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BRINGING US TO GOD
Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God; being put to death in the flesh, but quickened in the spirit; in which also He went and preached unto the spirits in prison, which aforetime were disobedient, when the long suffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water: which also after a true likeness doth now save you, even baptism, not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the interrogation of a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ; who is on the right hand of God, having gone into heaven; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto Him.
THE concluding passage of this great chapter is like a landscape in the uncertain light of the early morning. Here and there the black shadows still linger and prolong the night. The hollows are filled with mist. A prevailing dimness possesses the scene. From only a few things has the veil dropped, and their lineaments are seen in suggestive outline. On the whole, we are dealing with obscure hints, with partial unveilings, which awaken wonder, rather than convey enlightenment. Perhaps, in the present 139stage of our pilgrimage, an open-eyed wonder is more fruitful than an assurance begotten of broader light. Assurance may nourish sluggishness; an expectant wonder disciplines the powers to a rare perceptiveness. But amid all the indefiniteness of the revelation, there are two or three visions which are sufficiently clear to enrich our thought and life. We have glimpses of the Lord in a threefold activity. We see Him engaged in His redemptive work among men upon earth: “Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God.” [Verse 18] We behold Him ministering to spirits who have left the sphere of earth, but who are not yet in reconciled fellowship with their God. “He went and preached unto the spirits in prison.” [Verse 19] And we see Him again on the throne of His glory receiving the willing and jubilant homage of the mystic powers who surround the sovereignty of God. “He is on the right hand of God . . . angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto Him.” [Verse 22] Let us contemplate these three relationships.
“Christ also suffered for sins ONCE.” [Verse 18] There is a reference to some distinct and definite historical event. To the apostle there was a certain nameable season when our redemption was achieved. The sufferings of the Master 140were infinitely more than momentary incidents, reflecting the permanent mood of God. Christ’s sufferings were altogether unique. They were paralleled by no previous happenings, and they would never be repeated. “Christ suffered for sins once”; something was done, done “once,” and done for ever. Therefore, Gethsemane and Calvary are gravely and uniquely significant. They are more than the tempestuous ending of a noble and laborious life. Behind their appalling externalities there are more appalling conditions. Behind the loneliness of the garden there is the more awful loneliness of the soul. Behind the blackness of Calvary there is the deeper darkness of the spirit. The real movements of redemptive ministry are not to be witnessed in the material setting of the Crucifixion. The human and material environment of the Master’s death has dominated our thought too much. I do not think that the material incidents of Gethsemane and Calvary were essential to our redemption. I believe that if Christ had never been betrayed by one of the twelve, He would still have died for our sins. I believe that if He had never suffered the brutal accompaniments of mockery and blasphemy, and the loathsome coarseness of contemptible men, He would still have died for our sins. I believe that if He had never been crucified, He would 141still have died for our sins. I believe that if He had finished His ministry in public acclamation, instead of public contempt, He would still have passed into outer darkness, into an un thinkable loneliness, into a terrible midnight of spiritual forsakenness and abandonment. He came to die, came to pass into the night which is “the wages of sin,” and what we men did was to add to His death the pangs of contempt and crucifixion.
“Christ suffered for sins once.” But could not sin have been forgiven without the sufferings? Could not sin have been forgiven without abandonment? Might we not have had our forgiveness without that cry of “forsaken”? I ask these questions not because I can answer them, but in order to awake a reverent wonder and a fruitful awe. This I know, that cheap forgiveness always lightens sin. Flippant forgiveness gilds the sin it forgives, and the sorest injury we can do to any man is to lighten his conception of the enormity of sin. The only really healthy forgiveness is the forgiveness which pardons sin while at the same time it reveals it. This, at any rate, is one of the commanding glories of evangelical religion—it never makes light of sin. Nowhere does forgiveness shine more resplendently, and nowhere does sin gloom more repulsively, than in the 142redemptive love of Christ. In that love we behold both the horrors of the midnight and the quiet, sunny glories of the noontide. “Christ suffered for sins once,” in order that sin might never be glozed and veneered. In obtaining our forgiveness by His death, the Lord Christ revealed His love and unveiled our sin.
“Christ suffered for sins . . . that He might bring us to God.” [Verse 18] By the power of His redemption we can make our way home. He is “the way”; the road has been opened for us by the ministry of His grace. He is the “truth”; in His redemption truth was not dimmed but glorified. He is “the life”; in His grace are to be found all the resources for raising the dead into the renewed and glorified estate of children of God. He suffered, “that He might bring us to God.” All that need be said about that gracious “bringing” is just this, that in Jesus, answering the call of His redeeming grace, men and women in countless numbers have turned their faces home, and are making their way out of the deadening bondage of sin into the “glorious liberty of the children of God.”
Far, far away, like bells at evening pealing,
The voice of Jesus sounds o’er land and sea;
And laden souls, by thousands meekly stealing,
Kind Shepherd, turn their weary steps to Thee.
And now the sphere of our vision is changed. Our minds are turned to another aspect of the saving ministry of Christ. The Saviour has died. “The great transaction’s done.” He has suffered for sins “once.” Forgiveness is offered to all. What of those who have departed this life, and have never heard the news of the great redemption? Men have sinned against their light, they have revolted against the Master. But they have lacked the unspeakable advantage of hearing the story of redemptive love. Are they to have no chance? The souls “which aforetime were disobedient . . . in the days of Noah,” [Verse 20] are they to suffer for their disobedience, deprived al together of the ministry of Christ’s redemption? Let the question be stated with perfect frankness—are the sinful, who have never heard of Jesus, to pass into the darkness of a final destiny, a darkness which will never be illumined by the gospel and ministry of redemption? Here is the scriptural answer to that painful quest: “He went and preached unto the spirits in prison.” [Verse 19] I know we are dealing with dim hints, and not with bright revelations, but from those words one thing is clear to me, that final judgment is not to be pronounced on any until they have heard of the redemptive love of Jesus, and have had the offer and opportunity 144of accepting it. No man’s destiny is to be fixed until he has heard of Christ. The “spirits in prison,” who have not heard the gospel of redemption, are to hear it in their prison-house and are to have the gracious offer which is made to you and me to-day. I know the objection which is taken to this interpretation. It is said to weaken the urgency of foreign missions, to make men sluggish in the labour of taking the gospel of light to unillumined tribes and peoples. If the offer of salvation is to be made to the ignorant on the other side of death, what special urgency is there for strenuous labour in the present? That is how many men have reasoned, and how many reason to-day. If the unenlightened heathen are not swept into hell, the burden of the situation is lightened, and the strain is relaxed. It is a terrific motive to conceive that the unillumined multitudes are dropping over the precipice of death into ever lasting torment. And that has been the conception of many devoted followers of Christ. I was reading a book the other day in which the writer made the terrible declaration that three millions of the heathen and Mohammedans are dying every month, dropping over the precipice into the awful night, swept into eternity! Swept into what? If they go out with unlit minds and hearts, are they never 145to see the gracious countenance of the Light of Life? “He went and preached unto the spirits in prison.” Again I ask, does this destroy the urgency of foreign missions, and will it lull the heart of the Church to sleep? Where are we if the motive of our missions and ministry is to save people from the fires of hell? Apart altogether from salvation from torment, is the Master Himself worth knowing? Sup posing we could now be assured that every soul in the heathen world would be here after rescued from the torments of hell, is there nothing in our Gospel which shapes itself into an urgent and all-constraining evangel? Seek out some ripe old saint, who has deep and intimate intercourse with the Lord; let her open her heart to you about the glories of her faith; and you will discover that the word “hell” has dropped out of her vocabulary. She is so absorbed in the glories of her Lord, so possessed by the delights of daily companionship, so engaged in carrying her own God-given comfort to the sorrows of others, that the house of torments has no place in her heart. If you ask her the nature of the evangel she carries about with her, this will be her reply:
God only knows the love of God,
Oh that it now were shed abroad
In every human heart!
The real missionary motive is not to save from hell, but to reveal the Christ; not to save from a peril, but to proclaim and create a glorious companionship. Here is the marrow of the controversy, concentrated into one pressing question: Is it of infinite moment to know Christ now? Assume that there are now men and women in the heathen world who are to remain upon the earth for the next twenty years, and it is in our power to make those twenty years a season of hallowed fellowship with the Lord, is it worth the doing? Even further assuming that if they pass through death unenlightened, they will hear the message of reconciliation in the beyond, is it worth our while to light up those twenty years with the gracious light of redemptive grace? What is the money-value of an hour with the Lord? I do not address my question to the unredeemed, for the unredeemed have no answer, and in them the missionary-motive has no place. I speak to those who have accepted the offer of reconciling love, and who know the power of the Lord’s salvation, and of them I ask—What is the money-value of an hour with the Lord? “Beyond all knowledge and all thought.” Carry your values across to the regions of ignorance and night. To be able to give one 147“day of the Son of Man” to some poor old soul in heathendom: to lighten one day’s load; to transfigure one day’s sorrow; to lift the burden of his passion; to create a river of kindliness; to light his lamp in the evening-time, and to send him through the shadows in the assurance of immortal hope,—is it worth the doing? “A day in Thy courts is better than a thousand.” Such is the value of a day with the Lord. “We are stewards of the mysteries of grace. Because we have them we owe them. Woe be to us if through our thoughtlessness we leave our fellowmen in days of burdensome terror and night, when by our ministry we might have led them into the peace and liberty of the children of light.
And now the sphere of the Lord’s activity is again changed. The apostle next turns our minds to the Lord’s enthronement and dominion. He “is on the right hand of God, having gone Verse into heaven; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto Him.” [Verse 22] I need that conception of the Christ! I know Him as a Sufferer, despised and lonely, sharing our frailties, and hastening on to death. I know Him as “a Man of Sorrows and acquainted with grief.” I need to know Him as the risen and glorified King, moving in supreme exaltations, receiving the glad and reverent homage of 148“the spirits that surround the throne.” I have seen Him weep; I have seen Him wearied at the well; I have heard Him cry “I thirst”; I have heard the still more awful cry “Forsaken!” Now I would see Him, “with a name above every name,” “highly exalted,” “angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto Him.” We are timid, and nerveless, and hope less, lacking in spiritual energy and persistence, crawling in reluctance when we ought to speed like conquerors, and all because we do not realise the majestic lordship of our King. “All power is given unto Me in heaven and on earth.” What kind of followers ought that to create? Surely it ought to be creative of disciples who can “strongly live and nobly strive.” Soldiers will dare anything when they have confidence in the strength and wisdom of their general. His commands are their possibilities, and they are eager to turn them into sure achievements. We have a brave Captain, seated upon the throne, and exercising universal sovereignty. Surely we ought to march in the spirit of assured conquest. We ought to attack every stronghold of sin with confidence, as though the dark citadel were already falling into ruin. The Lord wishes His disciples to begin all enterprises in the knowledge that victory is secured. “Believe that ye receive 149them and ye shall have them.” That is the spirit of victory.
All this redemptive power may become ours by baptism, but not the baptism that consists in any outward sprinkling of external cleansing. “Not by the putting away of the filth of the flesh.” We need to be lifted above the filth of the spirit, and so the baptism must be an inspiration. There must be poured into our life rivers of energy from the risen Lord.
That cleansing flood will create within us moral soundness. We shall attain unto “a good conscience.” Our lives will be set in “interrogation toward God.” Our souls will be possessed by a reverent inquisitiveness, and they will be ever searching among the deep things of God.150
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