At Eastertide ideas of triumph are in the air. The victory of our Lord over death gives the keynote; and many other victories of a less splendid character group themselves round this central triumph. Some of them preceded it, as notably the deliverance of Israel from the Egyptian bondage: "Sing ye to the Lord," sang Miriam, "for He hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath He cast into the sea," Some of them followed it, as when the Apostles, hitherto so lacking in clear conviction and in settled resolution, found themselves at Pentecost endued with power from on high, and took the first steps in their mighty task, the conversion of all nations to the faith of Christ. And thus it is in keeping with the suggestions of the season, that the appointed Epistle for to-day brings before us a particular victory, which it is most important that every Christian should, in some way or other, at some time or other, or, most probably, again and again, win--namely, victory over the world. "This," exclaims St. John, "this is the victory that over-cometh the world, even our faith."
There is one particular reason for winning this victory which will Wave weight with all of us who have been baptized into the Church of Christ.
We, at any rate, my baptized brethren, we have promised to win it. Before we were baptized we engaged, through those who represented us at the font, to renounce the world, no less than the flesh and the devil; and this renunciation must surely have meant a moral victory. "Dost thou," said the minister, to each-of those who represented us at the font, [26/27] "Dost thou, in the name of this child, renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world, with all covetous desires of the same, and the carnal desires of the flesh, so that thou wilt not follow nor be led by them?" And the answer was: "I renounce them all." Clearly it was a very serious engagement, made as a condition of our being baptized into Christ, and we are, therefore, concerned to ask what it is that we have thus undertaken to renounce and conquer--in other words, what exactly we mean by "the world."
And here, first of all, it is obvious that, both in the Bible and in our common language, the word "world" is used in more senses than one. It is used sometimes of the universe or the planet in which we live. Thus the Psalmist speaks of God's existing everlastingly "or ever the earth and the world were made," and of God's having made the round world so fast that it cannot be moved. And Jeremiah says that God "established the world by His wisdom." And St. Paul preaches to the Athenians of God that "made the world and all things therein." And St. John says, in a hyperbolical way, that if all our Lord's acts were to be fully recorded, he supposes that "even the world itself would not contain the books that should be written." And St. Peter, speaking of the Flood, says that the world that then was, "being overflowed with water, perished."
Thus the world of nature in which God has placed us as our home during this stage of our existence is clearly not an object of renunciation or conquest. It has no moral colouring attached to it. Its main service to us, after affording us a resting place and satisfying our wants, is to disclose, when we carefully examine it, something of the nature and the attributes of the great and wonderful Being Who made it. And again, "the world" is sometimes used in Holy Scripture of the aggregate, or at any rate of a large number of human beings, viewed simply as human beings, and without any sort of reflection on their moral condition, or on their bent of character. In this sense we are told that "a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world"--that is all the inhabitants of the Roman empire--"should be taxed." And the Apostles are described by the Jews of Thessalonica as men "who have turned the world upside down." And, in a more restricted sense, the Pharisees observed after the [27/28] raising of Lazarus "that the world"--meaning thereby the population of Jerusalem and of the immediate neighbourhood--"had gone after Jesus Christ"; while, in a much wider sense than that even of the Roman Empire, God is said to have "so loved the world"--meaning the family of man--as to have given "His only-begotten Son " for it. And in this sense we sometimes speak quite rightly of "the judgment of the world"--meaning that of all men, or of the wisest of men--as having about it a security and a weight which cannot be ignored. And clearly this is not the world which is conquered or renounced by a good Christian. He is, on the contrary, under special obligations to do what he can to serve his fellow-men by promoting their temporal and eternal interests.
There is, however, a third use of the word in Scripture which is more common than either of the two preceding uses, and which are especially observable in the writings of St. John. In this sense the world means human life, and the temper, the views, the conduct, which mark it so far as it is estranged from God. And thus our Lord says to His followers: "If the world hate you ye know that it hated Me before it hated you"; and to the Jews, "The world cannot hate you, but Me it hateth"; and again to His disciples: "If ye were of the world, the world would love its own, but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you."
