Again, this witnessing is the condition of all strong life. If you keep nipping the buds off a plant you will kill it. If you never say a word to a human soul about your Christianity, your Christianity will tend to evaporate. Action confirms and strengthens convictions; speech deepens conviction; and although it is possible for any one— and some of us ministers are in great danger of making the possibility a reality—to talk away his religion, for one of us who loses it by speaking too much about it, there are twenty that damage it by speaking too little. Shut it up, and it will be like some wild creature put into a cellar, fast locked and unventilated; when you open the door it will be dead. Shut it up, as so many of our average Christian professors and members of our congregations and churches do, and when you come to take it out, it will be like some volatile perfume that has been put into a vial and locked away in a drawer and forgotten; there will be nothing left but an empty bottle, and a rotten cork. Speak your faith if you would have your faith strengthened. Muzzle it, and you go a long way to kill it. You are witnesses, and you cannot blink the obligation nor shirk the duties without damaging that in yourselves to which you are to witness.
Further, this task of witnessing for Christ can be done by all kinds of life. I do not need to dwell upon the distinction between the two great methods which open themselves out before every one of us. They do so; for direct work in speaking the name of Jesus Christ is possible for every Christian, whoever he or she is, however weak, ignorant, uninfluential, with howsoever narrow a circle. There is always somebody that God means to be the audience of His servant whenever that servant speaks of Christ. Do you not know that there are people in this world, as wives, children, parents, friends of different sorts, who would listen to you more readily than they would listen to any one else speaking about Jesus Christ? Friend, have you utilised these relationships in the interests of that great Name, and in the highest interests of the persons that sustain them to you, and of yourselves who sustain these to them?
And then there is indirect work that we can all do in various ways, I do not mean only by giving money, though of course that is important, but I mean all the manifold ways in which Christian people can show their sympathy with, and their interest in, the various forms in which adventurous, chivalrous, enterprising Christian benevolence expresses itself. It was an old law in Israel that 'as his part was that went down into the battle, so should his part be that tarried by the stuff.' When victory was won and the spoil came to be shared, the men who had stopped behind and looked after the base of operations and kept open the communications received the same portion as the man that, in the front rank of the battle, had rushed upon the spears of the Amalekites. Why? Because from the same motive they had been co- operant to the same great end. The Master has taken up that very thought, and has applied it in relation to the indirect work of His people, when He says, 'He that receiveth a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet's reward.' The motive is the same; therefore the essential character of the act is the same; therefore the recompense is identical. You can witness for Christ directly, if you can say—and you can all say if you like—'We have found the Messias,' and you can witness for Christ by casting yourselves earnestly into sympathy with and, so far as possible, help to the work that your brethren are doing. Dear friends, I beseech you to remember that we are all of us, if we are His followers, bound in our humble measure and degree, and with a reverent apprehension of the gulf between us and Him, still to take up His words and say, 'To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I might bear witness to the truth.'
II. There is a second thought that I would suggest from these words, and that is that secular events are ordered with a view to this witnessing.
Take the case before us. Here are two independent and hostile powers; on the one hand the bigoted Jewish Sanhedrim, hating the Roman yoke; and on the other hand the haughty and cruel pressure of that yoke on a recalcitrant and reluctant people: and these two internecine enemies are working on their own lines, each very willing to thwart the other, Mechanicians talk of the 'composition of forces,' by which two pressures acting at right angles to each other on a given object, impart to it a diagonal motion. The Sanhedrim on the one side, representing Judaism, and the captain of the castle on the other, representing the Roman power, work into each other's hands, although neither of them knows it; and work out the fulfilment of a purpose that is hidden from them both.
No doubt it would be a miserably inadequate account of things to say that the Roman Empire came into existence for the sake of propagating Christianity. No doubt it is always dangerous to account for any phenomenon by the ends which, to our apprehension, it serves. But at the same time the study of the purposes which a given thing, being in existence, serves, and the study of the forces which brought it into existence, ought to be combined, and when combined, they present a double reason for adoring that great Providence which 'makes the wrath of men to praise' it, and uses for moral and spiritual ends the creatures that exist, the events that emerge, and even the godless doings of godless men.
So here we have a standing example of the way in which, like silk- worms that are spinning threads for a web that they have no notion of, the deeds of men that think not so are yet grasped and twined together by Jesus Christ, the Lord of providence, so as to bring about the realisation of His great purposes. And that is always so, more or less clearly.
For instance, if we wish to understand our own lives, do not let us dwell upon the superficialities of joy or sorrow, gain or loss, but let us get down to the depth, and see that all these externals have two great purposes in view—first, that we may be made like our Lord, as the Scripture itself says, 'That we may be partakers of His holiness,' and then that we may bear our testimony to His grace and love. Oh, if we would only look at life from that point of view, we should be brought to a stand less often at what we choose to call the mysteries of providence! Not enjoyment, not sorrow, but our perfecting in godliness and of the increase of our power and opportunities to bear witness to Him, are the intention of all that befalls us.
I need not speak about how this same principle must be applied, by every man who believes in a divine providence, to the wider events of the world's history, I need not dwell upon that, nor will your time allow me to do it, but one word I should like to say, and that is that surely the two facts that we, as Christians, possess, as we believe, the pure faith, and that we, as Englishmen, are members of a community whose influence is world-wide, do not come together for nothing, or only that some of you might make fortunes out of the East Indian and China trade, but in order that all we English Christians might feel that, our speaking as we do the language which is destined, as it would appear, to run round the whole world, and our having, as we have, the faith which we believe brings salvation to every man of every race and tongue who accepts it, and our having this responsible necessary contact with the heathen races, lay upon us English Christians obligations the pressure and solemnity of which we have yet failed to appreciate.
Paul was immortal till his work was done. 'Be of good cheer, Paul; thou must bear witness at Rome.' And so, for ourselves and for the Gospel that we profess, the same divine Providence which orders events so that His servants may have the opportunities of witnessing to it, will take care that it shall not perish—notwithstanding all the premature jubilation of anti-Christian literature and thought in this day—until it has done its work. We need have no fear for ourselves, for though our blind eyes often fail to see, and our bleeding hearts often fail to accept, the conviction that there are no unfinished lives for His servants, yet we may be sure that He will watch over each of His children till they have finished the work that He gives them to do. And we may be sure, in regard to His great Gospel, that nothing can sink the ship that carries Christ and His fortunes. 'Be of good cheer ... thou hast borne witness ... thou must bear witness.'
III. Lastly, we have here another principle—namely that faithful witnessing is rewarded by further witnessing.
'Thou hast ... in Jerusalem,' the little city perched upon its crag; 'Thou must ... in Rome,' the great capital seated on its seven hills. The reward for work is more work. Jesus Christ did not say to the Apostle, though he was 'wearied with that which came upon him daily, the care of all the churches,' 'Thou hast borne witness, and now come apart and rest'; but He said to him, 'Thou hast filled the smaller sphere; for recompense I put thee into a larger.'
That is the law for life and everywhere, the tools to the hand that can use them. The man that can do a thing gets it to do in too large a measure, as he sometimes thinks; but he gets it, and it is all right that he should. 'To him that hath shall be given.' And it is the law for heaven. 'Thou hast borne witness down on the little dark earth; come up higher and witness for Me here, amid the blaze.'
It is the law for this Christian work of ours. If you have shone faithfully in your 'little corner,' as the child's hymn says, you will be taken out and set upon the lamp-stand, that you 'may give light to all that are in the house.' And it is the law for this great enterprise of Christian missions, as we all know. We are overwhelmed with our success. Doors are opening around us on every side. There is no limit to the work that English Churches can do, except their inclination to do it. But the opportunities open to us require a far deeper consecration and a far closer dwelling beside our Master than we have ever realised. We are half asleep yet; we do not know our resources in men, in money, in activity, in prayer.
Surely there can be no sadder sign of decadence and no surer precursor of extinction than to fall beneath the demands of our day; to have doors opening at which we are too lazy or selfish to go in; to be so sound asleep that we never hear the man of Macedonia when he stands by us and cries, 'Come over and help us!' We are members of a Church that God has appointed to be His witnesses to the ends of the earth. We are citizens of a nation whose influence is ubiquitous and felt in every land. By both characters, God summons us to tasks which will tax all our resources worthily to do. We inherit a work from our fathers which God has shown that He owns by giving us these golden opportunities. He summons us: 'Lengthen thy cords and strengthen thy stakes. Come out of Jerusalem; come into Rome.' Shall we respond? God give us grace to fill the sphere in which He has set us, till He lifts us to the wider one, where the faithfulness of the steward is exchanged for the authority of the ruler, and the toil of the servant for the joy of the Lord!
