THE WITNESS OF MEN (APPLIED TO THE RESURRECTION).
"If we receive the witness of men." --- 1 John v. 9.
At an early period in the Christian Church the passage in which these words occur, was selected as a fitting Epistle for the First Sunday after Easter, when believers may be supposed to review the whole body of witness to the risen Lord and to triumph in the victory of faith. A consideration of the unity of essential principles in the narratives of the Resurrection will afford the best illustration of the comprehensive canon --- "if we receive the witness of men." --- if we consider the unity of essential principles in the narratives of the Resurrection, and draw the natural conclusions from them.
Let us note the unity of essential principles in the narratives of the Resurrection.
St. Matthew hastens on from Jerusalem to the appearance in Galilee. "Behold! He goes before you into Galilee," is, in some sense, the key of the 28th chapter. St. Luke, on the other hand, speaks only of manifestations in Jerusalem or its neighbourhood.
Now St. John's Resurrection history falls in the 20th chapter into four pieces, with three manifestations in Jerusalem. The 21st chapter (the appendix-chapter)[Pg 242] also falls into four pieces, with one manifestation to the seven disciples in Galilee.
St. John makes no profession of telling us all the appearances which were known to the Church, or even all of which he was personally cognisant. In the treasures of the old man's memory there were many more which, for whatever reason, he did not write. But these distinct continuous specimens of a permitted communing with the eternal glorified life (supplemented on subsequent thought by another in the last chapter) are as good as three or four hundred for the great purpose of the Apostle. "These are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God."
Throughout St. John's narrative every impartial reader will find delicacy of thought, abundance of matter, minuteness of detail. He will find something more. While he feels that he is not in cloudland or dreamland, he will yet recognise that he walks in a land which is wonderful, because the central figure in it is One whose name is Wonderful. The fact is fact, and yet it is something more. For a short time poetry and history are absolutely coincident. Here, if anywhere, is Herder's saying true, that the fourth Gospel seems to be written with a feather which has dropped from an angel's wing.
The unity in essential principles which has been claimed for these narratives taken together is not a lifeless identity in details. It is scarcely to be worked out by the dissecting-maps of elaborate harmonies. It is not the imaginative unity which is poetry; nor the mechanical unity, which is fabrication; nor the[Pg 243] passionless unity, which is commended in a police-report. It is not the thin unity of plain-song; it is the rich, unity of dissimilar tones blended into a fugue.
This unity may be considered in two essential agreements of the four Resurrection histories.
- All the Evangelists agree in reticence on one point --- in abstinence from one claim.
If any of us were framing for himself a body of such evidence for the Resurrection as should almost extort acquiescence, he would assuredly insist that the Lord should have been seen and recognised after the Resurrection by miscellaneous crowds --- or, at the very least, by hostile individuals. Not only by a tender Mary Magdalene, an impulsive Peter, a rapt John, a Thomas through all his unbelief nervously anxious to be convinced. Let Him be seen by Pilate, by Caiaphas, by some of the Roman soldiers, of the priests, of the Jewish populace. Certainly, if the Evangelists had simply aimed at effective presentation of evidence, they would have put forward statements of this kind.
But the apostolic principle --- the apostolic canon of Resurrection evidence --- was very different. St. Luke has preserved it for us, as it is given by St. Peter. "Him God raised up the third day, and gave Him to be made manifest after He rose again from the dead, not to all the people, but to witnesses chosen before of God, even to us." He shall, indeed, appear again[Pg 244] to all the people, to every eye; but that shall be at the great Advent. St. John, with his ideal tenderness, has preserved a word of Jesus, which gives us St. Peter's canon of Resurrection evidence, in a lovelier and more spiritual form. Christ as He rose at Easter should be visible, but only to the eye of love, only to the eye which life fills with tears and heaven with light --- "yet a little while, and the world sees, Me no more; but you see Me ... He that loves Me shall be loved of My Father, and I will manifest Myself to Him." Round that ideal canon St. John's Resurrection-history is twined with undying tendrils. Those words may be written by us with our softest pencils over the 20th and 21st chapters of the fourth Gospel. There is --- very possibly there can be --- under our present human conditions, no manifestation of Him who was dead and now lives, except to belief, or to that kind of doubt which springs from love.
That which is true of St. John is true of all the Evangelists.
They take that Gospel, which is the life of their life. They bare its bosom to the stab of Celsus, to the bitter sneer plagiarised by Renan --- "why did He not appear to all, to His judges and enemies? Why only to one excitable woman, and a circle of His initiated?"[Pg 245] "The hallucination of a hysterical woman endowed Christendom with a risen God." An apocryphal Gospel unconsciously violates this apostolic, or rather divine canon, by stating that Jesus gave His grave-clothes to one of the High Priest's servants. There was every reason but one why St. John and the other Evangelists should have narrated such stories. There was only one reason why they should not, but that was all-sufficient. Their Master was the Truth as well as the Life. They dared not lie.
Here, then, is one essential accordance in the narratives of the Resurrection. They record no appearances of Jesus to enemies or to unbelievers.
- A second unity of essential principle will be found in the impression produced upon the witnesses.
There was, indeed, a moment of terror at the sepulchre, when they had seen the angel clothed in the long white garment. "They trembled, and were amazed; neither said they anything to any man; for they were afraid." So writes St. Mark. And no such word ever formed the close of a Gospel! On the Easter Sunday evening there was another moment when they were "terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit." But this passes away like a shadow. For man, the Risen Jesus turns doubt into faith, faith into joy. For woman, He turns sorrow into joy. From the sacred wounds joy rains over into their souls. "He showed[Pg 246] them His hands and His feet ... while they yet believed not for joy and wondered." "He showed to them His hands and His side. Then were the disciples glad when they saw the Lord." Each face of those who beheld Him wore after that a smile through all tears and forms of death. "Come," cried the great Swedish singer, gazing upon the dead face of a holy friend, "come and see this great sight. Here is a woman who has seen Christ." Many of us know what she meant, for we too have looked upon those dear to us who have seen Christ. Over all the awful stillness --- under all the cold whiteness as of snow or marble --- that strange soft light, that subdued radiance, what shall we call it? wonder, love, sweetness, pardon, purity, rest, worship, discovery. The poor face often dimmed with tears, tears of penitence, of pain, of sorrow, some perhaps which we caused to flow, is looking upon a great sight. Of such the beautiful text is true, written by a sacred poet in a language of which so many verbs are pictures. "They looked to Him, and were lightened." That meeting of lights without a name it is which makes up what angels call joy. There remained some of that light on all who had seen the Risen Lord. Each might say --- "have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord?"
This effect, like every effect, had a cause.
Scripture implies in the Risen Jesus a form with all heaviness and suffering lifted off it --- with the glory, freshness, elasticity, of the new life, overflowing with beauty and power. He had a voice with some of the pathos of affection, making its sweet concession to human sensibility: saying, "Mary," "Thomas," "Simon, son of[Pg 247] Jonas." He had a presence at once so majestic that they dare not question Him, yet so full of magnetic attraction that Magdalene clings to His feet, and Peter flings himself into the waters when he is sure that it is the Lord.
Now let it be remarked that this consideration entirely disposes of that afterthought of critical ingenuity which has taken the place of the base old Jewish theory --- "His disciples came by night, and stole Him away." That theory, indeed, has been blown into space by Christian apologetics. And now not a few are turning to the solution that He did not really die upon the cross, but was taken down alive.
There are other, and more than sufficient refutations. One from the character of the august Sufferer, who would not have deigned to receive adoration upon false pretences. One from the minute observation by St. John of the physiological effect of the thrust of the soldier's lance, to which he also reverts in the context.
But here, we only ask what effect the appearance of the Saviour among His disciples, supposing that He had not died, must unquestionably have had.
He would only have been taken down from the cross something more than thirty hours. His brow punctured with the crown of thorns; the wounds in hands, feet, and side, yet unhealed; the back raw and torn with scourges; the frame cramped by the frightful tension of six long hours --- a lacerated and shattered man, awakened to agony by the coolness of the sepulchre and by the pungency of the spices; a spectral, trembling, fevered, lamed, skulking thing --- could that have seemed the Prince of Life, the Lord of Glory, the Bright and[Pg 248] Morning Star? Those who had seen Him in Gethsemane and on the cross, and then on Easter, and during the forty days, can scarcely speak of His Resurrection without using language which attains to more than lyrical elevation. Think of St. Peter's anthemlike burst. "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has begotten us again to a lively hope, by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead." Think of the words which St. John heard Him utter. "I am the First and the Living, and behold! I became dead, and I am, living to the ages of ages."
Let us, then, fix our attention upon the unity of all the Resurrection narratives in these two essential principles. (1) The appearances of the Risen Lord to belief and love only. (2) The impression common to all the narrators of glory on His part, of joy on theirs.
We shall be ready to believe that this was part of the great body of proof which was in the Apostle's mind, when pointing to the Gospel with which this Epistle was associated, he wrote of this human but most convincing testimony --- "if we receive," as assuredly we do, "the witness of men" --- of evangelists among the number.
Too often such discussions as these end unpractically enough. Too often
"When the critic has done his best, The pearl of price at reason's test On the Professor's lecture table Lies, dust and ashes levigable."
But, after all, we may well ask: can we afford to dispense with this well-balanced probability? Is it[Pg 249] well for us to face life and death without taking it, in some form, into the account?
Now at the present moment, it may safely be said that, for the best and noblest intellects imbued with the modern philosophy, as for the best and noblest of old who were imbued with the ancient philosophy, external to Christian revelation, immortality is still, as before, a fair chance, a beautiful "perhaps," a splendid possibility. Evolutionism is growing and maturing somewhere another Butler, who will write in another, and possibly more satisfying chapter, than that least convincing of any in the Analogy --- "of a Future State."
What has Darwinism to say on the matter?
Much. Natural selection seems to be a pitiless worker; its instrument is death. But, when we broaden our survey, the sum-total of the result is everywhere advance --- what is mainly worthy of notice, in man the advance of goodness and virtue. For of goodness, as of freedom,
"The battle once begun Though baffled oft, is always won."
Humanity has had to travel thousands of miles, inch by inch, towards the light. We have made such progress that we can see that in time, relatively short, we shall be in noonday. After long ages of strife, of victory for hard hearts and strong sinews, goodness begins to wipe away the sweat of agony from her brow; and will stand, sweet, smiling, triumphant in the world. A gracious life is free for man; generation after generation a softer ideal stands before us, and we can conceive a day when "the meek shall inherit the earth." Do not say that evolution, if proved à outrance, brutalises man. Far from it. It lifts him from below out of the[Pg 250] brute creation. What theology calls original sin, modern philosophy the brute inheritance --- the ape, and the goat, and the tiger --- is dying out of man. The perfecting of human nature and of human society stands out as the goal of creation. In a sense, all creation waits for the manifestation of the sons of God. Nor need the true Darwinian necessarily fear materialism. "Livers secrete bile --- brains secrete thought," is smart and plausible, but it is shallow. Brain and thought are, no doubt, connected --- but the connection is of simultaneousness, of two things in concordance indeed, but not related as cause and effect. If cerebral physiology speaks of annihilation when the brain is destroyed, she speaks ignorantly and without a brief.
The greatest thinkers in the Natural Religion department of the new philosophy seem then to be very much in the same position as those in the same department of the old. For immortality there is a sublime probability. With man, and man's advance in goodness and virtue as the goal of creation, who shall say that the thing so long provided for, the goal of creation, is likely to perish? Annihilation is a hypothesis; immortality is a hypothesis. But immortality is the more likely as well as the more beautiful of the two. We may believe in it, not as a thing demonstrated, but as an act of faith that "God will not put us to permanent intellectual confusion."
But we may well ask whether it is wise and well to refuse to intrench this probability behind another. Is it likely that He who has so much care for us as to make us the goal of a drama a million times more complex than our fathers dreamed of; who lets us see that[Pg 251] He has not removed us out of his sight; will leave Himself, and with Himself our hopes, without witness in history? History is especially human; human evidence the branch of moral science of which man is master --- for man is the best interpreter of man. The primary axiom of family, of social, of legal, of moral life, is, that there is a kind and degree of human evidence which we ought not to refuse; that if credulity is voracious in belief, incredulity is no less voracious in negation; that if there is a credulity which is simple, there is an incredulity which is unreasonable and perilous. Is it then safe to grope for the keys of death in darkness, and turn from the hand that holds them out; to face the ugly realities of the pit with less consolation than is the portion of our inheritance in the faith of Christ?
"The disciples," John tells us, "went away again to their own home. But Mary was standing without at the sepulchre weeping." Weeping! What else is possible while we are outside, while we stand --- what else until we stoop down from our proud grief to the sepulchre, humble our speculative pride, and condescend to gaze at the death of Jesus face to face? When we do so, we forget the hundred voices that tell us that the Resurrection is partly invented, partly imagined, partly ideally true. We may not see angels in white, nor hear their "why weepest you?" But assuredly we shall hear a sweeter voice, and a stronger than theirs; and our name will be on it, and His name will rush to our lips in the language most expressive to us --- as Mary said to Him in Hebrew, Rabboni.[Pg 252] Then we shall find that the grey of morning is passing; that the thin thread of scarlet upon the distant hills is deepening into dawn; that in that world where Christ is the dominant law the ruling principle is not natural selection which works through death, but supernatural selection which works through life; that "because He lives, we shall live also."
With the reception of the witness of men then, and among them of such men as the writer of the fourth Gospel, all follows. For Christ,
"Earth breaks up --- time drops away; --- In flows Heaven with its new day Of endless life, when He who trod, Very Man and very God, This earth in weakness, shame, and pain, Dying the death whose signs remain Up yonder on the accursëd tree; Shall come again, no more to be Of captivity the thrall --- But the true God all in all, King of kings, and Lord of lords, As His servant John received the words --- 'I died, and live for evermore.'"
For us there comes the hope in Paradise --- the connection with the living dead --- the pulsation through the isthmus of the Church, from sea to sea, from us to them --- the tears not without smiles as we think of the long summer-day when Christ who is our life shall appear --- the manifestation of the sons of God, when "them that sleep in Jesus will God bring with Him." Our resurrection shall be a fact of history, because His is a fact of history; and we receive it as such --- partly from the reasonable motive of reasonable human belief on sufficient evidence for practical conviction.
All the long chain of manifold witness to Christ is[Pg 253] consummated and crowned when it passes into the inner world of the individual life. "He that believes, on the Son of God, has the witness in him," i.e., in himself Correlative to this, stands a terrible truth. He of whom we must conceive that he believes not God, has made Him a liar --- nothing less, because his time for receiving Christ came and went, and with this crisis his unbelief stands a completed present act as the result of his past; unbelief stretching over to the completed witness of God concerning His Son; --- human unbelief co-extensive with divine witness.
But that sweet witness in a man's self is not merely in books or syllogisms. It is the creed of a living soul. It lies folded within a man's heart, and never dies --- part of the great principle of victory fought and won over again in each true life --- until the man dies, and ceasing then only because he sees that which is the object of its witness.
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 2/2 - W. Alexander
ON THE BOOK SHELF
May your insights be worthy.