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SECTION IV. THE SIFTING
The sermon on the bread of life produced decisive effects. It converted popular enthusiasm for Jesus into disgust; like a fan, it separated true from false disciples; and like a winnowing breeze, it blew the chaff away, leaving a small residuum of wheat behind. “From that time many of His disciples went back, and walked no more with Him.”
This result did not take Jesus by surprise. He expected it; in a sense, He wished it, though He was deeply grieved by it. For while His large, loving human heart yearned for the salvation of all, and desired that all should come and get life, He wanted none to come to Him under misapprehension, or to follow Him from by-ends. He sought disciples God-given,255255John vi. 37. God-drawn,256256John vi. 44. God-taught,257257John vi. 45. knowing that such alone would continue in His word.258258John viii. 31. He was aware that in the large mass of people who had recently followed Him were many disciples of quite another description; and He was not unwilling that the mixed multitude should be sifted. Therefore He preached that mystic discourse, fitted to be a savor of life or of death according to the spiritual state of the hearer. Therefore, also, when offence was taken at the doctrine taught, He plainly declared the true cause,259259John vi. 36, 37 and expressed His assurance that only those whom His Father taught and drew would or could really come unto Him.260260John vi. 44. These things He said not with a view to irritate, but He deemed it right to say them though they should give rise to irritation, reckoning that true believers would take all in good part, and that those who took umbrage would thereby reveal their true character.
The apostatizing disciples doubtless thought themselves fully justified in withdrawing from the society of Jesus. They turned their back on Him, we fancy, in most virtuous indignation, saying in their hearts — nay, probably saying aloud to one another: “Who ever heard the like of that? how absurd! how revolting! The man who can speak thus is either a fool, or is trying to make fools of his hearers.” And yet the hardness of His doctrine was not the real reason which led so many to forsake Him; it was simply the pretext, the most plausible and respectable reason that they could assign for conduct springing from other motives. The grand offence of Jesus was this: He was not the man they had taken Him for; He was not going to be at their service to promote the ends they had in view. Whatever He meant by the bread of life, or by eating His flesh, it was plain that He was not going to be a bread-king, making it His business to furnish supplies for their physical appetites, ushering in a golden age of idleness and plenty. That ascertained, it was all over with Him so far as they were concerned: He might offer His heavenly food to whom He pleased; they wanted none of it.
Deeply affected by the melancholy sight of so many human beings deliberately preferring material good to eternal life, Jesus turned to the twelve, and said, “Will ye also go away?” or more exactly, “You do not wish to go away too, do you?”261261John vi. 67. The particle μή implies that a negative answer is looked for. See Winer, Neutest. Grammatik, § 57, Moulton’s translation, p. 641. The question may be understood as a virtual expression of confidence in the persons to whom it was addressed, and as an appeal to them for sympathy at a discouraging crisis. And yet, while a negative answer was expected to the question, it was not expected as a matter of course. Jesus was not without solicitude concerning the fidelity even of the twelve. He interrogated them, as conscious that they were placed in trying circumstances, and that if they did not actually forsake Him now, as at the great final crisis, they were at least tempted to be offended in Him.
A little reflection suffices to satisfy us that the twelve were indeed placed in a position at this time calculated to try their faith most severely. For one thing, the mere fact of their Master being deserted wholesale by the crowd of quondam admirers and followers involved for the chosen band a temptation to apostasy. How mighty is the power of sympathy! how ready are we all to follow the multitude, regardless of the way they are going! and how much moral courage it requires to stand alone! How difficult to witness the spectacle of thousands, or even hundreds, going off in sullen disaffection, without feeling an impulse to imitate their bad example! how hard to keep one’s self from being carried along with the powerful tide of adverse popular opinion! Especially hard it must have been for the twelve to resist the tendency to apostatize if, as is more than probable, they sympathized with the project entertained by the multitude when their enthusiasm for Jesus was at full-tide. If it would have gratified them to have seen their beloved Master made king by popular acclamation, how their spirits must have sunk when the bubble burst, and the would-be subjects of the Messianic Prince were dispersed like an idle mob, and the kingdom which had seemed so near vanished like a cloudland!
