Great Texts of the Bible
To Whom shall We go?
Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.—John 6:68.
1. The situation in which our Lord found Himself at this stage in His career is full of pathos. He began His ministry in Judæa, and His success there seemed to be all that could be desired. But it soon became apparent that the crowds who followed Him misunderstood or wilfully ignored His purpose. They resorted to Him chiefly, if not solely, for material advantages and political ends. He was in danger of being accounted the most skilful metropolitan physician, or in the greater danger of being courted by politicians as a likely popular leader, who might be used as a revolutionary flag or party cry. He, therefore, left Jerusalem at an early period in His ministry and betook Himself to Galilee; and now, after some months’ preaching and mingling with the people, things have worked round in Galilee to precisely the same point as they had reached in Judæa. Great crowds are following Him to be healed and to be fed, while the politically inclined have at last made a distinct effort to make Him a king, to force Him into a collision with the authorities. His proper work is in danger of being lost sight of. He finds it necessary to sift the crowds who follow Him. And He does so by addressing them in terms which can be acceptable only to truly spiritual men—by plainly assuring them that He is among them, not to give them political privileges and the bread that perisheth, but the bread that endureth. They find Him to be what they would call an impracticable dreamer. They profess to go away because they cannot understand Him; but they understand Him well enough to see that He is not the person for their purposes. They seek earth, and heaven is thrust upon them. They turn away disappointed, and many walk no more with Him. The great crowd melts away, and He is left with His original following of twelve men. His months of teaching and toil seem to have gone for nothing. It might seem doubtful if even the Twelve would be faithful—if any result of His work would remain, if any would cordially and lovingly adhere to Him. Wearily and wistfully He turns to the Twelve, asking, “Will ye also go away?” And Simon Peter answers Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.”
2. This answer of Peter’s contains a great assumption. There is a postulate in the reply, which being removed, the whole drops to pieces. It is that man must have some one to go to. It is that the soul wants, demands, cries out for, not some thing only but some One: cannot live without a Master, without a Guide, without a Revealer and a Comforter: is so constituted that it cannot live alone, cannot grope its own way, except as searching for One who shall be its rest: will not, cannot, ought not to be self-sufficing; inasmuch as this is the law of its being, and God has made it natural to us—natural, not as a malady or weakness, but as a part of our original constitution—not to inquire whether to any one, but only, confidently, this: To whom shall we go? So in the text we have these three things—
I. The Fact—that we need some one to go to.
II. The Question—To whom shall we go?
III. The Answer—that only Christ can satisfy our wants, because He alone has “the words of eternal life.”
We need Some One to go to
1. St. Peter grasped the situation at once. He saw that they must go to some one. It may be that there flashed before his eyes certain possible masters—such as Moses the lawgiver, or John the Baptist, or perhaps some of the Gentile leaders; but in the light of Jesus Christ all these seemed absolutely impossible, and so he cried, “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.” Underlying this question, there is the same feeling which pervaded that saying of Amiel’s, “Men think they can do without religion; they do not know that religion is indestructible, and that the question simply is, Which will you have?” The only question possible for men is, “To whom shall we go?”
There is a deep law of our nature in virtue of which men are ever haunted with a sense of need, a consciousness of dependence. In every age, in every country, this is what man has keenly felt. The instinct is irresistible, because it is set deep in the very roots of our being. There is no want more real, more imperative than this—we must have leaders whom we can follow, else nothing is done, no progress is made; there is no upward tendency, but, on the contrary, we fall back into loss and ruin. We must have our ideals, and from them alone can we draw the inspiration for better things. To put it in a well-known phrase, though one which has a heathenish smack about it, “Man must swear by his gods.” “No man liveth to himself” is a text which is fertile in its significance, and which among other meanings carries this, that we all of us—the best and wisest—want a stronger and a wiser to whom we can look, who shall be our highest example, whom we can follow, reverence, obey, exalt.1 [Note: G. T. Candlin, On Service with the King, 53.]
2. It is not a question of choice between Christ and some thing else, but between Christ and some one else. For, singularly enough, since the world was, man has never been able, amid ten thousand forms of faith, to have a religion without a personality enshrined in the very heart of it. The disciples did not ask: “What shall we take up with if we leave Jesus; what system shall we believe in?” but: “To whom shall we go?” Ask not what the hundreds of millions of the human race believe in to-day. If you speak of abstract things, abstract principles, they believe in ten thousand things, or they believe in nothing. But ask in whom they believe, and the reply will be definite enough: Christ, Mohammed, Sakyamuni, Confucius, Zoroaster! It may be questioned if to an abstract principle men have ever yet, since the world was, built one solitary temple, reared a single altar, offered a single sacrifice, or breathed a single prayer. Where there is worship the demand for a person is quite inexorable. So when the Greeks created their sun-myths and worshipped the god of day, they had first to personify it and make it Apollo, the youth with golden locks and radiant countenance.
(1) What Peter wanted—and what we want—is, first of all, some One who can raise us above Circumstance. A vast multitude of the mighty family are so placed as to be in perpetual depression. Circumstances, we say, are against them. Poverty, or its twin sister anxiety—the perpetual question of the day’s or the morrow’s bodily supplies—this is one case. Sickness, or its more trying and yet commoner likeness, ill-health—this is another. Disappointment—a perpetual experience, the bitterness of which is never quite lost, that the honours and distinctions of an academical or professional career are always for another, never for me—this is another depressing influence; and we might multiply them without limit. The sense of inferiority, physical or mental—the dulness of life’s routine—the dreary unmarked round of duties, scarcely worth calling by so grave a name—the seeing no end, the having no prospect, the being placed where we would not be, and the hopelessness of change from it—the presence of uncongenial, unamiable, or unfriendly kinsfolk—the denial, in some definite point, of the wish of the heart, the final irreversible defeating of the life’s hope—all these are common experiences. And it is a want, a primal necessity, of our being, that we should find One—for a thing it cannot be—to lift us above circumstance.
