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Abiding In Christ
1Jn 2:24-29 ; 1Jn 3:1
IN this verse the Apostle is bound down in his mind to one thought, and almost to one word. He varies the word, and yet it is the same. "Abide," "remain," "continue." These are in some sort an old man's words. John will have no shifting, no experimenting: he will not have us as butterflies in the garden of God, here and there, a moment on the wing and a moment resting, and then flying again; and doing all simply because the sun is shining. The Apostle insists upon abiding, remaining, continuing, enduring, holding on. "He that endureth unto the end shall be saved." This is true in all things that are honest and right; even in commerce; also in scholarship; also in the highest life known to heaven. Salvation is in continuance. There are those who want to be saved and completed as if by one magical act. This cannot be done; such is not the Divine plan. The economy of God is an economy of growth, of slow progress, of imperceptible advance; but the growth, the progress, and the advance being assured. How many there are upon whom no reckoning can be made! We do not know where they are, we cannot tell what they believe; not that we want to know the detailed particulars, but we do want to know the inner, constant, unchangeable quantity of faith: given that, and afterwards great liberty may be enjoyed as to imagination, and proposition, and formulation, and the like. The point of constancy must be found in the living faith of the soul. So then all new religion is forbidden. No religion can be new. If "religion" be taken in its Latin derivation, if it mean binding back upon, or binding down to, duty, it is an eternal term. Duty was never born. The incidents or accidents of duty may come and go, so that this shall be the incident to-day, and tomorrow the incident shall undergo modification: but the constant quantity is duty, binding back, a fettering to certain acknowledged and unchangeable principles. Eternal terms have eternal rewards:
"This is the promise that he hath promised us, even eternal life" ( 1Jn 2:25 ).
So, whether it be duty or whether it be promise, in each case we go back to eternity. There is nothing in time's garden worth plucking except for one moment. What we pluck we kill. No man ever plucked a flower and kept it. He praised it, he became wisely and gratefully poetical over it; he called it lovely, sweet, beautiful, fragrant: and as he was pouring out his eulogistic epithets upon it the flower was dying all the time. But the promise which we have of God is a promise of eternal life. Who can explain the word "eternal" in this connection? It is not an arithmetical term, it is not a term of time, of extended, expanded, immeasurable time. Eternity has no relation to time; infinity has no relation to space, it mocks it, swallows it up, and spreads itself beyond all measuring lines, yea, and beyond the scope and bend of inspired imagination. It is difficult for the human mind to think of eternity in any other way than as a continuation of time. If eternity can begin, it can end; if eternity can end, it is a paradox in phrases, it is a palpable irony and self-contradiction. So life eternal is not life never ceasing only, it is a qualitative term, it indicates a species and kind and value of life. As John Stuart Mill has said, immortality in the mere sense of duration may become a burden. Duration is a low and literal term; eternal life means quality of life, divinity, blessedness, completeness, music, restfulness. Along the line of such explanatory terms must we find the real significance of the word "eternal."
But there is to be an eternal element in us: that is to say we must love the eternal before we can enjoy it.
"Let that therefore abide in you, which ye have heard from the beginning. If that which ye have heard from the beginning shall remain in you" ( 1Jn 2:24 ).
What is that "beginning"? An unbeginning period; it is, as we have seen, a favourite word with John, both in his Gospel and in his Epistle. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" that same unmapped, unmeasured, unimagined Deity. If we are filled with theories, inventions, conjectures, and even hypotheses whatever that dubious Greek may mean we cannot go from these into eternal life. If we have taken up with that which was in the beginning, if it be in us, and we be in it, then this eternal life is not an arbitrary reward, it is a logical sequence, the infinite pressure of infinite laws. There may be some who suppose that the gift of heaven is extraneous, arbitrary; that it is given where something else might have been given in its stead. Such is not the reasoning of the Bible. Heaven is the culmination of all we have been passing through, as noon is the culmination of dawn, as the fruit is the culmination of all the mysterious, chemical action of spring and summer, the outcome and benediction of all. Some men are now nearly in heaven. Their translation can occasion but small surprise to themselves; they have daily fellowship with God through his Son Jesus Christ, by the power of the Eternal Spirit; they walk with God; they awake in the morning to praise him, they fall asleep with their heads pillowed in his promises, and in all the hours between waking and sleeping their one inquiry is, "Lord, what wilt thou have me do?" After such experience, heaven comes not as a novelty or a startling surprise, but as a necessary and blessed crowning of the whole process.
"These things have I written unto you concerning them that seduce you" ( 1Jn 2:26 ).
