"In this rejoice not, that the Spirits are subject unto you; but rather rejoice, because your Names are written in Heaven."
Abundant notice of Christ's coming preceded that interesting' event. "To him gave all the prophets witness."
Neither was his entrance here unattended. It was announced by an angelic choir; by a miraculous star; and by a band of eastern magi. The manger which contained him, was particularly pointed out to the shepherds, and his person designated by inspired Simon and Anna. Again,
When entering on his ministry, witness was given for him, both from heaven, and on earth; from heaven by the visible descent of the Holy Ghost, which rested on him, and by a voice testifying that he was the Son in God; on earth by John, and soon after by the seventy: For these were sent to prepare his way, and introduce him to his work.
John was sent before, "to make ready a people prepared for the Lord" -- "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." The seventy, to declare him then entering on his ministry -- "The kingdom of God is come nigh unto you." -- John did no miracles; but the seventy witnessed Christ's truth, and their own by wonders wrought in his name. In the orders given to them at their mission, we find them only directed to heal the sick, as an evidence of Christ's arrival, and their being sent of him; but by the report made at their return they appeared to have been empowered to cast out devils. They probably did all the mighty works done by the twelve, and by their Lord. Thus they prepared his way.
Doing miracles in Christ's name would raise in those who witnessed it, a desire to see him of whom they spake, and whose power they displayed: And "they were sent two and two before his face into every city and place whither he himself would come."
Had they only proclaimed his arrival, some might have listened; but few would have "believed their report." Greater evidence than their word would have been demanded; as was afterwards of Christ -- "What sign shewest thou, that we may believe thee?" Neither would the demand have been unreasonable. Special messages require special evidence; and it is always given to those who are sent of God.
Every deceiver may pretend to a divine mission; but we are forbidden to "believe every spirit, and commanded to try the spirits." The church at Ephesus is commended for having obeyed this command -- "Thou hast tried them which say that they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars."
Our Savior speaking of the Jews' rejection of him, aggravates their guilt, by a consideration or the plenitude of the evidence which had been given them of his truth. "If I had not done among them the works which none other man did, they had not had sin -- but now they have no cloak for their sin -- they have both seen and hated both me and my Father." *
* John xv.22-24.
At the return of the seventy they appear to have been elated with the exercise of the miraculous powers which had been delegated to them -- "And the seventy returned again with joy, saying, Lord, even the devils are subject unto us through thy name."
They had witnessed Christ's miracles, but seem not to have wrought miracles themselves till now; and when they found themselves able to do the mighty works which they had admired in their Lord they were filled with joy.
Having made their report, Christ enlarged their powers and promised them protection -- "Behold I give you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall by any means hurt you." But to prevent them from setting an undue value on these distinctions, the caution in the text is subjoined -- "Notwithstanding, in this rejoice not that the spirits are subject unto you; but rather, rejoice because your names are written in heaven".
In discussing the subject, we will, first consider the caution or prohibition -- In this rejoice not that the spirits are subject unto you; then the command -- But rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven.
I. WE are to consider the caution, or prohibition -- In this rejoice not, &c.
But why not? Was it not matter of joy that spirits, evil spirits were subject to them? That they were able to dislodge them from the bodies of men, by commanding them in Christ's name? Certainly. This enabled them to answer the ends of their mission, which had been but very partially answered without it. Wherefore then the prohibition?
It is rather the excess of their joy, than the joy itself which is here forbidden. They seem to have placed an undue value on this power; to have exalted it above it's place, particularly as it concerned themselves. This was the first thing they mentioned at their return; nothing beside seems to have made so deep an impression upon them, or to have given them equal self importance.
To them there were other things more interesting and important; that they were accepted of God, and numbered among the faithful, and that their names were written in heaven, were to them occasions of much greater joy. The gift of miracles proved their mission, and drew the attention of those who witnessed their mighty works; but this was not a saving gift. A person might possess it, yet remain unrenewed, and perish in his sins.
Some appear to have exercised this power, who professed no relation to Christ, but were openly connected with his enemies. This is evident from his expostulation with those who attributed to infernal agency, the authority with which he extorted obedience from evil spirits -- "If I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore shall they be your judges." * The same appears from another incident, recorded by St. Mark -- "And John answered, saying, Master, we saw one casting on devils in thy name, and he followed not us, and we forbid him, because he followeth not us. And Jesus said, Forbid him not: For there is no man who shall do a miracle in my name, that can lightly speak evil of me." +
* Luke xi.19. + St. Mark ix.38, 39.
It seems that some who had seen the disciples cast out devils in Christ's name, though not themselves his disciples, attempted to do the same and succeeded; and that things of this nature were not uncommon after Christ began his ministry; though it did not always, if at all succeed, after his sufferings and exaltation. ++
++ Acts xix.13.
The gift of miracles, like other gifts, was distinct from sanctifying grace. This grace was often joined with that gift; but not always. There was no necessary connexion between them.
