When they therefore were come together, they asked of him, saying, Lord, will you at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?…
(On Ascension Day.)
TEXT: ACTS i.6-11.
THE great event that we commemorate to-day was no doubt something very different to the disciples at that time from what it is to us. They had hardly recovered from the stunned condition into which His death had thrown them; they had hardly come to realize calmly their pain at His separation from them; at least, they had certainly not yet learned to look at it in the right way, for they regarded it as the ruin of His whole work on earth -- when His joyful resurrection took them by surprise, comforting them and setting them right. But now when He was withdrawn from their eyes while they gazed up to heaven, it was more tranquilly and wisely, and certainly with a greatly lightened sorrow, as one looks at the close of a full and completed life, that they regarded the end of the relations in which they had hitherto stood with their beloved Lord and Master. For us, on the contrary, this event stands as the beginning of that relation of Christ to His people which has continued ever since then -- the only relation which we know by direct experience. Hence, while we can, it is true, sympathise with the sorrow of the disciples, we cannot feel it directly as our own; and it would be unnatural in us to try to work ourselves up into such a state of feeling, as if we missed something by the personal, visible presence of the Saviour being denied to us. But we may profitably inquire to-day whether we thoroughly appreciate all the good and beauty of the relation that has subsisted between the Saviour and His people since He ascended from the earth, and enjoy it, as He intended, in all its fulness. The Saviour certainly brought that good very thoroughly into view in the comforting promises that He gave to His disciples as often as He already in spirit saw Himself exalted to the right hand of the Father. If, in a general way, there is little or nothing, even of what Christ said to His disciples in their most intimate intercourse, that might not also be applied to us; if we share with them almost all the privileges that He bestowed on them, as well as all the duties He imposed on them; how much more may we apply to ourselves what He said for the purpose of preparing them for the position which we have in common with them. If we take all the utterances, ever becoming more clear and intelligible, concerning the spirit and manner of His kingdom; the tender outpourings of His glorious love in the presaging sense of His departure; the earnest warnings and exhortations addressed to their hearts not yet fortified against danger; -- if we regard all this as said to us also, whom He embraces in the same love, and for whom He prayed, even as for those through whose word we believe; how much more may we claim a share in the elevating promises by which He sought to comfort the disciples for their loss, and to make them fit for their new position.
These promises of the Saviour to His disciples in reference to His complete departure from them are scattered through His discourses, and it would be necessary to collect them from many passages if we wished to study them fully and in detail. But as custom requires us to take one connected portion of Scripture as the leading thread of our public expositions; the account of the ascension, which we have just read, will serve our purpose, in so far as it reminds us distinctly of those promises to which I wish chiefly to draw your attention, and which we may most directly take to ourselves. For certainly when the Saviour tells the apostles they are to wait till they are endued with power from on high, and then to be His witnesses; we cannot appropriate to ourselves what belonged specially and peculiarly to the gift at Pentecost, to which Christ here unquestionably alludes. And indeed that power from on high was not, after all, the Spirit of God, whom Jesus had already breathed into the apostles in the first days after His resurrection, -- whom He had even earlier spoken of them as possessing, when, on their acknowledging Him as the Christ, He said that flesh and blood had not revealed it to them, but the Father in heaven; for when the Father reveals anything, He does it by the Holy Spirit, as it is said in another place, No man can say that Jesus is Lord but by the Holy Spirit. Now if we further reflect how, since then, many have become His witnesses who had no share in the extraordinary gift of Pentecost, as we ourselves are, each in his own way; how can this call to be His witnesses but remind us of that glorious promise, without which no one would be capable of fulfilling this commission -- the promise which the Saviour linked with this very commission, saying, Go, and teach all nations, and then adding, And I am with you all the days, even to the end of the world. And the words of those who came to the apostles after the Lord was taken away, -- to what could they refer but to the promise which, during the recent days, the Lord had often expressed in various forms, that the Son of man would return in all the glory of the Father, a Lord and King, a Judge of all living. If, then, we desire to reflect together on the promises of the departing Saviour, it is just those two on which we should fix our attention: first, that He will be with us even to the end of the days; and second, that He will come again to judgment. But, my friends, let us deal in the same way with these two promises; with the one as with the other! If no time is too late for the one, so let us also believe that no time is too early for the other. If we enjoy the one as an immediate and precious possession, let us not regard the other only as a hardly discernible form, approaching with little show out of the dim distance; but let us appropriate both, not as something strange and far off, but as something present, forming the essence of His living relation to His Church, of His kingdom already set up, -- something of which, just for this reason, He could say, It is not for you to know times and seasons, because it is not at all a matter of times and seasons, but has always existed, from that time onwards, and must from one period to another come ever nearer to completion. In this manner, then, let us talk together of these two promises.
