The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
THIS study of Apostolic Life is intended as a sequel to the author's Inner Life of Christ, as revealed in the Gospel of Matthew.
A wonderful record, truly, is the narrative of the Acts of the Apostles. Here, all is movement, progress, controversy, and spiritual conquest; the church rears its marvellous form amidst the tumults of the world's most exciting history; and names rise almost visibly out of social obscurity into the noblest fame known to human society. The book may be compared very variously, but not the least pertinently to a battle-field, in which the contest lies between a feebleness socially contemptible, and a strength socially imperial and invincible. How the battle proceeds, the book itself must tell. This is the book which modern church-builders should specially and profoundly study, if they would work in harmony with the purpose of Him who is the sure and only Corner-stone. By such study they will come back to the truth that the Christian Church is not a man-built castle, grand with the petty vanity of mortal ambition, and resonant with the discord of rival successes, but a house not made with hands, a temple set up in quietness, but so set up that it can never be thrown down. Men may build their showy ecclesiasticisms and boast loudly of statistical position, and in the very act of apparent worship may profane the sanctuary of God. That the church must have a visible representation no student of the Acts of the Apostles can deny; neither can it be denied, that visibleness, however broad and lustrous, cannot represent the whole secret—the inner and infinite life—of Christ's blood-bought and inspired church. That church must always be the mystery of human association, and the truest seal of human brotherhood. The church is, in my view, much larger than many persons seem to suppose. In this respect, as in all others, God's thought is higher than ours, so high that no wordy argument can persuade the minds that doubt it, yet so certain that the issue, with all its glory, must be left to the Providence which we conceal by the name of Time.
I cannot be too thankful that in working out my ministry I was led to undertake this sacred study, for here I have found all the excitement of historic action combined with all the solemn revelation of spiritual doctrine, and have thus been enabled to awaken and gratify the attention of many who could not have been reached by one or other of these characteristics alone. The popular mind is not strongly disposed towards doctrinal study, and is perhaps less so today than ever, hence the supreme advantage of introducing it in connexion with the development of a history often rising into the sublimest passion in its heroism and sacrifice. Whilst thus endeavoring to awaken interest in Christian docrine, I have made no attempt to find a formal theology in apostolic preaching. No such theology is there to be found. The supposed finding of it anywhere has been the heaviest Cross which the Risen Christ has had to carry, and the greatest hindrance to the extension of His reign. Theology is as indefinable as Life. It admits of multitudinous expression, and like Inspiration itself must take the colour of the individual soul that receives it. As Theology deals with the Infinite it cannot admit of complete and final statement in words. There is always a nameless quantity beyond. An infinite theology should create an infinite charity, yet probably there is less charity in theology than in any other subject of human thought, a fact which involves the greatest contradiction possible in human action. It appears to me, with increasing distinctness, that the only radical cure for this mischief is a close study of Apostolic methods and a zealous return to their practice. The Apostles preached Jesus and the Resurrection. What need have we to preach more? What more, indeed, is it possible for any man to preach? Closely considered, all that is noblest in prophecy, all that is deepest in history, all that is purest in morals, is involved in the topic—Jesus and the Resurrection! By these facts themselves, and not by any interpretation of them are the souls of men to be saved. We are bewildered by interpretations. The reason is that interpretations return upon themselves, and by a kind of self-consciousness are always seeking to amend and refine their own expression. The sophism which underlies all this formal and standard theology is—Surely it is possible to say in words what we believe in thought. No! Not where the subject thought about is itself infinite. We can offer suggestions; we can point out beginnings; we can compare one aspect of human consciousness with another; but beyond this we cannot move, because as no arm can reach the horizon, so no word can embrace and symbolize the immeasurable circumference of Truth. Are we to be left then, so to say, at the mercy of "suggestions" and "beginnings"? Certainly not. "Jesus and the Resurrection" are not suggestions, they are Facts, and on those facts the church stands as upon a foundation of imperishable rock. Of course, there are minds so constituted as to find themselves unable to resist such inquiries, as What do you believe about Jesus? What do you believe about the Resurrection? Such inquiries are supposed to lead to an enlightened theology and an intelligent faith. Let us take care lest an "intelligent faith" become the worst type of self-trustful rationalism, by drawing the whole emphasis into the word "intelligent" and depleting the word "faith" of its grace and force. To be saved by intelligent faith, is to be saved by works. Why should not intelligence stop at the facts, and faith go forward, as it alone can go, into mysterious and inspiring communion with God? JESUS is a greater term than any definition of Jesus; so with Resurrection, so with Atonement, so with Faith, so with every word that points towards the secret of God. When this truth is recognized there will be a great coming together of Christian thinkers, and a general lowering of standards which human hands have impiously erected.
A writer, now deceased, held in the highest reputation by all sections of the Evangelical Church, said to me, "How do you account for it that whilst the age is insisting upon the greatest definiteness and precision in science, it is becoming more and more indefinite in theology?" I did not feel the difficulty of the question then, nor do I feel it now. The two things are not to be compared. The universe is measurable,—its Creator is immeasurable: that is the reason of the supposed indefiniteness of theological thought and expression. I say supposed indefiniteness, for it may not be real. It is the indefiniteness of amazement, not the indefiniteness of doubt. The thing thought about is so much larger than was at first suspected, that words are felt to be unequal to the task of definition. The man who receives a legacy of ten pounds without doubt or misgiving, might hesitate to believe that a million pounds had been bequeathed to him. The magnificence of the bequest almost paralyzes his faith. What wonder? Is it not also the same with divine things? Divine revelation may be the measure of human indefiniteness, and that indefiniteness may bring with it the greatest of all prayers—"Lord increase our FAITH,"—that is to say, "Thy revelation is so much larger than our capacity, it shines upon us like heaven above heaven, radiant with glory unimagined, rising to intolerableness of burning splendour, that we can bear it only in proportion to the enlargement of our faith: Lord, we believe, help Thou our unbelief: Lord, increase our faith!" It is no mean gift that is offered. It is INCARNATION, God with us: RESURRECTION, Life abounding over death: ATONEMENT, Forgiveness made possible: INSPIRATION, Material words turned to spiritual uses: IMMORTALITY, The completion of the divine purpose! Let us now turn to the Acts of the Apostles, and see whether it be not so.
The City Temple,
Nov. 1st, 1882.
The Acts of the Apostles
1. In the title the Greek MSS. present considerable variations, as for example—"Acts of the Apostles;" "Acts of all the Apostles;" "Acts of the Holy Apostles;" sometimes the author's name is given, in one instance thus—" Written by the Holy and Illustrious Luke, Apostle and Evangelist." Chrysostom called it "The Book, the Demonstration of the Resurrection."
2. The book is in no sense a history of the Apostles as a body. The names of the eleven occur but once. They are mentioned collectively eight times. St. John appears in three instances only.
3. The history begins at Jerusalem and ends at Rome. At the beginning the Church was but a Jewish sect, numbering 120 persons; it ends by breaking down every barrier, and including every nation.
4. The writing of the book may be referred to the 70th or 80th year of the first Christian century.
5. In the book there are seven parts:—
Pentecost, with the events preceding it
The acts in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, among the Circumcised......
Acts 3-9, 12
The acts in Cæsarea, and the admission of the Gentiles.....
The first journey of Barnabas and Saul among the Gentiles....
The deputation sent, and the council of Jerusalem as to the Jews and Gentiles being on the same footing...
The second journey of Paul...
The third journey as far as to Rome
The following material was presented at the end of Acts in the printed edition:
Chapter 108 Prayer
Almighty God, speak unto us, for thou hast now given unto us the hearing ear and the understanding heart. This is thy holy gift; this, indeed, is the very miracle of grace. Our faculties are now of use; we begin to see the purpose of our creation. By thy grace in Christ Jesus, we are enabled to stand in thy light, and to see somewhat of the outline of thy truth. This is a great vision; for this we bless thee with ardent love. We knew not the great world before; but now we enter into larger spaces, and enjoy boundless liberties, and feel that we are no longer children of the earth and prisoners of time, but sons of God and born for eternity. So then we are lifted up with great elevation of thought and feeling; the world in all its littleness is far below us, and the great new sky revealed by thy grace heightens and brightens above us, and we are challenged to arise and take possession of the inheritance of the saints in light. We are no longer little in our thought and bounded in our feeling and hope: we have escaped the chain, we are captives no longer; we are out in God's boundless firmament, yet are we centred to his eternal throne. The Son has made us free; therefore are we free indeed. Thou hast shown us the meaning of the letter and led us into the liberty of the spirit. It is a glorious liberty! We feel its inspiration; we would answer all its nobleness by larger service and deeper humility. Show us that thou art the Righteous One, tempering judgment with mercy. Thou wilt not overstrain us, for our strength is but weakness; thou wilt not flash upon us the intolerable glory, but reveal thyself unto us in growing light according to our growing capacity to receive it. God is Love. Thou dost remember that we are dust; thou wilt not oppress us with burdens grievous to be borne; thou knowest that our day here is a very short one, and thou hast caused it to be shorter still, by reason of the uncertainty of our possession of it. But we look onward to the other school, where the light is brighter, where the day is nightless, where the teaching is more direct; in thy light we shall there see light, and growing knowledge shall be growing humility, and growing power shall be growing service. This is our hope, and this our confidence, so that now we are but preparing for the great issue and the grand realisation. Meanwhile, let thy Book be unto us more and more precious, thy Sabbaths filled with a tenderer light, and every opportunity to know thy truth and study thy will more critical and more urgent. May we not reckon as those who have boundless time at their command, but rather as those who are uncertain of their next pulse, who are expecting the King and must be in readiness to meet him. Thus may we live under high discipline, in the enjoyment of great delight, eager with expectancy, calm with confidence, inspired by hope, yet resting in the completeness of Divine assurance. Thus shall our life be a mystery Divine, a creation of God, an infinite apocalypse. We have come from out-of-the-way places to one home this day. We represent many dwellings, but we cling to the one house which holds us all within its hospitable embrace. This is our Father's house, where there is bread enough and to spare, where the servant may become a son and the son receive duly double assurance of his sonship. We would seize the opportunity; we would rise to the inspiration of this new hope; we would dwell within the security of thy Zion and know thy banner over us is Love. Thou hast led us by a strange way: thou hast often disappointed us, but only to enrich us with still brighter hopes; thou hast set mysteries in our families which terrified us because we found no solution of their meaning; thou hast cut the heart in two and made the life sore at every point by reason of the ingratitude of some, the stubbornness and selfishness of others; in some houses thou hast turned the day into night, and afflicted the night with sevenfold darkness. But thou art leading us all the time, chastening us, mellowing us, perfecting our hearts in the riches of thy grace and enriching us with the wealth of thy love. Others are wholly at ease: they have not known the weight of darkness, the sting of disappointment, the bitterness of unspeakable woe; and therein thou hast kept from them the highest joys. They know nothing of heavenly delights, of healing after disease, of joy after sorrow, of the song that comes in the morning which succeeds the long night of waiting. We would not change our places with them; our wounds have been the beginning of health, our distresses have been the roots of our purest joys, our disappointments have led us through crooked and thorny ways right into the light where stands the eternal throne. We will always tarry at the Cross: we can rest only there; we can read all its superscriptions, but high above them all the writing of God—"Behold the Lamb, that taketh away the sins of the world." That is the writing of thine own finger; that is the Gospel of thine own heart. We read it once, and again, and still again, and as we read the light grows and the music increases, and the Lamb descends from the Cross and ascends as Intercessor into the heavens, and begins the infinite prayer of his priestly love. These are the mysteries in which we hide our littleness; these are the doors at which we wait until, opened from within, we be admitted into the inner places, the sanctuary of the heavens. Amen.
Today we close the Acts of the Apostles. It is not, therefore, a happy day for me. We have lived so long in the company of the great men who fill this sacred portion of the Holy Scripture that we feel as if called upon to speak a very pathetic and sad farewell. This comes of reverent familiarity with things Divine. We have not allowed the familiarity to descend into frivolity; but, having kept the sacred line of true friendship all these many days, we feel as if turning our back upon a host of friends whose comradeship we should like to have continued in all its freshness and stimulus until we enter together into the common city which is our home. Thus we leave man after man, church after church, and book after book. We no sooner begin than we end; our delight is cut off in its ecstasy, and just as our expectation begins to burn into that glad agony which the heart understands, behold, the vision ceases, and we are sent back into shadows and desert places.
Look at the Acts of the Apostles as a whole, supposing the little book to be in your hands in its unity. It is a living thing; it is like nothing but itself The Master is not in it visibly, and yet he is throbbing in every line of it influentially. It is a bush that burns. Strange looks we have seen come out of it, and voices above voices and under-voices—marvellous subtleties of tone only to be explained by the Divine and supernatural element. We have studied together the Gospel by Matthew and the Acts of the Apostles; putting the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles together, what a marvellous reproduction we have of the Pentateuch! These four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles together constitute the Pentateuch of the New Testament; and if you will take the Pentateuch of Moses with the Gospel Pentateuch and compare the one with the other, you will be struck with the marvellous analogies and correspondences between the two, which, being duly connected and interpreted, constitute an illustration of what is meant by the Divine inspiration of Holy Scripture. What have we in the second Pentateuch? How did the first Pentateuch begin? With creation. How does the second Pentateuch begin? With creation. What was the first creation? The moulding of matter, the settlement and distribution of vast spaces and lights and forces. What is the second creation? A Church, a living universe—men the planets; souls the burning suns, redeemed lives the great and immortal heavens. The Son is Creator as well as the Father; yea, the very old creation, the tabernacle of dust and light, the heavens and the earth—these were all made for the Son, by the Son; he was before all things as he is above all things, so that in his creation—a spiritual, gracious human creation—he pales the little universe and puts it into its right place—a mere speck upon the infinite being of God. So then we have our New Testament Pentateuch, and we cannot do without it, because it is fall of history; and therein it resembles the first Pentateuch—full of anecdote, story, tragedy, change, movement, colour: a wonderful beginning and the only possible beginning from the highest standpoint, not a beginning in great doctrine, profound philosophies and metaphysics,—all these lie thousands of miles along the road; no man may fly after them, or plunge into them with heedless impetuosity. We begin with matter, we begin with light and force, with water and earth, with things that fly and things that swim; and then we pass into the human tragedy, and through all the marvellous evolutions of history, we come into doctrine, philosophy, spiritual thought, the inner meaning, the marvellous music of things. So it is in the New Testament. We begin with a little Child, to what he may grow we know not; great is his name—Immanuel: God—God with us, the great God, the great Man. Now we must go forward into historical movements, activities, collisions, contradictions; now we must be lost in the centre of dusty, cloudy battlefields and then emerge into wide spaces where the summer spreads her banquet, where the air is clear of all but sweetest music. That is God's way of training the individual life. We all begin, so to say, Pentateuchally; we all have five books, or at least five chapters of history—creation, history, movement, activity, hardly knowing what we are doing—moved, touched, stung, led, and wondering how it will all issue, in what eventuation it will establish itself, and what it will prove when the process has been completed. It enriches one's thought and establishes one's heart in the tender grace of God to see how the lines of life correspond with one another: how things are matched today by things that happened yesterday; how one life is part of some other life, how one nation belongs to all the nations, and to mark how God has not been making detached links without connection or association, but has rather been fastening those links together into a great chain,—a golden chain—the first link fastened to his throne, the chain dropped down, link after link added, and, lo, it begins to rise again at the other end and comes back, and the links form a chain and the chain a circle and the centre the very throne of God. We cannot do without the historical line. Man must begin with history, he cannot begin with thinking; man must begin with toys, he cannot begin with ideas, abstract thoughts, and emotions that involve metaphysical mysteries. He must have a garden to work in, he must have a flock to keep, he must have a vineyard to dress; every night he must tell how the day has been spent; and thus he is led on into the great service, and into the fidelity that keeps no diary because it is so complete as to be beyond mere registration and beyond that book-keeping which is supposed to guarantee itself against the perfidies of felonious hands. But we must begin with the garden; man thinks he is doing something when he is tilling a garden. We must begin with objective work, outside work; it is adapted to us. The absorption, the speechless contemplation, the song without words—these are the after-comings, the marvellous transformations. Meanwhile, keep thy lamp burning, watch thy door with all faithfulness, and attend to thy little garden plot as if it were the whole of God's universe; and afterwards thou shalt come to the higher studies the nobler culture, the richer, deeper peace.
Looking at the Acts of the Apostles as a whole, what a representative book it is! What varieties of character; what contradictions; what miracles of friendship; what bringing together of things that apparently are without relation and between which cohesion is, from our stand point, simply impossible! We have marked the characters as the panorama has passed before us these years; we wonder how ever they came together, how any one book can hold them; and yet, as we have wondered, we have seen men settle into relation and complement one another so as to furnish out the whole circle with perfect accuracy of outline. We belong to one another. The hand cannot say to the foot, "I have no need of thee"; nor can the ear say to the eye, or the eye to the ear, "I have no need of thee." All those men in the moving panorama Apostolic belonged, somehow, to one another, sphered one another out into perfectness of service and endurance. The human race is not one man; one man is not the human race. The difficulty we have with ourselves and with one another is the difficulty of not perceiving that every one of us is needful to make up the sum total of God's meaning. Failing to see that, we have what is called "criticism," so that men are remarked upon as being short of this faculty, wanting in that capacity, destitute of such and such qualification, not so rich in mental gift as some other man; and thus we have such foolish talking and pointless criticism. Man is one. God made man, not men; he redeemed man, he became man. Your gift is mine; mine is yours. We are a total, not a fraction; not carping individuals, but one household built on one rock, a living temple raised upon a living Corner-stone. Why fix upon individuals and remark upon their imperfections and their shortcomings? They claim the virtues of their very critics; they leap up in the hands of their vivisectors and say, "Your life is ours; your strength should perfect our weakness." The world will not learn that lesson. The world is lost in selfishness. Christianity is now a game of selfishness, that is to say, resolving itself into "Who can get into heaven? who can safely escape into heaven?"—a question that ought never to be asked; it is the worst and meanest selfishness. Who can fight best, suffer best, give most, do most, wait most patiently?—these are the great questions which, being honestly asked by the soul, ennoble the soul that asks them, and challenge the life to the nobler services which the fancy contemplates. So the men in the Acts of the Apostles belong to one another. Think of Peter and Luke: Peter all fire; Luke quiet, thoughtful, contemplative, musing, taking observations and using them for historical purposes. Think of Paul and Barnabas; think of all the names that are within the record, and see how wondrous is the mosaic. There are only two great leaders. Were I to ask the youngest of my fellow students, now when we are closing the book, whose names occur most frequently in the Acts of the Apostles, hardly a child could hesitate in the reply—"Peter and Paul." They seem to overshadow everybody; their names burn most ardently and lustrously on the whole record. That is quite true; but where would they have been but for those who supported them, held up their arms, made up their following and their companionship? If they are pinnacles, the pinnacle only expresses the solidity and massiveness of the building that is below. You see the pinnacle from afar; but that pinnacle does not exist in itself, by itself, for itself; it is the upgathering of the great thought, and represents to the farthest-off places the sublime fact that the tabernacle of God is with men upon the earth. To be in the record at all is my ambition; to be on the first page or on the last, to be anywhere in it, that is the beginning of heaven. This is a representation of the Church of all time. You have your great names and your lesser names; you have Peter and James and John and Paul, and you have Philip and Thomas and James and Simon and Judas. To be in the list is enough. No man can write his own name in the list. Sometimes it is absolutely essential that a man should make his own signature, do it with his own finger, either in letters or by mark; his own living hand of flesh must have touched the page. In other records we are written down by consent. We are thankful for the honour of the registration; we have been invited to form a part of the commonwealth, and we have assented to the proposition. No man can write his name in the Lamb's book of life. Every man must open the door of his heart to admit the knocking Saviour as his Guest. God works; man works. There is a marvellous commerce between the Divine and the human, the human and the Divine; the result of that commerce, being happily consummated, is sonship, is liberty, is heaven!
We cannot look at the book as a whole without being struck with its candour. Nothing is kept back; there is no desire to make men appear better than they really were; all the sin is here, all the shame, all the virtue, all the honour—everything is set down with an impartial and fearless hand. That is one of the strongest incidental proofs of the inspiration of the whole book. This is not a series of artificial curves or carvings; the men we have had to deal with are men of flesh and blood like ourselves wholly; about their humanity we can have no doubt. Here is a record of selfishness: the story of Ananias and Sapphira is not kept back. "How much better," some would have said, "to omit it." As well omit the story of Adam and Eve. In every book there is an Adam and Eve, if it be a faithful portraiture of human life; in every soul there is an Adam and Eve, a fall, an expulsion, a day of cherubic fire that asserts the sovereignty of outraged righteousness. These are not inventions, but they are representations of ourselves as we know ourselves, and therefore we can confirm the book. The accident varies, the substance is constant; the mere outside of color changes in every instance, but the heart is bad with selfishness throughout. Dissensions are reported: Paul and Barnabas separated; Paul withstood Peter "to the face, because he was to be blamed." Peter to be blamed! That was an honest book! There is no man-painting here; there is no touch of merely exhibitional genius; there is no attempt to get up. a Christian exhibition in the Acts of the Apostles with the motto, "Behold the perfect men!" There is a stern reality about this that compels the attention which it charms. Christianity is not represented here as to its earthly lot in any very attractive way. Who would say, after reading the Acts of the Apostles, were we to judge by the fate of its apostles and teachers, "Let us also be Christians"? There was not a noble man in the fraternity; there was hardly a man in the whole brotherhood that could trace his ancestry beyond yesterday. If you wanted to join an unfashionable sect, the Christian sect would have presented to you innumerable and overwhelming advantages; if you wanted to suffer, Christianity would find the opportunity. It is a record of suffering, misrepresentation, persecution, terrible sorrow and agony; a record of cold and hunger and thirst and nakedness and night-travelling. The men of the Acts of the Apostles wandered about in deserts and in mountains, in dens and in caves of the earth; they had no festival, no banner, no music, no honour amongst men. We thought that towards the last surely we should hear some better account of it; but in the last chapter Christianity is represented as the sect which is everywhere "spoken against." All of these circumstances and instances illustrate the candour, the intense honesty and reality of the record. Human authors study probabilities. It is a canon amongst literary men that even in a romance nothing shall be put down—though it may actually have occurred—which exceeds the bounds of average probability. The circumstance you narrate you may have seen, but you are not allowed by literary criticism to put down anything that is merely phenomenal—so extraordinary as probably not to occur more than once in a thousand years. You must keep to probability if you would build according to technical rules. There is no study of parts, proportions, colours in the Acts of the Apostles; there is no poetry-making, no romance elaboration; things are put down every night as they occurred every day—there stands the record, with all blotches, blemishes, faults, all heroisms and nobilities, all endurances and glorious successes; nothing is extenuated; the whole tale is told exactly and literally as it occurred.
Reading the Acts of the Apostles through from beginning to end at one sitting—which is the only right way of reading any book in order to get into the swing of its thought and the music of its rhythm—reading the Acts of the Apostles straight through from the first verse to the last, I feel as if I had been present in a great and busy seed-time. I have come home, as it were, from a great field that has just been sown all over—sown with truth seeds, sown with buried men, sown with buried deeds. The seed thus sown does not look very beautiful. Tomorrow it will look like a desert, and for a week or a month there may be no change, but in a week or a month more there will be first the blade; by-and-by, the ear; by-and-by, the full corn in the ear; by-and-by, the flashing sickle in the hand of the angel; by-and-by, the harvest home; by-and-by, Christ's contentment—the satisfaction of his soul.
This is the way to judge a book—namely: to judge it in its wholeness; and this is the way to judge of any Church, or of any institution, or of any man. I must not take your individual actions and attempt to find the whole character in any one conversation, or in any one little sentence; I must not take you at unawares, and when I see you in high temper say, "See how bad he is!" I must not find you in some act of apparent meanness and judge the whole character by it, saying, "See the man's dishonourableness!" I must not find you in some solitary fault, or under the pressure of some tremendous temptation, and say, "See in that instance the whole man!" Society judges so. Harsh judgments are founded upon little detached instances of temper or of spirit; but when he comes who made us—made us so marvellously, made no two of us alike—when he comes who knows our ancestry, our birth, our physical constitution, our advantages and disadvantages, our trials and our sorrows; when he comes who knows us altogether, he will judge us in the totality of our life, and mayhap the worst of us may be recognised by the redeeming Son of God as having upon him the sprinkled blood which will save the life from the destroying stroke.
The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach,Chapter 1
Almighty God, thou hast great charges against us, and we have no answer to the accusation which thou dost make. We are rebels and hard of heart. Though thou hast left our Zion desolate, and burned our cities with fire, the spirit of unbelief is still triumphant within us. Behold it is not in thy thunder and lightning to touch this inner mischief: thou canst not bring us to thyself by punishment: hell saith "It is not in me to save." Therefore hast thou come to us by another and better way, even by the way of redeeming love, by the sacred way of the cross, and of the blood of Jesus Christ, thy Son, and of all the ministry which is embodied in his sweet name.
Thou dost love the world: the world is baptized with tears from heaven, thine heart doth go out after the world, and thou dost yearn to find it. It is thy world, thou dost not cast it off because of its sins, thou dost the rather draw nearer to it with some fonder love. There is joy in the presence of thine angels over a repentant world more than over all the firmament of the unfallen stars. Thou dost cause all wrath to praise thee, and out of sin, as out of a root, wilt thou bring some good that we cannot now foretell. God is all in all—to thy power there is no limit, thy mercy endureth for ever, thy compassions are newer than the morning, softer and brighter than the dew. Thy mercies fail not, and the night is written all over with the stars of thy promises. Thou art a great God ana righteous and in thee is no love of sin—thou dost hate it with a perfect hatred, and yet toward the sinner thou dost come out of thy pavilion of eternity with all utterances of love and proofs of mercy, and thy cry is towards the children of men.
Give us understanding of these things, we humbly pray thee, that we may thus be led up to the mystery of the cross. In the cross thou hast given thy last and highest proof of love. Last of all thou didst send thy Son: thou hast none other now to send, all other messengers are dumb after the utterance of the eloquence of his love. May we know that the cross was set up for sin, not for our sin only, but for the sin of the whole world, and therefore is as manifold in its mystery as is the sin of all the ages. We rejoice that the way to the cross is open: thou hast set back the gate, thou hast written thy welcomes upon the cross itself, and thou wilt forgive all who pray for pardon. For that sweet word we bless thee: it conquers death, it fills up the void of the grave, it brings the light about us when sevenfold night would distress us with its darkness. Open thou the gate of heaven daily, and say unto each of us, "Thy sins, which are many, are all forgiven thee." This forgiveness we have in Christ, and through Christ and for Christ's sake alone, and because he ever liveth to make intercession for us, we shall be saved to the uttermost.
Thou knowest our heart's complaint, the distress of our life is not hidden from thee, the sighing of our spirit is heard in heaven: have mercy upon us, O God, yea, have mercy upon us, so that where sin aboundeth, grace may much more abound, where accusation doth pierce the heart, there may be a great healing and a perfect comforting of grace. Let thy truth shine upon the understanding, let thy love speak daily to the heart, let all the comforting of thy blessed angels be ministered unto us mile by mile of life's dreary walk, and at the last may we find the beginning, may death be but another phase of life, and as we sink below the horizon of time, may it be to rise upon the infinite horizon of eternity.
Speak comfortably unto us, for we are but bruised reeds; thunder not against us with thy great power or thou wilt utterly take us away; urge not against us thy strength, for we are so weak, but comfort us, lure us, draw us to thyself, with the cords of love and with the bands of a man, and may we, thus treated as feeble creatures and sinners divested of strength, find our rest in the heart of God.
Bless the friends who are now at home in this church—bless the stranger within our gates, regard the mocking man and subdue him into reverence, disabuse the prejudiced mind and bring it into holy attention to the spirit of the sanctuary. Release those who are burdened and heavy laden because of tormenting recollections and oppressive accusations. Grant unto us all the spirit of faith, the desire to see more deeply into thy truth, and whilst we are waiting may we know this to be none other than one of the days of the Son of man upon the earth, bright with heaven's own light, glad with music falling from the upper spheres, to make us know the meaning and the mystery of perfect joy. Amen.
2. Until the day in which he was taken up, after that he through the Holy Ghost had given commandments unto the apostles whom he had chosen:
3. To whom also he shewed himself alive after his passion [literally, after he had suffered] by many infallible [there is no word in the Greek answering to infallible] proofs, being seen of them forty days [the only passage which gives the time between the Resurrection and the Ascension] and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God [the whole Christian dispensation]:
4. And, being assembled together with them, commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which, saith he, ye have heard of me.
5. For John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence.
6. When they therefore were come together, they asked of him, saying, Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel? [More literally, Art thou restoring?]
7. And he said unto them, It is not for you [your part] to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power [appointed by his own authority].
8. But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me [the keynote of the whole book] both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.
9. And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight [a circumstance not recorded by Matthew or John].
The Beginning of Apostolicity
IT is supposed that the man who wrote this record of the Acts of the Apostles was the author of the third gospel—Luke. It would appear as if the gospel and this record also were made rather as private memoranda than written as public documents. This would seem to be addressed to one man for his particular instruction in Christian doctrine and movement. It is but another proof that this is God's way of making himself known to the children of men. He speaks to individuals. He does not address the great seething throng, but he calls a man aside and puts the mystery of the divine purpose into that man's heart, and from an individual centre there goes out a glowing warmth, that fills the whole earth with its gracious ardour. God made Adam, God called Abram, God selected Mary to be the virgin-mother; all through and through history God has called out the particular individual, the one person, and has started his kingdom oftentimes from very small and insignificant beginnings.
But great letters cannot be kept private: where there is anything in a letter it burns its way out. There are some letters that must be published, though they were never meant for publication. They exercise a secret and wonderful power over the receiver, and he says the whole world must be taken into this confidence, for though I have received the communication as addressed to myself alone, it is so good that to keep it back from others would amount to practical felony.
We cannot hide gospels permanently. What is in a letter determines that letter's fortune: what is in a book and not what is said about a book, determines the book's fate in the long run. Though it may be a hundred years, yet it will come up and assert its proper place in literature and command its proper degree of the world's attention. Luke wrote a long account of Christ's ministry to Theophilus, and the whole world has Luke's narrative in its hand today! So Luke undertook further to write the Acts of the Apostles to this same man (beloved of God, and loving God as his name implies), and today the Acts of the Apostles is a document read in every school-house, perused by all students of church history, and in the Acts of the Apostles are the beginnings and the fundamentals of some of the most extraordinary and influential commonwealths that have ever claimed the attention and the homage of the human intellect and the Christian heart.
With a hand so skilful as not to require the touch of mechanical education, Luke divides the great life into two expressive and all-inclusive portions. He says he has written of all that Jesus began both to do and teach. Jesus Christ's life is divided into action and doctrine, miracles and truth, marvellous signs and more marvellous revelations. All Christian life admits of precisely the same division. If we do, but fail to teach, we shall oftentimes be but barren and unanswerable puzzles to those who look on. If we teach, and fail to do, we may bring upon ourselves the just imputation of being theorists and fanatics, at the best devotional sentimentalists who live in sighing and aspiration and wordy doctrine, but have no bone, sinew or force wherewith to encounter all the challenges of this earthly existence.
And yet Jesus Christ only began. God always begins. There can be no ending in anything that God does. Though it may appear to end in itself, yet itself is related to some other and broader self, and so the continuity rolls on, in ever-augmenting accretion and proportion, so that all God's creations are but beginnings. There are no conclusions in truth; there may be resting-places, a peculiar and practical punctuation of statement, so that we may take time to turn into beneficent action that which has been stated in revealing terms—but the Book is never closed, God's hand never wrote the word finis: though the Bible be, in point of paper and print, a measurable quantity, it opens a revelation that recedes from us as the horizon recedes from the hands that would grasp it.
So then life becomes a new thing from this standpoint. Men talk about formulating Christian truth: from my point of view you might as well attempt to formulate the light, or to formulate the atmosphere. You cannot formulate, with an adequacy, or any approach to exhaustiveness, quantities that are infinite. There are those who tell us that we have organized geology, organized botany, organized astronomy, therefore why not have organized theology? The answer is simple, sufficient and final, because geology, botany, astronomy, though great and dazzling terms in many of their phases and applications, represent finite and therefore measurable quantities, whereas, theology represents infinite and therefore immeasurable realities. We may have fifty sciences of theology: we can have but one science of botany, geology, or astronomy: it will in every instance grow up into a perfect statement, because all the facts are ascertainable, and all the results are stateable in words—but we have a Roman Catholic theology, and a Protestant theology, and Protestant theology is divided into a hundred sub-theologies, showing us that men have been attempting the impossible, and showing us too, thank God, that we are not saved by any theory of truth, but by the truth itself, not by any theory of atonement only, but by the mystery of the cross, realisable only by the penitent and believing heart.
We can begin a theology. In beginning a theology we shall do well, provided that we never mistake beginnings for endings. To have to deal with infinite quantities should challenge our noblest intellectual ambition, and yet should chasten us with the severest moral discipline. We are permitted to suggest, to read together, to meet for common study and fellowship in divine inquiry, and whilst we are communing with one another and with the common Spirit of truth, our hearts will burn within us, and we shall know that we have reached the truth by the degree of sacred ardour which glows in our thankful hearts. As to verbal statements, we may never agree: one man wants one set of words, and another man says the words must all be enlarged, elevated, and glorified; such poor syllables as these will never do. The man who talks so is perfectly right; words have not yet overtaken thoughts; the action of the mind is infinitely in advance of the action or the power of the tongue. We know always more than we can tell: when we have uttered the completest sentence which it is in our power to formulate and express, we know that back in the mind and the heart are things we have not put into that sentence, because no medium of communication is exquisite enough, in its function and power, to express what we want to say in exhaustion of the meaning which makes our hearts glow.
So then we may well be charitable one with another. If Jesus only began both to do and to teach, we can only do the same, and according to the measure of inspiration he may grant. I enlarge this word began in this sentence into more than its merely mechanical meaning: perchance by somewhat of an accommodation I may seize the suggestion of this wondrous word, and if I happen to draw some of you from stubborn conclusions, so as to give you to see they are only feeble beginnings, though I may have impoverished you on the one hand, I ought to have stimulated you on the other. No man has the whole truth. The Book itself is not a full grown garden, it is a seed-house, a storehouse of roots. We have to plant the root, sow the seed, and look upon the wondrous issue of fruitfulness and beauty. "If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing."
We are all beginners. The old grey-haired student lifts up his wrinkled brow from the glowing page and says, "I have hardly begun it." Who then are we, fifty years his juniors, who should start up and say, "We have reached the goal, there is nothing beyond, we have put out our staff and struck the final granite?" Let us "grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ." Let us not count ourselves to have attained, or to be already perfect, but let us press forward towards the mark for the prize of our high calling of God in Christ Jesus, and ever say, humbly, lovingly, and hopefully, "God hath yet more light and truth to bring forth from his holy word."
Notice here that though Jesus Christ both began to do and to teach, he made his beginnings have all the force and urgency of complete endings. He gave commandments unto the apostles whom he had chosen: he did not offer mere suggestions—never did Jesus Christ say, "I offer these instructions for your consideration: you can adopt or reject them according to your own finding on further inquiry. Jesus Christ was never less than royal, never did the Son of Man speak ambiguously or incompletely; he spoke finally, royally, commandingly. "A new commandment give I unto you." "Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you." He commanded the apostles. The Lord cannot merely suggest; Paul will come with his pathetic suggestions, begging the Lord's pardon if he be wrong in making them—but in Christ's speech there are no parentheses, they shoot right out of mind and heart and mouth with the completeness and finality of positive injunctions.
We are then the slaves of the Lord Jesus Christ. We are none other than the Lord's captives and therefore the Lord's freemen. We do not make the commandments, we obey them—we are not as those who walk under the loose rule of mere license, we are men who are bound to a centre, kept within the limits of a specific moral gravitation, and we have come to know this mystery, that there is no liberty without law, that life without law is chaos, that life with law, loyally accepted and obediently realised, becomes a continual stewardship, a holy sacrifice, an everlasting beginning, passing on to increasing satisfactions, as the capacity of the soul enlarges.
With the skill of a scribe well instructed, Luke puts into his third verse a whole library of Christian evidence, so that Theophilus his correspondent may be under no mistake as to what is called amongst us, the missing link. In the third verse Luke says, "Jesus Christ showed himself alive after his passion, to his apostles, by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God." In Luke's mind there was no doubt about the Resurrection: Luke was not a man who had a paid cause to subserve; Luke was not entrusted with a brief for the purpose of defending a case about which he had some latent doubt or difficulty. Luke behaves himself like a frank-hearted and honest man who has a very simple statement to make, and who makes it on the authority of his own observation, consciousness and experience.
The ring of honesty is in that third verse. Beautifully does it bring in the subject of our Lord's speech to the apostles, "speaking," says Luke, "of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God." Jesus Christ had but one subject. You never had to ask what Jesus Christ was preaching about: he was not a preacher with a million texts or a million subjects: he was a preacher with one theme, one utterance, but like the one sky, an eternal variety. We have been accustomed through our studies of the gospel according to Matthew, to the expression, "the kingdom of God." We ourselves could have supplied that ending to this verse of the record. Jesus Christ never talked about anything less than a kingdom, a kingdom that rose above all other empires and masteries and enclosed and included them in its infinite sovereignty.
What Jesus Christ said to the disciples or apostles in those farewell days we must learn from the apostles themselves. Let us understand that apostolic life is but a continuation of the Lord's own life. If the apostles are faithful men, their word will be Christ's word: he promised to tell them more; said he upon one memorable occasion, "I have many things to say to you, but ye cannot bear them now." He carried the burden till they were old enough and strong enough to take it up. He always has some larger burden to transfer to us, but he will never transfer it till our strength be equal to the occasion. Apostolic life will show us more of Christ's meaning than could be Conveyed within the limits of the four gospels. This gives you a new standard by which to value the apostolic writings. Let us not suppose that apostolic writings are mere individual speculations, or personal comments upon a great mystery. Apostolic literature is as much a revelation as is the evangelic biography of the Lord himself.
When the disciples or apostles were assembled together, they came to Jesus and said, "Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?" They never could get away from their little "kingdom" any more than Christ could detach himself from his great royalty. They were all thinking about "kingdoms," but the kingdom of the one was a little vanishing splendour, the kingdom of the other was the whole universe and purpose of God. So we often find ourselves talking Christian language without the full Christian meaning. Sometimes, indeed, the terms we use are identical with the terms Jesus Christ used, and yet, though the terms are identical, the meanings are separated by the diameter of infinity. Jesus Christ said "bread"—we also said "bread," but we did not mean what he meant by that suggestive word. Jesus Christ said "kingdom," and we said "kingdom"—in the letter we were identical, but our kingdom, like ourselves, was a little thing, marked by extreme frailty, liable at any moment to be blown out like a light in a strong wind. When he said "kingdom" he laid the foundations of it in eternity and lifted up its towers and pinnacles into all the breadth and security of Heaven.
Do let us understand that the same words have not always the same meanings, and further, do let us know that the larger meaning is always the right one. A narrow meaning has always been attempted to be forced upon Christ's words, but the meaning has burst the vessel and would not be contained in such unworthy, because such inadequate, limits. Herein is the function of the religious imagination, always to be seeing the broader spaces, the farther lights, the grander possibilities—always to be scourging language, because it is not equal to the expression of the sublimest thought and feeling.
Yet Jesus Christ chided the apostles very gently. He told them in his very promise that they were as yet incomplete men. He said, "Ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you." They were unbaptised in soul: the symbolic water had done its initial work, but they stood there without the sacred fire, the inspiring afflatus, the presence of Heaven in the heart. May it not be so with some of us? We have been the subjects of but one baptism: we are within the Christian circle nominally, and it may be intellectually, but have we received power from on high because we have received the Holy Ghost? What is the Holy Ghost? To that inquiry there is no answer but in the deepest feeling and the sublimest consciousness of the heart. Know that you have the Holy Ghost, not by your narrowness or dogmatism or pertinacity or selfishness, but by your glowing love, your redeeming hopefulness, your continual charity, your indestructible patience. Into what baptism have we been baptised? We have not received the Holy Ghost if we are conducting a narrow ministry. Jesus Christ said so much when he added, "Ye shall be witnesses both in Jerusalem and in all Judea and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost parts of the earth." No power but the Holy Ghost could take a man through those regions. The man who has been baptized with water only will choose his own parish and sphere of labour and circle of operation, but the man in whom is the burning of the Holy Ghost will say with Wesley, "My parish is the world," and will be constrained by the love of Christ to go out everywhere. The ministry that is called by the name of Christ will be a dwindling quantity in the world's education, except in proportion as it is inspired by God the Holy Ghost.
Have we not grieved the Spirit, have we not in some instances even quenched the Spirit, is there not now ruling in our hearts the dark spirit of fear instead of the bright and joyous spirit of adoption and of hope? You will know whether you are inspired or not by the vastness of your labours. If we are waiting until we be properly equipped and duly sent out, then know that we have been baptized with ice. If we go out with the haste of men who say, "The world is on fire, and the conflagration must be extinguished," perhaps that grand notion of the soul may have been divinely started.
We now pass from the visible ministry of Christ to the invisible ministry of the Holy Ghost. Jesus Christ spake his last words to the apostles, and a cloud received him out of their sight. Nothing more—only out of sight. Not out of hearing, not out of sympathy, not out of the region of direct and ever helpful ministry—only out of sight. We are not out of his sight. We want sometimes to see him, but he says to us, "Because ye have seen me, ye have believed: blessed are they which have not seen and yet have believed." "Whom having not seen, we love." We shall one day see him as he is. He is out of our sight: we are not out of his memory!
Chapter 2 Prayer
Almighty God, as men run into a fortress for safety, so would we run;'nto thine house, that we may find rest and peace and full security. We have said, Surely the sanctuary will cover us, and the pavilion of God will afford us safety upon the earth. Thou wilt not disappoint us, in thine house shall we find fulness of bread, and great gladness shall be the portion of the hearts that put their trust in thee. Thou wilt do more and more for us, according to the sharpness of our pain and the keenness and urgency of our want. Thou dost call upon us for larger prayers, because our supplications have not yet touched the infinite possibilities of thy replies. Thou givest more grace, thou dost astonish by larger revelations of shining light. We cannot measure the height of thy heaven, it rises as we approach it: the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain thee, and yet in answer to our prayer thou wilt open the windows of heaven and pour out a blessing upon us, until we have not room enough to receive it. Encourage us by all that is tenderest in thine oath, and in thy promise, to come to thee in the name of Jesus Christ our Saviour, that we may ask large blessings at thine hand. We have not because we ask not: we are not straitened in God, we are straitened in ourselves. We come therefore to pray for such self-enlargement as shall enable us to pray more boldly and importunately, so that through Jesus Christ the Sacrifice and the Priest, we may receive all that our heart needs for its comfort and sanctification.
We have come to praise thee, we have brought with us the trumpet of thankfulness, and the soul of gratitude glows within us, and words are too few and too feeble to express all the emotion of our love. Who but thyself has kept our reasoning power in all its fulness and power of working—what hand but thine own has spread our table in the wilderness and filled our cup to overflow, and into what heart but thine could have entered such thoughts of daily redemption, continual pardon and incessant hopefulness? This is the Lord's doing: we will magnify thy name, we will lift up our heart and voice in loud psalm, and praise thee because of thy tender love.
We do not live in ourselves, we live in God, and in God we move and have our being. Hence our prayer to thee, our daily cry, our perpetual hope, and the assurance which makes our hearts glad, that we shall one day be free from all bondage and enter into the joy of spiritual liberty. We have great hopes in our heart; we are not without large store of promise, and sometimes the promise takes fire and burns upward toward thyself in glowing and daring aspiration, so that our prayer becomes a violence, thundering upon the gates of thy kingdom as if we would take the kingdom of heaven by storm. Is not this Christ's encouragement to our heart—has he not asked us to seek and knock and pursue our prayer to its utmost bound and desire? We take our stand upon his word, his oath is the secret of our inspiration and of the gravity and vastness of our prayer.
We would have thy Spirit daily in us, a light that is never a burden, an atmosphere that never wearies the heart. We would have his light, his warmth, his comfort and his love, we would be led by him into all truth as into great landscapes rich with harvests, as into infinite palaces stored with all treasure, as into the night when all its stars are ablaze, and the whole sky is alive with planetary fire.
Lead us into all truth. To this end, destroy all prejudice, all misconception, all false ideas, all sectarian notions; emancipate the soul and lead it into all the width and glory of thy liberty. We meet at the Cross—where there is hope for the sinning soul. The cross was set up for sinners: but for sin, the cross has no meaning: it is thy great answer to our great shame. Pardon us every one. Let the joy of forgiveness enter into every heart like a singing angel newly sent from the glad heavens. May we all feel that thy forgiving word has been spoken and has taken effect in our guilty hearts.
Help us to do our day's work with both hands, willingly and earnestly, and with all the joyful hopefulness of those who work for a good Master. May we be covetous of the light, may we fear lest one moment should fail us—so when the whole day is gone, may every moment bear witness to our fidelity. Help us to be gentle to one another, noble-minded, charitable, all-hopeful, all-forgiving. Show us that we are not judges but sinners, that we have fellowship one with another in the common infirmities of the race, and should bear, in Christ's name and for Christ's sake, one another's burdens.
We pray for one another, and whilst we pray do thou answer, and by a strange burning in the heart may we know that thy reply has found its way to our spirits. Comfort us wherein we need cheer, send unexpected light through gloom that is a trouble, come to us in the night season and speak hopefully of the coming day. In the seed time, tell us that that which we sow, cannot quicken except it die, interpret all mysteries to us lest they turn into temptations and sorrows, give us thy truth so far as we may be able to bear it, and spare us from all weight that would distress and exhaust our little strength. Love us all the day, gather us to thyself all the night, make our houses homes, our dwelling-places the chief attraction of our heart.
We bless thee for the house, for all its sanctities and memories and holy uses: help us so to live at home that men shall expect us there and miss us when our place is vacant. If any have singular sorrow for which there is no speech that may be uttered in public, the Lord send comfort, tender messages to those who bear the smart, they that too may be healed in secret. Upon whom great shocks of surprise have fallen because of sorrow uncalculated, and pains that have been unimagined, let thy blessing come, a healing solace, a new, tender, and complete comfort. The Lord hear us, for Christ's sake. Amen.
