Click here to join the effort!
PILATE’S FURTHER ATTEMPT TO SAVE JESUS
John 19:5. Then came Jesus forth, wearing the crown of thorns, and the purple robe. And Pilate saith unto them, Behold the man!
IT is common to speak of our fallen nature as altogether corrupt, and destitute of any good thing. But this must be understood with caution: for though it is true that there is nothing really and spiritually good in the natural man, (as Paul says, “In me, that is, in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing,”) yet there is a principle of conscience, which, in proportion as it is enlightened, deters men from evil, and prompts them to what is good. Of this we have many examples in the Holy Scriptures; and a very striking one in the passage before us. Pilate was persuaded in his mind that Jesus was innocent, and therefore could not endure the thought of putting him to death. He strove by every means in his power to pacify those who sought his life: a great many different times he bore witness to his innocence; and, when that would not succeed, he laboured in a variety of ways to release him. He offered to inflict upon him the punishment of scourging, under the idea that his enemies would be satisfied with that: and now, after having inflicted that punishment, and permitted him to be treated with every species of indignity, he had recourse to one more device, in hopes that he should at last prevail upon them to spare him. He brought forth Jesus, arrayed as he was in mock majesty, and his face defiled with blood and spitting; and said unto the people, “Behold the man!”
This may be viewed,
As a political expedient—
Pilate, not daring absolutely to refuse the demands of the Jews, yet still bent on effecting the release of Jesus, had recourse to this,
To excite their pity—
[He well knew that the most savage heart, however insensible to the cries of misery when heard only at a distance, is apt to relent, when the suffering object is presented before the eyes. He therefore set Jesus before them in this state; hoping thereby, that they would be moved with compassion at the sight of his unmerited distresses. Pilate’s address to them was probably to this effect: “Behold the man whose crucifixion you have demanded: I have already repeatedly told you that I could find in him nothing worthy of death: but, as I take for granted that you have some cause for your complaints, I have examined him by scourging; yet I am still constrained to renew my testimony, that I can find in him no fault at all. Supposing however that he has in some respect offended against your law, I can assure you he has already suffered severely for it; and therefore I hope you will be satisfied, without urging me to proceed any further against him. Look, and see what a pitiable object he is: and let your anger give way to the nobler sentiments of pity and compassion.”
Well might Pilate adopt this expedient, because Christ himself is represented as pleading in this very manner with his relentless persecutors [Note: Lamentations 1:12.], though, alas! without attaining the object of his desires [Note: Psalms 69:20.].]
To shame their enmity—
[The nation had accused Jesus of stirring up rebellion in the land. Now Pilate hoped, that a sight of him in his present deplorable state would convince them, that there was nothing to fear from him on this head: for the meekness with which he had borne all his sufferings shewed clearly, that he was not of a turbulent disposition; and the circumstance of his not having a single friend or partisan to speak for him, proved, that, whatever his inclination might be, he had not the power to do harm. “Look at him,” we may suppose Pilate to say: “see what a contemptible appearance he makes! Is this a man of whom the whole nation has cause to be afraid? Is this a man of whose power and influence you need to be so jealous, that you cannot rest till he is put to death? Supposing that he has had some influence, what will he have in future? Only let him alone, and in a little time it will scarce be known that such a poor despised creature exists.”
Such were the arguments with which David had repeatedly appeased the murderous wrath of Saul [Note: 1 Samuel 24:14; 1 Samuel 26:20.]. And Pilate might reasonably hope that they would have weight, especially when addressed to them by the judge and governor, whose exclusive duty it was to watch over the interests of the state. But, alas! the chief priests and scribes, who had acted covertly before, now took the lead in clamour and tumult, and bore down all before them. Nothing but the crucifixion of Jesus would satisfy them; and they gave Pilate to understand, that, if he did not comply with their wishes in this respect, they would denounce him as an enemy to Cζsar, and a traitor to his own country [Note: ver. 6, 12.].]
There is yet another view in which we may regard the words of Pilate; namely,
As a prophetic intimation—
It is well known that Caiaphas, when intending nothing himself but to recommend the execution of Jesus as necessary for the good of the state, unwittingly uttered a prophecy respecting the saving benefits of his death, and that not to the Jews only, but to all the world [Note: John 11:49-52.]. Now the words of Pilate bear much more of a prophetic aspect than those of Caiaphas, since they accord with many acknowledged prophecies, not in spirit merely, but almost in the express terms [Note: Isaiah 40:9; Isaiah 45:22; Isa 65:1 and Zechariah 12:10.]. Moreover, Pilate’s wife had had somewhat of a revelation respecting Jesus that very morning, and had sent word of it to Pilate, whilst he was yet upon the seat of judgment [Note: Matthew 27:19.]: and he himself had invariably, and with great constancy, borne testimony to the innocency of Jesus: so that his words on this occasion might well bear that kind of construction which God himself has taught us to put upon the words of Caiaphas. But, as the Scripture affirms nothing respecting this, so neither do we: we may however, with great propriety, put these words into the mouth of a Christian preacher, and take occasion from them to lead you to the
Contemplation of your suffering Lord. 1 say then, “Behold the man!” Behold him,
To engage your confidence—
[To a superficial inquirer, all these humiliating circumstances would appear to justify a doubt whether Jesus were the Son of God. But to one who examines thoroughly the prophecies relating to him, these very circumstances afford the most satisfactory proof that he was indeed the Christ. Was he treated with the utmost contempt, and that too by the whole nation? Was he mocked, reviled, spit upon? Was he beaten with scourges, so that his flesh was even ploughed up with stripes? Then I see that he was the Christ; for not only the ancient prophets, but he himself expressly told us that it should be so [Note: Compare Isaiah 49:7; Isaiah 50:6; Isa 53:3-5 and Psalms 129:3. with Mark 10:32-34.]. Did he endure all these things without one word of murmur or complaint? Then I am sure that he was the Christ [Note: Isaiah 53:7. with 1 Peter 2:25.].
But it is not in this view only that his sufferings afford us grounds of confidence. Whilst they prove him to be the true Messiah, they prove also, beyond a possibility of doubt, his willingness to save all who come unto him. In enduring all these things, he submitted willingly. He could, if he had chosen, have had more than twelve legions of angels for his defence: but then the Scriptures would not have been fulfilled, nor would the work of our salvation have been accomplished. If then be willingly submitted to these indignities for us when we were enemies, what will he not do for us when we throw down the weapons of our rebellion, and implore his mercy? Surely no person, whatever he may have been or done, shall ever apply to him in vain — — —]
To inflame your gratitude—
[It is well said by the Apostle, that “the love of Christ passeth knowledge.” It is not possible for any finite mind to comprehend it. Something of it indeed “every saint may comprehend [Note: Ephesians 3:18-19.];” but its full extent can never be explored. That however which we do see of it, should operate with irresistible energy upon our minds. Brethren, “behold the man!” See the royal robe, which they have put upon him; the cane in his hand, for a sceptre; the crown of thorns upon his head; and the blood issuing from his lacerated temples: see him ready to faint through the severities inflicted on him; and then say, These are the fruits of his love to me; these things he endures, to rescue me from “everlasting shame and contempt.” Then ask yourselves, What returns he merits at your hands? Surely to compliment him with the name of Saviour, will not be thought sufficient: there must be a tribute, not of the lip only, but of the heart; in the heart a flame of love should be kindled, which, like the fire upon the altar, should never go out — — —]
To stimulate your exertions—
[There is no one so blind as not to see that our acknowledgments to Christ should shew themselves, not in sentiment only, but in action. Indeed he himself tells us, that it is by obedience to his commands we are to prove our love to him [Note: John 14:15; John 14:21; John 15:14.]. What then shall we do, to evince our love to him? What? Let us follow the example of his love to us. When the people sought him to make him really a king, he refused their services, and hid himself from them: but when they arrayed him in mock majesty, and put a crown of thorns upon his head, he submitted willingly to that, because it would conduce to our benefit. Thus let us be regardless of all personal gratifications, that we may exalt and honour him: and if we are called to suffer for his sake, let us suffer willingly and meekly. As “he endured the contradiction of sinners against himself,” “sustaining the cross and despising the shame” for us, let us “follow him, bearing his reproach.” If we be made “a gazing-stock” and “a spectacle to the world,” let us be content to be loaded with every species of ignominy for his sake. Let us remember, that “he gave himself for us, to purchase unto himself a peculiar people zealous of good works;” and let it be our fixed determination to answer in this respect the end of his sufferings## and, provided “he be magnified in our body,” let it be a matter of indifference to us “whether it be by life or by death.”]
THE SUPERSCRIPTION AFFIXED TO THE CROSS
John 19:19-22. And Pilate wrote a title, and put it on the cross. And the writing was, JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS. This title then read many of the Jews: for the place where Jesus was crucified was nigh to the city: and it was written in Hebrew, and Greek, and Latin. Then said the chief priests of the Jews to Pilate, Write not, The King of the Jews; but that he said, I am King of the Jews. Pilate answered, What I have written I have written.
NOTHING was left undone which could add to the sufferings of our blessed Lord. From the tribunal at which he was condemned, he was hurried away to execution, and crucified between two most notorious malefactors, as being himself the vilest of the human race. This however served only to fulfil the Scripture, which had said, “He was numbered with the transgressors.” On such occasions it was common to place above the head of the criminal an inscription, by which all the spectators might know both his name and the crime for which he suffered. This was observed at the crucifixion of our Lord: and (as no circumstance respecting him is uninteresting) we shall call your attention to,
The superscription put over him—
This, however intended at first, must certainly be considered by us in a two-fold view;
As an accusation against him—
[The principal charge which had been exhibited against him before Pilate, was, that he had professed himself to be “Christ, a King [Note: Luke 23:2.].” On this point he had been interrogated by Pilate; and had “witnessed a good confession,” acknowledging plainly, that he was a King, though his kingdom was not of this world [Note: Joh 18:36-37 and 1 Timothy 1:16.]. Pilate, seeing that this claim did not at all interfere with the temporal government of Cζsar, considered it as unworthy his attention; and therefore sought by all possible means to release him. But the chief priests, being determined to prevail, represented this claim of his as an avowed hostility to Cζsar; and declared that the protecting of Jesus was nothing less than treason [Note: ver. 12.]. This terrified Pilate into a compliance with their wishes. He instantly consented to his death; and, according to custom, ordered the crime of which Jesus was accused to be affixed to his cross, in these memorable words, “Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews.”]
As a testimony in his favour—
[As Caiaphas, when designing only to destroy Jesus, unconsciously declared the extensive benefits which would flow from his death, so Pilate, meaning only to inform the people for what reason Jesus was put to death, unintentionally attested his innocence. Had Jesus falsely pretended to be the King of the Jews, he would have been guilty of fraud and imposture: but as he really was what he pretended to be, the title placed over his head was nothing more than a plain truth, containing not only no crime at all, but not even the smallest charge of crime. What could be a stronger testimony in his favour than this?
The testimony itself contained the most important truth that could possibly be affirmed: it declared that Jesus was the King of Israel, that very King predicted in the prophets [Note: Jeremiah 23:5-6. Zechariah 9:9.], even “Messiah the Prince, who should be cut off, not for his own sins [Note: Daniel 9:26.],” but for the sins of others. And, that it might be universally known, it was written in Hebrew, and Greek, and Latin; (the three languages most known in the world at that time:) so that, in fact, Pilate himself became the first preacher of a crucified Redeemer.]
Whether the precise mode of expressing the accusation was intentional on the part of Pilate, or not, we cannot but wonder at,
The firmness of Pilate in relation to it—
That the superscription would give great offence, we may easily conceive: for the priests, so far from acknowledging Jesus as their king, had got sentence of death pronounced against him for arrogating to himself that honour. They did indeed expect the promised Messiah, and supposed that he would erect a temporal kingdom amongst them; and this very expectation made them feel still more keenly the indignity which this inscription offered them; since it intimated, that any person who should hereafter attempt to rescue them from the dominion of Cassar, should be crucified in like manner.
Without delay they make known to Pilate their wishes upon the subject, and propose an alteration in the words: but behold, he is firm and immoveable: his only answer to them is, “What I have written, I have written.”
Now to understand his answer aright, we must consider him,
As incensed against them—
[They had urged, and (so to speak) compelled him to give sentence against a man whom he knew to be innocent: and, being condemned in his own conscience, he could not but feel exceedingly displeased with them. The alteration which they proposed in the inscription was very trifling: it might have been made without in the least derogating from his authority: and, no doubt, if he had not been offended with them, he would have readily complied. But to a person irritated, no concession appears trifling. He felt himself injured by them: and therefore would not give way, even for a moment. His pride was hurt: and he determined that he would make them sensible of his displeasure. Hence he not only refused their petition, but expressed his refusal in terms most authoritative, most contemptuous, and most repulsive.]
As over-ruled by God—
[Though perfectly free to follow the dictates of his own mind, he was undoubtedly under the influence of God; just as Balaam was, who though of himself disposed to curse Israel, was invariably constrained to bless them [Note: Numbers 22:18; Numbers 22:38; Numbers 23:8; Numbers 23:11-12; Numbers 23:26; Numbers 24:10; Numbers 24:13.]. The truth exhibited in that inscription was itself unalterable, and was to be proclaimed to every people of every language under heaven. It was the corner-stone on which all mankind were to build their hopes: and therefore God, who had left Pilate to his natural timidity for the crucifying of his Son, now emboldened him to withstand their renewed solicitations, though in a matter of comparatively no importance [Note: Acts 4:27-28.].
Thus it was on that occasion, and thus it ever shall be; “the counsel of the Lord, that shall stand, and he will do all his will.” As far as “the wrath of man will praise him,” he will suffer it to act; but the remainder of it he will restrain.]
We may notice from hence,
What care God will take of his people—
[He permitted his Son to be put to death, because that was necessary for the accomplishment of the Divine purposes in the work of redemption. But he took care that all his enemies should attest his innocence: and where so small a concession as that before us might have counteracted their testimony, he makes a poor shaking reed as firm and immoveable as a rock. Who then will be afraid to trust him? Who will not cheerfully commit his reputation, his interest, yea his very life, into the hands of such an almighty Friend? Know, beloved, that he is to his people both a sun and a shield; and that whilst he directs and invigorates them by his beams, he will protect and uphold them by his power — — — “The Lord reigneth, let the earth rejoice, and the multitude of the isles be glad thereof.”]
In what way they must attain to his kingdom—
[That which is the highest privilege of the saints may be made the strongest article of accusation against them. In the primitive times, to be a Christian was to expose oneself to all manner of calumny and danger. And thus at this time, to be numbered with the saints is to be classed with enthusiasts, fools, and hypocrites. A man need have no other inscription over his head than, “This is one of the saints,” and he shall never want for contempt or hatred. Let him call himself “a King,” and men will be ready to cry out, “Crucify him! crucify him!” But this should not discourage us: it is the way the Saviour trod before us. We, like him, are kings [Note: Revelation 1:6.]; we have a crown and “a kingdom given to us [Note: Luke 22:29.]:” and in due time shall be “seated with Christ on his throne, even as he now sitteth on his Father’s throne [Note: Revelation 3:21.].” But we must “suffer with him, if we would reign with him [Note: 2 Timothy 2:12.].” Even he, “though a Son, was made perfect through sufferings;” and we also must “go through much tribulation, before we can enter into the kingdom of heaven [Note: Acts 14:22.].” Let us then consider what he endured for us; and “let us arm ourselves with the same mind [Note: 1 Peter 4:1.]:” and let us rest assured, that, “if we suffer with him, we shall also be glorified together [Note: Romans 8:17.].”]
CASTING LOTS FOR OUR LORD’S VESTURE
John 19:23-24. Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took his garments, and made four parts, to every soldier a part; and also his coat: now the coat teas without seam, woven from the top throughout. They said therefore among themselves, Let us not rend it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be: that the Scripture might be fulfilled, which saith, They parted my raiment among them, and for my vesture they did cast lots. These things therefore the soldiers did.
ON reading the history of our blessed Lord, we cannot but be struck with the extreme simplicity with which the most important circumstances of it are related. The historians never go out of their way to impress things on our minds; but leave truth to speak for itself. Even when they come to the last scene of his life, where we might have expected them to dilate upon his sufferings in order to affect our hearts, they pass over the whole transaction without a comment, and content themselves with barely mentioning the fact, that “he was crucified.” But, while they seem almost unfeeling towards their Divine Master, they specify very minutely those occurrences which marked the accomplishment of prophecy: and, as if indifferent about the agonies which he was enduring, they descend to tell us, how the soldiers who had nailed him to the cross occupied themselves in the disposal of his garments. We should be ready to disregard this record as uninteresting and uninstructive: but no circumstance that took place at that time should be uninteresting to us; nor will this, if duly considered, be uninstructive. On the contrary, this very record will give us an insight into some of the deepest points that can be offered to our consideration.
It will give us an insight into,
The nature of prophecy—
[Prophecy springs not from man’s conjectures, but from a Divine revelation [Note: 2 Peter 1:21.]. The prophets, so far from being the source and authors of their own predictions, could not even understand them, any farther than they were illuminated by that very Spirit by whose immediate agency they were inspired [Note: 1 Peter 1:10-11.]. In some cases they were not even conscious that they foretold any thing [Note: John 11:49-52.]. Perhaps this was the case much more frequently than is generally supposed. Through the greatest part of the psalm quoted in our text, David spake primarily respecting himself, though in some parts he was “moved by the Holy Ghost” to speak what had no reference at all but to the Messiah, whom he typified. That he did not understand his own expressions, we can have no doubt. He might perhaps be conscious that he was uttering that which should, in some way or other, have its accomplishment in the Messiah: but he had no clew in his own experience to lead him to the interpretation of his own words: he never had his “hands and feet pierced;” much less had he ever his garments disposed of in the way he mentions [Note: Psalms 22:16; Psalms 22:18.]. Why then, it may be said, did he so express himself, that nobody could understand him, till the event had actually taken place? We answer, it is of the very nature of prophecy to be obscure; yea, it is altogether essential to the designs of prophecy: for suppose a prophecy to be perfectly clear, the friends of religion would be ready to exert themselves to fulfil it, as the enemies of religion would be to counteract it. Thus, if it were not accomplished, the religion which it was to support would be called an imposture; and, if accomplished, its accomplishment would be considered as the effect only of human prudence. This is evident, from what actually took place in relation to the prophecies respecting the kingly office of Christ, and his resurrection. The people who saw that he could feed multitudes with very small provision, and heal the sick of whatever malady they had, and even raise the dead, concluded, that he was the king whom they expected to reign over the whole world; and therefore sought to make him a king by force: nor could he prevent it, but by withdrawing miraculously from their presence. On the other hand, his enemies, who had heard him say that he would rise again the third day, set a guard around his grave on purpose to prevent it. In this manner persons would have acted in reference to all the prophecies, if all had been equally clear: and thus prophecy, as a mean of establishing the true religion, would be superseded by a continued series of miracles; and Christianity would lose its strongest evidence and support.
The true nature of prophecy is not anywhere more clearly seen than in the passage before us:. for, till it was accomplished, no human being could understand its import; nor after its accomplishment could any one mistake it.]
The origin of Christianity—
[Let any one who imagines Christianity to be a mere human contrivance, ask himself, whether any person, or set of persons, wishing to impose a religion upon the world, would be foolish enough to predict, that its founder’s clothes should be disposed of in so strange a way? The event must he so entirely out of their own power, that they would never subject their imposture to such a test as this. But this event was predicted a thousand years before it came to pass; and the psalm in which it was contained was universally acknowledged by the Jews to refer to their Messiah.
How then can we account for its accomplishment? Is there any appearance of contrivance in the matter? None at all. The Jews put Christ to death for pretending to be their Messiah; and therefore would not at the same time contrive a plan that should prove him the Messiah. Besides, the thing was not done by Jews, but heathens; who were perfectly unconscious of doing any thing worthy of attention. If Jesus had not happened to have a particular kind of garment, which was woven without a seam, and had probably been made a present to him by some of those women who ministered unto him, they would have had no more reason for casting lots for that, than for the other which they divided among them. And, after all, he had but just before been stript of his clothing, not only to be scourged, but that, being arrayed in mock majesty, he might be made an object of universal derision; and in that dress had sentence of condemnation been passed upon him: so that, if God had not signally interposed to incline them to put his own garment upon him again, this prophecy had never been fulfilled. See then how minute was the prophecy, and how exact its accomplishment! If they had cast lots at all, the probability was that the whole would have formed but two lots, and that none would be torn in pieces: but as God ordained it to be, so it was; and from thence arises an indisputable evidence, that the religion which was to be confirmed by it, was from God. Indeed, the more insignificant the transaction itself was, the more decisive is the proof arising from it.
In confirmation of this statement we would call your attention to the very words of our text; where the fulfilling of the Scripture is said to be the primary object of that arrangement: and again it is added, “These things therefore the soldiers did.” We are not to understand from this, that the soldiers had this object in view; (for there was not any thing further from their minds:) but God inclined their minds to it for that end. Every thing which the Scriptures had spoken respecting the Messiah, must needs be fulfilled; and therefore this, as well as every other point, must be accomplished in him [Note: Luke 22:37. John 10:35.].]
The government of the universe—
[“Known unto God are all his works from the foundation of the world [Note: Acts 15:18.].” Nothing was left to chance: but every thing was both foreseen and foreordained.
It may be asked then, are we mere machines? I answer, no. God leaves us free agents; but makes use of our free agency for the accomplishment of his own purposes. This he did in reference to his Son. There was not any thing “done to him, which God’s hand, and God’s counsel, had not determined before to be done [Note: Acts 4:28; Acts 13:27; Acts 13:29.].” Nevertheless, all who bore any part in those transactions, were perfectly free in every thing they did. None were compelled by any overbearing power; but all followed the bent of their own minds. Judas was actuated by covetousness; the priests by envy; Pilate by fear; and the soldiers, who cast lots for one garment, whilst they divided the other in four parts, acted from a regard to their own personal interests. But God made use of their respective weaknesses for the accomplishment of his own designs.
It is in this manner that God is carrying on his plans on the great theatre of the world. Ambition stimulates one; jealousy restrains another; fear paralyzes, or divisions distract, others: but by all, God works his sovereign will, and renders all the dispositions and pursuits of men subservient to his own eternal purpose. He uses the great conquerors now, precisely as he did Sennacherib of old, for the effecting of his own unerring counsels. “Howbeit, they mean not so, neither doth their heart think so; but it is in their heart to destroy, and to cut off nations not a few [Note: Isaiah 10:7.]:” but “they are only his rod, and the staff of his indignation,” which he will break and cast into the fire, as soon as they have executed their appointed task [Note: Isaiah 10:5-6; Isaiah 10:15-16.].
It is thus also that God governs his Church. The very people who most labour to destroy it, are sometimes made unwilling instruments of its enlargement. This was particularly the case in the persecution that took place after the death of Stephen; when God rendered the scattering of the Christians the means of diffusing the knowledge of the Gospel throughout the world [Note: Acts 8:3-4.]. And every individual, if he could truce back all the events of his former life, would find, that many circumstances, as little connected with religion as the curiosity of Zaccheus [Note: Luke 19:2-9.], or the dishonesty of Onesimus [Note: Phil. ver. 10–18.], have been overruled by a gracious Providence for good.
How little did these soldiers think of being witnesses for Christ! As little do we think that every thing, however small or casual, is ordered of God, and made a necessary link in the chain of his eternal counsels. To every thing he assigns its proper limit; “Hitherto shall thou come, but no further.” Men devise their way, “but the Lord directeth their steps:” he draws them imperceptibly, but effectually; yet not as stocks and stones, but by means of their own understanding and will: “He draws them with the cords of a man, and with the bands of love [Note: Hosea 11:4.].”]
It is not however for the formation of theories only that this subject is useful: it is equally beneficial in a practical view.
We may Learn from it,
To adore God for his mercies to us in times past—
[Who is it that has made us to differ from the most abandoned on earth, or the most miserable in hell? Is it not the Lord? and have not many of the occasions on which he has extended mercy to us been as much unsought for, and at the time unnoticed, as if we had been utterly independent of him? Let us remember then to whom we are indebted for all the temporal and spiritual blessings we enjoy: and let every thing be improved by us “for the praise of the glory of his grace” — — —]
To seek his guidance and protection in future—
[Who can tell what consequences may ensue from one single step? perhaps the eternal preservation or ruin of our souls. Assuredly, if left to ourselves one moment, we shall fall and perish. But God sees effects in their causes; and in his eyes eternity itself is but a single point. In his hands then we shall be safe. Whatever enemies may menace our destruction, he will ride in the whirlwind and direct the storm. Only let us not lean to our own understanding, but in all our ways acknowledge him, and he will “never leave us till he has fulfilled all the good things that he has spoken concerning us” — — —]
To submit with cheerfulness to any dispensations, however adverse they may appear—
[Who that recollects the testimony of Joseph after all his multiplied afflictions, will not be ashamed of giving way to impatience under trials? “God sent me here before you,” says he to his brethren, “to preserve life.” Above all, who that reflects on the issue of our Saviour’s sufferings, will repine at being made a partaker of them? We have the promises of God on our side, “and the Scripture cannot be broken.” We have our appointed measure to fill up, as well as he: and the termination of our trials will resemble his. Let us wait then the Lord’s leisure. If we see not distinctly what his design is in this or that affliction, let it suffice, that “what we know not now, we shall know hereafter.” We have already seen abundant reason in past times to say, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted:” and the time is coming when we shall say the same in reference to our present trials. We shall see, that they were a necessary link in the chain of Providence, for the advancing of his glory in our salvation.]
JESUS COMMENDS HIS MOTHER TO JOHN’S CARE
John 19:26-27. When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son! Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home.
IN the hour of our Lord’s crucifixion, when nearly the whole of his Disciples had forsaken him, his female relatives adhered to him, and, together with John the beloved Disciple, preferred the pain and danger of a continued attendance on him, to the repose and safety of a disgraceful flight. To this kindness of theirs the dying Jesus was not insensible. On the contrary, he took that opportunity to secure to his mother a protector through all her remaining days; and to confer on John an honour, which even an angel might well have envied. The transaction, being one of the last in which the Saviour was engaged, demands particular attention. We propose to consider it,
As an emblem for our instruction—
Many of our Lord’s miracles were certainly intended to shadow forth the spiritual blessings which he came to bestow: and some of his actions also were plainly adapted to the same end [Note: See John 9:39; John 13:8.]. We do not indeed assert, that such was the intention of the fact recorded in our text; yet we may without impropriety remark, that it is well calculated to shew,
The care which Jesus takes of his suffering people—
[The time was now come, when, according to the prediction of the aged Simeon, “a sword pierced through the soul” of the virgin mother. But Jesus, though in the very agonies of death himself, was mindful of her, and committed her to one, who should supply his place, and be to her as an affectionate and duteous son. His removal from this lower world has in no wise diminished his concern for his afflicted people. As the High-priest of his Church, he is constantly attending to the interests of all its members. He is “not such an high-priest as cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities:” in the days of his flesh, “he was in all points tempted like as we are, though without sin [Note: Hebrews 4:15.]:” and since, as well as before, his incarnation, “in all our afflictions he is afflicted [Note: Isaiah 63:9.].” Are we in temporal distress? he engages that “bread shall be given us, and our water be sure [Note: Isaiah 33:16.]:” and if our wants be of a spiritual nature, he assures us, that he will “never suffer the soul of the righteous to famish [Note: Proverbs 10:3.],” but will make all grace abound towards us, that we, “having always all-sufficiency in all things, may abound unto every good work [Note: 2 Corinthians 9:8.].”]
The subserviency of the whole creation to his will—
[Without hesitation, John accepted the trust; and no doubt he executed it with fidelity and joy. In like manner the whole creation is ready to obey the command of Christ, and to fulfil his gracious appointments. All the hosts of heaven would, at the first intimation of his will, fly to our relief. The birds of the air would sustain us [Note: 1 Kings 17:4.]; the fishes of the sea preserve us [Note: John 1:17.]; the clouds would supply us with daily nutriment; and the rocks give from their bosoms an unceasing stream for our support [Note: Nehemiah 9:20.]. The very enemies of God and his people should open an asylum for us, in obedience to his word; “Let mine outcasts dwell with thee, Moab: be thou a covert to them from the face of the spoiler [Note: Isaiah 16:4.].” Hence he bids us “to cast our care on him;” and encourages the most destitute of mankind to expect from him a seasonable supply of all needful blessings; “Leave thy fatherless children; I will preserve them alive: and let thy widows trust in me [Note: Jeremiah 49:11.].”]
Even though the foregoing views should not be thought necessarily connected with the subject, they are profitable in themselves, and are easily deducible from it: but no doubt at all can arise respecting this act of our Lord’s,
As a pattern for our imitation—
Whatever Jesus did as the Messiah, was peculiar to himself; but whatever he did merely as a man, that is to be imitated by us; for “he set us an example, that we should follow his steps.” His Apostles also we are “to follow, as far as they were followers of him.” Now the fact which is here recorded, affords us an excellent pattern,
Of filial piety—
[Our Lord, during his youthful days, is particularly spoken of as having been “subject to his parents [Note: Luke 2:51.]:” and therein he has set an example to children in every age. But it is not in honouring their parents only, or in obeying their commands, that the duty of children consists; it is no less their duty to make provision for their parents, in case they should by any means be brought into circumstances to need support. This is particularly enjoined by God himself; “If any widow have children, or nephews [Note: ἔκγονα.] (grand-children), let them learn first to shew pity at home, and to requite their parents: for that is good and acceptable before God [Note: 1 Timothy 5:4.].” This duty supersedes charity itself, on a supposition that the two be incompatible with each other: because the support of parents is an act of justice; it is a return which we are bound to make for all the care and kindness they exercised towards us in our early days: and the claims of justice can never yield to those of generosity: indeed so indispensable is this duty, that if we do not perform it, we practically “deny the faith, and make ourselves worse than infidels [Note: 1 Timothy 5:8.].” Moreover we should endeavour, as far as circumstances will admit of it, to make provision for our parents in the event of our own removal; that so we may requite them for all their love to us, whilst we were incapable of the smallest exertion for ourselves. If our parents do not need support from us, we must not on that account imagine that our Lord’s example is inapplicable to us; for that example shews equally, that it is our duty to consult the comfort of their minds, as well as the support of their bodies: and I pray God that all young people amongst us may lay this thought to heart! — — —]
Of Christian love—
[Though John had probably no great abundance for himself, he doubtless thankfully admitted the mother of our Lord to a participation of what he had; regarding her altogether as though she had been his own mother. In this same light should we regard all the sons and daughters of affliction, especially “those who are of the household of faith.” What our Lord said of all who did his Father’s will, we, for his sake, should say also; “The same is my brother and sister and mother [Note: Matthew 12:50.].” We should consider the aged, the infirm, the young, the destitute, as having a claim upon us for all the aid that we can reasonably afford them out of the provision which God has made for us. We should look upon our property as a trust committed to our charge, to be improved for God, and to be accounted for to him in the day of judgment. And, if the demands upon us be urgent, we must not on that account give grudgingly or of necessity, but rejoice that God has entrusted us with talents for such a blessed use [Note: If this were the subject of a Charity Sermon, the particular claims of the Institution pleaded for might be stated here.]. As to the comfort arising from such an use of our property, it is beyond all comparison greater than any that can arise from personal indulgence: we entreat all therefore to seek their happiness in making others happy, and to tread in the steps of Him, who impoverished himself that he might enrich us [Note: 2 Corinthians 8:9.], and submitted to the most cruel death that we might inherit eternal life.]
Those who are afflicted—
[Those who are most dear to the Lord, are often the most afflicted. This was particularly the case with the mother of our Lord: and we are told in general, that “whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth.” It is possible too that he may bring us into troubles, from whence there appears not any probable method of escape; but he knows the fittest time to interpose in our behalf. He might have arranged matters for his mother long before: but he would not; because he knew what would be on the whole the fittest season. Thus then let us wait the Lord’s leisure, and be strong in faith, giving glory to him: and if at any time we be tempted to fear that he has forsaken and forgotten us, let us instantly check the dishonourable thought; believing that, though it is possible that a mother should forget her sucking child, it is not possible that He should ever be unmindful of us [Note: Isaiah 49:14-16.]: nay, if, like Mary, we be brought into troubles for his sake, we shall receive from him “an hundred-fold in this world, and in the world to come eternal life [Note: Mark 10:29-30.].”]
Them that are at ease—
[If you were under the heaviest pressure of affliction yourselves, it would be no reason for being indifferent to the afflictions of others: but if God has been pleased to screen you from trials, you should be the more earnest in “bearing the burthens of others, that you may thereby fulfil the law of Christ [Note: Galatians 6:2.].” Remember, that sympathy is one of the finest feelings of our nature, and exceedingly fitted to purify us from our remaining dross. Cultivate it then, and value every opportunity of exercising and strengthening that principle in your souls. It is said by Solomon, that “it is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting:” and this witness is true. Nothing tends more to create in us a thankful heart, than the seeing of the miseries to which others are exposed. Are you then, like John, disciples beloved of your Lord?-endeavour to tread in the steps of John: and if, with Peter, you are confident that you feel in yourselves a love to Christ, then comply with the command of Christ, and “feed his lambs, and feed his sheep [Note: John 21:15-17.].”]
OUR SAVIOUR’S DEATH
John 19:28-30. After this, Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, saith, I thirst. Now there was set a vessel full of vinegar: and they filled a spunge with vinegar, and put it upon hyssop, and put it to his mouth. When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.
NOTHING but Divine grace can change the hearts of men. Signs and wonders may alarm and terrify, and may produce a momentary conviction on the mind; but unless the Spirit of God work in and by them, they will leave the soul unhumbled and unrenewed. It is probable that the darkness which prevailed during the three last hours of our Saviour’s life, produced an awe upon the minds of all; but yet it wrought no permanent change on any: for, when our blessed Lord poured out his complaint respecting the dereliction of his soul, his enemies mocked and insulted him, pretending to understand him as calling Elijah to his aid, when they could not but know that he was crying to his God. We might as easily mistake the sense of the words, “My God, My God,” as they could mistake the import of “Eli, Eli:” the resemblance of the sounds was merely a pretext for venting the malice that reigned in their hearts. One more opportunity only remained for them to shew the enmity that was in their minds against him; and they gladly embraced it: but in that very conduct they added another testimony to the truth of his Messiahship. Their conduct towards him in this particular had been the subject of prophecy; and, when that prophecy was fulfilled, there remained no further occasion for his continuance in the world: he therefore left the world, and went immediately to the bosom of his Father.
Two things are here presented for our consideration;
The completion of prophecy—
There remained now but one prophecy to be accomplished—
[Every thing relating to the incarnation, life, and death, of the Lord Jesus Christ had been foretold in the minutest manner; and every thing, except that which is spoken in our text, had been fulfilled. The drought occasioned by his long and excruciating agonies both of body and mind, and the method used by his enemies to allay his thirst, had been particularly foretold by the Psalmist [Note: Psalms 22:14-15; Psalms 69:21.]. To look for the accomplishment of these things in David is in vain. They never were fulfilled in David, or in any other person whatsoever, except the Lord Jesus Christ.]
That prophecy now received its accomplishment in Christ—
[The thirst predicted, came upon him: he complained of it: and the people filled a spunge with vinegar, and put it on a stalk of hyssop to his mouth. The vinegar was there at hand; it being, when mixed with water, the common drink of the Roman soldiers. Before his crucifixion, his friends had offered him a drink of wine mixed with myrrh, as a cordial to support him under his sufferings; or rather as a stupifying potion, to allay his pain. But of that he would not drink; because he would endure all that was necessary to make satisfaction to Divine justice for the sins of men [Note: Compare Mark 15:23. with 36]. The vinegar was presented to him by his enemies, who had no desire to sooth his anguish, but only to protract the period of his sufferings, and increase their weight. In this, however, they unconsciously fulfilled the prophecy concerning it, and thereby enabled our Lord to say, “It is finished.” All was now finished; all that was necessary to be done or suffered for the sins of men — — — and nothing remained, but to surrender up that life, which had answered all the ends for which it had been given.]
Immediately upon this followed,
The dissolution of our Lord—
Two things are here particularly to be noticed;
The voluntariness of his death—
[He had before expressly declared, that “no man could take away his life, but that he should lay it down of himself [Note: John 10:17-18.].” And here the correspondence between the prediction and the event is clearly marked. Had the separation of his soul and body been occasioned altogether by his sufferings in a natural way, his strength would have gradually decayed, till he had sunk under them: but behold, immediately before his departure he cried out repeatedly with a loud voice; shewing thereby, that his nature was not exhausted, but that he resigned his soul voluntarily into his Father’s hands [Note: Matthew 27:50.]. The Centurion, who superintended his execution, was particularly struck with this, and was convinced by it that Jesus was indeed the Son of God, the Saviour of the world [Note: Mark 15:37; Mark 15:39.]. The very terms used by St. Matthew to express his death confirm this idea. What we translate, “He yielded up the ghost,” is literally, “He dismissed his spirit [Note: ἀφῆκε τὸ πνεῦμα.]:” so clearly did he manifest, even in death itself, that he was truly “the Lord and Prince of life [Note: Acts 3:15.].”]
His confidence and composure—
[Though he had just complained of the hidings of his Father’s face, yet he did not lose the consciousness that God was his Father: on the contrary, with dignified composure he committed his soul into his Father’s hands [Note: Luke 23:46.]. Often had he spoken of going to his Father, just as a man would have spoken of going to a distant land [Note: John 16:16; John 16:28; John 17:11; John 17:13.]: and now that his time was come, he meekly “bowed his head,” and surrendered up his soul, having discharged his appointed office, and filled up his destined measure, both of active and passive obedience. How beautiful does death appear, when thus disarmed of its sting? O that we may be enabled thus to meet this king of terrors, and to welcome his arrival as the best of friends!]
Let this affecting subject be improved by us,
For the confirmation of our faith—
[The wonderful minuteness of prophecy, surveyed as it must be in the accomplishment of the predictions, affords the strongest ground for our faith and hope. St. Peter laid great stress upon it in his addresses to the Jewish people, and urged the consideration of it as an encouragement to them to expect from Christ all the blessings of grace and glory [Note: Acts 3:18-19.]. To you then would we make our appeal: in whom were these things ever verified, if not in Christ? or what room is there for doubt respecting his Messiahship, when he has fulfilled every thing which the Messiah was either to do or suffer? I may add too, what doubt can exist respecting the accomplishment of all the promises to those who truly believe in him? Let us view him thus as “the Foundation which God has laid in Zion;” and let us expect from him whatever his grace has promised, and our necessities require.]
For the regulation of our conduct—
[We have seen the Saviour’s example both in life and death: and in conformity to that we should desire both to live and die. Let us not be anxious to depart from life, till we have completed the work which God has given us to do — — — On the other hand, let us not be afraid of death, but regard it as a departure to our Father’s house. The words of David seem to have been referred to by our Lord on this occasion, and they are admirably suited to the case of a dying believer [Note: Psalms 31:5.]: and to one who can use them in faith, death is nothing more than falling asleep in the bosom of our Lord [Note: Acts 7:59-60.] — — —]
CHRIST’S WORK FINISHED
John 19:30. It is finished.
THESE, with the exception of the words with which our blessed Lord commended his spirit into his Father’s hands, were the last words which he spake, previous to his dissolution. In the original, they are comprehended in one word [Note: Τετέλεσται.]: and since the foundation of the world there never was a single word uttered, in which such diversified and important matter was contained. Every word indeed that proceeded from our Saviour’s lips deserves the most attentive consideration: but this eclipses all. To do justice to it, is beyond the ability of men or angels: its height, and depth, and length, and breadth, are absolutely unsearchable. But that its import may be somewhat more clearly seen, we propose to shew,
The truths contained in it—
Our blessed Lord not having expressly stated what he alluded to as finished, we are left to gather his meaning from a general view of that work which he came to accomplish. We understand then, that when he uttered this word, the following things were finished:
The fulfilment of prophecy—
[Prophecy was of two kinds, one consisting of typical institutions, the other of positive declarations. Now both these kinds of prophecy received their accomplishment in the death of Christ.
The brazen serpent, the daily sacrifice, the burning of the flesh of the sin-offerings without the camp, with various other ordinances, shadowed forth the death of Christ by crucifixion without the walls of Jerusalem; and at that moment, when our Lord was about to resign his spirit, were all fulfilled: for he was then “suffering without the gate [Note: Hebrews 13:11-12.];” and was “lifted up, that all who believed in him might be healed” of their wounds [Note: John 3:14-15.]; and was “the Lamb of God taking away the sin of the world [Note: John 1:29.].”
The declarations of the prophets were so numerous and minute, that a history of our Lord might be compiled from them, fuller, in many respects, than is contained in any one of the Evangelists. The person that betrayed him, the manner in which his trial should be conducted, the sufferings he should undergo previous to the final execution of his sentence, the death to which he should be doomed, the persons in whose company he should suffer, the manner in which his clothes should be disposed of, the very taunts with which he should be insulted in his dying hour, were all fulfilled as exactly, as if the agents in this bloody tragedy had designed to accomplish the predictions concerning him. There remained only one single prophecy to be fulfilled: and who would have conceived that ever that should be fulfilled? It was customary for the friends of the persons who were executed to give them “wine mingled with myrrh,” in order to blunt the edge of their sufferings: and the friends of our Lord had offered him such a potion; but he would not drink of it, because he would do nothing that should have a tendency to diminish his sufferings [Note: Mark 15:23.]: but when, in his last moments, he said, “I thirst,” the cruel soldiers, wishing only to mock him, and augment his anguish [Note: Luke 23:36.], dipped a spunge in vinegar, and gave him that to drink; and thus fulfilled that prophecy of David, “In my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink [Note: Psalms 69:21.]. This done, no other prophecy remained to be fulfilled; and therefore our Lord instantly said, “It is finished.”]
The work of Redemption—
[Two things were undertaken by our Lord, and were to be done by him in order to man’s redemption; the penalties of the law were to be endured by him, in order that Divine justice might be satisfied for our sins; and the demands of the law mere to be obeyed by him, in order that sinners, who could have no righteousness of their own, might be made righteous in him. Both these things were now completed. Our blessed Lord had obeyed the law in its fullest extent: not the smallest defect could be found in him: man could find none; Satan could find none; God himself could find none: for “he did always the things that pleased the Father;” and “in him was no sin.” By his obedience, the law, which we had violated, was “magnified and made honourable:” and “a righteousness was brought in,” a righteousness which shall be unto all and upon all them that believe, and which is amply sufficient for the justification of all who trust in it. Moreover all was now endured that was necessary to make an atonement for our sins. Did we deserve shame, and condemnation, and misery? did we deserve to have the face of God hid from us, and the vials of his wrath poured out upon us, and to be consigned over to everlasting death? All this he suffered, as far as was compatible with his nature, and as far as was necessary for the satisfaction of Divine justice. He was not indeed actually dead; but the moment was arrived for his surrendering up his life; and therefore he could properly say, “It is finished.”]
The salvation of man—
[All that was necessary for man’s salvation was now effected. Nothing remained to be done, in order to the perfecting of his work on earth, or to the forming of a perfect ground for man’s acceptance with God. It is true, that man must repent: but he need not to repent in order to make satisfaction for his sins: no repentance of man can add to the value of Christ’s sacrifice. Men must repent, in order to justify God in the denunciations of his wrath, and to evince their abhorrence of their past ways, and to bring their souls to a fit state for the enjoyment of God’s mercy: but to atone for sin, he needs not to repent: the offering of the body of Jesus Christ upon the cross is a sufficient propitiation for the sins of the whole world. It is true also, that man must obey: but he need not to obey in order to form for himself a justifying righteousness before God: he can never add to the perfection of Christ’s righteousness; and any attempt to add to it will defeat, instead of furthering, his acceptance through it. Whatever obedience men may render for the honouring of God, and the adorning of their profession, they must renounce it utterly in point of dependence, and must look for salvation solely through the righteousness of Christ [Note: Philippians 3:9.]. Nothing remains for man but to accept the salvation which Christ has purchased: and if he be enabled in his last hour (like the dying thief) to rely on the blood and righteousness of the Lord Jesus, he shall as assuredly be saved, as if he had repented and obeyed a thousand years. We do not say this to lessen the importance of repentance and obedience (for in their proper place they are of infinite importance); but only to explain and vindicate our Lord’s assertion in the text.]
The meaning of our Lord’s declaration being ascertained, let us bring forth,
The truths to be deduced from it—
Selecting such inferences only as are most prominent, we observe,
That there is a sure ground of hope for all who feel their need of mercy—
[“If persons of a desponding frame would state what they could wish God to do for them, in order to remove their fears; we are well persuaded, not only that every thing they can desire has been already done, but that infinitely more has been done for them than they could even ask or think. Would they have an atonement made for their sins, even such an atonement as shall perfectly satisfy Divine justice, and discharge the utmost farthing of their debt? We must say to them, ‘It is done;’ “It is finished.” Would they have a perfect righteousness wrought out for them? Would they be invited and commanded by God himself to clothe themselves with it as a robe, so that not even the piercing eye of God should be able to behold a spot or blemish in them? “It is finished.” Would they have the gift of the Holy Spirit purchased for them, so that they may be assured of almighty aid in all their difficulties and conflicts! “It is finished.” Let them state what they will, (provided it be really calculated to inspire confidence, and suited to the condition of the Church militant,) and we do not hesitate to say respecting it, “It is finished.” Why then should any despond, as though their guilt were too great to be forgiven, or their corruptions too strong to be subdued? Let the humble and contrite only reflect on this dying declaration of our Lord, and they can never want encouragement to trust in him.]
That they in whom a good work is begun, have reason to hope that it shall be carried on and perfected to the day of Christ—
[The work of bringing sinners to repentance, and of renewing them after the Divine image, is committed to Christ. “He is exalted to be a Prince and a Saviour, to give repentance and remission of sins.” In him, according to the Father’s appointment, all fulness dwells; and out of his fulness all his people are to receive the grace that shall be needful and sufficient for them. Now if in the arduous work which Christ undertook to do for men, he persisted till he could say, “It is finished;” why should he not do the same in the work that he has engaged to accomplish in them? If he stop short in this, it must be either from a want of power, or a want of inclination, to persist in it. But it cannot be from want of power; since it is surely an easier thing to preserve life than to give it; and therefore if he have given it, he cannot want power to maintain it. Nor can it be from a want of inclination; for, if he had not been carried on by an irresistible inclination to save us, he would not have persisted in his former work; he would have put away the bitter cup from his lips, instead of drinking it, as he did, to the very dregs. If therefore he drew not back in the former case, we may be sure he will not in this case: he will never cease from working effectually in us, till he can say, “It is finished.” That this deduction is clear and scriptural, we have very abundant evidence. The prophet declares, that “He who has laid the foundation of the spiritual temple, will also finish it:” and that he will bring forth the top-stone thereof with shoutings, crying, “Grace, grace, unto it [Note: Zechariah 4:7; Zechariah 4:9.].” On this account the Apostle also calls him, “The Author and Finisher of our faith;” and declares himself “confident of this very thing, that He who hath begun the good work, will perform it till the day of Christ [Note: Philippians 1:6.].” Let believers then “cast their care on Him who careth for them,” and know assuredly, that “he will keep the feet of his saints, and “perfect that which concerneth them.”]
That those who have obtained mercy have the strongest possible incentive to maintain good works—
[We have before stated, that Christ has done every thing that was necessary for man’s salvation; and that nothing remains for man to add to the finished work of Christ. But we also noticed, that, though man has nothing to do for the purpose of meriting salvation, or for laying a foundation of his acceptance with God, yet in other points of view he has abundant occasion to work; yea, he is commanded to “work out his salvation with fear and trembling.” We have no other way of proving the truth of our faith, or the sincerity of our love, than by bringing forth the fruits of righteousness. Shall this then be thought a wearisome task by any of us? Shall we wish to intermit our labours, or to stop short of the highest attainments? Surely not: for if Christ finished the work assigned him, because of his love to us, we can do no less than persist in our work, whereby we are to evidence our love to him. Let us then “go on towards perfection:” let us “forget what is behind, and press forward towards that which is before:” let us “work while our day lasts;” that in the evening of our life we may be able to say with Christ, “Father, I have glorified thee on earth, I have finished the work which thou hast given me to do.” Then, while hypocrites and apostates shall take up this expression in reference to their hopes, of salvation, and say, “My day of grace is finished, and all possibility of obtaining mercy is finished;” we shall shout in heaven, “It is finished, it is finished!” “fears, temptations, conflicts, are all finished!” “I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith;” and nothing now remains to me but an eternity of uninterrupted happiness and glory.]
THE TREATMENT OF OUR LORD’S BODY ON THE CROSS
John 19:31-37. The Jews therefore, because it was the preparation, that the bodies should not remain upon the cross on the sabbath day, (for that sabbath day was an high day,) besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. Then came the soldiers, and brake the legs of the first, and of the other which was crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus, and saw that he was dead already, they brake not his legs: but one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came thereout blood and water. And he that saw it bare record, and his record is true: and he knoweth that he saith true, that ye might believe. For these things were done, that the Scripture should be fulfilled, A bone of him shall not be broken. And again another Scripture saith, They shall look on him whom they pierced.
UNSEARCHABLE is the depravity of the human heart. Who that had not seen it recorded in the Holy Scriptures, would conceive it possible, that those who felt no remorse for having crucified the Lord of Glory, should yet pretend to feel such reverence for the Sabbath-day, as not to endure the thought of its being profaned by his body remaining on the cross on that day? Horrid hypocrisy! This was indeed to “strain out a gnat, and swallow a camel.” What if there were extraordinary reasons for sanctifying that day, as being the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread [Note: Leviticus 23:5-7. Whitby, and others after him, appear to me to be under a mistake in calling it the second day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the day for presenting the sheaf of new corn; which was to be, not on the sabbath-day, but on the morrow after it. Leviticus 23:15-16.]; could they be supposed to operate on a mind that was dead to all sense of justice or of mercy? But all was wisely ordered and overruled by God, who by this means wrought more effectually to the establishing of the claims of Jesus to the Messiahship: for from hence arose their singular treatment of our Lord’s body; which, together with the instruction to be gathered from it, will form the subject of our present discourse.
Let us consider,
Their singular treatment of our Lord’s body—
It was truly singular—
[The Romans were accustomed to leave upon the cross those who were so put to death, in order that they might be devoured by birds of prey. Agreeably therefore to their customs, the bodies of Jesus and of the malefactors should have been kept upon the cross. But the Jews, who on some occasions put persons to death by hanging, were forbidden to keep them on the tree all night [Note: Deuteronomy 21:23.]: and, as the next day was so great a day, they thought it right to interest themselves with the governor to adopt on that occasion the Jewish, instead of the Roman, plan; proposing however, that the legs of the crucified persons should be broken, in order to effect and secure their death; thus making up by increased agony what might be equivalent to the longer duration of their misery. Permission is granted; the order given; and in part executed: the legs of both the malefactors were broken; but, our Lord being already dead, the soldiers forbore to execute this order upon him. But one of the soldiers, wantonly and of his own mind, thrust a spear into his side; from whence issued a stream of blood and water; the water flowing from the pericardium, and the blood from the heart itself.
Now this we call singular: for it was strange, that an order given in relation to him as well as the other two, should be executed on them, and not on him; and it was strange also that an unauthorized act of violence should be committed upon him, and not on them: for, if done to them, it would have been an act of mercy; but, as done to him, it was only an act of malice, as impotent as it was inhuman.]
But God had wise ends in permitting this—
[There were prophecies yet remaining to be accomplished: and it was necessary that every part of Scripture should be fulfilled. Now it had been ordained respecting the paschal lamb, that “not a bone of it should be broken [Note: Exodus 12:46. Numbers 15:12.].” This lamb was intended type a type of Christ; and that peculiar appointment in the type must be verified in the antitype: and, if not verified in him, Christ’s claim to the Messiahship must be void. Behold then, how nearly Jesus’ title to the Messiahship was destroyed! The proposal of breaking the legs was made, and acceded to, in reference to him as well as to the malefactors who were crucified with him: it was also executed first on one of the malefactors, then on the other. Why does not the man proceed? Why does he presume to disobey the order? Who has told him to exercise his own discretion? Who interferes about the matter, or attempts either to restrain or to dissuade the executioner. Had he but given the intended blow, there had been an end to all Jesus’ pretensions to the Messiahship. But an invisible hand restrained him; God himself overruled his mind; and therefore overruled it, that the Scripture might not be broken.
But why does one of the soldiers take upon him to offer an indignity to the body of Jesus, without any commission or order from his superiors? There was another prophecy to be fulfilled, which had said, that the Jews should look on Him whom they had pierced [Note: Zechariah 12:10.]:” therefore God put it into the heart of his enemies to do to him what they did not to the others, and to refrain from doing to him what they did to the others; to do to him what they were not ordered, and to refrain from doing what they were ordered. If this also had not been done, our Lord’s claim to the Messiahship had failed; and equally so, if the spear, instead of piercing between the bones, had struck a rib. But there are no such things as casualties, where God’s will is concerned: for though every person is a free agent in what he does, he acts no less certainly, than if God used him as an involuntary machine: “God’s counsel shall stand, and he will do all his pleasure [Note: Isaiah 46:10.].” The Scriptures had spoken these things, and it was not possible that “one jot or tittle of them should fail.”]
The more minutely we consider this subject, the more important will appear,
The instruction to be gathered from it—
Whilst the foregoing circumstances evince the universal agency of God’s providence, they are particularly suited to shew us,
What grounds we have for hope—
[The preceding circumstances fully establish the Messiahship of Jesus. But here arises a question; ‘How do I know that he really died? I know that he was to “pour out his soul unto death [Note: Isaiah 53:12.]:” but am I sure that he really died? I know that just before the time he was supposed to die, he spoke repeatedly with so loud a voice, as clearly to prove that his strength was by no means exhausted: I know that “Pilate himself marvelled at his being reported to be so soon dead:” am I sure then that he was not merely in a swoon? for if that were the case, all that he did and suffered can be of no avail for my salvation. If he did not die, he did not atone for sin: if he did not die, the story of his resurrection is false; and, as the Apostle himself has said, our faith is vain.’ But, blessed be God! we are not left to entertain any such doubts: for the officious malice of the soldier who pierced him to the heart, put it beyond a possibility of doubt. Had Jesus been in perfect health, this wound must have killed him instantly: and so publicly was it given, that amidst all the falsehoods invented by the Jews to justify their rejection of him, they never thought of saying that he did not die. Behold then, this point is clear: the Messiah was to die; and this person, to whom so many testimonies were given, did really die; “he became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” The atonement then that was to be made for sin, was really made: the debt due for our iniquities was discharged: and since “He who knew no sin was made a sin-offering for us, we, who have no righteousness, may be made the righteousness of God in him.”]
What blessings we are to expect—
[The Apostle’s solicitude to impress our minds with the things which he beheld, marks unquestionably the importance of them. He declares that his testimony was founded, not on report, but on ocular demonstration; and he demands credit of us upon that ground. But what was it which he so particularly noticed? was it the wound inflicted with the spear? No; it was the issue of water and of blood from the wound. And why was he so particular in the mention of it? it was because there was a deep mystery contained in it, even a typical exhibition of those blessings which we are to receive from him. If we look into the Scriptures, we shall find our justification constantly ascribed to his blood, as cleansing us from sin [Note: Romans 5:9. Ephesians 1:7; Ephesians 2:13.Hebrews 9:14; Hebrews 9:14. 1 Peter 1:19. Revelation 1:5.]; and, in like manner, our sanctification as uniformly ascribed to his Spirit [Note: Romans 8:9; Romans 8:13. 2 Thessalonians 2:13.Ephesians 5:25-27; Ephesians 5:25-27.]. Under the law, these two blessings, together with the mode of their conveyance to our souls, were typified by the blood of the sacrifices, which purged from guilt, and by the various washings, which cleansed from defilement: and they were distinctly promised to the Church by express declarations of God himself [Note: Zechariah 13:1.Ezekiel 36:25-26; Ezekiel 36:25-26.]. At the introduction of the Christian dispensation, they were mystically represented by the event of which we are speaking, where the blood and water, though flowing in one stream, were distinctly seen. This surprising appearance was designed to shew, that both blessings flow equally from the pierced side of Christ. They flow together, to shew, that we are not to expect the one without the other; and they are kept distinct, to shew, that the blessings are perfectly distinct, and must never be confounded.
We will endeavour, in few words, to render this more clear. Faith and holiness are distinct things, even as blood and water are distinct: faith is necessary to procure for us a title to heaven; and holiness is necessary to make us meet for heaven: moreover, we must apply to ourselves the blood, in order to obtain the one; and we must also be sprinkled with the water, in order to obtain the other [Note: Hebrews 10:22.]. We must take care also not to mix the two: it is the blood alone that justifies, and the Spirit alone that renews: our justification by faith will not supersede the necessity of holiness; nor will our renovation by the Spirit supersede the necessity of faith in Christ. We must understand the proper offices of each; and must keep each in its proper place: only we must remember, that they both flow from the wounded side of Christ; and that Christ is the only fountain from whence either the one or the other can be derived.
It is possible that this interpretation may appear fanciful: but it will no longer be thought so, if only we consult the exposition which St. John himself has given us of this mystery: “This,” says he, “is He that came by water and blood, even Jesus Christ; not by water only, but by water and blood [Note: 1 John 5:6.]:” from whence we may fairly infer, that “what God has so joined together, we must never attempt to put asunder.”]
What dispositions we are to cultivate—
[The latter prophecy referred to in our text says, “They shall look on Him whom they have pierced:” and the prophet adds, “They shall mourn and be in bitterness, as one mourneth for his only son.” Now this shews the two dispositions which we should exercise towards our adorable Lord and Saviour: we should “look to him” with penitence and faith. Never can we mourn too deeply, when we reflect that it was our sin that crucified the Lord of glory: the Jews and Romans were the instruments; but our iniquities were the cause of all his sufferings: “He was wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities” Nay more, by our sins we have “crucified the Lord afresh, and put him to an open shame [Note: Hebrews 6:6.].” If then we feel that the Jews have cause to mourn, how should we mourn, who have done that with our eyes open, which they did only through the blindness and ignorance of their hearts! Yet, whilst we mourn and are in bitterness, we should not forget that Jesus is the propitiation for our sins, that he “bare them all in his own body on the tree,” and that, by becoming a curse for us, he has redeemed us from the curse which our sins had merited. We should resemble the penitent under the law, who, whilst he presented his sacrifice to God and confessed over it his sins, put his hand upon the head of his sacrifice, and transferred his guilt to that as his substitute and surety. Thus should we do: in our view of Christ upon the cross, we should unite penitence and faith: to separate the two will destroy their efficacy altogether: an impenitent faith, and an unbelieving penitence, will leave us in no better state than that of devils, of whom St. James says, that “they believe and tremble [Note: James 2:19.].” Let us then cultivate these dispositions to our dying hour; and look unto Jesus with penitential faith, and with believing penitence.]
THE BURIAL OF JESUS
John 19:38-42. And after this, Joseph of Arimathea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, besought Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus: and Pilate gave him leave. He came therefore, and took the body of Jesus. And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight. Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury. Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid. There laid they Jesus therefore because of the Jews preparation day; for the sepulchre was nigh at hand.
THE smallest circumstances relative to the life and death of our blessed Lord may well be supposed to deserve peculiar attention: but the mere interment of his body one would imagine might be passed over as a matter of no moment. Yet we find our Lord himself repeatedly referring to it, during the course of his ministry. He mentions the indispensable necessity of his interment, in order to complete the purposes of his grace [Note: John 12:24.]: he specifies the term of his intended continuance in the heart of the earth [Note: Matthew 12:40.]: and he commends the fervent love of Mary in pouring ointment on his head, as a prophetic, though not an intended, preparation for his burial [Note: Matthew 26:12.]. In fact, the inspired history does not record any thing more minutely and circumstantially than the funeral of our Lord: and the more carefully we attend to what is spoken respecting it, the more interesting and instructive it will appear. Let us consider then,
The peculiar circumstances of his interment—
[In the moment when our Lord seemed abandoned by all, except a few women and his beloved Disciple, and when, as it should appear, no motive could any longer exist for shewing a regard for him, God raised up two persons of eminence and distinction to pay that respect to him when dead, which had been refused to him when living. One of these persons is very particularly described: the different Evangelists being consulted, we learn his name and place of abode: he was “Joseph of Arimathea,” or Ramah, in the tribe of Ephraim, the birth-place and residence of Samuel. Next, we have his rank and condition: he was “a rich man, and an honourable counsellor,” one of the Jewish Sanhedrim. Further, we are informed of his character and conduct: he was “a just and good man,” who, when the Sanhedrim had condemned our Lord as guilty of death, “had not consented to the counsel and deed of them.” Lastly, mention is made of his principles and attainments: he was “a Disciple of Christ,” who even then, when the Apostles had lost all thought that Christ’s kingdom should ever be established, actually “waited for the kingdom of God,” in expectation that it should yet appear [Note: Compare Matthew 27:57-60. Mar 15:42-46 and Luke 23:50-53. with the text.]. This person went in “boldly” to Pilate, and begged to have the body of Jesus at his disposal. This conduct of his manifested a considerable degree of fortitude: for it could not but be very offensive to the rest of the Jewish council to see one of their own body paying funeral honours to one, whom, but a few hours before, they had condemned and crucified as a malefactor: besides, if Jesus should rise again according to the expectations that had been formed, he would infallibly be accused as a confederate with the other Disciples, and as having assisted them in stealing away the corpse from the tomb. Pilate, not believing that Jesus was so soon dead, sent for the centurion who superintended the execution, to inquire respecting it: and, on being assured by him that he was really dead, and that, subsequent to his death, he had been stabbed to the heart with a spear, he gave his consent. Joseph therefore went and took down the body, and wrapped it in some fine linen which he had bought for the purpose. But in this he was assisted by another person of eminence, Nicodemus by name, “the same man who, three years before, had come to Jesus by night,” to inquire into his doctrine; and who on one occasion had befriended him before the Jewish council, by stating, that the Jewish law did not admit of any person being condemned till after an opportunity of vindicating his own innocence had been afforded him [Note: John 7:50-52.]. This man “bought a large quantity of myrrh and aloes, and other spices, about an hundred pound weight;” and, together with Joseph, wrapped up the dead body in it for the present, intending, probably after the sabbath, to embalm it with greater care.
Joseph, after the custom of the Jews, had provided for himself a new tomb, hewn out of a rock: and, it being near to the place where Jesus was crucified, he deposited the body there: and, for the sake of decency and security, rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre.
Such is the account given us of the burial of our Lord: and at first sight perhaps it may appear, if not uninteresting, at least destitute of any important instruction. But we shall not be of this opinion, if we duly weigh, as we propose to do,]
The practical benefits resulting from it—
There is not a single circumstance in this account which is not very important; and the whole taken together is of singular use,
To establish our faith—
[Two things are necessary to be ascertained, before we can have just grounds for our faith in Christ; namely, first, the truth of the facts recorded concerning him; and next, the agreement of those facts with the prophecies of the Old Testament. Now the main facts to be ascertained, are, the death and the resurrection of Jesus: for, if he did not die, he has made no atonement for our sins; and, if he did not rise again, we have no evidence that his atonement has been accepted in our behalf. But behold how these facts are contained in the history before us! Pilate had doubts respecting the death of Jesus; and would not consent to Joseph’s request, till the point was ascertained from the very person whom he had appointed to superintend the execution. Had there been a spark of life in the body, the enemies of Jesus would not have given it into the possession of his friends; nor would his friends have consigned it to the tomb. His death therefore was proved beyond a doubt; nor was the truth of his resurrection less clearly manifested: for the tomb was new; and we are repeatedly told, that no corpse had ever yet been laid in it. Had there been any other corpse there, the resurrection of Jesus might have been ascribed to that; as the restoration of a dead body to life was effected by its being brought in contact with the bones of the Prophet Elisha [Note: 2 Kings 13:21.]: or it might have been affirmed, that it was the other corpse, and not that of Jesus, that revived. But, when there never had been any other corpse deposited there, the resurrection of Jesus could not be confounded with that of any other person; nor could it be ascribed to any other power than his own. Moreover, the sepulchre being hewn out of a solid rock, was inaccessible, except at that entrance which was stopped by the stone, and guarded by the band of soldiers: had it been accessible in any other way, there might have been some plausibility in the story that the corpse was stolen from it by the Disciples; but the very nature of the grave precluded a possibility of removing the body from it, without the knowledge of the Roman guard.
Thus far then the facts are clear: and now mark their correspondence with the voice of prophecy. It had been expressly foretold, that, though Christ should be “numbered with transgressors,” and have “his grave appointed with the wicked: yet with the rich should be his tomb [Note: See Isaiah 53:9. Bishop Lowth’s translation.].” This was as improbable as any event that could be conceived: the order was the same in relation to him as to the other malefactors, that his bones should be broken, and that he should be dealt with precisely in the way that the others were: yet behold, at the very instant when this prophecy appeared to have failed, God put it into the heart of “a rich man,” already provided with a tomb, near to the very place, to ask permission to inter the body, and actually to inter it in his own tomb! Surely, if the minute accomplishment of prophecy in the person of the Lord Jesus were duly considered, it would not be possible for any human being, whether Jew or Gentile, to entertain a doubt respecting the truth of his Messiahship: yet is this but one point of a hundred whereon our faith rests, and whereby it may be established.]
To confirm our hope—
[Many are the prophecies relating to the Church at large, and the promises relating to every individual believer, which yet remain to be accomplished, and for the accomplishment of which no visible means exist. Look at the state of the world, and see, how impracticable, humanly speaking, the idea is, of forming the whole race of mankind into one great society, who shall all acknowledge the Lord Jesus as their Supreme Head, and trust in him as their only Saviour, and serve him with their whole hearts, and enjoy and glorify him with their whole souls. Or look at any individual believer, and see his manifold corruptions, his innumerable temptations, his potent enemies: how can we conceive that he shall ever attain the Divine image, and triumph over all the powers of earth and hell? Yet we may see in the history before us, that God will never want means to effect his gracious purposes. He that raised up a Moses in the very court of Pharaoh, to deliver his people from Egyptian bondage; and foretold Cyrus even by name, three hundred years before he was born, as the destined Restorer of his people from their captivity in Babylon; and raised up Esther, in so astonishing a way, in the house of Ahasuerus, to save the whole Jewish nation from destruction; may safely be trusted to accomplish his own purposes in his own time and way. We have no occasion to inquire, How shall he do this or that? it is quite sufficient that he has promised: and it is our privilege to know, that “what he has promised he is able also to perform;” and that of all the good things which he has authorized us to expect, “not one shall ever fail [Note: See Joshua 23:14.]” — — —]
To enlarge our charity—
[We are too apt to judge of things according as they appear to us, without considering how limited our views are, and how incompetent we are to judge aright. If we see not many who openly acknowledge God, we are ready to think the number of his worshippers much fewer than they really are. The Prophet Elijah erred in this respect: he thought that he stood alone in Israel, and that all besides himself were idolaters; whereas God informed him that there were no less than seven thousand men in Israel who had not bowed their knee to the image of Baal. And we, if we had lived at the time of our Lord’s crucifixion, should have concluded, that amongst the great council of the Jewish nation, who condemned him to death, there was not one who was not a decided enemy of the Lord Jesus. But the history shews, that there were two persons of great eminence amongst them, who were truly pious, though they had been restrained by fear from making a public profession of their sentiments. We must not be understood as intending to justify or excuse the fear of man; for it is certainly a great and heinous sin; and a man who is ashamed of Christ, and denies Christ now, has reason to fear that Christ will be ashamed of him, and deny him at the last day: but still it is comfortable to think that God has many “hidden ones” even amongst his most inveterate enemies, and many who will perhaps come forth at a future period with more “boldness,” and to more effect, than others who have made an open profession of his truth. I say again, We mean not to extenuate the guilt of cowardice; but still it is a fact, that many persons, whose cowardice we deplore, have opportunities of rendering services to God which they could never have rendered, if their profession of religion had been more avowed: and therefore, whilst we lament the weakness of the religious principle within them, we must neither judge them too severely, nor undervalue their real worth. We must make just allowance for those who are in high official stations, whose difficulties are thereby greatly increased. We must not despise the day of small things; but must rather bear with the infirmities of the weak; and rejoice in the hope, that they who are yet but “babes in Christ,” will, in God’s time, become men and warriors, and “valiant for the truth.” Many, like Paul, are training in the ranks of Christ’s enemies, who shall one day come forth as champions to fight and conquer in his cause.]
To reconcile us to the thoughts of death—
[Death is universally regarded as “the king of terrors.” Our nature revolts at the idea of being committed to the tomb. But why should we shudder at it, when we see the Lord of life and glory going down into the heart of the earth? Surely he has perfumed and sanctified the grave: and we may well be satisfied to be conformed to him in his death, when we have the blessed prospect of resembling him also in his resurrection. He indeed “saw no corruption” there; whereas we shall be devoured by worms, and return to our native dust: but then this will be only for a time; for we shall surely at the last day be raised again, and “that which was sown in weakness, dishonour, and corruption, shall be raised in incorruption, power, and glory:” yes, “this mortal body shall be fashioned like unto Christ’s glorious body,” and, together with our souls, be made partaker of everlasting felicity. All that we have to be concerned about, is, to be ready for the change; to seek an interest in that adorable Saviour who died for us, and to get an experimental “knowledge of him in the power of his resurrection,” that, “being rendered conformable to his death, we may by any means attain the resurrection of the dead [Note: Philippians 3:10-11.].”
We condemn not the respect shewn to departed friends, when we consign them to the grave. The pomp and splendour indeed of some funerals are an insult, rather than an honour, to the putrefying remains of one who is paying the penalty of sin: but a modest respect is due to that, which lately was a temple of the living God, and which shall ere long be restored, in perfect purity, to the full enjoyment of his presence. Yet we need not be solicitous about this: let us only be anxious, whether for ourselves or others, to “fall asleep in Jesus;” and then, whether honoured or not in our funeral rites, we shall be raised, through him, to endless felicity and glory.]
CHARACTER OF NICODEMUS
John 19:39. There came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night.
IT is generally supposed, that by conversion a man’s character is altogether changed. But this is by no means true. Divine grace gives a new direction to a man’s natural powers; but it does not divest him of them, so that he shall altogether cease to be the same as he was before. His moral dispositions, so far as they were evil, will be corrected; and, so far as they were good, will be improved: but the natural temperament of his mind will remain in a great measure the same as it was in his unconverted state, only under the controul of a higher and better principle. For instance, a bold and confident Peter will carry into his religious profession the same boldness and precipitancy which characterized him as a natural man: and, for the most part, a man’s besetting sins (due allowance being made for a change of age and circumstances) will prove his besetting sins even to his.dying hour. In conduct, the lion will become a lamb; but the disposition of courage or timidity will still adhere to each, according to his natural bias. Yet sometimes these matters shall be reversed, as we see in the history before us. At the period of our Lord’s lowest extremity, when he hanged dead upon the cross, a cowardly Nicodemus united with another no less timid than himself, Joseph of Arimathea, to honour the Saviour, whom the intrepid Peter had forsaken, and denied even with oaths and curses.
To cast further light upon this subject, I shall,
Consider the character of Nicodemus—
He was a man of very considerable distinction, at the time of our Lord’s death. In his religious profession he was a Pharisee; in his civil station he was a member of the great council of the nation, and a ruler and teacher in a synagogue; and in the habit of his mind, a candid and honest man. Having heard of the miracles which the Lord Jesus had wrought, he concluded, that a person endued with such powers must necessarily have come from God, and, consequently, must have much religious information to impart. He determined, therefore, to obtain an interview with Jesus, and learn from him whatever he was commissioned to reveal. And, when he went to Jesus, he, though possessed of such rank and authority himself, addressed that despised and persecuted Teacher by the respectful appellation of “Rabbi;” confessing his belief in him as a Teacher sent from God. Thus far all was well. But there were in Nicodemus two great defects, to which I must now call your attention:
[Twice is Nicodemus mentioned after that interview; and both times is he stigmatized as the person that “went to Jesus by night [Note: Compare John 7:50.].” In this he acted most unworthily. As a man of probity, he should not have been ashamed of doing what was right, or afraid of any censure he might incur by following the dictates of his own conscience. What have we to do with man’s opinion? We should approve ourselves to God, without so much as thinking, and much less fearing, what man may either say or do. It is the happiness of the Christian that he has none to fear, but God. But, wherever Christ comes in the ministration of the word, there are too many who are like-minded with Nicodemus; and are kept from seeking instruction for their souls, through “that fear of man which bringeth a snare.” Many will not even go so far as he. They have an inward conviction that this or that minister is really sent of God, and has most valuable information to impart; and yet they neither dare to hear him in public, nor to visit him in private, lest it should be known that they are inquiring after truth. Sad enemies are these to their own welfare, whilst they deprive themselves of opportunities which God has afforded them for the instruction and salvation of their souls! They may avoid the censure of men; but they have a stigma fixed upon them by God; and they have reason to fear that that Saviour, “whom they thus deny before men, will deny them before his Father and his holy angels [Note: Mark 8:38.].”]
[Our blessed Lord, instead of reproaching him for his cowardice, immediately opened to him that doctrine which he most needed to hear, and which was of most immediate importance to one of his caste and complexion. Being himself a teacher of religion, and of that sect which was highest in repute for sanctity, he would of course think that he needed only some particular instruction which Jesus might have been commissioned to impart. But our blessed Lord told him, and with the strongest asseverations assured him, that he needed altogether a new birth; and that, without being born both, of water and of the Spirit, he could neither see nor enter into the kingdom of God. This, it might have been expected, Nicodemus should be well acquainted with: for the prophets, with whose writings he was so conversant, had most distinctly affirmed it [Note: Jeremiah 31:32-33.Ezekiel 36:25-26; Ezekiel 36:25-26.] — — — But Nicodemus could not at all comprehend such mysterious truths: he foolishly thought that our Lord must refer to some natural birth which his followers were to experience; and when our Lord explained himself more fully by a comparison which was familiar to all, and told him plainly that it was a spiritual birth that he spoke of, he still remained as ignorant as ever; saying, “How can these things be?” Hence our Lord reproved his unbelief; saying, “If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe if I tell you of heavenly things [Note: John 3:12.]?”
Thus it frequently is found amongst ourselves. Frequently do we see persons who are most exemplary in their morals and most intelligent in their minds, and, on the whole, of candid dispositions too, yet stumbling at the truths of the Gospel, and “unable to comprehend them, for want of a spiritual discernment [Note: 1 Corinthians 2:14.].” And so it must ever be, when men “mix not faith with the word they hear [Note: Hebrews 4:2.].”]
Having seen the character of Nicodemus, let us,
Make some remarks upon it—
This subject would open to us a very wide field for observation; but I content myself with observing, that in Nicodemus we see,
The power of the world in opposition to truth—
[It is clear that the words of our blessed Lord had made a lodgment both in the mind and in the heart of this timid man; and yet he did not dare to follow up his convictions. At no great distance of time, when the council was condemning Jesus unheard, Nicodemus ventured to express an opinion that such conduct was both ungenerous and unjust: “Doth our law judge any man before it hear him, and know what he doeth [Note: John 7:51.]?” But for three years after this we hear no more of Nicodemus. No more does he seek to be instructed by our Lord, either in public or in private. The general voice was against our Saviour; and Nicodemus dared not to encounter the reproach that would be cast upon him, if he should be known to be, even in heart, a follower of the despised Nazarene. Who would have thought that “a ruler in Israel” should be so timid? But the fact is, that the more elevated any man is, the more fearful he is of subjecting himself to public observation and reproach. In St. Paul’s day it was thus. He appealed to the whole Church of Corinth: “Ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called [Note: 1 Corinthians 1:26.].” And so it is in every age: let a man possess any distinction in society, and, instead of being emboldened by it to act according to his conscience, he is intimidated and restrained, and scarcely dares, even in private, to associate with one who is an avowed follower of Christ. In vain is it said that “the fearful shall not inherit the kingdom of God [Note: Revelation 21:8.];” and that, “if we deny Christ, he also will deny us [Note: 2 Timothy 2:12.].” So great is the power of a vain ungodly world, that we will please them rather than God; and, for fear of their censure, expose ourselves to the wrath of an offended God.]
The power of truth in opposition to the world—
[The seed, which had been sown in Nicodemus’s heart, “grew up, he knew not how [Note: Mark 4:27.];” and, in an hour when, according to all human calculations, we should have least expected it to shew itself, it sprang up, and brought forth fruit, to the honour of our blessed Lord. The Lord Jesus was now dead upon the cross; and to pay him any honour was at the peril of a person’s life. Yet then, when Christ’s own Disciples had forsaken him, Nicodemus, with “Joseph, who also had been a disciple, but secretly for fear of the Jews [Note: ver. 38.],” “went to Pilate, and begged the body of Jesus,” in order that they might inter it with such a measure of honour and respect as the present circumstances would admit of. The boldness of this petition is particularly noticed by St. Mark [Note: Mark 15:43.]: but truth, if allowed to have its proper influence, will embolden any man, and make him to disregard even life itself, if duty call for the surrender of it [Note: Acts 20:24.]. On this occasion the force of truth appears particularly conspicuous, when it animated two such timid persons to so perilous an adventure, to which they had not been called, and which they might have declined without the slightest imputation on their character. Let but truth erect its throne within the heart, and every adverse power it will utterly subdue [Note: John 8:32.].]
What, then, is my advice in relation to this matter?
Let us not covet the distinctions of this life—
[There is an idea prevalent amongst men, that the higher we rise in society, the greater will be our influence, especially if we stand well with the world, as not being “righteous over-much.” Now, I will grant that persons of this description can often do things which more decided characters would be unable to effect. I think it highly probable, that not all the Disciples together could have prevailed on Pilate to give them the body of Jesus; nor would the chief priests have suffered even Joseph and Nicodemus to have the body, if they had been generally known as followers of Christ. But the man that will draw back from Christ, and conform to the world with any such expectation as this, little thinks to what peril he subjects his own soul, and what a stigma will be fixed upon him by Almighty God, even if he should find mercy at his hands in the last day. Beloved brethren, know this, that “ye cannot serve God and mammon too [Note: Matthew 6:24.].” “If ye will be friends of the world, ye must be the enemies of God [Note: James 4:4.],” and be dealt with as enemies in the eternal world. I mean not to discourage exertion in the pursuit either of wealth or science: but an ambitious coveting of distinction I must declare to be utterly inconsistent with true piety. “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world: if any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him [Note: 1 John 2:15-16.].” I can have little doubt, but that if Joseph and Nicodemus had been in a lower sphere of life, they would have earlier confessed our blessed Lord. It was their elevation that kept them back: for lofty mountains are usually barren, in comparison of the lowly valleys. And you likewise may have reason to curse the day that ever you were raised to spheres of eminence and distinction. Be content, then, with the sphere in which it has pleased God to place you. If only you reflect, that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven,” you will see the wisdom of that advice, “Seekest thou great things unto thyself? Seek them not [Note: Jeremiah 45:5.].”]
Let us follow the dictates of our own conscience—
[How lamentable was it, that Nicodemus, for the space of three years, should suppress, instead of following, the voice of God within him. Were he now to return from heaven, and sojourn here again, what shame would he take to himself for such unworthy conduct! Beloved brethren, let us serve God, and him only, even though all around us should depart from him [Note: Joshua 24:15.]. Let us, like Caleb and Joshua, “follow the Lord fully [Note: Numbers 14:24.].” Who does not admire Elijah, when he stood alone, as he thought, in the midst of all Israel? Thus let us do. “If the Lord be God, let us follow him,” in despite both of men and devils.]
Let us, whatever talents we possess, improve them for the Lord—
[Doubtless Joseph and Nicodemus felt, that on this occasion they could exert an influence which others did not possess: and they did well, in improving it for the Lord. Now, all of us, in our respective situations, have influence of some kind: and, whatever it be, let us use it diligently, for the honour of our God. There are times and seasons which we should seize; lest, by delay, they pass away, and our opportunity for serving God be lost for ever. Had Esther not promptly followed the advice of Mordecai, in going, at the peril of her life, to Ahasuerus, the whole nation of the Jews had perished. She was the only person that, humanly speaking, could interpose with effect: and God signally blessed her pious exertions. Let us, also, watch the calls of Providence, and every one of us, according to our ability, discharge the duties that lie before us. And, if a momentary fear arise in our hearts, let us, with Moses, “esteem the reproach of Christ greater riches than all the treasures of Egypt [Note: Hebrews 11:26.];” and, with the Apostle Paul, account martyrdom itself a ground of self-congratulation and of holy joy [Note: Philippians 2:17.].]
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Simeon, Charles. "Commentary on John 19". Simeon's Horae Homileticae. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany