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Alexander Maclaren.

Expositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts online

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Christ whom he had thought of as lying in an unknown grave was living
in the heavens and ruling there. You and I, I suppose, do not need to
be convinced by miracle of the resurrection of Jesus Christ; but the
bare fact that Jesus was living in the heavens would have had little
effect upon Saul, unless it had been accompanied with the revelation of
the startling fact that between him and Jesus Christ there were close
personal relations, so that he had to do with Jesus, and Jesus with him.

'Saul, Saul! why persecutest thou Me?' They used to think that they
could wake sleep-walkers by addressing them by name. Jesus Christ, by
speaking His name to the Apostle, wakes him out of his diseased
slumber, and brings him to wholesome consciousness. There are
stringency and solemnity of address in that double use of the name
'Saul, Saul!'

What does such an address teach you and me? That Jesus Christ, the
living, reigning Lord of the universe, has perfect knowledge of each of
us, and that we each stand isolated before Him, as if all the light of
omniscience were focussed upon us. He knows our characters; He knows
all about us, and more than that, He directly addresses Himself to each
man and woman among us.

We are far too apt to hide ourselves in the crowd, and let all the
messages of God's love, the warnings of His providences, as well as the
teachings and invitations and pleadings of His gospel, fly over our
heads as if they were meant vaguely for anybody. But they are all
intended for _thee_, as directly as if thou, and thou only, wert in the
world. I beseech you, lay this to heart, that although no audible
sounds may rend the silent heavens, nor any blaze may blind thine eye,
yet that as really, though not in the same outward fashion as Saul,
when they were all fallen to the earth, felt himself to be singled out,
and heard a voice 'speaking to _him_ in the Hebrew tongue, saying,
Saul, Saul!' _thou_ mayest hear a voice speaking to thee in the English
tongue, by thy name, and directly addressing its gracious remonstrances
and its loving offers to thy listening ear. I want to sharpen the blunt
'whosoever' into the pointed 'thou.' And I would fain plead with each
of my friends hearing me now to believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ
is meant for thee, and that Christ speaks to _thee_. 'I have a message
from God unto thee,' just as Nathan said unto David. '_Thou_ art the
man!'

Do not lose yourselves in the crowd or hide yourselves from the
personal incidence of Christ's offer, but feel that you stand, as you
do indeed, alone the hearer of His voice, the possible recipient of His
saving mercy.

II. Secondly, notice, as another stage in this process the discovery of
the true character of the past.

'Why persecutest thou Me?' Now I am not going to be tempted from my
more direct purpose in this sermon to dwell even for a moment on the
beautiful, affecting, strengthening thought here, of the unity of Jesus
Christ with all the humble souls that love Him, so as that, whatsoever
any member suffers, the Head suffers with it. I must leave that truth
untouched.

Saul was brought to look at all his past life as standing in immediate
connection with Jesus Christ. Of course he knew before the vision that
he had no love to Him whom he thought to be a Galilean impostor, and
that the madness with which he hated the servants was only the glancing
off of the arrow that he would fain have aimed at the Master. But he
did not know that Jesus Christ counted every blow struck at one of His
servants as being struck at Him. Above all he did not know that the
Christ whom he was persecuting was reigning in the heavens. And so his
whole past life stood before him in a new aspect when it was brought
into close connection with Christ, and looked at as in relation to Him.

The same process would yield very remarkable results if applied to our
lives. If I could only get you for one quiet ten minutes, to lay all
your past, as far as memory brought it to your minds, right before that
pure and loving Face, I should have done much. One infallible way of
judging of the rottenness or goodness of our actions is that we should
bring them where they will all be brought one day, into the brightness
of Christ's countenance. If you want to find out the flaws in some
thin, badly-woven piece of cloth, you hold it up against the light, do
you not? and then you see all the specks and holes, and the irregular
threads. Hold up your lives in like fashion against the light, and I
shall be surprised if you do not find enough there to make you very
much ashamed of yourselves. Were you ever on the stage of a theatre in
the daytime? Did you ever see what miserable daubs the scenes look, and
how seamy it all is when the pitiless sunshine comes in? Let that great
light pour on your life, and be thankful if you find out what a daub it
has been, whilst yet colours and brushes and time are at your disposal,
and you may paint the future fairer than the past.

