Wrath by His meekness,
And by His health sickness,
Are driven away
From our immortal day.
The first words that pointed John to Christ were those of the Baptist—"Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world." The profound implications that lay in these words were probably little perceived at first, but they became clearer with growing years and ripening experience. And long after he who had delivered the message was lying in his bloody grave, after the death on the cross, when the Evangelist was in the isle that is called Patmos for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ, he lifted up his eyes from the rocks around him and the tossing sea that girdled them, and saw in the depth of the sanctities of heaven the Lamb as it had been slain.
He found no greater word to describe the glory of the noon than that through which he had seen the dawn. It was the same light in its zenith as when it first greeted him through the mist. Surely it is worth while to investigate a revelation like this, which was as much to the aged seer as it was to the young fisherman. How beautiful is a life of which the early days, the middle, and the latest hold the same convictions, only growing with the man's growth, and widening with his experience! How beautiful when the life is based on truths which no experience can overthrow, which experience only renders more precious; and how different from the lives of men who flit restlessly from one faith to another and find no abiding home! It is beautiful when we see the father and the young man and the child bound together by the faith which goes through all the stages of life, the end circling round the beginning, only with a deeper conviction and a stronger love at last.
To understand the meaning of this profound phrase we must go back to the Old Testament, in which the mind of him who first uttered it was steeped. Perhaps the passage which was most clearly before him as he spoke was that in the climax of evangelical prophecy where Jesus is described as a Lamb led to the slaughter, and where it is said that as a sheep before his shearers is dumb, so He opened not His mouth. Forty days before Christ had been baptised, and in the interval John had no doubt been meditating deeply on the prophecies that announced the Messiah; and this would stand more clearly before his mind than any. Besides, through those days and before them, he had been hearing countless stories of grief and sin from those who came to be baptised of him; and would he not think of One into whose ear sorrow would never be sobbed in vain—One who was to deal with sin adequately and finally by taking it away? "He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and with His stripes we are healed."
But along with this we must include a reference to the Paschal Lamb. Few thoughts in John's Gospel are more distinct than that of the relation of Jesus Christ to the Paschal Sacrifice and Feast. The Passover, which was the most conspicuous symbol of the Messianic deliverance, was not far off; flocks of lambs were passing by to Jerusalem to be offered at the coming feast, and the sight may have brought home the thought. Further, there is no difficulty in believing that the forerunner, who had deeply meditated the Messianic prophecies and the meaning of the sacrifices, saw, with prophetic insight, that Christ was to suffer, thus standing for a time on a higher level than any of the disciples.
We find in the expression the idea of sacrifice central to the Bible—the fundamental thought of the Christian life—the Alpha and Omega of John's experience and faith. "Without expiation, and the ideas connected with it, what," says Vinet, "is Christianity?" So our object is to show the foundation and meaning of this great idea of sacrifice, and then its large unfoldings as we find them in the Revelation of St. John, where we are told of the Lamb enthroned, the Lamb opening the sealed book, the Lamb making war, the Lamb leading, and feeding, and lightening His people, the Lamb overwhelming His enemies with His wrath.
The basis of all is found in the words of the Apostle Peter—"A Lamb without blemish and without spot"; or, as it is phrased by the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, in describing the High Priest who became us—"Holy, harmless, and undefiled." The ideas brought before us by words like these are, first, Christ's innocence and gentleness: and, secondly, the bearing of these upon His sufferings and death.
I. The innocence of Christ signifies that He was absolutely free from every taint of evil. He was not only free from all evil, He was full of all good. When we speak of His holiness, we point to the positive element—His possession of all good. When we speak of His innocence, we lay stress rather on the complete absence of evil from His every thought, word, and deed. Even those who make it often fail to understand all that is implied in this immense claim. It means that the boundary lines between right and wrong, often to us more or less obscured, were to Him always as clear as noon. The wonderful skill with which He maps out the frontiers of righteousness, and the nice discrimination with which He goes so far, and no farther, is the perpetual wonder of moral teachers. It signifies, besides, that He perilled His whole claim upon any, even the minutest, fact of His life. All other men, even the best, are only right on the whole, and we are content and thankful if they reach that point of excellence. We should rightly count the critic no less foolish than ungenerous who would reject and condemn a great and noble character because of the flaws and errors that make it human. We are glad to accept our heroes with far greater limitations and blots, and to overlook even much shortcoming, in consideration of much attainment. Our temptation is unconsciously to transfer this line of reasoning to Christ, and to look suspiciously upon those who claim His example as a perpetual rule, and who say that to deny His perfection in one, even the least, point, is to deny it in all. But, as it has been forcibly said, Christ was either sinless or sinful. Between sinlessness and sinfulness there is no middle term. The quantity of sin is not the point in question; it is its existence. Should the denier be able to make good any charge, even the least, against the moral perfection of Christ, the whole scheme of salvation vanishes like a dream, and He Himself needs redemption, instead of being a Redeemer: our faith is vain, and we are yet in our sins.
But great and sweeping as this claim is, the innocence of Christ means something more. It means something positive. When we speak of innocence, we think of the bloom and fragrance there is about childhood—that childhood which He Himself was pleased to make a type of man's regained Paradise, when He said, "Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven." Innocence, it has been said, has something strange and wonderful about it. It has a look of exile, as of something heavenly detained in slavery upon earth, a look of peril and of helplessness, such as we sometimes see in children. This spotless, childlike innocence Jesus the "Eternal Child" kept to the very last.
This innocence was not ignorance. With childhood it is; and men justly count it a high crime to violate the sanctities of childhood. To break in upon that sacred ignorance which makes the sunshine round the head of a young child ripple into a softer gold, to cause one of those little ones to stumble, is to deserve to be thrown with a millstone round one's neck into the depths of the sea, and this in the judgment even of the most abandoned. For to lose ignorance is to lose innocence. The evil knowledge lays hold of something evil within, and though no outward transgression may follow, we know too well that in the soul a battle has been fought and lost. But He knew all things. He speaks with a strange familiarity of vice and crime. He knows what young men do when they leave the father's house, and plunge into transgression in a strange country. He knows how they feel when the wild pleasure thrills them, and how when the reaction comes, when the money is spent and friendly doors are closed, and how when the spirit turns faintly to its father and its home. He knows how sinners entice, and how the son consents. All these things He knows, and has described in imperishable words; and yet the bloom of His innocence is unsmirched through all.
Neither was His an untried innocence. What we call a child's innocence is never of course complete, and disappears when temptation comes; and the prayer for childhood and for age is—"Lead us not into temptation." Christ's sinlessness did not imply a freedom from the burden of maintaining a contest with evil. But it implies that there was no yielding in the contest. He met Satan in conflict face to face and overthrew him. He was tried in the silence of His spirit all through His life with the wiles of the devil, and upon the cross the enemy was there, plying Him with the old deceits to the very last. And yet, sore as the temptation was, there was not so much as even the least compliance in thought, and all the temptation of the wicked one no more defiled Him than the shadow of a cloud stains the snow.
2. The image of the Lamb suggests not only the innocence, but also the gentleness, of Christ; "Gentle Jesus, meek and mild."
It is in this aspect that He first lays hold of us, and in this aspect He continues most clearly to reveal Himself. This gentleness is seen both in what He did and in what He endured. We know how gently He used His power; with what a delicate sympathy He conferred His gifts, how when He healed the leper He put out His pure hand and came near the need that He might relieve the pain, how He touched the little children in their innocence, and the harlots in their filth, how He refused to be the judge of men because He had come to be their Saviour. But that is not the most remarkable aspect of His gentleness. In the gentle use of power He was well skilled through His long rule of the kingdom of the eternal patience. What is most striking and impressive is the gentleness with which He endured suffering. The great mystery of suffering came up in His history in its sharpest form. His life was confessed by all men pure, sinless, perfect in beauty, and yet He suffered. The contradiction rises to its superlative degree, and we stand amazed. Not only was He man, but He suffered as the uncreated and eternal Son of God. It is as if a star should withdraw its beams and forget to shine that He should pass through an experience strange and awful for a man, so much more strange and mysterious for God incarnate. Besides, suffering was new to Him. He learned obedience not as we do in the way of learning to exercise a disposition which otherwise is not ours—not in the sense of having His will moulded and tempered through submission. We know that from the beginning, before the shadow had passed over Him, the very inmost of His will was in harmony with the will of God. But that inmost will needed to be wrought out in life. He had to make practical acquaintance by experience with the act of submission. He had to learn obedience in actual exercise, and the discipline through which He passed was infinitely more severe than ours. His obedience had to maintain itself in the face of greater and greater demands upon it; and as He had to meet these demands rising with the rising tide of things which He suffered, He entered ever more deeply into the experience of what obedience was.
And how gently He bore His sufferings! We remember the impressive silence which He maintained before the furious and malignant storm of accusation at the bar of Pilate. We remember how, amidst a series of insults and torture which makes us shudder to read of, when the thorns were crushed into His brow, and the faded scarlet thrown round Him, and the reed put into His hand and then wrested from Him and used to strike Him again and again, not one word of reproach, or protest, or anger, escaped His lips. We remember "what a grace He had, even in His dying hour"; how He prayed when the nails were driven through His hands, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do"; how He opened Paradise to the penitent thief at His side; how He died with no word of bitterness upon His lips. And therein, as in all His life, we behold His exceeding gentleness.
This gentleness was not weakness, for, as suggestive hints tell us again and again, there dwelt in Him energies which could have routed and destroyed all His enemies. And He was watched by legions of angels, every angel with his hand upon his sword, so that it may not be too much to say that His difficulty was to restrain and refrain from using these powers. His gentleness in suffering receives a new meaning when considered as the gentleness of the strong one who bore not by the constraint of weakness but by the stronger constraint of love.
And still further, this gentleness was not softness of temper, not moral indifference or weakness. To confound the majestic and solemn tenderness of Christ with weak good nature is profoundly to misconceive it. The Lamb of God has seven horns. The heat that destroys and the heat that quickens both come from one source. His grief was sometimes mingled with anger, and, when need was, He could rebuke and silence those who opposed Him. But this power also He rarely used, and the image of the gentle Christ is that left on our minds after a perusal of His whole life.
The innocence and gentleness of Christ, on account of which He is called the Lamb of God, help us to realize what is very difficult for us adequately to conceive—the horror of His sufferings. We do not feel as we should the sufferings of Jesus, partly because into their greatest depths we are not able to see very far, and partly because in this world of sin and pain it is so much a matter of course that a man should suffer, and we ourselves become so familiar with suffering that it is hard to spare thought or sympathy for those who share it with us, however great their share may be.
Every one who comes into this world and seeks a career there, must bear his part of the ills of this tried life. He must have his experience of the shocks and overthrows and strange reversals and bitter bereavements of earth; and, unless his suffering reaches some unparalleled height, we can scarcely spare a thought for it. And so it is that it has been found most difficult to stimulate our dull and selfish imaginations into any adequate feeling about the suffering of Christ. But nothing will help us more to throw away the brazen armour of our selfishness, and to feel how terrible an expression of human sin the Cross was then to conceive of the sufferer as the Lamb of God. Men must be strangely hardened and deadened before they cease to respond to the suffering of a helpless and innocent being. Suffering wantonly and purposelessly inflicted on dumb and helpless animals moves in minds not altogether devilish an instant horror and sympathy. More especially when those who are so tortured show, as they sometimes do, their love in the very midst of their agony, do we feel the dreadfulness of the deed. Those "who would mangle the living dog that had loved them and fawned at their knee," raise execration in the hearts even of the most criminal. That an innocent and unconscious child should be put to torture, is an idea so sickening that we cannot dwell upon it. The legend of one such deed has lingered about an English town for hundreds of years. Now, we are warranted in taking those ideas and transferring them to Christ. He was more innocent than any child, more loving, more gentle, and, by the constraint of His love more helpless, than any other could be. And it was He whom men chose and did to death in agony and in shame. This aspect of Christ's suffering, if we dwell upon it, may make us feel as those did who, when they saw it, smote their breasts and returned. This is the end of human nature apart from God—to nail upon the cross the Son of God Himself; and in this crime we all of us had a share. In the Cross, looked at from this point of view, we have the culmination and the condemnation of human guilt; and were this the only point of view from which we could regard it, it would fill us with horror and despair.
But a profounder thought leads us to see in the death of the Lamb of God not merely the condemnation, but also the atonement, for human guilt. He died in the fulness of power, of consciousness, and of love. Viewed from the human side His death was a murder, but deeper knowledge reveals it as the determinate counsel of God, and the expression of His own loving will. There is more in the Cross than at first we dreamt of. If it opens the great depths of man's sin, it opens also the greater depths of God's mercy.
As we gaze heart-stricken on the Sufferer the calm lips will say to us the old, old words, "Thy sins, which are many, are forgiven thee: go in peace."