Acts iv. 20
by John Dickie
WHEN Peter and John were commanded by the Jewish council not to teach any more in the name of Jesus, they refused compliance and urged a divine necessity to speak (Acts iv. 19, 20). As it is said that both Peter and John made answer, perhaps we do not greatly err if we refer to the forward Peter, the bolder words of verse 19, "Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you, more than unto God, judge ye;" while in verse 20 we hear the equally decided but gentler John utter his calm protest, "For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard."
No, they "cannot but." For was it not to fit them for this very service that the Holy Ghost had come down on them in cloven tongues of flame? and now with hearts on fire and tongues on fire, they feel so constrained (2 Cor. v. 14) as that they "cannot but." This is the happy inspiration by which God has in all ages strengthened his servants for holy living and for earnest working. He writes his will not only on the pages of a book without them, but on the living tablets of loving hearts as well; and so their obedience is not the fruit of harsh compulsion from without, saying, "You must do this," but of joyous, hearty impulse from within, so that they 'could not but.'
So felt the Lord Jesus, the model servant. "The zeal of thine house," he says, "hath eaten me up" (Ps. lxix. 9). Instead of shrinking from his baptism of blood, he bounds forward to meet it, saying, "How am I straitened till it be accomplished." And the men and women whom God has wrought with, in all ages have in measure shared the same spirit, and have gone forward to do their work because they "cannot but". "Here am I," says Isaiah, "send me." Jeremiah, weary of the troubles which his witnessing had brought on him, would fain have held his peace, but God's word, as he says, "was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay" (chap. xx. 9). Ezekiel went to his work in bitterness, in the heat of his spirit, and the hand of the Lord was strong upon him (chap, iii 14). "Truly, I am full of power by the Spirit of the Lord----to declare unto Jacob it's transgression," says Micah. Paul was often "stirred in spirit" (Acts xvii. 16), "pressed in the spirit" (Acts xviii 5), having necessity laid upon him to preach the gospel (1 Cor. ix. 16); yea, such necessity as made the exercises of his heart in reference to those around him like the birth-pangs of a mother in travail (Gal iv. 19). For all true servants of God may say with Elihu, "I am full of matter, the Spirit within me constraineth me----I will speak that I may be refreshed" (Job xxxii. 18, 20). And as in Bible days, so too has it been all down through the ages. "The Spirit fermented in my heart," says Patrick of Ireland. "Oh, gladly shall this base blood be shed, every drop of it, if India can be benefited in one of her children," says Henry Martyn. "I'll spend my life, to my latest moments, in caves and dens of the earth, if the kingdom of Christ may be thereby advanced,'' says Brainerd. "Oh, happy lot, to be allowed to bear a part in the glorious work of bringing an apostate world to the feet of Jesus," says Judson "I would beg all the week, to be allowed to preach the gospel on the Sabbath," says Philip Henry. Sarah Martin speaks of her work as "the thing she lived and breathed for." "Here am I, I can do no otherwise; God help me! Amen!" cries Luther at Worms, face to face with the emperor, and with all the pomp and power of earth arrayed against him.
Now, my reader, what do you or I know of these powerful impulses within us constraining us to duty, so that we feel as if we 'could not but!' We know just so much of them as we know of the Holy Spirit's presence in our hearts, and neither more nor less. For he manifests his power in us, not by filling the mind with abstract truth merely, but by actual living. He is the source of our new life. He enlightens the understanding, rules the conscience, fills the affections, guides the will, and through the inner life controls and shapes the outer. And just as it is in the old natural life, so too is it in the new—all its healthy processes and manifestations are easy, and pleasant, and necessary. There is no violent effort needed to perform them. We do not force ourselves to eat when we are hungry, or drink when we are thirsty. We "cannot but." We need no effort to breathe, or to work, or to think—we "cannot but." The law of our natural life constrains us to such actions, and effort would be needed, not to do them, but to refrain from doing them. And just as much is every fruit of the Spirit a happy necessity to a soul in a perfectly healthy state. Such a one feels it easy and happy to love God. He "cannot but." He abounds in prayer, and "cannot but." He rejoices in Christ Jesus; he delights to feast on the word of God—to forsake the world—to plead with sinners—to wash the feet of saints; and so far from needing to force himself to perform external duties, all these duties flow with sweet spontaneousness out of his inner state of soul.
It is not, then, by direct efforts that we are able to maintain a godly life. It is not by having the heart taken up with details of holy living, and by keeping our own strength exerted to its utmost strain, that we are enabled to fill up these details. Ah! no. It is simply by abiding in Jesus (John xv. 4, 5). It is by living on Christ, who is "our life" (Col. iii. 4). And when he works in us both to will and to do, and we, in our subordinate place of faith, and love, and dependent obedience, "work out" (Phil. ii. 13), then are we able to do all things through Christ which strengthened us (Phil. iv. 13). But on any other principle, we can do absolutely nothing (John xv. 4). Our most watchful and prayerful care then is to be directed, not to the external performance of duties, but to the maintenance of an unbroken fellowship with the Lord Jesus. When this is maintained, all is comparatively easy; when this is lost, holy living or happy serving is utterly impossible. For whatever true life we have, it is not we that live, but Christ that liveth in us. And this life which we, as his members now live in the flesh, we live, not at all by our own efforts or on our own resources, but we live wholly by the faith of the Son of God (Gal. ii 20).
Ah, here it is where many beloved ones make a great practical mistake. When weakness and lifelessness are felt, they seek by spasmodic effort to stir up their sinking energies; but the effort only the more exhausts them. And so they are in danger of falling, after repeated fruitless struggles, into a confirmed state of desponding helplessness, as if God had provided nothing better for them. He has provided the best of all help for us. Our life is Christ, and our strength is Christ. In ourselves, "without strength," it is our privilege to go forward "leaning on the Beloved." He makes his grace ever sufficient for us, and perfects his strength in our utter weakness (2 Cor. xii 9). Only we must keep up unbroken, our communion with him, for the moment we lose sight of him we become perfectly impotent. Step by step, as we "run the race set before us," we must keep ever "looking unto Jesus;" and this look of faith shall do for us what no effort of our own could ever do; it shall gird us with his strength; and, like Paul, we shall find that it is only when we are thus weak, we are truly strong. And oh, how strong he can make the very weakest! Difficulties become nothing, and enemies he can make less than nothing. There is, indeed, no created force in the universe greater than a feeble human soul that in simple faith yields up itself wholly to its Saviour as the mere instrument of his mighty power. And then, with the Holy Spirit's help, all true service is easy, for the blessed fervour of soul which he imparts does not exhaust us. As in the bush on Horeb, God's fire may burn in us with brightest lustre, but the bush itself is not thereby consumed. For the Holy Spirit brings not only flame but also fuel, and we at best, are nothing more than the lowly vessels in which he manifests his heavenly light.
And how easy is devoted living with its abundant service to a heart on fire with heavenly love. A spectator may fancy it full of bitter hardship and self-denial; but on the neck of love, Christ's yoke lies, oh, how easy! and his burden is, oh, how light! "The joy of the Lord is our strength;" and joy and love make labour light, and suffering easy. Since this little paper was commenced, I have seen a man attempt to drag a wagon into a shed opposite my window. With difficulty he starts it; it slowly moves forward; the wheel strikes on a little stone, and the wagon, stands still. Its feeble impetus barely sufficed for easy motion; but there was no reserve to overcome obstructions. Now, had that man been dragging the wagon down a hill, and had he once got it into rapid motion, it would have pushed him forward, and leapt like a living thing over any little hindrance in its way. So is it with a lively, compared with a feeble Christian. A languid soul barely moves on a smooth road; but a very little stone indeed brings him to a stand-still. His spiritual vigour is so low that if it were to fall any lower it would die. Now it is this miserable weakness that creates its own difficulties. He drags his religion behind him like a heavy dead weight; whereas it ought to be a living mighty power, and, by its impulse, push him on before it. Then would his difficulties all vanish, for difficulties generally are but the fruits of feeble faith. As the old proverb says, "Flies come not near a boiling pot," so neither do the swarms of annoyances which afflict the lukewarm, come near to a soul which in its fervour works with zeal, and "cannot but."
My believing reader, let us remember that all God's children are also his servants. You and I then have "a lowly work of love to do." We have some special service, some little sphere so peculiarly our own that we shall have to give account about it as being its only occupants. None can look after it like ourselves; none are charged to look after it but ourselves. Where is it? What is it? Have we asked the Lord about it? It is an awfully solemn thing to have entrusted to us what concerns the Lord's glory, and the everlasting blessing of precious souls. Oh, to be adequately alive to this! Oh, to be constantly so filled with the Spirit that we shall not only know our place of special service, but shall be constrained by love to give ourselves to it as those that "cannot but." Unless we experience this in some degree, what reason can we have for concluding that we are truly born again? Most weighty are the words of M'Cheyne:—"You are greatly mistaken if you think that to be a Christian is merely to have certain views and convictions, and spiritual delights. This is all well; but if it leads not to a devoted life, I fear it is all a delusion." And what is a devoted life? Ask Gethsemane, ask Calvary; nay, "ask death-beds, they can tell" "Oh, brother, brother," cried the dying Legh Richmond, "none of us is more than half awake." But why speak of the awful solemnities of a dying hour? Are they a whit more awful than the solemnities of the present living hour? It is God's most holy presence fully realized at death that makes it so solemn. Let us realize that presence fully now, and it shall invest the present moment with all the tremendous importance of life's last hour.
Alas, alas, for the halters! They are attempting the utterly impossible (1 Kings xviii 21; Matt. vi. 24). Their difficulties are far more than those of the devoted Christian, while they know nothing of his joys. And then their miserable life of compromise, and doubt, and trouble ends—in what? It is not man's zeal that we plead for; it is God's. The zeal of the Lord of Hosts will perform all that he has promised (Isa. ix. 7). But this zeal seeks human hearts to which it may communicate its fire, and human organs through which it may expend its energy. Oh, let us yield ourselves up wholly to its heavenly fervour. It is the service of such servants that God blesses, for it is his own working. Men, on the one hand, "cannot but" hear, when they meet with men who, on the other hand, "cannot but" speak. It is the fire in the heart of the one that kindles a flame in the heart of the other.
Brothers, sisters, servants of the living God, let us seek "to live more nearly as we pray." Let us run, wrestle, fight as they should who are struggling for a heavenly crown. How much time have we lost in the past. Let us seek to redeem it. The future may to us be very, very short. Then, as Wesley says, "The man that may die to-morrow should live to-day." Look at the zeal of Satan's servants, and contrast it with ours. Look at the myriads of lives daily offered up in unholy martyrdom on the devil's altars of sensuality and covetousness, while there are so few laid in love upon God's altar. Look especially at Jesus, and keep looking till the fire burn within thee. Think of his coming, and try to realize what shall be thy feelings when he shall speak to thee about thy stewardship. Enter into heaven—thy faith can enter (Heb. x. 19); peer into hell—thy faith can pierce it. Dwell on the strange horrors of Gethsemane and of Calvary; and then with a heart glowing with the meek and merciful fervour of heavenly love, go forward to do thy earnest life's work, and to do it as one who "cannot but."
"How strong Is heavenly love.
Stronger than aught below;
Though wide and wild my passions rove,
I will not let him go!
What though I see him not,
I feel the ardour burn,
He hath for me the victory wrought,
I love him in return.
How sweet Is heavenly love!
Tis all in all to me:
I muse on him in field or grove,
Or wandering on the sea;
I walk with Jesus here,
Not lonely though alone,
Till in his mansions I appear,
And know as I am known."