THE TEACHING OF OUR LORD ON HIS OWN SONSHIP AND THE SONSHIP OF HIS BRETHREN.
"The first-born among many brethren". - Romans viii. 29.
THE fatherhood of God is revealed in the person of his Son
Jesus Christ, and in his life on earth. If we would conceive aright of what it
is for God to be our father and for us to be his sons, it is to that model that
we must chiefly look.
The Old Testament church had little or no knowledge of God being a father, in the sense of his sustaining a proper personal relation of fatherhood to men individually.
When I say that, I do not of course mean that he was not the father of those who believed in his name; really and truly their father ; as much so before as after the incarnation. I mean only that he did not see fit to reveal himself clearly and unreservedly in that character. And I think I have shown good reason for some reserve being maintained until the relation in its full integrity could be manifested.
Neither do I forget that Israel collectively is sometimes spoken of by the Lord as his son - with reference for the most part to the rights involved in the law of primogeuiture among men - and is therefore constituted a type of Christ. Thus, to name one remarkable instance, or rather one decisive proof, Matthew quotes the message of the Lord to Pharaoh; or Hosea's reference to it ; as receiving its fulfilment in Christ "Out of Egypt have I called my son."
Still, with a full admission of all these premonitions, I am persuaded that, as a definite personal relation subsisting between God and individual men, the fatherhood of God did not form part of the revelation given to the church under the old economies.
All this reserve is at an end when the Son himself opens his mouth. "The man Christ Jesus" called God father in a way quite unprecedented. Not even his forerunner, the Baptist, used the name as he did. There is no trace of God's fatherhood in John's teaching ; - unless it be that on one occasion, upon the warrant of the voice from heaven, he says, "I saw and bare record that this is the Son of God" (John i. 34). With Jesus himself, the title "Father," as applied to God, is a familiar household word.
And yet, as I think, he uses it with careful and studied discrimination.
Thus, for example, I do not know that there is one instance recorded of his using the title of Father with reference to the world at large, or to men generally ; or, indeed, with reference to any but those whom he was pleased to regard as his disciples, and to address and treat accordingly. He speaks to them of God as their father ; - and, so far as my observation goes, to them only. I cannot call to mind a single case in which he gives God that appellation in dealing with the promiscuous crowds that resorted to him. Nay, there is at least one case - there may be more, but let one suffice - in which he makes a very marked distinction.
It occurs in the twelfth chapter of Luke's Gospel. "One of the company " - the crowd literally - asks Jesus to assume the office of judge between him and his brother in the matter of the family inheritance (ver. 13). After declining that position (ver. 14), the Lord takes the opportunity of warning the company, or crowd, against the sin of covetousness. "He said unto them," - " he spake a parable unto them" (vers. 15-21). In thus addressing them he uses simply the term "God" (ver. 20). But suddenly he turns from the multitude to his disciples. The incident suggests a lesson for them also; - a lesson against care, answering to his warning to the company against covetousness. Immediately his tone changes from something approaching to severity or sternness to the utmost tenderness and affection. And after appealing to God's creative power and providential bounty as reasons for trusting him and having no anxiety, he tells them, as a stronger reason still, of "their Father knowing what they need," and of its being "their Father's good pleasure to give them the kingdom" (vers. 30, 32).
I believe it will be found that our Lord observes this distinction throughout ; - restricting the term to his disciples, and avoiding the use of it when he addresses others. Nor can the obvious inference deducible from this uniform practice be turned aside by the mere allegation that there must have been among those whom he chose to count as his disciples not a few who were not his disciples in reality, as among the apostles there was one traitor. The fact is admitted. But it does not touch the point of my present observation. For the same principle must be applied here which explains Scripture usage elsewhere; as when the visible churches to whom the apostolic letters are written are addressed as if all their members were true believers. Men are and must be treated according to their calling and profession. On that principle his disciples are regarded by our Lord as having God to be their Father; and, so far as I can see, they alone.
