THE INFLUENCE OF THE GREAT LIFE WALK A PERSONAL INFLUENCE.
"He who says he abides in Him, ought himself also so to walk even as He also walked." --- 1 John ii. 6.
This verse is one of those in reading which we may easily fall into the fallacy of mistaking familiarity for knowledge.
Let us bring out its meaning with accuracy.
St. John's hatred of unreality, of lying in every form, leads him to claim in Christians a perfect correspondence between the outward profession and the inward life, as well as the visible manifestation of it. "He who says" always marks a danger to those who are outwardly in Christian communion. It is the "take notice" of a hidden falsity. He whose claim, possibly whose vaunt, is that he abides in Christ, has contracted a moral debt of far-reaching significance. St. John seems to pause for a moment. He points to a picture in a page of the scroll which is beside him --- the picture of Christ in the Gospel drawn by himself; not a vague magnificence, a mere harmony of colour, but a likeness of absolute historical truth. Every pilgrim of time in the continuous course of his daily walk, outward and inward, has by the possession of that Gospel contracted an obligation to be walking by the one great life-walk of the Pilgrim of eternity. The very depth and intensity of feeling half hushes the Apostle's[Pg 119] voice. Instead of the beloved Name which all who love it will easily supply, St. John uses the reverential He, the pronoun which specially belongs to Christ in the vocabulary of the Epistle. "He who says he abides in Him" is bound, even as He once walked, to be ever walking.
The importance of example in the moral and spiritual life gives emphasis to this canon of St. John.
Such an example as can be sufficient for creatures like ourselves should be at once manifested in concrete form and susceptible of ideal application.
This was felt by a great but unhappily anti-christian thinker, the exponent of a severe and lofty morality. Mr. Mill fully confesses that there may be an elevating and an ennobling influence in a Divine ideal; and thus justifies the apparently startling precept --- "be you therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect." But he considered that some more human model was necessary for the moral striver. He recommends novel-readers, when they are charmed or strengthened by some conception of pure manhood or womanhood, to carry that conception with them into their own lives. He would have them ask themselves in difficult positions, how that strong and lofty man, that tender and unselfish woman, would have behaved in similar circumstances, and so bear about with them a standard of duty at once compendious and[Pg 120] affecting. But to this there is one fatal objection --- that such an elaborate process of make-believe is practically impossible. A fantastic morality, if it were possible at all, must be a feeble morality. Surely an authentic example will be greatly more valuable.
But example, however precious, is made indefinitely more powerful when it is living example, example crowned by personal influence.
So far as the stain of a guilty past can be removed from those who have contracted it; they are improvable and capable of restoration, chiefly, perhaps almost exclusively, by personal influence in some form. When a process of deterioration and decay has set in in any human soul, the germ of a more wholesome growth is introduced in nearly every case, by the transfusion and transplantation of healthier life. We test the soundness or the putrefaction of a soul by its capacity of receiving and assimilating this germ of restoration. A parent is in doubt whether a son is susceptible of renovation, whether he has not become wholly evil. He tries to bring the young man under the personal influence of a friend of noble and sympathetic character. Has his son any capacity left for being touched by such a character; of admiring its strength on one side, its softness on another? When he is in contact with it, when he perceives how pure, how self-sacrificing, how true and straight it is, is there a glow in his face, a trembling of his voice, a moisture in his eye, a wholesome self-humiliation? Or does he repel all this with a sneer and a bitter gibe? Has he that evil attribute which is possessed only by the most deeply corrupt --- "they blaspheme, rail at glories"? The[Pg 121] Chaplain of a penitentiary records that among the most degraded of its inmates was one miserable creature. The Matron met her with firmness, but with a good will which no hardness could break down, no insolence overcome. One evening after prayers the Chaplain observed this poor outcast stealthily kissing the shadow of the Matron thrown by her candle upon the wall. He saw that the diseased nature was beginning to be capable of assimilating new life, that the victory of wholesome personal influence had begun. He found reason for concluding that his judgment was well founded.