John was not only in a hortatory temper, he was also disposed to give caution and warning to those who were in danger of being craftily handled. In this connection "seduce" means, Lead you into by-paths. Observe the quaintness and the fulness of that expression. By-paths have a relation to the great turnpike, they are not wholly cut away, they are close at hand but they are not on the main thoroughfare: and I know not any promise that is given to those who are in by-paths, in out-of-the-way lanes and turnings and sequestered places; if there are such promises attached to such places they have wholly escaped my memory. The blessing is upon those who keep in the way, the old paths, the frequented way; and the young shepherdess is warned in the Song of Songs to keep close by them whose tents are builded by experienced hands. She is told to keep in company with those who have rich experience in shepherding, not to take her little flock away into by-paths, and to make roads and tracks for herself. The song says, Keep the old ones in sight; follow the way-worn, toil-worn shepherds, never be far away from them, so that if the wolf should come you may have assistance within call. John would therefore not have us try any by-paths. Some men cannot do without irregularity and incoherency; they cannot do with uniformity, they seem to be most in company when they are most alone, and they do not understand the mystery and helpfulness, the genius and inspiration of fellowship, comradeship, mutual exchange of love and trust. We must get out of this enfeebling and ultimately ruinous isolation. This caution is not directed against independency, courage, fearlessness, or heroism of mind. There is a leadership that is connected vitally with all the following body, there is also a leadership that cuts itself away from the body that has to be led, and therefore ends in loss of influence and ultimate ruin of soul and body. At the same time we must not think that a man is utterly lost because he has been seduced, led away into some leafy lane, where he thinks the flowers are brighter and the berries are sweeter than on the open turnpike; we need not pelt our lane-loving friends with cruel epithets, with murderous criticisms; we must not let them suppose that they are exiled and forgotten. The Son of man came to seek and to save that which was lost; let us say, even we ourselves who are now in God's open sunny thoroughfare and are going straight up to heaven by the power of the Spirit, even we were like sheep that had gone astray, we had turned every one to his own way, but now we have returned to the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls. They may follow our example; some day we may find the lanes or by-paths all deserted, and our friends who have been momentarily lost may rejoin our friendship, and not know how to make enough of it because of their remembered loneliness.
The Apostle continues in the 28th verse in the same tone
"And now, little children, abide in him." ( 1Jn 2:28 )
"Little children" is the same word that has been already used as a term of endearment. But the exhortation is unchanged abide, continue, watch, wait, keep on. We need all these exhortations; we are the victims of sudden passion. Imagination itself is challenged sometimes to go to the very pinnacle of the temple and behold the possibilities of religious progress and conquest, and all the progress and conquest may be realised by simply worshipping at some forbidden altar, or taking some ruinous leap. Blessed are they who have no imagination; they who know only the letter have no doubt, no fear, no trouble: other minds are all imagination, not in the nightmare sense of supposing that things are real which are non-existent, but in the high ideal sense of multiplying the actual into the possible, and that mysterious power which puts back the horizon and makes larger heavens every day. These are the men who are so various in mental action as sometimes to be accused by those who never dreamed a dream or saw a vision. On the other hand, it is within the power of the Spirit of God to direct the imagination which he has created, and in being so directed we owe to that imagination, some of our richest treasures of Christian poetry and spiritual thought. Evermore, therefore, the Apostle says you must abide in him.
John was familiar with this word "abide." He caught it from the lips of the Master; he chronicled it as part of the discourse delivered by the Saviour about the vine and the branches and the husbandman; said Christ, "I am the Vine, ye are the branches; as the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me." And when the Paraclete was promised, John says he was promised to abide. He came to stay till the work was completed. Some one must come from heaven to remain. Jesus came, and we hardly saw him before he vanished: and when he was going, he said, I am going for your sake, it is expedient for you that I go away; but I will send the abiding Personality: and no personality could abide with us that could be seen by us; familiarity would ruin even the ministry of God; Christ himself could have stayed so as to have survived himself: such is the mystery of all fleshly action and all fleshly contact and vision: we become familiar with it, we want some new wonder, some novel fame, some miracle of revelation: blessed be God, here is one of the subtlest, profoundest proofs of the divinity or the inspiration of Christianity, that it relies upon the presence of the invisible, upon the action of the impalpable, upon the ministry of One who is called the Ghost, the Spirit, the fleshless One, unseen, almighty. Even if this be but a conception, it is one of the finest, grandest conceptions of the human mind. It is more than a conception to the Christian heart, it is a distinct revelation. Again John becomes gently practical:
"If ye know that he is righteous, ye know that every one that doeth righteousness is born of him" ( 1Jn 2:29 ).