Another circumstance trying to the faith of the twelve was the strange, mysterious character of their Master’s discourse in the synagogue of Capernaum. That discourse contained hard, repulsive, unintelligible sayings for them quite as much as for the rest of the audience. Of this we can have no doubt when we consider the repugnance with which some time afterward they received the announcement that Jesus was destined to be put to death.262262Matt. xvi. 22. If they objected even to the fact of His death, how could they understand its meaning, especially when both fact and meaning were spoken of in such a veiled and mystic style as that which pervades the sermon on the bread of life? While, therefore, they believed that their Master had the words of eternal life, and perceived that His late discourse bore on that high theme, it may be regarded as certain that the twelve did not understand the words spoken any more than the multitude, however much they might try to do so. They knew not what connection existed between Christ’s flesh and eternal life, how eating that flesh could confer any benefit, or even what eating it might mean. They had quite lost sight of the Speaker in His eagle flight of thought; and they must have looked on in distress as the people melted away, painfully conscious that they could not altogether blame them.
Yet, however greatly tempted to forsake their Master, the twelve did abide faithfully by His side. They did come safely through the spiritual storm. What was the secret of their steadfastness? what were the anchors that preserved them from shipwreck? These questions are of practical interest to all who, like the apostles at this crisis, are tempted to apostasy by evil example or by religious doubt; by the fashion of the world they live in, whether scientific or illiterate, refined or rustic; or by the deep things of God, whether these be the mysteries of providence, the mysteries of revelation, or the mysteries of religious experience: we may say, indeed, to all genuine Christians, for what Christian has not been tempted in one or other of these ways at some period in his history?
Sufficient materials for answering these questions are supplied in the words of Simon Peter’s response to Jesus. As spokesman for the whole company, that disciple promptly said: “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and know that Thou art that Christ, the son of the living God,”263263John vi. 68, 69. or, according to the reading preferred by most critics, “that Thou art the Holy One of God.”264264See Alford in loc. The confession of Christ’s holiness was appropriate, as meeting an implied charge of having uttered language shocking to the moral feelings.
Three anchors, we infer from these words, helped the twelve to ride out the storm: Religious earnestness or sincerity; a clear perception of the alternatives before them; and implicit confidence in the character and attachment to the person of their Master.
I. The twelve, as a body, were sincere and thoroughly in earnest in religion. Their supreme desire was to know “the words of eternal life,” and actually to gain possession of that life. Their concern was not about the meat that perisheth, but about the higher heavenly food of the soul which Christ had in vain exhorted the majority of His hearers to labor for. As yet they knew not clearly wherein that food consisted, but according to their light they sincerely prayed, “Lord, evermore give us this bread.” Hence it was no disappointment to them that Jesus declined to become a purveyor of mere material food: they had never expected or wished Him to do so; they had joined His company with entirely different expectations. A certain element of error might be mingled with truth in their conceptions of His Mission, but the gross, carnal hopes of the multitude had no place in their breasts. They became not disciples to better their worldly circumstances, but to obtain a portion which the world could neither give them nor take from them.
What we have now stated was true of all the twelve save one; and the crisis we are at present considering is memorable for this, among other things, that it was the first occasion on which Jesus gave a hint that there was a false disciple among the men whom He had chosen. To justify Himself for asking a question which seemed to cast a doubt upon their fidelity, He replied to Peter’s protestation by the startling remark: “Did not I choose you the twelve, and one of you is a devil?”265265John vi. 70. as if to say: “It is painful to me to have to use this language of suspicion, but I have good cause: there is one among you who has had thoughts of desertion, and who is capable even of treachery.” With what sadness of spirit must He have made such an intimation at this crisis! To be forsaken by the fickle crowd of shallow, thoughtless followers had been a small matter, could He have reckoned all the members of the select band good men and true friends. But to have an enemy in one’s own house, a diabolus capable of playing Satan’s part in one’s small circle of intimate companions: — it was hard indeed!
But how could a man destined to be a traitor, and deserving to be stigmatized as a devil, manage to pass creditably through the present crisis? Does not the fact seem to imply that, after all, it is possible to be steadfast without being single-minded? Not so; the only legitimate inference is, that the crisis was not searching enough to bring out the true character of Judas. Wait till you see the end. A little religion will carry a man through many trials, but there is an experimentum crucis which nothing but sincerity can stand. If the mind be double, or the heart divided, a time comes that compels men to act according to the motives that are deepest and strongest in them. This remark applies especially to creative, revolutionary, or transition epochs. In quiet times a hypocrite may pass respectably through this world, and never be detected till he get to the next, whither his sins follow him to judgment. But in critical eras the sins of the double-minded find them out in this life. True, even then some double-minded men can stand more temptation than others, and are not to be bought so cheaply as the common herd. But all of them have their price, and those who fall less easily than others fall in the end most deeply and tragically.
Of the character and fall of Judas we shall have another opportunity to speak. Our present object is simply to point out that from such as he Jesus did not expect constancy. By referring to that disciple as He did, He intimated His conviction that no one in whom the love of God and truth was not the deepest principle of his being would continue faithful to the end. In effect He inculcated the necessity, in order to steadfastness in faith, of moral integrity, or godly sincerity.
2. The second anchor by which the disciples were kept from shipwreck at this season was a clear perception of the alternatives. “To whom shall we go?” asked Peter, as one who saw that, for men having in view the aim pursued by himself and his brethren, there was no course open but to remain where they were. He had gone over rapidly in his mind all the possible alternatives, and this was the conclusion at which he had arrived. “To whom shall we go — we who seek eternal life? John, our former master, is dead; and even were he alive, he would send us back to Thee. Or shall we go to the scribes and Pharisees? We have been too long with Thee for that; for Thou hast taught us the superficiality, the hypocrisy, the ostentatiousness, the essential ungodliness of their religious system. Or shall we follow the fickle multitude there, and relapse into stupidity and indifference? It is not to be thought of. Or, finally, shall we go to the Sadducees, the idolaters of the material and the temporal, who say there is no resurrection, neither any angels nor spirits? God forbid! That were to renounce a hope dearer than life, without which life to an earnest mind were a riddle, a contradiction, and an intolerable burden.”
We may understand what a help this clear perception of the alternatives was to Peter and his brethren, by reflecting on the help we ourselves might derive from the same source when tempted by dogmatic difficulties to renounce Christianity. It would make one pause if he understood that the alternatives open to him were to abide with Christ, or to become an atheist, ignoring God and the world to come; that when he leaves Christ, he must go to school to some of the great masters of thoroughgoing unbelief. In the works of a well-known German author is a dream, which portrays with appalling vividness the consequences that would ensue throughout the universe should the Creator cease to exist. The dream was invented, so the gifted writer tells us, for the purpose of frightening those who discussed the being of God as coolly as if the question respected the existence of the Kraken or the unicorn, and also to check all atheistic thoughts which might arise in his own bosom. “If ever,” he says, “my heart should be so unhappy and deadened as to have all those feelings which affirm the being of a God destroyed, I would use this dream to frighten myself, and so heal my heart, and restore its lost feelings.”266266J. F. Richter, Siebenkäs, viii. Such benefit as Richter expected from the perusal of his own dream, would any one, tempted to renounce Christianity, derive from a clear perception that in ceasing to be a Christian he must make up his mind to accept a creed which acknowledges no God, no soul, no hereafter.
Unfortunately it is not so easy for us now as it was for Peter to see clearly what the alternatives before us are. Few are so clear-sighted, so recklessly logical, or so frank as the late Dr. Strauss, who in his latest publication. The Old and the New Faith, plainly says that he is no longer a Christian. Hence many in our day call themselves Christians whose theory of the universe (or Weltanschauung, as the Germans call it) does not allow them to believe in the miraculous in any shape or in any sphere; with whom it is an axiom that the continuity of nature’s course cannot be broken, and who therefore cannot even go the length of Socinians in their view of Christ and declare Him to be, without qualification, the Holy One of God, the morally sinless One. Even men like Renan claim to be Christians, and, like Balaam, bless Him whom their philosophy compels them to blame. Our modern Balaams all confess that Jesus is at least the holiest of men, if not the absolutely Holy One. They are constrained to bless the Man of Nazareth. They are spellbound by the Star of Bethlehem, as was the Eastern soothsayer by the Star of Jacob, and are forced to say in effect: “How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed? or how shall I defy, whom the Lord hath not defied? Behold, I have received commandment to bless: and He hath blessed; and I cannot reverse it.”267267Numb. xxiii. 8, 20. Others not going so far as Renan, shrinking from thoroughgoing naturalism, believing in a perfect Christ, a moral miracle, yet affect a Christianity independent of dogma, and as little as possible encumbered by miracle, a Christianity purely ethical, consisting mainly in admiration of Christ’s character and moral teaching; and, as the professors of such a Christianity, regard themselves as exemplary disciples of Christ. Such are the men of whom the author of Supernatural Religion speaks as characterized by a “tendency to eliminate from Christianity, with thoughtless dexterity, every supernatural element which does not quite accord with current opinions,” and as endeavoring “to arrest for a moment the pursuing wolves of doubt and unbelief by practically throwing to them scrap by scrap the very doctrines which constitute the claims of Christianity to be regarded as a divine revelation at all.”268268Supernatural Religion, i. 92 (6th ed.). Such men can hardly be said to have a consistent theory of the universe, for they hold opinions based on incompatible theories, are naturalistic in tendency, yet will not carry out naturalism to all its consequences. They are either not able, or are disinclined, to realize the alternatives and to obey the voice of logic, which like a stern policeman bids them “Move on;.” but would rather hold views which unite the alternatives in one compound eclectic creed, like Schleiermacher, — himself an excellent example of the class, — of whom Strauss remarks that he ground down Christianity and Pantheism to powder, and so mixed them that it is hard to say where Pantheism ends and Christianity begins. In presence of such a spirit of compromise, so widespread, and recommended by the example of many men of ability and influence, it requires some courage to have and hold a definite position, or to resist the temptation to yield to the current and adopt the watchword: Christianity without dogma and miracle. But perhaps it will be easier by and by to realize the alternatives, when time has more clearly shown whither present tendencies lead. Meantime it is the evening twilight, and for the moment it seems as if we could do without the sun, for though he is below the horizon, the air is still full of light. But wait awhile; and the deepening of the twilight into the darkness of night will show how far Christ the Holy One of the Church’s confession can be dispensed with as the Sun of the spiritual world.
3. The third anchor whereby the twelve were enabled to ride out the storm, was confidence in the character of their Master. They believed, yea, they knew, that He was the Holy One of God. They had been with Jesus long enough to have come to very decided conclusions respecting Him. They had seen Him work many miracles; they had heard Him discourse with marvellous wisdom, in parable and sermon, on the divine kingdom; they had observed His wondrously tender, gracious concern for the low and the lost; they had been present at His various encounters with Pharisees, and had noted His holy abhorrence of their falsehood, pride, vanity, and tyranny. All this blessed fellowship had begotten a confidence in, and reverence for, their beloved Master, too strong to be shaken by a single address containing some statements of an incomprehensible character, couched in questionable or even offensive language. Their intellect might be perplexed, but their heart remained true; and hence, while others who knew not Jesus well went off in disgust, they continued by His side, feeling that such a friend and guide was not to be parted with for a trifle.
“We believe and know,” said Peter. He believed because he knew. Such implicit confidence as the twelve had in Jesus is possible only through intimate knowledge; for one cannot thus trust a stranger. All, therefore, who desire to get the benefit of this trust, must be willing to spend time and take trouble to get into the heart of the Gospel story, and of its great subject. The sure anchorage is not attainable by a listless, random reading of the evangelic narratives, but by a close, careful, prayerful study, pursued it may be for years. Those who grudge the trouble are in imminent danger of the fate which befell the ignorant multitude, being liable to be thrown into panic by every new infidel book, or to be scandalized by every strange utterance of the Object of faith. Those, on the other hand, who do take the trouble, will be rewarded for their pains. Storm-tossed for a time, they shall at length reach the harbor of a creed which is no nondescript compromise between infidelity and scriptural Christianity, but embraces all the cardinal facts and truths of the faith, as taught by Jesus in the Capernaum discourse, and as afterwards taught by the men who passed safely through the Capernaum crisis.
May God in His mercy guide all souls now out in the tempestuous sea of doubt into that haven of rest!
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