'Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved saith unto Peter, It is the Lord. -- JOHN xxi.7.
It seems a very strange thing that these disciples had not, at an earlier period of this incident, discovered the presence of Christ, inasmuch as the whole was so manifestly a repetition of that former event by which the commencement of their ministry had been signalised, when He called them to become 'fishers of men.' We are apt to suppose that when once again they embarked on the lake, and went back to their old trade, it must have been with many a thought of Him busy at their hearts. Yonder -- perhaps we fancy them thinking -- is the very point where we saw Him coming out of the shadows of the mountains, that night when He walked on the water; yonder is the little patch of grass where He made them all sit down whilst we bore the bread to them: there is the very spot where we were mending our nets when He came up to us and called us to Himself; and now it is all over. We have loved and lost Him; He has been with us, and has left us. 'We trusted that it had been He who should have redeemed Israel,' and the Cross has ended it all! So, we are apt to think, they must have spoken; but there does not seem to have been about them any such sentimental remembrance. John takes pains in this narrative, I think, to show them to us as plain, rough men, busy about their night's work, and thinking a great deal more of their want of success in fishing, than about the old associations which we are apt to put into their minds. Then through the darkness He comes, as they had seen Him come once before, when they know Him not; and He speaks to them as He had spoken before, and they do not detect His voice yet; and He repeats the old miracle, and their eyes are all holden, excepting the eyes of him who loved, and he first says, 'It is the Lord!' Now, besides all the other features of this incident by which it becomes the revelation of the Lord's presence with His Church, and the exhibition of the work of the Church during all the course of the world's history, it contains valuable lessons on other points, such as these which I shall try to bring before you.
Now and always, as in that morning twilight on the Galilean lake, Christ comes to men. Everywhere He is present, everywhere revealing Himself. Now, as then, our eyes are 'holden' by our own fault, so that we recognise not the merciful Presence which is all around us. Now, as then, it is they who are nearest to Christ by love who see Him first. Now, as then, they who are nearest to Him by love, are so because He loves them, and because they know and believe the love which He has to them. I find, then, in this part of the story three thoughts, -- First, they only see aright who see Christ in everything. Secondly, they only see Christ who love Him. Lastly, they only love Him who know that He loves them,
I. First then, they only see aright who see Christ in everything.
This word of John's, 'It is the Lord!' -- ought to be the conviction with the light of which we go out to the examination of all events, and to the consideration of all the circumstances of our daily life. We believe that unto Christ is given 'all power in heaven and upon earth.' We believe that to Him belongs creative power -- that 'without Him was not anything made which was made.' We believe that from Him came all life at first. In Him life was, as in its deep source. He is the Fountain of life. We believe that as no being comes into existence without His creative power, so none continues to exist without His sustaining energy. We believe that He allots to all men their natural characters and their circumstances. We believe that the history of the world is but the history of His influence, and that the centre of the whole universe is the cross of Calvary. In the light of such convictions, I take it, every man that calls himself a Christian ought to go out to meet life and to study all events. Let me try, then, to put before you, very briefly, one or two of the provinces in which we are to take this conviction as the keynote to all our knowledge.
No man will understand the world aright, to begin with, who cannot say about all creation, 'It is the Lord!' Nature is but the veil of the invisible and ascended Lord: and if we would pierce to the deepest foundations of all being, we cannot stop until we get down to the living power of Christ our Saviour and the Creator of the world, by whom all things were made, and whose will pouring out into this great universe, is the sustaining principle and the true force which keeps it from nothingness and from quick decay.
Why, what did Christ work all His miracles upon earth for? Not solely to give us a testimony that the Father had sent Him; not solely to make us listen to His words as a Teacher sent from God; not solely as proof of His Messiahship, -- but besides all these purposes there was surely this other, that for once He would unveil to us the true Author of all things, and the true Foundation of all being. Christ's miracles interrupted the order of the world, because they made visible to men for once the true and constant Orderer of the order. They interrupted the order in so far as they struck out the intervening links by which the creative and sustaining word of God acts in nature, and suspended each event directly from the firm staple of His will. They revealed the eternal Orderer of that order in that they showed the Incarnate Word wielding the forces of nature, which He has done from of old and still does. We are then to take all these signs and wonders that He wrought, as a perennial revelation of the real state of things with regard to this natural world, and to see in them all, signs and tokens that into every corner and far-off region of the universe His loving hand reaches, and His sustaining power goes forth. Into what province of nature did He not go? He claimed to be the Lord of life by the side of the boy's bier at the gate of Nain, in the chamber of the daughter of Jairus, by the grave of Lazarus. He asserted for Himself authority over all the powers and functions of our bodily life, when He gave eyes to the blind, hearing to the deaf, feet to the lame. He showed that He was Lord over the fowl of the air, the beasts of the earth, the fish of the sea. And He asserted His dominion over inanimate nature, when the fig-tree, cursed by Him, withered away to its roots, and the winds and waves sunk into silence at His gentle voice. He let us get a glimpse into the dark regions of His rule over the unseen, when 'with authority He commanded the unclean spirits, and they came out.' And all these things He did, in order that we, walking in this fair world, encompassed by the glories of this wonderful universe, should be delivered from the temptation of thinking that it is separated from Him, or independent of His creative and sustaining power; and in order that we should feel that the continuance of all which surrounds us, the glories of heaven and the loveliness of earth, are as truly owing to the constant intervention of His present will, and the interposition beneath them of His sustaining hand, as when first, by the 'Word of God' who 'was with God and who was God,' speaking forth His fiat, there came light and beauty out of darkness and chaos.
O Christian men! we shall never understand the Christian thought about God's universe, until we are able to say, Preservation is a continual creation; and beneath all the ordinary workings of Nature, as we faithlessly call it, and the apparently dead play of secondary causes, there are welling forth, and energising, the living love and the blessed power of Christ, the Maker, and Monarch, and Sustainer of all. 'It is the Lord!' is the highest teaching of all science. The mystery of the universe, and the meaning of God's world, are shrouded in hopeless obscurity, until we learn to feel that all laws suppose a Lawgiver, and that all working involves a divine energy; and that beneath all which appears there lies for ever rising up through it and giving it its life and power, the one true living Being, the Father in heaven, the Son by whom He works, and the Holy Ghost the Spirit. Darkness lies on Nature, except to those who in
'the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky,'
see that Form which these disciples saw in the morning twilight. Let 'It is the Lord!' be the word on our lips as we gaze on them all, and nature will then be indeed to us the open secret, the secret of the Lord which 'He will show to them that fear Him.'
Then again, the same conviction is the only one that is adequate either to explain or to make tolerable the circumstances of our earthly condition. To most men -- ah! to all of us in our faithless times -- the events that befall ourselves, seem to be one of two things equally horrible, the play of a blind Chance, or the work of an iron Fate. I know not which of these two ghastly thoughts about the circumstances of life is the more depressing, ruining all our energy, depriving us of all our joy, and dragging us down with its weight. But brethren, and friends, there are but these three ways for it -- either our life is the subject of a mere chaotic chance; or else it is put into the mill of an iron destiny, which goes grinding on and crushing with its remorseless wheels, regardless of what it grinds up; or else, through it all, in it all, beneath it and above it all, there is the Will which is Love, and the Love which is Christ! Which of these thoughts is the one that commends itself to your own hearts and consciences, and which is the one under which you would fain live if you could? I understand not how a man can front the awful possibilities of a future on earth, knowing all the points at which he is vulnerable, and all the ways by which disaster may come down upon him, and retain his sanity, unless he believes that all is ruled, not merely by a God far above him, who may be as unsympathising as He is omnipotent, but by his Elder Brother, the Son of God, who showed His heart by all His dealings with us here below, and who loves as tenderly, and sympathises as closely with us as ever He did when on earth He gathered the weary and the sick around Him. Is it not a thing, men and women, worth having, to have this for the settled conviction of your hearts, that Christ is moving all the pulses of your life, and that nothing falls out without the intervention of His presence and the power of His will working through it? Do you not think such a belief would nerve you for difficulty, would lift you buoyantly over trials and depressions, and would set you upon a vantage ground high above all the petty annoyances of life? Tell me, is there any other place where a man can plant his foot and say, 'Now I am on a rock and I care not what comes'? The riddle of Providence is solved, and the discipline of Providence is being accomplished when we have grasped this conviction -- All events do serve me, for all circumstances come from His will and pleasure, which is love; and everywhere I go -- be it in the darkness of disaster or in the sunshine of prosperity -- I shall see standing before me that familiar and beloved Shape, and shall be able to say, 'It is the Lord!' Friends and brethren, that is the faith to live by, that is the faith to die by; and without it life is a mockery and a misery.
Once more this same conviction, 'It is the Lord! should guide us in all our thoughts about the history and destinies of mankind and of Christ's Church. The Cross is the centre of the world's history, the incarnation and the crucifixion of our Lord are the pivot round which all the events of the ages revolve. 'The testimony of Jesus was the spirit of prophecy,' and the growing power of Jesus is the spirit of history, and in every book that calls itself the history of a nation, unless there be written, whether literally or in spirit, this for its motto, 'It is the Lord!' all will be shallow and incomplete.
'They that went before and they that came after,' when He entered into the holy city in His brief moment of acceptance and pomp, surrounded Him with hosannas and jubilant gladness. It is a deep and true symbol of the whole history of the world. All the generations that went before Him, though they knew it not, were preparing the way of the Lord, and heralding the advent of Him who was 'the desire of all nations' and 'the light of men'; and all the generations that come after, though they know it not, are swelling the pomp of His triumph and hastening the time of His crowning and dominion. 'It is the Lord!' is the secret of all national existence. It is the secret of all the events of the world. The tangled web of human history is only then intelligible when that is taken as its clue, 'From Him are all things, and to Him are all things.' The ocean from which the stream of history flows, and that into which it empties itself, are one. He began it, He sustains it. 'The help that is done upon earth He doeth it Himself,' and when all is finished, it will be found that all things have indeed come from Christ, been sustained and directed by Christ, and have tended to the glory and exaltation of that Redeemer, who is King of kings and Lord of lords, Maker of the worlds, and before whose throne are for ever gathered for service, whether they know it or not, the forces of the Gentiles, the riches of the nations, the events of history, the fates and destinies of every man.
I need not dwell upon the way in which such a conviction as this, my friends, living and working in our hearts, would change for us the whole aspect of life, and make everything bright and beautiful, blessed and calm, strengthening us for all which we might have to do, nerving us for duty, and sustaining us against every trial, leading us on, triumphant and glad, through regions all sparkling with tokens of His presence and signs of His love, unto His throne at last, to lay down our praises and our crowns before Him. Only let me leave with you this one word of earnest entreaty, that you will lay to heart the solemn alternative -- either see Christ in everything, and be blessed; or miss Him, and be miserable. Oh! it is a waste, weary world, unless it is filled with signs of His presence. It is a dreary seventy years, brother, of pilgrimage and strife, unless, as you travel along the road, you see the marks that He who went before you has left by the wayside for your guidance and your sustenance. If you want your days to be true, noble, holy, happy, manly, and Godlike, believe us, it is only when they all have flowing through them this conviction, 'It is the Lord!' that they all become so.
II. Then, secondly, only they who love, see Christ.
John, the Apostle of Love, knew Him first. In religious matters, love is the foundation of knowledge. There is no way of knowing a Person except love. The knowledge of God and the knowledge of Christ are not to be won by the exercise of the understanding. A man cannot argue his way into knowing Christ. No skill in drawing inferences will avail him there. The treasures of wisdom -- earthly wisdom -- are all powerless in that region. Man's understanding and natural capacity -- let it keep itself within its own limits and region, and it is strong and good; but in the region of acquaintance with God and Christ, the wisdom of this world is foolishness, and man's understanding is not the organ by which he can know Christ. Oh no! there is a better way than that: 'He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love.' As it is, in feebler measure, with regard to our personal acquaintance with one another, where it is not so much the power of the understanding, or the quickness of the perception, or the talent and genius of a man, that make the foundation of his knowledge of his friend, as the force of his sympathy and the depth of his affection; so -- with the necessary modification arising from the transference from earthly acquaintances to the great Friend and Lover of our souls in heaven -- so is it with regard to our knowledge of Christ. Love will trace Him everywhere, as dear friends can detect each other in little marks which are meaningless to others. Love's quick eye pierces through disguises impenetrable to a colder scrutiny. Love has in it a longing for His presence which makes us eager and quick to mark the lightest sign that He for whom it longs is near, as the footstep of some dear one is heard by the sharp ear of affection long before any sound breaks the silence to those around. Love leads to likeness to the Lord, and that likeness makes the clearer vision of the Lord possible. Love to Him strips from our eyes the film that self and sin, sense and custom, have drawn over them. It is these which hide Him from us. It is because men are so indifferent to, so forgetful of, their best Friend that they fail to behold Him, 'It is the Lord!' is written large and plain on all things, but like the great letters on a map, they are so obvious and fill so wide a space, that they are not seen. They who love Him know Him, and they who know Him love Him. The true eye-salve for our blinded eyes is applied when we have turned with our hearts to Christ. The simple might of faithful love opens them to behold a more glorious vision than the mountain 'full of chariots of fire,' which once flamed before the prophet's servant of old -- even the august and ever-present form of the Lord of life, the Lord of history, the Lord of providence. When they who love Jesus turn to see 'the Voice that speaks with them,' they ever behold the Son of Man in His glory; and where others see but the dim beach and a mysterious stranger, it is to their lips that the glad cry first comes, 'It is the Lord!'
And is it not a blessed thing, brethren! that thus this high and glorious prerogative of recognising the marks of Christ's presence everywhere, of going through life gladdened by the assurance of His nearness, does not depend on what belongs to few men only, but on what may belong to all? When we say that 'not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called' -- when we say that love is the means of knowledge -- we are but in other words saying that the way is open to all, and that no characteristics belonging to classes, no powers that must obviously always belong to but a handful, are necessary for the full apprehension of the power and blessedness of Christ's Gospel. The freeness and the fullness of that divine message, the glorious truth that it is for all men, and is offered to all, are couched in that grand principle, Love that thou mayest know; love, and thou art filled with the fullness of God, Not for the handful, not for the elite of the world; not for the few, but for the many; not for the wise, but for all; not for classes, but for humanity -- for all that are weak, and sinful, and needy, and foolish, and darkened He comes, who only needs that the heart that looks should love, and then it shall behold!
But if that were the whole that I have to say, I should have said but little to the purpose. It very little avails to tell men to love. We cannot love to order, or because we think it duty. There is but one way of loving, and that is to see the lovely. The disciple who loved Jesus was 'the disciple whom Jesus loved.' Generalise that, and it teaches us this, that
III. They love who know that Christ loves them. His divine and eternal mercy is the foundation of the whole. Our love, brethren, can never be any thing else than our echo to His voice of tenderness than the reflected light upon our hearts of the full glory of His affection. No man loveth God except the man who has first learned that God loves him. 'We love Him, because He first loved us.' And when we say, 'Love Christ,' if we could not go on to say, 'Nay, rather let Christ's love come down upon you' -- we had said worse than nothing. The fountain that rises in my heart can only spring up heavenward, because the water of it has flowed down into my heart from the higher level. All love must descend first, before it can ascend. We have, then, no Gospel to preach, if we have only this to preach, 'Love, and thou art saved.' But we have a Gospel that is worth the preaching, when we can come to men who have no love in their hearts, and say, 'Brethren! listen to this -- you have to bring nothing, you are called upon to originate no affection; you have nothing to do but simply to receive the everlasting love of God in Christ His Son, which was without us, which began before us, which flows forth independent of us, which is unchecked by all our sins, which triumphs over all our transgressions, and which will make us -- loveless, selfish, hardened, sinful men -- soft, and tender, and full of divine affection, by the communication of its own self.
Oh, then, look to Christ, that you may love Him! Think, brethren, of that full, and free, and boundless mercy which, from eternity, has been pouring itself out in floods of grace and loving-kindness over all creatures. Think of that everlasting love which presided at the foundation of the earth, and has sustained it ever since. Think of that Saviour who has died for us, and lives for us. Think of Christ, the heart of God, and the fullness of the Father's mercy; and do not think of yourselves at all. Do not ask yourselves, to begin with, the question, Do I love Him or do I not? You will never love by that means. If a man is cold, let him go to the fire and warm himself. If he is dark, let him stand in the sunshine, and he will be light. If his heart is all clogged and clotted with sin and selfishness, let him get under the influence of the love of Christ, and look away from himself and his own feelings, towards that Saviour whose love shed abroad is the sole means of kindling ours. You have to go down deeper than your feelings, your affections, your desires, your character. There you will find no resting-place, no consolation, no power. Dig down to the living Rock, Christ and His infinite love to you, and let it be the strong foundation, built into which you and your love may become living stones, a holy temple, partaking of the firmness and nature of that on which it rests. They that love do so because they know that Christ loves them; and they that love see Him everywhere; and they that see Him everywhere are blessed for evermore. And let no man here torture himself, or limit the fullness of this message that we preach, by questionings whether Christ loves Him or not. Are you a man? are you sinful? have you broken God's law? do you need a Saviour? Then put away all these questions, and believe that Christ's personal love is streaming out for the whole world, and that there is a share for you if you like to take it and be blessed!
There is one last thought arising from the whole subject before us, that may be worth mention before I close. Did you ever notice how this whole incident might be turned, by a symbolical application, to the hour of death, and the vision which may meet us when we come thither? It admits of the application, and perhaps was intended to receive the application, of such a symbolic reference. The morning is dawning, the grey of night going away, the lake is still; and yonder, standing on the shore, in the uncertain light, there is one dim Figure, and one disciple catches a sight of Him, and another casts himself into the water, and they find 'a fire of coals, and fish laid thereon, and bread,' and Christ gathers them around His table, and they all know that 'It is the Lord!' It is what the death of the Christian man, who has gone through life recognising Christ everywhere, may well become: -- the morning breaking, and the finished work, and the Figure standing on the quiet beach, so that the last plunge into the cold flood that yet separates us, will not be taken with trembling reluctance; but, drawn to Him by the love beaming out of His face, and upheld by the power of His beckoning presence, we shall struggle through the latest wave that parts us, and scarcely feel its chill, nor know that we have crossed it; till falling blessed at His feet, we see, by the nearer and clearer vision of His face, that this is indeed heaven. And looking back upon 'the sea that brought us thither,' we shall behold its waters flashing in the light of that everlasting morning, and hear them breaking in music upon the eternal shore. And then, brethren, when all the weary night-watchers on the stormy ocean of life are gathered together around Him who watched with them from His throne on the bordering mountains of eternity, where the day shines for ever -- then He will seat them at His table in His kingdom, and none will need to ask, 'Who art Thou?' or 'Where am I?' for all shall know that 'It is the Lord!' and the full, perfect, unchangeable vision of His blessed face will be heaven!