XV. THE FEAST OF TABERNACLES.
[Lincoln's Inn, Whit-Sunday, May 11, 1856.]
St. John VII. 37-39.
In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come to me and drink. He that believes on me, as the scripture has said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. (But this spoke he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified.)
If the words in the last chapter — 'the Passover, a feast of the Jews, was at hand' — are genuine, it would seem as if Jesus did not go up to that feast, or to the Pentecost which must have followed it. At all events, nothing is recorded of any visits to Jerusalem; and the inference from the opening of this chapter clearly is, that 'He did not walk in Jewry' from the time that the Jews had sought to kill Him at the feast spoken of in the fifth chapter.
I did not think it was necessary to make guesses respecting the name of that feast. What this was the Apostle has told us. I have no doubt that he wished us to remember why it was instituted; what it should have meant to them who were celebrating it; what it did mean to Him whom they had sought to kill, because He had said, 'God was His Father.' It said to the Jews who were living then, — 'Your fathers dwelt in tabernacles in the wilderness; they had no houses which they could transmit to their children, as you have. But the unseen God went in a tabernacle before them. That was the secret of their strength; that bound them together as a nation, before they had conquered a single walled town of Canaan. Your houses are as little stable as theirs were. If your national strength and union consist in your walled cities, the Romans in a year may lay them all waste. But the living God dwells with you as He did with your fathers. The Romans cannot take that Presence from you. You may forget it; you may disbelieve in it: then the tabernacle of God will not cease to be with men, — but it will cease to be with you; you will not be His stewards or witnesses any longer.'
Even we can feel that there was this significance in the festival; events which, we know, were soon to happen, reveal it to us, if the Law and the Prophets do not. How much more than we can divine or dream of must He have seen in it! But the persons who were about them, His own kinsfolk, had no such thoughts. To them the feast was an unusual gathering of men together, — the occasion which one who professed to be a prophet or leader of the people should take for showing Himself to them. 'Now the Jews' feast of tabernacles was at hand. His brethren therefore said to Him, Depart hence, and go into Judæa, that your disciples also may see the works that you do.'
Looking at this advice from the point of view which we commonly take, we should speak of it as most sensible. We suppose that Christ created His signs to convince the unbelieving Jews of His mission; what more strange than that He should not take pains to display them? Looking at the advice from his point of view, St. John says, 'For neither did His brethren believe in Him.' They expected Him to make a startling exhibition of His power to the eye. They did not believe in Him, — for faith rests upon that which is not seen; it confesses an inward, vital power.
The words, 'show yourself to the world,' were doubtless used by these brethren of Christ in a very broad, vulgar sense. Jerusalem was the great world to them; there all Jews met; there were the learned men who decided what others were to think and believe; there were the rulers of the people. But they had used the right word. A Mantuan, speaking of great Rome, and wondering what he should do there, would not have been more correct in calling that the world, than these Galilæans were in giving the name to the city of David. The Italian metropolis might, in one sense, be the centre of the world's government and the world's wickedness; the Cæsar might be the world's god. But a society which was organized on the confession of a living and true God — which had retained its organization, and believed in that instead of in Him — is more exactly the world, in the sense in which the world is opposed to God, than the Roman society, or any other existing at that time, could possibly be. Jesus, therefore, adopts the expression of His kinsmen in answering them. 'Then Jesus said to them, My time is not yet come: but your time is alway ready. The world cannot hate you; but me it hates, because I testify of it, that the works thereof are evil. Go you up to this feast: I go not up yet to this feast; for my time is not yet full come. When He had said these words to them, He abode still in Galilee.'
There is a greater sense of loneliness and oppression in this language, than in any which we have met with thus far, — the loneliness which comes from being altogether misunderstood; the oppression which comes from a work to be fulfilled, which those whom it was meant to bless would abhor. The Son of Man feels all the difference between those 'whose time was alway ready,' — who could go up to the feasts whenever it pleased them, merely with the expectation of meeting friends, and mixing in a crowd, — and Him who had the straitening consciousness of a message which He must bear, of a baptism which He must be baptized with. And the Son of God feels that He is to bear witness of a Father to a world which was created by Him, and did not know Him — which longed to rid itself of the sense of His Presence — which conceived of Him as a tyrant and an enemy. The world cannot hate those who fancy that the business of a divine Prophet is to persuade it to admire him and follow him. The world must hate those who tell it that the Creator of all good and truth is close to it, — that it has no good apart from that Creator, — that its works will always be evil while it is not owning Him. The world must hate Him in whom the glory of the central and eternal Good and Truth shone forth as in an 'only-begotten Son, full of grace and truth.'
'But when His brethren were gone up, then went He also up to the feast, not openly, but as it were in secret. Then the Jews sought Him at the feast, and said, Where is He? And there was much murmuring among the people concerning Him: for some said, He is a good man: others said, No; but He deceives the people. However no man spoke openly of Him for fear of the Jews.'
We are carried at once into the bustle of the feast. Two or three lines give a clearer and livelier impression of the feelings of the crowds who were assembled at it, than the longest description could have given. They wonder if the Teacher from Galilee is there, or is coming. There are various thoughts about Him. 'He has done many kind acts; surely He is a good man.' So says this man and that, as they talk in the streets. 'Yes; but the multitude, — the ignorant people, who are expecting a king, — what strange, dangerous notions He is filling them with! Can you doubt that He is plotting to be their chief?' So others whisper, correcting the charitable judgments of their neighbours. But it is a hum of voices. There is a fear of something, the people do not well know of what. It is a fear of the Jews, the Apostle says. Each fears the other. There is a concentrated Jewish feeling in the Sanhedrim, among the rulers, which all tremble at. Till that has been pronounced — above all, while there is a suspicion that it will come forth in condemnation — it is not wise for any to commit themselves. Brethren, do we not know that this is a true story? Must it not have happened in Jerusalem then; for would it not happen in London now?
'Now about the midst of the feast Jesus went up into the temple, and taught. And the Jews marvelled, saying, How knows this man letters, having never learned? Jesus answered them, and said, My doctrine is not mine, but His that sent me.'
He went up to the feast in secret; but He goes into the Temple openly. He has as little wish to hide His doctrine as He has to display Himself. His testimony is to the world. It is borne at this time to a letter-worshipping world, — to a world which believed that certain letters had come long ago from God, but which utterly disbelieved that God could hold converse with men in their day. Such people have lost all sense of the meaning of letters. They are no longer the blessed media of dialogue between soul and soul, witnesses of spiritual communication; they are dead things, to be committed to memory, to be learnt most readily by those to whom they express least. How natural their wonder was that He who spoke with authority, — He who uttered living words, and adopted all the living symbols of nature to illustrate them, — should know letters, when there was no evidence that He had gone to any school! And though a scribe may have first spoken of His ignorance, it is quite probable that the crowd will quickly have caught the phrase, and have manifested the same astonishment that one of themselves should dare to teach them. The answer is in accordance with all that He has said before. There is a fountain within, from which His words flow. They are not His own. He speaks what He has heard. He is a Messenger from the Unseen; He is a Messenger to human beings. He can make Himself understood by them; He can prove His commission to them. And this is the way He will prove it. 'If any man will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself. He that speaks of himself seeketh his own glory: but he that seeketh His glory that sent him, the same is true, and no unrighteousness is in him. Did not Moses give you the law, and yet none of you keeps the law? Why go you about to kill me?'
I have taken these three verses together. I believe we lose the force of the first, if we separate it from the other two. Oftentimes we hear the first clause of the 17th verse quoted without the second. By that violent proceeding this meaning is extracted from our Lord's words, — that if a man keeps God's commandments, he arrives at a correct apprehension of doctrinal propositions: an assertion which is surely not always borne out by evidence, and which is likely to produce quite as much self-righteousness as humility. No, it leads to far more doubt than satisfaction. The question is raised, whether A, or B, or C keeps God's commandments best, and therefore which may be trusted best as an expositor of doctrine. The unknown is to be ascertained by the more unknown: for who, except the Judge of all, can answer this question? Who would attempt to answer it that reverenced Christ's words, — 'Judge not, that you be not judged?'
Our Lord most carefully guarded His sentence against this construction. Our translators have honestly and righteously preserved the singular phrase, — 'If any man will (or wills to) do His will.' Supposing a man really recognises a will as higher than his own, and wishes, above all things, to be conformed to that will, then Christ's words about His coming to do a Father's will, — His whole doctrine, which is grounded upon His relation to His Father, and His fulfilment of His will, — must become by degrees intelligible to that man. He may be confused about phrases, he may blunder in his statements, but he will enter into the meaning of the teaching; there will be a continual interpretation of it in his own thoughts and acts. For self-glorying, self-seeking, self-will is that which he will be continually dreading in himself, from which he will be continually flying in himself. He will know that that has been and is the cause of all falsehood in his words, his deeds, his thoughts; and therefore he will acknowledge that One in whom there is no such self-seeking, self-glorying, self-willing, who was entirely seeking the glory of another, and doing the will of another, must be true altogether, must be right altogether, — that there can be no falsehood, no wrong in Him.
Here is our Lord's famous test, which has never been superseded, — which has never failed in the case of any generation or of any man. Jesus applies it at once to those who were about Him. They had a law, — they boasted of a law. But did they bow to the law, as expressing the will of One higher than themselves? No; it was a document which they could call theirs, which belonged to them — not a power which was to rule them; therefore this law which forbade killing was to be the very excuse for killing. They went about to kill Jesus, out of love to the law. A more tremendous illustration of a principle — tremendous, because its force has not been spent in eighteen centuries — cannot be conceived. It is possible to make God's commandments an occasion for boasting over others, for self-glorying; and so it is possible to make God's law a perpetual barrier between us and all knowledge of His will — even a reason for resisting it in our acts.
Perhaps the people at large were not aware that there had been any plot to kill Jesus at the former feast; for 'the multitude answered, You have a devil: who goes about to kill you?' Without apparently heeding the interruption — addressing Himself to those who did know what had happened at the Pool of Bethesda, and what charge had been brought against Him for healing on the Sabbath-day — 'Jesus answered and said to them, I have done one work, and you all marvel. Moses therefore gave to you circumcision; (not because it is of Moses, but of the fathers;) and you on the sabbath-day circumcise a man. If a man on the sabbath-day receive circumcision, that the law of Moses should not be broken; are you angry at me, because I have made a man every whit whole on the sabbath-day? Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.'
He was enforcing in these words what He had said at the other feast. The feeling of the Jews about the Fourth Commandment illustrated their feeling about the whole law. They were glorying in it as their day, — they were not receiving it as God's day; and, therefore, they were not perceiving the will of God in reference to that day. No, they were contradicting the very customs which they were themselves practising. They believed they were obeying Moses when they circumcised a man on the Sabbath-day; they believed they should be breaking the law if they failed to do so. Circumcision was the sign of a covenant which God had made with their fathers before He gave them the law — a covenant of grace and blessing. And yet so much were they misled by mere appearances, that they thought it an actual sin to make a man whole on the Sabbath-day. The act which inflicted pain must please God; that which gave health must offend Him!
There is more in the contradiction which He thus brought home to their minds than it is possible to express by any commentary upon His words. This misunderstanding of the very meaning of all God's dealings with them — this degradation of the law into a cruel letter — of the covenant into the mere sign or form of the covenant — was that proof of inward radical atheism (no, as we shall find in the next chapter, of something worse than atheism) which our Lord was convicting them of in His discourses, which they were hereafter to manifest by the wickedest deeds that had ever been done upon the earth. But, besides this witness against them, He was giving a lesson to all ages and to all teachers respecting the duty and the method of piercing through the outward shell of an institution into the principle which is embodied in it — respecting the danger and the sin of omitting to do this through any affected reverence for the institution itself. In the two pregnant instances of the Sabbath-day and of circumcision, He showed that if, in any case whatever, we judge according to appearances, instead of seeking for the meaning and purport of the divine signs, we shall be likely to repeat the sin of the Jews, and to deny God when we fancy we are honouring Him most.
'Then said some of them of Jerusalem, Is not this He whom they seek to kill? But, lo, He speaks boldly, and they say nothing to Him. Do the rulers know indeed that this is the very Christ? However we know this man where He is: but when Christ comes, no man knows where He is.'
These inhabitants of Jerusalem were likely to know more of the anger which Jesus had provoked by His cure, than the mere multitude which was collected from all quarters. They knew that their rulers had sought to kill Him. Their wonder was, that He should be allowed to go at large, and should show so little fear of any mischiefs that might befal Him. They thought that some change must have taken place in the sentiments of the Sanhedrim. Could they have discovered that He was not an impostor and blasphemer — that He was the very King they were looking for? Surely that was impossible. They knew exactly from where this Man had sprung, where He dwelt, who were His kindred; but who could declare the generation of the Christ? When He came, no one would be able to say from what region He came. There would be a mystery about Him, which would sever Him from all other beings.
There was a mixture of error and truth in this thought. Jesus distinguished them in the following words: — 'Then cried Jesus in the temple as He taught, saying, You both know me, and you know where I am: and I am not come of myself, but He that sent me is true, whom you know not. But I know Him: for I am from Him, and He has sent me.' There was, in one sense, no mystery about Him; all was simple, natural, open. He affected no reserve; He disclaimed no human relationships. He walked with fishermen; He did not avoid the company of rulers; He ate and drank with publicans or with Pharisees. The absence of strangeness and singularity was what was most characteristic of Him. He was like all other men; He did nothing to raise Himself above them. Where, then, was the mystery? He was not come of Himself. That God who had dwelt in the Tabernacle, who had guided them through the wilderness — that God who, they said, dwelt in that Temple, whom they were celebrating in that feast — was with Him, was speaking by Him. Of Him He was bearing witness. They did not know that Being, because He was true. Their falsehood kept them from Him; there was no sympathy between them. But He knew Him; He was from Him; His truth He was come to show forth.
There was something in these words very like those which had called forth their first indignation against them — 'My Father works, and I work.' Perhaps they thought He was again speaking blasphemy; perhaps they were only indignant at His discovery of their untruth. At all events, we are told they sought to take Him. Some out of the crowd, it would appear — not officials, for they are spoken of afterwards — gave signs of an intention to seize Him; 'but no man laid hands on Him, because His hour was not yet come.' The Apostle keeps us in mind that an hour was to come when they would have their way; and that, when it did come, the will of the Lord of all would be more fully manifested than it was now in restraining them.
'And many of the people believed on Him, and said, When Christ comes, will He do more miracles than these which this man has done? The Pharisees heard that the people murmured such things concerning Him; and the Pharisees and the chief priests sent officers to take Him.'
The desire to treat Jesus with violence seems to have been confined to a few. But what are we to think of those many who are said to have believed on Him? What kind of belief was it? I do not know that we can answer any question of this kind, except as St. John answers it. He calls the sentiment of these people belief. We have a right, therefore, to assume that a spiritual power was acting on their minds, and that they confessed it. The visible signs spoke to them of that which was invisible. On the other hand, we are told that they talked of the number of signs which the Christ might be expected to work. This was the gossip of men upon whom His words had taken no mighty or secure hold. Those who can deliberate how much evidence ought to convince them, have never yet surrendered themselves to the full force of a conviction. But the chief priests and Pharisees were not the least competent to judge what were deep and what were superficial impressions. All murmurs and questionings sounded dangerous; they ought to be suppressed, if it were possible We have heard of their plotting against Jesus; but it is the first time that we have been told of any messengers being sent formally from the Sanhedrim to take Him. He appears to have received it as the foretaste of that apprehension which would take place at another feast; for — 'Then said Jesus to them, Yet a little while am I with you, and then I go to Him that sent me. You shall seek me, and shall not find me: and where I am, there you cannot come.' I connect these words with the appearance of the messengers; I look upon them, therefore, as a prophecy of His death. But the further we read, the more we shall find that the language in which He speaks in this Gospel of His departure out of the world, is at least as applicable to His ascension as to His passion. His going is always a return. He is here for a little while; then He must be with Him from whom He came. I urgently request you, do not pass over these expressions as if they were commonplaces, or as if you were sure you understood them. They are as difficult to us who keep the festival of the Ascension every year — who say every day, 'I believe that Jesus ascended on high' — as they were to those who heard them first. No, unless we seize strongly the first words of this Gospel — unless we believe that the 'Word was with God, and was God,' and that Jesus was the 'Word made flesh' — I believe they may be often more difficult; that our familiarity with the mere name and notion of an ascent into heaven may make us less able to feel than they were, 'that no man has ascended into heaven save He which came down from heaven, even the Son of Man that is in heaven.'
The guesses of the Jews respecting our Lord's meaning, when He said they should seek Him but not find Him, were wide of the mark — were as outward and material as we should expect them to be. Yet there is in them one of those curious anticipations of the truth — one of those unconscious prophecies which sometimes occur in the language of the most thoughtless or evil men.
'Then said the Jews among themselves, Where will He go, that we shall not find Him? will He go to the dispersed among the Gentiles, and teach the Gentiles? What manner of saying is this that He said, You shall seek me, and shall not find me: and where I am, there you cannot come?'
He had broken down the barriers between different classes of Israelites — between Galilæans, Samaritans, and Jews. Why might not He carry His designs further? Why might He not go to the dispersed tribes in heathen lands? Why might He not preach to the heathens themselves? They were right: this would be the effect of His going away. This was a part, a great part, of what He meant by it. And it is not till we realize this sense of the words — till we regard the Ascension as the redemption and glorification of Humanity at the right hand of God, and therefore as the necessary step to a Gospel which should include the dispersed among the Gentiles, and the Gentiles themselves — that we perceive how it bears upon that great passage which I took as the text of this sermon: — 'In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come to me, and drink. He that believes on me, as the scripture has said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. (But this spoke He of the Spirit, which they that believe on Him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified.)'
The passage through the wilderness was commemorated by the whole of this festival. This great day of it would seem to have been especially devoted to the striking of the rock, and perhaps to the celebration of those wells by which the thirst of the pilgrims was quenched. That same truth, therefore, which had been taught the woman of Samaria, as she brought her own single pitcher to Jacob's well, could here be drawn out of the history of the nation. A whole host had cried for water. God had told His servant, the shepherd of the people, where it was to be found. God had shown them that He causes the springs to flow from the hills; that He cared for the cattle who drank of them; that He cared more for the wants of the creatures whom He had made in His image, and redeemed from the oppressor.
Prophets and holy men had discovered — all men had in some measure discovered — that there are cravings which no fountains on earth can satisfy. The Jewish nation existed to declare that in God Himself is the fountain of life; that the spirit can only find its life in Him. John the Baptist had said that He who had been before Him, and was coming after Him, would baptize with the Holy Spirit. And now He who had declared that He was sent from the Father, and was a short time with them, and would return to Him, declares that whoever believed on Him should not only be satisfied out of the fulness of God Himself, but 'that from him should flow rivers of living water;' that he should receive only to give; that his blessing should be to communicate, because that is the blessing of the divine nature, of which he is admitted to participate.
Had these words stood by themselves, we might interpret them as they are so often interpreted of the individual believer. We might say, — 'These are the choice gifts, the peculiar treasures, which Christ presents as an honor upon His most favoured servants, — upon them whose faith is the most simple and the most full.' There is a true, a most important, meaning in such language; and we should have no right to complain of any one who deduced it, and it alone, from our Lord's discourse at the Tabernacle, if His own beloved disciple had not gone out of his way to point out another signification of that discourse, not inconsistent with this, but certainly far wider and deeper, and, I conceive, most necessary to save this from a perilous abuse. When he tells us that He spoke this of the Spirit, 'which was not yet given, because that Jesus was not yet glorified,' he evidently connects the fulfilment of the promise with one of the acts which Christ was to do for mankind. The Spirit had before spoken by the Prophets; when He was exalted on high, 'the tabernacle of God was indeed to be with men, and He was to dwell among them, and to be their Father, and they were to be His children.' No doubt a man must have faith in Jesus before rivers of living water can flow from him which shall bless human beings and make the world fruitful. But it must be faith in Him as the Head of man, as the Redeemer of the race; it must be faith which raises the man above self-seeking and self-glorying; it must be faith that refers its own origin to this very Spirit, which He gives because He is glorified.
Such a faith, Jesus taught the Jews at the feast of Tabernacles, was implied in those services and thanksgivings in which they were engaged. If they understood the dealings of God with their fathers, this was the blessing to which they must look forward; if they were content with less, all that had been given them would be taken from them. Such a faith, brethren, is for us who are keeping another feast to-day. Call that the Christian Pentecost, if you will; but it substantiates this promise. Christ ascended on high; Christ poured out His Spirit upon fishermen and tent-makers. Out of them flowed rivers of living water that have made the earth glad. A family gathered out of all kindreds and nations was declared to be the Tabernacle of God, in which He would dwell. So Whitsuntide testifies. But, oh! if it should be kept by us as the Tabernacle feast was kept by the Jews; if there should be the same self-seeking, hardness, Atheism, in us, as there was in them; what can we expect but that these words will be spoken to our nation and to the whole Church? — 'Yet a little while I am with you, and then I go away. And you shall seek me, and shall not find me: and where I go, you cannot come.'
From the Gospel of St. John by FREDERICK DENISON MAURICE, M.A, Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Combridge. Published by MACMILLAN AND CO in 1882; Produced by Charlene Taylor, Julia Neufeld and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net. Lightly updated to the language of the 21st century by D. N. Pham. (c) 2012.
Reach for the Calling Creator
Gospel of St. John - F.D. Maurice
ON THE BOOK SHELF
May your calling be the best.