William Bacon Stevens
"Jesus answered: If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me!" John 21:22
After our Lord's resurrection, he met a few of His disciples by the shore of the Sea of Galilee. In that interview, He put the question to Peter, three times, "Do you love Me?" and as Peter had previously three times denied his Lord, now he three times declared his love and faith, and three times did the risen Savior re-commission him, as it were, to his apostleship, by the threefold direction — "Feed my sheep."
Our blessed Lord then went on to say, "I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, "Follow me!"
It seems that Jesus then moved forward, and Peter with Him. They had gone but a little way, when Peter, turning round and seeing John following, asked Jesus, "Lord, what shall this man do?" as if he had said, "You have told me what will befall me in my old age. Now what about John — what will be his fate?" To this question, our Lord replied, "Jesus answered, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me." Thus his indiscretion and curiosity were rebuked. He was virtually told that it did not befit him to be asking about things which did not pertain to his own specific duty. That duty was to follow Christ; leaving others to their own responsibilities and duties.
The one simple duty laid on each one, is to follow Christ. Yet, as in Peter's case, so now — many hesitate and stop and turn about and seek to settle certain other questions before they obey. They ask to have this doubt resolved, that doctrine made clear, that mystery unraveled — and so put off the real work of personal salvation, for side issues and idle questionings of no real consequence or value.
In dealing with the men of His day, our Lord ever repressed this spirit, this itching desire, to know the unknowable, and to pry into secrets which it is "the glory of God to conceal." When one asked Him, "Lord are there few that will be saved?" He answered, "Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able." When another asked, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven?" He took a little child, and set him in the midst, and said, "Except you are converted, and become as little children — you shall not enter into the kingdom of Heaven." Thus He ever restrained . . .
this reaching out of the mind into fruitless inquiries;
this seeking to be wise beyond what is written;
this warding off of personal duty by a questioning curiosity.
Here is one who hears Christ's command, "Follow me" — but instead of doing that promptly, he, as it were, stops and asks — "but, Lord, about this difficulty in theology, I can not reconcile God's sovereignty and man's free agency. I cannot unravel the mystery of the Trinity." These, and many other similar questions, are virtually the replies which many make to the call of Jesus, "Follow me." It may not take this definite shape — but, more or less, it enters into many a mind roused to duty by Jesus' call, and yet stifling the claim of duty, by questionings about related truths or unsolved difficulties. But if you do not obey Jesus until all these questions are answered, and these difficulties removed — then you will wait forever.
"The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law." Deuteronomy 29:28
"For My thoughts are not your thoughts — neither are your ways My ways," declares the LORD. "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts!" Isaiah 55:8-9
The difficulties and mysteries of Scripture, necessarily result from the relations between God and man:
God the infinite — man the finite;
God the holy — man the sinner;
God a Spirit — man a creature of flesh and blood;
God in Heaven — man on earth;
God inhabiting eternity — and man the creature of a day;
God the Sovereign of the universe — and man the tiny, puny rebel to His throne!
Mark these contrasts — measure their diversity. The very statement of them shows how impossible it is for man to be able to fully comprehend God or His dealings.
The question was asked of old, "Who, by searching, can find out God? Who can find out the Almighty?" And Solomon, the wisest of men, declared, "It is the glory of God to conceal a matter." For if man knew as much as God — he must have the mind of God and the wisdom of God!
For eighteen hundred years the mind of man, with its measuring lines — has been endeavoring to fully understand God and His ways, and compute the measurements of His great truths — and yet they are no nearer the solution now, than when first revealed. There they stand in the firmament of theology, the great unresolvable nebulae of revelation; and no magnifying power of man's optics, and no space-penetrating power of man's devising — can unfold those mysteries, which at once challenge and test, the faith of man.
There can be no revelation of God which is free from mysteries — because human language cannot embody celestial thoughts and modes of divine existence. And the human mind could not comprehend terms and phrases which would truly reflect the person, glory, and work of the Almighty.
Divine thoughts, before they can be taken into our minds, have to be diluted into human words.
Divine things have to be symbolized to us, by human or earthly types.
And divine beings have to be described to us, by terms borrowed from human existences and of purely earthly signification.
