Great Texts of the Bible
Power for Witness
Ye shall receive power, when the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be my witnesses.—Acts 1:8.
1. The Book of Acts takes up the thread of the story just before the point at which the Gospel had dropped it. It begins with a brief summary of the Forty Days, adding a fuller account of the Ascension. These introductory verses (Acts 1:1-12) mark the transition from the earthly Ministry of the Lord (“all that Jesus began both to do and to teach”) to the Ministry of the Spirit which was to follow His Ascension. The earthly Ministry had been from the first in the power of the Spirit, as the Gospel has taught us; and the Acts opens with an intimation that this continued to the end. The last injunctions to the Apostles were given, it is noted, “through [the] Holy Spirit.” The Messianic inspiration was upon the Risen Christ as it had been upon the Christ of the Ministry, and was perhaps enhanced by the more spiritual conditions of the Resurrection life.
2. In these interviews before the Ascension the Lord’s mind seems to have recalled the days of His own Baptism and Anointing by the Holy Spirit. He knew that a like event was about to occur in the history of the Church; her baptism with the Spirit was at hand. The Eleven were charged not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the fulfilment of the Father’s promise; “for John indeed baptized with water, but ye shall be baptized in [the] Holy Spirit not many days hence.” As to the time of the establishment of the Messianic Kingdom He had nothing to say; it was in the Father’s hands. It was enough for them to know what directly concerned their own immediate future, and the discharge of their duty in it. “Ye shall receive power, when the Holy Spirit has come upon you: and ye shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judæa and Samaria, and unto the end of the earth.” As the Lord’s own Baptism had been followed by His ministry in Galilee, so the Baptism of the Church was to be preparatory to a world-wide ministry; a ministry not, like His own, creative of a new order, but one of simple testimony; yet to be fulfilled only in the power of the Spirit of God.1 [Note: H. B. Swete.]
The text contains three clauses: (1) Ye shall receive power, (2) when the Holy Ghost is come upon you, and (3) ye shall be my witnesses. These clauses suggest three divisions under which we may study the subject—
The Source of Power.
The Use of Power.
“Ye shall receive power.”
There are two Greek words (ἐξουσία and δύναμις) in the New Testament, both of which are rendered by our word “power.” The one refers to power in the sense of rule or authority, the other means ability, strength, or force. It is the latter of these two words that is used here.
What was this “power” which the Apostles were to receive? As a matter of fact, what power did they receive?
1. Was it, as they anticipated, political power? Certainly, in the course of years the Church of Christ did acquire something very like the power of the sceptre. The prophecies of Isaiah seemed to intimate that this would be so: in the Evangelical prophet the Church is already represented as a spiritual empire, surrounded with the circumstances of temporal greatness. But when did this form of power present itself? Not in her first years of missionary enterprise and of abundant martyrdom. But when she was no longer composed of a despised minority, when by a long catalogue of labours and sufferings she had won her way to the understandings and to the hearts of multitudes, she forthwith acquired power in the State. Found in all the walks of life, in all the provinces of the great world-empire, and in regions beyond its frontiers; an intellectual force, when other thought was languishing or dying; a focus of high moral effort, when the world around was a very flood of revolting wickedness; a bond of the closest union, when all else was tending to social divergence and disruption of interests; she became a political force. Such she was long before Constantine associated the Cross with the Roman purple. Political power came to the Church, at first unbidden, and in many cases unwelcomed. It was a current charge against the primitive Christians that they neglected civil and political duties. But political power came to them from the nature of the case, and inevitably: the Gospel was necessarily a popular moral influence, and it could not be this on a great scale without tending to become a power in the State.
Undoubtedly political power was given to the Church by the loving providence of our Lord, as an instrument whereby to promote man’s highest good. But if such power was an opportunity often used for the highest purposes and with the happiest effect, it was also a temptation to worldly ambition, and even to worse sins, often yielded to with the most disastrous results. Who can doubt this after studying in the history of the great Western See such lives as, for example, those of a Julius 2. or of a Leo 10.? Who can doubt this after an impartial consideration of the history of other portions of the Church nearer home, which have purchased a political status at the heavy cost of sacrificing spiritual energy and freedom? He who said at the first, “My kingdom is not of this world,” is perhaps bringing Christians everywhere back by the course of His providences to the fuller acknowledgment of this primal truth. If political power had been of the essence of our Lord’s promise to His Apostles, we might well lose heart; but there is no cause for despondency, if the power which the Apostles were to receive was of a higher and more enduring character. Political power is after all but a clumsy instrument for achieving spiritual success.1 [Note: H. P. Liddon.]
