By J.C. Ryle
This chapter begins that part of Mark's Gospel, which describes our Lord's sufferings and death. Hitherto we have chiefly seen our Savior as our prophet and teacher. We have now to see Him as our High Priest. Hitherto we have had to consider His miracles and sayings. We have now to consider His vicarious sacrifice on the cross.
Let us first observe in these verses, how God can disappoint the designs of wicked men, and over-rule them to His own glory.
It is plain from Mark's words, and the parallel passage in Matthew, that our Lord's enemies did not intend to make His death a public transaction. "They sought to take Him secretly." "They said, not on the feast day, lest there be an uproar of the people." In short, it would appear that their original plan was to do nothing until the feast of the passover was over, and the passover-worshipers had returned to their own homes.
The overruling providence of God completely defeated this political design. The betrayal of our Lord took place at an earlier time than the chief priests had expected. The death of our Lord took place on the very day when Jerusalem was most full of people, and the passover feast was at its height. In every way the counsel of these wicked men was turned to foolishness. They thought they were going to put an end forever to Christ's spiritual kingdom; and in reality they were helping to establish it. They thought to have made Him vile and contemptible by the crucifixion; and in reality they made Him glorious. They thought to have put Him to death privily and without observation; and instead, they were compelled to crucify Him publicly, and before the whole nation of the Jews. They thought to have silenced His disciples, and stopped their teaching--and instead, they supplied them with a text and a subject for evermore. So easy is it for God to cause the wrath of man to praise Him. (Psalm 76:10.)
There is comfort in all this for true Christians. They live in a troubled world, and are often tossed to and fro by anxiety about public events. Let them rest themselves in the thought that everything is ordered for good by an all-wise God. Let them not doubt that all things in the world around them, are working together for their Father's glory. Let them call to mind the words of the second Psalm--"The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take council together against the Lord." And yet it goes on, "He that sits in the heavens shall laugh--the Lord shall have them in derision." It has been so in time past. It will be so in time to come.
Let us observe, secondly, in these verses, how good works are sometimes undervalued and misunderstood. We are told of the good work of a certain woman, in pouring ointment on our Lord's head, in a house at Bethany. She did it, no doubt, as a mark of honor and respect, and in token of her own gratitude and love towards Him. Yet this act of hers was blamed by some. Their cold hearts could not understand such costly liberality. They called it "waste." "They had indignation within themselves." They "murmured against her."
The spirit of these narrow-minded fault-finders is unhappily only too common. Their followers and successors are to be found in every part of Christ's visible church. There is never lacking a generation of people who depreciate what they call "extremes" in religion, and are incessantly recommending what they term "moderation" in the service of Christ. If a man devotes his time, money, and affections to the pursuit of worldly things, they do not blame him. If he gives himself up to the service of money, pleasure, or politics, they find no fault. But if the same man devotes himself, and all he has, to Christ, they can scarcely find words to express their sense of his folly. "He is beside himself." "He is out of his mind." "He is a fanatic." "He is an enthusiast." "He is righteous over-much." "He is an extreme man." In short, they regard it as "waste."
Let charges like these not disturb us, if we hear them made against us because we strive to serve Christ. Let us bear them patiently, and remember that they are as old as Christianity itself. Let us pity those who make such charges against believers. They show plainly that they have no sense of obligation to Christ. A cold heart makes a slow hand. If a man once understands the sinfulness of sin, and the mercy of Christ in dying for him, he will never think anything too good or too costly to give to Christ. He will rather feel, "what shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits to me." (Psalm 116:12.) He will fear wasting time, talents, money, affections on the things of this world. He will not be afraid of lavishing them on his Savior. He will fear going into extremes about business, money, politics, or pleasure; but he will not be afraid of doing too much for Christ.
Let us observe, in the last place, how highly our Lord Jesus Christ esteems any service done to Himself. Nowhere, perhaps, in the Gospels, do we find such strong praises bestowed on any person, as this woman here receives. Three points, in particular, stand out prominently in our Lord's words, to which many who now ridicule and blame others for their religion's sake, would do well to take heed.
For one thing, our Lord says, "Why are you troubling her?" A heart-searching question that, and one which all who persecute others because of their religion would find it hard to answer! What cause can they show? What reason can they assign for their conduct? None! none at all. They trouble others out of envy, malice, ignorance, and dislike of the true Gospel.
For another thing, our Lord says, "She has done a beautiful thing to Me." How great and marvelous is that praise, from the lips of the King of kings! Money is often given to the church or bestowed on charitable institutions, from ostentation, or other false motives. But it is the person who loves and honors Jesus Himself, who really "does good works."
For another thing, our Lord says, "She has done what she could." No stronger word of commendation than that could possibly have been used. Thousands live and die without grace, and are lost eternally, who are always saying, "I try all I can. I do all I can." And yet in saying so, they tell as great a lie as Ananias and Sapphira. Few, it may be feared, are to be found like this woman, and really deserve to have it said of them, that they "do what they can."
Let us leave the passage with practical self-application. Let us, like this holy woman, whose conduct we have just heard described, devote ourselves, and all we have, to Christ's glory. Our position in the world may be lowly, and our means of usefulness few. But let us, like her, "do what we can."
Finally, let us see in this passage a sweet foretaste of things yet to come in the day of judgment. Let us believe that the same Jesus who here pleaded the cause of His loving servant, when she was blamed, will one day plead for all who have been His servants in this world. Let us work on, remembering that His eye is upon us, and that all we do is noted in His book. Let us not heed what men say or think of us, because of our religion. The praise of Christ at the last day, will more than compensate for all we suffer in this world from un kind tongues.
In these verses, Mark tells us how our Lord was delivered into the hands of His enemies. It came to pass through the treachery of one of His own twelve disciples. The false apostle, Judas Iscariot, betrayed Him.
We ought to mark, firstly, in this passage, to what lengths a man may go in a false profession of religion.
It is impossible to conceive a more striking proof of this painful truth, than the history of Judas Iscariot. If ever there was a man who at one time looked like a true disciple of Christ, and bade fair to reach heaven, that man was Judas. He was chosen by the Lord Jesus Himself to be an apostle. He was privileged to be a companion of the Messiah, and an eye-witness of His mighty works, throughout His earthly ministry. He was an associate of Peter, James and John. He was sent forth to preach the kingdom of God, and to work miracles in Christ's name. He was regarded by all the eleven apostles as one of themselves. He was so like his fellow disciples, that they did not suspect him of being a traitor. And yet this very man turns out at last a false-hearted child of the devil--departs entirely from the faith--assists our Lord's deadliest enemies, and leaves the world with a worse reputation than any one since the days of Cain. Never was there such a fall, such an apostasy, such a miserable end to a fair beginning--such a total eclipse of a soul!
And how can this amazing conduct of Judas be accounted for? There is only one answer to that question. "The love of money" was the cause of this unhappy man's ruin. That same groveling covetousness, which enslaved the heart of Balaam, and brought on Gehazi a leprosy, was the destruction of Iscariot's soul. No other explanation of his behavior will satisfy the plain statements of Scripture. His act was an act of base covetousness, without a redeeming feature about it. The Holy Spirit declares plainly "he was a thief." (John 12:6.) And his case stands before the world as an eternal comment on the solemn words, "the love of money is the root of all evil." (1 Tim. 6:10.)
Let us learn from this melancholy history of Judas, to be "clothed with humility," and to be content with nothing short of the grace of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. Knowledge, gifts, profession, privileges, church-membership, power of preaching, praying, and talking about religion, are all useless things, if our hearts are not converted. They are all no better than sounding brass, and a tinkling cymbal, if we have not put off the old man, and put on the new. They will not deliver us from hell. Above all, let us remember our Lord's caution, to "beware of covetousness." (Luke 12:15.) It is a sin that eats like a canker, and once admitted into our hearts, may lead us finally into every wickedness. Let us pray to be "content with such things as we have." (Heb. 13:5.) The possession of money is not the one thing needful. Riches entail great peril on the souls of those who have them. The true Christian ought to be far more afraid of being rich than of being poor.
We ought to mark, secondly, in this passage, the intentional connection between the time of the Jewish Passover and the time of Christ's death. We cannot doubt for a moment that it was not by chance, but by God's providential appointment, that our Lord was crucified in the passover week, and on the very day that the passover lamb was slain. It was meant to draw the attention of the Jewish nation to Him as the true Lamb of God. It was meant to bring to their minds the true object and purpose of His death. Every sacrifice, no doubt, was intended to point the Jew onward to the one great sacrifice for sin which Christ offered. But none, certainly, was so striking a figure and type of our Lord's sacrifice, as the slaying of the passover lamb. It was pre-eminently an ordinance which was a "schoolmaster unto Christ." (Gal. 3:24.) Never was there a type so full of meaning in the whole circle of Jewish ceremonies, as the passover was at its original institution.
Did the passover remind the Jew of the marvelous deliverance of his forefathers out of the land of Egypt, when God slew the first-born? No doubt it did. But it was also meant to be a sign to him of the far greater redemption and deliverance from the bondage of sin, which was to be brought in by our Lord Jesus Christ.
Did the passover remind the Jew, that by the death of an innocent lamb, the families of his forefathers were once exempted from the death of their first-born? No doubt it did. But it was also meant to teach him the far higher truth, that the death of Christ on the cross was to be the life of the world.
Did the passover remind the Jew that the sprinkling of blood on the door-posts of his forefathers' houses, preserved them from the sword of the destroying angel? No doubt it did. But it was also meant to show him the far more important doctrine that Christ's blood sprinkled on man's conscience, cleanses it from all stain of guilt, and makes him safe from the wrath to come.
Did the passover remind the Jew that none of his fore-fathers were safe from the destroying angel, in the night when he slew the first-born, unless he actually ate of the slain lamb? No doubt it did. But it was meant to guide his mind to the far higher lesson, that all who would receive benefit from Christ's atonement, must actually feed upon Him by faith, and receive Him into their hearts.
Let us call these things to mind, and weigh them well. We shall then see a peculiar fitness and beauty in the time appointed by God for our Lord Jesus Christ's death on the cross. It happened at the very season when the mind of all Israel was being directed to the deliverance from Egypt, and to the events of that wondrous night, when it took place. The lamb slain and eaten by every member of the family--the destroying angel--the safety within the blood-sprinkled door, would have been talked over and considered in every Jewish household, the very week that our blessed Lord was slain. It would be strange indeed if such a remarkable death as His, at such a time, did not set many minds thinking, and open many eyes. To what extent we shall never know until the last day.
Let it be a rule with us, in the reading of our Bibles, to study the types and ordinances of the Mosaic law with prayerful attention. They are all full of Christ. The altar--the scape-goat--the daily burnt-offering--the day of atonement, are all so many sign-posts pointing to the great sacrifice offered by our Lord on Calvary. Those who neglect to study the Jewish ordinances, as dark, dull, and uninteresting parts of the Bible, only show their own ignorance, and miss great advantages. Those who examine them with Christ as the key to their meaning, will find them full of Gospel light and comfortable truth.
These verses contain Mark's account of the institution of the Lord's Supper. The simplicity of the description deserves special observation. Well would it have been for the Church, if men had not departed from the simple statements of Scripture about this blessed sacrament! It is a mournful fact that it has been corrupted by false explanations and superstitious additions, until its real meaning, in many parts of Christendom, is utterly unknown. Let us however, at present, dismiss from our minds all matters of controversy, and study the words of Mark with a view to our own personal edification.
Let us learn from the passage before us, that self-examination should precede the reception of the Lord's Supper. We cannot doubt that this was one object of our Lord's solemn warning, "One of you who eats with me shall betray me." He meant to stir up in the minds of his disciples, those very searchings of heart which are here so touchingly recorded--"They began to be sorrowful, and to say unto Him one by one, Is it I?" He meant to teach His whole Church throughout the world, that the time of drawing near to the Lord's table should be a time for diligent self-inquiry.
The benefit of the Lord's Supper depends entirely on the spirit and frame of mind in which we receive it. The bread which we there eat, and the wine which we there drink, have no power to do good to our souls, as medicine does good to our bodies, without the co-operation of our hearts and wills. They will not convey any blessing to us, by virtue of the minister's consecration, if we do not receive them rightly, worthily, and with faith. To assert, as some do, that the Lord's supper must do good to all communicants, whatever be the state of mind in which they receive it, is a monstrous and unscriptural figment of imagination, and has given rise to gross and wicked superstition.
The state of mind which we should look for in ourselves, before going to the Lord's table, is well described in the Catechism of the Church of England. We ought to "examine ourselves whether we repent truly of our former sins--whether we steadfastly purpose to lead a new life--whether we have a lively faith in God's mercy through Christ--and a thankful remembrance of His death--and whether we are in charity with all men." If our conscience can answer these questions satisfactorily, we may receive the Lord's supper without fear. More than this God does not require of any communicant. Less than this ought never to content us.
Let us take heed to ourselves in the matter of the Lord's supper. It is easy to err about it on either side. On the one hand, we are not to be content with staying away from the Lord's table under the vague plea of unfitness. As long as we so stay away, we are disobeying a plain command of Christ, and are living in sin. But, on the other hand, we are not to go to the Lord's table as a mere form, and without thought. As long as we receive the sacrament in that state of mind, we derive no good from it, and are guilty of a great transgression. It is a dreadful thing to be unfit for the sacrament, for this is to be unfit to die. It is a no less dreadful thing to receive it unworthily, for this is most provoking to God. The only safe course is to be a decided servant of Christ, and to live the life of faith in Him. Then we may draw near with boldness, and take the sacrament to our comfort.
Let us learn, in the second place, from these verses, that the principal object of our Lord's Supper, is to remind us of Christ's sacrifice for us on the cross. The bread is intended to bring to our recollection the "body" of Christ, which was wounded for our transgressions. The wine is intended to bring to our recollection the "blood" of Christ, which was shed to cleanse us from all sin. The atonement and propitiation which our Lord effected by His death as our Surety and Substitute, stand out prominently in the whole ordinance. The false doctrine which some teach, that His death was nothing more than the death of a very holy man, who left us an example how to die, turns the Lord's supper into an unmeaning ordinance, and cannot possibly be reconciled with our Lord's words at its institution.
A clear understanding of this point is of great importance. It will place us in the right position of mind, and teach us how we ought to feel in drawing near to the Lord's table. It will produce in us true humility of spirit. The bread and wine, will remind us how sinful sin must be, when nothing but Christ's death could atone for it. It will produce in us hopefulness about our souls. The bread and wine will remind us that though our sins are great, a great price has been paid for our redemption. Not least, it will produce in us gratitude. The bread and wine will remind us how great is our debt to Christ, and how deeply bound we are to glorify Him in our lives. May these be the feelings that we experience, whenever we receive the Lord's supper!
Finally, we learn from these verses, the nature of the spiritual benefits which the Lord's supper as intended to convey, and the persons who have a right to expect them. We may gather this lesson from the significant actions which are used in receiving this sacrament. Our Lord commands us to "eat" bread and to "drink" wine. Now eating and drinking are the acts of a living person. The object of eating and drinking is to be strengthened and refreshed. The conclusion we are meant to draw, is manifestly this, that the Lord's supper is appointed for "the strengthening and refreshing of our souls," and that those who ought to partake of it are those who are lively, real Christians. All such will find this sacrament a means of grace. It will assist them to rest in Christ more simply, and to trust in Him more entirely. The visible symbols of bread and wine will aid, quicken, and confirm their faith.
A right view of this point is of the utmost moment in these latter days. We must always beware of thinking that there is any way of eating Christ's body, and drinking Christ's blood, but by faith--or that receiving the Lord's supper will give any man a different interest in Christ's sacrifice on the cross from that which faith gives. Faith is the one grand means of communication between the soul and Christ. The Lord's supper can aid, quicken, and confirm faith, but can never supersede it, or supply its absence. Let this never be forgotten. Error on this point is a most fatal delusion, and leads to many superstitions.
Let it be a settled principle in our Christianity, that no unbeliever ought to go to the Lord's table, and that the sacrament will not do our souls the slightest good, if we do not receive it with repentance and faith. The Lord's supper is not a converting or justifying ordinance, and those who come to it unconverted and unjustified, will go away no better than they came, but rather worse. It is an ordinance for believers, and not for unbelievers, for the living and not for the dead. It is meant to sustain life, but not to impart it--to strengthen and increase grace, but not to give it--to help faith to grow, but not to sow or plant it. Let these things sink down into our hearts, and never be forgotten.
Are we alive unto God? This is the great question. If we are, let us go to the Lord's supper, and receive it thankfully, and never turn our backs on the Lord's table. If we do not go, we commit a great sin.
Are we yet dead in sin and worldliness? If we are, we have no business at the communion table. We are on the broad way that leads to destruction. We must repent. We must be born again. We must be joined to Christ by faith. Then, and not until then, we are fit to be communicants.
We see in these verses, how well our Lord foreknew the weakness and infirmity of His disciples. He tells them plainly what they were going to do. "All of you shall desert me." He tells Peter in particular of the astounding sin which he was about to commit--"This night, before the rooster crows twice, you shall deny me three times."
Yet our Lord's fore-knowledge did not prevent His choosing these twelve disciples to be His apostles. He allowed them to be His intimate friends and companions, knowing perfectly well what they would one day do. He granted them the mighty privilege of being continually with Him, and hearing His voice, with a clear foresight of the melancholy weakness and lack of faith which they would exhibit at the end of His ministry. This is a remarkable fact and deserves to be had in continual remembrance.
Let us take comfort in the thought that the Lord Jesus does not cast off his believing people because of failures and imperfections. He knows what they are. He takes them, as the husband takes the wife, with all their blemishes and defects, and, once joined to Him by faith, will never leave them. He is a merciful and compassionate High-priest. It is His glory to pass over the transgressions of His people, and to cover their many sins. He knew what they were before conversion--wicked, guilty, and defiled; yet He loved them. He knows what they will be after conversion--weak, erring, and frail; yet He loves them. He has undertaken to save them, notwithstanding all their shortcomings, and what He has undertaken He will perform.
Let us learn to pass a charitable judgment on the conduct of professing believers. Let us not set them down in a low place, and say they have no grace, because we see in them much weakness and corruption. Let us remember that our Master in heaven bears with their infirmities, and let us try to bear with them too. The Church of Christ is little better than a great hospital. We ourselves are all, more or less, weak, and all daily need the skillful treatment of the heavenly Physician. There will be no complete cures until the resurrection day.
We see, in the second place, in these verses, how much comfort professing Christians may miss by carelessness and inattention. Our Lord spoke plainly of His resurrection--"After I am risen, I will go before you into Galilee." Yet His words appear to have been thrown away, and spoken in vain. Not one of his disciples seems to have noticed them, or treasured them up in his heart. When He was betrayed, they forsook Him. When He was crucified, they were almost in despair. And when He rose again on the third day, they would not believe that it was true. They had heard of it frequently with the hearing of the ear, but it had never made any impression on their hearts.
What an exact picture we have here of human nature! How often we see the very same thing among professing Christians in the present day! How many truths we read yearly in the Bible, and yet remember them no more than if we had never read them at all! How many words of wisdom we hear in sermons heedlessly and thoughtlessly, and live on as if we had never heard them! The days of darkness and affliction come upon us by and bye, and then we prove unarmed and unprepared. On sick-beds, and in mourning, we see a meaning in texts and passages which we at one time heard listlessly and unconcerned. Things flash across our minds at such seasons, and make us feel ashamed that we had not noticed them before. We then remember to have read them, and heard them, and seen them, but they made no impression upon us. Like Hagar's well in the wilderness, they were close at hand, but, like Hagar, we never saw them. (Gen. 21:19.)
Let us pray for a quick understanding in hearing and reading God's word. Let us search into every part of it, and not lose any precious truth in it for lack of care. So doing, we shall lay up a good foundation against the time to come, and in sorrow and sickness be found armed.
Let us mark how little reason ministers have to be surprised, if the words that they preach in sermons are often unnoticed and unheeded. They only drink of the same cup with their Master. Even He said many things which were not noticed when first spoken. And yet we know that "never man spoke like this man." "The disciple is not greater than his Master, nor the servant than his Lord." We have need of patience. Truths that seem neglected at first, often bear fruit after many days.
We see in the last place, in these verses, how much ignorant self-confidence may sometimes be found in the hearts of professing Christians. The apostle Peter could not think it possible that he could ever deny his Lord. "If I have to die with you," he says, "I will never deny you." And he did not stand alone in his confidence. The other disciples were of the same opinion. "And all the others vowed the same." Yet what did all this confident boasting come to? Twelve hours did not pass away before all the disciples forsook our Lord and fled. Their loud professions were all forgotten. The present danger swept all their promises of fidelity clean away. So little do we know how we shall act in any particular position until we are placed in it! So much do present circumstances alter our feelings!
Let us learn to pray for humility. "Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall." (Prov. 16:18.) There is far more wickedness in all our hearts than we know. We never can tell how far we might fall, if once placed in temptation. There is no degree of sin into which the greatest saint may not run, if he is not held up by the grace of God, and if he does not watch and pray. The seeds of every wickedness lie hidden in our hearts. They only need the convenient season to spring forth into a mischievous vitality. "Let him that thinks he stands take heed lest he fall." "He that trusts his own heart is a fool.'' (1 Cor. 10:12. Prov. 28:26.) Let our daily prayer be, "Hold me up and I shall be safe."
The history of our Lord's agony in the garden of Gethsemane is a deep and mysterious passage of Scripture. It contains things which the wisest divines cannot fully explain. Yet it has upon its surface plain truths of most momentous importance.
Let us mark, in the first place, how keenly our Lord felt the burden of a world's sin. It is written that He began to be filled with horror and deep distress. He told them, "My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death," and that "he fell on the ground, and prayed, that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him." There is only one reasonable explanation of these expressions. It was no mere fear of the physical suffering of death, which drew them from our Lord's lips. It was a sense of the enormous load of human guilt, which began at that time to press upon Him in a peculiar way. It was a sense of the unutterable weight of our sins and transgressions which were then specially laid upon Him. He was being "made a curse for us." He was bearing our griefs and carrying our sorrows according to the covenant He came on earth to fulfill. He was being "made sin for us who Himself knew no sin." His holy nature felt acutely the hideous burden laid upon Him. These were the reasons of His extraordinary sorrow.
We ought to see in our Lord's agony in Gethsemane the exceeding sinfulness of sin. It is a subject on which the thoughts of professing Christians are far below what they should be. The careless, light way in which such sins as swearing, Sabbath-breaking, lying, and the like, are often spoken of, is a painful evidence of the low condition of men's moral feelings. Let the recollection of Gethsemane have a sanctifying effect upon us. Whatever others do, let us never "make a mock at sin."
Let us mark, in the second place, what an example our Lord gives us of the importance of prayer in time of trouble. In the hour of His distress we find Him employing this great remedy. Twice we are told that when His soul was exceeding sorrowful, "He prayed."
We shall never find a better formula than this, for the patient bearing of affliction. The first person to whom we should turn in our trouble is God. The first expression of grief we should make, should be in the form of a prayer. The reply may not be given immediately. The relief we need may not be granted at once. The thing that tries us may never be removed and taken away. But the mere act of pouring out our hearts, and unbosoming ourselves at a throne of grace will do us good. The advice of James is wise and weighty--"Is any afflicted? Let him pray." (James 5:13.)
Let us mark, in the third place, what a striking example our Lord gives us of submission of will, to the will of God. Deeply as His human nature felt the pressure of a world's guilt, He still prays that, "if it were possible," the hour might pass from Him. "Take away this cup from me--nevertheless not what I will, but what you will."
We can imagine no higher degree of perfection than that which is here set before us. To take patiently whatever God sends--to like nothing but what God likes--to wish nothing but what God approves--to prefer pain, if it pleases God to send it; to forego ease, if God does not think fit to bestow it--to lie passive under God's hand, and know no will but His--this is the highest standard at which we can aim, and of this our Lord's conduct in Gethsemane is a perfect pattern.
Let us strive and labor to have "the mind that was in Christ" in this matter. Let us daily pray and endeavor to be enabled to mortify our self-will. It is for our happiness to do so. Nothing brings us so much misery on earth as having our own way. It is the best proof of real grace to do so. Knowledge, and gifts, and convictions, and feelings, and wishes, are all very uncertain evidences. They are often to be found in unconverted people. But a continually increasing disposition to submit our own wills to the will of God, is a far more healthy symptom. It is a sign that we are really "growing in grace, and in the knowledge of Jesus Christ."
Let us mark, lastly, in these verses, how much infirmity may be found even in the best Christians. We have a painful illustration of this truth in the conduct of Peter, James, and John. They slept when they ought to have watched and prayed. Though invited by our Lord to watch with Him, they slept. Though warned a short time before that danger was at hand, and their faith likely to fail, they slept. Though fresh from the Lord's table, with all its touching solemnities, they slept. Never was there a more striking proof that the best of men are but men, and that, so long as saints are in the body, they are compassed with infirmity.
These things are written for our learning. Let us take heed that they are not written in vain. Let us ever be on our guard against the slothful, indolent, lazy spirit in religion, which is natural to us all, and especially in the matter of our private prayers. When we feel that spirit creeping over us, let us remember Peter, James, and John in the garden, and take care.
The solemn counsel which our Lord addresses to His disciples should often ring in our ears--"Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit truly is ready, but the flesh is weak." It should be the Christian's daily motto from the time of his conversion to the hour of his death.
Are we true Christians? and would we keep our souls awake? Let us not forget that we have within us a double nature--a ready "spirit" and weak "flesh" a carnal nature inclined to evil, and a spiritual nature inclined to good. These two are contrary one to the other. (Gal. 5:17.) Sin and the devil will always find helpers in our hearts. If we do not crucify and rule over the flesh, it will often rule over us and bring us to shame.
Are we true Christians, and would we keep our souls awake? Then let us never forget to "watch and pray." We must watch like soldiers--we are upon enemy's ground. We must always be on our guard. We must fight a daily fight, and war a daily warfare. The Christian's rest is yet to come. We must pray without ceasing, regularly, habitually, carefully, and at stated times. We must pray as well as watch, and watch as well as pray. Watching without praying is self-confidence and self-conceit. Praying without watching is enthusiasm and fanaticism. The man who knows his own weakness, and knowing it both watches and prays, is the man that will be held up and not allowed to fall.
Let us notice in these verses, how little our Lord's enemies understood the nature of His kingdom. We read that Judas came to take Him "with a great multitude, with swords and clubs." It was evidently expected that our Lord would be vigorously defended by His disciples, and that He would not be taken prisoner without fighting. The chief priests and scribes clung obstinately to the idea, that our Lord's kingdom was a worldly kingdom, and therefore supposed that it would be upheld by worldly means. They had yet to learn the solemn lesson contained in our Lord's words to Pilate, "My kingdom is not of this world." (John 18:36.)
We shall do well to remember this in all our endeavors to extend the kingdom of true religion. It is not to be propagated by violence, or by an arm of flesh.
"The weapons of our warfare are not carnal." "Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts." (2 Cor. 10:4. Zech. 4:6.) The cause of truth does not need force to maintain it. False religions, like Mohammedanism, have often been spread by the sword. False Christianity, like that of the Roman Church, has often been enforced on men by bloody persecutions. But the real Gospel of Christ requires no such aids as these. It stands by the power of the Holy Spirit. It grows by the hidden influence of the Holy Spirit on men's hearts and consciences. There is no clearer sign of a bad cause in religion than a readiness to appeal to the sword.
Let us notice, secondly, in these verses, how all things in our Lord's passion happened according to God's Word. His own address to those who took Him, exhibits this in a striking manner--"the Scripture must be fulfilled."
There was no accident or chance in any part of the close of our Lord's earthly ministry. The steps in which He walked from Gethsemane to Calvary were all marked out hundreds of years before. The twenty-second Psalm, and the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, were literally fulfilled. The wrath of His enemies--His rejection by His own people--His being dealt with as a malefactor--His being condemned by the assembly of the wicked--all had been foreknown, and all foretold. All that took place was only the working out of God's great design to provide an atonement for a world's sin. The armed men whom Judas brought to lay hands on Jesus, were, like Nebuchadnezzar and Sennacherib, unconscious instruments in carrying God's purposes into effect.
Let us rest our souls on the thought, that all around us is ordered and overruled by God's almighty wisdom. The course of this world may often be contrary to our wishes. The position of the Church may often be very unlike what we desire. The wickedness of worldly men, and the inconsistencies of believers, may often afflict our souls. But there is a hand above us, moving the vast machine of this universe, and making all things work together for His glory. The Scriptures are being yearly fulfilled. Not one jot or tittle in them shall ever fail to be accomplished. The kings of the earth may take counsel together, and the rulers of the nations may set themselves against Christ (Psalm. 2:2), but the resurrection morning shall prove that, even at the darkest time, all things were being done according to the will of God.
Let us notice, lastly, in these verses, how much the faith of true believers may give way. We are told that when Judas and his company laid hands on our Lord, and He quietly submitted to be taken prisoner, the eleven disciples "all forsook Him and fled." Perhaps up to that moment they were buoyed up by the hope that our Lord would work a miracle, and set Himself free. But when they saw no miracle worked, their courage failed them entirely. Their former protestations were all forgotten. Their promises to die with their Master, rather than deny Him, were all cast to the winds. The fear of present danger got the better of faith. The sense of immediate peril drove every other feeling out of their minds. They "all forsook Him and fled."
There is something deeply instructive in this incident. It deserves the attentive study of all professing Christians. Happy is he who marks the conduct of our Lord's disciples, and gathers from it wisdom!
Let us learn from the flight of these eleven disciples not to be over-confident in our own strength. The fear of man does indeed bring a snare. We never know what we may do, if we are tempted, or to what extent our faith may give way. Let us be clothed with humility.
Let us learn to be charitable in our judgment of other Christians. Let us not expect too much from them, or set them down as having no grace at all, if we see them overtaken in a fault. Let us not forget that even our Lord's chosen apostles forsook Him in His time of need. Yet they rose again by repentance, and became pillars of the Church of Christ.
Finally, let us leave the passage with a deep sense of our Lord's ability to sympathize with His believing people. If there is one trial greater than another, it is the trial of being disappointed in those we love. It is a bitter cup, which all true Christians have frequently to drink. Ministers fail them. Relations fail them. Friends fail them. One cistern after another proves to be broken, and to hold no water. But let them take comfort in the thought, that there is one unfailing Friend, even Jesus, who can be touched with the feeling of their infirmities, and has tasted of all their sorrows. Jesus knows what it is to see friends and disciples failing Him in the hour of need. Yet He bore it patiently, and loved them notwithstanding all. He is never weary of forgiving. Let us strive to do likewise. Jesus, at any rate, will never fail us. It is written, "His compassions fail not" (Lam. 3:22).
Solomon tells us in the book of Ecclesiastes, that one evil he has seen under the sun, is when "folly is set in great dignity, and the rich sit in low place." (Eccles. 10:6.) We can imagine no more complete illustration of his words than the state of things we have recorded in the passage before us. We see the Son of God, "in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge," arraigned as a malefactor before "the chief priests, and elders, and scribes." We see the heads of the Jewish nation combining together to kill their own Messiah, and judging Him who will one day come in glory to judge them and all mankind. These things sound marvelous, but they are true.
Let us observe in these verses, how foolishly Christians sometimes thrust themselves into temptation. We are told that when our Lord was led away prisoner, "Peter followed Him afar off, even into the palace of the high priest--and he sat with the servants, and warmed himself at the fire." There was no wisdom in this act. Having once forsaken his Master and fled, he ought to have remembered his own weakness, and not to have ventured into danger again. It was an act of rashness and presumption. It brought on him fresh trials of faith, for which he was utterly unprepared. It threw him into bad company, where he was not likely to get good, but harm. It paved the way for his last and greatest transgression--his thrice-repeated denial of his Master.
But it is an experimental truth that ought never to be overlooked, that when a believer has once begun to back-slide and leave his first faith, he seldom stops short at his first mistake. He seldom makes only one stumble. He seldom commits only one fault. A blindness seems to come over his understanding. He appears to cast over-board his common sense and discretion. Like a stone rolling down-hill, the further he goes on in sinning, the faster and more decided is his course. Like David, he may begin with idleness, and end with committing every possible crime. Like Peter, he may begin with cowardice--go on to foolish trifling with temptation, and then end with denying Christ.
If we know any thing of true saving religion, let us ever beware of the beginnings of backsliding. It is like the letting out of water, first a drop and then a torrent. Once out of the way of holiness, there is no saying to what we may come. Once giving way to petty inconsistencies, we may find ourselves one day committing every sort of wickedness. Let us keep far from the brink of evil. Let us not play with fire. Let us never fear being too particular, too strict, and too precise. No petition in the Lord's prayer is more important than the last but one, "Lead us not into temptation."
Let us observe, in the second place, in these verses, how much our Lord Jesus Christ had to endure from lying lips, when tried before the chief priests. We are told that "many bore false witness against Him; but their witness agreed not together."
We can easily conceive that this was not the least heavy part of our blessed Savior's passion. To be seized unjustly as a malefactor, and put on trial as a criminal, when innocent, is a severe affliction. But to hear men inventing false charges against us and coining slanders--to listen to all the malignant virulence of unscrupulous tongues let loose against our character, and know that it is all untrue--this is a cross indeed! "The words of a talebearer," says Solomon, "are as wounds." (Prov. 18:8.) "Deliver my soul," says David, "from lying lips and a deceitful tongue." (Psalm 120:2.) All this was a part of the cup which Jesus drank for our sakes. Great indeed was the price at which our souls were redeemed!
Let it never surprise true Christians if they are slandered and misrepresented in this world. They must not expect to fare better than their Lord. Let them rather look forward to it as a matter of course, and see in it a part of the cross which all must bear after conversion. Lies and false reports are among Satan's choicest weapons. When he cannot deter men from serving Christ, he labors to harass them and make Christ's service uncomfortable. Let us bear it patiently, and not count it a strange thing. The words of the Lord Jesus should often come to our minds--"Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you." "Blessed are you, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake." (Luke 6:26. Matt. 5:11.)
Let us observe, lastly, in these verses, what distinct testimony our Lord bore to His own Messiahship, and second advent in glory. The high priest asks Him the solemn question, "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?" He receives at once the emphatic reply, "I am--and you shall see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven."
These words of our Lord ought always to be had in remembrance. The Jews could never say after these words, that they were not clearly told that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ of God. Before the great councils of their priests and elders, He declared, "I am the Christ." The Jews could never say after these words, that He was so lowly and poor a person, that He was not worthy to be believed. He warned them plainly that His glory and greatness was all yet to come. They were only deferred and postponed until His second advent. They would yet see Him in royal power and majesty, "sitting on the right hand of power," coming in the clouds of heaven, a Judge, a Conqueror, and a King. If Israel was unbelieving, it was not because Israel was not told what to believe.
Let us leave the passage with a deep sense of the reality and certainty of our Lord Jesus Christ's second coming. Once more at the very end of His ministry, and in the face of His deadly enemies, we find Him asserting the mighty truth that He will come again to judge the world. Let it be one of the leading truths in our own personal Christianity. Let us live in the daily recollection that our Savior is one day coming back to this world. Let the Christ in whom we believe, be not only the Christ who died for us and rose again--the Christ who lives for us and intercedes--but the Christ who will one day return in glory, to gather together and reward His people, and to punish fearfully all His enemies.
A shipwreck is a melancholy sight, even when no lives are lost. It is sad to think of the destruction of property, and disappointment of hopes which generally attend it. It is painful to see the suffering and hardship, which the ship's crew often have to undergo in their struggle to escape from drowning. Yet no shipwreck is half so melancholy a sight as the backsliding and fall of a true Christian. Though raised again by God's mercy, and finally saved from hell, he loses much by his fall. Such a sight we have brought before our minds in the verses we have now read. We are there told that most painful and instructive story, how Peter denied his Lord.
Let us learn, in the first place, from these verses, how far and how shamefully a great saint may fall. We know that Simon Peter was an eminent apostle of Jesus Christ. He was one who had received special commendation from our Lord's lips, after a noble confession of His Messiahship--"Blessed are you, Simon Barjona," "I will give unto you the keys of the kingdom of heaven." He was one who had enjoyed special privileges, and had special mercies shown to him. Yet here we see this same Simon Peter so entirely overcome by fear that he actually denies his Lord. He declares that he knows not Him whom he had accompanied and lived with for three years! He declares that he knows not Him who had healed his own wife's mother, taken him up into the mount of transfiguration, and saved him from drowning in the sea of Galilee! And he not only denies his Master once, but does it three times! And he not only denies Him simply, but does it "cursing and swearing!" And above all, he does all this in the face of the plainest warnings, and in spite of his own loud protestation that he would do nothing of the kind, but rather die!
These things are written to show the Church of Christ what human nature is, even in the best of men. They are intended to teach us that, even after conversion and renewal of the Holy Spirit, believers are compassed with infirmity and liable to fall. They are meant to impress upon us the immense importance of daily watchfulness, prayerfulness, and humility so long as we are in the body. "Let him that thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall."
Let us carefully remember that Simon Peter's case does not stand alone. The word of God contains many other examples of the infirmity of true believers, which we shall do well to observe. The histories of Noah, Abraham, David, Hezekiah, will supply us with mournful proof, that "the infection of sin remains even in the regenerate," and that no man is so strong as to be beyond the danger of falling. Let us not forget this. Let us walk humbly with our God. "Happy is the man that fears aways." (Prov. 28:14.)
Let us learn, in the second place, from these verses, how small a temptation may cause a saint to have a great fall. The beginning of Peter's trial was nothing more than the simple remark of "a maid of the High Priest." "You also were with Jesus of Nazareth." There is nothing to show that these words were spoken with any hostile purpose. For anything we can see, they might fairly mean that this maid remembered that Peter used to be a companion of our Lord. But this simple remark was enough to overthrow the faith of an eminent apostle, and to make him begin to deny his Master. The chief and foremost of our Lord's chosen disciples is cast down, not by the threats of armed men, but by the saying of one weak woman!
There is something deeply instructive in this fact. It ought to teach us that no temptation is too small and trifling to overcome us, except we watch and pray to be held up. If God be for us we may remove mountains and get the victory over a host of foes. "I can do all things," says Paul, "through Christ that strengthens me." (Phil. 4:13.) If God withdraws His grace, and leaves us to ourselves, we are like a city without gates and walls, a prey to the first enemy, however weak and contemptible.
Let us beware of making light of temptations because they seem little and insignificant. There is nothing little that concerns our souls. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. A little spark may kindle a great fire. A little leak may sink a great ship. A little provocation may bring out from our hearts great corruption, and end in bringing our souls into great trouble.
Finally, let us learn from these verses that backsliding brings saints into great sorrow. The conclusion of the passage is very affecting. "Peter called to mind the words that Jesus said unto him, Before the rooster crows, you shall deny me thrice." Who can pretend to describe the feelings that must have flashed across the apostle's mind? Who can conceive the shame, and confusion, and self-reproach, and bitter remorse which must have overwhelmed his soul? To have fallen so foully! To have fallen so repeatedly! To have fallen in the face of such plain warnings! All these must have been cutting thoughts. The iron must indeed have entered into his soul. There is deep and solemn meaning in the one single expression used about him--"Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken to him. And he broke down and wept."
The experience of Peter is only the experience of all God's servants who have yielded to temptation. Lot, and Samson, and David, and Jehoshaphat in Bible history--Cranmer and Jewell in the records of our own English Church--have all left evidence, like Peter, that "the backslider in heart shall be filled with his own ways." (Prov. 14:14.) Like Peter, they erred grievously. Like Peter, they repented truly. But, like Peter, they found that they reaped a bitter harvest in this world. Like Peter, they were freely pardoned and forgiven. But, like Peter, they shed many tears.
Let us leave the passage with the settled conviction that sin is sure to lead to sorrow, and that the way of most holiness is always the way of most happiness. The Lord Jesus has mercifully provided that it shall never profit His servants to walk carelessly and to give way to temptation. If we will turn our backs on Him we shall be sure to smart for it. Though He forgives us, He will make us feel the folly of our own ways. Those that follow the Lord most fully, shall always follow Him most comfortably. "Their sorrows shall be multiplied who hasten after other gods." (Psalm 16:4.)