Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life …. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself — Joh_10:17-18
History Has Come Full Circle
It is strange how often in the course of history the wheel has “come full circle.” The impossibilities of yesterday have proved the commonplaces of today. Our Christian faith has always had its elements which powerfully commended it to men, and always there have been aspects of it which were obstacles to its acceptance; but the singular fact which steadily emerges from a growing knowledge of its story is how often the glory of the past becomes the difficulty of the present. One sees that in regard to miracles. Once they were confirmations of the faith. For multitudes the Gospel was authenticated by the signs and wonders of the Lord. And now for multitudes these very miracles are obstacles and stumbling blocks, only making it harder to believe. Today it is the divinity of Christ which so many find it difficult to credit; in the early days of Christianity there was far more difficulty over His humanity. Today we have to battle with agnosticism, which is the denial of all certain knowledge; but in the early Church the conflict was with gnosticism, which, of course, is agnosticism’s opposite.
The Change in Attitude Towards Christ’s Death and Resurrection
Something of the same kind is seen in regard to our Lord’s death and resurrection. Nobody today questions that He died, but many question if He rose again. That He incurred the bitter enmity of men by the fearless proclamation of His message, that the passions He inevitably roused finally brought Him to His death—all this seems so natural to us that no one has any trouble with the cross now, viewed, I mean, just as a fact of history. The problem for us is not that Christ should die; the problem is that He should rise again, with the very body which the nails had pierced and which had known the thrusting of the sword. Multitudes of earnest souls have difficulty in crediting that. This is seen in the various attempts of modernism to explain away His resurrection. No one tries to explain away His death now. It is universally accepted that He died. Nobody finds it a thing almost incredible that at last He was hung upon a tree. The thing almost incredible to many is that on the third day He rose again, in all the power of an endless life.
The Mystery of Mysteries for the Early Disciples
And yet, if I do not greatly err, the opposite was true in the first days. For those who stood nearest to the Lord the staggering difficulty was His death. They had seen Him in conflict with all the powers of darkness, and from every conflict He had emerged victorious. He had challenged evil in all its ugly forms, and as a Conqueror driven it from the field. He had marched on in triumph, in the power of the Holy Spirit, and every foe of full abundant life had been forced to acknowledge His supremacy. Blindness had vanished at His word. Leprosy had departed at His touch. Fevers had fled away, and the withered arm had become strong again. Even death itself, that universal conqueror, had been forced to render up its prisoners at the kingly command of the Lord Jesus. All this they had seen with their own eyes. It was the constant experience of comradeship. They had walked with One who had matched Himself with death and compelled death to acknowledge he was beaten. And to them the thing incredible was this, that He, who had triumphed all along the line, should Himself become a prisoner of the tyrant. For us the resurrection is the staggering thing: the death but the inevitable end. For those who had corn-partied with Jesus it was the other way about. That He should die, that death should conquer Him, that over Him the grave should be victorious, was to them the mystery of mysteries.
Almost certainly some such thought as this moves through the disciples’ aversion from the cross. It underlies their incredulous astonishment when our Lord began to speak about the end. That they heard with horror of a death of shame is in consonance with human nature. Mingling with that horror was the agony of losing their Beloved. But perhaps we shall never fully understand their wild and incredulous astonishment till we recall the personality of Jesus. Men find it difficult to associate death with powerful and arresting personalities. From Nero to Lord Kitchener we trace the conviction that the dead are living. And for men who had companied with Jesus and seen the energies of His victorious life, it must have been extraordinarily hard to picture Him under the power of the grave. That He who was the life should be overcome by the opposite of life, that He who was continually giving life should be powerless to retain His own, this was what perplexed those earliest followers mingling with their love and sorrow, whenever Jesus turned their thoughts to Calvary. It was easy to think of Him as living; it was impossible to think of Him as dead. How could death, whom He had faced and beaten, overthrow that radiant personality? And now the wheel has “come full circle,” and it is not the fact of His death that staggers anybody; it is the assertion that He rose again.
Christ’s Death Was a Glorious Act of Service
And it was then, brooding in the darkness, that the word of Jesus came back to them with power. They recalled how He had told them once, “I lay it down of myself.” That death, which was so hard to understand, was not the ghastly token of defeat. It did not mean that He who had raised Lazarus had Himself been beaten by the enemy. It meant that He had given Himself, in the wise and holy purposes of love, into the clutching fingers of the tyrant. His death was not a dark necessity. It was a glorious and crowning act of service. The very love that had conquered death for Lazarus submitted to it for the sake of sinners. So did the death of Jesus for these sorrowing men cease to be an inexplicable problem and become the center of their hope and joy.