2. Was, then, the power in question intellectual power? The Gospel has undoubtedly lightened up man’s understanding and fertilized his thought. Knowledge is of itself power; and knowledge on the highest and most interesting of all subjects is a very high form of power. For knowledge is the motive and warrant of action, and they whose eye ranges over two worlds occupy a more commanding position than they who see only one. A certain power of this description was undoubtedly a result of the gift of Pentecost. Our Lord had dwelt on the illuminating office of the Comforter: “He shall guide you into all truth.” And the first Apostles needed such an assistance, since they were utterly uneducated men, with the narrowest of mental horizons. How wonderfully, on the day of Pentecost itself, is the thought of St. Peter fertilized and expanded! The unlettered fisherman is suddenly the profound expositor of ancient prophecy, and within a short period his teaching brings him into collision with the Sadducean leaders of educated sceptical opinion. And in later years how rich and various are the intellectual gifts of the inspired Apostles of Christ! And when we pass down into later ages, we find the promise of intellectual power fulfilled almost continuously in the annals of the Church. But was this intellectual power, swaying the thoughts of educated men, the chief, or even a main, element of the promised gift? Surely not. The Gospel was meant for the whole human family; and the poor, in consideration of the hardness of their lot, had a first claim upon its preachers. Not many learned were called among the multitudes who first poured into the kingdom; and mere cultivated intellect is a sorry weapon wherewith to approach those who lack that cultivation which is necessary to understand it. The gift of Pentecost may indeed have included intellectual power; a living, active soul is a thinking as well as a loving soul; but the main essential gift itself was something beyond, something higher, something more universally acceptable, something more adapted to the soul of man, as man, something more capable of advancing the glory and of doing justice to the grace of God.
There is in our day a marvellous idolatry of talent; it is a strange and a grievous thing to see how men bow down before genius and success. Draw the distinction sharp and firm between these two things—goodness is one thing, talent another. The Son of Man came, not as a scribe, but as a poor working man. He was a Teacher, but not a Rabbi. When once the idolatry of talent enters the Church then farewell to spirituality; when men ask their teachers not for that which will make them more humble and godlike, but for the excitement of an intellectual banquet, then farewell to Christian progress.1 [Note: F. W. Robertson.]
3. Was this power, then, to be a faculty of working miracles? Our thoughts seem to gravitate naturally towards such a supposition. A certain limited power of this description, varying apparently with the spiritual state of the disciples themselves, had been granted to them during our Lord’s ministry. At one time the disciples rejoice that the devils are subject to them; at another they are powerless to relieve the lunatic at the foot of the Mount of Transfiguration. But after the Ascension, and because of it, they were to do works even greater than those of their Divine Master. “Greater works than these shall he (that believeth) do, because I go to my Father.” The gift of miracles depended on the Ascension in the same sense as did the gift of the promised Comforter; and it was natural to identify the two gifts, or to regard the former as a chief result or fruit of the latter. But miracle was not of the essence of that power which the Apostles were to receive at Pentecost. It was rather an evidence, an occasional accompaniment, an ornament of the central gift, than the gift itself.
Miracle is by no means a resistless instrument for propagating a doctrine. Unbelief has many methods for escaping its force. Where it cannot insinuate trickery, it has no scruple about hinting at the agency of Beelzebub. The state of mind which resists the historical and prophetical evidences of Revelation is likely to deal somewhat summarily with a natural wonder, however well attested, in the domain of sense, Our Lord Himself tells us that this is so: “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead.”
4. Nor did the power consist in the ministerial commission itself: in the authorization to preach the Word and to administer the Sacraments. Undoubtedly, in a profound sense of the term, that commission, with its several elementary portions, is a power unlike any other which God has given to His creatures here below. But our Lord had already solemnly and fully commissioned His Apostles. They were in full possession of all powers necessary to feed and teach the Lord’s people, but it would seem that until the Day of Pentecost these powers were like undeveloped faculties, latent in the souls of the Apostles, but unexercised. Something else was needed, some vivifying heavenly force which should quicken and stimulate these hidden energies, and, like the rain or the sunshine upon the dormant vitality of the seed or the shoot, should provoke them into an outburst of energetic life.
5. Wherein did this power which the Apostles were to receive consist? Creating political ascendancy, yet utterly distinct from it; fertilizing intellectual power, yet differing in its essence from the activity of mere vigorous unsanctified intellect; working moral miracles, gifted (it may be) to work physical wonders, yet certainly in itself more persuasive than the miracle it was empowered to produce; intimately allied with, and the natural accompaniment of, distinct ministerial faculties, yet not necessarily so; what is this higher, this highest power, this gift of gifts, this transforming influence, which was to countersign as if from heaven what had previously been given by the Incarnate Lord on earth, and was to form out of unlettered and irresolute peasants the evangelists of the world? It was spiritual, it was personal, it was moral power.
