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‘Lovest Thou Me?’ by Alexander MacLaren

‘Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou Me more than these? He saith unto Him, Yea, Lord; Thou knowest that I love Thee. He saith unto him. Feed My lambs.’ — John 21:15

Peter had already seen the risen Lord.  There had been that interview on Easter morning on which the seal of sacred secrecy was impressed; when, alone, the denier poured out his heart to his Lord and was taken to the heart that he had wounded.  Then there had been two interviews on the two successive Sundays in which the Apostle, in common with his brethren, had received, as one of the group, the Lord’s benediction, the Lord’s gift of the Spirit, and the Lord’s commission.

But something more was needed.  There had been public denial; there must be public confession.  If he had slipped again into the circle of the disciples with no special treatment or reference to his fall, it might have seemed a trivial fault to others, and even to himself.  And so, after that strange meal on the beach, we have this exquisitely beautiful and deeply instructive incident of the special treatment needed by the denier before he could be publicly reinstated in his office.

The meal seems to have passed in silence.  That awe which hung over the disciples in all their intercourse with Jesus during the forty days lay heavy on them, and they sat there, huddled round the fire, eating silently the meal which Christ had provided, no doubt gazing silently at the silent Lord.  What a tension of expectation there must have been as to how the oppressive silence was to be broken!  And how Peter’s heart must have throbbed and the others’ ears been pricked up, when it was broken by ‘Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou Me?’  We may listen with pricked-up ears too.  For we have here, in Christ’s treatment of the Apostle, a revelation of how He behaves to a soul conscious of its fault; and, in Peter’s demeanor, an illustration of how a soul, conscious of its fault, should behave to Him.

There are three stages here: the threefold question, the threefold answer and the threefold charge.  Let us look at these.

I. The threefold question. The reiteration in the interrogation did not express doubt as to the veracity of the answer nor dissatisfaction with its terms; but it did express, and was meant, I suppose, to suggest to Peter and to the others that the threefold denial needed to be obliterated by the threefold confession; and that every black mark that had been scored deep on the page by that denial needed to be covered over with the gilding or bright coloring of the triple acknowledgment.  And so Peter thrice having said, ‘I know Him not;’ Jesus with a gracious violence forced him to say thrice, ‘Thou knowest that I love Thee.’  The same intention to compel Peter to go back upon his past comes out in two things besides the triple form of the question.

The one is the designation by which he is addressed, ‘Simon, son of Jonas,’ which travels back, as it were, to the time before he was a disciple, and points a finger to his weak humanity before it had come under the influence of Jesus Christ.  ‘Simon, son of Jonas,’ was the name that he bore in the days before his discipleship. It was the name by which Jesus had addressed him, therefore, on that never-to-be-forgotten turning-point of his life when he was first brought to Him by his brother Andrew.  It was the name by which Jesus had addressed him at the very climax of his past life when, high up, he had been able to see far, and in answer to the Lord’s question, had rung out the confession: ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God!’  So the name by which Jesus addresses him now says to him in effect: ‘Remember thy human weakness; remember how you were drawn to Me; remember the high-water mark of thy discipleship, when I was plain before thee as the Son of God, and remembering all these, answer Me — lovest thou Me?’

The same intention to drive Peter back to the wholesome remembrance of a stained past is obvious in the first form of the question. Our Lord mercifully does not persist in giving to it that form in the second and third instances: ‘Lovest thou Me more than these?’  More than these, what?  I cannot for a moment believe that that question means something so trivial and irrelevant as ‘Lovest thou Me more than these nets and boats and the fishing?’  No; in accordance with the purpose that runs through the whole, of compelling Peter to retrospect, it says to him, ‘Do you remember what you said a dozen hours before you denied Me, “Though all should forsake Thee, yet will not I”?  Are you going to take that stand again?  Lovest thou Me more than these, that never discredited their boasting so shamefully?’

So, dear brethren! here we have Jesus Christ, in His treatment of this penitent and half-restored soul, forcing a man, with merciful compulsion, to look steadfastly and long at his past sin and to retrace step by step, shameful stage by shameful stage, the road by which he had departed so far.  Every foul place he is to stop and look at and think about.  Each detail he has to bring up before his mind.  Was it not cruel of Jesus thus to take Peter by the neck, as it were, and hold him right down, close to the foul things that he had done, and say to him, ‘Look! look! look ever! And answer, Lovest thou Me?’  No; it was not cruel; it was true kindness. Peter was never so abundantly and permanently penetrated by the sense of the sinfulness of his sin, as after he was sure, as he had been made sure in that great interview, that it was all forgiven.  So long as a man is disturbed by the dread of consequences, so long as he is doubtful as to his relation to the forgiving Love, he is not in a position beneficially and sanely to consider his evil in its moral quality only.  But when the conviction comes to a man, ‘God is pacified towards thee for all that thou hast done;’ and when he can look at his own evil without the smallest disturbance rising from slavish fear of issues, then he is in a position rightly to estimate its darkness and its depth.  And there can be no better discipline for us all than to remember our faults and penitently to travel back over the road of our sins, just because we are sure that God in Christ has forgotten them.  The beginning of Christ’s merciful treatment of the forgiven man is to compel him to remember, that he may learn and be ashamed.

And then there is another point here in this triple question.  How significant and beautiful it is that the only thing that Jesus Christ cares to ask about is the sinner’s love! We might have expected: ‘Simon, son of Jonas, are you sorry for what you did?  Simon, son of Jonas, will you promise never to do the like any more?’  No!  These things will come if the other thing is there.  ‘Lovest thou Me?’  Jesus Christ sues each of us, not for obedience primarily, not for repentance, not for vows, not for conduct, but for a heart; and that being given, all the rest will follow.  That is the distinguishing characteristic of Christian morality: that Jesus seeks first for the surrender of the affections, and believes, and is warranted in the belief, that if these are surrendered, all else will follow.  And love being given, loyalty and service and repentance and hatred of self-will and of self-seeking will follow in her train.  All the graces of human character which Christ seeks and is ready to impart, are, as it were, but the pages and ministers of the regal Love, who follow behind and swell the cortege of her servants.

Christ asks for love.  Surely that indicates the depth of His own!  In this commerce, He is satisfied with nothing less and can ask for nothing more; and He seeks for love because He is love and has given love.  Oh! to all hearts burdened, as all our hearts ought to be — unless the burden has been cast off in one way — by the consciousness of our own weakness and imperfection, surely, surely, it is a gospel that is contained in that one question addressed to a man who had gone far astray, ‘Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me?’

Here, again, we have Jesus Christ, in His dealing with the penitent, willing to trust discredited professions. We think that one of the signs of our being wise people is that experience shall have taught us ‘once’ being ‘bit, twice’ to be ‘shy,’ and if a man has once deceived us by flaming professions and ice-cold acts, never to trust him any more.  We think that is ‘worldly wisdom’ and ‘the bitter fruit of earthly experience’ and ‘sharpness’ and ‘shrewdness’ and so forth.  Jesus Christ, even whilst reminding Peter by that ‘more than these,’ of his utterly hollow and unreliable boasting, shows Himself ready to accept once again the words of one whose inveracity He had proved.  ‘Charity hopeth all things, believeth all things,’ and Jesus Christ is ready to trust us when we say, ‘I love Thee,’ even though often in the past our professed love has been all disproved.

We have here, in this question, our Lord revealing Himself as willing to accept the imperfect love which a disciple can offer Him. Of course, many of you well know that there is a very remarkable play of expression here.  In the two first questions, the word which our Lord employs for ‘love’ is not the same as that which appears in Peter’s two first answers.  Christ asks for one kind of love; Peter proffers another.  I do not enter upon discussion as to the distinction between these two apparent synonyms.  The kind of love which Christ asks for is higher, nobler, less emotional and more associated with the whole mind and will.  It is the inferior kind, the more warm, more sensuous, more passionate and emotional, which Peter brings.  And then, in the third question, our Lord, as it were, surrenders and takes Peter’s own word, as if He had said, ‘Be it so!  You shrink from professing the higher kind; I will take the lower and I will educate and bring that up to the height that I desire you to stand at.’  Ah, brother! however stained and imperfect, however disproved by denials, however tainted by earthly associations, Jesus Christ will accept the poor stream of love – though it be but a trickle when it ought to be a torrent – which we can bring Him.

These are the lessons which it seems to me lie in this triple question.  I have dealt with them at the greater length because those which follow are largely dependent upon them.  But let me turn now briefly, in the second place, to —

II. The triple answer. ‘Yea, Lord! Thou knowest that I love Thee.’  Is not that beautiful, that the man who by Christ’s Resurrection (as the last of the answers shows) had been led to the loftiest conception of Christ’s omniscience and regarded Him as knowing the hearts of all men should, in the face of all that Jesus Christ knew about his denial and his sin, have dared to appeal to Christ’s own knowledge?  What a superb and all-conquering confidence in Christ’s depth of knowledge and forgivingness of knowledge that answer showed!  He felt that Jesus could look beneath the surface of his sin and see that below it there was, even in the midst of the denial, a heart that in its depths was true.  It is a tremendous piece of confident appeal to the deeper knowledge and therefore the larger love and more abundant forgiveness of the righteous Lord — ‘Thou knowest that I love Thee.’

Brethren! a Christian man ought to be sure of his love to Jesus Christ.  You do not study your conduct in order to infer from it your love to others.  You do not study your conduct in order to infer from it your love to your wife or your husband or your parents or your children or your friend.  Love is not a matter of inference; it is a matter of consciousness and intuition.  Whilst self-examination is needful for us all for many reasons, a Christian man ought to be as sure that he loves Jesus Christ as he is sure that he loves his dearest upon earth.

It used to be the fashion long ago — this generation has not depth enough to keep up the fashion — for Christian people to talk as if it were a point they longed to know, whether they loved Jesus Christ or not.  There is no reason why it should be a point we long to know.  You know all about your love to one another and you are sure about that.  Why are you not sure about your love to Jesus Christ?  ‘Oh! but,’ you say, ‘look at my sins and failures;’ and if Peter had looked only at his sins, do you not think that his words would have stuck in his throat?  He did look, but he looked in a very different way from that of trying to ascertain from his conduct whether he loved Jesus Christ or not.  Brethren, any sin is inconsistent with Christian love to Christ.  Thank God, we have no right to say of any sin that it is incompatible with that love!  More than that; a great, gross, flagrant, sudden fall like Peter’s is a great deal less inconsistent with love to Christ than are the continuously unworthy, worldly, selfish, Christ-forgetting lives of hosts of complacent professing Christians today.  White ants will eat up the carcass of a dead buffalo more quickly than a lion will.  To have denied Christ once, twice, thrice, in the space of an hour, and under strong temptation, is not half so bad as to call Him ‘Master’ and ‘Lord,’ and day by day, week in, week out, in works to deny Him.  The triple answer declares to us that in spite of a man’s sins, he ought to be conscious of his love and be ready to profess it when need is.

III. Lastly, we have here the triple commission. I do not dwell upon it at any length because in its original form it applies especially to the apostolic office.  But the general principles which underlie this threefold charge, to feed and to tend both ‘the sheep’ and ‘the lambs,’ may be put in a form that applies to each of us, and it is this — the best token of a Christian’s love to Jesus Christ is his service of man for Christ’s sake.  ‘Lovest thou Me?’  ‘Yea! Lord.’  Thou hast said: go and do, ‘Feed My lambs; feed My sheep.’  We need the profession of words; we need, as Peter himself enjoined at a subsequent time, to be ready to ‘give to every man that asketh us a reason of the hope’ and an acknowledgment of the love that is in us.  But if you want men to believe in your love, however Jesus Christ may know it, go and work in the Master’s vineyard.  The service of man is the garb of the love of God.  ‘He that loveth God will love his brother also.’  Do not confine that thought of service and feeding and tending to what we call evangelistic and religious work.  That is one of its forms, but it is only one of them.  Everything in which Christian men can serve their fellows is to be taken by them as their worship of their Lord and is taken by the world as the convincing proof of the reality of their love.

Love to Jesus Christ is the qualification for all such service.  If we are knit to Him by true affection, which is based upon our consciousness of our own falls and evils and our reception of His forgiving mercy, then we shall have the qualities that fit us and the impulse that drives us to serve and help our fellows.  I do not say — God forbid! — that there is no philanthropy apart from Christian faith, but I do say that, on the wide scale, and in the long run, they who are knit to Jesus Christ by love will be those who render the greatest help to all that are ‘afflicted in mind, body, or estate.’  The true basis and qualification for efficient service of our fellows is the utter surrender of our hearts to Him who is the Fountain of love and from whom comes all our power to live in the world, as the images and embodiments of the love which has saved us that we might help to save others.

Brethren! let us all ask ourselves Christ’s question to the denier.  Let us look our past evils full in the face, that we may learn to hate them and that we may learn more the width and the sweep of the power of His pardoning mercy.  God grant that we may all be able to say, ‘Thou knowest all things; Thou knowest that I love Thee!’


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Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as My Father hath sent Me, even so send I you. And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost, Whose soever sins ye remit, there are remitted unto them; and whose soever sine ye retain, they are retained.’ —  John 20:21-23

The day of the Resurrection had been full of strange rumors and of growing excitement.  As evening fell, some of the disciples, at any rate, gathered together, probably in the upper room.  They were brave, for in spite of the Jews they dared to assemble; they were timid, for they barred themselves in ‘for fear of the Jews.’  No doubt in little groups they were eagerly discussing what had happened that day.  Fuel was added to the fire by the return of the two from Emmaus.  And then, at once, the buzz of conversation ceased, for ‘He Himself, with His human air,’ stood there in the midst, with the quiet greeting on His lips, which might have come from any casual stranger and minimized the separation that was now ending: ‘Peace be unto you!’ which remarkably supplement each other.  They deal with two different parts of it.

John begins where Luke ends.  The latter Evangelist dwells mainly on the disciples’ fears that it was some ghostly appearance that they saw and on the removal of these by the sight and perhaps the touch of the hands and the feet.  John says nothing of the terror, but Luke’s account explains John’s statement that ‘He showed them His hands and His side,’ and that, ‘Then were the disciples glad,’ the joy expelling the fear.  Luke’s account also, by dwelling on the first part of the interview, explains what else is unexplained in John’s narrative, viz. the repetition of the salutation, ‘Peace be unto you!’  Our Lord thereby marked off the previous portion of the conversation as being separate and a whole in itself.  Their doubts were dissipated and now something else was to begin.  They who were sure of the risen Lord and had had communion with Him were capable of receiving a deeper peace, and so ‘Jesus said to them again, Peace be unto you!’ and thereby inaugurated the second part of the interview.

Luke’s account also helps us in another and very important way.  John simply says that ‘the disciples were gathered together,’ and that might mean the Eleven only.  Luke is more specific, and tells us what is of prime importance for understanding the whole incident, that ‘the Eleven… and they that were with them’ were assembled.  This interview, the crown of the appearances on Easter Day, is marked as being an interview with the assembled body of disciples whom the Lord, having scattered their doubts and laid the deep benediction of His peace upon their hearts, then goes on to invest with a sacred mission, ‘As My Father hath sent Me, even so send I you;’ to equip them with the needed power, ‘Receive ye the Holy Ghost;’ and to unfold to them the solemn issues of their work, ‘Whose sins ye remit they are remitted; and whose sins ye retain they are retained.’  The message of that Easter evening is for us all; and so I ask you to look at these three points.

I. The Christian Mission.

I have already said that the clear understanding of the persons to whom the words were spoken goes far to interpret the significance of the words.  Here we have at the very beginning, the great thought that every Christian man and woman is sent by Jesus.  The possession of what preceded this charge is the thing, and the only thing, that fits a man to receive it, and whoever possesses these is thereby dispatched into the world as being Christ’s envoy and representative.  And what are these preceding experiences?  The vision of the risen Christ, the touch of His hands, the peace that He breathed over believing souls, the gladness that sprang like a sunny fountain in the hearts that had been so dry and dark.  Those things constituted the disciples’ qualification for being sent and these things were themselves — even apart from the Master’s words — their sending out on their future life’s-work.  Thus, whoever — and thank God I am addressing many who come under the category! — whoever has seen the Lord has been in touch with Him, and has felt his heart filled with gladness is the recipient of this great commission.  There is no question here of the prerogative of a class, nor of the functions of an order; it is a question of the universal aspect of the Christian life in its relation to the Master who sends and the world into which it is sent.

We Nonconformists pride ourselves upon our freedom from what we call ‘sacerdotalism.’  Ay! and we Nonconformists are quite willing to assert our priesthood in opposition to the claims of a class and are as willing to forget it, should the question of the duties of the priest come into view. You do not believe in priests, but a great many of you believe that it is ministers that are ‘sent,’ and that you have no charge.  Officialism is the dry-rot of all the Churches and is found as rampant amongst democratic.  Nonconformists as amongst the more hierarchical communities.  Brethren! you are included in Christ’s words of sending on this errand, if you are included in this greeting of ‘Peace be unto you!’ ‘I send,’ not the clerical order, not the priest, but ‘you,’ because you have seen the Lord and been glad and heard the low whisper of His benediction creeping into your hearts.

