The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them.Parted From Them
That is what he is always doing. In the case of the text the incident was personal and local, tut it contains a principle of very wide and gracious adaptation. There is a point in life at which visible leading ceases. It may be at Bethany; it may be at eighteen years of age; it may be at nominal and legal manhood. It may vary according to individuality, but there is the principle:—Now I have brought you out so far, go on. This is education, this is providence. We are almost conscious of the moment when we felt our feet squarely upon the earth, with no one near at hand on whom we could rest for a moment. That was a crisis; that was a fine point in life-education. Some people seem never to get out of leading strings. They have no faith, no courage, no spiritual consciousness that says, I can do it; I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me. Where is thy Christ? Taken up into heaven. Canst thou trust an unseen Leader? It is there, at that very point, so vital and so sensitive, that faith comes into full fruition and gracious operation, and man feels that he is no longer dependent upon visibleness and tangibleness, that he has entered upon a higher level of life, that he breathes the air of an infinite and sabbatic climate. Some are farther on than others. This is the difficulty of conducting a thousand men all at once through the same line of argument, because one man is saying, I am not so far on, why do you hasten on? And another man says, if we begin to slow down for those who are weary and weak, Why do you not make more haste in your argument? We have left that point half a century ago; we feel the budding wings, we are about to fly. What is the poor speaker or teacher to do? He must ask his contrastive hearers to throw themselves together and strike an average line, that they may meet for the moment at one common point and receive the impulse and edification of one common thought.
"He led them out as far as"—Walking. Is there a more interesting exercise than to teach a little child to walk from one chair to another? The journey is not a very great one to the observer, but it is like going through all Africa to the little traveller. We look upon the exploration with a genial and sympathetic smile, but there is no smile on the child's face; that is about the most solemn moment that has yet taken place in its history. See how it wavers, how it walks, partly with its hands and shoulders, and how it balances itself, and overbalances, and at the last just touches the other shore! Then we say the child can walk by itself; we turn over a leaf in the family book and write that on such a day at such an hour so-and-so began to walk by himself. We leave him there; he must now find his own legs; we cannot always be putting our arms round the little traveller. There comes a point when even the mother must say, Do the best you can as to walking; you know you can walk well enough: come, find your feet! And only in this way can the little traveller be made really to walk; only in this way can toddling become walking and walking become rapid and energetic, only by leaving us can even God himself sometimes make men of us.—"He led them out as far as to—" books, school, initial instruction, alphabets, forms of things. When we have mastered all these, he says, Now go on: you do not need me to sit down with you and spell out the words: we have passed through that process; you must not always be children, you must not always read the words individually, one by one, as who should say, "And—it—came—to—pass." That is not reading. You must learn to cause the words to flow into one another quickly and musically, so as to make one word out of twenty. But much of that has to be done by yourself. Your teacher leads you out "as far as," and then says, From this point go on, because I am going to begin with a number of little children just such as you were twelve months ago, and try to bring them up to this point So he has parted from you, and you see that kind and degree of teacher no more.—"He led them out as far as to—" business. Then even a father has to say, My boy, carve your own way: I have done all I can for you, I gave you a good schooling, I tried to show you a good example, I have endeavoured to create a very healthy home climate for you, and now it has really come to this that the rest must be done very largely by yourself: pluck up courage, only be of a good courage, and nothing shall stand before you; be faithful, honest, wise, magnanimous, and life will open a road for thee through all its thickets, and we shall meet again in heaven. Our teachers and leaders cannot always be with us. They lead us out as far as to some Bethany, then as to visibleness we say Good-bye! and we return to work with great joy; we are alone, yet not alone; a sweet gracious companionship still drives away all solitariness from the soul, and we live in holy presences. It is withdrawment, not abandonment; it is the ascension of the teacher; that he may become more a teacher still.
This is in common life analogical to what takes place in spiritual life. The Lord leads us out "as far as," and then he says, Now do all you can in your own strength, and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. He has gone that he may be nearer to us; he is higher in the heavens that he may be closer the earth,—a contradiction it may be in mere words and letters, yet they know it to be sweet music who have felt that Christ has gone away, and yet is coming to the soul in every sunbeam and in every quivering of the nightly stars. We are led out as far as—the Bible. But the Bible is not revelation; it is the beginning of the vision; it is the seedhouse, not the garden, the orchard, and the forest. We cannot move without the Bible, and yet it must continually enlarge itself. We can add nothing to the Bible, and yet it can unfold its own wealth, until we exclaim, Behold! these are unsearchable riches. This is the proof of inspiration. It is not a letter, it is a letter only to begin with; the Bible is full of algebraic signs pointing onward to infinity. We do not need any book in addition to the Bible: only those books are good which reproduce the Bible itself in ever-varying forms, and repronounce it in ever-changing but ever-mellifluous and soothing music. Many are accounted heretics who have not the slightest tinge or taint of heresy about them. They may only be larger thinkers; they may only suffer under the penalty of genius; they may see through the letter much of what the letter means. Each century has its own Bible, each man has his own revelation: and what we want to get at is the point at which all men shall say, This is how God shows himself to me; how various the vision, how wondrous, how panoramic this marvellous apocalypse; we are not divided, in the heart we are really one. We shall never have geometric and mechanical unity, God forbid: we shall have inward and spiritual unity, God speed the day!
"He led them out as far as"—the Church. The Church is not one institution; the Church could not worship under one and the same roof. The Church is invisible; the Church has indeed its outward indications, its geometrical magnitudes, it has even its arithmetical statistics; but all these are useless if they do not point to something invisible, spiritual, immeasurable, ineffable What part of the Church are you in? You are only in the alphabetic-church, you are only in the vestibule; you may be only in the outer court of the Gentiles. Manifold and infinite is the Church of the Cross, and it should be our business to include men and not to exclude them; let excommunication be the last act, the unavoidable, the tremendous finale.
"He led them out as far as to "—the symbol. It has been beautifully shown again and again that God is always leading us out to something larger than we can express in terms. That idea has formed the basis of many a noble and inspiring discourse in various sanctuaries. Thus to Abraham the Lord said, I will give thee a land flowing with milk and honey—come! If the Lord had said, I will give thee a heavenly Jerusalem, an invisible Canaan "a land of pure delight, where saints immortal reign," the sheik could not have been touched, he did not know that music, there was no home-strain in all that celestial melody; when, however, he heard of a land, a land flowing with milk and honey, a land of acres that bloomed like flowers in the sun, he rose, and then at the last he would not have the very thing he went for. He had grown in the meantime, he had become a larger man, he had become dematerialised, spiritualised, elevated; his whole imagination had become as a lens through which he saw further distances and brighter glories, and instead of looking upon the green Canaan, growing grass and herbs, he said, I seek a country out of sight. God meant that from the very first, but if at the first he had said that, he would have overpowered the man and left him in bewilderment and dismay. Thus we are led on from point to point, and God has so arranged the economy of life that sometimes we seem to be left to ourselves; as if the Lord would set us a task or lesson in his own Bible, saying, as sometimes a pastor says to an inquirer, Read the third chapter of the Gospel by John, and see me in a week. Thus I have been able to help many inquirers myself, and other pastors have done the same. Instead of sitting down and reading the chapter with the inquirer, we have said, Take it home, read it every word, get it into your heart, talk with the passage and get the passage to talk to you, and then let us meet this day week and compare our investigations, and seek the blessing of God upon our individual and mutual inquiry. So the Lord leaves us to ourselves for long periods or for periods which seem long. Whenever he is absent a moment we think he has gone for ever. There are moments that are eternities: we measure time by the hunger of our love.
Having once had great companionships and noble leaderships, we can never lose them. They are taken away from us as to visibleness, but they are with us as to influence and sympathy. Thus, if we have really lived with any other soul, man, woman, child, friend, teacher, we know what that other soul would say and do under all the changing circumstances of life. What voices we hear, what counsel we receive without words! We say to ourselves, We know what he would say under these circumstances, we know what he would do, or she, under such conditions; he would say, Rise, and shake yourself from this slavery: she would say, Cheer thee: it is nightmare that is now brooding over thy soul and making thee afraid. Oh, poor heart, I have gone from thee as to visibleness, but cry thou mightily unto God, and if in some other world I can help thy prayer I will be with thee evermore. We know what the ascended husband would say; we know what the sainted wife would do: we lived so long together that there is no longer any mystery as to the counsel that would be given. And if we will only open the ears of our hearts we shall hear music from heaven itself. Thus our friends have withdrawn from us, and yet they come back to us in larger identity; no longer may we shake hands, but evermore we may unite in heart.
We have not been led "as far as" in order that we might change the road, but that we might continue and complete the journey. When men are led "as far as" and then turn their backs upon the road, they have lost their leadership in more senses than one. Go on unto perfection: persevere along this road;—that is the voice of Providence, that is the monition of the higher education. We do not change the doctrine, though we may change its modes of representation. Here again many a man is really speaking larger truth than he himself is quite aware of; here again many a man is supposed to have left the faith when he has done nothing of the kind. He only sees the old truths from a new point, or views them under uncalculated or unforeseen conditions: presently he will see that it is the same mountain, facing north, facing south, having a side that drinks in all the morning light, and another side that drinks in all the evening glory. Let us have larger faith in one another, in our love of truth, in our love of Christ.
"He led them out as far as to Bethany." He would have taken them farther if it had been for their good. At Bethany he "blessed them." Some places seem to double the blessing. The places themselves are memories, pictures, centres of spiritual interest. He led them back to their birthplace, and blessed them; he led them out as far as to the wedding altar, and blessed them; he led them out as far as to their earliest recollection of heavenly visions, and blessed them. He must choose the point of parting. "And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven." The sentence was left incomplete; the benediction was broken off as it were at a semicolon. "While he blessed them,"—it is as the song of an ascending bird, now so clear, so sharp, so sweet, and now less so, and now—and now—and now—gone!—away into the light, away to the nativity of the morning, away into heaven! We should bless God for broken benedictions, for incomplete farewells. The way of the going seems to intimate the certainty of the coming: as if Christ had said, You have heard half the sentence now, the other half you shall hear in the morning. Oh, sweet, bright summer morning, we hunger for thee! We are tired of the wild, windy, cold, stormy night!
The Speaker's Commentary says:—"St. Mark does not tell us where the Ascension occurred. Luke tells us afterwards (Acts 1:12) that it took place on Mount 'Olivet, which is from Jerusalem a Sabbath day's journey.' There is no contradiction between the earlier and the later statement of the evangelists. Bethany lay on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives, and the way from the village to Jerusalem lay across the mountain. A portion of the mountain may have appertained to Bethany, and may have been called by its name. And St. Luke speaks here with a certain degree of vagueness; he does not actually assert that the apostles were led to Bethany, but 'as far as' (meaning near) 'to Bethany ': and his words are therefore satisfied by supposing the Ascension to have taken place somewhere in the neighbourhood of the village. Bethany and the Mount of Olives are similarly associated in Mark 11:1, as well as in Mark 11:11, compared with Luke 21:37. The traditional scene of the Ascension is one of the four summits of the Mount of Olives, overhanging, and in full view of, the city of Jerusalem, and now covered by the village and mosque and church of the Jebel-et-Tur. The site, however, is too far from Bethany and too near to Jerusalem to satisfy the conditions of the narrative. 'On the wild uplands which immediately overhang the village, he finally withdrew from the eyes of his disciples, in a seclusion which, perhaps, could nowhere else be found so near the stir of a mighty city; the long ridge of Olivet screening those hills, and those hills the village beneath them, from all sound or sight of the city behind; the view opening only on the wide waste of desert-rocks and ever-descending valleys, into the depths of the distant Jordan and its mysterious lake. At this point, the last interview took place. "He led them out as far as Bethany;" and they "returned," probably by the direct road over the summit of Mount Olivet. The appropriateness of the real scene presents a singular contrast to the inappropriateness of that fixed by a later fancy, "seeking for a sign," on the broad top of the mountain, out of sight of Bethany, and in full sight of Jerusalem, and thus in equal contradiction to the letter and the spirit of the gospel narrative.'"—(Stanley, Sinai and Palestine.)