven, before we agitate the question of recognition. And then let us be satisfied with this, if our heavenly Father sees that it will be conducive to the happiness of the children whom He has adopted from earth that they should recognize each other and recollect the relations and renew the intimacies of life, it will be so, and if not, it will be otherwise. There are those who investigate the Scriptures primarily for some historical purpose, or to resolve some prophetical question. Others consult these oracles but as critics; and still others, only as cavillers, anxious to see how much they can discover to find fault with. They wonder what this passage means, or how it is possible to reconcile this part of the Bible with that, or what could have induced our Saviour to express Himself as He is reported to have done on certain occasions which they will specify; and the conclusion to which they come, perhaps, after all, is that this is a very strange and unintelligible volume; they can make nothing out of it. Ah! and is it so that they can make nothing out of it? Can they not make out of it what their duty is? Do they not but too plainly perceive that it is something, which they have no disposition to do, and is not this the secret of their fault-finding? (W. Nevins, D. D.)
Silence of Scripture on irrelevant questions
Thus, a Government sends forth a colonist; hut gives him just information enough to enable him to perform his particular work. A general charges an inferior officer with a special duty; but here, too, there is silence as to whatever does not belong to this duty. To enlarge the official directions given in either case, so as to include all the knowledge the superior may possess, would perplex the agent and withdraw his attention from that which concerned his work to that which did not concern it. And if we are to expect such silence in a parent’s dealings with a child, and in a Government’s dealing with a subaltern, how much more reason have we to expect it in the dealings of God with man! God knows all things, and endures from eternity to eternity! Man comes into the world knowing nothing, lives at the best a life which endures for a few years, and in this short life is charged with the momentous work of preparing for the eternity to come. Silence, then, on all irrelevant questions is what we would expect in the revelation of an all-wise God, and of the irrelevancy He is the sole Judge.
Prying into the secret things of God reproved
I. THE QUESTION PROPOSED.
II. THE ANSWER GIVEN TO IT.
I. The question is put in very general, and seemingly inoffensive, terms; yet probably a great deal of Jewish pride and uncharitableness couched under it. This busy man’s inquiry proceeded from an ill-natured hope of being confirmed in the national persuasion, that God was not the God of the Gentiles; but had reserved future happiness for the Israelites alone. But supposing there was no ground for imputation either of ill-will or vanity; still all such questions--for this is a leading one to many others--are useless and irreverent. Since, then, God is just, He will make none miserable farther than they deserve; since He is good, He will both pardon and reward in such degree as is fit; and since He is wise, what appears disorder and confusion to our short sight will appear in the end perfect regularity and proportion. But why was our nature formed so liable to fall short of it, in the sad degree that we often do?
II. Part of the text, to which I now proceed, REFUSE TO GRATIFY THE QUERIST’S CURIOSITY, AND RETURN AN ANSWER ENTIRELY PRACTICAL that it was not the business of mankind to pry into what God had hid, but mind what He had revealed, and to master another kind of difficulty, that of fulfilling His commands; that multitudes indeed, who professed religion, would finally appear to have professed it in vain; but this was a matter not to raise idle speculations upon. One fatal mistake of believers in religion hath always been an absurd notion that their steady faith in it, their zeal to support and spread that faith, their punctilious observance of certain forms, their constant practice of some precepts, and their periodical pretences of sorrow for having wilfully lived in the neglect of the rest; that one or other of these things would be accepted, instead of true piety and virtue. Immediately after the text He declares, that neither acknowledgment of His authority, nor attendance on His teaching, nor anything else, shall avail the workers of iniquity. They who have not been thus forewarned go on indeed with great ease; but it is not in religion that they go on. Doubtless common decency and outward regularity are very valuable things--would God more attention were paid to them! But still with these there may be little true sense of duty to God, or even man; little care that the heart and affections be such as they ought; nay, much indulgence of very criminal actions, either concealed from the world or approved by it. In short, almost everything may be right in the opinion of those around us, perhaps in our own: and almost everything wrong in the eyes of our Maker. That most men act wickedly is no more an objection against religion, than that most men act unwisely is against common prudence. That so many fail by taking a wrong course is only a warning to make sure of taking the right. And if in that several duties are painful, it is not Christianity that hath made them so. All its peculiar precepts are easy in themselves, and assistances to the practice of the rest. (T. Secker.)
The number of the saved
A natural question to any one who thinks seriously of the destiny of human life.
1. Probably prompted in this instance merely by curiosity. This Jew, educated from childhood under a creed in which the most rigid aspects of the doctrine of election were taught, came to Christ in the hope that he might get some authoritative statement of the mystery of predestination from this One whom he regarded as a prophet of God. Christ replies, “Strive,” &c. Whether there be few or many saved is no business of yours; what you have to do is to make your own calling and election sure; that cannot be accomplished by indulging in idle speculations about other people, but by struggling yourself with your whole energy, to enter into and be within the narrow door that leads to salvation. Not easy work, but difficult; not a question about your opinions, but a question of action. Agonize as wrestler, and be content with nothing but admittance.
2. Another sense in which we may put the question. Are there few or many who show in their lives that they are being delivered, because of their faith and love towards Christ, from their sins, and that the gospel they profess is producing in them the Christian spirit--the spirit of love, purity, truth, gentleness, considerateness, kindness, righteousness? This seems to have been the very light in which Jesus Christ Himself viewed the matter of salvation, for He goes on, after this man puts his question, to cast discredit upon the religion of opinions and observances, and to insist upon doing the will of God as being the only security. It is when we put the question in this sense, that we may discover ground for some serious reflections. Are there many whose lives are savingly affected by the religion they profess? Is the Christian spirit being realized in Christian society? Are there few or many of whom you can confidently assert that there is a deliverance from sin actually going on, and of goodness being attained, which is the fruit of their faith and love towards Christ? For my own part, the sad conviction is frequently borne in upon me that, when thus tested, the question admits almost of only one reply. How seldom is it that when we go to Church we expect to be made spiritually better, to be saved from our everyday sins, and to get such convictions and strength as may make us liker and liker the Master in life and character? (N. Macleod.)
Strive to enter in at the strait gate
Christ’s warning against formalism
This has been called “a serious answer to an idle question.
” The answer is not only serious, but rendered with striking skill and power. The questioner was a single Pharisee. The answer is directed to the whole sect. The question related to the “few” that might be saved. The answer emphasizes the “many” who are in danger of being lost. The question was idle and speculative. The answer is an appeal to immediate action and earnest endeavour.
I. THE MATERIAL TASTES OF MEN. It is undeniable that men love forms for their own sake. It is self-evident also that some degree of form is indispensable to spiritual religion. “I am from above, ye are from beneath.” Here is the gulf opening at every point between God and men. Hence to bridge this gulf some visible forms become necessary. These forms are harmless as long as they fulfil their end. But the moment when, for any reason, the form becomes more attractive than the spiritual fact for which it stands, when the bridge detains rather than forwards the seeking faith of the soul, when for any reason a man begins to love the road more than the communion to which it leads, the altar more than the name that sanctifies it, the cross more than the Crucified, then he begins to pervert needed means of worship into unlawful ends. He is ministering to worldly tastes, and though he still call it religion, he is in fact a formalist, a promising Pharisee.
II. THE SPECULATIVE TENDENCY OF THE MIND IS ANOTHER BROAD ROAD TO FORMALISM. The philosophic formalist is like a man standing on the bank of a stream, whose passage is his only salvation; but he has no thought of crossing. He is engaged in calmly trying the depth of the channel at different points. He surveys the scenery of the opposite shore with a critical eye. He measures the swiftness of the current, and carefully estimates its force per cubic foot. He notes the colour and density of the water, and asks with considerable interest about how many make the crossing safely. All this information he shuts away in his note-book, and seems rather well content with the result. It would seem farcical if it were not sadly true that multitudes of men and women, in our own day, imagine this to be religion; or more exactly, they live and die in the hope that through these processes of inquiry they are drawing nearer to a rational faith. The progress of the intellectual formalist is a sheer delusion, tie only circles round and round the holy mystery. He is ever learning, but never coming to a knowledge of the truth.
III. THE SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS OF THE NATURAL HEART IS ANOTHER FERTILE SOURCE OF FORMALISM IN RELIGION. It was on this road that the questioner in the text had gone astray. Now, our Lord’s treatment of this many-headed evil was sharp and brief. “Strive to enter in at the strait gate.” Here is, at once, the knell of all false hopes and the cure of all wrong methods in religion. See how much these words contain.
1. The genuine spiritual life has a single gate of entrance. It is the gate. Many shall seek to enter in by other gates--gates imagined or invented--but they shall not be able. There is but one gate.
2. This one gate is a “strait gate” also. It was too narrow for the swelling robes and expanding phylacteries of the Pharisee. It is too narrow still for the routine of the formalist or the philosophy of the intellectualist. It is too strait for inflated self-righteousness. If these shall enter, it must be by some other gate; yet there is but one, and this is strait. But this strait gate is wide enough for repentance and faith. It is high enough for humble sinners who will stoop to enter.
3. The gate is not only one gate, and narrow, but a deadly effort is required to pass it. Strive to enter in. A better word would be “agonize.” Agonize to enter in at the strait gate. (J. B. Clark.)
Earnestness in seeking salvation
We know that more than seventy thousand immortal beings pass daily into their fixed eternal state, and that for six thousand years nearly thirty millions a year have gone to the unseen world; and the thought must unavoidably force itself upon every mind, Are the largest portion of them lost? Must we believe a great part of these myriads live here but to acquire a title to everlasting woe? Such inquiries are natural, and we can scarcely resist the impulse to make them. Jesus Christ was perfectly able to answer them. Let us, then--
I. In the first place, ENDEAVOUR TO ASCERTAIN HOW HE REGARDED THEM. It has generally been thought that our Lord’s reply was a tacit censure upon all such questions; but it may have been a censure upon the spirit and motives of the man rather than upon his inquiry. Our Saviour took no notice of him, but directed His answer to all around, and said unto them, “Strive to enter in at the strait gate.” The Jews supposed that all of their nation would be saved, and all the Gentiles lost; and if the inquirer asked in this uncharitable spirit, we may conclude that this was the reason why our Lord took no notice of him. Or the person who put the question may have been himself a wicked man, neglecting his own salvation, and actuated by an idle curiosity concerning the fate of others, and therefore unworthy of a reply. We need not suppose, then, that our Lord meant to condemn all such inquiries. We cannot well avoid them. We cannot look upon the thronging multitudes around us without having the question forced upon us, What is to be their future fate? We must cease thinking before we can cease asking, “Are there few that be saved?” And, indeed, it seems necessary to ask, in order to form some judgment respecting the eternal destiny of others, for how can we make any efforts for their salvation if we cannot estimate their danger? The Bible itself gives us aid in such inquiries. It tells us that a vast multitude, which no man can number, shall stand before the throne; and yet it teaches that of those who grow up to years of maturity there are few that go in at the strait gate, and many that enter the broad way to death, and thus, in fact, replies to the question in our text.
II. Again we may observe, THAT THERE IS ANOTHER VERY COMMON MISTAKE WITH REGARD TO THE MEANING OF OUR TEXT, Our Saviour says, “Many shall seek to enter in, and shall not be able.” Some understand this to refer to the gate of salvation; that is, many shall seek on earth to enter that gate, or to become Christians, but shall not be able; and accordingly they proceed to give us many reasons why they shall not be able; as, for instance, they seek, but do not seek earnestly enough, or they seek for a time and then fall away. But the true meaning seems to be, many at the last day shall seek to enter into the gate of heaven, but shall not then be able.
III. Having noticed these erroneous views of our text, we may now observe, in the third place, THAT THE GREAT POINT OF IT IS, TO URGE UPON US EARNESTNESS IN THE WORK OF OUR SALVATION. The straitness and difficulty is in ourselves, not in anything of God’s imposing. The entrance upon eternal life is like a narrow gateway, wide enough to admit every individual, but nothing more. If a man comes to it with a great bulky burden upon his shoulders, he will find it impossible to force a passage; but if he will lay down his load of pride and worldliness, his lusts and pleasures, instead of attempting to carry them with him in the way to heaven, there will be nothing to impede his entrance; he can slip through easily, and travel in that narrow way comfortably. Just in proportion as we renounce sin will the pathway to heaven become plain and easy.
IV. But here, my brethren, is difficulty enough; God has revealed the way of life clearly; Jesus, by His work on earth and in heaven, smoothes that way, and renders it accessible to all; BUT THE GREAT MATTER IS TO PERSUADE MEN TO OVERCOME THAT IN THEMSELVES WHICH WOULD HINDER THEIR SALVATION.
V. But, my brethren, if ye will not do what yourselves must acknowledge to be reasonable now, HEAR WHAT CHRIST SAYS YE MAY NO HEREAFTER--“Many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able.” How vividly does the Bible describe the awful disappointment of those who are to be thrust out of Christ’s presence at the judgment day! One would think that when they found themselves on the left hand of the Judge, that would convince them that there was no room for hope. But no; our Lord represents them as pleading still for admission, “Lord, Lord, open unto us.” And when He answers, “I know you not,” still they will not give over, but plead, “When saw we Thee an hungered, and fed Thee not, or thirsty, and gave Thee no drink?” and long after the fatal word, “Depart from Me, ye cursed,” has been uttered, their pleadings may follow their ascending Judge to move His compassion. Vain cries! but dreadful! (W. H. Lewis, D. D.)
I. THOSE ALONE WHO STRIVE ENTER IN AT THE STRAIT GATE. Every part of redemption is connected with striving, and the Christian under its influence must work out his salvation with fear and trembling. Within his own household there are enemies, for his “heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked,” and he must watch and be sober. Is he on a race? to reach the goal he must lay aside every incumbering weight, and with his eye steadily fixed on the prize, he must not faint by the way, nor cease to strive till he has secured the end of his labour. From fears without and fightings within, the Christian is kept ever active, and through much tribulation he must enter the kingdom of God. The heart of a Christian is a field of action in which two powerful armies are engaged--grace and corruption. New strength in acquired by resistance, and day by day opposing powers wax feebler and feebler; and the Christian retiring from a well-sustained conflict exclaims, “Oh, death I where is thy sting? oh, gravel where is thy victory?” “Thanks be to God for His unspeakable gift.”
On the obtaining of salvation
II. FEW THUS STRIVE, AND THEREFORE FEW ARE SAVED. Many wish salvation, but few strive to enter in at the strait gate. The word “many” in our text may either refer to a great number or to mankind generally. Few are to be found who do not seek in one way or other, or at some time of their life, to enter in at the strait gate; but they do not strive, and thus are excluded. Conscience accuses, fears alarm, and they seek salvation; but their hearts are either too much carnalized or they do not value sufficiently the salvation of the soul. Hence they merely seek, and do not strive. They would have no objection to enter in at the strait gate by seeking when they found it convenient; but to strive, and that for a continued time, is out of the question. They would willingly enter into heaven; but to take it by violence requires too much exertion for their dispositions. (A. Robertson, M. A.)
The dangers of formality, and the difficulties of salvation
I. THE OBJECTIONABLE NATURE OF THE QUESTION PROPOSED.
1. Objectionable, as indicating an exclusive and self-righteous spirit.
2. Objectionable, as indicating an undue curiosity upon a subject which God has concealed from human view.
II. THE SOLEMN EXHORTATION TO WHICH IT GAVE RISE. The Christian is exposed to the ridicule of the scoffer, the contempt of the scorner, and the sneers of the profane. His conduct is misrepresented, his words misinterpreted, and his motives misunderstood. His religion is termed hypocrisy, his faith presumption, his holiness self-righteousness, his strict walk with God an arrogant assumption of superiority over men, and his diligent attendance on the means of grace and ordinances of religion a mere observance of useless forms and ceremonies. His wisdom is called folly, his patience pusillanimity, his meekness cowardice, his sobriety avarice, his almsgiving an ostentatious display of benevolence; and his zealous exertions for the temporal and spiritual welfare of man and the honour and glory of God are stigmatized as unhallowed attempts to promote his own worldly interests and to advance his own worldly reputation. These oppositions from without are abetted by the corruptions of the heart within, which “is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked,” and is ever inventing excuses for indulging in forbidden gratifications and for resting in a mediocrity of spiritual attainments. Add to these considerations the devices and stratagems of the arch enemy of God and man, by which he deludes men into a false security and seduces them into the commission of sin, exaggerating the enjoyment and concealing the danger of the forbidden fruit, and saying, as he did of old, “Ye shall not surely die,” and who does not see the necessity of vigilance, circumspection, and active exertion to secure the favour of God, according to our Saviour’s exhortation, “Strive to enter in at the strait gate “?
III. Such being the difficulties which beset the path of life, we are at no loss to account for THE APPALLING TRUTH WHICH CHRIST BRINGS FORWARD TO ENFORCE THAT EXHORTATION--“For many will seek to enter in, and shall not be able”; the meaning of which is, that many have thoughts and faint desires of heaven who will never be found among the heirs of glory. The spectators might wish the happy lot of the successful racer or the victorious combatant in the public games of Greece, and sigh for the laurels which crowned his brow and the acclamations which awaited his return home; but such idle and empty wishes could never secure the prize. Even the prophet who “loved the wages of unrighteousness” could exclaim, “How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel! Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his.” But desires like these may be felt without the slightest approximation to the object desired. It is to covet a treasure and refuse to dig for it. It is to know of a “pearl of great price” and grudge the expense of buying the field where it is deposited. It is to wish for the abundance of the harvest and decline the labour of cultivating the soil. Alas! how great is the number of those who in regard to the kingdom of heaven put the wish for the act, who idle away their time, and “ spend their strength for nought,” through all the stages of an unprofitable existence, and then sink down, astonished and confounded, into that gulf of endless perdition from which they have never made any real effort to escape. (H. Hughes.)
Warning against formalism
I. A CURIOUS QUESTION.
1. This question, though curious, is very natural.
(1) Natural to pry into the future.
(2) To desire to know the future spiritual condition of mankind is most natural.
2. If such an inquiry was proper at all, it was proper to make it of Christ.
(1) Because He knew all about it.
(2) Because He would readily answer it if best.
II. THE MASTER’S ANSWER.
1. Not satisfactory to the curiosity-seeker.
(1) This fact deserves careful notice.
(2) This fact a direct rebuke to all mere curiosity-seeking. This applies to science, art, literature, and religion.
2. Christ’s answer most satisfactory to the real inquirer after truth.
(1) Because of its eminently practical character.
(2) Because of its stirringly earnest character.
(3) Because of its solemnly warnful character. This warning implies
(a) the possibility of self-deception on the part of professing Christians;
(b) that self-deception will not exonerate any from condemnation in the day of judgment;
(c) that the condemnation of all workers of iniquity will be irreversible.
(4) Because of its delightfully encouraging character to all true Christians.
