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The Private Ministry of the Gospel
Do you know how difficult it is to preach to one hearer? Some young people, who have a wish to be public speakers, wonder how a man can stand before a thousand of his fellow-creatures and speak to them boldly, with perfect self-possession and confidence. Believe me, there is a higher courage than that; namely, to speak to one man about Jesus, to direct your remarks to one heart, and to press your urgent appeal upon the individual conscience. Philip spoke to Nathanael, and in this fact I find an illustration of what may be called the Private Ministry of the Gospel a ministry between one man and another a ministry between friend and friend. To this higher courage we are all called to this private and direct ministry we are impelled by our own thankfulness for a revelation of the Son of God; let us, therefore, endeavour to discover the basis and the method of this lofty and most blessed vocation.
The Christian minister has a distinct message to deliver to the world. Philip delivered such a message to Nathanael: "We have found him of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph." The Christian ministry takes its stand upon facts. We are not sent to conceive a theory to account for circumstances that are around us; we have not to strain our minds to work out a speculation or to elaborate an argument; we have nothing to do with dreaming or supposition; fancy is not our business; first of all, midst of all, and last of all, we have to deal with facts. The Christian teacher takes his stand upon a historic rock, and only as he does so is he safe. Clearing the ground of everything, we point the inquirer in the first instance to facts: Jesus Christ was born, Jesus Christ lived, taught, died, rose again, that is our historic outline, and we risk everything upon it; then we proceed to show that this historic outline has come out of a grand system of preparation, of prophecy, of holy service as ordained of God. Nothing else so completely, so graciously, and so gloriously meets all the points and designs of that initial system; so we do not hesitate to identify all the divine elements of human history with the person and work of Jesus Christ, and to claim for him the title of Saviour and the throne of the One true King.
Not only so. To have the facts is one thing, but something more is required. Philip did not say, Jesus Christ has been found; he said, We have found him. He himself sustained a personal relation to those facts, and this relation was the secret of his power. In a mighty ministry we find not only high intellectual, but also high emotional power; the heart gives fire to the thought. No man can preach with the truest success if he only knows the facts; he must feel them as well as know them, and then his tongue will not fail for words that find the hearts of others. Every preacher, private or public, must, so to speak, individualise the gospel; must himself represent the truths which he seeks to teach, and by so much his ministry will address itself to the deepest life of those who hear him. Know the gospel if you would formally teach it; but love the gospel if you would teach it with triumphant and blessed effect. Truly, no man knows the gospel, except as he loves it. To know about it is one thing; to have it reigning in the heart is another. It may be replied that it is not everything to know the mere facts of the gospel, and so it is undoubtedly, if you use the term "know" in its most insufficient acceptation; but as intended to be applied by me at this moment, the term includes, not only the assent of the mind, but the loving and undivided homage of the heart. We may know that a certain man has arrived in London, and the knowledge may fail to excite a single sensation in our nature; but to those who have been expecting and longing for him with most loving desire, his arrival is a blessing which fills them with thankfulness and joy. So with Christ. We have been seeking him, waiting for him, crying to God for the coming of his blessed presence, and today the fact that we have found him causes us joy inexpressible and full of glory.
If the Church would be strong in her doctrines, she must be strong in her facts. When she gets away from facts, she gets into dangerous waters. I have no fear of speculation or of controversy so long as there is a clear and grateful recognition of facts. We may be trusted to speculate so long as we are sure of the foundations; but if we trifle with the rock, we shall be the sport of the wildest dreaming, intoxicated with our supposed independence, whilst the fetters of a cruel slavery are being bound upon our feet.
In delivering his message the Christian minister will encounter opposition. Nathanael said to Philip, Can any good thing come out of Nazareth? This is opposition. We shall encounter opposition of various kinds. The worldly-minded hearer will say, "I have enough to do in getting my daily bread. I have no time for spiritual concerns away with your preaching and dreaming, and let me make the best of the present life." The speculative hearer will invite to controversy; he will urge objection after objection; it is not in his ethereal and sublime nature to trifle away his time in reading history and considering facts; he lives on wings, he soars through the courses of the light, and inquires in the upper circles of fancy. He says, "Away with your historic realities and your personal appearances! Answer the wonders of my imagination, and satisfy the demands of my curiosity. I care not for your dry and barren facts." All ministers have met with such opposition, and it has often been a hindrance to their ministry; but there is a deadlier opposition than this! It is possible to drag the worldly-minded man from the altar of his dust-god, and to persuade him to think of higher concerns; possible to break the awful dominion of Mammon, and to liberate a slave now and then at least; it is possible, also, to teach the speculator to be sober in his claims, to descend from his aerial car, and to look at events with the eye of temperate reason. But who can destroy the power of prejudice? Can you define prejudice? You can give me a derivation, but can you give me a definition? What is prejudice, where does it begin, how does it work, where does it end? You may have felt it, but can you describe it define it? Take a prejudice against a man, and he can never more do right in your eyes; you will see a colour upon his purest deed, you will see a twist in his straightest course, you will see a taint in his holiest motives. Take a prejudice against a minister, and though he gives his days to study and his nights to prayer; though every word be tried as men try fine gold, yet you will shudder at his presence, you will hear blasphemy in his prayers, you will see hypocrisy in his appeals. Prejudice! What is prejudice? A devil without figure, without address, without anything to lay hold upon, ever active, never visible; always at hand, yet always in secret, a damnable and cruel force, yet hidden under a guise of respectability. Give a prejudiced man an anonymous book, he may read it with delight, he may exclaim by reason of joyous appreciation hear him. "What exquisite diction! What splendid painting! What gorgeous fancy! What ruthless logic, a grand and precious book!" Ask him, "Do you know who wrote it?" He answers, No. Tell him that it was written by the man against whom he is so prejudiced, and see the change. "Oh!" says he, "I spoke under excitement, I had no time to form a deliberate opinion, I spoke off-handedly; now that I look at the thing quietly, there is really nothing in it; it is exaggerated, turbid, artificial; it is shallow in conception, and poor in execution." Yes, he will say all that. Yes, he is willing to be called a fool rather than give credit to the man whom he dislikes. Such is prejudice, yet what is prejudice? See it in the blinking of a wicked eye, see it in the curl of a bitter sneer, hear it in a subtly varied tone, yet what is it? Define it, describe it, set it before us, that we may see its hideous ness, and hate it with all our heart!
