"Jesus saith unto him"--that is, to Peter, Simon Peter, who is spoken of in the context, "Feed my sheep."
Now I shall endeavor, as the Lord is pleased to enable me, without any preface or introduction, to consider the words of our text, which have now been recited: "Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep."
And, in the first place, we must observe in these words that there are the sheep spoken of, and they are said to be the Saviour's sheep; the Saviour calls them, "My sheep." We shall endeavor to describe these sheep to you, to show you who they are; and the object and design is, if the Lord should be pleased to attend it with His blessing, that any poor, needy, seeking, enquiring soul, who is "enquiring his way to Zion, with his face thitherward," and who may be exercised with continual doubts, fears, and misgivings of heart, as to whether he has any part or lot in the matter, may be led by Divine teaching, if it be the Lord's blessed will, to discern that he is the character spoken of in the text; the sheep of Christ.
In the second place, we will treat a little of the commission here spoken of: "Jesus saith unto him," (that is Peter,) "Feed my sheep."
Thirdly, what he was to be employed in, and engaged about; namely, feeding the sheep. We shall endeavor to show you what it is that will feed the sheep: "Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep."
Now, in Scripture language, my brethren, the term "sheep" is used, not only literally, but in a figurative or metaphorical sense also; and in the first place it is applied to the whole body of the Israelitish church or nation; as in the case of David, when he had incurred the displeasure of God by numbering the people.--"The displeasure of God," some may be ready to say, "why I thought God was never displeased with any of His people. Does He not love them with an everlasting love? Has He not chosen them in Christ to eternal salvation?" Yes; blessed be God, this is the case: nor will He ever "be wroth with them, nor rebuke them" in a vindictive sense; but He is angry and displeased with them on account of sin.--"The thing which David did, displeased the Lord." Those who will resist the doctrine that God chastises His people for their sins, must contradict the plain testimony of Scripture. David was a "man after God's own heart," "the sweet Psalmist of Israel," dearly beloved by his God; yet "the thing David did displeased the Lord." (See 1 Chron. 21:17) This was also the case with regard to Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah; David did wrong. And if any of you know what it is to walk with God in peace and equity, in sweet fellowship with Him, you will be conscious, as of the air that you breathe, when sin separates between God and your soul. Do not misunderstand this; not vindictive wrath for unatoned guilt; but a sense of His displeasure, a realization and experience that He stands afar off. And he will make His dear people feel this too; when they "cry and shout, He shutteth out their prayer." Yet, blessed be God for the sweet assurance of faith at the bottom, that He will never leave us nor forsake us. But, usually speaking, you and I must go through many trials, hot furnaces, and our faith must be sorely tested, before we arrive at this measure of assurance, really to feel He is with us, when we cannot perceive Him; that He is our God, when He doe not take any notice of us; that He is near to us, when He seems to stand afar off; in a word, that Jesus will fulfill that blessed promise, "I will see you again." John 16:22. Oh! my dear friends, how my heart hangs upon this precious word when I cannot perceive Him, or discover Him; when there is no experience of His love, no bright shining--oh then, to be enabled to plead this blessed promise, Thou wilt see me again, Thou wilt return! This seeing us, does not mean His Divine omniscience, by which He sees all things; but signifies a peculiar manifestation of Himself, the light of His countenance, His eye being upon us, and we knowing that He is near to us. This is for Him to see us again.
But I must not wander away from the subject in this manner. "Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep."
We were observing that the Israelitish people were called sheep. When the sword was stretched over Jerusalem to smite it, and 70,000 men had fallen by the pestilence, how sweet was that expression of David's; "Let me now fall into the hand of the Lord; for very great are His mercies; but let me not fall into the hand of man." 1 Chron. 21:13. You know Gad had been sent unto him, and three things were offered; seven years of famine, to flee three months before his enemies, or three days of pestilence in the land. David said, "I am in a great strait." Did you ever know what it is to be in a great strait, that is, in a great exercise of mind, a difficulty, not knowing which course to take, what to choose, what to desire? "Why," say some, "I think it must be an easy thing to know what one's desire is." Not so easy as many of you think; for in the desires of the heart, springing from the grace of God within, there is always the fear of His holy name, a fear to desire anything that is contrary to His will. Some will be ready to say, "There is not much harm in desiring surely?" Yes, there is. The Lord knows,--He is the Searcher of all hearts,--that if it were His blessed will, I would never desire anything that is contrary to His will. This submission, my dear brethren, is the blessing that I am seeking after. Bless His dear name, I think I know something about it, in my experience and enjoyment of it, at times; but I cannot keep it in constant exercise; something is continually occurring that brings to light, and stirs up the rebellion of my nature; and while my poor heart desires to love Him dearly, my stubborn will rebels against Him; and what a confusion this makes!
Well to return to David: "I am in a great strait; let us fall now into the hand of the Lord; for His mercies are great, and let me not fall into the hand of man." This was the best choice he could make; my dear brethren, may it be your choice and mine, to fall into the hand of the Lord, for He is a God "full of compassion," full of pity, "He retaineth not His anger for ever, because He delighteth in mercy." Micah 7:18. "And David spake unto the people, and said, Lo, I have sinned, and I have done wickedly, but these sheep, what have they done? Let thine hand, I pray Thee, be against me and against my father's house." Thus the Israelites were called sheep, because they were a typical people, and represented the whole election of grace; for, being distinguished nationally as God's peculiar people under the Old Testament dispensation, they set forth God's choice of His family in Christ, to eternal life and salvation. Do not misunderstand me; because they were all thus chosen as a nation to be God's peculiar people, they were not all interested in the covenant of grace. They were accepted in the national covenant, which God made with Abraham and his posterity; but this did not give them a title to, an interest in, the covenant of grace; for "they are not all Israel, which are of Israel;" and, "he is not a Jew which is one outwardly, neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew, which is one inwardly, and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter, whose praise is not of men, but of God." Rom. 2:28,29. But they were a typical people; hence their history furnishes us with many sweet matters connected with the way in which the Lord's people are led in all ages.
Well, then, in the next place, this term sheep is given to that portion of the human family which God hath loved with an everlasting love. Hence the whole of the human race at the last day are set forth as "sheep" and "goats." "When the Son of man shall come in His glory, He shall set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left." Matt. 25:31,33. Sheep is a term representing the whole of the covenant family; it is a metaphorical expression, by which they are described and set forth; while on the other hand, the goats represent all who live and die, and perish in their sins, being out of Christ. It does not matter by what name or denomination they were called here, what profession they made, how different they were; for all mankind are very widely apart in habit, custom, manner, religion, and the like; but alas! alas! there is one thing in which they all unite and agree. "What is that?" say you. I answer, in their state of carnal enmity and alienation from the life of God. These are called the goats. But I shall not stop to pursue this part of our subject, to take any further notice of the goats; it is with the sheep we have to do. "Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep."
Now take notice, my dear brethren, in a certain sense, the whole human family belong to God as their Creator. He is the Creator and Upholder of all things; and especially is this true in reference to our Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of the Father in truth and love. Do, my friends, beware of that Arian doctrine, that false system, which has been preached lately, that Jesus is not the eternal Son of God; that He is only the Son of God in reference to His human nature. It is an error just like that held by Arius in the fourth century, against which Athanasius wrote in the days of Constantine. Other expressions are now used to set it forth, but it is the same thing. Beware of these heresies. Receive nothing that cannot be proved by the word of God; I endeavor to prove all I say by that book.
Well then, Jesus Christ is the Son of God, equal with the Father and the eternal Spirit, having the same existence with the Father. This is clear, both from the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. You will find the Epistle to the Hebrews full of it, particularly the first chapter. It opens thus: "God, who at sundry times, and in divers manners, spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by His Son, whom He hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also He made the worlds." Now if it were by the Son God "made the worlds," if He were not the Son of God from all eternity, how could He make the worlds? If he were only a Son in time, by taking our nature into union with His Divine Person, how could the Apostle's remark be true? Besides, to deny this, is to deny the whole Trinity; for to deny the Son is to deny the Father, and implies there is only one Person in the Godhead; which is a horrible delusion, and a doctrine of devils. Then Jesus was the Originator and Creator of all things: "without Him was not anything made that was made." John 1:3.
But in peculiar manner these sheep are Christ's sheep; they are His covenant people for the term signifies men, as we have endeavored to show you; and this may be further illustrated by other Scriptures. If you read, at your leisure, Ezekiel 34., you will have a good account of this. The chapter concludes thus: "And ye my flock, the flock of my pasture, are men, and I am your God, saith the Lord God."
