From Capernaum to the Scene of the "Sermon on the Mount."
It was inevitable that the cure of the demented man in the presence of a crowded congregation in one of the synagogues of Capernaum should make a deep impression. The congregation dispersing would carry the tidings far and wide. "The fame of him went out into every place of the country round about." The result was soon seen in the crowd that gathered -- "all they that had any sick with divers diseases brought them unto him; and he laid his hands on every one of them and healed them." None were sent away uncured. There was no form of disease that Jesus could not handle. He was not like the race of empirics or quacks who have partial success in a few cases of superficial ailments, and nothing but failures and pretentious apologies for serious maladies. Nor was he like pretenders to miraculous power who affect concealments and impose conditions, and do nothing but what is in the power of any man ordinarily endowed with the vis medicatrix of nature. Jesus restored sight to the blind as easily as he banished a fever or removed a palsy. He raised the dead with no greater effort and as much success as he made the lepers whole. His achievements were beyond the power of nature as known to man. The secret lay in the power employed: "The power of the Lord was present to heal."
The Lord of nature can do anything with nature: all nature is in Him, and subject to His control: His spirit embraces and sustains it all: and His will is omnipotent in the manipulation of all its forces. Disease is due to the absence of organic power. Supply this, and cure is the necessary result; but who but He can supply it? The medical art consists in helping nature to supply it by the application of artificial stimuli: but it can do nothing where nature is too far gone to be acted upon. The power of God can supply the absent tone or the absent power of nature to generate it. It was by the application of this power that Jesus was enabled to "heal all manner of disease among the people." No other power in heaven or earth was equal to it. The power of magicians, soothsayers, astrologers, familiar spirits, &c., was merely natural power employed with the pretence that it was divine power. It was natural power drawn either from themselves in the shape of animal magnetism, or from nature in the unknown form of mechanical electricity. It could accomplish things that seemed divine to the ignorant, but which were nevertheless strictly within the limits of natural power, and not due to divine volition at all. Their offensiveness to God lay in claiming His power and authority on the strength of natural gift. The works of Christ were all beyond what man could accomplish by any power within natural control. They were "by the finger of God" (Luke xi. 20). The blasphemy of the Pharisees consisted in their attributing them to Beelzebub (Mark iii. 22-30).
Amongst the cures effected, we have the casting out of demons from "many" besides the man in the synagogue. It is unfortunate they should be called "devils" because this diverts attention from their real nature. The word is not diabaloi but daimonia. "Devil" is a divine conception, whereas "demon" is a Pagan thought. "Devil" defines the real nature of sin and sinners from a divine point of view, as expressing the idea of false opposition. But demon is the invention of the heathen mind, giving body to the idea barbarians had formed of the cause of mental aberration. By preserving the difference in the terms employed, the difference of the things is kept in view. In the Revised Version of the New Testament, "demons" is supplied in the margin: it ought to have appeared in the text, and "devils" discarded altogether. It would have been so if the American revisers had had their way. Presumably the English revisers thought the adoption of "demons" would have raised a dangerous, and, in their thought, a needless controversy. With Miltonic predispositions, they recognised in the New Testament "demons" the associates of "Satan." Believing in the personal devil of popular theology, they naturally considered it immaterial whether "his angels" were called "devils" or "demons." From their point of view, the retention of "devils" is intelligible enough; but it is none the less a corruption in the translation which serves to conceal the true idea of the original.
"Devils came out of many, crying out and saying, Thou art Christ, the Son of God, and he rebuking them, suffered them not to speak; for they knew that he was Christ" (Luke iv. 41). This reads entirely in harmony with the Greek idea. It could not have been otherwise expressed to be intelligible from the point of view of the first-century spectator. But it is not out of harmony with the fact that what is recorded is the simple curing of demented people. That which the Greek Pagans called "demons," and which, through the prevalence of the Greek lanaguge and Greek philosophy, was universally spoken of as demons, came out. There was a real coming out. The deranging and obstructing influence -- the real physical virus that impeded and confused the action of the brain -- came out, as indicated in the last chapter: so that in that sense, the language is literally accurate. But the thing that came out was not the Greek "demon," but the demon of the disease. The crying out was, of course, the act of the persons deranged. The words cable out of their throats. It was not sound emitted by the impalable influence expelled from them, but sounds formed by the larynchial apparatus of the persons acted on by Christ. In the same way, the statement that they knew that he was Christ is affirmable of the persons possessed, and not of the abstract influenc epossessing them. "He suffered them not to speak, for they knew that he was Christ." The influence could not speak: the deranged persons could. Therefore it was the mouths of mad men and women that were stopped, and not of the imaginary intelligences which the Greeks taught possessed mad people. Yet their utterances were due to their madness; therefore those utterances could justly enough, be accredited to the influence causing the madness, as when it is said of a drunken man, "It is the drink that is speaking." People out their minds, and wandering at large in a country where there were no lunatic asylums, would naturally catch up the prevalent excitement about Christ, and "rave" about it. Jesus did not permit even his disciples to speak of his Messiahship, for reasons we may afterwards see. Therefore, it is no wonder he put a gag on the excited lunatics that were brought into his presence for healing.
During his stay in Capernaum, if not indeed immediately on his arrival in the neighbourhood, walking one day by the inland sea on which Capernaum stands, Jesus saw Peter and Andrew busy in a boat. They were fishermen. He had seen them before. They had, in fact, accompanied him from the place of the Baptist's labours on the banks of the Jordan, on his journey through Samaria into Galilee, and had become believers in his Messiahship under the circumstances already narrated; and in that sense, disciples, or learners. But Jesus had not till now invited them to close association in his own work. They were now prepared to receive such an invitation. All that had gone before, had thoroughly persuaded them that Jesus was the Christ. Hearing him, therefore, now say to them from the shore, as they were in the act of casting a net for the catching of fish (for they were fishermen) "Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men," it was natural that they should, without hesitation, comply with his command. Their action was not so abrupt as it seems, when "straightway they forsook their nets and followed him." A little way further on, he saw James and John engaged in the same way, with their father Zebedee. They also had been the subjects of a like preparation. To them also he addressed the like brief but pregnant words of call, and received a like prompt response, for, "they left their father Zebedee in the ship with the hired servants, and went after him." Thenceforward, they accompanied him wherever he went, till the day when he ascended to heaven out of their sight on the summit of the Mount of Olives.
The object of the works of cure wrought by Christ was not exclusively philanthropic. In fact, it was so only in secondary degree. The main purpose was to show the power of God in Christ, as the foundation and proof of his claim upon the obedience of men as the Lord's anointed. There were multitudes of diseased people whom He could have cured with a word as easily as the nobleman's son at 20 or 30 miles distance, and yet who re mained unbenefited. Had his object merely been "doing good" in the sense understood by modern philanthropy, he would have swept the land by his healing power, and left not a soul attaint with evil. Instead of that, his power was put forth only in connection with cases brought under his immediate notice. It is important to have this limitation, and its meaning in view. He worked for God first, man next when subject to God, which explains a good deal in connection with his work that might otherwise be hard to understand; such as his austere bearing toward the multitude on many occasions, his disparagement of human claims and affinities, his discouragement of popular applause, his depreciation of the desire on the part of the people to see signs and wonders, &c. Sometimes his power was put forth with private benefit though serving the purpose of his miracles. Thus we find him curing Peter's mother-in-law, whom, on entering Peter's house at Capernaum, he found "taken with a great fever." Those around her, seeing the miracles of healing Jesus was performing among the multitudes on the street, had besought him on her behalf. "He stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her, and immediately she arose and ministered unto them" (Luke iv. 39). From an invalid requiring to be waited on, she became the hale and hearty housekeeper waiting on all.
When Capernaum became crowded with the people drawn by his miracles, he wanted to get away from them. He did not appreciate the importunate attention of which he was the object. It was not the sort he cared for. It was the eager and hustling self-assertion to be seen in any crowd when there is any good to be got by a scramble. He could not get away from it in the daytime without being seen and followed, and his object frustrated. He therefore "rose up a great while before day, and went out and departed to a solitary place." We follow him in spirit through the clear bracing morning air, and watch him tread his solitary way along the mountain footpath till he reachesa secluded spot. What do we see him do there? "He there prayed" (Mark i. 25). There is no need for awe-struck hand-upliftings and transcendental exclamations at this spectacle. It is the most natural in the world. A mind open to God naturally gravitates to Him at every such suitable opportunity. The mind realising that "God is not far from every one of us" -- that every point of space is in touch with the universal energy of His presence, through which all occurrences are as quickly -- more quickly -- signalled to the Father's notice than the movements of the needle through the wire of man's invention, or the vibrations of sound through the telephone to the ear of a listening friend at a distance -- a mind enlightened towards God and reconciled to him, and realising this great and glorious fact, naturally turns to God with every opportunity of leisure and hour of need.
If this is true of ordinary men instructed in godliness, how much more true of Christ, who was in perfect harmony with the Father, where we can only attain to partial harmony. He had been for some days in contact with the carnally-minded crowd. With spirit jaded and thirsting as in a dry land for the great and glorious Father of Wisdom, "as the hart panteth after the water brooks," he seizes this favourable opportunity of refreshing and strength, by retiring to the lone mountain side, and opening his heart to Him who, "afar off," can see and understand the inmost motions of the human spirit upon earth. In this, we have both an example for the brethren of Christ to follow, and an illustration of what must be every righteous man's experience. It is a necessity in an evil world like this, for the friend of God to occasionally get away from the depressing and demoralising influences at work everywhere. A man can never see things as they are without a good share of solitude, and the unhampered communion with God which solitude admits of. In human company (unless the godliest) human views and thoughts inevitably press themselves upon us. We do not see things as they are, but as they appear. We are pressed with views of the moment, of the locality, of the personal exigencies of the hour -- all mere elements of a picture as transient as the gold-tipped clouds of evening. We want to see God, and His eternal purpose, and human thought and action as related to these: and to do this, we require to get away much and to pray much.
Christ's solitude was not long undisturbed. The disciples, early astir, discovered that Christ's couch was empty, and that he was nowhere about. The crowds, temporarily accommodated in Capernaum, also began to move about at an early hour, and to make enquiries for Christ. The tidings passed round: "He is gone!" There was a great stir and much application to the disciples. The disciples could give no information. At last they resolve to try and find him. They suspected he had retired for quietness to the mountains, and they went there in search of him, under Peter's leadership, and probably at his suggestion. By-and-bye, they find him. They feel they have done a thing to be apologised for, in breaking into his privacy. So they say, "All men seek for Thee:" as much as to say, "We would not have come if it had merely been ourselves." They evidently expected he would go back with them. But no. "Let us go into the next towns." He wanted to be passing on. Capernaum was merely a part of his work He must visit other places, "that I may preach there also. Therefore came I forth." Preaching the truth was his work: the working of miracles was merely to strengthen that work It was therefore secondary. But with the people, it was first; many liked the miracles who did not care for the preaching. It is so in the different circumstances of our time. Plenty of people like the people and the circumstances associated with the truth, but care little for the truth itself -- which is a grief of mind to every true friend of Christ.
Christ and the disciples had not made a start to "go into the next towns" when the people themselves began to arrive from Capernaum. News had got abroad that Christ was found: and they streamed out to him. On arriving, they discovered that Jesus was meditating departure, and they implored him to remain. "They stayed him that he should not depart from them." But Jesus did not comply with their wishes: "He said unto them, I must preach the Kingdom of God to other cities also, for therefore am I sent" (Luke iv. 43). The people would judgefrom his manner that it was no use pressing him; so, after hanging about till Jesus and the disciples had taken their departure, they dispersed. They were, however, to see him back again several times. Jesus then proceeded to make a circuit of the towns and villages of Galilee, working on the plan commenced in Capernaum; that is, beginning at the synagogues on the Sabbath, and having secured the attention of the people, teaching and working among them in detail as occasion offered. He could not at this time secure the comparative privacy of his initial efforts. "There followed him great multitudes of people from Galilee and from Decapolis, and even from Jerusalem and from Judea and from beyond Jordan" (i-.e, from the land of Gilead). It was no wonder. It was, in fact, inevitable. It is what would happen again. Who could withhold the populace from the steps of a teacher, not only speaking as man never spake, but dispensing with a word those bounties of blessing which all men most appreciate?
It was during this tour that some of the most notable incidents recorded by the evangelists occurred.
"The Sermon on the Mount," as it is called, belongs to this stage of his movements. Jesus delivered multitudes of addresses of which we have no record. John, by a hyperbole, tells us that the world itself would not contain the books that would be written if every word were recorded. It must have been so. The sayings of three years and a half must have been voluminous if all had been recorded -- unprofitably so, for such a cumbrous writing would have failed as a means of general enlightenment. What was proposed was not a report in the modern newspaper sense, or even a biography as the 19th century understands. The object was to make such a selection out of the materials of three years and a half as should exhibit a picture of the whole, sufficiently complete for the purpose in view. The doing of this with such conciseness and perspicuity and grace as is done in the gospel narratives is itself evidence that it is a work of God and not of (though by) man, for man never writes with this gift.
The variations in these narratives, at which the undiscerning stumble, are not at all inconsistent with the fact that they are the work of the Spirit of God. We must consider that the same things would be said many times in the life of Christ, and with these variations in the form of expressing them in which intelligence always delights to indulge. Only crystallised mediocrity repeats itself. Out of all these variations, the Holy Spirit makes its own selections in writing an abridged account of them by four men, used in harmony with the. four square organisation of the commonwealth of Israel, that in the mouths of several witnesses, the matter might be established in accommodation to human infirmity. It gives the substance, and rarely the ipsissima verba of the conversations occurring, and where a conversation as reported by one historian differs from that by another, it is not that either are wrong, but that both versions of it occurred in the conversation. The Holy Spirit was the speaker of the words by Christ, and in writing an account of the work, the Holy Spirit by the Apostles could and did use that freedom of paraphrase which any author does in reporting his own sayings and opinions -- a principle that also explains the verbal variations of the Holy Spirit in quoting itself in the New Testament from the Old.
The "Sermon on the Mount," reported by Matthew, was an earlier utterance than that recorded by Luke, and spoken in a different place; which accounts for the difference between the one and the other, on which unbelief lays such stress, and also for the circumstance that while Matthew says Jesus "went up into a mountain" to speak on the occasion, Luke says "he came down and stood in the plain." A superficial resemblance has led unbelievers to the conclusion that they are an identical speech differently reported by two (untrustworthy) historians. It has not occurred to them, or, at all events, they have not recognised, that in speaking in so many different localities, Jesus would sometimes say in one place things somewhat resembling what he had said in another.
It is difficult for people living, as we do, so long after the work of Christ, and in an age when his words are familiar as household words, to adequately estimate the extraordinary character and bold originality of this "sermon on the mount." We require to go back to the day of its delivery and to take our stand among the multitude that heard it; taking with us, too, a little more intelligence and discrimination than that multitude would possess -- knowing something of of the ways and principles of men as exemplified in the history and literature of Greece and Rome -- perhaps, also, of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia, before them. With this acquaintance with the moral barrenness, the ethical harshnesses, and the intellectual frivolity of mankind, we should be prepared to listen with the right appreciation, and to share in the general "astonishment" with which the teaching of Christ was received
"Seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain." The people had come from all parts, as we have seen, and were too numerous to be addressed successfully on the level ground. He therefore sought the elevation of a hill side on which he selecled a convenient spot: "And when he was set, his disciples came to him, and he opened his mouth and taught them." It is evident from this that what he said was addressed to his disciples, not the twelve, who were not yet appointed, but to all who believed in him, who at this time were a large number. They would form the inner ring of the numerous assemblage convened before him; outside would be the common populace, embracing sightseers and hangers-on of all sorts. The scene stands out like a brightly coloured picture -- the clear, deep blue of a Syrian sky overhead; in the background, a hill side, brown and furze clad; Jesus, the central figure, seated on a convenient terrace a little way above the level; gathered thickly around him, and seated in all postures, and clad in garments of every bright hue, like the Orientals of today, the company of admiring disciples; while outside of them, on all sides, posted on the hill above and behind, and standing in a mass below, the common crowd. The word would pass round that Jesus was about to speak, and silence would be made. After a few minutes of attentive expectation, a clear, strong voice of musical timbre would break upon the air: --
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.
"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
"Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled."
"Blessed!" -- The very first word was something new -- comfortingly new in an age when the chilling philosophy of Greece and Rome held the mind of the world in blight and check -- not new in Israel, but new in the foreign national life that had come in like a flood, and had for several centuries submerged even the glories of Moses and the prophets. There was kindness and hope in the word "blessed." Blessed in the sense of being happy in the possession of God's favour and assured good to come. The word was like dew on the arid ground; like daybreak on the gloomy night.
And for whom did Jesus with musical voice pronounce the blessedness? Not for the rich and the great and the powerful and the learned, but for a class hitherto beneath recognition or consideration. "The poor in spirit:" "they that mourn;" "the meek:" "they that hunger and thirst after righteousness." This is the sort that were not only left out of account, but that were avoided, as at this day -- because of their sorrow, their dullness, their lowness. Men seek the prosperous, the high-spirited, the gay -- who are not burdened with regrets or scruples of any kind. Blessedness is associated in human thought with the very opposite class to those on whom Jesus pronounced his benediction: -- The proud spirited, the independent, the stoical, the gay, the happygo-lucky, who taste life's glad moments, with eyes avert from darkness; the manly, the plucky, the self-defenders; those who trouble not their heads about impracticable questions of religion and morality, but take things rough, ready, and jolly in a rough-and-ready world.
Such would be pronounced blessed by the wisdom of this world; but the wisdom of the world is not wisdom truly: but folly. It is a philosophy based upon a transient view of things, and, therefore, false and fatal in results. No man is wise who looks at a matter partially. It must be seen all round, and in all its issues, before a just estimate can be formed. Worldly philosophy may work well for a while, but only for a little while. Time is against it, and washes it away at last with a dark and angry flood. Christ is the wisdom of God. His voice, heard amid the mountains of Syra 1,850 years ago, and preserved in wonderful writing to our late and passing day, was the voice of wisdom: and its benediction will be realised by the class on whom they were bestowed -- the believers in him, who have in all ages mainly consisted of the afflicted and the sorrowful. Christ gives the reason, and as we listen, it shines out in as strong a light as the fact of the blessedness. "Their's is the kingdom of heaven ... they shall be comforted ... they shall inherit the earth ... they shall be filled."
We look in vain to human philosophy for assurance of this kind. Such "great and precious promises" cannot come from man. There is no "promise" in human directions. Speculation enough, you may have -- opinion, theory, principle, &c.; but a pledge of good to come, who can give this but God alone? Some turn to nature: but apart from God, nature mocks knowledge and hope of futurity. Who can receive information from the forest, the mountains, the rocks, the oceans, the vast over-arching heavens, or the countless stars that revolve in space? They are silent on the hope of man; irresponsive, mechanical, remorseless, reflecting a wisdom they cannot teach, and a purpose they cannot utter. Only God can promise, and by the mouth of Christ he has done it, confirming the promise by "many infallible proofs" of its divinity and truth.
Ye poor and mournful, ye meek and hungry, of God's enlightened and obedient family, who, to the world are of no account, take courage and look forward with joy: for God has declared his regard for you by the mouth of his beloved Son, and has promised you such good things as it has not entered into the heart of the natural man to conceive. The Kingdom of Heaven is yours, -- the Kingdom that is coming from heaven in contradistinction to that which now prevails upon earth: the former, the Kingdom of God, this, the kingdom of men. It has long been promised by the God of heaven that He will supplant and destroy this latter by setting up His own glorious kingdom in all the earth (Dan. ii. 44; vii. 15). When this kingdom comes, it will be yours to reign therein, to ride upon the high places thereof, to luxuriate in the glory, honour, wealth, and gladness thereof, rejoicing most of all in the blessedness of which you will be medium for "all families of the earth" (Psa. cxlix. 5-9; Dan. vii. 27; Isaiah lxi. 6-11; lviii, 14; lxvi. 10-14; Psa. lxxii; Rev. ii. 21; v. 10; xx. 4; Micah iv. 1-4). Then, indeed, ye shall know what it is to be "comforted," to "inherit the earth," to be "filled."
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