XVII. THE TWO FATHERS.
[Lincoln's Inn, First Sunday after Trinity, May 25, 1856.]
St. John VIII. 43.
Why do you not understand my speech? Even because you cannot hear my word.
Those words of which I spoke to you last Sunday seem to have taken a sudden hold of some who listened to them. 'While He was speaking these things, many believed on Him.' When we recollect what those words were, we may at first wonder at this impression. He spoke of 'the Father being always with Him; of His doing always those things which pleased the Father.' Was not His discourse concerning a Father that which provoked His hearers most; that which shocked some of them most? Undoubtedly. And yet, if He spoke truly, if He did come to bear witness of a Father, if the Father did bear witness of Him, this must have been the discourse which attracted His hearers most — which had most power over them. The revelation of a man who was always in the presence of God, who delighted in Him, in whom He delighted, was the revelation which the heart and conscience of every man was waiting for. The heart and conscience might be closed against it by sensual indulgence, still more by spiritual pride; but it could break through both; it could prove itself true by overcoming both.
In this case, then, as in like cases which have occurred before, I should be very loth to explain away St. John's words, — to criticise the quality of the faith which he attributes to these hearers of our Lord. If we say, as some people would, that it was mere head faith, I do not think we shall make our own minds clearer; I am sure we shall be in great danger of denying the facts which the Apostle reports to us. Our Lord's words did not appeal to the understanding; they were not argumentative; we cannot account for their influence by any processes of logic. So far as one can judge from a very simple statement, they went straight to the heart; the faith which they called forth was a faith of the heart.
Does it appear, then, that the men who thus believed in Christ were satisfactory to Him? Let us follow the narrative. It will tell us all upon that subject that we need to know.
'Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on Him, If you continue in my word, then are you my disciples indeed; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.'
This expression, 'If you continue or abide in my word,' denotes very clearly, I think, that they had not merely listened to a saying which went along from His lips, and been affected by it; that they had confessed the force of a word, which entered into them as light enters into the eye, as heat makes itself felt through the body. And if they traced this word to its source; if they acknowledged the living Word from whom it flowed; if they turned to Him as to one who was near them and with them, — not for a moment, but always; if they trusted in Him, and not in themselves; then they should be — what? saints? divines? doctors? No; but what is much better than any of the three, — what all the three should wish to be raised into, — disciples. They will then be learners, learners sitting continually at the feet of the true Teacher.
And this shall be the result of that daily, hourly learning, of that change from the condition of men who know everything to the condition of men who know nothing. 'They shall know the TRUTH.' The Word shall guide them, counsel them, encourage them, scourge them. He shall prepare them to see that which is. He shall lead them away from fleeting shadows to the eternal Substance, to Him who changes not. Here is a promise, the highest that the highest Being can make to man; for it is the promise of sharing His own nature, of dwelling with Him and in Him. And there is another appended to it, which, though not greater in itself, comes nearer to human experience; commends itself more directly to our sense of oppression and misery. 'The truth shall make you free.' Truth and liberty are inseparable companions; neither can live long apart from the other. The bondage to appearances, the bondage to death, the bondage to the unseen horrors which haunt the conscience, — how shall this be broken? Our Lord says, 'The truth shall make you free.' 'If you abide in my word, — if you adhere to me as the Lord of your spirit, you shall come to know Him who is truth, and He shall break every chain from your neck; He shall give you the freedom of the sons of God.'
