I. So, then, first the Cross shows us the Saviour who could not save Himself.
The priests did not believe in Christ's miracles, and they thought that this final token of his impotence, as they took it to be, was clear proof that the miracles were either tricks or mistakes. They saw the two things, they fatally misunderstood the relation between them. Let us put the two things together.
Here, on the one hand, is a Man who has exercised absolute authority in all the realms of the universe, who has spoken to dead matter, and it has obeyed; who by His word has calmed the storm, and hushed the winds by His word, has multiplied bread, has transmuted pale water into ruddy wine; who has moved omnipotent amongst the disturbed minds and diseased bodies of men, who has cast His sovereign word into the depth and darkness of the grave, and brought out the dead, stumbling and entangled in the grave-clothes. All these are facts on the one side. And on the other there is this—that there, passive, and, to superficial eyes, impotent, He hangs the helpless Victim of Roman soldiers and of Jewish priests. The short and easy vulgar way to solve the apparent contradiction was to deny the reality of the one of its members; to say 'Miracles? Absurd! He never worked one, or He would have been working one now.'
But let their error lead us into truth, and let us grasp the relation of the two apparently contradictory facts. 'He saved others,' that is certain. He did not 'save Himself,' that is as certain. Was the explanation 'cannot'? The priests by 'cannot' meant physical impossibility, defect of power, and they were wrong. But there is a profound sense in which the word 'cannot' is absolutely true. For this is in all time, and in all human relations, the law of service—sacrifice; and no man can truly help humanity, or an individual, unless he is prepared to surrender himself in the service. The lamp burns away in giving light. The fire consumes in warming the hearth, and no brotherly sympathy or help has ever yet been rendered, or ever will be, except at the price of self-surrender. Now, some people think that this is the whole explanation of our Lord's history, both in His life and in His death. I do not believe that it is the whole explanation, but I do believe it carries us some way towards the central sanctuary, where the explanation lies. And yet it is not complete or adequate, because, to parallel Christ's work with the work of any of the rest of us to our brethren, however beautiful, disinterested, self-oblivious, and self-consuming it may be, seems to me—I say it with deference, though I must here remember considerations of brevity and be merely assertive—entirely to ignore the unique special characteristic of the work of Jesus Christ—viz., that it was the atonement for the sins of the world. He could not bear away our sins, unless the burden of them was laid on His own back, and He carried our griefs, our sorrows, our diseases, and our transgressions. 'He saved others, Himself He cannot save.' But the impossibility was purely the result of His own willing and obedient love; or, if I put it in more epigrammatic form, the priests' 'cannot' was partially true, but if they had said 'would not' they would have hit the mark, and come to full truth. The reason for His death becomes clear, and each of the contrasted facts is enhanced, when we set side by side the opulence and ease of His manifold miracles and the apparent impotence and resourcelessness of the passive Victim on the cross.
That 'cannot' did not come from defect of power, but from plenitude of love, and it was a 'will not' in its deepest depths. For you will find scattered throughout Scripture, especially these Gospels, indications from our Lord's own lips, and by His own acts, that, in the truest and fullest sense, His sufferings were voluntary. 'No man taketh it from me'—He says about His life—'I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again.' And once He did choose to flash out for a moment the always present power, that we might learn that when it did not appear, it was not because he could not, but because he would not. When the soldiers came to lay their hands upon Him, He presented Himself before them, saving them all the trouble of search, and when He asked a question, and received the answer that it was He of whom they were in search, there came one sudden apocalypse of His majesty, and they fell to the ground, and lay there prone before Him. They could have had no power at all against Him, except He had willed to surrender Himself to them. Again, though it is hypercritical perhaps to attach importance to what may only be natural idiomatic forms of speech, yet in this connection it is not to be overlooked that the language of all the Evangelists, in describing the supreme moment of Christ's death, is congruous with the idea that He died neither from the exhaustion of crucifixion, nor from the thrust of the soldier's spear, but because He would. For they all have expressions equivalent to that of one of them, 'He gave up His spirit.' Be that as it may, the 'cannot' was a 'will not'; and it was neither nails that fastened Him to the tree, nor violence that slew Him, but He was fixed there by His own steadfast will, and He died because He would. So if we rightly understand the 'cannot' we may take up with thankfulness the taunt which, as I say, is tuned to a testimony, and reiterate adoringly, 'He saved others, Himself He cannot save.'
II. The Cross shows us the King on His throne.
To the priests it appeared ludicrous to suppose that a King of Israel should, by Israel, be nailed upon the cross. 'Let Him come down, and we will believe Him.' They saw the two facts, they misconceived their relation. There was a relation between them, and it is not difficult for us to apprehend it.
The Cross is Christ's throne. There are two ways in which the tragedy of His crucifixion is looked at in the Gospels, one that prevails in the three first, another that prevails in the fourth. These two seem superficially to be opposite; they are complementary. It depends upon your station whether a point in the sky is your zenith or your nadir. Here it is your zenith; at the antipodes it is the nadir. In the first three gospels the aspect of humiliation, degradation, inanition, suffering, is prominent in the references to the Crucifixion. In the fourth gospel the aspect of glory and triumph is uppermost. 'Even so must the Son of Man be lifted up'; 'I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto Me'; 'Now the hour is come that the Son of Man should be glorified.' And it is His glory, for on that Cross Jesus Christ manifests, in transcendent and superlative form, at once power and love that are boundless and divine. The Cross is the foundation of His kingdom. In his great passage in Philippians the Apostle brings together, in the closest causal connection, His obedience unto death, the death of the Cross, and His exaltation and reception of 'the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow.' The title over the Cross was meant for a gibe. It was a prophecy. By the Cross He becomes the 'King,' and not only the 'King of the Jews.' The sceptre that was put in His hand, though it was meant for a sneer, was a forecast of a truth, for He rules, not with a rod of iron, but with the reed of gentleness; and the crown of thorns, that was pressed down on His wounded and bleeding head, foretold for our faith the great truth that suffering is the foundation of dominion, and that men will bow as to their King and Lord before Him who died for them, with a prostration of spirit, a loyalty of allegiance, and an alertness of service, which none other, monarch or superior, may even dream of attaining. The Cross establishes, not destroys, Christ's dominion over men.
Yes; and that Cross wins their faith as nothing else can. The blind priests said, 'Let Him come down, and we will believe Him.' Precisely because He did not come down, do sad and sorrowful and sinful hearts turn to Him from the ends of the earth, and from the distances of the ages pour the treasures of their trust and their love at His feet. Did you ever think how strange it is, except with one explanation, that the gibes of the priests did not turn out to be true? Why is it that Christ's shameful death did not burst the bubble, as they thought it had done? Why is it that in His case—and I was going to say, and it would have been no exaggeration, in His case only—the death of the leader did not result in the dispersion of the led? Why is it that His fate and future were the opposite of that of multitudes of other pseudo-Messiahs, of whom it is true that when they were slain their followers came to nought? Why? There is only one explanation, I think, and that is that the death was not the end, but that He rose again from the dead. My brother, you will either have to accept the Resurrection, with all that comes from it, or else you will have to join the ranks of the priests, and consider that Christ's death blew to atoms Christ's pretensions. If we know anything about Him, we know that He asserted miraculous power, Messiahship, and a filial relation to God. These things are facts. Did He rise or did He not? If He did not, He was an enthusiast. If He did, He is the King to whom our hearts can cleave, and to whom our loyalty is due.
III. Now, lastly, the Cross shows us the Son, beloved of the Father.
The priests thought that it was altogether incredible that His devotion should have been genuine, or His claim to be the Son of God should have any reality, since the Cross, to their vulgar eyes, disproved them both. Like all coarse-minded people, they estimated character by condition, but they who do that make no end of mistakes. They had forgotten their own Prophecies, which might have told them that 'the Servant of the Lord in whom' His 'heart delighted,' was a suffering Servant. But whilst they recognised the facts, here again, as in the other two cases, they misconceived the relation. We have the means of rectifying the distorted image.
We ought to know, and to be sure, that the Cross of Christ was the very token that this was God's 'beloved Son in whom He was well pleased.' If we dare venture on the comparison of parts of that which is all homogeneous and perfect, we might say that in the moment of His death Jesus Christ was more than ever the object of the Father's delight.
Why? It is not my purpose now to enlarge upon all the reasons which might be suggested. Let me put them together in a sentence or two. In that Cross Jesus Christ revealed God as God's heart had always yearned to be revealed, infinite in love, pitifulness, forbearance, and pardoning mercy. There was the highest manifestation of the glory of God. 'What?' you say, 'a poor weak Man, hanging on a cross, and dying in the dark—is that the very shining apex of all that humanity can know of divinity?' Yes, for it is the pure manifestation that God is Love. Therefore the whole sunshine of the Father's presence rested on the dying Saviour. It was the hour when God most delighted in Him, if I may venture the comparison, for the other reasons that then He carried filial obedience to its utmost perfection, that then His trust in God was deepest, even at the hour when His spirit was darkened by the cloud that the world's sin, which He was carrying, had spread thunderous between Him and the sunshine of the Father's face. For in that mysterious voice, which we can never understand in its depths, there were blended trust and desolation, each in its highest degree: 'My God! my God! Why hast Thou forsaken Me?' And the Cross was the complete carrying out of God's dearest purpose for the world, that He might be 'just, and the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus.' Therefore, then—I was going to say as never before—was Christ His Son, in whom He delighted.
Brethren, let us, led by the errors of these scoffers, grasp the truths that they pervert. Let us see that weak Man hanging helpless on the cross, whose 'cannot' is the impotence of omnipotence, imposed by His own loving will to save a world by the sacrifice of Himself. Let us crown Him our King, and let our deepest trust and our gladdest obedience be rendered to Him because He did not come down from, but 'endured, the cross.' Let us behold with wonder, awe, and endless love the Father not withholding His only Son, but 'delivering Him up to the death for us all,' and from the empty grave and the occupied Throne let us learn how the Father by both proclaims to all the world concerning Him hanging dying on the cross: 'This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.'
THE VEIL RENT
'Behold, the veil of the Temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom.'—MATT. xxvii. 51.
As I suppose we are all aware, the Jewish Temple was divided into three parts: the Outer Court, open to all; the Holy Place, to which the ministering priests had daily access to burn incense and trim the lamps; and the Holy of Holies, where only the High Priest was permitted to go, and that but once a year, on the great Day of Atonement. For the other three hundred and sixty-four days the shrine lay silent, untrodden, dark. Between it and the less sacred Holy Place hung the veil, whose heavy folds only one man was permitted to lift or to pass. To all others it was death to peer into the mysteries, and even to him, had he gone at another time, and without the blood of the sacrifice, death would have ensued.
If we remember all this and try to cast ourselves back in imagination to the mental attitude of the ordinary Jew, the incident of my text receives its true interpretation. At the moment when the loud cry of the dying Christ rung over the heads of the awestruck multitude, that veil was, as it were, laid hold of by a pair of giant hands and torn asunder, as the Evangelist says, 'from the top to the bottom.' The incident was a symbol. In one aspect it proclaimed the end of the long years of Israel's prerogative. In another it ushered in an epoch of new relations between man and God. If Jesus Christ was what He said He was, if His death was what He declared it to be, it was fitting that it should be attended by a train of subordinate and interpreting wonders. These were, besides that of my text, the darkened sun, the trembling earth, the shivered rocks, the open graves, the rising saints—all of them, in their several ways, illuminating the significance of that death on Calvary.
Not less significant is this symbol of my text, and I desire now to draw your attention to its meanings.
I. The rent veil proclaims the desecrated temple.
There is a striking old legend, preserved by the somewhat mendacious historian of the Jewish people, that, before Jerusalem fell, the anxious watchers heard from within the sanctuary a great voice saying, 'Let us depart hence!' and through the night were conscious of the winnowing of the mighty wings of the withdrawing cherubim. And soon a Roman soldier tossed a brand into the most Holy Place, and the 'beautiful house where their fathers praised was burned with fire.' The legend is pathetic and significant. But that 'departing' had taken place forty years before; and at the moment when Jesus 'gave up the ghost,' purged eyes might have seen the long trail of brightness as the winged servitors of the Most High withdrew from the desecrated shrine. The veil rent declared that the sacred soil within it was now common as any foot of earth in Galilee; and its rending, so to speak, made way for a departing God.
That conception, that the death of Christ Jesus was the de-consecration—if I may coin a word—of the Temple, and the end of all its special sanctity, and that thenceforward the Presence had departed from it, is distinctly enough taught us by Himself in words which move in the same circle of ideas as that in which the symbol resides.... You remember, no doubt, that, if we accept the testimony of John's Gospel, at the very beginning of our Lord's ministry He vindicated His authority to cleanse the sanctuary against the cavils of the sticklers for propriety by the enigmatical words, 'Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will build it up,' to which the Evangelist appends the comment, 'He spake of the Temple of His body,' that body in which 'all the fulness of the Godhead' dwelt, and which was, and is to-day, all that the Temple shadowed and foretold, the dwelling-place of God in humanity, the place of sacrifice, the meeting-place between God and man. But just because our Lord in these dark words predicted His death and His resurrection, He also hinted the destruction of the literal stone and lime building, and its rearing again in nobler and more spiritual form. When He said, 'Destroy this Temple,' He implied, secondarily, the destruction of the house in which He stood, and laid that destruction, whensoever it should come to pass, at their doors. And, inasmuch as the saying in its deepest depth meant His death by their violence and craft, therefore, in that early saying of His, was wrapped up the very same truth which was symbolised by the rent veil, and was bitterly fulfilled at last. When they slew Christ they killed the system under which they lived, and for which they would have been glad to die, in a zeal without knowledge; and destroyed the very Temple on the distorted charge of being the destroyer of which, they handed Him over to the Roman power.
The death of Christ is, then, the desecration and the destruction of that Temple. Of course it is; because when a nation that had had millenniums of education, of forbearance, of revelation, turned at last upon the very climax and brightest central light of all the Revelation, standing there amongst them in a bodily form, there was nothing more to be done. God had shot His last arrow; His quiver was empty. 'Last of all He sent unto them His Son, saying,' with a wistful kind of half-confidence, 'They will reverence My Son,' and the divine expectation was disappointed, and exhaustless Love was empty-handed, and all was over. He could turn to themselves and say, 'Judge between Me and My vineyard. What more could have been done that I have not done to it?' Therefore, there was nothing left but to let the angels of destruction loose, and to call for the Roman eagles with their broad-spread wings, and their bloody beaks, and their strong talons, to gather together round the carcase. When He gave up the Ghost, 'the veil of the Temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom.'
A time of repentance was given. It was possible for the most guilty participator in that judicial murder to have his gory hands washed and made white in the very blood that he had shed; but, failing repentance, that death was the death of Israel, and the destruction of Israel's Temple. Let us take the lesson, dear brethren. If we turn away from that Saviour, and refuse the offered gifts of His love, there is no other appeal left in the power of Heaven; and there is nothing for it after that except judgment and destruction. We can 'crucify the Son of God afresh and put Him to an open shame.' And the hearts that are insensitive, as are some of our hearts, to that great love and grace, are capable of nothing except to be pulverised by means of a judgment. Repentance is possible for us all, but, failing that, the continuance of rejection of Christ is the pulling down, on our own heads, of the ruins of the Temple, like the Israelitish hero in his blindness and despair.
II. Now, secondly, the rent veil means, in another way of looking at the incident, light streaming in on the mystery of God.
Let me recall to your imaginations what lay behind that heavy veil. In the Temple, in our Lord's time, there was no presence of the Shekinah, the light that symbolised the divine presence. There was the mercy-seat, with the outstretched wings of the cherubim; there were the dimly pictured forms on the tapestry hangings; there was silence deep as death; there was darkness absolute and utter, whilst the Syrian sun was blazing down outside. Surely that is the symbol of the imperfect knowledge or illumination as to the divine nature which is over all the world. 'The veil is spread over all nations, and the covering over all people.' And surely that sudden, sharp tearing asunder of the obscuring medium, and letting the bright sunlight stream into every corner of the dark chamber, is for us a symbol of the great fact that in the life, and especially in the death, of Jesus Christ our Lord, we have light thrown in to the depths of God.
What does that Cross tell us about God that the world did not know? And how does it tell us? and why does it tell us? It tells us of absolute righteousness, of that in the divine nature which cannot tolerate sin; of the stern law of retribution which must be wrought out, and by which the wages of every sin is death. It tells us not only of a divine righteousness which sees guilt and administers punishment, but it tells us of a divine love, perfect, infinite, utter, perennial, which shrinks from no sacrifice, which stoops to the lowest conditions, which itself takes upon it all the miseries of humanity, and which dies because it loves and will save men from death. And as we look upon that dying Man hanging on the cross, the very embodiment and consummation of weakness and of shame, we have to say, 'Lo! this is our God! We have waited for Him'—through all the weary centuries—'and He will save us.' How does it tell us all this? Not by eloquent and gracious thoughts, not by sweet and musical words, but by a deed. The only way by which we can know men is by what they do. The only way by which we know God is by what He does. And so we point to that Cross and say, 'There! not in words, not in thoughts, not in speculations, not in hopes and fears and peradventures and dim intuitions, but in a solid fact; there is the Revelation which lays bare the heart of God, and shows us its very throbbing of love to every human soul.' 'The veil was rent in twain from the top to the bottom.'
The Cross will reveal God to you only if you believe that Jesus Christ was the Incarnate Word. Brethren, if that death was but the death of even the very holiest, noblest, sweetest, perfectest soul that ever lived on earth and breathed human breath, there is no revelation of God in it for us. It tells us what Jesus was, and by a very roundabout inference may suggest something of what the divine nature is, but unless you can say, as the New Testament says, 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.... And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth,' I fail to see how the death of Christ can be a revelation of the love of God.
I need not occupy time in dilating upon the contrast between this solid certitude, and all that the world, apart from Jesus Christ, has to lay hold of about God. We want something else than mist on which to build, and on which to lay hold. And there is a substantial, warm, flesh-and-blood hand, if I may so say, put out to us through the mist when we believe in Christ the Son of God, who died on the cross for us all. Then, amidst whirling mists and tossing seas, there is a fixed point to which we can moor; then our confidence is built, not on peradventures or speculations or wishes or dreams or hopes, but on a historical fact, and grasping that firm we may stand unmoved.
Dear friends, I may be very old-fashioned and very narrow—I suppose I am; but I am bound to declare my conviction, which I think every day's experience of the tendency of thought only makes more certain, that, practically for this generation, the choice lies between accepting the life and death of Jesus Christ as the historical Revelation of God, or having no knowledge of Him—knowledge, I say,—of Him at all; you must choose between the barred sanctuary, within which lies couched a hidden Something—with a capital S—or perhaps a hidden Someone whom you never can know and never will; or the rent veil, rent by Christ's death, through which you can pass, and behold the mercy-seat and, above the outstretched wings of the adoring cherubim, the Father whose name is Love.
III. Lastly, the rent veil permits any and every man to draw near to God.
You remember what I have already said as to the jealous guarding of the privacy of that inner shrine, and how not only the common herd of the laity, but the whole of the priesthood, with the solitary exception of its titular head, were shut out from ever entering it. In the old times of Israel there was only one man alive at once who had ever been beyond the veil. And now that it is rent, what does that show but this, that by the death of Jesus Christ any one, every one, is welcome to pass in to the very innermost sanctuary, and to dwell, nestling as close as he will, to the very heart of the throned God? There is a double veil, if I may so say, between man and God: the side turned outward is woven by our own sins; and the other turned inwards is made out of the necessary antagonism of the divine nature to man's sin. There hangs the veil, and when the Psalmist asked, 'Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord; or who shall stand in His holy place?' he was putting a question which echoes despairingly in the very heart of all religions. And he answered it as conscience ever answers it when it gets fair play: 'He that hath clean hands and a pure heart, who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity.' And where or who is he? Nowhere; nobody. Access is barred, because it is impossible that a holy and righteous God should communicate the selectest gifts of His love, even the sense of His favour, and of harmony and fellowship with Him, to sinful men, and barred, because it is impossible that men, with the consciousness of evil and the burden of guilt sometimes chafing their shoulders, and always bowing down their backs, should desire to possess, or be capable of possessing, that fellowship and union with God. A black, frowning wall, if I may change the metaphor of my text, rises between us and God. But One comes with the sacrificial vessel in His hand, and pours His blood on the barrier, and that melts the black blocks that rise between us and God, and the path is patent and permeable for every foot. 'The veil of the Temple was rent in twain' when Christ died. That death, because it is a sacrifice, makes it possible that the whole fulness of the divine love should be poured upon man. That death moves our hearts, takes away our sense of guilt, draws us nearer to Him; and so both by its operation—not on the love of God—but on the government of God, and by its operation on the consciousness of men, throws open the path into His very presence.
If I might use abstract words, I would say that Christ's death potentially opens the path for every man, which being put into plain English—which is better—is just that by the death of Christ every man can, if he will, go to God, and live beside Him. And our faith is our personal laying hold of that great sacrifice and treading on that path. It turns the 'potentiality' into an actuality, the possibility into a fact. If we believe on Him who died on the cross for us all, then by that way we come to God, than which there is none other given under heaven among men.
So all believers are priests, or none of them are. The absolute right of direct access to God, without the intervention of any man who has an officially greater nearness to Him than others, and through whom as through a channel the grace of sacrament comes, is contained in the great symbol of my text. And it is a truth that this day needs. On the one hand there is agnostic unbelief, which needs to see in the rent veil the illumination streaming through it on to the depths of God; and on the other hand there is the complementary error—and the two always breed each other—the superstition which drags back by an anachronism the old Jewish notions of priesthood into the Christian Church. It needs to see in the rent veil the charter of universal priesthood for all believers, and to hearken to the words which declare, 'Ye are a chosen generation, a spiritual house, a royal priesthood, that ye should offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable unto God by Jesus Christ.' That is the lesson that this day wants. 'Having, therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest of all, by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which He has consecrated for us through the veil, that is His flesh, let us draw near with true hearts in full assurance of faith.'
THE PRINCE OF LIFE
'In the end of the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre. 2. And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it. 3. His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow: 4. And for fear of him the keepers did shake, and became as dead men. 5. And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. 6. He is not here: for He is risen, as He said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. 7. And go quickly, and tell His disciples that He is risen from the dead; and, behold, He goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see Him: lo, I have told you. 8. And they departed quickly from the sepulchre with fear and great joy; and did run to bring His disciples word. 9. And as they went to tell His disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail. And they came and held Him by the feet, and worshipped Him. 10. Then said Jesus unto them, Be not afraid: go tell My brethren that they go into Galilee, and there shall they see Me. 11. Now, when they were going, behold, some of the watch came into the city, and shewed unto the chief priests all the things that were done. 12. And when they were assembled with the elders, and had taken counsel, they gave large money unto the soldiers, 13. Saying, Say ye, His disciples came by night, and stole Him away while we slept. 14. And if this come to the governor's ears, we will persuade him, and secure you. 15. So they took the money, and did as they were taught: and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day.' —MATT. xxviii. 1-15.
The attempts at harmonising the resurrection narratives are not only unsatisfactory, but they tend to blur the distinctive characteristics of each account. We shall therefore confine ourselves entirely to Matthew's version, and leave the others alone, with the simple remark that a condensed report of a series of events does not deny what it omits, nor contradict a fuller one. The peculiarities of Matthew's last chapter are largely due to the purpose of his gospel. Throughout, it has been the record of the Galilean ministry, the picture of the King of Israel, and of His treatment by those who should have been His subjects. This chapter establishes the fact of His resurrection; but, passing by the Jerusalem appearances of the risen Lord, as being granted to individuals and having less bearing on His royalty, emphasises two points: His rejection by the representatives of the nation, whose lie is endorsed by popular acceptance; and the solemn assumption, in Galilee, so familiar to the reader, of universal dominion, with the world-wide commission, in which the kingdom bursts the narrow national limits and becomes co-extensive with humanity. It is better to learn the meaning of Matthew's selection of his incidents than to wipe out instructive peculiarities in the vain attempt after harmony.
First, notice his silence (in which all the four narratives are alike) as to the time and circumstances of the resurrection itself. That had taken place before the grey twilight summoned the faithful women, and before the earthquake and the angel's descent. No eye saw Him rise. The guards were not asleep, for the statement that they were is a lie put into their mouths by the rulers; but though they kept jealous watch, His rising was invisible to them. 'The prison was shut with all safety,' for the stone was rolled away after He was risen, 'and the keepers standing before the doors,' but there was 'no man within.' As in the evening of that day He appeared in the closed chamber, so He passed from the sealed grave. Divine decorum required that that transcendent act should be done without mortal observers of the actual rising of the Sun which scatters for ever the darkness of death.
Matthew next notices the angel ministrant and herald. His narrative leaves the impression that the earthquake and appearance of the angel immediately preceded the arrival of the women, and the 'Behold!' suggests that they felt and saw both. But that is a piece of chronology on which there may be difference of opinion. The other narratives tell of two angels. Matthew's mention of one only may be due either to the fact that one was speaker, or to the subjective impressions of his informant, who saw but the one, or to variation in the number visible at different times. We know too little of the laws which determine their appearances to be warranted in finding contradiction or difficulty here. The power of seeing may depend on the condition of the beholder. It may depend, not as with gross material bodies, on optics, but on the volition of the radiant beings seen. They may pass from visibility to its opposite, lightly and repeatedly, flickering into and out of sight, as the Pleiades seem to do. Where there is such store of possibilities, he is rash who talks glibly about contradictions.
Of far more value is it to note the purpose served by this waiting angel. We heard much of a herald angel of the Lord in the story of the Nativity. We hear nothing of him during the life of Christ. Now again he appears, as the stars, quenched in the noontide, shine again when the sun is out of the sky. He attends as humble servitor, in token that the highest beings gazed on that empty grave with reverent adoration, and were honoured by being allowed to guard the sacred place. Death was an undreaded thing to them, and no hopes for themselves blossomed from Christ's grave; but He who had lain in it was their King as well as ours, and new lessons of divine love were taught them, as they wondered and watched. They come to minister by act and word to the weeping women's faith and joy. Their appearance paralyses the guards, who would have kept the Marys from the grave. They roll away the great circular stone, which women's hands, however nerved by love, could not have moved in its grooves. They speak tender words to them. There by the empty tomb, the strong heavenly and the weak earthly lovers of the risen King meet together, and clasp hands of help, the pledge and first-fruits of the standing order henceforth, and the inauguration of their office of 'ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for ... heirs of salvation.' The risen Christ hath made both one. The servants of the same King must needs be friends of one another.
The angel's words fall into three parts. First, he calms fears by the assurance that the seekers for Christ are dear to Him. 'Fear not ye' glances at the prostrate watchers, and almost acknowledges the reasonableness of their abject terror. To them he could not but be hostile, but to hearts that longed for their and his Lord, he and all his mighty fellows were brethren. Let us learn that all God's angels are our lovers and helpers, if we love and seek for Jesus. Superstition has peopled the gulf between God and man with crowds of beings; revelation assures us that it is full of creatures who excel in strength. Men have cowered before them, but 'whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers,' our King was their Creator, and is their Sovereign, and, if we serve Him, all these are on our side. The true deliverer from superstitious terrors is the risen Christ. Again, the angel announces in simplest words the glorious fact, 'He is risen,' and helps them to receive it by a double way. He reminds them of Christ's own words, which had seemed so mysterious and had turned out so simple, so incredible, and now had proved so true. He calls them with a smile of welcome to draw near, and with him to look into the empty place. The invitation extends to us all, for the one assurance of immortality; and the only answer to the despairing question, 'If a man die, shall he live again?' which is solid enough to resist the corrosion of modern doubt as of ancient ignorance, is that empty grave, and the filled throne, which was its necessary consequence. By it we measure the love that stooped so low, we school our hearts to anticipate without dread or reluctance our own lying down there, we fasten our faith on the risen Forerunner, and rejoice in the triumphant assurance of a living Christ. If the wonder of the women's stunned gaze is no more ours, our calm acceptance of the familiar fact need be none the less glad, and our estimate of its far-reaching results more complete than their tumult of feeling permitted to them.
No wonder that, swiftly, new duty which was privilege followed on the new, glad knowledge. It was emphatically 'a day of good tidings,' and they could not hold their peace. A brief glance, enough for certitude and joy, was permitted; and then, with urgent haste, they are sent to be apostles to the Apostles. The possession of the news of a risen Saviour binds the possessors to be its preachers. Where it is received in any power, it will impel to utterance. He who can keep silence has never felt, as he ought, the worth of the word, nor realised the reason why he has seen the Cross or the empty grave. 'He goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see.' It was but two complete days and one night since Christ had said to the disciples that He would rise again, and, as the Shepherd of the scattered flock, go before them into Galilee. How long ago since that saying it would seem! The reasons for Matthew's omission of all the other appearances of our Lord in Jerusalem, with the exception of the one which immediately follows, and for the stress he lays on this rendezvous in their native Galilee, have already been touched on, and need not detain us now.
The next point in the narrative is the glad interview with the risen Jesus. The women had been at the grave but for a few moments. But they lived more in these than in years of quiet. Time is very elastic, and five minutes or five seconds may change a life. These few moments changed a world. Haste, winged by fear which had no torment, and by joy which found relief in swift movement, sent them running, forgetful of conventional proprieties, towards the awakening city. Probably Mary Magdalene had left them, as soon as they saw the open grave, and had hurried back alone to tell the tidings. And now the crowning joy and wonder comes. How simply it is told!—the introductory 'Behold!' just hinting at the wonderfulness, and perhaps at the suddenness, of our Lord's appearance, and the rest being in the quietest and fewest words possible. Note the deep significance of the name 'Jesus' here. The angel spoke of 'the Lord,' but all the rest of the chapter speaks of 'Jesus.' The joy and hope that flow from the Resurrection depend on the fact of His humanity. He comes out of the grave, the same brother of our mortal flesh as before. It was no phantom whose feet they clasped, and He is not withdrawn from them by His mysterious experience. All through the Resurrection histories and the narrative of the forty days, the same emphasis attaches to the name, which culminates in the angel's assurance at the Ascension, that 'this same Jesus,' in His true humanity, who has gone up on high our Forerunner, shall come again our Brother and our Judge. 'It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again'; but that triumphant assurance loses all its blessedness, unless we say too, 'Jesus died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and ... rose again the third day.'
Note, too, the calmness of His greeting. He uses the common form of salutation, as if He had but been absent on some common occasion, and met them in ordinary circumstances. He speaks out of His own deep tranquillity, and desires to impart it to their agitated spirits. He would calm their joy, that it may be the deeper, like His own. If we may give any weight to the original meaning of the formula of greeting which He employs, we may see blessed prophecy in it. The lips of the risen Christ bid us all 'rejoice.' His salutation is no empty wish, but a command which makes its own fulfilment possible. If our hearts welcome Him, and our faith is firm in His risen power and love, then He gives us a deep and central gladness, which nothing
'That is at enmity with joy Can utterly abolish or destroy.'
The rush to His feet, and the silent clasp of adoration, are eloquent of a tumult of feeling most natural, and yet not without turbid elements, which He does not wholly approve. We have not here the prohibition of such a touch which was spoken to Mary, but we have substantially the same substitution, by His command, of practical service for mere emotion. That carries a lesson always in season. We cannot love Christ too much, nor try to get too near Him, to touch Him with the hand of our faith. But there have been modes of religious emotion, represented by hymns and popular books, which have not mingled reverence rightly with love, and have spoken of Him, and of the emotions binding us to Him, in tones unwholesomely like those belonging to earthly passion. But, apart from that, Jesus taught these women, and us through them, that it is better to proclaim His Resurrection than to lie at His feet; and that, however sweet the blessedness which we find in Him may be, it is meant to put a message into our lips, which others need. Our sight of Him gives us something to say, and binds us to say it. It was a blessing to the women to have work to do, in doing which their strained emotions might subside. It was a blessing to the mournful company in the upper room to have their hearts prepared for His coming by these heralds. It was a wonderful token of His unchanged love, and an answer to fears and doubts of how they might find Him, that He sends the message to them as brethren.
In the hurry of that Easter morning, they had no time to ponder on all that it had brought them. The Resurrection as the demonstration of Christ's divinity and of the acceptance of His perfect sacrifice, or as the pledge of their resurrection, or as the type of their Christian life, was for future experience to grasp. For that day, it was enough to pass from despair to joy, and to let the astounding fact flood them with sunny hope.
We know the vast sweep of the consequences and consolations of it far better than they did. There is no reason, in our distance from it, for its diminishing either in magnitude, in certitude, or in blessedness in our eyes. No fact in the history of the world stands on such firm evidence as the resurrection of Jesus Christ. No age of the world ever needed to believe it more than this one does. It becomes us all to grasp it for ourselves with an iron tenacity of hold, and to echo, in the face of the materialisms and know-nothing philosophy of this day, the old ringing confession, 'Now is Christ risen from the dead!'
We need say little about the last point in this narrative—the obstinate blindness of the rulers, and their transparent lie to account for the empty grave. The guard reports to the rulers, not to the governor, as they had been handed over by Pilate for special service. But they were Roman soldiers, as appears from the danger which the rulers provided against, that of their alleged crime against military discipline, in sleeping at their post, coming to his ears. The trumped-up story is too puerile to have taken in any one who did not wish to believe it. How could they tell what happened when they were asleep? How could such an operation as forcing back a heavy stone, and exhuming a corpse, have been carried on without waking them? How could such a timid set of people have mustered up courage for such a bold act? What did they do it for? Not to bury their Lord. He had been lovingly laid there by reverent hands, and costly spices strewn upon the sacred limbs. The only possible motive would be that the disciples might tell lies about His resurrection. That hypothesis that the Resurrection was a deliberately concocted falsehood has proved too strong for the stomach of modern unbelief, and has been long abandoned, as it had need to be. When figs grow on thistles, such characters as the early Christians, martyrs, heroes, saints, will be produced by a system which has a lie, known to be one, for its foundation. But the lame story is significant in two ways. It confesses, by its desperate attempt to turn the corner of the difficulty, that the great rock, on which all denials of Christ's resurrection split, is the simple question—If He did not rise again, what became of the body? The priests' answer is absurd, but it, at all events, acknowledges that the grave was empty, and that it is incumbent to produce an explanation which reasonable men can accept without laughter.
Further, this last appearance of the rulers in the gospel is full of tragic significance, and is especially important to Matthew, whose narrative deals especially with Jesus as the King and Messiah of Israel. This is the end of centuries of prophecy and patience! This is what all God's culture of His vineyard has come to! The husbandmen cast the Heir out of the vineyard, and slew him. But there was a deeper depth than even that. They would not be persuaded when He rose again from the dead. They entrenched themselves in a lie, which only showed that they had a glimmering of the truth and hated it. And the lie was willingly swallowed by the mass of the nation, who thereby showed that they were of the same stuff as they who made it. A conspiracy of falsehood, which knew itself to be such, was the last act of that august council of Israel. It is an awful lesson of the penalties of unfaithfulness to the light possessed, an awful instance of 'judicial blindness.' So sets the sun of Israel. And therefore Matthew's Gospel turns away from the apostate nation, which has rejected its King, to tell, in its last words, of His assumption of universal dominion, and of the passage of the glad news from Israel to the world.
THE RISEN LORD'S GREETINGS AND GIFTS
'And as they went to tell His disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail.'—MATT. xxviii. 9.
'Then the same day at evening ... came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.' —JOHN xx. 19.
So did our Lord greet His sad followers. The first of these salutations was addressed to the women as they hurried in the morning from the empty tomb bewildered; the second to the disciples assembled in the upper room in the evening of the same day. Both are ordinary greetings. The first is that usual in Greek, and literally means 'Rejoice'; the second is that common in Hebrew. The divergence between the two may be owing to the Evangelist Matthew having rendered the words which our Lord actually did speak, in the tongue familiar to His time, into their equivalent Greek. But whatever account may be given of the divergence does not materially affect the significance which I find in the salutations. And I desire to turn to them for a few moments now, because I think that, if we ponder them, we may gain some precious lessons from these Easter greetings of the Lord Himself.
I. First, then, notice their strange and majestic simplicity.
He meets His followers after Calvary and the Tomb and the Resurrection, with the same words with which two casual acquaintances, after some slight absence, might salute one another by the way. Their very simplicity is their sublimity here. For think of what tremendous experiences He had passed through since they saw Him last, and of what a rush of rapture and disturbance of joy shook the minds of the disciples, and then estimate the calm and calming power of that matter-of-fact and simple greeting. It bears upon its very front the mark of truth. Would anybody have imagined the scene so? There have been one or two great poets who might conceivably have risen to the height of putting such words under such circumstances into the mouths of creatures of their own imagination. Analogous instances of the utmost simplicity of expression in moments of intense feeling may be quoted from Aschylus or Shakespeare, and are regarded as the high-water marks of genius. But does any one suppose that these evangelists were exceptionally gifted souls of that sort, or that they could have imagined anything like this—so strange in its calm, so unnatural at first sight, and yet vindicating itself as so profoundly natural and sublime—unless for the simple reason that they had heard it themselves, or been told it by credible witnesses? Neither the delicate pencil of the great dramatic genius nor the coarser brush of legend can have drawn such an incident as this, and it seems to me that the only reasonable explanation of it is that these greetings are what He really did say.
For, as I have remarked, unnatural as it seems at first sight, if we think for a moment, the very simplicity and calm, and, I was going to say, the matter-of-factness, of such a greeting, as the first that escaped from lips that had passed through death and yet were red and vocal, is congruous with the deepest truths of His nature. He has come from that tremendous conflict, and He reappears, not flushed with triumph, nor bearing any trace of effort, but surrounded as by a nimbus with that strange tranquillity which evermore enwrapped Him. So small does the awful scene which He has passed through seem to this divine-human Man, and so utterly are the old ties and bonds unaffected by it, that when He meets His followers, all He has to say to them as His first greeting is, 'Peace be unto you!'—the well-worn salutation that was bandied to and fro in every market-place and scene where men were wont to meet. Thus He indicates the divine tranquillity of His nature; thus He minimises the fact of death; thus He reduces it to its true insignificance as a parenthesis across which may pass unaffected all sweet familiarities and loving friendships; thus He reknits the broken ties, and, though the form of their intercourse is hereafter to be profoundly modified, the substance of it remains, whereof He giveth assurance unto them in these His first words from the dead. So, as to a man standing on some mountain plateau, the deep gorges which seam it become invisible, and the unbroken level runs right on. So, there are a marvellous proof of the majesty and tranquillity of the divine Man, a glorious manifestation of His superiority over death; a blessed assurance of the reknitting of all ancient ties, after it as before it, coming to us from pondering on the trivial words—trivial from other lips, but profoundly significant on His—wherewith He greeted His servants when He rose again from the dead.
II. Then note, secondly, the universal destination of the greetings of the risen Lord.
I have said that it is possibly a mere accident that we should have the two forms of salutation preserved for us here; and that it is quite conceivable that our Lord really spoke but one, which has been preserved unaltered from its Hebrew or Aramaic original in John, and rendered by its Greek equivalent by the Evangelist Matthew.
But be that as it may, I cannot help feeling that in this fact, that the one salutation is the common greeting among Greek-speaking peoples, and the other the common greeting amongst Easterns, we may permissibly find the thought of the universal aspect of the gifts and greetings of the risen Christ. He comes to all men, and each man hears Him, 'in his own tongue wherein he was born,' breathing forth to him greetings which are promises, and promises which are gifts. Just as the mocking inscription on the Cross proclaimed, in 'Hebrew and Greek and Latin,' the three tongues known to its readers, the one kingdom of the crucified King—so in the greetings from the grave, the one declares that, to all the desires of eager, ardent, sensuous, joy-loving Westerns, and all the aspirations of repose-loving Easterns, who had had bitter experience of the pangs and pains of a state of warfare, Jesus Christ is ready to respond and to bring answering gifts. Whatsoever any community or individual has conceived as its highest ideal of blessedness and of good, that the risen Christ hath in His hands to bestow. He takes men's ideals of blessedness, and deepens and purifies and refines them.
The Greek notion of joy as being the good to be most wished for those dear to us, is but a shallow one. They had to learn, and their philosophy and their poetry and their art came to corruption because they would not learn, that the corn of wheat must be cast into the ground and die before it bring forth fruit. They knew little of the blessing and meaning of sorrow, and therefore the false glitter passed away, and the pursuit of the ideal became gross and foul and sensuous. And, on the other hand, the Jew, with his longing for peace, had an equally shallow and unworthy conception of what it meant, and what was needed to produce it. If he had only external concord with men, and a competency of outward good within his reach without too much trouble, he thought that because he 'had much goods laid up for many years' he might 'take his ease; and eat, and drink, and be merry.' But Jesus Christ comes to satisfy both aspirations by contradicting both, and to reveal to Greek and Jew how much deeper and diviner was his desire than he dreamed it to be; and, therefore, how impossible it was to find the joy that would last, in the dancing fireflies of external satisfactions or the delights of art and beauty; and how impossible it was to find the repose that ennobled and was wedded to action, in anything short of union with God.
The Lord Christ comes out of the grave in which He lay for every man, and brings to each man's door, in a dialect intelligible to the man himself, the satisfaction of the single soul's aspirations and ideals, as well as of the national desires. His gifts and greetings are of universal destination, meant for us all and adapted for us each.
III. Then, thirdly, notice the unfailing efficacy of the Lord's greetings.
Look at these people to whom He spoke. Remember what they were between the Friday and the Sunday morning; utterly cowed and beaten, the women, in accordance with the feminine nature, apparently more deeply touched by the personal loss of the Friend and Comforter; and the men apparently, whilst sharing that sorrow, also touched by despair at the going to water of all the hopes that they had been building upon His official character and position. 'We trusted that it had been He which should have redeemed Israel,' they said, 'as they walked and were sad.' They were on the point of parting. The Keystone withdrawn, the stones were ready to fall apart. Then came something—let us leave a blank for a moment—then came something; and those who had been cowards, dissolved in sorrow and relaxed by despair, in eight-and-forty hours became heroes. From that time, when, by all reasonable logic and common sense applied to men's motives, the Crucifixion should have crushed their dreams and dissolved their society, a precisely opposite effect ensues, and not only did the Church continue, but the men changed their characters, and became, somehow or other, full of these very two things which Christ wished for them—namely, joy and peace.
Now I want to know—what bridges that gulf? How do you get the Peter of the Acts of the Apostles out of the Peter of the Gospels? Is there any way of explaining that revolution of character, whilst yet its broad outlines remain identical, which befell him and all of them, except the old-fashioned one that the something which came in between was the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the consequent gift of joy and peace in Him, a joy that no troubles or persecutions could shake, a peace that no conflicts could for a moment disturb? It seems to me that every theory of Christianity which boggles at accepting the Resurrection of Jesus Christ as a plain fact, is shattered to pieces on the sharp-pointed rock of this one demand—'Very well! If it is not a fact, account for the existence of the Church, and for the change in the characters of its members.' You may wriggle as you like, but you will never get a reasonable theory of these two undeniable facts until you believe that He rose from the dead. In His right hand He carried peace, and in His left joy. He gave these to them, and therefore 'out of weakness they were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens,' and when the time came, 'were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection.' There is omnipotent efficacy in Christ's greetings.
The one instance opens up the general law, that His wishes are gifts, that all His words are acts, that He speaks and it is done, and that when He desires for us joy, it is a deed of conveyance and gift, and invests us with the joy that He desires if we observe the conditions.
Christ's wishes are omnipotent, ours are powerless. We wish for our friends many good things, and the event turns wishes to mockery, and the garlands which we prepared for their birthdays have sometimes to be hung on their tombs. The limitations of human friendship and of our deepest and sincerest wishes, like a dark background, enhance the boundless efficacy of the greetings of the Master, which are not only wishes but bestowments of the thing wished, and therein given, by Him.
IV. So, lastly, notice our share in this twofold greeting.
When it was first heard, I suppose that the disciples and the women apprehended the salutation only in its most outward form, and that all other thoughts were lost in the mere rapture of the sudden change from the desolate sense of loss to the glad consciousness of renewed possession. When the women clung to His feet on that Easter morning, they had no thought of anything but—'we clasp Thee again, O Soul of our souls.' But then, as time went on, the meaning and blessedness and far-reaching issues of the Resurrection became more plain to them. And I think we can see traces of the process, in the development of Christian teaching as presented in the Acts of the Apostles and in the Epistles. Peter in his early sermons dwells on the Resurrection all but exclusively from one point of view—viz., as being the great proof of Christ's Messiahship. Then there came by degrees, as is represented in the same Peter's letter, and abundantly in the Apostle Paul's, the recognition of the light which the Resurrection of Jesus Christ threw upon immortality; as a prophecy and a pattern thereof. Then, when the historical fact had become fully accepted and universally diffused, and its bearings upon men's future had been as fully apprehended as is possible here, there came, finally, the thought that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ was the symbol of the new life, which from that risen Lord passed into all those who loved and trusted Him.
Now, in all these three aspects—as proof of Messiahship, as the pattern and prophecy of immortality, and as the symbol of the better life which is accessible for us, here and now—the Resurrection of Jesus Christ stands for us even more truly than for the rapturous women who caught His feet, or for the thankful men who looked upon Him in the upper chamber, as the source of peace and of joy.
For, dear brethren, therein is set forth for us the Christ whose work is thereby declared to be finished and acceptable to God, and all sorrow of sin, all guilt, all disturbance of heart and mind by reason of evil passions and burning memories of former iniquity, and all disturbance of our concord with God, are at once and for ever swept away. If Jesus Christ was 'declared to be the Son of God with power by His Resurrection from the dead,' and if in that Resurrection, as is most surely the case, the broad seal of the divine acceptance is set to the charter of our forgiveness and sonship by the blood of the Cross, then joy and peace come to us from Him and from it.
Again, the resurrection of Jesus Christ sets Him forth before us as the pattern and the prophecy of immortal life. This Samson has taken the gates of the prison-house on His broad shoulders and carried them away, and now no man is kept imprisoned evermore in that darkness. The earthquake has opened the doors and loosened every man's bonds. Jesus Christ hath risen from the dead, and therein not only demonstrated the certainty that life subsists through death, and that a bodily life is possible thereafter, but hath set before all those who give the keeping of their souls into His hands the glorious belief that 'the body of their humiliation shall be' 'changed into the likeness of the body of His glory, according to the working whereby He is able even to subdue all things unto Himself.' Therefore the sorrows of death, for ourselves and for our dear ones, the agitation which it causes, and all its darkness into which we shrink from passing, are swept away when He comes forth from the grave, serene, radiant, and victorious, to die no more, but to dispense amongst us His peace and His joy.
And, again, the risen Christ is the source of a new life drawn from Him and received into the heart by faith in His sacrifice and Resurrection and glory. And if I have, deep-seated in my soul, though it may be in imperfect maturity, that life which is hid with Christ in God, an inward fountain of gladness, far better than the effervescent, and therefore soon flat, waters of Greek or earthly joy, is mine; and in my inmost being dwells a depth of calm peace which no outward disturbance can touch, any more than the winds that rave along the surface of the ocean affect its unmoved and unsounded abysses. Jesus Christ comes to thee, my brother, weary, distracted, care-laden, sin-laden, sorrowful and fearful. And He says to each of us from the throne what He said in the upper room before the Cross, and on leaving the grave after it, 'My joy will remain in you, and your joy shall be full. My peace I leave to you, My peace I give unto you; not as the world giveth, give I unto you.'
ON THE MOUNTAIN
'Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus had appointed them. 17. And when they saw Him, they worshipped Him: but some doubted.' —MATT. xxviii. 16, 17.
'After that, He was seen of above five hundred brethren at once.'—1 COR. xv. 4
To infer an historian's ignorance from his silence is a short and easy, but a rash, method. Matthew has nothing to say of our Lord's appearances in Jerusalem, except in regard to that of the women in the early morning of Easter Day. But it does not follow that he was ignorant of these appearances. Imperfect knowledge may be the explanation; but the scope and design of his Gospel is much more likely to be so. It is emphatically the Gospel of the King of Israel, and it moves, with the exception of the story of the Passion, wholly within the limits of the Galilean ministry. What more probable than that the same motive which induced Jesus to select the mountain which He had appointed as the scene of this meeting should have induced the Evangelist to pass by all the other manifestations in order to fix upon this one? It was fitting that in Galilee, where He had walked in lowly gentleness, 'kindly with His kind,' He should assume His sovereign authority. It was fitting that in 'Galilee of the Gentiles,' that outlying and despised province, half heathen in the eyes of the narrow-minded Pharisaic Jerusalem, He should proclaim the widening of His kingdom from Israel to all nations.
If we had Matthew's words only, we should suppose that none but the eleven were present on this occasion. But it is obviously the same incident to which Paul refers when he speaks of the appearance to 'five hundred brethren at once.' These were the Galilean disciples who had been faithful in the days of His lowliness, and were thus now assembled to hear His proclamation of exaltation. Apparently the meeting had been arranged beforehand. They came without Him to 'the mountain where Jesus had appointed.' Probably it was the same spot on which the so-called Sermon on the Mount, the first proclamation of the King, had been delivered, and it was naturally chosen to be the scene of a yet more exalted proclamation. A thousand tender memories and associations clustered round the spot. So we have to think of the five hundred gathered in eager expectancy; and we notice how unlike the manner of His coming is to that of the former manifestations. Then, suddenly, He became visibly present where a moment before He had been unseen. But now He gradually approaches, for the doubting and the worshipping took place 'when they saw Him,' and before 'He came to them.' I suppose we may conceive of Him as coming down the hill and drawing near to them, and then, when He stands above them, and yet close to them—else the five hundred could not have seen Him 'at once'—doubts vanish; and they listen with silent awe and love. The words are majestic; all is regal. There is no veiled personality now, as there had been to Mary, and to the two on the road to Emmaus. There is no greeting now, as there had been in the upper chamber; no affording of a demonstration of the reality of His appearance, as there had been to Thomas and to the others. He stands amongst them as the King, and the music of His words, deep as the roll of thunder, and sweet as harpers harping with their harps, makes all comment or paraphrase sound thin and poor. But yet so many great and precious lessons are hived in the words that we must reverently ponder them. The material is so abundant that I can but touch it in the slightest possible fashion. This great utterance of our Lord's falls into three parts: a great claim, a great commission, a great promise.
I. There is a Great Claim.
'All power is given unto Me in heaven and in earth.' No words can more absolutely express unconditional, unlimited authority and sovereignty. Mark the variety of the gift—'all power'; every kind of force, every kind of dominion is in His hands. Mark the sphere of sovereignty—'in heaven and in earth.' Now, brethren, if we know anything about Jesus Christ, we know that He made this claim. There is no reason, except the unwillingness of some people to admit that claim, for casting any sort of doubt upon these words, or making any distinction in authority between them and the rest of the words of graciousness which the whole world has taken to its heart. But if He said this, what becomes of His right to the veneration of mankind, as the Perfect Example of the self-sacrificing, self-oblivious religious life? It is a mystery that I cannot solve, how any man can keep his reverence for Jesus, and refuse to believe that beneath these tremendous words there lies a solemn and solid reality.
Notice, too, that there is implied a definite point of time at which this all-embracing authority was given. You will find in the Revised Version a small alteration in the reading, which makes a great difference in the sense. It reads, 'All power has been given'; and that points, as I say, to a definite period. When was it given? Let another portion of Scripture answer the question—'Declared to be the Son of God with power, by the resurrection from the dead.' Then to the Man Jesus was given authority over heaven and earth. All the early Christian documents concur in this view of the connection between the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and His investiture with this sovereign power. Hearken to Paul, 'Became obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross; wherefore God also hath highly exalted Him, and given Him a name that is above every name.' Hearken to Peter, 'Who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory.' Hearken to the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, 'We see Jesus crowned with glory and honour for the suffering of death.' Hearken to John, 'To Him that is the Faithful Witness, and the First-born from the dead, and the Prince of the kings of the earth.' Look with his eyes to the vision of the 'Lamb as it had been slain,' enthroned in the midst of the throne, and say whether this unanimous consent of the earliest Christian teachers is explicable on any reasonable grounds, unless there had been underlying it just the words of our text, and the Master Himself had taught them that all power was given to Him in heaven and in earth. As it seems to me impossible to account for the existence of the Church if we deny the Resurrection, so it seems to me impossible to account for the faith of the earliest stratum of the Christian Church without the acceptance of some such declaration as this, as having come from the Lord Himself. And so the hands that were pierced with the nails wield the sceptre of the Universe, and on the brows that were wounded and bleeding with the crown of thorns are wreathed the many crowns of universal Kinghood.
But we have further to notice that in this investiture, with 'all power in heaven and on earth,' we have not merely the attestation of the perfection of His obedience, the completeness of His work, and the power of His sacrifice, but that we have also the elevation of Manhood to enthronement with Divinity. For the new thing that came to Jesus after His resurrection was that His humanity was taken into, and became participant of, 'the glory which I had with Thee, before the world was.' Then our nature, when perfect and sinless, is so cognate and kindred with the Divine that humanity is capable of being invested with, and bearing, that 'exceeding and eternal weight of glory.' In that elevation of the Man Christ Jesus, we may read a prophecy, that shall not be unfulfilled, of the destiny of all those who conform to Him through faith, love, and obedience, finally to sit down with Him on His throne, even as He is set down with the Father on His throne.
Ah! brethren, Christianity has dark and low views of human nature, and men say they are too low and too dark. It is 'Nature's sternest painter,' and, therefore, 'its best.' But if on its palette the blacks are blacker than anywhere else, its range of colour is greater, and its white is more lustrous. No system thinks so condemnatorily of human nature as it is; none thinks so glowingly of human nature as it may become. There are bass notes far down beyond the limits of the scale to which ears dulled by the world and sin and sorrow are sensitive; and there are clear, high tones, thrilling and shrilling far above the range of perception of such ears. The man that is in the lowest depths may rise with Jesus to the highest, but it must be by the same road by which the Master went. 'If we suffer with Him, we shall also reign with Him,' and only 'if.' There is no other path to the Throne but the Cross. Via crucis, via lucis—the way of the Cross is the way of light. It is to those who have accepted their Gethsemanes and their Calvarys that He appoints a kingdom, as His Father has appointed unto Him.
So much, then, for the first point here in these words; turn now to the second.
II. The Great Commission.
One might have expected that the immediate inference to be drawn from 'All power is given unto Me in heaven and in earth' would have been some word of encouragement and strengthening to those who were so soon to be left, and who were beginning to be conscious of their feebleness. But there is nothing more striking in the whole of the incidents of those forty days than the prominence which is given in them to the work of the Church when the Master had left it, and to the imperative obligations devolving upon it. And so here, not encouragement, but obligation is the inference that is drawn from that tremendous claim. 'Because I have all power, therefore you are charged with the duty of winning the world for its King.' The all-ruling Christ calls for the universal proclamation of His sovereignty by His disciples. These five hundred little understood the sweep of the commandment, and, as history shows, terribly failed to apprehend the emancipating power of it. But He says to us, as to them, 'I am not content with the authority given to Me by God, unless I have the authority that each man for himself can give Me, by willing surrender of his heart and will to Me.' Jesus Christ craves no empty rule, no mere elevation by virtue of Divine supremacy, over men. He regards that elevation as incomplete without the voluntary surrender of men to become His subjects and champions. Without its own consent He does not count that His universal power is established in a human heart. Though that dominion be all-embracing like the ocean, and stretching into all corners of the universe, and dominating over all ages, yet in that ocean there may stand up black and dry rocks, barren as they are dry, and blasted as they are black, because, with the awful power of a human will, men have said, 'We will not have this Man to reign over us.' It is willing subjects whom Christ seeks, in order to make the Divine grant of authority a reality.
In that work He needs His servants. The gift of God notwithstanding, the power of His Cross notwithstanding, the perfection and completeness of His great reconciling and redeeming work notwithstanding, all these are vain unless we, His servants, will take them in our hands as our weapons, and go forth on the warfare to which He has summoned us. This is the command laid upon us all, 'Make disciples of all nations.' Only so will the reality correspond to the initial and all-embracing grant.
It would take us too far to deal at all adequately, or in anything but the most superficial fashion, with the remaining parts of this great commission. 'Make disciples of all nations'—that is the first thing. Then comes the second step: 'Baptizing them into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.' Who are to be baptized? Now, notice, if I may venture upon being slightly technical for a moment, that the word 'nations' in the preceding clause is a neuter one, and that the word for 'them' in this clause is a masculine, which seems to me fairly to imply that the command 'baptizing them' does not refer to 'all nations,' but to the disciples latent among them, and to be drawn from them. Surely, surely the great claim of absolute and unbounded power has for its consequence something better than the lame and impotent conclusion of appointing an indiscriminate rite, as the means of making disciples! Surely that is not in accordance with the spirituality of the Christian faith!
'Baptizing them into the Name'—the name is one, that of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Does that mean the name of God, and of a man, and of an influence, all jumbled up together in blasphemous and irrational union? Surely, if Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have one name, the name of Divinity, then it is but a step to say that three Persons are one God! But there is a great deal more here than a baptismal formula, for to be baptized into the Name is but the symbol of being plunged into communion with this one threefold God of our salvation. The ideal state of the Christian disciple is that he shall be as a vase dropped into the Atlantic, encompassed about with God, and filled with Him. We all 'live, and move, and have our being' in Him, but some of us have so wrapped ourselves, if I may venture to use such a figure, in waterproof covering, that, though we are floating in an ocean of Divinity, not a drop finds its way in. Cast the covering aside, and you will be saturated with God, and only in the measure in which you live and move and have your being in the Name are you disciples.
There is another step still. Making disciples and bringing into communion with the Godhead is not all that is to flow from, and correspond to, and realise in the individual, the absolute authority of Jesus Christ—'Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.' We hear a great deal in these days about the worthlessness of mere dogmatic Christianity. Jesus Christ anticipated all that talk, and guarded it from exaggeration. For what He tells us here that we are to train ourselves and others in, is not creed but conduct; not things to be believed or credenda but things to be done or agenda—'teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.' A creed that is not wrought out in actions is empty; conduct that is not informed, penetrated, regulated by creed, is unworthy of a man, not to say of a Christian. What we are to know we are to know in order that we may do, and so inherit the benediction, which is never bestowed upon them that know, but upon them that, knowing these things, are blessed in, as well as for, the doing of them.
That training is to be continuous, educating to new views of duty; new applications of old truths, new sensitiveness of conscience, unveiling to us, ever as we climb, new heights to which we aspire. The Christian Church has not yet learnt—thank God it is learning, though by slow degrees—all the moral and practical implications and applications of 'the truth as it is in Jesus.' And so these are the three things by which the Church recognises and corresponds to the universal dominion of Christ, the making disciples universally; the bringing them into the communion of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; and the training of them to conduct ever approximating more and more to the Divine ideal of humanity in the glorified Christ.
And now I must gather just into a sentence or two what is to be said about the last point. There is—
III. The Great Promise.
'I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world,' or, as it might be read, 'with you all the days, even to the accomplishment of the age.' Note that emphatic 'I am,' which does not only denote certainty, but is the speech of Him who is lifted above the lower regions where Time rolls and the succession of events occurs. That 'I am' covers all the varieties of was, is, will be. Notice the long vista of variously tinted days which opens here. Howsoever many they be, howsoever different their complexion, days of summer and days of winter, days of sunshine and days of storm, days of buoyant youth and days of stagnant, stereotyped old age, days of apparent failure and days of apparent prosperity, He is with us in them all. They change, He is 'the same yesterday, and to-day, and for ever.' Notice the illimitable extent of the promise—'even unto the end.' We are always tempted to think that long ago the earth was more full of God than it is to-day, and that away forward in the future it will again be fuller, but that this moment is comparatively empty. The heavens touch the earth on the horizon in front and behind, and they are highest and remotest above us just where we stand. But no past day had more of Christ in it than to-day has, and that He has gone away is the condition of His coming. 'He therefore departed for a season, that we might receive Him for ever.'
But mark that the promise comes after a command, and is contingent, for all its blessedness and power, upon our obedience to the prescribed duty. That duty is primarily to make disciples of all nations, and the discharge of it is so closely connected with the realisation of the promise that a non-missionary Church never has much of Christ's presence. But obedience to all the King's commands is required if we stand before Him, and are to enjoy His smile. If you wish to keep Christ very near you, and to feel Him with you, the way to do so is no mere cultivation of religious emotion, or saturating your mind with religious books and thoughts, though these have their place; but on the dusty road of life doing His will and keeping His commandments. 'If a man love Me he will keep My words, and My Father will love Him. We will come to Him, and make our abode with Him.'