By H. Forbes Witherby.
2. A Word on the Nature of God, and on Man's Nature.
Human thoughts about heaven — the nature of God — light and love; and the necessity for the cross.
Man's thoughts concerning heaven too often are fashioned from earthly moulds. We take of things around us, and, subjecting what we have gathered to a process of mental purifying, cast it into a shape, which our imagination has formed out of the clay of this sin-stained earth, and then we call that which we have fashioned heavenly! Vain are such thoughts! No mere man hath ascended up to heaven. Ideas of heaven without a divine revelation are only things of earth, painted with the colors of earth — the paradise of our inclinations, the fruition of the wishes of our fallen selves. Heaven is the dwelling-place of God, and can only be apprehended as God Himself is known; "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him." What is known of them is by revelation: "God hath revealed them unto us by His Spirit." (1 Cor. 2:9, 10.) The earthly things of the kingdom of God may well interest true believers, but they do not directly pertain to us. Since Christ went to prepare a place for those who love Him, our place is where He is. We have to do with the heavenly part of God's kingdom, or we have no lot in the matter. A christian is not a Jew; he has not an earthly but a heavenly inheritance.
If it is a divine necessity that the children of promise must be born anew in order to enter the kingdom of God in its earthly glory, it is none the less a divine necessity, that we Gentiles must be born anew in order to enter that kingdom in its heavenly character. Shall we be deaf to the Lord's words, and be included amongst the self righteous? Shall we read our bibles, and have the Lord say of us also, "If I have told you earthly things and ye believe not, how shall ye believe if I tell you heavenly things?"
How shall we reach heaven? Heaven is beyond human attainment. The law given by Moses cried to man on earth, "Do this and thou shalt live," i.e. on the earth; but no law ever so much as whispered, "Do this and thou shalt ascend up to heaven." The holiness of heaven is above all our thoughts, its light and love are beyond all our ideas! None among men on earth but He, who came thence, knew what heaven was. Our natural thoughts of it are of the earth, earthy; and by the fact of our very being, cannot be otherwise. The Lord, a man upon earth, was yet in heaven. In His divine person He was there; He had been there from everlasting, and knew in Himself what it was; and upon earth He was the repository of heavenly things. We can only know what heaven is, and the way thither, as He Himself teaches us who and what God is.
The eye of Jesus penetrated into man's innermost being. He "needed not that any should testify of man, for He knew what was in man." (John 2:25.) He was also declaring the Father, in whose bosom He was; and He teaches us heavenly things. He tells us not only what our nature is, He teaches us more, even what is the nature of God. He explains us to ourselves, and He reveals God to us.
The truth of God teaches us that we are by nature "dead in sins," and that our nature is alive to sinning. Every nerve of man's moral being is sensitive to sin; we do not now refer to our actions, which, when we yield ourselves to ourselves, are the expressions of the motions of our hearts, but to the principle within us by nature, which is really the energy of the system of the world. It is self, self-will, the creature pleasing itself — or trying to do so — it is that lawlessness, which is sin. We need to look deeper into ourselves, than is the wont of superficial morality. We need to judge of ourselves with at least as much concern as an ordinarily careful man would of the house in which he was contemplating to dwell. He would not be satisfied with the evidence of mere painting and stucco; he would require to be acquainted with the soundness of the painted timber and the honesty of the stuccoed brick-work. Yet, how many pass from time into eternity in a state of deadly unconcern, without even the care and inquiry they would bestow upon a house which they purposed tenanting for seven short years?
Suppose a little child having set at naught his father's direct word, and not having owned his wrong, unconcernedly playing with the daisies upon his father's lawn. A passer-by might say, "How innocently that child is amusing itself"; but the father, feeling the sin of his child's disobedience,would have far different thoughts: he would judge of his child not by its apparently innocent play, but by the state of its heart. We must not judge of ourselves by mere external evidence. Man calls his self-pleasing innocent amusement; but what is the state of our hearts? Have we been to God? Have we owned our sin to Him? Hereby let us test our real state before Him. When the prodigal in the far country was with his companions, enjoying himself, and when he was alone in his misery, keeping swine, he was equally far off from his father; and it was only when he said, "I will arise and go to my father," that he expressed his first right thought in the far country. Whether our circumstances in the world render our lot happy or sorrowful is not the question for our souls: how do we stand in relation to God?
The truth of God gives us to think right thoughts about ourselves. We learn that we are "all gone out of the way," that there is "none that doeth good, no, not one," and we bow to God, our mouths are stopped, and we own our guilt before Him. (Rom. 3:19.)
While the divinely-given pardon of sin, and the divine gift of life are quite distinct from each other, the self-same person receives both the pardon and the life. The life is not communicated to unpardoned sinners. The sense of having the pardon does not always co-exist with the grace of the pardon, and we must not confound the gift of God with our realisation of it. God forgives us our sins, cleanses us from our defilement, and justifies us from all things; He also gives us a new life in His Son. This life is entirely distinct from our natural life; it is a holy life — in God and in Christ are its origin, and the Holy Spirit is its energy.
After the Lord had spoken to Nicodemus of the necessity for the new birth for man, He spoke of Himself as the crucified One for man. Now it is by His death we obtain full redemption and forgiveness, and His blood cleanses us from all sin. We need to have Him present to our souls, both as sacrifice and life-giver, as dying for our sins, and as giving life to sinners dead in sin; and, until we rejoice in His redemption, we cannot rejoice before God in the life He has given us.
The all-availing efficacy of our Lord's sacrifice is the truth which, if truly and fully recognised, enables us to rejoice in the forgiveness of sins. It removes our questioning and our doubts, and opens the way for us to delight in Christ as our life. The Lord and the truth explain to us not only what we are, and what divine forgiveness is, but also what God is, and how we are brought into the joy of the nature of God.
The nature of God must be borne in mind, if we would understand what heavenly things are. "God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:6), is an utterance which was never heard on earth until the Son of God proclaimed it. Prophets had been raised up and sent by God to testify of His dealing with men, but the joyful tidings of His heart of love towards the wide world of humanity was the secret reserved for ages and generations, and only to be made known by the Incarnate Son. "God is love" is a truth from heaven first revealed to man by Jesus.
God is light is a truth co-equal with it, and is taught also by the Lord. The law did not re veal God's righteousness, though it witnessed to it — this the cross of Jesus does. The nature of God cannot tolerate sin. To speak only of His love, and to reject His light, would be to falsify the love and to rob God of half His character. "God is light," "God is love" are truths from heaven.
In the words of the Lord to Nicodemus, we perceive the nature of God — first, that God is light; next, that God is love.
First, God as LIGHT is seen in the CROSS of the Son of MAN. The Lord having in grace become a man, having taken the place of Son of Man before God, must needs go through to the end with the work undertaken. That work was redemption, in order to effect which, the sacrifice of Himself was required; therefore the necessity imposed upon Him, as Son of Man, to die in order that we might live. In the fulfilment of this necessity, so graciously undertaken, we see God as light magnified in the cross of Jesus.
"As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
Next, God as LOVE is seen in the GIFT of the Son of GOD. From the depths of His own heart, because He is love, God gave His eternal Son for a perishing world, gave Him to become a man, that, being a man, He might die in order that we might live.
"For God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
The reader will observe the titles of the Lord: Son of Man; Son of God. Son of Man given for man, and, on man's account, bearing the shame and spitting, enduring death and being forsaken on the cross. Son of God given from God's heart for a perishing world. The light required that the Son of Man should be lifted up; the love gave the Son of God for man.
Because of the light and love there was a necessity for the cross of Christ; and, by His once crucified Son, God draws men to Himself. Love loves because it is love. No man can explain love; it is all-attractive and gathers to its own bosom. Certainly none can explain the love of God, and God by His love irresistibly draws to Himself.
Why should God give His Son for the world? There is but one reason, "God is Love." Does God love us? Us, sinners, haters of Him? "God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." (Rom. 5:8.) It is not because there is anything loveable in the sinner that he is invited to come near to God, but because God has given His Son to die; a meeting place in the propitiatory has been divinely made. Has your heart been broken by a sight of the spotless Son of God dying for his enemies? Have you, by the sacrifice, learned that God is light and love?
The Son being given, and having come into the world as the love-gift of God, there was a necessity imposed upon Him. "Even so must the Son of Man be lifted up." But why this necessity? The answer is, because "God is Light." Righteousness required, and the Son alone could answer, the claims of righteousness. In order that our sins might be blotted out and our state met in a way to glorify God; in order that the light of God's nature should detect nothing in us, but that upon which it could shine in peace, the Son of Man must needs die. The more truly a believer dwells in this light, the more richly does the love fill his soul.
Like Israel in the wilderness, transgressing and sinning, and fallen under the power of the fiery serpents, we lay perishing beneath the judgment our sins had brought upon us. The remedy for their ruin was the death their sin had brought upon them, set forth before their eyes in divine judgment — the serpent of brass set upon a pole. Our hope, in our more hopeless death, is Him "made sin for us who knew no sin" (2 Cor. 5:21); "Sin condemned in the flesh" (Rom. 8:3); Christ crucified.
The word to Israel was, "It shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live"; and the effect of faith is thus described, "that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived." (Num. 21:8, 9.) To us the word is, "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Me"; and the effect of faith in the once-crucified Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man, is that whosoever believes on Him shall never perish, but receives everlasting life.
Let the sinner look straight away to Jesus on the cross. The light of divine righteousness requiring death from the transgressor by the wounds and woe of the spotless Saviour, reveals how vile we are what a state is by nature ours. All the suffering and sorrow, all that being forsaken of His God, were necessary — our sins called for every grief and every pain borne by the Lord; our sins called for every drop of woe wherewith His bitter cup was filled. The light shows us what sin is and what we are; in it we read divine righteousness in relation to sin. But the light shows more — shining from heaven, where the risen Christ sits on the throne of the divine majesty — divine righteousness manifests that all our sins are gone; that we, too, in our flesh, are unseen by God, and that we stand before Him in His Christ. Righteousness required of the Son of Man all that He had undertaken to accomplish; and when He had done all that had to be done, God in righteousness raised Him from the dead. This light explains the love of God to us, which love breaks the hardest heart, and forces the greatest sinner down upon his knees.
The cross of Christ is the divine necessity of divine light and love. Jesus crucified will ever attract to God; so long as the world endures will this marvel stand, that the story of the sufferings and the death of Jesus shall draw men from the glory and the glitter of the world, from its fame and its shame, even to God Himself. By Christ's death we understand that God is light, and by His death we understand that God is love. God's nature is expressed to us by the cross of the Son of Man, and by God's gift to us of Him; and the Lord having taken up the work, we see, in the willing offering and sacrifice of Himself, the all-constraining necessity, the "must" of the Saviour's own heart of love for sinners. "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Me. This He said, signifying what death He should die." (John 12:32, 33.) Jesus crucified — the sacrifice for sin, the friend of sinners — is the mighty magnet by which God draws us to His heart of love; Christ crucified is the irresistible force which no power of Satan nor of the world can withstand. And by that cross God is glorified beyond all human thought and utterance, even to the utmost of the infinite extent of His own nature.