“We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let every one of us please his neighbor for his good to edification. For even Christ pleased not himself; but, as it is written, The reproaches of them that reproached thee fell on me. For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.” - Romans 15:1-4
We will endeavor, brethren, to search the connection between the different parts of these verses.
First, the apostle lays down a Christian’s duty-“Let every one of us please his neighbor for his good to edification.” After that he brings forward as the sanction of that duty, the spirit of the life of Christ-“For even Christ pleased not Himself.” Next, he aids an illustration of that principle by a quotation from Psalm 69:9: “It is written, The reproaches of them that reproached thee fell on me.” Lastly, he explains and defends that application of the psalm, as if he had said, “I am perfectly justified in applying that passage to Christ, for whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning.’ ”
So that in this quotation, and the defense of it as contained in these verses, we have the principle of apostolical interpretation; we have the principle upon which the apostles used the Old Testament Scriptures, and we are enabled to understand their view of inspiration. This is one of the most important considerations upon which we can be at this moment engaged. It is the deepest question of our day: the one which lies beneath all others, and in comparison of which the questions just now agitating the popular mind-whether of Papal jurisdiction or varieties of Church doctrine in our own communion-are but superficial: it is this grand question of inspiration which is given to this age to solve.
Our subject will break itself up into questions such as these: What the Bible is, and what the Bible is not? What is meant by inspiration? Whether inspiration is the same thing as infallibility? When God inspired the minds, did He dictate the words? Does the inspiration of men mean the infallibility of their words? Is inspiration the same as dictation? Whether, granting that we have the Word of God, we have also the words of God? Are the operations of the Holy Spirit, inspiring men, compatible with partial error, as His operations in sanctifying them are compatible with partial evil? How are we to interpret and apply the Scriptures? Is Scripture, as the Romanists say, so unintelligible and obscure that we can not understand it without having the guidance of an infallible Church? Or is it, as some fanciful Protestants will tell us, a book upon which all ingenuity may be used to find Christ in every sentence? Upon these things there are many views, some of them false, some superstitious; but it is not our business now to deal with these; our way is rather to teach positively than negatively: we will try to set up the truth, and error may fall before it.
The collect for this day leads us to the special consideration of Holy Scripture; We shall therefore take this for our subject, and endeavor to understand what was the apostolical principle of interpretation.
In the text we find two principles: first, that Scripture is of universal application;
And second, that all the lines of Scripture converge towards Jesus Christ.
First, then, there is here a universal application of Scripture. This passage quoted by the apostle is from the sixty-ninth Psalm. That was evidently spoken by David of himself. From first to last, no unprejudiced mind can detect a conception in the writer’s mind of an application to Christ, or to any other person after him; the psalmist is there full of himself and his own sorrows. It is a natural and touching exposition of human grief and a good man’s trust. Nevertheless, you will observe that St. Paul extends the use of these words, and applies them to Jesus Christ. Nay, more than that, be uses them as belonging to all Christians; for, he says, “Whatsoever things were written aforetime, were written for our learning.” Now this principle will be more evident if we state it in the words of Scripture, “Knowing that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation:” those holy men spake not their own limited individual feelings, but as feeling that they were inspired by the Spirit of God. Their words belonged to the whole of our common humanity. No prophecy of the Scriptures is of any private interpretation. Bear in mind that the word prophecy does not mean what we now understand by it-merely prediction of future events-in the Scriptures it signifies inspired teaching. The teaching of the prophets was by no means always prediction. Bearing this in mind, let us remember that the apostle says it is of no private interpretation. Had the Psalm applied only to David, then it would have been of private interpretation-it would have been special, limited, particular; it would have belonged to an individual; instead of which, it belongs to humanity. Take again the subject of which we spoke last Sunday-the prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem. Manifestly that was spoken originally at Jerusalem; in a manner it seemed limited to Jerusalem, for its very name was mentioned; and besides, as we read this morning, our Saviour says, “This generation shall not pass until all be fulfilled.”
But had the prophecy ended there, then you would still have had prophecy, but it would have been of private-that is, peculiar, limited-interpretation; whereas our Redeemer’s principle was this: that this doom pronounced on Jerusalem was universally applicable, that it was but a style and specimen of God’s judgments. The judgment-coming of the Son of Man takes place wherever there is evil grown ripe, whenever corruption is complete. And the gathering of the Roman eagles is but a specimen of the way in which judgment at last overtakes every city, every country and every man in whom evil has reached the point where there is no possibility of cure.
So that the prophecy belongs to all ages, from the destruction of Jerusalem to the end of the world. The words of St. Matthew are universally applicable. For Scripture deals with principles; not with individuals, but rather with states of humanity. Promises and threatenings are made to individuals, because they are in a particular state of character; but they belong to all who are in that state, for “God is no respecter of persons.”
First, we will take an instance of the state of blessing.
There was blessing pronounced to Abraham, in which it will be seen how large a grasp on humanity this view of Scripture gave to St. Paul. The whole argument in the Epistle to the Romans is, that the promises made to Abraham were not to his person, but to his faith; and thus the apostle says: “They who are of faith, are blessed with faithful Abraham.”
We will now take the case of curse or threatening. Jonah, by Divine command, went through Nineveh, proclaiming its destruction; but that prophecy belonged to the state in which Nineveh was; it was true only while it remained in that state; and therefore, as they repented, and their state was thus changed, the prophecy was left unfulfilled. From this we perceive the largeness and grandeur of Scripture interpretation. In the Epistle to the Corinthians, we find the apostle telling of the state of the Jews in their passage towards the promised land, their state of idolatry and gluttony, and then he proceeds to pronounce the judgments that fell upon them, adding that he tells us this not merely as a matter of history, but rather as an illustration of a principle. They are specimens of eternal, unalterable law. So that whosoever shall be in the state of these Jews, whosoever shall imitate them, the same judgments must fall upon them, the same satiety and weariness, the same creeping of the inward serpent polluting all their feelings; and therefore he says “All these things happened unto them for examples.” Again, he uses the same principle, not as a private, but a general application; for he says, “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man.”
We will take now another case, applied not to nations, but to individuals. In Hebrews xiii. we find these words from the Old Testament, “I will never leave thee nor forsake thee;” and there the apostle’s inference is that we may boldly say, “The Lord is helper, I will not fear what men shall do unto me.” Now, when we refer to Scripture, we shall find that this was a promise originally made to Jacob. The apostle does not hesitate to take that promise and appropriate it to all Christians; for it was made, not to Jacob as a person, but to the state in which Jacob was; it was made to all who, like Jacob, are wanderers and pilgrims in the world; it was made to all whom sin has rendered outcasts and who are longing to return. The promises made to the meek belong to meekness; the promises made to the humble belong to humility.
And this it is which makes this Bible, not only a blessed book, but our book. It is this universal applicability of Scripture which has made the influence of the Bible universal: this book has held spell-bound the hearts of nations, in a way in which no single book has ever held men before. Remember, too, in order to enhance the marvellousness of this, that the nation from which it emanated was a despised people. For the last eighteen hundred years the Jews have and a reproach. But that contempt for Israel is nothing new to the world, for before even the Roman despised them, the Assyrian and Egyptian regarded the words which came from the life-blood of the world’s devotions. And the teachers, the psalmists, the prophets, and the lawgivers of this despised nation spoke out truths that have struck the key-note of the heart of man; and this, not because they were of Jewish, but just because they were of universal application.
This collection of books has been to the world what no other book has ever been to a nation. States have been founded on its principles. Kings rule by a compact based on it. Men hold the Bible in their bands when they prepare to solemn evidence affecting life, death, or property; the give sick man is almost afraid to die unless the book be within reach of his hands; the battle-ship goes into action with one on board whose office is to expound it; its prayers, its psalms are the language which we use when we speak to God; eighteen centuries have found no holier, no diviner language. If ever there has been a prayer or a hymn enshrined in the heart of a nation, you are sure to find its basis in the Bible. There is no new religious idea given to the world, but it is merely the development of something given in the Bible. The very translation of it has fixed language and settled the idioms of speech. Germany and England speak as they speak because the Bible was translated. It has made the most illiterate peasant more familiar with the history, customs. and geography of ancient Palestine than with the localities of his own country. Men who know nothing of the Grampians, of Snowden, or of Skiddaw, are at home in Zion, the Lake of Gennesareth, or among the rills of Carmel. People who know little about London, know by heart the places in Jerusalem where those blessed feet trod which were nailed to the cross. Men who know nothing of the architecture of a Christian cathedral, can yet tell you all about the pattern of the holy temple. Even this shows us the influence of the Bible. The orator holds a thousand men for half an hour breathless-a thousand men as one, listening to his single word. But this Word of God has held a thousand nations for thrice a thousand years spell-bound; held them by an abiding power, even the universality of its truth; and we feel it to be no more a collection of books, but the book.
We pass on now to consider the second principle contained in these words, which is, that all Scripture bears towards Jesus Christ. St. Paul quotes these Jewish words as fulfilled in Christ. Jesus of Nazareth is the central point in which all the converging lines of Scripture meet. Again we state this principle in scripture language: in the book of Revelation we find it written, “The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy,” that is, the sum and substance of prophecy; the very spirit of Scripture is to bear testimony to Jesus Christ. We must often have been surprised and perplexed at the way in which the apostles quote passages in reference to Christ which originally had no reference to Him. In our text, for instance, David speaks only of himself, and yet St. Paul refers it to Christ. Let us understand this. We have already said that Scripture deals not with individuals, but with states and principles. Promises belong to persons only so far as they are what they are taken to be; and consequently all unlimited promises made to individuals, so far those individuals, are necessarily exaggerated and hyperbolical. They can only be true of One in whom that is fulfilled which was unfulfilled in them.
We will take an instance. We are all familiar with the well-known prophecy of Balaam. We all remember the magnificent destinies be promised to the people whom he was called to curse. Those promises have never been fulfilled, neither from the whole appearance of things does it seem likely that they ever will be fulfilled in their literal sense. To whom, then, are they made? To Israel? Yes; so far as the developed God’s own conception. Balaam says, “God hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath He seen perverseness in Israel.” Is this the character of Israel, an idolatrous and rebellious nation? Spoken of the literal Israel, this prophecy is false; but it was not false of that spotlessness and purity of which Israel was the temporal and imperfect type. If one can be found of whom that description is true, of whom we can say, the Lord hath not beheld iniquity in him, to him then that prophecy belongs.
Brethren, Jesus of Nazareth is that pure and spotless One. Christ is perfectly, all that every saint was partially. To Him belongs all: all that description of a perfect character, which would be exaggeration if spoken of others, and to this character the blessing belongs; hence it is that all the fragmentary representations of character collect and centre in Him alone. Therefore, the apostle says, “It has added until the seed should come to whom the promise was made.” Consequently St. Paul would not read the Psalm as spoken only of David. Were the lofty aspirations, the purity and humbleness expressed in the text, true of him, poor, sinful, erring David? These were the expressions; Of the Christ within his heart - the longing of the Spirit of God within Him; but they were no proper representation of the spirit of his life, for there is a marvelous difference between a man’s ideal and his actual-between the man and the book be writes-a difference between the aspirations within the man and the character which is realized by his daily life. The promises are to the Christ within David; therefore they are applied to the Christ when He comes. Now, let us extract from that this application.
Brethren, Scripture is full of Christ. From Genesis to Revelation every thing breathes of Him, not eve letter of every sentence, but the spirit of every chapter. It is full of Christ, but not in the way that some suppose; for there is nothing more miserable, as specimens of perverted ingenuity, than the attempts of certain commentators and preachers to find remote, and recondite, and intended allusions to Christ everywhere. For example, they chance to find in the construction of the temple the fusion of two metals, and this they conceive is meant to show the union of Divinity with Humanity in Christ. If they read of coverings to the tabernacle, they find implied the doctrine of imputed righteousness. If it chance that one of the curtains of the tabernacle be red, they see in that the prophecy of the blood of Christ. If they are told that the kingdom of heaven is a pearl of great price, they will see it in the allusion-that, as a pearl is the production of animal suffering, so the kingdom of heaven is produced by the sufferings of the Redeemer. I mention this perverted mode of comment, because it is not merely harmless, idle, and useless; it is positively dangerous. This is to make the Holy Spirit speak riddles and conundrums, and the interpretation of Scripture but clever riddle-guessing. Putting aside all this childishness, we say that the Bible is full of Christ. Every unfulfilled aspiration of humanity in the past; all partial representation of perfect character; all sacrifices, nay even those of idolatry, point to the fulfillment of what we want, the answer to every longing - the type of perfect humanity, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Get the habit - a glorious one - of referring all to Christ. How did He feel? - think? - act? So then must I feel, and think, and act. Observe how Christ was a living reality in St. Paul’s mind. “Should I please myself?” “For even Christ pleased not Himself;” “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”