Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 58


The Christian Church a Family

Preached January 11, 1852

  Frederick W. Robertson

“Our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named.” - Ephesians 3:14-15


In the verses immediately before the text the Apostle Paul has been speaking of what he calls a mystery-that is, a revealed secret. And the secret was this, that the Gentiles would be “fellow-heirs and of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ by the Gospel.” It had been kept secret from the former ages and generations; it was a secret which the Jew had not suspected, had not even dreamt of. It appeared to him to be his duty to keep as far as possible from the Gentile. Circumcision, which taught him the duty of separation from the Gentile spirit and Gentile practices, seemed to him to teach hatred towards Gentile persons, until at length, in the good pleasure and providence of God, in the fullness of time, through the instrumentality of men whose hearts rather than whose intellects were inspired by God, the truth came out distinct and clear, that God was the Father of the Gentiles as well as of the Jews, “for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon Him.”

In the progress of the months, my Christian brethren, we have arrived again at that period of the year in which our Church calls upon us to commemorate the Epiphany, or manifestation of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, and we know not that in the whole range of Scripture we could find a passage which more distinctly and definitely than this brings before us the spirit in which it is incumbent upon us to enter upon this duty, In considering this passage we shall divide it into these two branches:


I. The definition which the Apostle Paul here gives of the Church of Christ; and,

II. The name by which this Church is named.


I. In the first place, let us consider the definition given by the Apostle Paul of the Christian Church, taken in its entirety. It is this, “the whole family in heaven and earth.” But in order to understand this fully, it will be necessary for us to break it up into its different terms.

1. First of all, it is taught by this definition that the Church of Christ is a society founded upon natural affinities-a “family.” A family is built on affinities which are natural, not artificial; it is not a combination, but a society. In ancient times an association of interest combined men in one guild or corporation for protecting the common persons in that corporation from oppression. In modern times identity of political creed or opinion has bound men together in one league, in order to establish those political principles which appeared to them of importance. Similarity of taste has united men together in what is called an association, or a society, in order by this means to attain more completely the ends of that science to which they had devoted themselves. But as these have been raised artificially, so their end is, inevitably, dissolution. Society passes on, and guilds and corporations die; principles are established, and leagues become dissolved; takes change, and then the association or society breaks up and comes to nothing.

It is upon another principle altogether that that which we call a family, or true society, is formed. It is not built upon similarity of taste, nor identity of opinion, but upon affinities of nature. You do not choose who shall be your brother; you can not exclude your mother or your sister; it does not depend upon choice or arbitrary opinion at all, but is founded upon the eternal nature of things. And precisely in the same way is the Christian Church formed-upon natural affinity, and not upon artificial combination. “The family, the whole family; in heaven and earth;” not made up of those who call themselves brethren, but of those who are brethren; not founded merely upon the principles of combination, but upon the principles of affinity. That is not a church, or a family, or a society which is made up by men’s choice, as when, in the upper classes of life, men of fashion unite together selecting their associates from their own class, and form what is technically called a society; it is a combination, if you will, but a society it is not-a family it is not-a Church of Christ it can not be.

And, again, when the Baptists or the Independents, or any other sectarians, unite themselves with men holding the same faith and entertaining the same opinions, there may be a 8sect, a combination, a persuasion, but a Church there can not be. And so, again, when the Jew in time past linked himself with the Jew, with those of the same nation, there you have what in ancient times was called Judaism, and in modern times is called Hebraicism-a system, a combination, but not a Church. The Church rises ever out of the family. First of all, in the good providence of God, there is the family-then the tribe, then the nation; and then the nation merges itself into humanity. And the nation which refuses to merge its nationality in humanity, to lose itself in the general interests of mankind, is left behind, and loses almost its religious nationality-like the Jewish people.

Such is the first principle. A man is born of the same family, and is not made such by an appointment or by arbitrary choice.

2. Another thing which is taught by this definition is this, that the Church of Christ is a whole made up of manifold diversities. We are told here it is “the whole family,” taking into it the great and good of ages past, now in heaven; and also the struggling, the humble, and the weak now existing upon earth. Here, again, the analogy holds good between the Church and the family. Never more than in the family is the true entirety of our nature seen. Observe how all the diversities of human condition and character manifest themselves in the family.

First of all, there are the two opposite poles of masculine and feminine, which contain within them the entire of our humanity-which together, not separately, make up the whole of man. Then there are the diversities in the degrees and kinds of affection. For when we speak of family affection we must remember that it is made up of many diversities. There is nothing more different than the love which the sister bears towards the brother, compared with that which the brother bears towards the sister. The affection which a man bears towards his father is quite distinct from that which he feels towards his mother; it is something quite different towards his sister; totally diverse again, towards his brother.