A PLOT DETECTED
'And when it was day, certain of the Jews banded together, and bound themselves under a curse, saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they bad killed Paul. 13. And they were more than forty which had made this conspiracy. 14. And they came to the chief priests and elders, and said, We have bound ourselves under a great curse, that we will eat nothing until we have slain Paul. 15. Now therefore ye with the council signify to the chief captain that he bring him down unto you to-morrow, as though ye would inquire something more perfectly concerning him: and we, or ever he come near, are ready to kill him. 16. And when Paul's sister's son heard of their lying in wait, he went and entered into the castle, and told Paul. 17. Then Paul called one of the centurions unto him, and said, Bring this young man unto the chief captain: for he hath a certain thing to tell him. 18. So he took him, and brought him to the chief captain, and said, Paul the prisoner called me unto him, and prayed me to bring this young man unto thee, who hath something to say unto thee. 19. Then the chief captain took him by the hand, and went with him aside privately, and asked him, What is that thou hast to tell me? 20. And he said, The Jews have agreed to desire thee that thou wouldest bring down Paul to-morrow into the council, as though they would enquire somewhat of him more perfectly. 21. But do not thou yield unto them: for there lie in wait for him of them more than forty men, which have bound themselves with an oath, that they will neither eat nor drink till they have killed him: and now are they ready, looking for a promise from thee. 22. So the chief captain then let the young man depart, and charged him, See thou tell no man that thou hast shewed these things to me.'—ACTS xxiii. 12-22.
'The wicked plotteth against the just.... The Lord will laugh at him.' The Psalmist's experience and his faith were both repeated in Paul's case. His speech before the Council had set Pharisees and Sadducees squabbling, and the former had swallowed his Christianity for the sake of his being 'a Pharisee and the son of a Pharisee.' Probably, therefore, the hatchers of this plot were Sadducees, who hated Pharisees even more than they did Christians. The Apostle himself was afterwards not quite sure that his skilful throwing of the apple of discord between the two parties was right (Acts xxiv. 21), and apparently it was the direct occasion of the conspiracy. A Christian man's defence of himself and his faith gains nothing by clever tactics. It is very doubtful whether what Paul spoke 'in that hour' was taught him by the Spirit.
'The corruption of the best is the worst.' There is a close and strange alliance between formal religion and murderous hatred and vulpine craft, as the history of ecclesiastical persecution shows; and though we have done with fire and faggot now, the same evil passions and tempers do still in modified form lie very near to a Christianity which has lost its inward union with Jesus and lives on surface adherence to forms. In that sense too 'the letter killeth.' We lift up our hands in horror at these fierce fanatics, 'ready to kill' Paul, because he believed in resurrection, angel, and spirit. We need to guard ourselves lest something of their temper should be in us. There is a devilish ingenuity about the details of the plot, and a truly Oriental mixture of murderous passion and calculating craft. The serpent's wisdom and his poison fangs are both apparent. The forty conspirators must have been 'ready,' not only to kill Paul, but to die in the attempt, for the distance from the castle to the council-chamber was short, and the detachment of legionaries escorting the prisoner would have to be reckoned with.
The pretext of desiring to inquire more fully into Paul's opinions derived speciousness from his ambiguous declaration, which had set the Council by the ears and had stopped his examination. Luke does not tell us what the Council said to the conspirators, but we learn from what Paul's nephew says in verse 20 that it 'agreed to ask thee to bring down Paul.' So once more the tail drove on the head, and the Council became the tool of fierce zealots. No doubt most of its members would have shrunk from themselves killing Paul, but they did not shrink from having a hand in his death. They were most religious and respectable men, and probably soothed their consciences with thinking that, after all, the responsibility was on the shoulders of the forty conspirators. How men can cheat themselves for a while as to the criminality of indirectly contributing to criminal acts, and how rudely the thin veil will be twitched aside one day!
II. The abrupt introduction of Paul's nephew into the story piques curiosity, but we cannot say more about him than is told us here. We do not know whether he was moved by being a fellow-believer in Jesus, or simply by kindred and natural affection. Possibly he was, as his uncle had been, a student under some distinguished Rabbi. At all events, he must have had access to official circles to have come on the track of the plot, which would, of course, be covered up as much as possible. The rendering in the margin of the Revised Version gives a possible explanation of his knowledge of it by suggesting that he had 'come in upon them'; that is, upon the Council in their deliberations. But probably the rendering preferred in the text is preferable, and we are left to conjecture his source of information, as almost everything else about him. But it is more profitable to note how God works out His purposes and delivers His servants by 'natural' means, which yet are as truly divine working as was the sending of the angel to smite off Peter's chains, or the earthquake at Philippi.
This lad was probably not an inhabitant of Jerusalem, and that he should have been there then, and come into possession of the carefully guarded secret, was more than a fortunate coincidence. It was divinely ordered, and God's finger is as evident in the concatenation of co-operating natural events as in any 'miracle.' To co-ordinate these so that they concur to bring about the fulfilment of His will may be a less conspicuous, but is not a less veritable, token of a sovereign Will at work in the world than any miracle is. And in this case how wonderfully separate factors, who think themselves quite independent, are all handled like pawns on a chessboard by Him who 'makes the wrath of man to praise Him, and girds Himself with the remainder thereof!' Little did the fiery zealots who were eager to plunge their daggers into Paul's heart, or the lad who hastened to tell him the secret he had discovered, or the Roman officer who equally hastened to get rid of his troublesome prisoner, dream that they were all partners in bringing about one God-determined result—the fulfilment of the promise that had calmed Paul in the preceding night: 'So must thou bear witness also at Rome.'
III. Paul had been quieted after his exciting day by the vision which brought that promise, and this new peril did not break his peace. With characteristic clear-sightedness he saw the right thing to do in the circumstances, and with characteristic promptitude he did it at once. Luke wastes no words in telling of the Apostle's emotions when this formidable danger was sprung on him, and the very reticence deepens the impression of Paul's equanimity and practical wisdom. A man who had had such a vision last night might well possess his soul in patience, even though such a plot was laid bare this morning; and each servant of Jesus may be as well assured, as was Paul the prisoner, that the Lord shall 'keep him from all evil,' and that if his life is 'witness' it will not end till his witness is complete. Our faith should work in us calmness of spirit, clearness of perception of the right thing to do, swift seizing of opportunities. Paul trusted Jesus' word that he should be safe, whatever dangers threatened, but that trust stimulated his own efforts to provide for his safety.
IV. The behaviour of the captain is noteworthy, as showing that he had been impressed by Paul's personal magnetism, and that he had in him a strain of courtesy and kindliness. He takes the lad by the hand to encourage him, and he leads him aside that he may speak freely, and thereby shows that he trusted him. No doubt the youth would be somewhat flustered at being brought into the formidable presence and by the weight of his tidings, and the great man's gentleness would be a cordial. A superior's condescension is a wonderful lip-opener. We all have some people who look up to us, and to whom small kindlinesses from us are precious. We do not 'render to all their dues,' unless we give gracious courtesy to those beneath, as well as 'honour' to those above, us. But the captain could clothe himself too with official reserve and keep up the dignity of his office. He preserved an impenetrable silence as to his intentions, and simply sealed the young man's lips from tattling about the plot or the interview with him. Promptly he acted, without waiting for the Council's application to him. At once he prepared to despatch Paul to Caesarea, glad enough, no doubt, to wash his hands of so troublesome a charge. Thus he too was a cog in the wheel, an instrument to fulfil the promise made in vision, God's servant though he knew it not.
A LOYAL TRIBUTE [Footnote: Preached on the occasion of the Jubilee of Queen Victoria.]
'...Seeing that by thee we enjoy great quietness, and that very worthy deeds are done unto this nation by thy providence, 3. We accept it always ... with all thankfulness.'—ACTS xxiv. 2-3.
These words were addressed by a professional flatterer to one of the worst of the many bad Roman governors of Syria. The speaker knew that he was lying, the listeners knew that the eulogium was undeserved; and among all the crowd of bystanders there was perhaps not a man who did not hate the governor, and would not have been glad to see him lying dead with a dagger in his breast.
But both the fawning Tertullus and the oppressor Felix knew in their heart of hearts that the words described what a governor ought to be. And though they are touched with the servility which is not loyalty, and embrace a conception of the royal function attributing far more to the personal influence of a monarch than our State permits, still we may venture to take them as the starting-point for two or three considerations suggested to us, by the celebrations of the past week.
I almost feel that I owe an apology for turning to that subject, for everything that can be said about it has been said far better than I can say it. But still, partly because my silence might be misunderstood, and partly because an opportunity is thereby afforded for looking from a Christian point of view at one or two subjects that do not ordinarily come within the scope of one's ministry, I venture to choose such a text now.
I. The first thing that I would take it as suggesting is the grateful acknowledgment of personal worth.
I suppose the world never saw a national rejoicing like that through which we have passed. For the reigns that have been long enough to admit of it have been few, and those in which intelligently and sincerely a whole nation of freemen could participate have been fewer still. But now all England has been one; whatever our divisions of opinion, there have been no divisions here. Not only have the bonfires flared from hill to hill in this little island of ours, but all over the world, into every out of the way corner where our widely-spread race has penetrated, the same sentiment has extended. All have yielded to the common impulse, the rejoicing of a free people in a good Queen.
That common sentiment has embraced two things, the office and the person. There was a pathetic contrast between these two when that sad-hearted widow walked alone up the nave of Westminster Abbey, and took her seat on the stone of destiny on which for a millennium kings have been crowned. The contrast heightened both the reverence due to the office and the sympathy due to the woman. The Sovereign is the visible expression of national power, the incarnation of England, living history, the outcome of all the past, the representative of harmonised and blended freedom and law, a powerful social influence from which much good might flow, a moderating and uniting power amidst fierce partisan bitterness and hate, a check against rash change. There is no nobler office upon earth.
