'With open love, not secret cure, The Lord of hearts would bless.'
And thus is laid the foundation for a personal bond between her and Christ, which shall be for the joy of her life, and shall make of that life a thankful sacrifice to Him, the Healer.
Thus it is with us all. We may go to Him, at first, with no thought but for ourselves. But we have not to carry away His gift hidden in our hands. We learn that it is a love-token from Him. And so we find in His answer to faith the true and only cure for all self-regard; and moved by the mercies of Christ, are led to do what else were impossible—to yield ourselves as 'living sacrifices' to Him.
Again, she had shrunk from publicity. Her womanly diffidence, her enfeebled health, the shame of her disease, all made her wish to hide herself and her want from His eye, and to hide herself and her treasure from men. She would fain steal away unnoticed, as she hoped she had come. But she is dragged out before all the thronging multitude, and has to tell the whole. The answer to her faith makes her bold. In a moment she is changed from timidity to courage; a tremulous invalid ready to creep into any corner to escape notice, she stretched out her hand—the instant after, she knelt at His feet in the spirit of a confessor. This is Christ's most merciful fashion of curing our cowardice—not by rebukes, but by giving us, faint-hearted though we be, the gift which out of weakness makes us strong. He would have us testify to Him before men, and that for our own sakes, since faith unacknowledged, like a plant in the dark, is apt to become pale and sickly, and bear no bright blossoms nor sweet fruit. But, ere He bids us own His name, He pours into our hearts, in answer to our secret appeal, the health of His own life, and the blissful consciousness of that great gift which makes the tongue of the dumb sing. Faith at first may be very timid, but faith will grow bold to witness of Him and not be ashamed, in the exact proportion in which it is genuine, and receives from Christ of His fulness.
And then—with a final word to set forth still more clearly that she had received the blessing from His love, not from His magical power, and through her confidence, not through her touch—'Daughter! thy faith'—not thy finger—'hath made thee whole; go in peace and be whole'—Jesus confirms by His own authoritative voice the furtive blessing, and sends her away, perhaps to see Him no more, but to live in tranquil security, and in her humble home to guard the gift which He had bestowed on her imperfect faith, and to perfect—we may hope—the faith which He had enlightened and strengthened by the over-abundance of His gift.
Dear friends, this poor woman represents us all. Like her, we are sick of a sore sickness, we have spent our substance in trying physicians of no value, and are 'nothing the better, but rather the worse.' Oh! is it not strange that you should need to be urged to go to the Healer to whom she went? Do not be afraid, my brother, of telling Him all your pain and pining—He knows it already. Do not be afraid that your hand may not reach Him for the crowd, or that your voice may fail to fall on His ear. Do not be afraid of your ignorance, do not be afraid of your wavering confidence and many doubts. All these cannot separate you from Him who 'Himself took our infirmities and bare our sicknesses.' Fear but one thing—that He pass on to carry life and health to other souls, ere you resolve to press to His feet. Fear but one thing—that whilst you delay, the hem of the garment may be swept beyond the reach of your slow hand. Imperfect faith may bring salvation to a soul: hesitation may ruin and wreck a life.
TOUCH OR FAITH?
'If I may touch but His clothes, I shall be whole.... Daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole.'—Mark v. 28,34.
I. The erroneous faith.—In general terms there is here an illustration of how intellectual error may coexist with sincere faith. The precise form of error is clearly that she looked on the physical contact with the material garment as the vehicle of healing—the very same thing which we find ever since running through the whole history of the Church, e.g. the exaltation of externals, rites, ordinances, sacraments, etc.
Take two or three phases of it—
1. You get it formularised into a system in sacramentarianism.
(a) Baptismal regeneration,
(b) Holy Communion.
Religion becomes largely a thing of rites and ceremonies.
2. You get it in Protestant form among Dissenters in the importance attached to Church membership.
Outward acts of worship.
There is abroad a vague idea that somehow we get good from external association with religious acts, and so on. This feeling is deep in human nature, is not confined to the Roman Catholic Church, and is not the work of priests. There is a strange revival of it to-day, and so there is need of protest against it in every form.
II. The blessing that comes to an erroneous faith.—The woman here was too 'ritualistic.' How many good people there are in that same school to-day! Yet how blessed for us all, that, even along with many errors, if we grasp Him we shall not lose the grace.
III. Christ's gentle enlightenment on the error.—'Thy faith hath saved thee.' How wonderfully beautiful! He cures by giving the blessing and leading on to the full truth. In regard to the woman, it might have been that her touch did heal; but even there in the physical realm, since it was He, not His robe, that healed, it was her faith, not her hand, that procured the blessing. This is universally true in the spiritual realm.
(a) Salvation is purely spiritual and inward in its nature—not an outward work, but a new nature, 'love, joy, peace.' Hence
(b) Faith is the condition of salvation. Faith saves because He saves, and faith is contact with Him. It is the only thing which joins a soul to Christ. Then learn what makes a Christian.
(c) Hence, the place of externals is purely subsidiary to faith. If they help a man to believe and feel more strongly, they are good. Their only office is the same as that of preaching or reading. In both, truth is the agent. Their power is in enforcing truth.
THE LOOKS OF JESUS
'And He looked round about to see her that had done this thing.'—Mark v. 32.
This Gospel of Mark is full of little touches that speak an eye-witness who had the gift of noting and reproducing vividly small details which make a scene live before us. Sometimes it is a word of description: 'There was much grass in the place.' Sometimes it is a note of Christ's demeanour: 'Looking up to heaven, He sighed.' Sometimes it is the very Aramaic words He spoke: 'Ephphatha.' Very often the Evangelist tells us of our Lord's looks, the gleams of pity and melting tenderness, the grave rebukes, the lofty authority that shone in them. We may well believe that on earth as in heaven, 'His eyes were as a flame of fire,' burning with clear light of knowledge and pure flame of love. These looks had pierced the soul, and lived for ever in the memory, of the eye-witness, whoever he was, who was the informant of Mark. Probably the old tradition is right, and it is Peter's loving quickness of observation that we have to thank for these precious minutiae. But be that as it may, the records in this Gospel of the looks of Christ are very remarkable. My present purpose is to gather them together, and by their help to think of Him whose meek, patient 'eye' is 'still upon them that fear Him,' beholding our needs and our sins.
Taking the instances in the order of their occurrence, they are these—'He looked round on the Pharisees with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts' (iii. 5). He looked on His disciples and said, 'Behold My mother and My brethren!' (iii. 32). He looked round about to see who had touched the hem of His garment (v. 32). He turned and looked on His disciples before rebuking Peter (viii. 33), He looked lovingly on the young questioner, asking what he should do to obtain eternal life (x. 21), and in the same context, He looked round about to His disciples after the youth had gone away sorrowful, and enforced the solemn lesson of His lips with the light of His eye (x. 23, 27). Lastly, He looked round about on all things in the temple on the day of His triumphal entry into Jerusalem (xi. 11). These are the instances in this Gospel. One look of Christ's is not mentioned in it, which we might have expected—namely, that which sent Peter out from the judgment hall to break into a passion of penitent tears. Perhaps the remembrance was too sacred to be told—at all events, the Evangelist who gives us so many similar notes is silent about that look, and we have to learn of it from another.
We may throw these instances into groups according to their objects, and so bring out the many-sided impression which they produce.
I. The welcoming look of love and pity to those who seek Him.
Two of the recorded instances fall into their place here. The one is this of our text, of the woman who came behind Christ to touch His robe, and be healed: the other is that of the young ruler.
Take that first instance of the woman, wasted with disease, timid with the timidity of her sex, of her long sickness, of her many disappointments. She steals through the crowd that rudely presses on this miracle-working Rabbi, and manages somehow to stretch out a wasted arm through some gap in the barrier of people about Him, and with her pallid, trembling finger to touch the edge of His robe. The cure comes at once. It was all that she wanted, but not all that He would give her. Therefore He turns and lets His eye fall upon her. That draws her to Him. It told her that she had not been too bold. It told her that she had not surreptitiously stolen healing, but that He had knowingly given it, and that His loving pity went with it. So it confirmed the gift, and, what was far more, it revealed the Giver. She had thought to bear away a secret boon unknown to all but herself. She gets instead an open blessing, with the Giver's heart in it.
The look that rested on her, like sunshine on some plant that had long pined and grown blanched in the shade, revealed Christ's knowledge, sympathy, and loving power. And in all these respects it is a revelation of the Christ for all time, and for every seeking timid soul in all the crowd. Can my poor feeble hand find a cranny anywhere through which it may reach the robe? What am I, in all this great universe blazing with stars, and crowded with creatures who hang on Him, that I should be able to secure personal contact with Him? The multitude—innumerable companies from every corner of space—press upon Him and throng Him, and I—out here on the verge of the crowd-how can I get at Him?—how can my little thin cry live and be distinguishable amid that mighty storm of praise that thunders round His throne? We may silence all such hesitancies of faith, for He who knew the difference between the light touch of the hand that sought healing, and the jostling of the curious crowd, bends on us the same eye, a God's in its perfect knowledge, a man's in the dewy sympathy which shines in it. However imperfect may be our thoughts of His blessing, their incompleteness will not hinder our reception of His gift in the measure of our faith, and the very bestowment will teach us worthier conceptions of Him, and hearten us for bolder approaches to His grace. He still looks on trembling suppliants, though they may know their own sickness much better than they understand Him, and still His look draws us to His feet by its omniscience, pity, and assurance of help.
The other case is very different. Instead of the invalid woman, we see a young man in the full flush of his strength, rich, needing no material blessing. Pure in life, and righteous according to even a high standard of morality, he yet feels that he needs something. Having real and strong desires after 'eternal life,' he comes to Christ to try whether this new Teacher could say anything that would help him to the assured inward peace and spontaneous goodness for which he longed, and had not found in all the round of punctilious obedience to unloved commandments. As he kneels there before Jesus, in his eager haste, with sincere and high aspirations stamped on his young ingenuous face, Christ's eyes turn on him, and that wonderful word stands written, 'Jesus, beholding him, loved him.'
He reads him through and through, knowing all the imperfection of his desires after goodness and eternal life, and yet loving him with more than a brother's love. His sympathy does not blind Jesus to the limitations and shallowness of the young man's aspirations, but His clear knowledge of these does not harden the gaze into indifference, nor check the springing tenderness in the Saviour's heart. And the Master's words, though they might sound cold, and did embody a hard requirement, are beautifully represented in the story as the expression of that love. He cared for the youth too much to deceive him with smooth things. The truest kindness was to put all his eagerness to the test at once. If he accepted the conditions, the look told him what a welcome awaited him. If he started aside from them, it was best for him to find out that there were things which he loved more than eternal life. So with a gracious invitation shining in His look, Christ places the course of self-denial before him; and when he went away sorrowful, he left behind One more sorrowful than himself. We can reverently imagine with what a look Christ watched his retreating figure; and we may hope that, though he went away then, the memory of that glance of love, and of those kind, faithful words, sooner or later drew him back to his Saviour.
Is not all this too an everlasting revelation of our Lord's attitude? We may be sure that He looks on many a heart—on many a young heart—glowing with noble wishes and half-understood longings, and that His love reaches every one who, groping for the light, asks Him what to do to inherit eternal life. His great charity 'hopeth all things,' and does not turn away from longings because they are too weak to lift the soul above all the weights of sense and the world. Rather He would deepen them and strengthen them, and His eternal requirements addressed to feeble wills are not meant to 'quench the smoking flax,' but to kindle it to decisive consecration and self-surrender. The loving look interprets the severe words. If once we meet it full, and our hearts yield to the heart that is seen in it, the cords that bind us snap, and it is no more hard to 'count all things but loss,' and to give up ourselves, that we may follow Him. The sad and feeble and weary who may be half despairingly seeking for alleviation of outward ills, and the young and strong and ardent whose souls are fed with high desires, have but little comprehension of one another, but Christ knows them both, and loves them both, and would draw them both to Himself.
II. The Lord's looks of love and warning to those who have found Him.
There are three instances of this class. The first is when He looked round on His disciples and said, 'Behold My mother and My brethren!' (iii. 34). Perhaps no moment in all Christ's life had more of humiliation in it than that. There could be no deeper degradation than that His own family should believe Him insane. Not His brethren only, but His mother herself seems to have been shaken from her attitude of meek obedience so wonderfully expressed in her two recorded sayings, 'Be it unto me according to Thy word,' and 'Whatsoever He saith unto you, do it.' She too appears to be in the shameful conspiracy, and to have consented that her name should be used as a lure in the wily message meant to separate Him from His friends, that He might be seized and carried off as a madman. What depth of tenderness was in that slow circuit of His gaze upon the humble loving followers grouped round Him! It spoke the fullest trustfulness of them, and His rest in their sympathy, partial though it was. It went before His speech, like the flash before the report, and looked what in a moment He said, 'Behold My mother and My brethren!' It owned spiritual affinities as more real than family bonds, and proved that He required no more of us than He was willing to do Himself when He bid us 'forsake father and mother, and wife and children' for Him. We follow Him when we tread that road, hard though it be. In Him every mother may behold her son, in Him we may find more than the reality of every sweet family relationship. That same love, which identified Him with those half-enlightened followers here, still binds Him to us, and He looks down on us from amid the glory, and owns us for His true kindred.
That look of unutterable love is strangely contrasted with the next instance. We read (viii. 32) that Peter 'took Him'—apart a little way, I suppose—'and began to rebuke Him.' He turns away from the rash Apostle, will say no word to him alone, but summons the others by a glance, and then, having made sure that all were within hearing, He solemnly rebukes Peter with the sharpest words that ever fell from His lips. That look calls them to listen, not that they may be witnesses of Peter's chastisement, but because the severe words concern them all. It bids them search themselves as they hear. They too may be 'Satans.' They too may shrink from the cross, and 'mind the things that be of men.'
We may take the remaining instance along with this. It occurs immediately after the story of the young seeker, to which we have already referred. Twice within five verses (x. 23-27) we read that He 'looked on His disciples,' before He spoke the grave lessons and warnings arising from the incident. A sad gaze that would be!—full of regret and touched with warning. We may well believe that it added weight to the lesson He would teach, that surrender of all things was needed for discipleship. We see that it had been burned into the memory of one of the little group, who told long years after how He had looked upon them so solemnly, as seeming to read their hearts while He spoke. Not more searching was the light of the eyes which John in Patmos saw, 'as a flame of fire.' Still He looks on His disciples, and sees our inward hankerings after the things of men. All our shrinkings from the cross and cleaving to the world are known to Him. He comes to each of us with that sevenfold proclamation, 'I know thy works,' and from His loving lips falls on our ears the warning, emphasised by that sad, earnest gaze, 'How hard is it for them that have riches to enter into the Kingdom of God!' But, blessed be His name, the stooping love which claims us for His brethren shines in His regard none the less tenderly, though He reads and warns us with His eye. So, we can venture to spread all our evil before Him, and ask that He would look on it, knowing that, as the sun bleaches cloth laid in its beams, He will purge away the evil which He sees, if only we let the light of His face shine full upon us.
III. The Lord's look of anger and pity on His opponents.
That instance occurs in the account of the healing of a man with a withered arm, which took place in the synagogue of Capernaum (iii. 1-5). In the vivid narrative, we can see the scribes and Pharisees, who had already questioned Him with insolent airs of authority about His breach of the Rabbinical Sabbatic rules, sitting in the synagogue, with their gleaming eyes 'watching Him' with hostile purpose. They hope that He will heal on the Sabbath day. Possibly they had even brought the powerless-handed man there, on the calculation that Christ could not refrain from helping him when He saw his condition. They are ready to traffic in human misery if only they can catch Him in a breach of law. The fact of a miracle if nothing. Pity for the poor man is not in them. They have neither reverence for the power of the miracle-worker, nor sympathy with His tenderness of heart. The only thing for which they have eyes is the breach of the complicated web of restrictions which they had spun across the Sabbath day. What a strange, awful power the pedantry of religious forms has of blinding the vision and hardening the heart as to the substance and spirit of religion! That Christ should heal neither made them glad nor believing, but that He should heal on the Sabbath day roused them to a deadly hatred. So there they sit, on the stretch of expectation, silently watching. He bids the man stand forth—a movement, and there the cripple stands alone in the midst of the seated congregation. Then comes the unanswerable question which cut so deep, and struck their consciences so hard that they could answer nothing, only sit and scowl at Him with a murderous light gleaming in their eyes. He fronts them with a steady gaze that travels over the whole group, and that showed to at least one who was present an unforgettable mingling of displeasure and pity. 'He looked round about on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts.' In Christ's perfect nature, anger and pity could blend in wondrous union, like the crystal and fire in the abyss before the throne.
The soul that has not the capacity for anger at evil wants something of its due perfection, and goes 'halting' like Jacob after Peniel. In Christ's complete humanity, it could not but be present, but in pure and righteous form. His anger was no disorder of passion, or 'brief madness' that discomposed the even motion of His spirit, nor was there in it any desire for the hurt of its objects, but, on the contrary, it lay side by side with the sorrow of pity, which was intertwined with it like a golden thread. Both these two emotions are fitting to a pure manhood in the presence of evil. They heighten each other. The perfection of righteous anger is to be tempered by sympathy. The perfection of righteous pity for the evildoer is to be saved from immoral condoning of evil as if it were only calamity, by an infusion of some displeasure. We have to learn the lesson and take this look of Christ's as our pattern in our dealings with evildoers. Perhaps our day needs more especially to remember that a righteous severity and recoil of the whole nature from sin is part of a perfect Christian character. We are so accustomed to pity transgressors, and to hear sins spoken of as if they were misfortunes mainly due to environment, or to inherited tendencies, that we are apt to forget the other truth, that they are the voluntary acts of a man who could have refrained if he had wished, and whose not having wished is worthy of blame. But we need to aim at just such a union of feeling as was revealed in that gaze of Christ's, and neither to let our wrath dry up our pity nor our pity put out the pure flame of our indignation at evil.
That look comes to us too with a message, when we are most conscious of the evil in our own hearts. Every man who has caught even a glimpse of Christ's great love, and has learned something of himself in the light thereof, must feel that wrath at evil sits ill on so sinful a judge as he feels himself to be. How can I fling stones at any poor creature when I am so full of sin myself? And how does that Lord look at me and all my wanderings from Him, my hardness of heart, my Pharisaism and deadness to His spiritual power and beauty? Can there be anything but displeasure in Him? The answer is not far to seek, but, familiar though it be, it often surprises a man anew with its sweetness, and meets recurring consciousness of unworthiness with a bright smile that scatters fears. In our deepest abasement we may take courage anew when we think of that wondrous blending of anger shot with pity.
IV. The look of the Lord on the profaned Temple.
On the day of Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem, apparently the Sunday before His crucifixion, we find (xi. 11) that He went direct to the Temple, and 'looked round about on all things.' The King has come to His palace, the Lord has 'suddenly come to His Temple.' How solemn that careful, all-comprehending scrutiny of all that He found there—the bustle of the crowds come up for the Passover, the trafficking and the fraud, the heartless worship! He seems to have gazed upon all, that evening in silence, and, as the shades of night began to fall, He went back to Bethany with the Twelve. To-morrow will be time enough for the 'whip of small cords,' for to-day enough to have come as Lord to the temple, and with intent, all-comprehending gaze to have traversed its courts. Apparently He passed through the crowds there unnoticed, and beheld all, while Himself unrecognised.
Is not that silent, unobserved Presence, with His keen searching eye that lights on all, a solemn parable of a perpetual truth? He 'walks amidst the seven golden candlesticks' to-day, as in the temple of Jerusalem, and in the vision of Patmos. His eyes like a flame of fire regard and scrutinise us too. 'I know thy works' is still upon His lips. Silent and by many unseen, that calm, clear-eyed, loving but judging Christ walks amongst His churches to-day. Alas! what does He see there? If He came in visible form into any congregation in England to-day, would He not find merchandise in the sanctuary, formalism and unreality standing to minister, and pretence and hypocrisy bowing in worship? How much of all our service could live in the light of His felt presence? And are we never going to stir ourselves up to a truer devotion and a purer service by remembering that He is here as really as He was in the Temple of old? Our drowsy prayers, and all our conventional repetitions of devout aspirations, not felt at the moment, but inherited from our fathers, our confessions which have no penitence, our praises without gratitude, our vows which we never mean to keep, and our creeds which in no operative fashion we believe—all the hollowness of profession with no reality below it, like a great cooled bubble on a lava stream, would crash in and go to powder if once we really believed what we so glibly say—that Jesus Christ was looking at us. He keeps silence to-day, but as surely as He knows us now, so surely will He come to-morrow with a whip of small cords and purge His Temple from hypocrisy and unreality, from traffic and thieves. All the churches need the sifting. Christ has done and suffered too much for the world, to let the power of His gospel be neutralised by the sins of His professing followers, and Christ loves the imperfect friends that cleave to Him, though their service be often stained, and their consecration always incomplete, too well to suffer sin upon them. Therefore He will come to purify His Temple. Well for us, if we thankfully yield ourselves to His merciful chastisements, howsoever they may fall upon us, and believe that in them all He looks on us with love, and wishes only to separate us from that which separates us from Him!
On us all that eye rests with all these emotions fused and blended in one gaze of love that passeth knowledge—a look of love and welcome whensoever we seek Him, either to help us in outward or inward blessings; a look of love and warning to us, owning us also for His brethren, and cautioning us lest we stray from His side; a look of love and displeasure at any sin that blinds us to His gracious beauty; a look of love and observance of our poor worship and spotted sacrifices.
Let us lay ourselves full in the sunshine of His gaze, and take for ours the old prayer, 'Search me, O Christ, and know my heart!' It is heaven on earth to feel His eye resting upon us, and know that it is love. It will be the heaven of heaven to see Him 'face to face,' and 'to know even as we are known.'
THE MASTER REJECTED: THE SERVANTS SENT FORTH
'And He went out from thence, and came into His own country; and His disciples follow Him. 2. And when the Sabbath day was come, He began to teach in the synagogue: and many hearing Him were astonished, saying, From whence hath this man these things? and what wisdom is this which is given unto Him, that even such mighty works are wrought by His hands? 3. Is not this the carpenter, the Son of Mary, the Brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon! and are not His sisters here with us? And they were offended at Him. 4. But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house. 6. And He could there do no mighty work, save that He laid His hands upon a few sick folk, and healed them. 6. And He marvelled because of their unbelief. And He went round about the villages, teaching. 7. And He called unto Him the twelve, and began to send them forth by two and two; and gave them power over unclean spirits; 8. And commanded them that they should take nothing for their journey, save a staff only; no scrip, no bread, no money in their purse: 9. But be shod with sandals; and not put on two coats. 10. And He said unto them, In what place soever ye enter into an house, there abide till ye depart from that place. 11. And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear you, when ye depart thence, shake off the dust under your feet for a testimony against them. Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city. 12. And they went out, and preached that men should repent. 13. And they cast out many devils, and anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them.'—Mark vi. 1-13.
An easy day's journey would carry Jesus and His followers from Capernaum, on the lake-side, to Nazareth, among the hills. What took our Lord back there? When last He taught in the synagogue of Nazareth, His life had been in danger; and now He thrusts Himself into the wolf's den. Why? Mark seems to wish us to observe the connection between this visit and the great group of miracles which he has just recorded; and possibly the link may be our Lord's hope that the report of these might have preceded Him and prepared His way. In His patient long-suffering He will give His fellow-villagers another chance; and His heart yearns for 'His own country,' and 'His own kin,' and 'His own house,' of which He speaks so pathetically in the context.
I. We have here unbelief born of familiarity, and its effects on Christ (verses 1-6). Observe the characteristic avoidance of display, and the regard for existing means of worship, shown in His waiting till the Sabbath, and then resorting to the synagogue. He and His hearers would both remember His last appearance in it; and He and they would both remember many a time before that, when, as a youth, He had sat there. The rage which had exploded on His first sermon has given place to calmer, but not less bitter, opposition. Mark paints the scene, and represents the hearers as discussing Jesus while He spoke. The decorous silence of the synagogue was broken by a hubbub of mutual questions. 'Many' spoke at once, and all had the same thing to say. The state of mind revealed is curious. They own Christ's wisdom in His teaching, and the reality of His miracles, of which they had evidently heard; but the fact that He was one of themselves made them angry that He should have such gifts, and suspicious of where He had got them. They seem to have had the same opinion as Nathanael—that no 'good thing' could 'come out of Nazareth.' Their old companion could not be a prophet; that was certain. But He had wisdom and miraculous power; that was as certain. Where had they come from? There was only one other source; and so, with many headshakings, they were preparing to believe that the Jesus whom they had all known, living His quiet life of labour among them, was in league with the devil, rather than believe that He was a messenger from God.
We note in their questions, first, the glimpse of our Lord's early life. They bring before us the quiet, undistinguished home and the long years of monotonous labour. We owe to Mark alone the notice that Jesus actually wrought at Joseph's handicraft. Apparently the latter was dead, and, if so, Jesus would be the head of the house, and probably the 'breadwinner.' One of the fathers preserves the tradition that He 'made plows and yokes, by which He taught the symbols of righteousness and an active life.' That good father seems to think it needful to find symbolical meanings, in order to save Christ's dignity; but the prose fact that He toiled at the carpenter's bench, and handled hammer and saw, needs nothing to heighten its value as a sign of His true participation in man's lot, and as the hallowing of manual toil. How many weary arms have grasped their tools with new vigour and contentment when they thought of Him as their Pattern in their narrow toils!
The Nazarenes' difficulty was but one case of a universal tendency. Nobody finds it easy to believe that some village child, who has grown up beside him, and whose undistinguished outside life he knows, has turned out a genius or a great man. The last people to recognise a prophet are always his kindred and his countrymen. 'Far-away birds have fine feathers.' Men resent it as a kind of slight on themselves that the other, who was one of them but yesterday, should be so far above them to-day. They are mostly too blind to look below the surface, and they conclude that, because they saw so much of the external life, they knew the man that lived it. The elders of Nazareth had seen Jesus grow up, and to them He would be 'the carpenter's son' still. The more important people had known the humbleness of His home, and could not adjust themselves to look up to Him, instead of down. His equals in age would find their boyish remembrances too strong for accepting Him as a prophet. All of them did just what the most of us would have done, when they took it for certain that the Man whom they had known so well, as they fancied, could not be a prophet, to say nothing of the Messiah so long looked for. It is easy to blame them; but it is better to learn the warning in their words, and to take care that we are not blind to some true messenger of God just because we have been blessed with close companionship with him. Many a household has had to wait for death to take away the prophet before they discern him. Some of us entertain 'angels unawares,' and have bitterly to feel, when too late, that our eyes were holden that we should not know them.
These questions bring out strongly what we too often forget in estimating Christ's contemporaries—namely, that His presence among them, in the simplicity of His human life, was a positive hindrance to their seeing His true character. We sometimes wish that we had seen Him, and heard His voice. We should have found it more difficult to believe in Him if we had. 'His flesh' was a 'veil' in other sense than the Epistle to the Hebrews means; for, by reason of men's difficulty in piercing beneath it, it hid from many what it was meant and fitted to reveal. Only eyes purged beheld the glory of 'the Word' become flesh when it 'dwelt among us'—and even they saw Him more clearly when they saw Him no more. Let us not be too hard on these simple Nazarenes, but recognise our kith and kin.
The facts on which the Nazarenes grounded their unbelief are really irrefragable proof of Christ's divinity. Whence had this man His wisdom and mighty works? Born in that humble home, reared in that secluded village, shut out from the world's culture, buried, as it were, among an exclusive and abhorred people, how came He to tower above all teachers, and to sway the world? 'With whom took He counsel? and who instructed Him, and taught Him?' The character and work of Christ, compared with the circumstances of His origin and environment, are an insoluble riddle, except on one supposition—that He was the word and power of God.
The effects of this unbelief on our Lord were twofold. It limited His power. Matthew says that 'He did not many mighty works.' Mark goes deeper, and boldly days 'He could not.' It is mistaken jealousy for Christ's honour to seek to pare down the strong words. The atmosphere of chill unbelief froze the stream. The power was there, but it required for its exercise some measure of moral susceptibility. His miraculous energy followed, in general, the same law as His higher exercise of saving grace does; that is to say, it could not force itself upon unwilling men. Christ 'cannot' save a man who does not trust Him. He was hampered in the outflow of His healing power by unsympathetic disparagement and unbelief. Man can thwart God. Faith opens the door, and unbelief shuts it in His face. He 'would have gathered,' but they 'would not,' and therefore He 'could not.'
The second effect of unbelief on Him was that He 'marvelled.' He is twice recorded to have wondered—once at a Gentile's faith, once at His townsmen's unbelief. He wondered at the first because it showed so unusual a susceptibility; at the second, because it showed so unreasonable a blindness. All sin is a wonder to eyes that see into the realities of things and read the end; for it is all utterly unreasonable (though it is, alas! not unaccountable) and suicidal. 'Be astonished, O ye heavens, at this.' Unbelief in Christ is, by Himself, declared to be the very climax of sin, and its most flagrant evidence (John xvi. 9); and of all the instances of unbelief which saddened His heart, none struck more chill than that of these Nazarenes. They had known His pure youth; He might have reckoned on some touch of sympathy and predisposition to welcome Him. His wonder is the measure of His pain as well as of their sin.
Nor need we wonder that He wondered; for He was true man, and all human emotions were His. To one who lives ever in the Father's bosom, what can seem so strange as that men should prefer homeless exposedness and dreary loneliness? To one whose eyes ever behold unseen realities, what so marvellous as men's blindness? To one who knew so assuredly His own mission and rich freightage of blessing, how strange it must have been that He found so few to accept His gifts! Jesus knew that bitter wonder which all men who have a truth to proclaim which the world has not learned, have to experience—the amazement at finding it so hard to get any others to see what they see. In His manhood, He shared the fate of all teachers, who have, in their turn, to marvel at men's unbelief.
II. The new instrument which Christ fashions to cope with unbelief. What does Jesus do when thus 'wounded in the house of His friends'? Give way to despondency? No; but meekly betake Himself to yet obscurer fields of service, and send out the Twelve to prepare His way, as if He thought that they might have success where He would fail. What a lesson for people who are always hankering after conspicuous 'spheres,' and lamenting that their gifts are wasted in some obscure corner, is that picture of Jesus, repulsed from Nazareth, patiently turning to the villages! The very summary account of the trial mission of the Twelve here given presents only the salient points of the charge to them, and in its condensation makes these the more emphatic. Note the interesting statement that they were sent out two-and-two. The other Evangelists do not tell us this, but their lists of the Apostles are arranged in pairs. Mark's list is not so arranged, but he supplies the reason for the arrangement, which he does not follow; and the other Gospels, by their arrangement, confirm his statement, which they do not give. Two-and-two is a wise rule for all Christian workers. It checks individual peculiarities of self-will, helps to keep off faults, wholesomely stimulates, strengthens faith by giving another to hear it and to speak it, brings companionship, and admits of division of labour. One-and-one are more than twice one.
The first point is the gift of power. Unclean spirits are specified, but the subsequent verses show that miracle-working power in its other forms was included. We may call that Christ's greatest miracle. That He could, by His mere will, endow a dozen men with such power, is more, if degree come into view at all, than that He Himself should exercise it. But there is a lesson in the fact for all ages—even those in which miracles have ceased. Christ gives before He commands, and sends no man into the field without filling his basket with seed-corn. His gifts assimilate the receiver to Himself, and only in the measure in which His servants possess power which is like His own, and drawn from Him, can they proclaim His coming, or prepare hearts for it. The second step is their equipment. The special commands here given were repealed by Jesus when He gave His last commands. In their letter they apply only to that one journey, but in their spirit they are of universal and permanent obligation. The Twelve were to travel light. They might carry a staff to help them along, and wear sandals to save their feet on rough roads; but that was to be all. Food, luggage, and money, the three requisites of a traveller, were to be 'conspicuous by their absence.' That was repealed afterwards, and instructions given of an opposite character, because, after His ascension, the Church was to live more and more by ordinary means; but in this journey they were to learn to trust Him without means, that afterwards they might trust Him in the means. He showed them the purpose of these restrictions in the act of abrogating them. 'When I sent you forth without purse ... lacked ye anything?' But the spirit remains unabrogated, and the minimum of outward provision is likeliest to call out the maximum of faith. We are more in danger from having too much baggage than from having too little. And the one indispensable requirement is that, whatever the quantity, it should hinder neither our march nor our trust in Him who alone is wealth and food.
Next comes the disposition of the messengers. It is not to be self-indulgent. They are not to change quarters for the sake of greater comfort. They have not gone out to make a pleasure tour, but to preach, and so are to stay where they are welcomed, and to make the best of it. Delicate regard for kindly hospitality, if offered by ever so poor a house, and scrupulous abstinence from whatever might suggest interested motives, must mark the true servant. That rule is not out of date. If ever a herald of Christ falls under suspicion of caring more about life's comforts than about his work, good-bye to his usefulness! If ever he does so care, whether he be suspected of it or no, spiritual power will ebb from him.
The next step is the messengers' demeanour to the rejecters of their message. Shaking the dust off the sandals is an emblem of solemn renunciation of participation, and perhaps of disclaimer of responsibility. It meant certainly, 'We have no more to do with you,' and possibly, 'Your blood be on your own heads.' This journey of the Twelve was meant to be of short duration, and to cover much ground, and therefore no time was to be spent unnecessarily. Their message was brief, and as well told quickly as slowly. The whole conditions of work now are different. Sometimes, perhaps, a Christian is warranted in solemnly declaring to those who receive not his message, that he will have no more to say to them. That may do more than all his other words. But such cases are rare; and the rule that it is safest to follow is rather that of love which despairs of none, and, though often repelled, returns with pleading, and, if it have told often in vain, now tells with tears, the story of the love that never abandons the most obstinate.
Such were the prominent points of this first Christian mission. They who carry Christ's banner in the world must be possessed of power, His gift, must be lightly weighted, must care less for comfort than for service, must solemnly warn of the consequences of rejecting the message; and so they will not fail to cast out devils, and to heal many that are sick.
'And He could there do no mighty work, save that He laid His hands upon a few sick folk, and healed them. And He marvelled because of their unbelief.'—Mark vi. 5,6.
It is possible to live too near a man to see him. Familiarity with the small details blinds most people to the essential greatness of any life. So these fellow-villagers of Jesus in Nazareth knew Him too well to know Him rightly as they talked Him over; they recognised His wisdom and His mighty works; but all the impression that these would have made was neutralised by their acquaintance with His former life, and they said, 'Why, we have known Him ever since He was a boy. We used to take our ploughs and yokes to Him to mend in the carpenter's shop. His brothers and sisters are here with us. Where did He get His wisdom?' So they said; and so it has been ever since. 'A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country.'
Surrounded thus by unsympathetic carpers, Jesus Christ did not exercise His full miraculous power. Other Evangelists tell us of these limitations, but Mark is alone in the strength of his expression. The others say 'did no mighty works'; Mark says 'could do no mighty works.' Startling as the expression is, it is not to be weakened down because it is startling, and if it does not fit in with your conceptions of Christ's nature, so much the worse for the conceptions. Matthew states the reason for this limitation more directly than Mark does, for he says, 'He did no mighty works because of their unbelief.' But Mark suggests the reason clearly enough in his next clause, when he says: 'He marvelled because of their unbelief.' There is another limitation of Christ's nature, He wondered as at an astonishing and unexpected thing, We read that He 'marvelled' twice: once at great faith, once at great unbelief. The centurion's faith was marvellous; the Nazarenes' unbelief was as marvellous. The 'wild grapes' bore clusters more precious than the tended 'vines' in the 'vineyard.' Faith and unbelief do not depend upon opportunity, but upon the bent of the will and the sense of need.
But I have chosen these words now because they put in its strongest shape a truth of large importance, and of manifold applications—viz., that man's unbelief hampers and hinders Christ's power. Now let me apply that principle in two or three directions.
I. Let us look at this principle in connection with the case before us in the text.
You will find that, as a rule and in the general, our Lord's miracles require faith, either on the part of the persons helped, or on the part of those who interceded for them. But whilst that is the rule there are distinct exceptions, as for instance, in the case of the feeding of the thousands, and in the case of the raising of the widow's son of Nain, as well as in other examples. And here we find that, though the prevalent unbelief hindered the flow of our Lord's miraculous power, it did not so hinder it as to stop some little trickle of the stream. 'He laid His hands on a few sick folk, and healed them.' The brook was shrunken as compared with the abundance of the flood recorded in the previous chapter.
Now, why was that? There is no such natural connection between faith and the working of a miracle as that the latter is only possible in conjunction with the former. And the exceptions show us that Jesus Christ was not so limited as that men's unbelief could wholly prevent the flow of His love and His power. But still there was a restriction. And what sort of a 'could not' was it that thus hampered Him in His work? We know far too little about the conditions of miracle-working to entitle us to dogmatise on such a matter, but I suppose that we may venture to say this, that the working of the miracles was 'impossible' in the absence of faith and the presence of its opposite, regard being had to the purposes of the miracle and of Christ's whole work. It was not congruous, it was not morally possible, that He should force His benefits upon unwilling recipients.
Now, I need not do more than just in a sentence call attention to the bearing of this fact upon the true notion of the purpose of Christ's miraculous works. A superficial, and, as I think, very vulgar, estimate, says that Christ's miracles were chiefly designed to produce faith in Him and in His mission. If that had been their purpose, the very place for the most abundant exhibition of them would have been the place where unbelief was most pronounced. The atmosphere of non-receptiveness and non-sympathy would have been the very one that ought to have evoked them most. Where the darkness was the deepest, there should the torch have flared. Where the stupor was most complete, there should the rousing shock have been administered. But the very opposite is the case. Where faith is present already, the miracle comes. Where faith is absent, miracles fail. Therefore, though a subsidiary purpose of our Lord's miracles was, no doubt, to evoke faith in His mission, their chief purpose is not to be found in that direction. It was a condescension to men's weakness and obstinacy when He said, 'If ye believe not Me, believe the works.' But the works were signs, symbols, manifestations on the lower material platform of what lie would be and do for men in the higher, and they were the outcome of His own loving heart and ever-flowing compassion, and only secondarily were they taken, and have they ever been taken, when Christian faith has been robust and intelligent, as being evidences of His Messiahship and Divinity.
But there is another consideration that I would like to suggest in reference to this limitation of our Lord's power, by reason of the prevalence of an atmosphere of unbelief, and that is that it is a pathetic proof of His manhood's being influenced by all the emotions and circumstances that influence us. We all know how hearts expand in the warm atmosphere of affection and sympathy, and shut themselves up like tender flowerets when the cold east wind blows. And just as a great orator subtly feels the sympathy of his audience, and is buoyed up by it to higher flights, while in the presence of cold and indifferent and critical hearers his tongue stammers, and he falls beneath himself, so we may reverently say Jesus Christ could not put forth His mightiest and most abundant miraculous powers when the cold wind of unbelieving criticism blew in His face.
If that is true, what a glimpse it gives us of the conditions of His earthly life, and how wonderful it makes that love which, though it was hampered, was never stifled by the presence of scorn and malice and of hatred. He is our Brother, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh; and even when the divinity within was in possession of the power of working the miracle, the humanity in which it dwelt felt the presence of the cold frost and closed its petals. 'He could do no mighty works,' and it was 'because of their unbelief.'
II. But now, secondly, let us apply this principle in regard to Christ's working on ourselves.
I have said that there was no such natural connection between faith and miracle as that miracle was absolutely impossible in the absence of faith. But when we lift the thought into the higher region of our religious and spiritual life, we do come across an absolute impossibility. There, in regard to all that appertains to the inward life of a soul, Christ can do no mighty works, in the absence of our faith. By faith, I mean, of course, not the mere intellectual reception of the Christian narratives or of the Christian doctrines as true, but I mean what the Bible means by it always, a process subsequent to that intellectual reception—viz., the motion of the will and of the heart towards Christ. Faith is belief, but belief is not faith. Faith is belief plus trust. And it is that which is the condition of all Christ's gifts being received by any of us.
Now, a great many people seem to think that what Jesus Christ brings to the world, and offers to each of us, is simply the escape from the penal consequences of our past transgressions. If you conceive salvation to be nothing else than shutting the doors of an outward hell, and opening the doors of an outward Heaven, I can quite understand why you should boggle at the thought that faith is a condition of these. For if salvation is such a material, external, and forensic matter as that, then I do not see why God should not have given it to everybody, without any conditions at all. But if you will understand rightly what Christ's gifts are, you will see that they cannot be bestowed upon men irrespective of the condition of their wills, desires, and hearts.
For what is salvation? What are the blessings that Jesus Christ bestows? A new life, a new love, new desires, a new direction of the whole being, a new spirit within us. These are the gifts; and how can these be given to a man if he has not trust in the Giver? Salvation is at bottom that a man's will shall be harmonised with the will of God. But if a man has not faith, his will is discordant with the will of God, and how can it be harmonised and discordant at the same time? What are the powers by which Christ works upon men's hearts? His truth, His love, His Spirit. How can a truth operate if it is not believed? How can love bless and cherish if it is not trusted? How can the Spirit hallow and cleanse if it is not yielded to? The condition is inherent in the nature of God the Giver, of man the receiver, and of the gifts bestowed.
And so we understand the metaphors that put that inevitable connection in various forms. Faith is 'a door.' How can you enter if the door be fast closed? He knocks; if any man opens He comes in. If a man does not open,
'He can but listen at the gate, And hear the household jar within.'
Faith is the connection between the fountain and the reservoir. If there be no such connection, how can the reservoir be filled? Faith is the hand with stretched-out empty palms, and widespread fingers for the reception of the gifts. How can the gifts be put into it if it hangs listless by the side, or in obstinately closed and pushed behind the back? He 'can do no mighty works' on an unbelieving soul.
Now, brethren, let me insist, in one sentence, on this solemn truth; God would save every man if He could, faith or no faith. But the condition which brings faith into connection with salvation as its necessary prerequisite is no arbitrary condition. The love of God cannot alter it. In the nature of things it must be so. 'He that believeth shall be saved; he that believeth not shall be condemned.' That is no result of an artificial scheme, but of the necessities of the case.
Again, let me remind you that the measure of our faith is the measure of our possession of these gifts. Our Lord more than once put the whole doctrine of this matter, in regard, however, to the lower plane of miracle, when He said, 'According to your faith be it unto you,' 'Open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it.' We have an inheritance like that of men who get a piece of land in some mining district: so much as we peg out and claim is ours, and no more.
Let me narrate a parable of my own making. There was once a king who told all his people that on a given day the fountain in the market-place in the centre of the city would flow with wine and other precious liquors, and that every man was free to bring his vessel and carry away as much as he would. The man that brought a tiny wineglass got a glassful; the man that brought a gallon pitcher got that full. The measure of your desires is the measure of your possessions of Christ's power. Our faith determines the amount of His cleansing, healing, vivifying energy which will reside in us. The width of the bore of the water-pipe that is laid down settles the amount of water that will come into your cistern. The water may be high outside the lock. If the lock-gate be kept fast closed, the height of the water outside produces no raising of the low level of that within, If you open a chink of the gate a trickle will pass through, and if you fling the gates wide the levels will be the same on both sides. The only limit of our possession of God is our faith and desire. The true limit is His own boundlessness. It is possible that a man may be 'filled with all the fulness of God; but the real working limit for each of us is our own faith. So, brethren, endless progress is possible for us, on condition of continual trust.
III. Lastly, let us apply this principle in regard to Christ's working through His people.
Jesus Christ cannot work mightily through a feebly believing Church. And here is the reason why Christianity has taken so long to do so little in this world of ours; and why nineteen centuries after the Cross and Pentecost there remaineth yet so much land to be possessed. 'Ye are not straitened in Me, ye are straitened in your own selves.' We hinder Christ from doing His work through us by reason of our own unbelief. The men that have done most for the Lord Jesus, and for their fellows in this world, have been of all sorts, of all conditions, of all grades of intellectual ability and acquirement; some of them scholars, some of them tinkers, some of them philosophers, some of them next door to fools. They have belonged to different communions and have held different ecclesiastical and theological dogmas, and sometimes, alas! they have not been able to discern each other's Christlike lineaments. But there is one thing in which they have all been alike, and that is that they have been men of faith, intense, operative, perpetual. And that is why they have succeeded. If we were what we might be, 'full of faith.' we should, as the Acts of the Apostles teaches us, by its collocation in the description of one of its characters, be 'full of the Holy Spirit and of power.'
Brethren, you hear a great deal to-day about new ways of Christian working, about the necessity of adapting the forms of setting forth Christ's truth to the spirit of the age, and new ideas. Adopt new methods if you like; methods are not sacred. Fashion new forms of presenting Christian truths if you please; our forms are only forms. But you may alter your methods and you may modify your dogmas as you like, and you will do nothing to move the world unless the Church is again baptized with the Divine Spirit, which will only be the case if the Church again puts forth a far mightier faith than it exercises to-day. If only we will trust Jesus Christ absolutely, and live near Him by our faith, His power will flow into us, and of us, too, it will be said, 'through faith they wrought righteousness ... subdued kingdoms ... waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens.' But if the low level of average Christian faith in all the churches is not elevated, then the attempts to conquer the world by half-believing Christians will meet with the old fate, and the man in whom the evil spirit was will leap upon them and overcome them, and say, 'Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are ye?' 'Why could we not cast him out?' And He answered and said unto them, 'Because of your unbelief.'
Brethren, we may starve in the midst of plenty, if we lock our lips. We can be like some obstinate black rock, washed over for ever by the Atlantic surges, and yet so close-grained that only the surface is moistened, and, an inch within, it is dry. 'Neither life, nor death, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, is able to separate you from the love and power of God which are in Christ Jesus our Lord,' But you can separate yourselves, and you do separate yourselves, by your unbelief. The all-sufficiency of Christ's redemption, and the yearning of His love to bless each of us individually, will be nothing to us if we lift up between Him and us the black barrier of unbelief, and so dam back the stream that was meant to give life to all the world and life to us. Christ infinitely desires to bless us, but He cannot unless we trust Him. I beseech you, do not let this be the epitaph on your tombstone:—'Christ could there do no mighty work because of his unbelief.'
HEROD—A STARTLED CONSCIENCE
'But when Herod heard thereof, he said, It is John, whom I beheaded: he is risen from the dead.'—Mark vi. 16.
The character of this Herod, surnamed Antipas, is a sufficiently common and a sufficiently despicable one. He was the very type of an Eastern despot, exactly like some of those half-independent Rajahs, whose dominions march with ours in India; capricious, crafty, as the epithet which Christ applied to him, 'That fox!' shows; cruel, as the story of the murder of John the Baptist proves; sensuous and lustful; and withal weak of fibre and infirm of purpose. He, Herodias, and John the Baptist make a triad singularly like the other triad in the Old Testament, of Ahab, Jezebel, and Elijah. In both cases we have the weak ruler, the beautiful she-devil at his side, inspiring him for all evil, and the stern prophet, the rebuker and the incarnate conscience for them both.
The words that I have read are the terrified exclamation of this weak and wicked man when he was brought in contact with the light and beauty of Jesus Christ. And if we think who it was that frightened him, and ponder the words in which his fear expressed itself, we get, as it seems to me, some lessons worth the drawing.
I. You have here the voice of a startled conscience.
Herod killed John without much sense of doing wrong. He was sorry, no doubt, for he had a kind of respect for the man, and he was reluctant to put him to death. But though there was reluctance, there was no hesitation. His fantastic sense of honour came in the way. In the one scale there was the life of a poor enthusiast who had amused him for a while, but of whom he had got tired. In the other scale there were his word, the pleasure of Herodias, and the applause of the half-drunken boon companions that were sitting with them at the table. So, of course, the prophet was slain, and the pale head brought in to that wild revel, and, except for the malignant gloating of the woman over her gratified revenge, the event, no doubt, very quickly passed from the memories of all concerned.
But then there came stealing into the silken seclusion of the palace, where he was wallowing in his sensuality like a hog in the sty, the tidings of another peasant Teacher that had risen up among the people. Christ's name had been ringing through the land, and been sounded with blessings in poor men's huts long before it got within the gates of Herod's palace. That is the place where religious earnestness makes its mark last of all. But it finally ran thither also; and light gossip went round concerning this new sensation. 'Who is He? Who is He?' Each man had his own theory about Him, but a sudden memory started up in the frivolous despot's soul, and it was with a trembling heart that he said to himself, 'I know! I know! It is John, whom I beheaded! He is risen from the dead!' His conscience and his memory and his fears all awoke.
Now, my friends, I pray you to lay that simple lesson to heart. We all of us do evil things with regard to which it is not hard for us to bribe or to silence our memories and our consciences. The hurry and bustle of daily life, the very weakness of our characters, the rush of sensuous delights, may make us blind and deaf to the voice of conscience; and we think that all chance of the evil deed rising again to harm us is past. But some trifle touches the hidden spring by mere accident; as in the old story of the man groping along a wall till his finger happens to fall upon one inch of it, and immediately the concealed door flies open, and there is the skeleton. So with us, some merely fortuitous association may freshen faded memories and wake a dormant conscience. An apparently trivial circumstance, like some hooked pole pushed at random into the sea, may bring up by the locks some pale and drowned memory long plunged in an ocean of oblivion. Here, in Herod's case, a report reaches him of a new Rabbi who bears but a very faint resemblance to John, and that is enough to bring his crime back in its naked atrocity.
My friends, we all have these hibernating serpents in our consciences, and nobody knows when the needful warmth may come that will wake them and make them lift their forked heads to sting. The whole landscape of my past life lies there behind the mists of apparent forgetfulness, and any light air of suggestion may sweep away the clouds and show it all. What have you laid up in these memories of yours to start into life some day: 'at the last biting like a serpent and stinging like an adder'? 'It is John! It is John, whom I beheaded!'
Take this other thought, how, as the story shows us, when once at the bidding of memory conscience begins to work, all illusions as to the nature of my action and as to my share in it are swept away.
When the evil deed was done, Herod scarcely felt as if he did it. There was his plighted troth, there was Herodias's pressure, there was the excitement of the moment. He seemed forced to do it, and scarcely responsible for doing it. And no doubt, if he ever thought about it afterwards, he shuffled off a large percentage of the responsibility of the guilt upon the shoulders of the others. But when,
'In the silent sessions of things past,'
the image and remembrance of the deed come up to him, all the helpers and tempters have disappeared, and 'It is John, whom I beheaded!' (There is emphasis in the Greek upon the 'I.') 'Yes, it was I. Herodias tempted me; Herodias' daughter titillated my lust; I fancied that my oath bound me; I could not help doing what would please those who sat at the table—I said all that before I did it. But now, when it is done, they have all disappeared, every one of them to his quarter; and I and the ugly thing are left together alone. It was I that did it, and nobody besides.'
The blackness of the crime, too, presents itself to the startled conscience as it did not in the doing. There are many euphemisms and soft words in which, as in cotton-wool, we wrap our evil deeds and so deceive ourselves as to their hardness and their edge; but when conscience gets hold of them, and they pass out of the realm of fact into the mystical region of remembrance, all the wrappings, and all the apologies, and all the soft phrases drop away; and the ugliest, briefest, plainest word is the one by which my conscience describes my own evil. 'I beheaded him! I, and none else, was the murderer.' Oh! dear brethren, do you see to it that what you store up in these caves and treasure-cellars of memory which we all carry with us, are deeds that will bear being brought out again and looked at in the pure white light of conscience, and which you will neither be ashamed nor afraid to lay your hand upon and say: 'It is mine; I planted and sowed and worked it, and I am ready to reap the fruit.' 'If thou be wise thou shalt be wise for thyself, if thou scornest thou alone shalt bear it.' Take care of the storehouses of memory and of conscience, and mind what kind of things you lay up there.
II. Now, once more, I take these words as setting before us an example of a conscience awakened to the unseen world.
Many commentators tell us that this Herod was a Sadducee; that is to say that theologically and theoretically he had given up the belief in a future state and in spiritual existence. I do not know that that can be sustained, but much more probably he was only a Sadducee in the way in which a great many of us are Sadducees: he never thought about these things, he did not think about them enough to know whether he believed in them or not. He was a practical, if not a theoretical Sadducee; that is to say, this present was his world, and as for the future, it did not come much into his mind. But now, notice that when conscience begins to stir, it at once sends his thoughts into that unseen world beyond.
There is a very close connection, as all history proves, between theoretical disbelief in a future life and in spiritual existence, and superstition. So strong is the bond which unites men with the unseen world, that if they do not link themselves with that world in the legitimate and true fashion, it is almost certain to avenge itself upon them by leading them to all manner of low and abject superstitions. Spiritualism is the disease of a generation that disbelieves in another life. The French Revolution, with its infidelities, was also the age of quacks and impostors such as Cagliostro and the like. The time when Christ lived presented precisely the same phenomena. If Herod was a Sadducee, Herod's Sadduceeism, like frost upon the window-panes, was such a thin layer shutting out the invisible world, that the least warmth of conscience melted it, and the clear daylight glared in upon him. And I am afraid that there are a great many of us who may be half-inclined to reject the belief in another life, who would find precisely the same thing happening to us.
But be that as it may, it seems to me that whenever a man comes to think very seriously about his conduct as being wrong in the sight of God, there at once starts up before him the thought of a future life and a judgment-bar. And I want to know why and how it is that the vigorous operation of conscience is always accompanied with a 'fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation.' I think it is worth your while to reflect upon the fact, and to try and ascertain for yourselves the reason of it, that whenever a man's conscience begins to tell him of his wrong, its message is not only of transgressions but of judgment, and that beyond the grave.
And, moreover, notice here how the startled conscience, when it becomes aware of an unseen world beyond the grave, cannot but think that out of that world there will come evil for it. These words of my text are obviously the words of a frightened man. It was terror that made Herod say: 'It is John, whom I beheaded. He is risen from the dead!' Who was it that frightened Herod? It was He who came from the bosom of the Father, with His hands full of blessings and His heart full of love: who came to quiet all fears, and to cleanse all consciences, and to satisfy all men's souls with His own sweet love and His perfect righteousness. And it was this genial and gracious and divine form, with all its actualities of gentleness and its possibilities of grace, which the evil conscience of the terrified tetrarch converted into a messenger of judgment come from the tomb to rebuke and to smite him for his evils.
That is to say, men may always make that future life and their relation to it what they will. Either the heavens may pour down their dewy influences of benediction and fruitfulness upon them, or may pour down fire and brimstone upon their spirits. Men have the choice which it shall be. The evil conscience drapes the future in darkness, and is right in doing it. The evil conscience forebodes chastisement, judgment, condemnation coming to it from out of the unseen world, and, with limitations, it is right in doing it. You can make Christ Himself the Messenger of condemnation and of death to you. My dear friends, do you choose whether, fronting eternity with an unforgiven burden of sin upon your shoulders and a conscience unsprinkled by the blood of Jesus Christ, you make of it one great fear; or whether you make it what it really is, a lustrous hope, a perfect joy. Is the Messenger that comes out of the unseen to come to you as a Judge of your buried evils started into life, or is He to come to you as the Christ that bears in His hand the price of your redemption, and with His blood 'sprinkles your conscience from dead works' and from all its terrors?
III. And now, lastly, I see in this saying an illustration of a conscience which, partially stirred, soon went finally to sleep again.
Strangely enough, if we pursue the story, this very terror and clear-eyed perception of the nature of his action led the frivolous king to nothing more than a curious wish to see this new Teacher. It was not gratified; and thus by degrees he came to hate Him and to wish to kill Him. And then, finally, on the eve of the Crucifixion Jesus was brought into his presence, and Herod was glad that his curiosity was satisfied at last. His conscience lay perfectly still. There was no trace of the old convictions or of the old tremor. He 'questioned Jesus many things, and Christ answered him nothing,' because He knew it was of no use to speak to him. So 'Herod and his men of war mocked Him and set Him at nought'; and sent Him back to Pilate; and he let his last chance of salvation go, and never knew what he had done.
Now, there is a lesson for us all. Do not tamper with partially awakened consciences; do not rest satisfied till they are quieted in the legitimate way. There was a man who trembled when he heard Paul remonstrating with him about 'righteousness and temperance'—both of which the unjust judge had set at naught—'and judgment to come' And he 'sent for him often and communed with him gladly,' but we never hear that Felix trembled any more. It is possible for you so to lull yourselves into indifference, and, as it were, so to waterproof your consciences that appeals, threatenings, pleadings, mercies, the words of men, the Gospel of God, and the beseechings of Christ Himself may all run off them and leave them dry and hard.
One very potent means of rendering consciences insensible is to neglect their voice. The convictions which you have not followed out, like the ruins of a bastion shattered by shell, protect your remaining fortifications against the impact of God's truth. I believe that there is no man, woman, or child listening to me at this moment but has had, some time or other in the course of his or her life, convictions which only needed to be followed out, gleams of guidance which only required to be faithfully pursued, to bring him or her into loving fellowship with, and true faith in, Jesus Christ. But some of you have neglected them; some of you have choked them with cares and studies and occupations of different kinds; and you are driving on to this result,—I do not know that it is ever reached in this life, but a man may come indefinitely near it,—that you shall stand, like Herod, face to face with Jesus Christ and feel nothing, and that all His love and grace shall be offered and not excite the faintest stirring in your hearts of a desire to accept it.
Oh! my friend, we have all of us evils enough in these charnel-houses of our memory to make us dread the awakening of conscience, to make us look with fear and apprehension beyond the veil to a judgment-seat. And, blessed be God! we have all of us had, and some of us have now, drawings to which we need but to yield ourselves in order to find that He who comes from the heavens is no 'John whom we beheaded,' risen for judgment, but a mightier than he, that Son of God who came 'not to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.'
THE MARTYRDOM OF JOHN
'For Herod himself had sent forth and laid hold upon John, and bound him in prison for Herodias' sake, his brother Philip's wife: for he had married her. 18. For John had said unto Herod, It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's wife. 19. Therefore Herodias had a quarrel against him, and would have killed him; but she could not: 20. For Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just man and an holy, and observed him; and when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly. 21. And when a convenient day was come, that Herod on his birthday made a supper to his lords, high captains, and chief estates of Galilee; 22. And when the daughter of the said Herodias came in, and danced, and pleased Herod and them that sat with him, the king said unto the damsel, Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee. 23. And he sware unto her, Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it thee, unto the half of my kingdom. 24. And she went forth, and said unto her mother, What shall I ask? And she said, The head of John the Baptist. 25. And she came in straightway with haste unto the king, and asked, saying, I will that thou give me by and by in a charger the head of John the Baptist. 26. And the king was exceeding sorry; yet for his oath's sake, and for their sakes which sat with him, he would not reject her. 27. And immediately the king sent an executioner, and commanded his head to be brought: and he went and beheaded him in the prison, 28. And brought his head in a charger, and gave it to the damsel: and the damsel gave it to her mother.'—Mark vi. 17-28.
This Herod was a son of the grim old tiger who slew the infants of Bethlehem. He was a true cub of a bad litter, with his father's ferocity, but without his force. He was sensual, cruel, cunning, and infirm of purpose. Rome allowed him to play at being a king, but kept him well in hand. No doubt his anomalous position as a subject prince helped to make him the bad man he was. Herodias, the Jezebel to this Ahab, was his brother's wife, and niece to both her husband and Herod. Elijah was not far off; John's daring outspokenness, of course, made the indignant woman his implacable enemy.
I. This story gives an example of the waking of conscience. When Christ's name reached even the court, where such tidings would have no ready entrance, what was only an occasion of more or less languid gossip and curiosity to others stirred the sleeping accuser in Herod's breast. He had no doubt as to who this new Teacher, armed with mightier powers than John who 'did no miracles' had ever possessed, was. His conviction that he was John, come back with increased power, was immediate, and was held fast, in spite of the buzz of other opinions.
Note the unusual order of the sentence in verse 16: 'John whom I beheaded, he is,' etc. The terrified king blurts out the name of his dread first, then tremblingly takes the guilt of the deed to himself, and last speaks the terrifying thought that he is risen. A man who has a sin in his memory can never be sure that its ghost will not suddenly start up. Trivial incidents will rouse the sleeping conscience. Some nothing, a chance word, a scent, a sound, the look on a face, the glow of an evening sky, may bring all the foul past up again. A puff of wind clears away the mist of oblivion, and the old sin starts into vividness as if done yesterday. You touch a secret spring, and there yawns in the floor a gap leading down to a dungeon.
Conscience thus wakened is free from all illusions as to guilt. 'I beheaded.' There are no excuses now about Herodias' urgency, or Salome's beauty, or the rash oath, or the need of keeping it, before his guests. The deed stands clear of all these, as his own act. It is ever so. When conscience speaks, sophistications about temptations or companions, or necessity, or the more learned excuses which philosophers make about environment and heredity as weakening responsibility and diminishing guilt, shrivel to nothing. The present operations of conscience distinctly predict future still more complete remembrance of, and sense of responsibility for, long past sins. There will be a resurrection of men's evil deeds, as well as of their bodies, and each of them will shake its gory locks at its author, and say, 'Thou didst it.'
There is no proof that Herod was a Sadducee, disbelieving in a resurrection; but, whether he was or not, the terrors of conscience made short work of the difficulties in the way of his supposition. He was right in believing that evil deeds are gifted with an awful immortality, and will certainly rise again to shake their doer's soul with terrors.
II. The narrative harks back to tell the story of John's martyrdom. It sets vividly forth the inner discord and misery of half-and-half convictions. Herodias was strong enough to get John put in prison, and apparently she tried with all the tenacity of a malignant woman to have him assassinated, by contrived accident or open sentence; but that she could not manage.
Mark's analysis of the play of contending feeling in the weak king is barely intelligible in the Authorised Version, but is clearly shown in the Revised Version. He 'feared John,'—the jailer afraid of his prisoner,—'knowing that he was a righteous man and an holy.' Goodness is awful. The worst men know it when they see it, and pay it the homage of dread, if not of love. 'And kept him safe' (not ob- but pre-served him); that is, from Herodias' revenge. 'And when he heard him, he was much perplexed.' The reading thus translated differs from that in the Authorised Version by two letters only, and obviously is preferable. Herod was a weak-willed man, drawn by two stronger natures pulling in opposite directions.
So he alternated between lust and purity, between the foul kisses of the temptress at his side and the warnings of the prophet in his dungeon. But in all his vacillation he could not help listening to John, but 'heard him gladly,' and mind and conscience approved the nobler voice. Thus he staggered along, with religion enough to spoil some of his sinful delights, but not enough to make him give them up.
Such a state of partial conviction is not unusual. Many of us know quite well that, if we would drop some habit, which may not be very grave, we should be less encumbered in some effort which it is our interest or duty to make; but the conviction has not gone deeper than the understanding. Like a shot which has only got half way through the armoured skin of a man-of-war, it has done no execution, nor reached the engine-room where the power that drives the life is. In more important matters such imperfect convictions are widespread. The majority of slaves to vice know perfectly well that they should give it up. And in regard to the salvation which is in Christ, there are multitudes who know in their inmost consciousness that they ought to be Christians.
Such a condition is one liable to unrest and frequent inner conflict. Truly, he is 'much perplexed' whose conscience pulls him one way, and his inclinations another. There is no more miserable condition than that of the man whose will is cleft in twain, and who has a continual battle raging within. Conscience may be bound and thrust down into a dungeon, like John, and lust and pride may be carousing overhead, but their mirth is hollow, and every now and then the stern voice comes up through the gratings, and the noisy revelry is hushed, while it speaks doom.
Such a state of inner strife comes often from unwillingness to give up one special evil. If Herod could have plucked up resolve to pack Herodias about her business, other things might have come right. Many of us are ruined by being unwilling to let some dear delight go. 'If thine eye causeth thee to stumble, pluck it out.'
We do not make up for such cowardly shrinking from doing right by pleasure in the divine word which we are not obeying. Herod no doubt thought that his delight in listening to John went some way to atone for his refusal to get rid of Herodias. Some of us think ourselves good Christians because we assent to truth, and even like to hear it, provided the speaker suit our tastes. Glad hearing only aggravates the guilt of not doing. It is useless to admire John if you keep Herodias.
III. The end of the story gives an example of the final powerlessness of such half-convictions. One need not repeat the grim narrative of the murder. We all know it. One knows not which is the more repugnant—the degradation of the poor child Salome to the level of a dancing-girl, the fell malignity of the mother who would shame her daughter for such an end, the maudlin generosity of Herod, flushed with wine and excited passion, the hideous request from lips so young, the ineffectual sorrow of Herod, his fantastic sense of obligation, which scrupled to break a wicked promise and did not scruple to murder a prophet, or the ghastly picture of the girl hurrying to her mother with the freshly severed head, dripping on to the platter and staining her fair young hands.
This was what all the convictions of John's righteousness had come to. So had ended the half yielding to his brave rebukes and the ineffectual aspirations after cleaner living. That chaos of lust and blood teaches that partial reformation is apt to end in a deeper plunge into fouler mire. If a man is false to his feeblest conviction, he makes himself a worse man all through. A partial thaw is generally followed by keener frost than before. A soul half melted and cooled again is harder to melt than before. An abortive slave-rising rivets the chains.
The incident teaches that simple weakness may come to be the parent of great sin. In a world like this, where there are always more voices soliciting to wrong than to right, to be weak is in the long run to be wicked. Fatal facility of disposition ruins hundreds of unthinking men. Nothing is more needful than that young people should learn to say 'No,' and should cultivate a wholesome obstinacy which is afraid of nothing but of sinning against God.
If we look onwards to this Herod's last appearance in Scripture, we get further lessons. He desired to see Jesus that he might see a miracle done to amuse him, like a conjuring trick. Convictions and terrors had faded from his frivolous soul. He has forgotten that he once thought Jesus to be John come again. He sees Christ, and sees nothing in Him; and Christ says nothing to Herod, because He knew it would be useless.
It is an awful thing to put one's self beyond the hearing of that voice, which 'all that are in the graves shall hear.' The most effectual stopping for our ears is neglect of what we know to be His will. If we will not listen to Him, we shall gradually lose the power of hearing Him, and then He will lock His lips, and answer nothing. We dare not say that Jesus is dumb to any man while life lasts, but we dare not refrain from saying that that condition of utter insensibility to His voice may be indefinitely approached by us, and that neglected convictions bring us terribly far on the way towards it.
THE WORLD'S BREAD
'And the apostles gathered themselves together unto Jesus, and told Him all things, both what they had done, and what they had taught. 31. And He said unto them, Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while: for there were many coming and going, and they had no leisure so much as to eat. 32. And they departed into a desert place by ship privately. 33. And the people saw them departing, and many knew Him, and ran afoot thither out of all cities, and outwent them, and came together unto Him. 34. And Jesus, when he came out, saw much people, and was moved with compassion toward them, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd: and He began to teach them many things. 35. And when the day was now far spent, His disciples came unto Him, and said, This is a desert place, and now the time is far passed: 36. Send them away, that they may go into the country round about, and into the villages, and buy themselves bread: for they have nothing to eat. 37. He answered and said unto them, Give ye them to eat. And they say unto Him, Shall we go and buy two hundred pennyworth of bread, and give them to eat? 38. He saith unto them, How many loaves have ye? go and see. And when they knew, they say, Five, and two fishes. 39. And he commanded them to make all sit down by companies upon the green grass. 40. And they sat down in ranks, by hundreds, and by fifties. 41. And when He had taken the five loaves and the two fishes, He looked up to heaven, and blessed, and brake the loaves, and gave them to His disciples to set before them; and the two fishes divided He among them all. 42. And they did all eat, and were filled. 43. And they took up twelve baskets full of the fragments, and of the fishes. 44. And they that did eat of the loaves were about five thousand men.'—Mark vi. 30-44.
This is the only miracle recorded by all four Evangelists. Matthew brings it into immediate connection with John's martyrdom, while Mark links it with the Apostles' return from their first mission. His account is, as usual, full of graphic touches, while John shows more intimate knowledge of the parts played by the Apostles, and sets the whole incident in a clearer light.
I. Mark brings out the preceding events, and especially the seeking for solitude, which was baulked by popular enthusiasm. The Apostles came back to Jesus full of wondering joy, and were eager to tell what they had done and taught. Note that order, which hints that they thought more of the miracles than of the message. They were flushed and excited by success, and needed calming down even more than physical rest. So Jesus, knowing their need, bids them come with Him into healing solitude, and rest awhile.
After any great effort, the body cries for repose, but still more does the soul's health demand quiet after exciting and successful work for Christ. Without much solitary communion with Jesus, effort for Him tends to become mechanical, and to lose the elevation of motive and the suppression of self which give it all its power. It is not wasted time which the busiest worker, confronted with the most imperative calls for service, gives to still fellowship in secret with God. There can never be too much activity in Christian work, but there is often disproportioned activity, which is too much for the amount of time given to meditation and communion. That is one reason why there is so much sowing and so little reaping in Christian work to-day.
But, on the other hand, we have sometimes to do as Jesus was driven to do in this incident; namely, to forgo cheerfully, after brief repose, the blessed and strengthening hour of quiet. The motives of the crowds that hurried round the head of the lake while the boat was pulled across, and so got to the other side before it, were not very pure. Curiosity drove them as much as any nobler impulse. But we must not be too particular about the reasons that induce men to resort to Jesus, and if we can give them more than they sought, so much the better. Let us be thankful if, for any reason, we can get them to listen.
Jesus 'came forth'; that is, probably from a short withdrawal with the Twelve. Brief repose snatched, He turned again to the work. The 'great multitude' did not make Him impatient, though, no doubt, some of the Apostles were annoyed. But He saw deeply into their condition, and pity welled in His heart. If we looked on the crowds in our great cities with Christ's eyes, their spiritual state would be the most prominent thing in sight. And if we saw that as He saw it, disgust, condemnation, indifference, would not be uppermost, as they too often are, but some drop of His great compassion would trickle into our hearts. The masses are still 'as sheep without a shepherd,' ignorant of the way, and defenceless against their worst foes. Do we habitually try to cultivate as ours Christ's way of looking at men, and Christ's emotions towards men? If we do, we shall imitate Christ's actions for men, and shall recognise that, to reproduce as well as we can the 'many things' which He taught them, is the best contribution which His disciples can make to healing the misery of a Christless world.