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THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD.
John, viii. 12.”—I am the Light of the world.”
THIS is one of those short, pregnant statements of our Lord characteristic of this Gospel, which impress us at once by their brevity, their beauty, and their largeness of meaning. Statements of a similar kind—of equal terseness and force—occur to every one: “I am the Good Shepherd.”131131 John, x. 11. “I am the Resurrection, and the Life.”132132 Ibid. xi. 25. “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.”133133 Ibid. xiv. 6. What divine audacity is there in such sayings! and how little can we suppose them to be the sayings of a mere teacher or prophet! They have no parallel in the words even of the greatest teachers. One and all imply something which the most powerful and enlightened, conscious of 210their own capacities to communicate truth or to do good, would scruple to arrogate to themselves. They might claim respect for the truth they speak, and summon man to attend to it with a voice of authority. But no human teacher merely would dare to make himself the centre of all truth, and the centre of the world. Yet this is what Christ expressly does. Not merely what He says is true or good—not merely are His words, words of authority. But He is Himself the source of all Divine knowledge and blessing. “No man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal Him;”134134 Matthew, xi. 27. “No man cometh unto the Father, but by me,”135135 John, xiv. 6.—texts from the first and the fourth Gospels which we have purposely brought together in order to show that whatever differences may otherwise characterise the Christ of St Matthew and the Christ of St John, in this respect they are alike, that they equally claim to stand before all others with God. They arrogate a pre-eminence which, if it has any meaning at all, is superhuman and exclusive. It is the same Divine voice which speaks in both—the voice of no mere Teacher, but of a Revealer211—one who is in Himself Light and Life. “I am the Light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”
Not only is the manner of the text peculiar—having in itself a divine emphasis—but the image of light employed in it is specially made use of in this Gospel to characterise our Lord’s work and mission. In a subsequent passage in the twelfth chapter,136136 John, xii. 46. He Himself again says, “I am come a light into the world.” And in the opening of the Gospel the mind of the Evangelist seems to dwell with a lingering fondness on the same conception of the Divine Logos of whom he speaks so grandly. “In Him was life; and the life was the light of men.”137137 Ibid. i. 4. “That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.”138138 Ibid. i. 9.
We may be sure that there is a fine propriety in the use of this language. It is not merely that light is the most beneficent element of nature, and therefore one of the most striking symbols of Divine goodness. This, no doubt, it is; and this general meaning is also summed up in the use of the figure by St John. Men have always acknowledged with thankful reverence the glory 212and the freshness of the dawn, and the bright circuit of the sun, “rejoicing as a strong man to run a race.” The rise of religious thought in its higher forms is everywhere associated with the clear heaven stretching in brilliancy or calm beauty over the earth, and quickening its bosom with life and movement and gladness. It was the splendour of the sun shining in his strength, and the moon walking in her brightness, which more than anything else in the early years of our race awakened the depths of wonder in the human imagination, and the secret of trust in the human heart; and while we deplore, we can understand the special worship of which they were the objects. All that man imperfectly or ignorantly signified by this worship, is no doubt present in the thought of the Gospel when Christ is spoken of as the “Light of the world.” All ideas of beneficence, of hope, of life, and of happiness in nature which had gathered around the great source of light, to the Jewish and other minds were embodied in the application of the symbol to Christ. He was thought of as an illuminating centre for the world of nature as of men—as the “day-spring from on high,” whose advent was to bless all creation.213
But here, as everywhere in Scripture, it is the moral meaning that is uppermost. Even the most beautiful conceptions of Nature-religion have little relation to the great realities with which the Gospel deals. The idea of light, long before the time of St John, had become spiritual in its religious application; and when Christ speaks of Himself as the “Light of the world,” it is no darkness of nature that He has in view, but the darkness that rests on men’s thoughts and life—the darkness that all true men feel more or less in themselves. Wherever men have risen to the power of thought, and are capable of looking “before and after,” there comes home to them a deep sense of their ignorance. Their outlook is fast bound on all sides; and “more light” is their instinctive cry amid encircling darkness, or a twilight of uncertainty more perplexing sometimes than darkness itself. They look upwards, and long that the day may break on their mental struggle, and the shadows flee away from their hearts. The outward light is not enough. The eye is not satisfied with seeing. There is the conscious need of a higher light than ever lit up sea or shore. The darkness of the world, in short, is a moral darkness, 214in which man is often unable to see his true way or choose his own good.
The words of Christ all refer to this spiritual circle of thought. If we ourselves know nothing of this deeper experience; if we are living the mere life of nature, and pleased with this life; if the darkness of sin and of doubt be no distress to us,—then we will find His words without meaning. The whole atmosphere of the Gospels will be strange to us; because everywhere in the Gospels His life stands as a light against a background of darkness—a strength and hope amidst weakness and misery. Men are pictured as ignorant, yet inquiring—as helpless, yet aspiring—as searching for a higher life, while unable themselves to find it. He is all they seek, and all they need. He is the answer of God to all hearts, moved by the unrest of sin or the search for truth,—upon whom there has come the burden of thought, or the self-sacrifice of duty, or the tenderness of sorrow, or the awe of death. It is this inner world of thought and of spiritual aspiration which Christ addresses,—a world where the vision reaches below the outward sense, and takes, in the mysteries of human existence—its pathetic blendings of failure and effort, of knowledge 215and ignorance, of joy and suffering—its hopeless yearnings, despairing cries, and baffled aims. To all who know anything of this world of spiritual longing, the voice of Christ is a voice of welcome and of unutterable meaning. “I am come a Light into the world, that whosoever believeth on me should not abide in darkness.”139139 John, xii. 46.
There was a special truth in our Lord’s words for His own time. Then the thoughts of men, both Jews and Gentiles, were deeply stirred by a spirit of unrest and inquiry. There were those “waiting for consolation” in many lands, and raising their eyes with a dumb or articulate earnestness to the heavens above them. The advent of Christ came as a response to this desire of all nations—as a burst of light amid prevailing darkness. Human thought was raised above itself, and moved forward in a path of clearer and higher knowledge. As the prophetic Scripture had foretold, speaking of our Lord’s coming, “The people which sat in darkness saw great light.”140140 Isaiah, ix. 2; Matthew, iv. 16.
It is not meant, of course, that there w T as no knowledge of Divine truth in the world before Christ. Apart from the fact of Old Testament Revelation, and the spiritual life which flourished 216within its circle, Christianity has no interest in depreciating the advances which men had elsewhere made in spiritual knowledge. Our Lord says nothing of these advances. His life nowhere touches at any clear point the tendencies of moral speculation, rife in His own day, or which had descended from an earlier age. Even those who take a purely human view of His character, and in this light have examined it most closely and brought its external features into the sharpest relief, have failed to connect Him definitely with any of the teachers in His own land. The wildest imaginations have not sought any point of connection between Him and Hellenic or Roman culture. He has nothing to say therefore of former philosophy or science or art. He lived and taught as if for Him these were not. Yet He has nothing to say against them, and His genuine doctrine is nowhere inconsistent with the fullest admission of their true claims.
Beyond doubt, men had learned much both of God and of duty before Christ. The higher literature of the ancient nations contain many glimpses of the Divine—many scattered truths which are of sacred meaning still, and which in many hearts may have served to lighten the 217darkness of the world’s mystery and sorrow. It is a poor piety which cannot afford to be generous to all truth-seeking souls, and to welcome light, from whatever quarter it may come. It is a true view which regards Christ as above all other teachers—standing alone in His simplicity and grandeur. Far more eminently than any other, “His soul was like a star, and dwelt apart.” But it is also a true view which regards Him as the fulfilment of all previous aspiration and spiritual quest,—in whom the thoughts of many hearts were revealed.141141 Luke, ii. 35. His star was seen not only in Bethlehem, but afar off in many lands. Many dreams of unconscious inspiration pointed to Him. He was “a light to lighten the Gentiles,” as well as the glory of Israel,142142 Ibid. ii. 32. He gathered into one focus not only the converging rays of the older Revelation, but the dispersed and vague hopes of God and of a higher life which had been brooding in many minds beyond its pale.
Let us admit to the full the value of all previous religious thought. This can hardly affect our estimate of the teaching of Christ. It remains, withal, singular in its power of illumination. If Philosophy raised its voice, summoning 218men to divine contemplation and heroic duty—if Alexandrian and Graeco-Roman culture sought to woo men to the practice of many forms of virtue—if Pharisee and Essene alike had their special ideal of the religious life,—yet how inadequate was the result! Nay, how inadequate was the ideal of one and all! To the common mind, which peculiarly requires the impulse and the strength of religion, the most aspiring culture was and could be nothing else than a dream. It remained unintelligible. It inspired no sustaining enthusiasm. It gave no life, and men were dead in trespasses and in sins. It gave no light, and men sat in darkness. It awakened no hope, and men were in the shadow of death. Then, as always, philosophy was for the few, and not for the many. It was eclectic, and not catholic. It was intellectual, and not spiritual. It was a speculation, not a life. Even if its light had been worth more, it had no power to reach the universal heart, and quicken it into spiritual movement. Say what we will for the highest forms of ancient thought—and the mind is dull or uneducated that is not moved by their sublimity, or touched by their insight and tenderness—yet it was a darkened world upon which the light of Christianity arose.219
It is a strange and grand retrospect, to look back on that second morning of the world, when there was proclaimed by angelic voices, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.”143143 Luke, ii. 14. “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.”144144 John, i. 14. After long preparation, yet with apparent suddenness, the Divine Teacher and Son of God came forth. From the quiet home of Galilee, and the streets of Jerusalem, the voice which “spake as never man spake” was heard in accents of celestial meaning. The light shone in darkness, “and the darkness comprehended it not.”145145 Ibid. i. 5.: There was no immediate response to the Divine message. There never has been. But the power of a new Revelation had gone forth into a few faithful hearts, and gradually its kindling fame spread till it became a visible lustre in the earth. Men and women felt moved by a fresh illumination of duty and of Divine impulse. God and life were set in a new meaning, and seen in a radiance of clearness. The “Sun of Righteousness” which had arisen in Judea shone forth in the east and in the west, quenching in its living light opposing 220darkness, and filling the world with a spiritual beauty, and a strength of triumphant goodness, unknown before.
How are we to explain this? What was there specially in Christ’s teaching that gave light to men’s minds and life to their hearts? To answer such questions fully would require many sermons. We can merely indicate now two comprehensive points of view in which the teaching of Christ has proved a light to human souls beyond all other light.
(1.) Christ revealed to us God in a new or at least more complete sense. He made clear in His own life and words the Divine idea, as no one had done before, and no one has ever done since. Men had been struggling with this idea from the first efforts of religious speculation. It was still unformed and imperfect. Outside of Revelation it fluctuated and took many shapes, now presenting itself as a multiplicity of Divine energies, with more or less coherence; and now retreating into a vague Absolute or Necessity, encompassing all being, but without thought or love for any. Polytheism more refined or more sensualistic, and Pantheism more or less abstract, divided the thought of the Gentile world. On the 221other hand, the idea of God had been to the Hebrews one of growing clearness. He was the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob—the God of Israel, who had given the covenant on Mount Sinai, who had led their fathers by the way of the wilderness into the promised land—a “jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation”146146 Exodus, xx. 5.—and yet also “the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity, and transgression, and sin”147147 Ibid. xxxiv. 6, 7.—a holy God, “of purer eyes than to behold evil,”148148 Habbakuk, i. 13. even a Father whose pitying mercy was able to measure all the depths of our weakness. “Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear Him. For He knoweth our frame; He remembereth that we are dust.”149149 Psalm ciii. 13, 14.
This sublime conception of the Hebrew mind was perfected in Christ. Every attribute of spiritual excellence was brought out into clearer distinction, and every element less exalted enlarged and purified. Hitherto the God of the Hebrews had remained too isolated and apart. 222With all their growth of religious intelligence—the voice of the Divine always breathing more clearly as we descend the course of their prophetic literature—there still clung certain restrictions to their highest conception. Jehovah was their God in some special manner—the Giver of their Law—the God of their Temple—who was to be worshipped in Jerusalem. They had difficulty in enlarging the Divine idea so as to embrace the human race,—in rising above local privilege and national prerogative to the thought of God as the spiritual Source and Guide of all men alike. Christ fixed for ever this great thought. “God is a Spirit,” He said; “and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.”150150 John, iv. 24. “Neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem,”151151 Ibid. iv. 21. was there any special virtue, so far as the Divine presence was concerned. This presence was universal and universally spiritual, embracing all life, claiming the homage and devotion, the faith and love, of all moral intelligence—the presence of the Father as well as the Sovereign of men.
The Divine idea was not only exalted in spirituality and comprehension, but moreover in moral beauty and tenderness. It had been 223especially hard for men to realise the idea of Supreme Goodness. There was so much evil and wrong in the world and in themselves, that they instinctively carried some moral as well as local limits into their conception of the Divine. Such limits appear more or less in the representations of Old Testament history. But in Christ they fall utterly away. All elements of vindictive jealousy, or of mere local protectiveness, disappear; and God, as at once Law and Love, Truth and Grace, shines forth with a lustre never to be dimmed. He is a just God and a Saviour—a God of Salvation by the very fact that He is a God of Justice—redeeming us because He loves us, but also because His righteousness demands our righteousness. Sinful and weak and miserable, we can not only fly to His pitying bosom, assured that we shall find “mercy to pardon and grace to help,” but “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”152152 1 John, i. 9. In this combination of spiritual perfection, the God of Christ is unapproached and unapproachable—the Sum of all truth and purity and love—perfect in goodness, because perfect in righteousness224—the supreme religious Ideal, whom all hearts may at once adore and love. As St John says elsewhere, speaking of the message transmitted to him by his Master, “God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.”153153 1 John, i. 5.
In all this clearer Revelation of the Divine, Christ proved Himself the Light of the world. Men’s thoughts were raised to God with a new confidence—with a clearer and brighter faith. The supreme Life became luminous to them as it never had been before—as it never is where the teaching of Christ is unknown or rejected. Let us cast aside His teaching, and the idea of God speedily again becomes obscure. Once more we sink into the old Pantheistic abstractions, or fall away from the conception of the Divine altogether, and seek to replace it by some ideal of the Cosmos or of Humanity itself. If Christianity is worn out, as some tell us, there is certainly no prospect of anything higher or better taking its room. Neither the audacities of Science nor the dreams of Positivism, nor the renaissance of a paganised culture, have been able to suggest any Ideal of comparable force or beauty to that with which Christ inspired the world more than eighteen centuries ago. No 225spiritual vision has ever equalled His, or is likely to do so. No light has since come to man before the splendour of which His is pale.
(2.) And this leads to the second aspect of this surpassing Revelation. Christ has not only made clear the idea of God, but the idea of man. The two ideas everywhere interchange, and react the one upon the other. The glory of Christ is, that He seized so clearly the spiritual essence of both, and set the great realities of the spiritual life in man in front of the Supreme Spiritual Reality, whom He revealed. There is nowhere for a moment any doubt in Christ as to what the true life of man is. He is here and now, a creature of Nature, like all other creatures; but his true life is not natural, like that of the fowls of the air or the lilies of the field. He is essentially a moral being, with relations beyond nature, and wants and aspirations and duties which connect him with a Divine or Supernatural order. From first to last this spiritual conception underlies the Gospels, and makes itself felt in them. There is no argument, because there is no hesitation. “Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?”154154 Matthew, vi. 25. The possibility of a negative answer is not supposed. 226The claims of the natural order, some have even thought, are unduly depressed. The spiritual life seems to overshadow and displace them. But this is only by way of emphasis, and in order to rouse man from the dreams of a mere sensual existence. “After all these things do the Gentiles seek”155155 Matthew, vi. 32.—those who know no better, to whom the meaning of the spiritual and Divine order has not come. “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”156156 Ibid. vi. 33. The spiritual must be held in its true place as primary; after this the natural has also its place, and to be recognised in addition.
But the great thought is, that man is the dependent of a Divine kingdom, everywhere transcending the visible and present world. God has made him in His own image, and loves him, however far he may have degraded that image and wandered away from Divine good. He claims man as His own—as rightfully belonging to the higher world of spiritual intelligence, of which He is the Head. And so Christ came “to seek and to save that which was lost.” Surely this is a higher conception of human life than that of either ancient or modern secularism—227a conception truer to the radical instincts of human nature, ever looking beyond the present, and owning the power of more than earth-born thoughts. From the fact of sin itself and a sense of wrong there comes a voice which speaks of something better—of a life akin to angels and to God. The very misery of man attests his greatness,157157 Pascal, Faugère’s ed., ii. s. 2. and that there is more in his life, which “appeareth for a little moment, and then vanisheth away,” than the experience of a day. Towards this thought the yearnings of all larger hearts, and the searchings of all higher minds, had pointed for centuries. It was the dream alike of Plato and of Cicero—of Egypt and of Persia. Hebrew Prophecy and Psalmody had grasped it more firmly as the Divine shone upon them more clearly. Yet withal it remained a comparative uncertainty before Christ. He, as no one before Him had done, held forth before men the conception of a higher life, greater than all the prizes of earth, and more enduring than all the accidents of time. That which was but faintly apprehended by Gentile philosopher, or even Jewish seer, was made manifest by the appearing and resurrection of our Lord, “who hath abolished death, and hath brought life 228and immortality to light through the gospel.”158158 2 Tim. i. 10. Or, as St Peter says in his first Epistle,159159 1 Peter, i. 3, 4. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which, according to His abundant mercy, hath begotten us again unto a lively hope, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away.”
If light ever shone upon a darkened world, it shone in this clear revelation of immortality, in the assurance and strength of which a corrupt and dying world rose to life again, and a new glory was shed upon human thought and history. What heart, upon whom the shadows of the world have fallen, that has realised the transitoriness of earthly joys—the depth and sacredness of human affection too often vanishing when wrought into the very substance of our happiness,—does not warm into a nobler being, in hope of an eternal life, where the weaknesses of the present shall be perfected, its broken ties reunited, and its wounds for ever healed? Apart from this hope, what is there but darkness around and before us—the closed grave within which our dear ones are laid, and a heart breaking with the memory of a love that can no 229more reach us? But if we believe that Christ died and rose again—that He is, as He Himself said, for us, and for all who believe in Him, “the Resurrection and the Life,”—then the light shineth for us even in the dark places of our pilgrimage, until the eternal day dawn, and our poor life, too—so marred and soiled with the weakness of the flesh—shall be glorified together with those who have gone before, and be for ever with the Lord.
The Divine Teacher who proclaimed and realised this undying hope for man, and fixed for ever the consciousness of a spiritual life—did He not truly say of Himself, “I am the Light of the world"?
Let us close with two remarks.
If Christ is the “Light of the world,” Christianity is always a religion of light. Obscurantism of any kind is foreign to it. It shuts out no real knowledge, no light of science, no beauty of art or grace of literature. It welcomes all truth. While we hold fast, therefore, to its living principles, let us never confound it with any mere scheme of human thought, or institution of human order. These schemes or institutions may have many claims upon our respect: so far as they commend themselves to our rational 230assent, let us refuse them no honour. But even the best ideas, and the best forms of the Church, of past ages, are not to be identified with Christianity itself. Opposition to them is not necessarily opposition to the Gospel. The abandonment of them is not necessarily abandonment of the truth that is in Christ. It is no part of an intelligent faith, therefore, to resist new ideas, or to shut itself obstinately within the enclosure of ancient traditions. Such a faith will respect the old, but it will be open to light from whatever source. So far as Christianity is true, it must be consistent with all other truth. It must accept all facts, whether these come to it from within or from without. It need fear no hostility from real science, and it will rejoice that the thoughts of men grow more luminous as to the Divine order of Nature or the growth of human opinion and history. If there are ancient dogmas at variance with the genuine advance of knowledge, the enlightened Christian will be ready to part with these dogmas. But having the witness of the higher life in himself, he will never let this witness go. He will hold to the consciousness of a Divine order made clear in Christ. All that is beautiful and heroic in humanity, all the lights of truth and duty that 231have shone in it from the first, are here brought together. Any higher light that is in me witnesses to the “Light of the world.” And looking backwards on the past and forwards into the future, who can see anything so capable of blessing man truly or guiding him wisely and well?
And let us, finally, remember that a religion of light should be always a religion of living earnestness. If Christ is “the Light of the world,” “he that followeth me,” He adds, “shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” Have we, then, this light of life? Does our light shine before men, that others, seeing our good works, may glorify “our Father which art in heaven"? Do we not rather, some of us, walk in darkness, and love it, because our deeds are evil? Let us not deceive ourselves. We cannot have the light and yet abide in any darkness of sin. Let us, therefore, cast off the works of darkness, and put on the armour of light. Let us show the reality of our faith by the devotion and fruitfulness of our love. Then the truth of the higher life will need for us no argument. It will be seen in the power of goodness working in us, and in the beauty of a holiness that subdues all hearts. Amen;232
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