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LIVING STONES ON THE LIVING FOUNDATION STONE
I wonder whether Peter, when he wrote these words, was thinking about what Jesus Christ said to him long ago, up there at Cזsarea Philippi. He had heard from Christ’s lips, ‘Thou art Peter, and on this rock I will build My Church.’ He had understood very little of what it meant then. He is an old man now, years of experience and sorrow and work have taught him the meaning of the words, and he understands them a great deal better than his so-called successors have done. For we may surely take the text as the Apostle’s own disclaimer of that which the Roman Catholic Church has founded on it, and has blazoned it, in gigantic letters round the dome of St. Peter’s, as meaning. It is surely legitimate to hear him saying in these words: ‘Make no mistake, it is Jesus Himself on whom the Church is built. The confession of Him which the Father in heaven revealed to me, not I, the poor sinner who confessed it--the Christ whom that confession set forth, He is the foundation stone, and all of you are called and honoured to ring out the same confession. Jesus is the one Foundation, and we all, apostles and humble believers, are but stones builded on Him.’ Peter’s relation to Jesus is fundamentally the same as that of every poor soul that ‘comes to’ Him.
Now, there are two or three thoughts that may very well be suggested from these words, and the first of them is this:--
I. Those that are in Christ have perpetually to make the effort to come nearer Christ.
Remember that the persons to whom the Apostle is speaking are no strangers to the Saviour. They have been professing Christians from of old. They have made very considerable progress in the Divine life; they are near Jesus Christ; and yet Peter says to them, ‘You can get nearer if you try,’ and it is your one task and one hope, the condition of all blessedness, peace, and joy in your religious life that you should perpetually be making the effort to come closer, and to keep closer, to the Lord, by whom you say that you live.
What is it to come to Him? The context explains the figurative expression, in the very next verse or two, by another and simpler word, which strips away the figure and gives us the plain fact--’in Whom believing.’ The act of the soul by which I, with all my weakness and sin, cast myself on Jesus Christ, and grapple Him to my heart, and bind myself with His strength and righteousness--that is what the Apostle means here. Or, to put it into other words, this ‘coming,’ which is here laid as the basis of everything, of all Christian prosperity and progress for the individual and for the community, is the movement towards Christ of the whole spiritual nature of a man--thoughts, loves, wishes, purposes, desires, hopes, will. And we come near to Him when day by day we realise His nearness to us, when our thoughts are often occupied with Him, bring His peace and Himself to bear as a motive upon our conduct, let our love reach out its tendrils towards, and grasp, and twine round Him, bow our wills to His commandment, and in everything obey Him. The distance between heaven and earth does part us, but the distance between a thoughtless mind, an unrenewed heart, a rebellious will, and Him, sets between Him and us a greater gulf, and we have to bridge that by continual honest efforts to keep our wayward thoughts true to Him and near Him, and to regulate our affections that they may not, like runaway stars, carry us far from the path, and to bow our stubborn and self-regulating wills beneath His supreme commandment, and so to make all things a means of coming nearer the Lord with whom is our true home.
Christian men, there are none of us so close to Him but that we may be nearer, and the secret of our daily Christian life is all wrapped up in that one word which is scarcely to be called a figure, ‘coming’ unto Him. That nearness is what we are to make daily efforts after, and that nearness is capable of indefinite increase. We know not how close to His heart we can lay our aching heads. We know not how near to His fulness we may bring our emptiness. We have never yet reached the point beyond which no closer union is possible. There has always been a film--and, alas! sometimes a gulf--between Him and us, His professing servants. Let us see to it that the conscious distance diminishes every day, and that we feel ourselves more and more constantly near the Lord and intertwined with Him.
II. Those who come near Christ will become like Christ.
‘To Whom coming, as unto a living stone, ye also as living stones.’ Note the verbal identity of the expressions with which Peter describes the Master and His servants. Christ is the Stone--that is Peter’s interpretation of ‘on this rock will I build My Church.’ There is a reference, too, no doubt, to the many Old Testament prophecies which are all gathered up in that saying of our Lord’s. Probably both Jesus and Peter had in mind Isaiah’s ‘stone of stumbling,’ which was also a ‘sure corner-stone, and a tried foundation.’ And words in the context which I have not taken for consideration, ‘disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God and precious,’ plainly rest upon the 118th Psalm, which speaks of ‘the stone which the builders rejected’ becoming ‘the head of the corner.’
But, says Peter, He is not only the foundation Stone, the corner Stone, but a living Stone, and he does not only use that word to show us that he is indulging in a metaphor, and that we are to think of a person and not of a thing, but in the sense that Christ is eminently and emphatically the living One, the Source of life.