When thou hast been compelled by circumstances to be disturbed in a manner, quickly return to thyself and do not continue out of tune longer than the compulsion lasts; for thou wilt have more mastery over the harmony by continually recurring to it.1 [Note: Marcus Aurelius.]
There is more cause for joy than for complaint in the hard and disagreeable circumstances of life. Browning said, “I count life just a stuff to try the soul’s strength on.” Spell the word “discipline” with a final g,—“discipling.” We are here to learn Time’s lesson for Eternity’s business. What does it signify if the circumstances about us are not of our choice, if by them we can be trained, learning the lessons of patience, fortitude, perseverance, self-denying service, acquiescence with God’s will, and the hearty doing of it? Circumstances do not make character. The noblest character can emerge from the worst surroundings, and moral failures come out of the best. Just where you are, take the things of life as tools, and use them for God’s glory; so you will help the kingdom come, and the Master will use the things of life in cutting and polishing you so that there shall some day be seen in you a soul conformed to His likeness.1 [Note: M. D. Babcock, Thoughts for Every-Day Living, 72.]
(2) A second want of our nature is some personal help to lift us above Sin. Of all the wants of the world, none is deeper than this. No misery is greater than the consciousness that having had a tendency to love and justice, to purity and pity, to wisdom and temperance, we have become unjust, envious, full of hatred, dissolute, fond of the baseness of all the flesh, cruel, living in folly and shame, intemperate in selfish desire, tyrannized over by self; and, living with these companions, restless and unsatisfied, inwardly ashamed. Men keep their unhappy hearts to themselves, but that silent, bitter cry of unquiet shame and fear, of longing for release, for peace and goodness, rises like a vast cloud of sorrow towards heaven from the universal heart of man. Ethics do not cure that, nor science, nor philosophy, nor humanitarianism; it is an inward matter of misery. Religious discussions do not help it. It is no remedy for that to be able to balance doctrine against doctrine and to analyse by logic the schemes of the Churches. It does not cure that to be a master-critic, to apply science to the miracles, and the laws of history to the Bible. The real matter is deep within, beyond these transitory things. Knowledge, the mind of man, can do nothing to help this sorrow to a final cure.
I looked at the sky, I looked at the sea,
I thought of the stars and moon,—
And my soul went forth on the desolate slopes,
Of the wastes of endless doom:
And I knew myself for that filthy thing,
That loves the death of its soul;
For myself and my soul agreed to cling
To the things we hate and loathe:
And we seek the way and we hunt the path,
To death, and hell, and shame,
And we lightly do with a gloating laugh,
Foul deeds-without-a-name.2 [Note: Desmond Mountjoy, The Hills of Hell. 20.]
(3) There is another universal, primal want of man’s nature—and that is, some One who shall raise us above Death itself. The writer to the Hebrews does not say one word too much upon this subject, when he declares that through fear of death all men through all their lifetime are subject to bondage. How else can we describe it? And our experience is of Christian times—of days, and of thoughts too, upon which Gospel light has shined, making it not only a figure of speech, but also something of a traditional feeling, that of course, now, death has lost its sting. Yet is not death, is not the shadow of death cast before in sickness, a terror and a tyranny still? We may forget him in health—we can lock and bar him out while we are in work and in society—but there he stands, just outside our door, now and then threatening, sometimes striking within, always in prospect, always an apprehension. May not this too be spoken of as a want, a natural want, an original want?
Sir James Affleck, speaking about his visits to Dr. Alexander McLaren as his doctor, says: “As the burden of weakness and infirmity bore down upon him, he became more silent, while touches of sombreness were now and then discernible. On one of these occasions, in speaking of death, he remarked, ‘I cannot say I am more reconciled to death now than I was twenty years ago.’ I replied in the words of Watts—
‘But timorous mortals start and shrink,
To cross this narrow sea.’
‘Ah!’ he said, ‘it’s not only the sea, it’s what is beyond the sea’; and then after a pause, ‘I cannot perhaps always but sometimes I can say—
But ’tis enough that Christ knows all,
And I shall be with Him.’
“It is interesting to recall that Richard Baxter, who wrote these lines, himself said as he drew near to the end of life, ‘To get satisfying apprehensions of the other world is the great and grievous difficulty.’
“Dr. McLaren’s crossing of the narrow sea proved somewhat tedious, but eminently peaceful, and he is now safe with Him who ‘knows all.’ ”1 [Note: Dr. McLaren of Manchester, 264.]
(4) We need some one to go to for our ideals. There is a story that a certain eminent painter kept always in his studio a set of precious stones. They cost him the proceeds of many a canvas. But he said he needed them in order to refresh his jaded sense of colour. Back to them he would often turn when he had lost the vivid sense of blue or crimson. And in their calm, unfading depths he never failed to find new tone and beauty. So we need some one to give us back the glory of lost ideals, to tone up our stale lives, to keep our hearts up to pitch. To whom can we turn for such things?
It was reserved for Christianity to present to the world an ideal character, which through all the changes of eighteen centuries has filled the hearts of men with an impassioned love; has shown itself capable of acting on all ages, nations, temperaments, and conditions; has been not only the highest pattern of virtue, but the strongest incentive to its practice; and has exercised so deep an influence that it may be truly said that the simple record of three short years of active life has done more to regenerate and to soften mankind than all the disquisitions of philosophers, and all the exhortations of moralists.1 [Note: W. E. H. Lecky, History of European Morals, ii. 8.]
In the Sermon on the Mount Christ has expressed the eternal ideal toward which it is proper for men to tend, and that degree of its attainment which can be reached even in our time.
The ideal consists in having no ill-will against any one, in calling forth no ill-will, in loving all; but the commandment, below which, in the attainment of this ideal, it is absolutely possible not to descend, consists in not offending any one with a word. And this forms the first commandment.
