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THESE verses describe the miraculous cure of a sick man. A centurion, or officer in the Roman army, applies to our Lord on behalf of his servant, and obtains what he requests. A greater miracle of healing than this, is nowhere recorded in the Gospels. Without even seeing the sufferer, without touch of hand or look of eye, our Lord restores health to a dying man by a single word. He speaks, and the sick man is cured. He commands, and the disease departs. We read of no prophet or apostle, who wrought miracles in this manner. We see here the finger of God!
We should notice in these verses the kindness of the centurion. It is a part of his character which appears in three ways. We see it in his treatment of his servant. He cares for him tenderly when sick, and takes pains to have him restored to health. We see it again in his feeling towards the Jewish people. He did not despise them as other Gentiles commonly did. The elders of the Jews bear this strong testimony, "He loveth our nation."—We see it lastly in his liberal support of the Jewish place of worship at Capernaum. He did not love Israel "in word and tongue only, but in deed." The messengers he sent to our Lord supported their petition by saying, "He hath built us a synagogue."
Now where did the centurion learn this kindness? How can we account for one who was a heathen by birth, and a soldier by profession, showing such a spirit as this? Habits of mind like these were not likely to be gathered from heathen teaching, or promoted by the society of a Roman camp. Greek and Latin philosophy would not recommend them. Tribunes, consuls, prefects and emperors would not encourage them.—There is but one account of the matter. The centurion was what he was "by the grace of God." The Spirit had opened the eyes of his understanding, and put a new heart within him. His knowledge of divine things no doubt was very dim. His religious views were probably built on a very imperfect acquaintance with the Old Testament Scriptures. But whatever light from above he had, it influenced his life, and one result of it was the kindness which is recorded in this passage.
Let us learn a lesson from the centurion’s example. Let us, like him, show kindness to everyone with whom we have to do. Let us strive to have an eye ready to see, and a hand ready to help, and a heart ready to feel, and a will ready to do good to all. Let us be ready to weep with them that weep, and rejoice with them that rejoice. This is one way to recommend our religion, and make it beautiful before men. Kindness is a grace that all can understand.—This is one way to be like our blessed Savior. If there is one feature in His character more notable than another, it is His unwearied kindness and love.—This is one way to be happy in the world, and see good days. Kindness always brings its own reward. The kind person will seldom be without friends.
We should notice, secondly, in this passage, the humility of the centurion. It appears in his remarkable message to our Lord when He was not far from his house: "I am not worthy that thou shouldest enter under my roof:—neither thought I myself worthy to come unto thee."—Such expressions are a striking contrast to the language used by the elders of the Jews. "He is worthy," said they, "for whom thou shouldest do this."—"I am not worthy," says the good centurion, "that thou shouldest enter under my roof."
Humility like this is one of the strongest evidences of the indwelling of the Spirit of God. We know nothing of it by nature, for we are all born proud. To convince us of sin, to show us our own vileness and corruption, to put us in our right place, to make us lowly and self-abased,—these are among the principal works which the Holy Ghost works in the soul of man. Few of our Lord’s sayings are so often repeated as the one which closes the parable of the Pharisee and Publican: "Every one that exalteth himself shall be abased, and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted." (Luke 18:14.) To have great gifts, and do great works for God, is not given to all believers. But all believers ought to strive to be clothed with humility.
We should notice, thirdly, in this passage, the centurion’s faith. We have a beautiful example of it in the request that he made to our Lord: "Say in a word, and my servant shall be healed." He thinks it needless for our Lord to come to the place where his servant lay dying. He regards our Lord as one possessing authority over diseases, as complete as his own authority over his soldiers, or a Roman Emperor’s authority over himself. He believes that a word of command from Jesus is sufficient to send sickness away. He asks to see no sign or wonder. He declares his confidence that Jesus is an almighty Master and King, and that diseases, like obedient servants, will at once depart at His orders.
Faith like this was indeed rare when the Lord Jesus was upon earth. "Show us a sign from heaven," was the demand of the sneering Pharisees. To see something wonderful was the great desire of the multitudes who crowded after our Lord. No wonder that we read the remarkable words, "Jesus marveled at him," and said unto the people, "I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel." None ought to have been so believing as the children of those who were led through the wilderness, and brought into the promised land. But the last was first and the first last. The faith of a Roman soldier proved stronger than that of the Jews.
Let us not forget to walk in the steps of this blessed spirit of faith which the centurion here exhibited. Our eyes do not yet behold the book of life. We see not our Savior pleading for us at God’s right hand. But have we the word of Christ’s promises? Then let us rest on it and fear nothing. Let us not doubt that every word that Christ has spoken shall be made good. The word of Christ is a sure foundation. He that leans upon it shall never be confounded. Believers shall all be found pardoned, justified, and glorified at the last day. "Jesus says so," and therefore it shall be done.
We should notice, finally, in these verses, the advantage of being connected with godly families. We need no clearer proof of this than the case of the centurion’s servant. We see him cared for in sickness. We see him restored to health through his master’s intercession. We see him brought under Christ’s notice through his master’s faith. Who can tell but the issue of the whole history, was the conversion and salvation of the man’s soul? It was a happy day for that servant, when he first took service in such a household!
Well would it be for the Church, if the benefits of connection with the "household of faith," were more frequently remembered by professing Christians. Often, far too often, a Christian parent will hastily place his son in a position where his soul can get no good, for the sake of mere worldly advantage. Often, far too often, a Christian servant will seek a new place where religion is not valued, for the sake of a little more wages. These things ought not so to be. In all our moves, our first thought should be the interest of our souls. In all our settlements, our chief desire should be to be connected with godly people. In all our scheming and planning, for ourselves or our children, one question should ever be uppermost in our minds: "What shall it profit to gain the whole world, and lose our own souls?" Good situations, as they are called, are often godless situations, and ruin to all eternity those who take them.
v1.—[Into Capernaum.] Let it be remembered that a remarkable miracle of healing had already been worked at Capernaum in the cure of the ruler’s son, described at the end of the fourth chapter of John. This cure was distinct from that described here. The Centurion had in all probability heard of it. Few places, let it be noted, witnessed more of our Lord’s miracles than Capernaum. This circumstance probably throws light on our Lord’s expression, "Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven." (Matthew 11:23.)
v2.—[A certain Centurion’s servant.] Some things in the history of this miracle call for remarks, which, for convenience sake, may be made here.
The Centurion spoken of, was evidently a Gentile by birth. This is manifest from our Lord’s expression, "I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel."
In a Roman soldier such faith and love as we see here described, were very extraordinary. "A Roman soldier," says Bunyan, "was the first fruit of the-Gentile world."—"Even the bloody trade of war," says Bishop Hall, "yielded worthy clients to Christ. This Roman captain had learned to believe in that Jesus whom many Jews despised. No nation, no trade, can shut out a good heart from God. If he was a foreigner in birth, yet he was a domestic in heart." It is worthy of remark, that neither here, nor in the case of soldiers who came to John the Baptist, nor in the case of Cornelius in the Acts, do we find the slightest hint that the profession of a soldier is unlawful in the sight of God. On the contrary, both here and in the history of such men as Colonel Gardiner and General Havelock, we see proof that God can give much grace to soldiers, and put much honour on them.
The Centurion’s conduct towards his servant, is very noteworthy. When we remember the position of servants in Gentile households, his care and kindness towards this servant are a strong evidence of the grace which he possessed.
v3.—[He sent unto him the elders.] Bishop Hall observes here: "Great variety of visitors resorted to Christ. One comes to Him for a son; another for a daughter; a third for himself. I see none come to Him for his servant but this one Centurion. Neither was he a better man than a master. His servant is sick: he doth not drive him out of doors, but lays him at home; neither doth he stand gazing by his bedside, but seeks forth; he seeks forth not to physicians but to Christ. Had the master been sick the faithfullest servant could have done no more. He is unworthy to be well served that will not sometimes wait upon his followers."
v5.—[He hath built us a synagogue.] The English version here can hardly be said to give the full sense of the Greek. The meaning is, "He hath himself built us a synagogue;" that is, at his own expense and charges.
v6.—[Sent friends to him.] In the parallel passage in Matthew, both here and in the beginning of the narrative, the centurion is represented as coming to our Lord in person, and not by the intervention of messengers or friends. This variation in the two accounts has induced some to think that Matthew and Luke are describing two different miracles. This view is ingeniously defended by Flacius Illyricus. But there seems no sufficient ground for it. Matthew’s account of the miracle is evidently shorter, and more abridged than that of Luke, and he may perhaps speak of the Centurion as doing some things himself which a more full and complete narrative shows that he did by others. "This," says Trench, "is an exchange of persons, of which all historical narrations, and all the language of common life, is full."—It is highly probable, however, that the narratives of both the Gospels are literally accurate, and do not require the explanation just given. In all probability the Centurion first sent messengers to our Lord, and afterwards went to speak to Him in person. Matthew relates the personal interview, and Luke the message. On this view both accounts are true, and do not clash with one another.
Apparent discrepancies between the Gospel narratives, be it noted, are often explainable in this way. Common fairness should make us remember that two men in daily life may describe the same event, and both speak the truth, and yet their accounts may not be precisely the same. And the reason of it is simply this. One man dwells on one circumstance of the story and the other on another. Each brings out his own point more fully than the other. Yet each speaks truth.
The slightly varying accounts which two faithful historians give of the same public events, and the slightly varying evidence which two honest witnesses will often give in a court of justice about the same facts, are striking illustrations of what I mean. In short, an entire sameness in the stories told by two separate witnesses is sometimes in itself suspicious, because it looks like concert, collusion, and an attempt to deceive.
[Trouble not thyself.] The Greek word so translated is only used three times in the New Testament: here, and at Mark 5:35, and Luke 8:49; and each time in the same sense, as descriptive of persons giving unnecessary trouble and fatigue to our Lord.
v7.—[Say in a word.] The Portuguese Commentator, Barradius, has some striking remarks on this expression of the Centurion’s. He says, "This is a peculiar attribute of God’s, to be able to do all things by a word and a command. ’He spake and they were made;’ ’He commanded and they were created.’ (Psalms 148:5.) Read the book of Genesis. You will see the world created by the word of God: ’God said, Let there be light, and there was light.’ ’God said, Let there be a firmament,’ and a firmament was made," &c. He then shows by a quotation from Augustine, how all the created beings in existence, whether kings, or angels, or seraphims, cannot create so much as an ant. But when God says, "Let the world be made," at once it is made by a word. And he concludes, "Well therefore does the Centurion say, ’say in a word only, and my servant shall be healed.’ "
v9.—[He marvelled at him.] There are two occasions where it is recorded that our Lord Jesus Christ "marvelled," once in this history, and once in Mark 6:6. It is remarkable that in one case He is described as marvelling at "faith," and in the other as marvelling at "unbelief." Bishop Hall, and Burkitt after him, both observe, "What can be more wonderful than to see Christ wonder?"
The expression is one of those which show the reality of our Lord’s human nature. He was made like unto us in all things, sin only excepted. As man He grew in wisdom and stature. As man He hungered, thirsted, was weary, ate, drank, slept, wept, sorrowed, rejoiced, groaned, agonized, bled, suffered and died. And so also as man He wondered. Yet all this time He was very and eternal God, one with the Father, and the Saviour of the world. This is a great mystery,, and one which we cannot fathom. The union of two natures in one Person, is a thing passing our weak comprehension. We must believe and admire, without attempting to define or explain.
In the case in Mark the marvelling is evidently a marvelling of sorrow. In the case before us it is a marvelling of admiration. Burkitt remarks, "Let it teach us to place our admiration where Christ placed His. Let us be more affected with the least measure of grace in a good man, than with all the gaieties and glories of a great man." Our Lord, be it remembered, did not marvel at the gorgeous and beautiful buildings of the Jewish temple. But he did marvel at faith.
THE wondrous event described in these verses, is only recorded in Luke’s Gospel. It is one of the three great instances of our Lord restoring a dead person to life, and, like the raising of Lazarus and the ruler’s daughter, is rightly regarded as one of the greatest miracles which He wrought on earth. In all three cases, we see an exercise of divine power. In each we see an comfortable proof that the Prince of Peace is stronger than the king of terrors, and that though death, the last enemy, is mighty, he is not so mighty as the sinner’s Friend.
We learn from these verses, what sorrow sin has brought into the world. We are told of a funeral at Nain. All funerals are mournful things, but it is difficult to imagine a funeral more mournful than the one here described. It was the funeral of a young man, and that young man the only son of his mother, and that mother a widow. There is not an item in the whole story, which is not full of misery. And all this misery, be it remembered, was brought into the world by sin. God did not create it at the beginning, when He made all things "very good." Sin is the cause of it all. "Sin entered into the world" when Adam fell, "and death by sin." (Romans 5:12.)
Let us never forget this great truth. The world around us is full of sorrow. Sickness, and pain, and infirmity, and poverty, and labor, and trouble, abound on every side. From one end of the world to the other, the history of families is full of lamentation, and weeping, and mourning, and woe. And whence does it all come? Sin is the fountain and root to which all must be traced. There would neither have been tears, nor cares, nor illness, nor deaths, nor funerals in the earth, if there had been no sin. We must bear this state of things patiently. We cannot alter it. We may thank God that there is a remedy in the Gospel, and that this life is not all. But in the meantime, let us lay the blame at the right door. Let us lay the blame on sin.
How much we ought to hate sin! Instead of loving it, cleaving to it, dallying with it, excusing it, playing with it, we ought to hate it with a deadly hatred. Sin is the great murderer, and thief, and pestilence, and nuisance of this world. Let us make no peace with it. Let us wage a ceaseless warfare against it. It is "the abominable thing which God hateth." Happy is he who is of one mind with God, and can say, I "abhor that which is evil." (Romans 12:9.)
We learn, secondly, from these verses, how deep is the compassion of our Lord Jesus Christ’s heart. We see this beautifully brought out in His behavior at this funeral in Nain. He meets the mournful procession, accompanying the young man to his grave, and is moved with compassion at the sight. He waits not to be applied to for help. His help appears to have been neither asked for nor expected. He saw the weeping mother, and knew well what her feelings must have been, for He had been born of a woman Himself. At once He addressed her with words alike startling and touching: He "said unto her, Weep not."—A few more seconds, and the meaning of His words became plain. The widow’s son was restored to her alive. Her darkness was turned into light, and her sorrow into joy.
Our Lord Jesus Christ never changes. He is the same yesterday, to-day, and forever. His heart is still as compassionate as when He was upon earth. His sympathy with sufferers is still as strong. Let us bear this in mind, and take comfort in it. There is no friend or comforter who can be compared to Christ. In all our days of darkness, which must needs be many, let us first turn for consolation to Jesus the Son of God. He will never fail us, never disappoint us, never refuse to take interest in our sorrows. He lives, who made the widow’s heart sing for joy in the gate of Nain. He lives, to receive all laboring and heavy-laden ones, if they will only come to Him by faith. He lives, to heal the broken-hearted, and be a Friend that sticketh closer than a brother. And He lives to do greater things than these one day. He lives to come again to His people, that they may weep no more at all, and that all tears may be wiped from their eyes.
We learn, lastly, from these verses, the almighty power of our Lord Jesus Christ. We can ask no proof of this more striking than the miracle which we are now considering. He gives back life to a dead man with a few words. He speaks to a cold corpse, and at once it becomes a living person. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, the heart, the lungs, the brain, the senses, again resume their work and discharge their duty. "Young man," He cried, "I say unto thee arise." That voice was a voice mighty in operation. At once "he that was dead sat up and began to speak."
Let us see in this mighty miracle a pledge of that solemn event, the general resurrection. That same Jesus who here raised one dead person, shall raise all mankind at the last day. "The hour cometh in the which all that are in the grave shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good unto the resurrection of life, and they that have done evil unto the resurrection of damnation." (John 5:28-29.) When the trumpet sounds and Christ commands, there can be no refusal or escape. All must appear before His bar in their bodies. All shall be judged according to their works.
Let us see, furthermore, in this mighty miracle, a lively emblem of Christ’s power to quicken the dead in sins. In Him is life. He quickeneth whom He will. (John 5:21.) He can raise to a new life souls that now seem dead in worldliness and sin. He can say to hearts that now appear corrupt and lifeless, "Arise to repentance, and live in the service of God." Let us never despair of any soul. Let us pray for our children, and faint not. Our young men and our young women may long seem traveling on the way to ruin. But let us pray on. Who can tell but He that met the funeral at the gates of Nain may yet meet our unconverted children, and say with almighty power, "Young man, arise." With Christ nothing is impossible.
Let us leave the passage with a solemn recollection of those things which are yet to happen at the last day. We read that "there came a fear on all," at Nain, when the young man was raised. What then shall be the feelings of mankind when all the dead are raised at once? The unconverted man may well fear that day. He is not prepared to meet God. But the true Christian has nothing to fear. He may lay him down and sleep peacefully in his grave. In Christ He is complete and safe, and when he rises again he shall see God’s face in peace.
v11.—[The day after.] It would appear from this expression, that the miracle recorded in these verses, was the first instance of our Lord raising a dead person to life. The daughter of Jairus was the second instance, and Lazarus the third. This order of the three miracles is disputed by some. But the internal evidence in favour of it, seems too strong to be put aside. Remembering this, we may understand the sensation that the miracle would create among all Jews who heard of it. No person had been raised from the dead, since the days of Elisha, a period of nine hundred years.
[A city called Nain.] This place is nowhere else mentioned in the Bible. It is a small town on the northern slope of the lesser Mount Hermon, of which the ruins and the name remain to the present day. Mr. Burgon says, that an ancient burying place is even now distinguishable at the lower part of the hill, not far from the ruins.
v12.—[A dead man carried out.] Let us note that the place of burial was outside the city. It is curious to observe how strongly almost all commentators dwell on this point, and urge the impropriety of the practice of burying the dead in church yards, and among the living.
[Much people was with her.] This expression should not be overlooked. It shows the publicity of the great miracle here recorded. It was wrought before many witnesses.
v13.—[When the Lord saw her He had compassion.] Poole’s remarks on this expression are worth reading: "None moved our Lord on behalf of the widow, neither do we read that she herself spake to Him. But our Saviour’s bowels were moved at the sight of her sorrows, and consideration of her loss. It is observable that our Saviour wrought His healing miracles: 1, sometimes at the motion and desire of the parties to be healed; 2, sometimes at the desire of others on their behalf; 3, sometimes of His own free motion, neither themselves nor others soliciting Him for any such mercies toward them."—"The leper was healed (Luke 5:12) in reply to his own personal application; the centurion’s servant (Luke 7:3) in reply to the prayer of his master; and the widow’s son was raised without any one interceding on his behalf."
v14.—[The bier.] The Greek word so translated, is only found here in the New Testament. It would not have been correct to translate it "coffin." The practice of burying in coffins was apparently unknown among the Jews. In the case before us, the young man’s body probably laid on a sort of couch. In Bonar’s travels in Palestine, he describes a funeral which he saw, and says that the bier was like "a large cradle."
[I say unto thee arise.] We should carefully note the wide difference between our Lord’s manner of working miracles, and the manner in which they were worked by His prophets and apostles. There is an authority and divine power about the miracles recorded in the Gospels, which we do not see in the history of the other miracles in the Bible. Euthymius remarks, "Of old time indeed the prophet Elijah raised again the son of the widow of Sarepta, but by humbling himself before God, and supplication to Him. (1 Kings 17:20-21.) So also the prophet Elisha raised the son of the Shunammite woman, but only after having stretched himself out upon his body. (2 Kings 4:34-35.) But Jesus only touching and commanding, at once raised the dead person."
Burkitt remarks, "The Socinians here own that Christ raised this young man by a divine power, which God had communicated to Him, yet deny Him at the same time to be essentially God. But let them prove, if they can, that a divine power which is proper to God alone, ever was, or ever can, be communicated to a creature, without the communication of the divine nature. True, we find Peter commanding Tabitha to arise. (Acts 9:40,) but we find all he did was by faith in Christ, and by prayer unto Christ. But Christ here raised the widow’s son without prayer, purely by His own power; which undeniably proves Him to be God."
v15.—[Began to speak.] This fact is mentioned, in order to place it beyond doubt, that the young man was really restored to life. Where there is speech, there must he life.
Let it be observed, that we have no record given to us of anything that was ever said or thought by those who were miraculously raised from the dead. Their experience and knowledge are wisely withheld from us.
v16.—[There came a fear.] This expression, and the rest of the verse, as well as the verse following, appear to furnish strong proof that this was the first instance of a dead person being restored to life by our Lord, during His ministry on earth.
[God hath visited His people.] This expression should be compared with Luke 1:68, and Luke 1:78, and with many places in the Old Testament—such as Ruth 1:6, 1 Samuel 2:21, Job 35:15, Jeremiah 6:6. It appears to signify any remarkable divine interposition, either in the way of mercy or of judgment, and does not necessarily signify, in this place, a personal visitation. That "God was manifest in the flesh," when Christ became man for us, is an undeniable truth of Scripture. But it cannot be proved that it is taught in this text.
v17.—[This rumour of Him went forth, &c.] Poole remarks, "The people here saw His divine power manifestly exerted; for the keys of the clouds, the womb, and the grave, are those keys which their teachers had taught them were kept in God’s hand alone."
THE message which John the Baptist sent to our Lord, in these verses, is peculiarly instructing, when we consider the circumstances under which it was sent. John the Baptist was now a prisoner in the hands of Herod. "He heard in the prison the works of Christ." (Matthew 11:2.) His life was drawing to a close. His opportunities of active usefulness were ended. A long imprisonment, or a violent death, were the only prospects before him. Yet even in these dark days, we see this holy man maintaining his old ground, as a witness to Christ. He is the same man that he was when he cried, "Behold the Lamb of God." To testify of Christ, was his continual work as a preacher at liberty. to send men to Christ, was one of his last works as a prisoner in chains.
We should mark, in these verses, the wise fore-thought which John exhibited about his disciples, before he left the world. He sent some of them to Jesus, with a message of inquiry,—"Art thou he that should come, or look we for another?" He doubtless calculated that they would receive such an answer as would make an indelible impression on their minds. And he was right. They got an answer in deeds, as well as words,—an answer which probably produced a deeper effect than any arguments which they could have heard from their master’s lips.
We can easily imagine that John the Baptist must have felt much anxiety about the future course of his disciples. He knew their ignorance and weakness in the faith. He knew how natural it was for them to regard the disciples of Jesus with feelings of jealousy and envy. He knew how likely it was that petty party-spirit would creep in among them, and make them keep aloof from Christ when their own master was dead and gone. Against this unhappy state of things he makes provision, as far as possible, while he is yet alive. He sends some of them to Jesus, that they may see for themselves what kind of teacher He is, and not reject Him unseen and unheard. He takes care to supply them with the strongest evidence that our Lord was indeed the Messiah. Like his divine Master, having loved his disciples, he loved them to the end. And now, perceiving that he must soon leave them, he strives to leave them in the best of hands. He does his best to make them acquainted with Christ.
What an instructive lesson we have here for ministers, and parents, and heads of families,—for all, in short, who have anything to do with the souls of others! We should endeavor, like John the Baptist, to provide for the future spiritual welfare of those we leave behind, when we die. We should often remind them that we cannot always be with them. We should often urge them to beware of the broad way, when we are taken from them, and they are left alone in the world. We should spare no pains to make all, who in any way look up to us, acquainted with Christ. Happy are those ministers and parents, whose consciences can testify on their death-beds, that they have told their hearers and children to go to Jesus and follow Him!
We should mark, secondly, in these verses, the peculiar answer which the disciples of John received from our Lord. We are told that "in the same hour He cured many of their infirmities and plagues." And then, "He said unto them, Go your way, and tell John what things ye have seen and heard." He makes no formal declaration that he is the Messiah that was to come. He simply supplies the messengers with facts to repeat to their master, and sends them away. He knew well how John the Baptist would employ these facts. He would say to his disciples, "Behold in him who worked these miracles, the prophet greater than Moses.—This is he whom you must hear and follow, when I am dead.—This is indeed the Christ."
Our Lord’s reply to John’s disciples, contains a great practical lesson, which we shall do well to remember. It teaches us that the right way to test the value of Churches and ministers, is to examine the works they do for God, and the fruits they bring forth. Would we know whether a Church is true and trust-worthy?—Would we know whether a minister is really called of God, and sound in the faith?—We must apply the old rule of Scripture, "Ye shall know them by their fruits." As Christ would be known by His works and doctrine, so must true Churches of Christ, and true ministers of Christ. When the dead in sin are not quickened, and the blind are not restored to sight, and the poor have no glad tidings proclaimed to them, we may generally suspect that Christ’s presence is wanting. Where He is, He will be seen and heard. Where He is, there will not only be profession, forms, ceremonies, and a show of religion. There will be actual, visible work in hearts and lives.
We should mark, lastly, in these verses, the solemn warning which our Lord gave to John’s disciples. He knew the danger in which they were. He knew that they were disposed to question His claim to be the Messiah, because of His lowly appearance. They saw no signs of a king about Him, no riches, no royal apparel, no guards, no courtiers, and no crown. They only saw a man, to all appearance poor as any one of themselves, attended by a few fishermen and publicans. Their pride rebelled at the idea of such an one as this being the Christ! It seemed incredible! There must be some mistake! Such thoughts as these, in all probability, passed through their minds. Our Lord read their hearts, and dismissed them with a searching caution. "Blessed," He said, "is he that is not offended in me."
The warning is one that is just as needful now as it was when it was delivered. So long as the world stands, Christ and His Gospel will be a stumbling-block to many. To hear that we are all lost and guilty sinners, and cannot save ourselves,—to hear that we must give up our own righteousness, and trust in One who was crucified between two thieves,—to hear that we must be content to enter heaven side by side with publicans and harlots, and to owe all our salvation to free grace,—this is always offensive to the natural man. Our proud hearts do not like it. We are offended.
Let the caution of these verses sink down deeply into our memories. Let us take heed that we are not offended. Let us beware of being stumbled, either by the humbling doctrines of the Gospel, or the holy practice which it enjoins on those who receive it. Secret pride is one of the worst enemies of man. It will prove at last to have been the ruin of thousands of souls. Thousands will be found to have had the offer of salvation, but to have rejected it. They did not like the terms. They would not stoop to "enter in at the strait gate." They would not humbly come as sinners to the throne of grace. In a word, they were offended. And then will appear the deep meaning in our Lord’s words, "Blessed is he who shall not be offended in me."
v19.—[John calling unto him...disciples sent them to Jesus.] The reason why John the Baptist sent this message to our Lord, is explained by different commentators in widely different ways. Those who wish to see the subject fully discussed should read what Chemnitius and Barradius say about it.
Some think that John sent this message at a time when his faith was failing. They think that like many other saints in the Bible, he had his moments of weakness, and that his imprisonment, together with the fact that our Lord did nothing to deliver him, had made him begin to doubt whether Jesus was the Messiah. This explanation was maintained by Tertullian, but it is not satisfactory.
Some think that John sent his message not from unbelief, but from a desire to obtain information. He regarded himself as delivered to death, and on the brink of the grave. He desired to know whether he was to announce in the world beyond the grave that the Messiah was coming after him. This explanation seems so absurd that it needs no refutation, and were it not that it is maintained (according to Barradius,) by Jerome, Gregory the Great, and Beda, it would not be worth mentioning.
The most probable explanation is that which I have set forth in the exposition of the passage. John’s message was not sent on his account, but on account of his disciples. It was not sent because his own faith was failing, but because he wished those he was about to leave behind him to believe in Jesus as the Messiah. One argument in favour of this view is the great improbability that one so eminently taught of God as John was, and so singularly clear in his past testimony, would forget his first faith and doubt whether Jesus was the Christ. Another, and far more powerful argument, is the strong language of commendation which our Lord uses about John the Baptist as soon as his messengers had left Him. His expressions are so peculiarly strong, that we might suppose they were specially intended to prevent any slur being thrown on John’s character on account of his message. They look as if our Lord would have all men know that John’s own faith never failed, and that he was the same man at the end of his course that he was at the beginning.
The view now set forth is maintained by Hilary, Augustine, Chrysostom, Theophylact, and the great majority of the best commentators.
[He that should come.] This expression might be rendered more literally, "the coming One." It seems to have been an expression specially applied to the Messiah. John 4:25, and John 11:27. Chemnitius says, that the word in Hebrew signifies not merely one who comes to a place, but one who comes to enter upon an office, and occupy a position.
v20.—[John Baptist hath sent us.] It is very difficult to see why our English translators in this place have used the expression "John Baptist," and not "John the Baptist," as at Luke 7:28, and Luke 7:33. I can detect nothing in the Greek version, to warrant the omission of the word "the."
v21.—[Infirmities...plagues...evil spirits.] Let it be noted that evil spirits are here mentioned as an affliction distinct from any bodily ailments. Bishop Pearce remarks, "We may conclude that evil spirits are reckoned by Luke, (who speaks of distempers with more accuracy than the other evangelists,) as things different from any disorders of the body included in the two former words."
[He gave sight.] There is something very peculiar in the Greek words so translated, which our version can hardly convey. It might be rendered, "he made a present of seeing."
v22.—[The dead are raised.] The question has often been asked, To whom does our Lord refer, in saying this? We only know of one dead person restored to life by Christ up to the present time. That person was the widow’s son at Nain.
The answer is simply this. It is mere assumption to say that no dead person was raised to life beside those whose cases are described, during the period of our Lord’s earthly ministry. It is unreasonable to suppose that all our Lord’s miracles are recorded in the Gospels. He doubtless did many mighty works, beside those which are there described. See John 21:25. Augustine, in his sermon on this miracle, says: "Who knows how many dead the Lord raised visibly? For all the things that He did are not written. John tells us this. So then there were without doubt many others raised."
[To the poor the Gospel is preached.] That this was a sign of Messiah’s times appears plain from the word’s of Isaiah: "In that day the poor among men shall rejoice in the holy one of Israel." (Isaiah 29:19.) Contempt for the poor, as ignorant and despicable, appears to have been very common in the times of the Gospel. (John 7:49, John 9:34, and James 2:5.) Concern and tender interest about the souls of the poor, as souls which would live as long as the souls of rich men, was a distinguishing feature of our Lord’s ministry, and of that of His apostles. It is always an evil sign of the state of a Church when the spiritual wants of the lower orders are neglected, and the rich man’s way to heaven is made smoother than the way of the poor.
THE first point that demands our notice in this passage, is the tender care which Jesus takes of the characters of His faithful servants. He defends the reputation of John the Baptist, as soon as his messengers were departed. He saw that the people around him were apt to think lightly of John, partly because he was in prison, partly because of the inquiry which his disciples had just brought. He pleads the cause of His absent friend in warm and strong language. He bids His hearers dismiss from their minds their unworthy doubts and suspicions about this holy man. He tells them that John was no wavering and unstable character, a mere reed shaken by the wind. He tells them that John was no mere courtier and hanger-on about king’s palaces, though circumstances at the end of his ministry had brought him into connection with king Herod. He declares to them that John was "much more than a prophet," for he was a prophet who had been the subject of prophecy himself. And he winds up his testimony by the remarkable saying, that "among those that are born of woman there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist."
There is something deeply touching in these sayings of our Lord on behalf of his absent servant. The position which John now occupied as Herod’s prisoner was widely different from that which he occupied at the beginning of his ministry. At one time he was the best-known and most popular preacher of his day. There was a time when "there went out to him Jerusalem and all Judæa,—and were baptized in Jordan." (Matthew 3:5.) Now he was a solitary prisoner in Herod’s hands, deserted, friendless, and with nothing before him but death. But the want of man’s favor is no proof that God is displeased. John the Baptist had one Friend who never failed him and never forsook him,—a Friend whose kindness did not ebb and flow like John’s popularity, but was always the same. That Friend was our Lord Jesus Christ.
There is comfort here for all believers who are suspected, slandered, and falsely accused. Few are the children of God who do not suffer in this way, at some time or other. The accuser of the brethren knows well that character is one of the points in which he can most easily wound a Christian. He knows well that slanders are easily called into existence, greedily received and propagated, and seldom entirely silenced. Lies and false reports are the chosen weapons by which he labors to injure the Christian’s usefulness, and destroy his peace. But let all who are assaulted in their characters rest in the thought that they have an Advocate in heaven who knows their sorrows. That same Jesus who maintained the character of His imprisoned servant before a Jewish crowd, will never desert any of His people. The world may frown on them. Their names may be cast out as evil by man. But Jesus never changes, and will one day plead their cause before the whole world.
The second point which demands our attention in these verses is, the vast superiority of the privileges enjoyed by believers under the New Testament, compared to those of believers under the Old. This is a lesson which appears to be taught by one expression used by our Lord respecting John the Baptist. After commending his graces and gifts, He adds these remarkable words, "He that is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he."
Our Lord’s meaning in using this expression appears to be simply this. He declares that the religious light of the least disciple who lived after His crucifixion and resurrection, would be far greater than that of John Baptist, who died before those mighty events took place. The weakest believing hearer of Paul would understand things, by the light of Christ’s death on the cross, which John the Baptist could never have explained. Great as that holy man was in faith and courage, the humblest Christian would, in one sense, be greater than he. Greater in grace and works he certainly could not be. But beyond doubt he would be greater in privileges and knowledge.
Such an expression as this should teach all Christians to be deeply thankful for Christianity. We have probably very little idea of the wide difference between the religious knowledge of the best-instructed Old Testament believer and the knowledge of one familiar with the New Testament. We little know how many blessed truths of the Gospel were at one time seen through a glass darkly, which now appear to us plain as noon-day. Our very familiarity with the Gospel makes us blind to the extent of our privileges. We can hardly realize at this time how many glorious verities of our faith were brought out in their full proportions by Christ’s death on the cross, and were never unveiled and understood till His blood was shed. The hopes of John the Baptist and Paul were undoubtedly one and the same. Both were led by one Spirit. Both knew their sinfulness. Both trusted in the Lamb of God. But we cannot suppose that John could have given as full an account of the way of salvation as Paul. Both looked at the same object of faith. But one saw it afar off, and could only describe it generally. The other saw it close at hand, and could describe the reason of his hope particularly. Let us learn to be more thankful. The child who knows the story of the cross, possesses a key to religious knowledge which patriarchs and prophets never enjoyed.
The last point which demands our attention in these verses is, the solemn declaration which it makes about man’s power to injure his own soul. We read that "The Pharisees and Scribes rejected the counsel of God against themselves." The meaning of these words appears to be simply this, that they rejected God’s offer of salvation. They refused to avail themselves of the door of repentance which was offered to them by John the Baptist’s preaching. In short they fulfilled to the very letter the words of Solomon: "Ye have set at naught all my counsel and would none of my reproof." (Proverbs 1:25.)
That every man possesses a power to ruin himself forever in hell is a great foundation truth of Scripture, and a truth which ought to be continually before our minds. Impotent and weak as we all are for everything which is good, we are all naturally potent for that which is evil. By continued impenitence and unbelief, by persevering in the love and practice of sin, by pride, self-will, laziness, and determined love of the world, we may bring upon ourselves everlasting destruction. And if this takes place, we shall find that we have no one to blame but ourselves. God has "no pleasure in the death of him that dieth." (Ezekiel 18:32.) Christ is "willing to gather" men to His bosom, if they will only be gathered. (Matthew 23:37.) The fault will lie at man’s own door. They that are lost will find that they have "lost their own souls." (Mark 8:36.)
What are we doing ourselves? This is the chief question that the passage should suggest to our minds. Are we likely to be lost or saved? Are we in the way towards heaven or hell? Have we received into our hearts that Gospel which we hear? Do we really live by that Bible which we profess to believe? Or are we daily traveling towards the pit, and ruining our own souls? It is a painful thought that the Pharisees are not the only persons who "reject the counsel of God." There are thousands of persons called Christians who are continually doing the very same thing.
v24.—[What went ye out to see?...a reed, &c.] Let it be noted that both here and in the two following verses the question is equivalent to a strong and positive affirmation. It is as if our Lord had said, "John the Baptist was not a reed shaken by the wind,"—"was not a man clothed in soft raiment,"—"was not merely a prophet."—Such a form of expression is not uncommon in the Bible. A striking example is to be seen in the famous question, "What shall it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?" It is equivalent to saying, "It shall profit him nothing at all."
[A reed shaken by the wind.] Chemnitius observes that this is the very same expression which is used by the heathen satirist, Lucian, in describing the unsettled opinion of the philosophical sects.
v25.—[They which are gorgeously appareled...delicately.] The literal translation of the Greek words here would be, "They that are in gorgeous apparel, and delicate living."
The words translated "delicate living," is only used in one other place in the New Testament, and is there rendered, "riot." (2 Peter 2:13.)
v28.—[Among those...born of women.] Chrysostom thinks, that by this expression our Lord "tacitly excepted himself. For though He too was born of a woman, yet not as John, for He was not a mere man, neither was He born in like manner as man, but by a strange and wondrous kind of birth." This is not a satisfactory interpretation, and seems to involve dangerous consequences.
[He that is least...greater than he.] There are many diverse and strange opinions among the commentators about the meaning of these words. Those who wish to examine them, will find a full account of them in Chemnitius and Barradius.
Some think, that the "least in the kingdom of God," means the least of those who receive Christian baptism, and that John the Baptist never having been baptized, was never regenerated by the Holy Spirit, and therefore was inferior to the humblest person baptized by the Apostles. This is the opinion of Cyril. It is too absurd to require refutation. To say of John, who was "filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother’s womb," that he was not born again of the Spirit, is preposterous, and revolting to common sense.
Some think that the "least in the kingdom of God," means the least saint in heaven. This is the opinion of Jerome and Beda.
Some think that the "least in the kingdom" means the least angel. This is the opinion of Ambrose, Bonaventura, and Thomas Aquinas.
Some think, that the "least in the kingdom," means our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, who humbled Himself and said, "I am a worm and no man." (Psalms 22:6.) This is the opinion of Augustine and Chrysostom, and has been maintained by many in every age. But it seems a strained and forced sense to place upon the words.
I believe the true interpretation to be the one I have maintained in the exposition. I believe the "least in the kingdom of God," to mean the least believer who lived after the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. I believe the weakest member of the Churches planted by Paul, had a clearer knowledge of the exact manner in which God would justify the ungodly than John the Baptist, or any one who lived before the crucifixion ever could have. The contrast our Lord is drawing, is between the privileges of those who lived to see the great fountain of sin opened by His blood-shedding, and those who died before that blood was shed. We do not realize the enormous difference in the position of these two classes of persons. We do not sufficiently remember how very dimly and indistinctly many great saving truths must needs have been apprehended, before Christ died and the veil was rent in twain. The "way into the holiest was not made manifest," while John the Baptist lived, and for that reason Jesus says that the least member of the Gospel Church was "greater than he." His grace and gifts were not greater, but His knowledge and privileges decidedly were.
v29.—[And all the people that heard, &c.] It is a disputed point whether this verse and the following one contain the words of Christ or of Luke, whether they are a continuation of our Lord’s speech or a remark of the Evangelist’s. The question is discussed at length by Maldonatus.
The ancient commentators, including Ambrose, Beda, Euthymius, and, according to Thomas Aquinas, Chrysostom also, regard the two verses as the words of our Lord. Chemnitius supports this opinion.
Lyranus and the modern commentators regard the two verses as the inspired comment of the Evangelist on what our Lord had just been saying.
The question, perhaps, is not one of much importance. To me the two verses appear to read awkwardly and unnaturally, if taken as the words of the Lord. I should never have thought of regarding them as anything but the words of Luke, if the idea had not been suggested to me by others.
[Justified God...being baptized.] The meaning of this expression appears to be, that "they declared their belief that John was a prophet sent from God, by submitting to his baptism." Burkitt says, "Those who believe the message that God sendeth, and obey it, justify God. They that do not believe and obey, accuse and condemn God." Burgon says, "They acknowledged God’s justice, mercy, truth and goodness."
Let it be noted, that here as elsewhere in the New Testament, it is impossible to interpret the word "justify" in the sense of "to make just." Man cannot make God just. (See Psalms 51:4.) The word means always, "To declare, count, or reckon just." "Justified" persons are not persons who are made righteous, but persons who are reckoned and counted righteous.
v30.—[Rejected the counsel of God against themselves.] The meaning of this expression appears to be, that they despised, and frustrated, and made of no avail the gracious offer of repentance and salvation, which God sent to them by John the Baptist.
The Greek word translated "rejected" is more frequently translated "despised." It is also rendered by the words to "disannul," to "cast off," to "frustrate," and to "bring to nothing." Luke 10:16; Galatians 3:15; 1 Timothy 5:12; Galatians 2:21; 1 Corinthians 1:19.
The "counsel" spoken of here can in no wise be interpreted as the everlasting counsel of God, whereby He has decreed to save His own elect by Christ. This counsel shall stand. It is not in the power of man to disannul or frustrate it. It probably means here God’s gracious purpose in sending John to preach repentance, and that will of benevolence which God declares Himself to have towards all mankind, and reveals in the Gospel
The words "against themselves" might equally well have been translated, "towards themselves." The marginal reading is "within" themselves, which seems less probable than either of the other two senses. The general meaning of the whole sentence, which ever sense of the three we take, remains unaltered.
WE learn, in the first place, from these verses, that the hearts of unconverted men are often desperately perverse as well as wicked.
Our Lord brings out this lesson in a remarkable comparison, describing the generation of men among whom He lived while He was on earth. He compares them to children. He says, that children at play were not more wayward, perverse, and hard to please, than the Jews of His day. Nothing would satisfy them. They were always finding fault. Whatever ministry God employed among them, they took exception to it. Whatever messenger God sent among them, they were not pleased. First came John the Baptist, living a retired, ascetic, self-denying life. At once the Jews said, "he hath a devil."—After him the Son of Man came, eating and drinking, and adopting habits of social life like the ordinary run of men. At once the Jews accused Him of being "a gluttonous man, and a winebibber."—In short, it became evident that the Jews were determined to receive no message from God at all. Their pretended objections were only a cloak to cover over their hatred of God’s truth. What they really disliked was, not so much God’s ministers, as God Himself.
Perhaps we read this account with wonder and surprise. We think that never were men so wickedly unreasonable as these Jews were. But are we sure that their conduct is not continually repeated among Christians? Do we know that the same thing is continually going on around us at the present day? Strange as it may seem at first sight, the generation which will neither "dance" when their companions "pipe," nor "lament" when they "mourn," is only too numerous in the Church of Christ. Is it not a fact that many who strive to serve Christ faithfully, and walk closely with God, find their neighbors and relations always dissatisfied with their conduct? No matter how holy and consistent their lives may be, they are always thought wrong. If they withdraw entirely from the world, and live, like John the Baptist, a retired and ascetic life, the cry is raised that they are exclusive, narrow-minded, sour-spirited, and righteous overmuch. If, on the other hand, they go much into society, and endeavor as far as they can to take interest in their neighbor’s pursuits, the remark is soon made that they are no better than other people, and have no more real religion than those who make no profession at all. Treatment like this is only too common. Few are the decided Christians who do not know it by bitter experience. The servants of God in every age, whatever they do, are blamed.
The plain truth is, that the natural heart of man hates God. The carnal mind is enmity against God. It dislikes His law, His Gospel, and His people. It will always find some excuse for not believing and obeying. The doctrine of repentance is too strict for it! The doctrine of faith and grace is too easy for it! John the Baptist goes too much out of the world! Jesus Christ goes too much into the world! And so the heart of man excuses itself for sitting still in its sins.—All this must not surprise us. We must make up our minds to find unconverted people as perverse, unreasonable, and hard to please as the Jews of our Lord’s time.
We must give up the vain idea of trying to please everybody. The thing is impossible, and the attempt is mere waste of time. We must be content to walk in Christ’s steps, and let the world say what it likes. Do what we will we shall never satisfy it, or silence its ill-natured remarks. It first found fault with John the Baptist, and then with his blessed Master. And it will go on caviling and finding fault with that Master’s disciples, so long as one of them is left upon earth.
We learn, secondly, from these verses, that the wisdom of God’s ways is always recognized and acknowledged by those who are wise-hearted.
This is a lesson which is taught in a sentence of somewhat obscure character: "Wisdom is justified of all her children." But it seems difficult to extract any other meaning from the words, by fair and consistent interpretation. The idea which our Lord desired to impress upon us appears to be, that though the vast majority of the Jews were hardened and unreasonable, there were some who were not,—and that though multitudes saw no wisdom in the ministry of John the Baptist and Himself, there were a chosen few who did. Those few were the "children of wisdom." Those few, by their lives and obedience, declared their full conviction that God’s ways of dealing with the Jews were wise and right, and that John the Baptist and the Lord Jesus were both worthy of all honor. In short, they "justified" God’s wisdom, and so proved themselves truly wise.
This saying of our Lord about the generation among whom He lived, describes a state of things which will always be found in the Church of Christ. In spite of the cavils, sneers, objections, and unkind remarks with which the Gospel is received by the majority of mankind, there will always be some in every country who will assent to it, and obey it with delight. There will never be wanting a "little flock" which hears the voice of the Shepherd gladly, and counts all His ways right. The children of this world may mock at the Gospel, and pour contempt on the lives of believers. They may count their practice madness, and see no wisdom nor beauty in their ways. But God will take care that He has a people in every age. There will be always some who will assert the perfect excellence of the doctrines and requirements of the Gospel, and will "justify the wisdom" of Him who sent it. And these, however much the world may despise them, are they whom Jesus calls wise. They are "wise unto salvation, through faith which is in Christ Jesus." (2 Timothy 3:15.)
Let us ask ourselves, as we leave this passage, whether we deserve to be called children of wisdom? Have we been taught by the Spirit to know the Lord Jesus Christ? Have the eyes of our understanding been opened? Have we the wisdom that cometh from above? If we are truly wise, let us not be ashamed to confess our Master before men. Let us declare boldly that we approve the whole of His Gospel, all its doctrines and all its requirements. We may find few with us and many against us. The world may laugh at us, and count our wisdom no better than folly. But such laughter is but for a moment. The hour cometh when the few who have confessed Christ, and justified His ways before men, shall be confessed and "justified" by Him before His Father and the angels.
v32.—[They are like unto children.] Let it be noted that the one point to be kept in mind, in the comparison of the generation among whom our Lord lived, to children, is the waywardness and determination not to be pleased, which is often observable in some children. In this respect they were exact types of the Jews when John Baptist and our Lord successively preached to them. Their two ministries were peculiarly unlike one another. But neither pleased the Jews.
To attach deep spiritual meanings to the "market place," the "piping," "dancing," "mourning," and "weeping," of the similitude, is, to say the least, unprofitable.
[Ye have not danced.] The dancing here mentioned must not be tortured into an excuse for modern dancing-parties and balls. The dancing spoken of in Scripture had no resemblance to the dancing of modern times.
v34.—[Eating and drinking.] The utmost that can be made of this expression amounts to this, that our Lord’s habits in the matter of eating and drinking were different from those of John the Baptist, that He was less ascetic, and more like other men.
Comparing this verse with the preceding one, and remembering, also, our Lord’s miracle at the marriage in Cana, and the Institution of the Lord’s Supper, I certainly think there is a strong probability that our Lord did not altogether abstain from the use of wine. I say this with the utmost respect for the friends of temperance. But I do not like to see a good cause injured by its advocates taking up untenable ground.
v35.—[But wisdom is justified of all her children.] There is some obscurity about these words. At any rate, there is much diversity in the interpretations which commentators put upon them.
Some take the expression "children of wisdom" in a bad sense, and consider the meaning to be, "those who ought to have been, or were reckoned children of wisdom, having rejected wisdom’s offers, wisdom is now acquitted and free from all blame at their hands. Divine wisdom tried all things needful for their conversion and salvation, and they would have none of her counsel. She is, therefore, justified, absolved and excused from all blame, if they are lost." This is Chrysostom’s view.
Some take the word "justified" in the strange sense of "condemned," and make out the meaning to be as follows. "Those who professed themselves to be children of wisdom have actually condemned wisdom, by refusing her counsels." This, according to Paræus and Chemnitius, is the view maintained by Luther.
I believe the right interpretation is to regard the "children of wisdom" as the truly wise, the elect, the believers, the people who are really taught of God. By them "the wisdom of God’s ways is always justified, whatever others may please to think of it. They assent to them, approve of them, and regard them as being entirely right." This sense will be found ably defended in the commentary of Paræus on Matthew,—and well and briefly stated by Euthymius.
The "children of wisdom" is a Hebraism for "those who are wise." Thus, the "children of rebellion" means the rebellious, Numbers 17:10, the "children of wickedness" the wicked, 2 Samuel 7:10, the "children of pride" the proud, Job 41:34, the "children of transgression" transgressors, Isaiah 57:4. The "children of this world," and "children of light," Luke 16:8, are similar expressions.
It seems unnecessary to take "wisdom," at the beginning of the verse, in the sense of the Personal Wisdom, Christ Himself. It is more likely a general expression for the "wisdom of God’s ways."
The word "but," at the beginning of the verse is more commonly translated "and." Beza and others however show that it should be taken here in the sense of "and yet," or "but," as we have rendered it in our version. Alford points out that "and," should be so rendered in Matthew 10:29. It should be "and yet one," &c.
THE deeply interesting narrative contained in these verses, is only found in the Gospel of Luke. In order to see the full beauty of the story, we should read, in connection with it, the eleventh chapter of Matthew. We shall then discover the striking fact, that the woman whose conduct is here recorded, most likely owed her conversion to the well-known words, "Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest." That wondrous invitation, in all human probability, was the saving of her soul, and gave her that sense of peace for which we see her so grateful.—A full offer of free pardon is generally God’s chosen instrument for bringing the chief of sinners to repentance.
We see in this passage that men may show some outward respect to Christ, and yet remain unconverted. The Pharisee before us is a case in point. He showed our Lord Jesus Christ more respect than many did. He even "desired Him that He would eat with him." Yet all this time he was profoundly ignorant of the nature of Christ’s Gospel. His proud heart secretly revolted at the sight of a poor contrite sinner being allowed to wash our Lord’s feet. And even the hospitality he showed appears to have been cold and niggardly. Our Lord Himself says, "Thou gavest me no water for my feet; thou gavest me no kiss; my head with oil thou didst not anoint." In short, in all that the Pharisee did, there was one great defect. There was outward civility, but there was no heart-love.
We shall do well to remember the case of this Pharisee. It is quite possible to have a decent form of religion, and yet to know nothing of the Gospel of Christ,—to treat Christianity with respect, and yet to be utterly blind about its cardinal doctrines,—to behave with great correctness and propriety at Church, and yet to hate justification by faith, and salvation by grace, with a deadly hatred. Do we really feel affection toward the Lord Jesus? Can we say, "Lord, thou knowest all things, thou knowest that I love thee"? Have we cordially embraced His whole Gospel? Are we willing to enter heaven side by side with the chief of sinners, and to owe all our hopes to free grace?—These are questions which we ought to consider. If we cannot answer them satisfactorily, we are in no respect better than Simon the Pharisee; and our Lord might say to us, "I have somewhat to say unto thee."
We see, in the next place, in this passage, that grateful love is the secret of doing much for Christ. The penitent woman, in the story before us, showed far more honor to our Lord than the Pharisee had done. She "stood at His feet behind Him weeping." She "washed His feet with tears." She "wiped them with the hairs of her head." She "kissed His feet, and anointed them with costly ointment." No stronger proofs of reverence and respect could she have given, and the secret of her giving such proofs, was love. She loved our Lord, and she thought nothing too much to do for Him. She felt deeply grateful to our Lord, and she thought no mark of gratitude too costly to bestow on Him.
More "doing" for Christ is the universal demand of all the Churches. It is the one point on which all are agreed. All desire to see among Christians, more good works, more self-denial, more practical obedience to Christ’s commands. But what will produce these things? Nothing, nothing but love. There never will be more done for Christ till there is more hearty love to Christ Himself. The fear of punishment, the desire of reward, the sense of duty, are all useful arguments, in their way, to persuade men to holiness. But they are all weak and powerless, until a man loves Christ. Once let that mighty principle get hold of a man, and you will see his whole life changed.
Let us never forget this. However much the world may sneer at "feelings" in religion, and however false or unhealthy religious feelings may sometimes be, the great truth still remains behind, that feeling is the secret of doing. The heart must be engaged for Christ, or the hands will soon hang down. The affections must be enlisted into His service, or our obedience will soon stand still. It will always be the loving workman who will do most in the Lord’s vineyard.
We see, lastly, in this passage, that a sense of having our sins forgiven is the mainspring and life-blood of love to Christ. This, beyond doubt, was the lesson which our Lord wished Simon the Pharisee to learn, when He told him the story of the two debtors. "One owed his creditor five hundred pence, and the other fifty." Both had "nothing to pay," and both were forgiven freely. And then came the searching question: "Which of them will love him most?" Here was the true explanation, our Lord told Simon, of the deep love which the penitent woman before Him had displayed. Her many tears, her deep affection, her public reverence, her action in anointing His feet, were all traceable to one cause. She had been much forgiven, and so she loved much. Her love was the effect of her forgiveness,—not the cause,—the consequence of her forgiveness, not the condition,—the result of her forgiveness, not the reason,—the fruit of her forgiveness, not the root. Would the Pharisee know why this woman showed so much love? It was because she felt much forgiven. Would he know why he himself had shown his guest so little love? It was because he felt under no obligation,—had no consciousness of having obtained forgiveness,—had no sense of debt to Christ.
Forever let the mighty principle laid down by our Lord in this passage, abide in our memories, and sink down into our hearts. It is one of the great corner-stones of the whole Gospel. It is one of the master-keys to unlock the secrets of the kingdom of God. The only way to make men holy, is to teach and preach free and full forgiveness through Jesus Christ. The secret of being holy ourselves, is to know and feel that Christ has pardoned our sins. Peace with God is the only root that will bear the fruit of holiness.
Forgiveness must go before sanctification. We shall do nothing till we are reconciled to God. This is the first step in religion. We must work from life, and not for life. Our best works before we are justified are little better than splendid sins. We must live by faith in the Son of God, and then, and not till then, we shall walk in His ways. The heart which has experienced the pardoning love of Christ, is the heart which loves Christ, and strives to glorify Him.
Let us leave the passage with a deep sense of our Lord Jesus Christ’s amazing mercy and compassion to the chief of sinners. Let us see in his kindness to the woman, of whom we have been reading, an encouragement to any one, however bad he may be, to come to Him for pardon and forgiveness. That word of His shall never be broken, "Him that cometh unto me I will in no wise cast out." Never, never need any one despair of salvation, if he will only come to Christ.
Let us ask ourselves, in conclusion, What we are doing for Christ’s glory? What kind of lives are we living? What proof are we making of our love to Him who loved us, and died for our sins? These are serious questions. If we cannot answer them satisfactorily, we may well doubt whether we are forgiven. The hope of forgiveness which is not accompanied by love in the life is no hope at all. The man whose sins are really cleansed away will always show by his ways that he loves the Savior who cleansed them.
v36.—[And one of the Pharisees desired him.] We know nothing of this Pharisee, except his name, Simon. There is no proof that he was the same as "Simon the leper," mentioned in Mark 14:3. He certainly was not Simon Peter, or Simon Zelotes.
We are not told the place at which the circumstances here recorded took place. It is highly probable that it was Nain, where the widow’s son was raised.
Our Lord had just been saying, that He was called "the friend of publicans and sinners." Luke proceeds at once to show that He was so indeed, and was not ashamed of the name.
[He went into the Pharisee’s house.] Our Lord’s conduct in eating at the Pharisee’s table, is quoted by some Christians in defence of the practice of keeping up intimacy with unconverted people, and going to dinner parties and entertainments at their houses.
Those who use such an argument would do well to remember our Lord’s behaviour on this occasion. He carried his "Father’s business" with Him to the Pharisee’s table. He testified against the Pharisee’s besetting sin. He explained to the Pharisee the nature of free forgiveness of sins, and the secret of true love to Himself. He declared the saving nature of faith. If Christians who argue in favour of intimacy with unconverted people, will visit their houses in the spirit of our Lord, and speak and behave as He did, let them by all means continue the practice. But do they speak and behave at the tables of their unconverted acquaintances, as Jesus did at Simon’s table? This is a question they would do well to answer.
Bucer’s note on this point is worth reading.
[Sat down to meat.] The Greek word so translated, means literally "reclined," according to the custom of the country. It is important to note this, in order to understand the remaining part of the passage.
v37.—[And behold a woman in the city.] The questions, who this woman was, and at what time in our Lord’s ministry the transactions here described took place, have occasioned much discussion, and called forth much variety of opinion among commentators. On one point only almost all are agreed: She had been a notorious sinner against the seventh commandment.
The Romish writers, Maldonatus and Cornelius à Lapide maintain strongly that this woman was Mary Magdalene, and that the anointing here recorded is the same as that which took place at Bethany, and is described by Matthew, Mark, and John. Both these opinions seem untenable.
There is not the slightest evidence in Scripture that the "woman who was a sinner" was Mary Magdalene. Chemnitius says there is no authority for the opinion but tradition, and that this tradition began with Gregory the First, and was unsupported by the earlier fathers, Chrysostom, Origen, Ambrose, and Jerome. There is no evidence that Mary Magdalene was the sister of Martha and Lazarus, and lived at Bethany. Above all, there is not the least proof in Scripture that Mary Magdalene had ever been "a woman that was a sinner" against the seventh commandment.
On the other hand, there is strong internal evidence that the event here recorded by Luke, took place at an entirely different time and place from that recorded by Matthew, Mark, and John. Granting that Luke does not always relate events in regular chronological order, it seems asking too much to suppose that an event which all the other evangelists agree in placing at the end of our Lord’s life on earth, should be so entirely dragged out of its place by Luke as to be brought in at this early period of His ministry. Moreover, the expressions which Luke reports in this passage, appear very unlikely to have been used at the end of our Lord’s ministry, and at the house of friends in Bethany. The question, "who is this that forgiveth sins also?" sounds like a question that would be asked at a comparatively early period of his ministry, and not like one that men would ask at the end of three years, and just before His death.
The true account I believe to be, that the events here recorded by Luke are entirely distinct from those recorded by Matthew, Mark, and John, and that the woman here mentioned is one whose name is, for wise and kind reasons, withheld from the Church. This is the view maintained by the great majority of all Protestant commentators.
It is a curious fact, that John Bunyan, in his famous sermon called "The Jerusalem sinner saved," maintains the strange view that the woman here described by Luke was Mary the sister of Martha, though he confesses that he got the picturesque story he founds on it, from a book which he saw twenty-four years before. For once the good man seems to have made a mistake.
[Which was a sinner.] It is a common remark, that the Greek words so translated, mean "which used to be, in time past, a sinner." I confess it appears to me doubtful, whether the Greek word for "was," will bear so strong a meaning. How lately this woman had been living in sin, we do not know, but it is highly probable, almost up to the very day when the events here related took place. In short, she "was" even then, by common report, a sinner. But it is evident that she had already repented of her sin, and was already ashamed of it, and this in consequence of our Lord Jesus Christ’s teaching and preaching. If this was not so there would be no meaning in the fact that "when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee’s house," she brought her box of ointment, and anointed Him. In short, however recent her conversion, she came to the Pharisee’s house a penitent and a believer.
[Sat at meat.] The Greek word here differs from the one in the preceding verse. It means literally, "is lying down at meat."
v38.—[Stood at his feet behind him.] To understand this we must remember that in the country where our Lord Jesus ministered, people did not sit down at meals, as we do in modern times, but reclined, or lay at full length on couches, with their feet stretched out behind them. It would thus be easy for this woman to do what she did to our Lord’s feet.
In addition to this, we must remember that houses in the hot climate, where our Lord was, were very different from houses among ourselves. It was common to have large openings down to the floor, and almost to live, as it were, under a veranda, for the sake of coolness. This necessarily entailed great publicity in the entertainment given, and accounts for the ease with which this woman seems to have found her way into the place where our Lord was.
[Anointed them.] Ointments and oils were used in eastern countries to an extent we can hardly understand. The excessive heat of the climate made it almost necessary, to preserve the skin from cracking. See Psalms 104:15.
v39.—[This man.] There is probably something contemptuous and scornful in this expression. It is much the same as "this fellow," like Acts 18:13.
[Would have known.] Burgon remarks, "The discernment of spirits was accounted the mark of a true prophet; and such knowledge was recognized as the very note of Messiah, as the confession of Nathanael, and the woman of Samaria show." Messiah was to be "of quick understanding." See Isaiah 11:3-4. John 1:49, and John 4:29.
v40.—[Jesus answering said.] This expression shows the divine knowledge of hearts and thoughts which our Lord possessed. He taught Simon that He not only knew who the woman behind Him was, but that He also knew what was going on in Simon’s mind. He was "a prophet," and in the highest sense.
v42.—[He frankly forgave them both.] Let us observe that the debt was not forgiven because the debtors loved their creditor, but out of free grace, mercy and compassion. And the love of the debtors was the consequence of their debts being forgiven. A right understanding of this is the clue to the whole passage.
v47.—[Her sins...are forgiven; for she loved much.] To explain these words as meaning that the woman’s sins were forgiven, because she loved much, is to contradict flatly the whole lesson of the six preceding verses. "For" must be taken as "wherefore," and, according to Pearce and Hammond, may fairly be so taken. Our Lord’s meaning must manifestly be: "Her love is a proof of her forgiveness. She is a person whose many sins are forgiven.
The proof of it is, that she shows much love, and the lesson of my parable, according to thine own confession, is this, that much forgiveness produces much love." Even Stella, the Spanish Commentator, Roman Catholic as he is, allows that this is the true sense of the passage.
Lightfoot remarks, that our Lord does not say, "She hath washed my feet and anointed them, and therefore her sins are forgiven," but, "therefore I say unto thee," or "for this cause I declare unto thee that her sins are forgiven." Her sins were forgiven before, but now, after this love that she has shown, I publicly declare unto thee her forgiveness.
v48.—[Thy sins are forgiven.] We are not, of course, to suppose that these words mean that the woman’s sins were now forgiven for the first time. Such an interpretation would overthrow again all the doctrine of the story of the two debtors. The woman was really forgiven before she came to Christ. But she now received a public and authoritative declaration of it before many witnesses, as a reward for her open expression of love and gratitude. Before, she had hope through grace. Now, she received the assurance of hope.
v49.—[Who is this that forgiveth sins?] Let it be noted once more, that this expression is the language that would naturally be used by persons who were strangers to our Lord, and heard and saw Him for the first time. It is exceedingly unlikely that such an expression would have been used at Bethany, a few days before His crucifixion, in the company of Mary, and Martha, and Lazarus.
v50.—[Thy faith hath saved thee.] Let it be observed that it is not said, "thy love hath saved thee." Here, as in every other part of the New Testament, faith is put forward as the key to salvation. By faith, the woman received our Lord’s invitation, "come unto me and I will give you rest." By faith, she embraced that invitation, and embracing it, cast off the sins under which she had been so long labouring and heavy-laden. By faith, she boldly came to the Pharisee’s house, and confessed by her conduct that she had found rest in Christ. Her faith worked by love, and bore precious fruit. But it was not love but faith that saved her soul.
[Go in peace.] This was a phrase which was a common valediction among the Jews, like our "goodbye" or "God be with you." Poole thinks that our Lord specially referred to that "peace" which is the fruit of faith, described in Romans 5:1. He paraphrases the expression thus: "Go thy way, a blessed and happy woman, and in the view and sense of thine own blessedness, be not troubled at the censures and reflections of supercilious persons, who may despise and overlook thee because thou hast been a great sinner."
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Ryle, J. C. "Commentary on Luke 7". "J. C. Ryle's Expository Thoughts on the Gospels". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11