XXVIII. THE RESURRECTION.
[Lincoln's Inn, 11th Sunday after Trinity (Afternoon), August 3, 1856.]
St. John XX. 30, 31.
And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: but these are written, that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you might have life through his name.
This morning I went through the narrative of our Lord's Passion, which is contained in the 18th and 19th chapters of this Gospel. I propose to examine, this afternoon, the narrative of the resurrection, and of the events that followed it, which is contained in the 20th and 21st chapters.
Those who have formed a vague notion of the fourth Gospel, as the Gospel according to the Spirit, the other three being represented as Gospels according to the flesh, will expect that St. John should attach far less importance than his predecessors did to the resurrection of our Lord's body out of the grave. They will suppose that he must have sympathised much more in those passages of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, in which he speaks of our being risen with Christ, than with the 15th chapter of the Epistle to the Corinthians, in which he makes that resurrection, which many among them denied, the very centre of his message to mankind.
I hope we have not gone thus far in the study of St. John without discovering that this conception of his character and purpose is an entirely false one. In whatever sense St. John's Gospel is a spiritual one, he has spoken of Christ's presence at feasts, family and national, of His hunger and fatigue, of His friendship for special persons, of actual bodily suffering in the hour of death, at least as much as any of the four. He takes more, not less, pains than the others, in recording incidents. No plain person ever felt that his story, if it is ever so divine, is not human. I may have made this observation very often, but I will repeat it even to weariness, rather than that it should be forgotten, since upon the recollection of it depends all hope of our understanding the beloved disciple, or of our gaining anything from him. It is true that he has carried us back to the beginning of all things, instead of introducing us to the manger in Bethlehem, or telling us first of the preaching of John in the wilderness. It is true that he has told us of the Word who was with God, before he has used the name of Jesus Christ. It is true that throughout his Gospel he has been presenting to us Jesus Christ as the Word of God, the Giver of light and life to men. It is true that this has been his explanation of the signs which Jesus did when He fed the multitude, or healed the sick, or raised the dead. It is true that this has been his explanation of those parables in the natural world, by which the Creator of that world revealed to men the mysteries of the kingdom of God. It is true that, by following this method, St. John interprets to us those names, Son of God and Son of Man, kingdom of God, kingdom of heaven, which occur so continually in the previous Gospels. It is true that he brings out in its fulness their declaration, that the office of the Christ was to baptize with the Holy Spirit, and to deliver men from the spirit of evil. It is true that the Name in which St. Matthew declares that the disciples were to baptize all nations, is unfolded to us by St. John with a distinctness and fulness with which it had never been unfolded before.
And therefore I think St. John must be even more careful than the other Evangelists to speak of the resurrection as a distinct, definite event: to set it before us in language which shall give us no excuse for supposing that he is merely talking of our spiritual nature, or of Christ's spiritual nature; in language which shall fix it upon our minds as a fact that was accomplished upon this earth. Of evidence, as I have remarked to you before, the other Evangelists give us very little. They assume that it was not possible that the Son of God should be holden by death, that the marvel which angels desired to look into was that He should have submitted to death. Only so far as that conviction took hold of men's minds could they believe in a resurrection, though a body of the most incredulous and learned witnesses should conspire to affirm it. St. John cannot have attached more weight to this kind of evidence than they did. His whole Gospel has been showing that it is an evidence which the living Word presents to the hearts and consciences of men, that alone produces any practical conviction. He must have felt, even more than his brother-disciples did, that the Word of life could not be overcome by death; that the great contradiction of all, which could only be explained by the truth that the highest life is the life of love, was in His undergoing death. He, therefore, more than any one else, must have felt the resurrection to be necessary, to be implied in the relation of Christ to his Father. He has again and again told us that the return of Christ to the Father was that to which He looked forward as the return to His natural state and proper home; at the same time as the consummation of the work He had done upon earth. He is so impressed with this conviction, it was so much his work to impress us with this conviction, that he will not relate, as St. Luke does, the fact of the ascension in the sight of the disciples. That is taken for granted. All that he has written would be unmeaning, if his Master were not gone to the Father to prepare mansions for His disciples. But the victory of the Spirit over the flesh, the proof that He who was united to the Father and united to a mortal body, overcame, in virtue of His divine fellowship, his fellowship with dust, and made that body free from its bondage — this must be spoken of as the proper termination of His earthly conflict. For by this He justified fully the feeling of mankind, which all the teaching of Scripture had confirmed, but which no prophet or saint had been able to justify to himself, that death is an intruder into this world of ours; that it is not less an intruder because all have yielded to it, and must yield to it; that there is a law of life which is higher than the law of death; that we cannot be satisfied till that law is promulgated and vindicated, not for one here and there, but for the whole race in the person of its Head.
With these thoughts in our minds, let us consider the following verses: 'The first day of the week comes Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, to the sepulchre, and sees the stone taken away from the sepulchre. Then she runs, and comes to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and said to them, They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid Him. Peter therefore went along, and that other disciple, and came to the sepulchre. So they ran both together: and the other disciple did outrun Peter, and came first to the sepulchre. And he stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in. Then comes Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and sees the linen clothes lie, and the napkin, that was about His head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself. Then went in also that other disciple, which came first to the sepulchre, and he saw, and believed. For as yet they knew not the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead. Then the disciples went away again to their own home.'
The points wherein this narrative differs from those in the earlier Gospels, are those which refer to the Apostle himself and to St. Peter. There is more, you will perceive, not less, of detail than elsewhere. The Apostles look into the sepulchre; they see the linen clothes and the napkin. We are told where the napkin is lying. These are not points of evidence, in the sense in which we commonly use that word. If we repeated them ever so often, or multiplied them ever so much, they would not establish the fact. They have served a much higher and more practical purpose. They have brought the fact home to the minds of multitudes as a fact. They have taken it out of the region of mist and shadow. They have connected it with a Person. Their very minuteness leads us to think of Him, not of them. They say to us, as they said to the Apostles, not 'There is a resurrection,' but 'He is risen.'
By speaking of himself, St. John is able to make us acquainted with the process of conviction in one mind. He does not indeed, dwell upon any mental struggles. He just hints at the dull unbelief with which he began; at the eagerness, more of curiosity than of hope, with which he ran to the sepulchre; at the timidity or awe which hindered him from going in; at the dawn of faith when he saw the clothes. It is all very simple and childlike. What surprises some of us most is, that he should blame himself for not having known the Scriptures, 'that He must rise again from the dead.' What Scriptures could have told him this so clearly? Are there any which positively and formally announce it to us who read them in this day, — any, at all events, which we could blame a plain wayfarer for not connecting with it? Have not learned men of our own, able and vehement opposers of secularism, affirmed that there are no traces of a belief in a future state among the writers of the Old Testament, no, urged the absence of such traces as a proof of their divine legation? And has not St. John himself produced evidence enough that those who pored over the Scriptures most could not identify Jesus as the Person in whom their prophecies were to meet? We must go back, I believe, to the language of which I have spoken so often, if we would see our way through this difficulty. If the old Scriptures said nothing of a Word of God, of a divine Lord of men's spirits and bodies, it was impossible to conclude from them that He, or any one, would rise again from the dead. As long as St. John was blind to the fact that they did speak of such a One, that they were speaking of Him from beginning to end, that He only gave any unity to their histories or their prophecies; so long the most incessant diligence could not enable him to discover in these Scriptures more than dark hints of a triumph over death, — hints which never could support a practical belief, could never overcome the objections of sense and experience. The moment they found this Word speaking in all the words of the Bible, the moment they believed that Jesus was the Word made flesh, the Scriptures became full even to overflowing with these tidings. Not to see them there was to see there only dead letters.
'But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre, and sees two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. And they say to her, Woman, why weepest you? She said to them, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid Him. And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her Woman, why weepest you? whom seek you? She, supposing Him to be the gardener, said to Him, Sir, if you have borne Him hence, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away. Jesus said to her, Mary. She turned herself, and said to Him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master. Jesus said to her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say to them, I ascend to my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God. Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that He had spoken these things to her.'
