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Him, and if we love our brother.

Notice, too, how simple the form as well as the substance of the
message. 'They _spake_.' It was no set address, no formal utterance,
but familiar, natural talk to ones and twos, as opportunity offered.
The form was so simple that we may say that there was none. What we
want is that Christian people should speak anyhow. What does the shape
of the cup matter? What does it matter whether it be gold or clay? The
main thing is that it shall bear the water of life to some thirsty lip.
All Christians have to preach, as the word is used here, that is, to
tell the good news. Their task is to carry a message - no refinement of
words is needed for that - arguments are not needed. They have to tell
it simply and faithfully, as one who only cares to repeat what he has
had given to him. They have to tell it confidently, as having proved it
true. They have to tell it beseechingly, as loving the souls to whom
they bring it. Surely we can all do that, if we ourselves are living on
Christ and have drunk into His Spirit. Let His mighty salvation,
experienced by yourselves, be the substance of your message, and let
the form of it be guided by the old words, 'It shall be, when the
Spirit of the Lord is come upon thee, that thou shalt do as occasion
shall serve thee.'

IV. Notice, lastly, the mighty Helper who prospered their work.

'The hand of the Lord was with them.' The very keynote of this Book of
the Acts is the work of the ascended Christ in and for His Church. At
every turning-point in the history, and throughout the whole
narratives, forms of speech like this occur, bearing witness to the
profound conviction of the writer that Christ's active energy was with
His servants, and Christ's Hand the origin of all their security and of
all their success.

So this is a statement of a permanent and universal fact. We do not
labour alone; however feeble our hands, that mighty Hand is laid on
them to direct their movements and to lend strength to their weakness.
It is not our speech which will secure results, but His presence with
our words which will bring it about that even through them a great
number shall believe and turn to the Lord. There is our encouragement
when we are despondent. There is our rebuke when we are self-confident.
There is our stimulus when we are indolent. There is our quietness when
we are impatient. If ever we are tempted to think our task heavy, let
us not forget that He who set it helps us to do it, and from His throne
shares in all our toils, the Lord still, as of old, working with us. If
ever we feel that our strength is nothing, and that we stand solitary
against many foes, let us fall back upon the peace-giving thought that
one man against the world, with Christ to help him, is always in the
majority, and let us leave issues of our work in His hands, whose hand
will guard the seed sown in weakness, whose smile will bless the
springing thereof.

How little any of us know what will become of our poor work, under His
fostering care! How little these men knew that they were laying the
foundations of the great change which was to transform the Christian
community from a Jewish sect into a world-embracing Church! So is it
ever. We know not what we do when simply and humbly we speak His name.
The far-reaching results escape our eyes. Then, sow the seed, and He
will 'give it a body as it pleaseth Him.' On earth we may never know
the fruits of our labours. They will be among the surprises of heaven,
where many a solitary worker shall exclaim with wonder, as he looks on
the hitherto unknown children whom God hath given him, 'Behold, I was
left alone; these, where had they been?' Then, though our names may
have perished from earthly memories, like those of the simple fugitives
of Cyprus and Cyrene, who 'were the first that ever burst' into the
night of heathendom with the torch of the Gospel in their hands, they
will be written in the Lamb's book of life, and He will confess them in
the presence of His Father in heaven.



THE EXHORTATION OF BARNABAS [Footnote: Preached before the
Congregational Union of England and Wales.]

'Who, when he came, and had seen the grace of God, was glad, and
exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto
the Lord.' - ACTS xi. 23.

The first purely heathen converts had been brought into the Church by
the nameless men of Cyprus and Cyrene, private persons with no office
or commission to preach, who, in simple obedience to the instincts of a
Christian heart, leaped the barrier which seemed impassable to the
Church in Jerusalem, and solved the problem over which Apostles were
hesitating. Barnabas is sent down to see into this surprising new
phenomenon, and his mission, though probably not hostile, was, at all
events, one of inquiry and doubt. But like a true man, he yielded to
facts, and widened his theory to suit them. He saw the tokens of
Christian life in these Gentile converts, and that compelled him to
admit that the Church was wider than some of his friends in Jerusalem
thought. A pregnant lesson for modern theorists who, on one ground or
another of doctrine or of orders, narrow the great conception of
Christ's Church! Can you see 'the grace of God' in the people? Then
they are in the Church, whatever becomes of your theories, and the
sooner you let them out so as to fit the facts, the better for you and
for them.

