"The God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant."—Heb. xiii. 20.
"HE Name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous runneth into it, and is safe." So says the Psalmist, meaning, I suppose, by the "running" of the "righteous into" the "Name," the flight of the soul from earthly vanities to the contemplation of the revealed character of God as the foundation of its desires and petitions. "The Name of the Lord" is the basis of prayer. What He is, in so far as is known by what He has said and done, is at once the foundation and the limit of what we can ask of Him. "For Thy Name's sake," which is in substance identical with "for Christ's sake," is the prevailing plea with God.
So here, the writer, being about to ask no small gift from the Divine hand, even nothing less than the absolute perfecting of these Hebrew Christians for every good work, so as to be pleasing in His sight, heartens himself for the wide and seemingly impossible petition by gazing on God. And these designations of Him, in His nature, His work of raising Jesus Christ from the dead, and His covenant, by which He has obliged Himself to a certain course of action, are at once the suppliant's arguments with God to give, and with himself to expect. If we laid more to heart what "the Name of the Lord" holds, we should put all doubt far from us and be ashamed of our inadequate and limiting expectations, and of the coldness and faithlessness of our petitions.
So, paying no attention for the present to the substance of the petitions, which will afford us a ground for meditation upon a future occasion, we may look simply at the great revelation made here to us of what God is in Himself and in His acts, as heartening us to expect and to ask great things from Him.
I.—First, then, the Name of God is the warrant for our largest hope.
"The God of peace," says the writer, "... make you perfect in every good work, to do His will, working in you that which is well pleasing in His sight." He will do it, is the implication of the appeal just because He is " the God of peace."
Now it seems to me that if we rightly grasp the significance and grand sweep of the words before us, we shall never rest content with such superficial exposition of them as supposes that by "the God of peace" is meant nothing more or deeper, nothing grander or higher, than the Author of concord between man and man. The phrase includes that, of course; as it includes other possible applications; but in its essence it goes a great deal deeper than that, and lays hold upon this aspect of the Divine Nature as being the guarantee for every poor humble soul that draws near to Him that it shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption, and led into a tranquillity which is only possible when all unrighteousness is swept away. God is the God of peace, and, therefore, He will, if we will let Him, make us perfect unto every good work.
That, of course, must imply that the peace which is here ascribed to Him, as its source and fontal possessor, is that deep and changeless calm of an infinite and perfectly harmonious being which is broken by no work, perturbed by no agitations, and yet is no more stagnant than the calm depths of the ocean, being penetrated for ever by warmth and majestic motion in which there is rest.
"The God of peace" wills to give to men something not altogether unlike the tranquillity which He Himself possesses.
The hope seems altogether beyond the conditions of creatural life, which is tossed to and fro amidst changes and agitations. How can the finite, whose very law of life is change, whose nature is open to the disturbances of external solicitations, and the agitations of inward emotions—how can he ever, in this respect, approximate to the repose of God? And yet, analogous, if not similar, tranquillity may fill our hearts. Surely He who dwells in His own indisturbance, and desires that His children should be partakers of His stable blessedness, is able, as well as willing, to steady the soul that is knit to Him with somewhat of His own steadiness and calm.
For what is it that breaks human peace? Is it emotion, change or any of the necessary conditions of our earthly life? By no means. It is possible to carry an unflickering flame through the wildest tempests, if only there be a sheltering hand round about it. And it is possible that my agitated and tremulous nature, blown upon by all the winds of heaven, may still burn straight upwards, undeviating from its steady aspiration, if only the hand of the Lord be about me. .fust because God is the God of peace, it must be His desire to impart His own tranquillity to us.
The sure way by which that deep calm within the breast can be received and retained is by His imparting to us just what the writer here asks for these Hebrews—hearts ready for every good work and wills submitted to His will. The condition of peace is righteousness, and He who comes to make men partakers of the peace of God is, "first of all, King of Righteousness, and, after that, also King of Peace." When our wills are made pliable and flexible, no longer stiff and rigid and obstinate, like a bar of iron, to His touch, but bendable like a piece of dressed leather; when our hankering desires no longer go after forbidden dainties, but keep themselves within the limits of the Divine will; when we are ready for all that He commands or appoints, meeting the one with unmurmuring resignation and the other with unquestioning obedience—then nothing that is at enmity with joy can utterly abolish or destroy the peace that we have in God.
