He was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost, and of faith. —Acts xi. 24.
WE know that Luke was a physician, for we are told so in Scripture. There is also a probably baseless tradition that he was a painter. However that may be as regards brushes, he was a painter with his pen, and had a keen eye and a deft hand to portray character. Here, in three swift strokes, we have a likeness of Barnabas. But Luke was a physician, too —a surgeon—and my text is a dissection, if I may so say, as well as a portrait. It begins with the surface —" He was a good man "; and then it cuts a little deeper—" full of the Holy Ghost." That is why "he was a good man." And then it goes deeper still— "and of faith "; and that is why he was full of the Holy Ghost. One has sometimes seen anatomical models, where one lifts off the top piece that represents skin and flesh, and lays bare the deeper-seated organs.
Luke's analysis here is somewhat like these. It gives a vertical section, that discloses the strata—not only the grass, and the " light of laughing flowers" on the surface, but the underlying soils which nourish these. All that I wish to do is to stand by and note the uncovering of these three successive layers: "a good man," " full of the Holy Ghost," "full of faith." We have—
I. The Christian Notion Of A Good Man.
Amongst all the noble words that are prostituted by common use, and vulgarized in unthinking lips, there are few that are more prostituted and vulgarized than that great phrase, "a good man." There is no better proof of the general lowness of morality than the ease with which that word is applied. You remember how our Lord once had occasion to rebuke a man who used it, as we so often use it, with no recognition of the awfulness and the sublimity that lie in it. He said, "Why callest thou Me good ?" not repudiating the character, but rebuking the employment of the word as a mere complimentary appellation. Nowadays it is hung round the neck of the poorest creatures, if they have some touch of geniality or good nature about them, and even sometimes taken down to a lower depth than that. Now, it is very remarkable how very chary the New Testament is in the employment of this name. There are other titles which it prefers—" righteous," "just," "saints," and the like. Seldom does it use the word "good "; and always as connoting certain qualities,
which will come out if I briefly remind you of the sort of man to whom it is applied here. Barnabas " was a good man," says Luke, and he says so in explanation of the large sympathy and superiority to narrow prejudice which enabled him to recognize, as soon as he saw it, the working of God's spirit in a strange form in that Gentile congregation that had been gathered together at Antioch. The rest of his life, so far as it is recorded for us in the Acts, is of a piece with this. He began his Christian career by the entire surrender of his possessions, so that thereafter, like Paul, he had to work for his living with his hands. Then he was the first of them all to recognize Saul of Tarsus as a true Christian. Then we have him eagerly stretching out his sympathies to this new Gentile Church in Antioch. Then we have him, with singular self-suppression and absence of anything like envy, going to seek Saul, to bring him into the work which he himself was doing. Then we have his entire consecration to the missionary cause, and association with Paul in his first journey, in the course of which we see his willing acquiescence in the swift growth of influence of the younger man, and his taking the second place without a moment's murmuring or hesitation. And then we have a breakdown, where " the contention was sharp between them," and an eclipse came over Barnabas for many years.
That is the New Testament notion of a " good man "; and although I have no desire to dwell at any length upon this part of my subject, I wish to make one observation, and that is, that the special differentia of this character is, no heroic virtues, but a certain geniality, gentleness, beauty of tenderness, and self-suppression; and to draw this conclusion, that unless our goodness is beautiful as well as good, it lacks its highest consecration. The wise old Greeks coined a phrase, "beautiful and good," and the two were so buckled together as to constitute but one conception. Now, that is where a great many good people go far wrong. They seem to think that the main thing is that they shall be righteous, just, pure. Yes, so it is; but unless you take care to make yourself sweet as well as good, and attractive as well as austere, you have yet to learn what is the perfectest consecration and irradiation of a human character. "Scarcely for a righteous man will one die "—no, that evokes but little outgoing of sympathy and affection; "yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die." See to it that your goodness is "lovely," as well as "of good report."
Another thought comes out of this New Testament conception of " a good man," as exemplified in the case of Barnabas, and that is, one does not need to be a faultless monster to be a good man in Heaven's eyes. Barnabas is an instance of very great failure in the case of a very good man. And though it, to a large extent, wrecked his usefulness, and overshadowed him for many a day with disastrous eclipse, yet he fought through it somehow, and came out again into the light, and the last glimpse of him, years after the time of our text, is when he and Paul have made it all up, and Barnabas has been ashamed of himself, no doubt, and his error is forgotten and buried. Do you remember who it was that was a man after God's own heart? The man that committed that great sin in the matter of Bathsheba and Uriah. Superficial people say: "A pretty kind of man after God's own heart—adulterer, murderer, traitor to his companion-in-arms." Yes, he was all these, but, having fallen, he repented, and though he had fallen, struggled to his feet again, and set his face once more towards the goal on which he had so shamefully turned his back; and so, with tears and a humbled heart and a strengthened will, made even his sin contributory to his goodness. Therefore, brethren, for us to-day it remains as a great and blessed truth that God looks not only on our actions, but on our aspirations, and that the set of a life, the drift of its tendency, is recognized by Him. Although wild gusts of passion may sweep the surface in the opposite direction, and cross-currents may agitate it, yet a great, deep, dominant force is the thing that determines a life. Now, you Christian people, remember that, unless it can be written down of you and me, " a good man," we have no business to call ourselves Christians.
We come to the second layer, lifting off the first— "full of the Holy Ghost."
II. Christ's Way Of Making A Good Man.
The characteristic gift and promise of Christianity is a Divine Helper, and help to mould our characters into conformity with the Divine will. Amongst our orthodox churches, we far too frequently put the vital centre of the Christian Revelation, in pardon, or, as it is called, "justification," and God forbid that I should even for a moment seem to diminish the importance of that. But, dear brother, your Christianity will be a most superficial thing, and may easily tend to become a minister of unrighteousness and not of righteousness, unless you keep clearly in view that pardon, "acceptance in the Beloved," and all the rest of what to many people constitutes the whole Gospel message, is but a means to an end, and that the end is that we should "walk not after the flesh but after the spirit," or, if you want it put into more modern words, not that we should be forgiven men, but that, being forgiven, we should be good men.
There is another common misapprehension amongst us which is often fostered by the kind of sermons that are preached, and the meditations that are indulged in, on this commemoration day of Pentecost, that the special gifts which are included in the gift of the Holy Spirit are those which are expressed by miracles and tongues on the one hand, or which are expressed by splendid endowments and exceptional intellectual or other gifts, on the other. So people will say that Paul was inspired, or, in a modified fashion, that others of the great religious geniuses of the ages, Origen, Augustine, John Bunyan, were inspired. But my text is a concrete example of the great truth that it becomes all us Christian people to realize far more than we do, viz., that the chosen field in which the Spirit of God operates in the Church is neither that of transient, supernatural gifts, as they are called, nor that of the exceptional endowments of great saints, geniuses, teachers, or organizers, but that of the humble work—humble as our vulgar conceptions think it, but to Him the highest —of moulding and refining quiet, commonplace, ordinary people into the image of Jesus Christ. That is a grander thing than all the more—to the world's eye—magnificent gifts. "Whether there be tongues they shall cease "—be it so. "Whether there be knowledge it shall vanish away"—be it so. But the greater and more permanent gift is bestowed upon any poor soul that wants it, the gift of a Divine Power to mould heavy clay, and to shape it into an image of serene and perfect beauty. It is greater to make saints out of sinners like you or me than it is to make a Paul out of a saint, or to give the power of raising from the dead, or speaking with tongues. The gift which the Gospel brings is first and foremost the gift of the Divine Spirit, whose highest work is to change our earthliness into the likeness of our Lord, and so to make us " free from the law of sin and death."
Now, I do not mean to cast any kind of scorn or contempt upon the moral excellences of men who are not Christians; when I say that, taking it in the general, and looking at what constitutes goodness in its deepest aspect, according to which nothing is perfectly good except work done in obedience to, and love towards, God, there is no goodness possible for humanity, but on condition of the reception of its Divine Helper, the Strengthener who comes to stand by our sides, to reinforce in us that which is feeble, to raise and support that which is low, to illumine that which is blind, that we may become what without Him we shall never be in its whole depth and sweep, good men after God's pattern.
I need only ask you to be honest with yourselves, to set before your consciousness your own inner basenesses and weaknesses, your own wavering resolutions and fragmentary strivings after good; the foiling of your noblest purposes which you have so often experienced. Do these not make you feel that if there is one thing that would be a gospel to you, it would be to assure you that there is a power not yourself—something more than " a stream of tendency," not yourself, but working in you, which "makes for righteousness "? Brethren, any man who has ever honestly set himself to mend himself, and to get out of himself the evil spot that is in him, will leap to that promise, and feel, "Ah ! that is what I want," and all facile philosophical objections will be swept away like so much thin mist and cloudwrack before the north wind, when the great need is felt, which always is felt when a man honestly tries to make himself " a good man."
But let us note that the possession of that Divine Spirit, which makes men good, is a full possession; "full of the Spirit." Yes, a scanty gift will do little to make a good man. If a river has been evaporated away by summer heats, so that there is only a thread of water running down the broad, bleached bed of tumbled stones, there will be no scour in that thin thread, to sweep away any of the obstructions and litter that choke the channel, nor will there be any water to spare to fertilize the banks. It needs to be a river brimming from side to side that floats away the filth, and can be led off to irrigate and fertilize the pastures on either bank. A scanty possession of the Divine Spirit will never make a good man.
There is a possibility opened in my text, a possibility for us all, that the whole nature of us, heart, and mind, and will—and however else you may choose to label its several operations—shall be penetrated by this Divine influence. In another metaphor, we are told that the great work of Jesus Christ is to plunge us into the fiery baptism of the Holy Spirit, We are immersed in it; it dominates and pervades our whole nature.- The two emblems mean the same. Here is an empty wine-skin, all hard and cracked; you pour in the sparkling benediction, and as you pour, it swells and smooths itself out. Into our limp, flaccid, empty spirits there may come the quickening blessing of that outpoured gift, and the vessel may be filled. But that is not all. The wine-skin stretches to its utmost, and if more is poured in, the skin bursts and the wine is spilt. But our vessels are elastic, and the walls of our hearts can widen out, like the tent in the fairy story, according to their contents. Though full, we may be still further filled, and receive more of that of which already we have received as much as the moment's capacity makes possible. Such is the ideal; what about the reality? I have spoken of a broad stream, and a trickle of water down the middle of its dry bed. That the Church of Christ should be such as it is to-day, the Spirit of Christ being such as He is to-day and always, is the shame and the scandal of the church, the laughter of the world, the wonder of angels, and the sorrow of Christ.
And now there is one more word. We have to get down to the bottom layer of all—" full of the Holy Ghost, and of faith." There you come to the secret of the whole.
III. The Condition Of Being Filled With The Divine Spirit
is being full of faith. That is to say, trust Jesus Christ, and in that trust you are united to Him in such real, not forensic or artificial or theological fashion, that his life is communicated to you in the measure of your faith. That is the Gospel. Faith, about which we talk so much, and often " darken counsel by words without wisdom," seems to me to be simply the outgoing of the spirit, in trust and lowly desire and conscious necessity, to that great Saviour. It is like the inflation of the lung that the life-breath may rush in, and it surely will.
Now, dear brethren, if this is the bottom layer, the underlying stratum of the whole section that we have been looking at, and if, beginning with the flowers on the surface, you come down to this at last—then the great practical lesson is that a Christian man or woman is solely responsible for the measure of the Spirit of God which he or she may realize. And that raises a serious question for us all. I have spoken about the contrast between the ideal and the reality. Ah! Whose fault is that? Our own; nobody else's. Not God's. On this Whitsuntide, when people are talking about a Pentecost, the world may well turn to us and say, "There was a rushing mighty wind, but it has gone all calm now. There were tongues of fire; they have all flickered out. Your gift was a transient gift." And what are we to say? Why, this—the gift was a perennial gift. It is to-day as really and as fully as it ever was. You Christian- people sometimes, when you feel the contrast between the ideal and the reality, the fulness of the possibility and the emptiness of the realization, pray for a fuller outpouring of the Spirit of God, and a new Pentecost. You do not need to pray for fresh fire; the fire is burning if you will only let Him baptize you in it. You do not need to pray for a rushing, mighty wind to sweep away stagnation and malaria; the wind is blowing, if only you will let it freshen your atmosphere and fill your sails. See that you take what you have, the Spirit in its fulness, lest there should be taken away from you, and from the church to which we belong, that which it seemeth we have. If you forget everything else that I have been saying, remember the three strokes of this portrait, and be sure of this, that if ever you are to be rightly called "a good man," it will be because, and only because, you are "full of the Holy Ghost and of faith."