Whatever view may be taken of Jesus Christ, he cannot be excluded from history; He is not a legend, or a superstition or a theory that may be brushed lightly aside. He is one of those "stubborn things" that men call facts. You may ignore him, but you cannot expunge him. You may neglect him or misinterpret him; but you cannot get rid of the fact, and whatever may grow out of the fact, that he has appeared and enacted a part among men which has left an indelible impress on their condition in all civilized lands.
To the most casual observer, he towers the most conspicuous figure in the backward sweep of the eye. To the acutest mind of philosophy, he is the most palpable and indubitable problem of history. His historical verity is now conceded on every hand. An ingenious learning has abandoned the vain attempt to make him out a myth. Whatever he be, he is no myth. Every church and chapel is in some way a memento of him. Every organised Christian State in Europe is a monument to his historical memory. Hoary Ecclesiastical Rome filling the centuries, though with but the merest travesty of his doctrine, and for ages manacling the human intellect in a name that was never intended to import anything but life and liberty to the human race, is at least a guarantee to all the world that that name had a personal reality for its foundation.
We are indebted for our knowledge of him to a piece of writing which is quite extraordinary, and which may be said to be his most stupendous monument on earth, namely, the four gospels, bearing the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The antiquity and literary quality of these productions combine to impart to them a value and a significance that cannot be overstated, though familiarity interferes with perception a little. By all the ordinary rules of literary transmission, they are the indisputable productions of Christ's friends and companions, they having been in the hands of the Christian community with that reputation ever since the beginning of Christianity. But it is their character that gives them their chief weight. They are unlike all biographical performances in this, that they make no effort to commend their subject to the reader. There is no attempt at panegyric; there is no extolling of Christ's virtues; there is no pointing out of heroic qualities; there is none of the customary praise or commendation of his hero that is natural to a biographical writer. There is nothing even in the nature of a complimentary allusion. All we have is a plain ungarnished recital of what Christ said and of what he did -- and this is in the simplest language. This is wonderful when we consider the scope there was for hero worship, and the temptation to indulge in it on the part of enthusiastic disciples. But how much more wonderful it is that this bald recital of facts conveys to the mind the impression of a personality unapproached in the whole range of human thought or writing -- a character such as is never seen among men for godlike dignity, purity, beneficence and power, a figure as far above men as the heaven is above the earth. What is the explanation of this unique literary phenomenon? If we accept the view exhibited by the apostles, there is a complete explanation; that the whole case was a divine manifestation, and that the Spirit of God employed the gospel narrators in its literary exhibition. If we reject this view, we are in the presence of a fact that defies explanation, on any known principle. The New Testament is a fact: the figure it exhibits of Jesus Christ is as much a fact as any superb picture in a gallery. That the human authors were with one exception illiterate men, is a fact. If a superhuman agency were not at work, how are we to account for this superhuman performance, that without human praise or human paint of any kind, these illiterate writers have produced in the simplest language such an ideal character in Christ as transcends even the most gifted of human imaginations?
There are two ways of dealing with the subject. It can be discussed from what might be called the newspaper standpoint, as a doubtful problem on which, as judge and jury, we bring to bear what information we may possess. Or it may be stated and illustrated and argued from the New Testament writers' point of view, with the ardour that naturally springs from appreciation and faith. If the latter course is chosen in the present case, it is because, while it surrenders none of the critical advantages that may belong to the former, it admits of a fuller statement and a more satisfactory result. The cold impartiality of the critic, however correctly applied, only leaves you at the door of the subject when you have done. When you have conciliated unbelief to the utmost; when you have gone the utmost length in your deferences to critical acumen or unfriendly bias, you have failed to do more than establish a probability, which has little influence on human motives. The better plan is to assume the historical verity of the subject in all particulars, and harmonise this view of the subject with all objections as you go along. The logic and polemics of earnest conviction take you inside the house, and set you down before the cheerful fire in the pleased society of hospitable inmates.
The wisdom of this line of treatment is forced on the mind when the nature of the subject is fully apprehended. It is not like ordinary subjects, which you may attend to or leave alone without compromising your well-being in any way. If Christ is what he is represented in the apostolic writings, it is at our hazard if we neglect him. Other subjects may be interesting, but this is of solemn and urgent moment. We may or may not attend to other things: the claims of this are imperative. The subject of Christ alone deals with personal futurity and eternity.
Astronomy appeals overpoweringly to our sense of the stupendous, the exact, the infinite: the face of the earth stirs our love of the fair and the beautiful; her rocky depths excite our curiosity as to past conditions of the globe. Agriculture supplies us with the useful: chemistry with the theoretical; history, with the actual working of things among men in their present situation. Christ alone deals with the ever-pressing problem of the meaning of existence and the destiny of human life. All other subjects are here as dumb as the stars; dark as the night; or incoherent as the roar of the storm-tossed waters on the desolate strand.
If we are to accept Christ as apostolically exhibited, there is no extravagance in the words which declare him "worthy to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and blessing." It is not only as Pilate was made to record, that "there is no fault in him;" but as Paul declared, that "in him are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge;" that "in him dwelleth all the fulness of the godhead bodily."
Men glory in men. They see and praise greatness in the successful leading of soldiers, as in Napoleon; they admire the ability that can tell a graphic story, like a Dickens; or that can clearly delineate quick-eyed discernments and impressions of men and things, as a Shakespeare; they extol the capacity that can hold the political helm in stormy weather, like a Gladstone; or that can jingle composition in measured cadences, like a Scott or a Tennyson. But what is all this excellence but the exhibition of perishing mortal faculty in picturesque relations -- impressing human mentalities, tickling human fancies, flattering human vanities, but futile in the eternal issues of things? At the best, it is the exercise of creature gift -- like the strength of a horse, the constructiveness of a bee, the scent of a bloodhound, the instinct of a beaver. If we are commanded not to glory in man, it is reasonable we should not. Man is but a creature -- a transient blossom of eternal power -- no more to be adored for his qualities than a rose for its fragrance, a peach for its bloom.
But with Christ, it is otherwise. We are not only not forbidden, we are commanded to glory in him. The very angels were ordered to do obeisance: "Let all the angels of God worship him." And the reason which tells us it is out of place to glory in men, tells us it is fitting we should glory in the Lord. If we are to accept the New Testament exhibition of him, the Father has planted in him intrinsic excellence, life, authority, and power; and where these are, the recognition of them in praise and deference is reasonable.
Jesus, while upon earth, said, "Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." These words appeal to a need most felt by those who are most alive in an intellectual sense: men who discern in the starry immensities around them the sphere of immeasurable aspiration -- the potentiality of unutterable heights of faculty and glorious life -- who, looking into themselves and out upon the face of the fair earth which they tread, with its multitudinous manifestation of life, with some latent intuition of the high meaning of things, have their hearts drawn out into infinite longings which nothing in human life, as it now is, can satisfy. All men experience the vanity of life as it now is upon earth, but none so keenly as these. They labour and are heavy laden: labour in the futile effort to grasp the reason of things: are heavy laden in the mental oppression which the immensity and the inscrutability of things brings upon their spirits. If Christ is what he alleged he was, there is peace for this intellectual perturbation which cannot elsewhere be found. In the light of his existence and mission, creation is delivered from the gloom in which it appears to merely natural eyes. If unbelievers say there is no gloom in creation for them, it is the mere repartee of intellectual resentment, or the utterance of a crude experience which has not yet learnt the sadness of life as it now is -- the sadness that inevitably waits when the effervescence of young blood has subsided, when the poetic ardours of fresh life have expended themselves, when business has lost its aim and its interest, and when mortal energy wanes, and man is forced to recognise in the encroachments of feebleness and the disappearance of friends in the universal grave, the sad tokens of the truth that comes home at last, however long ignored in pride or silenced in the din of folly -- that man is subject to vanity, and that human life is in darkness.
There are plausible theories much current and popular among even Christian professors of our time, which logically undermine the position of Christ. They either bring Christ down to men, or level men up to him, which has the same practical effect. Almost all public teachers in our day incline to this habit, which must be held an offence against reason if the Christ of the apostolic narrative is to be accepted.
The Christ of apostolic narrative differs from all so-called great men that have ever arisen among men, in that he has both dynamical relation to the universe, and an indefeasible title to possession, according to the strictest methods of legal construction. We are leaving out of account for the moment the disparity between Christ and other men as to character. Even supposing it could be made out for a moment that their characters were equal, the difference here is an immeasurable gulf.
The brightest human intellect that ever dazzled mankind is but a burning taper in the wind, or, if you will, a glowing electric light on a spire-top. It is a thing of conditions. Take away the conditions, and the light is gone: and over the conditions, the light has no control. William Shakespeare has a brain of certain organisation: this brain has to be fed with the vital force which digestion extracts from food. Properly supplied thus, it has impressions and the power of representing them in terse words. It is no more than any other human brain, except in the larger development of specific departments of the brain. He cannot control or alter the laws that govern being, either for himself or others. His friends die and he cannot help them; he himself grows old and he cannot prevent it. The power he possesses is only such as exists in the imaginations of his admirers. The Marquis of Hertford sinks; the Queen can only send a message of sympathy. The Queen would feel mocked if the Marquis were to say, "Speak the word and thy servant shall be healed.'
With Christ, how different! if we are to accept the evidence which remains un-dissipated after the utmost alchemy of "higher criticism," or any other effort to bring Christ within the category of mere men. By the testimony of Christ and the apostles, supported by works of superhuman power, the eternal and fundamental force of the universe (the Spirit of God) is in his hand. "Power over all flesh" is the Father's gift to him -- "all power in heaven and in earth." What he can do in the exercise of this power has been illustrated. He can stop a storm: he can produce bread from the abstract elements, without the circuitous process of agriculture. He can discern the secrets of the human mind at any distance: he can make the dead alive again. All this he did when upon earth. Greater marvels wait, as his attested promise declares.
That a subject so unutterably sublime and so imperatively practical should be treated so indifferently is one of the saddest facts of an age in many respects the saddest, though the brightest, in human annals. It has more explanations than one. One is a lack of faith in the claims of Christ, in a large measure due to a lack of acquaintance with the true facts of his wonderful case. We propose the simple exhibition of these facts, as the best corrective of unbelief, with just that amount of attention to contested points which reason demands as they arise.
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