Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 38


The Sanctification of Christ

Preached January 16, 1853

  Frederick W. Robertson

"And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth.” - John 17:19


The prayer in which these words occur is given to us by the Apostle John alone. Perhaps only St. John could give it, for it belongs to the peculiar province of his revelation. He presents us with more of the heart of Christ than the other apostles: with less of the outward manifestations. He gives us more conversations, fewer miracles: more of the inner life, more of what Christ was, less of what Christ did.

St. John’s mind was not argumentative, but intuitive There are two ways of reaching truth: by reasoning it out and by feeling it out. All the profoundest truths are felt out. The deep glances into truth are got by love. Love a man, that is the best way of understanding him. Feel a truth, that is the only way of comprehending it.

Not that you can put your sense of such truths into words in the shape of accurate maxims or doctrines: but the truth is reached, notwithstanding.* [*Compare 1 Cor. ii. 15, 16.]

Now St. John felt out truth. He understood his Lord by loving him. You find no long trains of argument in St. John’s writings: an atmosphere of contemplation pervades all. Brief, full sentences, glowing with imagery of which the mere prose intellect makes nonsense, and which a warm heart alone interprets, that is the character of his writing, very different from the other apostles. St. Peter’s knowledge of Christ was formed by impetuous mistakes, corrected slowly and severely. St. Paul’s Christianity was formed by principles wrought out glowing hot, as a smith hammers out ductile iron, in his unresting, earnest fire of thought, where the Spirit dwelt in warmth and light forever, kindling the Divine fire of inspiration. St. John and St. John’s Christianity were formed by personal view of Christ, by intercourse with Him, and by silent contemplation. Slowly, month by month and year by year, he gazed on Christ in silence and thoughtful adoration: “reflecting as from a glass the glory of the Lord,” he became like Him-caught His tones, His modes of thought, His very expressions, and became partaker of His inward life. A “Christ was formed in him.”

Hence it was that this prayer was revealed to St. John alone of the apostles, and by him alone recorded for us. The Saviour’s mind touched his: through secret sympathy he was inspired with the mystic consciousness of what had passed and what was passing in the deeps of the soul of Christ. Its secret longings and its deepest struggles were known to John alone.

This particular sentence in the prayer which I have taken for the text was peculiarly after the heart of the Apostle John. For I have said that to him the true life of Christ was rather the inner life than the outward acts of life. Now this sentence from the lips of Jesus speaks of the atoning sacrifice as an inward mental act rather than as an outward deed: a self-consecration wrought out in the will of Christ. For their sakes I am sanctifying myself. That is a resolve-a secret of the inner life. No wonder that it was recorded by St. John. The text has two parts.


I. The sanctification of Jesus Christ.

II. The sanctification of His people.


1. Christ’s sanctification of himself “For their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth.” We must explain this word “sanctify;” upon it the whole meaning turns. Clearly it has not the ordinary popular sense here of making holy. Christ was holy. He could not by an inward effort or struggle make Himself holy, for He was that already. Let us trace the history of the word “sanctify” in the early pages of the Jewish history.

When the destroying angel smote the first-born of the Egyptian families, the symbolic blood on the lintel of every Hebrew house protected the eldest born from the plague of death. In consequence, a law of Moses viewed every eldest son in a peculiar light. He was reckoned as a thing devoted to the Lord-redeemed, and therefore set apart. The word used to express this devotion is sanctify. “The Lord said unto Moses, Sanctify unto me all the first-born, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast: it is mine.” By a subsequent arrangement these first-born were exchanged for the Levites. Instead of the eldest son in each family, a whole tribe was taken, and reckoned as set apart and devoted to Jehovah, just as now a substitute is provided to serve in war in another’s stead. Therefore the tribe of Levi were said to be sanctified to God.

Ask we what was meant by saying that the Levites were sanctified to God? The ceremony of their sanctification will explain it to us. It was a very significant one. The priest touched with the typical blood of a sacrificed animal the Levite’s right hand, right eye, right foot. This was the Levite’s sanctification. It devoted every faculty and every power-of seeing, doing, walking, the right-hand faculties-the best and choicest-to God’s peculiar service. He was a man set apart. To sanctify, therefore, in the Hebrew phrase, meant to devote or consecrate. Let us pause for a few moments to gather up the import of this ceremony.

The first-born are a nation’s hope: they may be said to represent a whole nation. The consecration, therefore, of the first-born was the consecration of the entire nation by their representatives, Now the Levites were substituted for the first-born. The Levites consequently represented all Israel; and by their consecration the life of Israel was declared to be in idea and by right a consecrated life to God. But further still. As the Levites represented Israel, so Israel itself was but a part taken for the whole, and represented the whole human race. If any one thinks this fanciful, let him remember the principle of representation on which the whole Jewish system was built. For example-the first-fruits of the harvest were consecrated to God. Why? to declare that portion and that only to be God’s? No; St. Paul says as a part for the whole, to teach and remind that the whole harvest was his. “If the first-fruits be holy, the lump also is holy.” So in the same way, God consecrated a peculiar people to himself? Why? The Jews say because they alone are His. We say, as a part representative of the whole, to show in one nation what all are meant to be. The holiness of Israel is a representative holiness. Just as the consecrated Levite stood for what Israel was meant to be, so the anointed and separated nation represents forever what the whole race of man is in the Divine Idea-a thing whose proper life is perpetual consecration.

One step farther.This being the true life of humanity, name it how you will, sanctification, consecration, devotion, sacrifice, Christ the Representative of the Race, submits Himself in the text to the universal law of this devotion. The true law of every life is consecration to God: therefore Christ says, I consecrate myself: else He had not been a Man in God’s idea of Manhood-for the idea of Man which God had been for ages laboring to give through a consecrated tribe and a consecrated nation to the world, was the idea of a being whose life-law is sacrifice, every act and every thought being devoted to God.

Accordingly,this is the view which Christ Himself gave of His own Divine humanity. He spoke of it as of a thing devoted by a Divine decree. “Say ye of Him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said I am the Son of God?”

We have reached, therefore, the meaning of this word in the text, “ For their sakes I sanctify,” i. e., consecrate or devote “myself.” The first meaning of sanctify is to set apart. But to set apart for God is to devote or consecrate; and to consecrate a thing is to make it holy. And thus we have the three meanings of the word, viz., to set apart, to devote, to make holy-rising all out of one simple idea. To go somewhat into particulars. This sanctification is spoken of here chiefly as threefold: Self-devotion by inward resolve; self-devotion to the truth; self-devotion for the sake of others.

1. He devoted Himself by inward resolve. “I sanctify myself.” God His Father had devoted Him before. He had sanctified and sent Him. It only remained that this devotion should become by His own act-self-devotion: compIeted by His own will. Now in that act of will consisted His sanctification of Himself.

For observe, this was done within: in secret, solitary struggle-in wrestling with all temptations which deterred Him from His work-in resolve to do it unflinchingly: in real human battle and victory.

Therefore this self-sanctification applies to the whole tone and history of His mind. He was forever devoting Himself to work-forever bracing His human spirit to sublime resolve. But it applies peculiarly to certain special moments, when some crisis came, as on this present occasion, which called for an act of will.

The first of these moments which we read of came when He was twelve years of age. We pondered on it a few weeks ago. In the temple, that earnest conversation with the doctors indicates to us that He had begun to revolve His own mission in His mind; for the answer to His mother’s expostulations shows us what had been the subject of those questions He had been putting: “Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?” Solemn words, significant of a crisis in His mental history. He had been asking those doctors about His Father’s business: what it was, and how it was to be done by Him of whom He had read in the prophets, even Himself. This was the earliest self-devotion of Messiah: the boy was sanctifying Himself for life and manhood’s work.

The next time was in that preparation of the wilderness which we call Christ’s temptation. You can not look deeply into that strange story without perceiving that the true meaning of it lies in this, that the Saviour in that conflict was steeling His soul against the threefold form in which temptation presented itself to Him in after-life, to mar or neutralize His ministry.

1. To convert the hard, stony life of duty into the comfort and enjoyment of this life: to barter, like Esau, life for pottage: to use Divine powers in Him only to procure bread of earth.

2. To distrust God, and try impatiently some wild, sudden plan, instead of His meek and slow-appointed ways-to cast Himself from the temple, as we dash ourselves against our destiny.

3. To do homage to the majesty of wrong: to worship evil for the sake of success: to make the world His own by force or by crooked policy, instead of by suffering.

These were the temptations of His life, as they are of ours. If you search through His history, you find that all trial was reducible to one or other of these three forms. In the wilderness His soul foresaw them all; they were all in spirit met then, fought and conquered before they came in their, reality. In the wilderness He had sanctified and consecrated Himself against all possible temptation, and life thenceforward was only the meeting of that in fact which had been in resolve met already-a vanquished foe.

I said He had sanctified Himself against every trial: I should have said, against every one except the last. The temptation had not exhibited the terrors and the form of death: He had yet to nerve and steel Himself to that. And hence the lofty sadness which characterizes His later ministry, as he went down from the sunny mountain-tops of life into the darkening shades of the valley where lies the grave. There is a perceptible difference between the tone of His earlier and that of His later ministry, which by its evidently undesigned truthfulness gives us a strong feeling of the reality of the history.

At first all is bright, full of hope, signalized by success, and triumph. You hear from Him joyous words of anticipated victory: “I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven.” And we recollect how His first sermon in the synagogue of Capernaum was hailed; how all eyes were fixed on Him, and His words seemed full of grace.

Slowly after this there comes a change over the spirit of His life. The unremitting toil becomes more superhuman, “I must work the work of Him that sent Me while it is day: the night cometh when no man can work.” The cold presentiment of doom hangs more often on Him. He begins to talk to His disciples in mysterious hints of the betrayal and the cross. He is going down into the cloud-land, full of shadows where nothing is distinct, and His step becomes more solemn, and His language more deeply sad. Words of awe, the words as of a soul struggling to pierce through thick glooms of mystery, and doubt, and death, come more often from His lips: for instance, “Now is My soul troubled: and what shall I say? Father, save Me from this hour-but for this cause came I into the world.” “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death.” And here in the text is another of those sentences of mournful grandeur: “For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth.”

Observe the present tense. Not I shall devote Myself-but I sanctify, i. e., I am sanctifying Myself. It was a mental struggle going on then. This prayer was, so to speak, part of His Gethsemane prayer, the first utterances of broken by interruption-then finished in the garden. The consecration and the agony had begun-the long inward battle-which was not complete till the words came, too solemnly to be called triumphantly, though they were indeed the trumpet-tones of man’s grand victory, “ It is finished.”

Secondly the sanctification of Christ was self-devotion to the truth. I infer this, because He says, “ I sanctify Myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth.” “Also” implies that what His consecration was, theirs was. Now theirs is expressly said to be sanctification by the truth. That, then, was His consecration too. It was the truth which devoted Him and marked Him out for death.

For it was not merely death that made Christ’s sacrifice the world’s atonement. There is no special virtue in mere death, even though it be the death of God’s own Son. Blood does not please God. “As I live, saith the Lord, I have no pleasure in the death of the sinner.” Do you think God has pleasure in the blood of the righteous? blood merely as blood? death merely as a debt of nature paid? suffering merely, as if suffering had in it mysterious virtue?

No, my brethren! God can be satisfied with that only which pertains to the conscience and the will; so says the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews: “Sacrifices could never make the comers thereunto perfect.” The blood of Christ was sanctified by the will with which He shed it: it is that which gives it value. It was a sacrifice offered up to conscience. He suffered as a martyr to the truth. He fell in fidelity to a cause. The sacred cause in which He fell was love to the human race: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man give his life for his friends.” Now that truth was the cause in which Christ died. We have His own words as proof: “ To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, to bear witness to the truth.”

Let us see how His death was a martyrdom of witness to truth.

1. He proclaimed the identity between religion and goodness. He distinguished religion from correct views, accurate religious observances, and even from devout feelings. He said that to be religious is to be good. “Blessed are the pure in heart . . . Blessed are the merciful . . . Blessed are the meek.” Justice, mercy, truth-these He proclaimed as the real righteousness of God.

But because He taught the truth of Godliness, the Pharisees became his enemies: those men of opinions and maxims, those men of ecclesiastical, ritual and spiritual pretensions.

Again, He taught spiritual religion. God was not in the temple: the temple was to come down. But religion would survive the temple. God’s temple was man’s soul; and because He taught spiritual worship, the priests became his enemies. Hence came those accusations that He blasphemed the temple: that he had said contemptuously, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

Once more he struck a death-blow at Jewish exclusiveness: He proclaimed the truth of the character of God. God the Father: the hereditary descent from Abraham was nothing: the inheritance of Abraham’s faith was everything. God therefore would admit the Gentiles who inherited that faith. For God loved the world, not a private few: not the Jew only, not the elder brother who had been all his life at home, but the prodigal younger brother too, who had wandered far and had sinned much.

Now because He proclaimed this salvation of the Gentiles, the whole Jewish nation were offended. The first time he ever hinted it at Capernaum, they took Him to the brow of the hill whereon their city was built that they might throw Him thence.

And thus by degrees-priests, Pharisees, rulers, rich and poor-He had roused them all against Him: and the Divine Martyr of the truth stood alone at last beside the cross, when the world’s life was to be won, without a friend.

All this we must bear in mind, if we would understand the expression, “ I sanctify myself.” He was sanctifying and consecrating Himself for this-to be a witness to the truth-a devoted One, consecrated in His heart’s deeps to die-loyal to truth, even though it should have to give as the reward of allegiance, not honors and kingdoms, but only a crown of thorns.

3, The self-sanctification of Christ was for the sake of others. “For their sakes.” He obeyed the law of self-consecration for Himself, else He had not been man; for that law is the universal law of our human existence. But he obeyed it not for Himself alone, but for others also. It was vicarious self-devotion, i. e., instead of others, as the Representative of them. “For their sakes,” as an example, “ that they also might be sanctified through the truth.”

Distinguish between a model and an example. You copy the outline of a model-you imitate the spirit of an example. Christ is our example: Christ is not our model. You might copy the life of Christ: make Him a model in every act: and yet you might be not one whit more of a Christian than before. You might wash the feet of poor fishermen as He did, live a wandering life with nowhere to lay your head. You might go about teaching, and never use any words but His words, never express a religious truth except in Bible language: have no home, and mix with publicans and harlots. Then Christ would be your model: you would have copied His life like a picture, line for line, and shadow for shadow; yet you might not be Christlike.

On the other hand, you might imitate Christ, get his Spirit, breathe the atmosphere of thought which He breathed: do not one single act which He did, but every act in His spirit: you might be rich, whereas He was poor: never teach, whereas He was teaching always; lead a life in all outward particulars the very contrast and opposite of His: and yet the spirit of His self- devotion might have saturated your whole being, and penetrated into the life of every act and the essence of every thought. Then Christ would have become your example: for we can only imitate that of which we have caught the spirit.

Accordingly, He sanctified Himself that He might become a living, inspiring example, firing men’s hearts by love to imitation-a burning and a shining light shed upon the mystery of life, to guide by a spirit of warmth lighting from within. In Christ there is not given to us a faultless essay on the loveliness of self-consecration, to convince our reason how beautiful it is: but there is given to us a self-consecrated One: a living Truth, a living Person; a life that was beautiful, a death that we feel in our inmost hearts to have been divine: and all this in order that the Spirit of that consecrated life and consecrated death, through love, and wonder, and deep enthusiasm, may pass into us, and sanctify us also to the truth in life and death. He sacrificed Himself that we might offer ourselves a living sacrifice to God.


II. Christ’s sanctification of His people: “That they also might be sanctified through the truth.”

To sanctify means two things. It means to devote, and it means to set apart. Yet these two meanings are but different sides of the same idea: for to be devoted to God is to be separated from all that is opposed to God. Those whom Christ sanctifies are separated from two things: from the world’s evil, and from the world’s spirit.

1. From the world’s evil. So in verse 15, “I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil.” Not from physical evil, not from pain: Christ does not exempt his own from such kinds of evil, Nay, we hesitate to call pain and sorrow evils, when we remember what bright characters they have made, and when we recollect that almost all who came to Christ came impelled by suffering of some kind or other. For example, the Syrophenician woman had been driven to “fall at His feet and worship Him,” by the anguish of the tormented daughter whom she had watched. It was a widow that cast into the treasury all her living, and that widow poor.

Possibly want and woe will be seen hereafter, when this world of appearance shall have passed away, to have been, not evils, but God’s blessed angels and ministers of His most parental love.

But the evil from which Christ’s sanctification separates the soul is that worst of evils-properly speaking the only evil-sin: revolt from God, disloyalty to conscience, tyranny of the passions, strife of our self-will in conflict with the loving Will of God. This is our foe-our only foe that we have a right to hate with perfect hatred, meet it where we will, and under whatever form, in Church or state, in false social maxims, or in our own hearts. And it was to sanctify or separate us from this that Christ sanctified or consecrated Himself By the blood of his anguish-by the strength of his unconquerable resolve-we are sworn against it-bound to be, in a world of evil, consecrated spirits, or else greatly sinning.

Lastly, the self-devotion of Christ separates us from the world’s spirit.

Distinguish between the world’s evil and the world’s spirit. Many things which can not be classed amongst things evil are yet dangerous as things worldly.

It is one of the most difficult of all ministerial duties to define what the world-spirit is. It can not be identified with vice, nor can unworldliness be defined as abstinence from vice. The Old Testament saints were many of them great transgressors. Abraham lied, Jacob deceived, David committed adultery. Crimes dark, surely! and black enough! And yet these men were unworldly; the spirit of the world was not in them. They erred and were severely punished; for crime is crime in whomsoever it is found, and most a crime in a saint of God. But they were beyond their age: they were not of the world. They were strangers and pilgrims upon earth. They, were, in the midst of innumerable temptations from within and from without, seeking after a better country, i. e., a heavenly.

Again, you can not say that worldliness consists in mixing with many people, and unworldliness with few. Daniel was unworldly in the luxurious, brilliant court of Babylon. Adam, in Paradise, had but one companion; that one was the world to him.

Again, the spirit of the world can not be defined as consisting in any definite plainness of dress or peculiar mode of living. If we would be sanctified from the world when Christ comes, we must be found, not stripping off the ornaments from our persons, but the censoriousness from our tongues and the selfishness from our hearts.

Once more, that which is a sign of unworldliness in one age is not a certain sign of it in another. In Daniel’s age, when dissoluteness marked the world, frugal living was a sufficient evidence that he was not of the world. To say that he restrained his appetites was nearly the same as saying that he was sanctified. But now when intemperance is not the custom, a life as temperate as Daniel’s might coexist with all that is worst of the spirit of the world in the heart; almost no man then was temperate who was not serving God-now hundreds of thousands are self-controlled by prudence, who serve the world and self.

Therefore you can not define sanctification by any outward marks or rules. But he who will thoroughly watch will understand what is this peculiar sanctification or separation from the world which Christ desired in His servants.

He is sanctified by the self-devotion of his Master from the world, who has a life in himself independent of the maxims and customs which sweep along with them other men. In his Master’s words, “A well of water in him, springing up into everlasting life,” keeping his life on the whole pure, and his heart fresh. His true life is hid with Christ in God. His motives, the aims and objects of his life, however inconsistent they may be with each other, however irregularly or feebly carried out, are yet on the whole above, not here. His citizenship is in heaven. He may be tempted, be may err, he may fall, but still in his darkest aberrations there will be a something that keeps before him still the dreams and aspirations of his best days-a thought of the cross of Christ and the self-consecration that it typifies-a conviction that that is the highest, and that alone the true life. And that-if it were only that-would make him essentially different from other men, even when he mixes with them and seems to catch their tone, among them but not one of them. And that life within him is Christ’s pledge that he shall be yet what he longs to be-a something severing him, separating him, consecrating him. For him and for such as him the consecration prayer of Christ was made. “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world: Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth,”