THE SUMMATION OF THE GOSPEL
Acts 26:18:—"To open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive remission of sins and an inheritance among them that are sanctified by faith in me."
We are given in the Book of Acts three accounts of Paul's conversion—one by Luke in the course of his history of the advance of the church, and two from the lips of the Apostle himself in addresses reported by the historian in the course of his narrative. The account in the apology which the Apostle in chains made before King Agrippa is the fullest account of the three, and especially in the report it makes of the words spoken by Jesus to Paul. We may be especially grateful for this. For these words are simply marvellous in the compressed fullness of their content and the richness of their teaching to us, even after the passage of so many ages.
The superior completeness here of the narrative of what passed between the Lord in heaven and him whom He would make a chosen vessel for the conveyance of His precious Gospel to the world, is already apparent in certain preliminaries to the main declaration—comparatively unimportant no doubt, but not without their significance. Here only we are told that the ascended Christ addressed the future Apostle in the Hebrew dialect,—the sacred tongue in which all the prophets had spoken and Moses, when they foretold His sufferings and how first out of the resurrection of the dead He should proclaim light to the people and to the Gentiles. Here only also are we told that to the sad inquiry, "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?" was added that proverbial saying, "It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks" —intimating that like the harnessed ox he was in the hands of a master who would direct his path whither He would, and it was useless for him to strive against the performance of the duties which were appointed him. Better accept the commission given you and perform the work of the Lord assigned to you, with joy that you are chosen to serve the Lord, than to seek hopelessly to go your own way.
But it is not until we reach the words by which Saul was commissioned to be the Lord's Apostle that the full richness of this report breaks upon us. "Arise and stand upon thy feet"—so the record of the words runs—"for it is for this that I have appeared to thee; to ordain thee as a servant and a witness both of those things because of which thou hast seen me and of those things because of which I shall appear to thee, delivering thee from the people and from the nations, unto whom I send thee." Here is Paul's appointment to the apostleship. Was ever man appointed to an office in a manner so authoritative or with words so decisive? Christ comes from heaven itself to make the appointment. The appointment is to the work of a servant, a servant of Himself. The nature of the service required is that of witness-bearing; "a servant and a witness," that is, a servant whose service is witnessing. The matter to be witnessed to is provided by the appointer: "a witness of that with respect to which I shall appear unto thee." The witness is to add nothing of himself but to testify only what he has heard, what he has seen with his eyes, what he beheld and his hands have handled. And as the scope of the testimony is thus set him so also is its sphere; it is to be borne to the "people and the peoples"—to Jew and Gentile,—unto whom, says the voice, "I send you"—with majestic emphasis on the "I."
Truly it is to the office of a servant that Paul is called, a servant with a specific work to do and with specific instructions how to perform it. Thus he was made an "apostle," an apostle by the same call to the same work which all the apostles had received. It is even odd how perfectly Paul's commission accords with the very terms given to his fellows: "Go, and make disciples of all the nations . . . and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world." "The people and the Gentiles unto whom I send thee"—here is the universal commission; he is to go to Jew and Gentile alike, to all the world. "Delivering thee from the people and from the Gentiles, unto whom I send thee"—here is the accompanying promise of "Lo, I am with thee." And note the nature of the apostolic promise. It is not that Paul shall suffer no harm from Jew and Gentile, that he shall not be hard-bested, baffled and persecuted. How could Paul the prisoner have repeated such a promise as that? It was that he should not be balked in his witness-bearing to them; that through divine intervention he should be successful in performing his duty as a servant and witness. Here, says Calvin, we see the Divine hand instilling courage into His servant for his task by assuring him of Divinely given success and at the same time forewarning him of the cross he was to bear. He shall need deliverance; but he shall have it.
What then is the task laid upon this servant? We have it already adumbrated in the call. He is called to serve as a witness. Witness-bearing is his one function. But in the wonderful words which are more particularly before us to-day, we have it opened out to us in all its richness. I send thee to all peoples, says the heavenly King, in imposing upon him His mission: I send thee to all peoples, "to open their eyes." There we have in the briefest compass possible, the whole apostolic mission. The apostles are sent into a world, blinded by sin, sunk in the darkness of soul that comes from sin, "to open men's eyes." Witness-bearers as they are, their duty corresponds with their equipment: they have received of the Lord, let them impart of what they have received to others. They have only to "open men's eyes," to open them to a clear vision of their state, of their danger and destiny, and of the love of God in Christ which has provided a reprieve from the danger.
To what end are they to open men's eyes? "To the end," says the heavenly King, "that they may turn from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God." As the whole apostolic duty consists in opening men's eyes, so the end for which they perform this duty consists wholly in the "conversion" of men; they are to open men's eyes to the end that men may "turn"— turn "from darkness to light and the power of Satan to God."
Why should they thus turn? The heavenly King condescends to explain even this to us. It is that "they may receive forgiveness of sins and inheritance among the saints." Those who are in darkness and under the tyranny of Satan, having had their eyes opened to their true state and the provision for their relief made by a loving God, may turn from the darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God. The condition of so doing is to have their eyes opened. This the Apostle was to perform. The effect of so doing was to receive forgiveness of sin and a lot among the saints. This God was to do; and He alone could do it. Turning to God, they receive from God these blessings.
How then do they receive them? The heavenly King does not omit to tell us plainly, though, no doubt, it is involved in the nature of the case. If, by turning to God, they receive from God these blessings, it must needs be by faith that they receive them, for what is faith but a looking to God for blessings? Nevertheless the ascended Christ fails not to state the matter for us and to state it in a manner and in a position in the sentence which throws upon it a tremendous emphasis. "By faith" He says; and He says more, —"by faith in Me." And there is where the Christianity of the declaration comes in.
One might be sent to open men's eyes without being a Christian. Socrates was so sent; and he opened men's eyes to much that was true, and right, and good; and Sakya Muni was so sent; and Zoroaster and Confucius; and since them a host have been so sent, who, by their investigations into nature or their profound philosophy, have made men to know things, and, let us hope, have made men's darkness less intense—though we must never forget that the world by all its wisdom does not know God. Men might be even sent to open men's eyes as to their religious state—so that their religious darkness might be ameliorated and they be led to see some rays of religious light, and to long to be delivered from the power of Satan and to turn to God—without being Christians. Even should we say that we are sent to open men's eyes that they may turn from darkness to light and the power of Satan to God and so might obtain forgiveness of sins and a lot with the sanctified—the proclamation might remain not yet Christian. Nor would the mere addition of the words "by faith" Christianize it. But when we say that all this is obtained by faith in Jesus, and say this as the ascended Jesus has said it here—then, indeed, we have a Christian proclamation, or let us rather say, the Christian proclamation. For in these words we have the very essence of Christianity.
And now, perhaps, we shall be able to understand why, ever since the Book of Acts has been written, men have been accustomed to look upon this little verse as one of the most pregnant in the whole scope of revelation, and why they have learned to call it the "Breviarium Apostolicum," the "Summarium Evangelicum." It is the compendium of apostolic duty. It is the summation of the Gospel. It tells the Apostle briefly that his one duty is to "open men's eyes"; it tells the world briefly that the Gospel consists in forgiveness of sins and a title to eternal life through faith in Jesus. Out of one and out of the other it extracts the core and holds that up to us for our undistracted contemplation. As such it surely is worthy of our most serious consideration.
There is another circumstance about it which gives it an especial claim on our attention. These are the words of the ascended Christ. Men to-day seem to find it very difficult to discern an authority in religion. Surely we cannot trust the mere "ipse dixit" of men in the affair of the salvation of the soul! Let us find firm footing for our feet! And so the cry has risen, Back to Christ! Back even from the apostles whom He commissioned to make Him known to men; back to Christ Himself! But when we go back to Christ, a new doubt seizes the wavering soul. Was not Christ, too, in the time of His sojourn on earth, a man? Mayhap—so it is suggested—mayhap He not only walked as a man and spake as a man, but thought as a man and taught as a man. Can we trust even His deliberate declarations in the days of His flesh? Well, if we are earnest in all this, we may find relief for our souls in a passage like the one before us. In it we have gone back to Christ. It is He who speaks these words to us. And we have gone back, not to the earthly Christ but to the heavenly Christ. It is not the Christ in His humiliation but the Christ in His glorification who here speaks to us. He has put off the Servant-form, and been exalted to the right hand of the Majesty on High; and He rends the heaven to give to men from the very Throne, this "Breviarium Apostolicum," this "Summarium Evangelicum." It may, indeed, be that like an Old Testament hero we are ourselves unstable as water—"like the surge of the sea driven of the wind and tossed"—and cannot feel our footing firm though the Eternal Rock be beneath our feet. But surely if we are earnestly in search of a secure basis for our faith, the word spoken from heaven by the exalted Christ supplies it to us; making known to us what the duty of the Apostle, and of us, too, the successors of the Apostles in witnessing to the Word, is, and what the Gospel is to which as Christ's messengers we are to bear witness.
Approaching the passage in this spirit, let us mark well the supreme lessons it brings to us, as messengers of the grace of God in the Gospel—as seekers of the salvation that is in Jesus.
Mark, then, first of all, the function which the Ascended Jesus assigns to His witnessing servants. It is summed up in a single term—it is "to open men's eyes." Now, of course, the eye of the heart can be opened only by the Spirit of God; and it is not this unperformable duty which Christ lays on His servants. But the eyes of the mind are opened, in a lower sense, by the presentation of the truth and it is this that the Lord requires of His servants. They are "witnesses"; their duty is not to tickle men's ears or to allay their fears; their duty is to make known the truth, though it is precisely the truth that is not agreeable to their ears and that arouses and gives leash to their most terrifying fears. What men need is to have their eyes opened, and the duty laid on Paul and on all who would be followers of Paul is to open men's eyes. That it was in this sense that Paul understood his commission is obvious from the succeeding context. He was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, he tells the king, but having been sent to open men's eyes, that they might turn to God, he preached the Gospel of repentance and turning to God, bearing his witness to small and great alike. So will we, too, fulfil our commission as messengers of God's grace. We owe, as ministers, a teaching duty and our prime duty—our one duty—is to teach: we must open men's eyes.
We must not fail to mark the honour which is thus put by the Ascended Jesus on what we have learned to call by way of eminence, the Truth,— or, the Gospel message. Everything is made to turn on that. It lies at the root of all. The Apostle's duty is to open men's eyes. Whatever of salvation may come to men comes subsequently to that and as an outgrowth of this root. "Truth is in order to godliness"—that is a true formula. But it must not be read—should we wish to remain in harmony with the Ascended Christ—as a depreciation of the value of "truth" and "knowledge" (its subjective form), but as an enhancement of their importance. Truth exists only to produce godliness; that is true and needs to be kept constantly in mind. But no truth, no godliness,—that, too, is true and that, too, needs to be kept fully in mind. The only instrument in your hands or my hands for producing godliness is the truth; we are not primarily anything else but witnesses to truth; and the truth of God is the one lever by which we can pry at the hearts of men. Preach the Word; that is our one commission. And it is no more true that the Word cannot be preached without a preacher, than that the preacher cannot preach without a Word. Men are in darkness, they need light, and we are sent to give it to them.
It is equally important to observe that the implication of our Ascended Saviour's words of commission as to the condition of men, is that they are in darkness. That is the reason why they require to have their eyes opened. In what darkness let the Apostle who received the commission elsewhere tell us. As to the Gentiles, he tells us sufficiently in the first chapter of Romans; they have held back the knowledge of God in ungodliness until their foolish mind is darkened and they cannot know God; and under what bondage to Satan this has brought them, let the catalogue of evils with which that chapter closes inform us. Nor are the Jews in better case: for a Veil lies on their hearts also which will not be taken away except on turning unto the Lord. The dense darkness in which men live, the terrible bondage into which they have been brought; this is part of the revelation of the Ascended Saviour, connected with which is the necessary implication of their hopelessness apart from the preaching of the Gospel. The appointed means of breaking this darkness is the proclamation of the Gospel by which alone can men's eyes be opened.
As it is the single duty laid by the Ascended Christ on His messengers that they shall open men's eyes, the single duty He lays on their hearers is correspondingly that they should turn from the darkness to the light, and (what is the same thing) from the power of Satan to God. It is, of course, as evident that men cannot turn from darkness to light, from the tyranny of Satan to God, in their own strength, as it is that men cannot open other people's eyes by their own power. As in the one case, so in the other, the immanent work of the Holy Spirit is not excluded because it is not mentioned. But as in the one case, so in the other, the action of man is required. Christ requires His apostle to "open men's eyes" —that is, to proclaim the truth which opens their eyes. Christ requires their hearers to turn from the darkness to the light, to shake off their bondage to Satan and turn to God. In both cases, He requires the "sowing" and "watering," while it is He alone who gives the increase. What we need to mark is that in this we have the one requirement of the Gospel. All that the ascended Christ demands is that when the light is brought to the eye the eye shall follow the light; that when the darkness is made visible to it as darkness, it shall not cling to the darkness by preference; that when Satan and God are set before it, it shall not choose Satan's bondage rather than the liberty which is in God.
Let us mark now the declaration made by the Ascended Christ of the benefits received from the Gospel. Those who under the message turn from Satan to God receive "remission of sins and a share with the sanctified," and that is to say, they receive a complete salvation. For what does man want in this world of darkness and subjection to Satan? What but, on the one hand, remission of the sins by virtue of which alone he can be held under Satan's tyranny, and, on the other, a title to the bliss prepared for the saints? Here are the two sides of what is technically termed Justification, proclaimed as the essence of salvation from heaven itself. Freedom from sin—that is the negative side; an inheritance among the saints—that is the positive side. Saints may have an inheritance—a lot or share—in bliss on their own account. But surely a sinner has no right to share it with them. Not even if his sins be forgiven him has he a right to share it. Enough for him that his sins are forgiven. On what ground shall he receive so great an additional reward? But the Gospel offers him not only relief from the penalty of sin but a place among those who are sanctified. "Who have been sanctified"—that he cannot yet say of himself. But by God's grace he has a title to a place among those who can say it. Holy angels and sanctified men— they stand before God's face forever.
Nor must we fail to mark the emphatic adjunction of the means by which they receive these gifts—the instrumental cause of their reception of them. The Ascended Jesus says it is by faith, and adjoins the emphasized definition—"that faith which is in Him." Thus the whole proclamation is bound together. Paul is to be Christ's witness. What he is. to preach is what he has seen of Him and is to see of Him. It is Christ that is preached. It is the preaching of Christ which is to open blind eyes and lead men to turn to God. It is, therefore, through faith in this preachment of Christ that men are to receive forgiveness and adoption; through faith in the Christ preached that all the reward comes. Surely here is the centre of the Gospel. Ministers are sent forth to open men's eyes; men's eyes are opened that they may turn to God; men turn to God to receive forgiveness and acceptance; men receive this forgiveness and acceptance by faith—the faith that is in Christ.