Hence, in the process of translation, dilution, and illustration — no one attribute of God, no one truth of God — can be fully revealed and understood.
We can only see the earthly side and the earthly terminus — the heavenly side and the heavenly starting-point, are all beyond our reach — far away out of sight! And there we must be content to let it be, ever standing with our eyes upturned to Jesus, holding in one hand the great doctrines of revealed truth, and in the other the precious assurances:
"What I am doing, you don't understand now; but you shall know hereafter." John 13:7
"Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known." 1 Corinthians 13:12
Though human reason, in consequence of its finite capacity and moral infirmity — cannot solve these difficulties; yet there is a method of solution at once simple and satisfactory. It is the simple formula which Jesus gives. "If anyone chooses to do God's will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own." That is, in the act of obedience to God's will — we learn the truth and reason of the will which we obey. As it is said in the book of Ecclesiasticus, "Mysteries are revealed to the meek, and he who keeps the law gets the understanding thereof." This is proved to be true by the experience of every humble child of God before whose daily doing of God's will, all doubts and difficulties subside, and he can say with sublime faith, "I know in whom I have believed."
Here is another who, when Christ calls, "Follow me," turns about, and says — "but, Lord, what about these differences between science and revelation? I must wait until I see these discrepancies removed, and until I see the two brought into accord, lest I commit myself to some false theology or unscientific revelation."
To this class let me say, that the Bible was given you for the simple purpose of telling you about God and the way of salvation. Its one great teaching is — man is a sinner, and Christ is a Savior, and man can be saved from the guilt and penalty of sin, only by faith in that Savior. This truth it teaches with sunlight clearness. It is what you must know, or perish. It is the only book which teaches it. He is the only Savior revealed from Heaven. If this Book and this Savior are set aside, you give up the only chart by which you can navigate safely the sea of life, and the only Pilot who can steer your soul into the haven of rest.
If someone of the hundreds of unfortunate passengers in the steamship Schiller, when it struck the rocks, and the cry was made, Save yourselves by the life-boat! had said, "Stop! I must first find out how the ship got on this reef — I must first satisfy myself that this life-boat is properly constructed!" — what would have been said of such a man? That was no time to discuss questions of tides and drifts and variations of compass and the scientific principles of lifesaving apparatus; the man had something else to do. The ship was going down; the waves were breaking her up; he must escape or drown; the life-boat was at hand, cling to it — he is saved; reject it — he is lost.
What if science, as at present understood, and the Bible, do not agree? Shall we be troubled thereat? I think not. I rejoice to know that what is termed modern science and the Bible do not agree. I would be sorry if they did agree! Modern science is changeable — the Bible is unchangeable!
The science of today is not the science of last year, and will not be the science of the next year.
The Bible of today, is the Bible of all the Christian centuries; and will be a thousand years hence — just what it was nearly eighteen hundred years ago, when the canon of Scripture was closed!
Mark the changes which have taken place along the whole line of sciences since the beginning of this nineteenth century. What a catastrophe then would it have been — had it been proved that the Bible and science as known at the beginning of this century, fully agreed; that all the assertions of the Bible could be squared with the facts of science as then understood! The great tidal waves of science which have rolled over the world since, would have left the Bible stranded and ruined!
And just so now — could it be made clear today that every truth in the Bible accords with the received theories of science — what would become of the Bible fifty years hence, when science will have moved on with even more rapid strides, and left behind more wrecks of theories and more stranded speculations?
In the meanwhile, the Bible stands still in the solitary grandeur of its own perfection. It waits, as the ages roll on, for confirmation and acceptance. It was said by one of old, "God is patient, because He is eternal;" and the Bible, as the book of the God of truth, has this attribute of its divine Author. Its strength is to sit still. It does not go out hastily to meet a half-formed science and embrace it as an ally — lest it should turn into a foe. It calmly tarries in the consciousness of its own truth — as the advances of science come nearer and nearer — and every advance of true science does bring it nearer to the Bible. "Forever, O LORD, Your Word is settled in Heaven!" Psalm 119:89. "The grass withers and the flowers fade — but the Word of our God stands forever!" Isaiah 40:8
The opposition to that Bible, comes only from a class whose utterances, Paul has justly characterized as "the profane and vain babblings and oppositions of science falsely so called."
True science, like the wise men of the East, brings to the holy Jesus its gifts, and bows adoringly at His feet.
Science "falsely so called," like Herod, asks hypocritically of the same wise men, Where is the new-born Jesus? but asks not to worship — but to destroy; not to crown Him king — but to massacre with a sword!
After all, what have these questions between religion and science really to do with your salvation? They are questions which cannot be settled, because science is not settled; and science will not be settled, so long as there is an undiscovered fact in nature, or an inquiring mind in man. The one thing for you to do is to follow Jesus. All other questions will adjust themselves; but unless you follow Him, you must be forever lost.
Here is another, who, when Jesus says, "Follow me," turns about and, Peter-like, asks — "but, Lord, what about these people who make a profession of religion — but who I know from their daily life, are not true Christians? What shall these men do?" Methinks I hear Jesus reply, What is that to you? Will you shut yourself out of Heaven, because of other men's hypocrisy? This world is the world of discipline and probation, where character is formed and tested — the eternal world is the world of judgment and separation, where results are reckoned and awards pronounced.
The religion of Jesus Christ has to work upon a totally depraved nature, and in the midst of a sinful world. Let these two important factors never be forgotten when estimating any work of grace in fallen man. There must of necessity be flaws and defects — by reason of the defectiveness of the nature on which it works and of the defiled world in which it operates. This has been so from the beginning of Christianity. Among the twelve disciples, there was a Judas. Among the converts on the Day of Pentecost, there were an Ananias and Sapphira. Of the Seven Churches of Asia Minor, among whose Seven Candlesticks walked the Son of God, all were faulty — but one. The parables of the tares and wheat, and of the net cast into the sea and filled with fishes good and bad; are designed to teach us not to look for perfection in the present ordering of things; but, on the contrary, that deceit and hypocrisy and evil living, are to be expected even in the Gospel field, the Gospel net, and the seven-branched candlestick.
What if there are hypocrites in the Church — will you add to your sin, by tying theirs around your neck? Will you refuse to recognize the good and the true, and act up to your known duty — because among those who profess and call themselves Christians, are many who only have a name to live — but are spiritually dead? Is this the principle which you act upon in daily life? Do you condemn all merchants, because some are cheats? Do you discredit all banking institutions, because some are worthless? We must each stand on our individual character, and we shall each be judged for our personal doings — and no hypocrisy of others will excuse or even palliate our disobedience to our Lord's command, "Follow me!"
WHO is it who commands you to follow Him? Is it some great philosopher? Some wise statesman? Some world-renowned hero? Yes. He is all this — and much more. Jesus Christ is the greatest of all philosophers, of all statesmen, of all heroes. But this is a low and earth-born view of Christ. For raising ourselves to a higher plane of thought, we find that He who commands us to follow Him, has declared Himself to be "the way, the truth, the life." The way to God is only found then by following Him who has said, "No man comes unto the Father — but by me." The truth of God — the truth which is in Jesus; the truth by which alone we are sanctified; the truth that only sets men free in the true liberty of the child of God — is found only as we follow Christ, the Incarnate truth. The life — that eternal life, that life with God in His heavenly kingdom, that life over which the second death has no power — we can find only as we follow Jesus. For the apostle John declares, "this is the record, that God has given unto us eternal life — and this life is in His Son."
Jesus again declares, "I am the light of the world," being to man's spiritual nature — what the sun is to man's physical being — the sun in the moral heavens — the great light that rules the spiritual day. And so he who would be truly enlightened, can find this light only as he follows Jesus, who has declared, "He who follows me, shall not walk in darkness; but shall have the light of life."
But this call must be promptly obeyed. It brooks no delay. When, on one occasion, Jesus called out to a man "Follow me," he replied, "Lord, allow me first to go and bury my father"; Jesus answered, "Let the dead bury their dead." When, on another occasion, one said to Jesus, "I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good-by to my family;" Jesus replied, "No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom." Nothing can take precedence over this call — "Follow me." Nothing can warrant its postponement. Nothing atone for its neglect. It is the first, the greatest, duty of today; for "now is the accepted time; behold! now is the day of salvation."