"There was nothing in the ark save the two tables of stone, which Moses put there at Horeb, when the Lord made a covenant with the children of Israel, when they came out of the land of Egypt."
"And it came to pass, when the priests came out of the holy place, that the cloud filled the house of the Lord."
It is a great, and by no means uncommon error, to regard the Mosaical and Historical books of the Old Testament, as portions of Holy Writ to be read rather for curiosity, than for edification; as relating absolutely and exclusively to an abrogated covenant, or as interesting to the Christian solely from their prospective reference to the Gospel system.
No man can appreciate the majesty and mercy of the truth "as it is in Jesus," who is not familiar with the mode and the words, in which the Almighty through a long succession of ages, not only made gradual disclosures of that stupendous truth, but in these very disclosures prepared mankind, not merely for the fundamental truths of salvation through a crucified Redeemer, but intimated the nature, the details, the consequences of that revelation. The records of the ancient dispensations are to be read in [5/6] connexion with their Christian exposition, before any man can know what Christianity really is; for that exposition tells us, not only how much has been done away, but how much is left for the perpetual edification of the Church. The New Testament tells us of daily sacrifices abolished, which could never take away sin,--of the yearly expiation abrogated, because of the great Sacrifice offered once for all,--it tells us of a Priesthood changed, because its offices were all absorbed in the great High Priest of our profession; but, it tells us in this very connexion, that we have an altar, a temple, a Priesthood,--an altar, where the eternal Passover is commemorated; a temple, whence the veil that shadowed the holy of holies, is removed; a Priesthood, who wash with pure water, the bodies of those who are to enter into the holy place, and minister unto the faithful in the sacrifices of holy prayer and praises, and "as they have received of the Lord Jesus," break unto them the bread of life and pour out of the cup, which when blessed, is "the communion of the body of Christ, and the communion of the blood of Christ."
The Church, in her careful nurture of her children from the oracles of truth, has provided that in her daily service, the whole Bible (with the exception of the Apocalypse) shall be read once every year; but in her calendar for the Sundays, Festivals and Holy Days, she has more especially designated those portions of the Old Testament which she commends for the spiritual instruction of her people. In the order [6/7] of her services, the noble chapter whence the text is drawn, is prescribed as the first lesson for the morning and evening services of this day. In this direction, the Church intimates to us that there are here recorded by the Divine Spirit, words as applicable to the Christian as to the Jewish Church. This application is twofold. First, we are to learn from this solemn dedication of the temple at Jerusalem, how awful is the place where Jehovah has set his name. And although there was a visible glory of the Shekinah, and the smoke filled that house of the Lord, tokens of the Divine Presence which accorded well with the dispensation which spake rather to the senses than the heart of man, tokens which are withholden under that dispensation which declares that "the just shall live by faith,"--still we are not obliged to look to the Gospel revelation alone, for the assurance that Jehovah is as really, as specially present in every temple consecrated to His service, as in the fiery cloud which broke forth from between the Cherubim. When the Prophet Habakkuk was desirous to raise the fainting spirit of the house of Judah, who saw the hosts of the Gentiles encompassing Jerusalem, and looked in vain for the tokens of His presence, who had been the visible guide and guard of his people, and therefore questioned whether God could be there, because the eye could no longer see the outward symbols of the divine glory; the holy servant of God reproves their distrust, promises a sure victory over the enemy, and concludes by the declaration, "The Lord is in his holy temple, let all the earth keep silence before him," [7/8] words of holiest comfort then, words of holy comfort and admonition now, when at each opening of our solemn sacrifice, the same declaration is made by the authority of the Church which is the witness of God's truth. The Church has affixed the same sanction to this interpretation, when she incorporated this same chapter into her Consecration service, as the first and appropriate declaration of the spirit of truth which is suffered to be heard in every house of prayer, when it has been set apart from common uses, and pronounced to be the temple of the living God. Such is the first lesson the Church would impress in her selection of this portion of Holy Writ.
The second is, that with apostles and holy men of old, she regards the temple at Jerusalem with all its varied service and sacrifice, as a type of the Church of Christ. To every reader of the epistles of the New Testament, this truth must be so familiar, as to need no exposition. But how impressive are the words of the Redeemer himself;--"Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." "He spake" says the evangelist, "of the temple of his body." We can add a fuller exposition of equal authority, which tells us that Christ "is head over all things to the Church, which is his body." When the body of Christ arose, the church of Christ arose with it; when he ascended to the right hand of the Father, he ascended in his crucified body; when he assumed the mediatorial throne, he sat there as the crucified Mediator, presenting perpetually before the Holy Place, which was [8/9] symbolized in the holy of holies at Jerusalem, the sacrifice offered for sin. The Head is there, the Body is on earth; and every child of Adam who would enter into the Holiest, must pass through the veil, that is to say His Body, having their bodies washed with pure water, and their hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, by that blood of sprinkling which is continually represented to God the Father by the Church, in the commemoration of the sacrifice once made for sin. It was the ark of the covenant which typified these highest mysteries of the Christian faith; shrouded within the holy of holies, and placed between the Cherubim, it was there that the Divine Presence was manifested to the High Priest, who once a year approached it with the blood of expiation. Whatever therefore is recorded of this holy thing, we may find therein a salutary application to the blessed antitype, the Church. What then says the text?
