Last Updated on : Saturday, October 11, 2014









by Robert Roberts



click here to bypass chapter list

Book Contents

sp chapter XXXV

In the Synagogue at Capernaum.


It was in the synagogue at Capernaum -- probably the very building whose foundations were recently explored by Mr. Laurence Oliphant, and described by him in his book named Haifa -- that the conversation took place which partly occupied our last chapter. It is not purely imagination that pictures him seated in the midst of a crowded and eager audience, gravely delivering himself of snatches of discourse in answer to the remarks and questions of those surrounding him. It is not so much the picture that is important as the communications that passed between the wonderful Teacher and his audience.
He had been gradually leading them from the question of mere natural sustenance (suggested to their minds by the miracle of the loaves) to the higher question of life everlasting to which the miracle stood related. He reached the climax of the conversation when he said with emphasis: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, he that believeth on me hath everlasting life. I am that bread of life (of which he had been speaking). Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness andare dead. This is the bread which cometh down from heaven that a man may eat thereof and not die." In this there is a mixing of figure with literal truth that naturally had a confusing effect on the bulk of the listeners. The eating of the manna in the wilderness under Moses, they could understand: and they knew what Christ meant by saying that the eaters were dead. But what could he mean by the eating of this other bread, the eating of which would lead to men not dying? He said he was the bread: could they eat him? He deepened the parable by saying, "The bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world." No wonder they exclaimed, "How can this man give his flesh to eat?" But there is no mystery in his words when taken in connection with all that he said. His meaning is perfectly apparent, though he did not condescend to be simple with his then present auditory.
In the sense intended, his staggering declaration is absolutely true: "Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed." It is the truth in parable, concerning the present mortal nature of man, and the relation of the work of Christ to the hope of salvation. It cannot be understood apart from this truth which may be defined as follows: --
All men are sinners, by nature and action (Rom. iii. 23; Eph. ii. 3); and "the wages of sin is death" (Rom. vi. 23). Consequently, men of themselves, are wholly under the dominion of death. But "since by man came death, by man (Christ) came also the resurrection of the dead" (1 Cor. xv. 21). In what way resurrection came by man is to be read only in the life of Christ: "By the obedience of one" (Rom. v. 19). "He was obedient unto death" (Phil. ii. 8). He laid down his life. No man took it from him; it was a matter of the Father's arrangement and requirement (Jno. x. 18). In the wisdom of God, the ceremonial condemnation of sin in the person of a sinless possessor of the nature under its power, was a necessity in the opening of a way for the pardon and return of sinners to life everlasting. It was a necessary declaration of God's righteousness, that God might be just, while justifying the sinner who might believe in this arrangement of God's mercy (Rom. iii. 25-26). In this condemnation of sin in the flesh, the sinning nature had to be representatively nailed up to death in the eyes of all the world, in one who, without sin himself, was a partaker of the nature that had come under death by its power (Rom. viii. 3; Heb. ii. 14). Had he been a sinner, he would have been as other sinners, and resurrection could not have come by him: for sin would have held him in death as all others. But Jesus was without sin. Had he possessed any other than the very nature of condemned man, he would not have been a suitable sacrifice for man. And his blood would have been like the blood of the animals shed under the Mosaic system of things, "which could not take away sin" (Heb. x. 4). Hence, the emphasis with which John insists on the importance of receiving the fact that he "came in the flesh" (1 Jno. iv. 3; 2 Jno. 7), and Paul, that "in all things he was made like unto his brethren": and "in all points tempted like them, yet without sin" (Heb. ii. 17; iv. 15)
He was specially prepared for the work. In crucifixion, he gave his flesh for the life of the world, and poured out his blood for their sins -- that is, for those who should believe in him, and have faith in his blood as the Passover sacrified for them. Those who learn of him as the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world, and who believe in him as the righteousness of God, and come unto God in faith and submission through him, figuratively eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man in thus receiving the truth concerning these things. Unless a man do so, he has no relation to eternal life at all. This is what Christ says: and no man can get past his word. It is only "those who believe" who are justified (Acts xiii. 39). "Through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins" (Acts xiii. 38). "If ye believe not that I am he, ye shall die in your sins" (Jno. viii. 24). Except we eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, we have no life in us: we have no hope. If we do so eat and drink, we have life; that is, we acquire the right to it, and the hope of it -- not the possession of it. It is a matter of heirship. Our heirship is a present experience: but actual possession is in the future, as shown in the words Christ uses: "I will raise him up at the last day" (Jno. vi. 54) -- a conclusion involved in the whole scheme of divine truth as to the nature of man and the purpose of God with him.
But these things the audience in the Capernaum synagogue did not understand. They could not see beyond the literal. Moses had given them manna: Jesus, in the recent miracle, had given them bread: now he talked of giving his flesh for them to live by -- a true saying, but they did not understand it. It was truth in a stumbling form, and they stumbled. Why it was presented in a stumbling form, we have considered before. A murmur ran through the synagogue. "This is an hard saying," said they: "who can hear it?" Most of them were of one mind on the subject: including "many" who had considered themselves his disciples. The narrative tells us that "Jesus knew in himself" what the mind of the audience was. He knew as ordinary men could not know. He not only "knew what was in man" in the sense of thoroughly understanding human nature in its poor resources, but he could perceive the thoughts of those about him in any particular case.
He knew that the Capernaum audience disapproved of his words. He did not wait the formal expression of their thought. He advanced aggressively to a higher and still more unintelligible form of truth, as it would seem to the untaught. "Doth this offend you? What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before?" If they thought the giving of his flesh for the life of the world an impossible truth to receive, what would they say if they saw that flesh go away from the earth altogether? His ascension to heaven afterwards shews us what he meant. The body that was literally broken was literally taken up into heaven, and this was the crowning proof of the divine nature of his work to all who had eyes to see and ears to hear. He had said he came down from heaven which they met by the question, "Is he not the son of Joseph?" If he went back there again, the case would be open to no such question; it would be a final demonstration that he was of God; and this is what happened: "God manifest in the flesh (crucified), justified (or made right again or raised), by the Spirit; seen of angels, believed on in the world, received up into glory" (1 Tim. iii. 16). "He was received up and sat on the right hand of God" (Mark xvi. 19). If some in Christ's day said, "How is it that he saith, I came down from heaven?" some in our day say, "How is it that he saith, the Son of Man ascendeth up where he was before?" The parable is in both cases to be discerned in the literal truth: "The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee; the power of the highest shall overshadow thee (Mary the mother of Jesus)" (Luke i. 35). This shows the sense in which the babe of Bethlehem came down from heaven: the power and presence of God came from heaven and assumed the vesture of human nature through action on the human procreative organism. When that human nature, crucified and raised, and glorified, was taken to heaven, there was an ascending up to where he was before, though in a different relation of things. In the time expressed by the word "before," he was "The Word" that was "with God and was God" (Jno. i. 1). In the days of his flesh, he was "the Word made flesh" (verse 14). In the days subsequent to his resurrection, he was the Word-flesh glorified and exalted to heaven, where the Word was before there was any child-germination of Emmanuel (God with us).
Jesus tried to direct the attention of the murmuring Capernaum audience to the Spirit as the essential element in the case, and the key to the parable of his speech. "It is the Spirit that quickeneth : the flesh profiteth nothing: (that is, his flesh as flesh would have done them no good in the eating -- a thing he never intended; it was the doctrine about his flesh that was the saving-power): the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit and they are life." They were the Spirit's ideas expressed in words, which, when they obtain a lodgment in a man's understanding and affections, become in him the power of the Spirit, quickening him into the moral life of the Spirit in this present state, and preparing the way for that physical manifestation of Spirit-life in the resurrection, which will so assimilate the body to its nature that the subjects thereof "shall not die any more, but are as the angels of God in heaven, the children of God, being the children of the resurrection" (Luke xx. 36).
But he remembered that his words were falling on dull ears. He therefore abruptly added, "But there are some of you that believe not (for, adds John, 'Jesus knew from the beginning who they were that believed not and who would betray him'). Therefore said I unto you that no man can come unto me except it were given unto him of my Father." This was referring to what he had said earlier in the conversation, and giving to it an application which, though true and reasonable, was very distasteful to those concerned. Men like to be appreciated as indispensable -- at least, as useful. Christ's words placed them in a different position from this. They had brandished their unbelief as a sort of threat. They had as much as said, "Do as we expect in the matter of loaves and fishes, and we will believe in you and help you, but take that foolish mystical line on which you seem bent, and we can have nothing to do with you, and the consequences will be bad for you." Jesus in effect said "Ye understand not, ye believe not, because it is not within your capacity. All whom the Father giveth me as friends and adherents will understand and believe, and will come to me as the result of that understanding. Ye understand and believe not, because it has not been given to you of my Father so to do. Therefore ye cannot come to me. But neither can ye harm or hinder me. If ye oppose me, the loss is all your own." Such an attitude on the part of Christ was bound to offend, and as a matter of fact, did offend and stumble the great body of his disciples at this early stage of his work: "From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him."
Seeing the audience break up in that mood, Jesus turned to the twelve and said, "Will ye also go away?" There was a possibility they might, or Jesus would not have put the question. The words that had alienated the crowd might be a difficulty with them: but oh, no; that was by no means the case. Peter, as the ever-ready mouthpiece of the apostolic band, asked a question which contained a world of answer: "Lord, to whom shall we go?" To whom could they go if they turned away from Christ? To the Scribes and Pharisees who sat in Moses' seat, but did not the things Moses commanded? What had they as mortal men to offer them that they could not do for themselves? To Moses? He wrote of Christ. To the Scriptures? They were they that testified of him. To the heathen? To the philosophers -- the one walking in darkness, the other in foolishness in the name of wisdom, all with steps tending to death? No: however little they might understand some of the hard utterances of Christ, they felt certain that what hope there was for man was with him. Their confidence went beyond this hypothetical form: "Thou hast the words of eternal life: and we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ (promised to the fathers), the son of the living God." And what man of sane mind is there, who, in the full contemplation of all the authentic facts of the case, will not come to the same conclusion? To whom can men go with any hope or prospect, for any light or comfort concerning God and the future, if they turn away from Jesus of Nazareth, who wrought multitudinous miracles; who spake as never man spake; who, though crucified by Pontius Pilate, rose from the dead, and showed himself openly and repeatedly to his disciples during 40 days; and became in their attested preaching, the highest name and the greatest power of the most benign influence the world has ever known? Happy is the man who is able, in the full exercise of the most searching reason, to join in the declaration made by Peter on behalf of the rest of the apostles on this occasion: "We believe and are sure that thou art the Christ, the son of the living God."
A mere human leader would have felt like thanking the disciples for this avowal in the face of a scattering band of unbelieving erstwhile followers. He could scarcely have failed to feel it as an honour and a comfort to be thus acknowledged by a faithful few in the hour of desertion by the majority, putting him under some obligation to them. It is one of almost innumerable indications and proofs of the divinity of Christ that he did not so receive it. His response was apparently bluff and unfeeling: "Have I not chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?" "He spake of Judas Iscariot," but he did not mention him. If he had mentioned him, it would have been some comfort to the rest. By putting it in the way he did, he put the whole band under an imputation which all must have felt the reverse of flattering to their self-complacence. It is as if he had said: "The multitude have left me: do not think you honour me by staying. I honour you by allowing you to remain. I have chosen you: but even you number among you a deadly enemy. I do not say which, that you may all be on your guard." It is not in human nature to have taken such an attitude at such an hour. Such deportment was a self-manifest token that the speaker was "greater than Jonas," "greater than Solomon," "greater than the prophets," "greater than our father Abraham," -- even one who could say, "Before Abraham was, I am."
The desertion of "many of his disciples" did not interfere with the attention of the populace. The conversation at an end, it became known all over the town and district that Jesus had returned. He himself began to move about, preaching. The result was seen in great activity everywhere: "They ran through the whole region round about, and began to carry about in beds those that were sick; where they heard he was. And whithersoever he entered into villages or cities, or country, they laid their sick in the streets, and besought him that they might touch if it were but the border of his garment: and as many as touched him were made whole." What a wonderful manifestation of power and goodness. What a patient condescension towards a multitude, most of whom Jesus knew would prove his betrayers and murderers, and would perish in the calamities which were fast approaching for the nation's destruction in fulfilment of what had long been "written in the prophets."
His god-like magnanimity is illustrated in the fact: but this is not the whole explanation. Jesus had a work to do: and he knew he had but a short time to do it. "I must work," as he said, "while it is day -- the work of Him that sent me." That work was to manifest the Father's power and name by deeds of power which testified of him that the Father had sent him. Most men could not understand his doctrine: but they could not mistake the nature of his "works," however much they might misinterpret them. To those works he constantly appealed. By them he laid the foundation for that faith of Christ, which is one of the principal instrumentalities employed by the wisdom of God in developing the purpose of God to fill the earth at last with a redeemed, glorified, and rejoicing population.
Therefore, as we see him patiently and kindly healing multitudes of the common people, and stooping to a familiarity with them which caused him to be "despised and rejected," we see much more than mere kindness at work. We see the calm clear-eyed discernment of a sublime and far-reaching purpose, leading him to persevere with intelligent resolution and inflexible faith, in a course that in itself was barren of promise. The mere restoration of physical vigour to a sinful population, who would turn it to no spiritual result, would have been a bootless work considered in itself. It must be looked at in its relation to the mighty work as a whole, which it was his mission to perform. Its place is then apparent, and his part in it becomes intelligible, which cannot be said of it when contemplated through the impenetrable haze of maudlin idealism, and foggy rhapsody in which it is the modern habit to enshroud the subject.
It was these wonderful works of power that kept him before the public, and made him a subject of anxiety with the leaders of the people -- the Scribes and Pharisees. "The people rejoiced for all the glorious things done by him," and the leaders could not resist the popular feeling. They followed in its wake and tried to neutralise it by criticism and objection whenever they could find occasion. They watched him with this view, during his progress in the neighbourhood of Capernaum.
They saw the disciples in one case eat bread without first washing their hands. To do this was an offence against the established Jewish etiquette, which was mainly based on rabbinical tradition, for which Jesus had no respect. This, in the eyes of the Pharisees, was a great offence, and one which they seemed to imagine Jesus himself would allow. They boldly asked him, "Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands?" They seemed to think this was strong ground. The "tradition of the elders" was the highest authority with them, as it is universally with the Jews to the present day. What is written in Moses and the Prophets does not seem to weigh with them a tithe of the weight they attach to the uninspired and erring traditions of their disobedient fathers. It seems strange it should be so: but on reflection, it will appear thoroughly natural.
What Paul testifies concerning the tendency of the human mind, is found thoroughly true, though uncomplimentary and unacceptable: "The carnal mind is enmity against God: it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be." Again, what Jesus said to Peter is true of nearly all men, Jew and Gentile: "Thou savourest not the things that be of God but those that be of men." The words of God by Moses and the prophets had nothing like the relish (for the bulk of the Jewish nation) which they found in the glosses and interpolations and commentaries of the Rabbis, which were entirely according to human impression, thought and sympathy. They easily disobeyed Moses and the prophets: as easily, they set up the traditions of the Rabbis as the very rule of righteousness and life. Jesus surprised them by taking up a strong stand against tradition: "Ye have made the Word of God of none effect through your tradition": "Why do you transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?"
He instanced a case: The Word of God commanded care of father and mother. Tradition said a man could buy himself out of this obligation by making a present to the temple, which would be counted to him as if he had applied it to the support of his father and mother. Thus, they as effectually nullified the commandment of God as if it had never been delivered. And so they did in many cases, as has been done by the ecclesiasticism of our own age. Jesus hurled back their accusation upon them with force. "Full well, ye reject the commandment of God that ye may keep your own tradition. Laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men." "Ye hypocrites," exclaimed he, "well did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth and honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrine the commandments of men."
To read this with a merely historic reference would be to lose more than half its value. It is truly an episode of the highest interest -- an impressive illustration of the dialectic power which made the adversaries of Jesus at last afraid to ask him any questions; but it is much more than this. It supplies a principle of judgment in spiritual things which reason itself in all the circumstances would suggest, but which commends itself with irresistible sanction when thus boldly endorsed and applied by Christ. It shews that the word of God, direct from the mouth of God by Moses and the prophets, is the rule of truth and duty which God intends every man for himself to apply in the testing and determination of all views and claims emanating from what quarter soever. The lesson is of peculiar force in an age like ours, when almost every religious view is pressed on our notice on the kind of authority arising from the transmitted consent of experts, supported by the compliance of the multitude for a long time. Tradition is the universal foundation; and it is held in the highest repute as a thing that educated intelligence will defer to.
Now, if ever tradition was respectable, it was at the time when Christ so thoroughly impeached it as a nullifier of the word of God. The Scribes and Pharisees were of the tribe which had been divinely separated as the custodians and ministers of the divine knowledge. Inspiration had mainly selected Levites since the days of Moses as the vehicles of prophetic communication. It had only ceased about four hundred years previously; and presumably the Levitical caste would be the reliable conservators and expositors of the divine ideas. Yet here is the sweeping declaration of Christ that they had made void the word of God through their tradition. The obvious reflection is that if this were the case with a divinely-appointed order of men, after so brief a suspension of the oracle of revelation, how much more likely is it to be the case with an order of men like the modern clergy who never were divinely-appointed, and who are the mere incarnations of a particular set of traditions perpetuated by the machinery of endowed institutions.
How much is the reflection strengthened by the fact that it is more than 1,800 years since the light of revelation went out, and that before the apostles left the scene they predicted an entire departure from apostolic doctrine, and the substitution of fables and traditions in its place -- (2 Tim. iv. 1-4; 2 Pet. ii. 1) -- a prophecy of which surely the most obtuse mind can see the ample fulfilment in the history of European ecclesiasticism. To judge doctrine and systems by the written word of God is the plan prescribed by Christ on this occasion, with a clearness and emphasis that ought to enable every honest mind to adopt and act on it without fear of presumption or uncharity. "To the law and to the testimony, if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them" (Is. viii. 20).


sp sp sp