Discipleship and the Cross
"And when He had called the people unto Him with His disciples also, He said unto them, Whosoever will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for My sake and the gospel"s, the same shall save it. For what shall it profit a Prayer of Manasseh, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of Me and of My words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when He cometh in the glory of His Father with the holy angels. And He said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power."— Mark 8:34 to Mark 9:1.
Cross-bearing: A Duty for All.
There is the closest and most vital connection between these verses and those just preceding them. It was Peter"s protest against the intimation of the Passion that drew from our Lord this solemn declaration that cross-bearing is the universal and indispensable condition of discipleship. "God forbid!" Peter had said, in his own hot and impulsive way, "this—a violent death at the hands of elders and priests and scribes—shall never be unto Thee." "Say you so?" Jesus replies in effect (I quote Dr. A. B. Bruce"s paraphrase), "I tell you that not only shall I, your Master, be crucified, but ye too, faithfully following Me, shall certainly have your crosses to bear. If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me." To lend emphasis to the announcement, to make it quite clear that this was a universal law, Jesus did not say this to the Twelve alone. "He called unto Him the multitude with His disciples." This was not a law for the Apostles merely, it was equally binding upon the humblest believer; not for teachers and leaders only, but for the least and most insignificant of followers as well; not a law for the first Christians only, but for Christians of every age. King Arthur insisted upon conditions before a man could become a Knight of his Round Table. Everyone had to swear to speak no slander, no, nor listen to it; to live sweet lives in purest chastity; to ride abroad redressing human wrongs; to honour his own word as if his God"s; to break the heathen, and to uphold the Christ. But here is a law insisted upon by a greater Captain than King Arthur—the condition of entrance into a still nobler order of chivalry—"If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me" (viii34).
Master and Disciple.
The first truth all this suggests to me is that of the correspondency that exists between the Master and the disciple. Christ is not a solitary cross-bearer; every true Christian is a cross-bearer too. Our Lord warned us that His lot and ours was bound to be the same. "A disciple," He said, "is not above his master, nor a servant above his lord. It is enough for the disciple that he be as his master, and the servant as his lord" ( ). There will be a correspondency, He said, between your fate and Mine. And so it was. As John puts it in his Epistle, "As He Isaiah, even so are we in this world" (iv17). "So are we;" the lot of the Master was the lot of the disciple also: in this respect among others, that the disciple, like the Master, had to bear a cross.
The Solitary Cross.
But when I talk about the Lord bearing a cross, and the disciple also bearing a cross, I do not want to be misunderstood. I do not say that the Master"s cross and the disciples" cross are one and the same. There is a sense in which our Lord"s cross is solitary and unshared. In its redemptive aspect Christ"s cross stands alone. People talk about a "continuous atonement." I do not know what they mean by it. If they mean that Christ"s work on the cross needs to be completed and perfected by some suffering or work of ours, I answer, first, that nothing we can do can possibly add to the atoning work of Jesus. We are sinful men and women; we cannot atone, we need atoning for. And, in the second place, I answer that Christ"s sacrifice does not need completing. It is complete. The sacrifice of the cross is a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction. "It is finished." Nothing remains to be done. Christ did it all when He submitted Himself to death and shame. As a redeeming sacrifice the cross of Christ remains for ever unshared.
—And the Fellowship of Suffering.
But while the cross from one point of view is a redeeming sacrifice, from another point of view it represents the sacrifice of self, and the pains and penalties Christ endured because of His absolute and complete devotion to the righteous will of God. And in this respect we too must bear the cross as well as Christ. In this respect there is a strict correspondency between Master and disciple. We must enter into the fellowship of His sufferings. "As He Isaiah, even so are we in this world." For that is what the Christian life is on its practical side; it is a life of conscious devotion to the holy will of God. And obedience to the will of God inevitably means the cross; for it means the hostility of the world, and the sacrifice of self. It means outward trouble and inward conflict. See what it meant for some of these disciples. If tradition speaks truly, following Christ meant for some of them not persecution only, but death. It meant a scaffold in Jerusalem for James, a cross in Rome for Peter. They drank of their Lord"s cup, and were baptised with their Lord"s baptism. They had literally to take up their cross and follow Him. And though these killing times are past, it remains true to this day that they who will live godly must suffer persecution.
The Hostility of the World.
The man who makes the will of God his law must make up his mind for the scorn and contempt of men. We can escape it only by cowardice and compromise. Many people refuse to rank themselves among Christ"s avowed followers because they are not prepared for this cross. "Nevertheless," says John, "even of the rulers many believed on Him; but because of the Pharisees they did not confess it, lest they should be put out of the synagogue" ( John 12:42). That is it, they shrank from the cross. But there can be no compromising between the world and Christ. We must face the world, and defy the world, and break with the world. We must let the world do its worst. If we want to go after Christ, we must take up this cross, and follow Him.
The Surrender of Self.
And in addition to the hostility of the world, there is the sacrifice of self, the surrender of whatever there is in us which is contrary to the will of God, the extermination of those unholy desires and passions of the soul, so dear to the natural Prayer of Manasseh, so alien to the law of God. And what a cross that is! No man can tell what another man"s cross is. But we have all a cross of some kind. You have yours. I have mine. They differ from one another; but there is not one of us who does not know that there are things in us to be fought, and repudiated, and torn up by the roots, if we would follow Christ. Do not confine what I am saying to what we speak of as the grosser sins. We can see that the drunkard and the profligate have to say good-bye to their evil habits before they can follow Christ, and we know what agony that means in many cases. But it is not to them alone this demand applies. It applies also to us. For there is not one of us who does not know perfectly well that in our own hearts there are things to be repudiated and put away, if we want to follow Christ.
A Real Crucifixion.
The putting away of these things, the denial of self and sense, what a conflict it Isaiah, and what agony it entails! There was no punishment so torturing as crucifixion. But what crucifixion was in the physical realm, that the denial and repudiation of self is in the spiritual. Indeed, crucifixion is the very word Paul uses for the process. "I have been crucified with Christ," he cries ( Galatians 2:20). "Our old Prayer of Manasseh," he says in another place, "was crucified with Him" ( Romans 6:6). "The world," he says in yet a third place, "hath been crucified unto me, and I unto the world" ( Galatians 6:14). While in another place he states his own experience as a general law, and in the very spirit of this text says, "They that are of Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with the passions and the lusts thereof" ( Galatians 5:24). "The flesh," their own flesh. It is upon themselves they have executed this judgment. It is upon themselves they have inflicted this agony. They have driven the nails through their own quivering affections and lusts. In this respect of the denial of self in obedience to the holy will of God, Christ is but the first cross-bearer of a great host. That was the sign that a Knight had entered for the Crusades, in olden days—the cross upon the shoulder. This is the sign that we have entered the service of Jesus—the cross in the life, the marks, the stigmata, the nail-prints of Jesus, in the heart. "If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me" ( Mark 8:34).
Three Reasons for Cross-bearing.
Now I can imagine that, when the disciples heard this law first laid down, many of them may have said in their hearts, "This is a hard saying, who can bear it?" And perhaps some of them may even have contemplated leaving Jesus, and following no more after Him. He was making the price of discipleship so costly. I believe Jesus Himself realised that thoughts like these were arising in their minds, that many listening to Him were asking the question, "Is it worth while?" And so He proceeds to deal with that unexpressed doubt. "It is a heavy price to pay," He says to these doubting and hesitating folk, in effect, "but it is worth while. Discipleship means the cross, but it is worth the cost." And He proceeds to enunciate three reasons, each one of them introduced by a "for," to show that it is worth while to follow Him, even though it means the cross and the daily self-denial. Let us glance briefly at each of the reasons Christ adduces.
(1) The Paradox of Losing and Saving.
—And the price of Ease.
(1) This is the first—"Whosoever would save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life for My sake and the Gospel"s shall save it" (viii35). To understand this paradox—a paradox embodying so much of essential and vital truth that our Lord repeated it on more than one occasion—we must bear in mind that the word "life" is used here in a double sense. In the one connection it stands for mere life; in the other it stands for the "good of life," life worthy of the name. It is life on the lower and the higher plane. As Paul would put it, it is life "after the flesh," and life "after the Spirit." So that this saying might be paraphrased thus, "Whosoever will make it his first business to save or preserve his natural life and worldly well-being, shall lose the higher life, the life indeed; and whosoever is willing to lose his natural life for My sake, shall find the true eternal life." And we know by experience that this is true. If we concentrate our thought upon the lower self, upon comfort, and wealth, and sensual indulgence, the higher life suffers. You remember that grim verse in the Psalm, "They lusted exceedingly in the wilderness, and tempted God in the desert" ( ), lusted for mere material good, for the flesh-pots of Egypt, "and He gave them their request"—they got what they wanted. But at what a price! for "He gave them their request; but sent leanness into their soul." That is a sequence we see illustrated too sadly often before our very eyes. We see men getting their desires, getting comfort, ease and wealth; we see them pampering their lower self, and we see them paying for it in leanness of soul. On the other hand, when a man dies to self, when he crucifies his flesh, with the affections and lusts thereof, he rises with Christ into a new life, a rich life, an eternal life. Sacrifice of some kind must be made. The only question we have to settle Isaiah, which we will sacrifice, the lower or the higher, what the world calls life, or what He calls life. Here there is the first reason for obeying Christ"s call, and bearing the cross, by sacrificing self, by crucifying the flesh, by losing the lower life, we gain the life which is life indeed.
(2) The Profit and Loss Sum.
(2) And here is the second reason—it follows closely upon the first, and is indeed explanatory of it—"For what doth it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his life? For what should a man give in exchange for his life?" (viii36, 37). Here is our Lord"s profit and loss sum. He puts the lower life and the higher life in the scales, and weighs them against each other. For the lower life is just the "worldly" life, the life given up to things of time and sense; the life that seeks to satisfy itself with creature comforts and sensual joys. Supposing that a man gains the world, enjoys everything the world can give, is rich and increased with goods, and in need of nothing; like Dives, is clothed in purple and fine linen, and fares sumptuously every day; supposing that he gains the whole world at the cost of the life of his soul, he is a loser by the bargain. On the other hand, the whole world is too small, an utterly inadequate price to pay for the ransom of a soul once lost
—An Ever-present Alternative.
Christ"s question remains still unanswered. We are all of us confronted by this alternative, the world or the soul. And many of us are tempted to sacrifice the soul to the world. That is specially our peril in these materialistic days. But whoever sacrifices his soul to the world makes a bad bargain. For he is sacrificing the inward and essential to the outward and accidental, the enduring to the transient, the eternal to the temporal. Supposing a man gains the world, he cannot keep it. "The world passeth away." "The rich man died," that is his end. And the man who has made the world his choice loses everything. He is ushered into the next world, poor and miserable and blind and naked. For a man"s genuine and permanent wealth does not consist in cash, but in character, not in what he possesses, but in what he is. I know the world measures what a man is worth by the amount of money he has; but the real worth of man is measured by the amount of soul he has, by the amount of faith and hope and love and purity there is in him. And in face of this I want to know what shall it profit a man to gain the world, and lose his real life—his soul life? Profit! there is no profit in it, only sheer and utter loss. Indeed, that is the only person Christ describes as "lost," the man who has lost his soul. And supposing a man has "lost" his soul, what can he give to buy it back? What shall a man give in exchange, or rather as an exchange, for his soul? Many a Prayer of Manasseh, coming to the end of his life, would give anything and everything to get his lost soul back. He has got his wealth, perhaps; but face to face with eternity he sees his wealth is mere dust and dross compared to the soul, and he would give all he has to buy it back. But "it cannot be gotten for gold, neither shall silver be weighed for the price thereof" ( Job 28:15). It is in view of all this that Christ urged men to crucify the world to themselves, and themselves unto the world, to deny themselves, and follow Him. It may mean poverty, as far as this world is concerned, but they shall be rich unto eternal life.
(3) The Time of Reckoning.
(3) And the third argument for cross-bearing is drawn from the Second Advent. I am not going just now to enter upon any discussion as to what we are to understand by the specific references to the Second Coming in the Gospel, and even in this particular passage. There is no doubt the disciples expected that coming to take place speedily. Indeed, the words that follow this verse, words which naturally belong to it (ix1), seem to promise that it shall take place within the lifetime of some who were then standing by our Lord and listening to His words. It may be that our Lord spoke of two comings, one near at hand, and another at the end of the world, and that these two got more or less confused in the recollections of the disciples. But be that as it may, one fact is quite clear: our Lord spoke of a day of triumph, when He should appear invested with the manifest glory of Messiah, and attended with a mighty host of ministering spirits—His reward for bearing His cross of ignominy and shame. And in that day of the Lord"s triumph those who have borne the cross and followed Him shall triumph too. Those who have suffered with Him shall also be glorified together. Those who have fought His battles shall wear the crown. "For whosoever shall be ashamed of Me and of My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man also shall be ashamed of him, when He cometh in the glory of His Father with the holy angels" (viii38). In the great and awful day of judgment and searching and sifting, the one thing worth having will be the life-giving recognition and smile of the Lord; but if we have never enlisted in His army, if we do not bear the "marks" of the cross, what can He say but this, "I never knew you; depart from Me, ye that work iniquity?"
A Searching Call.
"If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me"; it is a stern and searching call. And yet it is a reasonable call. For, just as Jesus endured the cross and despised the shame for the joy that was set before Him, so too, if we remember the "joy" set before us, we shall have strength to bear our cross. And let us remember this, farther. When we bear our cross we are in the blessed fellowship of Jesus. He marches at the head with His great and heavy cross. We follow after. And our crosses are light compared with His. "Shall Jesus thus suffer, and shall we refuse?" "Who shall dream of shrinking, by our Captain led?" "We will not shrink!" "Master, I will follow Thee whithersoever Thou goest" ( Matthew 8:19).
The Transfiguration: The Witnesses
"And after six days Jesus taketh with him Peter, and James, and John, and leadeth them up into an high mountain apart by themselves: and He was transfigured before them. And His raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them. And there appeared unto them Elias with Moses: and they were talking with Jesus. And Peter answered and said to Jesus, Master, it is good for us to be here: and let us make three tabernacles; one for Thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias. For he wist not what to say; for they were sore afraid. And there was a cloud that overshadowed them; and a voice came out of the cloud, saying, This is My beloved Son: hear Him. And suddenly, when they had looked round about, they saw no man any more, save Jesus only with themselves."— .
The Chosen Three.
Now as to the part the three disciples played at the Transfiguration, and its effect upon them.
"And after six days," Mark says, "Jesus taketh with Him Peter, and James, and John, and bringeth them up into a high mountain apart by themselves: and He was transfigured before them" ( Mark 9:2). Only three out of the twelve disciples went up with Jesus to the holy mount. Why were Peter and James and John specially chosen? No doubt because they were in some way nearer to Christ than the rest. I do not mean to suggest that Christ had His favourites, though John is called "the disciple whom Jesus loved." But there were degrees of faith and understanding and affection among the Twelve. And these three were chosen because on the whole we may well believe that they understood Christ best, and sympathised with Him most.
In ordinary and secular matters the order is—first see, then believe. But the opposite is the order in the spiritual realm—first faith, then vision. Seeing does not lead to believing, but believing leads to seeing. "He that loveth... knoweth." That is why our Lord"s choice fell upon Peter and James and John, as it did once again, in the hour of His mortal agony and conflict in Gethsemane—because out of the circle of the Twelve these three clung to Him most closely, and were nearest to their Master in spirit.
The Rewards of Faith.
Those who cling closely to Jesus see some wonderful sights, and enjoy some unspeakable privileges. I do not deny that they have also to bear some heavy crosses and to share in the fellowship of the Lord"s suffering; to accompany their Lord into Gethsemanes and up Calvaries. But now and again they are taken up like these three were, to the holy mount, when their enraptured eyes are privileged to behold the very glory of the Lord. "If I find Him, if I follow," we ask, in our familiar and favourite hymn, "what His guerdon here"? And we answer our own question, "Many a conflict, many a labour, many a tear." And that is true so far as it goes. But it does not tell the whole story. "What His guerdon here?" Gethsemane; yes, but the holy mount also. Christ"s guerdon is not simply "many a conflict, many a labour, many a tear." Along with the conflicts and labours and tears there will certainly come many an hour of glorious vision and high and holy fellowship. And the vision of the holy mount always compensates for Gethsemane. "I reckon," says St Paul, "that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory" ( Romans 8:18).
Luke gives us to understand that Peter, James and John did on the mount exactly what they afterwards did in the garden. While the Lord prayed they slept. And apparently it was only when Moses and Elijah were preparing to return to the heaven which they had for a brief space left that the glory broke upon their gaze. That is to say, they might have enjoyed more of the glory than they did, had they only watched, instead of sleeping. But when at last the disciples were fully awake, and they beheld the glorious vision, their souls were clean ravished within them, and they desired above all things that the glory might last. Peter was, as usual, the first to speak; but by his words the thoughts of the hearts of all three of them stand revealed. "Rabbi," he said, "it is good for us to be here, and let us make three tabernacles; one for Thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah" ( Mark 9:5). Afterwards he realised that was a foolish request to have made. And in the next verse you have his apology for his rashness and foolishness (for, though the Gospel is written by St Mark, I see no reason whatever for doubting the old tradition that Mark got his material from St Peter). Here is his apology, "For he wist not what to answer; for they became sore afraid" ( Mark 9:6).
The Voice of Self.
Now, let us ask ourselves what Peter"s proposal amounted to. This, says Dr. A. B. Bruce: he wanted to enjoy the felicities of heaven without any preliminary process of cross-bearing. Peter was exactly in the same humour as when he took Jesus aside, and presumed to rebuke Him because He spoke of rejection and suffering and death. "Why need we go down to face captious Pharisees and plotting priests, why run the risk of rejection and suffering and death at all; why not remain in this blessed company and on this holy hill? This is heaven begun,—why go back to earth, with its sorrows and its sins?" The glory without the shame, the crown without the cross—that was what Peter wanted. He knew afterwards it was a foolish request. He came to realise that even for Jesus humiliation was the way of exaltation; that, if Christ had shirked the cross, there would have been no redemption for the world; that it behoved the Christ to suffer. But all that was in the future. At present he feared and hated and loathed the very idea of a cross. And once again in this speech of his on the holy mount he invited his Lord to shirk and decline it. "He wist not what to say,"—that is all the excuse that can be made for it. It was the foolish appeal of an ignorant, worldly heart. Moses and Elijah, who knew what the cross meant, did not seek to dissuade our Lord from it. They spoke with Him of the Exodus, the glorious emancipation and redemption, He was to accomplish at Jerusalem. And so the glory of the holy mount could not detain Him. He stedfastly set His face towards Jerusalem.
—And the Call of Duty.
That is the primary meaning of Peter"s proposal. But most preachers widen the import, and say that he desired to prolong the time of rapture and communion, at the expense of the time of labour and conflict. And for practical purposes it may be legitimate to give this wider interpretation to it One can understand Peter"s wish for a prolongation of the scene. What a blessed privilege it was to be in such celestial company! What a rapturous joy it was to hear their high and holy converse! I can quite understand that this blessed communion on the mount was more to Peter"s taste than the wrangle with the Pharisees, and the sights and sounds of disease that were sure to meet them again, as soon as ever they reached the foot. And yet he learned afterwards that this wish too was a foolish wish. Times of rapture are exceedingly grateful and refreshing when they come; but they are not meant to last, they are sent to refresh and strengthen us. We visit the mountain, not to escape the toil and conflict of the plain, but to be the better able to play our part in it. The Christian life is not communion only, it is conflict as well. It is not rapture only, it is service and labour also. That is a notable sequence in Isaiah"s prophecies. "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; they shall walk, and not faint" ( Isaiah 40:31).
The Supremacy of Christ.
But as to Peter"s first words. "Rabbi," said Hebrews, "it is good for us to be here." What made him say it? I daresay many things combined. But perhaps the thing that weighed most with Peter was the presence of Moses and Elijah. He thought more, that is to say, of the ministering servants than he did of the Lord. But it was the presence of the Lord that made the mountain a holy place. I think that even in these days we are inclined to make Peter"s mistake—to think more of Moses and Elijah than we do of the Lord, to attach undue importance to secondary and subsidiary things, and to forget that the one thing that really matters is the presence of the Master.
The All-sufficiency of Christ.
But just because it was the presence of Jesus that mattered, there was no need to remain on the mountain-top. It was just as good to be with Jesus in the valley fighting with disease; in the Temple preaching the word of life, beyond Jordan in exile, in Gethsemane, in the judgment hall, upon the very cross. Wherever Jesus Isaiah, it is good for us to be there. And before to-day men have found it good to be afflicted; they have found it good to have burdens to bear; they have found it good to be passed through a very furnace of trial, because there was with them in it One like unto the Son of man. And I think that was the lesson that was taught Peter and his fellow-disciples on the mount. They were taught there the all-importance of Christ But they learned not only the all-importance, the supremacy of Jesus, but also His all-sufficiency. "Suddenly looking round about, they saw no one any more, save Jesus only with themselves" ( Mark 9:8). Was there some shade of disappointment and regret when they found Jesus only with themselves? Perhaps it was God"s way of teaching; them that Jesus only was enough. Jesus only, as Dr. Glover says, was complete Law. Jesus only was complete Prophecy. He did not need the help of Elijah to declare the will of God. He did not need the help of Moses and his sacrifices, to make an open way for sinful men to the Presence of God. He Himself was the Truth. He Himself offered the one full and perfect oblation and sacrifice. They had all they needed in Jesus. As St Paul puts it, they were "complete in Him." Jesus only! That is where we are still. But Jesus is enough.
The Effect on the Disciples.
I have said that the Transfiguration was meant for the encouragement of our Lord"s soul in view of the cross. It was also meant for the confirmation of the disciples" faith in view of that same cross. The cross was bound to be a trial to them. Bred up to believe that Messiah"s destiny was to be a throne, the sight of their Lord, "mocked, insulted, beaten, bound," was certain to make them doubt whether He was the Messiah at all. So this great experience was given to them to strengthen their faith, that it might not fail in that day of bitter trial. For when they saw Jesus hanging on the accursed tree, and heard all Jerusalem railing at Him, they remembered they had seen His glory; they remembered also the voice which said, "This is My beloved Son." And Song of Solomon, though Jerusalem crucified Him as an impostor and a malefactor, they held fast the faith. During the dark days until Jesus was declared to be the Son of God with power by the Resurrection from the dead, the memory of the holy mount, with its glory, and its celestial visions and its heavenly voice, was their sheet-anchor and their stay. Nothing could destroy their conviction, then formed, that Jesus was the Son of God.
