VIII. THE BRIDEGROOM AND THE BRIDEGROOM'S FRIEND.
[Lincoln's Inn, Easter Sunday, March 23, 1856.]
St. John III. 30.
He must increase; I must decrease.
We have seen, in the first chapter of this Gospel, how much the work and office of John the Baptist are connected with all the deepest thoughts and announcements of the Apostle. The more we study him, the more probable, I think, the old tradition of the Church, that he was a disciple of the Baptist, must appear to us, — the more we shall understand the cause of his anxiety to point out the exact relation between his two teachers.
I have endeavoured to show you that it is not the superiority of the Christ to the forerunner which he chiefly dwells upon. That difference had been sufficiently brought out by the earlier evangelists. He insists that the superiority of the Christ rested on His priority; that the later in order of manifestation was the first in order of being; that of His fulness John and all previous prophets had received; that of Him, as the Word of God, as the Light of men, they had all borne witness. Whether Jesus was or was not the Word made flesh, — whether He did or did not prove that in Him was the Life of all things, and that He was the Light of men, — are questions which the Evangelist undertakes to resolve for us in the course of his narrative. Upon that point the Baptist may at times have had a strong conviction; at times he might be doubtful. But that there was such a Word of God, such a Light of men, and that He would make Himself manifest, this was the groundwork of his prophecy; by this proclamation he proved himself to be of the same class with Isaiah and Ezekiel; by this he showed that a kingdom of heaven must be at hand, in which the least might be greater than he.
How our Lord spoke to a ruler of the Jews concerning that kingdom, and the qualifications for entering into it and seeing it — how he connected it with a birth by water and by the Spirit — we have heard in the first part of this chapter. The narrative which occupies the remainder of it carries us back to John. Not long after the passover at which the conversation with Nicodemus took place, Jesus, we are told, went with His disciples into the country part of Judæa — the land of Judæa being here set in contrast, not with Galilee, but with the city of Jerusalem, at which He had been during the feast. 'There He tarried with them and baptized.' This expression is used loosely; it is qualified in the next chapter. 'Jesus,' it is said, 'Himself baptized not, but His disciples.' Still it was regarded, to all intents and purposes, as His baptism. It was naturally compared with that of John; for he was still at large, and was 'baptizing in Ænon, near to Salim, where there was much water.' Perhaps the numbers that went out to him had diminished; but it is obvious from the context that he was still an object of attraction to many; 'they came to him, and were baptized.'
'Then there arose a question between some of John's disciples and a Jew' (the plural is evidently quite out of place) 'about purification.' We need not inquire into the nature of this dispute, seeing that the Apostle tells us no more of it. Before that time, and ever since, the subject of purification has given rise to thousands of questions, all bearing more or less directly upon the relation between outward acts and the inner man, — what the former can or cannot do to make the other better. Such questions were certain to be awakened by a baptism with water, and a preaching of repentance such as John's; any of them may have suggested to his disciples the thought whether there was some greater virtue in that of Jesus, or whether He were merely a rival and imitator of the elder teacher. With surprise and perplexity, and something of the indignation which was natural in men jealous for the honour of a beloved teacher, 'they came to John, and said to him, Rabbi, He that was with you beyond Jordan, and to whom you barest witness, behold the same baptizeth, and all men come to Him.'
