The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman.The Self-revelation of Christ
John 14, John 15
We cannot understand the opening of the fourteenth chapter unless we read it in immediate connection with the close of the thirteenth. "Peter said unto him, Lord, why cannot I follow thee now? I will lay down my life for thy sake. Jesus answered him, Wilt thou lay down thy life for my sake? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, The cock shall not crow, till thou hast denied me thrice." "Let"—notwithstanding all cowardice and recession and loneliness—"not your heart be troubled": life does not end in a cloud; all appearances will be against me and against you, but the issue will be right. "Ye believe in God, believe also in me," and wait with sweet prayerful patience until the dawn; when the light comes all things will be seen as they are. There are many imperatives in the speeches of Christ which do not instantly appear. It is better that this verse, so full of comfort, should be read with three imperatives, thus: Let not your heart be troubled; believe in God; believe also in me. It is singular that in this gospel, which is supposed to be the very gospel of life, Jesus Christ should be delivering commandments in the voice of Sinai, yet with a subtle and suggestive accent of Zion. Again and again he uses the words "command," and "commandment." Has it come to this? Does history thus recur upon itself? and is there an all but impalpable line connecting Sinai and Zion, the mountain of thunder with the mountain of peace?
In these chapters Jesus Christ speaks pastorally; so to say, he excludes all who cannot understand him, and reducing the number of those to whom he will speak to a minimum, he says even to them, Come nearer: I do not want to lift up my voice above a whisper. A tone might destroy this music; it needs the finest whisper; if we increase the volume of sound beyond that, we shall lose much. Let none stand away; let each come closely to me. This is the pastoral relation, when the voice of the teacher is lowered, when he does not want the misunderstanding public to hear him, but only those who are in closest fellowship with his soul; the very attitude is pastoral, the very voice is charged with solace. Yet there will be more than sentiment; even in the impartation of this comfort there shall be rousing appeals, great promises, somewhat now and then of military strain; for the disciples are not about to be lulled to rest, to be put to bed at an untimely hour; they are to be fed with comfort, and then sent out to fight life's great battle. We have seen in our expositions that the word "comfort" in the New Testament is a singular word, often misunderstood or too narrowly applied: we have resisted the notion that it simply means soothing, lulling, caressing. We have seen that when Barnabas was called a "son of consolation," he was really designated a rousing preacher. That is an idea which is seldom attached to the word. Hence many men are called sons of consolation who know nothing about comfort; they have no power to sustain the human heart by the right quality and range of solace; they think if they say nothing, if they put out the hand in a patting and caressing manner, if they sigh, if they aspire, that they are comforting the heart. There is nothing which a man in grief dreads so much as uncomforting comfort; he cannot bear to be spoken to by those who do not know what comfort really is. He comforts who rouses; makes life more conscious of itself and its powers; enlarges the scope of vitality; brings up in a man the self that was going down in sleep. An awakening is a comforting teacher. We shall find as Christ reveals himself that he means out of all this consolation to make an army invincible.
Look at the twelfth verse as a proof—
"Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father." (John 14:12)
Jesus Christ thus indicated a period of working. He never made anything of his miracles. Other people were surprised at them, he was never amazed; beholders exclaimed, What a worker of wonders!—Jesus went out that he might pray. To pray is the greatest wonder of all; to touch heaven by right of love and faith is the supreme token of filial fellowship with God. As to quieting storms, and soothing seas, and raising dead bones, these are infantalities, trifles, things hardly to be accounted of at all; but to hold God by the violence of prayer is the great end and aim of spiritual education, to be consummated in the other world by an exchange of prayer for the delight and the satisfaction of praise. When did Jesus Christ ever call his Church to less and less work? When did he say, By-and-by, all this necessity will cease, and then the whole week will be be one hymn-singing Sabbath day? Never. He said, You have worked well today, but to-morrow with what sinew, with what strength, will you ply the vocation of God! You have done well this week, but next week you will not know your former selves; you will be giants refreshed, you will have new programmes, new enterprises; you will see new heavens, new earth, new possibilities, and there will be no holding you back. This is the mission I open to you, this is the reason why I comfort you; if I give you a moment's sleep it is that when you are waken out of it you may be the better qualified to prosecute your noble toil.
"Greater works than these" there are always to be done. Work begins on a small scale, enlarges, increases, develops, and you enlarge and consolidate along with your service, and thus you are proceeding upon an ever-enlarging line of service. There is no end to Christian culture; there is no period in the literature of sacrifice; whilst anything has been withheld nothing has been given; whilst one pulse has been kept back from God's altar the whole life has also been kept back. Never believe any men who think their work is done; even if they think their own personal work is done, the work is being carried on by braver men, keener minds, larger hearts, and more perfect fidelity. No man has ever imagined with any approach to completeness what God means humanity to be. This word must always resound in our soul, "Greater works than these." What we do is nothing compared to what we shall yet do. Is there not need, then, after such a revelation of the future, of a word of special comfort and encouragement? Trust the divine artist; he knows where the light should be, and where the shadow should fall.
Having thus called his disciples to greater labour, Christ says:—
"And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye shall ask anything in my name, I will do it" (John 14:13-14).
They might well wonder how the greater works were to be done. Here is the answer. Ask, and ye shall receive. What a marvellous combination of limitation and illimitableness we find in these words! Never man spake like this man! "And whatsoever,"—that is bold, almost to recklessness. Who can tell what human fancy may crave, what human imagination may suggest? But the word does not end with "whatsoever," but proceeds thus—"ye shall ask in my name." Everything must be sanctified by the name, limited by the name, defined and designated by the spirit of Christ. Here, then, you have obedience, surrender to God, confidence in the divine wisdom, an asking that is not bold, but that is made humble and reverent by the completing expression—"Not my will, but thine, be done."
Again the revelation comes. The disciples had to receive "the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you." They are to become new men, under new dominion, the subjects of new impulses; they are to be controlled, and yet to be emancipated; to have an enlarged liberty, and yet an ennobled discipline. Is not another word of comfort there specially needed? It is; and it is given—"I will not leave you comfortless." This is an unfortunate translation, because it seems to connect the word "comfortless" with the word "Comforter"; whereas, there is no connection between them in the thought of Christ. The tenderer translation is this: "I will not leave you orphans." In an ancient translation of the Bible into English the quaint translator says, "I will not leave you faderless"—without a father. This connects the thought of Christ with the words, "He that hath seen me hath seen the Father." I will not leave you orphans or fatherless: I am your Father; but you did not know it. All definitions of family relationship are merged in the supreme relation fatherhood and sonship. I will not leave you fatherless—"I will come to you"; and when I come the Father comes: "I and my Father are one; in my Father's house are many mansions: I go to prepare a place for you": I am always engaged upon your service; wherever I am, I am doing something for the redeemed humanity: you shall never know the cold, the loneliness, the sorrow of orphanhood.
So Christ proceeds to speak to the heart, quietly, whisperingly, sympathetically, culminating in this benediction, "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you"—an expression that is rarely properly understood. "Not as the world giveth" is not a reflection upon the manner in which the world gives, but a characteristic of the kind of things the world gives. "Not as the world giveth "—gold, and silver, and horses, and chariots, and estates, and social status; in this line of bequest I do nothing; I will not operate as the world operates; I give what the world cannot give—heart-calm, the balm of tranquillity, the jewel of peace, the eternal Sabbath Day. Thus he always separates himself from, the world, and from all rivalry, and all attempt to approach him along his own line; whenever men think they are going to do what Christ does, he steps away to the invisible height, and leaves them grovelling in the valley of darkness below. He will have no rivalry; he will not pluralise himself, and be like other redeemers and gods; he is Christ by virtue of his uniqueness; "only begotten" marks him off from all the tribes and families of men, but never prevents his coming down to them with fruit plucked from heaven's trees and water drawn from the river of God. When, therefore, we read about his not giving as the world giveth, we are to understand that he is speaking not of manner but of quality, not of limitation but of contrast: the world can give gold, but not wisdom; the world can give estate, but not peace. The devoutest father that ever died never gave his son one atom of his reverence that could be accounted his in addition to those things which were comprehended within his own personal responsibility. Thus Christ gives as the world cannot give, and the world can never be a substitute for Christ; and the things the world gives can never make up for the things which Christ gives. It is not in number to touch the region of quality. The worldling and the Christian live in different universes.
Drawing nearer to the disciples by way of figure and emblem—for they still needed the miracle of symbol in order to make them understand even in an approximate degree the deeper mysteries of this new life—he said,—
"I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman" (John 15:1).
Is it not important in all life to know who is the principal, the head man, the lord of the occasion? We make much of this, in our business; why should we make little of it in our religion? Why should we be content to talk to a servant when we can talk to the Lord? We say in business, with some show of shrewdness, Let me see the chief man; I do not want to deal with intermediaries; I want to see the head of the firm. A man will say that with some pride of a commercial kind, as if he were not easily to be put off; yet that same man plays false with his own reasoning when he comes into the highest matters of all. The contention of the Christian teacher is this, that men ought to inquire who is the principal, who is Lord, where is the fountain, the origin, the secret spring of all vitality? Jesus Christ addresses himself to this question, and answers it by anticipation, "I am the true vine"; "I am the vine, ye are the branches."
"If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you" (John 15:6-7).
Is there anything unreasonable, then, in Christianity, when its principal quest is to know the head and origin, the fountain and spring, of things? This is indeed Christianity. It will not be content with minor explanations, with any work of men's hands; it cannot sit down at the outer line of phenomena and say, These will do: they are very wonderful! Christianity does not send us to create a museum of specimens of curiosities, oddities, and eccentricities; Christianity says, To the fountain, to the origin, to the all-supplying force of things—where is that? Having found that all the rest will come, by naturalness of development; but until you have found the well-head, the spring, and the fountain, you have found nothing that may not perish in your hand, and disappoint you even in the moment when you thought you had touched the height of victory. This is the supreme characteristic of the New Testament; this is the supreme characteristic of Christianity. Christ reveals the Father: "No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him." Jesus Christ proceeded forth, and came from God: hence the mysteriousness of his speech, hence the uniqueness of his personality, hence the unapproachableness of his morality. It is not an affair that springs out of the earth, and is to be tested by geometric appliances; it is a revelation from heaven, a descent of the Holy Ghost, and is only to be understood even in a partial degree by those who walk with God. Here, then, at once we find an encouragement and a standard.
What will be the reward of this, the faithful prosecution of Christ's commandment? The answer is given in John 15:15—"Henceforth I call you not servants," but "friends." That is the line of promotion. We shall know when we are called friends by Christ; a new consciousness will dawn within, a larger sense of life will possess us; we shall know, when the lifetide rises, when a nobler enthusiasm inflames our nature, when mightier impulses stir within us,—we shall know that we have gone up in the grade of Christian relationship, and that we who began as slaves have been promoted to the rank of friends. In this school we must graduate. Herein we may all take the honours of the school, and the meekest will take the most. We have read in Isaiah that Abraham was called by Jehovah, "my friend." When Augustus called Virgil his friend it was thought he had conferred an honour upon the singer—as if an emperor could confer an honour on a poet! Jesus Christ calls us friends. Why does he change the designations—"for the servant knoweth not what his Lord doeth "—is not in the innermost secret of things; he only waits at the door, and beholds from afar—"but have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you." I have created you trustees, I have invested you with the dignity and the responsibility of stewards; you have in you, did you but know it, the manifold wisdom of God; so then, ye are no more your own souls. This is the reasoning of the Apostle Paul—"If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature": he has not got some new faculties, aptitudes, opportunities, but he himself is a new man, a new soul. "Old things have passed away, all things have become new," and amongst the new things are the new and abiding honours: the lesser name has been exchanged for the greater name; the servant has blossomed into the friend. This honour is open to all who love the Saviour. Say, is there any honour compared with that when a man can truly say to himself, I am the friend of Christ? Once I beheld him afar off; I was once in the infantile region of wonder, open-eyed amazement, uninstructed surprise and astonishment, always admiring him, but never really approaching him in any sense of kinship; but now I have laid my head upon his shoulder, and have wept myself into a new relationship. I understand things now I never understood before; I do not want to hear now about miracles, signs, tokens; I want nothing but to feel him breathe. This is the ecstasy so transcendent as to be calm; this is the peace of God.
Then Christ changes his tone, and begins to "command" the disciples and say,—
He is Lord as well as Paraclete; he is Sovereign, as well as Redeemer; he is Lord of all. Yet, who thinks of Jesus Christ giving commands? We often think of him as the Creator of the beatitudes, the Poet of benefaction, the Man who had fine fancy enough almost to invent characteristics for separate qualities; we read his beatitudes, and bless him for his gentle words; but the Author of the beatitudes is the Author of the Christian commandments: Follow me; believe God; believe me; love one another. These are not proposals that may be modified; these are not suggestions that are open to compromise; these are the living commandments of the living Christ. We bless this mighty speaker for his eloquence on the mountain which all men might hear, but with a tenderer praise we thank him for these other words, spoken in the privacy of love, uttered in the secrecy of heart-to-heart intercourse. We might know more of Christ if we loved him more. To love he will ever manifest himself—to criticism he will seldom speak. From love he will never withdraw.