Spiritual power may be felt rather than described or analysed. It resides in or it permeates a man’s whole circle of activities; it cannot be localized, it cannot be identified exclusively with one of them. It is an unearthly beauty, whose native home is in a higher world, yet which tarries among men from age to age, since the time when the Son of God left us His example, and gave us His Spirit. It is nothing else than His spiritual presence, mantling upon His servants; they live in Him; they lose in Him something of their proper personality; they are absorbed into, they are transfigured by, a Life altogether higher than their own; His voice blends with theirs, His eye seems to lighten theirs with its sweetness and its penetration; His hand gives gentleness and decision to their acts; His heart communicates a ray of its Divine charity to their life of narrower and more stagnant affection; His soul commingles with theirs, and their life of thought, and feeling, and resolve is irradiated and braced by His. “If a man love me, he will keep my words, and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.” “It is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you.”1 [Note: H. P. Liddon.]
Suppose we saw an army sitting down before a granite fort, and they told us that they intended to batter it down; we might ask them, “How?” They point to a cannon-ball. Well, there is no power in that; it is heavy, but not more than half a hundred-, or perhaps a hundred-weight; if all the men in the army hurled it against the fort, they would make no impression. They say, “No; but look at the cannon.” Well, there is no power in that. A child may ride upon it, a bird may perch in its mouth; it is a machine, and nothing more. “But look at the powder.” Well, there is no power in that; a child may spill it, a sparrow may peck it. Yet this powerless powder, and powerless ball, are put into the powerless cannon, one spark of fire enters it, and then, in the twinkling of an eye, that powder is a flash of lightning, and that ball a thunderbolt which smites as if it had been sent from heaven. So is it with our Church machinery at this day: we have all the instruments necessary for pulling down strongholds, and O for the baptism of fire!1 [Note: W. Arthur, The Tongue of Fire, 309.]
The Source of Power
“When the Holy Ghost is come upon you.”
1. “Ye shall receive power, when the Holy Ghost is come upon you.” The power is not only coincident in time with the gift of the Holy Spirit of God, it is derived from it. The literal translation is, “Ye shall receive power, the Holy Spirit coming upon you.” The connexion between the baptism of the Holy Spirit and the power may be seen from Christ’s treatment of His Apostles. They had been with Him in His work, had seen His miracles, had heard His addresses, had been taught by Him in private for years, had seen Him in His passion, death, and resurrection, and were yet to witness His ascension; but they were told to tarry for this enduement. Theirs was a task for which they seemed well equipped. As eye and ear witnesses, it was theirs to go out and tell the things that they had seen and heard; yet they were not allowed to do so without this last all-important equipment.
There is one inlet of power in the life,—anybody’s life—any kind of power, just one inlet,—the Holy Spirit. He is power. He is in every one who opens his door to God. He eagerly enters every open door. He comes in by our invitation and consent. His presence within is the vital thing.2 [Note: S. D. Gordon, Quiet Talks on Prayer, 9.]
On one occasion it was our lot to hear a preacher of name, preaching before a great Missionary Society, from the text, “I am come to send fire upon the earth.” Choosing to interpret the fire referred to in this passage as the power which would purify and renew the earth, he at once declared the truth to be that power, and most consistently pursued his theme, without ever glancing at anything but the instrument. Afterwards, hearing the merits of the sermon discussed by some eminent ministers of his own denomination, and finding no allusion to its theology, we asked, “Did you not remark any theological defect?” No one remarked any, till the minister of some obscure country congregation broke silence, for the first time, by saying, “Yes; there was not one word in it about the Holy Spirit.”1 [Note: W. Arthur, The Tongue of Fire, 171.]
2. Why do I believe in the power of the Holy Ghost? First, because it is clearly promised me by God. God, who never fails His people, has promised power. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord of Hosts.” When Jesus Christ went away, He said: “It is expedient for you that I go away, for if I go not away the Comforter will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you.” What was the Comforter to do when He came? “Tarry ye in Jerusalem till ye be clothed with power from on high. When the Holy Ghost is come upon you, ye shall receive power.” Could the Word of God be more clearly pledged to anything than this—that the Holy Ghost shall give us power? Next, let us look to see whether this promise was fulfilled to the first disciples. We see a body of men—not only Apostles, but all the first disciples, men and women just like ourselves—tarrying in Jerusalem, gathered together, weak, irresolute, timid, and perplexed. We hear the sound of a rushing mighty wind; we see tongues of fire coming down upon that body. What has happened? They have received the Spirit of power. Those timid, irresolute fishermen and peasants are turned into the world’s apostles. They always know henceforth the next thing to do; they face the world with courage and determination. Unknown, unnamed, they go out, a little body, full of the Holy Ghost, and they convert the world.
“A servant is not greater than his lord; neither one that is sent greater than he that sent him” (John 13:16). The way in which the Master entered upon His ministry is the way in which the Apostles are to enter upon theirs. We say it with head uncovered, as in the presence of the supreme mystery, Jesus Christ Himself did not begin His life task until He too had received the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Coming up out of the Jordan at His baptism He prayed; and as He prayed, the Holy Spirit descended upon Him. Then the record says: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led in the Spirit into the wilderness.” And later, when His temptations were over, the Scripture says: “Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee: and He taught in their synagogues.” Of Himself He said: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach.” And it was in this power, too, that He cast out devils and performed His many miracles. Jesus, the only begotten of the Father, very God of very God, prepared through eternity for His task, tarried as a man until the Spirit baptized Him and He could in this power perform His part in the Temple-building plans of the Trinity.1 [Note: C. B. Keenleyside.]
