Project Canterbury

Through Fire and Water
And Other Sermons, Preached in St. Ignatius' Church, New York
by the Rev. Arthur Ritchie

New York; the Guild of St. Ignatius, 1898.

"Whence Knowest Thou Me?"

"Jesus saw Nathanael coming to Him, and saith of him, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile! Nathanael saith unto Him, Whence knowest Thou me? Jesus answered and said unto him, Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee." ST. JOHN I, 47, 48.

One who reads the Bible with any attention cannot fail to observe the way in which our Lord in the very beginning of His ministry takes His stand at once as supreme and divine. An earthly prophet or great teacher would mount gradually into pre eminence; or if he easily surpassed all rivals at the first he would not be likely to attain immediately to the zenith of his power and fame. There are not wanting those who actually maintain this gradual development of dignity and glory for our Lord. They hold such progression in the conscious exercise of His powers to be implied in that which is said of Him by the Evangelist, that He increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.

These commentators actually teach that our Lord in the beginning of His ministry was not omniscient, that He had in becoming incarnate voluntarily laid aside the attributes of divinity and had submitted Himself to the limitations of creature life. But we do not find evidence of this in the gospels. Nothing is more conspicuous than His immediate declaration of the fulness of His divine power and knowledge. He speaks as Lord from the very first.

St Matthew points Him out to us as coming to St. John Baptist to receive baptism. The meek forerunner felt his unworthiness to perform such a function for his Master. "I have need to be baptized of Thee," he cried, "and comest Thou to me?" But our Lord overruled his objection. "Suffer it to be so now," He said, "for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness."

St. Mark is not less impressive in his narrative. Our Lord, walking by the sea of Galilee, beholds Simon and Andrew casting a net into the sea. He speaks to them at once with indisputable authority; "Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men." They felt the spell of His majesty; "Straightway they forsook their nets and followed Him."

St. Luke in turn tells us something equally striking, equally impressive. The Master enters the synagogue of Nazareth, where He had been brought up, where doubtless everyone had known Him from childhood. He reads a passage from Esaias, and preaches from it warning His hearers of the judgment which shall come upon them if they do not accept Him as the prophet of the Most High. They are filled with wrath; they thrust Him out of the city, and leading Him unto the brow of the hill, are about to cast Him down headlong; but He, calmly passing through the midst of them, goes His way.

St. John is in some respects most distinct of all the Evangelists in bringing out the divine knowledge of our Lord in the very beginning of His ministry. He tells us of the way in which the Master began to call disciples to Him. First there were St. Andrew and another, probably the beloved John himself, who were led by the words of the holy Baptist to follow Him Whom that inspired one declared to be the Lamb of God. Then St. Andrew brought his brother Simon Peter to our Lord, and the Master gave him the name Cephas. The next day St. Philip is called, with the simple words, "Follow me." "Philip findeth Nathanael, and saith unto him, We have found Him of Whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph. And Nathanael said unto him, Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth? Philip saith unto him, Come and see. Jesus saw Nathanael coming to Him, and saith of Him, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile! Nathaniel saith unto Him, 'Whence knowest Thou me? Jesus answered and said unto him, Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree I saw thee." This was a miracle. It was so marvellous a proof of the Master's omniscience that devout Nathanael cried, " Rabbi, Thou art the Son of God; Thou art the King of Israel." It was in the very beginning of His ministry that our Lord thus displayed His knowledge of all things. St. John does not stop with this one significant illustration of the omniscience of Mary's Son. He tells us in the very next chapter that when at Jerusalem many believed in His name, beholding His miracles, our Lord did not commit Himself unto them, " because He knew all men, and needed not that any should testify of man: for He knew what was in man." It is certain that there was no development in knowledge on His part in such sort as that He gradually came to know things He had at first been ignorant of. When it is said of Him in His childhood that He increased in wisdom, we are only to understand that those things which He already knew divinely and by perfect intuition, He willed also to learn by the processes of human experience. There never could have been an instant in His earthly life in which our Lord surrendered His omniscience, nor one in which He did not know in His human mind by intuition all things which are within the possibility of human knowledge. His followers only learned gradually to appreciate His divinity. It was not until towards the end of His ministerial career that they said to Him, "Now are we sure that Thou knowest all things, and needest not that any man should ask Thee " But that was because they had not the faith to appreciate His omniscience at the first, not because it was not always His.

I. Nathanael's question is a pregnant one, "Whence knowest Thou me?" because man does not easily realize that God must of necessity know everything instantly and perfectly. The first answer to be made to the question, Whence does God know us--what are the sources of His information with regard to our most secret affairs--is, He is divine. As St Peter so touchingly pleaded when the Master, restoring him to apostleship after the resurrection, required him to confess his love three times; "Lord Thou knowest all things; Thou knowest that I love Thee." It is natural for us in the human way of looking at divine things, to somehow fancy that it is beneath the greatness of divinity to comprehend intimately the small things of creature life. Yet the moment one stops to reason about it with himself he perceives that God's greatness is only truly realized when we think of the infinitesimal matters, as we reckon them, of the universe, being equally clear and in their place important in His sight as the greatest things.

The soul may never escape from the consciousness of the precise and absolute knowledge of all its concerns on the part of God. Our inmost thoughts, the swiftest flashes of our intuition never in the least degree escape Him, nor fail to occupy their proper place in the record of our lives. There is no such thing as knowledge of the future with Him, any more than there is knowledge of the past. Everything is eternal present with God, and all of that which shall be, as we say, is now recognized distinctly by Him.

Yet we may not suppose for a. moment that His complete foreknowledge in any sense interferes with our free agency. The way in which we choose right or wrong all through our days is included in His foreknowledge and is not in any sense over-ruled by it in such sort as that we are not genuinely free. Thus the first and simplest answer to Nathanael's question is, Our Lord knows everything because He is divine.

II. Yet there is quite another sense in which we may take the omniscience of God for consideration to our edification. He knows all, for in Him all live and move and have their being. Yet there are many whom He does not know in the sense of acknowledging them for His own, His elect children. Our Lord represents Himself, in the parable of the ten virgins, as replying to those foolish ones who took their lamps but took no oil with them--when they had come late to the wedding place, and found the door shut--as they cried "Lord, Lord, open to us;" "Verily I say unto you, I know you not." It might be thought that the wise virgins in the parable were outward professors of religion, and the foolish virgins those who did not so avow their loyalty. But in another saying of the Master, very much akin to this one concerning the foolish virgins, there can be no doubt as to His meaning.

In the sermon on the mount He declares, "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father Which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Thy name? and in Thy name have cast out devils? and in Thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity." You see He knows them so perfectly that in spite of all their preaching of the Gospel, and casting out of devils and doing of miracles, He perceives them to be workers of iniquity, literally lawless workers, and therefore He never knew them. His knowledge of them is so perfect that He cannot acknowledge them as His own.

III. Once again in His wonderful sayings about His sheep and their good Shepherd, He declares, "I know my sheep and am known of mine." I suppose there are few professing Christians who do not think they know our Lord, who are not persuaded that they are His just because they feel that they know Him so well. That is one of the commonest mistakes of modern. Christianity, the feeling of certainty about one's spiritual state because one is so familiar with our Lord, and in a way cares about Him so much. We think that if we know Him, He must know us. It is a very natural thing to argue that when one gives himself up quite heartily to serve God and to do His will, he must be in the right way. And I am not prepared to say that such a notion may not have foundation in certain instances. We cannot forget that the Master said, "He that is not against us is on our part." Yet one feels that when people are zealous in serving God without making use of the ordinances and system which He has appointed, their devotion can only be acceptable to Him, if they know no better, that is when they are honestly living up to all the light which He has vouchsafed them. Yet apart from such exceptional cases as those of Eldad and Medad in Old Testament days, who prophesied in the camp and not round about the Tabernacle with Moses and the other sixty-eight elders, and the man in Gospel days who cast out devils in our Lord's name but did not follow Him as a disciple, it is a very important thing to make sure that our Lord knows us as truly as we think we know Him. The question of Nathanael ought often to come up in our lives in our colloquies with the Master. We are fain to answer it from the consciousness of our devotion to Him, just as He represents certain unhappy ones as doing at the last day.

i. We are sure that He must know us because we are prophesying in His name. Prophesying in the New Testament very often means simply preaching, though perhaps preaching under divine inspiration. It is of course hard to say how far the Spirit of God may inspire preachers who are not of the true Church, to proclaim with power the Word of the Lord. One can hardly doubt that there is a divine energy supplied in the case of earnest men who are in good faith preaching Christianity as they understand it, at least in such parts of their doctrine as are not inconsistent with the Catholic faith. We are not concerned to deny that their word may often be with power to draw their hearers into the way of salvation. The point we are interested in is as to how far our fidelity and the success of our preaching may be a proof that God knows us for His own. The Master declares in the sermon on the mount, that at the day of judgment He will say "I never knew you" to some who have prophesied, that is proclaimed the Gospel, in His name. One cannot suppose that we are to understand Him to mean hypocritical preachers, but only those whose lives have in some important way not corresponded to the word they set forth so eloquently.

2. Others are satisfied that our Lord knows them for His own because they are casting out devils in His name. It is noteworthy that this is distinctly a good and pious deed. It is not dealing with devils, and having power over them to effect by their agency lying wonders to deceive men, as antichrist shall do at the last day. To destroy the power of the Evil One over men's hearts and lives is as distinctly a Christ-like work as we can easily conceive. Certainly if one might appeal to anything in demonstration of the divine favour resting upon his work, it would be to one's power to cast out devils in Christ's name. To view the matter practically; look at the devils of strong drink, and sensuality, and covetousness, which are being cast out of men's lives to-day by devoted ministers and Christian workers, labouring in the cause of temperance, or of purity, or of social regeneration. Could there be anything more convincing than such evident tokens of the divine approval? One may quite freely acknowledge the good that is being done by hundreds of workers, one may altogether heartily admit that whole legions of devils are being driven out to man's great profit and consolation, yet one may still question whether the ability to put the Evil One to flight in this fashion necessarily means that the exorcist himself is known to our Lord as one of His elect. I suppose there can be little doubt that Judas sometimes cast out devils along with his fellow Apostles. In any event we have the Master's solemn words that at the last day He shall say "I never knew you" to some who in His name have cast out devils.

3. Yet again there are found many people who persuade themselves that the Master knows them for His own because they have power to work miracles. Because their prayers are answered so signally, so miraculously often; because they are enabled to accomplish such immense things for the Church and for the Christian cause in all sorts of ways; it seems indisputable that they are personally pleasing to the Lord, and counted among His elect. I do not doubt that many miracles are being wrought in the world to-day, in the Church and outside of the Church, miracles of prayer, miracles of grace, miracles of self-denying love; nevertheless one cannot feel any certainty that on that account the miracle-workers themselves are known of Christ, forasmuch as He expressly declares that to some miracle-workers He shall say at the last day, "I never knew you."

IV. We are brought back you see from all our well constructed arguments out of the verse "By their fruits ye shall know them," to asking reverently of our Master, as Nathanael did of old, " Whence knowest Thou me? " For it may not be overlooked that our Lord uttered this startling verse about not knowing those who had prophesied and cast out devils and done miracles in His name, immediately after and in direct connection with that much quoted and much misapplied word " By their fruits ye shall know them." It would seem that He referred to a different sort of fruits from those which men are so quick to recognize. I believe we shall find the solution of the matter best if we revert to the story of Nathanael's call. The Master did know him to be of the number of His chosen ones, for He said of him, "Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile."

i. What then is an Israelite indeed but one who is quite faithful to the divine law? One may despise the ancient law in these days, and look down with fine scorn upon those who think we are to take it in any sense as a guide in Christian times. No doubt the law itself has been changed in many respects, not destroyed indeed but fulfilled, howbeit we are still under law, the law of Christ, and the principles of obedience and loyalty have never been abrogated. Do you remember on what ground it is said that Zacharias and Elisabeth, the parents of St. John Baptist, were both righteous before God? It was because they walked "in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless." Nathanael was praised because he was a faithful Israelite. And it is certainly significant that the Master represents Himself as saying to the lost ones in the day of judgment, "I never knew you; depart from me, ye that work iniquity," literally lawlessness. That must be still true in our times, which was true in the days of Saul, when the prophet said; "Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams." It is certain we are to be known by our Lord because of our obedience to what He has revealed in His holy religion, rather than by heart-moving preaching, the casting-out of devils, and the working of miracles.

2. And then Nathanael was known by the Master because of his guilelessness, that is his innocence, his freedom from sin. The man who has never conquered his sins may preach well, may cast out devils, may do wonderful works, but he will not be known of Christ, The Apostle writes: "The foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal" (or inscription) "the Lord knoweth them that are His. And, Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity." It is far more important for the preacher that he should have a clean heart and forgiven sins than that he should speak as if inspired. It is far more important for the social regenerator that he should have been washed in the precious Blood than that he should have reformed a thousand drunkards and uplifted a host of harlots. It is far more important for the man with gifts of prayer and faith-healing that he should be quite white-souled himself than that he should have brought hundreds of sick persons back to health, and have opened the eyes of the blind.

"Whence knowest Thou me?" asked Nathanael of the Master. "Whence knowest Thou me?" ought every one of us often to cry to that same Master. And we may rest assured the only way in which He can know us to our profit is as Israelites indeed, that is as humbly obedient to His religion as He has revealed it, in all its ordinances, its faith and its practice; and as without guile, that is as unceasingly fighting with our sins, and constantly cleansing our souls by systematic repentance.

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