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All three Evangelists are careful to date the Transfiguration by a reference to the solemn new teaching at Caesarea, and Mark’s ‘six days’ plainly cover the same time as Luke’s ‘eight’-the former reckoning excluding in the count, and the latter including, the days on which the two incidents occurred. If we would understand the Transfiguration, then, we must look at it as the sequel to Jesus’ open announcement of His death. His seeking the seclusion of the hills, attended only by the innermost group of the faithful three, is a touching token of the strain to which that week had subjected Him. How Peter’s heart must have filled with thankfulness that, notwithstanding the stern rebuke, he was taken with the other two! There were three stages in the complex incident which we call the Transfiguration-the change in Jesus’ appearance, the colloquy with Moses and Elijah, and the voice from the cloud.
Luke, who has frequent references to Jesus’ prayers, tells us that the change in our Lord’s countenance and raiment took place ‘as He prayed’; and probably we are reverently following his lead if we think of Jesus’ prayer as, in some sense, the occasion of the glorious change. So far as we know, this was the only time when mortal eyes saw Him absorbed in communion with the Father. It was only ‘when He ceased praying’ in a certain place that ‘they came to Him’ asking to be taught to pray Luk_11:1; and in Gethsemane the disciples slept while He prayed beneath the olives quivering in the moonlight. It may be that what the three then saw did not occur then only. ‘In such an hour of high communion with’ His Father the elevated spirit may have more than ordinarily illuminated the pure body, and the pure body may have been more than ordinarily transparent. The brighter the light, fed by fragrant oil within an alabaster lamp, the more the alabaster will glow. Faint foreshadowings of the spirit’s power to light up the face with unearthly beauty of holiness are not unknown among us. It may be that the glory which always shone in the depths of His perfectly holy manhood rose, as it were, to the surface for that one time, a witness of what He really was, a prophecy of what humanity may become.
Did Jesus will His transfiguration, or did it come about without His volition, or perhaps even without His consciousness? Did it continue during all the time on the mountain, or did it pass when the second stage of the incident began? We cannot tell. Matthew and Mark both say that Jesus was transfigured ‘before’ the three, as if the making visible of the glory had special regard to them. It may be that Jesus, like Moses, ‘knew not that the skin of His face shone’; at all events, it was the second stage of the incident, the conversation with Elijah and Moses, that had a special message of strength for Him. The first and third stages were, apparently, intended for the three and for us all; and the first is a revelation, not only of the veiled glory that dwelt in Jesus, but of the beauty that may pass into a holy face, and of the possibilities of a bodily frame becoming a ‘spiritual body,’ the adequate organ and manifestation of a perfect spirit. Paul teaches the prophetic aspect of the Transfiguration when he says that Jesus ‘shall change the body of our humiliation that it may be fashioned like unto the body of His glory.’
Luke adds two very significant points to the accounts by Matthew and Mark-namely, the disciples’ sleep, and the subject on which Moses and Elijah talked with Jesus. Mark lays the main stress on the fact that the two great persons of the old economy, its founder and its restorer, the legislator and the chief of the prophets, came from the dim region to which one of them had passed in a chariot of fire, and stood by the transfigured Christ, as if witnessing to Him as the greater, to whom their ministries were subordinate, and in whom their teachings centred. Jesus is the goal of all previous revelation, mightier than the mightiest who are honoured by being His attendants. He is the Lord both of the dead and of the living, and the ‘spirits of just men made perfect’ bow before Him, and reverently watch His work on earth.
So much did that appearance proclaim to the mortal three, but their slumber showed that they were not principally concerned, and that the other three had things to speak which they were not fit to hear. The theme was the same which had been, a week before, spoken to them, and had doubtless been the subject of all Jesus’ teachings for these ‘six days.’ No doubt, their horror at the thought, and His necessary insistence on it, had brought Him to need strengthening. And these two came, as did the angel in Gethsemane, and, like him, in answer to Christ’s prayer, to bring the sought-for strength. How different it would be to speak to them ‘of the decease which He should accomplish at Jerusalem,’ from speaking to the reluctant, protesting Twelve! And how different to listen to them speaking of that miracle of divine love expressed in human death from the point of view of the ‘principalities and powers in heavenly places,’ as over against the remonstrances and misunderstandings with which He had been struggling for a whole week! The appearance of Moses and Elijah teaches us the relation of Jesus to all former revelation, the interest of the dwellers in heavenly light in the Cross, and the need which Jesus felt for strengthening to endure it.
Peter’s foolish words, half excused by his being scarcely awake, may be passed by with the one remark that it was like him to say something, though he did not know what to say, and that it would therefore have been wise to say nothing.
The third part of this incident, the appearance of the cloud and the voice from it, was for the disciples. Luke tells us that it was a ‘bright’ cloud, and yet it ‘overshadowed them.’ That sets us on the right track and indicates that we are to think of the cloud of glory, which was the visible token of the divine presence, the cloud which shone lambent between the cherubim, the cloud which at last ‘received Him out of their sight.’ Luke tells, too, that ‘they entered into it.’ Who entered? Moses and Elijah had previously ‘departed from Him.’ Jesus and the disciples remained, and we cannot suppose that the three could have passed into that solemn glory, if He had not led them in. In that sacred moment He was ‘the way,’ and keeping close to Him, mortal feet could pass into the glory which even a Moses had not been fit to behold. The spiritual significance of the incident seems to require the supposition that, led by Jesus, they entered the cloud. They were men, therefore they were afraid; Jesus was with them, therefore they stood within the circle of that light and lived.
The voice repeated the attestation of Jesus as the ‘beloved Son’ of the Father, which had been given at the baptism, but with the addition, ‘Hear Him,’ which shows that it was now meant for the disciples, not, as at the baptism, for Jesus Himself. While the command to listen to His voice as to the voice from the cloud is perfectly general, and lays all His words on us as all God’s words, it had special reference to the disciples, and that in regard to the new teaching which had so disturbed them-the teaching of the necessity for His death. ‘The offence of the Cross’ began with the first clear statement of it, and in the hearts that loved Him best and came most near to understanding Him. To fail in accepting His teaching that it ‘behoved the Son of Man to suffer,’ is to fail in accepting it in the most important matter. There are sounds in nature too low-pitched to be audible to untrained ears, and the message of the Cross is unheard unless the ears of the deaf are unstopped. If we do not hear Jesus when He speaks of His passion, we may almost as well not hear Him at all.
Moses and Elijah had vanished, having borne their last testimony to Jesus. Peter had wished to keep them beside Jesus, but that could not be. Their highest glory was to fade in His light. They came, they disappeared; He remained-and remains. ‘They saw no man any more, save Jesus only with themselves.’ So should it be for us in life. So may it be with us in death! ‘Hear Him,’ for all other voices are but for a time, and die into silence, but Jesus speaks for eternity, and ‘His words shall not pass away.’ When time is ended, and the world’s history is all gathered up into its final issue, His name shall stand out alone as Author and End of all.
‘THIS IS MY BELOVED SON: HEAR HIM’
With regard to the first part of these words spoken at the Transfiguration, they open far too large and wonderful a subject for me to do more than just touch with the tip of my finger, as it were, in passing, because the utterance of the divine words, ‘This is My beloved Son,’ in all the depth of their meaning and loftiness, is laid as the foundation of the two words that come after, which, for us, are the all-important things here. And so I would rather dwell upon them than upon the mysteries of the first part, but a sentence must be spared. If we accept this story before us as the divine attestation of the mystery of the person and nature of Jesus Christ, we must take the words to mean-as these disciples, no doubt, took them to mean-something pointing to a unique and solitary revelation which He bore to the Divine Majesty. We have to see in them the confirmation of the great truth that the manhood of Jesus Christ was the supernatural creation of a direct divine power. ‘Conceived of the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary’; therefore, ‘that Holy Thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.’ And we have to go, as I take it, farther back than the earthly birth, and to say, ‘No man hath seen God at any time-the only begotten Son which is in the bosom of the Father.’ He was the Son here by human birth, and was in the bosom of the Father all through that human life. ‘He hath declared Him,’ and so not only is there here the testimony to the miraculous incarnation, and to the true and proper Divinity and Deity of Jesus Christ, but there is also the witness to the perfectness of His character in the great word, ‘This is My beloved Son,’ which points us to an unbroken communion of love between Him and the Father, which tells us that in the depths of that divine nature there has been a constant play of mutual love, which reveals to us that in His humanity there never was anything that came as the faintest film of separation between His will and the will of the Father, between His heart and the heart of God.
But this revelation of the mysterious personality of the divine Son, the perfect harmony between Him and God, is here given as the ground of the command that follows: ‘Hear Him.’ God’s voice bids you listen to Christ’s voice-God’s voice bids you listen to Christ’s voice as His voice. Listen to Him when He speaks to you about God-do not trust your own fancy, do not trust your own fear, do not trust the dictates of your conscience, do not consult man, do not listen to others, do not speculate about the mysteries of the earth and the heavens, but go to Him, and listen to the only begotten Son in the bosom of the Father. He declares unto us God; in Him alone we have certain knowledge of a loving Father in heaven. Hear Him when He tells us of God’s tenderness and patience and love. Hear Him above all when He says to us, ‘As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.’ Hear Him when He says, ‘The Son of Man came to give His life a ransom for many.’ Hear Him when He speaks of Himself as Judge of you and me and all the world, and when He says, ‘The Son of Man shall come in His glory, and before Him shall be gathered all nations.’ Hear Him then. Hear Him when He calls you to Himself. Hear Him when He says to you, ‘Come unto Me all ye that labour and are heavy laden.’ Hear Him when He says, ‘If any man come unto Me he shall never thirst.’ Hear Him when He says, ‘Cast your burden upon Me, and I will sustain you.’ Hear Him when He commands. Hear Him when He says, ‘If ye love Me keep My commandments,’ and when He says, ‘Abide in Me and I in you,’ hear Him then. ‘In all time of our tribulation, in all time of our well-being, in the hour of death, and in the day of judgment,’ let us listen to Him.
Dear friends there is no rest anywhere else; there is no peace, no pleasure, no satisfaction-except close at His side. ‘Speak Lord! for Thy servant heareth.’ ‘To whom shall we go but unto Thee? Thou hast the words of eternal life.’ Look how these disciples, grovelling there on their faces, were raised by the gentle hand laid upon their shoulder, and the blessed voice that brought them back to consciousness, and how, as they looked about them with dazed eyes, all was gone. The vision, the cloud, Moses and Elias-the lustre and radiance and the dread voice were past, and everything was as it used to be. Christ stood alone there like some solitary figure relieved against a clear daffodil sky upon some extended plain, and there was nothing else to meet the eye but He. Christ is there, and in Him is all.
That is a summing up of all Divine revelation. ‘God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath, in these last days, spoken unto us by His Son.’ Moses dies, Elijah fades, clouds and symbols and voices and all mortal things vanish, but Jesus Christ stands before us, the manifest God, for ever and ever, the sole illumination of the world, It is also a summing up of all earthly history. All other people go. The beach of time is strewed with wrecked reputations and forgotten glories. And I am not ashamed to say that I believe that, as the ages grow, and the world gets further away in time from the Cross upon Calvary, more and more everything else will sink beneath the horizon, and Christ alone be left to fill the past as He fills the present and the future.
We may make that scene the picture of our lives. Distractions and temptations that lie all round us are ever seeking to drag us away. There is no peace anywhere but in having Christ only-my only pattern, my only hope, my only salvation, my only guide, my only aim, my only friend. The solitary Christ is the sufficient Christ, and that for ever. Take Him for your only friend, and you need none other. Then at death there may be a brief spasm of darkness, a momentary fear, perchance, but then the touch of a Brother’s hand will be upon us as we lie there prone in the dust, and we shall lift up our eyes, and lo! life’s illusions are gone, and life’s noises are fallen dumb, and we ‘see no man any more, save Jesus only,’ with ourselves.
The Transfiguration was the solemn inauguration of Jesus for His sufferings and death.
Moses, the founder, and Elijah, the restorer, of the Jewish polity, the great Lawgiver and the great Prophet, were present. The former had died and been mysteriously buried, the latter had been translated without ‘seeing death.’ So both are visitors from the unseen world, appearing to own that Jesus is the Lord of that dim land, and that there they draw their life from Him. The conversation is about Christ’s ‘decease,’ the wonderful event which was to constitute Him Lord of the living and of the dead. The divine voice of command, ‘Hear Him!’ gives the meaning of their disappearance. At that voice they depart and Jesus is left alone. The scene is typical of the ultimate issue of the world’s history. The King’s name only will at last be found inscribed on the pyramid. Typical, too, is it not, of a Christian’s blessed death? When the ‘cloud’ is past no man is seen any more but ‘Jesus only.’
I. The solitary Saviour.
The disciples are left alone with the divine Saviour.
1. He is alone in His nature. ‘Son of God.’
2. He is alone in the sinlessness of His manhood. ‘My Beloved Son!’
3. He is alone as God’s Voice to men. ‘Hear Him!’
The solitary Saviour, because sufficient. ‘Thou, O Christ, art all I want.’
Sufficient, too, for ever.
His life is eternal.
His love is eternal.
The power of His Cross Is eternal.
II. The vanishing witnesses.
1. The connection of the past with Christ. The authority of the two representatives of the Old Covenant was only a derived and subordinate; b prophetic; c transient.
2. The thought may be widened into that of the relation of all teachers and guides to Jesus Christ.
3. The two witness to the relation of the unseen world to Jesus Christ.
a Its inhabitants are undying.
b Are subject to the sway of Jesus.
c Are expectantly waiting a glorious future.
4. They witness to the central point of Christ’s work-’His decease.’ This great event is the key to the world’s history.
III. The waiting disciples.
1. What Christian life should be. Giving Him our sole trust and allegiance.
a Seeing Him in all things.
b Constant communion. ‘Abide in Me.’
c Using everything as helps to Him.
2. What Christian death may become.
CHRIST’S LAMENT OVER OUR FAITHLESSNESS
There is a very evident, and, I think, intentional contrast between the two scenes, of the Transfiguration, and of this healing of the maniac boy. And in nothing is the contrast more marked than in the demeanour of these enfeebled and unbelieving Apostles, as contrasted with the rapture of devotion of the other three, and with the lowly submission and faith of Moses and Elias. Perhaps, too, the difference between the calm serenity of the mountain, and the hell-tortured misery of the plain-between the converse with the sainted perfected dead, and the converse with their unworthy successors-made Christ feel more sharply and poignantly than He ordinarily did His disciples’ slowness of apprehension and want of faith. At any rate, it does strike one as remarkable that the only occasion on which there came from His lips anything that sounded like impatience and a momentary flash of indignation was, when in sharpest contrast with ‘This is my beloved Son: hear Him,’ He had to come down from the mountain to meet the devil-possessed boy, the useless agony of the father, the sneering faces of the scribes, and the impotence of the disciples. Looking on all this, He turns to His followers-for it is to the Apostles that the text is spoken, and not to the crowd outside-with this most remarkable exclamation: ‘O faithless generation! how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you?’
Now, I said that these words at first sight looked almost like a momentary flash of indignation, as if for once a spot had come on His pallid cheek-a spot of anger-but I do not think that we shall find it so if we look a little more closely.
The first thing that seems to be in the words is not anger, indeed, but a very distinct and very pathetic expression of Christ’s infinite pain, because of man’s faithlessness. The element of personal sorrow is most obvious here. It is not only that He is sad for their sakes that they are so unreceptive, and He can do so little for them-I shall have something to say about that presently-but that He feels for Himself, just as we do in our poor humble measure, the chilling effect of an atmosphere where there is no sympathy. All that ever the teachers and guides and leaders of the world have in this respect had to bear-all the misery of opening out their hearts in the frosty air of unbelief and rejection-Christ endured. All that men have ever felt of how hard it is to keep on working when not a soul understands them, when not a single creature believes in them, when there is no one that will accept their message, none that will give them credit for pure motives-Jesus Christ had to feel, and that in an altogether singular degree. There never was such a lonely soul on this earth as His, just because there never was one so pure and loving. ‘The little hills rejoice together ? as the Psalm says, ‘on every side,’ but the great Alpine peak is alone there, away up amongst the cold and the snows. Thus lived the solitary Christ, the uncomprehended Christ, the unaccepted Christ. Let us see in this exclamation of His how humanly, and yet how divinely, He felt the loneliness to which His love and purity condemned Him.
The plain felt soul-chilling after the blessed communion of the mountain. There was such a difference between Moses and Elias and the voice that said, ‘This is My beloved Son: hear Him,’ and the disbelief and slowness of spiritual apprehension of the people down below there, that no wonder that for once the pain that He generally kept absolutely down and silent, broke the bounds even of His restraint, and shaped for itself this pathetic utterance: ‘How long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you?’
Dear friends, here is ‘a little window through which we may see a great matter’ if we will only think of how all that solitude, and all that sorrow of uncomprehended aims, was borne lovingly and patiently, right away on to the very end, for every one of us. I know that there are many of the aspects of Christ’s life in which Christ’s griefs tell more on the popular apprehension; but I do not know that there is one in which the title of ‘The Man of Sorrows’ is to all deeper thinking more pathetically vindicated than in this-the solitude of the uncomprehended and the unaccepted Christ and His pain at His disciples’ faithlessness.
And then do not let us forget that in this short sharp cry of anguish-for it is that-there may be detected by the listening ear not only the tone of personal hurt, but the tone of disappointed and thwarted love. Because of their unbelief He knew that they could not receive what He desired to give them. We find Him more than once in His life, hemmed in, hindered, baulked of His purpose, thwarted, as I may say, in His design, simply because there was no one with a heart open to receive the rich treasure that He was ready to pour out. He had to keep it locked up in His own spirit, else it would have been wasted and spilled upon the ground. ‘He could do no mighty works there because of their unbelief’; and here He is standing in the midst of the men that knew Him best, that understood Him most, that were nearest to Him in sympathy; but even they were not ready for all this wealth of affection, all this infinitude of blessing, with which His heart is charged. They offered no place to put it. They shut up the narrow cranny through which it might have come, and so He has to turn from them, bearing it away unbestowed, like some man who goes out in the morning with his seed-basket full, and finds the whole field where he would fain have sown covered already with springing weeds or encumbered with hard rock, and has to bring back the germs of possible life to bless and fertilise some other soil. ‘He that goeth forth weeping, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with joy’; but He that comes back weeping, bearing the precious seed that He found no field to sow in, knows a deeper sadness, which has in it no prophecy of joy. It is wonderfully pathetic and beautiful, I think, to see how Jesus Christ knew the pains of wounded love that cannot get expressed because there is not heart to receive it.
Here I would remark, too, before I go to another point, that these two elements-that of personal sorrow and that of disappointed love and baulked purposes-continue still, and are represented as in some measure felt by Him now. It was to disciples that He said, ‘O faithless generation!’ He did not mean to charge them with the entire absence of all confidence, but He did mean to declare that their poor, feeble faith, such as it was, was not worth naming in comparison with the abounding mass of their unbelief. There was one spark of light in them, and there was also a great heap of green wood that had not caught the flame and only smoked instead of blazing. And so He said to them, ‘O faithless generation!’
Ay, and if He came down here amongst us now, and went through the professing Christians in this land, to how many of us-regard being had to the feebleness of our confidence and the strength of our unbelief-He would have to say the same thing, ‘O faithless generation!’
The version of that clause in Matthew and Luke adds a significant word,-’faithless and perverse generation.’ The addition carries a grave lesson, as teaching us that the two characteristics are inseparably united; that the want of faith is morally a crime and sin; that unbelief is at once the most tragic manifestation of man’s perverse will, and also in its turn the source of still more obstinate and wide-spreading evil. Blindness to His light and rejection of His love, He treats as the very head and crown of sin. Like intertwining snakes, the loathly heads are separate; but the slimy convolutions are twisted indistinguishably together, and all unbelief has in it the nature of perversity, as all perversity has in it the nature of unbelief. ‘He will convince the world of sin, because they believe not on Me.’
May we venture to say, as we have already hinted, that all this pain is in some mysterious way still inflicted on His loving heart? Can it be that every time we are guilty of unbelieving, unsympathetic rejection of His love, we send a pang of real pain and sorrow into the heart of Christ? It is a strange, solemn thought. There are many difficulties which start up, if we at all accept it. But still it does appear as if we could scarcely believe in His perpetual manhood, or think of His love as being in any real sense a human love, without believing that He sorrows when we sin; and that we can grieve, and wound, and cause to recoil upon itself, as it were, and close up that loving and gracious Spirit that delights in being met with answering love. If we may venture to take our love as in any measure analogous to His-and unless we do, His love is to us a word without meaning-we may believe that it is so. Do not we know that the purer our love, and the more it has purified us, the more sensitive it becomes, even while the less suspicious it becomes? Is not the purest, most unselfish, highest love, that by which the least failure in response is felt most painfully? Though there be no anger, and no change in the love, still there is a pang where there is an inadequate perception, or an unworthy reception, of it. And Scripture seems to countenance the belief that Divine Love, too, may know something, in some mysterious fashion, like that feeling, when it warns us, ‘Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption.’ So we may venture to say, Grieve not the Christ of God, who redeems us; and remember that we grieve Him most when we will not let Him pour His love upon us, but turn a sullen, unresponsive unbelief towards His pleading grace, as some glacier shuts out the sunshine from the mountain-side with its thick-ribbed ice.
Another thought, which seems to me to be expressed in this wonderful exclamation of our Lord’s, is-that this faithlessness bound Christ to earth, and kept Him here. As there is not anger, but only pain, so there is also, I think, not exactly impatience, but a desire to depart, coupled with the feeling that He cannot leave them till they have grown stronger in faith. And that feeling is increased by the experience of their utter helplessness and shameful discomfiture during His brief absence They had shown that they were not fit to be trusted alone. He had been away for a day up in the mountain there, and though they did not build an altar to any golden calf, like their ancestors, when their leader was absent, still when He comes back He finds things all gone wrong because of the few hours of His absence. What would they do if He were to go away from them altogether? They would never be able to stand it at all. It is impossible that He should leave them thus-raw, immature. The plant has not yet grown sufficiently strong to take away the prop round which it climbed. ‘How long must I be with you?’ says the loving Teacher, who is prepared ungrudgingly to give His slow scholars as much time as they need to learn their lesson. He is not impatient, but He desires to finish the task; and yet He is ready to let the scholars’ dulness determine the duration of His stay. Surely that is wondrous and heart-touching love, that Christ should let their slowness measure the time during which He should linger here, and refrain from the glory which He desired. We do not know all the reasons which determined the length of our Lord’s life upon earth, but this was one of them,-that He could not go away until He had left these men strong enough to stand by themselves, and to lay the foundations of the Church. Therefore He yielded to the plea of their very faithlessness and backwardness, and with this wonderful word of condescension and appeal bade them say for how many more days He must abide in the plain, and turn His back on the glories that had gleamed for a moment on the mountain of transfiguration.
In this connection, too, is it not striking to notice how long His short life and ministry appeared to our Lord Himself? There is to me something very pathetic in that question He addressed to one of His Apostles near the end of His pilgrimage: ‘Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known Me?’ It was not so very long-three years, perhaps, at the outside-and much less, if we take the shortest computation; and yet to Him it had been long. The days had seemed to go tardily. He longed that the ‘fire’ which He came to fling on earth were already ‘kindled,’ and the moments seemed to drop so slowly from the urn of time. But neither the holy longing to consummate His work by the mystery of His passion, to which more than one of His words bear witness, nor the not less holy longing to be glorified with ‘the glory which He had with the Father before the world was,’ which we may reverently venture to suppose in Him, could be satisfied till his slow scholars were wiser, and His feeble followers stronger.
And then again, here we get a glimpse into the depth of Christ’s patient forbearance. We might read these other words of our text, ‘How long shall I suffer you?’ with such an intonation as to make them almost a threat that the limits of forbearance would soon be reached, and that lie was not going to ‘suffer them’ much longer. Some commentators speak of them as expressing ‘holy indignation,’ and I quite believe that there is such a thing, and that on other occasions it was plainly spoken in Christ’s words. But I fail to catch the tone of it here. To me this plaintive question has the very opposite of indignation in its ring. It sounds rather like a pledge that as long as they need forbearance they will get it; but, at the same time, a question of ‘how long’ that is to be. It implies the inexhaustible riches and resources of His patient mercy. And Oh, dear brethren! that endless forbearance is the only refuge and ground of hope we have. His perfect charity ‘is not soon angry; beareth all things,’ and ‘never faileth.’ To it we have all to make the appeal-
‘Though I have most unthankful been
Of all that e’er Thy grace received;
Ten thousand times Thy goodness seen,
Ten thousand times Thy goodness grieved;
Yet, Lord, the chief of sinners spare.’
And, thank God! we do not make our appeal in vain.
There is rebuke in His question, but how tender a rebuke it is! He rebukes without anger. He names the fault plainly. He shows distinctly His sorrow, and does not hide the strain on His forbearance. That is His way of cure for His servants’ faithlessness. It was His way on earth; it is His way in heaven. To us, too, comes the loving rebuke of this question, ‘How long shall I suffer you?’
Thank God that our answer may be cast into the words of His own promise: ‘I say not unto thee, until seven times; but until seventy times seven.’ ‘Bear with me till Thou hast perfected me; and then bear me to Thyself, that I may be with Thee for ever, and grieve Thy love no more.’ So may it be, for ‘with Him is plenteous redemption,’ and His forbearing ‘mercy endureth for ever.’
THE OMNIPOTENCE OF FAITH
The necessity and power of faith is the prominent lesson of this narrative of the healing of a demoniac boy, especially as it is told by the Evangelist Mark, The lesson is enforced by the actions of all the persons in the group, except the central figure, Christ. The disciples could not cast out the demon, and incur Christ’s plaintive rebuke, which is quite as much sorrow as blame: ‘O faithless generation I how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you?’ And then, in the second part of the story, the poor father, heart-sick with hope deferred, comes into the foreground. The whole interest is shifted to him, and more prominence is given to the process by which his doubting spirit is led to trust, than to that by which his son is healed.
There is something very beautiful and tender in Christ’s way of dealing with him, so as to draw him to faith. He begins with the question, ‘How long is it ago since this came unto him?’ and so induces him to tell all the story of the long sorrow, that his burdened heart might get some ease in speaking, and also that the feeling of the extremity of the necessity, deepened by the very dwelling on all his boy’s cruel sufferings, might help him to the exercise of faith. Truly ‘He knew what was in man,’ and with tenderness born of perfect knowledge and perfect love, He dealt with sore and sorrowful hearts. This loving artifice of consolation, which drew all the story from willing lips, is one more little token of His gentle mode of healing. And it is profoundly wise, as well as most tender. Get a man thoroughly to know his need, and vividly to feel his helpless misery, and you have carried him a long way towards laying hold of the refuge from it.
How wise and how tender the question is, is proved by the long circumstantial answer, in which the pent-up trouble of a father’s heart pours itself out at the tiny opening which Christ has made for it. He does not content himself with the simple answer, ‘Of a child,’ but with the garrulousness of sorrow that has found a listener that sympathises, goes on to tell all the misery, partly that he may move his hearer’s pity, but more in sheer absorption with the bitterness that had poisoned the happiness of his home all these years. And then his graphic picture of his child’s state leads him to the plaintive cry, in which his love makes common cause with his son, and unites both in one wretchedness. ‘If thou canst do anything, have compassion on us and help us .’
Our Lord answers that appeal in the words of our text. There are some difficulties in the rendering and exact force of these words with which I do not mean to trouble you. We may accept the rendering as in our Bible, with a slight variation in the punctuation. If we take the first clause as an incomplete sentence, and put a break between it and the last words, the meaning will stand out more clearly: ‘If thou canst believe-all things are possible to him that believeth.’ We might paraphrase it somewhat thus: Did you say ‘If thou canst do anything’? That is the wrong ‘if.’ There is no doubt about that. The only ‘if’ in the question is another one, not about me, but about you. ‘If thou canst believe-’ and then the incomplete sentence might be supposed to be ended with some such phrase as ‘That is the only question. If thou canst believe-all depends on that. If thou canst believe, thy son will be healed,’ or the like. Then, in order to explain and establish what He had meant in the half-finished saying, He adds the grand, broad statement, on which the demand for the man’s faith as the only condition of his wish being answered reposes: ‘All things are possible to him that believeth.’
That wide statement is meant, I suppose, for the disciples as well as for the father. ‘All things are possible’ both in reference to benefits to be received, and in reference to power to be exercised. ‘If thou canst believe, poor suppliant father, thou shalt have thy desire. If thou canst believe, poor devil-ridden son, thou shalt be set free. If ye can believe, poor baffled disciples, you will be masters of the powers of evil.’
Do you remember another ‘if’ with which Christ was once besought? ‘There came a leper to Him, beseeching Him, and kneeling down to Him, and saying unto Him, If Thou wilt, Thou canst make me clean.’ In some respects that man had advanced beyond the father in our story, for he had no doubt at all about Christ’s power, and he spoke to Him as ‘Lord.’ But he was somehow not quite sure about Christ’s heart of pity. On the other hand, the man in our narrative has no doubt about Christ’s compassion. He may have seen something of His previous miracles, or there may still have been lying on our Lord’s countenance some of the lingering glory of the Transfiguration-as indeed the narrative seems to hint, in its emphatic statement of the astonishment and reverential salutations of the crowd when He approached-or the tenderness of our Lord’s listening sympathy may have made him feel sure of His willingness to help. At any rate, the leper’s ‘if’ has answered itself for him. His own lingering doubt, Christ waives aside as settled. His ‘if’ is answered for ever. So these two ‘ifs’ in reference to Christ are beyond all controversy; His power is certain, and His love. The third ‘if’ remains, the one that refers to us-’If thou canst believe’; all hinges on that, for ‘all things are possible to him that believeth.’
Here, then, we have our Lord telling us that faith is omnipotent. That is a bold word; He puts no limitations; ‘all things are possible.’ I think that to get the true force of these words we should put alongside of them the other saying of our Lord’s, ‘With God all things are possible.’ That is the foundation of the grand prerogative in our text. The power of faith is the consequence of the power of God. All things are possible to Him; therefore, all things are possible to me, believing in Him. If we translate that into more abstract words, it just comes to the principle that the power of faith consists in its taking hold of the power of God. It is omnipotent because it knits us to Omnipotence. Faith is nothing in itself, but it is that which attaches us to God, and then His power flows into us. Screw a pipe on to a water main and turn a handle, and out flows the water through the pipe and fills the empty vessel. Faith is as impotent in itself as the hollow water pipe is, only it is the way by which the connection is established between the fulness of God and the emptiness of man. By it divinity flows into humanity, and we have a share even in the divine Omnipotence. ‘My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ In itself nothing, it yet grasps God, and therefore by it we are strong, because by it we lay hold of His strength. Great and wonderful is the grace thus given to us, poor, struggling, sinful men, that, looking up to the solemn throne, where He sits in His power, we have a right to be sure that a true participation in His greatness is granted to us, if once our hearts are fastened to Him.
And there is nothing arbitrary nor mysterious in this flowing of divine power into our hearts on condition of our faith. It is the condition of possessing Christ, and in Christ, salvation, righteousness, and strength, not by any artificial appointment, but in the very nature of things. There is no other way possible by which God could give men what they receive through their faith, except only their faith.
In all trust in God there are two elements: a sense of need and of evil and weakness, and a confidence more or less unshaken and strong in Him, His love and power and all-sufficiency; and unless both of these two be in the heart, it is, in the nature of things, impossible, and will be impossible to all eternity, that purity and strength and peace and joy, and all the blessings which Christ delights to give to faith, should ever be ours.
Unbelief, distrust of Him, which separates us from Him and closes the heart fast against His grace, must cut us off from that which it does not feel that it needs, nor cares to receive; and must interpose a non-conducting medium between us and the electric influences of His might. When Christ was on earth, man’s want of faith dammed back His miracle-working power, and paralysed His healing energy. How strange that paradox sounds at first hearing, which brings together Omnipotence and impotence, and makes men able to counter-work the loving power of Christ. ‘He could there do no mighty work.’ The Evangelist intends a paradox, for he uses two kindred words to express the inability and the mighty work; and we might paraphrase the saying so as to bring out the seeming contradiction: ‘He there had no power to do any work of power.’ The same awful, and in some sense mysterious, power of limiting and restraining the influx of His love belongs to unbelief still, whether it take the shape of active rejection, or only of careless, passive non-reception. For faith makes us partakers of divine power by the very necessity of the case, and that power can attach itself to nothing else. So, ‘if thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.’
Still further, we may observe that there is involved here the principle that our faith determines the amount of our power. That is true in reference to our own individual religious life, and it is true in reference to special capacities for Christ’s service. Let me say a word or two about each of these. They run into each other, of course, for the truest power of service is found in the depth and purity of our own personal religion, and on the other hand our individual Christian character will never be deep or pure unless we are working for the Master. Still, for our present purpose, these two inseparable aspects of the one Christian life may be separated in thought.
As to the former, then, the measure of my trust in Christ is the measure of all the rest of my Christian character. I shall have just as much purity, just as much peace, just as much wisdom or gentleness or love or courage or hope, as my faith is capable of taking up, and, so to speak, holding in solution. The ‘point of saturation’ in a man’s soul, the quantity of God’s grace which he is capable of absorbing, is accurately measured by his faith. How much do I trust God? That will settle how much I can take in of God.
So much as we believe, so much can we contain. So much as we can contain, so much shall we receive. And in the very act of receiving the ‘portion of our Father’s goods that falleth’ to us, we shall feel that there is a boundless additional portion ready to come as soon as we are ready for it, and thereby we shall be driven to larger desires and a wider opening of the lap of faith, which will ever be answered by ‘good measure, pressed together and running over, measured into our bosoms.’ But there will be no waste by the bestowment of what we cannot take. ‘According to your faith, be it unto you.’ That is the accurate thermometer which measures the temperature of our spiritual state. It is like the steam-gauge outside the boiler, which tells to a fraction the pressure of steam within, and so the power which can at the moment be exerted.
May I make a very simple, close personal application of this thought? We have as much religious life as we desire; that is, we have as much as our faith can take. There is the reason why such hosts of so-called Christians have such poor, feeble Christianity. We dare not say of any, ‘They have a name to live, and are dead.’ There is only one Eye who can tell when the heart has ceased to beat. But we may say that there are a mournful number of people who call themselves Christians, who look so like dead that no eye but Christ’s can tell the difference. They are in a syncope that will be death soon, unless some mighty power rouse them.
And then, how many more of us there are, not so bad as that, but still feeble and languid, whose Christian history is a history of weakness, while God’s power is open before us, of starving in the midst of abundance, broken only by moments of firmer faith, and so of larger, happier possession, that make the poverty-stricken ordinary days appear ten times more poverty-stricken. The channel lies dry, a waste chaos of white stones and driftwood for long months, and only for an hour or two after the clouds have burst on the mountains does the stream fill it from bank to bank. Do not many of us remember moments of a far deeper and more earnest trust in Christ than marks our ordinary days? If such moments were continuous, should not we be the happy possessors of beauties of character and spiritual power, such as would put our present selves utterly to shame? And why are they not continuous? Why are our possessions in God so small, our power so weak? Dear friends! ‘ye are not straitened in yourselves.’ The only reason for defective spiritual progress and character is defective faith.
Then look at this same principle as it affects our faculties for Christian service. There, too, it is true that all things are possible to him that believeth. The saying had an application to the disciples who stood by, half-ashamed and half-surprised at their failure to cast out the demon, as well as to the father in his agony of desire and doubt. For them it meant that the measure of Christian service was mainly determined by the measure of their faith. It would scarcely be an exaggeration to say that in Christ’s service a man can do pretty nearly what he believes he can do, if his confidence is built, not on himself, but on Christ.
If those nine Apostles, waiting there for their Master, had thought they could cast out the devil from the boy, do you not think that they could have done it? I do not mean to say that rash presumption, undertaking in levity and self-confidence unsuitable kinds of work, will be honoured with success. But I do mean to say that, in the line of our manifest duty, the extent to which we can do Christ’s work is very much the extent to which we believe, in dependence on Him, that we can do it. If we once make up our minds that we shall do a certain thing by Christ’s help and for His sake, in ninety cases out of a hundred the expectation will fulfil itself, and we shall do it. ‘Why could not we cast him out?’ They need not have asked the question. ‘Why could not you cast him out? Why, because you did not think you could, and with your timid attempt, making an experiment which you were not sure would succeed, provoked the failure which you feared.’ The Church has never believed enough in its Christ-given power to cast out demons. We have never been confident enough that the victory was in our hands if we knew how to use our powers.
The same thing is true of each one of us. Audacity and presumption are humility and moderation, if only we feel that ‘our sufficiency is of God.’ ‘I can do all things’ is the language of simple soberness, if we go on to say ‘through Christ which strengthened me.’
There is one more point, drawn from these words, viz., our faith can only take hold on the divine promises. Such language as this of my text and other kindred sayings of our Lord’s has often been extended beyond its real force, and pressed into the service of a mistaken enthusiasm, for want of observing that very plain principle. The principle of our text has reference to outward things as well as to the spiritual life. But there are great exaggerations and misconceptions as to the province of faith in reference to these temporal things, and consequently there are misconceptions and exaggerations on the part of many very good people as to the province of prayer in regard to them.
It seems to me that we shall be saved from these, if we distinctly recognise a very obvious principle, namely, that ‘faith’ can never go further than God’s clear promises, and that whatever goes beyond God’s word is not faith, but something else assuming its appearance.
For instance, suppose a father nowadays were to say: ‘My child is sore vexed with sickness. I long for his recovery. I believe that Christ can heal him. I believe that He will. I pray in faith, and I know that I shall be answered.’ Such a prayer goes beyond the record. Has Christ told you that it is His will that your child shall be healed? If not, how can you pray in faith that it is? You may pray in confidence that he will be healed, but such confident persuasion is not faith. Faith lays hold of Christ’s distinct declaration of His will, but such confidence is only grasping a shadow, your own wishes. The father in this story was entitled to trust, because Christ told him that his trust was the condition of his son’s being healed. So in response to the great word of our text, the man’s faith leaped up and grasped our Lord’s promise, with ‘Lord, I believe.’ But before Christ spoke, his desires, his wistful longing, his imploring cry for help, had no warrant to pass into faith, and did not so pass.
Christ’s word must go before our faith, and must supply the object for our faith, and where Christ has not spoken, there is no room for the exercise of any faith, except the faith, ‘It is the Lord; let Him do what seemeth to Him good.’ That is the true prayer of faith in regard to all matters of outward providence where we have no distinct word of God’s which gives unmistakable indication of His will. The ‘if’ of the leper, which has no place in the spiritual region, where we know that ‘this is the will of God, even our sanctification,’ has full force in the temporal region, where we do not know before the event what the will of the Lord is, ‘If Thou wilt, Thou canst,’ is there our best prayer.
Wherever a distinct and unmistakable promise of God’s goes, it is safe for faith to follow; but to outrun His word is not faith, but self-will, and meets the deserved rebuke, ‘Should it be according to thy mind?’ There are unmistakable promises about outward things on which we may safely build. Let us confine our expectations within the limits of these, and turn them into the prayer of faith, so shooting back whence they came His winged words, ‘This is the confidence that we have, that if we ask anything according to His will He heareth us.’ Thus coming to Him, submitting all our wishes in regard to this world to His most loving will, and widening our confidence to the breadth of His great and loving purpose in regard to our own inward life, as well as in regard to our practical service, His answer will ever be, ‘Great is thy faith; be it unto thee even as thou wilt.’
We owe to Mark’s Gospel the fullest account of the pathetic incident of the healing of the demoniac boy. He alone gives us this part of the conversation between our Lord and the afflicted child’s father. The poor man had brought his child to the disciples, and found them unable to do anything with him. A torrent of appeal breaks from his lips as soon as the Lord gives him an opportunity of speaking. He dwells upon all the piteous details with that fondness for repetition which sorrow knows so well. Jesus gives him back his doubts. The father said, ‘If thou canst do anything, have compassion on us and help us.’ Christ’s answer, according to the true reading, is not as it stands in our Authorised Version, ‘If thou canst believe’-throwing, as it were, the responsibility on the man-but it is a quotation of the father’s own word, ‘If Thou canst ,’ as if He waved it aside with superb recognition of its utter unfitness to the present case. ‘Say not, If Thou canst. That is certain. All things are possible to thee’ not to do , but to get ‘if’-which is the only ‘if’ in the case-’thou believest. I can, and if thy faith lays hold on My Omnipotence, all is done.’
That majestic word is like the blow of steel upon flint; it strikes a little spark of faith which lights up the soul and turns the smoky pillar of doubt into clear flame of confidence. ‘Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief.’
I think in these wonderful words we have four things-the birth, the infancy, the cry, and the education, of faith. And to these four I turn now.
I. First, then, note here the birth of faith.
There are many ways to the temple, and it matters little by which of them a man travels, if so be he gets there. There is no royal road to the Christian faith which saves the soul. And yet, though identity of experience is not to be expected, men are like each other in the depths, and only unlike on the surfaces, of their being. Therefore one man’s experience carefully analysed is very apt to give, at least, the rudiments of the experience of all others who have been in similar circumstances. So I think we can see here, without insisting on any pedantic repetition of the same details in every case, in broad outline, a sketch-map of the road. There are three elements here: eager desire, the sense of utter helplessness, and the acceptance of Christ’s calm assurances. Look at these three.
This man knew what he wanted, and he wanted it very sorely. Whosoever has any intensity and reality of desire for the great gifts which Jesus Christ comes to bestow, has taken at least one step on the way to faith. Conversely, the hindrances which block the path of a great many of us are simply that we do not care to possess the blessings which Jesus Christ in His Gospel offers. I am not talking now about the so-called intellectual hindrances to belief, though I think that a great many of these, if carefully examined, would be found, in the ultimate analysis, to repose upon this same stolid indifference to the blessings which Christianity offers. But what I wish to insist upon is that for large numbers of us, and no doubt for many men and women whom I address now, the real reason why they have not trust in Jesus Christ is because they do not care to possess the blessings which Jesus Christ brings. Do you desire to have your sins forgiven? Has purity any attraction for you? Do you care at all about the calm and pure blessings of communion with God? Would you like to live always in the light of His face? Do you want to be the masters of your own lusts and passions? I do not ask you, Do you want to go to Heaven or to escape Hell, when you die? but I ask, Has that future in any of its aspects any such power over you as that it stirs you to any earnestness and persistency of desire, or is it all shadowy and vain, ineffectual and dim? What we Christian teachers have to fight against is that we are charged to offer to men a blessing that they do not want, and have to create a demand before there can be any acceptance of the supply. ‘Give us the leeks and garlics of Egypt,’ said the Hebrews in the wilderness; ‘our soul loatheth this light bread.’ So it is with many of us; we do not want God, goodness, quietness of conscience, purity of life, self-consecration to a lofty ideal, one-thousandth part as much as we want success in our daily occupations, or some one or other of the delights that the world gives. I remember Luther, in his rough way, has a story-I think it is in his Table-talk -about a herd of swine to whom their keeper offered some rich dainties, and the pigs said, ‘Give us grains.’ That is what so many men do when Jesus Christ comes with His gifts and His blessings. They turn away, but if they were offered some poor earthly good, all their desires would go out towards it, and their eager hands would be scrambling who should first possess it.
Oh brethren, if we saw things as they are, and our needs as they are, nothing would kindle such intensity of longing in our hearts as that rejected or neglected promise of life eternal and divine which Jesus Christ brings. If I could only once wake in some indifferent heart this longing, that heart would have taken at least the initial step to a life of Christian godliness.
Further, we have here the other element of a sense of utter helplessness. How often this poor father had looked at his boy in the grip of the fiend, and had wrung his hands in despair that he could not do anything for him! That same sense of absolute impotence is one which we all, if we rightly understand what we need, must cherish. Can you forgive your own sins? Can you cleanse your own nature? Can you make yourselves other than you are by any effort of volition, or by any painfulness of discipline? To a certain small extent you can. In regard to superficial culture and eradication, your careful husbandry of your own wills may do much, but you cannot deal with your deepest needs. If we understand what is required, in order to bring one soul into harmony and fellowship with God, we shall recognise that we ourselves can do nothing to save, and little to help ourselves. ‘Every man his own redeemer,’ which is the motto of some people nowadays, may do very well for fine weather and for superficial experience, but when the storm comes it proves a poor refuge, like the gay pavilions that they put up for festivals, which are all right whilst the sun is shining and the flags are fluttering, but are wretched shelters when the rain beats and the wind howls. We can do nothing for ourselves. The recognition of our own helplessness is the obverse, so to speak, and underside, of confidence in the divine help. The coin, as it were, has its two faces. On the one is written, ‘Trust in the Lord’; on the other is written, ‘Nothing in myself.’ A drowning man, if he tries to help himself, only encumbers his would-be rescuer, and may drown him too. The truest help he can give is to let the strong arm that has cleft the waters for his sake fling itself around him and bear him safe to land. So, eager desire after offered blessings and consciousness of my own impotence to secure them-these are the initial steps of faith.
And the last of the elements here is, listening to the calm assurance of Jesus Christ: ‘If Thou canst! Do not say that to Me; I can, and because I can, all things are possible for thee to receive.’ In like manner He stands at the door of each of our hearts and speaks to each of our needs, and says: ‘I can satisfy it. Rest for thy soul, cleansing for thy sins, satisfaction for thy desires, guidance for thy pilgrimage, power for thy duties, patience in thy sufferings-all these will come to thee, if thou layest hold of My hand.’ His assurance helps trembling confidence to be born, and out of doubt the great calm word of the Master smites the fire of trust. And we, dear brethren, if we will listen to Him, shall surely find in Him all that we need. Think how marvellous it is that this Jewish peasant should plant Himself in the front of humanity, over against the burdened, sinful race of men, and pledge Himself to forgive and to cleanse their sins, to bear all their sicknesses, to be their strength in weakness, their comfort in sorrow, the rest of their hearts, their heaven upon earth, their life in death, their glory in heaven, and their all in all; and not only should pledge Himself, but in the blessed experience of millions should have more than fulfilled all that He promised. ‘They trusted in Him, and were lightened, and their faces were not ashamed.’ Will you not answer His sovereign word of promise with your ‘Lord, I believe’?
II. Then, secondly, we have here the infancy of faith.
As soon as the consciousness of belief dawned upon the father, and the effort to exercise it was put forth, there sprang up the consciousness of its imperfection. He would never have known that he did not believe unless he had tried to believe. So it is in regard to all excellences and graces of character. The desire of possessing some feeble degree of any virtue or excellence, and the effort to put it forth, is the surest way of discovering how little of it we have. On the other side, sorrow for the lack of some form of goodness is itself a proof of the partial possession, in some rudimentary and incipient form, of that goodness. The utterly lazy man never mourns over his idleness; it is only the one that would fain work harder than he does, and already works tolerably hard, who does so. So the little spark of faith in this man’s heart, like a taper in a cavern, showed the abysses of darkness that lay unillumined round about it.
Thus, then, in its infancy, faith may and does coexist with much unfaith and doubt. The same state of mind, looked at from its two opposite ends, as it were, may be designated faith or unbelief; just as a piece of shot silk, according to the angle at which you hold it, may show you only the bright colours of its warp or the dark ones of its weft. When you are travelling in a railway train with the sun streaming in at the windows, if you look out on the one hand you will see the illumined face of every tree and blade of grass and house; and if you look out on the other, you will see their shadowed side. And so the same landscape may seem to be all lit up by the sunshine of belief, or to be darkened by the gloom of distrust. If we consider how great and how perfect ought to be our confidence, to bear any due proportion to the firmness of that upon which it is built, we shall not be slow to believe that through life there will always be the presence in us, more or less, of these two elements. There will be all degrees of progress between the two extremes of infantile and mature faith.
There follows from that thought this practical lesson, that the discovery of much unbelief should never make a man doubt the reality or genuineness of his little faith. We are all apt to write needlessly bitter things against ourselves when we get a glimpse of the incompleteness of our Christian life and character. But there is no reason why a man should fancy that he is a hypocrite because he finds out that he is not a perfect believer. But, on the other hand, let us remember that the main thing is not the maturity, but the progressive character, of faith. It was most natural that this man in our text, at the very first moment when he began to put his confidence in Jesus Christ as able to heal his child, should be aware of much tremulousness mingling with it. But is it not most unnatural that there should be the same relative proportion of faith and unbelief in the heart and experience of men who have long professed to be Christians? You do not expect the infant to have adult limbs, but you do expect it to grow. True, faith at its beginning may be like a grain of mustard seed, but if the grain of mustard seed be alive it will grow to a great tree, where all the fowls of the air can lodge in the branches. Oh! it is a crying shame and sin that in all Christian communities there should be so many grey-headed babies, men who have for years and years been professing to be Christ’s followers, and whose faith is but little, if at all, stronger-nay! perhaps is even obviously weaker-than it was in the first days of their profession. ‘Ye have need of milk, and not of strong meat,’ very many of you. And the vitality of your faith is made suspicious, not because it is feeble, but because it is not growing stronger.
III. Notice the cry of infant faith.
‘Help Thou mine unbelief’ may have either of two meanings. The man’s desire was either that his faith should be increased and his unbelief ‘helped’ by being removed by Christ’s operation upon his spirit, or that Christ would ‘help’ him and his boy by healing the child, though the faith which asked the blessing was so feeble that it might be called unbelief. There is nothing in the language or in the context to determine which of these two meanings is intended; we must settle it by our own sense of what would be most likely under the circumstances. To me it seems extremely improbable that, when the father’s whole soul was absorbed in the healing of his son, he should turn aside to ask for the inward and spiritual process of having his faith strengthened. Rather he said, ‘Heal my child, though it is unbelief as much as faith that asks Thee to do it.’
The lesson is that, even when we are conscious of much tremulousness in our faith, we have a right to ask and expect that it shall be answered. Weak faith is faith. The tremulous hand does touch. The cord may be slender as a spider’s web that binds a heart to Jesus, but it does bind. The poor woman in the other miracle who put out her wasted finger-tip, coming behind Him in the crowd, and stealthily touching the hem of His garment, though it was only the end of her finger-nail that was laid on the robe, carried away with her the blessing. And so the feeblest faith joins the soul, in the measure of its strength, to Jesus Christ.
But let us remember that, whilst thus the cry of infant faith is heard, the stronger voice of stronger faith is more abundantly heard. Jesus Christ once for all laid down the law when He said to one of the suppliants at His feet, ‘According to your faith be it unto you.’ The measure of our belief is the measure of our blessing. The wider you open the door, the more angels will crowd into it, with their white wings and their calm faces. The bore of the pipe determines the amount of water that flows into the cistern. Every man gets, in the measure in which he desires. Though a tremulous hand may hold out a cup into which Jesus Christ will not refuse to pour the wine of the kingdom, yet the tremulous hand will spill much of the blessing; and he that would have the full enjoyment of the mercies promised, and possible, must ‘ask in faith, nothing wavering.’ The sensitive paper which records the hours of sunshine in a day has great gaps upon its line of light answering to the times when clouds have obscured the sun; and the communication of blessings from God is intermittent, if there be intermittency of faith. If you desire an unbroken line of mercy, joy, and peace, keep up an unbroken continuity of trustful confidence.
IV. Lastly, we have here the education of faith.
Christ paid no heed in words to the man’s confession of unbelief, but proceeded to do the work which answered his prayer in both its possible meanings. He responded to imperfect confidence by His perfect work of cure, and, by that perfect work of cure, He strengthened the imperfect confidence which it had answered.
Thus He educates us by His answers-His over-answers-to our poor desires; and the abundance of His gifts rebukes the poverty of our petitions more emphatically than any words of remonstrance beforehand could have done. He does not lecture us into faith, but He blesses us into it. When the Apostle was sinking in the flood, Jesus Christ said no word of reproach until He had grasped him with His strong hand and held him safe. And then, when the sustaining touch thrilled through all the frame, then, and not till then, He said-as we may fancy, with a smile on His face that the moonlight showed-as knowing how unanswerable His question was, ‘O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?’ That is how He will deal with us if we will; over-answering our tremulous petitions, and so teaching us to hope more abundantly that ‘we shall praise Him more and more.’
The disappointments, the weaknesses, the shameful defeats which come when our confidence fails, are another page of His lesson-book. The same Apostle of whom I have been speaking got that lesson when, standing on the billows, and, instead of looking at Christ, looking at their wrath and foam, his heart failed him, and because his heart failed him he began to sink. If we turn away from Jesus Christ, and interrupt the continuity of our faith by calculating the height of the breakers and the weight of the water that is in them, and what will become of us when they topple over with their white crests upon our heads, then gravity will begin to work, and we shall begin to sink. And well for us if, when we have sunk as far as our knees, we look back again to the Master and say, ‘Lord, save me; I perish!’ The weakness which is our own when faith sleeps, and the rejoicing power which is ours because it is His, when faith wakes, are God’s education of it to fuller and ampler degrees and depth. We shall lose the meaning of life, and the best lesson that joy and sorrow, calm and storm, victory and defeat, can give us, unless all these make us ‘rooted and grounded in faith.’
Dear friend, do you desire your truest good? Do you know that you cannot win it, or fight for it to gain it, or do anything to obtain it, in your own strength? Have you heard Jesus Christ saying to you, ‘Come . . . and I will give you rest’? Oh! I beseech you, do not turn away from Him, but like this agonised father in our story, fall at His feet with ‘Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief,’ and He will confirm your feeble faith by His rich response.
RECEIVING AND FORBIDDING
AN UNANSWERED QUESTION
Was it not a strange time to squabble when they had just been told of His death? Note-
I. The variations of feeling common to the disciples and to us all: one moment ‘exceeding sorrowful,’ the next fighting for precedence.
II. Christ’s divine insight into His servants’ faults.
This question was put because He knew what the wrangle had been about. The disputants did not answer, but He knew without an answer, as His immediately following warnings show. How blessed to think that Psa_139:1 applies to Him-’There is not a word in my tongue, but lo, O Lord! Thou knowest it altogether,’
III. The compassion of Christ seeking to cure the sins He sees.
His question is not to rebuke, but to heal; so His perfect knowledge is blended with perfect love.
IV. The test of evil. They were ashamed to tell Him the cause of their dispute.
V. The method of cure. The presence of Christ is the end of strife and of sin in general.
RECEIVING AND FORBIDDING
Mar_9:33 - Mar_9:42 .
Surely the disciples might have found something better to talk about on the road from Caesarea, where they had heard from Jesus of His sufferings, than this miserable wrangle about rank! Singularly enough, each announcement of the Cross seems to have provoked something of the sort. Probably they understood little of His meaning, but hazily thought that the crisis was at hand when He should establish the kingdom; and so their ambition, rather than their affection, was stirred. Perhaps, too, the dignity bestowed on Peter after his confession, and the favour shown to the three witnesses of the Transfiguration, may have created jealousy. Matthew makes the quarrel to have been about future precedence; Mark about present. The one was striven for with a view to the other. How chill it must have struck on Christ’s heart, that those who loved Him best cared so much more for their own petty superiority than for His sorrows!
I. Note the law of service as the true greatness Mar_9:33 - Mar_9:35.
‘When He was in the house, He asked them.’ He had let them talk as they would on the road, walking alone in front, and they keeping, as they thought, out of ear-shot; but, when at rest together in the house perhaps Peter’s where He lived in Capernaum, He lets them see, by the question and still more by the following teaching, that He knew what He asked, and needed no answer. The tongues that had been so loud on the road were dumb in the house-silenced by conscience. His servants still do and say many things on the road which they would not do if they saw Him close beside them, and they sometimes fancy that these escape Him. But when they are ‘in the house’ with Him, they will find that He knew all that was going on; and when He asks the account of it, they, too, will be speechless. ‘A thing which does not appear wrong by itself shows its true character when brought to the judgment of God and the knowledge of Jesus Christ. Bengel.
Christ deals with the fault with much solemnity, seating Himself, as Teacher and Superior, and summoning the whole Twelve to hear. We do not enter on the difficult question of the relation of Mark’s report of our Lord’s words to those of the other Evangelists, but rather try to bring out the significance of their form and connection here. Note, then, that here we have not so much the nature of true greatness, as the road to it. ‘If any man would be first,’ he is to be least and servant, and thereby he will reach his aim. Of course, that involves the conception of the nature of true greatness as service, but still the distinction is to be kept in view. Further, ‘last of all’ is not the same as ‘servant of all.’ The one phrase expresses humility; the other, ministry. An indolent humility, so very humble that it does nothing for others, and a service which if not humble, are equally incomplete, and neither leads to or is the greatness at which alone a Christian ought to aim. There are two paradoxes here. The lowest is the highest, the servant is the chief; and they may be turned round with equal truth-the highest is the lowest, and the chief is the servant. The former tells us how things really are, and what they look like, when seen from the centre by His eye. The latter prescribes the duties and responsibilities of high position. In fact and truth, to sink is the way to rise, and to serve is the way to rule-only the rise and the rule are of another sort than contents worldly ambition, and the Christian must rectify his notions of what loftiness and greatness are. On the other hand, distinguishing gifts of mind, heart, leisure, position, possessions, or anything else, are given us for others, and bind us to serve. Both things follow from the nature of Christ’s kingdom, which is a kingdom of love; for in love the vulgar distinctions of higher and lower are abolished, and service is delight. This is no mere pretty sentiment, but a law which grips hard and cuts deep. Christ’s servants have not learned it yet, and the world heeds it not; but, till it governs all human society, and pulls up ambition, domination, and pride of place by the roots, society will groan under ills which increase with the increase of wealth and culture in the hands of a selfish few.
II. Note the exhibition of the law in a life.
Children are quick at finding out who loves them, and there would always be some hovering near for a smile from Christ. With what eyes of innocent wonder the child would look up at Him, as He gently set him there, in the open space in front of Himself! Mark does not record any accompanying words, and none were needed, The unconsciousness of rank, the spontaneous acceptance of inferiority, the absence of claims to consideration and respect, which naturally belong to childhood as it ought to be, and give it winningness and grace, are the marks of a true disciple, and are the more winning in such because they are not of nature, but regained by self-abnegation. What the child is we have to become. This child was the example of one-half of the law, being ‘least of all,’ and perfectly contented to be so; but the other half was not shown in him, for his little hands could do but small service. Was there, then, no example in this scene of that other requirement? Surely there was; for the child was not left standing, shy, in the midst, but, before embarrassment became weeping, was caught up in Christ’s arms, and folded to His heart. He had been taken as the instance of humility, and he then became the subject of tender ministry. Christ and he divided the illustration of the whole law between them, and the very inmost nature of true service was shown in our Lord’s loving clasp and soothing pressure to His heart. It is as if He had said, ‘Look! this is how you must serve; for you cannot help the weak unless you open your arms and hearts to them.’ Jesus, with the child held to His bosom, is the living law of service, and the child nestling close to Him, because sure of His love, is the type of the trustful affection which we must evoke if we are to serve or help. This picture has gone straight to the hearts of men; and who can count the streams of tenderness and practical kindliness of which it has been the source? Christ goes on to speak of the child, not as the example of service, but of being served. The deep words carry us into blessed mysteries which will recompense the lowly servants, and lift them high in the kingdom. Observe the precision of the language, both as regards the persons received and the motive of reception. ‘One of such little children’ means those who are thus lowly, unambitious, and unexacting. ‘In My name’ defines the motive as not being simple humanity or benevolence, but the distinct recognition of Christ’s command and loving obedience to His revealed character. No doubt, natural benevolence has its blessings for those who exercise it; but that which is here spoken of is something much deeper than nature, and wins a far higher reward.
That reward is held forth in unfathomable words, of which we can but skim the surface. They mean more than that such little ones are so closely identified with Him that, in His love, He reckons good done to them as done to Him. That is most blessedly true. Nor is it true only because He lovingly reckons the deed as done to Him, though it really is not; but, by reason of the derived life which all His children possess from Him, they are really parts of Himself; and in that most real though mystic unity, what is done to them is, in fact, done to Him. Further, if the service be done in His name, then, on whomsoever it may be done, it is done to Him. This great saying unveils the true sacredness and real recipient of all Christian service. But more than that is in the words. When we ‘receive’ Christ’s little ones by help and loving ministry, we receive Him, and in Him God, for joy and strength. Unselfish deeds in His name open the heart for more of Christ and God, and bring on the doer the blessing of fuller insight, closer communion, more complete assimilation to his Lord. Therefore such service is the road to the true superiority in His kingdom, which depends altogether on the measure of His own nature which has flowed into our emptiness.
III. The Apostles’ conscience-stricken confession of their breach of the law Mar_9:38 - Mar_9:40.
Peter is not spokesman this time, but John, whose conscience was more quickly pricked. At first sight, the connection of his interruption with the theme of the discourse seems to be merely the recurrence of the phrase, ‘in Thy name’; but, besides that, there is an obvious contrast between ‘receiving’ and ‘forbidding.’ The Apostle is uneasy when he remembers what they had done, and, like an honest man, he states the case to Christ, half-confessing, and half-asking for a decision. He begins to think that perhaps the man whom they had silenced was ‘one such little child,’ and had deserved more sympathetic treatment. How he came to be so true a disciple as to share in the power of casting out devils, and yet not to belong to the closer followers of Jesus, we do not know, and need not guess. So it was; and John feels, as he tells the story, that perhaps their motives had not been so much their Master’s honour as their own. ‘He followeth not us,’ and yet he is trenching on our prerogatives. The greater fact that he and they followed Christ was overshadowed by the lesser that he did not follow them. There spoke the fiery spirit which craved the commission to burn up a whole village, because of its inhospitality. There spoke the spirit of ecclesiastical intolerance, which in all ages has masqueraded as zeal for Christ, and taken ‘following us’ and ‘following Him’ to be the same thing. But there spoke, too, a glimmering consciousness that gagging men was not precisely ‘receiving’ them, and that if ‘in Thy name’ so sanctified deeds, perhaps the unattached exorcist, who could cast out demons by it, was ‘a little one’ to be taken to their hearts, and not an enemy to be silenced. Pity that so many listen to the law, and do not, like John, feel it prick them! Christ forbids such ‘forbidding,’ and thereby sanctions ‘irregularities’ and ‘unattached’ work, which have always been the bugbears of sticklers for ecclesiastical uniformity, and have not seldom been the life of Christianity. That authoritative, unconditional ‘forbid him not’ ought, long ago, to have rung the funeral knell of intolerance, and to have ended the temptation to idolise ‘conformity,’ and to confound union to organised forms of the Christian community with union to Christ. But bigotry dies hard. The reasons appended serve to explain the position of the man in question. If he had wrought miracles in Christ’s name, he must have had some faith in it; and his experience of its power would deepen that. So there was no danger of his contradicting himself by speaking against Jesus. The power of ‘faith in the Name’ to hallow deeds, the certainty that rudimentary faith will, when exercised, increase, the guarantee of experience as sure to lead to blessing from Jesus, are all involved in this saying. But its special importance is as a reason for the disciples’ action. Because the man’s action gives guarantees for his future, they are not to silence him. That implies that they are only to forbid those who do speak evil of Christ; and that to all others, even if they have not reached the full perception of truth, they are to extend patient forbearance and guidance. ‘The mouth of them that speak lies shall be stopped’; but the mouth that begins to stammer His name is to be taught and cherished.
Christ’s second reason still more plainly claims the man for an ally. Commentators have given themselves a great deal of trouble to reconcile this saying with the other-’He that is not with Me is against Me.’ If by reconciling is meant twisting both to mean the same thing, it cannot be done. If preventing the appearance of contradiction is meant, it does not seem necessary. The two sayings do not contradict, but they complete, each other. They apply to different classes of persons, and common-sense has to determine their application. This man did, in some sense, believe in Jesus, and worked deeds that proved the power of the Name. Plainly, such work was in the same direction as the Lord’s and the disciples’. Such a case is one for the application of tolerance. But the principle must be limited by the other, else it degenerates into lazy indifference. ‘He that is not against us is for us,’ if it stood alone, would dissolve the Church, and destroy distinctions in belief and practice which it would be fatal to lose. ‘He that is not with Me is against Me,’ if it stood alone, would narrow sympathies, and cramp the free development of life. We need both to understand and get the good of either.
IV. We have the reward of receiving Christ’s little ones set over against the retribution that seizes those who cause them to stumble Mar_9:41 - Mar_9:42.
These verses seem to resume the broken thread of Mar_9:37 , whilst they also link on to the great principle laid down in Mar_9:40 . He that is ‘not against’ is ‘for,’ even if he only gives a ‘cup of water’ to Christ’s disciple because he is Christ’s. That shows that there is some regard for Jesus in him. It is a germ which may grow. Such an one shall certainly have his reward. That does not mean that he will receive it in a future life, but that here his deed shall bring after it blessed consequences to himself. Of these, none will be more blessed than the growing regard for the Name, which already is, in some degree, precious to him. The faintest perception of Christ’s beauty, honestly lived out, will be increased. Every act strengthens its motive. The reward of living our convictions is firmer and more enlightened conviction. Note, too, that the person spoken of belongs to the same class as the silenced exorcist, and that this reads the disciples a further lesson. Jesus will look with love on the acts which even a John wished to forbid. Note, also, that the disciples here are the recipients of the kindness. They are no longer being taught to receive the ‘little ones,’ but are taught that they themselves belong to that class, and need kindly succour from these outsiders, whom they had proudly thought to silence.
The awful, reticent words, which shadow forth and yet hide the fate of those who cause the feeblest disciple to stumble, are not for us to dilate upon. Jesus saw the realities of future retribution, and deliberately declares that death is a less evil than such an act. The ‘little ones’ are sacred because they are His. The same relation to Him which made kindness to them so worthy of reward, makes harm to them so worthy of punishment. Under the one lies an incipient love to Him; under the other, a covert and perhaps scarcely conscious opposition. It is devil’s work to seduce simple souls from allegiance to Christ. There are busy hands to-day laying stumbling-blocks in the way, especially of young Christians-stumbling-blocks of doubt, of frivolity, of slackened morality, and the like. It were better, says One who saw clearly into that awful realm beyond, if a heavy millstone were knotted about their necks, and they were flung into the deepest place of the lake that lay before Him as he spoke. He does not speak exaggerated words; and if a solemn strain of vehemence, unlike His ordinary calm, is audible here, it is because what He knew, and did not tell, gave solemn earnestness to His veiled and awe-inspiring prophecy of doom. What imagination shall fill out the details of the ‘worse than’ which lurks behind that ‘better’?
SALTED WITH FIRE
Mark ix. 49 .
Our Lord has just been uttering some of the most solemn words that ever came from His gracious lips. He has been enjoining the severest self-suppression, extending even to mutilation and excision of the eye, the hand, or the foot, that might cause us to stumble. He has been giving that sharp lesson on the ground of plain common sense and enlightened self-regard. It is better, obviously, to live maimed than to die whole. The man who elects to keep a mortified limb, and thereby to lose life, is a suicide and a fool. It is a solemn thought that a similar mad choice is possible in the moral and spiritual region.
To these stern injunctions, accompanied by the awful sanctions of that consideration, our Lord appends the words of my text. They are obscure and have often been misunderstood. This is not the place to enter on a discussion of the various explanations that have been proposed of them. A word or two is all that is needful to put us in possession of the point of view from which I wish to lay them on your hearts at this time.
I take the ‘every one’ of my text to mean not mankind generally, but every individual of the class whom our Lord is addressing-that is to say, His disciples. He is laying down the law for all Christians. I take the paradox which brings together ‘salting’ and ‘fire,’ to refer, not to salt as a means of communicating savour to food, but as a means of preserving from putrefaction. And I take the ‘fire’ here to refer, not to the same process which is hinted at in the awful preceding words, ‘the fire in not quenched,’ but to be set in opposition to that fire, and to mean something entirely different. There is a fire that destroys, and there is a fire that preserves; and the alternative for every man is to choose between the destructive and the conserving influences. Christian disciples have to submit to be ‘salted with fire,’ lest a worse thing befall them,
I. And so the first point that I would ask you to notice here is-that fiery cleansing to which every Christian must yield.
Now I have already referred to the relation between the words of my text and those immediately preceding, as being in some sense one of opposition and contrast. I think we are put on the right track for understanding the solemn words of this text if we remember the great saying of John the Baptist, where, in precisely similar fashion, there are set side by side the two conceptions of the chaff being cast into the unquenchable fire the same expression as in our text, and ‘He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire.’
The salting fire, then, which cleanses and preserves, and to which every Christian soul must submit itself, to be purged thereby, is, as I take it, primarily and fundamentally the fire of that Divine Spirit which Christ Himself told us that He had come to cast upon the earth, and yearned, in a passion of desire, to see kindled. The very frequent use of the emblem in this same signification throughout Scripture, I suppose I need not recall to you. It seems to me that the only worthy interpretation of the words before us, which goes down into their depths and harmonises with the whole of the rest of the teaching of Scripture, is that which recognises these words of my text as no unwelcome threat, as no bitter necessity, but as a joyful promise bringing to men, laden and burdened with their sins, the good news that it is possible for them to be purged from them entirely by the fiery ministration of that Divine Spirit. Just as we take a piece of foul clay and put it into the furnace, and can see, as it gets red-hot, the stains melt away, as a cloud does in the blue, from its surface, so if we will plunge ourselves into the influences of that divine power which Christ has come to communicate to the world, our sin and all our impurities will melt from off us, and we shall be clean. No amount of scrubbing with soap and water will do it. The stain is a great deal too deep for that, and a mightier solvent than any that we can apply, if unaided and unsupplied from above, is needed to make us clean. ‘Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean,’ especially when the would-be bringer is himself the unclean thing? Surely not one. Unless there be a power ab extra , unparticipant of man’s evils, and yet capable of mingling with the evil man’s inmost nature, and dealing with it, then I believe that universal experience and our individual experience tell us that there is no hope that we shall ever get rid of our transgressions.
Brethren, for a man by his own unaided effort, however powerful, continuous, and wisely directed it may be, to cleanse himself utterly from his iniquity, is as hopeless as it would be for him to sit down with a hammer and a chisel and try by mechanical means to get all the iron out of a piece of ironstone. The union is chemical, not mechanical. And so hammers and chisels will only get a very little of the metal out. The one solvent is fire. Put the obstinate crude ore into your furnace, and get the temperature up, and the molten metal will run clear. There should be mountains of scoriae, the dross and relics of our abandoned sins, around us all.
If we desire to be delivered, let us go into the fire. It will burn up all our evil, and it will burn up nothing else. Keep close to Christ. Lay your hearts open to the hallowing influences of the motives and the examples that lie in the story of His life and death. Seek for the fiery touch of that transforming Spirit, and be sure that you quench Him not, nor grieve Him. And then your weakness will be reinvigorated by celestial powers, and the live coal upon your lips will burn up all your iniquity.
But, subordinately to this deepest meaning, as I take it, of the great symbol of our text, let me remind you of another possible application of it, which follows from the preceding. God’s Spirit cleanses men mainly by raising their spirits to a higher temperature. For coldness is akin to sin, and heavenly warmth is akin to righteousness. Enthusiasm always ennobles, delivers men, even on the lower reaches of life and conduct from many a meanness and many a sin. And when it becomes a warmth of spirit kindled by the reception of the fire of God, then it becomes the solvent which breaks the connection between me and my evil. It is the cold Christian who makes no progress in conquering his sin. The one who is filled with the love of God, and has the ardent convictions and the burning enthusiasm which that love ought to produce in our hearts, is the man who will conquer and eject his evils.
Nor must we forget that there is still another possible application of the words. For whilst, on the one hand, the Divine Spirit’s method of delivering us is very largely that of imparting to us the warmth of ardent, devout emotion; on the other hand, a part of this method is the passing of us through the fiery trials and outward disciplines of life. ‘Every one shall be salted with fire’ in that sense. And we have learned, dear brethren, but little of the loving kindness of the Lord if we are not able to say, ‘I have grown more in likeness to Jesus Christ by rightly accepted sorrows than by anything besides.’ Be not afraid of calamities; be not stumbled by disaster. Take the fiery trial which is sent to you as being intended to bring about, at the last, the discovery ‘unto praise and honour and glory’ of your faith, that is ‘much more precious than gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire.’ ‘Every one shall be salted with fire,’ the Christian law of life is, Submit to the fiery cleansing. Alas! alas! for the many thousands of professing Christians who are wrapping themselves in such thick folds of non-conducting material that that fiery energy can only play on the surface of their lives, instead of searching them to the depths. Do you see to it, dear brethren, that you lay open your whole natures, down to the very inmost roots, to the penetrating, searching, cleansing power of that Spirit. And let us all go and say to Him, ‘Search me, O God! and try me, and see if there be any wicked way in me.’
II. Notice the painfulness of this fiery cleansing.
The same ideas substantially are conveyed in my text as are expressed, in different imagery, by the solemn words that precede it. The ‘salting with fire’ comes substantially to the same thing as the amputation of the hand and foot, and the plucking out of the eye, that cause to stumble. The metaphor expresses a painful process. It is no pleasant thing to submit the bleeding stump to the actual cautery, and to press it, all sensitive, upon the hot plate that will stop the flow of blood. But such pain of shrinking nerves is to be borne, and to be courted, if we are wise, rather than to carry the hand or the eye that led astray unmutilated into total destruction. Surely that is common sense.
The process is painful because we are weak. The highest ideal of Christian progress would be realised if one of the metaphors with which our Lord expresses it were adequate to cover the whole ground, and we grew as the wheat grows, ‘first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear.’ But the tranquillity of vegetable growth, and the peaceful progress which it symbolises, are not all that you and I have to expect. Emblems of a very different kind have to be associated with that of the quiet serenity of the growing corn, in order to describe all that a Christian man has to experience in the work of becoming like his Master. It is a fight as well as a growth; it is a building requiring our continuity of effort, as well as a growth. There is something to be got rid of as well as much to be appropriated. We do not only need to become better, we need to become less bad. Squatters have camped on the land, and cling to it and hold it vi et armis ; and these have to be ejected before peaceful settlement is possible.
One might go on multiplying metaphors ad libitum , in order to bring out the one thought that it needs huge courage to bear being sanctified, or, if you do not like the theological word, to bear being made better. It is no holiday task, and unless we are willing to have a great deal that is against the grain done to us, and in us, and by us, we shall never achieve it. We have to accept the pain. Desires have to be thwarted, and that is not pleasant. Self has to be suppressed, and that is not delightsome. A growing conviction of the depth of one’s own evil has to be cherished, and that is not a grateful thought for any of us. Pains external, which are felt by reason of disciplinary sorrows, are not worthy to be named in the same day as those more recondite and inward agonies. But, brother, they are all ‘light’ as compared with the exceeding weight of ‘glory,’ coming from conformity to the example of our Master, which they prepare for us.
And so I bring you Christ’s message: He will have no man to enlist in His army under false pretences. He will not deceive any of us by telling us that it is all easy work and plain sailing. Salting by fire can never be other than to the worse self an agony, just because it is to the better self a rapture. And so let us make up our minds that no man is taken to heaven in his sleep, and that the road is a rough one, judging from the point of view of flesh and sense; but though rough, narrow, often studded with sharp edges, like the plough coulters that they used to lay in the path in the old rude ordeals, it still leads straight to the goal, and bleeding feet are little to pay for a seat at Christ’s right hand.
III. Lastly, notice the preservative result of this painful cleansing.
Our Lord brings together, in our text, as is often His wont, two apparently contradictory ideas, in order, by the paradox, to fix our attention the more vividly upon His words. Fire destroys; salt preserves. They are opposites. But yet the opposites may be united in one mighty reality, a fire which preserves and does not destroy. The deepest truth is that the cleansing fire which the Christ will give us preserves us, because it destroys that which is destroying us. If you kill the germs of putrefaction in a hit of dead flesh, you preserve the flesh; and if you bring to bear upon a man the power which will kill the thing that is killing him, its destructive influence is the condition of its conserving one.
And so it is, in regard to that great spiritual influence which Jesus Christ is ready to give to every one of us. It slays that which is slaying us, for our sins destroy in us the true life of a man, and make us but parables of walking death. When the three Hebrews were cast into the fiery furnace in Babylon, the flames burned nothing but their bonds, and they walked at liberty in the fire. And so it will be with us. We shall be preserved by that which slays the sins that would otherwise slay us.
Let me lay on your hearts before I close the solemn alternative to which I have already referred, and which is suggested by the connection of my text with the preceding words. There is a fire that destroys and is not quenched. Christ’s previous words are much too metaphorical for us to build dogmatic definitions upon. But Jesus Christ did not exaggerate. If here and now sin has so destructive an effect upon a man, O, who will venture to say that he knows the limits of its murderous power in that future life, when retribution shall begin with new energy and under new conditions? Brethren, whilst I dare not enlarge, I still less dare to suppress; and I ask you to remember that not I, or any man, but Jesus Christ Himself, has put before each of us this alternative-either the fire unquenchable, which destroys a man, or the merciful fire, which slays his sins and saves him alive.
Social reformers, philanthropists, you that have tried and failed to overcome your evil, and who feel the loathly thing so intertwisted with your being that to pluck it from your heart is to tear away the very heart’s walls themselves, here is a hope for you. Closely as our evil is twisted in with the fibres of our character, there is a hand that can untwine the coils, and cast away the sin, and preserve the soul. And although we sometimes feel as if our sinfulness and our sin were so incorporated with ourselves that it made oneself, with a man’s head and a serpent’s tail, let us take the joyful assurance that if we trust ourselves to Christ, and open our hearts to His power, we can shake off the venomous beast into the fire and live a fuller life, because the fire has consumed that which would otherwise have consumed us.
‘SALT IN YOURSELVES’
In the context ‘salt’ is employed to express the preserving, purifying, divine energy which is otherwise spoken of as ‘fire.’ The two emblems produce the same result. They both salt-that is, they cleanse and keep. And if in the one we recognise the quick energy of the Divine Spirit as the central idea, no less are we to see the same typified under a slightly different aspect in the other. The fire transforms into its own substance and burns away all the grosser particles. The salt arrests corruption, keeps off destruction, and diffuses its sanative influence through all the particles of the substance with which it comes in contact. And in both metaphors it is the operation of God’s cleansing Spirit, in its most general form, that is set forth, including all the manifold ways by which God deals with us to purge us from our iniquity, to free us from the death which treads close on the heels of wrongdoing, the decomposition and dissolution which surely follow on corruption.
This the disciples are exhorted to have in themselves that they may be at peace one with another. Perhaps we shall best discover the whole force of this saying by dealing-
I. With the symbol itself and the ideas derived from it.
The salt cleanses, arrests corruption which impends over the dead masses, sweetens and purifies, and so preserves from decay and dissolution. It works by contact, and within the mass. It thus stands as an emblem of the cleansing which God brings, both in respect a to that on which it operates, b to the purpose of its application, and c to the manner in which it produces its effects.
a That on which it operates.
There is implied here a view of human nature, not flattering but true. It is compared with a dead thing, in which the causes that bring about corruption are already at work, with the sure issue of destruction. This in its individual application comes to the assertion of sinful tendency and actual sin as having its seat and root in all our souls, so that the present condition is corruption, and the future issue is destruction. The consequent ideas are that any power which is to cleanse must come from without, not from within; that purity is not to be won by our own efforts, and that there is no disposition in human nature to make these efforts. There is no recuperative power in human nature. True, there may be outward reformation of habits, etc., but, if we grasp the thought that the taproot of sin is selfishness, this impotence becomes clearer, and it is seen that sin affects all our being, and that therefore the healing must come from beyond us.
b The purpose-namely, cleansing.
In salt we may include the whole divine energy; the Word, the Christ, the Spirit. So the intention of the Gospel is mainly to make clean. Preservation is a consequence of that.
c The manner of its application.
Inward, penetrating, by contact; but mainly the great peculiarity of Christian ethics is that the inner life is dealt with first, the will and the heart, and afterwards the outward conduct.
II. The part which we have to take in this cleansing process.
‘Have salt’ is a command; and this implies that while all the cleansing energy comes from God, the working of it on our souls depends on ourselves.
a Its original reception depends on our faith.
The ‘salt’ is here, but our contact with it is established by our acceptance of it. There is no magical cleansing; but it must be received within if we would share in its operation.
b Its continuous energy is not secured without our effort.
Let us just recall the principle already referred to, that the ‘salt’ implies the whole cleansing divine energies, and ask what are these? The Bible variously speaks of men as being cleansed by the ‘blood of Christ,’ by the ‘truth,’ by the ‘Spirit.’ Now, it is not difficult to bring all these into one focus, viz., that the Spirit of God cleanses us by bringing the truth concerning Christ to bear on our understandings and hearts.
We are sanctified in proportion as we are coming under the influence of Christian truth, which, believed by our understandings and our hearts, supplies motives to our wills which lead us to holiness by copying the example of Christ.
Hence the main principle is that the cleansing energy operates on us in proportion as we are influenced by the truths of the Gospel.
Again, it works in proportion as we seek for, and submit to, the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit.
In proportion as we are living in communion with Christ.
In proportion as we seek to deny ourselves and put away those evil things which ‘quench the Spirit.’
This great grace, then, is not ours without our own effort. No original endowment is enough to keep us right. There must be the daily contact with, and constant renewing of the Holy Ghost. Hence arises a solemn appeal to all Christians.
Note the independence of the Christian character.
‘In yourselves.’ ‘The water that I shall give him shall be in him a fountain,’ etc. Not, therefore, derived from the world, nor at second-hand from other men, but you have access to it for yourselves. See that you use the gift. ‘Hold fast that which thou hast,’ for there are enemies to withstand-carelessness, slothfulness, and self-confidence, etc.
III. The relation to one another of those who possess this energy.
In proportion as Christians have salt in themselves, they will be at peace with one another. Remember that all sin is selfishness; therefore if we are cleansed from it, that which leads to war, alienation, and coldness will be removed. Even in this world there will be an anticipatory picture of the perfect peace which will abound when all are holy. Even now this great hope should make our mutual Christian relations very sweet and helpful.
Thus emerges the great principle that the foundation of the only real love among men must be laid in holiness of heart and life. Where the Spirit of God is working on a heart, there the seeds of evil passions are stricken out. The causes of enmity and disturbance are being removed. Men quarrel with each other because their pride is offended, or because their passionate desires after earthly things are crossed by a successful rival, or because they deem themselves not sufficiently respected by others. The root of all strife is self-love. It is the root of all sin. The cleansing which takes away the root removes in the same proportion the strife which grows from it. We should not be so ready to stand on our rights if we remembered how we come to have any hopes at all. We should not be so ready to take offence if we thought more of Him who is not soon angry. All the train of alienations, suspicions, earthly passions, which exist in our minds and are sure to issue in quarrels or bad blood, will be put down if we have ‘salt in ourselves.’
This makes a very solemn appeal to Christian men. The Church is the garden where this peace should flourish. The disgrace of the Church is its envyings, jealousies, ill-natured scandal, idle gossip, love of preeminence, willingness to impute the worst possible motives to one another, sharp eyes for our brother’s failings and none for our own. I am not pleading for any mawkish sentimentality, but for a manly peacefulness which comes from holiness. The holiest natures are always the most generous.
What a contrast the Church ought to present to the prevailing tone in the world! Does it? Why not? Because we do not possess the ‘salt.’ The dove flees from the cawing of rooks and the squabbling of kites and hawks.
The same principle applies to all our human affections. Our loves of all sorts are safe only when they are pure. Contrast the society based on common possession of the one Spirit with the companionships which repose on sin, or only on custom or neighbourhood. In all these there are possibilities of moral peril.
The same principle intensified gives us a picture of heaven and of hell. In the one are the ‘solemn troops and sweet societies’; in the other, no peace, no confidence, no bonds, only isolation, because sin which is selfishness lies at the foundation of the awful condition.
Friends, without that salt our souls are dead and rotting. Here is the great cure. Make it your own. So purified, you will be preserved, but, on the other hand, unchecked sin leads to quick destruction.
The dead, putrefying carcass-what a picture of a soul abandoned to evil and fit only for Gehenna!
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MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on Mark 9". MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany