Last Updated on : Saturday, October 11, 2014









by Robert Roberts



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Book Contents

sp chapter XXXVIII

From the Mount of Transfiguration

to Capernaum. -

Christ's Rebuke of Ambition.



When Jesus and the three disciples had descended from "the Mount of transfiguration," a crowd was on the plain, and in the heart of the crowd, a knot of the Scribes, closely questioning Christ's disciples. When it was reported that Jesus was near, the crowd broke up and ran towards him, saluting him eagerly. They had evidently become excited by the debate between the Scribes and the disciples. By-and-bye, the Scribes drew near also. Jesus asked the Scribes what they had been questioning the disciples about. A man in the crowd answered. He said he had brought an afflicted son to the disciples to be cured, and they could do nothing with him. This appears to have furnished an occasion of cavil which the Scribes were not slow to seize. Their question no doubt would be -- if the power of Jesus be of God, why could not the disciples employ it in his absence as well as when he was with them? So now the question would be pressed by inference on Jesus: "Why could not they cure the lunatic lad?"
There was a reason which had no reference to the power of God, but to the weakness of man. Jesus put his finger on it in the exclamation he immediately addressed to one and all: "O faithless and perverse generation! How long shall I be with you? How long shall I suffer you? Bring him hither to me." The lad is brought. The people are all attention. The case was a bad one. It had baffled the disciples, who had been able in other cases to easily exercise healing power: would Christ be able to deal with it? As the lad is coming, the epileptic paroxysm seizes him, and throws him to the ground, where he lies foaming at the mouth and wallowing. Jesus asks the father how long the child has been affected in this way. The father, who is all agitation, answers, "From a child." He adds that he is his only child, and he implores Jesus to help them if he can do anything. Jesus replies that it is a question of faith simply: "If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth." The agitated father at once cries out with tears, "Lord, I believe: help thou mine unbelief." On this, Jesus utters the word of command: "Thou dumb and deaf spirit, I charge thee come out of him, and enter no more into him."
The word worked with power in the organism of the lad. It coursed as a powerful life-current through his whole nervous system, restoring the obstructed continuity in every fibre, and restablishing every normal function, but with a force that was too strong for the lad to bear easily. He was convulsed with extreme pain; cried out at the top of his voice, and then apparently collapsed in a moment and lay motionless, and apparently lifeless. The excited spectators said one to another, "He is dead." Jesus confuted this suggestion by stooping forward and lifting the lad by the hand. The lad stood, opened his eyes, looked round, and was all right. Jesus handed him to his father, who led him away quickly. The crowd were speechless with admiration.
The disciples, gathering around Jesus, said to him, "Why could not we cast him out?" This implies that usually they found no difficulty in effecting cures in the name of Jesus, and that they were surprised they could not deal with this case, and had so laid themselves open to the assaults of the Scribes. Jesus gave two reasons: the case was difficult, and their faith had failed them. His exact words on the last point were: -- "Because of your unbelief." But why should unbelief have obstructed their use of the power of God in this case and not in others? We are not informed. If, however, we realise the embarrassing effect of having hostile sneering spectators like the Scribes standing round, while an acute and obstinate case was submitted for treatment, we may not find much difficulty in understanding why the disciples should waver in the feeling of ability to deal with it. Their sense of personal honour would be liable to obscure God from their momentary discernment, as with Moses at Meribah: and God, who is jealous, and will not suffer His glory to be taken by another, refused the power; which rendered the disciples helpless. The right kind of faith is very powerful, if ever so small, when the right opportunity for its action is at hand. "If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed," said Christ, "ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place, and it shall remove, and nothing shall be impossible unto you."
We have more than once had occasion to consider this question of the relation of faith to performance. It is a matter much requiring the reasonable discrimination of wisdom, in order to avoid the disasters that befall faith of almost every kind in modern times. We may all have heard of the old woman who, on the strength of the words of Christ, prayed at night that a neighbouring hill might be shifted to a more convenient place for her, and went in the morning to see, and finding the hill just as it was, said, "Ah, it is just as I thought." Many are liable to this superficial and frivolous view of the subject, and to the consequent disappointment and depression belonging to it. Faith, in this relation of things, is usually not understood. Simply stated, it is confidence where God proposes to work by us. Faith, at such a time, is powerful to do anything. And the want of it at such a time will interfere with the greatest works of God. That is, God will not work with an unbelieving man.
Moses, at the rock of Meribah, had not the least doubt that water would come from the rock. Had he doubted after God's assurance, the rock would not have opened. His offence on that occasion was not the want of faith, but the taking of the credit of the marvel to himself and Aaron in the eyes of the children of Israel. But that which is faith, when God proposes to work, becomes presumption in the absence of His appointment, especially when associated with the old woman's reservation. She had no real reason to expect the moving of the hill, though the words seemed to justify her. Therefore, in her own heart, she did not believe. But even if she had, it would not have altered the case in the absence of God's appointment. The initiative belongs to Him. When God puts it in our power to do this and that, then is the time for faith which will remove mountains. Such a time was with the disciples at this time.
Christ had given them authority and power to "heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead." Therefore, it was a mere question of faith on their part. Any failure was due to their want of faith, and not to any limitation of the power that Christ had put within the control of their faith. There is a time for everything. Such a time as was with the disciples is not with the world, nor with the friends of Christ in this age. And no amount of faith can lead to anything in this line of things. "Faith-healing" is only a going as far as human resources will take men. These resources are feeble and extremely limited. The utmost verge of their accomplishments can only amount to a transferring of a healthy human magnetism to a poorly magnetised organism, and a consequent increase of natural vigour. Those who have much faith will get a higher result on the human scale than those who have poor faith; but it is all on the same merely human scale. There can be none of the radical and instant transformations that the power of God alone can accomplish, such as those performed by Jesus and the apostles -- such as feeding a multitude with a few loaves, raising the dead, cleansing lepers. Modern "faith-healing" in this sense is a great deception, and a hurtful one, too, for it brings into contempt the real works of God, and the faith belonging to them.
"This kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting." So Jesus is reported to have added, in part extenuation of the inability of his disciples to perform the cure. Doubt is thrown by the Revisers on the genuineness of this part of the text, the suggestion being it was an interpolation by a later (ascetic) hand. The fact need bring no embarrassment. If we suppose the words genuine and really uttered by Christ, they only emphasise a lesson discoverable in other parts of the Word, viz., that acceptability with God is largely a matter of preparedness, in which prayer and fasting may often have a special place. We read that "when" the disciples "had fasted and prayed," they laid hands on Paul and Barnabas, whom the Spirit of God had designated for the Gentile ministry (Acts xiii. 3). A similar exercise is frequently mentioned. Jesus expressly recognises it when he says, "When thou fastest, appear not unto men to fast." It was an exercise naturally conducive to spiritual susceptibility in a hot country, and would often be found advantageous in colder climates, when it is desired to fix the heart in a specially earnest way upon some spiritual aim or contemplation. If we have any special cause of petition to God in hand -- whether in matters private or public -- it will conduce to the earnestness and concentratedness of our endeavour, and to our acceptability with God through Christ, if we humble ourselves in fasting and prayer for a season. If Jesus spoke the words in question, he taught that even the magnitude of miracles in the day of the Spirit's ministration might be affected by resort to this means of spiritual circumscision.
The wonder excited by Christ's masterly handling of the case which had baffled his disciples, was generating the inconvenient thoughts in the mind of the multitudes which he had several times to quell -- thoughts of compelling him to head a movement for exaltation to the throne of David's Kingdom. He, therefore, referred again in a pointed manner to the fact that he must suffer: "Let these sayings sink down into your ears; the Son of Man shall be delivered into the hands of men, and they shall kill him; and after that he is killed he shall rise again the third day." But, again, "they understood not this saying, and it was hid from them, and they perceived it not." "They were afraid to ask him," about it. "They were exceeding sorry" at the statement.
Not too forcibly can it be insisted on that there is nothing in the whole range of the life of Christ that shews more powerfully than this, -- first, the divinity of the work of Christ; who, in his life, thus always fell back on his coming death, as a barrier to popular misapprehension; and, secondly, the superficiality and incompleteness of the modern gospel which restricts itself to that one point (the death of Christ) which the apostles, the first preachers of the gospel, knew nothing of in their first presentations of that gospel when Christ was upon the earth. A human Christ would have clutched at present results; an ecclesiastically-originated account of his life would have placed the cross in the over-weening position it occupies in the gloomy precincts of the Romish pale.
