GOD'S WORK ON EARTH
EVERY time we come together at the table of the Lord, we are reminded that the matter which brings us here is not of yesterday. We are of yesterday; most of our immediately surrounding circumstances are of yesterday, and if we suffered our thoughts to be moulded by these alone, we should find ourselves adopting a completely mistaken policy of life. It is well to think of things as they are related to the ceaseless and endless stream of time. A little way back, totally different circumstances prevailed. Go far enough back, and there was no Birmingham. The place where we stand this morning was forest, inhabited by our forefathers—painted savages, who practised Druidical rites of cruelty, and lived by fishing and hunting. The rock whence we are hewn as natural men, is poor stuff. There is no room for boasting. Patriotic pride is very much of a fallacy when all things are considered. It is a sentiment alien to the heart where Christ dwells by faith.
Eighteen hundred years ago, proud England was but a recently annexed and uncertain barbarian province of the Roman Empire. Crossing the Channel we should have begun to come in contact with a more interesting state of things. France would have given token of a civilisation far in advance of that existing in the British Isles. Travelling south and east, we should have found these tokens thicken in the path; till penetrating the Alpine passes, smiling Italy would have opened on our view, with her multiplying monuments of human art and skill. Traversing her broad and cultivated plains, we should at last, from a different direction to that from which Paul reached it, have come on the great London of the time, and more than London—the mistress of the world and the paragon of metropolitan beauty Rome, the capital of universal empire and the home of three millions of people; unrivalled in the beauty of her situation, the magnificence of her architecture, the spaciousness of her streets, and the splendour of all that relates to ornament and taste.
Mixing in society, at this swarming and imperial centre of population, we should have learnt, among other things, that a strange revolution was in progress in the eastern provinces of the empire; that a certain agitator was disturbing the lesser Asia with new doctrines, and had succeeded in bringing the State religion into discredit, causing the people by thousands to abandon the worship of the gods “as by law established.” Centres of this heresy we should have learnt were Ephesus, Thessalonica, and Philippi. Enquiring further, we should have been informed that the new movement was an importation from Syria; that the ringleader was a man named Paul (who was a turncoat from the Jewish religion); that the disciples of the new religion were known as Nazarenes and Christians; that the thing was spreading, and that no infliction of punishment was effectual to stop it; although the Nazarenes themselves used no violence, nor even retaliated upon those who were ill-using them; that both Jews and Pagans were alike hostile to it, but without effect. Pressing our inquiries as to what this Nazarene stir was about, we might have learnt, as Festus told Agrippa, that it was about one Jesus who was dead, and whom Paul affirmed to be alive. If unsatisfied with this information we had sought to institute closer inquiries, we might have learnt that there was a body of Nazarenes in Rome itself, started by certain Jews who returned from the feast of Pentecost at Jerusalem in the year answering to the modern A.D. 34. Expressing a curiosity to see them, we might have been guided to their meeting place—some obscure room in the great city. We would have found them a large, increasing, and enthusiastic assembly, superintended by men possessing remarkable gifts dating from the year aforesaid, and in active communication with their fellow-believers in all parts of the empire; so that their faith came to be spoken of throughout the whole world. Intercourse with them would have enlightened us as to the nature and object of Nazarene operations in general. We would have found it no matter of marvel that they were arresting public attention so successfully. We should have heard and seen that many prodigies attended the advocacy of their doctrines. The healing of the sick, the cleansing of the leper, the making whole of the lame, and the raising of the dead in their public proceedings, and the instantaneous speaking of known foreign languages by illiterate members; the utterance of prophecy, and the exercise of miraculous discernments among themselves privately, would have convinced us that God was working with them, confirming their word with signs following.
If stimulated to pursue our journey eastward, into the neighbourhood of their greatest triumph in Asia, we should have found ourselves at last in the same town with Paul; but perhaps unable to get at him, in consequence of his being in prison. Perseverance and influence might have enabled us to get access to him even there. The interview in his prison would have been interesting, though probably not so much so as it would be now, after the understanding that the lapse of time has enabled us to attain unto. We should have found a plain, stern, sad looking, bearded Jew, of middle size, with an over-worked look about him, “pressed out of measure, above strength, despairing even of life.” Probably his countenance would show bruises. As for his clothes, not finely clad; not a gentleman to look at, but one accustomed to the reputation of being a pestilent fellow, a vagabond, off-scouring of all things, and very likely looking a little like it, with his ugly chain holding him to his place. If like Onesiphorus, we might possibly have been not ashamed of his chain. If over fine, with the proud flesh of the carnal mind uncauterised by the truth, we might have felt a shrinking, a reservation, a doubt whether a man of the sort before us could be the instrument of a Divine mission; whether a man who could work miracles could possibly get into such a position; whether it was not after all some affair of plebeian fanaticism, with which it would be prudent not to defile our respectability.
Conversation would have dispelled our misgivings. May we ask, “Paul, what is the secret of this course on your part which brings you into such trouble? We understood you were once a respectable Jew at Jerusalem.” “Yes; after the strictest sect of our religion I was brought up a Pharisee at the feet of Gamaliel, in Jerusalem, and was more zealous of the traditions of the fathers than many of my equals.” “Were you a Nazarene at the time?” “No; I was opposed to the Nazarenes, and took a leading part in the persecution of them. I was exceedingly mad against them, even to strange cities, and made myself very busy, haling men and women to prison, entering into every house where they were, making great havoc among them, even unto death.” “How came you to be a preacher of the faith you once so zealously destroyed?” “Well, as I was on a special commission to Damascus from the chief priests, I drew near the city at midday, when, in the very midst of a retinue of officers and attendants, a blinding light, more dazzling than the sun, struck me and threw me on the ground, and immediately I heard a voice, saying, ‘Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?’ I said, ‘Who art thou, Lord?’ for I had no idea but that I was doing God service in what I was about. The voice answered, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest.’ Then I was permitted to see the person who spoke to me, and I saw that it was Christ, whom I had known before after the flesh. I was greatly amazed. I asked what he would have me to do. He told me to go into Damascus, and call for one Ananias, who should tell me I ought to do. He then told me that he had appeared unto me that I might be a witness for him unto the peoples and kings to whom he would send me, to open their eyes that they might obtain forgiveness of sins and inheritance among the saints. Then the vision faded from my view, and the voice ceased, and I was lying on the ground, blind. Those with me raised me up; but I could not see, and had to be led into the town, like a blind man. In three days, Ananias came to me, and told me the Lord Jesus had appeared to him, and had directed him to come to me. He laid his hands on me, and immediately my eyes were opened; and Ananias told me the Lord had appeared to me by the way for the purpose of making me a witness to the things which I was ignorantly opposing. Thus I became a Nazarene, and began immediately, to the great astonishment of the Jews, to preach that Jesus was Christ.”
Then had we asked Paul what Jesus being the Christ meant, we should have found our attention directed to an age as far back from Paul’s day as he is from ours. He would have spoken to us of the fathers and of promises to them of blessing to come through a great Anointed One of God, who was to arise in the line of their generations. He would have made us know, if we before had been ignorant, that the Jews had been in the Holy Land more or less for 1,500 years; that they were God’s nation, to whom He had given a law at the beginning, and whom for all that length of time He had visited with prosperity or trouble, according as they were obedient or not; that they were the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, going back to whose age we should have found them sojourning in the land of the Amorites as strangers, in obedience to a Divine command, the full scope of which they did not comprehend, but which involved a pledge that they were to receive the land for a possession at some future time. Questioning Paul, we should have found that outside the channel of this promise, there was no permanent good to be realised by men; that the nations of antiquity had passed away without hope, as strangers from the covenants of promise; that judgment had passed upon all men to condemnation, and that salvation was only in Christ, the promised deliverer.