3. How did the disciples receive the power of the Holy Ghost?
(1) First, they waited for it: “Tarry in Jerusalem, tarry till ye be clothed with power from on high.” They did not force the hand of God, they did not get impatient, they waited—they waited upon God.
When I find people giving up their prayers because they do not feel anything, when I find them disheartened because when they were confirmed they used to be full of warm aspirations, but now they have to go on their way feeling cold and dead, then I know that they have missed the first lesson. Wait for the power of the Holy Ghost. It is certain to come whether they feel it or not. It does not depend on feeling at all. If there is some one here tired, depressed about his spiritual life, let him tarry in Jerusalem; let him keep his head bowed between his knees as Elijah on the top of Carmel, and at last there will be borne on the breeze to his thirsty soul the sound of abundance of rain.2 [Note: A. F. Winnington Ingram.]
Some speak of waiting for salvation as if it meant making ourselves at ease, and dismissing both effort and anxiety. Who so waits for any person, or any event? When waiting, your mind is set on a certain point; you can give yourself to nothing else. You are looking forward, and preparing; every moment of delay increases the sensitiveness of your mind as to that one thing. A servant waiting for his master, a wife waiting for the footstep of her husband, a mother waiting for her expected boy, a merchant waiting for his richly laden ship, a sailor waiting for the sight of land, a monarch waiting for tidings of the battle: all these are cases wherein the mind is set on one object, and cannot easily give attention to another.1 [Note: W. Arthur, The Tongue of Fire, 24.]
We wait, O Lord, Thy power to know,
Before we forth to service go,
Or else we serve in vain.
We trust not human thought or might,
Our souls are helpless for the fight,
Until that power we gain.
In solemn tarriance we seek
The power that strengthens what is weak,
To overcoming zeal.
O Holy Ghost, equip us here;
With fire our waiting souls come near,
Thy mightiness to feel!—
The fire that cleanseth through and through,
Inspiring every nerve anew,
With energy Divine!
The fire that burns its conquering way
Within, without; and every day
Doth keep us wholly Thine.
So forth to conflict, cleansed and strong,
Baptized for war with godless wrong,
Now send us, God of Right!
Our ransomed lives for warfare take,
And all thou wouldst, our spirits make,
All holy in Thy sight!
(2) The disciples prayed for the power of the Holy Spirit. They did not merely wish vaguely for a little more spiritual power. That is not the way to get it. They prayed with all their heart, and with all their soul, and with all their strength. If power is to come at all, it is the most precious thing in the world, it is a thing for which to agonize in prayer. It is the violent who take the kingdom of God by force. Let us pray, then, with all our soul—let us pray in faith, and pray all together.
4. Now consider the power of the Holy Spirit as given to the Church. There are three principles, which we should remember, incident upon the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Church.
(1) The gift is constant. Because the Holy Spirit is the source of power, therefore the power which was thus to arrive on a specific occasion was not to be transitory or occasional. The Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, shall “abide with you for ever.” “I am with you alway”—in your making disciples, baptizing and teaching—“even unto the end of the world.”
(2) The gift is both individual and corporate. All the announcements and instructions were delivered to the disciples as a corporate group; and were so received and acted upon. The disciples tarried in the city together, assembled in one place, and this is specified as characteristic among the circumstances under which the promise was fulfilled and applied: “They were all together in one place.” In short, our Lord did not announce the Holy Spirit only as a guide for individual hearts, essential as this part of His office is, but also as the Giver of power for the corporate witness of the Church, and for its extension. He laid down the doctrine of a Church which as a whole should be guided in her missionary operations by God the Holy Ghost, while for the execution of the details of that task, her members, each in his own grade, should receive power from the same Spirit.
Jesus Christ made men before He made the Church. Jesus created and concentrated strong, personal forces among His personal followers, before He gave to the disciples the cup of communion, and ordained them as His Apostles to gather congregations of believers in His name. In Christ’s work the inspired personality came first, and afterwards the New Testament and the Church. A true communion, or saved society of men and women, was the end sought from the beginning by Him who came preaching the Gospel of the kingdom; but the method of Jesus was personal influence, and the inspiration of chosen personalities by His Spirit. The power of the Church consists in its fulness of personal forces. Your personal power for good may be multiplied many fold in the organized life of the Church; but personal powers are the vital units which, multiplied together, constitute that organic whole which is the living body of Christ.1 [Note: Newman Smyth, Christian Facts and Forces, 163.]
