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Expositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts online

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A divine Helper, not merely a divine influence, but a divine Person,
who not only helps men from without, but so enters into a man as that
the man's whole nature is saturated with Him - that is strange language.
Mystical and unreal I dare say some of you may think it, but let us
consider whether some such divine Helper is not plainly pointed as
necessary, by the experience of every man that ever honestly tried to
make himself good.

I have no doubt that I am speaking to many persons who, more or less
constantly and courageously and earnestly, have laboured at the task of
self-improvement and self-culture. I venture to think that, if their
standard of what they wish to attain is high, their confession of what
they have attained will be very low. Ah, brother! if we think of what
it is that we need to make us good - viz. the strengthening of these
weak wills of ours, which we cannot strengthen but to a very limited
degree by any tonics that we can apply, or any supports with which we
may bind them round; if we consider the resistance which ourselves, our
passions, our tastes, our habits, our occupations offer, and the
resistance which the world around us, friends, companions, and all the
aggregate, dread and formidable, of material things present to our
becoming, in any lofty and comprehensive sense of the term, good men
and women, I think we shall be ready to listen, as to a true Gospel, to
the message that says, 'You do not need to do it by yourself.' You have
got the wolf by the ears, perhaps, for a moment, but there is
tremendous strength in the brute, and your hands and wrists will ache
in holding him presently, and what will happen then? You do not need to
try it yourself. There is a divine Helper standing at your sides and
waiting to strengthen you, and that Helper does not work from outside;
He will pass within, and dwell in your hearts and mould and strengthen
your wills to what is good, and suppress your inclinations to evil,
and, by His inward presence, teach 'your hands to war and your fingers
to fight.'

Surely, surely, the experience of the world from the beginning,
confirmed by the consciousness and conscience of every one of us, tells
us that of ourselves we are impotent, and that the good that is within
the reach of our unaided efforts is poor and fragmentary and
superficial indeed.

The great promise of the Gospel is precisely this promise. We terribly
limit and misunderstand what we call the Gospel if we give such
exclusive predominance to one part of it, as some of us are accustomed
to do. Thank God I the first word that Jesus Christ says to any soul
is, 'Thy sins be forgiven thee.' But that first word has a second that
follows it, 'Arise! and walk!' and it is for the sake of the second
that the first is spoken. The gift of pardon, the consciousness of
acceptance, the fact of reconciliation with God, the closing of the
doors of the place of retribution, the quieting of the stings of
accusing conscience, all these are but meant to be introductory to that
which Jesus Christ Himself, in the Gospel of John, emphatically calls
more than once '_the_ gift of God,' which He symbolised by 'living
water,' which whosoever drank should never thirst, and which whosoever
possessed would give it forth in living streams of holy life and noble
deeds. The promise of the Gospel is the promise of new life, derived
from Christ and maintained in us by the indwelling Spirit, which will
come like fresh reinforcements to an all but beaten army in some
hard-fought field, which will stand like a stay behind a man, to us
almost blown over by the gusts of temptation, which will strengthen
what is weak, raise what is low, illumine what is dark, and will make
us who are evil good with a goodness given by God through His Son.

Surely there is nothing more congruous with that divine character than
that He who Himself is good, and good from Himself, should rejoice in
making us, His poor children, into His own likeness. Surely He would
not be good unless He delighted to make us good. Surely it is something
very like presumption in men to assert that the direct communication of
the Spirit of God with the spirits whom God has made is an
impossibility. Surely it is flying in the face of Scripture teaching to
deny that such communication is a promise. Surely it is a flagrant
contradiction of the depths of Christian experience to falter in the
belief that it is a very solid reality.

'Full of the Holy Ghost,' as a vessel might be to its brim of golden
wine; Christian men and women! does that describe you? Full? A
dribbling drop or two in the bottom of the jar. Whose fault is it? Why,
with that rushing mighty wind to fill our sails if we like, should we
be lying in the sickly calms of the tropics, with the pitch oozing out
of the seams, and the idle canvas flapping against the mast? Why, with
those tongues of fire hovering over our heads, should we be cowering
over grey ashes in which there lives a little spark? Why, with that
great rushing tide of the river of the water of life, should we be like
the dry watercourses of the desert, with bleached and white stones
baking where the stream should be running? 'O! Thou that art named the
House of Israel, is the Spirit of the Lord straitened? Are these His
doings?'