Mark, too, how our Lord reveals much of Himself, as well as of our position when He thus speaks.  For He assumes here the royal tone and claims to possess as absolute authority over the lives and work of all Christian people as the Father exercised when He sent the Son.  But we must further ask ourselves the question, what is the parallel that our Lord here draws, not only between His action in sending us and the Father’s action in sending Him, but also between the attitude of the Son who was sent and of the disciples whom He sends?  And the answer is this — the work of Jesus Christ is continued by, prolonged in, and carried on henceforward through, the work that He lays upon His servants.  Mark the exact expression that our Lord here uses. ‘As My Father hath sent,’ that is a past action, continuing its consequences in the present.  It is not ‘as My Father did send once,’ but as ‘My Father hath sent,’ which means ‘is also at present sending,’ and continues to send.  Which being translated into less technical phraseology is just this, that we here have our Lord presenting to us the thought that, though in a new form, His work continues during the ages and is now being wrought through His servants.  What He does by another, He does by Himself.  We Christian men and women do not understand our function in the world unless we have realized this: ‘Now, then, we are ambassadors for Christ,’ and His interests and His work are entrusted to our hands.

How shall the servants continue and carry on the work of the Master?  The chief way to do it is by proclaiming everywhere that finished work on which the world’s hopes depend.  But note, — ‘as My Father hath sent Me, so send I you,’ — then we are not only to carry on His work in the world, but if one might venture to say so, we are to reproduce His attitude towards God and the world.  He was sent to be ‘the Light of the world;’ and so are we.  He was sent to ‘seek and to save that which was lost;’ so are we.  He was sent not to do His own will, but the will of the Father that sent Him; so are we.  He took upon Himself with all cheerfulness the office to which He was appointed, and said, ‘My meat is to do the will of Him that sent Me, and to finish His work’; and that must be our voice too.  He was sent to pity, to look upon the multitudes with compassion, to carry to them the healing of His touch, and the sympathy of His heart; so must we.

We are the representatives of Jesus Christ, and if I might dare to use such a phrase, He is to be incarnated again in the hearts, and manifested again in the lives of His servants.  Many weak eyes that would be dazzled and hurt if they were to gaze on the sun, may look at the clouds cradled by its side and dyed with its luster and learn something of the radiance and the glory of the illuminating light from the illuminated vapor.  And thus, ‘as My Father hath sent Me, even so send I you.’  Now let us turn to

II. The Christian Equipment.

‘He breathed on them, and said, Receive ye the Holy Ghost!’  The symbolical action reminds us of the Creation story, when into the nostrils was breathed ‘the breath of life, and man became a living soul.’  The symbol is but a symbol, but what it teaches us is that every Christian man who has passed through the experiences which make him Christ’s envoy receives the equipment of a new life and that that life is the gift of the risen Lord.  This Prometheus came from the dead with the spark of life guarded in His pierced hands, and He bestowed it upon us; for the Spirit of life, which is the Spirit of Christ, is granted to all Christian men.  Dear brethren! we have not lived up to the realities of our Christian confession, unless into our death has come, and there abides, this life derived from Jesus Himself, the communication of which goes along with all faith in Him.

But the gift which Jesus brought to that group of timid disciples in the upper room did not make superfluous the further gift on the day of Pentecost.  The communication of the divine Spirit to men runs parallel with, depends on, and follows, the revelation of divine truth, so the ascended Lord gave more of that life to the disciples, who had been made capable of more of it by the fact of beholding His ascension, than the risen Lord could give on that Easter Day.  But whilst thus there are measures and degrees, the life is given to every believer in correspondence with the clearness and the contents of his faith.

It is the power that will fit any of us for the work for which we are sent into the world.  If we are here to represent Jesus Christ, and if it is true of us that ‘as He is, so are we, in this world,’ that likeness can only come about by our receiving into our spirits a kindred life which will effloresce and manifest itself to men in kindred beauty of foliage and of fruit.  If we are to be ‘the lights of the world,’ our lamps must be fed with oil.  If we are to be Christ’s representatives, we must have Christ’s life in us.  Here, too, is the only source of strength and life to us Christian people, when we look at the difficulties of our task and measure our own feebleness against the work that lies before us.  I suppose no man has ever tried honestly to be what Christ wished him to be amidst his fellows, whether as preacher or teacher or guide in any fashion, who has not hundreds of times clasped his hands in all but despair, and said, ‘Who is sufficient for these things?’  That is the temper into which the power will come.  The rivers run in the valleys and it is the lowly sense of our own unfitness for the task which yet presses upon us and imperatively demands to be done, that makes us capable of receiving that divine gift.

It is for lack of it that so much of so-called ‘Christian effort’ comes to nothing.  The priests may pile the wood upon the altar and compass it all day long with vain cries and nothing happens.  It is not till the fire comes down from heaven that sacrifice and altar and wood and water in the trench, are licked up and converted into fiery light.  So, dear brethren! it is because the Christian Church as a whole, and we as individual members of it, so imperfectly realize the ABC of our faith, our absolute dependence on the inbreathed life of Jesus Christ, to fit us for any of our work, that so much of our work is ploughing the sands, and so often we labor for vanity and spend our strength for nought.  What is the use of a mill full of spindles and looms until the fire-born impulse comes rushing through the pipes? Then they begin to move.