Great Experiences and their Value.
That is one great and happy end our great experiences are meant to serve. They keep faith alive in days of stress and trial. Dark days come to us all. Days when faith almost falters. What shall we do then? Recall our great experiences. "Call to mind," says John Bunyan, "the former days, and years of ancient times; remember also your songs in the night, and commune with your own hearts. Have you never an hill Mizar to remember? Have you forgot the close, the milk-house, the stable, the barn, and the like where God did visit your souls?" Remember, that is the Dreamer"s advice, your hill of Transfiguration. Recall the fact that you too have seen the Lord"s glory, that you too have heard His voice, that you too have felt His power. Through all your days of doubt and difficulty and eclipse, hold fast to your experiences. Remember the holy mount. And it shall happen to you, as to these disciples, that the gloom and despair of Passion Week will end in the joy and triumph of the Resurrection morning, doubt shall give place to joyous certainty.
"Wait thou His time,
So shall thy night
Soon end in glorious day."
The Descent From the Hill
"And as they came down from the mountain, He charged them that they should tell no man what things they had seen, till the Son of man were risen from the dead. And they kept that saying with themselves, questioning one with another what the rising from the dead should mean. And they asked Him, saying, Why say the scribes that Elias must first come? And He answered and told them, Elias verily cometh first, and restoreth all things; and how it is written of the Son of Prayer of Manasseh, that He must suffer many things, and be set at nought. But I say unto you, That Elias is indeed come, and they have done unto him whatsoever they listed, as it is written of him."— .
The Wealth of Holy Scripture.
At first sight these five verses do not seem to suggest much of practical profit. But Scripture is always surprising us by its unsuspected wealth. You remember the words of Job: "The stones thereof are the place of sapphires, and it hath dust of gold" (xxviii6). That verse always seems to me to be an admirable description of the Bible. Its very stony places turn out to be full of precious gems; its very dust is dust of gold. We come across what looks at first sight like a barren and desert tract, but as we gaze at it and study it all kinds of hidden beauties reveal themselves, until what we thought desert blossoms as the rose, and the wilderness becomes a veritable garden of the Lord. And so it may be with this paragraph.
The True Order in Service.
Is it neglected?
"And as they were coming down from the mountain." So Peter"s prayer that they might make tents, and abide on the top of the mountain, was not answered. They took their way down from the holy hill to the toil and conflict of the plain. And it was the same Lord, Who now led them down, Who had a few hours before taken them up. Here in a figure you get the two aspects of Christian life. Christ bids us at one time go up the mountain with Him, for communion. And then He bids us go down the mountain with Him to service. It is of no use going down into the valley to try to minister to the needs and wants of men, unless we have first of all gone up. And that is the peril of our own day. We believe in going down in these days. That is to say, we believe in service. There was never so much done in the way of philanthropy. People were never in all their history so busy as they are to-day. And yet have you never been struck by the curious ineffectiveness of much of our philanthropy? We were never busier in our ministry, and yet we seem to do so little. Vice, temptation, sin—all appear to grow no less. We seem quite impotent to cast the evil spirit out. I wonder why it is? Is it that we have forgotten the path to the hill? Is it that we have gone down to the field of service without first going up to the hill of prayer? "Apart from Me," said Jesus to His disciples, "ye can do nothing." Apart from the Divine aid we can cast out no devils, we can change no hearts, we can bring about no radical reformations. Mere human philanthropies are sterile and impotent. But when men go up first, and then go down, what mighty power they wield! That is the first call we need to hear still—the call to come up. If we will follow our blessed Lord, He will take us, as He did these three disciples, up to some mountain apart to pray. But He will not let us remain up. He takes us up in order that later on He may lead us down again. He carries us up into the blessed fellowship of the holy mount that subsequently He may lead us down to the common levels of everyday life, that there we may fight against sin and vice and evil, and minister to the needs and wants of our fellow-men. Labour apart from prayer is ineffective: prayer that does not issue in toil is a pretence and a sham. The genuine Christian follows his Lord up and down, shares in the glory of the mount, and the conflict of the plain.
The Profit of Communion.
"And as they were coming down from the mountain"—they came down unwillingly, with a certain disappointment in their souls. And yet they did not come down exactly as they went up. They were not quite the same men after this great experience as they were before. They never forgot the glory. It established their faith. It made them braver, stronger, truer men. The mountain made a difference. It always does so. No man ever comes down the hill exactly as he went up. Moses went up an ordinary man. He came down a transfigured saint. And although no halo surrounds our heads as the result and issue of our communion, the mountain never fails to leave its mark upon us. "Strength and beauty," says the Psalmist, "are in His sanctuary" ( Psalm 96:6). Of the man who makes the Most High his refuge, the Psalmist also says, "Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night, nor for the arrow that flieth by day" ( Psalm 91:5). "The mountains shall bring peace to the people" ( Psalm 72:3), says yet a third Psalm. Strength for life"s difficulties, calm fearlessness, a quiet spirit, beauty of character, these are the marks of the mountain. No man can hold real fellowship without having his faith quickened, his strength renewed, his love confirmed.
The Lord"s Charge.
With what sort of feeling did the three disciples come down from the mountain? With feelings of regret and disappointment that they were not permitted to remain and enjoy the glory longer, no doubt; but also with hearts and minds excited and full of anticipations of triumph. Possibly the vision of our Lord"s glory revived again the hopes which Christ"s announcement of the cross had well-nigh dashed to pieces. They began again to dream of crowns and thrones. Our Lord"s perception of the kind of thoughts surging up in His disciples" minds induced Him to lay the injunction upon them that He did. They were bristling with eagerness to tell their fellow-disciples what they had seen on the mount; but Jesus charged them that they should tell no man what things they had seen. This was not at all an infrequent injunction on the lips of Jesus. "Tell no Prayer of Manasseh," He said to the healed leper. "Tell no Prayer of Manasseh," He said to the deaf and dumb man. "Tell no Prayer of Manasseh," He said to Jairus and his wife. He lays here the same charge upon the three disciples. As Dr. Salmond puts it, "The injunction to silence which had been laid on others who would have proclaimed His miracles is now laid upon the chosen three with regard to the mighty work done on Himself."
Why did our Lord lay this embargo upon His disciples? First of all, because He did not wish to stir up an undesirable excitement. The populations of Galilee were in a very inflammable condition. Already, more than once, roused to enthusiasm by our Lord"s acts of power, they had tried to take Him by force and make Him a King. If this story of His glory on the mount had reached them, and had won their credence, their enthusiasm and excitement might have become uncontrollable, and the purely spiritual nature of the Lord"s Kingdom might have been compromised. Jesus would have no story told the populace that would for a moment stir to dangerous activity their desire for a worldly Messianic Kingdom. But, further, I think that, as Bishop Chadwick suggests, our Lord did not wish this experience of theirs to be exposed to ridicule and cross-examination. For if they had told the story immediately on their coming down from the hill, there were plenty of people, like Thomas, of a sceptical turn of mind, and others like the scribes, bitterly hostile to their Master who would not hesitate to say that they did not believe it. They would laugh at the story, and say they had been dreaming. And indeed it was a strange and wondrous story to ask the people to accept. They would look at Jesus in His seamless cloak—one of themselves in garb and manner and speech—and the assertion of the three disciples that a few hours before He had shone with heavenly glory, and had Moses and Elijah to visit Him and converse with Him, would seem wildly and hopelessly incredible. And so Jesus bids them keep silence about it, in order that "the impression of this great experience might be forced back upon the depths of their own spirits, and spread its roots beneath the surface there"; to tell no Prayer of Manasseh, until another event had taken place, which would make the story of what happened on the holy mount a natural and congruous story, which it would be no longer difficult to believe, but which it would be blameworthy to disbelieve. They were to tell no man what things they had seen, save when the Son of man should have risen from the dead. They could venture to tell it then. The Resurrection would make the Transfiguration believable. Men would find no difficulty in believing that He who was declared to be the Son of God with power by the Resurrection from the dead, for one brief hour shared on the mount in the glory which He had with His Father before the world was.
The Central Place of the Resurrection.
—Its relation to other Miracles.
And this leads me to ask you to notice the central and critical place which our Lord evidently assigns to His Resurrection. It is to throw light upon many a mystery. It is to explain many a difficulty. It is to make many a hard thing credible. In the old days, sixty or a hundred years ago, the miracles of our Lord were quoted as evidences of His deity. But in the meantime there has grown up such a sense of the invariable order of the universe, that the miracles themselves, instead of becoming an aid to faith, have become one of our present-day stumbling-blocks and difficulties. But the miracles cease to be difficulties, and become believable events, in the light of the Resurrection. It is with the Resurrection we must start. In a sense it is the one and only thing that matters. It is the keystone of the whole arch. It Isaiah, as Dr. Chadwick says, "the centre of all the miraculous narratives, the sun which keeps them all in their orbit." There are certain wonderful events narrated in the Gospels which would stagger belief, if they stood there isolated and detached. But no wonderful deeds are impossible to Him who rose again the third day. Supernatural works are, shall I say it, "natural" to such a supernatural person. The Resurrection really carries every other miracle with it. And the Resurrection is one of the best-attested facts of human history. It has not only the witness of the apostles and other disciples, it has the still more striking and commanding witness of the Church, and the whole history of the past nineteen centuries, a history which if the Resurrection is denied becomes absolutely irrational and incoherent. The Resurrection is one of the great certitudes of the faith, and every act and deed of our Lord"s life is to be considered in the light that streams from His open grave.
"Risen again from the dead," said Jesus, and I imagine that word would strike a chill to the three disciples" hearts. They had just seen their Lord"s glory, and the vision of the glory had almost banished from their minds the sad and solemn words their Master had spoken a week before, about rejection, and suffering, and death. In the light of their experiences on the hill, they had begun to dream once again about thrones. But here is their Lord talking about "death" once again. He will allow them to cherish no false or misleading hopes. The cross was as visible as ever to His undazzled eyes. He warns them once again that it was to "death" He was marching. But it was all an enigma to the disciples. They obstinately refused to believe that in the bare and literal way Christ could die. So on their way down, while Jesus marched on in front, "they questioned among themselves what the rising again from the dead should mean" ( Mark 9:10). They did not like to ask Jesus Himself; they had the timidity of men who fear unpalatable truth, and so they forbore to inquire. But there was one question they asked their Lord. It was about Elijah. They had just seen Elijah on the holy hill. The scribes, basing themselves on a prophecy of Malachi, had taught the people that before Messiah came Elijah would reappear, to prepare the Lord"s way. Was that transient, fleeting appearance of Elijah on the mount all that the prophet meant? And the Master, in answer to their question, said, "Elijah I indeed cometh first, and restoreth all things: and9 how is it written of the Son of Prayer of Manasseh, that He should suffer many things and be set at nought?" ( Mark 9:12). At first sight these two sentences appear to have not the slightest connection with one another, and a German commentator speaks of the latter sentence as one that has "vehemently harassed interpreters." But really there is no difficulty. Our Lord wishes the disciples to connect with the prophecy about Elijah another prophecy about Himself. The disciples—following the example of their teachers—had been eclectics in their reading of the Scriptures. They had picked and chosen. They had made much of those passages that spoke of Messiah"s glory and reign. They had ignored all those other passages that spoke of His suffering and death.
A Past Event.
"But I say unto you," Christ added, "that Elijah is come, and they have also done unto him whatsoever they listed, even as it is written of him" ( Mark 9:13). Elijah had come—and at that a veil dropped from their eyes, and they recognised that Jesus spoke of that lonely ascetic of the wilderness whose cry had rung throughout the land, "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand," and who in that way had prepared the way of the Lord. John had come in the power and spirit of Elijah; but they did with him as they had done with his prototype in the ancient days. They did with him and to him whatsoever they listed. They rejected him, and repudiated his message, and allowed him, without protest, to be put to death by a weak king at the bidding of an adulterous queen. They knew not the day of their visitation. They did not recognise Elijah when he came.
"They have also done unto him"—that little word "also" is full of significance. It implies that there was another whom they were treating in the same way as John. And that other was John"s Lord. "The Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders, and the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed" (viii31). John"s baptism was rejected: John"s Lord was crucified. They neither recognised the forerunner nor the Messiah Himself. They did unto both whatsoever they listed. The Lord still visits us, and proffers Himself to us. Do you recognise the day of your visitation? Or do you do with Him whatsoever you list? "Kiss the Song of Solomon, lest He be angry, and ye perish in the way, for His wrath will soon be kindled. Blessed are all they that put their trust in Him" ( Psalm 2:12).
The Disciples" Failure
"And when He came to His disciples, He saw a great multitude about them, and the scribes questioning with them. And straightway all the people, when they beheld Him, were greatly amazed, and running to Him saluted Him. And He asked the scribes, What question ye with them? And one of the multitude answered and said, Master, I have brought unto Thee my Song of Solomon, which hath a dumb spirit; And wheresoever he taketh him, he teareth him: and he foameth, and gnasheth with his teeth, and pineth away: and I spake to Thy disciples that they should cast him out; and they could not. He answereth him, and saith, O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you? bring him unto Me. And they brought him unto Him: and when He saw him, straightway the spirit tare him; and he fell on the ground, and wallowed foaming. And He asked his father, How long is it ago since this came unto him? and he said, Of a child. And ofttimes it hath cast him into the fire, and into the waters, to destroy him: but if Thou canst do any thing, have compassion on us, and help us. Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth. And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief. When Jesus saw that the people came running together, He rebuked the foul spirit, saying unto him, Thou dumb and deaf spirit, I charge thee, come out of him, and enter no more into him. And the spirit cried, and rent him sore, and came out of him: and he was as one dead; insomuch that many said, He is dead. But Jesus took him by the hand, and lifted him up; and he arose. And when He was come into the house, His disciples asked Him privately, Why could not we cast him out? And He said unto them, This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting. And they departed thence, and passed through Galilee; and He would not that any man should know it."— .
The Need and the Call.
"Lord, it is good for us to be here," Peter had said, when enjoying the glory of the holy mount. But as soon as he reached the foot of the hill, he must have felt that it would not have been "good" if the Lord had remained longer on the mountain. For here at the mountain"s foot were people in sore and urgent need of Him. Here was a poor lad dehumanised almost by an evil spirit; here was a father agonised with concern and grief on his account; here were His disciples disappointed and defeated, and at their wits" end; and here was a multitude bewildered by the disciples" failure, and in danger, as a result, of losing what little faith they had in Christ Himself. There was imperative need for the presence of Jesus.
The Appeal that failed.
At the foot of the hill there was a crowd about the nine disciples, and scribes questioning with them. Our Lord asked what all the excitement was about. An answer was quickly forthcoming, not from the disciples, nor yet from the scribes, but from an individual in the crowd. "Master," he cried, "I brought unto Thee my Song of Solomon, which hath a dumb spirit; and wheresoever it taketh him, it dasheth him down: and he foameth, and grindeth his teeth, and pineth away: and I spake to Thy disciples that they should cast it out; and they were not able" ( ).
The Causes of Failure.
Now how was it the disciples had failed? Was it from first to last a case of presumption? In undertaking to cast the evil spirit out of this boy, had they undertaken a task for which no authority or power had been conferred upon them? No; that was not so. Jesus had conferred on them certain authorities and powers, and amongst others this, "He gave them authority over the unclean spirits" (vi7). And this power was not conferred upon them in vain, for one of the things over which the Twelve, and even the Seventy, rejoiced most was this, "Even the devils," they said, "are subject to us in Thy name." This, then, was no case of undertaking a task for which they had no authority.
—Lowered Spiritual Vitality.
Why, then, had they failed here? Probably several reasons co-operated. Possibly they were out of heart. Their Master was away. Their three strongest companions were away. And above everything else, the announcement of Christ"s approaching rejection and suffering and death had stunned them, and well-nigh shattered their faith. Only a week or so had elapsed since that first announcement of the cross. Of that week we have absolutely no record. Apparently nothing was said, nothing was done. They spent it, as Godet says, in a kind of stupor of bewilderment and grief. That was very much their spiritual condition when this distracted father brought to them his demented Song of Solomon, and besought them to heal him. And their spiritual condition to a large extent explains their failure. What a person can give out depends upon what he has within. The power he exerts depends upon the power he possesses. Before a man can breathe hope into another, he must have stores of hope in himself. Before he can create faith in another, he must have strong faith of his own. That is the principle underlying our Lord"s word, "According to your faith it shall be unto you." Now, this father brought his lad to the disciples when their spiritual vitality was at its lowest ebb. They could work no miracle, because they themselves possessed no spiritual energy. They could do no mighty work, because they themselves had no faith. "O faithless generation," cried Jesus, "how long shall I be with you? how long shall I bear with you?" ( Mark 9:19).
—Lack of Prayer.
If you ask why the disciples had no faith, you find the reason in the reply Jesus gave to their query, "Why could not we cast it out?" "This kind," answered Jesus, "can come out by nothing, save by prayer" ( Mark 9:29). That was the ultimate cause of failure. Lack of prayer. Faith and prayer stand almost in the relation of cause and effect. You cannot neglect one, and retain the other. You cannot omit prayer, and keep faith. For what is prayer? It is the meeting of spirit with spirit. It is man communing with God. It is the mortal laying hold upon the eternal. It is man talking with God; yes, and God talking with man. Now if anyone neglects prayer, if he does not speak to God, and hear God speak to him, God becomes vague, distant, unreal to him. He loses his sense of God, his assurance of the presence of God, the resistless force and power the assurance of God"s presence always brings. And losing his hold of God, he becomes impotent and paralysed.
Failure and Reproach.
The failure of the disciples exposed them and their faith and their Lord to the scorn and mockery of an unbelieving crowd. When Jesus reached His disciples He found the multitude surging around them, and scribes questioning with them, "disputing with them," the word might be translated. The failure of the disciples caused exultation to the scribes. They taunted the disciples with their failure. Starting from this obvious and complete failure, they threw doubt upon their possession of any authority to cast out evil spirits. They suggested that all their Song of Solomon -called successes were impostures and make-believes. They managed even to make the disciples" failure bring the Master Himself into discredit. Our impotence and failure always tend to bring the whole of religion into discredit, and to bring reproach on our Master Himself. And is not that why in these very days of ours men calmly suggest that Christianity is played out, and the Lord Jesus has had His day? They would not say it if Christ"s people were manifestly exerting redeeming, regenerating power. It is our feebleness and weakness which cause the enemy to blaspheme.
The Vindicating Lord.
But, while the dispute was at its height, Jesus arrived. "And straightway," Mark says, "all the multitude, when they saw Him, were greatly amazed, and running to Him saluted Him" ( Mark 9:15). Commentators have puzzled themselves over the reasons for the amazement which Mark here records. Some of them say that Jesus, when He came down from the hill, retained in His face, like Moses, traces of the shining glory. I prefer to think with Dr. Salmond that the cause was the suddenness and opportuneness of the Lord"s coming. The scribes were just saying that Jesus Himself was an impostor, and He appears to vindicate His claim. The disciples were at their very wits" end. Their Lord comes to their succour, to rescue them from their trouble, and to stablish and confirm their faith. And the Lord is always appearing like this, "in the nick of time," for the confusion of His foes and the reinforcement of His friends. In the eighteenth century Bishop Butler says that people were so convinced that Christianity was false and played out that they did not even trouble to discuss it. Then the Lord vindicated His cause, and strengthened the hearts of His people by working the stupendous miracle of the Evangelical Revival. It is always so. When we are at our wits" end, our blessed Lord comes and turns our defeat into victory. So let us be of good cheer, Christ will always vindicate His own cause. His arm is not shortened that it cannot save. And in our days of despondency and despair He will always confound His foes, and surprise His friends by showing that He can save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him.
The Father of the Sufferer.
So much for the disciples. But what of the anxious father? There are in effect in this paragraph the stories of two miracles. The first and the most obvious is our Lord"s triumph over the evil spirit. The second is not so obvious, but is in many ways more wonderful still. Jesus not only drove the evil spirit out of the boy, but He won a triumph for faith in the soul of his father. When He came down from the hill it was to find His disciples in the midst of a seething, excited crowd, and the scribes engaged in a vehement dispute with them. "What question ye with them?" He asked ( Mark 9:16). A certain man of the multitude answered Him. "Master," he said, "I brought unto Thee my Song of Solomon, which hath a dumb spirit; and wheresoever it taketh him, it dasheth him down, and he foameth and grindeth his teeth, and pineth away; and I spake to Thy disciples that they should cast it out; and they were not able" ( Mark 9:17-18).
The Fruits of Failure.
Ah, the impetuous eagerness of love! It may have been to His disciples, or to the questioning scribes or to the excited multitude, that our Lord addressed His question; but it was the father who replied. He could not wait while the scribes or the disciples explained matters to the Master. He himself without a moment"s delay rushes in, so to speak, and pours his sad story into the ears of the Lord. It was, indeed, to Jesus the man really meant to have brought his son. "I brought unto Thee my Song of Solomon," he says. But Jesus was away on the hill, so in his distress the father turned to the nine disciples, and besought them that they would cast the evil spirit out. And they tried, and failed. That was the pitiful story this father had to tell. The recital was significant. For, as the failure sprang from lack of faith, so its effect was to weaken and destroy faith. The faith of this father had suffered. Look at the title by which the man addresses Christ. There is no sense of devotion in it. There is no suggestion of personal trust. It is not "Lord." It is not "Master." It is not "Son of David." It is the cold title, "Teacher," which he employs. He had started from home with some measure of faith in his heart. But the failure of the disciples had practically shattered it. He sees in Christ at this point nothing but a "teacher." What wonder that Christ broke out into the cry, "O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I bear with you?" ( Mark 9:19).
The Restorer of Faith.
But a bruised reed our Lord never broke, and smoking flax He never quenched. And Song of Solomon, instead of treating with scorn and contempt this broken and shattered faith, He set about rebuilding it, revivifying it, restoring it. "Bring him unto Me," He said. "And they brought him unto Him." But "when he saw Him, straightway the spirit tare him grievously; and he fell on the ground, and wallowed foaming" ( Mark 9:20). Now our Lord was tender of heart, and "swift to bless." Now what one might have expected in such a case as this was an instantaneous cure. But while this poor lad lay wallowing and screaming at His feet, the Lord turned to the father, and said, "How long time is it since this hath come unto him?" ( Mark 9:21). Very likely the poor impatient father thought Jesus might have cured his lad first, and asked his questions afterwards. But that was never our Lord"s way. He never hurried.
The question was designed to reveal to the man himself the moral state of his own heart. It brought all the belief and unbelief of the man to the surface. "And he said, From a child,"—it was a stubborn and long-standing mischief. "And ofttimes it hath cast him both into the fire and into the waters, to destroy him: but if Thou canst do anything, have compassion on us, and help us" ( ).
"If Thou canst!" To a large extent this Prayer of Manasseh, with more doubt than faith in him, to a large extent represents the age in which we live. There are some ages in the world"s history which deserve the title, "The Ages of Faith," because for some reason or other the verities of the unseen and external world were so near and real and vivid, that men found it easy to believe. But our age is not an age of faith. It Isaiah, as Dr. Van Dyck entitles it, "An Age of Doubt." It has not utterly discarded Christ. But it wonders whether He can really do anything to meet its sore and bitter need. It is conscious of its misery and woe and sin, as it never has been in all its history. And it looks wistfully at Jesus. But it is not at all sure that He can help. It is not confident that He can heal. All it is capable of in the way of faith is a timid, trembling, hesitating, "If Thou canst do anything, have compassion on us, and help us." John Bunyan, in his immortal dream, pictures some men of sturdy and almost aggressive faith—men like Great-Heart and Standfast, and Valiant-for-Truth, and Hopeful and Faithful, and the rest. But he also gives us the picture of men whose faith is timid and trembling, who scarcely believe, in the persons of Mr. Little-Faith, Mr. Fearing, and Mr. Feeble-Mind, and Mr. Ready-to-Halt. And in this age of ours there are a great many more Little-Faiths and Fearings and Feeble-Minds than there are Great-Hearts and Standfasts and Valiants-for-Truth. We find the very temper of our time in this Mr. Fearing"s word to Jesus, "If Thou canst do anything, have compassion on us, and help us."
—How Treated by Our Lord.
But see how our Lord deals with this doubtful and distracted soul. To get the exact account, you must follow the Revised rather than the Authorised Version. Jesus did not answer, as the A.V. represents, "If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth." He takes up the man"s own phrase, "If thou canst!" He says—and He utters it, as Dr. Salmond notes, with a touch of compassionate rebuke—"If Thou canst," thou sayest; but it is not a question of My power, it is a question of thy faith—for "all things are possible to him that believeth." Christ rolls the responsibility back upon the man himself. He thought it all depended on Jesus; Jesus tells him it depended upon himself. An overwhelming consciousness of power breathes through this answer. Christ will have no "if" applied to Him. But He shows that the secret of success and failure is in ourselves. We do not forget that the excellency of the power is always of God, and not of ourselves. But according to our faith it is done unto us. And Song of Solomon, whenever we fail, instead of casting the blame upon God, we had better search our own hearts—for we may depend upon it that it is in ourselves the fault lies. We are never straitened in God, we are only straitened in ourselves. If we are ever tempted to think that "Christ does nothing for us," if we are honest with ourselves, we shall always find it is not really that Christ has failed; it is because our grip of Him has loosened, it is because our vision of Him has become dim.
The Father"s Prayer.
The answer our Lord gave this poor agonised father revealed to him that the first help he needed was help for himself, help for the faith which was almost overborne and quenched by unfaith; and so the appeal for bodily relief for his son changes now into a "contrite prayer for grace for himself." "Lord, I believe," he cried; "help Thou mine unbelief." Here, faced as we are by a stricken world in sad and sore need of healing, is the best prayer we can offer. Before we can be used of God to save the world, God must be allowed to have His own way with us. This contrite prayer for "grace for ourselves"; that is the first thing we need. To win our own battles over our besetting sins, to be effective in Christian service, we ourselves want a strong grip of God, a firm and confident trust in the Lord Jesus. So let us take our doubting, distrustful hearts to Him, and say, like this distressed and troubled father, "Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief." And what mighty power there is in feeble faith! "If ye have faith as a grain of mustard-seed," said our Lord, "ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence unto yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you" ( Matthew 17:20).
Faith and Response.
As a grain of mustard—seed, weak, tiny, infinitesimal. That is all this father had. But look at the result. A mighty exercise of power and a restored son. Even a small faith exercises wondrous power. The Lord is wonderfully compassionate. He hears and answers and blesses a feeble cry like this. He gives even to Little Faith, and Mr. Fearing, and Mr. Ready-to-Halt, the victory and the abundant entrance. O tender and compassionate Jesus, O pitiful, loving Jesus! Our faith is feeble, overborne almost by misgivings and fears. We can do little more than cry sometimes, "Help mine unbelief." Yet He will not disregard even that faltering prayer. When Sir James Simpson, the greatest Scottish physician of his time, lay adying, a friend said to him that, like John the beloved disciple, he would soon be resting on the bosom of Jesus. "I don"t know that I can quite do that," he said, "but I think I have got hold of the hem of His garment." And that is all that some of us have been able to do. We have stretched out timid hands, and have just touched the hem of His garment, and even that has brought its unspeakable blessing. "As many as touched Him were made whole."
The Training of the Twelve
"And they departed thence, and passed through Galilee; and He would not that any man should know it. For He taught His disciples, and said unto them, The Son of man is delivered into the hands of men, and they shall kill Him; and after that He is killed, He shall rise the third day. But they understood not that saying, and were afraid to ask Him. And He came to Capernaum: and being in the house He asked them, What was it that ye disputed among yourselves by the way? But they held their peace: for by the way they had disputed among themselves, who should be the greatest. And He sat down, and called the Twelve, and saith unto them, If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all. And He took a child, and set him in the midst of them: and when He had taken him in His arms, He said unto them, Whosoever shall receive one of such children in My name, receiveth Me: and whosoever shall receive Me, receiveth not Me, but Him that sent Me."— .
A Need of Ministry.
The twelve disciples, chosen by our Lord for the purpose of continuing His work and extending His Kingdom, were as yet wholly unfitted for their appointed task. Left to themselves in their present condition, the disciples would have been helpless. For, as any can see who reads even this paragraph, the disciples had so far neither the temper nor the spiritual understanding necessary to enable them to carry on Christ"s work. They still hugged their carnal conception of an earthly empire, and either could not or would not understand Christ"s purpose of winning an empire of souls by way of suffering and death. To the training of the Twelve the Lord now principally devoted Himself. In the paragraph before us we see how Jesus sought to train them in the understanding of Christian truth, and in the exercise of Christian temper.
Instruction in the Divine Plan.
And the first lesson of which our paragraph gives record, is a lesson in the understanding of Christian truth. "And they went forth from thence," says Mark, i.e. from the foot of Mount Hermon, which was the scene of the healing of the demoniac boy, "and passed through Galilee" ( Mark 9:30). It was for the last time, and apparently they avoided the highways, and followed quiet and secluded paths. "He would not," says the Evangelist, "that any man should know it." As a rule, Jesus frequented the town and the busy street and the crowded synagogue, for He had good tidings to proclaim, which were to all people. But on this particular journey it was privacy and quietness He wanted most, for, says Mark, supplying the reason for this secrecy and seclusion, "He taught His disciples," or rather, to translate the Greek quite literally, "He was teaching His disciples." And this was the subject of His teaching: "The Son of man is delivered up into the hands of men, and they shall kill Him; and when He is killed, after three days He shall rise again" ( Mark 9:31). The Redeemer"s path led not through triumph to a throne, but through rejection to a cross—that was the subject of Christ"s lesson. The disciples had been brought up on Psalm lxxii.; Jesus reminded them of Isaiah liii. Their idea was that of a Jewish kingdom founded on force; Christ"s was that of a spiritual and universal kingdom founded on sacrificial love. So He set Himself to make them realise that only by His dying could redemption be achieved, and that only by uttermost sacrifice could His Kingdom be established. "The Son of man is delivered up into the hands of men, and they shall kill Him" ( Mark 9:31). It was not the first time our Lord had set Himself to teach the disciples this lesson. After Peter"s Great Confession, I find that "He began to teach them, that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders, and the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again" (viii31). That lesson had been given only some eight or nine days before. Why does Jesus repeat it again so soon? Because the disciples failed to take it in. Indeed, they utterly refused to believe that such a fate as death could be in store for their Lord. That first lesson of the cross had made no real impression. If the announcement had made the disciples uneasy and apprehensive for a little time, its effects soon passed.
The Patience of the Master.
And so Jesus repeats the lesson, "The Son of man is delivered up into the hands of men," He said, "and they shall kill Him." Notice the patience of Jesus. Like the prophet, He condescends to teach men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little, and there a little. And He does not cast off any because they are slow to learn. He will patiently repeat the lesson again and yet again. And how much need these disciples had of the Lord"s patience! They were dull scholars. They were slow of heart to believe. They either could not or would not see their Lord"s meaning. "But they understood not the saying, and were afraid to ask Him." "They understood not the saying." Their minds were so warped by prejudice that they refused to take the words in their plain and obvious meaning. What marvellous patience our Lord had! Many a teacher would have dismissed these men as hopelessly obtuse and dull. But Jesus does not dismiss them. The failure of the first lesson and the failure of the second lesson only make Him repeat the lesson once again.
—And with us, too.
Jesus will be patient with us, though we too are so slow to learn His lesson and catch His spirit. We have been to school to Christ, some of us, for years; but we are poor scholars. We have scarcely mastered the A B C of the Christian faith as yet. We have not learnt the lesson of self-denial, we have not learnt the lesson of forgiveness, we have not learnt the lesson of love. Yet our patient Lord bears with us, He repeats the old lessons again and again. Verily, as Peter says, the long-suffering of the Lord is our salvation. And as the patience of Jesus with these disciples makes me able to believe He will be patient with us, so what He made of these dull and slow disciples makes me able to believe He can do something with the dullest and slowest of us. Peter and John and the rest of them—they would have broken an ordinary teacher"s heart—but Jesus bore with them. And His patience met with its reward. Peter learned the lesson at last. And John penetrated deep into his Lord"s meaning and purpose at the last. And Thomas and Philip learned to glory in the cross at the last. Even so I can believe He will do equally great things for us, and that that daring word of the Apostle will become true of us, "We shall know even as also we are known."
The Fear of the Truth.
"But they understood not that saying, and were afraid to ask Him." "And were afraid to ask Him." Why? "They had seen how Jesus could rebuke even Peter, when he spoke rash words on a former occasion," remarks Dr. Salmond. But I do not think that was what prevented their asking Jesus. The alternative explanation given by the same commentator comes far nearer the truth. "The awe of His words made them shrink from a closer acquaintance with their purport." That is it exactly. They did not understand what Jesus meant, but they felt He meant something sad, something sorrowful, something tragic. And they feared to ask Him to explain, because they felt they did not want to know the stern and grim reality. They were afraid to ask Him, not because Jesus might have rebuked them, but because they themselves did not want to know. "It is a natural impulse," says Bishop Chadwick, "not to want to know the worst." Insolvent tradesmen leave their books unbalanced. They do not examine into their accounts, lest they should have to face the bitter fact that they are bankrupt. And so the disciples refused to ask what Jesus really meant, for fear the truth should dash to fragments every hope they had ever cherished. They preferred not to know, that they might continue to live in their world of make-believe. It was a kind of moral cowardice by no means unknown in these days of ours. There are many things which we cover up and hide. We fear, if we began to investigate and ask questions, what we might discover would fill us with shame. For instance, how few of us honestly ask ourselves how we stand in face of death and the judgment? When Falstaff in his last sickness began to talk of God, "I bade him," says Dame Quickly, "not talk of that." That exactly hits off the temper of our day. We choke off all discussion on these solemn themes. We will not let our souls dwell on the thoughts of God and eternity.
A Futile Policy.
It is a futile and suicidal policy. If a tradesman is losing ground, the sooner he faces the fact the better, or else total business ruin may be his fate. And if we are growing spiritually impoverished, the sooner we know it the better. There is a chance for the man who knows he is wrong and wants to mend. There is none for the man who though he is wrong persists in believing he is all right. "Remember," is the Lord"s advice to a bankrupt Church, a Church that has become spiritually impoverished, and had lost its first love, "whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works." Compare your past with your present, He says, remember what you used to be, and what you used to do. And retrace your steps. Resume your old habits. Begin again your old practices. Do the first works. And that is the counsel He would give to you and me. "Remember whence you have fallen." Make inquisition of your own heart and life. See where you have fallen and failed. Face the facts. The recognition of the tragic fact of failure and loss is the very first step towards moral and spiritual recovery.
A Lesson on the Christian Temper.
And now let me pass on from our Lord"s lesson in Christian truth to the lesson He gave His disciples upon the Christian temper and spirit. On the way Jesus noticed that a discussion which developed into a vehement dispute had taken place amongst the disciples. And when they reached Capernaum He asked them what it was all about. "What," said Hebrews, "were ye reasoning in the way?" "But they held their peace," says Mark: "for they had disputed one with another in the way, who was the greatest" ( ). What an amazing and startling contrast we have here! The Lord is in front, absorbed in thoughts of His cross and passion, thinking of the death He was to taste for every man; His disciples, following a little behind, quarrel and wrangle about precedence and position. This was a favourite bone of contention amongst the disciples. Perhaps it was the fact that Peter, James, and John had been chosen to accompany the Lord up the mount, coupled with the fact of the humiliation of the other nine by their failure to cast out the evil spirit, that gave rise to the dispute at this particular juncture. But whatever the cause, there was the fact, while Christ was marching to His cross, these disciples were quarrelling about places. "What were ye reasoning in the way?" said Jesus. "But they held their peace." There was no answer from any one of them—not even from Peter. Why? They were ashamed. They had advanced their own claims and asserted their rights loudly enough amongst themselves; but all this eagerness for rank and place seemed paltry and unworthy in the presence of Jesus. "They held their peace." Things change their aspect when we view them in worldly society, and in the presence of Jesus. We too fret and fume, if we feel our proper place is not given to us. We grow hot and jealous about rank and position and the rest of it. But how mean and petty it all looks when we bring it into the presence of Jesus! It would do us good to bring our ambitions and desires and plans constantly into the presence of the lowly Jesus, and test them there.
Exaltation by Service.
But they held their peace. But Jesus divined what the dispute was all about, and calling them to Him, He sat down, as the Jewish Rabbis were wont to do when about to teach—because He was about to deal with the matter as a teacher—solemnly. And to the conscience-stricken and humiliated Twelve He laid down the law of greatness in His Kingdom. "If any man would be first, he shall be last of all, and minister of all" ( Mark 9:35). The condition of greatness in Christ"s Kingdom is humility, humility that glories in service, the service not of a class, but of all. The Kingdom of Christ is not a kingdom of self-seeking, but of self-sacrifice. And he is greatest in it who loves best and serves most. "I serve," that is the motto of our Prince of Wales. That is the way to becoming a prince in God"s Kingdom, by service. Christ stooped to death. He became the minister of all. And all who would attain to greatness in His Kingdom must follow in His train.
Is this Ministry Ours?
Are we on the way to this Divine and eternal greatness? Do we live, not to be ministered unto, but to minister? Are we ready to stoop to humble services? Do we go about doing good? We may be among the weak things, and the despised things, and the things that are not, of the earth. But for the humblest of us a higher rank is open than earthly potentates can ever bestow. We can become great in the Kingdom. If we wear the motto and live the motto "I serve," we shall become kings and priests unto God. For here is the one eternal law of greatness and true nobility—"If any man would be first, he shall be last of all, and minister of all."
A Lesson in Charity
"And John answered Him, saying, Master, we saw one casting out devils in Thy name, and he followeth not us: and we forbad him, because he followeth not us. But Jesus said, Forbid him not: for there is no man which shall do a miracle in My name, that can lightly speak evil of Me. For he that is not against us is on our part."— .
In these three verses our Lord is still engaged with the training of the Twelve. He had just taught them a lesson in humility; now He teaches them a lesson in tolerance. We must remember, in discussing these various lessons which our Lord taught His disciples, that they are not, as Dr. A. B. Bruce remarks, continuous and set discourses on announced themes. For the most part they are of the nature of Socratic dialogues, and are often suggested by a remark made or a question asked by one of the disciples. The immediate occasion of this lesson in charity was John"s account of a meeting which he and his brother, or possibly all the twelve, had with a man who was casting out devils in the name of Christ, but was not a follower of the Master.
What was it that caused John to tell the story at this particular juncture? Possibly it was an attempt to change the subject, and to divert the conversation into another channel. John smarted under the rebuke just administered to himself and the other Apostles for their strife about places. Perhaps the consciousness that he and his brother aspired to the highest thrones in the kingdom made him feel that the rebuke was almost specially aimed at him. So he thought he would let the Lord know that if he had certain ambitions for himself, he was also active in his Master"s service, and jealous for His honour. But I prefer to think that John recalled the incident because, in the light of what Jesus had just said, it suddenly dawned upon him that he had committed a great mistake in seeking to stop the man at all. For it was in Christ"s name this exorcist had been doing his work. And, instead of "receiving" him, as the Lord"s words seemed to suggest he ought to have done, he had denounced him, sought to hinder him, repudiated him. Had he acted rightly in so doing? Up to that moment probably John had been rather proud of his action. But, in view of what Jesus said, he became doubtful and uneasy. Song of Solomon, with a frankness and a candour that are altogether to his credit, he told his Master the whole story, that He might pass judgment upon it.
Now what were the motives that lay behind the interdict which the Apostles sought to lay upon this unrecognised worker? There may have been in it a touch of jealousy for the Master"s honour. They may have felt that a man who did not openly confess Christ by joining the circle of His avowed disciples, had no right to use His name. And so they may have honestly thought they were defending and asserting the honour of Christ by forbidding him any more to use Christ"s name. It is a good thing to be "very jealous of the Lord," but we have need to be careful that we are jealous after a godly sort. Some of the most monstrous crimes this world has seen perpetrated have been committed from a mistaken sense of jealousy for the honour of God. But, from the way in which the narrative is worded, one would gather that jealousy for the honour of God was not half so powerful a motive as personal pique. A sense of wounded dignity breathes through the very words. "We forbade him, because he followed not us." They looked upon themselves as the only accredited and authorised agents of the Lord Jesus, and they were indignant that an outsider should take to himself what they considered their prerogatives.
But, whatever the motives that animated them, the practical result was an act of exclusiveness, and narrowness and intolerance. They ruled this Prayer of Manasseh, whom they ought to have received as a brother, out of their communion; they tried to stop his work; they denied his right to work at all, and all because he did not belong to their little circle. They never stayed to inquire what kind of a man he was; they paid no heed to the fact that he must have had some kind of faith in Christ, or he would never have used Christ"s name; they disregarded the fact that the man"s ministry was obviously owned and blessed of God. They denied the right of anyone outside their circle to work in the name of Christ at all; they set themselves up as the exclusive channels of Christ"s grace, and the sole dispensers of His power. "We forbade him," says John, not "because he followed not Thee"—but "because he followed not us."
The Spirit of Intolerance.
Is there any lesson for us in all this? Has it any pertinency for our own day? Our Lord, as we shall see in a moment, utterly and wholly repudiated this exclusive and intolerant spirit. Did His rebuke eradicate it for ever from the hearts of His disciples? Is this the first and last instance of narrowness and intolerance we read of in the Christian Church? Alas, no! In spite of this rebuke and repudiation of our Lord, the hearts of many of His disciples in every age have been filled with this narrow and intolerant spirit. It has resulted in crimes that bring the blush of shame to the cheek. It developed into the faggot and the fire. It substituted, as Hugh Black says, the doctrine of the stake for the doctrine of the cross. It set up the Inquisition in Spain. It kindled the fires in Smithfield. It drove the Pilgrim Fathers across the seas; it silenced Richard Baxter; it flung John Bunyan for twelve years into Bedford Gaol; it drove John Wesley from the pulpit to the fields.
And what about to-day? Alas, the same spirit prevails. You can trace much of the strife and consequent weakness and shame of Christ"s Church back to it. We are all of us far too prone to think our way is the only way. We are far too ready to forbid other men, because they follow not us. And we rend and paralyse and shame the Church of Christ in consequence.
Christ"s Lesson in Tolerance.
Now let us turn to our Lord"s comment on John"s story. It was not for nothing John"s conscience had been uneasy. The answer Christ made confirmed him in his fears that their action had been unwarrantable and wrong. For the recital of the story calls forth from our Lord"s lips a short and sharp rebuke. "Forbid him not," He said. They had no right to place this man under an interdict, or to try and stop him in his gracious work. Christ will have none of their exclusiveness and intolerance. And He proceeds to give His reasons, and in these reasons the voices of wisdom and charity unite. The first reason is personal to the particular man in question. "There is no man which shall do a mighty work in My name, and be able quickly to speak evil of Me" ( Mark 9:39). They had treated this man as if he were an enemy. They could not have acted more harshly by him, had he been an open and determined foe. But, said Jesus, he clearly was not an enemy. Nor was he likely easily to become one. His use of the name of Christ to a certain degree committed him to the cause of Christ. They ought to have treated him, though outside their circle, as an ally and a friend. "For there is no man which shall do a mighty work in My name, and be able quickly to speak evil of Me." The second reason He casts into the form of a general truth. "For he that is not against us is for us."
This maxim recalls another like it, and yet unlike. In Matthew 12:30 I find Jesus saying, "He that is not with Me is against Me." Now the commentators all tell me that these two sayings, though apparently contradictory, are really not contradictory, but supplementary. And in all kinds of ingenious ways they proceed to reconcile the two. "The principle in both sayings is the same," says Dr. Salmond. "It is the simple principle that we cannot be for and against, friend and foe at the same time." "The two sayings," is Dr. Bruce"s comment, "are harmonised by a truth underlying both—that the cardinal matter in spiritual character is the bias of the heart. If the heart of a man be with me, then though by ignorance and error, isolation from those who are avowedly my friends, he may seem to be against me, he is really for me. On the other hand, if a man be not in heart with me (e.g. the Pharisees), then though by his orthodoxy and zeal he may seem to be on God"s side, and therefore on mine, he is really against me." The impossibility of neutrality in the spiritual sphere—this, according to the commentators, is the great truth that both sayings are meant to emphasize. But, ingenious though these explanations are, I do not think they really meet the difficulty; for in the one passage, as Dr. Chadwick puts it, "seeming neutrality is reckoned as friendship, while in the other it is denounced as enmity."
Doubtless the true explanation is to be found in a closer examination of the two sayings. The saying in Matthew refers exclusively to a man"s relations to Christ. "He that is not with Me is against Me"; and that is inevitably so. There can be no such thing as a neutral attitude towards Christ. The man who says that he simply is indifferent to Christ, is unwittingly, perhaps, increasing the mass of opposition that has to be overcome by Him. But in the saying we have just now under consideration it is His disciples rather than Himself that Christ has in mind. In Luke"s account, indeed, that is how the saying is given, "He that is not against you is for you." It is a warning to the disciples not to suppose that loyalty to their organisation, although Christ was with them, was the same thing as loyalty to Him. It was quite possible for people to be outside their circle—not "with them" or "of them," in that narrow and mechanical sense—and yet to be in Christ and loyal to Him. And if a man was "in Christ" and loyal to Him, even though he did not belong to their circle, he was really "for them"; he was helping on their work and furthering their cause. It was so with this unknown worker. He was not "of them," in the sense that he did not belong to their circle, but inasmuch as he was doing good and spreading Christ"s name he was really on their side.
A Warning to Ourselves.
And it is so still. The various denominations into which Christ"s Church is divided are not antagonists—if they only knew it, they are allies. Over our furious controversies, and our ugly intolerances, Christ whispers this word, "He that is not against us is for us." When we consider the great work which all Churches exist to further, people of other communions are seen to be not against us, but for us. It is when we think only of our particular organisations that those not belonging to us seem against us. When we think not of our Church, but of Christ, and Christ"s Kingdom, we see those who belong to other communions, and who worship and work in different ways from ours are not against us, but for us. There is nothing we need more than the increase of the spirit of brotherhood, a frank and unreserved recognition of our deep and real unity in Christ our Lord.
"For whosoever shall give you a cup of water to drink in My name, because ye belong to Christ, verily I say unto you, he shall not lose his reward. And whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in Me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea. And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched."— .
The Reward of Helpful Service.
It is with the sure and rich reward of all helpful service that our Lord is concerned in the first verse of our paragraph. "Whosoever shall give you a cup of water to drink, because ye are Christ"s, verily I say unto you, he shall in no wise lose his reward" ( Mark 9:41). Let me, if I can, make clear what I conceive to be the sequence of thought. Jesus has finished His comments on John"s story with the sentence, "He that is not against us is for us." As if to say, "That man who was casting out devils in My name was not a foe, he was a friend. He was not to be denounced and hindered; he was to be encouraged. He was really helping us." And then He goes on to say that whoever helps His disciples, even though it be only to the extent of a cup of cold water, he shall by no means lose his reward. The sequence is perfectly natural and intelligible. You may say, indeed, that this is the Lord"s blessing upon that interrupted and excommunicated stranger. John and his companions had denounced him, and tried to hinder him. The Master blessed him. The disciples thought he was their enemy, and so they forbade him: the Master saw he was their friend and ally and helper, and so He said that that unknown stranger should in no wise lose his reward. But though I think that our Lord had the interdicted man specially in mind when He uttered this saying, He cast it into the form of a general statement. "Whosoever shall give you a cup of water to drink, because ye are Christ"s, verily I say unto you, he shall in no wise lose his reward." Broadly speaking, you may say that is an assertion of the sure reward of every helpful Christian service. Looking a little more closely, we shall find the saying suggestive of two or three other truths beside that main and central one.
Act and Motive.
First of all, what a suggestion we get here as to the constitution of genuine Christian giving! Christian giving is giving for Christ"s sake. Christian service is service in Christ"s name. The giving of a cup of cold water was a service common enough in a hot country like Palestine. What transfigured that common act into a Christian Acts, was when the cup of water was given to a disciple because he was Christ"s. In a word, it is the motive that decides whether an act or a gift is Christian or no. There is a great deal of giving in our world that is not Christian. A great many give because it is the fashion and custom to give. A subscription list is started for the relief of distress, and we feel we must for respectability"s sake have our names upon it. I do not know that giving prompted by such motives counts for anything in Christ"s sight. Then there is a great deal of giving that springs from humanitarian motives. Men are touched by the thought of human misery, and give. That is philanthropy. I do not say that is not admirable. It is. But there is a higher plane to be reached by us. Our giving becomes Christian when we give for Christ"s sake.
The Quality of Service.
Then see how our Lord omits from His notice not even the slightest and humblest service. Nothing could be cheaper, in a sense, no service could be simpler, than the gift of a cup of cold water; and yet the Lord notices that small service, and of it He says it shall by no means lose its reward. We sometimes deplore that the gifts we can offer and the services we can render are so small. This saying is for our special encouragement. Cups of cold water—it is only humble and trivial services of that kind we seem capable of. But it is not the quantity so much as the quality of the work that decides its value in God"s sight. Go on giving your cups of cold water, rendering your little kindnesses, speaking your simple words, in the name and for the sake of Christ—go on doing these things. Christ notices them. Verily I say unto you, you shall in no wise lose your reward.
The Certainty of Reward.
And now as to this certainty of reward. Is it true? Yes. The man who does a kindness to another because he is Christ"s, receives his reward in an enlarged capacity for kindness, in spiritual enrichment. Life somehow becomes richer and deeper for him; every little act of Christian service seems to lift his own life on to higher levels. Of course, in spite of all this, a man may allow his baser instincts to get the mastery over him, and so the reward may have been bestowed upon him in vain. But there is no doubt about the reward. "The deepening of spiritual capacity," as Bishop Chadwick says, "is one exceeding great reward of every act of loyalty to Christ." And that reward never fails.
Offences against Little Ones.
And this truth about the sure reward of every act of Christian service suggests to our Lord the converse and opposite truth of the inevitable punishment of every offence. "Whosoever shall cause one of these little ones that believe on Me to stumble," He said, "it were better for him if a great millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea" ( Mark 9:42). The commentators all say that Jesus had the little child referred to in Mark 9:36 still in the midst, and that it was the little child He had in mind when He spoke of "one of these little ones." That may be so. But I am not at all sure that it was not that interdicted and excommunicated exorcist He was still thinking about. What had been the effect of the harsh action of the disciples upon him? Perhaps they had shattered the faith he had in Christ. What if the harshness of the disciples had driven him back? What if they had quenched the flickering wick of his faith? They had done it thoughtlessly. But what irreparable harm they might have caused—the loss and shipwreck of faith, the ruin of a soul! And so our Lord issues this solemn warning, and says it is better that a man should lose his life, be sunk in the depth of the sea, rather than that by his conduct he should cause one of these little ones that believe on Him to stumble.
Stumbling-blocks and their Makers.
This is a solemn saying. The truth that supplies its justification is the truth of the infinite and supreme worth of the soul, the soul of even the humblest and the weakest in the sight of God. Far better, says our Lord, lose life than to destroy a soul. "It must needs be that offences come," said our Lord, on another occasion, "but woe to that man through whom the offence cometh." Our Lord becomes stern, severe, menacing, when He thinks of those who put stumbling-blocks in a brother"s way. And yet there are amongst us those who do it, who constantly and deliberately do it. I think of those writers, men and women, who produce prurient and suggestive books; who flood our land with base literature which defiles and pollutes the minds of our youth. I think of the evil companions who at every corner lie await to destroy, who tempt young men and women to their ruin and shame. What a fate is theirs! There are lost and ruined and blighted souls set down to their account. They have robbed God of some of His children. Good were it for such men if they had never been born.
Consideration for the Little Ones.
No one, I suppose, who reads this would deliberately set a stumbling-block in a brother"s way. We would shrink with horror from the thought of luring, goading, tempting a soul into sin. But it is possible even for us to be guilty of causing a brother to stumble. I am constantly being told by men and women that their greatest stumbling-block is found in the inconsistencies of Christian people. Remember there are "little ones," weak ones, Little Faiths, Fearings, Ready-to-Halts all about us. And some lapse, some selfishness, some uncharitableness, as in the case of these disciples, may easily cause them to stumble. Look, therefore, carefully how you walk—not as unwise, but as wise. For here is this solemn word set for our warning. "Whosoever shall cause one of these little ones that believe on Me to stumble, it were better for him if a great millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea."
Offences against One"s Own Soul.
Then the Lord again, by a perfectly natural transition, passes from the thought of offences against a "little one" to offences against one"s own self. In a sense the two classes of offences merge into one. For a man"s sin against another is always also a sin against his own soul. Still, it is possible in thought to distinguish between the two classes; and in the remaining verses of our paragraph our Lord is dealing with offences against a man"s own soul. "And if thy hand cause thee to stumble," He says, "cut it off: it is good for thee to enter into life maimed, rather than having thy two hands to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire" ( Mark 9:43). And He repeats the same formula about the foot and the eye. Here we must beware of a bald literalism. The truth He is emphasizing is this—we must shrink from no spiritual surgery to save the life of the soul. It is not a physical mutilation our Lord is advocating here. That would be to countenance the Manichean heresy, that matter is essentially evil. And our Lord knew that the ultimate source of sin was not the members of the body, but the corrupt and sinful will. Our Lord uses hand and foot and eye here in a metaphorical and symbolic sense. Spiritual hurt, as Dr. Salmond says, may come from some part of a man"s nature which he has suffered to become unsound. It is his Wisdom of Solomon, therefore, to cut off the occasion, at whatever cost, and wherever it may lie, whether in hand or foot or eye.
Lines of Offences.
But while it is spiritual surgery our Lord has in His mind, and while hand and foot and eye are not to be taken literally, they are most suggestive of various kinds of sin which enslave and destroy the soul. The hand, this wonderful instrument, may, as Dr. Chadwick suggests, stand for some harmless accomplishments that somehow or other have become fraught with evil suggestive-ness; it may stand for a business, a livelihood that is entangled with dishonest ways. And the foot that carries us into our various fellowships and companionships—it may well stand for some association or friendship which corrodes and degrades the soul. "Some walk in the counsel of the ungodly." And the eye may stand for unholy desire and passion. Through Eye-gate what temptations assault men! That was how the first sin came into the world, according to the old story. "The woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes" ( Genesis 3:6).
The Way of Duty.
Now what our Lord says about all these things is this, that they must ruthlessly be excised, if they injure the soul. If some accomplishment becomes a snare, it must be surrendered. If business cannot be carried on with a good conscience, it must be given up. "If thy hand cause thee to stumble, cut it off." And if any otherwise pleasant companionship insensibly deadens the soul, takes the edge off our sensitiveness, it must be abandoned. "If thy foot cause thee to stumble, cut it off." And if certain books you read, certain sights you behold, bring evil desires into your heart, shut the books, and shun the sights. "If thine eye cause thee to stumble, cast it out." It is no new doctrine. It is the doctrine of self-denial and self-sacrifice that is taught on every page of the Christian gospel. The Christian life is not an easy life. There is much lopping and cutting and maiming to be done. There is agony to be endured, and blood to be shed.
But two things are to be noticed. (1) The sacrifice is not for sacrifice sake. The end of sacrifice, as the philosophers say, is self-realisation. The purpose of the surgery and the mutilation is to preserve life. Some people tell us that every instinct and desire of human nature is to be gratified. That is the Song of Solomon -called gospel of Naturalism. It would be more truly and properly called the cult of Animalism. But, as a matter of fact, you cannot give the rein to the passions and instincts of the lower nature without imperilling the higher. You cannot live only to gratify the flesh, without polluting and destroying the soul. And it is to preserve that life of the soul that Jesus bids us use the knife to those desires and lusts that threaten it. "It is good for thee to enter into life maimed, rather than having thy two hands to go into hell." The surgery is all in the interests of life.
And the Sacrifice worth Making.
(2) And secondly, the life is worth the sacrifice. Do you remember that wonderful conversation about life and death in Lavengro, between Jasper the gipsy and Lavengro himself? "Life is sweet, brother," said Jasper. "Do you think so?" replied Lavengro. "Think so; there"s night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon, and stars, brother, all sweet things; there"s likewise the wind on the heath. Life is very sweet, brother; who would wish to die?" "I would wish to die," replied Lavengro. "You talk like a fool," retorted Jasper; "a gipsy would wish to live for ever." "In sickness, Jasper?" "There"s the sun and stars, brother." "In blindness, Jasper?" "There"s the wind on the heath, brother; if I could only feel that, I would gladly live for ever." Life is the supreme thing; and the gipsy was ready to endure and suffer anything for life. But there is a better and nobler thing than the life of which he spoke. It is the life of which Christ speaks here. For this is soul life, divine life, eternal life. And that is worth anything, everything. Life is very sweet, and it is worth while to sacrifice hand, or foot, or eye to secure life. It is worth while to live a maimed, mutilated, darkened life down here, that our souls may win the life eternal. It is worth while to beat the body black and blue, to "crucify the flesh with the passions and lusts thereof," if only the soul may live for ever.
Salted with Fire
"For every one shall be salted with fire, and every sacrifice shall be salted with salt. Salt is good: but if the salt have lost his saltness, wherewith will ye season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace one with another."— .
These two verses are obscure. In Mark 9:49 there is scarcely a word that does not offer difficulty. "For every one" seems to imply some causal connection with what has gone before. What is that connection? To whom does the "every one" refer; to unbelievers or to disciples? "Every one shall be salted." Which of the two radically different meanings of "salt" are we to accept as correct? And what does "salting with fire" mean? No wonder that expositors lament over this passage. "It is exceedingly difficult," says Grain. "It is exceedingly vexed," says Wolf. "It is exceedingly vexing," remarks another. "It has put to the rack the ingenuity of many learned men," says Grotius. While an English commentator remarks, "There is perhaps no passage in the New Testament which has so defied all efforts to assign to it any certain interpretation." In face of all that, it seems perhaps almost presumptuous to attempt to expound it at all. But, accepting the view Dr. Morison suggests, I believe a sound and perfectly intelligible account can be given of this most difficult passage.
Let us begin by accepting the text as it stands in the R.V, where the latter half of the verse is omitted. The uncertainty about the correct reading is no doubt due to the fact that, from the very beginning, the passage was felt to be difficult; and so in various MSS. the text was slightly altered, and in some cases an additional sentence was inserted, in the hope of making the meaning a little more clear. That may account for the insertion of the phrase, "and every sacrifice shall be salted with salt," which you find in the A.V. The scribe probably thought that the old Levitical custom of salting the sacrifice might throw light upon the passage. But we may accept the R.V. view, that Mark only wrote, "For every one shall be salted with fire."
The Persons Indicated.
But what exactly does that mean? To whom, to begin with, does the phrase "every one" refer? Some commentators confine the reference to the unbelieving. But it is not to unbelieving men that Christ has been speaking; it is to His own disciples. It is not of unbelieving men He has been speaking; it is of His own. He has been warning them that they may find stumbling-blocks in their own natures, and telling them that they must practise unsparing spiritual energy; that they must cut off the hand and the foot and cast out the eye rather than incur the doom of those who yield to their fleshly lusts. "For," He says, "every one shall be salted with fire." The "every one" clearly refers to the people who have been the subject of the preceding verses. In other words, this assertion refers to believing men, to Christ"s own disciples.
What, then, does our Lord mean when He says that every one of His disciples shall be salted with fire? "Salt" and "fire" must be used here, not literally, but metaphorically; otherwise, in the conjunction of salt and fire, we should get a conjunction of two incongruous ideas—preservation and destruction. Metaphorically considered, however, they are perfectly congruous. The two ideas that are most prominently associated with salt are those of seasoning and preservation from corruption. Here the whole idea is that of preservation—preservation from the worm which dieth not, and the fire which is not quenched. It Isaiah, as Dr. Morison says, "the antiseptic property of salt" that the Saviour has in His mind. So that, substituting for the actual word the idea for which it stands, we might read the sentence thus: "Every one of My disciples shall be preserved from corruption by fire."
Let us now pass on to the second term, "fire." It is suggested, no doubt, by the reference to "fire" in the preceding verse. But there is a difference. The fire of Gehenna was destructive, penal. It utterly consumed all the corruption and filth and abominations that were cast into it But this fire is not destructive, it is cleansing; it is not penal, it is purifying. "Every one shall be preserved from corruption by fire." For fire, as we know, has this cleansing power. It purifies, for instance, the metal cast into it. It cleanses it of the dross mingled with it, so that it issues forth refined silver, pure gold, as the case may be. But while the action of fire in this instance is meant to be regarded as purifying rather than as penal, the idea of pain is still associated with it. You cauterise a wound; it is a cleansing and healing, but it is also a painful process. And so our Lord says that every disciple of His will be preserved from corruption by something which purifies, but which in the process hurts and blisters and burns. What is that something? The Holy Spirit, some commentators say. "Fire" is one of the symbols of the Spirit. When He enters the heart, He flames against all unrighteousness and sin; He burns out all that is unholy and base and foul. He is a Spirit of burning. And that means that the Spirit"s work in the heart is often painful work. It is agonising work, and we shrink from it in fear. "Who among us," cried the prophet, "shall dwell with the devouring fire? who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?" ( Isaiah 33:14). We may say, then, that the essential meaning of the passage is this, "Every one of Christ"s disciples is preserved from corruption by the fire of an unsparing self-sacrifice, kindled by the energies of the Spirit of God."
The Pain of Sacrifice.
Two practical truths are suggested by this explanation. (1) The Christian life involves pain and sacrifice. Here is a truth stamped on every page of the New Testament. It is suggested by every figure used to describe the Christian life. It is emphasized in every appeal to live the Christian life. Christ calls His disciples, not to a velvet path, but to a narrow way. He summons them, not to ease and comfort, but to sacrifice. He promises them, not a smooth and pleasant time, but suffering and a cross. There is much of agonising, cutting, maiming, burning to be done in the Christian life. Everything great and good costs effort and sacrifice. The greatest achievement of all is the attainment of a Christian character. And as it is the greatest, so is it also the costliest. There is no such thing as being a Christian on the cheap. Discipleship costs its price. "Every one shall be salted with fire."
—And its Profit.
(2) But the pain the Christian disciple undergoes all tends to profit. "Burning"—it does not suggest a pleasant process. It suggests agony, torture. But the end of it all Isaiah, cleansing and health. I cannot help thinking that there is between Mark 9:48 and Mark 9:49 a deliberate and purposed antithesis. The two verses present to us alternative fires. As our old commentator puts it, "He sets one fire over against another, the present one against the future." There is the fire of Gehenna, of which the ceaseless burnings of the Valley of Hinnom were the type and symbol, and there is the cleansing fire of the Spirit of God. And it looks as if Christ meant us to understand that into one of these fires every man must go. If he refuses to part with what is corrupt and sinful, then there waits for him the penal fire, into which everything corrupt and sinful is cast. But if he submits himself to the cleansing fire of the Spirit, that fire cleanses and purifies him of all that is foul and base, and leaves nothing in him on which the penal fire of Gehenna could feed.
The Saltless Salt.
"Salt is good," our Lord goes on to say, "but if the salt have lost its saltness, wherewith will ye season it?" ( Mark 9:50). The connection between this sentence and the preceding one is verbal rather than logical. I mean, that it was the mention of the word "salt" that suggested this further remark to Jesus. "Salt" is still in His mind the great preservative. And as He uses the term here, He evidently means by it "the spirit of Holiness, the Christian character"; that which, when men have it, makes them in turn "the salt of the earth." But what if the salt has lost its saltness? What is the use, He asks, of a profession out of which all the reality has gone, of a nominal Christianity out of which the genuine Christian spirit has evaporated? Is there such a thing as "saltless salt" in the spiritual world? Alas, yes, there is. I read, for instance, of a Church which the Lord of the Church thus described, "Thou hast a name that thou livest, and thou art dead" ( Revelation 3:1). There was a Church that was not fulfilling its function—"Saltless salt." I read of another Church of which the Lord said, "I have this against thee, that thou didst leave thy first love" ( Revelation 2:4). The process was not complete, but the degeneration had commenced. The salt was losing its saltness. I read of some men in St Paul"s second letter to Timothy, "holding a form of godliness, but having denied the power thereof" (iii5). There was the profession without the substance; the appearance of salt, with none of its pungency and preserving power.
—Still to be Found.
Saltless salt—there is a great deal of it in the world still; profession without practice, name without deed, fire without life. I do not know but that if we began to examine our own consciences and hearts we might have to confess that this degenerating process has to some extent taken place in us. The salt has begun to lose its saltness. We exercise little preserving and purifying power on the life of the world around us. "Salt is good," says our Lord. The genuine, vital, and uncompromising Christian is a centre of healthful and healing and purifying influence. By his mere presence he arrests and stays corruption. Dr. Stalker tells about a young lad so transparently and unmistakably Christian that, by his mere presence, within a month he banished the foul speech for which his office had been notorious. There is nothing the world wants more than men and women of the same sincere and unashamed Christian character. But why is it that we Christian folk produce so little effect on the world; that in spite of our presence, evil and base and corrupt practices flourish on every hand? Is it because the salt in us has lost its saltness? Is it because our Christianity is so feeble and compromising and formal? What hope is there for the world, if Christianity fails it? "If the salt have lost its saltness, wherewith will ye season it?" ( Mark 9:50).
Holiness and Peace.
And so our Lord passes on to His practical conclusion. "Have salt in yourselves," He says, "and be at peace one with another." Our Lord here has a side reference to their interference with the man who had been casting out devils. It was not their business to interfere with another Prayer of Manasseh, because he worked in what they considered to be unorthodox fashion; it was their business to see to it that they did their own duty in the world, that their own Christian faith was real, that their own lives were such that they would exercise a cleansing and purifying influence upon the world. And this they could only do as they had the spirit of holiness and consecration within them. "And be at peace one with another." For the disciples had been quarrelling about places. They had been disputing which of them was greatest. And their disputes had threatened to break up the unity of the apostolate, and to militate against the success of their work. "Be at peace one with another," the Lord says. For real peace would inevitably result, if they had "salt in themselves."
—Things to be Desired.
The wisdom which is from above is first pure, then peaceable. Holiness and peace. Those are the things Christ desires for His disciples. Those are the things that Christ"s disciples need most still. What a change would come over our world if Christian people were only at peace one with another, and gave to the world an example of holy living! A conquered world would be the result. Let us pray for these two things—greater holiness and mutual concord. The world will be ours when we have salt in ourselves, and are at peace one with another.
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Jones, J.D. "Commentary on Mark 9". J.D. Jones's Commentary on the Book of Mark. https://www.studylight.org/
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