Behold, he calleth Elias— Mar_15:35
Christ’s Life Began and Ended in Misunderstanding
We are here in the center of the Gospel mystery. It is the closing scene in the earthly life of Jesus. Jesus has been betrayed, He has been scourged and crucified, and in a little while the sorrow will be over. It is then that in His unutterable agony He cries, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani”—and some of them that stood by when they heard it said, “Behold, He calleth Elias.” They misinterpreted that last dear cry. They thought He was speaking to Elias and not to God. So at the very end, and on the cross itself, Jesus was misunderstood.
The strange thing is that what happened in this last scene of the life of Jesus had happened also in the first of which we read. It had happened on that memorable occasion when Jesus was a lad of twelve years old, and had gone up with Mary and Joseph to Jerusalem. There they had lost Him—you recall the story—and they hurried back to Jerusalem to find Him; and all the time they thought it was childish wantonness—the careless wandering of a happy boy. “Son,” said Mary, “why hast Thou thus dealt with us? Behold thy father and I have sought Thee sorrowing”: and He said unto them, “How is it that ye sought me: wist ye not that I must be about My Father’s business?” His nearest and His dearest misconstrued Him. There were purposes of heaven in His waiting, and they thought at the best it was a boyish frolic. So Christ began by being misunderstood, and ended misunderstood on Calvary.
The Way in Which Jesus Was Misunderstood
On that subject I wish to speak tonight— the way in which Jesus was misunderstood. And the very fact that He was so misunderstood is a tribute to the greatness of our Lord. There is, it is true, a very real sense in which we are all of us misapprehended. Even the shallowest heart is far too deep ever to utter itself aright to any man. Yet in large measure we understand each other when we are moving on the same lines and levels; it is when a man is transcendently original, that he is certain to be misunderstood. Men did not misinterpret John the Baptist; they recognized him as a prophet and they honored him. And I feel that Jesus must be greater than John when the whole nation misunderstood Him so.
You will observe, too, that if Christ was misunderstood it was not from any subtlety of character. If He was supremely great, do not forget that He was supremely simple— His life is transparent as the finest glass. It is hard to say how high the mountain is when the mists hang round it and it is wrapped in cloud; and there are men like that— men who never reveal themselves, and such men are certain to be misinterpreted. If you have not the courage to be a clear, straight man, you must not wonder if we all misjudge you. It is part of the penalty which every hypocrite pays that he is involved in perpetual misunderstandings. But Christ? He was sincerity incarnate! filled with one passion and pressing for one goal. There was never such a simplicity on earth as that of the character of Jesus; yet for all that there never was a character which was so hopelessly misunderstood. Is not that very strange? I think it is. It sharpens the thorn in my Redeemer’s crown. Great Savior! who wast so true and open— it was Thou who wert misunderstood!
Men Misunderstood Christ’s Motives
I want to follow that misinterpretation into one or two spheres of the earthly life of Jesus: and I notice first that men misunderstood His motives. Think for example of His healing miracles— “He casteth out devils by Beelzebub,” they said. There was no gainsaying that the devils were routed, and that the sick were healed, and that the dead were raised. It was all part and parcel of Christ’s gracious ministry. It was the kingdom of God coming with power among them. That was the motive of it— let God’s kingdom come. That was the meaning of it— let sin be overthrown. And “He casteth out devils by Beelzebub,” they said. Or think of His eating with publicans and sinners. You know the motive of that condescension? It was love— it was love unutterable for mankind— that shattered the barriers and made Christ a brother. But “He is a gluttonous man and a winebibber,” they said. “He feels at home with sinners, and so He eats with them.” That condescension spelled out love divine, and they thought it was proof positive of guilt.
If you are Christ’s you must expect that too, for the servant is not greater than his Lord. If you are truly in earnest about the kingdom, and striving to live along the lines of Jesus, be sure your motives may be misconstrued. There is not a deed you do but men may question it, and run it back into your secret thought, and if there be two possible motives for it, you may be certain that the world will choose the worse. Tell me what are you really thinking in the very moment when you are praising so and so? Ah, if we could only read your thoughts sometimes, I fear we might think little of your praise. It is that knowledge which keeps a Christian steadfast through the world’s censure and the world’s applause. In the light of Christ he has learned to expect his motives to be misunderstood. And so he takes the world’s praise very lightly, detects the fester at the roots of it, lifts his brow heavenward, goes forward to his duty, and leaves his final judgment to God.
Christ’s Speech Misunderstood
Again I remark that men misunderstood the mystical and poetic speech of Jesus. They took Him very prosaically and literally when He only meant to suggest as music does, and so time and again they misconstrued Him. Take for example one of His early words, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again.” And as He spake, I doubt not, He would wave His hand toward His own body. That was the Temple, the home of the living God, a thousand times greater than these mighty stones; but they were literalists— the Temple? There it was— and not one Jew in all the circle caught the rich suggestion of the Lord. So, too, in the sad sweet story of the home at Bethany you recall how Jesus said to His disciples, “Our friend Lazarus sleepeth.” And they all loved Jesus— that little band of followers— and love gives a man eyes to understand. Yet they answered at once, “Lord if he sleep, he shall do well,” and Jesus, with a touch of pity at their dullness, had to tell them plainly that Lazarus was dead. They had not grasped the sweet suggestion of the word. They took Christ literally and misunderstood Him— and yet they were His disciples, and they loved Him.
I think that Jesus is still misunderstood that way. There are men who love Him as these disciples did, and who are striving to serve Him in a life of duty, but they have taken the music of His speech, that was meant to suggest and to lead into the infinite, and they have built their arguments upon the letter of it, forgetting that it is the spirit that giveth life. Believe in the possibilities of Jesus’ speech. No creed or commentary can ever exhaust it. It may have been interpreted a thousand times, but there is some new gleam of heaven in it for me. Take all the words of Jesus at their largest. Be not afraid: expand them infinitely. In everything He ever said there is far more than has ever yet been grasped by Christendom.
The Silence of Jesus Misunderstood
The world, then, misunderstood the speech of Jesus; but it also misunderstood His silence. There is no clearer instance of that in the four Gospels than in the scene we read from the Gospel of Luke tonight. Christ had been sent by Pilate to Herod, and Herod when he saw Him was exceeding glad. He plied his prisoner with ceaseless questions, and he hoped to have seen some miracle at last. But Christ would do no miracle and would answer nothing. Silent and unresponsive, He stood still. And if ever the silence of Jesus was misunderstood, it was that day by Herod. He took it as a confession of His impotence. It was because Christ was powerless, that He was speechless. The dignity of it, and all the royalty of it, was lost on Herod. He misunderstood the silence of the Christ.
Is not Christ’s silence still misunderstood? There is nothing harder for many a mind to grapple with than the apparent silence of our ascended Lord. It is not what God does, it is what He fails to do; it is not what Christ says, it is what He fails to say, that puzzles and perplexes many an earnest soul. Has He no word of answer when we cry to Him? Does He not hear the moaning of the world? Why are the heavens of brass, when such things happen? Is there no eye to pity this poor earth? Until we are tempted to say, He does not know: until we are tempted to cry, He does not care: and all the time, like Herod in the Gospel, we have misunderstood the silence of the King. Not that I can explain that silence. It is inscrutable and mysterious and dark. But I am determined not to misinterpret it; I shall suspend my judgment till the glory. And then, I take it, it will so shine with meaning and will be so bright with patience and with love, that at last I shall begin to understand the mysterious silence of my Lord.
Misconstruing the Part as the Whole
One word and I have done. Come back to our text again before we close. “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani,” and when they heard it they said He calleth Elias. Do you see the reason why they misunderstood Him? They had only caught a fragment of His speech. They had only heard a syllable or two. Had they caught the whole of it— let the whole sentence sink into their hearts— they would have known that He was calling upon God.
There never was a time when Christ was more misunderstood than now, for the very reason that we find at Calvary. There was never a time when fragments of the Gospel were proclaimed with such assurance as the whole round truth. One man will take the Sermon on the Mount, and neglecting everything else say, This is Christianity. Another can think of nothing but the sacrifice: the whole of the Gospel is in that for him. They are like the men who heard “Eloi Eloi,” and said at once, “He is calling for Elias.” It is wonderful, I grant you, what a single word— what a mere fragment will do for any soul. A few stray syllables, like a strand of rope, may save a sinner and bring him to the shore. But for you who are Christians that is not enough. You must study and strive to have a full rich Gospel. To take a part and think it is the whole is the sure way of misunderstanding Christ. Therefore reject not uncongenial truths. Embrace the whole: come like a child to it. Believe that wherever God Almighty works, there must be infinite compass and unfathomable depth. So slowly, and amid many things you cannot reconcile, you will draw nearer to the truth as it is in Jesus, until at last in the land where there are no misunderstandings any more, you will know even as also you are known.