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TEACHER OR SAVIOUR?
The connection in which the Evangelist introduces the story of Nicodemus throws great light on the aspect under which we are to regard it. He has just been saying that upon our Lord’s first visit to Jerusalem at the Passover there was a considerable amount of interest excited, and a kind of imperfect faith in Him drawn out, based solely on His miracles. He adds that this faith was regarded by Christ as unreliable; and he goes on to explain that our Lord exercised great reserve in His dealings with the persons who professed it, for the reason that ‘He knew all men, and needed not that any should testify of man, for He knew what was in man.’
Now, if you note that reiteration of the word ‘man,’ you will understand the description which is given of the person who is next introduced. ‘He knew what was in man. There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.’ It would have been enough to have said, ‘There was a Pharisee.’ When John says ‘a man of the Pharisees,’ he is not merely carried away by the echo in his ears of his own last words, but it is as if he had said, ‘Now, here is one illustration of the sort of thing that I have been speaking about; one specimen of an imperfect faith built upon miracles; and one illustration of the way in which Jesus Christ dealt with it.’
Nicodemus was ‘a Pharisee.’ That tells us the school to which he belonged, and the general drift of his thought. He was ‘a ruler of the Jews.’ That tells us that he held an official position in the supreme court of the nation, to which the Romans had left some considerable shadow of power in ecclesiastical matters. And this man comes to Christ and acknowledges Him. Christ deals with him in a very suggestive fashion. His confession, and the way in which our Lord received it, are what I desire to consider briefly in this sermon.
I. Note then, first, this imperfect confession.
Everything about it, pretty nearly, is wrong. ‘He came to Jesus by night,’ half-ashamed and wholly afraid of speaking out the conviction that was working in him. He was a man in position. He could not compromise himself in the eyes of his co-Sanhedrists. ‘It would be a grave thing for a man like me to be found in converse with this new Rabbi and apparent Prophet. I must go cautiously, and have regard to my reputation and my standing in the world; and shall steal to Him by night.’ There is something wrong with any convictions about Jesus Christ which let themselves be huddled up in secret. The true apprehension of Him is like a fire in a man’s bones, that makes him ‘weary of forbearing’ when he locks his lips, and forces him to speak. If Christians can be dumb, there is something dreadfully wrong with their Christianity. If they do not regard Jesus Christ in such an aspect as to oblige them to stand out in the world and say, ‘Whatever anybody says or thinks about it, I am Christ’s man,’ then be sure that they do not yet know Him as they ought to do.
Nicodemus ‘came to Jesus by night,’ and therein condemned himself. He said, ‘Rabbi, we know.’ There is more than a soupcon of patronage in that. He is giving Jesus Christ a certificate, duly signed and sealed by Rabbinical authority. He evidently thinks that it is no small matter that he and some of his fellows should have been disposed to look with favour upon this new Teacher. And so he comes, if not patronising the young man, at all events extremely conscious of his own condescension in recognising Him with his ‘We know.’
Had he the right to speak for any of his colleagues? If so, then at that very early stage of our Lord’s ministry there was a conviction beginning to work in that body of ecclesiastics which casts a very lurid light on their subsequent proceedings. It was a good long while after, when Jesus Christ’s attitude towards them had been a little more clearly made out than it was at the beginning, that they said officially, ‘As for this fellow, we know not whence He is.’ They ‘knew’ when He did not seem to be trenching on their prerogatives, or driving His Ithuriel-spear through their traditional professions of orthodoxy and punctilious casuistries. But when He trod on their toes, when He ripped up their pretensions, when He began to show His antagonism to their formalism and traditionalism, then they did not know where He came from. And there are many of us who are very polite to Jesus Christ as long as He does not interfere with us, and who begin to doubt His authority when He begins to rebuke our sins.
The man that said ‘We know,’ and then proceeded to tell Christ the grounds upon which He was accepted by him, was not in the position which becomes sinful men drawing near to their Saviour. ‘We know that Thou art a Teacher’-contrast that, with its ring of complacency, and, if not superior, at least co-ordinate, authority, with ‘Jesus! Master! have mercy on me,’ or with ‘Lord! save or I perish,’ and you get the difference between the way in which a formalist, conceited of his knowledge, and a poor, perishing sinner, conscious of his ignorance and need, go to the Saviour.
Further, this imperfect confession was of secondary value, because it was built altogether upon miraculous evidence. Now, there has been a great deal of exaggeration about the value of the evidence of miracle. The undue elevation to which it was lifted in the apologetic literature of the eighteenth century, when it was almost made out as if there was no other proof that Jesus came from God than that He wrought miracles, has naturally led, in this generation and in the last one, to an equally exaggerated undervaluing of its worth. Jesus Christ did appeal to signs; He did also most distinctly place faith that rested merely upon miracle as second best; when He said, for instance, ‘If ye believe not Me, yet believe the works.’ Nicodemus says, ‘We know that Thou art a Teacher sent from God, because no man can do these miracles except God be with him.’ Ah! Nicodemus! did not the substance of the teaching reveal the source of the teaching even more completely than the miracles that accompanied it? Surely, if I may use an old illustration, the bell that rings in to the sermon which is the miracles is less conclusive as to the divine source of the teaching than is the sermon itself. Christ Himself is His own best evidence, and His words shine in their own light, and need no signs in order to authenticate their source. The signs are there, and are precious in my eyes less as credentials of His authority than as revelations of His character and His work. They are wonders; that is much. They are proofs; as I believe. But, high above both of these characteristics, they are signs of the spiritual work that He does, and manifestations of His redeeming power. And so a faith that had no ears for the ring of the divine voice in the words, and no eyes for the beauty and perfection of the character, was vulgar and low and unreliable, inasmuch as it could give no better reason for itself than that Jesus had wrought miracles,
I need not remind you of how noticeable it is that at this very early stage in our Lord’s ministry there were a sufficient number of miracles done to be qualified by the Evangelist as ‘many,’ and to have been a very powerful factor in bringing about this real, though imperfect, faith. John has only told us of one miracle prior to this; and the other Evangelists do not touch upon these early days of our Lord’s ministry at all. So that we are to think of a whole series of works of power and supernatural grace which have found no record in these short narratives. How much more Jesus Christ was, and did, and said, than any book can ever tell! These are but parts of His ways; a whisper of His power. The fulness of it remains unrevealed after all revelation.
But the central deficiency of this confession lies in the altogether inadequate conception of Jesus Christ and His work which it embodies. ‘We know that Thou art a Teacher, a miracle-worker, a man sent from God, and in communion with Him.’ These are large recognitions, far too large to be spoken of any but a select few of the sons of men. But they fall miserably beneath the grandeur, and do not even approach within sight of the central characteristic, of Christ and of His work. Nicodemus is the type of large numbers of men nowadays. All the people that have a kind of loose, superficial connection with Christianity re-echo substantially his words. They compliment Jesus Christ out of His divinity and out of His redeeming work, and seem to think that they are rather conferring an honour upon Christianity when they condescend to say, ‘We, the learned pundits of literature; we, the arbiters of taste; we, the guides of opinion; we, the writers in newspapers and magazines and periodicals; we, the leaders in social and philanthropic movements-we recognise that Thou art a Teacher.’ Yes, brethren, and the recognition is utterly inadequate to the facts of the case, and is insult, and not recognition.
II. Let me ask you to look now, in the next place, at the way in which Jesus Christ deals with this imperfect confession.
