"From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.
"Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye go away?
"Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.
"And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God." (John 6:66-69)
THE position of the twelve at this juncture was one of peculiar trial.
Brought up from their infancy in the Church of Israel, it had at the first required no little resolution to attach themselves to the Nazarene, whom the rulers of that Church at once despised and rejected. And, since then, how often must they have been in peril of being drawn aside from their allegiance; awed at one time, by the pretentious devotion of the Pharisees,--and allured at another, by the specious philosophy of the Sadducees.
Still they had held on their way, and thus far continued with Him in His temptations. Nor had they been without companions in their course. "The common people," we are told, "heard him gladly." Nay, more than this, many, very many, gave credence to His word, and were by baptism, numbered amongst His disciples.
But now a sudden reverse takes place. Many even of the disciples are offended. They cannot endure to be told of the exclusiveness of His salvation,--the necessity of His grace. Yes: "the exclusiveness of His salvation."--"Except ye eat of the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you."
I added, "the necessity of His grace."--"No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day." (John 6:53) These were hard sayings--who could hear them? "They went back, and walked no more with him."
Surely it was but natural if, at such a crisis, the twelve were for a moment shaken in their purpose. Nor would the tempter fail to insinuate perplexing doubts. Were they not perhaps, after all, mistaken (he would suggest) in having set at nought the counsel of the greatest, the wisest, and the best men of their church and nation, to listen to the instructions of one whom, almost with one consent, they denounced as a deceiver?
And was not the Lord Jesus giving expression to the very thoughts which agitated their minds, when, turning to them with those heart-searching, those pathetic words,--"Will ye also go away?"--He invited them to pause for a season, and reconsider their position? How was that question solved? By one simple consideration:--"Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life."
Let us, my brethren, now--
I. Examine well the basis of the Apostolic loyalty.
II. Draw from it such lessons as may be serviceable to ourselves.
May utterance be given unto me, to open my mouth boldly: may true nobility of spirit be bestowed upon you, to receive with meekness the engrafted Word, which is able to save your souls.
And first, Examine well the basis of the Apostolic loyalty,--or rather, I would say, examine a portion of it--examine that single clause,--"thou hast the words of eternal life;" for time will not suffice to explore the treasures contained in the following words,--"We believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God." "Thou hast the words of eternal life." What did the Holy Ghost signify, as He spake thus by the mouth of Peter? He signified, first, that the Lord Jesus preached the words which revealed Eternal Life.
And was it not even so? For call to mind that memorable declaration of Paul:--"Jesus Christ...hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel." Mark well that saying: "He "hath brought life and immortality,"--that is (translating the idiom as well as the words), immortal or eternal life,--"to light through the Gospel." Surely it is taught herein that Eternal Life was, to say the least, left in the gloom of a deep obscurity by previous revelations.
Now this was most true. Take the most illustrious of them all. Take that law which was given amid the blackness and darkness, and thunderings, and voices of the burning mount: did it make known how the sinner might live? No! the moral law, while it seemed to give life, really told only of death. "This do, and thou shalt live," was its decree; but how fearful--how destructive of all hope to the really awakened soul its sanction! "Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them." (Gal. 3:10)
And then, as to the ceremonial law: richly instructive as it is to us, now that it has been illuminated with all the rays of the New Testament sun; it only proclaimed to its votaries from day to day, and from year to year, at once the need of an atonement, and its own powerlessness to provide that atonement. It proclaimed the need of an atonement;--"Without shedding of blood is no remission." (Heb. 9:22) It confessed its own inability to effect a reconciliation. For "in those sacrifices there is a remembrance again made of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins." (Heb. 10:3,4)
Passing from the law to the prophets,--in the most Evangelical of them all, symbol and imagery rather veiled than made manifest the glory of those glad tidings, which we now discern to be the very soul of all the prophetic harmonies; for the prophets themselves searched "what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow." (1 Peter 1:11)
What a burst, then, of light must the Gospel, preached at the first coming of the Redeemer, have been to those who, in the observance of the law and the study of the prophets, were looking for redemption in Jerusalem! Truly, they would say, "The darkness is past, and the true light now shineth." (1 John 2:8)
Take only two specimens: listen to the words of the Lord's forerunner:--
"Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world." (John 1:29) As though he would say,--"The lambs of man's providing, which have been offered day by day and year by year continually, were but local in their application, and ineffectual in their operation. They were for Israel alone, and even his sin they never put away. Behold now a Lamb of God's providing,--it is His own incarnate Son, the immaculate Jesus: His sacrifice shall be wide in its application, Gentile as well as Jew shall share its benefits; it shall be effectual in its operation, it shall blot out as a cloud their sin and as a thick cloud their iniquities,--behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world."
Or, listen again, to the words of the Lord himself:--
"Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life." (John 5:24) As though he would say,--"The law worketh only wrath: this do and thou shalt live, is the tenor of its decree. But none can do and therefore none can live. Hearken now to the Gospel: it bringeth life,--Believe and thou shalt be saved, is the burden of its proclamation; and this, though thou be the chief of sinners, still, confessing and forsaking thy sin, thou hast passed from a state in which all is condemnation, into a state in which there is no condemnation, neither shall there be any; thou hast, in the fullest sense of the word, everlasting life."
Truly life and immortality were brought to light by that Gospel which Jesus preached. Can we marvel that, in the retrospect of the many times that he had hung upon the lips of his Master, and drunk in the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth, Peter should say,--"Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life."
But the Holy Ghost meant more than this.
He meant, secondly, that Jesus preached the words, which imparted Eternal Life.
Hearken to the testimony of St. Peter's brother Apostle, James:--
"Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures." (James 1:17,18)
I would have you ponder those words,--"Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth." What solemn verities are we instructed in thereby. That we must be born from above, before we can enter into the kingdom of God. That the instrument, by which the Father of lights effects that new creation, is the word of truth. Yes, brethren, "Ye must be born again." This is what the Lord said to the aged, the dignified, the learned, the exemplary, the religious, the candid Nicodemus: and to which of us, let me ask, would He not say the like?
And the instrument by which He effects this change is the Word,--not the personal word,--not the baptismal formula,-- but the preached Gospel. For, hearken again to the words of Peter himself:--
"Seeing ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit unto unfeigned love of the brethren, see that ye love one another with a pure heart fervently:--"Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the Word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever. For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: but the word of the Lord endureth for ever. And this is the word which by the Gospel is preached unto you." (1 Peter 1:22-25)
Mark well; we read not here of a seed which lies dormant,--much less which perishes:--no, we read of a seed which is incorruptible,--a seed which takes root downwards, and bears fruit upwards, even to Life Eternal.
Now, if the Gospel preached by such miserable sinners as are we, the servants of Jesus Christ, does yet become the power of God in quickening the spiritually dead to life eternal,--shall we not be certain that that power was abundantly shown forth in the congregational ministrations of our Master Himself? Yea, doubtless, as He preached the Gospel, greater miracles were accomplished in the souls of the hearers, than were wrought on their bodies: the ear, spiritually deaf, was unstopped; the eye, spiritually blind, was opened; the foot, spiritually lame, was taught to run the way of God's commands,--yea, the souls, spiritually dead in trespasses and sins, were quickened. And of this He spake himself, when He said,--"Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live." (John 5:25)
The eleven had themselves been subjects of this stupendous work of distinguishing grace. It is "a work so real, so grand, so utterly beyond the comprehension of any, but those who have experienced it,--that the language, even of inspiration, labors in vain to produce an adequate expression of its greatness, and takes refuge in a throng of startling metaphors; it is a calling out of darkness into marvelous light,--a passing from death to life,--a first resurrection,--a birth from above,--a new creation,--a partaking of the Divine nature!" And, can we marvel that, as they reflected that this had been achieved by the ministry of Him who came down, not only to reveal, but also to communicate Eternal Life, they should say,--"Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life."
But this clause, has, thirdly, a yet further significance.
The Lord Jesus might well be said to have the words of Eternal Life, because He preached the words which nourished Eternal Life. The spiritual life needs food as surely as the animal life. And what, according to Scripture, is its appointed aliment? Let the Apostle, who speaks in my text, himself reply:--"Wherefore laying aside all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and all evil speakings, as newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby." (1 Peter 2:1,2)
Observe, it is a good thing to be babes in Christ; and it is better to be ever like them: but it is not a good thing to continue always babes: we should aspire to manhood, "unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ." (Eph. 4:13) And how shall we be nourished unto spiritual maturity? "Desire the sincere milk of the word,"--the full, pure, unmixed, truth of God,--"that ye may grow thereby."
Peter must surely have spoken from experience, when thus he commended the sincere milk of the Word.
For just revert, in thought, to that Gospel which contains the most abundant account of the directly ministerial teaching of the Lord Jesus,--I mean the Gospel of John,--and learn from thence how simple, and yet, at the same time, how rich and how full was his pastoral instruction.
Need I remind you of this very chapter from which my text is taken, wherein under the similitude of eating His flesh and drinking His blood, the Lord inculcates the wondrous result of a simple trust in His name? "This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever."
Or shall I rehearse the tenth chapter, in which, claiming as His own the Old Testament title of the Good Shepherd, He tells of the certainty and perpetuity of faith in His elect? "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand." (John 10:27-29)
Or, once more, shall we cite the seventeenth chapter; a chapter, in which, pleading with the Father on behalf of those who had been given to Him in the counsels of eternity, He claims for them, as a right, the highest blessedness, which that Father could bestow? "Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world." (John 17:24)
No marvel that taught, quickened, nourished by such a ministry, Peter said,--"Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life." Shall we go to the chief priests, with their divers washings and carnal ordinances? No: these are but a shadow of good things to come; the body is of Christ. (Col. 2:17) Shall we go to the Pharisees, with their long prayers, their broad phylacteries, their tithing of mint, and anise, and cummin? No: in vain do they worship God, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men! Shall we go to the Sadducees, with their philosophy and vain deceit? No: the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God; they do err, not knowing the Scriptures. No: none of these will do! Our souls are perishing, hungry souls,--they need the words of Eternal Life,--and those words Thou hast, and only Thou!
Having now examined thus far the basis of the Apostolic loyalty, let us briefly draw from what has been discovered, such lessons as may be serviceable to ourselves.
And first, let hearers of the Word take this memorable reply of Peter as a criterion of their own spiritual state before God.
When you attend in the house of the Lord upon the ministry of His servants, is it your one desire to hear the words of Eternal Life? Or, is it the excitement of feeling, the indulgence of fancy, the quickening of intellect, the lulling of conscience, or, worse than all, the mere observance of custom, that brings you to the sanctuary? Alas, brethren; conscience may be soothed by many a flattering word, intellect may be exercised by many a subtle speculation, imagination may revel in many a pleasant fantasy, yea, and the affections may be roused by many a pathetic appeal, in a heart to which not one single word of Eternal Life has found a saving entrance!
O for such a heart as the Holy Ghost alone can give!--an honest and good heart, a heart cleared from the thorns and briars of known and permitted sin, a heart ploughed up by the deep furrows of conviction, a heart softened by the dews and the rain of heaven's good Spirit,--for into such a heart the Word will find entrance, even though it come not with excellency of speech, and man's wisdom; and finding entrance, it will give long life, even for ever and ever.
But, secondly and lastly, let preachers of the Word take this memorable reply of Peter, as a test of their own ministerial faithfulness.
We claim to be the ambassadors of Christ,--do we justify that claim by bringing with us the words of Eternal Life?
Suppose, for an instant, that we speak other words, how fearful the consequences!
We may give present satisfaction to one or all the numerous classes of the children of this world,--to the literary, the intellectual, the imaginative, the moral, the ascetic, but what will the end be?
"If the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch." (Matt. 15:14)
But if, on the contrary, by the grace of God, we emulate the Apostolic example; if, by the grace of God, being determined to know nothing among you but Jesus Christ, and Him crucified, we do in very deed, set before you the words of Eternal Life;--how blessed the fruit shall certainly be!
Truly, Christ crucified has always been, and will always be, "unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness;" yet will He be also to the called, both Jews and Greeks, "Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God." (1 Cor. 1:23,24)
Instructed, quickened, nourished, even by our unworthy instrumentality, "the poor of the flock" shall know that our's is indeed the Word of the Lord. And hereafter shall the promise be verified to the utmost, "They that be teachers shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever." (Dan. 12:3)