The Revised Version, instead of 'praises,' reads excellencies -- and even that is but a feeble translation of the remarkable word here employed. For it is that usually rendered 'virtues'; and by the word, of course, when applied to God, we mean the radiant excellencies and glories of His character, of which our earthly qualities, designated by the same name, are but as shadows.
It is, indeed, true that this same expression is employed in the Greek version of the Old Testament in Isaiah xliii. in a verse which evidently was floating before Peter's mind. 'This people have I formed for Myself; they shall show forth My praise.'
But even while that is admitted, it is to be observed that the expression here does not merely mean that the audible praise of God should be upon the lips of Christian people, but that their whole lives should, in a far deeper sense than that, be the manifestation of what the Apostle here calls 'excellencies of God.'
I. Here we get a wonderful glimpse into the heart of God.
Note the preceding words, in which the writer describes all God's mercies to His people, making them 'a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation'; a people 'His own possession.' All that is done for one specific purpose -- 'that ye should show forth the praises of Him who hath called you out of darkness.' That is to say, the very aim of all God's gracious manifestations of Himself is that the men who apprehend them should go forth into the world and show Him for what He is.
Now that aim may be, and often has been, put so as to present an utterly hard and horrible notion. That God's glory is His only motive may be so stated as to mean nearly an Almighty Selfishness, which is far liker the devil than God. People in old days did not always recognise the danger that lay in such a representation of what we call God's motive for action. But if you think for a moment about this statement, all that appears hard and repellent drops clean away from it, and it turns out to be another way of saying, 'God is Love.' Because, what is there more characteristic of love than an earnest desire to communicate itself and to be manifested and beheld? And what is it that God reveals to the world for His own glory but the loftiest and most wondrous compassion, that cannot be wearied out, that cannot be provoked, and the most forgiving Omnipotence, that, in answer to all men's wanderings and rebellions, only seeks to draw them to itself? That is what God wants to be known for. Is that hard and repellent? Does that make Him a great tyrant, who only wants to be abjectly worshipped? No; it makes Him the very embodiment and perfection of the purest love. Why does He desire that He should be known? for any good that it does to Him? No; except the good that even His creatures can do to Him when they gladden His paternal heart by recognising Him for what He is, the Infinite Lover of all souls.
But the reason why He desires, most of all, that the light of His character may pour into every heart is because He would have every heart gladdened and blessed for ever by that received and believed light. So the hard saying that God's own glory is His supreme end melts into 'God is Love.' The Infinite desires to communicate Himself, that by the communication men may be blessed.
II. There is another thing here, and that is, a wonderful glimpse of what Christian people are in the world for.
'This people have I formed for Myself,' says the fundamental passage in Isaiah already referred to, 'they shall show forth My praise.' It was not worth while forming them except for that. It was still less worth while redeeming them except for that.
But you may say, 'I am saved in order that I may enjoy all the blessings of salvation, immunities from fear and punishment, and the like.' Yes! Certainly! But is that all? Or is it the main thing? I think not. There is not a creature in God's universe so tiny, even although you cannot see it with a microscope, but that it has a claim on Him that made it for its well-being. That is very certain. And so my salvation -- with all the blessedness for me that lies wrapped up and hived in that great word -- my salvation is an adequate end with God, in all His dealing, and especially in His sending of Jesus Christ.
But there is not a creature in the whole universe, though he were mightier than the archangels that stand nearest God's throne, who is so great and independent that his happiness and well-being is the sole aim of God's gifts to him. For every one of us the Apostle means the word, 'No man liveth to himself' -- he could not if he were to try -- 'and no man dieth to himself.' Every man that receives anything from God is thereby made a steward to impart it to others. So we may say -- and I speak now to you who profess to be Christians -- 'you were not saved for your own sakes.' One might almost say that that was a by-end. You were saved -- shall I say? -- for God's sake; and you were saved for man's sake? Just as when you put a bit of leaven into a lump of dough, each grain of the lump, as it is leavened and transformed, becomes the medium for passing on the mysterious transforming influence to the particle beyond, so every one of us, if we have been brought out of darkness into marvellous light, have been so brought, not only that we may recreate and bathe our own eyes in the flooding sunshine, but that we may turn to our brothers and ask them to come too out of the doleful night into the cheerful, gladsome day. Every man that Jesus Christ conquers on the field He sends behind Him, and says, 'Take rank in My army. Be My soldier.' Every yard of line in a new railway when laid down is used to carry materials to make the next yard; and so the terminus is reached. Even so, Christian people were formed for Christ that they might show forth His praise.
Look what a notion that gives us of the dignity of the Christian life, and of the special manifestation of God which is afforded to the world in it. You, if you love as you ought to do, are a witness of something far nobler in God than all the stars in the sky. You, if you set forth as becomes you His glorious character, have crowned the whole manifestation that He makes of Himself in Nature and in Providence. What people learn about God from a true Christian is a better revelation than has ever been made or can be made elsewhere. So the Bible talks about principalities and powers in heavenly places who have had nobody knows how many millenniums of intercourse with God, nobody knows how deep and intimate, learning from Christian people the manifold wisdom which had folds and folds in it that they had never unfolded and never could have done. 'Ye are My witnesses,' saith the Lord. Sun and stars tell of power, wisdom, and a whole host of majestic attributes. We are witnesses that 'He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might He increaseth strength.' Who was it that said
''Twas great to speak a world from naught,
'Ye are saved that ye may show forth the praise of Him who hath called you out of darkness into His marvellous light.'
III. Lastly, we have here a piece of stringent practical direction.
All that I have been saying thus far refers to the way in which the very fact of a man's being saved from his sin is a revelation of God's mercy, love, and restoring power. But there are two sides to the thought of my text; and the one is that the very existence of Christian people in the world is a standing witness to the highest glory of God's name; and the other is that there are characteristics which, as Christian men, we are bound to put forth, and which manifest in another fashion the excellencies of our redeeming God.
The world takes its notions of God, most of all, from the people who say that they belong to God's family. They read us a great deal more than they read the Bible. They see us; they only hear about Jesus Christ. 'Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image' nor any likeness of the Divine, but thou shalt make thyself an image of Him, that men looking at it may learn a little more of what He is. If we have any right to say that we are a royal priesthood, a chosen nation, God's 'possession,' then there will be in us some likeness of Him to whom we belong stamped more or less perfectly upon our characters; and just as people cannot look at the sun, but may get some notion of its power when they gaze upon the rare beauty of the tinted clouds that lie round about it, if, in the poor, wet, cold mistiness of our lives there be caught, as it were, and tangled some stray beams of the sunshine, there will be colour and beauty there. A bit of worthless tallow may be saturated with a perfume which will make it worth its weight in gold. So our poor natures may be drenched with God and give Him forth fragrant and precious, and men may be drawn thereby. The witness of the life which is Godlike is the duty of Christian men and women in the world, and it is mainly what we are here for.
Nor does that exclude the other kind of showing forth the praises, by word and utterance, at fit times and to the right people. We are not all capable of that, in any public fashion; we are all capable of it in some fashion. There is no Christian that has not somebody to whom their words -- they may be very simple and very feeble -- will come as nobody else's words can. Let us use these talents and these opportunities for the Master.
But, above all, let us remember that none of these works -- either the involuntary and unconscious exhibition of light and beauty and excellencies caught from Him; or the voluntary and vocal proclamations of the name of Him from whom we have caught them -- can be done to any good purpose if any taint of self mingles with it. 'Let your light so shine before men that they may behold your good works and glorify' -- whom? you? -- 'your Father which is in heaven.'
The harp-string gives out its note only on condition that, being touched, it vibrates, and ceases to be visible. Be you unseen, transparent, and the glory of the Lord shall shine through you.