By John Kershaw
PREACHED AT HOPE CHAPEL, ROCHDALE, MARCH 3RD. 1867, ON COMPLETING THE FIFTIETH YEAR AS THE PASTOR OF THE CHURCH.
My dear and esteemed Friends, - You are aware that it is now fifty years since I became the pastor of the Church of Jesus Christ worshipping within these walls. Though so long ago, I have a lively remembrance of all the circumstances of importance connected with that memorable day. The text the Lord laid upon my mind to preach from on that occasion was a prayer of David's and it was also my earnest, fervent desire, as recorded in Ps. 118. 25: "O LORD, I beseech thee, send now prosperity." When I look back at the past, I have abundant reason, with David, to say, "I love the LORD, because he hath heard my voice and my supplications. Because he hath inclined his ear unto me, therefore will I call upon him as long as I live." Bless the Lord, peace and prosperity have attended us, both temporally and spiritually, of which I hope to speak more particularly on another occasion.
On the present opportunity I feel it my privilege to call your attention to a portion of the word of God which has long been on my mind to speak from at this time.
"But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God. " (Acts 20.24)
The middle clause of the verse more especially is what has been most upon my mind: "So that I might finish my course with joy. " The whole verse contains great and precious truth, both in doctrine, experience, and practice, sufficient for many sermons. By way of introduction, with the help of the Lord, we will briefly notice the preceding part of the verse: "But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself." Kept by the power and grace of God, none of the severe persecutions and afflictions Paul had been called to endure for conscience or for his Master's sake moved him from the truth as it had been made manifest in his soul by the power of the Holy Ghost. Through grace, he rejoiced that he was counted worthy to suffer shame for the sake of Him "who endured such contradiction of sinners against himself," that dear Lord whom he so furiously persecuted in the persons of His saints; He who had stopped him in his mad career when he was running headlong to everlasting misery and destruction. When some concerning whom he had hoped well, and who for a time did run well, turned aside to error and others into open sin, he was sorely grieved, and wept for the reproach they brought upon themselves and the cause of God and truth, as was the case with some at Philippi. (See. Phil. 3. 17-19.) But none of these painful things moved him from his attachment to his Lord and Master and His people, but made him the more earnestly pray that they might "press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus" and have their "conversation in heaven, from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ."
My dear brethren, like Paul and many others of the Lord's ministers, I have had my sorrows on account of some who have caused me and the church under my care much trouble. But instead of being moved from my steadfastness, I saw the necessity of being able to stand more firn-dy in the evil day, and having done all to stand. I have seen the beauty, propriety, and seasonableness of the exhortation given by the apostle to the Corinthians: "Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord; forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord." (I Cor. 15. 58.) The cry of my soul has long been, "Dear Lord, give thy poor unworthy servant grace to obey this exhortation."
The apostle adds, in the next clause of our text: "Neither count I my life dear unto myself." We are not to conclude from these words that the apostle did not set a proper value upon his life as being the gift of God, and that he was careless and indifferent about it. His desire was that he might not live to himself in the enjoyment of worldly ease and earthly honour, but with Moses choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season. He lived in the blessed persuasion of what he wrote to the church at Rome: "For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live, therefore, or die, we are the Lord's." (14. 8.) He knew that he was not his own, but was bought with the price of the precious blood of Christ, and his desire was to live so as to glorify God in his body and spirit, which are his; and, from the love he felt to his Lord and Master, he was willing to lay down his life for His sake. This is evident from his own words, as in Acts 21.11. When the prophet Agabus took Paul's girdle and bound his hands and feet, and said, "Thus saith the Holy Ghost, So shall the Jews of Jerusalem bind the man that owneth this girdle, and shall deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles." The brethren hearing this begged and entreated the apostle, with many endearing arguments and tears of affection, lest they should be deprived of his valuable life and labours, not to go up to Jerusalem. But mark well the apostle's answer, which demonstrates that his Lord and Master's honour was dearer to him than his life: "What mean ye to weep and to break mine heart? for I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus." And when he would not be persuaded, they ceased, saying, "The will of the Lord be done."
We now come to the apostle's earnest and fervent desire to finish his course with joy. And what a union do I feel with Paul! Truly we are brethren. It has long been my desire that God would give me grace, as he did his servant Paul, that I may fight a good fight and. keep the faith till my Lord shall call me home to dwell with Him in glory.
I. We will first make a few remarks upon the course.
II. The desirableness of finishing our course with joy.
I. Fallen man, dead in trespasses and sins, is walking according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience. In the first three verses of Ephesians 2 I see my own state and condition accurately described, the course I was pursuing in the broad and downward road which would have led me to destruction had it not been for the grace of God putting a stop to my sinful course.
O to grace how great a debtor,
Daily I'm constrain'd to be.
I apprehended that Paul had in view his course, both as a Christian and a minister of the gospel. He looked back to the day of his effectual call by grace, when he had to leave his former friends and pursuits, and was made willing to serve Him he had hated and despised; when -he was enabled in the Lord's time to put on Christ by faith, and then made an open profession of the same by being baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity. He remembered his entrance on the work of the ministry, the many trials and sorrows that had beset his path, and the supports and consolations that he had received of the Lord to enable him to hold on and preach Christ as the new and living way that leads to eternal life. His desire was to hold on to the end and finish his course with joy, as is evident from the language of our text: "That I may finish my course with joy, and the ministry which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God." He had the answer of a good conscience that he had served the Lord with all humility of mind, and with many tears and temptations which befell him by the lying in wait of the Jews, and how he had kept back nothing that was profitable. (See verses 19, 20.) The apostle could appeal to the elders at Ephesus that he had not shunned to declare unto them the whole counsel of God; for wherever he went he was enabled faithfully to preach repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ as inseparably connected with the enjoyment of salvation. He was also concerned to maintain a conscience void of offence, both towards God and man. He was ever desirous to cut off all occasion of the adversaries speaking reproachfully of God and truth, and to be an example to the believer in every good word and work, giving full proof that he was not coveting the fleece, but seeking to feed the flock of God which He hath purchased with his own blood, coveting no man's silver, or gold, or apparel, but working with his own hands that he might minister to his own necessities and to those of them who were with him.
My dear friends, pray that the Lord may make His ministers like Paul, with an eye single to His honour and glory, with a deep concern for the peace and prosperity of Zion, the furtherance of the gospel, and the gathering together of the children of God that are scattered abroad.
Paul's course had been a painful one to flesh and blood (see Cor. 11. 23-28); yet he was not weary of his Master's service. He pressed forward, looking unto Jesus, the Author and Finisher of his faith, believing he should be more than a conqueror through Christ that loved him.
II. We now come to the second part; the desirableness of finishing our course with joy. The Lord, before whom I now stand in this large and attentive congregation, is witness that I have many times upon my knees, in the course of my ministry, read the chapter from whence my text is taken, especially from verse 17 to the end, begging and beseeching the Lord that I might follow the example of Paul and all the apostles, so far as they followed Him, who has given us an example that we should follow His steps. My desire has long been that I might not only preach the gospel, but live as it becometh the gospel, crying daily to the Lord, "Hold thou me up, and I shall be safe;" "Keep thou me by thy power, and I shall be kept." The prayer of David in Ps. 17. 5 has often been pleaded by me before the Lord: "Hold up my goings in thy paths, that my footsteps slip not. " Also the last clause of the prayer of Jabez: "And keep me from evil, that it may not grieve me," wound the minds of the brethren, and open the mouths of the enemies of God and truth, causing them to blaspheme. The Lord knows that I have many times told Him that I would rather die than bring a reproach upon His cause. The late William Tiptaft used to say, "It is a good thing to be well laid in the grave;" which is a sentence full of meaning and importance. He always used to pray that we might not sin cheaply.
When I am led to look back and call to remembrance the way the Lord has led me in the wilderness, not only forty years, but sixty years, - for it is now that time since He put His fear into my heart, - the expression of my soul is, "Having, therefore, obtained help of God, I continue to this day." The language of John Newton is often on my mind:
Many days have passed since then,
Many changes I have seen,
Yet have been upheld till now,
Who could hold me up but thou?
How seasonable is the exhortation: "Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall." The advice given in I Kings 20. 11 is good: "Let not him that girdeth on his harness boast himself as he that putteth it off."
I am now in my seventy-fifth year, and in the fifty-fourth of my ministry, and by the grace of God which has been given me have stood upon the walls of Zion with an unblemished reputation, often calling to mind the exhortation: "Be ye clean that bear the vessels of the Lord." (Isa. 52. 1 1.) I know that the Lord has given me favour in the eyes and hearts of many who love the doctrines of sovereign, discriminating grace which I have long preached, and which many say lead to sin; but, bless the Lord, they have thus far led me from sin and to desire holiness. But I would rejoice with trembling, knowing that, if left to myself, through the evils of my heart, the allurements of the world, and the temptations of Satan, I might in an unguarded hour do that which would be as the dead fly in the apothecary's ointment, - cause my name to stink, instead of being, as the wise man said, "better than precious ointment." I would be daily looking to the Lord for the fulfilment of that precious promise that I am often pleading before Him: "He will keep the feet of his saints." The words of Paul to Timothy: "And the Lord shall deliver me from every evil work, and will preserve me unto his heavenly kingdom, to whom be glory for ever and ever, Amen," have been a great comfort to me of late. (2 Tim. 4. 18.)
In my younger days I did not think so much of the prayer of David in Ps. 71. 9 as I do now: "Cast me not off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength faileth;" so that, as the outward man perisheth, I may be renewed by the grace of God in the inner man day by day, bring forth the fruits of righteousness, that my last days may be my best days, and that, like Paul, I may finish my course with joy, and hear the Lord say, "Well done, good and faithful servant.... enter thou into the joy of thy Lord." (Matt. 25. 21.) That Paul finished his course with the felt joy of God's salvation in his soul is evident from his own words to Timothy: "For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith; Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give unto me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing. " (2 Tim. 4. 6-8.) The blessed anticipation of these things made him ready and willing to lay down his life for the sake of Him who loved him and had done such great things for him, to show forth His honour and glory and His faithfulness and ability to succour and support in the time of trial for the comfort of others who might live after him, and the confounding of the enemies of God and truth. He believed that Jesus Christ, who had loved him and given Himself for him, would grant him grace to enable him to endure to the end, and that when absent from the body he would be present with the Lord.
Whatever joy a sinner may have in the prospect of death and eternity, if it does not arise from a view by faith which is the gift of God, of his interest in the Person, work, and finished salvation of our Lord Jesus Christ, it will be like the hope of the hypocrite spoken of in the book of Job. It will perish at the giving up of the ghost. Beloved, how needful it is to examine ourselves as to the ground and foundation of our joy and rejoicing. Is Christ our "All and in all," in His glorious Person, as the God-man Mediator in the perfection of His obedience, as our law-fulfilling righteousness, in His great atoning sacrifice for our sins upon the cross, by which the curse of the law is for ever removed? Our blessed Jesus, having abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light by the gospel, swallowed up death in victory; which caused the apostle triumphantly to say, "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be unto God which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ."
The desire of my soul is to die rejoicing that God's just and holy law, broken by me in thought, word, and deed, has been fulfilled for me by my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. The language of Paul on this subject has long been sweet and precious to my soul. Writing to the Corinthians, he says, "But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption, that.... he that glorieth let him glory in the Lord." It also rejoices my heart to feel and see that all my sins were removed by Christ our spiritual scapegoat; so that when they are sought for they can never be found.
How desirable in the prospect of death to have the testimony of the Holy Spirit in our soul that we are delivered from the curse and condemnation of the law. I hope never to forget the time of my deliverance out of bondage, and being brought into the liberty wherewith Christ has made me free, the following portion of God's word being blessedly applied: "There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death." I could then rejoice that my name was written in heaven in the Lamb's book of life, and say with Job, "My record is on high" and "I know that my Redeemer liveth-." It was Paul's joy that he knew in whom he had believed; and he had the happy persuasion that Jesus, in whom he believed to the saving of his soul, was able to keep that which he had committed into his hand against that day. I have often said amongst you that this blessed portion of the word of God enters into the vitality of true religion in the soul of a sinner. All my hope and trust are in the Lord, into whose hands, by the grace of God, I have committed my cause. I cannot find language to describe the comfort and support I have enjoyed from these words:
If I am found in Jesus hands, My soul can ne'er be lost.
I know that I lay dead in tresspasses and sins, and that the Lord quickened my soul, which is an evidence of eternal life. He has solemnly declared that none to whom He gives eternal life shall ever perish, neither shall they be plucked from His hands. Paul not only rejoiced in the ability of Christ to save to the uttermost all that come to God by Him, but in His ever living to make intercession for them. Is it not our joy that we sinners have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous? The following lines have often dropped into my soul with great power and sweetness:
He lives! he lives! and sits above,
For ever interceding there;
Who shall divide us from his love,
Or what shall tempt us to despair?
It is for our comfort the Lord has said, "Because I live, ye shall live also." It is a great blessing to know we are "dead to the law," and that our spiritual "life is hid with Christ in God."
Whilst in this time state we look, by faith, in the glass of God's word, and see our Lord Jesus Christ enthroned in glory, with all power both in heaven and earth in His hands, as Head over all things to His body the church. His ministers, whose feet are "beautiful upon the mountains" of His precious truth, are to say unto Zion, "Thy God reigneth," and that He will see that all things shall work together for His honour and the good of all who love Him and are the called according to His purpose. These lines are the joy and comfort of my soul:
Jesus, the King of glory, reigns
On Zion's heavenly hill,
Looks like a lamb that has been slain,
And wears his priesthood still.
He ever lives to intercede
Before his Father's face.
Give him, my soul, thy cause to plead,
Nor doubt the Father's grace.
How many of you, my hearers, feel a response in your souls to the last two lines just cited? Had I as many souls to be saved as there are stars in the firmament, I would commit them all into my Redeemer's hands, who has engaged to present me faultless before the presence of His glory, with exceeding joy. I would not cast away the confidence I have in Him for a thousand worlds. In Him I have everlasting consolation and good hope through grace, which is as the anchor of my soul, sure and steadfast, which enters within the veil, where Christ the Forerunner is for us entered. Having, like Paul, committed the cause of my soul's salvation into Jesus's hands, I earnestly desire to finish my course with honour to His name, and that an abundant entrance may be ministered unto me into His everlasting kingdom.
My dear hearers, are you satisfied with the form of religion, a regular attendance upon the means of grace, a knowledge of the truth in the theory, without feeling any influence on your souls? I am greatly concerned about many of you who have been brought up amongst us, and are traditionally attached to me as a minister and the people that meet to worship the Lord in this place. My soul longs to see the word preached confirmed in your hearts by the power of the Holy Ghost, with signs following, such as a heartfelt, godly sorrow for sin, and a spiritual hungering and thirsting after Christ and His righteousness. Where there is no spiritual mourning over sin and longing for Christ and His salvation, there is no spiritual life in the soul.
The grace of God planted in the heart is a well of living water, springing up into everlasting life. Bless the Lord, I have long felt the springing up of this living water within me, and well know it is His gift, as He said to the woman at Jacob's well (Jn. 4. 14). I long to see it in others, and the love of Christ constraining them to say with David, "Come and hear, all ye that fear God, and I will declare what he hath done for my soul."
I have reason to be thankful that the Lord has in some measure honoured His own truth spoken by me to the conversion of sinners to Himself, turning them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, as many of you can testify who are now present, and who, by the grace of God, have given yourselves to us as a church in the fear of the Lord. We have experienced many refreshing times at our church meetings, in hearing sinners give a reason of the hope within them, with meekness and fear; and seeing, as Barnabas did, "the grace of God in them" (Acts 11. 23); and, like him, we have been glad. My soul has often been encouraged when portions of the word of God have been spoken of that I have preached from, which have been honoured of God, in convincing of sin, stripping and humbling the sinner, in comforting and encouraging the fearing, timid, doubting soul, the delivering of them out of bondage into the liberty of the gospel by an application of the precious blood of Christ by the power of the Spirit, and in establishing them in the truth as it is in Jesus.
We can also call to remembrance the many blessed refreshing seasons we have enjoyed while attending to the ordinances of the Lord's house, - baptism and the supper of the Lord, when we have sung with melody in our hearts:
With pleasure we behold
Immanuel's offspring come;
As sheep are gather'd to the fold,
And left no more to roam.
and while sitting around the table of the Lord in commemoration of the solemn sufferings and awful death of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom our hope for heaven rests. Many times have we been greatly blessed while singing the hymn after supper:
How sweet and awful is the place. With Christ within the doors especially verses 3, 4 and 5: While all our hearts and all our songs Join to admire the feast, Each of us cry, with thankful tongues, Lord, why was I a guest?
'Why was I made to hear thy voice,
And enter while there's room,
When thousands make a wretched choice,
And rather starve than come?'
While singing these lines, my soul has often said with great humility and thankfulness, "Ah, Lord, if it had not been for thy almighty, efficacious, all-conquering, discriminating grace, I should rather have starved than come." With great joy, therefore, have I joined in singing the next verse:
Twas the same love that spread the feast.
That sweetly forced us in;
Else we had still refused to taste.
And perished in our sin,
While I am speaking to you of these seasons, I think of many that have joined with us on these occasions who have been removed by death, who were very near and dear to us in the bonds of the gospel. They have finished their course with joy, and are now uniting with the spirits of just men made perfect in singing the everlasting song: "Salvation to God and the Lamb." My soul is ready to say,
When shall the day, dear Lord, appear,
When I shall mount to dwell above,
And stand and bow amongst them there,
And view thy face, and sing, and love?
We have been spared many years together, and the Lord has done great things for us, whereof we are glad. According to the course of nature, my stay amongst you below cannot be very long; but my prayer is often to the Lord that you may be preserved faithful to the truth and the ordinances as they have been delivered unto us, and that when I have finished my course as a minister and under-shepherd amongst you, the great Head of the church will raise up one to go in and out amongst you of His own fitting and qualifying, of good report, and able to trace out the footsteps of the flock, setting before you the things that he himself has seen, and looked upon, and handled of the word of life.
May the Lord bless what has been delivered to our soul's comfort, for His name's sake. Amen.