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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
1 John 5

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 3-5

Chapter 15

BIRTH AND VICTORY

1 John 5:3-5

ST. JOHN here connects the Christian Birth with Victory. He tells us that of the supernatural life the destined and (so to speak) natural end is Conquest.

Now in this there is a contrast between the law of nature and the law of grace. No doubt the first is marvellous. It may even, if we will, in one sense be termed a victory; for it is the proof of a successful contest with the blind fatalities of natural environment. It is in itself the conquest of a something which has conquered a world below it. The first faint cry of the baby is a wail, no doubt; but in its very utterance there is a half triumphant undertone. Boyhood, youth, opening manhood-at least in those who are physically and intellectually gifted generally possess some share of "the rapture of the strife" with nature and with their contemporaries.

"Youth hath triumphal mornings; its days bound from night as from a victory."

But sooner or later that which pessimists style "the martyrdom of life" sets in. However brightly the drama opens, the last scene is always tragic. Our natural birth inevitably ends in defeat.

A birth and a defeat is thus the epitome of each life which is naturally brought into the field of our present human existence. The defeat is sighed over, sometimes consummated, in every cradle; it is attested by every grave.

But if birth and defeat is the motto of the natural life, birth and victory is the motto of everyone born into the city of God.

This victory is spoken of in our verses as a victory along the whole line. It is the conquest of the collective Church, of the whole mass of regenerate humanity, so far as it has been true to the principle of its birth-the conquest of the Faith which is "The Faith of us," who are knit together in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of the Son of God, Christ our Lord. But it is something more than that. The general victory is also a victory in detail. Every true individual believer shares in it. The battle is a battle of soldiers. The abstract ideal victory is realised and made concrete in each life of struggle which is a life of enduring faith. The triumph is not merely one of a school, or of a party. The question rings with a triumphant challenge down the ranks-"who is the ever-conqueror of the world, but the ever-believer that Jesus is the Son of God?"

We are thus brought to two of St. John’s great master conceptions, both of which came to him from hearing the Lord who is the Life-both of which are to be read in connection with the fourth Gospel-the Christian’s Birth and his victory.

I The Apostle introduces the idea of the Birth which has its origin from God precisely by the same process to which attention has already been more than once directed.

St. John frequently mentions some great subject; at first like a musician who with perfect command of his instrument touches what seems to be an almost random key, faintly, as if incidentally and half wandering from his theme.

But just as the sound appears to be absorbed by the purpose of the composition, or all but lost in the distance, the same chord is struck again more decidedly; and then, after more or less interval, is brought out with a music so full and sonorous, that we perceive that it has been one of the master’s leading ideas from the very first. So, when the subject is first spoken of, we hear-"Everyone that doeth righteousness is born of Him." The subject is suspended for a while; then comes a somewhat. more marked reference. "Whosoever is born of God is not a doer of sin; and he cannot continue sinning, because of God he is born." There is yet one more tender recurrence to the favourite theme-"Everyone that loveth is born of God." Then, finally here at last the chord, so often struck, grown bolder since the prelude, gathers all the music round it. It interweaves with itself another strain which has similarly been gaining amplitude of volume in its course, until we have a great Te Deum, dominated by two chords of Birth and Victory. "This is the conquest that has conquered the world-the Faith which is of us."

We shall never come to any adequate notion of St. John’s conception of the Birth of God, without tracing the place in his Gospel to which his asterisk in this place refers. To one passage only can we turn-our Lord’s conversation with Nicodemus. "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God-except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." The germ of the idea of entrance into the city, the kingdom of God, by means of a new birth, is in that storehouse of theological conceptions, the Psalter. There is one psalm of a Korahite seer, enigmatical it may be, shadowed with the darkness of a divine compression, obscure from the glory that rings it round, and from the gush of joy in its few and broken words. The 87th Psalm is the psalm of the font, the hymn of regeneration. The nations once of the world are mentioned among them that know the Lord. They are counted when He writeth up the peoples. Glorious things are spoken of the City of God. Three times over the burden of the song is the new birth by which the aliens were made free of Sion.

This one was born there, This one and that one was born in her, This one was born there.

All joyous life is thus brought into the city of the newborn. "The singers, the solemn dances, the fresh and glancing springs, are in thee." Hence, from the notification of men being born again in order to see and enter into the kingdom, our Lord, as if in surprise, meets the Pharisee’s question-"how can these things be?"-with another -"art thou that teacher in Israel, and understandest not these things?" Jesus tells His Church forever that every one of His disciples must be brought into contact with two worlds, with two influences-one outward, the other inward; one material, the other spiritual; one earthly, the other heavenly; one visible and sacramental, the other invisible and divine. Out of these he must come forth newborn.

Of course it may be said that "the water" here coupled with the Spirit is figurative. But let it be observed first, that from the very constitution of St. John’s intellectual and moral being things outward and visible were not annihilated by the spiritual transparency which he imparted to them. Water, literal water, is everywhere in his writings. In his Gospel more especially he seems to be ever seeing, ever hearing it. He loved it from the associations of his own early life, and from the mention made of it by his Master. And as in the Gospel water is, so to speak, one of the three great factors and centres of the book; so now in the Epistle, it still seems to glance and murmur before him. "The water" is one of the three abiding witnesses in the Epistle also. Surely, then, our Apostle would be eminently unlikely to express "the Spirit of God" without the outward water by "water and the Spirit." But above all, Christians should beware of a "licentious and deluding alchemy of interpretation which maketh of anything whatsoever it listeth." In immortal words-"when the letter of the law hath two things plainly and expressly specified, water and the Spirit; water, as a duty required on our part, the Spirit, as a gift which God bestoweth; there is danger in so presuming to interpret it, as if the clause which concerneth ourselves were more than needed. We may by such rare expositions attain perhaps in the end to be thought witty, but with ill advice."

But, it will further be asked, whether we bring the Saviour’s saying "except any one be born again of water and the Spirit"-into direct connection with the baptism of infants? Above all, whether we are not encouraging every baptised person to hold that somehow or other he will have a part in the victory of the regenerate?

We need no other answer than that which is implied in the very force of the word here used by St. John-"all that is born of God conquereth the world." "That is born" is the participle perfect. The force of the perfect is not simply past action, but such action lasting on in its effects. Our text, then, speaks only of those who, having been born again into the kingdom, continue in a corresponding condition, and unfold the life which they have received. The Saviour spoke first and chiefly of the initial act. The Apostle’s circumstances, now in his old age, naturally led him to look on from that. St. John is no "idolater of the immediate." Has the gift received by his spiritual children worn long and lasted well? What of the new life which should have issued from the New Birth? Regenerate in the past, are they renewed in the present? This simple piece of exegesis lets us at once perceive that another verse in this Epistle, often considered of almost hopeless perplexity, is in truth only the perfection of sanctified (nay, it may be said, of moral) common sense; an intuition of moral and spiritual instinct. "Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin: for his seed remaineth in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God." We have just seen the real significance of the words "he that is born of God"-he for whom his past birth lasts on in its effects. "He doeth not sin," is not a sin-doer, makes it not his "trade," as an old commentator says. Nay, "he is not able to be" (to keep on) "sinning." "He cannot sin." He cannot! There is no physical impossibility. Angels will not sweep him away upon their resistless pinions. The Spirit will not hold him by the hand as if with a mailed grasp, until the blood spurts from his fingertips, that he may not take the wine cup, or walk out to the guilty assignation. The compulsion of God is like that which is exercised upon us by some pathetic wounded-looking face that gazes after us with a sweet reproach. Tell the honest poor man with a large family of some safe and expeditious way of transferring his neighbour’s money to his own pocket. He will answer, "I cannot steal"; that is, "I cannot steal, however much it may physically be within my capacity, without a burning shame, an agony to my nature worse than death." On some day of fierce heat, hold a draught of iced wine to a total abstainer, and invite him to drink. "I cannot," will be his reply. Cannot! He can, so far as his hand goes; he cannot, without doing violence to a conviction, to a promise, to his own sense of truth. And he who continues in the fulness of his God-given Birth "does not do sin," "cannot be sinning." Not that he is sinless, not that he never fails, or does not sometimes fall; not that sin ceases to be sin to him, because he thinks that he has a standing in Christ. But he cannot go on in sin without being untrue to his birth; without a stain upon that finer, whiter, more sensitive conscience, which is called "spirit" in a son of God; without a convulsion in his whole being which is the precursor of death, or an insensibility which is death actually begun.

How many such texts as these are practically useless to most of us! The armoury of God is full of keen swords which we refrain from handling, because they have been misused by others. None is more neglected than this. The fanatic has shrieked out -"Sin in my case! I cannot sin. I may hold a sin in my bosom; and God may hold me in His arms for all that. At least, I may hold that which would be a sin in you and most others; but to me it is not sin." On the other hand, stupid goodness maunders out some unintelligible paraphrase, until pew and reader yawn from very weariness. Divine truth in its purity and plainness is thus discredited by the exaggeration of the one, or buried in the leaden winding sheet of the stupidity of the other.

In leaving this portion of our subject we may compare the view latent in the very idea of infant baptism with that of the leader of a well known sect upon the beginnings of the spiritual life in children.

"May not children grow up into salvation, without knowing the exact moment of their conversion?" asks "General" Booth. His answer is-"Yes, it may be so; and we trust that in the future this will be the usual way in which children may be brought to Christ." The writer goes on to tell us how the New Birth will take place in future. When the conditions named in the first pages of this volume are complied with- when the parents are godly, and the children are surrounded by holy influences and examples from their birth, and trained up in the spirit of their early dedication-they will doubtless come to know and love and trust their Saviour in the ordinary course of things. The Holy Ghost will take possession of them from the first. Mothers and fathers will, as it were, put them into the Saviour’s arms in their swaddling clothes, and He will take them, and bless them, and sanctify them from the very womb, and make them His own, without their knowing the hour or the place when they pass from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. In fact, with such little ones it shall never be very dark, for their natural birth shall be, as it were, in the spiritual twilight, which begins with the dim dawn, and increases gradually until the noonday brightness is reached; so answering to the prophetic description, "The path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day."

No one will deny that this is tenderly and beautifully written. But objections to its teaching will crowd upon the mind of thoughtful Christians. It seems to defer to a period in the future, to a new era incalculably distant, when Christendom shall be absorbed in Salvationism, that which St. John in his day contemplated as the normal condition of believers, which the Church has always held to be capable of realisation, which has been actually realised in no few whom most of us must have known. Further, the fountainheads of thought, like those of the Nile, are wrapped in obscurity. By what process grace may work with the very young is an insoluble problem in psychology, which Christianity has not revealed. We know nothing further than that Christ blessed little children. That blessing was impartial, for it was communicated to all who were brought to Him; it was real, otherwise He would not have blessed them at all. That He conveys to them such grace as they are capable of receiving is all that we can know. And yet again; the Salvationist theory exalts parents and surroundings into the place of Christ. It deposes His sacrament, which lies at the root of St. John’s language, and boasts that it will secure Christ’s end, apparently without any recognition of Christ’s means.

II The second great idea in the verses dealt with in this chapter is Victory. The intended issue of the New Birth is conquest-"All that is born of God conquers the world."

The idea of victory is almost exclusively confined to St. John’s writings. The idea is first expressed by Jesus-"Be of good cheer: I have conquered the world." The first prelusive touch in the Epistle hints at the fulfilment of the Saviour’s comfortable word in one class of the Apostle’s spiritual children. "I write unto you, young men, because ye have conquered the wicked one. I have written unto you, young men, because ye have conquered the wicked one." Next, a bolder and ampler strain-"Ye are of God, little children, and have conquered them: because greater is He that is in you, than he that is in the world." Then with a magnificent persistence, the trumpet of Christ wakens echoes to its music all down and round the defile through which the host is passing-"All that is born of God conquereth the world: and this is the conquest that has conquered the world-the Faith which is ours." When, in St. John’s other great book, we pass with the seer into Patmos, the air is, indeed, "full of noises and sweet sounds." But dominant over all is a storm of triumph, a passionate exultation of victory. Thus each epistle to each of the seven Churches closes with a promise "to him that conquereth."

The text promises two forms of victory.

1. A victory is promised to the Church universal. "All that is born of God conquereth the world." This conquest is concentrated in, almost identified with "the Faith." Primarily, in this place, the term (here alone found in our Epistle) is not the faith by which we believe, but the Faith which is believed - as in some other places; not faith subjective, but The Faith objectively. Here is the dogmatic principle. The Faith involves definite knowledge of definite principles. The religious knowledge which is not capable of being put into definite propositions we need not trouble ourselves greatly about. But we are guarded from over-dogmatism. The word "of us" which follows "the Faith" is a mediating link between the objective and the subjective. First, we possess this Faith as a common heritage. Then, as in the Apostles’ creed, we begin to individualise this common possession by prefixing "I believe" to every article of it. Then the victory contained in the creed, the victory which the creed is (for more truly again than of Duty may it be said of Faith, "thou who art victory"), is made over to each who believes. Each, and each alone, who in soul is ever believing, in practice is ever victorious.

This declaration is full of promise for missionary work. There is no system of error, however ancient, subtle, or highly organised, which must not go down before the strong collective life of the regenerate. No less encouraging is it at home. No form of sin is incapable of being overthrown. No school of antichristian thought is invulnerable or invincible. There are other apostates besides Julian who will cry -"Galilaee, vicisti!"

2. The second victory promised is individual, for each of us. Not only where cathedral spires lift high the triumphant cross; on battlefields which have added kingdoms to Christendom; by the martyr’s stake, or in the arena of the Coliseum, have these words proved true. The victory comes down to us. In hospitals, in shops, in courts, in ships, in sick rooms, they are fulfilled for us. We see their truth in the patience, sweetness, resignation, of little children, of old men, of weak women. They give a high consecration and a glorious meaning to much of the suffering that we see. What, we are sometimes tempted to cry-is this Christ’s Army? are these His soldiers, who can go anywhere and do anything? Poor weary ones with white lips, and the beads of death sweat on their faces, and the thorns of pain ringed like a crown round their foreheads; so wan, so worn, so tired, so suffering, that even our love dares not pray for them to live a little longer yet. Are these the elect of the elect, the vanguard of the regenerate, who carry the flag of the cross where its folds are waved by the storm of battle; whom St. John sees advancing up the slope with such a burst of cheers and such a swell of music that the words-"this is the conquest" - spring spontaneously from his lips? Perhaps the angels answer with a voice which we cannot hear-"Whatsoever is born of God conquereth the world." May we fight so manfully that each may render if not his "pure" yet his purified "soul unto his captain Christ, Under whose colours he hath fought so long":-that we may know something of the great text in the Epistle to the Romans, with its matchless translation-"we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us"- that arrogance of victory which is at once so splendid and so saintly.


Verses 6-10

Chapter 16

THE GOSPEL AS A GOSPEL OF WITNESS THE THREE WITNESSES

1 John 5:6-10

IT has been said that Apostles and apostolic men were as far as possible removed from common sense, and have no conception of evidence in our acceptation of the word. About this statement there is scarcely even superficial plausibility. Common sense is the measure of ordinary human tact among palpable realities. In relation to human existence it is the balance of the estimative faculties; the instinctive summary of inductions which makes us rightly credulous and rightly incredulous, which teaches us the supreme lesson of life, when to say "yes." and when to say "no." Uncommon sense is superhuman tact among no less real, but at present impalpable realities; the spiritual faculty of forming spiritual inductions aright. So St. John, among the three great canons of primary truth with which he closes his Epistle, writes-"we know that the Son of God hath come and is present, and hath given us understanding, that we know Him who is true." So with evidences. Apostles did not draw them out with the same logical precision, or rather not in the same logical form. Yet they rested their conclusions upon the same abiding principle of evidence, the primary axiom of our entire social life, that there is a degree of human evidence which practically cannot deceive. "If we receive the witness of men." The form of expression implies that we certainly do.

Peculiar difficulty has been felt in understanding the paragraph. And one portion of it remains difficult after any explanation. But we shall succeed in apprehending it as a whole only upon condition of taking one guiding principle of interpretation with us.

The word witness is St. John’s central thought here. He is determined to beat it into our thoughts by the most unsparing iteration. He repeats it ten times over, as substantive or verb, in six verses. His object is to turn our attention to his Gospel, and to this distinguishing feature of it-its being from beginning to end a Gospel of witness. This witness he declares to be fivefold.

(1) The witness of the Spirit, of which the fourth Gospel is preeminently full.

(2) The witness of the Divine Humanity, of the God-Man, who is not man deified, but God humanified. This verse is no doubt partly polemical, against heretics of the day, who would clip the great picture of the Gospel, and force it into the petty frame of their theory. This is He (the Apostle urges) who came on the stage of the world’s and the Church’s history as the Messiah, under the condition, so to speak, of water and blood; bringing with him, accompanied by, not the water only, but the water and the blood. Cerinthus separated the Christ, the divine Aeon, from Jesus the holy but mortal man. The two, the divine potency and the human existence, met at the waters of Jordan, on the day of the Baptism, when the Christ united himself to Jesus. But the union was brief and unessential. Before the crucifixion, the divine ideal Christ withdrew. The man suffered. The impassible immortal potency was far away in heaven. St. John denies the fortuitous juxtaposition of two accidentally united existences. We worship one Lord Jesus Christ, attested not only by Baptism in Jordan, the witness of water, but by the death on Calvary, the witness of blood. He came by water and blood, as the means by which His office was manifested; but with the water and with the blood, as the sphere in which He exercises that office. When we turn to the Gospel, and look at the pierced side, we read of blood and water, the order of actual history and physiological fact. Here St. John takes the ideal, mystical, sacramental order, water and blood-cleansing and redemption- and the sacraments which perpetually symbolise and convey them. Thus we have Spirit, water, blood. "Three are they who are ever witnessing." These are three great centres round which St. John’s Gospel turns. These are the three genuine witnesses, the trinity of witness, the shadow of the Trinity in heaven.

(3) Again the fourth Gospel is a Gospel of human witness, a tissue woven out of many lines of human attestation. It records the cries of human souls overheard and noted down at the supreme crisis moment, from the Baptist, Philip, and Nathanael, to the everlasting spontaneous creed of Christendom on its knees before Jesus, the cry of Thomas ever rushing molten from a heart of fire-"My Lord and my God."

(4) But if we receive, as we assuredly must and do receive, the overpowering and soul-subduing mass of attesting human evidence, how much more must we receive the Divine witness, the witness of God so conspicuously exhibited in the Gospel of St. John! "The witness of God is greater, because this" (even the history in the pages to which he adverts) "is the witness; because" (I say with triumphant reiteration) "He hath witnessed concerning His Son." This witness of God in the last Gospel is given in four forms-by Scripture, by the Father, by the Son Himself, by His works.

(5) This great volume of witness is consummated and brought home by another; He who not merely coldly assents to the word of Christ, but lifts the whole burden of his belief on to the Son of God, hath the witness in him. That which was logical and external becomes internal and experimental.

In this ever-memorable passage, all know that an interpolation has taken place. The words-"in heaven the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth"-are a gloss. A great sentence of one of the first of critics may well reassure any weak believers who dread the candour of Christian criticism, or suppose that it has impaired the evidence for the great dogma of the Trinity. "If the fourth century knew that text, let it come in, in God’s name; but if that age did not know it, then Arianism in its height was beaten down without the help of that verse; and, let the fact prove as it will, the doctrine is unshaken." The human material with which they have been clamped should not blind us to the value of the heavenly jewels which seemed to be marred by their earthly setting.

It is constantly said-as we think with considerable misapprehension-that in his Epistle St. John may imply, but does not refer directly to any particular incident in, his Gospel. It is our conviction that St. John very specially includes the Resurrection -the central point of the evidences of Christianity-among the things attested by the witness of men. We propose in another chapter to examine the Resurrection from St. John’s point of view.


Verse 9

Chapter 17

THE WITNESS OF MEN (APPLIED TO THE RESURRECTION)

1 John 5:9

AT an early period in the Christian Church the passage in which these words occur was selected as a fitting Epistle for the First Sunday after Easter, when believers may be supposed to review the whole body of witness to the risen Lord and to triumph in the victory of faith. It will afford one of the best illustrations of that which is covered by the comprehensive canon-"if we receive the witness of men"-if we consider the unity of essential principles in the narratives of the Resurrection, and draw the natural conclusions from them.

I Let us note the unity of essential principles in the narratives of the Resurrection.

St. Matthew hastens on from Jerusalem to the appearance in Galilee. "Behold! He goeth before you into Galilee," is, in some sense, the key of the twenty-eighth chapter. St. Luke, on the other hand, speaks only of manifestations in Jerusalem or its neighbourhood.

Now St. John’s Resurrection history falls in the twentieth chapter into four pieces, with three manifestations in Jerusalem. The twenty-first chapter (the appendix chapter) also falls into four pieces, with one manifestation to the seven disciples in Galilee.

St. John makes no profession of telling us all the appearances which were known to the Church, or even all of which he was personally cognisant. In the treasures of the old man’s memory there were many more which, for whatever reason, he did not write. But these distinct continuous specimens of a permitted communing with the eternal glorified life (supplemented on subsequent thought by another in the last chapter) are as good as three or four hundred for the great purpose of the Apostle. "These are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God."

Throughout St. John’s narrative every impartial reader will find delicacy of thought, abundance of matter, minuteness of detail. He will find something more. While he feels that he is not in cloudland or dreamland, he will yet recognise that he walks in a land which is wonderful, because the central figure in it is One whose name is Wonderful. The fact is fact, and yet it is something more. For a short time poetry and history are absolutely coincident. Here, if anywhere, is Herder’s saying true, that the fourth Gospel seems to be written with a feather which has dropped from an angel’s wing.

The unity in essential principles which has been claimed for these narratives taken together is not a lifeless identity in details. It is scarcely to be worked out by the dissecting maps of elaborate harmonies. It is not the imaginative unity, which is poetry; nor the mechanical unity, which is fabrication; nor the passionless unity, which is commended in a police report. It is not the thin unity of plain song; it is the rich unity of dissimilar tones blended into a figure.

This unity may be considered in two essential agreements of the four Resurrection histories.

1. All the Evangelists agree in reticence on one point-in abstinence from one claim.

If any of us were framing for himself a body of such evidence for the Resurrection as should almost extort acquiescence, he would assuredly insist that the Lord should have been seen and recognised after the Resurrection by miscellaneous crowds-or, at the very least, by hostile individuals. Not only by a tender Mary Magdalene, an impulsive Peter, a rapt John, a Thomas through all his unbelief nervously anxious to be convinced. Let Him be seen by Pilate, by Caiaphas, by some of the Roman soldiers, of the priests, of the Jewish populace. Certainly, if the Evangelists had simply aimed at effective presentation of evidence, they would have put forward statements of this kind.

But the apostolic principle-the apostolic canon of Resurrection evidence-was very different. St. Luke has preserved it for us, as it is given by St. Peter. "Him God raised up the third day, and gave Him to be made manifest after He rose again from the dead, not to all the people, but unto witnesses chosen before of God, even to us." He shall, indeed, appear again to all the people, to every eye; but that shall be at the great Advent. St. John, with his ideal tenderness, has preserved a word of Jesus, which gives us St. Peter’s canon of Resurrection evidence, in a lovelier and more spiritual form. Christ as He rose at Easter should be visible, but only to the eye of love, only to the eye which life fills with tears and heaven with light-"Yet a little while, and the world seeth Me no more; but ye see Me He that loveth Me shall be loved of My Father, and I will manifest Myself to Him." Round that ideal canon St. John’s Resurrection history is twined with undying tendrils. Those words may be written by us with our softest pencils over the twentieth and twenty-first chapters of the fourth Gospel. There is-very possibly there can be-under our present human conditions, no manifestation of Him who was dead and now liveth, except to belief, or to that kind of doubt which springs from love.

That which is true of St. John is true of all the Evangelists.

They take that Gospel, which is the life of their life. They bare its bosom to the stab of Celsus, to the bitter sneer plagiarised by Renan-"why did He not appear to all, to His judges and enemies? Why only to one excitable woman, and a circle of His initiated? The hallucination of a hysterical woman endowed Christendom. with a risen God." An apocryphal Gospel unconsciously violates this apostolic, or rather divine canon, by stating that Jesus gave His grave clothes to one of the High Priest’s servants. There was every reason but one why St. John and the other Evangelists should have narrated such stories. There was only one reason why they should not, but that was all-sufficient. Their Master was the Truth as well as the Life. They dared not lie.

Here, then, is one essential accordance in the narratives of the Resurrection. They record no appearances of Jesus to enemies or to unbelievers.

2. A second unity of essential principle will be found in the impression produced upon the witnesses.

There was, indeed, a moment of terror at the sepulchre, when they had seen the angel clothed in the long white garment. "They trembled, and were amazed; neither said they anything to any man; for they were afraid." So writes St. Mark. And no such word ever formed the close of a Gospel! On the Easter Sunday evening there was another moment when they were "terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit." But this passes away like a shadow. For man, the Risen Jesus turns doubt into faith, faith into joy. For woman, He turns sorrow into joy. From the sacred wounds joy rains over into their souls. "He showed them His hands and His feet while they yet believed not for joy and wondered." "He showed unto them His hands and His side. Then were the disciples glad when they saw the Lord." [Luke 24:41, John 20:20] Each face of those who beheld Him wore after that a smile through all tears and forms of death. "Come," cried the great Swedish singer, gazing upon the dead face of a holy friend, "come and see this great sight. Here is a woman who has seen Christ." Many of us know what she meant, for we too have looked upon those dear to us who have seen Christ. Over all the awful stillness-under all the cold whiteness as of snow or marble-that strange soft light, that subdued radiance, what shall we call it? wonder, love, sweetness, pardon, purity, rest, worship, discovery. The poor face often dimmed with tears, tears of penitence, of pain, of sorrow, some perhaps which we caused to flow, is looking upon a great sight. Of such the beautiful text is true, written by a sacred poet in a language of which, to many, verbs are pictures. "They looked unto Him, and were lightened." [Psalms 34:5] That meeting of lights without a flame it is which makes up what angels call joy. There remained some of that light on all who had seen the Risen Lord. Each might say-"have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord?"

This effect, like every effect, had a cause.

Scripture implies in the Risen Jesus a form with, all heaviness and suffering lifted off it with the glory, freshness, elasticity, of the new life, overflowing with beauty and power. He had a voice with some of the pathos of affection, making its sweet concession to human sensibility: saying, "Mary," "Thomas," "Simon, son of Jonas." He had a presence at once so majestic that they durst not question Him, yet so full of magnetic attraction that Magdalene clings to His feet, and Peter flings Himself into the waters when he is sure that it is the Lord. (John 21:12; John 21:7.)

Now let it be remarked that this consideration entirely disposes of that afterthought of critical ingenuity which has taken the place of the base old Jewish theory-"His disciples came by night, and stole Him away." [Matthew 28:13] That theory, indeed, has been blown into space by Christian apologetics. And now not a few are turning to the solution that He did not really die upon the cross, but was taken down alive. There are other, and more than sufficient refutations. One from the character of the august Sufferer, who would not have deigned to receive adoration upon false pretences. One from the minute observation by St. John of the physiological effect of the thrust of the soldier’s lance, to which he also reverts in the context.

But here, we only ask what effect the appearance of the Saviour among His disciples, supposing that He had not died, must unquestionably have had. He would only have been taken down from the cross something more than thirty hours. His brow punctured with the crown of thorns; the wounds in hands, feet, and side, yet unhealed; the back raw and torn with scourges; the frame cramped by the frightful tension of six long hours-a lacerated and shattered man, awakened to agony by the coolness of the sepulchre and by the pungency of the spices; a spectral, trembling, fevered, lamed, skulking thing-could that have seemed the Prince of Life, the Lord of Glory, the Bright and Morning Star? Those who had seen Him in Gethsemane and on the cross, and then on Easter, and during the forty days, can scarcely speak of His Resurrection without using language which attains to more than lyrical elevation. Think of St. Peter’s anthem like burst. "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath begotten us again to a lively hope, by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead." Think of the words which St. John heard Him utter. "I am the First and the Living, and behold! I became dead, and I am, living unto the ages of ages."

Let us, then, fix our attention upon the unity of all the Resurrection narratives in these two essential principles.

(1) The appearances of the Risen Lord to belief and love only.

(2) The impression common to all the narrators of glory on His part, of joy on theirs.

We shall be ready to believe that this was part of the great body of proof which was in the Apostle’s mind, when pointing to the Gospel with which this Epistle was associated, he wrote of this human but most convincing testimony "if we receive," as assuredly we do, "the witness of men"-of evangelists among the number.

II Too often such discussions as these end unpractically enough. Too often

"When the critic has done his best,

The pearl of price at reason’s test

On the Professor’s lecture table

Lies, dust and ashes levigable."

But, after all, we may well ask: can we afford to dispense with this well-balanced probability? Is it well for us to face life and death without taking it, in some form, into the account? Now at the present moment, it may safely be said that, for the best and noblest intellects imbued with the modern philosophy, as for the best and noblest of old who were imbued with the ancient philosophy, external to Christian revelation, immortality is still, as before, a fair chance, a beautiful "perhaps," a splendid possibility. Evolutionism is growing and maturing somewhere another Butler, who will write in another, and possibly more satisfying chapter, than that least convincing of any in the "Analogy"-"of a Future State."

What has Darwinism to say on the matter?

Much. Natural selection seems to be a pitiless worker; its instrument is death. But, when we broaden our survey, the sum total of the result is everywhere advance- what is mainly worthy of notice, in man the advance of goodness and virtue. For of goodness, as of freedom,

"The battle once begun, Though baffled oft, is always won."

Humanity has had to travel, thousands of miles, inch by inch, towards the light. We have made such progress that we can see that in time, relatively short, we shall be in noonday. After long ages of strife, of victory for hard hearts and strong sinews, Goodness begins to wipe away the sweat of agony from her brow; and will stand, sweet, smiling, triumphant in the world. A gracious life is free for man; generation after generation a softer ideal stands before us, and we can conceive a day when "the meek shall inherit the earth." Do not say that evolution, if proved an outrance, brutalises man. Far from it. It lifts him from below out of the brute creation. What theology calls original sin, modern philosophy the brute inheritance-the ape, and the goat, and the tiger-is dying out of man. The perfecting of human nature and of human society stands out as the goal of creation. In a sense, all creation waits for the manifestation of the sons of God. Nor need the true Darwinian necessarily fear materialism. "Livers secrete bile-brains secrete thought," is smart and plausible, but it is shallow. Brain and thought are, no doubt, connected-but the connection is of simultaneousness, of two things in concordance indeed, but not related as cause and effect. If cerebral physiology speaks of annihilation when the brain is destroyed, she speaks ignorantly and without a brief.

The greatest thinkers in the Natural Religion department of the new philosophy seem then to be very much in the same position as those in the same department of the old. For immortality there is a sublime probability. With man, and man’s advance in goodness and virtue as the goal of creation, who shall say that the thing so long provided for, the goal of creation, is likely to perish? Annihilation is a hypothesis; immortality is a hypothesis. But immortality is the more likely as well as the more beautiful of the two. We may believe in it, not as a thing demonstrated, but as an act of faith that "God will not put us to permanent intellectual confusion."

But we may well ask whether it is wise and well to refuse to intrench this probability behind another. Is it likely that He who has so much care for us as to make us the goal of a drama a million times more complex than our fathers dreamed of, who lets us see that He has not removed us out of his sight, will leave Himself, and with Himself our hopes, without witness in history? History is especially human; human evidence the branch of moral science of which man is master-for man is the best interpreter of man. The primary axiom of family, of social, of legal, of moral life, is that there is a kind and degree of human evidence which we ought not to refuse; that if credulity is voracious in belief, incredulity is no less voracious in negation; that if there is a credulity which is simple, there is an incredulity which is. unreasonable and perilous. Is it then well to grope for the keys of death in darkness, and turn from the hand that holds them out; to face the ugly realities of the pit with less consolation than is the portion of our inheritance in the faith of Christ?

"The disciples," John tells us, "went away again unto their own home. But Mary was standing without at the sepulchre weeping." Weeping! What else is possible while we are outside, while we stand-what else until we stoop down from our proud grief to the sepulchre, humble our speculative pride, and condescend to gaze at the death of Jesus face to face? When we do so, we forget the hundred voices that tell us that the Resurrection is partly invented, partly imagined, partly ideally true. We may not see angels in white, nor hear their "why weepest thou?" But assuredly we shall hear a sweeter voice, and a stronger than theirs; and our name will be on it, and His name wilt rush to our lips in the language most expressive to us-as Mary said unto Him in Hebrew, " Rabboni." Then we shall find that the grey of morning is passing; that the thin thread of scarlet upon the distant hills is deepening into dawn; that in that world where Christ is the dominant law the ruling principle is not natural selection which works through death, but supernatural selection which works through life; that "because He lives, we shall live also." [John 14:19]

With the reception of the witness of men then, and among them of such men as the writer of the fourth Gospel, all follows. For Christ,

"Earth breaks up-time drops away; -

In flows Heaven with its new day

Of endless life, when He who trod,

Very Man and very God,

This earth in weakness, shame, and pain,

Dying the death whose signs remain

Up yonder on the accursed tree;

Shall come again, no more to be

Of captivity the thrall

-But the true God all in all,

King of kings, and Lord of lords,

As His servant John received the words-

‘I died, and live for evermore.’"

For us there comes the hope in Paradise-the connection with the living dead-the pulsation through the isthmus of the Church, from sea to sea, from us to them-the tears not without smiles as we think of the long summer day when Christ who is our life shall appear-the manifestation of the sons of God, when "them that sleep in Jesus will God bring with Him." Our resurrection shall be a fact of history, because His is a fact of history; and we receive it as such-partly from the reasonable motive of reasonable human belief on sufficient evidence for practical conviction.

All the long chain of manifold witness to Christ is consummated and crowned when it passes into the inner world of the individual life. "He that believeth on the Son of God, hath the witness in him," i.e., in himself! Correlative to this stands a terrible truth. He of whom we must conceive that he believes not God, has made Him a liar -nothing less; for his time for receiving Christ came, and went, and with this crisis his unbelief stands a completed present act as the result of his past; unbelief stretching over to the completed witness of God concerning His Son; human unbelief coextensive with divine witness.

But that sweet witness in a man’s self is not merely in books or syllogisms. It is the creed of a living soul. It lies folded within a man’s heart, and never dies-part of the great principle of victory fought and won over again, in each true life-until the man dies, and ceasing then only because he sees that which is the object of its witness.


Verse 17

Chapter 19

THE TERRIBLE TRUISM WHICH HAS NO EXCEPTION

1 John 5:17

LET US begin by detaching awhile from its context this oracular utterance: "all unrighteousness is sin." Is this true universally, or is it not?

A clear, consistent answer is necessary, because a strange form of the doctrine of indulgences (long whispered in the ears) has lately been proclaimed from the housetops, with a considerable measure of apparent acceptance.

Here is the singular dispensation from St. John’s rigorous canon to which we refer.

Three such indulgences have been accorded at various times to certain favoured classes or persons.

(1) "The moral law does not exist for the elect." This was the doctrine of certain Gnostics in St. John’s day; of certain fanatics in every age.

(2) "Things absolutely forbidden to the mass of mankind are allowable for people of commanding rank." Accommodating Prelates and accommodating Reformers have left the burden of defending these ignoble concessions to future generations.

(3) A yet baser dispensation has been freely given by very vulgar casuists. "The chosen of Fortune"-the men at whose magic touch every stock seems to rise-may be allowed unusual forms of enjoying the unusual success which has crowned their career.

Such are, or such were, the dispensations from St. John’s canon permitted to themselves, or to others, by the elect of Heaven, by the elect of station, and by the elect of fortune.

Another election hath obtained the perilous exception now-the election of genius. Those who endow the world with music, with art, with romance, with poetry, are entitled to the reversion. "All unrighteousness is sin"-except for them.

(1) The indulgence is no longer valid for those who affect intimacy with heaven (partly perhaps because it is suspected that there is no heaven to be intimate with).

(2) The indulgence is not extended to the men who apparently rule over nations, since it has been discovered that nations rule over them.

(3) It is not accorded to the constructors of fortunes; they are too many, and too uninteresting, though possibly figures could be conceived almost capable of buying it. But (generally speaking) men of these three classes must pace along the dust of the narrow road by the signpost of the law, if they would escape the censure of society.

For genius alone there is no such inconvenient restriction. Many men, of course, deliberately prefer the "primrose path," but they can no more avoid indignant hisses by the way than they can extinguish the "everlasting bonfire" at the awful close of their journey. With the man of genius it seems that it is otherwise. He shall "walk in the ways of his heart, and in the sight of his eyes"; but, "for all these things" the tribunals of certain schools of a delicate criticism (delicate criticism can be so indelicate) will never allow him "to be brought into judgment." Some literary oracles, biographers, or reviewers, are not content to keep a reverential silence, and to murmur a secret prayer. They will drag into light the saddest, the meanest, the most selfish doings of genius. Not the least service to his generation, and to English literature, of the true poet and critic lately taken from us, was the superb scorn, the exquisite wit, with which his indignant purity transfixed such doctrines. A strange winged thing, no doubt, genius sometimes is; alternately beating the abyss with splendid pinions, and eating dust which is the "serpent’s meat." But for all that, we cannot see with the critic when he tries to prove that the reptile’s crawling is part of the angel’s flight; and the dust on which he grovels one with the infinite purity of the azure distances.

The arguments of the apologists for moral eccentricity of genius may be thus summed up:-The man of genius bestows upon humanity gifts which are on a different line from any other. He enriches it on the side where it is poorest; the side of the Ideal. But the very temperament in virtue of which a man is capable of such transcendent work makes him passionate and capricious. To be imaginative is to be exceptional; and these exceptional beings live for mankind rather than for themselves. When their conduct comes to be discussed, the only question is whether that conduct was adapted to forward the superb self-development which is of such inestimable value to the world. If the gratification of any desire was necessary for that self-development, genius itself being the judge, the cause is ended. In winning that gratification hearts may be broken, souls defiled, lives wrecked. The daintiest songs of the man of genius may rise to the accompaniment of domestic sobs, and the music which he seems to warble at the gates of heaven may be trilled over the white upturned face of one who has died in misery. What matter! Morality is so icy and so intolerant; its doctrines have the ungentlemanlike rigour of the Athanasian Creed. Genius breaks hearts with such supreme gracefulness, such perfect wit, that they are arrant Philistines who refuse to smile.

We who have the text full in our mind answer all this in the words of the old man of Ephesus. For all that angel softness which he learned from the heart of Christ, his voice is as strong as it is sweet and calm. Over all the storm of passion, over all the babble of successive sophistries, clear and eternal it rings out-"all unrighteousness is sin." To which the apologist, little abashed, replies-"of course we all know that; quite true as a general rule, but then men of genius have bought a splendid dispensation by paying a splendid price, and so their inconsistencies are not sin." There are two assumptions at the root of this apology for the aberrations of genius which should be examined.

(1) The temperament of men of genius is held to constitute an excuse from which there is no appeal. Such men indeed are sometimes not slow to put forward this plea for themselves. No doubt there are trials peculiar to every temperament. Those of men of genius are probably very great. They are children of the sunshine and of the storm; the grey monotony of ordinary life is distasteful to them. Things which others find it easy to accept convulse their sensitive organisation: Many can produce their finest works only on condition of being sheltered where no bills shall find their way by the post; where no sound, not even the crowing of cocks, shall break the haunted silence. If the letter comes in one case, and if the cock crows in the other, the first may possibly never be remembered, but the second is never forgotten.

For this, as for every other form of human temperament-that of the dunce, as well as of the genius-allowance must in truth be made. In that one of the lives of the English Poets, where the great moralist has gone nearest to making concessions to this fallacy of temperament, he utters this just warning: "No wise man will easily presume to say, had I been in Savage’s condition I should have lived better than Savage." But we must not bring in the temperament of the man of genius as the standard of his conduct, unless we are prepared to admit the same standard in every other case. God is no respecter of persons. For each, conscience is of the same texture, law of the same material. As all have the same cross of infinite mercy, the same judgment of perfect impartiality, so have they the same law of inexorable duty.

(2) The necessary disorder and feverishness of high literary and artistic inspiration is a second postulate of the pleas to which I refer. But, is it true that disorder creates inspiration; or is a condition of it?

All great work is ordered work; and in producing it the faculties must be exercised harmoniously and with order. True inspiration, therefore, should not be caricatured into a flushed and dishevelled thing. Labour always precedes it. It has been prepared for by education. And that education would have been painful but for the glorious efflorescence of materials collected and assimilated, which is the compensation for any toil. The very dissatisfaction with its own performances, the result of the lofty ideal which is inseparable from genius, is at once a stimulus and a balm. The man of genius apparently writes, or paints, as the birds sing, or as the spring colours the flowers; but his subject has long possessed his mind, and the inspiration is the child of thought and of ordered labour. Destroying the peace of one’s own family or of another’s, being flushed with the preoccupation of guilty passion, will not accelerate, but retard the advent of those happy moments which are not without reason called creative. Thus, the inspiration of genius is akin to the inspiration of prophecy. The prophet tutored himself by a fitting education. He became assimilated to the noble things in the future which he foresaw. Isaiah’s heart grew royal; his style wore the majesty of a king, before he sang the King of sorrow with His infinite pathos, and the King of righteousness with His infinite glory. Many prophets attuned their spirits by listening to such music as lulls, not inflames passion. Others walked where "beauty born of murmuring sound" might pass into their strain. Think of Ezekiel by the river of Chebar, with the soft sweep of waters in his ear, and their cool breath upon his cheek. Think of St. John with the shaft of light from heaven’s opened door upon his upturned brow, and the boom of the Aegean upon the rocks of Patmos around him. "The note of the heathen seer" (said the greatest preacher of the Greek Church) "is to be contorted, constrained, excited, like a maniac; the note of a prophet is to be wakeful, self-possessed, nobly self-conscious." We may apply this test to the distinction between genius and the dissipated affectation of genius.

Let us then refuse our assent to a doctrine of indulgences applied to genius on the ground of temperament or of literary and artistic inspiration. "Why," we are often asked, "why force your narrow judgment upon an angry or a laughing world?" What have you to do with the conduct of gifted men? Genius means exuberant. Why "blame the Niagara River" because it will not assume the pace and manner of "a Dutch canal"? Never indeed should we force that judgment upon any, unless they force it upon us. Let us avoid, as far as we may, posthumous gossip over the grave of genius. It is an unwholesome curiosity which rewards the blackbird for that bubbling song of ecstasy in the thicket, by gloating upon the ugly worm which he swallows greedily after the shower. The pen or pencil has dropped from the cold fingers. After all its thought and sin, after all its toil and agony, the soul is with its Judge. Let the painter of the lovely picture, the writer of the deathless words, be for us like the priest. The washing of regeneration is no less wrought through the unworthy minister; the precious gift is no less conveyed when a polluted hand has broken the bread and blessed the cup. But if we are forced to speak, let us refuse to accept an ex post facto morality invented to excuse a worthless absolution. Especially so when the most sacred of all rights is concerned. It is not enough to say that a man of genius dissents from the received standard of conduct. He cannot make fugitive inclination the only principle of a connection which he promised to recognise as paramount. A passage in the Psalms, {See Psalms 15:1-5. Cf. Psalms 24:3-7} has been called "The catechism of Heaven." "The catechism of Fame" differs from "the catechism of Heaven." "Who shall ascend unto the hill of Fame? He that possesses genius." "Who shall ascend unto the hill of the Lord?" "He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; He that hath sworn to his neighbour and disappointeth him not" (or disappointeth her not) "though it were to his own hindrance"-aye, to the hindrance of his self-development. Strange that the rough Hebrew should still have to teach us chivalry as well as religion! In St. John’s Epistle we find the two great axioms about sin, in its two essential aspects. "Sin is the transgression of the law": there is its aspect chiefly Godward. "All unrighteousness" (mainly injustice, denial of the rights of others) "is sin": there is its aspect chiefly manward.

Yes, the principle of the text is rigid, inexorable, eternal. Nothing can make its way out of those terrible meshes. It is without favour, without exception. It gives no dispensation, and proclaims no indulgences, to the man of genius, or to any other: If it were otherwise, the righteous God, the Author of creation and redemption, would be dethroned. And that is a graver thing than to dethrone even the author of "Queen Mab," and of "The Epipsychidion." Here is the jurisprudence of the "great white Throne" summed up in four words: "all unrighteousness is sin."