There is, I think, another important distinction to be observed in our Lord's manner of calling God Father. I refer now to those almost countless instances in which he points to his own relation to God ; - saying, "my Father," or "the Father." In so saying he sometimes has in view the relation of fatherhood and sonship between the Father and him as it subsisted from everlasting before his incarnation; while at other times what he has in view manifestly the relation as it subsists now that he has become incarnate. Of course, I hold that it is the same relation, unchanged and unmodified. But it is now shared in by his humanity, which it was not before. And this, so far, makes a difference, - not in the nature and character of the relation, - but, as it were, in the manner of its outgoiags or outcomings in the person sustaining it.
Let me attempt to make my meaning somewhat more plain by means of an explanatory instance.
When Jesus made that most solemn and sublime appeal from earth to heaven, - from the cold unbelief of man to the loving heart of God - " I thank thee, 0 Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes ; - even so, Father; for so it seemed good in thy sight" (Matt. xi. 25, 26) - none hearing the marvellous words could doubt, - at least, none reading them in faith now can doubt - that they point far back in the past eternity to mutual counsels and infinite endearments in which his manhood never had a share. When, on the other hand, prostrated in Gethsemane's garden, be uttered first the cry of agony, "0 my Father, if it be possible let this cup pass from me " - and then the prayer of acquiescence, "0 my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done" (Matt. xxvi. 39, 42), - the language springs out of trial of which his manhood bears the brunt, and obedience of which his manhood must have the credit.
The Father is the same to him, and he is the same to the Father on both occasions alike. The relation of fatherhood and sonship is the same. But he who sustains the relation of sonship has undergone a change of state. From being only God he has become also man; from being alone with the Father in the Holy Ghost, in the unapproachable unity of the one only thrice holy God, he has come to be associated and identified with a race of fallen creatures, whose sorrows he is willing to share, - whose guilt and condemnation he has consented to take upon himself. He is the same person throughout - the same in his sonship. But is it not evident that now, when he speaks as the Son occupying the last of these two positions, he may be expected, alike in what he says to his Father and in what he says of his Father, to use language proper on some occasions to his former condition, and on others again to his present condition? He cannot but speak at some times as realising, even in and all through his humiliation, , what he has been to the Father and the Father to him from everlasting. He cannot but speak at other times as realising what, in virtue of his humiliation, he is to the Father and the Father to him now. But there is not on that account any difference in respect of the personal relation in which he stands to the Father. That is the same in both states. There is simply a distinction between what refers back to his past and what expresses his present consciousness and experience, in that one relation which is common to both the modes of his existence, and both the periods, if I may so speak, of his history.
This distinction, I need scarcely say, has a very material bearing on the question as to the connection of his people's sonship with his own. Can it be a sonship of the same nature and character with his own? Can it be, in fact, their being made really and truly partners and partakers with him in his being the Son of God? I advert to this question at this stage and in this connection, merely to the effect of considering how far such an identity is possible or conceivable ; - how far it can be shown to be consistent with a due regard to the vast distance that there must ever be felt to be between an uncreated and a created being. For an opinion certainly prevails in some quarters, that to represent Christ's sonship and his people's as being of the same sort, is to confound the human and the divine. Let me say a few words on that opinion.
I begin with an illustrative or suggestive case. My father has a firstborn son; and after the lapse of, say, some quarter of a century, he has a second son, there being none between. I am that second son. As the second son, I stand to my father in the very same relation with the first. I have the same claims on him and the same place in his heart. But I hear my elder brother continually alluding to interchanges of love and confidence between him and our common father long prior to my coming into the family. I am not surprised at these allusions, nor chagrined or vexed by them; for my elder brother gives me the full benefit of all that they imply. Still, my real and actual communion with my brother in our joint filial relation to our common father, dates only from my coming to an intelligent apprehension of it. All before that is matter of testimony; it is information at second-hand. I can have no fellowship, properly so called, with him in it. But for all that, my sonship is really the same relation as his, though his is of older standing than mine. Would it make much - or indeed any - difference to me if I were told that my brother's sonship had no beginning at all? That might raise difficulty otherwise, as regards the past, - or as regards the question how that sonship without a beginning could be possible. But it need not affect my present standing, as my brother's fellow in the relation of sonship to our common father.