It was a great thing for a young Rabbi from Nazareth, who had no certificate from the authorities, to find an opening thus into the very centre of the Sanhedrim. There is nothing in life, to an ardent young soul, at the beginning of his career-especially if he feels that he has a burden laid upon him to deliver to his fellows-half so sweet as the early recognition by some man of wisdom and weight and influence, that he too is a messenger from God. In later years praise and acknowledgment cloy. And one might have expected some passing word from the Master that would have expressed such a feeling as that, if He had been only a young Teacher seeking for recognition. I remember that in that strange medley of beauty and absurdity, the Koran, somewhere or other, there is an outpouring of Mahomet’s heart about the blessedness of his first finding a soul that would believe in him. And it is strange that Jesus Christ had no more welcome for this man than the story tells that He had. For He meets him without a word of encouragement; without a word that seemed to recognise even a growing and a groping confidence, and yet He would not ‘quench the smoking flax.’ Yes! sometimes the kindest way to deal with an imperfect conception is to show unsparingly why it is imperfect; and sometimes the apparent repelling of a partial faith is truly the drawing to Himself by the Christ of the man, though his faith be not approved.
So, notice how our Lord meets the imperfections of this acknowledgment. He begins by pointing out what is the deepest and universal need of men. Nicodemus had said, ‘Rabbi, we know that Thou art a Teacher come from God.’ And Christ says, ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, ye must be born again.’ What has that to do with Nicodemus’s acknowledgment? Apparently nothing; really everything. For, if you will think for a moment, you will see how it meets it precisely, and forces the Rabbi to deepen his conception of the Lord. The first thing that you and I want, for our participation in the Kingdom of God, is a radical out-and-out change in our whole character and nature. ‘Ye must be born again’; now, whatever more that means, it means, at all events, this-a thorough-going renovation and metamorphosis of a man’s nature, as the sorest need that the world and all the individuals that make up the world have.
The deepest ground of that necessity lies in the fact of sin. Brother, we can only verify our Lord’s assertion by honestly searching the depths of our own hearts, and looking at ourselves in the light of God. Think what is meant when we say, ‘He is Light, and in Him is no darkness at all.’ Think of that absolute purity, that, to us, awful aversion from all that is evil, from all that is sinful. Think of what sort of men they must be who can see the Lord. And then look at yourself. Are we fit to pass that threshold? Are we fit to gaze into that Face? Is it possible that we should have fellowship with Him? Oh, brethren, if we rightly meditate upon two facts, the holiness of God and our own characters, I think we shall feel that Jesus Christ has truly stated the case when He says, ‘Ye must be born again.’ Unless you and I can get ourselves radically changed, there is no Heaven for us; there is no fellowship with God for us. We must stand before Him, and feel that a great gulf is fixed between us and Him.
And so when a man comes with his poor little ‘Thou art a Teacher,’ no words are wanted in order to set in glaring light the utter inadequacy of such a conception as that. What the world wants is not a Teacher, it is a Life-giver. What men want is not to be told the truth; they know it already. What they want is not to be told their duty; they know that too. What they want is some power that shall turn them clean round. And what each of us wants before we can see the Lord is that, if it may be, something shall lay hold of us, and utterly change our natures, and express from our hearts the black drop that lies there tainting everything.
Now, this necessity is met in Jesus Christ. For there were two ‘musts’ in His talk with Nicodemus, and both of them bore directly on the one purpose of deepening Nicodemus’s inadequate conception of what He was and what He did. He said, ‘Ye must be born again,’ in order that his hearer, and we, might lay to heart this, that we need something more than a Teacher, even a Life-giver; and He said, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up,’ in order that we might all know that in Him the necessity is met, and that the Son of Man, who came down from Heaven, and is in Heaven, even whilst He is on earth, is the sole ladder by which men can ascend into Heaven and gaze upon God.
Thus it is Christ’s work as Redeemer, Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, Christ’s power as bringing to the world a new and holy life, and breathing it into all that trust in Him, which make the very centre of His work. Set by the side of that this other, ‘Thou art a Teacher sent from God.’ Ah, brethren, that will not do; it will not do for you and me! We want something a great deal deeper than that. The secret of Jesus is not disclosed until we have passed into the inner shrine, where we learn that He is the Sacrifice for the world, and the Source and Fountain of a new life. I beseech you, take Christ’s way of dealing with this certificate of His character given by the Rabbi who did not know his own necessities, and ponder it.
Mark the underlying principle which is here-viz. if you want to understand Christ you must understand sin; and whoever thinks lightly of it will think meanly of Him. An underestimate of the reality, the universality, the gravity of the fact of sin lands men in the superficial and wholly impotent conception, ‘Rabbi! Thou art a Teacher sent from God.’ A true knowledge of myself as a sinful man, of my need of pardon, of my need of cleansing, of my need of a new nature, which must be given from above, and cannot be evolved from within, leads me, and I pray it may lead you, to cast yourself down before Him, with no complaisant words of intellectual recognition upon your lips, but with the old cry, ‘Lord! be merciful to me a sinner.’
III. And now, dear friends, one last word. Notice when and where this imperfect disciple was transformed into a courageous confessor.
We do not know what came immediately of this conversation. We only know that some considerable time after, Nicodemus had not screwed himself up to the point of acknowledging out and out, like a brave man, that he was Christ’s follower; but that he timidly ventured in the Sanhedrim to slip in a remonstrance ingeniously devised to conceal his own opinions, and yet to do some benefit to Christ, when he said, ‘Does our law judge any man before it hear him?’ And, of course, the timid remonstrance was swept aside, as it deserved to be, by the ferocious antagonism of his co-Sanhedrists.
But when the Cross came, and it had become more dangerous to avow discipleship, he plucked up courage, or rather courage flowed into him from that Cross, and he went boldly and ‘craved the body of Jesus,’ and got it, and buried it. No doubt when he looked at Jesus hanging on the Cross, he remembered that night in Jerusalem when the Lord had said, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up,’ and he remembered how He had spoken about the serpent lifted in the wilderness, and a great light blazed in upon him, which for ever ended all hesitation and timidity for him. And so he was ready to be a martyr, or anything else, for the sake of Him whom he now found to be far more than a ‘Teacher,’ even the Sacrifice by whose stripes he was healed.
Dear brethren, I bring that Cross to you now, and pray you to see there Christ’s real work for us, and for the world. He has taught us, but He has done more. He has not only spoken, He has died. He has not only shown us the path on which to walk, He has made it possible for us to walk in it. He is not merely one amongst the noble band that have guided and inspired and instructed humanity, but He stands alone-not a Teacher, but the Redeemer, ‘the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world.’
If He is a Teacher, take His teachings, and what are they? These, that He is the Son of God; that ‘He came from God’; that He ‘went to God’; that He ‘gives His life a ransom for many’; that He is to be the Judge of mankind; that if we trust in Him, our sins are forgiven and our nature is renewed. Do not go picking and choosing amongst His teachings, for these which I have named are as surely His as ‘Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them,’ or any other of the moral teachings which the world professes to admire. Take the whole teachings of the whole Christ, and you will confess Him to be the Redeemer of your souls, and the Life-giver by whom, and by whom alone, we enter the Kingdom of God.
WIND AND SPIRIT
Perhaps a gust of night wind swept round the chamber where Nicodemus sat listening to Jesus, and gave occasion for this condensed parable. But there is occasion sufficient for it in the word ‘Spirit,’ which, both in the language in which our Lord addressed the ruler of the Sanhedrim, and in that which John employed in recording the conversation, as in our own English, means both ‘spirit’ and ‘breath.’ This double signification of the word gives rise to the analogies in our text, and it also raises the question as to the precise meaning of the text. There are two alternatives, one adopted by our Authorised and Revised Version, and one which you will find relegated to the margin of the latter. We may either read ‘the wind bloweth’ or ‘the Spirit breathes.’ I must not be tempted here to enter into a discussion of the grounds upon which the one or the other of these two renderings may be preferred. Suffice it to say that I adhere to the rendering which lies before us, and find here a comparison between the salient characteristics of the physical fact and the operations of the Divine Spirit upon men’s spirits.
But then, there is another step to be taken. Our Lord has just been laying down the principle that like begets like, that flesh produces flesh, and spirit, spirit. And so, applying that principle, He says here, not as might be expected, ‘So is the work of the Divine Spirit in begetting new life in men,’ but ‘So is he that is born of the Spirit.’ There are three things brought into relation with one another: the physical fact; the operations of the Spirit of God, of which that physical fact in its various characteristics may be taken as a symbol; and the result of its operations in the new man who is made ‘after the image of Him that created him.’
It is to the last of these that I wish to turn. Here you have the ideal of the Christian life, considered as the product of the free Spirit of God, the picture of what all Christian people have the capacity of being, the obligation to be, and are, just in the measure in which that new life, which the Spirit of God bestows, is dominant in them and moulding their character. So I take these characteristics just as they arise.
I. Here you have the freedom of the new life.
‘The wind bloweth where it listeth.’ Of course, in these days of weather forecasts and hoisting cones, we know that the wind is subject to as rigid physical laws as any other phenomena. But Jesus Christ speaks here, as the Bible always speaks about Nature, from two points of view-one the popular, regarding the thing as it looks on the surface, and the other what I may call the poetico-devout-finding ‘sermons in stones, books in the running brooks,’ and hints of the spiritual world in all the phenomena of the natural. So, just as in spite of meteorological science, there has passed into common speech the proverbial simile ‘as free as the wind,’ so Jesus Christ says here, ‘The wind bloweth where it listeth, . . . so is every one that is born of the Spirit.’ He passes by the intermediate link, the Spirit that is the parent of the life, and deals with the resulting life and declares that it is self-impelled and self-directed. Is that a characteristic to be desired or admired? Is doing as we list precisely the description of the noblest life? It is the description of the purely animal one. It is the description of an entirely ignoble and base one. It may become the description of an atrociously criminal one. But we do not generally think that a man that says ‘Thus I will; thus I command; let the fact that I will it stand in the place of all reason,’ is speaking from a lofty point of view.
But there are two sorts of ‘listing.’ There is the listing which is the yielding to the mob of ignoble passions and clamant desires of the animal nature within us, and there is the ‘listing’ which is obeying the impulses of a higher will, that has been blended with ours. And there you come to the secret of true freedom, which does not consist in doing as I like, but in liking to do as God wishes me to do. When our Lord says ‘where it listeth,’ He implies that a change has passed over a man, when that new life is born within him, whereby the law, the known will of God, is written upon his heart, and, inscribed on these fleshly tables, becomes no longer an iron force external to him, but a vital impulse within him. That is freedom, to have my better will absolutely conterminous and coincident with the will of God, so far as I know it. Just as a man is not imprisoned by limits beyond which he has no desire to go, so freedom, and elevation, and nobility come by obeying, not the commands of an external authority, but the impulse of an inward life.
‘Ye have not received the spirit of bondage,’ because God hath given us the Spirit of power, and of love, and of self-control, which keeps down that base and inferior ‘listing,’ and elevates the higher and the nobler one, ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty,’ because duty has become delight, and there is no desire in the new and higher nature for anything except that which God enjoins. The true freedom is when, by the direction of our will, we change ‘must’ into ‘I delight to do Thy will.’ So we are set free from the bondage and burden of a law that is external, and is not loved, and are brought into the liberty of, for dear love’s sake, doing the will of the beloved.
‘Myself shall to my darling be
Both law and impulse,’
says one of the poets about a far inferior matter. It is true in reference to the Christian life, and the ‘liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free,’
But, then, in order freely to understand the sweep and the greatness of this perfect law of liberty, we must remember that the new life is implanted in us precisely in order that we may suppress, and, if need be, cast out and exorcise, that lower ‘listing,’ of which I have said that it is always ignoble and sometimes animal. For this freedom will bring with it the necessity for continual warfare against all that would limit and restrain it-namely, the passions and desires and inclinations of our baser or nobler, but godless, self. These are, as it were, deposed by the entrance of the new life. But it is a dangerous thing to keep dethroned and discrowned tyrants alive, and the best thing is to behead them, as well as to cast them from their throne. ‘If ye, through the Spirit, do put to death the deeds’ and inclinations and wills ‘of the flesh, ye shall live’; and if you do not, they will live and will kill you. So the freedom of the new life is a militant freedom, and we have to fight to maintain it. As Burke said about the political realm, ‘the price of liberty is eternal vigilance,’ so we say about the new life of the Christian man-he is free only on condition that he keeps well under hatches the old tyrants, who are ever plotting and struggling to have dominion once again.
Still further, whilst this new life makes us free from the harshness of a law that can only proclaim duty, and also makes us free from our own baser selves, it makes us free from all human authority. The true foundation of the Christian democracy is that each individual soul has direct and immediate access to, and direct and real possession of, God, in his spirit and life. Therefore, in the measure in which we draw into ourselves the new life and the Spirit of God shall we be independent of men round us, and be able to say, ‘With me it is a very small matter to be judged of you or of man’s judgment.’ That new life ought to make men original, in the deep and true sense of the word, as drawing their conceptions of duty and their methods of life, not at second hand from other men, but straight from God Himself. If the Christian Church was fuller of that divine life than it is, it would be fuller of all varieties of Christian beauty and excellence, and all these would be the work of ‘that one and the selfsame Spirit dividing to every man severally as He will.’ If this congregation were indeed filled with the new life, there would be an exuberance of power, and a harmonious diversity of characteristics about it, and a burning up of the conventionalities of Christian profession such as we do not dream of to-day. ‘The wind bloweth where it listeth.’
II. Here we have this new life in its manifestation.
‘Thou hearest the sound,’ or, as the Word might literally be rendered, the ‘voice thereof,’ from the little whisper among the young soft leaves of the opening beeches in our woods to-day, up to the typhoon that spreads devastation over leagues of tropical ocean. That voice, now a murmur, now a roar, is the only manifestation of the unseen force that sweeps around us. And if you are a Christian man or woman your new life should be thus perceptible to others, in a variety of ways, no doubt, and in many degrees of force. You cannot show its roots; you are bound to show its fruits. You cannot lay bare your spirits, and say to the world, ‘Look! there is the presence of a divine germ in me,’ but you can go about amongst men, and witness to the possession of it by the life that you live. There are a great many Christian people from whom, if you were to listen ever so intently, you would not hear a sough or a ripple. There is a dead calm; the ‘rushing mighty wind’ has died down; and there is nothing but a greasy swell upon the windless ocean. ‘The wind bloweth,’ and the ‘sound’ is heard. The wind ceases, and there is a hideous silence. And that is the condition of many a man and woman that has a name to live and is dead. Does anybody hear the whisper of that breath in your life, Christian man? It is not for me to answer the question; it is for you to ask it and answer it for yourselves.
And Christians should be in the world, as the very breath of life amidst stagnation. When the Christian Church first sprung into being it did come into that corrupt, pestilential march of ancient heathenism with healing on its wings, and like fresh air from the pure hills into some fever-stricken district. Wherever there has been a new outburst, in the experience of individuals and of churches, of that divine life, there has come, and the world has felt that there has come, a new force that breathes over the dry bones, and they live. Alas, alas! that so frequently the professing Christian Church has ceased to discharge its plain function, to breathe on the slain that they may live.
They are curing, or say they are curing, consumption nowadays, by taking the patient and keeping him in the open air, and letting the wind of heaven blow freely about him. That, and not shutting people in warm chambers, and coddling them with the prescriptions of social and political reformation, that is the cure for the world’s diseases. Wherever the new life is vigorous in men, men will hear the sound thereof, and recognise that it comes from heaven.
III. Lastly, here we have the new life in its double secret.
I have been saying that it has a means of manifestation which all Christian people are bound to exemplify. But our Lord draws a broad distinction between that which can be manifested and that which cannot. As I said, you can show the leaves and the fruits; the roots are covered. ‘Thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, nor whither it goeth.’
The origin of that new life is ‘hid with Christ in God.’ And so, since we are not dependent upon external things for the communication of the life, we should not be dependent upon them for its continuation and its nourishment, and we should realise that, if we are Christians, we are living in two regions, and, though as regards the surface life we belong to the things of time, as regards the deepest life, we belong to eternity. All the surface springs may run dry. What then? As long as there is a deep-seated fountain that comes welling up, the fields will be green, and we may laugh at famine and drought. If it be true that ‘our lives are hid with Christ in God,’ then it ought to be true that the nourishments, as well as the direction and impulse of them, are drawn from Him, and that we seek not so much for the abundance of the things that minister to the external as for the fulness of those that sustain the inward, the true life, the life of Christ in the soul.
The world does not know where that Christian life comes from. If you are a Christian, you ought to bear in your character a certain indefinable something that will suggest to the people round you that the secret power of your life is other than the power which moulds theirs. You may be naturalised, and you may speak fairly well the language of the country in which you are a sojourner, but there ought to be something in your accent which tells where you come from, and betrays the foreigner. We ought to move amongst men, having about us that which cannot be explained by what is enough to explain their lives. A Christian life should be the manifestation to the world of the supernatural.
They ‘know not whence it cometh nor whither it goeth.’ No; that new life in its feeblest infancy, and before it speaks, if I may so say, is, by its very existence, a prophet, and declares that there must be, beyond this ‘bank and shoal of time,’ a region to which it is native, and in which it may grow to maturity. You will find in your greenhouses exotics that stand there, after all your pains and coals, stunted, and seeming to sigh for the tropical heat which is their home. The earnest of our inheritance, the first-fruits of the Spirit, the Christian life which originated in, and is sustained by, the flowing of the divine life into us, demands that, somehow or other, the stunted plant should be lifted and removed into that ‘higher house where these are planted’-and what shall be the spread of its branches, and the lustre of its leaves, and what the gorgeousness of its blossoms, and what the perennial sweetness of its fruits then and there, ‘it doth not yet appear.’
They ‘know not whither it goeth.’ And even those who themselves possess it know not, nor shall know, through the ages of a progressive approximation to the ever-approached and never-attained perfection. ‘This spake He of the Holy Ghost, which they that believe on Him should receive.’ Trust Christ, and ‘the law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus shall make you free from the law of sin and death.’
THE BRAZEN SERPENT
This is the second of the instances in this Gospel in which our Lord lays His hand upon an institution or incident of the Old Testament, as shadowing forth some aspect of His work. In the first of these instances, under the image of the ladder that Jacob saw, our Lord presented Himself as the sole medium of communication between heaven and earth; here He goes a step further into the heart of His work, and under the image, very eloquent to the Pharisee to whom He was speaking, of the brazen serpent lifted up on the pole in the desert, proclaims Himself as the medium of healing and of life to a poisoned world.
Now, Nicodemus has a great many followers to-day. He took up a position which many take up. He recognised Christ as a Teacher, and was willing to accord to the almost unknown young man from Galilee the coveted title of ‘Rabbi.’ He came to Him with a little touch of condescension, and evidently thought that for him, a ruler of the Jews, a member of the upper and educated classes, to be willing to speak of Jesus as a Teacher, was an endorsement that the young aspirant might be gratified to receive. ‘Rabbi, we know that Thou art a Teacher sent from God’-but he stopped there. He is not the only one who compliments Jesus Christ, while he degrades Him from His unique position. Now, to this inadequate conception of our Lord’s Person and work, Christ opposed the solemn insistence on the incapacity of human nature as it is, to enter into communion with, and submission to, God. And then He passes on to speak-in precise parallelism with the position that He took up when He likened Himself to the Ladder of Jacob’s vision-of Himself as being the Son of Man that came down from Heaven, and therefore is able to reveal heavenly things. In my text He further unveils in symbol the mystery and dignity of His Person and of His work, whilst He speaks of a mysterious lifting up of this Son of Man who came down from heaven. These are the truths that the conception of Christ as a great Teacher needs for its completion; the contrariety of human nature with the divine will, the Incarnation of the Son of God, the Crucifixion of the Incarnate Son. And so we have here three points, to which I desire to turn, as setting forth the conception of His own work which Jesus Christ presented as completing the conception of it, to which Nicodemus had attained.
I. There is, first, the lifting up of the Son of Man.
Now, of course, the sole purpose of setting that brazen serpent on the pole was to render it conspicuous, and all that Nicodemus could then understand by the symbol was that, in some unknown way, this heaven-descended Son of Man should be set forth before Israel and the world as being the Healer of all their diseases. But we are wiser, after the event, than the ruler of the Jews could be at the threshold of Christ’s ministry. We have also to remember that this is not the only occasion, though it is the first, on which our Lord used this very significant expression. For twice over in this Gospel we find it upon His lips-once when, addressing the unbelieving multitude, He says ‘When ye have lifted up the Son of Man, then shall ye know that I am He’; and once when in soliloquy, close on Calvary, He says, as the vision of a world flocking to Him rises before Him on occasion of the wish of a few Greek proselytes to see Him, ‘I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto Me.’ We do not need, though we have, the Evangelist’s commentary, ‘this He spake signifying what death He should die.’
So, if we accept the historical veracity of this Gospel, we here perceive Jesus Christ, at the very beginning of His career, and before the dispositions of the nation towards Him had developed themselves in action, discerning its end, and seeing, gaunt and grim before Him, the Cross that was lifted up on Calvary. Enthusiasts and philanthropists and apostles of all sorts, in the regions of science and beneficence and morals and religion, begin their career with trusting that their ‘brethren should have understood’ that God was speaking through them. But no illusion of that sort, according to these Evangelists, drew Jesus Christ out of His seclusion at Nazareth and impelled Him on His career. From the beginning He knew that the Cross was to be the end. That Cross was not to Him a necessity, accepted as the price of faithfulness in doing His work, so that His attitude was, ‘I will speak what is in Me, though I die for it,’ but it was to Him the very heart of the work which He came to do. Therefore, after He had said to the ruler of the Jews that the Son of Man, as descended from Heaven, was able to speak of heavenly things, He added the deeper necessity, He ‘must be lifted up.’ Where lay the ‘must’? In the requirement of the work which He had set Himself to do. Beneath this great saying there lies a pathetic, stern, true conception of the condition of human nature. That desert encampment, with the poisoned men dying on every hand, is the emblem under which Jesus Christ, the gentlest and the sweetest soul that ever lived, looked out upon humanity. And it was because the facts of human nature called for something far more than a teacher that He said ‘the Son of Man must be lifted up.’ For what they needed, and what He had set Himself to bring, could only be brought by One who yielded Himself up for the sins of the whole world.
But that ‘must,’ which thus arose from the requirements of the task that He had set before Him, had its source in His own heart; it was no necessity imposed upon Him from without. True, it was a necessity laid on Him by filial obedience, but also true, it was the necessity accepted by Him in pursuance of the impulse of His own heart. He must die because He must save, and He must save because He loved. So He was not nailed to the Cross by the nails and hammers of the Roman soldiers, and the taunt that was flung at Him as He hung there had a deeper meaning, as scoffs thrown at Him and His cause ordinarily have, than the scoffers understood: ‘He saved others,’ and therefore ‘Himself He cannot save.’
So here we have Christ accepting, as well as discerning, the Cross. And we have more than that. We have Christ looking at the Cross as being, not humiliation, but exaltation. ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up.’ And what does that mean? It means the same thing that He said when, near the end, He declared, ‘The hour is come that the Son of Man should be glorified.’ We are accustomed to speak-and we speak rightly-of His death as being the lowest point of the humiliation which was inherent in the very fact of His humanity. He condescended to be born; He stooped yet more to die. But whilst that is true, the other side is also true-that in the Cross Christ is lifted up, and that it is His Throne. For what see we there? The highest exhibition, the tenderest revelation, of His perfect love. And what see we there besides? The supreme manifestation of the highest power.
‘‘Twas great to speak a world from nought,
‘Tis greater to redeem.’
To save humanity, to make it possible that men should receive that second birth, and should enter into the Kingdom of God-that was a greater work, because a work not only of creation, but of restoration, than it was to send forth the stars on their courses and to ‘preserve’ the ancient heavens ‘from wrong.’ There is a revelation of divine might when we ‘lift up our eyes on high,’ and see how, ‘because He is great in power, not one faileth.’ But there is a mightier revelation of divine power when we see how, from amidst the ruins of humanity, He can restore the divine image, and piece together, as it were, without sign of flaw or crack or one fragment wanting, the fair image that was shattered into fragments by the blow of Sin’s heavy mace. Power in its highest operation, power in its tenderest efficacy, power in its widest sweep, are set forth on the Cross of Christ, and that weak Man hanging there, dying in the dark, is ‘the power of God’ as well as ‘the wisdom of God.’ The Cross is Christ’s Throne, but it is His sovereign manifestation of love and power only if it is what, as I believe He told us it was, and what His servants from His lips caught the interpretation of it as being, the death for the sins of the sin-stricken world. Unless we can believe that, when He died, He died for us, I know not why Christ’s death should appeal to our love. But if we recognise-as I pray that we all may recognise-that our deep need for something far more than Teacher or Pattern has been met in that great ‘one Sacrifice for sins for ever,’ then the magnetism of the Cross begins to tell, and we understand what He meant when He said, ‘I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto Me.’ Brethren, the Cross is His Throne, from which He rules the world, and if you strike His sacrifice for sins out of your conception of His work, you have robbed Him of sovereignty, and taken out of His hand the sceptre by which He governs the hearts and wills of rebellious and restored men.
II. Notice, again, how we have here the look at the uplifted Son of Man.
I do not need to paint for you what your own imaginations can sufficiently paint for yourselves-the scene in the wilderness where the dying men from the very outskirts of the camp could turn a filmy eye to the brazen serpent hanging in their midst. That look is the symbol of what we need, in order that the life-giving power of Christ should enter into our death. There is no better description of the act of Christian faith than that picture of the dying Israelite turning his languid eye to the symbol of healing and life. That trust which Jesus emphasises here in ‘whosoever believeth on Him,’ He opposes very emphatically to Nicodemus’s confession, ‘We know that Thou art a Teacher.’ We know-you have to go a step further, Nicodemus! ‘We know’; well and good, but are you included in ‘whosoever believeth’? Faith is an advance on credence. There is an intellectual side to it, but its essence is what is the essence of trust always, the act of the will throwing itself on that which is discerned to be trustworthy. You know that a given man is reliable-that is not relying on him. You have to go a step further. And so, dear brethren, you may believe thirty-nine or thirty-nine thousand Articles with an unfaltering credence, and you may be as far away from faith as if you did not believe one of them. There may be a perfect belief and an absolute want of faith. And on the other hand, blessed be God! there may be a real and an operative trust with a very imperfect or mistaken creed. The wild flowers on the rock bloom fair and bright, though they have scarcely any soil in which to strike their roots, and the plants in the most fertile garden may fail to produce flowers and seed. So trust and credence are not always of the same magnitude.
This trust is no arbitrary condition. The Israelite was bid to turn to the brazen serpent. There was no connection between his look and his healing, except in so far as the symbol was a help to, and looking at it was a test of, his faith in the healing power of God. But it is no arbitrary appointment, as many people often think it is, which connects inseparably together the look of faith and the eternal life that Christ gives. For seeing that salvation is no mere external gift of shutting up some outward Hell and opening the door to some outward Heaven, but is a state of heart and mind, of relation to God, the only way by which that salvation can come into a man’s heart is that he, knowing his need of it, shall trust Christ, and through Him the new life will flow into his heart. Faith is trust, and trust is the stretching out of the hand to take the precious gift, the opening of the heart for the influx of the grace, the eating of the bread, the drinking of the water, of life.
It is the only possible condition. God forbid that I should even seem to depreciate other forms of healing men’s evils and redressing men’s wrongs, and diminishing the sorrows of humanity! We welcome them all; but education, art, culture, refinement, improved environment, bettered social and political conditions, whilst they do a great deal, do not go down to the bottom of the necessity. And after you have built your colleges and art museums and stately pleasure-houses, and set every man in an environment that is suited to develop him, you will find out what surely the world might have found out already, that, as in some stately palace built in the Campagna, the malaria is in the air, and steals in at the windows, and infects all the inhabitants. Thank God for all these other things! but you cannot heal a man who has poison in his veins by administering cosmetics, and you cannot put out Vesuvius with a jugful of water. If the camp is to be healed, the Christ must be lifted up.
III. And now, lastly, here we have the life that comes with a look at the lifted-up Son of Man.
Those of you who are using the Revised Version will see that there is a little change made here, partly by the exclusion of a clause and partly by changing the order of the words. The alteration is not only nearer the original text, but brings out a striking thought. It reads that ‘whosoever believeth may in Him have eternal life.’ Now, it is far too late a period of my discourse to enlarge upon all that these great words would suggest to us, but let me just, in a sentence or two, mark the salient points.
‘Eternal life’; do not bring that down to the narrow and inadequate conception of unending existence. It involves that, but it means a great deal more. It means a life of such a sort as is worth calling life, which is a life in union with God, and therefore full of blessedness, full of purity, full of satisfaction, full of desire and aspiration, and all these with the stamp of unendingness deeply impressed upon them. And that is what comes to us through the look. Not only is the process of dying arrested, but there is substituted for it a new process of growing possession of a new life. You ‘must be born again,’ Christ had been saying to Nicodemus. The change that passes upon a man when once he has anchored his trust on Jesus Christ, the uplifted Son of Man, is so profound that it is nothing else than a new birth, and a new life comes into his veins untainted by the poison, and with no proclivity to death.
‘May have eternal life’-now, here, on the instant. That eternal life is no future gift to be bestowed upon mortal men when they have passed through the agony of death, but it is a gift which comes to us here, and may come to any man on the instant of his looking to Jesus Christ.
