Studies in his Life and Writings
By W. H. Griffith Thomas
The early days of the Christian life are vital and important. Much depends on them, because with proper teaching it is possible to prevent error and backsliding. From the moment of the conversion of John the son of Zebedee, there came into his life certain experiences of his new position which enabled him to see and enter upon the sphere of a follower of Jesus Christ with strength and confidence.
When our Lord saves an individual and unites that one to himself, a new relationship is thereby constituted between the individuals thus separately joined to Christ. And so the immediate outcome of the two men leaving their old master, John the Baptist, and following the new one, Jesus Christ, was that a relationship immediately and inevitably sprang up between them. This community is given several titles in the New Testament, that of "the Church" being perhaps the most important, as it is the most familiar. Thus the disciple soon found himself in connection with a new social life. The community of Christians is intended for fellowship, for the individual relation to our Lord must necessarily have a corporate and social outcome. Christianity is social as well as personal, and the very nature of Christ's salvation is to create a community. Paganism may show the beauty of the old humanity, but Christianity creates a new one. We are told that "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners," and when he has united each separate sinner to himself, his followers may be said to become a "society of saved sinners."
Thus the Church began on that day when these two men followed Christ, and the simple beginnings are worthy of special notice, because they provide the germ of all else that appears later in an elaborated form in the New Testament. Christianity has room for "all sorts and conditions of men," and when they are spiritually united to Christ they are enabled to express through their own individual temperaments and circumstances the glory of the grace of God.
The New Testament doctrine of the Church is one of great importance, and it is essential that it be kept in mind and emphasized in every proper way. There is something unutterably sad in the description of the non-Christians as ''they that are without," for in reality it means a great deal to be "inside" the fold and to enjoy the fellowship provided by Christ. It is hardly possible to exaggerate the importance of the Church to the individual. The Church, in the New Testament inclusive sense, is "the blessed company of all faithful people," or, as Paul calls it, "the Church which is his body." It has often been pointed out how significant is the reference in the Creed to "the Communion of Saints," coming, as it does, after the words, "Holy Catholic Church." It is known that the reference to the Saints is decidedly later than that to the Church, and was originally intended as an explanation of the real meaning of the latter word. When the Church is thus realized as the fellowship of all those who belong to Christ, something like the New Testament teaching is seen. Individualistic Christianity is at once a contradiction and an impossibility. We are justified solitarily and alone in association with Christ direct, but we are sanctified in connection with others. Christian character needs the Church for development, and while, as the familiar phrase has it, talent may be developed in solitude, character needs the stream of life (Eph. 3:18; 6:18). It is not too much to say that there is no real future for Christianity along New Testament lines, except through a Church or a community. Mysticism in general is too vague and individualistic. Christianity is mysticism, but it is far more. Individualism is equally impossible, for unattached Christians are not found in the New Testament, and even what may be wrongly described as ultra-spirituality must not be opposed to corporate Christianity, for as Dr. Forsyth has well said, "Free lances are futilities.'*
This was the earliest experience of the son of Zebedee, and, although it doubtless did not make a distinct impression at the time, there is hardly any question that the power of fellowship with others in Christ was felt from the very first, especially as very soon three or four other men were similarly united in the same blessed bonds. Bishop Moule has well pointed out that our view of the Church in its widest sense as "the body of Christ" should dominate all our thinking and affect all other interpretations of the idea of the Christian community. When we look at this subject in what is, perhaps, the most important place, the Epistle to the Ephesians, we find a fourfold reference to the Church — as a Body, a Building, a Bride, and a Brotherhood. Be it ours to emphasize the necessity and importance of this fellowship, and to derive from it all possible inspiration for life and service.
It was not long after John's conversion and fellowship with other believers that he was led into fuller light by a deeper experience of his Master. This took place on the occasion of the marriage in Cana of Galilee, where John, with the other disciples, was present (John 2:1-11). One of the essentials of a disciple's earliest life is a fuller knowledge of his master. At the outset the joy of forgiveness is so great that it may seem to be everything, but new difficulties, new temptations, new trials, new problems, arise, and to meet these it is vital to enter into a fuller, deeper, richer knowledge of Jesus Christ.
Perhaps the first knowledge of the Master was that of his power on the occasion of this miracle. When the wine failed Jesus Christ worked the miracle of providing what was needed, and we are told of the significant result: "This beginning of his signs did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested his glory, and his disciples believed him." The miracle was thus a "sign" of his glory, and we may try to put ourselves in the place of the disciple John and ask what rays of glory were likely to appear. It is hardly possible to doubt that the first ray was the fact of our Lord's divine commission as the Messiah. At the beginning of his public work it was necessary to prove that he came from God. Remembering his lowly birth, obscure parentage, and village education, we can readily understand the difficulty he would have in proving the truth of his claims, and this would necessarily lead to the working of something which would first excite wonder, then suggest the thought of some unseen power at work, and so would lead naturally to the inquiry as to the real meaning. Such were our Lord's miracles, "signs" of his divine mission, calling attention to him as the Messiah and Saviour, and thereby manifesting his glory.
Then, too, the object of his divine commission was pretty certainly manifested in this miracle. Not only the fact that he came from God, but the reason why he came, to change the lives of men from sin to holiness, the change from water to wine being an emblem of his whole life and work. This is not to say that the disciples understood this meaning at the time, but it is certainly easy and natural to pass from such a miracle of beneficence to the spiritual purpose of our Lord's coming into the world. Everything in the world up to that time had attested the fact that men wanted something which they themselves could not provide. Both individuals and nations had attempted this, but had failed, and then, when this failure was complete, our Lord appeared, and in him men found what they had vainly sought elsewhere (Luke 4:18, 19).
Perhaps, too, we may include as a ray of his glory on this occasion the thought of the sympathy of man with men. He entered into all natural relationships, for he "adorned and beautified marriage with his presence and first miracle." He was no hermit or ascetic — a fact all the more remarkable when we contrast him with his forerunner the Baptist. Christ had intense sympathy with the social side of life, with those feelings and affections which play so great a part in human affairs. Then, too, he sympathized with all natural enjoyment. Not only did he attend a marriage, but a marriage feast. Not only was he there, but he sup^ plied the means of their satisfaction. He is not an enemy, but a friend of all true joy, and his sympathy is not only for times of sadness, but also for times of gladness. Many seem to imagine that Christianity is almost joyless, but the presence of Christ on this occasion shows that he does not take away joy, but adds to it, purifies it, and heightens it. The life of austerity and singularity is never the ideal life; that is the true life which is everywhere "in," but not "of," the world.
It is particularly significant that we read, "His disciples believed on him," namely, the five referred to in the earlier chapter, and who had been invited with him to the marriage. Not a word is said as to any such effect upon his mother or his brethren, or any of the other assembled guests. Indeed, we should gather from the subsequent conduct of Mary and his brethren that they were not affected by it. Apparently, only those who were already his disciples were impressed and convinced. From this we derive the truth that our Lord's miracles were wrought almost exclusively for the purpose of strengthening the faith of his disciples, and not for the purpose of winning over the outside world. These men were already his disciples, and the story of their acceptance of Christ is entirely natural, for, having heard of him as the Messiah, they simply believed and followed. It was only afterwards that they had miracles to confirm their faith. This truth is seen all through our Lord's life, for he kept his miracles as secret as possible. When he healed the leper, raised the dead, descended from the Mount of Transfiguration, he said, "See thou tell no man."
There is a very real and important application of this to us today. Those who are already believers have daily, hourly instances of his special guidance, strength, and blessing which are little short of miraculous, and which help to strengthen the faith that already exists. Yet every avowal of such inward experiences to those who are outside would probably be laughed to scorn or disbelieved. Such avowals are not appreciated, though there are few more convincing proofs to the believer himself than the constant experience of God's grace in his soul.
But some one may ask whether there is no sign for those outside, no proof to convince them. There is, and a careful consideration of John 2:18 will show what this is. When our Lord began clearing and cleansing the Temple, the Jews came asking a "sign" why he did such things. Instead of working a miracle, he said, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up," speaking of the temple of his body. That was the sign for them, his death and resurrection. So, also, when the Pharisees came seeking a sign, he told them that none should be given but the sign of Jonah, again referring to his own death and resurrection. This was the sign for the unconverted Jews of that day, and it is also the one for the unconverted people of the present age.
After this miracle of Cana of Galilee we are not told anything of the effect of association with Christ on the disciples, and it is, of course, possible — some think, absolutely certain — that these five men returned at once after the miracle to their own homes. If, however, they accompanied our Lord to Jerusalem, we can well understand the constant and deepening influence of his words and works, as the variety of circumstances of his stay at the capital occurred (John 2:13 to 3:36). But greater than all the influences of his teaching and actions would be the impress of his personality, and we know that this is the one essential for the early life of disciples — a personal and growing experience of Jesus Christ. Nothing can compare with this for deepening the life of a believer and enabling him to realize more of his Master's spirit and learn more of his Master's will. Long years afterwards the Apostle John described the growing Christian life under the three figures, of children, young men, and fathers, and in each case the life was only made possible by a personal experience of the Lord himself (John 2:12-14).