And then there are diversities of character. First the mature wisdom and stern integrity of the father; then the exuberant tenderness of the mother. And then one is brave and enthusiastic, another thoughtful, and another tender. One is remarkable for being full of rich humor, another is sad, mournful, even melancholy. Again, besides these, there are diversities of condition in life. First, there is the heir, sustaining the name and honor of the family; then perchance the soldier, in whose career all the anxiety and solitude of the family is centred; then the man of business, to whom they look up, trusting his advice, expecting his counsel; lastly, perhaps, there is the invalid, from the very cradle trembling between life and death, drawing out all the sympathies and anxieties of each member of the family, and so uniting them all more closely, from their having one common point of sympathy and solicitude. Now, you will observe that these are not accidental, but absolutely essential to the idea of a family; for so far as any one of them is lost, so far the family is incomplete. A family made up of one sex alone, all brothers and no sisters; or in which all are devoted to one pursuit; or in which there is no diversity of temper and dispositions-the same monotonous repeated identity-a sameness in the type of character-this is not a family, it is only the fragment of a family.

And precisely in the same way all these diversities of character and condition are necessary to constitute and complete the idea of a Christian Church. For as in ages past it was the delight of the Church to canonize one particular class of virtues-as for instance, purity or martyrdom-so now, in every age, and in every individual bosom, there is a tendency to canonize, or honor, or reckon as Christian, only one or two classes of Christian qualities. For example, if you were to ask in the present day where you should find a type of the Christian character, many in all probability would point to the man who keeps the sabbath day, is regular in his attendance upon the services of the Church, who loves to hear the Christian sermon. This is a phase of Christian character-that which is essentially and peculiarly the feminine type of religion. But is there in God’s Church to be found no place for that type which is rather masculine than feminine?-which not in litanies or in psalm-singing does the will of God, but by struggling for principles, and contending for the truth-that life whose prayer is action, whose aspiration is continual effort?

Or again, in every age, amongst all men, in the history of almost every individual, at one time or another, there has been a tendency towards that which has been emphatically named in modern times hero-worship-leading us to an admiration of the more singular, powerful, noble qualities of humanity. And wherever this tendency to hero-worship exists, there will be found side by side with it a tendency to undervalue and depreciate excellences of an opposite character-the humble, meek, retiring qualities. But it is precisely for these that the Church of Christ finds place. “Blessed are the meek, blessed are the merciful, blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness, blessed are the poor in spirit.” In God’s world there is a place for the wren and the violet, just as truly as there is for the eagle and the rose. In the Church of God there is a place-and that the noblest-for Dorcas making garments for the poor, and for Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus, just as truly as there is for Elijah confounding a false religion by his noble opposition, for John the Baptist making a king tremble on his throne, or for the Apostle Paul “compassing sea and land” by his wisdom and his heroic deeds.

Once more, there are ages as well as times in our own individual experience, when we set up charity as if it were the one only Christian character. And wherever this tendency is found there will be found at the same time, and side by side with it, a tendency to admire the spurious form of charity, which is a sentiment and not a virtue; which can sympathize with crime, but not with law; which can be tender to savages, but has no respect, no care for national honor. And therefore does this principle of the Apostle Paul call upon us to esteem also another form or type of character, and the opposite one; that which is remarkable for-in which predominates-not so much charity as justice; that which was seen in the warriors and prophets of old; who perchance, had a more strong recoil from vice than sympathy with virtue; whose indignation towards that which is wrong and hypocritical was more intense than their love for that which is good: the material, the character, out of which the reformer and the prophet, those who are called to do great works on earth, are made.

The Church of Christ takes not in one individual form of goodness merely, but every form of excellence that can adorn humanity. Nor is this wonderful when we remember who He was from whom this Church was named. It was He in whom centred all excellence-a righteousness which was entire and perfect. But when we speak of the perfection of righteousness, let us remember that it is made not of one exaggerated character, but of a true harmony, a due proportion of all virtues united. In Him were found, therefore, that tenderness towards sinners which had no sympathy with sin; that humility which could be dignified, and was yet united with self-respect; that simplicity which is ever to be met with side by side with true majesty; that love which could weep over Jerusalem at the very moment when He was pronouncing its doom; that truth and justice which appeared to stand as a protection to those who had been oppressed, at the same time that He scathed with indignant invective the Pharisees of the then existing Jews.

