Part 6 out of 10
would be to speak to them 'of the decease which He should accomplish
at Jerusalem,' from speaking to the reluctant, protesting Twelve! And
how different to listen to them speaking of that miracle of divine
love expressed in human death from the point of view of the
'principalities and powers in heavenly places,' as over against the
remonstrances and misunderstandings with which He had been struggling
for a whole week! The appearance of Moses and Elijah teaches us the
relation of Jesus to all former revelation, the interest of the
dwellers in heavenly light in the Cross, and the need which Jesus felt
for strengthening to endure it.
Peter's foolish words, half excused by his being scarcely awake, may
be passed by with the one remark that it was like him to say
something, though he did not know what to say, and that it would
therefore have been wise to say nothing.
The third part of this incident, the appearance of the cloud and the
voice from it, was for the disciples. Luke tells us that it was a
'bright' cloud, and yet it 'overshadowed them.' That sets us on the
right track and indicates that we are to think of the cloud of glory,
which was the visible token of the divine presence, the cloud which
shone lambent between the cherubim, the cloud which at last 'received
Him out of their sight.' Luke tells, too, that 'they entered into it.'
Who entered? Moses and Elijah had previously 'departed from Him.'
Jesus and the disciples remained, and we cannot suppose that the three
could have passed into that solemn glory, if He had not led them in.
In that sacred moment He was 'the way,' and keeping close to Him,
mortal feet could pass into the glory which even a Moses had not been
fit to behold. The spiritual significance of the incident seems to
require the supposition that, led by Jesus, they entered the cloud.
They were men, therefore they were afraid; Jesus was with them,
therefore they stood within the circle of that light and lived.
The voice repeated the attestation of Jesus as the 'beloved Son' of
the Father, which had been given at the baptism, but with the
addition, 'Hear Him,' which shows that it was now meant for the
disciples, not, as at the baptism, for Jesus Himself. While the
command to listen to His voice as to the voice from the cloud is
perfectly general, and lays all His words on us as all God's words, it
had special reference to the disciples, and that in regard to the new
teaching which had so disturbed them--the teaching of the necessity
for His death. 'The offence of the Cross' began with the first clear
statement of it, and in the hearts that loved Him best and came most
near to understanding Him. To fail in accepting His teaching that it
'behoved the Son of Man to suffer,' is to fail in accepting it in the
most important matter. There are sounds in nature too low-pitched to
be audible to untrained ears, and the message of the Cross is unheard
unless the ears of the deaf are unstopped. If we do not hear Jesus
when He speaks of His passion, we may almost as well not hear Him at
Moses and Elijah had vanished, having borne their last testimony to
Jesus. Peter had wished to keep them beside Jesus, but that could not
be. Their highest glory was to fade in His light. They came, they
disappeared; He remained--and remains. 'They saw no man any more, save
Jesus only with themselves.' So should it be for us in life. So may it
be with us in death! 'Hear Him,' for all other voices are but for a
time, and die into silence, but Jesus speaks for eternity, and 'His
words shall not pass away.' When time is ended, and the world's
history is all gathered up into its final issue, His name shall stand
out alone as Author and End of all.
'THIS IS MY BELOVED SON: HEAR HIM'
'And there was a cloud that overshadowed them: and a voice came out of
the cloud, saying, This is My beloved Son: hear Him.'--Mark ix. 7.
With regard to the first part of these words spoken at the
Transfiguration, they open far too large and wonderful a subject for
me to do more than just touch with the tip of my finger, as it were,
in passing, because the utterance of the divine words, 'This is My
beloved Son,' in all the depth of their meaning and loftiness, is laid
as the foundation of the two words that come after, which, for us, are
the all-important things here. And so I would rather dwell upon them
than upon the mysteries of the first part, but a sentence must be
spared. If we accept this story before us as the divine attestation of
the mystery of the person and nature of Jesus Christ, we must take the
words to mean--as these disciples, no doubt, took them to
mean--something pointing to a unique and solitary revelation which He
bore to the Divine Majesty. We have to see in them the confirmation of
the great truth that the manhood of Jesus Christ was the supernatural
creation of a direct divine power. 'Conceived of the Holy Ghost, born
of the Virgin Mary'; therefore, 'that Holy Thing which shall be born
of thee shall be called the Son of God.' And we have to go, as I take
it, farther back than the earthly birth, and to say, 'No man hath seen
God at any time--the only begotten Son which is in the bosom of the
Father.' He was the Son here by human birth, and was in the bosom of
the Father all through that human life. 'He hath declared Him,' and so
not only is there here the testimony to the miraculous incarnation,
and to the true and proper Divinity and Deity of Jesus Christ, but
there is also the witness to the perfectness of His character in the
great word, 'This is My beloved Son,' which points us to an unbroken
communion of love between Him and the Father, which tells us that in
the depths of that divine nature there has been a constant play of
mutual love, which reveals to us that in His humanity there never was
anything that came as the faintest film of separation between His will
and the will of the Father, between His heart and the heart of God.
But this revelation of the mysterious personality of the divine Son,
the perfect harmony between Him and God, is here given as the ground
of the command that follows: 'Hear Him.' God's voice bids you listen
to Christ's voice--God's voice bids you listen to Christ's voice as
His voice. Listen to Him when He speaks to you about God--do not trust
your own fancy, do not trust your own fear, do not trust the dictates
of your conscience, do not consult man, do not listen to others, do
not speculate about the mysteries of the earth and the heavens, but go
to Him, and listen to the only begotten Son in the bosom of the
Father. He declares unto us God; in Him alone we have certain
knowledge of a loving Father in heaven. Hear Him when He tells us of
God's tenderness and patience and love. Hear Him above all when He
says to us, 'As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so
must the Son of Man be lifted up.' Hear Him when He says, 'The Son of
Man came to give His life a ransom for many.' Hear Him when He speaks
of Himself as Judge of you and me and all the world, and when He says,
'The Son of Man shall come in His glory, and before Him shall be
gathered all nations.' Hear Him then. Hear Him when He calls you to
Himself. Hear Him when He says to you, 'Come unto Me all ye that
labour and are heavy laden.' Hear Him when He says, 'If any man come
unto Me he shall never thirst.' Hear Him when He says, 'Cast your
burden upon Me, and I will sustain you.' Hear Him when He commands.
Hear Him when He says, 'If ye love Me keep My commandments,' and when
He says, 'Abide in Me and I in you,' hear Him then. 'In all time of
our tribulation, in all time of our well-being, in the hour of death,
and in the day of judgment,' let us listen to Him.
Dear friends there is no rest anywhere else; there is no peace, no
pleasure, no satisfaction--except close at His side. 'Speak Lord! for
Thy servant heareth.' 'To whom shall we go but unto Thee? Thou hast
the words of eternal life.' Look how these disciples, grovelling there
on their faces, were raised by the gentle hand laid upon their
shoulder, and the blessed voice that brought them back to
consciousness, and how, as they looked about them with dazed eyes, all
was gone. The vision, the cloud, Moses and Elias--the lustre and
radiance and the dread voice were past, and everything was as it used
to be. Christ stood alone there like some solitary figure relieved
against a clear daffodil sky upon some extended plain, and there was
nothing else to meet the eye but He. Christ is there, and in Him is
That is a summing up of all Divine revelation. 'God, who at sundry
times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the
prophets, hath, in these last days, spoken unto us by His Son.' Moses
dies, Elijah fades, clouds and symbols and voices and all mortal
things vanish, but Jesus Christ stands before us, the manifest God,
for ever and ever, the sole illumination of the world, It is also a
summing up of all earthly history. All other people go. The beach of
time is strewed with wrecked reputations and forgotten glories. And I
am not ashamed to say that I believe that, as the ages grow, and the
world gets further away in time from the Cross upon Calvary, more and
more everything else will sink beneath the horizon, and Christ alone
be left to fill the past as He fills the present and the future.
We may make that scene the picture of our lives. Distractions and
temptations that lie all round us are ever seeking to drag us away.
There is no peace anywhere but in having Christ only--my only pattern,
my only hope, my only salvation, my only guide, my only aim, my only
friend. The solitary Christ is the sufficient Christ, and that for
ever. Take Him for your only friend, and you need none other. Then at
death there may be a brief spasm of darkness, a momentary fear,
perchance, but then the touch of a Brother's hand will be upon us as
we lie there prone in the dust, and we shall lift up our eyes, and lo!
life's illusions are gone, and life's noises are fallen dumb, and we
'see no man any more, save Jesus only,' with ourselves.
'They saw no man any more, save Jesus only with themselves.'--Mark ix.
The Transfiguration was the solemn inauguration of Jesus for His
sufferings and death.
Moses, the founder, and Elijah, the restorer, of the Jewish polity,
the great Lawgiver and the great Prophet, were present. The former had
died and been mysteriously buried, the latter had been translated
without 'seeing death.' So both are visitors from the unseen world,
appearing to own that Jesus is the Lord of that dim land, and that
there they draw their life from Him. The conversation is about
Christ's 'decease,' the wonderful event which was to constitute Him
Lord of the living and of the dead. The divine voice of command, 'Hear
Him!' gives the meaning of their disappearance. At that voice they
depart and Jesus is left alone. The scene is typical of the ultimate
issue of the world's history. The King's name only will at last be
found inscribed on the pyramid. Typical, too, is it not, of a
Christian's blessed death? When the 'cloud' is past no man is seen any
more but 'Jesus only.'
I. The solitary Saviour.
The disciples are left alone with the divine Saviour.
1. He is alone in His nature. 'Son of God.'
2. He is alone in the sinlessness of His manhood. 'My Beloved Son!'
3. He is alone as God's Voice to men. 'Hear Him!'
The solitary Saviour, because sufficient. 'Thou, O Christ, art all I
Sufficient, too, for ever.
His life is eternal.
His love is eternal.
The power of His Cross Is eternal.
II. The vanishing witnesses.
1. The connection of the past with Christ. The authority of the two
representatives of the Old Covenant was only (a) derived and
subordinate; (b) prophetic; (c) transient.
2. The thought may be widened into that of the relation of all
teachers and guides to Jesus Christ.
3. The two witness to the relation of the unseen world to Jesus
(a) Its inhabitants are undying.
(b) Are subject to the sway of Jesus.
(c) Are expectantly waiting a glorious future.
4. They witness to the central point of Christ's work--'His decease.'
This great event is the key to the world's history.
III. The waiting disciples.
1. What Christian life should be. Giving Him our sole trust and
(a) Seeing Him in all things.
(b) Constant communion. 'Abide in Me.'
(c) Using everything as helps to Him.
2. What Christian death may become.
CHRIST'S LAMENT OVER OUR FAITHLESSNESS
'He answereth him and saith, O faithless generation, how long shall I
be with you? how long shall I suffer you?'--Mark ix. 19.
There is a very evident, and, I think, intentional contrast between
the two scenes, of the Transfiguration, and of this healing of the
maniac boy. And in nothing is the contrast more marked than in the
demeanour of these enfeebled and unbelieving Apostles, as contrasted
with the rapture of devotion of the other three, and with the lowly
submission and faith of Moses and Elias. Perhaps, too, the difference
between the calm serenity of the mountain, and the hell-tortured
misery of the plain--between the converse with the sainted perfected
dead, and the converse with their unworthy successors--made Christ
feel more sharply and poignantly than He ordinarily did His disciples'
slowness of apprehension and want of faith. At any rate, it does
strike one as remarkable that the only occasion on which there came
from His lips anything that sounded like impatience and a momentary
flash of indignation was, when in sharpest contrast with 'This is my
beloved Son: hear Him,' He had to come down from the mountain to meet
the devil-possessed boy, the useless agony of the father, the sneering
faces of the scribes, and the impotence of the disciples. Looking on
all this, He turns to His followers--for it is to the Apostles that
the text is spoken, and not to the crowd outside--with this most
remarkable exclamation: 'O faithless generation! how long shall I be
with you? how long shall I suffer you?'
Now, I said that these words at first sight looked almost like a
momentary flash of indignation, as if for once a spot had come on His
pallid cheek--a spot of anger--but I do not think that we shall find
it so if we look a little more closely.
The first thing that seems to be in the words is not anger, indeed,
but a very distinct and very pathetic expression of Christ's infinite
pain, because of man's faithlessness. The element of personal sorrow
is most obvious here. It is not only that He is sad for their sakes
that they are so unreceptive, and He can do so little for them--I
shall have something to say about that presently--but that He feels
for Himself, just as we do in our poor humble measure, the chilling
effect of an atmosphere where there is no sympathy. All that ever the
teachers and guides and leaders of the world have in this respect had
to bear--all the misery of opening out their hearts in the frosty air
of unbelief and rejection--Christ endured. All that men have ever felt
of how hard it is to keep on working when not a soul understands them,
when not a single creature believes in them, when there is no one that
will accept their message, none that will give them credit for pure
motives--Jesus Christ had to feel, and that in an altogether singular
degree. There never was such a lonely soul on this earth as His, just
because there never was one so pure and loving. 'The little hills
rejoice _together_? as the Psalm says, 'on every side,' but the great
Alpine peak is alone there, away up amongst the cold and the snows.
Thus lived the solitary Christ, the uncomprehended Christ, the
unaccepted Christ. Let us see in this exclamation of His how humanly,
and yet how divinely, He felt the loneliness to which His love and
purity condemned Him.
The plain felt soul-chilling after the blessed communion of the
mountain. There was such a difference between Moses and Elias and the
voice that said, 'This is My beloved Son: hear Him,' and the disbelief
and slowness of spiritual apprehension of the people down below there,
that no wonder that for once the pain that He generally kept
absolutely down and silent, broke the bounds even of His restraint,
and shaped for itself this pathetic utterance: 'How long shall I be
with you? how long shall I suffer you?'
Dear friends, here is 'a little window through which we may see a
great matter' if we will only think of how all that solitude, and all
that sorrow of uncomprehended aims, was borne lovingly and patiently,
right away on to the very end, for every one of us. I know that there
are many of the aspects of Christ's life in which Christ's griefs tell
more on the popular apprehension; but I do not know that there is one
in which the title of 'The Man of Sorrows' is to all deeper thinking
more pathetically vindicated than in this--the solitude of the
uncomprehended and the unaccepted Christ and His pain at His
And then do not let us forget that in this short sharp cry of
anguish--for it is that--there may be detected by the listening ear
not only the tone of personal hurt, but the tone of disappointed and
thwarted love. Because of their unbelief He knew that they could not
receive what He desired to give them. We find Him more than once in
His life, hemmed in, hindered, baulked of His purpose, thwarted, as I
may say, in His design, simply because there was no one with a heart
open to receive the rich treasure that He was ready to pour out. He
had to keep it locked up in His own spirit, else it would have been
wasted and spilled upon the ground. 'He could do no mighty works there
because of their unbelief'; and here He is standing in the midst of
the men that knew Him best, that understood Him most, that were
nearest to Him in sympathy; but even they were not ready for all this
wealth of affection, all this infinitude of blessing, with which His
heart is charged. They offered no place to put it. They shut up the
narrow cranny through which it might have come, and so He has to turn
from them, bearing it away unbestowed, like some man who goes out in
the morning with his seed-basket full, and finds the whole field where
he would fain have sown covered already with springing weeds or
encumbered with hard rock, and has to bring back the germs of possible
life to bless and fertilise some other soil. 'He that goeth forth
weeping, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with joy';
but He that comes back weeping, bearing the precious seed that He
found no field to sow in, knows a deeper sadness, which has in it no
prophecy of joy. It is wonderfully pathetic and beautiful, I think, to
see how Jesus Christ knew the pains of wounded love that cannot get
expressed because there is not heart to receive it.
Here I would remark, too, before I go to another point, that these two
elements--that of personal sorrow and that of disappointed love and
baulked purposes--continue still, and are represented as in some
measure felt by Him now. It was to disciples that He said, 'O
faithless generation!' He did not mean to charge them with the entire
absence of all confidence, but He did mean to declare that their poor,
feeble faith, such as it was, was not worth naming in comparison with
the abounding mass of their unbelief. There was one spark of light in
them, and there was also a great heap of green wood that had not
caught the flame and only smoked instead of blazing. And so He said to
them, 'O _faithless_ generation!'
Ay, and if He came down here amongst us now, and went through the
professing Christians in this land, to how many of us--regard being
had to the feebleness of our confidence and the strength of our
unbelief--He would have to say the same thing, 'O faithless
The version of that clause in Matthew and Luke adds a significant
word,--'faithless and _perverse_ generation.' The addition carries a
grave lesson, as teaching us that the two characteristics are
inseparably united; that the want of faith is morally a crime and sin;
that unbelief is at once the most tragic manifestation of man's
perverse will, and also in its turn the source of still more obstinate
and wide-spreading evil. Blindness to His light and rejection of His
love, He treats as the very head and crown of sin. Like intertwining
snakes, the loathly heads are separate; but the slimy convolutions are
twisted indistinguishably together, and all unbelief has in it the
nature of perversity, as all perversity has in it the nature of
unbelief. 'He will convince the world of sin, because they believe not
May we venture to say, as we have already hinted, that all this pain
is in some mysterious way still inflicted on His loving heart? Can it
be that every time we are guilty of unbelieving, unsympathetic
rejection of His love, we send a pang of real pain and sorrow into the
heart of Christ? It is a strange, solemn thought. There are many
difficulties which start up, if we at all accept it. But still it does
appear as if we could scarcely believe in His perpetual manhood, or
think of His love as being in any real sense a human love, without
believing that He sorrows when we sin; and that we can grieve, and
wound, and cause to recoil upon itself, as it were, and close up that
loving and gracious Spirit that delights in being met with answering
love. If we may venture to take our love as in any measure analogous
to His--and unless we do, His love is to us a word without meaning--we
may believe that it is so. Do not we know that the purer our love, and
the more it has purified us, the more sensitive it becomes, even while
the less suspicious it becomes? Is not the purest, most unselfish,
highest love, that by which the least failure in response is felt most
painfully? Though there be no anger, and no change in the love, still
there is a pang where there is an inadequate perception, or an
unworthy reception, of it. And Scripture seems to countenance the
belief that Divine Love, too, may know something, in some mysterious
fashion, like that feeling, when it warns us, 'Grieve not the Holy
Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption.' So
_we_ may venture to say, Grieve not the Christ of God, who redeems us;
and remember that we grieve Him most when we will not let Him pour His
love upon us, but turn a sullen, unresponsive unbelief towards His
pleading grace, as some glacier shuts out the sunshine from the
mountain-side with its thick-ribbed ice.
Another thought, which seems to me to be expressed in this wonderful
exclamation of our Lord's, is--that this faithlessness bound Christ to
earth, and kept Him here. As there is not anger, but only pain, so
there is also, I think, not exactly impatience, but a desire to
depart, coupled with the feeling that He cannot leave them till they
have grown stronger in faith. And that feeling is increased by the
experience of their utter helplessness and shameful discomfiture
during His brief absence They had shown that they were not fit to be
trusted alone. He had been away for a day up in the mountain there,
and though they did not build an altar to any golden calf, like their
ancestors, when their leader was absent, still when He comes back He
finds things all gone wrong because of the few hours of His absence.
What would they do if He were to go away from them altogether? They
would never be able to stand it at all. It is impossible that He
should leave them thus--raw, immature. The plant has not yet grown
sufficiently strong to take away the prop round which it climbed. 'How
long must I be with you?' says the loving Teacher, who is prepared
ungrudgingly to give His slow scholars as much time as they need to
learn their lesson. He is not impatient, but He desires to finish the
task; and yet He is ready to let the scholars' dulness determine the
duration of His stay. Surely that is wondrous and heart-touching love,
that Christ should let their slowness measure the time during which He
should linger here, and refrain from the glory which He desired. We do
not know all the reasons which determined the length of our Lord's
life upon earth, but this was one of them,--that He could not go away
until He had left these men strong enough to stand by themselves, and
to lay the foundations of the Church. Therefore He yielded to the plea
of their very faithlessness and backwardness, and with this wonderful
word of condescension and appeal bade them say for how many more days
He must abide in the plain, and turn His back on the glories that had
gleamed for a moment on the mountain of transfiguration.
In this connection, too, is it not striking to notice how long His
short life and ministry appeared to our Lord Himself? There is to me
something very pathetic in that question He addressed to one of His
Apostles near the end of His pilgrimage: 'Have I been so long time
with you, and yet hast thou not known Me?' It was not so very
long--three years, perhaps, at the outside--and much less, if we take
the shortest computation; and yet to Him it had been long. The days
had seemed to go tardily. He longed that the 'fire' which He came to
fling on earth were already 'kindled,' and the moments seemed to drop
so slowly from the urn of time. But neither the holy longing to
consummate His work by the mystery of His passion, to which more than
one of His words bear witness, nor the not less holy longing to be
glorified with 'the glory which He had with the Father before the
world was,' which we may reverently venture to suppose in Him, could
be satisfied till his slow scholars were wiser, and His feeble
And then again, here we get a glimpse into the depth of Christ's
patient forbearance. We might read these other words of our text, 'How
long shall I suffer you?' with such an intonation as to make them
almost a threat that the limits of forbearance would soon be reached,
and that lie was not going to 'suffer them' much longer. Some
commentators speak of them as expressing 'holy indignation,' and I
quite believe that there is such a thing, and that on other occasions
it was plainly spoken in Christ's words. But I fail to catch the tone
of it here. To me this plaintive question has the very opposite of
indignation in its ring. It sounds rather like a pledge that as long
as they need forbearance they will get it; but, at the same time, a
question of 'how long' that is to be. It implies the inexhaustible
riches and resources of His patient mercy. And Oh, dear brethren! that
endless forbearance is the only refuge and ground of hope we have.
_His_ perfect charity 'is not soon angry; beareth all things,'
and 'never faileth.' To it we have all to make the appeal--
'Though I have most unthankful been
Of all that e'er Thy grace received;
Ten thousand times Thy goodness seen,
Ten thousand times Thy goodness grieved;
Yet, Lord, the chief of sinners spare.'
And, thank God! we do not make our appeal in vain.
There is rebuke in His question, but how tender a rebuke it is! He
rebukes without anger. He names the fault plainly. He shows distinctly
His sorrow, and does not hide the strain on His forbearance. That is
His way of cure for His servants' faithlessness. It was His way on
earth; it is His way in heaven. To us, too, comes the loving rebuke of
this question, 'How long shall I suffer you?'
Thank God that our answer may be cast into the words of His own
promise: 'I say not unto thee, until seven times; but until seventy
times seven.' 'Bear with me till Thou hast perfected me; and then bear
me to Thyself, that I may be with Thee for ever, and grieve Thy love
no more.' So may it be, for 'with Him is plenteous redemption,' and
His forbearing 'mercy endureth for ever.'
