And the LORD appeared to him in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day;…
As the ruin of man consisted in his estrangement from God, so his restoration to eternal life consists in his return into the light of God's presence. The Divine enlightenment of man is the glory or manifestation of God. The history of the spiritual revivals in the patriarchal and Jewish churches was the history of the renewed manifestations of God's countenance. The theophanies witnessed by the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, gave to them the inspiration of life. But in the fulness of time, in the Incarnation, God who appeared in passing visions to the patriarchs, and shone between the cherubims in the mystery of the holy of holies, manifested Himself in the flesh and blood of the second Adam: "The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us." Thus, "God manifest in the flesh" in Christ Jesus, is the life of humanity. To behold Him with the eye of the soul is to have the life of the soul. The conditions upon which God permits men to realize the blessed influences of His presence, are to-day exactly the same as they were three thousand years ago, when the "Father of the Faithful" recognized His nearness on the plains of Mamre. The form of this narrative, which records that manifestation of God, embodies everlasting principles which can never pass away. For our instruction it tells us how the "Father of the Faithful" welcomed the approach of God to his soul. Let us dwell, for our learning —
I. Upon THE MODE IN WHICH THE DIVINE LIFE APPROACHED THE MAN. "The Lord appeared unto him"... "Lo, three men stood by him."
1. The mode in which the Divine Life manifested His presence to the patriarch, as recorded in this passage, is regarded by the Church as an adumbration of the fundamental doctrine of the Christian verity, that we worship the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity. This passage is accordingly appointed to be read on the festival of the Trinity. The words, "The Lord appeared unto him," give expression to the Unity of the Divine life. The words that describe the forms of the vision in which God manifested Himself to the soul of the man, "Lo, three men stood by him," express the other aspect of this great mystery, and teach us to think of Three Persons existing within the One Essence of God. St. John the Divine, in his book of Revelation, has been inspired by God to use words which may enable us by analogy to form some faint conception of the relations eternally existing between the three Persons in the Godhead. He illustrates those relations by teaching us to think of the Three Persons in the One Godhead, as we think of the three divisions of one time. Now, the past in time presents itself to our minds as the fountain and origin out of which the present is for ever being born, and out of which the future is for ever destined to proceed. The present, in which we have our being, is for ever departing from us, in order to return into the bosom of that past out of which it came, and in which it dwells. The future comes to us for ever, sent by the departed present, and coming, when it comes, in the name of the present. Our only existence is for ever dependent upon our standing-place in the present. It is our communion, or participation of the present, that enables us to look back, and to remember the past out of which we have come. It is by virtue of our standing on the rock of the present, that we can look forward to the future which it is about to send to us. In the same manner we think of God the Father as the fountain of being, who hath created us, and to whom we look back, seeking the knowledge of our destiny in His creative purpose. So St. John represents the Father as "Holy"... "Lord God Almighty that was." We think of the Son as the Ever Present Life, who gives to us our standing in existence. "He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life." As we go back into the past, by standing in the present, so we can only come to the Father through the Son. He for ever says, "No man cometh unto the Father but by Me." Likewise, as the present leads on to the future, so the Son sends to us — proceeding from the Father and Himself — the Holy Ghost. The "Holy Lord God Almighty that is," departs and intercedes to send to us the "Holy Lord God Almighty that is to come." Furthermore, although we necessarily think of time as presenting itself to our consciousness in these three forms, we nevertheless think of it as one in itself. The past, the present, and the future, are not three, but one time.
II. THE MANNER IN WHICH THE FATHER OF THE FAITHFUL RECEIVED THE APPROACH OF GOD. Let us proceed to dwell upon the characteristics that marked the spiritual attitude of Abraham in welcoming the Divine vision.
1. We may, perhaps, infer from these opening words, "He lift up his eyes and looked," the very simple, but very necessary, lesson that the presence of God cannot be realized, unless the soul of man directs its gaze above the objects of the sensual, earthly life. There are men who never rise in thought or feeling above the low level of earthly, transitory interests: that plain upon which are built the habitations that are doomed to crumble into dust The prayerless, thoughtless, sensual, earthly-minded man, cannot realize the presence of the Most High. The splendour of the Triune Majesty never dawns upon the eye of the soul that is engrossed in earthly things. Let no one expect to be partakers of Abraham's lofty experiences, unless he strives to follow Abraham's example, and to direct the aspirations of his soul upward.
2. We may also learn from this passage the well-known but frequently neglected truth, that there must be an effort of the soul to go forth, as it were, out of the habits of self, to meet the Divine life that comes near. Such seems to be the significance of the very simple but very deep words, "He ran to meet them from the tent door." The neglect of this truth has doomed many souls to long darkness and exclusion from the presence of God. Man must use the freedom of his will to go forth to meet the coming of God. There are some who have been misled by the influence of false teaching to ignore this great truth. They have reasoned in their hearts, saying, "If I am chosen and predestined to realize the blessed sight of God's countenance, He will, in His good time, make an irresistible approach to my soul, and force His Divine presence into the innermost chambers of my being. It is not necessary that I should use that power of will which I have received, in order to go forth to meet Him, who will come, or not come, to me according to His own good pleasure and eternal decree." Man cannot by his own will cause God to be either present or absent from His sanctuary and throne of grace. "His tabernacle is with men." But man can neglect to fulfil those conditions upon which God's presence can be realized by his own soul. By sloth, prayerlessness, and apathy, he can remain beneath the shadow of his earthly tent, and lose the vision of God, because he will neither lift up his eyes, nor go forth to meet Him.
3. The attitude of the patriarch in welcoming the Divine presence teaches us another lesson, viz., the spiritual necessity of humility as a condition of obtaining a clear and near vision of God. The law of reverential humility is binding upon the human soul, and has its original sanction in the majesty of God. The self-confident, arrogant, proud man, transgresses one of the laws that regulate his relation to the majesty of God, and is inevitably removed in spirit to a distance from the throne of God. He loses the faculty of realizing the Divine presence. The physical philosopher who proposes to approach the throne of grace, not as a humble suppliant, but as an irreverent experimentalist, asking for a sign of his own choosing, ignores the elementary truths of the relation existing between the King and the subject. He would acknowledge that for the successful performance of physical experiments, it is necessary to comply with all the known physical conditions. The laboratory of spiritual truth has its conditions. One of those conditions is that it must be pervaded in all its parts by the atmosphere of reverence. God will not reveal the light of His presence to man, however eagerly he may run forth to seek it, until he has learnt to recognize the weakness, the littleness, the unworthiness of his own being before the majesty of the most High. The patriarch's obedience to this law of spiritual insight is simply expressed in the words, "He bowed himself towards the ground."
4. The next clause in the text gives expression to the deep truth, that man cannot realize the blessedness of the Divine presence, without an earnest effort to give depth and permanency to his religious impressions. The Divine forms that came to Abraham doubtless passed over the plains of Mamre. They drew nigh to other tents, but those who dwelt beneath their covering realized not the blessedness of their approach, because they fulfilled not the conditions upon which it could be known. The high aspiration, the earnest inquiry, the spirit of reverence, were found only in the Father of the Faithful. The chosen patriarch fulfilled one other condition, without which souls cannot attain unto the clear vision of God. He had the grace of spiritual perseverance. He was not content to permit the truth that had poured its bright beams into his soul to pass away. He sought to deepen the Divine impressions received, and to make them permanent. Such is the significance of the prayer: "My Lord, if now I have found favour in Thy sight, pass not away, I pray Thee, from Thy servant." In all the ages, the true children of Abraham are marked by this spirit of earnest perseverance, which seeks to deepen the experience of the soul. The dwellers in the tents of the world have not this characteristic. To them God draws near, but they never invite Him to stay. They seek to obliterate the impression at once; and in the angry impatience of a soul that will not give place, even for a moment, to the presence of the Divine life, that rebukes its own baseness, cry out, "What have we to do with Thee?... Art Thou come hither to torment us before the time?" There are others who welcome the Divine presence for a brief moment, but soon grow weary of its influence. In the church, or in some hour when the heart has been softened into sensibility by some sorrow or joy, they obtain a passing glimpse of the Divine life. The blessed experience of God's abiding presence is only known by them who, in the spirit of the patriarch, seek by prayer to make the vision lasting. We must learn to pray, as true sons of Abraham, and loving disciples of our risen Lord, in the journey of life, "Abide with us." "My Lord, if I have found favour in Thy sight, pass not away, I pray Thee, from Thy servant."
5. The next clause in the text, "Let a little water, I pray you, be fetched, and wash your feet," doubtless gives expression to a deep and everlasting spiritual truth. What is the condition, essential to the entertainment of the Divine life, expressed in these words? They teach us that, in order to welcome the Divine life in its approach, the soul must apply to the forms in which it vouchsafes to dwell, the element of purification here represented by the water. We fetch fresh draughts of the cleansing influences that stream from the cross of Christ, and strive to welcome the life of God to abide with us, by washing away the dust that defiles the forms in which it vouchsafes to dwell. This is an everlasting condition, binding upon every son of Abraham. God will not dwell with us, and manifest the blessed light of His countenance to our souls, unless we seek to cleanse our walk in life. The dust of earth that clings to us unwashed away by the waters of grace; the unconfessed, unrepented, unforsaken sins, will make us utterly incapable of realizing the Divine life.
6. Another essential condition which man must fulfil in order to realize the blessed consciousness of God's presence, is expressed in these words addressed to the Divine forms: "Rest yourselves under the tree." What is the spiritual truth conveyed in these words? They teach us that there must be in human life hours of rest and calm meditation, in order to ensure the enjoyment of the Divine presence. The hours taken from the world and spent in Divine worship, in the calm peace of the church; the hours in which the soul enters into the closet, shuts the door, and prays to the Father which is in secret, are the hours in which man rises into the realization of the eternal life.
7. The last act in the patriarch's welcome of the Divine presence is described in these words: "I will fetch a morsel of bread, and comfort ye your hearts; after that ye shall pass on; for therefore are ye come to your servant. And they said, So do, as thou hast said." The man is here permitted to offer unto the Creator of His own creatures in order to welcome His presence. Man is hero represented as offering gifts to sustain the forms of the Divine life, and his offering is approved and accepted as a part of the welcome which he was bound to give. Such is the duty that rests upon man for ever. His services in themselves are of no value. His prayers, worship, alms, oblations — these are nothing in themselves. But they must be offered as expressions of loving welcome to the presence of God. If they are withheld, God will not lift up the light of His countenance upon the soul. The welcome which the human soul offers to God, finds its full expression in the holy eucharist. This vision of God brought with it to Abraham special blessings. He was inspired to look forward to endless life, typified in the supernatural birth of Isaac; and to realize the doom of the lost souls, typified in the destruction of the cities of the plain. Such are for ever the fruits of the knowledge of God. It shows man the ways of life and death. If we would attain unto the blessedness of God's realized presence, we must remember that the conditions to be fulfilled are the same as they were thousands of years ago on the plain of Mamre.
(H. T. Edwards, M. A.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And the LORD appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day;