Therefore the sheep signify the Lord's covenant family. And, here, we must stay to observe that, as they are called sheep, so our dear Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ is their Shepherd, as you find both in the Old Testament and the New. In Genesis 49:22-24, speaking of Joseph, Jacob saith, "Joseph is a fruitful bough, even a fruitful bough by a well, whose branches run over the wall; the archers have sorely grieved him, and shot at him, and hated him, but his bow abode in strength, and the arms of his hands were made strong by the hands of the mighty God of Jacob; (from thence is the Shepherd, the stone of Israel.)" Again, in Isaiah 40:11, we read, "He shall gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young;" and in Psalm 80:1, "Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, thou that leadest Joseph like a flock, thou that dwellest between the cherubims, shine forth." The whole of John 10. sets forth the character of Christ as a Shepherd; "I am the good Shepherd, the good Shepherd giveth his life for the sheep." My brethren, how sweetly and blessedly the Saviour and his people are spoken of as connected and joined together. The terms given to one, are suitable to the other. If they are sheep, they want a shepherd; if they are sick, and are made sensible of their sickness and disease through sin, they want a physician: if they are poor, lost, ruined, and undone, I am sure they want a Saviour; if they are destitute of all righteousness, and have none of their own, they want Him who is "The Lord our righteousness," who is "made of God unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption." And the blessedness of it is, that there is not a possible want, necessity, desire, wish, or longing of a poor, needy soul, quickened into life, but the full satisfaction of all is found in Christ. Oh, how blessed it is when our poor minds are kept from wandering! The Lord says, "My people have committed two evils, they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and have hewed themselves out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water." Jer. 2:13. Oh, my friends, to be drawn to Him, to seek to Him for all, to make Him our all in all! Ah! methinks some poor, exercised, tried one may be ready to say, "I had thought at times I had interest in Him, a hope in His mercy; but He does not answer me; He does not seem to take any notice of me, or regard me in any way whatever. Therefore, I must confess, that at times I am prevailed on, led by sin and Satan, to seek after some other." Well, do you get what you want? "Oh, no. The consequence is, I only get additional guilt on my conscience." Oh! how often have we found the truth of that declaration; "Cursed be the man that trusteth in man;" and "he that trusteth in his own heart is a fool." Say you, "I do wish, if it were the Lord's blessed will, that I could keep constant and earnest in seeking the Saviour; and there is another thing." What is that? Why, this gives me great trouble; if I am so unsteady, so wavering in my desires after Christ; sometimes hot, sometimes cold, sometimes in earnest, and sometimes seeming to have no desire at all, what can I be but a mere hypocrite? If "the root of the matter" were in me, I could not waver about in this way." Poor soul, if the Lord hath made thy conscience tender, thou must know that every secret desire and panting after Christ, is the fruit and effect of the indwelling of his Spirit, and springs from the new man. Whenever the Lord withholds the light of His countenance, and darkness overspreads the soul; then, alas! we find all the evils and corruptions of our nature in full force and vigor.
Yes there is no cry. "What," say you, "Sensible of his need, and sensible that none can help him but his Saviour, and yet no cry?" I have often felt it thus--I could no more call upon His holy name, at times like this, than I could create a world. I could utter words, it is true, but I trust you know the difference between uttering mere words before the Lord, and that crying of the soul, which it is the privilege of His children at times to experience.
Well, now, about these sheep. There are two things we will consider in reference to them. First, their secret character: secondly, their open or manifested character, by which manifestation only, they are brought to know and believe that they are Christ's sheep. "Feed my sheep," said the Saviour.
Now, it must be observed, in the first place, with respect to their secret character, that their being sheep arises from the everlasting, immutable, and unchangeable love of a Triune Jehovah, Father, Son, and ever-blessed Spirit; and this love is variously described, set forth, and exhibited by the Trinity in Unity; as the Father's love in the gift of His dear Son; the Son's love in laying down His life for poor, perishing sinners; and the Spirit's love in teaching, leading, and guiding them into all truth, and testifying of Christ. Yet the love of Jehovah, Father, Son, and ever-blessed Spirit, is the same; for though the Persons are three, the being and essence of the Godhead is but one. Consequently, there cannot be more love in one Person of the Godhead, than in another; although in the way of experience, it often seems as if the Son must have more love, and we are enabled at times to draw nearer to Him; to experience more of His love, as being "touched with a feeling of our infirmities," and having taken our nature into union with His Divine Person, thereby becoming "Immanuel, God with us." None can describe the tender love of Jesus.
