The Payment of the Tribute-Money--The Strife as to Who Should be the Geratest in the Kingdom of Heaven
Matt. 17:22-27; 18:1-35; Mark 9:33-41; Luke 9:43-50.
From his retirement in the neighborhood of Caesara-Philippi, Jesus returned to Galilee--not, however, to resume his public ministry there. He sought privacy now, even among the scenes of his former labors--a privacy that he wished to consecrate to the further enlightenment of the twelve as to his own character and office, and the true nature of the kingdom he came to institute. Mark 9:30, 31. It was in fulfilment of this purpose that, on the way from the scene of the transfiguration to his old haunts about Capernaum, he made a second announcement of his impending death and resurrection, adding to the details of his passion formerly given that of his betrayal. So hid was the meaning of Christ's words, that all that the apostles appear to have derived from them was, a vague impression that some great and decisive events in their Master's history were drawing near, in contemplation of which they began disputing among themselves which should be greatest in the kingdom which they hoped to see so soon set up--keeping, as they imagined, their disputing about this topic concealed from Christ.
On their arrival at Capernaum, the persons appointed to receive the annual tribute which was paid for the support of the temple services came to Peter and said to him, "Doth not your Master pay tribute?" Those who put this question were not the publicans or ordinary tax-gatherers, who levied the dues laid upon the Jews by their governors the Romans. Nor was the question one about the payment of any common tax, any civil impost. The very form of the question, had it been literally rendered, would have indicated this--'Doth not your Master pay the didrachma?' a coin them modern and in circulation, equivalent to the old half-shekel, which, having gone out of use, had become rare. Every Jew of twenty years old and upward was required to give a half-skekel yearly for the maintenance, first of the temple, and afterwards fo the temple. Although this payment was legally imposed, it does not appear to have been enforced by civil pains or penalties. It was left rather, like other of the Mosaic imposts, to the spontaneous action of the conscience and a good-will towards the theocracy on the part of the people. It was to the pay-
ment of this didrachma or half-shekel for the upholding of the temple and its ordinances that the question put to St. Peter refers. It is impossible for us to say positively in what spirit or with what motives the question was put. It certainly was not the question of the lynx-eyed collectors of the ordinary revenue, detecting an attempted evasion of the payment of one or other of the common taxes. From no civil obligation laid upon him by law did Jesus ever claim to be exempt; nor would the argument which he used afterwards with the apostle, embodying a claim to exemption in this case, have been applicable to any such obligation. But why did those to whom the gatherers of this ecclesiastical impost was intrusted speak as they did to St. Peter? Was it from doubt or ignorance on their part as to whether Jesus ought to be asked or now meant to pay this tax? Priests, Levites, prophets, some tell us that even rabbis were held to be free from this payment. Had Christ's retirement now from public duty suggested the idea that he had thrown aside that character under which immunity might have been claimed by him, and that he might be called upon therefore to submit to all the ordinary obligations under which every common inhabitant of the country was laid? Or was this a piece of rude impertinence on the part of the under-officials of the hierarchy, who, seeing the disfavor into which Jesus had sunk with the superiors, were quick to take advantage of their commission to obtrude a question that seemed to cast some reproach on Christ as if he were a defaulter? Some color is given to the supposition that it was in a sinister spirit that the inquiry was made, from the circumstance of St. Peter's prompt reply--a reply in which there may have been indignation at an implied suspicion, and a scorn at disputing about such a trifle--so that without any communication with Jesus, he shuts the mouths of the gainsayers by saying, 'Yes, his Master paid, or would pay, the tribute.' Had the tone in which the question was asked and the apostle's reply was given been known to us, we might have been told whether it was so or not. As it is, it can only be a conjecture that it was in a hostile and malicious spirit that the collectors of the tribute money acted. Peter, however, was too rash and hasty. It might be true enough that his Master had no desire to avoid that or any other service which he owed to the temple and its worship. It might be safe enough in him to undertake for his Master so trifling a payment, which, whether Jesus acquiesced on the engagement or not, the apostle could easily find the means for meeting. But in such an instant acknowledgment of the obligation, there was an overlooking on Peter's part of the dignity of Christ's person, and of his position towards the temple. To remind
him of his oversight, to recall his attention to what was implied in his own recent confession at Caesarea-Philippi, when they were come into the house, without waiting for any communication from Peter as to what had occurred, Jesus said to him, "What thinkest thou, Simon? Of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? Of their own children, or of strangers?"--those who are not members of their own family--not sons, but subjects. Peter saith to him, 'Of the latter; of strangers. Jesus saith to him, Then are the children free.' Upon this simple principle Christ would Peter to recognize his immunity from that tribute which was now claimed--for was he not greater than the temple? Did he not bear to that temple the relation of the Son in the house of his Father? And did he not as such stand free from all the obligations which the King and Lord of that house had laid upon his servants--his subjects? It will not be easy to show any pertinence assumed in the plea for immunity thus presented, without admitting the altogether peculiar relationship in which Christ stood to the Father. Accept the truth of his divine Sonship to the Father, and the plea holds good; reject that truth, and the plea seems weak and void. And was it not for the purpose of still further illustrating that very Sonship to God which Peter for the moment had forgotten, that our Lord directed him to do that which in the issue carried with it so remarkable a proof that in the great temple of the visible creation Jesus was not a servant, but a Son; that everywhere within and over that house he ruled; that all things there were ready to serve him--the flowers of the field, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea--seeing that at Christ's bidding one of the latter was to be ready to grasp at Peter's hook, and on being taken up, was to have in its mouth the stater, the four-drachm piece, the very sum required from two persons for the yearly temple-tax? It is as viewed in this connection that a miracle which otherwise would look needless and undignified--out of keeping with the general character of our Lord's great works, all of which in some way have something more than mere exhibiting of power--takes rank with all the rest as illustrative of the high character and office of the Redeemer. It is not want which forced our Lord upon this forthputting of his divinity. Even had the bag which Judas carried been for the moment empty, the sum required to meet this payment was not so large but that it could easily have been otherwise procured; but in the manner in which the need was met, Jesus would set forth that character on the ground of which he might have claimed immunity--throwing over the depths of his earthly poverty the glory of his divine riches, and making it manifest how easy it had been for
him to have laid all nature under contribution to supply all his wants. Yet another purpose was served by this incident in our Saviour's life. In point of time, it harmonizes with the first occasions on which Jesus began to speak of that church, that separate society which was to spring forth out of the bosom of Judaism, and to take the place of the old theocracy. Had he, without explanation made, at once ratified the engagement that Peter made for him, it might have been interpreted as an acknowledgment of his subjection to the customs and laws of the old covenant. That no offence might have be taken--taken in ignorance by those who were ignorant of the ground upon which immunity from this payment on his part might have been asserted--he was willing to do as Peter said he would. In this it became him to fulfil all the righteousness of the law; but even in doing so, he will utter in private his protest, and in the mode wherein that protest is embodied convey beforehand no indistinct intimation that a breach was to take place between the temple-service and the new community of the free of which he was to be the Head.
It is extremely difficult to determine what the exact order of events was on the arrival at Capernaum. If it were while they were on the way to the house--most likely that of Peter, in which Jesus took up his abode--that the collectors of the temple tax made their application, then the first incident after the arrival would be the short conversation with Simon, and the despatching him to obtain the stater from the fish's mouth upon the lake. In Peter's absence, and after they have entered the house, Jesus may have said to his disciples, "What was it that ye disputed among yourselves by the way?" They were so struck by surprise, had been so certain that their Master had not overheard the dispute that had taken place, that they had no answer to give to his inquiry. Meanwhile, Peter has returned from his errand, and reported its result, while they in turn report to him the inquiry that had been made of them. Let us remember here that up to the time of the arrival in the neighborhood of Caesara-Philippi, no instance is on record of any controversy having arisen among the personal attendants on Christ as to the different positions they were to occupy in his kingdom. All had hitherto been so vague and indefinite as to the time and manner of the institution of the kingdom, that all conjecture or anticipation as to their relative places therein had been kept in abeyance. Now, however, they see a new tone and manner in their Master. He speaks of things--they do not well know what--which are about to occur in Jerusalem. He tells them that there were some of them standing there before him which should not taste death till they had seen the kingdom of God.
Which of them could it be for whom such honor was in reserve? He takes Peter and James and John up with him to the mount, and appears before them is so new an aspect, invested with such a strange and exceeding glory, that the privilege of being present at such a spectacle must have appeared to the three as a singular distinction conferred upon them. They were not to tell the others what they had seen, but they could scarcely fail to tell them they had seen something wonderful beyond any thing that had happened in their Lord's wonderful life, which they were not permitted to reveal. Would not the seal of secrecy so imposed enhance in their estimation the privilege which had been conferred on them, and would it not in the same degree be apt to awaken a jealousy on the part of the nine? At the very time, then, that they all began to look out for the coming of the kingdom as near at hand, by the materials thus supplied for pride with some, for envy with the rest, an apple of discord was thrown in among the twelve. They were but men of like passions with ourselves. They had as yet no other notion of the kingdom that was shortly to appear than that it would be a temporal one; that their Master was to become a powerful and victorious prince, with places, honors, wealth, at his command. And what more natural than that they whom he had chosen to be confidential attendants in the days of his humiliation should be signally exalted and rewarded? Such being their common expectations, any mark of partiality on Christ's part would be particularly noted; and what more natural than that such a signal one as that bestowed upon the three, in their being chosen as the only witnesses of the transfiguration, should have stirred up the strife by the way as to who should be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?
This first outbreak of selfishness and pride and ambition and envy and strife, among his chosen companions, was a great occasion in the sight of Jesus. It might and it did spring to a large extent from ignorance, and, with the removal of that ignorance, might be subdued; but it might and it did spring from sources which, after fullest knowledge had been conveyed of what the kingdom was and wherein its distinctions lay, might still have the power to flood the church with a whole host of evils. Therefore it was that Jesus would signalize this occasion by words and an act of particular impressiveness. Peter had returned from the lakeside with the stater in his hand to pay for himself and for Jesus. The others told him of the questions that had been put to them, and of the silence they had observed, As they did so, this new instance of Peter's election for a separate service stirs the embers of their former strife, and in their curiosity
and impatience one of them is bold enough to say to Jesus, "Who is or shall be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" Jesus sits down, calls the twelve that they might be all around him, and says to them, "If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last." 'If any man actuated by selfish, covetous, ambitious motives, seek to be first in my kingdom, he shall be last--the very efforts that he shall make to climb to the highest elevation there being of their very nature such as shall plunge him to the lowest depths. But if any man would be first within that kingdom, first in goodness, first in usefulness, first in honor there, let him be last, willing to be the servant of others, ready to esteem others better than himself, prepared to take any place, to make any sacrifice, to render any service, provided only that other's welfare thereby advanced. In humbling himself so, that man shall be exalted. I give to this great truth a visible and memorable representation.' Jesus called a little child to him, and set him in the midst, then took him into his arms, and said, "Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." 'Ye are fighting about places, power preeminence in my kingdom; but I tell you that the selfishness, the pride, the ambition, out of which all such strife emerges are so wholly alien from the nature of that kingdom which I have come to introduce and establish, that unless you be changed in spirit, and become meek, humble, teachable, submissive as this little child which I now hold so gently in my arms, ye cannot enter into that kingdom, much less rise to places of distinction there. You wish to know who shall be greatest in that kingdom. It shall not be the wisest, the wealthiest, the most powerful, but whosoever shall most humble himself, and in humility be likest to this little child, the same shall be greatest in the kingdom of heaven.' 'If that be true,' we can fancy the apostles thinking and saying, 'if all personal distinction and preeminence must be renounced by us, if in seeking to be first we must be last, and each be the servant of all the others, what then will become of our official influence and authority--who will receive and obey us as thy representatives?' Our Lord's reply is this--'Your true and best reception as my ambassadors does not depend upon the external rank you hold, or the official authority which you may be clothed. It depends upon your personal qualities as humble, loving, devoted followers of me. This is true of you and of all; for whosoever receiveth one such little child--one of these little ones which believe in me, in my name--receiveth me; and whosoever receiveth me, receiveth not me but him that sent me.'
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"The beginning of strife," the wise man said, "is when one letteth out water." And that beginning of strife among the apostles of Christ as to which of them should be greatest, what a first letting out was it of those bitter waters of contention, envy, and all uncharitableness, which the centuries since Christ's time have seen flooding the church its members--struggling for such honors and emoluments, or, when these were but scanty, for such authority and influence as ecclesiastical offices and positions could confer! Slow, indeed, has that society which bears his name been in learning the lesson which, first in precept, and then in his own exalted example, the Saviour left behind him, that "whosoever shall exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted."
We have had before us the first of the two instances in which John was led away by a fiery and intemperate zeal--in this instance to misjudge and condemn one who, though he had not faith nor fortitude enough to leave all and follow Jesus, yet had faith enough to enable to work miracles in Christ's name. It is not told us how John took the check which Jesus laid upon that spirit of officialism and fanaticism which had been working in his breast. But we do know how thoroughly that spirit was at last subdued in the heart of the meekest and most loving of the twelve, and how he moved afterward among his fellow-men with step of Christ-like gentleness, and became the "guardian spirit of the little ones of the kingdom."
Who Is the Greatest?
[This chapter is based on Matt. 17:22-27; 18:1-20;
Mark 9:30-50; Luke
On returning to Capernaum, Jesus did not repair to the well-known resorts where He had taught the people, but with His disciples quietly sought the house that was to be His temporary home. During the remainder of His stay in Galilee it was His object to instruct the disciples rather than to labor for the multitudes.
On the journey through Galilee, Christ had again tried to prepare the minds of His disciples for the scenes before Him. He told them that He was to go up to Jerusalem to be put to death and to rise again. And He added the strange and solemn announcement that He was to be betrayed into the hands of His enemies. The disciples did not even now comprehend His words. Although the shadow of a great sorrow fell upon them, a spirit of rivalry found a place in their hearts. They disputed among themselves which should be accounted greatest in the kingdom. This strife they thought to conceal from Jesus, and they did not, as usual, press close to His side, but loitered behind, so that He was in advance of them as they entered Capernaum. Jesus read their thoughts, and He longed to counsel and instruct them. But for this He awaited a quiet hour, when their hearts should be open to receive His words.
Soon after they reached the town, the collector of the temple revenue came to Peter with the question, "Doth not your Master pay tribute?"
This tribute was not a civil tax, but a religious contribution, which every Jew was required to pay annually for the support of the temple. A refusal to pay the tribute would be regarded as disloyalty to the temple,--in the estimation of the rabbis a most grievous sin. The Saviour's attitude toward the rabbinical laws, and His plain reproofs to the defenders of tradition, afforded a pretext for the charge that He was seeking to overthrow the temple service. Now His enemies saw an opportunity of casting discredit upon Him. In the collector of the tribute they found a ready ally.
Peter saw in the collector's question an insinuation touching Christ's loyalty to the temple. Zealous for his Master's honor, he hastily answered, without consulting Him, that Jesus would pay the tribute.
But Peter only partially comprehended the purpose of his questioner. There were some classes who were held to be exempt from the payment of the tribute. In the time of Moses, when the Levites were set apart for the service of the sanctuary, they were given no inheritance among the people. The Lord said, "Levi hath no part nor inheritance with his brethren; the Lord is his inheritance." Deut. 10:9. In the days of Christ the priests and Levites were still regarded as especially devoted to the temple, and were not required to make the annual contribution for its support. Prophets also were exempted from this payment. In requiring the tribute from Jesus, the rabbis were setting aside His claim as a prophet or teacher, and were dealing with Him as with any commonplace person. A refusal on His part to pay the tribute would be represented as disloyalty to the temple; while, on the other hand, the payment of it would be taken as justifying their rejection of Him as a prophet.
Only a little before, Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Son of God; but he now missed an opportunity of setting forth the character of his Master. By his answer to the collector, that Jesus would pay the tribute, he had virtually sanctioned the false conception of Him to which the priests and rulers were trying to give currency.
