An Immutable God and a Strong Consolation (Part 1)
Preached at Gower Street Chapel, London, on Lord s Day Evening, July 8, 1866
WE live in a mutable world. The revolutions of the seasons; the vicissitudes of day and night; the alternations of weather from heat to cold and from dry to wet; the growth of our own bodies from childhood up to youth and manhood, and in some cases on to advancing old age; the alterations which take place in our own minds, in our thoughts, in our views, in our feelings, and in our varied exercises, both natural and spiritual, all stamp change and mutability upon everything here below. The departure of friends one after the other-how many well-known faces of attached hearers do I miss from the congregation now before me!-tells us also how change is stamped upon the life of men. Family bereavements, vicissitudes in business, change of friends into enemies, separation by distance or local habitation from those with whom we have walked in sweet fellowship, with the forming of new acquaintances and the rising up of fresh friends, these all manifest mutability as a part of the life we live in the flesh, as regards our connection with others.
As regards ourselves, and more especially our inward feelings, the movements of our spirit God-ward, and all that we hope and believe is a part of, or closely connected with, the life of God in our soul; how subject that is to change also. If blessed one day with the right of God s countenance, we have to walk in another in thick sensible darkness; if brought out for a time into sweet liberty, then are we again shut up, it may be for a long space, in cruel bondage; if relieved for a little while from the weight of afflictions and trials, then again we have to put our neck under the yoke and be exercised as much by them as before; if favoured sometimes with sweet access to a throne of grace, and blessed with holy liberty to pour out our heart before God, then again are we shut up in miserable dryness, deadness, coldness, sloth and indifference, so as scarcely to feel a movement of real prayer within.
Thus, whether we look at the world without or the world within, whether we fix our eyes upon men and circumstances as they pass before us, or regard the movements of divine life in our own breast, change and mutability we see stamped upon all. But them is a greater change to come than any which we have yet experienced, when the eyelids will droop in death, when the pallor of our last sleep will overspread the face, when life itself will have fled and the warm body be reduced to a heap of cold clay, to be consigned to the silent tomb, there to await the last and greatest change of all in the resurrection morn, when the Lord will change our vile body that it may be fashioned like unto His glorious body, according to the working whereby He is able even to subdue all things unto Himself. Php 3:21
But what an unspeakable mercy it is amidst all these changes to have to do with One who is unchanging and unchangeable; One who says, "I change not, therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed;" One "with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning;" One who is "the same yesterday, today and for ever;" One who rests in His love and whose purposes, like Himself, stand fast for evermore. This is that foundation both of faith and hope, which the apostle brings before our eyes and heart in the words of our text, encouraging us to hold fast our profession upon the ground of God s immutability. "That by two immutable things in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us."
In opening up these words, I shall, as the Lord may enable, direct your attention,
I.-The main object of the apostle in this chapter, as very much generally all through the epistle, is to strengthen and confirm the faith and hope of those whom he calls the "heirs of promise." And I may observe here, by the way, that one special feature of the epistles of the New Testament is to comfort and encourage the living family of God. They are not addressed to the world, nor was it the primary intention of the inspired apostle in writing them to call sinners out of darkness into God s marvellous light. It should be fully and clearly understood that they were written to those already called: members of the church of Christ by spiritual regeneration, and members of visible churches by profession. But being in many points imperfectly instructed, they needed to be built up on their most holy faith. They had also to endure what the apostle calls in this epistle "a great fight of afflictions." They had to be made a gazing stock or public spectacle in the reproaches and indignities cast upon them, and even to take joyfully the spoiling of their goods, as knowing in themselves that they had in heaven a better and an enduring substance. They therefore needed in every way to be strengthened and encouraged, that they might not cast away their confidence, which had great recompense of reward.
Now there was no ground of strength and encouragement more suitable for those thus situated than the faithfulness of God. It is for this reason, therefore, that the apostle is continually bringing before the church the promises made to Abraham, and God s faithfulness in fulfilling them. Thus he speaks of "Abraham being the father of all them that believe, whether Jew or Gentile," and of our "walking in the steps of his faith, to the end that the promise might be sure to all the seed, not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all." Rom 4:16 Now what was the peculiar character of Abraham s faith? It was this, that "he staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully persuaded that what He had promised He was able to perform." Rom 4:20,21 He would therefore encourage the heirs of promise to rest upon the security and stability of God s everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and sure, and thus manifest that they were blessed with all the blessings which were given to Abraham.
But in order to guard the subject well, to preserve the professing church of Christ from the shoal of presumption, as well as the quicksand of despair; while he would on the one hand strengthen faith and hope, and yet not encourage arrogance, boasting and vain-confidence, he takes care to point out very clearly who the characters are to whom the blessings of the gospel belong. It is this peculiar feature of describing characters, and not restricting promises to persons, which establishes a connection with us and them, and I may add, between us and the Scriptures of truth; for if we find and feel in our own bosom the characters, as I may term them, of spiritual and eternal life stamped there by the hand of God, we may take courage to believe that all the blessings of the gospel are ours, that we are true children of Abraham, and, as such, heirs of promise, and as being heirs of promise, are blessed with all the blessings of our father Abraham.
The character, then, here specially pointed out in our text, as if by the finger of God is of one who has fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before him. Let us seek, as the Lord may enable, to open and elucidate this character, for it is very descriptive as well as very comprehensive. It commences with the very beginning of the work of grace upon the soul, and follows it up almost to its completion. And admire with me the wisdom of the apostle in not setting up a high standard of experience and divine teaching, but with great condescension coming down so low as to embrace all in whom the good work is begun, and who are taught and led by the blessed Spirit out of sin and self to embrace the Lord of life and glory as set forth and revealed in the gospel.
But there are two points in the characters, which will demand our special notice:
I. The first point is that they have fled for refuge. What is it thus to have fled? and how is it a description of those in whom the Lord the Spirit has begun a gracious work? The expression is evidently metaphorical and figurative. We cannot then do better than to adopt the same mode of explaining it, and by using simple figures and illustrations, which often cast a clear and broad light upon Scriptural subjects, to explain and elucidate what we may understand by the expression, that you who have fled for refuge may find light from the sanctuary streaming upon your path, raising up a sweet confidence in your own bosom that you are amongst these blessed heirs of promise.
1. The first illustration which I shall adopt is taken from the walled or fortified cities of which we read so much in the Old Testament. You will recollect how the spies sent by Moses to explore the land brought back word that "the cities in it were great and walled up to heaven." To understand the reason for these fortified cities, we should know a little of the peculiarities of the holy land at all periods of its history.
Now Palestine had this peculiar character, that it was not all mountain nor all plain, nor were the mountains very high, or the plains, with one or two exceptions, very wide. This mixture of hill and plain made it aveilable for a vast population, the plains and valleys affording pasture for large flocks of sheep and cattle as well as arable soil for crops of corn, and the hills, which were cultivated to the very top, yielding terraces which in that warm climate produced abundance of oil and wine from the olive trees and vines which occupied every inch of ground.
But the feature to which I wish to call your attention, as illustrating our text is this. The whole land, except a narrow strip on the sea-coast, was surrounded on almost every side by wandering tribes of predatory habits, known to us under the Scripture names of Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites, etc., with whom we find the children of Israel continually at war, besides the more settled and inveterate Philistines. Now it was the habit of these predatory tribes, as is the case at the present time with the Bedouin Arabs, to make sudden raids or incursions into this cultivated territory, sweep away flocks and herds and trample down or carry off the corn, besides slaughtering all the defenceless people, with the women and children, on whom they could lay their violent hands. To guard their persons, then, where they could not secure their property against these wandering tribes, who might burst in at any moment, the people built upon the hills and mountains fortified cities, so that when an alarm was sounded that the land was threatened to be swept over by any of these predatory incursions, they might flee for refuge to these fortified towns, where they with their wives and children were safe for a time until their enemies had dispersed and gone back to the desert. A knowledge of this circumstance will explain many allusions in the Word of truth to hills and fortified places, strong towers and the like. Thus we find David frequently saying, "The Lord is my rock and my fortress;" and again, "Thou hast been a strong tower to me from the enemy." So Isaiah speaks, "There shall be upon every high mountain, and upon every high hill, rivers and streams of water in the day of the great slaughter when the towers fall." Isa 30:25 Solomon declares that "the name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous runneth into it and is safe." This custom, therefore, of fleeing to these hills, forts and strong towers which were built upon the mountainous parts of Palestine may serve as an elucidation of the meaning of the expression in our text-fleeing for refuge to the hope set before us.
We spiritually are much like the children of Israel naturally. On every side are hosts of enemies ever invading our souls, trampling down every good thing in our hearts, accompanied by a flying troop of temptations, doubts, fears, guilt and bondage sweeping over the plain of our soul like those wandering tribes over the plains of Palestine, carrying off, burning and destroying everything on which they can lay their hands; and we, as regards our own strength, as helpless against them as the children of Israel were at many points of their history against the Philistines, the Ammonites and Moabites, and other such surrounding enemies. But there is a refuge set before us in the gospel of the grace of God. The Lord Jesus Christ, as King in Zion, is there held up before our eyes as the Rock of our Refuge, our strong Tower, our impregnable Fortress; and we are encouraged by every precious promise and every gospel invitation when we are overrun and distressed by these wandering, ravaging, plundering tribes to flee unto and find a safe refuge in Him.
2. Take another idea; for I wish to explain things and make them as clear as I can for your instruction and comfort. It is not so scriptural as the last but as vividly true, and may well serve as an illustration of the same truth. We read sometimes of harbours of refuge, and attempts have been often made in Parliament to obtain a large grant of public money to construct them; for indeed much needed they are.
For instance, all along our eastern coast there stretches a long line where there is no harbour of refuge for the innumerable ships, which sail along it, or no haven but what is difficult of access. Now when, as is often the case in spring, strong easterly winds blow across the German Ocean, for want of harbours of refuge on this lee shore great loss of ships and lives occurs. Here is, for instance, a large fleet of coasters, London bound, colliers, fishing boats, and other craft on a calm day setting their sails in every direction, studding the whole horizon for many leagues. On a sudden there gathers in the east a dark cloud; the heavens become black with storm; the gust blows with increasing violence. Now what is the consequence? They cannot stand out to sea through the violence of the wind dead against them. But were there harbours of refuge at various points along the coast they could make for them, and by running into them obtain safety.. But for want of these harbours of refuge many every year are driven upon the lee shore where they are wrecked with great loss of life and property.
Now take this as a figure and apply it spiritually. Here is a soul sailing calmly upon the sea of life, bound upon some voyage of business or pleasure; and whilst the wind is fair and the weather calm little danger is apprehended as to the issue. A dark cloud begins to gather in the sky, at first no bigger than a man s hand; but it gradually increases till it seems to cover the heavens, and out of it bursts an unexpected storm. This storm is some manifestation of the anger of the Almighty in a broken law, which beats upon the soul with irresistible violence, and threatens to drive it upon the lee shore amidst the breakers and the rocks, there to make awful shipwreck. O to find in that awful moment a harbour of refuge to which we may run and obtain shelter from every storm! Kent has a beautiful hymn upon the subject, for he had seen with his own eyes, if I remember right, near seventy ships strewn upon the rocks at Plymouth for want of a breakwater at the entrance of the Sound. The hymn, you will recollect, begins:
But now see how the Christian poet applies the figure:
3. But take now a Scriptural figure: the city of refuge provided for the manslayer. There was no city of refuge provided under the law of Moses for the wilful murderer. For him even the altar was no protection: "If a man come presumptuously upon his neighbour to slay him with guile, thou shalt take him from mine altar that he may die." Ex 21:14 But if a man were accidentally guilty of what our law calls manslaughter; if for instance, he went into a wood to cut down a tree, and his axe-head came off and struck a man at work with him; or if he shot an arrow at a mark and the wind carried it in a different direction and pierced a bystander, he could not legally be put to death as a wilful murderer.
But there had grown up a custom amongst the people from ancient times which made such casual homicide to carry with it the penalty of death from the nearest relative of the slain man as a species of legitimate revenge, and he was warranted in killing him wherever he could find him. This blood revenge subsists in the east to the present day. This was not, you will observe the law of God but the law of man. It was a cruel and unjust custom, but had become so inveterate that God chose rather to deal with it as it stood than wholly abrogate it. To mitigate, then, the severity of that rigid law and to make it comparatively harmless, God commanded Moses to set apart six cities of refuge-three on one side Jordan and three on the other-to which the manslayer might flee. But in order to guard against these cities becoming an asylum for wilful murderers, the congregation were to judge the cause between the slayer and the avenger of blood, and if they found that it was a case of manslaughter and not of murder, he was to be rescued out of the hand of the avenger and live in peace in the city of refuge.
Several things are mentioned in connection with these cities by Jewish writers into which I need not enter, such as that they were to be of easy access; that once every year the magistrates were to inspect the roads to see that they were kept in good condition and that there were no impediments in the way; that at every division of the road there was to be a direction post on which was written, "Refuge, Refuge;" that the cities were to be well supplied with water and provisions; and that no warlike weapons were allowed to be made there. All these features might be pressed into the service of the figure, but not being exactly scriptural I shall not enter further into them. One remarkable point I must however mention, that the manslayer was to continue in the city until the death of the high priest. Now our High Priest never dies; and therefore if we have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us in the gospel, we are safe as long as our great High Priest lives.
But let us now seek to apply this figure. The true, the only refuge of the soul is the Lord Jesus Christ, who receives into His bosom sinners with a load of guilt upon their conscience, as the city of refuge received with open arms the manslayer flying from his avenging foe. And O how suitably does this feature describe the soul that flees for refuge to Jesus. Look at the unhappy manslayer. What danger dogged every step. What fear, alarm and terror would haunt him like his shadow when the axe-head struck with death his fellow workman, or his ill-shot arrow had killed a bystander. Two things would be present in his mind; fear and hope-fear of the avenger, hope of escape to the city of refuge.
But these things must meet in the same person to constitute him one who has fled for refuge. And is not the same remark applicable also to my other figures? Do not two ideas meet in them all? There might be a storm and no harbour of refuge; or there might be a harbour of refuge and you not need it. Without the first there would be no felt danger; without the second no fleeing for safety. The weather is fair, the wind calm, you go boldly along your voyage; were there twenty harbours of refuge along the coast you would not need one of them, but would go sailing on. Or take my first figure. Your crops are not spoiled by wandering tribes; you lose neither ox nor sheep; you are in no peril of your own life or of those near and dear to you; you therefore want no hill-fort to shelter you from the incursions of these predatory bands, who, after robbing and spoiling you of all you had, would next turn their sword against your bosom. So with my third figure, if you have no guilt upon your conscience; if no avenger of blood is pursuing your steps, you need no city of refuge. Thus, to make a complete whole you must put two features together: first, alarm, fear, terror, urging and prompting speedy flight for security; then a refuge already provided, seen by the eye far or near, but in either case fully suitable to the case, resorted unto with all the strength given, reached before perishing, entered into as a last hope, and then full safety found and enjoyed.
But to make these two points a little more clear as well as a little more personal, cast a retrospective glance upon the dealings of God with your soul, and without dwelling upon needless minutiae, see if you can find these two features in any way impressed upon them. If ever there was in your experience a season never to be forgotten of alarm, of fear, of terror, of guilt, of apprehension; and then when you scarcely knew what to do, think, or say, there was a view opened up to you of a refuge in the Person and work, blood and righteousness of the Lord the Lamb; if as driven or drawn you fled to it, were kindly received, and found safe harbourage from guilt and doubt and fear, then you surely know what it is to have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before you. It is these, and these only, who are heirs of promise; and therefore how important it is to have had some personal experience of these things.
How are we to know whether we possess the life of God in our soul, the grace of God in our heart, unless there has been some such fleeing and some such laying hold? Do see, then, if you can trace these two things in your breast: first, if there ever was a season with you when you feared and trembled at the wrath to come, and were compelled to flee for refuge from it. But, secondly, finding no refuge in self, and that all your own righteousness was a bed too short and a covering too narrow, you fled to Jesus as your only hope; and as there was a sweet opening up to the eye of your faith of a refuge provided in the Lord the Lamb, you were enabled to take hold of Him in His covenant characters and blessed relationships, and found in Him rest and peace. If, then, you can find these two features of divine life in your soul, you are one of the characters of whom our text speaks: you have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before you; which leads me to show you what laying hold is.
II. I much admire the wisdom and condescension of the apostle, or, to speak more correctly, the wisdom and condescension of the Holy Ghost by him, in not taking very high ground in describing the features of the heirs of promise. There were indeed special reasons for His thus dealing with them. It is very evident from the internal evidence of this epistle that the Hebrew converts, to whom it was written, were not very far advanced in the faith of God s elect. Their old Jewish views and inveterate prejudices, imbibed from their former Rabbinical teachers, stuck very closely to them; and these were sad hindrances both to their spiritual knowledge of, and their experimental profession in the truth of the gospel. They were also exposed to great and grievous persecutions, arising chiefly from their brethren after the flesh, who then, as now, loathed with the deepest abhorrence all who renounced Judaism for Christianity; and, viewing them as the worst and vilest of apostates, did not spare any degree of violence or insult.
Being, then, very weak in faith, they were much borne down by the violence of the storm, and were almost ready to turn their backs upon the gospel. The apostle, therefore, though he deals with them very earnestly and faithfully, yet mixes with his powerful warnings and urgent exhortations much tenderness and affection, however much their wavering, vacillating ways might try and grieve his spirit. They were also very weak and childish as regards an inward knowledge and experience of the blessed truths of the gospel. He therefore gently chides them that, "when for the time they ought to be teachers, they had need that one should teach them again the first principles of the oracles of God, and were become such as had need of milk and not of strong meat."
I have named these things to explain why the apostle so deals with them as with children in understanding and experience, and why he takes, speaking comparatively, such low ground-ground so different from the way in which he addresses the Ephesians, Colossians, Thessalonians and other members of the New Testament churches. Thus, in the words before us to suit their case, he comes down to a hope; but keeping strictly upon Scriptural ground, such a hope only as is set before us in the everlasting gospel. Well he knew that all other hope was delusive and vain, and would prove in the day of trial a broken reed and a spider s web.