Here we have a claim which the Church has forgotten to insist upon. We ought to claim every good man as belonging to God "every one that doeth righteousness is born of God." Never admit that there can be righteousness outside the Church. You must enlarge your Church to take in all righteousness. If your walls are too narrow to accommodate with sufficient hospitality all the good men of the world, you must put your walls farther back, at what cost soever; it is the wall that must be extended, not the man that must be kept outside. "Every one that doeth righteousness is born of God," whether he technically and formally acknowledge it or not; whether indeed he is conscious of it or not: we must not allow even human consciousness to be the measure of all things, we must not so exalt human consciousness as to outbuild God from his own human creation. God is doing many things for us that we do not recognise in all their simplicity and reality. Whenever a man lifts his eyes to heaven in religious expectancy, though he has no words, he is under divine influence. If a man shall say to himself, "I will try to be good, without having any connection with churches and religious organisations," he cannot perform that miracle except God the Holy Ghost be with him. Never admit that morality can be grown in any garden but the garden of God. If you find good in heathenism, it belongs to Christ. If ever Confucius or Buddha or Mahomet spake one living, loving, true, musical word, it belongs to him whose are the riches of the universe. The Church must make larger claims. Do not take some ecclesiastical standard with you and say, "Except you come up to this standard you have no relation to the Kingdom of heaven"; it is your standard that must go down, not God's kingdom that must be narrowed and humiliated. Along this line I feel as if God's ministers might house many who are apparently outside the Church, and who suppose themselves to be heterodox and outcast and alien. Nothing of the kind. If you ever yearn for your Father in heaven, take heart, hope on, yearn on: such yearning ends in vision and benediction. Once let the notion get rooted that men can be good without Christ, and the whole Christian argument is surrendered. Jesus Christ never allowed any good worker to go unrecognised. Whenever he heard of persons doing good, though they followed not with him, he would not have them forbidden; he knew that whoever was trying to help a child was in that form praying; whoever was struggling to shake down a boundary that he might enjoy a healthier liberty was really beating upon the door of the kingdom of heaven. This larger definition must give hope to the world.
"Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God" [literally, the children of God ( 1Jn 3:1 )].
There is but one Son of God, yet somehow the Lord hath made his household so capacious and inclusive that there may be many children of God. What happens when human character is so sublimated as to be made akin to the very nature and quality of God? Agnosticism happens. Hear the argument "therefore the world knoweth us not." This is practical agnosticism. The Christian is in his own degree as great a mystery to the world as Christ was. There be those who say they do not know God; and these same people do not know God's children. They deny their existence, they smile upon them as fanatics, they dismiss them in literary footnotes, they give them a humble place in the marginalia with which they adorn their literature; but they do not know the Christian, the man who prays, the man who trusts, the man who endures as seeing the invisible: that is as great a mystery to the worldly mind, whether it be mercenarily worldly or vainly worldly, in an intellectual and literary sense, as is the Godhead itself. Observe the same word is used "knoweth us not, because it knew him not": not "know" merely in the sense of recognising; not "know" merely in the sense of saluting, as who should say, There are certain figures there the existence of which we must acknowledge, if we would not suffer our politeness to be extinguished; not that kind of knowledge, social, conventional and complimentary; but "knoweth us not" as to the secret of our action, the motive which impels us, the consideration which governs us. Christians are the misunderstood men of the world. Why are Christians misunderstood? Because Christ is misunderstood. Why are good men not known? Because God is not known. Only he who knows God can know God's children. Blessed is the time, come when it may, when God's children shall be such examples of moral beauty and nobleness as to confound the imagination of the worldly mind. This weapon is always left to us in the great spiritual warfare. We may be so good as to pass beyond the ken of low minds, worldly minds, vain, self-conceited minds. We can be so lowly minded, so longsuffering, so patient, so gentle, so forgiving, as to be counted fools. Wise are they who are fools for Christ's sake. You may not convince agnosticism or any form of scepticism or question-asking, by sheer intellectual argument, but you can confound all enemies by the sublimity of unselfishness, by consummating in obedience to the Holy Spirit the whole character of him who died upon the Cross to save the world. The fate of Christianity often seems to depend upon the character of Christians. Awake! As the battle is ours, ours through the Holy Spirit may be the victory!
