Then Joshua called the Reubenites, and the Gadites, and the half tribe of Manasseh,…
Suppose we call the Israelites who built the altar the Eastern Church, and those who found fault with them the Western Church. We shall hope to get instruction from both. From the builders of the altar of testimony we shall ask you to learn a lesson in Christian doctrine; from their brethren of the west, who found fault with them, a lesson in Christian practice.
I. Now the story of the altar on the banks of the Jordan appears to me REMARKABLE AS A PERFECT ILLUSTRATION OF WHAT MAY BE CALLED A GREAT SPIRITUAL AMBIGUITY, COMMON (IN FACT, UNIVERSAL) THROUGHOUT THE CHURCH OF THE MODERNS. It certainly is something above and beyond a mere theological refinement when we discuss one with another the right province of duty and work in the system of Christianity. It enters into every judgment we form of other men's Christianity or our own. The hard-toiling Christian, is he a Pharisee or not? The idle and the use less Christian, is he a humble believer in the sacrifice of Christ? Here, then, it is that the Reubenites will come in and render us a valuable service as teachers of sound doctrine. "We dwell," said they, "in the near neighbourhood of idolatrous tribes. There is nothing now — there will be less when we are dead and gone — to mark us out from the heathen and to rank us with the chosen of the Lord." And therefore up went the altar — a memorial, a lasting memorial, in the style of it, or the inscription it bore, that the builders were they who had come up out of Egypt, and belonged to the seed of Abraham according to the promise. And is it not for this very same purpose that we Christians are commanded to "let your light so shine before men"? The offerings of the silver and the gold, the building of churches, the visiting of the widow and the fatherless, the carrying of the gospel to foreign climes, the reclaiming of untaught and neglected childhood from misery and guilt — there are lesser motives for doing these things, but the chief motive is that we may adorn the doctrines we profess, that men may take knowledge of us that we have been with Jesus, and that all the world may discover that ours is no barren or unprofitable faith. Or perhaps, like the Reubenites, our motives may stretch out into other generations. We may build, with our money, and our toils, and our example, and our lives, that our children and our children's children may say of our memory, "Behold the pattern of the altar of the Lord, which our fathers made." But now, mark you. It was an altar that the Church east of the Jordan built up for their memorial. Were the Reubenites wrong in rearing their memorial in the form of an altar? It came out, "Not at all." It was not designed for a victim: no sacrifice, in the proper Shiloh sense of sacrifice, was ever to be offered up from it. "Behold the pattern of the altar of the Lord." That was all they intended by the erection. They would tell the heathen, and their children would tell the children of the heathen, that the Jordan made no difference between them and the seed of Abraham on the other side. They must build something. What shall it be? Why, let it be a model, a copy, of the altar that is at Shiloh. What more fitting? What more pregnant with meaning? It reminds them whilst they live of the one solitary spot where the blood must be shed for the remission of sin; it will prove to friends and enemies, when they themselves are no more, that they too were blessed in faithful Abraham. The altar was a tribute, not a rival, to the tabernacle that dwelt in Shiloh. Oh, beautiful picture this of what a Christian's good works are, and what a Christian's good works are not. They are a memorial, a demonstration. They must take some form. What form shall they have? What? Why the form of patterns, copies, models of the sacrifice of Christ. To be trusted in? To be looked to for salvation? To supplant the offering on the Cross? Nay, indeed, not so. But to do homage to that Cross by imitation, to remind us of it while we live, and to point our descendants to it when we are gone.
II. Learn, then, from the warm-hearted Israelites on the east of the Jordan THAT A GOOD MAN'S TOILS ARE NOT THE GOOD MAN'S ATONEMENT, BUT THAT THEY MAY BE REARED, AND MUST BE REARED, IN THE SHAPE AND ON THE MODEL OF CHRIST'S ATONEMENT — an altar, but an altar of witness or testimony, reminding both yourselves and your neighbours of the one sacrifice for sin which, though none can ever repeat, all are commanded to copy. But now it seems hardly possible to make the Reubenites and the Gadites our only teachers in this story. They may render a lesson upon Christian doctrine, but certainly their brethren across the water match them with a lesson on Christian practice. Just think for a moment of the spirit and manner wherein, from the days of the apostles, the Church has carried on the innumerable controversies that split up the Catholic Church into parties. Grace and good works. What a happy thing it would have been for every one but the booksellers if the champions on both sides had only had the charity and good sense to do what the men of Western Israel did towards the men of Eastern Israel three thousand years ago. They condescended first to find out whether, in point of fact, there was any heresy to fight against. "Strike," then, in your controversies, but "hear" first; and when you "strike," let it be only with the strong argument, and never with the frenzy of the persecutor. Remember the words of Bishop Taylor: "Either the disagreeing person is in error, or he is not. In both cases to persecute is extremely imprudent. If he be right, then we do open violence to God and to God's truth; if he be wrong, what stupidity it is to give to error the glory of martyrdom. Besides which, there is always a jealousy and a suspicion that persecutors have no arguments, and that the hangman is their best reasoner." No, no, we will not hastily "bear false witness against our neighbour," but we will speak one to another, and judge other men's servants no longer; and may the very God of peace and love give to all of us to build up everywhere humble models and copies of His great work for our salvation, and help us to do all that we do in the spirit of charity.
Parallel VersesKJV: Then Joshua called the Reubenites, and the Gadites, and the half tribe of Manasseh,