MacLaren Expositions Of Holy Scripture
Thou therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.
No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier.2 Timothy
THE TRUE AIM OF LIFE - PLEASING CHRIST
2 Timothy 2:4.
PAUL had enough to do to infuse some of his own vigour into the feebler nature of Timothy. If we may judge from the prevailing tone of the Apostle’s letters to him, his young assistant lacked courage and energy; was easily beaten down, needed tonics for the ‘often infirmities’ of his mind as well as of his body. The delicate ingenuity with which this letter accumulates all conceivable encouragements for the drooping heart that was to take up the old lion-heart’s nearly finished work, is very beautiful. One topic of encouragement is conspicuous by its absence. There is no rosy painting of the Christian life, or of a Christian teacher’s life, as easy or pleasant to flesh and blood. On the contrary, none of Paul’s letters give more emphatic utterance to the fact that suffering is the law of both.
That is wise; for the best way to-brace people for difficult work and hardship is to tell them fairly what they will have to face. It will act as a filter and Gideon’s test, no doubt, but it will only filter out impure matter, and it will evoke latent enthusiasm; for there is always fascination to generous natures or fervent disciples in the thought of danger and toil, undertaken for a beloved cause or favourite pursuit. Boys are made sailors by the stories of wreck and hardship told them to keep them ashore. So Paul encourages’ son Timothy’ by putting before him all the toil and the peril which are the conditions of the work to which he has set his hand. In this context we have a number of illustrations and analogies, according to all of which self-denial and persistent work are indispensable. The wrestler has not only to brace every limb in his struggle till the muscles stand out like whipcord, but he has to abide by the laws of the arena. The farmer has to exercise long patience, and to labour hard in the field and wild weather, before he can sit down and eat of the fruit of the harvest. The soldier has not only to take his life in hand, but to abandon his civil pursuits and make the pleasure of his commander the law of his life. The diligence of other people in their worldly callings may well put us to shame; and if that is not enough, our own diligence in the one half of our life may shame our laziness in the other. All fire there, and all ice here !
Ready for any sacrifice of time and pains in that, grudging every such sacrifice in this!
Our text constitutes the first of that series of illustrative metaphors, each of which adds something of its own to the general idea. In it we have a whole series of striking thoughts suggested, which can be but very imperfectly worked out in the brief space at our disposal.
I. The first thing that strikes one in the words is their grand statement of the all-comprehensive life’s aim of the Christian soldier.
There is savagery and devilry enough about the soldiers’ trade to make it remarkable that it should be so constantly chosen to illustrate the life of the servants of the Prince of Peace. But there are grand qualities brought out in warfare, which need but to be transferred to their most worthy object; and for the sake of these, the metaphor is used here. The one great peculiarity of military discipline is prompt, unquestioning obedience. Wheresoever inferiors may discuss their superiors’ will, or reason on the limits of obedience, or allow themselves a margin of delay, all that is mutiny in the army, and short and sharp work will be made of it, if it appear. ‘Their’s not to reason why,’ but to do what they are bid, when they are bid, as they are bid. Their only standard of duty is their commander’s will, and men have been shot as mutineers for doing grand deeds of heroism contrary to orders. The highest guerdon of courage and faithfulness is the general’s praise, and men have gladly flung away their lives for a smile or a ‘well done’ from some Alexander or Napoleon, counting the gain far greater than the price paid.
Such an attitude towards a fellow-man makes men machines, and yet there is something in that absolute obedience and out-and-out submission to authority very noble in itself, and going a long way to ennoble even warfare. To obey may he bad or good, according to the master and the service; but obedience is fitting for a man, and there can be no attainment of the highest dignity, beauty, or force of character in lawless ‘self-pleasing, but only in willing submission to a law and a lawgiver, discerned by the will to be authoritative, by the conscience to be morally good, and by the heart to be love-worthy. If, then, we can find one ruler, leader, and commander of the people, whose authority is rightfully supreme, whose commands coincide with our highest wisdom and lead to our purest felicity, to obey him must lift a life into dignity. Then we have found the secret which will make little things great, and great things small; which will dignify all life, and make the most absolute service the truest freedom, the kingliest rule.
So our text lays hold of the great central peculiarity of Christian morals, when it makes pleasing Christ to be the great, all-comprehensive aim of the Christian soldier. It is this which makes the law of morality, as re-fashioned by Christianity, altogether new and blessed. How entirely different a thing it is to give a poor, feeble, solitary man a living, loving Lord to serve and to please, and to set him down before a cold, impersonal ‘ideal’; and say to him, ‘There! live up to that, or it will be the worse for you.’ The gospel sets forth Jesus Christ as the Pattern and Law of duty, in whom all the statuesque purity of the marble is changed into the warm, breathing flesh and blood of a brother. It sets Him forth as the power for duty, who stoops down from His height to reach forth a helping hand to us poor strugglers in the bogs at the mountain’s foot, while Law but looks on with pure and icy eyes at our flounderings, and counts the splashes on our dress. It sets Him forth as the Motive for duty, who draws us to what is right by ‘the cords of love and the bands of a man,’ while the world’s morality knows only how to appeal either to low motives of whips and pay, or to fine-spun considerations of right and obligation that melt like October’s morning ice before the faintest heat of temptation. Finally, it sets Him forth as the Reward of obedience, teaching us that the true recompense of well-doing lies in pleasing Him, and that to win a smile, an ‘honourable mention,’ from the General, life itself would be wisely paid.
Such are the great characteristics of Christian morality. Everything clusters round a living Person. All the coldness and remoteness and powerlessness which incurably weaken all law, whether it be that of a statute-book, or of conscience, or of moralists, are changed into their very opposites. Christ is duty; Love is law. Christ is power; Christ is impulse. Christ is motive; Christ is reward. Therefore the hearts and wills that found no attraction, nor owned any constraining authority in any tables of stone or any voice of conscience or any systems of ethics, yield glad obedience to Him who makes His law love; and feeble hands are strengthened to do His will by His own power breathed into them; and the hope of recompense is freed from selfishness when its highest object is His word of praise and His look of pleasure? This, and this alone, is the morality that will work. This is the new thing in Christianity, not so much the contents of the conception of duty, though even these have been changed, but the new form in which Duty appears, in a Person who being what all men should be, is the new power for its fulfilment which He brings, and the new motive whose touch moves all our conduct.
How much more powerful this thought of pleasing Christ is, as a motive, than that of a bare Theism, needs scarcely be named. ‘Thou, God, seest me’ grandly restraining and stimulating as it is, may easily become a trembling before ‘the great Taskmaster’s eye,’ or may fade into a very dim thought of a very far-off God. But when we think that the divine eye which rests upon us wept over the sinful city, and sought the denier with the look of sorrowing reproach, untarnished by one glitter of anger, we need not fear His knowledge, nor doubt that He is as near to each of us, as glad at our obedience, and as grieved by our hardness of heart, as ever He was to the little group that lived on His smile long ago. It is no remote God whom we have to please, but our very Brother, the Captain of the Lord’s host, who knows all the conditions of the fight.