There had been differences in the reports of the Evangelists respecting the appearance of the angels to the women. St. Matthew had said: — 'And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it. His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow: and for fear of him the keepers did shake, and became as dead men. And the angel answered and said to the women, Fear not you: for I know that you seek Jesus, which was crucified. He is not here: for He is risen, as He said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly, and tell His disciples that He is risen from the dead; and, behold, He goes before you into Galilee; there shall you see Him: lo, I have told you. And they departed quickly from the sepulchre with fear and great joy; and did run to bring His disciples word.' St. Mark had said: — 'And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came to the sepulchre at the rising of the sun. And they said among themselves, Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre? And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great. And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were afraid. And he said to them, Be not afraid: You seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: He is risen; He is not here: behold the place where they laid Him. But go your way, tell His disciples and Peter that He goes before you into Galilee: there shall you see Him, as He said to you. And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid.' St. Luke had said: — 'And they found the stone rolled away from the sepulchre. And they entered in, and found not the body of the Lord Jesus. And it came to pass, as they were much perplexed thereabout, behold, two men stood by them in shining garments: and as they were afraid, and bowed down their faces to the earth, they said to them, Why seek you the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen: remember how He spoke to you when He was yet in Galilee, saying, The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again. And they remembered His words, and returned from the sepulchre, and told all these things to the eleven, and to all the rest.'
I thank God that we belong to a Church which is not afraid to bring these diversities before us, as it does those in the reports of the Passion; a Church which believes so strongly in God, that it can leave Him to interpret these differences to us without making any awkward attempts at reconciliation. Our faith in the Resurrection is not affected by them so long as we live upon God's word, and not upon the letters of a book. When we change the one for the other, it must perish; no arguments or explanations will keep it alive. St. John, in some respects, differs from them all. I think many would have been glad if he had differed more widely. There is a dislike in our day, in Protestant countries, to any notice of angelical visitations. Romanists, and some who are not Romanists, would denounce the feeling as a sign that we are losing all faith in the spiritual world. I am not willing to interpret it so harshly. I think there is a feeling among us that we ought to be connected with the spiritual world now as much as in the days of old, and that these reports seem to keep us at a distance from it by drawing a line between us and former ages, by affirming communications to have been made to them which are not made to us. I partly considered this subject when I was speaking of the angel who is said to have troubled the Pool of Bethesda; but I must refer to it again, because we all feel, I think, that the angels who sang to the shepherds of the Child who was born in Bethlehem, and the angels who spoke to the women at the tomb of Joseph, must have had a different message to deliver from all others. What was the difference? Surely this, that they came to tell of a union of earth and heaven, of the spiritual and the visible world in the person of a Man. If there were no such news to bring, we should indeed be left under the dominion of angels; for we should not be able to get rid of the thought — no nation ever has been able — that we are surrounded by invisible creatures, and that they do in some way communicate with us. But if there was such a truth to be told, should we not be rather startled to find that there was none to tell it? Would not the absence of these stories leave a blank, not in our imaginations, but in our hearts and in our reason? Was not the appearance of these angels a witness to men that we do not need, as former ages may have done, special messengers to come from behind a veil which the Son of God has rent asunder, but that hosts of such creatures may be working with us, and ministering to us, and joining with us, the sinful spirits, who present the sacrifice that was made once for all before the Father of spirits?
St. John tells us, at once, of another apparition to Mary, which was immeasurably more to her than the apparition of any angels. An actual human form stood before her, the one which she had known best and loved best in the world, and yet she took it to be the gardener's. It was not, therefore, that it was too radiant for her to look upon, that it had lost the signs and marks that belong to her race. But it was not the figure or the countenance which revealed Him to her. It was the voice calling her by her name, it was the voice which had bidden the seven devils depart out of her, that brought her to own Him as her Lord.
Then came those wonderful words which contain the deepest and most blessed of all truths in the form of the most startling contradiction. She was not to touch Him, for He was not ascended. That which appeared to invite dialogue was the bar to it; that which would appear to put them at a hopeless distance would be the beginning of a fellowship that could not be interrupted. The weak, penitent woman was to learn the lesson which the Apostles had been taught at the Paschal supper. He must go to His Father that they might know Him. The private and exclusive communion into which they had entered so imperfectly, must be merged in one in which all should share who would take up their lot as brethren of each other and of Him; for He was to dwell with His Father and their Father, with His God and their God. This was a risen life indeed; and we see at each turn how a risen life implies an ascension.
'Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and said to them, Peace be to you. And when He had so said, He shewed to them His hands and His side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord.' You think of these as sudden apparitions, glimpses granted and withdrawn, of the Teacher who had once walked with them by day and sat with them by night; and you think rightly. St. John's words give us that impression of them. But do they give us no other at the same time? Is it not the apparition of an actual Person, of an actual human body? He may be seen, and may disappear; but He is. We are not among shadows more than we were before. The air is freer, the light is clearer. He only does not linger in that room where the disciples are assembled for fear of the Jews, because they are to learn that wherever two or three are assembled in His name, there is He in the midst of them.
And consider His words to them. The last time they had met at the Paschal supper He had said — 'Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. And these things I have spoken to you that in me you might have peace.' Since they heard that language, they had known more of fightings without and within than in all their lives before. And now He repeats it again, and shows them His hands and His side. Now it comes with power. If there was a moment of intense agonizing excitement, you might have fancied it would have been that. There is no excitement. There is perfect quietness in them all; in him who had abandoned the Master, in him who had denied Him. He has spoken peace to them, and they are at peace. The beloved disciple can only describe what he felt, what all felt, in the simplest, calmest words — 'Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord.'
What had happened to them? He with whom they had been at war had declared Himself at one with them. Christ had brought that message from the grave. His hands and side assured them of it. Their consciences were absolved. They were freed men.
'Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be to you: as my Father has sent me, even so send I you. And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, Receive you the Holy Ghost: whose soever sins you remit, they are remitted to them; and whose soever sins you retain, they are retained.'
The connection between the two passages is too obvious to be overlooked. He had come in His Father's name to bring them peace. He sent them forth in His name with the same gift. The Spirit of peace should go with them, that they might execute their commission. The pierced hands and side, which had been the witness and pledge of it to them, should be the witness and pledge of it to the world. Their conscience had been absolved. A chain had been taken from them. They should, in the name of Christ and of His Father, break the chains which bind the consciences of others. They should remit, or send away, the sins which keep men the prisoners and slaves of an evil and accusing spirit, which prevent them from serving their Father in heaven. But since it was consciences they were to unbind — since they were carrying a message of peace to voluntary creatures — the liberty might be refused, the rebellion might be persevered in. The very word which looses becomes then a word to bind. It is a tremendous fact, asserted again and again in Scripture, certified by experience. The message of reconciliation and deliverance holds in an iron gripe those spirits which it does not emancipate. They cry out that it has come to torment them; they have a sense of evil which they had not before; they are bound by it as they were not before.
