The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
(Towards the close of the first century, or a.d. 68)
[Note,—"This sacred writing, though called an Epistle, has more of the character of a discourse on the doctrines and duties of Christianity. It appears to have been addressed to believers generally, especially to Gentiles and residents in Asia Minor, among whom John himself had laboured (1John 2:7; 1John 2:12-14, 1John 2:20-27). The writer has not deemed it necessary to prefix his name; but its remarkable similarity, both in matter and expressions, to the other writings of the Apostle John, confirms the testimony of the early Christians, and affords satisfactory evidence that he was its author. It was certainly written by an eye-witness of the person and labours of our Lord (1John 1:1-4; 1John 4:14). It is commonly supposed to have been written from Ephesus, but at what precise date is uncertain; a late date is highly probable from the errors which are here condemned.
"The general character of this Epistle probably gave occasion to the opinion early entertained that John was of a peculiarly affectionate disposition; and this opinion seems just. Yet none has spoken of false doctrine more sharply. The gentlest Christian may be a son of thunder (Luke 3:13-19) when Christ's honour is at stake, and charity may be exercised in denouncing sin as well as in loving the brethren.
"The truth most largely insisted upon in this Epistle is the necessity of holiness, as the evidence and fruit of faith."—Angus's Bible Handbook.]
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life;"I Don't Know"
You may notice how often the Apostle uses the word "know" in the opening chapters of his first Epistle General. Again and again John says, "We know," "hereby we do know that we know." He seems to have anticipated the uses to which that word might be put in after-time, and he insists upon a personal and definite knowledge of things divine or supernatural. He had no doubt of his knowledge. He did not use any lower term; he did not say, I think, I hope, I venture to imagine, I infer; but roundly and definitely he said, "I know." Let that go for what it is worth. John is a witness; the character of the witness is above suspicion; the disposition of the witness was one of Christlike, solicitous love. The man who bore this character, who companied with Christ many days, and who was the most familiar with his Lord of all the disciples, said, distinctly, repeatedly, triumphantly, "I know." There are men now who do not deny: and that is their weakness. Instead of denying they abstain from pronouncing any affirmative opinion. Their position may be stated roughly thus:—We do not deny the existence of God, we do not affirm it; we simply know nothing about it, and can know nothing about it, and therefore we say nothing about it. The general argument we have endeavoured to examine before, and to pronounce upon; there are some considerations arising out of it which the humblest mind can follow, and which the largest mind will be glad to apply. What does "I don't know" amount to in the practical reasoning and the actual conduct of life? We have assigned it great scope, and invested it with great authority, in matters of a religious nature: but how do we treat our own argument when it is applied to the actual facts of life, the daily and ever-recurring duties and activities of this present state? We ought to answer that question. Let there be no evasion of it. It ought not to be difficult to show that "I don't know" amounts to nothing in all the great practical issues and activities of life. If, therefore, we can strip this little argument naked, and excoriate it, and destroy it, it will be a pitiful subterfuge if any man should magnify in religion an argument which he has grid-ironed and destroyed in practical life. Observe, the question is, What does "I don't know" amount to as a regulator of conduct? If we miss that point we miss every illustration following upon it. Fix the mind upon the definite thing to be illustrated and established, namely, that "I don't know" amounts to nothing, and we daily show it to amount to nothing in the development, the discipline, the culture, the service of life.
Take it thus: I do not know how long I may live: then, why should I trouble myself about life? I may be dead tomorrow: why should I think and write and put myself through endless processes of discipline? I may be a dead man before midnight: I know that I must die, I do not know when I shall die, I may die within a very few moments, and therefore how unprofitable it would be for me to concern myself about anything: nothing is worth doing; I may no sooner lay my hand upon my work than my hand may be paralysed, and my work may drop out of my fingers, and I may be counted among the dead. If a man were to talk so he would be regarded as practically insane. The wise man does everything in life as if he were going to live for ever. Who builds his house for a night? Who builds his dwelling-place for the summer weather? Suppose he should begin to build his house in the early spring, how would the reasoning stand if it took this form: I may be dead before winter, therefore the very frailest walls will do, and you may scatter but a few broad green leaves upon the roof; that will be shelter enough, for there are no great storms at this time of the year: I do not know anything of any other time. No builder could take any direction from a man who talked so loosely and incoherently. The man builds as if he were going to live a long time. The "I don't know" simply amounts to nothing when he is calculating magnitudes, forces, oppositions, conflicts, and possibilities. He builds out nature; he admits such portions as he would gladly welcome as guests, as the soft zephyr, the light breeze, the sunshine when not too dazzling; for the rest of nature, he has barricaded it out. Every house is a protest against nature, as well as an adaptation of some of its forces, and a modification of some of its uses: but the whole house means durability, and the builder prides himself on the durability of his house at the very moment when he is saying that he does not know how long he himself may live. We were made for durability; we do not love the flimsy and the frail; there is something in us which says, You stand for eternal masonry: build your house in the rock. What is that voice? If it were applied to theological subjects it would be called superstition; when it is applied to the common affairs of life men say, That is the sort of man—broad, massive, durable; whatever he puts up bears the stamp of his own manhood; it is right square, and real in strength, and marked all over with every sign and aspect of permanence. But the man called himself an insect, a worm; he said he might die before night; why all this bluster about durability? A man cannot deny himself. Set him theorising, inventing, and speculating, and, oh, was ever such a child found in all the wilderness of time for dreaming and talking ineffable nonsense? But when he comes into the market-place, when he settles down to the fair work of life, what wonderful common-sense he applies to all his affairs! He will not remind himself of his mortality, he will not build upon incertitudes; he seeks for granite lines, and on those lines he builds.
