The Christian Leaning on Jesus' Bosom
William Bacon Stevens
"Now there was leaning on Jesus' bosom, one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved." John 13:23
The Evangelists rarely speak of themselves by name. When recording events in which they were actors — they used some descriptive epithet or allusion, sufficiently clear to indicate who was meant, without so openly naming themselves as to be chargeable with egotism. John especially, except when others as well as himself are concerned, never mentions his own name; but the veil which he throws over himself by his allusive sentences is so transparent, that, while it enhances our ideas of his modesty, it does not so conceal him as to prevent our recognizing his features and calling him by name.
The apostle had been describing the scene which took place at the Last Supper, after the declaration of our Lord, "One of you shall betray me." Startled, anxious, distrustful, at such unexpected words, the amazed disciples eagerly put to their Lord the question, "Is it I? Is it I?" To ascertain more definitely who it was, Peter beckoned to the disciple nearest to Jesus, and who was then leaning on his bosom, to inquire "Who it is of whom he spoke?" This he did, and received such a reply as designated the betrayer, and satisfied their minds. It is in the description of this momentary excitement that the text occurs. Internal evidence, as well as universal consent, point to John as the one to whom these words refer, who, from this circumstance, is generally called "the Beloved Disciple."
The eating customs of the East, were widely different from our own. The usual form of the table was that of three sides of a square, surrounded by couches, upon which the person reclined on his left arm, his feet being stretched toward the wall, and his right hand being free to reach toward the table. In such a recumbent posture as this, it would be very easy for one by gently relaxing his left arm, to lean back upon the bosom of the one next to him, as was often done in token of intimacy and affection.
John, occupying a place next to Jesus, was thus enabled to lean upon his bosom; and as it was, perhaps, a privileged place accorded to him — it may be for his gentler and more loving nature — he avails himself of the gracious permission to designate himself as the one "leaning on Jesus' bosom." And, as thus privileged, he also styled himself "the disciple whom Jesus loved;" for he only, so far as we know, of all the disciples, ever laid his head on Jesus' bosom. It was surely a peculiar honor, one well worthy of note and transmission from age to age; nor is there, in its being recorded, any undue praising of himself; for that he pre-eminently loved the Savior, and was pre-eminently loved by him — is evident from the fact that John alone, of all the disciples, stood by his cross, and to his loving care, Jesus committed the charge of his weeping mother.
Happy disciple! thus to lean upon the bosom of "God manifest in the flesh;" thus to feel beneath his head — the beatings of that Divine heart which compassed the world in its infinite love! We would have lacked one touching evidence of the Savior's gracious condescension to man, and one lovely lineament in the features of John himself — had this little incident been left out. It is full of meaning in itself — as an act of sacred friendship. It is suggestive of precious thoughts — as illustrative of the intimacy which Jesus permits. It reveals the human loveliness of Christ in a clear light, and draws his disciples to him with a winning sympathy which would never have been felt — had not John told us, "Now there was leaning on his bosom, one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved."
Our Lord no more walks in our midst, or reclines with us at the table. On his human form — the eye cannot gaze, nor the head rest. But are we then excluded from his bosom? Is there no such thing as leaning now on Jesus' bosom? Was it reserved for John alone — to feel the pressure of that beating heart? Can no one else pillow his head upon that sacred bosom? We cannot, indeed, in bodily form, approach his body; but we have even closer access than the beloved disciple; we are privileged with being brought into living contact with the throbbing heart of Christ — so that the pulses of his love are made to circulate in the channels of our own affections, and the warmth of his soul imparts a glowing vitality to ours!
What is it, then, at this day — to lean on Jesus' bosom?
We speak of the bosom of man, as being filled with noble feelings; or of man, as cherishing in his bosom, sentiments of hate and revenge. We speak of a generous bosom — palpitating with benevolence; or an unfeeling bosom — shut up and indurated in its sympathetic emotions. We use this language, because the heart has its seat in the bosom; and as the heart, in the physical system, is the center of animal life — the ever-welling up and distributing fountain of the vital currents; so, by a figure of speech, when we would speak of the moral center of man, the well-spring of moral emotions — we use the term heart, and say, his heart is right or wrong, his heart is generous or closed, his heart is renewed or unsanctified. Hence, to lean upon the bosom, the outer casement of the heart — is equivalent to saying that the person leans upon the love and sympathy of that individual.
To lean upon Jesus' bosom, then, is to bring our hearts into living, feeling contact with the heart of Christ. His love emanates from his heart — and hence he who rests upon his bosom — rests upon his love. The feeling of confidence in human affection is one of the most precious emotions of which we are capable. To know that one heart truly, fondly, unfalteringly loves us; to know that we can rest upon that love in the assured conviction that it will never decrease, never waver, but rather grow and strengthen — is a knowledge of priceless value to the sensitive and the refined.
In leaning upon the heart of Jesus, the Christian can have this confidence and certainty to a degree impossible among men. His heart is an organ of infinite love. He who trusts to it — leans upon its Divine impulses; and the nearer we are brought in contact with it — the more are we ravished by its love, and buoyed up and strengthened by its more than reciprocated affection.
But we need sympathy, as well as love from Christ; and in leaning upon Jesus' bosom — we lean upon the place whence his sympathies flow. There are . . .
ever recurring temptations,
distressing infirmities —
in which we seek not only support, but sympathy. It is comforting to know, if you are in trouble or affliction, that you are sympathized with; and a kind look, a soothing word, a consoling sentence, a dropping tear — will do much towards invigorating the soul, and bringing hack hope and peace.
Our blessed Savior is eminently sympathetic. None ever felt so deeply for the sorrows and sufferings of the world. None ever understood so thoroughly — the needs and straits of humanity. None ever knew so profoundly — the springs of human thought and action. He felt for sickness and affliction wherever seen. He wept at the grave of Lazarus — and over Jerusalem. He was filled with compassion for the widow of Nain, for the Syro-Phoenician mother, and for the hungry multitudes deprived of bread.
Every day drew largely upon his sympathies — yet they were as exhaustless as his divinity; and hence, every day he poured them forth freely upon the children of need and sorrow. Nor is the Savior less sympathizing now, that he has ascended into Heaven. He is still "touched with the feeling of our infirmities," and still ministers his support and compassion to us.
The Christian needs and must have this Divine sympathy. He cannot bear alone . . .
the temptations of his own heart,
the risings up of indwelling sin, or
the assaults of outward spiritual foes.
There are seasons . . .
of deep depression;
of trembling anxiety;
of hesitation as to what is duty;
of exhausting conflict with the tempter —
when the soul craves sympathy with our great High Priest, and when, failing to get it, it faints beneath its load.
But if we lean on Jesus' bosom — we shall always have his sympathies; for we lean upon the bosom beneath which all his sympathies flow out. We shall feel his compassion, and rejoice in his support — just in proportion as we keep near the fountain whence they rise and run.
There is something else, however, that we need beside the love of Christ, and the sympathy of Christ. It is an intelligent understanding of the doctrine of Christ. And this we can get only as we more trustingly lean upon his heart, for he himself has declared, "out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks."
There is such a thing as a mere speculative, theoretical knowledge of Gospel truth, which may rest in the intellect — and never reach down and take hold of the heart. A man may be a learned theologian — without leaning on Jesus' bosom; but no one can savingly understand Divine truth — who does not bring his head in contact with Jesus' heart.
There is a great difference between an intellectual knowledge — and an experimental knowledge of Bible doctrines. The leading truths of Revelation have been well defined, ably defended, unfalteringly held — by men who had no living faith in Jesus Christ. But he who wishes to get at the real meaning of the words of Jesus, who seeks to know him as he has condescended to reveal himself in his many sayings — will pillow his head upon his bosom that he may listen to the heart-conceived and uttered words, as they come throbbing with love from the depths of infinite affection.
How different does the Gospel appear when studied as a matter of theology or exegesis, when read with the clear but cold eye of intellect, and weighed in the world-poised balances of reason — as opposed to when perused in the confidingness of faith leaning on the Beloved, and feeling beneath our own souls every heaving of his bosom, every throbbing of his heart who spoke the words and made them the means of our salvation! For this reason it is, that the poor widow, the bed-ridden patient, the humble laborer — often has a richer experimental knowledge of the truth as it is in Jesus, than the learned minister or the boasting professor. All real knowledge of Jesus — must come from Christ's heart, and through our heart. Love, like another John the Baptist, must go before the face of truth and prepare its way. It is not knowing the truth, it is loving the truth — which will make us growing, cheerful, active Christians! And the closer we cling to the heart of the Savior, the more will his love transfuse itself into our bosoms, and call out ardent returns.