The thought implies the reality of Christ’s present knowledge of each of us. Who, then, is this, who is supposed to know so accurately the true characters - not only the actions, but the motives which determine the worth of the actions - of men in every age and country to the world’s end? Who can exercise such an office, and be the centre of such observance, but One only? This must be God manifest in the flesh. Else it is stark nonsense for people, nineteen centuries after His death, to think of pleasing Him; and it is blasphemy worse than nonsense, to set aside all other law and commandments in order to take our duty from His life, and our reward from His approbation. But when we see in Christ the Word made flesh, then it is reasonable to believe that He knoweth the hearts of all men, and reasonable to ‘labour that, whether present or absent, we may be well-pleasing to Him.’
Such singleness of aim contributes in many ways to make life blessed and noble. It simplifies motives and aims, because, instead of being dragged hither and thither by smaller attractions, and so having our days broken up into fragments, we have one great object which can be pursued through all the variety of our occupations, making them all co-operant to one end - and there is blessedness in that. It lifts us above many temptations, which cease to be temptations to a heart intent on pleasing Christ, as glacial plants and animals fled to the north when cosmic changes put an end to the ice age in England. It delivers from care for men’s judgment, for the opinion of the crowd matters very little to the soldier whose fame is to be praised by his commander. It gives energy for work, and turns hard, dry duty into a joy, for it is ever blessed to toil for One we love, and the work that is done with love for its motive, and with the hope of giving Him pleasure for its inspiration, will not be wearisome, though it may be long; nor grievous, though it may be hard. Freedom and dignity, and happiness and buoyancy, all flow from this one transfiguring thought, that the one all-sufficient aim for life is - pleasing Christ, the Captain of the Lord’s host.
II. But our text employs a significant form of speech to designate Jesus Christ: ‘Him who hath called him to be a soldier’; or as the Revised Version has it, ‘enrolled him as a soldier.’
And that phrase is used, I suppose, instead of the simple name, in order to bring out the reference to the great act of Christ’s, on which the duty of making His pleasure our sovereign aim rests.
In old-world times when war broke out each chief would summon his clansmen to his standard and enrol them as his force. To raise a troop was the act of the leader, who then took command of the men he had raised, and did so because he had raised them. Christ has enrolled us as His soldiers, and because He has done so, he has the right of command.
Now, while there are many ways by which our Lord summons us to His service, we shall, I think, be true to the usual current of New Testament representations, if we see here mainly a reference to the great act by which He draws us to Himself. The fiery cross used to be the signal which summoned the tribesmen to the fray. So Christ’s men are summoned by the Cross. His great work for us, His life of sympathy and sorrow, His death of sacrifice and shame, His resurrection of glory - these are the call which He sends out to all the world, to gather loving souls to His side whom He may honour by using as His servants and soldiers. The Cross is the magnet by which He will ‘draw all men unto Him’; or in other words, the one power which will draw men away from a life of self and sin, and hearten them to fight against the evils in themselves and the world which they used to serve, is the fact of Christ’s death, believed and rested on. This, and this alone, changes our tastes and makes us deserters from our old colours, to take service under a new Commander. That mighty and unspeakable proof of Love will bend our hearts to obedience when nothing else will, and the voice of endless pity for us, and awful suffering for our sake, which sounds out from Christ on the Cross, is His heart-reaching call to us all to enlist in His service. The message of the Cross is not only a message of forgiveness and blessedness for ourselves, but it is as a trumpet-note of defiance to all the powers of evil, and a call to us to take our part in the fight, which in one aspect was finished when He overcame by death, but in another will last till that far-off future day when He that is called King of kings shall ride forth, followed by all the armies of those who on earth were his soldiers, to fight the last fight, and win the final victory.
He has given Himself wholly for us, therefore He has absolute right of authority over us. Not merely because of His divine nature, not merely because, as we believe, He has been from the beginning the divine agent of all creation and of all providence, but because of His great love and of His utter and bitter sacrifice for us men, does He possess the right to their absolute obedience. His dominion is a dominion founded on suffering; the many crowns are twined round the crown of thorns, as the iron crown of Monza has for foundation a bit of iron said to be a nail of the cross beaten into a circlet, and covered now with gold and jewels. Nothing but entire self-surrender for us can warrant entire authority over us, and only He who tasted death for every man has the right to assume the captainship over men. He gave Himself for us, therefore are we to give ourselves to Him. He dies for us, and then living, turns to us with,’ Will you not serve Me?’ We owe Him lives, souls - all. They are ours by the purchase of His exceeding bitter pains and death. Surely we shall not refuse His summons to service, which is also a merciful invitation to joy and blessing, but yield ourselves to the attraction of His cross and the magic of His love. Let Him take the command of your lives, and give Him all the secret springs of nature and desire to control. He has called you to be His soldiers, and your plain duty is to please Him. ‘I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God,’ and most chiefly by that chiefest mercy, the sacrifice of Christ, ‘that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, acceptable unto God.’
III. Finally, the text brings prominently forward the discipline of abstinence which this warfare requires.
In Paul’s time there were no standing armies, but men were summoned from their ordinary avocations and sent into the field. When the hasty call went forth, the plough was left in the furrow, and the web in the loom; the bridegroom hurried from his bride, and the mourner from the bier. All home industries were paralysed while the manhood of the nation were in the field. That state of things suggests the language here. The word rendered ‘that warreth’ might be more vividly translated, as the Revised Version has it, ‘on service’ - the idea being that as long as a man is on a campaign, he can do nothing else but soldiering. When peace is proclaimed, he may go back to farm or merchandise; but in the field, he has but one thing to do - and that is to fight, He will scarcely win the general’s good word on other things.
What, then, is the corresponding Christian duty? Of course our text, though originally spoken in reference to Christian teachers’ devotion to their work, is not to be confined to them. The sort of work which a Timothy or a Paul may have to do may be peculiar to their offices, but the spirit in which it is to be done, and the conditions of faithfulness, are the same for all doers of all sorts of work for Christ. If the apostle and the teacher need non-entanglement ‘with the affairs of this life,’ all Christians need it just as much.
Now it is to be noticed that the parallel of the soldier on service and the Christian in his warfare fails in this one respect: that the soldier had to abandon entirely all other occupation, even the most needful and praiseworthy, because he could not both do them and fight; but the abandonment of the affairs of this life is not necessary for us, because occupation with them is not incompatible with our Christian warfare. Nay, so far from that, these ‘affairs’ furnish the very fields on which a large part of that warfare to be waged. If these are abandoned, what is left to fight about? What is our Christian warfare but the constant struggle with evil in ourselves and temptation in the world; the constant effort to bring all the activities of our spirits and hands under the power of Christ’s law, and to yield our whole selves, in heart, mind, will, and deed, to Him? How then can that warfare be waged, and that ennobling self-surrender achieved, but by the heroic, patient effort to deal with all the affairs of this life in a Christ-like temper, and to Christ-pleasing ends? The Christian who abandons any of these is much liker the frightened deserter who runs from his post, and may expect a stern rebuke, if nothing worse, than the faithful soldier, whose face will one day brighten beneath the smile of his chief.
