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‘Any of this way.’—ACTS ix. 2.
The name of ‘Christian’ was not applied to themselves by the followers of Jesus before the completion of the New Testament. There were other names in currency before that designation—which owed its origin to the scoffing wits of Antioch—was accepted by the Church. They called themselves ‘disciples,’ ‘believers, ‘saints,’ ‘brethren,’ as if feeling about for a title.
Here is a name that had obtained currency for a while, and was afterwards disused. We find it five times in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, never elsewhere; and always, with one exception, it should be rendered, as it is in the Revised Version, not ‘this way,’ as if being one amongst many, but ‘the way,’ as being the only one.
Now, I have thought that this designation of Christians as ‘those of the way’ rests upon a very profound and important view of what Christianity is, and may teach us some lessons if we will ponder it; and I ask your attention to two or three of these for a few moments now.
I. First, then, I take this name as being a witness to the conviction that in Christianity we have the only road to God.
There may be some reference in the name to the remarkable words of our Lord Jesus Christ: ‘I am the Way. No man cometh to the Father but by Me,’—words of which the audacity is unparalleled and unpardonable, except upon the supposition that He bears an unique relation to God on the one hand, and to all mankind upon the other. In them He claims to be the sole medium of communication between heaven and earth, God and man. And that same exclusiveness is reflected in this name for Christians. It asserts that faith in Jesus Christ, the acceptance of His teaching, mediation and guidance, is the only path that climbs to God, and by it alone do we come into knowledge of, and communion with, our divine Father.
I do not dwell upon the fact that, according to our Lord’s own teaching, and according to the whole New Testament, Christ’s work of making God known to man did not begin with His Incarnation and earthly life, but that from the beginning that eternal Word was the agent of all divine activity in creation, and in the illumination of mankind. So that, not only all the acts of the self-revealing God were through Him, but that from Him, as from the light of men, came all the light in human hearts, of reason and of conscience, by which there were and are in all men, some dim knowledge of God, and some feeling after, or at the lowest some consciousness of, Him. But the historical facts of Christ’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension are the source of all solid certitude, and of all clear knowledge of our Father in Heaven. His words are spirit and life; His works are unspoken words; and by both He declares unto His brethren the Name, and is the self-manifestation of, the Father.
Think of the contrast presented by the world’s conceptions of Godhead, and the reality as unveiled in Christ! On the one hand you have gods lustful, selfish, passionate, capricious, cruel, angry, vile; or gods remote, indifferent, not only passionless, but heartless, inexorable, unapproachable, whom no man can know, whom no man can love, whom no man can trust. On the other hand, if you look at Christ’s tears as the revelation of God; if you look at Christ’s ruth and pity as the manifestation of the inmost glory of the divine nature; if you take your stand at the foot of the Cross—a strange place to see ‘the power of God and the wisdom of God’!—and look up there at Him dying for the world, and are able to say, ‘Lo! this is our God! through all the weary centuries we have waited for Him, and this is He!’ then you can understand how true it is that there, and there only, is the good news proclaimed that lifts the burden from every heart, and reveals God the Lover and the Friend of every soul.
And if, further, we consider the difference between the dim ‘peradventures,’ the doubts and fears, the uncertain conclusions drawn from questionable, and often partial, premises, which confessedly never amount to demonstration, if we consider the contrast between these and the daylight of fact which we meet in Jesus Christ, His love, life, and death, then we can feel how superior in certitude, as in substance, the revelation of God in Jesus is to all these hopes, longings, doubts, and how it alone is worthy to be called the knowledge of God, or is solid enough to abide comparison with the certainties of the most arrogant physical science.
There never was a time in the history of the world when, so clearly and unmistakably, every thinking soul amongst cultivated nations was being brought up to this alternative—Christ, the Revealer of God, or no knowledge of God at all. The old dreams of heathenism are impossible for us; modern agnosticism will make very quick work of a deism which does not cling to the Christ as the Revealer of the Godhead. And I, for my part, believe that there is one thing, and one thing only, which will save modern Europe from absolute godlessness, and that is the coming back to the old truth, ‘No man hath seen God’ by sense, or intuition, or reason, or conscience, ‘at any time. The only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him.’
But it is not merely as bringing to us the only certain knowledge of our Father God that Christianity is ‘the way,’ but it is also because by it alone we come into fellowship with the God whom it reveals to us. If there rises up before your mind the thought of Him in the Heavens, there will rise up also in your consciousness the sense of your own sin. And that is no delusion nor fancy; it is the most patent fact, that between you and your Father in Heaven, howsoever loving, tender, compassionate, and forgiving, there lies a great gulf. You cannot go to God, my brother, with all that guilt heaped upon your conscience; you cannot come near to Him with all that mass of evil which you know is there, working in your soul. How shall a sinful soul come to a holy God? And there is only one answer—that great Lord, by His blessed death upon the Cross, has cleared away all the mountains of guilt and sin that rise up frowning between each single soul and the Father in Heaven; and through Him, by a new and living way, which He hath opened for us, we have entrance to God, and dwell with Him.
And it is not only that He brings to us the knowledge of God, and that He clears away all obstacles, and makes fellowship between God and us possible for the most polluted and sinful of spirits, but it is also that, by the knowledge of His great love to us, love is kindled in our hearts, and we are drawn into that path which, as a matter of fact, we shall not tread unless we yield to the magnetic attraction of the love of God as revealed ‘in the face of Jesus Christ.’
Men do not seek fellowship with God until they are drawn to Him by the love that is revealed upon the Cross. Men do not yield their hearts to Him until their hearts are melted down by the fire of that Infinite divine love which disdained not to be humiliated and refused not to die for their sakes. Practically and really we come to God, when—and I venture upon the narrowness of saying, only when—God has come to us in His dear Son. ‘The way’ to God is through Christ. Have you trod it, my friend—that new and living way, which leads within the veil, into the secrets of loving communion with your Father in Heaven?
II. Then there is another principle, of which this designation of our text is also the witness, viz., that in Christianity we have the path of conduct and practical life traced out for us all.
The ‘way of a man’ is, of course, a metaphor for his outward life and conduct. It is connected with the familiar old image which belongs to the poetry of all languages, by which life is looked at as a journey. That metaphor speaks to us of the continual changefulness of our mortal condition; it speaks to us, also, of the effort and the weariness which often attend it. It proclaims also the solemn thought that a man’s life is a unity, and that, progressive, it goes some whither, and arrives at a definite goal.
And that idea is taken up in this phrase, ‘the way,’ in such a fashion as that there are two things asserted: first, that Christianity provides a way, a path for the practical activity, that it moulds our life into a unity, that it prescribes the line of direction which it is to follow, that it has a starting-point, and stages, and an end; also, that Christianity is the way for practical life, the only path and mode of conduct which corresponds with all the obligations and nature of a man, and which reason, conscience, and experience will approve. Let us look, just for a moment or two, at these two thoughts: Christianity is a way; Christianity is the way.
It is a way. These early disciples must have grasped with great clearness and tenacity the practical side of the Gospel, or they would never have adopted this name. If they had thought of it as being only a creed, they would not have done so.
And it is not only a creed. All creed is meant to influence conduct. If I may so say, credenda, ‘things to be believed,’ are meant to underlie the agenda, the things to be done. Every doctrine of the New Testament, like the great blocks of concrete that are dropped into a river in order to lay the foundation of a bridge, or the embankment that is run across a valley in order to carry a railway upon it,—every doctrine of the New Testament is meant to influence the conduct, the ‘walk and conversation,’ and to provide a path on which activity may advance and expatiate.
I cannot, of course, dwell upon this point with sufficient elaboration, or take up one after another the teachings of the New Testament, in order to show how close is their bearing upon practical life. There is plenty of abstract theology in the form of theological systems, skeletons all dried up that have no life in them. There is nothing of that sort in the principles as they lie on the pages of the New Testament. There they are all throbbing with life, and all meant to influence life and conduct.
Remember, my friend, that unless your Christianity is doing that for you, unless it has prescribed a path of life for you, and moulded your steps into a great unity, and drawn you along the road, it is nought,—nought!
But the whole matter may be put into half a dozen sentences. The living heart of Christianity, either considered as a revelation to a man, or as a power within a man, that is to say, either objective or subjective, is love. It is the revelation of the love of God that is the inmost essence of it as revelation. It is love in my heart that is the inmost essence of it as a fact of my nature. And is not love the most powerful of all forces to influence conduct? Is it not ‘the fulfilling of the law,’ because its one single self includes all commandments, and is the ideal of all duty, and also because it is the power which will secure the keeping of all the law which itself lays down?
But love may be followed out into its two main effects. These are self-surrender and imitation. And I say that a religious system which is, in its inmost heart and essence, love, is thereby shown to be the most practical of all systems, because thereby it is shown to be a great system of self-surrender and imitation.
The deepest word of the Gospel is, ‘Yield yourselves to God.’ Bring your wills and bow them before Him, and say, ‘Here am I; take me, and use me as a pawn on Thy great chessboard, to be put where Thou wilt.’ When once a man’s will is absorbed into the divine will, as a drop of water is into the ocean, he is free, and has happiness and peace, and is master and lord of himself and of the universe. That system which proclaims love as its heart sets in action self-surrender as the most practical of all the powers of life.
Love is imitation. And Jesus Christ’s life is set before us as the pattern for all our conduct. We are to follow In His footsteps. These mark our path. We are to follow Him, as a traveller who knows not his way will carefully tread in the steps of his guide. We are to imitate Him, as a scholar who is learning to draw will copy every touch of the master’s pencil.
Strange that that short life, fragmentarily reported in four little tracts, full of unapproachable peculiarities, and having no part in many of the relationships which make so large a portion of most lives, is yet so transparently under the influence of the purest and broadest principles of righteousness and morality as that every age and each sex, and men of all professions, idiosyncrasies, temperaments, and positions, all stages of civilisation and culture, of every period, and of every country, may find in it the all-sufficient pattern for them!