Let me remind you, too, that the words which our Lord here employs about these great gifts, when accurately examined, do lead us to the thought that we, even we, are not altogether passive in the reception of that gift.  For the expression, ‘Receive ye the Holy Ghost’ might, with more completeness of signification, be rendered, ‘take ye the Holy Ghost.’  True, the outstretched hand is nothing, unless the giving hand is stretched out too.  True, the open palm and the clutching fingers remain empty, unless the open palm above drops the gift.  But also true, things in the spiritual realm that are given have to be asked for, because asking opens the heart for their entrance.  True, that gift was given once for all, and continuously, but the appropriation and the continual possession of it largely depend upon ourselves.  There must be desire before there can be possession.  If a man does not take his pitcher to the fountain the pitcher remains empty, though the fountain never ceases to spring. There must be taking by patient waiting.  The old Friends had a lovely phrase when they spoke about ‘waiting for the springing of the life.’  If we hold out a tremulous hand and our cup is not kept steady, the falling water will not enter it and much will be spilt upon the ground.  Wait on the Lord and the life will rise like a tide in the heart.  There must be a taking by the faithful use of what we possess.  ‘To him that hath shall be given.’  There must be a taking by careful avoidance of what would hinder.  In the winter weather, the water supply sometimes fails in a house.  Why? Because there is a plug of ice in the service-pipe.  Some of us have a plug of ice and so the water has not come. ‘Take the Holy Spirit!’  Now, lastly, we have here

III. The Christian power over sin.

I am not going to enter upon controversy.  The words which close our Lord’s great charge here have been much misunderstood by being restricted.  It is eminently necessary to remember here that they were spoken to the whole community of Christian souls.  The harm that has been done by their restriction to the so-called priestly function of absolution has been, not only the monstrous claims which have been thereon founded, but quite as much the obscuration of the large effects that follow from the Christian discharge by all believers of the office of representing Jesus Christ.

We must interpret these words in harmony with the two preceding points, the Christian mission and the Christian equipment.  So interpreted, they lead us to a very plain thought which I may put thus.  This same Apostle tells us in his letter that ‘Jesus Christ was manifested to take away sin.’  His work in this world, which we are to continue, was ‘to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.’  We continue that work when, as we have all, if Christians, the right to do — we lift up our voices with triumphant confidence and call upon our brethren to ‘behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world!’  The proclamation has a twofold effect, according as it is received or rejected; to him who receives it his sins melt away, and the preacher of forgiveness through Christ has the right to say to his brother, ‘Thy sins are forgiven because thou believest on Him.’  The rejecter or the neglecter binds his sin upon himself by his rejection or neglect.  The same message is, as the Apostle puts it, ‘a savor of life unto life, or of death unto death.’  These words are the best commentary on this part of my text.  The same heat, as the old Fathers used to say, ‘softens wax’ and hardens clay.’ The message of the word will either couch a blind eye and let in the light, or draw another film of obscuration over the visual orb.

And so, Christian men and women have to feel that to them is entrusted a solemn message, that they walk in the world charged with a mighty power, that by the preaching of the Word, and by their own utterance of the forgiving mercy of the Lord Jesus, they may ‘remit’ or ‘retain’ not only the punishment of sin, but sin itself.  How tender, how diligent, how reverent, how — not bowed down, but — erect under the weight of our obligations, we should be, if we realized that solemn thought!

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Rejoicing in the Lord is our source of strength — I have already anticipated, fragmentarily, nearly all that I could have said here in a more systematic form.  All gladness has something to do with our efficiency; for it is the prerogative of man that his force comes from his mind, and not from his body.  That old song about a sad heart tiring in a mile, is as true in regard to the Gospel, and the works of Christian people, as in any other case.  If we have hearts full of light, and souls at rest in Christ, and the wealth and blessedness of a tranquil gladness lying there, and filling our being; work will be easy, endurance will be easy, sorrow will be bearable, trials will not be so very hard, and above all temptations we shall be lifted and set upon a rock.  If the soul is full, and full of joy, what side of it will be exposed to the assault of any temptation?  If the appeal be to fear, the gladness that is there is an answer.  If the appeal be to passion, desire, wish for pleasure of any sort, there is no need for any more — the heart is full. And so the gladness which rests in Christ will be a gladness which will fit us for all service and for all endurance, which will be unbroken by any sorrow, and, like the magic shield of the old legends, invisible, impenetrable, in its crystalline purity will stand before the tempted heart and will repel all the ‘fiery darts of the wicked.’

‘The joy of the Lord is your strength,’ my brother!  Nothing else is.  No vehement resolutions, no sense of his own sinfulness nor even contrite remembrance of past failures ever yet made a man strong.  It made him weak that he might become strong, and when it had done that it had done its work.  For strength, there must be hope, and for strength there must be joy.  If the arm is to smite with vigor, it must smite at the bidding of a calm and light heart. Christian work is of such a sort as that the most dangerous opponent to it is simple despondency and simple sorrow.  ‘The joy of the Lord is your strength.’

Well, then! there are two questions: How comes it that so much of the world’s joy is weakness and how comes it that so much of the world’s notion of religion is gloom and sadness?  Answer them for yourselves and remember: you are weak unless you are glad; you are not glad and strong unless your faith and hope are fixed in Christ, and unless you are working from and not towards the sense of pardon, from and not towards the conviction of acceptance with God!

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Zion’s Joy and God’s by Alexander MacLaren

“Sing, 0 daughter of Zion; shout, 0 Israel; be glad and rejoice with all the heart, 0 daughter of Jerusalem…. He will rejoice over thee with joy; He will rest in His love, He will joy over thee with singing” — Zephaniah 3:14, 17

What a wonderful rush of exuberant gladness there is in these words!  The swift, short clauses, the triple invocation in the former verse, the triple promise in the latter, the heaped together synonyms, all help the impression.  The very words seem to dance with joy.  But more remarkable than this is the parallelism between the two verses.  Zion is called to rejoice in God because God rejoices in her.  She is to shout for joy and sing because God’s joy too has a voice and breaks out into singing.  For every throb of joy in man’s heart, there is a wave of gladness in God’s.  The notes of our praise are at once the echoes and the occasions of His.  We are to be glad because He is glad: He is glad because we are so.  We sing for joy, and He joys over us with singing because we do.

  1. I. God’s joy over Zion.

It is to be noticed that the former verse of our text is followed by the assurance: “The Lord is in the midst of thee;” and that the latter verse is preceded by the same assurance.  So, then, intimate fellowship and communion between God and Israel lies at the root both of God’s joy in man and man’s joy in God.

We are solemnly warned by “profound thinkers” of letting the shadow of our emotions fall upon God.  No doubt there is a real danger there; but there is a worse danger, that of conceiving of a God who has no life and heart; and it is better to hold fast by this – that in Him is that which corresponds to what in us is gladness. We are often told, too, that the Jehovah of the Old Testament is a stem and repellent God, and the religion of the Old Testament is gloomy and servile.  But such a misconception is hard to maintain in the face of such words as these.  Zephaniah, of whom we know little, and whose words are mainly forecasts of judgments and woes pronounced against Zion that was rebellious and polluted, ends his prophecy with these companion pictures, like a gleam of sunshine which often streams out at the close of a dark winter’s day.  To him the judgments which he prophesied were no contradiction of the love and gladness of God.  The thought of a glad God might be a very awful thought; such an insight as this prophet had gives a blessed meaning to it.  We may think of the joy that belongs to the divine nature as coming from the completeness of His being, which is raised far above all that makes of sorrow.  But it is not in Himself alone that He is glad; but it is because He loves.  The exercise of love is ever blessedness.  His joy is in self-impartation; His delights are in the sons of men: “As the bridegroom rejoiceth over the bride, so shall thy God rejoice over thee.”  His gladness is in His children when they let Him love them and do not throw back His love on itself.  As in man’s physical frame it is pain to have secretions dammed up, so when God’s love is forced back upon itself and prevented from flowing out in blessing, some shadow of suffering cannot but pass across that calm sky.  He is glad when His face is mirrored in ours, and the rays from Him are reflected from us.

But there is another wonderfully bold and beautiful thought in this representation of the gladness of God.  Note the double form which it assumes: “He will rest”—literally, be silent—in His love; “He will joy over thee with singing.”  As to the former, loving hearts on earth know that the deepest love knows no utterance and can find none.  A heart full of love rests as having attained its desire and accomplished its purpose.  It keeps a perpetual Sabbath and is content to be silent.

But side by side with this picture of the repose of God’s joy is set with great poetic insight the precisely opposite image of a love which delights in expression and rejoices over its object with singing.  The combination of the two helps to express the depth and intensity of the one love, which like a song-bird rises with quivering delight and pours out as it rises an ever louder and more joyous note, and then drops, composed and still, to its nest upon the dewy ground.

  1. II. Zion’s joy in God.

To the Prophet, the fact that “the Lord is in the midst of thee” was the guarantee for the confident assurance “Thou shalt not fear any more;” and this assurance was to be the occasion of exuberant gladness, which ripples over in the very words of our first text.  That great thought of “God dwelling in the midst” is rightly a pain and a terror to rebellious wills and alienated hearts.  It needs some preparation of mind and spirit to be glad because God is near; and they who find their satisfaction in earthly sources, and those who seek for it in these, see no word of good news, but rather a “fearful looking for of judgment” in the thought that God is in their midst.  The word rendered “rejoices” in the first verse of our text is not the same as that so translated in the second.  The latter means literally, to move in a circle; while the former literally means, to leap for joy.  Thus the gladness of God is thought of as expressing itself in dignified, calm movements, whilst Zion’s joy is likened in its expression to the more violent movements of the dance.  True human joy is like God’s, in that He delights in us and we in Him, and in that both He and we delight in the exercise of love.  But we are never to forget that the differences are real as the resemblances, and that it is reserved for the higher form of our experiences in a future life to “enter into the joy of the Lord.”

It becomes us to see to it that our religion is a religion of joy.  Our text is an authoritative command as well as a joyful exhortation, and we do not fairly represent the facts of Christian faith if we do not “rejoice in the Lord always.”  In all the sadness and troubles which necessarily accompany us, as they do all men, we ought by the effort of faith to set the Lord always before us that we be not moved.  The secret of stable and perpetual joy still lies where Zephaniah found it—in the assurance that the Lord is with us, and in the vision of His love resting upon us, and rejoicing over us with singing.  If thus our love clasps His, and His joy finds its way into our hearts, it will remain with us that our “joy may be full;” and being guarded by Him whilst still there is fear of stumbling, He will set us at last “before the presence of His glory without blemish in exceeding joy.”

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One shrinks from touching this incomparable picture of unexampled sorrow, for fear lest one’s finger- marks should stain it.  There is no place here for picturesque description, which tries to mend the gospel stories by dressing them in today’s fashions.  We must put off our shoes, and feel that we stand on holy ground.  Though loving eyes saw something of Christ’s agony, He did not let them come beside Him, but withdrew into the shadow of the gnarled olives, as if even the moonbeams must not look too closely on the mystery of such grief.  We may go as near as love was allowed to go, but stop where it was stayed, while we reverently and adoringly listen to what the Evangelist tells us of that unspeakable hour.