I cannot see less in the words which were spoken that night — or in the commission which was then given to the ministers of Christ — than I have expressed. If you say that I ought to see more, I submit willingly to the reprimand. But I deny that it is more to talk of some power of the keys being entrusted to the Apostles or their successors, if by that power is meant only some outward authority to withdraw the punishment for sins, or to enforce it. I cannot, in any case, read 'punishment,' where I find 'sin' written. I must regard remission of punishment as a very poor and miserable substitute for remission of sins. If it is said that we cannot imagine ministers who have received such a power, for that remission of sins must belong to God only, I answer, 'Most assuredly ministers can neither remit sins nor punishments in their own name.' If they assume to do either, they violate the charter upon which all their authority rests; they claim to be what Christ did not claim to be, to do what He did not claim to do. For He said that He was nothing, and could do nothing without His Father. His glory was that He did not come in His own name. But if the ministers of Christ do confess that they are sent in His name, as He was sent in His Father's name, then I say they can, in His name, speak to the conscience and absolve the conscience, not from its punishment but from its sin. And I say that the consciences of thousands and tens of thousands have waited in all ages, do wait in our age, to receive this blessing, and have actually received it, and are receiving it. And I say that when it is spoken to them, and they do not receive it, they bear testimony to the other half of the sentence; they are bound more closely, because they will not be loosed. Therefore I fear it is because Christ's ministers do not care to exercise His powers, but wish to exercise some powers of their own, that they fight so stoutly for these rights to punish or forego punishment, to curse or to take off curses, which, when they were most fully acknowledged and produced most terror in the minds of men, were generally very feeble for any good moral purpose, and were very dreadful temptations to tyranny and lying in those who exercised them.
I am far, indeed, from saying that absolution consists only in preaching the Gospel. The words, 'Peace be to you,' — the hands and the side, — spoke to the consciences of the disciples. At what time more than when we are kneeling and confessing, is the conscience likely to receive the message, 'He pardoneth and absolveth?' What has been more effectual than the Sacrament of the body and blood of Christ in carrying home the words to each heart, 'Son, your sins be forgiven you, rise up and walk'? And in both these cases it is not merely to single hearts that the blessing is imparted. The gathering together in Christ's name is a witness that we meet as a family just as the Apostles did; and that, as a family, we want the peace and reconciliation which a Father only can send us through His Son. Did we understand the worth of that communion more, and how all individual blessings are associated with it and rise out of it, the power of excommunicating would not be something to boast of, or to fight for, or to play with. To cut a man off from the Church would then, indeed, be to deliver one who had sold himself to the service of evil to the master he has chosen, that he may feel the bitterness of his yoke, and so may return to his true Lord, and his spirit be saved when that Lord appears. But till we know more of that Spirit which Jesus breathed on His disciples, on that first day of the week, we shall be as little competent to administer censures as we are to testify of reconciliation and absolution.
'But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said to him, We have seen the Lord. But he said to them, Except I shall see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into His side, I will not believe. And after eight days again His disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be to you. Then said He to Thomas, Reach here your finger, and behold my hands; and reach here your hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing. And Thomas answered and said to Him, My Lord, and my God! Jesus said to him, Thomas, because you have seen me, you have believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.'
By one class of readers, Thomas is described as a doubter, impatient of all evidence but such as amounts to demonstration. By another class, he is described as a man with the idolatrous tendency which insists upon sensible tokens, because it has no apprehension of that which is spiritual. By a third, the moral is drawn from his story, that those who give up the fellowship of their brethren, miss the presence of their Lord and the grace of faith. There may be much of truth in each of these observations, and they do not contradict each other. We are all, at different times of our lives, greedy for proofs that shall satisfy the logical understanding, and for signs that address themselves to the senses. We have all thought that we should gain more by lonely study than by dialogue with our fellows and by common worship, and have been punished for our pride. But I do not think that Thomas should be accused of asking for too complete a demonstration. He asked for too weak a one. He wished to put his hands into the print of the nails. That would not have convinced him. It was another evidence addressing itself not to his eyes, but to his heart, which forced him to cry, 'My Lord, and my God!' And I cannot believe that we have any right to cast stones at those who require outward tokens to assist their faith; for Christ vouchsafed to this Apostle the very tokens which he desired. And we ought to remember that we do not bring Christ among us, or procure graces from Him, by frequenting the assemblies of His disciples, but that we should go to them because He is there speaking peace, and revealing Himself to those who are willing to be members of a body, and who wish for no privileges which all cannot share with them. Whatever reproof Thomas needed, whatever encouragement we can desire, is gathered in our Lord's last words to him. If he required the aid of seeing to sustain his belief, it might be afforded him. But faith itself is a higher evidence. Things not seen present themselves to it with a force and demonstration as great as that with which the things seen present themselves to the eye. The invisible Person who is the Light of men, makes Himself known to that organ which is created to receive His light. His life, His peace, are as near to us as they were to those to whom He showed Himself alive after His Passion. Our knowledge that He is risen may be as certain as theirs, and essentially of the same kind.
With this sign to the unbelieving Apostle, I suppose St. John's narrative originally closed; for he adds immediately: 'And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written, that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you might have life through His name.'
I have taken these words for my text, because they express with peculiar terseness the characteristics of the Gospel as they have come out gradually before us. It is a book of Signs. Every event that has been recorded has been significant. It has been the index to a truth. These signs have been selected out of many others, all bearing the same import. Each of these signs declares — all of them together declare — that Jesus is the Son of God. Their design is to awaken belief in Him as the Son of God. Those who have this belief have life through His name. He does not, then, merely compile a story of certain acts; he honours all previous Gospels which do not bring forth a collection of stories, but make known a living Person; he desires to remove the confusions which had beset those who believed in a Son of God, but not in an actual man; in a man who was not a Son of God. He desires that that Son of God should speak to the spirit of man, to that in man which exercises faith. He wishes us to feel that the Son of God is the one Source of life, that only through Him as the Son of Man can men receive life.
When St. John had been enabled to give this perfect explanation of what he had written, he might well think that his task was done. If he had been an artist instead of an evangelist, he would have been afraid to disturb the symmetry of his work by making any additions to it. But he was under other guidance than his own judgment; what it was good for the world to hear, the Spirit within him would not suffer him to keep back. Another vision rose before him, a vision so clear and bright, that he knew it could not have been given to him for his own sake; men in distant lands and ages were to be blessed by it. He was again by the Lake of Tiberias, amidst old friends. 'There were together Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, and Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two other of His disciples.' We ask ourselves for what great purpose they were assembled there. The very names are for us full of wonder and mystery. Those who bore them had been witnesses of the death and resurrection of the Son of God. He had breathed on them; as His Father had sent Him, He had sent them; they were to loose and to bind. The next verse answers our question: 'Simon Peter said to them, I go a fishing. They say to him, We also go with you. They went along, and entered into a ship immediately; and that night they caught nothing.' We thought that when Jesus called them from mending their nets, that occupation was for ever abandoned. Who would have dreamed of their resuming it now? They had been admitted behind the veil; One from the grave had come back to them. Were they to become common fishermen again? They evidently go into their boats with no misgiving of conscience. They set about their toil as freshly and earnestly as ever. As freshly and earnestly? Was there nothing in that lake, and in all that had happened to them upon it, which made every labourer more free and joyous? Did not the water speak to them of Him who had walked upon it? Did not the shore beyond tell them of the bread which He had blessed? Was not the still night full of voices that echoed the voice which had said to them, 'Peace be with you; my peace I give to you'? Had not the curse been taken from the earth and from the labour of man, since He had been called 'the carpenter's son,' since He had been proved to be the Son of God with power?
There must have been the sense of His presence everywhere; and it was not merely the sense of a presence: He was there. 'But when the morning was now come, Jesus stood on the shore: but the disciples knew not that it was Jesus. Then Jesus said to them, Children, have you any meat? They answered Him, No. And He said to them, Cast the net on the right side of the ship, and you shall find. They cast therefore, and now they were not able to draw it for the multitude of fishes.'
The old sign is given again. They had been taught that He cared for their craft and blessed it, when they had only a dim notion of Him as a great Prophet and King. They find that He cares for it and blesses it still. The risen Christ is the same as the Christ who told them words, hard to believe, about rejection and crucifixion. Only He does not sit with them in the boat, as if He were caring for one particular band of fishermen. He has chosen them to tell all workers everywhere, that He is watching over them, that their work is not a barrier between them and Him, but a means of grace, a road to dialogue with Him. 'Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, It is the Lord. Now when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he girt his fisher's coat to him, (for he was naked,) and did cast himself into the sea. And the other disciples came in a little ship; (for they were not far from land, but as it were two hundred cubits,) dragging the net with fishes. As soon then as they were come to land, they saw a fire of coals there, and fish laid thereon, and bread. Jesus said to them, Bring of the fish which you have now caught. Simon Peter went up, and drew the net to land full of great fishes, an hundred and fifty and three: and for all there were so many, yet was not the net broken. Jesus said to them, Come and dine. And none of the disciples dare ask Him, Who are you? knowing that it was the Lord. Jesus then comes, and takes bread, and gives them, and fish likewise.'
We must not suffer ourselves to be cheated of the blessing which lies in this simple and minute narrative, by vulgar efforts of the fancy to give it what is called a spiritual signification. Our spirits want to know that they have a Lord who has shared earthly food, and does not disdain us for partaking it, but who Himself presents as an honor it and blesses it. Our spirits do not want to know why the number of fishes caught was one hundred and fifty-three; they cannot live upon meagre, childish analogies about those who were to be caught in the Gospel net. Our Lord had promised His disciples that they should be fishers of men, and they were speedily to become so. But He was teaching them and us that the higher duty glorifies, instead of degrading, the lower; that every business in which men can be engaged is a calling and a ministry; that the bread which sustains the eternal life in man hallows the bread which sustains the life that is to pass away.
Our Lord did not allow His disciples to forget that grander office to which He had destined them, while He was putting this honour upon the one to which for a time they had returned. But instead of taking His comparison from the work of the fisherman, He takes another, with which His own lessons and the lessons of the old Scriptures had made them quite as familiar.
'So when they had dined, Jesus said to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest you me more than these? He said to him, Yea, Lord; you know that I love you. He said to him, Feed my lambs. He said to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest you me? He said to him, Yea, Lord; you know that I love you. He said to him, Feed my sheep. He said to him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest you me? Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, Lovest you me? And he said to him, Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you. Jesus said to him, Feed my sheep.'
We are wont to dwell, perhaps, too much upon the thrice-repeated questions to him who had thrice denied. There is a meaning in all such correspondences; every hint to the conscience is worth something. But the meaning is always subordinate to a higher one; the hint brings a train of thought, or it fails of its purpose. Peter had boasted of his love; his sore discipline had been to show him how little it was good for, how utterly it must fail. Now he was asked, 'Lovest you me more than these?' He had loved Christ just as he had loved other people; more intensely, it might be, but with a love going out from himself. Had he learnt yet that he needed One who could present as an honor love upon him, One in whom he must trust and to whom he must cling, because he was so poor in that wherein he had fancied he was rich? Did he love his Master now with this dependent, trusting love, instead of that self-confident love? with a love that sought to be always replenished from the Fountain where it proceeded, instead of with a love which he could call his, and which therefore must continually run dry? Simon Peter appears to answer boldly; he does answer humbly. He would have said in former days, 'I know that I love you.' He now says, 'You know that I love you.' It is an appeal from himself to his Master. It is saying, 'My love is but the fruit of that knowledge which you have taken of me. I love you so long as you know me, and no longer.'
And then comes the command which shows that the loving Him more than these implied anything rather than loving these less. He had been told at the former supper, that if he loved Christ, he was to keep His commandments. To obey a loving Being is to love Him. His love works in the man who is content to do His will. That love must go forth to His sheep. Here, then, was the minister's commission and his power. The Chief Shepherd had taken care of the sheep, and had died for them; the under shepherd was to do His work for them. So far as he did it, he would feel how scanty and wretched his own love for them was. He could not feed them at all unless he was possessed by his Master's love.
You see how remarkably these commands are in accordance with the doctrine which our Lord set plainly in the conversation which is recorded in the 10th chapter of this Gospel, and also with that language which He addressed to the disciples generally, to Peter especially, at the Passover, because he had in the highest degree that trust in his own love which was infecting them all: 'You have not chosen me; but I have chosen you.' And you will see how the idea which is contained in that sentence, is expressed and expounded in the words that follow the command to feed the lambs and the sheep.
'Verily, verily, I say to you, When you were young, you girdedst yourself, and walkedst where you wouldest: but when you shall be old, you shall stretch forward your hands, and another shall gird you, and carry you where you wouldest not.'
This doctrine of a divine compulsion acting upon the heart and will of a man, of a wisdom ordaining every step for him, of a love imposing upon him duties which of himself he would be least willing to undertake, bearing him on to sufferings from which he would most shrink, is the one which St. Peter needed to learn, which every minister of Christ and every Christian man must, by one discipline or another, be taught. St. John intimates that his brother-disciple was to be led along in the exact path which his Master had trodden before him.
'This spoke He, signifying by what death he should glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He said to him, Follow me.'
But the Evangelist goes on to show, by another example, that Christ prepares the most different lots for different men; that two may be standing close to each other, may be intended during a part of their lives to work together, who may in the close of their earthly pilgrimage be the most remarkable contrasts to each other, though they may be following the same crucified Lord, and one may be bearing as heavy a cross as the other.
'Then Peter, turning about, sees the disciple whom Jesus loved following; which also leaned on His breast at supper, and said, Lord, which is he that betrays you? Peter seeing Him said to Jesus, Lord, and what shall this man do? Jesus said to him, If I will that he linger till I come, what is that to you? follow you me. Then went this saying abroad among the brethren, that that disciple should not die: yet Jesus said not to him, He shall not die; but, if I will that he linger till I come, what is that to you?'
St. Peter was not to know what was intended for his brother-Apostle; that Apostle was to know as little himself. Some meaning there was in that intimate communion which he had had with his Lord on earth. So great a gift could not have been presented as an honor upon him for his own sake; it must have been meant to fit him for a work that he had to do in the world. What it was he may have waited long to know. He was not to stay in Jerusalem with St. James; he was not to travel to the dispersed among the Gentiles with St. Peter; he was not to raise up Churches among the Gentiles, like St. Paul. He was to stay upon the earth till Jerusalem had been trodden down by the Gentiles; till St. James and St. Peter, and all who had been most dear to him, had glorified God by their deaths; till a Gentile society had seemed about to displace the old Hebrew society; till the new Christian Church had been threatened by the same discords, the same sins, the same unbelief, which were undermining his country and the empire of the world. In some sense he was to linger till his Lord came. Was he then not to die? That had not been said. Yet the words had been spoken by Him who did not deceive, and they must be fulfilled. Did he not linger till his Lord came? Was He not revealed in flaming fire, taking vengeance of the unrighteous nation, of the evil world? Was He not revealed as the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, as the faithful Witness, as the Prince of all the kings of the earth, as the Lion of the tribe of Judah, as the Son of Man standing in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks, as the Lamb that was slain in the midst of the throne, as the Word of God? Was it not for this revelation that St. John had tarried on earth? Was it not that he might declare Who is the foundation of the new heaven and the new earth which should arise out of the wreck of the world that was perishing?
It appears as if the elders of the Church of Ephesus had added their attestation to the Gospel in the words of the 24th verse: 'This is the disciple which testifieth of these things, and wrote these things: and we know that his testimony is true.' I do not profess to decide whether to them or to the Apostle we should ascribe the last verse. 'And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen.' Some have wished that the verse were omitted altogether, because it seems to them a conclusion scarcely worthy of so divine a record. I accept it as a simple and childlike testimony to the truth of which the whole Gospel has been bearing witness, that the acts of the Son of God do not belong to the few years in which He dwelt visibly upon earth, but to all ages from the beginning, when He was 'with God, and was God,' even to the end 'when He shall put down all rule and all authority and power, and when the Son also Himself shall be subject to Him, who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all.' I accept it as a testimony that all the books in the world cannot contain the things which Jesus has been doing and is doing, in the hearts of human beings, in the world which He made, in the kingdom which He rules. I accept it as a warning to us, that we can know nothing of the Book which explains other books, unless we ask that it may be explained to us by Him who is, and was, and ever shall be, the Word of God.
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.