But, when he turns to the disciples, he speaks to them in exactly the same language. They, too, are ‘living stones,’ because they come to the ‘Stone’ that is ‘living.’ Take away the metaphor, and what does this identity of description come to? Just this, that if we draw near to Jesus Christ, life from Him will pass into our hearts and minds, which life will show itself in kindred fashion to what it wore in Jesus Christ, and will shape us into the likeness of Him from whom we draw our life, because to Him we have come. I may remind you that there is scarcely a single name by which the New Testament calls Jesus Christ which Jesus Christ does not share with us His younger brethren. By that Son we ‘receive the adoption of sons.’ Is He the Light of the world? We are lights of the world. And if you look at the words of my text, you will see that the offices which are attributed to Christ in the New Testament are gathered up in those which the Apostle here ascribes to Christ’s servants. Jesus Christ in His manhood was the Temple of God. Jesus Christ in His manhood was the Priest for humanity. Jesus Christ in His manhood was the sacrifice for the world’s sins. And what does Peter say here? ‘Ye are built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices.’ You draw life from Jesus Christ if you keep close to Him, and that life makes you, in derived and subordinate fashion, but in a very real and profound sense, what Jesus Christ was in the world. The whole blessedness and secret of the gifts which our Lord comes to bestow upon men may be summed up in that one thought, which is metaphorically and picturesquely set forth in the language of my text, and which I put into plainer and more prosaic English when I say--they that come near Christ become as Christ. As ‘living stones’ they, too, share in the life which flows from Him. Touch Him, and His quick Spirit passes into our hearts. Rest upon that foundation-stone and up from it, if I may so say, there is drawn, by strange capillary attraction, all the graces and powers of the Saviour’s own life. The building which is reared upon the Foundation is cemented to the Foundation by the communication of the life itself, and, coming to the living Rock, we, too, become alive.
Let us keep ourselves near to Him, for, disconnected, the wire cannot carry the current, and is only a bit of copper, with no virtue in it, no power. Attach it once more to the battery and the mysterious energy flashes through it immediately. ‘To Whom coming,’ because He lives, ‘ye shall live also.’
They who become like Christ because they are near Him, thereby grow together.
‘To whom coming, as unto a living stone, ye also, as living stones, are built up.’ That building up means not only the growth of individual graces in the Christian character, the building up in each single soul of more and more perfect resemblance to the Saviour, but from the context it rather refers to the welding together, into a true and blessed unity, of all those that partake of that common life. Now, it is very beautiful to remember, in this connection, to whom this letter was written. The first words of it are: ‘To the strangers scattered abroad throughout,’ etc. etc. All over Asia Minor, hundreds of miles apart, here one there another little group, were these isolated believers, the scattered stones of a great building. But Peter shows them the way to a true unity, notwithstanding their separation. He says to them in effect: ‘You up in Bithynia, and you others away down there on the southern coast, though you never saw one another, though you are separated by mountain ranges and weary leagues; though you, if you met one another, perhaps could not understand what you each were saying, if you "come unto the living Stone, ye as living stones are built up" into one.’ There is a great unity into which all they are gathered who, separated by whatever surface distinctions, yet, deep down at the bottom of their better lives, are united to Jesus Christ.
But there may be another lesson here for us, and that is, that the true and only secret of the prosperity and blessedness and growth of a so-called Christian congregation is the individual faithfulness of its members, and their personal approximation of Jesus Christ. If we here, knit together as we are nominally for Christian worship, and by faith in that dear Lord, are true to our profession and our vocation, and keep ourselves near our Master, then we shall be built up; and if we do not, we shall not.
So, dear friends, all comes to this: There is the Stone laid; it does not matter how close we are lying to it, it will be nothing to us unless we are on it. And I put it to each of you. Are you built on the Foundation, and from the Foundation do you derive a life which is daily bringing you nearer to Him, and making you liker Him? All blessedness depends, for time and for eternity, on the answer to that question. For remember that, since that living Stone is laid, it is something to you. Either it is the Rock on which you build, or the Stone against which you stumble and are broken. No man, in a country evangelised like England--I do not say Christian, but evangelised--can say that Jesus Christ has no relation to, or effect upon, him. And certainly no people that listen to Christian preaching, and know Christian truth as fully and as much as you do, can say it. He is the Foundation on which we can rear a noble, stable life, if we build upon Him. If He is not the Foundation on which I build, He is the Stone on which I shall be broken.
In this verse Peter piles up his metaphors in a fine profusion, perfectly careless of oratorical elegance or propriety. He gathers together three symbols, drawn from ancient sacrificial worship, and applies them all to Christian people. In the one breath they are ‘temples,’ in the next ‘priests,’ in the third ‘sacrifices.’ All the three are needed to body out the whole truth of the relationship of the perfect universal religion--which is Christianity--to the fragmentary and symbolical religion of ancient time.
Christians individually and collectively are temples, inasmuch as they are ‘the habitation of God through the Spirit.’ They are priests by virtue of their consecration, their direct access to God, their function of representing God to men, and of bringing men to God. They are sacrifices, inasmuch as one main part of their priestly function is to offer themselves to God.
Now, it is very difficult for us to realise what an extraordinary anomaly the Christian faith presented at its origin, surrounded by religions which had nothing to do with morality, conduct, or spiritual life, but were purely ritualistic. And here, in the midst of them, started up a religion bare and bald, and with no appeal to sense, no temple, no altar, no sacrifice. But the Apostles with one accord declare that they had all these things in far higher form than those faiths possessed them, which had only the outward appearance.