There are two, only two perfect humanities. One has existed already in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, the other is to be found only in the collective Church. Once, only once, has God given a perfect representation of Himself, “the brightness of the Father’s glory, and the express image of His person.” And if we ask again for a perfect humanity, the answer is, it is not in this Church or in that Church, or in this man or in that man, in this age or in that age, but in the collective blended graces, and beauties, and humanities, which are found in every age, in all churches, but not in every separate man. So, at least, Paul has taught us, “Till we all come”-collectively, not separately-“in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man”-in other words, to a perfect humanity-“unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”

3. The last thing which is taught us by this definition is, that the Church of Christ is a society which is forever shifting its locality and altering its forms. It is the whole church, “the whole family in heaven and earth.” So, then, those who were on earth, and are now in heaven, are yet members of the same family still. Those who had their home here, now have it there.

Let us see what it is that we should learn from this doctrine. It is this, that the dead are not lost to us. There is a sense in which the departed are ours more than they were before. There is a sense in which the Apostles Paul or John, the good and great of ages past, belong to this age more than to that in which they lived, but in which they were not understood; in which the commonplace and every-day part of their lives hindered the brightness and glory and beauty of their character from shining forth. So it is in the family. It is possible for men to live in the same house, and partake of the same meal from day to day, and from year to year, and yet remain strangers to each other, mistaking each other’s feelings, not comprehending each other’s character; and it is only when the Atlantic rolls between, and half a hemisphere is interposed, that we learn how dear they are to us, how all our life is bound up in deep anxiety with their existence. Therefore it is the Christian feels that the family is not broken. Think you that family can break or end?-that because the chair is empty, therefore he, your child, is no more? It may be so with the coarse, the selfish, the unbelieving, the superstitious; but the eye of faith sees there only a transformation. He is not there, he is risen. You see the place where he was, but he has passed to heaven. So at least the parental heart of David felt of old, “by faith and not by sight,”when speaking of his infant child. “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.”

Once more, the Church of Christ is a society ever altering and changing its external forms. “The whole family”-the Church of the patriarchs, and of ages before them; and yet the same family. Remember, I pray you, the diversities of form through which, in so many ages and generations, this Church has passed. Consider the difference there was between the patriarchal Church of the time of Abraham and Isaac, and its condition under David; or the difference between the Church so existing and its state in the days of the apostles; and the marvellous difference between that and the same Church four or five centuries later; or, once again, the difference between that, externally one, and the Church as it exists in the present day, broken into so many fragments. Yet diversified as these states may be, they are not more so than the various stages of a family.

There is a time when the children are all in one room, around their mother’s knee. There comes a time, still farther on, when the first separation takes place, and some are leaving their home to prepare for after-life. Afterwards, when all in their different professions, trades or occupations, are separate, at last comes the time when some are gone. And, perchance, the two survivors meet at last-an old, gray-haired man, and a weak, worn-out woman-to mourn over the last graves of a household. Christian brethren, which of these is the right form-the true, external pattern of a family? Say we not truly, it remains the same under all outward mutations? We must think of this, or else we may lose heart in our work. Conceive, for instance, the feelings of a pious Jew, when Christianity entered this world; when all his religious system was broken up-the Temple-service brought to a violent end; when that polity which he thought was to redeem and ennoble the world was cast aside as a broken and useless thing. Must they not have been as gloomy and as dreary as those of the disciples, when He was dead who they “trusted should have redeemed Israel?” In both cases the body was gone or was altered-the spirit had arisen.

And precisely so it is with our fears and unbelieving apprehensions now. Institutions pass-churches alter-old forms change-and high-minded and good men cling to these as if they were the only things by which God could regenerate the world. Christianity appears to some men to be effete and worn out. Men who can look back upon the times of Venn, and Newton, and Scott-comparing the degeneracy of their descendants with the men of those days-lose heart as if all things were going wrong. “Things are not,” they say, “as they were in our younger days.” No, my Christian brethren, things are not as they then were; but the Christian cause lives on-not in the successors of such men as those; the outward form is altered, but the spirit is elsewhere, is risen-risen just as truly as the spirit of the highest Judaism rose again in Christianity. And to mourn over old superstitions and effete creeds is just as unwise as is the grief of the mother mourning over the form which was once her child. She can not separate her affection from that form-those hands, those limbs, those features-are they not her child? The true answer is, her child is not there. It is only the form of her child. And it is as unwise to mourn over the decay of those institutions-the change of human forms-as it was unwise in Jonah to mourn with that passionate sorrow over the decay of the gourd which had sheltered him from the heat of the noontide sun. A worm had eaten the root of the gourd, and it was gone. But He who made the gourd the shelter to the weary-the shadow of those who are oppressed by the noontide heat of life-lived on: Jonah’s God. And so, brethren, all things change-all things outward change and alter; but the God of the Church lives on. The Church of God remains under fresh forms-the one, holy, entire family in heaven and earth.


II. Pass we on now, in the second place, to consider the name by which this Church is named. “Our Lord Jesus Christ,” the Apostle says, “of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named.”

Now, every one familiar with the Jewish modes of thought and expression will allow here that name is but another word to express being, actuality, and existence. So when Jacob desired to know the character and nature of Jehovah, he said-“Tell me now, I beseech thee, thy name.” When the Apostle here says, “Our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named,” it is but another way of saying that it is He on whom the Church depends-who has given it substantive existence-without whom it could not be at all. It is but another way of saying what he has expressed elsewhere-“that there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we may be saved.” Let us not lose ourselves in vague generalities. Separate from Christ, there is no salvation; there can be no Christianity. Let us understand what we mean by this. Let us clearly define and enter into the meaning of the words we use. When we say that our Lord Jesus Christ is He “of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named,” we mean that the very being of the Church depends on Christ-that it could not be without Him. Now, the Church of Christ depends upon these three things-first, the recognition of a common Father; secondly, of a common humanity; and thirdly, of a common sacrifice.

1. First, the recognition of a common Father. That is the sacred truth proclaimed by the Epiphany. God revealed in Christ-not the Father of the Jew only, but also of the Gentile. The Father of a “whole family.” Not the partial Father loving one alone-the elder-but the younger son besides: the outcast prodigal who had spent his living with harlots and sinners, but the child still, and the child of a Father’s love. Our Lord taught this in His own blessed prayer-“Our Father;” and as we lose the meaning of that single word our, as we say my Father-the Father of me and of my faction-of me and my fellow-believers-my Anglicanism or my Judaism-be it what it may-instead of our Father-the Father of the outcasts, the profligate, of all who choose to claim a Father’s love; so we lose the meaning of the lesson which the Epiphany was designed to teach, and the possibility of building up a family to God.

2. The recognition of a common humanity. He from whom the Church is named, took upon Him not the nature merely of the noble, of kings, or of the intellectual philosopher-but of the beggar, the slave, the outcast, the infidel, the sinner, and the nature of every one struggling in various ways. Let us learn then, brother men, that we shall have no family in God, unless we learn the deep truth of our common humanity, shared in by the servant and the sinner, as well as the sovereign. Without this we shall have no Church-no family in God.

3. Lastly, the Church of Christ proceeds out of, and rests upon, the belief in a common sacrifice.


There are three ways in which the human race hitherto has endeavored to construct itself into a family; first, by the sword; secondly, by an ecclesiastical system; and thirdly, by trade or commerce. First, by the sword. The Assyrian, the Persian, the Greek, and the Roman, have done their work-in itself a most valuable and important one; but so far as the formation of mankind into a family was the object aimed at, the work of the sword has done almost nothing. Then there was the ecclesiastical system-the grand attempt of the Church of Rome to organize all men into one family, with an ecclesiastical, visible, earthly head. Being Protestants, it is not necessary for us to state our conviction that this attempt has been a signal and complete failure. We now come to the system of commerce and trade. We are told that that which chivalry and honor could not do-which an ecclesiastical system could not do-personal interest will do. Trade is to bind men together into one family. When they feel it their interest to be one, they will be brothers. Brethren, that which is built on selfishness can not stand. The system of personal interest must be shivered into atoms. Therefore, we, who have observed the ways of God in the past, are waiting in quiet but awful expectation until He shall confound this system as He has confounded those which have gone before. And it may be effected by convulsions more terrible and more bloody than the world has yet seen. While men are talking of peace, and of the great progress of civilization, there is heard in the distance the noise of armies gathering rank on rank: east and west, north and south, are rolling towards us the crushing thunders of universal war.

Therefore there is but one other system to be tried, and that is the cross of Christ-a system that is not to be built upon selfishness, nor upon blood, nor upon personal interest, but upon love. Love, not self-the cross of Christ, and not the mere working out of the ideas of individual humanity.

One word only, in conclusion. Upon this, the great truth of the Epiphany, the apostle founds a prayer. He prays, “For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might by His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith.” This manifestation of joy and good to the Gentiles was, according to him, the great mystery of love. A love, brighter, deeper, wider, higher than the largest human heart had ever yet dreamed of. But the apostle tells us it is, after all, but a glimpse of the love of God. How should we learn it more? How should we comprehend the whole meaning of the Epiphany? By sitting down to read works of theology? The Apostle Paul tells us-No. You must love, in order to understand love. “That ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth and length, and depth and height; and to know the love of Christ which passeth knowledge.” Brother men, one act of charity will teach us more of the love of God than a thousand sermons-one act of unselfishness, of real self-denial, the putting forth of one loving feeling to the outcast and “those who are out of the way,” will tell us more of the meaning of the Epiphany than whole volumes of the wisest writers on theology.