In this sense He promises the Spirit of Truth, "Whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth Him not, neither knoweth Him." In this sense He says: "My peace I give to you; not as the world giveth give I unto you," and predicts: "Ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice "; and declares to the Father: "I pray not for the world, but for them whom Thou hast given Me, that they may be Thine;" and bids His disciples: "Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world." And St. John's First Epistle, which reproduces in another form that element of our Lord's teaching which the writer was especially careful to report in his Gospel, is full of warnings and instructions respecting the world in the sense of human life alienated from God. "The world," he writes, "knoweth us not, because it knew Him not." The false teachers of his day, he says, "are of the world, therefore speak they of the world." "Love not the [28/29] world," he exclaims, "neither the things that are in the world, for if any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him"; and "the world passeth away and the lust thereof." And so in the text: "This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith."
Nor is this way of employing the word "world" by any means confined to the writings of St. John. St. Paul writes to the Galatians "of this present evil world"; to the Corinthians of "the God of this world, who hath blinded the minds of them that believe not"; to the Ephesians, "of the rulers of the darkness of this world; to the Romans a warning against being "conformed to this world"; to Timothy about Demas who had forsaken him, "having loved this present world." And St. Peter speaks bluntly of "the corruption that is in the world through lust"; and of Christians, as having "escaped the pollutions of the world." And St. James says that a man's keeping himself "unspotted from the world" is a note of true religion; and he writes of a "friendship with the world" which means enmity with God.
Now from these passages we gather that the world in the sense thus condemned by Holy Scripture is marked by two distinguishing characteristics. In the first place it is the temper of mind which exaggerates (he claims of the present and of the visible, and which, to say the least, throws into the background the claims of the future and the unseen. It makes the most of the seen; it plays off the seen against the unseen. "What we see," it whispers to us, "what we see is here, it is within our grasp; the unseen is distant, it is a matter of speculation." And as God is out of sight, the world keeps Him, so far as it can, out of mind, too, if only by its importunate insistence upon the claims of what we see; and as the future is no less out of sight than God, the world keeps it, too, out of mind by reiterating the praise of what is present. By the future I mean of course that more remote and solemn future which follows upon death; the nearer future undoubtedly the world will do its best to command and make the most of. And secondly, the temper of the world means the appropriation, or rather the monopoly, of desire by present and visible objects.
Whether it be the lower or higher forms of desire, the world-temper provides for each its special satisfaction, and [29/30] encourages it to look for that satisfaction as the supreme good. Sometimes the satisfaction is addressed to ambition, sometimes to the passion for amusement, sometimes to the promptings of curiosity, sometimes to personal vanity, sometimes to mere acquisitiveness, sometimes to the sensual instincts. But in all these cases it has the result that, by providing a false object for desire, it shuts out the true object, namely, God. Desire, as you know, my brethren, was meant to keep the human soul, just as the law of attraction keeps the planets, moving regularly round its true centre, God. And when some other object comes near enough to drag a soul from this, which is its true moral orbit, the result is moral ruin. As St. John says, "All that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father"--that is its condemnation--"but is of the world."
And here, perhaps, somebody is saying to himself: "Well, what is the harm if the world does influence us as you tell us? Why should we not be preoccupied with that which we see? Why should we not gratify our desires with the created objects that do gratify them, and while and as we may?" My brethren, these questions would be very sensible if we could be sure, only sure, that man's existence ended at death. The real point is this: What sort of being is man? Is he only an animal whose spiritual nature is an illusive and phosphorescent accompaniment of his bodily functions, or is he an immortal spirit associated with a bodily frame on the existence of which his real and his deepest life is in no degree dependent? If the former, then no doubt the language which we read in the New Testament about the world is irrational fanaticism; but if the latter, then surely this language is but the common-sense of our human existence.
If man lives after death, lives for an eternity to which this life is no more than a petty antechamber, if man is made for God, can be satisfied lastingly only in God, and will find in God a happiness which transcends all speech, all thought, then surely any powerful influence which distracts man's eye from the true aim of his being, any series of objects which take possession of that little stock of desire that is meant for the eternal, does man himself a most serious injury. And this alienation of man from God is exactly what the world in all generations brings about, and this is the reason why the [30/31] Gospel speaks of it with such uniform severity. We shall see this more clearly if we briefly trace, from our Lord's time downwards, the successive phases which the world--that is, human nature estranged from God--presents in its opposition to true religion, and observe how faith has overcome it.