The Beginning of Apostolicity
WHO could have told beforehand that Jesus Christ would be the first to go? It did not enter our imagination that he would leave us behind, and that he himself would pass away from all the anxiety and distress of Christian service. Our conception would rather have been that he would be the very last to go: he would remain until the last little lamb had been safely enfolded: he would keep down within the sphere of earth and time until the very last weary pilgrim entered into heavenly rest. Instead of this, he himself was the first to leave! Not only so, he told his disciples that by leaving first, he was actually considering their advantage and promoting their usefulness! "It is expedient for you that I go away. I do not go away for mere personal convenience; in going away I am not consulting my own ease or comfort: now, as heretofore, and always, I am considering what is best for you. To remain with you would appear to be the loving course, but it would be in appearance only and not in reality. One day you will see clearly as I see now, that it is expedient for you that I go away.
Being about to go, the last interview between himself and the apostles took place. Last interviews are notably pathetic. The words that would be common on any other occasion acquire a new and significant accent amid the darkening shadows of a farewell interview. Little things that would not be noticed under ordinary circumstances, start up into unusual prominence and effect when we know that the interview will speedily close, and that all earthly and temporal fellowship will be at an end. We should always listen as if in a last interview. "What I say unto one, I say unto all—watch." We should never allow our mind to drop into inattentiveness, as if we should have plenty of opportunities for the purpose of hearing what now slips our ear. Every day should be the world's last day to us in this matter of spiritual attention. Every interview should be the final one with regard to the. operation of the spirit of charity in hearing what each other has to say. We lose so much through inattentiveness; we do not listen in the open common road as we listen in the death-chamber, when every whisper is as a revelation and every sign as an indication carrying with it special claims upon the attention of our love. We lose by unwatchfulness.
Jesus Christ is about to go—how will he go? I delight to pause after asking this question, that I may think out for myself all possible replies to it. How will he go? He cannot be allowed to die: that would be a fatal disappointment to the attention which he has strained by every miracle and to the expectation he has excited by every accent of his eloquence. Dogs die: this Man must not die, or if he die he will contradict by one pitiful commonplace, all that was phenomenal and impressive in his life. How will he go? Luke tells us that he was "taken up." In other places we learn that he "ascended." He entered within the action of another gravitation, and instead of being bound to the earth by some centripetal force, he was lifted up as by a mightier law into his own place, and throned in the heavens as the Priest of creation. It is enough: the mind is satisfied by the grand action; nothing of discontent is left to trouble the imagination. Were I reading this upon a poet's page, I would applaud the poet for one of the finest conceptions that ever ennobled and glorified human fancy. He would have treated his hero well. With an infinite subtlety of power he would have answered all the demands of imagination in its most exacting mood.
Jesus Christ then "ascended," and in doing so, he but repeated in one final act all the miracles which had made his previous ministry illustrious. The act of ascension does not separate itself from any point on the long line of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. The ascension became so natural that we paid but little heed to it in its merely phenomenal aspect. We were not startled when we saw him begin to move upward: our education had all been tending in that direction; from the very beginning he had been ascending, so that when he took the final movement, it was but completing that which he had been continuing for years.
Our life should be an ascent! We should not be today where we were ten years ago. Not that we are to ascend by sharp steeps that attract the attention of mankind with somewhat of abruptness: there are ascents so gradual that they do not seem to be ascents at all, measured within any small compass of space or time. Yet looked at as from the beginning to the end, we see that the gradient has evermore lifted itself up by imperceptibleness of degree until the very next thing to do is to step into heaven! It is possible so to live that dying shall be but going home: thank God it is possible so to pray and live and serve as that dying shall be languishing into life. There shall be no. violent contrast between the life and the death, between now and hereafter, between spiritual experience upon earth, and spiritual experience in heaven. It shall be one and the same, and in its realization we shall enter into the mystery of divine fellowship. We are in our life preparing the manner of our death. Your death-day need not come upon you as a surprise such as shocks faith and distresses imagination or falsifies by heavy contradictions all that was most sacred and pathetic in hope. The judgment day, too, can be so anticipated as to become as one of the natural days of the common week! If we close our eyes and shut out wisdom at every entrance and betake ourselves to earthly occupations only, then all the comings of God—for he comes in thousands of ways—will be surprises that will shock and distress us.
You may know how you will die by knowing how you really live. If your life is a life of faith in the Son of God, a heroic, patient, gentle, pure, noble life, marked by, at all events, the desire to be Christ-like, then you shall "ascend." All that drops away from you will be the flesh and the bones, that have been a distress to you for many a day. Your Self your liberated spirit, shall "ascend." Whoever saw fire going downward? It is in fire to go up, to seek the parent sun out of which it came! We too, living, moving, and ever having our being in God shall not die as the dogs die, but rise to our fount and origin. We shall in very deed "rise with Christ."
If the final interview was pathetic to Christ, it was also pathetic to the disciples. They had their question to ask as certainly as he had his commandments to give. So they came to him with this old question, "Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?" Mark how after his resurrection, he had become "Lord," and the restorer of kingdoms. Everything rests upon the resurrection of Christ: "if Christ be not risen from the dead, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain." The great fabric of Christian faith stands upon one rock, the resurrection of Christ. No matter what he did, or what he taught, or what he appeared to be: if it was in the power of men to kill him in the flesh, and to bury him and keep him in the grave, all his protestations were lies, and all his promises were vanity. Hence, Luke insists that Jesus Christ "showed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs: "hence, all the succeeding apostolic writers insist that Jesus Christ "rose again from the dead," and hence all the great appeals which are made to our faith and our hope rest themselves upon the one rock of the resurrection. But the inquiry that was put to Christ in this instance was put to a man who had risen again, and the inquiry was this—"Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?" There are times in history when everything seems to depend upon one man; there are crises which sum themselves up in the judgment of one thinker: we look to him, he carries the keys, he speaks the final word, and from him we expect the policy which alone can ennoble and save the life.
We learn from this inquiry how long-lingering, how all but ineradicable, is the influence of first impressions. The disciples had got it into their minds very early in their Christian thinking that this Man Christ Jesus had come to liberate the Jews from their servitude and oppression, and to give them back their lost kingdom. That was probably the very first idea they had about Jesus Christ and his purpose, and they never could get rid of it. What is so long-lived as prejudice? What is so difficult to get away from as the first impression we form of one another, of any policy, purpose, thought, or action? How difficult for the mind to forget a first name, how all but impossible to substitute the new address for the old, how difficult for the hand in January to write the new year—the fingers seem to conspire to write again the familiar date. What we know by this common illustration, we may also know to be true of all higher intellectual and spiritual meditations and engagements. Therefore take care what impression you make upon the young mind about the Christian Sabbath, the Christian Book, the Christian Church, and the Christian idea in all its bearings. Who can wonder that some men hardly can open the Bible with sympathy or hopefulness, because they remember that in early days it was the task-book. Are there not those who quite dread the idea of going to church, because that action is associated in their mind with early impressions of gloom and dreariness and heaviness not to be borne? Was not the church in early days a dark place, and was not the minister a man gifted only with the one faculty of wearying those who paid attention to him; and was not the whole Sabbath a trouble and a burden? Had it been associated with light, music, gladness, joy, the memory of those early engagements would have gone right through all the whole compass of the life, and at the last the pilgrim would have said, "Open unto me the gates of righteousness: I will enter into them and will be glad."
The answer of Jesus Christ seems to be very keen and discouraging in its tone of chiding. Said he, "It is not for you to know the time or the seasons which the Father hath put in his own power." The words may be read in a tone of rebuke, but they were not spoken in that tone. You cannot report a tone—hence it is possible to express the very words the speaker said and yet entirely to misrepresent him! Features can be photographed, but life will not submit to have itself taken by any artist, animate or inanimate. Jesus Christ spoke those words in a tone that was instructive, and he immediately followed those words of apparent rebuke with utterances of the largest and tenderest encouragement. The poet speaks of "soft rebukes in blessings ending"—if there was any rebuke at all in those words, it was indeed a soft chiding, but there was no mistake about the compass and the emphasis of the blessing. The eighth verse says: "But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you." There is no gift equal to the gift of power. You may answer a man's question immediately, but unless you give him power you do but give him a meal for the passing hunger which will certainly return. When a man in distress comes to you, if instead of answering his immediate necessity, you could give him power to answer his own, you would bestow upon him the most precious of all treasures.
The gift of Christ to the church is a gift of POWER—not intellectual power only, though that is not withheld: Jesus Christ has illumined our reason and sharpened every faculty of the mind, and blessed the church with penetrating insight—but that is not the power referred to in this instance. Nor did he give merely social power to his church—the power that is usually associated with the idea of kingdom, rule, and empire, and authority. What power then did he give? The power of holiness—"after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you." Know yourselves to be powerful by the measure of your holiness, and contrariwise know yourselves to be weak, though your mind covers the whole register of intellectual possibility, if the supreme desire of the soul burn not with the ardour of God's own purity.
We have lost the Holy Ghost. We betake ourselves now to church questions and not to soul inquiries. The problem of today is a problem of ecclesiasticism, it is not a problem of redeeming and evangelizing the world. We are building structures, arranging mechanics, adapting means to ends, comparing ourselves with ourselves, instead of being carried away with the whirlwind of divine inspiration, and displaying what the world would call supreme madness in consecration and devotion of heart. Into what baptism have we been baptized? Where is the Holy Ghost? Where is the Ghost at all—the Spirit, the Invisible, the Impalpable truth, the infinite Energy, the Force that has no shaping, because of its vastness, and no name because of its multitudinousness? A grand church, a learned church, a rich church—these may be but contradictions in terms, but a holy church, an inspired church, a devoted church, a church with one heart, one aim, one speech of love—why, she would go forth "fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners." The world can answer our argument, so at least as to confuse the listener, but it can have no reply to an unimpeachable purity.
The power which Jesus Christ gave to his disciples was a power that was to be used. When he puts the staff into my hand, he means me to walk with it; when he gives me opportunities, he means me to use them; when he entrusts me with the custody of time, it is that I may so use it as at last to secure his approval. So this power was to be used gradually—"Ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria and unto the uttermost parts of the earth." Do not begin at the end: grow, little by little, often mayhap by imperceptible degrees, but see to it that your motion is constant It is constancy that surprises the world by its conquests. It is not some great brilliant dashing triumph that strikes consternation into the breasts of beholders, it is that subtle, quiet, imperceptible growth, that proceeds night and day, until a culmination is reached that surprises not by its violence but by its completeness and by the tenderness of its working.
The power was to be used enlargingly, from Jerusalem to Judea, to Samaria, to the uttermost parts of the earth, until there was no more ground to be covered,—until, the men came back again to their own footprints! You go to the west: go on, farther and farther still, and presently you will find yourselves in the east again! God's universe is a gathering of circles: the stars are not in straight lines, there are no straight lines in God's universe! He moves himself in circles, time is a great cycle; the arch of the sky is the type and symbol of all things unseen.
This is our Christian mission, and nothing so enlarges and emboldens the mind as sympathy with Christ. There can be no little-minded Christians, or if there are, they are Christians in the very earliest stage of their learning, and therefore hardly to be distinguished as such. The Christian man cannot be a small-minded man: he brings within his view the whole horizon of space, and every throbbing pulse of time. Find a sectarian and you find no Christian; pick out a man who says the kingdom of heaven ends here and does not go over there, and he is a man who has stolen his position in the sanctuary; he does not hold it by right of divine gift or election.
All Christians are great men, great souls, great minds; all who are crucified with Christ see all men drawn to the cross. Christianity never bends the head downward towards little and dwindling spaces: it always says, "The world, the whole world, for Christ. Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature." If men would have their minds enlarged, ennobled, emboldened, inspired, they can only enjoy such mental enlargements and quickening by direct sympathy and fellowship with him who is the head of all things, who fills all things, who ascended that he might rule by a longer line and by a more comprehensive mastery.
Have we so learned Christ? Are we little, crippled, sect-loving—are we bigoted, narrow in soul, lame in sympathy, prejudiced against other people? "If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing." Know that you are growing in grace when you are growing in charity. Know that you are right, when you are right in heart. A right head coupled with a wrong heart is capable of doing infinite mischief. When the heart is right, when the purpose is pure, when the love is simple and clear, it will keep the rest of the man in proper mood and gesture, and will direct him, not always with mechanical exactness, yet evermore with the most beneficent impulse, to a most beneficent end.
Jesus Christ's last word was about himself. "Ye shall be witnesses unto ME." What sublime audacity! What magnificent confidence! "Ye shall be witnesses unto me, —not to one another—ye shall be witnesses unto me, and I will sustain you in bearing testimony, I will send the Comforter, I will give you power, I will not leave you comfortless." The church has one subject, one King, one Lord, one thing to say—that one thing is—Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, and went out of the world to pray for his church and sustain his servants in all the stress of life and in all the anxiety of service.
And while they looked stedfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel;Chapter 3
Almighty God, thou dost call us together that thou mayest bless us, and not that thou mayest pour upon us the wrath of thy judgment. When thou dost call men it is to a great wedding feast, yea, to gladness and ecstasy. When we obey thy call and come together to thine house, we find that thy banner over us is love, and that thy welcome is broader than our necessity. Thou art always working for those who have sinned against thee: thy mercy endureth for ever, thy love is a great sea that cannot be dried up: thy mercy and thy power combine to make one great sky, overarching the earth that has left thee in rude rebellion.
We have come to sing of thy mercy rather than of thy judgment: thy mercy is the angel of our life, it is the light of our eyes, it is our one continual comfort. We turn away from our sin and see thy mercy more brightly because of our guilt. What have we not seen of the Lord's compassion, how tender his heart, how continuous his love. We say with the house of Aaron and with all the houses of ancient time and of modern days, his mercy endureth for ever. Because thy compassions fail not, we are here this day, standing in the Sabbatic light and looking up with expectancy that shall not be disappointed, into the shining heavens. Do not all things come from above, are not all the gifts of God poured down upon us as from a summer sky? Continue thy goodness to us, Lord of the heavens, God of the earth and Father of all souls.
We bless thee that we can thus speak to thee in our mother tongue, with all the fulness and plainness of love, because of the revelation made concerning thee by Jesus Christ thy Son. We know thee because we know him, we love him because he first loved us, and to love him is to love God. For all his wondrous life we bless thee: without it our life would be a life in the night-time, all darkness and mystery. For his atoning death we adore thee, magnifying thy wisdom and thy grace because of this infinite answer to our transgression. We need the cross every day: some days we need the cross to save us from the pit that opens at our very feet: may we run to the cross, hide ourselves in the sanctuary of its sacrifice, abide within the circle of its glowing mystery, and there await the communications of heaven addressed to the soul by the Holy Ghost.
Thou hast given us a handful of days which we call our life, our breath is in our nostrils, and we live to die—but in Christ we die to live, he is our live and our immortality, and because we are in him, rooted and grounded in his purpose of grace and mercy, we shall not be cast away.
Thou wilt continue to redeem us daily, until the whole work of Christ is completed in our life and we are beautiful with his beauty. Herein is our confidence, without this we have no rock to stand upon, but with this we are lifted up above all condemnation, and are set in the sanctuary that cannot be violated. Daily come to us with all thy needed love, continually stand by us, that our weakness may become our strength: and that out of the night of our sin we may see the stars of thy love and promise.
Every heart has its own tale to tell thee, of wonder, distress, loss, gain, joy and gladness. Hear thou the voices of individuals as well as the cry of our common delight, and our multitudinous supplication. Come to us according to our individual requirement; where there is great gloom bring thou back the light that has long fled. Where there is the shining of a great light all round about the life, speak thou the word that shall stay the soul against the time of darkness and storm. Where there is a burning desire to serve thee with both hands, with an entire heart and an unbroken will, this is the work of God the Holy Ghost, and thou wilt surely continue it unto the end: if thou wilt not quench the smoking flax, thou wilt not put out the burning light. Where there is indifference or hesitation, an unloving reluctance, a painful and godless wonder, the Lord come with the olden baptism, the one baptism of fire, the gift of the Holy Ghost, burn up wood and hay and stubble, and all refuse and alloys, and call the soul to the youthfulness of immortal love, and to the consecration of a homage unimpaired.
We commend unto thee the poor, the sad, the lonely, the stranger, the wanderer, the prodigal, our friends upon the sea, our loved ones in other lands, those who are appointed to die, the new born, the bride and the bridegroom, the man in business, in anxiety, in success. We commend unto thee all patient sufferers, all who are undergoing silent distresses, the penitent, the contrite, and the broken-hearted—oh, thou whose great blue heaven surrounds us all, come nearer to us still with the circle of thy love as it is revealed and glorified in God the Son. Amen.
10. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood [were standing] by them in white apparel;
11. Which also said, Ye men of Galilee [all the Apostles had come out of Galilee] why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner [Zechariah 14:4] as ye have seen him go into heaven [Daniel 7:13].
12. Then returned they unto Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet [where his agony took place], which is from Jerusalem a Sabbath day's journey [six furlongs].
13. And when they were come in [from the open country], they went up into an upper room, where abode [where there were abiding] both Peter, and James, and John, and Andrew, Philip, and Thomas, Bartholomew, and Matthew, James the son of Alphæus, and Simon Zelotes [called also Simon the Canaanite], and Judas the brother of James.
14. These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women [Luke is the only Evangelist who names them], and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren [the last known fact in her life, and the last mention of the brethren].
The Upward Look
The action of the disciples was undoubtedly natural. There are some attitudes for which we cannot account and for which we think we need not account, because they express the uppermost emotion of the soul. Who knows how long the disciples would have looked upward steadfastly into heaven? Many of us now look up in that direction simply because we have seen our loved one ascend towards the fount of day. We think we are the better for looking, and so we are. No man surely can be worse for looking upward. This is God's old medicament for wounded hearts and bruised lives. Said he to ancient Israel, "Lift up thine eyes, and behold," and then he called attention to all the hosts of Heaven, and asked in effect, if that shining host had no meaning in it—whether it did not symbolise and attest, in the most emphatic and gracious way, the power and wisdom of One unseen.
We cannot allow the best part of our life to be taken up without looking in the direction which it took in its flight. No man, clothed in what apparel he may be, can chidingly refer to our attitude. The heart will tell its own tale: under some circumstances the heart will have its own way; it is useless to tell the heart that no good can come of this or of that—the heart finds good in unexpected places, and draws honey from flowers that have not been suspected as bearing honey, by any naturalist or herbalist. There are times when the heart must be left to itself, to find comfort where it can, to throw itself into such attitudes and postures as are inspired and dictated by supreme and uncontrollable feelings. Why should we hasten from the grave, why should we turn away from it as if we longed to see it no more? There is a time when sorrow becomes sweetness—such is the mystery and such the graciousness of life, that loss turns itself into a source of gain, and men can say, without contradiction in reality, though not without contradiction in mere terms—"When I am weak, then am I strong."
We think, when we look after the captive that perhaps we may see the Captor. Surely that explains all; by what threadlets is he lifted up? by what secret mechanism, by what subtle attraction, by what spiritual affinity—what is this magnetism that draws him upward to a larger place? So we are kept on the alert, expecting that one day we will see the hand that steals the objects of our love and homage. How wonderfully that hand conceals itself! it is beside us and we see it not, it spreads our table and leaves no finger marks that the rude eyes of the flesh can see, it makes our bed in our affliction and yet there is no sign of anything superhuman. Yet what a wondrous feeling of the supernatural there is, and feeling is beyond language, taking up all words and using them so far as they can go, and then ascending above them, and leaving them behind like the dust of the feet.
While the disciples looked steadfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold two men stood by them in white apparel. Who were those men? There are so many anonymous influences in life—there has always been a Man in this Holy Book, that would not give up his name—he would be called Prophet, Angel, Messenger, even Voice, but the secret of his name he would not disclose. Now he gleamed like lightning, now he moved like a figure through the darkening air, a figure, yet without definite shape, a figure that was going to be a shape, and suddenly fell back from the form and troubled us with an outline for which we had no measure.
The Man is still in our life, he is the great Presence in our life, did we but know it well. We try so to vulgarise ourselves as to shut out the supernatural, yet ever and anon it breaks through all our arrangements, and troubles us like a sharp pain. But if willingly received, received with welcomes and expectations, he troubles us indeed, but with a great gladness. Sometimes there is pain even in joy, sometimes there is agony in love, sometimes our delight rises into speechless rapture. Do not give yourselves up to atheistic loneliness; expect this Presence, always clothed in white apparel. Why this whiteness? Why this scorn of colour? Why this infinite and ineffable simplicity? What are these arrayed in white robes, and whence came they? The young angel in the tomb was clothed in white; the men that spake to Jesus on the mountain were clothed with white, with raiment so white that no fuller on earth could touch by imitation the dazzling snow. It is not scorn of colour, for white is all colours in one; white is the emblem of light; the emblem of purity, the symbol of Divinity. Who were they—were they Moses and Elias? Had they been hovering about ever since they had been on the mountain, when they spoke of the decessus he should accomplish at Jerusalem? Such questions may have no answers which we can supply, yet the very putting of a great question may itself be a religious exercise. Let us understand this matter of interrogation; it is not needful to have an answer always; a question may be so put as to be its own best reply. When we are therefore charged not to be wise above what is written, and not to ask questions, we must accept the exhortation within given limits. If we insist upon answers in words, then is our question asking a temptation and a snare; but if we ask great speculative questions so as to stir the soul's wonder and evoke the soul's prayer, to heighten the sky, and widen the horizon, and then say, "What we know not now we shall know hereafter," speculation becomes one of the highest exercises of the religious life. Encourage that kind of speculation, only see that it does not hurry you into impatience, and into that aggravated state of soul which expects replies in words. Always would I have some great question standing in front of me, luring me onward and so continuing my education. At the same time, in proportion as the question is great, poignant and urgent, would I pray to be enabled to ask it in the spirit that expects no verbal reply.
What said the two men clothed in white apparel? "Ye men of Galilee"—that term, once a term of reproach, now becomes, through their utterance of it, the beginning of one of the highest social honours. Names that have been spat upon by the world's contempt and scorn shall be lifted up into symbols of glory and honour. The speaker glorifies the words he uses: in one man's mouth the word that would be the sign of vulgarity becomes in another man's mouth an instrument of refinement and education. The speaker should be above his language, and the speaker's sincerity should be as a furnace that purifies all that is cast into it and preserves the Hidden gold.
Thus addressed, the speech continued—"Why stand ye gazing up into heaven?" It was not a rebuke; it was a call from enfeebling reverie, but it was not a rebuke of the attitude which was then most rationally and naturally assumed. But our attitudes do puzzle the angels and the white-clad ones that come from heaven to look into our ways of doing things. We are continual perplexities to our celestial and other-world visitants. When the poor sorrow-laden women went to the grave, the young man clothed in white raiment said, "Why seek ye the living among the dead?" So, when the disciples are looking up steadfastly towards heaven, the voices combine to say, "Why stand ye gazing up into heaven?"
This why has stirred us from the very beginning of human history. Collect from the Bible all the questions that begin with the word Why, and you will be surprised at their number and their variety. Sometimes God says, "Why will you be stricken any more?" Often and often he says, "Why will ye die?" Again and again, with remonstrance of wisdom, he says, "Why spend money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which satisfieth not?" How we do perplex the better world! the angels will not allow us to look downward, nor will they allow us to look upward too long in either case. The angel at the tomb did not drive away the women: having asked them why they sought the living among the dead, and having told them that Christ was not there, the angel said, "Come, see the place where the Lord lay." Gentle word! sympathetic speech for angels to make to brokenhearted ones;—they catch us in the right mood, they know exactly what to say. He was an angel, or how could he have said, "Come see the place where the Lord lay?" He was a man-angel, a human-heart angel, who knew that looking at an empty place might sometimes be equal to going to God's church.