Again, this revelation of Saul's past life disclosed its utter
unreasonableness. That one question, '_Why_ persecutest thou Me?'
pulverised the whole thing. It was like the wondering question so
unanswerable in the Psalm, 'Why do the heathen rage, and the people
imagine a vain thing?' If you take into account what you are, and where
you stand, you can find no reason, except utterly unreasonable ones,
for the lives that I fear some of us are living - lives of godlessness
and Christlessness. There is nothing in all the world a tithe so stupid
as sin. There is nothing so unreasonable, if there be a God at all, and
if we depend upon Him, and have duties to Him, as the lives that some
of you are living. You admit, most of you, that there is such a God;
you admit, most of you, that you do hang upon Him; you admit, in
theory, that you ought to love and serve Him. The bulk of you call
yourselves Christians. That is to say, you believe, as a piece of
historical fact, that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came into this
world and died for men. And, believing that, you turn your back on Him,
and neither love nor serve nor trust Him nor turn away from your
iniquity. Is there anything outside a lunatic asylum more madlike than
that? 'Why persecutest thou?' 'And he was speechless,' for no answer
was possible. Why neglectest thou? Why forgettest thou? Why, admitting
what thou dost, art thou not an out-and-out Christian? If we think of
all our obligations and relations, and the facts of the universe, we
come back to the old saying, 'The fear of the Lord is the beginning of
wisdom,' and any man who, like many of my hearers, fails to give his
heart and life to Jesus Christ will one day have to say, 'Behold, I
have played the fool, and erred exceedingly.' Wake up, my brother, to
apply calm reason to your lives while yet there is time, and face the
question, Why dost thou stand as thou dost to Jesus Christ? There is
nothing sadder than the small share that deliberate reason and
intelligent choice have in the ordering of most men's lives. You live
by impulse, by habit, by example, by constraint of the outward
necessities of your position. But I am sure that there are many amongst
us now who have very seldom, if ever, sat down and said, 'Now let me
think, until I get to the ultimate grounds of the course of life that I
am pursuing.' You can carry on the questions very gaily for a step or
two, but then you come to a dead pause. 'What do I do so-and-so for?'
'Because I like it.' 'Why do I like it?' 'Because it meets my needs, or
my desires, or my tastes, or my intellect.' Why do you make the meeting
of your needs, or your desires, or your tastes, or your intellect your
sole object? Is there any answer to that? The Hindoos say that the
world rests upon an elephant, and the elephant rests upon a tortoise.
What does the tortoise rest on? Nothing! Then that is what the world
and the elephant rest on. And so, though you may go bravely through the
first stages of the examination, when you come to the last question of
all, you will find out that your whole scheme of life is built upon a
blunder; and the blunder is this, that anybody can be blessed without
God.

Further, this disclosure of the true character of his life revealed to
Saul, as in a lightning flash, the ingratitude of it.

'Why persecutest thou Me?' That was as much as to say, 'What have I
done to merit thy hate? What have I _not_ done to merit rather thy
love?' Paul did not know all that Jesus Christ had done for him. It
took him a lifetime to learn a little of it, and to tell his brethren
something of what he had learned. And he has been learning it ever
since that day when, outside the walls of Rome, they hacked off his
head. He has been learning more and more of what Jesus Christ has done
for him, and why he should not persecute Him but love Him.

But the same appeal comes to each of us. What has Jesus Christ done for
thee, my friend, for me, for every soul of man? He has loved me better
than His own life. He has given Himself for me. He has lingered beside
me, seeking to draw me to Himself, and He still lingers. And this, at
the best, tremulous faith, this, at the warmest, tepid love, this, at
the completest, imperfect devotion and service, are all that we bring
to Him; and some of us do not bring even these. Some of us have never
known what it was to sacrifice one inclination for the sake of Christ,
nor to do one act for His dear love's sake, nor to lean our weakness
upon Him, nor to turn to Him and say, 'I give Thee myself, that I may
possess Thee.' 'Do ye thus requite the Lord, O foolish people and
unwise?' I have heard of wounded soldiers striking with their bayonets
at the ambulance men who came to help them. That is like what some of
you do to the Lord who died for your healing, and comes as the
Physician, with bandages and with balm, to bind up the brokenhearted.
'Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?'

III. Lastly, we have here a warning against self-inflicted wounds.

That second clause of the remonstrance on the lips of Christ in my text
is, according to the true reading, not found in the account of Paul's
conversion in the ninth chapter of this book. My text is from Paul's
own story; and it is interesting to notice that he adds this eminently
pathetic and forcible appeal to the shorter account given by the writer
of the book. It had gone deep into his heart, and he could not forget.

The metaphor is a very plain one. The ox-goad was a formidable weapon,
some seven or eight feet in length, shod with an iron point, and
capable of being used as a spear, and of inflicting deadly wounds at a
pinch. Held in the firm hand of the ploughman, it presented a sharp
point to the rebellious animal under the yoke. If the ox had readily
yielded to the gentle prick, given, not in anger, but for guidance, it
had been well. But if it lashes out with its hoofs against the point,
what does it get but bleeding flanks? Paul had been striking out
instead of obeying, and he had won by it only bloody hocks.

There are two truths deducible from this saying, which may have been a
proverb in common use. One is the utter futility of lives that are
spent in opposing the divine will. There is a strong current running,
and if you try to go against it you will only be swept away by it.
Think of some little fishing coble coming across the bow of a great
ocean-going steamer. What will be the end of that? Think of a
pony-chaise jogging up the line, and an express train thundering down
it. What will be the end of that? Think of a man lifting himself up and
saying to God, 'I will _not_!' when God says, 'Do thou this!' or 'Be
thou this!' What will be the end of that? 'The world passeth away, and
the lusts thereof, but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.'
'It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks' - hard in regard to
breaches of common morality, as some of my friends sitting quietly in
these pews very well know. It is hard to indulge in sensual sin. You
cannot altogether dodge what people call the 'natural consequences';
but it was God who made Nature; and so I call them God-inflicted
penalties. It is hard to set yourselves against Christianity. I am not
going to speak of that at all now, only when we think of the
expectations of victory with which so many antagonists of the Cross
have gaily leaped into the arena, and of how the foes have been
forgotten and there stands the Cross still, we may say of the whole
crowd, beginning with the earliest, and coming down to the latest
brand-new theory that is going to explode Christianity - 'it is hard to
kick against the pricks.' Your own limbs you may wound; you will not do
the goad much harm.

But there is another side to the proverb of my text, and that is the
self-inflicted harm that comes from resisting the pricks of God's
rebukes and remonstrances, whether inflicted by conscience or by any
other means; including, I make bold to say, even such poor words as
these of mine. For if the first little prick of conscience, a warning
and a guide, be neglected, the next will go a great deal deeper. The
voice which, before you do the wrong thing, says to you, 'Do not do
it,' in tones of entreaty and remonstrance, speaks, after you have done
it, more severely and more bitterly. The Latin word _remorse_, and the
old English name for conscience, 'again-bite' - which latter is a
translation of the other - teach us the same lesson, that the gnawing
which comes after wrong done is far harder to bear than the touch that
should have kept us from the evil. The stings of marine jelly-fish will
burn for days after, if you wet them. And so all wrong-doing, and all
neglect of right-doing of every sort, carries with it a subsequent
pain, or else the wounded limb _mortifies_, and that is worse. There is
no pain then; it would be better if there were. There is such a
possibility as to have gone on so obstinately kicking against the
pricks and leaving the wounds so unheeded, as that they mortify and
feeling goes. A conscience 'seared with a hot iron' is ten times more
dreadful than a conscience that pains and stings.

So, dear brethren, let me beseech you to listen to the pitying Christ,
who says to us each, more in sorrow than in anger, 'It is hard for thee
to kick against the pricks.' It is no pleasure to Him to hold the goad,
nor that we should wound ourselves upon it. He has another question to
put to us, with another 'why,' 'Why should ye be stricken any more?
Turn ye, turn ye; why will ye die, O house of Israel?'

There is another metaphor drawn from the employment of oxen which we
may set side by side with this of my text: 'Take My yoke upon you, and
ye shall find rest unto your souls.' The yoke accepted, the goad is
laid aside; and repose and healing from its wounds are granted to us.
Dear brethren, if you will listen to the Christ revealed in the
heavens, as knowing all about you, and remonstrating with you for your
unreasonableness and ingratitude, and setting before you the miseries
of rebellion and the suicide of sin, then you will have healing for all
your wounds, and your lives will neither be self-tormenting, futile,
nor unreasonable. The mercy of Jesus Christ lavished upon you makes
your yielding yourselves to Him your only rational course. Anything
else is folly beyond comparison and harm and loss beyond count.



FAITH IN CHRIST

'...Faith that is in Me.' - ACTS xxvi. 18.

It is commonly said, and so far as the fact is concerned, said truly,
that what are called the distinguishing doctrines of Christianity are
rather found in the Epistles than in the Gospels. If we wish the
clearest statements of the nature and person of Christ, we turn to
Paul's Epistle to the Colossians. If we wish the fullest dissertation
upon Christ's work as a sacrifice, we go to the Epistle to the Hebrews.
If we seek to prove that men are justified by faith, and not by works,
it is to the Epistles to Romans and Galatians that we betake
ourselves, - to the writings of the servant rather than the words of the
Master. Now this fuller development of Christian doctrine contained in
the teaching of the Apostles cannot be denied, and need not be wondered
at. The reasons for it I am not going to enter upon at present; they
are not far to seek. Christ came not to _speak_ the Gospel, but _to be_
the Gospel. But then, this truth of a fuller development is often
over-strained, as if Christ 'spake nothing concerning priesthood,'
sacrifices, faith. He _did_ so speak when on earth. It is often misused
by being made the foundation of an inference unfavourable to the
authority of the Apostolic teaching, when we are told, as we sometimes
are, that not Paul but Jesus speaks the words which we are to receive.

Here we have Christ Himself speaking from the heavens to Paul at the
very beginning of the Apostle's course, and if any one asks us where
did Paul get the doctrines which he preached, the answer is, Here, on
the road to Damascus, when blind, bleeding, stunned, with all his
self-confidence driven out of him - with all that he had been crushed
into shivers - he saw his Lord, and heard Him speak. These words spoken
then are the germ of all Paul's Epistles, the keynote to which all his
writings are but the melody that follows, the mighty voice of which all
his teaching is but the prolonged echo. 'Delivering thee,' says Christ
to him, 'from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send
thee, to open their eyes, to turn them from darkness to light, and from
the power of Satan unto God; that they may receive forgiveness of sins,
and inheritance among them that are sanctified by faith that is in Me.'
Now, I ask you, what of Paul's Gospel is not here? Man's ruin, man's
depravity and state of darkness, the power of Satan, the sole
redemptive work of Christ, justification by belief in that,
sanctification coming with justification, and glory and rest and heaven
at last - there they all are in the very first words that sounded upon
the quickened ear of the blinded man when he turned from darkness to
light.

It would be foolish, of course, to try to exhaust such a passage as
this in a sermon. But notice, what a complete summary of Christian
truth there lies in that one last clause of the verse, 'Inheritance
among them which are sanctified by faith that is in Me.' Translate that
into distinct propositions, and they are these: Faith refers to Christ;
that is the first thing. Holiness depends on faith; that is the next:
'_sanctified_ by faith.' Heaven depends on holiness: that is the last:
'_inheritance_ among them which are sanctified by faith that is in Me.'
So there we have the whole gospel!

To the one part of this comprehensive summary which is contained in my
text I desire to turn now, in hope of gathering from it some truths as
to that familiar word 'faith' which may be of use to us all. The
expression is so often on our lips that it has come to be almost
meaningless in many minds. These keywords of Scripture meet the same
fate as do coins that have been long in circulation. They pass through
so many fingers that the inscriptions get worn off them. We can all
talk about faith and forgiveness and justifying and sanctifying, but
how few of us have definite notions as to what these words that come so
easily from our lips mean! There is a vast deal of cloudy haze in the
minds of average church and chapel goers as to what this wonder-working
faith may really be. Perhaps we may then be able to see large and
needful truths gleaming in these weighty syllables which Christ Jesus
spoke from heaven to Paul, 'faith that is in Me.'

I. In the first place, then, the object of faith is Christ.

'Faith that is in Me' is that which is directed towards Christ as its
object. Christianity is not merely a system of truths about God, nor a
code of morality deducible from these. In its character of a
revelation, it is the revelation of God in the person of His Son.
Christianity in the soul is not the belief of these truths about God,
still less the acceptance and practice of these pure ethics, but the
affiance and the confidence of the whole spirit fixed upon the
redeeming, revealing Christ,

True, the object of our faith is Christ as made known to us in the
facts of His recorded life and the teaching of His Apostles. True, our
only means of knowing Him as of any other person whom we have never
seen, are the descriptions of Him, His character and work, which are
given. True, the empty name 'Christ' has to be filled with the
doctrinal and biographical statements of Scripture before the Person on
whom faith is to fix can be apprehended or beheld. True, it is Christ
as He is made known to us in the word of God, the Incarnate Son, the
perfect Man, the atoning Sacrifice, the risen Lord, the ascended
Intercessor in whom we have to trust. The characteristics and
attributes of Christ are known to us only by biographical statements
and by doctrinal propositions. These must be understood in some measure
and accepted, ere there can be faith in Him. Apart from them, the image
of Christ must stand a pale, colourless phantom before the mind, and
the faith which is directed towards such a nebula will be an
unintelligent emotion, as nebulous and impotent as the vagueness
towards which it turns.

Thus far, then, the attempt which is sometimes made to establish a
Christianity without doctrines on the plea that the object of faith is
not a proposition, but a person, must be regarded as nugatory; for how
can the 'person' be an object of thought at all, but through the
despised 'propositions'?

But while on the one hand it is true that Christ as revealed in these
doctrinal statements of Scripture, the divine human Saviour, is the
Object of faith, on the other hand it is to be remembered that it is
He, and not the statements about Him, who is the Object.

Look at His own words. He does not merely say to us, 'Believe this,
that, and the other thing about Me; put your credence in this and the
other doctrine; accept this and the other promise; hope for this and
the other future thing.' All these come with but are not the central
act. He says, 'Believe: believe in Me! "_I_ am the Way, and the Truth,
and the Life": He that cometh to _Me_ shall never hunger, and he that
believeth in _Me_ shall never thirst.' Do we rightly appreciate that? I
think that if people firmly grasped this truth - that Christ is the
Gospel, and that the Object of faith is not simply the truths that are
recorded here in the word, but He with regard to whom these truths are
recorded - it would clear away rolling wreaths of fog and mist from
their perceptions. The whole feeling and attitude of a man's mind is
different, according as he is trusting a person, or according as he is
believing something about a person. And this, therefore, is the first
broad truth that lies here. Faith has reference not merely to a
doctrine, not to a system; but deeper than all these, to a living
Lord - 'faith that is _in Me_.'

I cannot help observing, before I go on - though it may be somewhat of a
digression - what a strong inference with regard to the divinity of
Christ is deducible from this first thought that He is the Object to
whom faith has reference. If you look into the Old Testament, you will
find constantly, 'Trust ye in the Lord for ever'; 'Put thy trust in
Jehovah!' There, too, though under the form of the Law, there, too,
faith was the seed and germ of all religion. There, too, though under
the hard husk of apparently external obedience and ceremonial
sacrifices, the just lived by faith. Its object was the Jehovah of that
ancient covenant. Religion has always been the same in every
dispensation. At every time, that which made a man a devout man has
been identically the same thing. It has always been true that it has
been faith which has bound man to God, and given man hope. But when we
come to the New Testament, the centre is shifted, as it would seem.
What has become of the grand old words, 'Trust ye in the Lord Jehovah'?
Look! Christ stands there, and says, 'Believe upon Me'! With calm,
simple, profound dignity, He lays His hand upon all the ancient and
consecrated words, upon all the ancient and hallowed emotions that used
to set towards the unseen God between the cherubim, throned above
judgment and resting upon mercy; and He says, 'They are Mine - give them
to Me! That ancient trust, I claim the right to have it. That old
obedience, it belongs to Me. I am He to whom in all time the loving
hearts of them that loved God, have set. I am the Angel of the
Covenant, in whom whoever trusteth shall never be confounded.' And I



Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 51 of 57)