What then was the world of which our Lord Himself spoke as of something separate from, and hostile to, Himself al»d His disciples? Undoubtedly that world, practically s peaking, was made up of the great majority of the Jewish people--the zealous Pharisees, the cultivated, cool-headed, sceptical Sadducees, the intriguing and merely political Herodians, the priests of the higher and the lower grades, the Scribes, the whole body of the officials attached to the Temple,--and it included too that world, the local Roman Government, with the Procurator, Pontius Pilate, at the head, and the officers of the depot at Caesarea, and the great body of the civil and military officials. Of that world the great majority were Jews. They were attached, no doubt, to their ancestral religion, and that religion had come from God. But they had so lost sight of its true teaching and providential purpose that the things that should have been to them for a help were unto them an occasion of falling. Its observances instead of leading them to God kept them at a distance from Him; its promises of a Messiah, instead of opening upon their souls a bright spiritual future, only gratified a very vulgar form of political vanity.
No doubt there were many souls in that world and not of it, not far from the Kingdom of Heaven--Pagan centurions, as we know, who were capable of greater faith than any that was found in Israel, doctors of the law like Gamaliel, and Nicodemus, a Joseph of Arimathea, a Simon of Cyrene. But, as a whole, it was the world which hated the disciples, it was the world which hated Christ before it hated the disciples, it was the world which when the time came, showed its blind enmity to truth as our Lord said it would show it. Whatever else it had it had not that true wisdom which sees the worthlessness of all that does not lead to God, that wisdom which none of the princes of this world knew; "for had they known it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory," and accordingly, when it seemed to have crushed Him, He had already vanquished it. Within a few hours of His Passion, and with His eye already resting upon Calvary, [31/32] resting upon the sepulchre, He exclaimed to His followers, "Be of good cheer, I have overcome the World."
And then, secondly, this idea of the world, still external, was enlarged. In the age of the Apostles, and down to the fourth century of our era, the world meant, not merely the Jewish people, but the great mixed society of the Roman Empire with which the infant Church had come into contact through the preaching of the Apostles, and especially of St. Paul. If you had asked any Christian between the death of St. Stephen and the edict of Milan what "the world" meant, he would have replied: "The human beings in the Roman Empire who are outside the Church, and who are constantly engaged in persecuting it." That mighty society, in some respects the most imposing known to human history, with the Caesar at its head, and its vast army of officials extended over the countries which lie between the Euphrates and the Straits of Gibraltar, between the Grampian Hills and the First Cataract of the Nile, though it had many other and finer aspects, which it is not now our business to consider, was indeed a wonderful and powerful embodiment of all that Scripture meant by " the world."
"Would you understand the world?"--a primitive Christian would have said--really did say--"then watch our Emperor marching to the Capitol with the kings of conquered nations in his train; then visit the gladiatorial shows in the amphitheatre which he patronises and for which he pays; or endeavour to get an estimate of the wealth which is poured into Rome every year from every quarter of the compass to be spent in a luxury and an ostentation which knows no bounds; aye, behold the Caesar himself, who will probably, ere a few months have passed, be assassinated, but who for the time has been raised by adulation to a place among the gods, so that altars are built and incense is burnt in his honour. Mark those praetorian guards, who are in name his servants, but are in truth his masters, and whose fidelity depends on the money and the indulgences which they can wring out of him. And then scrutinise the countenances of the people, whose only cry day by day, month by month, year by year, is 'Bread and the public games?' Mark the crowd of philosophers, poets, parasites, men of renown, men of letters, statesmen, administrators, merchants, slaves, all of them engrossed entirely by the visible order of things around them, all of them [32/33] endeavouring to extract from it some satisfaction for the desire which should lead them up to God."
This was the world of which St. John was thinking when he wrote that "the whole world lieth in wickedness," and St. Peter when he dwelt on "the corruption that is in the world through lust." There were noble natures, generous and tender hearts, in that vast social fabric of the old heathendom, but taken as a whole it was the standing antagonist of the kingdom of God, and again and again it endeavoured to crush that kingdom out of existence by mere brute force. It is noteworthy that, generally speaking, the better emperors were the most active persecutors--Marcus Aurelius, Decius, Valerian, Diocletian--they, in fact, when persecuting Christianity, represented the very essential spirit of the world over which they ruled; and when they issued their edicts, and Christians were dragged before the tribunals and bidden to choose between some act of idolatry and a cruel death, there was in the vast majority of cases no hesitation; faith knew her plain business, she knew her high prerogatives, and, as the martyrs breathed forth their holy souls to God, they conquered a system which, in killing them, believed itself to be achieving victory.
And, once more, when the Empire had adopted the profession of Christianity, and when, as it was said, the Cross had passed from the place of execution to the diadem of the Caesars, the world, as previously understood, might have appeared to have ceased to exist. The fact was, it had only changed its character. It dropped its outward visible form, it was now a disembodied spirit. It became a subtle, impalpable, but not less real, enemy, too often pervading the very Church which had conquered it. It reproduced on sacred soil its two great characteristics: the devotion to the visible order of things, and the satisfaction of desire with created objects which had marked the old Pagan life. In Christendom, no doubt, the worldly spirit was held in check, was shamed into a sort of mock modesty by the creed and by the lives of sincere Christians, but it took its revenge for its defeat now and then on a conspicuous scale, and Christian monarchs and Christian leaders of opinion, and even great Christian ecclesiastics, showed how powerful was the spirit of the world to drug conscience and to drag life down almost to the level at which it had been lived in Pagan [33/34] days. And many earnest men thought to escape this encompassing danger by taking refuge in monasteries where a rule of life and absolute seclusion should shut out the world that ruled so largely in the Church outside. But they did not always succeed. A change of scene is not necessarily a change of temper, and there are instances of the worldly spirit within the cloister, when ambition, or the love of power, or the love of human praise, spoilt everything that was meant for God.
But here also faith had her triumphs. On the throne, as in that great and saintly man, Lewis of France; in the cloister, in many a St. Bernard or a Thomas a Kempis: in every line of life, there were men and women who rose above the seen to the unseen, who kept desire back from eager earthly gratification that it might find its complete satisfaction in God.
My brethren, wherever there has been a real revival of religion, the separateness of the true service of Christ from the world has been insisted on; the teaching of St. John's writings has resumed its rightful moral power.
So it was, to go no further back than the movement called "Evangelical," at the end of the last and the beginning of the present century; so it was with that other movement which in many respects contrasts with it, and which had its birth at Oxford fifty-seven years ago. It has been remarked that of late years this topic has fallen out of its old place, in Christian preaching, and as a consequence in Christian practice; and, if this be the case, it is important to ask ourselves why this is the case.
There are no doubt two reasons which make men more or less afraid of what the Bible tells us about the world. One is the dread which good men have of setting up for being better than they are, or better than others are, the dread of being hypocrites or Pharisees. They have known, perhaps, or they have heard of persons who have drawn a sharp line between themselves and worldly people, who have seemed to say, if they have not said, like some who were noted by the old prophet in a distant age, "Stand aside, for I am holier than thou." But of this there need be no fear if we follow the simple rule of applying what the Bible says on the subject, not to others, but to ourselves. Of others we may, we must, hope the best, but we have to see whether in our [34/35] thoughts, our motives, our conduct, our amusements, our standards of action, we ourselves are, or are not, falling under the censure which our Lord and His Apostles pronounced on the children of the world. For, most assuredly, the world is very near every one of us, in the lowest as well as in the highest stations of society, in the most serious as well as in the most secular occupations. The poor man has his world to conquer no less than the prince, the clergyman his no less truly than the layman.
The flavour of these several worlds may differ: the animating principle is always the same. The force by which they one and all can only be conquered is always faith. And the second motive for recent reticence about the world is a fear lest the duties of this present state of life should be neglected if we took the language of the Gospel too literally.
Depend upon it, brethren, that the true interests of man in this present state of being will really be advanced by his thinking much and very seriously of another. Human life is sweetened, it is braced, by motives which are drawn from a higher world. Simplicity, disinterestedness, care for others, indifference to personal gain or credit, make those who attain to them not only the children of their Father which is in Heaven, but also the salt of the earth, they save it from the moral decomposition which is ever and anon threatening to dissolve the great unwieldy mass of human society. Their toils, their tears, their prayers, arrest the merely selfish impulse of men around them, and they stay the impending judgments of God. Let us be very sure that the world at large owes more than it knows or thinks to those who, living in it, have the least share of its spirit.
There are, in this loud stunning tide
Of human care and crime,
With whom the melodies abide
Of th'everlasting chime;
Who carry music in their heart
Through dusty lane and wrangling mart,
Plying their daily task with busier feet,
Because their secret souls the holy strain repeat.
Assuredly, brethren, we cannot with impunity neglect this, or any other element, of God's revelation of His mind [35/36] and will. For us at this hour the world is just as practical a topic, just as serious an opponent, as it was in the days of the Apostles. It commonly presents itself to us at successive periods of life in different guises. It comes to us in early life as an attraction, I may almost say as a fascination. All the faculties' of our minds and bodies are still fresh and on the alert; it toys with them one after another, addressing itself to, the character of each of us with singular adroitness. Here it holds out the prospect of gratifying ambition, and there it discovers large opportunities of pleasure or amusement; and "away yonder it veils what is really vicious or degraded beneath the conventional drapery which puts us off oar guard, and in doing this it is so skilful and so persistent that we may easily forget what is due to that unseen Friend and Master Whose name we learnt in infancy from our mother, and Who, up till now, has always had a secret place in our heart. All looks so fair that it is difficult even to suspect the precipice that is near at hand, and on the brink of which we may find ourselves without a previous warning. In early life the world stands before us, as the smiling landlord at the door of his hotel meets the traveller, assuring us of a good entertainment and of a hearty welcome, and making no allusion to any less agreeable topic beyond; but in time the pleasantest visit comes to an end, and the bill must be paid.
The Bible is more frank at the outset. "Rejoice," it says, "young man in thy youth, and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thy heart and in the sight of thine eyes, but know that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment." And then the world comes to us in middle life less as an attraction than as a tyranny. It brings with it a code of conduct, a body of maxims, which are often opposed to the precepts of the Gospel, but are nevertheless regarded as imperative. To stand on one's own rights, to resent injuries and insults, to make everything give way to getting on in life, to value others not by the real standard of character, but by the superficial standard of wealth or station, to make general acceptableness, and not truth, the rule of our opinions--these are some of its maxims. And it will not be trifled with. When it has once got us in its power, it keeps its eye on us. It reports any symptoms of disaffection, any lapse into high principle, with an implacable regularity; its keeps its votaries well under [36/37] the despotism of ridicule; it sneers down all generous enthusiasm the moment it shows itself; it makes men who desire better things ashamed of their duties, ashamed of their principles; it makes them not seldom insincere and false in their relations with others; it betrays them even into acts of inconsiderateness and of cruelty; it even penetrates into the sanctuary, and it bids the Christian kneeling there consider, not what befits God's presence as the Almighty and the Eternal, not what true and simple devotion would dictate, but what other people are thinking of him, and what will be said of him if he abandon himself to the better guidance of his conscience and his heart. And in later life it often happens that the world no longer attracts or tyrannizes over us from without, not because we have seen through it and bid it begone, but because it has taken possession of us and is now not without but within us. We only do not feel its power as an attractive or an oppressive force because we breathe it as an atmosphere, because, without our knowing it, we are already and altogether controlled by it.
At each of these stages faith is the victory that over-cometh the world. As St. John's language implies, to possess real faith is to be already victorious. Faith matches the world's attractiveness in early life because it can offer a real, and much more powerful, attraction. There is more to fascinate the human soul in the eternal beauty than in any form or ideal of earthly mould, more to interest the mind and the affections in the contemplation of the love of God than in any earthly occupation, however pleasurable or engrossing. And faith overthrows the worldly spirit in middle life. It achieves this by opening and fixing the eye of the soul upon the one Being Who has a right to rule it because He is what He is, holy, just and good. As we see Him more clearly the world loses its power; its most cherished maxims are placed in the light of His countenance, and we see how little they can really do for the improvement and happiness either of ourselves or others.
And, once more, faith is equal to the hardest task of all,--that of expelling the worldly spirit when, like a London fog, it has penetrated into all the recesses of our spiritual home; for faith takes us by the hand, points us to a height from which, as from the outside gallery of this church above our heads on some winter day, it can look down upon the [37/38] mists in which life is buried below, and determine that it shall no longer be so. To see our Lord, the Sun of Righteousness, as He is seen by a Christian's faith is to have taken the world's measure, is to have parted company with it here and for ever.