Present and Future
Just for one moment return to our last point, which was the agnosticism or know-not-ism which refers to Christians, as well as to Christ and Christianity. That point we found in the first verse: "Therefore the world knoweth us not." That is the agnosticism that is often overlooked. People who want to be very mentally superb and shining think themselves agnostic in relation to infinity, divinity, everlastingness, supernaturalness, and the like, involving the whole genus and every species of polysyllable. The Apostle tells us that there is another agnosticism or know-not-ism that goes along with that viz., the ism that does not know the good man. That is to say the good man is a puzzle, a problem, a mystery, an impenetrable cloud of character; nobody can account for his motives, or follow the range of his purposes, or understand that solemn and tremendous Cross that is at the heart of all his thought and action. Understand that men who do not know God, do not know the sons or children or disciples of God. The motive of a good man must be an absolutely inscrutable mystery to everybody who bounds himself by space and ticks off his little duration by time. The good man is to such an observer a fool. He is losing his life that he may save it; he is throwing away seed with both hands in the hope that it will multiply itself and come back a golden harvest: oh, fool is he! Why trouble yourselves about infinity when you cannot understand the good man, when you cannot understand your own saintly mother? Why all this evolution into empty intellectual grandeur about the immeasurable and inexhaustible, when you do not understand your own companion in life? Away with your solemn fudge, and remember that you do not understand the very man or the woman to whom you are bound for life. This is humiliating, because some of us would love to pose as those who have not capacity enough to entertain the Infinite. That would be delightful to us, to lay our head back on some velvet pillow and contemplate the astounding fact that in our measurable breast there is no room for the immeasurable God. That would be something to talk about. But to be told that we do not know a good soul, in its motive, inspiration, purpose; that we cannot follow all its dream and poetry and idealism it seems as if one ought to be able to understand another, but he is not. He who does not know God has no key with which to open anything; he is in the midst of ten thousand cabinets each of which contains gold and rubies and all manner of gems, but he has no key. To understand God through love is to understand everything else; then like God we take up the hills as a very little thing and handle constellations as if they were mere toys. He who lives in God turns the water into wine, raises the dead, makes flowers grow out of flints, in the wilderness sets up fountains of water. It is cruel on the part of any teacher or preacher to take away from a man the only idol which that man thinks it respectable to worship: such a fine golden idol, such a beautiful, noble-looking thing: what a felon is the true preacher! what a robber is he who is zealous for the living God! Even this old snow-haired patriarch will presently say, "Little children, keep yourself from idols." But what a port a man has as he walks along the thoroughfare to Parliament, to commerce, to journalism, and he says, I cannot understand or comprehend the supernatural. It seems a great pity to tear his cloak off when it is so bedizened with little daubs of gilt which those who do not know the higher metals mistake for gold. He who thus poses and imposes upon himself loses more by his non-religious knowledge than he supposes: he does not understand any good deed, any true heroism; he can only follow heroism to the higher grades of selfishness; when it lives thus and goes out to seek and enjoy inspiration and motive beyond the common ken, the agnostic knows no more about that motive than he knows about the supernatural, simply because that motive is supernatural, extra-natural, natural plus , nature in her best attire.
The Apostle is still talking about love, divine sonship, a possible future metempsychosis such as never entered into the dreams of theology. Hear him "Beloved, now are we the sons of God." He who uses terms of endearment now is looked upon as sentimental. Probably there is only one preacher in the world that addresses his congregation as "Beloved," and he is sometimes thought to be fanatical: certainly he is apostolic; but perhaps to be apostolical is to be fanatical in the estimation of those who never get beyond the commonest prose in their interpretation of life and character and development.
"Now" is a term on which I should fix special and expectant attention. It is something to have a "now" in our religious experience. That is the sad defect of the experience of many; that is to say, want of immediateness of conviction, presentness of real feeling. We may be too much in process or transition or action to have a definite and nameable present identity; we may be so fond of development as to have no present address. That would not be development, that would be lunacy. What are we now? What are we in thought, in feeling, in purpose, in recollection? How does our character total itself at this immediate moment? Reflections of this kind apply to thought as well as to conduct. Orthodoxy is a growth. There is nothing abiding in orthodoxy. It never reaches a point except for the purpose of leaving it. Yet right thinking has its points, and the points never contradict each other; they are in succession, in regulated and advancing series, the one taking up the other and abrogating it by consummation. Thus the Bible itself is one, and Genesis and John are the same: "If ye believed Moses, ye would believe me," said Christ, "for he wrote of me," and hardly knew it, sometimes did not know it at all. Men do not always know what they are writing or what they are doing. Every time a man passes his fellow-man he leaves behind an impression for which there are no words, and of which he is utterly unconscious at the moment; and so are the men through whose society he thus passes; yet a great work may be done, an abiding influence may be started. Sometimes we think that Moses would be startled, if he could hear us preaching evangelical sermons from the Pentateuch. That is what Jesus Christ himself did. Sometimes the reader has to tell the writer what he meant. That is a mystery, but it is a fact. In the matter of thought, we are at a certain point now, and that point is the present orthodoxy: tomorrow we shall be a point farther on, then that will be the orthodoxy, and the man who keeps to the first point becomes heterodox. Whatever opposes progress is heterodox and unworthy, is selfish and worldly. We should take care that we do move, and that our conduct moves along with our thinking. To have high thoughts, and low lives, what a tenantry is that with which to crowd and decorate the soul! It is everything to know what we are at any given moment. The difficulty is that some people will not advance as quickly as others. They have turned religion into a kind of sighing for things which other men have forgotten. A child of two struggling with the alphabet, writing a 's and b's of elephantine size, is a poem to look at, a right beautiful and wholesome thing all over; but for a man of twenty to be doing that is ridiculous, unless he is writing for babies, which in itself is a beautiful thing.