And when, as is the case in this long reign, that office has been filled with some consciousness of its responsibilities, the recognition of the fact is no flattery but simple duty. We cannot attribute to the personal initiative of the Queen the great and beneficent changes which have coincided with her reign. Thank God, no monarch can make or mar England now. But this we can say,
'Her court was pure, her life serene.'
A life touched with many gracious womanly charities, delighting in simple country pleasures, not strange to the homes of the poor, quick to sympathise with sorrow, especially the humblest, as many a weeping widow at a pit mouth has thankfully felt; sternly repressive of some forms of vice in high places, and, as we may believe, not ignorant of the great Comforter nor disobedient to the King of kings,—for such a royal life a nation may well be thankful. We outsiders do not know how far personal influence from the throne has in any case restrained or furthered national action, but if it be true, as is alleged, that twice in her reign the Queen has kept England from the sin and folly of war, once from a fratricidal conflict with the great new England across the Atlantic, then we owe her much. If in later years that life has somewhat shrunk into itself and sat silent, with Grief for a companion, those who know a like desolation will understand, and even the happy may honour an undying love and respect the seclusion of an undying sorrow. So I say: 'Forasmuch as under thee we enjoy great quietness, we accept it with all thankfulness.'
II. My text may suggest for us a wider view of progress which, although not initiated by the Queen, has coincided with her fifty years' reign.
In the Revised Version, instead of 'worthy deeds are done,' we read 'evils are corrected'; and that is the true rendering. The double function which is here attributed falsely to an oppressive tyrant is the ancient ideal of monarchy—first, that it shall repress disorders and secure tranquillity within the borders and across the frontiers; and second, that abuses and evils shall be corrected by the foresight of the monarch.
Now, in regard to both these functions we have learned that a nation can do them a great deal better than a sovereign. And so when we speak of progress during this fifty years' reign, we largely mean the progress which England in its toiling millions and in its thinking few has won for itself. Let me in very brief words try to touch upon the salient points of that progress for which as members of the nation it becomes us as Christian people to be thankful. Enough hosannas have been sung already, and I need not add my poor voice to them, about material progress and commercial prosperity and the growth of manufacturing industry and inventions and all the rest of it. I do not for a moment mean to depreciate these, but it is of more importance that a telegraph should have something to say than that it should be able to speak across the waters, and 'man doth not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.' We who live in a great commercial community and know how solid comfort and hope and gladness are all contingent, in millions of humble homes, upon the manufacturing industry of these districts, shall never be likely to underrate the enormous expansion in national industry, and the consequent enormous increase in national wealth, which belongs to this last half century. I need say nothing about these.
Let me remind you, and I can only do it in a sentence or two, of more important changes in these fifty years. English manners and morals have been bettered, much of savagery and coarseness has been got rid of; low, cruel amusements have been abandoned. Thanks to the great Total Abstinence movement very largely, the national conscience has been stirred in regard to the great national sin of intoxication. A national system of education has come into operation and is working wonders in this land. Newspapers and books are cheapened; political freedom has been extended and 'broadened slowly down,' as is safe, 'from precedent to precedent,' so that no party thinks now of reversing any of the changes, howsoever fiercely they were contested ere they were won. Religious thought has widened, the sects have come nearer each other, men have passed from out of a hard doctrinal Christianity, in which the person of Christ was buried beneath the cobwebs of theology, into a far freer and a far more Christ-regarding and Christ-centred faith. And if we are to adopt such a point of view as the brave Apostle Paul took, the antagonism against religion, which is a marked feature of our generation, and contrasts singularly with the sleepy acquiescence of fifty years ago, is to be put down to the credit side of the account. 'For,' he said, like a bold man believing that he had an irrefragable truth in his hands, 'I will tarry here, for a great door and an effectual is opened, and there are many adversaries.' Wherever a whole nation is interested and stirred about religious subjects, even though it may be in contradiction and antagonism, God's truth can fight opposition far better than it can contend with indifference. Then if we look upon our churches, whilst there is amongst them all abounding worldliness much to be deplored, there is also, thank God, springing up amongst us a new consciousness of responsibility, which is not confined to Christian people, for the condition of the poor and the degraded around us; and everywhere we see good men and women trying to stretch their hands across these awful gulfs in our social system which make such a danger in our modern life, and to reclaim the outcasts of our cities, the most hopeless of all the heathen on the face of the earth. These things, on which I have touched with the lightest hand, all taken together do make a picture for which we may be heartily thankful.
Only, brethren, let us remember that that sort of talk about England's progress may very speedily become offensive self-conceit, and a measuring of ourselves with ludicrous self-satisfaction against all other nations. There is a bastard patriotism which has been very loud-mouthed in these last days, of which wise men should beware.
Further, such a contemplation of the elements of national progress, which we owe to no monarch and to no legislature, but largely to the indomitable pluck and energy of our people, to Anglo-Saxon persistence not knowing when it is beaten, and to the patient meditation of thoughtful minds and the self-denying efforts of good philanthropical and religious people—such a contemplation, I say, may come between us and the recognition of the highest source from which it flows, and be corrupted into forgetfulness of God. 'Beware lest when thou hast eaten and art full, and thy silver and thy gold is multiplied, and all that thou hast is multiplied, then thine heart be lifted up, and thou forget the Lord thy God... and thou say in thine heart, My power, and the might of mine hand, hath gotten me this wealth. But thou shalt remember the Lord thy God, for it is He that giveth thee power to get wealth.'
And the last caution that I would put in here is, let us beware lest the hosannas over national progress shall be turned into 'Rest and be thankful,' or shall ever come in the way of the strenuous and persistent reaching forth to the fair ideal that lies so far before us.
III. That leads me to the last point on which I would say a word, viz., that my text with its reference to the correction of evils, as one of the twin functions of the monarch, naturally suggests to us the thought which should follow all recognition of progress in the past—the consideration of what yet remains to be done.
A great controversy has been going on, or at least a remarkable difference of opinion has been expressed in recent months by two of the greatest minds and clearest heads in England; one of our greatest poets and one of our greatest statesmen. The one looking back over sixty years sees but foiled aspirations and present devildom and misery. The other looking back over the same period sees accomplished dreams and the prophecy of further progress. It is not for me to enter upon the strife between such authorities. Both are right. Much has been achieved. 'There remaineth yet very much land to be possessed.' Whatever have been the victories and the blessings of the past, there are rotten places in our social state which, if not cauterised and healed, will break out into widespread and virulent sores. There are dangers in the near future which may well task the skill of the bravest and the faith of the most trustful. There are clouds on the horizon which may speedily turn jubilations into lamentations, and the best security against these is that each of us in his place, as a unit however insignificant in the great body politic, should use our little influence on the side that makes for righteousness, and see to it that we leave some small corner of this England, which God has given us in charge, sweeter and holier because of our lives. The ideal for you Christian men and women is the organisation of society on Christian principles. Have we got to that yet, or within sight of it, do you suppose? Look round you. Does anybody believe that the present arrangements in connection with unrestricted competition and the distribution of wealth coincide accurately with the principles of the New Testament? Will anybody tell me that the state of a hundred streets within a mile of this spot is what it would be if the Christian men of this nation lived the lives that they ought to live? Could there be such rottenness and corruption if the 'salt' had not 'lost his savour'? Will anybody tell me that the disgusting vice which our newspapers do not think themselves degraded by printing in loathsome detail, and so bringing the foulness of a common sewer on to every breakfast-table in the kingdom, is in accordance with the organisation of society on Christian principles? Intemperance, social impurity, wide, dreary tracts of ignorance, degradation, bestiality, the awful condition of the lowest layer in our great cities, crushed like some crumbling bricks beneath the ponderous weight of the splendid superstructure, the bitter partisan spirit of politics, where the followers of each chief think themselves bound to believe that he is immaculate and that the other side has no honour or truth belonging to it—these things testify against English society, and make one almost despair when one thinks that, after a thousand years and more of professing Christianity, that is all that we can show for it.
O brethren! we may be thankful for what has been accomplished, but surely there had need also to be penitent recognition of failure and defect. And I lay it on the consciences of all that listen to me now to see to it that they do their parts as members of this body politic of England. A great heritage has come down from our fathers; pass it on bettered by your self-denial and your efforts. And remember that the way to mend a kingdom is to begin by mending yourselves, and letting Christ's kingdom come in your own hearts. Next we are bound to try to further its coming in the hearts of others, and so to promote its leavening society and national life. No Christian is clear from the blood of men and the guilt of souls who does not, according to opportunity and capacity, repair before his own door, and seek to make some one know the unsearchable riches of the Gospel of Christ.
There is no finality for a Christian patriot until his country be organised on Christian principles, and so from being merely a 'kingdom of the world' become 'a Kingdom of our God and of His Christ.' To help forward that consummation, by however little, is the noblest service that prince or peasant can render to his country. By conformity to the will of God and not by material progress or intellectual enlightenment is a state prosperous and strong. To keep His statutes and judgments is 'your wisdom and understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.'