There is yet one other and very thrilling point connected with this subject. It is, that to lean on Jesus' bosom — is to lean upon the place whence flowed his precious blood. It was from the spear-riven heart of Christ, that blood and water gushed out; and in leaning upon Jesus' bosom, therefore, we get close to the fountain opened for sin and all uncleanness. We read and hear a great deal about the blood of Christ. We come to the house of the Lord, to the communion of the body and blood of Christ; we pray that we may be washed in that blood, and sing songs of praise to God that the crimson drops of salvation ever trickled from the head, and hands, and feet, and heart of the crucified Redeemer. Yet how little do we understand the words we use, or the thoughts we express! We do not sufficiently consider . . .
whose blood this is — the blood of God manifest in the flesh;
for whom it was shed — the daring enemies of this incarnate God;
the result of Christ's blood-shedding — producing reconciliation with God, redemption for man, pardon, peace, and eternal life. If we dwelt more on these points, the nature of the blood-shedding, the cause of its shedding, and its resulting blessings — we would find our views of Christ vastly elevated, of ourselves lessened, and of sin augmented. We would rejoice more in the love of Jesus; cling to him by a more tenacious faith, and bring forth more fully the fruits of righteousness and peace in the Holy Spirit.
If we would feel the preciousness of Christ's blood, we must lean upon the heart whence it flowed — and there, upon the bosom of Jesus, learn . . .
the vastness of the love which gave it,
the greatness of the sacrifice which it involved, and
the unspeakable richness of the grace, present and future, of which it was the purchase-money.
I have thus briefly answered the question, What is it to lean on Jesus' bosom? But words, however graphic, can convey but slight ideas of what the question really involves. It is something that each one must feel and experience for himself, before he can understand its nature and value. No description can supply the lack of experience; and, when the soul of the Christian once leans there — no description can declare his blessedness, or express his joy.
The bosom of Christ is a privileged place. We read of only one who leaned there when he was on earth; but it is now accessible to all who love him. It is a place sacred to love and to intimate fellowship, such as believers are privileged with, though, alas! such as believers too seldom enjoy.
It is a place, too, of confidence and repose — doubts vanish, distrust ceases, when the Christian's head is pressed against the throbbing heart of his Savior, and he reposes there in peace, watched over by the Savior's eye and sheltered by the Savior's arms.
It is a privileged place in times of adversity. The world may treat us coldly, friends may withdraw from us, riches may depart — but, if we can lean on Jesus' bosom, we are not downcast. For we know that there is . . .
no coldness in his look,
no withdrawal of his love,
no departing of his peace —
and how harmless is every tempest of adversity that beats upon us! it only makes us cling closer to the bosom of Jesus!
It is a privileged place in seasons of sickness. When too languid for the active duties of religion, when shut out from the house of God, when debarred closet devotions, when pain and disease are doing their wasting work — then how precious the privilege to lie quietly on Jesus' bosom, and find there a closet and a sanctuary — breathe out there our prayer and praise — rest there trustingly and peacefully, and feel willing that he on whom we lean, should do with us as may seem good in his sight!
It is a privileged place in times of sorrow. We all know how great the relief we experience in affliction, if we can pour our griefs into one faithful bosom, confident of sympathy and love. Christ permits all his followers thus to come unto him. It is a small but very significant circumstance mentioned in the narrative of John the Baptist's death, that, after he was beheaded, "his disciples came and took up the body and buried it — and went and told Jesus." Went and told Jesus! This is what we should do in our afflictions, whensoever they oppress us. Do not brood over them in silence — do not morbidly magnify them — do not shut them out from the light and peace of the Bible — but go and, leaning on Jesus' bosom, tell him your griefs, and he will stanch your bleeding heart and give you "the oil of joy, for mourning; and the garment of praise, for the spirit of heaviness."
Especially is it a privileged place to the believer, in death. What do those words mean, "sleep in Jesus" — but a tranquil breathing out of the soul on the bosom of Jesus, a giving up of the spirit "leaning on the Beloved?" It matters not where, or amid what circumstances, or under what agonies the Christian dies. He cannot die where Christ is not present . . .
to close his eyes,
to fold him in his arms,
to press him to his heart!
It is the most desirable, the most honorable, and the most glorious of all deaths — to die as a disciple, "leaning on Jesus' bosom." Then only, does the believer triumph over death — then only, is death robbed of his sting. This is dying in the Lord, and a voice from Heaven has declared all such "blessed."
Such is the gracious intimacy which Christ permits. Such the sweet approaches which we may enjoy. Yet, how few, even among his disciples, nourish that intimacy or make those approaches! But the failing is all our own; it is from a lack of confidence in his love and faith in his promises — and from these, we should seek to be delivered at once, if we desire peace and hope. Lose not this sweet privilege of leaning on Jesus' bosom; you need such a heart to rest upon, such a shelter, such a confidence in Divine aid and sympathy. These can only be obtained, by thus bringing your soul into contact with the love-filled bosom of the Redeemer.
Pressing are the invitations to come to Jesus;
solemn are the warnings against staying away;
precious are the privileges accorded to his disciples;
and those who so love him as to lean upon his bosom with a heart-relying faith hereon earth — shall dwell forever with him in Heaven, where they shall see his face and share his glory!