(3) It is a gift once for all, and cannot be repeated. On this day the promise was fulfilled, the Holy Ghost came, and the new era was inaugurated. It was not a step which could be repeated. We talk of new Pentecosts, but it is an inaccurate phrase. The fact of Pentecost has taken place once for all, and we are here, not to wait for new Pentecosts, but to believe in the one which God established. We may drink, as individuals, of the stream then set flowing, or we may neglect it; but there can be no second stream. We may stir up, as a Church, the Spirit which all the Churches have received, but if we neglect it there is no new Pentecost. That the new era had been on that day inaugurated became instantly evident. The Apostles, who had been very slow to understand either the essence or the nature of Christ’s work, or the current of God’s purposes, immediately were found masters of the application of the Old Testament to every part of their duty, masters of Christ’s system, laying down the principles of conversion, communion, discipline; even found full of insight into the meaning of God in history, and the scope of His future purpose. As scattered fragments of iron filings are instantly ranged in order and charged with force when a great magnet is brought over them, so the group of wavering adherents, of different temperaments and aims, became in a moment a coherent and disciplined band, instinct with the mind and the force of their ascended Master, by the power of that Holy Spirit whom He had said that He would send.
In the Church there ever is, living as an actual fact, to be seen of men, the Christian life, i.e. a character seen in actual life and work, with marks clear and distinct—a character which appeals to all as the highest and noblest life that man can live. There it is with many features, infinite variety, yet one and the same through the ages, governed by the same dominant and deeply fixed principles which make it what it is. It is not an imagination, but a real thing, which we can trace back to the time of Christ, and which we can trace no further.1 [Note: M. B. Williamson.]
The Use of Power
“Ye shall be my witnesses.”
The expression which St. Luke represents our Lord as employing, simple as it is, is full of meaning. It has a history. In the second part of Isaiah, the prophet draws a magnificent picture of a great assize (Isaiah 43:9 ff; cf. Isaiah 44:8 ff.). Jehovah puts Himself on His trial. His Claims to sovereignty become the subject of a universal controversy. On the one side all the nations are assembled together; on the other, Israel, now chastened and restored—Jehovah’s sons brought “from far and his daughters from the end of the earth.” The nations are challenged to produce their witnesses and to sustain the pretensions of their gods. There is silence; the appeal is unanswered. Then Jehovah turns to Israel, who has known Him. “Ye are my witnesses, saith Jehovah, and my servant whom I have chosen.… Ye are my witnesses, saith Jehovah, and I am God.”
The great assize is now no longer a prophetic vision. Henceforth it is to be wrought out in the daily struggles and triumphs of the Christian Church. The supreme messenger of Jehovah is renewing the ancient challenge. Israel after the flesh by their rejection of Him has proved unworthy of the prerogative once theirs. They are no longer Jehovah’s witnesses to the nations. They have rather passed over into the ranks of those who must receive the testimony of others. The Apostles, the representatives and prophets of the new Israel of God, are bidden to take up the abdicated office, and, themselves the first recipients of a final salvation, to be Jehovah’s witnesses to all the world. Thus Christ’s parting words seem to be designed to mark alike the continuity of revelation and the passing away of the old order.
“Ye shall be my witnesses.” Think of all that this word means. What is a witness? The light we need here is light that we have by our common use of the Anglicized form of this Greek word “martyr.” “Ye shall be martyrs.” I do not wish to suggest that Jesus meant necessarily that these men would all die for Him. We have come to use that word “martyr” as referring only to such as seal their testimony with their blood. I am not suggesting that we should abandon that particular use of the word, for it is a great and glorious use of the word to-day. The men who sealed their testimony with their blood were martyrs, but they were martyrs before they died. Smithfield’s fires never made martyrs: they revealed martyrs. Persecution never makes a martyr: it finds him out and wraps him in the glory of flame that we may see him for evermore.1 [Note: G. Campbell Morgan.]
We must consider our Lord’s words in both their narrower and their wider application: (i.) as they relate in an especial sense to the Apostles, and (ii.) as they relate to each individual member of the Church.
i. The Apostles as Witnesses
1. The charge expresses their Master’s confidence in the Apostles in terms which could hardly be broader or more trustful. “Ye shall be my witnesses,” it runs—my witnesses here where you are known, and in neighbouring lands, and then everywhere unto the uttermost parts of the earth. Observe the phrase, “my witnesses,” not merely witnesses unto Me, but witnesses chosen by Me to take My place, to represent Me when I am not there to represent Myself. The trust and confidence of our Lord is almost awful in its absolute reality. He left no building, no writing, no material relics worthy of mention. He borrowed a room in a friend’s house for His Last Supper and for the meetings of His little company. He borrowed the outward rite of one of the great sacraments from natural religion and the other from common life. His own special prayer has many points of contact with forms that existed before it. The number of the Apostles was apparently suggested by that of the tribes of Israel. Beyond these main foundations He left little that was definite, though there were indications that other existing usages of the religious life around Him were approved by Him and stamped with His recommendation. He left it to His Apostles and their successors to combine and to develop these hints and beginnings and give them form and substance, but clearly under reservation that all such things should take a secondary place in His plan of salvation. Everything not specially ordered by Him in detail was clearly subject to a change in detail, and everything even when so ordered was subordinate to the supreme duty of bringing His Person and Life before the world. That was the great commission finally impressed on the Apostles. He did not obscure their duty to be ministers of His Word and Sacraments, to be preachers of the Gospel, to be pastors of men, and to bring men to God. He had revealed all this in many ways, and set it forth in brilliant and definite outlines. But the dominant thought is surely the last: it is the duty of the Church above all things else, both in its ministers and in its members, to bear witness to Christ, His Person, His Love, His Presence. With this charge ringing in their ears, the Apostles set out to begin their work. We cannot doubt that it is to be the perpetually recurring keynote to which the whole music of the Church is to be attuned to the end.