We must put stress on that word ‘entangled,’ if we would rightly understand this saying. It is not occupation with the things of life, but entanglement in them, that is fatal to the possibility of pleasing the King. The metaphor is plain enough, and vivid enough. As some poor struggling fish in the meshes of a net vainly beats its silver scales off, and gasps out its life, and swims no more in the free deep; or as some panting forest creature is checked in its joyous bounding, and, tangled in the half-seen snares, only tightens the cords by its wild plunging; or as some strong swimmer is caught in the long, brown seaweed which clings to his limbs till it drags him under and drowns; so men are snared and caught and strangled by these multitudinous cords and filaments of earthly things. The fate of Jonah befall, many a professing Christian, who, if he know what had really come to him, might cry with him, ‘The weeds are wrapped about my head.’
We are not bound to abandon the affairs of this life, but we are called upon to prevent their interfering with our warfare. If we are caught in the thicket whilst we are pressing on to the fight, out with the billhooks and hew it down. It may be full of pretty peeps, where there are shade and singing-birds; but if it stands in our way, it has to be grubbed up. ‘If thy right eye cause thee to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for thee.’
And that interference can easily be detected, if we honestly wish to do so. Does a certain thing - some legitimate, or even praiseworthy occupation, or possession, the exercise of some taste or accomplishment, some recreation, some companionship-clog my feet when I ought to march; clip my wings when I ought to soar; dim my eyes when I ought to gaze on God? Then no matter what others may do about it, my plain duty is to give it up. It is entangling me. It is interfering with my warfare, and I must cut the cords. I can only do so by entire abstinence. Perhaps I may get stronger some day, and be able to use it as not abusing it; but I cannot venture on that at present. So go it must. I judge nobody else, but whoever may be able to retain that thing, whatever it be, without slackening hold on Christ, I cannot.
So, brethren, if you find that legitimate occupation and affairs are absorbing your interests, and interfering with your clear vision of God, and making you less inclined and less apt to high thoughts and noble purposes, to lowly service and to Christ-like life, your safety lies in at once shaking off the venomous beast that has fastened on you into the fire. Unless the occupation be a plain duty, a post where the Captain has set you as sentry, and which it would be fiat disobedience to forsake, leave it at any cost, if you would kept your Christian integrity.
But if you have to stand to your post, perilous though it be, lift your heart to Him who can neutralise the poison, and who will so pour health into the veins of His servants, that, in the execution of His commands, ‘they shall take up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them.’
The affairs of this life must not entangle us; that is the one indispensable condition to pleasing Him. That they may not, they must always be rigidly subordinated, and used as helps to our higher life. Sometimes, when they cannot be so used, they must be abandoned altogether. Each must settle that for himself. Only let us make it our one great purpose in life that, whether present or absent, we may be well-pleasing to Him; and that single, lofty motive will breathe unity into our life, and giving us clear, sure insight into good and evil, will instruct us, by the instinct of hearts and wills tuned to harmony to His, to shun the evil and cleave strenuously to the good. So living, ever looking to His face to catch His smile as our highest reward, it will not be hard to give up anything that hinders the light of His countenance shining upon us. So surrendering, we may hope to be His obedient, and therefore in highest reality, His victorious soldiers. So fighting, we may possess in our hearts the assurance that His wonderful mercy accepts even our poor service as well-pleasing in His sight, and may lay ourselves How, in peace on the field where we seem to ourselves to have berne ourselves so badly and been so often beaten, with the wondrous hope to keep us company in the grave, that when the triumph comes, and our King goes up as conqueror, we, even we, shall follow, and receive from His lips the praise, and from His face the smile, which make the highest heaven of reward for all Christ’s soldiers.
If we believe not, yet he abideth faithful: he cannot deny himself.2 Timothy
A FAITHFUL GOD
2 Timothy 2:13.
I HAVE chosen this text, not as intending to deal with it only, so much as with the great thought to which it gives such emphatic expression. The faithfulness of God is a familiar enough phrase, but I suspect that the depth and scope of the thought are not as familiar as the words. It is employed in Scripture in many ways, and with many different applications of exhortation and encouragement. Like a prism held at right angles to the light, the thought flashes out different tints according as the rays impinge upon it. It is a favourite with Paul He speaks it in his very first letter, and here, in his last, after a lifetime spent in testing God, he comes back to it. He had proved it in a thousand dangers and struggles, and now, when he has all but done with earth, he’ sets to his seal that God is true. But all the other New Testament writers employ the expression likewise, and I have thought that it may be profitable to gather together the various aspects and applications of this great truth in Scripture, and so to draw out, if we may, some of .the lofty thoughts and treasures of strength and hope which are shrined in it.
I. Let me ask the question what the faithfulness of God means.
Now when we speak of one another as ‘faithful,’ we mean that we adhere to our word; that we keep faith with men, that we discharge the obligations of our office or position, and that so we are trustworthy. We mean just the same things when we speak about the faithful God.
I suppose that the first thought that occurs to most of us when God is called faithful is that it means that He keeps His promise. That, of course, is included in the idea, but it is very noteworthy that this, which to most of us is the only meaning of the expression, is rarely its meaning in the New Testament. Out of all the cases in which the phrase occurs it only twice has reference to God’s fulfilment of His spoken words; and these two instances both occur in the Epistle to the Hebrews, where we read: ‘He is faithful that promised,’ and ‘She judged Him faithful that promised.’ Now it is a great truth that out of the darkness God has spoken; that, like some constitutional monarch, He has declared the principles of His government, and so has bound Himself by articulate expressions to follow out these in His dealings. He is not a despot; He is a King who has laid down the law to which He Himself will adhere. His promises hang out over the troubled stream of life, like boughs from the trees on the bank, for His half-drowned children to grasp at and to hold by.
But great as that thought of our God’s fulfilment of His every word is, it does not go half way down to the depths of meaning in the New Testament use of the expression ‘the faithful God.’ For my text witnesses to a deeper meaning. He cannot deny Himself.’ That is Paul’s notion of the faithfulness of God; that His nature and character constitute for Him, if I may so say, a solemn obligation; that He is His own law; that He is bound by what He is, and that He never can be, in the smallest degree, anything contradictory to, or falling beneath, the level of His own equable, consistent, and uniform Self. As God, He must be true to the character of goodness and wisdom which the very name of God brings with it. We drop below our best selves; contradictory impulses and thoughts fight in our nature; the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh. No man is always himself; God is always Himself. We are like the little brooks that are dried in drought and swelled in spate, are parched in summer and frozen in winter, but this great river is always bank-full, and always clear and always flowing. This ocean is tideless and has no ebb or flood; and you can look down into its deepest depths, and as far as the vision of the eye can go, all is clear and pure, and where vision fails, it is not that the ocean is dark but that the sense is limited. So John says, in his infantile-angelic way, with a simplicity that is sublime, ‘God is Light, and in Him is no darkness at all.’ The sun has spots; it has, as astronomers tell us, a photosphere, an envelope that gives light, but possibly its core is black and dark. But that is not so with the true Light. ‘God is faithful; He cannot deny Himself.’
