|He fought his doubts and gathered strength,
He would not make his judgment blind,
He faced the spectres of the mind
And laid them; -- thus he came, at length,
|To find a stronger faith his own,
And Power was with him in the night,
Which makes the darkness and the light,
And dwells not in the light alone.|
John's Misgivings -- Disappointed Hopes -- Signs of the Christ -- The Discipline of Patience -- A New Beatitude
It is very touching to remark the tenacity with which some few of John's disciples clung to their great leader. The majority had dispersed: some to their homes; some to follow Jesus. Only a handful lingered still, not alienated by the storm of hate which had broken on their master, but drawn nearer, with the unfaltering loyalty of unchangeable affection. They could not forget what he had been to them -- that he had first called them to the reality of living; that he had taught them to pray; that he had led them to the Christ: and they dare not desert him now, in the dark sad days of his imprisonment and sorrow.
What an inestimable blessing to have friends like this, who will not leave our side when the crowd ebbs, but draw closer as the shadows darken over our path, and the prison damp wraps its chill mantle about us! To be loved like that is earth's deepest bliss! These heroic souls risked all the peril that might accrue to themselves from this identification with their master; they did not hesitate to come to his cell with tidings of the great outer world, and specially of what He was doing and saying, whose life was so mysteriously bound up with his own. |The disciples of John told him of all these things| (Luke vii.18, R.V.).
It was to two of these choice and steadfast friends that John confided the question which had long been forming within his soul, and forcing itself to the front. |And John, calling unto him two of his disciples, sent them to the Lord, saying, Art Thou He that cometh, or look we for another?|
I. JOHN'S MISGIVINGS. -- Can this be he who, but a few months ago, had stood in his rock-hewn pulpit, in radiant certainty? The brilliant eastern sunlight that bathed his figure, as he stood erect amid the thronging crowds, was the emblem and symbol of the light that filled his soul. No misgiving crossed it. He pointed to Christ with unfaltering certitude, saying, This is He, the Lamb of God, the Son of the Father, the Bridegroom of the soul. How great the contrast between that and this sorrowful cry, |Art Thou He?|
Some commentators, to save his credit, have supposed that the embassy was sent to the Lord for the sake of the disciples, that their hearts might be opened, their faith confirmed -- and that they might have a head and leader when he was gone. But the narrative has to be greatly strained and dragged out of its obvious course to make it cover the necessities of such an hypothesis. It is more natural to think that John the Baptist was for a brief spell under a cloud, involved in doubt, tempted to let go the confidence that had brought him such ecstatic joy when he first saw the Dove descending and abiding.
The Bible does not scruple to tell us of the failures of its noblest children: of Abram, thinking that the Egyptians would take his life; of Elijah, stretching himself beneath the shadow of the desert bush, and asking that he might die; of Thomas, who had been prepared to die with his Lord, but could not believe that He was risen. And in this the Spirit of God has rendered us untold service, because we learn that the material out of which He made the greatest saints was flesh and blood like ourselves; and that it was by Divine grace, manifested very conspicuously towards them, that they became what they were. If only the ladder rests on the low earth, where we live and move and have our being, there is some hope of our climbing to stand with others who have ascended its successive rungs and reached the starry heights. Yes, let us believe that, for some days at least, John's mind was overcast, his faith lost its foothold, and he seemed to be falling into bottomless depths. He sent them to Jesus, saying, Art Thou He that should come? We can easily trace this lapse of faith to three sources.
(1) Depression. He was the child of the desert. The winds that swept across the waste were not freer. The boundless spaces of the Infinite had stretched above him, in vaulted immensity, when he slept at night or wrought through the busy days; and as he found himself cribbed, cabined, and confined in the narrow limits of his cell, his spirits sank. He pined with the hunger of a wild thing for liberty -- to move without the clanking fetters; to drink of the fresh water of the Jordan, to breathe the morning air; to look on the expanse of nature. Is it hard to understand how his deprivations reacted on his mental and spiritual organization, or that his nervous system lost its elasticity of tone, or that the depression of his physical life cast a shadow on his soul?