I. In the first place let us think of the Saviour's promise, I am with you all the days, even to the end of the world. Yes, my friends, our own consciousness, our Christian experience must tell us this, -- that He is ever with us, and in many different ways: He is with us in the Scriptures, He is with us in the holiest and most elevating emotions of our minds; finally, He is with us in the persons of those who bear His image, and justly and honourably bear His Name.
He is with us in the Scriptures. What He says Himself, even of the books of the Old Testament, "Ye search the Scriptures, because ye think that in them ye have eternal life, and it is they that testify of Me," -- how much more gloriously, and in how much larger a sense, has this been true since we have had the Scriptures of the New Testament; since the narratives of His deeds and sufferings were recorded by His disciples, since the teachings and precepts collected in intercourse with Him, and presented and applied to the Christian Church by the apostles, have come down as a legacy to us! Whenever we search into those books, if we do it with a pure heart, everywhere He comes to meet us; everywhere He is pictured to us, everywhere we find a sacred bequest that He has left to us. And just as there are paintings in which all the light by which the rest of the objects become visible proceeds from Christ, so the Scriptures are such a painting, in which His image lights up everything else, that would otherwise be dark, with a heavenly radiance. For how much do we find in Scripture which, if regarded from the ordinary human point of view as general moral maxims or instructions, is unintelligible, doubtful in its consequences, or exaggerated and unnatural, but becomes quite clear when placed in connection with Him, with His work and His reign, as the reign of confidence in God, of the banishment of all care, of the power of prayer, of calm endurance. And much that, without Him, would be too high for us -- of reconciliation to God, of the riches of His mercy and grace, of the intimate fellowship of men with God and God's dwelling among us; -- how close all this comes to us! how powerfully that which in every point corresponds with the features of His likeness takes hold of us, so that His action makes it plain to us, and it, as it were, streams from His lips into our minds! And there may still be much in these books for thoughtful students of Scripture to investigate; but whatever they may discover, it can only tend to make the image of Christ clearer; never will it be obscured or altered. The need of having Christ near and present in this way began to be felt, it may be said, from the day on which He was taken away. Now that they could no longer see and hear Himself, the believers became eager to learn, from the accounts of others, what they had not themselves seen and heard; and every one wished to fix in his memory and to communicate what He possessed, and thus written memoirs began to be made, which grew into the histories of the life of Jesus as we have them in our sacred books. Who does not feel how important this holy possession is for our living relation to Him; how indispensable it was for all successive generations to have this compensation for His absence? Who does not feel what a held faith and love gain by this many-sided revelation of the Lord? And therefore this treasure will remain with us, according to His promise; He is with us in the Scriptures, even to the end of the world. And much as the spirit that is hostile to Christianity has sought to deface and depreciate these books, they will in the future, as they have done hitherto, surmount all opposition.
"The word shall still unshaken stand,
In spite of all the scoffing band."
Again, the Saviour is with us in the holiest and most elevating emotions of our minds. Many, indeed, say doubt fully that it is only a fancy when one speaks of a special nearness and presence of the Saviour in this sense, and that His presence in the Scriptures would be perfectly sufficient for us. It is very possible that with some it is a mere fancy; and yet we could wish that even those dubious spirits might not lack the reality that we mean by this expression; and let us not forget that without such moments, even the Scriptures themselves, and therefore our way of having Jesus near in the Scriptures, would not exist. For we know how human feeling fluctuates, and how, even apart from any direct influence of external circumstances, one hour is not like another; in some, life is more dull and uninteresting, while others are filled with richer blessing from God. And assuredly it was not in their lowest and most listless moods that the Lord's disciples ventured to write anything about His life and work; but when they had a specially vivid view of Him in any connection, and the divine form stood out before their minds more and more glorious in light and splendour, then they sought to preserve, through the power of the Word, the substance of such richly blessed moments. It is just for this reason that the Scripture is such a treasure, because the blessing of the most highly favoured hours of believers is compressed into it. And can we suppose there are not still similar differences with us, perhaps only because having never seen the Saviour with our bodily eyes, a bodily image of Him could not present itself to our inner perception? We see in the first days of the Church how naturally and, as it were, imperceptibly, the physical passed over into the spiritual, and that therefore the two conceptions must be in their nature one and the same. Thus, long after His ascension, Christ appeared to Paul, when He meant to send him forth to enlighten the Gentiles; and Paul, who had perhaps never seen Him during His life on earth, or, at most, only in a passing and distant way, records this very appearance as the last on the list of the appearances of Jesus in the days of His resurrection. And thus Stephen, and assuredly many others afterwards, saw Him seated on the right hand of God, uncertain, amid the rapt and exalted feelings of martyrdom, whether it was with the bodily or the spiritual eye that they beheld Him. And thus also He often appears to us in unusual nearness and living presence, only, of course, in the spiritual splendour of His peace-bringing person; whether longed and prayed for in times of special heart need, or, as it were, spontaneously and unexpectedly, when our life has insensibly been raised and ripened anew to a higher enjoyment. And as, in the case of those we have spoken of, this assurance of Christ's presence was connected with the most important moments of their lives; as it changed Paul from being a persecutor of Christ and His people (though with the best intentions) into the most zealous preacher of His name; who could afterwards say justly of himself that he had laboured more than all the others; as Stephen's enraptured gaze rested on the Lord in His glory just when the crown of martyrdom was bestowed on him; even so with us, this immediate nearness of the Saviour will sometimes lead to the most momentous crises, and sometimes accompany them, lighting them with glory. If we have been long in doubt while honestly trying to find out what, in this case or that, is right and true; then in such an hour our doubt will be resolved, and Christ will be specially near to give us the assurance that it is in and through Him that our heart has become confirmed, that what we have found out or decided on is according to His mind and Spirit. When in the strength of faith and prayer we have successfully withstood any temptation, then Christ will be specially manifest to us, and will cry to us, Go in peace, thy faith hath helped thee; or while we are still in the midst of a hard struggle, His image suddenly rising before us will remind us that He died to deliver us from sin, and this will decide the issue for the good Spirit in us, When we feel in ourselves a calm that stills all earthly pain; when we feel drawn to all, or to individuals, with a higher power of love, -- this also is from the special nearness of Christ, who is the bond of all love, and who is thus raising us above everything earthly, and drawing us to Himself. Or even when we have to groan over the feeling of being entangled in earthly things, it will be a longing look at Him that first lifts us up again to that purer, holy frame of mind. How otherwise could we say that a living relationship exists between Him and us? How could we say that we have a share in the blessing which yet He specially prayed for on our behalf, that we should live in Him and He in us? Those blessed moments are what give zest to life; it is those seasons that develop faith and love, and by which the rest of life is maintained and strengthened; they are indeed the force that holds together the whole Christian community, for it is only through them that any one is able to strengthen and animate others.
And hence, and just in this way, Christ is also near us in those who wear His likeness, and who honourably and worthily bear His name. That is to say, the more of such higher seasons as we have been describing each of us enjoys, the more will he recall Christ to the minds of those who live with him. For it is through such moments that the spiritual life makes progress; every pure disposition is strengthened by them, every virtue reanimated; and the more truly Christian we are, the more everything good in us has proceeded in this way from fellowship with Christ, it will bear the more clearly Christ's image and superscription; weak indeed, and in clouded brightness in comparison with Himself; and yet it helps to fix in our minds the true, unfalsified features of His likeness. Each individual, it is true, shows only certain separate features of the original, in whom all perfection is reflected; for our growth into His likeness only develops freely in certain directions, while in others it is checked or hindered by the power of our natural sinfulness, or by our blindness and indolence. But this is just how it comes that, as Christ Himself promised, He is most perfectly among us where two or three or several are gathered together in His name; where, impelled by our ardent desire to give Him the glory, and thankful for all that we have through Him, we mutually give frank expression to our feelings; where brotherly love gladly forgets everything else, and looks only at that in which Christ is glorified. Oh, assuredly, these manifestations of Christ in those who are most like Him are a very essential part of our relation to Him. In this way it is evidently given to us that He continuously lives and works among His people; and thus -- whatever the world may say, whatever it may with scornful exultation cast in our teeth as to the decay of Christianity and the gradual dying out of its power -- yet thus we are confirmed in the comforting conviction that His Church stands immovable, and that His covenant remains the same, however much may perhaps be changed in its outward forms. And this is the faith that overcomes the world, and that keeps us free from all anxiety, though in a bodily sense we are entirely separated from our protecting Lord and Master.
Thus, my friends, ever since His departure from the earth, and without bodily appearance, Christ is near to His people. Every Christian feels this, and thus it will still be experienced, even to the end of the days.
II. In coming now to consider, secondly, the promise that the Saviour would come back to judgment, I have, it is true, already intimated that you should set this promise on a level with the former, and regard it just in the same way as a present thing, already in course of being fulfilled; but it will be only the smallest number of you who will be readily inclined to do so. It always seems to us as if the Lord had not yet set up His judgment-seat; and although we distinctly know that the kingdom of God comes not with outward show, yet as respects the judgment of God we are accustomed to expect that it will so come. But what right have we in reality to make this difference? As the kingdom of God is not yet completed, but there is always some thing more glorious to come, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be; even so, no doubt, the judgment of God is not yet completed. But are we therefore at liberty to regard it as very far off, and something that belongs only to the future? Scripture constantly connects the two things, God's kingdom and His judgment; what is true of the one is true of the other. The Saviour Himself represents it to us as present when He says, "He that believeth on Me hath eternal life, and cometh not into judgment; but he that believeth not is already judged. For I have not come to judge the world, but to save the world." Therefore, why do we think of waiting for the future? He who is liable to judgment is already judged. From that time this word holds good; He is present for judgment, although He Himself does not judge; and from that time the generations of men are being judged. This judgment consists in these particulars -- first, that the good are distinguished from the wicked; second, that they each receive their due reward; finally, that they go away each to his own place.
The Lord then comes already for judgment, inasmuch as it consists in distinguishing between the good and the wicked. There is a great deal said, indeed, about the skill with which the wicked are able to cloak themselves, to throw a fine appearance over all that they do, and in their talk to represent themselves as ardently and heartily honouring all that is good, and as haters of evil. But I believe I am not venturing too far when I assert that this art can only deceive those who have not goodness firmly established and active in themselves. For that which is true and good recognises itself everywhere, and so it also distinguishes its opposite. The Lord knew what was in man; so that, though many seemed to believe in Him, He did not commit Himself to them; and we also, the nearer we are to Him, and the more we have already received from Him, ought to have, and may have, the same knowledge. Not, indeed, instantly, or of what is at a distance from us: and he who takes upon him to pass hasty judgments, or to judge at all about people who are not near enough to him, or who have not influence enough on his own life to make it needful for him to judge about them, has himself to blame if he is mistaken, and if by spreading a false report he even helps the wicked to extend their operations and to increase their importance. But of the people who are near enough for us to be able to take note of their lives, so that a false judgment of them would necessarily be hurtful to us; -- ought we not to be capable of knowing about them whether they are good or evil, whether for the Lord whom we follow, or against Him? Even if falsehood and dissimulation were successfully practised in all great matters, would not the real and inherent evil all the more surely betray itself in a multitude of unguarded expressions, which perhaps might seem to the persons themselves utterly tri fling and insignificant, but which would give the surest indication of the state of their inmost hearts? Certainly if we walk in such darkness, we are not blameless in doing so; every day must make us wiser in this respect, provided the word of the Lord is always producing its effects on us, and we are always more and more appropriating Him as our own. Besides, what would it signify that His light shines in us if it does not make us able to discern where there is light in men and where darkness? What would it signify that we hear and follow His voice if we cannot also see who does not follow it with us? And if thus each of us is able in his own circle to discriminate between the good and the evil; and if, at the same time, where it is needful, we rely on the well-considered judgment and the sure perception of our brethren, as it is right to do; then wherever the Lord has established His seat, is there not a distinction made, even now, between the good and the wicked?
And thus it comes that the Lord even now returns to judgment, in so far as it consists in a separation being made between the good and the bad. It is true that, as regards place, they are mingled together. We find ourselves sur rounded on every side by the children of the world and of darkness, and we seem to ourselves to be so, even oftener than is actually the case; we feel oppressed by them; the sight of them saddens us; their neighbourhood is not unfrequently perilous to us, and our work is hindered by their active opposition. And on the other hand, how often do those who really belong to us keep at such a distance from us that it is hardly possible to extend a hand to one of them! How often do we miss their support, and how slowly the work of God seems to advance on earth, chiefly because they are not able sufficiently to unite their powers! All this is no doubt true. But then, on the other side, do we not always feel that every one who, like ourselves, belongs to the Lord is near us in a way in which no others are? If we have once really known such a one and taken him into our heart, then no change of place can ever again separate our spirits -- no time can efface the beloved image, or carry away the blessing which association with him brought into our life. The invisible Church of Christ is, in reality, everywhere one; a living fellowship exists among all its members, into which nothing of an uncongenial nature can find its way. For what more can the wicked do than to give a different direction to our outward work than it might have taken without their intervention? Or could they really disturb our inner life? could they spoil for us the spiritual enjoyment which is afforded and made sure to us by Christ and the association of His people, the peace of God, the calm trust, the heartfelt love? Certainly no further than as there is still in us some thing of the same kind as in them; but if we are entirely Christ's, then anything opposed or hostile to Him has as little power over us as right in us; if He has conquered, He has certainly deprived evil of this power. But that which has no effect on me is separate from me. And how entirely it is so with us in everything! However near to us one may stand who is an utterly unthankful denier or enemy of Christ (though there are but few such), is there really any thing about which we could take common ground with him? any undertaking whatever, unless something quite trivial and external, in which we could join him, or about which, if we did attempt to make common cause, we should not immediately be of different minds? Can he make use of us, just such as we are, in any way whatever, or we of him? Does he understand us, our joys and sorrows, our views and thoughts; or do we understand his? No; fellowship is not permitted to us; there is a gulf fixed between us, which no local separation could in reality increase; no word, in fact, comes across it from them to us, nor goes from us to them; we can receive no single thing from them, nor they from us, until they actually come over to us -- until they have received from us the one great thing about which we are ever praying them in Christ's stead, that they will be reconciled to God.
And finally, as a part of this judgment, and, indeed, what is regarded as the principal point; that is, that the righteous will enter the kingdom of their Father, and the wicked go away to the place assigned to them. This also let us not regard as a promise not to be fulfilled until that day. Rather let each one put himself to the test, and look around him to see that the Lord is even now judging, and how He is doing so. Many, it is true, think this lies very near, and is very easy to find. Virtue, they say, is its own reward; the good man alone has his happiness in himself; he feels himself safe under God's protection, and even in the storms of the world the peace of the Most High is not wanting to him; while the wicked man, on the contrary, is not made glad by his good fortune; the transitory nature of his enjoyment makes him uneasy; all his memories are poisoned by the sting of conscience; in short, at the heart of everything is the worm that dieth not. But if we look at the matter more closely, we often find that the children of darkness, being wise in their own way, arc well able to take precautions against all disaster; that by natural or acquired thoughtlessness they escape the fear of the future; that becoming hardened in the habit of disobedience, they soon hear no longer in their inmost heart any voice that condemns them; so that they drink with untroubled gaiety from the cup of their worthless pleasures. And in the same way we see how, though the godly man has indeed the peace of God, yet this peace is often beyond human nature, and the heart longs for a day of manifestation of the Lord, in which it also may obtain its rights. And when we see how many tears the godly man sheds over unsuccessful attempts to extend and further what is good; how he is worn out by the scorn and derision of the adversaries in his often vain opposition to them; then we cannot deny that it has not yet appeared what we shall be, and that the Lord has not yet set up His throne for judgment. Therefore let us take yet another point of view, different from this ordinary one a view to which the Saviour Himself directs us when He says, Well done, faithful servant; enter thou into the joy of thy Lord; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will set thee over many things; but take from the slothful servant that which he has, and cast him out into the outer darkness, where shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. What is the condemnation of the ungodly, into which he is already entering even here? It is that he is more and more losing what was originally given to him of the divine image in man's nature; that the divine light is gradually quenched in him, and he is cast out of the kingdom of spiritual liberty, and left under the dominion of his own nature. Could we ask a heavier condemnation for him than this? And what, on the other hand, is the kingdom which we are appointed to inherit, and into which the faithful servant begins even here to be brought by his Lord? It is just that busy, active life in which we are already engaged, in which this promise of Jesus is being fulfilled. Amidst these tears and sighs we are yet always earning something for our Lord, and He sets us over more. Amidst opposition and conflict our spiritual strength increases, His image is formed more gloriously in us, and we are more and more seeing Him as He is, and becoming like Him. Do we with whom it is no question of any praise from without, which has nothing to do with the matter, but only of the satisfaction of our Lord and of gladsome fellowship with Him -- do we desire anything more?
Thus rules the victorious Lord, who has sat down at the right hand of God! thus He blesses and prospers and guides -- not from afar, but as near and present -- all who hear His voice and follow Him; and thus He allows the unbelieving to pass judgment on themselves now and evermore! Let us then lay to heart the exhortation given by those men to the disciples, not to be looking up with impatient longing to wards heaven; but let us turn from the contemplation of His ascension to earnest prayer in the Spirit and in the truth, being, like them, of one mind; thus will He meet us also in His love and power; thus will be fulfilled in us also what He promised to the disciples. We shall taste and see how lovingly He is present with us, and we shall sit with Him, and, according to His mind and law, judge the generations of mankind. Amen.
Parallel VersesKJV: When they therefore were come together, they asked of him, saying, Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?