But you, Israel, are my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham my friend.
(with Matthew 3:9): — There is between these two passages an ascertainable relation. In the passage which we have read from the Book of Isaiah is exhibited the greatest element in the Israelitish national consciousness. Apparently these people never forgot their vocation as the children of Abraham. Sometimes they attributed more importance to it, sometimes less. When the nation was at its best they spiritualised the ideal; when it was at its worst they materialised it; but they never wholly ignored it. Here is a prophet speaking in a stern time with the purpose of heartening the people who were listening to him. See how he does it. In the chapter which precedes the one whence our text is taken the opening sentences are: "Comfort ye, comfort ye, My people, saith your God," etc. The last verse of the chapter is more beautiful still: "They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, and they shall walk and not faint." We see the mood in which Isaiah speaks and the tenderness which is evident in his message. It is as though he would say to Israel: You have passed through a stern testing time, but you have not ceased to be the people of God. Indeed, the testing time was permitted because you are never to be anything else than the chosen ones, God's Israel. You have Abraham for your father, and the covenant which God made with Abraham He will keep with you. "Fear thou not, for I am with thee; be not dismayed, for I am thy God. I will strengthen thee, yea, I will help thee, yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness. ' In the light of this Old Testament consciousness let us now look at the passage which we have chosen from the New. Isaiah and John are both heralds; there is at least this similarity between them, that they both come as the bearers of good tidings concerning a better day. But they are different in this: while Isaiah speaks with the gorgeous magnificence of Oriental symbolism, and his message is one full of comfort and tenderness, the words of St. John are utterly unadorned; rugged and grim is the speech of this child of the desert. He comes less with a message of comfort than with one of rebuke; and yet, like Isaiah, he is the herald of a glorious day. But the people are not ready for his message nor for the blessing which he announces. And so his words to them are words of warning, especially, shall I say, to the Pharisees. The people and their leaders had been too much inclined to content themselves with making much of the tradition of the covenant of God with Abraham, and they thought comparatively, little of what was required from them in the keeping of it. "O generation of vipers! who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth, therefore, fruits meet for repentance." The Pharisees were conspicuous for two particular vices; and may I say, in parenthesis, that Pharisees were by no means in their entirety pact men. There were many sincere men in their ranks, and yet Jesus, like John, had more difficulty with the Pharisees than with any other class in the community. Their chief sin was that of spiritual pride; but another was, they believed in the externals of religion rather than in change of heart. They insisted much upon their lineage: here we are the chosen people, the descendants of Abraham — would not God keep His word to us? What part or lot has the race of mankind in this which is a special privilege of Israel? John's reply to them is this: "Think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father." Why should God trouble to show His favour to men like you, for you are very different from Abraham? God is able to raise up from these stones children unto Abraham. Shall we spend a little more time in discovering what John the Baptist means by saying, "God is able of the stones to raise up children unto Abraham"? I have heard an exegesis of this kind, and it is not a modern one only: "Oh, it is obvious that St. John meant that the hearts around him might be changed by his glorious message, that God would give to these men a heart of flesh in place of a heart of stone, and then they would be children of Abraham indeed." Well, the inference is not unjustifiable, but I do not think it is correct. I believe that St. John meant exactly and literally what he said: "God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham." To believe that he meant it literally adds force to the warning and the appeal. What he meant, then, was something like this: It is in the power of God to breathe the breath of life into these rocks of the desert, and they should become living souls; and if so it is conceivable they would be better men than you and worthier successors of Abraham, the friend of God. For who was, what was, this Abraham? If you turn to Hebrews 11. you will read a Christian description of the man and his character: "By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went," etc. Momentous results followed that far-off choice. It was the dawning of a great hour in which Israel was born, and with Israel the Messiah, and with the Messiah the gospel under which you and I live our lives to-day. Here, then, is the Abraham of whose seed these Pharisees claimed to be. They had not his moral courage, nor his noble spirit; these were not of the kind who would have gone out in pursuit of a spiritual ideal. These were men who had hardened into insensibility, who by their lives denied the spiritual idea Abraham had bequeathed to them, and therefore the Baptist's remonstrance was apt indeed. "Think not to say, we have Abraham to our father." You are not of the spiritual lineage of Abraham; you would never dare for God; you are content with the grovelling