Or take it thus:—I do not know how long my child my live: why should I send him to school? why should I educate the child when death may snap the scholar in two at a very early period of his culture? why should I show the child the world at all? Poor little creature, he may be dead tomorrow; I do not know how long he may live; children do die suddenly, and die in thousands, and the lot of others may be the lot of my child: why should I not take this view, whilst other men take another view, and order my policy accordingly? That would be the talk of a murderer; he would not imbrue his fingers in blood, but he would smother the mind and soul of his child. Here is a man who says, "I don't know how long this little child may live, he may die tomorrow"; and yet he sends him to school to learn reading, writing, ciphering, various languages, somewhat of history and philosophy; why, he is training the child as if he were going to be a Methuselah in point of age. Certainly, and he cannot get out of it; there is a pressure upon him. No healthy man could talk in the other strain. When we are in health we plan for duration, for possibility. We do not know that education will be of any use to the child, but it may be. That is called good reasoning in ordinary life, but when a man arises and says in the Church, "There may be a God, there may be an eternal state," he is a fanatic! We should have the "may be" in our reasoning; we should have the subjunctive mood in our verb To be. Why do you lame the verb? why do you eviscerate the mood that alone has in it scope enough for the imagination of the soul? Is it our place to dismember living verbs and to change the conjugation of a tongue we did not create? Observe how a man cannot help recognising possible immortality in commerce, in building, in education, in discipline. If a man roused to the highest point and sensitiveness of consciousness knew that he was the prisoner of a day, and that in the night he would find a grave out of which there is no resurrection, he would go mad. It is this secret spiritual pressure, call it if you will supernatural, and action upon the imagination and the consciousness, that gives life all its dignity and all its peace.
Or take it thus:—I do not know how long I may retain my reason; as a matter of fact men have lost their mental powers; even mental giants have become mental imbeciles: I can reason a little to-day, but my mind may be clouded tomorrow; I do not know how long I may have full possession of my faculties: what is the use therefore of my subjecting those faculties to discipline, to nurture, to culture? why stimulate the mind to higher activity? why embolden the mind with nobler ambitions? I cannot tell into what daze and bewilderment I may be thrown tomorrow? No man can talk like that. When I say no man, I mean no healthy, sane man. The world would stagger and fall down and never recover itself, if its leaders could talk in that poor tone. What is this spirit in us which says, Do your best: stand erect: lay your hand upon your brow and feel if there is not already on it a diadem? It is on this instinct or impulse or passion that the true religion builds itself; and out of these enthusiasms and convictions, often wordless because of their very grandeur, comes the religious inspiration of life.
Or take it thus:—I do not know how long the nation may be unassailed; no hostile army may come against it for five centuries: why fortify, why build ships, why maintain defensive forces? Why have any interest in the country's protection at all? Why not leave the whole problem to be solved by nature? History shows us one man blinded by hail, another great army overwhelmed by waves and billows and vexing winds: why not leave the whole matter? Patriotism will not allow that reasoning. Patriotism has its "may be." Sometimes that "may be" may be exaggerated, may be urged and driven to false uses, but within all that is sophistical and fallacious there is that element of truth, namely, that a man will put a fortification around his hearthstone—not a visible one, but an invisible and impalpable defence. Every man will bolt his door; every one will in some way insure and protect himself. And what is true in individual life is true in national life. There is a patriotic genius that says, "Maybe—perhaps—it is just possible." When a man arises to talk this very same language in religion, saying, "There may be a providence, there may be a state eternal, there may be a day of judgment, there may be a burning hell for wickedness," he is an enthusiast, a passionist, a fanatic.
It may be said that, in applying these illustrations to the religious arguments, it is impossible that any man can know that there is a God. Who says so? He ought to be a bold man who speaks for every other man: now where is he? He ought to be as wise as he is bold. For a man, who will not allow the Christian Church to assert the existence of God, to arise and say, "It is impossible that the human mind can know the infinite or the supernatural or the divine," is guilty of great presumption! To know that it is impossible to know is just as much a revelation as to know that it is possible to know. Only a revelation can meet the case in either instance. We are not to have an omniscience of agnosticism—if the paradox may be allowed, for it is a paradox which amounts to an argument—we are not to have an omniscience of agnosticism and only an ignorance of faith. How fine the figure, how sweeping the action, what a stroke from the shoulder is that which sweeps away the possibility of knowing that God created, redeemed, and preserves us!
