And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver…
As a matter of fact, suffering is the condition in which every human life is lived to a greater or less degree. It embraces every portion of our nature, in pain of body, in perplexity of mind, in great sorrow of heart, in conflict of will, in restlessness of conscience, in desolation of spirit. Life always seems to me to be like our Lord's life in this — it is a drawing nearer, nearer, nearer to Calvary, a more and more living to conditions of suffering. And that which is an experience with us is a universal, experience; we see it in every page that tells the story of the past. We see it wherever we look round upon human life to-day. We cannot help it; our own nature instinctively revolts against it. In the degree in which we can see how the mystery of suffering can be reconciled with the wisdom and the power and the love of God, in that degree we shall be helped to be enduring for ourselves, and to be trustful about others. Suffering is not of God; it is contrary to the ideal will of God. Tennyson says, "Man thinks he was not made to die." Man was no more made to suffer than he was made to die. Suffering is the necessary result of the violation of law; that is, suffering is of sin; and that it is by man's resistance to the loving guidance of God in the laws of life that He has set for him, that all suffering has come into the world. We are right to hate it; we are right to feel in the position of absolute antagonism to it. We are right to do all we can to work it out of human life. It is not of God, and although it is not of God, we are obliged to admit this fact, that God foreknew how man would use the liberty wherewith He dowered him, that He foreknew human sin, and that therefore He foreknew all the suffering that follows from human sin, and yet foreknowing this He created man. How is this reconciled with His love? Well, the answer which we are going to consider in detail is this: Because God foreknew how out of suffering He could work gracious purposes to men. Now, the first of these purposes is this: suffering rightly borne purifies the character, and sets it free from sin. "He shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver." It is to this corrective aspect of suffering that the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews turns our attention in the 12th chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Let us look at the text itself in its first application. Malachi is the last of the prophets. His prophecy synchronises with the later days of the reign of Nehemiah. You remember what the story is that is told us of the religious position of Judah and Israel in Jerusalem towards the end of Nehemiah's reign. He had come first of all from Babylon, and had rebuilt Jerusalem, and had re-organised its religious and its social life; then he had gone back again to the court of his king, and an interval of some years intervenes. During this time Israel falls into a position of religious decay. It is quite true that she no longer reverts to idolatry as before she had gone through the stern discipline of the Babylonish Captivity. The temple services are maintained with regularity, but there is gross carelessness in the ministries. The lame and the blind are brought near to God, as if they were worthy offerings to be laid upon His altar. Side by side with this careless, irreverent worship we see worldliness. The sons of Israel are joining themselves in marriage alliances with the Gentile heathen around; and then, of course, with this worldliness there is a great deal of licentiousness of conduct, and the saddest feature about the whole thing is this — that lies beneath the religious declension of the people — the corruption of the priesthood. The national life is stained by that which is immoral in the conduct of the priests in their daily life. And one thing is necessary, if the national life is to be purified, if the worship which is to rise from the Church of Israel is to be acceptable with God there must be purification of the nation, and the necessary preliminary to that is the purification of the priesthood. God says it shall come, and it shall come of suffering! Now, the symbolism is quite clear, is it not? We see before us some refining furnace; the fire is burning, and there is cast into that furnace ore mingled with dross and precious metal. Under the action of the fire the dross is separated from the metal. The refiner is watching the process of purification as it goes on. At length the separation is complete. Here, then, is given to us the picture of our life. As a matter of fact, we are in that fire; we have seen it. Its flames are involving every portion of our being. But why? Well, the answer that is given is this: for the purification of our nature. It is true, by the action of suffering that purification is wrought. Just see how true this is in instances with which we are familiar in the Bible. Recall to mind, for instance, the story of the conversion of the woman who was a sinner. In her time of indifference and thoughtlessness she is in the grip of her sin. Then she is brought to the sorrow, the exquisite suffering of contrition. Or take, again, another instance just as simple. Look at that thief as he hangs at the side of our Lord upon the Cross. He is in a position of absolute cleaving to his sin, and the words that he casts in the teeth of the Redeemer are words of reproach. But as he hangs there upon the Cross, and draws nigh to the unseen world, he is prepared to receive the ministry of Him who is on the Cross as the Refiner and Purifier of silver, and he, too, through the pain of his body, through what he is suffering materially in mind and heart and will, is turned to the Christ, and he who dies as the outcast of men is the first accepted penitent to enter Paradise with Christ. And just as we see that it is through suffering continually that men are first of all turned to God in initial conversion, so it is in life. Of course, the real convert in the moment of his initial conversion turns from his sin to God; but what the sin is from which he has to turn is only gradually made clear to him as he goes through life, and not until we are wholly conformed to the will of God in every detail of life and character is the work of conversion complete, because until this is so we have something from which to turn unto our God. Take two simple instances. There is John as he comes before us naturally in the New Testament: Boanerges, the Son of Thunder, said, "Lord, wilt Thou that we command fire to come down from heaven and consume them even as Elias did?" Here we see him a Christian man but with undisciplined zeal; he has not zeal tempered with charity. Look again at him when he has reached extreme old age, and when he lies on his couch at Ephesus, with Christians gathered round him; and this is the burden of his teaching, "Little children, love one another." Thus we see the fiery zeal of the youth turned into the ripened tenderness of the dying saint. Take another instance. Look at Simon Peter, what a strangely human character his is. At first a man carried away by his enthusiasms. What a strange mixture there is in his character. Who shall separate that strength from that weakness? Well, it is done. You pass on, and you look at St. Peter in his own epistles, and there you see quiet, firm strength without any bluster. He has acquired spiritual stability. How? In the discipline of life. And so it is always. God casts us into the furnace of affliction in order that He may deal with us just as that one is dealt with — separates in us that which is displeasing to Himself from that which is true to our true human nature, and He purifies us. We are not surprised, therefore, when people say to us we are simply actors in our religious life. It is not true. If it were true that all life was unified, that man was either wholly of the world or wholly of God, then the criticism would be true. But when a new higher nature is awakened within me, and becomes within me a real yearning, yet the lower nature co-exists with it. How different a person I am in one house to what I am in another. What a different person I am when I am kneeling before God — it may be in His sanctuary — lifted up to the worship of the Eucharist, and what I am when I find myself, well, in my own home, it may be an hour afterwards. And yet I am not a hypocrite in either case. The only thing is that there is brought clearly out before my eyes the co-existence in my character of contradictory forces. There is dross and there is gold. What do I want? To be my true, better self, which, God knows, I long to be, and which I am not sustainedly. What do I want? Why, plainly, the setting free of my higher self from all the power of this lower self. I want to have the dross purged out of my character, I want to be purified within. And so this truth comes before us: God has a loving purpose in consigning me to this great world, to the conditions of life in which we live. It is the essential condition, as far as we see, for the working out of us what is bad and what is mean, and for the development within us of what is grand and beautiful and true. Only, we must remember this, if this is the purpose of suffering, it is not always an attained purpose. Certain characters very often deteriorate under the discipline of suffering. But there is just one essential condition for the metal which is cast into the furnace: if it is to be separated from the dross a current of air must be always breathing over the living flame; if not, the effect would be this, that instead of fire separating the metal from the ore it would cause them to recombine, and under conditions of greater fixity, so that it would be more difficult than it was before to purify it. Is not this a wonderful parable? It is only when suffering is borne in God, only when suffering is borne through the action within us of the Holy Spirit, the true wind of God, that it is a purifying force within us. And so the first essential condition of our being purified by suffering is this, that we give ourselves to God up to the measure in which it is possible for us, in the submission to His will, to endure suffering. Here, as ever, we are face to face with that mystery of will. The issue in your character and mine of suffering conditions under which we live our lives depends entirely on the posture of the will. If we refuse to give up our wills to God our characters will deteriorate and not be purified or beautified. And the second thing is this, is it not? Giving ourselves thus up to God, if we are called on to live this life of suffering it ought to be a life in which we have keen realisation of the conditions under which we suffer in the thought of the Holy Spirit. Devotion to the Holy Ghost is of great importance in every aspect of our Christian life, but it is of emphatic importance in connection with our life of endurance of God's discipline. If we try to meet it with fixity of resolution, with solidarity of purpose, we shall fail, but if we throw ourselves upon God to enable us by His Spirit to endure the suffering which He lays upon us, in simple abandonment to the aid of the Holy Ghost, we shall be able patiently to endure. Lastly, remember this. All the time the process of the refining of the silver is going on the Refiner is watching. So it is here. We suffer under His watching eye; we suffer for the realisation of the dear Lord's loving purpose. He knows what we suffer. He has a heart that can understand. He does give me more than pity, He can give me sympathy, He bears with me so patiently, He comforts me so tenderly; in my rebellions He can forgive me so continuously. Yes, Lord, yes; I can bear these fiery burdens. Within the very flames I will look up and see Thy loving eye fixed on me, so that Thou knowest where I am, so that Thou feelest for me, so that Thou givest me effectual help.
Parallel VersesKJV: And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the LORD an offering in righteousness.