Under the former dispensation, the gift of prophecy did not certainly argue a renewed nature. It was sometimes given without it. Balaam had this gift. The deceiver who brought back the man of God who was sent from Judah to reprove Jeroboam, had it. By divine order he told the Jew what would happen to him, because he disobeyed the word of the Lord, and returned to eat bread in that place. Neither is there a trait of sanctity visible on the prophet Jonah, though he was compelled to bear God's messages to Ninevah, and used to make other special communications to men.
Under the gospel dispensation divine administration hath seen the same. Judas had doubtless the gift of miracles in common with his fellow disciples; and many will appeal to the judge in the great day, that they "have prophesied in his name, in his name cast out devils, and in his name done many wonderful works, to whom he will profess, I never knew you," and whom he will send away among the workers of iniquity.
Men are too often estimated by their gifts. Many consider those as the best men who possess the most enlarged, and especially the most showy talents; and despise those of a different description, as though their gifts and graces must be equal. But this is wrong. A person may possess the talents of an angel of light, who hath the temper of an infernal. Such is probably the state of apostate spirits. And some of the greatest of mankind have been some of the worst and most abandoned.
Though this must be evident to the considerate, there is yet a disposition in man to judge others, yea, and himself too, by gifts apart from the grace which falsifies gifts, and renders them beneficial, both to the possessor, and to the world; and at the same time keeps the possessor humble, and prevents him from thinking of himself, above that which he ought to think.
Neither are the renewed out of danger from this quarter. Sanctification being imperfect, distinguished gifts, or usefulness, or uncommon divine communications, are liable to be abused and made to foster pride and raise in the worm too high an opinion of himself. St. Paul "though not a whit behind the very chiefest apostles," needed something to keep him humble and prevent him from being elated by the revelations which were made to him. And he left these things on record as a warning to others; and particularly noted them to the church at Corinth, which abounded with miraculous gifts, and among whom they were exceedingly abused. He declared them not only inferior to charity, or holy love, but, considered in themselves, as of no estimation in a moral view; that a person might possess them in the highest degree, and yet be nothing in religion -- "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though 1 have all faith, so that I could remove mountains and have, not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing." * The apostle here supposeth a person possessed of the most eminent miraculous gifts, yet wholly destitute of religion. Could no such case happen, he would not have made the supposition. He did not write to amuse, but to edify and instruct.
* 1 Cor xiii.1, &c.
Some at Corinth prided themselves in their gifts and despised others -- perhaps men's moral state was estimated by them. Therefore did he show the use of those gifts -- that they were distinct from renewing grace -- that the latter was more excellent than the former; and that the possession of the latter could not be argued from the exercise of the former.
Those gifts were very useful at that day, and in that city, which was filled with idolatry, and almost the headquarters of paganism; but to the possessor they were of less value than Christian graces -- "Covet earnestly the best gifts; and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way" -- Namely, the charity described in the following chapter, of which we have been treating above.
To prevent the seventy from indulging the spirit which the apostle afterwards thus reproved at Corinth, was the design of the caution given them in the text. Christ observed how they valued themselves on their gifts and checked the spirit its beginning. Rejoice not that the spirits are subject unto you.
II. We are to consider the command -- But rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven.
The names of the saints are represented as written in Heaven, This language is figurative, accommodated to human weakness. God hath promised salvation to the faithful and caused them to hope in his mercy; but memorandums are not necessary to remind him of his promises, or records in heaven to entitle the faithful to the heavenly inheritance. God's counsels are always before him. The phraseology of the text is borrowed from the customs of men, who need memorandums and records to secure the fulfillment of engagements.
When men are made free of a city, or state, they are enrolled in the archives of the community -- Thence probably the metaphorical language of the text, and similar scriptures: For we often find matters which are determined in the divine councils represented as written in celestial records -- Then they that feared the Lord spake often one to another, and the Lord hearkened and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before him, for them that thought on "his name." Zion is said to be "graven on the palms of his hands" -- The saints to be written "in the book of life -- The dead to be judged out of the things written in the books" which will be opened at the grand assize when the world will be judged in righteousness.
As the rewards of grace are made sure to the righteous, the address to the seventy speaks their knowledge of it -- Rejoice because your names are written in heaven. They could not rejoice in an unknown good. But the manner in which their privileged state is mentioned supposes them acquainted with it. Christ did not here reveal it -- did not say, your names are written in heaven, therefore rejoice, but rejoice because they are written there -- because you know it to be the case.
Neither do they appear to have possessed knowledge, in this respect, which others are denied. Others are also exhorted to rejoice in the Lord. The suffering Christians of that age were often reminded of the rewards in reserve for them, as what would abundantly compensate all their sufferings here; which supposed them acquainted with their title to glory.
But how did they attain this knowledge? And how may others attain it?
By considering the conditions of the promises and seeing that they have complied with them. The promises are made to faith and repentance, to love and obedience. Where these are found on a person, that person may know that his name is written in heaven.
Obedience flows from faith and love. "Every good tree bringeth forth good fruit." The fruits of grace, are the evidences of grace, and the only evidences on which there is dependence. Should an angel from heaven testify to a person that his name was written there, the evidence should be inferior to that which ariseth from the Christian temper evidenced by fruits of holiness. If these were found, that would be useless; if wanting, inefficient. "By their fruits ye shall know them. In this the children of God are manifest." Had a person such testimony from heaven, he could know that the bearer was from above, only by attending to his own heart and life.
"Satan can transform himself into an angel of light." Permitted of God he might have access to our minds and persuade us that our names were written in heaven, while we remained enemies to God and under the condemning sentence of his law, had we no rule by which to try ourselves, and judge of our state; but this is not denied us. Yet some are probably deceived, through infernal influence, and filled with vain hopes. Mistaking the sophistry of Satan, for the operation of the divine Spirit, they boast communion with God and call themselves his children while no portion of the Christian temper is found upon them. Doubtless some, who have gloried in special divine communications have been deceived, relative to the nature and source of the operations which they have experienced. Supposed visions and revelations, are often no other than illusions of fancy, freaks of imagination, or effects of diabolical influence, those affected with them often appear confident of that which sober reason rejects as groundless.
If when we turn the eye inward, we discover faith in Christ, sorrow for sin, love to God, devotedness to his service, and reliance on his grace through a Mediator, and these are evidenced by fruits of holiness, we need no other evidence that our names are written in heaven: But if there are wanting, hope is vain and confidence delusive -- Gifts, the most extraordinary, even those of prophecy and miracles are totally unavailing. They leave us but as "sounding brass and tinkling cymbals."
Instances of this kind have formerly occurred: They may occur again. It concerns us therefore to look to ourselves, and see that our hopes are not built on the sand.
I. The subjection of evil spirits to Christ shows the universality of his dominion: For even apostate spirits have not, in every respect, broken from under his government. He sets them their bounds which they cannot pass. "Hitherto shalt thou come and no farther." When dislodged from a man by his order they cannot not enter a swine without his permission. They are permitted indeed to indulge depravity, but no farther than infinite wisdom sees it; and oftentimes their malice is made subservient to the divine purposes. While Christ had his residence on earth, they were permitted to possess the bodies of men, and his superior power was manifested in their ejection, and thereby a few species of evidence was given to his truth of the gospel -- yea they were sometimes made to confess him, when men denied him! "I know thee who thou art; the Holy One of God." *
* Luke iv.34.
In various ways God hath made use of apostate spirits to effect his holy and merciful designs. They have been used to try the faith, and thereby fit them for glory and honor -- Witness the strange trials brought on Job! And all served to restrain pride and depravity, and by the trial of his faith and exercise of his graces, to prepare him for a brighter crown. They may also be instrumental in bringing sinners to repentance. St. Paul speaks of "delivering one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit might be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus: And of delivering men to Satan, that they might learn not to blaspheme." *
* 1 Cor. v.5, 1 Tim. i.20.
II. Our subject teacheth us not to value ourselves on account of gifts, or powers. Gifts and grace, we have seen to be distinct -- that the former are a kind of common flock, designed not so much for the benefit of the possessor, as of the public; and that a person may possess them in large measure, and yet continue a rebel against God and perish in his rebellion.
God hath wise reasons for the bestowment of gifts, and, in someway, gets glory to himself thereby. But every talent is liable to abuse. If any man abuse them God will require it. Justice may be glorified, where goodness is neglected, and grace despised.
There is power with God to compel such use of his gifts as he requires. By overruling the degeneracy of fallen creatures, they often subserve the more mischievous. Gifts, under the influence his holy purposes. Princes who know him not, are often instrumental in executing his designs. -- the Assyrian and Persian monarchs were formerly made to execute his judicial designs on other nations and on his people, though "they meant not so, neither did their hearts think so." Other potentates do the same, and in the same way. Yea God hath power to compel unwilling obedience to his known commands, and hath sometimes done it. Balaam was made to bless Israel and foretel their greatness, while yet the enemy of Israel, and of the God of Israel; and Jonah, to bear God's messages to Nineveh.
To be thus used of God gives no title to his favor. "When God had performed his whole work on Mount Zion," he punished the proud Assyrian whom he had used in the execution of his justice: And Balaam perished among the enemies of Israel. Service undesignedly performed, and that which is the effect of constraint, find no encouragement in revelation. "If I do this thing willingly, I have a reward; but if against my will, a dispensation is committed unto me; what is my reward then?"
III. Though it is lawful to covet earnestly the best gifts, there is a more "excellent way" -- there is that which is more valuable, especially to the possessor -- the grace which sanctifies the heart. If we have this grace the more gifts we possess the better -- they are all consecrated to the service of God. If we have only gifts they may render us of grace, are beneficial, but under that of depravity, baleful in their effects.
Some pride themselves in the powers which they possess, and despise those of inferior abilities -- some mistake gifts for graces, or the sure evidences of them. But the day is at hand which will correct mistakes, and exhibit every thing in its proper light. Then the humble followers of the Lamb, who pass through life unnoticed, or unknown, will be found written in heaven, and will be owned and honored, as the redeemed of the Lord. But those who neglect the grace offered in Christ, though they may possess the greatest powers -- may speak with tongues of men and angels, and have all faith to the removing of mountains, will be denied of the eternal Judge, and sent away into everlasting punishment. Wherefore, rejoice not, though the spirits may be subject unto you; but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven.