By Alexander Maclaren
THE CHRISTIAN MINISTRY IN ITS THEME, METHODS AND AIM.
The false teachers at Colossae had a great deal to say about a higher wisdom reserved for the initiated. They apparently treated the Apostolic teaching as trivial rudiments, which might be good for the vulgar crowd, but were known by the possessors of this higher truth to be only a veil for it. They had their initiated class, to whom their mysteries were entrusted in whispers.
Such absurdities excited Paul's special abhorrence. His whole soul rejoiced in a Gospel for all men. He had broken with Judaism on that very ground, because it sought to enforce a ceremonial exclusiveness, and demanded circumcision and ritual observances along with faith. That was, in Paul's estimate, to destroy the Gospel. These Eastern dreamers at Colossae were trying to enforce an intellectual exclusiveness quite as much opposed to the Gospel. Paul fights with all his might against that. Its presence in the Church colours this context, where he uses the very phrases of the school in order to assert the great principles which he opposes to their teaching. "Mystery," "perfect" or initiated, "wisdom,"—these are the key-words of the system he is combating; and here he presses them into the service of the principle that the Gospel is for all men, and the inmost secrets of its deepest truth the property of every single soul that wills to receive them. Yes, he says in effect, we have mysteries. We have our initiated. We have wisdom. But we have no whispered teachings, confined to a little coterie; we have no inner chamber closed to the many. We are not muttering hierophants, cautiously revealing a little to a few, and fooling the rest with ceremonies and words. Our whole business is to tell out as fully and loudly as we can what we know of Christ, to tell to every man all the wisdom that we have learned. We fling open the inmost sanctuary, and invite all the crowd to enter.
This is the general scope of the words before us, which state the object and methods of the Apostle's work; partly in order to point the contrast with those other teachers, and partly in order to prepare the way, by this personal reference for his subsequent exhortations.
I. We have here the Apostle's own statement of what he conceived his life work to be.
"Whom we proclaim." All three words are emphatic. "Whom," not what—a person, not a system; we" proclaim," not we argue or dissertate about, but proclaim. " We" preach—the Apostle associates himself with all his brethren, puts himself in line with them, points to the unanimity of their testimony—" whether it were they or I, so we preach." We have all one message, a common type of doctrine.
So then "whom we proclaim "—the Christian teacher's theme is not to be a theory or a system, but a living Person. One peculiarity of Christianity is that you cannot take its message, and put aside Christ, the speaker of the message, as you may do with all men's teachings. Some people say: "We take the great moral and religious truths which Jesus proclaimed. They are the all-important parts of His work. We can disentangle them from any further connexion with Him. It matters comparatively little who first spoke them." But that will not do. His person is inextricably intertwined with His teaching, for a very large part of His teaching is exclusively concerned with, and all of it centres in, Himself. He is not only true, but He is the truth. His message is, not only what He said with His lips about God and man, but also what He said about Himself, and what He did in His life, death, and resurrection. You may take Buddha's sayings, and find much that is beautiful and true in them, whatever you may think of him; you may appreciate the teaching of Confucius, though you know nothing about him but that he said so and so; but you cannot do thus with Jesus. Our Christianity takes its whole colour from what we think of Him. If we think of Him as less than this chapter has been setting Him forth as being, we shall scarcely feel that He should be the preacher's theme; but if He is to us what He was to this Apostle, the sole Revealer of God, the Centre and Lord of creation, the Fountain of life to all which lives, the Reconciler of men with God by the blood of His cross, then the one message which a man may be thankful to spend his life in proclaiming will be, Behold the Lamb! Let who will preach abstractions, the true Christian minister has to preach the person and the office—Jesus the Christ.
To preach Christ is to set forth the person, the facts of His life and death, and to accompany these with that explanation which turns them from being merely a biography into a Gospel. So much of" theory" must go with the "facts," or they will be no more a Gospel than the story of another life would be. The Apostle's own statement of" the Gospel which he preached " distinctly lays down what is needed —"how that Jesus Christ died." That is biography, and to say that and stop there is not to preach Christ; but add, "For our sins, according to the Scriptures, and that He was raised again the third day,"—preach that, the fact and its meaning and power, and you will preach Christ.
Of course there is a narrower and a wider sense of this expression. There is the initial teaching, which brings to a soul, that has never seen it before, the knowledge of a Saviour, whose Cross is the propitiation for sin; and there is the fuller teaching, which opens out the manifold bearings of that message in every region of moral and religious thought. I do not plead for any narrow construction of the words. They have been sorely abused, by being made the battle-cry for bitter bigotry and a hard system of abstract theology, as unlike what Paul means by "Christ " as any cobwebs of Gnostic heresy could be. Legitimate outgrowths of the Christian ministry have been checked in their name. They have been used as a cramping iron, as a shibboleth, as a stone to fling at honest and especially at young preachers. They have been made a pillow for laziness. So that the very sound of the words suggests to some ears, because of their use in some mouths, ignorant narrowness.
But for all that, they are a standard of duty for all workers for God, which it is not difficult to apply, if the will to do so be present, and they are a touch-stone to try the spirits, whether they be of God. A ministry of which the Christ who lived and died for us is manifestly the centre to which all converges and from which all is viewed may sweep a wide circumference, and include many themes. The requirement bars out no province of thought or experience, nor does it condemn the preacher to a parrot—like repetition of elementary truths, or a narrow round of commonplace. It does require that all themes should lead up to Christ, and all teaching point to Him; that He shall be ever present in all the preacher's words, a diffused even when not a directly perceptible presence; and that His name, like some deep tone on an organ, shall be heard sounding on through all the ripple and change of the higher notes. Preaching Christ does not exclude any theme, but prescribes the bearing and purpose of all; and the widest compass and richest variety are not only possible but obligatory for him who would in any worthy sense take this for the motto of his ministry, "I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ and Him crucified."
But these words give us not only the theme but something of.the manner of the Apostle's activity. "We proclaim." The word is emphatic in its form, meaning to tell out, and representing the proclamation as full, clear, earnest. "We are no muttering mystery—mongers. From full lungs and in a voice to make people hear, we shout aloud our message. We do not take a man into a corner, and whisper secrets into his ear; we cry in the streets, and our message is for ' every man.' "
And the word not only implies the plain, loud earnestness of the speaker, but also that what he speaks is a message that he is not a speaker of his own words or thoughts, but of what has been told him to tell. His Gospel is a good message, and a messenger's virtue is to say exactly what he has been told, and to say it in such a way that the people to whom he has to carry it cannot but hear and understand it.
This connexion of the Christian minister's office contrasts on the one hand with the priestly theory. Paul had known in Judaism a religion of which the altar was the centre, and the official function of the "minister" was to sacrifice. But now he has come to see that " the one sacrifice for sins for ever" leaves no room for a sacrificing priest in the Church of which the centre is the Cross. We sorely need that lesson to be drilled into the minds of men to-day, when such a strange resurrection of priestism has taken place, and good, earnest men, whose devotion cannot be questioned, are looking on preaching as a very subordinate part of their work. For three centuries there has not been so much need as now to fight against the notion of a priesthood in the Church, and to urge this as the true definition of the minister's office: we preach, not "we sacrifice," not "we do" anything; "we preach," not "we work miracles at any altar, or impart grace by any rites," but by manifestation of the truth discharge our office and spread the blessings of Christ.
This conception contrasts, on the other hand, with the false teachers' style of speech, which finds its parallel in much modern talk. Their business was to argue and refine and speculate, to spin inferences and cobwebby conclusions. They sat in a lecturer's chair; we stand in a preacher's pulpit. The Christian minister has not to deal in such wares; he has a message to proclaim, and if he allows the "philosopher" in him to overpower the "herald," and substitutes his thoughts about the message, or his arguments in favour of the message, for the message itself, he abdicates his highest office and neglects his most important function.
We hear many demands to-day for a " higher type of preaching," which I would heartily echo, if only it be preaching; that is, the proclamation in loud and plain utterance of the great facts of Christ's work. But many who ask for this really want, not preaching, but something quite different; and many, as I think, mistaken Christian teachers are trying to play up to the requirements of the age by turning their sermons into dissertations, philosophical or moral or aesthetic. We need to fall back on this "we preach,'' and to urge that the Christian minister is neither priest nor lecturer, but a herald, whose business is to tell out his message, and to take good care that he tells it faithfully. If, instead of blowing his trumpet and calling aloud his commission, he were to deliver a discourse on acoustics and the laws of the vibration of sonorous metal, or to prove that be had a message, and to dilate on its evident truth or on the beauty of its phrases, be would scarcely be doing his work. No more is the Christian minister, unless be keeps clear before himself as the guiding star of his work this conception of his theme and his task—whom we preach and opposes that to the demands of' an age, one half of which "require a sign,'' and would again degrade him into a priest, and the other calls for "wisdom,'' and would turn him into a professor.
II. We have here the varying methods by which this one great end is pursued. "Admonishing every man and teaching every man in all wisdom."
There are then two main methods—"admonishing" and "teaching." The former means "admonishing with blame," and points, as many commentators remark, to that side of the Christian ministry which corresponds to repentance, while the latter points to that side which corresponds to faith. In other words, the former rebukes and warns, has to do with conduct and the moral side of Christian truth; the latter has chiefly to do with doctrine, and the intellectual side. In the one Christ is proclaimed as the pattern of conduct, the "new commandment"; in the other, as the creed of creeds, the new and perfect knowledge.
The preaching of Christ then is to be unfolded into all "warning," or admonishing. The teaching of morality and the admonishing of the evil and the end of sin are essential parts of preaching Christ. We claim for the pulpit the right and the duty of applying the principles and pattern of Christ's life to all human conduct. It is difficult to do, and is made more so by some of the necessary conditions of our modern ministry, for the pulpit is not the place for details; and yet moral teaching which is confined to general principles is woefully like repeating platitudes and firing blank cartridges. Everybody admits the general principles, and thinks they do not apply to his specific wrong action; and if the preacher goes beyond these toothless generalities, he is met with the cry of "personalities." If a man preaches a sermon in which he speaks plainly about tricks of trade or follies of fashion, somebody is sure to say, going down the chapel steps, "Oh! ministers know nothing of business," and somebody else to add, "It is a pity he was so personal," and the chorus is completed by many other voices, " He should preach Christ, and leave secular things alone."
Well! whether a sermon of that sort be preaching Christ or not depends on the way in which it is done. But sure I am that there is no " preaching Christ " completely, which does not include plain speaking about plain duties. Everything that a man can either do rightly or wrongly belongs to the sphere of morals, and everything within the sphere of morals belongs to Christianity and to "preaching Christ."
Nor is such preaching complete without plain warning of the end of sin, as death here and hereafter. That is difficult, for many people like to have the smooth side of truth always put uppermost. But the Gospel has a rough side, and is by no means a "soothing syrup" merely. There are no rougher words about what wrongdoers come to than some of Christ's words; and he has only given half his Master's message who bides or softens down the grim saying, " The wages of sin is death."
But all this moral teaching must be closely connected with and built upon Christ. Christian morality has Jesus for its perfect exemplar, His love for its motive, and His grace for its power. Nothing is more impotent than mere moral teaching. What is the use of perpetually saying to people, Be good, be good? You may keep on at that for ever, and not a soul will listen, any more than the crowds on our streets are drawn to church by the bell's monotonous call. But if, instead of a cold ideal of duty, as beautiful and as dead as a marble statue, we preach the Son of man, whose life is our law incarnate; and instead of urging to purity by motives which our own evil makes feeble, we reecho His heart-touching appeal, "If ye love Me, keep My commandments"; and if, instead of mocking lame men with exhortations to walk, we point those who despairingly cry, "Who shall deliver us from the body of this death?" to Him who breathes His living Spirit into us to set us free from sin and death, then our preaching of morality will be "preaching the Gospel" and be "preaching Christ."
This Gospel is also to be unfolded into "teaching." In the facts of Christ's life and death, as we ponder them and grow up to understand them, we get to see more and more the key to all things. For thought, as for life, He is the alpha and omega, the beginning and the ending. All that we can or need know about God or man, about present duty or future destiny, about life, death, and the beyond,—all is in Jesus Christ, and to be drawn from Him by patient thought and by abiding in Him. The Christian minister's business is to be ever learning and ever teaching more and more of the " manifold wisdom " of God. He has to draw for himself from the deep, inexhaustible fountains; he has to bear the water, which must be fresh drawn to be pleasant or refreshing, to thirsty lips. He must seek to present all sides of the truth, teaching all wisdom, and so escaping from his own limited mannerisms. How many ministers' Bibles are all dog-eared and thumbed at certain texts, at which they almost open of themselves, and are as clean on most of their pages as the day they were bought!
The Christian ministry, then, in the Apostle's view, is distinctly educational in its design. Preachers and hearers equally need to be reminded of this. We preachers are poor scholars ourselves, and in our work are tempted, like other people, to do most frequently what we can do with least trouble. Besides which, we many of us know, and all suspect, that our congregations prefer to hear what they have heard often before, and which gives them the least trouble. One bears the cry for "simple preaching," by which one school intends " simple instruction in plain, practical matters, avoiding mere dogma," and another intends "the simple Gospel," by which is meant the repetition over and over again of the great truth," Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved." God forbid that I should say a word which might even seem to under-estimate the need for that proclamation being made in its simple form, as the staple of the Christian ministry, to all who have not welcomed it into their hearts, or to forget that, however dimly understood, it will bring light and hope and new loves and strengths into a soul! But the New Testament draws a distinction between evangelists and teachers, and common sense insists that Christian people need more than the reiteration of that message from him whom they call their " teacher." If be is, be should teach; and be cannot do that, if the people who listen to him suspect everything that they do not know already, and are impatient of anything that gives them the trouble of attending and thinking in order to learn. I fear there is much unreality in the name, and that nothing would be more distasteful to many of our congregations than the preacher's attempt to make it truly descriptive of his work. Sermons should not be " quiet resting places." Nor is it quite the ideal of Christian teaching that busy men should come to church or chapel on a Sunday, and not be fatigued by being made to think, but perhaps be able to drop to sleep for a minute or two and pick up the thread when they wake, quite sure that they have missed nothing of any consequence.
We are meant to be teachers, as well as evangelists, though we fulfil the function so poorly; but our hearers often make that task more difficult by ill-concealed impatience with sermons which try to discharge it.
Observe too the emphatic repetition of " every man " both in these two clauses and in the following. It is Paul's protest against the exclusiveness of the heretics, who shut out the mob from their mysteries. An intellectual aristocracy is the proudest and most exclusive of all. A Church built upon intellectual qualifications would be as hard and cruel a coterie as could be imagined. So there is almost vehemence and scorn in the persistent repetition in each clause of the obnoxious word, as if he would thrust down his antagonists' throats the truth that his Gospel has nothing to do with cliques and sections, but belongs to the world. To it philosopher and fool are equally welcome. Its message is to all. Brushing aside surface diversities, it goes straight to deep-lying wants, which are the same in all men. Below king's robe and professor's gown, and workman's jacket and prodigal's rags, beats the same heart, with the same wants, wild longings, and weariness. Christianity knows no hopeless classes. But its highest wisdom can be spoken to the little child and the barbarian, and it is ready to deal with the most forlorn and foolish, knowing its own power to "warn every man and to teach every man in all wisdom."
III. We have here the ultimate aim of these diverse methods. " That we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus."
We found this same word " present " in verse 22. The remarks made there will apply here. There the Divine purpose of Christ's great work, and here Paul's purpose in his, are expressed alike. God's aim is Paul's aim too. The Apostle's thoughts travel on to the great coming day, when we shall all be manifested at the judgment seat of Christ, and preacher and hearer, Apostle and convert, shall be gathered there. That solemn period will test the teacher's work, and should ever be in his view as he works. There is a real and indissoluble connexion between the teacher and his hearers, so that in some sense he is to blame if they do not stand perfect then, and he in some sense has to present them as in some sense his work —the gold, silver, and precious stones which he has built on the foundation. So each preacher should work with that end clear in view, as Paul did. He is always toiling In the light of that great vision. One sees him, in all his letters, looking away yonder to the horizon, where he expects the slow breaking of its morning low down in the eastern sky. Ah! how many a formal pulpit and how many a languid pew would be galvanised into intense action if only their occupants once saw, burning in on them, in their decorous deadness, the light of that great white throne! How differently we should preach if we always felt "the terror of the Lord," and under its solemn influence sought to "persuade men"! How differently we should hear if we felt that we must appear before the Judge, and give account to Him of our profitings by His word!
And the purpose which the true minister of Christ has in view is to "present every man perfect in Christ Jesus." "Perfect" may be used here with the technical signification of "initiated," but it means absolute moral completeness. Negatively, it implies the entire removal of all defects; positively, the complete possession of all that belongs to human nature as God meant it' to be. The Christian aim, for which the preaching of Christ supplies ample power, is to make the whole race possess, in fullest development, the whole circle of possible human excellences. There is to be no one-sided growth, but men are to grow like a tree in the open, which has no barrier to hinder its symmetry, but rises and spreads equally on all sides, with no branch broken or twisted, no leaf worm-eaten or wind-torn, no fruit blighted or fallen, no gap in. the clouds of foliage, no bend in the straight stem,—a green and growing completeness. This absolute completeness is attainable "in Christ," by union with Him of that vital sort brought about by faith, which will pour His Spirit into our spirits. The preaching of Christ is therefore plainly the direct way to bring about this perfecting. That is the Christian theory of the way to make perfect men.
And this absolute perfection of character is, in Paul's belief, possible for every man, no matter what his training or natural disposition may have been. The Gospel is confident that it can change the Ethiopian's skin, because it can change his heart, and the leopard's spots will be altered when it "eats straw like the ox." There are no hopeless classes, in the glad, confident view of the man who has learned Christ's power.
What a vision of the future to animate work! What an aim! What dignity, what consecration, what enthusiasm it would give, making the trivial great and the monotonous interesting, stirring up those who share it to intense effort, overcoming low temptations, and giving precision to the selection of means and use of instruments! The pressure of a great, steady purpose consolidates and strengthens our powers, which, without it, become flaccid and feeble. We can make a piece of calico as stiff as a board by putting it under an hydraulic press. Men with a fixed purpose. are terrible men. They crash through conventionalities like a cannon ball. They, and they only, can persuade and arouse and impress their own enthusiasm on the inert mass.
"Behold, bow great a matter a little fire kindleth!" No Christian minister will work up to the limits of his power, nor do much for Christ or man, unless his whole soul is mastered by this high conception of the possibilities of his office, and unless be is on fire with the ambition to present every man " perfect in Christ Jesus."
IV. Note the struggle and the strength with which the Apostle reaches towards this aim. " Whereunto I labour also, striving according to His working, which worketh in me mightily."