What is our "now," our immediate self-hood, our present active consciousness? John gave an answer, he said, "Now are we the sons of God." That word "are" ought to be pronounced with unction. Every part of the verb To be is juicy. Some other verbs may be dismembered in conjugation and lose next to nothing; in fact, we could do without the verb in some cases: but this verb To be is the spinal verb in all tongues. Whatever language you learn, first master the verb To be. All other verbs are little twigs of that parent stem. There could be no language but for this verb. Now are we, not, we think, we imagine, we suppose, but we are inverbed, inlived, we are part and parcel of this very substance and quality. What a new view this gives us of religion! We do not now talk about the rise and progress of religion in the soul, we talk about the rise and progress of the soul in religion. If our religion is put upon us as a mere robe it may be laid off suddenly or forgotten sometimes, or it may attract the dust and mud of the world through which we pass; but if our religion, our Christianity, is part of ourselves, part of our very soul, then we have an immediate present of which we are not ashamed any more than we are ashamed of the identity of the best aspects of our character.
"The sons of God." We ought! to be that. There is a tone of kinship in that definition. We do not know what it means, but it means what is right, and we feel it to be so. In the Revised Version we have translated "the sons of God," in the first verse, into "the children of God," a sort of larger or more inclusive term: but "sons of God" will stand as carrying with it all possible endearment, all affectionateness of suggestion, all nearness of kin. Literally, Now are we the sons out of God, struck out of him like sparks; part of his very fire: see how the spark flies when the stone and the metal strike one another sharply! So we seem by a kind of friction to be struck out of God, sons out of God, carrying with us his quality, his Deity; we are partakers of the Divine nature.
What wonder then that the world does not know the sons of God? You must know the father before you can know the children. If you would know the father well, you must study him oftentimes through the children: the action is an interaction, now started from this point, now from that, but always going back upon itself in definite and profitable lines. The apostles were never content with the immediate present; they always said, There is more to be seen, there is more to be felt, there is more to be heard; we have not begun yet. It is thus we feel about the Bible. When we have concluded it, it is only that we may begin it again with new energy and new delight. The old student says, O spare me, Father of Light, a little longer! I would read again the roll prophetic, again I would read the psalter that resounds with the music of heaven: spare me that I may once more read the fourfold story of Bethlehem, and Calvary, the endless story.
Hence we find the Apostle saying here, "And it doth not yet appear what we shall be." He is still in the verb To be; he passes from the indicative to the future, but he is still within the same range; it is a question of being, identification, absorption. "What we shall be." But are we not measurable? No, we are not measurable. Can we not guess at the possibilities of development? Never. You never could guess the harvest from the seedtime if you had never seen the harvest. No man can imagine a harvest. Granted that he has seen one, then he can multiply it, he can fancy it still more abundant and still more golden, but given only the seedtime and a harvest never seen, no man could imagine a wheatfield, matured and goldened for the sickle: it is the mystery of growth, it is the apotheosis, the very deification of the agricultural idea.
"But we know." John never leaves this point of knowledge. He always holds something in his hand; he has not got the whole chain, but he has got hold of one link, and that he holds as if he meant never to forego the treasure. What do we know? The answer is "when he shall appear, we shall be like him." Why? "for we shall see him as he is." We see nothing at present. We have instruments by which we come into contact with space and magnitude, those instruments we call our eyes, but our eyes themselves are often glad to call in little helps, that through pieces of glass they may see the reality which they themselves unaided could never discover. So the microscope helps the eye; the telescope brings the worlds within the range of the vision. Who can see? Sight is not a question of the eyes exclusively. Sometimes we exclaim, "I see!" What is the meaning of the exclamation? is it an optical act? Nothing of the kind; it is a larger, an intellectual, act, I see, I perceive, I observe, I follow you completely. That is the larger sight. "We shall see him as he is": we have only seen him hitherto in appearances of a superficial kind, in facets, little aspects, transitory movements, but we shall one day see him, comprehend him, perceive him, grasp him as he is, touching his quality, his central virtue, the element that makes him God, and the Son of God and the Spirit of God. The old philosophical theory was that a man is turned into what he looks upon lovingly; that is to say, there were philosophers who would contend strenuously that if we looked at beauty we should become beautiful, if we looked at hideousness we should become debased by the sight. There is an element of truth in that theory; that element of truth finds its culmination, its glorification in this very doctrine, of seeing God, whether the Father, the Son, or the Holy Ghost: and seeing him is to be transformed by the sight into the same image. But there must be responsiveness, sympathy; there must be a real love of the object that is gazed upon, or no action of that kind will ever be set up: else then those who live in mountain scenery would be men of the finest intellect, absolutely independent of all narrowness of thought; every conception would be enlarged, every outlook would be ennobled, every speech would be punctuated as by the mountain within which the birth took place. It is not so: or the florist would be the most beautiful man on earth. But you may so handle a flower as to do it merely for the sake of getting wages; then the flowers work no wizardry upon your face, they do not help your wrinkles into furrows for the reception of the seed of heaven. You must love your art, and you will be affected by it: love your flowers, and you will become beautiful, if not in form yet in spirit and aspiration, in desire after the celestial. Love your Bible, and you will become beautiful; not in form or in feature, but in spirit, in thought, in chastened feeling, in inspired and ennobled ambition. One day, we are promised, that we, being sons of God now, shall see God, and seeing him shall become like him; then shall come to pass the saying that is written, "God created man in his own image and likeness." Blessed Gospel! Without this music our lives would sink into monotony!
Father in heaven, how wonderful is thy word unto the children of men! how much there is in it that we can never fully see! Holy Spirit, open our understanding that we may understand the Scriptures; open thou our eyes that we may behold wondrous things out of thy law. Teach us that we have not yet begun to read thy Book: Lord, increase our light; Lord, grant unto us that sensitiveness of spirit which omits nothing, but feels all the life and knows all the music of God. To this end do thou abide with us, Holy Paraclete; dwell with us, take up thine abode with us; call us thine. Help us to read thy Book so that we may become established in our faith, lest the flippancy of ignorance should deprive us of part of our inheritance in Christ. Thou knowest those who go about because they cannot rest, who are continually moving hither and thither because they have no soul-home in which to worship and in which to rest; they would destroy or disturb our faith, or breathe upon its pureness some breath from lower places. May we know that thy Word is full, deep, complete, eternal; there may we rest in sweet, undisturbed repose. To this end do thou send unto us thy Holy Spirit, through godly ministers, teachers, and friends, who shall be able to read the Bible to us; yea, when we take it into our own hands may our minds be under divine illumination, so that we may see afar, and hear music which comes to us from the very temple of heaven. How rich is thy Word! how noble in all grandeur! how it stretches forth itself to every one, near and far, of every clime and colour and name, that it may bring every man home to God, to acquire his right status and claim the inheritance bought with blood. Save us from all ignorance, superstition, folly; save us from all superficial views of things, as if we could judge anything by the outside and by one little moment of its history; show us that our longest life is but the twinkling of an eye; prove to us that we were of yesterday and can know nothing, and that not until we have been with thee countless ages do we even begin to be with God. Thus do thou chasten us, and ennoble us by modesty, and enrich us with the spirit of reverence, yet the spirit of expectation; and fill our souls with good things from heaven. We bless thee for what little we have seen; if we have multiplied it sometimes foolishly, thou knowest that we are dust, children of the earth on the one side, whilst children of heaven and eternity on the other; pity us and smite us not in thy great power. Sometimes we think we have knowledge, whereas we have none; help us to feel that we are only little scholars in God's great and everlasting school, where there is no vacation, where there is no time for frivolity, where all the ages constitute the first point of the span thou hast given us wholly to compass. Whilst we are here, help us to accept our little lot meekly and lovingly, and to work all the day right industriously, not considering what we have to do but how we have to do it; and may we do everything for the Master, whom we call Christ, because he lived for us, and died for us, and lives again evermore for us, that from the fountains of eternity he may replenish the streams of our existence. Thus do thou give every man a new view of life and a new sense of responsibility. We have played the fool before God, thinking we knew when we did not know, and undertaking things we had no right to undertake, because of the littleness of our power, and our inability to do what was to be done. May we be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath, always wondering whether we are not too ignorant even to pray. Lord, teach us how to pray, how to put our own wants into words. We do not know our own wants when we hear them put into speech, the speech is so far below them, so wanting in the agony of their desire. The Lord help every man to do his work simply, kindly, meekly, and not in the spirit of an hireling; and teach every man that it is better to be wronged than to wrong, better to be treated unjustly than to treat any child with injustice. Thus may we all be good servants of Christ, willing, faithful, self-sacrificing, and deriving all our power from him who is the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. Thou wilt judge us at the Cross, thy mercy endureth for ever; thou knowest our frame, thou knowest all the weariness of our life, thou knowest our unspoken and secret troubles and sorrows, and thou wilt heal us with great healing, and wilt find for us balm in Gilead. Let our homes be beautiful places, though the poorest in the world; may they be beautiful with patience and heroism and self-sacrifice and all the noblest virtues and graces; may the walls be all hung round with instances of fine fidelity. The Lord hear us, make his word a new word to us. Amen.
Sometimes we think it is unspeakably comfortable to live in the society of John the Apostle, because he is so full of tenderness and love and fatherly clemency. He seems to have one subject, and to amplify it with the poetry of the heart; the subject of the Apostle is love: Love God, love one another, love the brethren. In no other part of Holy Writ is the word "love" so frequently and tenderly employed. Yet, if we listen to John wholly, that is to say to his entire speech, we shall find that he is as disciplinary as James, and as doctrinal and practical as Paul. He has a way of his own in introducing practical admonition. It is the way of sacred cunning. The Apostle John never strikes a man down and says, You shall be good, I insist upon it; if you are anything but good I will chastise you, I will hold you up to scorn, and you shall reap the consequences of your own wickedness even here and now, to say nothing of another place and another time. No such language does the Apostle John ever employ; yet, whenever he speaks of love, he makes it a kind of flowery road along which he passes, that at the end of it he may be practical in admonition; that at the close of his wondrous poetic exhibition of love he may state the moral, and enforce it with the omnipotence of tenderness. Sometimes we might think John almost weak in his way of speaking. It is not unusual to represent him as an old man, which he was indeed in years, borne into the Church when he could no longer walk into it, and to further represent him stretching out his hands as if in papal benediction, and saying, "Little children, love one another." That is only one aspect of his great character; none could sing more sweetly, none could drop his voice into a more touching and pathetic minor: yet who could be more like Sinai? who could hurl the Ten Commandments as if in one sentence with such tremendous force and unerring precision? We have just been revelling in the prospect of development. John has called us "sons of God," and said, "It doth not yet appear what we shall be," because life is a revelation, a continual unfolding and infolding, a marvellous and subtle and imperceptible advance, but a sure and inevitable progress: yet, looking over all the detail, he says, this will certainly occur: when our God appears, we shall see him with the vision of our love, we shall hail him with all the animation of our thankfulness, and the very sight of God shall transform us into the image of his divinity.
So the Apostle knew, and did not know. That is the very highest philosophy. To know precisely what we have and what we have not; to put the finger upon the possession, and then to lift it, and point to some other treasure not yet attained but sure to be possessed that is knowledge, that is wisdom, and that is peace. There is no finality in Christian progress. What we know as heaven is only the beginning of our better being. We think of heaven as final, but heaven only opens; the brightest seer that ever peered through the clouds, and read the apocalypse of the sky, only said: "Behold, I see heaven opened." That is enough: to see openings indicative of further progress, higher education, nobler life; that is heaven, and no other heaven is worth having. The formal conventional notion of heaven must be driven out of men's minds. We are either in heaven, or we are not in it, or never will be in it. Men are in heaven or in hell now; not in the full heaven, not in the intensest hell, but in our consciousness, our convictions, our spirits witnessing with other spirits, we know where we are. Some men are always talking to God. Others never speak to him; they chatter to the devil; they know his language, they like his style of speech, it suits the vulgarity of their soul, it sets fire to their worst passions and their unholiest ambition. They never pray; what wonder if they dispute about prayer and ask if prayer is ever answered? What wonder that they tire of the altar? they were never there. He who has once prayed prays without ceasing. There is an attitude of prayer which is a posture of weariness: there is an act of fellowship in which the soul says, Disturb me no more, for I have come to the point of rest: here I would build my soul's tabernacle and here abide for ever.
The Apostle John now says to Christian men, You will know whether you have this hope in you by the degree in which you set to the work of self-purification. We will ask the Apostle to tell us by what signs we may know that we are sons of God. O thou sire of the Church, thou seer of the ages, thou to whose wondering eyes all heaven was revealed in pomp of glory, tell us by what tokens we shall know that we are sons of God. We expect him to give some sentimental reply, as who should say, Are you quiet in soul? do you enjoy a sense of luxuriating in the green pastures? do you know that you are walking by the still waters, the waters of rest, the streams of comfort? Nothing of the kind: he says, If you are good men, you will go with both hands and with all-growing energy at the work of self-cleansing. "Every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself." Here is John the disciplinarian, here is the poetry of love brought down to the prose of service. Yet in service, properly accepted and discharged, there is no prose: all work having a good object and a holy inspiration is poetry. When we lose the true idea of work in any sphere of life we become hirelings, and serve with the narrow measure of eye-service and not with the affection and fire of the willing and assenting heart. Then the standard is accessible to every one. It is a practical standard. A man has only to ask himself such questions as, Am I really trying to get purer, tenderer, nobler? do I look as through a microscope at every spot that befouls the robe of my life, that I may get rid of it at once and for ever? have I relaxed my self-discipline? have I said, as a fatalist, I will simply take life as it comes, and let it work out its own consequence? or am I continually giving myself to self-vigilance and self-purification? If we answer these questions, we shall know at once and with certainty where we are in spiritual education and in spiritual prospect. This is reason; behold here, as in a thousand cases which have passed before us, we have our own method of life uplifted, glorified, and applied to its highest uses. In proportion to the measure of our expectation is the measure of our preparation. A man is going to a feast, he is going to sit with great men, he is for an hour or two to be associated with the best life of the metropolis: what does he do? We all know; he prepares himself for the event, he will not be out of harmony with the colour of the occasion, he will not appear without a wedding garment; he will even ask questions as to the etiquette of the occasion, that in no point he may fall short of the dignity of the invitation which he has accepted. O thou wicked and foolish servant, out of thine own mouth will I condemn thee: dost thou prepare for some social pleasure, and forget to put on thy best heart-robes and life-garments in which to meet the King of Glory? I gather up all thy disused robes and rags, and say, Here by these signs I convict thee: thou didst prepare for little feasts, and empty banquets, and noisy revels; on no account wouldst thou walk to the feast; thou must needs ride in some hired, painted chariot: what preparation, what anticipation, what a desire to fall into the harmony and fitness of things! and yet see, O thou worse than beast of the forest, thou hast neglected to provide for the only interview which is worth securing and realising, the interview with thy God. The back-stroke of Christian appeal is tremendous. Christianity substantiates and authorises itself by reason. Christianity gathers up all our fashions customs, methods, and policies, and says at last when we begin to stammer out some vain excuse, Thou wicked and foolish servant, out of thine own mouth do I condemn thee: thy tongue is the sword which shall be thrust through thy life.
