A Sermon by James Maclagan
John 6:63. It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.
The day before Jesus spoke these words to His disciples, He had fed five thousand men with five barley loaves and two fishes. Persuaded by the miracle that this of a truth was the prophet who should come into the world, the multitude followed Jesus next day to Capernaum, not from the love of His doctrine, “but because”, said He, “ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled. Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of Man shall give unto you.” “They said therefore unto Him, What sign showest thou then, that we may see and believe Thee? What dost Thou work? Our fathers did eat manna in the desert; as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat. Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but My Father giveth you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is He which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world. . . . I am the bread of life; he that cometh to Me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on Me shall never thirst. . . . The Jews then murmured at Him, because He said, I am the bread which came down from heaven. And they said, Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How is it then that He saith, I came down from heaven?” This was the first subject of their murmurings. They could not believe that He came down from heaven.
Jesus reproves and represses this objection by solemnly affirming that He, and He only, had seen the Father, that the Father had sent Him to give everlasting life unto all that should believe on Him, and that as many as were taught of God would infallibly come unto Him. Then, returning to the other branch of His statement, as to His being the true bread, He solemnly repeats it: “I am that bread of life. Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever; and the bread which I will give is My flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. The Jews therefore” again “strove among themselves, saying, How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” This was the second subject of their murmurings. They could not believe that Jesus could give His flesh for meat.
On both these points first, as to the fact of His having come down from heaven, and next, as to the possibility of His giving men His flesh to eat the unbelief of the Jews began to infect His disciples. Many even of them, when they heard this, said, “This is an hard saying, who can hear it?” When Jesus knew in Himself that his disciples murmured at it, He said unto them, “Doth this offend you? What and if ye shall see the Son of Man ascend up where He was before?” Thus He remonstrates with their doubts upon the point of His having come down from heaven. He does not mean to say that His human nature had ever been there, for assuredly it had not. He does not mean to teach that His Godhead had ever departed thence, for He fills heaven and earth eternally with His divine essence; nor can He at any time, in that respect, be absent from any place.
But when and where soever He will, He can give sensible tokens, glorious manifestations, of His presence to His creatures, whether angels or men; and He can withdraw them again at His pleasure. He could appear to Abraham in human form on the plains of Mamre, to Moses as a flame of fire in the bush, to the people of Israel as a pillar of light over the tabernacle and in the temple. Just so, in heaven, He had of old given bright and majestic displays suited to the place and the inhabitants of His being, presence, and greatness, as one in substance with the Father and the Spirit, yet distinct in person. But when God sent Him to redeem our world, the symbols of His presence appeared on earth. And how did they appear? In the Babe of Bethlehem, in the Man of Sorrows that compassed the land of Judea doing good, in the patient sufferer that mourned and expired a crucified outcast on Mount Calvary. In this sense He had come down from heaven; and now He checks the unbelief of His disciples on the subject by informing them that they should one day see Him, which they did, ascending up to heaven again. This from His lips might well restrain their first doubt. And of the second, namely, whether it was possible that He should give them, as He had said, His flesh to eat, the answer is in the words of our text: “It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing; the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit and they are life”. Let us attend, then, to the meaning of this declaration.
It is evident, however strange, that when Christ spoke of giving Himself for them to eat, the people understood Him literally. They took the saying in its plain, direct sense. No wonder, therefore, that it seemed harsh and incredible. But it was no time for Him to speak in express terms and to announce Himself openly as the Messiah, when they had meditated just the day before to take Him by force and make Him a king. Hence He continues to speak in a figure; but after they had began to murmur, He puts that figure again and again more broadly and more strongly than ever, with such significance and such emphasis as ought, even at the moment, to have made them suspect He was speaking parables and might afterwards, upon a little reflection, have assured them that He was. “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth My flesh, and drinketh My blood, hath eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is meat indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He that eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood, dwelleth in Me and I in him. As the living Father hath sent Me, and I live by the Father; so he that eateth Me, even he shall live by Me. This is the bread which cometh down from ever; not as your fathers did eat manna and are dead. He that eateth this bread shall live for ever.”
When, with such earnest repetition, He forced into their ears such unsparing language as this; when, besides, He thus called the same thing at one time bread, and at another His own flesh and blood especially after He had just told them (v 35) that it was by believing in Him that men should never hunger, and by coming unto Him that they should never thirst; nay, that just as He lived by the Father, so men were to live by Him one would think that they must of necessity have perceived He was speaking metaphorically and could not possibly intend literally to invite them to such food as was never presented to man but in the extremities of famine, or at the horrible feasts of savages and cannibals. But no. Their minds were so engrossed with the miraculous loaves and fishes which they had eaten, so filled with the manna which had long nourished their fathers with little toil in the wilderness, so intent upon obtaining from the “Prophet that should come” similar earthly supplies and comforts for themselves and for their children, that they could only see the worldly sense, the carnal meaning, the “flesh“, as it were, of His words, while the “spirit” of them was high above out of their sight.
But “the flesh”, says our Lord, “profiteth nothing” nothing toward that spiritual and eternal life of which alone He spake. “Their fathers did eat manna” and were dead they themselves had eaten the loaves, and should die. Nor would the case be altered if anything so monstrous could be imagined as their actually eating, by way of food, the flesh of Jesus. That would save neither soul nor body from destruction. As regards alike the salvation of the soul and the blessed resurrection of the body, “it is the spirit that quickeneth”, the spirit, that is, of His words not the grosser meaning of them which strikes the ear, but the great holy powerful truths of God which they reveal to the soul. “The words which I speak unto you,” He repeats it, “they are spirit”, not flesh. They tell of spiritual, not of carnal things; and therefore also “they are life” the means of imparting to him that believes them, not a sinful, perishable life on earth, which should rather be called a death, but a holy, everlasting, real life in heaven.
No doubt it is true of all our Lords parables and parabolical sayings that it is the spirit, not the letter, of them that quickeneth. But let us take this truth at present merely in its connection with the sayings of our Lord in the context and inquire, for time limits us to that one question: How Christ spiritually gives us His flesh to eat and His blood to drink. Now, in answering this question, two points require consideration: first the thing itself which Christ imparts to His people; and next the manner in which He imparts it.
1. His flesh and His blood is the thing given, and what is spiritually meant by this. Doubtless His entire person. For Christ is one, and cannot be broken. His body, soul and Godhead, though distinct in their natures, are united in their personality. In thought they may be separated, but they are joined in fact. It is impossible spiritually to receive a part of Christ without receiving the whole, and whosoever does not receive Him whole hath no part or lot in Him whatsoever. It is true He gives, by name, only His flesh and blood to the Jews, and these were really given; but can anyone suppose that such as received them were to have no interest in His soul no benefit by the sovereign wisdom of His understanding, the unbounded love of His heart, or the tenderness of His sympathy with the afflicted? Surely it was through these higher workings of His soul that the toils and pains of His body were both endured and made effectual.
Much more does a similar reason infer the giving of His Godhead to His people, for if, apart from that, the gift of His human soul and body were sufficient, and their salvation could be communicated in the mere man, wherefore did God work the wonder of wonders that in this man should dwell all the fulness of the Godhead bodily? And if in Him dwells bodily all the fullness of the Godhead, shall the infinite wisdom and power and love and mercy of Him who made all things and upholds all things, that is Christ, be of no avail to those on whom Christ is bestowed as their Saviour? Surely it is this fullness of the Godhead which gloriously perfects and crowns the good which they receive by the works and sufferings of Christs human nature so that they likewise receive all the riches of His Godhead in these works and sufferings, and along with them.
2. It will be more clear, however, that Christ gives Himself entire to His people when we consider again in what manner it is that He gives Himself. And here I do not dwell upon that eternal covenant with the Father in which the “unspeakable gift” was provided and made sure to His elect. Neither do I enlarge upon the fact that when the divine nature of the Son of God became incarnate and was clothed in flesh, when He took not on Him the nature of angels but He took on Him the seed of Abraham, when He did so for the very purpose of accomplishing for us in the human nature what could not possibly be done in the divine, this was giving His whole person, as God-man, to His people, by an action more expressive and significant by far than any words which can be framed to declare it. The truth is of itself apparent and shines in its own light. He put off the glory which He had with the Father before the world was, and fixed the abode of His Godhead in the substance of a despised and persecuted man in order, through the deepest possible abasement, to rescue from sin and death all that received Him. This was indeed to impart His entire self to them as the true bread of God which cometh down from heaven and giveth life unto the world.
Yet it was not only in this act of His incarnation that He so gave Himself; He does it likewise in the exercise of every one of His offices. Consider, for example, what was the work of His Priesthood the only instance we can at present notice. In His priesthood, He put Himself, as Surety for His people, under the law which God had given to man but which man had broken. He undertook to fulfil the righteousness in which we had failed, and to undergo the penalty which we had incurred. The sin of any one believer deserves a hell of sorrow and death, but God “laid on Him the iniquity of us all“. In making the atonement He was oppressed with the very curse that would sink us into darkness. He endured the very wrath that, like fire, would devour our spirit; and He died, in soul and body, the very death sin excepted which sinners die, persisting therein till such time as a true and full satisfaction was made to the offended justice of heaven for the sins of the world.
Here He gave Himself not partially but entirely. For, let us consider, could pure Godhead yield the obedience of a man, or endure mans labours, pains and sorrows, and at length give up the ghost under wrath for sin? That was impossible, and therefore, in doing and suffering these things, Christ gave His human soul and body. Could a mere man, whose utmost services, allowing them to be perfect, were due on his own account and could only deliver his own soul, undertake for so many myriads of mankind, apostate as they were and already fallen? Could he work out a righteousness adequate to replace their unnumbered shortcomings, or abide a vengeance equivalent, in the judgement of God and in the exigencies of His moral government, to the collective horrors of their punishment? No, that could not be; and therefore Christ brought the whole worth, the greatness and the glory of His divine essence and perfections, to add infinite value and weight and efficacy to His human works and sufferings as the willing surety of sinners. In this He gave His Godhead. So it was neither of Christs two natures, apart from the other, that either did or could accomplish the marvellous work of atonement; but it was His Godhead in man and His manhood in God, His whole matchless person undivided in action and merit as it is inseparable in being, that He gave, in this first exercise of His priesthood, as the bread of God that giveth life unto the world.
But there is a second part of our Saviours priestly function, that is, the Intercession. In making intercession also in pleading our cause at the right hand of God Christ gives Himself whole and undivided to His people. For, “Christ being come an high priest of good things to come . . . neither by the blood of goats and calves,” says the Apostle, “but by His own blood, He entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us”. The ground then on which, in the heavenly temple, He rightfully asks and obtains from the Father every communication of good to sinners is that very obedience unto death that great propitiation in which, as we have already seen, the riches, both divine and human, of His entire person, were lavished and expended for our sake.
On earth the sacrifice was made, but it is presented in heaven. There the wounds of His mortal flesh received on the cross together with the agonies of His soul when His God forsook Him and both these conjoined with the humiliation of His Divinity when all its glory lay shrouded in the ignominy and woes of that insulted, persecuted, murdered man there on high, the whole of these things together are offered before God as the one righteous foundation, the one acceptable and precious good desert, the one prevailing, triumphant and glorious plea, on the strength of which He received for His people all righteousness, grace and salvation. But who is capable of so bringing merits to bear like these, in the height and depth and length and breadth of their own immeasurable worthiness, and in the full strength and tenderness of their hold upon the Fathers love, except that Son of God and Man alone? In the one unexampled complexity of His person only was it possible that they should be contemplated or brought to pass. None can adequately wield such wonders but He that hath matchlessly achieved them.
Nor is it only thus in relation to the Father that the work of intercession requires and employs the assembled attributes of His twofold nature. It is in relation to us also, and to our necessities. Think of the redeemed as one vast household spread through all corners of the earth and continued, by the crowding succession of its members, from the beginning to the end of time. Consider its perilous situation in an apostate world; its cruel enemies, visible and invisible; its own blindness and weakness; its divisions and backslidings; its numberless hazards, conflicts and tribulations. It will then instantly appear that none but a divine Intercessor, whose wisdom can embrace the entire scheme of its destinies and at every moment espy the future in the causes now operating, is capable of asking, from hour to hour and from age to age, for the very blessings which the Church requires. The necessity of such wisdom becomes yet more manifest if we descend into the various and complicated relations which are constantly springing up amongst the minor sections of this great family toward the world, toward each other, and toward the Church at large.
Still farther, when we come down to congregations, households, individuals, and think what kind of watchfulness it must be that shall mark by number and by name every soul of Gods elect as it comes into being what kind of forethought and prudence it must be that can solicit from the hand of God, for every one of that countless multitude, according to the special position, temperament and temptations and wanderings of each, those precise restraints, instructions and graces which are most suitable, even if it were only to turn him at first from darkness to light and from the power of Satan unto God surely we must become thoroughly sensible that such knowledge is in truth no other than the divine.
Reflect, in short, how weak, inexperienced and defenceless is the spiritual childhood of the recently converted, by what fierce struggles and artful temptations the manhood of every Christian is sure to be thoroughly tried, what numberless infirmities and necessities. Reflect too what indescribable dangers and distresses beset his whole pilgrimage through this hostile land, and pursue his steps over the gloomy frontier of death, until he reach the heavenly portals. And then say if any advocacy but that of God at the right hand of God could suffice to give each of us a perfect and satisfying assurance that the needful aids and benefits of every description, prepared in manner, in measure and in season, would infallibly be imparted to his own soul until, rescued from all the power of evil, it were lodged in the bosom of its eternal rest?
We need, my friends, a Intercessor on high; and, as such, the Lord gives Himself to be the life of our souls. But O how encouraging to know that, in the same undivided person, our own nature also pleads, that He who sits with the Father on that glorious throne, although the Son of God, is also woman-born. And how encouraging to know that, when Immanuel prays, the prayer is the wisdom and the love of Jehovah Himself, uttered through the mind and heart and lips of a man a man who, looking down on this earth as He pleads, can see none of His servants involved in any trouble of which He had not Himself the sharpest experience. But if any cry to Him out of misery and want, He it was that hung naked and thirsting on the cross; if any bewail in His ear the wounds of unrighteous judgements and lying tongues, His was the heart which reproach had broken; if any groan forth their lamentations for insult and oppression and outrage, He was the mocked, the buffeted, the crowned with thorns, the riveted with nails He was the prey of ruffians; He was the scorn of hypocrites.
Do any exclaim in their fear, when compassed by the snares of the devil, or pressed above measure, beyond strength, by the onsets of hellish enmity? On Him came the hour and power of darkness. Are any, for their sins, pierced with the arrows of the Almighty, whose poison drinketh up their spirit; and, when about to sink in despair, do they cry, as did the disciples on the sea, “Lord, save us; we perish”? It was He that, in His agony, when sorrowful even unto death, poured out prayers and supplications, with strong crying and tears, unto Him that was able to help Him, and was heard in that He feared. In His heart, therefore, there is a living sympathy with these and all our other afflictions, and the prayers and entreaties of every believing sufferer come up before God commingled and blended with the like sentiments and feelings of the great Intercessors bosom.
How clear then that, in this priestly work of Intercession, the Lord Jesus Christ gives His whole self the energies and virtues and mercies of His entire being for the life of His people, as we found before that He did in the priestly work of Atonement! And what happiness is ours, my brethren, if we but know it and believe in it, who have always, interceding for us in heaven, one who, as God, is made an high priest for ever, “after the power of an endless life”, and yet, as man, is not untouched with a feeling of our infirmity, having been tempted in all points even as we are, yet without sin!
It were easy to show that, not as their priest only, but also as their prophet and their king, Immanuel gives Himself undivided to His people. For, as a prophet, His forerunner John thus testifies of the Word that was made flesh: “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him.” And, referring to His kingly power, Paul expressly declares that Christ, “being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but 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. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted Him, and given Him a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
But time forbids our entering more particularly on these high and glorious truths. Nor can it be necessary, after the employments of a day like this1, to do more than just remark that it is by His Word and ordinances as the means, made inwardly effectual by the quickening grace of His Spirit, that the Son of God and Man imparts Himself, undivided and full, to the souls of His people, and makes good, in their present experience, the unsearchable richness the inexpressible pleasantness of the gift. O that we could as largely receive as He bounteously bestows it! O that the eyes of our understanding were enlightened to behold in the Scriptures, as in a glass, with adequate distinctness and truth, the bright reflections of that glory of this Lord, which we shall see hereafter face to face! Would that our knowledge and our assurances concerning Him bore the same character of immutable certainty with the blessed realities themselves of His person, His functions and His great salvation! Would that our faith, our hearts trust in Him, were strong and fixed in anything like a just proportion to the infallible and everlasting all-sufficiency of His will and power to save us! Would God that our love were animated indeed with those living fervours of our Redeemers heart which prompted Him, by stooping from above, into the very gulf of our deaths and sorrows, to lift us out of that bottomless destruction up to the paradise and throne of God!
Then should our labours, our sacrifices, and if need were, our sufferings too, be worthy of His disciples, who esteemed it meat and drink to do the will of His Father in heaven, even when that will was that He should die on the accursed tree. And then should we find that His words, being spirit, and life also a present life within us the earnest and pledge of that glorious day when this corruptible shall put on incorruption, and this mortal shall put on immortality. Are attainments like these within our reach? By the grace of our God they are. Let us therefore earnestly strive to make them our own, and let us without ceasing bow our knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and on earth is named, that He would grant us, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might by His Spirit in the inner man; that Christ may dwell in our hearts by faith; that we, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth and length, and depth and height, and to know the love of Christ which passeth knowledge, that we might be filled with all the fulness of God. Now unto Him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto Him be glory in the Church, by Christ Jesus, throughout all ages, world without end. Amen