THE DISCOURSE AT CAPERNAUM.
THE dawn of that day broke on one of the saddest episodes of our Saviour's life. It was the day in the synagogue at Capernaum on which he deliberately scattered the mists and exhalations of such spurious popularity as the Miracle of the Loaves had gathered about His person and His work, and put not only His idle followers, but some even of His nearer disciples, to a test under which their love for Him entirely failed. That discourse in the synagogue forms a marked crisis in His career. It was followed by manifestations of surprised dislike, which were as the first muttering of that storm of hatred and persecution which was henceforth to burst over His head.
We have seen already that some of the multitude, filled with vague wonder and insatiable curiosity, had lingered on the little plain by Bethsaida Julias that they might follow the movements of Jesus, and share in the blessings of triumphs of which they expected an immediate manifestation. They had seen Him dismiss His disciples, and had perhaps caught glimpses of Him as He climbed the hill alone; they had observed that the wind was contrary, and that no other boat but that of the Apostles had left the shore; they made sure, therefore, of finding Him somewhere on the hills above the plain. Yet when the morning dawned they saw no trace of Him either on plain or hill. Meanwhile some little boatsperhaps driven across by the same gale which had retarded the opposite course of the discipleshad arrived from Tiberias. They availed themselves of these to cross over to Capernaum; and there, already in the early morning, they found Him, after all the fatigues and agitations of yesterdayafter the day of sad tidings and ceaseless toil, after the night of stormy solitude and ceaseless prayercalmly seated, and calmly teaching, in the familiar synagogue.
"Rabbi, when didst thou get hither?" is the expression of their natural surprise; but it is met with perfect silence. The miracle of walking on the water was one of necessity and mercy; it in no way concerned them; it was not in any way intended for them; nor was it mainly or essentially as a worker of miracles that Christ wished to claim their allegiance or convince their minds. And, therefore, reading their hearts, knowing that they were seeking Him in the very spirit which He most disliked, He quietly drew aside the veil of perhaps half-unconscious hypocrisy which hid them from themselves, and reproached them for seeking Him only for what they could get from Him"not because ye saw signs but because ye ate of the loaves and were satisfied." He who never rejected the cry of the sufferer, or refused to answer the question of the faithfulHe who would never break the bruised reed, or quench the smoking flaxat once rejected the false eye-service of mean self-interest and vulgar curiosity. Yet He added for their sakes the eternal lesson, "Labour ye not for the meat which perisheth, but for the meat which remaineth to eternal life, which the Son of Man shall give you; for Him the Fathereven Godhath sealed."
It seems as if at first they were touched and ashamed. He had read their hearts aright, and they ask Him, "What are we to do that we may work the works of God?"
"This is the work of God, that ye believe on Him whom He hath sent." "But what sign would Jesus give them that they should believe in Him? Their fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, which David had called bread from heaven." The inference was obvious. Moses had given them manna from heaven. Jesus as yetthey hintedhad only given them barley loaves of earth. But if He were the true Messiah, was He not, according to all the legends of their nation, to enrich and crown them, and to banquet them on pomegranates from Eden, and "a vineyard of red wine," and upon the flesh of Behemoth and Leviathan, and the great bird Bar Juchne? Might not the very psalm which they had quoted have taught them how worse than useless it would have been if Jesus had given them manna, which, in their coarse literalism, they supposed to be in reality angels' food? Is not David in that psalm expressly showing that to grant them one such blessing was only to make them ask greedily for more, and that if God had given their fathers more, it was only because "they believed not in God, and put not their trust in His help;" but "while the meat was yet in their mouths, the heavy wrath of God came upon them, and slew the mightiest of them, and smote down the chosen men that were in Israel." And does not David show that in spite of, and before, and after, this wrathful granting to them to the full of their own hearts' lusts, so far from believing and being humble, they only sinned yet more and more against Him, and provoked Him more and more? Had not all the past history of their nation proved decisively that faith must rest on deeper foundations than signs and miracles, and that the evil heart of unbelief must be stirred by nobler emotions than astonishment at the outstretched hand and the mighty arm?
But Jesus led them at once to loftier regions than those of historical conviction. He tells them that He who had given them the manna was not Moses, but God; and that the manna was only in poetic metaphor bread from heaven; but that His Father, the true giver, was giving them the true bread from heaven even noweven the bread of God which came down from heaven, and was giving life to the world.
Their minds still fastened to mere material imagestheir hopes still running on mere material benefitsthey ask for this bread from heaven as eagerly as the woman of Samaria had asked for the water which quenches all thirst. "Lord, now and always give us this bread."
Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. He that cometh to me shall never hunger, and he that believeth on me shall never thirst;" and He proceeds to point out to them that He came to do the Father's will, and that His will was that all who came to His Son should have eternal life.
Then the old angry murmurs burst out againnot this time from the vulgar-minded multitude, but from His old opponents the leading Jews"How could He say that He came down from heaven? How could He call Himself the bread of life? Was He not Jesus, the son of Joseph, the carpenter of Nazareth?"
Jesus never met these murmurs about His supposed parentage and place of birth by revealing to the common crowds the high mystery of His earthly origin. He thought not equality with God a thing to be seized by Him. He was in no hurry to claim His own Divinity, or demand the homage which was its due. He would let the splendour of His Divine nature dawn on men gradually, not at first in all its noonday brightness, but gently as the light of morning through His word and works. In the fullest and deepest sense "He emptied Himself of His glory."
But He met the murmurers, as He always did, by a stronger, fuller, clearer declaration of the very truth which they rejected. It was thus that He had dealt with Nicodemus; it was thus that He had taught the woman of Samaria; it was thus also that He answered the Temple doctors who arraigned His infringement of their sabbatic rules. But the timid Rabbi and the erring woman had been faithful enough and earnest enough to look deeper into His words and humbly seek their meaning, and so to be guided into truth. Not so with these listeners. God had drawn them to Christ, and they had rejected His gracious drawing without which they could not come. When Jesus reminded them that the manna was no life-giving substance, since their fathers had eaten thereof and were dead, but that He was Himself the bread of life, of which all who eat should live for ever; and when, in language yet more startling, He added that the bread was His flesh which He would give for the life of the worldthen, instead of seeking the true significance of that deep metaphor, they made it a matter of mere verbal criticism, and only wrangled together about the idle question, "How can this man give us His flesh to eat?"
Thus they were carnally-minded, and to be carnally-minded is death. They did not seek the truth, and it was more and more taken from them. They had nothing, and therefore from them was taken even what they had. In language yet more emphatic, under figures yet more startling, in their paradox, Jesus said to them, "Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink His blood, ye have no life in you;" and again, as a still further enforcement and expansion of the same great truths"He that eateth of this bread shall live for ever."
No doubt the words were difficult, and, to those who came in a hard and false spirit, offensive; no doubt also the death and passion of our Saviour Christ, and the mystery of that Holy Sacrament, in which we spiritually eat His flesh and drink His blood, has enabled us more clearly to understand His meaning; yet there was in the words which He had used, enough, and more than enough, to shadow forth to every attentive hearer the great truth, already familiar to them from their own Law, that "Man doth not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God;" and the further truth that eternal life, the life of the soul, was to be found in the deepest and most intimate of all conceivable communions with the life and teaching of Him who spake. And it must be remembered that if the Lord's Supper has, for us, thrown a clearer light upon the meaning of this discourse, on the other hand the metaphors which Jesus used had not, to an educated Jew, one-hundredth part of the strangeness which they have to us. Jewish literature was exceedingly familiar with the symbolism which represented by "eating" an entire acceptance of and incorporation with the truth, and by "bread" a spiritual doctrine. Even the mere pictorial genius of the Hebrew language gave the clue to the right interpretation. Those who heard Christ in the synagogue of Capernaum must almost involuntarily have recalled similar expressions in their own prophets; and since the discourse was avowedly parabolicsince Jesus had expressly excluded all purely sensual and Judaic fanciesit is quite clear that much of their failure to comprehend Him rose not from the understanding, but from the will. His saying was hard, as St. Augustine remarks, only to the hard; and incredible only to the incredulous. For if bread be the type of all earthly sustenance, then the "bread of heaven" may well express all spiritual sustenance, all that involves and supports eternal life. Now the lesson which He wished to teach them was thisthat eternal life is in the Son of God. They, therefore, that would have eternal life must partake of the bread of heaven, orto use the other and deeper imagemust eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man. They must feed on Him in their hearts by faith. They might accept or reject the truth which He was revealing to their consciences, but there could be no possible excuse for their pretended incapacity to understand its meaning.
There is a teaching which is, and is intended to be, not only instructive but probationary; of which the immediate purpose is not only to teach, but to test. Such had been the object of this memorable discourse. To comprehend it rightly required an effort not only of the understanding, but also of the will. It was meant to put an end to the merely selfish hopes of that "rabble of obtrusive chiliasts" whose irreverent devotion was a mere cloak for worldliness; it was meant also to place before the Jewish authorities words which they were too full of hatred and materialism to understand. But its sifting power went deeper than this. Some even of the disciples found the saying harsh and repulsive. They did not speak out openly, but Jesus recognised their discontent, and when He had left the synagogue, spoke to them, in this third and concluding part of His discourse, at once more gently and less figuratively than He had done to the others. To these He prophesied of that future ascension, which should prove to them that He had indeed come down from heaven, and that the words about His fleshwhich should then be taken into heavencould only have a figurative meaning. Nay, with yet further compassion for their weakness, He intimated to them the significance of those strong metaphors in which He had purposely veiled His words from the curious eyes of selfishness and the settled malice of opposition. In one sentence which is surely the key-note of all that had gone beforein a sentence which surely renders nugatory much of the pseudo-mystical and impossibly-elaborate exegesis by which the plain meaning of this chapter has been obscured, He added
"It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life." Why then had they found His words so hard? He tells them: it was because some of them believed not; it was because as He had already told the Jews, the spirit of faith is a gift and grace of God, which gift these murmurers were rejecting, against which grace they were struggling even now.
And from that time many of them left Him; many who had hitherto sought Him, many who were not far from the kingdom of heaven. Even in the midst of crowds His life was to be lonelier thenceforth, because there would be fewer to know and love Him. In deep sadness of heart He addressed to the Twelve the touching question, "Will ye also go away?" It was Simon Peter whose warm heart spoke out impetuously for all the rest. He at least had rightly apprehended that strange discourse at which so many had stumbled. "Lord," he exclaims, "to whom shall we go? THOU HAST THE WORDS OF ETERNAL LIFE. But we believe and are sure that Thou art the Holy One of God."
It was a noble confession, but at that bitter moment the heart of Jesus was heavily oppressed, and He only answered
"Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?"
The expression was terribly strong, and the absence of all direct parallels render it difficult for us to understand its exact significance. But although it was afterwards known that the reproach was aimed at Judas, yet it is doubtful whether at the actual time any were aware of this except the traitor himself.
Many false or half-sincere disciples had left Him: might not these words have been graciously meant to furnish one more opportunity to the hard and impure soul of the man of Kerioth, so that before being plunged into yet deeper and more irreparable guilt, he might leave Him too? If so, the warning was rejected. In deadly sin against his own conscience, Judas stayed to heap up for himself wrath "against the day of wrath, and revelation of the righteous judgment of God."