An Israelite Indeed: John 1:47
“Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile.” John 1:47.
1. Some years ago a very ingenious man, Professor Hutcheson of Glasgow, published two treatises, The Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue. In the latter of these he maintains that the very essence of virtue is, the love of our fellow-creatures. He endeavours to prove, that virtue and benevolence are one and the same thing; that every temper is only so far virtuous, as it partakes of the nature of benevolence; and that all our words and actions are then only virtuous, when they spring from the same principle. “But does he not suppose gratitude, or the love of God to be the foundation of this benevolence?” By no means: Such a supposition as this never entered into his mind. Nay, he supposes just the contrary: He does not make the least scruple to aver, that if any temper or action be produced by any regard to God, or any view to a reward from him, it is not virtuous at all; and that if an action spring partly from benevolence and partly from a view to God, the more there is in it of a view to God, the less there is of virtue.
2. I cannot see this beautiful essay of Mr. Hutcheson’s in any other light than as a decent, and therefore more dangerous, attack upon the whole of the Christian Revelation: Seeing this asserts the love of God to be the true foundation, both of the love of neighbour, and all other virtues; and, accordingly, places this as “the first and great commandment,” on which all the rest depend, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God will all thy heart, and with all thy mind, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength.” So that, according to the Bible, benevolence, or the love of our neighbour, is only the second commandment. And suppose the Scripture be of God, it is so far from being true, that benevolence alone is both the foundation and the essence of all virtue, that benevolence itself is no virtue at all, unless it spring from the love of God
3. Yet it cannot be denied, that this writer himself has a marginal note in favour of Christianity. “Who would not wish,” says he, “that the Christian Revelation could be proved to be of God? Seeing it is, unquestionably, the most benevolent institution that ever appeared in the world!” But is not this, if it be considered thoroughly, another blow at the very root of that Revelation? Is it more or less than to say: “I wish it could; but in truth it cannot be proved.”
4. Another ingenious writer advances an hypothesis totally different from this. Mr. Wollaston, in the book which he entitles, “The Religion of Nature Delineated,” endeavours to prove, that truth is the essence of virtue, or conformableness to truth. But it seems, Mr. Wollaston goes farther from the Bible than Mr. Hutcheson himself. For Mr. Hutcheson’s scheme sets aside only one of the two great commandments, namely, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God;” whereas Mr. Wollaston sets aside both: For his hypothesis does not place the essence of virtue in either the love of God or of our neighbour.
5. However, both of these authors agree, though in different ways, to put asunder what God has joined. But St. Paul unites them together in teaching us to “speak the truth in love.” And undoubtedly, both truth and love were united in him to whom He who knows the hearts of all men gives this amiable character, “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!”
6. But who is it, concerning whom our blessed Lord gives this glorious testimony? Who is this Nathanael, of whom so remarkable an account is given in the latter part of the chapter before us? [John 1] Is it not strange that he is not mentioned again in any part of the New Testament? He is not mentioned again under this name; but probably he had another, whereby he was more commonly called. It was generally believed by the ancients, that he is the same person who is elsewhere termed Bartholomew; one of our Lord’s Apostles, and one that, in the enumeration of them, both by St. Matthew and St. Mark, is placed immediately after St. Philip, who first brought him to his Master. It is very probable, that his proper name was Nathanael, — a name common among the Jews; and that his other name, Bartholomew, meaning only the son of Ptolemy, was derived from his father, a custom which was then exceeding common among the Jews, as well as the Heathens.
7. By what little is said of him in the context he appears to have been a man of an excellent spirit; not hasty of belief, and yet open to conviction, and willing to receive the truth, from whencesoever it came. So we read, (John 1:45,) “Philip findeth Nathanael,” (probably by what we term accident,) “and saith unto him, “We have found him, of whom Moses in the Law, and the Prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth.” “Nathanael saith unto him, Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” Has Moses spoke, or did the Prophets write, of any prophet to come from thence? “Philip saith unto him, Come and see;” and thou wilt soon be able to judge for thyself. Nathanael took his advice, without staying to confer with flesh and blood. “Jesus saw Nathanael coming, and saith, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” “Nathanael saith,” doubtless with surprise enough, “Whence knowest thou me?” Jesus saith, Before Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig-tree, I saw thee.” “Nathanael answered and said unto him,” — so soon was all prejudice gone! — “Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel.”
But what is implied in our Lord’s character of him? “In whom is no guile.” It may include all that is contained in that advice, —
Still let thy heart be true to God, Thy words to it, thy actions to them both.
I. 1. We may, First, observe what is implied in having our hearts true to God. Does this imply any less than is included in that gracious command, “My son, give me thy heart?” Then only is our heart true to God, when we give it to him. We give him our heart, in the lowest degree, when we seek our happiness in him; when we do not seek it in gratifying “the desire of the flesh,” — in any of the pleasures of sense; nor in gratifying “the desire of the eye,” — in any of the pleasures of the imagination, arising from grand, or new, or beautiful objects, whether of nature or art; neither in “the pride of life,” — in “the honour that cometh of men,” in being beloved, esteemed, and applauded by them; no, nor yet in what some term, with equal impudence and ignorance, the main chance, the “laying up treasures on earth.” When we seek happiness in none of these, but in God alone, then we, in some sense give him our heart.
2. But in a more proper sense, we give God our heart, when we not only seek but find happiness in him. This happiness undoubtedly begins, when we begin to know him by the teaching of his own Spirit; when it pleases the Father to reveal his Son in our hearts, so that we can humbly say, “My Lord and my God;” and when the Son is pleased to reveal his Father in us, by “the Spirit of adoption, crying in our hearts, Abba Father,” and “bearing his “testimony to our spirits, that we are the children of God.” Then it is that “the love of God also is shed abroad in our hearts.” And according to the degree of our love, is the degree of our happiness.
3. But it has been questioned, whether it is the design of God, that the happiness which is at first enjoyed by all that know and love him, should continue any longer than, as it were, the day of their espousals. In very many, we must allow, it does not; but in a few months, perhaps weeks, or even days, the joy and peace either vanishes at once, or gradually decays. Now, if God is willing that their happiness should continue, how is this to be accounted for?
4. I believe, very easily: St. Jude’s exhortation, “Keep yourselves in the love of God,” certainly implies that something is to be done on our part in order to its continuance. And is not this agreeable to that general declaration of our Lord, concerning this and every gift of God? “Unto him that hath shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: But from him that hath not,” that is, uses it not, improves it not, “shall be taken away even that which he hath.” (Luke 8:18.)
5. Indeed, part of this verse is translated in our version, “That which he seemeth to have.” But it is difficult to make sense of this. For if he only seemeth to have this, or any other gift of God, he really hath it not. And if so, it cannot be taken away: For no man can lose what he never had. It is plain, therefore, _ho dokei echein_, ought to be rendered, what he assuredly hath. And it may be observed, that the word _dokeO_ in various places of the New Testament does not lessen, but strengthens the sense of the word joined with it. Accordingly, whoever improves the grace he has already received, whoever increases in the love of God, will surely retain it. God will continue, yea, will give it more abundantly; Whereas, whoever does not improve this talent, cannot possibly retain it. Notwithstanding all he can do, it will infallibly be taken away from him.
II. 1. Meantime, as the heart of him that is “an Israelite indeed” is true to God, so his words are suitable thereto: And as there is no guile lodged in his heart, so there is none found in his lips. The first thing implied herein, is veracity, — the speaking the truth from his heart, — the putting away all wilful lying, in every kind and degree. A lie, according to a well-known definition of it, is, _falsum testmonium, cum intentione fallendi: “A falsehood, known to be such by the speaker, and uttered with an intention to deceive.” But even the speaking a falsehood is not a lie, if it be not spoken with an intent to deceive.
2. Most casuists, particularly those of the Church of Rome, distinguish lies into three sorts: The First sort is malicious lies; the Second, harmless lies; the Third, officious lies: Concerning which they pass a very different judgment. I know not any that are so hardy as even to excuse, much less defend, malicious lies; that is, such as are told with a design to hurt any one: These are condemned by all parties. Men are more divided in their judgment with regard to harmless lies, such as are supposed to do neither good nor harm. The generality of men, even in the Christian world, utter them without any scruple, and openly maintain, that, if they do no harm to anyone else, they do none to the speaker. Whether they do or no, they have certainly no place in the mouth of him that is “an Israelite indeed.” He cannot tell lies in jest, am more than in earnest. Nothing but truth is heard from his mouth. He remembers the express command of God to the Ephesian Christians: “Putting away lying, speak every man truth to his neighbour.” (Eph. 4:25.)
3. Concerning officious lies, those that are spoken with a design to do good, there have been numerous controversies in the Christian Church. Abundance of writers, and those men of renown, for piety as well as learning, have published whole volumes upon the subject, and, in despite of all opposers, not only maintained them to be innocent, but commended them as meritorious. But what saith the Scripture? One passage is so express that there does not need any other. It occurs in the third chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, where the very words of the Apostle are: (Rom. 3: 7, 8,) “If the truth of God hath more abounded through my lie unto his glory, why am I yet judged as a sinner?” (Will not that lie be excused from blame, for the good effect of it?) “And not rather, as we are slanderously reported, and as some affirm that we say, Let us do evil, that good may come? Whose damnation is just.” Here the Apostle plainly declares, (1.) That the good effect of a lie is no excuse for it. (2.) That it is a mere slander upon Christians to say, “They teach men to do evil that good may come.” (3.) That if any, in fact, do this; either teach men to do evil that good may come, or do so themselves; their damnation is just. This is peculiarly applicable to those who tell lies in order to do good thereby. It follows, that officious lies, as well as all others, are an abomination to the God of truth. Therefore, there is no absurdity, however strange it may sound, in that saying of the ancient Father, “I would not tell a wilful lie, to save the souls of the whole world.”
4. The second thing which is implied in the character of “an Israelite indeed,” is, sincerity. As veracity is opposite to lying, so sincerity is to cunning. But it is not opposite to wisdom, or discretion, which are well consistent with it. “But what is the difference between wisdom and cunning? Are they not almost, if not quite, the same thing?” By no means. The difference between them is exceeding great. Wisdom is the faculty of discerning the best ends, and the fittest means of attaining them. The end of every rational creature is God: the enjoying him in time and in eternity. The best, indeed the only, means of attaining this end, is “the faith that worketh by love.” True prudence, in the general sense of the word, is the same thing with wisdom. Discretion is but another name for prudence, — if it be not rather a part of it, as it sometimes is referred to our outward behaviour, — and means, the ordering our words and actions right. On the contrary, cunning (so it is usually termed amongst common men, but policy among the great) is, in plain terms, neither better nor worse than the art of deceiving. If therefore, it be any wisdom at all, it is “the wisdom from beneath;” springing from the bottomless pit, and leading down to the place from whence it came.
5. The two great means which cunning uses in order to deceive, are, simulation and dissimulation. Simulation is the seeming to be what we are not; dissimulation, the seeming not to be what we are; according to the old verse, _Quod non est simulo: Dissimuloque quod est._ Both the one and the other we commonly term, the “hanging out of false colours.” Innumerable are the shapes that simulation puts on in order to deceive. And almost as many are used by dissimulation for the same purpose. But the man of sincerity shuns them both, and always appears exactly what he is.
6. “But suppose we are engaged with artful men, may we not use silence or reserve, especially if they ask insidious questions, without falling under the imputation of cunning?” Undoubtedly we may: Nay, we ought on many occasions either wholly to keep silence, or to speak with more or less reserve, as circumstances may require. To say nothing at all, is, in many cases, consistent with the highest sincerity. And so it is, to speak with reserve, to say only a part, perhaps a small part, of what we know. But were we to pretend it to be the whole, this would be contrary to sincerity.
7. A more difficult question than this is, “May we not speak the truth in order to deceive? like him of old, who broke out into that exclamation applauding his own ingenuity, _Hoc ego mihi puto palmarium, ut vera dicendo eos ambos fallam._ `This I take to be my master-piece, to deceive them both by speaking the truth!” I answer, A Heathen might pique himself upon this; but a Christian could not. For although this is not contrary to veracity, yet it certainly is to sincerity. It is therefore the most excellent way, if we judge it proper to speak at all, to put away both simulation and dissimulation, and to speak the naked truth from our heart.
8. Perhaps this is properly termed, simplicity. It goes a little farther than sincerity itself. It implies not only, First, the speaking no known falsehood; and, Secondly, the not designedly deceiving any one; but, Thirdly, the speaking plainly and artlessly to everyone when we speak at all; the speaking as little children, in a childlike, though not a childish, manner. Does not this utterly exclude the using any compliments? A vile word, the very sound of which I abhor; quite agreeing with our poet: —
It never was a good day Since lowly fawning was call’d compliment.
I advise men of sincerity and simplicity never to take that silly word in their mouth; but labour to keep at the utmost distance both from the name and the thing.
9. Not long before that remarkable time,
When Statesmen sent a Prelate ‘cross the seas, By long-famed Act of pains and penalties,
several Bishops attacked Bishop Atterbury at once, then Bishop of Rochester, and asked, “My Lord, why will you not suffer your servants to deny you, when you do not care to see company? It is not a lie for them to say your lordship is not at home; for it deceives no one: Every one knows it means only, your lordship is busy.” He replied, “My Lords, if it is (which I doubt) consistent with sincerity, yet I am sure it is not consistent with that simplicity which becomes a Christian Bishop.”10. But to return. The sincerity and simplicity of him in whom is no guile have likewise an influence on his whole behaviour: They give a colour to his whole outward conversation; which, though it be far remote from everything of clownishness and ill-breeding, of roughness and surliness, yet is plain and artless, and free from all disguise, being the very picture of his heart. The truth and love which continually reign there, produce an open front, and a serene countenance; such as leave no pretence to say, with that arrogant King of Castile, “When God made man, he left one capital defect: He ought to have set a window in his breast;” — for he opens a window in his own breast, by the whole tenor of his words and actions.
11. This then is real, genuine, solid virtue. Not truth alone, nor conformity to truth. This is a property of real virtue, not the essence of it. Not love alone; though this comes nearer the mark: For love, in one sense, “is the fulfilling of the law.” No: Truth and love united together, are the essence of virtue or holiness. God indispensably requires “truth in the inward parts,” influencing all our words and actions. Yet truth itself, separate from love, is nothing in his sight. But let the humble, gentle, patient love of all mankind, be fixed on its right foundation, namely, the love of God springing from faith, from a full conviction that God hath given his only Son to die for my sins; and then the whole will resolve into that grand conclusion, worthy of all men to be received: “Neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but faith that worketh by love.”
[Edited by George Lyons for the Wesley Center for Applied Theology at Northwest Nazarene College (Nampa, ID).]