Or take another parallel case. My son's wife is to me a daughter. She stands to me, as I believe and feel, in the very same relation in which my son himself stands to me. I treat them both equally as my children. I am a father equally to both. The relation is differently originated and constituted in the two. In the one it is natural, dating from the beginning of the party's existence; in the other it is the result of an arrangement entered into when the party has been in existence for years. But what of that? The law declares the relation to be the same, and my heart owns it to be so. My new child must be an entire stranger to the consciousness and experience of much in the relation between myself and my son, or in our realisation of it, which preceded the union that has given me a new child. But still, what of that? The whole good of the relation is now common equally to both of my children. Would it make the least difference, as regards the apprehension of present joint relationship, if the child I have got by her becoming my son's spouse were to be told that he whose spouse she is was born years or ages ago ? - or even, to speak with reverence, that he was begotten from everlasting?
These, let it be remembered, are most inadequate and imperfect analogies. Still, they are analogies. And to my mind they go far to prove that there has been some confusion of thought about this whole matter. For I cannot help suspecting that there has been from of old a tendency to suppose that there is a difference of relation, when, in point of fact, the difference merely lies in the dates at which, and the grounds on which, the same relation has been constituted in different persons. In other words, the difference has been held to be essential; whereas it is in reality only circumstantial, and should accordingly be treated as such. When and how the relationship was constituted, - is one question. What it is, whensoever and howsoever constituted, - is quite another question. And it is still a different question ; - How far two parties may partake in the same relation, though constituted, in the two, at different times and in different ways. Nor, as regards this last question, does it matter though in the one it should be from everlasting?
Let me anticipate a little my line of argument, and put a scriptural, and, as I think, a critical and crucial test, on this particular point.
In his farewell prayer, Christ says to the Father, "Thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world" (John xvii. 24). He asserts also with reference to his disciples, - " Thou hast loved them as thou hast loved me" (ver. 23). I take this last statement to be an assertion of the real and absolute identity of the love of the Father, as the Father, to the Son and to the Son's disciples. And I ask, Is there any difference between that love and the love to which the other statement alludes - the love with which the Father loved the Son before the foundation ohe world? Has the Father's love of the Son undergone any change? Has it not always been fatherly love? And now the Son's believing people share with him in it as such. It is the same fatherly love to them that it is to him. There is no difference as to the Father's love ; - or as to their standing, his and theirs, in the possession of it.
It is true that they can have no consciousness or experience of it, as love in exercise "before the foundation of the world." That is exclusively his privilege, his honour, his joy. In the old eternal reminiscences, if we may dare to use the term, of that unfathomable irmensity of the duration of this love, - they, the creatures of yesterday, can have no part or title. But does that consideration evacuate of meaning the truth announced by the lips of the Son himself, - surely at a time when oneness and not distinction is in his mind, - that from the moment of their believing in him the Father "loveth them as he loveth him ?" - that the very "love wherewith the Father loveth him is thenceforth in them ? " - and that ever after the Father is to them exactly what, as the Father, he is to him'? Let it be admitted then, - or rather let it always be very strongly asserted and strenuously maintained, - that our Lord does very frequently use language which cannot fairly admit of any other interpretation than that he claims to be the Son of the Father from before all worlds, - from all eternity. When he uses such language, he appeals to a mode or manner of his filial life with the Father, in which none else can participate. Down to the time of his assuming the human nature, in his pre-existent state before that event, he enjoys, - if I may venture so to speak, - he enjoys and exercises his sonship in a way strictly and absolutely peculiar to himself, as the only begotten Son in the bosom of the Father. Into that period of his filial life no man or angel dare intrude. But the case is altered when he becomes incarnate. Then he begins a new mode of filial life, of such a sort as by no means to exclude the idea of others sharing with him in it. I proceed, of course, upon the fact of the incarnation of the eternal Son, - not raising any question as to other possible ways of manifesting his sonship so as to admit of intelligent beings becoming his brethren in itt And when his language refers to the experience of that new kind of filial life, in the new state into which he has entered I can see no reason why he may not be understood as meaning that it is really and literally the kind of filial life of which he intends to make his disciples partakers, when he calls God their Father as he calls him his own Father ; - that they are to be on the same footing with God on which he now is; that the Father is to be to them what he is now to him as "having come in the flesh," and what he will be to tin in that character for ever.
Thus, I think, it may be seen that though in some of our Lord's filial utterances and expressions we cannot go along with him, - since they refer to his position with the Father, and his intercourse with the Father, before he came to be one with us in our nature, - there are others proper to his new state of being, into the spirit of which we may enter. We may therefore have the same filial experience which they denote, and partake of the same filial relation which they imply.
I have been endeavouring to show that the nature or character of such a relation as that of fatherhood and sonship does not depend, either upon the period of its subsistence, or upon the manner of its original constitution. And therefore I infer that there need be no difficulty, a priori, in conceiving of two persons standing in the same relation to a third - even though in the case of the one the relation may be dateless, and founded on a necessity of nature, while in the case of the other it may be of recent date, and formed or constituted by an act or work of grace, especially when it is such grace as makes the two really, though mystically, one.
There is one other remark of a general kind which it seems needful to make. Identity of relation does not imply that if two parties share in it, the one may not have a far greater aptitude to apprehend it, and a far larger capacity to enter into it, than the other. There may be the widest difference between thern in this respect. Perhaps no two sons in a family ever equally realise their sonship. Both of them may be dutiful, loyal, loving. But there may be in the one a knowledge of their common father, an insight into his heart, an apprehension of his counsels; a sympathy with his pursuits, to which - at least in equal measure or degree - the other does not, and cannot attain. Still, both are sons. They are sons, as having the same footing in their common father's house, and the same hold on their common father's affection. No doubt the difference between them - in the amount of their filial insight, apprehension, and sympathy - may warrantably cause a difference in the amount of their father's affection towards the two respectively ; - or rather, one would say, in the manner of its manifestation. But it is fatherly affection towards both alike. And it is so in the same sense. The footing of both in the house is alike, and to the same effect, filial.
All this is too obvious to require proof or illustration. I would only add that the difference I speak of must be vast indeed when the one Son is the Divine Redeemer, and the other a sinner redeemed ; though still it is not a difference which need at all affect the sameness of the relation.
I have thus sought to clear the way for the consideration of the main question - What does Christ mean when he represents God as being his people's Father?
There is undoubtedly one instance - I think only on - .in which our Lord brings in the analogy of the human fatherhood, and founds an argument upon it, (Matt. vii. 9-11 ; Luke xi. 11-13), "What man is there of you, whom, if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him ?"
Of course, it is a fair and valid analogy, especially if we hold that human fatherhood is meant to be a shadow or representation of the Divine. Let it be observed, however, - first, that the analogy is employed only for a very specific and limited purpose, - and, secondly, that the employment of it is quite consistent with the highest view of God's fatherhood. Nay, the higher the view taken of that fatherhood, so much the stronger is the a fortiori reasoning. And surely it is not a little remarkable that while the Lord is always, as it would seem, seeking to familiarise the minds of his disciples with the idea of God being their Father, he makes so little use of the human analogy. It looks almost as if he studiously avoided it; as if he would have them to form their conceptions of what it is to have God for their Father, not from what they might see in any human household, but from what they saw of him as a member of the divine household. For, let it be remembered, they were continually hearing his filial utterances, and witnessing his filial walk. No doubt, the words that fell from his lips were often such as they could not as yet fully understand - pointing to a higher condition than that which he now occupied, in which he had been as a Son with God as his Father. But yet again, on the other hand, they could not but perceive that in circumstances precisely similar to their own, and under the pressure of an experience which might any day be theirs, he still habitually looked up to God as his Father. Nor did he ever give them the slightest intimation of his looking up to God as his Fathei on these occasions - any otherwise than as he taught them, on the like occasions, to look up to God as their Father. They could not but observe in their Master's whole demeanour, in his everyday conduct in all his sayings and doings, a very peculiar style of godliness - new, unprecedented; giving evidence of a singularly close, intimate, warm, endearing sort of connection between God and him; showing him to be on terms of most confidential fellowship with God. They could not but know - he told them - that this sprang from his knowing God to be his Father, and feehng himself to be God's Son; that it was what this fatherhood and sonship meant and implied. But this very manner of living with God, as they were constantly instructed, it was their duty to aim at and realise. And they were instructed, with a view to it, to call God their Father. Would it naturally enter into their minds to suppose that this language denoted a different relation in their case from what it did in his ? - that, while they were expected to walk with God, in that wonderful way of holy familiarity and loving trust in which they saw him walking with God, they were to be placed in a less favourable position for doing so ? - that God was not to be their Father as he was his, though they were expected to be like him, and to live like him, as sons? Surely the opposite of all this is rather the conclusion fairly to be drawn, unless some very clear intimation has been given to the contrary.