"There was nothing in the ark save the two tables of stone, which were put there at Horeb, when the Lord made a covenant with the children of Israel." How sublime is the very simplicity of this announcement! Without, were pomp and pageantry and a thousand sacrifices, and a gorgeous architecture on which was lavished the treasure of a mighty king; within, a rude receptacle, made in the wilderness, covered indeed with plates of gold, but these were God's gift, not man's device, and in it is placed nothing that comes from man, nothing save the two tables of stone written with the finger of God. (For, we need [9/10] not embarrass ourselves with the apparent discrepancy of the passage in the epistle to the Hebrews, which speaks of the pot of manna and of Aaron's rod being placed in the ark; it is probable that they were deposited in receptacles attached to the ark for the convenience of transportation, during the journeyings of the Israelites; as the command of God was, that the manna was to be layed up "before the testimony," that is the ark, not in it,--here, unquestionably, when the arrangements of the holy of holies were finally and definitely fixed, the statement is express, that there was nothing in the ark save the two tables of the covenant.) What are we taught by all this? We are taught:
I. First, that the Church is the repository of God's word; as St. Paul speaketh of the church of Israel, that to it "were committed the oracles of God;" just as our own 20th article, speaking the language of the Church of the present age, declares the Church to be the "keeper and witness of Holy Writ." My brethren7 do you know why it is that you have a Bible? It is because the Church has kept it for you, and has for eighteen hundred years borne witness that it is the very word of truth originally committed to her keeping. In the days of blindest ignorance, profoundest darkness, whatever other errors may for a time have obscured the manifestations of evangelical truth, to this the Church was faithful, she kept the word. And is it not a miracle of divine mercy, that whatever variations may have crept into the sacred text, so [10/11] multiplied have been the sources of the testimony, that not one of the many thousand minor discrepancies which exist, affects any fundamental point of faith! One passage alone the Church neither receives nor rejects, but omitted, it takes nothing from the great doctrine to which it refers; received, it only casts one more ray upon that truth which is already radiant with the effulgence of the whole gospel. The reformed church of England, faithful to her character of "keeper and witness of Holy Writ," has placed within the hands of her children a version of the sacred word in our own tongue, a version stamped with the authority of the Church. And so far as any Bible you read possesses any authority at all, it is the authority of that Church; I say, so far as it possesses any authority, for many there are who look no farther than the authority of a printer, or at best that of a self-constituted and irresponsible body, composed of men of every shade of religious opinion, wTho issuing the Bible, as they boast, without note or comment, have stripped it of the marginal readings, which are of equal authority and significance with the original text, have divested it of the marginal references, which aid the reader in giving him the interpretation of the very Church which bestowed the version,--and have therefore sent forth as the word of God, a book, which the only body that had authority to declare it the word of God, disavows. But this is not the worst; I would it were! I admit, that so far as the naked text is concerned, I believe the copies issued by the American Bible Society, to be correct copies of the authorized version: [11/12] but Bibles circulate among us, in which there have been perversions of the sense; Bibles in which there are passages that have no sense at all. This is no place or time to adduce examples, which could by their absurdity only excite feelings in ill accordance with the hour and house of Christian worship. One thing is clear; the Church is so absolutely, so confessedly the keeper of Holy Writ, that there is not a human creature who ever reads the word of God for instruction, who would not cast from him a Bible which he did not believe to be a transcript of that version, which is only valuable above others, because put forth with the authority of the Church.
II. But secondly, the text teaches us that the Church, the ark of the covenant, is the repository of the Word, and of nothing else; for, "there was nothing in the ark save the two tables of stone." In the outer courts of the Lord's house, was all the pomp of a ceremonial appointed by God through the medium of his Church, but which all had a definite object and term, which in its very nature was limited to that place and that people, which was to be done away. Within, was the word of God, which was to endure for ever; the word which is the law not of the Jew only, but the law by which man is to walk before God. Such even now is the province, such the doctrine and practice of the Church. For what says our 6th article: "Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation, so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that [12/13] it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation;" and yet again in the 20th article, "The Church hath power to decree rites or ceremonies, and authority in controversies of faith; and yet it is not lawful for the church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God's word written, neither may it so expound one place of scripture that it be repugnant to another; wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper af Holy Writ, yet as it ought not to decree anything against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce anything to be believed for necessity of salvation." What follows from all this? Why that the word of God was the thing entrusted to the keeping of the Church; but that the word was entrusted to it not merely as a keeper, but as a witness. The word is the message of God to man, in which is announced the way of salvation: this word involves not only things to be believed, but things to be done; the Church witnesses what is to be believed, and what is to be done. She witnesses in her creed, which has come down from apostolic times,--in her articles,--in her prayers,--and in her sacraments: but witnesses to what, my brethren? not what she declares to be the faith, upon her own authority, but what is the faith "once delivered to the saints," what is the faith that is actually embodied in God's holy word. That Divine word she has placed in the hands of her children; so that they may see with their own eyes, that what the Church requires to be believed as necessary to salvation, is indeed therein contained; the Church [13/14] therefore, can never declare that to be in God's word which is not there. Nor can her ministers, who are the organs through whom she conveys her lessons, and exercises her holy offices among men, declare that to be the teaching of the Church, which is but their own device or their own opinion; for the Church has not only placed the Word itself in her children's hands, but placed the witness itself there: her creed, her prayers, her articles are open to the search of all men; and I have yet to learn that any minister of the church has ever dared to set forth as a point of faith, or as a duty of enjoined obligation, any doctrine or any practice which your Prayer Books disavow. Views of scriptural truth may be entertained as matters of mere opinion, practices commended as matters of personal edification; and this, my brethren, is part of the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free, and we have nothing to do with men's opinions, until we can place our linger upon the passage of God's word which they contradict, and then pronounce them heretical; or upon the injunction of Christ's Church which they contravene, and then declare them schismatical. The error of the Church of Rome lies in having enjoined as matters of faith things for which there is no warrant in the word of God, so that there is something in her ark besides the covenant; and, in having in connexion with those very unscriptural additions invented rites and ceremonies, and then not only prescribed the whole as necessary for salvation, but declared, both that men must believe and do all this, and, that they shall believe and do nothing but this. And I for one [14/15] shall protest against that Roman bondage which assumes to decide that a man shall not have his own opinion about a point in church history, or follow" his own inclination in minute devotional observance, however fantastical I might deem either the opinion or the practice, so long as nothing is maintained which the word of God contradicts, nothing observed which the Church has forbidden. It will be a strange state of things, my brethren, if the right of private judgment and freedom of action should come to be contested, not against the Church, but within it, and by it;--should such a contingency arise, I trust we shall all prove ourselves sound Protestants, protesting against the only Papacy which any man, who knows how to read, has now to fear. The Popery of masses, and genuflexions, and crossings, and relics, and incense, and purgatory, and penances,--ah! it is not this you have to fear, I should insult your understandings, as men are daily insulting them, by saying that it is. The thunders of the Vatican have ceased for ever, and the bolts of excommunication are now forged by other hands; the Papacy you have to fear is nearer to you than Rome. God help us! we live in a strange world, and the oracles of truth and wisdom are issued from singular shrines.
My brethren, the duty of the Church is to edify, to instruct you, to declare to you the way of salvation through a crucified Redeemer, to bring you into covenant with Christ in the way of His own appointment, to keep you in this way by the Apostle's doctrine and [15/16] fellowship, in breaking of bread, and in prayers. She must preach to you the Word and nothing else--she must minister to you according to the record of her own testimony which you hold in your hands. Within these prescribed boundaries, her power is absolute over you, so long as you continue within her communion, a communion which you cannot renounce except at the peril of your salvation,--there are certain limits defined, beyond which, in matters of faith, no servant of the Church may pass; the Church in this aspect wears a robe like that of her Divine Lord, "without seam woven from the top throughout;" but the queen's robe is wrought about with divers colours which do not affect the glory within,--her articles, are articles of peace, which men have honestly received with various shades of interpretation, not affecting the integrity of the fundamental truth,--her services involve certain points of opinion which honest men have received in varying modes, which have in no degree affected their canonical observance. The watchword of the Church is, "in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity"--respecting those essentials, the Church, and the Church alone is to pronounce; and it is the very essence of Protestantism to vindicate that liberty for ourselves, to extend it to others. The ministers of the Church speak to you with authority, when they speak to you in her words; when they give you their own opinions, you are to take them for what they are intrinsically worth. There are sects in Christendom, where the minister is the oracle, when just as much or as little scripture is read as the minister [16/17] chooses, when he prays as he pleases, and preaches as he or his people please; it is not so with us--the covenant of salvation is the sole deposit in our ark. The Divine Presence follows the appointed ambassador of God, only when he ministers after God's appointment, and then follows none but him. How beautifully is this great truth indicated in the closing words of the text.