However unintelligible His other words may have been to them, surely this magnificent promise will have looked most inviting to the Jews; to those, at least, of them who were not vehemently prepossessed against the speaker, who did not count Him an impostor. The next sentence seems to say that it was not so. 'They answered Him, We be Abraham's seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how say you, You shall be made free?' Who were they who said this? We should certainly gather from the previous passage, — 'those Jews who had believed on Him.' At any rate, St. John takes no pains to distinguish them from the rest. If they were not the only objectors to our Lord's words, they must have joined in the objection. There is deep instruction in the thought that they did. The voice of Jesus had reached them. It had not merely floated about them, but had penetrated within them. He stood before them who did always the things that pleased His Father. The first sense of having discovered the Divine Man must have been one of delight, — the greatest, keenest delight which they had ever experienced. Then this Divine Man points upwards to a truth in which He Himself is believing and resting. He says He can make them inheritors of that. But at the same moment He looks down into them. He detects a hollowness within them, — a quailing at the thought of this truth, — a secret dislike of it — a preference for that which is hostile to it. They are conscious of a chill. The keen pleasure has been succeeded by a pain as keen. The hope which He holds out to them they cannot grasp. The evil which He has laid bare is near and present. Their pride is awakened; they think of the glory of their descent; they cannot bear to be spoken of as slaves.
We often treat their words as a mere outrageous contradiction of fact. They had been in bondage, we say, to Babylonians and Persians; they were in bondage to the Romans; they complained of the yoke; it was fretting them continually. How monstrous to say, 'We have never been in bondage!' I believe that in speaking so we are not doing them justice, and that we are likely to miss the force of our Lord's answer to them. A modern Roman, in the sight of French or Austrian bayonets, might deny indignantly that he was a slave. He might say, 'I belong to the city which has ruled the world. I am one of those citizens whom it was a shame and wickedness to beat with rods. How dare you speak to me as if I were like an American Negro, liable to be bought and sold, at the mercy of an owner or a driver?' We should not be astonished, I think, at such language. We should understand it, and not feel ourselves justified in replying to it by referring to a foreign tyranny, which may be all the more galling to him because he loathes the name of bondsman. And there was another sense in which a Jew might affirm that he, being a son of Abraham, had never been in bondage. As our Lord had spoken of truth, He might think of his privilege not to be the servant of any false god. Τίνι may serve for this sense as well as for the other. He would exclaim indignantly, 'The truth shall make us free? To what abomination, — to what lying idol have we ever yielded ourselves?'
Our Lord does not complain of them for affixing too strong a meaning to the word bondage. He does not appeal to the places for the receipt of custom, as proofs that the seed of Abraham had lost their independence. But He convicts them of having fallen into a slavery, domestic, personal, abject. He says that this slavery, though it may have caused their subjection to the Romans, would not be removed or abated if that were to cease. And, further, He affirms that slavery to a false god — that which lies beneath all idolatry — might be more justly attributed to the seed of Abraham than to any descendants of Ham.
The first of these allegations is contained in the words which contain also the justification of His assurance that He can break their fetters, and give them a higher liberty than they had ever attained or dreamed of. 'Verily, verily, I say to you, Whosoever commits sin is the servant of sin. And the servant abides not in the house for ever: but the Son abides ever. If the Son therefore shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.' It is common to quote the first of these verses without the second. Preachers tell their hearers that they have committed sin, and are therefore the servants of sin. They say nothing of the Son who abides in the house into which sin has intruded itself. I believe, brethren, that by making this separation, we put the sense of Scripture, as well as the honesty of our minds, in the utmost peril. I might use stronger language, — I might say we all but destroy both. We try to conceive of evil apart from good, of disobedience apart from obedience. We cannot do it. God's eternal law will not let us do it. If you want me to understand the corruption and depravity of my nature, you must tell me from what it is drawing me aside. You do me an infinite injury, if you tell me that sin is close to me, unless you tell me also that the great Enemy of Sin is close to me, and that I am violently tearing myself from Him when I give myself over to it. It is possible, no doubt, to find, in the height or the depth, another sense for these words than this, as it is possible to find another sense for any words, if the one which is nearest and most obvious should for some reason be disagreeable to us. And I am certain, brethren, that we shall all seek for some new, ingenious, and elaborate interpretation, or shall embrace it when it is presented to us — I am certain that we shall call the literal interpretation mystical, and shall persuade ourselves that the one we have put in the place of it is literal — unless we perceive that it corresponds both with the context of the New Testament and with our own necessities. I call upon you to see whether what I am saying is not true of each one of us. Let each man ask himself, 'Is not the sin of which Christ speaks, with me? Is not the Son of whom He speaks, with me? Has not the usurper of the house separated me from the Lord of the house? Is not the Lord of the house ready to put down the usurper, and to make me free indeed?'
The next words have led some to suppose that our Lord cannot have been speaking to those Jews who believed on Him: — 'I know that you are Abraham's seed; yet you seek to kill me, because my word has no place in you.' These, it will be said, were not the men who were seeking to kill Him; they had confessed His authority; His word, it is admitted, had made its power felt by them. I will not evade the objection by saying, that so far as these men took their stand upon their position as Abraham's children, so far it might fairly be said to them: 'You see what Abraham's children do; their parentage does not save them from this crime.' I believe that is not the meaning of the charge, or at any rate that it is only one very small part of the meaning. I think our Lord was speaking to the consciences of those whom He addressed of a sin of which they had been guilty. I think that if those consciences had been aroused to confess His power — in some measure to own His goodness — they will have been more ready than any other to own the charge; and if they did not own it, to be stung by it. They had not participated, it is probable, in the plots of the Scribes and Pharisees to put Jesus to death. They might not then, they might not afterwards, take up a stone to cast at Him. But why were those plots conceived? why were those stones raised? To get rid of a Judge and a Reprover; to put out a light which was shining into the heart, and making its darkness visible; to destroy the Son of Man, the King of man; that each man might be his own king — might live undisturbed by any obligations to his fellow-men; to destroy the Son of God, — the witness of God's truth and God's love; that men might claim the inheritance as theirs, — that they might take credit to themselves for all goodness and truth, and give themselves no credit for their wickedness and lies. Now, did not each one of those to whom Jesus spoke, know inwardly that he had sought to put out the light that was shining into him, — to kill his Judge and Reprover? The living Word was there, — the Son was claiming to be the Lord of the house. But He was not allowed His place there. A certain sense there was of His presence. Certain acts of homage were rendered to Him. But He was not permitted to reign. They would find a divided allegiance more and more impossible. The good Lord or the evil must be absolute. The one who was rejected must be slain.
At each turn, this conversation becomes more profound and awful. The next verse leads us into a depth into which we may well tremble to look, and yet from which it is most unsafe to turn away: — 'I speak that which I have seen with my Father: and you do that which you have seen with your father.' Jesus had spoken of His Father as the root of all His loving acts, — of the wisdom, and truth, and love which were expressed in His words and in Himself. If there is a root to which all good that appears in a human life can be referred, must there not be a source to which all evil is referred? Can it be the same? If healing, restoration, life, are from the Father of Jesus, from what father come murderous thoughts, — the wish to destroy the Son of Man?
To fly from any thought which presses closely upon the conscience to some external truism, — even if it is one which has been proved to be inapplicable, — is the ordinary desire of us all. 'They answered and said to Him, Abraham is our father. Jesus said to them, If you were Abraham's children, you would do the works of Abraham. But now you seek to kill me, a man that has told you the truth, which I have heard of God: this did not Abraham.' The question is about the paternity of certain purposes in their minds. These purposes were near to them, to their very selves. They determined their acts and their habits. Did they take these by descent from the father of the faithful? Were these his progeny? Of course, they would have answered, as many of us would have answered, 'That is using words in a double sense. You mean one kind of fatherhood, we mean another.' No! it was they who were guilty of this duplicity. They were calling Abraham their father, in the notion that they were deriving some spiritual privileges from him. If they only intended that they could trace up their pedigree, according to the flesh, to him, let them say that frankly to themselves. It was just what our Lord was urging them, in this part of His conversation, to do. But if he was their parent in any other sense, then let them remember what he was, what he did. The living and true God spoke to him, and called him. He heard the voice; he yielded to it. That same voice was speaking to them. He was 'telling them the truth;' and therefore 'they sought to kill Him.'
He repeats, then, the former words, — 'You do the deeds of your father.' And now they ventured what sounds a bold defence: — 'Then said they to Him, We be not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God.' Had they not a right to say so? Were they not almost quoting the words of Malachi? What is more, were they not using the very words of Jesus? Had He not spoken to publicans and sinners, — to the very outcasts of the people, — of a Father who was seeking to bring home the prodigal son, as the shepherd went after the lost sheep? Would He deny to any Israelite the right to claim God as his Father? What had He taken flesh for, but that He might assert that claim, not for Israelites only, but for men? Alas! brethren, we can understand too well what the Jews understood when they used this language, 'We have one Father, even God,' because we are continually using the like ourselves. How commonly do we say, 'Oh, yes; in a general sense, all of us are God's children.' That general sense is no sense. The word 'children' is used to signify creatures. We say men are His, as we say the cattle are His. In fact, we attach nearly as little significance to creation as to fatherhood. How can we, when we think of God as a mere ultimate explanation of our existence and the existence of the universe; when the idea of a Father of spirits — of one who has to do first of all with us, because we are spiritual, voluntary beings — is almost banished from our minds? To say that God is our Father, or any man's Father, when we conceive of Him as a distant power, — who ceases to be imaginary only when He puts forth His wrath, — is to practise a deception upon ourselves. It is a commoner deception with us than with the Jews, because Jesus has taught us to say, 'Our Father, which art in heaven;' and every little Christendom child learns the words, and, thanks be to God, takes in something of their inward living sense. But when we become men, that sense which should have grown brighter and clearer with every day's joy and sorrow, has become utterly clouded by the world's mists, till the vision at last fades almost entirely. Then one here and there seizes the force of the word, discovers that he has really, and not in name, a Father, to whom he can pour out his whole heart. For a while he longs to persuade all that they have the same Father, — that they may cast their burdens upon Him too. He finds a few who understand him. They associate together; they speak of themselves as believers; they begin to think that they are God's children, because they believe that they are. Their ardour to convince men generally that they have a Father, becomes changed into an ardour to bring men into their society. As that passion increases, other lower and baser passions increase with it. 'The believer' contracts more and more of those habits which are of the earth, earthy. He contracts, oftentimes, a bitterness and a malice which are not of the earth, but come from beneath. These he gives himself credit for as springing from his zeal for religion, or he merely pities himself for them as the remains of indwelling sin. He has not courage to say, 'These spring from another father, not from the Father in heaven. So far as I identify myself with them, I become the child of a father in hell.' But he goes on assuming he is God's child. He tells other men that they are only children in the secondary signification; that is to say, he cherishes in them the most dangerous of all falsehoods. He prevents them from turning to their true Father, and seeking of Him a true and divine life.
These Jews qualified the assertion, that they were all God's children, even in the lowest, most unreal, sense of that word. These were so who 'were not born of fornication.' Children not born in lawful wedlock they seem to have thought of as having some dark, infernal parentage. It must have been most startling to them when the words at last came forth which appeared to fix that parentage upon themselves.
'Jesus said to them, If God were your Father, you would love me: for I proceeded forth and came from God; neither came I of myself, but He sent me. Why do you not understand my speech? even because you cannot hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father you will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it. And because I tell you the truth, you believe me not. Which of you convinceth me of sin? And if I say the truth, why do you not believe me? He that is of God hears God's words: you therefore hear them not, because you are not of God.'
The Jews were proud of not worshipping false gods. The true God, then, what was He? The moment truth confronted them, they shrunk from it. They were proud of not worshipping evil gods. The good God, then, what was He? The moment goodness confronted them, they hated it, and wished to extinguish it. They shrunk from the Man who did not speak His own words, but God's. They hated the Man who did not show forth His own goodness, but God's. Where came this mind in them, this will, this spirit? Jesus tells them plainly. 'There is a mind, a will, a spirit, which from the beginning has been a man-slayer — has compassed the destruction of the man in each man. There is a mind, a will, a spirit, who has been from the beginning a liar, who would not stand in the truth.'
I know well — we all know — what use has been made, and is made, and will be made, of this expression, 'from the beginning.' 'So, then,' the objector exclaims, 'there is a second god, another creator, coming into existence with the good God. If this is not Manichæism, what is?' The answer is simply an appeal to the words as they appear on the face of the book, — 'He stood not in the truth.' There was, then, a truth to stand in; there was a truth to revolt from. The name 'murderer' implies a life to be taken away; the name 'liar' implies a contradiction of that which IS. Yes; it implies that the evil spirit is this, and only this; it implies that the murderer is the author of no life; it implies that the liar has called nothing that is into existence. You ask, 'What is Manichæism but this?' I answer, 'It is exactly the reverse of this. It affirms that the evil power does produce some life; that some part of creation may be ascribed to him.' And those who shrink from speaking of 'him' — those who will not admit a devil at all — do, unawares, let this Manichæism continually into their thoughts, into their acts, into their words. They may talk of universal benevolence, but facts are too strong for them. They meet evil everywhere; they meet it in themselves. They do not like to say, — 'It is an evil will to which I am yielding up my will. Because men are obeying this evil will, therefore there is misery and ugliness in this blessed and beautiful world.' They try to escape from that confession. They talk of evil in nature, of evil in themselves. Unawares, they have introduced it among the works of the good God. They have either made Him answerable for it, or they have said that there is some creator besides Him. The last alternative is very dreadful; but the former is, it seems to me, infinitely more dreadful. In accepting what our Lord said to the Jews in this discourse, I escape from both. I am able solemnly and habitually to deny that any insect or blade of grass is the devil's work; I am able to regard the whole universe as very good, even as it was when it came forth at the call of the divine Word; I am able to declare that humanity, standing in that divine Word, is still made in the image of God, as He declared that it was; and that there is no one faculty of the human soul, no one sense of the human body, which is not good, and blessed, and holy in God's sight. I am able, at the same time, to look facts in the face, and confess that sin has entered into the world, and death by sin; that there has been from the beginning of man's existence on this earth, and that there still is, a murderer, who is seeking to sever him from his proper life: that there has been from the beginning of man's existence upon earth, and that there still is, a liar, who is seeking to persuade men that God is not all good; that He is not all true; that He is not the Father of their spirits; that it is not His will that they should know Him, and be like Him. I can admit that this liar has been listened to, and is listened to; and that men may enter into such communion with him — may become so penetrated with his false and mendacious spirit, that they shall become in very deed his children, entirely fashioned into his likeness, understanding no lessons but his. Our Lord speaks of the Jewish people — of the most religious part of them especially — as having passed, or as rapidly passing, into this condition. He declares, in the words which I have taken as my text — and which embody, I think, some of the deepest lessons of the chapter — that they could not 'understand His speech;' that that sounded strange, monstrous, deranged to them, because they 'could not hear His word' — because their hearts and consciences were closed against that which was every moment knocking and craving for admission there. They did 'not hear God's words, because they were not of God' — because their whole minds and wills were given up to another God, because they had become Devil-worshippers.
'Then answered the Jews, and said to Him, Say we not well that you are a Samaritan, and have a devil? Jesus answered, I have not a devil; but I honour my Father, and you do dishonour me. And I seek not mine own glory: there is one that seeketh and judges.'
It is certainly most unfortunate that our translators — who had just rendered Διάβολος by Devil, in our Lord's discourse — should take the same word for δαιμόνιον, in the discourse of the Jews. I need not say that they did not mean what He meant, or anything like what He meant. They called Him a Samaritan, — evidently alluding to the Samaritan passion for enchanters. He was a possessed man, like one of those who appeared so often among the worshippers on Gerizim, and drew so many disciples after them. The reply of Jesus is, that He had not a dæmon; that He was speaking the words of no subordinate spirit or angel; that He was 'honouring His Father' — Him whom they called their God, the Father of spirits. He did not seek His own glory, as those did who came boasting that they were possessed by a spirit or dæmon, of which no others could partake. He came seeking His Father's glory, promising to make all partakers of His Spirit.
The next words are only a part of this promise. 'Verily, verily, I say to you, If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death.' Why the translators, who have been careful in adhering to the common rendering of λόγος thus far, should suddenly have abandoned it here, and dilute it into 'saying,' I cannot conjecture. Certainly they have done much to make the whole passage unintelligible by that wilfulness. He has taken pains to distinguish the speech or saying which enters the ear from the word which is lodged in the heart, and is to be cherished there. That His word brings life, because in Him the Divine Word is Life, He has asserted again and again. When the man loses his hold on that word, death overtakes him; if he hold it fast, he is united to that which is stronger than death; and he shall not taste of death. When it comes to his soul and body, he shall defy it. He shall rise above it, and they shall be raised with him.
'Then said the Jews to Him, Now we know that you have a devil. Abraham is dead, and the prophets; and you say, If a man keep my saying, he shall never taste of death. Are you greater than our father Abraham, which is dead? and the prophets are dead: whom makest you yourself? Jesus answered, If I honour myself, my honour is nothing: it is my Father that honors me; of whom you say, that He is your God: yet you have not known Him; but I know Him: and if I should say, I know Him not, I shall be a liar like to you: but I know Him, and keep His saying.'
The sense of eternity, of a relation to the eternal God, — to a Father of spirits, had almost abandoned these Jews. The sense of time, — of a series or succession of years, — had displaced every other in their minds; they could contemplate nothing, except under conditions of time. To the mere trader, — to him who lives in calculating when so much money will become due — any conditions, except those of time, seem impossible. He laughs at those who hint at any other. But the reverence for ancestry, — the affection that binds us to a family and a nation, does not belong to time. It brings past and present into closest proximity; it leaps over distinctions of costume and circumstance, to claim affinity with the inmost heart of those who lived generations ago. For all family feeling, and all national feeling, has its root in a living God; therefore it defies death; it treats death as only belonging to the individual.
The Jews knew that Jesus had a dæmon, because He spoke of men who believed His word not tasting of death. For Abraham to them was dead; the prophets were dead. They had no sense of a life which united them to Abraham and the prophets; they did not really confess a God who was a God of the living and not of the dead. Jesus probes this state of mind to the quick. He tells them first, that it is their want of knowledge of God which makes what He says incredible to them, — the lying, atheistical temper which they were cultivating under the name of religion. Because He knows God, — because He keeps His word, — because He lives in communion with the truth, therefore His speech seems to them that of a possessed man.
But he was to seem to them worse than a possessed man before the dialogue ended.
'Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad. Then said the Jews to Him, You art not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham? Jesus said to them, Verily, verily, I say to you, Before Abraham was, I am.'
The Jews, I said, were utterly entangled in thoughts of time. It was necessary to break these bonds at once and violently asunder. The Word who had been in the beginning with God, who was the Light of men, declares that He conversed with Abraham; that Abraham heard His voice; that Abraham saw His light; that this was the source of all his gladness. This was the reason why men in after days, who had heard the same voice, who had seen the same light, could rejoice with Abraham, — could feel that years did not sever those whom God had made one. The ears that were dull of hearing, the obtuse mammonized hearts, were proof against this paradox; it excited only a grin. Then came the other words, — 'Before Abraham was, I am.' They were too familiar, too awful, not to arouse even those who were most petrified by worldliness and pride. The name which had been spoken in the bush had been spoken to them! The Man who stood before them was calling Himself the 'I Am.' A flash of light broke in upon them. He had meant this. The blasphemy was now open.
'Then took they up stones to cast at Him: but Jesus hid Himself, and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by.'
And oh, brethren, may the meaning of those words flash upon us too! May they come to us not as dull sounds, but as if they proceeded fresh from Him who spoke them then! They do proceed from Him. Each day and hour He repeats them to us. When all schemes of human policy crack and crumble; when we discover the utter weakness of the leaders and teachers we have trusted most; when we begin to suspect that the world is given over to the spirit of murder and lies; He says to us, 'The foundations of the universe are not built on rottenness: whatever fades away and perishes, I am.'
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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