things, your gaze is never lifted to the eternal. God could raise up another Abraham, yea, of these stones he could raise up children worthier than you. As an illustration of what the fiery, indomitable prophet of the desert meant, let me remind you of something, perhaps, that may have crossed your lips but yesterday. Looking upon the degenerate son of a noble sire, what was it you remarked to your companion? "His only recommendation is that he is his father's son." Any worthless profligate who soils a noble name and brings degradation upon the record of a noble race receives and deserves the reprobation of honest men. The question whether England is Israel is not worth discussing, believe me. If you could prove it to-morrow, some John the Baptist might rise and tell you you are out of the spiritual succession altogether. This is merely the negative side of the question. The seed of Abraham in spirit and in truth are those who hear the Word of God speaking within their own hearts, and rise and go forth and obey. Hear what Jesus has to say on this theme in John 8:39. If Jesus is correctly reported by one who at any rate knew Him well, as addressing the indignant Jews, He says: "I speak that which I have seen with My Father; and ye do that which ye have seen with your father. They answered and said unto Him, Abraham is our father. Jesus saith unto them, If ye were Abraham's children, ye would do the works of Abraham. But now ye seek to kill Me, a man that hath told you the truth, which I have heard of God: this did not Abraham." We can classify easily the men that are of the quality of Abraham. Did these pharisaic time-servers, these bigoted Jews, who were questioning Jesus with the object of destroying Him, really think that they stood in the succession of him who was the friend of God? Verily they did; but the consciousness of humanity since has put them right. An , in the early years of Christianity, a rough soldier, is chosen by the people, who know him and his character, to be their bishop; and now as prelate of Milan it is the duty of this erstwhile soldier to turn from the church door the bloodstained emperor who had been his commander. He dare not do otherwise, for he is serving a greater than the emperor. Here speaks the seed of Abraham. And who knows? God knows, maybe, that in this church this morning there are some of the lineage of Abraham of whom the world will never hear. The rest of us, perhaps, in the gaze of heaven, may have to be put in another category — the category of those who have not dared for justice and right and truth. There is one more thought suggested in our second text. There is something contained in the very phrase "these stones," which I think was not merely accidental. The prophet knew well what he meant: the stones are unpromising material. Conversion is a turning from sin and a turning towards God. Get firm hold of that fact. Feelings are an endowment which may or may not accompany it; but the man whose heart is right with holiness and truth, whose faith is turned that way, is of the seed of Abraham and the friend of God. I want you to recognise, what is the very truth, that Abraham had far less to guide him than you. He heard the same voice as you, but it had not told the world as much then as it has told it since. When you take up this Old Testament again and read of the wonders achieved by the heroes of old, remember that the voice that spake to them spake within their own hearts, and not without, just as it speaks now to you. This Abraham heard a voice, and he said he would obey it; he could trust it; he established his covenant with God, and it never failed him. How shall I know I am of the seed of Abraham? Is my face turned the way his was? How shall I know I belong to the Lord Christ? Here is my charter: "Whosoever shall do the will of God (even seek to do it), the same is My brother and sister and mother." Jesus will never turn away from His own spiritual kindred. Yet there may be one more experience here to which I ought to speak. There is, perhaps, a man who says, "Ah yes; but I have made shipwreck of my career. Such lives as these may look back upon their life and say, 'I have done the best I could with my manhood.' But I have failed; my road is strewn with the dust and ashes of vain regrets. 'The stones are the rubbish of the desert. They only serve to accentuate its desolation.' Just so; I am the stones." Well, I want you to hear a voice that I am fond of listening to — with deepest reverence be it spoken — One that spoke with authority; and I think you will agree with me it has power in it still: — John 8:56: "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad." Picture the astonishment of those Jews. "Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast Thou seen Abraham?" Poor literalists! Abraham in his lonely desert vigil never saw Jesus; he had no foregleam of the day when Jesus should speak such words as these; but what he did have was the vision by which he saw the Sun of Righteousness arising in his own heart. That was Jesus' day. The Abraham who spent his early days in a guilty household, in the midst of men who never thought of the unworthiness of serving God by lascivious rites and brutal deeds, one day said to himself, "This life has to be left behind." So soon as he had seen that, he had seen Jesus' day, and he rose up and went out to meet it. And that is just what we have to do. For the same voice that spake to Abraham is speaking to the world to-day, is speaking through Jesus: "Before Abraham was I am." Children of Abraham, friends of Jesus, is not that voice speaking to you even now?
(R. J. Campbell, M. A.)
Parallel VersesKJV: But thou, Israel, art my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham my friend.