‘May in Him have eternal life’-union with Christ by faith, that profound incorporation-if I may use the word-into Him, which the New Testament sets forth in all sorts of aspects as the very foundation of the blessings of Christianity; that union is the condition of eternal life. So, dear brethren, we all need that the poison shall be cast out of our veins. We all need that the tendency downwards to a condition which can only be described as death may be arrested, and the motion reversed. We all need that our knowledge shall be vitalised into faith. We all need that the past shall be forgiven, and the power of sin upon us in the present shall be cancelled. ‘The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin,’ because it was shed for the remission of the sins of the many, and is transfused, an untainted principle of life, into our veins. What Jesus said to Nicodemus by night in that quiet chamber in Jerusalem, what He said in effect and act upon the Cross, when uplifted there, is what He says to each of us from the Throne where He is now lifted up: ‘Whosoever believeth shall in Me have eternal life.’ Take Him at His word, and you will find that it is true.
I have chosen this text for the sake of one word in it, that solemn ‘must’ which was so often on our Lord’s lips. I have no purpose of dealing with the remainder of this clause, nor indeed with it at all, except as one instance of His use of the expression. But I have felt it might he interesting, and might set old truths in a brighter light, if we gather together the instances in which Christ speaks of the great necessity which dominated His life, and shaped even small acts.
The expression is most frequently used in reference to the Passion and Resurrection. There are many instances in the Gospels, in which He speaks of that must. The first of these is that of my text. Then there is another class, of which His word to His mother when a twelve-year-old child may be taken as a type: ‘Wist ye not that I must be about My Father’s business?’ where the mysterious consciousness of a special relation to God in the child’s heart drew Him to the Temple and to His Father’s work. Other similar instances are those in which He responded to the multitude when they wanted to keep Him to themselves: ‘I must preach in other cities also’; or as when He said, ‘I must work the works of Him that sent Me while it is day.’
Yet another aspect of the same necessity is presented when, looking far beyond the earthly work and suffering, He discerned the future triumph which was to be the issue of these, and said, ‘Other sheep I have . . . them also I must bring.’
And yet another is in reference to a very small matter: His selection of a place for a few hours’ rest on His last fateful journey to Jerusalem, when He said, ‘Zaccheus, . . . to-day I must abide at thy house.’
Now, if we put these instances together, we shall get some precious glimpses into our Lord’s heart, and His view of life.
I. Here we see Christ recognising and accepting the necessity for His death.
My text, if we accept John’s Gospel, contributes an altogether new element to our conception of our Lord as announcing His death. For the other three Gospels lay emphasis on it as being part of His teaching, especially during the later stage of His ministry. But it does not follow that He began to think about it or to see it, when He began to speak about it. There are reasons for the earlier comparative reticence, and there is no ground for the conclusion that then first began to dawn upon a disappointed enthusiast the grim reality that His work was not going to prosper, and that martyrdom was necessary. That is a notion that has been frequently upheld of late years, but to me it seems altogether incongruous with the facts of the case. And, if John’s Gospel is a true record, that theory is shivered against this text, which represents Him at the very beginning of His career-the time when, according to that other theory, He was full of the usual buoyant and baseless anticipations of a reformer commencing His course-as telling Nicodemus, ‘Even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.’ In like manner, in the previous chapter of this same Gospel, we have the significant though enigmatical utterance: ‘Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up’; with the Evangelist’s authoritative comment: ‘He spake of the Temple of His body.’ So, from the beginning of His career, the end was clear before Him.
And why must He go to the Cross? Not merely, as the other Evangelists put it, in order that ‘it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the prophets.’ It was not that Jesus must die because the prophets had said that Messiah should, but that the prophets had said that Messiah should because Jesus must. There was a far deeper necessity than the fulfilment of any prophetic utterance, even the necessity which shaped that utterance. The work of Jesus Christ could not be done unless He died. He could not be the Saviour of the world unless He was the sacrifice for the sins of the world.
We cannot see all the grounds of that solemn imperative, but this we can see, that it was because of the requirements of the divine righteousness, and because of the necessities of sinful men. And so Christ’s was no martyr’s death, who had to die as the penalty of the faithful discharge of His duty. It was not the penalty that He paid for doing His work, but it was the work itself. Not that gracious life, nor ‘the loveliness of perfect deeds,’ nor His words of sweet wisdom, nor His acts of transcendent power, equalled only by the pity that moved the power, completed His task, but He ‘came to give His life a ransom for many.’
‘Must’ is a hard word. It may express an unwelcome necessity. Was this necessity unwelcome? When He said, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up,’ was He shrinking, or reluctantly submitting? Ah, no! He must die because He would save, and He would save because He did love. His filial obedience to God coincided with His pity for men: and not merely in obedience to the requirements of the divine righteousness, but in compassion for the necessities of sinners, necessity was laid upon Him.
Oh, brethren! nothing held Christ to the Cross but His own desire to save us. Neither priests nor Romans carried Him thither. What fastened Him to it was not the nails driven by rude hands. And the reason why He did not, as the taunters bade Him do, come down from it, was neither a physical nor a moral necessity unwelcome to Himself, but the yielding of His own will to do all which was needed for man’s salvation.
This sacrifice was bound to the altar by the cords of love. We have heard of martyrs who have refused to be tied to the stake, and have kept themselves motionless in the centre of the fierce flames by the force of their wills. Jesus Christ fastened Himself to the Cross and died because He would.
And, oh! if we think of that sweet, serene life as having clear before it from the very first steps that grim end, how infinitely it gains in pathetic beauty and in heart-touchingness! What wonderful self-abnegation! How he was at leisure from Himself, with a heart of pity for every sorrow, and loins girt for all service, though during all His life the Cross closed the vista! Think that human shrinking was felt by Him, think that it was so held back that His purpose never faltered, think that each of us may say, ‘He must die because He would save me’; and then ask, ‘What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits toward me?’
II. In a second class of these utterances, we see Christ impelled by filial obedience and the consciousness of His mission.
‘Wist ye not that I must be about My Father’s business?’ That was a strange utterance for a boy of twelve. It seems to negative the supposition that what is called the ‘Messianic consciousness’ dawned upon Jesus Christ first after His baptism and the descent of the Spirit. But however that may be, it and the similar passages to which I have already referred, bearing upon His discharge of His work prior to His death, teach that the necessity was an inward necessity springing from His consciousness of Sonship, and His recognition of the work that He had to do. And so He is our great Example of spontaneous obedience, which does violence to itself if it does not obey. It was instinct that sent the boy into the Temple. Where should a Son be but in His Father’s house? How could He not be doing His Father’s business?
Thus He stands before us, the pattern for the only obedience that is worth calling so, the obedience which would be pained and ill at ease unless it were doing the work of God. Religion is meant to make it a second nature, or, as I have ventured to call it, an instinct-a spontaneous, uncalculating, irrepressible desire-to be in fellowship with God, and to be doing His will. That is the meaning of our Christianity. There is no obedience in reluctant obedience; forced service is slavery, not service. Christianity is given for the specific purpose that it may bring us so into touch with Jesus Christ as that the mind which was in Him may be in us; and that we too may be able to say, with a kind of wonder that people should have expected to find us in any other place, or doing anything else, ‘Wist ye not that because I am a Son, I must be about my Father’s business?’ As certainly as the sunflower follows the sun, so certainly will a man animated by the mind that was in Jesus Christ, like Him find his very life’s breath in doing the Father’s will.
So then, brethren, what about our grudging service? What about our reluctant obedience? What about the widespread mistake that religion prohibits wished-for things and enforces unwelcome duties? If my Christianity does not make me recoil from what it forbids, and spring eagerly to what it commends, my Christianity is of very little use. If when in the Temple we are like idle boys in school, always casting glances at the clock and the door, and wishing ourselves outside, we may just as well be out as in. Glad obedience is true obedience. Only he who can say, ‘Thy law is within my heart, and I do Thy will because I love Thee, and cannot but do as Thou desirest,’ has found the joy possible to a Christian life. It is not ‘harsh and crabbed,’ as those that look upon it from the outside may ‘suppose,’ but musical and full of sweetness. There is nothing more blessed than when ‘I choose’ covers exactly the same ground as ‘I ought.’ And when duty is delight, delight will never become disgust, nor joy pass away.
III. We see, in yet another use of this great ‘must,’ Christ anticipating His future triumph.
‘Other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and there shall be one flock and one Shepherd.’ Striking as these words are in themselves, they are still more striking when we notice their connection; for they follow immediately upon His utterance about laying down His life for the sheep. So, then, this was a work beyond the Cross, and whatever it was, it was to be done after He had died.
I need not point out to you how far afield Christ’s vision goes out into the dim, waste places, where on the dark mountains the straying sheep are torn and frightened and starving. I need not dwell upon how far ahead in the future His glance travels, or how magnificent and how rebuking to our petty narrowness this great word is. ‘There shall be one flock’ not fold; and they shall be one, not because they are within the bounds of any visible ‘fold,’ but because they are gathered round the one Shepherd, and in their common relation to Him are knit together in unity.
But what sort of a Man is this who considers that His widest work is to be done by Him after He is dead? ‘Them also I must bring.’ Thou? how? when? Surely such words as these, side by side with a clear prevision of the death that was so soon to come, are either meaningless or the utterance of an arrogance bordering on insanity, or they anticipate what an Evangelist declares did take place-that the Lord was ‘taken up into heaven and sat at the right hand of God,’ whilst His servants ‘went everywhere preaching the Word, the Lord also working with them and confirming the Word’ with the signs He wrought.
‘Them also I must bring.’ That is not merely a necessity rooted in the nature of God and the wants of men. It is not merely a necessity springing from Christ’s filial obedience and sense of a mission; but it is a ‘must’ of destiny, a ‘must’ which recognises the sure results of His passion; a ‘must’ which implies the power of the Cross to be the reconciliation of the world. And so for all pessimistic thoughts to-day, or at any time, and when Christian men’s hearts may be trembling for the Ark of God-although, perhaps, there may be little reason for the tremor-and in the face of all blatant antagonisms and of proud Goliaths despising the ‘foolishness of preaching,’ we fall back upon Christ’s great ‘must.’ It is written in the councils of Heaven more unchangeably than the heavens; it is guaranteed by the power of the Cross; it is certain, by the eternal life of the crucified Saviour, that He will one day be the King of humanity, and must bring His wandering sheep to couch in peace, one flock round one Shepherd.
IV. Lastly, we have Christ applying the greatest principle to the smallest duty.
‘Zaccheus! make haste and come down; to-day I must abide in thy house.’ Why must He? Because Zaccheus was to be saved, and was worth saving. What was the ‘must’? To stop for an hour or two on His road to the Cross. So He teaches us that in a life penetrated by the thought of the divine will, which we gladly obey, there are no things too great, and none too trivial, to be brought under the dominion of that law, and to be regulated by that divine necessity. Obedience is obedience, whether in large things or in small. There is no scale of magnitude applicable to the distinction between God’s will and that which is not God’s will. Gravitation rules the motes that dance in the sunshine as well as the mass of Jupiter. A triangle with its apex in the sun, and its base beyond the solar system, has the same properties and comes under the same laws as one that a schoolboy scrawls upon his slate. God’s truth is not too great to rule the smallest duties. The star in the East was a guide to the humble house at Bethlehem, and there are starry truths high in the heavens that avail for our guidance in the smallest acts of life.
So, brethren, bring your doings under that all-embracing law of duty-duty, which is the heathen expression for the will of God. There are great regions of life in which lower necessities have play. Circumstances, our past, bias and temper, relationship, friendship, civic duty, and the like-all these bring their necessities; but let us think of them all as being, what indeed they are, manifestations to us of the will of our Father. There are great tracts of life in which either of two courses may be right, and we are left to the decision of choice rather than of duty; but high above all these, let us see towering that divine necessity. It is a daily struggle to bring ‘I will’ to coincide with ‘I ought’; and there is only one adequate and always powerful way of securing that coincidence, and that is to keep close to Jesus Christ and to drink in His spirit. Then, when duty and delight are conterminous, ‘the rough places will be plain, and the crooked things straight, and every mountain shall be brought low, and every valley shall be exalted,’ and life will be blessed, and service will be freedom. Joy and liberty and power and peace will fill our hearts when this is the law of our being; ‘All that the Lord hath spoken, that must I do.’
THE LAKE AND THE RIVER
I venture to say that my text shows us a lake, a river, a pitcher, and a draught. ‘God so loved the world’-that is the lake. A lake makes a river for itself-’God so loved the world that He gave His . . . Son.’ But the river does not quench any one’s thirst unless he has something to lift the water with: ‘God so loved the world that He gave His . . . Son, that whosoever believeth on Him.’ Last comes the draught: ‘shall not perish, but have everlasting life.’
I. The great lake, God’s love.
Before Jesus Christ came into this world no one ever dreamt of saying ‘God loves.’ Some of the Old Testament psalmists had glimpses of that truth and came pretty near expressing it. But among all the ‘gods many and lords many,’ there were lustful gods and beautiful gods, and idle gods, and fighting gods and peaceful gods: but not one of whom worshippers said, ‘He loves.’ Once it was a new and almost incredible message, but we have grown accustomed to it, and it is not strange any more to us. But if we would try to think of what it means, the whole truth would flash up into fresh newness, and all the miseries and sorrows and perplexities of our lives would drift away down the wind, and we should be no more troubled with them. ‘God loves’ is the greatest thing that can be said by lips.
‘God . . . loved the world.’ Now when we speak of loving a number of individuals-the broader the stream, the shallower it is, is it not? The most intense patriot in England does not love her one ten-thousandth part as well as he loves his own little girl. When we think or feel anything about a great multitude of people, it is like looking at a forest. We do not see the trees, we see the whole wood. But that is not how God loves the world. Suppose I said that I loved the people in India, I should not mean by that that I had any feeling about any individual soul of all those dusky millions, but only that I massed them all together; or made what people call a generalisation of them. But that is not the way in which God loves. He loves all because He loves each. And when we say, ‘God so loved the world,’ we have to break up the mass into its atoms, and to think of each atom as being an object of His love. We all stand out in God’s love just as we should do to one another’s eyes, if we were on the top of a mountain-ridge with a clear sunset sky behind us. Each little black dot of the long procession would be separately visible. And we all stand out like that, every man of us isolated, and getting as much of the love of God as if there was not another creature in the whole universe but God and ourselves. Have you ever realised that when we say, ‘He loved the world,’ that really means, as far as each of us is concerned, He loves me? And just as the whole beams of the sun come pouring down into every eye of the crowd that is looking up to it, so the whole love of God pours down, not upon a multitude, an abstraction, a community, but upon every single soul that makes up that community. He loves us all because He loves us each. We shall never get all the good of that thought until we translate it, and lay it upon our hearts. It is all very well to say, ‘Ah yes! God is love,’ and it is all very well to say He loves ‘the world.’ But I will tell you what is a great deal better-to say-what Paul said-’Who loved me and gave Himself for me.’
Now, there is one other suggestion that I would make to you before I go on, and that is that all through the New Testament, but especially in John’s Gospel, ‘the world’ does not only mean men, but sinful men, men separated from God. And the great and blessed truth taught here is that, however I may drag myself away from God, I cannot drive Him away from me, and that however little I may care for Him, or love Him, or think about Him, it does not make one hairs-breadth of difference as to the fact that He loves me. I know, of course, that if a man does not love Him back again, God’s love has to take shapes that it would not otherwise take, which may be extremely inconvenient for the man. But though the shape may alter, must alter, the fact remains; and every sinful soul on the earth, including Judas Iscariot-who is said to head the list of crimes-has God’s love resting upon him.
II. The river.
Now, to go back to my metaphor, the lake makes a river. ‘God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.’
So then, it was not Christ’s death that turned God from hating and being angry, but it was God’s love that appointed Christ’s death. If you will only remember that, a great many of the shallow and popular objections to the great doctrine of the Atonement disappear at once. ‘God so loved . . . that He gave.’ But some people say that when we preach that Jesus Christ died for our sins, that God’s wrath might not fall upon men, our teaching is immoral, because it means ‘Christ came, and so God loved.’ It is the other way about, friend. ‘God so loved . . . that He gave.’
But now let me carry you back to the Old Testament. Do you remember the story of the father taking his boy who carried the bundle of wood and the fire, and tramping over the mountains till they reached the place where the sacrifice was to be offered? Do you remember the boy’s question that brings tears quickly to the reader’s eyes: ‘Here is the wood, and here is the fire, where is the lamb’? Do you not think it would be hard for the father to steady his voice and say, ‘My son, God will provide the lamb’? And do you remember the end of that story? ‘The Angel of the Lord said unto Abraham, Because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from Me, therefore blessing I will bless thee,’ etc. Remember that one of the Apostles said, using the very same word that is used in Genesis as to Abraham’s giving up his son to God, ‘He spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up to the death for us all.’ Does not that point to a mysterious parallel? Somehow or other-we have no right to attempt to say how-somehow or other, God not only sent His Son, as it is said in the next verse to my text, but far more tenderly, wonderfully, pathetically, God gave-gave up His Son, and the sacrifice was enhanced, because it was His only begotten Son.
Ah! dear brethren, do not let us be afraid of following out all that is included in that great word, ‘God . . . loved the world.’ For there is no love which does not delight in giving, and there is no love that does not delight in depriving itself, in some fashion, of what it gives. And I, for my part, believe that Paul’s words are to be taken in all their blessed depth and wonderfulness of meaning when he says, ‘He gave up’-as well as gave-’Him to the death for us all.’
And now, do you not think that we are able in some measure to estimate the greatness of that little word ‘so’? ‘God so loved’-so deeply, so holily, so perfectly-that He ‘gave His only begotten Son’; and the gift of that Son is, as it were, the river by which the love of God comes to every soul in the world.
Now there are a great many people who would like to put the middle part of this great text of ours into a parenthesis. They say that we should bring the first words and the last words of this text together, and never mind all that lies between. People who do not like the doctrine of the Cross would say, ‘God so loved the world that He gave . . . everlasting life’; and there an end. ‘If there is a God, and if He loves the world, why cannot He save the world without more ado? There is no need for these interposed clauses. God so loved the world that everybody will go to heaven’-that is the gospel of a great many of you; and it is the gospel of a great many wise and learned people. But it is not John’s Gospel, and it is not Christ’s Gospel. The beginning and the end of the text cannot be buckled up together in that rough-and-ready fashion. They have to be linked by a chain; and there are two links in the chain: God forges the one, and we have to forge the other. ‘God so loved the world that He gave’-then He has done His work. ‘That whosoever believeth’-that is your work. And it is in vain that God forges His link, unless you will forge yours and link it up to His. ‘God so loved the world,’ that is step number one in the process; ‘that He gave,’ that is step number two; and then there comes another ‘that’-’that whosoever believeth,’ that is step number three; and they are all needed before you come to number four, which is the landing-place and not a step-’should not perish, but have everlasting life.’
III. The pitcher.
I come to what I called the pitcher, with which we draw the water for our own use-’that whosoever believeth.’ You perhaps say, ‘Yes, I believe. I accept every word of the Gospel, I quite believe that Jesus Christ died, as a matter of history; and I quite believe that He died for men’s sins.’ And what then? Is that what Jesus Christ meant by believing? To believe about Him is not to believe on Him; and unless you believe on Him you will get no good out of Him. There is the lake, and the river must flow past the shanties in the clearing in the forest, if the men there are to drink. But it may flow past their doors, as broad as the Mississippi, and as deep as the ocean; but they will perish with thirst, unless they dip in their hands, like Gideon’s men, and carry the water to their own lips. Dear friend, what you have to do-and your soul’s salvation, and your peace and joy and nobleness in this life and in the next depend absolutely upon it-is simply to trust in Jesus Christ and His death for your sins.
I sometimes wish we had never heard that word ‘faith.’ For as soon as we begin to talk about ‘faith,’ people begin to think that we are away up in some theological region far above everyday life. Suppose we try to bring it down a little nearer to our businesses and bosoms, and instead of using a word that is kept sacred for employment in religious matters, and saying ‘faith,’ we say ‘trust.’ That is what you give to your wives and husbands, is it not? And that is exactly what you have to give to Jesus Christ, simply to lay hold of Him as a man lays hold of the heart that loves him, and leans his whole weight upon it. Lean hard on Him, hang on Him, or, to take the other metaphor that is one of the Old Testament words for trust, ‘flee for refuge’ to Him. Fancy a man with the avenger of blood at his back, and the point of the pursuer’s spear almost pricking his spine-don’t you think he would make for the City of Refuge with some speed? That is what you have to do. He that believeth, and by trust lays hold of the Hand that holds him up, will never fall; and he that does not lay hold of that Hand will never stand, to say nothing of rising. And so by these two links God’s love of the world is connected with the salvation of the world.
IV. The draught.
Finally, we have here the draught of living water. Did you ever think why our text puts ‘should not perish’ first? Is it not because, unless we put our trust in Him, we shall certainly perish, and because, therefore, that certainty of perishing must be averted before we can have ‘everlasting life’?
Now I am not going to enlarge on these two solemn expressions, ‘perishing’ and ‘everlasting life.’ I only say this: men do not need to wait until they die before they ‘perish.’ There are men and women here now who are dead-dead while they live, and when they come to die, the perishing, which is condemnation and ruin, will only be the making visible, in another condition of life, of what is the fact to-day. Dear brethren, you do not need to die in order to perish in your sins, and, blessed be God, you can have everlasting life before you die. You can have it now, and there is only one way to have it, and that is to lay hold of Him who is the Life. And when you have Jesus Christ in your heart, whom you will be sure to have if you trust Him, then you will have life-life eternal, here and now, and death will only make manifest the eternal life which you had while you were alive here, and will perfect it in fashions that we do not yet know anything about.
Only remember, as I have been trying to show you, the order that runs through this text. Remember the order of these last words, and that we must first of all be delivered from eternal and utter death, before we can be invested with the eternal and absolute life.
Now, dear brethren, I dare say I have never spoken to the great majority of you before; it is quite possible I may never speak to any of you again. I have asked God to help me to speak so as that souls should be drawn to the Saviour. And I beseech you now, as my last word, that you would listen, not to me, but to Him. For it is He that says to us, ‘God so loved the world, that He gave His Son, that whosoever’-’whosoever,’ a blank cheque, like the M. or N. of the Prayer-book, or the A. B. of a schedule; you can put your own name in it-’that whosoever believeth on Him shall not perish, but have’-here, now-’everlasting life.’
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MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on John 3". MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany