"They began every one of them to say unto Him,
Lord, is it I ?"—Matthew xxvi. 22.
"He then lying on Jesus' breast saith unto Him,
Lord, who is it ?"—John xiii. 25.
There are three stages in the sequel of our Lord's solemn declaration that a disciple should betray him. First, the alarmed question sprang to every lip: Lord, is it I ?—the form of which in the Greek indicates that a negative answer is expected, so that it might be rendered: "Surely it is not I?" Each felt as if it were impossible, but yet each knew enough of himself to feel not quite sure that he might not be the traitor. Jesus answered the universal question so as to avoid public disclosure of the betrayer, for the indication that He gave was only that dipping in the dish along with Him, which was common to all at the table. His reply was rather an enhancement of the baseness of the crime than a disclosure of the criminal.
Then came the second step. Judas was driven to ask the same question, lest his silence should be noticed and interpreted as due to a guilty conscience. It would not be easy for him to keep his face from being a tell-tale and his voice from trembling. But he did both, and not one of the company suspected him. Our Lord evidently did not speak to Judas in a tone which the others heard, for if they had heard, John would have had no need to ask his further question. That whispered answer was love's last appeal. Jesus sought to win Judas from his purpose, not that He might not die, but that Judas might not sin.
Then came John's question. Remembering the Jewish attitudes at table, we can understand how Peter could signal unobserved to John, and how John, from his place on Jesus's bosom, could whisper his question. But he asked not, Is it I ? but, Who is it? The difference is significant, and the comparison of the two questions is instructive.
"Is it I?" suggests the possibilities of evil in us all. We have all "one human heart," and the blackest sin is but yielding to some tendency common to all, and to some temptation which assails all. We all have combustibles in the cellars, and we all walk where sparks fly thick. So, with a different application, the saying of the Roman poet is true, "lama man, and nothing that is proper to a man is alien to me." We look upon some gigantic transgression. If we could know the history of it, we should find that it came from the indulgence of desires which belong to every one of us, and to which we all often yield ; or from succumbing to some external force of temptation which is brought to bear upon us all. Judas heads the list of crimes with his wickedness. But he betrayed Jesus because he coveted thirty pieces of silver, and that is a very common desire. A man commits a murder because he gives way to passion, and that is a very common fault. Of course, variety of temperament is quite as obvious a fact in human nature as identity ot essence. Just as it is marvellous to see the diversity that nature manages to make in faces out of the simple identical elements of two eyes, a nose, and a mouth, so the variety which is capable of being created out of the same elements of character is wonderful, when one comes to think about it; but yet the varieties are varieties of an identical nature. And, just as every one has two eyes, and nose and mouth and chin, however these may vary in form and expression, so every one has the tendencies in him which make the greatest criminal, however they may vary or be kept in check. Therefore, though fastidiousness of nature may keep one man from certain vulgar sins, and another man's peculiarities of disposition may make the temptation before which his next-door neighbour falls helpless scarcely any temptation at all to him, yet the variety is only on the surface, and the identity is a great deal deeper than the dissimilarity. We are all exposed to catch the infection, and we all live in a house that, like some old, ill-managed infirmary, has poison in the very plaster of its walls, so that pyaemia is almost certain if an operation has to take place. "Lord, is it I? I have the makings of a traitor in me." So every one of them felt, and felt rightly.
Absence of temptation accounts for more of our innocence than we like to think. We are respectable, because we neVer were flung into circumstances that suggested our being anything else. Change the climate, and the noxious animals that live in it are changed also; they are of one sort at the poles and of another at the tropics, but there are some everywhere. The Pharisee gathered his starched skirts about him and thanked God that he was "not as that publican." But if he had had that publican's experience, had been odious and contemptible to every man, had never known what a kind word or a welcoming smile were, he would have been "as," or worse than, he. We know too little of ourselves to be sure that it is not in us to do any evil that men can do. Any man who honestly tries to investigate his own character finds that it is almost as difficult for him to do that, as to see the back of his head in a looking-glass that stands in front of his face. There is only one way by which people can ever know themselves, and that is by watching what they do—using "do" in the comprehensive sense that includes both outward actions and thinking and desiring and coveting, and all these other acts that go on in the busy workshop within, of which none but God takes account. That is a very hard study, and we know little about ourselves, and often when there comes some tremendous earthquake into our lives, it does as earthquakes are recorded to have done in certain places, tears open hidden graves, and shows rotting flesh and bleached bones down below the tidy grass that has been growing green on the surface. There might come a convulsion into the lives of any of us that would disclose yawning depths of badness in us, which now we do not suspect; and so the right word for us is, "Lord, is it I?"
John, from his place on Christ's bosom, looked up into his Lord's eyes and, as he saw the love that shone in them, he asked, not Is it I? but Who is it? Consciousness of Christ's love, and the act of communion with Him, open for us the door into a secure home, where no evil shall befall us, nor any plague come nigh our dwelling. What temptation would have been strong enough to tempt John out of Christ's embrace? Where would he have found any bliss sweeter, any rest deeper, any love more soul-filling, than were his there? The man who felt Christ's heart beating against his would not have found much attraction in thirty pieces of silver. None of our temptations would retain their power, nor would any thing be formidable enough to fright us into sin, if we felt ourselves cradled on Christ's bosom and folded in the arms of His love. John was not presumptuous in shaping his question as he did, for his confidence that he would not be the traitor was based not on his love to Christ, but on his consciousness of Christ's to him. Being where he was, how could he but be conscious of that love? If we keep ourselves in Christ's love, we may blend self-distrust and absolute security, and we shall have the security only if we cherish the distrust. Let us begin with, Is it I? and at last we shall lift our praises to "Him that is able to keep us from stumbling, and to present us faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy."