There is a manifest reference in the fourth verse to the personage alluded to in Psalm cxviii.22, 23: "The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner. This is the Lord's doing; it is marvellous in our eyes." And this passage is applied by Christ to himself in Matthew xxi.42: "Jesus saith unto them, Did ye never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes." The Apostle therefore places the beginning of any connection with Christianity in coming to Christ, and assures believers that in their union with Him alone consists the fulness of their dignity and privilege. And there is no truth that will more readily be acknowledged, or receive a heartier acquiescence from the heart of a believer. What could we do without Jesus? In our every necessity He is our "refuge and strength," in our perils He compasses us about with songs of deliverance, his life is our perfect example, his death is our perfect atonement. Well might the Apostle interrupt the course of his argument with the grateful apostrophe, "Unto you, therefore, which believe, He is precious;" and exhort them "that ye should show forth the praises of Him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light." The text presents us with topics of meditation worthy of our prayerful study, as it reveals to us --
I. -- THE CHARACTER.
I. You observe that in the text believers are presented as a spiritual house and a holy priesthood; two different illustrations, which, if you translate the word here rendered "house" by the more sacred word "temple," will be found to have the same religious significance, and a close connection with each other. Coming to Christ as the foundation-stone of the building, "disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God, and precious," the Church rises into a spiritual temple. From Christ, the great High Priest, "consecrated after no carnal commandment," believers rise into a holy priesthood by a majestic investiture that is higher than the ordination of Aaron. There are two points in the character of the ransomed Church which are illustrated in these words: -- spirituality and holiness.
Take the first thought, spirituality. They are lively or living stones, built up into a spiritual house. Any one who thoughtfully observes the successive ages of the world's history, will not fail to discover that each generation of men has in some important particulars progressed upon its predecessor. There has been not only an accumulation of the treasures of thought and knowledge but an increase of the capacity to produce them. Hence in every age there has been a higher appreciation of freedom, a quickened enterprise of enquiry, the stream of legislation has refined and broadened in its flow, improvement has extended its acreage of enclosure, and principles proved and gained have become part of the property of the world. Our nature has had its mental childhood. The established laws of mind admit only of a gradual communication of knowledge. It was necessary, therefore, that men should be first stored with elementary principles, then advanced to axioms and syllables, and afterwards introduced into the fellowship of the mystery of Divine truth. Hence any reflective mind, pondering upon the dealings of God with men, will discover a progressive development of revelation, adjusted with careful adaptation to the preparedness of different ages of mankind. In the first ages God spake to men in sensible manifestations, in visions of the night, by audible voice, in significant symbol. As time advanced the sensible manifestations became rarer, and were reserved for great and distinguishing occasions. From the lips of a lawgiver, in the seer's vision, and in the prophet's burden of reproof or consolation, the Divine spake, and the people heard and trembled. At length, in the fulness of time, the appeal to the senses was altogether discarded; the age of spirituality began, and in the completed revelation men read, as they shall read for ever, the Divine will in the perfected and royal word. And this progress, which appears through all creation as an inseparable condition of the works of God, present in everything, from the formation of a crystal to the establishment of an economy, is seen also in the successive dispensations under which man has been brought into connection with heaven. You can trace through all dispensations the essential unity of revealed religion. There have never been but two covenants of God with man -- the covenant of works and the covenant of grace; never but two religions -- the religion of innocence, and the religion of mercy. Through all economies there run the same invariable elements of truth. The first promise contains within itself the germ of all subsequent revelation -- the Abrahamic covenant, the separation of Israel, all the rites and all the prophecies, are but the unfoldings of its precious meaning. Sacrifice for the guilty, mediation for the far-off and wandering, regeneration for the impure, salvation through the merit of another; these are the inner life of the words, "the seed of the woman shall bruise the serpent's head." The gospel therefore was preached unto Abraham. Moses felt the potent influence of "the reproach of Christ." David describeth the blessedness of "the man unto whom God imputeth not iniquity." "Of this salvation the prophets enquired and searched diligently." Christ was the one name of the world's constant memory, "to Him gave all the prophets witness," and from the obscurest to the clearest revelation all testified in tones which it was difficult to misunderstand. "Neither is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved." The patriarchal dispensation had no elaborate furniture nor gorgeous ritualism. The father was the priest of the household, and as often as the firstling bled upon the altar it typified the faith of them all in a better sacrifice to come. Then came the Jewish dispensation with its array of services and external splendour, with its expressive symbolism and its magnificent temple; and then, rising into a higher altitude, the fulness of time came, and Christianity -- the religion not of the sensuous but of the spiritual, not of the imagination awed by scenes of grandeur nor bewildered by ceremonies of terror, but of the intellect yielding to evidence, of the conscience smitten by truth, of the heart taken captive by the omnipotence of love -- appeared for the worship of the world. Our Saviour, in his conversation with the Samaritan woman, inaugurated, so to speak, the dispensation of the spiritual, "The hour cometh, and now is," -- there is the moment of instalment, when the great bell of time might have pealed at once a requiem for the past and a welcome to the grander future, "when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth." Requiring spiritual worship, it was natural that God should have "built up a spiritual house," wherein he should dwell in statelier presence than in "houses made with hands." Hence there is now rising upon earth, its masonry unfinished, but advancing day by day, a spiritual temple more magnificent than the temple of Solomon, costlier than the temple of Herod. "Destroy this temple," said the Saviour to his wondering listeners, "and in three days I will raise it up." "Forty and six years was this temple in building, and will thou rear it up in three days?" "But He spake of the temple of His body." "What, know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ?" Yes! believers everywhere are stones in the spiritual house, broken perhaps into conformity, or chiselled into beauty by successive strokes of trial; and wherever they are, in the hut or in the ancestral hall, in the climates of the snow or of the sun, whether society hoot them or honour them, whether they wrap themselves in delicate apparelling, or, in rugged homespun, toil all day for bread, they are parts of the true temple which God esteems higher than cloistered crypt or stately fane, and the top stone of which shall hereafter be brought on with joy.
The second representation of a believer's character is holiness, "a holy priesthood." In the Jewish dispensation the word was understood to mean no more than an outward and visible separation unto God; the priests in the temple and the vessels of their ministry were said to be ceremonially "holy." But more is implied in the term as it occurs in the text and kindred passages than a mere ritual and external sanctity. It consists in the possession of that mind which was also in Christ Jesus, in the reinstatement in us of that image of God which was lost by the disobedience of the fall. You will remember numerous scriptures in which holiness, regarded as the supreme devotion of the heart and service to God, is brought out as at once a requirement and a characteristic of a Christian. "What manner of persons ought we to be in all holy conversation and godliness?" "Be ye holy, for I am holy," "as He which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation." "God hath not called us to uncleanness but unto holiness." "Having these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God." And it is absolutely necessary that this grace should be cultivated if we would either fulfil the mission of our priesthood or abide in the Divine presence for ever. Holiness is requisite whether to see the Lord or to walk before men unto all well-pleasing; and as living witnesses, transcripts of His holiness, enabled by his grace to maintain purity of heart and life, God has promised to establish those who put their trust in Him. Some Christians have been deterred from the search after this blessing of heaven by the mistakes of those who have endeavoured to expound it, or by the hypocrisy of those who have assumed its profession that they might the better sin. It is marvellous how many different views of it have at times obtained currency in the world. By some it has been resolved into a sort of refined Hinduism, a state in which the soul is "unearthed, entranced, beatified" by devout contemplation into a pietistic rapture; others have deemed that the best way to secure it was a retirement from the vexing world, a recreant forsaking of the active duties of life, as if it consisted in immunity from temptation rather than in victory over it. Others have placed it in surpliced observance or in monastic vow; an equivocal regard to patterns of things in the heavens which common men mistake for idolatry. Others again, reversing the old Pythagorean maxim, and wearing the image of God upon their ring, have expressed it by unworthy familiarity, a continual adverting to the gifts of the spirit, and the experience of the soul in the flippancy of ordinary conversation, as did some of the fanatics of the Commonwealth. Others have represented it as a perpetual austerity, an investiture of our family circles with all the hues of the sepulchre, and a flinging upon the face of society the frown of a rebuking fretfulness, which would make the good of an archangel evil spoken of in this censorious world. But the scriptural holiness which believers long for, and which the Church is to spread through the land, is not a necessary adjunct of any or all of these. It is not the acting of a part in a drama, but the forth-putting of a character in life, the exhibition in harmonious action of the humble love and filial fear with which men "work out their salvation." "A holy priesthood." It is remarkable of this spiritual priesthood that it descends in no particular succession, nor limits its privileges to any exclusive genealogy. The holiness which is at once its distinctiveness and its hallowing comprehends and can sanctify all relations of life. Let the minister have it, and the love of Christ, his supremest affection, will prompt his loathing of sin and his pity for sinners; will fire his zeal and make his words burn, and will often urge him to cast himself upon the mercy-seat that his labours may not be in vain. Let the merchant, or the manufacturer, or the man of business have it, and it need neither bate his diligence nor hold him back from riches; but it will smite down his avarice and restrain his greed of gold; it will make him abhor the fraud that is gainful, and eschew the speculation that is hazardous, and shrink from the falsehood that is customary, and check the competition that is selfish; and it will utterly destroy the deceptive hand-bill, and the cooked accounts, and the fictitious capital, as well the enormous dishonesties as the little lies of trade. Let this holiness actuate the parent, and in his strong and gentle rule he will mould the hearts of his children heavenward, and train them in the admonition of the Lord, until, a commanded household, comely in their filial love, they shall reverence their Father who is in heaven. Let the child be impressed with holiness, and he will have higher motives to obedience than he can gather from the constraint of duty or from the promptings of affection. Let the master be holy, and while he upholds authority he will dispense blessing. Let the servant be holy, and service will be rendered with cheerfulness, "not with eye-service as men-pleasers, but in singleness of heart, fearing God." Let the man be holy, and vigorous health and lofty intellect and swaying eloquence and quenchless zeal will all be offered to God. Let the woman be holy, and patient prayer will linger round the cross, and ardent hope will haunt the envied sepulchre, and pitying tenderness will wail on the way to Calvary, and the deep heart-love will forget all selfish solicitudes in the absorbing question, "Where have they laid my Lord?" Let the world be holy! and the millennium has come, and wrong ceases for ever, and the tabernacle of God is with men, and earth's music rivals heaven's. Brethren, let us seek this blessing for ourselves. There, at the foot of the Throne, let us plead the promise, "I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean." Imagination, intellect, memory, conscience, will; -- sanctify them all. "Then will we teach transgressors thy ways, and sinners shall be converted unto Thee." It is done, surely it is done. The hands are upon us now. We kneel for the diviner baptism, for the effectual and blessed ordination. Listen, the word has spoken, "Ye are an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God by Jesus Christ."
II. -- Certain blessings are presented to us in the text as the heritage of this spiritual and consecrated Church. Increase and acceptance. The spiritual house is to be built up firm and consolidated on the true foundation. The services of the holy priesthood are to be "acceptable to God through Jesus." Take the first thought. "Ye are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God by Jesus Christ." The fact of God's constant supervision over his Church and care for its stability and extension is one that is impressed with earnest repetition upon the pages of his word. "Thine eyes shall see Jerusalem a quiet habitation, a tabernacle that shall not be taken down; not one of the stakes thereof shall ever be removed, neither shall any of the cords thereof be broken, but there the glorious Lord will be unto us a place of broad rivers and streams." "Then shall thou see and flow together, and thine heart shall fear and be enlarged, because the abundance of the sea shall be converted unto thee, the forces of the Gentiles shall come unto thee." "Then shall the mountain of the Lord's house be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills, and all nations shall flow unto it." "As I live, saith the Lord, thou shalt surely clothe thee with them all as with an ornament, and bind them on thee as a bride doeth." From these passages, and many others breathing the same spirit, we may legitimately infer that it is the purpose of God that the kingdom of Messiah shall be universal; that the Church shall increase in steady and cumulative progression, and realize in herself all the "glorious things" which by the holy prophets were "spoken of the city of God." And in this matter God has not left himself without a witness. The present existence of the Church, after it has encountered and outlived all varieties of opposition, is in itself a proof which even its enemies, if they were not stupid and indocile learners, might ere this have discovered, that the eternal God is its refuge, and that the Highest will establish it for ever. From its institution it has had in the heart of every man a natural and inveterate enemy. The world has uniformly opposed it, and it has been unable to repel that opposition with weapons out of the world's armoury; for it is forbidden to rely upon the strength of armies or upon the forces of external power. Fanatics have entered into unholy combination. Herod and Pilate have truced up a hollow friendship that they might work against it together. Statesmen have elaborated their policy, and empires have concentrated their strength; the banners of battle have made hideous laughter with the wind; the blood of many sainted confessors has been shed like water, and the vultures of the crag have scented the unburied witnesses and have been ready to swoop down upon the slain. And yet the Church is living, thriving, multiplying; while the names of its tyrants are forgotten, and their kingdoms, like snow-flakes on the wave, have left no trace behind. No inborn strength will account for this mystery. No advance of intelligence nor philosophic enlightenment will explain this phenomenon. The acute observer, if faith have cleared his eye or opened an inner one, will go back for the explanation to an old and unforgotten promise, and will exclaim when he sees the Church struggling, but triumphant, like the fire-girdled bush at Horeb, "God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved; God shall help her, and that right early." And not only in the preservation from her enemies but in her unfailing progress among men in every age, has God shown that his purpose is to build up the spiritual house. The rapid spread of the truth in primitive times was a marvel and a mystery to those who saw not the arm which upheld it and the power which bade it multiply and grow. The whole history of gospel extension is indeed a succession of wonders. It began with a Pentecost, local, but prophetic of a universal one, when "its sound shall have gone out into all the earth and its words to the end of the world." In the times of the Apostles, and of their immediate successors, it overleaped the boundaries of nation after nation, acquired lodgment and proselytes in the proudest cities, subjugated the barbaric magnificence of Asia Minor, had its students in the schools of Greece, and its servitors in the imperial household at Rome. In its triumphant course it attacked idolatry in its strongholds, and that idolatry, though fortified by habit and prejudice, and sanctioned by classic learning, and entwined with the beautiful in architecture and song, and venerable for its wondrous age, and imperial in the dominion which it had exercised over a vassal world, fell speedily, utterly, and for ever. And in each succeeding age, obscured sometimes by the clouds of persecution, and sometimes by the mists of error, its progress has been gradual and sure. If it has not dissipated it has relieved the darkness. It has stamped itself upon the institutions of mankind, and they reflect its image. It has insinuated its leavening spirit where its outward expressions are not, and there is a vast amount of Christian and humanizing sentiment abroad, a sort of atmosphere breathed unconsciously by every man, whose air-waves break upon society with unfelt but influencing pressure, but its source is in the gospel of Christ. The building rises still! In distant parts of the great world-quarry stones of diverse hardness, and of diverse hue, but all susceptible of being wrought upon by the heavenly masonry, are every day being shaped for the temple. Strikes among the workmen, or frost in the air, may suspend operations for awhile, but the building rises! Often are the stones prepared in silence, as in the ancient temple-pile, with no sound of the chisel or the hammer. The Sanballats and Tobiahs of discouragement and shame may deride the work and embarrass the labourers; but one by one the living stones, polished after the similitude of a palace, are incorporated into it. Yes! the building rises, and it shall rise for ever. God has promised increase to the Church, and her enemies cannot gainsay it. From the more effectual blessing on churches already formed, from the reversal of the attainder, and the bringing into his patrimonial portion of the disinherited Jew, from the proclamation in all lands of the message of mercy, they shall throng into the city of our solemnities until "the waste and the desolate places, and the land of her destruction shall even now be too many, by reason of the inhabitants, and they that swallowed thee up shall be far away." What Christian heart, looking for this promised blessing, rejoices not with exceeding joy? At the foundation of the second temple, amid the flare of trumpets and the clang of cymbals, while the young men rent the air with gladness, there were choking memories in many a Levite heart that chastened the solemn joy and were relieved only by passionate tears; but at the upbuilding of the "spiritual house" the young and the old may feel an equal gladness, or if some memories steal over the spirit of primitive days, and of the joys of a forfeited Eden, they may be stilled by the memory of the grander and abiding truth, that --
"In Christ the tribes of Adam boast,
Brethren, have you this joy? Does it pleasure you that the building rises? Do your hearts thrill with gladness as you hear of accessions to the Church and the conversion of sinners to God? Do you love the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob? Have a care if you feel not this sympathy, for ye are none of his. If it is within you a living, earnest emotion, give it play. "Let the children of Zion be joyful in their King."
The second privilege is the acceptance of her service and sacrifice through Jesus Christ. -- To us, who are mean and unworthy, it is no small privilege to be assured of welcome when we come to God. To us, who are guilty and erring, it is no small privilege that we can come by Jesus Christ. The hope of acceptance is necessary to sustain the heart of the worshipper, which without it would soon sink into despair. The apostle, you perceive, places the ground of the acceptance of our services upon our union with Jesus Christ.
"Vain in themselves their duties were,
He is careful to impress upon us that in our holiest moments no less than when we are wayward and criminal, our trust for personal safety, and our only chance of blessing are from our exalted Daysman, who can lay his hand upon us both. Our praise would be unmeaning minstrelsy, our prayers a litany unheard and obsolete, all our devotional service a bootless trouble, but that "yonder the Intercessor stands and pours his all-prevailing prayer." It is "through Him we both," the Jews who crucified Him and the Gentiles, who by their persevering neglect of Him crucify Him afresh, "have access by one spirit unto the Father." The words of promise touching the acceptance of the worship of the Church are explicit and numerous. "They shall come up with acceptance on mine altar, and I will glorify the house of my glory." "That I should be the minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, ministering the gospel of God, that the offering up of the Gentiles might be acceptable, being sanctified by the Holy Ghost." "In the place where my name is recorded, there will I accept." "In every nation he that feareth Him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with Him." Oh, comforting thought, when I am convinced of my own sinfulness, and restless and disquieted wander about in distress, and lie down in sorrow, there is One who hears the stammered entreaty, and smiles a pardon to my agonized cry, "God be merciful to me a sinner." When in my daily life I encounter a terrible temptation, a temptation so strong that it tries my strength to the uttermost, and gives my heart a struggle and a bitterness which no stranger may know, there is One who marks my resistance and counts my enduring faith for righteousness, and whispers me that by and bye, he that overcometh shall wear the conqueror's crown. When in some moment of unguardedness I grieve the good Spirit, and become unwatchful, and in remorseful penitence I could almost weep my life away, the offering of my contrition is accepted, and there is One who heals my backsliding and soothes my fretting sorrow. My prayers offered in secret, pleading for purity and blessing, my praises, when the full heart, attuned, gives its note of blessing to swell the choral harmony, wherewith all God's works praise Him, the active hand, the ready tongue, the foot swift and willing in his cause, the service of labour, the service of suffering, -- all these, if I offer them rightly and reliantly, are acceptable unto God by Jesus Christ. There is no room for distrust or for misgiving. I need not fear that, after all my efforts, I shall be met with an averted glance, or with a cold denial. The promise standeth sure, "To that man will I look." Oh, if there had been a pause after this announcement, how would the eager solicitudes of men have gathered round it, and waited for the coming of the words. Where wilt thou direct thy look of favour? To him who is noble, or wealthy, or intelligent? To him who with scrupulous rigidness fasts twice in the week, and gives tithes of all that he possesses? To him whose quick sensibility revels in all expressions of the beautiful, or whose graceful impulse moves him in all works of charity? No, to none of these, but, "To him that is poor, and of a contrite spirit; and that trembleth at my word."
III. -- If there be this assurance of acceptance, how solemn and resistless is the call to duty, "To offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God by Jesus Christ." Sacrifice, properly speaking, is the infliction of death upon a living creature for the purposes of religious worship, but this sacrifice and offering, happily, God requires not at our hands. No filleted firstling need now be led to the altar, the flocks of Kedar and the rams of Nebaioth may browse quietly in their pastures, for the Great Sacrifice has been offered, and it abides -- "one sacrifice for sins for ever," needing no repetition, one for ever! unexhausted in its virtue, and unfailing in the blessing it confers. But in a secondary sense the recognized and fulfilled duties of the Church are fitly called sacrifices, for they cannot be properly discharged without the alienation from ourselves of something that was our own, and its presentation, whether time, ease, property or influence, to God. Brethren, to this duty you are called to-day. The name you bear has bound you. The holy priesthood must offer up spiritual sacrifices. Suffered to become Christians, permitted, a race adulterous and dishonoured as you were, to be united to Christ and partakers of his precious grace, the spell of these high privileges enforces every obligation, and hallows every claim. Ye are not your own. First offer yourselves upon the altar, renew your covenant in this the house of our solemnities, on this the instalment of our great Christian festival. It will be easy to devote the accessories, when the principal bestowment has been rendered. I claim from you this sacrifice for God. Yourselves, not a half-hearted homage, not a divided service, not a stray emotion, not a solitary faculty; yourselves, you all, and all of you; your bodies, with their appliances for service; your souls, with their ardour of affection; intellect, with its grasp and power; life, with its activity and earnestness; endowment, with its manifold gifts; influence, with its persuasive beseechings. I claim them all. "I beseech you therefore, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service." This consecration made, all else will follow in the train; litanies of earnest supplication will rise from the full heart; the "prayer will be offered as incense; the lifting up of the hands as the evening sacrifice." Glad in its memory of the past, and hopeful in its trust for the future, the hosanna of gratitude will rise; "the sacrifice of praise continually; the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name." The property received gratefully from heaven will be offered freely and bountifully for Christ; and some outcast housed in a safe and friendly shelter, some emancipated slave or converted Figian, some Indian breaking from his vassaldom of caste and Shaster, and longing to sit at Jesus' feet and hear his word, will say rejoicingly of your liberality, "Having received of Epaphroditus the things which were sent from you, an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well-pleasing to God."