Christ and the disciples now set out on their return to Capernaum. As they walked along the road (Jesus going before, as seems to have been his wont), the disciples disputed among themselves who should be the greatest in the kingdom. When they had reached the end of their journey, and were seated in the house, Jesus asked them what it was they had been disputing about by the way. They knew, but they were ashamed of it, and they remained silent. Jesus then specially beckoned their attention and said, "If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all and servant of all." This is open to two meanings, either of which would be correct. It may mean that if any man desire to be distinguished above others, the way to achieve his desire is to make himself the general servant and promoter of the well-being of others, by which he becomes indispensable to all, and therefore the first of all. Or it may mean that any attempt to lord it over others must and will end in humiliation and defeat -- if not now, then when Christ distributes to every man according to his works.
In either meaning, it is a strong inculcation of modesty and benevolence, and by implication, a strong condemnation of those principles of ambition and self-assertion which are common in the world. In nothing was the teaching of Christ more distinguishable, from all that went before or came after, than in this point. It comes out repeatedly in the course of his ministry. It was about the very last thing he pressed home upon the twelve before he suffered. "The Kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and they that exercise authority over them are called benefactors, but it shall not be so among you. But he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief as he that doth serve." Humble service one of another is the characteristic of all who conform to the mind of Christ. It will be found on closest reflection to be the most reasonable and the most beautiful deportment on the part of a human being. A man appears at his best when sincerely and unaffectedly humble. The greatness of any gift he may have will only add to the beauty of modesty, and will certainly not detract from the reasonableness of it, for what can a man have that he has not received? Even the power of application and perseverance by which he may attain results is a gift: he did not create it.
Most people approve of this maxim of conduct, but apply it the wrong way. They are for pulling their brother down; hence come wars and fighting, envies, railings, evil surmisings, and every evil work. We are nowhere commanded to pull our brother down. On the contrary, we are commanded to lift him up -- in honour to prefer one another. The pulling down is to be on ourselves only. Where all strive to pull themselves down and exalt their neighbours, there is no difficulty. "Take thou the lowest seat." You have no liberty to run to another who has put himself at the head of the table and hustle him down. The commandments of Christ are beautiful, but they require to be worked out in their own lines, otherwise their beauty turns to ashes.
Some conversation appears to have ensued between Jesus and his disciples, during which the disciples endeavoured to elicit from Jesus a decisive expression from him on the matter they had been debating among themselves, namely, who really would be the greatest in the kingdom. Jesus had indicated the principle on which the question would be settled at last. He now carried home the lesson with a personal illustration. He called a child who was near -- (one of the children of the house where they were staying, likely) -- and setting him right in the midst of the twelve, took him up in his arms. Fixing their attention on the child in his arms, he said "Whosoever shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven."
We all know that a child is simple, artless and deferential, with very little disposition to stand upon ceremony or dignity. We all know that the Gentile ideal of manhood differs exceedingly from this. We are brought up among the Gentiles, and naturally catch their views and spirit. It may be a hard lesson, but we must discard these if we are to come into harmony with the mind of Christ. He requires us to humble ourselves as little children. It is the requirement of the Spirit of God. The current pride and arrogance of society have their source in the mere propensities of nature, which, while having a useful place in subjection to wisdom, become as inconvenient and destructive and ugly as the unregulated predatory instincts of the savage. "To be carnally minded is death: to be spiritually minded is life and peace." The humility of a little child is not inconsistent with the highest wisdom and executive resource. Jesus illustrates the combination in its highest form; and He could exercise reserve, fulminate angry condemnation, and proceed to high-handed extremity, as in the expulsion of the traders from the temple, while filling the place of a servant in meekness and gentleness. He himself sums up the character, in the words: "Be ye wise as serpents, harmless as doves," -- an injunction which, as Mr. Oliphant says, is usually acted on as if it had called on men to be silly as doves and hurtful as the serpent.
Jesus dwelt on the theme in various other phases before leaving it. "Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." This was showing that humility not only had to do with the question of how high a man would rise in the Kingdom, but involved the question of whether he would get in at all. It puts it in a vital position altogether. A man without humility cannot be saved: it comes to that. A proud man, who must have the first place, and who cannot be satisfied without overbearing his neighbours, is unfit for a kingdom, of which the prevailing sentiment will be the grateful humility of forgiven sinners. This is why he also says so frequently that a rich man shall hardly enter the Kingdom of God. Rich men are usually proud men, because riches give power and importance. Because proud men cannot, rich men scarcely can, inherit the Kingdom of God. Rich men may; Zaccheus was one, but he gave "half of his goods to feed the poor," and was of the child-like sort. Such, also, were those whom Paul exhorted by Timothy, to lay up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come (1 Tim. vi. 18). Such, also, those whom Jesus commanded to make to themselves friends out of the mammon of unrighteousness.
No man is more beautiful than a good, useful, faithful, humble, rich man. But there are not many of them. Poverty is usually more conducive to the training of the spiritual man. Poverty by itself is no recommendation. People in our age have almost come to think of poverty as a virtue in itself. They have to thank press and platform rant. It is the age of democracy, when votes have to be conciliated, and when, therefore, poverty has become deified. The poor man (who is in the overwhelming majority) has become accustomed to a portrait of himself which is as far from the truth as most of the bubble-blown platitudes of time serving politicians. Poverty is good manure; it is neither the soil nor the plant.
The Bible poor man has his illustration in Christ, and his definition in the apostolic formula "the poor in this world, rich in faith." Such poor men are of inestimable worth: they are fit jewels for the Messiah's crown -- poor child-like men, with intelligence illuminated from on high, and hearts afire with that affection which is set on things above -- not on things on the earth. Such men are precious to Christ, as he proceeds to say: "Whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me; and whoso shall offend one of these ltttle ones that believe in me, it were better that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.... Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones: for I say unto you, in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven" (Matt. xviii. 5, 10). Angels have charge of them, as it is written, angels are "ministering spirits sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation" (Heb. i. 14), and "The angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that fear him" (Psa. xxxiv. 7). To fight against those who are dear to Christ is therefore to fight against the angels -- a combat in which no mortal can hope to get the better.
Jesus foresaw that there would be much of this insane work -- this antagonising and afflicting of those whose zeal for the truth would make them offensive to the children of the flesh. "It must needs be that offences come," said he; "but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh" "Woe unto the world because of offences!" Christ never speaks pleasantly of the world. He is a contrast in this to the public teachers of the present day, who, though they preach in his name, preach the things that please the world, and not the things that Jesus preached. He described his own case and theirs in the words he spoke to his own brothers on a certain occasion: "The world cannot hate you, but me it hateth, because I testify of it that the works thereof are evil" (Jno. vii. 7). John correctly diagnoses the popular teachers in the words "They are of the world: there fore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them" (1 Jno. iv. 5).
In view of the certainty, that the world in general would assume this attitude of opposition to him and his, he enjoins it as a matter of care on all who desire to be his disciples to be clear on this matter. "Wherefore, if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee; it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire." This is connected with the exhortation to "Despise not one of these little ones," and must therefore refer to matters of attitude or relation to them. What can it mean but that we must be ready to part with anything rather than remain in a position that involves hostility to the undoubted friends of Christ? Jesus even gives it an application to brethren in the wrong. We are not to give them up without effort at reclamation in the particular way prescribed. "Moreover, if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he shall not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses, every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the ecclesia; but if he neglects to hear the ecclesia, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican."
Nothing tends more to the keeping or the restoring of peace than the observance of this law; and no law is more constantly broken. The universal impulse, when anything is supposed to be wrong, is to tell the matter to third persons. From them it spreads, with the result of causing much bad feeling which, perhaps, the original cause does not warrant, and would not have produced if the aggrieved person had taken the course prescribed by Christ, and told the fault "between thee and him alone." If good men, or those who consider themselves such, would adopt the rule of refusing to listen to an evil report privately conveyed, until it had been dealt with to the last stage according to the rule prescribed by Christ, much evil would be prevented. Disobedience is almost the universal rule in this matter. The results are serious now, in the generation of hatred instead of love. Much more serious will the result be to the offenders against this rule in the day when all matters will be measured and settled by the divine rule.
Jesus indicates that any decision arrived at by an ecclesia in the proper application of this rule will be respected and confirmed by God Himself: "Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." This is much encouragement to the brethren to be faithful in the matter. The application of the rule will often make it unnecessary to advance beyond the first stage. A brother approached privately, with every opportunity of explanation, will often make concessions that must remain impossible if he is made the subject of public opprobrium, however deserved. The healing of a matter will often be the result if you go and tell a man his fault "between thee and him alone." If there be no fault, there will be explanation and understanding. If there be, there will be concession and forgiveness. And we are not to weary in the recurrence of the process.
Peter asked how often this forgiveness was to be granted. Christ's answer practically was, "No limit." Peter suggested "Seven times" as going a long way. Christ said "I say not unto thee until seven times, but until seventy times seven." He then backed his remark with the parable of the unmerciful fellow-servant, which we have already considered, and which concluded with the command that we must every one forgive trespassers, on pain of not being forgiven ourselves. The mind cannot exhaust the beauty of this commandment. How noble is the placable mind! How cordially it commends itself to all classes of men. How hideous and detestable the harsh and unforgiving. By so much we may estimate the superiority of the doctrine of Christ over all teachers who went before Him. Moderns may complacently think themselves at least equal to Christ -- and in some points, perhaps, superior. They forget that they work upon a situation prepared by the teaching of Christ, and are themselves the offspring of the forces which his teaching set in motion. No system of teaching places man so low and God so high, and the duty of mercy in such an imperative position. The reason self-evidently is, that, with all their plausible talk, other systems are of man: Christ's alone is of God.
Here John mentioned the case of a man whom they had met in their journeys, who was casting out demons in the name of Christ, but had not made himself one of the followers of Christ. "We forbade him," said John, "because he followeth not with us." Jesus said, "Forbid him not: for there is no man who shall do a miracle in my name that can lightly speak evil of me." For he that is not against us is on our part. 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." It does not seem possible to mistake the meaning of this; and yet it has often been made use of to justify a wrong course -- that is, a course opposed to other parts of the teaching of Christ (which includes the teaching of the apostles). Men have said there is no need for the public profession of the truth. They have said there is no need to separate from organisations of men who receive not the truth. They have said there is no need for a man knowing the truth to make himself one with those who have openly given themselves to the service of that truth -- and all because Christ said "Forbid him not," concerning a man who did the work of Christ without "following with" the disciples.
It is an effectual answer to this line of contention to point to the invariable practice of enlightened men in the apostolic age, as indicated in the acts of the apostles and the epistles they addressed to the ecclesias. This practice was to "come out from among" the unenlightened (2 Cor. vi. 17), to assemble with those of like precious faith wherever their company was possible (Heb. x. 25; Acts xx. 7); to be incorporate with all such in the collective maintenance of the testimony and work of the truth, and in the calling on the name of the Lord (1 Tim. iii. 15; ii. 22; 1 Peter ii. 9); to be in fact members of the public body of Christ in whatever town a man might be located (Apoc. i. 11). These facts being indisputable, it follows that no construction of any saying of Christ that would stultify them can be correct. It will be found that none of his sayings do stultify them. The saying in question has certainly no such sense.
The formation of believers into ecclesias had not yet begun. The breaking of bread as the germ and rallying point of their development had not yet been appointed. The work of the gospel was at a stage of transition, in which any man was at liberty to serve in the way that might seem best in the absence of command. The man in question had not been told to "follow." Therefore it was no infraction of righteousness for him to refrain from doing so. He had become enamoured of the doctrine of the power and the name of Christ, and publicly served him in the only way that he knew how. It was in the name of Christ that he invoked the miracles he had seen Jesus perform: and it pleased the Father to honour the name of His son thus sincerely employed, in granting the power invoked. It was a public, open, and sincere service on the part of a sincere friend of Christ at a time when such a course could only mean that the performer was altogether "with" Christ, though following not personally in his train. It was a different course from that of the man who should pusillanimously seek to minimise or hide his service from a fear of the social inconvenience of identification with "the sect everywhere spoken against" -- which it has always been the lot of the faithful friends of Christ to be. It was a service that Christ accepted -- which is the best proof of its courage and completeness. His comment shows its character: "He that is not against us is on our part."
There are times when to be "not against" is to be "for." The time in question was sucha time. The line was sharply and simply drawn by the ordination of the Pharisees that whoever should confess that Jesus was the Christ should be put out of the synagogue. Neutrality was impossible in the time of such an issue. The man who did not oppose Christ under such circumstances was "for him." There might of course be many who were too indifferent to be for or against. Jesus did not mean to apply his remark to such a class, but to men who gave it clearly to be understood that they were on his side, for such is his application of it -- to a man who was publicly invoking the name of Christ as well as he knew how. The facts show that there can be no warrant in such a case for those who fear to confess Christ fully before men. The situation was such that even the giving the cup of cold water to a friend of Christ as such was proof that the giver was within the scope of a discipleship that Jesus could recognise. It was such that Jesus, on another occasion, could reverse the maxim with perfect appropriateness and force, and say, "He that is not with me is against me, and he that gathereth not with me, scattereth abroad" (Matt. xii. 30). Thus the ground was marked off at each end in such a way as to put a man outside who was not prepared to perform the part of a friend in a thorough and hearty and open manner.


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