Then there is another deep thought in the word which is recurrent in the various applications of the expression throughout the New Testament - that God’s faithfulness implies that He is true, not only to His words, not only to Himself, but also to the trend and drift, so to speak, of His past acts. That thought is applied in the New Testament in two different ways. Peter says to the troubled disciples to whom he was writing, ‘Commit the keeping of your souls to Him in well-doing, as unto a faithful Creator.’ The fact of having made creatures binds God to certain obligations in regard to them, and He will discharge them. The other application of the idea of God’s faithfulness is in reference to His past acts bearing on man’s redemption. We find verses like these: ‘Faithful is He that calleth you’; ‘God is faithful by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of His Son; The thought there is that, by the fact of His redeeming work, God has come under certain obligations to the persons who yield to the invitation that is wrapped up in the message and gifts of Christ and of Christ’s Spirit, and that He will faithfully discharge these.
II. Now, then, carry these three simple thoughts with you - faithful to His word, faithful to Himself, faithful to His past-and let us ask, in the second place, what does this faithfulness guarantee?
What does His faithfulness as Creator guarantee to the creature whom He has made?
It guarantees, first, that the faithful Creator will care for His creature’s well-being. Creation is not merely a work of power, nor merely a necessary process, as some people seem to think. It is the outcome of the love of God, and so the wise psalmist says, ‘To Him that made great lights; for His mercy endureth for ever.’ He came forth, and poured Himself, as it were, into beings because His name is Love, and having thus created, He recognises the obligations under which He has thereby come. The smallest microscopic animal, because it has the mysterious gift of life, has a claim on God; and He is bound - I was going to say to do His utmost, but all that He does is His utmost - to care for that creature’s well-being. The birds lay their eggs, and hatch their young, and then let these go as they will Men sometimes forget the duties of parents and the responsibilities that are involved therein; but God the Creator lets us plead His faithfulness with Him, and turn round to Him and say, ‘Thou hast made me; therefore-I bring in ‘my hand Thine own bill, with Thine own name to it. Pay it, O God!’ ‘Commit the keeping of your souls to Him as to a faithful Creator.’
Especially does this conception of His faithfulness to His past in creation guarantee to us that all desires implanted by Him will be satisfied, and all needs created by Him will be supplied. Our wishes, when they are right, are prophecies of our possessions. God has put no craving in a man’s heart which He does not mean to fill. Remember the homely old proverb: ‘He never sends mouths but He sends meat to fill them.’ And if in thy heart there are longings which thou knowest are not sinful, be sure that these are veiled prophets of a divine gift. All these necessities of ours, all these hungry desires, all these sometimes painful thirsts of the soul that we try to slake at muddy and broken cisterns - all these are meant to take us straight to God. They are like the long indentations of the coast on our western shores, openings by which the flashing waters may run far inland and bathe the roots of the everlasting hills. So when God gives us a desire, He binds Himself to fulfil it. The world is a bewildering and unanswerable riddle and mystery, and human life is one long misery, unless we believe and know that because He is the faithful Creator no man need hunger with a ravening desire after food that is not provided, nor need any man thirst with a thirst that there is no water anywhere to slake.
Again, his great thought of the divine faithfulness as Creator guarantees that our tasks shall be proportioned to our strength. So Paul uses the thought in one tender sentence, when he says ‘God is faithful; who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able.’ Or as the psalmist has it in his sweet words, ‘He knoweth our frame; He remembereth that we are dust.’ Nothing above our power will ever be laid upon us. Careless and cruel drivers load their horses beyond their strength, and the patient drudge pulls until it drops. Unwise engineers put too much pressure on their boilers, or try to get too much work out of their engine. But God knows how much pressure the hearts that He makes can stand, and what is the utmost weight of the load that we can lift; and He will not be less merciful and faithful to His creatures than is the merciful man to his Beast. He is the faithful Creator who recognises His obligations to care for the works of His own hands, who will satisfy their desires, and supply the needs that He has made, who will shape their burdens according to the strength of their shoulders.
And if we turn to the other side of the thought, and ask what is guaranteed by God’s calling of us in Christ Jesus, then we get three answers.
The first thing that is guaranteed is forgiveness. The Apostle John, in words that are often misunderstood, grasps the thought of God’s faithfulness in this application when he says, ‘He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’ Since Christ has come, and has died in order that men might be pardoned and cleansed, God’s faithfulness is implicated in God’s pardoning mercy; and He would neither be faithful to His promises, nor to His past act in Christ’s mission, nor to the invitation and call that He has sounded in our ears, unless, when we obeyed that call, we entered into the full possession of His pardoning grace. So the gentle, tender attribute of Mercy becomes solemn, and stately, and eternal, when it is regarded as the outcome of His faithfulness. In some tropical forests yon will find strong tree-trunks out of which spring the most radiant and ethereal-looking blossoms. So the fair flower of forgiving mercy springs from the steadfast bole of the divine faithfulness. He is ‘Just, and the Justifier of him that believeth in Jesus’
Again, God’s faithfulness guarantees the progressive perfecting of Christian character. That is the application of the thought which is most frequent in Paul’s letters. We find it, for instance, in the passage Where the prayer that the saints in Thessalonica might be ‘preserved, body, soul, and spirit, blameless unto the coming of the Lord Jesus,’ is, by the Apostle, based on the words ‘faithful is He that calleth you, who also will do it.’ And a similar collocation of ideas is found in other passages, which I need not quote to you now. The progressive perfecting of the Christian life is guaranteed by the thought of the faithfulness of God. He does not begin a work and then get disgusted with it, or turn to something else, or find that His resources will not avail to work it out to completion-That is how we do. He never stops till He ends. As the prophet says about another matter, ‘His hands have laid the foundation of the house; His hands shall also finish it. ‘
I remember a place on our coasts where some man,. who had not calculated his resources, nor the strength of the ocean, began to build a breakwater’ and sea-walls, and to-day the blocks of dislodged concrete are lying in wild confusion on the beach, and the victorious waves break over them at every tide, and laugh at the abortive design. None that look on God’s work will ever have the right to say, ‘This man began to build, and was not able to finish.’ There are no half-completed failures in God’s workshop. Only you have to keep yourself under His influences. It is useless to talk about the ‘final perseverance of the saints, ‘ unless you remember that only they who continuously yield themselves to God are continuously the subjects of His cleansing and hallowing grace, If they do, the progressive perfecting of those upon whom He has begun to work is sure. Like some patient artist, He lays touch upon touch on the canvas, or smites piece after piece off the marble, till the ideal is realised, and stands there before Him. Like some patient seamstress, He works needleful after needleful of varying colours of silk on the tapestry, until the whole pattern is accomplished. ‘He is faithful; He also will do it.’
