There was at the table reclining in Jesus' bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved.—John 13:23 (Revised Version).
John is the typical man of friendship and love in that group of special disciples whom Jesus gathered round him. He stands in the world's eye as preeminently the man of heart. His gospel and his epistles and his book of Revelation are full of the rays of light and love, and abound in descriptions of conversations with the Master which are full of the very marrow of divine tenderness.
While Christ loved all of his disciples, and indeed loved all men, with a heart overflowing with sympathy and compassion, there were, as Morley Punshon has aptly commented, distinctions among the apostolic band. Three of them, Peter, James, and John, seem always to have been selected on the great occasions which stand out most prominently in the life of our Lord. They seem to have been the innermost circle round the Master, the nearest in intimacy, the most favored in fellowship, the chosen ones to testify to any special revelation of his love. Their very names, Dr. Punshon suggests, were significant of the great purpose for which Christ came into the world; that the "gift or mercy of God," founded upon a "rock" of impregnable strength, stood to "supplant" all idolatry and error. When the power of Christ over death was to be displayed in the weeping household of the ruler of the synagog whose little daughter had faded into the still beauty of the tomb, Peter and James and John were the only witnesses selected by Jesus to behold her miraculous recovery. On the Mount of Transfiguration, when the inner glory of the Savior's nature burst forth in wondrous beauty, or in the mystery of the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, this same trio of faithful and loving men were selected to accompany their Lord.
In these three men Christ secured three distinct characters. James, the earliest apostolic martyr, was as stedfast and constant as the everlasting hills. Other men might forget their devotion, might give way to panic in the face of unexpected opposition; but no one ever dreamed of James doing a thing like that. He could die, but he did not know how to run, or to be other than faithful to his vow. In Peter, there was the impetuous, ardent advocate. True, he denied his Lord, and left that blot forever on his name, but he came back to his fidelity with as much impetuosity as he had shown in his desertion, and forever after was the outspoken, daring mouthpiece of Jesus Christ. John, the Great-heart, "the disciple whom Jesus loved," was the supreme type of intelligent affection. He seems to have come closer to Christ than any one else. While Peter was always the first to act, John was ever the first to know the mind of Christ, and to perceive the presence of the Lord. On that morning when the little company had been at sea all night, fishing without success, and as the day dawned they beheld Christ on the shore, it was John who first knew him, and said, "It is the Lord." Peter was the first to act on this information, for he impetuously sprang overboard and swam ashore. And in this historic scene connected with our text, the same characteristics in the two men come out. Christ had just told them that one of them sitting with him at the table would betray him. With wonder and sorrow each man questions, timidly and tremblingly, "Is it I?" Then Peter makes a sign to John, who is reclining in Jesus' bosom, that he should ask Christ who it is, and John whispers in the ear of Jesus the question and receives the whispered answer in reply.
I think it is well for us, at the very beginning of this month of special consecration to the worship of God, in which we shall seek with definite purpose to win our fellow men to yield their hearts to Christ, to remember that our religion is supremely a religion of the heart. The life of Jesus is a life of friendships, a life of personal relationships, and we have constantly suggested the fact of his love for different individuals, and his delicate and generous appreciation of their love and gratitude in return. Jesus rejoiced to have people do things for him because they loved him; and if we are to please Christ perfectly in this month of revival effort, it will be because we gain spiritual strength by reclining in his bosom, and go forth to win men to him for love's sake.
This truth is beautifully illustrated in the story of the woman who came to Christ when he was at dinner in a rich man's house, and washed his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head. The host was angry at the sight, and, greatly disgusted, thought within himself: "This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner"; and no doubt he thought that word "sinner" with a sneer of contempt. But his thoughts were not hid from Christ. Jesus saw the sneer and the thought that was behind it, and answered the man's silent contempt by saying: "Simon, I have somewhat to say unto thee. And he saith, Master, say on. There was a certain creditor which had two debtors: the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me, therefore, which of them will love him most? Simon answered and said, I suppose that he to whom he forgave most. And he said unto him, Thou hast rightly judged. And he turned to the woman and said unto Simon, Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet; but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head. Thou gavest me no kiss; but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint; but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment. Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven."
Surely that incident must have been recorded for the purpose of forever setting beyond all cavil the fact that Jesus Christ rejoices in the personal love of his friends, and that service is glorified in his eyes when it is done for love's sake. How ashamed we ought to be of ourselves when we go about our Christian work as though it were a load to be carried, and not a joyous privilege. Is it not quite possible for us to go to church every Sunday morning and Sunday night, and attend the prayer-meeting regularly and give a regular sum to support the Gospel, and yet so imitate Simon in the formality and coldly critical spirit of our service that when the hour is over and we have gone home, our Lord could say to us truthfully: "You gave me no kiss, you did not anoint my head with oil, you gave me no water for my feet; you bowed your head in prayer-time, you put your money in the contribution basket, but you gave me no loving overflow of tenderness and gracious services"? God save us from such a comment from him who hesitated not to give his own life on the cross for us!
When we come to enter into fellowship with John, the Greatheart, we find that we can not enjoy our own fellowship with Christ without sharing it with others. John's big heart always had room for somebody else. Christ knew this when, as he hung on the cross, he gave his mother into John's keeping. And he who comes to love Christ finds that his own spiritual joy depends on sharing it with others.
During the last great famine in India, one of the missionaries in the famine district had just seated himself with his family at the dinner-table, and they had begun to eat, when they were interrupted by a peculiar noise on the veranda. A boy and a dog were fighting over a bone. The boy was so thin and emaciated from long-continued hunger that his ribs could be plainly counted under the skin. The dog was almost as thin and hungry as the boy; and the bone they were fighting over was one that had been thrown away by the missionary's servant after every particle of meat and even marrow had been removed from it. The missionary called his wife, and she and the children came running out. The dinner was forgotten in the presence of that terrible sight of human misery.
"We never can enjoy our dinner, John," cried the missionary's wife, "as long as such a thing as that is going on within reach of us!"
The boy and the dog were separated, and the boy was cared for in the missionary's home; but no one wanted to sit down to the table in that house until that awful condition of human suffering was relieved. They could not enjoy their own meal with the vision of that savage scene coming up before their minds.
If we are truly the Lord's, the sight of spiritual hunger and famine will appeal to us, and it will not be possible for us to enjoy our own feast of love with Christ unless we are conscious that we are doing our very best to bring the bread of life to these other perishing souls. It is a terrible thing that we should sometimes seem to be so indifferent to the men and women who are dying of spiritual famine—people whose hearts are breaking in sorrow without the knowledge of Him who is our soul's greatest comfort; men and women who are chained by wicked passions, who are held in cruel bondage by evil habits; and yet we, who have learned the song of jubilee, who have been given freedom by the great Deliverer, are so timid and hesitating about making known the opportunity of freedom to these who are held in such bitter bondage! I pray God that the Holy Spirit may give us eyes to see clearly the sad ravages which sin is making upon the unconverted people whom we know, and that we shall so appreciate their needs that in self-defense, for our own joy's sake, our hearts shall prompt us to bring salvation to them.
It is only heart-religion that can give us that sympathetic atmosphere which will help us to win souk. A friend was asked: "What is the secret of Wilberforce's success?" "In his power of sympathy," was the ready answer. He was large-hearted, generous, and liberal; he went straight to the front, and threw himself heart and soul into every project which had good for its object. It was said of Norman Macleod that sympathy was the first and last thing in his character—he found in humanity so much to interest him; the most commonplace man or woman yielded up some contribution of humanity. "When he came to see me," said a blacksmith, "he spoke as if he had been a smith himself; but he never went away without leaving Christ in my heart."
We must not hold people at arm's length with some cold intellectual reasoning if we would win them to Christ. We must think about their condition, must meditate on their need of Christ, must muse on the transformation that would come if they knew Jesus; must pray about them, carrying their personality before the mercy-seat, until our hearts are filled with the longing to see them Christians; then when we go to talk with them, the heart-fel-lowship of sympathy and love will make itself felt, and will be more powerful than anything we say or do to make the Christian life charming to them.
We must not be too particular as to whom we shall win. Any man, woman, or child who does not know the Lord will seem infinitely desirable to us when we look at them through the light of Christ's love and sacrifice in their behalf. George Macdonald says a man must not choose his neighbor; he must take the neighbor that God sends him. In him, whoever he be, lies hidden or revealed a beautiful brother. The neighbor is just the man who is next to you at the moment. This love of our neighbor, he says, is the only door out of the dungeon of self. What a glorious month it would be for us if this first month of the new year should liberate every member of this church from the dungeon of selfishness, and grant unto us that indescribable joy that comes to those who are conscious of having been the instruments, in the hands of God, of bringing liberty and forgiveness to a soul perishing in its sin! Such a happy privilege is within the reach of every one of us. God grant that we may seize the opportunity, and each become a Greatheart in the enthusiasm and love with which we give ourselves to winning souls for the Master!