2. The Apostles are the links between Christ and Christendom. All we know of Him is through the impression produced on them. The last year of His ministry was almost entirely devoted to their training. The medium is singularly colourless; of themselves personally, with the exception of St. Peter, we know next to nothing. The sons of Zebedee appear as zealous partisans, and interesting notices of the hesitating Thomas and the practical Philip are given several times in the Fourth Gospel; but otherwise they are but honoured names—their origin, their ministry, their martyrdoms, almost a blank. We must not look to them primarily as preachers, organizers, writers, but we must look to them rather in their character as witnesses.
Dr. Frank Gunsaulus, of Chicago, has written in one of his books a sentence to this effect: “True statesmanship consists in discovering the way in which God is going and then moving things out of the way for Him.” And I believe to-day that what we need supremely is to come to a re-discovery of the way in which God is going; and in order to do that I personally feel that there is nothing more valuable than that we should return to the sources, to the beginnings of things—not that all the methods of the Spirit were exhausted in the early days, but that in the record of what then happened we have clearly defined for us the line of the Spirit’s Operations and the direction of God.1 [Note: G. Campbell Morgan.]
ii. The Witness of us all
The duty of being witnesses to Christ is not laid on one order of men alone, it is laid upon all. Although unquestionably, in a special degree, the injunction may be held as addressed to the Apostles and to those who bear office in the Church, the humblest members are not excluded from its scope. Not only does the gifted and lamented Genevan professor, Gaston Frommel, say: “This declaration of our Lord established the true notion of the Christian ministry, lay as well as pastoral,” but Canon Liddon is equally emphatic: “The Apostles standing before their departing Lord impersonate not merely the ministry, but the Church; and Jesus in His last words on earth speaks not merely to the clerical order, He bequeaths a legacy of glory and of suffering to the millions of Christendom: ‘Ye shall be witnesses unto me.’ ”
In some religious bodies it is deemed incumbent on every member to relate his own experiences. He is not admitted unless he bear testimony to the fact that he has given his heart to Christ, and opportunities are periodically allowed for him to renew his testimony, to express the pleasure with which he feels his faith to be growing, or the distress with which he feels it to be decaying. From such meetings many have gone strengthened and confirmed, more ready to do and to suffer for their Lord. Such meetings are not altogether in accord with the traditions of our Scottish piety; the reticence of the Scottish character shrinks from uttering in Company the secrets of the innermost heart, a reticence so extreme and so perverted as in some districts to keep back from the Lord’s Table the most devout and earnest Christians till old age has come upon them. We can all see that public confessions of faith and devotion may be worth little, may be the result of momentary emotion rather than of settled principle, but it may be questioned whether in Scotland we do not carry our concealment of religious feeling too far. To speak glibly on a subject may indicate only superficial acquaintance; never to speak about it at all is not an absolute assurance that the acquaintance is genuine and profound. It may be absurd and blameable to talk volubly of spiritual themes to which we are personally strangers, but to refrain from utterance is at times to suppress a truth which, if it had been allowed to grow, would have been of inestimable value in shaping our own lives and the lives of others round about us. The vain repetition of pious phrases may be easily learned by the shallow and the hypocritical, but the careful abstention from every phrase that is not wholly secular will not induce our companions to take knowledge of us that we have been with Jesus. The chief service which, two hundred years ago, Joseph Addison rendered to religion was not so much by his essays in deliberate defence of Christianity, as by the graceful satire with which “he fairly laughed men out of that false modesty which made them ashamed of owning themselves on the Christian side,” e.g. one who was “long suspected of being a little pious, though no man ever hid his vice with greater caution than he did his virtue”; another, the well-bred man who is obliged to “conceal any serious sentiment and appear a greater libertine than he is, that he may keep himself in countenance among the men of more”; another, the master of the house who is “so very modest a man that he has not the confidence to say grace at his own table.” It is possible that the shafts of the gentle ridicule of Addison might find as suitable targets to-day as they did two hundred years ago.1 [Note: P. M‘Adam Muir.]