All dogmatism is not confined to the Church. I do not see why a man should be a very great philosopher who sets up "I don't know," and why he should be a great fool who declares that it is possible that things did not make themselves. Let us be fair on both sides. Let me repeat, only a revelation can authorise any man to declare that it is impossible to know whether there is a living Spirit in the universe or not. Let us take witnesses on both sides. The witness of Jesus Christ is not to be ignored, and he came to reveal the Father. The witness of the apostles is not to be dismissed with a sneer, because they suffered for their faith, and they triumphed in their sufferings. But let us take it, on the admission of the men themselves, who say there may be, but they do not know it, and cannot know it: if there is such a "may be," it is enough to build faith upon. That "may be" should be the parent of reverence, devotion, expectation, and hope. That "may be" opens the door of a universe. In life we do provide for contingencies; saith a man, "It may be stormy," therefore he makes provision accordingly. Saith the merchantman, "It is possible this adventure may miscarry, therefore—," and then he provides for security and defence. But when a man arises and says, "It may be that time is not all, that the grave is not the end of things, we do not live like dogs, and there is no reason why we should die like dogs," he is supposed to be a religious lunatic. In all life we provide for the long view; in all life we provide for our higher self, in some form or other; it may not be the highest self, but it is for some self dreamed in dreams, that is to be healthy and happy, joyous all day, abounding in riches, and having the power to evoke and appreciate music. It is for this the miser grabs and hoards his gold, he is building a heaven in his canvas bags; it is for this a man undertakes long journeys and dangerous voyages, and enters into many speculations more or less hazardous in their nature, that he may lay up against a rainy day, and provide for old age, and strengthen his roof in view of possible winters. What! all this built upon a "may be"? and you will not allow souls to build anything upon the larger "may be" of God, eternity, heaven, and hell? I do not recognise the consistency of your reasoning.
Applying these illustrations to the Christian religion, they increase in force, because the Christian religion is not selfish. A man is not insuring himself against hell when he accepts Jesus Christ. No man can be in the crowd of Christ's disciples without having a great, heavy cross upon his shoulder—what Jesus Christ calls his own cross (see the Revised Version):—"Except a man carry his own cross." No man knows how hard and heavy is the cross of any other man. It is not an object or a symbol, it is a great crushing weight, it is as fire in the bones, it is a daily martyrdom. A man who submits to that kind of process in support only of a religious "may be," shows at all events that he has faith in that contingency. The Christian religion is not sentimental, it is disciplinary, it is moral; it calls upon a man to be noble, pure, generous, beneficent; it will not allow him to live his own life, or to seek his own pleasure, or even to indulge in some emulous hope concerning his own salvation: it will have every man work out his own salvation, go about doing good, following in the footsteps of Christ. It is a tremendous religion, is the religion of Christ. It gives no ease, except after process; it starts a process the end of which is rest, but the way itself is thorny fiery, vexatious, and all-testing enough.
Then the Christian religion, right or wrong, is complete in its proposals. It omits nothing. It begins with us in infancy, it takes us up in its arms and blesses us, and sets us down to work; it goes with us all through life, blessing our bread, making our bed in our affliction, directing us in all the concerns and necessities of life; it comes to us when no one else will come near us; when terrible diseases befall us, the only one who will come to us, next to our own blood, is the Son of God. Christianity has a balm for every wound, a gentle touch that can be laid upon the sorest place in the heart. Christianity is so far complete that it goes with us through the valley of the shadow of death, and tells us when we are in the darkest place, that presently we shall be in heaven. And in heaven it does not promise us a velvet cushion on which we may sit for evermore; it says, There his servants shall serve him; there liberation shall be but a higher qualification for duty. It is a bold religion. It is complete in its philosophy, it is as strong at one point as another in all its elaborate argument. If it is wrong, it is all wrong: but if it is right, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear? We can only bear personal testimony about this knowledge. We must deny that knowledge is limited to the intellectual faculties. We must deny that all knowledge can be found in books of mathematics, or be set forth in geometric forms, or told in logical propositions. There is a knowledge of the feeling; there is a knowledge of the heart; there is a knowledge that comes by instinct; there is a poetical, ideal, sympathetic knowledge; a higher faculty outreaching the hand, that seizes heaven by that faculty. We know that we do know. We lay hold upon God.
IN beginning his Gospel the Apostle John says, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." In writing this Epistle he says, "That which was from the beginning." The Apostle was a man who took in a whole horizon. A clever man only takes in points; a clever man can, therefore, be dogmatic and impudent. The inspired man is filled with a sense of inexpressibleness, and, therefore, he must be sometimes apparently indefinite, but always he must be reverent. A fluent theology is a contradiction in terms; a stumbling, hesitant, groping, wondering theology may end in great certitude and reverent and tender worship. Always be on your guard against glib spiritual directors; the men who can hand you out what you want, as if it were all compact and ready for delivery. There is no such theology, blessed be God, in Holy Scripture. The Apostle John will not have the mere incident, he will have the atmosphere. It is the atmosphere that is so often left out in men's thinking, and men's pictures; there is a want of open air. The thing that is set forth may within narrow limits be most accurate, it may even be painfully accurate: we do not want mechanical accuracy, we want suggestion, air, atmosphere, that subtle interplay of unnameable forces which ends in a challenge, before which the whole imagination bows as before a new and sacred presence. Hence the man of facts is always making a fool of himself. Nothing can be so misleading as facts. We should look upon facts as only pointing to the truth. The truth was before the fact, and will be after it, and the fact itself will be sponged out as something no longer needed. We are going on to truth; that great dream, that eternal satisfaction, which is only an unbeginning beginning, only an endless end. What foolish talk this must be to the man of facts. I do not know that a piece of cabinet-work, as chair or table, needs much atmosphere, but a tree needs the whole air, and all the sky above it, to give it fit forth-setting. What the tree owes to the sky behind! That fine umbrageous tree is nothing at midnight. It is still there; in a sense it is still where you left it, but only in a very little, superficial, and useless sense. The tree is not there until the sky is there; you must have them both together before you can have the one. So it is with the great trees of righteousness, trees of truth, trees of history; we want the background we need the atmosphere, we wait for the shining sky, that everything may be coloured and set forth in significant emphasis.
So this Apostle will have everything from the beginning. He will have nothing new but conduct. There he will be as novel as you expect the very highest genius to be; when he comes to press home the utilisation of his gospel, he will have your conduct to be as new as the dew of the morning, as fresh and sparkling and beauteous as those pearls or diamonds of heaven. As to truth, thought, theology, he will have all things from genesis, origin, protoplasm, unnamed infinities, uncalculated eternities. This is the great object which religion has to work out in the worlds—to make men feel that they themselves are of yesterday, and know nothing, and to give them to feel that though only of yesterday, yet by so much they are looped on to the everlasting duration. It is apparently a frail loop, but it cannot easily be broken. Why not begin at a given point in history? Because you cannot. You must begin where God began, or you can know nothing in its completeness. A momentary hunger can be satisfied by momentary bread. You can steal bread enough to appease the hunger of the body, but the hunger of the soul is an inexhaustible desire; it grows by what it feeds on, it cries for more, its delight is in its own pangs. Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled,—only in order to increase their capacity for reception. Have faith in those great teachers who speak out of the tabernacles of eternity. It would be much easier to speak about facts that come and go, little specks upon the hand, and small flashes that dazzle the eye for a moment, but there is no abiding in such bubble-talk. The men who come up from eternity are the messengers of God. Many have spoiled the religion they meant to teach by treating it as if it were in a box, foursquare, and could be handed out in morsels or in packages as the momentary occasion might call for. Who can cut the sky into inches, and give it away with finger and thumb? Who can snip a bit out of the wind, and say, That is a sample of the tempest we had? So with this heaven-filling, eternity-filling religious thought; it breaks up the vessels of words and overflows into the larger capacities of dream and imagination, feeling and aspiration; words fall back like exploded vessels, and say, We have not room enough for this visitation. So many men have found in music what they could never find in words, and some have found in dreams what was to them the beginning of the higher heaven. You do not know one tree unless you know all trees: you do not know one science unless you know all sciences. No man understands the law of his own country who only knows special cases, and nisi prius pleadings. He is a little contemptible person who stuffs the unworthy sack, which he calls himself, with the shavings and sawdust of particular cases. A painter cannot paint the glacier until he has studied geography and astronomy and chemistry: what a botchy sketch he can take of it! he is but a sign-painter: pay him his wages! you can pay such a man to the full, and get his worthless "thank-ye" in return. The glacier, the mountain, was never painted until a man came into England who anticipated science, and painted things that at first frightened men, but things so associated with the eternal thought, the beginning, that men grew up to them, and said, Turner is the only English painter that ever represented the genius of glacial construction and mountain history. Only a man here and there has eyes that can see. The New Testament without John would have been without its greatest character, its finest genius. He did not fall so readily into argumentative form as some others, but he lived in a region beyond formal argument, he lived with God; that man, with the shining celestial face, apparently never lifted his head from the bosom of his Lord.
If we could enter more into this thought we should read the Bible correctly, because we should come upon it, not as something that either begins or ends, but as something that runs into every other thing that is true, and that consequently belongs to the whole economy which we designate by the mysterious word, "eternity." The Bible does not begin with Genesis, the Bible does not end with the Revelation of John the Divine; the Bible begins when God begins, and Revelation goes on until God ceases to be God, which is never. Do not regard the Bible as a little book that has a beginning and an ending: it never ends, because it never begins, in any mechanical sense. It is as a voice overheard; it has been going on, in its soft musical murmur, in its impressive, soul-enthralling whisper all the time; but, hark! there is something now you can take down in plain letters; write it, quickly, write it all; if you are too much hurried, write the principal words: what have you got? This! Blessed be God. This much we seem to have overheard. As to what went before and what shall come after, no man may now know. But do not regard the Bible as a separate, independent, and self-complete publication; think of it as something that has been overheard, and stenographically caught by prophets and minstrels and evangelists who had the seeing eye, the hearing ear, and the skilled hand.
The Apostle, having put all this right, namely, that there was an unbeginning beginning—"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God"—now comes down in what may be called concrete history, that is to say, history shaped into facts and accidents and measurable movements—the lower, smaller kind of history; the chatter and the talk of men who but imperfectly know the lesson which they wish to teach. Coming into this region, what is John's own personal testimony? He will not speak in the first person singular, he will speak in the first person plural, because the revelation was given, not to one only, but to several, and through several to many: therefore the Apostle says, "That which"—not "He who," but "That which,"—a neuter, nay, not a neuter, a common gender; that is better: it includes all other thought, life, personality, and action:—"That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life." Literally, That which we have eaten bushels of salt with. The familiarity was perfect. Not a God we saw walking out now and then by himself, not a God that we whispered to one another about as a kind of ghost that came to make night hideous, and that was reported to some Hamlet who went out to see the airy thing: but that which we have eaten bushels of salt with;—and to eat salt with a man in the olden time was to have companionship with him, to trust him and make covenants with him. When men laid salt upon the sword, and dipped their fingers in it, that dipping dissolved the sword; it was no longer a symbol of war, but a symbol of peace. The Apostle says, We have eaten salt with Christ; we have heard him, touched him, looked at him, talked to him,—why, we perfectly know him. It will be interesting, therefore, to hear what this man has to say upon the higher subjects. He has not only heard of Christ, but has sat down with him, talked with him, and taken hold of his hand; has been melted into tears under his talk, has looked at him as a man might look at God.
Now the Apostle says something worth listening to of a personal kind:—"That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you." That is what we want to know. We do not want to know what you have imagined and speculated and doubted; we do not want a history of your mental wrigglings and turmoils and tumults and terrors; we have enough of that kind of literature of our own; it you can tell us what you saw and what you heard, let us hear it. "This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you." Now listen: what is it? Oh, tell us in our mother tongue, tell us in little words that we cannot forget; if there be any large words in the message, break them up into little child-words, into little baby-terms; we want to hear it in such simple speech that the very poorest and most stupid of us can catch the meaning in a moment: what is it? This is it—"God is light." This man must be great. Never were little words called upon to say so much before. "Light"—what is light? No man can tell. Science itself says it cannot describe perfectly the frame of a soap-bubble. Light is distance. There is no distance in darkness. Darkness is limitation, darkness is imprisonment; there is no gaol with walls so thick and impenetrable as darkness. You may stand upon a moor forty miles in diameter, and it can be so dark there that you dare not stir. You can thrust your arm through the darkness, but not your feet—take care! Light is distance, amplitude, vastness, infinity. Light is creative. The light is not passive, the light is working all the time; a curious actinism is proceeding, changing even it may be essence, certainly changing colour and form and uses and possibilities. The ministry of light is an eternal ministry. God is light. Light is another name for morning, midday, summer, heaven. "God is light." How do we know that? Through Jesus Christ his Son. What did Jesus Christ say of himself? Jesus Christ said, "I am the light of the world." "God is love." In such consistencies find the deity of the Son of God.
Hear thou our prayer in heaven thy dwelling-place, and when thou hearest, Lord, forgive. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us; but if we confess our sins, which we now do, heartily and unfeignedly, before the Cross, they shall, by the power of the love of Christ, be all forgiven, gone from out of the memory of God, and be as if they never had been. This is the miracle of the Cross, this is the triumph of eternal grace; this lies not within our power, but with God all things are possible. Lord Jesus, it is still lawful for thee to heal on the Sabbath day: behold the sick, the impotent, the halt, the blind, the helpless of every name, and work out amongst us and upon us thy miracles of love. Thou dost not cast men down, thou dost always bring them up; thou dost not bring the cloud into the sky, but the sunshine: thy smile is morning, thy look is resurrection, thy blessing is heaven. Lord Jesus, make the Sabbath day still more Sabbatic, fill it with a deeper peace, breathe into it a mysterious calm, and let the soul feel how near the Lord is when the soul is in the sanctuary. We bless thee for every spiritual touch; we thank thee for every flash of light that falls upon our darkness, and gives us hope of a land beyond: without such light we should sink into despair, but with such lights we hold all time and space as nothing, we are so near the Living One, the Eternal God. Give us such uplifting of soul that we shall have no more fear, or sorrow, or pain, or death; so fill us with the Spirit that we shall know nothing of the body; take us up into thine opening heavens, O Lord God of light, and show us the wonders which time has never seen; give us one moment's release from this body-prison, and let us see enough of heaven to make all our after-days days of the Son of Man upon the earth. Oh, for one look of heaven, for one over-hearing of its music, for one touch of its reality; then the grave would be the most beautiful part of the garden, then the river that separates us from the land of Canaan would be so narrow that we could step over it. Deliver us from all darkness, fear, narrowness of mind, selfishness, worldliness, and lead us into that upper life, all light, all peace; the way to that life lies by the Cross of Christ. Show thy saints that in Christ Jesus life and incorruptibleness are brought to light. Help the busy man to do his work, because it must be done; it is trifling with the soul in its higher aspects, yet the body must for a year or two be fed: but whilst men care for the body may they not be careless about the soul, the mystery divine that makes them men. Be with all our loved ones who are sick; the chamber is too familiar to those weary eyes, the sufferers have lain there so long that they wonder whether God's creation is being narrowed down to their four walls: send thine angels into the little church, and make it glad with new brightness this very day. Amen.
This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.The Ministry of Light
Light is not only, as we have already said, distance, as suggesting the ideas of largeness and liberty: light is also revelation. It shows a thousand things we could not have seen, but for the very degree of its intensity. A little light is a little revelation, a great light is a great disclosure; the light seems to create what it only displays. We point out to one another, as we stand in the valley, objects of beauty on the hill-top; perhaps these objects of beauty are quite little shrubs, but how well-defined they are against the silvery sky! how clear, how almost eloquent! it seems as if presently they might have something to say to us, returning our admiration with some words of grateful recognition. Even a grassblade looks more beautiful in a high light than it ever could look in twilight; we seem to see its green blood running all through its wondrous economy. The more light there is, the more knowledge, the more truth, the larger, clearer recognition and realisation, of things innermost and things most precious. What we want is more light. Persons will say, We do not want novelty. That is perfectly so, but light makes no novelty in any sense of frivolousness or mere experiment; light reveals, shows things that have been there all the time, and we never saw them because the light was never sufficiently intense and glorious. So with Bible-reading. Many a man sees things in the Bible which other people do not see, simply because he lives in a larger, truer light. It is difficult for twilight to believe in noonday. You cannot persuade morning twilight that it will grow into noontide glory; nor can you persuade evening twilight that but a few hours ago the whole heaven was dazzlingly effulgent So there are some persons you cannot persuade in relation to the larger light which other readers possess. Hence they call those readers novelists, dreamers, heretics; persons who want to be wise above that which is written. Impossible! What is written? Yes, that is the question. What is written to the blind man? Nothing. What is written to the man of imperfect sight? Just what he can see. What is written to those eagle eyes that wander through eternity? God, all love and truth and light and wisdom. We should rejoice in the larger, keener sight of other men; we should call them our better brothers, our elders, teachers, friends, companions with an interval, but companions with no interval in the matter of true sympathy: thus we should have great teaching, wide, varied teaching, and instead of finding fault with one another for variety of sight and variety of revelation, we should claim all good and true teachers as our helpers in the faith, as angels and messengers of heaven.
Light is not only distance, and revelation; light is welcome, in the sense of offered hospitality. See how the people go out when the sun shines! Why these crowds upon the thoroughfare? They are obeying the invitation of the sun—kind, hospitable, father-mother sun. He calls everybody to his bounty. They are not all rich people who are going out in the sunlight; they are not all driving forth in gilded and crested chariots to see the sun: there are little children, poor, ill-clad, but still under a strange fascination. Whither go ye, little feet? What is the answer? The answer is perhaps incoherent or partially beside the mark, yet in it there is a hiding of the light of the sun: they are going out to see the light, to feel the warmth, to hear the birds, to cull the flower, to splash in the river: it all means that the ministry of light is acting upon them and calling them to the larger table spread by hands unseen. See! there is a threatening of thunder, there is a great cloud hastening up from the west: why are the parks being emptied? why are the gates being sought by eager crowds? Because of the darkness. The light took all the throng away to sit in God's great parlour of grass, his great drawing-room of shaded forests; but the darkness, the gathering rain-clouds, the threatening storm, these sent the people away to smaller hospitality, and to what they sometimes foolishly imagine to be securer protection. Light is welcome. Light says, Come away: an hour of my ministry will make you young again; come into the broad sanctuary; see what God has done; here is the summer God, he will not frighten you like the God of freezing, chilling winter: come! the Spirit and the Bride of light say, Come; whosoever will, let him come. He will come to bounty, to release, to larger life.
Light is not only distance, revelation, welcome; light is joy. Who could be really sorrowful in summer light? It seems to say to the heart, Why art thou cast down, O child of the Infinite, offspring of eternity, kin of God? why this downness of soul? thou shouldst rejoice and be glad and sing for very delight of heart. Men who are not musical can hardly forbear a little strain in the light. They shape their lips as if they meant to utter something in tune, and if they searched into the reason of that action they would find it was the result of the ministry of light. Putting all these considerations together they help us to understand a little—so little—of our Father in heaven, who has sent us this message concerning himself—God is light, and in him is no darkness at all: he is all glory, all splendour; he lives in light, nay, the light is but the robe which he throws around himself to give somewhat of definiteness and figure to that which otherwise would be without shape and palpability. The Bible is full of light. All truth lives in light. All real fearlessness of imagination and soul, conscience and understanding, calls out for more light. God is the giver of light. Christians themselves are secondarily lights of the world. Jesus said, speaking of himself, "I am the light of the world," and on another occasion, speaking of the disciples and to them, he said, "Ye are the light of the world"; and the apostles, urging and exhorting Christians to realise the breadth and grandeur of their vocation, call upon them to walk, not as children of the darkness, but as children of the light and of the day, sons of the morning, children of the midday. All these considerations should destroy slavish fear in relation to God. They should bring to our hearts a sense of vastness, of revelation, and of welcome, and of hope, and of joy. God is not a frown; God is not a living and penetrating rebuke: God is light, God is love; his mercy endureth for ever. The blackest sinner may stand before him, and with bent head may cry, God be merciful to me!—a prayer to which he never said No, when it went up from a ruined heart.
This would be meditation or contemplation worthy to be classed with the highest sentimentality. The great difficulty with the Bible is that we are no sooner into its poetry than we are out of it and into its morality. If the Bible had been all poetry it would have had few hostile critics. The morality of the Bible vexes men. So long as the Bible condenses itself into the twenty-third Psalm—certainly there is nothing like it for sweetness, comfort, minor tone, and soothing music—we could read it again and again with growing passion of sympathy and delight; but the Bible soon takes us out of that kind of Psalm and says to us, To-day we will try your scales. Then the Bible loses popularity. To-day we will go home and see how you behave yourself in your own family. Then the Bible loses a large following. To-day we will go into heart analysis, we will search into motives, we will try the purposes of the soul in the light of heaven: we will test all action in presence of the agony of the Cross. Then men go away: and the Bible says to them, Will ye also go away? The Bible will have every debt discharged, every duty fulfilled; it will have nothing to do with dishonesty, or indolence, or self-consideration; meanness, conceit, greediness: the Bible will have us all like God; and God is light; and light is revelation, welcome, joy, bounty. Light is always giving itself away, and yet the fountain thereof remains unshorn or undivested of a single beam. The Apostle therefore will have us walk in the light.
"If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not the truth." By "darkness" in this passage understand evil,—If we say that we have fellowship with God, who is light, and yet walk in darkness, which is evil, we contradict ourselves; not in the sense of telling a momentary lie, but in the sense of revealing the essence and nature of our heart: for we do not the truth, and the truth is not in us. Observe, we are not startled into a slip of the tongue, we simply reveal ourselves, and say we want a sublime theology, if its sublimity may only be used as a cloak for an imperfect morality. God will not have this, for God is light; Christ will not have this, for Christ is light—the light of the world, the light of holiness, the very glory of heaven, superseding the sun, of which there is no need where he sits as King.
"But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another": we enter into the spirit of trust, mutual confidence, social regard; we are united by bonds as indissoluble as they are tender and helpful. This is the secret of true society; this is the basis on which a lasting commonwealth rests. We have not a compact as between men in regions where language changes, and where covenants will bear one construction under one set of criticisms and another under a different set; we are first united in God, then social union becomes consequential, fluent, easy. These are the two commandments:—Thou shalt love the Lord thy God will all thy soul: and the second, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. You could not invert the commandments; you cannot start with a true love of neighbourliness; if neighbourliness is to be more than a compromise, a weak and uncertain concession, it must be founded upon eternal principles, and notably upon the principle that God has all the heart's love, and that the greater love includes the less. Why seek—let me ask once more—to scale the heavens with a ladder? Why try to do an action so easily convicted of frivolity and impossibility?
"If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." The Apostle here seems to anticipate the theory that sin is an invented term; that sin simply refers, in the estimation of some critics, to a degree of colour; so sinfulness is a state of the character, being off-colour. You take up a diamond and say it is large, and the price is very greatly reduced because the diamond is a little off-colour; had it been of a pure white, it would have been worth ten times the money: sinfulness, in the estimation of such persons, is a lapse of conduct, a momentary lapse, so that a man may presently recover himself, and walk on as if nothing had happened. Where that theory of sin lives in the mind the gospel is of necessity foolishness, because the remedy is so much greater than the disease; the idea of proportion as between a dying God and a soul that has made a momentary slip is infinite and incredible. The idea of sin in the Bible is that it is the abominable thing which God hateth; it is not being off-colour but off-life, off-truth, away from holiness and all moral beauty. In the estimation of the Bible sin is soul-poverty, soul-helplessness, soul-ruin. Now there is a proportion between the gospel and this condition of affairs: where sin has ruined the soul, the soul is unable to recover itself, and when there is no eye to pity and no arm to save, God's eye is filled with tears and God's almightiness is put out in an act of salvation. So we have no longer to deal with ourselves as if we were the victims of the fallacy that we have no sin, or no sin worthy of the name, no sin that goes really into the root and core of things. So long as a man is in that state, he will be a flippant self-excusant, he will be able to manage his own moral affairs, he will have no need of the gospel: but when a man says, "I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son," then he needs all Calvary.
Supposing a man to have this consciousness, what is his overt act to be? His overt act is to be an act of confession:—"If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." There must be no keeping back. We must plainly say to ourselves what we have done; we must write down in blackest ink everything we have done that is wrong. By no euphemism, by no crafty ambiguity of expression, are we to avoid the devil that we have created within ourselves. He must be delineated, portrayed, graphically, lineally, appallingly; and when we see the hideous sight we must say, My trangression is ever before me: God be merciful to me a sinner! I wronged that life, I slew that beauty, I burked that obligation, I told that huge lie, I was a party to that subtle craftiness, I told lies to myself, and I created a noise, that in the tumult I might escape the twinge and agony of conscience: God be merciful to me a sinner! When a man comes into that state of mind he knows whether he needs the blood of Jesus Christ, God's Son, or not, and he hears no word so large, so tender, so musical, as "The blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, cleanseth from all sin": then these words are taken out of the hands of the grammarian and the critic, and even the theologian, and become a great, sweet, mighty gospel, filling the whole life, and making the heart glad as with descending heaven.
"If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us." God therefore stands before us as the accuser; it is God who has discovered the sin, it is the Lord who has said, This is wrong, you ought not to have done this. It is not an offence that can be expunged, it is a wound that can only be healed by the medicament of blood.
So the great story stands; so the wondrous music of gospel and tragedy rolls on; so the river of God masses through all the tangled forests and deep valleys and mysterious places of this human life. This is a glorious gospel. It does not trim or compromise or deal superficially with the great questions of life; it gets down into deepest experience, into bitterest consciousness. This is the everlasting gospel. If any man will turn away from it he takes with him his own soul, and must not invoke me at the last as one who dealt falsely with him and whispered pleasant things to him when I ought to have told him burning, scalding truths. Nor will I allow this to be the last word. If we have entered into this mystery of life and this scheme of Divine forgiveness we are to prove it by our conduct, by love and charity, by pureness and nobleness of soul. If we say that we had fellowship with God, and yet our conduct is as bad as it can be, John says we are "liars." That is a hard word to use, and John was not given to the use of hard words when he was called to the discharge of duty, but when duty called upon him to be plain no man could be so definite. Here then we stand. It is possible for men who profess Christianity to be liars. Which would you rather be, an infidel or a liar—a speculative infidel, a man who says, "I wish I could see as you do, but I really cannot," or a man who says, "I see the truth, I admire it speculatively, but I am the servant of lies, the slave of darkness"? Behold, I set before you this day life and death. Choose ye. The choice is yours, and yours must be the destiny.
Almighty God, thou are training us for thyself day by day, by ministries we do not fully understand, yet the benefits of which are shed abroad in our hearts, and are found again in our conduct. The Lord will work according to his own way, and none may say unto the Eternal, This is right, or, This is wise. The will of the Lord be done. If our school be on the mountain top, so be it; we shall enjoy the opening heavens, the fresh winds that blow from the skies, and the light will be plentiful: if our school be in the deep valley where we have to wait long for the light, a cold dreary school, where the learning is very difficult, and the teaching is not easy to be understood, the will of the Lord be done; the valley is the Lord's as is also the top of the hill, and if so be the Lord himself will teach us, all shall be well at the latter end, we shall be prepared to sing the song of the redeemed in fuller and nobler tones. We bless thee for thy providence; it is kind, sweet, continuous: behold, thou knowest what we need, and when it is best for us to receive it. Thou dost turn our notions upside down, we cannot tell when thou wilt come; it is enough for us to know that come thou wilt, and that thou art ever coming, if we did but know the way of the Lord. Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly: come in any one of thy chariots, the thunder or the tempest; we would, if we might speak to thee, ask thee to come as a still small voice, for we are weary, and our hearts are often ill at ease. We have seen thee in the daytime, a great brightness; we have known thy nearness in the night season, because of a blessing that comforted the heart, and because in the darkness we have seen somewhat of the light that lies farthest away. Thou hast brought us up from being little children, thou hast never forsaken us; sometimes we thought thou hadst gone a long way from us, and lo, thou wert watching us in the very nearest shadow, and when we were about to fall thou didst guard us from stumbling, and in the darkness thou didst find for us a sanctuary. Thou hast kept our eyes from tears, our feet from falling, our soul from death; and amid all the controversies of the time thou hast blessed us with peace imperturbable, the very peace of God which passeth understanding. We bless thee that, if thou thyself art beyond understanding, so are thy gifts; we cannot understand thy peace which we have in our own hearts: how then can we understand the Giver of that peace? The joy thou dost create within us is joy unspeakable: how then can we tell the mystery of thy being and explain our faith in God? We bless thee for a silent theology, we rejoice in a worldless trust, we love to live in the region where there is no speech. Grant unto us daily wisdom for daily need; may we be anxious about this moment and not the next; at all times may we be found resting in the Lord and waiting patiently for him, that we may abound in all these virtues and graces: but what pray we for but for a double portion of thy Holy Spirit, but for a deeper acquaintance with the very heart of the Son of God who loved us, and gave himself for us? Amen.