GOD WORKI G HITHERTO. BY ROWLA D WILLIAMS, B.D.
My Father worketh hitherto, and I work. St John v. 17. These words were spoken by our blessed Lord, after He had both healed the impotent man at the pool of Bethesda, and had also ordered him to carry his bed on the Sabbath-day. The same sort of question might be raised here, as in another very similar passage, where we read, that the Son of Man is Lord also of the Sabbath. For it may be asked, on what ground does our Saviour assert the right of working on the Sabbath-day? Many will answer, that He does so on account of the dignity of his own divine person. "A greater than David is here;" or, "the Son of Man is Lord." Others again will prefer answering, it is on account of the sacred character which attaches to all works of charity, rendering it proper for us to be zealously affected in such good things at all times. So that it is lawful to do good even on the Sabbath-day. Again, a third party will not scruple to remark, that however true may be the above reasons, they admit of being associated with a third, namely, the entire abrogation of the Jewish Sabbath by the bringing in of a better covenant. For, when God wrote his new law in the heart or conscience of mankind, that which was old
228 God ivorJcmg hitherto. [serm. was ready to vanish away. Just, then, as the temple at Jerusalem perishes, when the whole earth becomes God's dwelling-place ; and just as the seed of Aaron and Levi lose their exclusive honours, when the whole congrega-
tion are consecrated into a capacity of becoming priests; so the Jewish Sabbath becomes obscured when the whole life of every Christian man is consecrated with a dedication of his being to God. The Jew might give one day in seven; we must hallow the whole seven to the Lord. There is only a Christian Sabbath in exactly the same modified sense as there is also a Christian priesthood ^ Thus, if the Son of I Ian is Lord, so also are his followers and his brethren lords of the Sabbath. For He is not only our Master, but our brother. or is He only our Mediator, but also our example. Whatsoever things are his are ours. Thus, even as He is Lord of the Sabbath, so the Sabbath is merely made for man. (This must not be understood for man as a beast, but for man as an immortal and spiritual being.) Hence, 1 That the priestly or clerical office of Christians differs from that of Jews or Heathens, and that it has only an r;ts<r«mc?ita^ value, may be cordially admitted. But I confess myself unable to understand the history, or the etymology, of those who contend, that even Hiereus or sacerdos means propei-ly a slayer of victims ; or that priest, the short form of presbyter, cannot be used without meaning Hiereus; or that, if it did mean Hiereus, there would be any harm in it. Wherever there are sacred offices, there is properly a doer of sacred things. The ew Testament tells no more against a priesthood than against a Sabbath, though it discourages Judaic hardness in both. or are men found practically better, either for having the pastoral office ' reduced to a mere mission of preaching, or for having its esteem secularized into that of a human ministry : but the latter liberty seems especially to become a cloak of ignorance and instability.
XVI.] God working hitherto. 22D the great Apostle Paul is not afraid to say, " Let no man judge you in respect of a Sabbath-day."
All the above answers appear to have so much truth in them, that none can be entirely gainsaid. Yet probably no one of them would be complete without some consideration of the other two. To begin with the last, we cannot overlook the fact that our Saviour claimed the same freedom for his disciples which He practised for himself. It was the disciples (and not Jesus) who plucked the ears of corn. Thus in the chapter before us our Lord bids the impotent man, who had been healed, carry his bed. That was not necessary to his cure. It was not therefore merely the works of charity or necessity', but it was the general liberty of working whenever work might be spiritually wholesome, which our Saviour vindicated for all mankind. Yet again, it must be noticed that the works which our Saviour freely chose to do on the Sabbath were works characteristic of his own gracious mind. They are, in fact, works of 'healing and of teaching and of shewing mercy, rather than choosing sacrifice. If any man then have the mind which was in Christ Jesus, he also will freely choose, on any day consecrated by pious custom, or by the Church in her conscientious inspiration, to do the work of visiting the sick, of teaching the ignorant and them that are of low estate, or of praying to our Father which seeth in secret, rather than enjoying the indulgences which come of sin, and which tend unto death. Let us never, in denying the Jewish Sabbath, learn to despise or desecrate any opportunity of serving God in freedom of spirit.
