"When some beloved voice, that was to you
"Tell Jesus" -- The Sin-Bearer -- The Resurrection of Jesus -- The Followers of John, and of Jesus -- "He is Risen!"
We have beheld the ghastly deed with which Herod's feast ended -- the golden charger, on which lay the freshly-dissevered head of the Baptist, borne by Salome to her mother, that the two might gloat on it together. Josephus says that the body was cast over the castle wall, and lay for a time unburied. Whether that were so, we cannot tell; but, in some way, John's disciples heard of the ghastly tragedy, which had closed their master's life, and they came to the precincts of the castle to gather up the body as it lay dishonoured on the ground, or ventured into the very jaws of death to request that it might be given to them. In either case, it was a brave thing for them to do; an altogether heroic exploit, which may be classed in the same category with that of the men of Jabesh-Gilead, who travelled all night through the country infested by the Philistines to rescue the bodies of Saul and his sons from the temple of Bethshan.
The headless body was then borne to a grave, either in the grim, gaunt hills of Moab, or in that little village, away on the southern slopes of the Judaean hills, where, some thirty years before, the aged pair had rejoiced over the growing lad. God knows where that grave lies; and some day it will yield up to honour and glory the body which was sown in weakness and corruption.
Having performed the last sad rites, the disciples "went and told Jesus." Every mourner should go along the path they trod, to the same gentle and tender Comforter; and if any who read these words have placed within the narrow confines of a grave the precious remains of those dearer than life, let them follow where John's disciples have preceded them, to the one Heart of all others in the universe which is able to sympathize and help; because it also has sorrowed unto tears at the grave of its beloved, even though it throbbed with the fulness of the mighty God. Go, and tell Jesus!
The telling will bring relief. Though the great High-Priest knows all the story, He loves to hear it told, because of the relief which the recital necessarily imparts to the surcharged soul. He will tell you that your brother shall rise again; that your child is safe in the flowery meadows of Paradise; that those whom you have loved and lost are engaged in high service amid the ministries of eternity; that every time-beat is bringing nearer the moment of inseparable union.
It is not, however, on these details that we desire to dwell, but to use the scenes before us as a background and contrast to magnify certain features in the death, grave, and abiding influence of Jesus of Nazareth.
I. CONTRAST THE DEATH OF JOHN AND THAT OF JESUS. -- There were many points of similarity between their careers. These two rivers sprang from the same source, in a quiet glen far up among the hills; lay in deep lagoons during their earlier course; leapt down in the same mighty torrent when their time had come; and for the first few miles watered the same tract of country.
It would be possible to enumerate a large number of identical facts of the life-courses of the two cousins. Their births were announced, and their ministries anticipated, under very special circumstances; Mary was unmarried, and Elisabeth past age -- and an angel of the Lord came to each. John seemed, to the superficial view, the stronger and mightier of the two; but Jesus followed close behind and took up a similar burden, as He bade the people repent and believe the Gospel. They were alike in attending no prophetic school, and avoiding each of the great Jewish sects. Neither Hillel nor Shammai could claim them. They had no ecclesiastical connections; they stood aloof from the Pharisees and Sadducees, the Herodians and Essenes. They attracted similar attention, gathered the same crowds, and protested against the same sins. Rearing the same standard, they summoned men from formality and hypocrisy to righteousness and reality. They incurred the same hatred on the part of the religious leaders of their nation, and suffered violent deaths -- the one beneath the headsman's blade in the dungeons of Herod's castle, the other on the cross, at the hand of Pilate and the Roman soldiers. Each suffered a death of violence at the hand of men whom he had lived to succour; each died when the life-blood throbbed with young manhood's prime, and while there was sweet fragrance as of early summer; each was loved and mourned by a little handful of devoted followers.
But there the similarity ends, and the contrast begins. With John, it was the tragic close of a great and epoch-making career. When he died men said -- Alas! a prophet's voice is silenced. What a pity that in a moment of passion the tyrant took his life! Let him sleep! Rest will be sweet to one who expended his young strength with such spendthrift extravagance! Such men are rare! Ages flower thus but once, and then years of barrenness! But as we turn to the death of Jesus, other feelings than those of pity or regret master us. We are neither surprised, nor altogether sorry. We do not recognise that there is in any sense an end of his work -- rather it is the beginning. The corn of wheat has fallen into the ground to die, that it may not abide alone, but bear much fruit. Here, at the Cross, is the head of waters, rising from unknown depths, which are to heal the nations; here the sacrifice is being offered which is to expiate the sin of man, and bring peace to myriads of penitents; here the last Adam at the tree undoes the deadly work wrought by the first at another tree. This is no mere martyr's last agony; but a sacrifice, premeditated, prearranged, the effects of which have already been prevalent in securing the remission of sins done aforetime. This is an event for which millenniums have been preparing, and to which millenniums shall look back. John's death affected no destiny but his own; the death of Jesus has affected the destiny of our race. As his forerunner explained, He was the Lamb of God who bore away the sin of the world. The Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
But there is another contrast. In the case of John, the martyr had no control on his destiny; he could not order the course of events; there was no alternative but to submit. When he opened his ministry, he had no thought that such a fate would befall. As he stood boldly forth upon his rock-hewn pulpit, and preached to the eager crowds, do you suppose that the idea ever flashed across his mind that his path, carpeted with flowers and lined on either side with applause, could end in the loneliness of a desert track, lying across a barren waste where no man dwelt or came, and where the vast expanse engulphs the last cry of the perishing? But, from the first, Jesus meant to die. If, eight centuries ago, you had seen the first outlines drawn of the Cologne Cathedral, whose noble structure has been brought to completion within only the last decades, you would have been convinced that the completed fabric would enclose a cross; so the life of Jesus, from the earliest, portended Calvary. He had received power and commandment from the Father to lay down his life. For this cause He was born, and for this He came into the world. Others die because they have been born: Jesus was born that He might die.
In his great picture of the Carpenter's shop, Millais depicts the shadow of the Cross, flung back by the growing lad, on the wall, strongly-defined in the clear oriental light. Mary beholds it with a look of horror on her face. The thought is a true one. From the earliest, the Cross cast its shadow over the life of the Son of Man. He was never deceived as to his ultimate destiny. He told Nicodemus that He must be lifted up. He knew that as the Good Shepherd He would have to give his life for the sheep. He assured his disciples that He would be delivered up to the chief priests and scribes, who would condemn Him to death, crucify, and slay. Man does not need primarily the teacher, the example, nor the miracle-worker; but the Saviour who can stand in his stead, and put away his sin by the sacrifice of Himself. When the soul is burdened with the weight of its sins, and the conscience is ill at ease, whither can we turn save to the Cross, on which the Prince of Glory died!
What answer and explanation can be given to account for the marvellous spell that the Cross of Christ exerts over the hearts of men? You cannot trace it to the influence of early association merely, or to the effect of heredity, or to the fact of our having come of generations which have turned to the green hill far away, in life and death; because if you take the preaching of the Cross to savage and heathen tribes, who have no advantage of Christian centuries behind them, whenever you begin to explain its significance, the sob of the soul is hushed, and its dread dissipated. Tears of anguish are changed into tears of penitence. The shuttles of a new hope begin to weave the garments of a new purity. No other death affects us thus or effects so immediate a transformation. And may not this be cited as the proof that the death of Jesus is unique; the supreme act of love; the gift of that Father-heart which knew the need of the world, and the only way of appeasing it?
II. CONTRAST THE GRAVE OF JOHN AND THAT OF JESUS. -- Men have alleged that the Lord did not really rise from the dead, and that the tale of his resurrection, if it were not a fabrication, was the elaboration of a myth. But neither of these alternatives will bear investigation. On the one hand, it is absurd to suppose that the temple of truth could be erected on the quagmire and morass of falsehood -- impossible to believe that the one system in the world of mind which has attracted the true to its allegiance, and been the stimulus of truth-seeking throughout the ages, can have originated in a tissue of deliberate falsehoods. On the other hand, it is a demonstrated impossibility that a myth could have found time to grow into the appearance of substantial fact during the short interval which elapsed between the death of Christ and the first historical traces of the Church.
In this connection, it is interesting to consider one sentence dropped by the sacred chronicler. He tells us, that when Herod heard of the works of Jesus, he said immediately, "It is John the Baptist -- he is risen from the dead." Herod could not believe that that mighty personality was quenched, even for this life, by that one blow of the executioner's sword. Surely he had risen! There was a feverish dread that he would yet be confronted by the murdered man, whose face haunted his dreams. His courtiers, ready to take the monarch's cue, would be equally credulous. From one to another the surmise would pass -- "John the Baptist is risen from the dead."
Why, then, did that myth not spread, until it became universally accredited? Ah, there was no chance of such a thing, for the simple reason that there was the grave of John the Baptist to disprove it. If Herod had seriously believed it, or the disciples of John attempted to spread it, nothing would have been easier than to exhume the body from its sepulture, and produce the ghastly but indubitable refutation of the royal delusion.
When the statement began to spread and gain credence that Christ had risen from the dead; when Peter and John stood up and affirmed that He was living at the right hand of God; if it had been a mere surmise, the fond delusion of loyal and faithful hearts, an hallucination of two or three hysterical women -- would it not have been easy for the enemies of Christianity to go forthwith to the grave in the garden of Joseph, and produce the body of the Crucified, with the marks of the nails in hands and feet? Why did they not do it? If it be said that it could not be produced, because it had been taken away, let this further question be answered: Who had taken it away? Not his friends; for they would have taken the cerements and wrappings with which Joseph and Nicodemus had enswathed it. Not his enemies; for they would have been only too glad to produce it. What glee in the grim faces of Caiaphas and Annas, if at the meeting of the Sanhedrim, called to deal with the new heresy, there could have been given some irrefragable proof that the body of Jesus was still sepulchred, if not in Joseph's tomb, yet somewhere else, to which their emissaries had conveyed it!
It is difficult to exaggerate the significance and force of this contrast. And the devout soul cannot but derive comfort from comparing the allegation of the superstitious king, which could have been so easily refuted by the production of the Baptist's body, with that of the disciples, which was confirmed and attested by the condition of the grave which, in spite of the watch and ward of the Roman soldiers, had been despoiled of its prey on the morning of the third day. Herod expected John to rise, and gave his royal authority to the rumour of his resurrection; but it fell to the ground still-born. The disciples did not expect Jesus to rise. They stoutly held that the women were mistaken, when they brought to them the assurance that it was even so. But as the hours passed, the tidings of the empty grave were corroborated by the vision of the Risen Lord, and they were convinced that He who was crucified in weakness was living by the power of God. There could, henceforth, be no hesitation in their message to the world. "The God of our fathers hath glorified his Son Jesus, whom ye denied in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let Him go.... But ye killed the Prince of Life, whom God raised from the dead." Thank God, we have not followed cunningly-devised fables. "Now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first-fruits of them that slept. And as by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead."
III. THE CONTRAST BETWEEN THE EFFECTS OF THEIR TWO DEATHS ON THE FOLLOWERS OF JOHN THE BAPTIST AND OF JESUS RESPECTIVELY. -- What a picture for an artist of sacred subjects is presented by the performance of the last rites to the remains of the great Forerunner! There was probably neither a Joseph nor a Nicodemus among his disciples; certainly no Magdalene nor mother. Devout men bore him to his grave, and made great lamentation over him. He had taught them to pray, to know God, to prepare for the Kingdom of God. They had also fasted oft beneath his suggestion; but they were destined to experience what fasting meant, after a new fashion, now that their leader was taken away from them.
The little band broke up at his grave. Farewell! they said to him; farewell to their ministry and mission; farewell to one another. "I go back to my boats and fishing-nets," said one; and "I to my farm," said another; and "We shall go and join Jesus of Nazareth," said the rest. "Good-bye!" "Good-bye!" And so the little band separated, never to meet in a common corporate existence again.
When Jesus lay in his grave, this process of disintegration began at once among his followers also. The women went to embalm Him; the men were apart. Peter and John broke off together -- at least they ran together to the sepulchre; but where were the rest? Two walked to Emmaus apart; whilst Thomas was not with them when Jesus came on the evening of Easter Day. As soon as the breath leaves the body disintegration begins; and when Jesus was dead, as they supposed, the same process began to show itself. Soon Peter would have been back in Gennesaret; Nathanael beneath his fig-tree, Luke in his dispensary, and Matthew at his toll-booth.
What arrested that process and made it impossible? Why did the day, which began with a certain amount of separation and decay, end with a closer consolidation than ever, so that they were, for the most part, gathered in the upper room; and forty days after they were all with one accord in one place? Why was it that they who had been like timid deer, before He died, became as lions against the storm of Pharisaic hate, and stronger as the weeks passed?
There is only one answer to these questions. The followers of Jesus were convinced by irrefragable proofs that their Master was living at the right hand of power; nay, that He was with them all the days -- nearer them than ever before, as much their Head and Leader as at any previous moment. When the shepherd is smitten, the flock is scattered; and this flock was not scattered, because the Shepherd had recovered from his mortal wound, and was alive for evermore.
And surely the evidence which sufficed for them is enough for us. Again and again, in dark hours, when I have longed to have the demonstration of sense added to that of faith, it has been an untold comfort to feel that sufficient evidence was given to the Lord's disciples to persuade them against their contrary expectations and unbelief; to hold them together in spite of every possible inducement to disperse, and to transform a number of units into the Church, against which the gates of hell have not been able to prevail. If they were convinced, we may be. If their eyes beheld and their hands touched the body of the risen Lord, we may be of good cheer. Their behaviour proves that they were thoroughly convinced. They acted as only those can act whose feet are on a rock. They knew whom they had believed; and they had no doubt that He would perfect the work which He had begun. What He had begun in the flesh, He would perfect in the Spirit.
In after days Peter spoke of Him as the Prince, or File-leader of Life; and suggests the conception, that through all the ages He is marching on through the gates of death and the grave, unlocking them for us, and opening the pathway into the realms of more and more abundant life. Let us follow Him. It is not for us to linger around the grave: even John's disciples forbore to do this. But let us join ourselves by faith with our Prince and Leader, our Head and Captain, as He waits to succour us from the excellent glory, sure that where He is, we too shall be; but in the meanwhile we are assured that He is not in the grave, where loving hands laid Him, but risen, ascended, glorified -- our Emmanuel, our Bridegroom, our Love and Life. "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want: ... He leadeth me, ... He maketh me to lie down; ... He restoreth my soul.... Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, ... Thou art with me."