So far, in the last chapter, and in this, we have ventured to isolate these two great principles from their context. But this process is always attended with peculiar loss in St. John’s writings. And as some may think perhaps that the promise [1 John 5:15] is falsified we must here run the risk of bringing in another thread of thought. Yet indeed the whole paragraph has its source in an intense faith in the efficacy of prayer, specially as exercised in intercessory prayer.

(1) The efficacy of prayer. This is the very sign of contrast with, of opposition to, the modern spirit, which is the negation of prayer.

What is the real value of prayer?

Very little, says the modern spirit. Prayer is the stimulant, the Dutch courage of the moral world. Prayer is a power, not because it is efficacious, but because it is believed to be so.

A modern Rabbi, with nothing of his Judaism left but a rabid antipathy to the Founder of the Church, guided by Spinoza and Kant, has turned fiercely upon the Lord’s prayer. He takes those petitions which stand alone among the liturgies of earth in being capable of being translated into every language. He cuts off one pearl after another from the string. Take one specimen. "Our Father which art in Heaven." Heaven! the very name has a breath of magic, a suggestion of beauty, of grandeur, of purity in it. It moves us as nothing else can. We instinctively lift our heads; the brow grows proud of that splendid home, and the eye is wetted with a tear and lighted with a ray, as it looks into those depths of golden sunset which are full for the young of the radiant mystery of life, for the old of the pathetic mystery of death. Yes, but for modern science Heaven means air, or atmosphere, and the address itself is contradictory. "Forgive us." But surely the guilt cannot be forgiven, except by the person against whom it is committed. There is no other forgiveness. A mother (whose daughter went out upon the cruel London streets) carried into execution a thought bestowed upon her by the inexhaustible ingenuity of love. The poor woman got her own photograph taken, and a friend managed to have copies of it hung in several halls and haunts of infamy with these words clearly written below-"come home, I forgive you." The tender subtlety of love was successful at last; and the poor haggard outcast’s face was touched by her mother’s lips. "But the heart of God," says this enemy of prayer, "is not as a woman’s heart." (Pardon the words, O loving Father! Thou who hast said "Yea, she may forget, yet will I not forget thee." Pardon, O pierced Human Love! who hast graven the name of every soul on the palms of Thy hands with the nails of the crucifixion.) Repentance subjectively seems a reality when mother and child meet with a burst of passionate tears, and the polluted brow feels purified by their molten downfall; but repentance objectively is seen to be an absurdity by everyone who grasps the conception of law. The penitential Psalms may be the lyrics of repentance, the Gospel for the third Sunday after Trinity its idyll, the cross its symbol, the wounds of Christ its theology and inspiration. But the course of Nature, the hard logic of life is its refutation-the flames that burn, the waves that drown, the machine that crushes, the society that condemns, and that neither can, nor wilt forgive.

Enough, and more than enough of this. The monster of ignorance who has never learnt a prayer has hitherto been looked upon as one of the saddest of sights. But there is something sadder-the monster of over cultivation, the wreck of schools, the priggish fanatic of godlessness. Alas! for the nature which has become like a plant artificially trained and twisted to turn away from the light. Alas! for the heart which has hardened itself into stone until it cannot beat faster, or soar higher, even when men are saying with happy enthusiasm, or when the organ is lifting upward to the heaven of heavens the cry which is at once the creed of an everlasting dogma and the hymn of a triumphant hope-"with Thee is the well of Life, and in Thy light shall we see light." Now having heard the answer of the modern spirit to the question "What is the real value of prayer?" think of the answer of the spirit of the Church as given by St. John in this paragraph. That answer is not drawn out in a syllogism. St. John appeals to our consciousness of a divine life. "That ye may know that ye have eternal life." This knowledge issues in confidence, i.e., literally the sweet possibility of saying out all to God. And this confidence is never disappointed for any believing child of God. "If we know that He hear us, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of Him."

On the sixteenth verse we need only say, that the greatness of our brother’s spiritual need does not cease to be a title to our sympathy. St. John is not speaking of all requests, but of the fulness of brotherly intercession.

One question and one warning in conclusion; and that question is this. Do we take part in this great ministry of love? Is our voice heard in the full music of the prayers of intercession that are ever going up to the Throne, and bringing down the gift of life? Do we pray for others?

In one sense all who know true affection and the sweetness of true prayer do pray for others. We have never loved with supreme affection any for whom we have not interceded, whose names we have not baptised in the fountain of prayer. Prayer takes up a tablet from the hand of love written over with names; that tablet death itself can only break when the heart has turned Sadducee.

Jesus (we sometimes think) gives one strange proof of the love which yet passeth knowledge. "Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus"; "when He had heard therefore" [O that strange therefore!] "that Lazarus was sick, He abode two days still in the same place where He was." Ah! sometimes not two days, but two years, and sometimes evermore, He seems to remain. When the income dwindles with the dwindling span of life; when the best beloved must leave us for many years, and carries away our sunshine with him; when the life of a husband is in danger- then we pray; "O Father, for Jesu’s sake spare that precious life; enable me to provide for these helpless ones; bless these children in their going out and coming in, and let me see them once again before the night cometh, and my hands are folded for the long rest." Yes, but have we prayed at our Communion "because of that Holy Sacrament in it, and with it," that He would give them the grace which they need- the life which shall save them from sin unto death? Round us, close to us in our homes, there are cold hands, hearts that beat feebly. Let us fulfil St. John’s teaching, by praying to Him who is the life that He would chafe those cold hands with His hand of love, and quicken those dying hearts by contact with that wounded heart which is a heart of fire.


Verses 18-20

Chapter 4

THE IMAGE OF ST. JOHN’S SOUL IN HIS EPISTLE

1 John 5:18-20

Much has been said in the last few years of a series of subtle and delicate experiments in sound. Means have been devised of doing for the ear something analogous to that which glasses do for another sense, and of making the results palpable by a system of notation. We are told that every tree, for instance, according to its foliage, its position, and the direction of the winds, has its own prevalent note or tone, which can be marked down, and its timbre made first visible by this notation, and then audible. So is it with the souls of the saints of God, and chiefly of the Apostles. Each has its own note, the prevalent key on which its peculiar music is set. Or we may employ another image which possibly has St. John’s own authority. Each of the Twelve has his own emblem among the twelve vast and precious foundation stones which underlie the whole wall of the Church. St. John may thus differ from St. Peter, as the sapphire’s azure differs from the jasper’s strength and radiance. Each is beautiful, but with its own characteristic tint of beauty.

We propose to examine the peculiarities of St. John’s spiritual nature which may be traced in this Epistle. We try to form some conception of the key on which it is set, of the colour which it reflects in the light of heaven, of the image of a soul which it presents. In this attempt we cannot be deceived. St. John is so transparently honest; he takes such a deep, almost terribly severe view of truth. We find him using an expression about truth which is perhaps without a parallel in any other writer. "If we say that we have fellowship with Him and walk in darkness we lie, and are not doing the truth." The truth then for him is something co-extensive with our whole nature and whole life. Truth is not only to be spoken-that is but a fragmentary manifestation of it. It is to be done. It would have been for him the darkest of lies to have put forth a spiritual commentary on his Gospel which was not realised in himself. In the Epistle, no doubt, he uses the first person singular sparingly, modestly including himself in the simple "we" of Christian association. Yet we are as sure of the perfect accuracy of the picture of his soul, of the music in his heart which he makes visible and audible in his letter, as we are that he heard the voice of many waters, and saw the city coming down from God out of heaven; as sure, as if at the close of this fifth chapter he had added with the triumphant emphasis of truth, in his simple and stately way, "I John heard these things and saw them." He closes this letter with a threefold affirmation of certain primary postulates of the Christian life; of its purity, of its privilege, of its Presence, -" we know," "we know," "we know." In each case the plural might be exchanged for the singular. He says "we know," because he is sure "I know."

In studying the Epistles of St. John we may well ask what we see and hear therein of St. John’s character,

(1) as a sacred writer,

(2) as a saintly soul.

I We consider first the indications in the Epistle of the Apostle’s character as a sacred writer. For help in this direction we do not turn with much satisfaction to essays or annotations pervaded by the modern spirit. The textual criticism of minute scholarship is no doubt much, but it is not all. Aorists are made for man; not man for the aorist. He indeed who has not traced every fibre of the sacred text with grammar and lexicon cannot quite honestly claim, to be an expositor of it. But in the case of a book like Scripture this, after all, is but an important preliminary. The frigid subtlety of the commentator who always seems to have the questions for a divinity examination before his eyes, fails in the glow and elevation necessary to bring us into communion with the spirit of St. John. Led by such guides, the Apostle passes under our review as a third-rate writer of a magnificent language in decadence, not as the greatest of theologians and masters of the spiritual life-with whatever defects of literary style, at once the Plato of the Twelve in one region, and the Aristotle in the other; the first by his "lofty inspiration," the second by his "judicious utilitarianism." The deepest thought of the Church has been brooding for seventeen centuries over these pregnant and many-sided words, so many of which are the very words of Christ. To separate ourselves from this vast and beautiful commentary is to place ourselves out of the atmosphere in which we can best feel the influence of St. John.

Let us read Chrysostom’s description of the style and thought of the author of the fourth Gospel. "The son of thunder, the loved of Christ, the pillar of the Churches, who leaned on Jesus’ bosom, makes his entrance. He plays no drama, he covers his head with no mask. Yet he wears array of inimitable beauty. For he comes having his feet shod with the preparation of the Gospel of peace, and his loins girt, not with fleece dyed in purple, or be dropped with gold, but woven through and through with, and composed of, the truth itself. He will now appear before us, not dramatically, for with him there is no theatrical effect or fiction, but with his head bared he tells the bare truth. All these things he will speak with absolute accuracy, being the friend of the King Himself-aye, having the King speaking within him, and hearing all things from Him which He heareth from the Father; as He saith-‘you I have called friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father, I have made known unto you.’ Wherefore, as if we all at once saw one stooping down from yonder heaven, and promising to tell us truly of things there, we should all flock to listen to him, so let us now dispose ourselves. For it is from up there that this man speaks down to us. And the fisherman is not carried away by the whirling current of his own exuberant verbosity; but all that he utters is with the steadfast accuracy of truth, and as if he stood upon a rock he budges not. All time is his witness. Seest thou the boldness, and the great authority of his words! how he utters nothing by way of doubtful conjecture, but all demonstratively, as if passing sentence. Very lofty is this Apostle, and full of dogmas, and lingers over them more than over other things!" This admirable passage, with its fresh and noble enthusiasm, nowhere reminds us of the glacial subtleties of the schools. It is the utterance of an expositor who spoke the language in which his master wrote, and breathed the same spiritual atmosphere. It is scarcely less true of the Epistle than of the Gospel of St. John.

Here also "He is full of dogmas," here again he is the theologian of the Church. But we are not to estimate the amount of dogma merely by the number of words in which it is expressed. Dogma, indeed, is not really composed of isolated texts-as pollen showered from conifers and germs scattered from mosses, accidentally brought together and compacted, are found upon chemical analysis to make up certain lumps of coal. It is primary and structural. The Divinity and Incarnation of Jesus pervade the First Epistle. Its whole structure is Trinitarian. It contains two of the three great three-word dogmatic utterances of the New Testament about the nature of God (the first being in the fourth Gospel)-"God is Spirit," "God is light," "God is love." The chief dogmatic statements of the Atonement are found in these few chapters. "The blood of Jesus His Son cleanseth us from all sin." "We have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous." "He is the propitiation for the whole world." "God loved us, and sent His Son the propitiation for our sins." Where the Apostle passes on to deal with the spiritual life, he once more "is full of dogmas," i.e., of eternal, self-evidenced, oracular sentences, spoken as if "down from heaven," or by one "whose foot is upon a rock,"-apparently identical propositions, all-inclusive, the dogmas of moral and spiritual life, as those upon the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, are of strictly theological truth. A further characteristic of St. John as a sacred writer in his Epistle is, that he appears to indicate throughout the moral and spiritual conditions which were necessary for receiving the Gospel with which he endowed the Church as the life of their life. These conditions are three. The first is spirituality, submission to the teaching of the Spirit, that they may know by it the meaning of the words of Jesus-the "anointing" of the Holy Ghost, which is ever "teaching all things" that He said. The second condition is purity, at least the continuing effort after self-purification which is incumbent even upon those who have received the great pardon. This involves the following in life’s daily walk of the One perfect life walk, the imitation of that which is supremely good, "incarnated in an actual earthly career." All must be purity, or effort after purity, on the side of those who would read aright the Gospel of the immaculate Lamb of God. The third condition for such readers is love- charity. When he comes to deal fully with that great theme, the eagle of God wheels far out of sight. In the depths of His Eternal Being, "God is love." Then this truth comes closer to us as believers. It stands completely and forever manifested in its work in us, because "God hath sent" (a mission in the past, but with abiding consequences) "His Son, His only begotten Son into the world, that we may live through Him." Yet again, he rises higher from the manifestation of this love to the eternal and essential principle in which it stands present forever. "In this is the love, not that we loved God, but that God loved us, and once for all sent His Son a propitiation for our sins." Then follows the manifestation of our love. "If God so loved us, we also are bound to love one another." Do we think it strange that St. John does not first draw the lesson-"If God so loved us, we also are bound to love God"? It has been in his heart all along, but he utters it in his own way, in the solemn pathetic question-"He that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, God whom he hath not seen how can he love?" Yet once more he sums up the creed in a few short words. "We have believed the love that God hath in us." Truly and deeply has it been said that this creed of the heart, suffused with the softest tints and sweetest colours, goes to the root of all heresies upon the Incarnation, whether in St. John’s time or later. That God should give up His Son by sending Him forth in humanity; that the Word made flesh should humble Himself to the death upon the cross, the Sinless offer Himself for sinners, this is what heresy cannot bring itself to understand. It is the excess of such love which makes it incredible. "We have believed the love" is the whole faith of a Christian man. It is St. John’s creed in three words.

Such are the chief characteristics of St. John as a sacred writer, which may be traced in his Epistle. These characteristics of the author imply corresponding characteristics of the man. He who states with such inevitable precision, with such noble and self-contained enthusiasm, the great dogmas of the Christian faith, the great laws of the Christian life, must himself have entirely believed them. He who insists upon these conditions in the readers of his Gospel must himself have aimed at, and possessed, spirituality, purity, and love.

II We proceed to look at the First Epistle as a picture of the soul of its author.

(1) His was a life free from the dominion of wilful and habitual sin of any kind. "Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin, and he cannot continue sinning." "Whosoever abideth in Him sinneth not; whosoever sinneth hath not seen Him, neither known Him." A man so entirely true, if conscious to himself of any reigning sin, dare not have deliberately written these words.

(2) But if St. John’s was a life free from subjection to any form of the power of sin, he shows us that sanctity is not sinlessness, in language which it is alike unwise and unsafe to attempt to explain away. "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves." "If we say that we have not sinned and are not sinners, we make Him a liar." But so long as we do not fall back into darkness, the blood of Jesus is ever purifying us from all sin. This he has written that the fulness of the Christian life may be realised in believers; that each step of their walk may follow the blessed footprints of the most holy life; that each successive act of a consecrated existence may be free from sin. And yet, if any fail in some such single act, if he swerve, for a moment, from the "true tenour" of the course which he is shaping, there is no reason to despair. Beautiful humility of this pure and lofty soul! How tenderly, with what lowly graciousness he places himself among those who have and who need an Advocate. "Mark John’s humility," cries St. Augustine; "he says not ‘ye have,’ nor ‘ye have me,’ nor even ‘ye have Christ.’ But he puts forward Christ, not himself; and he says ‘we have,’ not ‘ye have,’ thus placing himself in the rank of sinners." Nor does St. John cover himself under the subterfuges by which men at different times have tried to get rid of a truth so humiliating to spiritual pride-sometimes by asserting that they so stand accepted in Christ that no sin is accounted to them for such; sometimes by pleading personal exemption for themselves as believers.

This Epistle stands alone in the New Testament in being addressed to two generations-one of which after conversion had grown old in a Christian atmosphere, whilst the other had been educated from the cradle under the influences of the Christian Church. It is therefore natural that such a letter should give prominence to the constant need of pardon. It certainly does not speak so much of the great initial pardon, as of the continuing pardons needed by human frailty. In dwelling upon pardon once given, upon sanctification once begun, men are possibly apt to forget the pardon that is daily wanting, the purification that is never to cease. We are to walk daily from pardon to pardon, from purification to purification. Yesterday’s surrender of self to Christ may grow ineffectual if it be not renewed today. This is sometimes said to be a humiliating view of the Christian life. Perhaps so-but it is the view of the Church, which places in its offices a daily confession of sin; of St. John in this Epistle; nay, of Him who teaches us, after our prayers for bread day by day, to pray for a daily forgiveness. This may be more humiliating, but it is safer teaching than that which proclaims a pardon to be appropriated in a moment for all sins past, present, and to come.

This humility may be traced incidentally in other regions of the Christian life. Thus he speaks of the possibility at least of his being among those who might "shrink with shame from Christ in His coming." He does not disdain to write as if, in hours of spiritual depression, there were tests by which he too might need to lull and "persuade his heart before God."

(3) St. John again has a boundless faith in prayer. It is the key put into the child’s hand by which he may let himself into the house, and come into his Father’s presence when he will, at any hour of the night or day. And prayer made according to the conditions which God has laid down is never quite lost. The particular thing asked for may not indeed be given; but the substance of the request-the holier wish, the better purpose underlying its weakness and imperfection-never fails to be granted.

(4) All but superficial readers must perceive that in the writings and character of St. John there is from time to time a tonic and wholesome severity. Art and modern literature have agreed to bestow upon the Apostle of love the features of a languid and inert tenderness. It is forgotten that St. John was the son of thunder; that he could once wish to bring down fire from heaven; and that the natural character is transfigured, not inverted, by grace. The Apostle uses great plainness of speech. For him a lie is a lie, and darkness is never courteously called light. He abhors and shudders at those heresies which rob the soul first of Christ, and then of God. Those who undermine the Incarnation are for him not interesting and original speculators, but "lying prophets." He underlines his warnings against such men with his roughest and blackest pencil mark. "Whoso sayeth to him ‘good speed’ hath fellowship with his works, those wicked works"-for such heresy is not simply one work, but a series of works. The schismatic prelate or pretender Diotrephes may "babble," but his babblings are wicked words for all that, and are in truth the "works which he is doing."

The influence of every great Christian teacher lasts long beyond the day of his death. It is felt in a general tone and spirit, in a special appropriation of certain parts of the creed, in a peculiar method of the Christian life. This influence is very discernible in the remains of two disciples of St. John, Ignatius and Polycarp. In writing to the Ephesians Ignatius does not indeed explicitly refer to St. John’s Epistle, as he does to that of St. Paul to the Ephesians. But he draws in a few bold lines a picture of the Christian life which is imbued with the very spirit of St. John. The character which the Apostle loved was quiet and real; we feel that his heart is not with "him that sayeth." So Ignatius writes-"it is better to keep silence, and yet to be, than to talk and not to be. It is good to teach if ‘he that sayeth doeth.’ He who has gotten to himself the word of Jesus truly is able to hear the silence of Jesus also, so that he may act through that which he speaks, and be known through the things wherein he is silent. Let us therefore do all things as in His presence who dwelleth in us, that we may be His temple, and that He may be in us our God." This is the very spirit of St. John. We feel in it at once his severe common sense and his glorious mysticism.

We must add that the influence of St. John may be traced in matters which are often considered alien to his simple and spiritual piety. It seems that Episcopacy was consolidated and extended under his fostering care. The language of his disciple Ignatius, upon the necessity of union with the Episcopate is, after all conceivable deductions, of startling strength. A few decades could not possibly have remove Ignatius so far from the lines marked out to him by St. John as he must have advanced, this teaching upon Church government was a new departure. And with this conception of Church government we must associate other matters also. The immediate successors of St. John, who had learned from his lips, held deep sacramental views. The Eucharist is "the bread of God, the bread of heaven, the bread of life, the flesh of Christ." Again Ignatius cries-"Desire to use one Eucharist, for one is the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup unto oneness of His blood, one altar, as one Bishop, with the Presbytery and deacons." Hints are not wanting that sweetness and light in public worship derived inspiration from this same quarter. The language of Ignatius deeply tinged with his passion for music. The beautiful story, how he set down, immediately after a vision, the melody to which he had heard the angels chanting, and caused it to be use in his church at Antioch, attests the impression of enthusiasm and care for sacred song which was associated with the memory of Ignatius. Nor can we be surprised at these features of Ephesian Christianity, when we remember who was the founder of those Churches. He was the writer of three books. These books come to us with a continuous living interpretation more than seventeen centuries of historical Christianity. From the fourth Gospel in large measure has arisen the sacramental instinct, from the Apocalypse the esthetic instinct, which has been certainly exaggerated both in the East and West. The third and sixth chapters of St John’s Gospel permeate every baptismal and eucharistic office. Given an inspired book which represents the worship of the redeemed as one of perfect majesty and beauty, men may well in the presence of noble churches and stately liturgies, adopt the words of our great English Christian poet-

"Things which shed upon the outward frame

Of worship glory and grace-which who shall blame

That ever look’d to heaven for final rest?"

The third book in this group of writings supplies the sweet and quiet spirituality which is the foundation of every regenerate nature.

Such is the image of the soul which is presented to us by St. John himself. It is based upon a firm conviction of the nature of God, of the Divinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement of our Lord. It is spiritual. It is pure, or being purified. The highest theological truth-"God is Love"-supremely realised in the Holy Trinity, supremely manifested in the sending forth of God’s only Son, becomes the law of its common social life, made visible in gentle patience, in giving and forgiving. Such a life will be free from the degradation of habitual sin. Yet it is at best an imperfect representation of the one perfect life. It needs unceasing purification by the blood of Jesus, the continual advocacy of One who is sinless. Such a nature, however full of charity, will not be weakly indulgent to vital error or to ambitious schism; for it knows the value of truth and unity. It feels the sweetness of a calm conscience, and of a simple belief in the efficacy of prayer. Over every such life-over all the grief that may be, all the temptation that must be-is the purifying hope of a great Advent, the ennobling assurance of a perfect victory, the knowledge that if we continue true to the principle of our new birth we are safe. And our safety is, not that we keep ourselves, but that we are kept by arms which are as soft as love, and as strong as eternity.

These Epistles are full of instruction and of comfort for us, just because they are written in an atmosphere of the Church which, in one respect at least, resembles our own. There is in them no reference whatever to a continuance of miraculous powers, to raptures, or to extraordinary phenomena. All in them which is supernatural continues even to this day, in the possession of an inspired record, in sacramental grace, in the pardon and holiness, the peace and strength of believers. The apocryphal "Acts of John" contain some fragments of real beauty almost lost in questionable stories and prolix declamation. It is probably not literally true that when St. John in early life wished to make himself a home, his Lord said to him, "I have need of thee, John"; that that thrilling Voice once came to him, wafted over the still darkened sea-"John, hadst thou not been Mine, I would have suffered thee to marry." But the Epistle shows us much more effectually that he had a pure heart and virgin will. It is scarcely probable that the son of Zebedee ever drained a cup of hemlock with impunity; but he bore within him an effectual charm against the poison of sin. We of this nineteenth century may smile when we read that he possessed the power of turning leaves into gold, of transmuting pebbles into jewels, of fusing shattered gems into one; but he carried with him wherever he went that most excellent gift of charity, which makes the commonest things of earth radiant with beauty. He may not actually have praised his Master during his last hour in words which seem to us not quite unworthy even of such lips-"Thou art the only Lord, the root of immortality, the fountain of incorruption. Thou who madest our rough wild nature soft and quiet, who deliveredst me from the imagination of the moment, and didst keep me safe within the guard of that which abideth forever." But such thoughts in life or death were never far from him for whom Christ was the Word and the Life; who knew that while "the world passeth away and the lust thereof, he that doeth the will of God abideth forever."

May we so look upon this image of the Apostle’s soul in his Epistle that we may reflect something of its brightness! May we be able to think, as we turn to this threefold assertion of knowledge-"I know something of the security of this keeping. I know something of the sweetness of being in the Church, that isle of light surrounded by a darkened world. I know something of the beauty of the perfect human life recorded by St. John, something of the continued presence of the Son of God, something of the new sense which He gives, that we may know Him who is the Very God." Blessed exchange-not to be vaunted loudly, but spoken reverently in our own hearts-the exchange of we, for I. There is much divinity in these pronouns.


Verse 21

Chapter 1 Part 1

1 John

THE SURROUNDINGS OF THE FIRST EPISTLE OF ST. JOHN.

1 John 5:21

AFTER the example of a writer of genius, preachers and essayists for the last forty years have constantly applied-or misapplied-some lines from one of the greatest of Christian poems. Dante writes of St. John-

"As he, who looks intent,

And strives with searching ken, how he may see

The sun in his eclipse, and, through decline

Of seeing, loseth power of sight: so I Gazed on that last resplendence."

The poet meant to be understood of the Apostle’s spiritual splendour of soul, of the absorption of his intellect and heart in his conception of the Person of Christ and of the dogma of the Holy Trinity. By these expositors of Dante the image is transferred to the style and structure of his writings. But confusion of thought is not magnificence, and mere obscurity is never sun-like. A blurred sphere and undecided outline is not characteristic of the sun even in eclipse. Dante never intended us to understand that St. John as a writer was distinguished by a beautiful vagueness of sentiment, by bright but tremulously drawn lines of dogmatic creed. It is indeed certain that round St. John himself, at the time when he wrote, there were many minds affected by this vague mysticism. For them, beyond the scanty region of the known, there was a world of darkness whose shadows they desired to penetrate. For them this little island of life was surrounded by waters into whose depths they affected to gaze. They were drawn by a mystic attraction to things which they themselves called the "shadows," the "depths," the "silences." But for St. John these shadows were a negation of the message which he delivered that "God is light, and darkness in Him is none." These silences were the contradiction of the Word who has once for all interpreted God. These depths were "depths of Satan." For the men who were thus enamoured of indefiniteness, of shifting sentiments and flexible creeds, were Gnostic heretics. Now St. John’s style, as such, has not the artful variety, the perfect balance in the masses of composition, the finished logical cohesion of the Greek classical writers. Yet it can be loftily or pathetically impressive. It can touch the problems and processes of the moral and spiritual world with a pencil tip of deathless light, or compress them into symbols which are solemnly or awfully picturesque. Above all St. John has the faculty of enshrining dogma in forms of statement which are firm and precise-accurate enough to be envied by philosophers, subtle enough to defy the passage of heresy through their finely drawn yet powerful lines. Thus in the beginning of his Gospel all false thought upon the Person of Him who is the living theology of His Church is refuted by anticipation that which in itself or in its certain consequences unhumanises or undeifies the God Man; that which denies the singularity of the One Person who was Incarnate, or the reality and entireness of the manhood of Him who fixed His Tabernacle of humanity in us.

It is therefore a mistake to look upon the First Epistle of St. John as a creedless composite of miscellaneous sweetnesses, a disconnected rhapsody upon philanthropy. And it will be well to enter upon a serious perusal of it, with the conviction that it did not drop from the sky upon an unknown place, at an unknown time, with an unknown purpose. We can arrive at some definite conclusions as to the circumstances from which it arose, and the sphere in which it was written-at least if we are entitled to say that we have done so in the case of almost any other ancient document of the same nature.

Our simplest plan will be, in the first instance, to trace in the briefest outline the career of St. John after the Ascension of our Lord, so far as it can be followed certainly by Scripture, or with the highest probability from early Church history. We shall then be better able to estimate the degree in which the Epistle fits into the framework of local thought and circumstances in which we desire to place it.

Much of this biography can best be drawn out by tracing the contrast between St. John and St. Peter, which is conveyed with such subtle and exquisite beauty in the closing chapter of the fourth Gospel.

The contrast between the two Apostles is one of history and of character.

Historically, the work done by each of them for the Church differs in a remarkable way from the other.

We might have anticipated for one so dear to our Lord a distinguished part in spreading the Gospel among the nations of the world. The tone of thought revealed in parts of his Gospel might even have seemed to indicate a remarkable aptitude for such a task. St. John’s peculiar appreciation of the visit of the Greeks to Jesus, and his preservation of words which show such deep insight into Greek religious ideas, would apparently promise a great missionary, at least to men of lofty speculative thought. But in the Acts of the Apostles St. John is first overshadowed, then effaced, by the heroes of the missionary epic, St. Peter and St. Paul. After the close of the Gospels he is mentioned five times only. Once his name occurs in a list of the Apostles. Thrice he passes before us with Peter. Once again (the first and last time when we hear of St. John in personal relation with St. Paul) he appears in the Epistle to the Galatians with two others, James and Cephas, as reputed to be pillars of the Church. But whilst we read in the Acts of his taking a certain part in miracles, in preaching, in confirmation; while his boldness is acknowledged by adversaries of the faith; not a line of his individual teaching is recorded. He walks in silence by the side of the Apostle who was more fitted to be a missionary pioneer.

With the materials at our command, it is difficult to say how St. John was employed whilst the first great advance of the cross was in progress. We know for certain that he was at Jerusalem during the second visit of St. Paul. But there is no reason for conjecturing that he was in that city when it was visited by St. Paul on his last voyage (A.D. 60); while we shall presently have occasion to show how markedly the Church tradition connects St. John with Ephesus.

We have next to point out that this contrast in the history of the Apostles is the result of a contrast in their characters. This contrast is brought out with a marvellous prophetic symbolism in the miraculous draught of fishes after the Resurrection.

First as regards St. Peter.

"When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he girt his fisher’s coat unto him (for he was naked), and did cast himself into the sea." His was the warm energy, the forward impulse of young life, the free bold plunge of an impetuous and chivalrous nature into the waters which are nations and peoples. In he must; on he will. The prophecy which follows the thrice renewed restitution of the fallen Apostle is as follows: "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee where thou wouldest not. This spake He, signifying by what death He should glorify God, and when He had spoken this, He saith unto him, Follow Me." This, we are told, is obscure; but it is obscure only as to details. To St. Peter it could have conveyed no other impression than that it foretold his martyrdom. "When thou wast young," points to the tract of years up to old age. It has been said that forty is the old age of youth, fifty the youth of old age. But our Lord does not actually define old age by any precise date. He takes what has occurred as a type of Peter’s youthfulness of heart and frame-"girding himself," with rapid action, as he had done shortly before; "walking," as he had walked on the white beach of the lake in the early dawn; "whither thou wouldest," as when he had cried with impetuous, half-defiant independence, "I go a-fishing," invited by the auguries of the morning, and of the water. The form of expression seems to indicate that Simon Peter was not to go far into the dark and frozen land; that he was to be growing old, rather than absolutely old. Then should he stretch forth his hands, with the dignified resignation of one who yields manfully to that from which nature would willingly escape. "This spake He," adds the evangelist, "signifying by what death He shall glorify God." What fatal temptation leads so many commentators to minimise such a prediction as this? If the prophecy were the product of a later hand, added after the martyrdom of St. Peter, it certainly would have wanted its present inimitable impress of distance and reserve.

It is in the context of this passage that we read most fully and truly the contrast of our Apostle’s nature with that of St. Peter. St. John, as Chrysostom has told us in deathless words, was loftier, saw more deeply, pierced right into and through spiritual truths, was more the lover of Jesus than of Christ, as Peter was more the lover of Christ than of Jesus. Below the different work of the two men, and determining it, was this essential difference of nature, which they carried with them into the region of grace. St. John was not so much the great missionary with his sacred restlessness; not so much the oratorical expositor of prophecy with his pointed proofs of correspondence between prediction and fulfilment, and his passionate declamation driving in the conviction of guilt like a sting that pricked the conscience. He was the theologian; the quiet master of the secrets of the spiritual life; the calm, strong controversialist who excludes error by constructing truth. The work of such a spirit as his was rather like the finest product of venerable and long established Churches. One gentle word of Jesus sums up the biography of long years which apparently were without the crowded vicissitudes to which other Apostles were exposed. If the old Church history is true, St. John was either not called upon to die for Jesus, or escaped from that death by a miracle. That one word of the Lord was to become a sort of motto of St. John. It occurs some twenty-six times in the brief pages of these Epistles. "If I will that he abide"-abide in the bark, in the Church, in one spot, in life, in spiritual communion with Me. It is to be remembered finally, that not only spiritual, but ecclesiastical consolidation is attributed to St. John by the voice of history. He occupied himself with the visitation of his Churches and the development of Episcopacy. So in the sunset of the Apostolic age stands before us the mitred form of John the Divine. Early Christianity had three successive capitals-Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus. Surely, so long as St. John lived, men looked for a Primate of Christendom not at Rome but at Ephesus.

How different were the two deaths! It was as if in His words our Lord allowed His two Apostles to look into a magic glass, wherein one saw dimly the hurrying feet, the prelude to execution which even the saint wills not; the other the calm life, the gathered disciples, the quiet sinking to rest. In the clear obscure of that prophecy we may discern the outline of Peter’s cross, the bowed figure of the saintly old man. Let us be thankful that John "tarried." He has left the Churches three pictures that can never fade-in the gospel the picture of Christ, in the Epistles the picture of his own soul, in the Apocalypse the picture of Heaven.

So far we have relied almost exclusively upon indications supplied by Scripture. We now turn to Church history to fill in some particulars of interest.

Ancient tradition unhesitatingly believed that the latter years of St. John’s prolonged life were spent in the city of Ephesus, or province of Asia Minor, with the Virgin Mother, the sacred legacy from the cross, under his fostering care for a longer or shorter portion of those years. Manifestly he would not have gone to Ephesus during the lifetime of St. Paul. Various circumstances point to the period of his abode there as beginning a little after the fall of Jerusalem (A.D. 67). He lived on until towards the close of the first century of the Christian era, possibly two years later (A.D. 102). With the date of the Apocalypse we are not directly concerned, though we refer it to a very late period in St. John’s career, believing that the Apostle did not return from Patmos until just after Domitian’s death. The date of the Gospel may be placed between A.D. 80 and 90. And the First Epistle accompanied the Gospel, as we shall see in a subsequent chapter.

The Epistle then, like the Gospel, and contemporaneously with it, saw the light in Ephesus, or in its vicinity. This is proved by three pieces of evidence of the most unquestionable solidity.

(1) The opening chapters of the Apocalypse contain an argument which cannot be explained away for the connection of St. John with Asia Minor and with Ephesus. And the argument is independent of the authorship of that wonderful book. Whoever wrote the Book of the Revelation must have felt the most absolute conviction of St. John’s abode in Ephesus and temporary exile to Patmos. To have written with a special view of acquiring a hold upon the Churches of Asia Minor, while assuming from the very first as fact what they, more than any other Churches in the world, must have known to be fiction, would have been to invite immediate and contemptuous rejection. The three earliest chapters of the Revelation are unintelligible, except as the real or assumed utterance of a Primate (in later language) of the Churches of Asia Minor. To the inhabitants of the barren and remote isle of Patmos, Rome and Ephesus almost represented the world; their rocky nest among the waters was scarcely visited except as a brief resting place for those who sailed from one of those great cities to the other, or for occasional traders from Corinth.

(2) The second evidence is the fragment of the Epistle of Irenaeus to Florinus preserved in the fifth book of the "Ecclesiastical History" of Eusebius. Irenaeus mentions no dim tradition, appeals to no past which was never present. He has but to question his own recollections of Polycarp, whom he remembered in early life. "Where he sat to talk, his way, his manner of life, his personal appearance, how he used to tell of his intimacy with John, and with the others who had seen the Lord." Irenaeus elsewhere distinctly says that "John himself issued the Gospel while living at Ephesus in Asia Minor, and that he survived in that city until Trajan’s time."

(3) The third great historical evidence which connects St. John with Ephesus is that of Polycrates, Bishop of Ephesus, who wrote a synodical epistle to Victor and the Roman Church on the Quartodeciman question, toward the close of the second century. Polycrates speaks of the great ashes which sleep in Asia Minor until the Advent of the Lord, when He shall raise up His saints. He proceeds to mention Philip who sleeps in Hierapolis; two of his daughters; a third who takes her rest in Ephesus, and "John moreover, who leaned upon the breast of Jesus, who was a high priest bearing the radiant plate of gold upon his forehead."

This threefold evidence would seem to tender the sojourn of St. John at Ephesus for many years one of the most solidly attested facts of earlier Church history.

It will be necessary for our purpose to sketch the general condition of Ephesus in St. John’s time.

A traveller coming from Antioch of Pisidia (as St. Paul did A.D. 54) descended from the mountain chain which separates the Meander from the Cayster. He passed down by a narrow ravine to the "Asian meadow" celebrated by Homer. There, rising from the valley, partly running up the slope of Mount Coressus, and again higher along the shoulder of Mount Prion, the traveller saw the great city of Ephesus towering upon the hills, with widely scattered suburbs. In the first century the population was immense, and included a strange mixture of races and religions. Large numbers of Jews were settled there, and seems to have possessed a full religious organisation under a High priest or Chief Rabbi. But the prevailing superstition was the worship of the Ephesian Artemis. The great temple, the priesthood whose chief seems to have enjoyed a royal or quasi-royal rank, the affluence of pilgrims at certain seasons of the year, the industries connected with objects of devotion, supported a swarm of devotees, whose fanaticism was intensified by their material interest in a vast religious establishment. Ephesus boasted of being a theocratic city, the possessor and keeper of a temple glorified by art as well as by devotion. It had a civic calendar marked by a round of splendid festivities associated with the cultus of the goddess. Yet the moral reputation of the city stood at the lowest point, even in the estimation of Greeks. The Greek character was effeminated in Ionia by Asiatic manners, and Ephesus was the most dissolute city of Ionia. Its once superb schools of art became infected by the ostentatious vulgarity of an ever-increasing parvenu opulence. The place was chiefly divided between dissipation and a degrading form of literature. Dancing and music were heard day and night; a protracted revel was visible in the streets. Lascivious romances whose infamy was proverbial were largely sold and passed from hand to hand. Yet there were not a few of a different character. In that divine climate, the very lassitude, which was the reaction from excessive amusement and perpetual sunshine, disposed many minds to seek for refuge in the shadows of a visionary world. Some who had received or inherited Christianity from Aquila and Priscilla, or from St. Paul himself, thirty or forty years before, had contaminated the purity of the faith with inferior elements derived from the contagion of local heresy, or from the infiltration of pagan thought. The Ionian intellect seems to have delighted in imaginative metaphysics; and for minds undisciplined by true logic or the training of severe science imaginative metaphysics is a dangerous form of mental recreation. The adept becomes the slave of his own formulae, and drifts into partial insanity by a process which seems to himself to be one of indisputable reasoning. Other influences outside Christianity ran in the same direction. Amulets were bought by trembling believers. Astrological calculations were received with the irresistible fascination of terror. Systems of magic, incantations, forms of exorcism, traditions of theosophy, communications with demons-all that we should now sum up under the head of spiritualism-laid their spell upon thousands. No Christian reader of the nineteenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles will be inclined to doubt that beneath all this mass of superstition and imposture there lay some dark reality of evil power. At all events the extent of these practices, these "curious arts" in Ephesus at the time of St. Paul’s visit, is clearly proved by the extent of the local literature which spiritualism put forth. The value of the books of magic which were burned by penitents of this class, is estimated by St. Luke at fifty thousand pieces of silver-probably about thirteen hundred and fifty pounds of our money!

Let us now consider what ideas or allusions in the Epistles of St. John coincide with, and fit into, this Ephesian contexture of life thought.

We shall have occasion in the third chapter to refer to forms of Christian heresy or of semi-Christian speculation indisputably pointed to by St. John, and prevalent in Asia Minor when the Apostle wrote. But besides this, several other points of contact with Ephesus can be detected in the Epistles before us.

(1) The first Epistle closes with a sharp decisive warning, expressed in a form which could only have been employed when those who were addressed habitually lived in an atmosphere saturated with idolatry, where the social temptations to come to terms with idolatrous practices were powerful and ubiquitous. This was no doubt true of many other places at the time, but it was preeminently true of Ephesus. Certain of the Gnostic Christian sects in Ionia held lax views about "eating things sacrificed unto idols," although fornication was a general accompaniment of such a compliance. Two of the angels of the Seven Churches of Asia within the Ephesian group-the angels of Pergamum and of Thyatira-receive special admonition from the Lord upon this subject. These considerations prove that the command, "Children, guard yourselves from the idols," had a very special suitability to the conditions of life in Ephesus.

(2) The population of Ephesus was of a very composite kind. Many were attracted to the capital of Ionia by its reputation as the capital of the pleasures of the world, It was also the centre of an enormous trade by land and sea. Ephesus, Alexandria, Antioch, and Corinth were the four cities where at that period all races and all religions of civilised men were most largely represented. Now the First Epistle of St. John has a peculiar breadth in its representation of the purpose of God. Christ is not merely the fulfilment of the hopes of one particular people. The Church is not merely destined to be the home of a handful of spiritual citizens. The Atonement is as wide as the race of man. "He is the propitiation for the whole world; we have seen, and bear witness that the Father sent the Son as Saviour of the world." A cosmopolitan population is addressed in a cosmopolitan epistle.

(3) We have seen that the gaiety and sunshine of Ephesus was sometimes darkened by the shadows of a world of magic; that for some natures Ionia was a land haunted by spiritual terrors. He must be a hasty student who fails to connect the extraordinary narrative in the nineteenth chapter of the Acts with the ample and awful recognition in the Epistle to the Ephesians of the mysterious conflict in the Christian life against evil intelligences, real, though unseen. The brilliant rationalist may dispose of such things by the convenient and compendious method of a sneer. "Such narratives as that" (of St. Paul’s struggle with the exorcists at Ephesus) "are disagreeable little spots in everything that is done by the people. Though we cannot do a thousandth part of what St. Paul did, we have a system of physiology and of medicine very superior to his." Perhaps he had a system of spiritual diagnosis very superior to ours. In the epistle to the Angel of the Church of Thyatira, mention is made of "the woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess," who led astray the servants of Christ. St. John surely addresses himself to a community where influences precisely of this kind exist, and are recognised when he writes, - "Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world every spirit that confesseth not Jesus is not of God." The Church or Churches, which the First Epistle directly contemplates, did not consist of men just converted. Its whole language supposes Christians, some of whom had grown old and were "fathers" in the faith, while others who were younger enjoyed the privilege of having been born and brought up in a Christian atmosphere. They are reminded again and again, with a reiteration which would be unaccountable if it had no special significance, that the commandment "that which they heard," "the word," "the message," is the same which they had "from the beginning." Now this will exactly suit the circumstances of a Church like the Ephesian, to which another Apostle had originally preached the Gospel many years before. On the whole, we have in favour of assigning these Epistles to Ionian and Ephesian surroundings a considerable amount of external evidence. The general characteristics of the First Epistle consonant with the view of their origin which we have advocated are briefly these:

(1) It is addressed to readers who were encompassed by peculiar temptations to make a compromise with idolatry.

(2) It has an amplitude and generality of tone which befitted one who wrote to a Church which embraced members from many countries, and was thus in contact with men of many races and religions.

(3) It has a peculiar solemnity of reference to the invisible world of spiritual evil and to its terrible influence upon the human mind.

(4) The Epistle is pervaded by a desire to have it recognised that the creed and law of practice which it asserts is absolutely one with that which had been proclaimed by earlier heralds of the cross to the same community.

Every one of these characteristics is consistent with the destination of the Epistle for the Christians of Ephesus in the first instance. Its polemical element, which we are presently to discuss, adds to an accumulation of coincidences which no ingenuity can volatilise away. The Epistle meets Ephesian circumstances; it also strikes at Ionian heresies. Aia-so-Louk, the modern name of Ephesus, appears to be derived from two Greek words, which speak of St. John the Divine, the theologian of the Church. As the memory of the Apostle haunts’ the city where he so long lived, even in its fall and long decay under its Turkish conquerors, -and the fatal spread of the malaria from the marshes of the Cayster-so a memory of the place seems to rest in turn upon the Epistle, and we read it more satisfactorily while we assign to it the origin attributed to it by Christian antiquity, and keep that memory before our minds.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 1 John 5:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/1-john-5.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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