But again, that conception of the divine faithfulness guarantees ultimate blessedness. That thought is always taken in connection with the preceding one, in the various passages to which reference has just been made. Paul
says in another place, basing his assurance on the same thought of the divine faithfulness; ‘He will confirm you unto the day of the Lord Jesus.’ And so we have to think that just because God is faithful, therefore the Christian life here on earth, because it is so much and because it is so little, because of its devotion and because of its selfishness, bears in itself the prophecy of a time when all that is here checked tendency shall become triumphant realisation; and when the plant that here was an exotic, and did put forth buds, though poor and pale compared with what it would give in its natural soil, shall be transplanted into the higher house, and there shall blossom for evermore. God is a liar unless heaven is to complete the experiences of earth. If these poor natures of ours at their best here were all that Christ had won by the travail of His soul, do you think He would be satisfied? Certainly not. We need heaven to vindicate the faithfulness of God.
III. And now one word is all that I can spare on what I meant to make the last point of my sermon, and that is, what attitude in us corresponds to the faithfulness of God?
I need only quote one of the expressions in the Epistle to the Hebrews to give the answer, ‘Hold fast the profession of your faith without wavering, for He is faithful that promised.’ Our faith corresponds with and is the answer to God’s faithfulness. As with two instruments tuned to the same pitch, when a note is struck on the one, the chords of the other vibrate it back again, so God’s faithfulness should awake the music of answering faith in our responsive and vibrating hearts. If He is worth trusting let us trust Him.
But, further, unwavering faith is the only thing that truly corresponds to unchanging faithfulness. Build rock upon rock, and since He is faithful, do not answer his steadfast faithfulness with a tremulous and vacillating confidence. What would you think of a man that had given to him some magnificent site on which to rear a fortress; some impregnable crag which he might crown with a sure defence; if, on the top of it, instead of rearing granite walls that might match their foundation, he should run up some hasty shelter of lath and plaster, or of fluttering canvas, and so think that he had adorned, when he had insulted the rock on which he built. Make your faith to match God’s faithfulness, and ‘commit the keeping of your souls to Him in welldoing, as unto a faithful Creator, leaving all things in His hands, and trusting them absolutely unto Him.
Imitate the faithfulness in such fashion as you may. Paul in one place says, ‘As God is faithful, our word to you was not yea and nay.’ It does not become a man who is trusting to the faithful God to be shifty and unreliable in his own utterances and manifeststions to men.
Let us turn away from the illusions of vain hope, from all doubtful refuges, from all the fleeting defences and treasures that earth can give. Why should we build upon a sandbank when we can build on the Rock of Ages? Why should we trust mere wealth, creatural love, success, to do for us what only the faithful God can do? All these deceive or betray or fail or pass. They are unworthy of trust. ‘God is faithful’; Christ is ‘the faithful and true witness.’ ‘This is the faithful saying... that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.’ If we will join ourselves to the faithful God and accept the faithful saying of His faithful witness, our hearts will be calm, our lives will be steadied, we shall be delivered from the misery of leaning on props which, like rotten branches, break beneath our weight. On earth we shall attain growing completeness, and shall pass thence to that per-letting in the day of the Lord Jesus which the faithful God, by His words, by His great redeeming act, and by His present workings on us, has bound Himself to give us. There we may hope to hear the wondrous welcome, which points to our assimilation to Him in whom we trust: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’
Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his. And, Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity.2 Timothy
THE FOUNDATION AND THE SEAL
2 Timothy 2:19THERE was a great deal in the Apostle Paul’s last days to excuse despondency and sadness. For himself he was poor, and a prisoner, lonely and old, looking forward to the near approach of a bloody death. For the gospel and the Church the outlook was black too. Evil had already begun to lift its head, and was threatening to increase. So this, his last letter, is full of gloomy vaticinations, but in it there is none of the pessimism that belongs to old people, none of the despondency which so often seizes upon leaders of thought and action when they come to the end of their lives, and see how little they have done, and how threateningly the clouds are gathering. But throughout, side by side with the clearest perception of evil symptoms and growing dangers, there is unconquerable confidence.
This text is a remarkable illustration of that. He has just been speaking about errors that are threatening to flood the Church, and he speaks with very grave and vehement words. And then all at once with this ‘nevertheless’ he, as it were, swings right round, and his whole soul leaps up in the glad confidence that, whatever may happen, and whatever has to be abandoned, and whoever may go away, ‘the foundation of God stands sure.’ So he heartens up his young brother Timothy, who seems to have been of a great deal softer stuff than the old man, and bids him be of good cheer and quit himself like a man.
The words of my text, then, seem to me to be very precious to us in regard to the widest interests of Christianity, and in regard to our own individual standing, especially in times like those in which our lot is east; times of transition, when a great deal is going that past generations used to think sacred, and a great many timid people are trembling for the Ark of God; and a great many old people like me are thinking that the old gospel is in danger of passing away from the face of the earth. ‘Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure.’ So let me just say a word or two about this text.
I. Look at this joyous confidence of the old man, side by side with the clearest perceptions of encircling dangers.
The ‘foundation,’ in the New Testament, is generally Jesus Christ Himself. Here the metaphor is used in a somewhat different fashion. The ‘foundation’ in the present case is not a part of a building, but the whole building, conceived of as being founded by God. ‘The foundation of God’ is, in other words, that which is founded by God - that is to say, the whole house, whatever that may be, which he himself has ‘established on the tops of the mountains.’ And you will find that that explanation is borne out by the fact that in the very next verse the Apostle speaks about ‘the house,’ which he also meant when he spoke of the foundation of God. Of course that ‘house’ is, in one aspect, the Church, but the Church not as a mere institution or external organisation, but as being the witness to the gospel It is that, and the Christ who is the gospel, which stands firm, whatever may happen. There is a great deal of idolatry of the Church. What makes it precious, and what makes it eternal, is the message that is committed to its charge.
Now it seems to me to be of very prime importance that this joyous confidence, calm and assured, should be the habitual temper of us all. The more distinctly and clearly we apprehend, and the more painfully we feel the perils, the imperfections, and the threatening errors of the present, the more should we take our stand upon this one truth, that what God has founded is indestructible, and, standing there, we may look all round the three hundred and sixty degrees of the horizon, and no matter what formidable dangers may arise, and hurry across, darkening the sea like the thunder-clouds in the heavens, we may be sure that no tempest can break which will damage the ship that carries Christ and His fortunes. Man may go, ‘nevertheless’; errors may arise, ‘nevertheless’; Churches, individuals, may become unfaithful, ‘nevertheless’; candlesticks may be removed, lights quenched, communities may be honeycombed by worldliness, if the salt may lose its savour, ‘nevertheless that which is founded by God stands sure.’ The history of the past tells us that. Why, it is the miracle of miracles that Christian people having been what they have been, and being what they are, the Church of God has not been annihilated long, long ago. Why is it? Only because that which it bears and He who is in it are indestructible, and whilst the envelope may be changed, the central Truth and the living Person who is in the Church, in spite of all its corruptions and infirmities, cannot die, nor be suppressed nor removed.
So, brethren, standing firmly as we may upon this rock of a Church indestructible, because of the immortal Christ who is in it and the eternal gospel which is committed to it, it does not become us to have our hearts in our mouths at every change that may be passing, and that must necessarily pass, upon the external organisation, which is subject, like other institutions, to time and change. What can go, let it go. It is the dead leaves that are blown off the trees. Men make breakwaters with endless pains, and deposit great blocks of concrete that they think will fling back the wildest waves in vain spray, and a winter storm comes, and one wave puts out its tongue and licks up the whole structure, and it is a mass of ruins. Yes; and the same storm that smashed the breakwater runs up harmlessly on the humble sand which God has made to be His breakwater, and which has the power to say to the wildest tempest: ‘Here shall thy proud waves be stayed.’ Much may go, ‘nevertheless the foundation of God stands sure.’ So do not be frightened out of your wits - that is to say, out of your confidence - by ‘higher criticism’ and ‘advanced views, ‘ and right-hand defections and left-hand corruptions, and the failures of communities that call themselves churches to live up to the height of their responsibilities, or at the approach of new ways of looking at old truths. And do not fancy that because the cart that carries the ark jogs, and the oxen stumble, there is any harm coming to the ark. ‘The foundation of God standeth sure.’ So let us welcome change of all that is human in the doctrine, and polity, and practice of God’s Church, and never mind what becomes of men-made creeds, and men-made ceremonies, and men-made churches. What is of God will stand. Let us be glad when ‘the things that can be shaken’ are ‘removed,’ that ‘the things which cannot be shaken’ may stand all the more firmly.
II. Notice here the divine side of the guarantee of this confidence.
‘The firm foundation of God stands’; and then the Apostle goes on, in a very picturesque fashion, ‘having this seal.’ That is a mixture of metaphors which makes a rhetorician’s hair stand on end. Paul does not mind about mingling metaphors. You cannot very well seal a foundation, but the idea in his mind is that of the confirmation, the guarantee, the pledge of the confidence that he has just been expressing. He goes on to expand the metaphor. The seal has two inscriptions on it, like the obverse and reverse of a coin, or like two sentences which might be written on the two lintels of a door. The one gives the divine and the other the human sides of the guarantee.
As for the former, the divine, it is, ‘The Lord knoweth them that are His.’ ‘The Lord’ here is, I take it, Christ. And what is the guarantee that is contained in these words? If you seek for the explanation of that phrase in its deepest, most blessed, most courage-giving sense, listen to diviner words than Paul’s. ‘I know My sheep, and am known of Mine, as the Father knoweth Me, and I know the Father.’ That knowledge is not the mere divine attribute of omniscience, which may have in it consolation, or may not, but it is something far more tender, close, gracious, and strength-giving than the bare thought of an all-seeing eye. The ‘knowledge’ which Jesus has of His sheep is a knowledge based upon, and perfected in, closest love and tenderest sympathy, and of which that ineffable communion from the depths of eternity, in which the Father knoweth the Son, and the Son knoweth the Father, and the two knowledges intertwine and interflow into one sacred, and, to us, inconceivable bond, is the example. Thus close, though we cannot say so close; thus tender, though we cannot say so tender; thus loving, though we cannot say so loving, is the bond of that knowledge which unites Jesus Christ to every soul that belongs to Him. And with that guarantee of a knowledge which means the closest union that is possible, the individuality of the two united persons being preserved, surely there comes, floated, as it were, like some precious treasure in a cedar ark upon the surface of that ocean of divine knowledge, the assurance that such a knowledge will guard against all evil and all danger its peaceful and happy objects. If the Lord thus ‘knows them that are His,’ the knowledge will be a wall of fire round about them, as well as a glory in the midst of them.
That knowledge means, then, protection and care. He will not lose what belongs to Him. He is not such a careless Owner as that a sheep may stray out of the fold and the Shepherd never notice it. He is not such a careless Householder as that from His purse there may drop, and into some dusty corner may roll away, a coin, and He not know that He has lost one of the pieces. He is not such a heartless Brother as that the younger brother may go away into the far-off land and there be starving, and the Brother’s heart at home have no pangs and no sense of separation. But He ‘knows them that are His,’ and, knowing them, He holds them with the grip of tenacious possession as well as of tender love.
So there is the deep, the sure, the divine guarantee that the foundation standeth firm. So, brethren, it is wise for us to look at the dangers, to be fully aware of the perils, to be tremblingly conscious of our own weakness, but it is folly and faithlessness to look at the danger so exclusively, or to feel our own weakness so keenly as that either one or the other, or both of them combined, shall obscure to our sight the far greater and confidence-giving truth of the knowledge, the sympathy, and the extended protecting hand, of our Brother and our Lord. We belong to Him if we have yielded our hearts to Him, and He will not ‘suffer His Holy One to see corruption,’ here or hereafter. If you look down from the narrow ledge of the Alpine arrete to the thousand feet of precipice on either side of the two or three inches where you have your footing you will get giddy and fall. If you look up you will walk steadily. Do not ignore the danger, nor pro-sumptuously forget your own weakness, but remember ‘when I said my foot slippeth Thy mercy held me up.’ Recognise the slippery ice and the feeble foot, and couple with them the other thought, ‘The Lord knoweth them that are His. ‘
III. Now, lastly, here we have the human side of the guarantee.
The reverse of the coin, the other side of the foundation bears, deep-cut, this inscription: ‘Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity,’ and the two inscriptions are always to be held together. Look how they fit one another. The one is a promise; the other is a commandment. The one says a deep thing about God; the other says a plain thing about us. It is of no use going up into the heights of ‘the Lord knoweth them that are His,’ unless you also come down to the simple teaching,’ Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity. The Jews believed the first of these two inscriptions, and it was all their religion; look what wild work it made of them and their morality, and their whole nation. There have been plenty of Christian people who have been so absorbed in the contemplation of ‘unconditional election,’ ‘eternal predestination,’ ‘final perseverance,’ and all the rest of the theological formularies that have been spun out of these words, that they have forgotten the other side altogether. And so there has been licence, and a presumptuous building upon a supposed past; there has been a contempt for the ‘outsiders,’ and the driving of a coach and six through the plainest teachings of common righteousness and morality. And the only way to keep ‘the Lord knoweth them that are His’ from being a minister of sin is, in the same breath, to say, ‘Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity.’
To name the Name of Christ is the same as to say that you are His. And if you are, the best proof that you do belong to Jesus Christ is your living the life of plain, practical righteousness, and putting away from yourself everything that is evil. People talk about looking into themselves for evidences of their being ‘saved,’ as they say. I would rather take your neighbour’s opinion as to whether you are saved or not than yours; and you will be far more likely to come to the possession of calm assurance that you do belong to Jesus Christ, if your assurance is based upon this, ‘I am living as He would have me to do.’ That is the infallible sign that you are His. That homely, pedestrian righteousness, down amongst the commonplaces of daily life, and the little things of it, that, and not emotions, however soaring; not aspirations, however ardent; not the consciousness of communion apart, however deep and sweet, is the sign that we are Christ’s. However necessary all these things are, still they are necessary mainly as means to an end, and the end of all the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, and of all these joys and experiences of the individual Christian soul, is to make us live righteously, soberly, godly, in this present world. And the more we do thus live, the more we shall get, not only the consciousness of belonging to Jesus Christ, but the help by which we shall be able to stand.
