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Preached in the High Church of Edinburgh, May 5, 1761, at the
opening of the Synod of Lothian and Tweeddale.
1 THESSALONIANS iii. 8.
For now we live, if ye stand fast in the Lord.
The author of this epistle is introduced into the sacred history with other sentiments and views than these words express. He makes his first appearance at a scene of blood, consenting to the death of a holy martyr, and keeping the raiment of them that slew him. Soon after, we hear of him making havock of the church of Christ in Jerusalem, entering into every house, and dragging both men and women to prison ; nay, such was the excess and fury of his zeal, that, breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, he persecuted them even unto strange cities: “I verily thought,” said he, in the presence of Agrippa, “that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth.” But here we behold a new creature indeed! What things were formerly gain to Paul, these he counts loss for Christ; the once hated name of Jesus is now become dearer to him than life itself; and he who in times past persecuted the saints, now glories in the cross, and preaches the faith he had endeavoured to destroy.
In my text, he discovers a temper of most distinguished excellence; a temper, my reverned Fathers and Brethren, which I hope we shall not barely applaud, but earnestly covet and endeavour, by the grace of God, to possess.
To unfold the peculiar excellence of this temper, and to illustrate the importance of it to the ministers of Christ, are the purposes aimed at in the following discourse.
The first thing that demands our attention, is the amiable temper expressed in these words : Now we live, if ye stand fast in the Lord.
The general meaning of the passage is obvious : It contains an obliging and spirited declaration of the apostle's good will to the Christians at Thessalonica. But if we attend to his situation when he wrote this epistle, and place ourselves in the circumstances of those to whom it was addressed, we shall feel an empbasis in the word now, that gives a surprising addition both to the tenderness and dignity of his sentiment and expres. sion.
Had the time referred to been a season of prosperity ; had Paul, in the height of worldly felicity, meant no more than to assure the Thessalonians, that, amidst all his affluence, he kindly remembered them; and though at present beyond the need of wishing any thing for himself, yet that the report of their steadfastness, and the hope of its continuance, had made a considerable addi. tion to his happiness, and heightened his relish of the good things he possessed : even upon this supposition, I apprehend, the particle now would justly be deemed emphatical, and worthy to be accented.
But with what force must it strike us, when we find that it refers to a season of adversity! Paul, at the time
of writing this epistle, was a poor, afflicted, solitary man; banished from his friends, living among strangers, labouring with his own bands for a scanty subsistence, and destitute of almost every earthly comfort.
All this the Thessalonians knew full well. With grief they had beheld his sufferings in their own city, when “the unbelieving Jews, moved with envy, took unto them certain lewd fellows of the baser sort,” and raised such an uproar, as obliged them to send him away by night into Berea. They further knew, that the same unbelieving and envious Jews, upon hearing that he preached with success at Berea, had followed him thither also, and so inflamed the multitude against him, that be found it necessary to retire as far as Athens, to get beyond the reach of his unrelenting persecutors. Judge then with what emotion they would read this strong, this endearing profession of his concern for their welfare; they who, under God, owed their conversion to his ministry, and to whom, as I just now observed, his past sufferings on their own account, and his present distress, were perfectly known.
He had told them a little before, that the bitterest ingredient in all his afflictions, was the apprehension he had, that his sufferings might have a tendency to shake their faith, and to prejudice their minds against the gospel of Christ: “ For this cause,” says he, “I sent to know your faith, lest, by some means, the tempter have tempted you, and our labour be in vain. But when Timotheus returned, and brought us good tidings of your faith and charity, we were comforted over you, in all our affliction and distress, by your faith.” And then he adds, For now, even at this present time, distressed and afflicted as we are, yet now we live, if ye stand fast in the Lord.
Here then the purest zeal for the honour of his Magter, and the most generous love to the souls of men, are happily united, and feelingly expressed in the native language of a warm and upright heart. I say, the purest zeal and the most generous love ; for no tincture of selfishness appears in either: if Christ is glorified, if men are saved, Paul obtains his utmost wish; his happiness is independent of every thing else; he enjoys all that in his own estimation is worthy to be accounted life, if his spiritual children stand fast in the Lord.
And is not this a temper of most distinguished excel. lence? When I called it amiable, I only spoke the balf of its praise ; it hath a dignity, as well as a beauty, belonging to it, superior to any thing that is commonly celebrated by that name among men. Would we behold heroism in its fairest and most exalted form, instead of looking for it among those whom the world hath styled heroes, we shall succeed far better if we turn our eyes to Paul of Tarsus.
Where shall we find such determined courage, such cool intrepidity, and contempt of danger, as in this good and faithful soldier of Christ ? “Behold," said he to the elders of the church at Ephesus, “ Behold, I go bound in the spirit unto Jerusalem, not knowing the things that shall befall me there ; save that the Holy Ghost witnesseth in every city, saying, that bonds and afflictions abide me. But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I may finish my course with joy, and the ministry which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God.” Acts xx. 22.
With what invincible fortitude did he triumph over adversity in every frightful shape ! with what noble freedom and independence of spirit, did he exult amidst