IS CHRIST THE SAVIOUR OF ALL MEN?
"But we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially or those that believe."
KEGAN PAUL, TRENCH, TRUBNER & CO., LTD.
I. - THE QUESTION RAISED.
ST Matthew xi. 20-24.
"IF the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes." Then why were those mighty works not done? Is it not the will of God that none should perish, but that all should come, through repentance, unto life? Does not He Himself plead with men, saying, "Why will ye die?" And yet the Lord Jesus, who knew what might have been as well as what had been, solemnly declares that even the guilty inhabitants of Sodom and of Tyre and Sidon would have been brought to repentance and life had they witnessed the mighty works wrought in the favoured cities of Galilee! Why were they not permitted to witness them, then? Can we blame them, will God condemn them, and condemn them to an eternal death or an eternal misery, because they did not see what they could not see, because they did not repent, when the very means which would infallibly have induced repentance were not vouchsafed them?
A momentous question this! Few questions are more momentous. It is a question which demands an answer, even though we cannot hope, as I suppose we cannot, to reach a full and complete answer to it while we are compassed about with the limitations and infirmities of this hindering mortality. The complete answer would imply a complete apprehension of the entire scheme of Providence, a complete knowledge not only of the whole story of time, but also of the Divine motives and purposes of which that story is a vast and manifold illustration. And such knowledge is too wonderful for us, too high for us to reach, too broad for us to grasp. But some answer we must have, some considerations which at least lighten the burden of this pressing and momentous problem.
First of all, then, let us attempt to lay hold on the words which have raised this problem - to trace out the order and sequence of thought in this suggestive but obscure saying of our Lord's.
In Verse 20 we read, "Then began he to upbraid - to reproach - the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done, because they repented not." Then! When? When his mind was occupied with the thought (Verse 19) that the Divine Wisdom would be justified of all her children. That Wisdom had sent forth many of her sons to turn the men of Galilee from their sins, - heroes, statesmen, prophets, poets; from the old-world patriarch to the modern rabbi, a long succession of holy men had spoken to them, all delivering the same Divine message, but delivering it in divers manners, - Wisdom changing her modes and tones, and becoming all things to all men, that she might win the more. And last of all, and to crown all, the Baptist had come, and the Messias: John, solitary and austere, keen, incisive, stimulating as the frost of winter; Jesus, sociable, friendly, bountiful, as sweet and genial as a summer's day. But whatever the form which Wisdom assumed, whatever the tone in which she spoke, the men of Galilee found somewhat to allege against her. In her child John she was too austere, too exacting; he was a devil of a man, frowning on all the sweet and kindly uses of life. In her child Jesus she was too sociable, too pliable, too ready to condone and to share the indulgences of the worst and most despised of men. He had a devil, too, but a gluttonous and wine-bibbing devil. not a solitary and ascetic devil like John's.
This was the attitude which they assumed towards the Divine Wisdom that so graciously strove and pleaded with them, an attitude of captious and yet inveterate hostility. And now Christ sees that men possessed by so settled an hostility to every form of Wisdom and Righteousness as that they translate them into their very opposites, must be nearing the end of their course. As they will not repent and live, let Wisdom change her voice and note as she will, nothing remains but that she should vindicate the children whom they have rejected and condemned, by showing that it was by her inspiration that they had spoken, and that all they had said on her behalf was true. Those who would not repent unto life when denounced by John and invited by Jesus, and who held that they needed no repentance, must be left to die: their very death in sin proving that they did need to repent before they could live. As they had left Wisdom no other way of justifying herself, of proving herself to be the true wisdom, and the course she indicated the only wise course, she must take this way of justifying both her children and herself.
In Verses 21 and 23, three of the cities in which Wisdom had uttered her voice, and the mighty works of Christ had been done, are named as samples of the other cities of Galilee - Chorazin, Bethsaida, Capernaum. And all these are now mere names to us and nothing more. So utterly has the prediction of Christ been fulfilled, at least on its lower earthlier side; so intolerable was the judgment which fell on these wicked cities, and so completely were they destroyed by it, that it is impossible so much as to identify the very sites on which they once stood. The rocks of Tyre and the harbour of Sidon may still be seen; the place of Sodom is defined by the Sea which destroyed it, the very name of which is, as it were, the epitaph of its inhabitants. But a more intolerable and obliterating judgment has fallen on the cities of Galilee. The place that once knew them knows them no more; no indubitable vestige of them can be traced. We know that they were once busy and growing towns on the teeming north-western shore of Gennesaret; and that is all we can say of them. Some geographers, indeed, have found Capernaum, i.e., the village of Nahum, in the heap of ruins which the Arabs call Tell Hum, and Chorazin In the modern Keraseh, and affirm that Bethsaida stood on both sides the river at the point where the Jordan runs into the lake. But there is no common or general assent to any of these identifications. These ancient cities were sentenced to destruction by the Divine Wisdom to which they had refused to listen; and the sentence has been executed so rigorously, and so long ago, that all trace of them has been lost.
And yet it was not without pain and regret, we may be sure, that Jesus pronounced so heavy a doom on "his own city," Capernaum, in which He had spent many tranquil and many laborious hours; or on the neighbouring towns, which had yielded Him many disciples, and in which he had so often taught and healed, He was a man such as we are; and that which was familiar was dear to Him, as it is to us. I dare say He could have better spared many a better city than either Capernaum or Bethsaida. And there is some trace of this natural pity and regret - there is a sound of sighing in the very sentence He pronounced upon them; for the Greek word (ouai), rendered "woe" in the exclamations, "Woe unto thee Chorazin! woe unto thee Bethsaida!" is elsewhere translated "Alas" and here also it is an expression of pity; for by these exclamations our Lord means nothing less, though He may mean much more, than this : "Unhappy and unblessed are ye, Chorazin and Bethsaida, and I am sad to tell you so" There us - another slight but significant indication of this mood of ruth and pity in the verb with which the Evangelist introduces the "woe." "Then began He to reproach the cities," &c.; for we only "reproach" those whom, in some sort we have loved and trusted, of whom we had hoped better things.
But though his heart hung with tender compassion over these doomed but familiar cities, Jesus does not hesitate to utter their doom; for Love can be strong and severe even while it is sad and pitiful, and He who loved men much loved God more And, indeed, it was not he who condemned these cities, nor God. They had condemned themselves. He does but utter the sentence which they had virtually passed on themselves - that they were unworthy of eternal life. Life, in its true sense, was not in any of their thoughts. They did not aim at a life wisely. and righteously ordered, but at a busy, money-getting, self-indulgent life - a life which fits men neither for earth nor for heaven - a life, therefore, which, though it may seem to soar into a very heaven of wealth, success, distinction, enjoyment for a time, is inevitably doomed, and self-doomed, to sink into a hades of ruin and oblivion.
This was the condemnation of these cities, that light had come to them, the very Light which is the life of men; and they had loved darkness better than light because their deeds were evil. But in the mind of our Lord this condemnation took a special and instructive form. If we ask Him why He sighs forth sentence against the cities of Galilee, He replies that He condemns them for this, that in this they condemn themselves,-that The mighty works done in them hath not brought them to repentance. But why should they? What was there to induce repentance in the miracles of Christ? Miracles naturally beget wonder. admiration, awe; but what is the link of connection between miracles and penitence? I apprehend it to be this. Miracles, mighty works, disclose the Divine presence and activity. They show that God is with men. They bring home to the thoughtful heart a sense of his abiding presence and activity. And how tall sinful men consciously stand in the immediate presence of God without becoming aware of the sins by which they are degraded and defiled? And how should they become profoundly sensible of sin without also becoming profoundly sorry for it? We cannot so much as wake up in the night under the impression that any invisible Presence is with us, but we tremble and are afraid, because we feel our unfitness to enter into the world in which our spirits lie open and naked to God and our fellows. And if, as we went about the daily business of life, God were suddenly to stand before us, to become visible to us in all the sweetness and glory of his goodness, yet not clothed in the robes of his eternal majesty, would not our first impulse be to fling ourselves at his feet and cry, "Unclean, unclean!" Would not a goodness so pure call up an intolerable and crushing sense of our own impurity? And if He were to lay his hand upon us, and to lift us from the dust of our self-abasement, and to go with us for a little while on our way, should we not walk with him with a softened, penitent, and lowly heart? That, then, was one of the functions - perhaps the main function - of the miracles wrought by Christ.
They were capable of producing, they were designed to produce, so vivid and intense a consciousness of the Divine Presence as should convict men of sin and lead them to repentance.
Just now the set of thought among students of the Bible is to underrate the value of miracles, as in the last century the tendency was to overate them, or at least to apply them to evidential purposes which they were not intended to subserve. Then perhaps men made too much of them; now we make too little of them Science scorns miracles, though she herself has both discovered and wrought many mighty works, and furnished us with many a sign and proof of the Divine presence and activity and goodness. And, to meet the changed attitude of the world around it Theology is busily engaged in reducing both the evidential and moral force of miracles, in arguing that the unexampled character and the pure morality of Christ are the best proof of the miracles He claimed to have wrought, rather than in arguing that his miracles prove Him to have been sent by God to teach men truth and win them to repentance and righteousness; while Biblical Criticism eagerly undertakes to show that in the addresses and letters of the Apostles little stress is laid on the miracles wrought by Christ, and great stress on the still mightier truths he enunciated and enforced.
All this may be, I believe it is, in the true line of advance; but perhaps there has been something too much of it. And assuredly the change is not a wholesome one when it leads us to lay so much emphasis on the teaching of our Lord as that we come to forget, or question, or deny the force and value of those supernatural works which were a natural result of the Divine energies which dwelt in Him. To pitch the cargo overboard will, indeed, lighten any ship; but it may also make it ride so high as that it will endure no after storm; and what if, when it does reach the haven, we find that little or nothing of vake is left in it? Sceptics of a certain school are forward to compliment the morality of Christ at the expense of his miracles; and, perhaps, with a view to conciliate them and to secure a hearing for Christian truth, we are somewhat too ready to put the question of miracles out of our thoughts, and to insist mainly, if not solely, on the beauty and completeness and spirituality of his teaching and commandments. But have we duly considered what a Christ who wrought no miracle would be to us? and what use those same sceptics would be likely to make of the admission, should any considerable section of the Church ever admit, that the Christian miracles were a late and incredible addition to the New Testament records? Would they not pounce on the admission with eager delight, and forthwith proceed to reduce Christ to the level of other wise men, or men of genius, or even below the highest level of manhood? Might they not reasonably reproach us with the worship we render Him; or every demand how we can hope that any mere man, however gifted, should prove to be the Saviour and Lord of the entire race?
And we - what should we not lose? If Christ Himself did not become a dubious historical figure to us, if even his moral teaching did not become uncertain and questionable, we must at least lose both our faith in Him as Son of God, and our hope in Him as Son of Man. For how should the Son of God be in the world, and never do any such creative or restorative work as the Father is ever doing? And if the Son of Man had not power over the phenomenal world, the realm and sequences of Nature, how can we any longer hope that He will restore to us, and to the race at large, that dominion over all the works of God's hands which we feel to be our birthright, and which seems to be the inevitable pre-requisite of spiritual life in its highest and most permanent forms?
Let us remember, then, that Christ Himself saw a moral and spiritual value in the mighty works He wrought in the cities of Galilee; that He even claimed to be believed, if not for his own sake or for the truths He taught, yet for his very works' sake. Let us endeavour, for once, to achieve a feat very difficult to our mental weakness, - that of holding two distinct but complementary thoughts in our minds at one and the same time. The modern set of opinion in the Church, the tendency to subordinate the miracles of Christ to his teaching, is a very healthy one if we do not so far yield to it as to doubt whether those miracles had any moral or religious value to the men who witnessed them, as also, in a lessened degree, for us who do but read of them. To them the mighty works brought that sense of the presence and activity of God which induces, or ought to induce, repentance; and to us they are of value as showing that God was once in the world, and that He who was once visibly in the world is always in it and always at work in it, to heal our diseases, to minister to our needs, to quicken us to life everlasting. They feelinghy persuade us that Christ was in very deed the Son of the Father; they animate us with the hope that through the perfect Son of Man, we shall become lords of ourselves and of this lower world, reigning together with Him by whom we have been redeemed.
But behind this difficulty of the miracles, and of the way in which we are to regard them, and the value we are to set upon them, there rises a question still more difficult and perplexing. The man Christ Jesus obviously thought highly of his mighty works, and of their power to open and impress the human heart. In his mind they were not only the great bell of the universe ringing in the world to listen to the sermon He had to preach, but also a part of the sermon itself, and even a very effectual part. He was quite sure that if they had been done in Sodom, and Tyre, and Sidon, these great cities would have repented and remained; and yet Sodorn was a synonym for the most utter and bestial corruption, while Tyre and Sidon were among the most flagrantly sensual and vicious communities of the ancient world. Now how those who hold that Christ possessed only human faculties interpret this claim of his to know what men who lived two thousand years before Him would have done had their conditions been other than they were; how they explain the fact that He, the most sane, the most modest and unassuming of men, assumed to compare Sodom with Capernaum, Chorazin and Bethsaida with Tyre and Sidon, and to pronounce the wickedest races of heathen antiquity more susceptible to the influences of the unseen spiritual world than the sons of the elect Israel, it is not for me to say; but to me, I confess, this seems to be a monstrous and incredible assumption, at variance with all we know of Him, unless He were what He claimed to be, the Son of God.
Son of God, or Son of Man, He claims to know that the men of Sodom and of Tyre and Sidon would not have resisted the influences which failed to bring the men of Galilee to repentance and life; and so the question returns upon us, and must no longer be evaded : If these ancient sinners would have repented unto life had the mighty works of Christ been done in their streets, why were they not done?
One answer to this grave question is a very obvious one, and is obviously true so far as it goes. For it is manifest that if God were to come and dwell with men, he could only come once in the history of the world. He could not be for ever coming. There could not be an advent, an incarnation, a life illustrated by mighty works, in every generation, among every race, or the operations of law would have beep superseded by a constant miracle or a miracle constantly repeated. And we know so little of the course and order of the world that we cannot venture to say what would have been the best and most fitting time for the manifestation of the Son of God; we are compelled to assume that He, to whom the whole course of time is open and present, chose the fitting conjuncture, that it was, as the Bible affirms, in the very fulness of times that He sent his Son into the world. But if the time of Capernaum, and Chorazin and Bethsaida was the due and fitting time for this supreme disclosure of the Divine Love and Grace, then obviously it could not have been made two thousand years before. It would have been inconsistent with the scheme and purpose of God, with that economy in the use of miracles which characterizes his government and education of the world, that the mighty works of Jesus should have been done in the ancient cities of the Plain and in the ports and emporiums of the Phoenician coast.
So much we can see, so much We admit. Nevertheless it irks and saddens us to think that even for these ancient and sinful cities God should not have done the most and best that could be done to bring them to repentance. It seems hard and unjust that a man's salvation, a man's life, should hang on the age into which he is born; that the sinners of Sodom, for example, should have had a worse chance than the still greater sinners of Capernaum.
Shall we say then that, although the men of Sodom might have been saved by a gospel they never heard, they nevertheless had all that they needed for salvation had they cared to use the means of instruction and grace which they possessed? I for one cannot say that. I am not unmindful of the fact that had they come into the world some two thousand years later than they did, and walked the streets of Capernaum, and witnessed the works of Christ, they must have accepted all the conditions of that later age, adverse as well as propitious, and might very possibly have been so moulded and so hardened by them as that even then they would not have entered into life.
And yet who dare say of any class of men, of any age, that nothing but their own will prevented their salvation? There are thousands and tens of thousands in this Christian land today who have never had a fair chance of being quickened into life. Conceived in sin and shapen in iniquity, inheriting defects of will and taints of blood, cradled in ignorance and vice, they have barely heard the name of Christ save as a word to curse by. And there are thousands and myriads more to whom the faith of Christ has been presented in forms so meager and narrow, or in forms so fictitious and theatrical, that the only wonder is that so many of them care to worship Him at all. And with all these in our midst now that the Gospel has been peached among us for a thousand years, which of us will dare to affirm that those ancient sinners of Sodom, born in an age so dark, reared in "fulness of bread and abundance or idleness," enervated by a tropical climate and by the abominations amid which they were nurtured, had all that men needed in order that they might know the only true God and serve Him alone? Assuredly Lot was no Jesus, no Jonah even, or they might have listened to him and repented; if he "vexed his righteous soul from day to day" with their unlawful deeds, he did not hesitate to risk his soul and the souls of his children by "standing in the way of sinners" to secure a fat inheritance.
No; to say, "Doubtless God gave these poor men all that was necessary to life and virtue," and to make a merit of saying it as though it were a mark of piety, is simply to offer Him that insincere flattery, to show Him that respect of persons, which even Job could see he Himself would be the first to rebuke, and rebuke the more heavily precisely because it was shown to Him. (Job 13:7-11)
What shall we say then? For myself I can only say that I see no way out of the difficulty, no single loop-hole of escape, so long as we assume what the Bible does not teach, that there is no probation beyond the grave, that no moral change is possible in that world towards which all the children of time are traveling. I, at least, am so sure that the Father of all men will do the most and best which can he done for every man's salvation as to entertain no doubt that long ere this the men of Sodom and of Tyre and Sidon have heard the words of Christ and seen his mighty works - seen and heard Him, perchance, when He stood and shone among the spirits in the Hadean prison, and preached the gospel to them that were dead, in order that, while still judged according to men in the flesh, they might live according to God in the spirit. (1 Peter 3:19-20; 4:6)
And what else, or less, do our Lord's own words imply : "It shall be more tolerable for them at the day of judgment than for you?" Lives there the man with soul so dead and brain so narrow that he can take these solemn words to mean nothing more than that the men of Tyre and Sidon will not be condemned to quite so hot a fire as the men of Chorazin and Bethsaida! Must they not mean at least that in the future, as in the present, there will be diversities of moral condition, and a discipline nicely adapted to those diversities? May they not mean that those who have sinned against a little light will, after having been chastened for their sins with a "few stripes," receive more light, and be free to walk in it if they will? We are often chastened in this world that we may not be condemned with the World, often judged and condemned and punished that we may be aroused to repentance and saved unto life everlasting. Why, then, should we always take the chastenings of the world to come to mean judgments, and the judgments to mean condemnations, and the condemnations to mean nothing short of a final and irreversible doom? On the contrary, we ought rather to hope that while during the brief hours of time our lives describe but "broken arcs," in eternity, and through whatever chastening and discipline may be requisite for us, they will reach "the perfect round."
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