THE OMNIPOTENCE OF FAITH
Jesus said unto him, If them canst believe, all things are possible to
him that believeth.'--Mark ix. 23.
The necessity and power of faith is the prominent lesson of this
narrative of the healing of a demoniac boy, especially as it is told
by the Evangelist Mark, The lesson is enforced by the actions of all
the persons in the group, except the central figure, Christ. The
disciples could not cast out the demon, and incur Christ's plaintive
rebuke, which is quite as much sorrow as blame: 'O faithless
generation I how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer
you?' And then, in the second part of the story, the poor father,
heart-sick with hope deferred, comes into the foreground. The whole
interest is shifted to him, and more prominence is given to the
process by which his doubting spirit is led to trust, than to that by
which his son is healed.
There is something very beautiful and tender in Christ's way of
dealing with him, so as to draw him to faith. He begins with the
question, 'How long is it ago since this came unto him?' and so
induces him to tell all the story of the long sorrow, that his
burdened heart might get some ease in speaking, and also that the
feeling of the extremity of the necessity, deepened by the very
dwelling on all his boy's cruel sufferings, might help him to the
exercise of faith. Truly 'He knew what was in man,' and with
tenderness born of perfect knowledge and perfect love, He dealt with
sore and sorrowful hearts. This loving artifice of consolation, which
drew all the story from willing lips, is one more little token of His
gentle mode of healing. And it is profoundly wise, as well as most
tender. Get a man thoroughly to know his need, and vividly to feel his
helpless misery, and you have carried him a long way towards laying
hold of the refuge from it.
How wise and how tender the question is, is proved by the long
circumstantial answer, in which the pent-up trouble of a father's
heart pours itself out at the tiny opening which Christ has made for
it. He does not content himself with the simple answer, 'Of a child,'
but with the garrulousness of sorrow that has found a listener that
sympathises, goes on to tell all the misery, partly that he may move
his hearer's pity, but more in sheer absorption with the bitterness
that had poisoned the happiness of his home all these years. And then
his graphic picture of his child's state leads him to the plaintive
cry, in which his love makes common cause with his son, and unites
both in one wretchedness. 'If thou canst do anything, have compassion
on _us_ and help _us_.'
Our Lord answers that appeal in the words of our text. There are some
difficulties in the rendering and exact force of these words with
which I do not mean to trouble you. We may accept the rendering as in
our Bible, with a slight variation in the punctuation. If we take the
first clause as an incomplete sentence, and put a break between it and
the last words, the meaning will stand out more clearly: 'If thou
canst believe--all things are possible to him that believeth.' We
might paraphrase it somewhat thus: Did you say 'If thou canst do
anything'? That is the wrong 'if.' There is no doubt about that. The
only 'if' in the question is another one, not about me, but about you.
'If _thou_ canst believe--' and then the incomplete sentence might be
supposed to be ended with some such phrase as 'That is the only
question. If thou canst believe--all depends on that. If thou canst
believe, thy son will be healed,' or the like. Then, in order to
explain and establish what He had meant in the half-finished saying,
He adds the grand, broad statement, on which the demand for the man's
faith as the only condition of his wish being answered reposes: 'All
things are possible to him that believeth.'
That wide statement is meant, I suppose, for the disciples as well as
for the father. 'All things are possible' both in reference to
benefits to be received, and in reference to power to be exercised.
'If thou canst believe, poor suppliant father, thou shalt have thy
desire. If thou canst believe, poor devil-ridden son, thou shalt be
set free. If ye can believe, poor baffled disciples, you will be
masters of the powers of evil.'
Do you remember another 'if' with which Christ was once besought?
'There came a leper to Him, beseeching Him, and kneeling down to Him,
and saying unto Him, If Thou wilt, Thou canst make me clean.' In some
respects that man had advanced beyond the father in our story, for he
had no doubt at all about Christ's power, and he spoke to Him as
'Lord.' But he was somehow not quite sure about Christ's heart of
pity. On the other hand, the man in our narrative has no doubt about
Christ's compassion. He may have seen something of His previous
miracles, or there may still have been lying on our Lord's countenance
some of the lingering glory of the Transfiguration--as indeed the
narrative seems to hint, in its emphatic statement of the astonishment
and reverential salutations of the crowd when He approached--or the
tenderness of our Lord's listening sympathy may have made him feel
sure of His willingness to help. At any rate, the leper's 'if' has
answered itself for him. His own lingering doubt, Christ waives aside
as settled. His 'if' is answered for ever. So these two 'ifs' in
reference to Christ are beyond all controversy; His power is certain,
and His love. The third 'if' remains, the one that refers to us--'If
thou canst believe'; all hinges on that, for 'all things are possible
to him that believeth.'
Here, then, we have our Lord telling us that faith is omnipotent. That
is a bold word; He puts no limitations; 'all things are possible.' I
think that to get the true force of these words we should put
alongside of them the other saying of our Lord's, 'With God all things
are possible.' That is the foundation of the grand prerogative in our
text. The power of faith is the consequence of the power of God. All
things are possible to Him; therefore, all things are possible to me,
believing in Him. If we translate that into more abstract words, it
just comes to the principle that the power of faith consists in its
taking hold of the power of God. It is omnipotent because it knits us
to Omnipotence. Faith is nothing in itself, but it is that which
attaches us to God, and then His power flows into us. Screw a pipe on
to a water main and turn a handle, and out flows the water through the
pipe and fills the empty vessel. Faith is as impotent in itself as the
hollow water pipe is, only it is the way by which the connection is
established between the fulness of God and the emptiness of man. By it
divinity flows into humanity, and we have a share even in the divine
Omnipotence. 'My strength is made perfect in weakness.' In itself
nothing, it yet grasps God, and therefore by it we are strong, because
by it we lay hold of His strength. Great and wonderful is the grace
thus given to us, poor, struggling, sinful men, that, looking up to
the solemn throne, where He sits in His power, we have a right to be
sure that a true participation in His greatness is granted to us, if
once our hearts are fastened to Him.
And there is nothing arbitrary nor mysterious in this flowing of
divine power into our hearts on condition of our faith. It is the
condition of possessing Christ, and in Christ, salvation,
righteousness, and strength, not by any artificial appointment, but in
the very nature of things. There is no other way possible by which God
could give men what they receive through their faith, except only
In all trust in God there are two elements: a sense of need and of
evil and weakness, and a confidence more or less unshaken and strong
in Him, His love and power and all-sufficiency; and unless both of
these two be in the heart, it is, in the nature of things, impossible,
and will be impossible to all eternity, that purity and strength and
peace and joy, and all the blessings which Christ delights to give to
faith, should ever be ours.
Unbelief, distrust of Him, which separates us from Him and closes the
heart fast against His grace, must cut us off from that which it does
not feel that it needs, nor cares to receive; and must interpose a
non-conducting medium between us and the electric influences of His
might. When Christ was on earth, man's want of faith dammed back His
miracle-working power, and paralysed His healing energy. How strange
that paradox sounds at first hearing, which brings together
Omnipotence and impotence, and makes men able to counter-work the
loving power of Christ. 'He could there do no mighty work.' The
Evangelist intends a paradox, for he uses two kindred words to express
the inability and the mighty work; and we might paraphrase the saying
so as to bring out the seeming contradiction: 'He there had no power
to do any work of power.' The same awful, and in some sense
mysterious, power of limiting and restraining the influx of His love
belongs to unbelief still, whether it take the shape of active
rejection, or only of careless, passive non-reception. For faith makes
us partakers of divine power by the very necessity of the case, and
that power can attach itself to nothing else. So, 'if thou canst
believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.'
Still further, we may observe that there is involved here the
principle that our faith determines the amount of our power. That is
true in reference to our own individual religious life, and it is true
in reference to special capacities for Christ's service. Let me say a
word or two about each of these. They run into each other, of course,
for the truest power of service is found in the depth and purity of
our own personal religion, and on the other hand our individual
Christian character will never be deep or pure unless we are working
for the Master. Still, for our present purpose, these two inseparable
aspects of the one Christian life may be separated in thought.
As to the former, then, the measure of my trust in Christ is the
measure of all the rest of my Christian character. I shall have just
as much purity, just as much peace, just as much wisdom or gentleness
or love or courage or hope, as my faith is capable of taking up, and,
so to speak, holding in solution. The 'point of saturation' in a man's
soul, the quantity of God's grace which he is capable of absorbing, is
accurately measured by his faith. How much do I trust God? That will
settle how much I can take in of God.
So much as we believe, so much can we contain. So much as we can
contain, so much shall we receive. And in the very act of receiving
the 'portion of our Father's goods that falleth' to us, we shall feel
that there is a boundless additional portion ready to come as soon as
we are ready for it, and thereby we shall be driven to larger desires
and a wider opening of the lap of faith, which will ever be answered
by 'good measure, pressed together and running over, measured into our
bosoms.' But there will be no waste by the bestowment of what we
cannot take. 'According to your faith, be it unto you.' That is the
accurate thermometer which measures the temperature of our spiritual
state. It is like the steam-gauge outside the boiler, which tells to a
fraction the pressure of steam within, and so the power which can at
the moment be exerted.
May I make a very simple, close personal application of this thought?
We have as much religious life as we desire; that is, we have as much
as our faith can take. There is the reason why such hosts of so-called
Christians have such poor, feeble Christianity. _We_ dare not say of
any, 'They have a name to live, and are dead.' There is only one Eye
who can tell when the heart has ceased to beat. But we may say that
there are a mournful number of people who call themselves Christians,
who look so like dead that no eye but Christ's can tell the
difference. They are in a syncope that will be death soon, unless some
mighty power rouse them.
And then, how many more of us there are, not so bad as that, but still
feeble and languid, whose Christian history is a history of weakness,
while God's power is open before us, of starving in the midst of
abundance, broken only by moments of firmer faith, and so of larger,
happier possession, that make the poverty-stricken ordinary days
appear ten times more poverty-stricken. The channel lies dry, a waste
chaos of white stones and driftwood for long months, and only for an
hour or two after the clouds have burst on the mountains does the
stream fill it from bank to bank. Do not many of us remember moments
of a far deeper and more earnest trust in Christ than marks our
ordinary days? If such moments were continuous, should not we be the
happy possessors of beauties of character and spiritual power, such as
would put our present selves utterly to shame? And why are they not
continuous? Why are our possessions in God so small, our power so
weak? Dear friends! 'ye are not straitened in yourselves.' The only
reason for defective spiritual progress and character is defective
Then look at this same principle as it affects our faculties for
Christian service. There, too, it is true that all things are possible
to him that believeth. The saying had an application to the disciples
who stood by, half-ashamed and half-surprised at their failure to cast
out the demon, as well as to the father in his agony of desire and
doubt. For them it meant that the measure of Christian service was
mainly determined by the measure of their faith. It would scarcely be
an exaggeration to say that in Christ's service a man can do pretty
nearly what he believes he can do, if his confidence is built, not on
himself, but on Christ.
If those nine Apostles, waiting there for their Master, had thought
they could cast out the devil from the boy, do you not think that they
could have done it? I do not mean to say that rash presumption,
undertaking in levity and self-confidence unsuitable kinds of work,
will be honoured with success. But I do mean to say that, in the line
of our manifest duty, the extent to which we can do Christ's work is
very much the extent to which we believe, in dependence on Him, that
we can do it. If we once make up our minds that we shall do a certain
thing by Christ's help and for His sake, in ninety cases out of a
hundred the expectation will fulfil itself, and we shall do it. 'Why
could not we cast him out?' They need not have asked the question.
'Why could not you cast him out? Why, because you did not think you
could, and with your timid attempt, making an experiment which you
were not sure would succeed, provoked the failure which you feared.'
The Church has never believed enough in its Christ-given power to cast
out demons. We have never been confident enough that the victory was
in our hands if we knew how to use our powers.
The same thing is true of each one of us. Audacity and presumption are
humility and moderation, if only we feel that 'our sufficiency is of
God.' 'I can do all things' is the language of simple soberness, if we
go on to say 'through Christ which strengthened me.'
There is one more point, drawn from these words, viz., our faith can
only take hold on the divine promises. Such language as this of my
text and other kindred sayings of our Lord's has often been extended
beyond its real force, and pressed into the service of a mistaken
enthusiasm, for want of observing that very plain principle. The
principle of our text has reference to outward things as well as to
the spiritual life. But there are great exaggerations and
misconceptions as to the province of faith in reference to these
temporal things, and consequently there are misconceptions and
exaggerations on the part of many very good people as to the province
of prayer in regard to them.
It seems to me that we shall be saved from these, if we distinctly
recognise a very obvious principle, namely, that 'faith' can never go
further than God's clear promises, and that whatever goes beyond God's
word is not faith, but something else assuming its appearance.
For instance, suppose a father nowadays were to say: 'My child is sore
vexed with sickness. I long for his recovery. I believe that Christ
can heal him. I believe that He will. I pray in faith, and I know that
I shall be answered.' Such a prayer goes beyond the record. Has Christ
told you that it is His will that your child shall be healed? If not,
how can you pray in faith that it is? You may pray in confidence that
he will be healed, but such confident persuasion is not faith. Faith
lays hold of Christ's distinct declaration of His will, but such
confidence is only grasping a shadow, your own wishes. The father in
this story was entitled to trust, because Christ told him that his
trust was the condition of his son's being healed. So in response to
the great word of our text, the man's faith leaped up and grasped our
Lord's promise, with 'Lord, I believe.' But before Christ spoke, his
desires, his wistful longing, his imploring cry for help, had no
warrant to pass into faith, and did not so pass.
Christ's word must go before our faith, and must supply the object for
our faith, and where Christ has not spoken, there is no room for the
exercise of any faith, except the faith, 'It is the Lord; let Him do
what seemeth to Him good.' That is the true prayer of faith in regard
to all matters of outward providence where we have no distinct word of
God's which gives unmistakable indication of His will. The 'if' of the
leper, which has no place in the spiritual region, where we know that
'this is the will of God, even our sanctification,' has full force in
the temporal region, where we do not know before the event what the
will of the Lord is, 'If Thou wilt, Thou canst,' is there our best
Wherever a distinct and unmistakable promise of God's goes, it is safe
for faith to follow; but to outrun His word is not faith, but
self-will, and meets the deserved rebuke, 'Should it be according to
thy mind?' There _are_ unmistakable promises about outward things on
which we may safely build. Let us confine our expectations within the
limits of these, and turn them into the prayer of faith, so shooting
back whence they came His winged words, 'This is the confidence that
we have, that if we ask anything according to His will He heareth us.'
Thus coming to Him, submitting all our wishes in regard to this world
to His most loving will, and widening our confidence to the breadth of
His great and loving purpose in regard to our own inward life, as well
as in regard to our practical service, His answer will ever be, 'Great
is thy faith; be it unto thee even as thou wilt.'
'And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with
tears, Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief.'--Mark ix. 24.
We owe to Mark's Gospel the fullest account of the pathetic incident
of the healing of the demoniac boy. He alone gives us this part of the
conversation between our Lord and the afflicted child's father. The
poor man had brought his child to the disciples, and found them unable
to do anything with him. A torrent of appeal breaks from his lips as
soon as the Lord gives him an opportunity of speaking. He dwells upon
all the piteous details with that fondness for repetition which sorrow
knows so well. Jesus gives him back his doubts. The father said, 'If
thou canst do anything, have compassion on us and help us.' Christ's
answer, according to the true reading, is not as it stands in our
Authorised Version, 'If thou canst _believe_'--throwing, as it were,
the responsibility on the man--but it is a quotation of the father's
own word, 'If Thou _canst_,' as if He waved it aside with superb
recognition of its utter unfitness to the present case. 'Say not, If
Thou canst. _That_ is certain. All things are possible to thee' (not
to _do_, but to _get_) 'if'--which is the only 'if' in the case--'thou
believest. I can, and if thy faith lays hold on My Omnipotence, all is
That majestic word is like the blow of steel upon flint; it strikes a
little spark of faith which lights up the soul and turns the smoky
pillar of doubt into clear flame of confidence. 'Lord, I believe; help
Thou mine unbelief.'
I think in these wonderful words we have four things--the birth, the
infancy, the cry, and the education, of faith. And to these four I
I. First, then, note here the birth of faith.
There are many ways to the temple, and it matters little by which of
them a man travels, if so be he gets there. There is no royal road to
the Christian faith which saves the soul. And yet, though identity of
experience is not to be expected, men are like each other in the
depths, and only unlike on the surfaces, of their being. Therefore one
man's experience carefully analysed is very apt to give, at least, the
rudiments of the experience of all others who have been in similar
circumstances. So I think we can see here, without insisting on any
pedantic repetition of the same details in every case, in broad
outline, a sketch-map of the road. There are three elements here:
eager desire, the sense of utter helplessness, and the acceptance of
Christ's calm assurances. Look at these three.
This man knew what he wanted, and he wanted it very sorely. Whosoever
has any intensity and reality of desire for the great gifts which
Jesus Christ comes to bestow, has taken at least one step on the way
to faith. Conversely, the hindrances which block the path of a great
many of us are simply that we do not care to possess the blessings
which Jesus Christ in His Gospel offers. I am not talking now about
the so-called intellectual hindrances to belief, though I think that a
great many of these, if carefully examined, would be found, in the
ultimate analysis, to repose upon this same stolid indifference to the
blessings which Christianity offers. But what I wish to insist upon is
that for large numbers of us, and no doubt for many men and women whom
I address now, the real reason why they have not trust in Jesus Christ
is because they do not care to possess the blessings which Jesus
Christ brings. Do you desire to have your sins forgiven? Has purity
any attraction for you? Do you care at all about the calm and pure
blessings of communion with God? Would you like to live always in the
light of His face? Do you want to be the masters of your own lusts and
passions? I do not ask you, Do you want to go to Heaven or to escape
Hell, when you die? but I ask, Has that future in any of its aspects
any such power over you as that it stirs you to any earnestness and
persistency of desire, or is it all shadowy and vain, ineffectual and
What we Christian teachers have to fight against is that we are
charged to offer to men a blessing that they do not want, and have to
create a demand before there can be any acceptance of the supply.
'Give us the leeks and garlics of Egypt,' said the Hebrews in the
wilderness; 'our soul loatheth this light bread.' So it is with many
of us; we do not want God, goodness, quietness of conscience, purity
of life, self-consecration to a lofty ideal, one-thousandth part as
much as we want success in our daily occupations, or some one or other
of the delights that the world gives. I remember Luther, in his rough
way, has a story--I think it is in his _Table-talk_--about a herd of
swine to whom their keeper offered some rich dainties, and the pigs
said, 'Give us grains.' That is what so many men do when Jesus Christ
comes with His gifts and His blessings. They turn away, but if they
were offered some poor earthly good, all their desires would go out
towards it, and their eager hands would be scrambling who should first
Oh brethren, if we saw things as they are, and our needs as they are,
nothing would kindle such intensity of longing in our hearts as that
rejected or neglected promise of life eternal and divine which Jesus
Christ brings. If I could only once wake in some indifferent heart
this longing, that heart would have taken at least the initial step to
a life of Christian godliness.
Further, we have here the other element of a sense of utter
helplessness. How often this poor father had looked at his boy in the
grip of the fiend, and had wrung his hands in despair that he could
not do anything for him! That same sense of absolute impotence is one
which we all, if we rightly understand what we need, must cherish. Can
you forgive your own sins? Can you cleanse your own nature? Can you
make yourselves other than you are by any effort of volition, or by
any painfulness of discipline? To a certain small extent you can. In
regard to superficial culture and eradication, your careful husbandry
of your own wills may do much, but you cannot deal with your deepest
needs. If we understand what is required, in order to bring one soul
into harmony and fellowship with God, we shall recognise that we
ourselves can do nothing to save, and little to help ourselves. 'Every
man his own redeemer,' which is the motto of some people nowadays, may
do very well for fine weather and for superficial experience, but when
the storm comes it proves a poor refuge, like the gay pavilions that
they put up for festivals, which are all right whilst the sun is
shining and the flags are fluttering, but are wretched shelters when
the rain beats and the wind howls. We can do nothing for ourselves.
The recognition of our own helplessness is the obverse, so to speak,
and underside, of confidence in the divine help. The coin, as it were,
has its two faces. On the one is written, 'Trust in the Lord'; on the
other is written, 'Nothing in myself.' A drowning man, if he tries to
help himself, only encumbers his would-be rescuer, and may drown him
too. The truest help he can give is to let the strong arm that has
cleft the waters for his sake fling itself around him and bear him
safe to land. So, eager desire after offered blessings and
consciousness of my own impotence to secure them--these are the
initial steps of faith.
And the last of the elements here is, listening to the calm assurance
of Jesus Christ: 'If Thou canst! Do not say that to Me; I can, and
because I can, all things are possible for thee to receive.' In like
manner He stands at the door of each of our hearts and speaks to each
of our needs, and says: 'I can satisfy it. Rest for thy soul,
cleansing for thy sins, satisfaction for thy desires, guidance for thy
pilgrimage, power for thy duties, patience in thy sufferings--all
these will come to thee, if thou layest hold of My hand.' His
assurance helps trembling confidence to be born, and out of doubt the
great calm word of the Master smites the fire of trust. And we, dear
brethren, if we will listen to Him, shall surely find in Him all that
we need. Think how marvellous it is that this Jewish peasant should
plant Himself in the front of humanity, over against the burdened,
sinful race of men, and pledge Himself to forgive and to cleanse their
sins, to bear all their sicknesses, to be their strength in weakness,
their comfort in sorrow, the rest of their hearts, their heaven upon
earth, their life in death, their glory in heaven, and their all in
all; and not only should pledge Himself, but in the blessed experience
of millions should have more than fulfilled all that He promised.
'They trusted in Him, and were lightened, and their faces were not
ashamed.' Will you not answer His sovereign word of promise with your
'Lord, I believe'?
II. Then, secondly, we have here the infancy of faith.
As soon as the consciousness of belief dawned upon the father, and the
effort to exercise it was put forth, there sprang up the consciousness
of its imperfection. He would never have known that he did not believe
unless he had tried to believe. So it is in regard to all excellences
and graces of character. The desire of possessing some feeble degree
of any virtue or excellence, and the effort to put it forth, is the
surest way of discovering how little of it we have. On the other side,
sorrow for the lack of some form of goodness is itself a proof of the
partial possession, in some rudimentary and incipient form, of that
goodness. The utterly lazy man never mourns over his idleness; it is
only the one that would fain work harder than he does, and already
works tolerably hard, who does so. So the little spark of faith in
this man's heart, like a taper in a cavern, showed the abysses of
darkness that lay unillumined round about it.
Thus, then, in its infancy, faith may and does coexist with much
unfaith and doubt. The same state of mind, looked at from its two
opposite ends, as it were, may be designated faith or unbelief; just
as a piece of shot silk, according to the angle at which you hold it,
may show you only the bright colours of its warp or the dark ones of
its weft. When you are travelling in a railway train with the sun
streaming in at the windows, if you look out on the one hand you will
see the illumined face of every tree and blade of grass and house; and
if you look out on the other, you will see their shadowed side. And so
the same landscape may seem to be all lit up by the sunshine of
belief, or to be darkened by the gloom of distrust. If we consider how
great and how perfect ought to be our confidence, to bear any due
proportion to the firmness of that upon which it is built, we shall
not be slow to believe that through life there will always be the
presence in us, more or less, of these two elements. There will be all
degrees of progress between the two extremes of infantile and mature
There follows from that thought this practical lesson, that the
discovery of much unbelief should never make a man doubt the reality
or genuineness of his little faith. We are all apt to write needlessly
bitter things against ourselves when we get a glimpse of the
incompleteness of our Christian life and character. But there is no
reason why a man should fancy that he is a hypocrite because he finds
out that he is not a perfect believer. But, on the other hand, let us
remember that the main thing is not the maturity, but the progressive
character, of faith. It was most natural that this man in our text, at
the very first moment when he began to put his confidence in Jesus
Christ as able to heal his child, should be aware of much
tremulousness mingling with it. But is it not most unnatural that
there should be the same relative proportion of faith and unbelief in
the heart and experience of men who have long professed to be
Christians? You do not expect the infant to have adult limbs, but you
do expect it to grow. True, faith at its beginning may be like a grain
of mustard seed, but if the grain of mustard seed be alive it will
grow to a great tree, where all the fowls of the air can lodge in the
branches. Oh! it is a crying shame and sin that in all Christian
communities there should be so many grey-headed babies, men who have
for years and years been professing to be Christ's followers, and
whose faith is but little, if at all, stronger--nay! perhaps is even
obviously weaker--than it was in the first days of their profession.
'Ye have need of milk, and not of strong meat,' very many of you. And
the vitality of your faith is made suspicious, not because it is
feeble, but because it is not growing stronger.
III. Notice the cry of infant faith.
'Help Thou mine unbelief' may have either of two meanings. The man's
desire was either that his faith should be increased and his unbelief
'helped' by being removed by Christ's operation upon his spirit, or
that Christ would 'help' him and his boy by healing the child, though
the faith which asked the blessing was so feeble that it might be
called unbelief. There is nothing in the language or in the context to
determine which of these two meanings is intended; we must settle it
by our own sense of what would be most likely under the circumstances.
To me it seems extremely improbable that, when the father's whole soul
was absorbed in the healing of his son, he should turn aside to ask
for the inward and spiritual process of having his faith strengthened.
Rather he said, 'Heal my child, though it is unbelief as much as faith
that asks Thee to do it.'
The lesson is that, even when we are conscious of much tremulousness
in our faith, we have a right to ask and expect that it shall be
answered. Weak faith _is_ faith. The tremulous hand _does_ touch. The
cord may be slender as a spider's web that binds a heart to Jesus, but
it _does_ bind. The poor woman in the other miracle who put out her
wasted finger-tip, coming behind Him in the crowd, and stealthily
touching the hem of His garment, though it was only the end of her
finger-nail that was laid on the robe, carried away with her the
blessing. And so the feeblest faith joins the soul, in the measure of
its strength, to Jesus Christ.
But let us remember that, whilst thus the cry of infant faith is
heard, the stronger voice of stronger faith is more abundantly heard.
Jesus Christ once for all laid down the law when He said to one of the
suppliants at His feet, 'According to your faith be it unto you.' The
measure of our belief is the measure of our blessing. The wider you
open the door, the more angels will crowd into it, with their white
wings and their calm faces. The bore of the pipe determines the amount
of water that flows into the cistern. Every man gets, in the measure
in which he desires. Though a tremulous hand may hold out a cup into
which Jesus Christ will not refuse to pour the wine of the kingdom,
yet the tremulous hand will spill much of the blessing; and he that
would have the full enjoyment of the mercies promised, and possible,
must 'ask in faith, nothing wavering.' The sensitive paper which
records the hours of sunshine in a day has great gaps upon its line of
light answering to the times when clouds have obscured the sun; and
the communication of blessings from God is intermittent, if there be
intermittency of faith. If you desire an unbroken line of mercy, joy,
and peace, keep up an unbroken continuity of trustful confidence.
IV. Lastly, we have here the education of faith.
Christ paid no heed in words to the man's confession of unbelief, but
proceeded to do the work which answered his prayer in both its
possible meanings. He responded to imperfect confidence by His perfect
work of cure, and, by that perfect work of cure, He strengthened the
imperfect confidence which it had answered.
Thus He educates us by His answers--His over-answers--to our poor
desires; and the abundance of His gifts rebukes the poverty of our
petitions more emphatically than any words of remonstrance beforehand
could have done. He does not lecture us into faith, but He blesses us
into it. When the Apostle was sinking in the flood, Jesus Christ said
no word of reproach until He had grasped him with His strong hand and
held him safe. And then, when the sustaining touch thrilled through
all the frame, then, and not till then, He said--as we may fancy, with
a smile on His face that the moonlight showed--as knowing how
unanswerable His question was, 'O thou of little faith, _wherefore_
didst thou doubt?' That is how He will deal with us if we will;
over-answering our tremulous petitions, and so teaching us to hope
more abundantly that 'we shall praise Him more and more.'
The disappointments, the weaknesses, the shameful defeats which come
when our confidence fails, are another page of His lesson-book. The
same Apostle of whom I have been speaking got that lesson when,
standing on the billows, and, instead of looking at Christ, looking at
their wrath and foam, his heart failed him, and because his heart
failed him he began to sink. If we turn away from Jesus Christ, and
interrupt the continuity of our faith by calculating the height of the
breakers and the weight of the water that is in them, and what will
become of us when they topple over with their white crests upon our
heads, then gravity will begin to work, and we shall begin to sink.
And well for us if, when we have sunk as far as our knees, we look
back again to the Master and say, 'Lord, save me; I perish!' The
weakness which is our own when faith sleeps, and the rejoicing power
which is ours because it is His, when faith wakes, are God's education
of it to fuller and ampler degrees and depth. We shall lose the
meaning of life, and the best lesson that joy and sorrow, calm and
storm, victory and defeat, can give us, unless all these make us
'rooted and grounded in faith.'
Dear friend, do you desire your truest good? Do you know that you
cannot win it, or fight for it to gain it, or do anything to obtain
it, in your own strength? Have you heard Jesus Christ saying to you,
'Come ... and I will give you rest'? Oh! I beseech you, do not turn
away from Him, but like this agonised father in our story, fall at His
feet with 'Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief,' and He will
confirm your feeble faith by His rich response.
RECEIVING AND FORBIDDING
'And He came to Capernaum: and being in the house He asked them, What
was it that ye disputed among yourselves by the way? 34. But they held
their peace: for by the way they had disputed among themselves, who
should be the greatest. 35. And He sat down, and called the Twelve,
and saith unto them, If any man desire to be first, the same shall be
last of all, and servant of all. 36. And He took a child, and set him
in the midst of them: and when He had taken him in His arms, He said
unto them, 37. Whosoever shall receive one of such children in My
name, receiveth Me: and whosoever shall receive Me, receiveth not Me,
but Him that sent Me. 38. And John answered Him, saying, Master, we
saw one casting out devils in Thy name, and he followeth not us: and
we forbad him, because he followeth not us. 39. But Jesus said, Forbid
him not: for there is no man which shall do a miracle in My name, that
can lightly speak evil of Me. 40. For he that is not against us is on
our part. 41. For whosoever shall give you a cup of water to drink in
My name, because ye belong to Christ, verily I say unto you, he shall
not lose his reward. 42. And whosoever shall offend one of these
little ones that believe in Me, it is better for him that a millstone
were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea.'--Mark ix.
Surely the disciples might have found something better to talk about
on the road from Caesarea, where they had heard from Jesus of His
sufferings, than this miserable wrangle about rank! Singularly enough,
each announcement of the Cross seems to have provoked something of the
sort. Probably they understood little of His meaning, but hazily
thought that the crisis was at hand when He should establish the
kingdom; and so their ambition, rather than their affection, was
stirred. Perhaps, too, the dignity bestowed on Peter after his
confession, and the favour shown to the three witnesses of the
Transfiguration, may have created jealousy. Matthew makes the quarrel
to have been about future precedence; Mark about present. The one was
striven for with a view to the other. How chill it must have struck on
Christ's heart, that those who loved Him best cared so much more for
their own petty superiority than for His sorrows!
I. Note the law of service as the true greatness (verses 33-35). 'When
He was in the house, He asked them.' He had let them talk as they
would on the road, walking alone in front, and they keeping, as they
thought, out of ear-shot; but, when at rest together in the house
(perhaps Peter's) where He lived in Capernaum, He lets them see, by
the question and still more by the following teaching, that He knew
what He asked, and needed no answer. The tongues that had been so loud
on the road were dumb in the house--silenced by conscience. His
servants still do and say many things on the road which they would not
do if they saw Him close beside them, and they sometimes fancy that
these escape Him. But when they are 'in the house' with Him, they will
find that He knew all that was going on; and when He asks the account
of it, they, too, will be speechless. 'A thing which does not appear
wrong by itself shows its true character when brought to the judgment
of God and the knowledge of Jesus Christ. (_Bengel_).
Christ deals with the fault with much solemnity, seating Himself, as
Teacher and Superior, and summoning the whole Twelve to hear. We do
not enter on the difficult question of the relation of Mark's report
of our Lord's words to those of the other Evangelists, but rather try
to bring out the significance of their form and connection here. Note,
then, that here we have not so much the nature of true greatness, as
the road to it. 'If any man would be first,' he is to be least and
servant, and thereby he will reach his aim. Of course, that involves
the conception of the nature of true greatness as service, but still
the distinction is to be kept in view. Further, 'last of all' is not
the same as 'servant of all.' The one phrase expresses humility; the
other, ministry. An indolent humility, so very humble that it does
nothing for others, and a service which if not humble, are equally
incomplete, and neither leads to or is the greatness at which alone a
Christian ought to aim. There are two paradoxes here. The lowest is
the highest, the servant is the chief; and they may be turned round
with equal truth--the highest is the lowest, and the chief is the
servant. The former tells us how things really are, and what they look
like, when seen from the centre by His eye. The latter prescribes the
duties and responsibilities of high position. In fact and truth, to
sink is the way to rise, and to serve is the way to rule--only the
rise and the rule are of another sort than contents worldly ambition,
and the Christian must rectify his notions of what loftiness and
greatness are. On the other hand, distinguishing gifts of mind, heart,
leisure, position, possessions, or anything else, are given us for
others, and bind us to serve. Both things follow from the nature of
Christ's kingdom, which is a kingdom of love; for in love the vulgar
distinctions of higher and lower are abolished, and service is
delight. This is no mere pretty sentiment, but a law which grips hard
and cuts deep. Christ's servants have not learned it yet, and the
world heeds it not; but, till it governs all human society, and pulls
up ambition, domination, and pride of place by the roots, society will
groan under ills which increase with the increase of wealth and
culture in the hands of a selfish few.
II. Note the exhibition of the law in a life. Children are quick at
finding out who loves them, and there would always be some hovering
near for a smile from Christ. With what eyes of innocent wonder the
child would look up at Him, as He gently set him there, in the open
space in front of Himself! Mark does not record any accompanying
words, and none were needed, The unconsciousness of rank, the
spontaneous acceptance of inferiority, the absence of claims to
consideration and respect, which naturally belong to childhood as it
ought to be, and give it winningness and grace, are the marks of a
true disciple, and are the more winning in such because they are not
of nature, but regained by self-abnegation. What the child is we have
to become. This child was the example of one-half of the law, being
'least of all,' and perfectly contented to be so; but the other half
was not shown in him, for his little hands could do but small service.
Was there, then, no example in this scene of that other requirement?
Surely there was; for the child was not left standing, shy, in the
midst, but, before embarrassment became weeping, was caught up in
Christ's arms, and folded to His heart. He had been taken as the
instance of humility, and he then became the subject of tender
ministry. Christ and he divided the illustration of the whole law
between them, and the very inmost nature of true service was shown in
our Lord's loving clasp and soothing pressure to His heart. It is as
if He had said, 'Look! this is how you must serve; for you cannot help
the weak unless you open your arms and hearts to them.' Jesus, with
the child held to His bosom, is the living law of service, and the
child nestling close to Him, because sure of His love, is the type of
the trustful affection which we must evoke if we are to serve or help.
This picture has gone straight to the hearts of men; and who can count
the streams of tenderness and practical kindliness of which it has
been the source?
Christ goes on to speak of the child, not as the example of service,
but of being served. The deep words carry us into blessed mysteries
which will recompense the lowly servants, and lift them high in the
kingdom. Observe the precision of the language, both as regards the
persons received and the motive of reception. 'One of such little
children' means those who are thus lowly, unambitious, and unexacting.
'In My name' defines the motive as not being simple humanity or
benevolence, but the distinct recognition of Christ's command and
loving obedience to His revealed character. No doubt, natural
benevolence has its blessings for those who exercise it; but that
which is here spoken of is something much deeper than nature, and wins
a far higher reward.
That reward is held forth in unfathomable words, of which we can but
skim the surface. They mean more than that such little ones are so
closely identified with Him that, in His love, He reckons good done to
them as done to Him. That is most blessedly true. Nor is it true only
because He lovingly reckons the deed as done to Him, though it really
is not; but, by reason of the derived life which all His children
possess from Him, they are really parts of Himself; and in that most
real though mystic unity, what is done to them is, in fact, done to
Him. Further, if the service be done in His name, then, on whomsoever
it may be done, it is done to Him. This great saying unveils the true
sacredness and real recipient of all Christian service. But more than
that is in the words. When we 'receive' Christ's little ones by help
and loving ministry, we receive Him, and in Him God, for joy and
strength. Unselfish deeds in His name open the heart for more of
Christ and God, and bring on the doer the blessing of fuller insight,
closer communion, more complete assimilation to his Lord. Therefore
such service is the road to the true superiority in His kingdom, which
depends altogether on the measure of His own nature which has flowed
into our emptiness.
III. The Apostles' conscience-stricken confession of their breach of
the law (verses 38-40). Peter is not spokesman this time, but John,
whose conscience was more quickly pricked. At first sight, the
connection of his interruption with the theme of the discourse seems
to be merely the recurrence of the phrase, 'in Thy name'; but, besides
that, there is an obvious contrast between 'receiving' and
'forbidding.' The Apostle is uneasy when he remembers what they had
done, and, like an honest man, he states the case to Christ,
half-confessing, and half-asking for a decision. He begins to think
that perhaps the man whom they had silenced was 'one such little
child,' and had deserved more sympathetic treatment. How he came to be
so true a disciple as to share in the power of casting out devils, and
yet not to belong to the closer followers of Jesus, we do not know,
and need not guess. So it was; and John feels, as he tells the story,
that perhaps their motives had not been so much their Master's honour
as their own. 'He followeth not us,' and yet he is trenching on our
prerogatives. The greater fact that he and they followed Christ was
overshadowed by the lesser that he did not follow them. There spoke
the fiery spirit which craved the commission to burn up a whole
village, because of its inhospitality. There spoke the spirit of
ecclesiastical intolerance, which in all ages has masqueraded as zeal
for Christ, and taken 'following us' and 'following Him' to be the
same thing. But there spoke, too, a glimmering consciousness that
gagging men was not precisely 'receiving' them, and that if 'in Thy
name' so sanctified deeds, perhaps the unattached exorcist, who could
cast out demons by it, was 'a little one' to be taken to their hearts,
and not an enemy to be silenced. Pity that so many listen to the law,
and do not, like John, feel it prick them!
Christ forbids such 'forbidding,' and thereby sanctions
'irregularities' and 'unattached' work, which have always been the
bugbears of sticklers for ecclesiastical uniformity, and have not
seldom been the life of Christianity. That authoritative,
unconditional 'forbid him not' ought, long ago, to have rung the
funeral knell of intolerance, and to have ended the temptation to
idolise 'conformity,' and to confound union to organised forms of the
Christian community with union to Christ. But bigotry dies hard. The
reasons appended serve to explain the position of the man in question.
If he had wrought miracles in Christ's name, he must have had some
faith in it; and his experience of its power would deepen that. So
there was no danger of his contradicting himself by speaking against
Jesus. The power of 'faith in the Name' to hallow deeds, the certainty
that rudimentary faith will, when exercised, increase, the guarantee
of experience as sure to lead to blessing from Jesus, are all involved
in this saying. But its special importance is as a reason for the
disciples' action. Because the man's action gives guarantees for his
future, they are not to silence him. That implies that they are only
to forbid those who do speak evil of Christ; and that to all others,
even if they have not reached the full perception of truth, they are
to extend patient forbearance and guidance. 'The mouth of them that
speak lies shall be stopped'; but the mouth that begins to stammer His
name is to be taught and cherished.
Christ's second reason still more plainly claims the man for an ally.
Commentators have given themselves a great deal of trouble to
reconcile this saying with the other--'He that is not with Me is
against Me.' If by reconciling is meant twisting both to mean the same
thing, it cannot be done. If preventing the appearance of
contradiction is meant, it does not seem necessary. The two sayings do
not contradict, but they complete, each other. They apply to different
classes of persons, and common-sense has to determine their
application. This man did, in some sense, believe in Jesus, and worked
deeds that proved the power of the Name. Plainly, such work was in the
same direction as the Lord's and the disciples'. Such a case is one
for the application of tolerance. But the principle must be limited by
the other, else it degenerates into lazy indifference. 'He that is not
against us is for us,' if it stood alone, would dissolve the Church,
and destroy distinctions in belief and practice which it would be
fatal to lose. 'He that is not with Me is against Me,' if it stood
alone, would narrow sympathies, and cramp the free development of
life. We need both to understand and get the good of either.
IV. We have the reward of receiving Christ's little ones set over
against the retribution that seizes those who cause them to stumble
(verses 41, 42). These verses seem to resume the broken thread of
verse 37, whilst they also link on to the great principle laid down in
verse 40. He that is 'not against' is 'for,' even if he only gives a
'cup of water' to Christ's disciple because he is Christ's. That shows
that there is some regard for Jesus in him. It is a germ which may
grow. Such an one shall certainly have his reward. That does not mean
that he will receive it in a future life, but that here his deed shall
bring after it blessed consequences to himself. Of these, none will be
more blessed than the growing regard for the Name, which already is,
in some degree, precious to him. The faintest perception of Christ's
beauty, honestly lived out, will be increased. Every act strengthens
its motive. The reward of living our convictions is firmer and more
enlightened conviction. Note, too, that the person spoken of belongs
to the same class as the silenced exorcist, and that this reads the
disciples a further lesson. Jesus will look with love on the acts
which even a John wished to forbid. Note, also, that the disciples
here are the recipients of the kindness. They are no longer being
taught to receive the 'little ones,' but are taught that they
themselves belong to that class, and need kindly succour from these
outsiders, whom they had proudly thought to silence.
The awful, reticent words, which shadow forth and yet hide the fate of
those who cause the feeblest disciple to stumble, are not for us to
dilate upon. Jesus saw the realities of future retribution, and
deliberately declares that death is a less evil than such an act. The
'little ones' are sacred because they are His. The same relation to
Him which made kindness to them so worthy of reward, makes harm to
them so worthy of punishment. Under the one lies an incipient love to
Him; under the other, a covert and perhaps scarcely conscious
opposition. It is devil's work to seduce simple souls from allegiance
to Christ. There are busy hands to-day laying stumbling-blocks in the
way, especially of young Christians--stumbling-blocks of doubt, of
frivolity, of slackened morality, and the like. It were better, says
One who saw clearly into that awful realm beyond, if a heavy millstone
were knotted about their necks, and they were flung into the deepest
place of the lake that lay before Him as he spoke. He does not speak
exaggerated words; and if a solemn strain of vehemence, unlike His
ordinary calm, is audible here, it is because what He knew, and did
not tell, gave solemn earnestness to His veiled and awe-inspiring
prophecy of doom. What imagination shall fill out the details of the
'worse than' which lurks behind that 'better'?
AN UNANSWERED QUESTION
'What was it that ye disputed among yourselves by the way?'--Mark ix.
Was it not a strange time to squabble when they had just been told of
His death? Note--
I. The variations of feeling common to the disciples and to us all:
one moment 'exceeding sorrowful,' the next fighting for precedence.
II. Christ's divine insight into His servants' faults. This question
was put because He knew what the wrangle had been about. The
disputants did not answer, but He knew without an answer, as His
immediately following warnings show. How blessed to think that Psalm
cxxxix. applies to Him--'There is not a word in my tongue, but lo, O
Lord! Thou knowest it altogether,'
III. The compassion of Christ seeking to cure the sins He sees. His
question is not to rebuke, but to heal; so His perfect knowledge is
blended with perfect love.
IV. The test of evil. They were ashamed to tell Him the cause of their
V. The method of cure. The presence of Christ is the end of strife and
of sin in general.
SALTED WITH FIRE
'Every one shall be salted with fire.'--Mark ix. 49.
Our Lord has just been uttering some of the most solemn words that
ever came from His gracious lips. He has been enjoining the severest
self-suppression, extending even to mutilation and excision of the
eye, the hand, or the foot, that might cause us to stumble. He has
been giving that sharp lesson on the ground of plain common sense and
enlightened self-regard. It _is_ better, obviously, to live maimed
than to die whole. The man who elects to keep a mortified limb, and
thereby to lose life, is a suicide and a fool. It is a solemn thought
that a similar mad choice is possible in the moral and spiritual
To these stern injunctions, accompanied by the awful sanctions of that
consideration, our Lord appends the words of my text. They are obscure
and have often been misunderstood. This is not the place to enter on a
discussion of the various explanations that have been proposed of
them. A word or two is all that is needful to put us in possession of
the point of view from which I wish to lay them on your hearts at this
I take the 'every one' of my text to mean not mankind generally, but
every individual of the class whom our Lord is addressing--that is to
say, His disciples. He is laying down the law for all Christians. I
take the paradox which brings together 'salting' and 'fire,' to refer,
not to salt as a means of communicating savour to food, but as a means
of preserving from putrefaction. And I take the 'fire' here to refer,
not to the same process which is hinted at in the awful preceding
words, 'the fire in not quenched,' but to be set in opposition to that
fire, and to mean something entirely different. There is a fire that
destroys, and there is a fire that preserves; and the alternative for
every man is to choose between the destructive and the conserving
influences. Christian disciples have to submit to be 'salted with
fire,' lest a worse thing befall them,
I. And so the first point that I would ask you to notice here is--that
fiery cleansing to which every Christian must yield.
Now I have already referred to the relation between the words of my
text and those immediately preceding, as being in some sense one of
opposition and contrast. I think we are put on the right track for
understanding the solemn words of this text if we remember the great
saying of John the Baptist, where, in precisely similar fashion, there
are set side by side the two conceptions of the chaff being cast into
the unquenchable fire (the same expression as in our text), and 'He
shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire.'
The salting fire, then, which cleanses and preserves, and to which
every Christian soul must submit itself, to be purged thereby, is, as
I take it, primarily and fundamentally the fire of that Divine Spirit
which Christ Himself told us that He had come to cast upon the earth,
and yearned, in a passion of desire, to see kindled. The very frequent
use of the emblem in this same signification throughout Scripture, I
suppose I need not recall to you. It seems to me that the only worthy
interpretation of the words before us, which goes down into their
depths and harmonises with the whole of the rest of the teaching of
Scripture, is that which recognises these words of my text as no
unwelcome threat, as no bitter necessity, but as a joyful promise
bringing to men, laden and burdened with their sins, the good news
that it is possible for them to be purged from them entirely by the
fiery ministration of that Divine Spirit. Just as we take a piece of
foul clay and put it into the furnace, and can see, as it gets
red-hot, the stains melt away, as a cloud does in the blue, from its
surface, so if we will plunge ourselves into the influences of that
divine power which Christ has come to communicate to the world, our
sin and all our impurities will melt from off us, and we shall be
clean. No amount of scrubbing with soap and water will do it. The
stain is a great deal too deep for that, and a mightier solvent than
any that we can apply, if unaided and unsupplied from above, is needed
to make us clean. 'Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean,'
especially when the would-be bringer is himself the unclean thing?
Surely not one. Unless there be a power _ab extra_, unparticipant of
man's evils, and yet capable of mingling with the evil man's inmost
nature, and dealing with it, then I believe that universal experience
and our individual experience tell us that there is no hope that we
shall ever get rid of our transgressions.
Brethren, for a man by his own unaided effort, however powerful,
continuous, and wisely directed it may be, to cleanse himself utterly
from his iniquity, is as hopeless as it would be for him to sit down
with a hammer and a chisel and try by mechanical means to get all the
iron out of a piece of ironstone. The union is chemical, not
mechanical. And so hammers and chisels will only get a very little of
the metal out. The one solvent is fire. Put the obstinate crude ore
into your furnace, and get the temperature up, and the molten metal
will run clear. There should be mountains of scoriae, the dross and
relics of our abandoned sins, around us all.
If we desire to be delivered, let us go into the fire. It will burn up
all our evil, and it will burn up nothing else. Keep close to Christ.
Lay your hearts open to the hallowing influences of the motives and
the examples that lie in the story of His life and death. Seek for the
fiery touch of that transforming Spirit, and be sure that you quench
Him not, nor grieve Him. And then your weakness will be reinvigorated
by celestial powers, and the live coal upon your lips will burn up all
But, subordinately to this deepest meaning, as I take it, of the great
symbol of our text, let me remind you of another possible application
of it, which follows from the preceding. God's Spirit cleanses men
mainly by raising their spirits to a higher temperature. For coldness
is akin to sin, and heavenly warmth is akin to righteousness.
Enthusiasm always ennobles, delivers men, even on the lower reaches of
life and conduct from many a meanness and many a sin. And when it
becomes a warmth of spirit kindled by the reception of the fire of
God, then it becomes the solvent which breaks the connection between
me and my evil. It is the cold Christian who makes no progress in
conquering his sin. The one who is filled with the love of God, and
has the ardent convictions and the burning enthusiasm which that love
ought to produce in our hearts, is the man who will conquer and eject
Nor must we forget that there is still another possible application of
the words. For whilst, on the one hand, the Divine Spirit's method of
delivering us is very largely that of imparting to us the warmth of
ardent, devout emotion; on the other hand, a part of this method is
the passing of us through the fiery trials and outward disciplines of
life. 'Every one shall be salted with fire' in that sense. And we have
learned, dear brethren, but little of the loving kindness of the Lord
if we are not able to say, 'I have grown more in likeness to Jesus
Christ by rightly accepted sorrows than by anything besides.' Be not
afraid of calamities; be not stumbled by disaster. Take the fiery
trial which is sent to you as being intended to bring about, at the
last, the discovery 'unto praise and honour and glory' of your faith,
that is 'much more precious than gold that perisheth, though it be
tried with fire.' 'Every one shall be salted with fire,' the Christian
law of life is, Submit to the fiery cleansing. Alas! alas! for the
many thousands of professing Christians who are wrapping themselves in
such thick folds of non-conducting material that that fiery energy can
only play on the surface of their lives, instead of searching them to
the depths. Do you see to it, dear brethren, that you lay open your
whole natures, down to the very inmost roots, to the penetrating,
searching, cleansing power of that Spirit. And let us all go and say
to Him, 'Search me, O God! and try me, and see if there be any wicked
way in me.'
II. Notice the painfulness of this fiery cleansing.
The same ideas substantially are conveyed in my text as are expressed,
in different imagery, by the solemn words that precede it. The
'salting with fire' comes substantially to the same thing as the
amputation of the hand and foot, and the plucking out of the eye, that
cause to stumble. The metaphor expresses a painful process. It is no
pleasant thing to submit the bleeding stump to the actual cautery, and
to press it, all sensitive, upon the hot plate that will stop the flow
of blood. But such pain of shrinking nerves is to be borne, and to be
courted, if we are wise, rather than to carry the hand or the eye that
led astray unmutilated into total destruction. Surely that is common
The process is painful because we are weak. The highest ideal of
Christian progress would be realised if one of the metaphors with
which our Lord expresses it were adequate to cover the whole ground,
and we grew as the wheat grows, 'first the blade, then the ear, after
that the full corn in the ear.' But the tranquillity of vegetable
growth, and the peaceful progress which it symbolises, are not all
that you and I have to expect. Emblems of a very different kind have
to be associated with that of the quiet serenity of the growing corn,
in order to describe all that a Christian man has to experience in the
work of becoming like his Master. It is a fight as well as a growth;
it is a building requiring our continuity of effort, as well as a
growth. There is something to be got rid of as well as much to be
appropriated. We do not only need to become better, we need to become
less bad. Squatters have camped on the land, and cling to it and hold
it _vi et armis_; and these have to be ejected before peaceful
settlement is possible.
One might go on multiplying metaphors _ad libitum_, in order to bring
out the one thought that it needs huge courage to bear being
sanctified, or, if you do not like the theological word, to bear being
made better. It is no holiday task, and unless we are willing to have
a great deal that is against the grain done to us, and in us, and by
us, we shall never achieve it. We have to accept the pain. Desires
have to be thwarted, and that is not pleasant. Self has to be
suppressed, and that is not delightsome. A growing conviction of the
depth of one's own evil has to be cherished, and that is not a
grateful thought for any of us. Pains external, which are felt by
reason of disciplinary sorrows, are not worthy to be named in the same
day as those more recondite and inward agonies. But, brother, they are
all 'light' as compared with the exceeding weight of 'glory,' coming
from conformity to the example of our Master, which they prepare for
And so I bring you Christ's message: He will have no man to enlist in
His army under false pretences. He will not deceive any of us by
telling us that it is all easy work and plain sailing. Salting by fire
can never be other than to the worse self an agony, just because it is
to the better self a rapture. And so let us make up our minds that no
man is taken to heaven in his sleep, and that the road is a rough one,
judging from the point of view of flesh and sense; but though rough,
narrow, often studded with sharp edges, like the plough coulters that
they used to lay in the path in the old rude ordeals, it still leads
straight to the goal, and bleeding feet are little to pay for a seat
at Christ's right hand.
III. Lastly, notice the preservative result of this painful cleansing.
Our Lord brings together, in our text, as is often His wont, two
apparently contradictory ideas, in order, by the paradox, to fix our
attention the more vividly upon His words. Fire destroys; salt
preserves. They are opposites. But yet the opposites may be united in
one mighty reality, a fire which preserves and does not destroy. The
deepest truth is that the cleansing fire which the Christ will give us
preserves us, because it destroys that which is destroying us. If you
kill the germs of putrefaction in a hit of dead flesh, you preserve
the flesh; and if you bring to bear upon a man the power which will
kill the thing that is killing him, its destructive influence is the
condition of its conserving one.
And so it is, in regard to that great spiritual influence which Jesus
Christ is ready to give to every one of us. It slays that which is
slaying us, for our sins destroy in us the true life of a man, and
make us but parables of walking death. When the three Hebrews were
cast into the fiery furnace in Babylon, the flames burned nothing but
their bonds, and they walked at liberty in the fire. And so it will be
with us. We shall be preserved by that which slays the sins that would
otherwise slay us.
Let me lay on your hearts before I close the solemn alternative to
which I have already referred, and which is suggested by the
connection of my text with the preceding words. There is a fire that
destroys and is not quenched. Christ's previous words are much too
metaphorical for us to build dogmatic definitions upon. But Jesus
Christ did not exaggerate. If here and now sin has so destructive an
effect upon a man, O, who will venture to say that he knows the limits
of its murderous power in that future life, when retribution shall
begin with new energy and under new conditions? Brethren, whilst I
dare not enlarge, I still less dare to suppress; and I ask you to
remember that not I, or any man, but Jesus Christ Himself, has put
before each of us this alternative--either the fire unquenchable,
which destroys a man, or the merciful fire, which slays his sins and
saves him alive.
Social reformers, philanthropists, you that have tried and failed to
overcome your evil, and who feel the loathly thing so intertwisted
with your being that to pluck it from your heart is to tear away the
very heart's walls themselves, here is a hope for you. Closely as our
evil is twisted in with the fibres of our character, there is a hand
that can untwine the coils, and cast away the sin, and preserve the
soul. And although we sometimes feel as if our sinfulness and our sin
were so incorporated with ourselves that it made oneself, with a man's
head and a serpent's tail, let us take the joyful assurance that if we
trust ourselves to Christ, and open our hearts to His power, we can
shake off the venomous beast into the fire and live a fuller life,
because the fire has consumed that which would otherwise have consumed
'SALT IN YOURSELVES'
'Have salt in yourselves, and have peace one with another.'--Mark ix.
In the context 'salt' is employed to express the preserving,
purifying, divine energy which is otherwise spoken of as 'fire.' The
two emblems produce the same result. They both salt--that is, they
cleanse and keep. And if in the one we recognise the quick energy of
the Divine Spirit as the central idea, no less are we to see the same
typified under a slightly different aspect in the other. The fire
transforms into its own substance and burns away all the grosser
particles. The salt arrests corruption, keeps off destruction, and
diffuses its sanative influence through all the particles of the
substance with which it comes in contact. And in both metaphors it is
the operation of God's cleansing Spirit, in its most general form,
that is set forth, including all the manifold ways by which God deals
with us to purge us from our iniquity, to free us from the death which
treads close on the heels of wrongdoing, the decomposition and
dissolution which surely follow on corruption.
This the disciples are exhorted to have in themselves that they may be
at peace one with another. Perhaps we shall best discover the whole
force of this saying by dealing--
I. With the symbol itself and the ideas derived from it.
The salt cleanses, arrests corruption which impends over the dead
masses, sweetens and purifies, and so preserves from decay and
dissolution. It works by contact, and within the mass. It thus stands
as an emblem of the cleansing which God brings, both in respect (a) to
that on which it operates, (b) to the purpose of its application, and
(c) to the manner in which it produces its effects.
(a) That on which it operates.
There is implied here a view of human nature, not flattering but true.
It is compared with a dead thing, in which the causes that bring about
corruption are already at work, with the sure issue of destruction.
This in its individual application comes to the assertion of sinful
tendency and actual sin as having its seat and root in all our souls,
so that the present condition is corruption, and the future issue is
destruction. The consequent ideas are that any power which is to
cleanse must come from without, not from within; that purity is not to
be won by our own efforts, and that there is no disposition in human
nature to make these efforts. There is no recuperative power in human
nature. True, there may be outward reformation of habits, etc., but,
if we grasp the thought that the taproot of sin is selfishness, this
impotence becomes clearer, and it is seen that sin affects all our
being, and that therefore the healing must come from beyond us.
(b) The purpose--namely, cleansing.
In salt we may include the whole divine energy; the Word, the Christ,
the Spirit. So the intention of the Gospel is mainly to make clean.
Preservation is a consequence of that.
(c) The manner of its application.
Inward, penetrating, by contact; but mainly the great peculiarity of
Christian ethics is that the inner life is dealt with first, the will
and the heart, and afterwards the outward conduct.
II. The part which we have to take in this cleansing process.
'Have salt' is a command; and this implies that while all the
cleansing energy comes from God, the working of it on our souls
depends on ourselves.
(a) Its original reception depends on our faith.
The 'salt' is here, but our contact with it is established by our
acceptance of it. There is no magical cleansing; but it must be
received within if we would share in its operation.
(b) Its continuous energy is not secured without our effort.
Let us just recall the principle already referred to, that the 'salt'
implies the whole cleansing divine energies, and ask what are these?
The Bible variously speaks of men as being cleansed by the 'blood of
Christ,' by the 'truth,' by the 'Spirit.' Now, it is not difficult to
bring all these into one focus, viz., that the Spirit of God cleanses
us by bringing the truth concerning Christ to bear on our
understandings and hearts.
We are sanctified in proportion as we are coming under the influence
of Christian truth, which, believed by our understandings and our
hearts, supplies motives to our wills which lead us to holiness by
copying the example of Christ.
Hence the main principle is that the cleansing energy operates on us
in proportion as we are influenced by the truths of the Gospel.
Again, it works in proportion as we seek for, and submit to, the
guidance of God's Holy Spirit.
In proportion as we are living in communion with Christ.
In proportion as we seek to deny ourselves and put away those evil
things which 'quench the Spirit.'
This great grace, then, is not ours without our own effort. No
original endowment is enough to keep us right. There must be the daily
contact with, and constant renewing of the Holy Ghost. Hence arises a
solemn appeal to all Christians.
Note the independence of the Christian character.
'In yourselves.' 'The water that I shall give him shall be in him a
fountain,' etc. Not, therefore, derived from the world, nor at
second-hand from other men, but you have access to it for yourselves.
See that you use the gift. 'Hold fast that which thou hast,' for there
are enemies to withstand--carelessness, slothfulness, and
III. The relation to one another of those who possess this energy.
In proportion as Christians have salt in themselves, they will be at
peace with one another. Remember that all sin is selfishness;
therefore if we are cleansed from it, that which leads to war,
alienation, and coldness will be removed. Even in this world there
will be an anticipatory picture of the perfect peace which will abound
when all are holy. Even now this great hope should make our mutual
Christian relations very sweet and helpful.
Thus emerges the great principle that the foundation of the only real
love among men must be laid in holiness of heart and life. Where the
Spirit of God is working on a heart, there the seeds of evil passions
are stricken out. The causes of enmity and disturbance are being
removed. Men quarrel with each other because their pride is offended,
or because their passionate desires after earthly things are crossed
by a successful rival, or because they deem themselves not
sufficiently respected by others. The root of all strife is self-love.
It is the root of all sin. The cleansing which takes away the root
removes in the same proportion the strife which grows from it. We
should not be so ready to stand on our rights if we remembered how we
come to have any hopes at all. We should not be so ready to take
offence if we thought more of Him who is not soon angry. All the train
of alienations, suspicions, earthly passions, which exist in our minds
and are sure to issue in quarrels or bad blood, will be put down if we
have 'salt in ourselves.'
This makes a very solemn appeal to Christian men. The Church is the
garden where this peace should flourish. The disgrace of the Church is
its envyings, jealousies, ill-natured scandal, idle gossip, love of
preeminence, willingness to impute the worst possible motives to one
another, sharp eyes for our brother's failings and none for our own. I
am not pleading for any mawkish sentimentality, but for a manly
peacefulness which comes from holiness. The holiest natures are always
the most generous.
What a contrast the Church ought to present to the prevailing tone in
the world! Does it? Why not? Because we do not possess the 'salt.' The
dove flees from the cawing of rooks and the squabbling of kites and
The same principle applies to all our human affections. Our loves of
all sorts are safe only when they are pure. Contrast the society based
on common possession of the one Spirit with the companionships which
repose on sin, or only on custom or neighbourhood. In all these there
are possibilities of moral peril.
The same principle intensified gives us a picture of heaven and of
hell. In the one are the 'solemn troops and sweet societies'; in the
other, no peace, no confidence, no bonds, only isolation, because sin
which is selfishness lies at the foundation of the awful condition.
Friends, without that salt our souls are dead and rotting. Here is the
great cure. Make it your own. So purified, you will be preserved, but,
on the other hand, unchecked sin leads to quick destruction.
The dead, putrefying carcass--what a picture of a soul abandoned to
evil and fit only for Gehenna!
CHILDREN AND CHILDLIKE MEN
'And they brought young children to Him, that He should touch them:
and His disciples rebuked those that brought them. 14. But when Jesus
saw it, He was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little
children to come unto Me, and forbid them not: for of such is the
kingdom of God. 15. Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive
the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.'
--Mark x. 13-15.
It was natural that the parents should have wanted Christ's blessing,
so that they might tell their children in later days that His hand had
been laid on their heads, and that He had prayed for them. And Christ
did not think of it as a mere superstition. The disciples were not so
akin to the children as He was, and they were a great deal more tender
of His dignity than He. They thought of this as an interruption
disturbing their high intercourse with Christ. 'These children are
always in the way, this is tiresome,' etc.
I. Christ blessing children.
It is a beautiful picture: the great Messiah with a child in His arms.
We could not think of Moses or of Paul in such an attitude. Without
it, we should have wanted one of the sweetest, gentlest, most human
traits in His character; and how world-wide in its effect that act has
been! How many a mother has bent over her child with deeper love; how
many a parent has felt the sacredness of the trust more vividly; how
many a mother has been drawn nearer to Christ; and how many a little
child has had childlike love to Him awakened by it; how much of
practical benevolence and of noble sacrifice for children's welfare,
how many great institutions, have really sprung from this one deed!
And, if we turn from its effects to its meaning, it reveals Christ's
love for children:--in its human side, as part of His character as
man; in its deeper aspect as a revelation of the divine nature. It
corrects dogmatic errors by making plain that, prior to all ceremonies
or to repentance and faith, little children are loved and blessed by
Him. Unconscious infants as these were folded in His arms and love. It
puts away all gloomy and horrible thoughts which men have had about
the standing of little children.
This is an act of Christ to infants expressive of His love to them,
His care over them, their share in His salvation. Baptism is an act of
man's, a symbol of his repentance and dying to sin and rising to a new
life in Christ, a profession of his faith, an act of obedience to his
Lord. It teaches nothing as to the relation of infants to the love of
Jesus or to salvation. It does not follow that because that love is
most sure and precious, baptism must needs be a sign of it. The
question, what does baptism mean, must be determined by examination of
texts which speak about baptism; not by a side-light from a text which
speaks about something else. There is no more reason for making
baptism proclaim that Jesus Christ loves children than for making it
proclaim that two and two make four.
II. The child's nearness to Christ.
'Of such is the kingdom.' 'Except ye be converted and become like
little children,' etc. Now this does not refer to innocence; for, as a
matter of fact, children are not innocent, as all schoolmasters and
nurses know, whatever sentimental poets may say. Innocence is not a
qualification for admission to the kingdom. And yet it is true that
'heaven lies about us in our infancy,' and that we are further off
from it than when we were children. Nor does it mean that children are
naturally the subjects of the kingdom, but only that the
characteristics of the child are those which the man must have, in
order to enter the kingdom; that their natural disposition is such as
Christ requires to be directed to Him; or, in other words, that
childhood has a special adaptation to Christianity. For instance, take
dependence, trust, simplicity, unconsciousness, and docility.
These are the very characteristics of childhood, and these are the
very emotions of mind and heart which Christianity requires. Add the
child's strong faculty of imagination and its implicit belief; making
the form of Christianity as the story of a life so easy to them. And
we may add too: the absence of intellectual pride; the absence of the
habit of dallying with moral truth. Everybody is to the child either a
'good' man or a 'bad.' They have an intense realisation of the unseen;
an absence of developed vices and hard worldliness; a faculty of
living in the present, free from anxious care and worldly hearts. But
while thus they have special adaptation for receiving, they too need
to come to Christ. These characteristics do not make Christians. They
are to be directed to Christ. 'Suffer them to come unto Me,' the
youngest child needs to, can, ought to, come to Christ. And how
beautiful their piety is, 'Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings
Thou hast perfected praise.' Their fresh, unworn trebles struck on
Christ's ear. Children ought to grow up in Christian households,
'innocent from much transgression.' We ought to expect them to grow up
III. The child and the Church.
The child is a pattern to us men. We are to learn of them as well as
teach them; what they are naturally, we are to strive to become, not
childish but childlike. 'Even as a weaned child' (see Psalm cxxxi.).
The child-spirit is glorified in manhood. It is possible for us to
retain it, and lose none of the manhood. 'In malice be ye children,
but in understanding be men.' The spirit of the kingdom is that of
The children are committed to our care.
The end of all training and care is that they should by voluntary act
draw near to Him. This should be the aim in Sunday schools, for
instance, and in families, and in all that we do for the poor around
See that we do not hinder their coming. This is a wide principle,
viz., not to do anything which may interfere with those who are weaker
and lower than we are finding their way to Jesus. The Church, and we
as individual Christians, too often hinder this 'coming.'
Do not hinder by the presentation of the Gospel in a repellent form,
either hardly dogmatic or sour.
Do not hinder by the requirement of such piety as is unnatural to a
Do not hinder by inconsistencies. This is a warning for Christian
parents in particular.
Do not hinder by neglect. '_Despise_ not one of these little ones.'
ALMOST A DISCIPLE
'And when He was gone forth into the way, there came one running, and
kneeled to Him, and asked Him. Good Master, what shall I do that I may
inherit eternal life! 18. And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou Me
good! there is none good but one, that is, God. 19. Thou knowest the
commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do
not bear false witness, Defraud not, Honour thy father and mother. 20.
And he answered and said unto Him, Master, all these have I observed
from my youth, 21. Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto
him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast,
and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and
come, take up the cross, and follow Me. 22. And he was sad at that
saying, and went away grieved: for he had great possessions. 23. And