As to the object, theme, and method of the Christian ministry, Paul can speak, as be does in the previous verses, in the name of all his fellow workers: " We preach, admonishing and teaching, that we may present." There was substantial unity among them. But be adds a sentence about his own toil and conflict in doing his work. He will only speak for himself now. The others may say what their experience has been. He has found that be cannot do his work easily. Some people may be able to get through it with little toil of body or agony of mind, but for himself it has been laborious work. He has not learned to "take it easy." That great purpose has been ever before him, and made a slave of him. "I labour also "; I do not only preach, but I toil—as the word literally implies—like a man tugging at an oar, and putting all his weight into each stroke. No great work for God will be done without physical and mental strain and effort. Perhaps there were people in Colossae who thought that a man who bad nothing to do but to preach bad a very easy life, and so the Apostle bad to insist that the most exhausting work is brain work and heart work. Perhaps there were preachers and teachers there who worked in a leisurely, dignified fashion, and took great care always to stop a long way on the safe side of weariness; and so be bad to insist that God's work cannot be done at all in that fashion, but has to be done "with both hands, earnestly." The "immortal garland" is to be run for, "not without dust and heat." The racer who takes care to slack his speed whenever he is in danger of breaking into a perspiration will not win the prize. The Christian minister who is afraid of putting all his strength into his work, up to the point of weariness, will never do much good.
There must be not only toil, but conflict. He labours, "striving "—that is to say, contending—with hindrances, both without and within, which sought to mar his work. There is the struggle with one's self, with the temptations to do high work from low motives, or to neglect it, and to substitute routine for inspiration and mechanism for fervour. One's own evil, one's weaknesses and fears and falsities, and laziness and torpor and faithlessness, have all to be fought, besides the difficulties and enemies without. In short, all good work is a battle.
The hard strain and stress of this life of effort and conflict made this man "Paul the aged " while he was not old in years. This soul's agony and travail is indispensable for all high service of Christ. How can any true, noble Christian life be lived without continuous effort and continual strife? Up to the last particle of our power, it is our duty to work. As for the sleepy, languid, self-indulgent service of modern Christians, who seem to be chiefly anxious not to overstrain themselves, and manage to win the race set before them without turning a hair, I am afraid that a large deduction will have to be made from it in the day that shall "try every man's work, of what sort it is."
So much for the struggle; now for the strength. The toil and the conflict are to carried on " according to His working, which worketh in me mightily." The measure of our power then is Christ's power in us. He whose presence makes the struggle necessary, by His presence strengthens us for it. He will dwell in us and work in us, and even our weakness will be lifted into joyful strength by Him. We shall be mighty because that mighty Worker is in our spirits. We have not only His presence beside us [as an, ally, but His grace within us. We may not only have the vision] of our Captain standing at our side as we front the foe—an unseen presence to them, but inspiration and victory to us,—but we may have the consciousness of His power welling up in our spirits and flowing, as immortal strength, into our arms. It is much to know that Christ fights for us: it is more to know that He fights in us.
Let us take courage then for all work and conflict; and remember that if we have not " striven according to the power"—that is, if we have not utilized all our Christ-given strength in His service—we have not striven enough. There may be a double defect in us. We may not have taken all the power that He has given, and we may not have used all the power that we have taken. Alas for us! we have to confess both faults. How weak we have been when Omnipotence waited to give Itself to us! How little we have made our own of the grace that flows so abundantly past us, catching such a small part of the broad river in our hands, and spilling so much even of that before it reached our lips! And how little of the power given, whether natural or spiritual, we have used for our Lord I How many weapons have hung rusty and unused in the fight! He has sowed much in our hearts, and reaped little. Like some unkindly soils, we have "drunk in the rain which cometh oft upon it," and have "not brought forth herbs fit for Him by whom it is dressed." Talents hid, the Master's goods squandered, power allowed to run to waste, languid service and halfhearted conflict, we have all to acknowledge. Let us go to Him and confess that "we have most unthankful been," and are unprofitable servants indeed, coming far short of duty. Let us yield our spirits to His influence, that He may work in us that which is pleasing in His sight, and may encircle us with ever-growing completeness of beauty and strength, until He "present us faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy."