Now the last thing here in this picture is the contrast between the description given of the wandering sheep in our text, and that in St. Luke. Here it is represented as wandering, there it is represented as lost. That is very beautiful and has a meaning often not noticed by hasty readers. Who is it that has lost it? We talk about the lost soul and the lost man, as if it were the man that had lost himself, and that is true, and a dreadful truth it is. But that is not the truth that is taught in this parable, and meant by us to be gathered from it. Who is it that has lost it? He to whom it belonged.
That is to say, wherever a heart gets ensnared and entangled with the love of the treasures and pleasures of this life, and so departs in allegiance and confidence and friendship from the living God, there God the Father regards Himself as the poorer by the loss of one of His children, by the loss of one of His sheep. He does not care to possess you by the hold of mere creation and supremacy and rule. He desires you to love Him, and then He deems that He has you. And if you do not love Him, He deems that He has lost you. There is something in the divine heart that goes out after His lost property. We touch here upon deep things that we cannot speak of intelligently; only remember this, that what looks like self-regard in man is the purest love in God, and that there is nothing in the whole revelation which Christianity makes of the character of God more wonderful than this, that He judges that He has lost His child when His child has forgotten to love Him.
II. So much, then, for one of the great pictures in this text. I can spare but a sentence or two for the other—the picture of the Seeker.
I said that in the one form of the parable it was more distinctly the Father, and in the other more distinctly the Son, who is represented as seeking the sheep. But these two do still coincide in substance, inasmuch as God's chief way of seeking us poor wandering sheep is through the work of His dear Son Jesus, and the coming of Christ is the Father's searching for His sheep in the 'cloudy and dark day.'
According to my text God leaves the ninety-and-nine and goes into the mountains where the wanderer is, and seeks him. And this, couched in veiled form, is the great mystery of the divine love, the incarnation and sacrifice of Jesus Christ our Lord. Here is the answer by anticipation to the sarcasm that is often levelled at evangelical Christianity: 'You must think a good deal of human nature, and must have a very arrogant notion of the inhabitant of this little speck that floats in the great sea of the heavens, if you suppose that with all these millions of orbs he is so important that the divine Nature came down upon this little tiny molehill, and took his nature and died.'
'Yes!' says Christ, 'not because man was so great, not because man was so valuable in comparison with the rest of creation—he was but one amongst ninety-nine unfallen and unsinful—but because he was so wretched, because he was so small, because he had gone so far away from God; therefore, the seeking love came after him, and would draw him to itself.' That, I think, is answer enough to the cavil.
And then, there is a difference between these two versions of the Parable in respect to their representation of the end of the seeking. The one says 'seeks until He finds.' Oh! the patient, incredible inexhaustibleness of the divine love. God's long-suffering, if I may take such a metaphor, like a sleuth-hound, will follow the object of its search through all its windings and doublings, until it comes up to it. So that great seeking Shepherd follows us through all the devious courses of our wayward, wandering footsteps doubling back upon themselves, until He finds us. Though the sheep may increase its distance, the Shepherd follows. The further away we get the more tender His appeal; the more we stop our ears the louder the voice with which He calls. You cannot wear out Jesus Christ, you cannot exhaust the resources of His bounteousness, of His tenderness. However we may have been going wrong, however far we may have been wandering, however vehemently we may be increasing, at every moment, our distance from Him, He is coming after us, serene, loving, long-suffering, and will not be put away.
Dear friend! would you only believe that a loving, living Person is really seeking you, seeking you by my poor words now, seeking you by many a providence, seeking you by His Gospel, by His Spirit; and will never be satisfied till He has found you in your finding Him and turning your soul to Him!
But, I beseech you, do not forget the solemn lesson drawn from the other form of the parable which is given in my text: If so be that He find it. There is a possibility of failure. What an awful power you have of burying yourself in the sepulchre, as it were, of your own self-will, and hiding yourself in the darkness of your own unbelief! You can frustrate the seeking love of God. Some of you have done so—some of you have done so all your lives. Some of you, perhaps at this moment, are trying to do so, and consciously endeavouring to steel your hearts against some softening that may have been creeping over them whilst I have been speaking. Are you yielding to His seeking love, or wandering further and further from Him? He has come to find you. Let Him not seek in vain, but let the Good Shepherd draw you to Himself, where, lifted on the Cross, He 'giveth His life for the sheep.' He will restore your soul and carry you back on His strong shoulder, or in His bosom near His loving heart, to the green pastures and the safe fold. There will be joy in His heart, more than over those who have never wandered; and there will be joy in the heart of the returning wanderer, such as they who had not strayed and learned the misery could never know, for, as the profound Jewish saying has it, 'In the place where the penitents stand, the perfectly righteous cannot stand.'
PERSISTENCE OF THWARTED LOVE
'If so be that he find it.'—MATT. xviii. 13.
'Until he find it.'—LUKE xv. 4.
Like other teachers, Jesus seems to have had favourite points of view and utterances which came naturally to His lips. There are several instances in the gospels of His repeating the same sayings in entirely different connections and with different applications. One of these habitual points of view seems to have been the thought of men as wandering sheep, and of Himself as the Shepherd. The metaphor has become so familiar that we need a moment's reflection to grasp the mingled tenderness, sadness, and majesty of it. He thought habitually of all humanity as a flock of lost sheep, and of Himself as high above them, unparticipant of their evil, and having one errand—to bring them back.
And not only does He frequently refer to this symbol, but we have the two editions, from which my texts are respectively taken, of the Parable of the Lost Sheep. I say two editions, because it seems to me a great deal more probable that Jesus should have repeated Himself than that either of the Evangelists should have ventured to take this gem and set it in an alien setting. The two versions differ slightly in some unimportant expressions, and Matthew's is the more condensed of the two. But the most important variation is the one which is brought to light by the two fragments which I have ventured to isolate as texts. 'If He find' implies the possible failure of the Shepherd's search; 'till He find' implies His unwearied persistence in the teeth of all failure. And, taken in conjunction, they suggest some very blessed and solemn considerations, which I pray for strength to lay upon your minds and hearts now.
I. But first let me say a word or two upon the more general thought brought out in both these clauses—of the Shepherd's search.
Now, beautiful and heart-touching as that picture is, of the Shepherd away amongst the barren mountains searching minutely in every ravine and thicket, it wants a little explanation in order to be brought into correspondence with the fact which it expresses. For His search for His lost property is not in ignorance of where it is, and His finding of it is not His discovery of His sheep, but its discovery of its Shepherd. We have to remember wherein consists the loss before we can understand wherein consists the search.
Now, if we ask ourselves that question first, we get a flood of light on the whole matter. The great hundredth Psalm, according to its true rendering, says, 'It is He that hath made us, and we are His; ... we are ... the sheep of His pasture.' But God's true possession of man is not simply the possession inherent in the act of creation. For there is only one way in which spirit can own spirit, or heart can possess heart, and that is through the voluntary yielding and love of the one to the other. So Jesus Christ, who, in all His seeking after us men, is the voice and hand of Almighty Love, does not count that He has found a man until the man has learned to love Him. For He loses us when we are alienated from Him, when we cease to trust Him, when we refuse to obey Him, when we will not yield to Him, but put Him far away from us. Therefore the search which, as being Christ's is God's in Christ, is for our love, our trust, our obedience; and in reality it consists of all the energies by which Jesus Christ, as God's embodiment and representative, seeks to woo and win you and me back to Himself, that He may truly possess us.
If the Shepherd's seeking is but a tender metaphor for the whole aggregate of the ways by which the love that is divine and human in Jesus Christ moves round about our closed hearts, as water may feel round some hermetically sealed vessel, seeking for an entrance, then surely the first and chiefest of them, which makes its appeal to each of us as directly as to any man that ever lived, is that great mystery that Jesus Christ, the eternal Word of God, left the ninety-and-nine that were safe on the high pastures of the mountains of God, and came down among us, out into the wilderness, 'to seek and to save that which was lost.'
And, brother, that method of winning—I was going to say, of earning—our love comes straight in its appeal to every single soul on the face of the earth. Do not say that thou wert not in Christ's heart and mind when He willed to be born and willed to die. Thou, and thou, and thou, and every single unit of humanity were there clear before Him in their individuality; and He died for thee, and for me, and for every man. And, in one aspect, that is more than to say that He died for all men. There was a specific intention in regard to each of us in the mission of Jesus Christ; and when He went to the Cross the Shepherd was not giving His life for a confused flock of which He knew not the units, but for sheep the face of each of whom He knows, and each of whom He loves. There was His first seeking; there is His chief seeking. There is the seeking which ought to appeal to every soul of man, and which, ever since you were children, has been making its appeal to you. Has it done so in vain? Dear friend, let not your heart still be hard.
He seeks us by every record of that mighty love that died for us, even when it is being spoken as poorly, and with as many limitations and imperfections, as I am speaking it now. 'As though God did beseech you by us, pray you in Christ's stead.' It is not arrogance, God forbid! it is simple truth when I say, Never mind about me; but my word, in so far as it is true and tender, is Christ's word to you. And here, in our midst, that unseen Form is passing along these pews and speaking to these hearts, and the Shepherd is seeking His sheep.
He seeks each of us by the inner voices and emotions in our hearts and minds, by those strange whisperings which sometimes we hear, by the suddenly upstarting convictions of duty and truth which sometimes, without manifest occasion, flash across our hearts. These voices are Christ's voice, for, in a far deeper sense than most men superficially believe, 'He is the true Light that lighteth every man coming into the world.'
