J. Gresham Machen D.D., Litt.D.
“And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching
in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom,
“Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.” (Matthew 28:20)
IN the synagogue at Capernaum there was a new teaching. He speaks, they said, as one having authority, and not as the scribes. There, we are sometimes led to believe, is the origin of the religion we profess. “Give us that authority, and we can banish speculation. Jesus taught a way of life; let us walk in it and leave speculation to the philosophers. Jesus seemed to have no fear of the inscrutable power that rules the world; let us simply walk in His footsteps and be equally fearless.” A simple programme, and one that seems full of promise! But there is one trouble with it — it does not work.
A mere ideal is not enough
The imitation of Jesus has never yet been carried out. As a mere ideal, Jesus is insufficient. Inadequate, first of all because of the very nature of an ideal. An ideal must of necessity be insufficient, if it be made the sole basis of life. Even this matchless ideal is insufficient; it often leaves us without guidance. True, Jesus enunciated some very far-reaching principles; put the Sermon on the Mount into practice, do as well as hear, and society will indeed be founded on the rock. But the process of application is often very difficult. Modern life is complex. Whole departments of life seem to be neglected in the words of Jesus. What about man’s relation to the state? “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”? A pregnant saying, but surpassingly difficult to apply! Is the modern state to be treated like Caesar? What about art? Jesus did not despise it, for He spoke the parables. But what place should it have in human life, and how is it to be related to morality and to religion? And, to come nearer home, what of the nameless, concrete problems of individual life? Study the ethical principles of Jesus all you please, and still you will often be in hopeless perplexity. As a mere ideal — let us say it bluntly — as a mere ideal, Jesus is simply insufficient. And as an ideal, He is also powerless. The ideal is one that can never be attained — because of human weakness. A strange fact, but an undoubted one; a fact of experience! When we wish to do good, evil is present with us. Sin is no mere collective name for a chance succession of wrong actions, but a mighty unitary, spiritual power of evil. In the presence of it, we are helpless; it drags us back into the mire; it obscures the blessed vision with a black pall of despair. To talk about an ideal to a man under the thralldom of sin is a cruel mockery.
Jesus the healer
As a mere ideal, Jesus is insufficient. But He never was content to be a mere ideal. And none of His contemporaries thought of Him as such. True, in that synagogue at Capernaum, they did think of Him as an ideal, as an example; they marvelled at His teaching. He spoke as one having authority and not as the scribes. But that was not the only cause of wonder. “He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him”! From the first, Jesus appeared not merely as a teacher, but also as a healer; He brought not merely guidance, but active help; He had not merely authority, but also power.
Jesus the great physician! The great healer of every sickness and every infirmity! The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear. And this cure of bodily ills was but a sign and proof and seal of the healing of the soul. He who said, “I will, be thou clean,” said also, “Thy sins are forgiven thee.” Jesus the healer of souls! God knows, we need Him still. When past sins rise up to mock our best endeavours, when our strength is sapped by the power of evil, when our lives seem to be a hopeless tangle, unlike anything that was ever seen before, escape shut off on every side, regret and remorse staring us in the face whichever turn we take, a strange miserable hopeless puzzle, beyond our own comprehension and far beyond our own power to help — we need a healer. We need one who knows us better than we know ourselves, one who can untangle the snarl of our lives, who can apply a healing touch to the dreadful wounds of the soul, and set us forward in some new, strong, healthy life.
He lived so long ago
A healer — where shall we find Him? A few men and women found such a one long ago in Palestine. A paralytic borne of four — “Child, thy sins are forgiven thee.” A publican sitting at the receipt of custom — ”They that are whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.” A demoniac among the tombs, whom they found sitting clothed and in his right mind. A sick woman, who touched His garment — ”Daughter, thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace.” These, somehow we are sure of it, received peace. They found a healer.
But we! Where shall we find him? This Jesus of Nazareth died these nineteen hundred years ago. And there is none to take His place. Compare with Him the men of the present day, even the best of them, and we are in despair. For the people of ancient Galilee, life’s problem was easy; they needed only to push in through the crowd or be lowered through some Capernaum roof, and the long search was over. But we are separated by nineteen centuries from this One who alone could give us aid. How can we bridge the gulf of time that separates us from Jesus?
Now some people regard it as a very simple matter. “Jesus is not dead,” we are told, “He lives on through His recorded words and deeds. We do not need even to believe it all; even a part is sufficient; the wonderful personality of Jesus shines out clear from the gospel story. Jesus may still be known. Let us simply — without speculation, without theology — abandon ourselves to His spell, and He will heal us.”
There is a certain plausibility about that. It may readily be admitted that Jesus lives on in the gospel record. In that narrative, we see not merely a lifeless picture; we receive the impression of a living person. We can still share the astonishment of those who listened to the new teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. We can sympathise with the faith and devotion of the little band of disciples who would not leave Him when others were offended at the hard saying. We feel a sympathetic thrill of joy at the blessed relief which was given to men who were sick in body and mind. We can appreciate the wonderful love and compassion of Him who was sent to seek and to save that which was lost. A wonderful story indeed, not dead, but pulsating with life at every turn!
We are only spectators
The Jesus of the Gospels is a real, a living person. But that is not the only question. We are going forward far too fast. Another question remains. Jesus lives in the Gospels. But we of the twentieth century, how may we come into vital relation to Him? There is the real question. He died nineteen hundred years ago. The life which He now lives in the Gospels is simply the old life over and over again. And in that life we have no place; in that life we are spectators, not actors. The life which Jesus lives in the Gospels is, after all, for us but the spurious life of the stage. We sit silent in the playhouse, and watch the absorbing gospel drama of forgiveness and healing and love and courage and high endeavour. In rapt attention we follow the fortunes of those who came to Jesus labouring and heavy-laden and found rest. For a time our own troubles are forgotten. But suddenly the curtain falls, and out we go again into the cold humdrum of our own lives. Gone are the warmth and gladness of an ideal world. “In their stead a sense of real things comes doubly strong.” We are no longer living over again the lives of Peter and James and John. Alas, we are living our own lives once more, with our own problems and our own misery and our own sin. And still we are seeking our own Saviour.
Let us not deceive ourselves. A Jewish teacher of the first century can never satisfy the longing of our souls. Clothe him with all the art of modern research, throw upon him the warm deceptive calcium-light of modern sentimentality, and despite it all common sense will come to her rights again, and for our brief hour of self- deception will wreak upon us the revenge of hopeless disillusionment.
Living on a memory
But, says the modern theologian, are we not, in rejecting theology, in being satisfied with the historical Jesus, merely restoring the simplicity of the primitive gospel? No, we answer, you are not, but you are not so very far wrong. You are really returning to a very primitive stage in the life of the church. But that stage is not the “Galilean springtime”, for in Galilee men had a living Saviour. There was one time, and one time only, when the disciples lived, like you, merely on the memory of Jesus. When was it? It was a gloomy, desperate time — it was the three sad days after the crucifixion. Then and then only did Jesus’ disciples regard Him merely as a blessed memory: “We hoped that it was he which should redeem Israel.” Shall we remain forever in the gloom of those sad days, or shall we pass out from them to the warmth and joy of Pentecost?
Faith in a risen Lord
Let us not deceive ourselves. We shall remain forever in the gloom unless we take one decisive step. We may have joy for sadness and power for weakness. But not by easy halfway measures, not by compromise with the wisdom of the world, but only by a divine radicalism, only by one stupendous act of faith. What was it that within a few days transformed that humble band of mourners, after the crucifixion of Jesus, into the spiritual conquerors of the world? History is relentlessly plain. Whatever it was, it was not the memory of Jesus’ life. That was a source of sadness, not of joy. It was one thing, and one thing only: It was the message, “He is risen”.
That message is despised today. Science, flushed with conquest, grown over-bold, would relegate it to the limbo of discarded fancies. Even the church would do without it. Jesus is dead, we are told, but we must treat Him as though He were alive. An heroic effort! To it have been devoted the resources of modern scholarship. But a failure! Despite it all, the power of the church, under such treatment, is slowly but steadily declining. And no wonder. False sentimentality is no conqueror. If Jesus is dead, He must be treated as dead. This question must be faced: Give Jesus up, or believe that He rose from the dead. It is not easy to believe; the resurrection can no longer be accepted as a matter of course. Against it are arrayed mighty resources of modern culture. Traditional, secondhand faith is rapidly being swept away. Faith, in this age, must be of sterner stuff. If it is retained by ignoring facts, it may be useful to the individual, but it will never conquer the world. But there is another kind of faith. Faith that does not ignore the findings of modern science, but supplements them. Faith that sweeps away the superficial technicalities of research, and faces the persistent, underlying facts — the fact of sin; the sinless, unearthly character of Jesus; His mysterious self-consciousness; the testimony of the disciples; the empty tomb; the very origin of the Christian church; the glories of Christian experience. Attend to these facts, and you will believe in the resurrection. It is not easy to believe. And we need not regret it. An easy faith would never conquer the world. The resurrection can at least no longer be accepted as a commonplace thing. If a fact, it brings us today as never before into naked connection with the ultimate mystery. Faith is no longer easy to attain. But once attained it is doubly worth a battle.
But how can we find Him?
If we believe that Jesus rose from the dead, we can have hope. A Saviour lives! But the religious problem of our lives has not yet been solved. An historical conviction of the resurrection of Jesus is not the end of faith, but only the beginning. If faith stops there, I fear it will never stand the fires of criticism. Jesus lives. But what good is it to us? We are like the inhabitants of far-off Syria. The fame of Him has gone abroad; there was a prophet in Galilee who could heal every ill of body and mind, and we arc told that He still lives. But, alas, we are not with Him, and the way is far. Jesus lives. But that is not enough. He lives, and we are told that He has healing for us. But before we can be healed we must find Him.
How shall we find Him? There is the problem. You and I who live today, how shall we find that Jesus who lived and died and is declared to live again. Surely it is not so very plain. We cannot find Him in crowded houses or by the lake-shore or in desert places; we cannot be lowered through the roof into any room where He sits amid scribes and Pharisees. If we employ only our own methods of search, we shall find ourselves on a never-ending, fruitless pilgrimage. Surely we need instruction.
And in the New Testament we find instruction, full and free. What, in a word, does the New Testament say about the way of approach to Jesus?
In the New Testament, a strange fact stares us in the face — the New Testament seems far more concerned with the death of Jesus than with the details of His life. Learned men have tried in vain to explain that curious fact; in long and weary treatises they have sought the explanation. But the explanation is really so simple that a child can understand it. The New Testament emphasises the death of Jesus because that is what Jesus did for us. In the account of the details of Jesus’ life, we are told what He did for others. That account is indeed absolutely necessary, so necessary that it is always presupposed; without it we should never have become interested in Jesus at all. But it is to us a means to an end, not an end in itself. We read in the Gospels what Jesus did for others. For one He placed His fingers in the ears, and said, “Be opened;” to another, “Arise, take up thy bed and walk;” to another, “Lazarus, come forth;” to another, “Thy sins are forgiven thee.” These things are what Jesus did for others. But what will He do, or what has He done, for us? The answer of the New Testament is plain. For us, He does not say, “Arise and walk”. For us, He did a greater thing; for us, He died. That mysterious thing that was wrought on Calvary, that was His work for us. The cross of Christ is a mystery. In the presence of it theology walks, after all, with but trembling, halting footsteps. Learning alone will never unlock its meaning. But to the penitent sinner, though mysterious, though full of baffling riddles, it is plain enough. On the cross Jesus dealt with our sin. Our dreadful guilt, the condemnation of God’s law — it is wiped out by an act of grace. It seemed absolutely inseparable from us; it was a burden no earthly friend could bear. But Christ is master of the innermost secrets of the moral world; with Him all things are possible; He has accomplished the impossible; He has borne our sin!
But through whom does He apply His healing touch? Through no one, save His own Spirit. Christ needs no intermediary, for He is here Himself. By His resurrection and ascension He has entered, with silent footsteps, into the lives of every one of us. He is no longer, as in Galilee, bound by limitations of time and space. “The Lord is the Spirit.” We need not stir from where we are; we need not even bow our heads in prayer. If we are really seekers for Him, then this moment our search is over.
And as we go forth, our lives will be different. True, we shall have only the same guides as before — the same Bible, and in the life of Jesus the same ideal. But the ideal was insufficient before, and powerless. Now it is all-sufficient, and more powerful than all the forces of the adversary. We had the ideal before, but were unable to interpret it; now we have a living Teacher. We had the ideal before, but could not put it into practice; now we have a Helper. The modern theologians are right in looking to Jesus of Nazareth for the inspiration of life and the foundation of society. But not to a Jesus who is dead. Look to the Sermon on the Mount for the supreme guide of your life; it is sufficient for all needs; it is sufficient for the most complex of modern problems. But not as a mere code of law. Hear the Sermon on the Mount, and your life, will be founded on the rock. But hear it, not from a dead teacher, but ever anew from the crucified and risen Lord.
Our lives have been different since Jesus entered in. But one dreadful doubt assails us. Jesus has carried us far. But has He carried us all the way? He has helped. But we had other helpers too. We had other helpers, but they left us dissatisfied. Jesus has done more than they. But has He done all? Jesus of Nazareth seems to belong after all to this earth. And what of the dread thought of infinity?
We are so small
Reflections on the nothingness of human life are often rather dull; they clothe themselves readily in cant. But if a thing is true, it cannot become false by being hackneyed. Man is imprisoned on one of the smaller of the planets; he is enveloped by infinity on all sides; and he lives but for a day in a pitiless procession. The things in which he is interested, the whole of his world, form but an imperceptible oasis in the desert of immensity. Strange that be can be absorbed in things which from the vantage-ground of infinity must seem smaller than the smallest playthings.
It cannot be denied. Man is a poor finite creature; he is a denizen of the earth. From one point of view, he is very much like the beasts that perish. Like them, he lives in a world of phenomena; he is subject to a succession of experiences, and he does not understand any one of them. Science can observe; it cannot explain. When it tries to explain, it becomes laughable. Man is certainly finite. But that is not the whole truth. He is not only finite, for he knows that he is finite, and that knowledge brings him into connection with infinity. He lives in a finite world. But he knows at least that it is not the totality of things. He lives in a procession of phenomena. But to save his life he cannot help searching for a first cause. In the midst of his trivial life, there rises in his mind one strange and overpowering thought — the thought of God. It may come by reflection, by subtle argument — from effect to cause, from the design to the designer. Or it may come by “a sunset touch”. Back of the red, mysterious. terrible, silent depths, beyond the silent meeting-place of sea and sky, there is an inscrutable power. In the presence of it we are helpless as a stick or stone. As helpless, but more unhappy — unhappy because of fear. With what assurance can we meet the infinite power? Its works in nature are horrible in the infliction of suffering. And what if physical suffering should not be all, what of the sense of guilt? What if the condemnation of conscience should be but the foretaste of judgment? What if contact with the infinite should be contact with a dreadful infinity of holiness? What if the inscrutable cause of all things should turn out to be, after all, a righteous God.
This great beyond of mystery — can Jesus help us there? Make Jesus as great as you will, and still He seems insufficient. Extend the domains of His power far beyond our ken, and still there is a shelving brink with the infinite beyond. And still we are subject to fear. The mysterious power that explains the world, still it will sweep in one day and engulf us and our Saviour alike. We are of all men most miserable.
Our Saviour is divine
We had trusted in Jesus. He carried us a little on our way, and then left us helpless as before, on the brink of eternity. There is for us no hope; we stand defenceless at length in the presence of unfathomed mystery, unless — a wild, fantastic thought — unless this Jesus, our Saviour in whom we had trusted, were Himself in mysterious union with the eternal God. The puzzling sentence in Philippians, “Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God”; the strange cosmology of Colossians, “who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: for by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: and he is before all things, and by him all things consist”; the majestic prologue of the Fourth Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”; the mysterious consciousness of Jesus, “All things are delivered unto me of my Father: and 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”, “I and my Father are one.” These things have been despised as idle speculation, as “theology”.
In reality, they are the very breath of our lives. They are the battleground of theologians; the church hurled anathemas at those who held that Christ, though great, was less than God. And rightly! That difference was no trifle. There is no such thing as “almost God”. The thought is blasphemy. The next thing less than the infinite is infinitely less. If Christ be the greatest of finite creatures, then still our souls are restless, still we are seekers after God. But now is Christ, our Saviour, our Champion, the same who says, “Thy sins are forgiven thee,” revealed as very God. And we believe! It is the supreme venture of faith; faith can go no higher.
In Him all things are ours
Such a faith is a constant mystery to us who possess it; it is ridiculed by those who have it not. But, if possessed, it overcomes the world. In Christ, all things are ours. There is now no awful beyond of mystery and fear. We cannot explain the world. But we rejoice now that we cannot explain it. To us it is all unknown. But it contains no mysteries for our Saviour. He is on the throne. He is at the centre. He is the ground and explanation of all things. He pervades the remotest bounds. In Him all things consist. The world is full of dread, mysterious powers. They touch us already in a thousand woes. But from all of them we are safe. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
This sermon is taken from a volume entitled God Transcendent published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, of Grand Rapids, Michigan.