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We arrive at that part of the Gospel where other ways of God, other manifestations of His character and of His glory, are substituted for Judaism. The kingdom and the form that it would take have been already revealed to us in chapter 13. However, though the form announced in the parables was to be new, the kingdom itself was in view since the time of John the Baptist, though it could not be established then, Jesus being rejected. Purposes of God, important in very different respects, were to be accomplished through the death of the Lord. And although the judgment of Israel had been plainly declared, and the new condition of the kingdom depicted in the parables of chapter 13, the power and the patient grace of the Lord were manifested in the midst of the people, up to the close of chapter 15. But now all is terminated: the church and the kingdom of glory take the place of an Emmanuel Messiah in the midst of the people. The unbelief of the heads of the nation is manifested in their request for a sign from heaven; signs enough had been given. It was not genuine faith, and the Lord reproves them and goes away. They knew well enough how to observe the signs of the weather that was coming; how was it then that they did not see the far clearer signs of Israel’s condition—signs which were precursors of the judgment of God? It was nothing but hypocrisy: they should only have the sign of Jonas; the death and the resurrection of Jesus bringing the judgment, the terrible punishment of the nation, as a natural and necessary consequence of the scornful rejection of their Messiah come in grace.
The disciples themselves participate, not in the want of sincerity, but at least in the want or intelligence, of the Jews. Their faith understood no more than that of the Jews did the power that had manifested itself daily before their eyes. Jesus was to find nowhere a heart that understood Him. This isolation is one of the most striking features of the ordinary life of the Saviour, a Man of sorrows in this world. The Lord introduces what was going to be substituted for the kingdom in Israel by a question destined to bring out the doctrine of His person, the first foundation of everything recognised by faith. “Whom do men say that I the Son of man am? “This is the character assumed by the One in whom God was proving men according to His own thoughts and according to His counsels. The heir of all the glory which belonged to man according to the determinate counsel of God taking His place among men here below, and before God the representation of the race, a race then accepted by Him, although heir He associated Himself with all their miseries, the true representative of the race alone perfect before God.
Psalms 8 and 80:17, and Daniel 7 represent Him thus to us in the Old Testament according to the thoughts of God. Men, struck by His miracles and His walk, had their opinions; faith, through the revelation of God, acknowledges His person. Peter answering the question addressed to all, proclaims this truth, the foundation of every hope, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” It is worth while saying a word as to the character of the great apostle.
We know what was the burning ardour of this man, an ardour which placed him in difficulties from which his moral power could not succeed in extricating him and which even brought him, when God permitted it for his good, to deny his Saviour and his Master. So far as he was sustained by human strength, this ardour was a continual snare; but under God’s hand, when grace took hold of the vessel, he became the instrument of the most blessed activity. I find this instructive difference: human energy cannot sustain the trials of faith. It may bring us into circumstances where these trials are found, but the strength of man’s will cannot make us triumph. If the power of God is there, we triumph over temptation; the flesh which has brought us into it cannot do so. Nevertheless God can make use of the vessel which He has formed; then the power of God is there to hold us up, sheltered from evil by His arms. Now what I desire to remark here is that God makes use of the vessel for His glory; whilst, when the vessel alone and the energy which is in it are at work, it fails in time of trial, and the energy, which God makes use of as an instrument, brings us, when it acts alone, into temptation, in which it cannot cause us to triumph. Sincerity and zeal in that case only cause us to fall because there is too much confidence in ourselves. Here it is the ardent confession of what the Father Himself had revealed to Peter. There are two parts in this confession—Jesus is the Christ, that is what the Jews denied. This was the first thing to be acknowledged in Jesus. He was the One who had been promised to the fathers and to Israel; but further, He was of the fulness of that eternal Godhead, in which was the power of life; “the Son of the living God.” Resurrection was the proof of it in the very place where death had entered. Thus, at the commencement of the Epistle to the Romans, He is of the seed of David according to the flesh, and marked out Son of God in power by resurrection of the dead. The promises of God were thus not only accomplished in His person, but the person in whom they were accomplished was Son of God in a power of life which is in God only; not only Son of God born into this world according to Psalm 2—Nathaniel had acknowledged that—but Son of the living God as to His person. Up to that time this had not been acknowledged; the Father had revealed it to Peter, the Father in heaven had made known to him His Son upon earth.
At the same time the Lord also shews His authority by giving to Peter a name in accordance with the confession that he had just made, with the truth which (while establishing His divine person, His relationship with the Father, and that as a man) laid the firm foundation of what was above all promises, of what had never been promised of the new thing, the church of the living God. Against this power of life in the person of the Son, the might of Satan, who had the empire of death, could not prevail. It is not here the death and the resurrection of Jesus, or His work, and the proof by this power of life that He was the Son of God in power; it is the essential character of His person revealed by the Father to Simon Bar-jona. Christ also says something to Him. As the Father had revealed the true character of Jesus to Simon, Jesus also (it is thus that we must take the sentence) gave him a name and a position. His person as Son of the living God was the foundation of the church called to have its true place in heaven, for it is in this character that it is presented to us here. It is Christ who builds, and up to this day the building is not yet completed. What we have here is not what Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 3. He, Paul, had laid the foundation of that house: others brought materials, each one on his own responsibility, so that wood, stubble, hay, were to be found in the building. That was what has been built under human responsibility upon the earth. What we have here is found again in i Peter 2:4, 5, where there is no human architect, but where living stones come and are builded together into a spiritual building. The same thing is found again in Ephesians 2:20, 21. It is Christ who builds a spiritual house, and the power of Satan could not touch it. It is the assembly which Christ’builds for heaven and for eternity. But there was yet another thing. The Lord, Master of all, gives the keys of the kingdom of heaven to Peter. He receives from Christ authority to administer the kingdom upon earth, and whatever he might decree here below would be sanctioned. It is no question, remark well, of keys of the church; one does not build with keys. Further, although Simon may receive the name of Peter, a testimony to his personal faith, which linked him with the Rock, and an acknowledgment of the fact that like a stone in its nature he belonged to the Rock; nevertheless here he does nothing at all, nor has he any authority, in the church. Christ Himself builds, “I will build my church.” No one else has any part in this. Peter himself acknowledges it in his epistle (1 Pet. 2:4, 5), by an evident allusion to this passage; the living stones come to the “living Stone.” The administration of the kingdom of heaven is confided to him. The keys of that kingdom are confided to him. For, I repeat, no such thing exists as keys of the church. Christ builds it, that is all. Now one can see well in the Acts that Simon Peter was the chief instrument of God in the work; and no true Christian doubts that what he established by his apostolic authority, with the sanction of the Lord, is from heaven. We must further remark that the only succession in that authority is found in two or three gathered in the name of the Lord (Matt. 18:17-20). Christendom has accepted with strange facility the idea that there are keys for the church, an idea which is nowhere found in the word. Then, this error being once admitted, another was accepted, namely, that the church and the kingdom of heaven are the same thing, an idea also which has no foundation in the word. The passage that we are considering clearly shews that they are two distinct things. Christ does not build a kingdom, He is the King of it; whether as such He be either hidden or manifested. Further, a kingdom is neither a bride nor a body, as the church is, and the reader must remark, that since it is here Christ who builds, He certainly places none but true living stones in the house. At most there is a certain analogy in regard to historical limits and circumstances, with the house of which Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 3 in which were found hay and stubble, the building in that case being left to the responsibility of man. What is positive is that in no case are the church and the kingdom the same thing. Further, to have confounded the church, which Christ alone builds, and which is not yet completed, with the house which Paul founded upon earth, is one of the origins of the Romish system, and of the high church, wherever it may be.
The church then, so far as built by Christ, is14 the kingdom of the heavens replacing the Christ coming to the Jewish people according to promise, and the disciples receive the peremptory command not to announce henceforth Jesus as the Christ. On the other side, the Lord from that time begins to make known to them that He was to be rejected, to suffer and rise. Peter cannot receive such a declaration. We see here how one may receive from God a revelation of the truth and be found in a practical state below the effect of this truth on the life. Peter had been taught by God Himself touching a truth which necessarily brought on the cross. For this his flesh was not at all prepared; further he who had just been called blessed by the Saviour is now denounced as doing the work and as having the thoughts of Satan. As a natural affection there was nothing to blame; but it was the mind of the flesh, not of God. It is a solemn thought for us that one may possess a truth as really taught of God and be opposed to the consequences which flow from it in the life. In this case the flesh is not judged according to the measure of the truth known, so that the divine effect of this truth should be produced in us. But the Lord, always perfect, puts Himself under the yoke of what was absolutely necessary to realise that which was worthy of God—redemption. The things which are in the world, its ease and its glory, are not of the Father. Man is carnal: Peter savoured what was of man. It is terrible to see that it suffices to say the things which are of man to shew what was evil and opposed to God. It is only the cross which is truly worthy of God. Christ always walked in obedience and in the love of the Father, which were fully manifested in Him. Also the earth was for Him a desert land, dry and without water. He savoured always and perfectly the things which were of God; but this brought on the cross in this world. Also each of us who would enjoy the blessing of God must take up his cross and follow Christ. If one spares himself, one spares flesh; one loses Christ so much and finds oneself in opposition to God. He that loses his life for the love of Christ will have it with joy when all is according to God. The soul is not to satisfy vanity and carnal selfishness; it is gained for ever in tasting the things of God: such is what the cross means in a world opposed to God in all that He is.
There is besides more than this moral fact; there are positive ways of God. If the Son of man is actually rejected by the world, as presenting perfectly the ways and the character of God in its midst, the time comes when God will make valid the rights of Him who was faithful, and when He will manifest it in the glory which is due and belongs to Him. The Son of man will come in the glory of His Father; not in the humiliation of the obedience in which His moral perfection was manifested, and in which, at His own cost, He perfectly glorified God, but (for He is Son of the living God) in the glory of His Father, and with His angels, then He will render to each according to his conduct.
This gives room for the manifestation of the kingdom such as it will be manifested when the Son of man will come in His glory. It is what the transfiguration meant as shewn in chapter 18. Chapter 16 had replaced Israel and the Christ in Israel by the church and the kingdom of the heavens, by a Christ put to death and risen, basis of the establishment of God’s counsels in divine righteousness, man being thus placed in a position entirely new.
Chapter 17 replaces the transitory system of the law and of the prophets in Israel by the kingdom of glory and by the order of things flowing from it. The mountain of transfiguration is not Horeb. It is no longer the first Adam put to the proof by a law, perfect rule of what ought to be in this fallen world. It is the last Adam seen in the result of the trial He had undergone; He, the victorious Redeemer who could bring other men to the same glory; He the Head of all, perfectly approved by the Father; a Man in whom He found all His good pleasure; His Son, His well-beloved seen in glory, and Moses and Elias with Him. And these two represent the law and prophecy in its highest order, for Elijah was not a prophet at a time when the law of God was recognised. He was in the midst of apostate Israel, as Moses in the midst of a captive people. Elijah returned to Horeb to denounce this apostasy and the refusal of the testimony of God, whatever had been His patience; for in fact nothing was then left but the election of grace, and Elijah went up to heaven after having displayed his grief on Horeb. Elisha was the prophet of resurrection, having returned across the Jordan which Elijah had crossed to go up to heaven. People have wished to see in this the living changed and the dead raised, and I have no objection. In fact, these two classes will be with the Lord in the glory of the kingdom. Still I do not see that this is the chief object of the Spirit, but rather the putting aside of the law and the prophets, of the law and the patience of God towards Israel. They now give place to the Son Himself, to God’s well-beloved, whilst they bear witness to Him.
Something is still left to be remarked. A bright cloud comes and envelopes them: it was the Shekinah of glory. The cloud had led Israel and filled the tabernacle with the glory of God, in such a way that the sacrificing priests could not stay there for their service: the word used here is the same as that used in the Septuagint when the cloud rilled the tabernacle. It was in the cloud that Jehovah came to speak with Moses at the door of the tabernacle which he had set up outside the camp. Peter calls it “the excellent glory,” 2 Pet. 1:17, 18. What is presented to us here, however, is the glory of the kingdom in which Jesus is recognised as Son by the Father. The disciples do not enter into the cloud like Moses and Elias, as takes place, I suppose, in Luke 9:34. That is to say, the heavenly part, the Father’s house, is not found in Matthew; the glory indeed is, and the Son come in glory with His own, but not the dwelling near the Father on high: here we are in relation with heaven, but not in heaven.
These words, “hear him,” present to us the voice of the Son as the only one which ought to be heard henceforth. Not that Moses and Elias had not preached the word of God, but the order of things which they represent is past; and the words of the Son revealing the Father are those which we have to listen to. The law and the prophets have given testimony to the Saviour Himself, as it is said; but they addressed themselves to man in the flesh. Now it is the Son of man after death, raised and glorified: redemption being accomplished, the counsels of God in grace are revealed. The former witnesses disappear and Jesus remains alone: Son of God to whom the Father gives testimony, in whom the Father reveals Himself. Peter, like so many Christians, would have wished to mingle the three, but such is not the instruction of the Father. However, until Christ was raised, this new testimony had neither its place, nor its cause of existence (v. 9).
The difficulty, suggested by the opinion drawn from Malachi by the scribes, the last testimony given (namely, that Elias was to come before the glorious day of the Lord), presents itself to the disciples. The Lord confirms this testimony and speaks of it as a thing which was to come to pass. Elias is to come first—the idea is true—and he will restore all things. The prophecy of Malachi shall be accomplished, but as Jesus came to suffer before His glory, so too there had come one to go before His face, and he must needs be rejected like Him whom he announced. Then the disciples understood that He spoke of John the Baptist, come before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elias. For what concerned the kingdom, all in fact, was only provisional. The king was there indeed, the Son of God Himself, but for a greater work even than establishing the kingdom: to save sinners and glorify God Himself by His death. To establish the kingdom He will return; but then all was prepared for faith to have its foundation, and for man to be without excuse. It was for that reason that the Lord could say, “Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel till the Son of man be come” (chap. 10:23), although He was there. However, His establishment as king has been deferred, the last half-week of Daniel still remains unaccomplished, and even the whole week for unbelief. Christ is seated at the right hand of God till His enemies be set as the footstool of His feet, having by Himself purified our sins, gathering, as we know, His co-heirs according to the counsels of God, co-heirs given to Him before the foundation of the world.
Afterwards we find here, on our way, that which, without arresting the accomplishment of the counsels of God, made impossible all idea of the establishment on earth of His power, such as it was then manifesting itself. The disciples themselves did not know how to profit by the faith of this power to make it effectual; the power of Satan was in the world, whether directly or indirectly. The Lord was there to remove all the effect of this power and the consequences of sin. He had bound the strong man. A case of this power of evil presents itself to His disciples, and they cannot make use of the Lord’s power to subdue it. It was then useless to continue to exercise this in the world if His disciples themselves did not know how to profit by it. And the Lord says, “How long shall I be with you? How long shall I suffer you?” However, as long as the power is there, Jesus, unchangeable in His faithful goodness, exercises it in grace. “Bring thy son hither.” Great consolation for us! If the faith of all fails, the Lord’s goodness never is lacking. We can count on His power and on His grace, as always sure and indefeasible till all is finished. However the want of faith in His own is the sign that the patience of God is on the point of finding no more room for its exercise. The power of evil brought the Lord to this point: the practical unbelief of His own drives Him away; it puts an end to these ways, in regard to which unbelief manifests itself.
Two great principles are laid down by the Lord in reply to the question of His disciples. First, faith can do everything, according to the willed action of God at the moment of its exercise: but to overcome the enemy, where he shews his strength specially, a life of retirement is needed, which, in the consciousness of the strife in which we are engaged, refers to the presence of God, and places itself before Him in abasement of the flesh, and in entire confidence. This confidence displays itself in dependence on Him, owned in order to seek divine action. The Lord (v. 22) returns to His instructions with regard to His rejection and His crucifixion. Delivered up to men, He must be put to death and He must rise again. The disciples entirely ignorant of salvation are deeply pained by it, but at the end of the chapter the Lord places His disciples, at least Peter, and according to His grace all of us, in the same relation with His Father as that in which He was Himself, whilst at the same time manifesting the divinity of His person. It is one of the most touching expositions of what was about to happen through the change that His work would produce— the revelation of a position always true as to His person, true as to His relationships, having become man before God, but which was about to be demonstrated in a glorious manner by His resurrection. At the same time He introduces His own beforehand into His own position, now that He was about to give up the kingdom in Israel as far as it belonged to Him there; now that He had just announced to His disciples His death and resurrection as necessary for introducing them into greater blessings than those which they enjoyed through His presence.
Peter wished that He should be considered a good Jew. When the tribute collectors asked Peter if his Master paid the didrachma (owing by the Jews for the service of the temple), the disciple answered, Yes. When Peter returns, the Lord anticipates him, knowing, without having been there, all that had passed. He asks him if it is from their children or from strangers that the kings of the earth take tribute or taxes. Peter answers, From strangers. “Then,” said the Lord, “the children are free.” He and Peter, sons of the great King of the temple, were not liable to pay; but, adds the Lord, “that we may not offend them, go thou to the sea and cast a hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up, and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a stater [two didrachmas].” Then the One who not only knows everything, but who disposes of creation with equal power and knowledge, places Peter afresh in the same position as Himself: “That take and give unto them for me and thee.” Peter therefore is also a son of the great King of the temple. At the same moment in which the Lord shews that He knows everything divinely, and that He disposes of everything as Master of the creation, He places Peter in the same relationship as Himself with Jehovah. He submits to the prescription of Judaism in order not to stumble the Jews. But He and Peter are really exempt, as sons of the great King. What perfect grace! At the very moment in which He must give up His relationship with the unfaithful people, He introduces those who follow Him into a far more intimate relationship with the God of Israel, and at the same time with Himself. He is Son, being man, and His own are with Him in the same blessed relationship.
The three chapters, 18, 19, and 20, up to the end of verse 28, form a subdivision of our Gospel. They shew us from the Saviour Himself the principles that ought to characterise the disciples in the new order of things on which they were entering—principles of life and conduct, individual and collective. Nature, as far as established of God, is owned: but the state of the heart is sounded, grace and the cross characterising all the new system. The first principles enjoined by God in the christian order are humility and simplicity.
The disciples, as usual, wished to have a good position in the kingdom, each for himself, this time however more in relation with moral character, with qualities. The Lord’s answer is limited to calling a child, and placing him in the midst of His disciples, as an example of the spirit which ought to characterise them: he who resembled that little child should be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. The child pretended to nothing, and passed for nothing in the eyes of the world. He who was nothing in his own eyes should be great in God’s eyes. Whoever should receive a little child in the name of Jesus had entered into His thought—into the estimate that He had of the world, and of the things that were in it. As to the principles of his conduct, he received Jesus Himself, acting upon the principles which governed Him. But, further, should there be in the child faith in Jesus, then, whoever should cause him to stumble in the way of the Lord, or should put an obstacle in the way, so that he should not follow Him, was fastening a millstone around his own neck to drown himself; and, worse still, there were stumbling-blocks in the world, but woe to him who should place them before the feet of others. The question between man and God was entirely laid down. They were either for or against Him. Neither was it any longer a question of a captivity in Babylon, of a governmental chastisement, however severe it might be, but of being finally cast into hell; it would be better to lose the best of one’s members than to find oneself there.
But the special principle of the ways of God which were then being manifested was grace. The Son of man had come to save that which was lost—a testimony of immense range! It was no longer the accomplishment of the promises made to Israel, nor the Messiah, as Head of the kingdom, expected by that people, and reigning in their midst, but a Saviour Son of man, but of man lost without Him. Man was lost. The difference between the Jew and the Gentile disappeared before the total ruin which was common to them, and before the salvation which was coming in His person. According to this spirit of grace, it was unsuitable to despise even the least important of human beings. Salvation was there, and the little child was of value in the eyes of God. God, who was giving His Son for the lost, took account of children. He took an interest in the happiness of men, and the child was not the least part of it. The work of Christ was available for them; He had come to save that which was lost. It is no question here of bearing the sins of the guilty, but of the general principle of the coming of the Saviour. “Lost” speaks of our condition; “guilty,” of what we have done: we are all lost together; every one will give account of what he has done in the body. Judgment relates to this latter point; bearing the sins of many does also; but “lost” is the condition common to all.15 Now children under the benefit of the work of Christ are accepted of God; “their angels continually behold the face of my Father which is in heaven,” said the Lord: a comforting passage, which gives us the happy assurance that children who die when quite young go to be with the Lord— the result of His work.
The Lord uses the image of the shepherd who seeks the lost sheep, as in the case of other sinners. It is a question here, not of bearing sins, but of saving the lost. As to the condition of man, all are together lost; children, as a condition before God, are the objects of His love; through the work of Christ they can see His face. The Lord does not go farther than the fact of their position, through the work that He has done according to grace. Small, and despised by men (by the learned, great in their own eyes, but who are, after all, of this world), God set great value on them. They had not yet learnt the spirit of the age: evil itself, in them, had not developed itself before the eyes of God; there was simplicity and trust, so that, as a condition, they were a model. Nevertheless the work of Christ is laid down as the foundation of all. It is not man in his pretensions, it is God in His grace, that we have before us.
The same principle of grace (v. 15) applies to the christian walk in regard to wrongs which may have been done to some one. Only what we have just been looking at spoke of what concerned the individual and sin before God. In what we are about to examine, we find our relations one with another, and along with that the assembly and discipline.
In what precedes we have seen what must characterise the individual and the counsel of the Lord with regard to the evil which would exist in the individual himself. We have seen that man ought to be like a little child, and that, having to do with God Himself in the light, evil should be intolerable to him. He must put it away at all cost. With others evil is not allowed, but the Christian must act in grace. He warns his brother, if the latter has done him a wrong; then he takes two or three witnesses with him, in order that the facts may be confirmed, and that it may not be mere personal recrimination without proofs, if the brother does not yield to them. In this case, the complainant will tell all to the assembly, and the witnesses are there; and if the one who has done the wrong does not listen to the assembly, the one who has suffered is free to regard him as a stranger to all common privileges. It is no question here of the discipline of the assembly. It may be that the one who has done the wrong deserves to be put out, but what the Lord regulates here is the conduct of the individual who has suffered the wrong. The first object is to gain the guilty brother. If one cannot do this, one must no longer act of one’s own accord as judge of one’s own cause. The facts must be confirmed, as well as the perverse will of the individual, by others who have no interest in carrying their own views; then the assembly intervenes with its authority. Here we are entirely upon new ground. It is not a question of Jehovah’s patience in grace with His people on the earth, but of the conduct of those who have part in the new privileges which flow from the new position taken by the Son of man. Important principles are also brought out. Authority resides in the assembly, the authority to bind and to loose. The true apostolic succession is in the two or three met in the name of Jesus. It is not in individual successors, either of Peter or of the other apostles, but in the assembly, that is found the spiritual authority sanctioned by heaven. Let the wisdom of an apostle, if there is one, guide them: it is none the less the assembly which judges as a last resource. It is the assembly that must be listened to. In it is found judicial authority— the power of binding and of loosing; and the reason for this is given, namely, that, where two or three are gathered to the name of Christ, He Himself is there. The same principle applies to the requests one presents to God. Where two or three agree to ask a thing, it is granted. It is not individual will, nor a purely personal desire. The two or three being gathered to the name of Jesus, Jesus is there. The request is the fruit of a spiritual agreement, and God answers the request. The value of Christ and the mind of the Spirit are found there.
This position of the two or three, and the relationship in which grace has placed them in virtue of the name and presence of Jesus, is evidently of all importance. The privilege, which was given to Peter to establish the kingdom upon earth, falls as a heritage to the two or three truly gathered to the name of Jesus. There, and there only, is the divine sanction put upon what is done on earth. God can, no doubt, sanction and guide an individual; but an individual has not the authority which is conferred upon the two or three thus gathered. The promise made to the prayer of the two or three thus gathered to the name of Jesus, and agreed as to what they wish to ask, is also infinitely precious. Thus placed, Christians dispose of the power of God. It is a question of the things to which the Spirit of God leads their thoughts by common agreement. Now, for a soul which is sincere, and which seeks only the will of God, to be assured of God’s power being employed with that object, is a great favour. In what a blessed manner this associates us with divine activity in love in the work that this love wishes to do on earth! The basis on which this favour is confirmed to us is equally precious. Jesus Himself is present where two or three are gathered to His name. What encouragement! Now that He is in heaven, absent bodily, He is Himself present spiritually with those who trust in Him here below. What an immense privilege it is to feel that, until the Lord Jesus come to take us to Himself, we may count on His presence in our midst when we gather to His name!
The remainder of the chapter (v. 21) presents to us the spirit in which a Christian must act with regard to the one who may have offended him. It is no longer a question here of the way traced higher up, if he refuse to acknowledge his wrong, but of the disposition of the Christian to forgive it him, even if he should often repeat it. The Christian should always forgive—should never get weary of shewing grace towards the one that may have offended him; for a man might acknowledge his wrong, and yet repeat it. Ought this always to continue, and the Christian always to be ready to pardon? Yes, we must always act in grace. God has pardoned us much more. In Luke 17 the repentance of the one who has offended his brother is supposed. Here the principle is that forgiveness— such a case occurring—must always be granted. It is the christian spirit which is established. I do not doubt, although the principle may be universally established as a christian principle, that allusion is made here to what happened to the Jews. God in His ways with the nation having pardoned them the crucifixion of His Son, they would not have grace shewn towards the Gentiles, and were placed in consequence under discipline, under punishment, until they shall have paid the last farthing. It is not a question of expiation, nor of an individual, but of the nation and of the government of God.
Next the Pharisees raise the question of marriage, which gives the Lord occasion to lay down some principles as the basis of natural relationships, and of grace in the Christian; then, at the same time, to bring out man’s true moral state according to nature; and, finally, the consequences and the principle of devotedness according to grace.
That which God ordered in the beginning is strictly maintained. God created man, male and female; He united the two to be but one flesh, and this union is indissoluble according to God. Sin may break the bond, but divorce is totally forbidden under any condition but that of the fact by which the bond is thus already broken. It is God who has formed this link; man has no right to break it. Since then a power was come to work in man outside and above nature, which can put him outside natural relationships, it can take and endow him with energy in order to keep him, apart from those relationships, for the service of the kingdom. The relationship of marriage is fully recognised, its holiness, its indissolubility; but God has taken possession of man, so that he might be for Him. In His creation, that is, God has made marriage; but the Holy Ghost, acting in power, appropriates to Himself a man, who, from that time, recognises marriage, and yet does not marry for love of the kingdom of God.
Next (v. 13) we have nature viewed on its beautiful side: little children, and a young man of charming character. In the Gospel of Mark we read, “Then Jesus, beholding him, loved him”; but his heart had to be put to the proof. Little children, with whom malice, falsehood, and the spirit of the world were not yet in action, furnished the model of what was suitable to the kingdom of heaven. The root of evil, no doubt, was there; but it was the creature in its simplicity and confidence, things which the world despised, and not will bearing fruits of wickedness and corruption. Thus their character, being such, served as a model. The difference between the amiability of nature and the state of the heart before God was to be shewn in the case of the young man. Irreproachable in his conduct, he sought the Teacher, who appeared to his conscience able to give the most excellent directions for well doing. He comes with the thought that there is goodness in man, and in his eyes goodness was manifested more in Jesus than anywhere else. He seeks His counsel as to how to gain eternal life by his doings. He addresses the Lord as a man, a Rabbi, attracted nevertheless by what he had seen in Him. He calls Him good. The Lord stops him short, “One only is good.” Now the young man did not know Him as such. He had asked what must be done, not to be saved, but to have eternal life. The Lord reminds him of the commandments, the rule for the man who wishes to have life through the law: “This do, and thou shalt live.”
Now the young man did not know himself, nor what the law of God was in its holiness. He wanted to do in order to gain eternal life. The Lord does not speak of eternal life; He takes the young man on the ground of the law, which promised life to those who fulfilled it. The young man, irreproachable in his conduct, like Saul, and not knowing the spirituality of the law, replies that he has kept the law in everything the Saviour speaks of. What lacked he yet? If he would be perfect, he must sell that he had, and follow Jesus. The state of his soul is at once made manifest. The heart of the man, irreproachable in his morals, was under the yoke of attachment to what he possessed. He leaves the Lord sorrowful, his heart having been shewn out in the light which poor human nature can never endure. Nature, however amiable it may be in its character, is morally entirely at a distance from God. Here is an amiable young man, seeking to do well, shewing what is called the best dispositions, with the means to do a great deal of good, as soon as the light comes, convicted of being under the dominion of an idol—of preferring his ease and his riches to the One whom he knew to be good, to whom he had come to seek direction as to the One who could best direct him. His heart was entirely possessed by evil, by an idol.
The Lord had already judged man, when declaring that none was good save God Himself; nevertheless He goes still farther. The disciples (astonished at such a result, and at that which the Lord had said about riches, which, in the eyes of a Jew, were the sign of the favour of God, and which, at all events, furnished the opportunity for doing good works) cry out, “Who, then, can be saved?” If none were good, and if good dispositions, with the means of doing good, were worth nothing, if these means were rather a hindrance, who could be saved? The Saviour’s answer is categorical. If it was a question of man, no one. As far as man is concerned, it is impossible; good is not in him. Man is the slave of evil by his will and his lusts. But God is above evil—He can save. It is evident that we are on an entirely new ground—on the ground, not of a law which puts to the proof, but of the truth itself which, while magnifying what is created by God, declares the entire moral ruin of man. God can save. This is the only resource. This is the fundamental truth as to the natural man. Now let us see what is the effect and the principle of grace, where it acted, and where men had left all to follow the Lord.
The apostles had done what the Lord had invited the young man to do; they had left all, and followed Jesus. What should they receive? The Lord answers by turning their eyes towards the kingdom established in glory. They would be on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. The Son of David, the Son of man, seated on the throne of His glory, would have His princes over the twelve tribes, judging them, and themselves also seated on thrones. But He will be Son of man, and will have taken out of His kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; then princes shall rule in judgment. Isaiah 32.
And not only the apostles, but every one that had forsaken that which nature loves, which God Himself owns in its place; every one who should renounce himself for Christ, renouncing also everything that was dear to him, should have an hundredfold in reward, and inherit eternal life. It is not a question of the special position of Israel, as in the case of the twelve companions of Christ at the time of His humiliation in Israel; but at all times, in every place, he who should lose the present life for His name’s sake should receive an hundredfold, and eternal life. This is the principle, for we have already an hundredfold down here, and afterwards everlasting life. The Lord says here, “eternal life”; to the young man He only said, “Thou shalt enter into life”; for the law had no formal promise of eternal life, it only said, “This do, and thou shalt live.” Life and incorruptibility have been brought to light through the gospel; God had promised it before the world began, but in due times manifested His word through the preaching of the apostle (Tit. 1:2, 3). Eternal life is twice mentioned in the Old Testament (Ps. 133; Dan. 12), but the two passages refer to the millennium. No doubt there were facts, such as those of Enoch, of Elijah, and passages like Psalm 16, which gave ground for that belief which the Pharisees had rightly received. The Sadducees had known neither the scriptures nor the power of God. But the passage which the Saviour quotes shews how obscurely this doctrine was revealed, save for a spiritual eye. Christ was the eternal life come down from heaven (1 John 1). With Him, and specially after His death, it was fully manifested. This already takes place here: one renounces the good things of life here below for oneself; one receives an hundredfold, and inherits eternal life.” When He says, inherits, He turns our eye towards that which is properly eternal. I have already said one may have an hundredfold here below, even with persecutions, as Mark says; but then the inheritance surely is not limited to this world, and the eternal life, although we possess it already down here, belongs to another world, and never ends. The Lord here reveals it clearly, while carrying our thoughts to new things, and declaring that this denial of oneself should bring advantages a hundred times greater.
There was a danger, as did not fail to happen, that man might think of a kind of bargain with God: so much labour and sacrifice, and a proportionate recompense. Wretched principle! but which man is quite capable of inventing. The Lord therefore adds verse 30, that many first should be last, and last should be first.
Chapter 20:1-16 shews, to explain it, that, while recompensing each sacrifice faithfully according to His goodness, God is sovereign in what He gives; and that if He judges good, He can find the occasion of giving to those who, in man’s estimate, might not have laboured so much, the same reward as to those who wished to gain according to their labour. The first workman has for principle so much labour for so much pay; the others betake themselves to the good will of the Lord of the vineyard. You shall receive what is just; and grace recompenses beyond all desert of labour. Such is the great principle of all true service rendered to the Lord. There is the principle in question, and the final phrase (v. 16) refers to what was said at the beginning: “So the last shall be first, and the first last.” It is the inverse, however, of what is said (chap. 19:30) at the beginning of the parable, where this sentence refers to the thought of man, “What shall we have therefore?” whilst the final phrase refers to the thought of God who takes pleasure in blessing, according to the riches of His grace and power, according to His goodness. It is always thus in every case. The workman shall receive according to his labour, as that happened to the first that was called. God gives according to His goodness and His grace. There had not been a refusal to the invitations among the last (v. 6, 7): God called them when the moment that pleased Him arrived.
In the last words by which He closes the parable, the Saviour establishes in a formal manner this principle of grace. Many are called, but few chosen. This principle is laid down as the foundation of all for many. We find the same principle in chapter 22:14, where it is also laid down as the basis of all. A single man furnishes the example of it. A mass of people unite under the standard of Christianity, giving themselves up to the call of God; a small number only among them comes under the influence of the word of God, and is the fruit of it. It is this sovereign grace which is the true and only source of all blessing. Here the Lord, after having spoken of the operation of this grace in the parable, lays it down in an abstract way as the basis of all.
There are yet some other moral traits of deep interest which relate to this in connection with the Saviour’s humiliation (v. 17-28). The Lord warns His disciples on the way to Jerusalem, that He must be condemned to death by the Jewish authorities, and delivered to the Gentiles, but that He will rise again the third day.
The sons of Zebedee (v. 20) raise the question, which is that of the whole Gospel we are studying, but in a thoroughly selfish spirit. They think, for they believe in Jesus as the Messiah, of the immediate establishment of the kingdom, since the King was there and they would wish to possess the most exalted places in it—to sit on the right hand and on the left of the King. But God was thinking of things of a very different character of excellence which also belonged to the moral state of man and his relations with God; now God was revealed in Jesus. There, moreover, is the key to the Lord’s history—the Messiah in fact, was there—this King announced in the promises and prophecies. Now, after the flesh, the Jews were the children of the kingdom and the heirs of the promises. But the revelation of God, necessary to the accomplishment of these promises, revealed the hatred of the human heart against God, and this the more that the revelation was being accomplished in humiliation by the grace that saves. Had He come in judgment, all should have been taken away. He came then in grace. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them.”
Farther, there was need of expiation, without which no sin could have been forgiven. Always, whatever might be the grace in which God was there, it was always God, and man would have none of it; and Jesus, the true Messiah, in whom all the promises were Yea and Amen, found Himself rejected. But God in His divine wisdom made use of this hatred to accomplish expiation, absolutely necessary to save any one whomsoever, or for Israel itself to be blessed; shewing thus the state of man’s heart with respect to God, and opening at the same time the door of salvation to the Gentiles.
Thus the Son of man (a far wider title than that of Messiah, since it embraces all the rights of Christ in the counsels of God) was to suffer, to be rejected and put to death, then to arise from among the dead in order to lay the foundation of the eternal blessing of man and even the temporal blessing of Israel, on the assured basis of the atoning work which Christ was about to accomplish. These things could only be accomplished according to the power of an altogether new position— beyond death, the power of the enemy, and the wrath of God, according to the position of man risen, fruit of a work accomplished and approved by God, and a proof of divine power; a position consequently unchangeable, and not a blessing dependent on the responsibility of man, under which all was called in question, as in the case of Adam, who, in fact, failed in it. Here the blessing was to rest on a work in which God was about to be perfectly glorified. He has been, in fact, put to the proof—this gracious Saviour, but only to manifest His perfect faithfulness and obedience, whatever besides may have been the depth of His sufferings. But then He must drink the cup; the cross was His lot. Not only so, but His disciples must follow Him in that path. A victorious Messiah would place His own on thrones of judgment, but with a Saviour dying on the cross, all that must, for the moment, be laid aside. He must first accomplish a work of far different character of glory, and open to His disciples (with regard to what would result from it here below) a pathway like His own. They must follow it; there was the path which He Himself trod, and which He was tracing for them to follow Him. The two disciples (their hearts filled with carnal desire of greatness, their spiritual sight wholly obscured by the thought of Messiah’s earthly reign, and only looking at human glory) ask of Jesus the favour of sitting on His right and on His left in the kingdom of their desires. But, as in many other circumstances, the folly of the flesh is only an occasion for the Saviour to bring to light the thought of the Spirit.
In the world this kind of greatness was doubtless met with everywhere; but this was not Christianity. He who seeks to be great, and to take the lead among Christians, has entirely falsified the christian character. He will be the last of all; and the true way of having the highest place is to serve, considering oneself as the slave of the wants of other disciples. It was so that Jesus had done; He was not come to be ministered to in this world but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many. A lesson simple and clear indeed, but of all importance! The seeking for personal exaltation is only the selfishness of the flesh, the spirit of the world which is enmity against God. Love delights to serve—this is what Christ did; pride and selfishness love to be served, and to take precedence of others.
In reading of such instructions, we are evidently beyond the idea of a Messiah come to reign, and we find ourselves in the thoughts of a God of love; in presence of the revelation of grace and the Word made flesh, of Him who emptied Himself, who humbled Himself, and who is now exalted. This passage is so much the more important because it terminates all the history of the Lord except His last days at Jerusalem. All His life of service ends here, and these words impress an indelible character on this blessed life, shewing us solemnly, and in a manner as touching as it is powerful, what ought to be the character of our own—to serve in love, and, as far as this world is concerned, to be content to be nothing, while following in the footsteps of our precious Saviour. Oh that His own may learn this lesson in which the flesh could have no part whatever, but which gives us the joy of finding ourselves following Jesus, where purified from selfishness, our eyes may contemplate the beauty of that which is heavenly, and where we enjoy the brightness of God’s face; where, in a word, the life of Jesus in us, enjoys that which belongs peculiarly to Himself.
In the first evangelists, those called Synoptic, the account of the last days of the Saviour commences here. Then in order to present Himself for the last time to the Jews, He resumes the character of Son of David. Would Jerusalem yet receive her king?
We may here indicate briefly the difference between those three evangelists and John. The three are historic: they relate to us the life and the ministry of Jesus from three different points of view: as Emmanuel the Messiah, as the Prophet-servant, and as Son of man in grace. Moreover, in these evangelists, His service is accomplished entirely in Galilee, in the midst of the poor of the flock. The result is that He is rejected; but He is presented to men in order that they may receive Him. They will have none of Him, but He is there for them. We have already seen that, while there as prophet and Son of David, He manifested God in this world. If man, or Israel, had received the Son of David, Son of man in grace, they could only receive Him with all the divine features which were peculiar to Him; consequently they could not but bow before the manifestation of that which was divine. It could not be otherwise, for God was there. This is what man did not wish.
In the Gospel of John He is presented at the outset as God Himself, and consequently as already rejected, as He is seen in chapter i:10, n. The Jews from the beginning, and throughout the whole of this Gospel, are treated as reprobates. The necessity of the divine work in its two parts, the new birth and the cross, is asserted. Election and the sovereign action of grace, and its absolute necessity for salvation, are brought out everywhere. No one can come to Jesus, unless the Father, who hath sent Him, draw him. His sheep receive eternal life and shall never perish. In this Gospel nearly all takes place at Jerusalem except what is related in the last chapter.
Let us remember that Jesus presents to the heart of His own the spirit in which they must walk in this world as the spirit in which the Saviour Himself walked; He, the Lord of all, meek and lowly in heart, serving the others by love.
The Lord, going out of Jericho (v. 29), accepts from the blind men the title which He bears in relation to Israel, to whom also He is about to present Himself for the last time as having a right to this title. “Have mercy on us, O Son of David,” say the blind men. Not lending Himself to the impatience of the world which would not occupy itself with the misery of the blind men, the Lord stops to heal them; and they follow the Son of David, a clear testimony rendered to the reality of His title. But He presents Himself here too as the “Lord,” that is, as Jehovah Himself.
Arrived at Bethpage, near Bethany, He sends two of His disciples to the village, where they should find an ass and its foal, in order to His sitting thereon, and thus entering the city of Jerusalem, which was near. Prophecy had announced this fact: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem; behold, thy King cometh unto thee; he is just, and having salvation [or, saving himself]; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.” Remark, however, that these words, “just and saving himself,”16 are omitted here. He was first to come in humiliation; later He, the true King of Israel, should come with power, bringing with Him the deliverance of the people. Notwithstanding, though in humiliation, He acts already with royal and divine authority, and God disposes hearts to own Him. The owners of the ass let it go at the demand of the disciples. In the Gospel of Luke we find more details; here we have the fact that He acts as King. The crowd, under the divine influence, recognise Him also as such, and He enters, in the midst of this triumphal procession, into the holy city, accompanied by the cry, Hosanna to the Son of David. All the city was moved, and the multitude said, “This is Jesus, the prophet of Nazareth.”
Now that He is owned prophet and king (His priesthood was to be accomplished elsewhere), the hand of Jehovah displays itself clearly. It was not then the testimony which failed in the heart of the people. The Lord exercises His authority in purifying the temple, profaned by the trading which took place there, and which provided for the wants of those who had need of animals for their sacrifices. This traffic brought in with it another, that of money-changers. They had made the house of God a den of thieves. Matthew only cites the passage. It was the house of His Father, but such is not the point of view presented here. He is the King, Emmanuel; also His power is manifested in grace; He heals the blind and the lame.
All this provokes the hatred of the chiefs of Israel, who express their sore displeasure. The Lord quotes to them Psalm 8, which reveals to us the Son of man, according to the counsels of Jehovah, when the Messiah is rejected of Israel. It is well to remark the two citations in verses 9 and 16. The first is taken from a psalm constantly cited by the Lord and His apostles, which reveals the restoration of Israel in the last days, when they shall own Him whom they pierced. (Ps. 118:25, 26). Hosanna means, Save now, or Save, I pray thee. Other verses of this psalm are frequently cited. Psalm 8 presents the position of the Son of man, all things being put under His feet, when (in Psalm 2, which shews Him King in Israel and Son of man) He has been rejected, but with the declaration on the part of Jehovah that He will be King in Zion, spite of Israel and the world, which is invited—at least its chiefs—to bow before Him. (Compare John 1:49, 50; Matt. 16:20, followed by chap. 17; Luke 9:20-22.) Now (v, 17) the Lord wishes no more of Jerusalem; He quits it, goes to Bethany, and there passes the night.
The fig-tree (v. 18-22) represents, I have no doubt at all, Israel, or man under the covenant of the law, who is judged definitively and for ever. There was nothing but a fine appearance, without fruit, and there never should be any more on that footing. But the Lord takes occasion of the fact, that at His word the fig-tree withered forthwith away, to shew His disciples the effect of faith in them from the time it was found there. All difficulties should disappear. Not only would Israel under the law wither away, but all the worldly power which raised itself against them should disappear under the waters of the judgment of God.
In verse 23 the Jewish authorities raise the question of that of Jesus, the usual way with those who officially possess authority, when God is acting outside of them by His spiritual power. The Lord, in His divine wisdom, does not contest official authority in its sphere, but He presents a case which went to put its value fully to the proof. Divine power does not want authorisation, and it had fully manifested itself; but Jesus answers as in humiliation, and morally, as we can always do with His aid, if we cannot manifest this power outwardly. At any rate God does not work miracles to satisfy incredulity. The Lord proves, by their own confession, their incapacity to form a judgment on what was done on God’s part. John wrought no miracles. The baptism of John, was it from heaven, or of men? If it was from heaven, John had borne witness to Jesus, and why did they not believe? But they were afraid, because of the people, to answer, “Of men.” “We cannot tell,” said they. How, then, pretend to judge of the mission of Jesus? But now they have to be judged in their turn, as well as all the sections of the Jewish people.
In all this part of the Gospel, Christ being rejected, the present time thenceforward is bound up, without interval, with His second coming in judgment, as we have seen it in the citations from Zechariah 9, Psalms 2, 8, 118. Only the Lord lays down, quite from the first, the character of this rejection.
In verses 28-32 He proposes to them the case of the two sons: the first saying, I will not go, but afterwards going; the second answering, I go, sir, but not going. Such was the pretended obedience of the Jews, whilst poor sinners repented of their sins and followed Christ. His interlocutors owned that it was the first of the two sons that did the will of his father. The Lord applies the case to them, and adds that, though they had seen the repentance of others, they did not repent one whit more.
Then, in verse 33, He sets out their history in the parable of the vineyard let to the husbandmen. The vineyard had been carefully put in order, and hedged round about. The owner sends his servants to receive his share of the fruits. Such were the prophets; but they were persecuted and killed, as Stephen too accused the Jews in Acts 7. Last of all he sent his son. But man [the Jew], with all the advantages he could enjoy on God’s part, would have the world—the religious world, if you will—without the Son of God, without God and His authority, for he who has not the Son has not the Father. The husbandmen cast Him out of the vineyard, and kill Him. The Jews said that such miscreants ought to perish miserably. Then the Lord quotes the same Psalm (118), already mentioned in the earlier part: “Did ye never read in the scriptures The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes?” The kingdom was taken from them, and given to those who should bring forth the fruits thereof.
Then (v. 44) the Lord makes the difference between the effect of the judgment which should befall them, and that which should happen in the last days. They should fall on the stone of stumbling, and be broken; whereas those on whom it should fall in judgment should be crushed, and ground to powder.
Having heard these words, the chief priests and Pharisees perceived that He spoke of them; but they were held back by the fear they already had of the mind of the multitude; for these regarded Him as a prophet.
What a solemn testimony the mouth of the Lord renders here of the crisis through which the human race was then passing, through which the soul passes still, when Jesus is announced! He who stumbles against the stone is ruined; but the Lord will come in judgment of His adversaries, who will be overwhelmed by the power of His advent in glory. The rebellious authority which rejects the truth is always feeble, and depends on the opinion of the world. A bad conscience is always feeble. He who has the truth and faith can say the truth; he is in the hands of God, and knows it. Let us remember that the world in which we live has rejected the Son of God. The gospel says to man on God’s part, What have you done with My Son? What can he answer? God announces grace with long-suffering, until His long-suffering would be useless; but the world is judged, having not only sinned and violated the law when it had the law, but rejected God Himself come in grace.
Not only has man been driven out of the earthly paradise, a world (so to speak) which God had created around Him, but, as far as it depended on man, he has driven God from this world outside, which sin and lusts had formed around man. He drove out God, when His love brought Him here below, where He was delivering man every day from all the evils which sin had introduced into the world. Man does not want God; he will not have Him at any price.
The parable of the husbandmen refers to the responsibility of man, even when it treated of Christ’s coming. Now the Lord proceeds to speak of the ways of God in grace toward Israel and also toward the Gentiles. In the preceding parable it was a question of seeking fruit as God was doing in Israel. Here a king makes a marriage-feast for his son, and invites the guests to the feast. Remark also that it is a likeness of the kingdom of the heavens (v. 2), whilst in the preceding parable they were seeking the fruits according to a fixed measure of obligation, that is, the law, though this were by the ministry of the prophets and the Son, without the kingdom being in question.
Those first invited were the Jews, and of course also during the lifetime of Christ (v. 3). Afterwards, when all things were ready He sent once more His servants—the apostles after His death—to invite them to the wedding-feast (v. 4); but they made light of it. We find here the two characters of men: the pre-occupied whose interest is in the world, and who do not trouble themselves about the Lord; and the violent who persecute His messengers (v. 5, 6). Luke, as is so often the case when moral things are treated of, enters more into detail, whilst for the other part he recounts in few words a crowd of incidents which do not make a moral picture. Luke, I say, enters more into details for the purpose of shewing what excuses men present for neglecting Christ; then he gives us to see the Lord seeking in grace the poor despised ones of Israel when the chiefs would not have the Messiah.
Here we have the great historical fact that Jerusalem and the Jews as such would not have anything to do with Him and would persecute those that are His, bringing on themselves as they have done the judgment of God and ruin.
Afterwards He causes them to seek out the Gentiles, sinners where they are, and the guest-chamber of the wedding-feast is filled with people. But then comes a judgment which is exercised with regard to all these guests. We have only one example here, but this to lay down the principle. Christendom gathered by the message of the gospel is the object of God’s judgment according to the nature of the invitation which has been made. For a wedding-feast there must be a wedding-garment. One must have put on Christ to have part in His joy.
We find here too another principle important and worthy of remark, a principle which flows from the form of the parable: the judgment is an individual judgment.
Here is that which I would say. The first part of this parable, of which the subject is grace, brings judgment on the Jews, who had despised the invitation of the King acting in grace and summoning them to the feast, who had evil-entreated the messengers, and who, following up their refusal to render Him the fruits of the vineyard, had outraged His servants the prophets, and finally laid their hands on His only Son and put to death His beloved. But at the end of the parable, when, the invitation having been sent on all sides, the house was filled with guests, though Christendom be cut off like Judaism, another sort of judgment is revealed to us, an individual judgment, in which it is a question of knowing if the individual is in a state which suits the privileges he enjoys. It is not a question of the destruction of a city and of the nationality of God’s earthly people, of an exterior judgment which closes the economy, the existence of the nation under the old covenant, all the Jewish system. It is a question of knowing whether the state of him who is present at the feast suits the marriage-supper of the Son, of the great King: if not, whilst the feast continues, the individual unfit for the marriage-supper is cast into outer darkness where is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The principle established, one sees that it applies alas! to many: many are called, but few chosen.
The parable of the husbandmen is the history of Judaism up to the rejection and the crucifixion of Christ; that of the marriage-feast is the history of the reception of the gospel, first by the Jews, then by the Gentiles, with that which results from the exterior participation in that grace, and the sorting which takes place in the very bosom of those privileges.
In resuming the order of the thoughts from chapter 20:29 we have seen thus far: the presentation of Jesus as Son of David at Jerusalem; the state of the Jews laid down as to the fact in the parable of the two sons; their judgment as a nation in the parable of the vineyard, a judgment which besides had been already described in the fig-tree become dried up.
Here it is useful to draw attention to the difference between these two cases. In the two it is Israel without fruit, judged and set aside; but in the case of the fig-tree it is Israel in fact, such as the Saviour found them: plenty of leaves, a fair appearance, but no fruit answering to what the Saviour was seeking, to what His heart wanted; also the judgment has another and more profound character. The tree was bad; human nature under the culture of God Himself was worth nothing. On His entrance into this world there was on the Saviour’s path but one people which had enjoyed this culture; it was Israel—man having all the advantages which man could have as placed on his responsibility here below. Now man according to the flesh is condemned; never will he bear fruit: it is all over with him.
The parable of the husbandmen attaches itself rather to the nation, as sphere of the ways of God, an economy on the earth; not human nature under the law, but the chiefs of the nation to whom the vineyard of God had been confided. God had had long patience; He was seeking fruits which were due to Him; and His messengers, His servants, had been dishonoured, ill-treated, and even killed. There was one thing more that God could do, and He did it; He sent His Son. The husbandmen cast Him out of the vineyard and killed Him; they must undergo the judgment they had deserved. It is not the incurable evil, the flesh which cannot please God, which perishes before His eyes; it is an exterior and terrible judgment falling on the nation which, notwithstanding all the patience of God displayed toward it in its long career, has crowned its iniquity by rejecting and crucifying His Son. This people suffers the public judgment of God; it is a body ruined, broken in consequence of its sin; it will be ground to powder (save the small remnant God has reserved for Himself) when in the last days it will be found an adversary and apostate.
After this parable we have the kingdom of the heavens, the grace which Israel equally rejects, but which, being spread far and wide, fills the house with guests, Gentiles as well as Jews. Here we find also judgment, but bearing on the question whether the individual is suitable for the position in which he is found.
Now after these great principles, after these features which give us the situation, all classes of the Jews, each in its turn come to be judged, just when they thought they were to cast divine wisdom into perplexity by questions it could not answer; for they believed themselves wise and thought they had to do with a poor unlettered Galilean. How blind this world, and religious men; and how wicked the heart of man! The Lord is in their midst in grace, and these men, the one as much as the other, would shew that He is in the wrong!
First (v. 15), the Pharisees gather together and take counsel together, seeking to entangle Him in His words. They hold strongly themselves to the Jewish self-government, as being the people of Jehovah who were not to be subject to the Gentiles. The Herodians, on the contrary, attached themselves to Herod’s dynasty, representing the imperial power of Rome which had placed him there as a subordinate king. They thought that, if Jesus acknowledged the Roman authority, He would lose in the eyes of the people His character of Messiah who was to deliver them from that yoke; if He rejected that authority, they might denounce Him to the civil power. It was of small moment to them that they should be inconsistent, if they could only get rid of God and His truth. The bitterest foes become friends to rid themselves of Christ. As Herod and Pilate, Pharisees and Herodians, Pharisees and Sadducees, all the world agree for that. The Pharisees and the Herodians came then together to question Him, and ask, while flattering Him for His integrity, if, yes or no, one ought to pay tribute to Caesar. The Lord, perceiving clearly their hypocrisy, points it out to them; then He asks them to shew Him the current money with which they paid the tribute in the country. Whose image and superscription did this piece bear? They say to Him, Caesar’s. Render then, said He, to Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and to God the things which are God’s. God had subjected the Jews for their sins to the Gentiles; they should own His hand and submit to this yoke, until God according to His promise should free them from it.
Meanwhile they should render to God the things which are God’s. They were doing neither the one nor the other. Rebels against God in all their ways, they were constantly rising against the Romans. Astonished at the Lord’s answer, they leave Him to go their way.
The same day the Sadducees, who deny the resurrection, came to submit to Him the case of a woman who, according to the law of Moses, had had seven husbands. Whose wife of the seven, demand they, should she be at the time of the resurrection? Here a fundamental truth was in question: also the Lord’s answer is formal and precise. To put the resurrection in question was to be ignorant of the scriptures and of the power of God. Death did not terminate the existence of man. If God was the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, He was not the God of those who did not exist. All live for Him, if they are dead for men; and, though life and incorruption are only brought to light by the gospel, the Old Testament sufficed to shew that God had been, and was, and would be, the God of the faithful, in order that they should be with Him, not only as souls but as men, soul and body, even as He had made them; only risen, a thing necessary after death. When God said, I am the God of Abraham, Abraham was a man living for Him and was to be raised. But the Lord treats also the positive side of the question. In the resurrection all is changed: it is no question either of marrying or of giving in marriage; one is as the angels of God in heaven. It is not the question here of the position one may be found in, but of the character in which one subsists. The resurrection is a foundation of the gospel. Our faith is vain if Christ is not risen: a thing evidently true, for if man rises not, Christ Himself is not risen. He is then dead also without remedy or answer; He is vanquished, not victor. The Sadducees are put to silence, and the two great sects of the Jews have nothing more to say.
But the Lord having done what the Pharisees, adversaries of the Sadducees, could not do, the curiosity of the Pharisees is excited, and they were gathered together (v. 34). One among them questions the Lord; but his demand has for result that Jesus lays the true foundation of the law and the prophets, and then establishes clearly the situation of things, the question of the moment, as God regarded it. Which, asks the lawyer, is the great commandment in the law? A question much debated among the Jews, for whom each commandment had a special value, the observance of each of them gaining, as in an examination, so many good marks from God. The Lord seizes the occasion, offered in the ways of God, to establish the fundamental principles of the divine law. To love God with all the heart, such is the first commandment. The second is like it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. All in man hung on these two things. It is the summary of what man ought to be, the root and the measure of human righteousness. It is not in any way a revelation of divine love; it is not at all a question of grace, nor of an open way for the sinner to come to God; but it is the perfect rule of what a man should be, a divine compendium of the substance of the law, the law on which the prophets insisted in seeking to recall the people to its observance.
Now all changes. In His turn Christ questions them. He had been clear and positive as to the resurrection, clear and positive as to the essence and the foundation of the law that man should have kept (and in keeping it he would have enjoyed the life of God; but he is a sinner). Now He presents to them the question, grave and decisive for them, of the judgment they formed on Christ and thus on His own person. What think ye of Christ? Whose Son is He? They say to Him, David’s. How then, says Jesus to them, does David in Spirit call Him Lord? saying, The LORD said to my Lord, Sit Thou on My right hand till I make Thine enemies Thy footstool? This is what was going to happen. He was about to quit the position of Son of David on earth, Heir of the promises made to the Jews, to take His seat at the right hand of the Majesty on high. No one could answer Him a word, and from that day no one dared to ask Him any more questions. All was closed between the Jewish people and the Lord, save alas! to put in execution the thoughts of hatred which they had in their heart.
Without speaking of the instruction it contains, this chapter is important because it shews the manner in which this Gospel moves in the relations of God with Israel, whilst indicating the judgment which the people were drawing on themselves by the rejection of the Messiah.
We find here, first the position of the disciples in the midst of the Jews, as long as God would endure these last, and that which, in this respect, suited the servants of Jesus; then the iniquity and the hypocrisy of the scribes and the Pharisees; lastly the love and sovereign grace of Jesus, grace which overflows and displays what He is, even when He is announcing judgment. Hence all this part of the Gospel is bound up with the ways of God in relation with His earthly people, as the then moment when all that was passing is bound up with the last days. All connects itself with the Jews of that time and with the relation of the disciples with this people, and thence passes to the last times, leaving the church aside, save that the mention of the last times introduces necessarily the responsibility of those who replace the Jews as servants of the Lord during His absence, and finally the judgment of the Gentiles.
The disciples are left by the Lord in the relation with the Jewish chiefs in which they were then found and up to the judicial rejection of the people at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem. The Saviour places them in the same category as the multitude. All were subjected to the authority of the scribes and the Pharisees. These were seated in Moses’ seat; and one ought to hear them as to injunctions which they drew from the law given by his means. Nevertheless one must carefully guard against following their walk: they were hypocrites who spoke and did not act. They made the law very strict for others and very light for themselves; they loved to appear before men with the forms of piety to acquire a religious reputation; they sought the first places in the synagogues, salutations in the public places, and to be called Rabbi, making themselves esteemed in the eyes of the world by religion.
The spirit of the disciples was to be the opposite of all that. They were not to be called Rabbi, for Christ alone was their Master, and they were brethren; they were not any more to call others by the name of father, for one only was their Father, He who is in the heavens; finally they were not to be called teachers, for Christ alone was He who taught them. He who would be great in their midst was to be their servant, for whoever exalted himself on earth would be abased, and he who abased himself would be exalted. This is just what Christ has done, whilst man, having wished to exalt himself and be as God, has been abased and will be yet more in facing the judgment of God. (Compare Phil. 2.)
Afterwards (v. 13) the Lord denounces the scribes and the Pharisees, those religious doctors of the day, putting His finger on the different traits of iniquity which characterised them. They shut up the kingdom of heaven before men, and would neither enter nor let others enter; for religious doctors always oppose the entry of the truth into other hearts. Their life was a life of hypocrisy. They sought to profit through their religious character by the purse of those whose weakness exposed them to their artifices. They made long prayers. They would be proportionately severe. They shewed (v. 15) a prodigious zeal for their religion, but they made their proselytes morally worse than themselves. They proposed the subtleties of casuists and neglected the essential things of the law of God. Exact as to the minutiae of the tithes demanded by the law of Moses, they neglected justice, mercy, and faith, all that which was really important in the eyes of God. They washed the outside, and within they were full of rapine and unrighteousness. Hypocrites! they used to build the tombs of the prophets and were sure that, had they lived in the time of their fathers, they would not have imbrued their hands in the blood of those messengers of God. They testified thus to being sons of their fathers. Well! let them fill up the measure of their fathers.
Never did the Lord accuse any as those whom we may call the clergy of His time, those who, under religious forms, were the great obstacle to the success of His work here below. Serpents, offspring of vipers, said He, how should you escape the judgment of Gehenna? The meek and lowly Saviour, He who had begun His career by describing the character of those who should be blessed, closed it, rejected by the religion of the world and of forms, by describing the hypocrisy and unrighteousness of those who were opposed to the blessing of their neighbours; and He has done it with severity so much the more terrible as it was the mouth of love and peace which expressed itself thus.
Such is the starting-point of these burning words which put in light, as He could do it, the true character of the religion which will not have the truth. At least, said they, they would not have taken part in the persecution nor in the death of those who brought the message of God. But God had His eye on them; they would be put to the proof in that respect. Christ, for it was the Lord Himself who judged them thus, would send prophets, wise men, and scribes (which He did after having ascended on high); whom they would persecute, kill, scourge in the synagogues, to maintain religion intact, but (it is God who pronounces the judgment) in order that the righteous blood shed on the earth since Abel up to Zechariah might come on the generation on which God had bestowed His last and greatest boon, and which had also shewn in the highest degree the perversity and the iniquity of man. We know, according to Revelation 18:24, that it will be just so with Christendom under its Babylonish form.
The very solemn point which is here put in evidence is that iniquity accumulates. The patience of God waits, and not only that, but it employs all means to recall to sincerity and to Himself those who possess the truth and who have at least its form. The most touching appeals, the most energetic warnings, the condescension which makes use of reasonings almost from equal to equal, all this is rendered useless by the obstinacy of men in despising grace and in practising iniquity. Finally, when God has exhausted all His means of calling to repentance, then comes the judgment that this divine patience had suspended. It is at last brought in by sin accumulated from age to age, and by the hardness of heart which has grown with the despite done to divine warnings and to grace.
Nevertheless grace overflows from the heart of the Saviour who speaks here in His divine character. Nothing more touching than the complaints of His grief in apostrophising Jerusalem, which would neither receive His appeals nor come to be guarded and sheltered under the wings of divine love. The city is just characterised by the persecution of all the messengers of God; and how often He would have gathered her children together, as a hen her chickens under her wings! But now He Himself come in love is rejected, and “your house” (for He does not call it His) “is left unto you desolate” —not for ever, be it noted, for the gifts and calling of God are indefeasible, but desolate—till the repentance of the people manifested in the desire to see and to salute Him who had been promised according to Psalm 118, so often cited in connection with those days and the return of the Saviour. This was what the children had cried in chapter 21, a testimony willed of God and produced by His power, when the people would not have their Messiah, true Son of David. The iniquity of the people, set under their responsibility, was come to its height; but Jehovah, according to His sovereign grace and according to His faithfulness, will come again in power as Deliverer, at least for the repentant remnant, when the iniquity of years, in this case as in all others, will have wrought the blessing of Israel according to God’s promises, an act of pure grace and mercy towards children of wrath (Rom. 11:29-32).
That which precedes shews how in all this we have the Jewish people under our eyes. What follows is the history of the Jews, or rather that of the testimony of the servants of Christ in the midst of the Jews, in the interval which separates the rejection of the Messiah, here in question, and His return in glory. They are still—or anew—in Palestine; not yet delivered nor publicly owned of Jehovah, but under His hand in chastening, if it is a question of those who are under the influence of His grace and of His word, and finally in judgment against those who cast themselves into the arms of Antichrist. This statement comes very naturally following up the testimony of the last verses of chapter 23, and is connected, as to its contents, with that which is there said.
The Lord quits the temple, now forsaken in judgment up to His return, and sits on the mount of Olivet, separated by the valley of the brook of Cedron from the lofty plateau on which the temple was seen in all grandeur.
The disciples approach to draw His attention to the beauty of the majestic building. The Lord does not seek to turn away their eyes from the object which was pre-occupying them, but He foretells the complete destruction of what seemed to be the indestructible palace of their religion, necessary in fact for the accomplishment of the duties which it imposed, and the compulsory place for the offerings which were the only means of putting the people in relationship with God. All was about to be destroyed, from top to bottom; and their religion and all their relations with God, according to the ancient covenant which had to do with the temple, would be entirely abolished with it.
As far as it depended on the responsibility of man, the departure of the Saviour left the temple void of its God.
The disciples ask Him when these things should come to pass, and what would be the sign of His coming and of the end of the age. They mean the end of the age of the law by the arrival of the Messiah, that is to say, of Jesus in glory, for the Jews acknowledged “this age,” that is to say, the age of the law, and “the age of the Messiah,” which should terminate it.
Let us examine the answer of the Lord. It is divided into two parts. The first (v. 4-14) gives a general sketch of their position, and of what would go on to the end. The second (v. 15-21) presents the picture, the application of which is the development of Daniel 12.
This chapter, indeed, of the prophet announces the great tribulation through which Jerusalem will pass in the last times, a tribulation that has no parallel in the history of the world; after which the Saviour will appear for the deliverance of His own, and to gather together from the four quarters of the earth the dispersed of Israel, that is to say, the elect of that people. The Lord occupies Himself more particularly with those who would be witnesses to His name, whilst describing the condition of things which so closely affected them. He leaves out of the question the church and all relating to it, and speaks of witnesses among the Jews, whom He warns against false Christs.
Now that the true Christ had been rejected, the people would fall a prey to these impostors, and many would be deceived. There would also be wars, and rumours of wars; the disciples were to be quiet; the end, that is, the end of the age, would not be yet. Nation would rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there would be famines and earthquakes in divers places. It was the beginning of sorrows that would end in the accomplishment of the ways of God.
But in those days of trouble for the nation men would only become more wicked, and would break out in hatred against the witnesses for the truth. They would be killed, given up to be tormented, and they would be hated of all nations for Christ’s sake. When once the bridle is loosed, the Gentiles, like the Jews, will have neither Christ nor truth. False prophets would arise, who would deceive the mass, and the love of many would wax cold because iniquity should abound. In such cases moral courage fails, when faith is not in activity to sustain the heart by causing it to look to the Lord, who is above all difficulties, whatever they may be. The disciples were to persevere to the end, for deliverance would come in due time. Our business is to reap, applying ourselves, without discouragement, to the work of the Lord; for them it is a question of being delivered. It is true, in a general way, for us also, that we must persevere to the end. When the word of God speaks to us of the desert path that has to be trodden, it insists upon perseverance, and upon the maintenance of confidence unto the end, though there is no uncertainty about the issue for the true believer, because God will keep him to the end. He is faithful to do it, but He it is who must do it: there is the way, and we must walk in it. Danger is there, and we need to be preserved; but the sheep shall not perish, and none shall pluck them out of the hand of the Lord. We must, however, go on to the end: it is our duty to count upon God for that, but here in the last times there should be a deliverance. The word of God, notwithstanding the predominance of evil, should not be hindered; it would go beyond the limits of Palestine, and would carry to all nations tidings of the establishment of the coming kingdom. Then the end would come. It is not here the gospel of salvation, such as we have in Ephesians i, but the gospel of the kingdom, as John the Baptist and the Saviour Himself had proclaimed it. The kingdom of God is at hand.
All this is a general view of the state of things which would take place at the end, and which began to appear immediately after the departure of the Lord—a state of things of which there would be a foretaste in what was about to take place between His departure and the destruction of Jerusalem, of which verses 4-14 give us a general idea.
The church, as we have already said, is left entirely out of view, the testimony sent to the Gentiles being that of the last days when the church will be in heaven, and which will give occasion to the judgment described in chapter 25.
The destruction of Jerusalem by Titus is not found here at all: nevertheless this destruction was of great importance, because it put an end to all relation of God with the people, as such, until it should be resumed on their return to the land at the end of the days. Luke 21:24 speaks of the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus, adding that it should be trodden under foot of the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles should be accomplished. Daniel 9:26 speaks of it thus: “The people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary”; and the desolation will be there by the judgment of God. At the end the Messiah will take the kingdom, when Jerusalem and the Jews have suffered to the utmost the judgment decreed by God.
Verse 15. The Lord comes now, in the course of His prophecy, to the moment predicted by Daniel, when the abomination which makes desolate would be set up in the place that the throne of God ought to occupy. There would then be, as we have seen, a time of testimony in Israel, which would reach to the ends of the world to all nations; the servants of the Lord were to possess their souls in patience, and, although hated of all, to persevere unto the end. But for those who should be in Judea, the moment would come when an idol (for this is the meaning of the word “abomination”) would be set up in the holy place. This idol is called the desolating idol; because the confidence placed in it, and the public affront given to God, would bring about the desolation of the people and of the holy place. When it should be placed there, the faithful ones in Judea were to flee unto the mountains. The Lord uses many figures to shew the urgency of the case. He who might be upon the housetop was not to come down to take anything out of his house; he who might be in the fields was not to return back to fetch his garments; the moment would be so terrible, that it would only be a question of flight. But God ever thinks of His own. They were to pray, the Lord said, that their flight might not take place in winter, nor on the sabbath-day. When their time of tribulation—unparalleled in the history of the world—has come, God will consider the temperature most suitable for the flight) and also the conscientious spirit that would stop the faithful soul on a sabbath-day.
This passage clearly shews us that in all this it is a question of the Jews, and of Jerusalem and the neighbourhood. It is the last half-week of Daniel, “a time of distress for Jacob,” but he would be delivered out of it. But woe to the women with child, and to those that give suck in those days, though in times of peace such things would be subjects for joy to Jewish women: there should be a tribulation such as never had been. But the heart of the Lord thinks of all the difficulties, of all the dangers of His own. For the sake of His elect He will shorten those days, for otherwise no flesh should be saved; and in point of fact it will but be a misery prolonged according to man’s will, for in three years and a half all will be ended.
The quotation from Daniel clearly shews us that it is not a question of the siege of Jerusalem by Titus, for Daniel informs us that this time of tribulation is without a parallel, and consequently there cannot be two such. But further, the duration of the tribulation is twelve hundred and sixty days, or three and a half years: then followed seventy-five days for purifying everything, and then Daniel, having been raised, will have his part in these things at the end of the days. Now, whether you take the twelve hundred and sixty days as days— as I believe them to be—for a half-week of three and a half years, which corresponds to Daniel 9, or take them as twelve hundred and sixty years, the fact remains that nothing happened, either at one period or the other, corresponding to the Saviour’s prophetic words, or to those of the Spirit by Daniel.
Luke neither speaks of Daniel, nor of the abomination of desolation, for he occupies himself more with the present period and with the principles that belong to it. Thus he tells us on this occasion that Jerusalem would be surrounded with armies, and trodden under foot of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiies be fulfilled.
After that (v. 23) come the great signs. There will also be in those last times false Christs and false prophets, promises of deliverance which hearts will so greatly need at that terrible moment when all the false hopes of an unbelieving nation will have passed away. “Behold,” they will say, “he is in the desert; behold, he is in the secret chambers.” There will also be those who will work great signs and miracles, so as to deceive, if possible, the very elect. The wickedness of men and the deceits of Satan will again be employed to turn souls aside, and to hinder them from humbling themselves, and from seeking deliverance where alone it can be found.
It is the terrible time of the enemy’s power, and of the judgment of God upon the people, by means of the instruments chosen by the people to aggrandise themselves, and establish themselves in their unbelief. It is no question here of Christians; they know that Christ is in heaven. To tell them that He is in the desert, or that He is in the inner chambers, would not meet any need of a Christian, and would produce no effect on those who might be Christians only in name. For the Jew, who will undergo the agony of an unparalleled persecution, and of the anger of Satan, who, cast down from heaven, will be filled with burning rage, knowing that he has but a short time; for the Jew, amidst all this suffering, the despair of a heart, bitterly deceived by the promise of a deliverer already come, will be an evident snare. It is purely and simply a question of the great tribulation of Jerusalem in the last days, the time predicted by Jeremiah (chap. 30:7), and by Daniel (chap. 12:1), the deliverance of the remnant which becomes the nation being foretold in these two passages. The power of Satan, which develops itself at this time, is shewn us in Revelation 12, the order of the time in Daniel 9.
The Lord warns His disciples, for in the whole of this chapter they are looked at as witnesses in the midst of the Jews. They were not to follow any of those will-of-the-wisps lighted by Satan to deceive souls; for the Lord, the Son of man, would come as lightning, suddenly and with a brilliancy which would leave no uncertainty with regard to His person thus manifested; He would come in judgment there where the effect of the judgment was found before the penetrating eyes of God (v. 28).
The Lord makes some allusion to Job 39:30, though it is a proverbial expression, which one need not go far to find the meaning of. Where the carcase of Israel is, there will the judgment of God descend with the sight and rapidity of an eagle.
After this rapid and prophetic testimony of the Lord foreseeing the judgment of the latter days, He announces with greater calmness the wide results of the judgment of God, as well as the grace that will gather together the residue of the people (v. 29-31). It is not so much a prophetic transport, placing the mind in the circumstances which it announces, as the revelation of the ways of God, given with the calmness and dignity that are suitable to the One to whom all is certain. All the authority, all the power, which exists will be overthrown and will fall. I do not doubt that there will be in the last times extraordinary phenomena (Luke 21:25); but I think that the Lord is here speaking of the fall of everything which by exalting itself governs the world. God interferes, and all the powers then in rebellion against Him will be overthrown for ever.
This will happen immediately after the tribulation announced by the Lord and by the prophets. The disciples had asked what would be the sign of His coming. He had given them abundant warnings, and had declared to them the true character and dangers of those times; but the sign of His coming to the earth would be the appearing of His glory in the sky. He had laid before them what was connected with the earth, according to the need of those times. But the coming of the Saviour was heavenly, and it was in heaven that the sign of His coming to the earth would be seen, the appearing, I do not doubt, of His glory in the heavens. They would see the Son of man coming in the clouds with power and great glory, and then all the tribes of the land (the land of Israel, I think) shall wail because of Him, those who had rejected Him, and who now see Him returning in glory. The faithful sharing in a general way the fate of the nation, but delivered from their unbelief, will mourn, we know, in another manner (Zech. 12:10-14), looking upon the One whom they had pierced. The rebellious Gentiles, who exalted themselves against Jehovah, and against His Christ, will be destroyed; but here, I think, the Spirit has more in view the children of Israel.
But there is more; not only in Palestine will those who are written in the book of God (Dan. 12:1) be delivered, but the Son of man will send His angels (for now the angels have become the servants of the One who inherits all the rights of man, according to the counsels of God) to gather together all the elect of Israel from the four corners of the earth, from one end of heaven to the other.
This terminates the history of the Jews and of the testimony of God in their midst, from the time when they rejected the Saviour up to His return. We have seen the relation of the testimony of the disciples with the Jewish people, and the circumstances in which they are to render this testimony until the Lord’s return. This ends at verse 31 of chapter 24. Verses 30, 31 of this chapter are connected with verse 31 of chapter 25. The historical portion of the prophecy is taken up again in this last verse, the throne of the Lord being established, so that He judges the Gentiles. Between these two we have exhortations to the disciples, and the responsibility of Christians during the absence of the Lord. The general result for Christianity is developed at the end of chapter 24. All depended on the living expectation of the Lord. If those should fail, the servant would take the mastery over his companions in service, and would tyrannise over them; he would join himself to the world, in order to enjoy its fleshly delights: the consequence would be, that he would be cut off, counted among the hypocrites, and cast outside. This gives occasion to more precise details as to the condition and the responsibility in which Christians are placed during His absence, and this is what we are about to examine.
The coming of the Saviour gives occasion to look at Christians as ten virgins gone forth to meet the Bridegroom. The true force of the word is that the kingdom of the heavens will then have become like to ten virgins thus gone out. Nothing more solemn and more instructive than this parable as to the state of Christians. It is a question of the return of the Saviour and of that which will happen to Christians, to the members of the kingdom, at that epoch. If the servant said, “My Master delayeth his coming,” it would be his ruin, the demonstration of the state of his heart. But in fact the Bridegroom would delay; and this is what has happened.
It is of moment to remark the mutual relationships in which the personages of the parable are found. It is not a question here of the church as bride. If one would absolutely think of a bride, it is Jerusalem on earth. Christians are regarded as virgins gone out to meet Him who was the Bridegroom. The Jewish remnant does not go out. When Jesus shall come again, it will be found there on earth in the relationships in which it will have remained here below. The Bridegroom tarried, and the virgins, the wise like the foolish, went asleep, no longer expecting the Bridegroom. Further, they go in somewhere in order to sleep more conveniently. Nevertheless there are of them such as have oil in their vessels with their lamps: it is divine grace which sustains the lamp of the christian profession. They are not surprised. It is a question of those who make profession.
The moral state of the kingdom consists in this, that all are gone asleep: the coming of the Lord is forgotten by all. At an unforeseen moment the cry makes itself heard, Behold the Bridegroom! God re-awakens souls that they may think of it; but what a testimony rendered to the state of Christians! That which should have characterised them, the thing for which, as a living state of the soul of the Christian here below, one had been converted (according as it is written, “How ye turned to God … to wait for his Son from heaven”) had been entirely forgotten. They were no longer waiting for the Lord; and though there was oil in the vessels of some, the lamps were not trimmed. It is the soul that awaits the Lord which watches to be ready to receive Him. Their lamps shone no longer suitably. There might be smoke and ashes; the fire was perhaps not extinct; but there was little light, enough however just to manifest negligence and slumbering. Where was then the love for the Saviour, when all forgot Him, no more occupied with His return? Fidelity and love to the Saviour were equally at fault.
One is asked sometimes how it has happened that those so excellent men of past times had no knowledge of this truth— were not animated by this hope. The answer is easy: the wise virgins slept like the foolish. Waiting for the Saviour was lost in the church. And, mark it well, it is the cry, Behold the Bridegroom! which awakens from their sleep slumbering Christians. One must not fall under illusions: the proper state of Christians depends on this expectation: “Ye yourselves [it is said], like unto men that wait for their lord.” Without doubt the new nature that the Christian receives produces essentially the same fruits, whatever be the circumstances in which it is found; but also the character is formed by the object that governs the heart; and there is nothing which detaches from the world like waiting for the Lord, nothing which searches the heart like this expectation, in order that there be nothing that suits not His presence. Nothing consequently introduces like it the feelings of Jesus in the judgment that it conveys on good and on evil; nothing like it for cherishing affection for Jesus in the motives which govern our conduct. Remark also that in reality it is the same waiting for the Saviour, the fact of watching in waiting for Him, which is in question here: not at all the service that we have to accomplish during His absence. Service and the responsibility that attaches to it are found in the following parable (chap. 25:14-30).
The same distinctions are found in Luke 12. In verse 27 it is said, “Blessed are those servants whom the Lord when he cometh shall find watching”; then the recompense is that they will enjoy the blessings of heaven and that Jesus will gird Himself to make them happy. Afterwards (v. 43) it is a question of the service to render during His absence; and then the reward is the inheritance.
Returning to Matthew 25:1-13, I think the fact that the other virgins had to go away to buy oil means only that it was too late to have part with the Bridegroom, and that the faithful virgins could not then communicate grace. One must have it in time for the service itself. I will add that I do not think the foolish virgins were saved souls. The Bridegroom says to them, “I know you not”—what Jesus could hardly say to those who were His own.
In the parable of the talents (v. 14-30) it is a question of service. The Lord goes away and confides to His servants a part of His goods to trade with them. They are the spiritual gifts that the Lord Jesus has imparted to those that followed Him when He went away. It is no question of that which providence has given us, nor of all men, but of the servants of Jesus, and of that which He has given them at the moment of His going away. There is a certain difference between this parable and what is found in Luke 19. In this latter passage the same amount is given to each of the servants; human responsibility enters into it for more in the thoughts of the Spirit of God; also the reward is proportioned to what love gained. Here the amount is according to divine wisdom, in reference to the vessel to which it is confided; and each faithful workman is equally called to enter into the joy of his Lord; he is set over many things, but he enters into the joy of his Lord. Faithful to Jesus according to what was confided to him, Jesus makes him enjoy His own joy. The principle of work is the confidence that the workman has in the master, and the spiritual intelligence which that confidence gives him.
The talents had not been entrusted to them for doing nothing with: in that case the Master might have kept them to Himself. They understood well that they had been put into their hands in order that they might traffic with them for the Master during His absence, and they employed those talents, those spiritual gifts, for the Master’s service. Their heart knew that Master, desires His profit and His honour, sought no other authority or warrant for work than the fact that He had confided these gifts to them, and the zeal of a heart made confident through the knowledge that they had of Him. What the third servant servant lacked was exactly this true knowledge of the Master. In his eyes He was an austere man. And, mark well, when there is not the true knowledge of God as He is revealed in Christ, one has always an entirely false idea of Him. The heart ever betrays itself by the idea that one forms of God, and unbelief always makes of the true God a picture from which the heart revolts. Knowledge of the rights of God as well as of His love is lacking. If God were such as unbelief imagines and His authority were recognised, one would act accordingly: but when His love is unknown, His authority is despised. God only reveals Himself in Christ, in Christ alone can He be really known.
This case of the unfaithful servant marks also distinctly the difference between gifts and grace, and the effect of grace in the heart. We have no practical example as to this in the New Testament, yet the principle is clearly established in 1 Corinthians 13. In the Old Testament we have examples of the Spirit’s power without conversion taking place—far from it indeed. This is what also explains Hebrews 6. Here sloth and unfaithfulness flow from the ignorance in which the servant is concerning his Master’s character, as well as from the false and guilty idea that he had formed of Him.
Let us remark in our two parables an important fact which we shall find again elsewhere. The Lord, in the teachings which relate to His coming, says nothing which can give one occasion to think that it must necessarily be delayed beyond the life of those whom He addresses. Thus the virgins who slept are the same who awoke; the servants who received the talents are the same as those whose work is taken account of at the end. We know that many generations have appeared and disappeared since the departure of the Saviour, but He did not wish that they should be expecting beforehand any delay. In the same way when He wishes to give the history of the church to the close, the Spirit of God takes up seven churches which existed at that moment in order to describe in seven epochs the great features of that history; so that, although we may recognise now these features and these periods, there was nothing when the Apocalypse was written which announced in a formal manner any continuance of the church on earth.
There is another remark I have to make. What is said in verse 23 seems to me to state a general principle. Those who possess christian privileges without any living enjoyment of them, without truly knowing the Lord Jesus Himself, lose all that they have (this answers to Hebrews 6); whilst those who are faithful to the light they possess acquire more. This, too, is the explanation given in verse 29. The judgment upon the wicked servant is executed in verse 30.
We have gone through in these three parables the judgment of Christendom, of the church viewed as a divine system established on the earth, but exposed to the consequences of being established on the foundation of human responsibility; then of individuals who profess to be Christians considered with regard to their duty of waiting for the coming of the Lord, and in relation to their service during His absence. In verse 31 the Lord again takes up the thread of what He had already said with regard to the history of the earth and the things which will happen at His coming. This verse is linked, as I have said before, with chapter 24:31, before which all the relationships of the remnant with the unfaithful people and with the Gentiles, first in testimony, then in unparalleled sufferings, had been set out as preceding the personal coming of the Saviour, who will put an end to these sufferings. Now when the Lord shall appear in these circumstances, it will not be only to shine and then to disappear, as a flash of lightning; He will sit on the throne of His glory. Then when His warrior judgment, namely what is executed on His adversaries shall be accomplished (see Rev. 19:11), the Lord seated on His throne will judge the nations of the whole world to whom the gospel of the kingdom shall have been sent. This mission is found announced in verse 14 of chapter 24, which closes the first part of the prophecy of that chapter. It is a question there of the gospel that Jesus preached during His lifetime, as well as John the Baptist; it is not the gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus (that is to say, a work of eternal redemption fully accomplished), but the solemn fact that the kingdom was going to be established; it is the “everlasting gospel.” The Lord was about to begin to break the serpent’s head by the establishment of this kingdom, to take in hand His great power and act as King. This testimony is to be rendered after the catching up of the church and before the manifestation of the Lord. The testimony rendered to the Jews is found in Revelation 11; but here we learn that it will be heard also in the entire world before the end comes.
At the time then when the Lord shall be seated on the throne of His glory, He will begin to pronounce His judgment on the nations and to execute it. The word mentions two kinds of judgment, the warrior judgment, and that wherein the Judge is in session as supreme and recognised authority. Thus Revelation 19 is the warrior judgment. In chapter 20 begins the judicial session which is held when the power of the King has established His throne, and He sits there to judge (Rev. 19:11; 20:4).
As to the destruction of the beast and his armies, it takes place by the coming of the Lord, who destroys his armies and casts the beast and the false prophet at the same time into hell. Then He establishes His throne in Jerusalem. After this Gog comes, thinking to have all his own way; he finds the Lord Himself, and perishes on the mountains of Israel. Then, the throne being established in peace, the Lord sits there to judge the nations to which previously the gospel of the kingdom had been sent. The terms of the judgment shew us that it is no question whatever of a general judgment, as people commonly think of it. They are there judged according to the manner that they treated the messengers of the gospel of the kingdom. It is of this only that they here give an account to the Judge; it is on this only that He questions them. Now, as the greatest number of pagans have never heard of such messengers, this judgment cannot be theirs, being wholly inapplicable to them. Besides at the beginning of the Epistle to the Romans the judgment of the nations is pronounced, their guilt established on entirely different principles, namely, that they gave up the knowledge of God when they possessed it; that they disregarded the testimony of creation, then that of conscience; finally, that they plunged, consequent on this voluntary alienation from God, into idolatry and corruption, who should do worst.
Next we find here three classes, the goats, the sheep, and the brethren of the Judge; that is to say, those who had not received the messengers, those who had received them, and the messengers themselves. It is the judgment of the quick, of the nations; a final judgment. They go thence to Gehenna, to everlasting torment, whilst the righteous possess everlasting life here on earth, but enjoy it with God. It is the judgment of the valley of Jehoshaphat when Jehovah shall have gathered the nations, and there shall be multitudes in this valley of decision. The judgment of the quick is a scriptural truth as certainly as the judgment of the dead. Not only so, but the Jews were much more familiar, and this according to their own scriptures of the Old Testament, with the judgment of the quick than with the judgment of the dead. Doubtless there were in the Old Testament words which had given the Pharisees to understand the latter, as also the Lord justifies them on this point whilst He condemns the Sadducees. Yet these were held as good Jews, and the high priest and his family were of this sect. Nobody put their orthodoxy in question. They were wrong, we know; but when we see the passage by which the Lord convicts them, we understand how some who had not the Spirit of God might remain in ignorance of the truth in this respect. If one did not seize the fact that God looks at man as having a body as well as a soul, so that the life beyond death demonstrates also the resurrection, one has still trouble to seize the force of the proof alleged by the Lord. For him who knows that the Lord is risen and that we are to be conformed to Him, the thing is simple. Death touches only the body; if one subsists afterwards, it is to be a complete man. One thing proves the other. The soul is happy with Christ meanwhile, but the man is not complete. He lives, the man who died; after death, all live for God, they are only dead for man; this last state of death must cease, but will only cease at the resurrection. Meanwhile the soul is with the Lord, the witness, since life is not terminated, that death is not to retain him who is subjected to it.
Now Christians have trouble in believing a judgment on the earth, though they profess it in the Creed. But the word of God is clear thereon. Prophecy speaks of it largely. There is a judgment of the quick, as there is a judgment of the dead; and this judgment we have here, at least the most formal part, that where the Lord sits on His throne and personally judges the nations. Elsewhere they are suddenly destroyed by His glorious appearing, being found, either gathered to make war on Him as in Revelation 17:14, and Revelation 19, or surrounding the camp of the saints and the beloved city (and here they are suddenly destroyed by fire come down from heaven) as in Revelation 20:7-9. But here the Lord, seated on His throne, after having already come as lightning on those who were warring against Him, judges as King all the nations of the earth, according to the reception that each shall have given to His brethren the messengers of the kingdom, counting all that was done to them as done to Himself personally.
Such is the grand principle of this judgment. “The sheep” disavow all pretension to have had regard to the King personally; but He takes as done to Himself all that they had done to His messengers whom He owned as His brethren. “The goats,” on the contrary, pretend never to have failed toward the great King; but on the same principle the indifference they had shewn toward His messengers counts in the heart of the King for indifference toward Him. Thus it is just His judgment of the nations, but it is also a great encouragement for His servants whom He will send to the nations; it is also, in principle, an encouragement for all times. He thinks always of His own as if they were Himself. “Why,” says He to Saul, “persecutest thou Me?” This goes farther, it is true; for those that Saul persecuted were members of His body whilst He was in heaven; the others were His brethren on the earth. I speak of this as testimony to the great and precious truth that He ever bears the profoundest interest in His own—interest which never fails nor slumbers; which can doubtless allow the trial of persecution if needful, but an interest which, across all, holds the reins in His hand and owns the sufferings of His own for His name as a title of worth for the happiness of the kingdom which will be surely awarded them in its time.
I have still some remarks in detail to make. The Lord takes account of all the circumstances of the life of His own. The great aim of the parable is to shew that what is done to His servants is done to Himself; but He knows who is hungry, who is in prison, etc. Nothing escapes Him. Further, it is well understood that His own suffer, not only now, but at every time during His absence. Afterwards it is before the Son of man that the nations are summoned to render account of their ways. Besides the Father judges nobody, but has committed all judgment to the Son. Here it is the Son of man come and seated on the throne of His glory.
Remark that when He sits on the great white throne to judge the dead (not the living, as here), He does not come at all. Heaven and earth flee away from before His face. This is not to come there. Here, it is, when He comes in His glory (compare Joel 3: ii, et seq.) that He sits on the throne of His glory and that He gathers the nations. The blessed put on His right hand are blessed of His Father, but they are children, not companions of the Judge, like the risen and the changed; they do not come with Him; they were mixed up with the goats until the King separated them. Now this is not true of Christians, for the dead in Christ rise apart, then go to meet Him with those changed. They are risen in glory. Jesus, who was their first-fruits in His own resurrection, comes and transforms the body of their humiliation according to the likeness of His glorious body. Their resurrection is as a thing wholly apart, and alone the faithful go to meet the Lord. Here He comes to the earth, separates the faithful and condemns the wicked who had despised their brethren, at the same time that He gives to those who had received them (His brethren) the kingdom prepared for them by His Father. This is not however the kingdom of the Father as in Matthew 13:43. Nevertheless all flows from the Father and from His counsels as the source and cause of the blessing. It is an earthly kingdom, the blessing of which flows from the counsels and the goodness of the Father of Him who was there as Son of man— a kingdom prepared for them not before, but from the foundation of the world; the result of the government of God here below, but according to the counsels of God. The fire into which the wicked are to be cast was prepared for the devil and his angels.
Now, having finished that which He had to say when He had quitted or rather abandoned Jerusalem, the Lord recalls the attention and the thoughts of His disciples to His sufferings and His cross. Two days later came the feast of the Passover, and the Son of man was to be betrayed in order to be crucified. This was not the mind of the sages of the world, of the great men and the authorities, who found that the moment was hardly opportune at the time when there would be such a gathering together of people. For these, having enjoyed in vast numbers the effects of His power and His goodness, might stir up a tumult if the authorities attempted to get rid of Him in a violent and unjust manner. But in the counsels of God that was to be accomplished at this time.
True Lamb of God, He was to suffer for us in realising the type of the deliverance out of Egypt by means of a redemption excellent in a very different way. Also the Lord, in the value of His perfection, announces to His disciples that which was going to happen, making use of the very plots of the guides of the nation to accomplish the counsels of God, whilst all their precautions were reduced to nothing. Now man was sufficiently wicked, and the enemy sufficiently powerful, when God permitted it, that there should be no tumult. The world shews itself completely under the power of its prince, and the enemy of God. As far as tumult was concerned, there were only those cries, Crucify Him, crucify Him.
All that which follows is the solemn testimony that, at this supreme moment, the Saviour, the Victim of atonement, the Lamb destined for the slaughter, the Sheep dumb in the hands of him that shears it, was to find no succour, no refuge, no support for His heart, not one to have compassion on Him though He sought for it. At the same time His perfection, His grace, are displayed so much the more that He is put to the proof.
We are going a little in detail to run over the account of this grace and of this patience. One learns in it the perfection of the Saviour, where it is presented in the most touching and at the same time the most admirable manner. The close of the life of the Lord is distinguished in this respect that it is regarded at a different point of view in each Gospel, as also all the rest of His history, whilst Mark and Matthew present the same portrait with but little differences. But the Gospel of John shews us the person of the Lord God, the Word made flesh, eternal life in the world. Also in Gethsemane and on the cross, we find there neither suffering nor humiliation, but a divine Person who passes through them in His power. In Luke, it is the Man who in Gethsemane feels more the trial as man, but who is victorious in it, so that on the cross the expression of suffering is not found. In Matthew, as the victim of propitiation, He answers nothing if it is not to make a good confession and render testimony to the truth, the sole motive of His condemnation. The Spirit of God shews here in a positive manner the forsaking of men and even of His disciples, in which the Lord found Himself without any consolation for His heart; then finally the forsaking of God on the cross when He cries to Him, praying that God should not be far from Him, when bulls and dogs compassed Him. In a word we have, in John, the Son of God always man; in Luke, the man; in Matthew, the victim of atonement; but the circumstances are of profound interest, and we wish to touch on them.
The death of Jesus being already determined in the unpremeditated council held at the beginning of the night, when He had been brought before Caiaphas, the scribes and the Pharisees held a formal council very early in the morning to pronounce His definite sentence; then they lead Him away to Pilate. Here we find the iniquity and blindness of all in presence of Him who was about to die. Judas, who evidently as it seems to me, thought that Jesus would escape them as He had so many times escaped, as long as His hour was not yet come, struck in any case in his conscience at seeing Jesus condemned, comes to the chief priests with the thirty pieces of silver. Seized with remorse, he declares that he had sinned in betraying the innocent blood. Little sympathy awaits him there. They had attained their end; their business had succeeded; as to the sin of Judas, it was his affair. Such is all the compassion that remorse finds with those who make use of the iniquity that produces it. The end is attained; and if their instrument is lost for ever, so much the worse for him; it is his business. They have gained their end. Judas casts into the temple the silver, poor price of his soul; then goes away to hang himself, sad end of a life passed without conscience near the Lord. Nothing hardens like this. The cruel and insolent indifference of the chiefs of Israel, which does not relieve a bad conscience, pushes to suicide this man, who loses his life, his soul, and the money for which he had sold it.
But what a picture of the heart of man we find in what follows! Men who had no scruple in buying the blood of Jesus could not put in the treasury the money they had thus employed, because it was the price of blood. What a testimony to the blindness of conscience! How much scruples differ from conscience! Good and evil affect the conscience, which in itself is the noblest of the faculties. The scrupulous man is servile, dreads for himself, is occupied with ordinances, and fears to violate them. The god that the scrupulous serves is a god who watches over what affects him; and he abandons his miserable servant who does not take account of that which concerns the honour and the will of the master that he fears. It is a false rancorous god, the god of a heart that knows not the true God, even when the heart names him the Eternal. If the heart is but externally in relation with the true God, it will neglect that which bears upon His true character (righteousness, true holiness, love), to be occupied with His ordinances, which man without faith and without knowledge of God can accomplish, and which he fears to neglect because he is afraid of God. Now the chief priests could attach importance to Israel which was being ruined and which had been rejected before because of its iniquity: Israel ought not to be defiled; but for miserable Gentiles, to whom the door (closed on Israel) was going to open, a field defiled by the money which had bought it was good enough. It is thus that a place of burial is bought for strangers. All is blindness, pride, and darkness. Light they would not have. But the counsel of God, declared long before by the prophet, was to be accomplished. When their counsel was opposed to that, it came to nothing; but their own acts of folly were accomplishing the prophecies that they heeded not, though they were constantly read in their synagogues.
Now Jesus was standing there before their governor. He bears a good confession before Pontius Pilate. He is the King of the Jews. When the Jews accuse Him, He is mute. He is there to be victim. God gives testimony to Him by the dream of Pilate’s wife; then the governor makes efforts to deliver Him from the bloodthirsty malice of the Jews, profiting by a habit they had of releasing a prisoner at Passover. But the unhappy Jews must consummate their iniquity; for the moment arrives when God permits iniquity to have its course even unto the end, in order that it should be manifested such as it is. Thus was propitiation accomplished by the suffering and death of Jesus. Pilate shews only the feebleness of a man who despised all that which surrounded him; of a man who would keep his conscience, but had very little of it and still less of the fear of God; of a man who, when it becomes too inconvenient to him to maintain righteousness, yields to the violence and perseverance in evil of a will which fights utterly against God and good. In the eyes of Pilate it was not worth while, for a poor just man who had no human importance, to compromise both his person and the public peace. He washes his hands of it, and leaves the responsibility of this death on those who desired it.
Poor Jews! This responsibility they take on them; they do also bear its penalty up to this day. “His blood,” say they, “be on us and on our children.” Terrible curse that this poor people calls on itself; curse which weighs on it until sovereign grace, in bringing a little remnant to repentance in which it will feel the sin which has been committed, changes the blood of a curse into the blood of expiation; and this on God’s part who will cleanse them from the sin which they committed in shedding it. The sovereign grace of God is that alone which can find in the very iniquity of man the means of accomplishing the salvation of him who has been guilty of it. It is thus that we, who have been saved of this same grace, can render testimony to it everlastingly. In the work which saves us we have no part but our sins and the hatred which accomplished it on man’s side. This poor people was on this occasion to shew to what point it had fallen, abandoned of God. They chose a robber in place of the Son of God, a murderer, but a man who flattered their own passions in exciting them against the Romans, their masters, to whom they were subjected because of their sins. Now Pilate releases to them Barabbas, and delivers to them Jesus after having scourged Him already owned to be innocent; for that which characterises Pilate here is want of heart and a proud indifference wholly stamped with cruelty.
Now the beloved Saviour endures all the indignities which can rise in the heart of man, brutal and free to exercise a power which finds its pleasure in making those suffer over whom it rules for a moment. For man is a tyrant by nature, and when several are united, there is no moral force found where the most amiable dispositions exist, and thus one falls to the bottom of the ladder; one is ashamed of amiability, and all is on the level of what is the lowest. Poor fallen creatures! Besides, Pilate, their chief, had given them the example of it.
Nevertheless, that which especially concerns us here, that which ought to interest us, is the Lamb destined to the slaughter, the Sheep dumb before its shearers. The precious Saviour bears the insults and injuries of those who were only capable of taking joint pleasure in evil and of acting in consequence. He was not the One who would resist or do anything whatever to withdraw from it. He was come to suffer and give His life as a ransom for many. Only we can remark that Jews and Gentiles unite to reject and trample under foot Him who does not resist them. The chosen nation and the last beast, the Roman beast to which God had given the reins of power on the earth, put themselves in agreement, quite hostile though they were among themselves, to persecute and insult the Son of God. If the Jews go on before to demand His blood, the Gentiles lend themselves to the Jews to shed it. Now all is accomplished. The Saviour is led away to be crucified, the victim of propitiation for our sins.
It would appear that Jesus was physically feeble, for they compelled a man of Cyrene, named Simon, to bear His cross. They at least would not do so; alone, Jesus could not. Insolence and tyranny are here in play; in men there was joy in oppressing and putting to death the Son of God. Man was getting rid of Him to his ruin. But though these bulls of Bashan were there, though these dogs surrounded the Saviour, the great and for us the precious figure of the outline is the Victim silent and mute, the Lamb which goes to the slaughter. The account has a perfect simplicity; but the fulfilment of the prophecies unrolls before our eyes in an admirable manner; the spiritual view pierces across circumstances, contemplating the patient and divinely calm figure of the Son of God, perfect in His submission. They offer Him vinegar mixed with gall, the effect of which was to stupefy in the midst of the sufferings; but the Lord did not seek such relief. He was there to suffer and to accomplish the will of His Father, not to escape the consciousness of that which this obedience cost Him. They share His garments and cast lots on His vesture, which, without that, they must have torn. So it was written. Now the Saviour, exposed naked to the derision of the soldier, was not insensible to the ignominy which He suffered, although He did not turn away His face from it. There was no one to have compassion for Him; no one to confess His name, had not God the Father forced man to render testimony to Him, for Pilate had inscribed His title on the cross: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” The Jews had wished to avoid this affront; but this must turn to their confusion without remedy and veil, and He whom they had rejected must receive His true title in spite of them. Their King was crucified; but God had taken care that He should be owned and proclaimed such.
Nevertheless personally He was to be outraged to the last point. The lowest state in which man could find himself left him always man; and at this supreme moment it was no question of making the difference between us, more openly wicked, and another who should have escaped the degradation that sin produces. It was a question of placing man, such as he is, in face of the Son of God. Also a robber it is here on the side of men, associated with them against a God of love. In that they are together and equal. This robber could, in concert with the others, insult the Son of God. All is levelled; Christ alone is abased beneath man; a worm, as He said, and no man; yet was He God revealed in man. The Man who revealed God was there; and the reproaches that reproached God fell on Him. The Lord suffered and accomplished His work, more sensitive than any man to all that, for in Him was no trace of the hardness which renders insensible to circumstances, nor of the pride which conceals them or which at least seeks to conceal them: He felt all with a sensibility which all the malice of men could not change; and perfect in patience appealed to His God from them. “But thou, O Jehovah, be not far from me.”
The Jews boasted of having attained their aim. Man deceived by Satan thought to have rid himself of God whose presence troubled him. They wagged the head, saying, “He saved others: himself he cannot save.” What words! To own His power fully manifested, to reject what was divine, to avow that they actually banished God from their midst! In fact, He could not save Himself, not being able to think of Himself: the love which had saved others went farther and gave Himself for us. Perfect love for His Father, obedience to His commandments, His perfect love to us, hindered His saving Himself. He might have had His twelve legions of angels, but He was come for others, not for Himself; finally, loving His own which were in the world, He loved them unto the end. If He was to save others, He could not save Himself. His love and His obedience were complete. That which marks the frightful blindness of these poor priests is, that they cite the words which, in the Psalm where His death is described so as it is here described, come out of the mouth of the godless and the wicked (Ps. 22:7, 8). In all this it is a question of men and of Christ; but as I have said, He appeals from them God. Such is what we find in Psalm 22: “Be not far from me.”
Now comes the moment when His position, His relation with God, must pass before our eyes. “Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour.” Thus, even by outward circumstances, God separated His Son from outrages and insults purely human in order that He should be alone with Him and entirely for His solemn work. He was alone with God, made sin; nothing to turn aside the cup of justice; nothing to deaden it. The power which was in Him did not shelter Him; it rendered Him capable of bearing that which weighed on His soul, the feeling of horror of the curse in the measure in which the love of the Father was familiar to Him, the feeling of that which it was to be made sin in the measure of the divine holiness which was in Him; and neither the one nor the other could be measured. He drank the cup of the judgment of God against sin. All forces Him to utter the cry—a cry which we are allowed to hear that we might know what passed there, the reality of atonement: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”—a forsaking which none can fathom, save He who felt it, but which, in the little measure where its shadow only touches us and passes over us, is more terrible than all which the heart or body of man can undergo. In the mouth of Jesus it expressed all that which His heart, and that heart alone, could feel.
Moreover, Psalm 22, from which it is taken, is the voice of Jesus Himself. Psalms 20, 21 speak of the sufferings of Christ, such only as man can understand when he sees them. They are, as it were, inflicted by men, and bring about the consequences which result from them for their victim and for those who inflict them—the exaltation to the right hand of God of the One who suffered; destructive wrath upon His enemies. But who was the enemy of Christ, in His character of expiatory Lamb? No one. He suffered, in giving Himself, on the part of God in righteousness; the stroke itself—the sufferings— was the stroke of justice. Moreover, as to its consequences, in Psalm 22, all is grace and blessing for all those who are the objects of it, from the little remnant which thus acknowledged Jesus, and which became the church, to the millennium and “the people that shall be born.” AH declare that He has done this.
It is interesting to see all the testimonies of God in these Psalms (19-22). The creation above (for down here it is too much ruined to serve as such), and the law (Ps. 19); next (Ps. 20) the testimony of Jesus, looked at prophetically, such as He presents Himself to the heart of His disciples; the answer (Ps. 21); next finally, what Jesus alone can manifest, that which passed between His soul and God, that which His soul only was capable of expressing. Now this was not either weakness or exhaustion, as some men of petty thoughts have taken into their heads to say; a materialism to which not only is the christian doctrine unknown, but which betrays a total want of feeling and of sound judgment.
Now, not only the work has been accomplished, but all the circumstances which prophecy had announced as about to happen, have received their accomplishment. Moreover He Himself was to give up His life into the hands of His Father. It was not to be taken from Him. He gave it up Himself. He entrusts His mother to John; He then fulfils the last prophetic circumstance. A true Man, absolutely calm, and, as we men say, with perfect self-possession, He declares that He thirsts as the result of His sufferings, and tastes the vinegar which is conveyed to His mouth by means of a sponge attached to a reed. All was finished: atonement, perfect according to God; the work of redemption; all the prophetic circumstances, absolutely everything, had received its accomplishment, whether as to man or as to God. Then, with a cry which indicated at the same time a strength in its fulness and an entire confidence in His Father,17 He commits His soul to Him in that critical moment in which death had part, but in which it lost from that time forward all its power—at least for the believer. With this cry, which announces the end of all human relationship with God, save in judgment, and the end of all the means which God could employ to re-establish such a relationship with the children of Adam, Jesus expired.
At this very moment, that which expressed the impossibility of man’s approaching to God, the veil of the temple is rent from top to bottom, and the sanctuary, the holiest of all, where the throne of God is found, is opened. We can enter with boldness (Heb. 10:19, 20) by this new and living way, because of the precious blood which has been shed. The ancient state of things was ended, whether as the relations of man with God, or in that which concerns the very creation. Not however that the new order of things is yet established, because grace still seeks the co-heirs of Christ; but, in the rejection of the Son of God, all relationship of the first man and of the first creation with God has been ended for ever. A new basis has been laid down in righteousness and by the full revelation of God in sovereign love, for the eternal joy of man, in the last Adam, and in the new creation. The veil, which characterised the state of man as to his relations with God, of man who was not only a sinner in Adam, but who had always failed, spite of God’s employing all possible means in order to form fresh links of relationship with him—the veil which said, “Man cannot come to God,” is rent; the earth quakes, and the rocks are rent. The power of death is also destroyed, as well as that of the devil who possessed it.
Historically it was only after the resurrection of Jesus that the dead rose and appeared to many in Jerusalem, as a witness of that which had been wrought. Nevertheless the fact is here connected with the death of Jesus, because it is by this death that the work of deliverance has been thus accomplished which made resurrection possible; a work to which testimony has been thus rendered in an extraordinary manner. It is a question of the bodies of saints—a precious anticipation of the first resurrection, when death will be swallowed up in victory. It will perhaps be asked, “What became of them?” None knows, because God has not said. The fact itself is a testimony rendered to the efficacy of the death of Jesus. The question only proceeds from the vain curiosity of man, and God does not make revelations to satisfy that curiosity.
The Roman officer who was on guard, consequently on the sentence pronounced on the prisoners, as well as the soldiers who were then with him, seeing the earthquake and all that had happened, are seized with fear, and acknowledge that Jesus is indeed “the Son of God.” This was the cause of His condemnation by the priests and scribes. They had involuntarily borne testimony to Pilate that He called Himself so, which had alarmed the latter, whom a bad conscience was already making afraid—so that, with all that had been noised abroad in Palestine through the deeds of power He had wrought there, this thought ran throughout the world; it was known of all. These extraordinary facts which accompanied His death, the cry full of strength with which without apparent motive He drew His last breath, all the circumstances which surrounded His departure from this world, bore witness that His death was more than a human death. The hearts of those who were taking part, overpowered by such events, might (even in their natural state) declare that this was the Son of God. As to the result in themselves, no one can know anything of it. Here it is the testimony which these poor pagan hearts, under the influence of the events which were passing under their eyes, could not refuse, while the hardened hearts of the Jews— “his own” —of those to whom He had come, were rejoicing in His death. Nothing hardens like religion when the heart is not changed. The natural heart is evil, not hardened, and facts in which God manifests Himself can act upon such a heart.
From this time forth it is a question of the resurrection, testimony which God renders to the perfection of the Victim and the perfection of His work; to the divine perfection of the One who went down to death, into the lower parts of the earth, so that, having ascended on high, He fills all things, not only as God, but according to the efficacy of the redemption He had now accomplished (Eph. 4). For the moment, what occupies us is the part which men took in these events, but, above all, the part which women took in them. It is here that the good handmaids of the Lord have their good portion. The disciples count for nothing in it; they had fled; and in all this scene of grief, with the exception of John, they are not seen. Moreover it is Mary Magdalene who becomes the messenger of the risen Lord, to communicate to the disciples the privileges He had just acquired for them. The women had already followed Him from Galilee, had furnished Him with what was needed for His wants while He walked as man on the earth; now they were going to care for His burial, if God Himself had not anticipated them. Already they had accompanied Jesus to the place where He was to be crucified, looking from a distance on the solemn scene which was displayed before their eyes.
Now Jesus was to be “with the rich in his death.” Joseph of Arimathea goes in therefore to Pilate, who delivers to him the body of the Saviour. God wished to honour Christ, spite of the dishonour which was inflicted on Him on man’s part, and even on account of that dishonour. Joseph puts Him in his own tomb, wherein man never before was laid, wrapping Him in a winding-sheet; next he waits, as the law required, till the sabbath should be past, in order to carry out the honourable sepulture which he was preparing for Him; meanwhile he rolls a great stone before the mouth of the sepulchre. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (wife of Cleopas) are found there, watching and contemplating, with the profound interest produced by an ardent affection and by a bond of attachment which divine grace had created in their hearts, specially in that of Mary Magdalene, out of whom He had cast seven demons.
Nevertheless it was not only three blessed women and Joseph, the disciple up to that time timorous, but whom the extreme iniquity of the Jews, as often happens, forced to shew himself, who were occupied with the remains of Jesus: the chief priests, goaded by a bad conscience, which always inspires fear, think of what Jesus had said—for they knew it very well—namely, that He would rise again. With them it was a fixed determination, and enmity against good and against all testimony borne to its power,18 an enmity which left them neither rest nor respite. They go in to Pilate, asserting that His disciples might come by night, take away His body by stealth, then say that He was risen. They wanted Pilate himself to secure the body of Jesus. But they themselves were to serve as involuntary witnesses to the resurrection of the Saviour. Pilate, full of contempt and not caring to serve their malice, leaves them the task of guarding against the removal of the Lord’s body by His disciples. They place seals on the tomb, besides a guard to watch against every attempt of the kind. This was only to make the fact of the resurrection more patent, and to secure its proof in such a manner as to leave room, where there should be good faith in man, for no controversy.
Here the recital becomes rapid and abrupt. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary arrive at the end of the sabbath—that is, the evening of Saturday—to see the sepulchre. Then, in the morning of the Sunday, the sepulchre opens, an angel having rolled away the stone from the entrance. The glory of this angel terrifies the soldiers who are guarding it, so that they become as dead. The same angel comforts and encourages the women; he shews them where the body of the Lord had lain, saying, “Fear not; for I know that ye seek Jesus which was crucified. He is not here, for he is risen, as he said.”
That which follows has altogether the character of this Gospel: it is important to remark this. We find neither the profoundly interesting and instructive conversations which are recounted in the Gospel of John, nor the ascension which took place at Bethany and is related by Luke. The angel bids the women to go quickly and tell His disciples that He was risen, that He was going before them into Galilee, and that there they should see Him. This makes conspicuous an entirely new character of His relations with them since His resurrection. He is still with the remnant, with the poor of the flock, in the place where the Messiah was to appear to Israel according to the prophecy of Isaiah. These relations are renewed on the footing of resurrection. No doubt He possessed all power in heaven and earth; but He was reestablishing His relations with the remnant of Israel, not yet as King manifested in glory to subdue the nations, but as associated with His disciples, viewed in the character of messengers of the kingdom, then when Christ, rejected from Jerusalem, had gathered the residue of Israel, and had recognised them in grace. Such is the character which the disciples wear here. The women go to announce these things to the disciples; they enjoy, by virtue of their faithfulness and their attachment to Jesus, this special privilege. They are the first witnesses (and that even to the apostles) of the victory which the grace and power of God gained over the efforts of the enemy, now conquered for evermore.
Nevertheless it is not only the angel who sends them. As they are going to carry the message to the disciples, Jesus Himself, full of love, comes to meet them, so that they may be eye-witnesses of His presence on earth: a touching response of the Saviour to their fidelity, a blessed testimony which proves that the heart of Jesus is as full of love and of human condescension now that He is risen, as when He was walking in lowliness down here the most accessible of men. He also encourages them. But this fact is related to other truths which are connected with the position which the Lord takes in this Gospel, and specially on this occasion. In John, where the heavenly side and the actual position of the Saviour axe in question, He forbids Mary Magdalene to touch Him. She thought she had again found Him whom she loved, as come back on the earth to remain there in His character of risen Messiah. Such was not the case; He was ascending to His Father and our Father, to His God and our God. His bodily presence on earth was no longer to be the object of affection to His own. He had placed them in His own position before His Father, in the same relationship as His own—ever a man with God, the well-beloved Son of the Father. This is why Thomas will only believe on condition of touching Him. The Lord grants him this favour, but makes him feel nevertheless, that those who believe now without having seen are more blessed than those who will only believe when they see. Christians, though now they see Him not, rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory; while the remnant, typified by Thomas, will only believe when they look upon Him whom they have pierced.
The unhappy Jews seek to hide their confusion, without humbling themselves, without repenting. By bribes they induce the soldiers to spread the report, even at the risk of falling under the severity of the Roman discipline, that the disciples had taken away His body while they slept.
Finally, the eleven go into Galilee to a mountain which the Lord had appointed them. Doubt still remained in the heart of some, but they worship Him as soon as they saw Him. Their doubt is changed for us into certainty, based not only on the operation of the Holy Spirit in the soul—the true foundation of faith—but on the clear evidence that it was neither a fable of their invention, nor a history arranged beforehand, nor the fruit of an ardent imagination which only saw what it wished. Some of the disciples themselves doubt, as we have seen in the case of Thomas; they believe only on irresistible evidence, sealed by the gift and the mighty operation of the Holy Spirit come down from heaven on the day of Pentecost. I think that there were present on that occasion other disciples besides the eleven; perhaps the five hundred of whom Paul speaks.
Here the mission of the apostles has its point of departure at the interview in Galilee with their risen Master; it is a remnant already associated with Jesus; it is not, as in Luke, a Saviour, who ascended to heaven, and who from heaven begins with Jerusalem, just as took place. Here Jerusalem is forsaken, and delivered into the hands of the wicked and of the Gentiles, while the remnant of Israel is associated with the Messiah rejected, but now risen; then those who are thus associated with the disowned Lord are sent to make disciples of all nations, baptising them to the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. This mission, up to the present time, has never been accomplished. The mission to the Gentiles was formally transferred to Paul by those who were pillars among the apostles (Gal. 2), with divine authority from Jesus glorified, and by the direct mission of the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:4; 26:16-18).
It is possible the other apostles may have gone later; but the history which is given us in the word does not speak of it, unless it be in a very general and even vague verse at the end of Mark. The apostles remained at Jerusalem at the time of the persecution which took place after the death of Stephen; then the gospel was carried to the nations by those scattered abroad, and later on committed to Paul. John is found in Patmos, left last of all to watch over the church in its decline. The last verses of Mark say that they went everywhere, and that the Lord wrought with them to confirm the preached word by the signs which it was granted them to perform. However it may be here in Matthew, the commission is given them. They were also to teach the baptised nations to observe all that Jesus had commanded the disciples, and He Himself would be with them to the end of the age. It is not the christian mission properly so called; this is found rather in John 20, Luke 24, and Mark 16.19
13 See Expository, Volume 3, for Notes on chapters 1-15, of which this is the sequel written since.
14 Query if this should read “is not the kingdom of the heavens” [Ed.]
15 It is the difference, developed elsewhere, between Romans 1:17 j to 5:11 on one side, and chapter 5:12, to end of chapter 8 on the other side.
16 The Hebrew phrase is a little hard to render grammatically, but the sense is, bringing with Him salvation by the power of God.
17 It is this aspect of His death which Luke more especially puts in the foreground.
18 They had wished to put to death Lazarus who was raised, a hardness of conscience and perversity almost inconceivable.
19 Down to verse 6 of Mark 16 the same history as that of Matthew is found; in the last verses, that which we read at the end of Luke, and that which is found in John 20. The discourses of chapters 13 and 26 of Acts are connected, as those of Peter, with the mission mentioned in Luke. In the Gospel of Matthew it is not said they were to go and make disciples of the Jews, because the remnant is looked at as already separated from the nation, and associated with Christ. It is a kind of extension of chapter 10 of the same Gospel, where they are forbidden— at least as to their mission at the moment then present—to go to the Gentiles, indeed even to the Samaritans, but are told to seek the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Here a wider mission is given them: they are to go and make disciples of the nations. This supposes that the work in the midst of the Jews is other than that of chapter 10, and, in some respects, chapter 24 only explains why the mission which is in question here applies exclusively to the Gentiles. The mission from heaven for the salvation of souls is naturally addressed to the Jews as to the Gentiles. This last is what we find accomplished in Acts: only the part which includes the Gentiles was transferred to Paul, as we have seen.