II. THE WORD THE LIGHT OF MEN.
[Lincoln's Inn, 1st Sunday in Lent, February 10, 1856.]
St. John I. 14.
And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.
When I spoke to you last, I proposed to examine St. John's Gospel carefully and in order. It was impossible not to pause earnestly upon the opening sentence, 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.' What does that text say to us? 'It declares,' some will answer eagerly and decisively, 'the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ.' Be it so; but the name Jesus Christ is not introduced till the seventeenth verse of the chapter. If we are sitting at the feet of an Apostle or Evangelist, we cannot change his method for a method of our own. The writers of the other Gospels start from the birth of Jesus, or from the preaching of John the Baptist. We cannot understand them unless we go with them to Bethlehem or to the wilderness. St. John leads us back to the beginning of all things. We cannot understand him, if we assume events that were to take place in the fulness of the time.
Acting upon this principle, I reminded you that the expression 'word of God' is one of continual recurrence as well as of most solemn import in the books of the Old Testament. I could not find that, in its lowest sense, it ever meant less than a message from the invisible God to the mind and spirit of man. The assertion that God speaks to men by His word, and that men are capable of hearing that word, was the great testimony for the truth which was implied in heathen superstitions, the great testimony against these superstitions. Idolaters were not mistaken in thinking that they needed dialogue with that which was higher than themselves; they were mistaken in seeking, in the heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth, for Him who was nearer to them than He was to all the things He had made, who was the Lord of their hearts and reins. The more you study the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets, the more you meditate the earliest and simplest book of the Bible — that which tells of the Voice which spoke to Adam in the garden, of the Voice which called Abram to go forth where he knew not — the more, I am persuaded, you will feel that this is the most characteristic peculiarity of these records, that which connects them with each other, that which has given them their power over mankind.
Nevertheless, the life of the men who were said to receive these communications was eminently practical and manly. They did not pore over their own thoughts; they went forth and did the work which was given them to do, feeding flocks, bringing up children, fighting enemies. It is evident that their belief in the invisible did not in the least interfere with their business in this visible world. That they were to till and subdue by the same charter which assured them that they were God's servants, and that His word was directing them. While they kept their faith in the unseen Teacher, the firmament over their heads became a clear daily and nightly witness respecting Him and themselves. The stars told them what their seed should be; the sun, going forth as a bridegroom out of his chamber, carried the message of their God into all lands. It was when the faith in the invisible grew weak, that they bowed their heads and worshipped the forms which once testified to them of their greater nobleness and sublimer origin. And with this came another idolatry, in its essence grander, in its results baser. The man felt that beings of his own kind had more power over him than all the hosts of heaven. He did homage to their goodness, their wisdom, their beneficence, their strength. He confessed the king, and was raised to a higher sense of his own freedom and kingship. The king became a giant and a tyrant; he became a dwarf and a slave. What should raise men out of either oppression? What should set them free from the yoke which creatures below their own kind and of their own kind had imposed upon them? The Jew was taught that the Lord God was his King; that He broke the yoke of the Pharaoh and of the Pharaoh's gods; that He claimed the most abject slaves as His servants. The Israelite was brought under an order which had this foundation. In the strength of it, kings were to reign and decree judgment; they were to preserve the people from lapsing into the idolatry which would destroy their obedience and their freedom. They were to reign by the word of the Lord.