I. Mark the “exceeding sorrow” of the Man of Sorrows.

Somewhere on the western foot of Olivet lay the garden, named from an oil-press formerly or then in it, which was to be the scene of the holiest and sorest sorrow on which the moon, that has seen so much misery, has ever looked.  Truly, it was “an oil-press,” in which “the good olive” was crushed by the grip of unparalleled agony, and yielded precious oil, which has been poured into many a wound since then.  Eight of the eleven are left at or near the entrance, while He passes deeper into the shadows with the three.  They had been witnesses of His prayers once before, on the slopes of Hermon, when He was transfigured before them.  They are now to see a no less wonderful revelation of His glory in His filial submission.

There is something remarkable in Matthew’s expression, “He began to be sorrowful,” — as if a sudden wave of emotion, breaking over His soul, had swept His human sensibilities before it.  The strange word translated by the Revisers “sore troubled” is of uncertain derivation, and may possibly be simply intended to intensify the idea of sorrow; but more probably it adds another element, which Bishop Lightfoot describes as “the confused, restless, half-distracted state which is produced by physical derangement or mental distress.”  A storm of agitation and bewilderment broke His calm, and forced from His patient lips, little wont to speak of His own emotions, or to seek for sympathy, the unutterably pathetic cry, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful” — compassed about with sorrow, as the word means — “even unto death.”  No feeble explanation of these words does justice to the abyss of woe into which they let us dimly look.  They tell the fact, that, a little more and the body would have sunk under the burden.  He knew the limits of human endurance, for “all things were made by Him,” and, knowing it, He saw that He had grazed the very edge.  Out of the darkness He reaches a hand to feel for the grasp of a friend, and piteously asks these humble lovers to stay beside Him, not that they could help Him to bear the weight, but that their presence had some solace in it.  His agony must be endured alone, therefore He bade them tarry there; but He desired to have them at hand, therefore He went but “a little forward.”  They could not bear it with Him, but they could “watch with” Him, and that poor comfort is all He asks.  No word came from them.

They were, no doubt, awed into silence, as the truest sympathy is used to be, in the presence of a great grief.  Is it permitted us to ask what were the fountains of these bitter floods that swept over Christ’s sinless soul?  Was the mere physical shrinking from death all?  If so, we may reverently say that many a maiden and old man, who drew all their fortitude from Jesus, have gone to stake or gibbet for His sake, with a calm which contrasts strangely with His agitation.  Gethsemane is robbed of its pathos and nobleness if that be all.  But it was not all.

Rather it was the least bitter of the components of the cup.  What lay before Him was not merely death, but the death which was to atone for a world’s sin, and in which, therefore, the whole weight of sin’s consequences was concentrated. “The Lord hath made to meet on Him the iniquities of us all;” that is the one sufficient explanation of this infinitely solemn and tender scene.  Unless we believe that, we shall find it hard to reconcile His agitation in Gethsemane with the perfection of His character as the captain of “the noble army of martyrs.”

II. Note the prayer of filial submission.

Matthew does not tell us of the sweat falling audibly and heavily, and sounding to the three like slow blood-drops from a wound, nor of the strengthening angel, but he gives us the prostrate form, and the threefold prayer, renewed as each moment of calm, won by it, was again broken in upon by a fresh wave of emotion.  Thrice He had to leave the disciples, and came back, a calm conqueror; and twice the enemy rallied and returned to the assault, and was at last driven finally from the field by the power of prayer and submission.  The three Synoptics differ in their report of our Lord’s words, but all mean the same thing in substance; and it is obvious that much more must have been spoken than they report.  Possibly what we have is only the fragments that reached the three before they fell asleep.  In any case, Jesus was absent from them on each occasion long enough to allow of their doing so.

Three elements are distinguishable in our Lord’s prayer.  There is, first, the sense of Sonship, which underlies all, and was never more clear than at that awful moment.  Then there is the recoil from “the cup,” which natural instinct could not but feel, though sinlessly.  The flesh shrank from the Cross, which else had been no suffering; and if no suffering, then had been no atonement.  His manhood would not have been like ours, nor His sorrows our pattern, if He had not thus drawn back, in His sensitive humanity, from the awful prospect now so near.  But natural instinct is one thing, and the controlling will another.  However currents may have tossed the vessel, the firm hand at the helm never suffered them to change her course.  The will, which in this prayer He seems so strangely to separate from the Father’s, even in the act of submission, was the will which wishes, not that which resolves.  His fixed purpose to die for the world’s sin never wavered.  The shrinking does not reach the point of absolutely and unconditionally asking that the cup might pass.  Even in the act of uttering the wish, it is limited by that “if it be possible,” which can only mean — possible, in view of the great purpose for which He came.  That is to be accomplished, at any cost; and unless it can be accomplished though the cup be withdrawn, He does not even wish, much less will, that it should be withdrawn.  So, the third element in the prayer is the utter resignation to the Father’s will, in which submission He found peace, as we do.

He prayed His way to perfect calm, which is ever the companion of perfect self-surrender to God.  They who cease from their own works do “enter into rest.”  All the agitations which had come storming in massed battalions against Him are defeated by it.  They have failed to shake His purpose; they now fail even to disturb His peace.  So, victorious from the dreadful conflict, and at leisure of heart to care for others, He can go back to the disciples.  But even whilst seeking to help them, a fresh wave of suffering breaks in on His calm, and once again He leaves them to renew the struggle.  The instinctive shrinking reasserts itself, and, though overcome, is not eradicated.  But the second prayer is yet more rooted in acquiescence than the first.  It shows that He had not lost what He had won by the former; for it, as it were, builds on that first supplication, and accepts as answer to its contingent petition the consciousness, accompanying the calm, that it was not possible for the cup to pass from Him.

The sense of Sonship underlies the complete resignation of the second prayer as of the first.  It has no wish but God’s will, and is the voluntary offering of Himself.  Here He is both Priest and Sacrifice, and offers the victim with this prayer of consecration.  So once more He triumphs, because once more, and yet more completely, He submits, and accepts the Cross.  For Him, as for us, the Cross accepted ceases to be a pain, and the cup is no more bitter when we are content to drink it.  Once more in fainter fashion the enemy came on, casting again his spent arrows, and beaten back by the same weapon.

The words were the same, because no others could have expressed more perfectly the submission which was the heart of His prayers and the condition of His victory.  Christ’s prayer, then, was not for the passing of the cup, but that the will of God might be done in and by Him, and “ He was heard in that He feared,” not by being exempted from the Cross, but by being strengthened through submission for submission.  So His agony is the pattern of all true prayer, which must ever deal with our wishes, as He did with His instinctive shrinking, — present them wrapped in an “ if it be possible,” and followed by a “nevertheless.”  The meaning of prayer is not to force our wills on God’s, but to bend our wills to His; and that prayer is really answered of which the issue is our calm readiness for all that He lays upon us.

III. Note the sad and gentle remonstrance with the drowsy three.

“The sleep of the disciples, and of these disciples, and of all three, and such an overpowering sleep, remains even after Luke’s explanation, ‘for sorrow,’ a psychological riddle” (Meyer). It is singularly parallel with the sleep of the same three at the Transfiguration — an event which presents the opposite pole of our Lord’s experiences, and yields so many antithetical parallels to Gethsemane.  No doubt the tension of emotion, which had lasted for many hours, had worn them out; but, if weariness had weighed down their eyelids, love should have kept them open.  Such sleep of such disciples may have been a riddle, but it was also a crime, and augured imperfect sympathy.  Gentle surprise and the pain of disappointed love are audible in the question, addressed to Peter especially, as he had promised so much, but meant for all.  This was all that Jesus got in answer to His yearning for sympathy.  “I looked for some to take pity, but there was none.”  Those who loved Him most lay curled in dead slumber within earshot of His prayers.  If ever a soul tasted the desolation of utter loneliness, that suppliant beneath the olives tasted it.  But how little of the pain escapes His lips!  The words but hint at the slightness of their task compared with His, at the brevity of the strain on their love, and at the companionship which ought to have made sleep impossible.  May we not see in Christ’s remonstrance a word for all?

For us, too, the task of keeping awake in the enchanted ground is light, measured against His, and the time is short, and we have Him to keep us company in the watch, and every motive of grateful love should make it easy; but, alas, how many of us sleep a drugged and heavy slumber!  The gentle remonstrance soon passes over into counsel as gentle.

Watchfulness and prayer are inseparable.  The one discerns dangers, the other arms against them.  Watchfulness keeps us prayerful, and prayerfulness keeps us watchful.  To watch without praying is presumption, to pray without watching is hypocrisy.  The eye that sees clearly the facts of life will turn upwards from its scanning of the snares and traps, and will not look in vain.  These two are the indispensable conditions of victorious encountering of temptation.  Fortified by them, we shall not “enter into” it, though we encounter it.  The outward trial will remain, but its power to lead us astray will vanish.  It will still be danger or sorrow, but it will not be temptation; and we shall pass through it, as a sunbeam through foul air, untainted, and keeping heaven’s radiance.  That is a lesson for a wider circle than the sleepy three.

It is followed by words which would need a volume to expound in all their depth and width of application, but which are primarily a reason for the preceding counsel, as well as a loving apology for the disciples’ sleep.  Christ is always glad to give us credit for even imperfect good; His eye, which sees deeper than ours, sees more lovingly, and is not hindered from marking the willing spirit by recognizing weak flesh.  But these words are not to be made a pillow for indolent acquiescence in the limitations which the flesh imposes on the spirit, tie may take merciful count of these, and so may we, in judging others, but it is fatal to plead them at the bar of our own consciences.  Rather they should be a spur to our watchfulness and to our prayer.  We need these because the flesh is weak, still more because, in its weakness toward good, it is strong to evil.  Such exercise will give governing power to the spirit, and enable it to impose its will on the reluctant flesh.   If we watch and pray, the conflict between these two elements in the renewed nature will tend to unity and peace by the supremacy of the spirit; if we do not, it will tend to cease by the unquestioned tyranny of the flesh.  In one or other direction our lives are tending.

Strange that such words had no effect.  But so it was, and so deep was the apostles’ sleep that Christ left them undisturbed the second time.  The relapse is worse than the original disease.  Sleep broken and resumed is more torpid and fatal than if it had not been interrupted.  We do not know how long it lasted, though the whole period in the garden must have been measured by hours; but at last it was broken by the enigmatical last words of our Lord.  The explanation of the direct opposition between the consecutive sentences, by taking the “ Sleep on now” as ironical, jars on one’s reverence.  Surely irony is out of keeping with the spirit of Christ then.  Rather He bids them sleep on, since the hour is come, in sad recognition that the need for their watchful sympathy is past, and with it the opportunity for their proved affection.  It is said with a tone of contemplative melancholy, and is almost equivalent to “too late, too late.”

The memorable sermon of F. W. Robertson, on this text, rightly grasps the spirit of the first clause, when it dwells with such power on the thought of “the irrevocable past” of wasted opportunities and neglected duty.  But the sudden transition to the sharp, short command and broken sentences of the last verse is to he accounted for by the sudden appearance of the flashing lights of the band led by Judas, somewhere near at hand, in the valley.  The mood of pensive reflection gives place to rapid decision.  He summons them to arise, not for flight, but that He may go out to meet the traitor.

Escape would have been easy.  There was time to reach some sheltering fold of the hill in the darkness; but the prayer beneath the silver-grey olives had not been in vain, and these last words in Gethsemane throb with the Son’s willingness to yield Himself up, and to empty to its dregs the cup which the Father had given Him.

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