PAUL BEFORE FELIX
'Then Paul, after that the governor had beckoned unto him to speak, answered, Forasmuch as I know that thou hast been of many years a judge unto this nation, I do the more cheerfully answer for myself: 11. Because that thou mayest understand, that there are yet but twelve days since I went up to Jerusalem for to worship. 12. And they neither found me in the temple disputing with any man, neither raising up the people, neither in the synagogues, nor in the city: 13. Neither can they prove the things whereof they now accuse me. 14. But this I confess unto thee, that after the way which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the law and in the prophets: 15. And have hope toward God, which they themselves also allow, that there shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust. 16. And herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward men. 17. Now after many years I came to bring alms to my nation, and offerings. 18. Whereupon certain Jews from Asia found me purified in the temple, neither with multitude, nor with tumult 19. Who ought to have been here before thee, and object, if they had ought against me. 20. Or else let these same here say, if they have found any evil-doing in me, while I stood before the council, 21. Except it be for this one voice, that I cried standing among them, Touching the resurrection of the dead I am called in question by you this day. 22. And when Felix heard these things, having more perfect knowledge of that way, he deferred them, and said, When Lysias the chief captain shall come down, I will know the uttermost of your matter. 23. And he commanded a centurion to keep Paul, and to let him have liberty, and that he should forbid none of his acquaintance to minister or come unto him. 24. And after certain days, when Felix came with his wife Drusilla, which was a Jewess, he sent for Paul, and heard him concerning the faith in Christ. 25. And as he reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come, Felix trembled, and answered, Go thy way for this time; when I have a convenient season, I will call for thee.'—ACTS xxiv. 10-25.
Tertellus made three charges against Paul: first, that he incited to rebellion; second, that he was a principal member of a 'sect'; third (with a 'moreover,' as if an afterthought), that he had profaned the Temple. It was more clever than honest to put the real cause of Jewish hatred last, since it was a trifle in Roman eyes, and to put first the only thing that Felix would think worth notice. A duller man than he might have scented something suspicious in Jewish officials being so anxious to suppress insurrection against Rome, and probably he had his own thoughts about the good faith of the accusers, though he said nothing. Paul takes up the three points in order. Unsupported charges can only be met by emphatic denials.
I. Paul's speech is the first part of the passage. Its dignified, courteous beginning contrasts well with the accuser's dishonest flattery. Paul will not lie, but he will respect authority, and will conciliate when he can do so with truth. Felix had been 'judge' for several years, probably about six. What sort of a judge he had been Paul will not say. At any rate he had gained experience which might help him in picking his way through Tertullus's rhetoric.
The Apostle answers the first charge with a flat denial, with the remark that as the whole affair was less than a fortnight old the truth could easily be ascertained, and that the time was very short for the Jews to have 'found' him such a dangerous conspirator, and with the obviously unanswerable demand for proof to back up the charge. In the absence of witnesses there was nothing more to be done about number one of the accusations, and a just judge would have said so and sent Tertullus and his clients about their business.
The second charge Paul both denies and admits. He does belong to the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. But that is not a 'sect'; it is 'the Way.' It is not a divergence from the path in which the fathers have walked, trodden only by some self-willed schismatics, but it is the one God-appointed path of life, 'the old way,' the only road by which a man can walk nobly and travel to the skies. Paul's whole doctrine as to the relation of Judaism to Christianity is here in germ and in a form adapted to Felix's comprehension. This so-called sect (ver. 14 takes up Tertullus's word in ver. 5) is the true Judaism, and its members are more truly 'Jews' than they who are such 'outwardly.' For what has Paul cast away in becoming a Christian? Not the worship of the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob, not the law, not the prophets, not the hope of a resurrection.
He does not say that he practises all the things written in the law, but that he 'believes' them. Then the law was revelation as well as precept, and was to be embraced by faith before it could be obeyed in practice; it was, as he says elsewhere, a 'schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ.' Judaism is the bud; Christianity is the bright consummate flower. Paul was not preaching his whole Gospel, but defending himself from a specific charge; namely that, as being a 'Nazarene,' he had started off from the main line of Jewish religion. He admits that he is a 'Nazarene,' and he assumes correctly that Felix knew something about them, but he denies that he is a sectary, and he assumes that the charge would be more truly made against those who, accusing him, disbelieved in Christ. He hints that they did not believe in either law or prophets, else they would have been Nazarenes too.
The practical results of his faith are stated. 'Herein'; that is in the faith and hope just spoken of. He will not say that these make him blameless towards God and men, but that such blamelessness is his aim, which he pursues with earnest toil and self-control. A Christianity which does not sovereignly sway life and brace its professor up to the self-denial needful to secure a conscience void of offence is not Paul's kind of Christianity. If we move in the circle of the great Christian truths we shall gird ourselves to subdue the flesh, and will covet more than aught else the peace of a good conscience. But, like Paul, we shall be slow to say that we have attained, yet not afraid to say that we strive towards, that ideal.
The third charge is met by a plain statement of his real purpose in coming to Jerusalem and frequenting the Temple. 'Profane the Temple! Why, I came all the way from Greece on purpose to worship at the Feast; and I did not come empty-handed either, for I brought alms for my nation'—the contributions of the Gentiles to Jews—'and I was a worshipper, discharging the ceremonial purifications.' They called him a 'Nazarene'; he was in the Temple as a 'Nazarite.' Was it likely that, being there on such an errand, he should have profaned it?
He begins a sentence, which would probably have been an indignant one, about the 'certain Jews from Asia,' the originators of the whole trouble, but he checks himself with a fine sense of justice. He will say nothing about absent men. And that brings him back to his strong point, already urged, the absence of proof of the charges. Tertullus and company had only hearsay. What had become of the people who said they saw him in the Temple? No doubt they had thought discretion the better part of valour, and were not anxious to face the Roman procedure.
The close of the speech carries the war into the enemy's quarters, challenging the accusers to tell what they had themselves heard. They could be witnesses as to the scene at the Council, which Tertullus had wisely said nothing about. Pungent sarcasm is in Paul's closing words, especially if we remember that the high officials, like Ananias the high-priest, were Sadducees. The Pharisees in the Council had acquitted him when they heard his profession of faith in a resurrection. That was his real crime, not treason against Rome or profanation of the Temple. The present accusers might be eager for his condemnation, but half of their own Sanhedrim had acquitted him. 'And these unworthy Jews, who have cast off the nation's hope and believe in no resurrection, are accusing me of being an apostate! Who is the sectary—I or they?'
II. There was only one righteous course for Felix, namely, to discharge the prisoner. But he yielded to the same temptation as had mastered Pilate, and shrank from provoking influential classes by doing the right thing. He was the less excusable, because his long tenure of office had taught him something, at all events, of 'the Way.' He had too many crimes to venture on raising enemies in his government; he had too much lingering sense of justice to give up an innocent man. So like all weak men in difficult positions he temporised, and trusted to accident to make the right thing easier for him.
His plea for delay was conveniently indefinite. When was Lysias coming? His letter said nothing about such an intention, and took for granted that all the materials for a decision would be before Felix. Lysias could tell no more. The excuse was transparent, but it served to stave off a decision, and to-morrow would bring some other excuse. Prompt carrying out of all plain duty is the only safety. The indulgence given to Paul, in his light confinement, only showed how clearly Felix knew himself to be doing wrong, but small alleviations do not patch up a great injustice.
III. One reading inserts in verse 24 the statement that Drusilla wished to see Paul, and that Felix summoned him in order to gratify her. Very probably she, as a Jewess, knew something of 'the Way,' and with a love of anything odd and new, which such women cannot do without, she wanted to see this curious man and hear him talk. It might amuse her, and pass an hour, and be something to gossip about.
She and Felix got more than they bargained for. Paul was not now the prisoner, but the preacher; and his topics were not wanting in directness and plainness. He 'reasoned of righteousness' to one of the worst of unrighteous governors; of 'temperance' to the guilty couple who, in calling themselves husband and wife, were showing themselves given over to sinful passions; and of 'judgment to come' to a man who, to quote the Roman historian, 'thought that he could commit all evil with impunity.'
Paul's strong hand shook even that obdurate soul, and roused one of the two sleeping consciences. Drusilla may have been too frivolous to be impressed, but Felix had so much good left that he could be conscious of evil. Alas! he had so much evil that he suppressed the good. His 'convenient season' was then; it never came again. For though he communed with Paul often, he trembled only once. So he passed into the darkness.
FELIX BEFORE PAUL
A Sermon to the Young
'And as Paul reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come, Felix trembled, and answered, Go thy way for this time; when I have a convenient season, I will call for thee.' —ACTS xxiv. 25.
Felix and his brother had been favourite slaves of the Emperor, and so had won great power at court. At the date of this incident he had been for some five or six years the procurator of the Roman province of Judaea; and how he used his power the historian Tacitus tells us in one of his bitter sentences, in which he says, 'He wielded his kingly authority with the spirit of a slave, in all cruelty and lust.'
He had tempted from her husband, Drusilla, the daughter of that Herod whose dreadful death is familiar to us all; and his court reeked with blood and debauchery. He is here face to face with Paul for the second time. On a former interview he had seen good reason to conclude that the Roman Empire was not in much danger from this one Jew whom his countrymen, with suspicious loyalty, were charging with sedition; and so he had allowed him a very large margin of liberty.