We have sought for rest; we have not found it if we have not learned the deep wisdom that lies in, as well as the soaring hopes that we are encouraged to cherish from, this collocation of my text. "The God of peace make you perfect in every good work, to do His will." Then the peace which comes from unbroken friendship with Him, and that which comes from the inner harmony of a soul united to itself, and that which comes from independence of, and mastery over, circumstances, and that which comes from loving and unselfish relations to our fellows, will all be granted to us, and the great truth will be fulfilled in our hearts, "Great peace have they which love Thy law." It is because God is the God of peace that we may open our mouths wide, knowing that He will fill them, and dare ask that "the very God of peace may sanctify us wholly."
II.—Then note, secondly, how the raising of the Shepherd is the prophecy for the sheep. "The God that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep."
There is a reference here to, and I think a verbal quotation of, the words of the prophet Isaiah. "Where is He that brought them up out of the sea; with the Shepherd of His flock?" The allusive glance at the history of Moses and Israel is instructive and significant. Just as that former leader was brought up from the harmless, curling crests of the Red Sea waves, which drowned the oppressors and introduced the fugitives into the land of liberty, so Christ, at the head of those who love Him and trust Him, has passed through the cloven waters and has issued forth into the freedom and glory beyond.
While all sweet and blessed familiar applications of the metaphor are also to be kept in view, such as guidance and tender care and companionship and pasturage, and so on, yet the principal thought implied here is that where the Shepherd goes the sheep follow. Christ's Resurrection and session in glory at the right hand of God point the path and the goal for all His servants.
It is a remarkable fact that, whilst there is no book of the New Testament which speaks so fully and emphatically and often as this one does of the risen glory of Jesus Christ, as King and Priest within the veil, and Forerunner for us, this is the only allusion in it to the Resurrection. And even this allusion does not so much emphasize the fact of resurrection as the state into which the risen Christ has passed for us, as our Forerunner. These two things, the Resurrection and the Ascension, are but two stages in one process, which has for its issue the celestial glory of the enthroned Christ.
I need not dwell upon the fact of the Resurrection as being for us the one manifest and irrefragable proof of a future life. I confess for my own part that if I did not believe that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead, 1 could nowhere find an argument solid enough on which to rest the weight of indubitable certainty of a future life. No doubt there are many confirmatory considerations to be drawn from other sources, both internal and external. We may say that we need to have another life brought into the field of view in order to redress the inequalities, and explain some of the mysteries and problems of the present. We may say that consciousness seems to point in that direction, whatever may be the value of its witness as to the future. But whilst all these may be subsidiary evidences, there is but one thing that proves it. A fact can only be proved by a fact. Jesus Christ died and rose again. Believing that, a man can say, I knoiv: doubting or disbelieving it, he can only say, as the mood may take him, I hope or fear.
But the main consideration enforced by this designation of God as having brought the Shepherd from the dead is the guarantee thereby given that all the flock will be gathered round Him where He is, and will share in what He is. This same epistle puts a similar thought in its grand commentary on the ideal of manhood in Psalm viii.—" We see not yet all things put under Him, but we see Jesus"; and that is enough. I ask myself, Is it possible that I shall be delivered from this burden of corruption; that I shall ever, in any state, be able, with unhesitating and total surrender of myself, to make the will of God the very life of my spirit and the bread on which I live? And all the unbelieving, doubtful, and cowardly suggestions of my own heart as to the folly of trying after an unreachable perfection, and the wisdom of acquiescence in the partial condition to which I have already attained, are shivered and swept out of view by this one thing—the sight of a man throned by the side of God, perfect in holiness and serene in untroubled beauty. That is a prophecy for us all. We look out upon the world, or into this cage of evils in our own hearts, and are tempted to fold our hands and acquiesce in the inevitable. Alas! it is too true that "we see not yet all things put under man." Courage ! my brethren. Nothing less than the likeness of Jesus Christ corresponds to God's will concerning us. In Him there is power to make each of us as pure, as sinless, as the Lord Himself in whom we
trust. He rose, and sits crowned with glory and honour. Oh! if Christian men would ponder what of hope and cheer, what of absolute certainty as to their own future, lie in that great fact, they would fight the good fight with far more buoyancy of spirit, and the expectation of conquering would more frequently fulfil itself, and we should know within ourselves "what is the exceeding greatness of His power according to the working of the strength of His might which He wrought in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and set Him on His own right hand in the heavenly places." "The God that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep," has pledged Himself thereby that the sheep, who imperfectly follow Him here when He goeth before them, shall find Him gone before them into the heavens, and there will "follow Him whithersoever He goeth," in the perfect likeness and perfect purity of the perfect kingdom.
III.—Lastly, the everlasting covenant is the teacher and the pledge of our largest desires.
I am not going to enter upon questions difficult in themselves, and which have no special bearing on my present purpose, as to the connection of the last clause of my text with the preceding ones; as to whether we are to suppose that the writer meant that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead in or by virtue of the blood of the everlasting Covenant, which would mean that His death, sealing God's covenant with us, was declared to be the sufficient guarantee and seal thereof by the fact of His Resurrection; or whether we are only to apply the words to the last part of the preceding clause, and to suppose that the meaning is that Christ, by virtue of His death, becomes fully the Shepherd of the sheep. These questions we may leave on one side.
What I now seek to do is to bring clearly before our minds this thought of God as having entered into a covenant with us men, which is sealed for us in the death of Christ; and declared to be valid by His Resurrection.
It is not fashionable in modern theology to talk about God's covenant with us. Our forefathers used to have a great deal to say about it, and it became a technical word with them. And so this generation has very little to say about it, and seldom thinks of the great ideas that are contained in it. But is it not a grand thought, and a profoundly true one, that God, like some great monarch who deigns to grant a constitution to his people, has condescended to lay down conditions by which He will be bound, and on which we may reckon? Out of the illimitable possibilities of action, limited only by His own nature, and all incapable of being foretold by us, He has marked a track on which He will go. If I may so say, across the great ocean of possible action He has buoyed out His course, and we may prick it down upon our charts, and be quite sure that we shall find Him there.
What is the substance of these obligations which He has bound Himself by solemn utterances of His own faithful lips to fulfil to each of us?
"This is the Covenant," said a prophet, long before the date of this letter, to whom this writer stretches out a hand across the ages, greeting him as a brother— '' this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel—I will put My laws into their minds, and on their hearts will I write them, and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to Me a people ... all shall know Me . . . and their sins will I remember no more."
The moulding of heart and will to love His will, so making duty delight, is exactly the substance of this parting prayer, and it is the first article in the everlasting Covenant. With such inward conformity of will comes necessarily blessed mutual possession, God belonging to the obedient will and loving heart, which belong to and delight in Him.. Such a heart will be illuminated with that knowledge which can only be won by possession. And the root of all lies in that final article which is adduced as necessarily presupposed in the others, "for . . . their sins will I remember no more." And how do we know that these great promises will be fulfilled? The blood of Jesus is the seal of the Covenant. Jesus has died; therefore sin is forgiven. Jesus Christ has died, therefore our natures will be filled with a Divine Spirit if we will, which shall make His law our delight, and His will ours. Jesus Christ has died, therefore the times of the ignorance are passed; and all men that will look at Him may know the Father. Jesus has died, therefore God is to us our God, and we are to Him His people.
That being the Covenant, how can we expect too confidently, or ask too beseechingly, or wait for the answer too assuredly, or aim too hopefully and buoyantly, at the fulfilment thereof? How can we limit our petitions and desires far within the broad boundaries which God has staked out for us? Be sure of this, that within the four corners of God's articulate and unmistakable assurance lies all that heart can wish or spirit receive from Him. You cannot expect or ask more from Him than He has bound Himself to impart. Your desires can never be so outstretched as to go beyond the efficacy of the blood of Jesus Christ; and through the ages of time or eternity the everlasting Covenant remains, to which it shall be our wisdom and our blessedness to widen our hopes, expand our desires, conform our wishes, and adapt our work.
It is no vain dream that we may be stainless as the angels of God. The name of God, the glory of the risen Christ, the steadfastness of the everlasting Covenant, all combine to make it as certain as God Himself that if we will cleave to that Lord, and follow the footsteps of the Shepherd, we shall attain to the place where He is, and partake in the serenity of His rest, and the lustre of His glory.