the Fourth Week of Lent
Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament
ERROR.—As one who lived in the undimmed vision of holiness and truth, ‘who saw life steadily and saw it whole,’ Jesus must have felt with an intensity we cannot fathom how sin had distorted the reason of man as well as perverted his affections. All around Him He saw men walking ‘in the vanity of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardening of their heart’ (Ephesians 4:18). He saw, also, as no one else had ever seen, that the recovery of those who had become ‘vain in their reasonings’ (Romans 1:21) was to be achieved less by attacking their godless errors than by aiming at the renewal of the moral and spiritual nature. This is the fundamental and vital point to emphasize. Underlying all Christ’s dealings with error there was the recognition of the dependence of men’s opinions and beliefs upon their character. We seldom realize how much we contribute to the judgments we form. We set out with the intention of being wholly governed by the object. We want to know what it really is, and not merely what it appears to be. So we approach it, examine it, and form our opinion of it. But the eye brings with it the power of seeing; what we see depends not merely upon the object, but upon the organ of vision. This is true especially with respect to all judgments of value, all questions of right and wrong, of duty and religion. The possibilities of error increase not merely with the complexity of the subject-matter, but with the way in which our interests and convictions, our desires and predilections, are bound up with it. In the region of the moral and spiritual life not only must the intellect be clear,—free from false theory,—but still more necessary is it that the heart be pure and the practice sound. To appreciate goodness a man must love goodness; must be, if not good, at any rate good in many ways. ‘Every one,’ said Jesus, ‘that is of the truth heareth my voice’ (John 18:37). This does not, of course, mean that all moral and religious errors are due simply to a depraved heart. Violent upholders of orthodoxy have been only too ready to assume that such is the case, and to silence the heretic by declaring him a bad man. But it does mean that there is a moral aptitude for Christian discipleship. It was inevitable that men who had no enthusiasm for goodness should misunderstand Christ and reject Him. It was equally certain that His ‘sheep’ would hear His voice and follow Him.
There are a few striking illustrations of these principles in the Gospels which demand our attention.
1. The necessity for inward, moral clarity and simplicity is strongly insisted on by Jesus (Matthew 6:22-23, Luke 11:34-36). ‘We so often talk as if we were only obliged to “follow our conscience”; as if no one could lay anything to our charge unless we were acting against the present voice of conscience. But this is very perilous error. We are also obliged to enlighten our conscience and keep it enlightened. It is as much liable to error as our uninstructed intelligence, as much liable to failure as our sight’ (Gore, The Sermon on the Mount, p. 146 f.). The thought is expressed in other forms equally suggestive. Thus the ‘pure heart’ is the condition of the vision of God (Matthew 5:8). It is the ‘honest and good heart’ which, having heard the word, keeps it (Luke 8:15). Heavenly truth is hid from the wise and prudent, but revealed unto babes (Matthew 11:25). The disciples must be converted and become as little children (Matthew 18:2-5, Mark 10:15).
2. Our Lord’s method of dealing with the ignorant and erring is full of instruction. Take the case of the woman suffering from an issue of blood (Matthew 9:20-22, Mark 5:25-34, Luke 8:43-48). It would be hard to exaggerate the poor woman’s ignorance. Her mind was full of erroneous thoughts of Jesus. At best she looks upon Him as a worker of magic. She thinks that she may be able to steal a blessing from Him in the crowd. But there was working, even in that darkness, the precious element of faith. She trusted Jesus as far as she understood Him, and that was enough for the Master. He knew that faith in Himself, even though it were only as a grain of mustard seed, would break through the incumbent weight of error and ignorance, and offer a free way for His grace: ‘Daughter, be of good comfort: thy faith hath made thee whole; go in peace.’ Jesus adopted essentially the same method in dealing with persons like Zacchaeus, Mary Magdalene, the woman of Samaria, and the ‘publicans and sinners’ generally. These victims and slaves of passion and ignorance were certainly not good. Their lives were stained by error and sin. The religious classes looked upon them as moral outcasts. And yet there were those among them open to conviction. Their wilful and passionate lives had not destroyed in them a strange yearning for better things. And when purity drew near to them, adorned with such Divine graciousness as it was in the Person of Jesus, they became responsive to it and yearned after it. That was faith, and Jesus saw in it a power which would work for the redemption of the whole nature. His one endeavour was to call it forth into fullest exercise. Erroneous thoughts of God and life, of duty and religion, would all slowly disappear under the influence of this new devotion to Himself. But, after all, those who responded to His invitations (Matthew 11:28-30) were never numerous. The great mass of the people was untouched and uninfluenced. Sunk in stupid ignorance, vice, and worldliness, the masses, at the best, followed Him for a time in gaping wonder, thinking far more of ‘the loaves and fishes’ than of the new life and truth He placed before them. Hence the sad words with which Jesus upbraided ‘the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done’ (Matthew 11:20-24).
3. The Pharisees and the other religious leaders.—At first it seems a strange thing that these men, on the whole, fell into the appalling error of rejecting Jesus. ‘The gospel did not place itself, directly and at the outset, in opposition to the errors of the Pharisees.… But the dividing gulf was none the less real, and would baffle every attempt to fathom or bridge it over’ (Reuss, Christian Theology in the Apostolic Age, p. 227). A few reflexions on the lines of the previous remarks will make this clear. The whole life and thought of the typical Pharisee was a closed system. His religion was already fully organized. ‘In the hands of the Pharisees, Judaism finally became petrified.’ It was a body of rules and doctrines which laid the main stress on conduct and outward ceremonies,—a rigid mould without plasticity or capability of expansion. It could only react in antagonism towards one who offered a religion of the spirit, a worship of the Father in spirit and in truth. The Pharisee did not know what to make of a renovating and inspiring call which bade him begin afresh, and completely revise his life and religion in the light of a higher ideal. He was self-satisfied, and resented criticism as an intolerable impertinence. He was like one who says that he must follow his conscience, but who does not continually seek to enlighten his conscience by confronting it with higher aspects of truth. He had ears, but he heard not; eyes, yet he was blind. This was the most fatal kind of error, the most hopeless of all moral states; and it was inevitable that it should come into deadly collision with Jesus. ‘While the Pharisaic spirit had changed religion into a narrow and barren formalism, the gospel carefully distinguished the form from the essence in things religious. Its estimate of man’s true worth and the certainty of his hopes rested not upon the outward conduct of the life, but upon the inward direction of the heart and feelings’ (Reuss, The Gospel and Judaism, vol. i. p. 227). The errors of the Pharisees and the bitter hostility to Jesus which they provoked may be studied in the following passages—they are a mere selection: Matthew 6:1-8; Matthew 12:1-45; Matthew 21:23-46; Matthew 23:1-39, Mark 3:1-6, Luke 6:1-11; Luke 11:37-54; Luke 18:9-14, John 5:30-47; John 7:14-52; John 8:12-59; John 9:1-41.
4. The errors of the disciples.—It is not necessary to go into details here. In responding to His call the disciples of Jesus had placed themselves in training for the higher life. They had passed into a school where the scholar’s ignorance and error would be dealt with patiently and wisely. They had much to learn, but the essential thing was that they were in communion with the Light of Life.
Literature.—Illingworth, Christian Character; Gore, The Sermon on the Mount; Reuss, History of Christian Theology in the Apostolic Age; A. J. Balfour, Foundations of Belief; Personal Idealism, Essay I. by Prof. G. F. Stout; Descartes, Meditation IV.
A. J. Jenkinson.
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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Error'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​e/error.html. 1906-1918.