When Peter entered the house, the Saviour made no reference to what had taken place, but inquired, "What thinkest thou, Simon? of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? of their own children, or of strangers?" Peter answered, "Of strangers." And Jesus said, "Then are the children free." While the people of a country are taxed for the maintenance of their king, the monarch's own children are exempt. So Israel, the professed people of God, were required to
maintain His service; but Jesus, the Son of God, was under no such obligation. If priests and Levites were exempt because of their connection with the temple, how much more He to whom the temple was His Father's house.
If Jesus had paid the tribute without a protest, He would virtually have acknowledged the justice of the claim, and would thus have denied His divinity. But while He saw good to meet the demand, He denied the claim upon which it was based. In providing for the payment of the tribute He gave evidence of His divine character. It was made manifest that He was one with God, and therefore was not under tribute as a mere subject of the kingdom.
"Go thou to the sea," He directed Peter, "and cast an hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a piece of money: that take, and give unto them for Me and thee."
Though He had clothed His divinity with humanity, in this miracle He revealed His glory. It was evident that this was He who through David had declared, "Every beast of the forest is Mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills. I know all the fowls of the mountains; and the wild beasts of the field are Mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell thee: for the world is Mine, and the fullness thereof." Ps. 50:10-12.
While Jesus made it plain that He was under no obligation to pay the tribute, He entered into no controversy with the Jews in regard to the matter; for they would have misinterpreted His words, and turned them against Him. Lest He should give offense by withholding the tribute, He did that which He could not justly be required to do. This lesson would be of great value to His disciples. Marked changes were soon to take place in their relation to the temple service, and Christ taught them not to place themselves needlessly in antagonism to established order. So far as possible, they were to avoid giving occasion for misinterpretation of their faith. While Christians are not to sacrifice one principle of truth, they should avoid controversy whenever it is possible to do so.
When Christ and the disciples were alone in the house, while Peter was gone to the sea, Jesus called the others to Him, and asked, "What was it that ye disputed among yourselves by the way?" The presence of Jesus, and His question, put the matter in an entirely different light from that in which it had appeared to them while they were contending
by the way. Shame and self-condemnation kept them silent. Jesus had told them that He was to die for their sake, and their selfish ambition was in painful contrast to His unselfish love.
When Jesus told them that He was to be put to death and to rise again, He was trying to draw them into conversation in regard to the great test of their faith. Had they been ready to receive what He desired to make known to them, they would have been saved bitter anguish and despair. His words would have brought consolation in the hour of bereavement and disappointment. But although He had spoken so plainly of what awaited Him, His mention of the fact that He was soon to go to Jerusalem again kindled their hope that the kingdom was about to be set up. This had led to questioning as to who should fill the highest offices. On Peter's return from the sea, the disciples told him of the Saviour's question, and at last one ventured to ask Jesus, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"
The Saviour gathered His disciples about Him, and said to them, "If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all." There was in these words a solemnity and impressiveness which the disciples were far from comprehending. That which Christ discerned they could not see. They did not understand the nature of Christ's kingdom, and this ignorance was the apparent cause of their contention. But the real cause lay deeper. By explaining the nature of the kingdom, Christ might for the time have quelled their strife; but this would not have touched the underlying cause. Even after they had received the fullest knowledge, any question of precedence might have renewed the trouble. Thus disaster would have been brought to the church after Christ's departure. The strife for the highest place was the outworking of that same spirit which was the beginning of the great controversy in the worlds above, and which had brought Christ from heaven to die. There rose up before Him a vision of Lucifer, the "son of the morning," in glory surpassing all the angels that surround the throne, and united in closest ties to the Son of God. Lucifer had said, "I will be like the Most High" (Isa. 14:12, 14); and the desire for self-exaltation had brought strife into the heavenly courts, and had banished a multitude of the hosts of God. Had Lucifer really desired to be like the Most High, he would never have deserted his appointed place in heaven; for the spirit of the Most High is manifested in unselfish ministry. Lucifer desired God's power, but not His character. He sought for himself the highest
place, and every being who is actuated by his spirit will do the same. Thus alienation, discord, and strife will be inevitable. Dominion becomes the prize of the strongest. The kingdom of Satan is a kingdom of force; every individual regards every other as an obstacle in the way of his own advancement, or a steppingstone on which he himself may climb to a higher place.
While Lucifer counted it a thing to be grasped to be equal with God, Christ, the Exalted One, "made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross." Phil. 2:7, 8. Now the cross was just before Him; and His own disciples were so filled with self-seeking--the very principle of Satan's kingdom--that they could not enter into sympathy with their Lord, or even understand Him as He spoke of His humiliation for them.
Very tenderly, yet with solemn emphasis, Jesus tried to correct the evil. He showed what is the principle that bears sway in the kingdom of heaven, and in what true greatness consists, as estimated by the standard of the courts above. Those who were actuated by pride and love of distinction were thinking of themselves, and of the rewards they were to have, rather than how they were to render back to God the gifts they had received. They would have no place in the kingdom of heaven, for they were identified with the ranks of Satan.
Before honor is humility. To fill a high place before men, Heaven chooses the worker who, like John the Baptist, takes a lowly place before God. The most childlike disciple is the most efficient in labor for God. The heavenly intelligences can co-operate with him who is seeking, not to exalt self, but to save souls. He who feels most deeply his need of divine aid will plead for it; and the Holy Spirit will give unto him glimpses of Jesus that will strengthen and uplift the soul. From communion with Christ he will go forth to work for those who are perishing in their sins. He is anointed for his mission; and he succeeds where many of the learned and intellectually wise would fail.
But when men exalt themselves, feeling that they are a necessity for the success of God's great plan, the Lord causes them to be set aside. It is made evident that the Lord is not dependent upon them. The work does not stop because of their removal from it, but goes forward with greater power.
It was not enough for the disciples of Jesus to be instructed as to the nature of His kingdom. What they needed was a change of heart that would bring them into harmony with its principles. Calling a little child to Him, Jesus set him in the midst of them [Matthew 18:2]; then tenderly folding the little one in His arms He said, "Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." The simplicity, the self-forgetfulness, and the confiding love of a little child are the attributes that Heaven values. These are the characteristics of real greatness.
Again Jesus explained to the disciples that His kingdom is not characterized by earthly dignity and display. At the feet of Jesus all these distinctions are forgotten. The rich and the poor, the learned and the ignorant, meet together, with no thought of caste or worldly preeminence. All meet as blood-bought souls, alike dependent upon One who has redeemed them to God.
The sincere, contrite soul is precious in the sight of God. He places His own signet upon men, not by their rank, not by their wealth, not by their intellectual greatness, but by their oneness with Christ. The Lord of glory is satisfied with those who are meek and lowly in heart. "Thou hast also given me," said David, "the shield of Thy salvation: . . . and Thy gentleness"--as an element in the human character--"hath made me great." Ps. 18:35.
"Whosoever shall receive one of such children in My name," said Jesus, "receiveth Me: and whosoever shall receive Me, receiveth not Me, but Him that sent Me." "Thus saith the Lord, The heaven is My throne, and the earth is My footstool: . . . but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at My word." Isa. 66:1, 2.
The Saviour's words awakened in the disciples a feeling of self-distrust. No one had been specially pointed out in the reply; but John was led to question whether in one case his action had been right. With the spirit of a child he laid the matter before Jesus. "Master," he said, "we saw one casting out devils in Thy name, and he followeth not us: and we forbade him, because he followeth not us."
James and John had thought that in checking this man they had had in view their Lord's honor; they began to see that they were jealous for their own. They acknowledged their error, and accepted the reproof of Jesus, "Forbid him not: for there is no man which shall do a miracle in My name, that can lightly speak evil of Me." None who showed
themselves in any way friendly to Christ were to be repulsed. There were many who had been deeply moved by the character and the work of Christ, and whose hearts were opening to Him in faith; and the disciples, who could not read motives, must be careful not to discourage these souls. When Jesus was no longer personally among them, and the work was left in their hands, they must not indulge a narrow, exclusive spirit, but manifest the same far-reaching sympathy which they had seen in their Master.
The fact that one does not in all things conform to our personal ideas or opinions will not justify us in forbidding him to labor for God. Christ is the Great Teacher; we are not to judge or to command, but in humility each is to sit at the feet of Jesus, and learn of Him. Every soul whom God has made willing is a channel through which Christ will reveal His pardoning love. How careful we should be lest we discourage one of God's light bearers, and thus intercept the rays that He would have shine to the world!
Harshness or coldness shown by a disciple toward one whom Christ was drawing--such an act as that of John in forbidding one to work miracles in Christ's name--might result in turning the feet into the path of the enemy, and causing the loss of a soul. Rather than for one to do this, said Jesus, "it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea." And He added, "If thy hand cause thee to stumble, cut it off: it is good for thee to enter into life maimed, rather than having thy two hands to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire. And if thy foot cause thee to stumble, cut it off: it is good for thee to enter into life halt, rather than having thy two feet to be cast into hell." Mark 9:43-45, R. V.
Why this earnest language, than which none can be stronger? Because "the Son of man is come to save that which was lost." Shall His disciples show less regard for the souls of their fellow men than the Majesty of heaven has shown? Every soul has cost an infinite price, and how terrible is the sin of turning one soul away from Christ, so that for him the Saviour's love and humiliation and agony shall have been in vain.
"Woe unto the world because of occasions of stumbling! for it must needs be that the occasions come." Matt. 18:7, R. V. The world, inspired by Satan, will surely oppose the followers of Christ, and seek to destroy their faith; but woe to him who has taken Christ's name, and yet is found
doing this work. Our Lord is put to shame by those who claim to serve Him, but who misrepresent His character; and multitudes are deceived, and led into false paths.
Any habit or practice that would lead into sin, and bring dishonor upon Christ, would better be put away, whatever the sacrifice. That which dishonors God cannot benefit the soul. The blessing of heaven cannot attend any man in violating the eternal principles of right. And one sin cherished is sufficient to work the degradation of the character, and to mislead others. If the foot or the hand would be cut off, or even the eye would be plucked out, to save the body from death, how much more earnest should we be to put away sin, that brings death to the soul!
In the ritual service, salt was added to every sacrifice. This, like the offering of incense, signified that only the righteousness of Christ could make the service acceptable to God. Referring to this practice, Jesus said, "Every sacrifice shall be salted with salt." "Have salt in yourselves, and have peace one with another." All who would present themselves "a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God" (Rom. 12:1), must receive the saving salt, the righteousness of our Saviour. Then they become "the salt of the earth," restraining evil among men, as salt preserves from corruption. Matt. 5:13. But if the salt has lost its savor; if there is only a profession of godliness, without the love of Christ, there is no power for good. The life can exert no saving influence upon the world. Your energy and efficiency in the upbuilding of My kingdom, Jesus says, depend upon your receiving of My Spirit. You must be partakers of My grace, in order to be a savor of life unto life. Then there will be no rivalry, no self-seeking, no desire for the highest place. You will have that love which seeks not her own, but another's wealth.
Let the repenting sinner fix his eyes upon "the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world" (John 1:29); and by beholding, he becomes changed. His fear is turned to joy, his doubts to hope. Gratitude springs up. The stony heart is broken. A tide of love sweeps into the soul. Christ is in him a well of water springing up unto everlasting life. When we see Jesus, a Man of Sorrows and acquainted with grief, working to save the lost, slighted, scorned, derided, driven from city to city till His mission was accomplished; when we behold Him in Gethsemane, sweating great drops of blood, and on the cross dying in agony,--when we see this, self will no longer clamor to be recognized. Looking unto Jesus, we shall be ashamed of our coldness, our lethargy, our self-seeking.
We shall be willing to be anything or nothing, so that we may do heart service for the Master. We shall rejoice to bear the cross after Jesus, to endure trial, shame, or persecution for His dear sake.
"We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves." Rom. 15:1. No soul who believes in Christ, though his faith may be weak, and his steps wavering as those of a little child, is to be lightly esteemed. By all that has given us advantage over another,--be it education and refinement, nobility of character, Christian training, religious experience,--we are in debt to those less favored; and, so far as lies in our power, we are to minister unto them. If we are strong, we are to stay up the hands of the weak. Angels of glory, that do always behold the face of the Father in heaven, joy in ministering to His little ones. Trembling souls, who have many objectionable traits of character, are their special charge. Angels are ever present where they are most needed, with those who have the hardest battle with self to fight, and whose surroundings are the most discouraging. And in this ministry Christ's true followers will co-operate.
If one of these little ones shall be overcome, and commit a wrong against you, then it is your work to seek his restoration. Do not wait for him to make the first effort for reconciliation. "How think ye?" said Jesus; "if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray? And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray. Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish."
In the spirit of meekness, "considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted," (Gal. 6:1), go to the erring one, and "tell him his fault between thee and him alone." Do not put him to shame by exposing his fault to others, nor bring dishonor upon Christ by making public the sin or error of one who bears His name. Often the truth must be plainly spoken to the erring; he must be led to see his error, that he may reform. But you are not to judge or to condemn. Make no attempt at self-justification. Let all your effort be for his recovery. In treating the wounds of the soul, there is need of the most delicate touch, the finest sensibility. Only the love that flows from the Suffering One of Calvary can avail here. With pitying tenderness, let brother deal with brother, knowing that if you succeed, you will "save a soul from death," and "hide a multitude of sins." James 5:20.
But even this effort may be unavailing. Then, said Jesus, "take with thee one or two more." It may be that their united influence will prevail where that of the first was unsuccessful. Not being parties to the trouble, they will be more likely to act impartially, and this fact will give their counsel greater weight with the erring one.
If he will not hear them, then, and not till then, the matter is to be brought before the whole body of believers. Let the members of the church, as the representatives of Christ, unite in prayer and loving entreaty that the offender may be restored. The Holy Spirit will speak through His servants, pleading with the wanderer to return to God. Paul the apostle, speaking by inspiration, says, "As though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God." 2 Cor. 5:20. He who rejects this united overture has broken the tie that binds him to Christ, and thus has severed himself from the fellowship of the church. Henceforth, said Jesus, "let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican." But he is not to be regarded as cut off from the mercy of God. Let him not be despised or neglected by his former brethren, but be treated with tenderness and compassion, as one of the lost sheep that Christ is still seeking to bring to His fold.
Christ's instruction as to the treatment of the erring repeats in more specific form the teaching given to Israel through Moses: "Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in anywise rebuke thy neighbor, that thou bear not sin for him." Lev. 19:17, margin. That is, if one neglects the duty Christ has enjoined, of trying to restore those who are in error and sin, he becomes a partaker in the sin. For evils that we might have checked, we are just as responsible as if we were guilty of the acts ourselves.
But it is to the wrongdoer himself that we are to present the wrong. We are not to make it a matter of comment and criticism among ourselves; nor even after it is told to the church, are we at liberty to repeat it to others. A knowledge of the faults of Christians will be only a cause of stumbling to the unbelieving world; and by dwelling upon these things, we ourselves can receive only harm; for it is by beholding that we become changed. While we seek to correct the errors of a brother, the Spirit of Christ will lead us to shield him, as far as possible, from the criticism of even his own brethren, and how much more from the censure of the unbelieving world. We ourselves are erring, and need Christ's pity and forgiveness, and just as we wish Him to deal with us, He bids us deal with one another.
"Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." You are acting as the ambassadors of heaven, and the issues of your work are for eternity.
But we are not to bear this great responsibility alone. Wherever His word is obeyed with a sincere heart, there Christ abides. Not only is He present in the assemblies of the church, but wherever disciples, however few, meet in His name, there also He will be. And He says, "If two of you shall agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of My Father which is in heaven."
Jesus says, "My Father which is in heaven," as reminding His disciples that while by His humanity He is linked with them, a sharer in their trials, and sympathizing with them in their sufferings, by His divinity He is connected with the throne of the Infinite. Wonderful assurance! The heavenly intelligences unite with men in sympathy and labor for the saving of that which was lost. And all the power of heaven is brought to combine with human ability in drawing souls to Christ.