Let us beware of prejudice! Dislike a man, dislike his looks, dislike his works, dislike the very ground on which he walks but do not give way to prejudice against Jesus Christ. Nathanael spoke of Nazareth, and could not believe that any good could come out of it. Prejudice may work in us also. Christianity awakens all kinds of prejudice, prejudice of birth, of position, of education, of earthly taste: the manger, the homelessness, the cross, all awaken prejudice; and prejudice may lead to our damnation. Plain words, yes, plain, because ruin should never be decorated; hell should never be decked with tempting flowers.
The Christian minister has a most practical answer to all objections. The answer of Philip was, Come and see. When men are thoroughly in earnest they return these short, cutting replies to unexpected questions. Had Philip retired to consider the best possible answer to the objections urged by Nathanael, probably he might have written something that would have had the appearance of argument and conclusiveness; instead of that, he spoke out of the holy excitement of his heart, and returned the best answer which could possibly be given to a suggestion such as Nathanael's. We do occasionally almost reach the point of inspiration when we are engaged in the blessed service of the Son of God; questions that would puzzle us in our cooler moments seem to be easy of settlement when we are full of the spirit of our work. It is given unto us in the same hour what we shall say unto men, and oftentimes we ourselves are as much surprised at the answer as are those to whom it is directed. I wish to point out in this connection that Philip returned, not a speculative, but a practical answer, to the objection of Nathanael. "Come and see" is a better reply than "Let us reason upon the subject." Philip might have invited Nathanael to a long contention about the unreasonableness of prejudice, and might have shown him by many instances that prejudice has often prevented men from reaching sound and satisfactory conclusions on many questions in common life. Instead of taking this roundabout course, he appealed to his interlocutor to come and see the Saviour for himself. Yes, let that be observed; it was to the Saviour that Philip sought to draw Nathanael. Let us be careful how we employ this expression, "Come and see"; it is not come and see the Church. Alas! it is possible for men to look at the Church, and to feel a sense of something like disgust in relation to the doctrines which that Church professedly embodies; in the Church there are wars and dissensions, there are evil controversies which vex the heart and show themselves in perverseness of life. In the Church one teacher contradicts another; one sect brandishes its chosen weapon in the face of another; and there is much that looks like contradiction in the outworking of ecclesiastical principles and relationships. A man must be a very good man indeed before he can quite understand the working of Church organisations. It is only after he has held long and sweet intercourse with Christ that he is enabled to look upon discrepancies, and to regard clamours in their true light.
Observe, too, that we are not at liberty to urge men to come and see our literature: if a man should be a very good man indeed before he can be trusted to look upon the Church as an institution, he ought to be almost an angel before he be invited to form an opinion about much of our literature. We who are already engaged in the production and circulation of that literature, may know how to estimate its excellences; we can make allowance because of our knowledge of the general character of those who are concerned in that literature; but for a young inquiring Christian to look upon it, the probability would be that by the brawling," the misinterpretation, the censoriousness of which he might discover traces, his heart might be turned away from those great principles in which alone he could find salvation. Nor are we at liberty to say to the Nathanaels of our own age, Come and see the preacher. No one preacher can preach the gospel in all its fulness and with all its sweetness. The true preacher of Jesus Christ is not one man, but the whole ministry of the gospel. Individual men excel in special departments one is mighty in controversy, another is tender in appeal, a third is impressive in worship, a fourth is exact in criticism; but if we would know what the gospel is in its entireness (if that be possible on earth), we must hear all the servants of Jesus Christ, and regard their teaching as one grand exhibition of divine truth. We are not at liberty to set one preacher against another as the man who alone represents Jesus Christ and his truth. We must go beyond the servant, and show the inquirer the Lord himself. Philip invited Nathanael to see Jesus Christ not to look at the disciples, but to look at the Master. This is, above all things, what we desire. Once get men thoroughly to study Jesus Christ himself, and there can be little or no doubt of the result. We invite you to put aside everything that you may have heard about Christ. We encourage you in the meantime to set aside all early association and all preconceived opinion, and to go to the gospels in which the story of Jesus Christ is detailed, and to read solemnly and continuously what is said about him by the inspired writers. Nay, if possible, get beyond the reading into the spirit. And what will the consequence be? I say it with gratitude and joy, that never did I know a single case in which an inquirer deeply studied the life of Jesus Christ, without rising from its perusal with admiration, thankfulness and delight. But to know what Jesus Christ really is, we must go to him when we need him most We may go to him in our speculative moods, and he may be to us silent; we may go to him merely for the sake of making of his principles a momentary convenience, and we may be driven to pronounce them insufficient; but when we go to him in sin and in penitence for our transgressions, and with an earnest loving heart beseech him to show himself unto us, we are never left in doubt of his omnipotence and graciousness. I would charge it upon myself, as upon you who preach the gospel, either privately or publicly, that we are bound to urge men to come and see the Saviour himself. This is our blessed ministry. We have a short message to the world. We have a decisive answer to objections we have to hide ourselves in the glory of our Master.
When the practical answer of the Christian minister is received, the most blessed results are realised. We have just heard Nathanael say, Can any good thing come out of Nazareth? He has accepted the invitation of Philip to see the Saviour for himself, and now what does he say? Hear his wonderful exclamation: "Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel." Look at the extreme points of this experience of Nathanael. At the beginning he puts the question of prejudice; he shows himself to be narrow-minded, exclusive, and childish at the end he expands into a noble and magnanimous character. It is even so with all men who stand afar off from Jesus Christ, and trouble themselves about questions of absolutely no importance. So long as they look at places and at merely incidental circumstances, they quibble and contend in unworthy strife of words; but as soon as they go to the Saviour and see him as he really is, they forget, in their glowing delight, the prejudices of earlier inquiry. And how did Nathanael come to this decision concerning the Person of Jesus Christ? Whilst Nathanael was approaching, Jesus Christ said to those who were round about, "Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!" He gave Nathanael at once to feel that he was fully abreast of his history, that he knew him altogether, and that he could instantly commence conversation on the profoundest themes. That is the great power which Jesus Christ has over all men. He asks us no questions concerning our antecedents. He is not dependent upon our answers for his knowledge of the state of our minds; before we speak to him he reads our heart in its deepest experiences; there is not a phase of our being on which he has not looked; and I take you to witness that you have never gone to the New Testament without finding in it a spirit of judgment that instantly called up your whole life, and commented correctly upon its moral value. How intense must have been the joy of Philip as he stood aside and watched the progress of this interview!
We who are ministers of the Cross have had similar joy in the course of our ministry; we have seen man after man give up his prejudices in exchange for loving homage and life-long consecration. We have felt the blessedness of being enabled to turn men away from ourselves, and to fix their attention upon Jesus Christ. If it had been required of us to answer all their questions, to remove all their prejudices, and to satisfy all their curiosity, we should undoubtedly have failed in our means; but we have felt ourselves to be but called upon to point to the Lamb of God; the question was not to rest with ourselves. We said to those who came to us with prejudices and with difficulties, All things are possible with God take all these to him, lay them before him just as they affect your own heart, and see whether the light of his countenance cannot dispel the clouds which intervene between yourselves and the infinite beauty. I would press it upon all ministers of the gospel, upon all missionaries of the Cross, upon all who teach the truth as it is in Jesus Christ, that in the long run we shall have a joy such as Philip had when he saw the prejudiced man become the enraptured worshipper. We have our difficulties, our discouragements now; often we feel as if the work were perishing in our hands; again and again it seems as if the prejudices of the world were too strong for us; yet there are times when we see those prejudices so manifestly dissipated, and objections so clearly confounded, as to leave no doubt upon our minds that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for ever, and that he can do for all men what he did so graciously in the case of Nathanael. I am only afraid that in some of our cases we take too much upon ourselves in the way of answering objection. It is quite possible for controversy to become a temptation to the Christian teacher. He may imagine that by careful and urgent argument he may be able to counteract prejudice, and to put men in a right state of thinking. I am more and more convinced that our safety and our success in this work, to which our lives have been committed, depends entirely upon our distrust of all that is merely human. Insist upon men going to Jesus Christ and obtaining a personal interview with him. Risk the results of your ministry upon a thorough scrutiny of the life of Jesus Christ as presented in the four gospels. Protest against any man raising questions outside that life until he has at least made himself master of all its details as given in the New Testament. We are bound to see that no trespass is made. As soon as the inquirer has really exhausted the gospel narrative, and made himself acquainted with the spirit and scope of Jesus Christ's ministry, he may be permitted to go into abstract questions in theology; but first of all, and until he has completely succeeded, he must be shut up within the limits of Jesus Christ's personal life and ministry upon the earth. I do not know why I should hesitate to say that Jesus Christ's life becomes to me a new life every day. According to my increasing capacity does the revelation of his truth and beauty increase upon me. To the little child Jesus himself is still a babe, and to the most mature thinker Jesus Christ stands in the relation of an all-sufficient Teacher. Herein is the surpassing wonderfulness of this unique life. We can never exhaust it; it grows with our growth; the light increases with our power of vision, and we never find the end of the perfection of the Son of God. I think that these personal testimonies ought to be considered as of some value. I do not ask you now to follow me in any course of abstract argument in proof of these things; I choose rather in the spirit of the text to put my own personal experience and conclusions before you, and to testify these things in my own name.
