Causes of Stumbling -- "Unprofitable Servants" -- the Tenlepers -- the Kingdom -- the Signs of his Coming.
On the occasion last under consideration, the Pharisees found occasion for cavil in the circumstance that "the publicans and sinners drew near to hear him." They construed his attention to them as a moral identification with them, or, at all events, affected so to construe it. "This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them." It was a galling insinuation, and difficult to rebut, because the fact was as stated. But Jesus rebutted it in the masterly way characteristic of all his performances. He rebutted it by parable. He introduced three successive suppositions, which effectively exhibited the true character of his association with "publicans and sinners." It was not as sinners, but to change them from being sinners that he received the classes from whom the Pharisees held aloof. We have considered this in the parables of the lost sheep, the lost piece of money, and the prodigal son, treated of in chapter xxx. On the same occasion, he uttered the parables of the unjust steward (also chapter xxx.), and of the rich man and Lazarus, which will be found fully discussed in chapter xxxi. He then proceeded to address his disciples on matters specially affecting them.
"It is impossible," he said, "but that offences (or causes of stumbling) will come, but woe to him through whom they come. It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend (or cause to stumble) one of these little ones" (Luke xvii. 1-2). We might have supposed that Jesus here referred to avowed enemies of the truth, had he not given it an application to believers themselves: "Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother sin (Revised Version) rebuke him: if he repent, forgive him, and if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day, turn again, saying, I repent, thou shalt forgive him." From this it would seem that Christ meant to make his brethren particular as to the bearing of their actions on one another. They were not only to avoid causes of stumbling, but even when such had arisen, they were to endeavour to extricate those who had stumbled -- with a patience that was to go to the extremest limit: "seventy times seven." It is in fact an inculcation of the reverse sentiment from that which animated Cain when he said, "Am I my brother's keeper?" Christ means to say we are our brother's keeper to a certain extent, and Paul, his servant, carries the idea to an extent much beyond what men in our age are disposed to recognise. In his argument about the conscientious scruples of brethren in matters of eating and drinking, he says, "If thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably. Destroy not him with thy meat for whom Christ died ... It is good neither to eat flesh nor to drink wine, nor anything whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended or is made weak." It is manifest that by the law of Christ, we are under an obligation to consider the bearing of our actions upon others. If we are indifferent on this head, we may find ourselves unexpectedly confronted with unknown responsibilities in the day of account.
The law of Christ goes contrary to modern sentiment on many points. Here is another: "When ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do." The modern temper attaches little weight to the consideration of "duty." It inclines men to take great credit to themselves for well doing, and in its more generous form, to recognise it in others. No sooner does a man do anything fairly decent in this line, than his friends get up a testimonial or a complimentary dinner, or some other way of "doing honour one to another." Jesus discourages this tendency; and in this he is in accordance with the highest form of reason of which man is capable. Man, as a created being, owes it to God to obey His commandments. God has associated our highest well-being with it. God's approval of the performance of our obligation, and the recompense He purposes are all of His favour. There is no claim on our part. We do our duty: we do not profit God in this. We cannot profit Him. "We are unprofitable servants," in this sense. The profit is all on our side. Boastful sentiment is barbarous. Even complacency is offensive. Only the attitude of humility is reasonable. If those who have "done all those things that are commanded" are acceptable only when they say, "We are unprofitable servants," what is the position of those who do not "the things that are commanded?" This is the most pointed bearing of Christ's injunction in this case. He illustrates it by the case of servants who do their duty. They are acceptable, but are not regarded as specially meritorious. But if they do not their duty, they are worse than useless. This is the position of the bulk of those who say they are "Christians."
Journeying towards Jerusalem, on the highway passing through the Roman provinces of Galilee and Samaria, Jesus and his disciples were met near a certain village by a company of lepers. The lepers, numbering ten, did not come close, but kept at the distance which their diseased condition required. "They stood afar off." That a company of men in their condition should associate together is not wonderful, considering the complete insulation from the rest of the community which the law and custom imposed upon them. Though insulated, they had heard of Jesus and his wondrous healing power: and now saw their opportunity had come. Perhaps they travelled on the highway at this time in the hope of meeting him. At all events, seeing their opportunity, they seized it. Though standing afar off, they arrested the attention of Jesus by their signals, and at the top of their voices implored him to have mercy on them. "Jesus! Master! have mercy on us." Jesus, whose mercy was never appealed to in vain, complied with their wishes in an indirect mode: "Go shew yourselves to the priests!" They knew what this meant. The law required a cured leper to shew himself to the priest. Though the priests were Christ's enemies, and though he had to condemn them in toto, yet as himself under the law (Gal. iv. 4) he was obedient to the law, because it was God's law, and therefore directed this melancholy group of social outcasts to do as the law required. They were not slow to catch his meaning, and at once departed with all speed to the nearest priest. As they went along with the ardour of new hope, they felt in themselves that their disease was arrested, and that in fact a sound state had set in. The power of God in Christ had rectified the functional disorder that caused the disease, and they experienced the joyful sensation of being healed. They would no doubt exchange remarks on the subject. One of them was so impressed that he left the other nine to go forward, and turned back to where Christ was, and threw himself down at his feet with overflowing thanksgiving for the benefit he had received. "With a loud voice he glorified God." The man was not a Jew, but a stranger -- a Samaritan. Jesus took notice of the fact, and found no fault with him, but the reverse. Why were not the others with him? "Were there not ten cleansed?" said Jesus: "But where are the nine? There are not found that returned to give glory to God save this stranger."
