(Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians.)
In this epistle we have the unfolding of the grace of God in all its fulness, not merely the application of His righteousness to man's need on His part, but God from out of Himself, and for Himself, as the adequate motive and object before Him, even His own glory. Hence it is that righteousness disappears in this epistle. We have had the gospel thus in all the epistles that have gone before. In Romans, in 1st and 2nd Corinthians, and in Galatians righteousness was largely used. It was developed in a positive and comprehensive way, as in Romans. It was brought in either to convict the Corinthians of their utter departure through the spirit of the world, the flesh taking that shape, or it was brought in triumphantly on their restoration. Again, by it the apostle, writing to the Galatians, vindicated God's ways with man, and set the Christian outside the law.
But in Ephesians the aim is of a much more absolute and direct character. It is not the wants of man in any sense, either positively or negatively. Here God from Himself and for Himself is acting according to the riches of His own grace. Accordingly the very opening brings before us this astonishingly elevated manner of presenting the great truth with which the apostle's heart was filled. "Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God." (Eph. 1:1) It was pre-eminently for this that he had been chosen as an apostle; and he represents his apostleship not here as a question of calling, but "by the will of God:" everything in this epistle flows from the will of God; — "to the saints which are at Ephesus, and to the faithful in Christ Jesus."
Although about to show us what the church is in its heavenly blessing, that is, in its highest associations, he always begins with the individual. This was peculiarly needed. The tendency is ever to set aside what is personal for that which is corporate. The epistle to the Ephesians truly understood will help none so to do. It may be perverted to this or anything else; but so far is our corporate place from being put in the foreground that we do not hear one word about the assembly as such till the close of the first chapter. Only in verse 22 is the church even named for the first time, where it is said God has given Christ "to be the head over all things to the church." But up to this the saints are contemplated as such. The moral order of this is exceedingly beautiful. In the admirable wisdom and grace of God it is the direct setting aside of that which is found in all earthly systems, where the individual is merely a portion of a vast body which arrogates to itself the highest claims. It is not so in the word of God. There the individual blessing of the soul has the first place. God would have us set thoroughly clear and intelligently appreciating our individual place and relation to Himself. Where these are made and kept right, we can then safely follow what God will show us in due time, but not otherwise.
As usual the apostle salutes the saints with the best wishes for their blessing. "Grace be to you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ." Then, without delay, the next verses introduce a general view of the glorious topic that occupied him. "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." It is God in His proper nature, and in His relationship to Jesus. He is the God of Jesus; He is the Father of Jesus. But the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ "hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ." It is not carnal blessing such as was in measure given under the law to Israel, and will be under the new covenant by and by; it is spiritual blessing. The earth is their sphere; it is there that Israel looks to be blessed, and the Gentiles somewhat farther off, but all in the ordered blessing of the Most High God. Altogether differently here "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" has blessed us where Christ is on high. There is no place good enough for Christ the Son but heaven. There it is God Himself displays most His own glory; there He displays Christ Himself to all the heavenly hosts, delighting to put honour on that Man whom He raised from the dead and set at His own right hand. It is there not merely that He means to bless us, but that He has blessed us already. Such is the character of our blessing, and such its seat. The character is spiritual, the seat heavenly; and as the whole is given by the God and Father of our Lord Jesus, so it is secured in Christ.
In the next verse the apostle opens out that which is more particularly connected with "the God of our Lord Jesus Christ." "According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love." If "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" has blessed us with every spiritual blessing above in Christ, this is the first need — to have a nature capable of communion with His God, to have a condition that would do no dishonour, not only to the highest sphere, but to the holiest form and sphere in which God has ever made, Himself known. This is the nature that is given to the believer now. But it is not merely a thing imparted. The special point before the apostle's mind is that this was the choice of God before the world, in which we are brought to know the infinite blessing. It was entirely unconnected with the world. Far different was Israel's case, however favoured as a nation. They were chosen in time. Not only were they called in time as we have been, but they were chosen in time, which we were not. The choice of the saints for heavenly blessedness was before the creation of the universe, before the foundation of the world.
This gives a very peculiar character to our blessedness. It is altogether independent of the old creation, of that which might fail and pass away. It was a choice of God Himself before there was any creature responsible or dependent. God made known His choice, not when the creature was to be proved, but when it had failed to the uttermost; but the choice itself was decided on by God Himself before the creature came into being. It is the moral answer to what was shown in Christ, — "that we should be holy and without blame before him in love." Indeed, these are the very qualities of God Himself. He is holy in nature, and blameless in His ways. Man may cavil and murmur now in unbelief; but God will vindicate them every one when man shall be silent for ever. Besides, there is love, the activity, as well as, the moral qualities, of His being. Love it is which, as it were, puts all in movement that belongs to God. It is not something extraneous that acts on God as a motive, but His own love flowing out from Himself according to His holy nature, and in perfect consistency with His character and ways.
This is the moral nature which God confers on us who are born of Him. This and nothing less or else is what He chooses us to be before Him — chooses us to be in Christ in His own sight, and therefore with the fullest certainty that it shall be according to His own mind. It is not merely in the presence of an angel, still less before the world. Angels are not adequate judges of what pertains to us; they may be witnesses, but not judges. God Himself is acting for His own glory and according to His own love. But then the possession of a nature capable of communing with God did not and could not satisfy. He would have something more. What could this possibly be? Is He not satisfied with giving us a nature like His own? No, not even so, and for this reason — God has relationships, and these relationships are shown in Jesus just as much as His nature is. If we want to know what the holiness, and blamelessness, and love of God is, we must look at Him; but in the same way also, if we desire to know what are the relationships into which God puts those He loves, where shall we find the highest? Certainly not in the first man Adam. Israel's was at best a mere creature relationship, though, no doubt, having a special place in creation. Of all the creatures that live and breathe, man is the only one on earth that became a living soul by the breath of the Lord God, who, as it is written, breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. That is, there is a creative connection between God and man which is the source of man's moral relations with God, and the reason why man, and man alone of all creatures on the earth, shall live again and give an account of himself to God.
But in that which comes before us in our epistle, it is not a question even of the highest creature on earth — one that was called to have dominion on earth, and be the image and glory of God here below. God had in view One infinitely above man; and yet He was a man. It was Jesus; and Jesus stood in what was altogether peculiar — in a relationship that was perfectly according to God's counsels; but more than that, according to a relationship that was peculiar to His own person. There was counsel, but besides there was intrinsic glory altogether independent of any plans of conferred honour. In other words, the Son of God never was made the Son, He is never even called the child (τέκνον) of God.* To us, to be called children of God is more intimate than to be styled His sons; but it would derogate from the Lord. Jesus is never called a child in the sense in which I am now speaking. He has His own relationship to the Father eternally. To us it is more to be born of the very nature of God, than to be sons adopted into the family of God. There might be an adopted son without the nature. One might be altogether a stranger to him that adopts. But in Jesus, the Son of God, there was this character of Son in His own title and being from everlasting. Need I say that this is altogether above human comprehension? Yet nothing is more certain than that God so speaks to our faith. Were there an interval of one instant between the Father and the Son, did the Father exist in any respect before the Son as such, all the truth of God as revealed in the Bible perishes. He to whom I look up, by and in whom alone I can know God and the Father, is God Himself. Let the notion of time come into the conception given of Godhead and of the persons — Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and all would be falsehood and confusion. The Son would be a creature — not self-subsisting, not therefore truly God. For if God, He is as such not less truly God than the Father; for there can be no difference as to Godhead. As the Father is everlasting, so is the Son. The relationship in the Godhead has nothing to do with the question of time; and the great mistake that has been wrought by all human philosophy is from introducing notions of time where time can have no place whatever.
* The Lord Jesus is repeatedly called παῖς, translated "son" and "child" in the English version of the Acts of the Apostles, but more properly God's servant as Messiah.
Thus in the Godhead there are the relationships of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. But I confine myself now to the relationship of the Son to the Father from everlasting. And God, having these counsels before Him from everlasting, deigns to have a people, not only capable of enjoying Him as having the very same nature as His own, without which they could not enjoy glory; but, besides, if He has us in His presence, He would have us in the highest relationship into which grace could bring us. Now, the highest being that of the Son, we accordingly are brought into that relationship, though not, of course, in the sense in which He was eternally so. To us it could be but eternal purpose, to Him eternal being; to us pure grace, but to Him His own indefeasible right. But the Son being before the Father as His supreme object of love and delight from all eternity, to bring us as sons before Him was as much a part of His counsels as to make us partakers of divine nature. Thus nature is the subject of verse 4, as relationship is of verse 5. Hence in the latter we find, not exactly choosing, but predestinating us: "Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will."
It is well to mark the difference. To be before Him without having His own nature would be impossible; and therefore it is not stated as a matter of predestination, but of choice. He might have been pleased to choose none; but if we are to be brought into His presence at all, it is impossible to be there without having the divine nature, in a moral sense (and, of course, one only speaks of this). It is not the impartation of Godhead: none can be so foolish as to think of such a thing. But the divine nature is given to us in its qualities of holiness and love. On the other hand, we find that the predestination is "according to the good pleasure of his will," because no necessity operates in this. There was a moral necessity for a nature suitable to God, if we were to be in His presence at all; but there was none for this special relationship. He might have put us in any degree of relationship He pleased. Angels, for instance, are there; but they have no such relationship. His grace has predestinated us to the very highest relation — that of sons unto Himself by Jesus Christ "according to the good pleasure of his will." And the apostle concludes the whole of this part of the matter "to the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved." All this wondrous scheme is to the glory of His grace. He uses therefore the highest terms in order to express it. Grace alone would not suffice, glory alone would not serve, but both. It is "to the praise of the glory of his grace." Meanwhile it is again presented to us in this new fact, that we are brought in as objects of His perfect favour in the Beloved. Such is the measure, if measure it can be called, of the grace wherein we stand.
But then those in respect of whom God the Father had such thoughts were in point of fact sinners. The next verse shows that this is not forgotten, for account is taken of the fact, and it is provided for. The same "Beloved" who accounts to us for the counsels of God has brought in redemption. In Him we enter into favour, "in whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of offences," not exactly according to the praise of his glory, "but according to the riches of His grace." It is a present thing in every sense, though, of course, needed for heaven and eternity. Hence the expression does not go beyond the riches of God's grace. Thus is touched, incidentally, the need of our souls as offenders against God, but only so far as to show that it was in no way overlooked.
Next the apostle turns to the boundless scene that lies before us, as in the preceding verses he had looked at what is behind us. And why is all this? Clearly God has a purpose, a settled and glorious plan to gather the whole universe under Christ as its Head. Are those that He has brought into a share of His own moral nature and the relationship of sons to be left out of this? In nowise: even now He has abounded toward them "in all wisdom and prudence." These words do not attribute to God all wisdom and prudence, which certainly would be nothing new; but they intimate that He has now conferred on His saints all wisdom and prudence. It is truly an astonishing statement. The contrast is with Adam, who had a knowledge that was suited to his own place and relationship. Accordingly we hear in Genesis 2 how he gave names to all that was put under him. And as to his wife, he instantly understands, though he had been in a deep sleep while she was being formed. But when presented to him, he knows all that it was meet for him to know then. He knows instinctively that she was part of himself, and gives her a name suitably. Such seems to have been the measure of Adam's wisdom and prudence. As being the image and glory of God on earth, he is the one that gives names to his companion, or to the subject creation. It is not merely that he accepts names given him by God, but God delights in putting him in this place of lordship, and to a certain extent also of fellowship — lordship to that which is below him, and fellowship as regarded his wife. Thus, then, Adam acts and speaks.
But the saints, now being made the objects of these heavenly counsels of God, have a wisdom and prudence of their own, quite peculiar to the new creation in Christ, and its proper relations: God puts no limits to it. In point of fact, He looks for the expression and exercise of it, be assured, from all of us, though no doubt according to our measure. It is no use merely taking it up as a name or barren title. Our God and Father does look for the display of the mind of Christ in us, so that we should be able to form a judgment according to Himself, and to express it about whatever comes before us. For if we are in Christ, we have a vantage ground which makes all things clear. Christ is not darkness but light, and puts all in the light; He makes us to be children of the light, that so we may be able to judge ourselves, not discerned by man as such, but capable of discerning whatever claims our attention. Such is the place of a Christian, and a wondrous place it is, flowing from the nature and relationship which we possess by the grace of our God.
But the connection is important. God has "abounded toward us in all wisdom and prudence; having made known unto us [what is the special proof of it] the mystery of his will." This does not yet appear; for there is nothing to indicate to mankind what He purposes to do. It is an absolutely new thing; and this new purpose is "according to the good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself: that in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth, even in him; in whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will, that we should be to the praise of his glory," etc.
Here the apostle repeats that high, large, and blessed phrase already so familiar to us, "that we should be to the praise of his glory, who first trusted in Christ; in whom ye also [trusted]." It was not confined to those that had their hope founded on Christ while the nation refused Him. Paul was one of those; and there were others at Ephesus, as we well know — in point of fact the first nucleus of the assembly there. The first saints and faithful in the city of Ephesus, as Acts 19 shows, were persons who had been baptized with the baptism of John, and afterwards brought from Jewish to Christian ground by the apostle Paul. Hence he says, "that we should be to the praise of his glory, who first trusted in Christ," referring to himself and any other saints who had been chosen from the people of the Jews. At the same time there is no exclusion of Gentile believers, but the reverse. "In whom ye, also [trusted], after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation." For the mass subsequently brought in were Gentiles, and the gospel of salvation they forthwith received, without going through the intermediate steps that the others knew. The Jews, or those who had been under Jewish teaching, had been for a while in an infantine state, or an Old Testament condition; but the Gentiles by faith passed simply and directly into the full Christian blessing. "In whom also, after that ye believed, ye were sealed with the holy Spirit of promise, who is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of his glory."
It cannot have escaped observation that there are two great parts in that which has come before us. The first is nature; the second is relationship. The Holy Ghost is here viewed according to these two. Connected with nature, He has sealed us, as it is said here and elsewhere; and connected with relationship, He is the earnest. For "if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ." The Holy Ghost thus takes a corresponding part. Just as Christ is the sample and model whether of nature or relationship, so the Holy Ghost is not without His own proper place in bringing the saint into the reality, knowledge, and enjoyment of both. The Holy Ghost gives us the certainty and joyful assurance of our place as saints; the Holy Ghost at the same time gives us the foretaste of the bright inheritance of God that lies beyond.
Then follows a prayer of the apostle — the first of those he pours out for the Ephesian saints. Naturally this prayer grows out of the two great truths he had been urging. He prays for the saints "that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory [for this is what his mind connected with it], may give unto you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him, the eyes of your understanding being enlightened, that ye may know what is the hope of his calling, and what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints." These are the two former points. The "hope of his calling" is the bright prospect of the saints themselves, as they are in Christ before God. "The riches of the glory of his inheritance" embrace, of course, that vast scene of creation which is to be put under the glorified saints. He prays accordingly that they might enter into both, realizing the holy peaceful atmosphere of the one, and the glorious expectations that were bound up with the other; for clearly the future is before his mind. But then he adds a third point, which was not given in the previous part of the chapter; namely, that they might know "what is the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power, which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead."
This last was of all-importance to the saints, and the rather as that power had already been put forth. It shines in full contrast with Israel. If the latter enquired how God had interfered most conspicuously for them, no doubt they were reminded of the power that brought them out of the land of Egypt. This was always their comfort in the midst of disasters and troubles. The God that divided the Red Sea, and brought them across Jordan, was equal to any difficulty that might ever assail them again. In the prophets this too remains always the standard, until God exert His power in another way, when He shall be no longer spoken of as Jehovah that brought them out of the land of Egypt, but out of the north country into their land, where He shall settle them for ever. Thus Israel stands in the permanent remembrance of power that redeemed them from the land of Egypt, and in the anticipation of a still greater manifestation that will eclipse whatever had been seen of old.
But the Christian is even now himself, with his fellow-saints, the object of the very same power which never can be outshone — the power that raised up Christ from the dead. We wait for nothing greater nor its match; we await the results of this glorious power for the body and the creation; but we look for no new putting forth of power which can enter into competition with that which God has already shown in Christ. The moment that Jesus presents Himself as the answer to what has been put forth already, the saints rise or are changed in the twinkling of an eye. Besides, it is not merely that the body will immediately respond to the call of the Lord Jesus, but even now the very same power has wrought toward us in making us Christians which "wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in that which is to come: and hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all." Such is the power that has wrought now — wrought toward us even while we are in this world.
Accordingly, in Ephesians 2, the apostle pursues this train, and shows that it is not another exertion of power, but a part of the very same work of God which raised up Jesus from the dead. In other words, Christ was not raised up as an insulated individual, severed from all others by His glory and their sin and shame. The gospel of God's grace proclaims the very reverse. He was raised up as the great manifestation of divine power for effectuating God's counsels as well as redemption. Not only was His resurrection this manifestation, but also whatever God put forth toward us was in virtue of that display of His energy — was, so to speak, morally included in that power which raised up Christ from the dead. This clearly is of the deepest possible interest to the saints. Throughout the epistle all the secret is just this — God would associate us with Christ (that is, of course, in everything that is consistent with the maintenance of the divine glory). Whatever could contribute to it, whatever fell in according to it, everything that God Himself could do to bind us up with Christ, sharing with us all that is glorious in Christ His own Son, even to His holy nature and relationship with the Father, as far as this could be conferred on a creature, is no more than God had in His heart — yea, is what God has given us now, and will display in heavenly places ere long.
So the apostle says, "You hath he quickened, who were dead in offences and sins;" for now we can bear to learn anything, however humiliating, and He can speak of anything, no matter how exalted or holy. God had never so spoken of man before. In Romans the sinner is regarded as alive in sins; and death, the death of Christ, is the means of deliverance. In Ephesians death is the very first place where we find even Christ. Not a word is said of sending Him into the world, or of His life and labours there, any more than of our doing this or being that. The first place where Christ is seen is in the grave whence God according to the mightiest action of His almighty power raised Him up. It was an absolutely new thing: never was seen one so glorious, never can there be another so triumphant, as the power there put forth. Man, Satan, yea, the judgment of God that had gone forth against Him because of our sins, had no force to detain Him in the grave. That judgment had fallen on Him necessarily and unsparingly; but in the face of everything calculated to hinder, God's power broke up the last stronghold of the enemy. There was Jesus lying in the grave; and from that grave God raised Him, and set Him on the highest pinnacle of heaven's glory — not only of that which then was, but that ever shall be. Such is the very power that has taken you and me up in divine grace, and wrought toward us. The very power that brought you out of the world and of your sins is the power that raised up Christ from the dead, set Him in the heavenly places, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fulness of that glorious Head to whom it is united.
This is pursued then first with reference to the Gentiles, for now the order is reversed. In Ephesians 1 he began with the Jews, and then showed the Gentiles brought in; but now he begins with the outer circle where the Gentiles were. "And you hath he quickened, who were dead in offences and sins; wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience." What can be conceived more dreadful than such a condition, positively without spiritual life, dead in offences and sins! Not only so, but they had walked according to the course of that which is most of all offensive to God — "of this world, according to the prince of the authority of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience;" for indeed they were, one as much as another, children of disobedience. "Among whom also we all," etc., for he does not let slip the Jews, but turns round on their estate, equally lifeless as the Gentiles. They might otherwise think themselves more or less superior. He had spoken of the poor idolatrous Gentiles and their awful condition; but "we all," says he, — putting himself along with them, — Jews as we were, children of the covenant and what not, were none the less dead in offences and sins. "Among whom also we all had our conversation in time past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, quickened us together with Christ (by grace ye are saved), and raised us up together." Now he unites both in this place of richest blessing; for He has even "made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: that in the ages to come he might show the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus." In truth it is His grace to the full, and for heaven (not earth), though given to us to know here before we get there; "for by grace are ye saved." The whole work is thus presented in its completeness from first to last; nevertheless, it is only "through faith" as yet. This is and must be the medium, as far as the saints are concerned, grace being the spring on God's part: "and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship."
It is clearly not a question of righteousness here, or consistency with any known standard of judgment. God would frame a new sort of workmanship worthy of Himself; and therefore all question of antecedent measures disappears. Righteousness supposes a claim in the first place, however met; even though it may be God's righteousness, still it is God acting in consistency with Himself and His own claims. But in Ephesians we are in presence of a new creation in Christ, where claim is out of the question. Who would demand of God to make the objects of His mercy like Christ the Son? Who could, before He revealed His purpose, have so much as conceived such a dealing possible? Even now, though plainly made known in this epistle and elsewhere, how few Christians there are who rest in it as their assured portion! So totally and absolutely is it outside the range of human thought and feeling that the difficulty is to drop self, to cut all the strings that bind us to human nature and the world, to see all ended even now that is connected with the present course of this age, so that we may be simply occupied and filled with that heavenly blessedness which God unfolds to our souls.
However this be, "We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works," — a peculiar kind of good works, suited to the relationship in which we stand. This is the great point to seize always throughout Scripture. There never can be spiritual understanding, unless souls let in this after all plain principle, that the suited good depends on the relationship in which we are placed, whether to God, or to any other. The good for an Israelite, for a Gentile, for a man, is wholly different from the good for a Christian, because their relationships are not the same as his. Now we are Christians; and this decides the character of the duties we have to pay, or of the good works which He has before prepared that we should walk in them; for "we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus" for this very purpose. It is not at all put as a question of command according to the law; but "God had before prepared," as a part of His wonderful scheme, "that we should walk in them." He merely now touches on the principle, as he had before let us see not merely God's counsels from before the foundation of the world, but the manner and means of their application through Christ our Lord to us in time. Hence the condition in which we were found here below came into view; and, as we have seen, it was total ruin, whether Jew or Gentile be looked at.
But now from Ephesians 2:11 the apostle enters into particulars, and shows that the bringing down from God's own heights of these glorious counsels and making them thus manifest in man here below, completely sets aside the Jewish system, or rather supposes the setting aside of all Jewish elements. Hence, being "Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; [the apostle bids such remember] that at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world." And what had God done now? Had He brought the Gentiles into the place that Israel once occupied? The Jews had rejected their own Messiah. Of old they had forfeited every claim according to the law, and were spared and kept in God's mercy and faithfulness. But now they had consummated their rebellion by refusing the Christ of God. What was to be done? Would God send out and bring in the Gentiles to fill their place? Another plan discloses itself. The Jews who believe are taken out of their former place, as much as the Gentiles, who had no place. Both are now introduced by grace into an entirely new and heavenly place in Christ, which was not so much as heard of before. Accordingly not only does he enforce the truth first presented in the end of chapter 1, the church which is the body of Christ, but he also still more qualifies it as a "new man," and as "one body;" because, in treating of the two objects of grace, and component parts of the church, Jews and Gentiles who believe, he shows that God does not purpose to form two societies of these saints, but one body. It is not a mere aggregate of Gentiles into the well-known line of old blessing, but one new man, not merely fresh in time, but of an absolutely new order, never seen or experienced before. It is not again a simple question of a new nature, but of a new man: the first Adam, with all remedial or corrective dealings in him disappear, and one new man comes before our view.
Here again the apostle brings in the relation of the Holy Ghost to the new things. The consequence is that we find the Spirit of God, now sent down from heaven, not only putting the saints into relationship with the Father, but, besides, dwelling in them and making them God's habitation through the Spirit.
Thus we have at last the church developed in its two main characters. It has its heavenly association as the one body of Christ; it has its earthly place and responsibility as the "habitation of God through the Spirit." All this, it will be observed, is consequent on the cross. The one was not at all, nor was the other in such sort before. God had a dwelling-place of old in Israel; but it was a house made with hands, however magnifical, that followed the tabernacle of witness in the desert, in both of which the Shechinah, or visible sign of His glory, deigned to dwell. Such is not the character of God's dwelling now. It is neither the tabernacle, nor the temple, but His habitation in Spirit. It is not, of course, a display of glory before men's eyes; yet is it most real — a proper dwelling of God on earth, answering to, though not necessarily coextensive with, those who are constituted the body of Christ glorified on high. Not that the body is there yet, but that the body of Christ is heavenly in its character, although in fact on the earth now. Besides, as we have seen, the church is the dwelling-place of God through the Holy Ghost's presence here below.
This leads to Ephesians 3, in which the apostle unfolds things parenthetically. It is a revelation of God that comes in at the time when the Jews have, at least temporarily, lost their place altogether. The very structure of the chapter, as has been noticed, is a sort of confirmation of this. The chapter itself is a parenthesis. "For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles, if ye have heard of the dispensation [administration or stewardship] of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward: how that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery (as I wrote afore in few words; whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ); which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed." Observe, therefore, that what was the first in counsel is the last in revelation.
Accordingly, when all was complete in the communication of God's plans in the Bible, there was one subject that was left a blank. Paul was the chosen witness to fill up that blank. He wrote in few words no doubt, but he has written with divine perfection, and clearly enough for those by God's grace made competent to understand, let the words be ever so few. Many wonder that such truths as these should not have more words used in communicating them. But profound truths are for those who have spiritual understandings; and such do not require many words to comprehend them. When persons are only learning the elements of truth, the grace of God provides precept on precept, line on line, for those who want it. If He is showing needy souls how they may be forgiven of God, He displays it in a thousand forms; if the need of righteousness, He repeats it over and over again. But it is not so with the revelation of the mystery. There is a certain spiritual competence supposed, — a due preparation not only of heart, but also of knowledge; or, as the apostle said, "we speak wisdom among them that are perfect," Here no lengthy exposition would be wanted about it, because they were not so infantine as to suppose that the truth of God depends on the number of times that a thing is asserted. Once is enough for the intelligent.
God therefore has not been pleased in the heights of divine truth to repeat words in the same way as His grace leads Him to do when He is helping the babes. Hence the apostle Paul, in what is by no means the simplest utterance he has given, writes in few words. He could condescend. We know how he would bend down and be as it were a Gentile to one without law, and a Jew to one under law, to do good to souls.
But now he speaks briefly. He was not constrained to enter into a full or long explanation. But as he said that by revelation it was made known to him, so he would from God communicate it to them. "Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit." It is remarkable that the mystery, though revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the power of the Holy Ghost, was not revealed by them. It was revealed by Paul alone. Revealed to all the apostles and prophets of the New Testament, to one as much as another, it never seems to have taken such a hold of the others as of Paul. In point of fact, from his conversion right through, the revelation of the mystery was involved. That which comforted his soul was Christ in heavenly glory far above all things. As the light that shone then was brighter, than the sun at noonday, so in the vision the truth about to be learnt was entirely outside and superior to the present or the past. It was grace in its deepest character and in its highest form, and so the apostle Paul was the suited vessel that God employed to instruct others, — not merely the one to whom the revelation was made, but by whom the revelation was to be communicated. It is revealed to us here.