The ideal is complete chastity, even in thought; the commandment which points out the degree of attainment, below which, in the attainment of this ideal, it is absolutely possible not to descend, is the purity of the marital life, the abstaining from fornication. And this forms the second commandment.
The ideal is not to care for the future, to live only in the present; the commandment which points out the degree of the attainment, below which it is absolutely possible hot to descend is not to swear, not to promise anything to men. And this is the third commandment.
The ideal is never, under any condition, to make use of violence; the commandment which points out the degree below which it is absolutely possible not to descend is not to repay evil with evil, but to suffer insult, to give up one’s cloak. And this is the fourth commandment.
The ideal is to love our enemies, who hate us; the commandment which points out the degree of the attainment, below which it is possible not to descend, is to do no evil to our enemies, to speak well of them, to make no distinction between them and our fellow-citizens.
All these commandments are indications of what we are fully able not to do on the path of striving after perfection, of what we ought to work over now, of what we must by degrees transfer into the sphere of habit, into the sphere of the unconscious. But these commandments fail to form a teaching, and do not exhaust it, and form only one of the endless steps in the approximation toward perfection.1 [Note: Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is Within You (Works, xx. 104).]
O well for him that loves the sun,
That sees the heaven-race ridden or run,
The splashing seas of sunset won,
And shouts for victory.
God made the sun to crown his head,
And when death’s dart at last is sped,
At least it will not find him dead,
And pass the carrion by.
O ill for him that loves the sun;
Shall the sun stoop for anyone?
Shall the sun weep for hearts undone
Or heavy souls that pray?
Not less for us and everyone
Was that white web of splendour spun;
O well for him who loves the sun
Although the sun should slay.2 [Note: G. K. Chesterton, Ballad of the Sun.]
To Whom shall We go?
Virtually, the question is, What will you substitute for the gospel of the Son of God? This is the pith of it, and it is a standing challenge to all comers and to all centuries. It is not hard to destroy, to pluck up, to pull down, to undermine by ridicule, by satire, and by sceptical objections. But when the house is down and dismantled, what next? What and how shall we build? We want a shelter, a roof overhead, a doctrine, a hope, a promise, a prospect, in view of the dark future that confronts us. Men obliterate creeds, cast miracle and prophecy out of the world, and declare that the young, lusty Samson of modern thought will not be bound by the tattered traditions of antiquity in an age of scientific experiment. They talk about intellectual emancipation; the abolition of intellectual servitude to a set of ideas that originated with an insignificant Semitic tribe who once lived in a corner of the earth. It is easy to carp and criticize, to deal in shadowy negations; men may demonstrate the absurdity of prayer, the impossibility of miracle, the antecedent unlikelihood of the Incarnation; they may call the resurrection of Christ a myth; they may account for Isaiah, Ezekiel, and the Apocalypse and all moral inspiration upon natural principles; but meantime all this does not feed men. We need something positive, some great spiritual affirmation, a ray of hope, a word of promise, as we stand huddled, frightened, shivering on this sandbank of finite existence. And where shall we get these?
The modern man lives in a sort of supreme fear of being duped. But when this fear of self-deception goes so far as to get itself built into a sort of shrine and worshipped as Clifford worshipped it, we are at least candidates for commiseration. It is like keeping out of battle for the sake of avoiding wounds. And when all the deeper interests of the heart are the stake to be fought for! How bleak it all is! It is not easy to forget those frosted words of Clifford, written after he had cast out all his native beliefs. “I have seen the spring sun shine out of an empty heaven upon a soulless earth, and I have felt with utter loneliness that the Great Companion was dead.”
1. “To whom shall we go?” Shall we cast in our lot with the worldling? Shall we smother our fears, our misgivings, our aspirations, our hopes, in the amusements, the interests, the pleasures of this lower world, and thus by a determined effort quench the Divine light which is in us? We cannot do this. We cannot forget the home from which we came. Ever and again, the memory of the Father whom we left intrudes itself upon us. We began our career of self-will in riotous living; and we have ended it in famine and destitution. These husks may be good enough for the swine that perish; but to us, the children of our Father, to us, the heirs of heaven, they are vile, they are loathsome, they are sickening.
A large section of humanity has espoused for its creed an abject materialism. “Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die.” What a vanity fair is modern social life! Multitudes are trying to drown their disgust in deeper cups of pleasure and riot. Men call the doctrine of Jesus “hard.” “But how much harder,” cries Tolstoy, “how much harder is the doctrine of the world! In my own life I can reckon up as much suffering caused by following the doctrine of the world as many martyrs have endured for the doctrine of Jesus.” Yet this “doctrine of the world” is preached to human hearts as a doctrine of “good news,” and crowds have turned away from the Man of Nazareth to hear it. What a travesty upon hearts, what a mockery of happiness! The modern martyrs are not in the church; they are in the world. For real martyrdom to-day, name the frenzies of contemporaneous finance. Ask the women who are racked in an inquisition worse than Torquemada’s. Watch the young people training for the enjoyment of a diet of husks and sawdust. And worst of all, these crucifixions are entirely gratuitous. They give the cross without the crown or the promise of it. They yield the pang without the palm.1 [Note: G. C. Peck, Vision and Task, 134.]
2. “To whom shall we go?” Shall we seek counsel of the secularist? Shall we be content to bind our hopes and fears by the limitations of time and space? Will it suffice us to extend our scientific knowledge, to perfect our machinery, to improve our police regulations, to study our sanitary conditions, shutting our eyes meanwhile to the immensity which lies above and around us? Nay, our eternal spirit would lash itself into agony against the bars of this narrow cage. “Our immortality broods” over us “like the day,” “a presence which is not to be put by.”
The late Mr. Winwood Reade unhappily thought and published that there was no God. His wild book he called the Martyrdom of Man; and without God in the world man is a martyr. A personal creator he asserted was an impossibility, and, to prevent any approach to hope, the existence of a soul an improbability, but not as the other, a demonstrable falsehood. These wild and whirling words were uttered by one who in his last book, issued as he died, said that he often sighed for his old belief, when to him “God was semi-human and man was half Divine, and after life death began (?) and happiness never ceased, and my mother and my Margaret would be joined to me again. Now my heart rebels against the fate of the human race, doomed to work like coral insects of the sea.” This he wrote, says his biographer, his uncle, Charles Reade, “with the hand of death upon him.” We need not wonder at the mournfulness of one without hope in the world. We quote these words because the storm which lifts aside the waters shows the depths beneath. Let no man reject faith carelessly. No Christian hand could have painted more truly the want which Revelation, and that alone, supplies. The reviewer of a contemporary, with a full sympathy with Winwood Reade, quotes Schopenhauer, who, probably with like thoughts, says that, “if we take into account the pain and misery, the unhappiness and sin, with which the earth abounds, we can only wonder whether it would not have been better for us if the surface of the earth had remained like that of the moon, devoid of atmosphere, an inert mass of cinder and slag.” Can our readers blame us if we put a firm foot on the old ways, and insist again and again, out of pure love for our fellows, on the reasonable expectation of the larger hope and the fuller life, the warmth and happiness given by Him who is the Light of the world, in whose light we no longer walk in darkness, and who lighteth every man that cometh into the world, unless the heart rejects His light and crawls back into the hopeless gloom?1 [Note: J. H. Friswell, This Wicked World, 35.]
As some most pure and noble face,
Seen in the thronged and hurrying street,
Sheds o’er the world a sudden grace,
A flying odour sweet,
Then passing leaves the cheated sense
Balked with a phantom excellence.
So in our soul, the visions rise
Of that fair life we never led;
They flash a splendour past our eyes,
We start, and they are fled;
They pass and leave us with blank gaze,
Resigned to our ignoble days.2 [Note: William Watson, The Fugitive Ideal.]
3. “To whom shall we go?” Shall we close with the teaching of the philosophical deist? What will he give us in return for our confidence? A cold abstraction, a far-off something, a personified tendency, a hard law, a rigid and lifeless thing like the marble statues which men worshipped of old, more imposing indeed but less beautiful, a being unknown and unknowable, whom we cannot approach, cannot realize, cannot pray to, cannot love. What consolation is there here in our sorrow? What strength is there here in our temptation? What purification is there here in our sin?
Did Herbert Spencer ever convince you—did he ever convince anybody—did he ever for one mad moment convince himself—that it must be to the interest of the individual to feel a public spirit? Do you believe that, if you rule your department badly, you stand any more chance, or one-half of the chance, of being guillotined than an angler stands of being pulled into the river by a strong pike? Herbert Spencer refrained from theft for the same reason he refrained from wearing feathers in his hair, because he was an English gentleman with different tastes.1 [Note: G. K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill.]
4. Shall we turn to the other religions of the world? There is a little group of people in Liverpool who have built a mosque and profess the tenets of Mohammedanism. There are a few people in England who profess to find in Buddhism that which meets their religious craving. But would it be uncharitable to say that such persons are religious curiosities, more eager for that which is novel than for that which is true? Can we imagine any serious sober-minded Englishman deliberately choosing any religion the world has ever seen in preference to Christianity—choosing, say, Buddhism, that religion of despair which takes away God, who is the very object of religion; or Confucianism, which calls to the worship of ancestors, no more worthy of worship than our contemporaries; or Brahmanism, with its many gods rather than one; or Zoroastrianism, with evil raised almost to the level of the good?
I own in full the spiritual power which there is in every attempt of heathenism after God, but though there be other religions than the Christian, surely the full notion of religion is not to be gathered out of their imperfection, but out of the more perfect faith which does what they try to do and is what they try to be. If a man asks me what a tree is, I will not send him to a stunted, frost-bitten bush high up Mount Washington, but to the oak or elm which under the best conditions has opened the tree life into fullest glory. If any one asks me what a man is, I will not show him a Kafir or a Hottentot, but the best specimen of manhood that Europe or America can bring. And yet the mountain shrub is certainly a tree, and the Hottentot is certainly a man. So if anybody asks me what religion is, I will not point to Mohammedanism or to Buddhism, though they surely are religions; I will go to Christianity and in its central motive take out the real central force of all religion.1 [Note: Phillips Brooks, New Starts in Life, 323.]
5. “To whom shall we go?” Shall we turn to self? Shall we make ourselves our standard? Instead of having before our eyes, in our thoughts, in our ideals, in our prayers, something that all men acknowledge as superhumanly lovely and ennobling, and all Christians deem assuredly Divine, shall we look to ourselves, to our own meagre selves, with our faults and our appetites, our tastes, our pettinesses; if so we shall lack the one thing that elevates, the sympathy with the best. Soon our path curves farther and farther away; it leads to absorbing and unsatisfied hunger after lower ends; and finally a death is felt approaching to which we look forward with reluctant acquiescence and secret terror, instead of with trustful expectation as but a step in the upward path.
(1) Expediency may be a motive of good living and a means of human development. We all know how frequently it appears and what power it very often has. We are told that a good life is the best life, the safest and the happiest. “If you do what is wrong, no matter what may be the present pleasure of it, you certainly will suffer. If you do what is right, no matter how hard the struggle to which it sets you now, you certainly will prosper. Therefore, it is not well, it is not prudent, it is not expedient to be wicked.” The doctrine is immensely true. Its certainty is emphasized by all that we already know of human history, and misgivings of still more terrible assertions of it stretch forward into the other world. And the doctrine certainly is lofty, inasmuch as it asserts that right and wrong are not mere whims and fashions, but essential and eternal things, that they have to do with the very structure of man and of the world, that both man and the world are built so that the wrong finds its punishment and the right its reward. And certainly it is a doctrine which does to a very great extent control the actions of mankind. Some people will even call it religion. Some people will make religion to be nothing but a great system of expediency stretching out into the world beyond the grave. But clearly this is not religion. The religious man says, “This is right, and I will do it because God wants me to and I love Him for the great love wherewith He has loved me.” The prudent man says, “This is right, and I will do it because it will be best for me.” The first is religious and the second is not religious, only prudent.
If a man merely holds that on the whole it is better and wiser to abstain from the sins of the flesh, but that there is no Divine command against them, depend upon it, occasions will arise when passion will be so strong that the mere notion of what is better will not stand for an instant before its storm. If a man merely considers that it is on the whole wiser to speak the truth, but that no Divine message has ever declared that all liars shall have their portion in the banishment of the wicked from the presence of the Lord, depend upon it that occasions will come to him when concealment, evasion, and duplicity will be irresistibly attractive. Where there is no belief in a Divine revelation, there can be no sense of sin.1 [Note: W. M. Sinclair, A Young Man’s Life, 183.]
(2) There is another power which men attempt to substitute for religion as the ruler and inspirer of life. It is that feeling which is in the heart of almost every man, the sense of self-respect which makes him say, “It is beneath my dignity to do a mean or wicked action.” Poor indeed is the man who does not know what that feeling is. You offer a man a temptation to steal. He turns away and will not steal because he is loyal to his master, God. That is religion. He draws back and will not steal because he knows that “Honour is the best policy.” That is expediency. He turns indignantly upon you and says, “Do you take me for a thief?” That is honour. What this great instinct of honour has done, it is hard to over-value. It has been the overruling power of whole sections of society, almost of whole periods of history. It has shone with splendid lustre in the eyes of many men, till it seemed to them all that humanity needed for its full consummation. It has had its martyrs who have given up their lives under its inspiration. It is romantic. It is the power of chivalry. There is hardly an age of history so dark that it may not be found burning there. It is a strong and, as it seems to many people, a sufficient power here to-day. There are many who would substitute the principle of honour for the principle of religion, many who think that the self-respect of the gentleman is enough without the loving consecration of the servant of God. But what is this honour that shines so splendidly? Is it conscience quickened and filled with pride? Its very principle of life is pride. It is a man’s supreme consciousness of his own value, so strong that he recognizes the obligations which rest upon one so valuable as he is. His nobility obliges him. The deficiencies of it seem to be premised in this very definition, and they show out all through the history of its influence on men.
We believe that we have an immortal future, and are destined hereafter to an eternal weight of glory, not of enjoyment—for that is a mere libel—but of perfection and enlargement of all our noblest faculties. We believe that we can even here become partakers of the Divine nature. We believe that we have dwelling in us by faith and communion with the Most High, the very Spirit of God Himself, weaning us from the world, setting our affections on things above, purifying our thoughts, putting into our minds good desires, and daily bringing the same to true effect, strengthening our resolves, subduing our passions, and making us fit for the companionship of all that is best and most esteemed in humanity, in the pure and tranquil radiance of the regions of light, yes, and of the fellowship of God Himself the Father and the Son. Then I ask what moral scheme or persuasive ideal could be devised by the wit of man which would go anywhere near to produce in us such reason for that truest self-respect which is a humble and grateful union with God Himself?1 [Note: W. M. Sinclair, A Young Man’s Life, 185.]
None but Christ can Satisfy
1. Men have offered to us many phantoms of religion. Many societies, each with its theory to bind human creatures together in worship and love, have knocked at our door to tell us the truth of life. Materialism has sought our suffrages, and humanitarianism. Ethics and science have offered us their dishes and said: “Eat and be satisfied.” Vague optimisms and mud-rooted pessimisms; a religion of humanity and a religion of unchristian theism have filled our ears with their cries; but when we have found the more excellent, we are not likely to descend to the less. We wish them all good fortune so far as they minister to love. But when we are asked for the foundation of life, we turn to Jesus and say: “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.”
There are too many witnesses in His favour for us to leave Him. Call the roll of philosophers: Bacon, Locke, Johnson, Edwards, Hopkins, McCosh. They were Christians, and it was Locke who said, “If I had my life to live over, I would spend it studying the Epistles of Paul and the Psalms.” Call the roll of astronomers: Copernicus, Kepler, Sir Isaac Newton. They were Christians, and it was Kepler who said, “I am thinking the thoughts of God. I am overawed with the sense of His majesty. In the firmament God is passing before me in the grandeur of His way.” Call the roll of scientists: Agassiz, Miller, Proctor, Guizot. They were Christians. Then add the name of John George Romanes, who was an unbeliever, but became a devoted Christian, accepting the divinity of Jesus and the atonement of Christ, and died a triumphant death. The greatest historians, among whom were Bancroft and Green, were Christians. The greatest discoverers, among whom were Raleigh, Livingstone, and Stanley, were Christians. The greatest statesmen, among whom were Constantine, Charlemagne, Alfred the Great, Webster, Gladstone, and Bismarck, were Christians.1 [Note: J. W. Chapman.]
(1) “Thou hast the words of eternal life.” St. Peter was convinced not only that Jesus had the words of eternal life, but that no one else had. “To whom shall we go?” St. Peter had not an exhaustive knowledge of all sources of human wisdom; but speaking from his own experience he affirmed his conviction that it was useless to seek life eternal anywhere else than in Jesus. And it seems equally hopeless still to look to any other quarter for sufficient teaching, for words that are “spirit and life.” Where but in Christ do we find a God we can accept as God? Where but in Him do we find that which can not only encourage men striving after virtue, but also reclaim the vicious? To put any one alongside of Christ as a revealer of God, as a pattern of virtue, as a Saviour of men, is absurd. There is that in Him which we recognize as not merely superior, but of another kind; so that those who reject Him, or set Him on a level with other teachers, have first of all to reject the chief part of what His contemporaries were struck with and reported, and to fashion a Christ of their own.
No student of history doubts for a moment that Jesus Christ appeals to man as does no other character in human history. His appeal is not only to the whole man, that is, to the entire range of his faculties; in a remarkable way, He appeals to the whole of humanity. Mohammed appeals to the Arab, the Turk, the fierce and fatalistic nomad of the East. Buddha appeals to the reflective mind of the Orient. Jesus Christ’s appeal is uniquely cosmopolitan. He holds the sceptre of the Western world, and yet a learned Hindu has said, “None but Jesus deserves, and none but He shall have, the diadem of India.”1 [Note: C. C. Albertson, College Sermons, 45.]
(2) “Thou hast the words of eternal life.” St. Peter’s confession expressed the grounds on which he believed Jesus to be what He said, and our faith has the same proof to rest on. It does not rest on St. Peter’s certainty, but on the reason here stated, common to all who receive the evidence. The grounds of Christian faith in the Divine person of Jesus are His works, His words, and His character; what He did, what He said, and what He was. But prominence is here given to the “words.” For the “words” were at that time in some danger of being disparaged in favour of the “deeds.” An incident had just happened which implied that, and St. Peter here puts in, so to speak, his protest against the multitude. “It is not for the loaves or for the miracles we either believe or follow Thee: it is because Thou hast the words of eternal life.”
The “words” are precisely that part of the evidence which is now just as valid for us as it was for St. Peter. The “words” are here, just as fresh and full of life and spiritually mighty as when they were first spoken. And what is still more to the point, the “words” interpret and explain all the rest. The relation of the miracles and the character of Jesus to His words may be stated as the relation of a seal or stamp to a document. It is the document—the writing—that defines and explains the authority conveyed by the seal.2 [Note: J. Laidlaw, Studies in the Parables, 339.]
(3) “Thou hast the words of eternal life.” That expression “eternal life” must have been very familiar to St. Peter and all the twelve, while Jesus went in and out among them. There were few days when they did not hear it fall from His lips, and they caught it up if they did not fully understand it. In the brief record of our Lord’s teaching, contained in the four Gospels, we have it twenty-five times. In St. John’s Gospel alone it occurs seventeen times. In this very chapter we read it five times over. No doubt it was ringing in St. Peter’s ears when he spoke. Christ’s words of eternal life were words about the nature of that life which He came into the world to proclaim,—a life begun in the soul by faith while we live, and perfected in glory when we die. They were words about the way in which this eternal life is provided for sinful man, even the way of His atoning death, as our Substitute, on the Cross. They were words about the terms on which this eternal life is made our own, if we feel our need of it, even the terms of simple faith. As Latimer said, it is but “believe and have.” They were words about the training and discipline on the way to eternal life, which are so much needed by man and so richly provided, even the renewing and sanctifying grace of the Holy Ghost. They were words about the comforts and encouragements by the way, even Christ’s daily help, sympathy, and watchful care.
Christ is the source of spiritual life to all who believe in His name. The idea of Divine personality carries with it the idea of revelation, as all our modern discussions show. If the power that is behind the world is a personal power—a character or moral will, and not a mere blind force issuing endlessly into space, it cannot, in its very nature, but make itself known to man. And so the Word of God, God in Christ, becomes the essential correlative of the idea of God. If, in other words, there is an eternal life, a moral sphere beyond the present, of which the present is only a faint reflection, this can be known to us only through its expressions in such an one as Christ. That others have a spiritual life like ours we know only through communion with them in word or act. That there is a spiritual life, transcending the world and embracing an eternal life, on which the world and humanity rest, and out of which all good that is in the world or man comes, we can know only through its coming near to us in word or act. This is what the Apostles felt Christ had done for them. He had not merely spoken to them of an eternal life. He had not said, “It is a part of My teaching that there is such a life.” The Pharisees might have said this But all He said or did was the revelation of this life. They felt themselves, in contact with Him, to be at the same time in contact with a sphere of spiritual being above the world. And so the assurance of the eternal life can only come to any of us straight out of the words of Christ rather than out of any other source. The word of Christ is the highest evidence for us that there is any higher life at all, any ground of existence that is really eternal beneath all the changes of experience. If we cannot rest here, or get conviction here, as we look at Christ, we cannot rest anywhere, or touch the eternal as by faintest contact. In Him, in communion with His spirit, in all that He had ever said to them, the Apostles felt themselves assured of a higher being. They felt the outflow of the eternal life bathing their souls and suffusing them with its own deep serenity. This was why they could not go away with others. Where else could they turn? “Thou, O Christ, art the only true light of our souls. Thou hast the words of eternal life.”1 [Note: J. Tulloch, Sundays at Balmoral, 94.]
2. What did Jesus purpose to do? We see what He is doing among men, but the question is, What did He purpose to do? Some men go all through life without a purpose. But most of us form a purpose before we have passed far into the years of youth. With one, it is to make a fortune, with another to win fame, with others, to carve, or paint, or write, or fight, or build, or heal, or plough. Now what did Jesus conceive His life’s task to be? Our wonder increases when we learn that He seriously purposed to found a kingdom, to destroy the works of evil, to institute the reign of love among men and among nations, to redeem society by bringing back to goodness and to God all the individuals of which society is composed. Did any other ever undertake a task like that? Compared with it, the emancipation of a race of slaves, or even the founding of a new nation, is a small thing. Go a little further into His life and we find He purposed and professed to solve the three greatest and gravest problems of life—the problems of sin, and sorrow, and death. Now look at His philosophy, His theology, His metaphysics, His ethics, His system, whatever it may be called, His Gospel, let us say, and you will see, potentially if not actually, the materials out of which all this is to be done. There is love, pure and sacrificial, upon which to found a kingdom in the hearts of men, love as the basis of a new brotherhood; there is grace abounding much more than ever sin abounded; inward strength and comfort for the heart with sorrow laden; and there is immortality with which to face the fearful phantasm of death. All these elements are in His Gospel, and they must impress us with their absolute adequacy.
Surprise at first, and afterwards a sense of adequacy, are awakened by a study of the fact of Christ. Then follows in our minds the tribute we instinctively pay to greatness, to simplicity, and power. A good part of the admiration we have for Abraham Lincoln is based upon our perception of his native nobility, his elemental simplicity. He was so free from anything like artificial greatness, from the counterfeit semblance of dignity, and yet so masterful, so completely captain of his soul, and of the Ship of State he guided through the seething sea of war. It is easy to admire a man of our own flesh and blood, so near us that there are those still living who have touched his hand. It is not so easy to admire a personality separated from us by sixty generations. Yet admiration is a feeble word to measure the response in our hearts when we hear the name of Mary’s Son. He seems not so far away, after all. We read the Gospels and rise with a kind of feeling that if we have not seen Him, we have at least heard His footfall on the temple’s marble pavement or the street, that we have caught some accent of His voice, or touched the hem of His passing garments. Whittier puts it so—
But warm, sweet, tender, even yet
A present help is He;
And faith has still its Olivet,
And love its Galilee.
The healing of His seamless dress
Is by our beds of pain;
We touch Him in life’s throng and press,
And we are whole again.1 [Note: C. C. Albertson, College Sermons, 48.]
(1) When we know that we love God and that God loves us, we are healed of the grievous wounds of life. In the infinite flood of Divine and human love our sins and sorrows are drowned, and the ark of joy and peace alone survives. To have the heart full of love, and to feel that we are infinitely loved, is so Divine a passion that it lifts us into a world where we forget our pain and wrong. We feel our pains and sins, but even when we feel them—and many are our days of depression—we feel them only for a time. We know they will come to an end, and all the arguments based on them against the goodness and love of God drift away like feeble clouds before the summer wind. The soul is at peace, though life be shipwrecked in the storm. We know, though we have been battered by sin, that through love of Love we are becoming righteous. We know, though sorrows are deep, that out of hunger for righteousness we are attaining joy. We understand, though we are left as lonely often as a mountain peak, that we are not alone, for the Father is with us. This is the first truth as it is in Jesus.
Lord, weary of a painful way,
All night our heads we would not lay
Under the naked sky;
But ask who worthiest? who will best
Entreat a tired and lowly guest
With promptest courtesy?
And Thou art worthiest; there will not
One loving usage be forgot
By Thee; Thy kiss will greet
Us entering; Thou wilt not disdain
To wash away each guilty stain
From off our soilëd feet.
We enter, from this time to prove
Thy hospitality and love
Shown tow’rd Thy meanest guest:
From house to house we would not stray,
For whither should we go away?
With Thee is perfect rest.1 [Note: Trench, Poems, 145.]
(2) The second declaration Christ made followed on the first. It was the declaration of the forgiveness of sins. The removal of the natural results of wrong-doing, of what we call punishment, is not forgiveness. Forgiveness is to feel at one with love, with our Father’s heart; to feel like a child to God; to feel the strange delight that we are in union with God and His righteousness, and to do what the feeling urges; to feel the emotion of joy urging us to the act of good. Yes, that is the forgiveness of sins. A new life is open to us. We hear the voice of Jesus: “Go, you will sin no more.” For nearly twenty centuries, the words, the character, the life, the teaching, and the death of Jesus, all they were, and all they mean, have brought healing to this universal misery of man. There are millions of lives to testify to the truth of this. The lost have found themselves; the sinners have ceased to sin, the miserable have become happy; the restless have reached peace; the dissolute have become pure; the malicious and envious have learned to love; the selfish have devoted themselves to others; the poor of soul have become rich, the useless useful, the fearful brave, and the enslaved free. Where the secret lies we cannot altogether know, but we shall know hereafter. What we do know is the facts; the result of the words of Christ. Men are redeemed; and beneath every form of Christianity that is the permanent thing. The dogmas do not count, the criticism, the discussions are nothing: the healing power, the forgiveness of sins—that is all. It is the power within to lead a new life and to forget the burden of the past—a mighty thing indeed! And the reason of it all is contained in those words of Jesus, if we could but reach their infinite depth in thought: “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much.” That was the second declaration of Jesus, and it followed from His doctrine of a Father of men who, being good, loved them, and could not, consistently with fatherhood, leave His children to be mastered by evil. He was bound to make them, in the end, holy with Himself.
Wife murder was also considered quite legitimate. In one of our inland villages dwelt a young couple, happy in every respect except that they had no children. The man, being a Heathen, resolved to take home another wife, a widow with two children. This was naturally opposed by his young wife. And, without the slightest warning, while she sat plaiting a basket, he discharged a ball into her from his loaded musket. It crashed through her arm and lodged in her side. Everything was done that was in my power to save her life; but on the tenth day tetanus came on, and she soon after passed away. The man appeared very attentive to her all the time; but, being a Heathen, he insisted that she had no right to oppose his wishes! He was not in any way punished or disrespected by the people of his village, but went out and in amongst them as usual, and took home the other woman as his wife a few weeks thereafter. His second wife began to attend Church and School regularly with her children; and at last he also came along with them, changing very manifestly from his sullen and savage former self. They have a large family; they are avowedly trying to train them all for the Lord Jesus; and they take their places meekly at the Lord’s Table.
It would give a wonderful shock, I suppose, to many namby-pamby Christians, to whom the title “Mighty to Save” conveys no ideas of reality, to be told that nine or ten converted murderers were partaking with them the Holy Communion of Jesus! But the Lord who reads the heart, and weighs every motive and circumstance, has perhaps much more reason to be shocked by the presence of some of themselves. Penitence opens all the Heart of God—“To-day shalt thou be with me in Paradise.”1 [Note: John G. Paton, ii. 160.]
(3) But Christ’s words infer a third truth—the immortality of the soul, of the conscious personality of the child of God. The Father is immortal, therefore the child. Goodness and love—two names of the same thing—are necessarily eternal. If the child is to reach the goodness and love of the Father, he must be as eternal as the Father. If all this trouble be taken with the individual child, it is ridiculous to the reason, and inconceivable to the heart, that the Father should fling that which He laboured for and loved into annihilation. If we allow that God is a Father that conclusion of death is unthinkable.
We then went for a three miles’ walk, my father talking of the Passion Play at Ober-Ammergau, of religion, of faith, and of immortality. While touching on the life after death he spoke of Carlyle, and his dimness of faith in the closing years of his life. He said that when he was stopping at a coffee-house in London, Carlyle had come to smoke a pipe with him in the evening and the talk turned upon the immortality of the soul; upon which Carlyle said: “Eh! old Jewish rags: you must clear your mind of all that. Why should we expect a hereafter? Your traveller comes to an inn, and he takes his bed, it’s only for one night, he leaves next day, and another man takes his place and sleeps in the bed that he has vacated.” My father continued: “I answered, ‘Your traveller comes to his inn, and lies down in his bed, and leaves the inn in the morning, and goes on his way rejoicing, with the sure and certain hope and belief that he is going somewhere, where he will sleep the next night,’ and then Edward Fitzgerald, who was present, said, ‘You have him there’ ”: “which proves,” said my father, “how dangerous an illustration is.”2 [Note: Tennyson: A Memoir, ii. 410.]
Dr. McLaren of Manchester gave an address at the “Union Assembly” in Edinburgh on the 9th of October 1901. His biographer says: There was one passage in particular, towards the end of the address, when his radiant look told even more than his words. It ran as follows:—
“Consider how the conscious possession of that higher life in Christ brings with it an absolute incapacity of believing that what men call death can affect it. ‘Christ in us’ is ‘the hope of glory.’ The true evidence for immortality lies in the deep experience of the Christian spirit. It is when a man can say, ‘Thou art the strength of my heart’ that the conviction springs up inevitable and triumphant, that such a union can no more be severed by the physical accident of death than a spirit can be wounded by a sword, and that, therefore, he has the right to say further, ‘and my portion for ever.’ ”
In the short pause that came after these words, and during the rustle of movement (preparation for another spell of sustained attention) one listener turned to another and whispered, “It is like seeing a spirit.” And it was true.1 [Note: Dr. McLaren of Manchester, 189.]
3. This, then, is the teaching of Christ in relation to the individual soul. But if that were all, more than half of our deepest interests would be left out. More than half of human life would be unappealed to. The expansion of the soul in love would not only be unsecured, it would even be injured. If that were the whole of religion, it might end in fixing our thoughts only on ourselves, and so end, through engendering selfishness, in the death of religion. Men have made this personal religion all; but that was not the way of Christ. He secured a personal religion by bringing each of us into the closest contact with our Father, but He swept us far beyond that individual relation. His whole life and His death maintained that we were to pass beyond ourselves into union with mankind, and that only in sacrifice of self for those not ourselves could we win our true life. He that loveth his life shall lose it, he that loseth his life the same shall find it. Die for men; die for the truths that bless and redeem men; die for the love of your brethren, if you would live. Death of self for love’s sake is life eternal.
Not cloistered saints, that bid the world
Remember they forget—its lure defy,
Whose abnegating robes accost the glance
Of lost humanity;
Not they whose moving lips attest
Repeated prayer, to shame the throng or mart,
Whose fingers outward clasp a crucifix;
Not they who stand apart—
Are Thy swift followers alone,
Sweet Christ! Unveiled, untonsured, they there be
Who hold their mired brothers to their heart,
Even for love of Thee,
Who didst remember to the end
Thy world, though they had Thee forgot and fled—
A hillside Calvary Thy holy lot,
Mountain and sea Thy bed.1 [Note: Martha Gilbert Dickinson.]
To Whom shall We go?
Aitken (W. H. M. H.), What is your Life? 164.
Albertson (C. C.), College Sermons, 45.
Brooke (S. A.), The Gospel of Joy, 339.
Brooks (P.), New Starts in Life, 320.
Calthrop (G.), Hints to my Younger Friends, 3.
Candlin (G. T.), On Service with the King, 45.
Chapman (J. W.), Another Mile, 57.
Clark (H. W.), Meanings and Methods of the Spiritual Life, 134.
Jones (J. S.), Saved by Hope, 79.
Kellogg (S. H.), The Past a Prophecy of the Future, 95.
Laidlaw (J.), Studies in the Parables, 329.
Lightfoot (J. B.), Ordination Addresses, 225.
Mayor (J. B.), The World’s Desire, 15.
Merson (D.), Words of Life, 1.
Parker (J.), The City Temple Pulpit, vi. 280.
Pearson (J. B.), Disciples in Doubt, 90.
Peck (G. C.), Vision and Task, 123.
Price (A. C.), Fifty Sermons, x. 281.
Ryle (J. C.), The Upper Room, 192.
Salmon (G.), Non-Miraculous Christianity, 72.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xxviii. (1882) No. 1646; lvi. (1910) No. 3210.
Taylor (W. M.), The Limitations of Life, 144.
Tulloch (J.), Sundays at Balmoral, 76.
Vaughan (C. J.), Counsels to Young Students, 1.
Vaughan (C. J.), University Sermons, 292.
Wilson (J. M.), Sermons in Clifton College Chapel, i. 224.
Cambridge Review, xv. Supplement No. 367 (Whitworth).
Christian World Pulpit, xl. 72 (Thomas); xlix. 357 (Plunket); Iii. 197 (Davidson); lix. 50 (Horder); lxxii. 49 (Simon); lxxvi. 55 (Shaw).
Churchman’s Pulpit: The Old and New Year: ii. 464 (Evans).