He is seeking us by our unrest, by our yearnings after we know not what, by our dim dissatisfaction which insists upon making itself felt in the midst of joys and delights, and which the world fails to satisfy as much as it fails to interpret. There is a cry in every heart, little as the bearer of the heart translates it into its true meaning—a cry after God, even the living God. And by all your unrests, your disappointments, your hopes unfulfilled, your hopes fulfilled and blasted in the fulfilment, your desires that perish unfruited; by all the mystic movements of the spirit that yearns for something beyond the material and the visible, Jesus Christ is seeking His sheep.
He seeks us by the discipline of life, for I believe that Christ is the active Providence of God, and that the hands that were pierced on the Cross do move the wheels of the history of the world, and mould the destinies of individual spirits.
The deepest meaning of all life is that we should be won to seek Him who in it all is seeking us, and led to venture our hopes, and fling the anchor of our faith beyond the bounds of the visible, that it may fasten in the Eternal, even in Christ Himself, 'the same yesterday and to-day and for ever' when earth and its training are done with. Brethren, it is a blessed thing to live, when we interpret life's smallnesses aright as the voice of the Master, who, by them all—our sadness and our gladness, the unrest of our hearts and the yearnings and longings of our spirits, by the ministry of His word, by the record of His sufferings—is echoing the invitation of the Cross itself, 'Come unto Me, all ye ... and I will give you rest!' So much for the Shepherd's search.
II. And now, in the second place, a word as to the possible thwarting of the search.
'If so be that He find.' That is an awful if, when we think of what lies below it. The thing seems an absurdity when it is spoken, and yet it is a grim fact in many a life—viz. that Christ's effort can fail and be thwarted. Not that His search is perfunctory or careless, but that we shroud ourselves in darkness through which that love can find no way. It is we, not He, that are at fault when He fails to find that which He seeks. There is nothing more certain than that God, and Christ the image of God, desire the rescue of every man, woman, and child of the human race. Let no teaching blur that sunlight fact. There is nothing more certain than that Jesus Christ has done, and is doing, all that He can do to secure that purpose. If He could make every man love Him, and so find every man, be sure that He would do it. But He cannot. For here is the central mystery of creation, which if we could solve there would be few knots that would resist our fingers, that a finite will like yours or mine can lift itself up against God, and that, having the capacity, it has the desire. He says, 'Come!' We say, 'I will not.' That door of the heart opens from within, and He never breaks it open. He stands at the door and knocks. And then the same solemn if comes—'If any man opens, I will come in'; if any man keeps it shut, and holds on to prevent its being opened, I will stop out.
Brethren, I seek to press upon you now the one plain truth, that if you are not saved men and women, there is no person in heaven or earth or hell that has any blame in the matter but yourself alone. God appeals to us, and says, 'What more could have been done to My vineyard that I have not done unto it?' His hands are clean, and the infinite love of Christ is free from all blame, and all the blame lies at our own doors.
I must not dwell upon the various reasons which lead so many men among us—as, alas! the utmost charity cannot but see that there are—to turn away from Christ's appeals, and to be unwilling to 'have this Man' either 'to reign over' them or to save them. There are many such, I am sure, in my audience now; and I would fain, if I could, draw them to that Lord in whom alone they have life, and rest, and holiness, and heaven.
One great reason is because you do not believe that you need Him. There is an awful inadequacy in most men's conceptions—and still more in their feelings—as to their sin. Oh dear friends, if you would only submit your consciences for one meditative half-hour to the light of God's highest law, I think you would find out something more than many of you know, as to what you are and what your sin is. Many of us do not much believe that we are in any danger. I have seen a sheep comfortably cropping the short grass on a down over the sea, with one foot out in the air, and a precipice of five hundred feet below it, and at the bottom the crawling water. It did not know that there was any danger of going over. That is like some of us. If you believed what is true—that 'sin when it is finished, bringeth forth death,' and understood what 'death' meant, you would feel the mercy of the Shepherd seeking you. Some of us think we are in the flock when we are not. Some of us do not like submission. Some of us have no inclination for the sweet pastures that He provides, and would rather stay where we are, and have the fare that is going there.
We do not need to do anything to put Him away. I have no doubt that some of us, as soon as my voice ceases, will plunge again into worldly talk and thoughts before they are down the chapel steps, and so blot out, as well as they can, any vagrant and superficial impression that may have been made. Dear brethren, it is a very easy matter to turn away from the Shepherd's voice. 'I called, and ye refused. I stretched out My hands, and no man regarded.' That is all! That is what you do, and that is enough.
III. So, lastly, the thwarted search prolonged.
'Till He find'—that is a wonderful and a merciful word. It indicates the infinitude of Christ's patient forgiveness and perseverance. We tire of searching. 'Can a mother forget' or abandon her seeking after a lost child? Yes! if it has gone on for so long as to show that further search is hopeless, she will go home and nurse her sorrow in her heart. Or, perhaps, like some poor mothers and wives, it will turn her brain, and one sign of her madness will be that, long years after grief should have been calm because hope was dead, she will still be looking for the little one so long lost. But Jesus Christ stands at the closed door, as a great modern picture shows, though it has been so long undisturbedly closed that the hinges are brown with rust, and weeds grow high against it. He stands there in the night, with the dew on His hair, unheeded or repelled, like some stranger in a hostile village seeking for a night's shelter. He will not be put away; but, after all refusals, still with gracious finger, knocks upon the door, and speaks into the heart. Some of you have refused Him all your lives, and perhaps you have grey hairs upon you now. And He is speaking to you still. He 'suffereth long, is not easily provoked, is not soon angry; hopeth all things,' even of the obstinate rejecters.
For that is another truth that this word 'till' preaches to us—viz. the possibility of bringing back those that have gone furthest away and have been longest away. The world has a great deal to say about incurable cases of moral obliquity and deformity. Christ knows nothing about 'incurable cases.' If there is a worst man in the world—and perhaps there is—there is nothing but his own disinclination to prevent his being brought back, and made as pure as an angel.
But do not let us deal with generalities; let us bring the truths to ourselves. Dear brethren, I know nothing about the most of you. I should not know you again if I met you five minutes after we part now. I have never spoken to many of you, and probably never shall, except in this public way; but I know that you need Christ, and that Christ wants you. And I know that, however far you have gone, you have not gone so far but that His love feels out through the remoteness to grasp you, and would fain draw you to itself.
I dare say you have seen upon some dreary moor, or at the foot of some 'scaur' on the hillside, the bleached bones of a sheep, lying white and grim among the purple heather. It strayed, unthinking of danger, tempted by the sweet herbage; it fell; it vainly bleated; it died. But what if it had heard the shepherd's call, and had preferred to lie where it fell, and to die where it lay? We talk about 'silly sheep.' Are there any of them so foolish as men and women listening to me now, who will not answer the Shepherd's voice when they hear it, with, 'Lord, here am I, come and help me out of this miry clay, and bring me back.' He is saying to each of you, 'Turn ye, turn ye, why will ye die?' May He not have to say at last of any of us, 'Ye would not come to Me, that ye might have life!'
FORGIVEN AND UNFORGIVING
'Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times; but, Until seventy times seven.' —MATT. xviii. 22.
The disciples had been squabbling about pre-eminence in the kingdom which they thought was presently to appear. They had ventured to refer their selfish and ambitious dispute to Christ's arbitrament. He answered by telling them the qualifications of 'the greatest in the kingdom'—that they are to be humble like little children; that they are to be placable; that they are to use all means to reclaim offenders; and that, even if the offence is against themselves, they are to ignore the personal element, and to regard the offender, not so much as having done them harm, as having harmed himself by his evil-doing.
Peter evidently feels that that is a very hard commandment for a man of his temperament, and so he goes to Jesus Christ for a little further direction, and proposes a question as to the limits of this disposition: 'How often shall my brother sin?' The very question betrays that he does not understand what forgiveness means; for it is not real, if the 'forgiven' sin is stowed away safely in the memory. 'I can forgive, but I cannot forget,' generally means, 'I do not quite forgive.' We are not to take the pardoned offence, and carry it to a kind of 'suspense account,' to be revived if another is committed, but we are to blot it out altogether. Peter thought that he had given a very wide allowance when he said 'seven times.' Christ's answer lifts the whole subject out of the realm of hard and fast lines and limits, for He takes the two perfect numbers 'ten' and 'seven,' and multiplies them together, and then He multiplies that by 'seven' once more; and the product is not four hundred and ninety, but is innumerableness. He does not mean that the four hundred and ninety-first offence is outside the pale, but He suggests indefiniteness, endlessness. So, as I say, He lifts the question out of the region in which Peter was keeping it, thereby betraying that he did not understand what he was talking about, and tells us that there are no limits to the obligation.
The parable which follows, and follows with a 'therefore,' does not deal so much with Peter's question as to the limits of the disposition, but sets forth its grounds and the nature of its manifestations. If we understand why we ought to forgive, and what forgiveness is, we shall not say, 'How often?' The question will have answered itself.
I turn to the parable rather than the words which I have read as our starting-point, to seek to bring out the lessons which it contains in regard to our relations to God, and to one another. There are three sections in it: the king and his debtor; the forgiven debtor and his debtor; and the forgiven debtor unforgiven because unforgiving. And if we look at these three points I think we shall get the lessons intended.
I. The king and his debtor.
A certain king has servants, whom he gathers together to give in their reckoning. And one of them is brought that owes him ten thousand talents. Now, it is to be noticed at the very outset that the analogy between debt and sin, though real, is extremely imperfect. No metaphor of that sort goes on all fours, and there has been a great deal of harm done to theology and to evangelical religion by carrying out too completely the analogy between money debts and our sins against God. But although the analogy is imperfect, it is very real. The first point that is to be brought out in this first part of the parable is the immense magnitude of every man's transgressions against God. Numismatists and arithmeticians may jangle about the precise amount represented by the thousand talents. It differs according to the talent which is taken as the basis of the calculation. There were several talents in use in the currency of ancient days. But the very point of the expression is not the specification of an exact amount, but the use of a round number which is to suggest an undefined magnitude. 'Ten thousand talents,' according to one estimate, is some two millions and a quarter of pounds sterling.
But I would point out that the amount is stated in terms of talents, and any talent is a large sum; and there are ten thousand of these; and the reason why the account is made out in terms of talents, the largest denomination in the currency of the period, is because every sin against God is a great sin. He being what He is, and we being what we are, and sin being what it is, every sin is large, although the deed which embodies it may be, when measured by the world's foot-rule, very small. For the essence of sin is rebellion against God and the enthroning of self as His victorious rival; and all rebellion is rebellion, whether it is found in arms in the field, or whether it is simply sulkily refusing obedience and cherishing thoughts of treason. We are always apt to go wrong in our estimate of the great and small in human actions, and, although the terms of magnitude do not apply properly to moral questions at all, there is no more conspicuous misuse of language than when we speak of anything which has in it the virus of rebellion against God, and the breach of His law, as being a small sin. It may be a small act; it is a great sin. Little rattlesnakes are snakes; they have rattles and poison fangs as really as the most monstrous of the brood that coils and hisses in some cave. So the account is made out in terms of talents, because every sin is a great one. I need not dwell upon the numerousness that is suggested. 'Ten thousand' is the natural current expression for a number that is not innumerable, but is only known to be very great. The psalmist says: 'They are more than the hairs of my head.' How many hairs had you in your head, David? Do you know? 'No!' And how many sins have you committed? Do you know? 'No!' The number is beyond count by us, though it may be counted by Him against whom they are done. Do you believe that about yourself, my friend, that the debit side of your account has filled all the page and has to be carried forward on to another? Do we any of us realise, as we all of us ought to do, the infinite number, and the transcendent greatness, of our transgressions against the Father?
But the next point to be noticed is the stern legal right of the creditor. It sounds harsh, cruel, almost brutal, that the man and his wife and his children should be sold into slavery, and all that he had should be taken from him, in order to go some little way towards the reduction of the enormous debt that he owed. Christ puts in that harsh and apparently cruel conduct in the story, not to suggest that it was harsh and cruel, but because it was according to the law of the time. A recognised legal right was exercised by the creditor when he said, 'Take him; sell him for a slave, and bring me what he fetches in the open markets.' So that we have here suggested the solemn thought of the right that divine justice, acting according to strict retributive law, has over each of us. Our own consciences attest it as perfectly within the scope of the divine retributive justice that our enormous sin should bring down a tremendous punishment.
I said that the analogy between sin and debt was a very imperfect one. It is imperfect in regard to one point—viz. the implication of other people in the consequences of the man's evil; for although it is quite true that 'the evil that men do lives after them, and spreads far beyond their sight, and involves many people, no other is amenable to divine justice for the sinner's debt. It is quite true that, when we do an evil action, we never can tell how far its wind-borne seeds may be carried, or where they may alight, or what sort of unwholesome fruit they may bear, or who may be poisoned by them; but, on the other hand, we, and we only, are responsible for our individual transgressions against God. 'If thou be wise, thou shalt be wise for thyself; and if thou scornest, thou alone shalt bear it.'
The same imperfection in the analogy applies to the next point in the parable—viz. the bankrupt debtor's prayer, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.' Easy to promise! I wonder how long it would have taken a penniless bankrupt to scrape together two and a quarter millions of pounds? He said a great deal more than he could make good. But the language of his prayer is by no means the language that becomes a penitent at God's throne. We have not to offer to make future satisfaction. No! that is impossible. 'What I have written I have written,' and the page, with all its smudges and blots and misshapen letters, cannot be made other than it is by any future pages fairly written. No future righteousness has any power to affect the guilt of past sin. There is one thing that does discharge the writing from the page. Do you remember Paul's words, 'blotting out the handwriting that was against us—nailing it to His Cross'? You sometimes dip your pens into red ink, and run a couple of lines across the page of an account that is done with. Jesus Christ does the same across our account, and the debt is non-existent, because He has died.
But the prayer is the expression, if not of penitence yet of petition, and all the stern rigour of the law's requirement at once melts away, and the king who, in the former words, seemed so harsh, now is almost incredibly merciful. For he not only cancels the debt, but sets the man free. 'Thy ways are not as our ways; ... as the heavens are higher than the earth, so great is His mercy toward' the sinful soul.
II. So much, then, for the first part of this parable. Now a word as to the second, the forgiven debtor and his debt.
Our Lord uses in the 27th and 28th verses of our text the same expression very significantly and emphatically. 'The lord of that servant was moved with compassion.' And then again, in the 28th verse, 'But that servant went out and found one of his fellow-servants.' The repetition of the same phrase hooks the two halves together, emphasises the identity of the man, and the difference of his demeanour, on the two occasions.
The conduct described is almost impossibly disgusting and truculent. 'He found his fellow-servant, who owed him a hundred pence'—some three pounds, ten shillings—and with the hands that a minute before had been wrung in agony, and extended in entreaty, he throttled him; and with the voice that had been plaintively pleading for mercy a minute before, he gruffly growled, 'Pay me that thou owest.' He had just come through an agony of experience that might have made him tender. He had just received a blessing that might have made his heart glow. But even the repetition of his own petition does not touch him, and when the poor fellow-servant, with his paltry debt, says, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all,' it avails nothing. He durst not sell his fellow-servant. God's rights over a man are more than any man's over another. But he does what he can. He will not do much towards recouping himself of his loan by flinging the poor debtor into prison, but if he cannot get his ducats he will gloat over his 'pound of flesh.' So he hurries him off to gaol.
Could a man have done like that? Ah! brethren, the things that would be monstrous in our relations to one another are common in our relations to God. Every day we see, and, alas! do, the very same thing, in our measure and degree. Do you never treasure up somebody's slights? Do you never put away in a pigeon-hole for safe-keeping, endorsed with the doer's name on the back of it, the record of some trivial offence against you? It is but as a penny against a talent, for the worst that any of us can do to another is nothing as compared with what many of us have been doing all our lives toward God. I dare say that some of us will go out from this place, and the next man that we meet that 'rubs us the wrong way,' or does us any harm, we shall score down his act against him with as implacable and unmerciful an unforgivingness as that of this servant in the parable. Do not believe that he was a monster of iniquity. He was just like us. We all of us have one human heart, and this man's crime is but too natural to us all. The essence of it was that having been forgiven, he did not forgive.
So, then, our Lord here implies the principle that God's mercy to us is to set the example to which our dealings with others is to be conformed. 'Even as I had mercy on thee' plainly proposes that miracle of divine forgiveness as our pattern as well as our hope. The world's morality recognises the duty of forgiveness. Christ shows us God's forgiveness as at once the model which is the perfect realisation of the idea in its completeness and inexhaustibleness, and also the motive which, brought into our experience, inclines and enables us to forgive.
III. And now I come to the last point of the text—the debtor who had been forgiven falling back into the ranks of the unforgiven, because he does not forgive.
The fellow-servants were very much disgusted, no doubt. Our consciences work a great deal more rapidly, and rigidly, about other people's faults than they do about our own. And nine out of ten of these fellow-servants that were very sorry, and ran and told the king, would have done exactly the same thing themselves. The king, for the first time, is wroth. We do not read that he was so before, when the debt only was in question; but such unforgiving harshness, after the experience of such merciful forgiveness, rouses his righteous indignation. The unmercifulness of Christian people is a worse sin than many a deed that goes by very ugly names amongst men. And so the judgment that falls upon this evil-doer, who, by his truculence to his fellow-servant, had betrayed the baseness of his nature and the ingratitude of his heart, is, 'Put him back where he was! Tie the two and a quarter millions round his neck again! Let us see what he will do by way of discharging it now!'
Now, do not let any theological systems prevent you from recognising the solemn truth that underlies that representation, that there may be things in the hearts and conduct of forgiven Christians which may cancel the cancelling of their debt, and bring it all back again. No man can cherish the malicious disposition that treasures up offences against himself, and at the same moment feel that the divine love is wrapping him round in its warm folds. If we are to retain our consciousness of having been forgiven by God, and received into the amplitude of His heart, we must, in our measure and degree, imitate that on which we trust, and be mirrors of the divine mercy which we say has saved us.
Our parable lays equal stress on two things. First, that the foundation of all real mercifulness in men is the reception of forgiving mercy from God. We must have experienced it before we can exercise it. And, second, we must exercise it, if we desire to continue to experience it. 'Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.' That applies to Christian people. But behind that there lies the other truth, that in order to be merciful we must first of all have received the initial mercy of cancelled transgression.
So, dear friends, here are the two lessons for every one of us. First, to recognise our debt, and go to Him in whom God is well pleased, for its abolishment and forgiveness; and then to go out into the world, and live like Him, and show to others love kindled by and kindred to that to which we trust for our own salvation. 'Be ye therefore imitators of God, as beloved children, and walk in love, as God also hath loved us.'
THE REQUIREMENTS OF THE KING
'And, behold, one came and said unto Him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? 17. And He said unto him, Why callest thou Me good? there is none good but One, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. 18. He saith unto Him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, 19. Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 20. The young man saith unto Him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet? 21. Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow Me. 22. But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions. 23. Then said Jesus unto His disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. 24. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. 25. When His disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved? 26. But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.'—MATT. xix. 16-26.
We have here one of the saddest stories in the gospels. It is a true soul's tragedy. The young man is in earnest, but his earnestness has not volume and force enough to float him over the bar. He wishes to have some great thing bidden him to do, but he recoils from the sharp test which Christ imposes. He truly wants the prize, but the cost is too great; and yet he wishes it so much that he goes away without it in deep sorrow, which perhaps, at another day, ripened into the resolve which then was too high for him. There is a certain severity in our Lord's tone, an absence of recognition of the much good in the young man, and a naked stringency in His demand from him, which sound almost harsh, but which are set in their true light by Mark's note, that Jesus 'loved him,' and therefore treated him thus. The truest way to draw ingenuous souls is not to flatter, nor to make entrance easy by dropping the standard or hiding the requirements, but to call out all their energy by setting before them the lofty ideal. Easy-going disciples are easily made—and lost. Thorough-going ones are most surely won by calling for entire surrender.
I. We may gather together the earlier part of the conversation, as introductory to the Lord's requirement (vs. 16-20), in which we have the picture of a real though imperfect moral earnestness, and may note how Christ deals with it. Matthew tells us that the questioner was young and rich. Luke adds that he was a 'ruler'—a synagogue official, that is—which was unusual for a young man, and indicates that his legal blamelessness was recognised. Mark adds one of his touches, which are not only picturesque, but character-revealing, by the information that he came 'running' to Jesus in the way, so eager was he, and fell at His feet, so reverential was he. His first question is singularly compacted of good and error. The fact that he came to Christ for a purely religious purpose, not seeking personal advantage for himself or for others, like the crowds who followed for loaves and cures, nor laying traps for Him with puzzles which might entangle Him with the authorities, nor asking theological questions for curiosity, but honestly and earnestly desiring to be helped to lay hold of eternal life, is to be put down to his credit. He is right in counting it the highest blessing.
Where had he got hold of the thought of 'eternal life'? It was miles above the dusty speculations and casuistries of the rabbis. Probably from Christ Himself. He was right in recognising that the conditions of possessing it were moral, but his conception of 'good' was superficial, and he thought more of doing good than of being good, and of the desired life as payment for meritorious actions. In a word, he stood at the point of view of the old dispensation. 'This do, and thou shalt live,' was his belief; and what he wished was further instruction as to what 'this' was. He was to be praised in that he docilely brought his question to Jesus, even though, as Christ's answer shows, there was error mingling in his docility. Such is the character—a young man, rich, influential, touched with real longings for the highest life, ready, so far as he knows himself, to do whatever he is bidden, in order to secure it.
We might have expected Christ, who opened His arms wide for publicans and harlots, to have welcomed this fair, ingenuous seeker with some kindly word. But He has none for him. We adopt the reading of the Revised Version, in which our Lord's first word is repellent. It is in effect—'There is no need for your question, which answers itself. There is one good Being, the source and type of every good thing, and therefore the good, which you ask about, can only be conformity to His will. You need not come to Me to know what you are to do.' He relegates the questioner, not to his own conscience, but to the authoritative revealed will of God in the law. Modern views of Christ's work, which put all its stress on the perfection of His moral character, and His office as a pattern of righteousness, may well be rebuked by the fact that He expressly disclaimed this character, and declared that, if He was only to be regarded as republishing the law of human conduct, His work was needless. Men have enough knowledge of what they must do to enter into life, without Jesus Christ. No doubt, Christ's moral teaching transcends that given of old; but His special work was not to tell men what to do, but to make it possible for them to do it; to give, not the law, but the power, both the motive and the impulse, which will fulfil the law. On another occasion He answered a similar question in a different manner. When the Jews asked Him, 'What must we do, that we may work the works of God?' He replied by the plain evangelical statement: 'This is the work of God, that ye believe on Him whom He hath sent.' Why did He not answer the young ruler thus? Only because He knew that he needed to be led to that thought by having his own self-complacency shattered, and the clinging of his soul to earth laid bare. The whole treatment of him here is meant to bring him to the apprehension of faith as preceding all truly good work.
The young man's second question says a great deal in its one word. It indicates astonishment at being remanded to these old, well-worn precepts, and might be rendered, 'What sort of commandments?' as if taking it for granted that they must be new and peculiar. It is the same spirit as that which in all ages has led men who with partial insight longed after eternal life, to seek it by fantastic and unusual roads of extraordinary sacrifices or services—the spirit which filled monasteries, and invented hair shirts, and fastings, and swinging with hooks in your back at Hindoo festivals. The craving for more than ordinary 'good works' shows a profound mistake in the estimate of the ordinary, and a fatal blunder as to the relation between 'goodness' and 'eternal life.'
So Christ answers the question by quoting the second half of the Decalogue, which deals with the homeliest duties, and appending to it the summary of the law, which requires love to our neighbour as to ourselves. Why does He omit the earlier half? Probably because He would meet the error of the question, by presenting only the plainest, most familiar commandments, and because He desired to excite the consciousness of deficiency, which could be most easily done in connection with these.
There is a touch of impatience in the rejoinder, 'All these have I kept,' and more than a touch of self-satisfaction. The law has failed to accomplish one of its chief purposes in the young man, in that it has not taught him his sinfulness. No doubt he had a right to say that his outward life had been free from breaches of such very elementary morality which any old woman could have taught him. He had never gone below the surface of the commandments, nor below the surface of his acts, or he would not have answered so jauntily. He had yet to learn that the height of 'goodness' is reached, not by adding some strange new performances to the threadbare precepts of everyday duty, but by digging deep into these, and bottoming the fabric of our lives on their inmost spirit. He had yet to learn that whoever says, 'All these have I kept,' thereby convicts himself of understanding neither them nor himself.
Still he was not at rest, although he had, as he fancied, kept them all. His last question is a plaintive, honest acknowledgment of the hungry void within, which no round of outward obediences can ever fill. He knows that he has not the inner fountain springing up into eternal life. He is dimly aware of something wanting, whether in his obedience or no, at all events in his peace; and he is right in believing that the reason for that conscious void is something wanting in his conduct. But he will not learn what Christ has been trying to teach him, that he needs no new commandment, but a deeper understanding and keeping of the old. Hence his question, half a wail of a hungry heart, half petulant impatience with Christ's reiteration of obvious duties. There are multitudes of this kind in all ages, honestly wishing to lay hold of eternal life, able to point to virtuous conduct, anxious to know and do anything lacking, and yet painfully certain that something is wanting somewhere.
II. Now comes the sharp-pointed test, which pricks the brilliant bubble. Mark tells us that Jesus accompanied His word with one of those looks which searched a soul, and bore His love into it. 'If thou wouldest be perfect,' takes up the confession of something 'lacking,' and shows what that is. It is unnecessary to remark that this commandment to sell all and give to the poor is intended only for the individual case. No other would-be disciple was called upon to do so. It cannot be meant for others; for, if all were sellers, where would the buyers be? Nor need we do more than point out that the command of renunciation is only half of Christ's answer, the other being, 'Come, follow Me.' But we are not to slide easily over the precept with the comfortable thought that it was special treatment for a special case. The principle involved in it is medicine for all, and the only way of healing for any. This man was tied to earth by the cords of his wealth. They did not hinder him from keeping the commandments, for he had no temptations to murder, or adultery, or theft, or neglect of parents. But they did hinder him from giving his whole self up, and from regarding eternal life as the most precious of all things. Therefore for him there was no safety short of entire outward denuding himself of them; and, if he was in earnest out and out in his questions, here was a new thing for him to do. Others are hindered by other things, and they are called to abandon these. The one thing needful for entrance into life is at bottom self-surrender, and the casting away of all else for its sovereign sake. 'I do count them but dung' must be the language of every one who will win Christ. The hands must be emptied of treasures, and the heart swept clear of lesser loves, if He is to be grasped by our hands, and to dwell in our hearts. More of us than we are willing to believe are kept from entire surrender to Jesus Christ, by money and worldly possessions; and many professing Christians are kept shrivelled and weak and joyless because they love their wealth more than their Lord, and would think it madness to do as this man was bidden to do. When ballast is thrown out, the balloon shoots up. A general unlading of the 'thick clay' which weighs down the Christian life of England, would let thousands soar to heights which they will never reach as long as they love money and what it buys as much as they do. The letter of this commandment may be only applicable in a special case (though, perhaps, this one young man was not the only human being that ever needed this treatment), but the spirit is of universal application. No man enters into life who does not count all things but loss, and does not die to them all, that he may follow Christ.
III. Then comes the collapse of all the enthusiasm. The questioner's earnestness chills at the touch of the test. What has become of the eagerness which brought him running to Jesus, and of the willingness to do any hard task to which he was set? It was real, but shallow. It deceived himself. But Christ's words cut down to the inner man, and laid bare for his own inspection the hard core of selfish worldliness which lay beneath. How many radiant enthusiasms, which cheat their subjects quite as much as their beholders, disappear like tinted mist when the hard facts of self-sacrifice strike against them! How much sheer worldliness disguises itself from itself and from others in glistering garments of noble sentiments, which fall at a touch when real giving up is called for, and show the ugly thing below! How much 'religion' goes about the world, and gets made 'a ruler' of the synagogue in recognition of its excellence, which needs but this Ithuriel's spear to start up in its own shape! The completeness and immediateness of the collapse are noticeable. The young man seems to speak no word, and to take no time for reflection. He stands for a moment as if stunned, and then silently turns away. What a moment! his fate hung on it. Once more we see the awful mystery enacted before our eyes, of a soul gathering up its power to put away life. Who will say that the decision of a moment, which is the outcome of all the past, may not fix the whole future? This man had never before been consciously brought to the fork in the road; but now the two ways are before him, and, knowingly, he chooses the worse. Christ did not desire him to do so; but He did desire that he should choose, and should know that he did. It was the truest kindness to tear away the veil of surface goodness which hid him from himself, and to force him to a conscious decision.
One sign of grace he does give, in that he went away 'sorrowful.' He is not angry nor careless. He cannot see the fair prospect of the eternal life, which he had in some real fashion desired, fade away, without a pang. If he goes back to the world, he goes back feeling more acutely than ever that it cannot satisfy him. He loves it too well to give it up, but not enough to feel that it is enough. Surely, in coming days, that godly sorrow would work a change of the foolish choice, and we may hope that he found no rest till he cast away all else to make Christ his own. A soul which has travelled as far on the road to life eternal as this man had done, can scarcely thereafter walk the broad road of selfishness and death with entire satisfaction.
IV. The section closes with Christ's comment on the sad incident. He speaks no word of condemnation, but passes at once from the individual to the general lesson of the difficulty which rich men (or, as He explains it in Mark, men who 'trust in riches') have in entering the kingdom. The reflection breathes a tone of pity, and is not so much blame as a merciful recognition of special temptations which affect His judgment, and should modify ours. A camel with its great body, long neck, and hump, struggling to get through a needle's eye, is their emblem. It is a new thing to pity rich men, or to think of their wealth as disqualifying them for anything. The disciples, with childish naivete, wonder. We may wonder that they wondered. They could not understand what sort of a kingdom it was into which capitalists would find entrance difficult. All doors fly open for them to-day, as then. They do not find much difficulty in getting into the church, however hard it may be to get into the kingdom. But it still remains true that the man who has wealth has a hindrance to his religious character, which, like all hindrances, may be made a help by the use he makes of it; and that the man who trusts in riches, which he who possesses them is wofully likely to do, has made the hindrance into a barrier which he cannot pass.
That is a lesson which commercial nations, like England, have need to lay to heart, not as a worn-out saying of the Bible, which means very little for us, but as heavy with significance, and pointing to the special dangers which beset Christian perfection.
So real is the peril of riches, that Christ would have His disciples regard the victory over it as beyond our human power, and beckons us away from the effort to overcome the love of the world in our strength, pointing us to God, in whose mighty grace, breathed into our feeble wills and treacherous hearts, is the only force which can overcome the attraction of perishable riches, and make any of us willing or able to renounce them all that we may win Christ. The young ruler had just shown that 'with men this is impossible.' Perhaps he still lingered near enough to catch the assurance that the surrender, which had been too much for him to achieve, might yet be joyfully made, since 'with God all things are possible.'
NEAREST TO CHRIST
'To sit on My right hand, and on My left, is not Mine to give, but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared of My Father.'—MATT. xx. 23.
You will observe that an unusually long supplement is inserted by our translators in this verse. That supplement is quite unnecessary, and, as is sometimes the case, is even worse than unnecessary. It positively obscures the true meaning of the words before us.
As they stand in our Bibles, the impression that they leave upon one's mind is that Christ in them abjures the power of giving to His disciples their places in the kingdom of heaven, and declares that it belongs not to His function, but relegates it, to His own exclusion, to the Father; whereas what He says is the very opposite of this. He does not put aside the granting of places at His right hand or His left as not being within His province, but He states the principles and conditions on which He does make such a grant, and so is really claiming it as in His province. All that would have been a great deal clearer if our translators had been contented to render the words that they found before them in the Book, without addition, and to read, 'To sit on My right hand, and on My left, is not Mine to give, but to them for whom it is prepared of My Father.'
Another introductory remark may be made, to the effect that our Lord does not put aside this prayer of His apostles as if they were seeking an impossible thing. It is never safe, I know, to argue from the silence of Scripture. There may be many reasons for that silence beyond our ken in any given case; but still it does strike one as noteworthy that, when this fond mother and her ambitious sons came with their prayer for pre-eminence in His kingdom, our Lord did not answer what would have been so obvious to answer if it had been true, 'You are asking a thing which cannot be granted to anybody, for they are all upon one level in that kingdom of the heavens.' He says by implication the very opposite. Not only does His silence confirm their belief that when He came in His glory, some would be closer to His side than others; but the plain statement of the text is that, in the depth of the eternal counsels, and by the preparation of divine grace, there were thrones nearest to His own which some men should fill. He does not say, 'You are asking what cannot be.' He does say, 'There are men for whom it is prepared of My Father.'
And then, still further, Jesus does not condemn the prayer as indicating a wrong state of mind on the part of James and John, though good and bad were strangely mingled in it. We are told nowadays that it is a very selfish thing, far below the lofty height to which our transcendental teachers have attained, to be heartened and encouraged, strengthened and quickened, by the prospect of the crown and the rest that remain for the people of God. If so, Christ ought to have turned round to these men, and have rebuked the passion for reward, which, according to this new light, is so unworthy and so low. But, instead of that, He confines Himself to explaining the conditions on which the fulfilment of the desire is possible, and by implication permits and approves the desire. 'You want to sit on My right hand and on My left, do you? Then be it so. You may do so if you like. Are you ready to accept the conditions? It is well that you should want it,—not for the sake of being above your brethren, but for the sake of being nearest to Me. Hearken! Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of?' They say unto Him (and I do not know that there are anywhere grander words than the calm, swift, unhesitating, modest, and yet confident answer of these two men), 'We are able.' 'You shall have your desire if you fulfil the conditions. It is given to them for whom it is prepared of My Father.'
I. So, then, if we rightly understand these words, and take them without the unfortunate comment which our translators have inserted, they contain, first, the principle that some will be nearer Christ than others in that heavenly kingdom.
As I have said, the words of our Lord do not merely imply, by the absence of all hint that these disciples' petition was impossible, the existence of degrees among the subjects of His heavenly kingdom, but articulately affirm that such variety is provided for by the preparation of the Father. Probably the two brothers thought that they were only asking for preeminence in an earthly kingdom, and had no idea that their prayer pointed beyond the grave; but that confusion of thought could not be cured in their then stage of growth, and our Lord therefore leaves it untouched. But the other error, if it were an error, was of a different kind, and might, for aught that one sees, have been set right in a moment. Instead of which the answer adopts it, and seems to set Christ's own confirmation on it, as being no Jewish dream, but a truth.
They were asking for earth. He answers—for heaven. He leaves them to learn in after days—when the one was slain with the sword, first martyr among the apostles, and the other lived to see them all pass to their thrones, while he remained the 'companion in tribulation' of the second generation of the Church—how far off was the fulfilment which they fancied so near.
We need not he surprised that so large a truth should be spoken by Christ so quietly, and as it were incidentally. For that is in keeping with His whole tone when speaking of the unseen world. One knows not whether to wonder more at the decisive authority with which He tells us of that mysterious region, or at the small space which such revelations occupy in His words. There is an air of simplicity and unconsciousness, and withal of authority, and withal of divine reticence about them all, which are in full harmony with the belief that Christ speaking of heaven speaks of that He knows, and testifies that He hath seen.
That truth to which, as we think, our Lord's words here inevitably lead, is distinctly taught in many other places of Scripture. We should have had less difficulty about it, and should have felt more what a solemn and stimulating thought it is, if we had tried a little more than most of us do to keep clear before us what really is the essential of that future life, what is the lustre of its light, the heaven of heaven, the glory of the glory. Men talk about physical theories of another life. I suppose they are possible. They seem to me infinitely unimportant. Warm imaginations, working by sense, write books about a future state which wonderfully succeed in making it real by making it earthly. Some of them read more like a book of travels in this world than forecastings of the next. They may be true or not. It does not matter one whit. I believe that heaven is a place. I believe that the corporeity of our future life is essential to the perfection of it. I believe that Christ wears, and will wear for ever, a glorified human body. I believe that that involves locality, circumstance, external occupations; and I say, all that being so, and in its own place very important, yet if we stop there, we have no vision of the real light that makes the lustre, no true idea of the glory that makes the blessedness.
For what is heaven? Likeness to God, love, purity, fellowship with Him; the condition of the spirit and the relation of the soul to Him. The noblest truth about the future world flows from the words of our Master—'This is life eternal, to know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.' Not 'this brings'; not 'this will lead up to'; not 'this will draw after it'; but 'this is'; and whosoever possesses that eternal life hath already in him the germ of all the glories that are round the throne, and the blessedness that fills the hearts of perfected spirits.
If so, if already eternal life in the bud standeth in the knowledge of God in Christ, what makes its fruitage and completeness? Surely, not physical changes or the circumstances of heaven, at least not these primarily, however much such changes and circumstances may subserve our blessedness there, and the anticipation of them may help our sense-bound hopes here. But the completeness of heaven is the completion of our knowledge of God and Christ, with all the perfecting of spirit which that implies and produces. The faith, and love, and happy obedience, and consecration which is calm, that partially occupied and ruled the soul here, are to be thought of as enlarged, perfected, delivered from the interruption of opposing thoughts, of sensuous desires, of selfish purposes, of earthly and sinful occupations. And that perfect knowledge and perfect union and perfect likeness are perfect bliss. And that bliss is heaven. And if, whilst heaven is a place, the heaven of heaven be a state, then no more words are needed to show that, then, heaven can be no dead level, nor can all stand at the same stage of attainments, though all be perfect; but that in that solemn company of the blessed, 'the spirits of just men made perfect,' there are indefinitely numerous degrees of approximation to the unattainable Perfection, which stretches above them all, and draws them all to itself. We have not to think of that future life as oppressed, if I may so say, with the unbroken monotony of perfect identity in character and attainments. All indeed are like one another, because all are like Jesus, but that basis of similarity does not exclude infinite variety. The same glory belongs to each, but it is reflected at differing angles and received in divers measures. Perfect blessedness will belong to each, but the capacity to receive it will differ. There will be the same crown on each head, the same song on each lip, the same fulness of joy filling each heart; but star differeth from star, and the great condition of happy intercourse on earth will not be wanting in heaven—a deep-seated similarity and a superficial diversity.
Does not the very idea of an endless progress in that kingdom involve such variety? We do not think of men passing into the heavens, and being perfected by a bound so as that there shall be no growth. We think of them indeed as being perfected up to the height of their then capacity, from the beginning of that celestial life, so as that there shall be no sin, nor any conscious incompleteness, but not so as that there shall be no progress. And, if they each grow through all the ages, and are ever coming nearer and nearer to Christ, that seems necessarily to lead to the thought that this endless progress, carried on in every spirit, will place them at different points of approximation to the one centre. As in the heavens there are planets that roll nearer the central sun, and others that circle farther out from its rays, yet each keeps its course, and makes music as it moves, as well as planets whose broader disc can receive and reflect more of the light than smaller sister spheres, and yet each blazes over its whole surface and is full to its very rim with white light; so round that throne the spirits of the just made perfect shall move in order and peace—every one blessed, every one perfect, every one like Christ at first, and becoming liker through every moment of the eternities. Each perfected soul looking on his brother shall see there another phase of the one perfectness that blesses and adorns him too, and all taken together shall make up, in so far as finite creatures can make up, the reflection and manifestation of the fulness of Christ. 'Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us' is the law for the incompleteness of earth. 'Having then gifts differing according to the glory that is given to us' will be the law for the perfection of the heavens. There are those for whom it is prepared of His Father, that they shall sit in special nearness to Him.
II. Still further, these words rightly understood assert that truth which, at first sight, our Authorised Version's rendering seems to make them contradict, viz. that Christ is the giver to each of these various degrees of glory and blessedness. 'It is not Mine to give, save to them for whom it is prepared.' Then it is Thine to give it to them. To deny or to doubt that Christ is the giver of the blessedness, whatsoever the blessedness may be, that fills the hearts and souls of the redeemed, is to destroy His whole work, to destroy all the relations upon which our hopes rest, and to introduce confusion and contradiction into the whole matter.
For Scripture teaches us that He is God's unspeakable gift; that in Him is given to us everything; that He is the bestower of all which we need; that 'out of His fulness,' as one of those two disciples long afterwards said, 'all we have received, and grace for grace.' There is nothing within the compass of God's love to bestow of which Christ is not the giver. There is nothing divine that is done in the heavens and the earth, as I believe, of which Christ is not the doer. The representation of Scripture is uniformly that He is the medium of the activity of the divine nature; that he is the energy of the divine will; that He is, to use the metaphor of the Old Testament, 'the arm of the Lord'—the forthputting of God's power; that He is, to use the profound expression of the New Testament, the Word of the Lord, cognate with, and the utterance of, the eternal nature, the light that streams from the central brightness, the river that flows from the else sealed fountain. As the arm is to the body, and as is the word to the soul, so is Christ to God—the eternal divine utterance and manifestation of the divine nature. And, therefore, to speak of anything that a man can need and anything that God can give as not being given by Christ, is to strike at the very foundation, not only of our hopes, but at the whole scheme of revealed truth. He is the giver of heaven and everything else which the soul requires.
And then, again, let me remind you that on this matter we are not left to such general considerations as those that I have been suggesting, but that the plain statements of Scripture do confirm the assertion that Christ is the determiner and the bestower of all the differing grades of glory and blessedness yonder. For do we not read of Him that He is the Judge of the whole earth? Do we not read of Him that His word is acquittal and His frown condemnation—that to 'be accepted of Him' is the highest aim and end of the Christian life? Do we not read that it is He who says, 'Come, ye blessed of My Father, enter into the kingdom prepared for you'? Do we not read that the apostle, dying, solaced himself with the thought that 'there was laid up for him a crown of glory, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, would give him at that day'? And do we not read in the very last book of Scripture, written by one of those two brothers, and containing almost verbal reference to the words of my text, the promise seven times spoken from the immortal lips of the glorified Son of Man, walking in the midst of the candlesticks, 'To him that overcometh will I give'? The fruit of the tree of life is plucked by His hands for the wearied conquerors. The crown of life is set by Him on the faithful witnesses' brows. The hidden manna and the new name are bestowed by Him on those who hold fast His name. It is He who gives the victors kingly power over the nations. He clothes in white garments those who have not defiled their robes. His hand writes upon the triumphant foreheads the name of God. And highest of all, beyond which there is no bliss conceivable, 'To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with Me in My throne.'
Christ is the bestower of the royalties of the heavens as of the redemptions of earth, and it is His to give that which we crave at His hands, when we ask pardon here and glory hereafter. 'To him that is athirst will He give of the water of life freely,' and to him that overcometh will He give the crown of glory.
III. These words lead us, in the third place, to the further thought, that these glorious places are not given to mere wishing, nor by mere arbitrary will.
'You would sit on My right hand and on My left? You think of that pre-eminence as conferred because you chose to ask it—as given by a piece of favouritism. Not so. I cannot make a man foremost in my kingdom in that fashion. There are conditions which must precede such an elevation.'
And there are people who think thus still, as if the mere desire, without anything more, were enough—or as if the felicities of the heavenly world were dependent solely on Christ's arbitrary will, and could be bestowed by an exercise of mere power, as an Eastern prince may make this man his vizier and that other one his water-carrier. The same principles which we have already applied to the elucidation of the idea of varieties and stages of nearness to Christ in His heavenly kingdom have a bearing on this matter. If we rightly understand that the essential blessedness of heaven is likeness to Christ, we shall feel that mere wishing carries no man thither, and that mere sovereign will and power do not avail to set us there. There are conditions indispensable, from the very nature of the case, and unless they are realised it is as impossible for us to receive, as for Him to give, a place at His side. If, indeed, the future blessedness consisted in mere external circumstances and happier conditions of life, it might be so bestowed. But if place and surroundings, and a more exquisite and ethereal frame, are but subordinate sources of it, and its real fountain is union with Jesus and assimilation to Him, then something else than idle desires must wing the soul that soars thither, and His transforming grace, not His arbitrary will, must set us at His own right hand 'in the heavenly places.'
Of all the profitless occupations with which men waste their lives, none are more utterly useless than wishing without acting. Our wishes are meant to impel us to the appropriate forms of energy by which they can be realised. When a pauper becomes a millionaire by sitting and vehemently wishing that he were rich, when ignorance becomes learning by standing in a library and wishing that the contents of all these books were in its head, there will be some hope that the gates of heaven will fly open to your desire. But till then, 'many, I say unto you, shall seek to enter in and not be able.' Many shall seek; you must strive. For wishing is one thing, and willing is another, and doing is yet another. And in regard to entrance into Christ's kingdom, our 'doing' is trusting in Him who has done all for us. 'This is the work of God, that ye should believe on Him whom He hath sent.' Does our wish lead us to the acceptance of the condition? Then it will be fulfilled. If not, it will remain fruitless, will die into apathy, or will live as a pang and a curse.
You wish, or fancy you wish, to pass into heaven when you die, I suppose. Some of its characteristics attract you. You believe in punishment for sin, and you would willingly escape that. You believe in a place of rest after toil, of happiness after sorrow, where nipping frosts of disappointment, and wild blasts of calamity, and slow, gnawing decay no more harm and kill your joys—and you would like that. But do you wish to be pure and stainless, to have your hearts fixed on God alone, to have your whole being filled with Him, and emptied of self and sense and sin? The peace of heaven attracts you—but its praise repels, does it not? Its happiness draws your wishes—does its holiness seem inviting? It would be joyful to be far away from punishment—would it be as joyful to be near Christ? Ah! no; the wishes lead to no resolve, and therefore to no result, for this among other reasons, because they are only kindled by a part of the whole, and are exchanged for positive aversion when the real heaven of heaven is presented to your thoughts. Many a man who, by the set of his whole life, is drifting daily nearer and nearer to that region of outer darkness, is conscious of an idle wish for peace and joy beyond the grave. In common matters a man may be devoured by vain desires all his lifetime, because he will not pass beyond wishing to acting accordingly. 'The desire of the slothful killeth him; because his hands refused to labour, he coveteth greedily all the day long.' And with like but infinitely more tragical issues do these vain wishes for a place in that calm world, where nothing but holiness enters, gnaw at many a soul. 'Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his,' was the aspiration of that Gentile prophet, whose love of the world obscured even the prophetic illumination which he possessed—and his epitaph is a stern comment on the uselessness of such empty wishes, 'Balaam, the son of Beor, they slew with the sword.' It needs more than a wish to set us at Christ's right hand in His kingdom.
Nor can such a place be given by mere arbitrary will. Christ could not, if He would, set a man at His right hand whose heart was not the home of simple trust and thankful love, whose nature and desires were unprepared for that blessed world. It would be like taking one of those creatures—if there be such—that live on the planet whose orbit is farthest from the sun, accustomed to cold, organised for darkness, and carrying it to that great central blaze, with all its fierce flames and tongues of fiery gas that shoot up a thousand miles in a moment. It would crumble and disappear before its blackness could be seen against the blaze.
His loving will embraces us all, and is the foundation of all our hopes. But it had to reach its purpose by a bitter road which He did not shrink from travelling. He desires to save us, and to realise the desire He had to die. 'It became Him for whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the Captain of their salvation perfect through suffering.' What He had to do, we have to accept. Unless we accept the mercy of God in Christ, no wish on our parts, nor any exercise of power on His, will carry us to the heaven which He has died to open, and of which He is at once the giver and the gift.
IV. These glorious places are given as the result of a divine preparation.
'To them for whom it is prepared of My Father.' We have seen that Christ is not to be regarded as abjuring the office, with which His disciples' confidence led them to invest Him—that of allotting to His servants their place in His kingdom. He neither refers it to the Father without Himself, nor claims it for Himself without the Father. The living unity of will and work which subsists between the Father and the Son forbids such a separation and distribution of office. And that unity is set forth on both its sides in His own deep words, 'The Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He seeth the Father do: for whatsoever things He doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise.'
So, then, while the gift of thrones at His side is His act and the Father's, in like manner the preparation of the royal seats for their occupants, and of the kings for their thrones, is the Father's act and His.
Our text does not tell us directly what that preparation is, any more than it tells us directly what the principles are on which entrance into and pre-eminence in the kingdom are granted. But we know enough in regard to both, for our practical guidance, for the vigour of our hope, and the grasp of our faith.
There is a twofold divine preparation of the heavens for men. One is from of old. The kingdom is 'prepared for you before the foundation of the world.' That preparation is in the eternal counsel of the divine love, which calleth the things that are not as though they were, and before which all that is evolved in the generations of men and the epochs of time, lies on one plane, equally near to dim from whose throne diverge far beneath the triple streams of past, present, and future.
And beside that preparation, the counsel of pardoning mercy and redeeming grace, there is the other preparation—the realisation of that eternal purpose in time through the work of Jesus Christ our Lord. His consolation to His disciples in the parting hour was, 'I go to prepare a place for you.' How much was included in these words we shall never know till we, like Him, see of the travail of His soul, and like Him are satisfied. But we can dimly see that on the one hand His death, and on the other hand His entrance into that holiest of all, make ready for us the many mansions of the Father's house. He was crucified for our offences, He was raised again for our justification, He is passed through the heavens to stand our Forerunner in the presence of God—and by all these mighty acts He prepares the heavenly places for us. As the sun behind a cloud, which hides it from us, is still pouring out its rays on far-off lands, so He, veiled in dark, sunset clouds of Calvary, sent the energy of His passion and cross into the unseen world and made it possible that we should enter there. 'When Thou didst overcome the sharpness of death, Thou didst open the gates of the kingdom of heaven to all believers.' As one who precedes a mighty host provides and prepares rest for their weariness, and food for their hunger, in some city on their line of march, and having made all things ready, is at the gates to welcome their travel-stained ranks when they arrive, and guide them to their repose; so He has gone before, our Forerunner, to order all things for us there. It may be that unless Christ were in heaven, our brother as well as our Lord, it were no place for mortals. It may be that we need to have His glorified bodily presence in order that it should be possible for human spirits to bear the light, and be at home with God. Be that as it may, this we know, that the Father prepares a place for us by the eternal counsel of His love, and by the all-sufficient work of Christ, by whom we have access to the Father.
And as His work is the Father's preparation of the place for us by the Son, the issue of His work is the Father's preparation of us for the place, through the Son, by the Spirit. 'He that hath wrought us for the self-same thing is God.'
If so, then what follows? This, among other things, that wishes are vain, for heaven is no gift of arbitrary favouritism, but that faith in Christ, and faith alone, leads us to His right hand—and the measure of our faith and growing Christlikeness here, will be the measure of our glory hereafter, and of our nearness to Him. It is possible to be 'saved, yet so as by fire.' It is possible to have 'an entrance ministered unto us abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.' If we would be near Him then, we must be near Him now. If we would share His throne, we must bear His cross. If we would be found in the likeness of His resurrection, we must be 'conformable unto His death.' Then such desires as these true-hearted, and yet mistaken, disciples expressed will not be the voice of selfish ambition, but of dependent love. They will not be vain wishes, but be fulfilled by Him, who, stooping from amid the royalties of heaven, with love upon His face and pity in His heart, will give more than we ask. 'Seekest thou a place at My right hand? Nay, I give thee a more wondrous dignity. To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with Me in My throne.'
THE SERVANT-LORD AND HIS SERVANTS
'Even as the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister.'—MATT. xx. 28.
It seems at first sight strangely unsympathetic and irrelevant that the ambitious request of James and John and their foolish mother, that they should sit at Christ's right hand and His left in His kingdom, should have been occasioned by, and have followed immediately upon, our Lord's solemn and pathetic announcement of His sufferings. But the connection is not difficult to trace. The disciples believed that, in some inexplicable way, the sufferings which our Lord was shadowing forth were to be the immediate precursors of His assuming His regal dignity. And so they took time by the forelock, as they thought, and made haste to ensure their places in the kingdom, which they believed was now ready to burst upon them. Other occasions in the Gospels in which we find similar quarrelling among the disciples as to pre-eminence are similarly associated with references made by our Lord to His approaching crucifixion. On a former occasion He cured these misplaced ambitions by setting a child in the midst of them. On this He cures them by a still more pathetic and wonderful example, His own; and He says, 'I, in My lowliness and service, am to be your Pattern. In Me see the basis of all true greatness, and the right use of all influence and authority. The Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister.'
I. So, then, let us look first at the perfect life of service of the Servant-Lord.
Now, in order to appreciate the significance of that life of service, we must take into account the introductory words, 'The Son of Man came.' They declare His pre-existence, His voluntary entrance into the conditions of humanity, and His denuding Himself of 'the glory which He had with the Father before the world was.' We shall never understand the Servant-Christ until we understand that He is the Eternal Son of the Father. His service began long before any of His acts of sympathetic and self-forgetting lowliness rendered help to the miserable here upon earth. His service began when He laid aside, not the garments of earth, but the vesture of the heavens, and girded Himself, not with the cincture woven in man's looms, but with the flesh of our humanity, 'and being found in fashion as a man,' bowed Himself to enter into the conditions of earth. This was the first, the chiefest of all His acts of service, and the sanctity and awfulness of it run through the list of all His deeds and make them unspeakably great. It was much that His hands should heal, that His lips should comfort, that His heart should bleed with sympathy for sorrow. But, oh! it was more that He had hands to touch, lips to speak to human hearts, and the heart of a man and a brother to feel with as well as for us. 'The Son of Man came'—there is the transcendent example of the true use of greatness; there is the conspicuous instance of the true basis of authority and rule. For it was because He was 'found in fashion as a Man' that He has won a 'name that is above every name,' and that there have accrued to Him the 'many crowns' which He wears at the Father's side.
But then, passing beyond this, we may dwell, though all imperfectly, upon the features, familiar as they are, of that wonderful life of self-oblivious and self-sacrificing ministration to others. Think of the purity of the source from all which these wonders and blessednesses of service for man flowed. The life of Jesus Christ is self-forgetting love made visible. Scientists tell us that, by the arrangement of particles of sand upon plates of glass, there can be made, as it were, perceptible to the eye, the sweetness of musical sounds; and each note when struck will fling the particles into varying forms of beauty. The life of Jesus Christ presents in shapes of loveliness and symmetry the else invisible music of a divine love. He lets us see the rhythm of the Father's heart. The source from which His ministrations have flowed is the pure source of a perfect love. Ancient legends consolidated the sunbeams into the bright figure of the far-darting god of light. And so the sunbeams of the divine love have, as it were, drawn themselves together and shaped themselves into the human form of the Son of Man who 'came not to be ministered unto, but to minister.'
No taint of bye-ends was in that service; no sidelong glances at possible advantages of influence or reputation or the like, which so often deform men's philanthropies and services to one another. No more than the sunbeam shines for the sake of collateral issues which may benefit itself, did Jesus Christ seek His own advantage in ministering to men. There was no speck of black in that lustrous white robe, but all was perfectly unselfish love. Like the clear sea, weedless and stainless, that laves the marble steps of the palaces of Venice, the deep ocean of Christ's service to man was pure to the depths throughout.
That perfect ministry of the Servant-Lord was rendered with strange spontaneity and cheerfulness. One of the evangelists says, in a very striking and beautiful phrase, that 'He healed them that had need of healing,' as if the presence of the necessity evoked the supply, by the instinctive action of a perfect love. There was never in Him one trace of reluctance to have leisure broken in upon, repose disturbed, or even communion with God abbreviated. All men could come always; they never came inopportunely. We often cheerfully take up a burden of service, but find it very hard to continue bearing it. But He was willing to come down from the mountain of Transfiguration because there was a demoniac boy in the plain; and therefore He put aside the temptation—'Let us build here three tabernacles.' He was willing to abandon His desert seclusion because the multitude sought Him. Interrupted in His communion with the Father by His disciples, He had no impatient word to say, but 'Let us go into other cities also, for therefore am I sent.' When He stepped from the fishing-boat on the other side of the lake to which He had fled for a moment of repose, He was glad when He saw the multitude who had pertinaciously outrun Him, and were waiting for Him on the beach. On His Cross He had leisure to turn from His own physical sufferings and the weight of a world's sin, which lay upon Him, to look at that penitent by His side, and He ended His life in the ministry of mercy to a brigand. And thus cheerfully, and always without a thought of self, 'He came to minister.'
Think, too, of the sweep of His ministrations. They took in all men; they were equally open to enemies and to friends, to mockers and to sympathisers. Think of the variety of the gifts which He brought in His ministry—caring for body and for soul; alleviating sorrow, binding up wounds, purifying hearts; dealing with sin, the fountain, and with miseries, its waters, with equal helpfulness and equal love.
And think of how that ministering was always ministration by 'the LORD.' For there is nothing to me more remarkable in the Gospel narrative than the way in which, side by side, there lie in Christ's life the two elements, so difficult to harmonise in fact, and so impossible to have been harmonised in a legend, the consciousness of authority and the humility of a servant. The paradox with which John introduces his sweet pathetic story of our Lord's washing the disciples' feet is true of, and is illustrated by, every instance of more than ordinary lowliness and self-oblivion which the Gospel contains. 'Jesus, knowing that He had come from God, and went to God, and that the Father had given all things into His hand'—did what? 'Laid aside His garments and took a towel and girded Himself.' The two things ever go together. And thus, in His lowliest abasement, as in a star entangled in a cloud, there shine out, all the more broad and conspicuous for the environment which wraps them, the beams of His uncreated lustre.
That ministration was a service that never shrank from stern rebuke. His service was no mere soft and pliant, sympathetic helpfulness, but it could smite and stab, and be severe, and knit its brow, and speak stern words, as all true service must. For it is not service but cruelty to sympathise with the sinner, and say nothing in condemnation of his sin. And yet no sternness is blessed which is not plainly prompted by desire to help.
Now, I know far better than you do how wretchedly inadequate all these poor words of mine have been to the great theme that I have been trying to speak of, but they may at least—like a little water poured into a pump—have set your minds working upon the theme, and, I hope, to better purpose. 'The Son of Man came ... to minister.'
II. Now, secondly, note the service that should be modelled on His.
Oh! brethren, if we, however imperfectly, have taken into mind and heart that picture of Him who was and is amongst us as 'One that serveth,' how sharp a test, and how stringent, and, as it seems to us sometimes, impossible, a commandment are involved in the 'even as' of my text. When we think of our grudging services; when we think of how much more apt we are to insist upon what men owe to us than of what we owe to them; how ready we are to demand, how slow we are to give; how we flame up in what we think is warranted indignation if we do not get the observance, or the sympathy, or the attention that we require, and yet how little we give of these, we may well say, 'Thou hast set a pattern that can only drive us to despair.' If we would read our Gospels more than we do with the feeling, as we trace that Master through each of His phases of sympathy and self-oblivion and self-sacrifice and service, 'that is what I should be,' what a different book the New Testament would be to us, and what different people you and I would be!
There is no ground on which we can rest greatness or superiority in Christ's kingdom except this ground of service. And there is no use that we can make either of money or of talents, of acquirements or opportunities, except the use of helping our fellows with them, which will stand the test of this model and example. 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.' The servant who serves for love is highest in the hierarchy of Heaven. God, who is supreme, has stooped lower than any that are beneath Him, and His true rule follows, not because He is infinite, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, or any of those other pompous Latin words which describe what men call His attributes, but because He loves best, and does most for the most. And that is what you and I ought to be. We may well take the lesson to ourselves. I have no space, and, I hope, no need to enlarge upon it; but be sure of this, that if we are ever to be near the right and the left of the Master in His kingdom, there is one way, and only one way, to come thither, and that is to make self abdicate its authority as the centre of our lives, and to enthrone there Christ, and for His sake all our brethren. Be ambitious to be first, but remember, Noblesse oblige. He that is first must become last. He that is Servant of all is Master of all. That is the only mastery that is worth anything, the devotion of hearts that circle round the source from which they draw light and warmth. What is it that makes a mother the queen of her children? Simply that all her life she has been their servant, and never thought about herself, but always about them.
Now much might be said as to the application of these threadbare principles in the Church and in society, but I do not enlarge on that; only let me say in a word—that here is the one law on which preeminence in the Church is to be allocated.
What becomes of sacerdotal hierarchies, what becomes of the 'lords over God's heritage,' if the one ground of pre-eminence is service? I know, of course, that there may be different forms embodying one principle, but it seems to me that that form of Church polity is nearest the mind of Christ in which the only dignity is dignity of service, and the only use of place is the privilege of stooping and helping.
This fruitful principle will one day shape civil as well as ecclesiastical societies. For the present, our Lord draws a contrast between the worldly and the Christian notions of rank and dignity. 'It shall not be so among you,' says He. And the nobler conception of eminence and service set forth in His disciples, if they are true to their Lord and their duty, will leaven, and we may hope finally transform society, sweeping away all vulgar notions of greatness as depending on birth, or wealth, or ruder forms of powers, and marshalling men according to Christ's order of precedence, in which helpfulness is preeminence and service is supremacy, while conversely pre-eminence is used to help and superiority stoops to serve.
One remark will close my sermon. You have to take the last words of this verse if you are ever going to put in practice its first words. 'Even as the Son of Man came, not to be ministered unto, but to minister,'—if Jesus Christ had stopped there He would only have been one more of the long roll of ineffectual preachers and prophets who show men the better way, and leave them struggling in the mire. But He did not stop there: 'Even as the Son of Man came ... to give His life a ransom for many.'
Ah! the Cross, with its burden of the sacrifice for the world's sin, is the only power which will supply us with a sufficient motive for the loftiness of Christlike service. I know that there is plenty of entirely irreligious and Christless beneficence in the world. And God forbid that I should say a word to seem to depreciate that. But sure I am that for the noblest, purest, most widely diffused and blessedly operative kinds of service of man, there is no motive and spring anywhere except 'He loved me, and gave Himself for me.' And, bought by that service and that blood, it will be possible, and it is obligatory upon all of us, to 'do unto others,' as He Himself said, 'as I have done to you.' 'The servant is not greater than his Lord.'
WHAT THE HISTORIC CHRIST TAUGHT ABOUT HIS DEATH
'The Son of Man came... to give His life a ransom for many.'—Matt. xx. 28.
We hear a great deal at present about going back to 'the Christ of the Gospels.' In so far as that phrase and the movement of thought which it describes are a protest against the substitution of doctrines for the Person whom the doctrines represent, I, for one, rejoice in it. But I believe that the antithesis suggested by the phrase, and by some of its advocates avowed, between the Christ of the Gospels and the Christ of the Epistles, is false. The Christ of the Gospels is the Christ of the Epistles, as I humbly venture to believe. And I cannot but see that there is a possibility of a movement which, carried out legitimately, should command the fullest sympathy of every Christian heart, degenerating into the rejection of all the supernatural elements in the nature and work of our Lord, and leaving us with a meagre human Christ, shrunken and impotent. The Christ of the Gospels, by all means; but let it be the whole Christ of all the Gospels, the Christ over whose cradle angels sang, by whose empty grave angels watched, whose ascending form angels beheld and proclaimed that He should come again to be our Judge. Go back to that Christ, and all will be well.
Now it seems to me that one direction in which there is a possibility of such movement as I have referred to being one-sided and harmful is in reference to the conception which we form of the death of Jesus Christ. And therefore I ask you to listen for a few moments to me at this time whilst I try to bring out what is plain in the words before us; and is, as I humbly believe, interwoven in the whole texture of all the Gospels—viz., the conception which Jesus Christ Himself formed of the meaning of His death.
I. The first thing that I notice is that the Christ of the Gospels thought and taught that His death was to be His own act.
I do not think that it is an undue or pedantic pressing of the significance of the words before us, if I ask you to notice two of the significant expressions in this text. 'The Son of Man came,' and came 'to give His life.' The one word refers to the act of entrance into, the other to the act of departure from, this earthly life. They correspond in so far as that both bring into prominence Christ's own consent, volition, and action in the very two things about which men are least consulted, their being born and their dying.
'The Son of Man came.' Now if that expression occurred but once it might be minimised as being only a synonym for birth, having no special force. But if you will notice that it is our Lord's habitual word about Himself, only varied occasionally by another one equally significant when he says that He 'was sent'; and if you will further notice that all through the Gospels He never but once speaks of Himself as being 'born,' I think you will admit that I am not making too much of a word when I say that when Christ, out of the depths of His consciousness, said 'the Son of Man came,' He was teaching us that He lived before He was born, and that behind the natural fact of birth there lay the supernatural fact of His choosing to be incarnated for man's redemption. The one instance in which He does speak of Himself as 'being born' is most instructive in this connection. For it was before the Roman governor; and He accompanied the clause in which He said, 'To this end was I born'—which was adapted to Pilate's level of intelligence—with another one which seemed to be inserted to satisfy His own sense of fitness, rather than for any light that it would give to its first hearer, 'And for this cause came I into the world.' The two things were not synonymous; but before the birth there was the coming, and Jesus was born because the Eternal Word willed to come. So says the Christ of the Gospels; and the Christ of the Epistles is represented as 'taking upon Him the form of a servant, and being found in fashion as a man.' Do you accept that as true of 'the historic Christ'?