III. "And it came to pass, when the priests came out of the holy place, that the cloud filled the house of the Lord." The awful emblem of the Divine Presence which till then had been centred within, followed the minister of the sanctuary. Is there not here a sublime foreshadowing of that declaration of the Redeemer, "Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, and lo! I am with you always, even unto the end of world."
My brethren, what is the meaning of the strange outcry of ignorant men, as though in vindicating the prerogatives of the ambassadors of Christ, we arrogated to ourselves a personal sanctity or a personal authority! No! God forbid! "we hold the treasure in earthen vessels," nevertheless, a treasure there is committed to us, and woe! to him who misuses it either in the administration, or in the reception. Under the Mosaical dispensation there was a sacrifice for the priest as well as for the people, and oh! do [17/18] you think there is a minister of Christ, who breathes forth the confession and prayers of the church, who ever thinks of himself at such a moment, except as a creature who bows before God in the midst of trespasses and sins? But, my brethren, when I stand by the baptismal font, and pray that water may be "sanctified to the mystical washing away of sin," when I lave the brow of the candidate for immortal life from that regenerating fount, I am acting by a power which you did not give and which you cannot take away; I am made the instrument of bestowing a gift which you have a right to ask, and which I dare not refuse; it is not the purity of the hand, but the official character of the hand, that binds the sacrament; nor does the blessing come from me, but absolutely and exclusively from Christ through His Church--or, when in breaking the bread and pouring out the wine, they are separated from common uses, and consecrated as the symbols of Christ's body and His blood--what power is there here which it is possible to abuse? Dare I withhold that means of grace from any creature to whom the Church has given the right to claim it? Is it because I am so holy or so good, that anything I say, or anything I give, possesses an efficacy derived from me? No! the whole power is official, not personal,--and many a creature kneels there before me, who, in that region where "one star differeth from another star in glory," may shine like the brightness of the firmament, eclipsing the very ray which had enlightened him on earth!--many, (let me think with awe) who may witness the extinction of that light, if, having [18/19] perhaps turned them unto righteousness, "I myself should be a castaway." Or, in the duties of private ministration, when I do for you what the Church appoints, or tell you what the Church enjoins, I am to you a minister of God; I dare not demand a qualification or impose a restriction which the Church has not prescribed. Counsel, sympathy, these you are to take as from a man whom you have thought meet to be "over you in the Lord," and who therefore may well be regarded by you, as one likely to give holy counsel, heartfelt sympathy; but they conic from the earthen vessel, as frail, as fallible as you are, who nevertheless, as his vow pledged before God's altar to the successor of the Apostles has bound him "to be diligent in prayers, and in reading the holy scriptures and in such studies as help to the knowledge of the same," may, it is trusted, as he cometh forth from the holy place, have his own soul filled with the communication of the Divine Presence, and impart the comforts of that presence to God's inquiring children. Oh, my brethren, let not your hearts be troubled by the vulgar bugbear of priestly assumption and priestly craft! I have heard stories of men arrogating to themselves a right of dictation and interference in matters beyond their official province, imposing conditions and restrictions, and inquisitive as to the veriest details of personal conduct and social life--stories, greatly exaggerated probably in all cases, but told generally of men not within our communion, of men who minister to congregations where every pastor is regarded as a Bishop over his own flock, and therefore it is not wonderful [19/20] if, puffed up with brief authority, they "lord it over God's heritage." But so far as such a stigma has been cast upon any man within our own border, I never knew it to affix to one who was vigorous in his vindication of the Church's authority, or of that of the ministry in their purely official relations; but invariably, to men whose church principles hang loosely about them, whose own congregation is to them the Church, and who divert the minds of the Hock from the sanctity of the Divine Agent to the feeble instrument of His hand. No! God forbid that we should glory save in the cross of Christ, "by whom the world is crucified unto us, and we unto the world,"--yes! unto the world! in all that it can offer to allure our hopes, or to alarm our fears.
Episcopalians--Protestant Episcopalians, God grant that your Church may always have a ministry, even as at this day, who will stand before the ark of the covenant, stand there to contemplate it, to study it, to pray before it, and if need be to protect it, at the hazard of all that is dear to them in life, yea even at the hazard of life itself, who will never suffer anything to enter the ark but the covenant, nor desire any influence to accompany their ministrations among you, but the cloud of the Divine Presence manifested not to the eye of sense, but to the heart of faith, in the binding up of the wounded spirit, in the comforting of all who mourn, in guiding the steps of the erring into the way of eternal peace.