Division of Opinion
The last thing we should have expected about the sayings of Christ is division of opinion. Having proceeded forth and come from God, one would suppose that every word he spoke would be instantly recognised as divine, and accepted as wise and beneficent. This was not the case. Whenever Jesus Christ addressed men he provoked inquiry, controversy, sometimes direct and bitter hostility; his ministers do not accomplish this miracle—at least, not intentionally. What do they love so much as that all men should instantly applaud them? We deprecate controversy in the Church. There would be better and larger church-life if there were more controversy amongst us, were that controversy conducted in a benign, patient, forbearing, and intelligent spirit. How was it that Jesus Christ provoked such division of opinion? Let us hear him for ourselves:—
"Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers" ( John 10:1-5).
What could be more beautiful? This is the very beginning of poetry. What could be sweeter, lovelier? So the people imagined, for they took no heed of it:—
"This parable spake Jesus unto them: but they understood not what things they were which he spake unto them" ( John 10:6).
He was making new clouds, and showing those clouds in new lights. They were very beautiful clouds, but they seemed to have no direct relation to human life. He was rewarded therefore with the applause of silence. There could not be any controversy about a beautiful parabolical statement like that. Nor was there any controversy. Then where is the point of anger? You find the explanation in John 10:7-18, which must be read in their entirety.
"Then said Jesus unto them again, Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep. All that ever came before me are thieves and robbers: but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture. The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly. I am the good Shepherd: the good Shepherd giveth his life for the sheep. But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep. The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep. I am the good Shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine. As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep. And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd. Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father."
How personal does the statement become now! It is no longer a parable; it is a direct personal application and claim. Now the tone of the assembly will change. Jesus talks about himself; instead of talking about some abstract or imaginary shepherd he speaks of himself as "the good Shepherd"; he says, "I am the Door," "I am the good Shepherd"; "The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.... I am the good Shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine"; "I lay down my life for the sheep." We shall have controversy now. The moment the preacher leaves the realm of parable and begins to talk personalities himself or the people being the personal quantity, we shall have a new temper in the meeting. The original parable passed by as a gilded cloud might pass in the soft wind; now that the preacher begins to talk directly, now that he clothes himself with all the meaning of the parable, men will look at him from a different standpoint, and he who was once a dreamy, poetical fanatic, uttering very highly coloured and beautiful things, becomes a claimant of deity—a blasphemer, a man who is demented. That is the point of hostility through all time. When Christians make a personality of their Christianity they will have to fight for their standing-ground. Unhappily, some of them have learned the art of parable-making; but they have not learned the art of turning the parable to concrete uses. The people who listen to sermons love to have it so. There is nothing so much dreaded as a personal sermon; there is no congregation on earth that could not be scattered in an hour if the preacher were faithful. But what love of poetry there is! When a climax closes with a jingling rhyme, how beautiful it is! Clouds in infinite number and infinite variety—how charming the upward look! But let a man attack the crimes of his day, the false weights and the false measures, and the false politics, and the false philosophies, and the hypocrisies that are to be found in places of fashion, and in places of poverty as well, and he will soon have to go a-begging. Congregations have an infinite voracity for beautiful parables; they can eat up endless parables at a meal; but applications are not popular. Instantly a man would say, That was meant for me—that was a personal appeal. Certainly; and that is the only preaching worth hearing—a preaching that comes down to you and says, Thou art the man! But who can afford, financially, to preach so? It costs a Cross. O thou popular talker, applauded idol, with an infinite genius for bubble-making and bubble-gilding, thou shalt have a hot place in hell!
But the matter does not end with the preacher; it has a large application. Let any man stand up today in the marketplace and say about himself, ""I am a Christian," and he will have a hard time of it from that hour,—the meaning not being, I am a Christian believer, a believer in certain ecclesiastical dogmas and theological positions; but, I am a Christ-man—my badge a cross!—and he will not be invited again to that company. This is how we kill Christ. Let a man say, "I lay down my life for the world," and he will be avoided as a leper, or a madman. Yet this is what every Christian is called upon to do in his own degree and in his own way,—not in the degree and way in which Jesus Christ laid down his life for the sin of the world; we do not lay down our life as an expiation as he did, but we lay down our life as a service, a devotion, a consecration. No man ever yet said, "For me to live is Christ; this one thing I do: God forbid that I should glory, save in the Cross of Christ. I am determined not to know anything among you save Jesus Christ and him crucified," without driving the fashion, the pretension, and the hypocrisy of his day miles from the place of his feet. Let any man say, "I am a believer, I am a child of God, I embody, God helping me, all the truth of Christ"s Cross," and no body of men will want to see him. If he could make blank verse he would be popular; if he could speak parables without applications he would be invited evening after evening to delight the minds that never think. Who wonders, then, that Christ was in critical controversy? Seize the meaning of this exposition, and keep vividly before the mind the fact that whilst Jesus Christ was speaking the parable the people were apparently quiet, even attentive; they did not know what he was saying, yet it sounded well: but the moment that Jesus Christ came to represent the parable in actual life and embodiment, the whole disposition of the auditory underwent a marked and undesirable change. Men are leaving the Church quickly now in many directions. Some are abbreviating the Church; many have a small pocket edition of the Church—which they often forget to take with them. Why? Because Christianity will, even in the most indifferent hands, give some indication of its anti-worldliness, anti-selfishness, its love of truth and fairness and justice and honour and progress. We do not like this. Sing some lullaby, O thou Son of Prayer of Manasseh, and rock us to sleep by the plash of thy liquid music. Send no sword, no fire, no controversy: we want to be let alone.
The judgment that was pronounced upon Christ will be pronounced upon Christians also if they take Christ"s course:—
"And many of them said, He hath a devil, and is mad; why hear ye him?" ( John 10:20.)
That is popularity of the right sort. There is meaning in that. Have people really opposed to you in some desperate way, and you may convert them. Some men have never been so near crying bitterly as just after they have been cursing and swearing, and denying that they ever saw the man Christ Jesus. Indifference is eating out the life of the Church; tepid applause directed to Song of Solomon -called beautiful sentences is taking the place of enthusiasm that was willing to be burned and the sacrifice that counted the stake one of the thousand ways to heaven. No preacher can ever make himself felt for good throughout the whole world and through all time until he has been denominated mad. Trace the history of all the great pulpit reputations, to go no further, and you will find that there is not one of them that has not at the root of it a charge of insanity. Sometimes the charge is not made in definite terms; it is hinted at as eccentricity, peculiarity, love of notoriety, self-consciousness, and twenty other euphemisms, which, being correctly translated, mean—insanity. It was so with Christ; it was so with Paul; it was so with Wesley; it was so with Whitefield; it is so in many modern instances. On the other hand, there are more discriminating people now, as there were in the days of Christ, who say, "These are not the words of him that hath a devil. Can a devil open the eyes of the blind?" Ay, that is the question. The works must be our vindication; the good that is done must be our one argument.
So there was a division among the Jews, a sharp division; one party saying, "He hath a devil, and is mad"; another party saying, "These are not the words of him that hath a devil. Can a devil open the eyes of the blind? "—there is a wonderful background to this man"s words; he does not reveal all his meaning at once; we come upon some of his significations suddenly; we are surprised by them; his words bear thinking about; they come into our dreaming, they follow us in the day-time, they whisper to us at unexpected hours and sometimes at inopportune seasons. No, this is a wonderful talker; never man spake like this man; and I know that he opened the eyes of one who was born blind. So Christianity must stand upon its effects. The men who have realised those effects must be bold enough—that is to say, must be grateful enough—to say that they have seen Jesus, and have learned of him.
This controversy led to a demand that appears to be very simple on the surface:—
"Then came the Jews round about him, and said unto him, How long dost thou make us to doubt? If thou be the Christ, tell us plainly" ( John 10:24).
What is "plainly"? There are persons who think that all human conversation is divisible into Yes and No: the lawyers are addicted to that view of human intercourse. What is plainly? If the question were, Are you going east or west? a plain answer could be returned; if the question were, Did you put out the right hand or the left? there could be no difficulty in replying plainly: but the questions that gather around the name of Christ, that are summed up in his marvellous character, are not questions that admit of easy, plain, superficial, and conclusive answers. We must live with Christ to know him; we must love him to understand anything he says. To have said plainly, "I am the Christ," would have been to trifle with the infinity of his personality, his sovereignty, and his claim. Great subjects cannot be dealt with in this particular way, each wrapped up, and put on a place by itself, and appraised in plain figures. You cannot snap off an inch or two of infinity and say, That is a sample of it. Infinity has no samples. You cannot snip three inches out of the wind and say, This is a sample of the tempest. As soon might you take one little stone out of a palace and say, This will give you an idea of the royal residence. Christianity is a whole; Christ is Three-in-One, One-in-Three; a contradiction in number; he is here, and not here; he is a root out of dry ground, he is a plant of renown. Herein is the difficulty of what is called plain preaching. All plain preaching may be suspected; all preaching that goes from one to two, and from two to three, as if they included the universe, is mischievous. The plainer the preaching the more suggestive will it be of infinity. There will be plain points; there must be plain points, plain charges, plain declarations of divine love, plain welcomes to Christ"s heart; but even these shall be so spoken as to be felt to be connected with eternity. The atmosphere of the discourse is an important quantity in the estimate of its value. There is perspective as well as straight line, and unless we have the perspective as well as the straight course we shall miss the wondrous power that is of the nature of spirituality. Jesus Christ spoke plainly enough. The Jews never asked Jesus Christ clearly to tell them their duty. We want plainness at the wrong point. When men come to Christ and say, Lord, what shall do with these scales, they are unequal? he says, Burn them. There is no mistake about that answer. Lord, what shall I do, for I am addicted to drunkenness? Give up your wine and strong drink, and never touch them more. That answer could not be well improved in plainness and directness.
Who asks Christ to be plain about duty? Who does not ask him to be confidential about speculation, imagination, and things eternal, without the being plain about Christian practice and discipline? Ask for plainness at the right point, and Christ will accommodate you: ask him for another miracle, and he will turn round upon you and leave you in the darkness of sevenfold night. The mystery of Christianity is in its infinity. It is because it is so great that it cannot be reduced to the comprehension of men who have no heart for its study. Hence we say that Jesus Christ told the people distinctly that they could not understand him because they were not of his sheep—"I told you, and ye believed not." They had a plain answer, and did not understand it to be plain. They kept it outside of them, and therefore they could not comprehend it. There are many persons coming to Christ when they understand all about him, when they can meet him upon equal terms, and say they completely comprehend all his meaning, and now they have no objection to admit him to their society. That is not the way of salvation. Many men are going to believe the Bible when they know who wrote it, when it was written, who signed it, who has seen the manuscripts, where is the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, where is the original copy of the Greek New Testament, where are the signatures of the prophets and the apostles,—then they will come in. It is much like men saying, regarding an empty house when they are in search of a dwelling, Who built that house? who planned it? where is the signature of the architect? name the forest where the wood grew. Other people say, Well, with regard to these questions, they are very important, no doubt; at the same time we. are going into this house, and we will find these things out from the inside. They are the wise men. Come into the Bible; begin where you can; take up such portions of it as are applicable to your own case; find your way from point to point; and the time will come when you will care nothing about Hebrew manuscripts and Greek autographs. You will say, This is none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven: this book talks to me, knows me, loves me; I cannot do without it now. There are two ways of coming to the book or of coming to Jesus Christ: one the outside way that will do nothing until certain long lists of questions are answered one by one; and the other by coming into the offered light and the offered blessing, and beginning where we can, and going on little by little, until we feel the inspiration of the book, until we get into touch with the heart of Christ, and thus become enabled to say, when he asks us, Who am I? Thou art the Christ of God. Let us beware of terminating with mere parables; let us be thankful to the men who have sacrificed themselves for our spiritual advantage; let us bless God for such men as Paul, to whom we can do no favour that he might lay down what he knew of the riches of the knowledge and wisdom of God for our using. Let us also hold in reverent and grateful remembrance the noble men who died for their faith that they might show us how to live. Christians can get through the world very easily by being only nominal professors, by loving parables and poetry, blank verse and rhyme; we can get through to the other end without much ado: but the other end is not worth going to. What we have to do as Christians is to begin where Christ began, walk where Christ walked, follow him in all things, take up his Cross daily; practise the mysterious art of self-denial, and thus through the Cross find our way to the crown. Jesus calls us in that direction. This would seem to be an age of intermission of Christian inspiration, but Christian inspiration is not therefore dead. There are times when the tide ebbs, and men say in ignorance, The sea is fleeing away: but the sea recedes only that it may flow in fulness of power upon the shore. So it is with Christian influence. To-day is the ebb time. To-day men are giving up Christian thinking and Christian worship to a large extent. To-day men are making a name stand for a reality, a profession is taking the place of a sacrifice. But this is only a question of time. He will come whose right it is. He will overturn, overturn, overturn; and after devastation he will bring in paradise and summer and peace.
Life Without Miracles
Let us inquire how far it is possible to build up a really good and strong character without doing any works that are miraculous, romantic, or merely sensational. The life of John the Baptist furnishes us with an admirable study upon this subject. "Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist"; yet John did no miracle. He was "a burning and a shining light"; yet John did no miracle. "He was a prophet, yea," etc.; yet John did no miracle. "All that John spake of this man is true"; yet John did no miracle. Now, how far is it possible for us to win the Master"s approbation, and to come into a great estate of honour and joy, without having any power in things miraculous? Some of us may think we are living a monotonous and profitless sort of life, remarkable for nothing but sameness and insipidity; morning, noon, night coming round and round without our ever doing anything that strikes observers with amazement; always working in the same place, always surrounded by the same faces, always tethered by the same short string. If I can send one word of comfort into any heart that is mourning the narrowness of its sphere and the monotony of its pursuits, my object will be answered. Human life needs some such cheering. No doubt many people are without ambition or aspiration, and they need no help; but there are others to whom a word of interpretation and comfort will be as refreshing water in the tiresome journey of commonplace life. Some of us, too, seem always on the very point of really doing something worth doing. It seems as if a miracle were the very next thing to be done, and that we only miss the doing of it by a hair"s breadth.
We shall get some help in the direction of our study if we answer this question—Upon what kind of life did Jesus Christ set the seal of his blessing?
(1) He specially blessed the spirit and ministry of John the Baptist; and yet John did no miracle: (a) It is possible to be true; (b) courageous; (c) self-controlled; (d) illustrious; and yet to do no miracle.
(2) That this approval was in no sense exceptional is made plain by other parts of Jesus Christ"s recognition of man"s life and work: (a) Seventy returned; (b) cup of cold water; (c) employment of talents.
All this is made the clearer by a case on the other side—"In thy name done many wonderful works," etc.
When did Jesus Christ ever set a man in higher honour in his kingdom simply because the man was a worker of miracles?
What, then, are the qualities which God most esteems in us? "A meek and a quiet spirit, which in the sight," etc. "The Lord loveth a cheerful giver," etc.
Nowhere is the brilliant man singled out, etc. "Many that are first," etc.
(1) A word to the poor; (2) women; (3) nobodies.
What doth the Lord thy God require of thee? Miracles? "To do justly," etc Covet earnestly the best gifts, and yet charity above all!
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on John 10". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany