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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Coming to Christ

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COMING TO CHRIST.—Under this heading we bring together a number of passages, all sayings of Jesus, most of them in the Fourth Gospel, which express at once His widest invitation to men and His strongest claims upon them. Outside these there is a much larger group of passages, occurring in all the Gospels, many of which are intimately connected with the inner group. The expression thus frequently occurring, and used in the few passages first mentioned to convey the deepest truths of the gospel, is based on the everyday events of our Lord’s ministry and of ordinary life. In its literal meaning it occurs constantly throughout the Gospel narrative. We may here disregard this widest class of passages, which speak of the multitudes who, from very various motives, ‘came to Christ’ to see and to hear Him, and fix our attention on those which have a moral and spiritual significance. The latter, bearing directly on the proclamation of the Kingdom of God and on the conditions of membership in it, are of supreme importance.

The constructions used in these groups of passages may here be noticed. In nearly all of them we have the simple verb ἑρχομαι followed by τρος with the accusative. In Matthew 11:28 we have the interjectional adverb δεῦτε with τρος and the accusative. In the kindred passage, Hebrews 7:25, the compound τροσερχομαι occurs with the dative. In a closely allied group of passages, which we shall have occasion to notice later, ἕρχομαι is followed by ὀτισω and the genitive. The call to the earliest disciples is δεῦτε ὀτισω μου (Matthew 4:19, Mark 1:17). In some passages (Matthew 16:24; Matthew 19:14, John 5:40; John 6:44; cf. John 7:34; John 7:36; John 8:21 f., John 13:33) the aorist of ἕρχομαι is used, the ‘coming’ being regarded as complete, while in others the use of the present indicates that the ‘coming’ is thought of as in progress (cf. Westcott on John 6:44). In John 6:37 a ἡξει with τρος and the accusative signifies arrival, attainment. In many passages of the second group, some of which will he used in illustration of the subject, we have the fact of the coming without the use of any of the phrases here mentioned.

Among the crowds who flocked to Jesus were many who came, or who were brought by their friends, because of some special need. Blind and deaf and dumb came to have their lost senses restored (Matthew 9:32 ff; Matthew 20:29 ff., Mark 7:32 ff., John 9:1 ff. et al.). Lepers cried to Him for cleansing (Matthew 8:2 ff. || Luke 17:12 ff.). The lame and the palsied came, or were brought, to Him for renewal of their powers (Matthew 9:2 ff. || John 5:2 ff.). More than once the friends of the dying or the dead came beseeching Him to give them back their loved ones from the grasp of death (Matthew 9:18 ff. || John 11:1 ff.). Obviously this ‘coming’ was in most cases much more than a mere physical fact. The whole motive does not in all cases lie open to us, but in many we know, and in others there is no room for doubt, that there was behind the coming an attraction of His person, a perception of and faith in His power to bless, a confidence in His mercy and grace, apart from which even the most needy would not have been moved to come to Him. This is in some instances conspicuously clear, and is recognized by Jesus with joy. Thus the ‘faith’ of the centurion (Matthew 8:5 ff.) is declared to be greater than any He had found in Israel. For her ‘great faith’ the prayer of the Syro-Phœnician woman is granted (Matthew 15:32 ff.). The latter is one of many cases in which the faith of those who came to Him was tested by Jesus before He complied with their request (cf. Matthew 9:28, John 4:48, and many others). This testing of faith shows the spiritual significance of the incidents, even where the blessing craved and granted, looked at merely from the outside, is purely physical. This is still more the case where the need which brought men to Christ was not physical, but moral or spiritual, e.g. Nicodemus to some extent (John 3), Zacchaeus the chief publican (Luke 19:2 ff.), the woman who was a sinner (Luke 7:36 ff.), and many others.

From these cases we pass by an easy transition to the higher level of meaning of the phrase ‘coming to Christ.’ The passages in which this occurs are entirely words of Jesus. He calls men to come to Him. For the most part His call is that of gracious, loving invitation. But the condemnation of the Jews because they would not come to Him (John 5:40; cf. Matthew 22:3, John 16:9) shows that under the graciousness of the invitation there lies the assertion of a paramount claim. These are two aspects of Christ’s call which it may be well to consider to some extent apart. Experimentally they must always go together.

In Matthew 11:28 ff., we have the great call of Jesus to those who ‘labour and are heavy laden,’ with its promise of ‘rest.’ These verses bear a likeness to several passages of the OT, especially to Jeremiah 6:16 ‘Thus saith the Lord, Stand ye in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls.’ But the Heb. word מַרְגוֹעַ ‘rest,’ is rendered in the LXX Septuagint not by ἀνάπανσιν, the word used in Matthew 11:29 (cf. ἀναπαύσω, Matthew 11:28), but by ἁγνισμόν (or ἉΓΙΑΣΜάΝ). Some have thought that there is here an echo of the words of Jesus ben Sira (Sirach 6:24 f., Sirach 6:28 f., Sirach 51:23-27), with which our Lord was probably familiar (see Expositor’s Greek Testament, in loco). But the words of Christ, in the greatness of the call and of the promise, and in the connexion of both with His own person, go far beyond those of Ben Sira or anything which we find in the canonical books of the OT. The call is probably addressed in the first instance to those who, groaning under ‘the yoke of the law,’ which generations of Rabbinic teaching and Pharisaic formalism had made intolerable, had no hope of rest for their souls. But it goes beyond that, as the whole ministry of Christ shows, to all those on whom the burdens of life press heavily, and especially to those who are being borne down by the weight of sin. To all Christ offers ‘rest,’ a ceasing from the crushing weight and from the hopeless toil, an inward, satisfying peace.

The words of Jesus in John 7:37 (cf. John 6:35) are even greater than those just considered. Under the natural figure of ‘thirst’ and the companion figure of ‘hunger,’ He speaks of the deepest needs and longings of the soul of man—not those which are passing and accidental, but those which are essential and permanent, above all, the need of God—and promises to all who come to Him a perfect and abiding satisfaction. They should not only themselves be satisfied, but by the ‘receiving’ of the Holy Spirit should become sources of blessing to others.

To these two great promises we may add the words of Jesus in John 5:40, which imply, under the condemnation of those who would not come to Him, a promise of ‘life’ to those who do come. This evidently means a life other than that which they already had, a life in union with God as contrasted with their life apart from Him, a life in whose abundance man finds perfect satisfaction and the purpose of God is realized, a life which is eternal. Into the enjoyment of this life he who ‘cometh to Christ’ enters at once, but its full realization belongs to the future.

The supreme promise of Christ, embracing and transcending all others, is implied in John 14:6 ‘No man cometh to the Father but by me.’ Access to God, fellowship with Him, are dependent on coming to Christ, and are promised to all who come to Him (cf. John 6:37 b).

We infer from our study of the passages cited, that, on one side, ‘coming to Christ’ is practically synonymous with faith in Him. It is the active movement of the soul towards Christ. More than once ‘cometh’ and ‘believeth’ occur as parallel, if not virtually synonymous, expressions (cf. John 6:35; John 7:37 f.). ‘The first word presents faith in deed as active and outward, the second presents faith in thought as resting and inward’ (Westcott on John 6:35). The ‘coming’ is the response of the soul in its natural cravings, in its need, in its sin, to the call of Christ. It is its recognition in act, the act of trust, of His readiness to receive and His power to bless.

This, however, is only one side of the meaning of the phrase. There is another which is largely overlooked, perhaps because it does not immediately appeal to man’s sense of need.

Christ’s condemnation of the unbelieving Jews (John 5:40) has already been mentioned. This implies that man’s destiny depends on his attitude to Christ. In Luke 6:46 ff. this is still more clearly stated. ‘Coming,’ the first movement of the soul to Christ, is associated with, and derives spiritual and permanent value from, hearing and doing the words of Christ. The mere lip acknowledgment of Him is nothing, or worse than nothing, for it brings disaster; the heart acknowledgment, issuing in obedience, is everything. This is stated even more strongly in Luke 14:26 ‘If any man cometh unto me, and hateth not his own father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.’ The next verse carries us a step further, from the ‘coming to’ to the ‘coming after,’ from the negative ‘hating’ or renunciation to the positive ‘bearing’ or ‘taking up’ of the cross (cf. Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23). These are Christ’s conditions of discipleship, stringent, at first sight even repulsive. Matthew 10:37 may be compared with Luke 14:26, not as toning down the demands of Christ, but as helping us to understand them. He claims to be the first, and in a profound sense the only object of man’s affection and devotion. None other shall stand before Him, none other beside Him. There is here no condemnation, no abrogation of the claims of human affection, which are Divine in their origin, and have been strengthened and beautified under the influence of Christ. But there is a demand that these shall stand aside, shall be put aside ruthlessly and with the heart’s whole passion, so far as they come into conflict or rivalry with the claims of Christ. The ‘great possessions’ of the rich young ruler stood between him and Christ. Father and mother, wife and child, do the same with others. If so, ‘he cannot be my disciple.’ Further, Christ demands the taking up of the cross; that is, not the acceptance of trials, often trifling trials, as they come to us, to which in common use this great word has been reduced, but the readiness, for His sake, to follow Him to shame and to death.

While, then, ‘coming to Christ’ means, on the one hand, faith in Him, a movement of the soul to Him for the acceptance of the blessings He offers, it means, on the other hand, no less clearly an absolute surrender of the soul, of the whole man to Him. This aspect of the truth already emerges in Matthew 11:28 ff. ‘Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me.… For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ This involves the recognition of Him as ‘Lord,’ a whole-hearted obedience, an absolute surrender in which nothing, not even the dearest object of earthly affection, shall weigh with us against Him, a readiness to suffer shame and death for His sake. This is to ‘come to him’ in the fullest sense, to come ‘to’ in order to coming ‘after’; this is to become His disciple. It seems harsh and repellent: it is not really so. It is the detachment from the lower in order to attachment to the higher. It is the weaning, it may be the wrenching, of the soul from all else, that it may be united to God. There is no other way to the highest good.

The call of Christ, whether it be regarded as an invitation or as a claim, raises in an acute form the question of His Person. Its bearing on this can only be indicated, not fully discussed, in this article. Christ’s call is, on the one hand, a universal call. The ‘all ye’ of Matthew 11:28 has no limits of space or time within the limits of human personality and need. It is the gospel for all men of all times and of all lands. It is the keynote of the whole NT and of all evangelical thought and preaching. On the other hand, Christ’s call is an exclusive call. It is ‘Come unto me,’ shutting out all other teachers or saviours. He professes to be able to satisfy all human need, even the deepest—that of the consciousness of sin. He claims to be the only object of affection and obedience. He declares Himself the only way to God. Either His professions and claims are false and absurd, or He is more than a man, more than the greatest among the great, than the best among the good. If we admit His claims—and they find the fullest justification in the history of faith—we must make our confession with St. Peter: ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God’ (Matthew 16:16).

Another question, the full discussion of which lies beyond the scope of this article, must be mentioned. The movement of the soul to Christ does not originate with itself. Jesus traces it to the ‘drawing’ of the Father (John 6:44 f.; cf. John 12:32). In this we have a suggestion of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. But it is obvious that this involves neither compulsion on the one hand nor lessening of human responsibility on the other. A man’s coming to Christ, under the Divine influence, is a voluntary surrender. A man’s refusal to come is and will be just ground of condemnation.

It remains only to point out the harmony of the rest of the NT with the teaching of Christ in the Gospels in respect of our subject. The phrase ‘coming to Christ’ belongs, it is true, almost exclusively to the Gospels, and is found in its highest meaning mainly in that of St. John (but see 1 Peter 2:4, Revelation 22:17, and cf. Hebrews 7:25). But all the NT is Christocentric, and implies a call to men to come to Christ. ‘In none other is there salvation: for neither is there any other name under heaven that is given among men wherein we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12), sums up the whole teaching of NT history and letters. But there is a difference between the Gospels and the other books which it is important to notice, not a difference in essential truth, but in the point of view from which it is presented. In the Gospels, ‘Come unto me’ is the personal call of Christ as teacher and Lord. In the rest of the NT the call is to the crucified and ascended Christ. This is indeed anticipated in the Gospels (e.g. Matthew 20:28, John 12:32 et al.), but its full development before the death of Christ would have been premature, if not impossible. Immediately after the Crucifixion and Ascension, however, these two great historical facts are placed in the foreground of Apostolic preaching, e.g. in St. Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), in his remonstrance with the people after the healing of the lame man (ch. 3), in the declaration before the Council (Acts 5:29 ff.). They are the central truths of the Pauline and other letters: ‘We preach Christ crucified’ (1 Corinthians 1:23), ‘Far be it from me to glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Galatians 6:14), ‘He is able to save to the uttermost them that draw near to God through him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them’ (Hebrews 7:25, cf. Revelation 5:9 etc.). We must interpret the invitation and the claim in the light of the Cross and of the Throne.

Literature.—Westcott’s and Godet’s Commentaries on John’s Gospel; Expositor’s Greek Testament; Commentaries on the Gospels; Edersheim’s Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah; Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible, artt. ‘Jesus Christ’ (Sanday) and ‘Kingdom of God’ (Orr); Denney’s Studies in Theology; Drummond’s Relation of Apostolic Teaching to the Teaching of Christ; Hort’s The Way, The Truth, and The Life; Stevens’ Theol. of the NT; Wendt’s Teaching of Jesus; Beyschlag’s NT Theology.

Charles S. Macalpine.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Coming to Christ'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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Saturday, February 16th, 2019
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