« VorigeDoorgaan »
MANY of our Lord's parables were delivered with the avowed
object of illustrating what he terms “the kingdom of heaven.” And as this phrase is used by him in various distinct senses, it is of importance, in considering each parable, first to ascertain, from its general structure, in which of those senses the term is used ; that we may see clearly the force and bearing of the several parts in detail.
Besides the ordinary and popular meaning of this term, as signifying that kingdom of glory into which the redeemed pass through the grave, and gate of death, it is used also to signify the kingdom of grace on earth, consisting of all Christ's believing people—and also true religion in the individual soul. In either of these senses our Lord uses it, when he says, “ The kingdom of God cometh not with observation ; but the kingdom of God is within, or among, you.” And St. Paul briefly, but most comprehensively, defines what that kingdom of God is, when he says to the Corinthians, “ The kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost." This kingdom is set up in the heart of an individual, when he repents, and believes the gospel : when he is born again : when the Divine Spirit has taken possession of his soul, and brought it into captivity to the obedience of Christ : when Christ is formed in him ; and dwells in his heart by faith,—by a lively, realizing sense of His intimate and continual presence : and of a strict accountability to Him in every deed, word, and thought.
These two meanings of the term, though clearly distinct from the first, are not materially different from it. The two kingdoms-of glory and of grace-are, in fact, but one; differing, not in nature, but in time ;-or rather in place and degree : for though we speak of the kingdom of heaven in the former sense as future, yet it is future only as it respects us. It is, at this moment, in full and active admi. nistration; furnishing its beatific delights to those angelic existences which kept their first estate, and to the spirits of just men made per. fect. In fact, the two kingdoms differ but in place; as the metro. CHRIST. OBSERV. No. 25.
polis and the province of the same empire. The same Divine Head rules over both. the same holy laws regulate both : the same members, and all animated by the same Spirit, are the subjects of both. To be members of the kingdom of glory hereafter, we must be subjects of the kingdom of grace here. The two moral states differ but in degree. Grace is but glory begun : glory, grace consummated. It is in this latter sense that our Lord uses it in these, among many other parables, where he compares it to "treasure hid in a field "--to a “ pearl of great price.”
But there is another meaning of it, essentially differing from both of these, where it is used to represent the dispensation of the gospel, or Christ's visible church on earth ; comprehending within its pale all nominal professors, good and bad, sincere and hypocrites : all who name the name of Christ, whether they have, or have not, departed from iniquity. In this sense evidently it is used, where our Lord compares it to a net cast into the sea, which gathered of every kind, to the tares and wheat, growing together till the harvest.
The general structure of the parable before us, at a glance, proves that this term is not used here in either of the two former senses; because, of the ten virgins which illustrate it, five only are wise, and five are foolish. This could not be in the kingdom of grace ; much less in the kingdom of glory. But taking it in the latter sense, as meaning the visible church, it may be-indeed has been—argued, that we may infer, from this equal division of the wise and foolish, that half the great mass of professing Christians will be saved, and half perish. But awful as even this must appear, when we consider the vast multitudes that wander in heathen darkness, in Mahommedan imposture, in philosophical infidelity; and the few comparatively, not one sixth of the population of the earth,—which even names the name of Christ; which even calls itself Christian ; yet I greatly fear that the uniform voice of Scripture, as expressed in its typical facts, its parables, as well as its explicit declarations, joins with our own experience in contradicting this; and refuses to justify us in adopting so favourable a judgment as to the state of the visible church. Take, for instance, the two great facts typical of the general judgment—the flood, and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrha. In the former instance, we find the whole world, with the exception of eight persons, in apostacy; and all, but those eight, unsparingly destroyed by the deluge. In the latter instance, we find a whole land, with the exception of three persons, in apostacy, and the whole land desolated by fire. And let us remember, that our Lord expressly quotes these two awful visitations as typical of the state and judgment of the visible church at his coming. As it was, He more than once says, in the days of Noah—in the days of Lot, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man :-eating and drinking planting and building, marrying and giving in marriage. In a word, the church will be distracted with worldly cares, or immersed in worldly pleasures : will be sunk in the deep, oblivious sleep of sensuality, inconsideration, and forgetfulness of God.
If we pass from these typical facts to the parables and miracles which illustrate the state of the church, we find them generally speak the same language. The parable of the Sower teaches us how few, comparatively, are benefited, even by the most favourable opportunities of instruction, and the richest means of grace. That of the
Ten Lepers teaches us how few improve, to their spiritual benefit, the temporal mercies and comforts which God bestows upon them. And such is the lesson which nearly all those illustrations read us. If we pass from these to the plain and unequivocal declarations of Scripture, and especially of our Lord himself, they but re-echo, or rather give voice to, those mute instructors;
" When the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth ?” Many are called, but few chosen.” “ Strive to enter in at the strait gate, for many, I you, shall seek to enter in, and shall not be able.” “ Wide is the gate and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there be that go in thereat ; for strait is the gate and narrow is the way that leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it." And let us remember that these two last awful declarations are given in reply to the question of the Apostles, “Lord, are there few that be saved ?"
I fear, then, that this uniform testimony of Scripture sheds but a gloomy light upon the inference which reason compels to draw from the analogy of God's administration of the animal and vegetable world, abundant in the embryo seed, sparing in the perfect production : and still more, from a comparison of the lives of the great mass of professing Christians with the only standard of judgment, the revealed and written word of God.
But why do I propose, and thus labour to confirm, this gloomy view of the state and prospects of society? In order to remove a fatal, and, I do believe, a very general delusion. Men are in the habit of measuring themselves by themselves ; of forming, not a positive, but a comparative judgment of their state. Instead of bringing their lives and hearts to the law, and to the testirnony, they estimate themselves by the standard which is current in their neighbourhood and society; and silence many a pleading of conscience, and quench many a striving of the Spirit of God within them, by saying in their hearts, Am I not living like every body about me? But remember, I beseech you, that this, so far from being an evidence of your safety, is, if Scripture, if our Lord, with reverence be it uttered, speaks truth, a condemning proof that you are in the broad and thronged way that leads to destruction. Remember that if you are not living unlike all about you, you cannot be in that narrow and solitary way which alone leadeth unto life. Remember that our Lord's question to professing Christians is, “ What do ye more than others?” That his charge against them is, “Do not even the publicans the same?”
The coward conscience rallies, and takes courage, when it looks around, and sees the mighty host of the careless and profligate living as if there were neither a God, nor an eternity. Men indulge a latent feeling that the universality of the combination to set aside God's holy law, and practically to say, We will not have this man to reign over us, precludes the possibility of His enforcing its penal sanctions. They measure the Infinite and All-perfect God by the standard of limited and imperfect man. They see that the act of mutiny, or treason,or rebellion—which, if solitary, would be punished by deathif multiplied and widely extended, even though unsuccessful, is met, from the necessity for mercy, by a general amnesty; or, at the severest, by a punishment of selected ring-leaders : and they feel as if the same necessity were imposed upon God. But let them look at
facts, and not delude themselves with fancied analogies. “I will therefore put you in remembrance how that the Lord, having saved the people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed them that believed not" --sparing two men only of a mighty nation. Was there not, too, a mighty host of “angels which kept not their first estate?” and yet, unmoved by their numbers, “God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness to be reserved unto judgment.” Can you shelter yourself under a more powerful and wide-spread apostacy than existed when God “ spared not the old world, but saved Noah, the eighth person, a preacher of righteousness, bringing in the flood upon the world of the ungodly?" Or when he poured down the fiery deluge from the windows of heaven : “ and turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrha into ashes, condemned them with an over. throw, making them an ensample unto those that after should live ungodly?"
Does then this parable contradict these statements ? Certainly not. A single glance shews that the kingdom of heaven here spoken of does not mean the whole visible church, but a select portion of that church. In fact, the ten virgins are designed to represent those who make a more open and decided profession of religion. The parable is grounded on the marriage ceremonial of the Jews. Among them it was a custom that special and select friends should proceed, in the dusk of evening, with lamps in their hands, to the house of the bridegroom, in order to escort him in procession to the house of the bride. This they entered with him, and partook of the marriagefeast. The ten virgins then represent those who profess a peculiar and intimate attachment to Christ. The foolish, equally with the wise, go forth to meet the Bridegroom, and profess to wait his coming. They, equally with the wise, carry the well-supplied and lighted lamp, not only of religious profession, but of religious practice. As to their external conduct; as to all that is visible to the eye of man, there is no marked difference between them. Even in their failings and infirmities it were difficult to distinguish them. None but the experienced eye of the spiritual man, which discerneth all, could distinguish between the slumbering and sleeping of the wise and foolish. It is true-and it is a lamentable truth-that man may often see, in both, angry tempers and proud feelings, levity and worldly care, self-seeking and self-pleasing. But man cannot discern and analyse the precise character, and ingredients, and proportions of these—or of the feelings which immediately succeed them. He cannot discern, in the one, an entire abandonment of the soul to these without conviction and remorse ; and in the other, the internal struggle which accompanied, and the self-reproach, the humiliation, the penitential sorrow, which immediately succeeded, them. Therefore both must grow together till the harvest. The separation must be postponed till the Bridegroom comes : till He who seeth not as man seeth—for “ man looketh
the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh upon the heart,”-shall discern, and finally decide, between him who serveth God, and him who serveth Him
The ten virgins then are designed to represent-not the whole world - no, nor yet the whole nominally Christian world: but they are designed to represent what is best known to us under the title of "the religious world.” The very name virgins" implies a real, or pretended sanctity; and is a term of frequent use in Scripture, to designate the followers and the church of Christ. And surely it is a character of this sufficiently alarming and awful to produce great searching of heart, that our Lord should describe it as half-wise and half-foolish. In such a view the parable before us is of peculiar importance in the present day, when the religious world has made, and is daily making, such vast and rapid encroachments upon the inert or hostile mass of merely nominal Christianity. Undoubtedly we have reason to be thankful for this, in various points of view. But we should rejoice with trembling: since it is much to be feared that now, as ever, the influx which prosperity has poured in has deteriorated the mass : and that, with some few bright exceptions, very nearly in the same proportion as it has gained in surface it has lost in depth. If any be disposed to doubt this, let him but compare the many light and frothy religious publications of the present day, with the solid, practical, experimental food for souls, in the few religious writers of former times. And let him remember that the press is not only itself a powerful agent in forming the general mind, but also an almost infallible index of its present state and tendency. The truth is, that vital Christianity never flourished more than when, as was emphatically said, “ The blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church.” In the early ages of Christianity, when they were “baptized in the place of the dead ;" when each new conscript stepped, as it were, into the ranks vacated by the martyrdom of his predecessor ; when it was left to the executioner to administer baptism, not indeed of water, but of blood; then, to be baptized was to be born again of the Spirit. In those days men had to “count the cost ;” and no man would profess Christianity who had not experienced it to be “the power of God unto salvation." Persecution purified, and kept pure, the church. It threw around it a wall of fire, a barrier of exclusion. “ The noble army of martyrs” formed, as it were, a chain of sentinels, to guard the church against the deteriorating in. trusion of false or compromising professors. And even in later days, when the fear of persecution was removed : yet there was the reproach of Christ; there was the offence of the cross; there was the shame of the gospel of Christ, to scare away the half-hearted, the thoughtless, and the worldly-minded. But both these barriers seem now almost levelled, and the church thrown open to all whom popular repute, and, until lately, political privilege, might induce, however careless, to enter in. Satan therefore has been driven to his last resource; and since he cannot wield against her, in open war, the sword of persecu. tion, or the scoffs of ridicule—a weapon not less effectual—he would transform himself into an angel of light, and creep in unawares to seduce and corrupt her. Again, would the serpent “cast out of his mouth water as a flood," to drown the woman in the wilderness-not only, as before, of Arian heresy; but also, of heartless, spiritless orthodoxy.
But why do I allude to this? That I may press home upon all the moral of the parable,“ Watch!” That I may press upon each, not to be satisfied with a mere profession of religion : no, nor even with such a practice as may be the order of the day, and pass muster with the religious world : but to consider that Christianity is neither orthu