But what was this word of God which held men back who had fierce inclinations in their hearts, and who had swords to execute them in their hands? It could not be a statute; that had no such power. It could not be a set of moral maxims; they had no such power. It could not be a promise, or a threat, about the world that is, or the world to come; neither had such power. The Prophet, living amidst the signs of decay and ruin in his own polity, amidst the earthquakes which were shaking all nations, under the overwhelming power of empires that sought to put out the life of nations, began to attach another and deeper sense to the word of God, not incompatible with the older use, but involved in it; not a metaphor or allegory deduced from it, but a higher truth lying behind it. The Word of God came to him, spoke to him in the very depths of his heart. He spoke to it, sympathised with it. But dared he say it any longer? No; in some wonderful manner this Word must be a Friend, a Person; One who could work with him, reprove him, illuminate him. This Word must be the Teacher, the Friend, the King of Israel. This Word must one day prove Himself to be the Lord of the whole earth. Awful discovery! which makes him tremble, and yet which makes him bold; which sometimes draws forth from him the cry, 'Woe is me! for I am an unclean man, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips; for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts;' which again gives him all his hope both for himself and for his people. At every step of his own experience and of his nation's experience, new visions unfolded themselves out of this vision. It must be that all those various objects in nature which men were worshipping, that all the living order of nature in which those things were comprehended, proceeded from this living Word. It must be that all the races of men, all their politics, were under His guidance and government. It must be that all the light that had entered into any man's heart had come from Him. It must be that the darkness which was in any man's heart had come from rebellion against Him.
In various ways and in different measures this truth was unveiling itself to the Prophets of old: I have had other opportunities of pointing out to you the steps of its manifestation. When I quoted the first fourteen verses of St. John's Gospel, at the close of my last sermon, I wished to show you that he had gathered up into one distinct statement, one full revelation, that which it had taken ages to spell out. I wished you to feel that there was, in one sense, no novelty in his proclamation, because he was saying that which was implied in all the past history and literature of his people; yet that there was, in another sense, the most important novelty, because that which had been implied could now for the first time be expressed. I hinted to you that in this case, as in every case, the expression did not come, till all the doubts which called for the expression had been awakened, and had become clamorous. In fact, these doubts were leading Jews, heathens, disciples of Jesus, very near indeed to the gulf of atheism. Was there an absolute Being dwelling in His own perfection? Was there a Word who uttered His mind? How was this duality compatible with the unity of the divine nature? Here was the first grand difficulty, one which did not more exercise the Jew, who had lived to proclaim that unity as the primary truth of the universe, than the Gentile philosopher who had arrived at it as a final result, as an escape from the polytheism which the vulgar must still be left to believe in. St. John uses no such phrases as unity or duality. We have the broad, old, simple Hebrew language, the language for human beings, not for speculators. We hear of a living God, not of a notion. And this God is, as the old record had said, a Creator. Men had been asking in all countries how is the world related to God? Did He make it as an artificer makes a dead instrument? Did it flow from Him as a thought flows from the meditative man? Or is it self-made? Is God Himself a part of it, merely the spring of its movements? St. John answers, 'The world was made by Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made. In Him was life.' It was no dead instrument turned forth by a mechanist. It was no part of Himself. It was no order moving by itself without Him. It was a world of living, productive forces, governed by a Person. His own life was quickening the movements of His creatures; His own wisdom was directing them. The philosophical puzzle is met by words which, I think, you will find are adapted to the physical science of the nineteenth century, as much as they were to the theological doubts of the first century; which show where theology and physical science meet, how they are distinguished, how they are reconciled. And yet the language is still the child's language, the fisherman's language. It is Moses, not Plato, who is revived in the Ephesian teacher.
Then come verses which meet the troubles of the heart and conscience of man, as those meet the troubles of his intellect, — which speak to him of himself, as those speak of the world. How simple they are! How entirely they accord with what I have been showing you were the thoughts of old Patriarchs and Prophets! And yet what worlds of speculation they encounter! what theories about the conscience they come in contact with! what webs of mythology they unravel! Above all, how they explain the thoughts of those who cannot reason, and yet are subject to those laws about which all reasoning is conversant! 'In Him was life, and the life was the light of men: and the light shines in darkness, and the darkness does not take it down into itself.' What have not those words been to men, who have been for years trying to reconcile the contradictory phenomena of their own spirits! 'Word of God, your light has been shining in me, flashing into my heart, discovering the dark places and passages there! The darkness tries to comprehend, to hide, to quench your light! Thanks be to You, it cannot.'
