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Divine Teaching Gradual.
by H. P. Liddon, D.D., D.C.L., LL.D.
Sermon XXXVII in Easter in St. Paul's:  Sermons Bearing Chiefly on 
the Resurrection of OUR LORD
Longmans, Green, and Co., London, 1901, pp. 433-445.
 I have many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now
St. John xvi. 12. 

THE question is sometimes asked why three out of the five Gospels for the Sundays after Easter should be taken from our Lord’s last discourse, just before His Passion.  Words uttered on the eve of the Agony seem to be out of place on the eve of the Ascension.  But the two periods have this in common, that the Divine Speaker is in each case on the eve of a departure.  In the discourse in the Supper-Room, the elevation above all that is passing at the moment is so complete, the coming Passion is so lost sight of in the vast survey of an all-embracing purpose, that the language of one period is not unsuited to the circumstances of the other.  To exhibit the tranquil superiority to human circumstances which belongs to the Infinite Mind tabernacling in a Human Form was one part of the purpose of St. John’s Gospel.  In this Evangelist the Crucifixion itself is noticed as a triumph; it is an enthronement of the Incarnate Word, though beneath the canopy of heaven. (St. John xii. 32.)  And the Church follows in the footsteps of St. John when she thus makes selections from his report of our Lord’s words in accordance with the Evangelist’s distinctive principle.


When our Lord tells His Apostles that He had many things to say to them which they could not as yet bear to hear, He may well have taken them by surprise.  They may have thought that a discourse like that in the Supper-Room, on the eve of what they felt to be an approaching crisis, would contain the final instructions, exhortations, consolations of their Divine Master.  He warns them that there is much still to be told them in a coming time.  It would be told them partly during the forty days after His Resurrection; but, much more, as He proceeds to explain, after the descent of the Holy Spirit, Who was to guide them into all truth.

The subjects on which our Lord did speak with the Apostles during the forty days between His Resurrection and Ascension are hinted at in general terms by St. Luke at the beginning of the Acts.  He was “speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.” (Acts i. 3.)  What His kingdom or Church was to be; what it was not to be; what laws and rules were to govern it; how it was to be organised and officered; what were to be the sources of its life and vigour; above all, how it was to assist and expand and perfect the spiritual life of single souls.  Such-like topics we may dare to infer were handled by our Divine Lord during these solemn days.  And the result may be seen in the Apostolic Epistles, especially in those of St. Paul, who would have been told in after years what had passed by some who were present.  When in the Epistle to the Corinthians he compares the Church to the human body, we learn that its members were to be many, but its life one. (1 Cor. xii. 12, 13)  When in the Epistle to the Ephesians he calls it the Body of Christ, the fulness ot Him that filleth all in all, (Eph. i. 23.) we see that it was to be no mere voluntary and human association.  When he instructs Timothy and Titus how it was to be governed, and ministered to, and provided for, (1 Tim. iii. 1-15; Titus i. 5-9, etc.) we learn how great a place it was to have in the practical life as well as in the thought of Christians.  These features of the Apostolic teaching, passed on by word of mouth from the Eleven to St. Paul, may well have dated from the forty days between the Resurrection and the Ascension.

But it was especially after the descent of the Holy Ghost, and through Him, that our Lord was to say “many things “to His Apostles.  “When He, the Spirit of Truth, is come, He will guide you into all truth: for He shall not speak of Himself; but whatsoever He shall hear, that shall He speak: and He will show you things to come.  He shall glorify Me: for He shall receive of Mine, and shall show it unto you. All things that the Father hath are Mine: therefore said I, that He shall take of Mine, and shall show it unto you.” (St. John xvi. 13, 14.)

This was to be the illuminating work of the Holy Ghost after the Day of Pentecost.  He was to enable the Apostles to understand the real meaning of what they had heard from and observed in their Master while He was on earth.  “He shall glorify Me: . . . He shall receive, or take, of Mine, and shall show it unto you.”  He would make it clear to the Apostles that Jesus Christ, Whom they had followed, and Who was now speaking to them in the Supper-Room, and Who within a few hours would be crucified, was not merely a righteous Man, a Friend of God, the promised Messiah, the Deliverer of Israel, but that He was and is the Eternal Son of God; that He “is over all, God blessed for ever;“ (Rom. ix. 5.) that when He condescended to be made man, and emptied Himself of His glory, and took on Him a servant’s form, and became obedient unto death, (Phil. ii. 7, 8.) neither the weakness of His robe of flesh, nor the sufferings and the shame which He voluntarily bore, nor the ignominious death which seemed for the moment to close his career in failure and in darkness, detracted aught from the dignity of His Eternal Person, from the Majesty of His Divine and unchanging Being.  "I have many things to say unto you.”  It was Jesus Himself Who would speak about Himself, through the teaching of the Spirit.  The Spirit “shall not speak of Himself: but whatsoever He shall hear, that shall He speak.”  All that Christ had done and suffered and said, in the days of His flesh, would be suffused with a light from heaven, which would bring out with startling distinctness its real meaning.  The world-wide invitations to trust and obey and love; the great sayings, but half understood when they were uttered, about His Oneness with the Father, (St. John x. 30.)  His Eternal Existence when Abraham as yet was not, (St. John viii. 58.)  His passing the knowledge of all save the Father, Whom He alone also could really know; (St. Matt. xi. 27.) the claim to judge the whole human race from the throne of heaven; (St. John v. 22.) the absolute unhesitating assertion of Self,—so unpardonable if the Speaker was merely human, so inevitable if He was indeed Divine,—all this would be brought to a focus by the teaching, unveiling, systematising Spirit, till the great central truth of Christian Faith, the Absolute Deity of Jesus Christ, as the Everlasting Son of the Father, had stood forth in all its awe and all its beauty in the faith and teaching of the Apostles. And from this central truth how much else would radiate: the infinite value of His death, incalculable by any merely human estimate; the virtue of those appointed instruments of contact of His Human Nature with mankind, the Sacraments; the infallibility of all language that can fairly claim His sanction; the power to save to the uttermost all who need and claim His help.

And here we see what is to be thought and said about a representation of Christianity which is not seldom to be met with in our day.

True, genuine, original Christianity, as we are sometimes told, is only what was taught by Jesus Christ Himself.  All that can be shown to have been uttered by Him deserves the prestige of that great Name.  The very words of Christ, but no words of a follower of Christ, no merely Apostolic words, deserve it.  In particular, men have gone on to say, the teaching of St. Paul is something beyond and distinct from the teaching of his Master.  It may be Paulinism, and as such, in its degree, interesting.  But it is something distinct from, it is an amplification and outgrowth of, pure and original Christianity.

This has a plausible sound; but we see from the text that it proceeds on an assumption which our Lord Himself would have repudiated, and does condemn.  It assumes that He meant to teach the world as of primary and absolute authority, only such truth as fell from His Own blessed lips.  Whereas He says that He has something else to teach it, which He would teach it by His Spirit speaking through others; that He has “many things” in reserve, which those who heard Him in the days of His flesh could not as yet bear to receive.  He has thus made an express provision, it seems, against this particular misapprehension.  And we are bound to receive the teaching of His Apostles as His Own teaching; as the teaching of the Divine Spirit Who was to continue His work after He had left the earth at His Ascension; as having no less claim upon the faith and consciences of Christians than the Last Discourse or the Sermon on the Mount.

And why did not our Lord teach everything Himself?  Why did He leave many things to be proclaimed in His Name by those who came after Him?  The answer is, because the Apostles “could not bear” this added burden of truth in their earlier days.  The reception and assimila-tion of religious truth is necessarily a very gradual process.  In the New Testament it is compared to the erection of a building: St. Paul calls it edification, (Rom. xiv. 19; xv. 2, 20; 1 Cor. x. 23; xiv. 3,4,5,17; 2 Cor. xii. 19; xiii. 10; Eph. iv. 12, 16.) or housebuilding.  Of the temple of Christian truth in a human soul, Jesus Christ must be the foundation: “other foundation can no man lay.” (1 Cor. iii. 11.)  And on this is raised by a wise master-builder, gradually and surely, wall and column, buttress and roof and pinnacle, the fair fabric of doctrine, and moral precepts, till the whole edifice stands out in its ordered beauty.  Now as yet the Apostles were not sufficiently prepared for this: “Ye cannot bear these truths now.”  They were under the strain of great excitement, bordering upon great distress, and this is not a frame of mind in which high and exacting truths can be easily received and have justice done to them.  And they were still left to their natural resources: so that the Holy Spirit was needed not only to reveal “many things” to them hereafter, but to enable them to accept the Revelation, and to distinguish it from any products of human fancy or speculation.  If truth is to be received, it must be by a state of mind which is to a certain extent in sympathy with it.  When this sympathy does not exist, truth will be rejected as foreign to the mind; as fanciful, unintelligible, even inconceivable.  But the work of the Spirit, creating this sympathy, had not yet begun.  And therefore, although our Lord had many things to say to the Apostles, He withheld them: “Ye cannot,” He said, “bear them now.”


Our Lord’s words apply, again, to the Christian Church.  In the Apostles He saw its first representatives; but His eye also rested on all the centuries of its coming history; on our own age not less than on those which have preceded or which will follow it.  To the Church He had many things to say, which she could not bear to receive in the days of her infancy.

This does not mean that during all the coming centuries, He would go on adding from time to time new truths to the Christian Creed, by a process of continuous revelation.  The faith for which Christians are to contend earnestly was, St. Jude says, once for all delivered to the saints in the age of the Apostles. (St. Jude 3.)  Later ages might explain what the Apostles had taught.  They might unfold and state at length and in explicit terms what already lay within the Apostles’ teaching.  This, for instance, is what was done by the great Council which authoritatively adopted the Nicene Creed in order to defend the truth of our Lord’s Divinity.  But when in that Creed we confess that Jesus Christ our Lord is of one substance with the Father, we do not say more than St. John says in the introduction to his Gospel: “The Word was with God, and the Word was God,” (St. John i. 1.) or St. Paul in the first chapter of the Epistle to the Colossians, “All things were created by Him, and for Him: and He is before all things, and by Him all things consist.” (Col. i. 16, 17.)  In the same way the word “Trinity,” expressing the threefold subsistence of the Divine Nature, is not itself found in Scripture.  But the Baptismal formula, (St. Matt. xxviii. 19.) and many passages in the Apostolic writings, especially in the Epistle to the Ephesians, (i. 3, 6, 13; ii. 18; iii. 14, 16 etc.) obviously imply it.  If therefore doctrines, having no ground in the teaching of the Apostles, have been added to the faith, in whatever quarter of Christendom, these do not rest on the same basis as explanations or re-statements of truths which the Apostles had already taught.  They are newly imported and foreign matter, and as such would have been rejected by the early Christian Church.  We cannot, therefore, include additional doctrines proposed after the Apostolic age under the head of the “many things” which our Lord had to say to His Church.  It is not likely, to say the least, that the holiest and wisest of later divines should know more of His will than did St. John or St. Paul.

But the Church is a society, and the life of a society, like that of a man, is a history of experience.  In the field of experience God is constantly saying new things to the Church as the years roll on.  This language of God is uttered in the sequence of events which is ordered by His Providence.

Consider the history of our own country.  What lessons has God been teaching it during its fifteen centuries!  Lessons of order to the England of the Heptarchy; lessons of patience and hope to the England of the Norman kings; lessons of the value of freedom to the England of the Tudors and the Stuarts; lessons of the need of seriousness in life and conviction to the England of the Georges.

And surely in our time He is saying many things, stern and tender, to those who have ears to hear, in the events amidst which, day by day, we are living now.  He is teaching us that morality should never be divorced from politics; that the duties of property rank higher than its undoubted rights; that races which trifle with the laws of purity are on the road to ruin; that “righteousness exalteth a nation” (Prov. xiv. 34.) much more truly than any financial, or diplomatic, or military success.  And much that God teaches us of to-day would have been unintelligible to our ancestors.  As we look out on the surface of our national life, on its hopes and fears, on its unsolved, to us apparently insoluble, problems, on its incessant movement, whether of unrest or aspiration, we hear from behind the clouds the more or less distinct announcement of a future which will be at any rate as unlike our present as our past. “I have many things to say unto thee, but thou canst not bear them now.”

Look at the history of’ Israel.  Israel was at once a nation and a Church.  And its annals are chronicled so fully for this reason, among others: it was to teach us how to look at what is commonly called profane history.  Although God gave special privileges to Israel, (Rom. ix. 4, 5.)  He is present in the history of all nations.  But nations differ from each other, as they do or do not expect to find Him.  Each stage in Israel’s history had its peculiar lessons: the Exodus, the Wilderness, the Conquest of Canaan, the Anarchy under the Judges, the splendid Monarchy of David and Solomon, the Schism of the Ten Tribes, the Decline and Fall of the royal family of David, the Captivity, the Return, the Persian, the Macedonian, the Herodian periods, the appearance of the Divine Messiah.  Nothing could have been antedated with advantage.  No prophet could have prophesied before his day, and have been useful, or intelligible.  And as each inspired writer passed away, and as each generation was gathered to its fathers, the accents of a Divine voice might have been heard still whispering over the people of Revelation: “I have many things to say unto thee, but thou canst not bear them now.”

So with the Church of Christ.  In each century of its history God has spoken to it, whether to warn, or encourage, or stimulate, or rebuke.  The earlier centuries would not have understood—could not have borne—what He said to the later.  The ante-Nicene Church, the Church of the great Councils, the Church of the days of the barbarian conquests, the Church of the schoolmen, the Church of the Reformation period, the Church of the revival of letters, the Church of the nineteenth century,—each has heard, or might have heard, what Christ our Lord, speaking from His throne in heaven, through the urgency of events, has had to tell it. The great teachers of each later age would have been out of place in an earlier day; while they were indispensable to their own. The second Christian century would not have understood St. Athanasius. The third would have been puzzled with St. Augustine; the fourth with St. Gregory. The men of the Reformation period would not have entered into either the object or the method of Butler; and Butler would have felt himself a stranger in much of the Christian thought which is placed before us by some great teachers of our own time.

Will there not be other voices hereafter, for whom we of to-day are as yet unprepared?  Can we suppose that Christ has said His last word to Christendom?  Are there not features of our religious faith, and of our religious practice, which may prepare us to hear His announcement, “I have many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now”?


Once more, our Lord’s words apply to the life of each individual man; and especially of each Christian.

The human mind, we all know, has its stages of growth.  There is the stage of wonder, in which imagination is the ruling faculty, and in which all that feeds it is welcome.  Then comes the stage of awakening reason, when imagination is bidden retire into the background, and everything is scrutinised with an incredulous gaze; and a young man argues in a rigid technical way, without a ray of doubt as to the perfect trustworthiness of his method.  Then perhaps reason, especially if ungoverned by conscience, is tempted to give ear to guilty passion, and to take pleasure, rather than truth or duty, as its teacher and mistress. Finally, if the mental growth be healthy, comes a riper stage, when reason is at once stronger and less imperative.  Moral arguments are allowed to weigh against mere dialectics, and a subject is looked at, as we say, all round, and not only or chiefly on its logical side.  In short, the mind has acquired all that we mean by balance, whether of the faculties generally, or of the judgment in particular.  Now it is plain that the truths and considerations which could be received and appreciated at the last of these stages would be quite unintelligible in the first or second, and that to attempt to enforce them prematurely would lead to serious consequences.  One reason why faith in Christianity has been forfeited by many minds in our day, is that this obvious but serious consideration has been neglected. The minds of boys have been oppressed by problems and questions which as men they would have relegated to their true place in the world of thought, and without damage to the claims of faith or to the sense of intellectual truthfulness.

In the same way, the purely spiritual life of the soul has its stages of experience; and truths, which are welcome at a later stage, are unintelligible in an earlier one.  In the case of those who begin to look at these subjects seriously in adult life, the first stage is almost always that of repentance for past sin.  Then the soul understands something of the meaning of moral evil, of the severe and necessary Holiness of God, of the Atoning Work of Jesus, from Whom the penitent claims a new robe of righteousness, and Whose absolving words open a new era in his existence.  Then comes the stage of spiritual illumination, when the wider horizons of revealed truth are gradually opened out to the soul’s delighted gaze.  First one and then another district of the Divine Mind is explored, and the Christian is as glad of the Word of God as one that findeth great spoils. (Ps. cxix. 162.)  And then a higher stage beyond is that of union with God, in and through union with our Lord Jesus Christ; a union claimed by faith, riveted by Sacraments, but deepened, realised, rejoiced in by a new sense granted to the penitent and illuminated soul, which at these heights learns to say, as very few of us ever can dare to say it, “My Beloved is mine, and I am His. (Song of Solomon ii. 16.)  Now, here again the truths which are appropriate to the higher stages would be unintelligible to those below.  The second stage might term the language of the highest strained and mystical; and the first stage would account the second speculative or imaginative; while those who had yet to enter on the first,—the stage of penitence,—would probably say that it implied a morbid view of life and conduct, with which they could not sympathise.  Yet He Who made and has redeemed us, and Who knows our needs and shortcomings before we tell Him, would whisper to each of these critics—” I have many things to say unto thee, but thou canst not bear them now.”

And this may enable us to understand a feature of the system of the early Christian Church, which has often been commented on unfavourably, from lack of due knowledge or consideration.  I refer to the gradual way in which converts to Christianity were instructed in the truths of the Christian faith.  Before a man was received into full discipleship, and made the vows and received the grace of Baptism, a period of preparation was insisted on, which lasted from two to three years.  This delay was intended partly to test the sincerity of his obedience; but, still more, to instruct him gradually, and so thoroughly, in the revealed truths of Christianity.  In the whole of this preparatory stage a man was called a Catechumen, and the teaching which he received Catechetical.  For he was constantly examined, in order to find out how far he was grounded in the faith of Christ, or in the lines of thought which lead up to its sincere reception.  The instruction generally began with those truths which we may learn from natural reason, such as the Being of God, or the law of conscience, or the immortality of the soul; and then it went on gradually to the distinctive doctrines and Mysteries of the Gospel.  Thus at first the convert to Christianity was called a hearer.  He was allowed to attend instructions and the reading of Holy Scripture.  Then, at a second stage, he was permitted to remain during public prayers, and was termed a worshipper.  Afterwards, as the time of his baptism drew near, he was taught the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed,—the peculiar treasures, as they were thought in the early Church, of the regenerate,—and then he was described as elect, or competent. After baptism he was fully instructed in the deeper aspects of the doctrines of the Holy Trinity and Incarnation of our Lord, and of the One Sacrifice which was made by Christ upon the Cross, and which is presented to God the Father in the Holy Eucharist.  But these great and overwhelming truths were withheld until he had been grounded in the lessons which led up to them and made their sincere and intelligent reception possible.

Now this system of graduated teaching had its roots and sanction in Holy Scripture, and was at least begun under the eyes of the Apostles.  In the First Epistle to the Corinthians St. Paul distinguishes between the natural or imperfect and the established or perfect Christian.  Christianity, he contends, contains that true and profound philosophy after which the sages of the heathen world, with their fragmentary and tentative systems, were vainly seeking; (1 Cor. ii. 6-10.) but if a man would understand this, he must “become a fool that he may be wise;” (1 Cor. iii. 18.) he must undergo a disciplinary and progressive training, if he would listen to the Apostles "speaking the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which none of the princes of this world knew.” (1 Cor. ii. 7, 8.)  And then he goes on to tell the Corinthians, that he “could not speak unto them as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, as unto babes in Christ.  I have fed you,” he says, “with milk”—that is, with elementary truth—“and not with meat”—that is, with a fuller measure of truth—“for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able.” (1 Cor. iii. 1, 2.)  In the Epistle to the Hebrews we find the same distinction between the doctrines which are suitable for the weak and ignorant, and those which a regenerate Christian might understand. When the inspired writer is about to speak of the great truths of our Lord and Saviour’s Priesthood which were taught under the typical history of Melchizedek, he suddenly checks himself, remembering that some of his readers have not sufficiently advanced in Christian teaching to understand him.  “We have many things to say,” he observes, “and hard to be uttered, seeing ye are dull of hearing.  For when for the time that has passed ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat.  For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe.  But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even to those—who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern between good and evil.” (Heb. v. 11-14.)  Here, under the same figure of different kinds of food for the body, the difference of doctrine which the soul can receive at different stages of Christian instruction is very vividly taught us: and we see in this language the sanction for the discipline of the succeeding age, to which allusion has already been made.  Nay rather, the system is to be referred, for its principle, to the example of the Teacher of teachers, our Lord Himself.  What were His parables but an appeal to imagination?  what was the explanation of the parables but a call for the first action of the reason?  what were His longer discourses but a training of the aroused reason to move reverently and wisely among the things of faith?  So again, first the Sermon on the Mount makes the conscience sensitive and true; then the sermon at Capernaum or the parables of the kingdom introduce the soul to many new and awful truths; and, lastly, the discourse in the Supper-Room teaches, among other things, union with the Father and the Son, through the Spirit; that great gift of an inward Presence, which is the consummation of the Christian life.  Our Lord did not begin with the Last Discourse.  He taught as men were able to bear His teaching.

Once more, are we not here reminded of the true method of educating children in religious truth?  A careful mother or teacher will treat a child’s mind with great tenderness and reverence.  She will be careful to excite interest before gratifying it; and to gratify it in such degree as her child’s capacities may admit.  She will not think of the mind of her child as of a large bag, into which all the odds and ends of knowledge that are swept up from the table of common life may be thrown at random, but as a delicate and beautiful organism, to be handled with tenderness and respect, since one mistake in dealing with it may be fatal.  A well-known writer has told us how she was taught by her mother the Nature and Attributes of God.  “I asked her one day who God was, and was told to come again the next day, and at the same hour.  I came, and repeated the question, ‘Who is God?’ and was again told to wait another day before I could be answered.  And then, when my curiosity had been raised to the highest pitch, and my sense of the importance of the subject immensely enhanced by this repeated postponement of an answer, I came once more, and my mother explained, in words which I have never forgotten, how Great and Awful and Beautiful a Being God is; and what He has told us about His Attributes, and His relations to the world and to us, and all this in simple words, and so far as a child’s mind could bear it.” (Mrs. Schimmelpenninck; quoted from memory.)  Certainly such a lesson as that no child was likely to forget.
And lastly, this line of thought suggests the solemn interest of life.  May not each of us have to learn something from the Great Teacher before the end comes, which we could not learn now?  That which invests the life of a child with such pathos is the thought of all that it may have to go through before it dies.  Our Lord bends over it in His tenderness, and bids it take its fill of joy, while yet it may.  The day will perhaps come when He will say many things to it, under the discipline of sorrow and disappointment, which it could not bear now.  There is a striking picture of Louis the Sixteenth and Marie Antoinette at their coronation.  As yet all seems as bright as a great position and the smiles of friends, and splendid prospects could make it; the young couple are scarcely more than children; it is the still unclouded morning of a summer’s day.  “I have many things to say unto thee” might well have been the motto of each of those young lives.  As yet the years of deepening anxiety, the incapacity for dealing with stern times, the piteous indecision, the betrayal by trusted advisers, the hastened flight, the enforced return, the trial, the imprisonment in the Temple, the scaffold, are unsuspected. Each stage of suffering brought with it a lesson which might never otherwise have been learnt; but the lesson could not have been borne had it been given before its time.  Many a man who dies quietly in his bed is in reality much more to be pitied than that King and Queen of France, as the sharp edge of the guillotine ushered them into the Presence beyond the veil.

Doubtless the future is veiled from us for other reasons; but especially as an accommodation to our real needs and capacities. Our “time is in His Hand,” (Ps. xxxi. 17.)  Who “knoweth whereof we are made, and remembereth that we are but dust.” (Ps. ciii. 14.)  And few prayers will be more welcome to the soul that dwells constantly on this solemn truth than the Psalmist’s: “Lead me forth in Thy truth, and learn me: for Thou art the God of my salvation: in Thee hath been my hope all the day long.” (Ps. xxv. 4.)