We must carefully remember that the mystery does not mean the church merely. It is the mystery of Christ emphatically; and the part about Christ is the higher of the two. The church is but a consequence; and we bless God for this, and bless Him also that we know the church is but the complement of Christ. One might distrust a mystery, if it centred in the church. Who that knows what man is, and God, as Christ has made both known, would dare to rest in any one person or thing which did not find its brightest form in Christ Himself? And the reason is simple; so inadequate is the creature, so untrustworthy is the first Adam, that one might well be certain the true meaning of the Bible was lost to him who judged otherwise. Such an one must have only got the lower end of the line, and not the full truth in its own native purity and freshness from God. Impossible that the Head should not be there as well as the body; and the apostle speaks as to Christ yet more than as to the assembly.
God then brings out His own secret, after having kept it hidden from all past ages and generations, though, of course, it has been before Him from the beginning. If God reveals it now, the idea of man — of ourselves — being the first and main object in the mind of God is impossible. It is the mystery of Christ; and this is what secures the blessing in its fulness and purity for the church of God. Therefore we need never fear, no matter what the blessing and the privilege may be. If it be illustrated in Christ, if it be bound up with Him, fear not to trust simply and to believe implicitly. Enter boldly into the sweetness of His grace and fulness of His glory. We never can go astray, if we follow the path of the Lord Jesus.
Though it is the mystery of Christ, it is not exclusively about Christ. So in Ephesians 5 he says, "This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church." Is there not good reason for saying that the church is but a consequence? The church follows; and as it belongs to Christ, so it is a part of Him. Hence, to make the mystery to be the church is a very serious moral as well as doctrinal mistake.
The apostle adds that it was now revealed of the Spirit, "That the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ by the gospel: whereof I was made a minister, according to the gift of the grace of God given unto me by the effectual working of his power. Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints" — there is nothing like this truth, where it is learnt from the Holy Ghost, for humbling the soul, were it even the greatest of the apostles, — "is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ; and make all see what is the fellowship [rather administration] of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things [by Jesus Christ to the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God."
God had something more to teach those who are the natural denizens of heaven. They had to learn what they had never known. They had seen creation, and sung at the sight. They had seen the ways of God with man, and with Israel; and surely they had entered into the glory of God that was involved in all His ways. Nevertheless, whether it was creation, whether man or favoured Israel, there was so much the more painful a declension that portended the judgment of God upon them. Thus there were dark shadows, and lowering clouds. But now appeared something altogether new. Latest of all, God divulged His wonderful scheme in which the man that came from above, the Son that became a man, the Word made flesh, had gone down to the very lowest in order to make good the glory of God morally in the scene where He had been most put to shame. But now, consequent on His resurrection from the dead, and of the place given Him in heaven above all, there was made known to these very principalities and powers "the manifold wisdom of God," — made known to them before it came to pass, the sure deliverance of the whole scene of creation, of man, of Israel, as well as of the earth. But not merely this. That man who came down but was found alone to the end of His earthly course would now be alone no more; He would have a new and suited body, believing Jews and Gentiles fellow-heirs and of the same body. Most wholesome blessedness! for who should be more above the feelings of jealousy than those who delight in that which shows the greatness, and the glory, and the perfect goodness of God in His greatest work? This, then, was what was needed for the principalities and powers, and this is what they behold in the church of God.
The apostle accordingly is now led at the sight of the mystery of Christ into another prayer, in which he asks "the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ [for now he takes up the other relationship], of whom the whole [rather, every] family in heaven and earth is named, that he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; being rooted and grounded in love, that ye may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye may be filled with all the fulness of God."
Here the prayer is not, as in the first chapter, that they might know the power that had wrought toward them; it is now that their hearts might be in the secret of His grace according to the power that works in them. That is, he looks at the inner source, not merely at the glorious results. Here he prays to the Father of our Lord Jesus, not simply to the God that had raised up the Christ from the dead, and was glorifying Him on high. It will be observed that the desire is not merely that they might be enlightened as to the special glory of their standing, but that their hearts might be filled with the love of Christ, and this too as a present thing filling them to overflowing, though surely not to cease in the ages to come. "Unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end." This is not a question therefore of the place or standing of the Christian, but rather of his condition or state, which the Spirit would have in unison with the love of Him who alone made either possible. Consequently here it is not an energy already put forth, but he pleads that Christ might dwell by faith in their hearts. It is not a conferred position, however blessed, but practical enjoyment — even that Christ Himself might be habitually the object before them, now that all question of deliverance and blessing was settled in their favour. It was all a known thing that they were blessed by — yea, with — Christ, forming a part of Christ, expressly fellow-heirs, and of the same body. But now, founded on this, the apostle prays thus for them, that the Holy Ghost would so act in the inner man that there might be no hindrance to Christ, and that they might know, not the Holy Ghost (for this they did not doubt), but Christ dwelling there by His power constantly.
Unquestionably the Spirit of God does evermore dwell in the Christian, though I am not aware that He is ever said to dwell in our hearts. He may shed abroad the love of God therein; but He is rather said to dwell in us, making the body God's temple. Here the apostle would have Christ to be more the satisfying object of our affections. This is the point. Far be it from us just to know that He loves us through the word of God, as a security to us, like a dry parchment deed of gift that we quietly keep in a strong box. Rather is the very gospel to the sinner free and full, that, having the certainty of the divine fulness of our blessing, our hearts may be now open to enjoy Christ, and be occupied with His love. "That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith;" not that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, but "rooted," etc., that ye "may be able to comprehend with all saints." It is not here deliverance, let it be ever so complete; it is not the knowledge of our position in Christ as in Eph. 1; but rather the converse — Christ dwelling in us by faith, and the heart entering into the positive excellency of the Son, the only adequate object of the Father's own delight. Hence it was that they might "be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ." It is not only the full extent of glory, but the sole satisfying spring, Christ thus dwelling in our hearts in the consciousness of His love — "to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God." He is the ultimate blessedness with which we are filled, the One in whom we most confide, being the Son, in whom dwells all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.
Thus, having Him who is the centre of all glory dwelling in our affections by faith, we enter into, and become established in, the grace which is the secret of it all. In communion with the objects of it, we go out into the resulting scenes of glory on every side; knowing Christ's love though unknowable, and filled into God's fulness though infinite. The apostle concludes his prayer with an ascription of glory to Him in the Church unto all generations of the age of the ages, able to do far above all we ask or think according to His power which works in us. It is thus seen to be founded on the great facts and standing privileges mentioned at the end of Eph. 2; but it is the desire that the saints should know God's present power to an indefinite extent working in them in spiritual enjoyment, through the Holy Ghost's power, giving us to have Christ the definite and constant object of the heart.
Ephesians 4 begins the proper exhortatory portion, and here, first of all, urges a walk in view of such a calling as is ours, diligently keeping the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Then the diversities are brought before us. "I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love." The very truth which, learnt and enjoyed in the Holy Ghost, conduces to all lowliness and meekness, as it calls for mutual forbearance in love, flesh would abuse to all pride and vain-gloriousness, to high-minded contempt of others, and bitter self-confidence. Than these nothing less becomes those so blessed. Oh that we might have grace to walk in communion with such grace! But if we are to walk thus, let us not forget the prayer for the state of our hearts which precedes these exhortations. Knowledge of standing, and a state answering to Christ's love, are the basis of a walk worthy of our calling. "The unity of the Spirit" seems to be the general name for that great fact which is now established — that unity of which Christ is the chief, and to which we all belong. The apostle treats it as our business diligently to observe it. It is impossible for flesh to be true to it. This is as it should be. An easy path could not be divine, as men and things are on earth. We need, but we have, the Holy Spirit who is surely all-sufficient, if looked to. It is impossible to exaggerate the snares and difficulties of Christendom.
But what are difficulties to the Spirit of God? This is the great want — simple, genuine faith in the Holy Ghost. He is equal to all, and, would have us count on His presence and power answering to the name of Christ. What has all the confusion of men to do with the glorious reality that God has established — His unity, of which we all form part by the power of His Spirit? What does it matter about times, persons, or circumstances, if the Spirit abide to enable us, according to Scripture, diligently to keep His own unity? Numbers are of small account here. The Lord might be where there are only two gathered together unto His name. If but two acted accordingly, they ought to be and would be an expression of the unity of the Spirit. What is the value of any other unity? It can never rise above its human source. Evidently also, it is no essential matter for present practice of faithfulness, whether few or many see and feel it: this is a question for God's will, who will act for His own glory, whether by many or by few. Let this then rest in His hands. Be it our part with diligence (for this is needed) "to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace."
Then we hear the particulars, and in a very orderly manner. "There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling." This verse states the intrinsic unity that never passes away, beginning with the fact of "one body;" then the efficient power, one Spirit; and lastly the cause of it all in the calling of grace. Nothing touches these.
In the next verse we have that which has been justly designated the unity of profession, where all things may come in to mar. Hence it is said, "One Lord," which is precisely that which is owned in the common creed of Christendom. And as there is one Lord, so "one faith." It is neither "faith" nor "the faith." That is, it may not be sincere, nor even doctrinally the truth that is held; but we hear of "one faith" in contrast with Judaism on one hand, and with Paganism on the other. Hence "one baptism" follows, which the context shows to be the plain initiatory rite of Christian profession, and nothing else. In the verse before the apostle had spoken of the "one Spirit," and hence it would be superfluous to introduce the statement of His baptism here, even if the adjuncts did not exclude the idea.
Thus we have had, first of all, the great spiritual reality which is always true of Christians, and of none else. They, and only they, have "one Spirit" dwelling in them. They only have the "one hope of their calling." But the moment you come to the "one Lord," this city, yea every city in Christendom, is a witness to a wide-spread profession of His name. As He is outwardly called on, so there is everywhere the "one faith," which does not mean (alas! we know too well) saving faith necessarily, but the faith of Christendom; and accordingly "one baptism" is its mark, because thus they are put on or take the ground of professing the one Lord and one faith.
Lastly, "one God and Father of all." Here we come to what is universal. Each circle hitherto was getting larger and larger. First there was the true company that had divine life and the Spirit of God; secondly, the circle of profession very much more extensive; and thirdly remains the universal unity, which embraces not Christendom only, but all the creatures of God included under their one God and Father — whatever derived its being from God, the God that created all things, as we were told in Ephesians 3:9. He consequently is the "one God and Father of all," not merely of all believers, for this is a mistake of its force, but of all absolutely; just as we were told in verse 15 of that same chapter, that of Him every family in heaven and earth is named. No matter whether Jews or Gentiles, principalities or powers, every family is derived from this universal source of existence — "One God and Father of all, who is above all [there we find His supremacy], and through all [there we find His permeance, if one may so say, as the support of the whole universe], and in you all" [His intimacy with the saints]. The moment the apostle comes to inward relationship, he leaves the universality of phrase and speaks only of the saints of God — "in you all." No statement can be conceived more exact.
Now we must turn to the diversities. "But to every [each] one is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ." And as the unity flowed from the power of the Spirit sent down from heaven; so now when we come to gifts, it is expressly connected with Christ in glory. "Wherefore he saith, when he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended." Yes, but He did not go up as He came down from above. He came a divine person filled with love; and He went a man also, triumphant not with love only but in righteousness and power, to give effect to all the glorious counsels of His Father, which unjudged sin would have for ever frustrated. He went up after all the working of evil had been really defeated and destroyed in the sight of God. Satan is allowed to go on for a little while longer, because God is gathering out the joint-heirs, while the evil develops itself in a new form. Man had been shown to be the enemy of all righteousness, and now betrays himself the enemy of all grace. As the end of the latter will be incomparably worse than the former, so judgment will be commensurate with man's apostasy from grace; for the Lord must come from heaven, "in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and on them that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ."
Meanwhile, before a blow is struck at man's failure in the presence of righteousness, or at his apostasy from grace, that blessed Saviour, the only begotten Son in the bosom of the Father, the Son of man who is in heaven, went down to the very uttermost, and (having exhausted the powers of evil, and blotted out all that could rise against the objects of God's grace,) was raised and seated by God in heaven. He takes His place there, of course always the Son; but, wonderful to say, humanity makes an integral and everlasting part, so to speak, of that divine person, the Son of God. And here is the key, and that which accounts for the astonishing display of what God is now doing in man. How could it be otherwise, seeing that He who sits on His throne, far above every creature in God's presence and in all ages, is a man, but withal the very Son of God? The Son is as truly man as God, and as such gives gifts to men. Angels are not the object. They had a distinguished place before the Son became man. Since then it is not so much they that have lost, but man in and by Christ that has gained such a place as they never had nor could have. Never were they to reign; never will they be one with Christ like the saints. They are "ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation."
But Christ at the right hand of God gives gifts unto men; and, as it is said here, "He gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;" — bringing in both the highest gifts and also those ordinarily requisite for the good of the saints. I say "requisite," simply in view of Christ's love towards the church. It is not a question of rendering a testimony of the power of God working in man and dealing with the first creation. In Corinthians we have this, and properly in its place. There we have tongues, miracles, etc.; because all that is connected with man in the flesh and in the world is a sign to unbelievers, showing them the goodness of God, and the defeat of that wicked power which governs human nature as it is.
But in the epistle to the Ephesians we have none of these dealings with the first man, but that which forms and nourishes the new creation. Hence we have those gifts alone which are the expression of the grace of Christ toward the saints that He loves, for ministerial work, for the building up of His body. In this order He gave them — the body to be edified, and ministry carried on, but always the individual first. The building up of the body is the fruit of God's blessing the individual saints. It cannot be otherwise. It is in vain to look for the church's prosperity, if saints individually do not grow up unto Christ. And so these gifts are given, as it is said, "till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: that we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; but speaking the truth in love, may grow up unto him in all things, which is the head, even Christ."
Then we have in the centre of this chapter no longer the unity or the gifts differing, but the moral walk of the saints. And what is the first lesson of the truth as it is in Jesus? This; — not only that we hear of the one body, and that saints compose this body, but that a new man is seen. Introducing this great practical truth, he reminds them of what they had been, but also tells them what they are now. Our duties flow from what we are, or are made. And what then is the truth as it is in Jesus? Our having put off the old man, and our having put on the new man. Such is the truth, if indeed we have learnt the Christ as God teaches Him. Anything short of this is not the true Christian measure. Jesus could occupy Himself in divine love. Self would have hindered; had there been a particle, it would have ruined both His person and His work; but this is not the truth as it is in Jesus. He came so as to be left absolutely free to occupy Himself in love for God's glory and our desperate need. And now, in Him who is dead and risen, the Christian has put completely off the old man, is being renewed in the spirit of his mind, and has put on the new man, which according to God is created in righteousness and holiness of truth.
Not only is there this new man that God has created after the image of Christ in contrast with the first Adam, but this is the ground why all moral evil is to be judged, beginning with deceit and falsehood. "Wherefore putting away lying, speak every man truth with his neighbour: for we are members one of another. Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath: neither give place to the devil. Let the stealer steal no more." How solemn to learn what the old man is in its most detestable forms, against all which the Christian is warned! Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers."
But, besides the new man which lives in dependence, we need to guard against losing power according to God. "Grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption." Thus the great basis of all our walk is, that the old man has been judged in Jesus, and the new man we have already put on; but, moreover, the Holy Ghost is given, and we are sealed by Him. Thus we have a new nature which hates sin, and the Holy Ghost which gives power for that which is good.
Then he adds the great exemplar and spirit of it all, according to the forgiveness with which God met us in Christ. "Be ye kind one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ hath forgiven you." But there is yet more. To forgive another's wrongs is not enough for a Christian. No doubt it is a giving up of self, and therefore the fruit of divine grace. But in Ephesians God cannot but have us imitate His own ways as they have shone in Christ. He Himself is the measure of the walk of the new man, and the manifestation of it is Christ Himself. Nothing short of this suffices. What has God done? He has forgiven you in Christ; and you are called to do the same. But was this all? Was there only this? Was there not positive love, far beyond forgiveness? And what is the manifestation of love? Not the law, but Christ. "Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children; and walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savour."
Do you think this devotedness too much? yea, impossible? Not so. Take a passage in 2 Corinthians (2 Cor. 8:5), which has been before us only a short time ago: "And this they did, not as we hoped, but first gave their own selves to the Lord, and unto us by the will of God." How blessed is the character and the spring of Christian service! Think of their giving themselves first to the Lord, then to us by the will of God. It is just the answer to the grace of God in Christ. Nor is there full Christian service, except in proportion as it is according to this pattern and in this power. In Christ it was, of course, absolutely perfect: He did give Himself for us. But this was not enough. He might have given Himself ever so truly in pity for us; but it would not have been perfection, had He not "given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savour." And so accordingly all that is acceptable takes this shape. "But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking [even light words dishonour the Christian, as being contrary to Christ], nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks. For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God."
But there are other elements. God is not only love but light; and inasmuch as this epistle reveals how fully God associates us with Christ according to His own nature, so having first shown us the privilege of loving, as He Himself loved us in Christ, now it shows that we are made "light in the Lord." But it is not said that we are love. This would be too strong, yea, false. Love is God's nature, but it is a sovereign prerogative in Him. In His own actings it has no motive or spring except in Himself. This could not be true of us. We need both motive and object, and hence could not be said to be love; because not we, but only God acts from Himself, as much as for Himself. Impossible that the creature could be or do so; and therefore the creature is never said to be love. But there is love after a divine sort in the new nature, which is said to be light, because this is the necessity of the new nature. Impossible that the new nature could countenance sin; the very essence of it is rejection and exposure of what is contrary to God. It is sensitive about sin; detects and detests it thoroughly. Hence we are said to be "light in the Lord," and we need to shake off the things of death that encumber the light, and hinder it. And so Christ gives us more light. For the word is, "Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light." But just as before, in the walk which shuts out hatred, and anger, and so on, we were warned against grieving the Spirit of God; so the power of the Holy Ghost asserts itself here. Here it is not merely "Grieve not the Holy Spirit." He goes farther, and says, "Be filled with the Spirit." "Be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord."
And is this all? It is not. There has been the full unfolding of God's love, and the answer to it in the saints here below in their nature, and in the ways that manifest the new nature. But, besides, we have relationships; and now we have God manifesting Himself in each of our positions, and showing us that these are meant to give us opportunity of glorifying God by the good works that were before ordained of God. Accordingly he brings in the most important of them, first, the wife and the husband; then, children and their parents; and, finally, servants and masters.
All through these then we have, but more particularly in the first, the interweaving of the duty with the manifestation of God's grace: "Christ also loved the church." It is not now either sovereign love, or love of complacency. There was the sovereign love of God in Christ forgiving us; there was love of complacency, inasmuch as we were to love according to that love with which we were loved, as shown us in the matchless love of Christ. But now there is love of relationship as well; and here too Christ appears, who is the pattern and perfection of grace in every respect. "Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself." Just look into this revelation of His love. How everything is connected with Christ! He gave Himself for us. What was it for? "That he might present it to himself [not merely to the Father, but present it to himself] a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish." More than this; for "no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church." Everywhere Christ Jesus Himself is intermixed with every portion. He Himself is the beginning, He Himself the end, He Himself all the way through. He gave Himself as the beginning; and He presents it to Himself as the end. Meanwhile He tenderly cares for the church. "He that loveth his wife loveth himself; … for we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones." "This is a great mystery," he adds at the close; "but I speak as to Christ and as to the church."
Then we have the children, who are called to obey their parents in the Lord. It was not a question of the flesh: how could this be trusted? Let them obey in the Lord. To honour one's father and mother was both an obligation and had a special promise under law. And if children that had a relationship with their parents in the flesh and under law did so (for it was indeed right), how much more did it become Christian children to pay them reverence?
This is followed up by an exhortation to parents: "And ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord." Thus is the Lord ever presented as the pattern. Then come the slaves similarly. He was privileged to do all as unto Christ; as the master again must remember that he had his own Master in heaven. This also answers to the grand doctrine of this epistle.
Then the apostle introduces us to another topic. It is not the source of the blessing (Eph. 1); nor the place into which we are now brought as being made one with Christ (Eph. 2); nor the objects to whom we are bearing testimony. (Eph. 3) The closing theme shows us where and with whom are our true conflicts as Christians. As such we have not properly to fight with flesh at all, any more than to fight with the world. All other combats are outside the calling of a Christian.
I do not deny but that a Christian may slip elsewhere. But as long even as he is merely in conflict with his own nature, he can hardly be said to be on Christian ground at all. He may be a converted person; and God may be truly dealing with him in the way of gracious action. A really awakened soul may still have a great many unsettled questions in agitation within him. He has not come to God consciously. Now the very baptism of a Christian man is the confession of the truth, that God has in Christ judged flesh root and branch. Is not this the meaning of the institution? How far the person has realised it is another matter; but such is the meaning of baptism. Judging what I am, I confess that all my blessing is in the Saviour, who did not merely come to bless me as a living man in the world, but died and is risen again; and I, confessing Him who is thus dead and risen, have part in His death. The conflict of the Christian is not therefore with flesh, still less is it with the world, but with Satan, and with his power, viewed as interposing and hindering our enjoyment of our heavenly blessing.
Is not this the meaning of the combat as described here? The wrestling is not with flesh and blood, "but against principalities, against powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against spiritual wickedness in heavenly places." The English translators did not know what to make of the apostle, and so they changed it to "high places," which was an unwarrantable liberty, and gives the most perverse meaning. This has misled many beside the poor Puritans, who fancied they were called of God, as a Christian duty, to strive against kings and all in authority, when not satisfied with their ways or measures. I mention this, because it is a striking proof that an error imported into Scripture leads even right-minded men into sad evil. It is expressly not against any powers that were living and acting in the world. The conflict is against Satan and his hosts. Just as the Canaanites tried to keep the Israelites out of the land which God assured Moses the tribes were to have for their possession, so Satan's great effort is to hinder the saints of God from realizing their blessedness in heavenly places.
But for this the most careful provision is laid on us. The first thing is to "be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might." That is, all our strength is to lean on another, even the Lord. The next thing is that we take "the whole armour of God, that we may be able to withstand in the evil day, and, having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth [inwardly applied, and thus bracing us morally], and having on the breast-plate of righteousness." The internal state is the great point here. Carefully remember this. Our standing is quite another matter, which itself could not avail here. The panoply is against Satan and not God. It is a question not of acceptance before God, but of resisting the enemy who would take advantage of loose ways and a bad conscience. The breast-plate means the practical righteousness of the saint himself. "And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace." So should our walk be. Besides, take "the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one." It is the confident trust of the heart in the favour of God in which we stand, not the remembrance of our first subjection to the gospel. Finally, "receive the helmet of salvation, [there the head is lifted up, not in presumption, but with none the less joy and courage,] and the sword of the Spirit," which is expressly said to be the word of God. The defensive comes before the offensive; and all should follow dependence on the Lord. The sword must be the real intrinsic power of the word wielded in the Spirit, which does not spare anything. Thus, first blessed, strengthened, and enjoying the grace and truth of God in Christ, we can then go out with the sword of the Spirit to deal with what is contrary to His nature, which Satan would use to obstruct our realization of our heavenly privileges.
Finally, there is the activity now for others, just as before there was dependence for ourselves. "Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints; and for me [as the apostle blessedly adds], that utterance may be given unto me, that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel" — (what a gracious way of encouraging and strengthening saints, giving them a feeling of the value of their prayers, both in the sight of God, and in fellowship with the most blessed apostle that God ever gave the church!) — "for which I am an ambassador in bonds: that therein I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak." He felt his need and that of the work. Also he counted on their loving desire to know his affairs as well as to have their hearts comforted through Tychicus.
There is no epistle in the New Testament which gives so little space to the development of. doctrine as this to the Philippians. Need it be said that it has not the less its own proper office on that account? And what is this but the unfolding of the truth in the heart and in the ways of the Christian? Hence it is that, although doctrine is sparse, if not almost excluded, nevertheless what little appears comes in as ancillary to the main purpose. It is interwoven with practical appeal, and indeed the chief development of doctrine (namely, in the second chapter) forms a ground of exhortation.
Accordingly, from the very starting-point, we are prepared for a difference of tone and character. The apostle drops entirely his official status in addressing the saints at Philippi. He associates Timothy with himself, — not merely, as elsewhere, himself apostle and Timothy in some other relation, but here conjointly "Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ." He thus takes a common place with his beloved son in the gospel. This place throughout is one of promoting, enlarging, deepening, and purifying the experience of the saints themselves in that which filled his own heart with joy in the Lord. We shall see the importance of this elsewhere. It is what enabled him to look at the saints, as he called them to look at one another, esteeming others, as he says, better than themselves. Had it been a question of his apostolic dignity, this could not have been; but an apostle even could, and did, and loved to, take the place of one that served others whom he viewed directly in their relationship to Christ. His own place toward them was but to serve them in love. Such did, such was, Christ. There is nothing so high as that which we all have been made in our blessed Lord.
So here at the beginning he simply takes the place of servant with Timothy, owning all the saints as well as the officials in their place: "To all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons." This last is but a confirmation of the same truth. It is not at all a question of ecclesiastical order, in which naturally the chief guides would have front rank. The apostle is here contributing to that which shall never pass away, and hence begins with the "saints in Christ Jesus" as such. These Philippians will not be less saints in heaven, where there can be no such charges as "bishops or deacons." I do not say that the fruits of the loving service of any one of them will be forgotten there; nor that even glory will not bear the impress of that which has been really of the Holy Ghost here. Nevertheless there is that which is suited only to the conditions of time; there is that which, given here, survives all change. The apostle loved to give God's place and value to everything; and here it is the mingling of Christ with the circumstances of every day. It is the forming of the heart with the affections and the judgments of the Lord. It is the imbuing of the Christian with that which is life everlasting, but the life that he is now living by "the faith of the Son of God, who loved him and gave himself for him." Hence he at once begins, not with a doctrinal preparation after the introduction, but the introduction brings us as usual into the general spirit if not special object of the epistle. "I thank my God for my whole remembrance of you," says he, after his usual salutation and wish, "always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy."
There is no epistle that so abounds in joy. This is the more remarkable because it is so intensely practical. For we can all understand joy in believing; we can readily feel how natural is joy to the Christian who dwells on his eternal portion. The trial is to keep that joy undimmed in the midst of the difficulties and sorrows that every day may bring. This epistle treats of daily sorrows and difficulties, yet does it manifestly overflow with joy, which all the dangers, sufferings, and trials only made the more triumphant and conspicuous.
So he brings before them another remarkable feature of it — their fellowship; and this fellowship too with the gospel. Their happy and bright state in Christ did not dim their fellowship with the gospel. But whatever might be their own proper joy, whatever might be their delight in that which God works in the church, they had full and simple-hearted fellowship with His good news. It had always been so, as the apostle gives us to learn. It was not some sudden fit, if one may so say, nor was it the influence of passing circumstances. It was a calm, fixed, cordial habit of their souls, which indeed had distinguished them from the first. This was now among the last outpourings of the apostle's heart, as he himself had almost arrived at the end of his active labours, if indeed it was not absolutely their end. He was in prison, long shut out from that which had been his joyful service, though in constant toil and suffering for so many years. But his spirit was as bright as ever, his joy perfectly fresh, deep, and flowing. And now he would have them looking to Christ, that no damp should gather round their hearts from anything that might befall him, — that nothing which happened, whether to themselves, to other saints, or even to the apostle, should interfere for a moment with their unclouded and abounding confidence in the Lord. So he tells them that he always thus remembered them for their "fellowship with the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this very thing, that he who hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ."
There is not even the allowance of the possibility of their turning aside from the bright career both of possessing a Saviour they knew, and of enjoying Him increasingly. He had no theory that first love must necessarily wane and cool down, but the very reverse. Himself the striking witness to the contrary, he looked for nothing less in the saints he so dearly loved. Indeed that which had drawn out the epistle was the proof that the trying circumstances of the apostle had but called out their affections. His being out of sight rather made the remembrance of his words and ways the more distinct, and imparted a chastened earnestness to their desires of pleasing the Lord. "Being confident," he therefore says, "of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work will perform it unto the day of Jesus Christ, even as it is meet for me to think this of you all." It is not one who cherished a trust in the Lord's fidelity spite of what was visible. This counting on the Lord the apostle might have even where things were wrong. It was so as to the Corinthians; nay, it was not wholly wanting for the Galatians, though that which they allowed imperilled the foundations of grace and faith. But the practical ways and spirit of the Philippians were the living evidence not only of life, but, so to speak, of vigorous health in Christ. So it was right for him to anticipate good and not evil, not as in the authorized version and other translations, because "I have you in my heart," which would be no ground of assurance for them, but because "ye have me in your heart," which showed their spiritual feelings to be true and sound. This seems to me the real meaning, which the margin gives rightly.
It is a thing more important in practice than many suppose. There is no more common device of Satan than to seek the destruction of the power of testimony by the allowance of evil insinuations against him who renders it. Of course, the enemy would have desired above all and at any cost to lower such an one as the apostle Paul in the loving esteem of God's saints, more particularly where all had been sweet and happy; but, notwithstanding every effort, grace hitherto had prevailed, and these saints at Philippi felt the more for the apostle when he was a prisoner. When God does not interpose, men are apt to allow reflections and reasonings. Not seldom do they begin to question whether it can be possible that such a one is really of value to the church of God. Would God in this case let His servant be so long kept away from the gospel or the church? Surely there must have been something seriously wrong to judge in him!
It was not thus that the true-hearted Philippians felt; and spiritual feeling is worth more than all reasoning. Their affections were right. Reasonings on such matters are in general miserably wrong. Their sympathies, drawn out by the afflictions of the apostle in his work, were the workings of the Holy Spirit in their souls — at least the instincts of a life that was of Christ, and that judged in view of Him, and not according to appearances. They had him in their heart, as he says, "Inasmuch as both in my bonds, and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel, ye all are partakers with me of grace," or "of my grace." "For God is my record, how greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ." For his was a heart deeply sensible of love, and consequently he was not one that had sought either to make the saints dependent upon him, and still less did the apostle depend on the saints for anything that was the fruit of grace in them. He desired not anything for himself, but only what should abound to their account in the day of Jesus Christ. This he must wish for them, if he wished them well. Accordingly he prays for them, that as they had shown this true and unabated love for himself as Christ's servant, so their love might abound yet more and more, and this too in knowledge and in all judgment.
This is the great value of Christian experience. It is not love growing less but more, and this abounding in intelligence and knowledge, which could not be looked for in saints just beginning their career. There is no necessity — and where is the epistle that more thoroughly disproves the thought of any necessity? — that a saint should decline. To abound in love is far from declension. To "abound yet more and more," — to have that love tempered by divinely given wisdom and divinely exercised judgment, — is the very reverse of going back. Their true and constant progress was what the apostle had before his own soul in prayer for them, instead of coolly giving up the saints, as if the new nature must grow feebler day by day — as if the things of the world must overcome faith, and the things which are seen outweigh those which are unseen and eternal. Is this your measure of the love of Christ? Is He really so far from any of those that call upon Him?
Thus, then, he prays for them, and to this end, — not that they might become more intelligent merely — not that they might grow more able to discourse of divine things, though I doubt not that there would be growth in these respects also; but all here has an eminently practical form, — "that ye may approve things that are more excellent; that ye may be pure and without offence till the day of Christ." Such is the thought that the apostle had before his soul of that which became the Christian. He would have one who begins with Christ to go on with Christ, have nothing but Christ before his eyes, and pursue this path without a stumble till the day of Christ. It is a blessed and refreshing picture even in thought. Oh that the Lord might make it true of His own! This is certainly what the apostle here puts before these saints. "Filled," says he, "with the fruit of righteousness, which is by Jesus Christ;" for it is all supposed to be fruit, not isolated fruits here and there, but as a whole, which adds greatly to the strength of it. It should be "the fruit of righteousness, which is by Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God."
Then he turns, not to doctrine after this opening, but to circumstances, — to circumstances, however, illumined with Christ. The most ordinary details are taken out of their own pettiness (though it is really a little mind which counts them petty), and are made simple and genuine, and this through Christ Jesus intermingled with them. Oh, it is a blessed thing, that in the midst of the sorrows of this world, the Holy Spirit knows how thus to blend the name of Christ, as the sweetest balm, with the sorrow, however bitter, and to make the very memory of the grief pleasant because of Christ, who deigns to let Himself into it all. It was this that so cheered the apostle's heart in his loneliness often, in his desertion sometimes, when the sight of a brother would have given fresh courage to his heart. Looking to the Lord, as it is the life-breath of love, so it adds to the value of brotherly kindness in its season. Thus we know how on approaching Rome Paul was lifted up and comforted, as he saw those who came to greet him. But there he was soon to experience the faltering of brethren; there he was to see not one standing by him in the hour of his shame and need. He must be conformed to his Master in all things; and this was one of them. But out of the midst of bitter experience he had learned Christ, as even he had never known Him before. He had proved long the power and the joy of Christ for every day, and for every circumstance of it.
It was such an one, truly the servant of Jesus Christ, and so much the more their servant because His, even their servant for Jesus' sake — it was such an one that wrote from Rome to the tried saints at Philippi. Nor was he in that which he was about to write without deep feeling; but he had learned Christ for all; and this is the key-note of the epistle from the first, though only uttered distinctly at the last. He had learned practically what Christ is, and what He does, and what He can enable even the least to do, (as he says himself, "less than the least of all saints,") and so much the more, because the least in his own eyes.
Thus then he writes, telling them, "I would ye should understand, brethren, that the things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel." He knew well how much they might be tried by the report of his own imprisonment, and no deliverance coming as yet. But he had himself gone through the trial; he had weighed it all; he had brought it into the presence of God. He had put all, as it were, into the hands of Christ, who had Himself given him His own comfort about it. "I would, then, that ye should understand, that the things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel." Once you are right about Christ, you are right about everything while He is before you. There is nothing assuredly right, on the other hand, where Christ is not the object of the soul. With Him you will be right about the gospel, right about the church, right about doctrine, walk, and service. There is not one of these things but may in itself become the veriest snare; and so much the more dangerous because each looks fair. What looks and sounds better than the saints of God? what than the ministry of Christ? what than the testimony for God? Yet there is not one of these things that has not become the ruin of souls; and there are none that ought to know this better than those I am addressing this night. Who have had more mournful proofs of the danger of putting saints practically in the place of Christ? Who have had more palpable witness that service may become the object rather than Christ? Has it not been the rock on which many a gallant bark has made shipwreck?
But now the apostle was shut out from every labour apparently. Surely he, most of all, must have felt the change — the heart that took in the Gentiles, that swept the circle of lands from Jerusalem to Illyricum, that yearned over Spain, ever going out farther and farther, boundless in his desires for the salvation of souls. He was for a considerable time a prisoner. He is at Rome, where he desired to be, no doubt, but which he had never expected to visit as one in bonds. And that he ever was anything but a prisoner there, man at least cannot say. A prisoner he was; and such is all that Scripture tells about him there. We may see the moral harmony of that lot with his testimony, and how suitable it seems that he, who was above all men identified with the gospel of the glory of Christ, should be a prisoner, and nothing but a prisoner in Rome. At any rate, such is the picture that the Holy Spirit gives of him there. And now as he had Christ before his soul, in this way the gospel itself, he can feel, is only promoted so much the more. Far from him was the vanity of being the man first to preach Christ in the great metropolis. He forgot himself in the gospel. His desire above all was that Christ's name might go forth. This was very dear to him, let God use whom he would. The things that happened to him he could therefore judge calmly and clearly. What seemed to some the death of the gospel was in point of fact distinctly for the furtherance of it.
The manner, too, in which these things happened seemed to make all as remote as possible from furthering the gospel; but here again he brings in Christ. This disperses all clouds from the soul. This filled Paul with sunshine; and he would have others to enjoy the same bright light which the name of Christ cast on every object. And mark, it is not the anticipation of light with Christ in heaven, but His light now while He is in heaven shining on the heart, and on the circumstances of the pathway here below. He says that they had happened rather for the furtherance of the gospel, — "so that my bonds in Christ are manifest;" for this is the way in which he looks at it — "my bonds in Christ." Oh, how honourable, how sweet and precious, to have bonds in Christ! Other people would have merely thought of or seen bonds under the Roman emperor, the bonds of that great city that ruled over the kings of the earth. Not so Paul. They were bonds in Christ; how then could he be impatient under them? How could any murmur who believed they were really bonds in Christ? "My bonds in Christ," he says, "are manifest in all the palace." Strange way of God! but so it was that thus the gospel, the glad tidings of His grace, should reach the highest quarters. They were "manifest in all the palace, and in all other places; and many of the brethren in the Lord, waxing confident by my bonds, are much more bold to speak the word without fear."
Blessed is this confidence in Christ, and wondrous are His ways! Who would have expected that the timid man Nicodemus, and the honourable councillor Joseph of Arimathea, would have been brought out at the very time when even the apostles themselves had fled trembling with fear? Yet they were the witnesses of Christ whom God had put forth at the close; for it was manifestly of Him. God never can fail; and the very trials that would seem to crush all hope for the glory of Christ on the earth are the precise occasions in which God proves that after all it is He alone who triumphs, while man always fails even if he be an apostle. But the weakest of saints (how much more this greatest of the apostles!) cannot but be conqueror, more than conqueror, where the heart is filled with Christ. There was victory to his faith by the grace of God. And so, too, he could now read and interpret all things in that bright light around him. Had he occupied himself with the persons that were so preaching the gospel, how disconsolate he must have been! What might you and I have thought of such? Is it too much to say that many a groan would have gone forth from us that are here? Instead of this a song of joy and thanks comes from the blessed man of God at Rome; for, as he says here, "Some indeed preach Christ even of envy and strife; and some also of good will. The one preach Christ of contention, not sincerely," — nor was this all, but — "supposing to add affliction to my bonds."
Not only was an utterly wrong spirit indulged in the work itself, and toward others engaged actually in it; but even as to the apostle, shut out from such service, a desire to pain and wound was not wanting. "The one preach Christ of contention supposing to add affliction to my bonds: but the other of love, knowing that I am set for the defence of the gospel. What then? notwithstanding, every way, whether in pretence, or in truth, Christ is preached." Christ is the sovereign balm for every wound; and it was the apostle's joy, whatever men's spirit might be, not only to enjoy Christ himself, but that His name was being proclaimed far and wide by many lips, that souls might hear and live. Whatever the motives, whatever the manner, the Lord would surely deal with these in His own day; but, at any rate, Christ was now preached, and God would use this both for His own glory and for the salvation of souls.
Hence, says he, "I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice. For I know that this shall turn to my salvation through your prayer, and the supply of the Spirit of Christ Jesus." We must carefully remember throughout all this epistle that "salvation" never means acceptance. If this be borne in mind a large part of the difficulty that some have found completely disappears. Impossible that anything done by other saints should turn to one's acceptance any more than what is done by himself. The apostle uses salvation throughout his letter to the Philippians (nor is it confined to this scripture only) in the sense of the complete and final triumph over all the power of Satan. Hence it may be remarked that in the epistle to the Philippians it is not a question of lusts of the flesh; the flesh is not so much as named here, except in a religious way; not in its gross sins, as man would judge, but in its pretensions to religion. See for instance Philippians 3. Hence the conflict is never with internal evil, but rather with Satan. For such conflict we need the power of the Lord and the whole armour of God. But that power displays itself not in our strength, or wisdom, or any conferred resources. The supply of the Spirit of Christ Jesus shows itself in dependence, and this expresses itself therefore in prayer to God. And observe, too, that the apostle felt the value of others' prayers. They contributed to his victory over the foe. How lovely that even such a man should speak, not merely of his own prayers, but of theirs, turning all to such account. "This shall turn," says he, "to my salvation through your prayers, and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ." There is nothing so unaffectedly humble as real faith, and, above all, that character of faith which lives on Christ, and which consequently lives Christ. Such was the apostle's faith. To him to live was Christ.
"According to my earnest expectation and my hope, that in nothing I shall be ashamed." If he desired for them that they should be without one stumble till the day of Christ, it was the purpose to which grace had girded up his own loins. But "that in nothing I shall be ashamed." What a word, and how calculated to make us ashamed! It is not a question of acceptance in Christ. No; it is practical. It is his state and experience every day, as to which his hope was that in nothing he should be ashamed; "but that with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death."
And what is it that gave such a hope to one that owns himself the chief of sinners and less than the least of all saints? There was but one spring of power — even Christ. And, let me observe, it is not merely that Christ is my life. Sweet and wondrous word to say that Christ is our life; but the question is, how are we living? Are we living out that life which we have? Is this the life that is practically exercised? or are there mingled ways and mixed motives? Is there the struggle of the old with the appearance sometimes of the new? Does this content our hearts? Or is it, on the settled judgment of the old as altogether and only self and sin, that we are habitually manifesting Christ? Have we that one blessed person as the hope, motive, beginning, end, way, and power of all that occupies us from day to day? It was so with the apostle. May it be so with us! "To me," may each say truly, "to live is Christ."
Habitually, indeed throughout this epistle, we find the word "me," and a very different "me" from the "me" of Romans 7. There it was an unhappy "me," though distinct from the flesh: "O wretched man that I am" Here it would be, O happy man that I am! He is one who has his joy exclusively from and in Christ. When first he tasted it, he found it so sweet that he cared for none other. And thus it was the power of the Spirit of God that gave him to look out in the midst of all that he passed through day by day, that all, whatever it might be, should be done to Christ, and so too all by Christ, the Holy Ghost working it, so to speak, in his soul to give him simply and settledly in everything that occurred an opportunity of having Christ Himself as the substance of his living and serving, no matter what might come in the course of duty. "To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain." In any case, indeed, to the Christian, death is gain; but he could best say it who could say, "To me to live is Christ," who could say it not merely as the faith of Him, but as a matter of simple, unconstrained, spontaneous enjoyment of Christ in practical ways.
Now he proceeds to give his reason. It is his own personal experience; and this is the reason why we have "I" so often here. It is not legal experience, for which you must turn to the chapter spoken of in Romans 7, the only bit of a saint's experience under law, as far as I know, that the New Testament affords (certainly in the epistles). But here is the proper experience of a Christian. It is the apostle giving us what his heart was occupied with when he could not go forth in the activities of work, and when it seemed as if he had nothing to do. Now we all know that when a man is carried on the top of the wave, when the winds fill the sails and all goes prosperously, when hearts are gladdened in sorrow, when one witnesses the joy of fresh deliverance from day to day, it is a comparatively easy thing. But to one cut off from such work it was, in appearance at least, a heavy burden and an immense trial; but Christ changes all for us. His yoke is easy, and His burden light. It is Christ, and Christ only, that thus disposes of grief and pressure. And so accordingly His servant says here, "If I live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labour."
It is needless to recount the comments on these words. They really mean, this is worth my while, a well-known phrase in Latin too. He puts it as a matter left for him to judge of and decide by Christ. "If I live in the flesh, it is worth my while." But if not, what then? Why, it was gain. As far as he was concerned, therefore, why could he choose? In a certain sense too he could not, and in another he would not choose. Christ was so truly before his heart, that in fact there was no self left unjudged to warp the choice. This is what brings him, if one may so say, into the dilemma of love. If he left this world, he would be with Christ; if he lived longer in this world, Christ was with him. In short, he was so living Christ, that it was only a question of Christ here, and of Christ there. After all it was better for Christ to choose, not for him. But the moment he has Christ before him thus, he judges according to the affections of Christ, and he looks at the need of saints here below.
The question is at once settled as a matter of faith. Though he wist not to choose what between the two before, when the need of souls rises before him, he says that he shall live, and is not yet going to die. Through the wonderful sight of the love of Christ, this answered the question to his faith, leaving all circumstances entirely aside. Witnesses, prosecutors, judges, emperor, everybody, became, in point of fact, nothing to him. "I can do all things," as he says elsewhere, "through him that strengtheneth me." So he could settle now about his life and death. "Therefore," says he, — though I am in a strait betwixt two," as he had said before, "having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better: nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you. And having this confidence, I know that I shall abide and continue with you all for your furtherance and joy of faith; that your rejoicing may be more abundant in Jesus Christ for me by my coming to you again."
Only he desires that their conversation should be as it became the gospel of Christ. It was not merely their calling in Christ, their being Christians, that was before him, but a walk as it became the gospel of Christ. It is not at all as the objects of the gospel, but as having fellowship with it, their hearts bound up and identified with all the trials and difficulties that the gospel was sustaining in its course throughout the world. "Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ." Thus fervour of desire for others is the happy index of this whenever coupled with adequate knowledge of ourselves. But how can this be unless the heart is perfectly at ease as to itself? "Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ." Let me press this, because alas! there is no small tendency whenever people know the gospel well, if this be all, to settle down, thinking they have nothing more to do with the matter. It was not so with the Philippians. They had so much the more to do because Christ had done all for their souls. They were coupled with the gospel in all its conflict and progress. It was not because of their own personal interest, though this was great and fresh, but they loved that it should go forth. They identified themselves, therefore, with all who were declaring it throughout the world. Hence he desired that their conversation should be as became such zeal; "that whether I come and see you, or else be absent, I may hear of your affairs, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel; and in nothing terrified by your adversaries: which is to them an evident token of perdition, but to you of salvation, and that of God."
This is the more important, because such fear is the main weapon of Satan. It is always the power of Satan that is in view here. He is regarded as the true adversary, working, of course, by human means; but none the less is it his power. It may be remarked here, that from an expression often misunderstood in Philippians 2 it might seem as if the apostle wished somehow to weaken their confidence. So unbelief interprets, but most assuredly it is wrong. The apostle does call for "fear and trembling" on the part of the saints in that chapter; but there is not an atom of dread or doubt in it. He would have them realize the solemnity of the strife that is going on. He desires for them, not anxiety about the issue of it, but true gravity of spirit, because of feeling that it is a question between God and the devil, and that we have to do with that struggle in the most direct way. We need to draw from God, the spring and the only supplier of power that can resist the devil; but, at the same time, that we have the devil to resist in His power is a conviction that may well demand "fear and trembling;" and this, lest in such a conflict we should let in anything of self, which would at once give a handle to the devil. In Him, we, know, who was the perfect model in the same warfare, which He fought single-handed, conquering for God's glory and for us, the prince of this world came, and had nothing in Him, absolutely nothing. With us it is far otherwise; and only as we live on Christ do we remove, as it were, from the enemy's hand that which would furnish him abundant occasion.
In rich measure did the apostle live thus himself — it was the one thing he did; and he would have the saints to be living in it too. "In nothing," says he, "terrified by your adversaries [this is the other side]: which is to them an evident token of perdition, but to you of salvation, and that of God. For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake." Thus the very suffering which unbelief might interpret wrongly, and regard as a severe chastening, and so cause the heart to be cast down, instead of taking comfort before God, the suffering for Christ's sake is a gift of His love, as much a gift as the believing in Christ for the salvation of the soul. For, in point of fact, through this epistle salvation is seen as going on from first to last, and not yet complete, being never viewed as such till the conflict with Satan is altogether closed. Such is the sense of it here. Hence he speaks of the conflict which they once saw to be in him, and now heard to be in him.
Next, not only did he exhort them not to be terrified by the power of Satan, which is itself an evident and solemn sign of perdition to those that oppose the saints of God; but he calls on them to cast out the sources of disunion among themselves; and this he does in the most touching way. They had been manifesting their mindful love for the apostle, who on his part was certainly not forgetful of its least token. If, then, they really loved him, — "If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if there be any comfort of love, any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies," — he would venture to seek another proof of it. That there was all this abundantly in these saints he did not doubt; they had just shown him the fruit of love personally. Did he want more for himself? Far from it. There was another way which would best prove it to his heart; it was not something future secured to Paul in his need, which would be the way of nature, not of love or faith. Not so: Christ is always better; and so says he, "Fulfil ye my joy, that ye be like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through strife or vain-glory." There is always danger of these, and the more so where there is activity among souls. There was evidently energy among these Philippians. This commonly is apt to give occasion for strife as well as vain-glory. No saints are outside the danger.
Nothing, then, would the apostle have done in strife or vain-glory; "but in lowliness of mind each esteeming other better than themselves." Let me look at another as he is in Christ. Let me think of myself as one that is serving Him (oh, how feebly and failingly!) in this relationship, and it is an easy thing to esteem others better than myself. It is not sentiment, but a genuine feeling, thus "looking not each at his own things, but each also at the things of others." Now the saint that has Christ Himself before him looks abroad with desires according to the activity of divine love.
"Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself." There are two chief stages of His humiliation flowing out of His perfect love. First of all He emptied Himself, becoming a slave and a man; and having thus come down, so as to take His place in the likeness of men, He, found in figure as a man, humbled Himself, becoming obedient even to the lowest point of degradation here below. He "became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
It will be observed that there is no such thing in the first instance as "to the glory of God," when we hear of all bowing in the name of Jesus. To the confession of His Lordship is added "to the glory of God the Father." The reason is, in my judgment, perfectly beautiful. "Jesus" is His own name, His personal name. Jesus is Jehovah, although a man; consequently the bowing in that name to the glory of God the Father does not occur to the apostle. Why, then, is it so in the next instance? Because he looks at Jesus, not in His own personal right and glory, where necessarily all must bow, but rather at Him in His official place as Lord — the place He has righteously acquired as man. This is wholly distinct from His own intrinsic eternal glory. He was made Lord and Christ. The moment you look at what He is made, then it is to the glory of Him who thus exalted Him. It was God the Father that made Him Lord and Christ, but God the Father never made Him Jehovah. He was Jehovah, equal with God the Father. Impossible that He could be made Jehovah. Reason and sense are out of the question, though reason must reject a creature's becoming God. Such a notion is unknown to scripture, and revolting to the spiritual mind. Hence we see the great importance of this truth. All error is founded on a misuse of a truth against the truth. The only safeguard of the saints, of those that love the truth and Himself, is simple subjection to the word of God — to the whole truth He has revealed in scripture.
Evidently, therefore, two glories of Jesus are referred to here. There is His own personal glory; and this first. The other is what suits it, but a conferred position. If Jehovah so served, it was but natural that He should be made Lord of all, and so He is. It was due to His humiliation and obedience; and so it is here treated.
Thus, in both parts of the history of Christ, presented to us in no obscure contrast with the first Adam, we have first of all His own glory, who humbled Himself to become a servant. The very fact, or way of putting it, supposes Him to be a divine person. Had He not been God in His own being and title, it would have been no humiliation to be a servant, nor could it be indeed a question of taking such a place. The archangel is at best but a servant; the highest creature, far from having to stoop in order to become a servant, can never rise above that condition. Jesus had to empty Himself to become a servant. He is God equally with the Father. But having deigned to become a servant, He goes down lower still. He must retrieve the glory of God in that very death which confessedly had brought the greatest shame on God outwardly. For God had made the world full of life; He "saw every thing that He had made, and, behold, it was very good," and Satan apparently won the victory over Him in it. All here below was plunged under the sentence of death through Adam's sin; and God's word could but seal it till redemption.
The Lord Jesus not only comes down into the place of servant in love among men, but goes down into the last fortress of the enemy's power. He breaks it completely, becomes conqueror for ever, wins the title for God's grace to deliver righteously every creature, save only those who, far from receiving Christ, dare to reject Him because of that very nature which He took on Him, and that infinite work on the cross which had caused Him suffering to the utmost in working all out for the glory of God. Oh, is it not awful to think, that the best proof of the love of Christ and of His glory is the very ground which the base heart of man turns into a reason for denying both His love and His glory? But so it is; and thus the food of faith becomes the poison of unbelief. But the day is coming when every knee shall bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth." Not that all shall be delivered and centred in Him, but that all must bow. All who believe shall surely shine in His glory; and the universal creation, which, belonging to Him as His inheritance, He will share with His own, shall be reconciled and delivered in due time. But there are the things, or if you will, the persons under the earth which can never be delivered. Yet these shall bow, no less than those in heaven, or on earth. In His name all must bow. Thus the difference between reconciliation and subjection is manifest. The lost must bow; the devils must bow; the lake of fire must own the glory of Him who has power to cast them there, as it is said, "unto the glory of God the Father." But all in heaven and on earth shall be in reconciliation with God and headed up in Christ, with whom the Church shall share the unbounded inheritance. (Compare Eph. 1 and Col. 1) But all, even these in hell, must confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
But now the apostle turns to the use that he makes of so blessed a pattern, "Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence." It was the exact reverse in good of what the Galatians were in evil, for they had been cordial and bright when the apostle was with them; but directly his back was turned, their hearts were alienated. Even he who knew them well marvelled that they were so soon shifting, not only from him, but from the gospel, after he left them. But with the Philippians there was increased jealousy for Christ. They were more obedient in his absence than in his presence. Hence he calls upon them, as one that could not be with them to help them in the conflict, to work out their own salvation. Such is the force of the exhortation. This epistle is therefore eminently instructive to those who could not have an apostle with them. God was pleased, even whilst the apostle was alive, to set him aside and to prove the power of faith where he was not.
Hence he says, "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling." It is not the dread of losing the Saviour of their souls, but because they felt for His name; "for it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure." Therefore he intreated them to "do all things without murmurings and reasonings, that they might be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, — in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom they shone as lights in the world; holding forth the word of life." It is a description that might almost do for Christ himself, so high is the standard for those that belong to Christ. Christ was surely blameless in the highest sense, as His ways were harmless, — "holy, harmless, undefiled," as it is said elsewhere. Christ was Son of God in a sole and supreme sense. Christ was "without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation." Christ shone as the true light in the world — the light of life. Christ held it forth; nay, more, He was it. For what believer would deny that, however close the conformity, there is always that dignity and perfection which is proper to Christ, and exclusively His? Let us uphold the glory of His person, but, nevertheless, let us not forget how the apostle's picture of the saint resembles the Master! Like another apostle (2 John 8) he does not hesitate to blend with all this an appeal to their hearts for his own service in their well-being.
"That" (says he, after he had exhorted the Philippians thus to stand,) "I may rejoice in the day of Christ, that I have not run in vain, neither laboured in vain. Yea, and if I be offered upon the sacrifice and service of your faith." How truly he accounted himself less than the least of them! How gladly would he be a libation upon the sacrifice of their faith! He esteemed men better than himself. He too in love still keeps up the servant-character, and gives them as it were the Christ-character. This is the unfailing secret of it all — the true source of humility in service. "For the same cause also do ye joy and rejoice with me. But I trust in the Lord Jesus to send Timotheus shortly unto you, that I also may be of good comfort, when I know your state."
And now there is the most lovely picture of Christ again; for it is always Christ here, and this again practically. Timothy was very dear to him, and was then with him; but he is going to part with the one that was so much the more valued by him in his solitariness and sorrow because of his circumstances at Rome. Indeed he esteemed others better than himself. He is just about to send Timothy from himself that he might know about them. "For I have no man like-minded, who will naturally care for your state." Timothy shared the unselfishness of the apostle's heart. "For they all seek their own." It might have been thought that so much the more would Paul need his love and services. Whatever he needed, love is never itself but in unselfish action and suffering. I speak of Christian love, of course. "For all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ's. But ye know the proof of him, that, as a son with the father, he hath served with me in the gospel. Him therefore I hope to send presently, so soon as I shall see how it will go with me. But I trust in the Lord that I also myself shall come shortly. Yet I supposed it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother, and companion in labour, and fellow-soldier, but your messenger, and he that ministered to my wants."
He loves, we see, to couple with the relationship to himself what was related to them. Epaphroditus was his fellow-servant, and indeed more than that — "my brother, and companion in labour, and fellow-soldier, but your messenger, and he that ministered to my wants. For he longed after you all, and was full of heaviness." Why? because he himself had been sick? No; but "because that ye had heard that he had been sick." How lovely that this it was that pained him — unselfish love! the love of Christ everywhere! "For indeed he was sick nigh unto death: but God had mercy on him." Was this all the apostle had to say? Not so. "And not on him only, but on me also," (what a difference is made when love interprets!) "lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. I sent him therefore the more carefully, that, when ye see him again, ye may rejoice, and that I may be [not rejoicing here, but] the less sorrowful." He did feel it. Love feels acutely — nothing so much; but it triumphs. "Receive him therefore in the Lord with all gladness; and hold such in reputation" (he would turn it again to practical profit as to others): "because for the work of Christ he was nigh unto death, not regarding his life, to supply your lack of service toward me."
This chapter then looks for the working of the gracious feelings of Christ Himself in the Christian individually, showing us, first, the fulness of them all in Christ in contrast with the first Adam. But it gives us also the effect of Christ in the saints eventually — of Paul himself, of Timothy, of Epaphroditus, and indeed of the Philippian saints. It shows us grace practically in different measures and forms. But the grace of Christ wrought in them all; and that was the great joy and delight of the apostle's heart.
In Philippians 3 it is not the display of intrinsic affection in Christ, or the gracious dispositions of Christ in the saints. Not the passive side of the Christian as being in the world, but the active comes before us. Accordingly, this being not so directly the subject of the epistle though a very important part of it, it comes in parenthetically in a large measure, not now in any wise as a question of truth or development of the mystery of Christ, as we saw in Ephesians 3, but, nevertheless, as a parenthesis; for he resumes afterwards the internal side again, as we shall see in Philippians 4. Energy is not the best or highest aspect of Christianity. There is real power, there is strength from God that works in the saint; but the feelings of Christ, the mind of Christ morally, is better than all energy. Nevertheless, energy there is, and this assuredly judges what is contrary to Christ.
Here, accordingly, it is not the outgoings of love, but the zeal that burns indignantly as to what dishonours the Lord. This is one of the main features of our chapter. "Finally," says he, "my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you, to me indeed is not grievous, but for you it is safe. Beware of dogs." In Matthew 23 we have woe upon woe pronounced upon scribes and Pharisees, and so it is here. As it was a true though distressing part for Christ to judge religious evil, something akin could not be absent here; but at the same time it was by no means a prominent characteristic of Christ's task here below — far from it. It was a necessary duty sometimes as things are on the earth, but nothing more; and so it is still. "Beware of evil workers; beware of the concision."
Here, accordingly, it is not the outgoings of love, but the zeal that burns indignantly as to what dishonours the Lord. This is one of the main features of our chapter. "Finally," says he, "my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you, to me indeed is not grievous, but for you it is safe. Beware of dogs." In Matthew 23 we have woe upon woe pronounced upon scribes and Pharisees, and so it is here. As it was a true though distressing part for Christ to judge religious evil, something akin could not be absent here; but at the same time it was by no means a prominent characteristic of Christ's task here below — far from it. It was a necessary duty sometimes as things are on the earth, but nothing more; and so it is still. "Beware of evil workers; beware of the concision."
"For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh." This is the only allusion, as far as I know, to flesh in this epistle, but it is flesh in its religious form, and not as a source of evil lusts and passions. It is all judged, and its religious form not least, by Christ. "Though," says he, "I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other" — carrying on the same thought of the flesh — "if any other man thinketh that he hath matter of trust in the flesh, I more. Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless." And what did the apostle do with all this roll of fleshly advantages? It was seen laid in the grave of Christ. "What things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ." Will it be said that this is what the apostle felt, and did, and suffered in the freshness of his first acquaintance with Christ? It was also what he carried up to the moment of writing to the Philippians as ardently as ever. "Yea," said he, "and I count all things but loss." It is not only his reckoning in the first fervour of love for the Saviour. "Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord."
Such experience is both a real and a precious boon. Let us not mistake in this; let us not be driven from it by a too common misuse. That which men call by this name is really the trial of what flesh is under law much more than experience of Christ. But let us not be turned aside, and think that it is merely a question of believing and of knowing our place secure; but let us live of that very Christ who is our life. This is what he did, and accordingly this is the source, not merely of a firm faith and confidence as to the issue, but of present joy and all-overcoming power. This is what gives force to our affections, and rivets them on Christ. This is, accordingly, what flows forth in praise from himself, and in calling out praise from other hearts. So he says here, "For the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung." Thus the two things are repeated — the past judgment and the present power: "and do count them but dung, that I may, win Christ." This will be, no doubt, at the end of the journey: the faithful win Christ where He is. For it is not meant looking to Him now, or having Him as one's life: to win Christ means having Him at the other side. He always looks there in Philippians.
It is not at all a question of what one has here. This has its most weighty place elsewhere; but when it is a question of experience, the end cannot be here. There is the present joy of Christ; but this does not content the soul. The more one enjoys Christ here, the more one wants to be with Him there. "That I may win Christ," therefore he says; "and be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law." This was precisely what he desired when a Jew. Now, having seen Christ, if he could even bring his own righteousness into heaven, he would not. It would be mere independence of Christ if he could have stood without a single flaw, as blameless, in fact, as in a certain sense outwardly he was under the law, until the Spirit of God gave him to see what he was in God's mind. Then he found himself a dead man — condemned and powerless. But supposing it possible to be clothed with the righteousness of the law, he would not have it now. He had got a better righteousness, and he desired nothing so much as to be found in Christ, having that which is through faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith. Nothing but the righteousness that was of God as its source satisfied him. It is the only place in Scripture where the phrase means, not simply the righteousness of God in point of character, but the righteousness of God in point of source. Such is the meaning here. Elsewhere it is God's or divine righteousness. Here the object seems to be to make its difference from legal obedience more felt — the contrast with the law more complete.
"That I may know him." Now here we have what is present; so that the passage presents some difficulty to souls because of intermingling the present with the future. Thus easily do we fall into error, because the human mind likes to have either one thing or another, and thus avoid all difficulty in Scripture, having each squared according to our notions. But it is not so that God has written His word. Nevertheless, God will surely teach His own, and knows how to clear up what is hidden from them. He has written His word not to perplex, but to enlighten. Thus the true bearing of the passage is, that from the first the eye of faith is fixed steadily on the end of the journey. "That I may win Christ, and be found in him" — where not a vestige of self remains, but all will be Christ, and nothing but Christ. This is the righteousness whose source is in God; it is also by faith of Christ, and not through the law, which, of course, would have man's righteousness if it could.
But now he adds, "That I may know him" (speaking of entrance by faith into communion with Christ)" that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection." This is open to the heart now. "And the fellowship of his sufferings" — again and certainly a present thing, not relating to heaven. "Being made conformable to his death:" — this too is clearly in the world now. "If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection from the dead."* Clearly we here look out of the world and into a state to come, when we have the consummation of our hopes and the end of the journey. This is what he calls "salvation." It cannot be till the Christ is risen according to the pattern of Christ Himself.
*There is no reasonable doubt that the received text is wrong, followed by the Authorised Version ("of," instead of "from" the dead). The Alexandrian, Vatican, Sinai, Clermont, and St. Germain Uncials, supported by some ten cursives, very many versions, and the chief Greek and Latin ecclesiastical writers read τὴν ἐξανάσταιν τὴν ἐκ νεκρῶν. Codd. F and G, by manifest error, read τῶν ἐκ, and this seems to have been corrected (or rather corrupted) in order to make sense into τῶν (omitting ἐκ) in K and L and the mass of cursives. But in my opinion the sense, and even the Greek, seems bad; for on the one hand both ἐξανάστασιν and the drift of the argument point to a resurrection of favour and blessedness, not to that in which the unjust must rise to judgment; while on the other hand τῶν νεκρῶν would imply the dead, i.e. all the dead, as a class. Hence I cannot but consider it a surprising error in Griesbach that he edited the received text in this place. Alter and Matthaei followed according to their plan the manuscripts before them; but the latter was too good a scholar not to feel the difference, though he appears to impute it to a corrector for the sake of elegance in his second edition. Long before them, Mill had given his judgment in favour of the more ancient reading; and Wetstein repeated it apparently with approval. Bengel hesitated; but Dr. Wells in this, as in many other instances, showed his sound judgment and quiet courage in rejecting the common text, and adopting that which has by far the best authorities.
Dr. S. T. Bloomfield indeed (Addit. Annotations in loc.) admits that the external testimony is quite in its favour, though it is hard to see what he means by the internal evidence being in this case denied; for he suggests himself that τὴν ἐκ may have been a correction proceeding from those who thought that the sense which the context requires, "the resurrection from the dead," could not be extracted from ἐξαν. τῶν νεκρῶν. The critical reading he owns has force and propriety; but he does "not see why ἐξανάστ. τῶν νεκρῶν should not of itself have the same sense as that conveyed, with more propriety of expression (and for that reason likely to be adopted in the early Uncial MSS.), ἐξαν. τὴν ἐκ νεκρῶν. Little probable is it that the reading, ἐξανάστ. τὴν ἐκ τῶν νεκρῶν should have been altered to ἐξ τῶν νεκρ. There is great reason to think that the ἐξ arose from those who thought it necessary to the sense, and did not see that it could be fetched from the ἐξ in ἐξανάστ. Hence I am inclined to retain ἐξαν. τῶν νεκρ. as a popular and familiar mode of expression (suitable to the persons addressed), according to which the expressions ἐξαν. τῶν advert — as at Rom. 4:16, and elsewhere — to the state of the persons in question, that state or kind of resurrection unto life of those who have died in the Lord, and whose resurrection will be a resurrection unto life and glory, their bodies being raised incorruptible, and both body and soul united for ever with the Lord. See 1 Thess. 4:6-18."
I have transcribed this note at length, because it is a fair sample of Dr. B.'s critical, scholastic, and exegetic manner. Enough has been already said above, before I even knew of his reasoning, to prove how unfounded it is in every point of view. The internal evidence (i.e. the scope of the context) is as decidedly for τὴν ἐκ as the weightiest external witnesses. How the text got gradually changed from the most correct form (not correction) in the early Uncials has been explained. When the distinction of the resurrection of the just from that of the unjust got lost in Christendom, and all were merged in the error of one general indiscriminate resurrection, one can understand that people would not feel the impropriety of substituting τῶν for τὴν ἐκ (for as to τὴν ἐκ τῶν, of which Dr. B. speaks, it exists in no document whatever). There is therefore not the slightest ground to countenance the rather dangerous idea, that the apostle did not employ a phrase analogous to the correct one which is found elsewhere in the New Testament, and adopted "a popular and familiar mode of expression," i.e. a really inaccurate mode. And why should our Lord adopt a correct form to the Sadducees (Luke 20 repeated in Acts 4), and Paul an incorrect one to the Philippians? Who can understand why it should be "suitable to the persons addressed," on Dr. B's showing? Of the two, the converse would be more intelligible; but my conviction is that both the Lord and His apostle used similar and correct phraseology, as did the Holy Spirit elsewhere. And as to Rom. 4:17 (which was probably meant rather than 16), it has no bearing on the matter, as it is there merely a question of God's power displayed in quickening the dead, and calling things that are not in being as in being, and in no way distinguishing the resurrection of life from that of judgment. When the state or kind of resurrection is meant to be expressed, the anarthrous form is requisite, as we see in verse 24 of this very chapter, and regularly so. (See Rom. 1:4.) I believe, therefore, that ἐξανάστασιν, especially if ἐκ be supposed to be fetched (as Dr. B. says) from ἐξανάστ, is incompatible with τῶν νεκρῶν, the one conveying the notion of a selected company, and the other of the dead universally. Modern editors of value, however differing in their system of recension agree in the ancient as against the received reading; so Scholz, Lachmann, Tischendorf, Ellicott, Alford, Tregelles, Wordsworth, etc.
Thus we see here the power of a risen and a heavenly Christ, not now treated doctrinally as in 1 Corinthians 15 or 2 Corinthians 5 and elsewhere, but as that which bears on the Christian for the constant experience of every day. Hence that which judged and put aside religion after the flesh, righteousness after the law, all that was now left completely and for ever behind, and the saint is set on the road that nothing can satisfy him but being in the same glorious condition with Christ Himself. Hence he says, "Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect; but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind." This, carefully remember, does not mean forgetting sins. Far from losing sight of our past ways, it is a very wholesome thing indeed to remember them: we are never safe in forgetting what we are and have been. What he means by forgetting the things that are behind is, that we should not think of any progress we may have made in following Christ, — that we should lose sight of everything calculated to give us self-satisfaction. This were to spoil all, because it would please the flesh.
It is our progress then that we are to forget. Let us be humbled on account of our sins. Self-judgment, where grace is known, is a most wholesome exercise of soul; and we shall have it in perfection even in heaven itself before the judgment-seat of Christ. One of the elements of heavenly happiness will be the calm and settled knowledge of all that we have been here below. This will not detract for an instant from the perfect enjoyment of Christ, but rather promote it so much the more, making it more evidently and always pure grace even in glory. Thus "forgetting those things which are behind" refers to the progress that we may make. True experience is still the great theme which the apostle has in hand here as well as in his own personal history. He was too much bent on what was before to be occupied with calling to mind what was behind him; it must have impeded him in the race. "Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and if in any thing ye be otherwise [i.e. differently] minded, this also will God reveal to you." Differences there may be among the saints, and especially when we come to the question of experience. But in truth it may betray itself in doctrine and practice in various shapes.
And what is the true divine rule? Is it agreeing to differ? This is but a poor human resource, as unworthy of the saints as of the truth of God, who would not have us to wink at any mistake. It is no rule, but an evasion. There is, however, a sure and only divine standard: as far as we have attained, our call is to walk in the same path. And this is true from the first moment of our career as God's children. For, let me ask, what is our title to communion? What is it that brings us into the blessed fellowship that we enjoy? There is but one title, there can be no sufficient ground but the name of Christ — Christ known and confessed in the Holy Ghost; and where He is simply before us, the progress is most real, if not always easy and sensible. It is not meant that there are no difficulties, but that Christ makes the burden light and all happy to the praise of God's grace; whereas any other means or measure detracts from His glory and draws attention to self.
Supposing, for instance, we mingle with Christ knowledge or intelligence about this truth or that practice, does it not give a necessary prominence to certain distinctive points, which so far must make Christ of less account? Even, therefore, if you could have (what is impossible) ever so much real spiritual knowledge along with Christ, who would so much as notice these acquisitions in comparison with Christ? Let us merely take up a single point of the primary ground of fitness for fellowship, which is often a difficulty with the saints. Yet the truth as to this abides, not only at the starting-point, but all the way through. What is there that you can rightly plead but Christ's own name? And this ground is one which always brings in the strength of the Holy Ghost, as it is based on God's mighty work of redemption. If right here, we are at one, so to speak, with His present purposes. What is the Spirit now doing? He is exalting Christ. It is not merely exalting His work, or His cross; it is not so much His blood, as Christ Himself. The name of Christ Himself is the true centre of the saints; unto this the Spirit gathers. As he had said elsewhere before, so he says here, "Be followers together of me, and mark them which walk — so as ye have us for an ensample. For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ." Thus, as at the beginning of the chapter, there was the energy that went out against the evil workers, with a religious mind after the flesh, so now there is the energy that bursts forth against those that were misusing Christianity, making it an earthly system, setting their mind on things here below, under the name of the Lord Jesus; and between the two, is set forth the positiveness, if one may so speak, of Christ Himself.
It is plain, then, that in Philippians 2 the great spring of power is the love and the glory of Him who came down; who, even when He did so come, went down still lower, where none could accompany Him. Yet we may follow, and seek conformity unto His death; but there was that in His death on the cross which could be His alone.
In Philippians 3 there is no coming down from glory in the power of divine love, resulting in His exaltation by and for the glory of God the Father after a new sort. Here we see One who is in glory, and on whom the eye of the believer is set; and accordingly the judgment of evil is from the side of heaven. The one thing that suits is to pursue the glory before him, till he is in the same glory along with Christ. This is the object set before us in Philippians 3. The one therefore, I say, is the passive side of the Christian; the other is his activity. The passive shines in Christ coming down; the active is realized by the eye that is fixed on Christ, who is actually in glory. This separates from all, and judges the best of man to be dung, as the former conforms the heart after His love.
Philippians 4 is founded on both. The apostle takes up, no doubt, the sweet affections of chapter 2, but then they are strengthened by the energy that Christ seen in glory imparts, as in chapter 3. Hence he thus opens, "Therefore, my brethren dearly beloved and longed for, my joy and crown." One cannot overlook the amazing strength with which he speaks even of his affections. "My joy and crown," "my dearly beloved." Not that there were not difficulties; there were many. "I beseech Evodia" (we may just notice the true form in passing; Euodias sounds like a man's name, whereas here it is really a woman). "I beseech Evodia, and beseech Syntyche, that they be of the same mind in the Lord. Yea [not and], I entreat thee also, true yokefellow, help those women which labour with me." According to the true meaning it is not others, but those very sisters that he commends to Epaphroditus in desire for their blessing, "which labour with me in the gospel [or seeing that they shared the conflict of the gospel with me]." "Laboured" gives a wrong sense. Many hence have wrongly gathered that they were preachers. There is really no reason to suppose that they preached at all. What they did seems a much more proper thing, in my judgment, for a woman. They shared the conflict of the gospel; they partook of the reproach that covered those who preached it. This is lost in the idea of labouring in it. We must think rather of the conflict of the gospel: there was often for all concerned disgrace, and pain, and scorn.
Let nobody suppose me to insinuate that a woman is not in place when exercising, according to the Scripture, any gift God has given her. Women may have gifts as well as men. We are not to suppose that, because we are men, we monopolise all the gifts of Christ. Let us see to it that we walk according to the place which God has given us. At the same time, God's word is to me plain as to the manner in which the gifts are to be exercised. And is there not evidently a path of unobtrusiveness (for the veil or sign of power on the woman's head is no vain figure) which most befits a woman? I believe that a woman shines most where she does not appear. Hers is a more delicate place than that which becomes the man, and one which a man attempting it would awkwardly fill. But while a man is quite unfit to do a woman's work, can it be doubted that a woman brings no honour to herself, or to the Lord, by attempting to do a man's task? The Lord has laid down their places respectively with distinctness. It is ignorance and absurdity to answer such scriptures by the text, that in Christ there is neither male nor female. We do not speak of standing in Christ now, but of their allotted services. In this we hear of difference; and scripture does not obliterate but contrariwise asserts it, and treats the practical denial of it as a scandal brought in by Corinthian headiness. No doubt the new creation is essentially neither male nor female; it is not a race perpetuated in a fleshly way; but all things are of God and in Christ. Notwithstanding, it has been already explained that the man has a relative place as the image and glory of God, being set in a remarkable position between God and the woman in matters of outward decorum.
Returning, however, to the women Evodia and Syntyche, they had devoted themselves to an exceedingly happy and prized service. They joined with those who preached the truth and partook of their obloquy. They helped them, and in that sense "laboured" if you will. At any rate they endured the conflicts of the gospel in its earlier days at Philippi. Why should women expose themselves? Why go in the way of crowds of soldiers or civil officers? Why should such as they face the unmannerly officials that took advantage of the imperial government to treat with injury those identified with the gospel? Love does not calculate these costs and dangers, but goes calmly forward, come what will, trouble, scorn, or death. No wonder the apostle was grieved to think of differences among such women as these. "Help them" (says he) "with Clement also, and with my other fellow-labourers, whose names are in the book of life."
Finally, he calls them again to rejoice, and now with more emphasis than ever. "Rejoice in the Lord alway." In sorrow? Yes. In affliction, in prison, everywhere. "Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice." He did not make a mistake. He did not forget, but meant what he said. "Again I say, Rejoice." Let your moderation go along with it, because along with this joy there might be a certain enthusiastic spirit that would hinder calm judgment. But this is not the character of Christian joy. "Let your moderation be known unto all men;" that is, the meekness and gentleness which bends to the blow, instead of resisting it in the spirit that ever asserts its rights and fights for them. Have rather that spirit which counts nothing as a right to be claimed, but all one has as gifts of grace to be freely used in this world, because one has Christ in view. "Let your moderation be known unto all men," strengthened by this consolatory truth, — "the Lord is at hand."
And this nearness of Christ I take simply to be the blessed hope here made a practical power. It is not the Lord at hand to succour one now and here from time to time. No one denies this, which is, or ought to be, no new thing for a Christian. He means the Lord, really, personally, at hand; as he had said in the end of the last chapter, that this was what we look for. "Our conversation is in heaven; from whence we wait for the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour" — for this is the true meaning of it. And this puts the doctrine, as far as there is doctrine in the epistle, in a very clear light. There is no looking at Him as Saviour on the cross merely; but when He comes for us, there will be in the final sense (as ever in our epistle) "salvation." Thus he anticipates the removal of the last trace of the first Adam; he looks for our being brought fully, even as to the body, into the likeness of the Second Man, the last Adam. This is salvation in truth. Hence he says, "We look for the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour: who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself." It does not matter how unlike they may be, or how opposed; it does not matter what vessels of shame and misery they may have been now; "He is able to subdue all things unto himself."
Then, as to our practical every-day expectation, "the Lord is at hand." And, accordingly, why should one be a prey to care, if this be really so? "Be anxious [or be careful] for nothing; but in everything" — this is the resource — "in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God." Better not make them known to men; it is a dangerous snare. By all means let them be made known unto God. There is something which ought to be made known unto men, namely, the not fighting for your rights. "Let your moderation be made known unto men." "Let your requests be made known unto God." It is not that you have failed, perhaps, or broken down in some particular. Certainly this is painful and humbling. But it is better for you to lose your character, than for Christ through you to lose His; for you are responsible to display the character of Christ. "Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand." "Let your requests," whatever they may be, "be made known unto God;" and not only so, but "with thanksgiving." You may be perfectly sure of an answer when you make known your requests: therefore let it be with thanksgiving. And what is the result? "And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus," — feeling, judgment, everything, guarded and governed by this precious peace of God. The peace which God has in everything He will communicate to keep you in everything; and not only so, but the heart, being free from care, will enter into what pleases Him. And therefore, "whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things." Instead of occupying oneself with all one hears that would cast down, now that we have committed all that is miserable to God, we can go on delighting in the goodness of God, as well as in its fruits. In God there is ample supply. All we want is, that the eye of faith be a little open; but it is only Christ before the eye that keeps it open.
Then he turns to what had drawn out the epistle. "I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at the last your care of me hath flourished again; wherein ye were also careful, but ye lacked opportunity." So tender, so delicate is his sense, that he would not spare what was needful if there had been any want of thought, but at the same time he hastens to make whatever apology love could suggest. "Not," says he, "that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am," — this is the great design of the epistle; it was not truth that was made known simply, but experience that was grown into — "I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through him who strengtheneth me." At the same time he intimates his value for their love, and takes care that his was independence founded on dependence, — an independence of circumstances which finds its strength in simple and absolute dependence upon God.
So the apostle lets them know that he owned their hearty love; "not," he says, "because I desire a gift." For no personal end did he mention their grace; "but I desire fruit that may abound to your account." It was not that he wanted more. We know well that as men have sarcastically said, gratitude is a kind of fishing for fresh favours. There was the very reverse in Paul's case. As he tells them, fruit that might abound to their account was all that his heart really yearned after. Their gift to him was "an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well-pleasing to God." What a God is ours, so to treat that which, connected with the world, Christ Himself calls "unrighteous mammon!" His goodness can even take this up and thus make it fragrant even to Himself. "But my God shall supply all your need." How rich and full he was of the goodness of the God he had proved so long and could recommend so well! And there is not now merely His riches of grace, but he looks forward into the glory where he was going, and can say, "My God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus."
Thus with salutations of love he closes this most characteristic and cheering even of Paul's epistles.
The most cursory reader discerns at once that the epistle to the Colossians is the counterpart of that to the Ephesians. They are in nowise the same, but may be viewed each as a supplement to the other. The epistle to the Ephesians develops the body in its rich and varied privileges; the epistle to the Colossians brings before us the Head, and not only this, but the glories of Him who holds that relation to the church. There was no doubt a suitability for each line of truth in the wants of the saints respectively addressed; nor do I think it can be intelligently questioned that the condition of the Ephesian saints was better than that of those at Colosse.
To the former the Holy Ghost could launch out into the fulness of our blessing in Christ. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is our God and Father; and He has blessed with every possible blessing, and in the highest sphere and on the best ground. There was no hindrance to the flow of the Spirit in unfolding the truth. To the Colossians the Holy Ghost has to speak about their state, and along with this to present the truth of Christ as a remedy for it; not so much as the centre of blessedness and joy in the communion of the saints, but as supplying the true and only divine corrective to the efforts of Satan, who would drag them down into tradition on the one hand, and into philosophy on the other, the too common snares of human nature, and the latter more particularly for cultivated and reasoning minds. It is evident, therefore, that to enter on the privileges of the church, the body of Christ, would have in nowise met the evil which the enemy was seeking to inflict on the Colossians. They needed to be drawn away from every theme and object but Christ Himself. They needed to learn especially the vanity of all that man's mind delights in. They needed to know, I will not say, that Christ suffices only; but that there is such fulness of blessing and glory in Christ as utterly to eclipse and condemn all that flesh would glory in. Hence, too, a main part of the difference between these two epistles. There are many nice shades in detail; but I have referred now to that which is the principal point whence the two lines of truth diverge. It is, however, evident from what has been remarked, that the two letters do in the most remarkable manner correspond to each other; the one presenting the Head, the other the body. Thus they have a closer connection than any others in the New Testament.
We may proceed to trace now the course of the Spirit of God in this deeply instructive epistle. The apostle addresses the Colossian Christians in terms substantially similar to those which are addressed to the saints at Ephesus. Here he gives prominence, it is true, to their being "brethren." Of course the Ephesian saints were so; but here it is expressed. It was not so unmingled an address as where he views them simply as they were in Christ. The expression "brethren," though of course flowing from Christ, brings forward their relationship by grace to each other.
Next we enter on the apostle's thanksgiving. It was not so in the Ephesian epistle, where one of the richest developments of divine truth precedes any particular allusion to the saints in that city. Here he at once addresses himself, after the thanksgiving, to their condition and of course to their need. First, as usual, he owns what they had of God. "We give thanks to God and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus, and of the love which ye have to all the saints, for the hope which is laid up for you in heaven." It is not, as in the Ephesian epistle, the riches of the glory of God's inheritance in the saints, but closely resembles a comparatively lower line of things which comes before us in the first epistle of Peter. It need hardly be said that they were equally true, and each in its place most appropriate, but not all equally elevated. The hope laid up for us in heaven supposes a position on the earth. The epistle to the Ephesians views the saint as already blessed by God in heavenly places in Christ. In the one they are waiting to be taken to heaven in an actual sense; in the other they belong already to heaven by virtue of their union with Christ.
Yet it remains true, that "the hope is laid up for you," as he says, "in heaven, whereof ye heard before in the word of the truth of the gospel; which is come unto you, as it is in all the world: and bringeth forth fruit and groweth, as also in you, since the day ye heard of it, and knew the grace of God in truth." All momentous and blessed, but nevertheless by no means the same fulness of privilege of which he could discourse at once in writing to the Ephesians. "As ye also learned of Epaphras our dear fellow-servant, who is for you a faithful minister of Christ; who also declared unto us your love in the Spirit." This is the only allusion to the Spirit, as far as I remember, in the epistle. It does not present the Spirit of God as a person down here, though He is a person of course, but rather as characterizing the love. The love was not natural affection; it was love in the Spirit: but this is very far from the rich place given to His personal presence and action elsewhere.
On the other hand, the epistle to the Ephesians abounds with such allusions. There is not a chapter in it where the Holy Ghost has not a most important and essential place. If you look at the saints individually, He is the seal and the earnest. He is also the power of all their growth in understanding the things of God. Only through Him are the eyes of the heart enlightened to know what God has wrought and secured for the saints. So again by Him alone do all, Jews and Gentiles, draw near to the Father. In the Spirit are both built together for God's habitation. He it is who has now revealed the mystery that was kept hid through ages and generations. He it is who strengthens the inner man to enjoy through Christ all the fulness of God. He only is the constitutive power of the unity that we are exhorted to keep. He it is who works in the various gifts of Christ, welding them together, so that it may be truly Christ through His body. He it is, the Holy Spirit of God, who we are warned not to grieve. He it is who fills the saints, guarding them from the excitement of the flesh, and guiding into that holy joy which issues in thanksgiving and praise. For the Christian and the church must sing their own psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. He it is finally who gives vigour for all the holy conflicts we have to wage with the adversary. Thus it matters not what part of Ephesians is looked at. We have now traversed the varied contents of the epistle, and it is evident that the Holy Ghost forms an integral part of the divine truth unfolded in it from beginning to end.
This makes it so much the more striking, the epistle to the Colossians being the complement of an epistle so full of the Spirit, that there should be in the former so marked an absence of Him, that He is only referred to once, and only as characterizing the love of the saints. It may be added that what is said of the same truth is in Colossians attributed to Christ, or that life which we have in Christ. To the Ephesians, the Holy Ghost is treated as a divine person acting for the glory of Christ, but this in the saints and in the church. Also the reason seems obvious. When men's eyes are turned away from Christ, the doctrine of the Spirit might add to the danger and delusion, as it has wrought in all ages to puff up men not established in Christ. For inasmuch as the Spirit does act in the church — in man, if the eye be not on Christ and only on Him, the action of the Spirit, whether in the individual or the church, gives importance to both. In such a state dwelling on it would detract from Christ's glory; whereas when Christ alone is the object of believers, they can bear to know and to dwell upon, and to enter into, and understand, the various operations of the Spirit, which turns so much the more to the glory of Christ.
Another reason is this, that the presence of the Spirit of God, both in the individual and in the church, is a most essential part of christian privileges, while, for the reasons already alleged, it was not for the well-being of their souls that it should be unfolded here. The whole point therefore of this epistle is a recall to Christ Himself, because of what had crept in through Satan's wiles. The needed and only remedy was to turn the eyes of the saints from other objects, even their own privileges, and to fix them on Christ. Hence, though the Holy Ghost is really on earth, dwelling in the saint and in the church, yet under such circumstances, to occupy the mind even with the blessed Spirit, would clearly have interfered with His own great aim in glorifying Jesus. Therefore, as it seems, does He call away undividedly to Christ. When the soul has been in peace weaned from all else, and found all its joy and boast in Christ, it can then hear more freely. Not that there may not be danger even then; save that as long as the eye is on Christ there is none, because what is inconsistent with His name is refused. The Spirit, having secured His glory, is more at liberty as to every other topic.
In the next place, we have the apostle's prayer: "For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to desire that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and growing by the knowledge of God." It is plain that however blessed this is, still it supposes wants, and a measure of weakness, and this for the ordinary walk of the Christian; that they might "walk worthy of the Lord," says he. He could not say in this epistle "worthy of your vocation," as in writing to the Ephesians. He does not even say worthy of Christ, but "of the Lord." That is, he brings in His authority, for there can be no mistake for the Christian more profound than to suppose that the presentation of the Lord as such is the more elevated for the saint. It is most true in its place; but it addresses rather the sense of responsibility than the communion of affections of the children of God. If a man does not own Him to be Lord, he is nothing whatever; but one may bow to Him as Lord, and yet be painfully insensible to the higher glory of His person, and to the depths of His grace. Alas! multitudes have so failed, nor is anything more common at this present moment, even as it was always so.
The Spirit of God, as in the Acts of the Apostles, began with the simplest confession of Christ's name. This is habitually His way. That which brought in thousands on the day of Pentecost and afterwards was the preaching and the faith that Jesus was made Lord. But not a few of those that were baptized from early as in later days turned out untrue to the glory of Christ. We can readily understand that the Spirit did not bring out the fulness of the glory of Christ then, but as it was needed. Nor is it denied that some souls enjoyed a remarkable maturity of intelligence, so that from the beginning they saw, believed, and preached Jesus in a deeper glory than His Lordship. There is no one that rises before our mind's eye more readily and strikingly in this respect than the apostle Paul himself. But the apostle was singular in this; for even those who did know that Christ was the Son of the living God, in the highest and eternal sense, seemed but little to have preached it, at any rate in their earlier testimony. As the withering evils of Satan came in, the value of that which their hearts clung to formed an increasing part of their testimony, until at last the full, undiminished, and even brightening truth of His divine glory was brought out in all its fulness. True, and known to some from the first, the Spirit would brook no hiding of it in order to meet the daring of men and the subtilty of the enemy, who were taking advantage of the lower glory of Christ, so as to deny all that was higher — His deity and eternal Sonship.
It appears to me then that, in writing to the Colossians, the terms employed by the Spirit of God afford clear evidence that their souls at Colosse rested on by no means the same firm and lofty ground as that which the epistle to the Ephesians contemplates; and the apostle consequently could not appeal in their case to the same mighty motives which at once rose, by the Holy Ghost's inspiration, in the apostle's heart in writing the kindred epistle. "That ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing," urges he, "being fruitful in every good work." For Christianity is not a mere thing of doing this or not doing that; it is a growth, because it is of the Spirit in life and power. If, as men have fabled, spiritual beings sprang forth ready armed, as well as in fulness of wisdom and vigour, it would not be Christianity. Babes, young men, and fathers: such is in grace as in nature the divine way with us. God has been pleased to call the church a body; and so in truth it is. As also, looked at individually, the Christian is a son of God, so there should be a growth up to Christ in all things. There is scarce anything more offensive than a child who looks, talks, and acts the old man. Every right-minded person revolts from it as a lusus naturae, and a piece of affectation or acting. So, in spiritual things, the mere taking up and repeating thoughts, deep and high but unproved experience, cannot be the fruit of the Spirit of God's teaching. Nothing more lovely (whether spiritually, or even in its place naturally) than that each should be just what God has made him, only thenceforth diligently seeking increase of inward power by the operation of God's grace. There is then a healthful progress in the Lord. While there is no doubt that which requires to be cut down or pruned on every side, there is a gradual development of divine life in the saints of God; and this, as being through the Spirit's use of the truth, by no means can be all at once. In no case indeed is it really so.
Thus it is then that for these saints the desire is that they should steadily advance. In material science it is not so, in schools of doctrine it is not so: there is something altogether circumscribed, in known limits, and definite enough to satisfy the mind of man. All that is to be got in certain provinces may be acquired after no long study. The Spirit of God applies the truth of Jesus Christ, which resists all such thoughts as human. The Colossians from their dabbling with tradition and philosophy were in danger on this side. So, says he, "being fruitful in every good work, and growing (not exactly in, but) by the knowledge of God." But still there is growth supposed. How could it be otherwise if by the knowledge of God? He is the only divine source, sphere, and means of real growth for the soul. But there is far more than growth in knowledge, or even by the knowledge of God. There is not only the contemplative side but the active, and this makes the saint truly passive; for if we are strengthened, it is mainly not to do, but to endure in a world which knows not Christ. Thus we are "strengthened with all might, according to the power of his glory, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness."
How good as well as vast the mind of the Spirit of God! Who could ever have combined with God's glory such a place for man too? No man, I will not say anticipated, but approached in thought such a portion for souls on earth. See how and for what the apostle gives thanks again. Although there were difficulties and hindrances, how much, he feels, there is for which to praise our God and Father: "Giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet" (and observe well, it is not merely for the certainty that He will, but in the peaceful assurance that He has made us meet) "to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light." Human words fail to add to such a thought. His grace has qualified us now for His glory: such, as far as this goes, is the clear meaning of the Holy Ghost. He looks not at some advanced souls at Colosse, but at all the saints there. There were evils to be corrected, dangers to be warned against; but if he thinks of that which the Father has in view for them, and of them in view of His glory, less he could not say, neither could he say more. The Father has made them meet already for the inheritance of the saints in light; and this, too, fully taking into account the awful state of the heathen world, and their past personal wickedness when drawn to God in the name of the Lord Jesus, "who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of the Son of his love: in whom we have redemption [through his blood, is added to the Ephesians] even the forgiveness of sins."
At this point we come to one of the main and distinctive objects of the epistle. Who and what is the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption? Little did the Colossians conceive that their endeavour to add to the truth of the gospel was in reality to detract from His glory. Their desire, we may be sure, was as well meant as any mistake can be. Like others, they may have reasoned that if Christianity had done such great things in the hands of fishermen, tax-gatherers, or the like (who could be of no great account in the world's scale, or in the schools of men), what might it not accomplish if it were but arrayed in the wisdom of philosophy; if it possessed the ornaments of literature and science; if it went forth on its career of victory with that which attracts the feelings and commands the intellect among humanity? The Holy Spirit brings in that which completely judges and sets aside all such speculations. No one, no thing, can add to Christ's power, lustre, or value in any one respect. If you knew Him better, you would feel it yourself. Infinitely vainer is the thought for any man to impart fresh worth to Christ, than for David to have met Goliath in Saul's armour. Indeed, the trappings which men so cry up are a positive hindrance to Christ; and in the precise measure in which they are prized, they reduce their votaries to slavery, and the faith they profess to zero. Judge these same things, and they may become of some account to the glory of God. But treat them as means desirable to attract the world, or as objects to be valued for their own sake by Christians, and as they are intruders, so they will prove to be aliens, and enemies of the glory of Christ.
Christ is the image of God, in fulness and perfection; He only showed out the invisible God. Tradition never manifested the true God. Philosophy, on the contrary, made matters worse, as indeed did the resources of human religion. Christ, and Christ alone, has truly represented God to man, as He alone was perfect man before God. And as He is the image of the invisible God, so is He the first-born of all creation; for the Holy Spirit here brings together a kind of antithesis as to Christ in relation to God, and in relation to the creature. Of God He is the image, not exactly in an exclusive, but assuredly in the only adequate sense. Others may be — as the Christian is — we know, and man even in a certain and real way as a creature. But, as truly and fully making God known, there is none but Christ. He is the truth; He is the expression of what God is. This is the fountain of all true knowledge, and so Christ is the truth as to everything and every one. In this phrase, however, all that the apostle asserts is in relation to the invisible God. Utterly impossible that man should see Him who is invisible: he needed one to bring God down to him, and display His word and ways, and Christ is that one image of the invisible God.
Besides, Christ is the first-born of all creation. Not, of course, that He was the earliest on the earth like Adam. In point of time the world had grown comparatively old before Jesus appeared. How then could He that came and was seen in the midst of men four thousand years after Adam was made, — how could He be in any sense first-born of all creation? We have not to imagine a reason, for the Spirit of God has given His own, and this will be found to set aside all others. Every thought of man is vain in the presence of His wisdom. Jesus is the first-born, no matter when He appeared. Had it been possible, consistently with other plans of God (which it was not), for Him to be the last (in point of fact) born here below, He had been the first-born all the same. Impossible that He could be aught but the first-born. And why? Because He was the greatest, the best, the holiest? For none of these reasons, though He was all this, and more. Still less was it because of anything conferred on Him, whether of power or office. On no such ground, nor on all together, was He the firstborn. The word of God assigns one greater than all, which is the true and only key to the person and work of Christ: "For by him were all things created."
Oh, what majesty, as well as adaptation to need, in the truth of God! It has only to be heard by a heart touched by grace to carry conviction. But alas! there is in fallen man, as such, a will that hates the truth, and despises the grace of God. Does it not prove both by being jealous of the glory of Christ? It remains, however, that He is the first-born of all creation, because he is the Creator of all things, above or below, material or spiritual: "For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible." It is not a question of the lower ranks of creation only, but takes in the highest — "whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him." Do you say, Yes, but why not God create by the highest as an instrument? There is more said even here to maintain the full glory of Christ. All things were created by Him, no doubt; but they were created for Him also — not by Him for the Father. They were created by Him, and for Him, equally with the Father. And as if this were not enough, we are farther told that He is before all things, and by (ἐν) Him all things consist. He is the upholder of all creation, so that the very universe of God subsists in virtue of Him. Without Him all sinks at once into dissolution.
Nor is this all. He is the Head of the body — one of the chief topics of this epistle. Such is His relationship to the church. And how is He the Head of the body? Not because He is the first-born of all creation simply, nay, nor because He is the creator of all. Neither His headship of all creation as the Heir of all things, nor His creatorial rights, would in themselves give a sufficient title to be the Head of the body. In it is another kind of blessedness and glory; for it a new order of existence appears; and not least of all beings we ought to understand this difference. Who can be so deeply concerned as the Christian? for if we have any part or lot in Christ, if we belong to the church of God, we ought clearly to know the character of our own blessing. Christ it is who determines this, as all else. But the distinctive character is that He is "the beginning, the firstborn from the dead" — not merely the firstborn of, but the first-born out of. He is the first-born from among the dead, as well as the Head and firstborn Heir of all subsisting creation. Thus it is that He rises into a new condition, leaving behind that which had fallen under vanity or death through its sinning chief, the first Adam. He has annulled the power of him that had the power of death — that word so terrible for the heart of man, and most surely foreign to the mind and heart of our God and Father, but a stern necessity that came in through rebellion.
Where sin brought man, grace brought Christ. And the glory of His person enabled Him in grace and obedience to go down into depths never before fathomed; and out of the whole scene, not of a rejecting guilty world only, but of the realm of death (and such a death!) Jesus emerged. And now He is risen from the dead, the beginning of a new order of existence altogether; and as He is the Head, so the church is His body — founded, indeed, on Christ, but on Him dead and risen. As such — not born merely, but risen again from the dead — He is the beginning. All question, therefore, of what existed before His death and resurrection is at once excluded. He who believes this would understand that it was still an unrevealed secret during Old Testament times. The dealings of God were not only not on the principle of a body on earth, united to a glorified Head, once dead and risen, but incompatible with such a state of things. Thus whoever by faith receives simply the intimation of this verse, as of a crowd of other scriptures, has all this very needless controversy closed for him; he knows and is sure by divine teaching that Jesus was not merely the highest of that creation which had been already, but the beginning of a new thing and its Head. This He was pleased to begin in resurrection from the dead. It was in no wise the old thing, elevated by the glory of Him who had deigned to descend into it, but a new state of things, of which the risen Christ is both the Head and beginning; as it is said, "Who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the pre-eminence."
As this gives us the new estate, and position, and relation in which stands the glorious person of the Lord Jesus, so next we have a view of His work suitably to the object of the epistle: "For all the fulness was pleased in him to dwell." I take the liberty of rendering the verse correctly, as is well known to most of my brethren now present. There are few here, it is to be supposed, who are not already aware that to put in "the Father" (as is done in the Authorized Version in italics) is to take away from the Son without warrant and dangerously. It was not the Father, but the Godhead. It pleased the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. So the fulness of the Godhead was pleased to dwell in Him. Yet even this did not reconcile man to God, but the very reverse rather; it proved that man was irreconcilable as far as he was concerned.
If a divine person was pleased to appear here below, and to bring in unimagined goodness and power, dealing with every need and every one with whom He came in contact, and who sought or even accepted His gracious action, it might have been supposed that man could not resist such unhesitating love and unmeasured power. But the actual result demonstrated beyond doubt that never before was witnessed such hearty, universal, and causeless hatred as against Jesus the Son of God. There was, there could be, no lack of the attractiveness of love and power in Him who went about doing good; yet miserable hearts did not turn to Him, save where the grace of God the Father drew them to the only adequate expression of Himself. None could pretend that He had ever refused a single soul; none could say that they had gone empty away. Their motives were far from good sometimes. They might come for what they could get; but at length they would not have Him or anything He had to give on any terms. They had done with Him, and, as far as will was concerned, they had done with Him for ever. The cross terminated the awful struggle and heartbreaking sight of man thus manifestly led captive of the devil at his will.
And what was to be done? Ah! this was the serious question, and this it was which God was waiting to solve. He meant to reconcile man spite of himself; He would prove His own love to be the conqueror of his hatred. Let man be unmendable, let his enmity be beyond all thought, God, in the calmness of His own wisdom, and in the strength of His unwearied grace, accomplishes His purpose of redeeming love at the very moment when man consummates his wickedness. It was at the cross of Christ. And so it was that, when all seemed to fail, all was won. The fulness of the Godhead dwelt in Jesus; but man would have none of it, and proved it above all in the cross. Yet the cross was the precise and only place where the foundation that cannot be moved was laid. As he says, "having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether it be things on earth or things in heaven."
First the apostle brings in all things as a whole, the universal creaturehood, earthly and heavenly; thus giving us an adequate notion of the perfect triumph of God at the time when it seemed as if Satan had completely succeeded through man against the counsels of God. But is this all? Is it merely that all the universe has thus, in the cross of the Lord Jesus, a foundation laid for their reconciliation? There is a present witness of the victory of Jesus. The universe goes on as before, the lower creation at least subject to vanity; but God (and it is like Him) hastens to use His victory, though not yet as far as outward things are concerned. This remains for the day of Christ's glory, and will fill a most important part in the purposes of God. But God has even now a far greater purpose at heart. What could be more vast than the reconciliation of all things in heaven and earth? The veriest victims of Satan, the open enemies of Christ, the fiercest — powerless let them be, but the fiercest in their will of opposition against God — are precisely those that God has already reconciled to Himself; and this where Satan had but just appeared to conquer in leading them to crucify Christ. In that field of blood where His ancient people joined the idolatrous Gentiles, and indeed incited them to plant the cross for their own Messiah — there it is that God's grace has established a righteous deliverance for such as He has reconciled.
Satan is allowed apparently to go on as if he had won the final victory; but God brings the truth of what He has done into the heart where Satan had most of all deceived before. "You that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind," says he (for the full truth is brought before them as to their condition), "enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled in the body of his flesh through death." While He lived, this work was wholly unaccomplished. The incarnation, blessed and precious as it is, never reconciled man to God. It presented to us the person of Him who was to reconcile; in itself it was thus a most important step towards the reconciliation; but, in fact, there was no reconciliation yet for a solitary soul: the cross of Christ wrought it all. "In the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight." What a change!
But he adds: "If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled;" and we must not weaken this. It is not at all, "since ye continue." Scripture must not be sacrificed rudely to our seeming comfort. Besides, when men, thus slur over its true force, and would extract consolation where God intends warning, it is a proof not of firm but of weak faith. For assuredly God is not trusted where there is so much as a desire thus to alter or turn aside a single word, for one's own convenience or any pretext whatsoever. Yet there is nothing more common; it is precisely what men, and sometimes Christians to no small extent, are doing now very generally; and what have they gained by it?
A father's stroke that chastises the erring is a mercy. To receive it as the faithful blow of our best friend in His own word may not seem the readiest way toward comfort; but the comfort that we get in the end from Him who thus smites is both real and stable, and rich in profit to the soul. But the apostle meant not so much to administer consolation to these Colossian saints as to caution them. They needed rather reproof, and they are warned that the course on which they were entering was slippery and perilous. The pursuit of tradition or of philosophy, as a graft on Christianity, continually tends to bring in that which poisons the springs of truth, and grace is always annulled by either. Therefore he might well press, "If ye continue."
All the blessedness that Christ has procured is for those that believe; but this of course supposes that they hold Him fast. Hence it runs: "If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven." The language does not in the smallest degree insinuate that there is any uncertainty for a believer. We must never allow one truth to be either shut out or enfeebled by another; but then we need also to remember that there are, and have always been, those that, having begun seemingly well, have ended by becoming the enemies of Christ and the church. Even antichrists are not from without in their origin. "They went out from us, because they were not of us." There are no enemies so deadly as those who, having received enough truth to over-balance them and to abuse to their own self-exaltation, turn again, and would rend the church of God, wherein they learnt all that gives them power to be specially mischievous. The apostle could not but dread the slide on which the Colossians found themselves; and the more so as they themselves had no fears, but on the contrary thought highly of that which had attracted their minds. If there was danger, certainly it was love to admonish them; and in this spirit he therefore says, "If ye continue in the faith, grounded and settled."
As for the apostle he lays before them another point. He was a minister both of the gospel, and, as is said a little later, of the church — two very different spheres, seldom united in the same individual. He was minister of both, and of the latter, it would seem, in a peculiar and weighty sense: not merely as ministering to the church, but as the instrument that God has employed to make known to us its character and calling more than any other. Indeed we may say that Paul presents the gospel as the display of divine righteousness beyond all, while he alone develops in his epistles the mystery of Christ and the church. This may seem a strong statement, and I wonder at none feeling surprised, till they have rigidly examined it with the scriptures; for probably no one could believe it unless he had proved its truth.
But I must repeat that there is not a single apostle who so much as speaks of being justified by faith, except the apostle of the Gentiles. James notoriously presents what many think hard — in my judgment quite reconcilable, equally inspired of God, and most important for man, but not the same thing, nor for the same end. It is somewhat startling at first sight to realize such a fact, but if it be a fact — as I unqualifiedly assert — is it not of great moment to understand it? Neither James nor Peter, neither John nor Jude, treat of justification before God by faith in Jesus. Who has done so? Paul only. I am very far from insinuating that Peter, James, John, Jude, and all the rest, did not preach justification by faith. But it was given to Paul, and to Paul alone, to communicate this great truth in his epistles; and he alone has used the well-known phrase. None of the others has touched on it — not one. They have undoubtedly taught that which is consistent with it and even supposes it. They have pressed other truth, which is incompatible with anything else but justification by faith; he asserts it often and openly.
Thus the most perfect harmony reigns between all the apostles; but Paul was emphatically minister of the gospel, and minister of the church. Not only did he preach the one and teach the other (which the others no doubt did too), but he has committed to inspired writings the gospel as none other did; and he has, alone of all, brought out the church in the fullest way. He might well, therefore, say (and what a serious occasion for the Colossians that it was needful to say it as an admonition!) he was minister of both. Yet there were men not wanting then that denied him to be an apostle. The most honoured servants of God invariably stir up the keenest opposition from man. But woe to such iniquitous and ungrateful adversaries! and none the less because they name the name of the Lord. Some of old were not Jews nor Gentiles, but baptized men and women. It was they that yielded to these feelings of hostility. They might detract little or nothing as to his personal qualities; they might even affect to condescend and patronize. But that for which they were opposed to him was the very thing for which, most of all, they should have owned their debt under God. Satan knew well what he sought in alienating many a Christian from this blessed man of God, and in carping at his ministry, and the testimony he was given to bear.
The apostle, however, speaks of his service in these two respects: the gospel, which is universal in its aspect to every creature under heaven; and the church, which is a special and chosen body. As for the gospel, it is not a question whether every creature hears, but such is the sphere; and doubtless if the apostle could have preached to every individual in the world, he would have gladly done it. At any rate this was his mission. There was no class under ban, nor was any individual refused the beams of its heavenly light. In its own nature like the rays from the sky, it was the sun not for one part of the world alone, but for every quarter. So to the church he says, "I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body's sake, which is the church: whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation [or stewardship] of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God."
Space was left: a revelation was yet lacking. God had given the law; He had embodied His past ways in an inspired history of His people; He had given prophets to proclaim what was future. But for all that a gap was left on which, when filled up, types might more or less bear, wholly different from the history, and not more answering to the prophecy. How was it then to be filled up? Our Lord Himself marked the break in His reading of Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth. See the same thing in the famous seventy weeks of Daniel. You come to that space from time to time in the prophets. Paul was the one that God raised up to fill the gap. Not that others did not supplement this or that. As we know, the church is built on the foundation, not of Paul, but of His holy apostles and prophets. Mark and Luke, although they were not apostles, were surely prophets. The foundation of the apostles and prophets took in the New Testament writers in general. The apostle brings in his own special part. It was neither a gospel contributed, nor a sublime series of prophetic visions. His function was to fill up the word of God, — "even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints: to whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory."
Hence we learn, it may be seasonable to remark, that the shape given to the mystery here is not that Christ is exalted in heaven, and that the church, by the Holy Ghost sent down thence, is united to Him the Head there. This is the doctrine of the epistle to the Ephesians. Here we see the other side — Christ in or among you Gentiles, "the hope of glory." In the epistle to the Colossians, glory is always that which we are waiting for. There is no such thing here as our sitting in heavenly places. It is heavenly glory that is waited for, but only in hope. Christ was now in these Gentiles who believed the hope of a heavenly glory in prospect for them. It is another aspect of the mystery, but as true in its place as what we find in Ephesians; not so high, but in itself precious, and not less differing from the expectation raised by the Old Testament. What we read of there is that, when Christ had come, He forthwith sets up His kingdom, in which the Jews are promised to be His specially favoured subjects. They are not indeed to reign with Him: this was by no man and at no time promised to them. But they are to be the people in whose midst the glory of Jehovah will take up its abode. Here the apostle speaks of another system altogether: Christ come, but the glory not yet apparent, but only coming. Meanwhile, instead of the Jews enjoying glory along with Christ in their midst, rejected by the Jews, Christ is in the Gentiles; and they who receive His name are waiting for heavenly glory with Christ. It is a quite different state of things from what could be gathered from the Old Testament. Not a prophet, not even the smallest shred of any prophecy, reveals such a truth. It was an absolutely new truth, in contrast with the ancient and millennial order, yet altogether different from what is found in the Ephesians; nevertheless they both constitute substantive parts of the mystery.
Thus the mystery includes, first, Christ as Head above, we though here being united by the Holy Ghost to Him glorified. Secondly, Christ, meanwhile, is in or among the Gentiles here below. Were He among the Jews, it would be the introduction of the promised earthly glory. But it is not so. The Jews are enemies, and unbelieving; the Gentiles are specially the object of God's present ways. Having Christ among them, heavenly glory is their hope, even to share with Him that glory. This, then, shows Christ, in a certain sense, in the Gentiles here below; as, in the Ephesians, Christ is seen above and we in Him. There Jew or Gentile is all alike, and those who believe the gospel are by the Spirit united to Him as His body. Here the Gentiles in particular have Him in them, the pledge of their participating in His heavenly glory by and by. And as this was so blessed and novel a truth, the apostle states his own earnestness about it — "whom we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ."
There is no slovenliness here; no careless assumption that, because you are members of Christ's body, all else must be right, and may be left; for he who knew best the faithful love of Christ is none the less urgent individually with "every man." Hence his unflagging expenditure of labour. Hence the spending of heart and thought that "every man" might be thus built up in the truth, and especially the heavenly truth of Christ, which was entrusted to his stewardship and ministry, "warning, every man and teaching every man, that we may present every man full grown in Christ." This is the meaning of "perfect." There is no reference to a question of evil within, but of arriving at maturity in Christ, instead of babes, resting merely in forgiveness. "Whereunto I also labour, striving according to his working, which worketh in me mightily." Thus the striving of the apostle was by no means only in the way of evangelizing. There was much more than this. It influenced him deeply and habitually in all the anxieties of love.
"For I would that ye knew what great conflict I have for you, and them at Laodicea, and for as many as have not seen my face in the flesh; that their hearts might be comforted, being knit together in love, and unto all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the acknowledgment of the mystery of God, and of the Father, and of Christ; in whom [or rather which] are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." The mystery is now revealed, even the relation of Christ and the church; the actual testimony of God's counsels in Christ to those who compose His body. And as a rule, it is always what God is actually doing that is the urgently needed truth. Special wants may spring up and claim attention at particular moments; but since Christ was set on high, this is the truth for the saints, and for a very simple and sufficient reason — it is what God the Father designed for the day of salvation. It is of this Christ is the objective centre and Head. In this we have what the Spirit occupies Himself with as sent down from heaven. Satan being invariably the personal and persistent antagonist of Christ, whatever is God's purpose in Christ becomes peculiarly the object of Satan's hatred and hostility.
Hence, as the apostle Paul was one on whom God set particular honour in developing the mystery, and communicating it in inspired words also, so he was more than any other called to suffer the consequences in this present evil world. His labours were not merely indefatigable, but accompanied by the sorest trial and anguish of spirit, as well as continual detraction with public hatred and persecution. Everything which could break the heart of a holy man from day to day he passed through. Yet, carrying out his ministry with continual tears, he looked before men as one whom none of these things moved. Nevertheless, he lets the Colossians know what he went through for their sakes and other saints who were before his heart, even though unknown in the flesh. "And this I say, lest any man should beguile you with enticing words. For though I be absent in the flesh, yet am I with you in the spirit, joying and beholding your order, and the steadfastness of your faith in Christ." There was much that was blessed at Colosse; and the apostle loves to give full credit for it. "As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him: rooted and built up in him, and stablished in the faith, as ye have been taught, abounding therein with thanksgiving." In fact, this was their fault: they were not content with Christ and Him only. Not appreciating His glory and fulness, they did not see that the secret of true wisdom and blessing, is in going on to know more of Christ than is already possessed. Such is the only sure root of all blessing, and in this above all is real faith and spirituality shown. Is the heart satisfied with Him? Do we feel and know that we can add nothing to Him? Is it all we want to draw from Him?
Then he brings in, accordingly, his first solemn caution. "Beware," says he, "lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ." Here we have the mingling, I apprehend, of natural man's philosophy, and religions man's tradition. These things at first sight appear far apart, but they are not so in result. They may seem to be far as the poles asunder; but in point of fact, there is nothing that more shows an energetic spirit of evil at work in the world than the way in which he marshals and combines these two armies, that outwardly look enemies to each other. Have you not proved it? Somehow or another, freethinkers and superstitious men coalesce in reality. There is no feature of the present day more remarkable than the success with which Satan is massing as it were, his forces, bringing together at the very same point, where they are wanted, these two parties; that is to say, the heavier arms of human tradition, and the lighter ones of man's philosophy. This is the reason why at each grave juncture you will find that ritualists will as a rule support rationalists, and rationalists will try to extenuate the proceedings of ritualists. They may wear the semblance of being altogether hostile to each other: they are both of them only hostile to the truth. They both are thoroughly and essentially ignorant of Christ; but the Christ that they ignore, for religion or reason, is that blessed Person not so much as He who here lived and laboured, as especially dead and risen. They use freely His name; they in word and bodily exercise do Him no small reverence; but without faith all is vain.
Beloved, the Christ that we know gives no glory to the first man; neither does He put honour on ordinances or human priesthood. How He would have been exalted, if He had consented to shed the halo of His own glory on the race as such! But our Lord is the Christ who condemned the first man. Fallen humanity by Him was detected and judged root and branch. This cannot be forgiven by all who cleave to the first man, on the side either of ordinances or of philosophy. How can man brook that lie, and the world that he has built up since he lost Eden, should be made nothing of? it is impossible to look for it from human nature. He who probed it all cannot be endured. We must and do judge all things as they are. This is truth about them; and He who is the truth told it out. The cross of Christ is the death-knell of the world in all its pretensions before God. His grave is man's grave. Brethren, the Christ that God has made known to us is the Christ that man scorned, cast out and crucified. But He is the Christ that God raised from the dead and seated in heavenly glory. And this is the truth that is so offensive to flesh in every form. Never will it be received, either by the world's religion, or by its philosophy.
How vain and perilous — at least for themselves — was the effort of the Colossians! They were endeavouring to strike an alliance between Christ and the world. They had really themselves slipped away in heart: no such hope had found favour otherwise. It was not wonderful that he said in Colossians 1, "If ye continue in the faith rooted and grounded, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel." They had been moving away, not perhaps so rapidly as the Galatians; in faith they had been infirm. And now the apostle would recall them: "Walk in him, rooted and built up in him." Let them beware of philosophy and tradition; "for in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily." It is not to be found in tradition, still less in philosophy.
Philosophy is an idol of man or nature, a blind substitute for the knowledge of God. It is false and ruinous, whether it leaves Him out or brings Him in — whether it denies the true God, or makes everything a sham god. Atheism and Pantheism are the ultimate results of philosophy, and both in reality set God aside. As to tradition, it invariably puts man as far off from God as it can, and calls this religion. The truth in Christ is not merely that God came down to man in love, but that man, the believer in Christ, is now dead and risen in Him. Is Christ in the glorious presence of God? The Christian is one with Him. Accordingly, he brings in now for this object the twofold truth: "for in him," says he, "dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. And ye are complete in him." How blessed! If He is the fulness, you are made full in Him, "which is the head of all principality and power." Away, then, with every pretence to add to Him; away with all possible expedients to give lustre to Christ! "He is the head of all principality and power: in whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the flesh [for so it runs] by the circumcision of Christ: buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen."
Constructively, to my mind, this points to the great sign of His death. It is in baptism rather than in Him. Hence it seems to me not in whom, but rightly "wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God." Thus baptism is not limited to signifying death. Yet it is never the sign either of life or of bloodshedding, but of a state of privilege beyond. When the apostle was told to wash away his sins, calling on the name of the Lord, blood does not seem to have been meant, but water. For this is the sign not so much of what would expiate as cleanse. But the cleansing as well as expiation is by the death of Christ out of whose side flowed both.
Here the doctrine carries one a little farther than either Romans 6 or 1 Peter 3. There is death and burial of all we were; but there is here at least resurrection with Christ — death and resurrection. In Romans the emphatic point is simply death, because the argument of the apostle in chapter 6 does not admit of going beyond the truth that the baptized believer is alive from the dead — not exactly risen, but alive unto God. In Colossians the argument requires that our resurrection with Christ, as well as death and burial, should be distinctly stated. And so it is. "Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who has raised him from the dead."
He applies the truth to the case in hand after this: "And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven us all trespasses; blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us." He does not say "against you," because, in truth, the Colossian saints had never been under the law and its ordinances; they had been Gentiles. But whereas he said, "that you, being dead," were now thus raised, so he says, "blotting it out against us;" for all that we, poor Jews, could boast — the ordinances — were against us instead of being for us, and they are gone now.
"Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross; and having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it. Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holy day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ." Thus is seen first of all, in virtue of the dead and risen Christ in whom they believed, that they were quickened and all their trespasses forgiven, — two things here strikingly united together. The very life that I have in Christ is a witness that my sins are forgiven. It is not merely the life of a Christ that lived in this world, but the life of Him that was lifted up on the cross, and bore my sins there. But now the work is done, and the atonement is accepted before that new life is given me in Him risen.
One cannot therefore be quickened together with Christ without having one's trespasses, yea, all (for if not all, none) forgiven. The guilt which a broken law charged on the conscience is gone by an act infinitely more glorifying to God than the personal righteousnesses of all the men that ever lived, not to speak of the conscious pardon which is also secured to those who possess it. Had you to do with the law? The mighty work of Christ has entirely delivered from it. The sentence is blotted out; the power of Satan is spoiled openly; Christ risen triumphs over all. There is no new means of grace; there is no development, still less supplement to Christ. The one and same Christ it is who has settled everything.
As to the Jewish rites and feasts that some were endeavouring to re-impose, take for an instance the Sabbath, which is the stronger, because it was from the beginning of the first man, yet unfallen, and of course long before the Jewish people. "Let no man judge you" is the exhortation. They were shadows. Have you not got the substance? Why be found running from the substance after the shadow? "Let no man beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels, intruding into those things which he hath not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind, and not holding the head." Thus the fact of prying into that which God has not revealed, and man has not seen, — such as speculations about angels, — is the patent proof that the heart is not really satisfied with its portion. This is not holding the Head. He who keeps fast Christ thus, in conscious union with Him, could never be craving after angels. In Christ the saint is above them, and leaves them to God without anxiety or envy. We know well that God is making a good use of them, and that, in point of fact, if we meddle, it can only be to loss and confusion. "And not holding the head, from which all the body by joints and bands having nourishment ministered, and knit together, increaseth with the increase of God."
Next, the doctrine is applied still more definitely. "Wherefore," says he, "if ye be dead with Christ" — which is one grand part of his subject — "if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living [or alive] in the world, are ye subject to ordinances?" Of course it is not at all being dead to what a man had as a natural life in the world. Such is not the Christian life, which is really the life of Him that died and rose again. He died — this is the point here — and therefore I am dead too. But if I am dead, what have I to do with those things that only affect men as long as they live? Certainly they have no relation to me now risen with Him. A man alive in the world is under these ordinances, and owns them. Such was the position of Israel. They were a people living in the world, and the whole system of Judaism supposed and dealt with a people in the world.
In moral truth, as well as literal fact, the veil, shadowing their state, was not yet lifted up from the unseen world. But the first characteristic result of Christ's work on the cross was the veil that shut up the holiest rent from top to bottom. Thus it begins, not with the incarnation (for sin was not yet judged, nor man brought to God), but with the cross, with redemption. There was no Christianity — i.e., no deliverance of man and setting him in the Second Man — before Christ became first-born from among the dead. Clearly, therefore, the whole character of the new system depends, first, on the Deity of the incarnate Saviour, and, secondly, on the glorious truths of His atoning death and of His resurrection. Thus we should hold Him fast, not only in other respects, but in this special relation of "Head."
So he says, "If ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances?" Then he gives a specimen of these: "Touch not; taste not; handle not." But this is not the character of Christianity, but of Judaism. It pertains to a life in this world to say, "Touch not; taste not; handle not." It is all well for a Jew, because he has got his abstinences and his restrictions. But this is not at all the divine way of dealing with the Christian. We are not Jews; we have our place in Christ dead and risen, or are nothing. Such prohibitory commands had their day; but the time of reformation is come. It is a question now of truth and holiness in the Spirit — of Christ, in short. These restrictions dealt with meats and drinks, and such like things, which perish in the using. The Christian never stood on any such fleshly ground. He is dead with Christ; consequently he has passed out of the sphere to which such dealings apply. "Which things have indeed a show of wisdom in will-worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh." Proud, fallen nature is satisfied even by these efforts to put down the body; whereas God would have the body to have a certain honour in its own place, and that of the Christian is the temple of the Holy Ghost. Thus in every way the ritualistic system is false, and a traitor to Him who died on the cross.
But there is far more than that: "If ye then be risen with Christ." Here we enter not merely what clears one out from the rudiments of the world, but what introduces us into the new thing. We need the positive as well as the negative; and as we have just had the latter, so the former now comes before us. Instead of letting the reins free now to run in the race of improving the world and bettering society, or any of the objects that occupy men as such, the saints of God should abstain altogether. Many who really love the Lord are in this quite misguided as to the duty of the Christian here below. "If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God." And as if that were not precise enough, it is added, "Set your affection on things above." It is rather "your mind;" for here, however important the state of the heart, it is a question simply of the whole bent and judgment. "Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth." It is not merely bringing the heavenly into them, so to speak; and decidedly not of joining the two things together. The Colossians, like others, would have liked this well enough; it is just what they were about, and the very thing that the apostle is here correcting. The apostle will not sanction such an amalgam, but refuses it; and we must remember that in these exhortations it was the Lord acting by the Spirit in His servant. "Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth; for ye are dead."
Note well again that it is not here man striving to become dead, which is a notion unknown to the revelation of God, new or old. In fact there was not even the thought of striving to be dead before the death of Christ came; and when He died, the Spirit in due time revealed not alone that He died for us, but that we died in Him. Thus no room was left for striving to die. The Christian owns his death in his very baptism; and what is wanted is not effort to attain, but the Spirit's power in acting on the truth by faith. This it is that always settles the difficulties in the great conflict that rages now as ever, and more than ever, between human religion and the truth of God. Since men have a certain knowledge of Christ's death, they are striving to die. It is the law in a new and impossible shape. That is the meaning of all that seems good in the world's piety. It is an effort to become dead to what is wrong; to cultivate what is felt to be glorifying to God; to avoid what is contrary to His will, and injurious to the soul. But does this so much as resemble the provision of grace for the Christian? Is this the truth? Must we not first and foremost be subject to the truth? If I have Christ as a Saviour at all, instead of struggling to die in the sense meant, I am called to believe that I am already dead.
It is remarkable that the two well-known and standing institutions — I will not call them ordinances — of Christianity, baptism and the Lord's supper, are the plain and certain expression of death in grace. When a person is baptized, this is the meaning of the act; nor has it any true force, but is an illusion, otherwise. For the baptized soul confesses that the grace of God gives death to sin in Him who died and rose again. The Jew looked only for a mighty King Messiah; the Christian is baptized into the death of Him who suffered on the cross, and finds not alone his sins forgiven, but sin, the flesh, condemned, and himself now viewed of God as dead to all; for nothing less is set forth in baptism. Thus it is from the first the expression of a most needed truth, which remains the comfort of grace throughout the whole Christian career, and is therefore never repeated. Again, on each Lord's day, when we are gathered together to Christ's name, what is before us according to God's word and will? A substantially similar blessing is stamped on the table of the Lord. When the Christians unite in breaking bread, they show forth the death of Christ till He come. It is not a mere duty that has to be done; but the heart is in presence of the objective fact that He died for us, His body. As believing in Him, this is our place. Such is the basis of the liberty wherewith Christ has set us free. It is a liberty founded on death, displayed in resurrection, known in the Spirit. Having this in the soul, one is entitled to have it in the body also at His coming. Besides, we are one bread, one body.
Hence we find the glorious future display referred to here: "When Christ, who is our life, shall appear;" for we have both "ye are dead," and "your life is hid with Christ in God." We may be content to be hidden while He is hidden; but He is not always to be out of sight. The Christian will have all the desires of the new man gratified. Now he may have the blessed enjoyment of communion with Christ, but it is a Christ crucified on earth. His glory is in heaven. A man seeks to shine in the world now; it is a heedless if not heartless forgetfulness, that here He knew nothing but rejection.
Am I then false or true to the constant sign of my Master's death? Am I to court the honour of those who refused Christ, and gave Him a cross? Am I to forget His glory in the presence of God? Ought I not, in my measure of faith, to be the expression of both? Ought I not to share my Master's shame and dishonour here? Ought I not to wait to enter the same glory with the Christ of God? So it is said here, "When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory." Accordingly the path of Christian duty is grounded on these wondrous truths. "Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry." What a humbling consideration that those so blessed (dead, as we have said, and risen with Christ) are here told to mortify what is most shameful and shameless! But so it is. It is really what man is; and such is the nature which alone we had as children of Adam. These are alas! in the singularly energetic language of the Spirit of God here called the members of the man. "Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry: for which things' sake, the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience: in the which ye also walked sometime."
It is no use denying the plain truth "when ye lived in them;" it is blessed to know that we are dead now. Let us hearken, "But now, ye also put off all these." Here we come not merely to that which is displayed in the forms of the corruption that goes on through things or persons outside us, as it were, but by inner feelings of violence: "But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth." Falsehood, too, is judged as it never was before, "Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; and have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him." Not Adam, but Christ is the standard — Christ who is God as well as man; "where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all." How blessed! — "Christ is all, and in all."
Thus the believer can look round full of joy upon his brethren; he can count up souls from every tribe, tongue, and station. Who has been overlooked in the comprehensive and active grace of our God? And what is he then entitled to see? Christ in them. And what a deliverance from self to see Christ in them! Yes, but Christ is "all" as truly as He is "in all." Oh, to forget all that which produces jealousy, pride, vanity, each and every feeling contrary to God and unedifying to man; to be comforted and to comfort others with such a truth — Christ is all, and Christ is in all! Such is God's word, and are we, or are we not, entitled to say so now? Sorrowful circumstances may, alas! require us to pronounce on evil ways in order to look into this evil doctrine or that; but the apostle speaks now of the saints in their ordinary and normal manner. Does not this still abide true? Am I entitled, as I look upon Christians henceforth, to see nothing but Christ in any and Christ in every one? Yes, Christ is in all, and Christ is all. "Put on, therefore" (says he, in the enjoyment of such grace. Now comes the positive character to be borne) — "Put on, therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved." How like the description is to Christ Himself! He was God's chosen One in the highest sense; He was the holy and beloved. Who ever appealed in distress, and did not find in Him bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long-suffering? Then follows that which could be said of us alone. "If any man have a quarrel against any, even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye." Forgiving one another is fortified by His example who did no sin, neither was evil found in His mouth. Christ on earth was a blessed pattern of forgiveness and forbearance. "Even as Christ forgave you." He now brings Him in openly, and to ourselves.
But there is a crowning quality: "And above all these things put on charity," because this is, as nothing else can be, the fullest sign of that which God is Himself, the energy of His nature. His light may detect, but His love is the spring of all His ways. No matter what may be the demand, love is after all most essential and influential too. It lies at the bottom when we think of the wants of the saints of God here below. There is a figure especially characteristic of the divine nature morally considered — I need not say light, as we are told more fully in the epistle to the Ephesians. Yet above all the saints are to put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness; "and let the peace of Christ rule," for so it reads, not the peace of God, but the peace of Christ. Everything in our epistle is traced up to Christ as the head of all possible blessing.
So "let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts;" that is, the very peace which Christ Himself lived and moved in. Let His peace rule. He knows everything and feels everything. I may be perfectly certain, whatever may be my sorrow or travail of spirit about anything, Christ feels far more deeply (yea, infinitely deeper than any other) those that may excite any of us. Yet He has absolute peace, never broken or ruffled for an instant. And in us, poor feeble souls, why should not this peace rule in our hearts, to the which also we are called in one body? "And be ye thankful. Let the word of Christ" (it was God's word, but still called the word of Christ here) "dwell in you richly in all wisdom." There might be a word of God which was not in the same way the word of Christ. There are many portions of the scriptures that do not by any means suit or suppose the estate and path of the Christian. "And let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another." It is not Christ Himself, as in Ephesians 3, the wondrous issue even now in us by the power of the Spirit; but, at least, in His word is found (what the Colossians needed) an active and most pure spring of instruction and counsel, and mutuality of help by it. Such is the fruit of His word thus dwelling in us. Nor is this all. "In psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord." It matters little how well taught the saint may be, nor how he may know the moral beauty and the unfailing wisdom of the word, if positive fruit be not increased: if the spirit and power of worship abound not, there is something altogether short, or wrong. "And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him." Thus, even if there be not actually formal praise, the Lord looks for thankfulness of heart, as counting on love in everything.
After this follow particular exhortations, on which we need not at present dwell. We have wives and husbands, children and fathers, servants and masters, brought together successively up to the first verse of Colossians 4, which should, of course, close Colossians 3 rather than begin a new one.
Then come general injunctions. "Continue in prayer, and watch in the same with thanksgiving." Neither completeness in Christ, nor joyful sense of heavenly relationship, nor heed to our own relations in this life, should weaken for an instant, but rather minister to an increased sense of the need and value of depending on God. Nor is continuance in prayer all; but vigilant watch in the same, which does not let slip the just occasion for supplication; and as all things were to be done with thanksgiving, so prayer also, which would assuredly not forget the need of those in the forefront of the spiritual warfare and toil of love. "Watch in the same with thanksgiving; withal praying also for us, that God would open unto us a door of utterance, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in bonds: that I may make it manifest, as I ought to speak." Nor is there to be unwatchfulness, but consideration in love of those without. "Walk in wisdom toward them that are without, redeeming the time. Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man." The fit time and suited speech, always in grace, not without faithfulness Godward, how good and needful they are!
Further, we see how Christian love delights to communicate and to hear. It was his confidence in their love; and this is shown not merely in his desire to hear about them, but in the conviction that they would like to hear about him. Can anything be sweeter than this genuine simplicity of affection and mutual interest? In a man it would be vain and curious: it is blessed in a Christian. No right-minded man, as such, could take for granted that others would care to know about his affairs any more than be theirs, unless indeed in case of a relation, or a friend, or a public and extraordinary personage. But here writes the lowly-minded apostle, in the full assurance that, though he had never seen them, or they him, it would be real and mutual gratification to know about one another from him who went between them. What a spring of power is the love of Christ! Truly charity is "the bond of perfectness." "And my state shall Tychicus declare unto you, who is a beloved brother, and a faithful minister and fellow-servant in the Lord: whom I have sent unto you for the same purpose, that he might know your state, and comfort your hearts; with Onesimus, a faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They shall make known unto you all things which are done here."
Then come allusions to his various fellow-prisoners and fellow-servants, particularly noting Epaphras, who laboured fervently in prayer for them. This, I am sure, should not be weakened, brethren. We know that there is danger on all sides. We may have proved how sadly everything of the sort has been perverted; but there is a sense, and a most weighty one too, in which we cannot too much strengthen the links of love between the saints of God, and that too where there is a real holy ministry for their good. And this the apostle was doing, and particularly for one that came from them. We might well suppose that there was some hindrance to the full flow of affection on their part. But the apostle took every pains to show how great was the love of Epaphras for them; for his faithful spirit knew some little of that which the apostle knew well, — that the more abundantly he loved, the less he was loved. "For I bear him record, that he hath a great zeal for you, and them that are in Laodicea." His was by no means a love inactive or limited. There was no such notion as only caring for the saints in his own particular place. Paul narrowed himself to no local ties, nor should we allow such a thing for an instant. All the saints belong to us, as we belong to all of them. And so he mentions particularly others, even if some little felt this link. "Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas, greet you. Salute the brethren which are in Laodicea, Nymphas, and the church which is in his house. And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans." It is evident, therefore, that these apostolic epistles were meant to circulate among the saints. And perhaps this may be the key to what we are next told: "And ye likewise read the epistle from Laodicea." The epistle to Laodicea is not said: so we have no sufficient reason to trouble ourselves about there being a lost portion of the inspired writings. There is no proof of the sort. I am aware that men have reasoned much about it; but this is a proof that evidence fails. Why should we heed conjecture? Had they prayed more, the result might have been to better purpose. Possibly apostles may have written epistles that were not intended for the permanent instruction of the church; but that what was so intended is lost we may resolutely deny from all we know of our God. Whatever insinuates it denies that He has adequately provided for His church here below: this He has surely done in every form in His word. There is no imperfectness in that word, neither does any ground exist to suppose that any part of it has vanished away. No doubt we may detect the flaws of man's negligence, not knowing how to treat with becoming care the precious deposit of truth; but there is nothing more. That is to say, there may be a difference of reading here and there which impairs the full beauty and accuracy of the blessed word of God; but, as to the substance, the most timid may be assured that you have it in the worst editions of Christendom. Do not be uneasy at the talk of critics: it is natural for dealers to cry up their wares. They live in minute points and uncertainty.
As this epistle then is not said to have been addressed to Laodicea, we may gather that it was either from that church, or, if apostolic, going its round from one assembly to another. If the latter, it had got to Laodicea, whence the Colossians were to procure it in their turn.
Archippus was to take heed to the ministry he had received in the Lord. No doubt the hint is wanted by some of us still. May He make and keep us faithful!
FIRST AND SECOND THESSALONIANS.
There is a special interest in examining the epistles to the Thessalonians, more particularly the first, because, in point of fact, it was the earliest of the letters of the apostles; and as the first on the part of Paul, so also to an assembly found in the freshness of its faith, and in the endurance of no small suffering for Jesus' sake. This has given a colour to the character of the epistle. Besides, the very truth which most strongly characterized the assembly there — the habitual waiting for the Lord Jesus — was that which the enemy perverted into a means of danger. It is always thus. Whatever God has specially given to the church, whatever He has caused to be brought out in any marked manner at any time, is that which we may expect Satan to sap and undermine with all diligence. We might have supposed, à priori, that any characteristic truth would be that in which the children of God would be more earnest, and strong, and united. Undoubtedly it is that for which they are specially responsible; but for this very reason they are the object of the continual and subtle attacks of Satan in respect of it.
Now these epistles (for both in fact show us the same truth, but on different sides, guarding it against a different means used by the enemy to injure the saints) present on their very face, in great fulness of application, the hope of the Christian, and that which surrounds it and flows from it. At the same time, the Spirit of God in no way limits Himself to that one subject in all its parts; but as we receive the truth in its fulness in Christ, so we have the great elements of Christianity, as well as the attractive state of the believers in Thessalonica, formed by the hope which animated them, and by the truth in general seen in its light. The apostle writes to them in a manner to confirm their faith: "Paul, and Silvanus, and Timotheus, unto the church of the Thessalonians, which is in God the Father, and in the Lord Jesus Christ." He does not mean by this to set forth any great advance, any high standing on the part of the believer, as has been sometimes drawn from these words, but rather the contrary. It was the infantine condition of the assembly of the Thessalonians which appears to have suggested this mode of address from the apostle. Just as the babe of the family would be an especial object of a father's concern — more particularly if peril surrounded it, so does the apostle cheer the church of the Thessalonians, by speaking of their being in God the Father, and in the Lord Jesus Christ. (Compare John 10:28-29.) It is as children, not merely in the sense of being born of God, but as babes; and the Spirit of God views the assembly of the Thessalonians in this way. As a proof that this is correct, it may be noticed that there does not appear at this time to have been any regular oversight established in their midst. There is no hint of elders appointed here as yet, any more than at Corinth. There was no small vigour; but, at the same time, it had the stamp of youth. The fresh flow of affection filled their hearts, and the beauty of the truth had but just dawned, as it were, on their souls. This, and more of kindred character, may be traced very clearly. And we find here an instructive lesson how to deal with the entrance of error, and the dangers that threaten the children of God, more particularly such as may be comparatively unformed in the common faith.
After his salutation the apostle, as usual, gives thanks to God for them all, making mention of them in his prayers, as he says: "Remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God and our Father." From the outset we find the eminently practical shape which the truth had taken; as indeed must always be the case where there is the care and activity of the Spirit of God. There is no truth that is not given both to form the heart, and to guide the steps of the saints, so that there may be a living and a fruitful service flowing to God from it. Such was the case with these Thessalonians; their work was the work of faith, and their labour had love for its spring; and more than that, their hope was one which had proved its divine strength by the power of endurance which it had given them in the midst of their afflictions. It was really the hope of Christ Himself, as it is said "patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God and our Father." Thus, we see, all was kept in conscience before God; for this is the meaning of the words — "in the sight of God and our Father."
All this brings them before the soul of the apostle in confidence, as being simple-hearted witnesses, not only of the truth, but of Christ the Lord. "For our gospel," he says, "came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance; as ye know what manner of men we were among you for your sake." The apostle could unburden himself, and speak freely. With the Corinthians he could not so open his heart: there was such fleshly vaunting among them that the apostle speaks to them with no small reserve. But here it is otherwise; and as there was fervent love in their hearts and ways, so the apostle could speak out of the very same love; for assuredly love was not less on his part. Hence he could enlarge with joy on that which was before him — the manner in which the gospel had come to them; and this is of no small consequence in the ways of God. We should by no means pass by a due consideration of the manner in which God deals either with individual souls, or with saints, in any special place. For all things are of God. The effect of a storm of persecution, accompanying the introduction of the gospel, could not have been without its weight in forming the character of the saints who received the truth; and, yet more, the way in which God had wrought — particularly in him who was the bearer of His message — at that time would not be without its modifying influence in giving such a direction to it as would be for the Lord's glory and praise. I doubt not, therefore, that the apostle's entrance among them, the notable accompanying circumstances of it, the faith and love that had been then tried — of course, habitually there, but, nevertheless, put at that juncture to the proof to a remarkable degree at Thessalonica — had all their source in God's good guidance; so that those that were to follow in the wake of the same faith, who would have to stand and suffer in the name of the same Lord Jesus at a later day, were thus strengthened and fitted, as no other way could have done so well, for what was to befall them.
The apostle, therefore, does not hesitate to say, "Ye became followers of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost: so that ye were ensamples to all that believe in Macedonia and Achaia." And this was so true that the apostle did not need to say anything in proof of it. The very world wondered how the word wrought among these Thessalonians. Men were struck by it; and what impressed even people outside was this — that they not only abandoned their idols, but henceforth were serving the one living and true God, and were waiting for His Son from heaven. Such was the testimony, and an uncommonly bright one it is. But, indeed, simplicity is the secret for enjoying the truth, as well as for receiving it; and we shall find always that it is the sure mark of God's power in the soul by His word and Spirit. For there are two things that characterize divine teaching: real simplicity, on the one hand, and, on the other, that definiteness which gives the inward conviction to the Christian that what he has is the truth of God. It might be too much to expect the development, or, at any rate, a large exercise of such precision as this among the Thessalonians as yet; but one may be sure that if there was true simplicity at first, it would lead into distinctness of judgment ere long. We shall find some features of this kind for our guidance, and I hope to remark upon them as they come before me.
But, first of all, take notice that the first description which is given of them, in relation to the coming of the Lord, is simply awaiting the Son of God from heaven. We do not well to fasten upon this expression more than it was intended to convey. It does not appear to me to mean anything more than the general attitude of the Christian in relation to Him whom he expects from above. It is the simple fact of their looking for the same Saviour who had already come, whom they had known — that Jesus who had died for them and was raised again from the dead, their Deliverer from the wrath to come. Thus they were waiting for this mighty and gracious Saviour to come from heaven. How He was coming they knew not; what would be the effects of His coming they knew little. They of course knew nothing about the time, no soul does; it is reserved in the hands of our God and Father; but they were, as became babes, waiting for Him according to His own word. Whether He would take them back into the heavens, or at once enter on the kingdom under the whole heaven, I am persuaded they did not know at this time.
It seems therefore a mistake to press this text, as if it necessarily taught Christ's coming in order to translate saints into heaven. It leaves the aim, mode, and result an entirely open matter. We may find ourselves sometimes forcing scripture in this way; but be assured, it is true wisdom to draw from scripture no more than it distinctly undertakes to convey. It is much better, if with fewer texts, to have them more to the purpose. We shall find ere long the importance of not multiplying proof-texts for any particular aim, but of seeking rather from God the definite use of each scripture. Now all that the apostle has here in view is to remind the Thessalonian saints that they were waiting for that same Deliverer, who was dead and risen, to come from heaven. It is likely that as His coming is presented in the character of Son of God, it may suggest more to the spiritual mind, and probably did suggest more to them at a later day. I am only speaking of what is important to bear in mind at their first conversion. It was the simple truth that the divine person, who loved them and died for them, was coming back from heaven. What would be the manner and the consequences they had yet to learn. They were waiting for Him who had proved His love for them deeper than death or judgment; and He was coming: how could they but love Him and wait for Him?
The second chapter pursues the subject of the apostle's ministry in connection with their conversion. He had not left them when they had been brought to the knowledge of Christ. He had laboured among them. "For yourselves, brethren, know our entrance in unto you, that it was not in vain: but even after we had suffered before, and were shamefully entreated, as ye know, at Philippi, we were bold in our God to speak unto you the gospel of God with much contention." The apostle had gone on in persevering faith, undisturbed by that which had followed. He was not to be turned aside from the gospel. It had brought trouble on him, but he persevered. "For our exhortation," he says, "was not of deceit, nor of uncleanness, nor in guile: but as we were allowed of God to be put in trust with the gospel, even so we speak; not as pleasing men, but God, which trieth our hearts. For neither at any time used we flattering words, as ye know, nor a cloke of covetousness, God is witness: nor of men sought we glory, neither of you, nor yet of others, when we might have been burdensome, as the apostles of Christ."
Here we see how entirely his ministry had been above the ordinary motives of men. There was no self-seeking It was not a question of exalting himself, or of earthly personal gain; nor, on the other hand, was there the indulging of the passions, either gross or refined. None of these things had a place in his heart, as he could appeal to God solemnly. Their own consciences were witnesses of it. But, more than that, love and tenderness of care had wrought toward them. "We were gentle among you, even as a nurse cherisheth her children: so being affectionately desirous of you, we were willing to have imparted unto you, not the gospel of God only, but also our own souls, because ye were dear unto us." What a picture of gracious interest in souls, and of this, not in Him who has the full expression of divine love, but in a man of like passions with ourselves! For if we must ever look for the perfection of it in Christ alone, it is good for us to see the life and love of Christ in one who had to contend with the very same evils which we have in our nature.
Here, then, we have the lovely picture of the grace of the apostle in watching over these young Christians; and this he presents in a two-fold form. First, when in the most infantine condition, as a nurse he cherished them; but when they grew a little, he pursued his course, "labouring night and day, because we would not be chargeable unto any of you, preaching unto you the gospel of God. As ye know how we exhorted and comforted and charged every one of you, as a father doth his children." As they advanced spiritually, so the character of ministering to their need was changed; but it was the very same love in exhorting them as a father, which had cared for them as a nurse. This may be the beau idéal of a true pastor; but it is the picture of a real apostle of Christ, of Paul among the Thessalonians, whose one desire was that they should walk worthy of God, who had called them to His kingdom and glory. "For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe."
Then follows a sketch of that suffering which faith entails, as sooner or later it must come; and as he had charged them to walk worthy of God, who had cheered them with the prospect of the unseen and eternal things, so he would have them to prove by their constancy and endurance that it was God's word which so powerfully wrought in them, spite of all man could do. "For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judea are in Christ Jesus: for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews: who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets" — not exactly their own prophets, but the prophets — "and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men: forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles." What a contrast with the grace of God! The people who had the prestige of religion could not endure that the gospel should go to the despised Gentiles, their enemies. Yet why should they have been so careful of it, since they did not believe in it themselves? How came to pass this their sudden interest in the spiritual welfare of the heathen? Whence originated this unwearied zeal to deprive others of the gospel they themselves scorned? If the gospel were such an irrational and immoral and trumpery matter as they professed to consider it, how was it that they spared no pains to prejudice men against it, and to persecute its preachers? Men do not usually feel thus — do not set themselves so bitterly and continuously against that which does not prick their consciences. One can understand it where there is the sense of a good of which they are not prepared to avail themselves: the rebellious heart vents itself then in implacable hatred at seeing it go to others, who peradventure would receive it gladly. It is man always the enemy, the persistent antagonist of God, and more particularly of His grace. But it is religions man, as the Jew was, here and everywhere — man with a measure of traditional truth, who feels thus sore at the operations of God in His mighty grace.
But the apostle as he had shown us men the objects of the gospel, and the constant interest of grace in Christians, contrasted with those who hindered because they hated the grace of God, so he also lets them know the affectionate desire that was not weakened by absence from it, but rather the contrary. "But we, brethren, being taken from you for a short time in presence, not in heart, endeavoured the more abundantly to see your face with great desire." There is nothing so real upon earth as the love of Christ reproduced by the Spirit in the Christian. "Wherefore we would have come unto you, even I Paul, once and again; but Satan hindered us." There is a reality for evil in Satan, the great personal enemy, as much in a certain sense as there is in Christ for good. Let us not forget it.
On the other hand, what is the encouragement to suffering love and toil along the road? "What is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing?" It matters little what the circumstances maybe in regard to true ministry in the grace of Christ. Trial shows how superior it is to circumstances. Bodily presence or absence only tests it. Afflictions only prove its strength. Distance only gives room to its expression to those who are absent. The unfailing and only adequate comfort is the certain re-union of those who minister, and those who are ministered to, in the day when all opposition will vanish, and around the board where all the fruits of true ministry, whether of a nurse or of a father that exhorts those who are growing up in the truth, will be tasted in the joy of our Lord. The apostles and their companions in labour were content to wait for the reward of loving oversight exercised among the saints of God.
But this did not in the slightest degree hinder the apostle's tender sympathy with those who were pressed down by any special sufferings. For Christianity is not dreamy or sentimental, but most real in its power of adapting itself to every need. It is the true deliverance from all that is fictitious, whether on the side of reason or of imagination in the things of God. Superstition has its perils; but quite as much has the dogmatism of mere intellect. Scripture raises the believer above both; yet the apostle shows what anxiety of feeling was his about the Thessalonians. He did not doubt the Lord's watchful eye. Nevertheless all his heart was in movement about them. He had sent Timotheus when he could not go himself; and he was rejoiced to hear the good account which he thus gleaned through him, for he dreaded lest they might be shaken by the great wave of trouble that was sweeping over them. No doubt they had been prepared for this in a measure; for he had told them, when with them, that they were appointed thereunto.
But now, how cheered was his spirit to find that the tempter had been foiled! Timotheus had come with good tidings of their faith and love. Spite of all, they had "good remembrance of us always, desiring greatly to see us, as we also to see you." Love was still fervent, as in him so in them. "Therefore, brethren, we were comforted over you in all our affliction and distress by your faith: for now we live, if ye stand fast in the Lord." But in the midst of thanksgiving he prays for them.
We may notice two prayers particularly in this epistle. The first occurs at the end of 1 Thessalonians 3, and the second at the end of the last chapter. The first is more particularly a review of the entrance of the gospel among the Thessalonian saints and of his own ministry, which was no doubt meant to be suggestive to them of the true character and method of serving the Lord in dealing with all men. He winds it up with prayer to the effect: "Now God himself and our Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, direct our way unto you. And the Lord make you to increase and abound one toward another, and toward all men, even as we do toward you: to the end he may stablish your hearts unblameable in holiness before God, even our Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints."
Here at once we come to very distinct guidance for our thoughts; and this in more ways than one. He prays not that they may be established in holiness, in order that they might love one another, but that they might abound in love, in order that they might be established in holiness. Love always precedes holiness. It is true from conversion — from the beginning of the work in the soul — and it is also true to the last. What first raises the heart to God is some faint sense of His love in Christ. I do not say anything at all like the love of God shed abroad in the heart by the Holy Spirit given us. There may then be no power to rest on divine love; there can be no abounding in love in such a state. But, for all that, there is a hope of love — if it be the feeblest thought; if it be only that "there is bread enough and to spare" for the merest prodigal that betakes himself to the father's house. If we look at God and Christ, and at the grace that suits the Father's counsels and the Son's work, I admit all this is a scanty measure — a poor thing on their part, to give a servant's portion in such a house. But it was no small prize for the heart of a sinner, darkened and narrowed by selfishness, and the indulgence of lust and passion. And what is sin in every form but selfishness? We know how this shuts up the heart, and how it destroys every expectation of goodness in others. The grace of God, contrariwise, works and kindles, it may be, a very little spark at first, but still a beginning of what is truly great, good, and eternal. Accordingly, as we read, the prodigal starts from the far country, and cannot rest — though there was incomparably more earnestness on the part of the father to meet him, as well we know; for it was not the prodigal that ran to the father, but the father to the prodigal. And thus it is always. The same true working of love, however at first dimly seen, that wakes the sinner from his wretched bed of sin — for rest it cannot be called — this rouses him from the guilty dreams of death. On the other hand, it is the fulness of love which gives the heart to enter into the riches of grace towards us, shedding abroad, not an earnest of it, but itself in the heart. And this holiness, not in desire only, but real and deep, keeps pace with love.
It is not, of course, my present task to unfold the wonderful way in which that love has been proved to us. It does not come before me now, nor is it for me to leave my theme even to speak of its display in Christ, by whom God commends His own love to us, in that, while yet sinners, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, till we can joy in Himself through our Lord Jesus Christ. But I affirm that all practical holiness is the fruit of the love to which the heart has surrendered, and which it receives simply and enjoys fully. This, then, is true of the soul that is only seeking to know the grace of God.
But here he earnestly desires their growth in holiness, and prays for them that they might "increase and abound in love one toward another, and toward all men, even as we do toward you: to the end he may stablish your hearts unblameable in holiness." And the manner in which this is connected with the coming of Christ here is very noticeable. He supposes it to be flowing out of love, and going on in holiness, proceeding unbroken, until the saint finds himself at last in the display of glory; not when Christ comes to take us up, but when God brings us with Him. Why (let me ask) is there not presented His coming to receive the saints in this chapter, as in the next? Because our walking in love and holiness is the question in the hand of the Holy Spirit; and this has the most intimate connection with Christ's appearing, when we come with Him. And for this there is a simple reason. Where the walk comes in, we have clearly responsibility before the saints. Now the appearing of the Lord Jesus is that which will manifest us in the results of responsibility. Then we shall each see, when self-love can no longer darken our judgment of ourselves, or our estimate of others, when nothing but the truth shall remain and be displayed of all that has been wrought in us, or done by us. For the Lord will assuredly come to translate us to His presence; but He will also cause us to appear with Him in glory, when He appears; and when this moment arrives, it will be made manifest how far we have been faithful, and how far faithless. All will be turned to His own glory. Accordingly then here in 1 Thessalonians 3 we see the reason why, as it appears to me, the Spirit directs attention to His coming with all His saints, not for them.
The next portion, or second half of the epistle, opens with practical exhortation. The early part insists on purity; then follow a few words on love. It might seem strange that it should be needful to guard these saints, walking as we have seen so simply and delightfully, against unclean offences even in the closest relations of life — that Christian men should be warned against fornication and adultery; but we know that so desperate is the evil of the flesh, that no circumstances nor position can secure, yea, even the joy of the blessing of God's grace, without exercise of conscience and self-judgment; and hence these solemn admonitions from the Lord. It was particularly needed at that time and in Greece, because such sins were rather sanctioned than judged in the heathen world. Even mankind in later days have profited enormously by the change. They can now no doubt enrich themselves with truth, and talk largely about holiness; but how little they knew of either before they borrowed from Scripture! It is all stolen goods, every bit of real value. The men of whom they are the successors were unclean to the last degree. The Aristotles and Platos were really not fit for decent company. I admit our Grecians would scowl at such an estimate, or scorn it; but they lack the elements for forming an adequate moral appraisal, or they do not look the facts in the face, plain enough as they are. If knowingly they endorse or make light of such morals as Plato counted desirable for his republic, it cannot be doubted where they themselves are. Undoubtedly there were some fine speculations, but nothing more; for men thought that talking about morality would do as well as the thing itself. It is Christ, and Christ alone, that has brought in the very truth of God in word and deed. It was unknown to man before: still more the ultimate proof in the cross that He is love. Christ first displayed absolute purity in the very nature which had revelled in lust and passion heretofore.
But the Thessalonians in general might not have estimated its importance fully, being young in the truth. There was doubtless good reason why the apostle in writing to them had to lay great stress on moral purity. The fact is, that it was a matter of course then for men to live just as they listed. There was no restriction, except so far as mere human vengeance or punishments of the law might deter them. Men indulged themselves in anything they could do safely. And so indeed it is to this day, except so far as Christianity or the profession of it prevents them.
After speaking of purity, the apostle treats of loving one another, and adds that there was no need to say much about it. They themselves were taught of God; they knew what they were called to in brotherly love. But he does exhort them to be quiet and to mind their own business, working with their own hands, as he not only commanded them when in their midst, but exemplified it from day to day himself. He had it deeply at heart that they should walk reputably toward those without, and have need of no one or thing.
But we come in the next place to a main topic of the epistle. They had fallen into a serious mistake as to some of the brethren that had fallen asleep. They feared that these departed saints would miss much at the coming of the Lord — in fact, that they would lose their part in the joyful meeting between the Lord Jesus and His saints. This at once shows us that we must not estimate the Thessalonian believers according to that standard which these mistakes helped to elicit from the Holy Ghost. We have the advantage of the entire development of the truth, much of which was the inspired correction of evils and errors. The New Testament, you must remember, was not then written; a very small part — one gospel, or at most perhaps two, and not one of the epistles. Thus, except the teaching that they had received from the apostle during his comparatively short stay in Thessalonica, they had little, or no means of further instruction in the truth, and we know how easily that which is only heard passes away. We may learn from this the invaluable blessing we have, not merely in the word, but in the written word of God — scripture. However, at this time, for the most part, the New Testament books were not yet written. It was that part of scripture which most of all concerned these saints. We must not, therefore, wonder that they were ignorant of what had regard to their brethren who had fallen asleep. On the other hand, it is not meant that they entertained any fears of their being lost. This could not arise in the minds of souls grounded in what the apostle calls our gospel; and no charge is so much as hinted of any failure in this respect. Still a delay might have been conceived before they entered into full blessedness. One can understand their perplexity for want of light on what the Lord would do with them. They did not know whether they would then enter the kingdom, or how, or when. These were questions unsolved.
The Holy Ghost meets their difficulties now, and tells them to this effect: "I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him." Clearly we hear again of the Lord coming, and bringing these saints with Him. It is not the Lord, however, receiving them to Himself, but bringing them with Him. That is, we have once more the Lord coining in glory with His saints already glorified. When that moment comes, at any rate, they will be with Him. Such is the first statement of the apostle. But this very truth, which made part of their old difficulty, raises another difficulty. How could the saints that had fallen asleep come with Him now? — How could all the saints appear in glory with Christ? They seem to have understood that when the Lord came, there would be saints here below waiting for Christ; and that these would somehow be with Him in glory. But they were utterly perplexed as to the saints that had fallen asleep. They did not know what to make of the interim — if indeed they suspected an interim. They did not know the process by which the Lord would deal with those that had died; and it is now explained.
"For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent [shall in no wise anticipate] them which are asleep." If they had remained alive, no difficulty had been felt in the case. Some in our day seem to feel a good deal surprised at such a difficulty as this; but the truth is that the sorrow of the Thessalonians arose from the simplicity of their faith, and men's feeling no difficulty now is partly owing to their lack of any genuine faith in it. Had they more faith, they might have their perplexities too, not at the end, but, as usual, at the beginning. It was certainly so with the Thessalonians at this time. It is always the effect of faith at first. Newly-entered light gives occasion to the perception of much which we cannot solve at once. But God comes in to the aid of the believer, and in His own grace and time solves one difficulty after another. Then the apostle clears it up thus: "We which are alive and remain unto the coming [or presence] of the Lord," etc. The word "coming" means the fact of being present in contrast with absence. "We which are alive and remain unto the presence of the Lord shall not precede them which are asleep." I take the liberty of changing the word "prevent," which is old English, into a phrase which gives the same meaning as "prevent" when the translation was made.
We "shall not precede them which are asleep." Thus, suppose we are waiting for Christ to come, and that He comes, we shall not be before those saints that have departed previously. How can this be? It is answered in the next verse. "For the Lord himself," says he, "shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God and the dead in Christ shall rise first: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord." Thus it is evident that, if there be a moment of difference, it is in favour of the sleepers, and not of those which remain alive. Those that are asleep are first wakened up. Bear in mind, sleep is for the body; the soul is never said or supposed in scripture to be asleep. But those who are asleep in their graves will be wakened up by the shout (κέλευσμα) of the Lord Jesus; for the word means the call of a commander to his men that follow, or of an admiral to his sailors. It is from one who has a relation to others under his authority; it is not a vague call to those that may not own his command, but to his own people.
It is evident, therefore, that the notion entertained by some, that this shout must be heard by men in general, is refuted by these words, as well as other facts. Men in general have no such relation to the Lord. It is a shout that is heard by those to whom it appertains. Not a word, therefore, includes — but, rather the contrary, shuts out — those to whom Christ stands in no such connection. In other words, it is the Lord's call to His own, and accordingly the dead in Christ rise first, as the immediate fruit of it. "Then we, the living that remain, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord." This at once dispels the difficulty as to those who were asleep. So far from missing the moment of meeting between the Lord and His own, they rise first; we immediately join them; and thus both together are caught up to meet the Lord in the air, and so shall we ever be with Him.
Then the apostle, having left with the Thessalonians the comfort of this about their brethren, turns to the day of the Lord, or His appearing. "But of the times and the seasons, brethren, ye have no need that I write unto you. For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night." "The day of the Lord" is invariably in Scripture that period when the Lord will come in manifest and awful judgment of sinful men. It is never applied to any dealing with the Christian as on the earth. We find a very particular application of it, which seems connected with the saints. This is not exactly called the day of the Lord, but "the day of Christ." Confessedly there is a connection between the two. The day of Christ means that aspect of the day of the Lord, in which those who are in Christ will have their special place in the kingdom assigned. Consequently, where it is a question of the fruit of labour in the service of Christ, reward of faithfulness, or anything of the kind, "the day of Christ" is mentioned.
But "the day of the Lord," as such, is invariably the day of the Lord's dealing in judgment with man as such on the earth. Of that day, then, the apostle felt no need to write. It was already known perfectly that the day of the Lord is coming as a thief in the night. This was a matter of Old Testament statement and phraseology. All the prophets speak of it. If you search from Isaiah to Malachi, you will find that the day of Jehovah is that moment of divine intervention when man is no longer allowed to pursue his own path, when the Lord God will deal with the world's system in all its parts, when the idols of the nations all perish together with their benighted votaries. But — the Lord Himself shall be exalted in that day, and His people shall be brought into their true place, and the Gentiles shall accept theirs. This will be the time of displayed divine government. Jehovah will take Zion as the central seat of His earthly throne, and all peoples shall submit to His authority in the person of Christ.
Hence, therefore, the apostle, when he speaks of the day of the Lord, alludes to it as already too notorious to need fresh words about it. The Thessalonians did not require to be instructed as to that. But this makes most plain the distinction of the manner in which the saints and mankind will be dealt with. When he treats of the Lord's coming, they require to be instructed; where he speaks about the day of Jehovah, they do not. The day of Jehovah was matter of common knowledge from the Old Testament. To a scribe instructed thus, there was no doubt about its bearing. Not even a Jew disputed about it, and of course a Christian would be subject to the testimony of God in the Old Testament. But a Christian might not know that which most of all it was desirable for him to understand, — the manner in which his own proper hopes would link themselves with the day of Jehovah.
It is exactly there many make such utter confusion; for they do not distinguish between the hope of the Christian and "the day" for the world. And this lets out a great secret — the heart's desire to think of the two things together. We can all understand that people would like to have the best of both. But it cannot be done. Hence in speaking of the day of the Lord (and I draw your attention to it, because we shall find its importance in the next epistle) he says, "When they shall say, Peace and safety, then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child." He does not say "you," but "they." Why this difference? When he is speaking about the presence of the Lord, he says "you," "we;" but when treating of the day of Jehovah, he says "they."
Indeed, the apostle excludes the believer; for he says, "Ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief." Besides, he gives a moral reason, "Ye are children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober. For they that sleep sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night. But let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation. For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ." Salvation here means complete deliverance not yet come — the redemption of the body and not that of the soul alone. For Christ "died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him."
Carefully remember that waking or sleeping here has reference to the body; it has no reference at all to anything of moral state. It is impossible that the Spirit of God should say that, whether in a right state or wrong we should live together with Him. The Holy Spirit never makes light of the condition of sin. Nor is there anything more foreign to the tone of scripture, than that the Spirit of God should treat with indifference the question whether a saint was in a good or a bad state. He had no doubt just used the words "wake or sleep" in another sense; but he seems to me to assume the impossibility of a saint applying them in a moral sense when he pursues the subject farther. In verse 6, for instance, the sleeping and watching are moral states; but when we come down to verse 10, they refer to the question of life or death in the body, and not to the saints' ways. In fact this manner of taking up words, and applying them in another sense, will be found to be one of the characteristics of the abrupt, animated, and forcible style of the apostle.
I should not make the remark if I had not known excellent men sometimes in considerable danger from overlooking this, and taking scripture in a narrow and pseudo-literal sense. But this is not the way to understand the Bible. It is one of the great misuses to which a concordance exposes those who are caught by verbal analogies, instead of entering into the scope of thought real meaning.
We shall live with Him then. "Wherefore," he says, comfort yourselves together, and edify one another." Then he gives them certain instructions; and I add this observation, which is one of practical importance. He calls upon these young believers to know those who laboured among them, and were over them, or took the lead in the Lord, and admonished them. They were to esteem them very highly in love for their work, being at peace at the same time among themselves.
This exhortation, always right, has, to my own mind, great wisdom and worth for us now; for the simple reason that, so far, we stand in a measure, as to circumstances — though not from the same cause — with these Thessalonian saints. Assuredly they were in a comparatively infantine condition, quite as much or more than those I am now addressing. Yet if saints, no matter how informed, then had among them those that laboured and were over them in the Lord, surely the same Lord gives still the same helps and governments. He raises up and sends His workmen in the world, and those who bring in that moral power and wisdom which enable some to take the lead. Hence it is beyond just controversy — from the case of the Thessalonians (and it is not alone) — that for some to be over others in the Lord did not depend on apostolical appointment. It is a defective and even mistaken idea to restrict it to this, though it is admitted that the apostles used to appoint such elders. But the essence of what we find here is, that in that appointment spiritual power and might did show itself in this way; and that the greatest of the apostles exhorts the saints to acknowledge those who were thus — and only thus — over them in the Lord, altogether independently of any apostolic act. No doubt the due external appointment was desirable and important in its place. But what of places (and I would add, what of times) where it could not be had?
These are our circumstances now; for no matter how much we might welcome and value such outward appointment, we cannot have it. Without the proper scriptural authority, who is to appoint? Any body unquestionably, and leaders especially, might imitate Paul and Barnabas, or Titus. But, assuredly, mere imitation is nothing, or worse; and those that take the lead, or are qualified to do so, are the persons to be appointed — not to appoint, if we really bow to the Lord. More than this — direct authority from the Lord for the purpose was needed. Where is it now? The moment you make an appointing power of your own, it is evident that its authority cannot rise above its source. If it is only a humanly given authority, it can exercise no more than a human power. But the apostle — or rather the prescient Spirit of God — meets various contingencies in the exhortation, and shows that a company of believers, even though not long gathered, might have more than one in their midst qualified to lead the rest, and entitled to respect and love on the score of their work, as thus labouring. If there be such now, (and who will deny it?) are the saints not called on to know them? Are there none who labour among them — none that take the lead among them in the Lord? It is evident that there ought to be no flinching from such a truth as this. For the present and long-existing confusion of Christendom in no way neutralizes it, but rather creates a fresh reason for adhering to it, as to all scripture. No doubt it may not be always pleasant to high-minded men; but be assured, it is a thing of no small moment in its place.
Again, under the circumstances of Thessalonica, as there must have been danger of headiness, the apostle calls on the brethren to watch against unruly ways. The two things would be likely to go together: peace promotes love and respect. Disorderly folk are apt to know nobody over them in the Lord. Hence he calls on all to admonish them, to comfort the fainthearted, to support the weak, to be patient toward all. Then follows a cluster of other exhortations on which I need not dwell now. My object is not so much to insist on the exhortatory part of the epistle, as to present the general thread of design that runs though each, so as to give a comprehensive view of its structure.
The second epistle takes up another difficulty. It was written in view of another abuse of the truth of the Lord's coming — a danger that threatened the saints. As the first epistle was intended to guard the saints from an error about the dead, the second epistle was more particularly meant to correct them about the living. They were distressed at finding that some of their brethren died before the Lord came. So filled were they with the constant expectation of Christ from heaven, that it never occurred to them that a single Christian might depart from the world before His return. How they must have realized, in their habitual waiting, the nearness of that blessed hope! They now learnt that they need not sorrow on such a score; for the dead in Christ shall rise first, and then we, the living at His coming, shall be caught up with them to join the Lord together. But the second epistle grew out of another and more serious error. We have seen that they were greatly alarmed and agitated. The apostle was really uneasy about them lest the tempter should tempt them, and his labour come to nought — lest, moved by their sore affliction, they should fall into fear about the awful day of the Lord, which the enemy knows well how to use.
Everybody who has read Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the lesser prophets knows what they tell us of the horrors for men when the day of Jehovah comes upon the earth, — that it will be a day of dismay and darkness, when all earthly things are utterly confused, and the people of God seem about to be swallowed up by their enemies. False doctrine ever sets one truth against another; and it was not wanting among the Thessalonians at this time. For some sought to persuade them that the day of the Lord was even then arrived. They probably argued that their troubles were part of the circumstances of that day. Certainly they sought to shake them by pretending that the day of the Lord was actually there. There was such fearful persecution and trouble among them, that this might be plausibly enough mixed up as supporting the idea that the day of the Lord was begun. For this false rumour seems to imply that they must have given some sort of figurative colour to "that day" (as it was certainly so used in Old Testament prophecy). At any rate, they must have supposed that "the day of the Lord" did not necessarily require the presence of the Lord Himself. In other words, they might think, as many Christians since have imagined, that a dreadful time of trouble must befall the world before the Lord comes to receive His own to himself above.
This second epistle was written to disabuse the minds of the Thessalonian saints; and indeed it directly tends to set all Christians free from any anxiety of the kind, though, of course, there may be persecution again, as there was then, and repeatedly afterwards, especially from Pagan and from Papal Rome. But this is wholly different from the dread which the enemy sought to infuse among the Thessalonians. The apostle accordingly sets himself to this task. First of all he comforts them.
"Paul, and Silvanus, and Timotheus, unto the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. We are bound to thank God always for you, brethren, as it is meet, because that your faith groweth exceedingly, and the charity of every one of you all toward each other aboundeth; so that we ourselves glory in you." It may be noticed that he leaves out "the patience of hope." How comes this? It was exactly the hope that was no longer bright in their hearts. So far the enemy had succeeded. They had been comforted, but they had lost somewhat of the light and joy of the hope. They were moved more or less by their tribulation; not perhaps so much by the outward pressure as by the insinuation of Satan through false teaching, which is a far more dangerous thing for the child of God. It is plain that the apostle merely mentions their faith growing, and their love increasing. He no longer praises nor names their patience of hope, but rather prays for them in 2 Thessalonians 3 in such a way as to show there was a lack in this respect. That is, he takes up two of the qualities mentioned in the first epistle, and not the third. This, which was bound up with the whole structure of the first epistle, is left out of the second. There was too good reason for it. For the time they had let it slip, as I have just explained. It is true that the apostle tells them, "we glory in you in the churches of God for your patience, and faith" (he does not speak of their "patience of hope") "in all your persecutions and tribulations that ye endure." They were holding on, and not giving up Christ but their souls had not the former spring through Christ their hope. We shall have the evidence of this more fully soon.
There was "a manifest token," says he, "of the righteous judgment of God, that ye may be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which ye also suffer." So far it was well. "Seeing it is a righteous thing with God to recompense tribulation to them that trouble you; and to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ." Observe the reason why he brings in "that day." It was a false doctrine about the day, which draws out an explanation of its nature and its relation to the coming of the Lord. When that day comes, it will not fall with its troubles on the children of God. In truth the Lord will then execute judgment on their enemies — I do not mean on the dead till the close, but on the quick or living. It will be no more in some figurative and preparatory sense of exceeding affliction, or of natural overthrow; but its description here is the Lord Jesus revealed from heaven in flaming fire. There will be no doubt about its nature or effects. Every eye shall see Him.
That is, even 2 Thessalonians 1 plainly prepares us for the complete discomfiture of the illusory and alarming dreams which these false teachers had been foisting in under false colours among the Thessalonian saints. But he pursues the matter farther. He will take vengeance on two classes — on those that know not God, and those that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These seem the Gentiles and the Jews respectively; but why do not we find here some allusion to the third class — His relation to the church of God? Because those who compose the church are no longer here.
Thus it is shown that the Lord will deal with all on earth, — not merged in one, but discriminated; for He executes judgment, and hence does not confound those who differ in a common class. There is thus a definite distinction drawn; but this so much the more precisely leaves out the Christian. Its force is more understood the more it is weighed. The apostle does not declare all at once, but prepares the way with much circumspection. When he says "them that know not God," he means the idolatrous Gentiles. Then he adds with another article, "and those that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ" (not, as we have it in English here, "and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus;" as if all were one and the same class). There are two classes, and therefore accuracy would seem to call on us to make the sense more definite — "and on them that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ." At all events, whatever mode of rendering may be preferred, I have no hesitation in saying that such is the sense of the Greek, and nothing else. They are the Gentiles, who knew not God, (or, as Bengel has it, "qui in ethnica ignorantia de Deo versantur,") and the Jews, who might know God after a sort and to a certain point beyond Gentiles, but who did not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. ("Judaeis maxime, quibus evangelium de Christo praedicatum fuerat.") For unbelief is always convicted by the test that God employs; and the day of the Lord will deal with every form. The Gentiles that know not God will be punished, and the Jews that abuse the forms of Old Testament revelation to disobey the gospel will not escape, still less nominal and apostate Christendom.
The reason why no notice is taken of Christians as then on earth we shall see assigned a little lower down: I merely now remark that he could not put himself in either of those two classes. It is evident that on whomsoever that day is to fall it has no bearing on such. If therefore the Christians were troubled now, it was in no way the same character of trouble as that which shall be in the day of the Lord. The teaching of those who had spread this impression was utterly false; and if they claimed the highest sanction for it, they were worse than mistaken — they were the guilty tools of Satan. But as to both the classes we have seen described by the apostle, they "shall be punished with everlasting destruction," both "from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power; when he shall come to be glorified in his saints, and to be admired in all them that believed:" for this is the full force of it.
In the new age people will be blessed abundantly, but the blessing of the millennium does not exactly take the shape of belief. They shall behold the glory of the Lord. Such is their form as assigned by scripture. The earth shall be filled with the knowledge — not with the faith, but with the knowledge — of the glory of Jehovah, as the waters cover the sea. It will be in countless cases the fruit of true divine teaching; but knowledge describes it better than faith; and we may easily understand the difference. They will behold the glory, they will look upon the Lord, no longer hidden but displayed. The blessed spoken of in our chapter are clearly those that have already believed. So indeed the apostle states: "Wherefore we pray always for you, that our God would count you worthy of the calling, and fulfil all the good pleasure of his goodness, and the work of faith with power; that the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you, and ye in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ."
Next (2 Thess. 2) he comes to the special error in question. "Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ … that ye be not soon shaken in mind nor troubled, neither in spirit nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of the Lord is present." It is well known that "of the Lord" (not of Christ) is unquestionably required by the best manuscripts, and other ancient witnesses.
Ἐνέστηκε does not mean "at hand," but actually come. I do not enter into any long proof of this just now, having already done so elsewhere. Suffice it to say, that the word occurs in half a dozen places in the New Testament, and nowhere can bear any sense but the one alleged. Nor does it ever convey any such meaning as "at hand" in any correct Greek author. It has been so thought; but it is a mistake. It always means present, in contrast with future ever so imminent. So in two instances of the New Testament it stands over against future things; as when it is expressly said (in Romans 8 and 1 Cor. 3), "things present and things to come." The latter might be "at hand," but not the former. The things to come are in pointed opposition to those actually arrived. Again, we have (Gal. 1:4) "this present evil world." This is now only. The age to come is not evil but good. It is in contrast with the present. And so as to "for the time then present," (Heb. 9) and "for the present necessity." (1 Cor. 7) It is not a question of the future, but solely of the present; a necessity now, and at no other time. In short, it is the regular word for "present." If a Greek meant to say "present" in contrast with the future, there was no more emphatic word to use. What, then, can be conceived more calculated to destroy the right understanding of this epistle than the common mistranslation? Such is the true sense of the word, I am bold to say.
But clearly this gives an immense help to the understanding of the passage. The apostle appeals to the saints. It is not a question of teaching in this verse, but the apostle beseeches them by a certain powerful motive, which was still in their souls. He does not mean, "We beseech you concerning," as some conceive, but as our English version says, "by." It is a legitimate meaning of the preposition with words of entreaty. He uses the hope of being gathered to Christ at His coming as a motive why they should not listen to those misleading the saints. Now mark the character of this false teaching. It was not the excitement of hope, but of terror produced on the spirit. It caused them to shake, hindering them from a settled, holy, hearty waiting for Christ. The error occupied them with the terrors of some intervening trouble. The pretence was that all the afflictions they had been enduring were parts or signs of the well-known day of trouble, the day of the Lord. Not at all, says the apostle: the trouble of that day will befall the enemies, not the friends, of the Lord. As they knew that every believer loved His name, the notion propagated was wholly astray. It was morally false, as ignoring in the first place His unfailing and perfect love for them.
Therefore he could say, "We beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our gathering together unto him, that ye be not soon shaken in mind, nor troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as by us, as that the day of the Lord is present." Do you not know that Christ is coming for you, and that the first aim and effect of His coming will be your gathering together to meet Him in the air? Why, therefore, be uneasy at such a rumour about His day, with all its awful associations? You have been taught that from God; why be disturbed by this effort of the enemy, who falsely pretends to the Spirit and word, and an alleged letter of mine? That day will fall on the world. Indeed, the apostle had implied in the opening of this epistle, as well as in the latter part of his first, that the day of the Lord does not concern the saints, who were sons of light and of day. They would come accordingly with that day, instead of its overtaking them as a thief by night, because so it comes on whom it may. It comes from the Lord in His execution of judgment on a guilty world; and the very fact of their being sons of light ought to have proved that it cannot surprise such, because they belonged to the region whence it comes.
With striking pithiness he briefly points to the ways of deceit and darkness which accompanied the notion, and betrayed its real source. Truth refuses an admixture of falsehood; and the pretence that any had a spiritual intimation to themselves, or a word for others, that the day of the Lord was really come, was manifestly of the serpent, not of God. Such and so rapid are the steps of evil, one wrong leading to another. But the allegation that they had the apostle's own authority for the delusion gave him a direct opportunity to contradict the error. "Let no man deceive you by any means: for [it shall not come] unless there shall come the apostasy first, and the man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition." These are two different things. The apostle affirms that the day cannot be before both. Christendom will have abandoned the faith, and the man of sin must be revealed. What a prospect! Do the children of God believe it? We know the world has wholly opposite expectations. Those who allow themselves with so little seriousness to bear the excellent name of the Lord will openly fall away from the confession of the gospel; and then a suited leader into the gulf of perdition will soon appear for the apostates.
I am perfectly persuaded that some of the most important parts of Satan's means of bringing about the apostasy are now actively at work. God has been graciously filling many hearts with joy and comfort of the truth. He has given not a few to believe these words, the moral signs of which are becoming daily more and more manifest. The apostasy again must come, and, in contrast with the man of righteousness, the man of sin be revealed, even the final Judas, "the son of perdition, who opposeth and exalteth himself above every one called God, or an object of veneration; so that he sitteth down in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God." How sharply in contrast with the Lord Jesus, who, though really God, in love became man, in order to accomplish the glorious counsels of God and man's salvation by grace! This one is the son of perdition to the ruin of those who trust him. Although he be but a man, and the man of sin, he takes the place of being the true God here on earth, and this too, not in the world, but in the temple of God of that time. Thus he not merely takes the place of God here below, but actually as such enters His temple. I do not doubt that the temple will then be in Jerusalem; so that as Christendom began at Jerusalem, the holy city will be its last scene of sinful pride and of divine judgment, though not its only place of judgment. Jerusalem! Rome! — they are two names of most solemn import as to the subject to which I am briefly alluding. "Remember ye not that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things? And now ye know what withholdeth that he might be revealed in his time." It is no absolute restraint, but provision only; for he must be revealed in his own season.
The reference to previous teaching left the matter in comparative obscurity, and has given rise to a great deal of discussion. I think the true answer neither difficult nor uncertain. It is evident that what withholds or restrains must be a power superior to man or Satan, and of a nature totally opposite to the man of sin. As this is the embodiment, or rather head, of evil, so that which restrains his revelation would naturally be the power of good which suppresses as long as God pleases the full manifestation of the lawless one. There seems to be a good reason why the matter is put in this general, if not vague, manner. What withholds is presented as a principle or power in an abstract way, and not as a person only. It might, I suppose, assume a different shape at different times.
Thus we find ourselves within narrow limits in order to fix the restraint and the restrainer. The Thessalonians, who were but young in truth, already knew what restrains, "that he might be revealed in his own time. For the mystery of iniquity" [or "lawlessness," which is the true force of the word] "doth already work: only there is one who restraineth now until he be taken away; and then shall the lawless one be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus shall consume with the breath of his mouth, and shall destroy with the appearing of his coming" or presence. Evidently, then, we find here a power that hinders the manifestation of the lawless one — a power which is also a person. Where do we find one that effectually checks the plans of Satan, a person no less than a power? We need not consider long, but answer, without hesitation, the Spirit of God.
Undeniably He is both a power and a person; and save in Him it will be far from easy, if possible, to find an answer that combines these two distinct intimations, as well as both the character and the extent of the power involved. It can hardly be said to be the Spirit of God dwelling in the church, except in the most general way. We must recollect that the Holy Spirit not only dwells there, but also acts providentially in the government of the world. I am far from meaning that, when the church is gone, He will restrain the powers of the world much longer. There are men of the world who have no confidence in its stability; though it exercises no salutary fear over their souls, and they cling to it all the same. I am sure that no Christian man should trust it for a moment. They are not called to promise fair things to that which cast out and slew the Lord of glory. They know that its doom is coming quickly, but not till they have formally rejected the truth, and accepted the man of sin. But no matter what the wicked will of man and the wiles of Satan may be, they will not be able absolutely to extinguish divinely-controlled government among men as soon as they desire. There is One that still restrains, who could always indeed, but who will cease only when, according to God, the time for the final outburst arrives. It does not, I think, terminate at once, even when the Lord shall have come and taken up His saints, both those that sleep and all those alive and waiting for Him. I say "all," for, you must remember, it is invariably assumed in scripture that every saint waits for Christ. The notion that a person may be a saint, and not looking for His coming, does not enter into the mind of the Holy Spirit. One may fall, of course, into a wrong state from bad teaching or careless ways; but if Christ is my life and righteousness, I shall surely love Him; and if so, I must want to see and be with Him in the condition of glory, where alone such life and righteousness, and the love that gave them, have their just display and results. Hence it is always assumed that every Christian is, in the knowledge of His love, waiting for Christ to come and receive us to Himself, that we may be with Him in the Father's house before He executes judgment on the world. Till then the Spirit of God acts as a check on the designs of Satan; and even after the church is gone (as I think) He will restrain for a short space.
From the Apocalypse we learn that for a little while God carries out certain agencies of blessing. Not only does He not immediately cease to deal with souls, but we do not at once see either the apostasy or the man of sin. This is a consideration that bears on the question; for undoubtedly it is not the will of man that either sheds blessing on souls or restrains the proudest effort of Satan. After the church is taken up, then the Spirit of God works; and this doubly. He will bring souls into the knowledge of the testimony that God will then raise up to meet the existing circumstances, for His own glory as well as in His pitiful mercy to man. But, besides, He will even then restrain the powers that be from falling instantaneously into the devices of the devil. At a certain given moment, which the Revelation clearly defines, Satan will be cast down from heaven, and will then bring forward his long-meditated plan. The empire that has disappeared from among men for so long, that the wise men of the world think its resurrection impossible — the Roman empire will come forward clothed with a diabolical energy. This is the moment when the Spirit ceases to restrain.
Accordingly the Western empire will use all its might, and Satan will help it, to establish a politico-religious power in Jerusalem, who will be the head of the Jews, and at the same time the religious chief of the West. Such is the issue of idolatrous Christ-rejecting Judaism and of apostate Christendom. The man of sin will sit and be worshipped as God, in His temple at Jerusalem. This will enable the Roman empire still to carry on its political game of opposition to the Eastern powers. The West, I say, will support and be supported by the Antichrist, and consequently must share in the awful destruction that the Lord will Himself execute when He appears. Angels will do their part, and the breath of the Lord like a stream of brimstone; for they will be caught red-handed in their opposition to the Lamb, little knowing that He is Lord of lords and King of kings. As for the civil and religious leaders, the beast and the false prophet, they will be consigned to everlasting destruction, without even the form of trial. Nothing less awaits these last and seemingly greatest leaders of the world's false glory. But, remember, the flower of the West (of these lands that boast of religion, and civilization, and progress) shall perish in this destruction of the revived imperial power and its Jewish ally.
I dare not prophesy smooth things to our own country and race. I believe that all these kingdoms of the West, now so confident in their resources and power, will fall helplessly into the hands of Satan at last. At Jerusalem the man of sin, as at Rome, the civil head of empire, with his confederate but subject kings, will be the two beasts of Rev. 13. It is not the time to enter into further details now; but I may state my conviction, that the man of sin, whom 2 Thess. shows enthroned in God's temple, will be the accepted Messiah of the deceived Jews in Jerusalem, as the first beast is the imperial head at Rome; for the civil power will then be separate from the religious, and we all know how ardently men desire this now. But its accomplishment will have results far different from what most look for.
I confess I am struck by the solemn fact, that one cannot speak of these subjects, even at short intervals of time, without perceiving new features which, in principle, bring us more and more up to the brink of the precipice. I do then, from every point of view, warn all those who are looking for bright hopes on the earth, and promising improvement to men. It is serious to observe that the lawless one here described and reserved for such a destiny is related very nearly to the mystery of lawlessness which was then at work, as the apostle let us know, and which has gone on increasing, and is immensely increased now. It is true that the lawless one will not be revealed until the restraint of the Spirit of God over the world is removed. This appears to me to be the unforced deduction from the apostle's statement, compared with the light thrown on the subject by other Scriptures, which, by common consent, treat of the same time and point. It is the Spirit of God ceasing to restrain in the world as well as in the church, since He will for a brief space both act on souls and restrain Satan in the world, after the church has been caught up to heaven.
This I consider a comprehensive and correct view of what is revealed. It is put generally here both as "he who withholds" and as "that which withholds." The particular from of withholding power might differ according to varying circumstances. The Christians of old used to think the Roman empire withheld them. Nor was their idea far from the mark; because the empire was assuredly among the powers ordained of God, as I do not doubt emperors, kings, presidents, etc., are still. But the hour hastens when the powers that be will cease to derive their authority from God; when the West above all will openly renounce the true God, and the beast will rise up from the abyss. Our chapter adds a true picture of the extent to which the man of sin will be allowed to go in diabolical imitation of what God wrought by Christ when here below. It is the hour of retribution, when the proud apostates who refused the truth accept and perish in the lie of the enemy. How blessed the lot of the saints which the apostle contrasts with this! (Verses 13-17.)
The next chapter (2 Thess. 3) closes the epistle with divers desires, and a prayer for them that the Lord would direct their hearts into the love of God, and into the patience of Christ. The key-note is thus maintained from first to last. As Christ waits to come, so should we, that we may meet Him then. But the apostle would not have this hope nor the Lord Himself dishonoured by the reproach of disorderly ways. And thus he nowhere more enjoins the duty of honourable industry, appealing to his own example, than in the epistles which most insist on Christ's coming as the proximate and constant hope of the Christian. If any would pervert such a truth, or any other, to idleness and disorder, he was to be marked as unworthy of Christian companionship, not of course counted an enemy (like the wicked or heretics), but admonished as a brother. Idleness is fruitful of disorder and the foe of peace, which the apostle desired for them from the Lord of peace Himself always and in every way.
May we seriously heed the truth, and its immediate application to our consciences and ways! May God give us quiet energy without restlessness or excitement, but so much the more calmly, because of the realized nearness of the Lord's return, and the solemn consequences for all mankind! Oh for an earnest, burning zeal; for self-denying love; for hearts devoted to Christ, which might warn men of their impending destruction, that, if they have not been won by His love, they may at least tremble at the hopeless inextricable ruin in which their unbelief will soon leave them for ever.