The law of restoration by living example through personal influence pervades the whole of our human relations under God's natural and moral government as truly as the principle of mediation. This law also pervades the system of restoration revealed to us by Christianity. It is one of the chief results of the Incarnation itself. It begins to act upon us first, when the Gospels become something more to us than a mere history, when we realise in some degree how He walked. But it is not complete until we know that all this is not merely of the past, but of the present; that He is not dead, but living; that we may therefore use that little word is about Christ in the lofty sense of St. John --- "even as He is pure;" "in Him is no sin;" "even as He is righteous;" "He is the propitiation for our sins." If this is true, as it undoubtedly is, of all good human influence personal and living, is it not true of the Personal and living Christ in an infinitely higher degree? If the shadow of Peter overshadowing the sick had some strange efficacy; if handkerchiefs or aprons from the body of Paul created upon the sick[Pg 122] and possessed; what may be the spiritual result of contact with Christ Himself? Of one of those men specially gifted to raise struggling natures and of others like him, a true poet lately taken from us has sung in one of his most glorious strains. Matthew Arnold likens mankind to a host inexorably bound by divine appointment to march over mountain and desert to the city of God. But they become entangled in the wilderness through which they march, split into mutinous factions, and are in danger of "battering on the rocks" for ever in vain, of dying one by one in the waste. Then comes the poet's appeal to the "servants of God": ---
"In the hour of need Of your fainting dispirited race, You like angels appear! Languor is not in your heart, Weakness is not in your word, Weariness not on your brow. Eyes rekindling, and prayers Follow your steps as you go. You fill up the gaps in our file, Strengthen the wavering line, Stablish, continue our march --- On, to the bound of the waste --- On to the City of God."
If all this be true of the personal influence of good and strong men --- true in proportion to their goodness and strength --- it must be true of the influence of the Strongest and Best with Whom we are brought into personal relation by prayer and sacraments, and by meditation upon the sacred record which tells us what[Pg 123] His one life-walk was. Strength is not wanting upon His part, for He is able to save to the uttermost. Pity is not wanting; for to use touching words (attributed to St. Paul in a very ancient apocryphal document), "He alone sympathised with a world that has lost its way."
Let it not be forgotten that in that of which St. John speaks lies the true answer to an objection, formulated by the great anti-christian writer above quoted, and constantly repeated by others. "The ideal of Christian morality," says Mr. Mill, "is negative rather than positive; passive rather than active; innocence rather than nobleness; abstinence from evil, rather than energetic pursuit of good; in its precepts (as has been well said), 'you shall not' predominates unduly over 'you shall.'" The answer is this. (1) A true religious system must have a distinct moral code. If not, it would be justly condemned for "expressing itself" (in the words of Mr. Mill's own accusation against Christianity elsewhere) "in language most general, and possessing rather the impressiveness of poetry or eloquence than the precision of legislation." But the necessary formula of precise legislation is, "you shall not"; and without this it cannot be precise. (2) But further. To say that Christian legislation is negative, a mere string of "you shall nots," is just such a superficial accusation as might be expected from a man who should enter a church upon some rare occasion, and happen to listen to the ten commandments, but fall asleep before he could hear the Epistle and Gospel. The philosopher[Pg 124] of duty, Kant, has told us that the peculiarity of a moral principle, of any proposition which states what duty is, is to convey the meaning of an imperative through the form of an indicative. In his own expressive if pedantic language --- "its categorical form involves an epitactic meaning." St. John asserts that the Christian "ought to walk even as Christ walked." To every one who receives it, that proposition is therefore precisely equivalent to a command --- "walk as Christ walked." Is it a negative, passive morality, a mere system of "you shall not," which contains such a precept as that? Does not the Christian religion in virtue of this alone enforce a great "you shall;" which every man who brings himself within its range will find rising with him in the morning, following him like his shadow all day long, and lying down with him when he goes to rest?
It should be clearly understood that in the words "even as He walked," the Gospel of St. John is both referred to and attested.
For surely to point with any degree of moral seriousness to an example, is to presuppose some clear knowledge and definite record of it. No example can be beautiful or instructive when its shape is lost in darkness. It has indeed been said by a deeply religious writer, "that the likeness of the Christian to Christ is to His character, not to the particular form in which it was historically manifested." And this, of course, is in one sense a truism. But how else except by this historical manifestation can we know the character of Christ in any true sense of the word knowledge? For those who are familiar with the fourth[Pg 125] Gospel, the term "walk" was tenderly significant. For if it was used with a reminiscence of the Old Testament and of the language of our Lord, to denote the whole continuous activity of the life of any man inward and outward, there was another signification which became entwined with it. St. John had used the word historically in his Gospel, not without allusion to the Saviour's homelessness on earth, to His itinerant life of beneficence and of teaching. Those who first received this Epistle with deepest reverence as the utterance of the Apostle whom they loved, when they came to the precept --- "walk even as He walked" --- would ask themselves how did He walk? What do we know of the great rule of life thus proposed to us? The Gospel which accompanied this letter, and with which it was in some way closely connected, was a sufficient and definite answer.
The character of Christ in his Gospel is thus, according to St. John, the loftiest ideal of purity, peace, self-sacrifice, unbroken communion with God; the inexhaustible fountain of regulated thoughts, high aims, holy action, constant prayer.
We may advert to one aspect of this perfection as delineated in the fourth Gospel --- our Lord's way of doing small things, or at least things which in human estimation appear to be small.