How easy it is to extract the intended meaning of this comment -- (Christ's comment) -- however difficult the people may find it to work out in the circumstances of modern life. Many are the benefits conferred. Life is a string of benefactions from the cradle to the grave. "He giveth unto all life and breath and all things." Why do so few recognise their obligation? Why are there so few to give hearty thanks? Why is it that praise to God for common mercies should seem cant and sentiment? Because the minds of few are exercised to discern the roots and relations of things; and this is the result of the unhappy situation of things upon earth when mankind are left to govern themselves instead of being taken charge of and led by God who made them, who only knows the right conditions of human life and development, and who will yet set up a kingdom that will govern and guide them all. It is for those, meanwhile, to whom it may have been given to see wisdom in the matter, to decline the example of the absent nine and their countless companions; and to imitate the tenth, in obedience to the apostolic command, "In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you" (1 Thess. v. 18).
Pursuing his journey, Jesus came into contact with a band of the Pharisees -- it is not stated where -- probably at some town on the route, and in some local synagogue on the Sabbath. He was now known throughout all the land; and it was natural that his claims should be first in men's minds wherever he appeared. With the common people his being the Messiah was a settled question so far as anything can be settled with a fickle populace. It was not so with the Pharisees. A number of them were perplexed, and many privately believed: but, as a body, their attitude was hostile. Their hostility came out in various ways, according to circumstances. On this occasion, it was an ironical question. Jesus had been preaching the Kingdom of God all through the country. The Pharisees now asked, "When is the Kingdom of God coming?" The question was put for cavil -- not for information. It was as much as if they had said, "You have been talking about the Kingdom of God a long time, and you say you are the King; shew it in an open way, and we will believe. Set up the Kingdom with public demonstration." Jesus answered the question in accordance with the spirit that dictated it. He did not speak as plainly as he might, though in what he said he uttered the truth absolutely. He said "The Kingdom of God cometh not (i.e., and that time) with observation, or public demonstration, neither shall they say, lo here, or, lo there, for behold the Kingdom of God is within (among) you." That the reference was to his own presence among them is made certain by the remark he immediately added: "The days come when ye shall desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man and shall not see it." He was with them then -- in their midst: and his presence in the capacity of the King inviting to a future inheritance of the Kingdom was the only form in which the Kingdom was to be looked for at that time. By and bye, he would be gone, and it would be no longer affirmable that "the Kingdom of God was among them."
Why he should identify himself with the Kingdom is not difficult of apprehension when we realise that he is the kernel and root of all that the Kingdom will ever be when established over all the earth. The Kingdom, when it comes, will be but his power organically applied in the locality and constitution of things foreshewn in the prophets. He was the Kingdom in the germ. It was in this sense that the people sang on the occasion of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem a little later: "Blessed is the Kingdom of our father David that cometh in the name of the Lord." It was, therefore, permissible for him to tell the Pharisees, in answer to their question when the Kingdom was coming, that it was already come and actually in their midst, though without the outward show of a political institution. The statement was a rebuke of their blindness.
Turning then to his disciples, he spoke of the approach of the time when he would be no more with them, and when their desire for his return might expose them to false alarms and announcements on the subject of his coming. "They shall say to you, see here, or, see there: go not after them nor follow them: for as the lightning that lighteneth out of the one part under heaven shineth unto the other part under heaven, so shall also the Son of Man be in his day." That is, his coming would be an open public thing that would make them independent of all private report. He then proceeds to make remarks that at first sight present some features of difficulty.
"And as it was in the days of Noah, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of Man. They did eat, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise also as it was in the days of Lot: they did eat, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they builded, but the same day that Lot went out of Sodom, it rained fire and brimstone from heaven, and destroyed them all. Even thus shall it be in the day when the Son of Man is revealed. In that day, he which shall be upon the housetop, and his stuff in the house, let him not come down to take it away; and he that is in the field, let him likewise not return back. Remember Lot's wife. Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose Isis life shall preserve it. I tell you in that night, there shall be two men in one bed: the one shall be taken and the other shall be left. Two women shall be grinding together: the one shall be taken and the other left. And they answered and said unto him, Where Lord? And he said unto them, Wheresoever the body is, thither will the eagles be gathered together."
The difficulty lies here: the subject of the remarks is apparently the second coming of the Son of Man, and yet they refer to events connected with the impending overthrow of the Jewish nation and the destruction of Jerusalem, as where he counsels flight from the midst of destruction, reminding them of Lot's wife; and speaks of the gathering of vultures to a dead body (the gathering of the Romans to prey on the carcase of the Jewish party). How came two such apparently widely separated subjects to be interwoven one with another? We may find our answer if we go back and take our stand with Christ at the time he uttered the words.
Looking forward from that point of time, the events would not seem so far separated as they do to us. In fact, in a sense, they were actually part and parcel of one another. Looking forward, the long-foretold overthrow of the Jewish state was the immediately proximate and impending event. It would fill the mental sky of the beholder. It was to happen within the life-time of that generation (Matt. xxiv. 34). It was to happen after Christ's departure from his disciples, but it was associated with the idea of his personal co-operation and presence: for he was to be alive, with "all power in heaven and earth in his hands." The infliction of judgment on Jerusalem was to be by "the King sending forth his armies, destroying those murderers, and burning up their city" (Matt. xxii. 7). It was therefore in a sense a coming of Christ in judgment: not an appearing, but a coming. He was alive and there to take part.
The idea of his personal though unseen participation in the events of the period is countenanced by the fact that he appeared to Saul of Tarsus on the way to Damascus, saying, with reference to Paul's antagonism to believers, "Why persecutest thou me?" also by his declaration to John in Patmos, that he walked in the midst of the golden candlesticks (this is, the ecclesias), and that if certain did not repent, he would come on them as a thief, and they would not know when (Rev. iii. 3). It is not an act of the imagination, therefore if we realise his cooperation in the events that devastated the land in destroying judgment long-gathered up.
This harmonises all the allusions of the discourse under consideration. A day of judgment had come in Noah's day, a day of judgment had come in Lot's day. In both cases, the approach of the day was disregarded. So it would be in the day of judgment fast hastening upon Israel, when He, Jesus ("first suffering many things and rejected of that generation, but afterwards raised and glorified"), would come upon them as a thief, invisible, but powerful for their destruction.
To his friends, his advice was, "When the hour comes, make no attempt to save your property: leave the doomed city: get away to the mountains" (Luke xxi. 21). Those who obeyed his instructions would be thus "taken" from the midst of the judgment: those who did not would be "left." Where? Why, where the vultures were about to gather to fatten on Israel's carcase. Such directions could not apply to the incidents of his second appearing in power and great glory, when the gathering of his household is for judgment, and not left to their will, but effected by angelic agency.
This understanding of the matter does not conflict with the fact of his second appearing in our future. It only shows that there is an interval between the judgment inflicted on the Jews, and that to be poured out upon the Gentiles. But that they are both part and parcel of the same work carried out by the same hand, viz. -- the hand of him to whom "The Father hath committed all judgment": who invisibly inflicted judgment on the Jews, but will openly appear to save his people and punish the Gentiles, and re-establishing the throne of David, sit thereon, and reign over a rejoicing earth for ever.
Some think that this view surrenders the basis of the expectation of his coming to reign. They say that if the destruction of Jerusalem was the work of Christ, and in a sense a coming of his, there is no other coming to look for, since that was all the coming spoken of in the words of Christ and the apostles. There is no ground for this contention. Jesus did not limit his work or his coming to the destruction that was to overtake Jerusalem. He went far beyond that event. He spoke of "the times of the Gentiles"as a long period during which Jerusalem would be downtrodden, at the end of which redemption was to draw nigh. When the times of the Gentiles should be fulfilled, a sign of the impending appearing of Christ should be "on earth distress of nations with perplexity, the sea and the waves roaring, men's hearts failing them for fear and for looking after those things that are coming on the earth," &c.
When, therefore, Jesus said, "This generation shall not pass till all these things shall be fulfilled," we must not think that he meant things which he expressly excluded from the lifetime of "that generation" by placing them at the expiry of the times of the Gentiles, and which could not occur in that generation by his own description of their scope. The history of the case is the interpretation of the case. That generation did not pass without witnessing the "these things" about which the disciples asked. Forty years afterwards, the temple was destroyed, and Jerusalem laid in ashes. The Gentile down-treading of Jerusalem then ensued, and has continued till now. And now, the times of the Gentiles being at their expiry, we are in the throes of a new era for Palestine, and witnesses of a growing distress of nations with perplexity, pointing to the climax of the prophecy in the return of Christ to the earth, to accomplish those mighty and glorious changes which have been promised from the beginning.
In recognising the unexpired currency of Daniel's "times of the Gentiles," Jesus gave evidence that he had no expectation of his kingly manifestation, 1,800 years ago. He gave evidence of this in various other ways. He spake a parable -- "because they thought the kingdom of God should immediately appear" (Luke xix. 11). His parable was of a nobleman departing into a far country, leaving behind him servants whom he should call to account at his return. Matthew's account represents him as saying, "after a long time, the Lord of those servants cometh" (xxv. 19). To this "long time" there are frequent references: "the days will come," he said, "when ye shall desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man and shall not see it" (Luke xvii. 22). "The days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken away" (Matt. ix. 15). "It is expedient for you that I go away" (Jno. xvi. 7). "And while the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept (went to the grave)" (Matt xxv. 5).
It is, therefore, contrary to fact to represent Christ and the apostles (as some do) as teaching the occurrence of the second appearing, "in that generation in which the apostles wrote." The saying of Christ, on a certain occasion, that some were standing by which should not taste of the death till they should see him coming in his kingdom, refers to the illustration of that event vouchsafed six days afterwards to Peter, James, and John, in the brilliant manifestation of his glory on the Mount of Transfiguration. This is manifest from Peter's allusion to it afterwards: "We have not followed cunningly-devised fables when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we were eye-witnesses of his majesty.... when we were with him on the holy mount" (2 Peter i. 16, 18). If this be demurred to, the objector has but to be reminded that Christ's words contemplate a "tasting of death" after the event referred to -- after the analogy of Simeon, to whom "it was revealed that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ," and who, when he had seen him, said, "Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace" (Luke ii. 26-29). Will any affirm that Christ supposed it possible his disciples should die after entering into the kingdom of God?
As for the epistles, there is only a seeming countenance to the idea that the second appearing of Christ was imminent in the first century. It is due to the fact already before us, that the judicial destruction of the Jewish commonwealth was imminent, and that that judicial destruction was to be the doing of the Son of Man (Matt. xiii. 41), and that it would be the beginning of the programme sketched by the Lord in the discourse already considered, and which should culminate in his appearing and kingdom. The statements, "The Lord is at hand;" "The end of all things is at hand;" "It is the last time," had a Hebraic sense, and found their truthful application in the terrible overthrow about to befall the Jewish nation.
When it came to be a question of the personal appearing of the Lord to judge and save his people, Paul expressly said, "Let no man deceive you by any means, for that day shall not come except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed.... Remember ye not that while I was yet with you I told you these things" (2 Thess. ii. 3, 4). Here is a plain evidence that Paul, late in his life, recognised and familiarly taught that certain events had to transpire in the ecclesiastical sphere before the appearing of Christ was a possibility in the purpose of God. Peter also declared God would send Jesus, but that "the heavens must hold him until" a certain, even later, period than that spoken of by Paul, "the times of the restitution of all things which God hath spoken by the prophets since the beginning" (Acts iii. 19-22).
The aim of every earnest student will be to find a place for every part and feature of the teaching of Christ without reference to any set theory which would nullify any part, and above all without the least surrender to the thought of error on the part of Christ, whose origin and mission from God are so abundantly otherwise attested. On the point in question, a reconciliation is possible in the way indicated between features at first perplexing. The events of the first century had a bearing on the friends of Christ who were contemporary with his life in the flesh; and this bearing he could not, and did not ignore; but, at the same time, he discoursed of them in a way that admitted of an application to the remoter crisis coming, even the time of the end afterwards foreshadowed in the Apocalypse, when a watching class would be waiting his re-appearing under the sixth vial -- even now.
Whether then or now, there are trying demands on the faith and patience of those who wait the purpose of God. It was therefore appropriate that he should close his remarks with a parable "to this end, that men ought always to pray and not to faint." Those who wait are liable to "faint and grow weary." It is true that at last "they shall not be ashamed that wait for me," but while waiting, they bear shame; suffering from the mental fatigue that comes of it; and are in danger of wearying. Christ commands us to pray. It is not in vain that we do so, even now. It is a constant source of renewed strength to "cry day and night" to the God of our life to bring to pass the things He has promised, and to fortify us with His blessing and guidance while seeking to do His will in the cloudy and dark day. He illustrated the point by a parable which we have already considered.
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