On this second occasion he had sent for him evidently not as a judge, but partly with a view to try to get a bribe out of him, and partly because he had some kind of languid interest, as most Romans then had, in Oriental thought—some languid interest perhaps too in this strange man. Or he and Drusilla were possibly longing for a new sensation, and not indisposed to give a moment's glance at Paul with his singular ideas.
So they called for the Apostle, and the guilty couple found a judge in their prisoner. Paul does not speak to them as a Greek philosopher, anxious to please high personages, might have done, but he goes straight at their sins: he reasons 'of righteousness' with the unjust judge, 'of temperance' with the self-indulgent, sinful pair, 'of the judgment to come' with these two who thought that they could do anything they liked with impunity. Christianity has sometimes to be exceedingly rude in reference to the sins of the upper classes.
As Paul went on, a strange fear began to creep about the heart of Felix. It is the watershed of his life that he has come to, the crisis of his fate. Everything depends on the next five minutes. Will he yield? Will he resist? The tongue of the balance trembles and hesitates for a moment, and then, but slowly, the wrong scale goes down; 'Go thy way for this time.' Ah! if he had said, 'Come and help me to get rid of this strange fear,' how different all might have been! The metal was at the very point of melting. What shape would it take? It ran into the wrong mould, and, as far as we know, it was hardened there. 'It might have been once, and he missed it, lost it for ever. No sign marked out that moment from the common uneventful moments, though it saw the death of a soul.'
Now, my dear young friends, I do not intend to say anything more to you of this man and his character, but I wish to take this incident and its lessons and urge them on your hearts and consciences.
I. Let me say a word or two about the fact, of which this incident is an example, and of which I am afraid the lives of many of you would furnish other examples, that men lull awakened consciences to sleep and excuse delay in deciding for Christ by half-honest promises to attend to religion at some future time.
'Go thy way for this time' is what Felix is really anxious about. His one thought is to get rid of Paul and his disturbing message for the present. But he does not wish to shut the door altogether. He gives a sop to his conscience to stop its barking, and he probably deceives himself as to the gravity of his present decision by the lightly given promise and its well-guarded indefiniteness, 'When I have a convenient season I will send for thee.' The thing he really means is—Not now, at all events; the thing he hoodwinks himself with is— By and by. Now that is what I know that some of you are doing; and my purpose and earnest prayer are to bring you now to the decision which, by one vigorous act of your wills, will settle the question for the future as to which God you are going to follow.
So then I have just one or two things to say about this first part of my subject. Let me remind you that however beautiful, however gracious, however tender and full of love and mercy and good tidings the message of God's love in Jesus Christ is, there is another side to it, a side which is meant to rouse men's consciences and to awaken men's fears.
If you bring a man like the man in the story, Felix, or a very much better man than he—any of you who hear me now—into contact with these three thoughts, 'Righteousness, temperance, judgment to come,' the effect of such a direct appeal to moral convictions will always be more or less to awaken a sense of failure, insufficiency, defect, sin, and to create a certain creeping dread that if I set myself against the great law of God, that law of God will have a way of crushing me. The fear is well founded, and not only does the contemplation of God's law excite it. God's gospel comes to us, and just because it is a gospel, and is intended to lead you and me to love and trust Jesus Christ, and give our whole hearts and souls to Him—just because it is the best 'good news' that ever came into the world, it begins often (not always, perhaps) by making a man feel what a sinful man he is, and how he has gone against God's law, and how there hang over him, by the very necessities of the case and the constitution of the universe, consequences bitter and painful. Now I believe that there are very few people who, like you, come occasionally into contact with the preaching of the truth, who have not had their moments when they felt—'Yes, it is all true—it is all true. I am bad, and I have broken God's law, and there is a dark lookout before me!' I believe that most of us know what that feeling is.
And now my next step is—that the awakened conscience is just like the sense of pain in the physical world, it has a work to do and a mission to perform. It is meant to warn you off dangerous ground. Thank God for pain! It keeps off death many a time. And in like manner thank God for a swift conscience that speaks! It is meant to ring an alarm-bell to us, to make us, as the Bible has it, 'flee for refuge to the hope that is set before us.' My imploring question to my young friends now is: 'Have you used that sense of evil and wrongdoing, when it has been aroused in your consciences, to lead you to Jesus Christ, or what have you done with it?'
There are two persons in this Book of the Acts of the Apostles who pass through the same stages of feeling up to a certain point, and then they diverge. And the two men's outline history is the best sermon that I can preach upon this point. Felix becoming afraid, recoils, shuts himself up, puts away the message that disturbs him, and settles himself back into his evil. The Philippian jailer becoming afraid (the phrases in the original being almost identical), like a sensible man tries to find out the reason of his fear and how to get rid of it; and falls down at the Apostles' feet and says, 'Sirs, what must I do to be saved?'
The fear is not meant to last; it is of no use in itself. It is only an impelling motive that leads us to look to the Saviour, and the man that uses it so has used it rightly. Yet there rises in many a heart that transparent self-deception of delay. 'They all with one consent began to make excuse'; that is as true to-day as it was true then. My experience tells me that it will be true in regard to a sad number of you who will go away feeling that my poor word has gone a little way into their hardened hide, but settling themselves back into their carelessness, and forgetting all impressions that have been made. O dear young friend, do not do that, I beseech you! Do not stifle the wholesome alarm and cheat yourself with the notion of a little delay!
II. And now I wish next to pass very swiftly in review before you some of the reasons why we fall into this habit of self-deceiving, indecision, and delay—'Go thy way' would be too sharp and unmistakable if it were left alone, so it is fined off. 'I will not commit myself beyond to-day,' 'for this time go thy way, and when I have a convenient season I will call for thee.'
What are the reasons for such an attitude as that? Let me enumerate one or two of them as they strike me. First, there is the instinctive, natural wish to get rid of a disagreeable subject—much as a man, without knowing what he is doing, twitches his hand away from the surgeon's lancet. So a great many of us do not like—and no wonder that we do not like—these thoughts of the old Book about 'righteousness and temperance and judgment to come,' and make a natural effort to turn our minds away from the contemplation of the subject, because it is painful and unpleasant. Do you think it would be a wise thing for a man, if he began to suspect that he was insolvent, to refuse to look into his books or to take stock, and let things drift, till there was not a halfpenny in the pound for anybody? What do you suppose his creditors would call him? They would not compliment him on either his honesty or his prudence, would they? And is it not the part of a wise man, if he begins to see that something is wrong, to get to the bottom of it and, as quickly as possible, to set it right? And what do you call people who, suspecting that there may be a great hole in the bottom of the ship, never man the pumps or do any caulking, but say, 'Oh, she will very likely keep afloat until we get into harbour'?
Do you not think that it would be a wiser thing for you if, because the subject is disagreeable, you would force yourself to think about it until it became agreeable to you? You can change it if you will, and make it not at all a shadow or a cloud or a darkness over you. And you can scarcely expect to claim the designation of wise and prudent orderers of your lives until you do. Certainly it is not wise to shuffle a thing out of sight because it is not pleasing to think about.
Then there is another reason. A number of our young people say, 'Go thy way for this time,' because you have a notion that it is time enough for you to begin to think about serious things and be religious when you grow a bit older. And some of you even, I dare say, have an idea that religion is all very well for people that are turned sixty and are going down the hill, but that it is quite unnecessary for you. Shakespeare puts a grim word into the mouth of one of his characters, which sets the theory of many of us in its true light, when, describing a dying man calling on God, he makes the narrator say: 'I, to comfort him, bid him he should not think of God. I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet.'
Some of my hearers practically live on that principle, and are tempted to regard thoughts of God as in place only among medicine bottles, or when the shadows of the grave begin to fall cold and damp on our path. 'Young men will be young men,' 'We must sow our wild oats,' 'You can't put old heads on young shoulders'—and such like sayings, often practically mean that vice and godlessness belong to youth, and virtue and religion to old age, just as flowers do to spring and fruit to autumn. Let me beseech you not to be deceived by such a notion; and to search your own thoughts and see whether it be one of the reasons which leads you to say, 'Go thy way for this time.'
Then again some of us fall into this habit of putting off the decision for Christ, not consciously, not by any distinct act of saying, 'No, I will not,' but simply by letting the impressions made on our hearts and consciences be crowded out of them by cares and enjoyments and pleasures and duties of this world. If you had not so much to study at College, you would have time to think about religion. If you had not so many parties and balls to go to, you would have time to nourish and foster these impressions. If you had not your place to make in the warehouse, if you had not this, that, and the other thing to do; if you had not love and pleasure and ambition and advancement and mental culture to attend to, you would have time for religion; but as soon as the seed is sown and the sower's back is turned, hovering flocks of light-winged thoughts and vanities pounce down upon it and carry it away, seed by seed. And if some stray seed here and there remains and begins to sprout, the ill weeds which grow apace spring up with ranker stems and choke it. 'The cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in, choke the word, and efface the impression made upon your hearts.
Here as I speak some serious thought is roused; by to-morrow at midday it has all gone. You did not intend it to go, you did not set yourself to banish it, you simply opened the door to the flocking in of the whole crowd of the world's cares and occupations, and away went the shy, solitary thought that, if it had been cared for and tended, might have led you at last to the Cross of Jesus Christ. Do not allow yourselves to be drifted, by the rushing current of earthly cares, from the impressions that are made upon your consciences and from the duty that you know you ought to do!
And then some of you fall into this attitude of delay, and say to the messenger of God's love, 'Go thy way for this time,' because you do not like to give up something that you know is inconsistent with His love and service. Felix would not part with Drusilla nor disgorge the ill-gotten gains of his province. Felix therefore was obliged to put away from him the thoughts that looked in that direction. I wonder if there is any young man listening to me now who feels that if he lets my words carry him where they seek to carry him, he will have to give up 'fleshly lusts which war against the soul'? I wonder if there is any young woman listening to me now who feels that if she lets my words carry her where they would carry her, she will have to live a different life from that which she has been living, to have more of a high and a noble aim in it, to live for something else than pleasure? I wonder if there are any of you who are saying, 'I cannot give up that'? My dear young friend, 'If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee. It is better for thee to enter into life blind than with both eyes to be cast into hell-fire.'
Reasons for delay, then, are these: first, getting rid of an unpleasant subject; second, thinking that there is time enough; third, letting the world obliterate the impressions that have been made; and fourth, shrinking from the surrender of something that you know you will have to give up.
III. And now let me very briefly, as my last point, put before you one or two of the reasons which I would fain might be conclusive with you for present decision to take Christ for your Saviour and your Master.
And I say, Do not delay, but now choose Him for your Redeemer, your Friend, your Helper, your Commander, your All; because delay is really decision in the wrong way. Do not delay, but take Jesus Christ as the Saviour of your sinful souls, and rest your hearts upon Him to-night before you sleep; because there is no real reason for delay. No season will be more convenient than the present season. Every time is the right time to do the right thing, every time is the right time to begin following Him. There is nothing to wait for. There is no reason at all, except their own disinclination, why every man and woman listening to me should not now grasp the Cross of Christ as their only hope for forgiveness and acceptance, and yield themselves to that Lord, to live in His service for ever. Let not this day pass without your giving yourselves to Jesus Christ, because every time that you have this message brought to you, and you refuse to accept it, or delay to accept it, you make yourselves less capable of receiving it another time.
If you take a bit of phosphorus and put it upon a slip of wood and ignite the phosphorus, bright as the blaze is, there drops from it a white ash that coats the wood and makes it almost incombustible. And so when the flaming conviction laid upon your hearts has burnt itself out, it has coated the heart, and it will be very difficult to kindle the light there again. Felix said, 'Go thy way, when I have a more convenient season I will send for thee.' Yes, and he did send for Paul, and he talked with him often—he repeated the conversation, but we do not know that he repeated the trembling. He often communed with Paul, but it was only once that he was alarmed. You are less likely to be touched by the Gospel message for every time that you have heard it and put it away. That is what makes my place here so terribly responsible, and makes me feel that my words are so very feeble in comparison with what they ought to be. I know that I may be doing harm to men just because they listen and are not persuaded, and so go away less and less likely to be touched.
Ah, dear friends! you will perhaps never again have as deep impressions as you have now; or at least they are not to be reckoned upon as probable, for the tendency of all truth is to lose its power by repetition, and the tendency of all emotion which is not acted upon is to become fainter and fainter. And so I beseech you that now you would cherish any faint impression that is being made upon your hearts and consciences. Let it lead you to Christ; and take Him for your Lord and Saviour now.
I say to you: Do that now because delay robs you of large blessing. You will never want Jesus Christ more than you do to-day. You need Him in your early hours. Why should it be that a portion of your lives should be left unfilled by that rich mercy? Why should you postpone possessing the purest joy, the highest blessing, the divinest strength? Why should you put off welcoming your best Friend into your heart? Why should you?
I say to you again, Take Christ for your Lord, because delay inevitably lays up for you bitter memories and involves dreadful losses. There are good Christian men and women, I have no doubt, in this world now, who would give all they have, if they could blot out of the tablets of their memories some past hours of their lives, before they gave their hearts to Jesus Christ. I would have you ignorant of such transgression. O young men and women! if you grow up into middle life not Christians, then should you ever become so, you will have habits to fight with, and remembrances that will smart and sting; and some of you, perhaps, remembrances that will pollute, even though you are conscious that you are forgiven. It is a better thing not to know the depths of evil than to know them and to have been raised from them. You will escape infinite sorrows by an early cleaving to Christ your Lord.
And last of all I say to you, give yourselves now to Jesus Christ, because no to-morrow may be yours. Delay is gambling, very irrationally, with a very uncertain thing—your life and your future opportunities. 'You know not what shall be on the morrow.'
For a generation I have preached in Manchester these annual sermons to the young. Ah, how many of those that heard the early ones are laid in their graves; and how many of them were laid in early graves; and how many of them said, as some of you are saying, 'When I get older I will turn religious'! And they never got older. It is a commonplace word that, but I leave it on your hearts. You have no time to lose.
Do not delay, because delay is decision in the wrong way; do not delay, because there is no reason for delay; do not delay, because delay robs you of a large blessing; do not delay, because delay lays up for you, if ever you come back, bitter memories; do not delay, because delay may end in death. And for all these reasons, come as a sinful soul to Christ the Saviour; and ask Him to forgive you, and follow in His footsteps, and do it now! 'To-day, if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts.'
'And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why perseoutest thou Me! it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.'—ACTS xxvi. 14.
'Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?' No. But God can change the skin, because He can change the nature. In this story of the conversion of the Apostle Paul—the most important thing that happened that day—we have an instance how brambles may become vines; tares may become wheat; and a hater of Jesus Christ may be changed in a moment into His lover and servant, and, if need be, His martyr.
Now the very same motives and powers which were brought to bear upon the Apostle Paul by miracle are being brought to bear upon every one of us; and my object now is just to trace the stages of the process set forth here, and to ask some of you, if you, like Paul, have been 'obedient to the heavenly vision.' Stages, I call them, though they were all crowded into a moment, for even the lightning has to pass through the intervening space when it flashes from one side of the heavens to another, and we may divide its path into periods. Time is very elastic, as any of us whose lives have held great sorrows or great joys or great resolutions well know.
I. The first of these all but simultaneous and yet separable stages was the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Of course to the Apostle it was mediated by miracle; but real as he believed that appearance of the risen Lord in the heavens to be, and valid as he maintained that it was as the ground of his Apostleship, he himself, in one of his letters, speaks of the whole incident as being the revelation of God's Son in him. The revelation in heart and mind was the main thing, of which the revelation to eye and ear were but means. The means, in his case, are different from those in ours; the end is the same. To Paul it came like the rush of a cataract that the Christ whom he had thought of as lying in an unknown grave was living in the heavens and ruling there. You and I, I suppose, do not need to be convinced by miracle of the resurrection of Jesus Christ; but the bare fact that Jesus was living in the heavens would have had little effect upon Saul, unless it had been accompanied with the revelation of the startling fact that between him and Jesus Christ there were close personal relations, so that he had to do with Jesus, and Jesus with him.
'Saul, Saul! why persecutest thou Me?' They used to think that they could wake sleep-walkers by addressing them by name. Jesus Christ, by speaking His name to the Apostle, wakes him out of his diseased slumber, and brings him to wholesome consciousness. There are stringency and solemnity of address in that double use of the name 'Saul, Saul!'
What does such an address teach you and me? That Jesus Christ, the living, reigning Lord of the universe, has perfect knowledge of each of us, and that we each stand isolated before Him, as if all the light of omniscience were focussed upon us. He knows our characters; He knows all about us, and more than that, He directly addresses Himself to each man and woman among us.
We are far too apt to hide ourselves in the crowd, and let all the messages of God's love, the warnings of His providences, as well as the teachings and invitations and pleadings of His gospel, fly over our heads as if they were meant vaguely for anybody. But they are all intended for thee, as directly as if thou, and thou only, wert in the world. I beseech you, lay this to heart, that although no audible sounds may rend the silent heavens, nor any blaze may blind thine eye, yet that as really, though not in the same outward fashion as Saul, when they were all fallen to the earth, felt himself to be singled out, and heard a voice 'speaking to him in the Hebrew tongue, saying, Saul, Saul!' thou mayest hear a voice speaking to thee in the English tongue, by thy name, and directly addressing its gracious remonstrances and its loving offers to thy listening ear. I want to sharpen the blunt 'whosoever' into the pointed 'thou.' And I would fain plead with each of my friends hearing me now to believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ is meant for thee, and that Christ speaks to thee. 'I have a message from God unto thee,' just as Nathan said unto David. 'Thou art the man!'
Do not lose yourselves in the crowd or hide yourselves from the personal incidence of Christ's offer, but feel that you stand, as you do indeed, alone the hearer of His voice, the possible recipient of His saving mercy.
II. Secondly, notice, as another stage in this process the discovery of the true character of the past.
'Why persecutest thou Me?' Now I am not going to be tempted from my more direct purpose in this sermon to dwell even for a moment on the beautiful, affecting, strengthening thought here, of the unity of Jesus Christ with all the humble souls that love Him, so as that, whatsoever any member suffers, the Head suffers with it. I must leave that truth untouched.