The fourth chapter of that Gospel contains a marvellous record of word and work. Let us trace that[Pg 126] record back to its beginning. There are seeds of spiritual life scattered in many hearts which were destined to yield a rich harvest in due time; there is the account of one sensuous nature, quickened and spiritualised; there are promises which have been for successive centuries as a river of God to weary natures. All these results issue from three words spoken by a tired traveller, sitting naturally over a well --- "give me to drink."
We take another instance. There is one passage in St. John's Gospel which divides with the proœmium of his Epistle, the glory of being the loftiest, the most prolonged, the most sustained, in the Apostle's writings.
It is the prelude of a work which might have seemed to be of little moment. Yet all the height of a great ideal is over it, like the vault of heaven; all the power of a Divine purpose is under it, like the strength of the great deep; all the consciousness of His death, of His ascension, of His coming dominion, of His Divine origin, of His session at God's right hand --- all the hoarded love in His heart for His own which were in the world --- passes by some mysterious transference into that little incident of tenderness and of humiliation. He sets an everlasting mark upon it, not by a basin of gold crusted with gems, nor by mixing precious scents with the water which He poured out, nor by using linen of the finest tissue, but by the absolute perfection of love and dutiful humility in the spirit and in every detail of the whole action. It is one more of those little chinks through which the whole sunshine of heaven streams in upon those who have eyes to see.
The underlying secret of this feature of our Lord's character is told by Himself. "My meat is to be ever doing the will of Him that sent Me, and so when the time comes by one great decisive act to finish His work." All along the course of that life-walk there were smaller preludes to the great act which won our redemption --- multitudinous daily little perfect epitomes of love and sacrifice, without which the crowning sacrifice would not have been what it was. The plan of our life must, of course, be constructed on a scale as different as the human from the Divine. Yet there is a true sense in which this lesson of the great life may be applied to us.
The apparently small things of life must not be despised or neglected on account of their smallness, by those who would follow the precept of St. John. Patience and diligence in petty trades, in services called menial, in waiting on the sick and old, in a hundred such works, all come within the sweep of this net, with its lines that look as thin as cobwebs, and which yet for Christian hearts are stronger than fibres of steel --- "walk even as He walked." This, too, is our only security. A French poet has told a beautiful tale. Near a river which runs between French and German territory, a blacksmith was at work one snowy night near Christmas time. He was tired out, standing by his forge, and wistfully looking towards his little home, lighted up a short quarter of a mile away, and wife and children waiting for their festal supper, when he should return. It came to the last piece of his work, a rivet which it was difficult to finish properly; for it was of peculiar shape, intended by the contractor who[Pg 128] employed him to pin the metal work of a bridge which he was constructing over the river. The smith was sorely tempted to fail in giving honest work, to hurry over a job which seemed at once so troublesome and so trifling. But some good angel whispered to the man that he should do his best. He turned to the forge with a sigh, and never rested until the work was as complete as his skill could make it. The poet carries us on for a year or two. War breaks out. A squadron of the blacksmith's countrymen is driven over the bridge in headlong flight. Men, horses, guns, try its solidity. For a moment or two the whole weight of the mass really hangs upon the one rivet. There are times in life when the whole weight of the soul also hangs upon a rivet; the rivet of sobriety, of purity, of honesty, of command of temper. Possibly we have devoted little or no honest work to it in the years when we should have perfected the work; and so, in the day of trial, the rivet snaps, and we are lost.
There is one word of encouragement which should be finally spoken for the sake of one class of God's servants.
Some are sick, weary, broken, paralysed, it may be slowly dying. What --- they sometimes ask --- have we to do with this precept? Others who have hope, elasticity, capacity of service, may walk as He walked; but we can scarcely do so. Such persons should remember what walking in the Christian sense is --- all life's activity inward and outward. Let them think of Christ upon His cross. He was fixed to it, nailed hand and foot. Nailed; yet never --- not when He trod upon the waves, not when He moved upward through the air to His throne --- never did He walk more truly[Pg 129] because He walked in the way of perfect love. It is just whilst looking at the moveless form upon the tree that we may hear most touchingly the great "you shall" --- you shall walk even as He walked.
As there is a literal, so there is a mystical walking as Christ walked. This is an idea which deeply pervades St. Paul's writings. Is it His birth? We are born again. Is it His life? We walk with Him in newness of life. Is it His death? We are crucified with Him. Is it His burial? We are buried with Him. Is it His resurrection? We are risen again with Him. Is it His ascension --- His very session at God's right hand? "He has raised us up and made us sit together with Him in heavenly places." They know nothing of St. Paul's mind who know nothing of this image of a soul seen in the very dust of death, loved, pardoned, quickened, elevated, crowned, throned. It was this conception at work from the beginning in the general consciousness of Christians which moulded round itself the order of the Christian year.
It will illustrate this idea for us if we think of the difference between the outside and the inside of a church.
Outside on some high spire we see the light just lingering far up, while the shadows are coldly gathering in the streets below; and we know that it is winter. Again the evening falls warm and golden on the churchyard, and we recognise the touch of summer. But inside it is always God's weather; it is Christ all the year long. Now the Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, or circumcised with the knife of the law, manifested to[Pg 130] the Gentiles, or manifesting Himself with a glory that breaks through the veil; now the Man tempted in the wilderness; now the victim dying on the cross; now the Victor risen, ascended, sending the Holy Spirit; now for twenty-five Sundays worshipped as the Everlasting Word with the Father and the Holy Ghost. In this mystical following of Christ also, the one perpetual lesson is --- "he who says he abides in Him, ought himself also so to walk even as He walked."
Ch. ii. 3-11.
Ver. 4. A liar.] There are many things which the "sayer" says by the language of his life rather than by his lips to others: many things which he says to himself. "We lead ourselves astray" (i. 8). We "say" I have knowledge of Him, while yet we observe not His commandments. Strange that we can lie to the one being who knows the truth thoroughly --- self; and having lied, can get the lie believed, ---
"Like one, Who having, to truth, by telling of it, Made such a sinner of his memory, To credit his own lie." Tempest, Act I. Sc. 2.
Ver. 7. Fresh.] There are two quite different words alike translated new in A. V.: one of these is the word used here (καινος); the other (νεος). The first always signifies new in quality --- intellectual, ethical, spiritual novelty --- that which is opposed to, which replaces and supersedes, the antiquated, inferior, outworn; new in the world of thought. (Heb. viii. 13 states this with perfect precision.) It may sometimes not inadequately be rendered fresh ("youngly," Shakespeare, Coriolanus). The other term (νεος) is simply recent; new chronologically in the world of time.
Which you heard from the beginning.] Probably a recognition of St. Paul's teaching at Ephesus, and of his Epistle to the Ephesians.
Ver. 8. To many commentators this verse seems almost of insoluble difficulty. Surely, however, the meaning is clear enough for those who will place themselves within the atmosphere of St. John's thought. "Again a fresh commandment I am writing to you" [this commandment, charity, is no unreal and therefore delusive standard of duty]. Taken as one great whole (ὁ) it is true, matter of observable historical fact, because it is realised in Him who gave the commandment; capable of realisation, and even in measure realised in you. [And this can be actually done by Christians, and recognised more and more by others], "because the shadow is drifting by from the landscape even of the world, and the light, the very light, enlightens, by a new ideal and a new example."
Ver. 10. Scandal.] In Greek is the rendering of two Hebrew words. (1) That against which we trip and stumble, a stumbling-block; (2) A hook or snare.
Ver. 11. The terrible force of this truly Hebraistic parallelism should be noted.
- He that hates his brother is in darkness. 2. " " " walks in darkness. 3. " " " knows, not where he goes. 4. " " " darkness has blinded his eyes.
The third beat of the parallelism contains an allusion to that Cain among the nations, the Jewish people in our Lord's time. (John xii. 35.)
In illustration of the powerful expression, ("darkness has blinded his eyes") the present writer quoted a striking passage from Professor Drummond, who adduces a parallel for the Christian's loss of the spiritual faculty, by the atrophy of organs which takes place in moles, and in the fish in dark caverns. (Speaker's Commentary, in loc.) But as regards the mole at least, a great observer of Nature entirely denies the alleged atrophy. Mr. Buckland quotes Dr. Lee in a paper, in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, where he says, --- "the eye of the mole presents us with an instance of an organ which is rudimentary, not by arrest of development, but through disuse, aided perhaps by natural selection." But Mr. Buckland asserts that "the same great Wisdom who made the mole's teeth the most beautiful set of insectivorous teeth among[Pg 132] animals, also made its eye fit for the work it has to do. The mole has been designed to prey upon earthworms; they will not come up to the surface to him, so he must go down into the earth to them. For this purpose his eyes are fitted." (Life of F. Buckland, pp. 247, 248).
From The Epistles Of St. John by WILLIAM ALEXANDER, D.D., D.C.L. Oxon., Hon. LL.D. Dublin, published by Hodder and Stoughton, 27, Paternoster Row, MDCCCXCVI Lightly updated to the language of the 21st century by D. N. Pham. (c) 2012.
Insights of the past for the present
Epistles of John 1/2 - W. Alexander
ON THE BOOK SHELF
May your insights be worthy.