John 21:22 The Individuality of Duty
John 21:22
Great Texts of the Bible
The Individuality of Duty

Jesus saith unto him, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? follow thou me.—John 21:22.

1. This is the last recorded dialogue between Peter and Christ, and it has a special and a touching interest from the fact that it is so. How many and how varied these dialogues had been, and how rich and how vivid the instruction they contain! They form a magazine of truth in themselves, and had we no other fragments of Christ’s life handed down to us than the narrative of His dealings with Peter, we should still have a tolerably full indication both of the doctrine He intends us to believe and of the duty He commands us to practise. And now the revelation was wound up, and the interviews themselves were to cease. Whatever further talk the Lord had with Peter, “something sealed the lips of the evangelist”; for with these words before us his record ends.

Could there be a more fitting and consistent close to the whole? It is the same Peter who speaks, tender-hearted and impulsive as ever, with a trace of the old leaven not yet purged. It is the same Christ, too, who answers him, true to the message and unaltered in the character He had revealed from the very first. “Follow me,” He said three years before by the lakeside where Peter was plying his toils, unaware of the destiny that awaited him. And now, after all that had come and gone, when faith had been strengthened by experience, and the cord of love that had first drawn the heart after Christ had become a fast firm cable, wrought through long days of fellowship and common toil, there, at the self-same spot where Christ called His disciple before, He calls him again, reminding him, as He does so, that the omega of his life is the same as its alpha, even the duty of personal discipleship, the word “Follow me.”

2. When Jesus had said “Follow me,” Peter turned about and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following. At once he put the question, “Lord, and what shall this man do?” Christ’s answer is our text.

Now it is not easy to determine with any certainty the spirit in which that question was asked, or the meaning of the answer it received. Some have imagined that Peter, fancying from Christ’s silence regarding the beloved disciple, that his course would be free from those fiery troubles which had just been foretold for himself, inquired, with a kind of envious dissatisfaction, respecting the destiny of John. This explanation, however, seems incredible. We must remember that the thrice-repeated question, “Lovest thou me?” had only just thrilled on his ear, awakening solemn memories of his thrice-repeated denial. We must remember that Christ had suddenly revealed the future, and indicated a martyr’s death as his lot in the day of his old age. We must bear in mind that Peter possessed that generous impulsive nature which would prompt a man under excitement to forget his own sorrows in unselfish devotion to his friends. And then, remembering that from the recent conversation with Christ, his heart must have been quivering with the emotions of love and sorrow, it is hard to conceive that one feeling of jealous discontent could have suggested this inquiry.

Most probably the question sprang from earnest anxiety regarding John’s destiny. It may even be that Peter, having at length learned the glory of sharing the Saviour’s cross, was concerned lest his brother disciple should not have the honour of following so closely in his Master’s sufferings as himself. Mingled with that would be the anxious feeling which men of Peter’s ardent and unselfish nature ever cherish regarding the future of a friend. It is easier for such impetuous souls to trust their own lot in God’s hands than that of their brother; they can accept sorrow more calmly for themselves than view its advent for another. And in this spirit of unselfish devotion—rising even to restless curiosity regarding the Divine plan—it probably was that, gazing on the beloved disciple Peter forgot the picture of his own martyrdom in his solicitude for John.

3. Christ’s answer contains three statements—

I.  The duty of following Him lies on every one of us—“Follow thou me.”

  II.  The manner of the following rests upon His will and our individuality—“If I will that he tarry till I come.”

  III.  We are warned against needless curiosity or anxiety—“What is that to thee?”

I

Following is for All

“Follow thou me.”


This is the Lord’s command to each of His disciples. We have heard His voice saying “Come unto me,” and now He says, “Follow thou me.”

1. Notice how comprehensive is this command. It includes every other requirement and precept of the Gospel, and it calls into action every power and faculty of our renewed being.

(1) It means follow with the heart.—This is no mere external compliance, no mere outward conformity to our blessed Master’s will. It is the service of the heart. The force that is brought to bear on the disciple is not that of compulsion, but of attraction. “Draw me, we will run after thee” (Song of Solomon 1:4). No man can follow Christ whose heart has not been won by Him. “Whereas ye were servants of sin, ye became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching whereunto ye were delivered” (Romans 6:17, R.V.). It is neither the terrors of the law nor the fear of a judgment to come that enables us to respond to this command. It is the attraction of Divine love that is the power. The Lord Himself must be the loadstone of our hearts.

Every question was among some of his friends an open question. Strauss and Comte, Mill and Bentham, Coleridge, Carlyle, and Maurice appear as factors again and again in the discussions of that time. But nothing seems to have disturbed his balance; “his heart stood fast.” His habit of obedience to his mother, and his intense affection for her, had insensibly passed into strict obedience to conscience. Perhaps one of the chief lessons of his early life is that this affectionate obedience is the soil in which faith flourishes.1 [Note: Frederick Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, i. 54.]

(2) It means follow in faith.—Following is often like stepping out on the unseen. It is often like walking on the water. We could never venture out without a Divine warrant. But He who granted it to Peter when He said “Come!” gives us the same warrant when through the darkness and the trial He says, “Follow thou me.” This needs the courage of faith. Without faith we could not take a single step, for it is an impossible walk except to him that believeth. The stepping-stones of faith are the promises of God. “But supposing I have no faith,” says one; “what am I to do?” Don’t think of believing at all. Think of Him who bids you follow Him. Hearken to His voice. In other words, listen to His written Word: “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17).

Can you picture it at all? The church is built by the natives—walls of nipa palm spines, and thatched roof of palm leaves, floor of bark—two doorways on each side, and one at each end, and plenty of square openings for windows. We have no church members here yet, but we think of the Moffats, and feel encouraged. They were fifteen years working at one station and not one member, and yet she asked a friend to send her a communion service, and directly after it arrived they needed it.1 [Note: James Chalmers, 337.]

(3) It means follow with the will—Our wills must be in this following, or it means nothing. All true obedience begins, not in the outward action, but in the inward spring of all activity; that is, in the will. We must will to do His will, if we would follow Christ. We become obedient within, before we are obedient in the outward act. The moment for action may not have arrived, but the time for willing to be obedient is always present.2 [Note: E. H. Hopkins.]

The wish to disobey is already disobedience; and although at this time I was really doing a great many things I did not like, to please my parents, I have not now one self-approving thought or consolation in having done so, so much did its sullenness and maimedness pollute the meagre sacrifice.3 [Note: Ruskin, Praeterita, i. 424.]

2. Notice how difficult it is. Against us are the efforts of our great spiritual adversary. He is constantly on the watch with a view to hindering God’s children in their progress. But this, let us never forget, is not without God’s permission. It is His will that our following of Him should be, not apart from obstacles, but in the midst of them, in spite of them.

The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.1 [Note: G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World.]

(1) There are alluring attractions—earthly objects and pursuits that appeal to our natural inclinations. Some of them are perfectly harmless in themselves, but when they are yielded to, we discover afterwards that they have lowered our spiritual tone, and robbed us of our strength. And so we have been impeded in our progress.

Progress is marked by stations left behind. If we follow Jesus, we go somewhere, which means leaving some place. Journeying with the breast to the East means with the back to the West. The disciples left their boats and nets when they followed Jesus. What has our following cost us? What selfish plans, worldly projects, doubtful amusements, dangerous companionships, are behind us for the King’s and the kingdom’s sake? We sing, “Jesus, I my cross have taken, all to leave and follow Thee,” but another hymn brings the thought to a sharp point, “Have I left aught for Thee?”2 [Note: M. D. Babcock, Thoughts for Every-Day Living, 25.]

“As for the pleasures of this Life, and outward Business, let that be upon the bye. Be above all these things, by Faith in Christ; and then you shall have the true use and comfort of them,—and not otherwise.” How true is this; equal in its obsolete dialect, to the highest that man has yet attained to, in any dialect old or new!3 [Note: Carlyle, Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches, ii. 136.]

(2) Then there are perplexing problems.—Perhaps we are troubled as we look around upon the sufferings of our fellow-creatures. We think of the multitudes living in darkness and degradation, not only in heathen lands, but in our own Christian England. We are unable to fathom the mysteries these questions suggest. Or, it may be, we are perplexed by the objections of sceptics to the truth of Holy Scripture. We are unable to find an answer to these things. What is the remedy? Look to the Master, who says, “What is that to thee? Follow thou me.” We must rest in His wisdom, we must confide in His faithfulness, and, without waiting to question or to speculate, we must be prompt in our obedience, and follow Him.

All the great mysteries are simple as well as unfathomably deep; and they are common to all men. Every Christian feels them less or more.1 [Note: Memoir of John Duncan, 403.]

(3) Then there are distracting cares—the things that belong to the ordinary business of daily life. Some of these are very common matters, and perhaps very trivial, but God’s children, when they carry them, find them a serious hindrance to their progress. It is quite possible to be so overburdened by care that we cease to follow Christ. We must learn the secret of committing all into His hands daily if we would know what it is to follow the Lord fully.2 [Note: E. H. Hopkins.]

“Acts of obedience are not perfect, and therefore yield not perfect Grace. Faith, as an act, yields it not; but ‘only’ as it carries us into Him, who is our perfect rest and peace; in whom we are accounted of, and received by, the Father,—even as Christ Himself. This is our high calling. Rest we here, and here only.” Even so, my noble one! The noble soul will, one day, again come to understand these old words of yours.3 [Note: Carlyle, Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches, iii. 190.]

There is a beautiful old tradition, done finely into verse by one of our poets, that, during the demon-raging fury of the Neronic persecution, Peter, visiting the harried flock at Rome, who nevertheless were undaunted in their brave stand for the Name of Christ, was one day waited upon by the threatened Christians, who urged him to leave the city of death, that he might continue, in less dangerous places, to carry on his apostolic work.

Not in yon streaming shambles must thou die;

We counsel, we entreat, we charge thee, fly!

The Apostle protests that his place is the place of danger, and that, come what may, in Rome he will remain. One by one they plead—for the sake of multitudes who will be as sheep without a shepherd, for the Kingdom’s sake, for Christ’s sake—that Peter, though for himself not caring, yet, as caring for others, may seek safety in flight. At last he yields—yields to their importunity. He goes forth, in the night-time, through the Capuan gate. Stealthily, swiftly, he pursued his way

To the Campania glimmering wide and still,

And strove to think he did his Master’s will.

But he fights with pursuing doubts. Is his flight cowardice? or is it for the sake of longer-continued testimony? Is he still true to the voice which said, “Follow thou me”? Soon shall he have his answer. What is that vision of the night?

Lo, on the darkness brake a wandering ray:

A vision flashed along the Appian Way.

Divinely in the pagan night it shone—

A mournful Face—a Figure hurrying on—

Though haggard and dishevelled, frail and worn,

A King, of David’s lineage, crowned with thorn.

“Lord, whither farest?” Peter, wondering cried.

“To Rome,” said Christ, “to be re-crucified.”

Into the night the vision ebbed like breath;

And Peter turned, and rushed on Rome and death.1 [Note: T. F. Lockyer, Seeking a Country, 101.]

II

The Manner of Following is for the Individual

“If I will that he tarry till I come.”


The first thought is that it is the duty of us all to follow; the second is that the manner of following rests upon His will and is made to suit our individuality. To the anxious Peter, Christ declared that John’s course was to be different from his own. By the words, “What is that to thee,” He emphatically indicated a distinction—implying by them that he should go his own way and leave his brother’s cause in His hands. The one was to labour, the other to wait. The one was to preach the Gospel throughout the world, and be summoned to heaven by the sufferings of martyrdom, the other was to watch in long banishment the coming again of the unseen Saviour when the old economy should fall, and then in peaceful old age to pass to the eternal home. All this marked difference of destiny by which they were each to follow the Saviour is contained in the reply, “If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?”

1. Christ appoints a separate experience for each of His followers. “Lord, what shall this man do?” “What is that to thee?” No words could mark more emphatically the great difference which was henceforth to exist between the paths of those two men who had hitherto followed Christ side by side. They seem to express a kind of impassable solitude in which each man was to live. John could not lead the life of Peter; Peter could not fulfil the destiny of John. In different and lonely ways they were each to travel till the end should come. The life of Peter was to be action crowned by suffering, the life of John a patient waiting for the manifestation of Christ—there, in the difference between labouring and watching, lay the difference in their respective courses. Now, if we contemplate the distinctive characters of these two men, we shall find its Divine meaning. Each course was beautifully adapted to train their individual characters, and to fit them for their individual work.

What could be more appropriate as a close to the life of Christ than such a picture as this, which opened out such a view of the Church’s mission, as waiting and yet working, as suffering and yet serving? The great difficulty in the mind of Peter was how to reconcile the two, so that they might live and act harmoniously together. This difficulty was to be solved in course of time, when the days of trial and persecution came on the Church. Then it was seen that something more was needed than suffering and service; they would have to “tarry” or wait in patient expectation for the coming of Christ. In this way, the waiting spirit, the spirit of John, came to be more and more developed in the Church; and in proportion as it becomes developed, so ought the active spirit, the spirit of Peter, to make a corresponding advance. And thus the two sides of the Church’s life will advance in harmonious union, until, by the discipline of suffering, and service, and patience, it is perfected in every part.1 [Note: D. Merson, Words of Life, 223.]

2. The discovery of our own particular path is found in the revelation of His will which God makes to us. “If I will that he tarry.” To follow Christ is, like Him, to obey whenever God’s will is clear; to be patient like Him when it is dark. And this is a rule which applies to all circumstances, and one which can be obeyed in defiance of all results. There are circumstances to which no other law applies; under which no experiences of other men can help us. The only course at such times is to act at once under such light as we may possess. Do the duty that is nearest to you. Follow Christ in His perfect, unmurmuring obedience, and as you follow, a fuller light will come. It may be that your duty is not to act, but to be patient: if so, forget not that “they also serve who only stand and wait.” And to follow Christ is to do God’s will and challenge results. When that will is clear, we have no right to look at consequences. The command to Peter was a command to challenge all issues, although “another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not, follow thou me.”

There is one way for thee; but one; inform

Thyself of it; pursue it; one way each

Soul hath by which the Infinite in reach

Lieth before him; seek and ye shall find:

To each the way is plain; that way the wind

Points all the trees along; that way run down

Loud singing streams; that way pour on and on

A thousand headlands with their cataracts

Of toppling flowers; that way the sun enacts

His travel, and the moon and all the stars

Soar; and the tides move towards it; nothing bars

A man who goes the way that he should go;

That which comes soonest is the thing to do.

Thousand light-shadows in the rippling sand

Joy the true soul; the waves along the strand

Whiten beyond his eyes; the trees tossed back

Show him the sky; or, heaped upon his track

In a black wave, wind heaped, point onward still

His way, one way. O joy, joy, joy, to fill

The day with leagues! Go thy way, all things say,

Thou hast thy way to go, thou hast thy day

To live; thou hast thy need of thee to make

In the hearts of others; do thy thing; yes, slake

The world’s great thirst for yet another man!

And be thou sure of this: no other can

Do for thee that appointed thee of God;

Not any light shall shine upon thy road

For other eyes;

Thee the angel calls,

As he call others; and thy life to thee

Is precious as the greatest’s life can be

To him; so live thy life and go thy way.1 [Note: Richard Watson Dixon.]

III

Be Not Too Curious or Anxious

“What is that to thee?”


In these words there seems to be conveyed to us a warning against unnecessary curiosity or anxiety about the lot of others, and in general about the providence of God. Peter’s anxiety typifies the impertinence of curiosity, the impatience of ignorance, in things sacred, which has been the temptation of Christians in every age. The rebuke is the Master’s protest against indulgence in this spirit. Energetic work in the present, not idle speculation about the future, is the parting charge which He gives to His chief disciple, and through Him to His whole Church so long as time shall be.

There are several occasions in the Gospel narrative on which a temper near akin to this was checked and corrected by our blessed Lord. Two of them are recorded in the thirteenth chapter of St. Luke. “Tell me not” (He would there say) “of those Galileans whom the cruel Pilate ordered to be massacred while they were engaged in sacrifice; or of those eighteen inhabitants of Jerusalem, upon whom the Tower of Siloam fell, and slew them; tell me not of these, as though you would seek to pry into the judicial dealings of God’s providence towards them; but look rather to yourselves, and be assured of this, that except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” And again, “Ask me not, in a spirit of unprofitable curiosity, or of self-righteous estimate of your own condition, whether there be few, or many, who are to be saved; but ask this rather of your own consciences—are ye striving to enter in at the strait gate? for many, I say unto you, shall seek to enter in and shall not be able.”

1. Our Lord did not mean to arrest the spirit of legitimate inquiry.—Curiosity is the parent of knowledge. Peter’s question concerning the future reserved for his friend seems to have been prompted partly by affection, but partly also by curiosity. Both instincts belong to our essential human nature. When God created man, He breathed into him an inquiring spirit, and made him eager to explore the mysterious world which spreads round about him, and to search out whatever things are hidden and unknown. Urged by this great impulse, the captains of adventure forced their way through forest and wilderness, and steered by the stars across an uncharted sea. And every lad who is worth his salt still tingles at times with the ancient longing to wander in strange lands, that he may discover for himself what treasures they conceal. It is the same imperious desire that has gathered the facts of science and framed the systems of philosophy. As Cudworth quaintly puts it: “The sons of Adam are now as busy as ever himself was, about the tree of knowledge of good and evil, shaking the boughs of it and scrambling for the fruit”: and people who pride themselves on being neither philosophical nor scientific betray this elemental instinct of curiosity in double measure in regard to everything which is human or which deals with humanity.

I am reminded, by one who was present, of a scene when some Americans were announced, seeking an interview, “What is it you want?” she [Jenny Lind] asked, standing very erect. “Oh, Madame Goldschmidt, we hoped to have the pleasure of seeing you, and making your acquaintance.” “Well, here is my front!” Then (with a whisk round), “There is my back. Now” (with a deep curtsey) “you can go home, and say that you have seen me!” After her visitors had crept out abashed, she was very penitent for having been at all rude. But she could not endure any impertinent curiosity; and it was always a perilous experiment to introduce a stranger to her, lest she should suspect some motive in the introduction, when her coldness would be freezing.1 [Note: H. Scott Holland, Personal Studies, 23.]

2. Jesus did not desire to discourage sympathetic interest in the welfare of others.—It would be strange indeed if He did, He, who in word and act preached the principle, “Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.” Yet it may be one thing to say, “What shall I do for this man?” and another, and a very different one, to ask, “What shall this man do?” In the first case, the question turns upon present duty, in the second it turns upon future events. The former word raises the thought of a responsibility that is mine, the latter intermeddles with a care which is really not mine, but God’s. And in every such case, as we pass from what is practical to what is curious, and let the thoughts turn from the matters of personal duty to the mysteries of Divine administration, the Saviour refuses to lift the veil, saying, “Hitherto shalt thou come and no farther. The secret things belong unto God, but the things that are revealed belong unto thee to do them. Askest thou, What shall this man do? What is that to thee? Follow thou me.”

We are not to suppose that the doctrine of altruism is a gospel peculiar to the enlightenment of more modern times; there is a Christian altruism that is far more ennobling and radical than anything to which infidel ethics has given the name. Here, as elsewhere, the ideas with which it is hoped to supersede the Bible have been drawn from the Bible itself, as if the voice could be silenced by the echo, and the substance be banished by its own pallid shadow. We grant it all. But if the question be a question of what is spiritual, if it be a question between the keeping of your own soul unspotted on the one hand, and the doing of some imagined service for your neighbour on the other, then remember that Christ says, “What is that neighbour’s state unto thee?”—what is it, that is to say, in these particular circumstances, under these particular conditions?—“Follow thou me!” Personal holiness is the main thing, personal discipleship, personal salvation. It is your first duty to save your soul, and that not for your own sake merely, but for the sake of a God who has given you the trust, and asks it back from your hands by a right which is peculiarly His own. Why do I say these things? Because there is a class of literature and of sentiment at the present day that exalts the doctrine of love and self-sacrifice towards our neighbour to the extent of attempting to enlist admiration when love and self-sacrifice lead to sin for his sake. No, in the matters that pertain to the soul, its welfare and safe-keeping, one’s own cares come first. And to give them anything else than the first place is to become practical idolaters by the preference of a neighbour’s claim to God’s.1 [Note: W. A. Gray, The Shadow of the Hand, 149.]

Men speak too much about the world. Each one of us here, let the world go how it will, and be victorious or not victorious, has he not a Life of his own to lead? One Life; a little gleam of Time between two Eternities; no second chance to us forevermore! It were well for us to live not as fools and simulacra, but as wise and realities. The world’s being saved will not save us; nor the world’s being lost destroy us. We should look to ourselves: there is great merit here in the “duty of staying at home!” And on the whole, to say truth, I never heard of “worlds” being “saved” in any other way. That mania of saving worlds is itself a piece of the Eighteenth Century with its windy sentimentalism. Let us not follow it too far. For the saving of the world I will trust confidently to the Maker of the world; and look a little to my own saving, which I am more competent to!1 [Note: Carlyle, Heroes and Hero-Worship, 163.]

Thomas à Kempis tells us that

If you could let men go their way,

They would let you go yours;

and he adds:

We might have peace, great peace,

If we would not load ourselves with others’ words and works,

And with what concerns us not.

How can he be long at rest

Who meddles in another’s cares,

And looks for matters out of his own path,

And only now and then gathers his thoughts within him?2 [Note: Lord Avebury, Peace and Happiness, 342.]

3. We must be concerned for others but we may be over-anxious.—Some men, of ardent, energetic temperament, seem to have very exaggerated ideas of the extent of their responsibility. They seem to live only to keep all other people straight. No heresy can anywhere be broached, but they must rush to the front and expose it. No iniquity can anywhere be practised, but they must drag it into the light to condemn it. God made them keepers of their own vineyards, but they spend all their time in looking after other men’s vines. Unquestionably there is something noble in this temper; but there is something quixotic too; and Christ seems here to teach that He imposes upon no man such a responsibility. The world is sadly full of evil, scepticism, infidelity, superstition, immorality, on every side. What, then, am I as a Christian to do? Simply to obey my Master’s command, “Follow thou me,”—protest assuredly, where a protest must be made to clear oneself of all complicity with sin; protest where a protest is needed to save a brother, and to put a wrong-doer to shame; but before all that, be thou a true disciple, whoever may be false; be thou thyself a holy example of justice and mercy and purity and truth, though all the world should be only a sweltering mass of impiety, and impurity, and wrong.”

I was once sitting in a room where I had to wait for half an hour before a meeting, and by the fire was sitting a poorly clad, rather wretched-looking, old man, gently moaning at intervals. I asked him if anything was the matter, and he said, “No; I was only just thinking what a deal of trouble it takes to get the world right and to keep it right.”1 [Note: Sir Wilfrid Lawson, 222.]

One man is a missionary perhaps in some foreign land; he is alone, one Christian among thousands of heathen, and he would fain know what will become of all these. Another is labouring single-handed as a parochial minister in the midst of a thronging town population whom his words never reach and never can reach; and he asks in dismay what shall be the end of all these. If he picks up one soul here and another there out of the seething mass of ignorance and vice, it is all that he can hope to do. To his faithless questioning the rebuke is addressed, “What is that to thee? Thou hast a work to do; thou hast a message to deliver. Thou knowest that thy message is truth, and because it is truth, therefore it is salvation. This is enough for thee. Execute thy task to the best of thy power, and leave the rest to Me.”2 [Note: J. B. Lightfoot, Ordination Addresses, 165.]

4. Peter’s question is often the question of vain speculation about the purposes of God.—It cannot be otherwise than that His deep purposes should be hidden, for He is God, and His designs cannot be scanned and measured by human wisdom. “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God; how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out,” said one very near to the heart of God. So does He manifest His independence to the will and the counsel of His creatures. It is the glory of God to conceal His purposes. “Who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor?” Such concealment is adapted to our condition. By it He trains us to submission; He promotes within us humility, He awakens us to constant ceaseless vigilance; He inspires diligence in our daily living; by gradually removing the cloud from His throne, He makes a constant revelation of truth. Well said Robinson, “There is a new light in God’s word that is yet to break out.” Who knows all the mysteries contained in this volume? Eternity will not be long enough for the full development of all that was in God’s thought, God’s heart, when He inspired this Book. But still there are among us men who are curiosity-mongers about the purposes of God. They will have all God’s depths to be shallows rather than confess their own inability to fathom all mysteries with their own reason.

In my student days I had a very intimate friend, who was pre-eminently successful in gaining prizes by written competition. So surely as he went in for any particular subject, whether classics, philosophy, or mathematics, he came out first. In the general work of the classes and in the recitations he did not appear to be any better than his neighbours; but at a written examination he was “facile princeps.” At the end of our course I asked him to explain this to me, and he revealed his secret thus: “You take the questions in the paper as they come; hence, if the first question is a very hard one, you spend, perhaps, the whole time allotted for the paper upon that; but when I get a paper into my hand, I read over all the questions, pick out those that I see I can answer at once, and then having disposed of them, and made sure that they will count, I go on to the harder ones. I pass through the plain ones to the difficult, and I take care always to do the one before I attempt the other.” There was great wisdom in the plan, and in the college of life more of us, I imagine, would come out prizemen at the last, if we were to let the hard things of speculation alone, at least until we have performed the plain duties which our Saviour has set before us. But if this be so with the “hard” things, how much more does it hold of those things which are insoluble by mere human reason. Yet how many there are among us who make difficulties, for the existence of which they are not responsible, and for the removal of which they are incompetent, a reason either for their refusing to follow Christ, or for following Him only afar off.1 [Note: W. M. Taylor, The Limitations of Life, 66.]

(1) There are the mysteries of God’s Providence. How often are we completely at our wits’ end what to make of them. When we begin to inquire into the meaning of this or that occurrence, we get no reply. We meet with things that baffle explanation in our everyday life. The good are taken away, and the wicked left; strong men are cut down in the midst of their days and usefulness. We see communities visited with the most appalling calamities, young and innocent lives taken away in one fell disaster. We see the rising hope of a happy home laid low by the ravages of death, and the weak and feeble spared to a lingering old age. We can scarcely open a newspaper without reading of sufferings and fatalities that make the heart bleed. These things are mysteries to us. We try to explain them, but our explanations are often as perplexing as the mysteries themselves.

That old debate which waxed so hot between Job and his friends in the far land of Uz has emerged anew in some form or other in every individual heart and in every successive generation. It has never received fuller or more exhaustive treatment than it had at the hands of these Eastern sages. Yet virtually they left it where they found it. Jehovah appeared to them at the close asserting His sovereignty, and claiming His right to veil Himself in clouds and darkness. He asked them to confide in His wisdom, and to leave the matter in His hands. And what farther can we get than that? We are not responsible for the government of the world. It is not ours to sit upon the throne. We may well leave the vindication of God’s workings to God Himself. He will take care of His own honour. Meanwhile for us there is the lowlier province of working out our own salvation with fear and trembling, under the assurance that “it is God who worketh in us, to will and to do of his good pleasure.” To us the gospel has been preached, and for the use we make of that we shall be held to account. To us the Saviour has said, “Follow me,” and for the answer we give to that earnest call we shall be responsible.

The saintly Robert Leighton—sometime Bishop of Dunblane (of whom, as I am his unworthy successor in the Episcopate of that See, so I would wish to be indeed his follower, even as he was of Christ)—that holy Bishop has a sermon upon this text—preached before the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, November 14, in 1669—in which, speaking of the state of things as it existed in this country two hundred years ago, he exclaims: “Ah! my brethren, the body of religion is torn, and the soul of it expires, while we are striving about the hem of its garment.” Alas! there is too much reason still for the same complaint. We are still far too much inclined to place speculation before practice, to place knowledge before virtue; to be curious about the future rather than to be careful for the present; to be inquisitive about others rather than to be well acquainted with ourselves. How few of us are there, it is to be feared, who could appeal to God in those beautiful sentiments expressed in the 131st Psalm: “Lord, I am not high-minded; I have no proud looks; I do not exercise myself in great matters, or in things which are too high for me. But I refrain my soul and keep it low; like as a child that is weaned from his mother; yea, my soul is even as a weaned child.” To say this, and to say it truly, would be indeed to follow Christ.1 [Note: C. Wordsworth, Primary Witness to the Truth of the Gospel, 166.]

All that we can safely gather from his conversation at St. Helena is that his mind turns greatly on these questions of religion. He ponders and struggles. A remark which he lets fall at St. Helena explains probably his normal state of mind. “Only a fool,” he says one day, “says that he will die without a confessor. There is so much that one does not know, that one cannot explain.” And as he spoke of the mysteries of religion, we may speak of his frame of mind with regard to them. “There is so much that one does not know, that one cannot explain.”2 [Note: Lord Rosebery, Napoleon, the Last Phase, 173.]

(2) There are difficulties connected with doctrines of the faith, which rest upon unrevealed mysteries behind them. If we are perplexing ourselves with such things as the fall of man, the sin of the angels, the salvability of the heathen, the locality of heaven, and of the spirits in prison, the decrees of God that seem to destroy the free will of man, or that great problem that presses with equal force on the brain of the wisest philosopher and the heart of the little child, why God permitted the entrance of evil into the world at the first, and why He permits its dominion still; we can not only calm ourselves by the reflection that probably these are depths that no created mind can sound; but still more by the voice of our heavenly Lord, who does not explain any one of them, but says, “Leave mysteries to God, and do thou thine own work of following Me.”

I read Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Coleridge, Philip Van Artevelde, for views of man to meditate upon, instead of theological caricatures of humanity; and I go out into the country to feel God; dabble in chemistry, to feel awe of Him; read the life of Christ, to understand, love, and adore Him; and my experience is closing into this, that I turn with disgust from everything to Christ. I think I get glimpses into His mind, and I am sure that I love Him more and more.… A sublime feeling of a Presence comes upon me at times, which makes inward solitariness a trifle to talk about.1 [Note: Life and Letters of F. W. Robertson, 152.]

“As to what you may think of my beliefs I have no fear; they need not be discussed and they cannot be attacked.”

“——But your church has its dogmas.”

“There is not a dogma of my church that I have ever thought of for a moment—or of any other church.”

“How can you remain in your church without either believing or disbelieving its dogmas?”

“My church is the altar of Christ and the House of God,” replied Gabriella simply. “And so is any other church.”

“And you believe in them all?” he asked in wondering admiration. “I believe in them all.”2 [Note: James Lane Allen.]

I have a life with Christ to live,

But, ere I live it, must I wait

Till learning can clear answer give

Of this and that book’s date?

I have a life in Christ to live,

I have a death in Christ to die;—

And must I wait, till science give

All doubts a full reply?

Nay rather, while the sea of doubt

Is raging wildly round about,

Questioning of life and death and sin.

Let me but creep within

Thy fold, O Christ, and at Thy feet

Take but the lowest seat,

And hear Thine awful voice repeat

In gentlest accents, heavenly sweet,

Come unto Me, and rest:

Believe Me, and be blest.3 [Note: John Campbell Shairp.]

(3) Then there are mysteries in the future that we should like to have cleared up. We should like to know the times and the seasons, and we are told that it is not for us to know the times and the seasons, which the Father has placed in His own hands. There are many questions respecting the life to come that press for an answer, such as the nature of the punishment in reserve for the wicked, the occupation of the redeemed, the appearance of the Saviour, the recognition of friends, and the nature of the intercourse in the next life. Regarding these questions, we are left in comparative ignorance, and so their solution cannot be of much practical importance. It is unimportant to know the nature of future punishment; but it is all-important to avoid it. It is unimportant to know the character of the heavenly state; but it is all-important to prepare for it. It might satisfy our curiosity to know if there will be recognition of friends in the next life; but it is of eternal moment to strive to enter in at the strait gate. A veil is drawn over these questions, and our prying into them can do no good. We have been told enough for the practical guidance of life, and whatever interferes with that should be let alone. What is it to us? Let us use to the full the knowledge that God has given us respecting the duties of the present, and the mysteries of the future will be cleared up in due time. Let us act up to our present light, and when we are in a position to benefit by more, more will be given. Meanwhile, let our desire be to follow Jesus; and as we follow Him the light will brighten, our vision will widen, until, amid clearer light than that of the sun, we shall read all mysteries plain, and know even as also we are known.

The Archbishop was spending the day here, and preaching for me. After lunch we went into my study, and he let me talk to him. He was so exceedingly fatherly that day, that I was led on to talk to him about the great problems and mysteries of life, and told him of a certain matter which weighed upon me at times with an almost insupportable weight. It was connected with the hereafter. I may as well say it was the notion of endlessness of time. He listened patiently, and suggested certain lines of thought—and asked if I did not think Hegel’s philosophy helped over such a matter.

Then I said, bluntly enough—“My Lord, have you never had any of these troubles? Don’t you ever feel the mystery of that other life?”

He turned in his chair, put his hand up to his chin, looked at me a moment in his steady way, and then said—“Yes, I think I know what you mean. But I believe so entirely that God is my Father, and that He loves me, and that He will make me perfectly happy in the other life, that I never worry myself over what that life will be.”1 [Note: 1 Frederick Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, ii. 655.]

Experience bows a sweet contented face,

Still setting-to her seal that God is true:

Beneath the sun, she knows, is nothing new;

All things that go return with measured pace,

Winds, rivers, man’s still recommencing race:—

While Hope beyond earth’s circle strains her view,

Past sun and moon, and rain and rainbow too,

Enamoured of unseen eternal grace,

Experience saith, “My God doth all things well:”

And for the morrow taketh little care,

Such peace and patience garrison her soul:—

While Hope, who never yet hath eyed the goal,

With arms flung forth, and backward-floating hair,

Touches, embraces, hugs the invisible.1 [Note: Christina G. Rossetti.]

The Individuality of Duty

Literature


Aitken (W. H. M. H.), The Highway of Holiness, 126.

Ballard (F.), Does it Matter what a Man Believes? 63.

Bickersteth (C.), The Gospel of Incarnate Love, 106.

Burrell (D. J.), God and the People, 167.

Darlow (T. H.), Via Sacra, 125.

Dix (M.), Christ at the Door of the Heart, 158.

Gray (W. A.), The Shadow of the Hand, 133.

Harper (F.), A Broken Altar, 50.

Hopkins (E. H.), Hidden, yet Possessed, 19.

Hull (E. L.), Sermons, iii. 230.

Knight (G. H.), The Master’s Questions to His Disciples, 360.

Lightfoot (J. B.), Ordination Addresses, 149.

Lockyer (T. F.), Seeking a Country, 94.

Merson (D.), Words of Life, 213.

Mortimer (A. G.), Jesus and the Resurrection, 248.

Myres (W. M.), Fragments that Remain, 20, 28.

Peabody (F. G.), Mornings in the College Chapel, i. 25

Pearson (J. B.), Disciples in Doubt, 113.

Pope (W. B.), Discourses, 343.

Power (P. B.), The “I Wills” of Christ, 283.

Price (A. C.), Fifty Sermons, viii. 383.

Rendall (G. H.), Charterhouse Sermons, 149.

Stanley (A. P.), Sermons and Essays on the Apostolical Age, 234.

Stevens (W. B.), Sermons, 78.

Stone (D.), The Discipline of Faith, 167.

Taylor (W. M.), The Limitations of Life, 63.

Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit), vi. No. 648.

Westcott (B. F.), Social Aspects of Christianity, 197.

Westcott (B. F.), Peterborough Sermons, 255.

Wordsworth (C.), Primary Witness to the Truth of the Gospel, 155.

American Pulpit of the Day, i. 448 (Tyng).

Christian Age, xliii. 242 (Abbott).

Twentieth Century Pastor, xxix. 132.

The Great Texts of the Bible - James Hastings

Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.

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