Satisfied as to their true Christian character, Barnabas sets himself
to help them to grow. Now, remember how recently they had been
converted; how, from their Gentile origin, they can have had next to no
systematic instruction; how the taint of heathen morals, such as were
common in that luxurious, corrupt Antioch, must have clung to them; how
unformed must have been their loose Church organisation - and
remembering all this, think of this one exhortation as summing up all
that Barnabas had to say to them. He does not say, Do this, or Believe
that, or Organise the other; but he says, Stick to Jesus Christ the
Lord. On this commandment hangs all the law; it is the one
all-inclusive summary of the duties of the Christian life.

So, brethren and fathers, I venture to take these words now, as
containing large lessons for us all, appropriate at all times, and
especially in a sermon on such an occasion as the present.

We may deal with the thoughts suggested by these words very simply,
just looking at the points as they lie - what Barnabas _saw_, what he
_felt_, what he _said_.

I. What Barnabas saw.

The grace of God here has very probably the specific meaning of the
miracle-working gift of the Holy Spirit. That is rendered probable by
the analogy of other instances recorded in the Acts of the Apostles,
such as Peter's experience at Caesarea, where all his hesitations and
reluctance were swept away when 'the Holy Ghost fell on them as on us
at the beginning, and they spake with tongues.' If so, what convinced
Barnabas that these uncircumcised Gentiles were Christians like
himself, may have been their similar possession of the visible and
audible effects of that gift of God. But the language does not compel
this interpretation; and the absence of all distinct reference to these
extraordinary powers as existing there, among the new converts at
Antioch, may be intended to mark a difference in the nature of the
evidence. At any rate, the possibly intentional generality of the
expression is significant and fairly points to an extension of the
spiritual gifts much beyond the limits of miraculous powers. There are
other ways by which the grace of God may be seen and heard, thank God!
than by speaking with tongues and working miracles; and the first
lesson of our text is that wherever that grace is made visible by its
appropriate manifestations, there we are to recognise a brother.

Augustine said, 'Where Christ is there is the Church,' and that is
true, but vague; for the question still remains, 'And where _is_
Christ?' The only satisfying answer is, Christ is wherever Christlike
men manifest a life drawn from, and kindred with, His life. And so the
true form of the dictum for practical purposes comes to be: 'Where the
grace of Christ is visible, there is the Church.'

That great truth is sinned against and denied in many ways. Most
chiefly, perhaps, by the successors in modern garb of the more Jewish
portion of that Church at Jerusalem who sent Barnabas to Antioch. They
had no objection to Gentiles entering the Church, but they must come in
by the way of circumcision; they quite believed that it was Christ who
saved, and His grace which sanctified, but they thought that His grace
would only flow in a given channel; and so do their modern
representatives, who exalt sacraments, and consequently priests, to the
same place as the Judaizers in the early Church did the rite of the old
Covenant. Such teachers have much to say about the notes of the Church,
and have elaborated a complicated system of identification by which you
may know the genuine article, and unmask impostors. The attempt is
about as wise as to try to weave a network fine enough to keep back a
stream. The water will flow through the closest meshes, and when Christ
pours out the Spirit, He is apt to do it in utter disregard of notes of
the Church, and of channels of sacramental grace.

We Congregationalists, who have no orders, no sacraments, no Apostolic
succession; who in order not to break loose from Christ and conscience
have had to break loose from 'Catholic tradition,' and have been driven
to separation by the true schismatics, who have insisted on another
bond of Church unity than union to Christ, are denied nowadays a place
in His Church.

The true answer to all that arrogant assumption and narrow pedantry
which confine the free flow of the water of life to the conduits of
sacraments and orders, and will only allow the wind that bloweth where
it listeth to make music in the pipes of their organs, is simply the
homely one which shivered a corresponding theory to atoms in the fair
open mind of Barnabas.

The Spirit of Christ at work in men's hearts, making them pure and
gentle, simple and unworldly, refining their characters, elevating
their aims, toning their whole being into accord with the music of His
life, is the true proof that men are Christians, and that communities
of such men are Churches of His. Mysterious efficacy is claimed for
Christian ordinances. Well, the question is a fair one: Is the type of
Christian character produced within these sacred limits, which we are
hopelessly outside, conspicuously higher and more manifestly Christlike
than that nourished by no sacraments, and grown not under glass, but in
the unsheltered open? Has not God set His seal on these communities to
which we belong? With many faults for which we have to be, and are,
humble before Him, we can point to the lineaments of the family
likeness, and say, 'Are they Hebrews? so are we. Are they Israelites?
so are we. Are they the seed of Abraham? so are we.'

Once get that truth wrought into men's minds, that the true test of
Christianity is the visible presence of a grace in character which is
evidently God's, and whole mountains of prejudice and error melt away.
We are just as much in danger of narrowing the Church in accordance
with our narrowness as any 'sacramentarian' of them all. We are tempted
to think that no good thing can grow up under the baleful shadow of
that tree, a sacerdotal Christianity. We are tempted to think that all
the good people are Dissenters, just as Churchmen are to think that
nobody can be a Christian who prays without a prayer-book. Our own type
of denominational character - and there is such a thing - comes to be
accepted by us as the all but exclusive ideal of a devout man; and we
have not imagination enough to conceive, nor charity enough to believe
in, the goodness which does not speak our dialect, nor see with our
eyes. Dogmatical narrowness has built as high walls as ceremonial
Christianity has reared round the fold of Christ, And the one
deliverance for us all from the transformed selfishness, which has so
much to do with shaping all these wretched narrow theories of the
Church, is to do as this man did - open our eyes with sympathetic
eagerness to see God's grace in many an unexpected place, and square
our theories with His dealings.

It used to be an axiom that there was no life in the sea beyond a
certain limit of a few hundred feet. It was learnedly and conclusively
demonstrated that pressure and absence of light, and I know not what
beside, made life at greater depths impossible. It was proved that in
such conditions creatures could not live. And then, when that was
settled, the _Challenger_ put down her dredge five miles, and brought
up healthy and good-sized living things, with eyes in their heads, from
that enormous depth. So, then, the savant had to ask, _How_ can there
be life? instead of asserting that there cannot be; and, no doubt, the
answer will be forth coming some day.

We have all been too much accustomed to set arbitrary limits to the
diffusion of the life of Christ among men. Let us rather rejoice when
we see forms of beauty, which bear the mark of His hand, drawn from
depths that we deemed waste, and thankfully confess that the bounds of
our expectation, and the framework of our institutions, do not confine
the breadth of His working, nor the sweep of His grace.

II. What Barnabas felt.

'He was glad.' It was a triumph of Christian principle to recognise the
grace of God under new forms, and in so strange a place. It was a still
greater triumph to hail it with rejoicing. One need not have wondered
if the acknowledgment of a fact, dead in the teeth of all his
prejudices, and seemingly destructive of some profound convictions, had
been somewhat grudging. Even a good, true man might have been
bewildered and reluctant to let go so much as was destroyed by the
admission - 'Then hath God granted to the Gentiles also repentance unto
life,' - and might have been pardoned if he had not been able to do more
than acquiesce and hold his peace. We are scarcely just to these early
Jewish Christians when we wonder at their hesitation on this matter,
and are apt to forget the enormous strength of the prejudices and
sacred conviction which they had to overcome. Hence the context seems
to consider that the quick recognition of Christian character on the
part of Barnabas, and his gladness at the discovery, need explanation,
and so it adds, with special reference to these, as it would seem, 'for
he was a good man, full of the Holy Ghost and of faith,' as if nothing
short of such characteristics could have sufficiently emancipated him
from the narrowness that would have refused to discern the good, or the
bitterness that would have been offended at it.

So, dear brethren, we may well test ourselves with this question: Does
the discovery of the working of the grace of God outside the limits of
our own Churches and communions excite a quick, spontaneous emotion of
gladness in _our_ hearts? It may upset some of our theories; it may
teach us that things which we thought very important, 'distinctive
principles' and the like, are not altogether as precious as we thought
them; it may require us to give up some pleasant ideas of our
superiority, and of the necessary conformity of all good people to our
type. Are we willing to let them all go, and without a twinge of envy
or a hanging back from prejudice, to welcome the discovery that 'God
fulfils Himself in many ways'? Have we schooled ourselves to say
honestly, 'Therein I do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice'?

There is much to overcome if we would know this Christlike gladness.
The good and the bad in us may both oppose it. The natural deeper
interest in the well-being of the Churches of our own faith and order,
the legitimate ties which unite us with these, our conscientious
convictions, our friendships, the _esprit de corps_ born of fighting
shoulder to shoulder, will, of course, make our sympathies flow most
quickly and deeply in denominational channels. And then come in
abundance of less worthy motives, some altogether bad and some the
exaggeration of what is good, and we get swallowed up in our own
individual work, or in that of our 'denomination,' and have but a very
tepid joy in anybody else's prosperity.

In almost every town of England, your Churches, and those to which I
belong, with Presbyterians and Wesleyans, stand side by side. The
conditions of our work make some rivalry inevitable, and none of us, I
suppose, object to that. It helps to keep us all diligent: a sturdy
adherence to our several 'distinctive principles' and an occasional
hard blow in fair fight on their behalf we shall all insist upon. Our
brotherhood is all the more real for frank speech, and 'the animated
No!' is an essential in all intercourse which is not stagnant or
mawkish. There is much true fellowship and much good feeling among all
these. But we want far more of an honest rejoicing in each other's
success, a quicker and truer manly sympathy with each other's work, a
fuller consciousness of our solidarity in Christ, and a clearer
exhibition of it before the world.

And on a wider view, as our eyes travel over the wide field of
Christendom, and our memories go back over the long ages of the story
of the Church, let gladness, and not wonder or reluctance, be the
temper with which we see the graces of Christian character lifting
their meek blossoms in corners strange to us, and breathing their
fragrance over the pastures of the wilderness. In many a cloister, in
many a hermit's cell, from amidst the smoke of incense, through the
dust of controversies, we should see, and be glad to see, faces bright
with the radiance caught from Christ. Let us set a jealous watch over
our hearts that self-absorption, or denominationalism, or envy do not
make the sight a pain instead of a joy; and let us remember that the
eye-salve which will purge our dim sight to behold the grace of God in
all its forms is that grace itself, which ever recognises its own
kindred, and lives in the gladness of charity, and the joy of beholding
a brother's good. If we are to have eyes to know the grace of God when
we see it, and a heart to rejoice when we know it, we must get them as
Barnabas got his, and be good men, because we are full of the Holy
Ghost, and full of the Holy Ghost because we are full of faith.

III. What Barnabas said.

'He exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave
unto the Lord.' The first thing that strikes one about this
all-sufficient directory for Christian life is the emphasis with which
it sets forth 'the Lord' as the one object to be grasped and held. The
sum of all objective Religion is Christ - the sum of all subjective
Religion is cleaving to Him. A living Person to be laid hold of, and a
personal relation to that Person, such is the conception of Religion,
whether considered as revelation or as inward life, which underlies
this exhortation. Whether we listen to His own words about Himself, and
mark the altogether unprecedented way in which He was His own theme,
and the unique decisiveness and plainness with which He puts His own
personality before us as the Incarnate Truth, the pattern for all human
conduct, the refuge and the rest for the world of weary ones; or
whether we give ear to the teaching of His Apostles; from whatever
point of view we approach Christianity, it all resolves itself into the
person of Jesus Christ. He is the _Revelation_ of God; theology,
properly so called, is but the formulating of the facts which He gives
us; and for the modern world the alternative is, Christ the manifested
God, or no God at all, other than the shadow of a name. He is the
perfect _Exemplar_ of humanity! The law of life and the power to fulfil
the law are both in Him; and the superiority of Christian morality
consists not in this or that isolated precept, but in the embodiment of
all goodness in His life, and in the new motive which He supplies for
keeping the commandment. Wrenched away from Him, Christian morality has
no being. He is the sacrifice for the world, the salvation of which
flows from what He does, and not merely from what He taught or was. His
personality is the foundation of His work, and the gospel of
forgiveness and reconciliation is all contained in the name of Jesus.

