The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
1 John 2
The Patriarch In the Church
1 John 2:1-3
John will not have any sin. He was an old Prayer of Manasseh, but he would not set apart any margin for sinning, self-indulgence, worldly-mindedness; he would have the heart absolutely consecrated, fully, wholly, intensely consecrated, to God. How paternally and tenderly he talks, as he had a right to do. When a man is a hundred years old, all other men are looked upon as quite juvenile and inexperienced. Some want to play the rôle of old men and try to look very venerable at seventy; that is a mere trick of old age, juvenile old age. When John came into an assembly of septuagenarians he said, "My little children." It seemed as if he had a right to say so. What a wonderful thing is right, liberty, franchise! Some men can say what they please, and it is all right; it was the very thing to be said, and it was said in the tone that was proper, and everything about the whole atmosphere was exactly what the finest taste and keenest feeling would have it be. Other men say just the same things, and they are all wrong; they are rough, they are rude, they are out of place; they spoil the fitness of things, the inner subtle harmony that ought to hold life in quick responsive balance and union. We must imagine ourselves, therefore, in the presence of a long white-haired, wrinkle-faced, genial patriarch. He was a veritable old Prayer of Manasseh, a right mature saint of God. What will he say? Has old age made him morally blunt? Will he now say, Brethren, on the whole, it is impossible to be just what we ought to be, we must have some little liberty allowed? Has old age blunted his ethical faculty, his idea of soldierly discipline? Will he be lax, will he be blind in his senility? On the contrary, he says, My little children, we must be good up to the very highest point; we must live at highest-water mark; we must not try to compromise with duty, with righteousness, with the finest morality, and its holiest issue, and practical character: we must never sin. He is as hard as James. We have had to remark upon the sternness of James, but when John is stern, there is no sternness like his. We call him the disciple of love, we think of him pillowing his head upon the bosom of his Lord; but when love burns it puts out every other fire—it is the wrath of the Lamb. My soul, come not thou into that secret when thou standest in the presence of thy Judge!
But we do sin. What have you to say in reply to that tragical and indisputable fact, O man of the snowy hair and the wrinkled face? What have you to say to that, patriarch of the Church? Hear him! "If any man sin." How wisely he provides for what may be termed contingencies which are yet of the nature of necessities. Who could live in eternal cloudless light with such bodies and such eyes as these? None. We must have atmosphere, we must even have cloud. Who can live an absolutely holy life under conditions of the flesh, the world, and the devil? Why, we sin in prayer; we pollute with our lips the cup of sacrament; we look blasphemies. Is there no provision for this state of things? Hear the old preacher, listen how his voice trembles—that trembling is the hiding of true strength; he says, "If any man sin,"—O Apostle of Christ, we all sin. Saith Hebrews, I know it, and I am speaking to that fact, and I may tell you that if any man sin there is a certain circumstance to be distinctly and comfortably remembered: instead of saying to you boldly and bluntly, "Every one of you sins," I prefer to approach the delicate subject in another way, and to say, "If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father."
What is an "advocate"? The same word is translated "comforter" in the Gospel; we have a Comforter with the Father, a Paraclete with the Father,—the very word that is applied to God the Holy Ghost is applied to God the Son. Why, they are all one! "Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God is one Lord." Putting the rendering into modern English, we might even say, If any man sin we have an attorney with God; a man who holds the whole case in his hands, and can represent it to the Father, and can tell him all about it, how it came to be as black a case as it is. Oh, the winsomeness of his look, the music of his voice, the passion of his advocacy! Trust your case with him. Now I know what to do: I will go to my Saviour with my sins, and say, Lord Jesus, they are here, they hurt me while I hold them; I did them every one, I am sorry in my soul that I ever did them: take my case in hand; other refuge have I none. I will risk eternity in that spirit, I dare not risk eternity in any other spirit. I do not know what eternity Isaiah, what eternity means, what eternity implies: I know nothing about it, but that it is the most appalling of all mysteries that relate to duration and experience; and in the face of that mystery I would rather trust this Paraclete than any theory, invention, hypothesis, assumption, I ever heard of. Beyond personal testimony I cannot go; I can only say, This is where I personally stand and wish to stand, and I invite others to be participators of the same rational, profound, and inexhaustible comfort.
But is the Attorney, Advocate, Paraclete, or Mediator, merely a skilled pleader, one who is skilful in the use of words, sharp in the anticipation of objections; is he but a nisi prius lawyer who will take advantage of any precedent or contingency or ambiguity that will help his cause? The answer is found in the character which is assigned to him in the text—"the righteous," always the righteous, the right One; right in soul, right in purpose, right in feeling, mighty because he is right. Leave your case with him. Do not peddle with it yourselves; you cannot mend a shattered soul: go plaster the skin you have wounded, the doctor will find you some emollient you may apply: but when it is a question of the soul, To Christ! is the only gospel worth preaching.
But if he be so righteous he will be to us as burning and awful in criticism as God himself. The Apostle John anticipated that difficulty and provided for it; continuing his music thus, "And he is the propitiation for our sins." Righteousness and mercy have embraced, have kissed each other. So long as he is righteous he is fearful, we dare not go to righteousness with our sins; then hear the further strain. "And he is the propitiation for our sins." That propitiation is a theological word, and all theological words are to be jealously regarded and, where possible, to be thoroughly avoided. Yet we could not do without this word "propitiation," in whatever signification it be adopted. Say it means Kopher, cover; so that our sin being there he is the Kopher, the cover, under which they are all hidden. We have comfort even in that signification of the term. Say "the propitiation" means propitiator; a man who seeks to placate, please, reconcile, soften the other side. There is comfort in that signification of the word. It is perfectly possible for God to be love, and yet for God to need reconciling. I am not able to see that there is any sound and all-covering reason in the suggestion that because God is love he can need no reconciling. God is more than love. The term "God" is a symbolical term as well as an eternal term; it represents all that ever can be known or conceived of law, harmony, beauty, righteousness, continuance, and steadfastness of judgment. What a sphere is there for the action of all possible beneficent ministries! I do not therefore shrink from the statement that God needed reconciling: but that does not prevent my seizing with avidity on the counter-statement that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself. The action is multifold, and is not to be dismissed with fluent ignorance. By "propitiation" I want to understand that Christ did something for me which I never could have done for myself. Say he bare our sins, and carried our sickness and our sorrow; say that our sins gathered upon him, and that he bare them in his body on the Cross—it is a mystery: but, on my soul, it is a mystery of love, and every mystery of love should be carefully considered, lest in despising it or undervaluing it we offer affront to an angel of God.
The Apostle anticipated a misuse of this sublime theological doctrine. He thought the Jews or the Christians would say, How comforting! Christ saved us, Christ has his arms round about us, and come what may we are right. The venerable Apostle says, "He [Christ] is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only"—let us have no Pharisaic pride, no pomp and self-trust, no religious vaunting and boasting—"not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world." When does Christ perform any little miracles? When does Christ half-heal a man? When did Christ merely relieve the burning pain? When did he simply lower the action of the leprosy, and leave it still the torment of the blood? Never. To John there seemed to be quite a round entirety, a noble and majestic integrity, about the expression "the whole world." This world has had a false reputation. It has apparently, I do not know whether really, given itself out as if it were a big place. Civilisation has overtaken it, and put its vaunting, if it ever had any vaunting, to silence, and plainly told us exactly what size it is. Yet the expression "the whole world" is about the largest expression we shall ever know under heaven; because "the whole world" is not a topographical term, it is more, it is a time term, it is a generation word: "the whole world"—in the first age, and the second, in the thousandth age, and in the ten thousandth; it is a term that may go backwards as well as forwards. Who can tell what he did, that Son of God, when he died for the whole world? I cannot tell what he did; I know not how that agony affected the graves; I cannot say that there are any limitations to the love of God; I know not how the flood of heaven flowed backward through time"s uncounted yesterdays. There we can but be still, thoughtful; there we can but wonder and even hope: but even if the renewed human heart looks back through the dead ages, which in verity are not dead, and yearns over those who long to see Christ in the flesh but did not see him, how know we but that the infinity of the divine love magnifies this yearning into its right proportions, and fills the sphere with overflowing glory and redeeming healthfulness! Leave it: but know that certainly through all the future this propitiation shall be the mightiest agency in the history of man.
What a curious expression there is in the third verse! Read it:—"And hereby we do know that we know him." There is about as little agnosticism in that verse as any verse I ever read. This amounts to a double affirmative—"hereby we do know that we know him." What if, after all this pother of words in angry criticism, God be the only Thing, Quantity, Force, or Personality, that we do really know? That would be just like human education and the secret of human progress, to be ignoring the very thing that we do most truly know; that we know so well, in the sense of intensity of feeling and powerfulness of inspiration, that we actually fail to realise the fact that is so potent and so powerful. If you make the matter one of intellectualism, I think that agnosticism is about the cleverest thing that ever was invented to snub the pride of intellect; it balances that pride admirably; but if you leave the pure intellectualism of the case and take in all the other elements that constitute true and vital and influential knowledge, then I will repeat the bold assumption, that it may be that God is the only Quantity, Force, or Personality that we really do know. We know by feeling, we know by experience, we know by that large comprehension which is called consciousness; sometimes we know without words: there are songs without words, why should there not be theologies without words—great, reverent, marvelling apprehensions and outgoings after God, that can have no fit expression in human words? When your soul is at its highest and its best, when it has prayed itself half into heaven, then say what you really believe. You can never say your soul"s creed in cold blood. It is not a form, it is an inspiration, a passion, a storm, yet a calm of the soul.
But how are we to know that we know Christ, and know God? The Apostle says, "If we keep his commandments." We cannot get rid of this moral element in Christianity. Christianity will never allow us a vacancy in which we can serve the devil. It is always: Pray without ceasing, Watch without slumbering, Beware, for in the space required for the closing of an eye the enemy may smite you, and your soul may be slain. Never rise from your knees: you fight best when you kneel most. So Christianity is not a fine sentiment, but a daily personal discipline. And if any man be hugging his own soul and saying that, be saved or lost who may, he is right, and need take no further care about the matter, be it known to him that this is the law Johannine, the law divine; that, if we would prove our knowledge of God, we must keep God"s commandments, we must be moral, we must attend to the discipline of the soul, we must watch ourselves. Blessed is that servant, whom the Lord when he cometh shall find watching.
Almighty God, thou canst not show us how large thy love Isaiah, because we could not bear the infinite vision: thy love it hath not entered into the heart of man to conceive. The great God loveth all; there is nothing that thou hast made that is excluded from thine affection, thou didst only make what thou didst love: thy love is the creating force, and thy love inspires and directs all things created. Thou hast set thyself a difficult task in making man: in that thou didst make him like thyself thou didst make the task more than any miracle we have yet known of; for being like thyself he could wound thee, disobey thee, leave thee: none can hurt the parent"s heart so much as the child can. Yet thou shalt not be judged by to-day or tomorrow, or by any little speck which we call time; the Lord shall be judged in the sanctuary of his own eternity, the Lord shall vindicate himself in his own infinity. We need patience; we are impetuous, we want to seize conclusions, we are vexed by processes which wear the mind and irritate the whole nature: to work this patience within us is the miracle of the Holy Ghost. Take away from us all that is impetuous, fiery, urgent, and that is determined to throw off all restraint; enable us to accept the yoke lovingly, meekly, and often to do everything by doing nothing: teach us how to perform the miracle of praising God in silence, and doing God"s will by having no will of our own. Surely this also cometh through the Cross; man cannot be taught this elsewhere than at a place called Calvary: there we see thy Song of Solomon, our Saviour, our Priest, our Infinite Redeemer; he has said, Not my will but thine be done: and having so said the bitterness of death was passed, and the Cross could hurt him no more. Enable us to follow Christ in this great act; we cannot do it without him, we can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth us: may we be crucified with Christ, not on one side of him, but with him, on his Cross, that knowing the fellowship of his sufferings we may afterward know the power of his resurrection. Thou dost enable thy loved one to say: I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. Amen.
1 John 2:4-9
We say that the Apostle John was all for love. In so far he was true to his own loving nature. He was above all things affectionate. Some souls have no affection. They are not wholly to blame. "That which is crooked cannot be made straight; and that which is wanting cannot be numbered." They do not mean to be wanting in affection; they do not know that they are wanting in affection. It is impossible to live with them; you may be compelled to live beside them, but "with" is a larger word than "beside"; it implies indentification, unity, sympathy, oneness. You did not know that there was any want of love; you could only make that disastrous discovery after long experience: hence we have so many shattered, ruined lives, where there is absolutely no cruelty of any kind that can be expressed in words. Homes are made unhappy not by cruelty only, some overt and infernal act of shameless cruelty; but in one heart or the other there is a great gap, an awful vacancy, a piece of leather where there ought to be a living, sensitive, all-answering heart. John was, on the contrary, affectionate, loving, clinging, caressing, always wanting something else to complete the measure of his heart-satisfaction. Yet the fourth verse gives a totally different aspect of the man. In that verse there is no flowery sentiment. A soldier could not be more concise, and soldiers must not indulge in rhetoric before the battle. Here we have the stern disciplinarian. John comes to the Church and rouses everybody:—Move on! is the cry of this monitor. Where he finds a man with a whole gobletful of religious liquid, and finds that gospel-bibber drinking it, and saying how good it Isaiah, and how delightful a thing it is to be released from the grip of law, John says, You are a liar: that is your name, that is your nature; you are not a Christian man at all, you have no right to any of the promises, comforts, assurances of the Christian sanctuary: we only know that you are good in heart when you are industrious and faithful in service: to keep the commandments is the certificate of a renewed soul. Yet it is difficult for a man to change his whole nature even under some gust of holy excitement
Up to this time John had been speaking in the first person plural very much:—"We have heard," "We have seen," "If we say," "If we walk in the light," "If we confess," "Hereby we do know": why not continue the first person plural? it is a cordial utterance; it is a kind of masonic word; it keeps us near to one another, as if we belonged to the same household and brotherhood: why change the grammar? Yet the grammar is changed in this very verse; suddenly the Apostle goes into another direction, speaking in the third person—"He that saith." How could that great, warm, ardent heart say, "If we say we know him, and keep not his commandments, we are liars"? Some possibilites cannot be entertained; they distress the imagination, they even defy the fancy: only in some hideous nightmare could we perpetrate the madness of supposing that a Christian professor could do certain things. Better put the case abstractly; better indicate some anonymous stranger—a "he" without an address. Here is delicacy, here is exquisite spiritual taste, keeping the man right even in his grammar. With how fine a delicacy are some men gifted! They did not learn it in the schools, they brought it with them from eternity, it is part of heaven"s dower. Other men seem fated to hurt everybody; they are all elbows, they are all angles. They do not mean to get wrong, but they never happen to be right. When they are told that they have offended or tried or distressed some person, they are really amazed to hear that they have been guilty of such an offence. When men are amazed in that way you can do nothing with them; there is nothing to work upon: even a bog has been concreted into strength, but the bog of the heart swallows up all the concrete of exhortation and civilisation, and is more a bog than ever. You bray a fool in the mortar, and he comes out just as he went in. Here is a lesson in literature, a lesson in manners; here is more than Chesterfield, no pedantic letter-writing here, but the sweet and easy and graceful expression of the very quality of the man"s soul. When we are quite sure that every time we open our mouth we may offend somebody, the best thing we can do is not to open our mouth.
How stands the case in the estimation of this penetrating and candid critic? "He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him." Did you ever meet a liar? Not often. We have often met men who told lies, but men who tell lies may not be liars. A very subtle thing is this life of ours. A man may be better than his speech. I do not say that Peter was a profane and impious blasphemer even when he cursed and swore and denied his Lord. Man is dual. In every man there are two men. The lips are sometimes traitor to the soul. The soul has delivered a message to them which they have not delivered to those to whom they were called upon to communicate the message. Within us there goes on an incessant dialogue. When I do good, evil is present with me: the thing that I want to do I cannot do: the flesh wars against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh, and life is a continual conflict. But some men are without the truth—"the truth is not in" them. They are false through and through. If you could take them to pieces fibre by fibre, you would find that every fibre is a separate lie. Nor are they to be judged by their method of looking at you. There is a short and easy method with liars, which is just as superficial as it is short. Men say, "He could not look you in the face." The finest, sublimest, grandest liar I ever knew could look at you in the face all day long. He had no difficulty about looking you in the face. His fine blue eyes, in which the morning seemed to rest as if a native of those well-shaped orbs, looked at you with ineffable frankness and ineffable trustfulness; and the lies flowed over those soft young lips like water over some grassy torrent-bed. One of the most truthful men I ever knew never lifted his eyes from the ground when he could help it; the word "liar" seemed to be written all over his bent head. So we go with these superficial and false judgments of one another. To be a liar is to be lost. You can do nothing with a liar. You cannot make him a man of business, an accountant, a confidential servant, a friend; you cannot make him a teacher of your families, you can have no useful and profitable association with him. I do not know what is to be done with liars. They cannot pray, they cannot read the Bible, they cannot hear a sermon: we must leave them with God.
Here is a lesson which every man may learn. When a man is very anxious about his spiritual state, let him ask whether he is keeping God"s commandments. Many persons are very anxious about the matter of the unpardonable sin. Such people are always either too mad to be ministered to by pastors, or too self-conscious to receive any really wise instruction. I have sometimes ventured in the case of people who have come to me about the unpardonable sin to recommend them to take an ice-cold bath every morning at five o"clock till they get better. Do not allow your souls to be swindled by this continual morbidity of self-vivisection, taking yourselves to pieces to know whether you are right with God: judge your morality, your honesty, your behaviour: why make a metaphysical puzzle of a thing that could be settled by a reference to your own wife and children, and customers in your daily business? This is the severity that kills, that may afterwards melt into the gentleness that saves and heals.
The Apostle now puts the matter in another way, and yet not in another, saying, "But whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected." To keep God"s word is the object of the whole of this great Christian economy. Say it is an economy with a Cross at the centre; the object of that Cross is to create and sustain and perpetuate character. Is the love of God perfected in the monk, who hides himself from the world that he may read his sentimentalism and go through his ceremonial services? He knows nothing about the love of God. He does not know the love of God who runs away into some quiet resting-place, and sits down there, after having shut the door, and says to himself, Now we shut out all the world. Whoever shuts out all the world shuts out God. Whoever severs himself from his own flesh, from humanity, whoever ceases to take an interest in the evangelisation and education of the world, has not begun to pray, he has begun to blaspheme. This is very stern teaching on the part of the Apostle. James is blunter, but really not sterner. James" sword is all blade; we are always afraid that he will cut himself when he lifts it that he may smite others. John"s sword is long-handled, velvet-covered, and the edge of that sword is every whit as keen as the edge of the sword of James. It is a mistake to suppose that one apostle takes care of the sentiment, and another apostle takes care of the doctrine: John takes care of them both, so does Paul, and so does James, when rightly read. Many persons are afraid of good works; they have a right to be; and good works have more right to be afraid of them. Some persons are afraid to do anything that is good, lest they might seem to be ostentatious. What self-delusion, what immoral phantasy is this! We must do one of two things; that is to say, we must either do good or do evil. To do nothing is to do wrong. How, then, is it to be? Some men will not let the left hand know what the right hand has done, or the right hand know what the left has done: very good: there is perhaps not much to communicate: who can tell? It would be a pity to annoy the right hand by the left going to it and saying, Brother, I have done nothing to-day: but I did not want to mention the matter to you. There is a school of theology which is very much afraid of morality, that is of keeping the Word of God; very much afraid of what is termed conscience; and extremely sensitive lest we should begin to count up our good deeds and make a virtue of them. I would rather belong to a thoroughly good moral school than to a questionable theological school. Sometimes men are trying to hammer their way into the inner kingdom by trying to do good to little children, to the poor, to the ignorant, and to others who are in need of help: interrogate these persons as to theology, and they know nothing about it—blessed be God! Herein it is true that "A little learning is a dangerous thing." If a man could be a theologian, in the real, deep, full sense of that term, there would be nothing more to be; but to suppose that we are theologians because we know certain phrases is to delude ourselves, and is to commit ourselves to a policy of wrong-doing and mischief-making.
"He that saith he abideth in him ought himself also so to walk, even as he walked." So John would say to us, How do you walk? do you walk on both sides of the way at once? do you reel in the path? do you walk straightforwardly? do your eyes look straight on? do you walk as those who are walking in the light and are going about on useful business? In the Bible, religion is often described as "walking," and walking is another term for conduct. We may often read a man by his walk. I never fail to do this. I do not want any certificate about the Prayer of Manasseh, I want simply to see him walk down the road when he is unaware that I am looking at him, and I know all about him. "Walk" is a large word in the Christian vocabulary. You can tell by a man"s walk whether he is frivolous, or earnest, or solid, or self-conscious; whether he is capable of passion, enthusiasm, devotion; or whether he lolls and dawdles and fails to take grip of the earth he is walking on. So the Apostle John will not allow us to go behind carefully drawn and finely scented curtains that we may examine our souls; he says, You have no business to be examining your souls, your business is to be examining your lives, your character, your walk, your purpose in life; by these things shall all men know whether you are the disciples of Christ or not.
The Apostle will not have it that he is writing anything new. He resents the idea:—"Brethren," saith he in 1 John 2:7, "I write no new commandment unto you, but an old commandment which ye had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word which ye have heard from the beginning." God"s religion never changes. True religion may be a development, but it never shakes off its past in any sense of inflicting disgrace upon it. Truly developed religion never says, I have made mistakes, and now I apologise and take a new departure. The blossom does not apologise for the root, it tells in beauty what the root is all the time trying to say in darkness. But, saith John in 1 John 2:8, if you do want novelty, newness, real originality, then arise and be honest and true to your faith and your profession:—"Again, a new commandment I write unto you, which thing is true in him and in you: because the darkness is past, and the true light now shineth. He that saith he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now" ( 1 John 2:8-9). So the Apostle is not afraid of morality, he glories in it; he says, in effect, People who never can understand your metaphysics can always understand your conduct, and if they find you wrong at the point they can understand, they will not care to go much farther into points which lie beyond their intelligence. Brethren, it is in our power to stun the world by doing good!
Abiding In Christ
1 John 2:24-29; 1 John 3:1
IN this verse the Apostle is bound down in his mind to one thought, and almost to one word. He varies the word, and yet it is the same. "Abide," "remain," "continue." These are in some sort an old man"s words. John will have no shifting, no experimenting: he will not have us as butterflies in the garden of God, here and there, a moment on the wing and a moment resting, and then flying again; and doing all simply because the sun is shining. The Apostle insists upon abiding, remaining, continuing, enduring, holding on. "He that endureth unto the end shall be saved." This is true in all things that are honest and right; even in commerce; also in scholarship; also in the highest life known to heaven. Salvation is in continuance. There are those who want to be saved and completed as if by one magical act. This cannot be done; such is not the Divine plan. The economy of God is an economy of growth, of slow progress, of imperceptible advance; but the growth, the progress, and the advance being assured. How many there are upon whom no reckoning can be made! We do not know where they are, we cannot tell what they believe; not that we want to know the detailed particulars, but we do want to know the inner, constant, unchangeable quantity of faith: given that, and afterwards great liberty may be enjoyed as to imagination, and proposition, and formulation, and the like. The point of constancy must be found in the living faith of the soul. So then all new religion is forbidden. No religion can be new. If "religion" be taken in its Latin derivation, if it mean binding back upon, or binding down to, duty, it is an eternal term. Duty was never born. The incidents or accidents of duty may come and go, so that this shall be the incident to-day, and tomorrow the incident shall undergo modification: but the constant quantity is duty, binding back, a fettering to certain acknowledged and unchangeable principles. Eternal terms have eternal rewards:—
"This is the promise that he hath promised us, even eternal life"—( 1 John 2:25).
Song of Solomon, whether it be duty or whether it be promise, in each case we go back to eternity. There is nothing in time"s garden worth plucking except for one moment. What we pluck we kill. No man ever plucked a flower and kept it. He praised it, he became wisely and gratefully poetical over it; he called it lovely, sweet, beautiful, fragrant: and as he was pouring out his eulogistic epithets upon it the flower was dying all the time. But the promise which we have of God is a promise of eternal life. Who can explain the word "eternal" in this connection? It is not an arithmetical term, it is not a term of time, of extended, expanded, immeasurable time. Eternity has no relation to time; infinity has no relation to space, it mocks it, swallows it up, and spreads itself beyond all measuring lines, yea, and beyond the scope and bend of inspired imagination. It is difficult for the human mind to think of eternity in any other way than as a continuation of time. If eternity can begin, it can end; if eternity can end, it is a paradox in phrases, it is a palpable irony and self-contradiction. So life eternal is not life never ceasing only, it is a qualitative term, it indicates a species and kind and value of life. As John Stuart Mill has said, immortality in the mere sense of duration may become a burden. Duration is a low and literal term; eternal life means quality of life, divinity, blessedness, completeness, music, restfulness. Along the line of such explanatory terms must we find the real significance of the word "eternal."
But there is to be an eternal element in us: that is to say we must love the eternal before we can enjoy it.
"Let that therefore abide in you, which ye have heard from the beginning. If that which ye have heard from the beginning shall remain in you"—( 1 John 2:24).
What is that "beginning"? An unbeginning period; it Isaiah, as we have seen, a favourite word with John, both in his Gospel and in his Epistle. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God"—that same unmapped, unmeasured, unimagined Deity. If we are filled with theories, inventions, conjectures, and even hypotheses—whatever that dubious Greek may mean—we cannot go from these into eternal life. If we have taken up with that which was in the beginning, if it be in us, and we be in it, then this eternal life is not an arbitrary reward, it is a logical sequence, the infinite pressure of infinite laws. There may be some who suppose that the gift of heaven is extraneous, arbitrary; that it is given where something else might have been given in its stead. Such is not the reasoning of the Bible. Heaven is the culmination of all we have been passing through, as noon is the culmination of dawn, as the fruit is the culmination of all the mysterious, chemical action of spring and summer, the outcome and benediction of all. Some men are now nearly in heaven. Their translation can occasion but small surprise to themselves; they have daily fellowship with God through his Son Jesus Christ, by the power of the Eternal Spirit; they walk with God; they awake in the morning to praise him, they fall asleep with their heads pillowed in his promises, and in all the hours between waking and sleeping their one inquiry Isaiah, "Lord, what wilt thou have me do?" After such experience, heaven comes not as a novelty or a startling surprise, but as a necessary and blessed crowning of the whole process.
"These things have I written unto you concerning them that seduce you"—( 1 John 2:26).
John was not only in a hortatory temper, he was also disposed to give caution and warning to those who were in danger of being craftily handled. In this connection "seduce" means, Lead you into by-paths. Observe the quaintness and the fulness of that expression. By-paths have a relation to the great turnpike, they are not wholly cut away, they are close at hand but they are not on the main thoroughfare: and I know not any promise that is given to those who are in by-paths, in out-of-the-way lanes and turnings and sequestered places; if there are such promises attached to such places they have wholly escaped my memory. The blessing is upon those who keep in the way, the old paths, the frequented way; and the young shepherdess is warned in the Song of Songs to keep close by them whose tents are builded by experienced hands. She is told to keep in company with those who have rich experience in shepherding, not to take her little flock away into by-paths, and to make roads and tracks for herself. The song says, Keep the old ones in sight; follow the way-worn, toil-worn shepherds, never be far away from them, so that if the wolf should come you may have assistance within call. John would therefore not have us try any by-paths. Some men cannot do without irregularity and incoherency; they cannot do with uniformity, they seem to be most in company when they are most alone, and they do not understand the mystery and helpfulness, the genius and inspiration of fellowship, comradeship, mutual exchange of love and trust. We must get out of this enfeebling and ultimately ruinous isolation. This caution is not directed against independency, courage, fearlessness, or heroism of mind. There is a leadership that is connected vitally with all the following body, there is also a leadership that cuts itself away from the body that has to be led, and therefore ends in loss of influence and ultimate ruin of soul and body. At the same time we must not think that a man is utterly lost because he has been seduced, led away into some leafy lane, where he thinks the flowers are brighter and the berries are sweeter than on the open turnpike; we need not pelt our lane-loving friends with cruel epithets, with murderous criticisms; we must not let them suppose that they are exiled and forgotten. The Son of man came to seek and to save that which was lost; let us say, even we ourselves who are now in God"s open sunny thoroughfare and are going straight up to heaven by the power of the Spirit,—even we were like sheep that had gone astray, we had turned every one to his own way, but now we have returned to the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls. They may follow our example; some day we may find the lanes or by-paths all deserted, and our friends who have been momentarily lost may rejoin our friendship, and not know how to make enough of it because of their remembered loneliness.
The Apostle continues in the28th verse in the same tone—
"And now, little children, abide in him." ( 1 John 2:28)
"Little children" is the same word that has been already used as a term of endearment. But the exhortation is unchanged—abide, continue, watch, wait, keep on. We need all these exhortations; we are the victims of sudden passion. Imagination itself is challenged sometimes to go to the very pinnacle of the temple and behold the possibilities of religious progress and conquest, and all the progress and conquest may be realised by simply worshipping at some forbidden altar, or taking some ruinous leap. Blessed are they who have no imagination; they who know only the letter have no doubt, no fear, no trouble: other minds are all imagination, not in the nightmare sense of supposing that things are real which are non-existent, but in the high ideal sense of multiplying the actual into the possible, and that mysterious power which puts back the horizon and makes larger heavens every day. These are the men who are so various in mental action as sometimes to be accused by those who never dreamed a dream or saw a vision. On the other hand, it is within the power of the Spirit of God to direct the imagination which he has created, and in being so directed we owe to that imagination, some of our richest treasures of Christian poetry and spiritual thought. Evermore, therefore, the Apostle says you must abide in him.
John was familiar with this word "abide." He caught it from the lips of the Master; he chronicled it as part of the discourse delivered by the Saviour about the vine and the branches and the husbandman; said Christ, "I am the Vine, ye are the branches; as the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me." And when the Paraclete was promised, John says he was promised to abide. He came to stay till the work was completed. Some one must come from heaven to remain. Jesus came, and we hardly saw him before he vanished: and when he was going, he said, I am going for your sake, it is expedient for you that I go away; but I will send the abiding Personality: and no personality could abide with us that could be seen by us; familiarity would ruin even the ministry of God; Christ himself could have stayed so as to have survived himself: such is the mystery of all fleshly action and all fleshly contact and vision: we become familiar with it, we want some new wonder, some novel fame, some miracle of revelation: blessed be God, here is one of the subtlest, profoundest proofs of the divinity or the inspiration of Christianity, that it relies upon the presence of the invisible, upon the action of the impalpable, upon the ministry of One who is called the Ghost, the Spirit, the fleshless One, unseen, almighty. Even if this be but a conception, it is one of the finest, grandest conceptions of the human mind. It is more than a conception to the Christian heart, it is a distinct revelation. Again John becomes gently practical:—
"If ye know that he is righteous, ye know that every one that doeth righteousness is born of him"—( 1 John 2:29).
Here we have a claim which the Church has forgotten to insist upon. We ought to claim every good man as belonging to God—"every one that doeth righteousness is born of God." Never admit that there can be righteousness outside the Church. You must enlarge your Church to take in all righteousness. If your walls are too narrow to accommodate with sufficient hospitality all the good men of the world, you must put your walls farther back, at what cost soever; it is the wall that must be extended, not the man that must be kept outside. "Every one that doeth righteousness is born of God," whether he technically and formally acknowledge it or not; whether indeed he is conscious of it or not: we must not allow even human consciousness to be the measure of all things, we must not so exalt human consciousness as to outbuild God from his own human creation. God is doing many things for us that we do not recognise in all their simplicity and reality. Whenever a man lifts his eyes to heaven in religious expectancy, though he has no words, he is under divine influence. If a man shall say to himself, "I will try to be good, without having any connection with churches and religious organisations," he cannot perform that miracle except God the Holy Ghost be with him. Never admit that morality can be grown in any garden but the garden of God. If you find good in heathenism, it belongs to Christ. If ever Confucius or Buddha or Mahomet spake one living, loving, true, musical word, it belongs to him whose are the riches of the universe. The Church must make larger claims. Do not take some ecclesiastical standard with you and say, "Except you come up to this standard you have no relation to the Kingdom of heaven"; it is your standard that must go down, not God"s kingdom that must be narrowed and humiliated. Along this line I feel as if God"s ministers might house many who are apparently outside the Church, and who suppose themselves to be heterodox and outcast and alien. Nothing of the kind. If you ever yearn for your Father in heaven, take heart, hope on, yearn on: such yearning ends in vision and benediction. Once let the notion get rooted that men can be good without Christ, and the whole Christian argument is surrendered. Jesus Christ never allowed any good worker to go unrecognised. Whenever he heard of persons doing good, though they followed not with him, he would not have them forbidden; he knew that whoever was trying to help a child was in that form praying; whoever was struggling to shake down a boundary that he might enjoy a healthier liberty was really beating upon the door of the kingdom of heaven. This larger definition must give hope to the world.
"Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God" [literally, the children of God ( 1 John 3:1)].
There is but one Son of God, yet somehow the Lord hath made his household so capacious and inclusive that there may be many children of God. What happens when human character is so sublimated as to be made akin to the very nature and quality of God? Agnosticism happens. Hear the argument—"therefore the world knoweth us not." This is practical agnosticism. The Christian is in his own degree as great a mystery to the world as Christ was. There be those who say they do not know God; and these same people do not know God"s children. They deny their existence, they smile upon them as fanatics, they dismiss them in literary footnotes, they give them a humble place in the marginalia with which they adorn their literature; but they do not know the Christian, the man who prays, the man who trusts, the man who endures as seeing the invisible: that is as great a mystery to the worldly mind, whether it be mercenarily worldly or vainly worldly, in an intellectual and literary sense, as is the Godhead itself. Observe the same word is used "knoweth us not, because it knew him not": not "know" merely in the sense of recognising; not "know" merely in the sense of saluting, as who should say, There are certain figures there the existence of which we must acknowledge, if we would not suffer our politeness to be extinguished; not that kind of knowledge, social, conventional and complimentary; but "knoweth us not" as to the secret of our action, the motive which impels us, the consideration which governs us. Christians are the misunderstood men of the world. Why are Christians misunderstood? Because Christ is misunderstood. Why are good men not known? Because God is not known. Only he who knows God can know God"s children. Blessed is the time, come when it may, when God"s children shall be such examples of moral beauty and nobleness as to confound the imagination of the worldly mind. This weapon is always left to us in the great spiritual warfare. We may be so good as to pass beyond the ken of low minds, worldly minds, vain, self-conceited minds. We can be so lowly minded, so longsuffering, so patient, so gentle, so forgiving, as to be counted fools. Wise are they who are fools for Christ"s sake. You may not convince agnosticism or any form of scepticism or question-asking, by sheer intellectual argument, but you can confound all enemies by the sublimity of unselfishness, by consummating in obedience to the Holy Spirit the whole character of him who died upon the Cross to save the world. The fate of Christianity often seems to depend upon the character of Christians. Awake! As the battle is ours, ours through the Holy Spirit may be the victory!
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on 1 John 2". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://beta.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24