Had we enquired of the antecedents of Abraham’s time, we should have found ourselves conveyed backwards to the flood; and a still further stage, bridging more than sixteen centuries, would have brought us to the beginning of all Adamic living. In the confines of the garden of Eden, we should have beheld Adam expelled for transgression; and the history of human misery begun. Slowly resuming our journey backwards, we might have learnt the purpose of God in the development of human affairs. Abel, obedient, with a child-like simplicity to what was required, murdered by Cain from Cain’s wounded self-love, would have evoked our sympathy, and taught us the wisdom of faith in the word, and obedience to the commandments of God. Enoch, walking with God 365 years, while his contemporaries were content with the mere gratification of the eye and ear, and other senses, in contact with nature, would have stimulated us to consider all things from God’s point of view; while his translation that he should not see death, because he pleased God, does help us even now to remember that “walking worthy of God in all well pleasing,” leads at last to a time when this corruptible shall put on incorruptibility, when the present world shall have passed as entirely away as the sensuous neighbours of Enoch, whose memory is as forgotten as if they had never been.
Noah’s solitary faithfulness in the midst of a population abandoned to the pleasures of society among beautiful women and strong men, and holiday delights; God’s way disregarded and corrupted, and prosperity crowning the paths of the disobedient, as saith Job: “The wicked live, become old, yea, are mighty in power. Their seed is established in their sight with them and their offspring before their eyes. Their houses are safe from fear, neither is the rod of God upon them. Their bull gendereth and faileth not; their cow calveth and casteth not her calf. They send forth their little ones like a flock, and their children dance. They take the timbrel and the harp, and they rejoice at the sound of the organ. . . . They say unto God, Depart from us, we desire not the knowledge of Thy ways.”
Noah’s faithfulness in such surroundings tells us to be steadfast in our day. The wide-sweeping destruction that came by water upon the world of the ungodly reminds us of the terrible visitation in store, by which the present order will be utterly destroyed in the day of the Lord’s vengeance, while Noah’s safety from fear in the ark, which had been the butt of the ungodly’s ridicule, finds its parallel in the salvation which will be ours in Christ in the great and terrible day of the Lord, if we are not ashamed of him and his word in this wicked and adulterous generation. Melchizedek’s reign in righteousness and peace would have refreshed us with a foretaste of the glory and renown of the priest for ever after his order; and the acquaintance of Abraham, who, paid him tithes of all, would have taught us the humility of the friend of God, while his patient submission to expatriation, and his patient endurance of pilgrimage among strangers, in hope against hope believing in hope, would have taught us to walk in the steps of that faith by which he, the “heir of the world,” pleased God, and obtained the testimony that he was righteous. Isaac’s continuance in the same, and Jacob’s trust in the God of his fathers, while burdened with parental anxieties, and even fears, would have drawn us nearer Israel’s God.
Joseph’s early attachment to the ways of God, and his unconquerable adhesion to righteousness would have told us to seek also the God of Jacob early, that we might find him; while his deliverance out of all adversity in his promotion to Pharaoh’s side, contained the assurance that God will deliver all at last who put their trust in Him, and exalt them among the princes of the God of Abraham. Israel’s sufferings would have told us that God permits evil to His own people; while the communication on the subject to Moses at the bush, would have taught us the precious lesson that God is not unmindful of what goes on, though He be silent, but will at last awake to vengeance and redemption. Joseph’s parting words to his brethren (of the certainty of the promised deliverance), and the faithfulness of the mother of Moses concerning the same matter, help us to be steady in our hope in the midst of apparent discouragements.
Moses, at first premature in his expectation that God, by his hand, would deliver Israel tells us of the possibility of being too fast in our interpretation of the Divine purposes, and warns us not to be cast down at apparent failure in our hopes. We are at the dawning of the day, and we thought the hour had arrived with the expiry of the “time, times and a half” of the Little Horn, for the rising of the Sun; but as yet we wait. But if we fly to the wilderness, like Moses, it is with the certainty of returning at no long-distant date to inflict the promised vengeance. Moses, perhaps grown dispirited, was suddenly interrupted in his ordinary avocation by the angel of the Lord at the bush; thus may we suddenly be refreshed by the messenger of the Lord’s presence to announce the glad tidings of his re-appearance to bring salvation. The wonders in the land of Egypt tell us that when the Lord begins his work, the Pharaohs of the present time will be as nothing, with all their power and glory; that the haughtiness of man will be humbled, and the Lord alone exalted in the day of the coming deliverance, when we shall be permitted to sing the song of Moses and the Lamb, in celebration of the consummated redemption of Israel from all his enemies. The narrative of the wandering and rebellions in the wilderness shows us the trials of a faithful man who, seeking the salvation of Israel and the glory of the Mighty One of Jacob, was factiously opposed by petty men, great in then own esteem, whose carcases, falling in the wilderness, justified Moses in the sight of all Israel.
