Exhortation - July 10




Reading: Matthew ch. 11        

It is recorded that at the transfiguration of Jesus, a voice spake out of the cloud, which said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am welt pleased; hear ye him”. Those words place upon us, as indeed they did on the immediate disciples of the Lord, not only a pleasant duty, but also an inescapable obligation. The voice of Christ is the voice of God. Many centuries before, God had declared through his servant Moses, “I will raise them up a prophet from among their brethren like unto thee, and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him. And it shall come to pass, that whosoever will not hearken unto my words which he shall speak in my name, I will require it of him”. These are solemn words, placing an especial responsibility on those who are privileged to hear the direct and authoritative voice of God as expressed through Christ. We have not heard that voice audibly, but we have it four times recorded in the gospel accounts of the life and sayings of our Lord. It is no accident that whereas in following the plan commonly in use among us, we read the law and the prophets once, the writings of the apostles twice, but the life and sayings of Christ no less than eight times in the course of one year. That is the reason why “I will require it of him”. The privilege is so great, and the opportunity so abundant, that the words of Christ must dwell in us richly, moving and controlling us with such power that our lives are an approximation of his pure and holy example. Did he not say: “The words that I have spoken, the same shall judge you in the last day”?

These thoughts concerning the imperative need to hear Christ’s words, are prompted by the opening verse of Matthew ch. 11. Let us closely ponder this verse and others which are contained in this 11th chapter. “And it came to pass, when Jesus had made an end of commanding his twelve disciples, he departed thence to teach and to preach in their cities”. To teach and to preach—that was his mission. For many generations prior to the appearance of Christ much of the divine purpose was wrapped in mystery. We know how the apostle Peter said that not even the prophets understood the full import of all their utterances: “Of which salvation the prophets have enquired and searched diligently” and yet for the most part they understood not. There was the same incapacity to understand the mission of Christ on the part of his own contemporaries when he appeared amongst them, except for a very few. We must remember that when the Lord appeared there had been no open vision for nearly 600 years. If we go back 600 years in the history of our own times we come to the medieval ages and that is a long time ago. But now John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ, appeared with his divine message, and that hidden mystery was gradually unravelled. Hence Paul says that by “the preaching of Jesus Christ the mystery, kept secret since the world began, is now made manifest, and by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith”. By “the preaching of Jesus Christ”; those words describe our privileged position this morning. How much, we might ask ourselves, do we value it? Are we grateful diligent students of Christ’s words, perceiving how they elucidate and explain and clarify the former revelation contained in the Old Testament? And have we learnt the meaning of the expression, “For the obedience of faith” in the matter, not only of belief and baptism, but a continuing in his words? This is the lesson which emerges from the familiar fact that we belong to that dispensation possessing not just the Old Testament, but also the New Testament, each being complementary and explanatory of each other. What privileges we have surely; let us not forget that we shall be held especially responsible for them. That is the reason why it is so often impressed upon us that we must be daily and diligent readers of God’s Holy Word, and especially of the teaching of our Lord and Master.

In the next verse of our chapter we are informed how John the Baptist sent a message to Christ from prison. “Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples, and said unto him, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?” What is the explanation of this apparently strange request? Many theories have been advanced. Some, in an effort to remove any suspicion of a faltering faith on the part of John the Baptist, have argued that this was a way by which John desired to provide instruction for his disciples. It seemed that they were unwilling to become followers of Christ and so for their sake he sent two of them, knowing what the answer would be. That may be so; it is certainly a magnanimous way of looking upon this request, and yet it seems to deprive the incident of much that is a comfort to us. Let us picture the position of John at the time. His own circumstances could not possibly have been more depressing. He probably shared with other righteous men the belief that the Kingdom of God would immediately appear. It had been his message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”. Moreover, he knew that his work was now completed. “He must increase, but I must decrease”. He was the occupant of a loathsome dungeon, probably infested with vermin, damp, dark and cold. The company he kept was anything but congenial: the very lowest men were usually put to guard the prisoners. He knew almost for certain that he must face a cruel death at the hands of his enemy Herod. Is it unreasonable to feel that these conditions moved John to seek assurance that the Lord would carry out all that the prophets had revealed concerning him and his glorious mission to deliver Israel? From our point of view, is there not comfort in the reflection that these great and illustrious servants of God in the past were, after all, men of like passions as ourselves: mortal, erring, fallible and liable to depression and lowness of spirit. We are all, perhaps, at times puzzled and depressed by circumstances which prompt the thought that God has forsaken us. It may be loss of husband or wife, parents or children, employment or health, which make us feel at times that we are forsaken. That experience is not new. All God’s servants in the past have had their same trials. We think of John the Baptist, Elijah, Job, Abraham, to name just a few. They could not always see to the end, but because they sought for strength and reassurance in a godly manner, God gave it to them, sufficient for all their needs. “As thy days, so shall thy strength be”; that is the promise. The more the days are evil and the times dark and depressing, the greater the strength which God will impart to us in His own inscrutable way. This was so during the last war, when everything seemed to crumble before us and life itself was in jeopardy; “As thy days, so shall thy strength be”. I suppose had we known before what our experiences would be, we should have said we could not face them. Such times may come again, and there will be the same comfort: “As thy days, so shall thy strength be”

How tender and sympathetic was Christ’s answer to John. He might have upbraided him for harbouring doubt. He might have answered with a categorical “I am he”; but, instead, he provided incontestible evidence for his claims. V. 4: “Jesus answered and said unto them, Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them”. The argument was irresistible. How often Christ appealed to his works in attestation of his claims. On another occasion he said to his disciples, “Believe me that lam in the Father and the Father in me, or else believe me for the very works’ sake”. The purpose of miracle in the prophetic and apostolic age was to confirm the word with signs following. It established beyond all doubt the divine origin of the message proclaimed by holy men of God, and especially by the Lord himself, who was the Word made flesh. Undoubtedly it had that effect upon those who saw these miracles. When the question was put to the blind man, “What sayest thou of him, that he hath opened thine eyes?”—he replied, “He is a prophet”. There was no argument about it. Again, when the 5000 were miraculously fed, we read: “Then those men, when they had seen the miracle that Jesus did, said, This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world”. The evidence was incontrovertible.

Yet how does that apply to us? We live in an age when no miracles are performed; indeed it is an act of faith on our part that we believe the record that the miracles were ever performed at all. Yet the grounds of our faith are equally certain. Just as the Word in those days was confirmed by signs following, so with us today it is the fulfilment of the Word which verifies the record concerning these miracles. The prophets themselves did not all understand the meaning of their messages, but we can understand them. We know what the prophet Ezekiel meant when he foretold the events of his 38th chapter—Cog of the land of Magog. We understand the meaning of the 66th chapter of Isaiah’s prophecy concerning the Lord’s controversy with the nations and the regathering of Israel. Is the fulfilment of the Word any less remarkable than the performance of the miracle? And does not the Word, incontestibly true, vouch for the miracles? They stand or fall together. And above all, must we not logically accept the testimony concerning the greatest miracle ever performed—the resurrection of Christ and his glorious immortalisation, which is the very foundation of our faith?

Now that is what we want to remember and think about when, perhaps, like John the Baptist, we feel depressed or low-spirited. Jesus added something morc in his answer to John, v.6: “And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me”. The inference is, that according to outward appearances, there would be causes of offence in the following of Jesus. This was true even of his own day. We read that on one occasion, many of his disciples went back and walked no more with him. The self-denial, the shame, the apparent delay in the fulfilment of the purpose, the triumph of evil, the fewness of believers, all combine to create an appearance of failure. But let us remember that appearances are deceptive. Without Christ there is no hope. Forsake him, and what is there in life really worth having? Like Peter, we are constrained to exclaim, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life”. Let us not be moved away from the hope of the gospel, nor shaken in faith by present appearances. “Blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me”.

When the two disciples of John went away, Jesus began to discourse upon the mission of John the Baptist. V. 7: “And as they departed, Jesus began to say unto the multitudes concerning John, What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind?”—an object of no particular importance or meaning or value whatsoever, something of curiosity only? “But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment?”—somebody enjoying all the comforts and amenities of life? No, there was nothing ostentatious about John, and yet he had a mission. There is a lesson in that. He illustrated the principle so consistently exhibited throughout the whole of the Scriptures: “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things that are mighty”. It is the lesson of simplicity and humbleness. Great man, famous men, men of renown, as the world counts these things, have been conspicuous by their absence, except in rare cases, in the ranks of the servants of God, and Jesus thanked God that it was so. V. 25: “I thank thee, 0 Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes”. We can fervently join in that expression of thankfulness. Our privileged and exalted position around these emblems is surely to be accounted for on this principle; and the reason is that no flesh should glory in His presence. God will be magnified, He is a great and jealous God, and He will not give His glory to another. The continuance of His Truth, the development of His purpose, does not depend upon the power, the prowess, or the wisdom of man. The Truth has been expressly committed to earthen vessels that the excellency of the power might be of God. How essential, then, that we preserve that humble and self-effacing spirit in all our work, in public or private, that God alone maybe glorified. That did John the Baptist, and yet Jesus accorded to him a signal honour, v. 9: “But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? Yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet. For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist . The most illustrious of all the servants of God who had gone before; that was Christ’s estimation of John the Baptist. What a testimony to this poor, dejected prisoner! But there was one, even more lowly than John, who towered above him in greatness: “Notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he”. Who was that? Surely the Lord himself. Israel were at that time the kingdom of heaven. As yet it had not been taken from them, as Jesus said it would be, “and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof”. They were still the children of the Kingdom. Jesus said, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force”. Here were men in control of this kingdom who had no business there at all, and certainly were unworthy of their privilege. That was the kingdom of heaven in existence in Christ’s day, as he himself said: “The Kingdom of God is within (among) you”. Jesus himself was the personal embodiment of that kingdom. “He that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he”. From their point of view Jesus was the least, the despised Nazarene, the lonely dweller on the mount of Olives, not having where to lay his head, the rejected of men, the friend of publicans and sinners. But he was the greatest of all, the Star of Jacob, the heir to David’s throne, God’s righteous servant, the bearer of God’s grace, the possessor of all things. V. 27: “All things are delivered unto me of my Father: and no man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him”. Jesus, the least from one point of view, and yet the greatest from another, the authorised bearer of the glad tidings of the kingdom of God. Jesus went forth to teach and to preach in their cities; and what was his invitation? V.28:

“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for Jam meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”. What a message from the greatest— “Come unto me”. The speaker is Jesus. Surely that is the one operative word, if we may put it that way, of the gospel. “Come”. Jesus said, “Come unto me”. “The Spirit and the Bride say, Come”. The great and righteous Judge of all the earth will one day say, “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”. And to whom is this gracious invitation directed? To all that labour and are heavy laden. That description applies to every man that thirsteth: “Come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat”. The invitation is for those of whom we read in the prophecy of Isaiah: “To this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word”. May we say that the words of Jesus were spoken to us—”Come unto me”. We are amongst those who are burdened, “we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened.” We feel the weight of sin’s flesh, and the burden of evil, and earnestly desire release there from. Can we not say with Paul: “0 wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord”?

There are other forms of labour. There is that labour which satisfieth not, concerning which the wise man has much to say in the book of Ecclesiastes. “All things are full of labour” but, he adds, “All is vanity and vexation of spirit”. We know what he means. The incessant toil, the exacting task, the monotony, the drudgery, day after day, for the bread that perishes. That is labour without profit. But “Come unto me”, come away from the unclean herd with which you have to mix from morning to night, beholding their greed, their selfishness, their depravity, their blasphemy. “Come unto me, take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for Jam meek and lowly in heart. My yoke is easy, and my burden is light”. Do we agree with that? Perhaps not, but it is. Here is the secret of the lightness of his yoke; “I am meek and lowly in heart”. Let us learn that lesson, and the meaning of Christ’s light yoke becomes apparent. He never suffered from wounded pride—he had no pride. He never felt the disappointments of thwarted ambition—he had none, except to do the will of his Father. Riches—they did not burden him. Unequal yoking with unbelievers—it never chafed him. And the cares and anxieties of this life? None knew better than he the meaning of the words: “Cast thy burden upon the Lord, and he shall sustain thee”. From that point of view the burden is light and the yoke is easy. Jesus says, “Take it upon you, and I will give you rest”. Rest now, in the peace of mind and happiness engendered by the knowledge of the Truth, a peace which the world can neither give nor take away. A resting now in the Lord, in the knowledge that he is not harsh or austere or exacting or overbearing, but that he was once meek and lowly of heart, that he is now our merciful and faithful High Priest, and that he is coming to bring rest, glorious eternal rest, in the peace and tranquillity of his heavenly Kingdom. The crushing burden of sin’s flesh will then be lifted, mortality swallowed up of life; and what then? Glorious rest in the Kingdom of God, of which we read in the book of Revelation:

“Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them”. That may sound paradoxical—resting from labour and yet works following them. But God himself rested on the seventh day, and he knows no weariness or fatigue. It will be rest in the sense of relief from burdens, but work in plenty in the administration of those just and righteous laws by which the whole earth will at length be brought to that delightful condition foreseen by the prophet: “The whole earth sitteth still and is at rest”:—H. T. Atkinson


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