The Training of the Twelve
SECTION III. THE LITTLE WHILE, AND THE END OF THE DISCOURSE
John xvi. 16-33.
The eulogium on the dispensation of the Comforter winds up with a paradox. Jesus has been telling His disciples that His departure will be beneficial for them in various respects, but particularly in this, that they shall attain thereafter to a clear, full comprehension of Christian truth. In effect, what He has said is: It is good for you that I go, for not till I become invisible physically, shall I be visible to you spiritually: I must be withdrawn from the eye of your flesh, before I can be seen by the eye of your mind. Hence He fitly ends His discourse on the Comforter by repeating a riddle, which He had propounded in a less pointed form in His first farewell address: "A little while, and ye no longer see me: and again a little while, and ye shall see me; because I go to the Father."
This riddle, like all riddles, is very simple when we have the key to it. As in that other paradoxical saying of Jesus, concerning losing and saving life,[25.49 the principal word, "see," is used in two senses,[25.50--first in a physical, and then, in the second clause, in a spiritual sense. Hence the possibility of one event, the departure of Christ to the Father, becoming a cause at once of not seeing and of seeing. When Jesus ascended to heaven, the disciples saw Him no more as they saw Him then in the supper-chamber. But immediately thereafter they began to see Him in another way. The idea of His life did sweetly creep into the eye and prospect of their soul. And the sight was satisfying: it justified the glowing language in which their Master had spoken of it before He left them. Though they saw Him no more in the flesh, yet, believing in Him, to quote the words of the Apostle Peter, they rejoiced with joy unspeakable and full of glory.
For the present, however, the disciples have no conception of the vision and the joy which await them. Their Lord's words have no meaning for them; they are a riddle indeed, yea, a contradiction. Standing around the inspired speaker, they whisper remarks to each other concerning the strange enigmatical words He has just uttered about a little while, and about seeing and not seeing, and about going to the Father. The riddle has evidently served one purpose at least: it has roused the disciples out of the stupor of grief, and awakened for a little their curiosity. That, however, is the amount of the service it has rendered: it has created surprise, but it has conveyed no sense; the hearers are constrained to confess, "We cannot tell what He saith."[25.51 Yet we observe, they ask no questions of Jesus. They would like to do so at this point, but they do not feel able to take the liberty; restrained, we imagine, by respect for the lofty sustained tone in which their Master has been addressing them in the second part of His farewell discourse. Jesus, however, reads a question in their countenances, and kindly favors them with a word of explanation.[25.52
That word does not, strictly speaking, explain the riddle. Jesus does not tell His disciples what the little while means, nor does He distinguish the two kinds of seeing: He leaves the enigma to be solved, as it only can be, by experience. All He attempts is to make it conceivable how the same event which in immediate prospect causes sorrow, may, after its occurrence, be a cause of joy. For this purpose He compares the crisis through which the disciples are about to pass, not, as we have already done, to the solemn event by which a Christian makes his exit out of this world into a better, but to the event with which human life begins.[25.53
The comparison is apt to the purpose for which it is introduced; but we cannot with certainty, not to say propriety, pursue it into detail. Interpreters who aspire to understand all mysteries and all knowledge, have raised many questions thereanent, such as: Who is represented by the mother in the parable--Christ, or the disciples? When does the sorrow begin, and when and in what does it end? The answers given to these questions are very various. According to one, Jesus Himself is the new man, and the sorrow He alludes to is His own death, viewed as the redemption of sinful humanity. Another will have it that Jesus represents His own disciples as with child of a spiritual Christ, who will be born when the Comforter comes. Most make the time of sorrow begin with Christ's passion, but there is much difference of opinion as to when it ends. One makes the joy date from the resurrection, which, after a little while of painful separation, restored Jesus to His sorrowing disciples; another extends the "little while" to Pentecost, when the Church was born into the world a new man in Christ; a third makes the little while a long while indeed, by making the words "I will see you again" refer to Christ's second coming, and to the blessed era when the new heavens and the new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness, for which the whole creation groans, shall at length come into being.[25.54
We do not think it necessary to pronounce on these disputed points. As little do we think it necessary to give the analogy a doctrinal turn, and find in it a reference to regeneration. What Jesus has in view throughout this part of His discourse is not the new birth, either of the disciples or of the Church, but the spiritual illumination of the apostles; their transition from the chrysalis into the winged state, from an ignorant implicit faith to a faith developed and intelligent; their initiation into the highest grade of the Christian mysteries, when they should see clearly things presently unintelligible, and be Epopts in the kingdom of heaven.[25.54 For them, as for Christians generally (for there is a sense in which the experience of the apostles repeats itself in the spiritual history of many believers), this crisis is not less important than the initial one by which men pass from death into life. It is a great thing to be regenerated, but it is a not less great thing to be illuminated. It is a great, ever-memorable time that, when Christ first enters the heart, an object of faith and love; but it is an equally important crisis when Christ, after having departed perhaps for a season, leaving the mind clouded with doubt and the heart oppressed with sorrow, returns never to depart, driving away wintry frosts and darkness, and bringing light, gladness, summer warmth, and spiritual fruitfulness to the soul. Verily one might be content that Christ, as he first knew Him, should depart, for the sake of having his sorrow after a little while turned into such joy!
Having shown, by a familiar and pathetic analogy, the possibility of present sorrow being transmuted into great joy, Jesus proceeds next to describe, by a few rapid strokes, the characteristics of the state at which the apostles will ere long arrive.[25.55 First among these He mentions an enlarged comprehension of truth; for it is to this He refers when He says, "In that day ye shall ask me nothing." He means that they will then ask Him no questions such as they had been asking all along, and especially that night,--child's questions, asked with a child's curiosity, and also with a child's incapacity to understand the answers. The questioning spirit of childhood would be replaced by the understanding spirit of manhood. The truths of the kingdom would no longer, as heretofore, be inscrutable mysteries to them: they should have an unction from the Holy One, and should know all things.
Some think this too much to be said of any Christian, not even excepting the apostles themselves, while in the earthly state, and therefore argue that the day alluded to here is that of Christ's second coming, or of His happy reunion with His own in the kingdom of His Father.[25.56 And without doubt it is true that in that final day only shall Christians know as they are known, and have absolutely no need to ask any questions. Then,
" 'Midst power that knows no limit,
And wisdom free from bound,
The beatific vision
Shall glad the saints around,"
as it can never gladden them here below. Still, the statement before us has a relative truth in reference to this present life. While, in comparison with the perfect state, the clearest vision of any Christian is but a seeing in a glass darkly, the degree of illumination attained by the apostles might be described, without exaggeration, in contrast to their ignorance as disciples, as that of men who needed not any longer to ask questions. In promising His disciples that they would ere long attain this high degree, Jesus was but saying in effect, that as apostles they would be teachers, not scholars,--doctors of divinity, with titles conferred by Heaven itself,--capable of answering questions of young disciples, similar to those which they once asked themselves.
The second feature of the apostolic illumination mentioned by Jesus is unlimited influence with God through prayer. Of this He speaks with much emphasis: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, He will give it you."[25.57 That is to say, the apostles were to have at command the whole power of God: the power of miracles, to heal diseases; of prophecy, to foretell things to come bearing on the Church's interest, and which it was desirable that believers should know; of providence, to make all events subservient to their well-being, and that of the cause in which they labored. The promise in its substance, though not in its miraculous accidents, is made to all who aspire to Christian manhood, and is fulfilled to all who reach it.
In the next sentence, Jesus, if we mistake not, particularizes a third feature in the state of spiritual maturity to which He would have His disciples aspire. It is a heart enlarged to desire, ask, and expect great things for themselves, the Church, and the world. "Hitherto," He says to them, "have ye asked nothing in my name." There was a reason for this, distinct from the spiritual state of the twelve. The time had not yet come for asking any thing in Christ's name: they could not fitly or naturally make "Christ's sake" their plea till Christ's work was completed, and He was glorified. But Jesus meant more than this by His remark. He meant to say, what was in fact most true, that hitherto His disciples had asked little in any name. Their desires had been petty, their ideas of what to ask obscure and crude; any wishes of large dimensions they had cherished had been of a worldly character, and therefore such as God could not grant. They had been like children, to whom a penny appears greater than a thousand pounds does to a wealthy man. But Jesus hints, though He does not plainly say, that it will be otherwise with the apostles after the advent of the Comforter. Then they will be poor boys grown to rich merchants, whose ideas of enjoyment have enlarged with their outward fortunes. Then they will be able to pray such prayers as that of Paul in his Roman prison in behalf of the Ephesian Church, and of the Church in all ages; able to pray the Lord's prayer, and especially to say, "Thy kingdom come," with a comprehensiveness of meaning, a fervency of desire, and an assurance of faith, whereof at present they have simply no conception. Hitherto they have been but as children, asking of their father trifles, toys, pence: then they shall make large demands on the riches of God's grace, for themselves, the Church, and the world.
Along with this enlargement, Jesus promises, will come fullness of joy. What is asked, the Father will grant; and the answer to prayer will fill the cup of joy to the brim. Hope may be deferred for a season, but in the end will come the unspeakable joy of hope fulfilled. "Ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full." So it turned out in the experience of the apostles. They had fulness of joy in the Holy Ghost, in His work in their own hearts and in the world. The law ought to hold good still. But why, then, is the cause of Christianity not progressing, but rather, one might almost say, retrograding? We must answer this question by asking others: How many have large hearts cherishing comprehensive desires? How many with their whole soul desire for themselves above all things sanctification and illumination? How many earnestly, passionately desire the conversion of the heathen, the unity and peace and purity of the Church, the prevalence of righteousness in society at large? We are straitened in our own hearts, not in God.
The farewell discourse is now at an end. Jesus has said to His disciples what time permits, and what they are able to hear. He does not imagine that He has conveyed much instruction to their minds, or that He has done much for them in the way of consolation. He has a very humble idea of the character and practical effect of the address He has just delivered. Casting a glance backwards at the whole, while perhaps specially alluding to what had been said just before, He remarks: "These things have I spoken unto you in proverbs." A few parables or figurative sayings about the house of many mansions, and about the Divine Trinity coming to make their abode with the faithful, and about the vine and its branches, and about maternal sorrows and joys: such, in the speaker's view, is the sum of His discourse.
Conscious of the inevitable deficiency not only of the present discourse, but of His whole past teaching, Jesus takes occasion for the third time to repeat the promise of future spiritual illumination, this time speaking of Himself as the illuminator, and representing the doctrine of the Father as the great subject of illumination. "The time cometh when I shall no more speak unto you in proverbs, but I shall show you plainly of the Father." The time referred to is still the era dating from the ascension. Shortly thereafter the disciples would begin to experience the fulfilment of Philip's prayer, to understand what their Lord meant by His going to the Father, and to realize its blessed consequences for themselves. Then would their exalted Lord, through the Spirit of truth, speak to them plainly of these and all other matters; plainly in comparison with His present mystic, hidden style of speech, if not so plainly as to falsify the statements in other places of Scripture concerning the partiality and dimness of all spiritual knowledge in this earthly state of being.
Of the good time coming Jesus has yet another thing to say; not a new thing, but an old thing said in a new, wondrously kind, and pathetic way. It has reference to the hearing of prayer, and is to this effect: "In the day of your enlightenment you will, as I have already hinted, pray not less than heretofore, but far more, and you will use my name as your plea to be heard. Let me once more assure you that you shall be heard. In support of this assurance, I might remind you that I will be in heaven with the Father, ever ready to speak a word in your behalf, saying, 'Father, hear them for my sake, whose name they plead in their petitions.' But I do not insist on this, not only because I believe you do not need to be assured of my continued interest in your welfare, but more especially because my intercession will not be necessary. My Father will not need to be entreated to hear you, the men who have been with me in all my temptations,[25.58 who have loved me with leal-hearted affection, who have believed in me as the Christ, the Son of the living God, while the world at large has regarded me as an impostor and a blasphemer. For these services to His Son my Father loves you, is grateful to you--in a sense accounts Himself your debtor."[25.59 What heart, what humanity, what poetry is in all this!--poetry, and also truth; truth unspeakably comforting not only to the eleven faithful companions of Jesus, but to all sincere believers in Him.
Having alluded to the faith of His disciples,--so meritorious, because so rare,--Jesus takes occasion, in closing His discourse, and at the close of His life, solemnly to declare its truth. "I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world: again I leave the world, and go to the Father."[25.60 The first part only of this statement the disciples believed; the second they did not yet understand: but Jesus puts both together, as the two halves of one whole truth, either of which necessarily implies the other. The declaration is a most momentous one: it sums up the history of Christ; it is the substance of the Christian faith; it asserts doctrines utterly incompatible with a merely human view of Christ's person, and makes His divinity the fundamental article of the creed.
These last words of Jesus burst on the disciples like a star suddenly shining out from the clouds in a dark night. At length one luminous utterance had pierced through the haze of their Master's mysterious discourse, and they fancied that now at last they understood its import. Jesus had just told them that He came forth from the Father into the world. That, at least, they understood; it was because they believed it that they had become disciples. Delighted to have heard something to which they could give a hearty response, they make the most of it, and inform their Master that the intelligible, plain speaking on His part, and the intelligent apprehending on theirs which He had projected into the future, were already in existence. "Lo," said they, with emphasis on the temporal particle, "now Thou speakest plainly, and speakest no proverb. Now are we sure that Thou knowest all things, and needest not that any man should ask Thee: in this we believe that Thou camest forth from God."
Alas, how impossible it is for children to speak otherwise than as children! The disciples, in the very act of professing their knowledge, betray their utter ignorance. The statement beginning with the second "now" indicates an almost ludicrous misapprehension of what Jesus had said about their asking Him no questions in the day of their enlightenment. He meant they would not then need to ask questions as learners: they took Him to mean that He Himself had no need to be asked questions as to who He was and whence He came, His claim to a heavenly descent being already admitted, at least by them. And as to the inference drawn from that statement, "By this we believe," we can make nothing of it. After many attempts to understand the logic of the disciples, we must confess ourselves utterly baffled. The only way by which we can put a tolerable sense on the words, is to regard the phrase translated by "this" as an adverb of time, and to read "at this present moment: "Meanwhile, whatever additional light may be in store for us in the future, we even now believe that Thou camest forth from God. This translation, however, is not favored, or even suggested, by any of the critics.[25.61
That the disciples did honestly believe what they professed to believe, was true. Jesus had just before admitted as much. But they did not understand what was involved in their belief. They did not comprehend that the coming of Jesus from the Father implied a going thither again. They had not comprehended that at the beginning of the discourse; they did not comprehend it when the discourse was finished; they would not comprehend it till their Lord had taken His departure, and the Spirit had come who should make all things plain. In consequence of this ignorance, their faith would not carry them through the evil hour that was now very near. The death of their Master, the first step in the process of His departure, would take them by surprise, and make them flee panic-stricken like sheep attacked by wolves. So Jesus plainly told them. "Do ye now believe?" He said; "behold, the hour cometh, yea, is now come, that ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave me alone."[25.62
Stern fact sternly announced; but however stern, Jesus is not afraid to look it in the face. His heart is in perfect peace, for He has two great consolations. He has a good conscience: He can say, "I have overcome the world." He has held fast His moral integrity against incessant temptation. The prince of this world has found none of his spirit in Him, and for that very reason is going to crucify Him. But by that proceeding Satan will not nullify, but rather seal, His victory. Outward defeat by worldly power will be but the index and measure of His spiritual conquest. The world itself knows well that putting Him to death is but the second best way of overcoming Him. His enemies would have been much better pleased if they had succeeded in intimidating or bribing Him into compromise. The ungodly powers of the world always prefer corruption to persecution as a means of getting rid of truth and righteousness; only after failing in attempts to debauch conscience, and make men venal, do they have recourse to violence.
Christ's other source of consolation in prospect of death is the approval of His Father: "I am not alone, because the Father is with me." The Father has been with Him all along. On three critical occasions--at the baptism, on the hill of transfiguration, in the temple a few days ago--the Father had encouraged Him with an approving voice. He feels that the Father is with Him still. He expects that He will be with Him when He is deserted by His chosen ones, and all through the awful crisis at hand, even in that darkest, bitterest moment, when the loss of His Father's sensible presence will extort from Him the cry: "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" He expects that His Father will be with Him then, not to save Him from the sense of desertion (He would not wish to be saved from that, for He would know by experience that sorest of all sorrows, that in this, as in all other respects, He might be like His brethren, and be able to succor them when they are tempted to despair), but to sustain Him under the sore affliction, and enable Him with filial faith to cry "My God" even when complaining of being forsaken.
Free from all anxiety for Himself, Jesus bids His disciples also be of good cheer; and for the same reason why He Himself is without fear, viz., because He has overcome the world. He will have them understand that His victory is theirs too. "Be of good cheer: I have overcome the world, therefore so have ye in effect;"--such is His meaning. Men of Socinianizing tendencies would interpret the words differently. They would read: I have overcome the world, therefore so may ye. Follow my example, and manfully fight the battle of righteousness in spite of tribulations.[25.63 The meaning is good enough, so far as it goes. It does nerve one for the battle of life to know that the Lord of glory has been through it before him. It is an inspiring thought that He has even been a combatant at all; for who would not follow when the divine Captain of salvation leads through suffering to glory? Then, when we think that this august combatant has been completely victorious in the fight, His example becomes still more cheering. His victory shows that the god of this world is not omnipotent; that it is always in the power of any one to overcome him simply by being willing to bear the cross. Looking at Jesus enduring the contradiction of sinners even unto death, and despising the shame of crucifixion, His followers get more heart to fight the good fight of faith.
But while this is true, it is the smallest part of the truth. The grand fact is that Christ's victory is the victory of His followers, and insures that they too shall conquer. Jesus fought His battle not as a private person, but as a public character, as a representative man. And all are welcome to claim the benefits of His victory,--the pardon of sin, power to resist the evil one, admission into the everlasting kingdom. Because Christ hath overcome, we may say to all, Be of good cheer. The victory of the Son of God in human nature is an available source of consolation for all who partake of that nature. It is the privilege of every man (as well as the duty) to acknowledge Christ as his representative in this great battle. "The Head of every man is Christ." All who sincerely recognize the relationship will get the benefit of it. Claim kindred with the High Priest, and you shall receive from Him mercy and grace to help in your hour of need. Lay it to heart that men are not isolated units, every one fighting his own battle without help or encouragement. We are members one of another, and above all, we have in Christ an elder brother. We have at least a human relationship to Him, if not a regenerate one. Let us therefore look up to Him as our Head in all things: as our King, and lay down the weapons of our rebellion; as our Priest, and receive from Him the pardon of our sins; as our Lord, to be ruled by His will, defended by His might, and guided by His grace. If we do this, the accuser of the brethren will have no chance of prevailing against us. The words of St. John in the Apocalypse will be fulfilled in our history: "They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death."