230 God wo7'king hitherto. [serm. Then again, mounting back to our first answer, we cannot but acknowledge, in the speaker of the words of our text, one who has declared himself greater than David, and who says, in a very emphatical manner,
" Because my Father worketh hitherto, therefore I also work." " Therefore," we read in our chapter, " the Jews sought the more to kill him, because he said that God was his Father, making himself equal with God." Shall we try and consider in Avhat sense the Father of our Saviour, and our Father, worketh hitherto ? We should conceive of God as having created the world, not like a carpenter makes a chair by nailing together timbers and hammering them ; but rather like a sower who scatters with lavish hand the elements pregnant with life and joy. His breath is the breath of life ; his looking upon things with the eyes of his mind is that which causes them to be ; his thoughts are our events ; his power, wisdom, and beneficence, are the omnipresent fountains from which wonder and order and beauty have their flow. As the light shiiles, and the fire warms, and the stream flows, so the Father and Author of life cannot fail to make alive. He is not weary of creating, or of upholding. His arm is not shortened. His compassions fail not, but are new every morning. Some of us may remember how a great divine' protests against this tone of thought being pushed so far as to make the Deity create, from any internal necessity of impulse. For he piously argues that it would detract from the perfection of the Most High, if we did not suppose all his works to be guided by the 1 Pearson.
XVI.] God ivorhing hitherto. 231 free choice, or volition, of supreme wisdom. We reckon it even in man an imperfection, though an actually existing one, that his mere impulses should often urge him to greater ends than his understanding has foreeast. We must not then ascribe to the Creator any
less perfect guidance than that free choice which is of self-determining wisdom. Yet the same divine is not afraid to say that the eternal Father must, by the necessity of his goodness, have an eternal Son. For the Deity, he conceives, cannot be envious or self-centered in jealous exclusiveness, but must put forth from eternity his very likeness, an '¦ alter ego," and a partaker of his being, that so his goodness may be communicated abroad, and mankind may have a Mediator, and the world, through the Son, may have access to the Father, thereby learning the infinite God not only as a Creator, but as a Saviour. We will not, then, liken God altogether to things of earth. We will not say that fountain, or light, or paternity, in flowing, or shining, or having children, give more than a faint likeness of that life wherewith the Father worketh hitherto, in making known his goodness to men. But some such necessity as there is for the humane to relieve suffering, for the bountiful to be liberal after his means, or for the pure-minded to shrink from sin, we may perhaps piously ascribe to the lovingkindness of Him who " openeth his hand and filleth all things living with plenteousness." Such a necessity does not take away from the freedom of the will, but only shews that the will is a good will. Just as we do not make a man imperfect by saying in his praise that
232 God ivorking hitherto. [serm. it would be impossible for him to do a base thing ; so neither do we ascribe imperfection to God by believing that so long as his eternal throne stands fast, so long the streams of life and goodness must ever flow from the depth of his divine and creative will. May we then not venture to say, if you will receive it, for our text leads us in that direction, Almighty God has no Sab-
bath : for He is never weary, but He worketh hitherto ? Or rather, if you please, He has one eternal Sabbath. For He is Good. To do good is with him to rest. That which we call rest, as the refreshment of weariness, can have no place in the things which belong to God. But to rest in doing good, in creating and upholding and restoring, is the glorious prerogative of Him who calls himself the Eternal. I am. He saith, that which I will be. But we have spoken hitherto of that eternal life of power and beneficence which manifests itself in creation. Dare we go on, without being over-awed, to observe, that the moral attributes of God, his overruling judgment, and his righteousness as well as his mercy, must also have the same eternal activity? Or is it to any of us (surely to some it may well be) too overwhelming a thought, that to take account of all our actions, and to judge us hourly for the things we do pleasing in our own eyes, is no less certainly part of the life of Him whose name is Holy, the Judge of the whole earth. " He that formeth the eye, shall he not see ? and he that planteth the ear, shall he not hear?" He that fashioneth the hearts of all nations, shall not He punish whatever thoughts are contrary to that inspiration of his law
XVI.] God ivorking hitherto. 233 which He hath written on their conscience ? " Verily I say unto you, whatsoever things ye have spoken in secret, shall be proclaimed on the housetops." For our Judge worketh up to the present hour. He is bringing to light, in our face, in our gestures, in our conduct, in the destiny of our whole lives, and in the sentence already prepared for us to hear before his throne, the sin we acted long ago, the perverseness of our childhood, and the iniquities of our riper years, the indulgence which we would not deny ourselves, and the
passion which we would not curb. All these things are seeds which are for ever growing up into plants of doom. If any man, who has reached middle life, can assemble together the group of his youthful acquaintances, and think over the memory of those who have died, he will be stricken with solemn awe to find the actions of the youth of each reflected visibly on the features of one, the form of another, the fortunes or character of a third, and often on the shortened career of those who have dropt into the tomb. These things are so because the boy is the father of the man. ot less, brethren, let us add, the man is the child of an eternal inheritance. And again, these things are so on earth, because God is a living God, and He worketh hitherto. His hand unseen upholds the visible curtain of our lives. Even so, it may be argued, will these things ripen into everlasting fruit, because God is not a God of the dead, but of the living. That life, which partakes of his Spirit, He will ever uphold ; that sin which has continued in obstinate rebellion against his law, his everliving righteousness cannot cease to punish.
234 God working hitherto. [serm. Thus, because our God worketh for ever, the wicked go away into everlasting punishment as surely as the righteous into life eternal. If you know these things, happy are ye if ye think on them in time. To any man of ordinary reflection, few things can be more sobering than the strong perception of this truth, that God necessarily works, even as He lives eternally. Just as a Cambridge mathematician said Milton's Paradise Lost appeared to him comparatively tame, but there were things in the discoveries of Sir Isaac ewton which made his hair stand on end, so no flight of imagination can equal the terrible charm which belongs to the severe beauty of naked truth. " Our
Father worketh hitherto," and whatever we do is in some sense only a part of his work. ot that, again, He uses us as a carpenter uses his tools ; but rather as a gardener uses the living trees which he has planted; or, as some tree itself enables all the branches which partake of its life to put forth blossom and fruit in the strength of that stem whose offspring they are. But on such a point all metaphors fail, or only approximate, at best. How far the living activity of God might also present itself to us as a ground of comfort, if we were left to our unassisted hopes of his fatherly mercy, is happily a question which we are spared the necessity of considering. For, by observing what sort of works his only-begotten Son (our Saviour) did on the Sabbath, and on every day, we learn to our consolation in what the work of the eternal God partly consists. When our Lord made his own likeness to the Father an
XVI.] God working hitherto. 235 apology for saving life, He revealed to us the nature of the eternal Godhead. AVhen He saw the impotent and the blind, to give strength and sight became the work which He did in concert with the Father ; when He saw the poor, his life was to declare good news to them; when He saw the ignorant, his work was to teach them ; When He saw the widow cast her mite into the treasury, his work was to praise her humble offering. When He heard the Pharisees in pride call the people accursed for not knowing the Scripture, his work was to warn them, that the pure instincts of holiness which the Spirit of God keeps alive in the simple, are better than all the disputations of the scribe. From such works of compassion, righteousness, and judgment, the Sabbath brought Jesus no rest. For in his personality dwelt an element of the Infinite \ Avhich is not comprehended by
space or time. He partook of that eternal being, which manifests itself to the world by flowing forth in grace and truth. In one thing only, as to his Divinity, subordinate to the Father, that He had received this being from Him who has it of himself; yet equal to the Father, in that it was given him to have in himself not any other being than that of the Father, but one and the same. Partaking of this one divine and illimitable life, the Word of God manifest in the flesh, must needs do the work which the Father doeth for ever. He must needs lift up the fallen, comfort the afflicted, and speak peace to them that were broken of heart. Yet with all these treasures of overflowing compassion, there still comes from the Son of God that word which shall 1 Latin, immensus ; move commonly translated incomprehensible.
236 God worhing hitherto. [serm. judge mankind terribly at the last day. For God, who has appointed to all men death, did not clearly set forth the judgment after death until He had revealed, to try men, that redeeming love, without which judgment would be unbearable by any child of man, and, with all the aid of which, it remains a very awful necessity, that we must prepare to meet our God. It is like preparing metal, which must be purged from all dross, before it can come safely in contact with a consuming fire. If now any one is inclined to ask seriousl}'^, who shall abide the day of God's appearing, the answer is clear. He who has in himself a life such as that which the Father gave the Son to have in himself. We cannot perhaps reverently say, the same, but we must say, such a life. For the religion of Christ is a living power. It is an unveiling to the soul of that which constitutes its strength. It is a participation in that spirit by which the Father worketh hitherto, and all
who are partakers of his nature also work. This life we cannot have of ourselves. It is not born of passion. It is not congenial to flesh and blood. It is more affectionate than intellect. It is more humble than virtue ; it is more divine than humanity. The name which we have nearest for it, namely love, is yet too much mingled with things of earth to express fully this power of godliness. It comes chiefly by looking to God, as unveiling himself in the manifestation of our Saviour. Hence the frame of mind, through which it is strengthened, may be called faith. It is not our own any more than the life of the vine is the life of a par-