Does any man say that he feels himself in the position of Nathanael, simply waiting to be called to see Jesus Christ? From this moment your plea is gone! Never repeat that excuse. I call upon you to come and see for yourselves him of whom Moses in the law and the prophets did write. Let there be no misunderstanding upon this matter, because I intend to break up your self-excusing, and to leave you without ground of delay. To-day you hear the invitation: it is for you to reply; but whether you reply or not, the plea that you are simply waiting to be called is now and for ever removed. Perhaps, however, you are saying that you do not wait to be addressed simply as a member of a large congregation, but you wish to be privately spoken to, so that you may put before the speaker your personal difficulties, whatever they be. Let me remind you of a fact in connection with this story of Nathanael which ought to save you from the consequences of such pleading: "Before that Philip called thee when thou wast under the fig-tree, I saw thee." You need not wait for the servant when the eye of the Master is already upon you. The very fact that he is looking at you should constitute the most potent appeal that can be addressed to your spiritual nature. It is our joy to preach that Jesus Christ is still with his disciples; that they never work alone; that he goes with them confirming their words, and in many ways displaying the effect of his presence. If any man who is in secret making inquiries regarding the Christian life, or who is feeling the pressure of any special temptation to turn away from religious pursuits, I would urge upon him the truth that Jesus Christ himself is looking into the very depths of his nature, and is waiting to meet all the hunger of his heart with all the sufficiency of grace. Remember that Jesus Christ is the minister of his own gospel, and that even though no servant of his may ever speak to us directly in his name, he himself is causing to operate upon us influences without number, which we may often mistake for the agencies of ordinary life. The fact that Jesus Christ sees us as he saw Nathanael in solitude, and that he knows our heart-aching and deep desire, should draw us towards himself in reverent inquiry and tender love.
The reply which Jesus Christ made to Nathanael gives us a hint of the ever-expanding sufficiency and glory of Christian truth; with a tone that had in it somewhat of surprise, Jesus Christ said to Nathanael, Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the fig-tree, believest thou? And then he added, "Thou shalt see greater things than these." Jesus Christ seems ever to have acted upon a principle of increasing his revelations, and not of diminishing them. Because thou hast seen creation, believest thou thou shalt see greater things than these, thou shalt see the Creator himself. The sun and the stars, the forest and the sea, the great mountain and the fertile vale, are but alphabetic, and he who looks upon them with a right design shall be called to higher revelations still Because thou hast seen events thou hast believed; thou hast seen a power in society giving shape and tendency to events that appeared to be confused and without meaning; thou hast put things together, and out of their union hast come to a conclusion that there is a providence that shapes our ends; thou hast found in the busy streets that men were moving in order, that they only appeared to be struggling in confusion, and that the affairs of men, after all, were moving round a centre that was keeping them in their places, and working out in them some great design; thou hast seen these things, and thou, in so far, hast been a believer in God; thou shalt see greater things than these: it shall be thy joy to believe that not a sparrow falleth to the ground without thy Father, that the very hairs of thy head are all numbered, and that there is not one grain of dust in the universe which bears not the impress of God's ownership. Because thou hast seen the Bible, the written record, the mere letter, thou hast believed; true, indeed, thou hast been baffled by much that appeared discrepant and insufficient; many a time thou hast been puzzled and perplexed by things in the record which appeared to be beyond reconciliation, and of which no man can give thee a meaning that satisfieth thy heart. Thou shalt see greater things than these: from the letter thou shalt pass to the spirit; the book itself shall be forgotten in a still higher gift; thou shalt lose inspiration in the Inspirer himself. This is the stimulating language in which Jesus Christ addresses all true inquirers. You never can find the end of divine revelation. The New Testament has no final page. We come to what we consider to be the end, and, lo! the end is more suggestive than the beginning; and where we expected to pause we find that it is only to pause on our feet that we may stretch the wings of a higher being, and soar in the loftier regions of divine manifestation and government. Jesus Christ said to Nathanael, Hereafter thou shalt see; yes, Christianity has not only a great past, it has a great future. Hereafter thou shalt see! I venture to say that no man who is deeply learned in the Christian life is of opinion that he has reached the final line of divine revelation. He is evermore given to feel that God is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that has yet been realised.
This is our encouragement as Christian students; yet this brings us into a deep humility of spirit, because we are given to feel that, however vast may be our attainments, we are still but little children in the great school of the universe. To increase, therefore, in the knowledge of God is to increase in lowliness of mind; yet whilst our humility deepens we are not driven into despair, for the glory of God is not the terror, but the inspiration, of humble souls. It is not uncommon for men who criticise Christianity adversely to talk of the Christian revelation as if it were complete, as if nothing more were to be shown to the Christian mind; we venture to say that the Christian revelation itself is yet in its beginning, and that it hath not entered into the heart of man to conceive how much light and truth there is yet to break out of God's holy Word, and how extensive and profound is the ministry of the Holy Ghost in the heart of man. I cannot preach the doctrine of finality in connection with the Cross. I believe we have yet but seen the dim outline of Jesus Christ's truth that we are standing in the grey twilight, and that the time of the full shining of the sun has not as yet arrived. "What thou knowest not now, thou shalt know hereafter," is a doctrine which the most advanced student may rely upon as a stimulus to further study. We know in part, and in part only; towards that which is perfect we are called upon to move with patience and with sure hope. Sinful man! Thou too hast a hereafter. Art thou prepared for the to-morrow that is before thee? Thou hast further revelation of the divine throne to receive; what if it come to thee in thunder and lightning, and great tempests of judgment? I would speak to thee tenderly about this hereafter; for it can be no joy to Christian hearts to foretell the ruin of human souls; but believe me, that whilst Christian inquirers are joyfully anticipating the bright hereafter which Jesus Christ has promised to them, those who are not in Christ ought solemnly to consider how far they are prepared for the hereafter which will surely transpire. I do not seek to frighten any man into virtue; he who is frightened into a new life may be frightened out of it again. My hope is in love; but you have understanding enough of ordinary life to apprehend me when I say that love itself is bound to disclose all the realities of the case. Among the realities of your case, so far as I read the New Testament and interpret the mind of Christ, is a fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation if you have not fled to the Cross and laid hold upon it as the answer to your sin. This is plain speaking, because the case is plain; this is direct appeal, because in such cases ambiguity would bring upon the speaker the just charge of exposing human souls to death.
"There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God."
Primary and Secondary Light
The John spoken of in the first verse of the text is John the Baptist. The evangelist says that John was sent from God. Ordinary biography begins at another point. In this case, parentage, birth, training, are omitted altogether, and the very beauty of God lights up the face of the man. Men have different ways of looking at themselves. In some cases they look downward towards "the mire and the clay," that they may keep in memory "the hole of the pit out of which they were digged"; in others, they view human life religiously, and claim the dignity and privilege of the sons of God. The influence of this view upon the uses of strength and upon surrounding life must be intense and salutary. We degrade life when we omit God from its plan. On the other hand, we descend upon our work with fulness of power when we realise that it is God that worketh in us to will and to do of his good pleasure. What is our view of life? Have we but a physical existence, or are we the messengers of the most High? When Moses went to his work he was enabled to say "I AM hath sent me unto you." So when John undertook his mission he boldly claimed to be the appointed servant of God. Our greatest power is on the religious side of our nature: physically, we are crushed before the moth; religiously, we have omnipotence as the source of our strength.
"The same came for a witness," God reveals himself to us little by little as we may be able to bear the light. He has set forth a long and wonderful procession of witnesses, from Moses even until John, who was the last of the illustrious line. It is well when a man distinctly knows the limit of his vocation. We are strong within our own bounds. John, as a professed Saviour, would have been weak and contemptible; but as a witness he was a burning and a shining light. John the Baptist was as the morning star. Or (changing the figure) he was a man standing on the highest mountain, who, catching a glimpse of the first solar ray, exclaims, "Behold, the day cometh!" And is not such an exclamation the only originality of which we are capable? There is no originality, except that which is relative, in any ministry or in any church.
"He was not that Light," he was but a temporary ray: the brightest light which the hand of man can enkindle is instantly paled when the sun shineth in his strength, beautiful indeed is that secondary light when shining alone, and not beautiful only, but precious exceedingly to men who, without it, would be in darkness; yet could it speak, it would say, "I am but a spark of another fire; your admiration of my splendour will cease when you see the sun." Such is the speech of the most luminous men. Our light is lunar, not solar; or solar only because Christ is in us, and according to the measure of our capacity he sheds his glory through our life.
"That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world." As the sun shines for every man, so Jesus Christ lives for every man. The lamp in the house belongs to the householder: the lamp in the street is a local convenience: but the sun pours its morning and its noontide into every valley, and into the humblest home; that is the true light: the freehold of every man, the private property of none! And every man knows that the sun is the true light, feels it to be such, and without hesitation affirms it to be supreme. There is no debate as to whether the sun or the moon is the light of the world. Imagine a dark night, and an observer who has never seen the sun: a star suddenly shows itself, and the observer hails it with delight; presently the moon shines with all her gentle strength, and the observer says, "This is the fulfilment of the promise; can ought be lovelier, can the sky possibly be brighter?" In due course the sun comes up; every cloud is filled with light; every mountain is crowned with a strange glory; every leaf in the forest is silvered; the sea becomes as burnished glass, and secrecy is chased from the face of the earth: under such a vision, the observer knows that this is the true light, the sovereign all-dominating flame. It is so in the revelation of Jesus Christ. When the eyes of men are opened to see him in all his grace and wisdom and sympathy, in all the sufficiency of his sacrifice, and the comfort of his Spirit, the heart is satisfied, and every rival light is lost in the infinite splendour of God the Son.
"He came unto his own, and his own received him not." He came unto his own things ( ϊδια ), and his own people ( ϊδιοι ) received him not. There was no room for his mother in the inn. He himself had not where to lay his head. He was as a householder coming to his own house, and being kept out by his own servants. What is the earth but one apartment in the great house of God! Its furniture, (its hills and valleys and rivers, fruits and flowers and harvest fields), is Jesus Christ's, for apart from him was not anything made that was made; yet when he came to his own house his ownership was denied by the servants who had been put into temporary possession by his own power and grace! "Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth: for the Lord hath spoken, I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me."
"But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God." Having believed on his name they entered upon a new relation to their Father in heaven. They had been living a life of mere creature-hood; the sense and the joy of sonship had been lost, and had become irrecoverable except by faith, which is the gift of God. Regeneration is as much the work of God as was creation. A man may unmake himself, but the power of restoration is not in his own hand. Nor is there either mystery or injustice in this. The same law holds good in the physical as in the spiritual world: a man can kill himself, but can he take back his life again? Or he can crush a flower, but can he heal it, and make it as perfect and beautiful as before? Or he may destroy his sight, but can he recover his vision? We can only destroy; we cannot create. "O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself; but in me is thine help." Let us give personality to two flowers, and from their talk let us learn something on this matter: "I stand in this window from month to month, and I declare that every possible attention is paid to me; as regularly as the morning comes my roots are watered, and not a day passes without the window being opened that I may be revived by the fresh living air: so if ever flower had reason for contentment and joy I am that flower." So far, so good. Now, the second flower, luxuriant and beautiful exceedingly, says, "Look at the difference between us! I am of the same stock as yourself; we are called by the same name; we live on the same elements; yet I am strong and blooming, and you are weak and colourless." How is this, then? The one flower has been standing in a sunless window, the other has been living in the sun! Preach the gospel of light to that flower, and if your gospel be received with faith, the light will give it "power" to become as strong and beautiful as any member of the same family. It is even so with mankind. We are trying to live without the light, the true Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world, and our trial gives us over more and more to the power of death. Without light no soul can live I
"Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God." This, again, is most emphatically in the style of John. Never can he lose sight of the perfect spirituality of Jesus Christ's work. John shows the very religiousness of religion. Christianity is to him more than a history, more than an argument, more than a theology, it is a spiritual revelation to the spiritual nature of man. On the part of man it is to be not an attitude, but a life, the very mystery of his spirit, too subtle for analysis, too strong for repression, too divine to be tolerant of corruption.
The Record of John
The John spoken of in the text is John the Baptist. John who writes the text is John the Evangelist. It is a peculiarity of John's Gospel that throughout he deals almost exclusively, though there are special exceptions, with the spiritual ministry of Jesus Christ the Son of God. The other evangelists treat very prominently of the miracles and the more public ministry of the Saviour. But the evangelist John seems to know the heart of Jesus Christ. John was the spiritual evangelist; he had keen, spiritual eyes. True, indeed, he saw all the miracles of an outward and public kind that Jesus Christ did, but he seemed to make a special note of those spiritual miracles which deal more directly with the heart and the conscience, the inner life, and the secret motives of men. You will find somewhat of my meaning from the structure of the preface to his Gospel, which we have in this opening chapter. Matthew and Luke proceed to trace out the history of Jesus Christ from the human side; they show how he came into the world, through what genealogical line he found his way amongst the sons of men. But John takes another course altogether. Instead of writing a genealogical table, showing us the whole human ancestry of the Son of God, he says, with the abruptness of sublimity, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." The other evangelists seemed to bring Jesus Christ up from the earth; John opens heaven, and reveals his glory from on high. This is the key of the whole gospel; it is preeminently a spiritual revelation; it deals with the inner life of things. He who is the master of the Gospel by John is a refined and learned scholar in the school of Christ. There is very little outwardness in the statements of John; he does refer again and again to miracles, but more frequently he speaks from the interior life of the Saviour, and shows us the meaning of the truth and the grace that are in Christ Jesus. This we shall see more clearly as we pursue our way from the text which is now under consideration.
John the Baptist was preaching. A deputation was sent from Jerusalem to wait upon him, to put to him this question, "Who art thou?" He had been creating a great sensation; all the people for miles round about had been crowding to his ministry; he had excited very great interest and expectation, and people were looking out for some startling and marvellous event. John received the deputation, heard their inquiry, and when he listened to it he passed through the hour of his temptation. Is it a little thing to have a deputation waiting upon you from the capital in whose heart there is evidently a very special expectation? Is it a little thing to hear the members of the deputation say, "Who art thou?" in a tone which seems to imply, "We shall not be surprised if thou dost reveal thyself as the very light we have been expecting!" A temptation was brought thus to bear upon John. The people would have returned to those who sent them, and would have said, "Yes, this is the man; this is the realisation of all the ancient prophecies; he has come at last; his name is Messias, Son of God, King of the Jews." How did John meet the temptation? "He confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ." The wonder of those who waited upon him was increased. Who was he, then? That he was some great man could not be doubted, so they proceeded to say, "What, then, art thou Elias?" and he said, "I am not." "Art thou that prophet?" and he answered, "No." He did not at once reveal who he was, but allowed these people to pursue their inquiries for a time. He baffled them, and kept them at arm's length. It is in the same way we ourselves are treated in some such manner, now and again, even in our highest inquiries. We receive negatives, and not affirmatives, as answers. Instead of having a revelation made clear, distinct, and final, we are tempted to go further, and to repeat our inquiries in various forms. Thus God puts us under a process of training by not answering at once the inquiries with which we besiege him. Blessed is the man who will pursue his inquiry until he reaches the truth, who finds in all the answers of God licenses to ask again, to put up some other prayer, to shape his heart's wish into some other form. For truly, God is thus training the man to have a wise and understanding heart.
John knew who he was. That is one of the main points every man ought to understand about himself. He ought to be able to say who he is, what he has been called to do, what he is qualified to perform. Because a man who may have great power within a given compass may have only to step beyond the line of his limit to be utterly weak and useless. Do we know ourselves? Do we know the measure of our strength? Do we work within the compass that God has assigned us; or are we wasting our strength in those foolish ambitions which tempt us away from proper limitations and mock us, throwing us back and back again into the dust, so that at the end of the day a man who might have done some solid and substantial work in life has done nothing but follow the vagaries of a useless and mortifying ambition, and will leave the world without having done it any good? The Church ought to know what it is; the Church ought to understand its limitations. Every minister ought to know who he is, and what he is called to do. The moment a man usurps anything that does not belong to him he loses power, and the moment the Church lays claim to anything that does not fairly come within its possession as determined by Christ, that Church goes down in its best influence. "Who art thou?" If he had said, "I am the Christ," he would have won a moment's victory, but he would have opened up to himself a most ignominious and humiliating destiny. Who art thou, O man? what canst thou do? what is the purpose of God as revealed in thy life? Art thou great? art thou little? art thou intended for public life? art thou meant for private ministry? What is thy place? what is thy calling in life? Let a man understand this clearly, and work according to a devout conviction, and his life cannot be spent in vain. But let this temptation once seize a man, "I could be as great as Elias has been; I think I have within me the spirit of that prophet referred to so often in the Old Testament"; let a man extend himself ambitiously beyond his proper function and calling in life, and the result will be self-mortification, ignominy, and shame; and he who might have done something really good and useful, will go out of the world having misspent his little day.
