Copyright
Alexander Maclaren.

Expositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts online

. (page 25 of 57)
Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 25 of 57)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


whole on the foundation from which it derives its stability, of the
body compacted and organised into a whole by the head from which it
derives its life.

We begin to be Christians, as this context tells us, when we 'turn to
the Lord.' We continue to be Christians, as Barnabas reminded these
ignorant beginners, by 'cleaving to the Lord.' Seeing, then, that our
great task is to preserve that which we have as the very foundation of
our Christian life, clearly the truest method of so keeping it will be
the constant repetition of the act by which we got it at first. In
other words, faith joined us to Christ, and continuously reiterated
acts of faith keep us united to Him. So, if I may venture, fathers and
brethren, to cast my words into the form of exhortation, even to such
an audience as the present, I would earnestly say, Let us cleave to
Christ by continual renewal of our first faith in Him.

The longest line may be conceived of as produced simply by the motion
of its initial point. So should our lives be, our progress not
consisting in leaving our early acts of faith behind us, but in
repeating them over and over again till the points coalesce in one
unbroken line which goes straight to the Throne and Heart of Jesus.
True, the repetition should be accompanied with fuller knowledge, with
calmer certitude, and should come from a heart ennobled and encircled
by a Christ-possessing past. As in some great symphony the theme which
was given out in low notes on one poor instrument recurs over and over
again, embroidered with varying harmonies, and unfolding a richer
music, till it swells into all the grandeur of the triumphant close, so
our lives should be bound into a unity, and in their unity bound to
Christ by the constant renewal of our early faith, and the fathers
should come round again to the place which they occupied when as
children they first knew Him that is 'from the beginning' to the end
one and the same.

Such constant reiteration is needed, too, because yesterday's trust has
no more power to secure to-day's union than the shreds of cloth and
nails which hold last year's growth to the wall will fasten this year's
shoots. Each moment must be united to Christ by its own act of faith,
or it will be separated from Him. So living in the Lord we shall be
strong and wise, happy and holy. So dying in the Lord we shall be of
the dead who are blessed. So sleeping in Jesus we shall at the last be
found in Him at that day, and shall be raised up together, and made to
sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.

But more specially let us cleave to Christ by habitual contemplation.
There can be no real continuous closeness of intercourse with Him,
except by thought ever recurring to Him amidst all the tumult of our
busy days. I do not mean professional thinking or controversial
thinking, of which we ministers have more than enough. There is another
mood of mind in which to approach our Lord than these, a mood sadly
unfamiliar, I am afraid, in these days: when poor Mary has hardly a
chance of a reputation for 'usefulness' by the side of busy, bustling
Martha - that still contemplation of the truth which we possess, not
with the view of discovering its foundations, or investigating its
applications, or even of increasing our knowledge of its contents, but
of bringing our own souls more completely under its influence, and
saturating our being with its fragrance. The Church has forgotten how
to meditate. We are all so occupied arguing and deducing and
elaborating, that we have no time for retired, still contemplation, and
therefore lose the finest aroma of the truth we profess to believe.
Many of us are so busy thinking about Christianity that we have lost
our hold of Christ. Sure I am that there are few things more needed by
our modern religion than the old exhortation, 'Come, My people, enter
into thy chambers and shut thy doors about thee.' Cleave to the Lord by
habitual play of meditative thought on the treasures hidden in His
name, and waiting like gold in the quartz, to be the prize of our
patient sifting and close gaze.

And when the great truths embodied in Him stand clear before us, then
let us remember that we have not done with them when we have _seen_
them. Next must come into exercise the moral side of faith, the
voluntary act of trust, the casting ourselves on Him whom we behold,
the making our own of the blessings which He holds out to us. Flee to
Christ as to our strong habitation to which we may continually resort.
Hold tightly by Christ with a grasp which nothing can slacken (that
whitens your very knuckles as you clutch Him), lean on Christ all your
weight and all your burdens. Cleave to the Lord with full purpose of
heart.

Let us cleave to the Lord by constant outgoings of our love to Him.
That is the bond which unites human spirits together in the only real
union, and Scripture teaches us to see in the sweetest, sacredest,
closest tie that men and women can know, a real, though faint, shadow
of the far deeper and truer union between Christ and us. The same love
which is the bond of perfectness between man and man, is the bond
between us and Christ. In no dreamy, semi-pantheistic fusion of the
believer with his Lord do we find the true conception of the unity of
Christ and His Church, but in a union which preserves the
individualities lest it should slay the love. Faith knits us to Christ,
and faith is the mother of love, which maintains the blessed union. So
let us not be ashamed of the _emotional_ side of our religion, nor deem
that we can cleave to Christ unless our hearts twine their tendrils
round Him, and our love pours its odorous treasures on His sacred feet,
not without weeping and embraces. Cold natures may carp, but Love is
justified of her children, and Christ accepts the homage that has a
heart in it. Cleaving to the Lord is not merely love, but it is
impossible without it. The order is Faith, Love, Obedience - that
threefold cord knits men to Christ, and Christ to men. For the
understanding, a continuous grasp of Him as the object of thought. For
the heart, a continuous outgoing to Him as the object of our love. For
the will, a continuous submission to Him as the Lord of our obedience.
For the whole nature, a continuous cleaving to Him as the object of our
faith and worship.

Such is the true discipline of the Christian life. Such is the
all-sufficient command; as for the newest convert from heathenism, with
little knowledge and the taint of his old vices in his soul, so for the
saint fullest of wisdom and nearest the Light.

It _is_ all-sufficient. If Barnabas had been like some of us, he would
have had a very different style of exhortation. He would have said,
'This irregular work has been well done, but there are no authorised
teachers here, and no provision has been made for the due
administration of the sacraments of the Church. The very first thing of
all is to give these people the blessing of bishops and priests.' Some
of us would have said, 'Valuable work has been done, but these good
people are terribly ignorant. The best thing would be to get ready as
soon as possible some manual of Christian doctrine, and in the meantime
provide for their systematic instruction in at least the elements of
the faith.' Some of us would have said, 'No doubt they have been
converted, but we fear there has been too much of the emotional in the
preaching. The moral side of Christianity has not been pressed home,
and what they chiefly need is to be taught that it is not feeling, but
righteousness. Plain, practical instruction in Christian duty is the
one thing they want.'

Barnabas knew better. He did not despise organisation, nor orthodoxy,
nor practical righteousness, but he knew that all three, and everything
else that any man needed for his perfecting would come, if only the
converts kept near to Christ, and that nothing else was of any use if
they did not. That same conviction should for us settle the relative
importance which we attach to these subordinate and derivative things,
and to the primary and primitive duty. Obedience to it will secure
them. They, without it, are not worth securing.

We spend much pains and effort nowadays in perfecting our organisations
and consolidating our resources, and I have not a word to say against
that. But heavier machinery needs more power in the engine, and that
means greater capacity in your boilers and more fire in your furnace.
The more complete our organisation, the more do we need a firm hold of
Christ, or we shall be overweighted by it, shall be in danger of
burning incense to our own net, shall be tempted to trust in drill
rather than in courage, in mechanism rather than in the life drawn from
Christ. On the other hand, if we put as our first care the preservation
of the closeness of our union with Christ, that life will shape a body
for itself, and 'to every seed its own body.'

True conceptions of Him, and a definite theology, are good and needful.
Let us cleave to Him with mind and heart, and we shall receive all the
knowledge we need, and be guided into the deep things of God. In Him
are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, and the basis of all
theology is the personal possession of Him who is 'the wisdom of God'
and 'the Light of the world.' Every one that loveth is born of God and
knoweth God. _Pectus facit Theologum_.

Plain, straightforward morality and everyday righteousness are better
than all emotion and all dogmatism and all churchism, says the world,
and Christianity says much the same; but plain, straightforward
righteousness and everyday morality come most surely when a man is
keeping close to Christ. In a word, everything that can adorn the
character with beauty, and clothe the Church with glorious apparel,
whatsoever things are lovely and of good report, all that the world or
God calls virtue and crowns with praise, they are all in their fulness
in Him, and all are most surely derived from Him by keeping fast hold
of His hand, and preserving the channels clear through which His
manifold grace may flow into our souls. The same life is strength in
the arm, pliancy in the fingers, swiftness in the foot, light in the
eye, music on the lips; so the same grace is Protean in its forms, and
to His servants who trust Him Christ ever says, 'What would ye that I
should do unto you? Be it even as thou wilt.' The same mysterious power
lives in the swaying branch, and in the veined leaf, and in the
blushing clusters. With like wondrous transformations of the one grace,
the Lord pours Himself into our spirits, filling all needs and fitting
for all circumstances. Therefore for us all, individuals and Churches,
this remains the prime command, 'With purpose of heart cleave unto the
Lord.' Dear brethren in the ministry, how sorely we need this
exhortation! Our very professional occupation with Christ and His truth
is full of danger for us; we are so accustomed to handle these sacred
themes as a means of instructing or impressing others that we get to
regard them as our weapons, even if we do not degrade them still
further by thinking of them as our stock-in-trade and means of
oratorical effect. We must keep very firm hold of Christ for ourselves
by much solitary communion, and so retranslating into the nutriment of
our own souls the message we bring to men, else when we have preached
to others we ourselves may be cast away. All the ordinary tendencies
which draw men from Him work on us, and a host of others peculiar to
ourselves, and all around us run strong currents of thought which
threaten to sweep many away. Let us tighten our grasp of Him in the
face of modern doubt; and take heed to ourselves that neither vanity,
nor worldliness, nor sloth; neither the gravitation earthward common to
all, nor the temptations proper to our office; neither unbelieving
voices without nor voices within, seduce us from His side. There only
is our peace, there our wisdom, there our power.

Subtly and silently the separating forces are ever at work upon us, and
all unconsciously to ourselves our hold may relax, and the flow of this
grace into our spirits may cease, while yet we mechanically keep up the
round of outward service, nor even suspect that our strength is
departed from us. Many a stately elm that seems full of vigorous life,
for all its spreading boughs and clouds of dancing leaves, is hollow at
the heart, and when the storm comes goes down with a crash, and men
wonder, as they look at the ruin, how such a mere shell of life with a
core of corruption could stand so long. It rotted within, and fell at
last, because its roots did not go deep down to the rich soil, where
they would have found nourishment, but ran along near the surface among
gravel and stones. If we would stand firm, be sound within, and bring
forth much fruit, we must strike our roots deep in Him who is the
anchorage of our souls, and the nourisher of all our being.

Hearken, beloved brethren, in this great work of the ministry, not to
the exhortation of the servant, but to the solemn command of the
Master, 'Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of
itself, except it abide in the vine, no more can ye, except ye abide in
Me.' And let us, knowing our own weakness, take heed of the
self-confidence that answers, 'Though all should forsake Thee, yet will
not I,' and turn the vows which spring to our lips into the lowly
prayer, 'My soul cleaveth unto the dust, quicken Thou me according to
Thy word.' Then, thinking rather of His cleaving to us than of our
cleaving to Him, let us resolutely take as the motto of our lives the
grand words: 'I follow after, if that I may lay hold of that for which
I am also laid hold of by Christ Jesus!'



WHAT A GOOD MAN IS, AND HOW HE BECOMES SO

'He was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith.' - ACTS
xi, 24.

'A good man.' How easily that title is often gained! There is, perhaps,
no clearer proof that men are bad than the sort of people whom they
consent to call good.

It is a common observation that all words describing moral excellence
tend to deteriorate and to contract their meaning, just as bright metal
rusts by exposure, or coins become light and illegible by use. So it
comes to pass that any decently respectable man, especially if he has
an easy temper and a dash of frankness and good humour, is christened
with this title 'good.' The Bible, which is the verdict of the Judge,
is a great deal more chary in its use of the word. You remember how
Jesus Christ once rebuked a man for addressing Him so, not that He
repudiated the title, but that the giver had bestowed it lightly and
out of mere conventional politeness. The word is too noble to be
applied without very good reason.

But here we have a picture of Barnabas hung in the gallery of Scripture
portraits, and this is the description of it in the catalogue, 'He was
a good man.'

You observe that my text is in the nature of an analysis. It begins at
the outside, and works inwards. 'He was a good man.' Indeed; - how came
he to be so? He was 'full of the Holy Ghost.' Full of the Holy Ghost,
was he? How came he to be that? He was 'full of faith.' So the writer
digs down, as it were, till he gets to the bed-rock, on which all the
higher strata repose; and here is his account of the way in which it is
possible for human nature to win this resplendent title, and to be
adjudged of God as 'good,' 'full of the Holy Ghost and of faith.'

So these three steps in the exposition of the character and its secret
will afford a framework for what I have to say now.

I. Note, then, first, the sort of man whom the Judge will call 'good.'

Now, I suppose I need not spend much time in massing together, in brief
outline, the characteristics of Barnabas. He was a Levite, belonging to
the sacerdotal tribe, and perhaps having some slight connection with
the functions of the Temple ministry. He was not a resident in the Holy
Land, but a Hellenistic Jew, a native of Cyprus, who had come into
contact with heathenism in a way that had beaten many a prejudice out
of him. We first hear of him as taking a share in the self-sacrificing
burst of brotherly love, which, whether it was wise or not, was noble.
'He, having land, sold it, and brought the money, and laid it at the
Apostles' feet.' And, as would appear from a reference in one of Paul's
letters, he had to support himself afterwards by manual labour.

Then the next thing that we hear of him is that, when the young man who
had been a persecuting Pharisee, and the rising hope of the
anti-Christian party, all at once came forward with some story of a
vision which he had seen on the road to Damascus, and when the older
Christians were suspicious of a trick to worm himself into their
secrets by a pretended conversion, Barnabas, with the generosity of an
unsuspicious nature, which often sees deeper into men than do
suspicious eyes, was the first to cast the aegis of his recognition
round him. In like manner, when Christianity took an entirely
spontaneous and, to the Church at Jerusalem, rather unwelcome new
development and expansion, when some unofficial believers, without any
authority from headquarters, took upon themselves to stride clean
across the wall of separation, and to speak of Jesus Christ to blank
heathens, and found, to the not altogether gratified surprise of the
Christians at Jerusalem, 'that on the Gentiles also was poured out the
gift of the Holy Ghost,' it was Barnabas who was sent down to look into
this surprising new phenomenon, and we read that 'when he came and saw
the grace of God, he was glad.' The reason why he rejoiced over the
manifestation of the grace of God in such a strange form was because
'he was a good man,' and his goodness recognised goodness in others and
was glad at the work of the Lord. The new condition of affairs sent him
to look for Paul, and to put him to work. Then we find him set apart to
missionary service, and the leader of the first missionary band, in
which he was accompanied by his friend Saul. He acquiesced frankly, and
without a murmur, in the superiority of the junior, and yielded up
pre-eminence to him quite willingly. The story of that missionary
journey begins 'Barnabas and Saul,' but very soon it comes to be 'Paul
and Barnabas,' and it keeps that order throughout. He was an older man
than Paul, for when at Lystra the people thought that the gods had come
down in the likeness of men; Barnabas was Jupiter, and Paul the
quick-footed Mercury, messenger of the gods. He was in the work before
Paul was thought of, and it must have taken a great deal of goodness to
acquiesce in 'He must increase and I must decrease.' Then came the
quarrel between them, the foolish fondness for his runaway nephew John
Mark, whom he insisted on retaining in a place for which he was
conspicuously unfitted. And so he lost his friend, the confidence of
the Church, and his work. He sulked away into Cyprus; he had his
nephew, for whom he had given up all these other things. A little fault
may wreck a life, and the whiter the character the blacker the smallest
stain upon it.

We do not hear anything more of him. Apparently, from one casual
allusion, he continued to serve the Lord in evangelistic work, but the
sweet communion of the earlier days, and the confident friendship with
the Apostle, seem to have come to an end with that sharp contention. So
Barnabas drops out of the rank of Christian workers. And yet 'he was a
good man, full of the Holy Ghost and of faith.'

