“Giving thanks unto the Father . . .”-Col. i. 12, 13
THANKSGIVING is a species of prayer. Thanksgiving is one species of prayer out of many. Prayer, in its whole extent and compass, is a comprehensive and compendious name for all kinds of approach and all kinds of address to God, and for all kinds and all degrees of communion with God. Request, petition, supplication; acknowledgment and thanksgiving; meditation and contemplation; as, also, all our acts and engagements of public, and family, and closet worship,–all those things are all so many species, so to say, of prayer. Petition is the lowest, the most rudimentary and the most elementary of all kinds of prayer. And it is because we so seldom rise above the rudiments and first principles of divine things that we so seldom think, and so seldom speak, about prayer in any other sense than in that of request and petition and supplication. Whereas praise–pure, emancipated, enraptured, adoring praise,–is the supremest and the most perfect of all kinds of prayer. Thanksgiving is higher and purer than petition; while, again, it is lower and less blessed than holy, heavenly, God-adoring praise.
Now it is to thanksgiving that the Apostle here invites the Colossian believers. He has prayed for them ever since the day on which he first heard of their faith and their love. And now, that Epaphras has brought him such good news of their continuance and their growth in grace, he invites them to join with him in this noble thanksgiving–unto the Father who hath delivered him and them from the power of darkness and hath translated him and them into the Kingdom of His dear Son.
It is in Paul’s princely manner to establish and to illustrate his doctrines, and to enforce and to fix his counsels, by drawing upon his own experience. This is one of Paul’s great ways of writing, and it is only a true and a great man who could write about himself as Paul constantly writes. Paul is so dead in Paul that he can take an argument, and a proof, and an illustration, and an apostrophe out of himself with as much liberty and detachment as if he had lived in the days of Moses or of David. Paul is so “crucified with Christ” that he can speak about himself, on occasion, as if he were speaking about some other man altogether. “I know a man in Christ, above fourteen years ago: whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth.” Speaking, then, out of this noble freedom and self-emancipation, Paul puts himself at the head of the Colossians in their thanksgiving and says: Come, O ye saints and faithful brethren, and join with me in my constant thanksgiving to the Father, “Which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light: Who hath delivered us”–first me and then you–“from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of His dear Son.” “Us,” he says,–you and me. And especially me, that I might be a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on Him to life everlasting.
“Darkness” and “the power of darkness.” Now, what is this darkness? It is sin, you will answer. And so it is. It is sin. It is the dark shadow that sin casts on God and on the soul of the sinner. This is not what we are wont to call “darkness.” This is not the slow setting, or the sudden eclipse, of the sun or the moon. This is not the overclouding of the stars. This is not the oil failing till our lamps go out. This is not the darkness that terrifies our children. This is not the darkness that is scattered by striking a match and lighting a candle. No. This “darkness” is sin. And each man’s own, and only, darkness is from his own sin. And each man’s darkness is so thick, and so inward, and so abiding, because it is the darkness that is cast by that huge idol of darkness, each man’s own sinful self. “Self,” in this life, is just another, and a truer, and a keener, and a more homecoming name, for sin. My sin is myself. And my darkness lies so thick and so deadly on my soul because self towers up so high and so dark in my soul. And in every man’s soul!
That is the reason that the world is so full of all kinds of darkness,–because it is so full of men who are all so full of themselves. And that is the reason that hell is so full of darkness,–with not one ray of light,–it is because it is so full of fallen angels and fallen men who are all so full of themselves. That is the reason why they gnaw their tongues with pain, and, that is the reason that the smoke of their torment goes up for ever. Yes: believe it! yes: be sure of it! Self is the very valley of the shadow of death. It is the land of deserts and pits. It is that land of drought through which no man passes. It is that land where all men who pass through it stumble and are broken upon its dark mountains. Hell is hell, because self fills it full, down and out, to all its awful bottomlessness. And heaven is heaven, because there is no self there. Only God is there: only the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and our neighbour as ourselves. And self in Paul, and in the Colossians, was hell begun: it was hell and its darkness in them already; till the Father gave commandment and delivered them from this darkness of sin and self, and translated them into the marvellous light of His dear Son.
Paul is a magnificent writer. We have seen one magnificent manner of Paul’s writing already; and there is another in this magnificent passage. But both these manners of his are too high, and too much his own, for any of us to attain to, or to attempt. We must not measure common men with the measure of the Apostle Paul. After he had been caught up into Paradise, Paul never altogether got himself brought back to this earth again. His conversation and his correspondence ever after that was carried on in “unspeakable words.” His affection, ever after that, was set on things above, and not on things on the earth. He wrote all his Epistles, after that, less in any language that has ever been written on earth than in the language they write and speak and sing in heaven. His very pen and ink and parchment after that, his very grammar and vocabulary, his style,–his whole intellectual and moral and spiritual manner,–no school on earth ever taught this Apostle to write these Epistles. He writes in the mood, in the tense, in the idiom, in the atmosphere, in the scope, and in the horizon of heaven. Time and sin are already no longer with Paul, when he is at his best.
Paul sits in heavenly places with Christ, and he writes to us in words it is not lawful for a man to utter. And he is so assured concerning not himself only but concerning all the chosen and called in Christ Jesus, that he antedates his Epistles, and writes in them, as if all the Colossians and Ephesians and Thessalonians were already where he is. He sometimes redresses the balance in a most masterly manner; but his prevailing tone and temper is that of a glorified saint, who both sees and experiences what other saints still but believe in and hope for. “The Father hath delivered us,” says Paul ecstatically, where a less rapt and a more pedestrian writer would be thankful to be able to say: He has begun to deliver us, and it is our unceasing prayer that he will perfect that which so concerneth us! I do not ask you, my brethren, to be thankful like Paul and the Colossians, because the Father has actually and for ever delivered you from the darkness of selfishness, and anger, and envy, and malice, and lovelessness, and unbelief, and all disobedience. I dare not ask you to be thankful for your deliverance as if it were perfected and past. For, if I said you had no sin, I should be a liar. And if I said you were delivered from all darkness, you would laugh in my face and say I was a fool. All I ask is this–Do you know what Paul is speaking about? Do you have this darkness of his in yourself? Is there less of it than there once was?
Do you hate the darkness, and yourself on account of it? and do you rejoice in the light and seek it? Are your dark thoughts about your neighbour your daily burden and agonising prayer? Do you, before God, put off the deeds and the words and the thoughts of darkness, and put on against them the armour of light? Do you, my brethren, do you? Then Paul, hearing of all that from Epaphras, would write an Epistle to you in his most soaring style, till you would answer: “Would God, He had indeed so delivered me!” And he would answer you back again, and would say, “When Christ, Who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with Him in glory. Put on, therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long-suffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any”: and in all that the Father will more and more deliver you from the power of darkness, and will “translate you into the kingdom of His dear Son.”
“He delivered us” is tame and jejune. “He snatched us,” is Paul’s tingling and heart-thrilling word. He snatched us as the angel snatched Lot out of Sodom! He snatched us as a man snatches a brand out of the fire. “And while Lot lingered, the men laid hold upon his hand, and upon the hand of his wife, and upon the hand of his two daughters; the Lord being merciful unto him: and they brought him forth, and set him without the city.” And like that,– yes, often like that,–when darkness is again, as of Sodom and Gomorrah, filling our hearts, God takes our hand, and we are in repentance, and in prayer, and in tears, and in love to God and man, before we know where we are. “The sun was risen upon the earth when Lot entered into Zoar.”
He “snatched” us and translated us: literally, He emigrated us. Now an emigrant is more than a delivered captive. An emigrant, even when you emigrate him, goes of his own free will and full accord. He chooses to go. He decides to go. He prepares to go. He hastens to go. You tell him about a better land. You fit him out for it. You even pay his passage to it, and buy him his farm in it: but all that only makes him the more forward to go to it. “Come!” he says to his wife and children, “let us be up and going!” And so is it with those whom the Father emigrates. They have far more hand in their translation and emigration into the Kingdom of God’s dear Son than they had in their snatched deliverance from the power of darkness. They love the light now. They love to hear about it. They love to walk in it. “Every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.”
And, lastly, in this great thanksgiving: He hath “made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light.”
“Meet” is a fine translation, and an exquisitely apt and beautiful English expression–as long as our minds move only in the literature of the text. But when we take the text to heart, it runs through our hearts like a two-edged sword. O Paul! up in Paradise, be merciful in thy rapture! Hast thou forgotten that thou, also, wast once a wretched man? “Darkness” I know. And “Deliverance from the power of darkness” I am not altogether ignorant of. God’s dear Son and His Kingdom,–I sometimes feel as if I had indeed been “translated” into it. But, “meet for the inheritance of the saints in light!” My heart is dazzled and driven back, and driven down within me, with the too great glory. I meet for that inheritance! Impossible, for I am to this day full of darkness and of everything that is unmeet for such an inheritance!
I was saying that to myself, my brethren, over this Scripture, when a voice spake to me and said: “What do you say to the thief on the cross?” At first I did not see what the thief on the cross had to do with my hopeless unmeetness for the heavenly inheritance. But, gradually, there arose in my mind what the thief asked of the Dying Redeemer, and what the Dying Redeemer promised the thief. Hanging by his hands and his feet, and filled with the darkness of a lifetime of robbery and murder, the near neighbourhood of the Saviour for those six hours made such an impression on the dying thief that the whole impossible work of the text was gathered up, and completed, in that great sinner than forenoon. “Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy Kingdom.” . . . “To-day shalt thou be with Me in Paradise.” That thief then, who, by his own confession, was only reaping on the cross as he had sown all his days–that thief was in Paradise before Paul himself: Paul saw him, and talked with him: and he must have been made as meet for Paradise as Paul himself. In those six hours of pain, and shame, and repentance, and sight of Christ beside him in His sweetness, and meekness, and patience, and pity and prayer for His murderers–that forenoon, the Father delivered that outcast creature, snatched him from the power of darkness and translated him into the Kingdom of His dear Son. And, more marvellous still, and past all our understanding how it was done, He made him meet, and that in a moment, for the inheritance of the saints in light. As soon as I saw that, I understood the voice that had said to me, “Go, before you preach your sermon, go and stand and hear what passes between your Master and the penitent thief.” And I came away with new hope for all my dying people, and for myself, and for our meetness for the inheritance of the saints in light.
Have I then, and have you, that dying thief’s meetness? Have our sins found us out to the cross? Has the darkness of death got hold of us? And is our lost life fast running out of us like his life’s blood? And, with all that, has there been given us a glimpse of Jesus Christ,–Jesus Christ in His affability and grace, and such affability and grace, and He Himself on the Cross? Do you see and feel anything of all that? Then, that is the Father! That is the darkness beginning to divide, and clear up and scatter. You are on the border of the Kingdom of His dear Son. Follow that out, speak that out, say, “Lord, remember me!” Tell Him that you are reaping the reward of your deeds in all the darkness, and in all the forsakenness, and in all the pain, and in all the death that has come upon you.
The dying thief rejoiced to see That fountain in his day;
And there have I, as vile as he, Washed all my sins away.
Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood Shall never lose its power
Till all the ransomed Church of God Be saved, to sin no more.
Tell Him what you would rather die than tell to any other. Tell Him that He only knows how unmeet you are for anything to be called an inheritance of saints. But boldly tell Him also where your heart is. Tell Him that your heart is in heaven: and testify to Him that even if He casts you into hell, to all eternity your heart will be with Him and His saints in heaven. And, when you are as near death as that thief was, keep on saying: Lord, remember me! Give Him no rest till He says: By your much coming you weary Me. And till He says: Be it unto thee as thou wilt. To-day shalt thou be with Me!