What is true of individual men is true of the whole Church. When a man says, "I am Christ," he lies. When a man says, "I claim infallibility," he touches the highest point of blasphemy. When a man at Rome, or in London, or elsewhere, says, "I am as God upon the earth," he knows not himself; he has committed the most grievous sin, though there be upon his lips the holiest of names. I wish to be emphatic upon this; I wish every man amongst us to know himself, to understand what he is, and then, though he cannot say in reply to the inquiry, "Art thou some great one?" "Yes;" yet, if he can say that he is sent of God to do the humblest work in the world, he is great in his degree, and shall have promotion and rulership in the world that is to come. Look at John; see how the great men crowd around him; hear what temptation they suggest to him. It had never occurred to John himself, in all probability, that he was Elias, that he was "that prophet," that he was some great one. So the suggestion comes to him with all the force of a subtle temptation. What does he answer? He says, "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord." That was his answer. What did he say of himself? "I am a voice." What did he say of his ministry? "I am sent to prepare the way of the Lord in the attention and the affections of the world." Thus, he who had offered to him by a very subtle temptation a brilliant crown and a high throne said, "No; I am but a voice; I am not the expected One; clearly understand my ministry and function in life; I am the herald, not the King: I blow the blast of the trumpet, and he himself will be here presently." That is just what every Christian has to do; to go before, to proclaim the Lord, to call men to preparedness, to awaken their attention, to tell them to be ready: for the Bridegroom cometh, and then to stand out of the way, as those who have indeed done a humble, yet a most useful work, in the world. But I repeat, he who knows his strength as John knew it will be strong, as no man can be who imagines himself to have a power with which God never invested him. A stern, solemn, grand man was John. He would receive no compliments; he would take nothing that did not belong to him of right. He was asked why he performed the office of baptism if he was not the Christ, nor Elias, neither that prophet. John answered and said, "I baptise with water; but mine is a merely introductory ceremony, I am only giving you types, and showing you hints of things; the real work has yet to be done, the inward spiritual change has yet to be wrought in the hearts of men. This poor water, this shallow river, I use as indicative of the great fact that man needs an inward change. As for this baptism, it does nothing towards the removal of your sins, but it offers an opportunity of saying, 'We are sinners; we would be saved; we would repent; we would be born again.'"
After this there came in his speech a beautiful sentence: "There standeth one among you, whom ye know not; he it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe's latchet I am not worthy to unloose." Where was the expected one? Standing amongst the people. They were looking far away for the blessing promised to the world, and behold, that blessing was standing in their very midst. It is in this way that we miss many of the great revelations and wonderful presences that God sends down to cheer us and soothe us by gentle ministries. We are looking beyond; we are looking afar off; we think that our great blessings should come from some great distance. God says, "My child, they are under thy very hand; they are close beside thy footprints; the best blessings I can give thee may be had at once. Seek, and thou shalt find; knock, and it shall be opened unto thee; ask and have." So throughout the whole of the revelations of God we are told that things precious to our best life are much nearer us than we imagine; that God is not a God afar off, but a God nigh at hand; that after all there is not some stupendous thing to be done on our behalf. We have but to open our eyes and we shall see the light; but to breathe our prayer, and all that is good for us will be done in our hearts. We have no long pilgrimages to make; no great penalties to undergo; no long-suffering and self-infliction and self-reproach and self-crucifixion to perform, in any outward sense of those terms. Christ has done the work for us; he is within reach of the prayer of our love; he is amongst us; he is nigh at hand. "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved."
I believe that in talking thus I am speaking to a difficulty that does keep many persons back from the realisation of the very highest blessings of God. "There standeth one among you." Blessings are nearer than you expect. There standeth one among you; but the angel is veiled. There standeth one among you; stretch not your necks as if looking beyond the hills; open your eyes as if expecting to see God at your very side, and the light of his countenance shall make day in your hearts. Have not some of us been doing some great thing, and looking to some great distance for the incoming of God into the human race and into our own hearts? There is nothing in the creation that is round about us that does not testify to the near presence of God.
Art thou looking for God coming far away from the east yonder, when the morning light shines? Be assured that he is in that bread, if it be but a crust that is on thy morning table. Do you expect God to come in thunder and lightning, and whirlwind, and stormy tempest, making the clouds the dust of his feet, and coming with the trumpet of the thunder and the shouting of angels? Behold, he is in that little spring of water at thy backdoor, he is round about thy bed; he is numbering the hairs of thy head; he is putting his hand upon the head of thy little child; he is doing home work; he is on thy table; round about thy couch; making steadfast thy feet in all thy paths, watching all thy going, observing thy down-sitting and thy uprising, thy going out and thy coming in. He hath beset thee behind and before, and he lays his hand upon thee. And yet thou art looking as though thou didst require some great telescope to see the distance of God, and even then thou dost expect but to see his hinder skirts. There standeth one among you whom ye know not; God is within whisper reach: he can hear every throb of the heart, he sees every tear that drops from the eye of penitence, and there is nothing that is hidden from the fire of his look. Believe this, and a great awe will descend upon thy life; believe this, and every mountain will be an altar, every star a door into heaven, every flower an autograph of God, and the whole scene of thy life shall be chastened and hallowed by a religious sense, and an assurance and consciousness that God is close at hand.
