THE SIFTING QUESTION.
"Then said Jesus unto the Twelve, Will ye also go away? Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go, thou hast the words of eternal life, and we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus answered them, Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil. He spake of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, for it was he that should betray Him, being one of the twelve." John vi. 67-71.
SEEING many of his disciples, not of the promiscuous crowd
only, but of those who had attached themselves more or less closely and
constantly to him as their master or teacher, going back, and declining to walk
with him any more, Jesus said unto the twelve, " Will ye also go away?" And the
question, in the circumstances, is startling.
1. Jesus puts it to you, the twelve, to ask yourselves, if there may not be something of the same kind in you that moves these others to desert. It suggests the possibility of you also going away. It may not have occurred to yourselves to think of this as possible. But the Lord would have you so to think of it. You perceive how many who seemed to have made common cause with Jesus prove unstedfast and unfaithful ; depart from the truth, make shipwreck of faith and of a good conscience, let go their integrity, and fall into error or sin. When you witness or hear of such a case, perhaps many such cases, whether of stumbling at a saying that is too hard, or of rebelling against a commandment that is too grievous, yielding to the weakness of the flesh, getting entangled in worldly ways, returning again to folly, count it not strange, deem it not an offence, if Jesus should ask, "Will ye also go away?"
Is it after all so unlikely that, in certain circumstances, you might? May there not be even now a certain leaning in the line of the backward and downward path? Is there no half-longing eye cast on the freedoms in which so many allow themselves, as contrasted with the restraints imposed upon you? Is there no lurking sense of hardship or irksomeness, no weariness, no complaining : Lord, how much ? Lord, how long? Ah when I see a brother, but yesterday, as I would have sworn, abreast of me, far ahead of me, in the good way of walking with the Lord, to-day overtaken in a fault, gone back altogether from following the Lord fully, or sadly maimed and halt in his gait ; and when I feel within me so much sympathy with the very temptation that proved too strong for him let me not take it amiss, let me rather take it as a special kindness, if Jesus, watching me, detecting in my secret soul some rising of unbelief, some dallying with the evil thing, whispers in the ear of conscience, What art thou thinking of? Art thou also meditating desertion Wilt thou also go away?
2. Thou mayest, if thou wilt. For this, secondly, is in the question. Will you, the twelve, go away? You have my free leave, my full permission. Thus viewed, the appeal has special force and point. It should come home to you, if in any moment of infirmity or trial you are sorely pressed between loyalty to Jesus and the solicitations of the enemy. Do not suppose that I have any wish to keep you against your will. I lay no restraint on your inclinations. I interfere in no way with your most absolute discretion ; your utmost freedom of choice and action. If you have the slightest desire to follow those on whom I see you casting a somewhat longing, lingering look, to follow them into easier and more flowery paths than I can offer to lead you in, by all means go away after them. Do not hesitate on my account, out of consideration for me, as if I needed you and could not do without you. However I might miss you, you are by no means indispensable to me. Say not that ye are Abrahams children. Out of the very stones, God can raise up children unto Abraham. You may go away. But all that the Father giveth me shall come unto me; and him that cometh unto me I will in no wise cast out. My people shall be willing in the day of my power. I am for no pressed men in my service, no reluctant recruits in my camp. My people are all willing. I leave it, therefore, altogether to yourselves, to stay, or go, as you please. Will you? for you may.
Oh that in every time of hesitancy and indecision, when you are listening to a suspicion or surmise of unbelief, entertaining a proposal of doubtful expediency, halting between two opinions, almost over-persuaded, on some nice point of worldly casuistry or sophistry, to give way ; to let yourself be carried into some scene or company where you cannot be sure of having Jesus with you ; oh that, at the critical time, the still small voice of Jesus, meekly, mournfully, upbraiding you, may reach your heart before the die is cast and the step is taken, will ye then also go away? Is that really your mind? Be it so. I have no more to say; go, if you have the will; if you can have the heart to go.
3. But will ye also go away? Can you find it in your hearts to do so? You have known me intimately. I have loved you well. My honour, my cause, is largely in your hands. Your going away, if you choose to go, is a worse ingratitude in you, and a heavier blow to me, than the desertion of hundreds who hung on more loosely. Such a tender and touching remonstrance you must feel to be involved in the question: Will ye also go away?
You who have known me so intimately. For I have admitted you to a familiar acquaintance with me which others have not had. I have had no reserve in my intercourse with you. To them I have spoken in parables; but not so to you. They have seen and heard me in public; but you have been the men of my secret; my very heart has been open to you. That they, in their comparative ignorance, should draw back offended, is not surprising. But you, who have been with me always, and from whom I have kept back nothing, will you go away? Is it your better knowledge of me that is to make you go away? Is it some fault you have discovered in me, through your more intimate acquaintance with me, that is to cause estrangement I Have you found me other than I was when first you knew me? less worthy of your confidence? less attentive to your well-being? less faithful? less kind?
Ah! that can scarcely be; for have I not loved you well? Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends. I lay down my life for you; I minister to you; I wash your weary feet; I wipe the tear from your weeping eye. You are dearer far to me than my own life. Have you not had experience of my love, proofs and instances of it, day by day? Has it ever changed ? has it ever cooled? though you have sometimes tried it sorely. Have you not felt it to be a love which many waters cannot quench, no great floods drown? And am I, in spite of all this, to lose you, my so much beloved ones; will ye also go away?
And then, have you thought how deeply I have committed myself to you? Others may fall back and return to folly. Their backsliding or apostasy will do comparatively little harm. They never were so intimate with me as you, or so much my friends as you. My credit was never so closely bound up with them. But if you go away, if in the matter about which you are tempted, and perhaps hesitating, you leave me and are led by the world, even for a little time only, and in a little degree, my honour is compromised, my name is blasphemed, my cause is hurt worse than by thousands of such as they are drawing back. I have identified myself with you. I have put my Spirit in you. I have made you my representatives. I have sent you into the world, as the Father hath sent me. You cannot stumble and fall; you cannot be inconsistent or infirm; you cannot waver, or turn aside, or look back; without the mouths of adversaries being opened, not against you, but against me. Whole crowds of mere outside, nominal followers, may commit the grossest sin, or set up the vilest lie instead of the truth ; and the world will look on with calm unconcern; nor will the least of my little ones be scandalised. But if you who bear my standard, you who are known as my familiars, if you who bear the ark, are found untrue, unholy, unloving, or unclean, how is the Spirit grieved! How do the Philistines rejoice! And oh I how may these my lambs, my poor feeble sheep, stumble through your fall. I have singled you out for a high honour, a sacred trust. I have perilled, in a sense, my crown jewels in your hands. And will ye also go away?
Thus full of meaning, thus instinct with practical power, is the simple question of the Lord, considered as addressed, not merely to the twelve, but to you also who believe on him through their word. It is a simple artless question, in the circumstances. What more natural than for the Lord Jesus, seeing many draw back offended, to turn round to the twelve, to turn round to you, and ask, Will ye also go away? But it is no bow drawn at a venture. It penetrates, it searches that it may cleanse, the inner man. It sets the twelve on the inquiry,each for himself, am I going away? Am I thinking of going away? Can it be that I almost wish I were as free to go away as those whom I see going now? I might not choose so to go with them as to walk no more with Jesus; but for once, or now and then, might I not be suffered, might I not safely venture, to go with them one short mile, or at most two, and then return
Ah! the question touches the sore, if there be a sore, in me. And it touches it pretty sharply, perhaps. There is a certain subdued tone, I say not of covert irony or sarcasm, but of mild reproachfulness, in the tacit leave given to go away. By all means, let it be so, if you will. Go, if you choose, if you can. Is it Jesus who is saying this to you, brother, when he sees you, at any time, upon any point, hesitating inwardly, whether to stay with him or go with the world? Can you hear him putting the matter thus to you and not be instantly decided? The rather when the full force of the "ye also," comes to be felt; ye who have known me so intimately, ye whom I have loved so well, ye to whom I have so thoroughly committed myself, the honour of my name, the interests of my cause; will ye also go away?
Oh! let this question of the Lord be ever ringing in your ears, in. every exigency and crisis of your spiritual life; whenever you are in danger of growing weary in well-doing; or becoming ashamed of the Cross; or getting ensnared in Satans subtle wiles, or the worlds false and idle ways. Let the eye of faith be open, to see him who is invisible, that you may endure to the end. Ah - may it not arrest some vagrant fancy; may it not change same half-formed wilful or wayward purpose; may it not rebuke some inclination towards worldly lust; when thus, with faiths open eye, you see the meek and loving face of the crucified one, and with faiths open ear hear his mild voice - I have loved you and given myself for you; I am ever with you; I will neverleave you; no, I will never forsake you. Will ye then, 0 my friends, will ye go away from me?
"Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." This answer of Peter; for them all, implies:
(1) real and experimental satisfaction with Christ, and (2) no possible satisfaction elsewhere.
1. There is here a sense of the all-sufficiency of Christ. The language is not merely that of discontent with the world. It implies contentment with Christ. This is a vital point when it is the danger of backsliding or apostasy that is in question. What is the security against it? There be many that say, who will show us any good ? It is the vague, inarticulate, cry of nature, everywhere, always. It is the great outstanding proof and evidence of the fall. It never could have arisen in Paradise, had the serpent not tempted its inmates to aspire to be as gods, knowing good and evil. God was showing them good. But the good which God was showing them was not enough to satisfy them, so long as he kept back anything from them. They must find out evil as well as good; though they break the bonds of innoeency in doing so.
And now, where is the good ? Who will show it. To whom shall we go. It is fallen mans broken, instinctive wail. It prompts many a vain experiment, many a desperate risk. All sorts of expedients are tried. And among the rest Christ and Christianity. For there are those who making the round of all the contrivances that have been broached for pacifying the conscience and satisfying the heart, come upon the gospel of Jesus Christ in the course of their restless and weary search.
It is the Spirits doing so far He brings them into contact with Christ. The simplicity that is in Christ charms them ; the simplicity of a full and free forgiveness; a full and free acceptance, on the footing of the great atonement; a full and free recondiliation; on the terms of Christ, who knew no sin, being made sin for us that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. Thus for a time they are captivated. But it is as they have been captivated by other schemes before. It is a new trial of a new specific. The old complaint remains. The very simplicity in Christ which first attracted them begins to inspire weariness and distaste. They long for something more strikingly and palpably real. The routine of a holy walk with Christ becomes unsatisfying; a task, a drudgery, a toil. They want something more out of the way. The restless spirit of impatient inquiry returns; who will show us any good? To whom shall we go?
Evidently that spirit is no security against your going away. Your only security is in some such confession as Peters. Thou hast the words of eternal life. To whom shall we go? We are content with thee! Having thee, whom else can we care to seek?
Thus, with whatever drawbacks and defects in the knowledge which Peter and his fellow disciples had, at that time, of Christ and of his salvation, you have in his confession of their common faith, the true and only secret of perseverance in grace and holiness, and of safety from the risk of going away. It is not negative but positive. It is not negative craving, but positive possession. It is not seeking, but finding. It is not experiment, but experience. It is tasting and seeing how good the Lord is. It is not doubt, hesitancy, uncertain groping. It is assurance; the assurance of a straightforward looking of ,Jesus in the face, as rf surprised that he should ever dream of your going away. To whom shall we go?
2. But along with a sense of the complete contentment and satisfaction that is to be found in Christ, there is implied in Peters answer a sense of the folly and danger of seeking it elsewhere. Will ye also go away! Why should we go away from thee at all? And whither shall we go To whom? To whom, especially now, after knowing thee.
For, you may say, our knowledge of thee has made us more unfit than ever for going away by ourselves. It has made us more dependent on help; more unable to stand, or walk alone. Yes! if now, forsaking Christ, you resume the old weary search, you do so under great disadvantages, as regards your power and capacity of acting for yourselves, and providing for yourselves. I speak to you as having some such personal knowledge of Christ, and some such experience of his care and love, as Peter had, when he said : "Thou hast the words of eternal life." Certainly any acquaintance you have with Christ, of a gracious and saving kind; any conviction you have wrought in you by the Spirit, of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment; any experience you have ever had of the peace that there is in looking to Jesus, and leaning on him; should make you feel that if you go away from him, you must be more helpless, more at a loss, than if you had never known him at all. The warm and tender nurture of a loving home is but poor preparation for encountering the starvation of the fields in which the wretched prodigal would fain take of the husks eaten by the swine. The lamb accustomed to be in the shepherds bosom is but ill fitted for going away from him into the dreary wilderness.
If you have been with Christ; if the Spirit has been at all taking of what is his, and showing it to you; if you have been, as a poor, guilty, lost sinner, and yet also as a little child, taken by Christ into his arms and blessed; how can you stand the rude shock that awaits you if you go away from him? Has not your intercourse with him already made you more sensitive and susceptible of hurt than you were before? Is not your sensibility more keen? your conscience more quick? your whole soul and spirit more open to offence? Will you not, if you go away from Christ and return to the worlds folly, find its rude or its refined ungodliness more distasteful and uncongenial, than if you had never - known anything of a purer taste, a tenderer care, a higher hope? Will you not be vexed and, shocked by courses which others tolerate, because they have been familiar with them always, and with nothing else? Will not dangers unseen and unfelt by them, be open to you? Can you think as lightly of sin as they do? Or brave wrath and judgment like them? Are you not, if you go away from Christ with all that you have learned and acquired in the school of Christ, like a tame and fondled bird, cast out, shorn of its wings, into the bleak wildness of the woods again?
And then the evil of backsliding and apostasy is seen to be aggravated in your case, when you consider that going back to the world, returning again to its folly, with clearer insight and keener susceptibility, you cannot be relieved by the illusions or by the opiates which lull and soothe others into tolerable composure. These now, for you who have been with Christ, have lost their value and their charm. If you now, going away from Christ, sin with the world again; the world, no doubt, may flatter you, and absolve you, as it used to do. It may be as ready as ever to make allowance for your infirmities, and give you indulgence for your faults. It may tell you, as of old, of the venial character of your frailties, and the boundless Placability of a merciful God. Such notions used to soothe and satisfy you before. Will they soothe and satisfy you now, since your eyes have been opened, and your dead slumber of spiritual apathy .has been broken, - now that having been with Christ you have learned from him something of the righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come, of which Paul so reasoned as to make even a Felix tremble? The assurances of impunity which evil companions may give as freely as they gave before, will not be as convincing to you as they were before. Your own deceitful hearts will not deceive you so easily. You return to folly; but you return too wise to be fooled.
And finally the most serious consideration is, that if you go away from Christ, the likelihood of your being brought back to him is very small. It is diminished in proportion to what you have known of him while you have been with him. This is a very solemn and awful argument. It is the argument which once and again the Apostle Paul urges, as does also the Apostle John, not to speak of the Lord himself against falling away; sinning wilfully after having been brought to the knowledge of the truth; sinning the sin that is unto death, for the pardon of which prayer is not to be made; the sin against the Holy Ghost, which never is and never can be forgiven. The warning must ever be given; the alarm must ever be sounded; that for you to go away from Christ is to incur the risk and hazard, even of this terrible consummation; the consummation of so falling away that it may be impossible to renew you again to repentance.
It is true that you never can be warranted in believing, or in acting on the belief, that you have so fallen away. Be your fall ever so great, from a height of profession and attainment ever so exalted, to a depth of worldliness and even vice ever so low; be your backsliding ever so aggravated by former knowledge and experience of Christs love, and by the inexcusable baseness of your present offence; be your guilt, and even your hardness of heart, what it may, you have no right to conclude that your recovery is hopeless. You sin the more if you do so conclude. The call, the cornmend, to you, is :-"Return, thou backsliding Israel, and I will not cause mine anger to fall upon you."
But as a reason for returning now, the fact of its being possible for you to sin beyond the hope of ever returning at all, must always be kept before your eyes. And it is one of the strongest of all reasons, surely, for your never again going away. I say one of the strongest, for there is a stronger. That is, I repeat, your being satisfied with Christ, contented with Christ, filled with Christ, your finding in Christ all that you need, all that you can wish for, his being all your salvation and all your desire. The two reasons indeed strengthen one another. The more you know of Christ; the more you see of his holy beauty, and taste of his blessed fellowship; the less can you bear the thought of going away. And in the same proportion, the danger of going away will be felt by you to be all the greater. With increasing intensity and tenacity of grasp you will cleave to him. With increasing sensitiveness you will watch and pray against whatever might tempt you to even a momentary desertion of him. Oh then above all things, make much of Christ; that so your mind may be the Psalmists :-" Whom have I in heaven but thee I and there is none on earth that I desire beside thee."
The Lords rejoinder (ver. 70), "Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil? " reminds Peter and the twelve (l) of his being the searcher of hearts; and (2) of their confidence being only in him.
1. He speaks as the searcher of hearts. His detection of the traitor here is an instance, not of foresight, but of insight. It is not one of you shall betray me, but one of you is a devil. It is not omniscience, foreseeing and foretelling what, in the stage of the worlds history, is to come to pass. It is omniscience searching the secret chamber of a mans heart, as it now is. One of you is a devil. By the light of prophecy, Jesus might know that, as the Messiah, he was to be the victim, not of foreign violence, but of domestic treachery and fraud. And by a shrewd sagacity he might see in Judas signs and symptoms warianting more than a suspicion that the treachery was to be his; that he was the man. But there is more here than a right interpretation of Old Testament Messianic prophecies, and a discrimination of character fixing the application of them to such a man as Judas. The inmost heart of Judas lies bare before him who needed not that any should testify of man, for he knew what was in man. He knew what was in Judas. He knew it better than Judas knew himself. For the traitor did not probably at that time deliberate treason. Even when he perpetrated his horrid crime, he was, to some extent, deceiving himself. Bent on making gain, he had expected to make gain, with Christ, as one of his court, when he should assume the kingdom. When he saw him slow to do that, he thought to make gain of him another way.
But if that is the explanation of his crime, as ultimately perpetrated, it is clear that what Jesus detected in him at this time could not be a fixed and formed purpose or plot, but an insidious tendency. And this makes the Lords reply to Peters warm acknowledgment all the more impressive. It is not that I foresee probable or certain treachery hereafter. I see the spirit of it now. Thou sayest, Peter; for thyself and all the rest of the twelve, To whom shall we go? All well. But you say it to the searcher of hearts. I know who, at this moment, is a devil, though he does not know it himself.
2. But what did Jesus mean by casting this damper on the honest zeal of Peter and the rest? Is it not cold water thrown in the faces of them all when one only is to be blamed? Why put the sad announcement so vaguely and indefinitely, when he could have named the man.
His doing so is fitted to shake any confidence that Peter, or any of them, might be placing in their apostleship or belonging to the inner circle of twelve. This, surely, is a salutary lesson to you, when you are tempted to trust in your being one of the twelve - of any twelve, however chosen. Can any better twelve ever be gathered together on earth than the twelve to whom Jesus said, One of you is a devil?
It shakes any confidence the apostles might be tempted to place in their good feeling and good faith; or you in yours. For all the twelve, including Judas, went along with Peter in his warm and eager profession ; "to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life." They were all of one mind and of one heart, at the time, in this abrupt and honest appeal. They were all at the time sincere in averring their contentment with Christ and their abhorrence of the very thought of seeking contentment elsewhere. Certainly no two or three gathered together now can ever be more earnest in the good cause. And yet one of you is a devil.
More particularly, the Lord suggests a double lesson; of humility on the one hand, and of fear and trembling on the other. First, if you do not go away like others, it is simply because I have chosen you twelve. And the choice here meant is not the eternal decree of election, in the counsels of the Godhead, choosing the ultimately saved to life eternal; it is the Sons mediatorial act in the ordering of his kingdom, investing whom he pleases with privilege or with office, and admitting them, as so invested, to his intimate acquaintanceship. Have not I chosen you twelve ? Is it because you are the twelve that you go not away? How are you the twelve? How is any one of you one of the twelve? Have not I chosen you twelve? It is not as if you had chosen me; as if you had banded together of your own accord, for some enterprise of your own, and had elected me as your captain, to carry out your purpose. That is not the footing on which you and I are to one another. If it were, you might suspect me, rather than any of yourselves. But the case is otherwise. It is the very reverse. I have chosen you.
In whatever position you find yourself in relation to me, it is my choice of you, and not yours of me, that places you there.
It may be that you are among the twelve. You are highly favoured. You are in the inner circle. But if ever your being so puffs you up and ministers to your feeling of security, as if you, so situated, could never go away; as if, whatever others do, you are safe from all risk of backsliding; consider how you come to be so situated. It is not your doing, but the Lords; not your choice, but his. Have not I chosen you twelve.
And, secondly, what, after all, does my choice avail, or affect? It affords no security against one of you being a devil. Purposely, of set purpose, my choice of you to be what you are to me is of such a nature and under such conditions, that it admits of one of you being a devil. And of set purpose also I tell you so, that you may not rest on my having so chosen you twelve as of itself giving you any security against your going away. I have chosen you, indeed, to be very near my person, very familiar with my ways, very closely and constantly my companions. I have chosen you to the possession of very special privileges, the enjoyment of very precious advantages and opportunities, the exercise of very holy and honourable functions. I have chosen you to be my witnesses; witnesses of me first, and then witnesses for me; my fellow- workers; my missionaries into the world, as I myself am the Fathers. All this is my doing, not yours. You have nothing of your own in it all to boast of or to trust in. It is not of your own will, but of mine, that you are thus chosen. And lest you should rely even on that as a guarantee, and imagine that because I have placed you where you are, therefore, as my favomites, you are safe, I warn you that my choice of you, yes, even of you twelve, is not inconsistent or incompatible with one of you being a devil.
Ah, then, who may stand? Is there to be no confidence, no assurance, no firm footing, no bold attitude in meeting the searching question, Will ye also go away? Is Peters honest exclamation of affectionate zeal, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life, never to be trusted? Why should the loving Lord thus terribly chill so warm-hearted an outburst of affection? Is not this like breaking the bruised reed, and quenching the smoking flax? What can he mean? What can he want? Surely not to throw all loose and leave all at sea; to discredit every profession and damp every purpose, and cast a bleak and withering shade of doubt over the whole path even of the just, that path which should be as the shining light, shining more and more unto the perfect day. That cannot be! No. The Lord would not have you to be living always in suspense as to your own calling and election, because one of the twelve into whose fellowship he chooses you, may happen to be a devil It is only when you are making this your confidence that there is a chosen band among whom you are numbered, that the warning is needful and in point - one of you is a devil.
It is, in one word, to impress the solemn lesson, that Peters noble confession, if it is to stand you in stead, and be of avail against your going away, must be personal and individual, and not collective or representative. It is nothing if you are merely one of the twelve in whose name and on whose behalf Peter makes it. It is everything if you make it yourself each of you apart, for himself, for herself. To belong to any select company, any chosen twelve, of whom as a body that profession of faith is the badge, is no security. To make it the profession of your own faith, to feel it, and enter into it, and act it out, yourself, as a sinner saved by grace, and clinging to him who saves you - that is security indeed. To be saying evermore to Jesus, not as one of the twelve, but for myself alone, "Lord, to whom can I go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. I believe, and am sure that thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God" - that is my salvation.
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