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The Christian Life by Thomas Arnold

LECTURE XXXV. MATTHEW xxvi. 45, 46.

MATTHEW xxvi.45, 46.

Sleep on now and take your rest; behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be. going; behold, he is at hand that doth betray me.

I take these verses for my text, in the first place, because some have fancied a difficulty in them, and have even proposed to alter the translation, and read the first words as a question, |Do ye still sleep and take your rest?| and because they are really a very good illustration of our Lord's manner of speaking, a manner which it is of the highest importance to us fully to understand. And, secondly, I take them as a text for the general lesson which they convey to us; their mixture of condemnation and mercy; their view, at once looking backwards and forwards, not losing sight of irreparable evils of a neglected past, nor yet making those evils worse by so dwelling upon them as to forget the still available future; not concealing from us the solemn truth, that what is done cannot be undone, yet warning us also not to undo by a vain despair that future which may yet be done to our soul's health.

First, a difficulty has been fancied to exist in the words, as if our Lord had bade his disciples to do two contradictory things: telling them, first, to sleep on and take their rust, and then saying, |Rise, let us be going.| And because in St. Luke's account, when our Lord comes to his disciples the last time, his words are given thus, |Why sleep ye? rise and pray, that ye enter not into temptation:| therefore, as I have said, his words in the text have been translated, |Are ye sleeping and resting for the remainder of the time?| Now, I should not take up your time with things of this sort, where I believe our common translation to be most certainly right, were it not for the sake of one or two general remarks, which I think may not be out of place. It is a general rule, that in passages not obscure, but appearing to contain some moral difficulty, if I may so speak; that is, something which seems inconsistent with our notions of God's holiness, or wisdom, or justice; something, in short, of a stumbling-block, which we fear may occasion a triumph to unbelievers; it is a rule, I say, that in passages of this kind the difficulty is not to be met by departing from the common-received translation. And the reason of this is plain; that had not the commonly received translation in such cases been clearly the right one, it would never have come to be commonly received. Amongst the thousands of interpreters of Scripture, all, from the earliest time, anxious to remove grounds of cavil from the adversaries of their faith, a passage would never have been translated so as to afford such a ground, if the right translation of it could have been different. Such places are especially those in which the common translation needs not to be suspected: and it is merely leading us astray from the true explanation of the apparent difficulty, when we thus attempt to evade it by tampering with the translation. A notable instance of this was afforded some few years since in a new translation of some of the books of the Old Testament; in which it was pretended that most of those points which had been most attacked by unbelievers were, in fact, mere mistranslations, and that the real meaning of the original was something totally different; and, in order to show the necessity of his alterations, the writer entirely allowed the objections of unbelievers to the common reading; and said that no sufficient answer had been or could be made to them. This was an extreme case, and probably imposed only on a very few: but less instances of the same thing are common: St. Paul's words about being baptized for the dead, have been twisted to all sorts of senses, from their natural and only possible meaning, because men could not bear to believe that the superstition of being baptized as proxies for another could have existed at a period which they were resolved to consider so pure: and so in the text, a force has been put upon the words which they cannot bear, in order to remove a supposed contradiction: and all that would have been gained by the change would be, to have one instructive illustration the less of our Lord's peculiar manner of discourse, and one instance the less of the inimitable way in which his language, addressed directly to the circumstances before him, contains, at the same time, a general lesson, for the use of all his disciples in all ages.

Our Lord's habitual language was parabolical; I use the word in a wide sense, to include all language which is not meant to be taken according to the letter. Observe his conversation with the Samaritan woman; it begins at once with parable, |If thou hadst known who it was that asked of thee, saying, Give me to drink, thou wouldst have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water.| And again, |Whoso drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst, but it shall be in him a well of water, springing up unto life eternal.| This seems to have been, if I may venture to say so, the favourite language in which he preferred to speak; but when he found that he was not understood, then, according to the nature of the case, he went on in two or three different manners. When he, to whom all hearts were open, saw that the misunderstanding was wilful, that it arose out of a disposition glad to find an excuse, in his pretended obscurity, for not listening to him and obeying him, then, instead of explaining his language, he made it more and more figurative; more likely to be misunderstood, or to offend those whom he knew to be disposed beforehand to misunderstand and to be offended. A famous example of this may be seen in the sixth chapter of St. John; there he first calls himself the Bread of Life, and says, that whosoever should eat of that bread should live for ever: but when he found that the Jews cavilled at this language, instead of explaining it, he only added expressions yet more strongly parabolical; |Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you:| and he dwells on this image so long, that we find that many of his disciples, bent on interpreting it literally, and, in this sense, finding it utterly shocking, went back and walked no more with him. Again, when he found not a disposition to cavil, but yet a profound ignorance of his meaning, arising from a state of mind wholly unused to think of spiritual good and evil, he neither used, as to those who wilfully misunderstood him, language that would offend them still more, nor yet did he offer a direct explanation; but he broke off the conversation, and adopted another method of instruction. Thus, when the Samaritan woman, thinking only of bodily wants, answered him by saying, |Sir, give me this water, that I thirst not, neither come hither to draw,| he neither goes on to speak to her in the same language, nor yet does he explain it; but at once addresses her in a different manner, saying, |Go, call thy husband, and come hither.| Thirdly, when he was speaking to his own disciples, to whom it was given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, he generally explained his meaning, -- at least so far as to prevent practical error, -- when he found that they had not understood him. Thus, when he had said to them, |Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, and of the leaven of Herod,| and they thought only of leaven and of bread in the literal sense, he upbraids them, indeed, for their slowness, saying, |Are ye also yet without understanding?| but he goes on to tell them in express terms that he did not mean to speak to them of the leaven of bread. And the words of the text are an exactly similar instance: his first address is parabolical; that is, it is not meant to be taken to the letter; |Sleep on now, and take your rest,| meaning, |Ye can now do me no good by watching, for the time is past, and he who betrayed me is at hand; ye might as well sleep on now and take your rest, for I need not try you any longer.| But, as the time was really pressing, and there was a possibility that they might have misunderstood his words, and have really continued to sleep, he immediately added in different language, |Rise, let us be going; behold, he is at hand that doth betray me.| We must be prepared, then, to find that our Lord's language, not only to the Jews at large, but even to his own disciples, is commonly parabolical; the worst interpretation which we can give to it is commonly the literal one. His conversation with his disciples, just before he went out to the garden of Gethsemane, as recorded in the thirteenth, and following chapters of St. John, is a most striking proof of this. If any one looks through them, he will find how many are the comparisons, and figurative manners of speaking, which abound in them, and how often his disciples were at a loss to understand his meaning, And he himself declares this, for, at the end of the sixteenth chapter, he says expressly, |These things I have spoken unto you in proverbs;| -- that is, language not to be taken according to the letter; -- |the time is coming when I will no more speak unto you in proverbs, but will show you plainly of the Father.| And then, when he goes on to declare, what he never, it seems, had before told them in such express and literal language, |I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world: again I leave the world, and go to my Father,| his disciples seem to have welcomed with joy this departure from his usual manner of speaking, and said immediately, |Lo! now speakest thou plainly, and speakest no proverb: now we know that thou knowest all things, and needest not that any man should ask thee: by this we believe that thou earnest forth from God.|

But let us observe what it is that he said: |A time is coming when I shall no more speak unto you in proverbs, but shall show you plainly of the Father.| That time came immediately. He spoke to them after his resurrection, opening their understandings to understand the Scriptures: he spoke yet more fully, by his Spirit, after the day of Pentecost, leading them into all truth. And what they thus heard in the ear, they proclaimed, according to his bidding, upon the house-tops. When the Holy Spirit brought to their remembrance all that he had said to them, and gave their minds a spiritual judgment, to compare what they thus had brought before them, to see his words in their true light and their true bearings, comparing spiritual things with spiritual, they were no niggards of this heavenly treasure; nor did they, according to the vain heresy of the worst corrupters of Christ's gospel, imitate and surpass that sin which they had so heavily judged in Ananias. They kept back no part-of that which they professed and were commanded to lay wholly and entirely at the feet of God's church. They did not so lie to the Holy Ghost, as to erect a wicked system of priestcraft in the place of that holy gospel of which they were ministers. They had no reserve of a secret doctrine for themselves and a chosen few, keeping in their own hands the key of knowledge, and opening only half of the door; but as they had freely received, so they freely gave; all that they knew, they taught to all: and so, through their blessed teaching, we too can understand our Lord's words as they were taught to understand them: and what is parabolical, is no longer on that account obscure, but full of light and of beauty, fulfilling the end for which it was chosen, the most effective of all ways of teaching, because the liveliest.

I have left myself but little space to touch upon the second part of the subject -- the general lesson conveyed in our Lord's-words to his disciples: |Sleep on now, and take your rest. -- Rise; let us be going.| How truly do we deserve the reproof; how thankfully may we accept the call. We have forfeited many opportunities which we would in vain recover; we have been careless when we should have been watchful; and that for which we should have watched, is now lost by our neglect; and it is no good to watch for it any more. Let us remember this, while it is called to-day; for how often is it particularly applicable to us here, from the passing nature of your stay amongst us! To both you and us too often belongs our Lord's remonstrance, |What, could ye not watch with me one hour?| So short a time as you stay here, could we not be watching with Christ that little period: from which, if well improved, there might spring forth a fruit so lasting? But, alas! we too often sleep it away: we do not all that we might do, nor do you; evil grows instead of good, till the time is past, and you leave us; and we may as well sleep on, and take our rest, so far as all that particular good was concerned -- the improvement, namely, of your time at this place, for which we are alike set to watch. But are we to take the words of reproach literally? May we really sleep on, and take our rest? Oh vain and wilful folly, so to misunderstand! But, lest we should misunderstand, let us hear our Lord's next words: |Rise; let us be going,| and that instantly: the time and opportunity already lost for ever is far more than enough. -- |Rise; let us be going:| so Christ calls us; for he has still other work for us to do, for him, and with him. The future is yet our own, though the past be lost. We have sinned greatly and irreparably; but let us not do so yet again: other opportunities are afforded us; the disciples would not watch with him in the garden, but he calls them to go with him to his trial and his judgment; and one, we know, watched by him even on his cross: -- so he calls to us; so he calls now; but he will not so call for ever. There will be a time when we might strike out the words, |Rise; let us be going;| they will concern us then no more. It is only said, |Sleep on now, and take your rest: all your watching time has been wasted, and you can now watch no more;| there remains only to sleep -- to sleep that last sleep, from which we shall then never wake to God and happiness, but in which we shall be awake for ever to sin and to misery.

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