J. T. Mawson.
Chapter 1 "ALL THINGS ARE NOW READY."
Blessing "ayont the grave"; John Fletcher; NOW; The little servant maid; A disappointing sermon; The negro boy.
Chapter 2 "COME."
The meaning of the word; The salvation of George Irons; The death of the Duke of Clarence; The invitation rejected; The excuses; There is no "larger hope."
Chapter 3 THE FUTURE.
The Irish Village; God, the landlord; Notice to quit; Death to the agnostic, "We cannot tell"; Death to the Christian, "We know." Testimonies; D. L. Moody.
Chapter 4 THE GREAT SUPPER.
Why it is great; The Coronation; It is God's Supper; The multitude that will enjoy it; The cost of it; The Yorkshire women and the old text.
Chapter 5 THE SUPPER SPREAD.
God's provision for men's need; The forgiveness of sins; The young soldier; Peace; "Preach us a sermon." The children's place.
Chapter 6 THE POOR, THE MAIMED, THE HALT, THE BLIND.
All are poor; The millionaire's charity; God's perfect answer; The conflict for souls; The Sydney business man.
Chapter 7 THE DOOR TO THE SUPPER.
Christ the only way; His suitability; What John saw; Christian at the Cross; John Newton; JESUS.
Chapter 8 HOW THE GUESTS ARE FITTED FOR THE FEAST.
A shroud blest by the Pope; Twenty-seven years ago in St. Helen's; Toplady's hymn; The old French missionary's invisible dress; Without the wedding garment.
Chapter 9 UNTIL HE FIND IT.
Publicans and sinners; The Pharisee's scorn; The answer of the Lord; His search for the sheep; What it cost Him; Joy in Heaven; The lost sheep in the Highlands.
Chapter 10 THAT WHICH IS LOST.
The work of the Holy Ghost; The lighted candle; "Ye must be born again." The Open-Air meeting; A young city man and the missed train.
Chapter 11 THE PRODIGAL.
Who is the prodigal? Man's desire for independence; The Open-air preacher and the young lady; A young Norwegian and his end.
Chapter 12 THE FAR COUNTRY.
What is the world like? Confessions of men of the world; The corks; The citizen — the devil; Thompson's confession; The truth at last; God the sinner's only hope; The great King.
Chapter 13 "I WILL ARISE AND GO."
The homeward journey; The father's eagerness; The reception; All forgiven; The robe and ring and shoes; God's answer to the devil's lie.
Chapter 14 JOY IN HEAVEN.
It is the joy of God; Is there ever sadness in heaven? God looks down from heaven; The coming of the Son of God; The call to repentance; A wayward son; A son's telegram to his mother; What is repentance? Eternal joy.
Chapter 15 THE ELDER SON.
He blows his own trumpet; He charges his father with unfairness; He will not go in; The father's entreaty; The door shut at last.
Chapter 16 THE RICH MAN'S DOOM.
A warning to the Pharisees; The Sadducees; The curtain drawn aside; The rich man's selfish life; His death and doom.
Chapter 17 ETERNAL PUNISHMENT.
A popular writer has said that "God" is the vaguest word in the English language. The statement offended me when I read it at first, but on considering it I have come to the conclusion that it is true as far as multitudes of men are concerned, and that God is as surely "the unknown God" to them as He was to the Athenian philosophers when Paul preached on Mars Hill nineteen centuries ago.
What is God like? "No man hath seen God at any time." Then who can describe Him for us and introduce us to Him? "The only-begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him." Then if that is so, if we would know God, we must listen to the Lord Jesus, for He is the only-begotten Son. No man can be excused if he does not know God now, for the truth as to Him is fully revealed, and the truth is not vague; but not to nature, not to science, not to philosophy must we go for the truth, but to JESUS. He said, when arraigned before Pilate, "Every one that is of the truth heareth My voice."
Now in the central parables of Luke's Gospel, we hear the voice of Jesus telling us what God is: His care for the needs of men, and His compassionate provision for those needs, His love for men, His desire for their company, and His just judgment on the despisers and impenitent are set before us in vivid pictures. And, said the Lord, "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear." It is of these parables that I write in this book which I have called, The Feast, the Famine and the Flame. May the blessing of God rest upon the readers.
J. T. Mawson.
All things are NOW ready."
"And when one of them that sat at meat with Him heard these things, he said unto Him, Blessed is he that shall eat bread in the Kingdom of God. Then said He unto him, a certain man made a great supper and bade many: And he sent his servant at supper time to say to them that were bidden, Come: for all things are NOW ready." Luke 14.
"Come and hear the grand old story,
Story told in ages past,
All earth's annals far surpassing,
Story that shall ever last.
That this earth has ever known."
The man who sat at meat with the Lord Jesus and said, "Blessed is he that shall eat bread in the Kingdom of God," was putting into the language of that day the feeling that it must be a good thing for a man to go to heaven when he dies. We do not hear the feeling expressed so often now as we used to when
"There is a happy land
Far, far away,"
was one of the most often sung hymns at revival meetings. Indeed, whatever may be the inner, unspoken feeling, it has become the popular thing to jeer at the idea, and those who are so far behind the times as to preach a heaven in the future for those who believe the gospel now, are looked upon by many as allies of the Capitalists offering heaven as a bribe to men if only they will be contented with such things as they have and work hard that their "masters" may continue to enjoy the wealth that their labour produces. I do not know when and where the notion started, but Robert Burns worked it into one of his poems one hundred and fifty years ago when he wrote,
"We labour soon, we labour late,
To feed the titled knave, man,
And all the comfort we shall get
Is that ayont the grave, man."
See how the Lord answered the man who could only imagine blessing from God "ayont the grave." He propounded to him the parable of the great Supper, and announced the invitation to it, "Come, for all things are NOW ready." I must lay stress upon the word "now," for I am sure the Lord did, and what a word it is! It surely means that God will not keep men waiting for happiness until they are dead; He offers to make them happy now, for the parable of the great Supper tells of His provision for the happiness of men. He has prepared joys for them in this life, exceeding their highest expectations, and He invites them to come for them now. It means that in turning to God men do not turn their backs on true satisfaction, for it is a feast to which He invites them and not a fast; He wants them to come to it now, in this life, for all things are now ready.
The Lord Jesus was always divinely quiet when men opposed and blasphemed Him; "when He was reviled, He reviled not again; when He suffered, He threatened not," yet He must have been profoundly moved and grieved when men misunderstood and distrusted God. Why, I have read of one of His servants, by name John Fletcher, a great preacher, who called his wife and maid to his bedside when he lay dying, and said to them, "Sing, shout, God is love," so mightily was his soul stirred by the thought of God's love to men; and I saw a little servant lassie of fourteen, distressed and weeping after a gospel service, who in answer to my question as to what the trouble was, told me that she had persuaded some friends of hers to come and hear about the Saviour and they had gone away unaffected. That was the cause of her grief. Must not the heart of Jesus who knew God's love in its full tenderness and strength have been stirred by it, and grieved — profoundly grieved, when He saw that men kept God at a distance and lived their lives without Him because they believed the devil's lie that if He had anything at all for them it was in the future and not in the present? I feel that when the Lord announced this great Supper and gave out the words of the invitation He did so with a spirit and a fervour that must have arrested and impressed those that heard them, and yet with grief of heart, for He knew that many would despise and reject it, but I do not think they would ever forget the way He said, "Come, for all things are now ready."
We cannot hear His actual voice speaking to us as they did, but the words are there, and they tell us that God has considered and anticipated the deepest needs of our lives, and that He had catered for our happiness, when we had neither the sense nor the power to do it ourselves. Dismiss your distrust of God, cast out of your heart the lie that He is indifferent to the way you live your life. He is not the author of men's miseries, as some suppose.
"Man's inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn."
God has prepared the great Supper; neither angels nor men assisted Him. Father, Son and Holy Spirit have done it. None are asked to contribute to it, but all are invited to appropriate it, and to do so now — God wants men to enjoy His Supper now. The heavenly bell is ringing, calling men to the feast now. That "now" in the invitation is a great word. It is the Lord's own word N.O.W. now. It is an imperative word, it has no future tense, and its antithesis is Never.
I had a relative whom I had not met. He heard that I was to preach in the city in which he lived, and he decided to come and hear me and make my acquaintance. I do not know what he expected, but he was disappointed in what he heard. This very parable was my subject and I pressed upon the people what I am now pressing, that God's word is now. Now, not to-morrow. Behold, now is the accepted time; behold now is the day of salvation," and, "To-day, if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts." I spelt the word many times, for I felt sure that it was my message then as I am sure it is now. My relative listened. What did I mean? This was surely the strangest preaching he had ever heard! Did I think they were a lot of children that needed to have a word of three letters spelt over to them? He had expected something different, an intellectual sermon, perhaps, for intelligent men, or a forceful urge to a better and more useful life; and he went away as I have said, disappointed. But he confessed in a letter afterwards that he could not shake off that word NOW. It followed him, and kept him waking at night; it hammered at the very door of his soul; it was not an invitation only, it was a challenge, and I believe through the infinite mercy of God it did its intended work.
"Come, for all things are now ready." What does it mean? It means that God is not waiting until you die to receive you but He comes to you now and here, bringing heaven's blessing to you where you are. God loves you, and, if you will, He will welcome you at last to His home beyond the grave, but He loves you so well that He does not propose to keep you waiting until then to be happy, He sends His message to you now — a message of love and joy, an invitation to a great Supper, made ready for you by an infinite love, "Come, for all things are now ready."
* * * *
Yes, "All things are now ready," but not a man will come and enter that feast unless he is converted and becomes as a little child. The little child of the Lord's parable hears and believes, there is no pretence about him, he confesses his need when he feels it, and simply and thankfully receives what is offered him and talks about what he has received. After a protracted gospel service in Kingston, Jamaica, at which many anxious souls had pressed into the feast, a little negro lad, ten years old perhaps, touched me on the elbow and said, "Do speak to me, sir, my soul does feel so unsaved." We found a quiet spot where he could listen to the word, and then we knelt in prayer. When I had prayed for him, he prayed for himself, "Lord Jesus," he said, "save my soul." And he jumped to his feet, having no doubt that his prayer was answered, for as he said, I had told him that the Lord had said, "Him that cometh to Me, I will in no wise cast out." He had come and proved that the Lord's words were true.
The next afternoon we held a meeting for boys and girls like himself, and he asked that he might tell them what had happened to him, and this is what he said. "Dear friends, last night I came to Jesus, and He has saved me and made me happy, and I want you all to follow my good example, for Jesus Christ's sake, Amen."
Is it as simple as that? Yes, to the little child, but, "Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent and hast revealed them unto babes."
"Come; for all things are now ready."
"Yet there is room!" Love, love eternal waits,
The Saviour sits within the pearly gates.
Come home, oh come!
Come, e'er it be too late.
"Yet there is room!" Still open stands the gate,
The gate of love — it is not yet too late,
Come home, oh come!
The grace of God receive.
Louder and sweeter sounds the loving call,
Come, lingerer, come — enter the festal hall.
Come home, oh come!
The love of God believe.
The Servant sent forth by the Master of the house with the invitations to the Supper is none other than the Holy Spirit of God. The Apostles of the Lord who were the first preachers of this gospel were told by their Master to tarry in Jerusalem until He came, and when He did come, they "preached the gospel by the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven." The messsage is so wonderful and the work of filling God's house so great and urgent, that it could not be committed to a lesser person. It is the Holy Ghost who has come into the world with an invitation to men from the Father and the Son. The first word of the invitation is COME. Consider the significance of that. It is not "Go work in My vineyard" but "COME to My Supper." It is a wonderful word, an evangelical word. It is a word that suits well the lips of the Father, who sent His Son to be the Saviour of the world; it suits well the lips of the Son who died that sinners might live; it suits well the lips of the Holy Ghost who has come into the world to compel hungry and sinful men to come to God's Supper. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are saying, Come, The Triune God desire your company in their home for ever; They are saying Come to you.
Do you understand the meaning of the word? That babe of six months understands it. If I can only put the right tone into my voice and the proper smile on my face, and hold out my hands to the little mite and say, "Come," it answers at once. It cannot run to me, it cannot even say, "I will;" but it stretches out its arms and struggles to reach me. It knows what I mean. God is saying, "Come" to men, and behind the invitation there is the yearning of His love for them. He wills the death of none of them; He will cast out none who come in answer to His call; He will welcome them to His feast and bless them for ever.
I was preaching the gospel in Leamington Spa. To the meetings came a man named Irons, and those who knew him were surprised to see him there. He was well-known, a hardened sinner. Yes, with a heart as hard as his name. He had been a man of means and had married a lady who was well-to-do, but he had drunk and gambled both fortunes, and for some years his only homes had been prison and the common lodging-house. But he came to the meetings, and one night he told me that he was saved. Saved! George Irons saved! I had my doubts, so unbelieving was I. However he came to see me, and what a time we had together! "Tell me" I said, "how this came about; are you saved because you made up your mind to give up the drink and lead a decent life?" "No," he said, "it wasn't that. While you were preaching, it seemed as if God was stretching out His arms to me, and saying, 'Come, I'll receive you just as you are.'" That is it. That is what "Come" means. I could doubt the man no more; he had heard the voice of the Saviour God calling him from his misery and sin to home and feast and love, and to God Himself. And the same voice is calling you. Come, Come, COME.
The late Canon Fleming in his Autobiography has told an appealing story of the death of the Duke of Clarence, the elder son of the late King Edward VII, who was then Prince of Wales. The young duke was lying at Sandringham. His mother, the Princess of Wales, was sitting at his side, when he suddenly opened his eyes and said, "Who is that calling for me?" She answered him, "It is Jesus calling you, dear." Those were the last words he uttered, and hers were the last words he heard, for in a few minutes his life quietly closed. She rose from his bedside and saw his diary lying on a table nearby; it was open to the date when first he took the communion, and there she read,
"Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me;
And that Thou bidst me come to Thee;
O Lamb of God, I come."
"I could not doubt," said the future Queen of England "that dear Eddie had really come."
The invitation comes to everyone, to the highest and the least, prince and pauper, and all who come are welcomed alike, for in God's sight there is no difference between royal duke and homeless drunkard, no difference between George Irons, the Duke of Clarence, and you and me.
It is strange that such an invitation should have failed in its appeal to those favoured people to whom it was first sent; but so it was. They all with one consent began to make excuse. They were not rude about it; not one of them said, as I heard a man say to whom a gospel tract was offered in a Scottish express train, "I call that a bit of impertinence; why can't people keep their religion to themselves?" No, they were not like that, it was with the greatest possible politeness that they rejected the invitation, but they rejected it all the same, they deliberately and finally rejected it.
One had his land, another had his oxen, and a third had his wife; and there was nothing wrong in these; they were all legitimate possessions, and the men who had them were evidently shrewd, industrious and sociable men. What was wrong then? Their own interests were more important in their eyes than the great Supper; they were so completely engrossed with what they possessed that they could not even consider the grace of the invitation sent to them by the Master of the House. He had thought of them and provided His feast for them in vain, His kindness was slighted and His servant turned from their doors with a blank refusal; they could manage very well without the Supper, thank you!
Did the Lord err in drawing this picture? Most certainly not. He reads the hearts of all and knows their motives and ways, and He described in the parable the folly and sinful independence of God and His blessing of which thousands are guilty. It may have described the folly of the Jew to whom the gospel was first sent, but it also describes the attitude of thousands of easy-placed, well-to-do men and women of the world to-day. They would prefer to have nothing to do with God; they will take His benefits, but they do not desire His saving grace; the gospel Supper has no attraction for them; temporalities are more to them than eternal verities. They have no time for God. "I have bought," "I have bought," "I have married." Their own activities and achievements are everything to them, and not one of them says, "I have sinned" as did the prodigal son; and dares anyone to say that they will have another opportunity in another life? The Master of the house was angry and said, "None of those men that were bidden shall taste of My Supper." God's word to sinners is "Come"; if that word is rejected it changes to "Depart." The "larger hope" that some have preached is a delusion and a lie.
Let every man and woman of us hear this word of invitation, this great word, Come, and heed it, and respond to it without delay. It is God that is calling.
"Oh, be swift my soul, to answer Him; be jubilant, my feet."
It is God who calls; it is God who says Come.
"Compel them to come in, that my house may be filled."
"The music of the ransomed,
I thought how sweet 'twould sound,
How all the halls of glory
With joy would echo round.
But ah! more sweet and charming
Than songs or music rare
Is this heart-thrilling sentence,
The one I love is there."
I don't want anybody to suppose from what I have said that the present is more important than the future — it is not. Time is short, it runs on swift feet. Forty, fifty, sixty, perhaps eighty years, and a man bids "good-bye" to this life and enters eternity, and eternity is long: it never ends; and no question can rival in importance that which we sometimes ask, Where will you spend eternity?
I remember years ago seeing a village in Ireland in ruins. All the cottages in it were roofless and uninhabited. It was a melancholy sight. I was told that the people who once lived in those cottages had refused to pay the rent and had been evicted. The village was a parable to me. We dwell in "this earthly house of our tabernacle" — you and I — and we have received "notice to quit." Why? Because we have not paid the rent. God is the landlord, He is the designer and builder of our bodies. It is He that "giveth to us life, breath and all things" as the Bible tells us; consequently He has claims upon us, and we have not met those claims, nor desired to. We were all alike in this respect, until some of us — but that is another matter that we shall come to soon — we did not pay the rent, we were determined not to; "we turned every one to his own way"; and that is why notice to quit has been served on us. We are awaiting eviction — some of us have "a better hope," but again that is another matter. The truth is, "It is appointed unto men once to die." The grim bailiff DEATH has his work to do, and when the time comes, he will do it effectually, regardless of our wishes or feelings. To some he comes suddenly, and without warning evicts them from this earthly dwelling; but however and whenever he comes, the long-cherished and tenderly-cared for tabernacle will fall into ruins; nothing can save it; and surely the greatest question to the man involved is, What of the one who dwelt in it?
Who can tell us? A well-known scientist has said that the soul of a man is like the flame of a candle; when it is snuffed out it is gone and done with for ever. I wonder if he really believes that. You do not, and neither do I. He would reduce us to the level of the beasts, from which he says we have sprung; but we know better than that. God breathed into man's nostrils the breath of life, and he became a living soul; and he is greater than sun, moon and stars, for he will live for ever and be conscious of his existence when they have ceased to be. You and I will live forever. But who can tell us about that? The agnostic cannot — the man who parades his ignorance and boasts in it. Robert Ingersoll was a clever man; he laughed at the Bible and lectured in crowded halls on "The Mistakes of Moses"; had he any comfort or assurance to give us about eternity? Hear what he said about it:
"Is there beyond the silent night
An endless day?
Is death a door that leads to light?
We cannot say.
The tongueless secret locked in fate
We do not know. We hope and wait."
Suppose the landlord of those defaulting Irish folk had sent a message to them of this sort, "You have failed in your obligations, and in justice I must have you evicted from the cottages in which you have lived and disregarded my claims; but when the time comes for you to be turned out, I will open the doors of my mansion and welcome you to my home. It will be my pleasure to have your company." Suppose that! Never such a landlord existed among men; if there had been such an one, his fame would have spread to the ends of the earth, and his deed would have been the subject of many a story book. It is my business and joy to tell you that such a landlord God is. He has thrown open the doors of His home, and there are many mansions there — there is room for all. And in the gospel — in this very parable, God is telling men that though they have got notice to quit, for death has passed upon all men for that all have sinned, yet He will welcome to His home whosoever will accept His invitation when the time of their eviction comes. It is a surprising offer, and puts God in a different light to that in which men generally view Him, and it is the more surprising because it is made to those who are enemies and alienated from Him by wicked works.
Now in contrast to the hopeless wail of the agnostic the Christian speaks with confidence as he looks into the future. He can say, "We know that if this earthly house of our tabernacle were dissolved we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens." 2 Corinthians 5. And though with many, if not all, there is a natural shrinking from death, the Christian may face it without fear, for the death of Christ has taken the sting out of it, by dying He has robbed the devil of the power of it, to deliver those who through fear of it were all their lifetime subject to bondage. As we read the Scriptures we realise that the saved man or woman, those who rely wholly upon the Saviour, have no need to have a single tremor in the presence of death. We are very familiar with Paul's words, "To depart to be with Christ which is far better," and, "To die is gain." But others also have spoken when dying. John Fletcher said, "I'm like a bird escaping from its cage." Melanchthon said, "Nothing now but heaven." J. G. Bellett cried out with joy at the thought of being with the "Man of Sychar's well," and "the Man of Calvary." I heard of a young girl in her late teens, who when they thought she was gone and said so, whispered, "I'm just passing into glory," and I will give you in way of contrast to Ingersoll's gloomy outlook the words of a contemporary of his, D. L. Moody, who spoke to more people than any man of his day. It is said that he addressed audiences aggregating one hundred millions, and his subject was always Christ the Saviour. He was dying at 62, his strong physical frame worn out by excessive labours. Here in his son's own words is the account of his going. "Suddenly he was heard speaking in slow and measured words. He was saying, 'Earth recedes; heaven opens before me.' The first impulse was to try to arouse him from what appeared to be a dream. 'No, this is no dream, Will,' he replied, 'It is beautiful. It is like a trance. If this is death, it is sweet. There is no valley here. God is calling me, and I must go.'"
A gifted poet has sung a poor, sad dirge:
"Nothing begins and nothing ends
That is not paid with moan,
For we are born in others' pain
And perish in our own."
But we may thank God, that such a hopeless outlook has no place in Christian hymnary.
I am anxious that you should not be deceived by the lie that God has nothing for you now, that you must wait for His blessing "ayont the grave," but I am equally anxious that you should enquire as to the future.
The gospel that tells us of present joy and peace, of the feast that is now ready, tells us also of future glory and a home in heaven for ever. God has said, "My house shall be full," and His invitation to men covers the present and the future; there is a feast and a home for all who respond — a satisfying feast and an eternal home.
The Great Supper
"A certain man made a great Supper."
"Great is the house and great the One that built it;
Great is the Supper He has spread therein;
Great was the price it cost Him to provide it,
And great the grace that forces us within.
Soon to that region He will safely bring us,
Once in that dwelling which is His and ours,
Sorrow and pain and death no more shall sting us;
There shall we worship with supernal powers."
Nobody who knows anything about it will challenge me when I say that the parable of the GREAT Supper was spoken by our Lord to illustrate God's way of blessing men. It tells how He proposes to meet the deepest needs of their souls and deliver them from their miseries; it also tells of His desire that they should be happy with Him at His own expense, as His guests; He desires the pleasure of their company. And, if I may add another thing, without clouding the issue, it shows the joyful way in which He is now celebrating the coronation of His Son in the glory. The day of the coronation of George VI and his Queen was a great day; from London to the farthest outposts of the Empire, in mansion, cottage and slum, there was feasting and rejoicing. God has raised up Jesus from the dead and crowned Him with glory and honour; He has enthroned Him to be a Prince and a Saviour for men, and He wants everyone to rejoice because of this. He invites us to share His joy and participate in the blessings that result from the triumph of His Son over sin and death and the devil, and because of His coronation in heaven. The Supper is a great one because of this great reason for it — the desire of God for the happiness of men.
It is great because God is great, and it is His Supper. He is great in His power and wisdom, as we all surely know, for this is declared in His creative works, but He is greater in His love. "God is love" and it is this that should appeal to us all. In ancient days, for His own wise purposes, He selected one nation from all the rest and cared for it with a special care, but that was only until the time arrived for His Son to appear. Now He will have all men to be saved, Gentiles as well as Jews. He thinks of every nation, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son." He sends His invitation to all. The gospel word is "whosoever will." The rich are no more to Him than the poor; in His sight the black are equal to the white. He stretches out His hands to all and invites all without distinction to come in to His Supper. It is a great Supper because it is God's, and He is great.
It is a great Supper because of the multitude that will enjoy it for ever. It does not seem that that could be so, judging by what we see. The happy Christians appear to be in the minority. The multitudes queue up for the cinemas and theatres and race courses; dance halls are packed, but not the gospel services. The clown gets the laughing crowd while the herald of God's salvation delivers his message to the children and a few, sometimes very few, adults. "Without exaggeration, a thousand people gathered round us to hear the word," writes an enthusiastic open-air evangelist, "and at the end of the meeting four men stepped out and confessed the Lord Jesus as their Saviour." Four out of a thousand! Of course we are glad of the four; "there is joy in the presence of the angels when one sinner repents," but four out of a thousand! that was a very small percentage. The world, the flesh and the devil seem to have had the best of it in that crowd. It may have been that kind of thing that made a man in the previous chapter ask, "Lord, are there few that be saved?" We know the Lord's answer, Look after yourself. "Strive you to enter in." Yet in spite of the fact that most men seem to be lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God, and the many are on the broad road and not in the narrow way, His house shall be filled, and it shall be filled with a multitude that no man can number. They shall come from the North and the South, and the East and the West and sit down in God's kingdom, a mighty host, ransomed from death and hell by the precious blood of God's Son, to feast for ever with Him. Many will seek to enter in then but shall not be able, because they ignored God's NOW and arrived too late. But in spite of that, heaven will be filled with a countless multitude. The Supper is great because of the number that will enjoy it.
It is a great Supper because of the cost of it, and this is the very heart of the subject. What will God give to make men happy? What price will He pay? He gives life, but the shadow of death lies on it. He gives health, but sickness is never far away. He could give money, but what is money? A North of England newspaper offered a prize for the best definition of money, and the definition that won the prize was a great one. I do not think it could be bettered. Here it is. "Money can purchase everything but happiness, and open every door but the door of heaven." But if a man is not happy in this world and does not reach heaven in the next, what has he that is worth having? He must have both if he is to be a blessed man, and not life or health or wealth can give him either; but God can give him both, but — at what a cost!
"God so loved" — Ah, the old text! I had a strange dream. In my dream I was spending a beautiful summer's day in some Yorkshire villages giving away gospel books and talking to the people about the Saviour. At a cottage door there sat a group of women, enjoying the sunshine and an hour's gossip. I had to explain to them that I was not selling anything, but giving them the gospel, and in my explanation I quoted my text, "God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life." I had no sooner got the words out of my mouth, than one of the women laughed, a scornful laugh, and said, "T'owd text agean," and all the women joined with her in laughing at the old text again. I awoke from my dream with their laughter ringing in my ears, and was glad that it was a dream. And yet, I fear, that that is the way that many are treating the most wonderful words that mortal ears have ever heard. Old as the text may be, and often used, I cannot leave it out of this story; it tells us what God has done for our blessing, what it has cost Him to spread this feast. I might quote other texts, not so well known perhaps, but none the less wonderful. "In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent His only-begotten Son into the world that we might live through Him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins." 1 John 4:9, 10.
How far surpassing all our need and desires must the feast be that cost God such a price! And who shall describe the price that His beloved Son paid, for the Father and the Son were one in this. He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor! The poverty of the manger was a great price to pay, but it was not enough; His life of sorrow, for He was the Man of sorrows, was a great price to pay, but it was not enough; the agony of Gethsemane, with its sweat of blood, was a great price to pay, but it was not enough; nothing could avail but the cross of Calvary; there He who knew no sin, was made sin for us; there He died for the ungodly. The Bible says, "Christ died for the ungodly." One sentence of five words — golden words. How much they have meant to me and to thousands of sinners. Many times I have pondered them, and said with moistened eyes and worshipping heart, "Why, Lord, that means me! That is the price that Thou didst pay for me!" It was the price He paid that this Supper might be spread, made ready for needy men. That is what our redemption cost Him, and that was the price that He paid that God might bless us righteously.
The Supper is a great one because of what it has cost, and because of the multitude that will enjoy it, and because of the greatness of the God who has provided it; and because of His gracious desire that all men should enjoy it.
The Supper Spread
Jesus said "My Father giveth you the true bread from heaven." — John 6:32.
"Thou bringest love and gladness forth
From Thine exhaustless store,
To me, deserving but Thy wrath,
The life for evermore."
God knows the needs of men and as the faithful Creator He gives "rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness," as Paul the Apostle told the Lycaonians many years ago. Thus He spreads a feast that our bodies may be nourished, even though some of us never thank Him. But men have not bodies only, they have immortal souls, and the need of the soul is infinitely greater than the need of the body. God gives the abundance of the earth for the feeding of the body, but for the soul! for the salvation of the soul He has given the abundance of the heavens — He has given His only-begotten Son. He could not have given more than that and less would not have done. And now He bids the hunger-stricken, sinful sons of men to come in to His Supper. "All things are ready; there is enough for all, and all who come will be welcomed and saved and satisfied.
What is it that sinful men need first and most? When those four zealous friends of the palsied man brought him to the house where Jesus was, and let him down through the tiling at His feet, they thought that He would immediately work a miracle, and by a word put strength into the shaking limbs of their afflicted friend. We can understand their astonishment, and perhaps disappointment, when instead He said, "Man, thy sins are forgiven thee." But the Lord knew better than they; He knew that the forgiveness of sins was that man's greatest need; his sins first and then his sickness, his soul first and then his body. The forgiveness of sins is the first of many blessings that God offers to men, and all who enter the door and sit down at His Supper will find that this is the first of the dishes on the table. And I am glad to be able to make known the fact and describe it in the very words that Paul used in the synagogue at Antioch in Pisidia. They are Holy Ghost inspired words, and one thousand nine hundred years have not changed the need or taken the power out of the words. "Be it known unto you, therefore, men and brethren, that through this Man [Christ Jesus] is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins." Acts 13:38. Of course there are many who despise this blessing; those Pharisees and scribes who scorned the Saviour's grace, would not have taken a single step to get it, because they had never felt the burden of their sins; but we shall not listen to them or their ilk. "The proof of the pudding is in the eating" and only those who have tasted of this dish can speak of its sweetness and commend it to others. David was one of these. "Blessed is the man whose transgression is forgiven," he exclaimed, and those who know tell us that his exclamation means, "Oh the blessednesses of the forgiven man!" His cup ran over with relief and joy, and, I should add, thanksgiving.
During the war, it was on the Sunday of the Dogger Bank engagement, I addressed a gathering of soldiers in South Shields. There was one lad of the Royal Engineers there who listened to my words with great earnestness — so much so that I made up my mind that I would speak to him when the meeting was over. He anticipated me and asked if he might have a talk with me. We sat down together and I asked, "What's the trouble?" He broke down completely and said, "I've got a big sin on my soul." "Tell me about yourself" I said. And he poured out a sad tale of folly and sin though he was only nineteen. "It seems to me, Edward," I said, "that you have got a lot of big sins on your soul." He confessed that he had, and sobbed out "I'm glad my mother is dead, she would have broken her heart over me." He was ready for forgiveness, poor lad. "I want you" I said, "to read this verse," and I turned him. to Isaiah 53:5. "He was wounded for our transgressions. He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed." I explained to him that the verse was about the Lord Jesus, and I put myself alongside him and told him how the great Saviour had suffered for our sins on the cross that we might be saved. He drank in the truth and feasted on the gospel story, and then we knelt and thanked God. As I shook hands with him that night outside his billet he said, "I haven't been able to sleep for many a night, I've been so miserable; but I'll be able to go to my bed to-night and say, 'God has forgiven me '."
Men were badly needed in Flanders and young as he was he had to go, and he found time to write to me perhaps the last letter he ever did write, for my answer came back, "Missing." In that letter written during the worst of February weather, amid sleet and rain and cold and mud and all the miseries and dangers of the trenches, he wrote "I'm so happy." Why was he so happy? Because he had entered the feast and was rejoicing in that first dish on the table — the forgiveness of sins. He had tasted and seen that the Lord is gracious; his sins were forgiven for His Name's sake.
That is the beginning of the feast and there is more to follow. We read, "Being justified by faith, we have PEACE with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." How well that dish suits the palate of those whose consciences have troubled them and who, like David, have said to God, "Against Thee, and Thee only have I sinned" and have longed to have peace with God. I knew a band of lads, I had almost said a gang, they were not Y.M.C.A. boys, nor the sort that you would expect to see rushing to the gospel meetings. But one of them was induced to go and hear an earnest evangelist who had come to the town, and he not only heard but believed. Of course he was the subject of many a jest. He did not mind that. The nightly gospel and not the variety show was now his delight, he had got into God's feast. A week passed and he returned to his home from one of these meetings, and there was gathered this band of his old friends to greet him. The laughter started at once. "Now, parson," they said, "preach us a sermon." To their astonishment he stood on a chair, and said "I can't preach, but I can sing," and he began.
"O the peace my Saviour gives,
Peace I never knew before;
All my life has brighter grown
Since I learnt to know Him more."
Before he reached the end of his song there slipped from the room his own brother and another, and when they looked at each other outside the door, the tears were on both their cheeks. The joy of that lad as his soul feasted on the peace that the Saviour had given him, and as he poured out the story in his song, had broken them down, and they too pressed in to the feast. Yes, peace with God is a sweet dish, and I who know its sweetness would urge on all who don't to enter into the feast and taste it now.
Did you ever read the story of those four leprous men who sat outside the gate of the besieged and starving city of Samaria? It is an interesting and instructive tale, and is told in 2 Kings 7. They sat there until death seemed to be closing in upon them on every side, and they decided that their only hope of life was to cast themselves on the mercy of the besieging army. But when they reached the camp of the enemy they did not find a single man there. They found instead, what they were needing most, plenty of good food. And the story tells us, "they went into one tent, and did eat and drink, and carried thence silver and gold and raiment and went and hid it, and came again and went into another tent, and carried thence also." I want to use the story as an incentive to those who have entered God's feast, not to be satisfied with one dish, but to go from dish to dish, as those men went from tent to tent. God's grace has provided this great feast of many dishes, and Faith appropriates what God has provided, and the more faith appropriates the more will God be delighted.
I speak of one more dish. It is set before us in John 3 "Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us that we should be called the children of God." This carries us beyond all our expectations; we compare it with that Old Testament Scripture, "He brought me into His banqueting house and His banner over me was love. I sat down under His shadow, with great delight and His fruit was sweet to my taste," and we say this is even better than that. This gives us the "bairns" place and assures us of a Father's care as long as life shall last, and is the pledge that the best that heaven can give shall be ours for ever. It tells us of the Father's love which is the richest, sweetest portion that heaven can set before our souls.
"The poor, the maimed, the halt, the blind"
"Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in hither the poor, the maimed, and the halt, and the blind . . . Go out into the highways and the hedges and compel them to come in that my house may be filled."
"Call them in" — the poor, the wretched,
Sin-stained wanderers from the fold:
Peace and pardon freely offer:
Can you weigh their worth with gold?
"Call them in" — the broken-hearted,
Cowering 'neath the brand of shame,
Speak love's message low and tender —
"'Twas for sinners Jesus came."
"Bring them in" — the careless scoffers,
Pleasure seekers of the earth,
Tell of God's most gracious offer,
And of Jesus' priceless worth."
It is a man's own loss if he refuses the God-sent invitation. The feast will go on without him and God's house shall be full. The poor, the maimed, the halt and the blind will come in, compelled by the great Servant, from the streets and lanes of the city. But who are these? Again the Master-artist is at work describing those who are fit subjects for God's grace, and who will most certainly appreciate that grace when they know their need for it. The poor cannot pay, the maimed cannot work, the halt must be brought, and the blind are helpless without a guide. Not one of them is self-sufficient, they are dependent people. Every man and woman on earth comes into this category, only some have not discovered this, and others are too proud to own it. Some boast, "I am rich and increased in goods and have need of nothing," but to them the Lord replies, "Thou knowest not that thou art wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked." It is not easy to confess the truth, it cuts clean across our natural pride, and the discovery of it is a bitter experience; but it is the way to the blessing, and it is better to confess the unpalatable truth than hug the pleasant lie.
All are poor; the Lord has described us all as "debtors, with nothing to pay." A man's bank balance or broad acres do not enter into this question. The millionaire is as poor before God as the man who sleeps on the Embankment with neither penny nor purse. You might be able to scatter money with the munificence of Lord Nuffield, it would be of no account at God's door; gold cannot buy grace. A millionaire manufacturer in my native town gave a large sum of money to local charities. His Christian secretary asked him, Why? for it was an unusual move on his part. "Because I want to go to heaven as well as you" was his answer. But not such as he with his fancied ability to pay pass in to the Supper; it is the poor that are welcomed and those who think they are rich are turned empty away.
"Our poverty of soul
To God's gate can bring no toll,
Giftless we come to Him who all things gives."
To every sinner that owns the truth God has got a perfect answer. Let a man confess his poverty, and God's answer is, "Ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that ye through His poverty might be rich." Let a man confess that he has been maimed by sin, and made helpless to work for his salvation, God's answer is, "When we were yet without strength, in due time, Christ died for the ungodly," and, "By grace are ye saved . . . not of works, lest any man should boast." Let a man acknowledge that he is halt, without the power to walk in the ways of righteousness, God's answer is, "Unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, to the only-wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and for ever." Let a man acknowledge that he is blind, God's answer is, "To open their eyes and 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 (Christ)."
Why do not men understand their need of God's grace? Why don't they see that if they refuse His grace they must be lost for ever? God gives a solemn answer to these questions. We read, "If our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: in whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them that believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine in unto them." 2 Corinthians 4.
The fact is that there is a great conflict for souls being waged between Satan, the god of this world, and the great Servant who has come from heaven to compel men to come in to God's Supper. I will tell you of the conflict for one soul, and how it ended. It was on a ferry boat, crossing the beautiful Sydney harbour, that I was introduced to a man of some standing in the shipping world of the city. He had graduated from the University and had made good in his business life, but that did not satisfy him; he had a great thirst for knowledge and was determined to know the truth as to things. In his search for truth he was attracted by Theosophy, which was in the way of being popular in his circle at that time, and for a while he was well satisfied and sure that what he held for truth could not be challenged. Satan had succeeded in blinding his eyes. One day he was seized with a sudden illness and his doctor ordered an immediate operation. Now came the test. He set about to work himself up into an ecstatic state of mind to face the ordeal; he succeeded, and this lasted until he got between the sheets in his bed at the nursing home. Then to use his own words, he "got the wind up." The great Servant was opening his blind eyes. He had a few hours to wait for the operation and he was in a panic; his hope had failed him, it had burst like a bubble. He asked for a Bible and began eagerly to read from the New Testament, and he had read through the four Gospels before he was called to the operating theatre. There he had a strange experience. I had the story from his own lips. While under the anaesthetic he thought he saw upon a black background a cross uplifted, upon which hung Jesus, the Son of God. That was not strange, seeing he had read the story of the crucifixion four times within the last few hours. What was strange was that a voice seemed to say to him repeatedly and insistently, "I am Alpha and Omega. I am Alpha and Omega." When he recovered full consciousness he asked the nurse, "Can you tell me where the words I am Alpha and Omega are, in the Bible?" She could not, but because he seemed so anxious to find them, she said she would enquire. Now it so happened that under God's good hand a Salvation Army Captain was visiting in another ward of that Home, and the nurse sent him to her patient. The Captain knew his Bible and found the words and preached Christ from them to the sick man. He being a graduate of Sydney University did not need to be told that Alpha and Omega were the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet; and as he pondered the words that had been so strangely impressed on his mind, the truth dawned upon his troubled soul. The great Servant had shattered his false hope, and delivered him from the blinding influence of Satan, and was leading him into the light. He understood that Christ was all; that whatever God had to say to sinful man was in and through Christ, and Him crucified. Thus was he guided into God's Supper. He was a happy man, as happy a man as I have ever met. It was a pleasure to be with him. "My old friends call me 'the born-again man'" he told me, and the name they gave him was a good one and suited him well. Thus does the Spirit of God work with men; first to show them their soul's deep need of the saving grace of God, and then to gently compel them to the door of His festal hall; WHICH DOOR IS CHRIST.
The Door to the Supper
"I am the door, by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved." — John 10.
"O God, through Christ, the living way,
My Father and my God,
So near, and I so far astray,
Brought nigh Thee by His blood."
Yes, Christ is the door to the Supper, the only way of blessing for sinful men, He said so Himself. "I am the door," and again, "I am the way, the truth and the life; no man cometh unto the Father but by me." John chapters 10 and 14. The words have been so often repeated and become so familiar that they seem to have lost their force and meaning; may the Holy Spirit of God put fresh unction and power into them for every one of us to-day.
Some people seem to think that God ought to have opened a dozen ways into His blessing, so that they could have chosen the one that suited them the best; they turn from the blessing because they do not like the way to it, but there is none other. This is said both clearly and conclusively in Peter's words, when, filled with the Holy Ghost, he addressed the Christ-rejecting leaders of the Jewish nation. "Neither is there salvation in any other for there is none other name under heaven given amongst men, whereby we must be saved." Acts 4. God has bound up the blessing of sinners with the glory of His Son and never will one of them be saved apart from Him. The great Servant who has come from heaven to compel the needy into God's feast of blessing will compel them only through this new and living way — Christ. There is no room for argument, no other way of blessing is possible either in time or eternity. God has spoken, and His word is final.
We should rejoice that this is so, for Christ Jesus the Lord is both accessible and attractive and most suitable to sinful men. Multitudes can bear witness to this, and it is this that the Bible means when it says "He is gracious." The four Gospels have been written that we might have no doubt about this. They show the Lord to us in a fourfold and complete way, and are well calculated to meet and win the most callous heart. They tell us that when the disciples would have driven the children away, He drew them to the warmth of His own heart and blessed them, and they were not afraid of Him and did not flee from Him. They tell us of the leper who came to Him, and was not repulsed. If he had come to Peter he would have cried, "Don't come near me," and John would have said, "Keep your distance," but Jesus had compassion on him and stretched forth His hand and touched him, and he, poor wretch, had not been touched for years, and the touch of that compassionate hand must have healed his stricken soul as truly as those words of power healed the plague of his body. These Gospels tell us how He wept over Jerusalem, the city that hated Him and was to murder Him, as He foresaw its doom, and how tears of divine sympathy flowed down His cheeks when He saw the sorrow of two of His friends weeping for their dead brother; for foes and friends He wept alike, and His tears were the proof of an impartial, invincible love.
But it is His cross that makes Him so irresistibly attractive, "I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men." He was crucified; the Gospels tell us of this; and who can read that four times told story and remain unmoved! John the Apostle who stood by the cross, gives it to us in the fewest words. He tells us what he saw and heard: the cry, "I thirst," the triumphant word "It is finished"; the thorn-crowned head bowed in death; the side pierced with the soldier's spear, and the flowing blood and water. Of all this he was a witness, and he says, "He that saw it bare record, and his record is true: and he knoweth that he saith true, that ye might believe." John 20:35. Alas that the record should have been made in vain for so many!
Let us hear what John Bunyan can tell us of the effect of a sight of the cross. "Now I saw in my dream that the highway up which Christian was to go was fenced on either side by a wall, and that wall was called Salvation, Isa. 26:1. Up this way therefore did burdened Christian run, but not without great difficulty, because of the load on his back. He ran thus until he came to a place somewhat ascending: and upon that place stood a Cross, and a little below it in the bottom a sepulchre. So I saw in my dream, that just as Christian came up with the Cross, his burden loosed off from his shoulders, and fell from his back, and began to tumble, and so continued to do, till it came to the mouth of the sepulchre, where it fell in and I saw it no more.
"Then was Christian glad and lightsome, and said with a merry heart, He hath given me rest by His sorrow, and life by His death. Then he stood awhile to look and to wonder: for it was very surprising to him that the sight of the Cross should thus ease him of his burden. He looked therefore, and looked again, even till the springs that were in his head sent the waters down his cheeks . . . Then Christian gave three leaps of joy, and went on singing —
"Blest Cross! blest Sepulchre! blest rather be
The Man that there was put to shame for me."
In this way did the pilgrim pass through the door into God's everlasting feast.
And let us listen to John Newton. He had got as far from God as a man out of hell could, and in the hold of a fast sinking ship, when all hope had been abandoned, he cried to God for mercy, and saw as in a vision the Saviour on the cross, and prostrate at His feet he was saved, and afterwards wrote:
"I saw One hanging on a tree,
In agonies of blood,
Who fixed His eyes of love on me
As near His cross I stood.
That look of love and sorrow said:
My life for thee I give;
This blood is for thy ransom paid,
I die that thou mayest live!
O never till my latest breath
Can I forget that look;
It seemed to charge me with His death,
Though not a word He spoke.
That look of love and sorrow said:
My life for thee I give;
This blood is for thy ransom paid,
I die that thou mayest live."
That was the way that John Newton entered into the blessing, and he could not forget it, nor did he intend that any one else should forget it after his death, as one who has written of him has said, for he gave instructions that the only epitaph on his grave should be,
Once an Infidel and Libertine,
A servant of slaves in Africa,
Was, by the mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ,
Preserved, Restored, Pardoned,
And appointed to preach the Faith
He had so long laboured to destroy.
And if I may be permitted to humbly put myself alongside these men, who were great sinners, greatly saved, I will tell you the way that I found the door to the Feast. I was a convicted and repentant sinner, feeling deeply my need of the Saviour, and a servant of the Lord put his arm round me and said, "You'll trust Him to-night, won't you, dear?" I knew who he meant when he said, "You'll trust HIM," and I answered, "Yes." He said, "Let us sing,
"'Tis done, the great transaction's done,
I am my Lord's and He is mine;
He drew me and I followed on,
Glad to confess His Name divine,
Happy day, happy day,
When Jesus washed my sins away."
Why did I, on the following day, print the Name JESUS in capital letters, and put it where I could see it constantly? I had found the way to the great Supper, I had passed through the door of salvation — It was Jesus Himself, and He was not only the way into the Feast, He was the Feast itself. He was all in all.
If John the Apostle, and John Bunyan, and John Newton, and many another John, through infinite mercy found this one way of blessing open for them and if they entered in with gratitude and joy, why not you? The door is open still, and this great Saviour's words are still the hope of despairing souls, "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest," and, "Him that cometh to Me, I will in no wise cast out." The multitude that no man can number, who shall sit down at God's Feast, have every one of them entered by this one way: there is none other.
How the Guests are Fitted for the Feast
"Giving thanks unto the Father which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light." Colossians 1:12.
"It is the Father's joy to bless;
His love has found for me a dress,
A robe of spotless righteousness
O Lamb of God in Thee!"
"For our robes, so white, so radiant,
Witness as they shine
Of the sacred blood that washed us,
Thine, O Lamb divine."
But how are needy, naked sinners, whom these guests, gathered from the streets and lanes of the city and from the highways and hedges represent, to be made fit to sit down and feast in the presence of God? The parable of the Feast at the Marriage of the King's Son given in Matthew's Gospel clearly shows that a garment is needed — there spoken of as the wedding garment, and every man's conscience tells him that he must have some fitness for God's presence if he is to be at peace and happy there.
I knew a fine Christian, he was brought into God's great Supper as a young officer in the British Army. His ancestral home was in the South of Ireland, and as soon as he could obtain leave he went there to confess his faith in the Lord Jesus. He was anxious that all his old acquaintances should find what he had found, and amongst these was his old nurse, a Roman Catholic. "O, Master Eddy," she said, "don't you be worrying yourself about your old nurse, sure, she paid half-a-guinea for a shroud that his Holiness has blessed, and if her old carcase is wrapt in it when she dies, she'll go straight into paradise, and no purgatory at all." Of course she was deceived, poor credulous old soul, but not more deceived than legions who think that in a garment of their own righteousness they will be able to enter the glory of God.
"We are doing our best," say they, "we are doing our best."
One lesson of the parable is that those who enter the feast, being "poor and maimed and halt and blind," are as entirely dependent upon the Master of the house for fitness to enter as for the invitation to be there. And of this we may be sure, if He invites, He will give the fitness, but only those who know their need are ready to accept His gift of it, the robe of righteousness that He provides.
I had addressed a meeting of Christians in Toronto, Canada, when a happy looking man came forward and said to me, "I have to thank you, sir." "Have you, and what for" I asked. "Well, twenty-seven years ago in St. Helens, Lancashire, you were used of God to the salvation of myself and wife." "I am delighted to hear that," I said, "for I was only there once in my life and I remember the meeting well." Said he, "We were invited to hear you, two self-righteous churchgoers, who never imagined that we could be wrong; and what should your text be but, 'All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.' You did not spare us, and we went away from the meeting very angry, but our eyes had been opened, and we saw that we could not trust in ourselves, our only hope was in Christ whom you preached." The following evening a lady, who introduced herself as the wife, corroborated her husband's story of their discovery of the need of a righteousness not their own. Every one who enters the feast must learn what those Lancashire people learnt, and what Toplady had learnt when he sang,
"Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling,
Naked come I, Lord, for dress,
Helpless, look to Thee for grace,
Foul, I to the fountain fly
Wash me, Saviour, or I die."
There are two things that a man who is honest before God must confess, first, he has sinned, second, he has no righteousness to cover him before God. If any man has not yet discovered these unpleasant but inexorable facts, he should read Romans 3, where we read, "All have sinned and come short of the glory of God," and, "There is none righteous, no not one." What can we do? Nothing. What will God do? Everything. His word declares, "The blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanseth us from all sin," and, "Their sins and iniquities will I remember no more." How happy are all those to whom these great sayings apply; they have brought comfort and peace to many. And as to righteousness, the same word of God is equally clear. It tells us that God has declared His own righteousness — His own consistency with Himself, and all His attributes — "that He might be just and the Justifier of him that believeth in Jesus." What is it that enables God righteously to justify, or declare righteous all those who believe in Jesus? It is the value that He sees in the atoning blood.
I listened with great interest to an old French missionary, who had laboured for many years among the Moslems of North Africa. He said the men delighted to gather round the Christian preacher in the Market Place and ply him with questions and riddles of all sorts. One day they were endeavouring to prove to him that Mohammed and his religion was far superior to Christ and the Christian Faith, when an old man spoke up and said, "We believe in Mohammed, and have more than two hundred and fifty prophets, and are all in rags; this stranger believes in Christ and has only one prophet, and is well dressed, let us listen to him." The Christian missionary was better dressed than the old Moslem imagined, and he was able to tell them that he wore a robe, invisible to the eyes of men, but beautiful in God's eyes — a robe of pure righteousness, which robe is Christ. And every one that comes to God renouncing his own righteousness is arrayed in this same spotless robe.
The great men of olden times longed for this fitness for God's presence. Moses prayed, "Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us," David said, "As for me, I will behold Thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied when I awake, with Thy likeness." What these men prayed for and hoped for is given to those who believe as a present possession, for Christ "is made unto us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption." He became what we were when He was crucified, that we might become what He is now, the righteousness of God in Him.
What a glorious time that will be, when God will look upon His assembled guests in His glory, and see them all conformed to the image of His Son, everyone of them having His likeness; but even now the Christian can say, "As He is, so are we, in this world." This is God's bright design, the purpose of His love, that the poor, the maimed, the halt and the blind, should appear perfect and blameless before Him in His glory to rejoice in His presence for ever.
But if any man still thinks that his own righteousness, the works of his own hands, are a good enough covering for him before God, let him consider the parable of the marriage of the king's son in Matthew 22. There we read of a man who refused the garment provided by the king, and presumed to appear at the Feast in a suit of his own make. But the king came in to view the guests and his eye fell upon this intruder, and searched him through and through; he looked beneath the gaudy rags in which he trusted, and exposed the pride and obstinacy of his heart. To the demand, Friend, how camest thou in hither without a wedding garment?" he was speechless, without excuse. Could he then plead for mercy and beg for a covering not his own? No, it was too late for that; it was too late. The sentence of the insulted king went forth. "Bind him hand and foot and cast him into outer darkness." Immediately that sentence was executed; he was cast out of the Feast and his rags became the fetters that bound his soul in everlasting misery. He was searched, silenced and sentenced. It is divine love that has given the warning. "He that hath ears to hear let him hear."
"Until He find it"
"And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing . . . I have found my sheep which was lost." Luke 15:5, 6.
"He found me, the lost and the wandering,
The sinful, the sad and the lone;
He said, I have found thee, beloved,
Forever thou art Mine own.
O soul, I will show thee the wonder,
The worth of My precious blood,
Thou art whiter than snow on the mountains,
Thou'rt fair in the eyes of God."
"It was Thyself, O Lord, that sought
With tender yearnings, deep,
The loveless soul that sought not Thee,
The worthless, wandering sheep."
The Lord had more to say. His heart was full of the word He had brought from heaven and He cried," He that hath ears to hear, let him hear." He did not ask for hands that could work, or purses that could pay, or brains that could solve great problems, but ears that could hear, for "faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God," and every word from His lips was the word of God. What a crowd gathered in response! Publicans and sinners, the scum of the city, men and women with empty hearts and blasted lives, all pressing about Him. What drew them there? They knew well that He had no sympathy with their sins, then why did they come? They came because they felt that He loved them, that He cared for them, that He would not spurn them, sinners though they were. And those Pharisees and scribes that stood scornfully on the outer ring, why were they there? They were there to carp and criticise and condemn; and now they see their opportunity and seize it. "This man," they say, "receiveth sinners." They could think of nothing worse than that to say of Him, and they said it with venom. He was despicable in their eyes with that mob around Him when He might have had their honourable company. How they hated Him! But they spoke the truth in spite of their hatred. That which degraded Him in their eyes was His glory; and they then and there gave to the evangelist a most blessed text. I take up their words and strip them of the scorn with which they clothed them, and sound them forth with eager lips as the very gospel of God. "This Man receiveth sinners." Thank God! and again, Thank God! And that countless multitude that will yet fill God's home on high will be there, every one of them, because "This Man receiveth sinners."
The sneers of these scornful and self-righteous men became the occasion for the unfolding of the very heart of God, and from those lips that spake as never man spake there flowed this three-fold parable, which has been the wonder and joy of multitudes. It is truly one — three in one. The Shepherd who seeks the sheep is the Son; the woman who seeks the silver is the Spirit, and the father who welcomes the prodigal is the Father — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Triune God — concerned and active, not in the spreading of the great Supper only, but in filling it with guests, in the salvation of the lost — these very publicans and sinners despised by the Pharisees — and in your salvation and mine. It is as though the Lord said to them, You are grieved and offended because I receive sinners, but I receive them because the Father receives them, I am here to show you the Father, "he that hath seen Me hath seen the Father."
But if the Father was to welcome and pardon prodigal sinners, the Shepherd must first seek the wandering sheep, and I need not quote that Old Testament word, "All we like sheep have gone astray" to prove that the sheep that the Shepherd seeks are sinful men, such as you and me.
So it is that I must speak of the Shepherd and His search for the sheep before I reach the supreme parable of the Father's love, the one is indispensable to the other.
It is the persistence of His love for the lost that He unfolds in these few words. "He goeth after that which is lost until He find it." He does not tell all that this would cost Him ere He could lift it safely to His shoulders, we must go to other of His words for that. But these other words were plainly spoken and we learn that His love was a suffering love as well as a persistent love. A great foe claimed the wanderer, and judgment threatened it, it was in imminent danger of perishing, and if it was to be rescued and saved the foe must be defeated, the judgment must be borne, the danger faced. There was no other way; if there had been, God would have found it. "If it be possible" Jesus prayed, "let this cup pass from me." It was not possible; the Shepherd must be smitten for the sake of the sheep. "I am the good Shepherd" He said, "the good Shepherd giveth His life for the sheep. But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep and fleeth . . . I am the good Shepherd and know My sheep . . . and I lay down My life for the sheep." John 10.
"He tasted death's waters, offensive and bitter,
Yet dared He to drink, for the lost He would save;
His great love upheld Him, strong, infinite, quenchless,
And for His lost sheep He went down to the grave."
But having laid down His life to ransom His sheep, He lives again to keep them. He holds them in everlasting security in the hands that destroyed the power of death, and upon His shoulders He has placed them; they are carried home by omnipotent ability, and not one of them shall perish; no power on earth or in hell can change His word; they shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
"His own He has rescued from ruin eternal,
His blood He has shed for the life of His sheep;
What creature on earth or in hades can challenge
His right His redeemed ones in safety to keep?"
There is one word that stands out brightly in this three-fold story, it is "I have FOUND." The Shepherd found the sheep; the woman found the silver; the Father found the son. The sheep, the silver and the son were saved; no one will question that, but it is not that that the Lord is showing here, but that they were lost and found. They were lost to whom were they lost? To the Shepherd, the woman and the Father. But we do not talk of a thing as lost that has no value. We do not seek for that that is worth nothing; and when we have found that that we had lost, ours is the joy. It is the joy of the finders that thrills through this three-fold parable, it is the joy of the Triune God. "Rejoice with Me," says the Shepherd Son. "Rejoice with Me," says the Holy Ghost; "It is meet that we should make merry and be glad," says the Father.
It is a wonderful thing that sinners should be so precious to God, that He should set such a value on them as to give His Son for their salvation; and that His Son should have come from heaven and gone down into the depths of judgment and death that they might be saved, and that the Holy Spirit of God should have come from heaven to labour with them to bring them to repentance. It is wonderful, but it is true, for nothing less than this is the teaching of this parable. And twice the Lord tells us that there is joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth. Empires may rise and fail, kings abdicate or be crowned, these are things that shake the world and fill the chief pages of our newspapers, but they do not move heaven; but if one sinner repents and turns to God, if the Shepherd finds one sheep, there is joy in heaven. Incredible! Yes, we would have said that if Jesus had not told us, but He knows surely what heaven values and He said, "Likewise I say unto you there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth."
I have read a story told by an Englishman who went deer stalking in the Highlands of Scotland. One day the old gillie, who was his attendant said, "Turn your glasses on that spot on the mountain side, sir, and you will see a lost sheep." And sure enough he was able to discern the poor creature on a ledge of rock, above it unscalable crags, and beneath it a precipice dipping sheer down 500 feet. "However could it have got there without flying?" he exclaimed. "Do you see a few yards down from the top of the cliff a narrow ledge of rock from which all the grass has been eaten, and again to the right another, and lower down another, and still another just above the one upon which the sheep is now?" asked the gillie. "Tell, that silly creature, tempted by those green looking ledges, has scrambled from one to another, and can't get back." "But can't anything be done to save it?" asked the tourist. "Nothing" was the answer. "Even if anybody was foolish enough to risk his life in trying, the poor beast is in such a nervous condition now that at the sound of anyone approaching, it would leap over the precipice, and there's an eagle just waiting for its prey. Nothing can save it." I borrow and repeat the story, because I want to say that if your soul is in as great and imminent danger as that sheep was, JESUS CAN REACH YOU AND SAVE YOU!
That which was lost
"Either what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it."
"What moved Thee to impart
Thy Spirit from above,
Therewith to fill our heart
With heavenly peace and love?
'Twas love unbounded love to us
Led Thee to give Thy Spirit thus."
"Praises for the Holy Ghost
Sent from heaven at Pentecost,
'Tis through Him alone we live
And the precious truth receive."
In considering the activities of the Godhead for the blessing of men we cannot leave out those that lie in the hands of the Holy Spirit. We have seen that He is the Servant compelling needy men to come in to the great Supper, and now His work is portrayed again in the central story of this great three-fold parable. He has come into the world, sent by the Father and the Son, to be the Servant of their glory and to seek the lost for their joy, but He must also have His share in that joy, for the joy of the Godhead is one; and though He seeks no glory for Himself, it is right that we should honour Him and rejoice in His unwearied and never ceasing labours of love. The lost piece of silver was not easily found, the woman had to light a lamp and search diligently for it before she could say, "I have found that which was lost." It was hidden in the dust of an out of the way corner and would have remained there but for the diligence of the woman.
It has been the way of sinners to hide from God from the very beginning; it was the first impulse in the hearts of guilty Adam and his wife in Eden. "They heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day; and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the Garden." Genesis 3. They had lost their God, but He had also lost them; they were lost souls and He came to seek them crying, "Adam, where art thou?" And it is thus that the Holy Spirit is seeking Adam's sons to-day, He is searching diligently for them.
The reason why Adam hid from God was because he had become a disobedient man and he feared God's just judgment; he did not know His mercy or His heart of love. Men hide from God to this day for the self-same reason; they do not know His thoughts and feelings towards them; they are ignorant, and ignorance of God is darkness; and darkness needs light. The woman lighted a lamp. The Holy Spirit has lighted a wonderful and unquenchable lamp. He inspired the Holy Scriptures, He is the Author of them, "Thy word is a lamp," is clearly said of the Word in the Word itself. The Holy Spirit uses the Word that He has inspired; He uses it to expose sinful men in their hiding places, and He uses it as the infallible record of what God has done for their redemption.
The presence of the Holy Spirit in the world for His great work is just as real as was the presence of the Lord Jesus when He came into it to save sinners. The difference is that the Lord became incarnate, He could be seen and handled by men, while the Holy Spirit is not incarnate and consequently not visible to mortal eyes, and because men cannot see Him they ignore Him, to them He is non-existent. But to those who have believed He is real, they have felt His power and they walk in the light which He has brought to them. The wind is unseen, but its presence is felt and the effect of it is seen. So it is with the Holy Spirit of God. He strives with men, this we learn from the Old Testament — Genesis 6 — and men resist His strivings — this we are told in the New Testament — Acts 7. And when the history of souls is unfolded in the great day of judgment, multitudes will be compelled to confess that they have resisted His strivings and missed the blessing of God in consequence.
I have no doubt that all who have believed the gospel could give some account of the gracious way of the Holy Spirit with them. Mr. J. Wilson Smith of Berwickshire, a one-time officer in the Royal Scottish Regiment, was well known for his long and faithful labours in the gospel throughout the Cheviots. He was to hold an open-air meeting on a certain Sunday afternoon, not many miles from Wooler. A fine old Christian lady felt a great urge to invite a neighbouring farmer's wife to this meeting, but she got very small encouragement when she did so. "Open-air meetings are not for the likes of me. I go to church, not as often as I should like, but as often as I can. I don't need these open-air meetings," was the answer to the invitation. "Well, Mrs. Dunn," said the Christian lady, "don't forget, 'Ye must be born again'." "What do you mean by that?" came the sharp response. "Come to the meeting to-morrow afternoon and perhaps you will find out," was the quiet and wise answer. I knew this Christian lady, and knew that she prayed for her neighbours, and I am sure that she asked that she might be guided by the Holy Spirit to invite this special one to that special meeting, and I am sure that the Spirit in His search for that religious but unregenerate soul gave her the words to speak to her. Anyhow, Mrs. Dunn could not forget them. As she went about her work she said over and over again to herself, "Ye must be born again! Ye must be born again! I wonder what she meant." She continued to wonder to such purpose that at 3 o'clock on the following afternoon she was standing with many others waiting for the open-air meeting to commence.
I knew Mr. J. Wilson Smith intimately for many years, and I never met a servant of the Lord who prayed more about his service, or sought more sincerely and earnestly the guidance of the Holy Spirit of God for the messages that he had to deliver. On this particular afternoon he did what was unusual for him, without a preliminary hymn or even a prayer, he announced his text. "Ye must be born again." And as his fine clarion voice repeated the text again and again, the effect upon Mrs. Dunn was deep and immediate. "Dear me," she said, "the very same words, what can they mean?" She discovered that they meant something that had never taken place in her soul's history. The Holy Spirit was shedding the light of the lamp upon her in her hiding place, and bringing her out of it. And she did come out of it, for she abandoned all her confidence in her religious observances, and it was my part in the matter and my joy to follow up the work and lead her actually to the Saviour's feet.
I must add another incident in which the Holy Spirit showed His diligence and over-ruling hand in this search for souls. It is the case of a great friend of mine. As a young man, he began to realise that his endeavours to lead an upright life and his steady progress in his profession did not satisfy the deeper needs of his soul; he was unhappy, and he felt he was not right with God. It was the Spirit's work within him awakening him to his need of Christ. He was a methodical man and caught a certain train to the City every morning, but one morning, to his great annoyance, he arrived at the Railway Station just in time to see his train disappearing Cityward. When the next train came in he stepped into the compartment nearest to where he was standing. Sitting in the opposite corner to the one he took was a man reading a New Testament who looked up, and as though he was an old acquaintance, asked him why he was so unhappy. He was amazed, for how did this stranger know that he was unhappy! But the whole truth came out, and before the train reached its terminus that morning, my friend had found peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. And there was joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner repenting.
There are many dark corners in the house in which sinners hide from God. With one it may be religion, with another pleasure, another becomes engrossed in business and hides in his success, and the longer they are hidden from God, the more thickly do they become covered with the dust of their sins. But the Spirit of God continues His patient pursuit of them, searching diligently until first one and then another is found. Saved by the precious blood of Jesus, but brought to own their need of it and to rely wholly on it by the work of the Holy Spirit. The work done for them by the Lord Jesus and the work done in them by the Holy Ghost result in their being found for the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
"And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country and there wasted his substance with riotous living."
"Man, earthy of the earth, an-hungered feeds
On earth's dark poison tree —
Wild gourds and deadly roots, and bitter weeds:
And as his food is he."
We need not search the night clubs for prodigals, or go down into the underworld of the great cities to find them, they are everywhere, and the man or woman that stands up and says to God, "I thank Thee I am not as other men," is a lineal descendant of the Pharisee of Luke 18. It was not the "riotous living" that made this younger son a prodigal, but the heart that was in him, and God looks at the heart. "Father," he said, "give me the portion of goods that falleth to me." And his father richly endowed him with goods. He gave him enough to enable him to make a great and honourable success in life. But he had other plans, and no sooner had he got possession than he turned his back upon his father and breaking loose from all restraint, travelled far away from home, and lived his life for his own pleasure without any reference to his father's will.
With what force do the Lord's words smite the conscience, and what a multitude does He describe in a few words. Here is a man, and most of us know him well, God has endowed him with great riches, He has given him a mind that can think, and hands that can work and a heart that can love, and every other faculty and organ that go to make up a man, and, greatest of all, an immortal soul. So that in all God's creation there is nothing like him; neither angel nor beast can compare with him,
"Mind that can compass the stars with its span;
Creature of mystery,
What is he doing with his portion of goods, these great gifts? He is spending it all upon himself and without reference to God who gave all to him. He is the prodigal.
He may not be as blatant a prodigal as the rich fool of Luke 12, who talked to his soul, and said, "Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry." But he is the prodigal nevertheless if he lives for self and ignores the claims of God. But may not a man do what he likes with his own? — so thought the prodigal. The answer to that question is in the words of Scripture, and is a solemn and unalterable decree from the mouth of God, "For it is written, As I live, saith the Lord, every knee shall bow to Me, and every tongue confess to God. So then everyone of us shall give account of himself to God." Romans 14:11, 12.
This young son of his father was as much a prodigal when he decided to leave his father's house as he was when he shared the swine's field and food; he had a prodigal heart and, "as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he." As a matter of fact he was morally a better man in the swine field than when he left his father's house, for when he had come to the utter end of his resources, he began to have right thoughts of his father, and all his thoughts of him had been wrong up to that point.
How restless and restive some men become at the thought of their dependence upon God; independence was what Adam aimed at, "Ye shall be as gods" was the lie with which the devil deceived him, and this desire to be self-sufficing and independent of God has characterised every son of Adam since.
But where does this flight from God carry men? Into the far country; and what is the far country? It is the world; and what is the world? It is the devil's sphere, where he exercises his subtle wiles to deceive man and make them happy for a while without God that he might finally destroy them; the devil has no pity, no mercy. The Bible says the world is made up of three things — the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life — lust and pride. Men and women are investing their all in it, and they do not know that it is a bankrupt concern that can pay no dividends.
Yet that is not how things appear to the world's votaries. I listened to an open-air preacher, he was a fluent and forceful speaker, and chiefly because he was speaking out of his own experience. He told the people that the world had almost damned him. He had gone in for it whole-heartedly, and had found that the best it could give was "froth and bubble." Listening to that same man was a young lady who said she did not agree with the man at all, she spent her time in the social whirl and was enjoying every minute of it. I was asked if I could explain the contradiction. My answer was, Here is a man who has come into a fortune of £10,000 and he sets out to live at the rate of £20,000 a year; what a man of wealth he seems to be and what a life he lives. Yes, for six months, and then bankruptcy! The young lady was living on her capital, and bankruptcy, moral, spiritual and eternal, lay before her and every other prodigal.
It is surely bad enough that great gifts should be squandered without return, but the tragedy is that the soul is risked and lost at the same time. Suppose a man could gain his utmost ambition in the world and lose his soul — what's the profit in that? Of course they are old words, but they came from the lips of eternal Truth and are eternally true. "What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?"
I was introduced in the North of England to a young Norwegian, a cultured and attractive fellow. He was the son of a successful business man and had come to England to perfect himself in our language. I said to him, "Wouldn't it be a splendid thing if you yielded your soul to the great Saviour at the very start of your visit? That would be worth coming to England for." "No, no," he said, "I want life, I want pleasure, I get that in England." "What sort of pleasure are you wanting?" I asked. "Oh, the horses, the races, the theatres! I want horses, theatres," and his face glowed in anticipation. He had made up his mind, and my warning that these things were sometimes the devil's soul-traps did not move him, and after a few days he went up to London where he could gratify his tastes to their full bent. A few months passed, three, I believe, when I received through the post a copy of the Daily Telegraph. A paragraph in it was blue-pencilled; it told of a young man who had been found dead in the bedroom of a London hotel with a towel twisted round his throat. The verdict of the Coroner's jury was "felo de se." He was the young man of my story. He had sold his immortal soul for sinful pleasure and it had slain him. Crowds are doing it eagerly, willingly they barter their souls to the devil for the excitement of the race-course, the theatre and worse places. Instead of God's salvation they choose the downward road, the world's way, that may not in their case run to a suicide's grave, but most certainly ends in hell-fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.
"Heart with a vacancy
Nothing can satisfy,
Filled with some pitiful bauble or toy;
Pleased by variety;
Palled by satiety,
Groping for happiness, yearning for joy;
Steeped in iniquity, folly and pride,
Thrusting its Monarch and Maker aside.
Deity bled for thee!
Pitied thee, pled for thee!
Proffered His treasures eternal in vain.
Bulk of Humanity,
Cursed with insanity,
Trample all offers of Grace with disdain
Thinking it wiser their God to defy —
Shrouded in dark degradation to die!"
Thank God, not all travel to that terrible end, many are awakened to their danger before it is too late, and the grace of God saves them, and gives them life and peace instead of disappointment and death, and heaven and eternal glory instead of hell and eternal woe.
The Far Country
"There arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want."
"Where is the world?
I looked for it, 'tis gone —
A globe of glass,
Cracked, shivered, vanished,
Scarce gazed upon
E'er a silent power dissolved the glittering mass."
The prodigal journeys into the far country because he thinks it will do better for him than God will. He hopes for good things from it for it beckons to him with a pleasant smile, and makes great promises. It appears to be a nursing mother from whose breasts he may draw the milk of complete satisfaction. For a while he is not undeceived, it gives him the heartiest of welcomes, and spreads out its wares for him as Vanity Fair did for Christian and Faithful in Bunyan's Book. But at last he discovers it to be what it is, not a kindly mother that cares for her children, but a veritable vampire that will suck the blood of his soul and cast him aside at last as a worthless thing. If I were to quote Solomon to prove this, the king who tested every phase of the world, and declared it all to be "vanity and vexation of spirit," I might be charged with putting forward one-sided evidence, so I will not quote him, nor any Bible text, nor any saying of a Spurgeon or a Moody, but I will quote one of the world's own poets, a man, titled, wealthy, and talented, who could say, "I awoke one morning to find myself famous." He wrote after a few years of it,
"I fly like a bird of the air
In search of a home and a rest,
A balm for the sickness of care,
A bliss for a bosom unblest."
And hear the confession of a man who was at one time a pampered leader of the gaiety of the world, he wrote: "I threw the pearl of my soul into the cup of wine, and went down the primrose path to the sound of flutes, I lived on honeycomb; I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless ease. I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in disgrace. Where I walk there are thorns, and like many or all who have placed their heaven in this earth . . . I have found the horror of hell."
He wasted his substance, and the substance wasted can never be regained, it is gone for ever. Then it is when the prodigal reaches this point in his experience that he discovers the world's true character. The mighty famine arises; and he begins to be in want, and is wanted no more. I heard of a young man who came into a large fortune at the age of 23. In a few years it had all gone, it had melted away like snow, and he had nothing left but a great quantity of corks; the corks were his only possession. But what were they and why did he keep them? It had been a notion of his whenever he split a bottle of champagne with a friend to ask him to initial the cork, and he kept these as souvenirs of the good times he had had, and now the fortune was gone, and the champagne was gone, and the friends were gone, and the corks were left. The poetess was not far wrong when, having observed that sort of thing, she wrote,
"Feast, and your halls are crowded,
Fast, and they'll pass you by
Succeed and give, and they'll let you live,
Fail, and they'll let you die."
But the prodigal of the parable had not yet reached the nadir of his fortunes; when he began to be in want the gay side of the far country had no more use for him, but a certain citizen of it to whom he joined himself thought that he could still squeeze some service out of him, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. The degradation and horror of that could only be appreciated by the Jewish audience that listened to the words of the Lord. That certain citizen is the devil; and whoever found any pity in the devil's heart? Though he transforms himself into an angel of light, as the Bible says he does, there is no mercy in him, he is "a murderer from the beginning": yet as surely as a man flies from God, he flies into the arms of the devil, whose other names are, "the dragon, that old serpent, and Satan."
It was not until he reached the level of the grunting swine, and was so hungry that he would fain have filled his belly with their food, that the prodigal came to himself, and began to assess things at their right value. What must have been his feelings as he brooded amid the wreck of his life? It has been the experience of many sinners. Thompson expressed it well in his great poem,
"In the rash lustihood of my young powers
I shook the pillaring hours,
And pulled my life upon me, grimed with smears;
I stand amid the dust of mounded years —
My mangled youth lies dead beneath the heap,
My days have crackled and gone up in smoke,
Have puffed and burst like sun-starts on a stream."
The blinders are off his eyes, he sees at last, but where can he turn in his misery and despair? Who will help a wretch that the world does not want, and who may well be described as "the devil's castaway"? Memories of his father's house come back to him. The bounty of that house was proverbial, the very servants had bread enough and to spare; no beggar ever called at that house in vain, and he, a son, was perishing with hunger. "I perish with hunger" was the cry of his soul. And if his father's house was a house of plenty, what of his father himself? He will go and see, and he will cast himself upon his mercy and as he makes that decision he is encouraged to believe that his misery will move his father to pity.
God is the ruined sinner's only hope; I proclaim the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ to be the ruined sinner's only hope and more than friend. He loves the souls of men and the cry of need ever reaches His heart. When a sinner sinks to the lowest depths of his degradation he may still look up and meet a God whose heart yearns after him with unspeakable love. We have a telling incident in Old Testament history. Nebuchadnezzar, the great king, because of his pride had been reduced to the level of the beasts, and for seven years he ate grass like an ox, until his hair grew like eagle's feathers and his nails like birds' claws. At last his reason returned to him, he came to himself, and where could he look when he realised how debased he had become? He would be an object of contempt to the meanest of his slaves and would shrink away from their sight; but then, at that very time and in that condition, he says, "I lifted up mine eyes to heaven." He could turn to God. But here is something greater than that. The prodigal says, "I will arise and go to my father." But his father had risen up before him, and had prepared everything for his return and welcome. God is ahead of the sinner and heaven's rich provision and the Father's welcome awaits every prodigal that arises to return to God.
"I will arise and go"
"I will arise and go unto my father, and will say unto him, 'Father, I have sinned'."
"Lord" from Thee I went astray,
Lured by magic song.
Through dim places far away
I have wandered long.
Now when lost are moon and star,
Shines the light of Home afar."
"Then within His home He brought me
Brought me where the feast was spread,
Made me eat with Him my Father
I who begged for bondsman's bread."
Look at the prodigal as he arises from the swine field to go to his father; his burdened conscience and the load of shame that weighs upon his soul make the going heavy; his need drives him homeward but he does not run, and often he hesitates, for he has gone so far away that it seems impossible that he should ever reach his father's house again. It would be impossible if it depended on his efforts, or even upon the sincerity of his repentance, but another and a greater factor enters the story, it is the father's love. "When he was yet a great way off" — the word is the same as the far country — "his father saw him," — How keen are the eyes of love! "And had compassion on him" — How tender is the heart of love! "and ran," — How swift are the feet of love! "and fell on his neck and kissed him." Love cannot be restrained. He covered him with kisses, for that is the word. Consider well the activity and extravagance of the father's love
Is that the way that God greets and treats returning sinners? It is nothing less than that that the parable teaches. But when the Lord told this story was He not exaggerating, did He not lay on the colours too brightly? That were impossible, for He is the Truth, and nothing but the truth and the whole truth could come out of His mouth. But why should God act in this way to those who can bring nothing to Him but their sin and shame? There is but one answer to that question. "God is love," and the love that fills His heart for men finds its relief and its delight in covering the multitude of their sins by His kiss, and driving all fear out of their hearts by His love. I speak out of my own experience, which answers most blessedly to the words of the parable.
"Yet a great way off He saw me,
Ran to meet me as I came;
As I was my Father loved me,
Loved me in my sin and shame."
It was now the time for the prodigal to speak, and his own need and his father's love gave directness and brevity to his speech, "Father," he said, "I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son." Here was sincerity and true repentance. He made no excuses; he did not cast the blame upon others; he did not even plead for mercy. In that sacred, solemn hour all others were forgotten but his father and himself — his sin and his father's love. This is the way that the sinner comes to God and is welcomed by the love that is greater than his sin. Then the whole truth comes out, for all was known before, and all is confessed and forgiven, and were this not so, no sinner could be happy in the presence of God. Let us anticipate for a moment and consider this son seated at his father's table, and suppose that his father had not known all his sins and forgiven all. He is not happy, his eye is on the door; every time it opens he is afraid that someone from the far country is about to enter the house to tell his father of some shame of his of which he does not know; says the son to himself, "If my father discovers all, he will spurn me from his table and drive me from his doors." But no, he is afraid of no report of his doings in the far country reaching his father's ears; he can say, he knows all, even the worst; he knew it all before I confessed it, and he has forgiven all he knows. "Thou God seest me," is a word that has made many tremble, it is a word that fills the heart that knows the gospel with peace and joy, for it means that God has forgiven all He has seen and known, there is nothing hidden from Him.
The father's answer to his son's confession is more than forgiveness for his sins, and food for his hunger, and the kitchen for his shelter, he is to have what he never had before. "Bring forth the best robe and put it on him," is the command which willing servants hasten to obey, while the son stands by and submits with an amazement that robs him of speech. He is to come into his father's house not as a slave but a son, and he must be there in such a fashion that his father shall not be ashamed of him, but be able to look upon him with complacency and pleasure, and nothing but the best will do. The ring was the pledge of an endless love and the shoes were for a son recognised as a son and not a servant. And this is the way that God acts according to His eternal purpose to all whom He receives. Infinitely more than Adam lost in Eden is given in sovereign grace.
"From the riches of His glory
Brought He costliest raiment forth.
Brought the ring that sealed His purpose,
Shoes to tread His golden courts.
Put them on me — robes of glory
Spotless as the heavens above,
Not to meet my thoughts of fitness
But His wondrous thoughts of love."
There was nothing more splendid in the father's house as he entered there by his father's side than that once prodigal boy, for he was dressed in the best that the house could produce, and not a servant in the house could say he was not fit to be there. But who shall speak of what the Father has done and will yet do for all who believe? They can say, "Giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light." Col. 1:9. "To the praise of the glory of His grace, wherein He hath made us accepted in the Beloved." Eph. 1. "Now unto Him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and for ever, Amen." Jude 24.
"Had I an angel's raiment — fair
With heavenly gems unpriced,
That glorious garb I would not wear,
My robe is Christ."
Thus sang an old saint of God long ago, and every one that has come to the Father by Christ, the new and living way, may sing the same glad song.
Then they began to be merry, and as they feasted on the fatted calf, it was the father's joy that filled the home; it was he who said, "Let us eat, and be merry: for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found." They began to be merry, and that divine and heavenly merriment shall never cease, for it is the joy of God in the blessing of men.
"And now in His joy He singeth,
In His joy He singeth of me,
And all the heavens make music
As the gladness of God they see —
'He was dead — he was dead, and he liveth,
He was lost, was lost and is found!'
This is the song that He singeth,
The marvellous joyful sound,
Through the open doors of heaven
Afar through the starless night
Is borne the hymn of rejoicing,
The music of God's delight."
This story of the love of God and how His love acts is incredible to all but a God-given faith, but those who have that faith believe it because Jesus told it, and His word is the word of the living God Who cannot lie. And how complete is the blessing, it is exceeding abundantly above all that they ask or think. Like the prodigal, they would have been satisfied with bread and a place in the kitchen, and that would have been infinitely beyond their deserts; instead God has forgiven them for Christ's sake, He has brought them into favour in His Beloved One, and they are permitted to hear the Beloved saying to His Father, "Father . . . Thou hast loved them as Thou hast loved Me . . . and I have declared unto them Thy Name, and will declare it, that the love wherewith Thou hast loved Me, may be in them, and I in them." John 17.
What an answer to the cold and bitter sarcasm of the Pharisees is this story of the love of God for sinful men! And what an answer to the devil's lie in Eden! In this love, so amazing, so divine, the weary sinner finds complete repose and, made fit for the Father's presence, worships at His feet.
Joy in Heaven
"Likewise I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth."
"There is joy in heaven to-night,
And the angels all look on,
Yet it is not their's that deep delight,
Though their praise swells loud at the glorious sight
Of another repentant one.
The delight is Thine, O God,
For in Thee we find the source
Of that stream of love so deep and broad,
'Tis a stream that none can fathom or ford,
It has flowed by Calvary's cross.
Blessed Lord, we hear Thy voice
Saying, Friends, rejoice with Me,
And our hearts are filled with Thine own deep bliss,
We can share Thy joy in a world like this,
And throughout Eternity."
Joy in heaven! Joy in the presence of the angels of God! Do then the angels of God rejoice? They do surely, but this is not their joy, it is the joy of God — the joy of Father, Son and Holy Ghost. It is the joy of God that fills heaven when one sinner on earth repents! and all who are there see it, and participate in it. It is a most wonderful thing, and as we consider it we learn what is most to be valued on earth: not gold, or fame and worldly honours, but men, the souls of men, sinners though they be. But could there be anything else but joy in heaven? Well, sorrow and crying and pain and death belong to this world where sin reigns, and these sad things are the progeny of sin, and sin cannot enter heaven where God dwells, and yet — we read some strange and wonderful words in Genesis 6 "God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the Lord that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him at His heart." Think of that — God grieved at His heart! grieved because men were prodigal men, selling their precious souls to sin and the devil. Was there no sadness in heaven when God was grieved at His heart? Was Jesus sad when He wept over prodigal Jerusalem? Yes, the tears on His cheeks and the lament on His lips were proof of that, and He was God manifest in the flesh, and when He wept the sorrow of God poured itself out in human tears, and heaven was sad. So I conclude that in those ancient times when God grieved over the wickedness of men, there was sadness in heaven. Does anyone suppose that it gave God pleasure to sweep that generation away with a flood? Judgment is His strange work, and a necessity when He executes it, but mercy is His joy. The memory of that judgment soon passed away, and again "the Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God," and the result of that search was sadly recorded, "They are all gone aside, they are altogether filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one." Psalm 14. And must there not have been sorrow in heaven because of that, sorrow because men sought not God, nor desired to?
"But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth His Son into the world." Then there was joy in heaven, and the joy was great. The midnight sky was lit with the glory of the Lord, and His angel came down and announced to the shepherds on the hills of Bethlehem, "Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord." Because the Saviour had come to turn men back to God from destruction, the joy of heaven broke all its bounds, and a multitude of the heavenly hosts proclaimed their gladness by praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace, good will toward men." Then said those shepherds one to another, "Let us go even to Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us." And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. That Babe was Emmanuel — God with us and the name that was given to Him was JESUS — which means Jehovah the Saviour.
No story is better known in Christendom than that; would to God its meaning were understood. He had come from His eternal throne to open up a way of repentance for lost and prodigal men, that they might turn, and turning meet a pardoning God; and the joy of heaven at His birth into the world was in anticipation of that. But for this He had to die and rise again from the dead on the third day, and such was the value of the souls of men that He came for that. The gospel that Paul preached, and there is no other true gospel, was, "That Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures." 1 Corinthians 15. His resurrection was as necessary as His death, for in that same chapter, written to those who had believed this gospel, it is said, "If Christ be not raised your faith is vain: ye are yet in your sins." It was after His resurrection that the Lord said to His disciples, "Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name, among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem." Luke 24.
The gospel of God is a call to men to repent, which means turn and return; thus the prodigal repented when he arose to go to his father — God offers an eternal forgiveness to all men, it is this that is proclaimed in the gospel, but those only who repent receive this priceless boon. Repentance is a turning to God from the sinful way, because it is realised that it is the way of death, and that God is other than He is supposed to be, that He is not as men have imagined Him, a hard master, an almighty tyrant out of whose presence they had better keep as long as they may, but that He is full of tender pity, that He calls them to come to Him from their wanderings, and will welcome them when they come with the kiss of forgiveness. He gave His only begotten Son to judgment and death that He might do this righteously — that He might be a just God and a Saviour, and of such value are the souls of men in His sight, that He rejoices over every one that repents.
I have seen a wayward but repentant son weeping for his sins and the sorrow he had caused his father, upon that father's shoulder, while the arms of the old man embraced him and tears rolled down his cheeks, and everyone in the house wept in sympathy with the father's joy. It was an echo on earth of the joy of heaven. I have heard a mother say when her son had turned to God, "Now Lord, lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation." Her joy was heaven's joy reaching down to earth. I had preached the gospel on a Sunday evening in Detroit, U.S.A., and a lady said to me, "My nephew was with me to-night and was very much moved, I wanted him to stay and speak to you, but he is reticent and did not care to, but if you will come to my home he will see you there." "Certainly," I said, "I'll come with you with pleasure." I was told that he was in his early twenties, and that his mother, more than 1,000 miles away in Canada, had long prayed for his salvation, and knowing that he was to attend this particular gospel meeting had decided to spend the whole time in prayer for him. We waited and waited for him and wondered why he did not come. He came at last when we had almost given up hope of him, and a wonderful joy rang in his voice as he said, "I have found Him." "Do you mean that you have found the Saviour?" I asked. "Yes," he said, "and I'm sorry to have kept you waiting so long, but I wanted my mother to be the first to hear the news, so I went into the city to telegraph it to her." But she was not the first to hear the news, before the electric wires carried it to her, heaven had got it. How greatly she rejoiced, yes, but her joy was the joy that had begun in heaven, she was near enough to God to participate in His joy.
There will always be sorrow for sin in the heart of the one who repents, but repentance is more than sorrow for sin it is a complete change of mind, that turns the whole man as the helm turns the ship. The Thessalonians repented when they turned to God from idols. Saul of Tarsus repented when he cried out to Jesus, whom he had hated, "Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?" A young man whom I met repented when he said to me, "I've had a look into eternity and I want to be saved." Repentance comes when the light shines into a man's heart and he becomes honest to God and confesses the truth, and casts himself upon God's mercy. When the publican stood afar off and would not so much as lift up his eyes to heaven, but smote upon his breast saying, "God be merciful to me a sinner," he repented, and there was joy in heaven over him and he went down to his house justified. But repentance does not save the sinner, it is God that does that.
"It is not thy tears of repentance or prayers,
But the blood that atones for the soul."
Yet no man is saved apart from repentance. Repentance and remission of sins go together in the sinner's blessing.
We do not read that anything else causes this special joy in heaven in these gospel days and this fact shows us what God's great interest is. He does not rejoice in the discoveries of science, whatever is discovered is His creation and He knows all things from the beginning, nor does He rejoice in the successful efforts of men to improve the standard of living, for that is merely a material and temporal gain, but He does rejoice when sinners turn to Him, when He finds that which is lost, for the sons of men are more to Him than shining worlds. He gave His Son for their salvation, and when they repent, they come into harmony with Him; they were dead but are alive again, they were lost and are found, and it is meet that heaven should make merry and be glad.
Sometimes we turn to the Scriptures and read of a time that is coming, the very thought of which thrills the soul. It is in Revelation 19 "And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honour to Him; for the marriage of the Lamb is come." That will be when the whole multitude of the saved are gathered home, and the work of Father, Son and Holy Ghost in regard to them is completed, then will heaven be the scene of continuous and eternal joy, but that joy begins now when one sinner repents — "They began to be merry."
The Elder Son
"Now the elder son was in the field: and as he drew nigh to the house he heard music and dancing . . . and he was angry and would not go in."
The two sons in our parable do not represent those who are sons by faith in Christ Jesus, but sons of God in the sense in which Adam was a son, by creation. Luke 3:38, and as one of the pagan poets, quoted by St. Paul, had said of all men, "We are His offspring." Acts 17:28. Man was created in the image and after the likeness of God and set in the earth as a steward to hold it for Him. From that high honour he departed and fell when he gave his allegiance to the devil instead of to God, and he became what we see him now to be, not God-centred, but self-centred, a prodigal Adam and not an advancing and much to be congratulated ape. The race is a prodigal race, whether Pharisee or publican. Yet the heart of God yearns for men as the heart of a father yearns for a wayward son. It is this that the parable teaches.
I have heard it argued that the majority of men are not like the younger but like the elder son, and to be heartily congratulated on their upright lives and good citizenship. Well, the elder son is a problem and not easily placed. But it must be noticed that it was he who said the good things about himself. It was he who said, "Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment." Certainly he could blow his own trumpet, and he had a high estimate of his father's indebtedness to him. But look at him — an angry and jealous man! Consider him well; that which had made his father most wonderfully happy and filled his house with music, had filled him with bitter and hateful feelings. Look at the heart of the man, there is murder in it; we feel that he could have choked this vile son of his father's, if he could have demeaned himself enough to lay his hands on him; certainly he would rather he had perished in the swine field than come back to his father's house. Then he turns on his father and pours his spleen upon him. Why, through these "many years" of which he speaks, he might as well have been a thousand miles away from his father, for he had not a feeling in common with him; he had no sympathy with the compassions that filled his heart; he was morally farther away from his father than his wayward brother.
Hear him talk, "Thou never gavest me a kid." Not even a kid! what resentment, what scorn is in those words. He charges his father with unfairness, unrighteousness, with a total lack of appreciation of all his honourable service. The only righteous man in the house was himself! Then the utter selfishness that was in him came out, "that I might make merry with my friends." That was what his brother had been doing in the far country, at heart he was the same.
And he would not go in. A quaint old preacher used to say, "The younger son was too hungry to stay out, and the elder son was too angry to go in." The prodigal was driven to his father's house by his need, the Pharisee refused to be drawn by the father's grace. He may represent the Jew, of whom Paul wrote, "They please not God and are contrary to all men, forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins alway; for wrath is come upon them to the uttermost." 1 Thessalonians 2:16, but he also represents those self-righteous people who will not have the grace of God, and they are many.
I would rather be inside the house with the prodigal than outside with the Pharisee, for inside is the Father's love, outside is the wrath of God, and what a terrible thing it must be to be out of sympathy with God, to have not a chord in one's being that thrills to the joy of heaven, to be an alien to the life of the Father's house, and to choose to be outside of it instead of inside! Such was the elder son, and what will he do? A great blasphemer of God is reported to have said as his life ebbed away, "O thou almighty but most indulgent God, hell will be refuge if it hides me from Thee," and it seems to me that hell will be preferable to heaven to the man who has the unregenerate heart of the elder son.
But why did the father go out and entreat him, and say, "Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine"? The father's heart yearned for the elder son as much as for the younger son, and the grace that was in him when he went out to him ought to have dispelled his anger, and opened his eyes to see what a father he had got; and it may be that the father recognised that he had not wasted his substance as the younger son had. God's grace puts no premium on vice, and the man who keeps himself from the grosser sins is not so great a sinner outwardly as the profligate. He may be only a fifty pence debtor in contrast to the five hundred pence debtor. Moreover, this man, if we can carry our thoughts back to the days in which the Lord lived, was one of those who never missed the services at the synagogue, he would be careful to keep the fasts and be strict as to all the outward observances of the law, he has his counterpart to-day in the religionist. The father did not charge him with gross conduct, he recognised the outward respectability and put all that he had within his reach, but he would have none of it, he would not go in. Can we not feel the sob in the father's words? Here was that that marred the joy; the father might have rejoiced over two sons; one of them refused to give him the opportunity and was a grief to his heart.
As long as the door was open, he refused to enter in, but when the door was shut, ah, what then?
In chapter 13 of our Gospel, we read, "When once the Master of the house hath risen up and shut to the door, then ye shall stand without and knock and say, Lord, Lord open to us," and further they will say, "we have eaten and drunk in Thy presence, and Thou hast taught in our streets." There they are, the elder sons who would not have the grace of God, outside the closed door. "But he shall say, I tell you, I know you not whence ye are depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when ye shall see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrust out. And they shall come from the east, and from the west, and from the north, and from the south, and shall sit down in the kingdom of God. And behold, there are last which shall be first, and there are first which shall be last." Luke 13:27-30.
And, further God will be angry. "Then the master of the house being angry said to his servant . . . None of those men that were bidden shall taste of my supper" ch. 14. And what will the angry Pharisee do in the presence of God's anger?
The Rich Man's Doom
"And in hell, he lift up his eyes, being in torments . . . I am tormented in this flame."
"Thy song is at an end,
Thy harp shall solace thee no more,
All mirth has died upon thy grave,
The melody that could not save
Has perished on death's sullen wave,
That flung thee on that shore."
No man of proper feeling could speak lightly of the doom of those who "die in their sins." Next to those three mysterious hours of darkness endured by the Saviour on the cross of Calvary, there is no subject so solemn and appalling, and yet since it has its place among the truths of Holy Scripture, it cannot be ignored. But here the preacher of the Word must put a curb on his imagination lest he dishonour God and stumble men; his thoughts must be formed and controlled by what is written.
The Feast prepared for all men, and the Father's welcome to the worst of sinners, precede in this Gospel the story of the rich man and Lazarus, and this I believe is divinely ordered. First a full and eternal salvation offered to all, then the solemn warning to those who are disposed to despise that salvation. "How shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation?" The rich man's doom is the answer to that question. There is no escape. The warning was given to the proud Pharisees, who hated the Lord because of His care for sinners, and who considered themselves quite good enough for God without forgiveness and grace, and who supposed that such wealth as the rich man wasted on himself was evidence of God's favour. The Sadducees also mingled with the crowds that thronged to listen to the Saviour's words; they had persuaded themselves that there was no life beyond this, and would consequently congratulate the rich man not only on his wealth but on his wisdom in using it for his own pleasure. Their pernicious doctrines and influence were spreading among the people and had to be exposed. The progeny of these two sects is numerous to-day, more numerous perhaps than ever before, hence these warning words are needed now as they were when the Lord spoke them. Truth does not become outworn by time, it is eternal.
It was the Lord's own hand that drew aside the curtain that we might look into eternity; and by His own mouth this most solemn of all parables, if indeed it is a parable, was uttered. Who could tell us the truth as to the future but He? And love was behind the telling of it, for it is the way of true love to warn when its wooings fail. It is not the final doom of the wicked that the Lord here describes, but the sufferings of the intermediate state; that which lies between the death of the body and its resurrection at the judgment of the great white throne. Revelation 20. The souls that share the rich man's place and state in hades are remanded there until that last dread assize.
The rich man clothed himself in purple and fine linen and made good cheer in splendour every day. He lived for the present and forgot the future — he forgot eternity, and his sins and God. This alas, is the folly of thousands. He lived as did the rich fool of chapter 12 and as those did who despised the great Supper in chapter 14. He was a self-centred man, who gratified his fleshly pride and lust to his full bent; he left God out of his life and reckoning, and cared nothing for the stricken beggar at his gate, but left him to suffer and starve and die. Such a life could only move God's displeasure and wrath. But wealth and self-will cannot arrest the march of time, nor resist the power of death. Death is no respecter of persons, it claimed both the beggar and the rich man and neither could refuse its claim. The beggar's name was known in heaven, it was entered in the book of life there, and when he died angels carried him into Abraham's bosom — a Talmudic designation for the place of blessing. The rich man died also and was buried and forgotten by the successors to his wealth.
There does not appear to have been any interval between his unwilling departure from this life and his entrance into conscious torment in the next. "I am tormented in this flame," is the cry of his soul, that had indulged its slightest whim in his former life; the cravings remained, but the slightest gratification was denied. This man, no longer rich, makes no appeal to God for mercy; he had lived without Him, and died without Him, and must abide without Him and without hope for ever. He does not pray for release, for he knows that that too would be useless. He has reached that woeful hour in his soul's history when the written word must have its full meaning, "He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he that is filthy, let him be filthy still," and as there could be no change in his condition, there could be no release from his prison. One drop of water is all he craves, and that at the hand of the once ignored Lazarus, but that also is a relief that cannot reach him, for the great gulf is fixed never to be bridged, not even by almighty mercy, and the fountain of living water is not on his side of that fixed gulf.
This lost soul had full consciousness of his own misery and he had carried into hades a memory that could only add to his torment; and he was conscious moreover of the blessing in which Lazarus rested, in which he might have shared. It is a remarkable thing that he should then plead for his five brothers. It may be that he was responsible for the way they were living; he had set them the example and encouraged them in self-indulgent lives, and he would have them warned, for it would seem as though his torment would be increased five-fold if they came where he was, as a result of his influence and example. He pleads, If only some apparition from the unseen world would warn them, someone whom they had known in his earthly life, they would take heed and repent. No, answers Abraham, "They have Moses and the prophets, let them hear them . . . If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead."
By this parable the notion that the soul sleeps at death until the resurrection is shown to be false; and that more pernicious teaching that the dead will have a second opportunity of salvation is exposed, and that still further lie that the spirits of the dead are anxious and able to communicate with the living is shattered. I am sure that some spirits do communicate through mediums at Spiritistic seances, for not all is fraud in those circles, but they are evil spirits — demons such as possessed men and women when the Lord came to earth, these impersonate the dead to deceive souls.
The rich man was conscious, he had no hope of salvation, he could not communicate with his brothers himself and heaven refused to allow one of the blessed to do it.
Faith cometh not by seeing apparitions and signs and wonders, but by hearing, and hearing by the word of God; there is no hope for those who refuse the word of God.
I know that some, desiring to rob this parable of all its solemn meaning, and to do away with the thought of suffering after death, have endeavoured to make it illustrate the fact that the Jew has forfeited and lost the favour of God and the Gentile has come into it. It is true that this has taken place as Romans 11 clearly tells us, but this favour of God was and is only for this life, and does not extend to the next, and this parable tells us of the next life, where all national distinctions cease to be. Moreover if the rich man represents the Jew, and Lazarus the Gentile, the whole of mankind is covered by these two races, then what section of mankind do "the five brothers" represent?
Because men naturally hate the thought of their responsibility to God, and judgment after death, they argue against it, but even while they do so their consciences tell them it must be so. I was introduced to a man of considerable intellectual powers, a great student, and one who seemed sincere in his search for truth. We had a long talk together in which I pressed the claims of the Lord Jesus Christ upon him. Several times in the course of our conversation he said, "I'll never believe in hell." My answer was, "I am not asking you to believe in hell; what I want is that you should own the once crucified, but now risen and glorified Saviour as your Lord." His final words were, "I'll never believe in hell." That night he found it hard to sleep; his conscience and his mind were in conflict, and he argued with himself, until very weary he dozed off to sleep early in the morning. It was the month of December. He awoke suddenly to see his bedroom lurid with fire, and his first thought was, "I'm in hell." It was a great factory on the opposite side of the road that was ablaze, flames leaping from the windows. His relief was beyond words, but he began to ask himself, "If there is no hell, why should I have thought that I was there on seeing the fire?" He realised that his conscience had spoken before he had had time to marshal his arguments, and, a thoroughly sobered man, he came to listen to the gospel and fled for refuge to the one and only Saviour, Jesus Christ the Lord. Six months afterwards, from across the seas he wrote, "I have found in Christ the solution of all my difficulties — He is the wisdom."
But we rest not either in man's conscience or his reason, neither is the standard of truth. We turn from man to God; we believe His word, and thank Him for its warning of love.
"These shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal." Matthew 25:46.
"And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire." Revelation 20:15.
"One last word of solemn warning
To the world below —
One loud shout that all may hear us,
Hear us e'er we go.
Once more let that Name be sounded
With a trumpet tone,
Here amidst the thickening darkness,
Then before the throne."
If objection is raised to my interpretation of the rich man's doom on the ground that it is a parable, I would remark that it is not so called; but even if it has that character, like every other parable of the Lord it was spoken to teach us some great truth, and what can that be but that that lies clearly on the surface of it? If it is further argued that "tormented in this flame" and "great gulf fixed" is figurative language, I would answer that it is figurative of something surely, and if the figure is appalling, what must the reality be? The subject is too solemn for argument, and if the interpretation given is not in harmony with the whole of the written Word, it must be rejected. The Word of God is the test and the standard, and upon this subject of such tremendous importance it speaks not only in parable but in plain and unmistakable doctrine.
Naturally we shrink from the thought of eternal punishment as once we did from other solemn truths. The heinousness of sin, for instance, is not a pleasant contemplation until we discover that the all-cleansing blood of the Son of God has made a full atonement for us before God; death, too, fills us with fear until we learn that it has been robbed of its sting by the death of Jesus. But eternal punishment is different; if it is the truth, there is no remedy, no release for those who come under it, and it is this that makes it terrible.
We must admit that our thoughts and opinions are useless. We may rightly investigate the things that belong to this life and sphere and form opinions about them, for they lie more or less within the range of our understanding, but if we are to know anything about the unseen world and the life beyond this, we must get that knowledge from God; it must be by REVELATION from Him and not by our INVESTIGATION. And in this lies the difference between faith and the greatly flattered "modern" mind, which is practically synonymous with unbelief: the first accepts the revelation that God has given to us; the second refuses it and relies upon its own investigations. It is just here that difficulty in understanding comes in. In the things of God faith must come first; it is "by faith we understand" (Hebrews 11).
God's revelation is in the Bible. We get our knowledge of heaven from the Bible, we know nothing of heaven apart from it, but it speaks of hell as well as heaven. If we accept the one we cannot consistently reject the other. Take the words of the Lord Jesus Christ. He said, "In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so I would have told you" (John 14:2). If there had been no place and state of blessing beyond this life for us, He would have told us plainly; and if there had been no judgment to come, no retribution for sin, no hell, would He not also have told us? But the strongest language in the Bible as to these things came from His own lips. He spoke of some who would die in their sins and the impossibility of such going where He would be (John 8:21, 23, 24). He said to the proud self righteous hypocrites of His day, "How shall ye escape the damnation of hell?" (Matt. 23:14). He said, "Fear Him which, after He hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear Him" (Luke 12:5). He it is who will say to some in the day of judgment of the living nations, "Depart, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matt. 25:41), and of these He said, "these shall go into everlasting punishment" (Matt. 25:46). He spoke of "outer darkness" and "weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matt. 25:30), and "of their worm that never dies and the fire that is not quenched" (Mark 9:46). Who dares to say that he will listen to the Lord and believe Him when He speaks of blessing, but refuse to hear and believe when He speaks of judgment?
The consciences of all men everywhere admit that there must be retribution for wrong-doing, and they act upon this in their dealings with each other; for laws are made by them and penalties inflicted upon the breach of them. Yet some would deny this right to God that they feel they must exercise themselves. "But we are sure that the judgment of God is according to truth against them which commit such things" (Romans 2:3). God is not less righteous than men; His claims and authority must be upheld, and His judgment where these are flouted will be a righteous judgment.
Others admit that God must judge evil-doing who deny that His judgment is everlasting. To such our answer is: The Bible says it is. But it is argued that "everlasting" and "eternal" when used in the Bible do not mean "never ending," The word occurs about seventy times in the New Testament, and I give some examples. "To be cast into everlasting fire." (Matt. 18:8). "These shall go away into everlasting punishment" (Matt. 25:46). And in the same verse, "the righteous into life eternal." "Is in danger of eternal damnation" (Mark 3:29). "In the world to come, life everlasting" (Luke 18:30). "He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life" (John 3:15, 16, 36; John 5:24) "The commandment of the EVERLASTING GOD" (Rom. 16:26). "An house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens" (2 Cor. 5:1). "They shall be punished with everlasting destruction" (2 Thess. 1:9). "In Christ Jesus with eternal glory" (2 Tim. 2:10). "The author of eternal salvation" (Heb. 5:9). "Having obtained eternal redemption" (Heb. 9:12). "Who through the ETERNAL SPIRIT offered Himself without spot to God" (Heb. 9:14). "Called us unto His eternal glory" (1 Peter 5:10). "This is the true God and eternal life" (1 John 5:20). "Suffering the vengeance of eternal fire" (Jude 7). What other language could God have used to have conveyed to our minds the thought of judgment and punishment without end? And if the punishment is for a time only and not everlasting why should He have used the same word to describe it as that which describes the blessing of the saved and the eternity of His own Being, and not have said so in language about which there could have been no question?
Another argument against the truth is that reason revolts against the eternity of punishment for a lifetime of sin; but whose reason revolts against it? Quite recently there was a case of a man who received a life sentence for the attempted murder of a policeman; his reason revolted against it, he thought the sentence too heavy, too terrible; he said so, and appealed against it on that ground, but his reason was no match for the sentence of the law, his appeal was dismissed. It is not for the criminal to say what the sentence shall be; the judge decides that, and when God judges He will do it in absolute justice; "We are sure that the judgment of God is according to truth" (Romans 2:3). He has told us what that judgment will be before any come into it, and He has done this in love that warns of it that men may escape.
But further, it is evident that the state of those who die in their sins and upon whom the judgment that comes after death will fall, remain unchanged. We do not read of any hope of repentance on their part in eternity. Three times over the Lord repeats the solemn word, "Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9:44, 45, 48). It is generally said that "their worm" symbolizes the gnawing and remorse of the conscience, and it may indeed be this, but there is surely more in it; "their worm" speaks of corruption, and in this corrupt condition they remain unchanged for ever. Consequently the fire, symbolical of God's judgment, abides on them, it never dies out. We do not mean that these unrepentant sinners will continue sinning in hell, for as men in prison are restrained from crime, so will the lost be under the restraint of God's judgment in the lake of fire; but the sinful condition will remain, for we read, "He that is unjust, let him be unjust still; and he that is filthy, let him be filthy still" (Rev. 22:11). And John 3:36 is a decisive word: "He that believeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him." He "shall not see life" shatters the false hope of the universalist, and the wrath of God abiding on him meets the error of the annihilationist.
Now if there is no judgment for sin, or if that judgment is of a limited or temporal sort; if, for instance, sin can be expiated by a period in purgatorial fires, why did Christ die? And do we not here come to the heart of the whole question? If the punishment for sin is not everlasting, it did not require an infinite sacrifice to atone for it, and a lesser person than Christ could have made it. But the fact that "God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son" that men might not perish, is proof enough that they would and will perish apart from Him. It is the "whosoever believeth in Him" that escapes this awful doom. To deny eternal punishment is to belittle the greatness of God's gift, and the work and death of Christ, and to make sin against God but a matter of small account.
The cross of Christ, on which He gave Himself a ransom for all, is the great proof of God's love for men and the length He would go to save them; He could not have done more, and less would not have availed. But that cross is also the great proof that God cannot pass by the sins of men as though they were nothing at all. He would not be a God of holiness and truth if He did; hence the gospel that proclaims His love and grace also reveals His wrath against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men (Romans 1:18). How shall those who have refused to repent of their sins to God, and have neglected His great salvation, escape His wrath? His goodness and long suffering have been expended on them, but all in vain, they have not obeyed the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, and must be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and the glory of His power (2 Thess. 1:8). Thus the Bible teaches, and to reject its clear statements and believe instead the reasonings of the human mind is blind folly.
The greatness of God's love has been revealed in the gift of His Son for our salvation (see John 3:16; Romans 5:8; 1 John 4:9, 10). The universality of His mercy is manifested in the offer of salvation to all without any exception, but the eternal punishment of impenitent sinners will be an eternal witness to the infinite character of His wrath against sin, a wrath that will be as perfect and just as His mercy.
But judgment is God's strange work. He will find no delight in it, though He does delight in mercy. We read that in heaven they say, when God judges, "True and righteous are His judgments" (Rev. 19:2). That is not a joyous song; but there is joy in heaven, though it is not when judgment is executed, but when one sinner repenteth, and in that joy God's heart reveals itself, it is His own joy in which all heaven shares.