Saul was brought to look at all his past life as standing in immediate connection with Jesus Christ. Of course he knew before the vision that he had no love to Him whom he thought to be a Galilean impostor, and that the madness with which he hated the servants was only the glancing off of the arrow that he would fain have aimed at the Master. But he did not know that Jesus Christ counted every blow struck at one of His servants as being struck at Him. Above all he did not know that the Christ whom he was persecuting was reigning in the heavens. And so his whole past life stood before him in a new aspect when it was brought into close connection with Christ, and looked at as in relation to Him.
The same process would yield very remarkable results if applied to our lives. If I could only get you for one quiet ten minutes, to lay all your past, as far as memory brought it to your minds, right before that pure and loving Face, I should have done much. One infallible way of judging of the rottenness or goodness of our actions is that we should bring them where they will all be brought one day, into the brightness of Christ's countenance. If you want to find out the flaws in some thin, badly-woven piece of cloth, you hold it up against the light, do you not? and then you see all the specks and holes, and the irregular threads. Hold up your lives in like fashion against the light, and I shall be surprised if you do not find enough there to make you very much ashamed of yourselves. Were you ever on the stage of a theatre in the daytime? Did you ever see what miserable daubs the scenes look, and how seamy it all is when the pitiless sunshine comes in? Let that great light pour on your life, and be thankful if you find out what a daub it has been, whilst yet colours and brushes and time are at your disposal, and you may paint the future fairer than the past.
Again, this revelation of Saul's past life disclosed its utter unreasonableness. That one question, 'Why persecutest thou Me?' pulverised the whole thing. It was like the wondering question so unanswerable in the Psalm, 'Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?' If you take into account what you are, and where you stand, you can find no reason, except utterly unreasonable ones, for the lives that I fear some of us are living—lives of godlessness and Christlessness. There is nothing in all the world a tithe so stupid as sin. There is nothing so unreasonable, if there be a God at all, and if we depend upon Him, and have duties to Him, as the lives that some of you are living. You admit, most of you, that there is such a God; you admit, most of you, that you do hang upon Him; you admit, in theory, that you ought to love and serve Him. The bulk of you call yourselves Christians. That is to say, you believe, as a piece of historical fact, that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came into this world and died for men. And, believing that, you turn your back on Him, and neither love nor serve nor trust Him nor turn away from your iniquity. Is there anything outside a lunatic asylum more madlike than that? 'Why persecutest thou?' 'And he was speechless,' for no answer was possible. Why neglectest thou? Why forgettest thou? Why, admitting what thou dost, art thou not an out- and-out Christian? If we think of all our obligations and relations, and the facts of the universe, we come back to the old saying, 'The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,' and any man who, like many of my hearers, fails to give his heart and life to Jesus Christ will one day have to say, 'Behold, I have played the fool, and erred exceedingly.' Wake up, my brother, to apply calm reason to your lives while yet there is time, and face the question, Why dost thou stand as thou dost to Jesus Christ? There is nothing sadder than the small share that deliberate reason and intelligent choice have in the ordering of most men's lives. You live by impulse, by habit, by example, by constraint of the outward necessities of your position. But I am sure that there are many amongst us now who have very seldom, if ever, sat down and said, 'Now let me think, until I get to the ultimate grounds of the course of life that I am pursuing.' You can carry on the questions very gaily for a step or two, but then you come to a dead pause. 'What do I do so-and-so for?' 'Because I like it.' 'Why do I like it?' 'Because it meets my needs, or my desires, or my tastes, or my intellect.' Why do you make the meeting of your needs, or your desires, or your tastes, or your intellect your sole object? Is there any answer to that? The Hindoos say that the world rests upon an elephant, and the elephant rests upon a tortoise. What does the tortoise rest on? Nothing! Then that is what the world and the elephant rest on. And so, though you may go bravely through the first stages of the examination, when you come to the last question of all, you will find out that your whole scheme of life is built upon a blunder; and the blunder is this, that anybody can be blessed without God.
Further, this disclosure of the true character of his life revealed to Saul, as in a lightning flash, the ingratitude of it.
'Why persecutest thou Me?' That was as much as to say, 'What have I done to merit thy hate? What have I not done to merit rather thy love?' Paul did not know all that Jesus Christ had done for him. It took him a lifetime to learn a little of it, and to tell his brethren something of what he had learned. And he has been learning it ever since that day when, outside the walls of Rome, they hacked off his head. He has been learning more and more of what Jesus Christ has done for him, and why he should not persecute Him but love Him.
But the same appeal comes to each of us. What has Jesus Christ done for thee, my friend, for me, for every soul of man? He has loved me better than His own life. He has given Himself for me. He has lingered beside me, seeking to draw me to Himself, and He still lingers. And this, at the best, tremulous faith, this, at the warmest, tepid love, this, at the completest, imperfect devotion and service, are all that we bring to Him; and some of us do not bring even these. Some of us have never known what it was to sacrifice one inclination for the sake of Christ, nor to do one act for His dear love's sake, nor to lean our weakness upon Him, nor to turn to Him and say, 'I give Thee myself, that I may possess Thee.' 'Do ye thus requite the Lord, O foolish people and unwise?' I have heard of wounded soldiers striking with their bayonets at the ambulance men who came to help them. That is like what some of you do to the Lord who died for your healing, and comes as the Physician, with bandages and with balm, to bind up the brokenhearted. 'Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?'
III. Lastly, we have here a warning against self-inflicted wounds.
That second clause of the remonstrance on the lips of Christ in my text is, according to the true reading, not found in the account of Paul's conversion in the ninth chapter of this book. My text is from Paul's own story; and it is interesting to notice that he adds this eminently pathetic and forcible appeal to the shorter account given by the writer of the book. It had gone deep into his heart, and he could not forget.
The metaphor is a very plain one. The ox-goad was a formidable weapon, some seven or eight feet in length, shod with an iron point, and capable of being used as a spear, and of inflicting deadly wounds at a pinch. Held in the firm hand of the ploughman, it presented a sharp point to the rebellious animal under the yoke. If the ox had readily yielded to the gentle prick, given, not in anger, but for guidance, it had been well. But if it lashes out with its hoofs against the point, what does it get but bleeding flanks? Paul had been striking out instead of obeying, and he had won by it only bloody hocks.
There are two truths deducible from this saying, which may have been a proverb in common use. One is the utter futility of lives that are spent in opposing the divine will. There is a strong current running, and if you try to go against it you will only be swept away by it. Think of some little fishing coble coming across the bow of a great ocean-going steamer. What will be the end of that? Think of a pony- chaise jogging up the line, and an express train thundering down it. What will be the end of that? Think of a man lifting himself up and saying to God, 'I will not!' when God says, 'Do thou this!' or 'Be thou this!' What will be the end of that? 'The world passeth away, and the lusts thereof, but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.' 'It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks'—hard in regard to breaches of common morality, as some of my friends sitting quietly in these pews very well know. It is hard to indulge in sensual sin. You cannot altogether dodge what people call the 'natural consequences'; but it was God who made Nature; and so I call them God-inflicted penalties. It is hard to set yourselves against Christianity. I am not going to speak of that at all now, only when we think of the expectations of victory with which so many antagonists of the Cross have gaily leaped into the arena, and of how the foes have been forgotten and there stands the Cross still, we may say of the whole crowd, beginning with the earliest, and coming down to the latest brand-new theory that is going to explode Christianity —'it is hard to kick against the pricks.' Your own limbs you may wound; you will not do the goad much harm.
But there is another side to the proverb of my text, and that is the self-inflicted harm that comes from resisting the pricks of God's rebukes and remonstrances, whether inflicted by conscience or by any other means; including, I make bold to say, even such poor words as these of mine. For if the first little prick of conscience, a warning and a guide, be neglected, the next will go a great deal deeper. The voice which, before you do the wrong thing, says to you, 'Do not do it,' in tones of entreaty and remonstrance, speaks, after you have done it, more severely and more bitterly. The Latin word remorse, and the old English name for conscience, 'again-bite'—which latter is a translation of the other—teach us the same lesson, that the gnawing which comes after wrong done is far harder to bear than the touch that should have kept us from the evil. The stings of marine jelly-fish will burn for days after, if you wet them. And so all wrong-doing, and all neglect of right-doing of every sort, carries with it a subsequent pain, or else the wounded limb mortifies, and that is worse. There is no pain then; it would be better if there were. There is such a possibility as to have gone on so obstinately kicking against the pricks and leaving the wounds so unheeded, as that they mortify and feeling goes. A conscience 'seared with a hot iron' is ten times more dreadful than a conscience that pains and stings.
So, dear brethren, let me beseech you to listen to the pitying Christ, who says to us each, more in sorrow than in anger, 'It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.' It is no pleasure to Him to hold the goad, nor that we should wound ourselves upon it. He has another question to put to us, with another 'why,' 'Why should ye be stricken any more? Turn ye, turn ye; why will ye die, O house of Israel?'