There was probably a pause before John gave his answer. The news which he heard may have stirred up strange thoughts and doubts within him, not in a moment to be quelled. Was his work over? Was he to have no more power over men? Was he no longer a witness for God? The magician says, when the fabric of his vision is dissolved —
A mournful conclusion, and yet one to which many a man of high genius has been brought, and out of which, perhaps, in the end he has derived very precious lessons. Was this to be the result of the prophet's meditation also? No! it comes forth in quite other words, which were a reply both to the questionings in his own soul, and the shallower perplexities and speculations of his disciples. 'A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from above.' As if he had said: 'You need not be careful of my fame. If I have ever spoken a word which has entered into you, and shown you your ownselves, and has made you truer, better men, that word was given me by the Lord of your spirit and mine; He enabled you to take it in. Out of the bosom of God, where that Word is whose life is the light of men, did these quickening, illuminating words proceed. Just so far as my words have led you to turn to that Word who is always with you, and who has promised that He will come and manifest Himself to you, — just so far have they been wholesome and effectual. "You yourselves bear me witness, that I said I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before Him." As I never pretended to be that unseen Light, which I told you was struggling with your darkness, so — you know it well — I never pretended to be the Christ, the Anointed One, the King of Israel. For my message was that this Christ must be that Light of the world, that Word made flesh. I told you that He alone would baptize with the Spirit, because He alone would be fully baptized with the Spirit. I am sent before Him, — sent, as I said, to baptize with water, that so He might be made known to Israel who has the higher baptism.' And then, as if he were caught away by a new and diviner inspiration, as if the very meaning of that word, Christ the anointed, were revealed to him, — as if, in the light of that meaning, a thousand old songs and symbols were interpreting themselves to him, — he goes on, 'He that has the bride is the bridegroom.' The vision of a king was before him; of a king, the direct contrast to the tyrants of the earth. In place of a Deioces, hidden in the recesses of some Median palace — in place of a Tiberius, governing the world by spies — he sees One 'who is fairer than the sons of men, upon whose lips grace is poured, whose sword is on His thigh, and who rides on in truth and righteousness.' He sees Him coming to woo and claim His bride, 'whose beauty He greatly desires, who is all-glorious within, whose clothing is of created gold.' Such a Bridegroom all the prophets had, in one form of speech or another, been discoursing of. They had proved that they were dealing in no metaphors — pouring out no Oriental rhapsodies; for their revelation of Him had been connected with the homeliest exhortations to domestic union and purity; they had affirmed the relation of the particular husband and wife to have its foundation in this higher relation; they had treated all breaches of the marriage-vow as indications and results of the adultery of the race to its unseen Husband. And though the race meant in their minds Israel; though the people whom God had chosen, and with whom He had made a covenant, were those whom they taught to regard themselves as united in this eternal bond, of which covenants were but the outward expression, which existed long before Abraham or Noah; yet their language was always too large for even these limitations — was continually breaking through them. The King who was to reign over the Gentiles must be represented as their Husband; whensoever He should be revealed as the glory of His people Israel, He would certainly be revealed as the Light to lighten all the nations; that is to say, whensoever he appeared as the Christ of God, He would certainly appear as the Bridegroom of Humanity.
To speak of Him, then, by this name, was not, as some would make out, to anticipate the discoveries of New Testament Apostles. It was expressly to endorse and unfold the discoveries that had been made to Old Testament Prophets. It is only when he speaks of his own office in relation to this Bridegroom, that John looks at all beyond the previous teachers of his land; and then, that he may make their office also more intelligible.
'The friend of the bridegroom, which stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom's voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled.' I know scarcely any words in all the Scriptures which have a deeper and diviner music in them than these, or which more express all that a Christian minister and a Christian man should wish to understand and feel; and should hope that some day he may understand and feel as he who first spoke them did. That may seem to us a high ambition; we ought to consider it a poor ambition. After eighteen hundred years we should be able to understand better, to feel more intensely than John did, that all the joy which is intended for a human being — no, in the strict sense, which is possible for a human being — comes from hearing this Bridegroom's voice. I do believe, brethren, that by sore experience, shameful experience, those of us who have had fewest saintly aspirations may learn that lesson. We have listened for the echoes of our own voices; we have longed to know what impression they made; we have tried to feast on the outward praise or the inward consciousness of their power or sweetness. Has it not been very miserable, unsatisfying food? has not the day's gluttony brought nausea and disgust on the following day? Has not the gratification of that vanity gradually formed in us a craving, which no indulgence could appease, which every disappointment made intolerable? How much better has it been, if we have striven to take delight in the words and deeds of other men, to feel the praises of them as our own! 'As our own! Then we still are intended to connect what is outside of us with ourselves; we must, in some sort, refer them to a standard within us?' Here is the puzzle; one always recurring; one infinitely more tormenting in the practice of life than it ever can be in speculation; one that affects all our judgments of our fellow-men; one that never deserts us when we are alone. It never can be set at rest till we confess a Lord, from whom all that is good and dear and worthy to be admired in any human being is derived — a root of all mutual understanding and genial sympathy — a centre of life and joy. If we think that there is a Bridegroom who is ever presenting as an honor His own treasures and loveliness upon the creatures who were formed after His likeness, whose nature He has taken, who is ever drawing those creatures out of their own narrow and dark prison-houses, to come and claim their rights as spirits, and to share with Him the free air and light in which He dwells, then we may begin to claim the place of His friends, and in our own hearts, as well as in those who have been most estranged from us, to hear Him speaking. That speech will not be monotonous; we shall know why it is said in the Apocalypse to be as the sound of many waters. In the accents of humiliation and penitence, in the accents of thanksgiving and praise, in the confessions upon sick-beds, in the laugh of children, in the stillness of the churchyard, in the noise of cities, in the cries upon the cross, in the message, He is risen, — we shall hear the Bridegroom's voice. It testifies that He has come and is coming to us and to all. Our joy is fulfilled only if we learn to welcome Him, and to bid our brethren welcome Him also.
And therefore John proceeds, most consistently and harmoniously: 'He must increase; I must decrease.' If the words had been spoken only of a new teacher who was baptizing more disciples than he, there would be a sadness and a kind of murmur in them, however they might denote a necessary submission. But when it is the Bridegroom of his own spirit, the divine Lord, from whom alone he had received light, in whom alone he could see light, who was to increase, the 'I must decrease' is not a qualification of the joy he had claimed as the Bridegroom's friend, but a principal part of it. How many a one has felt the misery of a self; has longed to become absorbed in the universe — to be nothing! It was a wish which a holy man such as John was did not dare to cherish, and yet which must have haunted him more than most. To have a glimpse of this annihilation; to see that it was possible to become less and less, while He in whom he was bound up, in whom was the spring of his life and joy, grew greater and greater; to feel that he might find his own personality in another; — was not this the consummation to which God had always been leading him? Was not this, too, the very meaning and explanation of the work in which he had been engaged? The Word, the Light of men, of whom he had told his countrymen, needed no longer his witness; for He was coming forth Himself to witness of that Father with whom He had dwelt eternally, to tell mankind of Him.
This higher testimony, this newer and grander revelation, is the subject of the verses which follow: 'He that comes from above is above all: he that is of the earth is earthly, and speaks of the earth: He that comes from heaven is above all. And what He has seen and heard, that He testifieth; and no man receives His testimony.'
John had said before, that a man receives nothing but what is given him from heaven. He does not recal that language, but affirms it anew, when he says that every man in himself, every child of Adam, though a living soul, is 'yet of the earth, and speaks of the earth.' He is tied to earthly measures and standards. If he applies even the faculties which he has derived from heaven to judge of heaven, he reduces it to the level of earth. But there is One who comes from above, One who is above all, One who draws His light from the Fountain of light, One whose light in us is not a part of our darkness, but a divine power to scatter it. He testifies of that which He has seen and heard, of the heavenly things, of the will and nature and purpose of God. 'And no man receives His testimony.' Strange that John should say that! What he had heard from his disciples was that Jesus was baptizing, and 'that all men came to Him.' We are not told that he doubted their information; we are not told that he had any different information from more trustworthy sources. And yet he confidently affirms that His testimony is not received. Why? Because he was not speaking of what had happened in the few days or weeks since Jesus came to Jordan to fulfil all righteousness, but of the four thousand years during which He had come to His own, and His own had received Him not. That testimony which He had borne as the invisible Word of God He was bearing still, now that He was made flesh and dwelling among men. It was mightier in degree; it was not different in kind. It was still a testimony to the heart, to the inner man, and must be entertained or rejected there. What, therefore, the Baptist could say of the past, on the warrant of so long an experience, he could say surely of the present. The darkness would fight against the light. No man of himself, without an operation from above, without a higher baptism than that of water, whether administered by John or by Christ, would believe that which the Son of God came to tell him.
That this limitation to the expression 'no man' is involved in the very nature of the Baptist's discourse, is evident from the next verse: 'He that has received His testimony has set to his seal that God is true.' But what need of a limitation? Why should he have made a large assertion in one sentence, which is to be modified or contradicted in the next? The answer is contained in the words themselves: 'He who receives this testimony sets to his seal that God is true.' The Christ comes to baptize men with the Spirit, that they may receive that which of themselves they are both reluctant and unable to receive. The man who accepts that testimony, confesses his own reluctance and inability. He believes God to be strong and true, though he is weak and lying. And his mind becomes stamped with the impression of God's truth. The Spirit of God raises him above himself to know Him. It was necessary, then, to make the one assertion in its breadth and fulness, that the other might not lose any of its breadth and fulness. It was necessary that no man should suppose himself capable of entering into the mind and kingdom of God — that all men might know that God was not deceiving them, when He promised to present as an honor that capacity upon them.
'For,' John continues, 'He whom God has sent speaks the words of God: for God gives not the Spirit by measure to Him.' He speaks the words of God. If He proclaimed a doctrine, a theory, a scheme of the universe — that might be taken in, — if some thought ill of it, others would embrace it. But He comes speaking the words of God — revealing the mind of the Eternal Being — showing forth Him who is truth and who is love. How can we grasp such a manifestation as this? What have our poor beggarly conceits to do with the idea of a Goodness without bounds? Let us understand it well, brethren. The Jews rejected the testimony of Christ, because it was the testimony concerning such a God as this. The difficulty of all difficulties, whatever we may fancy, is to believe in God, in a living and true God, in a God who loves His creatures. It is a difficulty which no arguments can remove; a difficulty which the progress of ages does not diminish in the least, but makes stronger; a difficulty which is often most overpowering to the most religious men. The logician says, 'The understanding is finite; you cannot bring the Infinite within its range.' The philosopher of advanced civilization says, 'The belief in God was for little children; science is for us. Physical science does not reveal God; our worship of humanity dispenses with Him.' Religious men see evil all about them and within them. They can conceive of a punisher and avenger of evil; they can conceive that this punisher and avenger, if he has motive and compensation sufficient, may exempt some from the destruction which he has decreed for the majority. They cannot believe in Love.
The logician is right. St. John said, eighteen hundred years ago, that the Light had shined in the darkness, and the darkness had not comprehended it. If we think only of our understanding, if we refuse to believe that there is a Word always illuminating it, we think only of the darkness, and we may say boldly, 'It can know nothing of God; we have nothing to do with Him.' The modern philosopher of advanced civilization is right. We cannot discover God in the world; we cannot discover in the world anything higher than ourselves. If there is no Bridegroom of humanity, who witnesses to it of a Father, and binds it to a Father, we can only worship the world, or worship humanity — that is to say, worship ourselves. The religious man who exalts evil into the throne of the universe is right. All the witnesses of the conscience that there is a God infinitely good, — all the witnesses of the heart that man is made to be in conformity with that infinite Good, and can be satisfied with nothing else — are simply mockeries and delusions, which it is the business of the disciple and minister of Christ to trample upon, to confute with words taken out of the Bible, till he has succeeded in making young men profligates and atheists, old men worldlings and hypocrites, — if there has not been in the world an only-begotten Son full of grace and truth, who has come forth from the Father to testify of the Father, and to whom the Father has given His Spirit without measure, that He might baptize with it all who receive His testimony, all who believe that God is true, not false — good, not evil.
To this subject the last and most memorable words of this whole chapter refer, those in which John the Baptist looks into the promised land which he was not to enter, in which he winds up the old dispensation, in which he introduces the new. 'The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand. He that believes on the Son of God has everlasting life: he that believes not the Son of God has not life; but the wrath of God abides on him.' From now onwe shall hear no longer of a prophet discoursing of a Word who has come to him, and from whom his light and the light of all men has been derived. We shall find that Word discoursing as a Son concerning a Father, conversing with a Father, showing forth a Father. We are to hear how this testimony is received, especially how it is received by the most religious portion of the Jewish people. We are to learn that, though their opposition to Jesus took many forms, there was one dark root of all their hostility and hatred. They could not bear to hear Christ speak of a Father — of a Father who loved the world. Whenever they thought of God, a dark image of wrath was present to them; that wrath abode upon them, settled in them. How was it possible for them, then, to see in Jesus the perfect image of the Father, — in His wrath against all baseness and vileness and hypocrisy, the true Divine wrath which is the expression of the deepest love, — in His sympathy with publicans and sinners, the self-same love? How was it possible for them to see in the Son lifted on the cross, the King whom prophets and holy men had desired, the Son of God in whom dwelt the fulness of the Father, because the fulness of love, bodily? And, therefore, the wrath which they had invoked upon all others, and cherished in their own hearts, came upon them to the uttermost. They rejected their King and Bridegroom, and all the national and spiritual life which had proceeded from Him perished inevitably.
I have come back to the subject of which I was speaking last Sunday. All Christian preaching should return continually to the Cross. It can never find any other object so central or so glorious. But the death of Christ and His resurrection are inseparable. I have been preaching you an Easter sermon to-day. For, if you think of Easter as apostles and martyrs thought of it, you will think of it as the witness that the Bridegroom of humanity has presented and justified humanity before His Father. You will pray for the Spirit of the Father and the Son, that you, believing in that justification, may rise with Him to newness of life. And you will join to these prayers another, that each of us, when the hour comes in which strength and heart fail, may be able to say with joy, 'I must decrease, that He may increase.' All that belongs to my own poor and selfish nature must decay and perish, that He, my Lord and Saviour, may be exalted, — that I and all His redeemed may see our own blessedness and glory only and for ever in Him.
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.
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Gospel of St. John - F.D. Maurice
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