1. Christ ever raised the practical above the theoretical. So should we.
2. Christ ever raised the spiritual above the secular. So should we.
3. Christ ever raised the substance above the form.
4. Christ here reveals the reason of men’s aversion to true godliness.
5. Christ here plainly declares the irretrievable misery to which such aversion inevitably leads. (D. C. Hughes, M. A.)
Strive to enter in
1. A weighty requirement.
2. A just requirement.
3. A beneficent requirement.
4. A practicable requirement. (Van Oosterzee.)
The broad way and the narrow
MOVEMENT. Certain, inevitable movement of human beings is implied in the whole passage. Our Lord regards the multitudes around Him as all in motion--none quiescent, none fixed and centred. We are not dwellers, we are travellers. We are all on the way--we are not stopping even here and now. I see the staff in your hand! I see the dust on your sandals! I hear the tread of a thousand feet I Onward and away each one goes, by the way that he chooses, and he shall never rest--not in deepest sleep, not in stillest midnight--for one moment, until he passes through the gate of death to some way everlasting. MORAL PROGRESS IS ALSO CONSTANT. This is a far more serious and important kind of progress. If we could stay our spirits amid this universal vicissitude, and keep them in fixed conditions, the outward change would be of less moment. But the moral progress is as constant, and infinitely more important, than any change that can be apprehended by the senses. It is a solemn thought that the one process or the other is going on m every one of us, without the intermission of a day or an hour. True, many a man does not feel himself to be growing either better or worse sometimes for a long time; and therefore he yields to the delusion that it is really so. Vessels that are in the habit of trading on the great rivers, going up and coming down, stay at this port or that, sometimes for days, trading or waiting. The waters sweep past them, but they are motionless, anchored in the river or moored to the quay. So some men are under the delusion that they can moor themselves, as moral beings, to certain circumstances and states, in such a manner that there shall be no difference between yesterday and today, between to-day and to-morrow. They seem to think that they can anchor moral character in the stream of life, and hold it in the same place for months or years. It can never be done. THERE ARE ONLY TWO WAYS. The broad and the narrow. Along one or other of these has every mortal pilgrim gone. By one or other of these is every living man travelling now. Let us look now at these two ways. Take the broad way first, if for no other reason because it is the broad way. It is the most manifest and obtrusive, and the nearest to us naturally. Begin at the beginning of it. It has a gate. A gate is a place of entrance--to a city, or a field, or a country. As a religious term it means the beginning of a course or onward career. There are critical and decisive points in life to which men come. There are gates of decision, narrow or wide, through which they pass into the course which lies within. He is speaking to reasonable and responsible men of their acts of choice, in the decisive times and places in life. He is speaking of the entering in at either gate of those who know that they so enter. And yet the knowledge may not be very express or clear. From want of reflection, from want of observance of the real character and consequences of things, men may go on from youth to age without being aware that they pass through “gates “ at all. They live as they list, or as they can. All this is consistent with the spirit of the passage, “wide is the gate!” One may go through it and hardly know it is there. And the way is broad. All kinds of persons may walk in it. The man of the world may work out his schemes, gather his money, and achieve his position. The pleasure-seeker may eat and drink, and dance, and sleep, and sing. The sensual man, who kills his moral life and vilifies the Divine image within him, may pass on unchecked. The formalist may count his beads, and say his prayers. These persons are not all alike. Some are much worse than others, some are on the darker side of the road, some are on the side nearest the narrow way, “not far from the kingdom of God.” They cast many a look to that better way, and perhaps some day they may enter it. In saying that there are but two ways, we do not abolish the distinctions of morality. Let them all stand. They do not touch the essence of the truth that a man is going in the main one way or another. As a moral being, having in him the element of progressiveness, he must, on the whole, be either rising to life or sinking to ruin. Again, following our Lord’s description, we come to a gate, and He calls it a “strait gate.” There is thus an undisguised difficulty in salvation. The way is narrow, but the gate that gives entrance to it is narrower still. The beginning of some great enterprises among men is sometimes very easy and imperceptible. A great palace is to be built. The beginning of the work is, that a man lays a measuring line quietly to the ground, or a workman with a spade turns up a piece of turf. A company of men start for the ascent of Mount Blanc. But they do not go up at first, they go down by a river side, then their path slopes gently up through the pine woods, and it is not at the beginning of their undertaking that they find hardship and toil. But this work of returning to God, in the case of one who has not kept the narrow way from the first, is most difficult at the beginning. The most miserable and agonizing moment to the prodigal son must have been that which preceded the resolution to arise and to go to his father. The question occurs: How is this? Is it by Divine arrangement? In one sense it is not. “God will have all men to be saved.” “He is not willing that any should perish.” The way, which to us has a strait gate and is practically narrow, is, in fact, as made by Him, wide in its gate and broad as a way; while, On the other hand, the way, which to us is so broad, seen from the heights will seem narrow. So much depends on the point of view I The angels looking down on the broad way may see that it is really narrow. They may say: “How strait the gate! What a pressure upon conscience to get through How narrow the way! Girded with penalty, overhung with danger, ending in death!” Looking at the narrow way they may say: “How wide is the gate! Wide as the Divine nature. How broad is the way! Broad as the everlasting love of God--penalties all exhausted, promises hanging like ripening fruit, and helps ready at every step of the progress!” But our point of vision is not the angelic one. We need to know what the way is to us. Christ stands on our own plane of life when He describes the way; to us, practically, it is narrow, and the gate of entrance to it is strait. To lay aside figure, the gate can be none other than repentance--the leaving of one life behind and entering on another. Therefore, the gate is strait! O how strait, when a man sees that he cannot pass in with one allowed sin, not even a little one! “Narrow is the way.” True, it is not so narrow to most Christian people as it ought to be. It is not so narrow to any traveller on it as it ought to be. We shall close by naming three inducements to walk in this narrow way.
1. The gate is strait, but it is always open. You come to a nobleman’s park, and you look in through the gate. The gate is massive, high, broad, and beautiful. But it is shut. You can look through the bars of it, but you cannot get in. All its width and magnificence avail you nothing as a means of entrance. Passing on, you come to a little wicket-gate which opens into a narrow footpath over rugged ground, but which leads up and away to the hills where the light is shining. That little wicket-gate is open, day and night!
2. The narrow way is narrow; but it grows wider as you go on. It grows wider, lighter, pleasanter, easier--that is the law of the road. The very opposite result takes place on the broad way of self-indulgence. That becomes narrower and darker and more full of peril as men go along in it.
3. The end is everlasting life. Who can tell the meanings, hidden in the heart of God, that these words contain? It “leadeth unto life.” Ah, is not that enough to reconcile us to it all--its straitness, its narrowness, all its steeps and roughnesses? Is not that enough to draw us into it as by the gravitation of eternity--the end is “everlasting life”? (A. Raleigh, D. D.)
Earnestness in religion, recommended and enforced
I. THE DIFFICULTIES WHICH OBSTRUCT THE ENTRANCE INTO HEAVEN.
1. An object, when viewed under different aspects, assumes different hues, and presents itself in different forms.
2. But while the gospel is humbling, it is also holy in its tendency. It is a doctrine according to godliness.
II. I ADVERT TO THE CAUSES OF THAT DISAPPOINTMENT WHICH MANY IN THE MOMENTOUS CONCERN OF THEIR SOUL WILL EXPERIENCE.
1. One obvious reason why many seek to enter in and are not able is that they seek not in the appointed way.
2. Another cause of that disappointment which many will experience is the unseasonable time at which they commence the attempt of entering in at the strait gate. They make no preparation for the coming of the Bridegroom till His approach is actually announced.
3. Another reason why many will fail in their attempt of obtaining admission into heaven is the irresolute and indecisive manner in which that attempt is prosecuted.
1. Consider the magnitude of the object for which you are exhorted to strive. It is the life of your soul.
2. Consider the consequences of not complying with this admonition.
3. Consider, lastly, the certainty of success which awaits your compliance with the admonition. “Your labour shall not be in vain in the Lord.” Strive, and ye shall enter in. (E. Cooper.)
Striving for heaven
Look for a moment at the nature of these difficulties--at the magnitude of these obstacles. They may be arranged under three heads.
I. EXAMPLE. Who has power to breast himself against the influence of popular sentiment, ever flowing in one direction, and always with an urgent and resistless tide? The spirit of the world, which is antagonistical to that of the gospel, moulds its habits, and manners, and opinions, which, though they be not always opposed to the outward forms of religion, are always at variance with its inward and humble spirit. Religion has never acquired such an ascendency in the world, that there was not always a heavy balance in the scale of popular influence against it; so that almost the first difficulty which presents itself to the mind of that man, who is beginning seriously to ponder the question of a personal consecration to God, is that which rests in the contempt that awaits such a change, and the overpowering influence of that scornful sentiment and adverse example which prevail around him. Men are enslaved by the power of example. Its influence over them is like a mighty spell, which it requires a superhuman power to break. Need I say that he who goes to heaven must go there in the face of this influence? Not a soul ever entered the strait gate but he came in direct conflict with this power, and, through grace, triumphed over it.
II. But let us look at the influence of PERSONAL HABITS AND CUSTOMS. The sinner is accustomed to sin. Every one of his habits, of a moral nature, has been formed under its influence. It is the atmosphere in which he has lived, and moved, and breathed. It has encircled him from the first dawn of life. From such a heart have our habits sprung, and in such a soil have they taken root. Who is ignorant of the power of habit? Even where it holds no relation to the moral feelings, it is often so strong as to produce involuntary action. Now, these habits, so deeply rooted, so long cherished, so undisputed in their sway, and so ascendent in their power, are every one of them, like so many cords, binding us to our idols and our lusts. Under their mighty impulse the sinner is rushing on to ruin. I ask, if anything short of that great, and determined, and-desperate struggle, indicated in the word “strive,” agonize to enter, can give us emancipation from this dreadful power?--freedom from this debasing thraldom?
III. There is a still more serious difficulty than any which I have yet named. The sinner, to enter the strait gate, MUST CONTEND AGAINST THE FORCE OF NATURE ITSELF, AND WITH A POWER THAT SHALL SUBDUE IT. The moral nature of man is wholly corrupt. There is not a single chord in the heart that vibrates to the love of God blow, you will observe, that it is this state of the heart that renders man susceptible to temptation. It is this which gives to the world such a mighty power over him--which renders him so easy a prey to its allurements, its fascinations, its deceitfulness, and to the wiles of the devil. But it is necessary that I should say a word upon the nature and extent of that aid which God proffers us. Do you not know that there are many who suppose that God offers to remove these difficulties Himself, and exempt the sinner from all responsibility in reference to them? God makes no such offer to any sinner. The Saviour says, “Strive to enter in at the strait gate.” Would He address such language as this to the sinner if there were no difficulties in his way, or if He expected to remove them all Himself? By no means. The truth is, God does not propose to take one of these difficulties out of the way. He simply offers to help the sinner to overcome them. If a man, launching his bark from the shore at Chippewa, should row vigorously till he had reached the centre of the Niagara, and should then haul in his oars, and commit his frail vessel to the power of the current, would he have any reason to expect that he should reach the opposite shore? If he had the energies of a giant, would that prevent his being carried down the cataract, and buried in the gulf below? An expectation of reaching the opposite shore entertained by that man, when folding his arms and whistling to the fury of the current, would be just as reasonable as an expectation of reaching heaven entertained by the sinner who sees himself borne down on the current of worldliness and sin to the gulf of perdition, and yet will make no resolute efforts to resist the tide and bear himself to a place of safety. Of what avail is it that the Spirit of God, omnipotent in His power, tenders His aid to the sinner, and visits his heart, if, after all, that sinner cannot be roused to such a state of feeling and effort as are indicated by the emphatic language of our Saviour used in the text? Believe me, dying sinner, the Spirit of God has not come into the world that He might leave you to slumber while He fights your enemies, and through mighty obstacles opens to you the way to the kingdom of heaven. This is not the manner m which He teaches us to fight the good fight of faith. But it is time to conclude.
1. From our subject, thus discussed, we see why it is that so few, even of those who have some solicitude about their salvation, and are strictly moral in their deportment, and always respectful towards religion, ever attain to a satisfactory and well-established confidence of their interest in God’s love. They have never made thorough work of religion. They have rested in its forms. They have shunned its crosses.
2. Again: Is it not clear from our subject that there are many in the Church on earth who will never enter heaven? (J. W. Adams, D. D.)
The strait gate
“But we thought,” perhaps some one may say, “that the message of the gospel which preachers have to deliver was a smiling invitation; these words sound like grave, urgent counsel.” That is what they are--grave, urgent counsel. If any one said to you in a soft, sentimental tone, “Make money,” you would be ready even to laugh; Rot because you consider money-making an unattractive occupation, which indeed it is not but because you know that it is not easy to make money. You do not need to be told to do this thing, but only how to do it. There are many things we are willing enough to do, if we only knew how to do them. But there are others we do not like to do, although we ought to do them; partly because of difficulties, which might nevertheless be overcome, and partly because the ends proposed, the rewards offered, are not attractive to us. Of course every one to whom we should say, “There is another life after this: would you like it to be a happy one?” would answer, “Certainly I should.” But if no one expects to get a comfortable place here without taking trouble; why should any one expect to get a comfortable place hereafter without taking any? Still, when we say, “Enter ye in at the strait gate,” if one word disheartens, another comforts. The word “strait” perhaps brings us to a pause; but the word “enter” beckons us forward. We should not be urged to “enter were entry impossible. If the entrance looks narrow, it is less difficult than it looks. Every one feels a truth in our Lord’s words about the two ways; the one, easy and crowded, yet neither safe nor honourable; the other, difficult and unfrequented, and yet the best way, indeed the only right one. But though we all feel we have truth here, yet we may treat this old Scripture saying very much as we do an old weapon of which, when we look at it, we cry, “Ah, you were sharp and strong once; you have been wanted in the world; but you are not needed now: rest where you are; ours is a quiet time; and should we ever have to fight, we will find new weapons, of a better make.” And even if we do not thus treat our Lord’s saying, we may yet feel some perplexity as to its application. We must look about, then, to find a gate into the meaning of these words; and when we have found one, we must go along the pathway of our thought with care and steadiness. Who shall help us to the meaning of Christ’s words? He Himself shall help us. He Himself travelled on the narrow path, when He might have taken the broad one. And did He not call Himself both a door and a way, saying, “I am the door,” “I am the way”? He who, quickened and strengthened by another’s example, walks as that other walked, does as he did, hopes as he hoped, and leaves the crowd as he left it, makes that other his “way.” On the one hand, then, we have a Teacher who invites us to trust in and follow Him as a Saviour; and, on the other, a Saviour who offers us life, and yet, as a Teacher, instructs us that we must overcome many difficulties if we would gain it. How can we reconcile these things? He who spoke of the strait gate, we say, Himself went into the way of righteousness thereby. He who told us of the narrow way, walked therein, knew its sorrows, was acquainted with its griefs. He chose the narrow way when He might have taken the broad one and have travelled it with a most able guide and companion by His side, and a most brilliant end before Him. We often speak of a brilliant career. What career so bright with outward victory as Christ’s would have been, if He had accepted the magnificent proposals of the devil? His way would have been broad, and thronged with admiring attendants. But He took the way of goodness instead of the way of greatness. He went down among the poor instead of up among the proud. He sacrificed Himself to others instead of others for Himself. And the mighty work He did was this: He made “the way” that was impassable to any but Himself, passable to others who should follow in His footsteps. By taking the way, He became the way; by taking the way of righteousness, He became the way of salvation. Even in the perils of ordinary life, if any one man will dare to take a new course, and it prove a successful one, many will dare to follow him. And he usually benefits us in two manners; he makes our obstacle less, and our courage greater. When, then, Jesus Christ says invitingly to all, “Follow Me,” speaking as a Saviour; but says also to each, “Take up your cross, and, carrying that, follow Me”--teaching us that the way is hard, we do not feel that urgent counsel is inconsistent with cheering invitation. We can reconcile the words that seem discouraging with the words that so much encourage. For every one of us there still remains his own difficulty; but our Saviour has so encountered and overcome the great difficulties that beset human nature in its progress to perfection and blessedness, that every one of us has a good hope of success through Him. Not only are obstacles removed and courage imparted, so that we can do what we could not, and will dare what we would not; but we are assured of an enabling power, even Christ’s Spirit bestowed on us by God, and an unfailing protection, even an Almighty Providence ever working around us. Christ is more than an Example shining from the past; He is a Power working in the present. (T. T. Lynch.)
The narrow leads to the broad
Through the narrow we come into the broad; by a narrow intricate channel into the wide sea full of riches; by a narrow and perilous pathway into the great city, so stately, so secure. The attainment of true knowledge, the performance of true work, fidelity to “pure religion,” are not easy. Commencement and continuance have alike their difficulty. The gate is strait; the way narrow. But in order to obtain many a state of advantage in which we may “walk at liberty”--find, that is, our path pleasantly wide and the country round us pleasantly open--is anything more requisite than exact careful attention at the outset of our endeavour, and exact careful regard to our own course as we go along? No: often this is enough. Perhaps all of us can read a printed page as easily as if we were rolling in a rapid chariot upon a broad level road. But the Alphabet was our “strait gate,” and along the “narrow way” that our Spelling-Book opened before us we had to go, for a long time, slowly and carefully. If we have learned a handicraft, we had our “strait gate” and our “narrow way,” skilful as we may now be. In most courses of life we have our special first troubles; but our trial is not over when our entry has been made--we cannot proceed without a steady purpose, a good courage, and a staff. And no man can be, or can reasonably expect to be, a Christian, without the same attention at the outset, and considerateness on the course as are demanded of him if he would be merchant or mechanic, artist or man of science, discoverer or patriot, or even if he would learn to read a book. But more than attention at first and care afterwards are required for the spiritual life--to be a true Christian, and indeed to be a true man in any worthy department of human activity. The renunciation of much that others accept, and even the abandonment of much that, but for the work in hand, you would retain, may be required of you. This renunciation is a “strait gate”; and “separateness,” though it be separateness from sinners--and some sinners are pleasant people--is a “narrow way.” Christ was alone amid the crowd in His unruffled wisdom, before He was alone on the cross in the grasp of death, man’s enemy. His “narrow way” lay through the populous city before it entered the valley of the shadow of death. There are other narrow ways along our streets than the pavements. One man riding in his coach may be travelling on the narrow way of honour and duty, and the foot-travellers may be hastening on at rapid pace upon the broad road. Now it may be the poor, and now the rich, that is in the wrong way, or in the right. The confession of an error, the avowal of a conviction, economy of money or time, abandonment of habit, are often “strait gates,” which stand quite plainly before us, and need no finding. But our Saviour speaks of men “not finding” the strait gate. And He Himself, as the Teacher of Israel, was a gate that many of His countrymen failed to find. They could not see that He would lead them to welfare. Had He been a strong soldier, He would have seemed to them the broad plain way to prosperity! He that notices a yellow stain in the rocks, and does not perceive that it means gold, misses a gate. A suggestion comes, a proposal is made, tidings are brought: “There is a gate here,” says one man; but another “cannot see it.” For all of us there are gates we cannot miss seeing; and for all of us there are gates which we may overlook, and so miss a great good, even the greatest. Many fail to find their gate because they are looking for the grandly difficult rather than the humbly difficult. (T. T. Lynch.)
Difficulty of religion
It appears, then, that it is not an easy thing to enter in; that it is a hard and difficult matter for a man to be saved. Now let us see some particulars in which it is difficult. Let us observe some of those points of religion, in which if we would succeed, we are bound to strive; and where if we strive not we shall not enter in.
1. One thing which is of very frequent occurrence, and in respect of which men ate very commonly mistaken, is their attendance on the worship of God. You think it perhaps enough to attend when it is convenient, to come when you can spare time from business or pleasure; once on the Sunday, or not even thus often. But is this striving to enter in? Many of you know well that if you were really to strive you could attend more frequently, more regularly. Be not, then, deceived. The way is narrow, the gate is strait; strive to enter in, or you approach in vain.
2. Or consider now the doctrines of Christianity. Many of you perhaps think very little about them, deem them above your comprehension, and never take pains to understand them. Or if you do, you complain that they are hard to discover, and difficult to understand. And so indeed they are, to the natural man, to the mind that is unenlightened by the Spirit of truth. But never imagine that this excuses you from the duty of searching into them, “or that here you may safely walk in the broad path, neglecting to learn what God has thought fit to teach.
3. If there be any here who spend no time, take no anxious thought, give no diligent attention to know the things that belong to their peace; to them I say, you are mistaken, you are in danger, you must strive, or you will not enter in.
4. Or take the account which the Scriptures give of what a Christian ought to practise. Is it not a constant warfare, a continual effort, to mortify the flesh, to renounce the world, and to resist the devil? It is when we fail, to renew the contest; when we faint, to recover strength; when we succeed, still to press forward; to seek ever more and more excellent gifts; and to run as in a race, every day of our lives, unto the very hour of death, that we may win the prize. Is this a hard saying? Is this view of our duty as Christians difficult and discouraging? It may be so. But the question is not whether it be a difficult one, but whether it be the true one. Could it be the true one, unless it were difficult? Could any view of the way to be saved be correct, unless it pointed to a narrow path, to a strait gate, and bid us strive, in order to enter in? (C. Girdlestone, M.A.)
The strait gate
I. A GATE WHICH IT IS MOST DESIRABLE TO ENTER.
1. Because it is the gate of the city of refuge. Outside of Christ the sword of fire pursues us swift and sharp. From God’s wrath there is but one escape, and that is by a simple faith in Christ. Believe in Him, and the sword is sheathed, and the mercy and the love of God will become your everlasting portion; but refuse to believe in Jesus, and your innumerable sins, written in His book, shall be laid at your door in that day when the pillars of heaven shall reel, and the stars shall fall like withered fig-leaves from the tree. Oh I who would not wish to escape from the wrath to come?
2. It is desirable to enter this gate, because it is the gate of a home. What sweet music there is in that word “home”! Jesus is the home of His people’s hearts. We are at rest when we get to Christ. We have all we want when we have Jesus.
3. Moreover, it leads to a blessed feast. Happy the man who believes in Jesus, for he becomes at once content, complacent, and at ease. Not only does he find rest in Christ, but good cheer and great delight, halcyon peace, and hallowed satisfaction are the portion of his lot.
4. It is the gate which leads to Paradise. And who would not wish to pass through it when he considers the lot of those outside the gate?
II. THERE IS A CROWD OF PEOPLE WHO WILL SEEK TO ENTER AND WILL NOT BE ABLE.
1. Some are unable to enter because the pride of life will not let them.
2. Some are unable to enter because they carry contraband goods with them. When you land in France, there stands the gendarme who wants to see what you are carrying in that basket. If you attempt to push by you will soon find yourself in custody. He must know what is there; contraband goods cannot be taken in. So at the gate of mercy--which is Christ--no man can be saved if he desire to keep his sins. He must give up every false way.
3. Not a few are unable to enter in because they want to postpone the matter until tomorrow.
4. Others, and these are in the worst plight of all, think that they are in, and that they have entered. They mistake the outside of the gate for the inside. Conclusion: Thus it is that a crowd--I had almost said a countless crowd--of people nowadays seek to enter in, but for manifold reasons they are not able to do so. And yet there is a more appalling aspect to the same fact. “Many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able.” Panic-stricken, the dying man sends for the minister whom he never went to hear when his health was good and hours hung heavy on his hands. Some years ago I was awakened about three o’clock in the morning by a sharp ring of the door-bell. I was urged without delay to visit a house not very far from London Bridge. I went; and up two pair of stairs I was shown into a room the occupants of which were a nurse and a dying man. There was nobody else. “Oh, sir,” said she, “Mr. So-and-so, about half-an-hour ago, begged me to send for you.” “What does he want?” I asked. “He is dying, sir,” she replied. I said, “I see that. What sort of a man was he?” “He came home last night, sir, from Brighton. He had been out all day. I looked for a Bible, sir, but there is not one in the house; I hope you have got one with you.” “Oh,” I said, “a Bible would be of no use to him now. If he could understand me I could tell him the way of salvation in the very words of Holy Scripture.” I spoke to him, but he gave me no answer. I spoke again; still there was no reply. All sense had fled. I stood a few minutes gazing at his face, till I perceived he was dead. His soul had departed. That man in his lifetime had been wont to jeer at me. In strong language he had often denounced me as a hypocrite. Yet he was no sooner smitten with the darts of death than he sought my presence and my counsel, feeling no doubt in his heart that I was a servant of God, though he did not care to own it with his lips. There I stood, unable to help him. Promptly as I had responded to his call, what could I do, but look at his corpse and go home again? He had, when too late, sighed for the ministry of reconciliation, sought to enter in, but he was not able. There was no space left him then for repentance; he had wasted the opportunity. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
The two ways
I. THESE ARE BUT TWO ROADS in which all mankind are travelling; in the one or the other of which each of us is at this moment. These two roads are called, from the ends to which they severally lead, the way of destruction and the way of life. The Scriptures speak of no other. If we go on in the way of destruction, we shall surely come to destruction; if we walk in the way of life, we shall as surely attain eternal life. Accordingly, the Scriptures speak of men under two names only; as believers or unbelievers; as servants of sin, or servants of holiness; as children of God, or children of the devil. They recognize no middle state; no path running between the two great roads, in which we may walk without the fear of hell, even though we may have no very bright hope of heaven.
II. THE WAY OF DESTRUCTION IS DESCRIBED IN THE TEXT BY THE FOLLOWING MARKS.
1. The gate is wide. There is no difficulty in entering in. There needs no self-denial, no striving, no mastery over ourselves. Our own hearts naturally carry us towards it.
2. And as the gate of entrance is wide, so is the way broad. It is broad, because it admits of many paths, all forming, however, but one road, and all leading but to one end. The ways of sin are various; the devices of Satan for man’s destruction are manifold. Moreover, it is easy travelling there. Smooth and pleasant to the flesh.
3. As the gate is wide, and the way broad, so there are many that go in thereat. This is another mark of the way of destruction. It is well trodden; it is thronged with travellers.
III. Now turn to consider THE WAY OF LIFE. See what are its marks. In every respect we find it the very opposite to the way of destruction.
1. In the first place, the gate is strait, that is, narrow and confined. The gate of the way of destruction is wide, and stands open before us, inviting us to come in. But the gate of life is not so easy to enter. And why? Has God made it hard? Is He unwilling that we should find the path of life? Surely not. But our own corrupt hearts love it not.
2. And after we have entered, we find that the way is narrow. There are many paths leading to destruction; there is but one that leads to life. “Without holiness no man shall see the Lord.” And what is holiness? It is to believe in Jesus Christ, to love God, and to have His Holy Spirit dwelling in us; to deny ourselves, that we may do His will; to raise ourselves by faith and prayer above the world, and to set our affections on things above.
3. No wonder, then, that the other mark of the way of life is this, “Few there be that find it.” It is a way but little travelled, Men love ease; they naturally care for the pleasures of the body which are at hand, It is hard to be persuaded to think of spiritual joys. (E. Blencowe, M. A.)
The strait gate
In proportion to the importance of any kingdom is the stringency of the conditions of entrance. In the meantime we shall forget that there is a kingdom of heaven. We shall look into the kingdoms of the earth which men account important, imperial, worthy of possession; and I guarantee to find upon the portals of all such kingdoms these words: “Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way.” It will be something to find that inscription above the gates which open upon all the kingdoms which men who sneer at religion think important. Then, if we can read this inscription in their own handwriting upon the gates which open on their petty empires, what if we shall find the same words written--only written by the hand of God--over the portals which open on the city of the Great King? We shall thus be enabled to see that Divine revelation, though often above human reason, is not always opposed to it; and that God will have a judgment against us--irresistible, penetrating, and terrible--on account of the very principles which we ourselves have laid down in those departments of life which we considered important. Here is the kingdom of human learning: Knowledge, critical acquaintance with letters, ample and accurate information about history, power of scientific inquiry, collation, analysis, all that is known by the name of learning; and over the gate of that kingdom I find this inscription, “Strait is the gate, narrow is the way.” A man does not by shaking his little arms shake himself into scholarship; it is not done by a wave of the hand. It is done in yonder way:--See l where the man gets up before the lark, before the sun calls him with its voice of light, who trims his lamp, and goes over yesterday’s lesson in critical review before he begins to-day’s study; pulls himself up by every variety of discipline; cudgels his memory, stores his mind with all kinds of literature; who works after the sun has gone away, to take the morning with him to some distant clime, turning over the pages of his book--not as you turn over the pages of your light reading--but reading every word, studying every sentence, extracting the gold from every book. We say, “Why are you doing this?” “Because,” he says, “I am determined to be a subject in the kingdom of learning, and the motto over the gates is this, ‘Strait and narrow is the gate, the road.’” So we begin already to admit the principle of the text, that in proportion to the scope and importance of any kingdom is the stringency of the conditions of entrance. Here is a little kingdom, which we shall characterize as the kingdom of merely muscular competition. Men are going to try muscular force with their fellow-men--they are going to have a boat race. You and I cannot walk along the riverside and instantly take into our heads the notion that we will have a spin with these men and beat them all. That can’t be done. Strait is the gate and narrow is the way that leads even to athletic supremacy. A man who has been drilled, disciplined, exercised, will beat you, except a miracle be wrought for your advantage. So we are getting nearer and nearer to the principle that in proportion to the importance of any object, the scope of any kingdom, the consequence of any condition of affairs, is the narrowness of the road, is the straitness of the gate. It is the same with all kinds of intellectual supremacy. Granted that there may be inspired geniuses here and there--let us allow that some men may have had a short and easy road to intellectual power and supremacy--still the rule holds good: That he who would be highest must toil most perseveringly and conscientiously. Here, for example, is a man who wishes to excel in authorship. You read his book. You don’t see all that lies behind the book. You don’t see the rough outline which he first sketched--writing offhand, as it were; on, and on, and on--blotting, and interlining, and erasing. There it is; just a rough manuscript, with hardly any shape--a line of thought running through it which he alone can see. He lays it aside and takes up another sheet; brings then the rough draft, writes over many parts with care, compression, condensation, that he may give it point and pertinence. He burns the first draft; lays the second aside, lays it by for six months, until he has become another man, viz., a critic of his own productions. He takes up his manuscript again for the last time--goes through it, striking out everything that is opposed to taste, inserting, improving, refining, curving, enriching, and expending himself upon it. Ask why? He says, “I mean this book to live after I have been taken away. I mean this to be a testimony. I mean this to be the last, richest, best expression of my attainments and my convictions; therefore I have expended myself fully upon its preparation.” What is it that is written over the man’s study and over the man’s desk? This: “Strait is the gate, narrow is the way.” No doubt there are men who can write beautiful nothings by the mile, sell them in the morning, and have them forgotten at sundown. But the writers who wish to enrich all coming generations, to stimulate the most distant posterity, have not the knack of shaking out of their coat sleeves the standard literature of the country. It is a question of preparation, self-culture, self-control, and putting out the stress of the whole being upon it. Then, at least, a man deserves to succeed. The effort after all may not be masterly, the man may fail to attain the position at which he has aimed; but “in all labour there is profit,” and the man himself is fuller and stronger for the very industry which he has put forth. We are thus enabled to say that the entrance to the kingdom of heaven is necessarily the straitest, narrowest of all. What are other kingdoms to the Kingdom of Life? When you have learned all that books can convey to you, what is your kingdom? When you have obtained all the money that you can possibly own, what is the kingdom of pecuniary means? When you have sharpened, quickened, stimulated, and enriched your brain to the highest possible point, what is the kingdom of mere intellectual force and supremacy when compared with the kingdom of Life in God? As, therefore, this is held to be the highest kingdom of all, where is the unreasonableness of making the conditions of entrance into this kingdom the most exacting and stringent of all? We are thus prepared to say, that by so much as men have the power to strive for inferior kingdoms will they be witnesses against themselves if they fail to strive after the highest kingdom of all. Men are continually getting up evidence which will be used for them or against them in the day of judgment. The day of judgment may be the shortest day that ever dawned, may be but a moment, because every man will judge himself, and one look at God’s face will mean destiny I By so much as we have the power to strive and have admitted the principle of striving, in relation to inferior kingdoms, are we preparing a judgment against ourselves if we have not accepted the conditions of entrance into the Divine empire. Let us now have a judgment day. There is no occasion to wait ten thousand years for the day of judgment. We can have it now! Let the eloquent man be judged, the man who has made the uses of speech his study from his earliest days. Hear his statement, but fail to follow his example: “I copied with my own hands six times the most voluminous histories of my country, that I might attain to what I supposed were the excellencies of their style. I disqualified myself for appearing in ordinary society by disfiguring my personal appearance, in order that I might bind myself to study by day and practice of speech by night. I have put pebbles in my mouth to cure my stammering; I have run up the steepest hills in the country that I might strengthen my lungs; I have harangued the sea that I might obtain power over tumultuous elements; if you would follow me along the road, walk it as I have done, inch by inch.” And he has never thought about God’s kingdom--kingdom of light, and life, and truth, and beauty! Hear God. “Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest, thou didst understand all about care and pains and discipline and culture, thou oughtest therefore--“And the man has no answer. No man can answer God when he comes face to face with his Maker! He may chaffer with Him now; he may utter his little speeches against his Maker now. But when it comes to the last reckoning of all, when a man takes up his life in his hand and says, “This is what I have done,” God will point out to the man in his own life the things which will damn and consume him! What is this kingdom of which we have been speaking? It is called the Kingdom of Life. There are two gates, and only two. Two roads, and only two. Two destinies, and only two. The gate, the way leading to destruction--the way leading to life. (J. Parker, D. D.)
On striving to enter in at the strait gate
I. EXPLAIN THE EXHORTATION. By the strait gate, we are to understand the entrance into that way which leads to life; and to enter in as the strait gate denotes the commencement of holiness in the heart of man. The same thing is denoted by conversion--by making a new heart--by giving God the heart--by reconciliation to God--by repentance for sin--by faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. The gate is said to be strait or difficult, on account of the difficulties of entering it. The expression is designed to show us that m commence a religious course is difficult. The difficulty arises, not from the nature of religion, but from the depravity of the heart. Hence the text requires us to “strive to enter in at the strait gate.” The sinner must summon all the powers of his soul to the performance of his duty, and to put himself upon the utmost exertion, of which as a moral being he is capable, in the work of turning to God.
1. The understanding must be duly employed.
2. Conscience must perform its appropriate part in connection with all the moral sensibilities of the soul.
3. The will or the heart--that faculty of the soul by which man chooses and refuses, loves and hates--is also to be properly exerted.
II. ENFORCE THE INJUNCTION.
1. It is a command of God.
2. The command is perfectly reasonable. The requisition is, that man should do that, neither more nor less, which, as a moral being, he is qualified to do; that he should put those moral faculties which God has given him upon their appropriate exertions; in a word, that he summon all the faculties of his soul to the single point of doing as well as he can do.
3. It is only by compliance with the precept in the text, that man will perform his duty, and secure his salvation. All who shall seek the favour of God and eternal life without striving, i.e., seek these blessings without that full, and vigorous, and appropriate exertion of all the moral faculties of the soul, must fail of final salvation. This is plain from the nature of the case. If duty is not seen, if obligation is not felt, if the will or heart does not comply, no obedience is, or can be rendered.
4. I would further enforce the injunction, from the case of those who make no efforts to perform the duty, and the manner in which the Divine Spirit converts the sinner. It is a momentous fact--a fact which, in one respect, even after all the displays of mercy in the work of redemption, saves this guilty world from the midnight of despair--that the Spirit of God renews the heart of man through the truth. “Of His own will begat He us with the word of truth.” The very object, and the only object, for which the Spirit strives with sinners, is to give truth its proper effect on the mind, the conscience, and the heart; and the thing, and the only thing, which He does, in regeneration, is actually to secure this effect. But how? Does the Spirit of God give effect to truth, when that truth is unthought of; and when the sinner effectually shuts it away, alike from his understanding, and his conscience, and his heart? Has such a thing ever been known or heard of, in all the earth, that God has converted a stupid sinner, continuing stupid? Is there one such on earth--one such among the redeemed in glory? Not one.
1. This subject shows us that the sinner may become a Christian soon, and how he may do so. Religion, whether it be called repentance, faith, a new heart, or love to God, is action--mental, moral action. The sinner, to become the subject of either, must act it. What the Holy Spirit does, is not to impart a gift merely to a passive subject, a mere receiver, but to move a free moral agent to act--to act as a moral agent.
2. We see what a fearful condemnation awaits the impenitent sinner. (N. W. Taylor, D. D.)
The wrong and the right anxiety
I shall take occasion, from the question and the exhortation before us, to speak to you to-day of a wrong and a right anxiety. Let us consider--
I. THE QUESTION, AS EXPRESSIVE OF A WRONG ANXIETY--“Lord, are there few that be saved?” Why, in the case before us, and in most others in which it is entertained, does this inquiry indicate a blameworthy solicitude? I answer--
1. Because it bespeaks the absence of a due regard to a man’s personal interests. He from whom it proceeds has his mind drawn off from that which vitally concerns himself and his own destiny, and absorbed in the affairs of others. His individual relations and responsibilities are merged in those of his fellow-creatures. He is forgetful of obligations that press urgently upon his own being, in his extreme desire to know how men in general will be found to have fulfilled theirs, when the end shall come. With a work of overwhelming magnitude, demanding from him the whole energy of his whole nature, he is allowing that energy to dissipate itself in the prosecution of a vain curiosity.
2. Because it relates to a point which God has not chosen to determine positively in His holy Word. The attempt to solve it is an effort to be wise above what is written. The presumptuous individual would fain place himself on a level with the Infinite and Omniscient; he would read with his weakling eyes the sublime secrets of the eternal records; he would rashly plant his feet where angels fear to tread. And, brethren, it is not difficult to find the counterpart of this man in our own day. We everywhere see, and in almost every one, the same disposition to pry into matters beyond the ken of humanity; to seek to understand subjects which the short plumb-line of our reason is incompetent to fathom.
II. THE EXHORTATION, AS SUGGESTIVE OF A RIGHT ANXIETY--“Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able.” “Strive”--that is, be anxious, be supremely concerned about this. Look on smaller matters with indifference: do not let them absorb you; regard them as subordinate, and comparatively trivial. But in reference to the end of which I speak to you now, let your solicitude be all-absorbing; let it lay hold of your whole being; let it colour and modify all your thoughts and actions. You will not err in doing so, for this is a right and laudible anxiety. But let me now, by two or three remarks, show that the solicitude which our Lord thus commends and enforces is indeed right.
1. And first, I may say, this is a right anxiety, because it is necessary. Entrance into life, personal salvation, which is what is meant by going in at the strait gate, is not to be attained without it. We must “agonize,” as the word is, “to enter in at the strait gate,” or we shall never reach the celestial home at the end of the narrow way. This anxiety is indispensable, and therefore it is right. But I call this anxiety a right one--
2. Because it respects an object of paramount importance and worth. This object I have already described, in general terms, as being our personal salvation.
3. Because it is an anxiety that will be abundantly rewarded in the attainment of its end. Now, you need hardly be told, my brethren, that there are innumerable solicitudes of men which never yield anything but disappointment; myriads of earnest and persevering endeavours that altogether fail in realizing the object for which they are put forth. In worldly matters, I believe it is the few only who succeed. The majority are, more or less, the victims of blasted aims and abortive projects. Yonder, in a bare and unfurnished attic, is a man who began life as an aspirant for literary distinction. The early stages of his journey were bright with hope, and fruitful of plans; but soon its aspect changed. Discouragement, failure, neglect, followed each other in quick succession in the progress of his life-story, and though he burnt on the midnight oil, and wrought out in the laboratory of his brain beautiful and clever productions, they have never come to light. The public that was to admire and laud them has never even learnt his name, and his gray hairs are being brought down with sorrow to the grave. There, among the humblest in yon pauper’s home, is another, who made wealth the grand aim of his being; sought for it with a mad eagerness that robbed him of peace by day and rest by night; sought for it by fair means and foul; but fortune showed him no favour. Riches never came, or if they did, soon took to themselves wings, and flew away, and now his last days are dragging out in poverty, and his only remaining pleasure is to recount, with drivelling simplicity, to those around him, the astute schemes he conceived without results, and the numberless efforts he made in vain. And here is a third man, whose self-elected sphere in life was that of statesmanship; he aspired to rule; he thought himself born to command. He dreamt of parliaments swayed by his eloquence, and borne down by his arguments, until all made way for him as a leader. And what is he now? See him yonder, haranguing with the garrulity of second childhood, an ignoble and ignorant crowd, whom only the hope of amusement could induce to listen to him for a moment. He has sown to the wind, and has reaped the whirlwind. Such are the disappointments that wait upon human anxieties and aims. In reference to them, possibility, or, at most, probability of accomplishment, is all that can be calculated on. But it is not so in relation to the anxiety which I am seeking to awaken in you all to-day. Religious aims never come to nought. Endeavours after salvation, of the right sort, cannot fail of their object; here is certainty to build upon. If then, mere possibility, or probability, will inspire and sustain effort, ought not this much more to do so? If for an uncertain possession you willingly endure such toil, and submit to such patient plodding, as many of you do, will you not much more give diligence, by prayer, and faith, and effort, to obtain a certain inheritance? Will you do so much for a corruptible crown, and refuse to do it for an incorruptible? (C. M. Merry.)
A time to strive
It is said that the question proposed in the text, “Lord, are there few that be saved?”--or, as the words stand in the original, “are the saved few?”--was at the time of Christ’s ministry upon earth vehemently debated in the schools of the Jewish doctors; and therefore, when the speaker now referred it to the Lord Jesus, it was either for the confirmation of a judgment already formed, or from conscious incompetency to form any judgment of his own aright. While, however, the inquiry is that of an individual, more curious, it may be, about the future destiny of others than concerned about his own, the Lord addresses the answer to the whole company of the disciples. It was one who said to Him, “are the saved few?”--it was to many that tie said, severally as well as collectively, “Strive,” each of you, “to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, but shall not be able.”
I. First, then, THERE IS AN END PROPOSED, WHICH IS SALVATION. “Lord,” one said unto Him, “are there few that be saved?” But the Lord not only, as we have observed, addressed His reply to all, but He adapted it to what the question ought to have been, rather than to what it was. It should have been, “What must I do to be saved?”
II. And THE MEANS OF ATTAINING TO SALVATION, which form the second point proposed for our consideration, are comprehended and condensed by our Lord in one single emphatic word--“Strive”--ye who would be saved--“strive to enter in at the strait gate.” This word “strive’ is indeed in the original most significant and impressive. It implies the concentration of all the energies, faculties, and powers of the understanding and the hear in one great object, which must be attained at any cost; it supposes the exertion of every member, the straining of every nerve, the union of body and soul putting forth all their vigour and determined to succeed Or to perish. The Lord has Himself expressed the same idea elsewhere, in language striking and impressive. “The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.” The general meaning of this must certainly be, if it is to have any meaning at all, that in the concerns of the soul we are to be in earnest. We are not to take counsel with flesh and blood; we are not to compromise principle for pleasure, or to oscillate between interest and duty. There stands the gate; strait it is; and strait it ever will be; all the skill and all the subtlety of man cannot extend it by a span, or widen it by a hair-breadth. The gate of eternal life is as God has fixed it from the beginning, and as He will maintain it to the end. But, my dear brethren, while it is a strait or narrow gate, blessed be God, it is also an open gate. If all earth cannot widen it, all hell cannot close it; open it is, open it stands, night and day, and the voice of mercy is ever heard to issue from within--“I am the Door; by Me if any man enter in, he shall be saved.” What is it, then, you will ask, to strive, as the Lord enjoins? and against whom, or against what, is the strife to be maintained? To this I answer, generally and primarily, the strife is against the flesh, with its affections, appetites, and lusts.
III. This, then, is the reason--to be considered in the third and last place--WHY WE ARE TO BE PROMPT, AS WELL AS EARNEST, IN THE EMPLOYMENT OF THE MEANS, THAT WE MAY NOT BE DISAPPOINTED OF THE END. A day will come, when “many shall seek to enter in, but will not be able.” And why will they not be able? Because “light came into the world, and they loved darkness rather than light”; because they were laden with incumbrances which they would not lay aside, and fettered by chains which they would not even attempt to burst; because they “troubled and vexed His Holy Spirit, until that He was turned to be their enemy, and fought against them.” They would not when they could; and when at length the error of their perverseness is made clear by dread experience as the sun at noon-day--when the death-bed comes, which is “the detector of the heart”--they cannot when they would. (T. Dale, M. A.)
The strait gate
I. THE GATE. That of which our Lord here speaks is not the gate of repentance, or of faith, or of conversion; but the gate of complete sanctification, of glory, of the kingdom of God, not at the lower end, but at the higher; not the gate at the beginning of Christian experience, but at the end of its earthly career; not Bunyan’s wicket-gate, but the gate of the city celestial. A different gate from that mentioned in Matthew 7:13, to enter which no effort is required, but simply believing. Here a battle has to be fought, and it is he that overcometh who enters in (2 Timothy 4:7; 2 Peter 1:5-7). We start from a strait gate; we run on to another strait gate. The one is at the cross; the other before the throne.
II. THE STRIVING TO ENTER. “Agonize.” The gate is hard to enter. Why? Not in the sense of admitting only a few; but, because everything that is un-Christlike is refused admission. How much, then, we have to take off and lay in the dust! Self. Pride. Worldliness. Moreover, the gate is strait in another sense. The porter is particular. Certain positive qualifications are necessary. Only the workers of righteousness are admitted: those who bear the image of Christ. (A. Scott.)
The two ways
Painting the difficulties and hardships attendant on a course of life does not seem to be the best way to attract men to it. And yet it frequently is so. Many a boy has been made a sailor by stories of shipwreck and suffering, and the martyr’s fire has often lighted new converts to the faith for which he died. The appeal to the lower motives, which says, “Do this because it is agreeable,” is a very feeble and a very shabby one, as compared with that which says, “You will have a great many difficulties on this road, but do the thing because it is right, and, therefore, in the long run, best.” So our Lord here, in these solemn and familiar words, exhorts us to discipleship, not because it is easy, but because it is hard; and warns us against the other path because of its convenience. He does not say, “Although the one gate is wide and the other narrow, yet enter,” but He says, “Because the one gate is wide, do not go in at it, and because the other is narrow, do!” Or, to put it into other words, this text exhorts us to be Christians because of the difficulties in the path, and warns us against the other road because of its seeming immunities and comforts. I shall best, I think, carry out the spirit of the words before us if I simply try to dwell upon these four particulars, and see how all of them enforce the exhortation.
I. Look then, first, at THE TWO GATES. The gates come into view merely as the means of entrance upon the path. To put into plain English the meaning of our Lord’s words, He says to us, “Be Christians because it is a great deal easier to begin to be evil than to begin to be good.” All evil things are easily commenced. It is not difficult to begin to be bad; the difficulty comes afterwards. But the gate of discipleship is narrow, because you have to make yourself small to get in at it, like Milton’s angels that had to diminish their size to enter the council chamber. It is narrow, inasmuch as you have to leave outside wealth, position, culture, righteousness, self-help, everything that is your own, or you will stick in the aperture like a loaded mule in some narrow doorway. You cannot drive through there in a carriage and pair; you must alight and walk. The surest way to get in is to go down on your knees. As in those narrow passages for defence which you find in the pre-historic houses on many a Scotch moor, where there is only a little aperture leading to a tortuous avenue, along which a man has to crawl on his face; so, if you want to get into the road that leadeth to life you have to go down very low, and abandon self, and leave ever so much rubbish outside, for it will let you in, and it will let nothing in but you. Fancy a king, like that German emperor that stood outside the gate of Canossa, in the snow, coming up to the door with all his robes on, and his crown on his head. He has to take off the crown, for the gate is not high enough to admit that. He has to strip himself of his robes, for the gate is not wide enough to admit their stiffened velvet and gold; he tries again and again to force himself through its narrowness, until he stands stripped of all but the hair shirt of penitence, and then he can get through. “Strait is the gate,” letting in one at a time, like a turnstile that admits single people and takes in none of their belongings. These are the conditions on which we become Christ’s disciples.
II. NOW, CONSIDER THE SECOND CLASS OF ENFORCEMENTS OF THE EXHORTATION DERIVED FROM THE CONTRAST OF THE WAYS. “Broad is the way,” in the one case, narrow in the other: which, being put into plain English, means that to the natural man, to flesh and blood and all that belongs to it, not only is the initial step, which makes a Christian, hard, but that to be a real Christian continues hard right along. So, be suspicious of easy roads, and turn a deaf ear to the world that says to you, “Come, and eat of my bread, for it is pleasant, and drink of the wine that I have mingled.” If you are ever in doubt about two courses, choose the unwelcome and the hard one; and in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred you will have chosen the one that God meant you to walk in. The road is broad, therefore avoid it; the way is narrow, therefore walk ye in it.
III. Again, OUR LORD DRAWS ANOTHER ARGUMENT FROM THE POPULARITY OF THE ONE PATH AND THE SPARSE TRAVELLERS UPON THE OTHER. “Many there be that go in thereat.” That is a reason for your not going in. “Few there be that find it.” That is a reason for your trying to be one of the few. “What everybody says will be true.” If you can get a perfectly unanimous vote you may rely upon it; but what the majority says is generally false. So it is in matters of opinion; so it is in conduct. The sombre thing about the world is, not that men are miserable, or that men are mortal, but that the mass of men choose to be foolish anal bad, and they do so because it is easiest. The sluggard’s motive of saving trouble shapes the lives of most of us. It is easy travelling in the ruts. A cabman will always try to get his wheel on the tram rail. It goes smoothly. We are ever disposed to swallow what everybody round about us declares to be food, even though we, in our inmost hearts, know that it is poison. Tell a man that ten thousand people go to see something, and he is sure to make the ten thousand and first as soon as he can. Tell him that nobody goes that road and he will not go it. Jesus Christ comes to us, and says--therein echoing the words and consciences of all true teachers and guides--“Be suspicious of what most people believe, and avoid what most people do.” The road is traversed by crowds. Well, that is a presumption against it. Dead fish go down the stream, living ones swim the other way. Where you are called to go, never mind though you have to go alone.
IV. Our Lord’s final argument is from THE CONTRAST OF THE ENDS. “Life”--“destruction.” The one path has an inclination upwards, while the othersteadily descends. (A. Maclaren, D. D.)
The strait gate--a sermon to children
I. THE GATE. You have gone to another part of the country to spend your holidays, or to visit friends. There is a noble castle in the neighbourhood, with beautiful grounds, trees and shrubs and flowers, and lakes with swans and all sorts of water-fowl, and other attractions which I cannot describe. You have heard much about the place, and have been told, if ever you are within reach, to be sure to go to see it. Bat when you go, the very first thing that meets your eye is the gate. That stands between you and what you so much desire to see, and your very first question is, “How am I to get in? How is the gate to be passed? Whom shall I get to open it for me?” The first thing with which you have to do is--the gate! Or, there is to be some special treat for children, nearer home. It is a gala-day. Crowds of young people in holiday dress, and all merry and in high spirits as can be, are hurrying along. All are pressing forward to a common meeting-place. You follow the crowd. You would like to get in. As they come up, they show their ticket of admission, and pass on. And as you look in wistfully after them, your thought is--the gate I the door t How could I get in? Now, it is just so with other and higher things. As to all that is good in God’s house and kingdom here, and all that is good in God’s heavenly kingdom and home yonder--the great question with each of us is, “How shall I get at it? How shall I get in?” The great question is, about the gate--the door. Now, I might get many answers to the question, “What is thegate?” Some might answer, prayer is the gate, quoting such a passage as that, “Ask, and ye shall receive; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you;” or, “Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Some might say, faith is the gate: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.” Some might say, repentance is the gate: “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” Some might say, conversion is the gate: “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Some might say, regeneration--being “born again”--is the gate: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” All these are correct, so far as they go. But I believe the best of all answers to the question, “What is the gate? “ is--Christ. Christ is the gate. So you find Himself saying, “I am the Way; no man cometh unto the Father but by Me.” And again, “I am the Door; by Me, if any man enter in, he shall be saved.” And again it is written, “ Through Him we have access,” or entrance. I shall try to explain to you how Jesus is the Gate, the Door, the Way. If you had offended some one, and he were to say that he would have nothing to do with you, would hold no communication with you except through me; that he would not listen to your application for pardon, except as it came through me; that I was the only person to whom he would listen, as seeking help for you, then I would be your “way”--“your door”--so far as he was concerned. And just so, I cannot get access to God the Father, except as coming through the Lord Jesus--in His name--making mention of Him. He is the only Mediator between God and me. I shall suppose you to be in prison, sentenced to lie there for months, or years, or for a whole lifetime, on account of some crime or for debt, or, it may be, condemned to death. I offer to take your place and become the prisoner in your stead, undertaking, as your substitute, to lie there for you as long as you should have lain, or to die for you, and you accept my offer, change places with me, and are set free. If you were asked, how you got out, you would say that you got out through me; that I opened the door for you; that I was your door out. Now that is what Jesus is and does.
II. THE STRAITNESS OF THE GATE. It is called the “strait” or narrow gate. That does not mean, as we have seen, that there is any gate of wood or iron, and that it is so small that your bodies can hardly get through, push as you will. It just means that the way of salvation is difficult--is hard--that entering in by Christ as our door of salvation, our way of life is, in many views of it, very difficult, though, in other respects, it is most simple, most easy. I might speak of “the strait gate” in other matters. For instance, you have, in some way, been misbehaving, and you cannot bring yourself to say you have done wrong, to confess your fault, and own yourself sorry for it, and promise never to do the like again. You are shut up in your room. You hear your mother’s footstep in the passage. You saw the tear in her eye, as you not only did the wrong, but refused to acknowledge it; and as you hear her at your door, and know that she is waiting there for the needed confession, it is as if a voice within cried out, “Yes; do it!” but your pride, your temper, your high spirit, will not let you, and you don’t. It is a “ strait gate.”
1. There must be the giving up of your sin. You cannot come to Christ without this. You must let your sins go. Here is a narrow entrance. A blind man comes up to it with a great bundle on his back. It would let him in, but it will not let in his bundle. Either he must let go his load, and leave it behind him, or else he must stay outside with it. Now, your sins are just such a bundle. And then they have got such a hold on you--they so cling to you--they seem a part of your very self! To give them up is like leaving an arm behind you, and that is not easy. These dear sins of yours!--who shall tell what the giving of them up is?--forsaking your badhabits, bad companions, bad books--those silly, exciting, polluting novels, and story books, and tales, which used to have such an attraction for you; renouncing your bad tempers, pride, vanity, love of dress, indolence, resentment, talebearing, selfishness, greed, and such like things. Oh, it is hard to part with these!--it is a “strait gate.” Ay, the gate is so strait, that it will not let in one consciously spared sin; and it is often one--just one--that keeps people out. They will not give it up, and the straitgate will not let it through.
2. There must be the giving up of your self-righteousness--your own goodness. By that, I do not mean that you are to cease to do any good thing that you have ever done--that you must give up doing good, just as you must give up doing evil. But I mean, that you must no more trust to your good-doing than to your evil-doing as a ground of acceptance with God. At a funeral one day I heard a minister thank God on behalf of an old saint, that, “by God’s grace, she had been enabled to give up self--sinful self and righteous self.” Now, the giving up of sinful self, as we have seen, is difficult enough; but it is not nearly so hard as the giving up of righteous self.
3. You must enter in at this gate alone. Part of the “straitness” consists in the solitariness of it. The crowd do not go that way--they do not like it.
And it is not easy to differ from other people in anything. It is not easy even to wear an article of dress unlike our neighbours. It requires a great deal of courage even to do that. Now, one must be very much alone in entering this gate. Hence one of the difficulties of it. There are two remarks, however, which I must make here, by way of encouragement, and as so far an offset to the straitness of which I have spoken. The first is, that although the gate is strait, it is open--always open. You don’t need to open it: it is open already. The second is, that though the gate is always strait, it is not so strait for children. Children can get in at small openings more easily than older and bigger people can.
III. The need of ENTERING IN. It is not enough to know about it, to think about it, to promise, to intend, to resolve. None of all these will do. You must enter in. There is a ship at sea, beating about--the wind blowing hard, the waves breaking over it. A leak is discovered--all hands are at the pumps; the water is making; darkness comes on; guns of distress are fired. There are piteous cries for help. At length, yonder is the harbour! The cry bursts forth from a hundred voices, “The harbour! the harbour! Yonder are the lights! Listen! don’t you hear the voices?” And yet they may sink in sight of the harbour, at the very mouth of it, almost in, knowing all about the entrance. And next morning it will be all the sadder to see the ship lying at the very harbour’s mouth--touching it--a wreck, and all on board perished. They did not “enter in.”
IV. The need of STRIVING, in order to enter in. That is to say, there must be earnestness, thoroughgoing earnestness--throwing ourselves with our whole heart into it, resolving never to give up, but with God’s help to win the day. And now let me ask one or two questions ere I close.
1. Are you striving? If such earnestness is needful, if the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, if without this there is no hope, no chance of being saved--what are you doing in order to be saved? Are you striving?
2. Are you letting anything keep you back? A man who had climbed up a tree overhanging a river, lost his hold. As he was falling down he caught hold of a twig, by which he hung. A boat put off for his rescue, and came alongside, just beneath him; but there he still hung, and save him they could not.. Their cry was, “Let go the twig, or we cannot save you!” and only when he let go was salvation possible. Perhaps you are holding by some “twig,” some sin, some fancied goodness, refusing to give it up. I would leave this word to ring in the ear of such: “Let go the twig! Let go the twig! Let nothing keep you back!”
3. Are you putting off? You have no security for to-morrow. No day is yours but to-day. What a bitter thought it will be, that you might have entered in, and you would not, and so are for ever shut out I (J. H. Wilson, M. A.)
The difficulties of a Christian life considered
I. THE DUTY ENJOINED.
1. The course of a holy and Christian life, in order to the obtaining of eternal happiness, is here represented to us by a way, which every man that would come to heaven, must walk in. For so St. Matthew (who expresseth this more fully) makes mention of a way, as well as a gate, by which we must enter into it--“Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, that leadeth to life.” And this, though it be not expressed by St. Luke, is necessarily understood--“Strive to enter in at the strait gate”; that is, into the way that leads to life.
2. The first difficulties of a holy and religious course of life are here represented to us by a strait gate. For the gate at which we enter, and the way in which we walk, can signify nothing else, but the beginning and progress of a holy and religious course. Now these difficulties are either from ourselves or from something without us.
(1) From ourselves; from the original corruption and depravation of our nature, and the power of evil habits and customs, contracted by vicious practices. Our natures are vitiated and depraved, inclined to evil, and impotent to good; besides that, being habituated to sin and vice, it is a matter of infinite difficulty to break off a custom, and to turn the course of our life another way. Now, because this is the difficulty of our first entrance into religion, it is represented by a strait gate, which is hard to get through.
(2) There are, likewise, other difficulties from without; as, namely, the opposition and persecution of the world, which was very raging and violent in the first beginnings of Christianity. And this our Saviour represents by the ruggedness and roughness of the way, as St. Matthew expresseth it Matthew 7:14).
3. Our diligence and constancy in this course are represented by “striving,” a word which hath a great force and emphasis in it, ἀγνωίζεσθε, a metaphor taken from the earnest contention which was used in the Olympic games by those who strove for mastery in running or wrestling, or any of the other exercises which were there used. And to the business of religion, if we will set upon it in good earnest, these three things are required:
(1) A mighty resolution to engage us in a holy and Christian course.
(2) Great diligence and industry to carry us on in it.
(3) An invincible constancy to carry us through it, and make us persevere in it to the end.
4. The difficulties of a holy and a Christian life are not so great and insuperable as to be a just ground of discouragement to our endeavours.
(1) Consider the assistance which the gospel offers to us. By the assistance of the Holy Spirit, which is promised to us, we may conquer all difficulties.
(2) Consider, that the greatest difficulties are at first; it is but making one manful onset, and sustaining the first brunt, and the difficulties will abate and grow less, and our strength will every day increase and grow more. The gate is strait; but when we have once got through it, “our feet will be set in an open place.”
(3) Consider that custom will make religion easy to us.
(4) Consider the reward that religion propounds, and this must needs sweeten and mitigate all the troubles and difficulties that are occasioned by it. This “strait gate” through which we must enter, and this “craggy way” which we are to climb up, leads to life, and he is a lazy man, indeed, that will not strive and struggle for life.
II. Here is a REASON ADDED TO ENFORCE THE EXHORTATION or duty; “for many shall seek to enter in, and shall not be able”: that is, there are a great many that will do something in Christianity, and make some faint attempts to get to heaven, who yet shall fall short of it, for want of such a firm resolution and earnestness of endeavour, as it is necessary to the attaining of it.
1. Some trust to the external profession of the true religion.
2. Others have attained to a good degree of knowledge in religion, and they rely much upon that.
3. There are others that find themselves much affected with the Word of God, and the doctrines contained in it.
4. Others are very strict and devout in the external worship of God.
5. Others confide much in their being members of the only true Church, in which alone salvation is to be had, and in the manifold privileges and advantages which therein they have above others of getting to heaven.
6. Others think their great zeal for God and His true religion will certainly save them.
7. Others go a great way in the real practice of religion.
8. Others rely much upon the sincerity of their repentance and conversion, whereby they are put into a state of grace, and become the children of God, and heirs of everlasting life; and being once truly so, they can never fall from that state, so as finally to miscarry.
9. Others venture all upon a death-bed repentance, and their importunity with God to receive them to mercy at the last. (Archbishop Tillotson.)
The Christian’s journal
The thing that I will chiefly labour in, is (according to the drift of the place) to show what things ought of necessity to be in every one that would be saved. It will be excellent matter of direction to all those that are yet unconverted, and of resolution and confirmation to such as have truly cared to walk the way that leadeth unto life.
1. The first thing which by authority of this text of Scripture ought to be in every one that desireth salvation, is a right understanding and a true acknowledgment of his own wandering. Reason itself must needs yield to this in other things, and it must needs be true in this. How shall I persuade a man to enter into the strait gate, if he do not feel and perceive himself to be in a way in which it is not safe for him to continue? If we look into the Scripture we shall see good proof for this point, namely, that the acknowledgment of our by-past error is the very first degree unto sound conversion. Deceive we not ourselves, either we must begin here at the sight of our old errors, or else we can never tread the path that leadeth unto life.
2. The next thing which by the rule of my text must be in every one that would be saved, is, care to seek out the true way, and that path, which leadeth and bringeth the goers in it unto life. This is plain also (as to me seemeth) by this Scripture; for as the light of a man’s ancient wandering must go before his entrance into a new course, so of necessity when he perceiveth his errors, the right way must be sought outs and certainly understood, before he can enter there into; so that He which bids me enter into the gate of life, bids me withal to seek where that gate is, for otherwise my desire of entrance is in vain. If a master do will his servant to go to such a house, it is presupposed that either he cloth know the way to it, or else must make inquiry for it. And this care to inquire out the true way in this particular, is the plain doctrine of the Scripture (Jer 6:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:24; Acts 17:11; 1 Kings 18:21).
3. The third thing which this text necessarily commendeth unto us, if we would be saved, is a resolution when we have felt our error, and found the right way and the true gate, all delays laid aside to make a present entry. If you ask how I prove this by my text, I thus make it manifest. So here, the commandment and charge being given indefinitely, without any express limitation of any set time, it fol-loweth that it is presently to be performed. Our Saviour saith not, enter hereafter when thou art more at leisure; or to the young man, enter when thou art old; or to the old man, enter when thou art a-dying; or to the covetous man, enter when thou hast glutted thy desire with wealth; or to the drunkard, enter when thou art utterly disabled that thou canst be drunk no longer: but He saith to all, at the instant “Enter”; do it presently, do it straightway, defer not to do it. And this is also the plain doctrine of the Scripture--“I made haste,” saith David, “and I delayed not to keep Thy commandments.” It is commended in Peter and Andrew, that when Christ called them, they left their nets straightway. When Christ called Zaccheus, the text saith, that he “came down hastily.” The reason why there must be a resolution of present entrance is, because as there is a time of grace, in the which the gate of mercy stands open, so there is a time of judgment, in which this gate mill be shut up, and all hope of entry utterly removed.
4. The fourth thing which now followeth to be treated of, is the entrance itself; our former wandering must be felt, the right and true way must be sought for; when it is found, a resolution of present entrance must be put on; and then next we must put forward. “Enter in at the strait gate.” To this act of entrance there are two things required, the first is (that I may use terms agreeable to my text) stooping; the second, a stripping of ourselves of whatsoever may hinder our entrance. First, there must be a kind of stooping, because the coming in is low. It is said of heaven in the Scripture, that “it is a house not made with hands.” Now, as in the matter thereof it is differing from our earthly buildings, so is it in the framing and contriving of it. In great men’s houses, it is a great eyesore to see a little, low, and pinching entry to a large and spacious dwelling; but to the end all things may be answerable, as the house is of great receipt, so the gates must be high and lofty, and the coming in according. But now in this house which is eternal in the heavens it is otherwise. Indeed it is large within, “For in My Father’s house” (saith Christ) “are many mansions”; but yet the gate unto it is exceeding low, the entry narrow, the passing in very strait. It is the gate of humility. Well, it followeth, together with this stooping, there must go (as I said) a certain stripping of ourselves also; he that would go through a strait way, a narrow entry, it is no wisdom for him to clog himself with many things about him; he had need rather to lighten himself, that he may go through with the greater ease. The covetous man with his bags, the swearer with his great oaths, that malicious man that swells with his malice, the ambitious with his high thoughts, the vicious with his minions, the drunkard with his full cups; these and the like to these can never enter here with their dependances. What sin soever thou hast formerly delighted in, if it were to thee as thy right hand, or thy right eye, thou must cut it off and cast it from thee, thou must strive to strip thyself of it, or else this gate is much too little for thee to go in at. This is like the hole the snake creepeth through, where he leaves his old skin behind him. If thou mean to come here, thou must then say with St. Peter, “It is enough for me that I have spent the time past of my life, after the lusts of the Gentiles, walking in wantonness, lusts, drunkenness, gluttony, drinkings, and in abominable idolatries.” Other things, better things, are now expected of me; even that henceforth, “I should live, not after the lusts of men, but after the will of God.” It is an excellent place. I could bring in a cloud of witnesses to make good this point, that old sins must be stripped off, when we once put our foot to the threshold of this strait gate.
5. The fifth thing, then, which by the authority and strength of this text ought to be in every one that desireth salvation, is a continual proceeding and going on in good things. I doubt not but you shall see this plainly proved to be comprehended in the text. Our Saviour here compareth heaven to a place from which by nature we are all estranged; true religion is the way leading unto it, humility (the denial of ourselves, and the renouncing the bypast pleasures of sin) is the gate entering us into this way. Now the use, you know, of a way, is for travellers, not for idle loiterers, or vain gazers, or time-deluding triflers; such is this spiritual way, it is a way leading to life, and therefore requireth a continual proceeding, from step to step, from grace to grace, without desisting, without tiring, until the journey’s end be reached unto: and this is the express doctrine of the Scripture. The enterers into this gate of life must not stand (as it were) about the door, and sit them down as soon as they have begun to taste of good things, but there is a way before them to be travelled in; and, as through the necessity of nature, they come every day nearer to the end of their days, so by the power of grace they must strive to come every day nearer to the end of their faith, the salvation of their souls. Let us apply it.
(1) To reprove that which hath been reproved often, but is not yet reformed, and that is our slackness, and our sluggishness in spiritual things.
(2) Well, for a second use; if it be so dangerous a thing not to go forward, what is it, think we, to go backward, to decay, and grow cold in our love to good things. “Their last state” (saith our Saviour) “will be worse than their first.” And, “it is better not to have known the way of righteousness, than after they have known, to turn from the holy commandment given unto them.” The evil spirit that is once cast out, bringeth with him “seven devils worse than himself.” Now to this going on and proceeding in the way to life there are sundry things belonging which it is very meet that we should be made acquainted with; they are impertinent neither to the matter nor to the text.
1. The first is, continual guidance and direction. A man that is to journey in a way unknown will not be satisfied with this alone that he is set into the right way, but considering the possibility of erring, he will furnish himself with as many directions as he can, glad he will be of any man’s company that understandeth the way; sometime he will be at the charge rather than fail to hire a man that may conduct him. The way of peace which leadeth unto happiness, is a way which flesh and blood is not acquainted with, and the nature of man is of itself very subject to mistaking; therefore his duty that would grow in godliness is to get unto him the direction of some sure guide, which will not deceive him, that so he may not fail of the end and mark which he desireth. The head guide is the Lord Jesus, He hath recommended His directions unto us in His Word; and for the common benefit and instruction of His Church, He hath given gifts unto men, and enabled them to lay open the mystery of the Scripture, and by this His ordinance He guides and directs those that are in His eternal counsel ordained unto life.
2. The second thing that must accompany our purpose of going on in the way to happiness, is circumspection and an earnest heeding of our course. So much is very manifest by the text. You see here, that as the gate of entrance is termed “strait,” so the way of progress is called “narrow.” Now a narrow way requireth heedfulness, a little slipping, or going to this side or that, may breed a great deal of inconvenience. And if we examine the
Scripture we shall see the like heed-taking required in this spiritual journey. The third thing which must accompany our purpose of going on in the way of happiness is a resolution and preparation for such encumbrances as may meet us on the way. It is wisdom, we know, in travelling to be prepared for the weather, to be armed against such as lie in wait to spoil, and do many times make a prey of the goods, nay even of the lives, of the passersby, so in this case, inasmuch as a man intending to proceed in the ways of God shall be assaulted with many grievances, it is good policy both to put on a resolution to wrestle with them, and to be armed so that he may prevail against them. The last thing which must accompany our purpose of going on, is an often calling the course passed to an account, to see whether it be right and straight, yea or no; he who journeyeth in a way which he is not acquainted with, it is wisdom for him ever and anon to be mindful of the directions which were given him, and to remember the marks which were told him, the turnings and the by-paths which he was warned of, to the end that by thinking hereupon, if he finds he is right, he may proceed with comfort; if he be deceived, he may return quickly before he has wandered too far and erred overmuch. So it must be in this way. (S. Hieron.)
The narrow way, and the broad way
To insist in virtuous courses, and to attain at length to everlasting bliss, is no easy achievement. To be saved is a very difficult matter. There must be great pains and labour in getting through the gate. In which words you may observe these two general parts.
1. An exhortation to an important duty--“Enter ye in at the strait gate.”
2. The reasons and arguments to enforce the practice of this duty, and they are two. The first is taken from the easiness of the contrary performance, and the multitude of those that perish by it. “For wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there be that go in thereat.” The second argument is taken from the difficulty of this duty, and the paucity of those who perform it aright, and consequently attain to life and happiness. “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”
I. IT IS FAR MORE HARD AND DIFFICULT TO BE TRULY HOLY, AND TO ENTER INTO HEAVEN AND HAPPINESS, THAN MEN COMMONLY IMAGINE. This is founded upon these positive words of our Saviour, “ Strait is the gate,” &c. This happens thus upon this twofold account.
1. By reason of the great things which are to be done by us in order to salvation.
2. Because of the great things which are to be suffered by us.
3. (and which comprehends the former) In regard of the great and powerful enemies that we are to encounter with.
II. My second proposition (which is indeed the consequent of which I have been insisting upon) is this, that OF ALL THE MEN IN THE WORLD THERE ARE BUT FEW THAT ATTAIN TO HEAVEN AND HAPPINESS. The number of them that shall be saved is very little in respect of those that shall be damned. Our Saviour not only tells us that “ Strait is the gate and narrow the way which leadeth unto life,” but He adds this also, “Few there be that find it.” Absolutely speaking, many are saved; but speaking comparatively, very few. The New Jerusalem hath more gates than one (as it is described in Revelation 22:1-21.), i.e., as I conceive, many enter into it. But, notwithstanding this, it is likewise an undeniable truth that vast numbers are shut out of the New Jerusalem--yea, many more are excluded than are let in. The greatest number of men are wicked, and follow their evil courses, and perish everlastingly. Weeds and briars grow apace, and fill every field and hedge, but useful flowers and plants are more scarce. Godliness is rare, and hath few followers; but the wicked are very numerous. Sinners go by whole troops to hell. You may behold multitudes of men and women posting with all haste in the broad way. That road is beaten and frequented. The number is very great of scandalous and ungodly men, but there are very few that live according to the rules of the gospel, and attain to celestial bliss and glory.
1. To begin with that which was the sad beginning of all our miseries, it must needs be that the number of those who are saved is but little in comparison of those that are damned; and also that it is a very difficult thing to attain to salvation and happiness; it must needs be so, I say, because of the great shipwreck at Adam’s fall. Many were cast away in that bottom. For that first man carried our concerns and effects in his vessel, and when this split on the rock we were all shattered and plunged into misery. Truly it is a wonder that any escaped and got to shore safe.
2. There is in most men a wilful ignorance of the way to salvation, and of their own good and welfare; and this may be assigned as a main cause why so few are saved. How many ignorant souls are there who content themselves with their dark road that they are in? They see others striving to enter in at the strait gate, and they observe that they put themselves to a great deal of trouble and pains; wherefore they, for their part, continue in the blind and obscure path which they have taken, and there they live at ease, and indulge their follies, and are not solicitous to correct them. A considerable part of the Christian world is ruined by this means.
3. Unbelief damns a great part of the world, and causes the number of the blessed to be so scarce. A fault of the will, as well as of the understanding.
4. This may be assigned as another reason why the number of those that are saved is but small, in comparison of the great multitudes that are damned, namely, because men nourish insensibleness and security, and will not be affected with the wretchedness of their condition. There are few that have a sense of the burden of their sins; and how then can it be expected that they should have a desire to be eased of it? Where sin lies light, the salvation by Christ Jesus is ever vilified and disrespected.
5. Pride and self-conceit are another cause why so great multitudes of men fall short of salvation and happiness, and why the number of those that are saved is so rare. It is no wonder that the gospel salvation is everywhere slighted, since it so directly crosses the grain of our nature--I mean, our high opinion of ourselves.
6. The way to life must needs be difficult, and few there be that find it, because men s deceive themselves. This is an undeniable truth (though the generality of the world will not acknowledge it) that there is a cheat in every sin, and that men are grossly deluded and imposed upon by the commission of it. Hence in Scripture you read of the “deceitfulness of riches” (Matthew 13:22), and “deceitful lusts” (Ephesians 4:22), and the “deceivableness of unrighteousness” (2 Thessalonians 2:10), and the “ deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13). All which acquaints us that when a man breaks God’s laws, and acts contrary to his duty, he deceives and cozens himself. The spirit of folly and vanity reigns in him; his judgment of things is nothing but fond mistake and dotage. False propositions are entertained by him, and his whole life is a delusion.
It remains now that I make some inferences from both the propositions which I insisted upon--
1. From the difficulty of being saved.
2. From the paucity of those that are saved.
Is it so hard a thing to be saved?--then make it not harder. Is the way to heaven so narrow, and the gate strait?--then do not make it straiter than it is. Stop not up the way by your own fault. You have no need to render heaven and happiness more difficult than indeed they are. Take it in these two particulars, straiten not the gate--
(1) By limiting the grace of God.
(2) By imposing unnecessary austerities on yourselves.
2. In the second place, then, is the gate so strait, is the way to heaven so difficult?--then the fond opinion of those men is baffled and confuted who persuade themselves that the purchase of heaven is cheap and easy. They need not take much pains, they say, to attain to happiness. God made man for it, and He will be sure to bestow it on him. Hence they take no care how they act; they sit still, and carelessly look about them, but never mind their proper duty and concern. They hope to get to heaven as well as the best, but they are never solicitous about the way to it. This is a sign indeed that they think it an easy thing to get thither. They must take it with all its hardships.
3. Seriously sit down, and think how few there are in the whole heap and herd of mankind that attain to heaven. This is a seasonable inference from the foregoing doctrine. Your thoughts and meditations cannot be exercised about a more important subject than this.
4. This doctrine which I have been discoursing of to you reproves the guise and manner of life which most men addict themselves to.
5. This doctrine which I have treated of is encouragement to those that are reproached for singularity and preciseness, and because they will not do as others de because they will not swim with the stream, but bear up against it, and go cross to the sinful world. Let this comfort them that they are not in the broad way, the way which is trod by most, which leads to destruction; but that they have chosen the narrow way, which certainly conducts them to life and bliss.
6. Then I may add this, in the next place, as a proper inference, make not multitude or number an argument in actions of religion. It is reported of a certain pagan king that, being persuaded to be baptized, standing at the font, he asked to what place his predecessors, or most of them, were gone. It was answered they went to hell. To which he replied, “It is best to follow the most rather than the fewest”; and so refused to receive baptism and persisted still in his paganism. The very same argument induces men generally to perish eternally rather than to walk in the way of holiness, and be everlastingly happy. They will do as the most do, whatever comes of it. But do not you think that to be best which is done by the most, and think not that it is safest to go with the crowd. For as multitude excuses not a man from sin; so neither will it privilege him from punishment.
7. Bless God that you are in this way; magnify His holy name, that you have been directed by the spirit of grace to leave the wide path of sin, and to walk in the narrow and strait way which leads to life and happiness.
8. You that have this singular favour conferred upon you, you that have been directed into the narrow way which conducts you to life and happiness, you that are so eminently distinguished from others, you that are so few in number--see that ye be kindly and friendly to one another. You are but a little flock, you are a poor remnant, you are despised and hated by the world; let this remind you of loving one another more.
9. If so few are saved, then you who doubt whether you be of those few, examine yourselves. Search and try your state and condition. Many are called, but few are chosen. There are many in the Church, but few true saints. Therefore suspect yourselves, be anxious and solicitous to know what you are.
10. Then, if there be but few that shall be saved, be sure that you be of that number. When a fatal pestilence enters into a city or town, and begins to spread itself and to infect the neighbourhood, you may take notice how busy men are at such a time in pro riding for their safety, and in securing themselves from the spreading contagion, Should you not be much more busy and solicitous when sin, the worst of plagues, spreads itself far and near, and disperses its contagion in all places, and amongst all sorts of persons, and when so many die of it, and everlastingly perish? Should you not be very careful to provide for your safety and security, to avoid the fatal infection of sin? Should you not labour to be of that small number who shall not be destroyed by it? And how is this to be done? Take it in brief thus--Live the life of those few that shall be saved. Act, and walk, and behave yourselves in all things as those that are the small elect number of true Christian believers. Let your conversation be as becomes the gospel of Christ.
III. The third and last proposition grounded on the words, and that is this, THOUGH THE GATE RE SO STRAIT AND THE WAY SO NARROW, YET IT IS OUR INDISPENSABLE CONCERN TO ENTER INTO THEM, AND IN ORDER TO THAT TO STRIVE. There is no entering into the gate of life without striving; therefore make it the business of your whole life to strive that you may enter.
1. I say, it must be early. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness.” We must make our religion our first care and business. Go into the narrow way speedily, enter into the strait gate presently, before thou art old and decrepid, and canst not be able to get through. Observe how wicked men make haste and delay not to follow their evil ways, and to provoke God, and to act all things unworthily and basely. They crowd so fast into the broad way that one would believe they thought there would not be room enough to hold them unless they made haste. But in the way of life you move slowly, you rid no ground, but you fondly hope that with your soft and easy pace you shall arrive in good time at heaven and happiness. But be not mistaken. This dull pace will not reach heaven.
