Sermon 9. The Gospel Sign Addressed to Faith Seasons - Easter

"Then certain of the Scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a Sign from Thee." Matt. xii. 38.

[Note] {105} THESE Scribes and Pharisees, though Christ had wrought among them "works which none other man did," and, as one of their own company confessed, no man could do miracles such as His "except God were with him," persisted in asking for some decisive Sign, which would prove His Divinity beyond all question. In His reply, our Lord denied and yet promised such a sign. He says, "An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; there shall no sign be given to it, but the Sign of the Prophet Jonas." In this sentence it is implied, both that their wishes were not to be granted, yet that a great miracle was to be wrought.

On a second occasion they asked again, Sadducees as well as Pharisees: they "came, and tempting, desired Him that He would show them a sign from heaven." Joshua had stopped the sun and moon "in the sight of {106} Israel;" Samuel had brought thunder at harvest time; they asked for a similar miracle. They asked for a sign from heaven; He answered still by promising a Sign from the earth,—a Sign like his, who was "three days and three nights in the whale's belly." A Sign was to be wrought and was to disappoint them: it was to be a Sign, but not to them; hence our Lord says in the parallel passage in St. Mark, "Verily I say unto you, There shall no sign be given to this generation." [Matt. xvi. 1. Mark viii. 12.]

In an earlier part of His ministry, the same question had been asked, and the same answer given under a different image. The Jews "said unto Him, What sign showest Thou unto us, seeing that Thou doest these things?" He in like manner answers; "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." [John ii. 19.] They misunderstood Him, and He did not set them right. For they were to see, and see not; they were not to witness the Sign then, nor were they allowed to apprehend His language now. He spoke of the resurrection of His body, and they were not at that season to see Him whom they had pierced.

Now what is remarkable in this passage is this, that our Lord promised a great sign parallel to those wrought by the old prophets; yet instead of being public as theirs was, it was in the event, like Jonah's, a secret sign. Few saw it; it was to be received by all, but on faith; it was addressed to the humble and lowly. When it took place, and St. Thomas refused to believe without sight, our Lord said to him, "Thomas, because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed; blessed are they {107} that have not seen, and yet have believed." The Apostle, perhaps, might have been arguing, "If this be the Lord's great Sign, surely it is to be seen. What is meant by the resurrection but an evidence which is to be addressed to my senses? I have to believe, and this is to assure my belief." Yet St. Thomas would have been more blessed, had he believed Christ's miraculous Presence without seeing it; and our Lord implied that such persons there would be.

Now what makes this a subject of interest to us is, that our Lord does expressly promise all Christians a certain gracious manifestation of Himself, which it is natural, at first sight, to suppose a sensible one: and many persons understand it to be such, as if it were not more blessed to believe than to see. Our Lord says; "He that hath My commandments and keepeth them, he it is that loveth Me; and he that loveth Me, shall be loved of My Father, and I will love him, and will manifest Myself to him." When Jude asked Him, "Lord, how is it that Thou wilt manifest Thyself unto us, and not unto the world?" our Lord answered, "If a man love Me, he will keep My words; and My Father will love him, and We will come unto him, and make our abode with him." [John xiv. 21-23.] In accordance with this promise, St. Paul says, "The Spirit Itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God;" and St. John, "He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself."

Now, that this great gift, whatever it be, is of a nature to impart illumination, sanctity, and peace, to {108} the soul to which it comes, far from disputing, I would earnestly maintain. And, in this indirect way, doubtless, it is in a certain sense apprehended and perceived; perceived in its effects, with a consciousness that those effects cannot come of themselves, but imply a gift from which they come, and a presence of which they are, as it were, the shadow, a voice of which they are the echo. But there are persons who desire the inward manifestation of Christ to be much more sensible than this. They will not be contented without some sensible sign and direct evidence that God loves them; some assurance, in which faith has no part, that God has chosen them; and which may answer to their anticipations of what Scripture calls "the secret of the Lord," and "that hidden manna" which Christ invites us to partake. Some men, for instance, hold that their conscience would have no peace, unless they recollected the time when they were converted from darkness to light, from a state of wrath to the kingdom of God. Others consider, that in order to possess the seal of election, they must be able to discern in themselves certain feelings or frames of mind, a renunciation of their own merit, and an apprehension of gospel salvation; as if it were not enough to renounce ourselves and follow Christ, without the lively consciousness that we are doing so; and that in this lies "the secret of the Lord." Others go further; and think that without a distinct inward assurance of his salvation, a man is not in a saving state. This is what men often conceive; not considering that whatever be the manifestation promised to Christians by our Lord, it is not likely to be more sensible and more intelligible than the {109} great sign of His own Resurrection. Yet even that, like the miracle wrought upon Jonah, was in secret, and they who believed without seeing it were more blessed than those who saw.

All this accords with what is told us about particular Divine manifestations in other parts of Scripture. The Saints reflected on them afterwards, and mastered them, but can hardly be considered as sensible of them at the very time. Thus Jacob, after the vision, says; "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not." Manoah said to his wife, after the Angel had departed, "We shall surely die, because we have seen God." Gideon in like circumstances said, "Alas, O Lord God! for because I have seen an Angel of the Lord face to face." And St. Peter, while the Angel was delivering him out of prison, though he obeyed him, yet "wist not that it was true which was done by the Angel, but thought he saw a vision;" but "when he was come to himself, he said, Now I know of a surety that the Lord hath sent His Angel." [Gen. xxviii. 16. Judg. xiii. 22; vi. 22. Acts xii. 9, 11.]

Let no one think it strange to say, that God may be holding communion with us without our knowing it. Do not all good thoughts come from Him? Yet are we sensible that they so come? Can we tell how they come? We commonly speak of being influenced by God's grace, and resisting His grace; this implies a certain awful intercourse between the soul and God; yet who will say that he himself can tell in particular instances when God moves him, and when he is responding this way or {110} that? It is one thing, then, to receive impressions, another to reflect upon them and to be conscious of them. God may manifest Himself to us, and that to the increase of our comfort, and yet we not realize that He does so.

But now to proceed; for there is more information given us on the subject. There was another occasion on which the Jews asked for a sign, and on which our Lord answered by promising one, not to His Apostles only, but in continuance, like the manifestation He speaks of, to all His faithful followers. And it was a sign not more sensible or palpable, not less the object of faith as regards the many, than that sign of His resurrection which He gave once for all. He had just before been feeding five thousand men with five barley loaves and two small fishes; when, not contented with this, the Jews said, "What sign showest Thou, that we may see and believe Thee? What dost Thou work?" and they proceeded to refer to the "sign from heaven," which Moses had given them. "Our Fathers did eat manna in the desert, as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat." It was a little thing, they seemed to say, to multiply bread, but it was a great thing to send down bread from heaven,—a great thing, when the nature of the creature was changed, and men were made to live by the word of the Lord. Was the Son of man able to give them bread such as this? Yes, surely, He had a Sign,—a Sign from heaven, more wonderful, a fearful Sign, surpassing thought and surpassing sight too, addressed to faith only, but not the less true because it was hidden. Moses gave their {111} fathers bread from heaven; they saw it, ate it, and were dead; His sign was greater. He was Himself the Bread from heaven under the Gospel, and the Bread of life. He took not of the creature to satisfy their need, but He gave Himself for the life of the world. "Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but My Father giveth you the True Bread from heaven, for the Bread of God is He which cometh down from heaven and giveth life unto the world. I am the Bread of Life. This is the Bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof and not die." Now I am not led to speak here of that special ordinance in which His Divine announcement is fulfilled; this would be foreign to my present purpose. I do but wish to consider the gift in itself, and the sign in itself, as these words describe it. It is a sign greater than manna, yet beyond dispute, as the passage itself shows, a sign not addressed to sight, but to faith. For our Lord speaks of our "coming to Him," and "believing on Him;" and He says that "it is the Spirit that quickeneth, the flesh profiteth nothing;" and He warns us, "No one can come unto Me, except the Father which hath sent Me draw him." His coming up from the heart of the earth was a sign for faith, not for sight; and such is His coming down from heaven as Bread.

I have been speaking of the signs which He Himself promised; but others were announced concerning Him by His servants, and these, let it be observed, are secret also, and addressed to faith. The Prophet Isaiah was commissioned to promise Ahaz a sign; "Ask thee a sign of the Lord thy God," he says, "ask it either in {112} the depth or in the height above." When Ahaz would not speak, the Prophet proceeded: "The Lord Himself shall give you a Sign; behold, a Virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel." [Isa. vii. 11, 14.] Yet could there be a Sign more secret, less exposed to the senses, less addressed to the reason, than the Conception of Christ? It was a miracle, yet not an evidence.

And so again, when our Lord was born, the Angel gave the Shepherds a Sign; but which was the greater evidence, the Angel himself, and the multitude of the heavenly host, or the Sign itself which he sent them to see? "This shall be a Sign unto you," he said, "Ye shall see the Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger." Was this an evidence of greatness or of meanness? Did it prove Him to be God, or was it a trial of faith?

And so again, though it is not called a sign, yet it had been published in the manner of a sign, that the Lord should suddenly come to His Temple, even the "Messenger of the Covenant," that "the glory of the latter house should be greater than that of the former," and that God would "glorify the house of His glory." But how did He come to fulfil these prophecies? As an infant in arms, recognized by one or two holy persons, and that by means of faith, without pomp, or display of greatness. Simeon held in his hands the immaculate form of the Saviour of men, the Light and Life of the world, the all-holy and incorruptible Presence which the Angels of God worship; yet in what an outward {113} appearance! Yet still he said undoubtingly, "Mine eyes have seen Thy salvation; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel."

What is true in these instances, is true of all the parts of our Lord's gracious economy. He was "manifested in the flesh; justified in the Spirit; seen of Angels; preached unto the Gentiles; believed on in the world; received up into glory;" yet what was the nature of the manifestation? The Annunciation was secret; the Nativity was secret; the miraculous Fasting in the wilderness was secret; the Resurrection secret; the Ascension not far from secret; the abiding Presence secret. One thing alone was public, and in the eyes of the world,—His Death; the only event which did not speak of His Divinity, the only event in which He seemed a sign, not of power, but of weakness. He was crucified in weakness, but He was not crucified in secret. His humiliation was proclaimed and manifested all over the earth. When lifted up indeed from the earth, He displayed His power; He drew all men to Him, but not from what was seen, but from what was hidden, from what was not known, from what was matter of faith, from His atoning virtue. As far as seen, He was, in holy Simeon's words, "a Sign which should be spoken against." It is not by reason or by sight that we accept and glory in the sign of the Cross; it is by "laying aside all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and all evil speakings," and "as newborn babes desiring the sincere milk of the word, that we may grow thereby." "If so be," as St. Peter proceeds, "ye have tasted that the Lord is {114} gracious; to whom coming, as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God, and precious, ye also as lively stones are built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. Unto you, therefore, that believe, He is precious; but unto them which be disobedient, the Stone which the builders disallowed, the same is made the head of the corner." [1 Pet. ii. 1-7.]

Let us not seek then for signs and wonders, or ask for sensible inward tokens of God's favour; let us not indulge enthusiasm, or become the slaves of superstition, who are children of God by faith. Faith only can introduce us to the unseen Presence of God; let us venture to believe, let us make trial before we see, and the evidence which others demand before believing, we shall gain more abundantly by believing. Almighty God is hidden from us; the world does not discover Him to us; we may go to the right hand and the left, but we find Him not. The utmost we can do in the way of nature is to feel after Him, who, though we see Him not, yet is not far from every one of us. "Lo He goeth by me," says Job, "and I see Him not; He passeth on also, and I perceive Him not." "O that I knew where I might find Him! that I might come even to His seat ... Behold, I go forward, and He is not there; and backward, but I cannot perceive Him; On the left hand where He doth work, but I cannot behold Him; He hideth Himself on the right hand, that I cannot see Him." [Job ix. 11; xxiii. 3, 8, 9.] This is the veil that is cast {115} over all nations; the want of intercourse or communion between the soul and Him who made it. We can speak to His creatures, we cannot speak to Him. Once it was not so; man was created upright, and then He saw God; he fell, and lost God's image and God's presence. How must he regain his privilege, but by becoming what he once was? He lost it by sinning, he must regain it by pureness. And till this recovery he must accept it on faith; he is allowed to apprehend and enjoy it by faith. He begins with faith, that he may end with holiness; he is allowed to begin with faith, because faith is itself of a holy nature, and the first fruits and earnest of holiness to come. Faith is the religion of sinners beginning to purify themselves for God, and in every age, and under every dispensation, the just have lived by faith. "By faith" Moses "endured, as seeing Him who is invisible;" for lack of faith Balaam met an Angel in the way and discerned him not. Thus "we walk by faith, not by sight;" we "look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen." We set Him on our right hand, "whom having not seen, we love: in whom, though now we see Him not, yet believing, we rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory, receiving the end of our faith, even the salvation of our souls."

Opposed to this generous and vigorous faith are carnal blindness and grossness of heart, of which Scripture speaks so often. Whatever there is of spiritual light within us, is quenched by indulging our natural tastes and appetites. Our Lord says, "Ye cannot serve God and mammon;" He bids us watch and pray, and {116} beware of eating and drinking, buying and selling, marrying and being given in marriage. We cannot have our eyes at once on this world and on the other. Those who live in the sun's glare, can see nothing in twilight; but those whose eyes are used to the shade, see many things which the others will not believe they can see. So is it with our souls; the minding of the flesh, aiming at this world's goods, seeking to rise or succeed in life, gazing on greatness, rank, distinction, abundance, pomp and show, coveting wealth, measuring things by wealth, eating and drinking without restraint, placing no curb upon the passions, exercising no self-command, living without rule, indolently and weakly following the first idea which presents itself, the first impulse, the first temptation, all this makes the heart irreligious. Then it is that men ask for clearer evidence, and reject the truth; then they say, "How can these things be?" or "This is a hard saying:" or "What sign showest Thou?" for "the heart of this people," in the prophet's words, "is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes have they closed; lest they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and should be converted, and I should heal them." When He healed men in the days of His flesh, it was indeed by means of His own sacred Person, His touch, or His breath, or His voice; but still faith was the condition on the part of the suppliants; and now too, though He is with us ever so really and fully according to His promise, yet He requires faith, as before, in order to our restoration to His favour and to His image. {117}

What a contrast to such thoughts as these is the conduct of the mass of men! Truly they are "without God in the world,"—that is, they do not keep before their minds, in any sense, that He is present, though unseen; they do not even admit that they ought to do so, or try to do so, or approach even to the idea that there are persons who do live as in the sight of the Invisible. Go into the general concourse of men, and what notion is there entertained of such a dependence upon, such an intercourse with, things unseen, as Scripture prescribes? They are engaged in their several trades and professions; they are active, companionable, and friendly; they are unexceptionable as far as the civilities and kindnesses of mutual intercourse are concerned; but what are they more? Have they seriousness? Are they under the habitual influence of religion? Do they sacrifice this life to the next? Is there any thing which they do or do not, which they would not do, or would not omit to do, were religion a mere idle tale? Is God in any one of their thoughts? Do they fear Him? Do they recollect that they are to be judged? What "marks" have they "of the Lord Jesus?" How show they that they are waiting for Him who has gone away only to come back again? What an awful sight does the baptized world present to any one who retires some few steps out of it! O fearful thought, a Day will come when every eye shall see Him bodily, whom they will not learn now to see spiritually! O fearful thought indeed, when all these indolent and careless men, to say nothing of open scoffers and profligates, will be gathered together before His Judgment-seat, to receive their {118} doom once for all! At present they look upon religion as a dream, and religious men as dreamers; they only think of them as narrow-minded men, or superstitiously strict, or weak, or fanciful, or hypocrites, or fanatical, or party-spirited; as persons who profess much, but are, after all, much the same as other men, governed by the same weaknesses, passions, and inducements.

O miserable and most dreadful Day of His coming, and who shall abide it? when those who will not acknowledge the secret glory, shall at length feel the manifested power of the Lamb; when those who will not discern His tokens now, but think His ordinances, His Church, His servants, to be but things of this world, will then see "the Sign of the Son of man in heaven," and against their will must believe and tremble. For "then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory." Let us be wise in time; let us seek Him "while it is called today;" let us "seek the Lord and His strength, seek His face evermore." Let us seek Him in His Temple, and in its ordinances; especially in that most sacred Ordinance in which He all but reveals to us His heavenly countenance, all but gives us to touch His hands and feet, and put our hand into His side, that we may see that it is He Himself, and that we are following no deceitful vision. He said to Mary, "Touch Me not, for I am not yet ascended to My Father." He is now ascended, therefore we may touch Him. Let us, as far as is permitted us, approach Him, who walked upon the sea, and rebuked the wind, and multiplied the {119} loaves, and turned the water into wine, and made the clay give sight, and entered through the closed doors, and came and vanished at His will. Let us see Him by faith, though our eyes are holden, that we know it not. Evermore may He so be with us, a gracious Lord, whose "garments smell of myrrh, aloes, and cassia," of spikenard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, and all trees of frankincense, myrrh, and aloes, with all the chief spices." [Ps. xlv. 8. Cant. iv. 14.] So may He be with us evermore, moving our hearts within us, "until the day break and the shadows flee away."

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