Why look at the empty chair? Why look at the little dresses that never more can be worn by the one for whom they were made? Why visit the scenes that have been made heroic by noble valour and sacred endurance? Why climb the pulpit of the famous preacher? Why look into the rooms once inhabited by great historical personages? What is the meaning of all this? The angel says to us, "Why do you spend your time so? Bethink ye. Yet, now that you are here, come, see the place, and out of emptiness get fulness. Because the grave is empty let your heart be filled with sacred delight."
The women were thus taught not to look too long into the empty grave, and the men were taught not to look too long into the vacant space that was between them and the heavens. What were they then to do? In both cases to take the middle line. Men must live on averages. You cannot be living at the extreme point of melancholy, or the extreme point of ecstasy: you must come to the middle line and work along the so-called commonplaces of history. Life is not a dazzling romance; life is not one continual funeral; nor is it one continual wedding-feast; life is made up of ordinary duties, average occupation, faithful, diligent continuance in the vocation wherewith we are called, and we have to establish our life in patience and in well-doing, rather than to glorify it by ecstasies which perish because of their very violence.
Is contemplation then forbidden in the church? No. Reverie is; monastic seclusion is; idolatry of place is forbidden, and irrational expectation is interdicted, but the soul must have its times of looking into graves and looking into skies and looking very widely about itself, for in such looking is the beginning of strength. If you go to the grave to aggravate your atheism you will find no angel there. If you look up into the heavens and think that life is to be a daily evaporation and sighing, then are you misspending your opportunities, and letting the whole sphere of service fall into decay and ruin.
But to be turned away from the grave!—yes, but the women were not turned away from the tomb, they were invited to look into it. And the men were not turned away from the heavens, they were enriched with a great promise—"this same Jesus which is taken up from you into heaven shall come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven." Pause long at the words "This same Jesus." Our fear has been that we should one day see some other Christ. I with you, want to see the Christ of Bethlehem and Nazareth, and Galilee, and Jerusalem, and Gethsemane, and the Cross, and Olivet. We have read of him as being "the same yesterday, today and for ever." We often wish that we could have seen him in his humiliation. In some way God will preserve the identity of Christ, and we shall see that same Jesus that came to save the world. Who wants to see the glorified Christ alone? so transfigured and so to say so deified that his own original disciples would not know him? There must be the reality of identity; we must so see him as to be able to say at once, without indication from any other quarter, "That is Christ and none other—
How obedient the men were to the heavenly vision. There are times when we are just little children in the hands of God, without question-asking or murmuring or complaining. The men returned to Jerusalem, they were wrought up into a mood of docility, self-renunciation, and utter, simple waiting upon God. We know that we are growing in grace, when we know that we are growing in the spirit of obedience. They would go or stand, or look or return as they were bidden. We have lost that sweet simplicity; we have now become cunning in argument, learned in controversy, skilful in the suggestion of difficulties, and the simplicity of childlike obedience has been lost from our heart. Would that we could open God's book and read it straight off without any questioning or unbelief! Would that we could take the psalms and read them as if they belonged to us. How much richer we would be, and quieter, and stronger.
To what did the men return? When they were come in they went up into an upper room. In ancient Madrid the rule was that, except there was a special stipulation to the contrary, the upper rooms of all houses belonged to the king. Ideally the notion is full of beauty. However humble your house, if it had been built under the common law of Spain, the upper chambers were royal possessions. Is there any chamber in our house that belongs to the King? Do we keep a chair which He will turn into a Throne by sitting in it? Do we keep one crust which he may turn into a feast by breaking it? Have we one vessel filled with water which he will fill with wine by smiling upon it? Is there anything in all the house that is peculiarly and inalienably the King's? We might make the whole house his: so all-claiming is his love that he would take it, and what he takes he returns—as his kind earth does; the kind, yet voracious earth takes our handful of seed, but returns it in golden harvest.
So the men gathered in that upper room—and their names are given, not in the old order, but with some confusion of consecutiveness. What of that? It was a grand thing to break up mechanism at the very first; to read the list either backward or forward, or beginning at the middle and going either way—for are we not all called to a common brotherhood in Christ, and are not the last first and the first last, and is not the middle name the most glorious of all? And what is the difference between us when we are judged and valued by the redeeming grace of God? Presently the disciples will try to make a little order in the Church, and they will be punished for it. We have but to turn over the page, and the disciples before the Pentecost will make wise fools of themselves. We love to mechanise, to build little sand houses, which the first wave will swash down and mingle with the common shore. It is better that we should have the order of spontaneity, and that any man should be able to write the list blindfold, and to put the names down as they occur to him. Who cares where his name is, provided it be in the list? Is my name here? I ask not where, but here, on the record, in the Lamb's Book of Life? I ask not whether on the first page or the last—is it in the book? If so, it is enough.
These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication—all life running up into one grand cry unto God. You cannot pray to order: you may appoint your times for prayer and endeavour to keep those times, but sometimes we in breaking our appointment with God best keep it. We cannot always pray as we can pray sometimes. There are days of prayer; harvests of prayer; hours that we could spend, and count them all too short, in the eloquence of loving communion with God. At other times we are speechless in his presence, the heart is dumb, there is no cry in the spirit, and what we have to learn is this, that our speechlessness is oftentimes more eloquent than our speech.
And the women were there, all named together—not only the women, but the Woman—and Mary, the mother of Jesus—one last little line to herself. We hear nothing more about her that is authentic: legend and tradition have their foolish tales to tell about her, but this is the end, so far as the Scriptures are concerned—"And Mary, the mother of Jesus." Do not complicate that simplicity, add nothing to that completeness. She was there, not officially, not presidentially—she was there as one of the women whose eyes were as the pools of Heshbon.
There was the little society, doing nothing but praying—and when a church does nothing but pray it begins to do the mightiest of all works. I do not say uttering prayerful words and sentences, but PRAYING—when it prays with the heart, with the violence of love, yet with the patience of confidence, when it gives itself in unbroken stress towards the heavens, then no angel ever says, "Why speak ye thus steadfastly up to heaven?" The looking was turned aside, but not the praying, the looking after the vanished figure, but not the praying to the presiding Intercessor. We may look too long after that which we think our eyes can descry, but when it comes to speaking heavenward, sending the soul skyward, bidding the heart go on its own messages and knock at heaven's door, then no men clothed in white apparel say, "Why speak ye so long?" but all heaven says, every angel says, the church of the first-born in heaven says,—"PRAY without ceasing."
And in those days Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples, and said, (the number of names together were about an hundred and twenty,)Chapter 4
Almighty God, we know thee as the Searcher of hearts, and we tremble before thee. Thou dost search Jerusalem as with a candle; the light of thine eyes falls upon the inmost parts of the heart, and there is nothing hidden from thy vision. The darkness and the light are both alike unto thee, the wings of the morning cannot carry us away beyond thy looking, there is no height in heaven, there is no depth in hell wherein is concealment from the eyes that fill the universe. Wherewithal then can we come before thee, wherein is our standing, and on what ground do we now appear? Thou hast nourished and brought up children, but they have rebelled against thee; no child of thine on all this earth but has lifted up an arm of rebellion against the heavens: there is none righteous, no, not one. All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way,—wherein then do we appear before thee but in him who is our brother and Priest and Saviour, Jesus Christ the Son of God? Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, to receive the homage of all creation, loudest and sweetest of all, the hymn of redeemed men, who, having known the darkness and the torment of sin, have been brought into a marvellous light and into an unspeakable joy. We come before thee to speak of Christ, to bless thee for the Son of Man, to worship him as thy Son, our Priest and our one Sacrifice, who answers every question, soothes us by his grace, gives us infinite comfort by his promises, and who has pledged himself, as with the oath of his blood, to complete what he has begun, and to present us faultless before thee.
How long, O Lord, how long before we are brought into a state of obedience unto thee? We are proud and self-willed, we are ignorant of all that is deep and lasting, we seize things that flit by us, and imagine that they express eternity. We come before thee as those who are foolish of heart and void of understanding, and we ask thee to pity us and forgive us with all the infinite tenderness of thy love. Thou dost show us thyself in wondrous ways; oh, that we had eyes to see thee in all the story of the day, in all the march of the seasons, in all the displays of thy providence. Thou dost crush the bad man, and overthrow that which is corrupt, and upon righteousness and virtue dost thou set the crown of thine approbation. If for a small moment thou dost forsake men, it is that with everlasting mercies thou mayest gather them.
Take thine own way with us—thy will be done. We cannot follow all thy will, nor do we know the secret of thy movement, but we know Christ thy Son, and he has revealed the Father. Work in the dark or in the light, as thou wilt, only when thou hast tried us, bring us forth as gold. Preside over the furnace, watch all the burning, when the last dross falls away, when in our purified soul thou dost see the shining of thine image, cool the furnace and present us to thyself. We would be thine: bad in our inmost heart, sullied in all the emotion and passion of our soul, crushed by burdens of our own creation—still we would be thine. We are ashamed of the devil, we are ashamed of ourselves, we find no confidence and rejoicing but in the light and the truth of the Deity: Lord, may our better conquer our worse self, set up thy kingdom in our heart, that great, glad, radiant kingdom which is called the kingdom of heaven.
Help us up the road when it is very steep, draw nearer to us as the wind becomes colder, when we are affrighted by presences in the dark, and by voices mingling with the storm, let thy comforting toward us be multiplied and recall our courage in God.
We pray for those who are not here: for the bad one who would not come, for the sick one who could not come, for the far away one who wants to come, for all who are included within the circle of thy love. Have pity upon the suffering, those who are dying do thou make to live by thy presence and thy soothing: where the house is very lonely and the shadow has the deeper gloom to the eye that reads it aright than any other shadow they ever saw in the house before—where the heart is very sore, where old companionships are about to be broken up, where lifelong unions are about to be sundered, where the wedding vow is about to be taken up and to pass on to other meanings, where the child is sick, where the shadow of the coffin rests upon the cradle, and where there is gloom or sorrow or weariness of any kind—O, thou who didst make every star of the night and every flower of the summer day, thou who didst incarnate thyself in Jesus Christ, let thy grace be multiplied, and let thy comfort mightily prevail over all our distress. Amen.
15. And in those days Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples, and said, (the number of names [probably a synonym for persons] together were about an hundred and twenty) [of whom one-tenth were apostles].
16. Men and brethren [Demosthenes said, Ye men of Athens!], this Scripture must needs have been fulfilled, which the Holy Ghost by the mouth of David [the beginning of the new method of interpretation] spake before concerning Judas, which was guide to them that took Jesus.
17. For he was numbered with us [he had been numbered], and had obtained part of this ministry [portion or inheritance].
18. Now this man purchased [got possession of. In old English purchase often meant acquired] a field with the reward of iniquity [a Petrine phrase, see 2Peter 2:13, 2Peter 2:15]; and falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out.
19. And it was [became] known unto all the dwellers at Jerusalem; insomuch as that field is called in their proper tongue [in their own dialect] Aceldama, that is to say, The field of blood.
20. For it is written in the book of Psalms, Let his habitation be desolate, and let no man dwell therein: and his bishoprick [the general term office is preferable] let another take.
21. Wherefore of these men which have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us [representing the whole life and conduct].
22. Beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection.
23. And they appointed two, Joseph [nothing further is known of him] called Barsabas [son of the oath or wisdom], who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias [given by Jehovah].
24. And they prayed, and said, thou, Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men, shew whether of these two thou hast chosen.
25. That he may take part of this ministry and apostleship, from which Judas by transgression fell [away], that he might go to his own place.
26. And they gave forth their lots [not votes]; and the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered [the Greek word is not the same as in 2Peter 2:17] with the eleven apostles.
The Premature Election
"AND in those days."—There were ten days between the taking up of the Lord Jesus and the festival of the outpouring of the Spirit which is now known to us by the name of Whitsuntide. In those ten days Peter "stood up." It was a pity he did so, for he had been distinctly told to sit down. But who can wait ten days? Yet those periods of waiting are interposed in every life, for the trial of patience and for the perfecting of faith. Where is there a man who can sit down ten long days and do nothing but wait? "They also serve who only stand and wait" "Stand still and see the salvation of God." "Your strength is to sit still." Mark how this is God's training of us in this matter of sitting, waiting, expecting,—training us to the eloquence of silence and to the energy of standing still. Who can do it?
Peter was pre-eminently the man who could not do it. Goaded by impatience, he stood up and addressed the disciples. He was always more or less of a talkative man, letting his energy flow out in speech instead of embodying it in noble patience and heroic endurance. His energy evaporated. He will become a better man by-and-by; from Peter we shall yet hear some of the most solid and noble deliverances ever pronounced by an inspired apostle. He will burn as Paul never burned; he will excel even John in tenderness, yes, even in this opening speech, made before the time, he begins to show that delicacy of touch which so often made him conspicuous amid all the writers of apostolic letters.
It was to be feared that he would begin with a mistake, because he ended with one. On the last occasion probably, or near it, on which he saw the Lord, he said to Jesus, "Lord, what shall this man—the disciple whom Jesus loved—do?" A man who asks a question of that kind will commit a mistake the next time he speaks. Faults go in groups. Jesus rebuked him, saying, "If I will,"—that subtle lordliness of tone which always separated him from all other speakers.—"If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? Follow thou me." The next time we hear of Peter in any conspicuous relation is in the instance before us, when during the ten days of waiting he became impatient, and stood up amid the disciples and made a speech about the vacancy in the apostolate.
The fussy church must be doing something, if it is only mischief; the mechanical church cannot stand still; church-mongers are infinitely too busy; they lack repose; they consider that if they are walking up and down very much, they are doing something, they consider that if they be sitting quietly still, looking with wonder-filled eyes to the great silent heavens in expectancy and eager love, they are doing nothing. Peter will have a vote taken, or a ballot; he will complete the broken circle—he who broke the circle most, he whose crime outblackens Iscariot's, he who said, "I know not what thou sayest, I know not the man," he who with cursing and swearing denied that he knew Christ,—was that not in reality selling his Lord without the silver? He stood up in the midst and began to organise the apostolate! If Judas had lived, who knows what Christ would have done to him? Peter lived, and Christ had a secret interview with him, and in that private conversation an amnesty was pronounced and Peter was re-established. No man can expel you from the church. Every expelled man expels himself. You can be put away from a visible community. You cannot be put away from Christ's bosom, Christ's family, Christ's church, but by your own hand. It is this terrific power of suicide with which God has entrusted rational life! Chrysostom was wont to say, what we now quote as a modern proverb, as if contemporaneous wit had suggested and formulated the wisdom, "No man can hurt a man but himself." Nothing that you can say against me will have the smallest effect upon me or against me, if I be true in my inmost soul, unbroken in homage, constant in devotion, perfect and incorruptible in sincerity. Nothing that I can say against you will have the smallest effect detrimental in the long run, if you be true in heart, and full of integrity towards God.
Peter excluded himself from the church. So we read, "Go tell my disciples——and Peter." The first-born disinherited, the great primogeniture broken up, the first last, the leader an exile! And Judas "by transgression fell"—he put himself outside the church. It is not a Papacy that can unchurch me, it is not an ecclesiastical confederation that can unchurch you. You have in your own self the power of life and death, so far as this particular matter is concerned. God has made you your own trustee. You can separate yourself from Christ, you can turn away and walk no more with him, you can commit suicide, but as for others, no man can pluck you out of your Father's hand. Let us consider well, therefore, how each soul is treating itself.
But Peter was forgiven. What was said at the secret interview, who can tell? When the hands touched one another again, one of them was just the same it always was, a rough fisherman's hand—but the other was not the same—the wound print made all the difference! But the grip was the same, the old, old grip, the masonry of the union was the same, and the wound only increased its tenderness. Poor soul, thou mayest be forgiven! Black Iscariot, all but damned, thou art not yet lost; seek an interview with the ill-treated Saviour, have it out between yourselves this very day, tell him all the tale without a single reservation or self-excuse, and ere you have got it all out, his forgiveness will be down upon you like an infinite blessing! He never allows the prodigal to finish his speech. He sees from the first sentence what the last is going to be, and punctuating the eloquence of penitential grief with his affectionate embrace, the sin is forgotten, as impurity is consumed in fire.
Peter begins where all wise teachers must begin, if they would continue in efficiency, and conclude beneficently. He founds what he has to say upon the Scriptures. This is the peculiarity of Christian teaching: it founds itself upon the written word, it never fears to rest itself upon that sacred testimony: even where there may be differences of interpretation, it rests upon something deeper than merely verbal exposition. Herein is that sublime possibility of all Christian sections being substantially and integrally right. The Arminian and the Calvinist, two ghosts that have often affrighted the timid church—they are both right. The man who believes in the humanity of Christ, and the man who believes in the Deity of Christ are both right. How is this, then? Simply because the contradiction and the difference are to be found in interpretation, but there is always something below anything that can be written, and there is something higher than a tongue or a prophecy, or an interpretation in words! It is the spirit that unites, it is the letter that divides and kills. It is quite possible for an heterodox man to have an orthodox spirit, and it is by his spirit that he will be saved, and not by his letter. Do not tell me what your creed is: but do tell me something of your temper, your spirit, your supreme aspiration, your highest, broadest prayer—what is the one desire of your heart? There is nothing true that is incompatible with love; charity never faileth. As for our conceptions, interpretations, and suggestions, they are but intermediate or transient; we are passing on through them to some further and higher generalisation: on the road let us exchange views, approach one another with a noble charity, and know that there is no one man who holds in exclusive trust the totality of the Truth which is indicated by the expression "the kingdom of God."
Grounding himself upon what is written in the Scriptures, and only partially interpreting it, Peter proceeded to take a ballot for an apostle to succeed the apostate Judas. But could Peter make a mistake when he addressed the disciples at that time? Who asked him to rise and address the disciples at all? In our last study of this chapter, we read that the disciples were told to wait for the baptism of power—"Ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence." They were waiting for that baptism, and whilst they were waiting for it, Peter spoke. Peter was not endued with the Holy Ghost in the Pentecostal sense when he made this speech: we shall watch him grow; when the Holy Spirit does descend upon him and burn up all his folly, then we shall see how noble a man was concealed under the exterior of that rough and oft-mistaken fisherman.
The conditions of succession to the apostolate are very beautiful. "Wherefore of these men which have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection." That is the law of the ministry today. "Lay hands suddenly on no man." The men who must come to this Christian ministry must be men who have "companied with us all the time," men who have known the Lord Jesus Christ all the time, men who were present at his birth in Bethlehem, and present at His upgoing on Olivet—men who have been with him "all the time," men to whom he is no stranger, who read his character, peruse the mystery of his spirit, comprehend the beneficence of his purpose, enter into sacred and inviolable unity with every emotion that heaved his breast and that sanctified his life, men who "have companied with him all the time."
You cannot make ministers, you cannot pick out exiles and aliens and teach them this language of the kingdom of heaven, as if they were natives of that celestial empire. They must be born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but they must be born of God, and so born nothing can stand against them. They will trample down difficulties with the scorn of infinite strength, saying, "We can do all things through Christ." This is the mischief against which we have to guard, that you can buy ministers with money, that you can qualify apostles by salary, that if you offer higher prices, you would get higher genius! It is a LIE! This genius is not in the market, it is not a commodity that can be exchanged and bartered, it has no equivalent in kind, it is a fire that only one hand can light and that no storm can put out.
Having elected two men for choice, the disciples prayed: they left the case in the hands of God, but unfortunately they had first taken it into their own. Never take your own case into your own hand: have nothing to do with it: I will not guide my own life. Persons say "Be prudent"—if ever you can for a moment sit yourself down, resolving to be prudent, God has forsaken you! Persons say, "Beware of exaggeration, of over-colouring; beware of enterprises that are questionable or dangerous"—those persons never did anything for the world; they cannot do anything for the world: cold water never drove an engine, and a body without wings never knew the danger, the mystery, the joy of flight. If any man can resolve his life into a life of prudence he has taken his life into his own hands, and God will turn his prudence into confusion, and the question will again be asked; "Where is the wise? where is the prudent? where is the scribe?" Seek an inspired life. Say to kind heaven every day, "Not my will but thine be done. I want to build a tower, but not my will—thine be done. I ask for great success, but if failure is better for me, not my will but thine be done. Here is my short programme, rewrite it or burn it—not my will but thine be done." So the apostles committed themselves in prayer to God for guidance in this matter. So would I take every matter to God day by day, and say, "It is of no consequence to my poor little life, but everything is of infinite consequence to thy holy and glorious kingdom: Let it be according to thy mind, loving One, and not according to mine."
The disciples gave forth their lots. How pitiful. In a few more days they will have had the Holy Ghost. Casting forth the lots was an Old Testament plan, an initial arrangement, a small introductory mechanism, adapted to the infantile state of the world. There are men now, who would like to decide everything by lot: it seems a short and easy method, but it is no method in the house of God: we are now under the guidance of the Holy Ghost. If you were to write all the creeds of Christendom and to put them into an urn and to shake the urn after prayer, asking God that the right creed might come out, I should not wonder but that some creed would fall out of the urn that would shock the sense of nine-tenths of Christendom. There is no such way of discovering God's thought. That is not his scheme, and that is not the scheme of our life: we do not decide things by lot, in our own narrow sphere; nor do we carry things unanimously ourselves. Let me make that point as clear as I can: you, an individual man, do not always carry things unanimously: you often have to decide your course by a majority of yourself. Thus, these are the voters that live in you—Judgment, Self-interest, Immediate Success, Curiosity, Speculation, Family Considerations, Health, Time, and some twenty more voters all have a seat in the council of your mind. Now those who are in favour of this course say, "Aye," those who oppose this course say, "No," and then you, that innermost You, that Self you have never seen, says, "The ayes have it—or the noes," so that in reality you do not carry your own personal decisions unanimously. Sometimes your judgment does not vote at all, then the resolution is said to be carried nem. con., no one contradicting. Sometimes you carry your resolutions unanimously, the whole man stands up and says: "Let it be done;" so various are the ways by which we conduct the personal business and discharge the individual responsibilities of life. When I have wished in critical hours to know what was right to do, I have submitted myself to three tests. First, what has been the deepest conviction of my own mind; secondly, what has been the concurrent voice of my most trusted counsellors; and thirdly, what has been the fair inference to be drawn from conspiring circumstances? With a strong personal conviction, with a confirmatory judgment from my friends, with circumstances evidently conspiring to point in a certain direction, I have said, "This is none other than God's will: if it be not, Lord, stop me at once, for he who does his own will is a fool, and he who does Thy will, will be lifted up into Thy heavens. Not my will but Thine be done."
In the case before us the lot fell upon Matthias, and you hear no more about him. I do not want to be a balloted minister: I do not want to be here because I had six votes, and another man had only five: I want to stand in my ministry by right divine, by qualifications incontestable, by credentials not written by men and that cannot be expunged by men. That is the calling of the whole church: do not imagine that Episcopalianism, Congregationalism, Presbyterianism, or Methodism will save you. We are not saved by names, traditions, or legends, nor are we an influential church because we bear an illustrious name. Every day needs its own inspiration, as every day requires its own bread.