There is another metaphor drawn from the employment of oxen which we may set side by side with this of my text: 'Take My yoke upon you, and ye shall find rest unto your souls.' The yoke accepted, the goad is laid aside; and repose and healing from its wounds are granted to us. Dear brethren, if you will listen to the Christ revealed in the heavens, as knowing all about you, and remonstrating with you for your unreasonableness and ingratitude, and setting before you the miseries of rebellion and the suicide of sin, then you will have healing for all your wounds, and your lives will neither be self- tormenting, futile, nor unreasonable. The mercy of Jesus Christ lavished upon you makes your yielding yourselves to Him your only rational course. Anything else is folly beyond comparison and harm and loss beyond count.
FAITH IN CHRIST
'...Faith that is in Me.'—ACTS xxvi. 18.
It is commonly said, and so far as the fact is concerned, said truly, that what are called the distinguishing doctrines of Christianity are rather found in the Epistles than in the Gospels. If we wish the clearest statements of the nature and person of Christ, we turn to Paul's Epistle to the Colossians. If we wish the fullest dissertation upon Christ's work as a sacrifice, we go to the Epistle to the Hebrews. If we seek to prove that men are justified by faith, and not by works, it is to the Epistles to Romans and Galatians that we betake ourselves,—to the writings of the servant rather than the words of the Master. Now this fuller development of Christian doctrine contained in the teaching of the Apostles cannot be denied, and need not be wondered at. The reasons for it I am not going to enter upon at present; they are not far to seek. Christ came not to speak the Gospel, but to be the Gospel. But then, this truth of a fuller development is often over-strained, as if Christ 'spake nothing concerning priesthood,' sacrifices, faith. He did so speak when on earth. It is often misused by being made the foundation of an inference unfavourable to the authority of the Apostolic teaching, when we are told, as we sometimes are, that not Paul but Jesus speaks the words which we are to receive.
Here we have Christ Himself speaking from the heavens to Paul at the very beginning of the Apostle's course, and if any one asks us where did Paul get the doctrines which he preached, the answer is, Here, on the road to Damascus, when blind, bleeding, stunned, with all his self-confidence driven out of him—with all that he had been crushed into shivers—he saw his Lord, and heard Him speak. These words spoken then are the germ of all Paul's Epistles, the keynote to which all his writings are but the melody that follows, the mighty voice of which all his teaching is but the prolonged echo. 'Delivering thee,' says Christ to him, 'from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee, to open their eyes, to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God; that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them that are sanctified by faith that is in Me.' Now, I ask you, what of Paul's Gospel is not here? Man's ruin, man's depravity and state of darkness, the power of Satan, the sole redemptive work of Christ, justification by belief in that, sanctification coming with justification, and glory and rest and heaven at last—there they all are in the very first words that sounded upon the quickened ear of the blinded man when he turned from darkness to light.
It would be foolish, of course, to try to exhaust such a passage as this in a sermon. But notice, what a complete summary of Christian truth there lies in that one last clause of the verse, 'Inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in Me.' Translate that into distinct propositions, and they are these: Faith refers to Christ; that is the first thing. Holiness depends on faith; that is the next: 'sanctified by faith.' Heaven depends on holiness: that is the last: 'inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in Me.' So there we have the whole gospel!
To the one part of this comprehensive summary which is contained in my text I desire to turn now, in hope of gathering from it some truths as to that familiar word 'faith' which may be of use to us all. The expression is so often on our lips that it has come to be almost meaningless in many minds. These keywords of Scripture meet the same fate as do coins that have been long in circulation. They pass through so many fingers that the inscriptions get worn off them. We can all talk about faith and forgiveness and justifying and sanctifying, but how few of us have definite notions as to what these words that come so easily from our lips mean! There is a vast deal of cloudy haze in the minds of average church and chapel goers as to what this wonder-working faith may really be. Perhaps we may then be able to see large and needful truths gleaming in these weighty syllables which Christ Jesus spoke from heaven to Paul, 'faith that is in Me.'
I. In the first place, then, the object of faith is Christ.
'Faith that is in Me' is that which is directed towards Christ as its object. Christianity is not merely a system of truths about God, nor a code of morality deducible from these. In its character of a revelation, it is the revelation of God in the person of His Son. Christianity in the soul is not the belief of these truths about God, still less the acceptance and practice of these pure ethics, but the affiance and the confidence of the whole spirit fixed upon the redeeming, revealing Christ,
True, the object of our faith is Christ as made known to us in the facts of His recorded life and the teaching of His Apostles. True, our only means of knowing Him as of any other person whom we have never seen, are the descriptions of Him, His character and work, which are given. True, the empty name 'Christ' has to be filled with the doctrinal and biographical statements of Scripture before the Person on whom faith is to fix can be apprehended or beheld. True, it is Christ as He is made known to us in the word of God, the Incarnate Son, the perfect Man, the atoning Sacrifice, the risen Lord, the ascended Intercessor in whom we have to trust. The characteristics and attributes of Christ are known to us only by biographical statements and by doctrinal propositions. These must be understood in some measure and accepted, ere there can be faith in Him. Apart from them, the image of Christ must stand a pale, colourless phantom before the mind, and the faith which is directed towards such a nebula will be an unintelligent emotion, as nebulous and impotent as the vagueness towards which it turns.
Thus far, then, the attempt which is sometimes made to establish a Christianity without doctrines on the plea that the object of faith is not a proposition, but a person, must be regarded as nugatory; for how can the 'person' be an object of thought at all, but through the despised 'propositions'?
But while on the one hand it is true that Christ as revealed in these doctrinal statements of Scripture, the divine human Saviour, is the Object of faith, on the other hand it is to be remembered that it is He, and not the statements about Him, who is the Object.
Look at His own words. He does not merely say to us, 'Believe this, that, and the other thing about Me; put your credence in this and the other doctrine; accept this and the other promise; hope for this and the other future thing.' All these come with but are not the central act. He says, 'Believe: believe in Me! "I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life": He that cometh to Me shall never hunger, and he that believeth in Me shall never thirst.' Do we rightly appreciate that? I think that if people firmly grasped this truth— that Christ is the Gospel, and that the Object of faith is not simply the truths that are recorded here in the word, but He with regard to whom these truths are recorded—it would clear away rolling wreaths of fog and mist from their perceptions. The whole feeling and attitude of a man's mind is different, according as he is trusting a person, or according as he is believing something about a person. And this, therefore, is the first broad truth that lies here. Faith has reference not merely to a doctrine, not to a system; but deeper than all these, to a living Lord—'faith that is in Me.'
I cannot help observing, before I go on—though it may be somewhat of a digression—what a strong inference with regard to the divinity of Christ is deducible from this first thought that He is the Object to whom faith has reference. If you look into the Old Testament, you will find constantly, 'Trust ye in the Lord for ever'; 'Put thy trust in Jehovah!' There, too, though under the form of the Law, there, too, faith was the seed and germ of all religion. There, too, though under the hard husk of apparently external obedience and ceremonial sacrifices, the just lived by faith. Its object was the Jehovah of that ancient covenant. Religion has always been the same in every dispensation. At every time, that which made a man a devout man has been identically the same thing. It has always been true that it has been faith which has bound man to God, and given man hope. But when we come to the New Testament, the centre is shifted, as it would seem. What has become of the grand old words, 'Trust ye in the Lord Jehovah'? Look! Christ stands there, and says, 'Believe upon Me'! With calm, simple, profound dignity, He lays His hand upon all the ancient and consecrated words, upon all the ancient and hallowed emotions that used to set towards the unseen God between the cherubim, throned above judgment and resting upon mercy; and He says, 'They are Mine—give them to Me! That ancient trust, I claim the right to have it. That old obedience, it belongs to Me. I am He to whom in all time the loving hearts of them that loved God, have set. I am the Angel of the Covenant, in whom whoever trusteth shall never be confounded.' And I ask you just to take that one simple fact, that Christ thus steps, in the New Testament—in so far as the direction of the religious emotions of faith and love are concerned—that Christ steps into the place filled by the Jehovah of the Old; and ask yourselves honestly what theory of Christ's nature and person and work explains that fact, and saves Him from the charge of folly and blasphemy? 'He that believeth upon Me shall never hunger.' Ah, my brother! He was no mere man who said that. He that spake from out of the cloud to the Apostle on the road to Damascus, and said, 'Sanctified by faith that is in Me,' was no mere man. Christ was our brother and a man, but He was the Son of God, the divine Redeemer. The Object of faith is Christ; and as Object of faith He must needs be divine.
II. And now, secondly, closely connected with and springing from this thought as to the true object of faith, arises the consideration as to the nature and the essence of the act of faith itself.
Whom we are to trust in we have seen: what it is to have faith may be very briefly stated. If the Object of faith were certain truths, the assent of the understanding would be enough. If the Object of faith were unseen things, the confident persuasion of them would be sufficient. If the Object of faith were promises of future good, the hope rising to certainty of the possession of these would be sufficient. But if the Object be more than truths, more than unseen realities, more than promises; if the Object be a living Person,—then there follows inevitably this, that faith is not merely the assent of the understanding, that faith is not merely the persuasion of the reality of unseen things, that faith is not merely the confident expectation of future good; but that faith is the personal relation of him who has it to the living Person its Object, —the relation which is expressed not more clearly, perhaps a little more forcibly to us, by substituting another word, and saying, Faith is trust.