XVI.] God loorhing hitherto. 237 ticular branch. And as it comes not of ourselves, so the instinct of those who live by it is not to seek themselves. Being fed by the divine spirit, it partakes of that divine nature which ever works. Those who have most of it most deeply feel it to be a gift Avhich they never merited. Yet the fact of its being a gift does not lead them to trifle with it as if it required no exertion, but rather to watch it more jealously, and strive for it more earnestly^ lest that which was not originally their own be taken away, like some honoured guest departing from an unworthy house. We are apt to treat our own friends and kindred unceremoniously : but we observe some stranger with honour. Even so, let us guard reverently this dread visitor, the Holy Spirit, and take heed that our hearts be swept and garnished for his presence. Truly, brethren, this one gift to our souls would be worth far more than all the world besides. It would do more for our enduring happiness here ; and it would launch us with the firmest hope on the dread voyage of the world unknown. Pray we then earnestly, that God would do for us in all other things that which He seeth
best ; but that He would grant us this gift of abiding as lively branches in the vine of his Son. Very painful may be that chastisement by which He often purgeth the branches that they may bring forth more fruit. But wheresoever the true life abides ; the life of humility, of self-devotion, and of that love going out of ourselves to God and to man, which may also be called faith (working by love), there is also that deep satisfaction of which Christ spake, when He said, " Peace I leave with
238 God ivorking hitherto. [serm. you : not as the world giveth, give I unto you ;" there comes also the spirit of power, and the spirit of a sober mind. Hence that strange calmness with which the few who are great in the kingdom of heaven have turned aside from sinful pleasures, and gone through losses, sufferings, and reproaches, breathing perhaps a new spirit into their generation, changing the face of kingdoms, lighting candles not to be quenched, rooting up old abuses, transmitting inheritances of thought, or consolidating institutions destined to abide. Such men are indeed fellow- workers with God; they are admitted into that fellowship of eternal life, which is a pouring out of the same spirit, or the communication of powers the same in kind (righteousness, forethought, benevolence) as those by which the world is made. Even such a fellowship becomes those who are also his offspring. If any one asks why there are few who are thus thoroughly saved from the corruption which is in the world through selfishness ; or why most men seek the things that are their own, and comparatively few that peace which comes of entire self-devotion to God ; there seem to be chiefly two answers. One is, men do not thoroughly believe that there is more happiness in partaking of the spirit of self-devotion
which was in Christ, than in seeking pleasant things for themselves. Thus their faith fails them. They should pray for their faith to be increased. Lord, increase our faith in the blessedness of doing thy will, rather than in following the world, the flesh, or the devil. But another reason is, men do not use the grace which they have; and therefore more grace is not given
XVI.] God luorhing hitherto. 239 them. They have gross carnal conceptions of Scripture metaphors, and pray to have their souls saved hereafter, but do not strive to be saved from evil now. They do not see, that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is heaven ; and where the spirit of wickedness is, there is destruction and the beginning of hell. Whereas if they loved and put in practice the Spirit of God, they would begin to do the work of God. They would find, every day of their lives, some little act of self-denial, or of kindness, or of truth-telling, or of honesty, which might be a witness and an exemplification of the life that was in them; then they would grow in spiritual life and energy. Like the muscles of the practised pedestrian differ from those of the lounging sot, so the energies of the soul in the humble and watchful Christian excel those of the indolent hoper for heaven, who cultivates no heavenly temper. When the powers of life are not used, they gradually die aAvay. Prevent the living tree from growing, or persuade the bee not to gather honey, and then only will you find a Christian whose life is without the fruitful activity which belongs to the Spirit of God. Take with you, therefore, to-day, brethren, this one saying. As our Father which is in heaven worketh hitherto, so we, if we are also his offspring, shall gladly
and in spiritual freedom do the work of Him that sent us. It was a pretty saying of a Heathen that by not doing any good action he had lost a day. But the revelation Avhich we have received of the mysterious sources of our strength, should far more strongly impress upon us the necessity of cherishing the gift we have all
240 God working hitherto. [serm. xvi. received. Our spiritual life, the unwritten word of God within our souls, grows by his grace, and is as sure to bear fruit by it as the tender blade by the dew. It can no more flourish without partaking of his holy spirit than the lily of the field can put forth its glory without the kindly breath of the winds of heaven. But He worketh hitherto, and His children partake of His life. Let every man therefore ask himself this question, By what work of self-devotion or righteousness, of forethought or goodness, am I this day cherishing and putting forth the divine life, even as my Father worketh hitherto, being good and doing good ? Do I also work as having life in Him who is eternal life ?
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