Much stress is often laid, as if it were such an intimation, on the fact, that whereas our Lord very often speaks of God with reference to himself as his Father, and with reference to his disciples as their Father, he avoids, as it would seem intentionally and of set purpose, the use of the expression "Our Father." To this remark there is only one exception, the invocation of the Lord's Prayer; and it is thought that this is one of the instances in which the exception confirms and strengthens the rule. Christ, in putting the very words of filial prayer into the mouths of his disciples, must necessarily use the first personal pronoun, to denote God as the Father of the person praying; and as he intends the prayer, even when most personal and secret, to be still most catholic and loving, he uses, because he cannot help it, the plural - "Our Father." But he does not mean to include himself. For, it is said, he is giving a form of prayer to be offered by the disciples, either jointly or severally, by themselves - not by him and them together. I confess I have always felt a difficulty in taking in this notion. It does not seem to me to be a natural explanation. I can scarcely think that it would have occurred to one of the disciples using this prayer, say on the very day on which it was given, to associate with himself in his mind and heart his fellow-disciples, and to exclude the Master. This would seem to imply that our Lord's prayers, even when he was among his disciples, were always exclusively intercessory - not praying with them, but only praying for them; that this was known to be his standing rule and order; and that the disciples were accordingly instructed - not only never to pray for him - but never to embrace him, though they might embrace all others, in the loving fellowship of prayer. For surely otherwise, apart from these suppositions, in saying, as he taught them to say, "Our Father," the impulse, the instinct, of affection would lead them to have him as well as one another comprehended in the communion which the plural form "our" implies. But I cannot reconcile myself to such suppositions as I have indicated. I cannot imagine Jesus and the apostles living for years together, sitting together at meals, walking together by the way, and yet not praying together.
But though in this one instance Jesus uses the words "Our Father," - be the account given of his doing so what it may, - it cannot be denied that his otherwise invariable practice, in referring to the fatherhood of God, is to speak of himself and of his disciples separately. And it is argued that this indicates a deliberate design to separate his sonship from theirs, and to represent it as being of a different sort - as being, in fact, a different relation.
I am not at all satisfied that it does. I think the practice admits of another explanation, and one that may bring out, in a fresh and important point of view, the bearing of our Lord's work of propitiation for us, in our state of guilt, on our being admitted into participation with him, in his state of sonship.
I must premise, however, that, even apart from that explanation which I am about to offer, I do not consider the phenomenon we are now dealing with as very unaccountable, if we keep in mind the position of our Lord and his disciples as master and scholars. It is quite natural for a master addressing his scholars, for the most part magisterially, though with all affection, so to express himself as to maintain a certain distance and distinction between him and them; and, in alluding to a third party to whom he and they stand similarly related, still to let it appear that the relation primarily belongs to him as the master, and to them only in a secondary sense, or by a secondary and subordinate right, as his scholars. This end is secured by the manner of speaking on the subject which Christ adopts; nor does any occasion occur calling for a deviation, except when he is giving them a form of prayer. Then, however, as I cannot but think, he does not scruple to employ phraseology which the disciples could scarcely understand otherwise than as conveying the idea of their master and themselves being alike, and in the same sense, entitled to call God Father. But I proceed to the other explanation. I think I can see a reason for there being still some reserve, even though the incarnation has been effected, in regard to the discovery of God's fatherhood and his people's sonship. Even the incarnate Son is not yet in a position to do full justice to the subject. He cannot yet unfold fully the substantial identity of the relation in which he and the disciples stand to God as Father - not at least in its highest and fullest significancy.
Let me try to bring out what I mean by referring again to the passage in the Epistle to the Galatians formerly quoted:
"When the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons" (iv. 4, 5). It is there intimated that God sends forth his Son that we may receive the adoption of sons ; - surely after the model of his sonship who is sent forth. But while this is the design of its being his Son whom God sends forth, an indispensable prelinary to our receiving the adoption of sons in him is his "redeeming us from the curse of the law by being made a curse for us"(iii. 13) ; - for so, a little before, the apostle has given in full what he expresses more elliptically now. Hence, it would seem that until his work of redemption is complete, the way for our entering into his sonship is not fully opened up. In order to his making us partakers of his relation to God as the Son, he must make himself partaker of our relation to God as under the law. And not only so. He must redeem us from the guilt and condemnation which, in that relation, we have incurred, and under which we lie helpless. That he has not done till his life on earth is ended. All the time he is on earth he is about the doing of it. But it is only on the cross that he can say - " It is finished." It is only "by his resurrection from the dead," as Paul elsewhere says (Rom. i. 4), that he is "declared to be the Son of God, with power, according to the spirit of holiness." And it is only then, - then, and not before, - that he is in a position to make the entire benefit and blessedness of his sonship available in behalf of his disciples, as admitted to be sharers with him in it. Until then, he is justified in not fully or in express terms bringing out all that is implied in his sonship being the model of theirs, - its being, in fact, up to the measure of their new capacity and his redeeming grace, truly and actually communicated to them.
This idea is confirmed when we turn to a passage in the Epistle to the Hebrews (ii. 11), where it is said that, upon certain grounds or considerations there stated, Christ is "not ashamed to call us brethren." The meaning is, not that he might be ashamed of us, but that, were it not for these grounds and considerations, he might be ashamed of himself. It is the same meaning that is suggested when it is said of God (xi. 16) that he is not ashamed to be called the God of the patriarchs, "for he hath prepared for them a city." Christ is not ashamed to call us brethren, as he might well be if his doing so were a mere lip-compliment or figure of speech, and nothing more. He has no reason to be thus ashamed, because his calling us brethren involves, not a mere nominal title of courtesy, but a real and actual participation with him in his relation to the Father, and in its fruits, so far as the nature he shares with us allows. Passages are cited from the Old Testament to prove that Christ has no cause to be ashamed, in the sense now explained, to call his disciples brethren.
The first and chief of these is from that twenty-second Psalm which so wonderfully brings out, in its beginning, the suffering, and in its close, the triumphant, Messiah. The verse quoted is the point of transition from the one state to the other - from Christ suffering to Christ triumphant. It is then that he says - " I will declare thy name unto my brethren." Now that all my agony in redeeming them is over - and the psalm describes the agony to the life, or rather to the death - now I may without reserve call them brethren. I need not be ashamed of doing so. For I can now worthily and effectually declare to them thy name, as magnified in my obedience unto the death for them, and in their being admitted, on the footing of that obedience, to be my brethren ; - my brethren, as having the same standing in the Father's house that I have, and the same warm place in the Father's heart.
It is in the light of this idea that I think we must view the message sent by the risen Lord to his disciples - " Go to my brethren" (John xx. 17). It is the first time he calls his disciples, in unequivocal terms, his brethren. He might have been ashamed to do so before; but he is not ashamed to do so now. Before, his calling them his brethren might only have implied that he made common cause with them; that he took his place among them; that he became one of them, so as to share all their liabilities and responsibilities. His incarnation was sufficient evidence of that. But it was evidence of nothing more than that. For anything that appeared, he might have thus identified himself with them, with no benefit to them, but only with damage to himself; sharing their fate, and so far sympathising with them; but not effecting their deliverance. While that state of things lasted, he might be ashamed to call them brethren. But when that is over, and it is seen that he has not merely partaken with them in their miserable state, but accomplished their redemption out of it, then emphatically he is not ashamed to call them his brethren ; - there need be no more reserve as to his doing so. Then he is in a position to deal with them as out-and-out one with himself - his brethren - having the same position that he has in the Father's family, and the same interest in the family inheritance.
I cannot but interpret the message to the disciples after the resurrection in accordance with this view. It is, as I have said, now for the flrst time that he adopts unequivodally this phraseology, and calls his disciples, without qualification or explanation, his brethren. He never called them his brethren before. He did unquestionably keep up a certain distinction between himself and them. He was not able thoroughly to bring out his identifying of them with himself in his sonship, until he had proved his identifying of himself with them in their subjectship to be really, for them, complete redemption from its curse. But now even this reserve is over. He can say, "My brethren,' with fullest, clearest, warmest welcome - welcoming them into his own very relation of sonship and subjectship combined - " Go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God." I own I shrink from any exposition of this message of love, sent through that loving woman to the lonely eleven, which would make it suggestive of separation or distinction. It was not an occasion for reminding the disciples that he and they stood in different relations to God - relations nominally the same, yet really different. But it was an occasion for assuring them that he and they stood in the same relation, and that he was now in a position to assure them of this ; - now that he had expiated their guilt and made their peace with heaven. Why should the risen Lord seize on that opportunity for discriminating between his sonship and theirs, - and it must be added, for they go together, between his subjectship and theirs, - in a way that he never thought of before? It was a strange time to take for that - a strange place - a strange medium. No! It is, I am confident, not distinction but identification that he means when he says - "Tell my brethren that I ascend unto uy Father and their Father, and to my God and their God."
I am aware that the views which I have been submitting as to the relation of fatherhood and sonship being the same in the case of Christ's disciples that it is in that of Christ himself, may seem startling to some minds. I may appear to them to be going not only against certain modern speculations, but also against the opinions of the early fathers, which are perhaps, on this point, entitled to more weight. I think it right to offer a very few observations to show that the difference may after all be more apparent than real
1. The Ante-Nicene divines were in the very thick and heat of the Arian and Semi-Arian controversies. Their whole energies were directed and devoted to the object of maintaining that Christ is the Son of God, not merely in virtue of some priority or precedence belonging to him in the-order of creation; nor even in virtue of his being Creator or an active agent in creation; but in virtue of his being himself Uncreated, and of the same substance with the Father from everlasting. Hence, they laboured anxiously to prove that he is represented in Scripture as being the Son of God in a sense and manner in which that title is never given to any other being in all the universe. Of course, they had no difficulty in proving this. They could show that neither the sonship supposed to belong originally to angels and men by creation, nor any sonship conferred on angels or men as the reward of obedience or the fruit of faith, could be held as coming up to what Holy Scripture says of the sonship of Christ. This they did with an ability and success which none but God could give. And God has blessed what they thus did, for the peace of the Church catholic, on that article at least, down to our own time.
It need not be counted strange, however, that having their minds so intently bent upon bringing out that feature in Christ's sonship which could not be shared with any creature, or be common to him with any other intelligence - its being natural and necessary from everlasting, in respect of his being the only-begotten and eternal Son - they may have been led, perhaps, to isolate him in his sonship rather too much; and so to exaggerate or misapprehend the difference between his sonship and that of his believing disciples.
2. In particular, I cannot help suspecting - for I confess my imperfect knowledge and dare not speak confidently - that they may not have had sufficiently before them the distinction between the two questions which I have been attempting to keep separate ; - the first having reference to the nature or character of the relation in itself, and the second having reference to the time and manner of its being constituted. Their argument against the Arians and Semi-Arians is conclusive, if it is made out from Scripture, as it clearly can be made out, that the sonship of Christ has a different origin, and rests fundamentally on a different ground, from any relation of sonship competent to any other person ; - its origin, if we may speak of the origin of what has no beginning, being in the everlasting nature of the Godhead, and its ground being eternal generation. That is enough for their purpose. It is not necessary to hold that the relation itself, as regards all that is vital and essential in its reciprocal claims and endearments, may not be shared by Christ with his worshippers among the angels and his believing people among men.
3. I believe that this community for which I plead is really and truly, to all practical intents and purposes, admitted by the writers to whom I am referring. I am persuaded that they did virtually hold the filial relation of believers to God to be so closely connected with Christ's that it might be reckoned substantially the same. "For this cause is the Word man, and he who is Son of God was made Son of man, that man, receiving the Word and accepting adoption, might become the Son of God."
Before closing this lecture, I wish to advert again to the topic on which I touched at the beginning. I referred then to the discrimination which our Lord manifested in speaking of God's fatherhood with reference to men. He reveals God as sustaining this relation to his disciples, and to them alone. God is their Father, not the Father of mankind generally. I find no trace whatever, in all our Lord's teaching, of anything like a universal fatherhood. The Son reveals the Father, not as the Father of sinners of mankind generally, but as the Father exclusively of those who receive the Son, and believe on his name.
At the same time, it is to be observed that the fact of his revealing God at all as the Father, has a very gracious aspect towards sinners of mankind generally. God would be the Father of them all if they would but consent to have it so. He would have them all to be his children. His relentings, his longings, his appeals, are prompted by a love that does really partake of the paternal character. It is of a Father's pity, a Father's love, a Fath open house, a Father's open heart, that the Son has to speak, when he pleads with those whom, however guilty and degraded, he regards with an affection that is truly that of a brother.
It is this consideration that makes the matchless parable of the prodigal son. so appropriate as well as so affecting.
Some, indeed, are disposed to found an argument on that parable in support of their favourite opinion that men, even in their unconverted state, may look on God as already their Father; and that in reality what they need, and all that they need, is not to become sons of God, but only to become alive to the fact that they are his sons already, and have always been so. But, - not to speak of the danger of drawing doctrinal conclusions from the minute and incidental details of illustrative narrations or stories, - I cannot help thinking that those who would make such a use of this most beautiful of all the parables grievously pervert its meaning, and altogether miss its spirit and scope. I hold them to be guilty of bad taste, as well as of bad criticism and bad theology.
Let it be conceded that the prodigal represents sinners generally, the sinners with whom our Lord was accused of being too familiar. The parable is his defence against that accusation, and nothing more. And what is his defence? Virtually it is this : - He is the elder brother in the Father's house. He puts it to his accusers to say whether he best sustains the character and does the part of the elder brother, by acting as he is wont to act, in the way that seems to them so objectionable, or by behaving, as they would have him behave, like the elder brother in the parable.
In doing this, the Lord, as the Son, necessarily appeals to his Father's character, and wonderfully opens up to all the human fanmily his Father's heart.
In my Father's eyes these sinners with whom you say I associate too freely, are not what they are in yours. You regard them as outcasts ; - He would have them to be sons. He looks upon them as lost children whom he would fain recover to himself. His purpose is that I, the Son of his love, should be "the first-born among many brethren' And it is among these sinners that I am to find my brethren. These sinners, each and all of them, my Father longs to embrace, as any Father worthy of the name would embrace a long estranged child coming back to him again. He has sent me to seek and save them ; - to reveal him to them as a Father waiting to welcome them as sons. How think ye? Do I best carry out my Father's purpose by treating them after the manner you would have me treat them, - as the off-scouring of the earth, - or by treating them as my Father's children and my brethren? - so treating them all, including the very worst and vilest of them, - even those who have sunk almost to the level of the hungry wallowing swine?
Surely that is the point of the parable, viewed in the light of its occasion. And that is really its only meaning. It turns wholly on the love with which God regards lost sinners, and his willingness to have them reconciled to himself. It does not turn at all on the precise nature either of their present relation to him or of any previous relation in which they may have stood to him. Thus viewed, the parable is very precious. It warrants the widest and most unrestricted proclamation of the fatherhood of God as now, in his Son, brought within the reach of all, - to be pressed on the acceptance of all, - with the strongest possible assurance that all are welcome, freely welcome, to have the full enjoyment of all that is implied in it, if they will, - when they will.
But what is it that is thus brought within the reach of all and pressed upon the acceptance of all? Let that be kept ever in view, for it enhances a thousand fold the grace of the whole arrangement. For it is not merely in the universality and freeness of the offer, but even still more in the value of what is offered, that the great benevolence of the Father is seen. He would have all men to be sons as Jesus is his son. Jesus would have all men to be his brethren - to be to him what those are on whose behalf, in the view of their perfected oneness with himself in his sonship, he offers his wonderful intercessory prayer - " That they all may be one as thou, Father, art in me and I in thee, that they also may be one in us : that the world may believe that thou hast sent me." In what sense one? Let himself reply - " The glory whioh thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one." And for what end? "That the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them as thou hast loved me." Let this identification be specially noted ; - " Thou hast loved them as thou hast loved me." Can it be explained away? I think not. For mark what follows : - " I have declared unto them thy name, and will declare it ; that the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them" (John xvii. 21-26).
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