We are all so highly strung, so delicately balanced. Often the lack of spiritual joy and peace and power in prayer is attributable to nothing else than our confinement in the narrow limits of a tiny room; to the foul, gaseous air we are compelled to breathe; to our inability to get beyond the great city, with its wilderness of brick, into the country, with its blossoms, fields, and woodland glades. In a large number of spiritual maladies the physician is more necessary than the minister of religion; a holiday by the seaside or on the mountains, than a convention.
What an infinite comfort it is to be told that God knows how easily our nature may become jangled and out of tune. He can attribute our doubts and fears to their right source. He knows the bow is bent to the point of breaking, and the string strained to its utmost tension. He does not rebuke his servants when they cast themselves under juniper bushes, and ask to die; but sends them food and sleep. And when they send from their prisons, saying, Art Thou He? there is no word of rebuke, but of tender encouragement and instruction.
(2) Disappointment. When first consigned to prison, he had expected every day that Jesus would in some way deliver him. Was He not the opener of prison-doors? Was not all power at his disposal? Did He not wield the sceptre of the house of David? Surely He would not let his faithful follower lie in the despair of that dark dungeon! In that first sermon at Nazareth, of which he had been informed, was it not expressly stated to be part of the Divine programme, for which He had been anointed, that He would open prison-doors, and proclaim liberty to captives? He would surely then send his angels to open his prison-doors, and lead him forth into the light!
But the weeks grew to months, and still no help came. It was inexplicable to John's honest heart, and suggested the fear that he had been mistaken after all. We can sympathize in this also. Often in our lives we have counted on God's interfering to deliver us from some intolerable sorrow. With ears alert, and our heart throbbing with expectancy, we have lain in our prison-cell listening for the first faint footfall of the angel; but the weary hours have passed without bringing him, and we have questioned whether God were mindful of his own; whether prayer prevailed; whether the promises were to be literally appropriated by us?
(3) Partial views of Christ. |John heard in the prison the works of Jesus.| They were wholly beneficent and gentle.
|What has He done since last you were here?|
|He has laid his hands on a few sick folk, and healed them; has gathered a number of children to his arms, and blessed them; has sat on the mountain, and spoken of rest and peace and blessedness.|
|Yes; good. But what more?|
|A woman touched the hem of his garment, and trembled, and confessed, and went away healed.|
|Good! But what more?|
|Well, there were some blind men, and He laid his hands on them, and they saw.|
|Is that all? Has He not used the fan to winnow the wheat, and the fire to burn up the chaff? This is what I was expecting, and what I have been taught to expect by Isaiah and the rest of the prophets. I cannot understand it. This quiet, gentle life of benevolence is outside my calculations. There must be some mistake. Go and ask Him whether we should expect another, made in a different mould, and who shall be as the fire, the earthquake, the tempest, while He is as the still small voice.|
John had partial views of the Christ -- he thought of Him only as the Avenger of sin, the Maker of revolution, the dread Judge of all. There was apparently no room in his conception for the gentler, sweeter, tenderer aspects of his Master's nature. And for want of a clearer understanding of what God by the mouth of his holy prophets had spoken since the world began, he fell into this Slough of Despond.
It was a grievous pity; yet let us not blame him too vehemently, lest we blame ourselves. Is not this what we do? We form a notion of God, partly from what we think He ought to be, partly from some distorted notions we have derived from others; and then because God fails to realize our conception, we begin to doubt. We think, for instance, that if there be a righteous God, He will not permit wrong to triumph; little children to suffer for the sins of their parents; the innocent to be trodden beneath the foot of the oppressor and the proud; or the dumb creatures to be tortured in the supposed interest of medical science. Surely God will step out of his hiding-place and open all prisons, emancipate all captives, and wave a hand of benediction over all creation. Thus we think and say; and then, because the world still groans and travails, we question whether God is in his high heaven. Like John, men have a notion, founded on some faulty knowledge of Scripture, that God will act in a certain preconceived way, in the thunder, the whirlwind, and the fire; and when God does not, but pursues his tender, gentle ministries, descending in summer showers, speaking in soft, still tones, distilling in the dew-drops, winning his empire over men by love, they say -- |Is this He?|
II. THE LORD'S REPLY. -- |In that hour He cured many of diseases, and plagues, and evil spirits; and on many that were blind He bestowed sight.| Through the long hours of the day, the disciples stood in the crowd, while the pitiable train of sick and demon-possessed passed before the Saviour, coming in every stage of need, and going away cleansed and saved. Even the dead were raised. And at the close the Master turned to them, and with a deep significance in his tone, said, |Go your way, and tell John what things ye have seen and heard; the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good tidings preached to them. And blessed is he, whosoever shall find none occasion of stumbling in Me.|
(1) It was Indirect. He did not say, I am He that was to come, and there is no need to look for another. Had He done so, He might have answered John's intellect, but not his heart. After a few hours the assurance would have waxed dim, and he would have questioned again. He might have wondered whether Jesus were not Himself deceived. One question always leads to another, so long as the heart is unsatisfied; hence the refusal on the part of our Lord to answer the question, and his evident determination to allay the restlessness and disquietude of the heart that throbbed beneath.
God might, had He so willed, have written in starry characters across the sky the Divine words, |I am Jehovah, and ye shall have no other gods beside Me|; or He might have flashed it, and obliterated it to flash it again, as the electric cylinders which serve the purposes of advertisements in our large cities by night. This might have awed the intellect, but it would not have convinced the heart. Were this God's method, we should miss the benediction on those who have not seen and yet have believed. We should miss the discipline of waiting until our doubts are dissolved by the Spirit of God. The intellect might be temporarily overpowered with the evidence; but the soul, the heart, and the spirit, would miss the true knowledge that comes through purity, faith, and waiting upon God -- the deepest knowledge of all. Besides, though one were to rise from the dead, and come to men with the awe of the vision of the other world stamped on his face, they would not believe. The evidence of the unseen and eternal must be given, not to the startled physical sense, but to the soul. Some other deeper method must be adopted; the heart must be taught to wait, trust, and accept those deep intuitions and revelations which establish the being of God.
(2) The Answer was Mysterious. Surely, if He were able to do so much, He could do more. The power that healed the sick and lame and blind, and cast out demons, could surely deliver John. It made his heart the more wistful, to hear of these displays of power. He had to learn that the Lord healed these poor folks so easily because the light soil of their nature could not bear the richer harvests; because their soul could not stand the cutting through which alone the brilliant facets which were possible to his could be secured. It was because John was a royal soul, the greatest of woman born, because his nature was capable of yielding the best results to the Divine culture, that he was kept waiting, whilst others caught up the blessing and went away healed. Only three months remained of life, and in these the discipline of patience and doubt must do their perfect work.
That is where you have made a mistake. You have thought God was hard on you, that He would help everybody but you; but you have not understood that your nature was so dear to God, and so precious in his sight, and so capable of the greatest development, that God loved you too much to let you off so lightly, and give you what you wanted, and send you on your way. God could have given you sight, made that lame foot well, restored the child to health, and opened the iron prison door of your circumstances. He could; but for all eternity you will thank Him He did not, because you are capable of something else. We are kept waiting through the long years -- not that He loves us less, but more; not that He refuses what we ask, but that in the long strain and tension He is making us partakers of his blessedness. John's nature would presently yield a martyr and win a martyr's crown: was not that reason enough for not giving him at once the deliverance he sought?
(3) The Answer was Sufficient. Together with the works of beneficence, the Lord drew John's attention to words he seemed in danger of forgetting; |Strengthen ye the weak hands, and confirm the feeble knees. Say to them that are of a fearful heart, Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened; and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped; then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing; for in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert.| |The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, because the Lord hath anointed Me to preach good tidings unto the meek; He hath sent Me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.| The Lord strove to convince the questioner that his views were too partial and limited, and to send him back to a more comprehensive study of the old Scriptures. It was as though Jesus said, |Go to your master, and tell him to take again the ancient prophecy and study it. He has taken the sterner predictions to the neglect of the gentler, softer ones. It is true that I am to proclaim the day of vengeance; but first I must reveal the acceptable year. It is true that I am to come as a Mighty One, and my arm shall rule for Me; but it is also true that I am to feed my flock like a Shepherd, and gather the lambs in my arm.|
We make the same mistake. We have but a partial view of Christ, and need to get back to the Bible afresh, and study anew its comprehensive words; then we shall come to understand that the present is the time of the hiding of his power, the time of waiting, the time of the gentler ministries. Some day He will gird on his sword; some day He will winnow his floor; some day He will ride in a chariot of flame; some day He will sit upon the throne and judge those who oppress the innocent and take advantage of the poor. We have not yet seen the end of the Lord: we have not all the evidence. This is our mistake. But our Saviour is offering us every day evidences of his Divine and loving power. Last week I saw Him raise the dead; yesterday, before my eyes, He struck the chains from a prisoner; at this hour He is giving sight to the blind; to-morrow He will cast out demons. The world is full of evidences of his gracious and Divine power. They are not so striking and masterful as deeds of judgment and wrath might be -- they need a quicker eye, a purer heart to discern; but they are not less significant of the fact that He liveth who was dead, and that He is alive for evermore. And these are sufficient, not only because of the transformations which are effected, but because of their moral quality, to show that there is One within the vail who lives in the power of an indissoluble life.
III. A NEW BEATITUDE. -- |Blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in Me.| Our Lord put within the reach of his noble Forerunner the blessedness of those who have not seen and yet have believed; of those who trust though they are slain; of those who wait the Lord's leisure; and of those who cannot understand his dealings, but rest in what they know of his heart. This is the beatitude of the unoffended, of those who do not stumble over the mystery of God's dealings with their life.
This blessedness is within our reach also. There are times when we are overpowered with the mystery of life and nature. The world is so full of pain and sorrow, the litany of its need is so sad and pitiful, strong hearts are breaking under an intolerable load; while the battle seems only to the strong and the race to those who, by some mysterious providence, come of a healthy, though not specially moral or religious, stock. And if the incidence of pain and sorrow on the world be explained by its ungodliness, why does nature groan and travail? why are the forest glades turned into a very shambles? why does creation seem to achieve itself through the terrific struggle for survival?
God's children are sometimes the most bitterly tried. For them the fires are heated seven times; days of weariness and nights of pain are appointed them; they suffer, not only at the hand of man, but it seems as though God Himself were turned against them, to become their enemy. The heavens seem as brass to their cries and tears, and the enemy has reason to challenge them with the taunt, |Where is now your God!| The waters of a full cup are wrung out in days like these; and the cry is extorted, |How long, O Lord, how long?|
You and I have been in this plight. We have said, |Hath God forgotten to be gracious? Has He in anger shut up his tender mercies?| From our prison-cell we send up the appeal to our Brother in the glory: |Help us; for if Thou leavest us to our fate, we shall question if Thou art He.| We are tempted to stumbling. We are like to fall over the mysteries of God's dealings with us. We are more able than ever before to appreciate the standpoint occupied by Job's wife, when she said to her husband, |Curse God, and die.|
Then we have the chance of inheriting a new beatitude. By refusing to bend under the mighty hand of God -- questioning, chafing, murmuring -- we miss the door which would admit us into rich and unalloyed happiness. We fumble about the latch, but it is not lifted. But if we will quiet our souls like a weaned child, anointing our heads, and washing our faces, light will break in on us as from the eternal morning; the peace of God will keep our hearts and minds, and we shall enter on the blessedness which our Lord unfolded before the gaze of his faithful Forerunner.