Great Texts of the Bible
An Advocate with the Father
My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye may not sin. And if any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the whole world.—1 John 2:1-2.
1. There is an Oriental courtesy which will present you with whatever you may happen to admire, and yet would be dumbfounded if the offer were taken seriously. Do we not often regard the large promises of the Bible as offers of this kind? We do not take their words at their face value. We regard them as depreciated currency. And the reason is partly that we as Christians rightly assume that we have the right to use the language of the New Testament; but as our experience is not equal to the greatness of the words, we tone down the meaning of the words to make it level with our experience. We read, for instance, of “joy unspeakable and full of glory,” of “peace that passeth all understanding”; but since we know no such experiences, we conclude that they are not to be known; that such words are not to be taken literally; that they are instances of a conventional religious exaggeration; that they may become true in the future; that if they have ever been true, it was only in Apostolic times. Anyhow it would be absurd to expect to find them true now.
So it is that we are apt to treat this text. Its language is very bold and strong. St. John seems to say that if only we rightly use what he tells us, we shall be freed from all sin. It is a claim which sounds as extravagant as if a doctor should claim to have found a panacea for all disease. “I write unto you that ye may not sin.”
2. Perhaps we might say (though we must not abuse the saying) that St. John had two pictures in his mind as he described the Christian life, the one, the ideal Christian, the other, the actual believer. Think of an artist standing before a great picture which he is painting. He has two visions of it—one on the canvas and the other in his own mind. That on the canvas is imperfect; the outlines are there, but the colouring is inharmonious; the expression is feeble, the life is wanting, and the subduing power which belongs to a great work has yet to be created. Not so the vision in the mind, that is perfect. The forms are finished, every part is complete in itself, and right in its relation to every other; the colours mingle and agree like notes in sweetest music, and the picture as a whole is instinct with life, and clothed with beauty and grandeur. Now suppose the artist were to sit down to write a description of this picture. Looking at the canvas, he would speak of the imperfections of the work; but gazing upon the vision within, he would write of its completeness, power, and majesty. This is just what St. John did. Looking upon the actual Christian he spoke of sin, confession, pardon, and spiritual warfare; but while doing this the vision of the ideal hovered before his mind, and he wrote: “He sinneth not—he cannot sin.”
There was one department of human life which was strange and unfamiliar to Westcott, and in which he moved with rare and doubtful steps. It was the world of sin. He told us little about it. It was alien to him. Why pry into it, or analyze it, or explore it? He loathed it; and passed it by, wherever it was possible. He preferred to uplift the ideal, and leave it to work its own victory. If the sun were but up, would not the night, by that very fact, have departed? Somehow, that dark world is more tenacious and persistent than he quite allowed for. When his Archdeacons presented to him the carefully collected case of an Incumbent who had broken every Commandment, he dismissed it on the ground (so it was reported) that his category of humanity refused to admit the existence of such a sinner. As the terrible facts of his northern towns forced themselves upon his notice, he became more vividly aware of the awful volume of evil. But still, however deeply this disturbed him, it did not provoke him to examine more closely the conditions of sin. It remained a perturbing misery rather than an intelligible experience. His purity of soul recoiled from its mystery, and still sought for refuge in asserting the Ideal. This accounts for a certain white intensity of optimism which characterizes his writings, and which keeps them slightly aloof from things as they are. We wonder, as we read, whether he has quite taken the full measure of the facts. We sometimes feel as if the atmosphere were too fine to live in, and as if the springs of human motive were left untouched. There is no scathing light suddenly let in, to lay bare the secrets of the soul, such as flashes from the pages of Newman’s sermons. We are not brought up to judgment at the awful bar. This work was not for him. Rather it was his to persuade us that all things were possible with God; that evil was an alien thing, and might be done away; that human nature had the impulse in it of eternity; that the entire body of humanity was moving towards its redemption in Christ Jesus.1 [Note: H. Scott Holland, Personal Studies, 137.]
3. St. John is not making terms with sin, first setting up deliverance from sin as an ideal, and then admitting that after all sin will be actual. St. John is here making further provision against sin. If one sin excluded us for ever from God’s fellowship, and for ever thrust us back into the outer darkness, we would be hopeless indeed. It would not be worth our while to rouse ourselves to any effort to escape sin. But it is not so. We have an Advocate, and a Propitiation that abundantly prevails. And so, too, we can deal with all that mass of sin which we feel as a crushing weight on us, or see as a barrier excluding and shutting up our approach to God.
4. Notice, further, that he addresses the whole Church of God. “My little children”—it is the language of venerable age. The writer had lived long; sixty years at least had passed since he beheld the Incarnate Glory, the glory of God in the face of Christ. It is the language of ineffable love. He had lived so near the heart of love that he had become impregnated and saturated with it. He might be old, but that was young; he might be weak, but that was strong; his mind might be giving way beneath the pressure of age and infirmity, but the eyes of his heart were as clear-sighted as in the days when he first beheld Christ on the shores of the lake. It is the language of great authority. At the feet of this man other inspired teachers might have been prepared to sit. We can imagine that many of the minor prophets of the Old Testament, for instance, would have been glad to form a class around this venerable man, whose head had leaned upon the bosom of Christ, and who had known Him face to face. Sitting in his chair at Ephesus, or speaking from the Isle of Patmos, he addresses the entire Church of every country, as he says, with the weight of venerable age, with the tone of ineffable love, with the accent of invincible authority—“My little children.”
The text may be divided into three parts—
I. The Peril.
II. The Pleader.
III. The Plea.
Though the aim of the Apostle was to lead men into the truth, so that they might not sin, he knew that this could not be accomplished by a stroke of magic. It was a moral achievement to be brought about by moral means. And so there might be momentary failure. Sin crouched at the door, and the Accuser was always ready to drag the culprit into Court. There was provision, however, against the peril.
1. The form of the verb in the Greek requires us to understand not a continuance or living in habitual sin, but committing an act of sin. St. John has no uplifting message for the man who lives in the unrestrained practice of sin. This he calls “walking in darkness.” Such a life of habitual sin is expressed by the present tense of the verb, suggesting continuance, as in chap. 1 John 3:6; 1 John 3:8. To be overtaken by a temptation and to fall into sin—a sin which is repudiated by all that is deepest in him, a sin which he at once hates and mourns, is a very different thing, and is expressed by a tense which suggests an act, not a habit. He who so falls may be sure, from the Word of God, that he has One standing by the throne to plead for him, who presents the atonement, not on behalf of the habitual, unconcerned, or half-repentant, half-persistent sinner, but of him who says from his grieved, penitent heart, “I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.”
2. Now sin in the believer has two aspects, that of direct and positive violation of known duty, and that of coming short of God’s glory—a deficiency in that perfection of love, of tireless consecration, of joyous realization of obedience to God’s holy will, which characterized our Lord. When the Apostle says that he writes to his little children in the faith, that they may not sin, it is clear that it is to the first of these that he refers. There is provision in the redemption of our Lord Jesus Christ, in virtue of which we are delivered from all known sin, and kept by the power of God, through faith, from things which we once wrought without shame or remorse. But at the close of a day in which we have realized that keeping power to the uttermost, who is there of us that is not aware of having come short of the glory of God? We might have been more earnest and devoted and single-hearted. And in all this we need the forgiveness and cleansing of our Heavenly Father.
Of Mrs. Bellamy Gordon’s stories of her childhood one remains in my memory because of her manner of telling it. “My love, I once did something for which I feel I can never be forgiven. When I was very young my father was in charge of the Coastguard, and we lived at Portpatrick, and I went to a dancing-school at Stranraer with the children of the neighbouring gentry. But on the great day, once a year, when all the world came to see us dance, the children of the townspeople joined our class. There was among them one little boy with golden curls whom we all admired very much, but he always chose to dance with a pretty little girl, the child of a shopkeeper in the town. I think the master must have been a bit of a flunkey, for he said, at the opening of the exhibition, “Now, little Missie Gordon may choose her partner.” I looked for the boy with the golden curls: he was standing beside his little partner, and—oh, my dear!—I carried him off, and she cried; and I don’t see how I am ever to be forgiven!”1 [Note: Mrs. E. M. Sellar, Recollections and Impressions, 246.]
3. The more sinless men become the more do they hate sin. The greatest outpourings of agony over sin have not come from vicious and gross sinners when they were converted, but from the lips of the holiest in God’s Church. Just as discord in music gives little pain to the unmusical but intense pain to the musical, so sin gives little pain to sinful people. Just as discord in music becomes more and more painful as we get a better ear for harmony, so sin becomes more and more painful as we grow holier and approach nearer to the harmony of the Divine life. Thus it is that the most heartfelt expression of agony for sin comes from the best Christians in the world. Blemishes that were not noticed when we were far from God “become lit up with torturing clearness when we approach the ineffable light of Him whose stainless beauty casts the shadow of failure on all that is not Himself, and who charges His very angels with moral folly.” And as men grow more Christlike they realize more and more the curse of that alienation from God, which is the worst consequence of sin.
Before me lies a faded manuscript in the handwriting of a Puritan scholar, containing notes of his conversations with “that holy primate of Ireland, Doctor James Ussher, in the year wherein he died.” Early in that year he paid a visit to the writer, who made humble request to him that he would give him on paper his thoughts touching the mysteries of justification and sanctification, and obtained his promise to do so. A few months later he visited him again, but without the promised document, and said in apology for his failure, “I did begin to write, but when I came to do so of sanctification, that is of the new creature that God forms by His Spirit in every soul which He doth in truth regenerate, I found so little of it wrought in myself that, apprehending I should write but as a parrot speaketh, by rote, and without knowledge, I durst not presume to do so.” A few days later still, in the moment when this meek and holy servant of Christ left the world, the attendant, who saw his lips tremble and bent over to catch the whisper of his last breath, heard it pass away with the prayer, “God be merciful to me a sinner.”1 [Note: C. Stanford, Symbols of Christ, 317.]
O God of the Sunlight sweep away,
The memory of that evil day,
That drags me down to death:
Wash me, and draw me up above,
Cleanse me in Thine own cleansing love,
With Thine own quickening breath:
Make me one with the endless sea;
One with the wind on the rain-drenched lea—
One with Thee—God of Love.2 [Note: D. Mountjoy, The Hills of Hell, 21.]
Jesus Christ is our Advocate, our Paraclete, the One called by God Himself to our side in our hour of extremity.
In the literature of devotion the Holy Spirit is frequently styled “the Paraclete.” The name is nowhere found in our English version of the Bible, yet it is Scriptural, being a transliteration of the Greek word which is rendered “Comforter” in St. John’s Gospel (John 14:16; John 14:26, John 15:26, John 16:7) and “Advocate” in his First Epistle (1 John 2:1); and, understanding that the latter is the right rendering, we discover a wealth of profound truth in these passages.
In the days of His flesh Jesus was God’s Advocate with men. He told the Eleven in the Upper Room that, though He was going away, God would not be left without an Advocate on the earth to plead His cause and win men to faith. “He shall give you another Advocate, that he may abide with you for ever; even the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16-17). The Holy Spirit has come in the room of Jesus, and still from age to age performs the office of God’s Advocate with men. But the advocacy of Jesus has not ceased. He is our Advocate in Heaven, pleading our cause with God.
1. Our Advocate is in the place of influence and power. We have an Advocate with the Father. That is no mere proposition, no mere indication of place. It is a mystic term, standing for something too deep for human language. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God;” not just a position, not neighbourhood, not place, is the primary thought, but an ineffable relation of oneness. “The Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And so we have an Advocate with the Father. “I and the Father are one.” The advocacy of our blessed Saviour is not felt by the Eternal Father to be a presentation from without; it is not an external pressure thrusting itself against God to move Him to our aid. The advocacy of Jesus Christ throbs within that bosom of the Father wherein the Son of God for ever is.
The language is figurative. It calls up to our minds the familiar figure of the ordinary intercessor, who pleads for some petitioner, and gets some indulgence for him, which the granter would not have conceded, but for the influence thus brought upon him to change his previous decision. Such a conception might apply to the Homeric and Virgilian ideas of Jupiter, alternately besought by Juno and Venus on behalf of Greeks or of Trojans, but it has no place outside of heathen mythology. Jesus Himself warned His disciples against so thinking of God, telling them that the Father knew their needs, and could be depended on much more than earthly parents to hear His children’s prayer. He went further. After He had said, “I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, even the Spirit of truth,” He added, as if to exclude the notion that His prayer would be the inducing motive with the Father, “I say not, I will pray the Father for you, for the Father himself loveth you.”
2. Our Advocate is righteous in character. He is “Jesus Christ the righteous.” He is at once God our righteousness and humanity righteous through God in it. Jesus Christ is both parts or sides in the unity of God and man, both gratia gratians and gratia gratiata, the Divine grace that graces or confers, and the human grace received and shared. The human righteousness of Jesus Christ, which alone is or can become ours, was humanly both received and wrought by Himself: it was a righteousness alike of perfect faith and of perfect obedience. It was a righteousness of which His “blood” was the sole condition, and is the only symbol. Nothing short of that perfect attitude towards sin which is death at once to it and from it, and that perfect attitude towards holiness which is the life of God Himself in us, constitutes the righteousness that Jesus Christ was, and the righteousness that He gives. His blood was not only His own actual death to sin, it must be no less ours also.
When Sir Walter Raleigh, involved in a network of malice, had been brought to trial for high treason, and unjustly condemned to die, his mind turned from the thought of the earthly court, in which he had suffered vile insult and cruel wrong, to the thought of the court in heaven; from the king’s attorney here to Him whom he called “the King’s Attorney” there; and on being ferried from Westminster to that dark cell in the Tower, which has often been visited with hushed footsteps and hushed breath, he wrote, by lamplight, these words:—
From thence to heaven’s bribeless hall,
Where no corrupted voices brawl,
No conscience molten into gold,
No forged accuser bought or sold;
No cause deferred, no vain-spent journey,
For Christ is there, the King’s Attorney.
And when the grand twelve-million jury
Of our sins, with direful fury,
’Gainst our souls black verdicts give,
Christ pleads His death, and then we live.
Be Thou my Speaker, taintless Pleader,
Unblotted Lawyer, true Proceeder!
Thou giv’st salvation, even for alms,
Not with a bribed lawyer’s palms.
This, then, is mine eternal plea,
To Him that made heaven, earth, and sea.
In language so grand in its truth, and so touching in its antique simplicity, did the great Englishman give his reason for trusting Jesus, and declare his resolution to commit his misrepresented cause into His hands alone.1 [Note: C. Stanford, Symbols of Christ, 297.]
3. He has knowledge and sympathy. It has happened before now, even in forensic history, that an advocate has felt forced to relinquish his brief, in consequence of some unexpected disclosure that made proceeding with the case a course that would hurt his self-respect, or compromise his reputation. Secrets have come to light in the life of a child that have silenced even a mother’s advocacy, and made love itself confess that it had no more to say. But we never need fear that for reasons like these Christ will abandon our cause, or fail in our defence. Before we confide to Him a single secret His acquaintance with our whole life is intimate and perfect. What was said of Him by the beloved disciple holds true for ever, He “needed not that any should testify of man, for he knew what was in man.”
H. M. Stanley, in Africa, had much trouble with his men on account of their inherent propensity to steal, the results of which brought upon the expedition much actual disaster. At last Stanley doomed to death the next man caught stealing. His grief and distress were unbounded when the next thief, detected in a case of peculiar flagrancy, was found to be Uledi, the bravest, truest, noblest of his dusky followers. Uledi had saved a hundred lives, Stanley’s among the number. He had performed acts of the most brilliant daring, always successful, always faithful, always kind. Must Uledi die? He called all his men around him in a council. He explained to them the gravity of Uledi’s crime. He reminded them of his stern decree, but said he was not hard enough to enforce it against Uledi. His arm was not strong enough to lift the gun that would kill Uledi, and he would not bid one of them do what he could not do himself. But some punishment, and a hard one, must be meted out. What should it be? The council must decide. They took a vote. Uledi must be flogged. When the decision was reached, Stanley standing, Uledi crouching at his feet and the solemn circle drawn closely around them, one man whose life Uledi had saved under circumstances of frightful peril, stood forth and said,” Give me half the blows, master.” Then another said in the faintest accents, while tears fell from his eyes, “Will the master give this slave leave to speak?” “Yes,” said Stanley. The Arab came forward and knelt by Uledi’s side. His words came slowly, and now and then a sob broke them. “The master is wise,” he said; “he knows all that has been, for he writes them in a book. I am black, and know not. Nor can I remember what is past. What we saw yesterday is to-day forgotten. But the master forgets nothing. He puts it all in that book. Each day something is written. Let your slave fetch the book, master, and turn its leaves. Maybe you will find some words there about Uledi. Maybe there is something that tells how he saved Zaidi from the white waters of the cataract; how he saved many men—how many, I forget; Bin Ali, Mabruki, Kooi Kusi—others, too; how he is worthier than any three of us; how he always listens when the master speaks, and flies forth at his word. Look, master, at the book. Then, if the blows must be struck, Shumari will take half and I the other half. The master will do what is right. Saywa has spoken.” And Saywa’s speech deserves to live for ever. Stanley threw away his whip. “Uledi is free,” he said. “Shumari and Saywa are pardoned.”
4. He never wearies. He is our Advocate continually. In this respect He presents a contrast to the Levitical priesthood. That priesthood passed from one to another as death removed the successive occupants of the office. But Christ abideth for ever, and there is no interruption to the continuity of His mediation. Unbroken it prolongs itself from age to age, unchanging in its character, and unintermittent in duration. For He is made a priest, “not after the law of a carnal commandment, but after the power of an endless life.” It is not, then, on the fact of a past atonement, but on the power of a living Saviour, that our safety depends. No doubt the past atonement is essential to the efficacy of His priesthood, but still it is not the Cross that is the object of faith, nor any one event in the history of the incarnation, but Christ Himself who “was delivered for our offences, and raised again for our justification.” To believe in a fact is one thing, but to trust in a living person is another. That Christ died would be of no use to us, if He were not alive now, and alive, so to speak, more mightily than He ever was before. Other men death removes from their intercourse with the world. It brings their direct influence and agency to an end. But death did not so affect Him. It produced no change in His activity, except to widen its range and intensify its energy. And now the whole of His priestly functions are taken up, and absorbed in this one attitude or act of intercession.
1. Why is a plea needed in the Court of Mercy?
(1) The claims of a Father’s heart have to be satisfied.—God is righteous, and He observes the due relations in which He stands to us, and we have to observe the relations in which we stand to Him; but He is a Father, and we are His children, and what God wants as a Father—to put it into a word—is the answer of love. Taking that word in its comprehensive sense, implying all that it involves, what God asks from us is the life of love. What God has hungered for through all the ages is what we faintly hunger for as we look upon our children. What we have to satisfy and to expiate is not the anger of a dishonoured Deity, but the hungering and unsatisfied heart of a Father. The anger of a dishonoured Deity may be fierce, though any flame will burn itself out to ashes in the long-run; but the heart of a Father that has never yet drained to its depths the full cup of children’s love—that is the central pain of the universe, and it is the throb of that hunger and thirst that moves through all created things. The inner truth of this world of man as it is, is that the heart of God has gone unsatisfied, lonely, starved. “Righteous Father, the world knew thee not.” There is God’s agony; there is God’s pain. There, if you want the word, is man’s debt—the debt we shall never make up, the love we have failed to give since the world was born.
(2) The claims of justice must be met.—God is not only Father, He is sovereign; sin is rejection of His law, rebellion against His majesty, and its forgiveness must be in harmony with law and the inviolable claims of His throne. Before God can receive back the sinner there is wrath to be averted in some way by which righteousness shall be equally honoured with mercy. And man needs such propitiation too; his moral sense must be satisfied in any adequate redemption, ceaseless sacrifices at innumerable shrines witness to the conviction that God must punish sin, and to those who read His word and see what He has said that conviction becomes invincible. Divine love would deserve no reverence, did it ignore righteousness.
Righteousness must be vindicated, and then grace becomes sure. Righteousness must be satisfied, and then eternity becomes heaven! The law must be made honourable, then the Gospel will be given to us, with the assurance of eternal permanence—but not without.1 [Note: J. Parker.]
2. Christ’s plea is His propitiation. This is, so to speak, the basis on which it proceeds, the great argument which makes it conclusive. And what can make it more so? It is true our sins cry out for vengeance, but Christ’s blood cries still louder for mercy. And its cry continues sustained, penetrating through all obstructions, resistless, clear, never failing to enter into the ears of God. It speaks more mightily than that of Abel. As the blood of the first martyr refused to be covered, but uttered its voice from the ground, and brought down sure judgment on the guilty, so, and with a still greater certainty, will Christ’s blood plead for us, in spite of all our sins and their attempts to overbear it, till it wins its desired result—a result that includes not only pardon but all that His sacrifice was offered to secure. And as the sacrifice was perfect, so will be its plea. As it made an end of sin so it has abolished all that withstands and imperils the attainment of its end.
(1) It is a sufficient plea.—The propitiation was the mercy-seat—the golden slab which, according to the Divine prescription, covered the ancient ark. It would, therefore, be of the same size as the tables of stone deposited within, and be encrusted with the blood of innumerable days of Atonement. When Jesus is said to be a propitiation, we are taught that His perfect obedience to the will of God measures and overlaps the full demand of God’s holy law, whilst His precious blood has atoned for our sins.
(2) It is an all-embracing plea—“for the whole world.”—In Christ all mankind rendered obedience to that law, and suffered beneath its penalty. All mankind, therefore, in that act was redeemed from the incidence of Adam’s sin. Topsy, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, says: “Why should I be punished? I never ate that apple!” Certainly; neither Topsy nor any one else will go to hell because Adam ate that apple; for whatever loss accrued to the race from that act of sin has been more than made good by the act of righteousness of the One Man Jesus Christ.
Why, then, is the world in darkness? Suppose an Act of Parliament capable of conferring great benefits on the working class, and out of which they may contract themselves. The Act may be rendered quite inoperative. So men by their sin may contract themselves out of the benefits of Christ’s death. Our Lord tells of a man who had been forgiven, but shortly after took his brother by the throat, and insisted that he should pay him what he owed. In that act he cancelled his own forgiveness, and his lord directed that he should be given over to the tormentors till he should pay all the original debt. So, by their wilful rejection of Christ, men may contract themselves out of the benefits of His work on their behalf. The sin of which the world is guilty since the great sacrifice for sin has been made is the sin of rejection—“because they believe not on me.”1 [Note: F. B. Meyer, In the Beginning God, 188.]
An Advocate with the Father
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Christian World Pulpit, lviii. 100 (Macdonald); lxxiv. 202 (Aveling).
Church of England Pulpit, lxiii. (1908) 414 (Maturin).