The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Again the word of the LORD came unto me, saying,Divine Expostulation
[an evangelistic address]
We ought now and then to have an address from every pulpit that is distinctly evangelistic By an evangelistic address I mean one that is specifically designed to show men the way of salvation, and to induce them to enter it and prosecute it to the end. In a stated ministry we cannot always have such addresses; we must have steady, persevering, sober, devout exposition of the divine Word. Occasionally, however, there ought to be a change, and that change ought to express itself in an ardent attempt to persuade men to come to the Saviour.
What is the Christian idea? Christian teachers are always talking to men about conversion, change of heart, and consequent change of habit The Christian teacher seems to be intent upon pressing upon the attention of men a certain scheme of thought. He will not speak to us so much about practical life, conduct, habit, manners, and the like; he persistently addresses himself to the exposition and enforcement of certain abstract or metaphysical arguments. The plea is in part good; if good, it is very good. This is the only way worth proceeding, attempting the prosecution. The Christian idea is that if you can really alter a man's thought, you at the same time alter the man's life. The Christian teacher, therefore, if really sent from God, begins with the heart. He does not come to wash the hands, but to cleanse the soul; knowing that when the heart is really clean, thoroughly purified, the hands cannot be foul. He would make the fountain good that he may purify the stream. Why, then, this irrational and ungrateful aspersion upon the Christian ministry, that it is always dealing with thoughts, conceptions, intellectual and spiritual attitudes, and not addressing itself to social oppressions, and political considerations and exigencies?
For the reason I have given, we believe that the Christian method is the most fundamental; it carries everything before it; it is only abstract that it may become concrete; it only comes down with celestial power and grace upon the heart that it may work out all manner of social reconciliations and duties. Are we right? We want to be right; we do not want to be as they are who simply beat the air. We know we could make a show of greater progress, but we also know that it would be but an appearance, a vain and transitory ostentation, because we believe that until the heart is right the hand cannot be clean, and we further believe that when the heart is right the hand will be industrious in all manner of kindly, gracious, helpful service. Are we right? How persons do under-estimate the power and the value of right-thinking! Who pays any attention to mere thought? Who in reality cares for the truly and lastingly spiritual? The carnal man likes to see demonstrations; he is fond of banners; he likes to see that something is, as he phrases it, going on. It is the judgment of a fleshly man. There is no real philosophy or durableness in his proposal. It is a noise for today and a disappointment for tomorrow. But when the heart is right, when the thinking is true, when all internal estimates are exact, and we do know the true relation and values of things, then our whole conduct is built upon the right scale and is directed to the right end, and issues in delightful and heavenly satisfaction, because it is inspired by the right motive. We hold that motive is everything. We judge conduct by the motive. Conduct that does not represent motive of the highest quality is a lie. Character that has not at its very core the right motive is a calculated hypocrisy. The motive determines the quality. If a man be building from the outside and only on the outside, then be sure he is not a durable builder. Hence the slowness, or the apparent slowness, of the Christian movement. You can write a programme in a few moments; you can, by using proper instrumentalities, organise a demonstration for fourteen or ten days, and it shall be quite impressive and portentous to some minds and eyes; but it means nothing unless there be behind it a conviction, a spiritual reality, a noble motive—then it must win. Time is with it, the movement of the sun is with it, God is with it; all checks and recessions are only part of a great process: the right must come to throne and crown.
Hence it is that the Christian teacher does not take such an active part in many fussy, aggressive, and noise-creating reforms. When a match is struck there is more noise than when the sun rises. All the great movements of the universe are silent. No man ever heard the falling back of the gates of the morning; yet the morning opens her radiant portals and comes up high in the sky to create the miracle of noontide. But what can we expect from outside critics when the men within the Church itself are not spiritual? They are organisers, machine-makers, manufacturers, always getting up something, and absolutely leaving no room for the ministry of God the Holy Ghost. When your minds are full of right thoughts we need take no further care of you—you are under the government of God; but whilst you have cast out the evil thoughts and have not received the good thoughts you are yourselves a temptation and an opportunity to the devil. First of all, then, we lay down this proposition, that a man must be born again; not merely restored, reformed, redressed, rehabilitated, but born, born again; starting life as a babe, with a babe's heart, and a babe's eye of wonder, and a babe's trustfulness. "Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again."
The proposition which Christianity has to make to men is: All this being granted, what you have to receive into your hearts is the power of the Cross of Christ. Who is Christ? He has many names that you need not learn just now. Have you begun at the right name? If you set a child down to begin anywhere about the middle of the alphabet he will never be able to find the place again. You must begin at the beginning; then there can be no mistake about it. Reason, nature herself tells you when you are right. My Lord hath a thousand appellations, yea, by ten thousand names is he known to all the adoring angels, but to me he is known first and midst and last by the sweet name—Saviour. Shall we make that name a little more English and say Saver? The man who is this plucks out of danger, draws in from peril, raises from hopelessness and helplessness; yea more, raises the dead. That is the true poetry, that the eternal reason. Possibly some men have begun at the wrong end of the appellations of Christ. Men may have been thinking of him as God, as King eternal, immortal, invisible; they may have been exciting their veneration and thus reducing their penitence or their contrition; in other words, they may have been working on the wrong side of their nature. What man wants in the first instance is the distinct consciousness that he needs a Saviour. Until he gets that consciousness he can make no progress. Let a man think he is quite well and he will never send for a physician; let a man believe himself able to direct all his own movements, and he will never trouble any counsellor for suggestion or advice; let a man fall into ill-health and feel more and more that he cannot cure himself, then he will begin to ask where the healer lives. It is exactly so with regard to this gospel. Let a man feel that the world as he knows it is quite enough for him, that he wants no other treasure than gold, that he wants no other duration than time, and that he is able to meet all exigencies out of his own resources; and that man is outside the very purpose and mission of the Son of God. Saith Christ, "I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance"; "They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick"; "The Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost."
Until we realise the full meaning of these terms we cannot apply to Christ; we could not accost him in the right spirit, or address him in the right tone; even if we tried to pray, our prayers would freeze into ice upon our reluctant lips. Only broken-heartedness can pray; only helplessness can cry mightily to Heaven; only agony has the key of the Cross. If you have never felt this emotion in regard to the aggravation and guilt of sin, you are not gospel-hearers. Why should you be? The gospel has nothing to say to you. The gospel meets men who are inquirers, who are saying, Who will show us any good? This world is poor, is there no other world from which we can draw higher light and richer streams of blessing? Then the gospel will say, Let us tarry here, on this very spot, and talk this matter out; and it will not withhold from you any of its treasure, any of its music, any of its love. The first thing, however, is that you must supply the opportunity, you must come with a definite necessity. No man ever came to Christ with that necessity and went away empty. On the last day of the feast Jesus stood and cried, "If any man thirst—" That is what we mean by need. When a man does not thirst he does not inquire for the stream, but when his throat is burning with thirst his lips are full of heat because of want of water; he tries to say, though chokingly, Where is the well? where is the stream? Then a child might lead him; but so long as that necessity is not biting him, burning him, scorching him, he holds his head aloft, he will not be talked to, he will not have any dogmatic teaching; let him alone. The time will come when he will ask the least child that can talk to tell him where the living stream doth flow.
The Christian idea is that there is only one Saviour. But he is a thousand Saviours in one. He has all man needs, and man needs all he has. It is a very complex problem, though simple in some of its aspects. Man never knows how great a being he is until he knows Christ. Christ makes the man himself so much larger. Christ develops necessities the man never suspected; Christ touches imagination, and imagination creates or dreams new universes; Christ gives us life, and gives us life more abundantly, so that we increase in capacity. This is what education does for a man. The man says, It will be enough for me that I can read a little, and if I can sign my own name. So be it; now teach him to read a verse, and in the degree in which he enjoys that verse he says, I think I will try to read the next one. That is what we call the true evolution of Christian education, so that a man cannot be quite content or satisfied with one degree of progress: what he has done prepares him to do something more. His first prayer encourages him to breathe his second, and when he prays again he prays still more, and as he prays he knows what the Apostle means when he says, "Pray without ceasing." Little by little. Christ's life does not come down upon us in great overpowering cataracts. The life of Christ within us springs up a little today and a little tomorrow; only do not let the babe think he is a man, or the man suppose that he is an angel. Do not outrun your inward progress; be calm, be modest, be hopeful, be grateful, and ye shall grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
There is, then, only one Saviour, but, I repeat, he is a thousand Saviours in one. He addresses himself to the very mystery of our manhood. He does not ignore our will. He knows that we are fearfully and wonderfully made; he knows that he is dealing with the handiwork of God, for a moment spoiled by the devil; therefore he saith, What wilt thou, poor blind man? what wilt thou, lonesome leper? Therefore saith he, "Believe ye that I am able to do this?" and when he reproaches us he says, "Ye will not come unto me that ye might have life"; and in that last, grandest, sublimest plaint he says, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! killer, stoner of prophets and missionaries, how often would I have gathered thee together as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not": and these words he could hardly speak, for he was choking with emotion, and the tears were running from his eyes. Jesus Christ, therefore, does not come down upon us overpoweringly, tyrannously, or oppressively; he comes pleadingly, he has a proposal to make, he comes with invitations:—Ho! every one that thirsteth, come: let the unrighteous man come, and the wicked man, each forsaking his way and his thoughts, and he shall be led into abundance of pardon. Christianity is a pleading religion, it is a missionary religion; it goes out after that which is lost, and will not return until it hath found it.
The gospel has only one time—now! The gospel has no tomorrow; "Now is the accepted time, now is the day of salvation." All earnestness has only one time. Earnestness never says, Can I do this tomorrow? Burning earnestness never says, We can put this off a day or two. The gospel is the most ardent earnestness that is known, and it is continually saying, To-day, Now: Buy up the opportunity: Work while it is called day, for the night cometh wherein no man can work. Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might, with a will, with a tremendous concentrated energy, for in the grave there is no device.
Christianity has only one way—believe! How this word has been maltreated! To believe is to give the soul over to the keeping of the way of God. The commandments were not delivered to us, we are delivered to the commandments. It is the eternal that holds the temporal, the divine that involves the human. We have before explained this word "believe." It occurs in the first instance in connection with Abram. The Lord took him out to show him all the lights of the night in a land where they can be seen as they cannot be seen here, and as they were all gleaming like bannerets in the sky, host on host, infinite, endless, the Lord spake certain great promises to Abram, utterly stunned his reason, and overwhelmed his imagination. The man took a little time, and then, according to the historian, Abram believed God. What a crisis in human history! And the Hebrew word means so much that is tender; it means Abram embosomed and nestled himself in God. Abram like a little babe went to the very bosom of God, and lay there. Abram believed God,—how his face shone! how his voice changed! how the whole heaven became spiritual to him because of his claimed kinship with the Eternal himself! Belief is not assenting to something, saying, That is true: I see no reason against it: in the meantime your proposition seems to be wholly impregnable, your position is invincible: on the whole I accede and consent. That is not faith; that is a mere intellectual action. To believe is to nestle the soul in God. Where is your soul? We do not want your intellectual assent to disputable propositions: we want you to say, I believe; Lord, help my unbelief! I will go over to the side of God.
Christianity has only one purpose—Holiness. Christianity ends in conduct. Christianity begins in motive, but it ends in character, in manhood. We are to be perfect men in Christ Jesus; we are to be as he was on the earth; we are to breathe his spirit, repeat his deeds, follow his footsteps, and represent him to mankind, so that we cannot be Christ himself, but we can be Christ-ones, Christians, and we ought to be able to say, There you see as much of Christ as it is possible to see here and now.
Christianity has only one test—Service: to die for Christ, to work for Christ, to be always repeating Christ's great mission to the world. One time, Now; one way, Believe; one purpose, Conduct; one grand test, Service. Lord, what wilt thou have me do?—watch a door, light a lamp, or preach thy Word? Wouldst thou make me a great thunder-voice to the age, or wouldst thou have me teach what little I know of thy kingdom by patient suffering, by heroic patience? Not my will, but thine, be done; only dismiss me not thy service, Lord!
The Prophet and the People
When it is said, "The children of thy people still are talking against thee," we must not misunderstand the word "against." The prepositions are variously used in English, and especially perhaps in old English. When the Apostle Paul says, "I know nothing by myself," he, does not mean through the exercise of his own penetration; the word "by" in that connection means more literally and truly concerning—I know nothing concerning myself. In this instance the word "against" would perhaps be better replaced by the word "about"; then the text would read, "The children of thy people still are talking about thee,"—thou art still a popular name among them; they discuss thy gifts and graces, they have much to say about thy personality, thy manner, thy voice, thy whole scheme and tone of ministry: thou art still the subject of popular criticism and estimate. A paraphrase of this kind best suits what follows, namely: they "speak one to another, every one to his brother, saying, Come, I pray you, and hear what is the word that cometh forth from the Lord."
