"Thou hast ascended on high, Thou hast led captivity captive: Thou hast received gifts for men; yea, for the rebellious also, that the Lord God might dwell among them." (Psalm 68:18)
What blessed and glorious truths are wrapped up in this text, and what a real thing is the Gospel of our once crucified, our now ascended Lord. There is nothing so overwhelming as a feeling sense, under God's grace and power, (and I do not suppose that all who hear me are in that happy state,) that we have been made to differ, made to receive the truth--made to "worship God in the Spirit, to rejoice in Jesus Christ, to have no confidence in the flesh!" (Phil. 3:3) Now you know, as I have often preached to some that I now see before me--you know that the Gospel of our glorious Christ is a distinguishing thing! And that every sent servant, every minister sent by the Holy Spirit to preach the Gospel is, must be, shall be a discriminating, a distinguishing preacher; that he must separate, not merely between the church and the world--not merely between professor and possessor--not merely between sheep and goats--but that he must distinguish between the old man and the new, in the new born people of God.
In the text before us we have, first of all, the great and glorious doctrine of the Ascension of our blessed Lord! "Thou hast ascended on high." I would preach first on that great subject. In this glorious truth is involved and included Christ crucified! Yea, I may go further back, and preach Christ born of the virgin, the helpless babe once cradled in Bethlehem's stable, and trace out also before you all His eventful life of suffering, and temptation, and trial, till we behold Him nailed and agonized on the cross--and then preach to you not merely His birth, His crucifixion, and resurrection from the grave that could not hold Him, but the special point before us in the text--Christ ascended into glory! The Apostle Paul thus addresses the church in Romans 8:34: "Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us." Oh! What a great, what a glorious, (and I am not adopting a too common term when I say,) what a useful doctrine is this, because, to every really poor sinner who knows the devilishness of his own evil heart--to every poor sinner who is brought down to feel his own personal guilt, and who cries out under the burden of it, I know nothing so heart-soothing, so comforting, so encouraging, (when the Holy Spirit applies it with power,) as the gladdening fact, that we have now in heaven the God-Man Mediator, the one blessed and glorious Advocate making intercession for His church, and that He is interested in every single particular, in every iota of each day's occurrence which concerns His own dear people. There is not a moment of our time but that He with a love and watchfulness more tender than that of the tenderest mother, guards, watches over you and me. And, Oh, how sweet, how comforting, that as regards our very sins, and our very iniquities, we have the triumphant statement of the Apostle John--"If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous: and He is the propitiation for our sins." (1 John 2:1,2) I trust that I am preaching to several before me who know the truth in the experience of it--who are not satisfied with its merely dry doctrinal statements, (blessed as the doctrines are,) but who must have the Gospel experimentally preached, who know day by day, hour after hour, what it is to "groan being burdened." The Apostle Paul speaks of himself--"O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" (Rom. 7:24) Mark the state of suffering conflict in which he was, and then getting by faith, a glimpse of Jesus Christ as his own Saviour, exclaims--"I thank God! Through Jesus Christ our Lord." (ver.25) Thus while he felt his sin, and writhed under its burden, he could and did rejoice in his own gracious Redeemer, and thus sets forth the experience of every believer--"So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God: but with the flesh the law of sin." (ver.25) Now in thus contemplating our glorious Christ as an ascended Saviour, we behold Him there in heaven, (if I may so speak) occupying and fulfilling a particular office--mediating, advocating, interceding for every one of His own blood-bought people; each one and all given Him before all worlds. It is of Him, this glorious Redeemer, that the text speaks--"Thou hast ascended on high."
Now I need not dwell, (having other great points in the text,) I need not dwell longer on this head which presents before us the Redeemer of the church, as the Ascended Intercessor in heaven! "Thou hast ascended on high"--but go on to the next subject in the text--"Thou hast led captivity captive," or as it is in the margin--"Thou hast led a multitude of captives captive," that is, as I understand it, that He has taken and thrown into captivity, and bound up in chains, all the enemies of the church! That when He ascended up into heaven, He went up the Conqueror of hell, of sin, of death. And that in the words of this great and wonderful Scripture, the Holy Ghost, by David's pen, is (as it seems to me) ascribing this special, this wonderful victory to the Saviour. That at His ascension into heaven, He "led captivity captive;" that He fettered and enchained that multitude of every thing, and all those countless enemies that assail, and harass, and annoy His poor and exercised people. Here we behold Him the triumphant Conqueror of sin, hell, and death! The victorious Spoiler of Satan and his power! And so Paul, catching something of this great truth, bursts out in the Epistle to the church at Corinth,--"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 to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." (1 Cor. 15:55-57)
But while I am preaching on this word "captivity," am I addressing any here, (I suppose I am!) Any poor ones now in captivity? Shut up! In bondage! Where is it that we generally find the people of God? In bondage! In trial! In distress! In exercise! Where was David when he cried in that experimental Psalm, the 142nd.--"Bring my soul out of prison, that I may praise Thy name: the Righteous shall compass me about; for Thou shalt deal bountifully with me." (Ps. 142:7) Where, I ask, was David then? He was shut up in prison! Now we have no power to extricate ourselves from prison. How was it with Peter? He was in Herod's power till God sent His angel to loose the chains, to unbar the prison doors, and to conduct the captive apostle out into free and glorious liberty!
I do not, I cannot understand those persons who can (as they say at least) get out whenever they choose. O no, that is all delusion. But O, how blessed it is when I can look to Christ, and see Him as having "led captivity captive," that there is not a single enemy of His dear people but what is completely and entirely under His power; and that although He allows the enemy (and I believe that He allows this in the very tenderest love to His elect,) to harass, to imprison, and to vex His church--yet that these enemies are all in chains--and that all this discipline and exercise is for the very, the special good, of His dear family. It is written--"whose fire is in Zion, and His furnace in Jerusalem." (Isa. 31:9) What does the Apostle Paul say! Does he not tell the church that "the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is?" (1 Cor. 3:13) What do mere professors, and evangelical gossips, and talkers know of this? What do they know of the fire? What do they know of the conflict? The struggle? That inward affliction? That being "shut up and cannot come forth?" That waiting upon God? That longing of soul? O, it is a reality to understand something of these things, to lay low at His footstool, to wait upon Him for every blessing, for every mercy, every comfort. But it is said that "the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is"--that is, God's work in the man. It is this--this which tests the true believer from the hypocrite. It is the fire. How experimental are Peter's words on this subject, "That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ." (1 Pet. 1:7) O, if you and I know nothing of "the fire"--if I knew nothing of it, I should not be fit to stand in the pulpit. It may do very well to get up in a pulpit and preach a sermon, but to be a messenger to God's people, a messenger from God to them, we must know what "the fire" is. It is in the furnace where we learn our work, and are taught how to preach the Gospel to the poor, to our fellow-sinners and fellow-sufferers who are in the fire and in the furnace. Was it not Luther who said--"Hot furnaces, deep waters, and temptations make a minister?" And what, I ask, is it that makes a Christian? The very same things, and nothing else. Mere external work will not do. It is the inward work. Fiery trials, deep waters, temptations. And under all our troubles to have the eye fixed on Christ. "Thou hast ascended on high, Thou hast led captivity captive."
This hymn of Hart's was sweet to me this morning in a family circle, and it has been abiding with me all day in London--
"Lord, if with Thee part I bear;
If I through Thy word am clean;
In Thy mercy if I share;"
(Look at those "ifs")
"If Thy blood has purged my sin;
To my needy soul impart"--
There is the need, as David says, "But I am poor and needy; the Lord thinketh upon me" (Ps. 40:17)--"(what a blessing this to poor ones, needy ones)--the Lord thinks on such--"But I am poor and needy; the Lord thinketh upon me: Thou my help and my Deliverer; make no tarrying, O my God."
"To my needy soul impart
Thy good Spirit from above,
To enrich my barren heart
With humility and love."
(And then again, without taking the whole hymn)--
"Lord, my heart, a desert vast,
Thy reviving hand requires.
Sin has laid my vineyard waste"--
Come, my brother, you know that! Sin, your own guilt! Your own sin! O, the wickedness of your heart, and my heart, for as Toplady says--"The old Adam can never be a saint." You know how vile, how wicked you are in your old Adam nature.
"Sin has laid my vineyard waste,
Overgrown with weeds and briers:
Thou canst make this desert bloom.
Breathe, O breathe, celestial Dove,
Till it blow with rich perfume
Of humility and love."
Mr. Hart knew the same secret that I know. That there is no improvement in the old man. That we are just as vile, just as sinful, just as black as ever in ourselves. I can hold no communion with any other persons. In the creed my brother read just now in the Prayer Book, we profess to believe "in the communion of saints," and I am old enough in the Gospel, to know well that there can be, and is, no communion except with those who feel their sins, and who groan under the tremendous burden of their own heart-depravity. It is this that forms the communion, and while we sympathize thus with each other in our own personal guilt and depravity, we have a sympathy of another and a gladdening kind, in having an eye fixed by faith, and a broken heart pointed by grace, upon and to Him, of whom the text declares--"Thou hast ascended on high, Thou hast led captivity captive." Look at the people of London, how they crowded the streets of this great city a short time ago to see the Emperor of the French and his Empress. How they waited for hours in order to get a sight of these persons! Do you know that word in the Bible--"Every eye shall see Him?" (Rev. 1:7) Yes, every eye shall see Him and see Him too at that tremendous day when His own words shall be fulfilled--"And before Him shall be gathered all nations: and He shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats." (Matt. 25:32) But "every eye shall see Him," even "His own elect" shall see Him now by faith when grace opens the eyes of each of them. The opened eye of His own people, and not another soul. This is the sight which the poor captive sinner, (for I believe that the majority of God's elect are in captivity, or in the pit, in the fire, in deep waters, in exercise,) this is the sight they desire to see. Such is, I believe, the experience of the true church of God. Go through the Bible, and, specially in the Psalms, you will find that this is the state of the church, that the people of God are, as described in the text which I preached on here in February last--"Like doves of the valleys, all of them mourning, every one for his iniquity." But O, how blessed it is when we are enabled to see Christ as our own Advocate on high. To see Him as the ascended Saviour. The Intercessor, who is every instant, "Not a moment intermitting His compassion or His care." All the enemies of His people are fettered foes, and whether they be of a spiritual or temporal kind, they are chained enemies, for "Thou hast ascended on high, Thou hast led captivity captive." But we must know this experimentally, and to teach us this, we must be ourselves brought into bondage. The conviction of sin does this. "And when He is come He will convince the world of sin;" and when really convinced of sin that sinner must be in bondage till grace sets him free. Who is it that opens the prison door? Let me read a very striking Scripture in Job 39:5: "Who hat sent out the wild ass free?" (We are all born, every one of us, "like a wild ass's colt,") but "Who hath sent out the wild ass free? Or hath loosed the bands of the wild ass? Whose house I have made the wilderness, and the barren land his dwellings; he scorneth the multitude of the city"--(Oh, yes! He does not follow the rabble crowd) "neither regardeth he the crying of the driver." (Job 39:7) Now in an experimental sense I take "the driver" to be the Arminian, evangelical, free-will preacher. The persuaders who exclaim--"Why do you not come? Why do you not believe? Why do you not repent? The "driver," "the crying of the driver," is the word. Now in all creation there is no animal so obstinate, so stubborn as the ass! And the figure here in Job is the driving of the ass--of the wild ass sent out "free"--and we are all born Arminians, and obstinate, and dead, till we are set free in the gospel; then, when we are delivered and set at liberty, then we scorn alike the multitude of the city, and regard not the crying of the driver, for "the range of the mountains is his pasture, and he searcheth after every green thing." (Job 39:8) And so it is in the realities of gospel experience; and as the animal when sent out free, searches after, and enjoys the green and refreshing pasture, so the delivered soul, set free from the law and all its bondage ranges in glorious liberty on the mountain's pasture, and searcheth in faith and prayer after the blood of Jesus, the righteousness of Jesus, and the finished work of Jesus. "Thou hast ascended on high, Thou hast led captivity captive: Thou hast received gifts for men"--or as it is in the margin--"Thou hast received gifts in the man!"
Now consider this portion of the text in this view of it--"Thou hast received gifts in the Man." And is not every mercy and every blessing treasured up in Christ for His people? Does not all fullness dwell in Him? "It pleased the Father that in Him should all fullness dwell;" (Col. 1:19) and these gifts and graces are dealt out according to Jehovah's will and covenant, at His own time, in His own way for the comfort, the edification, and the special good of "His own elect." Paul declares--"And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath He quickened together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses; blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to His cross; having spoiled principalities and powers, He made a show of them openly triumphing over them in it." (Col. 2:13-15) Having also said--"Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of His dear Son: in Whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins: who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: for by Him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by Him, and for Him: and He is before all things, and by Him all things consist. And He is the head of the body, the church; who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things He might have the pre-eminence. For it please the Father that in Him should all fullness dwell." (Col. 1:13-19) Now, in Christ is every good thing, and every mercy, that Jehovah, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, intends to deal out to His people, they are all treasured up in Him for them, and each and all to be dealt out to them just at the very moment, and in the very way, appointed in the everlasting covenant of grace before all worlds.
But now look at another point in this text, full of gospel truth, setting forth so sweetly the inestimable love of God to His people,--"yea, for the rebellious also." Mark the free grace declaration--"Thou hast ascended on high, Thou hast led captivity captive: Thou hast received gifts for men; yea, for the rebellious also." Who need then despair? "Greatest sinners, greatly spared Love much"--says Hart--"Yea! For the rebellious also." Trace throughout the Bible, trace there the wonders of redeeming love, and see how wonderfully God has shown forth His pardoning mercy! See the saved ones. Look at Mary Magdalene! Who could have been worse than she? Out of whom seven devils were cast. Look again at the prodigal son! Pardoned, restored, received, and mark his language--"I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants." Now, I wish to be useful to you, my hearers, in ministering the gospel. I would ask, therefore, Is there one in the church bowed down under a sense of sin, bowed down as a bulrush? One here who feels wretched on account of his own depravity? To you, and such as you, I would emphatically preach this portion of the text--"yea, for the rebellious also." It is written--"This Man receiveth sinners and eateth with them." (Luke 15:2) And to return to the account of the prodigal son, we read, "But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him." O! What a reception! Not a word is said to him about his sins, not a stone cast at him, guilty and vile though he was--but mark the words--"Bring forth the best robe, and put on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: and bring hither the fatted calf, and kill; and let us eat, and be merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found." Now here is the secret of the gospel, "the secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him." (Ps. 25:14) None others understand--none others know it--"For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them." (Eph. 2:8-10) Salvation is by grace alone. "The salvation of the righteous is of the Lord; their strength in time of trouble." (Ps. 37:39) Every man who has received the grace of God in a broken heart, desires above every thing to do those things that please Him; he desires to obey, he grieves because he falls so short of obedience, while the faith of his heart rests solely for salvation on that blessed and glorious Redeemer, who, in Peter's word, "hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God." (1 Pet. 3:18) In preaching here--addressing all sorts and conditions of men, and drawing my bow at a venture--I am to "preach the Gospel to every creature." A faithful ministry is one of God's choicest gifts to His Church. If we turn to the Epistle to the Ephesians, we have this very text I am preaching on, quoted by Paul from the Psalm--"Wherefore he saith, When He ascended up on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. (Now that He ascended, what is it but that He also descended first into the lower parts of the earth; He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that He might fill all things.) And He gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ." (Eph 4:8-12) A faithful ministry is one of God's gifts to His people; and it is the test of the faithfulness of a ministry if it be the means of bringing sinners to the knowledge of the truth, of leading them through the Spirit to Christ as a Saviour! No matter whom we hear, if it be the truth, whether it be in a Cathedral or any where else. And the desire of every faithful minister is to be made by grace a blessing to rebellious sinners. And I believe that no man can preach the gospel with a blessing, till he has been made to feel and to know his own depravity and rebellion. We cannot preach to others till we know our own vileness, and so have a sympathy and a tenderness of feeling for every poor, rebellious sinner in whom Divine grace has wrought a work, and put a desire to be saved, in and by that everlasting salvation which has been effected on the cross, through the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ--"He is the Rock, His work is perfect." (Deut. 32:4) Here then, I have before me, in this portion of the text, authority to preach salvation and pardon to the most rebellious sinner in this house of God, if that rebellious sinner is one amongst the elect, is one for whom Christ died. And there are those here now hearing me preach, who know that this is THE TRUTH, but who, it may be, want a feeling sense of their own personal interest in the work of Christ. You are, therefore, in trouble about yourself; exercised about your own state and interest. Now, do you think that the mere professor is ever in such trouble? "They may profess; they may be strict about forms and externals, attend missionary meetings, and do this, that, and the other; but they know nothing of God's work in the soul; nothing of the narrow pathway; nothing of being brought low, because of their own guilt and sin; and unless God makes them desolate because of iniquity and sin; unless God works in them by the Spirit's power, they never will, never can cry for mercy and for pardon. Here is the sweet test of reality. "This poor man cried, and the Lord heard and saved him out of all his troubles." There cannot be a sweeter token for good than having that cry in the heart--"They cried to God in the battle, and He was intreated of them; because they put their trust in Him." ( 1 Chron. 5:20) All the rebellion, all the sin, all the depravity of the elect has been atoned for by the precious death and finished work of Jesus Christ. But the point for each one of us to ascertain is this--DID CHRIST DIE FOR ME? My hearers, the solemn thing to realize is this--Has God begun the work in our own soul? If we have only begun with God--(I have preached this before to some of you)--that will not save us--but if God has begun with us, then we are safe, because saved--"Being confident of this very thing, that He which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ." (Phil. 1:6) God will carry on His own work; He will complete it; He will finish His own work in His own people. Zechariah says--"Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit saith the Lord of hosts." "Who art thou, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel thou shalt become a plain: and He shall bring forth the headstone with shoutings, Grace, grace unto it." (Zech. 4:6,7) If a man feels his rebellion, if a man feels his sin, if a man knows what it is to be in darkness, in trial, in temptation--what a mercy it is for that man to know that there is salvation in Christ for the worst of sinners, that there "is a fountain opened to the house of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem for sin and for uncleanness." (Zech. 13:1) It is the positive statement of God's own word--"For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace." (Rom. 6:14)
"What though he feels himself depraved,
Yet he's in Christ a sinner saved,
And 'tis a sign of life within,
To groan beneath the power of sin."
There is much comfort in that verse to the people of God. At the amazing scene of the crucifixion we see the wonders of salvation! Those three crosses! One bearing the Saviour, while on either side hung two convicted thieves. Pardoning mercy shown to one, as in that sweet hymn--
"The dying thief rejoiced to see
That Fountain in his day;
And there have I, as vile as he,
Washed all my sins away."
That precious blood atones for all sin. Cleanses the most guilty, yea, the vilest, the chief of sinners. There is not one here now who really feels his guilt, and writhes under his depravity, and grieves because of his iniquity, but shall receive the full pardon of all his sins--for "where sin abounded, grace did much more abound." (Rom. 5:20) Nothing but an experimental sense of sin makes a man long for, and cry for the salvation that is in Christ alone; and when the blood is really applied, and by faith, through the power of God, we see our interest there, then we know something of the apostle's words--"Ye are bought with a price, therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God's." (1 Cor. 6:20) This is the desire of every child of God. To glorify Him. And our shame and sorrow is that we fall so grievously short of what we would do; but as Isaiah says, "The desire of our soul is to Thy name, and to the remembrance of Thee." (Isa. 26:8)
And now, before I finish preaching on the text--"Thou hast ascended on high, Thou hast led captivity captive: Thou hast received gifts for men; yea, for the rebellious also, that the Lord God might dwell among them."--Mark those words--"That the Lord God might dwell among them." There is a passage in Isaiah 57:15, "For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones." In this we have a description of the person in whom God dwells. "I dwell with him also of a contrite and humble spirit." Again, the Apostle Paul writing to the Corinthians--"And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? For ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them, and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. Wherefore come out from among them, and walk in them, and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing, and I will receive you, and will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be My sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty." (2 Cor. 6:16-18) "Come out from among them, and be ye separate." But where is the separation? Where do we find it? I defy that man who really knows experimentally what it is to have God dwelling in him and he in God--I defy that man to go on hand with the worldling, or the professor, or with any except the poor in spirit, the broken in heart, the ones bowed down under sin, who are looking to and longing for Christ. "Looking," as Jude says, "Looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life." (Jude 1:21) There is an old saying, "A man is known by the company he keeps"--so it is with the Church of God! Unity is a sweet word, Christian union. How is it with the church of God? Those who really feel in their own souls that they are God's people, cannot mingle with the world, so the word declares--"Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, and will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be My sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty." But you must be, and will be, cast out as evil, hated of all for His name's sake. The word declares it,--"And ye shall be hated of all for My name's sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved." (Matt. 10:22) You cannot mix with the world without injury. Would you go into any house in which you heard that every one in it was dying with the small pox or the plague? Would you go there? "Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean." And yet, we may "use this world as not abusing it." We need not go into a convent. The nun carries with her there, a world within herself, a wicked and vile heart. But, my brother, if your heart is fixed on heavenly things, if the Lord God is dwelling in you, there is then such a sweet, such a real union between Christ and you, that your desires will be on heavenly things.
I have thus given the testimony God has enabled me to do. May it be blessed and applied with power to your souls. May Christ be made more precious to you. May you feel a more intense desire than ever to know Him, "as made of God unto you wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption," (1 Cor. 1:30) and see in Him a full, free, finished salvation for yourselves. I will now read the text and finish--"Thou hast ascended on high, Thou hast led captivity captive: Thou hast received gifts for men; yea, for the rebellious also, that the Lord God might dwell among them."
May God bless His word for Jesus Christ's sake. Amen.