Now I have spent more time than I meant over this brief outline of the
sort of character here pointed at. Let me just gather into one or two
sentences what seem to me to be the lessons of it. The first is this,
that the tap-root of all goodness is reference to God and obedience to
Him. People tell us that morality is independent of religion. I admit
that many men are better than their creeds, and many men are worse than
their creeds; but I would also venture to assert that morality is the
garment of religion; the body of which religion is the soul; the
expression of religion in daily life. And although I am not going to
say that nothing which a man does without reference to God has any
comparative goodness in it, or that all the acts which are thus void of
reference to Him stand upon one level of evil, I do venture to say that
the noblest deed, which is not done in conscious obedience to the will
of God, lacks its supreme nobleness. The loftiest perfection of conduct
is obedience to God. And whatever excellence of self-sacrifice,
'whatsoever things lovely and of good report,' there may be, apart from
the presence of this perfect motive, those deeds are imperfect. They do
not correspond either to the whole obligations or to the whole
possibilities of man, and, therefore, they are beneath the level of the
highest good. Good is measured by reference to God.

Then, further, let me remark that one broad feature which characterises
the truest goodness is the suppression of self. That is only another
way of saying the same thing as I have been saying. It is illustrated
for us all through this story of Barnabas. Whosoever can say, 'I think
not of myself, but of others; of the cause; of the help I can give to
men; and I lay not goods only, nor prejudices only, nor the pride of
position and the supremacy of place only at the feet of God, but I lay
down my whole self; and I desire that self may be crucified, that God
may live in me,' - he, and only he, has reached the height of goodness.
Goodness requires the suppression of self.

Further, note that the gentler traits of character are pre-eminent in
Christian goodness. There is nothing about this man heroic or
exceptional. His virtues are all of the meek and gracious sort - those
which we relegate sometimes to an inferior place in our estimates.
These things make but a poor show by the side of some of the tawdry
splendours of what the vulgar world calls virtues. It requires an
educated eye to see the harmony of the sober colouring of some great
painter. A child, a clown, a vulgar person - and there are such in all
ranks - will prefer flaring reds and blues and yellows heaped together
in staring contrast. A thrush or a blackbird is but a soberly clad
creature by the side of macaws and paroquets; but the one has a song
and the others have only a screech. The gentle virtues are the truly
Christian virtues - patience and meekness and long-suffering and
sympathy and readiness to efface oneself for the sake of God and of men.

So there is a bit of comfort for us commonplace, humdrum people, to
whom God has only given one or two talents, and who can never expect to
make a figure before men. We may be little violets below a stone, if we
cannot be flaunting hollyhocks and tiger lilies. We may have the beauty
of goodness in us after Christ's example, and that is better than to be
great.

Barnabas was no genius. He was not even a genius in goodness; he did
not strike out anything original and out of the way. He seems to have
been a commonplace kind of man enough; but 'he was a good man.' And the
weakest and the humblest of us may hope to have the same thing said of
us, if we will.

And then, note further, that true goodness, thank God! does not exclude
the possibility of falling and sinning. There is a black spot in this
man's history; and there are black spots in the histories of all
saints. Thank God! the Bible is, as some people would say, almost
brutally frank in telling us about the imperfections of the best. Very
often imperfections are the exaggerations of characteristic goodnesses,
and warn us to take care that we do not push, as Barnabas did, our
facility to the point of criminal complicity with weaknesses; and that
we do not indulge, instead of strenuously rebuking when need is. Never
let our gentleness fall away, like a badly made jelly, into a trembling
heap, and never let our strength gather itself together into a
repulsive attitude, but guard against the exaggeration of virtue into
vice.

Remember that whilst there may be good men who sin, there is One entire
and flawless, in whom all types of excellence do meet, and who alone of
humanity can front the verdict of the world, and has fronted it now for
nineteen centuries, with the question upon His lips, which none have
dared to answer, 'Which of you convinceth Me of sin?'

II. Secondly, notice the divine Helper who makes men good.

Luke, if he be the writer of the Acts, goes on with his analysis. He
has done with the first fold, the outer garment, as it were; he strips
it off and shows us the next fold, 'full of the Holy Ghost.'



Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 25 of 57)