The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles,God's Ability
The Apostle Paul, in his Epistle to the Ephesians, expresses himself with a redundance of thankfulness and appreciation which shows the wonderful depth and richness of his nature. He does not mete out his words as if by constraint. He lavishes his heart upon his theme, and, with holy impatience, he urges word upon word, description upon description, that he may give some faint hint at least of the sublimity by which he is dazzled, and of the joy which lifts him almost to heaven. In this chapter we find such expressions as these:—"The unsearchable riches of Christ," "the manifold riches of God," "the riches of his glory," "the love of Christ which passeth knowledge," "that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God." Never was language so inadequate to express the thought which inspired his mind, and which threw his heart into ecstasies of inconceivable and unutterable delight. The Christian mediation seemed constantly to enlarge upon the vision of the Apostle. It was never to him a diminishing quantity. Every day he saw in the scheme of the Christian redemption some new point of light—felt in it some new pulse of eternal love. Hence it is a most stimulating and instructive study to follow the intellectual and spiritual development of Paul, to find how he grew in grace and knowledge and wisdom,—yet how at the very last he said, "I count not myself to have attained." Beyond the giddy peak on which he stood there were sublimer heights, and he pressed towards the mark, if haply he might scale those glittering, heavenly steeps. In the text he seemed utterly at a loss to express the fulness of his conception of the grandeur, the riches, the wisdom, the power, and the love of God. We shall miss the force of these words unless we understand the prayer, in connection with which they were uttered.
The Apostle does not give this text as I have given it, namely, as a detached sentence. It is the culmination of a statement; it is something that comes after a serious, anxious effort, which he himself has made; and we must look into the preliminary statement if we would know how Paul was dazzled, overwhelmed, made speechless, by the infinite capacity of God to transcend all mortal prayer and all finite imagination. The Apostle has been uttering a prayer which reads thus:—
"That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man [able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask]. That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith [able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask]. That ye, being rooted and grounded in love [able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask], may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge [able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask], that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God [able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask].
Perhaps this may be difficult of realisation to some minds. I must therefore set it in a lower light. Suppose that a number of petitioners should go to the legislature with a petition worded thus: "We humbly pray your honourable house to do everything for the nation, to take infinite care of it, to let the affairs of the nation tax your attention day and night, and lavish all your resources upon the people." Suppose that a petition like that should be handed into the House of Commons, what would be the fate of it? It would be laughed down, and the only reason, the only good reason, why the petitioners should not be confined to Bedlam would be, lest their insanity should alarm the inmates. That is not a petition. It is void by generality; by referring to all it misses everything. We must specify what we want when we go to the legislature. We must state our case with clearness of definition, and with somewhat of argument. If it be so in our social, political prayers, shall we go to Almighty God with a vagueness which means nothing, with a generality which makes no special demand upon his heart? Read the text in the light of the gospel, and you will see the fulness of its glory, so far as it can be seen by mortal vision. Ask anything of God, and I am prepared to quote these words of the text in reply. What will you ask? Let us in the first instance ask what we all want—whatever may be our condition, age, circumstances. Let us ask for pardon. Is your prayer, God forgive my sins? Now you may apply the Apostle's words: "He is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask."
You cannot conceive God's notion of pardon. You have an idea of what you mean by forgiveness; but when you have exhausted your own notion of the term forgiveness, you have not shown the Divine intent concerning the soul that is to be forgiven. When God forgives, he does not merely pardon, barely pardon,—he does not by some great straining effort of his love, just come within reach of the suppliant, and lay upon his heart the blessing which is besought. He pardons with pardons! When he casts our sins away, it is not into a shallow pool, it is into the depths of the sea; when he throws it away, it is not on one side, it is behind him. Will you arithmeticians measure the distance which is meant by behind the infinite? When God takes a man's sins away from him, he puts them as far from him as the east is from the west. Can you tell how far the east is from the west? It is an expression that is often upon your lips. Have you ever measured the distance? You cannot; it is an immeasurable line. So, when God comes to pardon us, he pardons with pardons, with pardons again and again, wave upon wave, until we say, "Thou hast done exceeding abundantly above all that we ask." The finite can never grasp the infinite, and our poor mortal capacities cannot hold God's idea of pardon. We have, thank God, some notion of forgiveness; but not until you yourself have entered personally into the mystery of this forgiveness, can you understand or have any hint of the depth of the sea into which God has cast the sins of which we have repented.
What will you ask for now? Ask for sanctification. Is your prayer, Sanctify me, body, soul, and spirit? Then I once more quote the Apostle's text: "He is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think." What is your notion of sanctification? You have thought about it: it is soon exhausted. When you leave reason and get into the region of fancy, your imagination soon wearies, and the description which you give of holiness is after all a negative description. When I read of God's holiness, I read of holiness that is glorious. God is said to be glorious in holiness. Do you understand the emphasis of that redundance? Holiness would have been a great word to have uttered concerning him, but when you add glorious in holiness—
We know the meaning of innocence; we know what is implied by the terms "not guilty"; we can describe negatively a high condition of character. But God's notion of sanctification! When we have made our notion of sanctification clear and plain he sets his own holiness beside it, and in contrast our purity of development, and our sublimest moral acquisitions become corrupt in the presence of the blazing glory of the divine purity. This is our destiny, if so be we are in Jesus Christ. Holiness is not something we can describe with sufficiency of terms. It is not a quantity we can see in its completeness. We cannot walk round about it and say, This is the limit thereof. There is always another ray of splendour which we have not seen, and a brighter beam of the ineffable effulgence which has not yet struck upon our vision. So when we ask God to sanctify us, we are to remember that "He is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think."
Now, if this be so, it ought to stimulate us in all saintly progress, to inspire us in the study of divine truth, to recover our jaded energies, and tempt, lure, and draw us by the mighty compulsion of inexhaustible reward. This is the peculiar glory of Christian study, that it does not exhaust the student. His weakness becomes his strength. At sunset he is stronger than at sunrise; because Christian study does not tax any one power of the mind unduly. It trains the whole being, the imagination, the fancy, the will, the emotion; lifts up the whole nature equally, with all the equability of complete power,—not by snatches and spasms of strength, but with the sufficiency, breadth, and compass of power which sustains the balance always. This ought to rebuke those of us who imagine that we have finished our Christian education. I believe there are some persons in the world who are under the impression that they have finished God's book. They say they have "read it through." There is a poor sense in which it may be read through; but there is a deeper, truer sense in which we can never get through the Book of God. It is an inexhaustible study,—new every day, like morning light. You have seen splendour before, but until this morning you never saw this light. So it is with this great wonderful Book of God in the study of it God is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think. The hoariest-headed student who has spent his days in study, and his nights in prayer, will be the first and most emphatic to declare, that the more he has dwelt upon the wonderfulness of God's revelation, the more and more wonderful it has become to all the highest powers of his nature.
Here then is a stimulus, a spur to progress, a call to deeper study. We think we have attained truth. We have not attained all that is meant by the word truth. No man who knows himself and who knows God will say that he has been led into all the chambers of God's great palace of truth. This is the sign of progress; this is the charter of the profoundest humility. The more we know the less we know. We see certain points of light here and there, but the great unexplored regions of truth stretch mile on mile, beyond all our power to traverse the wondrous plain. How is it with us to-day then? Are we fagged men, exhausted students? Do we sit down under the impression that there is nothing more to be known? If we have that idea, let us seek to renew our strength and to recover our inspiration by the word,—"He is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think." There are attainments we have not made, depths we have not sounded, and heights, oh, heights! We can but look up and wonder, expect, adore. If this be so, we ought to look calmly, with a feeling of chastened triumph, upon all hindrances, difficulties, and obstacles in the way of Christ's kingdom upon the earth. We may look at these in relation to our own puny strength, and quail before them. We are not to depend upon our own resources, but upon God's, in attempting the removal of everything that would intercept the progress of his kingdom in the world. There is a great mountain: I cannot beat it down, all the instruments I can bring to bear upon it seem utterly powerless. But God touches the mountains and they smoke. The Alps, the Apennines, the Pyrenees, and great Himalayas, shall go up like incense before him, and his kingdom shall have a smooth uninterrupted way. There are combinations which I cannot disentangle: conspiracies of the heathen against God and his Son, political conspiracies, social combinations, of which I can make nothing as a poor solitary worker. I can but kneel down before them and pray God to show the greatness of his strength. In a peculiar manner he will touch the reason of such conspirators, and they will become jabbering maniacs in a moment. Sometimes he will touch the speech of such conspirators, and they will not understand what they are saying to one another. Sometimes in passing by, he will touch the earth with his finger: silently it will open and swallow them up.
I say, in my hours of weakness, Yonder is a stone which I cannot remove. If I could get clear of that obstacle all would be right; but the stone is heavy, the stone is sealed, the stone is watched. What can I do? I go up the hill wearily, almost hopelessly, and behold! the stone is rolled away, and on the obstacle there sits the angel of God. "Able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think!" What then is our Christian hope about the world? Look at ministers, at missionaries, at Sunday-school teachers; look at writers, and at all the efforts made for the progress of divine truth upon the earth. Then, on the other hand, look at all the Paganism that remains unsubdued; at the idol temples which debase and corrupt the world; look at all the institutions that live upon the badness of the human heart! You say, the instrumentality is not equal to the work. You are right. The straw cannot beat the mountain into flying dust. The hand of man cannot crumble the great gigantic bulwarks behind which error has entrenched itself. You are quite right. But God hath chosen the weak things to throw down the mighty. It is not the straw that does it; it is the hand that wields it. Shakespeare dips his pen into the ink and writes "Hamlet." I take up the same pen, dip into the same ink, but I cannot write "Hamlet." It is not the pen that does it; it is the writer. It is not the little instrumentality; it is the God who is able to do, and who has done, exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think. It is therefore because the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it, that we now expect to triumph over the world, and speak of all nations as if they belonged to the Son of God. If the doctrine of the text be true, then it should fill all bad men with terror. We should regard this text as a two-sided text We are always accustomed to regard it as affording comfort to the Christian heart, strength to the toiling pilgrim who moves heavenward day by day. The text does supply all that is needful for the encouragement and strength of such. But it has a tremendous back-stroke. The word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword—mighty for the gaining of victories, but terrible to those who feel its cutting power.
You have a certain notion of hell. We cannot tell what is meant by that awful word. We speak of the worm that dieth not, and the fire that is not quenched. But what do we know about the words which involve so much? We cannot tell what is meant by everlasting punishment. Modify the doctrine of hell as you will,—dilute the term "everlasting punishment" as you like,—avail yourselves of all the resources of etymology to the furthest possible extent, that you may reduce the limit and application of certain words;—when you have done all, it must remain a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God! There are moments that are eternities. It is the nature of all pain to have itself described as an everlasting punishment. Inflict some wound upon yourself now, and the next hour will feel as if it were a day: you feel as if it would never, never pass away. It is of the nature of punishment to force itself upon the sufferer as everlasting penalty. Joy hath wings. Joy filling the hour, the hour flies away, and we say, It cannot be gone already! Yes, already! Yes. It is there we read the meaning of the words "eternal life.' Do not let us imagine that because we may have this notion, or that peculiar or heterodox exception, about the punishment that awaits the sinner, that therefore we have diluted the notion to nothing. When we have done our utmost in that direction, God is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we think. The oppressor says, "Well, if it has come to this I am prepared to bear it." No, you are not prepared to bear it! When I say it is this, I use human words in a human sense; but when God says it is this, I cannot tell all his meaning. When the poor man who has twelve shillings a week says that a certain person is rich, that is one meaning of the word rich. When the man who has ten thousand pounds a year speaks of the same individual, perhaps he might say he is poor. So words have different meanings as used by different persons. Every man must be his own dictionary. You must look at the speaker before you can understand some speeches. You must look at the etymologist before you can understand the etymology. So when God says he will utterly destroy the wicked, remember that it is God who says so, and do not measure the word by your poor lexicography.
It may be difficult for some minds to follow the argument out spiritually; we must therefore descend to illustration. Here is a very clever artist, who has made a beautiful thing he brings before us, and we gather round it and say, "It is most exquisitely done. What is this, sir?" "That," replies the artist, "is my notion of a flower, and I am going to call that flower a rose." "Well, it is a beautiful thing,—very graceful, and altogether beautifully executed: you are very clever." So he is, and now that exhausts his notion of the rose. But let God just hand in a full-blown rose from the commonest garden in the world, and where is your waxen beauty? Underneath every leaf is written, "He is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think." Let him just send the sweet spring morning in upon us, with the first violet, and all your artificial florists, if they have one spark of wit left, will pick up their goods and go off as soon as possible. "He is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think." The meanest insect that flutters in the warm sunlight is a grander thing than the finest marble statue ever chiselled by the proudest sculptor.
Now we are going to have a very festive day. We are going to pluck flowers and fashion them into arches, and we shall make our arches very high, very beautiful,—and, so far as the flowers go, they are most gorgeously and exquisitely beautiful. We have put up the wires; we have festooned these wires, and we say, "Now, is not that very beautifully done?" and of course, we who always drink the toast, "Our noble selves," say, Yes. But God has only to take a few rain-drops and strike through them the sunlight, and where are your paste-board arches and your skilful working! "He is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we can ask or think." Fellow-students in this holy mystery, believe me, as in nature, so in the higher kingdom of grace. As in matter he surpasses all your sculptors, and is in all schools infinitely superior to men, so in the revelation of truth to the heart, in the way of redeeming man from sin, in the way of sanctifying fallen corrupt human nature,—all your theorists and speculators, all your plaster dealers and social reformers, and philanthropic regenerators, must get out of the way as artificial florists when God comes to us with the Rose of Sharon and the Lily of the valley.
Then, let us leave all inferior teachers and go straight to the Master himself. We have to deal with sin, and the only answer to sin, which answer is comprehended in one word, is the Cross. God's foolishness is better than our wisdom. God's weakness is infinitely superior to our strength. "Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters." If you choose to make your own cisterns, broken cisterns, to hold no water, you may do so. Let others of us say, As for us and our house, we will go—poor, guilty, heart-thirsty sinners as we are—to the fountain of living waters, and if we perish, we will pray and perish only there! No dead man was ever found at that fountain. No dead man was ever found with his hand on the Cross,—with his lips at the well of life.
Almighty God, do thou give unto us the spirit of hearing. Give us a wise and understanding heart, that nothing of the good seed of thy Word maybe lost upon us; may we return abundantly for thy goodness. Herein art thou glorified, Father of us all, that we bear much fruit. But how can we bear fruit except we abide in the Vine? Christ is the Vine, we are the branches: as the branch cannot bear fruit except it abide in the vine, neither can we bear fruit except we abide in Christ. May we know this by the teaching of thy Holy Spirit, and may our one desire be for deeper, more vital union with the Son of God. We bless thee it we bear any fruit at all. This is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes. Help us to be fruitful unto all good works. Keep back thy servants from presumptuous sins; say to each of us in the time of conscious power and elevation, Hold thou me up, and I shall be safe; encompass our souls; for one moment do not leave us to ourselves, or in that moment the enemy will overpower us and bring us to ruin. That we may abide in thy Word, do thou minister unto us constantly by the Holy Spirit. May he abide with us, may he love to be in our hearts as in living temples: every day may he take of the things of Christ and show them unto us, in new lights, in new aspects; the same truth, but with a new beauty, by reason of the ministry of the Eternal Spirit. Thou knowest the perilous road of life: O Christ, thou hast gone before us, thou didst go to the Cross. There is not an affliction which we feel thou dost not understand better than we do; every temptation thou hast encountered. We have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are. Thou knowest our frame, thou rememberest that we are but dust. Art not thou the Shepherd of the universe? Wilt thou not gather the lambs in thy bosom? Wilt thou not protect the helpless more and more? Say yes to our heart's burning cry, and we shall attempt the world again with a new energy and a new hope. Amen.