"See that ye refuse not Him that speaketh. For if they escaped not who refused Him that spake on earth, much more shall not we escape, if we turn away from Him that speaketh from Heaven."—Heb. xii. 25.
Sl> <w=^?a|HE writer has finished his great contrast °^ Judaism an(l Christianity as typified \K^u° ^e moim*;s Sinai and Zion. But
'Mi^M scene at the former still haunts his
''imagination and shapes this solemn
warning. The multitude gathered there had shrunk from the Divine voice, and "entreated that it might not be spoken to them any more." So may we do, standing before the better mount of a better Revelation. The parallel between the two congregations at the two mountains is still more obvious if we remark that the word translated in my text "refuse" is the same as has just been employed in a previous verse, describing the conduct of the Israelites, where it is rendered " entreated." It may seem strange that after so joyous and triumphant an enumeration of the glorious persons and things with whom we are brought into contact by faith, there should come the jarring note of solemn warning which seems to bring back the terrors of the ancient Law. But, alas! the glories and blessedness into which faith introduces us are no guarantees against its decay; and they who are " come unto Mount Zion and the city of the living God," may turn their backs upon all the splendour, and wander away into the gaunt desert.
I.—So we have here, first of all, the solemn possibility of refusal.
Now, to gain the whole force and solemnity of this exhortation, it is very needful to remember that it is addressed to professing Christians, who have in so far exercised real faith, as that, by it they are come to Mount Zion, and to the city of the living God." AYe are to keep that clear, or we lose the whole force and meaning of this exhortation before us, which is addressed distinctly, emphatically, and in its true application exclusively to Christian men—" See that ye refuse not Him that speaketh."
Then, again, it is to be noted that the refusal here spoken about, and against which we professing Christians are thus solemnly warned, is not necessarily entire intellectual rejection of the Gospel and its message. For the Israelites, who made the original "refusal," to which that which we are warned against is paralleled, recognised the voice that they would not listen to as being God's voice; and just because it was His voice wanted to hear no more of it. And so, although we may permissibly extend the words before us to include more than is thereby originally meant, yet we must remember that the true and proper application of them is to the conduct of men who, recognising that God is speaking to them, do not want to hear anything more from Him. That is to say, this warning brings to us Christians the reminder that it is possible for us so to tamper with what we know to be the uttered will and expressed commandment of God as that our conduct is tantamount to saying, "Be silent, 0 Lord! and let me not hear Thee speak any more to me." The reason for that refusal, which thus, in its deepest criminality and darkest sin, can only be made by men that recognise the voice to be God's, lies just here, "they could not endure that which was commanded." So, then, the sum of the whole thing is this, that it is possible for Christian people so to cherish wills and purposes which they know to be in diametrical and flagrant contradiction to the will and purpose of God, that obstinately they prefer to stick by their own desires, and, if it may be, to stifle the voice of God.
Then, remember, too, that this refusal, which in reality is the rising up of the creature's will, tastes, inclinations, desires against the manifest and recognized will of God may, and as a matter of fact often does, go along with a great deal of lip reverence and unconsciously hypocritical worship. These men from whom the writer is drawing his warning in the wilderness there, said, " Don't let Him speak! We are willing to obey all that He has to command; only let it come to us through human lips, and not in these tremendous syllables that awe our spirits." They thought themselves to be perfectly willing to keep the commandments when they were given, and all that they wanted was some little accommodation to human weakness in the selection of the medium by which the word was brought. So we may be wrenching ourselves away from the voice of God, because we uncomfortably feel that it is against our resolves, and all the while may never know that we are unwilling to obey His commandments. The unconscious refusal is the formidable and the fatal one.
It comes by reason, as I have said, fundamentally from the rising up of our own determinations and wishes against His commandments; but it is also due to other causes operating along with this. How can you hear God's voice if you are letting your own yelping dog-kennel of passions speak so loudly as they do? Will God's voice be heard in a heart that is all echoing with earthly wishes, loudly clamant for their gratification, or with sensual desires passionately demanding their food to be flung to them? Will God's voice be heard in a heart where the janglings of contending wishes and earthly inclinations are perpetually loud in their brawling? Will it be heard in a heart which has turned itself into a sounding board for all the noises of the world and the voices of men? The voice of God is heard in silence, and not amidst the Babel of our own hearts. And they who, unconsciously perhaps of what they are doing, open their ears wide to hear what they themselves in the lower parts of their souls prescribe, or bow themselves in obedience to the precepts and maxims of men round them, are really refusing to hear the voice of God.
It is not to be forgotten, howsoever, that whilst thus the true and proper application of these words is to Christian men, and the way by which we refuse to listen to that awful utterance is by withdrawing our lives from the control of His will, and dragging away our contemplations from meditation upon His word, yet there is a further form in which men may refuse that voice, which eminently threatened the persons to whom this warning was first directed. All through this letter we see that the writer is in fear that his correspondents should fall away into intellectual and complete rejection of Christianity. And the reason was mainly this, that the fall of the ancient and sacred system of the old covenant might lead them to distrust all revelation from God, and to cast aside the Gospel message. So the exhortation of my text assumes a special closeness of application to us whose lot has been cast in revolutionary times as was theirs, and who have, in our measure, something of that same experience to go through, which made the sharp trial of these Hebrew Christians. To them, solid and permanent as they had fancied them, ancient and God-appointed realities and ordinances were melting away; and it was natural that they should ask themselves, "Is there anything that will not melt, on which we can rest?" And to us in this day much of the same sort of discipline is appointed; and we, too, have to see, both in the religious and in the social world, much evidently waxing old and ready to vanish away which our fathers thought to be permanent. And the question for us is, Is there anything that we can cling to? Yes! to the "voice that speaks from heaven" in Jesus Christ. As long as that is sounding in our ears we may calmly look out on the evanescence of the evanescent, and confidently rely on the permanence of the permanent. And so, brother, though this, that, and the other of the externals of Christianity, in polity, in form, in mode, may be passing away, be sure of this, the solid core abides; and that core lies in the first word of this letter. "God . . . hath spoken unto us in His Son." See that no experience of mutation leads you to falter in your confidence in that voice, and "see that ye refuse not Him that speaketh."
II.—Again, note the sleepless vigilance necessary to counteract the tendency to refusal.
"See that ye refuse not." A warning finger is, as it were, lifted. Take heed against the tendencies that lie in yourself and the temptations around you. The consciousness of the possibility of the danger is half the battle. "Blessed is the man that feareth always," says the psalm. "The confident"—by which is meant the presumptuous, and not the trustful— "goeth on and is punished." The timid—by which I mean the self-distrustful—clings to God, because he knows his danger, and is safe. If we think that we are on the verge of falling, we are nearer standing than we ever are besides. To lay to heart the reality, and the imminence, and the gravity of the possibility that is disclosed here is an essential part of the means for preventing its becoming a reality. They who would say "I cannot turn away because I have come," have yet to learn the weakness of their own hearts and the strength of the world that draws them away. There is no security for us except in the continual temper of rooted self-distrust, for there is no motive that will drive us to the continual confidence in which alone is security but the persistent pressure of that sense that in ourselves we are nothing, and cannot but fall. I want no man to live in that selfish and anxious dread "which hath torment," but I am sure that the shortest road to the brave security which is certain of never being defeated is the clear and continual consciousness that
In ourselves we nothing can,
Full soon were we down-ridden;
But for us fights the proper Man,
Whom God Himself hath bidden.
The dark underside of the triumphant confidence, which on its sunny side looks up to heaven and receives its light, is that self-distrust which says always to ourselves, " We have to take heed lest we refuse Him that speaketh."
If there is any need to dwell upon specific methods by which this vigilance and continuous self-distrust may work out for us our security, one would say—by careful trying to reverse all these conditions which, as we have seen, lead us surely to the refusal. Silence the passions, the wishes, the voices of your own wills and tastes and inclinations and purposes. Bring them all into close touch with Him. Let there be no voice in your hearts till you know God's will; and then with a leap let your hearts be eager to do it. Keep yourselves out of the babble of the world's voices; and be accustomed to go by yourselves and let God speak. Nature seems to be silent to the busy traveller who never gets away from the thumping of the piston of the engine, and the rattle of the wheels of the train. Let him go and sit down by himself on the mountain top, and the silence becomes all vocal and full of noises. Go into the lone place of silent contemplation, and so get near God, and you will hear His voice. But you will not hear it unless you still the beating of your own heart. Even in such busy lives as most of us have to live it is possible to secure some space for such solitary communion and meditation if we seriously feel that we must, and are ready to cut off needless distractions. He who thus has the habit of going alone with God will be able to hear his voice piercing through the importunate noises of earth, which drown it for others. Do promptly, precisely, perfectly, all that you know He has said. That is the way to sharpen your ears for the more delicate intonations of His voice, and the closer manifestions of His will. If you do not, the voice will hush itself into silence. Thus bringing your lives habitually into contact with God's word, and testing them all by it, you will not be in danger of "refusing Him that speaketh."
III.—Lastly, note the solemn motives by which this sleepless vigilance is enforced.
"If they escaped not who refused Him that spake on earth "—or, perhaps, "who on earth refused Him that spake"—" much more shall not we escape if we turn away from Him that speaketh from Heaven." The clearness of the voice is the measure of the penalty of non-attention to it. The voice that spoke on earth had earthly penalties as the consequence of disobedience. The voice that speaks from heaven, by reason of its loftier majesty, and of the clearer utterances which are granted to us thereby, necessarily involves more severe and fatal issues from negligence to it.
Mark how the words of my text deepen and darken in their significance in the latter portion. In the first we had simply "refusal," or the desire not to hear the voice, and in the latter portion that has solidified and deepened itself into "turning away from Him." That is to say, when we once begin, as many professing Christians have begun, to be intolerant of God's voice meddling with their lives, we are upon an inclined plane, which, with a sharp pitch and a very short descent, carries us down to the darker condition of "turning away from Him." The man that stops his ears will very soon turn his back and be in flight, so far as he can, from the voice. Do not tamper with God's utterances. If you do, you have begun a course that ends in alienation from Him.
Then mark, again, the evils which fell upon these people who turned away from Him that speaketh on earth were their long wanderings in the wilderness, and their exclusion from the Land of Promise, and final deaths in the desert, where their bleaching bones lay white in the sunshine. And if you and I, dear friends, by continuous and increasing deafness to our Father's voice, have turned away from Him, then all that assemblage of flashing glories and majestic persons, and of reconciling blood to which we come by faith, will melt away, "and leave not a wrack behind." We shall be like men who, in a dream, have thought themselves in a king's palace, surrounded by beauty and treasures, and have awakened with a start and a shiver to find themselves alone in the desert. It will be loss enough if the fair city which hath foundations, and the palace-home of the king on the mountain, and the joyful assemblage of the angels, and the Church of the firstborn, and the spirits of the just made perfect, and the blood of sprinkling, all pass away from our vision, and instead of them there is nothing left but this mean, vulgar, fleeting world. They ivill pass if you do not listen to God, and that is why so many of you have so little conscious contact with the unseen and glorious realities to which faith gives access.
But then there are dark and real penalties to come in another life which the writer dimly shows to us. It is no part of my business to enlarge upon these solemn warnings. An inspired man may do it. I do not think that it is reverent for me to do it much. But at the same time let me remind you that terror is a legitimate weapon to which to appeal, and unwelcome and unfashionable as its use is nowadays, it is one of the weapons in the armoury of the true preacher of God's Word. I believe we Christian ministers would do more if we were less chary of speaking out " the terror of the Lord." And though 1 shrink from anything like vulgar and rhetorical and sensational appeals to that side of divine revelation, and to what answers to it in us, I consider that I should be a traitor to the truth if I did not declare the fact that such appeals are legitimate, and that such terror is a part of the Divine Kevelation.
So, dear friends, though I dare not dwell upon these, I dare not burke them. I remind you—and I do no more—of the tone that runs through all this letter, of which you have such instances as these, "If the word spoken by angels was steadfast, and every transgression received its just recompense of reward, how shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation?" and " Of how much sorer punishment, think you, shall they be thought worthy who have counted the blood of the Covenant wherewith they were sanctified a common thing?"
"See that ye refuse not Him that speaketh," for the clearer, the tenderer, the more stringent the beseechings of the love and the warnings of Christ's voice, the more solemn the consequences if we stop our ears to it. Better to hear it now, when it warns, and pleads, and beseeches, and comforts, and hallows, and quickens, than to hear it first when it rends the tombs and shakes the earth, and summons all to judgment, and condemns some to the outer darkness to which they had first condemned themselves.