The text is a beautiful picture: man is saying to man, Come, let us hear the word of the Lord. That is the only thing worth doing. All other things derive their value and importance from that central thought, from that vital action. There is no other word worth listening to. The word of the Lord comes forth from eternity, and reverberates through the ages, and returns to eternity; it is true, every whit and syllable, every tone and whisper, just as true in the undertones as in the mighty thunders and tempest-blasts of its power. How charming, then, is the idea that man is saying to man, Come, and hear what God the Lord will say; come, and listen to the true music, the only music, and your hearts will be made glad. This invitation expresses the action of a very profound instinct in human nature; not only so, it expresses a need, an aching, yearning need of the heart. Man likes to hear his mother tongue after long residence in foreign lands where the language has been a difficulty in the way of enjoyment; how musical is the native language, the speech into which the man was born!—there is a hint here of our higher relationships, our true kindred, our real ancestry. Trace that ancestry as you may—stop here, stop there, build an altar in this place, and begin to express a wonder in some other locality, amid all the hills and valleys of human history; and all that may be partially because temporarily right: but all the theories go back to one Creator. There is no theory that has the large support of wise and learned men that does not leave room for a living, personal, mighty, tender Redeemer. Hence the folly of those who, more blatantly perhaps than they are quite conscious of, declare amid all the conflicting voices of theory and speculation, As for us, we will say "The Lord hath made us, and not we ourselves." I do not know of any man who ever said that he made himself, even though he worship under the rent canvas of agnosticism; he simply cannot tell who made him, and there are moments when I do not wonder at his amazement. The heart needs a voice other than human; the soul says, I have not seen all my relatives: I hear their voices, and I like them; some of the tones are good; but the tones are more suggestive than final: I hear the ocean in the shell. Where is that ocean? Where is that mighty roar? I am not content with the shell; I want to go and see the instrument out of which there comes such thundrous, solemn music. So give the soul fair play, let it talk itself right out in all its native frankness, under the inspiration of necessity, rather than under the force of merely mechanical instruction, and the soul cries out for the living God; even men who in public are loud controversialists, when shut up alone with the stars, looking at those mysterious palpitations of light from secret, solemn places in the hills, put out a hand, gropingly and meaningly, though they never confess that they have been guilty of a religious exercise. Religious exercises are manifold, and the sanctuary has an infinite roof, and there are men who can only sigh their religion, who can only grope after their deity, their ultimate thought: and there are others who having seen Jesus are content to stop there and build the tabernacle of their life. When the desire to hear God's word ceases, life in all its noblest aspects and best aspirations closes, perhaps for ever. When the soul is no longer conscious of an aching, a gnawing hunger, the man is dead: he may try to talk himself into a kind of spasmodic life, but in the truest sense he is dead; when the earth satisfies him, when time is enough, when the senses alone bring him all the contentment or all the joy he needs, he is a dead man.
The text brings before us a distressing possibility:—
"And they come unto thee as the people cometh, and they sit before thee as my people, and they hear thy words, but they will not do them: for with their mouth they shew much love, but their heart goeth after their covetousness" (Ezekiel 33:31).
The people come to hear the letter only, and there is no letter so disappointing as the letter of the Bible. If you stop at a certain point you miss everything; you are surrounded by mountains, but they are so high that you cannot see any sky beyond them, and, therefore, they become by their very hugeness prison walls. To profess or to attempt to read the Bible without the spirit of the Bible is to plunge into one mystery after another, and to return from the disastrous exercise stung with disappointment. The people were artistic, not penitent; they were students of vocal exercises; they actually formed an opinion of the man's voice: to think that Ezekiel's ministry should have sunk to that humiliation! But Christ's own ministry was brought down to a similar degradation,—"They," the people, "wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth"; they remarked upon his personality and his method, his voice, his action; they were artists, not penitents. And we want no artists in their professional capacity in God's house; we want no millionaires in the sanctuary; we expel all pedants from the altar: in God's house we are simply sinful, necessitous, repentant men and women; we have left all else outside; we do not know how the man is talking, we have no care about his method of speaking to us; we say with the heart's concern, What is it? deliver the message; tell us the news from heaven; bow goes the march eternal? what would the Lord our God have us be and do? Great questions will elicit great replies; solemn looks will make a solemn ministry; a visible hunger will make the steward of the household bring out all the bread the King has given him.
Ezekiel's hearers were formal, not vital. The congregation addressed by the Prophet might have met this morning—for with their mouth they shew much love, but their heart goeth after their covetousness. This is not ancient history, whatever else it may be. If Ezekiel could have lived upon "loud cheers," he would have been living now; if he could have satisfied himself with popular applause, he would have reigned as a king; but he said, I do not want your mouth-worship, I want to find you at the Cross. For in the Old Testament, as certainly as in the New, there is the Cross by which alone men are saved. You can find the Cross in the Old Testament if you want to find it. It is the glory of God sometimes to conceal a thing, but that Cross always projects its shadow across the human history of the Old Testament.
Here is misdirected admiration:—
"And, lo, thou art unto them as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument" (Ezekiel 33:32).
When we get no further than the voice we soon become weary. There are very few persons who know anything about voices: there are incarnate stupidities to whom all voices are alike; the voice of a public bellman and the voice of the finest speaker that ever uttered his native tongue are both alike. There are spheres in which it is right to study the voice and cultivate the voice, and in which it is right to play well upon the instrument—for there is no instrument like the human voice. Instrumental music—even the mighty organ—has its limitations; but the human voice has in it tears, entreaty, passion, living solicitude: if men would therefore attend to the fact that they are called upon to preach by the voice, they could have no competitors in journalism. Journalism is by the necessity of the case all writing: it has no voice, no heart-tone; it has a simulation of it, and sometimes when the words are written with the heart rather than with the hand they have a strange and mighty palpitation: and some things cannot be spoken until they have been written—notably the Bible. It was to be written, set down in such form as was possible, yet all the while it was throwing itself beyond its literal limitations; and in the Bible you have a thousand Bibles, a thousand revelations. What is wanted in every congregation is earnestness. Let the people have a subject as well as the preacher; and no man should come to church except to hear God's word, and so to hear it as to be compelled to do it. For religion is an action as well as a thought: Christianity is a sacrifice as well as a theology. Many men who cannot understand Christian metaphysics can do Christian charities, can exemplify Christian tempers, and so can interpret concretely the subtlest, profoundest metaphysics of divine thinking. There are great doers as well as great speakers; there are men mighty in holy deed as well as masters in sacred thought; there are heroes as well as metaphysicians: we cannot be both, but we can be the one or the other. The true metaphysician will by the degree of his truthfulness be compelled to be earnest as well as subtle, and the hero who knows nothing about spiritual metaphysics will see that in doing God's will he is becoming a great scholar in God's school. "What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God": there is a school in which there are hoary-headed scholars and little children just spelling their first little lesson.
The text presents us with the possibility of a too-late discovery.
"And when this cometh to pass (lo, it will come), then shall they know that a prophet hath been among them" (Ezekiel 33:33).
But the man is dead! It is no use building a granite monument to him; he does not know what you are doing: if you had shaken hands with him warmly whilst he lived you would have helped him in his work. Do not let the man pass away, and then grave his name on memorial brass: a cup of cold water, part of the five loaves and two fishes you were keeping for yourselves, would help him to love and think, and would cheer him into richer, broader prayer than even he has uttered in the night of his trouble. Who does not know what it is to make a discovery too late? Parents say, If we had brought up our children upon another basis they would have been a comfort to us in our old age. The talk is too late; no other parent will heed it: every man must make a fool of himself. Who has not heard men complain that they have neglected their educational advantages? They played truant when they were children; they did not attend to the instruction that was given to them; they had an opportunity of becoming really well informed and highly instructed, but they allowed the opportunity to pass by without improvement Too late! the greatest realisation of loss is that a prophet has vanished, a prophet has been here and gone. Will he not return? Never. Foolish are they who stretch their necks to look over the horizon to see if the prophet is not coming. John rebuked that irrational expectancy when he said to those who were asking questions concerning the Messiah, "There standeth one among you whom ye know not; he it is." The prophet is never far away if you really want him. If you are looking out for a prophet of your own invention, or that shall correspond with your own nightmare which you impiously call a dream, that prophet is miles upon miles beyond the widest horizon which any possible heaven ever made. Your mother could be a prophetess to you if you wanted to pray: your father, who is probably not a great scholar in the literal sense, could speak things to you that would open your imagination to new universes if you really wanted to be guided in upward thinking and heavenly action. There is no prophet, how poorly gifted soever, who cannot hand you the key of the kingdom of heaven if you want to go in; and no Ezekiel that ever flamed like a constellation in the prophetic heavens can help you if you do not want him.