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forward, and is ready for all that may confront him in still
discharging it, even to the bloody end.

Nothing tries a man's mettle more than impending evil which is equally
certain and undefined. Add that the moment of the sword's falling is
unknown, and you have a combination which might shake the firmest
nerves. Such a combination fronted Paul now. He told the elders, what
we do not otherwise know, that at every halting-place since setting his
face towards Jerusalem he had been met by the same prophetic warnings
of 'bonds and afflictions' waiting for him. The warnings were vague,
and so the more impressive. Fear has a vivid imagination, and
anticipates the worst.

Paul was not afraid, but he would not have been human if he had not
recognised the short distance for him between a prison and a scaffold.
But the prospect did not turn him a hairsbreadth from his course. True,
he was 'bound in the spirit,' which may suggest that he was not so much
going joyfully as impelled by a constraint felt to be irresistible. But
whatever his feelings, his will was iron, and he went calmly forward on
the road, though he knew that behind some turn of it lay in wait, like
beasts of prey, dangers of unknown kinds.

And what nerved him thus to front death itself without a quiver? The
supreme determination to do what Jesus had given him to do. He knew
that his Lord had set him a task, and the one thing needful was to
accomplish that. We have no such obstacles in our course as Paul had in
his, but the same spirit must mark us if we are to do our work.
Consciousness of a mission, fixed determination to carry it out, and
consequent contempt of hindrances, belong to all noble lives, and
especially to true Christian ones. Perils and hardships and possible
evils should have no more power to divert us from the path which Christ
marks for us than storms or tossing of the ship have to deflect the
needle from pointing north.

It is easy to talk heroically when no foes are in sight; but Paul was
looking dangers in the eyes, and felt their breath on his cheeks when
he spoke. His longing was to 'fulfil his course.' 'With joy' is a
weakening addition. It was not 'joy,' but the discharge of duty, which
seemed to him infinitely desirable. What was aspiration at Miletus
became fact when, in his last Epistle, he wrote, 'I have finished my
course.'

In verses 25 to 27 the Apostle looks back as well as forward. His
anticipation that he was parting for ever from the Ephesian elders was
probably mistaken, but it naturally leads him to think of the long
ministry among them which was now, as he believed, closed. And his
retrospect was very different from what most of us, who are teachers,
feel that ours must be. It is a solemn thought that if we let either
cowardice or love of ease and the good opinion of men hold us back from
speaking out all that we know of God's truth, our hands are reddened
with the blood of souls.

We are all apt to get into grooves of favourite thoughts, and to teach
but part of the whole Gospel. If we do not seek to widen our minds to
take in, and our utterances to give forth, all the will of God as seen
by us, our limitations and repetitions will repel some from the truth,
who might have been won by a completer presentation of it, and their
blood will be required at our hands. None of us can reach to the
apprehension, in its full extent and due proportion of its parts, of
that great gospel; but we may at least seek to come nearer the ideal
completeness of a teacher, and try to remember that we are 'pure from
the blood of all men,' only when we have not 'shrunk from declaring all
God's counsel.' We are not required to know it completely, but we are
required not to shrink from declaring it as far as we know it.

Paul's purpose in this retrospect was not only to vindicate himself,
but to suggest to the elders their duty. Therefore he passes
immediately to exhortation to them, and a forecast of the future of the
Ephesian Church. 'Take heed to yourselves.' The care of one's own soul
comes first. He will be of little use to the Church whose own personal
religion is not kept warm and deep. All preachers and teachers and men
who influence their fellows need to lay to heart this exhortation,
especially in these days when calls to outward service are so
multiplied. The neglect of it undermines all real usefulness, and is a
worm gnawing at the roots of the vines.

We note also the condensed weightiness of the following exhortation, in
which solemn reasons are suggested for obeying it. The divine
appointment to office, the inclusion of the 'bishops' in the flock, the
divine ownership of the flock, and the cost of its purchase, are all
focussed on the one point, 'Take heed to all the flock.' Of course a
comparison with verse 17 shows that _elder_ and _bishop_ were two
designations for one officer; but the question of the primitive
organisation of church offices, important as it is, is less important
than the great thoughts as to the relation of the Church to God, and as
to the dear price at which men have been won to be truly His.

We note the reading in the Revised Version of v.28 (margin), 'the flock
of the Lord,' but do not discuss it. The chief thought of the verse is
that the Church is God's flock, and that the death of Jesus has bought
it for His, and that negligent under-shepherds are therefore guilty of
grievous sin.

The Apostle had premonitions of the future for the Church as well as
for himself, and the horizons were dark in both outlooks. He foresaw
evils from two quarters, for 'wolves' would come from without, and
perverse teachers would arise within, drawing the disciples after them
and away from the Lord. The simile of wolves may be an echo of Christ's
warning in Matthew vii 15. How sadly Paul's anticipations were
fulfilled the Epistle to the Church in Ephesus (Revelation ii.) shows
too clearly. Unslumbering alertness, as of a sentry in front of the
enemy, is needed if the slinking onset of the wolf is to be beaten
back. Paul points to his own example, and that in no vainglorious
spirit, but to stimulate and also to show how watchfulness is to be
carried out. It must be unceasing, patient, tenderly solicitous, and
grieving over the falls of others as over personal calamities. If there
were more such 'shepherds,' there would be fewer stray sheep.

Anxious forebodings and earnest exhortations naturally end in turning
to God and invoking His protecting care. The Apostle's heart runs over
in his last words (vs. 32-35). He falls back for himself, in the
prospect of having to cease his care of the Church, on the thought that
a better Guide will not leave it, and he would comfort the elders as
well as himself by the remembrance of God's power to keep them. So
Jacob, dying, said, 'I die, but God shall be with you.' So Moses,
dying, said, 'The Lord hath said unto me, thou shalt not go over this
Jordan. The Lord thy God, He will go before thee.' Not even Paul is
indispensable. The under-shepherds die, _the_ Shepherd lives, and
watches against wolves and dangers. Paul had laid the foundation, and
the edifice would not stand unfinished, like some half-reared palace
begun by a now dead king. The growth of the Church and of its
individual members is sure. It is wrought by God.

His instrument is 'the word of His grace.' Therefore if we would grow,
we must use that word. Christian progress is no more possible, if the
word of God is not our food, than is an infant's growth if it refuses
milk. That building up or growth or advance (for all three metaphors
are used, and mean the same thing) has but one natural end, the
entrance of each redeemed soul into its own allotment in the true land
of promise, the inheritance of those who are sanctified. If we
faithfully use that word which tells of and brings God's grace, that we
may grow thereby, He will bring us at last to dwell among those who
here have growingly been made saints. He is able to do these things. It
is for us to yield to His power, and to observe the conditions on which
it will work on us.

Even at the close Paul cannot refrain from personal references. He
points to his example of absolute disinterestedness, and with a
dramatic gesture holds out 'these hands' to show how they are hardened
by work. Such a warning against doing God's work for money would not
have been his last word, at a time when all hearts were strung up to
the highest pitch, unless the danger had been very real. And it is very
real to-day. If once the suspicion of being influenced by greed of gain
attaches to a Christian worker, his power ebbs away, and his words lose
weight and impetus.

It is that danger which Paul is thinking of when he tells the elders
that by 'labouring' they 'ought to support the weak'; for by _weak_ he
means not the poor, but those imperfect disciples who might be repelled
or made to stumble by the sight of greed in an elder. Shepherds who
obviously cared more for wool than for the sheep have done as much harm
as 'grievous wolves.'

Paul quotes an else unrecorded saying of Christ's which, like a
sovereign's seal, confirms the subject's words. It gathers into a
sentence the very essence of Christian morality. It reveals the inmost
secret of the blessedness of the giving God. It is foolishness and
paradox to the self-centred life of nature. It is blessedly true in the
experience of all who, having received the 'unspeakable gift,' have
thereby been enfranchised into the loftier life in which self is dead,
and to which it is delight, kindred with God's own blessedness, to
impart.



A FULFILLED ASPIRATION

'So that I might finish my course....' - ACTS xx. 24.

'I have finished my course....' - 2 TIM. iv. 7.

I do not suppose that Paul in prison, and within sight of martyrdom,
remembered his words at Ephesus. But the fact that what was aspiration
whilst he was in the very thick of his difficulties came to be calm
retrospect at the close is to me very beautiful and significant. 'So
that I may finish my course,' said he wistfully; whilst before him
there lay dangers clearly discerned and others that had all the more
power over the imagination because they were but dimly discerned - 'Not
knowing the things that shall befall me there,' said he, but knowing
this, that 'bonds and afflictions abide me.' When a man knows exactly
what he has to be afraid of he can face it. When he knows a little
corner of it, and also knows that there is a great stretch behind that
is unknown, that is a state of things that tries his mettle. Many a man
will march up to a battery without a tremor who would not face a hole
where a snake lay. And so Paul's ignorance, as well as Paul's
knowledge, made it very hard for him to say 'None of these things move
me' if only 'I might finish my course.'

Now there are in these two passages, thus put together, three points
that I touch for a moment. These are, What Paul thought that life
chiefly was; what Paul aimed at; and what Paul won thereby.

I. What he thought that life chiefly was.

'That I may finish my course.' Now 'course,' in our modern English, is
far too feeble a word to express the Apostle's idea here. It has come
to mean with us a quiet sequence or a succession of actions which,
taken together, complete a career; but in its original force the
English word 'course,' and still more the Greek, of which it is a
translation, contain a great deal more than that. If we were to read
'race,' we should get nearer to at least one side of the Apostle's
thought. This was the image under which life presented itself to him,
as it does to every man that does anything in the world worth doing,
whether he be Christian or not - as being not a place for enjoyment, for
selfish pursuits, making money, building family, satisfying love,
seeking pleasure, or the like; but mainly as being an appointed field
for a succession of efforts, all in one direction, and leading
progressively to an end. In that image of life as a race, threadbare as
it is, there are several grave considerations involved, which it will
contribute to the nobleness of our own lives to keep steadily in view.

To begin with, the metaphor regards life as a track or path marked out
and to be kept to by us. Paul thought of his life as a racecourse,
traced for him by God, and from which it would be perilous and
rebellious to diverge. The consciousness of definite duties loomed
larger than anything else before him. His first waking thought was,
'What is God's will for me to-day? What stage of the course have I to
pass over to-day?' Each moment brought to him an appointed task which
at all hazards he must do. And this elevating, humbling, and bracing
ever-present sense of responsibility, not merely to circumstances, but
to God, is an indispensable part of any life worth the living, and of
any on which a man will ever dare to look back.

'My course.' O brethren! if we carried with us, always present, that
solemn, severe sense of all-pervading duty and of obligation laid upon
us to pursue faithfully the path that is appointed us, there would be
less waste, less selfishness, less to regret, and less that weakens and
defiles, in the lives of us all. And blessed be His name! however
trivial be our tasks, however narrow our spheres, however secular and
commonplace our businesses or trades, we may write upon them, as on all
sorts of lives, except weak and selfish ones, this inscription,
'Holiness to the Lord.'

The broad arrow stamped on Crown property gives a certain dignity to
whatever bears it, and whatever small duty has the name of God written
across it is thereby ennobled. If our days are to be full-fraught with
the serenity and purity which it is possible for them to attain, and if
we ourselves are to put forth all our powers and make the most of
ourselves, we must cultivate the continual sense that life is a
course - a series of definite duties marked out for us by God.

Again, the image suggests the strenuous efforts needed for discharge of
our appointed tasks. The Apostle, like all men of imaginative and
sensitive nature, was accustomed to speak in metaphors, which expressed
his fervid convictions more adequately than more abstract expressions
would have done. That vigorous figure of a 'course' speaks more
strongly of the stress of continual effort than many words. It speaks
of the straining muscles, and the intense concentration, and the
forward-flung body of the runner in the arena. Paul says in effect, 'I,
for my part, live at high pressure. I get the most that I can out of
myself. I do the very best that is in me.' And that is a pattern for us.

There is nothing to be done unless we are contented to live on the
stretch. Easygoing lives are always contemptible lives. A man who never
does anything except what he can do easily never comes to do anything
greater than what he began with, and never does anything worth doing at
all. Effort is the law of life in all departments, as we all of us know
and practise in regard to our daily business. But what a strange thing
it is that we seem to think that our Christian characters can be formed
and perfected upon other conditions, and in other fashions, than those
by which men make their daily bread or their worldly fortunes!

The direction which effort takes is different in these two regions. The
necessity for concentration and vigorous putting into operation of
every faculty is far more imperative in the Christian course than in
any other form of life.

I believe most earnestly that we grow Christlike, not by effort only,
but by faith. But I believe that there is no faith without effort, and
that the growth which comes from faith will not be appropriated and
made ours without it. And so I preach, without in the least degree
feeling that it impinges upon the great central truth that we are
cleansed and perfected by the power of God working upon us, the sister
truth that we must 'work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.'

Brethren, unless we are prepared for the dust and heat of the race, we
had better not start upon the course. Christian men have an appointed
task, and to do it will take all the effort that they can put forth,
and will assuredly demand continuous concentration and the summoning of
every faculty to its utmost energy.

Still further, there is another idea that lies in the emblem, and that
is that the appointed task which thus demands the whole man in vigorous
exercise ought in fact to be, and in its nature is, progressive. Is the
Christianity of the average church member and professing Christian a
continuous advance? Is to-day better than yesterday? Are former
attainments continually being left behind? Does it not seem the
bitterest irony to talk about the usual life of a Christian as a
course? Did you ever see a squad of raw recruits being drilled in the
barrack-yard? The first thing the sergeants do is to teach them the
'goose-step,' which consists in lifting up one foot and then the other,
_ad infinitum_, and yet always keeping on the same bit of ground. That
is the kind of 'course' which hosts of so-called Christians content
themselves with running - a vast deal of apparent exercise and no
advance. They are just at the same spot at which they stood five, ten,
or twenty years ago; not a bit wiser, more like Christ, less like the
devil and the world; having gained no more mastery over their
characteristic evils; falling into precisely the same faults of temper
and conduct as they used to do in the far-away past. By what right can
_they_ talk of running the Christian race? Progress is essential to
real Christian life.

II. Turn now to another thought here, and consider what Paul aimed at.

It is a very easy thing for a man to say, 'I take the discharge of my
duty, given to me by Jesus Christ, as my great purpose in life,' when
there is nothing in the way to prevent him from carrying out that
purpose. But it is a very different thing when, as was the case with
Paul, there lie before him the certainties of affliction and bonds, and
the possibilities which very soon consolidated themselves into
certainties, of a bloody death and that swiftly. To say _then_, without
a quickened pulse or a tremor in the eyelid, or a quiver in the voice,
or a falter in the resolution, to say then, 'none of these things move
me, if only I may do what I was set to do' - that is to be in Christ
indeed; and that is the only thing worth living for.

Look how beautifully we see in operation in these heartfelt and few
words of the Apostle the power that there is in an absolute devotion to
God-enjoined duty, to give a man 'a solemn scorn of ills,' and to lift
him high above everything that would bar or hinder his path. Is it not
bracing to see any one actuated by such motives as these? And why
should they not be motives for us all? The one thing worth our making
our aim in life is to accomplish our course.

Now notice that the word in the original here, 'finish,' does not
merely mean 'end,' which would be a very poor thing. Time will do that
for us all. It will end our course. But an ended course may yet be an
unfinished course. And the meaning that the Apostle attaches to the
word in both of our texts is not merely to scramble through anyhow, so
as to get to the last of it; but to complete, accomplish the course,
or, to put away the metaphor, to do all that it was meant by God that
he should do.

Now some very early transcriber of the Acts of the Apostles mistook the
Apostle's meaning, and thought that he only said that he desired to end
his career; and so, with the best intentions in the world, he inserted,
probably on the margin, what he thought was a necessary addition - that
unfortunate 'with joy,' which appears in our Authorised Version, but
has no place in the true text. If we put it in we necessarily limit the
meaning of the word 'finish' to that low, superficial sense which I
have already dismissed. If we leave it out we get a far nobler thought.
Paul was not thinking about the joy at the end. What he wanted was to
do his work, all of it, right through to the very last. He knew there
would be joy, but he does not speak about it. What he wanted, as all
faithful men do, was to do the work, and let the joy take care of
itself.

And so for all of us, the true anaesthetic or 'painkiller' is that
all-dominant sense of obligation and duty which lays hold upon us, and
grips us, and makes us, not exactly indifferent to, but very partially
conscious of, the sorrows or the hindrances or the pains that may come
in our way. You cannot stop an express train by stretching a rope
across the line, nor stay the flow of a river with a barrier of straw.
And if a man has once yielded himself fully to that great conception of
God's will driving him on through life, and prescribing his path for
him, it is neither in sorrow nor in joy to arrest his course. They may
roll all the golden apples out of the garden of the Hesperides in his
path, and he will not stop to pick one of them up; or Satan may block
it with his fiercest flames, and the man will go into them, saying,
'When I pass through the fires He will be with me.'

III. Lastly, what Paul won thereby.

'That I _may_ finish my course ... I _have_ finished my course'; in the
same lofty meaning, not merely _ended_, though that was true, but
'completed, accomplished, perfected.'

Now some hyper-sensitive people have thought that it was very strange
that the Apostle, who was always preaching the imperfection of all
human obedience and service, should, at the end of his life, indulge in
such a piece of what they fancy was self-complacent retrospect as to
say 'I have kept the faith; I have fought a good fight; I have finished
my course.' But it was by no means complacent self-righteousness. Of
course he did not mean that he looked back upon a career free from
faults and flecks and stains. No. There is only one pair of human lips
that ever could say, in the full significance of the word, 'It is
finished! ... I have completed the work which Thou gavest Me to do.'
Jesus Christ's retrospect of a stainless career, without defect or
discordance at any point from the divine ideal, is not repeated in any
of His servants' experiences. But, on the other hand, if a man in the
middle of his difficulties and his conflict pulls himself habitually
together and says to himself, 'Nothing shall move me, so that I may
complete this bit of my course,' depend upon it, his effort, his
believing effort, will not be in vain; and at the last he will be able
to look back on a career which, though stained with many imperfections,
and marred with many failures, yet on the whole has realised the divine
purpose, though not with absolute completeness, at least sufficiently
to enable the faithful servant to feel that all his struggle has not
been in vain.

Brethren, no one else can. And oh! how different the two 'courses' of
the godly man and the worldling look, in their relative importance,
when seen from this side, as we are advancing towards them, and from
the other as we look back upon them! Pleasures, escape from pains,
ease, comfort, popularity, quiet lives - all these things seem very
attractive; and God's will often seems very hard and very repulsive,
when we are advancing towards some unwelcome duty. But when we get
beyond it and look back, the two careers have changed their characters;
and all the joys that could be bought at the price of the smallest
neglected duty or the smallest perpetrated sin, dwindle and dwindle and
dwindle, and the light is out of them, and they show for what they
are - nothings, gilded nothings, painted emptinesses, lies varnished
over. And on the other hand, to do right, to discharge the smallest
duty, to recognise God's will, and with faithful effort to seek to do
it in dependence upon Him, that towers and towers and towers, and there
seems to be, as there really is, nothing else worth living for.

So let us live with the continual remembrance in our minds that all
which we do has to be passed in review by us once more, from another
standpoint, and with another illumination falling upon it. And be sure
of this, that the one thing worth looking back upon, and possible to be
looked back upon with peace and quietness, is the humble, faithful,
continual discharge of our appointed tasks for the dear Lord's sake. If
you and I, whilst work and troubles last, do truly say, 'None of these
things move me, so that I _might_ finish my course,' we too, with all
our weaknesses, may be able to say at the last, 'Thanks be to God! I
_have_ finished my course.'



PARTING WORDS [Footnote: Preached prior to a long absence in Australia.]



Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 43 of 57)