Now, this conception of the sacrificial element in the Christian life runs through the whole New Testament, and is applied there in a very remarkable variety of forms. I have taken the words of my text, not so much to discourse upon them especially. My object now is rather to gather together the various references to the Christian life as essentially sacrificial, and to trace the various applications which that idea receives in the New Testament. There are four classes of these, to which I desire especially to refer.
I. There is the living sacrifice of the body.
‘I beseech you, by the mercies of God, that ye present’--which is a technical word for a priest’s action--’your bodies a living sacrifice,’ in contrast with the slaying, which was the presentation of the animal victim. Now, that ‘body’ there is not equivalent to self is distinctly seen when we notice that Paul goes on, in the very next clause, to say, ‘and be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’ So that he is speaking, not of the self, but of the corporeal organ and instrument of the self, when he says ‘present your bodies a living sacrifice.’
Of course, the central idea of sacrifice is surrender to God; and, of course, the place where that surrender is made is the inmost self. The will is the man, and when the will bows, dethroning self and enthroning God, submitting to His appointments, and delighting to execute His commandments, then the sacrifice is begun. But, inasmuch as the body is the organ of the man’s activity, the sacrifice of the will and of self must needs come out into visibility and actuality in the aggregate of deeds, of which the body is the organ and instrument. But there must first of all be the surrender of my inmost self, and only then, and as the token and outcome of that, will any external acts, however religious they may seem to be, come into the category of sacrifice when they express a conscious surrender of myself to God. ‘The flesh profiteth nothing,’ and yet the flesh profiteth much. But here is the order that another of the Apostles lays down: ‘Yield yourselves to God,’ and then, ‘your members as instruments of righteousness to Him.’
To speak of the sacrifice of the body as a living sacrifice suggests that it is not the slaying of any bodily appetite or activity that is the true sacrifice and worship, but the hallowing of these. It is a great deal easier, and it is sometimes necessary, to cut off the offending right hand, to pluck out the offending right eye, or, putting away the metaphor, to abstain rigidly from forms of activity which are perfectly legitimate in themselves, and may be innocuous to other people, if we find that they hurt us. But that is second best, and though it is better in the judgment of common sense to go into life maimed than complete to be cast into hell-fire, it is better still to go into life symmetrical and entire, with no maiming in hand or organ. So you do not offer the living sacrifice of the body when you annihilate, but when you suppress, and direct, and hallow its needs, its appetites, and its activities.
The meaning of this sacrifice is that the whole active life should be based upon, and be the outcome of, the inward surrender of self unto God. ‘On the bells of the horses shall be written, Holiness to the Lord, and every pot and vessel in Jerusalem shall be holy as the bowls upon the altar’--in such picturesque and yet profound fashion did an ancient prophet set forth the same truth that lies in this declaration of our Apostle, that the body, the instrument of our activities, should be a living sacrifice to God. Link all its actions with Him; let there be conscious reference to Him in all that I do. Let foot and hand and eye and brain work for Him, and by Him, and in constant consciousness of His presence; suppress where necessary, direct always, appetites and passions, and make the body the instrument of the surrendered spirit. And then, in the measure in which we can do so, the greatest cleft and discord in human life will be filled, and body, soul, and spirit will harmonise and make one music of praise to God.
Ah! brethren, these bad principles have teeth to bite very close into our daily lives. How many of us, young and old, have ‘fleshly lusts which war against the soul’? How many of you young men have no heart for higher, purer, nobler things, because the animal in you is strong! How many of you find that the day’s activities blunt you to God! How many of us are weakened still under that great antagonism of the flesh lusting against the spirit, so that we cannot do the things that we would! Sensuality, indulgence in animal propensities, yielding to the clamant voices of the beast that is within us--these things wreck many a soul; and some of those that are listening to me now. Let the man govern and coerce the animal, and let God govern the man. ‘I beseech you that you yield your bodies a living sacrifice.’
II. There is the sacrifice of praise.
Of course, logically and properly, this, and all the others that I am going to speak about, are included within that to which I have already directed attention. But still they are dealt with separately in Scripture, and I follow the guidance. We read in the Epistle to the Hebrews: ‘By Him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise unto God continually--that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks unto His name.’ There, then, is another of the regions into which the notion of sacrifice as the very essence of Christian life is to be carried.
There is nothing more remarkable in Scripture than the solemn importance that it attaches to what so many people think so little about, and that is words. It even sometimes seems to take them as being more truly the outcome and revelation of a man’s character than his deeds are. And that is true, in some respects. But at all events there is set forth, ever running all through the Scripture, that thought, that one of the best sacrifices that men can make to God is to render up the tribute of their praise. In the great psalm which lays down with clearness never surpassed in the New Testament the principles of true Christian worship, this is declared: ‘Whoso offereth praise glorifieth Me.’ The true offering is not the slaying of animals or the presentation of any material things, but the utterance of hearts welling up thankfulness. In the ancient ritual there stood within the Holy place, and after the altar of burnt-offering had been passed, three symbols of the relation of the redeemed soul to God. There was the great candlestick, which proclaimed ‘Ye are the light of the world.’ There was the table on which the so-called shewbread was laid, and in the midst there was the altar of incense, on which, day by day, morning and evening, there was kindled the fragrant offering which curled up in wreaths of blue smoke aspiring towards the heavens. It lay smouldering all through the day, and was quickened into flame morning and evening. That is a symbol representing what the Christian life ought to be--a continual thank-offering of the incense of prayer and praise.
Nor that only, brethren, but also there is another shape in which our words should be sacrifices, and that is in the way of direct utterances to men, as well as of thanksgiving to God. What a shame it is, and what a confession of imperfect, partial redemption and regeneration on the part of professing Christians it is, that there are thousands of us who never, all our lives, have felt the impulse or necessity of giving utterance to our Christian convictions! You can talk about anything else; you are tongue-tied about your religion. Why is that? You can make speeches upon political platforms, or you can discourse on many subjects that interest you. You never speak a word to anybody about the Master that you say you serve. Why is that? ‘What is bred in the bone comes out in the flesh.’ What is deep in the heart sometimes lies there unuttered, but more often demands expression. I venture to think that if your Christianity was deeper, it would not be so dumb. You strengthen your convictions by speech. A man’s belief in anything grows incalculably by the very fact of proclaiming it. And there is no surer way to lose moral and spiritual convictions than to huddle them up in the secret chambers of our hearts. It is like a man carrying a bit of ice in his palm. He locks his fingers over it, and when he opens them it has all run out and gone. If you want to deepen your Christianity, declare it. If you would have your hearts more full of gratitude, speak your praise. There used to be in certain religious houses a single figure kneeling on the altar-steps, by day and by night, ever uttering forth with unremitting voice, the psalm of praise. That perpetual adoration in spirit, if not in form, ought to be ours. The fruit of the lips should continually be offered. Literally, of course, there cannot be that unbroken and exclusive utterance of thanksgiving. There are many other things that men have to talk about; but through all the utterances there ought to spread the aroma--like some fragrance diffused through the else scentless air from some unseen source of sweetness--of that name to which the life is one long thanksgiving.
III. There is the sacrifice of help to men.
The same passage in the Epistle to the Hebrews, to which I have already referred, goes on to bracket together the sacrifice of praise and of deeds. It continues thus:--’But to do good and to communicate forget not.’ Again I say, logically this comes under the first division. But still it may be treated separately, and it just carries this thought--your praying and singing praises are worse than useless unless you go out into the world an embodiment and an imitation of the love which you hymn. True philanthropy has its roots in true religion. The service of man is the service of God.
That principle cuts two ways. It comes as a sharp test of their prayers and psalm-singing to emotional Christians, who are always able to gush in words of thankfulness, and it confronts them with the question, What do you do for your brother? That is a question that comes very close to us all. Do not talk about being the priests of the Most High God unless you are doing the priestly office of representing God to men, and carrying to them the blessings that they need. Your service to God is worthless unless it is followed by diligent, fraternal, wise, self-sacrificing service for men.
The same principle points in another direction. If, on the one hand, it crushes as hypocrisy a religion of talk, on the other hand it declares as baseless a philanthropy which has no reference to God. And whilst I know that there are many men who, following the dictates of their hearts, and apart altogether from any reference to higher religious sanctions, do exercise pity and compassion and help, I believe that for the basing of a lasting, wide, wise benevolence, there is nothing solid and broad except Christ and Him crucified, and the consciousness of having been--sinful and needy as we are--received and blessed by Him. Let the philanthropists learn that the surrender of self, and the fruit of the lips giving thanks to His name, must precede the highest kind of beneficence. Let the Christian learn that benevolence is the garb in which religion is dressed. ‘True worship and undefiled ... is this, to visit the widow and the fatherless in their affliction.’ Morality is the dress of Religion; Religion is the body of Morality.
IV. Lastly, there is the sacrifice of death.
‘I am ready to be offered,’ says the Apostle--to be poured out, as a libation. And again, ‘If I be offered upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice with you all.’ And so may
‘Death the endless mercies seal,
And make the sacrifice complete.’
It may become not a reluctant being dragged out of life whilst we cling to it with both our hands. It may be not a reluctant yielding to necessity, but a religious act, in which a man resignedly and trustfully and gratefully yields himself to God; and says, ‘Father! into Thy hands I commit my spirit.’
Ah! brethren, is not that a better way to die than to be like some poor wretch in a stream, that clutches at some unfixed support on the bank, and is whirled away down, fiercely resisting and helpless? We may thus make our last act an act of devotion, and go within the veil as priests bearing in our hands the last of our sacrifices. The sacrifice of death will only be offered when a life of sacrifice has preceded it. And if you and I, moved by the mercies of God, yield ourselves living sacrifices, using our lips for His praise and our possessions for man’s help, then we may die as the Apostle expected to do, and feel that by Christ Jesus even death becomes ‘an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well-pleasing unto God.’
MIRRORS OF GOD
The Revised Version, instead of ‘praises,’ reads excellencies--and even that is but a feeble translation of the remarkable word here employed. For it is that usually rendered ‘virtues’; and by the word, of course, when applied to God, we mean the radiant excellencies and glories of His character, of which our earthly qualities, designated by the same name, are but as shadows.
It is, indeed, true that this same expression is employed in the Greek version of the Old Testament in Isaiah 43. in a verse which evidently was floating before Peter’s mind. ‘This people have I formed for Myself; they shall show forth My praise.’
But even while that is admitted, it is to be observed that the expression here does not merely mean that the audible praise of God should be upon the lips of Christian people, but that their whole lives should, in a far deeper sense than that, be the manifestation of what the Apostle here calls ‘excellencies of God.’
I. Here we get a wonderful glimpse into the heart of God.
Note the preceding words, in which the writer describes all God’s mercies to His people, making them ‘a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation’; a people ‘His own possession.’ All that is done for one specific purpose--’that ye should show forth the praises of Him who hath called you out of darkness.’ That is to say, the very aim of all God’s gracious manifestations of Himself is that the men who apprehend them should go forth into the world and show Him for what He is.
Now that aim may be, and often has been, put so as to present an utterly hard and horrible notion. That God’s glory is His only motive may be so stated as to mean nearly an Almighty Selfishness, which is far liker the devil than God. People in old days did not always recognise the danger that lay in such a representation of what we call God’s motive for action. But if you think for a moment about this statement, all that appears hard and repellent drops clean away from it, and it turns out to be another way of saying, ‘God is Love.’ Because, what is there more characteristic of love than an earnest desire to communicate itself and to be manifested and beheld? And what is it that God reveals to the world for His own glory but the loftiest and most wondrous compassion, that cannot be wearied out, that cannot be provoked, and the most forgiving Omnipotence, that, in answer to all men’s wanderings and rebellions, only seeks to draw them to itself? That is what God wants to be known for. Is that hard and repellent? Does that make Him a great tyrant, who only wants to be abjectly worshipped? No; it makes Him the very embodiment and perfection of the purest love. Why does He desire that He should be known? for any good that it does to Him? No; except the good that even His creatures can do to Him when they gladden His paternal heart by recognising Him for what He is, the Infinite Lover of all souls.
But the reason why He desires, most of all, that the light of His character may pour into every heart is because He would have every heart gladdened and blessed for ever by that received and believed light. So the hard saying that God’s own glory is His supreme end melts into ‘God is Love.’ The Infinite desires to communicate Himself, that by the communication men may be blessed.
II. There is another thing here, and that is, a wonderful glimpse of what Christian people are in the world for.
‘This people have I formed for Myself,’ says the fundamental passage in Isaiah already referred to, ‘they shall show forth My praise.’ It was not worth while forming them except for that. It was still less worth while redeeming them except for that.
But you may say, ‘I am saved in order that I may enjoy all the blessings of salvation, immunities from fear and punishment, and the like.’ Yes! Certainly! But is that all? Or is it the main thing? I think not. There is not a creature in God’s universe so tiny, even although you cannot see it with a microscope, but that it has a claim on Him that made it for its well-being. That is very certain. And so my salvation--with all the blessedness for me that lies wrapped up and hived in that great word--my salvation is an adequate end with God, in all His dealing, and especially in His sending of Jesus Christ.
But there is not a creature in the whole universe, though he were mightier than the archangels that stand nearest God’s throne, who is so great and independent that his happiness and well-being is the sole aim of God’s gifts to him. For every one of us the Apostle means the word, ‘No man liveth to himself’--he could not if he were to try--’and no man dieth to himself.’ Every man that receives anything from God is thereby made a steward to impart it to others. So we may say--and I speak now to you who profess to be Christians--’you were not saved for your own sakes.’ One might almost say that that was a by-end. You were saved--shall I say?--for God’s sake; and you were saved for man’s sake? Just as when you put a bit of leaven into a lump of dough, each grain of the lump, as it is leavened and transformed, becomes the medium for passing on the mysterious transforming influence to the particle beyond, so every one of us, if we have been brought out of darkness into marvellous light, have been so brought, not only that we may recreate and bathe our own eyes in the flooding sunshine, but that we may turn to our brothers and ask them to come too out of the doleful night into the cheerful, gladsome day. Every man that Jesus Christ conquers on the field He sends behind Him, and says, ‘Take rank in My army. Be My soldier.’ Every yard of line in a new railway when laid down is used to carry materials to make the next yard; and so the terminus is reached. Even so, Christian people were formed for Christ that they might show forth His praise.
Look what a notion that gives us of the dignity of the Christian life, and of the special manifestation of God which is afforded to the world in it. You, if you love as you ought to do, are a witness of something far nobler in God than all the stars in the sky. You, if you set forth as becomes you His glorious character, have crowned the whole manifestation that He makes of Himself in Nature and in Providence. What people learn about God from a true Christian is a better revelation than has ever been made or can be made elsewhere. So the Bible talks about principalities and powers in heavenly places who have had nobody knows how many millenniums of intercourse with God, nobody knows how deep and intimate, learning from Christian people the manifold wisdom which had folds and folds in it that they had never unfolded and never could have done. ‘Ye are My witnesses,’ saith the Lord. Sun and stars tell of power, wisdom, and a whole host of majestic attributes. We are witnesses that ‘He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might He increaseth strength.’ Who was it that said
‘‘Twas great to speak a world from naught,
‘Tis greater to redeem?’
‘Ye are saved that ye may show forth the praise of Him who hath called you out of darkness into His marvellous light.’
III. Lastly, we have here a piece of stringent practical direction.
All that I have been saying thus far refers to the way in which the very fact of a man’s being saved from his sin is a revelation of God’s mercy, love, and restoring power. But there are two sides to the thought of my text; and the one is that the very existence of Christian people in the world is a standing witness to the highest glory of God’s name; and the other is that there are characteristics which, as Christian men, we are bound to put forth, and which manifest in another fashion the excellencies of our redeeming God.
The world takes its notions of God, most of all, from the people who say that they belong to God’s family. They read us a great deal more than they read the Bible. They see us; they only hear about Jesus Christ. ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image’ nor any likeness of the Divine, but thou shalt make thyself an image of Him, that men looking at it may learn a little more of what He is. If we have any right to say that we are a royal priesthood, a chosen nation, God’s ‘possession,’ then there will be in us some likeness of Him to whom we belong stamped more or less perfectly upon our characters; and just as people cannot look at the sun, but may get some notion of its power when they gaze upon the rare beauty of the tinted clouds that lie round about it, if, in the poor, wet, cold mistiness of our lives there be caught, as it were, and tangled some stray beams of the sunshine, there will be colour and beauty there. A bit of worthless tallow may be saturated with a perfume which will make it worth its weight in gold. So our poor natures may be drenched with God and give Him forth fragrant and precious, and men may be drawn thereby. The witness of the life which is Godlike is the duty of Christian men and women in the world, and it is mainly what we are here for.
Nor does that exclude the other kind of showing forth the praises, by word and utterance, at fit times and to the right people. We are not all capable of that, in any public fashion; we are all capable of it in some fashion. There is no Christian that has not somebody to whom their words--they may be very simple and very feeble--will come as nobody else’s words can. Let us use these talents and these opportunities for the Master.
But, above all, let us remember that none of these works--either the involuntary and unconscious exhibition of light and beauty and excellencies caught from Him; or the voluntary and vocal proclamations of the name of Him from whom we have caught them--can be done to any good purpose if any taint of self mingles with it. ‘Let your light so shine before men that they may behold your good works and glorify’--whom? you?--’your Father which is in heaven.’
The harp-string gives out its note only on condition that, being touched, it vibrates, and ceases to be visible. Be you unseen, transparent, and the glory of the Lord shall shine through you.
CHRIST THE EXEMPLAR
These words are a very striking illustration of the way in which the Gospel brings Christ’s principles to bear upon morals and duty. The Apostle is doing nothing more than exhorting a handful of slaves to the full and complete and patient acceptance of their hard lot, and in order to teach a very homely and lowly lesson to the squalid minds of a few captives, he brings in the mightiest of all lessons by pointing to the most beautiful, most blessed, and most mysterious fact in the world’s history--the cross of Christ. It is the very spirit of Christianity that the biggest thing is to regulate the smallest duties of life. Men’s lives are made up of two or three big things and a multitude of little ones, and the greater rule the lesser; and, my friends, unless we have got a religion and a morality that can and will keep the trifles of our lives right there will be nothing right; unless we can take those deepest truths, make them the ruling principles, and lay them down side by side with the most trivial things of our lives, we are something short. Is there nothing in your life or mine so small that we cannot bring it into captivity and lift it into beauty by bringing it into connection with saving grace? Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example. This is the first thing that strikes me, and I intend it also by way of introduction. Look how the Apostle has put the points together, as though there are two aspects which go together and cannot be rendered apart, like the under side and the upper side of a coin. ‘Christ also suffered for us,’ and so for us says all the orthodox. ‘Leaving us an example’--there protests all the heretics. Yes, but we know that there is a power in both of them, and the last one is only true when we begin with the first. He suffered for us. There, there, my friends, is the deepest meaning of the cross, and if you want to get Christ for an example, begin with taking Him as the sacrifice, for He gave His life for you. Don’t part the two things. If you believe Him to be Christ, then you take Him at the cross: if you want to see the meaning of Christ as an example, begin with Him as your Saviour. ‘Because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example that ye should follow His steps.’ These are the words, and what God hath joined together let no man put asunder. With these few remarks I shall deal with the words a little more exhaustively, and I see in them three things--the sufferings of Christ our gain, the sufferings of Christ our pattern, and the suffering of Christ our power to imitate.
And first of all that great proclamation which underlies the whole matter--Christ also suffered for us. The sufferings of Christ are thereby our gain. I shall not dwell on the larger questions which these words naturally open for us, and I shall content myself with some of the angles and side views of thought, and one to begin with is this: It is very interesting to notice how, as his life went on, and his inspiration became more full, this Apostle got to understand, as being the very living and heart centre of his religion, the thing which at first was a stumbling-block and mystery to him. You remember when Christ was here on earth, and was surrounded by all His disciples, the man who actually led antagonism to the thought of a saving Messiah, was this very Apostle Peter. How he displayed his ignorance in the words, ‘This shall not be unto Thee, O Lord’; and you remember also how his audacity rose to the height of saying, ‘Why cannot I follow Thee now, Lord? I will lay down my life for Thy sake,’ so little did he understand the purposes of Christ’s suffering and Christ’s death. And even after His resurrection we don’t find that Peter in his early preaching had got as far as he seems to have got in this letter from which my text is taken. You will notice that in this letter he speaks a great deal about the sufferings of Christ, which he puts side by side and in contrast with God’s glorifying of His Son. Christ’s cross, which at first had come to him as a rejection, has now come to him in all its reality, and to him there was the one grand thing, ‘He suffered for us,’ as though he realises Christ in all His beauty and purity, and not only as a beautiful teacher and dear friend. That which at first seemed to him as an astounding mystery and perfect impossibility, he now comes to understand. With those two little words, ‘for us,’ where there was before impossibility, disappointment, and anomaly, the anomaly vanishes, although the mystery becomes deeper. In one sense it was incomprehensible; in another sense it was the only explanation of the fact. And, my friends, I want you to build one thought on this. Unless you and I lay hold of the grand truth that Jesus Christ died for us, it seems to me that the story of the Gospel and the story of the cross is the saddest and most depressing page of human history. That there should have been a man possessed of such a soul, such purity, such goodness, such tenderness, such compassion, and such infinite mercy--if there were all this to do nothing but touch men’s hearts and prick and irritate them into bitter enmity--if the cross were the world’s wages to the world’s best Teacher, and nothing more could be said, then, my friends, it seems to me that the hopes of humanity have, in the providence of God, suffered great disaster, and a terrible indictment stands against both God and man. Oh, yes, the death of Jesus Christ, and the whole history of the world’s treatment of Him, is an altogether incomprehensible and miserable thing--a thing to be forgotten, and a thing to be wept over in tears of blood, and no use for us unless we do as Peter did, apply all the warmth of the heart to this one master key, ‘for us,’ and then the mystery is only an infinitude of love and mercy. What before we could not understand we now begin to see, and to understand the love of God which passeth all understanding. Oh, my friends, I beseech you never think of the cross of Christ without taking those two words. It is a necessary explanation to make the picture beautiful: ‘for us,’ ‘for us’; ‘for me, for me.’ And then notice still further that throughout the whole of this Epistle the comparative vagueness of the words ‘for me’ is interpreted definitely. So far as the language of my text is concerned there can be nothing more expressive, more outspoken, or more intelligible, ‘Christ also suffered for us,’ for our realm. But that is not all that Peter would have us learn. If you want to know the nature of the work, and what the Saviour suffered on the cross for our behalf, advantage, and benefit, here is the definition in the following verse, ‘Who His own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree, that we being dead to sins should live unto righteousness.’ ‘For us,’ not merely as an example; ‘for us,’ not merely for His purity, His beautiful life and calm death; no, better than all that, though a glorious example it is. He has taken away our sins, we are sprinkled with the blood of Jesus Christ; ‘for us’ in the sense of the words in another part of the Epistle, ‘Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things as silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot,’ and if so, we are living examples of what Christ our Saviour has done for the whole world.
There is another point I want to speak about in dwelling on the first part of the text. If you will read this Epistle of Peter at your leisure, you will see that while with Paul both make the cross of Christ the centre of their teaching, Paul speaks more about His death, and Peter more about His sufferings. Throughout the letters of Peter the phrase runs, and the phrase has come almost entirely into modern Christian usage from this Apostle. Paul speaks about the death, Peter speaks of the sufferings. The eye-witness of a Loving Friend, the man who had stood by His side through much of His sufferings though he fled at last, a vivid imagination of His Master’s trials, and a warm heart, led Peter to dwell not only on the one fact of the death, but also on the accompaniments of that awful death, of the mental and physical pain, and especially the temper of the Saviour. I shall not dwell on this, except to make one passing remark on it, viz., that there is a kind of preaching which prevails among the Roman Catholic Church, and is not uncommon to many of the Protestant churches, which dwells unduly on the physical fact of Christ’s death and sufferings. I think, for my part, we are going to the other extreme, and a great many of us are losing a very great source of blessing to ourselves and to those whom we influence, because we don’t realise and don’t dwell sufficiently on the physical and mental sorrows and agony He went through with the death on the cross; and one bad effect of all this is that Christ’s atonement has become to be a kind of theological jungle, and I don’t know that the popular mind can have in the ordinary way any better means of the deliverance of Christ’s cross from this theological maze than a little more frankness and honesty in dwelling on the sorrows and pain of our dear Lord.
Now a word about the second part. The sufferings of Christ as represented here in the text are not only for our gain but our pattern, leaving us an example that we should follow His steps. We are not concerned here about the general principles of Christian ethics, and I don’t think I need dwell on them at all as being great blessings to us; and passing from that I would rather dwell on the one specific thought before us--on the beautiful life, the gracious words, the gentle deeds, the wisdom, the rectitude, the tenderness, the submission to the Father and the oblivion to Himself, which characterises the whole life of Jesus Christ, from the very first up to the agony on the cross. We have looked to Him as our gain, and as the head and beginning of our salvation, and now we have to turn from that mysterious and solemn thought and look to Him as an ideal pattern by which our life should be moulded and shaped. ‘Leaving us an example.’ Just as Elijah’s mantle dropped from him as he rose, so Christ in going up to the Father fluttered down on the world a pattern which He had in His sufferings. He goes away, but the pattern abides with us. ‘Leaving us an example.’ The word used here is translated quite correctly. The word example is a very remarkable and unusual one; it means literally a thing to be retained. You put a copyhead before a child, and tell him to copy it, and trace it over till he retains it; or, to come to modern English, you put the copyhead on the top of a page. What blots, pothooks, and angles you and I make as we are trying to write on the top of the page of life. See, there is the pattern. Lo, another man hath written above, and you are asked to make your life exactly the same, the same angles and the same corners--to make your life in all respects coincide with that. My friends, we shall all have to take our copybooks to the Master’s desk some day. There will be a headline there which Christ hath written, and one which we have written, and how do you think we shall like to put the two side by side? My friends, we had better do it to-day than have to do it then. There is the pattern life; the copy is plain. I don’t think I need say any more about the other metaphor contained here. The Divine Exemplar has left us the headline that we should follow His footsteps, and it is a blessed thought to know that we are to follow in His own steps. ‘What, cannot I follow Thee now?’ said Peter once, and you remember when the Apostle had been restored to his office, the words of the Saviour were--’Feed My lambs; feed My sheep; feed My lambs, follow thou Me.’ This is also our privilege. As a guide going across a wet moor with a traveller calls out, ‘Step where I step, or else you will be bogged,’ so we must tread in the steps of the Saviour, and then we shall come safe on the other side. Tread in His steps, aye, in the steps which are marked with bleeding feet, for ‘He suffered and left us an example.’ I will just add one word, dear friends, to deepen the thought in its impressiveness, that the cross of Christ it to be the pattern of our lives. It stands alone, thank God, for mighty power in its relation to the salvation of the world, and it stands alone in awful terror. You and I are, at the very worst, but at the edge of the storm which broke in all its dreadful fury over His head; we love to go but a little way down the hillside, while He descended to the very bottom; we love to drink but very little of the cup which He drained the last drop of and held it up empty and reversed, showing that nothing trickled from it, and exclaimed, ‘The cup which My Father hath given Me have I drunk.’ But although alone in all its mighty power, and though alone in all its awful terror, it may be copied by us in two things--perfect submission to our Maker, and non-resistance and meekness with regard to man. There is only one way of carrying the cross of Christ, which God lays on us all, and that is bowing our back. If we resist, it will crush us, and if we yield we have something to endure; and there is but one thing which enables a man to patiently bear the sorrows and griefs which come to us all, and that is the simple secret, ‘Father, not as I will, but Thy will be done.’ Christ suffered for us, leaving us an example that we should follow in His footsteps, and when we patiently do this the rod becomes a guiding staff, and the crown of thorns a crown of glory.
But my text reminds me that the sufferings of Christ are not only our gain and our pattern, but they are also our power to imitate--the power to fight the battle for Christ. Example is not all. The world wants more than that. The reason for men’s badness is not because they have not plenty of patterns of good. If a copyhead could save the world it would have been saved long ago. Patterns of good are plenty; the mischief is we don’t copy them. There are footsteps in abundance, but then our legs are lame, and we cannot tread in them, and what is the use of copies if we have a broken pen, muddy ink, and soiled paper? So we want a great deal more than that. No, my friends, the world is not to be saved by example. You and I know that the weakness and the foolishness of men know a great deal better than the wisest of men ever did, so we want something more. Examples don’t give the power nor the wish to get it. Is not that true about you? Don’t you feel that if this is all which religion has given you it stops short? The gospel comes and says, ‘If you love Christ Jesus because you know that He died for you,’ then there will be something else than the copybook. That copy and pattern will be laid to your heart and transferred there. You will not have to go on trying to make a bungling imitation; you will get it photographed on your spirit, and on your character more distinctly and more clearly down to the very minutest shade of resemblance to the Master, and with simple loving trust you will go on from strength to strength glorifying God in your life. They that begin with the cross of Christ, and make the sacrifice their all in all, will advance heavenward joyously; the cross and the sacrifice will be the pattern of your pilgrimage here, and the perfectness of your characters unto the likeness of the Son. The cross is the agency of sanctification as well as the means of forgiveness--saving grace to save us from the world, saving grace to help us everywhere and in everything for our salvation, and saving grace to help us to conquer our self-will, and saving grace to bind us to Him, whose abundant goodness and gratitude no man can tell. If we love Him we shall keep His commandments; if we love them we shall grow in grace, and not else. None else, my brother, my sister, but the Eternal Exemplar stands there as our refuge; and if you want to be filled with this all-saving grace, deep down to the bottom of His tender heart, if you want to be good, and of pure mind, then you have to begin with that Saviour who died for you, and trust to the cross for your forgiveness. Then listen to Him saying, ‘Any man who comes after Me, let him take up My cross’--take it up, mark--’and follow Me.’
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MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on 1 Peter 2". MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20