2. Your striving must be earnest. It must be with great intenseness, vigour, and zeal. “The kingdom of heaven must suffer violence; and the violent take it by force.” The Kingdom of Heaven is got by those that “thrust”: so the Greek properly is to be rendered. If you would enter in at the strait gate, you must thrust and push forwards, you must make your way with violence and force. It was the resolve of that famous Punic general in his march over the Alps to find, or make way.
3. Tour striving must he constant and persevering. Our striving, as it must begin betimes, so it must continue to the end. As it must be earnest, so it must be frequent and lasting. Assiduity must be joined to earnestness and fervency. No time is to be omitted and neglected, you must in season and out of season, night and day, prosecute this great design. It is said that if a man has once learned to swim he can never forget it, or lose it by long disuse. I am sure it is not so with any moral and spiritual actions. They must be repeated and renewed by constant exercise, or else they will fail. Wherefore the apostle’s exhortation is seasonable (1 Timothy 4:7). I will now offer to you two weighty considerations, which you must always have before you, and by the influence of them you will be moved to strive, and that with great zeal, although the greatest difficulties lie in your way
The considerations are these:
1. Take notice how men strive for the world.
2. Observe how they strive and take pains in the pursuit of sin.
1. I say, consider hew men strive and contend, work and take pains, sweat and toil, to purchase the riches, delights, and honours of the world. And shall they be so solicitous and laborious for their worldly and secular advantage? And wilt not thou strive and labour for the true riches, durable pleasures, and heavenly honours? You must make their practice your example and pattern, i.e., you must strive as much for heaven as they do for earth. It was, I remember, the saying of Cardinal Wolsey, that great and rich prelate, when he grew out of favour, and was sent for, and seized in the king’s name, “Had I served God,” said he, “as truly and carefully as I have served my master, my sovereign, He would not have forsaken me as this doth.” This will be a sad and forlorn reflection to any of you, that you took more pains please man than God; to purchase the favour of some great one rather than His whose favour is better than life. It will be grievous to remember that you toiled and laboured, and disturbed your rest, and incurred innumerable hazards to become wealthy and gain an estate in the world, and yet that you were unconcerned in the business of your immortal souls, that you never took any pains, or lost an hour’s sleep about it. This will be a killing reflection to you when you come to die. Be persuaded, therefore, to prevent it by your speedy care and endeavours, by employing your chief time and labour in working out your salvation.
2. Now I will pass to the second, which is this: Consider how men strive and take pains in the pursuit of sin and wickedness, and in the ways of hell and destruction; and let this excite you to be as laborious and diligent in the pursuit of goodness and blessedness. The kingdom of darkness (as well as the kingdom of heaven) suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. Men sweat and toil to purchase damnation. Let this make you ashamed, when you are apt to complain of the strait gate. Remember, that vice as well as virtue hath its hardships, yea it hath many more. To gratify a vain lust, how strangely sometimes do men deprive themselves of all their ease and peace, all their rest and quiet, and plunge themselves into unspeakable sorrows, disturbances, and distractions? Quit not then the way of holiness because of some difficulties which you meet with in it; but consider that there are more difficulties that attend a sinful life. The narrow way is more easy than the broad one. When thou art once used to it, thou wilt find it to be such. And now, in the last place, I have several plain and practical directions to offer to you, by the help of which your striving to enter in at the strait gate will certainly be effectual and successful. The first help is earnest prayer; the second is seriousness, and being in good earnest; the third is to resist the first beginnings of sin; the fourth is to make a conscience of the least sin; the fifth, to avoid the appearance of evil; the sixth, to be always fearful. (John Edwards, D. D.)
Will seek to enter in, and shall not be able
Many seek to enter in, but are not able.
1. When they will enter in through another door than the narrow one.
2. When they will enter in through the narrow door indeed, but only if they have made it somewhat wider.
3. When they will enter in through the narrow door indeed, but without leaving behind what cannot be taken along. (Van Oosterzee.)
The grand disappointment
I. THE WAY OF ENTRANCE INTO THE STRAIT GATE. The way of entering on a truly religious course, and the way of entering into heaven, are precisely the same. We must enter the former by faith in Christ, and by the same means must we enter the latter.
1. A few remarks occur here. One is, that Christian diligence and labour can only be effectual through the aid of the blessed Spirit of God.
2. Another remark is, that labour is quickened by prayer. This strengthens our feeble hands, and calls down those supplies which raise the feeble efforts of nature into the powerful efforts of grace.
3. A still further remark which occurs here is, that the Christian’s labour will not extend beyond this life. The Scripture teaches us to conceive of heaven by a few simple ideas. One of those ideas which is particularly soothing and delightful is that of rest. There may be active employment in heaven, but there will be no toil. Be patient then, brethren, under all your labours, whether of the body or of the mind.
II. WE ARE TO CONSIDER THE CHARACTERS, WHO, SEEKING TO ENTER INTO THE STRAIT GATE, SHALL BE REFUSED. “They shall seek to enter in, and shall not be able.”
1. The negligent.
2. He who contents himself with mere desires for his religious good.
3. The scorner.
4. He who criminally mistakes the path of life.
By this subject--
1. We are taught the personal and individual character of true religion.
2. We are taught how groundless are the fears which our text may sometimes have occasioned in the minds of the sincere and upright. (Essex Remembrancer.)
I. MANY PROFESSORS ARE DECEIVED. So the text teaches us. It does not say, “a few may be misled,” but many shall seek to enter in, and shall not be able. That many professors are deceived is clear enough from the language of Christ Himself, both here and in other places.
II. IT IS NOT SURPRISING THAT THERE ARE FALSE PROFESSORS. There is an imitation of the externals of godliness which it is not easy to detect. Art can carve a statue so that it almost breathes; and some of us in looking at very skilful paintings have mistaken them for realities. In a notable picture in the exhibition, you will have noticed an imitation of sunlight shining under a door, so well effected, that many go up to it to ascertain if it be not really a gleam from the sun. We know that men can counterfeit coins and notes so well that only the most experienced can detect them; and in all commercial transactions men are so well aware of the subtlety of their fellows that they look well lest they be deceived. The vital mysteries of godliness are mysterious: the inner life cannot be perceived by the carnal eye, and the outer life of the godly seemeth to most men to be but morality carried out with care; and hence it becomes but a very simple task for a man to make himself look just like a Christian, so as to deceive the very elect. To learn by heart that which others say from the heart--to get the outline of a believer’s experience, and then to adapt it skilfully to one’s self as our experience--this is a thing so simple, that, instead of wondering that there are hypocrites, I often marvel that there are not ten times more. And then, again, the graces--the real graces within are very easy to counterfeit. There is a repentance that needeth to be repented of--and yet it approaches near as possible to true repentance. Does repentance make men hate sin? They who have a false repentance may detest some crimes. Does repentance make men resolve that they will not sin? So will this false repentance; for Balaam said, “If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I will not go beyond the word of the Lord.” Does true repentance make men humble themselves? So does false repentance; for Ahab humbled himself before God, and yet he perished. And as for faith, how easy it is to counterfeit this I Even in Christ’s day, there was a faith which wrought miracles but did not save the soul; and Paul tells us that if we had a faith which could remove mountains, yet if we had not charity, it would profit us nothing. Dear friends, let us remember, too, that there are so many things which help a man to deceive himself. He himself is naturally disposed to be very partial. “Let well alone,” is a proverb which most men have learned. Very few men care to look at the worst of their own state; they would rather say, “Peace, peace,” than think too harshly of themselves. What man ever gave himself a bad character? or if he did, what man could not abundantly excuse himself for having such a character? Then there is the devil, who never wants us to be too careful, for heedlessness is one of the nets in which he takes his prey.
III. THIS DELUSION MAY CONTINUE THROUGHOUT LIFE, EVEN TO THE LAST MOMENT.
IV. The next point is this--that this delusion, even to the last, MAY SEEM TO HAVE THE MOST EXCELLENT ARGUMENTS TO SUPPORT IT. I shall prove this from Scripture. A man may be a deceiver, and he may accomplish his task all the more readily because he can say, “I have made and I have maintained a very respectable profession in the Church. I do not know that I have ever tarnished my character; I believe I am looked upon by most people as a pattern and example.” Yes, this may be all correct, and yet you may be shut out at the last. Again, some may bring a very careful outward observance of religion as an excellent argument, and think the conclusion to be drawn therefrom to be very satisfactory. “Lord, we have eaten and drank in Thy presence, and Thou has preached in our streets.” You have been baptized; you are always at the Lord’s table; your pew always sees you in it whenever the doors are opened. All this is very proper and right; but it may all help to make you more easily deceived. You may conclude that you must be right because of this; and yet, the Master may say, “I never knew you.” If means of grace could raise men to heaven, Capernaum would not have been cast down to hell. O friends, your preachings, prayings, almsgivings, tract distributings, unless grace be in you, help you in your delusion, and make it the more difficult to arouse you from it.
V. And now to the last point, this delusion may last through life, and be sustained by many specious arguments, but IT MUST ALL BE DISPELLED. (C.
Philip Henry’s dying advice
Mr. Philip Henry said to some of his neighbours who came to see him on his death-bed, “Oh, make sure work for your souls, my friends, by getting an interest in Christ while you are in health! If I had that work to do now, what would become of me? I bless God, I am satisfied. See to it, all of you, that your work be not undone when your time is done, lest you be undone for ever.”
The one journey through the world
“When I was a young man,” says James Simpson, “there lived a man in our neighbourhood who was universally reported to be uncommonly liberal in his dealings. When he had any of the produce of his farm to dispose of, he made it an invariable rule to give good measure--over good, rather more than could be required of him. One of his friends, observing his frequently doing so, questioned him why he did it, told him he gave too much, and said it would not be to his own advantage. Now mark the answer of this man: ‘God Almighty has given me but one journey through the world, and, when gone, I cannot return to rectify mistakes.’ Think of this, friends--but one journey through the world.”
Heaven is worth striving for
The difficulty of obtaining shows the excellency; and, surely, if you consider but what it cost Christ to purchase it; what it costs God’s Spirit to bring men’s hearts to it; what it costs ministers to persuade to it; what it costs Christians, after all this, to obtain it; and what it costs many a half-Christian that, after all, goes without it; you will say, that here is difficulty, and therefore excellency. Trifles may be had at a trivial rate, and men may have damnation far more easily. It is but to lie still, and sleep out our days in careless laziness. It is but to take our pleasure, and mind the world, and cast away the thoughts of sin, and grace, and Christ, and heaven, and hell, out of our minds; and do as the most do, and never trouble ourselves about these high things, but venture our souls upon our presumptuous conceits and hopes, and let the vessel swim which way it will; and then stream, and wind, and tide, will all help us apace to the gulf of perdition. You may burn a hundred houses easier than build one; and kill a thousand men, than make one alive. The descent is easy, the ascent not so. To bring diseases is but to cherish sloth; please the appetite, and take what most delights us: but to cure them, will cost bitter pills, loathsome potions, tedious gripings, abstemious, accurate living, and perhaps all fall short too. He that made the way, and knows the way better than we, hath told us “it is narrow and strait,” and requires striving; and they that have paced it more truly and observantly than we, do tell us it lies through many tribulations, and is with much ado passed through. Conclude, then, it is surely somewhat worth that must cost all this. (R. Baxter.)
When once the Master of the house hath risen up
False dependence on Church privileges
In the eyes of Him who “seeth not as man seeth,” who readeth the heart and weigheth actions in the balances of the sanctuary, the worker of iniquity is not only the man who disregards religion and commits open wickedness; but also he who, if he avoid certain sins, avoids them not because he fears God or is constrained by Christ’s love, and who, if motives were analyzed, would be found to have regard to the good opinion of the world, rather than to the will and the glory of Him who called him into being.
You must search your hearts. You must see whether God be first in your hearts; whether your great fear be the fear of offending Him--your great desire, the desire of pleasing Him; whether “old things have passed away,” and “new things”--new tendencies, new upon outward privileges. “The kingdom of God is within you.” I do not depreciate the means of grace. The “workers of iniquity” may be those who delight in sermons and never miss a sacrament. This is not my assertion; I draw no picture from imagination; I ask you not to conjecture a case. But I may suppose the judgment past; the Son of Man hath appeared in the clouds of the heavens; He hath gathered to Himself a great company from the east and west, from the north and South; yea, with “a multitude which no man can number, out of every people and tribe and tongue,” He hath sat down to the banquet, to which, from the beginning, He had invited our race. And there are numbers excluded: some “speechless,” as though conscience-stricken, forced to own to themselves the justice of their exclusion. But there are others who press on with a bold front, as though they believed that “the door” had been closed by mistake, and would be opened to them so soon as they knocked. Who are these? Are these the open despisers of religion--the extortionate, the adulterer, the profane, the neglecter of ordinances, the scorner of mysteries, the scoffer at righteousness? Nay, not so. I never read of such as knocking for admission. Such may be of those who cry passionately to the rocks and to the hills to cover them; but not, so far as we are told, of those who expect entrance when the door has been closed. These are rather persons who lived in the profession of Christianity; whom the Sabbath saw regular in attendance on the ordinances of the Church; of whom ministers were hopeful, because they always found them using the means of grace; who, nevertheless, were uncircumcised at heart, and had not given themselves up for “a habitation of God through the Spirit.” Yes, ye diligent hearers, ye constant communicants l take ye this on the authority of the Judge Himself; ponder this when ye go hence; be heedful that ye rest not satisfied with your state if ye have no better evidence than is thus to prove worthless at the last. The parties who shall “knock,” and who shall then be rejected as “workers of iniquity,” shall be those who can say--and that too without being contradicted--We have eaten and drunk in Thy presence, and Thou hast taught in our streets.” (H. Melvill, B. D.)
Almost saved, yet rejected
There are multitudes who will go a long way towards heaven and then stop short. They will give up everything but one thing for Christ, and therefore are they near heaven; but they keep that one, and therefore must they be excluded at the last. And it will be their having been so near which shall give such terror and fearfulness to the final exclusion. Almost believers upon earth, they are almost guests at the marriage-supper above. Oh! that voice--the known voice of the Redeemer--the voice which had often been heard in the proclamations of the gospel--how thrillingly will it come from the midst of the rejoicing assembly! how terrible will be the utterance, I know you not, whence ye are I Any voice rather than that voice. It will remind the almost Christian of what had been once in his power. His very recognition of the voice will so force on him the conviction that he might have made a covenant with Christ, that perhaps the bitterest thing of all in his banishment from heaven will be that the sentence proceeds from such lips. He could bear it better if an angel or an archangel syllabled the decree--though the voice might be awful as that of “many waters” when the fierce storm has roused them. But the voice which he had been wont to hear in the sanctuary, the voice which had spoken to him of pardon, the voice which even from the Cross had breathed the touching words, “ Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do “--the voice which, as he was used to think, had addressed him in friendship, and promised him immortality--to hear this voice, too well remembered, bidding him “depart” when he knocks for admission--terror of terrors! keenest, hardest thing of all! What shall torment a man in hell like the consciousness that he had been almost in heaven? Thus it is to be. The men who “have eaten and drunk in Christ’s presence” are to go to the very gate, to see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob admitted to the banquet, to distinguish the voice of the Redeemer as answer is made to them from the celestial hall, and then they are themselves to “go away into outer darkness!” Well may our Lord add, as He does, “There shall be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.” I would that this might warn you; that this might startle you. If there are any of you who are resting on outward duties and privileges, and have not given your hearts to the Lord, oh! do not shrink from self-examination; be not afraid to know the worst. The “Master of the house” hath not yet “risen up and shut to the door.”
You may still secure for yourselves admission at the last. (H. Melvill, B. D. )
Depart from Me
Exile from God
This world basks in the sunshine of Deity, and it scarcely knows the genial summer which it thereby enjoys. We would attempt to measure the extent of the blessing by considering the consequences of its withdrawal. When the solemn words, “Depart from Me,” shall have died away upon the ears of the banished multitudes, in what state of being will they find themselves? What sort of existence will stretch out before them? “Absence from God,” this is their sentence. We would inquire into what that sentence carries with it. We may sometimes have fancied that the wicked will hurry from the Divine presence with a feeling of relief in escaping from the Omniscient eye. Such is the traditional representation, in painting, of the flight of the condemned from the face of the Judge; yet more true perhaps would be that which should depict them as standing without power of motion, struck and chilled to the very heart at the doom, the miserable consequences of which may then just begin to be foreboded, “that they should henceforth see Him no more.” Let us, then, endeavour to deduce some of these consequences, and hence argue back to the blessings which we now enjoy and so little appreciate.
I. THERE IS A SENSE IN WHICH GOD CANNOT BE SAID TO BE ABSENT FROM ANY PART OF HIS DOMINIONS. A being may be termed present in a place either by inclusion of person or by manifestation of his face. Now as God cannot be confined personally in any single locality, so therefore must He be present personally everywhere; there can be no spot from which He is essentially shut out. This is what is expressed by the Psalmist, “If I ascend up into heaven Thou art there; if I go down to hell Thou art there also.” He speaks, you observe, of a presence of God even in hell. Yet does the text make the doom of the impenitent a doom of exile from God. Depart from Me!: what a banishment is this I It tells of a land where the heavens are as brass, and the earth as iron; where the prospect is bound in on every side by adamantine rocks, which allow no sight of better things beyond, no voices from holier shores to penetrate; where, never for one single moment, may the spirits of the inhabitants escape beyond the barriers of what they see and touch and hear, to the imagination of beings more pure and gentle and powerful than themselves; where the idea of good can never arise; but within and without, above and around, evil continually shall be the one overwhelming vision. Depart from Me! Who can picture the loneliness and desolation of the soul thus cut off from God? We have heard how prolonged solitary confinement issues in the overthrow of reason, in the prostration of all mental and bodily powers. But if the absence of man, and the voice of man, and the companion ship of man, be so disastrous to his fellow-man, who shall measure the consequences of the entire withdrawal of God from His creature, who delineate the terrific desolation of that prison-house where God is not?
II. We have reasoned that the absence of God from the future world of the lost will be a source of infinite sorrow, as being the immediate destruction of religion; AND TO WITHDRAW RELIGION FROM A WORLD IS TO WITHDRAW A MAIN ELEMENT OF HAPPINESS. We would add that in departing from God we shall leave behind all that is beautiful in art or ennobling in knowledge. Now it is very observable in the history of mankind how the arts and sciences have been connected in their origin and growth with religion. Astronomy was early mixed up with the worship of the sun and stars. The colossal remains of ancient days are, in almost all cases, those of fabrics designed for purposes of religion. Similarly, since the Incarnation of Christ, it has been the Church of Christ which has been the mother and fosterer of learning. Poetry, music, sculpture, painting, architecture, have been inspired in their loftiest efforts by religion. Again, the history of civilization is the history of Christianity; where ever true religion prevails, wherever the Church of Christ is planted, there do you find human life in its most secure and refined state. We owe whatever is noble in literature, or beautiful in painting, or sublime in science, not to the natural development of our secret powers unassisted by Divine grace, but all these things are the result of a working of the Spirit of God in the spirit of man. It is not unaided human intellect which has produced those glorious works which are the heirlooms of the world, but human intellect, warmed, quickened, supported--in a word, inspired by the great God Himself. Thus God is to man’s mind what the sun is to the physical world. It is the bright shining of the sun which draws out the vegetation of the ground, which ripens the fruit, and paints the flower. The more potent the rays of the sun, as in tropical climates, the more gigantic are the products of the soil, the more luscious the fruit, the more gorgeous the plumage. Even so with the world of mind. The more clear the vision of God, the more exalted is the development of the creature. Hence the angels are more excellent than man, because they see more of God. Hence the purer our religion, the less clouded our knowledge of God, the more rapid will be the growth of our own mental powers. It is the presence of God which educates the soul of man, ennobles its conceptions, enlightens its understanding, inflames its imagination, directs its judgment. You may call it the religious sentiment. But what is a religious feeling but the presence of God felt sensibly in the depths of our nature? And, if so, you will at once perceive another dread result of man’s banishment from God. To command the wicked to depart from God is to command all the powers of man’s mind to stand still for ever. Away from God men will be able neither to think or to do ought that is excellent or attractive. To send him away from God is to freeze all the currents of man’s soul. No goodly invention, no sound of melody, no line of beauty can ever be known in that world where God is not. Who has not felt how a cloud passing athwart the sun upon a summer day takes all the loveliness from the landscape, all radiance from the sky, all sparkling from the waters, all balm from the air, and causes a chill to run through the limbs, which a moment before exulted in the sensation of life? And even such a coldness is that which will pervade the whole moral being of those from whose world God shall in His wrath withdraw Himself. Conclusion: The doctrine which we would enforce is, that religion is to be looked at and represented as a joy and solace, not as a yoke of bondage. Our great fault is that we do not sufficiently strive to render our most holy faith attractive. Surely it has in it the capacity to vanquish opposition by its very sympathies with our common requirement. Let us then, one and all, cast away the idea of religion as a yoke, a bondage, a work, and take it to ourselves as (what God intended it) a foretaste of the pleasures at His own right hand. (Bishop Woodford.)
The sinner in presence of the judgment
I. THE SINNER WILL BE ENCOMPASSED BY THE MULTITUDE OF HIS SINS. If, during this earthly life, an evil conscience is the most cruel tormentor, a two-edged sword for the sinner, he will feel its stings the most--
1. At his departure from this life.
(I) All self-delusions will vanish when the fragile body breaks down, the world with its possessions disappears, and time will be no more.
(2) All terrors attack the soul of the sinner--his sinful past, his helpless present, and an inevitable and hopeless eternity.
2. At the approach of judgment, when the sinner’s conscience will be--
(1) Its own witness, because in the presence of Divine omniscience it will understand how useless it is to tell a false hood, or to bring forth excuses, and how utterly impossible to conceal anything.
(2) Its own accuser, as it will be obliged to make a sincere self-accusation concerning many faults and heinous crimes which were concealed in life.
(3) Its own judge, as it will condemn the folly of its aberrations, the vanity of worldly attachment, the perversity of delaying conversion, &c., and it will itself approve the sentence pronounced by God.
II. THE SINNER WILL BE STRAITENED BY THE SEVERITY OF JUDGMENT.
1. Jesus Christ, to whom the Father has committed all judgment, will, as God, avenge the insulted Divine dignity because of contempt and ingratitude, and His grieved humanity, because the sinner refused to give alms, and committed so many unjust actions against his neighbour.
2. As Man. He who was before the mild Mediator and Intercessor in behalf of the sinner will be now the inexorable Judge.
3. As Redeemer He will demand an account, because the sinner has scorned His precious blood, and has slighted the graces offered to him; and because he has been the cause of the ruin of other souls.
4. As Model of a virtuous life, He will convict and confound the sinner.
III. THE SINNER WILL RE UTTERLY CONFOUNDED BY THE SENTENCE PRONOUNCED AGAINST HIM.
1. This sentence will be as dreadful as hell itself.
(1) Deprived for ever of the Beatific Vision.
(2) Condemned the creature by its Creator, man by his God, the Christian by his Redeemer.
(3) Cursed--the soul, the body, all the senses and faculties.
2. This sentence will be perfectly just, for the punishment will be--
(1) Proportionate to the multitude of sins, and to the wickedness, knowledge, and position of the sinner.
(2) The portion of the infidel and reprobate sinner only, who, as he was not willing to believe and repent in time, ought to suffer in eternity.
3. The sentence is irrevocable.
4. It will be forthwith executed. (De la Rue.)
The disappointments which will take place at the day of judgment
I. SOME OF THE HUMAN RACE WILL BE SHUT OUT OF THE KINGDOM OF GOD WHO HAVE CONFIDENTLY EXPECTED ADMISSION.
1. Of this number will be all those who, leave the world relying upon their own righteousness.
2. Of this number are all those persons who place their reliance on external religious services.
3. Of the same number is the enthusiast. Enthusiasm is a reliance for religious knowledge, dispositions, and duties on immediate and supernatural communications from God. No such communications exist in fact. Those which are mistaken for them are only the suggestions of a wild and heated imagination.
4. Of the same number also are those persons who rely upon a decent and amiable behaviour.
5. Of the same number also are they who rely upon what are called the moral duties of life.
6. Another class of men who will be exceedingly disappointed hereafter, will consist of those who rely on what may be called a religious character.
7. Persons who believe themselves to be religious because others believe them to be of this character constitute another class of those who will experience this dreadful disappointment.
8. Another class of these persons is composed of those who place their religion in the knowledge, and not in the obedience of Divine truth.
9. Another class of the same persons is formed of those who place their reliance upon their zeal. “It is good,” saith the Apostle Paul, “to be zealously affected always in a good thing” (Galatians 4:18). A cold, stupid, heartless professor of religion, absorbed in the concerns of this world, gives little evidence that his profession is sincere; and, if he be a Christian, is a disgrace to the name, and a spot upon the character of religion. Yet there is a zeal which is not according to knowledge.
10. Another class of the persons under consideration is formed of those who place their hope in a faith which is without works.
II. OTHER PERSONS, WHOM THESE EXPECTED TO SEE SHUT OUT, WILL BE ACCEPTED.
1. Of this number there will be a multitude of such as, in this world, have lived in humble and despised circumstances.
2. In this number will be found great multitudes who have been our own friends, companions, and equals in the present world.
3. In this number will be included also a multitude of persons who, in this world, appear to be religious, and are, on that account, despised by others.
4. Of this number also will be found those whose acknowledged characters and opinions have, in many respects, been different from ours.
III. THAT THE DISTRESS OCCASIONED BY THIS DISAPPOINTMENT WILL BE VERY GREAT. Weeping and gnashing of teeth are glowing images of extreme anguish; and this anguish is, by our Saviour, attributed to the twofold disappointment mentioned in the text. What less can be believed from the nature of the subject? The disappointment will follow strong and high-raised expectations, and, in many instances, undoubting confidence. It will be a final disappointment. It will be a disappointment of every object for which we can hope, of every good which we are capable of enjoying. Concluding remarks: From these solemn and affecting considerations we can hardly fail to derive many, and those most important, practical lessons.
1. We are strongly urged by them to the most watchful care in determining what the genuine religion required by the gospel is.
2. With these solemn considerations in view, let me also urge every member of this assembly to examine the ground of his own hope of salvation.
3. These considerations strongly urge us to entertain very humble apprehensions of our own character.
4. These considerations powerfully compel us to exercise charitable thoughts towards others. (T. Dwight, D. D.)
The doom of self-deceivers
I. THE CHARACTERS SPOKEN OF. SELF-DECEIVERS.
II. THEIR CONDITION. Thrust out of the kingdom.
III. THE SIGHT THEY WILT, WITNESS. The joy of the redeemed.
IV. THE SORROW WITH WHICH THEY WILL BE OVERWHELMED, “Weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (A. F. Barfield.)
Thrust out of the kingdom of heaven
“One day,” says a lady, speaking of her early years, “when I was returning home, I saw my dear mother sitting on a bank in the orchard weeping bitterly. I thought she was weeping on account of my father’s death. I went to her, and asked her why she wept so? Her answer was, ‘I may well weep to see my children taking the kingdom of heaven by violence; while I myself shall be shut out.’ As well as I was able I pointed her to the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world; from that time the work of grace in her soul began.”
The heathen entering the kingdom of God
An Indian chief who had aided in the missionary work in his own tribe, the Ojibwa tribe, related this incident:--“An Indian boy of his tribe was taught to read, and presented with a New Testament, of which he became very fond. From that he learned to love the Saviour of whom he read such wonderful things in that wonderful book, and became a devout and sincere Christian. His chief passed many an hour with him in religious conversation. One day the boy sent for the chief who had instructed him, to come over to his father’s cabin, for he was sick. On going there he found him in bed, suffering under a burning fever. Taking out from under his blanket his New Testament, which he had loved to read, he gave it to the chief and said: ‘Here, I want you to take this, and when they bury me, please put this under my head. ‘Why,’ asked the chief, ‘do you wish it put there?’ The dying lad replied: ‘I want it there, so that as I rise in the resurrection I can give it to Jesus as I see Him come.’ Not long after the young Christian spirit left the fevered body, and the cabin in the wilderness, for a palace on the plains of glory.” So dies many a missionary convert just learning the rudiments of the gospel.
There are last which shall be first.
I. SOME WHO ARE FIRST IN NATURAL GIFTS ARE LAST IN SPIRITUAL GIFTS.
II. SOME WHO ARE FIRST IN OPPORTUNITY ARE LAST IN IMPROVEMENT.
III. SOME WHO ARE FIRST TO START IN THE RACE ARE LAST AT THE GOAL.
IV. SOME WHO ARE FIRST IN PRIVILEGE AT ONE TIME ARE LAST IN IT AT ANOTHER,
1. The fall of the race itself is a case in point.
2. The casting away of the Jews and the calling of the Gentiles is another case.
3. The extinction of the Christian Church in many Eastern lands is a fact of the same kind.
1. These spiritual transpositions are the exception, not the rule. Other things being equal, the first will remain first. First in means, first in results; first in asking, first in receiving; first in faith, first in righteousness; first in self-culture, first in self-conquest; first in well-doing, first in well-being. When it is otherwise, something is wrong. The first place is not lost till it is abused.
2. Whilst this action of God is sovereign, it is never arbitrary. Men reap what they sow, and as they sow. (J. E. Henry,M. A.)
1. Let us mark the authority of this passage in favour of strictness in religion. There is, indeed a spurious strictness about trifles which neglects the weightier matters of the law, and which is worthless; but there is a proper and commendable strictness in adhering faithfully to all the duties of religion, which is required by the command to enter in by the strait gate. Let who may call it preciseness, but let us be steady to our principles and to our duty.
2. Let us neither over-rate nor under-rate the difficulties which lie in our way to heaven. But let us view them exactly as they are, that we may neither be inactive nor disheartened.
3. Let us remember, that whatever these difficulties may be, they must be overcome, else we are undone. Necessity will make the sluggard toil, and the coward fight; but what necessity is equal to this?
4. Let us carefully improve the present season. If we knock now, it shall be opened unto us; but we shall knock too late after the door is finally shut.
5. Let us not trust in Church privileges. Let us not say, “The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord are we”; but let us so improve the means of grace here, that we may be prepared for glory hereafter.
6. Let us realize to our minds the separation which will take place when men shall either be admitted into heaven, or cast off for ever; and, in doing so, let us follow the one party in the path of faith and holiness to glory; and let us sedulously avoid the course of the other, saying, each of us, “O my soul, come not thou into their secret; unto their assembly, mine honour, be not thou united.”
7. As we are among the very first in point of privileges, let us not be the last in point of improvement. Much having been given to us, much will be required of us.
8. Finally, while we give ourselves diligently to the business o| salvation, let us look for success in the way of dependence on Divine grace implored by prayer. This alone can enable us to overcome the difficulties which lie in our way; and this will enable us to do so effectually. (James Foote, M. A.)
The reversal of ordinary judgments
Probably all thoughtful and religious people have often been disgusted at the readiness of the unthinking to pass judgment on their fellow-men, and to assign them their due praise or blame. And thoughtful spirits have longed for real justice, and have consoled themselves by thinking of that great reversal of human judgments which assuredly awaits us when we shall stand before the judgment-scat of the All-seeing and All-just. In order to bring home forcibly to our minds the full conviction that God will judge His creatures hereafter far differently from the way in which we commonly judge them now, it may be well for us to consider a few plain facts bearing on the case, facts which make it quite inevitable that God should set aside our hasty and ill-considered verdicts concerning good and bad people.
1. We forget that the sources or roots of holiness and of sin are often the same in great measure. Vices are often virtues run to seed. Prudence in its old age often turns into miserliness. Virtues, by their exuberant and luxuriant growth, men dig their own graves. “Be not righteous over-much: why shouldest thou destroy thyself?” seems often a very needful warning. And it very commonly happens that decayed virtues appear worse than born vices. Corruptio optimi est pessimum. For instance, scarcely any misanthropy is in a way so savage as that of disappointed faith in mankind.
Misanthropy, if it be chiefly discontent with the actual condition of men, and hopeless yearning for their improvement, is not altogether far from the kingdom of God. As it surveys the meanness and the paltriness of mankind, it may well exclaim in the language of Jesus, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken us?” In general it is perfectly plain that the sources of sanctity and sinfulness are often in great measure the same. This is the grain of truth in the common saying, “ The greater the sinner, the greater the saint.” Force of character tells in either direction. A very vivid nature is the source of both good and evil. Depth of feeling gives a man a great tendency to go wrong in this bewildering world, and also a great recuperative power when he has gone wrong. At the final judgment we can well understand that there must be a great reversal of ordinary human judgments. God will look to the roots of character in us; and we shall then see that the foundations of heroic virtues have been laid is many a forlorn soul which we thought overpowered and slain by evil in this life. And perhaps they will rank higher in the celestial kingdom, who have thus in grief and shame laid the foundations of a glorious temple of God, than those who have, with but little trouble, built for God a poor, common, little meeting-house of decent respectability. “Many that are first shall be last, and the last first.” Perhaps the truest of the elect may be saved the last in point of time, the last to leave the wrecked ship of a storm-beaten humanity.
2. Further, we must remember that some sins which from an external point of view seem equally great, are in reality very different in their importance and significance. Of some sins we may say that they express the real and true nature of the man committing them. He is, as it were, terns in illis, wrapped up in them. They are the outcome of his truest and most permanent self; whereas, in other cases, like that of David, sins often seem quite transient phenomena, as it were eclipses of a man’s real nature, hardly so much a man’s own doing as that of some alien or hostile spirit which has seized him; instances of demoniacal possession, and not of natural or innate wickedness. Such assuredly was the sin of the minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, in Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter.” Such sinful actions form an exception to the general rule; they do not help to form a persistent habit of sinning. On the contrary, they are like the exacerbations and paroxysms which often precede recovery in the case of bodily maladies; they are the work of the evil spirit tearing the soul with especial fury just before it is cast out. Thus it sometimes happens that a man’s whole after life is the better for a fall, which has shown him the hatefulness of sin, and also his own weakness.
3. Again, sins which admit of high aspirations are in reality far less dangerous than less gross Pharisaic sins, which are not clearly recognized as sins, and which in consequence do not seem to call for repentance. Publicans and harlots are more likely to repent and change than those Pharisees whose sins are so intensely respectable that they seem almost virtues. Baptized or consecrated selfishness is the greatest hindrance to true goodness.
4. Again, in trying to forecast the future judgment of God, we must take account of the terrible mystery of inherited evil tendencies--tendencies which are often much increased by bad education. Many people are born blind spiritually, because their parents have sinned. Just as Nature often produces bodily abortions, so no doubt does it often produce spiritual abortions. There are myriads of hapless souls which never had any real probation at all in this life.
5. Lastly, in the case of the more strictly religious virtues our judgments are often glaringly false--e.g., concerning reverence and the merits of faith. Much that passes for reverence is merely irreligious indifference. Men do not wish to be troubled by religion in their daily life, so they erect for it a shrine far remote from all the feelings and actions of ordinary life. And this banishment of their Creator they call reverence for Him. To talk of God as if He were an unmeaning abstraction is often considered reverent; to talk of God as if He were our Father, our Guide, and our unfailing Friend, is often considered irreverent. Moreover, some men are so entirely reverent in heart, so utterly filled with an abiding sense of the reality of religion, that they are comparatively careless of their manner. Pierced through and through by a sense of God’s presence, it never strikes such men that they need prove their reverence. And so reverence itself sometimes causes apparent irreverence. Probably Elijah would be reproved for irreverence if he were to worship in a ritualistic church; for the true altar of the Eternal was deep down in the prophet’s awe-struck heart, and he would probably care but little for any external altar. Again, we err greatly in our ordinary judgments of doubters in religion. Doubt is often a really hopeful sign, just as pain of body is often a sign that paralysis is passing away. Doubt is often only a sort of moulting in the spiritual world, the moulting of the soaring eagle wings of faith. Hence it often has a very real value. (A. H. Craufurd, M. A.)
Go ye and tell that fox
The attempt of the Pharisees to frighten Jesus Christ out of Perea drew from Him a prompt and sharp rejoinder.
The answer was to the effect that no such threats could influence the purpose or in the least degree accelerate the movements of the Nazarene. His work was near an end, but He would have no hurry or panic. He would cast out demons and perform cures to the last day that His predestined stay in Perea would permit. If Herod wished to put a hasty stop to such works, so much to the discredit of Herod. As for the menace to His life, Jesus despised it. He was going up to Jerusalem, knowing that He would be killed. But Herod could not kill Him. At the outset of His ministry an angry crowd in Galilee had tried to make an end of Him, but they could not. The Prophet could not die but at Jerusalem. The metaphor here was in the opprobrious epithet applied to Herod Antipas--“that fox.” Evidently it expressed, and was meant to express, that the Lord Jesus saw through and despised the cunning wiles of the Tetrarch. Many writers on the Gospels, both in Germany and among ourselves, have been anxious to protect our Saviour from the charge of speaking disrespectfully of a ruler, and have therefore tried to show that this epithet was in reality hurled against the Pharisees, who had affected so much Solicitude for His life. In the present case, it is as plain as words can make it that Jesus stigmatized Herod as “that fox.” The man was a selfish intriguer, neither good nor strong, but cunning, subservient to those above him, a sort of jackal to the imperial lion at Rome, but ruthless to any who were beneath him and within his grasp. Probably it was this metaphor that suggested to Jesus that of the hen protecting her brood, which immediately follows. He looked on Herod and men of his stamp as devourers of the people. As for Himself, He might seem to be weak and unable to save Himself, but He was the best friend of the people; and if they would only gather to Him, He would cover them with the wings of His protection, so that no fox could do them hurt. But the Pharisees, and ultimately the misguided people too, took part with the fox against Him. And why should it be thought strange that Jesus could entertain and express a feeling of scorn for what is mean and wicked? Some of our moralists assert too roundly that mortal man has no right to feel contempt. There is a contempt that is ignoble, and there is a contempt that is noble. The ignoble is that which rests on mere conventionalism and prejudice, as when one despises another for being less highly born or less richly provided than himself. It flourishes among conventional professors of religion who yet sing the praises of humility. Such hauteur could not find place in the breast of our Saviour, and ought not to be harboured by any Christian. Wherever it enters it hardens the heart, dries up the sympathies, inflates the sense of self-importance, and induces a cold indifference to the wants and woes of others. But there is a noble scorn that may dwell in the heart along with tender compassion and fervent love. If there be a genuine appreciation of what is good and true, the obverse side of it must be a healthy contempt for what is wicked and false. (D. Fraser, D. D.)
He does not hesitate to call Herod a fox--a mere cunning, designing man, only courageous when there is no danger at hand; scheming and plotting in his den, but having no true bravery of heart; an evil-minded person, whose whole character is summed up in the word “fox.” What I did Jesus Christ, then, call men names? Not in the usual sense of that expression. Did He call Herod a fox out of mere defiance or spite? He was incapable of doing anything of the kind. When Jesus Christ spoke a severe word, the severity came out of the truth of its application. Is it not a harsh thing to call a man a liar? Not if he be false. Is it not very unsocial to describe any man as a hypocrite? Not if he be untrue. Wherein, then, is this wickedness of calling men names? In the misapplication of the epithets. It is wicked to call a man true, if we know him to be untrue. There is an immoral courtesy; there is a righteous reproach. We do not use harsh words when we tell men what they really are. On the other hand, it is a matter of infinite delicacy to tell a man what he really is, because, at best, we seldom see more than one aspect of a man’s character. If we could see more of the man, probably we should change our opinion of his spirit. In the case of Jesus Christ, however, He saw the inner heart, the real and true quality of the Tetrarch; and, therefore, when He described Herod as a fox, He spoke the word of righteousness and of truth. It was not an epithet; it was a character in a word; it was a man summed up in a syllable. Let us, therefore, be very careful how we follow this example, because we ought to have equal knowledge before we take an equal position in this respect. On the other hand, let us beware of that simulation of courtesy, which is profoundly untrue, which is despicably immoral--the kind of thing which sets itself to catch the favour and the flattery of the passing moment. (J. Parker, D. D.)
Christ’s work cannot be stopped
We thought that Jesus Christ’s labour would be cut short by this message from Herod. Jesus Christ must finish what He has begun. But is it not in the power of the great and the mighty to say to Christ, “You must stop at this point”? It is in their power, truly, to say it, and when they have said it they may have relieved their own feelings: but the great, the beneficent, the redeeming work of the Son of God proceeds as if not a word to the contrary had been said. The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers took counsel together against the Lord, and against His anointed; and behold their rage came to nothing, and their fury recoiled upon themselves! “He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh; the Holy one shall have them in derision.” Are we opposing Jesus Christ? Are we in any way setting ourselves against the advancement of His kingdom? It will be an impotent rage. Go and strike the rocks with your fist- perhaps you may batter down the granite with your poor bones. Try! Go and tell the sea that it shall not come beyond a certain line, and perhaps the hoary billows will hear you, and run away and say they be afraid of such mighty men. Try! You have nothing else to do, you may as well try. But as for keeping back this kingdom of God, this holy and beneficent kingdom of truth--no man can keep it back, and even the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Men may rage; men do rage. Other men adopt another policy; instead of rage and fury and great excitement, they set themselves against the kingdom of God in an indirect and remote way. But both policies come to the same thing. The raging man who pulls down the wooden cross and tramples it underfoot, and the man who offers a passive resistance to the progress of the kingdom of heaven, come to the same fate. The light shines on, noontide comes, and God gets His own way in His own universe. (J. Parker, D. D.)
Perseverance in the path of duty
An example of the marvellous power to be found in the motive of duty is afforded in the seven years’ march of David Livingstone from the coast of Zanzibar toward the courses of the Nile. What else, indeed, could have so well sustained him in his trials with savages, and noxious insects, and nearly impassable jungles, and starvation, and prostrating disease, and prospective death? “In this journey,” he writes, in the calmest style of self-examination, “I have endeavoured to follow with unswerving fidelity the path of duty The prospect of death in pursuing what I knew to be right did not make me veer to one side or the other.” And so this sublime hero struggled on until, while apparently engaged in the act of prayer, he passed from a kneeling posture on earth to an enthroned position in heaven.
Reconciliation with life
Sooner or later we all of us have to learn to say those words, “I must”; and our whole character, good or evil, saved or lost, will depend upon the way in which we learn to say, “I must.
” How we should learn to say, “I must,” is the subject of this morning’s sermon.
“Nevertheless, I must walk to-day, and to-morrow, and the day following.” Not to the Son of Man alone, but to every man there come inevitable days of life. No human can escape the necessity of saying at some hour, “I must.” Even Napoleon has his St. Helena. We say, “I will”; and the next day find ourselves saying, “I must.” God never suffers us to say the one for many hours without compelling us to say the other. Thoughtlessly we go our way, and look up to find ourselves facing the inevitable. There it is, steadily confronting us. It is hard as the face of a precipice. We cannot go around it. We cannot climb over it. We must stand still before it. There is no word of our English speech which we more cordially dislike than this same short word “must.” We will not brook it when spoken to us by other men. Any friendship would be broken by it. Love knows nothing of it. Liberty consists in refusing to speak it when kings proclaim it, or any foreign might commands it. Men have died rather than yield to it. Yet consider how large a portion of our daily life is put before us, and how much of our own personality is given to us under some form of necessity; and how large consequently is the work of reconciliation to be accomplished, if it be possible, between the “I wills” and the “I musts” of our lives. There is, to begin with, the “must” of heredity. We cannot vacate our inherited individuality and choose another and a happier. We have to accept ourselves as we were born. Besides this primal necessity of our birth, there are the fixed grooves of natural law in which our lives must run, and all the forms of circumstance to which our individualities must be fitted. In the midst of these physical, industrial, and social necessities our space of spirit and freedom seems small as the cage of a bird, and hard sometimes as the treadmill of a beast of burden. Every day, every hour, has its limitations and thraldom of spirit for us. Pain is an insult to the spirit. Sickness is humiliation of the soul. Death is the triumphing as of an enemy over us. I have been expressing thus our common feeling of irreconcilableness to much that seems inevitable in human life. In order that we may learn to say “I must” in any true and free way, we should look more intently into the nature of this great compulsion which is laid upon us all. What is it? It wears ofttimes a face of fate. Is that its only and eternal countenance? Is there any thoughtfulness for us behind it? What or whose is this will which must be done on earth as in heaven? Our tone and temper when we say “I must” will depend very vitally upon our belief concerning the character of the Power whose grasp is the inevitableness of human life. To what voice, and to what voice alone, in the universe may a man answer, “I must,” and “I will”? For this also is true that there can be no reconciliation for us with the inevitable, no happy harmony of our spirits with our circumstances and our necessities, until in some way we have learned to answer, “I will,” from within our own free hearts, whenever that Voice from without speaks to us its inevitable “You must.” The two voices from without and from within must become one, keyed to the same note and making one music, before life can be harmony and peace. I might say that it is religion which does this blessed work; that I have seen religion reconciling men and life; and that religion has joined soul to life so happily that henceforth no man can put them asunder. I might urge that only when we gain clear perception that every inevitable thing is a Divine thing, every word “You must” in our life a word of God, only then can we begin to answer with good heart, “I will.” I might set in order the reasons for believing that beneath this whole appearance of inevitableness in human life and history there is a will of Divine righteousness, and a heart of infinite love. When we feel the touch of the love of God in the hand of fate, our hearts can say through all our tears, “Thy will be done.” I might urge further that our present life, with its civilized temptations, and its polite lies of the devil, and its fashionable demons of unbelief and unrighteousness, lays upon all true men an urgent necessity of realizing the presence of the living God on this earth, if indeed we would keep the faith and the hope of a man’s spirit amid the shams, and shames, and tumults of our world. I might urge you to try this religious way of reconciliation with life, to seek for some sign of God’s presence, and to wait for some revelation of God’s pure will, in all the events which come to you, and which you must meet in your way of life. But there is a nearer argument than this. There is clearer proof of this one true way of happy and harmonious life than even these evidences of our reason and conscience. It is shown to us--the true life, in its full strength, its noble harmony and peace, is all revealed to us--in the Christ of the Gospels. That was the life of perfect reconciliation with the world. When only twelve years old, what must be as His duty and His ministry was already Jesus’ will of life. “I must” and “I will” strike one note in His Diviner speech. When He said, “I must be about My Father’s business,” it was with no cheerless tone, with no heartless voice of resignation. It was His meat to do the will of Him that sent Him. Knowing this world to be God’s world, and perceiving life in it to be God’s will, what He must do was what He would do, and every necessity of His ministry was welcome as a messenger from God’s presence. The tragic inevitableness of His life--that dark shadow which He saw stealing over His path long before the disciples noticed any sign of its approach--the need of His sufferings and death, which even when He went down His trial-way they could not understand or believe--the cruel necessity of His betrayal, and the crucifixion in a world of sin, which Jesus saw must needs be the cup which it was the Father’s will not to let pass from Him--all this was not enough to set His heart at strife with the way which to-day, and to-morrow, and the day following, He must walk, to make Him cease to call God’s ordained hour, “My hour,” or to go, eager and strong, to meet it. “Howbeit I must go on My way to-day and to-morrow, and the day following: for it cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem.” In this obedience unto death the will of God which is to be done on earth and the will of man are one and the same pure will. (Newman Smyth, D. D.)
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem
The Saviour’s sorrow over lost men
WORDS LIKE THESE, SPOKEN AT SUCH A MOMENT, LET US SEE, AS FAR AS WORDS CAN DO, INTO THE INNERMOST OF JESUS’ HEART. They are a wonderful expression of His deep-seated desire to save from ruin the worst of men, to save the unwilling, to save to the very last.
1. If ever excess of guilt could have alienated the Saviour and steeled Him against mercy, it must have been Jerusalem’s. Her privileges had been surpassing.
2. But if sinners’ sins cannot destroy Christ’s willingness to save them, neither can their unwillingness to be saved. You thrust the outstretched arms away: they are stretched cut still. You say, “I will not”: He still says, “I will.” He would that you would; prays you to turn; waits for your turning; grieves that you will not; but watches to welcome with joy the first poor timid tokens of your heart’s relenting. Thus He maintains His Divine supremacy of love; offering to the spiritual universe the stupendous contrast of a willing God and an unwilling sinner.
3. Refusal, then, does not overbear this extraordinary desire of God to save us. Neither can delay out-weary it. On the contrary, time only tests to the utmost the sincerity of the Divine mercy. The perseverance of the Saviour is the measure of His love.
II. In the next place, THIS LANGUAGE OF THE DEPARTING SAVIOUR TELLS US HOW HE BLESSES THOSE WHO WILL BE GATHERED. Strong love like His is gentle as it is strong. Only let the mighty Lover, who made you, gather you to Himself, and you will see how He will cradle you like a mother. I read it in these words, that, when He gathers men, He gathers them to His heart. They are a cry of love. Love seeks to have the loved one near, and is ever reaching forth and calling out to draw unto itself for the joy of having what it loves. Let me say it reverently: it is the deep desire of God in our Lord Jesus Christ to bring the most impure and evil of us all into as close a relation to Himself as can be. Let us remember, the place of nearness is the place of safety. To be under the shadow of wings meant in Hebrew ears to be where mercy reigned through blood-shedding, and a gracious covenanted God guarded His faithful people. It means the same thing here. For shelter from the doom, which, for their national sins, had already sent its forewarning signs over the political horizon, Jesus called His fellow-citizens to Himself. For shelter against impending judgment overhanging every sinful soul, He calls us to repentance and to faith. It is not safety alone that by this image the Lord offers us in His tenderness. Have you not seen how, when it is night and the sky over all has spread out wings of darkness to gather all things to rest; and in the soft still gloom the airs are hushed and the birds are dumb and the beasts make no stir, but all things sleep, down to the very flowers which shut their little cups and hang their leaves in dewy rest; have you not seen how then the brood is gathered by the hen to sleep upon her breast, and be curtained over with her wings? Who does not know how they pillow there upon the down, cherished by her body’s warmth, till morning light? It is not I, it is the Lord, who says that it is so with His saved people. The soul that comes to Him finds in Him rest as well as shelter. Rest for the laden conscience in His blood; rest for the weary will in His powerful spirit; rest for the sad heart in being loved by His love and cherished in an infinite Divine comfort.
III. So far I have spoken of what He would have done had the Jerusalemites gathered at His call; WHAT HE WILL DO IF WE GATHER TO HIM. Fain would I linger here; but my text forces me to a contrast from which my soul shrinks. Its words give deeper insight still into the Redeemer’s heart. Underneath the joy of salvation it touches a fount of tears. It is, in truth, his last wail of sorrow over men who would not be saved. Remember, these are funeral words. Israel’s day is done; Israel’s hope is dead; Israel’s doom is sealed. All the toil is ended; and no huff. Farewell to merecy, for her God deserts her temple. Farewell! It is just? I know it is, most just. They have deserved it? Yes, with a thousandfold deserving. So have we all, and not one of us can blame the righteousness which condemns. But, men and brethren, love weeps when justice smites. The Lamb sorrows in His wrath. And it only makes justice the more awful when you see that it has so much of pity in it and so little of poor personal triumph or ungenerous readiness, that the Judge yearns and wails over the soul He dooms. (J. O. Dykes, D. D.)
The hen and chickens
The maternal love and courage of birds have been celebrated in the literature of all nations. Even the Mussulman admires it; witness the Moslem story of the white dove. One came before Mohammed with two fledglings tied up in a cloth, which he had taken from the wood. The mother dove had bravely followed. Mohammed commanded that the cloth should be opened; on which the dove flew down, and covered her trembling offspring with her wings. Then the prophet directed that the mother and her young should be restored unhurt to the nest in the wood, and took the opportunity to teach a good lesson--
“From Allah’s self cometh this wondrous love;
Yea, and I swear by Him who sent me here,
He is more tender than a nursing dove,
More pitiful to men than she to these.”
To appreciate the feeling of Jesus Christ for Jerusalem, we must remember how complete was His knowledge of its sin. Let it not be thought strange that the will of the people of Jerusalem should be allowed to resist and defeat the mercy of the Son of God. The whole history of the nation was one of often-repeated resistance to the will of Jehovah, and rejection of His grace. The Lord desired to save, but never would force salvation on any nation or any creature. Indeed, a forced salvation would be futile, and mercy received against one’s will could do no good. The illustration used by our Lord implied that danger was at hand. Observe a hen in the open field, happy with her chickens running about her, picking and chirping in the sunshine. Suddenly a hawk appears in the air, or some mischievous animal comes slyly over the ground. On the instant the hen calls her brood to her, covers them with her wings, and is ready for their defence. Timid enough at other times, she is brave for her chickens, and will die rather than let one of them be lost. So the Lord Jesus, perceiving the danger which hovered over Jerusalem long before the Jews were aware of it, was willing to cover and save them. So also is it in every age and every nation. He who is the Saviour of the world sees the approaching perdition of ungodly men, and is willing to deliver them. Those who come to Him He will in no wise cast out. What a simple way of salvation! And how sure and perfect the defence! When lambs are startled, they run to the ewes; the kids to the she-goats. Among the fiercest animals, the young run to their mothers for protection, and these will guard their offspring at whatever peril to themselves. But no quadruped, wild or tame, can cover her young so completely as a bird can do with her folding wings. Therefore is this last the apt illustration of the -sufficiency of Christ to save. Those who trust in Him are completely covered by His righteousness and strength. On this wise has Divine salvation always been revealed. The Psalms frequently refer to the favour and protection of Jehovah as the shadow of outstretched wings (Psa_17:8; Psa_36:7; Psa_57:1; Psa_61:4; Psa_63:7; Psa_91:4). Our Redeemer’s lament over Jerusalem shows what His heart is toward all mankind. It is a grief to Him to have His offer of salvation slighted, a joy to have it embraced. Bow unhappy the mother-bird while any of her brood continue astray and heedless of her call! What manner of persons Christians ought to be! What joy of faith, what restfulness of love should be under the covert of His wings! What nearness, too, to one another, and what obligation to brotherly kindness! The brood are packed very closely under the hen. (D. Fraser, D. D.)
Willingness to save
I. Now, first, observe THE MANIFESTATION OF GOD TO ISRAEL WHICH THIS VERSE BRINGS OUT BEFORE OUR VIEW.
1. We observe God’s sovereignty manifested in the choice of Israel. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem.” Why, we ask, should Jerusalem be singled out from all other nations of the earth? Why should the people of Israel receive God’s special teaching, and be made examples of His peculiar mercies? The Bible tells us that God dealt with Israel as He did not deal with any other nation on the face of the earth--that He gave them special instruction, that He communicated unto them special advantages, that their advantages were many every way, that is, in every point of view, but chiefly, because not to the Assyrians, not to the Egyptians, not to any other remarkable nation of antiquity, but to the Jews were committed the oracles of God. We can only account for this by God’s sovereignty.
2. We notice also the manifestation of God’s grace in the messages which He sent to this highly favoured people--“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee.” God’s prophets, God’s messengers, those who were specially inspired or taught by His Holy Spirit, who alone can give understanding of the counsels of God, were sent to Israel. Why? Can we trace anything in their history which made them in a special manner deserving of such a favour as this?
Nothing of the kind. Their whole history is a history of God’s lovingkindness and man’s ingratitude.
3. Observe, again, the mercy of God’s character manifested in His dealings towards them. It was not one prophet, but many, that God sent; not one messenger, but various messengers--and one after another the messengers and prophets were ill-treated.
4. I notice, further, God’s love--the love of God’s character in His dealings with them. For what was His revealed purpose towards the children of Israel when He sent to them the prophets, and gave them instruction as to His will? It was to gather their children together as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings!--to gather them together, to be unto them protection and safety.
5. Further, God’s unchangeableness was manifested in His dealings with Israel. Observe the language of the Saviour, “How often would I have gathered thy children!” It was not one or two manifestations of God’s grace which Israel had received, but many. Every repetition of His mercy is a proof of His unchangeableness.
6. And yet there is a solemn view of this subject, for the verse immediately following the text speaks of God’s justice in His dealing with Israel. “Behold your house is left unto you desolate.”
7. And then observe, further, God’s faithfulness in the final issue of His dealings with Israel. “For I say unto you, ye shall not see Me henceforth, till ye shall say, “Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord.” There are representatives of Israel after the flesh who shall occupy that favoured position. They shall receive the Saviour whom their forefathers rejected. And thus is it that God has, as it were, concentrated the rays of light which manifest His own character, in order that they may fall upon this single point--His willingness to save the sinful, the unworthy, the lost, and the undone.
II. But now, to pass from this, what is the special instruction which we ourselves, to whom the oracles of God are come, may derive from what we have read and examined, concerning our Lord’s willingness with reference to guilty Israel? We may learn, Christian brethren, WHAT WE HAVE TO DO WITH THE PURPOSES, WITH THE MESSAGES, AND WITH THE SALVATION OF GOD.
1. Learn what we have to do with the purposes of God. Observe, it was God’s sovereign purpose, with which His creatures could not interfere, to choose Jerusalem--to choose, that is, the nation of Israel, as a nation honoured and privileged above all other nations. We may be sure of His willingness to save, because even His sovereignty is revealed so as to set forth in prominence this willingness.
2. What have we to do, then, with the messages of God? “How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?”
3. What, then, have we to do with God’s salvation, but to regard it as set forth to us in connection with our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ? Observe, He speaks in the text as One who is able to save. He claims the attributes of Deity when He says, “How often would I have gathered thy children together!” The Man Christ Jesus, in the midst of His humiliation, speaks with the authority of God. But not only is He able to save, but willing. (W. Cadman, M. A.)
Choice may become habit
It is most necessary that the “instinct of migration” shall not be resisted, for such resistance means the loss of power to emigrate. In a recent article in a scientific paper upon the “Everglades of Florida,” we read that so enfeebled have the birds that there resort become through failure to use their wings in flight that now they find it almost impossible to rise when pressed hard by their enemies. Even so is it with human souls. The “will not” becomes the “cannot.” There is a process of deterioration that ends at last in death. Slaves of choice become slaves of habit. (W. W. Wells.)
The moorhen and her young
An angler, in Hampton Court Parle, disturbed a moorhen who had just hatched, and watched her anxiety and manoeuvres to draw away her young. She would go a short distance, utter a cry, return, and seemed to lead the way for her brood to follow. Having driven her away, that he might have a better opportunity of watching her young ones, she never ceased calling them: and they made towards her, skulking amongst the rushes till they came to the other side of the pond. They had only just left the shell, and had, probably, never heard the cry of their mother before.
When Socrates was sentenced by the Athenian judges, the executioner wept as he handed him the fatal hemlock to drink. Christ knew the judges and rulers of Jerusalem would condemn Him to death, yet tie weeps over them. In the former case, the executioner weeps over the executed, here the case is reversed. Truly, Socrates displayed the character of a philosopher, but Jesus Christ that of a God.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Luke 13". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30