"The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world." This expression on the part of John the Baptist proves what I have said about the spirituality of the writings of John the evangelist. John the evangelist alone marks down this exclamation, he heard the spiritual words of the preacher. John the Baptist called the attention of the world to the great coming One. John the evangelist saw spiritual realities, whilst men of inferior mould were dealing with so-called facts and with the outwardness of things. It was John's fine sense of hearing that caught this expression: "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world." If you will at your leisure compare the reports which are given of John the Baptist by the other evangelists, you will know what I mean by saying that John the evangelist caught the spiritual aspect of things, saw the inward, moral, spiritual intent of men who wrote and spoke, and who came as the special servants and ministers of God to the world. It will be easy for you to put together the conversations which would very likely take place regarding the preaching of John the Baptist. We have a record in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. There will be no difficulty in piecing these reports, so as to get a tolerably correct idea of the conversations that preceded regarding this remarkable personage. To him none could show hospitality. His meat was locusts and wild honey; he had a leathern girdle about his loins; his home was the wilderness. He wanted none of your wine and your luxury; he did not accept invitations to the banqueting boards of men; he realised what is meant by the independence of poverty. As long as there was a locust he had a meal; as long as he could put his finger out to the wild honey he had enough. The blandishments and all the refinements and luxuries of the state that was near to him had no effect upon his ambition or upon his heart. He lived independently; you could take nothing from him, and he would not have anything added to him. Oh, it was a stern, solemn, terrible-looking life that; and his preaching was very like it, was it not? If we had only had the accounts of Matthew and Mark and Luke, we should have thought that the preaching was such as eminently befitted the preacher. Look at him there. Look at his long locks, at his leathern girdle, at his monastic face, at his rugged bearing, at his simple fare. He is standing there silently; when he speaks I wonder what such lips will say? Oh, they are terrible looking lips! When he shuts his mouth he seems to have made a resolution; when he closes those lips of his it seems as if he never would open them again but to curse the world! Listen! Have you heard this preacher named John this grim, weird man that rejects our approaches, and keeps us so much at arm's length? Have you heard him? "Yes." Can you quote anything he says? "Yes; I never heard so terrible a speaker as he is; he seems to cleave the air when he speaks. I heard him say, 'His fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor!'" Have you heard him preach? "Yes; and never heard such a speaker before." Can you quote anything he says? "Yes; he says, 'The wheat he will gather into his garner; but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire!'" Have you heard him preach? "Yes." Can you quote anything that this wonderful man has said in his preaching? "Yes, I can." What did he say? "He said, 'The axe is laid to the root of the tree!'" And their report ends. Matthew, Mark, and Luke have each spoken to us, and there is an end of it. Was that preaching? Do such terrible sentences as these constitute preaching? "His fan is in his hand!" That is a threatening. "The axe is laid to the root of the tree!" That is a threatening. "The chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire!" That is a threatening. An awful preacher! I expected as much; I thought he never could speak a gentle word; his voice could never subside into a minor tone. I turn over a page, and the page brings to me the report of John the evangelist. I inquire, "John the evangelist, have you heard your namesake the Baptist?" "Yes." Can you quote anything from any one of his sermons? "Yes." What? "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world."
Such are the different reports we may hear about a man's preaching! Some people never hear the finer tones; some persons never hear the tenderer expostulations and messages of the speaker. They remember what he said about the fan and the axe, and the unquenchable fire; but the gentle gospel, the sweet, persuasive tone, the indicated Lamb of God, they think nothing of, they remember not; it seems to escape them altogether. This rugged preacher, with the voice of the whirlwind and a countenance grim to terribleness, was he who preached the most intensely evangelical, the most vital gospel sermon ever delivered by the lips of man or angel. "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world." Remember, John said that; remember, that is the upgathering of the revelation of God; remember, that to recollect everything else and to forget this, is to remember the shell and to forget the kernel, to remember the body and to forget the heart, to know the outside of things, and nothing of that inner spiritual reality which is the very joy of life. How beautifully it is put: "The Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world." How it might have read! What a different expression it might have been! This would seem to have been more in harmony with the aspect of the speaker, and with all that was known about his way of livelihood. When he came out of the wilderness, having eaten the locusts and the wild honey, and girt his leathern girdle about him, and come forth amongst the people, I should have expected him to say this: "Behold the lions of the tribe of Judah that devoureth the sinners of the world!" I should have said, "Yes, that is a natural climax; that kind of expression seems to befit your mouth." Instead of that he says, "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world." Not the sinners but the sin; not the offender but the offence. That is redemption. The other course would have been destruction. It is easy to destroy; it requires God to redeem. It is easy to strike: it requires infinite grace to heal. By one stroke of his lightning he could have taken away the sinners, but it required the blood of his heart to take away the sin. We are redeemed not with corruptible things as silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God I
Christ came to take away sin; we cannot take it away ourselves. If it required the divine intervention to take away sin, why should we be going to Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, when there is a fountain opened in the house of David for sin and for uncleanness? Why be wasting strength and mocking the heart when Jesus comes before us with the express purpose of taking away our sin? "Through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins." Here is the atonement, here is the sacrifice of the Son of God complete, sufficient, final. The priest himself becomes the victim. Great is the mystery of godliness! To have seen everything in life but the Lamb of God, is to have seen everything in life but the one thing worth seeing. To have beheld all sights of greatness and glory and beauty, and not to have seen the Lamb of God, is to have seen the light from the outside of the window, and not to have gone in and found rest and welcome and home!
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on John 1". The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the First Week of Advent