This helps us to accept a similar experience, and to persevere in hope of a like deliverance. The wonders wrought by the sword of Joshua tells us of the great destruction that is coming on all the world in the great day of Jehovah’s wrath, when they shall drink of the wine of the fierceness of the wrath of God, poured out without mixture. The remembrance will help us to make use of this time of tranquility, in preparing to meet God, to which the world around are all indifferent. Then we see Israel disobedient in the land, making affiance with the strange people of the land, and exciting God’s displeasure; and we think of the command addressed to us in the Gospel: “Come out from among them, and be ye separate, and I will receive you.” “Pass the time of your sojourning here in fear.” “We have here no continuing city; we seek one to come.” With these precepts in our minds, we are emboldened to be steadfast in this policy of consecration, undeterred by the disapprobation of unwise friends, or the calumnies and condemnations of such as speak evil of the things they understand not. We see Israel disobedient to the prophets in their generations, and we are reminded of our own times, when the command of Christ, promulgated to the Gentiles, to repent and turn unto God, is set at nought as a myth and a vanity.
But we remember that there was a remnant in Israel who “feared the Lord and thought upon His Name”; and we remember that God has said of them: “They shall be mine in the day when I make up My jewels; and I will spare them as a father spareth his own son that serveth him.” When we think of this, we are encouraged to pursue a similarly unpopular course, adhering to the narrow way, “denying all ungodliness and worldly lusts, and living soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world, looking for the blessed hope,” and enduring the contradiction of sinners. We see the prophets themselves subject to evil in their day and generation, “destitute, tormented, and afflicted, wandering in sheepskins and goatskins, in dens and caves of the earth, of whom the world was not worthy;” and we think of James’ exhortation: “Take my brethren, the prophets, for an example of suffering, affliction, and patience.”
We come at last to the bright particular “star that rose out of Jacob; the sceptre that rose out of Israel”—to whom give all the prophets witness—the rod out of the stem of Jesse the branch that grew out of his roots—the promised Seed-God manifest in the flesh. And what see we? A hero in triumph? A king in glory? No! He came to his own, and his own received him not. They saw no beauty in him to desire him. They hid their faces from him. He was despised and afflicted; a man of no esteem—a friend of publicans and sinners—who had not where to lay his head. A man of sorrow, who made grief his companion; the HEIR OF ALL THINGS; on account of whom the ages have been constituted, the economy of things set in order. If he was cast out in his day, shall we begrudge our unpopularity? If HE went about doing good, shall we not addict ourselves to the same calling, unprofitable and foolish in the eyes of the world? If to him his meat and his drink was to do the will of his Father, shall we join a brainless generation in the intoxicated fascination of the petty prosperities of the present order of things, and in their forgetfulness of God? Nay; if we are called fools for our pains, even by such as ought to know better, we will emulate the Son of God in our consecration to the high calling to which God has called all perishing mortals, with willing ears.
We remember that he said that we must deny ourselves, and we say “Lord, help us to please not our carnal selves, but thyself who hast bought us.” We remember that it hath been told us that he left us an example that we should follow in his steps; and when we think that he was meek and lowly of heart, and that he was led like a lamb before its shearers, dumb, opening not his mouth, we pray to be conformed to his image, not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing, nor avenging ourselves, but committing our cause to him that judgeth righteously, and who will assuredly repay the adversary abundantly. We remember his request of love that we should celebrate his memory weekly in the breaking of bread; and we say, “We will not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is.” We remember that he said “I will come again,” and we say, “Come, Lord Jesus; come quickly. Amen !”
(Robert Roberts, “Seasons of Comfort” Volume 1, Pages 63-69).