I recollect, my dear brethren, my poor mind was greatly exercised some time last year upon this point. I thought, to all appearance I was very near "the house appointed for all living;" and as one day I was meditating on these things, I began to think, if the Lord were pleased to take me out of this body, how could my departing, disembodied spirit approach the sacred Majesty, the throne of God? The consciousness of the continuation of the existence, the inbeing, of sin, in my poor soul, seemed to produce fear; how could I approach his sacred Majesty, the unveiled Godhead, the great Jehovah, in His purity, immutability, and terrible Majesty? But, O, I had such a blessed view and experience of the Saviour as the Mediator; methought that when the spirit should depart, the ministering spirits, the angels, ("for are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?") whatever use the Lord might make of them, could not help me. But I was led to a blessed and sweet discovery of Him who loved me, and washed me from my sins in His precious blood; who shed His heart's blood to save me, a poor, perishing sinner, and had so often assured me of His love, and told me He had loved me, that it constrained me to love Him; as Peter, when he said, "Lord, thou knowest all things, thou knowest that I love thee." I thought my poor soul and spirit would be safe in His almighty hands. He will present the church to Himself, the whole body, "the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven," complete in Him. When the last vessel of mercy shall be full-fraught with Divine grace, when grace shall be consummated in glory, and time shall have told its last number, He will present the church to Himself, "a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing."
Now, just as it will be with the whole body, so I sweetly experienced and felt it would be with me, if the Lord were pleased to take me home to Himself. How blessed it is to meditate upon these things!
But I must go on. The sheep are Christ's, as the objects of His everlasting love and His eternal choice; "Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain." John 15:16.
In the next place, they are His, as the gift of God His Father; for you must bear in mind that the sheep are men; "Thine they were, and thou gavest them me;" "those that thou gavest me I have kept, and none of them is lost, but the son of perdition, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. John 17:6,12. (Judas is here referred to.) "Thou gavest them me," as my portion, my inheritance.
Now, in the next place, (For I must hasten,) they are His by purchase and redemption, as the Apostle says, addressing the elders at Ephesus; "Take heed unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God which He hath purchased with His own blood." Acts 20:28. We learn from this, what is everywhere inculcated throughout the Scriptures, that all real religion begins with self. Real religion is the most selfish thing in the whole world. For whilst there is a breathing of soul going out after the Lord's dear family, I often think there is no heart for any petition but for myself; and yet, though cold, dead, and insensible, I may have known of some exercise of the Lord's dear people; and often when I have not known it literally, I have found it to be the case; there has been a wrestling in secret for others, even for those whose exercises I have not known. "Take heed to yourselves" what frame you are in, what spirit you are of, whether your soul is alive to God; for though, strictly speaking, the grace does not flow from the instrument, yet very frequently it will be found that the state of the hearers is very much in accordance with that of the preacher. Like priest, like people. If there is death in the pulpit, there will be death in the pew. If God sends forth ambassadors of His, and anoints them with much zeal, light, freedom and power, it will be communicated. Paul says, "Ye all are partakers of my grace." Phil. 1:7. Did you never know what it is to go and hear some preacher of Moses? "What is that?" say you. Some minister of the letter, a bond child. If you are living in the light of God's countenance, and in communion with Him, such a man will soon bring you into bondage. By Moses, I do not mean the man Moses, but I take him as the type of the whole law. I believe that Dr. Owen somewhere observes is truth, (I heard it read some years ago,) that he never could believe God would speak by the mouth of any man while the devil was in his heart. And while a man is under the law, nothing but bondage will be communicated; and yet God often works by these means; He teaches and instructs His people out of His holy law; but the freeborn heirs of Zion, the children of God by faith in Jesus Christ, those who have nearness and access, and are accustomed to "suck and be satisfied with the breasts of Zion's consolations, and to milk out and be delighted with the abundance of her glory," cannot get anything from such a ministry as this; there will be nothing but bondage.
"Take heed, therefore, unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God which He hath purchased with His own blood." It is the Saviour who is here spoken of; God, our Saviour, who hath purchased the church "with His own blood."
But I shall not dwell any more upon the secret character of the sheep; because, my dear brethren, a person may believe all that I have uttered with respect to God's everlasting love to His people, His eternal choice of them, and their redemption in Christ Jesus, and that the Saviour laid down His life for poor, perishing sinners; a person may believe all this, credit it as a matter of fact, and yet have no personal interest therein; no, nor any desire after it either. "What," say you, "do you believe it is possible for a person to believe these things, and not have a desire after them?" Yes, with natural faith; for, real, spiritual desires spring from Divine life; till life exists, they are never found; no, never; let a man make what professing of religion he may.
We come, then, to their open character, how they are manifested to be sheep; and here we would follow the figure, the emblem, a little; for there is infinite wisdom in all he expressions the Holy Ghost hath used to set forth spiritual and Divine things. They are not called sheep in vain, and for nought; and, as they are called sheep, they have a Shepherd; "Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, thou that leadest Joseph like a flock."
I am afraid I shall not be heard in this large place, but if you will be attentive, as the Lord gives me power, I will set these things forth; and I believe some of you would give worlds to know whether you are sheep of Christ's or not.
First, then, the sheep, under the Old Testament dispensation was a clean animal, and might be offered in sacrifice; and this was to set forth Emmanuel. The types and shadows set forth Him who was "holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners." Now, the predestinating will of God concerning His people, is, that they should be "conformed to the image of His Son." They are, by nature, the chief of sinners; every one taught of God is brought to feel this. Sin is charged home upon their conscience; and, oh! the pollution and unholiness that is felt continually working, But the Lord hath appointed that they shall be cleansed: "Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean, from all your filthiness and from all your idols will I cleanse you." Ezek. 36:25. Not from the inbeing of sin; but first, from its guilt; and secondly, from its reign and condemnation. Some will be ready to say, "I should think the reign of sin would be subdued before the guilt thereof." No, no; such is not God's way; "the law worketh wrath." A sinner is not delivered from the reigning power of sin, till delivered from its guilt: "Sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace." Rom. 6:14. Get the guilt of sin purged from your conscience by the blood of Christ, and I will answer for it, the love of sin will be cast out. To hold the contrary of this is to suppose some merit in the creature; that a man must become a better man, and make a profession, and then the Lord will have mercy upon him. "A certain creditor had two debtors: the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both," Luke 7:41,42, without merit, worth, or work.
This forgiveness comes through the application of blood to the conscience. "Not only so," says the Apostle, "but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement." Rom. 6:11. How received it, Paul? Why, in faith.--Do you mean, simply to believe that there is an atonement?--No, more than that. To receive it in the conscience.--What effect does it produce?--It purges the guilt of sin. This is attended with nearness and access to God, not as a consuming fire, or as a terrible judge; but as my reconciled God in Christ Jesus, as my Father.--And what follows?--When guilt is thus purged from the conscience, the love of sin is cast out, and from henceforth it becomes a troublesome enemy, and causes the greatest sorrow possible. You and I often complain of the trying acts of God, and of His distressing dispensations: but I have found out one secret, my dear brethren. "What is that?" say you. Why, it is the stubbornness of my will that gives all the weight to the daily cross. Could I submit to His will, could I really acquiesce in it, as I desire to do, the cross would no longer be a cross. It is just as we are brought to this, that we experience and know these things. There is a cleansing of the sheep, then: this cleansing is effected by the precious blood of the Saviour.
But I hasten in the next place to observe, that sheep are very sociable animals; they are fond of herding together, and abiding together in flocks. Those who understand them say, that if there are any diseased among them, these usually separate themselves from their companions, and get into a ditch, anywhere, to hide themselves.
Now this represents exactly the case of a poor sinner; who in a natural state, is said to have gone astray. "All we like sheep have gone astray." Isa. 53:6. When the Lord is pleased to charge the guilt of sin home upon the conscience, speaking of myself, one of the first effects I found produced by this was to separate myself from my associates, friends, and companions. I could no longer continue in the society. "Then," say you, "you had the fear of God in the heart." I could not trace it. "You had the love of God then?" Not a particle of it; nor one desire to love Him. I had nothing but the guilt of sin in my conscience: this filled me with such terror, that I could no longer go on in the world. God was pleased to break the bond of union; and from that time to this, though I carry the world in my heart, for God hath set the world in the hearts of the children of men, and I often find it a great snare; yet, bless His name, I do not associate with the world; I have no worldly friends or companions, nor do I wish to have any: if I had, I would soon get rid of them. If I find any worldly persons among those I associate with, I will have no more to do with them; except, as God may enable me, to pray for them. But relative ties are not to be severed, my dear brethren, by any means. If children are called by grace, and the parent continues in a state of nature, the filial tie remains; but there is no real union and communion between them. Can the believing father find union and communion with the unbelieving son, or the unbelieving son with the believing father? I say he cannot. "And if it be so, who will make me a liar, and make my speech nothing worth?" Any one in this congregation who fears God dares not contradict what I say. If you can, your heart has never been brought out from the world. "Come out from among them, and be ye separate, and touch not the unclean thing." "Well but," say you, "this will break up relative ties." No such thing. You pray for one another, and do all the good you can for one another; but I am speaking of delight, satisfaction, mutual pursuits, and perseverance in the attainment of the same objects; this cannot be, it is impossible.
Ah! my dear brethren, about five and thirty years ago, the Lord was first pleased to permit me to speak in this town of Brighton; and I remember there were many in those days, upon whom there was a sweet power and savor of Christ resting, and abundantly so upon the congregation of which my ever dear friend and brother, the late Mr. Vinall, was pastor. There was with them a blessed unction and savor. But alas! I know some still living in the body, with whom I thought I had had sweet communion, who talked of the things of God, whose language echoed the sweet tone of Mr. Vinall's ministry; but alas! alas! where are some of them now? Some have gone back into the world, some turned to the Establishment, and are satisfied with a mere outside form of religion. Now I say, if they had known the Lord, if the work had been real, this would not have happened. For wherever He begins a good work, as sure as we are here, so surely He will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ. Oh! how many earnest petitions I am obliged to put up at times that the Lord would order my goings. I have not stones to cast at any. Not one has gone farther than I should have done, if left of God. I feel myself the greatest backslider in the world; but, blessed be His name, as far as these things are concerned, He keeps me from outward sin, manifest to others; though I am not free from faults. But it is my backsliding heart that I mourn. "The backslider in heart shall be filled with his own ways." Prov. 14:14.
As before observed, these sheep are of a sociable disposition; but when the Lord is pleased to lay affliction upon their loins, they cannot associate with the world, nor with God's dear people, for they are not manifest to them: and, I am sorry to say, there is too often a hard spirit in those who do love and fear God, and not a cherishing one. And you know what the Apostle says: "We were gentle among you, even as a nurse cherisheth her children." 1 Thess. 2:7. Where there is any evidence, or discovery of the secret work of grace in the heart, the Lord's dear people do well at least to plead for such, and pray over them, and seek their welfare. Now Jeremiah says: "It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth. He sitteth alone, and keepeth silence. Lam. 3:27,28. Again: "They wandered in the wilderness, in a solitary way." Ps. 107:4.
But I hasten. When the soul has been healed--"What do you mean by healing?" say you. I mean forgiveness of sin experienced and enjoyed--alas! alas! my brethren, backsliding comes in; and coldness, deadness, insensibility, and carnality is experienced. What is the result? Immediately upon this, you will see that, if they do not withdraw from the house of God, and the worship of God, and the ministry that has been blessed to them, if they do not immediately withdraw from these, they will absent themselves as much as they can from the society and company of those who are the most savory. They have a consciousness that something is wrong; and those who live near to God will find them out by their deadness and carnality. They will go anywhere, rather than fall into the society of such.
Now this is exactly the character and disposition of the sheep. "Do you think," say you, "that this may be found among the Lord's people?" I know myself what I am preaching to you to be the fact. But, blessed be His dear name, He will not leave us there. There are two methods by which the Lord is pleased to keep us in life in His ways, and near to Himself. The one is, by daily crosses, heavy trials, afflictions, and chastisements, which keep us pleading for His mercy from day to day. We cannot possibly settle upon our lees. Do you see one continually exercised, within and without? Then you will find much life, earnestness, and savor in such a one. On the other hand, God sometimes condescends in such a sweet and blessed manner to indulge His dear people with nearness and access to Him, with so much of His love, so much of His presence, so much secret communion, that He keeps the heart's affections and desires to Himself. These do not escape the daily cross and the path of tribulation more than the others; but they experience more of the Lord's presence, and are kept nearer to Him: consequently there is more conformity to Christ; for the nearer we are to Him, and the more we behold Him, the more are we like Him. Thus, "beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, we are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord. 2 Cor. 3:18.
Can you find any of these things in your experience? These are some of the evidences of being sheep.
Once more. The sheep is one of those animals which chew the cud and divide the hoof. "What is that?" say you. Why, coming out of the world, and being conformed to Christ. But there is something more in this parting the hoof. I believe it represents both the working of the flesh, and the working of the spirit. As, for example, there is a walking sometimes in light, at other times, in darkness; sometimes, by faith, at other times, "staggering at the promises of God through unbelief;" sometimes, there is an earnest cry to God, at other times, the mouth is closed; sometimes, we have liberty and access, at other times, we are shut up, and cannot come forth; sometimes, a sweet understanding of the things of God, at other times, the Bible a sealed book; sometimes, the heart so contracted that it can receive and take in nothing, at other times, sweetly and blessedly enlarged; sometimes, rising high in hope, at other times, sinking in fear. All these may be represented by the cloven hoof, taken as the two natures, the flesh lusting against the spirit.
But they chew the cud. What may be meant by this? That, though they cannot possibly live upon past experience, yet they do eat the old because of the new; and sometimes former experiences are brought back in sweet recollection; that which has been done by God in days that are past. "Thou shalt remember all the way which the Lord thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness." Deut. 8:2.
My dear brethren, I cannot go through the heads of my discourse as I laid them down, but I must notice a few things.
In the next place, nothing discovers the sheep more than its proneness to fear; and whatever strength it possesses, it does not seem to have knowledge to make use of. It is most defenseless, and becomes a prey to animals of greater strength and size than its own. This sets forth the experience of the Lord's dear people. Does the sheep flee from the barking of the dog? This represents the awful temptations of Satan. "Deliver my soul from the sword, my darling from the power of the dog." Ps. 22:20. This text applies primarily to the Saviour, but is a petition suited to the experiences of the Lord's tried family. The temptations of Satan, with the confusion and turmoil produced, are sometimes very great. It is expressed thus in Psalm 40; "I waited patiently for the Lord, and He inclined unto me and heard my cry. He brought me up also out of an horrible pit," Margin, "a pit of noise," and the noise or confusion is so great that there is no possibility of meditating, or discerning anything rightly. Now, this affrights the poor, exercised one. He cries, "Lord, help me! Lord, save me! Lord, be merciful to me a sinner!" He is weak and helpless, and can do nothing for himself. "Without me ye can do nothing." So the poor thing finds it.
Now the Lord saith to Peter, "Feed my sheep." What the Lord said to Peter, He says to all whom He calls and sends into the work of the ministry; He must prepare a man for this. Without this preparation, I believe no man has a right to get into a pulpit, or to preach the word of God. He must be called to the work. Now, what would you say, if you had a flock of sheep in a fold, and a man were to go into the field, open the gate, and turn them into another field, where they ought not to go, and were not intended to be? "What are you doing?" you would say. "I am acting as your shepherd, doing what I think best." Yet, just so is it with those men in our day, who are doing what they think best. What a carnal view it is when people insist upon sincerity, as it is called. Say they, "The man is perfectly sincere." Aye, and so was Paul, my brethren, when he was "under the law," and "persecuted the church of Christ, and wasted it." And so is the Papist sincere, and the Roman Empire was sincere when it destroyed the church. "The time cometh, that whosoever killeth you, will think that he doeth God service." John 16:2. Tell me not of sincerity; sincerity, without grace, is not worth this handkerchief. This is the boasted nonsense of the day; "If he is not right, he thinks he is; and if he is not right, his sincerity will make him so." A man's sincerity is not worth anything, unless the Lord prepare, and fit, and send him forth. A man sincere indeed! Why the authors of the Church of England articles knew better than this: "They also are to be had accursed that presume to say, That every man shall be saved by the Law or Sect which he professeth, so that he be diligent to frame his life according to that Law, and the light of Nature." Art. 18. He may be very sincere; a sincere Pharisee, a sincere Jew, a sincere Papist, a sincere Arminian, a sincere empty Calvinist; but what has all this to do with it? Saith the article; "Holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved." Christ is the only Saviour. Do not talk any more, then, about your sincerity.
You would naturally say to a man who interfered with your sheep, "What have you to do with them?" Saith he, "I thought I was doing right," Say you, "I never employed you, you have nothing to do with them." This is the case with every self-taught, self-sent letter-preacher in England, and all over the world, without a single exception.
"Feed my sheep," saith Jesus. What is it to feed the sheep? One thing I am sure of, that, as the Lord hath given them spiritual life, nothing will feed them but spiritual provision. "My words," saith the Saviour, "are spirit, and they are life." Christ is the bread of life, and feeds the souls of His dear people. Now, as He condescends to put forth His almighty power, He often exercises this power through and by the ministry of the word. For the Apostle says: "The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation." But it is the Saviour who puts forth the power. "He leadeth Joseph like a flock."
Now I will suppose that a poor sinner comes into our assembly, earnest in seeking after God; one whose heart is in doubt, full of exercise and unbelief, with many fervent desires; who would part with all, and count the loss of all things gain to know that he has an interest in Christ. Well now, he listens with attention to what is spoken, and almost imperceptibly, through the ministry of the word, "faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." His path is traced out. They shall hear, and say it is truth. "How does the man know my case?" he thinks, "I never told him." So was it with the poor woman of Samaria, who said: "Come, see a man which told me all things that ever I did, is not this the Christ?" John 4:29. My brethren, He speaks in and by His servants now, just as much as by His lips in the days of His flesh, and it is attended by the same almighty power too. The poor sinner is led on and on. "What this man says is true. I know something about this." So he is constrained to acknowledge it is true. The word comes with power; it enters into the man, and is received into his heart and affections. By and by he is led into some sweet spot. His case as a sinner is described; his case, as under the condemnation of a broken law; his case as a backslider, or whatever it may be, is described; and then he is brought, in the exercise of faith, to the very spot where such and such a promise was made suitable to such a case and condition. He feels himself the chief of sinners; he is brought to this: "If we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin." 1 John 1:7. "All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men." Matt. 12:31. "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures;" the green pastures of His word; and he gets a little here, and a little there, which exactly suits his case. It encourages him. He lies down, and finds rest; that is, he finds a sweet rest in the promises, which resting increases his hope, and faith joins her twin-sister: though generally hope is first perceived, yet there must be faith to believe; and hope is encouraged by what faith believes. "My soul, hope thou in God."
But here he gets food and nourishment. His soul is satisfied. "My people shall be satisfied with my goodness." Thus poor sinners lie down in green pastures. The word is sweet to their souls, and pleasant to their taste. And oh, how do they enjoy it! "Thy words were found, and I did eat them; and thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of mine heart." Jer. 15:16.
How different is this feeding upon the word from the hearing of the cold, dead, lifeless, formal, carnal critic, who only comes either to approve or disapprove. This thing is right, or that thing is wrong, just according to his own fleshly views. He knows nothing at all about the matter. But the poor sinner finds rest and comfort. He enjoys the sincere milk of the word, as a new-born babe, and grows thereby. In a word, he gets something suitable and precious to his soul. He feeds upon it. "I have esteemed the words of His mouth more than my necessary food."
Thus we are enabled to discover the presence of the good Shepherd. But if we never hear the chief Shepherd's voice in a man's ministry, what is the use of attending it? "My sheep hear my voice, and they follow me." What is it to hear his voice? The first hearing it consists in the communication of life to the soul. "The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and they that hear shall live." John 5:25. It consists in calling a poor sinner to the Saviour, to His feet: "Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth." It is "a lamp to his feet, and a light to his path." He goes with earnest desires and expectations to receive something. Every time the Lord comforts and blesses his soul, he feeds. "Feed my sheep."
None but sheep can feed in this way; nor will this food suit any but the sheep. Not but that many who are not sheep may be fed by the same ministry. "How so?" say you. Some by the doctrinal part of it; some by the practical part of it; and some, if the mysteries of Divine truth are exhibited and set forth at times, will have their understanding and judgment fed thereby: the carnal mind is capable of taking pleasure in this, just as in any scientific subject; but mark, as soon as such hearers go away, they can mix with the world. There is nothing which separates more from the world, than sweetly feeding upon Christ, the bread of life. They whose souls are thus blessedly fed, cannot be satisfied with any other food. They who have fellowship with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ have very little pleasure in the society of those who are strangers to it.
Oh! this kills a man to the world. "I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me." Gal. 2:20. "Feed my sheep."
May the Lord command his blessing on what hath been spoken, and His name shall have the praise. Amen.