By what standard are we to purify ourselves? The words are comparative. Purity admits of degrees; comparing ourselves with ourselves, we may be honourable men. The standard is "as he is pure." Why, John must have heard the Master say these very words "Be ye perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect; be ye holy as your Father in heaven is holy." He brings this flower, this lily, fairer than snow, from the garden of Christ, the paradise of the heart of God. Who can set up the ideal standard? We now say, It is impossible to do what Jesus Christ commands; he must have had some other meaning; when he tells us to resist not evil, we say he must have meant that we are, as far as in us lies, not to strike back when we are struck. He did not say so; if he meant that, it is a pity he did not say it. When Jesus Christ says, "When thou art smitten on the one cheek, turn the other also to the smiter," we say, That is evidently and obviously impossible; this is idealism, very limpid and extremely beautiful, a thought of translucent idealism, a very fine celestial light shining on the other side of it, making it almost transparent: but it is evidently the higher poetry. It is not given in blank verse, it is not reduced to hexameters. Count Tolstoi comes forth and says, All this means what it says, and if we do not carry out these propositions and commandments to the letter, we have no right to the title of Christians. It would be easier to reply to the Count than to answer him. "Even as he is pure." Is there no hope? Our hope is in believing that final purity cannot be suddenly snatched; it must be grown up to, attained little by little: "Brethren," said one, "I count not myself to have apprehended, but this one thing I do, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus." In that "I press" is everything. He who wants to be pure is pure; he who says he will endeavour by the mighty power of the Eternal Spirit to be as pure as God, has already begun the lustration that will take out of him every taint and stain of evil, a detergence infinite, complete.
After this the Apostle protests against lawlessness. He talks of "transgression." "Transgression" is only a kind of theological term for lawlessness. John will not have any lawlessness, any eccentricity that starts on its own account and its own motion to work out some other spheres and heavens in God's universe. John lays down the law after having spoken thus elaborately and poetically of love. Read the fourth verse and onward, and you will find that John talks as if he had never heard of anything but law. John's mountains faced north and south; on the south all the midday rested, on the north what darkness, and yet what sense of massiveness and majesty!
The Apostle points his appeal by a historical case: "Not as Cain, who was of that wicked one, and slew his brother," literally, "who cut his brother's throat." Cut-throats are an ancient race. And wherefore cut he the throat of Abel? "Because his own works were evil, and his brother's righteous" ( 1Jn 3:12 ) a theological conflict. Theology has shed more blood than ever wicked kings have shed. Theology is often a man-hater and a man-destroyer. The odium theologicum is the most fatal stigma that can be attached to any man. We cannot overcome it or forget it. The sects are fighting to-day, and cutting each other's throats to-day. The spirit of madness is in the so-called Christian denominations. They do not love one another beyond the point of occasional conference, and the point of an occasional enthusiastic resolution which means nothing. This is another test of Christian progress. Let men drop all theological conflict, and say, Brother, you have as much right to think as I have to think, but, before either of us begins to think farther, let us pray. What unity there is in prayer! what diversity in opinion! Hear these theologues as they resolutionise one another. What statements, what anger, what holy or unholy feeling! so that we say, with the ancient poet, "Can anger dwell in such celestial hearts?" What striving for the victory, what protestations about orthodoxy and heterodoxy! When they come to pray, they say, as they bow, hand-in-hand, "Our Father, which art in heaven." Let us have no more conflict let us pray without ceasing.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on 1 John 3". The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the First Week of Advent