THE LIFE OF CHRIST
I 1ntend, next Sunday, to speak of " The Gospels and their Origin," and this morning to speak of something preliminary to that, viz., "The True Conception of the Life of our Lord." That life of Christ constitutes the basis and substance of the Gospel record; and it has seemed to me that, before studying the Gospels, we may do well to get into our minds some general considerations in regard to the life of Christ himself.
The first thing that needs to be impressed upon us is that this life of Jesus Christ is the life of an infinite Being upon the earth. We cannot enter upon the study of the Gospels in the proper spirit, and we cannot understand them at all, unless we appreciate the fact that this person who is set before us here is the Lord God Almighty, although he is veiled in human flesh. In other words, we have here, as John intimates to us, the temporal life of the Eternal Word, the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth.
We know what words are among men. We know that they are symbols of communication, that they are mediums of expression. I pass along the street; I hear a word of blasphemy or obscenity, and that single word opens to me the depths of an evil heart. I hear a word of kindness, I hear a word of compassion, and such a word as that is a revelation to me of a gentle and beautiful soul. By a single word I am let into the inmost life of another. In just such a way God's word is the medium of expression, the vehicle of communication, between God and his creatures.
The word of God of which we spoke last Sunday was the outward Scripture. The Word of God of which we speak to-day is something back of the outward Scripture, of which the outward Scripture is an expression, viz., the everlasting Word that was with God before the world was, and which was God; that Word of God, God's medium of expression, God's vehicle of communication, is Jesus Christ. He existed before he came in the flesh. He exists now, although he is not here in the flesh with us, but is in heaven. From the beginning to the end he is the only Revealer of God. It is Jesus Christ through whom God created the world. It is he who upholds all things by the word of his power. It is he who conducted the history of the people of Israel in the Old Testament. It was this Eternal Word who thundered and lightened from the top of Mount Sinai, just as truly as it was he who uttered the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus Christ is the only Revealer of God; and we know nothing of God whatever, except it be through the Revealer, Jesus Christ. God in himself, apart from Christ, is utterly unknown. No man has seen God at any time; that is, apart from God's own purpose and method of revelation in Jesus Christ, no human being could ever have knowledge of him or come into communication with him. Jesus Christ is the one and only Revealer of God; in fact, we may say, Jesus Christ is the one and only Word that God ever spoke or that God ever will speak, either to us, his human creatures, or to any of the intelligences that he has made or ever will make;
and that, simply because Jesus Christ in his eternal nature is the principle of revelation in God. There is no revelation aside from or apart from him. You might just as well think of knowing the great dynamo, from which proceeds the electricity that lights our streets, without the current of electricity proceeding from it, as to think of knowing God without Jesus Christ . Jesus Christ is the Revealer of God; Jesus Christ is the only way by which God ever makes himself known. Therefore, he that has seen him, "hath seen the Father "; therefore, "he that doeth my will shall know of the doctrine." There is, therefore, now no other name given under heaven to man, whereby we may be saved, except the name of Jesus Christ.
Now, it is very evident, is it not, that you cannot know anything that is infinite and absolute, unless that infinite and absolute thing somehow comes under limitation? How are you going to know that which you cannot distinguish from anything else, and how can you possibly distinguish one thing from another, unless there are some limitations about that thing? If there is nothing else apart from it, you cannot know it; and, therefore, God himself, the Infinite and the Absolute One, must necessarily come into conditions or limitations, in order that we may know him. You cannot know that which is absolutely unlimited. You cannot know that which does not come into such conditions and relations that it is in contact with yourself, your faculty of knowing. Jesus Christ, the Infinite and Absolute Being, who otherwise would be unknown, came into such limitations and relations with his finite creatures that he can be understood, can be known by us; and so we have the great God coming down into finite humanity and living a finite life, in order that we may understand him and know him.
It is just as if the ruler of a great people, in order that each one of the least and lowest of his subjects might understand him and know what he is, should come and live the life of the poorest and lowliest among them all, in order that he might teach them how to live and might teach them something of his compassionate love. Just as if the greatest of teachers should leave his desk of instruction and go down into the A, B, C class of his school, and put himself side by side with the least and humblest of his pupils, in order that he might teach this pupil how to learn; so the great God has evinced his compassion, his tenderness, his consideration for the weak, finite creatures whom he has made, by taking part with them in their ignorance and their weakness and their limitations, in order that he might show them what he is and show them what they ought to be.
Now, there are some who do not understand this limitation of God, this self-limitation of an Infinite One. They think that it is unworthy of the great God so to contract himself within the limits of the human life. They would have God live apart in seclusion, as the Greeks represent their gods on hills, careless of mankind. They think that would be worthy, more worthy of the Godhead.
Well, I have seen a great burly ruffian walking in the street with a little child; and I have seen that great ruffian stride along and drag his little girl after him, cursing her because she could not go as fast as he, and pass over the obstacles in their path with the same ease as he; but I never thought that indicated any great nobility or dignity on his part. And I have seen a father, a great strong man, able to walk fast enough himself, slackening his pace and adapting himself to the pace of his little child, talking to her by the way, taking her weakness into consideration, and letting himself down to her infirmities, and lifting her over the hard places by the way; and I have said to myself: there is a great deal more nobility and dignity in that than there was in the conduct of the burly ruffian that I saw awhile ago, and who thought himself too great to care for a child.
Now, that is what God does. The Infinite Being shows his dignity and his glory by coming down, by considering our weakness, by putting himself at our side, by entering into our home life, by slackening his pace, by teaching us as if we were little children, making himself a little child, as it were, in order that he may show us what he is and may make us like himself. That is what God did, when the Eternal Word, the only Revealer of God, the equal of God, came down into this earthly life and became a babe, and passed through all the measures and stages of human development, in order that he might give us an object-lesson and show us what God was, in a way that we could comprehend. Ah, There is nobility, There is dignity, There is something divine! It is in the God-man, therefore, Christ Jesus, that we have the most vivid, the most wonderful representation of the true nature of God, the compassion, the condescension, the love of God, as well as his purity and truth and power; for it takes power so to limit one's self and bring one's self down to the limits of human nature.
Christ, then, is not only the Word, but he is the Word made flesh. He is the Word, in infinite love, limiting himself in such a way that we can understand him; and the life of Jesus Christ is the life of this Infinite Being in these finite limitations. When an Infinite Being comes down to these limitations of a finite life, he will not, in all respects, appear as an infinite Being, but will take upon him the forms and modes of human living. In other words, he will be subject to the laws of human development, just as we, his finite creatures, are.
I remember very well the time when this doctrine was first propounded to me, and the shock it gave to my early conceptions, my misconceptions, as I think them now. I had been taught (or, if I had not been taught, I had somehow grown up to think) that our Lord Jesus Christ, through all the stages of his earthly life, was Immanuel, God with us; that all things were open to his knowledge; and that he was always exerting his infinite power. I remember, when my teacher talked to me about the suffering of Christ upon Calvary, in my heart I said: "Why, Christ could not suffer; that must have been a mere appearance; Christ was God, and God could not suffer "; and so all the representations which the teacher made of the suffering of Christ passed over my head, and made no impression upon me. I was one of the Docetae, without knowing it. I regarded the suffering of Christ as merely a matter of appearance; I thought he could not suffer. Then, when I heard a sermon during my college course, in which it was intimated that the appearance of Christ in the temple at twelve years old might have been the time when first our Saviour came to the knowledge of what he was as the Sent of God, the Son of God, it seemed to me as if all the foundations of my Christian belief were being shaken. I said: "Did not Christ know who he was, and what his work was, from the very beginning?" Now, I have come to think that at that time I misconstrued the meaning of the Scripture record, and did not give full weight to some declarations of Scripture which are of very great importance. Do not the Scriptures say that Jesus, as a child, grew in wisdom as well as in stature, and in favor with God and man? Then, if he grew in wisdom, there must have been a growth from a less degree of knowledge to a greater"; there must have been a more incomplete consciousness of his duty and of the work that he was to do, at the beginning of his life, than there was in the latter portion of his life. And, when, in the Gospels, we read that declaration of Christ himself, "Of that day and that hour knoweth no man, neither the angels of God, neither the Son," we have there a distinct declaration of the Saviour's ignorance with regard to the time of the end. There were limitations to the knowledge of Christ while he was here upon the earth. He took upon him the form of a servant; he divested himself of the exercise of his attributes when he became man; and he went through a process of human development, gradual growth in the consciousness of what he was, which was analogous to the development through which every son of Adam must pass. It was a mark of his condescension and divine love that he was willing to put himself under these limitations, and to advance toward perfectness and knowledge through the ordinary paths of human learning and obedience. He learned obedience by the things he suffered.
You all know that if the reservoir south of the city were ever so full, you would get in your basin at home only that amount of water which was proportionate to the size of the pipe through which the water flowed. The reservoir might be ever so large, but it could never pour into your house in a larger stream than the size of the pipe permitted.
Just so there was an ocean-like fulness of resource in Jesus Christ. He was the Infinite and Eternal Word; but the channel of communication to man was only as large as the human nature which he possessed. Therefore, in those communications, he adapted himself to the limitations of humanity. He did not always know, and he did not always act, as God. Sometimes he was permitted by the Holy Spirit thus to do; and out of this ocean-like fulness of resource, he showed that he knew what was in man. Sometimes the veil was lifted; but ordinarily the veil of humanity was before his eyes, and he walked by faith just as we walk by faith.
If you could imagine the mind of a Humboldt, with all his vast amount of knowledge, being permitted to come back here to this earthly sphere and to be tabernacled once more in an earthly form; if you could believe that the transmigration of souls were possible, and the soul of Humboldt should once more take an earthly body; you may be very sure that, if it took the body of an infant, it could not manifest itself except in an infantile way, and it could only gradually show the powers that were inherent in it. And so, if the Deity itself becomes united to human flesh, if the Deity itself joins itself to humanity, you may be very sure that the ways by which the Deity will manifest itself through the humanity will be adapted to the humanity which is taken into union with itself. You will not have everything revealed, as in a flash; there will be a gradual progress in knowledge; and there will be a gradual unfolding of the knowledge which he has gained. Let us remember that our Lord became a servant for us; that our Lord, while he was here on the earth, was living what we may call an infinite life under the forms of space and time; living the life of God in the flesh of man; and, therefore, we may find in the life of Christ something which justifies our looking for a larger revelation of his purpose as he goes on. We can find that, although he never passed from the teaching of falsehood to the teaching of truth—he is always the Eternal Truth, and just as far as he does teach he teaches the truth of God—yet, at the same time, the truth as he unfolds it now may be less complete than the truth as he unfolds it hereafter. You know he himself tells us that there are many things he could not say to us now, but he will show them to us hereafter; and so we find that there is progress in the teaching of Christ, and that there is progress in the development of Christ himself, through the Gospels; although, at the last, he is the risen and glorified Son of God.
At the very beginning of his ministry, in his discourse with Nicodemus, he shows that he has before him the whole outline of his ministerial work, he shows that the main features of his doctrine are clear to his mind. The greatest truths of Christianity are unfolded there, in that discourse to the Jewish ruler; and yet it was only when the apostles had come, and the Holy Spirit had been bestowed, that the germinal truth was expanded, filled out, and elucidated.
So, our Lord was not so much a teacher as he was the subject of teaching. We do not deny that he was a teacher. He was the prophet of his own work; and one of his great offices was that of prophetic teacher of mankind; but, after all, his teaching was not completed when he was here in the flesh. He has been teaching through his Gospels and teaching through his Spirit ever since; and so we have, in Christ, the subject of the Gospels. We have in him the truth. In fact, we may say, we have in Jesus Christ the gospel itself. He is the glad news. He is the embodied reconciliation between God and man; the God-man shows forth the perfect union between humanity and the Deity which he has come to accomplish; and so he is not only a union between man and God, but he is the sacrifice for sins also.
I spoke of self-limitation, and I spoke of letting one's self down, in order to be understood, into the finite, in order that the finite might comprehend the Infinite. Ah, what a self-limitation there was, when this Being, who was God as well as man, died upon the cross, that he, who was everlasting life, should, in connection with the finite humanity, suffer death! He who was rich became poor, in order that we, through his poverty, might be made rich. He emptied himself, became of no reputation, in order that we might understand God. He made a sacrifice for sin by sacrificing himself. He was the Lamb of God, slain from before the foundation of the world; and now this divinehuman Being, this Being in whom infinite truth and love and mercy are brought down to our human comprehension and engaged in the work of our salvation; this Being lived a human life, and the story of that human life is given us in the Gospels that we are to study. That life unfolded itself according to a divine plan. Our Lord had that plan in his mind at the very beginning of his ministry.
There were three different years of our Lord's ministry, each of which had its own particular purpose. To a very brief description of the three years of our Lord's ministry and the purpose of each one of those years, I wish to give a few moments this morning.
The first year of Jesus' ministry was devoted to an appeal to the authorities of Israel, an appeal to the Jewish rulers, an appeal to the constituted judges of the nation, and unless we understand this we cannot understand the first year of Jesus' work, nor the relation of that first year to the years that followed. Jesus was the King. He came first to those that were in authority, and he presented his claim to kingship. He was Jehovah. He came as Jehovah to his temple, the Messenger of the Covenant, in whom the Jews ought to have delighted, though they did not. He presented his claims as king to the constituted authorities of Israel: this was the purpose and object of his first year of ministry. During that first year, you remember, he spoke to Nicodemus, one of the rulers of the Jews. During that year he began his ministry by miracles in the temple and by the cleansing of the temple; and during that year also, he made the acquaintance of those sisters of Bethany, and their brother Lazarus, whom he raised from the dead. The incidents of it are described not by Matthew, Mark, or Luke, but only by the apostle John.
I have spoken of this Judean ministry as occupying a year, in round numbers, as one might say. It will help our memory to divide the Saviour's ministry into three years, although those years were not exact in their beginning and their end. The first year of Jesus' ministry was really eight months instead of twelve months; and the latter portion of it, after he had been rejected by the rulers, was spent in going about with a few of his disciples, those first chosen, among the cities of Galilee, and informing them all, as it were, in regard to the purpose of his mission.
During those eight months many were baptized; so many were baptized that the attention of the Jewish rulers began to be turned from John the Baptist, because Jesus baptized more than John. Their enmity was beginning to turn from John to himself; and Jesus saw that to continue his work in Judea would be to leave unperformed his whole mission, would be to anticipate his death; for, just as they put John the Baptist to death, just so would they have put Jesus to death, two years before his time. Therefore Jesus was obliged to withdraw; and this ministry to the authorities of the people came to an end. It served his purpose; it tested them; it was a probation; they had had their offer; and now they are rejecting him of whom Moses in the Law and the Prophets did write. The authorities of the people had turned their backs on the Son of God; the rulers rejected him; and he was compelled to leave Jerusalem.
He begins the second year of his ministry in Galilee, in the freer and broader light of northern Palestine, away from the traditional influences and the superstition of the central city, Jerusalem. The second year of our Lord's ministry was devoted to an appeal to the people at large, an appeal to the popular element among the Jews. In Galilee he begins to preach to the people rather than to the rulers; the rulers are far away. He addresses himself to the common heart of man; and that Galilean ministry begins with the choosing of the apostles upon the summit of one mount—the mount where the Sermon on the Mount was preached; and it ends with another mounts—the Mount of Transfiguration. Between those two, the mount where the sermon was preached and the Mount of Transfiguration, lies the whole of the Galilean ministry. It was in Galilee rather than in Judea that his greatest miracles were wrought. It was in Galilee that the most of his parables, most of his public teaching was given. It was in Galilee that the greatest multitudes followed him. You remember it was there he fed the five thousand, and at another time the four thousand. This ministry in Galilee went on until it became perfectly evident that the great crowds that followed him were more bent upon the victuals he brought than upon the meat that endureth to everlasting life. The Jews, as a people, rejected Christ just as decisively as their rulers had done. In other words, the second year of Christ's ministry was an unsuccessful appeal to the hearts of the people, just as the first year had been an unsuccessful appeal to the hearts of the rulers. Therefore the second year of Christ's ministry ended also. Having appealed to the rulers the first year unsuccessfully, and having appealed to the people the second year unsuccessfully, what remained? Only this, that he should now appeal to the hearts of a few loved disciples; that he should prepare them by instruction for the work which it was not appointed that he himself should do; that he should, in other words, train up the future pillars of his church, and give them his promises; draw them into intimate intercourse with himself; give them some conception of what he was; make them ready for the day of Pentecost, when they would be endowed with power from on high; and prepare them to go forth to all the world and preach his gospel.
If I am not mistaken, if you will take the Gospels and read them with these subdivisions in mind that I have given you, you will get a great deal of light upon the meaning of Christ's teaching and of Christ's wonderful works. The first year is a year of appeal to the hierarchy, to the rulers; the second year is a year of appeal to the people; and the third year is a year of appeal to his disciples.
In the latter part of Jesus' life, you will find that the instruction becomes more esoteric, it becomes more intimate. Jesus lets his disciples into the secret of his life. Jesus, after they have confessed that he is the Son of God, after they have seen his glory on the Mount of Transfiguration, tells them that he must be rejected by the scribes and Pharisees and must be crucified. He goes down from that mount of glory, where the voice had spoken to him from on high, and takes his way to Jerusalem to suffer; and he goes with such a majestic mien that the disciples following him are amazed and afraid. So the glory was only the prelude to the suffering, and Jesus showed that he came into this world to die. He came, not so much to teach as he did to die; and this death of Christ, which we celebrate in the ordinances of the Church, this death was the one great act of self-limitation and self-sacrifice which the Son of God came to accomplish in this world. In other words, the death was the culmination of the life; and it was for the sake of that death that he lived here at all. So we find that, in the Gospels, fully one-third of each narrative is taken up with the incidents and events connected with the crucifixion or immediately leading to it, and only perhaps two-thirds, or one-half, of all is devoted to the preliminary life of Christ and his preliminary teaching. So, we have an infinite life lived within the limitations of humanity; and we have that infinite life teaching man, appealing to man, rejected by man, and then prepared to die; and only as we have that view of the life of Christ, the infinite within the bounds of the finite, the infinite finally giving up life itself for the finite, have we any proper conception of the life of Jesus Christ. We are to study Christ in order that we may be like him; and I do not know of any way in which we can learn of Christ, except by reading these accounts of Christ which are given us in the Gospels.
Having thus given you some general idea of what that life was, we shall come next Sunday to the consideration of the Gospels themselves; what they are, what their relations are one to another, what the distinguishing characteristics are of each; and how it was that, in the providence of God, they grew, they originated, they came to be what we have them to-day.