Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 13

Third Advent Lecture: The Barbarian

Preached December 20, 1849

  Frederick W. Robertson

“And when they were escaped, then they knew that the island was called Melita. And the barbarous people showed us no little kindness: for they kindled a fire, and received us every one, because of the present rain, and because of the cold. And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand. And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live. And he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm. Howbeit they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly: but after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that be was a god. In the same quarters were possessions of the chief man of the island, whose name was Publius; who received us, and lodged us three days courteously.” - Acts 28:1-7.

Of the four divisions of the world at the time of the Advent, two have already been reviewed. The Greek, seeing the right only on its side of beauty, ended in mere intellectual refinement. The artist took the place of God, and genius stood for inspiration. The Roman’s destiny was different. His was not the kingdom of burnished brass, but the kingdom of iron. He set out with the great idea of duty and law: exhibited in consequence the austere simplicity of pure domestic life, in public affairs government and order: stamping upon the world the great idea of obedience to law. In the decline of Rome the results of this were manifest. After a mighty career of a thousand years Rome had run out her course. Among the loftier minds who stood out protesting against her corruption, and daring in a corrupted age to believe in the superiority of right to enjoyment, grand contempt for pleasure, sublime defiances of pain told out the dying agonies of the iron kingdom, worthy of the heart of steel which beat beneath the Roman’s robe. This was stoicism: the Grecian philosophy which took deepest root, as might have been expected, in the soil of Roman thought. Stoicism was submission to a destiny: hard, rigid, loveless submission. Its language was Must. It must be, and man’s highest manliness is to submit to the inevitable. It is right because it must be so. Besides these higher ones, there were others who carried out the idea of duty in quite another direction. With the mass of the nation, reverence for law passed into homage to the symbol of law-loyalty to the Government; its highest expression being the sacramental homage to the nation’s authority. So that, as I have already said, the Roman spirit stiffened into stoicism, and degenerated into worship of the emperor. This was not accidental, it was the inevitable result of the idea. It might have taken half the time, or ten times as long; but at last the germ must have ripened into that fruit and no other. The Roman began with obedience to will.

Law, meaning obedience to a holy God, passes by a natural transition into the Gospel: that is, reverential duty to a person becomes the obedience of love at last, which obeys because the beautifulness of obedience is perceived. The Jew began in severity, ended in beauty. The Roman began in severity, ended in rigidity, or else relaxation. To him the Advent came proclaiming the Lord of love instead of the coercive necessity of a lifeless fate.

To the Greek worshipper of beauty, the Advent came with an announcement of an inner beauty. He who was to them, and all such, “a Root out of a dry ground, with no form or comeliness,” with nothing to captivate a refined taste, or gratify an elegant sensibility, lived a life which was divine and beautiful. His religion, as contrasted with the Grecian, supplementing it, and confirming in it what was true, “was the worship of the Lord in the beauty of holiness.”

The third department is the necessity of the Advent for the Barbarian world.

By Barbarian was meant any religion but the Roman or the Greek-a contemptuous term, the spirit of which is common enough in all ages. Just as now every narrow sect monopolizes God, claims for itself an exclusive heaven, contemptuously looks on all the rest of mankind as sitting in outer darkness, and complacently consigns myriads whom God has made to His uncovenanted mercies, that is, to probable destruction, so, in ancient times, the Jew scornfully designated all nations but his own as Gentiles; and the Roman and Greek, each retaliating in his way, treated all nations but his own under the common epithet of Barbarians.

We shall confine ourselves to-day to a single case of barbarian life. We shall not enter into the religion of our own ancestors, the Celts and Teutonic nations, who were barbarians then, nor that of the Scythians or the Africans. One instance will be sufficient.

Twice in his recorded history St. Paul came in contact with barbarians-twice he was counted as a god. Once among the semi-barbarians of Lycaonia, at Lystra-once here at Melita.

There is a little uncertainty about the identification of this Melita. It was a name shared by two islands-Malta, and Melida in the Adriatic. But it seems to be established beyond all reasonable doubt that it was on Malta, not on Melida, that St. Paul was wrecked. The chief objection to this, view is, that immediately before the wreck we are told-Acts 27:27-that they were “driven up and down in Adria.” But this is satisfactorily answered by the fact that the name Adriatic was applied often loosely to all the sea round Sicily. Two great arguments in favor of Malta then remain: After leaving the island, the apostle touched at Syracuse, and so went on to Rhegium and Puteoli. This is the natural direction from Malta to Rome, but not from Melida. Then besides, “barbarians” will not apply to the inhabitants of Melida. They were Greeks: whereas the natives of Malta, living under Roman government, were originally Carthaginians, who had been themselves a Phoenician colony. The epithet is perfectly correct as applied to them.

It is the Carthaginian or Phoenician religion, then, which moulded the barbarian life, that we examine to-day. We take three points.

I. Barbarian virtues.

II. Barbarian idea of retribution.

III. Barbarian conception of Deity.

I. Barbarian virtues. Two errors have been held on the subject of natural goodness. The first, that of those who deny to fallen man any goodness at all, and refuse to admit even kindliness of feeling. In the language of a celebrated and popular expounder of this view “man in his natural state is one-half beast and one-half devil.” This is the effect of a system. No man in his heart believes that. No mother ever gazed upon her child, baptized or unbaptized, and thought so. Men are better than their creed. Their hearts are more than a match for their false theological system. Beneath the black skin of the African there runs a blood as warm as that which is in the blue veins of the Christian. Among the civilized heathen, the instinctive feelings are as kindly and as exquisitely delicate as they were ever found in the bosom of the baptized. Accordingly, we find here these natural barbarian virtues of hospitality and sympathy. The shipwrecked mariners, wet and cold, were received in Melita with a warm, compassionate welcome. The people of the island did not say, “Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled.” They gave them those things which were necessary for the body. And a Christian contemplating this, gave this distinct testimony, “The barbarous people showed us no little kindness.”

The second error is the opposite one of placing too high a value on these natural virtues. There is a class of writers who talk much of early unsophisticated times. They tell of the days “when wild in woods the noble savage ran.” They speak of pastoral simplicity, and the reverence and piety of mountain life. According to them, civilization is the great corrupter. But the truth is, the natural good feelings of human nature are only instincts: no more moral than a long sight or a delicate sense of hearing. The keen feelings of the child are no guaranty of future principle-perhaps rather the reverse. The profuse hospitality of the mountaineer, who rarely sees strangers, and to whom gold is little worth, becomes shrewd and selfish calculation so soon as temptation from passing traffic is placed in his way. You may travel among savages who treat you, as a stranger, with courtesy, but yet feed on the flesh of their enemies. And these Melitans, who “showed no little kindness” to the wrecked crew, belonged to a stock who, in the most civilized days of Carthage, offered human sacrifice, and after every successful battle with the Romans burnt the chief prisoners alive as a thank offering to Heaven. If we trace them still farther back, we find their Phoenician ancestors in the Old Testament tainted with the same practice, and the Hebrews themselves imbibing it from them, so as to be perpetually arraigned by their prophets on the charge of making their sons and daughters “pass through the fire to Baal.” They could be kind to strangers, and cruel to enemies.

The Advent of Christ brought a new spirit into the world. “A new commandment give I unto you, that ye love one another.” That was not the new part. The Melitans would not have disagreed with that . . . “As I have loved you, that ye love one another.” “As I have loved you,”. . . that makes all new. So also 1 John 2:7, 8. The “old commandment” was old enough. Barbarians felt in their hearts. But the same commandment with “true light” shining on it was different indeed.

“Love your neighbor, hate your enemy.” Carthaginians obeyed that. Hear the law of love expounded by Himself. “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you. For if ye love them which love you, what do ye more than others? Do not even . . . (the barbarians) . . . the same?” This is Christianity-that is, the mind of Christ.

Remark, too, the principle on which this is taught. “That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for He maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” Not upon merely personal authority; not by a law graven on stone, nor even printed in a book, to be referred to, chapter and verse; but on the principle of the imitation of God. His heart interpreted the universe-He read its “open secret,” which is open to all who have the heart to feel it, secret to all others. A secret, according to Him, to be gathered from the rain as it fell on the just and the unjust, from the dew of heaven, from the lily, and from the fowls of the air, from the wheat, from every law and every atom. This was His revelation. He revealed God. He spelled for us the meaning of all this perplexing, unintelligible world. He proclaimed its bidden meaning to be Love. So He converted rude barbarian instincts into Christian graces-by expanding their sphere and purifying them of selfishness-causing them to be regulated by principle, and elevating them into a conscious imitation of God in His revealed character.

II. The Barbarian idea of retribution.

The Apostle Paul was one of those who are formed to be the leaders of the world. Foremost in persecution, foremost in Christianity (“nothing behind the chiefest apostles”) foremost in the shipwreck, his voice the calmest, his heart the stoutest, his advice the wisest in the tumult; foremost, too, when all was over, not as a prisoner, but actively engaged for the general good, it is Paul who is gathering the sticks to make the fire. From those sticks a viper sprung and fastened on his band, and the first impression of the barbarians was, “No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live.”

This is the very basis of ail natural religion-the idea of the connection between guilt and retribution. In some form or other it underlies all mythologies. The sleepless, never-dying avengers of wrong-the Nemesis who presides over retribution-the vengeance which suffereth not the murderer to live-the whips and scorpions of the Furies-seems the first instinct of religion.

In the Barbarian conception of it, however, there was something gross, corporeal, and dangerous; because they misinterpreted natural laws into vengeance. Yet there is a proneness in man to judge so. We expect that nature will execute the chastisements of the spiritual world. Hence all nature becomes to the imagination leagued against the transgressor. The stars in their courses fight against Sisera; the wall of Siloam falls on guilty men; the sea will not carry the criminal, nor the plank bear him - the viper stings - every thing is a minister of wrath. On this conviction nations constructed their trial by ordeal. The guilty man’s sword would fail in the duel, and the foot would strike and be burnt by the hot ploughshare. Some idea of this sort lurks in all our minds. We picture to ourselves the spectres of the past haunting the nightly bed of the tyrant. We take for granted that there is an avenger making life miserable.

But experience corrects all this. The tyrant’s sleep is often as sweet and sound as the infant’s. The sea will wreck an apostle, and bear a murderer triumphantly. The viper stings the innocent turf-cutter. The fang of evil pierces the heel of the noblest as he treads it down. It is the poetry of man’s heart, not the reality of the universe, which speaks of the vengeance which pursues guilt with unrelenting steps to slay; only in poetry is this form of justice found; only in poetry does the fire refuse to burn the innocent; only in poetry can Purity lay her band on the fawning lion’s mane. If we ask where these Melitans got their idea of retribution, the reply is, out of their own hearts. They felt the eternal connection between wrongdoing and penalty. The penalty they would have executed on murder was death. They naturally threw this idea of theirs into the character of God, and blended together what was theirs and what is His. This is valuable as a proof of the instinctive testimony of man’s heart to the realities of retribution. It is utterly worthless as a testimony to the form in which retributive justice works, because it is not borne out by the facts of life.

Again, that notion was false, in that it expected vengeance for flagrant crime only. “This man is a murderer.” There is a common and superstitious feeling now to that effect, “Murder will out:” as if God had set a black mark on murder - as if, because it is unlikely to escape detection in a country where every man’s band is against the murderer, impunity was not common enough in countries where human life is held cheap. The truth is, we think much of crime, little of sin. There is many a murderer executed whose heart is pure and whose life is white, compared with those of many a man who lives a respectable and even honored life. David was a murderer. The Pharisees had committed no crime, but their heart was rotten at the core. There was in it the sin which has no forgiveness. It is not a Christian but a Barbarian estimate, which ranks crime above sin, and takes murder for the chief of sins marked out for Heaven’s vengeance.

As information increased, this idea of retribution disappears. Natural laws are understood, and retribution vanishes. Then often Comes Epicureanism or Atheism. “All things come alike to all: there is One end to the righteous and to the sinner; to the clean and to the unclean: to him that sacrificeth, and to him that sacrificeth not.” This is the feeling of the voluptuary of Ecclesiastes. If so, then the inference suggests itself to Epicurean indolence - “Let us eat and drink” - it is all the same. Or the skeptical feeling comes thus: “Verily I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my bands in innocency.” For assuredly there is no vengeance such as this which suffers not the murderer to live, but arms the powers of nature against him. Therefore why do right instead of wrong?

Thus the idea of retribution is gone for those who see no deeper than the outward chance of penalty.

The Advent of Christ brought deeper and truer views. It taught what sin is, and what suffering is. It showed the Innocent on the Cross bearing the penalty of the world’s sin, but Himself still the Son of God, with whom the Father was not angry, but “well pleased.”

The penal agonies of sin are chiefly those which are executed within. “Vengeance,” said the Melitans, “suffereth not the murderer to live.” “Whosoever slayeth Cain,” said God, “vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” Cain, the murderer, lives - Christ, the holy, dies. Cain is to us the dread type of hell. To live! that is hell, to live when you fain would die. There is such a thing as being salted with fire, a never annihilating but still consuming torture. You may escape the viper and the wreck. You may by prudence make this world painless, more or less. You can not escape yourself. Go where you will, you carry with you a soul degraded, its power lost, its finer sensibilities destroyed. Worse than the viper’s tooth is the punishment of no longer striving after goodness, or aspiring after the life of God. Just as the man can not see through the glass on which he breathes, sin darkens the windows of the soul. You can not look out even to know the glories of the fair world from which your soul excludes itself. There is no punishment equal to the punishment of being base. To sink from sin to Sin, from infamy to infamy, that is the fearful retribution which is executed in the spiritual world. You are safe, go where you will, from the viper: as safe as if you were the holiest of God’s children. The fang is in your soul.

III. The Barbarian conception of Deity.

When the viper fell off, and Paul was left uninjured, they changed their mind and said that be was a god.

Observe first, this implied a certain advance in religious notions. There is a stage of worship prior to that of man-worship. Man finds himself helpless among the powers of nature, and worships the forces themselves which he finds around him. This takes different forms. The highest is the worship of that host of heaven from which Job professed himself to be free. With some it is the adoration of lifeless things: the oak which has been made sacred by the lightning-stroke; the “meteoric stone” which fell down from Jupiter. So the Israelites adored the brazen serpent, with which power had once been in connection. Evidently there can be no holy influence in this. Men worship them by fear, fortify themselves by charms and incantations: do not try to please God by being holy, but defend themselves from danger by jugglery. The Christians of the early ages carried about bits of consecrated bread to protect themselves from shipwreck.

Besides this, men have worshipped brute life - some animal, exhibiting a limited quality, which is yet reckoned a type of the Divine. The hawk-eyed deities of Egypt, for instance, implied omniscience. Beast-worship was that of Egypt. Israel learned it there, and in an early stage of their history imitated the highest form which they knew, that of Apis, in their golden calf.

It is quite clear that the Melitans were in a stage beyond this. It is a step when men rise from the worship of lifeless things to that of animals - another when they rise to worship human qualities; for they are nearest the Divine. Perhaps a step higher still, when, like the early Romans, they worship a principle like Destiny, separate from all shape. They were in the stage of worshipping what is human.

2. But in this worship of the human we have to distinguish that it was the adoration of the marvellous, riot the reverence for the good. It was not Paul’s character to which they yielded homage. It was only to the wonderful mystery of, as they supposed, miraculous escape. So, too, at Lystra. It was the miracle which they chiefly saw.

All that would pass away when they knew that be was a man of like passions with themselves, or when they were informed that it was a providential escape which might have happened to any ordinary man. When the savage sees the flash of European fire-arms he kneels as to a god; but when he has learned its use, his new religion is gone. When the Americans first saw the winged ships of Spain, they thought that the deities spoke in thunder; but when they discovered the secret of their humanity, the worship ceased. And thus science is every day converting the religion of mere wonder into Atheism. The mere worship of the mysterious has but a limited existence. As you teach laws, you undermine that religion. Men cease to tremble. The Laplander would no longer be awed by the eclipse if he knew how to calculate it with unerring accuracy. The savage’s dread of lightning as the bolt of God, is over when he sees the philosopher draw it from the clouds, and experimentalize on it in his laboratory. The awe created by a pestilence is passed, when it is found to be strictly under the guidance of natural laws. And the Romanist, or the semi-Romanist, whose religion is chiefly a sense of the mysterious, the solemn, and the awful, and whose flesh creeps when he sees a miracle in the consecration of the sacraments, ends, as is well known, in infidelity, when enlightenment and reason have struck the ground of false reverence from beneath his feet.

It is upon this indisputable basis that the mightiest system of modern Atheism has been built. The great founder of that system divides all human history into three periods. The first, in which the Supernatural is believed in; and a personal agent is believed in as the cause of all phenomena, The second, in which metaphysical abstractions are assumed as Causes. The third, the Positive stage, in which nothing is expected but the knowledge of sequences by experience; the Absolute, that lies beneath all phenomena, being forever unknowable, and a God, if there be a God undiscoverable by the intellect of man.

This conclusion is irrefragable. Granted that the only basis of religion is awe, a worship of the marvellous, then verily there remains nothing for the human race to end in but blank and ghastly Atheism.

Therefore has the Redeemer’s Advent taught a deeper truth to man. The Apostle Paul spoke almost slightingly of the marvellous. “Covet earnestly the best gifts: yet show I unto you a more excellent way. Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels, and have not love, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” Love is diviner than all wondrous powers.

So, too, the Son of God came into this world, depreciating the merely mysterious. “An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign. No sign shall be given to it.” “Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe.” Nay, His own miracles themselves, so far as the merely wondrous in them was concerned, He was willing, on one occasion at least, to place on the same level with the real or supposed ones of exorcists among themselves. “If I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your sons cast them out?”; It was not the power, nor the supernatural in them, which proved them divine. It was their peculiar character - their benevolence, their goodness, their love - which manifested Deity.

Herein lies the vast fallacy of the French skeptic. The worship of the merely Supernatural must, as science progresses, legitimately end in Atheism. Yes, all science removes the Cause of causes farther and farther back from human ken, so that the baffled intellect is compelled to confess at last we cannot find it. But “the world by wisdom knew not God.” There is a power in the soul, quite separate from the intellect, which sweeps away or recognizes the marvellous, by which God is felt. Faith stands serenely far above the reach of the atheism of science. It does not rest on the wonderful, but on the eternal wisdom and goodness of God. The revelation of the Son was to proclaim a Father, not a mystery. No science can sweep away the everlasting love which the heart feels, and which the intellect does not even pretend to judge or recognize. And he is safe from the inevitable decay which attends the mere Barbarian worship, who has felt that as faith is the strongest power in the mind of man, so is love the divinest principle in the bosom of God: in other words, he who adores God as known in Christ, rather than trembles before the Unknown - whose homage is yielded to Divine Character rather than to Divine Power.