A Present Savior
Adapted from a Sermon by Horatius Bonar, 1867
"She did not know that it was Jesus." John 20:14
When Jesus comes the second time there will be no mistake as to who he is. When he comes in his own glory, and in his Father's glory, and with his mighty angels—in majesty, and power, and brightness. Every one will know him then.
The Jews will know him, for they shall look “on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn." (Zech 12:10) The Gentile will know him; for it is written, "every eye will see him ... and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him." (Rev 1:7) The saint will know him—for he comes "to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed." (2 Thess 1:10) The sinner will know him, for he comes "inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel." (2 Thess 1:8)
No one will mistake him in that day; for it will be either Jesus the bridegroom coming to be recognized and rejoiced in by his long-awaiting bride—or it will be Jesus the Judge and avenger coming to break his enemies in pieces with his iron rod.
But when he came the first time he was mistaken—few knew that it was Jesus. He passed in and out, yet he was unknown. “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.” (John 1:10,11) Nazareth, where he had been brought up, did not know him. Capernaum, where he lived, did not know him. Bethsaida did not know him, and even Jerusalem did not know him.
He was full of grace and truth; He was the messenger of the Father's love, and the declarer of his own, and yet men did not know him. He passed through this world without honor or recognition; One in whom man did not see the Mighty God, the Incarnate Word, the Eternal Son of the Father.
But even to his own chosen ones, who had received him, he was sometimes strangely unknown. The two Emmaus friends did not know him. Thomas did not know him. More than once we read that the disciples did not know him, and even Mary "did not know that it was Jesus." One would have thought that this would be impossible in any circumstances, and yet here we find that it so.
Even Mary's eyes did not recognize him. He stood before her, yet she did not know him. The keen eye of love, the quick-sighted eye of woman failed to recognize him. One wonders how it could be so. Could Jacob see his own Benjamin, his own Joseph, and yet not know them? Could Jonathan meet David, and yet not know him? Yet Mary met with Jesus, and did not know that it was he.
What is it that made her not recognize him? It was nothing in Jesus himself. He was not unwilling to be known, nor reluctant to be greeted and recognized as in the past. He did not veil himself. He did not stand far off. What was it then?
1. In the first place, she was seeking the living among the dead.
She had gone to the tomb to find him—her only hope seemed to be there. She knew that he had died, and she expected to find him among the dead. She forgot that he was the living One, that death to him could be, at the most—but the matter of a day. She looked for him where he was not to be found, and when he appeared, when she did not expect him, she did not know that it was Jesus.
Like the silly child that would dig for the star in the little pool where it mirrors its image, and does not recognize it shining in its living beauty in the heavens above his head; so Mary sought the living among the dead; the heavenly amid the earthly. No wonder that she did not know him. Beware of seeking, in the same way Mary did, the living among the dead; a living Christ in the midst of dead forms, and duties, and devotions, and rites; for fear that, when he does appear to you, you will not know him.
2. In the second place, she was laying too much stress on the mere body of the Lord.
She had known it in other days. She had seen him on the cross. She had helped to lay him in the tomb, and her whole thoughts were therefore occupied with the body of her Lord. When she had last seen it, it was pale and cold, torn and bleeding, no life remaining. Her thoughts were back at that scene. She could not realize anything else; and now this memory of the body of her Lord came between her and the Lord himself.
She was attaching too much value to his mere physical frame; here was a rebuke to her for so doing. She was so much occupied with the thought of his body, that the real Christ was hidden, the Christ himself, so that, when he appeared, she did not know that it was Jesus.
Let us not allow anything pertaining to the outward form of Jesus—in which sentimentalism is prone to indulge—to hinder our beholding the real, the living Savior. Let us beware for fear that some particular aspect in which we expect to see him, be just the very thing that hinders us from seeing him at all. If we have made up our minds only to see him in one form, under one aspect, and in one way, it may well be that we will not see him at all; or when he does stand before us, we will be, like Mary, not knowing that it is Jesus.
3. In the third place, she was blinded by her excessive sorrow.
Sorrow had filled her heart and absorbed her soul on one object; her dead Master. This blinded her to the living one. Sorrow clouded her eyes with tears, and she failed to recognize through those tears the very Christ whom she was seeking, the very being over whom she was weeping. Her excessive grief raised up a thick mist between her and her Lord.
Let us beware of being blinded by excessive sorrow. In the world we will have tribulation; we may count that as our lot; yet, let us not be blinded by excessive sorrow; or have our eyes so clouded with tears as to be unable to recognize or to realize a present Lord.
Sorrow should produce a very different result. It should not veil—rather, it should unveil Christ. It should not set you to at a distance from him, or bring in some mountain of separation between you and him; it should increase your nearness; it should bring you nearer to him and him to you. It should make him to be felt as more precious, more desirable, more entirely suitable, more indispensable. It should make you more perceptive in your love; instead of being, like Mary, less perceptive, so that you may know that it is Jesus when he appears.
4. Fourthly, She was hindered by her unbelief.
Like the disciples, she was “slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken.” (Luke 24:25) The rising from the dead was a thing which she understood but very little. Like the others, she could not believe that the Messiah would die, and now that he is dead, she does not believe that he can rise again.
Her faith did indeed cling to his person; that person was precious to her—but all her need of him she did not know. Her need of his dying, her need of his rising she did not realise or know. She knew enough of him for faith and love to rest upon; but not enough to keep her from falling into error or unbelief.
It was unbelief which hindered her from a quick and full recognition of her beloved Lord. Is it not, in many believers, still the same as in Mary’s case? Is it not unbelief still, which comes between us and the Lord? He draws near to us; he stands before us, yet we do not know him. Perhaps we seek him, seek him earnestly, and he comes, yet, when he comes, we do not recognize him; we know not that very Jesus whom we were seeking—if he does not come in the way that we expect. Unbelief has suggested that this is not how we are to expect him to appear, that it is not in this place, or in this way, or in this form, that we may expect to find him and to meet him.
He presents himself to us as a risen Christ, an almighty Savior, all that the sinner needs, full of grace and truth, with forgiveness on his lips and eternal life in his hands; with every heavenly blessing held out to us; and yet we do not recognize him; for unbelief has painted another picture of him, and we are not prepared to recognize him, except in that form which we ourselves would prescribe to him, in that aspect that we have made ourselves think that he will surely appear to us in.
But faith makes no such conditions as unbelief does. Faith does not attempt to prescribe to the Lord in what form, or at what time, or in what way, or in what circumstances he shall appear. It is ever ready to recognize him in any condition, and under any attire. It is glad to find him anywhere.
Consider then the peculiar position Mary had. She thought that she was seeking an absent Lord, whereas she was refusing to recognize a present one. This was a most sinful mistake and full of harm to herself, robbing her of that fullness of blessing which was at her very side! Had you asked her why she was weeping, she would have said, my Lord is absent, I have been seeking him and I cannot find him anywhere, whereas it should have been, my Lord is present and I do not know him. This was her sin. While professing to seek an absent Lord, she was refusing to recognize a present one. This was her sin, this was her calamity. "She did not know that it was Jesus." This kept her in sorrow, and in darkness.
And is not her position precisely the one which we ourselves too often take? Is not that sin of hers too often ours, and is not that calamity which overtook her just the very calamity which we so often bring upon ourselves? Her case looks a lot like ours. We push away blessings from us in the same way that she did; we shut out the Lord just as she did. Christ is present; let us keep this in mind—"behold, I am with you always." (Matt 28:20)
He is no distant, no absent Savior to any believer—but ever near. He is at our very side, at the very side of each, so that no one can complain of distance in him any more than they can complain of disaffection or lack of love. He is never absent, nor repulsive, nor unwilling to be recognized as Jesus, whether by saint or sinner. He does not veil himself to prevent our seeing him. He does not resist our advances. His grace never varies. He is always the same. His ear is the same willing ear, his eye the same loving eye, and his hand stretched out—the same gracious hand. To sinner and to saint, Jesus is near.
This nearness of Christ is what faith recognizes; for the function of faith is not to make him present, as so many seem to imagine; it is not to bring him down from above. The function of faith is not to seek an absent—but to recognize a present Lord. And what a mighty difference there is between these two things!
Unbelief seeks an absent Lord; while faith recognizes a present Lord. Recognition is faith's special function; and the Savior whom we preach is not far distant and inaccessible in the far away heaven—but near; and not only near—but the nearest of all near beings; the nearest thing to you on earth or in heaven.
We preach a present Christ. Let faith simply recognize him as such, and all is well. And just as faith recognizes this present Christ, instead of searching for him as if he were absent, unbelief blinds the eye to him. Now It cannot entirely thrust him away; that is impossible. It cannot, with all its efforts, make him the absent one; it cannot empty him of blessings—but it refuses to recognize him.
It does not know him, it treats him as one who is distant, in order to give support for self-righteous efforts in seeking him. It treats him as an one who is unloving, as one hiding himself, one reluctant to appear; and so it rejects that blessing which is at hand, in all its fullness. It keeps us in sorrow and in darkness; it prevents communication between us and the Lord. For, let us remember, that earnestness is not faith. There is an earnestness which is pure unbelief; and this earnestness of unbelief shows itself by the search for an absent Savior while the earnestness of faith shows itself in recognizing a present one.
For surely, Christ is at our side, though unseen and unknown. When he works in us, effectually drawing the soul to himself, he cannot be hidden; but, for a time he may. A man does not always recognize him at first, even when he is really working in him, and drawing him to himself. Many things hide him, and yet he carries on his work though he is hidden.
He has hidden ways of leading the sinner to the Father. It is, perhaps, sometimes a long way; there are many windings in it, and it seems when we look at it, as if there was nothing but common events, common providences, common mercies, common trials; and yet it was Jesus in each one, Jesus himself, though we did not recognize him. We saw the process, though we did not realize what it meant. We did not know that Jesus was in it, that he was in each of these events, in each of these providences, in each of these mercies, in each of these trials.
There is danger in not giving Christ credit for his own work—but in taking the credit to ourselves for it, or giving the credit to chance, or to the common course of events. It is one thing to take to ourselves too much credit, and it is another thing not to ascribe enough to him, or not to realize him in certain things, because we think these things are not so remarkable as we would have expected him to work by; but, what a blessed moment it is when we finally discover that it was really Jesus who was working, though we so long refused to believe him, and that what we imagined to be just natural feeling, natural sentiment, was, after all, Jesus himself, carrying on his work in us.
He has hidden ways of giving peace to the troubled. The wounded spirit looks around for rest, and for healing; yet it does not find it. It expects something outward, something visible, something striking, like Naaman did, and it is disappointed when there is nothing of this kind. It refuses to take peace in a way so simple; it refuses to taste and recognize the gift, because it is not presented to it in some striking way; until, at last, the soul is led to ask, What if, after all, I am rejecting a present blessing, and refusing to recognize a present Christ? What if all these gleams of peace which I am rejecting are real? What if it is his light which I am refusing to receive? And so, the soul begins to learn that it is really so, and that it has been Jesus all along, and yet we knew him not.
Again, he has hidden ways of comforting and gladdening the spirit of the afflicted. Trials often come strangely, very strangely, and we do not see Jesus in them. They are not the kind of trials we looked for, nor such as we would have thought best for us—and so we refuse to be comforted.
But, perhaps, at some unexpected turn of the way we make the blessed discovery that it was really Jesus, and no one else! How much consolation do we lose by failing to recognize Christ in each, even the commonest, even the unlikeliest, even the most unpleasant and adverse events that befall us. He is seeking to purify us. Each event, be it dark or light, be it sunshine or shadow; each event is tending to this. All is full of meaning, full of rich, deep meaning, though we do not see it.
We find, in spite of ourselves, a process moving onward, moving unaccountably, perhaps imperceptibly, on; and though, for a time, we do not see it fully, yet at length it unfolds itself in all its blessedness, and we see that the Lord was in it all, purifying us as silver. These changes that were taking place in us were not natural changes, the result of natural causes—but brought about by his own Almighty hand, though not in the way that we expected.
let us learn, then, to recognize a present Lord! This is faith's special function, and no amount of sin on our part, can reverse this state of things, this order which God has established. When we begin, because of felt guilt, or of conscious evil, and unworthiness, to seek an absent or a distant Savior, we are giving way to unbelief in one of its worst forms. And we will never return to our quiet rest again, until we have learned the sin of going in search of an absent Lord, instead of doing what he desires we should at all times do—recognize a present Jesus!