“Ye know that he was manifested to take away sins; and in him is no sin” (I. John 3:5).
In this text we get nearer to an understanding of the purpose of the Incarnation as it touches our human need. The simple and all-inclusive theme which it suggests is, first, that the purpose of the Incarnation was the taking away of sins; and secondly, that the process of accomplishment is that of the Incarnation.
First, then, we will take the purpose as declared, “He was manifested to take away sins”. In order to understand this, we must take the terms in all their simplicity, and be very careful to find what they really mean. What is intended by this word “sins”? The sum total of all lawless acts. The thought is incomprehensible as to numbers when we think of the race, but let us remember that in the midst of that which overwhelms us in our thinking are our own actual sins.
“Sins” — missings of the mark, whether willful missings, or missings through ignorance, does not at present matter. The word includes all those thoughts and words and deeds in which we have missed the mark of the Divine purpose and the Divine ideal; those things which stand between man and God, so that man becomes afraid of God; those things which stand between man and his fellowmen, so that man becomes afraid of his fellowman, knowing that he has wronged him in some direction; those things which stand between man and his own success. Call them failures if you will; call them by any name you please; so that you understand the intention of the word.
The phrase “to take away” is a statement of result, not a declaration of process. The Hebrew equivalent of the word “take away” is found in that familiar story of the scapegoat. It was provided that this animal should be driven away to the wilderness “unto a solitary land”. This suggested that sins should be lifted from one and placed upon another, and by that one carried away out of experience, out of consciousness. That is the simple signification of this declaration, “He was manifested to bear sins” — to lift sins. He was manifested in order that He might come into relationship with human life, and passing underneath the load of human sins, lift them, take them away.
Either this is the most glorious Gospel that man has ever heard; or it is the greatest delusion to which man has ever listened. In the heart of every man and woman there is a consciousness of sin. No one of us would be prepared to say, I have never deliberately done the thing I knew I ought not to do. That is consciousness of sin. We may affect to excuse it. We may be ready to argue as to the reason for it, and the issue of it; but if we could, we would undo it. We may profess to have turned our back upon these evangelical truths, and yet we know we have sinned and we wish we had not.
Passing for a moment from that outer fringe of men and women, who are somewhat careless about the matter, to the souls who are in agony concerning it; who know their sin and loathe it; who carry the consciousness of wrongs done in past years as a perpetual burden upon their souls; who hate the memory of their own sins, — to such, a declaration like this is the most cruel word, or the kindest, that can be uttered. Cruel, if it be false; kind indeed, with the kindness of the heart of God, if it be true. If it be true that He was manifested somehow, in some mystery that we shall never perfectly understand, in order to get beneath my sins, my sins, my thought of impurity, my words of bitterness, my unholy deeds, and lift them and bear them away — that is the one Evangel I long for more than all. More valuable to me, a sinner, than anything else that He can do for me, is this.
Secondly, in order that this great purpose of the Incarnation, as declared, may be more powerfully and better understood, let us reverently turn to the indication of the process which we have in this particular text, “He was manifested to take away sins”. Who was the Person? It is perfectly evident that John here, as always, has his eye fixed upon the Man of Nazareth; and yet it is equally evident that he is looking through Jesus of Nazareth to God. That is the meaning of his word “manifested” here. He is the Word made flesh. He is flesh, but He is the Word. He is Someone that John had appreciated by the senses, and yet He is Someone Whom John knew pre-eminently by the Spirit.
Notice, that after he makes the affirmation, “He was manifested to take away sins,” he adds this great word, “In Him is no sin”; or, “Missing of the mark was not in Him”. The One in Whom there was no missing of the mark was manifested for the express purpose of lifting, bearing away, making not to be, the missings of the mark of others.
“He was manifested” — and in the name of God let us not read into the “He” anything small or narrow. If we do, we shall at once be driven into the place of having to deny the declaration that He can take away sins. If He was man as I am man merely, then though He be perfect and sinless, He cannot take away sins. If into the “He” we will read all that John evidently meant according to the testimony of his own writing, we shall begin to see something of the stupendous idea, and something of the possibility at least of believing the declaration that “He was manifested to take away sins.”
Consider the manifestation and sins, as to man. The terms of the final promise of the Incarnation were, “Thou shalt call His name JESUS; for it is he that shall save his people from their sins.” When the songs to which the shepherds listened were heard, what said they? “There is born to you this day . . . a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.” The promise of the Incarnation was that of the coming of One to lift sins. During His life and ministry the words of Jesus were words revealing the meaning of sin; words calculated to rebuke sin and to bring men away from sin. The works of Jesus — and by works I mean miracles and signs and wonders — were chiefly works overtaking the results of sin. The miracles of Jesus were not supernatural in their effect upon men; they were always restorations of the unnatural to natural positions. When He cured disease it was the restoration of man to the normal physical condition. He was taking away the results of sin.
I come now to the final thing in this manifestation — the process of the death; for in that solemn and lonely and unapproachable hour of the cross is the final fulfilment of the word of the herald on the banks of the Jordan, “Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world!” That phrase, “The Lamb of God,” could have but one significance in the ears of the men who heard it. This was the voice of a Hebrew prophet speaking to Hebrews, and when he spoke of the Lamb taking away sins, they had no alternative other than to think of the long line of symbolical sacrifices which had been offered, and which they had been taught shadowed forth some great mystery of Divine purpose whereby sin might be dealt with. So in the hour of His death we find the ultimate meaning of that great word. Whereas by manifestation, from first to last, He is for evermore dealing with sins and with sin, lifting, correcting, arresting, by gleams of light suggesting to men the deepest meaning of His mission; it is when we come to the hour of His unutterable loneliness, and deep darkness, and passion-baptism, that we have that part of the manifestation in which we see, as nowhere else, and as never before, the meaning of this text, “He was manifested to take away sins”.
Reverently let us take one step further. The manifestation and sins, as to God. The manifested One was God. If that be once seen, then we shall for evermore look back upon that Man of Nazareth in His birth, His life, His cross, as but a manifestation. The whole fact cannot be seen, but the whole fact is brought to the point of visibility by the way of Incarnation. If indeed this One be very God manifested, then remember this, the whole measure of humanity is in Him, and infinitely more than the whole measure of humanity. Beyond the utmost bound of creation, God is. All creation, heaven and earth, suns and stars and systems, angels and archangels, principalities and powers, the hierarchies of whom we hear, but cannot perfectly explain their nature or their order, all these are in Him; but He is infinitely beyond them all.
I begin to wonder. In amazement I begin to believe in the possibility of lifting the burden of my sin. The cross, like everything else, was manifestation. In the cross of Jesus there was the working out into visibility of eternal things. Love and light were wrought out into visibility by the cross. Love and light in the presence of the conditions of sin became sorrow — and became joy! In the cross I see the sorrow of God, and in the cross I see the joy of God, for “it pleased the Lord to bruise him.” In the cross I see the love of God working out through passion and power for the redemption of man. In the cross I see the light of God refusing to make any terms with iniquity and sin and evil. The cross is the historic revelation of the abiding facts within the heart of God. The measure of the cross is God. If all the measure of humanity is in God and He is more, and the measure of the cross is God, then the measure of the cross wraps humanity about, so that no one individual is outside its meaning and its power. He Who was manifested is God. He can gather into His eternal life all the race as to its sorrow and as to its sin, and bear it.
Yet remember this, It was not by the eternal facts that sins were taken away, but by the manifestation of those facts. This text does not affirm, and there is no text that begins to affirm, that He before He was manifested, takes away sins. There is a sense in which that is true; but “He was manifested to take away sins”. The passion revealed in the cross was indeed the passion of God, but the passion of God became dynamic in human life when it became manifest through human form, in the perfection of a life, and the mystery of a death.
Man’s will is the factor always to be dealt with, and whereas the sin of man was gathered into the consciousness of God, and created the sorrow of God from the very beginning, it is only when that fact of the sorrow of Godhead is wrought out into visibility by manifestation, that the will of man can ever be captured — or ever constrained to the position of trust and obedience which is necessary for his practical and effectual restoration to righteousness. Wherever man thus yields himself, trusting — that is the condition — his sins are taken away, lifted.
If it be declared that God might have wrought this selfsame deliverance without suffering, our answer is that the man who says so knows nothing about sin. Sin and suffering are co-existent. The moment there is sin, there is suffering. The moment there is sin and suffering in a human being it is in God multiplied. “The Lamb was slain from the foundation of the world.” From the moment when man in his sin became a child of sorrow, the sorrow was most keenly felt in heaven.
The man who is burdened with a sense of sin I would ask to contemplate the Person manifested. There is not one of us of whom it is not true that we live and move and have our being in God. God is infinitely more than I am; infinitely more than the whole human race from its first to its last. If infinitely more, then all my life is in Him. If in the mystery of Incarnation there became manifest the truth that He, God, lifted sin, then I can trust. If that be the cleaving of the rock, then I can say as never before —
“Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.”
He was manifested, and by that manifestation I see wrought out the infinite truth of the passion of God which we speak of as the atonement.