III. And so, lastly, we are shown how that divine Helper comes to men.

'Full of the Holy Ghost, and of faith.' There is no goodness without
the impulse and indwelling of the divine Spirit, and there is no divine
Spirit to dwell in a man's heart without that man's trusting in Jesus
Christ. The condition of receiving the gift that makes us good is
simply and solely that we should put our trust in Jesus Christ the
Giver. That opens the door, and the divine Spirit enters.

True! there are convincing operations which He effects upon the world;
but these are not in question here. These come prior to, and
independent of, faith. But the work of the Spirit of God, present
within us to heal and hallow us, has as condition our trust in Jesus
Christ, the Great Healer. If you open a chink, the water will come in.
If you trust in Jesus Christ, He will give you the new life of His
Spirit, which will make you free from the law of sin and death. That
divine Spirit 'which they that believe in Him should receive' delights
to enter into every heart where His presence is desired. Faith is
desire; and desires rooted in faith cannot be in vain. Faith is
expectation; and expectations based upon the divine promise can never
be disappointed. Faith is dependence, and dependence that reckons upon
God, and upon God's gift of His Spirit, will surely be recompensed.

The measure in which we possess the power that makes us good depends
altogether upon ourselves. 'Open thy mouth wide and I will fill it.'
You may have as much of God as you want, and as little as you will. The
measure of your faith will determine at once the measure of your
goodness, and of your possession of the Spirit that makes good. Just as
when the prophet miraculously increased the oil in the cruse, the
golden stream flowed as long as they brought vessels, and stayed when
there were no more, so as long as we open our hearts for the reception,
the gift will not be withheld, but God will not let it run like water
spilled upon the ground that cannot be gathered up. If we will desire,
if we will expect, if we will reckon on, if we will look to, Jesus
Christ, and, beside all this, if we will honestly use the power that we
possess, our capacity will grow, and the gift will grow, and our
holiness and purity will grow with it.

Some of you have been trying more or less continuously, all your lives,
to mend your own characters and improve yourselves. Brethren, there is
a better way than that. A modern poet says -

'Self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control,
These three alone lift life to sovereign power.'

Taken by itself that is pure heathenism. Self cannot improve self. Put
self into God's keeping, and say, 'I cannot guard, keep, purge, hallow
mine own self. Lord, do Thou do it for me!' It is no use to try to
build a tower whose top shall reach to heaven. A ladder has been let
down on which we may pass upwards, and by which God's angels of grace
and beauty will come down to dwell in our hearts. If the Judge is to
say of each of us, 'He was a good man,' He must also be able to say,
'He was full of the Holy Ghost and of faith.'



A NICKNAME ACCEPTED

'The disciples were called Christians first in Antioch' - ACTS xi. 26.

Nations and parties, both political and religious, very often call
themselves by one name, and are known to the outside world by another.
These outside names are generally given in contempt; and yet they
sometimes manage to hit the very centre of the characteristics of the
people on whom they are bestowed, and so by degrees get to be adopted
by them, and worn as an honour.

So it has been with the name 'Christian.' It was given at the first by
the inhabitants of the Syrian city of Antioch, to a new sort of people
that had sprung up amongst them, and whom they could not quite make
out. They would not fit into any of their categories, and so they had
to invent a new name for them. It is never used in the New Testament by
Christians about themselves. It occurs here in this text; it occurs in
Agrippa's half-contemptuous exclamation: 'You seem to think it is a
very small matter to make me - me, a king! - a Christian, one of those
despised people!' And it occurs once more, where the Apostle Peter is
specifying the charges brought against them: 'If any man suffer as a
Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this
behalf (1 Peter iv. 16). That sounds like the beginning of the process
which has gone on ever since, by which the nickname, flung by the
sarcastic men of Antioch, has been turned into the designation by
which, all over the world, the followers of Jesus Christ have been
proud to call themselves.

Now in this text there are the outside name by which the world calls
the followers of Jesus Christ, and one of the many interior names by
which the Church called itself. I have thought it might be profitable
now to put all the New Testament names for Christ's followers together,
and think about them.

I. So, to begin with, we deal with this name given by the world to the
Church, which the Church has adopted.

Observe the circumstances under which it was given. A handful of
large-hearted, brave men, anonymous fugitives belonging to the little
Church in Jerusalem, had come down to Antioch; and there, without
premeditation, without authority, almost without
consciousness - certainly without knowing what a great thing they were
doing - they took, all at once, as if it were the most natural thing in
the world, a great step by preaching the Gospel to pure heathen Greeks;
and so began the process by which a small Jewish sect was transformed
into a world-wide church. The success of their work in Antioch, amongst
the pure heathen population, has for its crowning attestation this,
that it compelled the curiosity-hunting, pleasure-loving, sarcastic
Antiocheans to find out a new name for this new thing; to write out a
new label for the new bottles into which the new wine was being put.
Clearly the name shows that the Church was beginning to attract the
attention of outsiders.

Clearly it shows, too, that there was a novel element in the Church.
The earlier disciples had been all Jews, and could be lumped together
along with their countrymen, and come under the same category. But here
was something that could not be called either Jew or Greek, because it
embraced both. The new name is the first witness to the cosmopolitan
character of the primitive Church. Then clearly, too, the name
indicates that in a certain dim, confused way, even these superficial
observers had got hold of the right notion of what it was that _did_
bind these people together. They called them 'Christians' - Christ's
men, Christ's followers. But it was only a very dim refraction of the
truth that had got to them; they had no notion that 'Christ' was not a
proper name, but the designation of an office; and they had no notion
that there was anything peculiar or strange in the bond which united
its adherents to Christ. Hence they called His followers 'Christians,'
just as they would have called Herod's followers 'Herodians,' in the
political world, or Aristotle's followers 'Aristotelians' in the
philosophical world. Still, in their groping way, they bad put their
finger on the fact that the one power that held this heterogeneous mass
together, the one bond that bound up 'Jew and Gentile, barbarian,
Scythian, bond and free' into one vital unity, was a personal relation
to a living Person. And so they said - not understanding the whole
significance of it, but having got hold of the right end of the
clue - they said, 'They are Christians!' 'Christ's people,' 'the
followers of this Christ.'

And their very blunder was a felicity. If they had called them
'Jesuits' that would have meant the followers of the mere man. They did
not know how much deeper they had gone when they said, not followers of
Jesus, but 'followers of Christ'; for it is not Jesus the Man, but
Jesus Christ, the Man with His office, that makes the centre and the
bond of the Christian Church.

These, then, are the facts, and the fair inferences from them. A plain
lesson here lies on the surface. The Church - that is to say, the men
and women who make its members - should draw to itself the notice of the
outside world. I do not mean by advertising, and ostentation, and
sounding trumpets, and singularities, and affectations. None of all
these are needed. If you are live Christians it will be plain enough to
outsiders. It is a poor comment on your consistency, if, being Christ's
followers, you can go through life unrecognised even by 'them that are
without.' What shall we say of leaven which does _not_ leaven, or of
light which does _not_ shine, or of salt which does _not_ repel
corruption? It is a poor affair if, being professed followers of Jesus
Christ, you do not impress the world with the thought that 'here is a
man who does not come under any of our categories, and who needs a new
entry to describe _him_.' The world ought to have the same impression
about you which Haman had about the Jews - 'Their laws are diverse from
all people.'

Christian professors, are the world's names for each other enough to
describe you by, or do you need another name to be coined for you in
order to express the manifest characteristics that you display? The
Church that does not _provoke_ the attention - I use the word in its
etymological, not its offensive sense - the Church that does not call
upon itself the attention and interest of outsiders, is not a Church as
Jesus Christ meant it to be, and it is not a Church that is worth
keeping alive; and the sooner it has decent burial the better for
itself and for the world!

There is another thing here, viz.: this name suggests that the clear
impression made by our conduct and character, as well as by our words,
should be that we belong to Jesus Christ. The eye of an outside
observer may be unable to penetrate the secret of the deep sweet tie
uniting us to Jesus, but there should be no possibility of the most
superficial and hasty glance overlooking the fact that we _are_ His. He
should manifestly be the centre and the guide, the impulse and the
pattern, the strength and the reward, of our whole lives. We are
Christians. That should be plain for all folks to see, whether we speak
or be silent. Brethren, is it so with you? Does your life need no
commentary of your words in order that men should know what is the
hidden spring that moves all its wheels; what is the inward spirit that
co-ordinates all its motions into harmony and beauty? Is it true that
like 'the ointment of the right hand which bewrayeth itself' your
allegiance to Jesus Christ, and the overmastering and supreme authority
which He exercises upon you, and upon your life, 'cannot be hid'? Do
you think that, without your words, if you, living in the way you do,
were put down into the middle of Pekin, as these handful of people were
put down into the middle of the heathen city of Antioch, the wits of
the Chinese metropolis would have to invent a name for you, as the
clever men of Antioch did for these people; and do you think that if
they had to invent a name, the name that would naturally come to their
lips, looking at you, would be 'Christians,' 'Christ's men'? If it
would not, there is something wrong.

The last word that I say about this first part of my text is this. It
is a very sad thing, but it is one that is always occurring, that the
world's inadequate notions of what makes a follower of Jesus Christ get
accepted by the Church. Why was it that the name 'Christian' ran all
over Christendom in the course of a century and a half? I believe very
largely because it was a conveniently vague name; because it did not
describe the deepest and sacredest of the bonds that unite us to Jesus
Christ. Many a man is quite willing to say, 'I am a Christian,' who
would hesitate a long time before he said, 'I am a believer,' 'I am a
disciple.' The vagueness of the name, the fact that it erred by defect
in not touching the central, deepest relation between man and Jesus
Christ, made it very appropriate to the declining spirituality and
increasing formalism of the Christian Church in the post-Apostolic age.
It is a sad thing when the Church drops its standard down to the
world's notion of what It ought to be, and adopts the world's name for
itself and its converts.

II. I turn now to set side by side with this vague, general, outside
name the more specific and _interior_ names - if I may so call them - by
which Christ's followers at first knew themselves.

The world said, 'You are Christ's men'; and the names which were
self-imposed and are now to be considered might be taken as being the
Church's explanation of what the world was fumbling at when it so
called them. There are four of them: of course, I can only just touch
on them.

(_a_) The first is in this verse-'_disciples_.' The others are
_believers_, _saints_, _brethren_. These four are the Church's own
christening of itself; its explanation and expansion, its deepening and
heightening, of the vague name given by the world.

As to the first, _disciples_, any concordance will show that the name
was employed almost exclusively during the time of Christ's life upon
earth. It is the only name for Christ's followers in the Gospels; it
occurs also, mingled with others, in the Acts of the Apostles, and it
never occurs thereafter.

The name 'disciple,' then, carries us back to the historical beginning
of the whole matter, when Jesus was looked upon as a Rabbi having
followers called disciples; just as were John the Baptist and his
followers, Gamaliel and his school, or Socrates and his. It sets forth
Christ as being the Teacher, and His followers as being His adherents,
His scholars, who learned at His feet.

Now that is always true. _We_ are Christ's scholars quite as much as
were the men who heard and saw with their eyes and handled with their
hands, of the Word of Life. Not by words only, but by gracious deeds
and fair, spotless life, He taught them and us and all men to the end
of time, our highest knowledge of God of whom He is the final
revelation, our best knowledge of what men should and shall be by His
perfect life in which is contained all morality, our only knowledge of
that future in that He has died and is risen and lives to help and
still to teach. He teaches us still by the record of His life, and by
the living influence of that Spirit whom He sends forth to guide us
into all truth. He is the Teacher, the only Teacher, the Teacher for
all men, the Teacher of all truth, the Teacher for evermore. He speaks
from Heaven. Let us give heed to His voice.

But that Name is not enough to tell all that He is to us, or we to Him,
and so after He had passed from earth it unconsciously and gradually
dropped out of use by the disciples, as they felt a deepened bond
uniting them to Him who was not only their Teacher of the Truth which
was Himself, but was their Sacrifice and Advocate with the Father. And
for all who hold the, as I believe, essentially imperfect conception of
Jesus Christ as being mainly a Teacher, either by word or by pattern;
whether it be put into the old form or into the modern form of
regarding Him as the Ideal and Perfect Man, it seems to me a fact well
worthy of consideration, that the name of disciple and the relation
expressed by it were speedily felt by the Christian Church to be
inadequate as a representation of the bond that knit them to Him. He is
our Teacher, we His scholars. He is more than that, and a more sacred
bond unites us to Him. As our Master we owe Him absolute submission.
When He speaks, we have to accept His dictum. What He says is truth,
pure and entire. His utterance is the last word upon any subject that
He touches, it is the ultimate appeal, and the Judge that ends the
strife. We owe Him submission, an open eye for all new truth, constant
docility, as conscious of our own imperfections, and a confident
expectation that He will bless us continuously with high and as yet
unknown truths that come from His inexhaustible stores of wisdom and
knowledge.

(_b_) Teacher and scholars move in a region which, though it be
important, is not the central one. And the word that was needed next to
express what the early Church felt Christ was to them, and they to Him,
lifts us into a higher atmosphere altogether, - '_believers_,' they who
are exercising not merely intellectual submission to the dicta of the
Teacher, but who are exercising living trust in the person of the
Redeemer. The belief which is faith is altogether a higher thing than
its first stage, which is the belief of the understanding. There is in
it the moral element of trust. We believe a truth, we trust a Person;
and the trust which we are to exercise in Jesus Christ, and which knits
us to Him, is our trust in Him, not in any character that we may choose
to ascribe to Him, but in the character in which He is revealed in the
New Testament - Redeemer, Saviour, Manifest God; and therefore, the
Infinite Friend and Helper of our souls.

That trust, my brethren, is the one bond that binds, men to God, and
the one thing that makes us Christ's men. Apart from it, we may be very
near Him, but we are not joined to Him. By it, and by it alone, the
union is completed, and His power and His grace flow into our spirits.
Are you, not merely a 'Christian,' in the world's notion, being bound
in some vague way to Jesus Christ, but are you a Christian in the sense
of trusting your soul's salvation to Him?

(_c_) Then, still further, there is another name - '_saints_.' It has
suffered perhaps more at the hands both of the world and of the Church
than any other. It has been taken by the latter and restricted to the
dead, and further restricted to those who excel, according to the
fantastic, ascetic standard of mediaeval Christianity. It has suffered
from the world in that it has been used with a certain bitter emphasis
of resentment at the claim of superior purity supposed to be implied in
it, and so has come to mean on the world's lips one who pretends to be
better than other people and whose actions contradict his claim. But
the name belongs to all Christ's followers. It makes no claim to
special purity, for the central idea of the word 'saint' is not purity.
Holiness, which is the English for the Latinised 'sanctity,' holiness
which is attributed in the Old Testament to God first, to men only
secondarily, does not primarily mean _purity_, but _separation_. God is
holy, inasmuch as by that whole majestic character of His, He is lifted
above all bounds of creatural limitations, as well as above man's sin.
A sacrifice, the Sabbath, a city, a priest's garment, a mitre - all
these things are 'holy,' not when they are pure, but when they are
devoted to Him. And men are holy, not because they are clean, but
because by free self-surrender they have consecrated themselves to Him.

Holiness is consecration, that is to say, holiness is giving myself up
to Him to do what He will with. 'I am holy' is not the declaration of
my estimate 'I am pure,' but the declaration of the fact 'I am thine, O
Lord.' So the New Testament idea of saint has in it these
elements - consecration, consecration resting on faith in Christ, and
consecration leading to separation from the world and its sin. And that



Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 26 of 57)