1. It is the privilege of each believer everywhere, in addition to the cleansing in the water of Baptism, to receive also such a baptism of the Holy Ghost as will endue and equip for service. Power in service, or in witnessing, comes, as we have seen, from the Holy Ghost. “Ye shall receive power, when the Holy Ghost is come upon you; and ye shall be my witnesses.” The form in which the power shall manifest itself is not for us to decide. “The Spirit divideth to each one severally as he will.” But of this we may be sure, that if we have allowed God to choose our work, the power or gift so bestowed will exactly match the task that is before us. If God has picked us out to bear burdens, hew wood or stone, act as overseers, or as skilled artificers, He will then likewise divide to each in baptizing with the Spirit just that power needful for the work required. As there are diversities of tasks, so there are diversities of gifts, but the one Spirit.
However it was spoken, the word was spoken suitably in every case. It might be expository or controversial in its nature, it might be by exhortation or reproof, according as the case demanded. In Barnabas it was exhortation; in Paul, reproof; in Apollos, exposition; in Peter, controversy. In Paul, reproof at one time; and at another, controversy, and argument, and exposition. In Peter, exposition, and controversy, and argument, and appeal, alternately. The occasion shaped the demand made, and so the utterance. The power of the Spirit impelled these men to speak, but enabled them to speak suitably.2 [Note: T. Adamson, The Spirit of Power, 41.]
There has come to you some bit of a call to service, to teach a class, or to write a special letter, or speak a word, or take up something needing to be done. And you hesitate. You think that you cannot. You are not fit, you think; not qualified. The thing to do is to do it. If the call is clear, go ahead. Need is one of the strong calling voices of God. It is always safe to respond. Put out your foot in the answering swing, even though you cannot see clearly the place to put it down. God attends to that part. Power comes as we go.1 [Note: S. D. Gordon, Quiet Talks on Service, 37.]
2. The witness must also be suitable to time and circumstances. It is now acknowledged that the twentieth-century Christian can think only the thought of the twentieth century; hence it is a delusion to think that we men of to-day can hold quite the same belief as the Christian of the first century or the Christian of the sixteenth century. Mr. A. J. Balfour has done good service in making it plain that Religious Knowledge is subject to the same change and development as all other knowledge. “The fact that theological thought follows the laws which govern the evolution of all other thought, that it changes from age to age, largely as regards the relative emphasis given to its various elements, not inconsiderably as regards the substance of those elements themselves, is a fact written legibly across the pages of ecclesiastical history.” Bearing this truism in mind, we shall understand that the measure of the present vitality of our religion is its power to readjust its conceptions, and to readapt its institutions to their environment. The religious teacher of to-day must be ready to bring out of his treasury things new as well as old; he must never be weary of translating into the current idiom the thoughts of old, but he must also be ever ready to welcome the fresh voices of later wisdom. And while in no way disparaging the partial formulæ in which men of old expressed their faith, we must beware lest we regard our own view of truth as final.
Matthew Arnold well expressed the modern spirit when he wrote: “An age which has its face towards the future, and in which men are full of plans for the welfare of the world, is not an age that has lost its faith. Its temper of mind is constructive; it is eager for new institutions, keen for new ideas, and has already a half-belief in a future in which all things will be new.” With these hopeful words ringing in our ears, let us attempt to face the religious problems of the present age.2 [Note: G. F. Terry.]
Not clinging to some ancient saw;
Not master’d by some modern term;
Not swift nor slow to change, but firm:
And in its season bring the law.
Meet is it Chances should control
Our being, lest we rust in ease:
We are all changed by still degrees,
All—but the basis of the soul.
3. The life of witnessing is not one of easy self-complacency, still less of morbid emotionalism, but of constant unobtrusive earnestness amid the commonplace work of the world. To witness truly we must be “doers of the word and not hearers only,” we must live lustrous lives, we must be valiant for the truth and wrestle bravely with individual and national sin, we must strengthen the feeble knees and encourage fainting hearts.
When some one asked Sir Joshua Reynolds how long it had taken him to paint a certain picture, he answered, “All my life.” “If I omit one day’s practice,” Rubinstein is reported to have said, “I know it the next day, the critics know it the day after, and the public the day after that.” If, then, it be true that—
The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden night;
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night;
how is it to be supposed that it can be otherwise with great Christians? Our Lord bids us “strive to enter in at the strait gate,” literally, to agonize to do it; and St. Paul declares: “By the grace of God I am what I am,” yet immediately adds, “and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all.” So in this matter of witnessing he will succeed best who takes most pains.1 [Note: W. A. N. Hall.]
The man who witnesses for the Master to-day has not to face outward danger or brave a martyr’s death. But with the age of persecution the difficulties of the Christian life have not passed away. In maintaining in the unambitious routine of humble duties a spirit of Christian cheerfulness and contentment—in the constant reference to lofty ends amid lowly trials—there may be evinced faith as strong as that of the man who dies with the song of martyrdom on his lips. It is a great thing to love Christ so dearly as to be ready to die for Him: but it is often a thing not less great to be ready to live for Him. To do this effectively demands not a little effort on our part. Those who have the best right to speak have been unanimous in their testimony that nothing really worthy of attainment in art, in science, or in the things of the spirit, is to be accomplished without effort.1 [Note: W. A. N. Hall.]
So he died for his faith. That is fine.
More than the most of us do.
But stay. Can you add to that line
That he lived for it, too?
It is easy to die. Men have died
For a wish or a whim—
From bravado or passion or pride.
Was it hard for him?
But to live: every day to live out
All the truth that he dreamt,
While his friends met his conduct with doubt,
And the world with contempt.
Was it thus that he plodded ahead,
Never turning aside?
Then we’ll talk of the life that he led.
Never mind how he died.
4. Two things remain. In all witnessing it is essential (1) that the subject of the witness be Christ, and (2) that the witness be in the Holy Spirit.
(1) The subject of all our witness must be the Lord Jesus Christ. This is the very last command of the Lord. He Stands, as He utters it, with His feet upon the steps of the heavenly throne. As all through His earthly ministry, so now, almost from the place of bliss itself, “He commends Himself.” He sends His followers out into the world on purpose, as their work of works, to bear a testimony. And that testimony is to be borne, first and last, to Himself. Man’s immeasurable need is to be met by telling man, as only those who personally know can tell, about the Son of God and Man, the one Name of Life, Christ Jesus the Lord.
It is true that the Revised Version gives us one change of rendering here which is to be observed. Instead of “witnesses unto me,” it reads, “my witnesses”; and this is a closer rendering of the Greek of St. Luke, or at least a rendering more likely to be quite close. Yet the difference, while we notice it, is not such as to negative, but rather to include, the meaning of the Authorized Version.1 [Note: H. C. G. Moule.]
There is an interesting story of Doré, the artist, that once, crossing the Italian frontier, he had mislaid his passport and was called upon to prove his identity. This he did by taking a sheet of common paper and a piece of charcoal, and tracing the homely, manly features of Victor Emmanuel. The officers knew that only Doré” could draw like that. Challenged by the world as we are, is it not for us to trace, here and now, on the rough surface of our common lives, with only such instruments as our ordinary circumstances afford, the character of our King? “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples.”2 [Note: C. C. Albertson.]
(2) The witness must be in the Holy Spirit. Without the gift and presence of the Holy Spirit our witness is bound to be a failure and a disappointment. Let none of us be content with a lower spiritual experience than God is willing to give us. As long as we keep our witness within the bounds of what we can obviously succeed in, we shall accomplish little, but when in abandonment of self, and in reliance on the Holy Spirit, we attempt great things for God, our success will exceed our highest hopes.
—Where is the blot?
Beamy the world, yet a blank all the same,
—Framework which waits for a picture to frame:
What of the leafage, what of the flower?
Roses embowering with nought they embower!
Come then, complete incompletion, O comer,
Pant through the blueness, perfect the summer!
Breathe but one breath
And all that was death
Grows life, grows love,
Grows love!3 [Note: Browning, Dramatic Idylls, 167.]
Power for Witness
Albertson (C. C.), College Sermons, 101.
Bright (W.), The Law of Faith, 226.
Chase (F. H.), The Credibility of the Book of Acts, 47.
Church (R. W.), Pascal and other Sermons, 336.
Coyle (R. F.), The Church and the Times, 55.
Davidson (R. T.), The Christian Opportunity, 169.
Hall (W. A. N.), Do out the Duty, 10.
Hopkins (E. H.), The Law of Liberty in the Spiritual Life, 203.
Hutton (A. W.), Ecclesia Discens, 31.
Ingram (A. F. W.), A Mission of the Spirit, 139.
Keenleyside (C. B.), God’s Fellow-Workers, 163.
Lewis (A.), Sermons preached in England, 15.
Liddon (H. P.), Clerical Life and Work, 149.
Liddon (H. P.), Easter in St. Paul’s, 407.
Lowry (S. C.), The Work of the Holy Spirit, 33.
Miller (W.), The Vision of Christ, 69.
Moule (H. C. G.), From Sunday to Sunday, 284.
Muspratt (W.), The Work and Power of the Holy Spirit, 34.
Pearse (M. G.), The Christianity of Jesus Christ, 1, 21, 30, 39, 59, 70.
Percival (J.), Sermons at Rugby, 179.
Spurgin (E. B.), The Work and Fruits of the Holy Spirit, 68.
Swete (H. B.), The Holy Spirit in the New Testament, 64.
Terry (G. F.), The Old Theology in the New Age, 21.
Christian World Pulpit, lx. 324 (Wordsworth); lxxi. 276 (Campbell Morgan); lxxv. 145 (Campbell Morgan).
Contemporary Pulpit, 1st Ser., x. 65.