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120

CHAPTER IX.

THE FAR AND NEAR.

“Wherefore remember, that aforetime ye, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called Circumcision in the flesh, made by hands; that ye were at that time separate from Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world: but now in Christ Jesus ye who sometime were far off are made nigh in the blood of Christ.”—Eph. ii. 11–13.

The apostle’s Wherefore sums up for his readers the record of their salvation rehearsed in the previous verses. “You were buried in your sins, sunk in their corruption, ruined by their guilt, living under God’s displeasure and in the power of Satan. All this has passed away. The almighty Hand has raised you with Christ into a heavenly life. God has become your Father; His love is in your heart; by the strength of His grace you are enabled to walk in the way marked out for you from your creation. Wherefore remember: think of what you were, and of what you are!”

To such recollections we do well to summon ourselves. The children of grace love to recall, and on fit occasions recount for God’s glory and the help of their fellows, the way in which God led them to the knowledge of Himself. In some the great change came suddenly. He “made speed” to save us. It was a veritable 121 resurrection, as signal and unlooked for as the rising of Christ from the dead. By a swift passage we were “translated from the power of darkness into the kingdom of the Son of His love.” Once living without God in the world, we were arrested by a strange providence—through some overthrow of fortune or shock of bereavement, or by a trivial incident touching unaccountably a hidden spring in the mind—and the whole aspect of life was altered in a moment. We saw revealed, as by a lightning flash at night, the emptiness of our own life, the misery of our nature, the folly of our unbelief, the awful presence of God—God whom we had forgotten and despised! We sought, and found His mercy. From that hour the old things passed away: we lived who had been dead,—made alive to God through Jesus Christ.

This instant conversion, such as Paul experienced, this sharp and abrupt transition from darkness to light, was common in the first generation of Christians, as it is wherever religious awakening takes place in a society that has been largely dead to God. The advent of Christianity in the Gentile world was much after this fashion,—like a tropical sunrise, in which day leaps on the earth full-born. This experience gives a stamp of peculiar decision to the convictions and character of its subjects. The change is patent and palpable; no observer can fail to mark it. And it burns itself into the memory with an ineffaceable impression. The violent throes of such a spiritual birth cannot be forgotten.

But if our entrance into the life of God was gradual, like the dawn of our own milder clime, where the light steals by imperceptible advances upon the darkness—if the glory of the Lord has thus risen upon us, our certainty of its presence may be no less complete, and our 122 remembrance of its coming no less grateful and joyous. One leaps into the new life by a single eager bound; another reaches it by measured, thoughtful steps: but both are there, standing side by side on the common ground of salvation in Christ. Both walk in the same light of the Lord, that floods the sky from east to west. The recollections which the latter has to cherish of the leading of God’s kindly light—how He touched our childish thought, and checked gently our boyish waywardness, and mingled reproof with the first stirrings of passion and self-will, and wakened the alarms of conscience and the fears of another world, and the sense of the beauty of holiness and the shame of sin,—

“Shaping to truth the froward will

Along His narrow way,”—

such remembrances are a priceless treasure, that grows richer as we grow wiser. It awakens a joy not so thrilling nor so prompt in utterance as that of the soul snatched like a brand from the burning, but which passes understanding. Blessed are the children of the kingdom, those who have never roamed far from the fold of Christ and the commonwealth of Israel, whom the cross has beckoned onwards from their childhood. But however it was—by whatever means, at whatever time it pleased God to call you from darkness to His marvellous light, remember.


But we must return to Paul and his Gentile readers. The old death in life was to them a sombre reality, keenly and painfully remembered. In that condition of moral night out of which Christ had rescued them, Gentile society around them still remained. Let us observe its features as they are delineated in contrast 123 with the privileges long bestowed on Israel. The Gentile world was Christless, hopeless, godless. It had no share in the Divine polity framed for the chosen people; the outward mark of its uncircumcision was a true symbol of its irreligion and debasement.

Israel had a God. Besides, there were only “those who are called gods.” This was the first and cardinal distinction. Not their race, not their secular calling, their political or intellectual gifts, but their faith formed the Jews into a nation. They were “the people of God,” as no other people has been—of the God, for theirs was “the true and living God”—Jehovah, the I AM, the One, the Alone. The monotheistic belief was, no doubt, wavering and imperfect in the mass of the nation in early times; but it was held by the ruling minds amongst them, by the men who have shaped the destiny of Israel and created its Bible, with increasing clearness and intensity of passion. “All the gods of the nations are idols—vapours, phantoms, nothings!—but Jehovah made the heavens.” It was the ancestral faith that glowed in the breast of Paul at Athens, amidst the fairest shrines of Greece, when he “saw the city wholly given to idolatry”—man’s highest art and the toil and piety of ages lavished on things that were no gods; and in the midst of the splendour of a hollow and decaying Paganism he read the confession that God was “unknown.”

Ephesus had her famous goddess, worshipped in the most sumptuous pile of architecture that the ancient world contained. Behold the proud city, “temple-keeper of the great goddess Artemis,” filled with wrath! Infuriate Demos flashes fire from his thousand eyes, and his brazen throat roars hoarse vengeance against the insulters of “her magnificence, whom all 124 Asia and the world worshippeth”! Without God—atheists, in fact, the apostle calls this devout Asian population; and Artemis of Ephesus, and Athené, and Cybelé of Smyrna, and Zeus and Asclepius of Pergamum, though all the world worship them, are but “creatures of art and man’s device.”

The Pagans retorted this reproach. “Away with the atheists!” they cried, when Christians were led to execution. Ninety years after this time the martyr Polycarp was brought into the arena before the magistrates of Asia and the populace gathered in Smyrna at the great Ionic festival. The Proconsul, wishing to spare the venerable man, said to him: “Swear by the Fortune of Cæsar; and say, Away with the atheists!” But Polycarp, as the story continues, “with a grave look gazing on the crowd of lawless Gentiles in the stadium and shaking his hand against them, then groaning and looking up to heaven, said, Away with the atheists!” Pagan and Christian were each godless in the eyes of the other. If visible temples and images, and the local worship of each tribe or city made a god, then Jews and Christians had none: if God was a Spirit—One, Holy, Almighty, Omnipresent—then polytheists were in truth atheists; their many gods, being many, were no gods; they were idols,—eidola, illusive shows of the Godhead.

The more thoughtful and pious among the heathen felt this already. When the apostle denounced the idols and their pompous worship as “these vanities,” his words found an echo in the Gentile conscience. The classical Paganism held the multitude by the force of habit and local pride, and by its sensuous and artistic charms; but such religious power as it once had was gone. In all directions it was undermined by mystic 125 Oriental and Egyptian rites, to which men resorted in search of a religion and sick of the old fables, ever growing more debased, that had pleased their fathers. The majesty of Rome in the person of the Emperor, the one visible supreme power, was seized upon by the popular instinct, even more than it was imposed by state policy, and made to fill the vacuum; and temples to Augustus had already risen in Asia, side by side with those of the ancient gods.

In this despair of their ancestral religions many piously disposed Gentiles turned to Judaism for spiritual help; and the synagogue was surrounded in the Greek cities by a circle of earnest proselytes. From their ranks St Paul drew a large proportion of his hearers and converts. When he writes, “Remember that you were at that time without God,” he is within the recollection of his readers; and they will bear him out in testifying that their heathen creed was dead and empty to the soul. Nor did philosophy construct a creed more satisfying. Its gods were the Epicurean deities who dwell aloof and careless of men; or the supreme Reason and Necessity of the Stoics, the anima mundi, of which human souls are fleeting and fragmentary images. “Deism finds God only in heaven; Pantheism, only on earth; Christianity alone finds Him both in heaven and on earth” (Harless). The Word made flesh reveals God in the world.

When the apostle says “without God in the world,” this qualification is both reproachful and sorrowful. To be without God in the world that He has made, where His “eternal power and Godhead” have been visible from creation, argues a darkened and perverted heart.8686   Rom. i. 19–23; comp. John i. 10: “He [the true Light] was in the world, and the world knew Him not.” 126 To be without God in the world is to be in the wilderness, without a guide; on a stormy ocean, without harbour or pilot; in sickness of spirit, without medicine or physician; to be hungry without bread, and weary without rest, and dying with no light of life. It is to be an orphaned child, wandering in an empty, ruined house.

In these words we have an echo of Paul’s preaching to the Gentiles, and an indication of the line of his appeals to the conscience of the enlightened pagans of his time. The despair of the age was darker than the human mind has known before or since. Matthew Arnold has painted it all in one verse of those lines, entitled Obermann once more, in which he so perfectly expresses the better spirit of modern scepticism.

“On that hard Pagan world disgust

And secret loathing fell

Deep weariness and sated lust

Made human life a hell.”

The saying by which St Paul reproved the Corinthians, “Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die,” is the common sentiment of pagan epitaphs of the time. Here is an extant specimen of the kind: “Let us drink and be merry; for we shall have no more kissing and dancing in the kingdom of Proserpine. Soon shall we fall asleep, to wake no more.” Such were the thoughts with which men came back from the grave-side. It is needless to say how depraving was the effect of this hopelessness. At Athens, in the more religious times of Socrates, it was even considered a decent and kindly thing to allow a criminal condemned to death to spend his last hours in gross sensual indulgence. There is no reason to suppose that 127 the extinction of the Christian hope of immortality would prove less demoralizing. We are “saved by hope,” said St Paul: we are ruined by despair. Pessimism of creed for most men means pessimism of conduct.

Our modern speech and literature and our habits of feeling have been for so many generations steeped in the influence of Christ’s teaching, and it has thrown so many tender and hallowed thoughts around the state of our beloved dead, that it is impossible even for those who are personally without hope in Christ to realize what its general decay and disappearance would mean. To have possessed such a treasure, and then to lose it! to have cherished anticipations so exalted and so dear,—and to find them turn out a mockery! The age upon which this calamity fell would be of all ages the most miserable.

The hope of Israel which Paul preached to the Gentiles was a hope for the world and for the nations, as well as for the individual soul. “The commonwealth [or polity] of Israel” and “the covenants of promise” guaranteed the establishment of the Messianic kingdom upon earth. This expectation took amongst the mass of the Jews a materialistic and even a revengeful shape; but in one form or other it belonged, and still belongs to every man of Israel. Those noble lines of Virgil in his fourth Eclogue8787    Magnus ab integro sæclorum nascitur ordo. Jam redit et Virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna; Jam nova progenies cœlo demittitur alto. Tu modo nascenti puero, quo ferrea primum Desinet, ac toto surget gens aurea mundo, Casta, fave, Lucina. —like the words of Caiaphas, an unintended Christian prophecy—which predicted the return of justice and 128 the spread of a golden age through the whole world under the rule of the coming heir of Cæsar, had been signally belied by the imperial house in the century that had elapsed. Never were human prospects darker than when the apostle wrote as Nero’s prisoner in Rome. It was an age of crime and horror. The political world and the system of pagan society seemed to be in the throes of dissolution. Only in “the commonwealth of Israel” was there a light of hope and a foundation for the future of mankind; and of this in its wisdom the world knew nothing.

The Gentiles were “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel,”—that is to say, treated as aliens and made such by their exclusion. By the very fact of Israel’s election, the rest of mankind were shut out of the visible kingdom of God. They became mere Gentiles, or nations,—a herd of men bound together only by natural affinity, with no “covenant of promise,” no religious constitution or destiny, no definite relationship to God, Israel being alone the acknowledged and organized “people of Jehovah.”

These distinctions were summed up in one word, expressing all the pride of the Jewish nature, when the Israelites styled themselves “the Circumcision.” The rest of the world—Philistines or Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, or Barbarians, it mattered not—were “the Uncircumcision.” How superficial this distinction was in point of fact, and how false the assumption of moral superiority it implied in the existing condition of Judaism, St Paul indicates by saying, “those who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called Circumcision, in flesh, wrought by human hands.” In the second and third chapters of his epistle to the Romans he exposed the hollowness of Jewish sanctity, and 129 brought his fellow-countrymen down to the level of those “sinners of the Gentiles” whom they so bitterly despised.

The destitution of the Gentile world is put into a single word, when the apostle says: “You were at that time separate from Christ”—without a Christ, either come or coming. They were deprived of the world’s one treasure,—shut out, as it appeared, for ever8888   Observe the perfect participle ἀπηλλοτριωμένοι, which signifies an abiding fact or fixed condition. Similar is the turn of expression in ch. iii. 9, and in Col. i. 26, Rom. xvi. 25, Matt. xiii. 35. from any part in Him who is to mankind all things and in all.—Once far off!


“But now in Christ Jesus ye were made nigh.” What is it that has bridged the distance, that has transported these Gentiles from the wilderness of heathenism into the midst of the city of God? It is “the blood of Christ.” The sacrificial death of Jesus Christ transformed the relations of God to mankind, and of Israel to the Gentiles. In Him God reconciled not a nation, but “a world” to Himself (2 Cor. v. 19). The death of the Son of man could not have reference to the sons of Abraham alone. If sin is universal and death is not a Jewish but a human experience, and if one blood flows in the veins of all our race, then the death of Jesus Christ was a universal sacrifice; it appeals to every man’s conscience and heart, and puts away for each the guilt which comes between his soul and God.

When the Greeks in Passion week desired to see Him, He exclaimed: “I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all unto me.” The cross of Jesus was to draw humanity around it, by its infinite love 130 and sorrow, by the perfect apprehension there was in it of the world’s guilt and need, and the perfect submission to the sentence of God’s law against man’s sin. So wherever the gospel was preached by St Paul, it won Gentile hearts for Christ. Greek and Jew found themselves weeping together at the foot of the cross, sharing one forgiveness and baptized into one Spirit.

The union of Caiaphas and Pilate in the condemnation of Jesus and the mingling of the Jewish crowd with the Roman soldiers at His execution were a tragic symbol of the new age that was coming. Israel and the Gentiles were accomplices in the death of the Messiah—the former of the two the more guilty partner in the counsel and deed. If this Jesus whom they slew and hanged on a tree was indeed the Christ, God’s chosen, then what availed their Abrahamic sonship, their covenants and law-keeping, their proud religious eminence? They had killed their Christ; they had forfeited their calling. His blood was on them and on their children.

Those who seemed nigh to God, at the cross of Christ were found far off,—that both together, the far and the near, might be reconciled and brought back to God. “He shut up all unto disobedience, that He might have mercy upon all.”


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