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The Universal Magnet

by Alexander Maclaren (1826-1910)

‘I, if I be lifted up... will draw all men unto Me.’ — John 12:32.

‘NEVER man spake like this Man,’ said the wondering Temple officials
who were sent to apprehend Jesus. There are many aspects of our Lord’s
teaching in which it strikes one as unique; but perhaps none is more
singular than the boundless boldness of His assertions of His importance to
the world. Just think of such sayings as these: ‘I am the Light of the
world’; ‘I am the Bread of Life’; ‘I am the Door’; ‘A greater than Solomon
is here’; ‘In this place is One greater than the Temple.’ We do not usually
attach much importance to men’s estimate of themselves; and gigantic
claims such as these are generally met by incredulity or scorn. But the
strange thing about Christ’s loftiest assertions of His world-wide worth and
personal sinlessness is that they provoke no contradiction, and that the
world takes Him at His own valuation. So profound is the impression that
He has made, that men assent when He says, ‘I am meek and lowly in
heart,’ and do not answer as they would to anybody else, ‘If you were, you
would never have said so.’

Now there is no more startling utterance of this extraordinary self-
consciousness of Jesus Christ than the words that I have used for my text.
They go deep down into the secret of His power. They open a glimpse into
His inmost thoughts about Himself which He very seldom shows us. And
they come to each of us with a very touching and strong personal appeal as
to what we are doing with, and how we individually are responding to, that
universal appeal on which He says that He is exercising.

I. So I wish to dwell on these words now, and ask you first to notice here our Lord’s forecasting of the Cross.

A handful of Greeks had come up to Jerusalem to the Passover, and they
desired to see Jesus, perhaps only because they had heard about Him, and
to gratify some fleeting curiosity; perhaps for some deeper and more sacred
reason. But in that tiny incident our Lord sees the first green blade coming
up above the ground which was the prophet of an abundant harvest; the
first drop of a great abundance of rain. He recognises that He is beginning
to pass out from Israel into the world. But the thought of His world-wide
influence thus indicated and prophesied immediately brings along with it
the thought of what must be gone through before that influence can be established. And he discerns that, like the corn of wheat that falls into the
ground, the condition of fruitfulness for Him is death.

Now we are to remember that our Lord here is within a few hours of
Gethsemane, and a few days of the Cross, and that events had so unfolded
themselves that it needed no prophet to see that there could only be one
end to the duel which he had deliberately brought about between Himself
and the rulers of Israel. So that I build nothing upon the anticipation of the
Cross, which comes out at this stage in our Lord’s history, for any man in
His position might have seen, as clearly as He did, that His path was
blocked, and that very near at hand, by the grim instrument of death. But
then remember that this same expression of my text occurs at a very much
earlier period of our Lord’s career, and that if we accept this Gospel of
John, at the very beginning of it He said, ‘As Moses lifted up the serpent in
the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up’; and that that
was no mere passing thought is obvious from the fact that midway in His
career, if we accept the testimony of the same Gospel, He used the same
expression to cavilling opponents when He said: ‘When ye have lifted up
the Son of Man, then shall ye know that I am He.’ And so at the beginning,
in the middle, and at the end of His career the same idea is cast into the
same words, a witness of the hold that it had upon Him, and the continual
presence of it to His consciousness.

I do not need to refer here to other illustrations and proofs of the same
thing, only I desire to say, as plainly and strongly as I can, that modern
ideas that Jesus Christ only recognised the necessity of His death at a late
stage of His work, and that like other reformers, He began with buoyant
hope, and thought that He had but to speak and the world would hear, and,
like other reformers, was disenchanted by degrees, are, in my poor
judgment, utterly baseless, and bluntly contradicted by the Gospel
narratives. And so, dear brethren, this is the image that rises before us, and
that ought to appeal to us all very plainly; a Christ who, from the first
moment of His consciousness of Messiahship — and how early that
consciousness was I am not here to inquire — was conscious likewise of
the death that was to close it. ‘ He came not to be ministered unto, but to
minister,’ and likewise for this end, ‘ to give His life a ransom for the
many.’ That gracious, gentle life, full of all charities, and long-suffering,
and sweet goodness, and patience, was not the life of a Man whose heart
was at leisure from all anxiety about Himself, but the life of a Man before
whom there stood, ever grim and distinct away on the horizon, the Cross and Himself upon it. You all remember a well-known picture that suggests
the ‘Shadow of Death,’ the shadow of the Cross falling, unseen by Him,
but seen with open eyes of horror by His mother. But the reality is a far
more pathetic one than that; it is this, that He came on purpose to die.

But now there is another point suggested by these remarkable words, and
that is that our Lord regarded the Cross of shame as exaltation or ‘lifting
up.’ I do not believe that the use of this remarkable phrase in our text finds
its explanation in the few inches of elevation above the surface of the
ground to which the crucified victims were usually raised. That is there, of
course, but there is something far deeper and more wonderful than that in
the background, and it is this in part, that that Cross, to Christ’s eyes, bore
a double aspect. So far as the inflicters or the externals of it were
concerned, it was ignominy, shame, agony, the very lowest point of
humiliation. But there was another side to it. What in one aspect is the
nadir, the lowest point beneath men’s feet, is in another aspect the zenith,
the very highest point in the bending heaven above us. So throughout this
Gospel, and very emphatically in the text, we find that we have the
complement of the Pauline view of the Cross, which is, that it was shame
and agony. For our Lord says, ‘Now the hour is come when the Son of
Man shall be glorified.’ Whether it is glory or shame depends on what it
was that bound Him there. The reason for His enduring it makes it the very
climax and flaming summit of His flaming love. And, therefore, He is lifted
up not merely because the Cross is elevated above the ground on the little
elevation of Calvary, but that Cross is His throne, because there, in highest
and sovereign fashion, are set forth His glories, the glories of His love, and
of the ‘grace and truth’ of which He was ‘full.’ 

So let us not forget this double aspect, and whilst we bow before Him who
‘endured the Cross, despising the shame,’ let us also try to understand and
to feel what He means when, in the vision of it, He said, ‘the hour is come
that the Son of Man shall be glorified.’ It was meant for mockery, but
mockery veiled unsuspected truth when they twined round His pale brows
the crown of thorns, thereby setting forth unconsciously the everlasting
truth that sovereignty is won by suffering; and placed in His unresisting
hand the sceptre of reed, thereby setting forth the deep truth of His
kingdom, that dominion is exercised in gentleness. Mightier than all rods of
iron, or sharp swords which conquerors wield, and more lustrous and
splendid than tiaras of gold glistening with diamonds, are the sceptre of reed in the hands, and the crown of thorns on the head, of the exalted,
because crucified, Man of Sorrows.

But there is still another aspect of Christ’s vision of His Cross, for the
‘lifting up’ on it necessarily draws after it the lifting up to the dominion of
the heavens. And so the Apostle, using a word kindred with that of my
text, but intensifying it by addition, says, ‘He became obedient even unto
the death of the Cross, wherefore God also hath highly lifted Him up.’

So here we have Christ’s own conception of His death, that it was
inevitable, that it was exaltation even in the act of dying, and that it drew
after it, of inevitable necessity, dominion exercised from the heavens over
all the earth. He was lifted up on Calvary, and because He was lifted up He
has carried our manhood into the place of glory, and sitteth at the right
hand of the Majesty on high. So much for the first point to which I would
desire to turn your attention.

II. Now we have here our Lord disclosing the secret of His attractive power.

‘I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Me.’ That ‘if’
expresses no doubt, it only sets forth the condition. The Christ lifted up on
the Cross is the Christ that draws men. Now I would have you notice the
fact that our Lord thus unveils, as it were, where His power to influence
individuals and humanity chiefly resides. He speaks about His death in
altogether a different fashion from that of other men, for He does not
merely say, ‘If I be lifted up from the earth, this story of the Cross will
draw men,’ but He says, ‘I will’ do it; and thus contemplates, as I shall
have to say in a moment, continuous personal influence all through the

Now that is not how other people have to speak about their deaths, for all
other men who have influenced the world for good or for evil, thinkers and
benefactors, and reformers, social and religious, all of them come under the
one law that their death is no part of their activity, but terminates their
work, and that thereafter, with few exceptions, and for brief periods, their
influence is a diminishing quantity. So one Apostle had to say, ‘To abide in
the flesh is more needful for you,’ and another had to say, ‘I will endeavour
that after my decease ye may keep in mind the things that I have told you’;
and all thinkers and teachers and helpers glide away further and further,  and are wrapped about with thicker and thicker mists of oblivion, and their
influence becomes less and less.

The best that history can say about any of them is, ‘This man, having
served his generation by the will of God, fell on sleep.’ But that other Man
who was lifted on the Cross saw no corruption, and the death which puts a
period to all other men’s work was planted right in the centre of His, and
was itself part of that work, and was followed by a new form of it which is
to endure for ever.

The Cross is the magnet of Christianity. Jesus Christ draws men, but it is
by His Cross mainly, and that He felt this profoundly is plain enough, not
only from such utterances as this of my text, but, to go no further, from the
fact that He has asked us to remember only one thing about Him, and has
established that ordinance of the Communion or the Lord’s Super, which is
to remind us always, and to bear witness to the world, of where is the
centre of His work, and the fact which He most desires that men should
keep in mind, not the graciousness of His words, not their wisdom, not the
good deeds that He did, but ‘This is My body broken for you... this cup is
the New Testament in My blood.’ A religion which has for its chief rite the
symbol of a death, must enshrine that death in the very heart of the forces
to which it trusts to renew the world, and to bless individual souls.

If, then, that is true, if Jesus Christ was not all wrong when He spoke as He
did in my text, then the question arises, what is it about His death that
makes it the magnet that will draw all men? Men are drawn by cords of
love. They may be driven by other means, but they are drawn only by love.
And what is it that makes Christ’s death the highest and noblest and most
wonderful and transcendent manifestation of love that the world has ever
seen, or ever can see? No doubt you will think me very narrow and old- fashioned when I answer the question, with the pro-roundest conviction of
my own mind, and, I hope, the trust of my own heart. The one thing that
entitles men to interpret Christ’s death as the supreme manifestation of
love is that it was a death voluntarily undertaken for a world’s sins.

If you do not believe that, will you tell me what claim on your heart Christ
has because He died? Has Socrates any claim on your heart? And are there
not hundreds and thousands of martyrs who have just as much right to be
regarded with reverence and affection as this Galilean carpenter’s Son has,
unless, when He died, He died as the Sacrifice for the sins of the whole
world, and for yours and mine? I know all the pathetic beauty of the story. I know how many men’s hearts are moved in some degree by the life and
death of our Lord, who yet would hesitate to adopt the full-toned utterance
which I have now been giving. But I would beseech you, dear friends, to
lay this question seriously to heart, whether there is any legitimate reason
for the reverence, the love, the worship, which the world is giving to this
Galilean young man, if you strike out the thought that it was because He
loved the world that He chose to die to loose it from the bands of its sin. It
may be, it is, a most pathetic and lovely story, but it has not power to draw
all men, unless it deals with that which all men need, and unless it is the
self-surrender of the Son of God for the whole world.

III. And now, lastly, we have here our Lord anticipating continuous and
universal influence.

I have already drawn attention to the peculiar fullness of the form of
expression in my text, which, fairly interpreted, does certainly imply that
our Lord at that supreme moment looked forward, as I have already said,
to His death, not as putting a period to His work, but as being the
transition from one form of influence operating upon a very narrow circle,
to another form of influence which would one day flood the world. I do
not need to dwell upon that thought, beyond seeking to emphasise this
truth, that one ought to feel that Jesus Christ has a living connection now
with each of us. It is not merely that the story of the Cross is left to work
its results, but, as I for my part believe, that the dear Lord, who, before He
became Man, was the Light of the World, and enlightened every man that
came into it, after His death is yet more the Light of the World, and is
exercising influence all over the earth, not only by conscience and the light
that is within us, nor only through the effects of the record of His past, but
by the continuous operations of His Spirit. I do not dwell upon that
thought further than to say that I beseech you to think of Jesus Christ, not
as One who died for our sins only, but as one who lives to-day, and to-day,
in no rhetorical exaggeration but in simple and profound truth, is ready to
help and to bless and to be with every one of us. ‘It is Christ that died, yea,
rather that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also
maketh intercession for US.’

But, beyond that, mark His confidence of universal influence: ‘I will draw
all men.’ I need not dwell upon the distinct adaptation of Christian truth,
and of that sacrifice on the Cross, to the needs of all men. It is the universal
remedy, for it goes direct to the universal epidemic. The thing that men and women want most, the thing that you want most, is that your relation with
God shall be set right, and that you shall be delivered from the guilt of past
sin, from the exposure to its power in the present and in the future.
Whatever diversities of climate, civilisation, culture, character the world
holds, every man is like every other man in this, that he has ‘sinned and
come short of the glory of God.’ And it is because Christ’s Cross goes
direct to deal with that condition of things that the preaching of it is a
gospel, not for this phase of society or that type of men or the other stage
of culture, but that it is meant for, and is able to deliver and to bless, every

So, brethren, a universal attraction is raying out from Christ’s Cross, and
from Himself to each of us. But that universal attraction can be resisted. If
a man plants his feet firmly and wide apart, and holds on with both hands
to some staple or holdfast, then the drawing cannot draw. There is the
attraction, but he is not attracted. You demagnetise Christianity, as all
history shows, if you strike out the death on the Cross for a world’s sin.
What is left is not a magnet, but a bit of scrap iron. And you can take
yourself away from the influence of the attraction if you will, some of us by
active resistance, some of us by mere negligence, as a cord cast over some
slippery body with the purpose of drawing it, may slip off, and the thing He
there unmoved.

And so I come to you now, dear friends, with the plain question, What are
you doing in response to Christ’s drawing of you? He has died for you on
the Cross; does that not draw? He lives to bless you; does that not draw?
He loves you with love changeless as a God, with love warm and
emotional as a man; does that not draw? He speaks to you, I venture to
say, through my poor words, and says, ‘Come unto Me, and I will give you
rest’; does that not draw? We are all in the bog. He stands on firm ground,
and puts out a hand. If you like to clutch it, by the pledge of the nail-prints
on the palm, He will lift you from ‘the horrible pit and the mary clay, and
set your feet upon a rock.’ God grant that all of us may say, ‘Draw us, and
we will run after Thee’!

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