There is a constant tendency to separate the results of Christ's life
and death, whether considered as revelation, atonement, or ethics, from
Him, and unconsciously to make these the sum of our Religion, and the
object of our faith. Especially is this the case in times of restless
thought and eager canvassing of the very foundations of religious
belief, like the present. Therefore it is wholesome for us all to be
brought back to the pregnant simplicity of the thought which underlies
this text, and to mark how vividly these early Christians apprehended a
living Lord as the sum and substance of all which they had to grasp.

There is a whole world between the man to whom God's revelation
consists in certain doctrines given to us by Jesus Christ, and the man
to whom it consists in that Christ Himself. Grasping a living person is
not the same as accepting a proposition. True, the propositions are
about Him, and we do not know Him without them. But equally true, we
need to be reminded that _He_ is our Saviour and not _they_, and that
God has revealed Himself to us not in words and sentences but in a life.

For, alas! the doctrinal element has overborne the personal among all
Churches and all schools of thought, and in the necessary process of
formulating and systematising the riches which are in Jesus, we are all
apt to confound the creeds with the Christ, and so to manipulate
Christianity until, instead of being the revelation of a Person and a
gospel, it has become a system of divinity. Simple, devout souls have
to complain that they cannot find even a dead Christ, to say nothing of
a living one, for the theologians have 'taken away their Lord, and they
know not where they have laid Him.'

It is, therefore, to be reckoned as a distinct gain that one result of
the course of more recent thought, both among friends and foes, has
been to make all men feel more than before, that all revelation is
contained in the living person of Jesus Christ. So did the Church
believe before creeds were. So it is coming to feel again, with a
consciousness enriched and defined by the whole body of doctrine, which
has flowed from Him during all the ages. That solemn, gracious Figure
rises day by day more clearly before men, whether they love Him or no,
as the vital centre of this great whole of doctrines, laws,
institutions, which we call Christianity. Round the story of His life
the final struggle is to be waged. The foe feels that, so long as that
remains, all other victories count for nothing. We feel that if that
goes, there is nothing to keep. The principles and the precepts will
perish alike, as the fair palace of the old legend, that crumbled to
dust when its builder died. But so long as He stands before mankind as
He is painted in the Gospel, it will endure. If all else were
annihilated, Churches, creeds and all, leave us these four Gospels, and
all else would be evolved again. The world knows now, and the Church
has always known, though it has not always been true to the
significance of the fact, that Jesus Christ is Christianity, and that
because He lives, it will live also.

And consequently the sum of all personal religion is this simple act
described here as _cleaving to Him_.

Need I do more than refer to the rich variety of symbols and forms of
expression under which that thought is put alike by the Master and by
His servants? Deepest of all are His own great words, of which our text
is but a feeble echo, 'Abide in Me, and I in you.' Fairest of all is
that lovely emblem of the vine, setting forth the sweet mystery of our
union with Him. Far as it is from the outmost pliant tendril to the
root, one life passes to the very extremities, and every cluster swells
and reddens and mellows because of its mysterious flow. 'So also is
Christ.' We remember how often the invitation flowed from His lips,
_Come_ unto Me; how He was wont to beckon men away from self and the
world with the great command, _Follow_ Me; how He explained the secret
of all true life to consist in _eating_ Him. We may recall, too, the
emphasis and perpetual reiteration with which Paul speaks of being 'in
Jesus' as the condition of all blessedness, power, and righteousness;
and the emblems which he so often employs of the building bound into a



Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 24 of 57)