Thus in Christianity we have a way. It prescribes a line of direction for the life, and brings all its power to bear in marking the course which we should pursue and in making us willing and able to pursue it.
How different, how superior to all other systems which aspire to regulate the outward life that system is! It is superior, in its applicability to all conditions. It is a very difficult thing for any man to apply the generalities of moral law and righteousness to the individual cases in his life. The stars are very bright, but they do not show me which street to turn up when I am at a loss; but Christ’s example comes very near to us, and guides us, not indeed in regard to questions of prudence or expediency, but in regard to all questions of right or wrong. It is superior, in the help it gives to a soul struggling with temptation. It is very hard to keep law or duty clearly before our eyes at such a moment, when it is most needful to do so. The lighthouse is lost in the fog, but the example of Jesus Christ dissipates many mists of temptation to the heart that loves Him; and ‘they that follow Him shall not walk in darkness.’
It is superior in this, further, that patterns fail because they are only patterns, and cannot get themselves executed, and laws fail because they are only laws and cannot get themselves obeyed. What is the use of a signpost to a man who is lame, or who does not want to go down the road, though he knows it well enough? But Christianity brings both the commandment and the motive that keeps the commandment.
And so it is the path along which we can travel. It is the only road that corresponds to all our necessities, and capacities, and obligations.
It is the only path, my brother, that will be approved by reason, conscience, and experience. The greatest of our English mystics says somewhere—I do not profess to quote with verbal accuracy—‘There are two questions which put an end to all the vain projects and designs of human life. The one is, “What for?” the other, “What good will the aim do you if attained?”’
If we look at ‘all the ways of men’ calmly, and with due regard to the wants of their souls, reason cannot but say that they are ‘vain and melancholy.’ If we consult our own experience we cannot but confess that whatsoever we have had or enjoyed, apart from God, has either proved disappointing in the very moment of its possession, or has been followed by a bitter taste on the tongue; or in a little while has faded, and left us standing with the stalk in our hands from which the bloom has dropped. Generation after generation has sighed its ‘Amen!’ to the stern old word: ‘Vanity of vanities; all is vanity!’ And here to-day, in the midst of the boasted progress of this generation, we find cultured men amongst us, lapped in material comfort, and with all the light of this century blazing upon them, preaching again the old Buddhist doctrine that annihilation is the only heaven, and proclaiming that life is not worth living, and that ‘it were better not to be.’
Dear brother, one path, and one path only, leads to what all men desire—peace and happiness. One path, and one path only, leads to what all men know they ought to seek—purity and godliness. We are like men in the backwoods, our paths go circling round and round, we have lost our way. ‘The labour of the foolish wearieth every one of them, for he knoweth not how to come to the city.’ Jesus Christ has cut a path through the forest. Tread you in it, and you will find that it is ‘the way of pleasantness’ and ‘the path of peace.’
III. And now, one last word. This remarkable designation seems to me to be a witness also to another truth, viz. that in Christianity we have the only way home.
The only way home! All other modes and courses of life and conduct stop at the edge of a great gulf, like some path that goes down an incline to the edge of a precipice, and the heedless traveller that has been going on, not knowing whither it led, tilts over when he comes there. Every other way that men can follow is broken short off by death. And if there were no other reason to allege, that is enough to condemn them. What is a man to do in another world if all his life long he has only cultivated tastes which want this world for their gratification? What is the sensualist to do when he gets there? What is the shrewd man of business in Manchester to do when he comes into a world where there are no bargains, and he cannot go on ‘Change on Tuesdays and Fridays? What will he do with himself? What does he do with himself now, when he goes away from home for a month, and does not get his ordinary work and surroundings? What will he do then? What will a young lady do in an other world, who spends her days here in reading trashy novels and magazines? What will any of us do who have set our affections and our tastes upon this poor, perishing, miserable world? Would you think it was common sense in a young man who was going to be a doctor, and took no interest in anything but farming? Is it not as stupid a thing for men and women to train themselves for a condition which is transient, and not to train themselves for the condition into which they are certainly going?
And, on the other hand, the path that Christ makes runs clear on, without a break, across the gulf, like some daring railway bridge thrown across a mountain gorge, and goes straight on on the other side without a curve, only with an upward gradient. The manner of work may change; the spirit of the work and the principles of it will remain. Self-surrender will be the law of Heaven, and ‘they shall follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth.’ Better to begin here as we mean to end yonder! Better to begin here what we can carry with us, in essence though not in form, into the other life; and so, through all the changes of life, and through the great change of death, to keep one unbroken straight course! ‘They go from strength to strength; every one of them in Zion appeareth before God’.
We live in an else trackless waste, but across the desert Jesus Christ has thrown a way; too high for ravenous beasts to spring on or raging foes to storm; too firm for tempest to overthrow or make impair able; too plain for simple hearts to mistake. We may all journey on it, if we will, and ‘come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon our heads.’
Christ is the Way. O brother I trust thy sinful soul to His blood and mediation, and thy sins will be forgiven. And then, loving Him, follow Him. ‘This is the way; walk ye in it.’
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