The transition appears great from this sentence — so general, yet so individual, — concerning the beginning of the world and the latest days of it — to the words, 'There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.' No doubt we are reminded by the change that the writer belonged to a particular age — to an age in which there were many disciples of John the Baptist still alive, who were inclined to claim for him the very highest honour that could belong to a divine messenger. The Apostle was especially likely to know what followers of the Baptist would say and feel respecting him, since he had probably been one of them. But he does not forget the subject with which he was occupied before, when he turns to his old master and to those who were paying him an extravagant homage. He introduces John that he may declare what every man sent from God in the former times had done, — what every such man in that time, in all time to come, must do: 'The same came for a witness, that he might bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.' 'You who listened to John, if there are any of you yet on earth, what was the effect of his speech, his look, his baptism upon you? I will tell you what it was upon me. As he said "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand," my darkness was revealed to me. That darkness was discovered by the divine light of which he spoke. He came to bear witness of this light, that you and I might believe in it.' Here was one mighty, unspeakable cause of gratitude to him. But, 'He was not that Light, but was sent that he might witness of the Light.' So was it with John preaching by the side of Jordan. Was the saying less true of Jeremiah preaching beside the temple that was to be desolate, of Ezekiel preaching by the river Chebar? Was it less true of St. Peter on the day of Pentecost, of St. Paul at Antioch? Was it less true of Bernard, of Francis of Assisi, of Luther, of any man who in later days has awakened men out of a slumber of death? What can be said of each except this: 'The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light'? What would each have said of himself but this: 'I am not that Light, but am come that I may bear witness of that Light'?
The Apostle says this; but he has something greater and deeper to say. He says, 'That was the true Light which lighteth every man that comes into the world.' 'We may have felt, when we heard the preacher in the wilderness, as if there were some new light shining then for the first time into our hearts. We may have supposed it was kindled by the speaker. But no star arose in the firmament at his bidding; that which struck us with such wonder had been with us from our birth. When any man comes into this order of ours, he finds the Word there.' 'He was in the world, and the world was made by Him and the world knew Him not.' Think of all the strange dreams of immortality that have visited human beings; their sense of a law of right and wrong; their acknowledgment of powers which assert the right and avenge the wrong! Think how these great facts of humanity have affected the condition of men in every region of the world, — how politics, legislation, civil society, have been shaped by them! Think of the confusions respecting immortality, respecting the boundaries of right and wrong, respecting the justice and injustice of the invisible kings and judges whose power has been confessed and feared! Think of the superstitions, oppressions, slaveries, that have grown out of these confusions! And then read once again this sentence, 'He was in the world' — He from whom light came — 'and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not.' See if you have not there the clear, scientific explanation of these strange facts; the universal law which tells you how they could exist together. See if that scientific explanation, that universal law, is not brought to an experimental test; so that every man, every child may know, from that which has passed in himself, what it means. 'He came to His own, and His own received Him not.' The light came into men's hearts, as into its proper native dwelling-place. The Word from whom that light issued asserted His right over all the feelings, instincts, impulses, determinations of these hearts, as over His own rightful domestics and subjects. But the light was repelled; the rightful Ruler was treated as an intruder by these domestics and subjects. There was anarchy and rebellion, where there should have been subordination and harmony. A usurper had reduced those into slavery who would not have the service which is freedom. 'But as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become sons of God; which were born, not of flesh, nor of blood, nor of the will of man, but of God.' The last words seemed to speak of an order subverted, of a creation which had lost its centre. These declare that the order was preserved; that the centre still proved its power to attract, and to retain in their orbits, the bodies which were intended to move around it. There were those that confessed the Light; there were those that entertained it, that sought to walk in it. There were those who submitted themselves to the government of their true Ruler. And they attained the stature of men; they learnt themselves, they manifested to others where they had come, what was their parentage. 'To them gave He power to become sons of God.' They were sons of men, born to the same condition as others of their kind; but He made them know that in their inmost being they were not born of earthly or human seed, but had their life from above, from Him who lives and abides for ever.
Up to this point, I conceive, the Evangelist has not even touched upon any principle or fact specially belonging to the Christian theology, to the new dispensation. He has been unfolding the principle of the old. He has been discoursing of that law and government under which all had lived, whether they were prophets or people, whether they were true prophets or false, whether they were Gentiles or Jews. He has claimed the high prerogative of a Jew, the prerogative of interpreting the condition of mankind; of declaring in what relation those stood to God who had been ignorant of their relation, or who had seen it dimly, or had denied it. Even when he speaks of John, it is as the Prophet of the old world; as winding up the witness which previous Prophets had borne to the Word, from which all the light that was in them had streamed out. He says nothing yet of any future Teacher to whom John pointed. And, as we shall see hereafter, when he does come, in due order, to the part of John's teaching in which he spoke of One whose shoe's latchet he was not worthy to unloose, it is that he may quote the memorable language, 'He that comes after me is preferred before me; for He was before me. And of His fulness have all we received, and grace answering to grace.' You cannot hear that fragment of a divine discourse without perceiving that the object of the Evangelist is to carry us into the past before he speaks of the future; that he regards the especial grandeur of the new time as this, that it reveals that which had been of old, that which had been from the beginning. But it was absolutely necessary to the coherency and continuity of the Apostle's statement that he should not introduce these words of the Baptist — wonderfully as they illustrate the account of his mission which had been given previously — till he had first made that announcement which is contained in the text: 'And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.'
This, my brethren, I regard not as the text of my sermon, but of St. John's Gospel. I conceive that Gospel is nothing more nor less than the setting forth how Jesus Christ proved Himself in human flesh to be that Word of God in whom was life, and whose life was the light of men, who had been in the world, and by whom the world was made, and whom the world knew not; how in that flesh He manifested forth the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father; how He manifested the fulness of grace and truth. It is because the theology of St. John comes forth in these human facts that I affirmed it to be a theology not merely different from the systematic school theology, but the great deliverance from it. I should, therefore, be departing from my object and belying my professions, if instead of waiting for the gradual discovery of the meaning of these words in St. John's story, I began with thrusting my own meaning into them. All I ought to do, — and this I must do, for the very purpose of showing you how strict and beautiful the Apostle's method is, and how much wrong we do to ourselves and him when we give up it, — is to point out, very shortly, the connection which I trace between this verse and the one that immediately precedes it.
The Evangelist had said of those who received the Word, 'to them, gave He power to become the sons of God.' A new expression — to a certain extent, a new thought — is brought before us here. We had heard of the Word as One in whom is life; we had heard that His life was the light of men. All the language concerning Him had been such as applies — not to an abstraction, not to an essence, but — to a Person. But now it is said that those who accept His government, who are penetrated by His light, acquire a power which they had not before. They discover a relation which had been hidden from them. It was the greatest of all their earthly blessings that they had fathers according to the flesh. A higher blessing is conferred upon them now; they can act as if they had a heavenly Father. As if they had a heavenly Father! But are they never to know certainly whether they have or not? Is the power of becoming sons not to be associated with the clear consciousness that this is their proper and original state? 'The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.' He became a man among men. We beheld Him, and we know that He was — what He told us that He was — not an independent Being, but a Son. He was not merely a Light of lights. We are sure that He was the ground of all human sonship; that He was the only-begotten of a Father. That higher, more blessed, more perfect name thenceforth mingled itself with all our thoughts of that God whom no man has seen or can see; it turned our thoughts into trust and worship. The Absolute Truth and Goodness shone forth through Him. The only-Begotten revealed Him who had been from the beginning. He opened a new dispensation, because He made us know that God who had been speaking to us in the old.
From the Gospel of St. John by FREDERICK DENISON MAURICE, M.A, Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Combridge. Published by MACMILLAN AND CO in 1882; Produced by Charlene Taylor, Julia Neufeld and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net. Lightly updated to the language of the 21st century by D. N. Pham. (c) 2012.
Insights of the past for the present
Gospel of St. John - F.D. Maurice
ON THE BOOK SHELF
May your insights be worthy.