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THE SERVANT AND THE SLAVES
‘Thy servant David. . . ’; ‘Thy Holy Servant Jesus. . . ’; ‘Thy servants. . . ’ACTS iv. 26, 27, 29.
I do not often take fragments of Scripture for texts; but though these are fragments, their juxtaposition results in by no means fragmentary thoughts. There is obvious intention in the recurrence of the expression so frequently in so few verses, and to the elucidation of that intention my remarks will be directed. The words are parts of the Church’s prayer on the occasion of its first collision with the civil power. The incident is recorded at full length because it is the first of a long and bloody series, in order that succeeding generations might learn their true weapon and their sure defence. Prayer is the right answer to the world’s hostility, and they who only ask for courage to stand by their confession will never ask in vain. But it is no part of my intention to deal either with the incident or with this noble prayer.
A word or two of explanation may be necessary as to the language of our texts. You will observe that, in the second of them, I have followed the Revised Version, which, instead of ‘Thy holy child,’ as in the Authorised Version, reads ‘Thy holy Servant.’ The alteration is clearly correct. The word, indeed, literally means ‘a child,’ but, like our own English ‘boy,’ or even ‘man,’ or ‘maid,’ it is used to express the relation of servant, when the desire is to cover over the harsher features of servitude, and to represent the servant as a part of the family. Thus the kindly centurion, who besought Jesus to come and heal his servant, speaks of him as his ‘boy.’ And that the word is here used in this secondary sense of ‘servant’ is unmistakable. For there is no discernible reason why, if stress were meant to be laid on Christ as being the Son of God, the recognised expression for that relationship should not have been employed. Again, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, with which the Apostles were familiar, employs the very phrase that is here used as its translation of the well-known Old Testament designation of the Messiah, ‘the Servant of the Lord’ and the words here are really a quotation from the great prophecies of the second part of the Book of Isaiah. Further, the same word is employed in reference to King David and in reference to Jesus Christ. In regard to the former, it is evident that it must have the meaning of ‘servant’; and it would be too harsh to suppose that in the compass of so few verses the same expression should be used, at one time in the one signification, and at another in the other. So, then, David and Jesus are in some sense classified here together as both servants of God. That is the first point that I desire to make.
Then, in regard to the third of my texts, the expression is not the same there as in the other two. The disciples do not venture to take the loftier designation. Rather they prefer the humble one, ‘slaves,’ bondmen, the familiar expression found all through the New Testament as almost a synonym to Christians.
So, then, we have here three figures: the Psalmist-king, the Messiah, the disciples; Christ in the midst, on the one hand a servant with whom He deigns to be classed, on the other hand the slaves who, through Him, have become sons. And I think I shall best bring out the intended lessons of these clauses in their connection if I ask you to note these two contrasts, the servants and the Servant; the Servant and the slaves. ‘David Thy servant’; ‘Thy holy Servant Jesus’; us ‘Thy servants.’
I. First, then, notice the servants and the Servant.
The reason for the application of the name to the Psalmist lies, not so much in his personal character or in his religious elevation, as in the fact that he was chosen of God for a specific purpose, to carry on the divine plans some steps towards their realisation. Kings, priests, prophets, the collective Israel, as having a specific function in the world, and being, in some sense, the instruments and embodiments of the will of God amongst men, have in an eminent degree the designation of His ‘servants.’ And we might widen out the thought and say that all men who, like the heathen Cyrus, are God’s shepherds, though they do not know it—guided by Him, though they understand not whence comes their power, and blindly do His work in the world, being ‘epoch-making’ men, as the fashionable phrase goes now—are really, though in a subordinate sense, entitled to the designation.
But then, whilst this is true, and whilst Jesus Christ comes into this category, and is one of these special men raised up and adapted for special service in connection with the carrying out of the divine purpose, mark how emphatically and broadly the line is drawn here between Him and the other members of the class to which, in a certain sense, He does belong. Peter says, ‘Thy servant David,’ but he says ‘Thy holy Servant Jesus.’ And in the Greek the emphasis is still stronger, because the definite article is employed before the word ‘servant.’ ‘The holy Servant of Thine’—that is His specific and unique designation.
There are many imperfect instruments of the divine will. Thinkers and heroes and saints and statesmen and warriors, as well as prophets and priests and kings, are so regarded in Scripture, and may profitably be so regarded by us; but amongst them all there is One who stands in their midst and yet apart from them, because He, and He alone, can say, ‘I have done all Thy pleasure, and into my doing of Thy pleasure no bitter leaven of self-regard or by-ends has ever, in the faintest degree, entered.’ ‘Thy holy Servant Jesus’ is the unique designation of the Servant of the Lord.
And what is the meaning of holy? The word does not originally and primarily refer to character so much as to relation to God. The root idea of holiness is not righteousness nor moral perfectness, but something that lies behind these—viz, separation for the service and uses of God. The first notion of the word is consecration, and, built upon that and resulting from it, moral perfection. So then these men, some of whom had lived beside Jesus Christ for all those years, and had seen everything that He did, and studied Him through and through, had summered and wintered with Him, came away from the close inspection of His character with this thought; He is utterly and entirely devoted to the service of God, and in Him there is neither spot nor wrinkle nor blemish such as is found in all other men.
I need not remind you with what strange persistence of affirmation, and yet with what humility of self-consciousness, our Lord Himself always claimed to be in possession of this entire consecration, and complete obedience, and consequent perfection. Think of human lips saying, ‘I do always the things that please Him.’ Think of human lips saying, ‘My meat is to do the will of Him that sent me.’ Think of a man whose whole life’s secret was summed up in this: ‘As the Father hath given Me commandment, so’—no more, no less, no otherwise—‘so I speak.’ Think of a man whose inspiring principle was, consciously to himself, ‘not My will, but Thine be done’; and who could say that it was so, and not be met by universal ridicule. There followed in Jesus the moral perfectness that comes from such uninterrupted and complete consecration of self to God. ‘Thy servant David,’—what about Bathsheba, David? What about a great many other things in your life? The poet-king, with the poet-nature so sensitive to all the delights of sense, and so easily moved in the matter of pleasure, is but like all God’s other servants in the fact of imperfection. In every machine power is lost through friction; and in every man, the noblest and the purest, there is resistance to be overcome ere motion in conformity with the divine impulse can be secured. We pass in review before our minds saints and martyrs and lovely characters by the hundred, and amongst them all there is not a jewel without a flaw, not a mirror without some dint in it where the rays are distorted, or some dark place where the reflecting surface has been rubbed away by the attrition of sin, and where there is no reflection of the divine light. And then we turn to that meek Figure who stands there with the question that has been awaiting an answer for nineteen centuries upon His lips, and is unanswered yet: ‘Which of you convinceth Me of sin?’ ‘He is the holy Servant,’ whose consecration and character mark Him off from all the class to which He belongs as the only one of them all who, in completeness, has executed the Father’s purpose, and has never attempted anything contrary to it.
Now there is another step to be taken, and it is this. The Servant who stands out in front of all the group—though the noblest names in the world’s history are included therein—could not be the Servant unless He were the Son. This designation, as applied to Jesus Christ, is peculiar to these three or four earlier chapters of the Acts of the Apostles. It is interesting because it occurs over and over again there, and because it never occurs anywhere else in the New Testament. If we recognise what I think must be recognised, that it is a quotation from the ancient prophecies, and is an assertion of the Messianic character of Jesus, then I think we here see the Church in a period of transition in regard to their conceptions of their Lord. There is no sign that the proper Sonship and Divinity of our Lord was clear before them at this period. They had the facts, but they had not yet come to the distinct apprehension of how much was involved in these. But, if they knew that Jesus Christ had died and had risen again—and they knew that, for they had seen Him—and if they believed that He was the Messiah, and if they were certain that in His character of Messiah there had been faultlessness and absolute perfection—and they were certain of that, because they had lived beside Him—then it would not be long before they took the next step, and said, as I say, ‘He cannot be the Servant unless He is more than man.’
And we may well ask ourselves the question, if we admit, as the world does admit, the moral perfectness of Jesus Christ, how comes it that this Man alone managed to escape failures and deflections from the right, and sins, and that He only carried through life a stainless garment, and went down to the grave never having needed, and not needing then, the exercise of divine forgiveness? Brethren, I venture to say that it is hopeless to account for Jesus Christ on naturalistic principles; and that either you must give up your belief in His sinlessness, or advance, as the Christian Church as a whole advanced, to the other belief, on which alone that perfectness is explicable: ‘Thou art the King of Glory, O Christ! Thou art the Everlasting Son of the Father!’
II. And so, secondly, let us turn to the other contrast here—the Servant and the slaves.
I said that the humble group of praying, persecuted believers seemed to have wished to take a lower place than their Master’s, even whilst they ventured to assume that, in some sense, they too, like Him, were doing the Father’s will. So they chose, by a fine instinct of humility rather than from any dogmatical prepossessions, the name that expresses, in its most absolute and roughest form, the notion of bondage and servitude. He is the Servant; we standing here are slaves. And that this is not an overweighting of the word with more than is meant by it seems to be confirmed by the fact that in the first clause of this prayer, we have, for the only time in the New Testament, God addressed as ‘Lord’ by the correlative word to slave, which has been transferred into English, namely, despot.
The true position, then, for a man is to be God’s slave. The harsh, repellent features of that wicked institution assume an altogether different character when they become the features of my relation to Him. Absolute submission, unconditional obedience, on the slave’s part; and on the part of the Master complete ownership, the right of life and death, the right of disposing of all goods and chattels, the right of separating husband and wife, parents and children, the right of issuing commandments without a reason, the right to expect that those commandments shall be swiftly, unhesitatingly, punctiliously, and completely performed—these things inhere in our relation to God. Blessed the man who has learned that they do, and has accepted them as his highest glory and the security of his most blessed life! For, brethren, such submission, absolute and unconditional, the blending and the absorption of my own will in His will, is the secret of all that makes manhood glorious and great and happy.
Remember, however, that in the New Testament these names of slave and owner are transferred to Christians and Jesus Christ. ‘The Servant’ has His slaves; and He who is God’s Servant, and does not His own will but the Father’s will, has us for His servants, imposes His will upon us, and we are bound to render to Him a revenue of entire obedience like that which He hath laid at His Father’s feet.
Such slavery is the only freedom. Liberty does not mean doing as you like, it means liking as you ought, and doing that. He only is free who submits to God in Christ, and thereby overcomes himself and the world and all antagonism, and is able to do that which it is his life to do. A prison out of which we do not desire to go is no restraint, and the will which coincides with law is the only will that is truly free. You talk about the bondage of obedience. Ah! ‘the weight of too much liberty’ is a far sorer bondage. They are the slaves who say, ‘Let us break His bonds asunder, and cast away His cords from us’; and they are the free men who say, ‘Lord, put Thy blessed shackles on my arms, and impose Thy will upon my will, and fill my heart with Thy love; and then will and hands will move freely and delightedly.’ ‘If the Son make you free, ye shall be free indeed.’
Such slavery is the only nobility. In the wicked old empires, as in some of their modern survivals to-day, viziers and prime ministers were mostly drawn from the servile classes. It is so in God’s kingdom. They who make themselves God’s slaves are by Him made kings and priests, and shall reign with Him on earth. If we are slaves, then are we sons and heirs of God through Jesus Christ.
Remember the alternative. You cannot be your own masters without being your own slaves. It is a far worse bondage to live as chartered libertines than to walk in the paths of obedience. Better serve God than the devil, than the world, than the flesh. Whilst they promise men liberty, they make them ‘the most abject and downtrodden vassals of perdition.’
The Servant-Son makes us slaves and sons. It matters nothing to me that Jesus Christ perfectly fulfilled the law of God; it is so much the better for Him, but of no value for me, unless He has the power of making me like Himself. And He has it, and if you will trust yourselves to Him, and give your hearts to Him, and ask Him to govern you, He will govern you; and if you will abandon your false liberty which is servitude, and take the sober freedom which is obedience, then He will bring you to share in His temper of joyful service; and even we may be able to say, ‘My meat and my drink is to do the will of Him that sent me,’ and truly saying that, we shall have the key to all delights, and our feet will be, at least, on the lower rungs of the ladder whose top reaches to Heaven.
‘What fruit had ye in the things of which ye are now ashamed? But being made free from sin, and become the slaves of God, ye have your fruit unto holiness; and the end everlasting life.’ Brethren, I beseech you, by the mercies of God, that ye yield yourselves to Him, crying, ‘O Lord, truly I am Thy servant. Thou hast loosed my bonds.’
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