So, dear brethren, my one last word to you is, hold these two things ever together in your minds and thoughts. ‘What God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.’ You have a right to be confident, because, far deeper than, and prior to, anything that you do, there are the knowledge, the love, the sympathy, and the outstretched hand of the loving and upholding Saviour. But you have only the right to the confidence based upon his knowledge of you, if that confidence is working in you a departing from iniquity. If you know that you are trying, in your poor way, to do that, and that you are trying to do it for His sake, and because you think that you are His, then, whatever may happen to others, whatever may befall some of the outworks of your faith or belief, whatever changes may impend, you may be sure of this, that ‘the foundation of God standeth sure,’ and that, weak as we are, building upon Him who is the foundation, we shall be able to resist all the assaults of evil
Only remember, that Christ Himself has told us that many would come to Him and say, ‘Lord! Lord! have we not prophesied in Thy name, and in Thy name done many wonderful works?’ And He will say unto them,
‘Depart from Me, I never knew you,’ and the proof that He never did is that He has to address them as ‘Ye that work iniquity’
But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth; and some to honour, and some to dishonour.2 Timothy
THE GREAT HOUSE AND ITS VESSELS
2 Timothy 2:20-21OUR text begins with a ‘but.’ It, therefore, suggests something which may seem to contradict or to modify what has gone before. The Apostle has been speaking about what he calls the ‘foundation of God,’ or the building founded by God, whereby he means the Church. He has been expressing triumphant confidence that, as thus founded, it is indestructible, whatever dangers may threaten or defections may weaken it. But the very contemplation of that grand ideal suggests darker thoughts. He carries on his metaphor, for the ‘great house’ is suggested by ‘the foundation of God,’ and yet the two things do not refer to precisely the same object. The building founded by God which stands fast, whatever happens, is what we call in our abstract way, the ‘invisible Church,’ the ideal community or aggregate of all who are truly joined to Jesus Christ. The great house is what we call the visible Church, the organisation, institution, or institutions comprising those who profess to be thus joined. The one is indestructible, as founded by God; the other is not, being made by men, and composed of heterogeneous elements.
This heterogeneousness of its elements is suggested by the further metaphor, of the vessels of different materials, value, and use. The members of the Church are the various vessels. When we come down from the heights of ideal contemplation to face the reality of the Church as an organisation in the world, we are confronted with this grave fact, that its members are some of them ‘gold and silver,’ some of them ‘wood’ and ‘earth.’ And that fact modifies the triumphant confidence already uttered, and imposes upon us all very plain duties. So I wish to look now at the three things that are suggested to me here. First, a grave fact as to the actual condition of the Church as an organised institution; second, an inspiring possibility open to us all; and, lastly, a plain direction as to the way by which the possibility may become a reality.
I. Then we have here a grave fact as to the actual condition of the Church as an organised institution.
‘In a great house there are vessels of gold and silver.’ There they stand, ranged on some bufet, precious and sparkling, and taken care of; and away down in kitchens or sculleries there are vessels of wood, or of cheap common crockery and pottery. Now, says Paul, that is like the Church as we have to see it in the world. What is the principle of the distinction here? At first sight one might suppose that it refers to the obvious inequality of intellectual and spiritual and other gifts or graces bestowed upon men; that the gold and silver are the more brilliantly endowed in the Christian community, and the wood and the earth are humbler members who have less conspicuous and less useful service to perform. But that is not so. The Bible never recognises that distinction which the world makes so much of, between the largely and slenderly endowed, between the men who do what are supposed to be great things, and those who have to be content with humbler service. Its principle is, ‘small service is true service whilst it lasts,’ and although there are-diversities of operation, the man who has the largest share of gifts stands, in Heaven’s estimate, no whit above the man who has the smallest. All are on the one level; in God’s great army the praise and the honours do not get monopolised by the general officers, but they come down to the privates just as abundantly, if they are equally faithful.
And then another consideration which shows us that it will not do to take gold and silver on the one hand, and wood and earth on the other, as marking the cleavage between the largely and the slenderly endowed members of the Church, is the fact that the way to get out of the one class and into the other, as we shall have to see presently, is by moral purity and not by the increase of intellectual or other endowments. The man that cleanses himself comes out of the category of ‘wood’ and ‘earth,’ and passes into that of ‘gold and silver.’ Thus the basis of the distinction, the ground of classification, lies altogether in goodness or badness, purity or impurity, worthiness or unworthiness. They who are in the highest degree pure are the ‘gold and silver.’ They who are less so, or not at all so, are the ‘wooden’ and the ‘earthen’ vessels. The same line of demarcation is suggested in another passage which employs several of the same phrases and ideas that are found in my text. We read in it about the foundation which is laid, and about the teachers building upon it various elements. Now these elements, on the one hand ‘gold, silver, and precious stones,’ and on the other hand ‘wool, hay, and stubble,’ may be the doctrines that these teachers proclaimed, or perhaps they may be the converts that they brought in. But in any case notice the parallelism, not only in regard to the foundation, but in regard to the distinction of the component parts of the structure - ‘gold and silver,’ as here, and the less valuable list headed, as here, by ‘wood; and then, by reason of the divergence of the metaphor, ‘hay and stubble,’ in the one ease, and ‘earthenware’ in the other. But the suggestion of both passages is that the Church, the visible institution, has in it, and will always have in it, those who, by their purity and consistency of Christian life, answer to the designation of the gold and the silver, and those who, by their lack of that, fail into the other class, of wooden and earthen vessels.
Of course it must be so. ‘What act is all its thought had been?’ Every ideal, when it becomes embodied in an institution, becomes degraded; just as, when you expose quicksilver to the air, a non-transparent film and scum creeps across the surface. The ‘drag-net’ in one of Christ’s parables suggests the same ides, There are no meshes that ever man’s knitting-needle has formed that are fine enough to keep out the bad, as the Church necessarily includes both sets of people.
I do not need to dwell upon the question as to whether in these least worthy members of that community are included people that have some faint flickering light of God in their hearts, real though very imperfect Christians, or whether it means only those who are nominally, and not at all really, joined to the Lord. The parting lines between these two classes are very evanescent and very slight; and it is scarcely worth while calling them two classes at all. But only let me remind you that this recognition of the necessary intermingling of unworthy and worthy professors in every Christian Church is no reason for us Nonconformists departing from our fundamental principle that we should try to keep Christ’s Church clear, as far as may be, of the intrusion of unworthy members. The Apostle is not speaking about the conditions that ought to be imposed as precedent to connection with the visible Church, but he is speaking about the evil, whatever the conditions may be, that is sure to attach to it. It attaches to this community of ours here, which, in accordance with New Testament usage, we have no hesitation in calling a Church. We try to keep our communion pure; we do not succeed; we never shall succeed. That is no reason why we should give up trying. But in this little house there are ‘vessels of gold and silver,’ and ‘vessels of wood and earth, and-some to honour and some to dishonour.’
But whilst this necessity is no reason for indiscriminate admission of all manner of people into the Christian Church, it is a reason for you that are in it not to make so much as some of you do of the fact that you are in, and not to trust, as some of you do, to the mere nominal, external connection with the ‘great house.’ You may be in it, but you may be down in the back premises, and one of the vessels that have no honourable use. Lay that to heart, dear friends. It is not for me to apply general principles to individual cases, but I may venture to say that, like every true pastor of a Christian community, I cannot help seeing that there are names of people on Our rolls who have a name to live and are dead.
II. Now, secondly, here we have an inspiring possibility open to us all.
On certain conditions any man may be ‘a vessel unto honour,’ by which, of course, is meant that the vessel - that is to say, the man - gets honour.
And how does he get it? By service. If you will look at the passage carefully, you will see that after this general designation of ‘a vessel unto honour,’ there follow three characteristics of the vessel, which taken together make its honour. I shall speak about them in detail presently, but in the meantime let me point out how here there is embodied the great principle of the New Testament that the true honour is service. ‘It shall not be so among you; he that is chief amongst you let him be your servant.’ Just as Jesus Christ, ‘knowing that He came from God and went to God, and that the Father had given all things into His hand, laid aside His garments, and took a towel, and girded Himself, and washed the disciples’ feet,’ so we, if we desire honour and prominence, must find it in service; and if we have by God’s gift, and the concurrence of circumstances, possessions or resources of mind, body, or estate, which make us prominent and above our brethren, we are thereby the more bound to utilise all that we have, and all that we are, for His service. If a man is ambitious let him remember this that service is honour, use is dignity, and there are none other.
But now turn for a moment to these three characteristics which are here set forth as constituting the honour of the vessels of gold and silver. The first is ‘sanctified,’ or as it might perhaps better be expressed, consecrated. For, as I suppose many of us know, the foot, idea of sanctification or holiness is not the moral purity which goes along with the expression in our thoughts, but that which is the root of all evangelical purity - via, the yielding of ourselves to God. Consecration is the beginning of purity, and consecration is honour. No man stands higher, in the true Legion of Honour of the Heavens, than he who bears on his breast and in his heart, not a knot of ribbon, but the imprint of a bloody Cross, and for the sake of that yields himself, body, soul, and spirit to God’s service. The vessels that are devoted are the sacrificial vessels of the Temple, which are sacred beyond the golden cups of household use, and yet the commonest domestic utensils may become honourable by virtue of their being thus consecrated. So one of the old prophets. using the same metaphor as my text, with a slightly different application, says that in the day when the Kingdom of God assumes its perfect form upon earth, every pot in Jerusalem shall be as the bowls of the altar, and on the very horse-bells shall be written, ‘Consecrated to the Lord.’ The vessel unto honour must be sanctified.
Then again, ‘meet for the master’s use.’ On the great buffet in the banqueting hall, the cup in the centre, that belongs to the householder, and is lifted to his glowing lips, is the most honourable of all. Every Christian man amongst us may be used by the Christ, and may - more wonderful still! - be useful to Christ. That is condescension, is it not? You remember how, when He would, in modest prophetic pomp, once for all assert in public His claim to be the King of Israel, He sent two of His servants ‘into the village over against’ them with this message, ‘The Lord hath need of him,’ the humble ass. Jesus Christ needs you to carry out His purposes, to be His representatives and the executors of His will, His viceroys and servants in this world. And there is no honour higher than that I, for all my imperfections and limitations, with all my waywardness and slothfulness, should yet be taken by Him, and made use of by Him. Brother l have you any ambition to be used by Jesus, and to be useful to Jesus? And are you of any use to Him? Have you ever been? The questions are for our own hearts, in the privacy of communion with God. I leave them with you.
‘Ready for every good work.’ The habit of service will grow. A man that is consecrated, and being used by Jesus Christ, will become more and more useful all round. It ought to be our ambition to be men-of-all-work to our Lord. There is great danger of our all yielding to natural limitations, as we suppose them, and confining ourselves to what we take to be our role. It is all right that that should be the prominent part of our ministry in the world. But let us beware of the limitations and the onesidedness that attaches to us, and be ready for the distasteful work, for the uncongenial work, for the work to which our natural fastidiousness and temperaments do not call us. Let us, as I say, try to be many-sided, and to stand with our loins girt and our lamps burning, and our wills held well down, and say ‘ Lord! what wouldst Thou have me to do? Here am I; send me.’
III. Now a word about the last point that is here, and that is the plain direction as to the way in which this possibility may become a reality for us all.
‘If a man purge himself from these.’ These; whom? The’ vessels to dishonour.’ Get out of that class. And how? By purifying yourselves. So, then, there is no necessity of any sort which determines the class to which we belong except our own earnestness and effort. You remember our Lord’s other parable of the four sowings in four different soils. Was there any unconquerable necessity which compelled the wayside soil to be hard and beaten, or the rocky one to be impermeable, or the thorny one to be productive only of thorns and briars? Could they not all have become good soil? And why did they not? Because the men that they represented did not care to become so. And in like manner there is no reason why the earthen pot should not become gold, or the wooden one silver, or the silver one gold - ay! or the gold silver, or the silver wood, or the wood earth. Paul was an earthen vessel, and he became ‘a chosen vessel’ of gold. Judas was a vessel of silver, and he became s vessel of earth, and was dashed in pieces like a potter’s vessel. So you can settle your place. How do you settle it? By purity. Character makes us serviceable. Christ’s kingdom is more helped, His purposes advanced, His will furthered, by holy lives than by shining gifts. And whether you can do much for Him by the latter or no, you can do more for Him by far by means of the former. And you can all have that if you will.
Only notice that purity which makes serviceable, and therefore honourable, and is capable of degrees as between silver and gold, is to be won by our own efforts. ‘If a man therefore shall purify himself.’ I know, of course, that whoever has honestly set himself, for Christ’s sake, to the task of purifying himself, very soon finds out that he, with his ten thousand, cannot beat the king that comes against him with twenty thousand; and if he is a wise man he sends an embassage, not to the enemy, but to the Emperor, and says, ‘Come Thou and help me.’ If we try to purify ourselves, we are necessarily thrown back upon God’s help to do it. But there must be the personal effort, and that effort must go mainly, I think, in the direction of effort to grasp and hold by faith and obedience the Divine Life which come into us and purifies us; and in the other direction of effort to apply to every part of our character and conduct the divine help which we bring to our aid by our humble faith.
So, brethren, we can, if we will, purify ourselves, and we shall do it most surely when we fall back upon him, and say, ‘Give me the power - that I may perfect holiness in the fear of the Lord.’
Some of us are vessels in another house. But Christ has bound the strong man and spoiled his goods, and taken from him all the armour in which he trusted, and the vessels which he used. And if we will only take Christ’s liberation, and cast ourselves on His grace and power, then we shall be lifted from the dark and doleful house of the strong man, and set in the great house of the great Lord. Yield not your members as instruments of unrighteousness, but yield yourselves unto God, and your members as instruments of righteousness to Him.