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GOD, WHO AT SUNDRY TIMES AND IN DIVERS MANNERS SPAKE IN TIMES PAST UNTO THE FATHERS BY THE PROPHETS, HATH IN THESE LAST DAYS SPOKEN UNTO US BY HIS SON.
IN preceding sermons we traced the idea of God in the Greek and Eastern religions and in the Hebrew prophets. We saw how slowly mankind emerged out of local worship and barbarous fancies, and came at length to a higher notion of the divine nature; how they passed from the Homeric gods to the absolute being and good of Aristotle and Plato; from the childlike innocent vision of God walking in the garden in the cool of the day to the God of justice and mercy ‘terrible in righteousness, mighty to save,’ of the prophets and the Psalms. We have now to consider the further revelation of God in the New Testament, which may be summed up almost in a word: ‘The manifestation of God in Jesus Christ.’
As I was saying in a former sermon, the relation of the Old Testament to the New has been often misunderstood. The New Testament has been read 78backwards in the Old: an ancient ceremony, a holy place, a number, a word, has been made the symbol of a hidden truth. The old is always entwining with the new both in philosophy and theology, and out of this accidental connexion has been developed a system of interpreting the Old Testament by the New. The practice has had in two ways a bad result. It has fixed the mind upon what is unimportant in the Old and New Testament Scriptures rather than upon what is important; and it has tended, if I may use the expression, to confine the Gospel within the curtain of the Tabernacle. This is one of those theological questions upon which the comparison of other religions has thrown a flood of light. What theologians of the last century would have supposed to be a proof of the divine origin of Christianity, viz. the adaptation of the older form of a religion to its later requirements (‘which things are an allegory,’ as is said in the Epistle to the Galatians), is now seen to be a phenomenon not peculiar to Christianity, but common to all religions in which there are sacred books, if they retain any life or power.
Yet there is also a real harmony between the Old Testament and the New, which will more clearly appear to us when we drop the accidents of time and place and pierce to the thing contained in them. There was no necessary connexion between the Paschal lamb and that other sacrifice which was the negation of a sacrifice; but the Paschal lamb was 79a natural image under which the disciples, who were Jews at first, spoke of the sufferings of Christ. To us it is a mere figure of speech, consecrated by the tradition of ages. But there is also a deeper harmony between the Old Testament and the New, which is the harmony of good and truth everywhere: when the prophet Isaiah says, ‘Your new moons and sabbaths are an abomination unto me,’ he breathes the same spirit as St. Paul, where he insists that no man shall judge another ‘in meat or in drink, in respect of an holy day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath day.’ When again, almost in a strain of passion, he says, ‘Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow, though they be red like crimson they shall be as wool, if ye be willing and obedient,’ he anticipates the milder and more authoritative words of Christ, ‘Thy sins be forgiven thee; go, and sin no more.’ When Isaiah says (xix. 24), ‘In that day shall Israel be the third with Egypt and with Assyria, even a blessing in the midst of the land,’ in this singular form of words he expresses the same thought which is uttered by Christ: ‘Other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, that there may be one fold and one shepherd.’ The evangelical prophet and the New Testament, with a greater or less degree of clearness, teach the same lesson, that there is one God and Father of all, and one Church or Israel of God. Alike they denounce evil, especially in the form of hypocrisy; the prophets not sparing the 80kings or priests who were their contemporaries, while Christ, in a severer tone than He uses towards other sinners, condemns Pharisaism, which had become more systematized now that the world had grown older and the religion of Israel had been longer established. Such a common basis there is in the Old and New Testaments, and perhaps in the higher parts of almost all religions.
And not only is there this unconscious harmony between them, but Christ expressly derives a great part of His doctrine from the laws of the prophets. In His own mind His teaching seems to have appeared generally to be a fulfilment of them; though one or two isolated passages may be cited, such as that remarkable one in St. John, ‘All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers,’ which have an opposite character. It may be observed that, though He nowhere speaks of the Ceremonial Law as having any relation to Himself, He selects passages both from the Books of Moses and the prophets, and makes them the text of His discourses. ‘This day is the Scripture fulfilled in your ears.’ To those who condemn His healing on the Sabbath day He rejoins, ‘Go ye and learn what that meaneth: I will have mercy and not sacrifice’; and He quotes examples of what to the Jews would have appeared the profanation of it, in the Old Testament. To others who made the word of God of none effect by their traditions, He replies, ‘Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of 81you, saying: ‘This people draweth nigh unto Me with their mouth and honoureth Me with their lips; but in vain do they worship Me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.’ Or again, speaking of the blindness of the whole people: ‘By hearing ye shall hear and shall not understand, and seeing ye shall see and not perceive.’ There is no more gracious description of the Gospel than that which Christ Himself read in the synagogue out of the Book of the prophet Esaias: ‘The spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, because He hath anointed Me to preach the Gospel to the poor; He hath sent Me to heal the broken hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.’
So again, probably in His own thoughts, and certainly in the earliest reflections of His disciples, Christ is identified with the suffering servant of God in the prophecies of the late Isaiah—suffering and also rejoicing; for in the Old as well as in the New Testament there is a picture of a suffering as well as of a triumphant Messiah. Every saviour or helper of mankind has a time of suffering as well as of glory, a time in which God seems to have forsaken him, and the meanness or the indifference or the wickedness of mankind are too much for him, and a time when the multitude cry ‘Hosanna’ before him, or he himself in his own inmost soul has a more present vision 82of a kingdom not of this world. This double thread runs alike through the prophets and the Gospels. Only what is more outward and visible in the Old Testament becomes more inward and spiritual in the New. The kingdom of God is not the conversion of surrounding nations or the subjugation of them to the God of Israel, but ‘the kingdom of God is within you.’ There, in the heart of man, its struggle is to be maintained, its victory won. It does not seek to incorporate the kingdoms of the world, but is rather in antagonism with them. The faithful believer feels the dead weight of sin and of the world, but in himself and in relation to God he is free and lord of all things. Take as the highest expression of what I am saying the remarkable words of St. Paul in 2 Cor. vi: ‘As deceivers and yet true, as unknown and yet well known, as dying and behold we live, as sorrowful yet always rejoicing, as having nothing and yet possessing all things.’ Or again the description of the spiritual conflict in Rom. vii: ‘The good that I would I do not, but the evil which I would not, that I do. . . . O wretched man that I am. . . . I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.’
Of this spiritual conflict there is no trace in the prophets. Neither do they ever speak of God taking up His abode in the hearts of men. Their relation to Him is an external one like that of subjects to a king. They see Him sitting on a throne high and lifted up. They cannot be said to reconcile God to man, or to 83bridge the chasm which separates them. He is the Sun of their life, and they seem to fear that when their breath passes away the sunshine in which they have lived may be withdrawn from them. They utter His commands; occasionally, awake or in a dream, they hear His voice; but they do not hold communion with Him. He is clothed in the greatness of nature, which like the cherubim veils His face from them. He is still the God of the Jewish race, though in the distance the prophet sees that other races will begin, or are beginning, to partake of the mercies granted to the Israelites. The misery and evil of the people are present; and they are already experiencing the just judgements of God. But the hope of good is future—in those days, in the latter days, at some unknown and distant time; whereas in the New Testament the good is present and immediate; within the reach of every one, if he will renounce himself and follow Christ. For these are ‘the latter days,’ and ‘this day is the Scripture fulfilled in your ears.’
The life of Christ comes after the promises and denunciations of the prophets like the calm after storm, like the still small voice in the Book of Kings after the thunder and the earthquake. It is the life of a private man, unknown to the history of His own time. Very few Romans within a century of His birth had ever heard of His name. To a stranger visiting Palestine about the year 30 He would have appeared the gentlest and most innocent of mankind. 84Such a one might have been described in the words of the prophet: ‘He shall not strive nor cry; a bruised reed shall He not break, nor quench the smoking flax.’ He would have seemed like any other man, only calmer and deeper. He would not have made that great interval between Himself and other men which we sometimes attribute to Him; He would rather have sought to identify Himself with them. ‘Why callest thou Me good? there is none good but One, that is God.’ What, then, do we mean, and what would He Himself have meant by declaring that He was the ‘manifestation of God’ or the ‘Son of God’?
Suppose that we pause for a moment and ask, first of all, what we mean by the very term ‘the manifestation of God.’
Behold the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain Him; how, then, can He be manifested to us? He is in one world and we in another: how can we pass from ourselves to Him? We cannot escape from the condition of our own minds. He is in eternity, and we are limited by space and time: what conception or idea can we form of Him? Everything that we think is subject to the laws of our minds: every word that we utter is a part of a human language. But our thoughts are not the thoughts of the universal mind, and language, as we know, is full of defects and imperfections. Are we not, then, seeking to think what cannot be conceived and to express what no words can utter?85
So both in ancient and modern times the philosopher has widened the breach between the seen and the unseen, between the human and divine. But the second thoughts of philosophy have always been that from this transcendentalism we must return to the earth, which is the habitation, not of our bodies only, but of our minds, and that through man we must ascend to God. We do not suppose God to be in a form like ourselves; nor are the most wonderful works of art, except so far as they convey a moral idea, in any sensible degree a nearer approximation to the image of God than the rudest. But still He is only known to us, so far as we can conceive Him, under the form of a perfect human nature. The highest which we can imagine in man is not human but divine. Perfect righteousness, perfect holiness, perfect truth, perfect love—these are the elements or attributes, not of a human, but of a divine being.
There are some persons who believe only in what they see, and God they cannot see; there are some persons who accept only what is definite, and God cannot be defined; there are some persons upon whose minds an impression is only produced by poetry or painting, and the greatest art of Italian or any other poet or painter cannot depict or describe God. There are another class again who would reject any God whose existence cannot be demonstrated to them on the principles of inductive science. To all these, righteousness, holiness, truth, love, instead of 86being attributes of God and the most real of all powers in the world, are fancies of mystics, or abstractions of philosophers.
I know that the record in which this divine goodness is presented to us is fragmentary, and that we cannot altogether separate the thoughts of Christ Himself from the impressions which the disciples and evangelists formed of Him. But is this any reason for our not attempting to frame an idea of God, the highest and holiest which we can? If there be any thing in the narrative of the Gospels that is discordant or inconsistent, either with itself or other truths not known in that age of the world, that is not to be insisted upon as a part of our religion. Our duty as Christians is not to inquire whether this or that word of Christ has been preserved with superhuman accuracy, but to seek to form the highest idea of God which we can, and to implant it in our minds and in our lives.
What, then, is this exemplar which God gives us of His love and of Himself, first manifested in the life of Christ, and then fashioned anew in our own hearts? We may begin by regarding it as the opposite of the world. ‘Ye are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.’ It is not the image of power, or of external greatness, or of any quality which men ordinarily admire; there is no admixture of the beauty which strikes the sense in it. For ‘His face was marred more than the sons of man.’ Nor is it 87the embodiment of genius or intellect, though these may be mighty instruments in the government of the world. Nor is it the image of a great conqueror who subjugates the nations to a kingdom of righteousness. For such a subjugation by external force to good is not possible: ‘the kingdom of God is within you.’ The victory of good over evil had sometimes floated before the mind of the Israelitish prophets as a victory of arms. ‘But My kingdom,’ says Christ, ‘is not of this world; else would My servants fight for it, but now is My kingdom not from hence.’ In none of these forms has God revealed Himself to us.
Nor again does the image of Christ lead us to conceive of pleasure, or of what we term happiness, as specially appropriate to the Divine Being. ‘My Father worketh hitherto, and I work,’ is the true conception of the divine nature. In this world we some times make too much of happiness when compared with noble energy and the struggle to fulfil a great purpose. It seems to be true also to say that God wishes for the good rather than for the happiness of His creatures, as far as these two are separable. He who would be the follower of Christ cannot promise himself a life of innocent recreation or enjoyment: he has a cross to bear which may be the opposition or persecution of his fellow-men, which may be only his own weakness in the fulfilment of his task. He cannot please himself from day to day; he must be about his Master’s business, he must take a part with 88God in His government of the world. For, as far as the will of God is fulfilled on earth, it is through the co-operation of man: ‘We are workers together with Him.’ This is the greatest to which man can attain. And every man who works in the true spirit feels instinctively that he must observe the laws which God has laid down for his guidance, whether those higher laws of which revelation and conscience speak to us or those which are gained from experience and observation.
In this expression, ‘Not of the world,’ the character of Christ may be summed up. He does not share the prejudices of the world: He is not influenced by the traditions or opinions of men. He is living among a people enslaved by ceremonies and ordinances, the lower classes liable to outbursts of fanatical fury, the upper seeming to care for little else but the maintenance of social order. He goes on His way immovable, amid the rage of the zealot, the cynicism of the Sadducees, the ceremonialism of the Pharisees, with His mind fixed only on the requirements of the divine law. He begins again with the word of God apart from all the additions and perversions which had overgrown it. He brings men back to a few simple truths, which He would carry out in thought as well as in act. He converts the law into a spirit of life. The classes of men whom He delights to bless are not those whom the world admires, the rich, the powerful, the intellectual; but blessed are the poor, 89or the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, blessed are they which hunger and thirst after righteousness, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the peace makers. These are the types of character which are blessed in the sight of God. The collection of sayings which we call the Sermon on the Mount are for the most part a correction of the ordinary religion. ‘If thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth;’ ‘Thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy chamber and shut the door;’ ‘Love not thy neighbour only, but thine enemy’—adding the reason, that ‘ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven, for He maketh His sun to rise upon the evil and upon the good, and sendeth rain upon the just and the unjust.’ So far is Christ from revealing God to us as a God of vengeance. He does not mean to say that good and evil are indifferent to God, but that the good and evil alike are treated by Him with equity, with consideration, with love. It is the spirit in which He Himself says, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’
Another general form under which we may present to ourselves the life of Christ is that ‘He went about doing good.’ Men are for the most part content with themselves if they abstain from evil and do a little good in the world. They never consider, or hardly ever, how their whole lives might be given up to the service of God and their fellow creatures. They are the creatures of habit and repute; they do not 90depart from the customary ways of society. Nor can we deny that most of us would be unequal to this greater life, nor set any limit to the good which may be done by those who sit still in the house, who scarcely ever leave the seclusion of their own village or home. But let us not be ignorant also that there is a higher and nobler ideal than this—the ideal of a life which is passed in doing good to man; in seeking to alleviate the miseries and inequalities of his lot, to raise him out of the moral and physical de gradation in which he is sunk, and to implant in him a higher sense of truth and right. What would have become of the world if there had been no such teachers or saviours of mankind? For the lower are inspired by the higher, and most of all by the highest of all. This is what makes the life of Christ such a precious possession to the world, not merely the good that He did when on earth, in teaching and consoling the afflicted, but the example which He left behind for all time of another and higher sort of character such as had never existed before in this world. To live for others only, and only in the service of God, to be the mediator between God and man, to reconcile the world to itself—this is the idea which Christ is always setting before us, and of which those who are His disciples must in their measure seek to partake.
One other type under which we may imagine the character of Christ is that ‘He lived in God.’ He did not teach of Himself or act of Himself, but He was 91taught and inspired of God. His own soul was the mirror or reflection of the divine will. He looked inwards (not like the mystic seeking to be absorbed in some unreal enthusiasm); and, finding within Himself love and right and truth without any alloy of earthly motive, felt instinctively that they were the word of God. ‘This man had no letters,’ said the Jews; but He saw farther and more truly than them all. ‘Is not this the carpenter’s Son?’ Yet He spoke with a divine authority. For He spoke not of Himself, but out of a Power which was independent of Himself, words which He knew to be the voice of God and the true law of the world. The truth never presented itself to Him as a matter of opinion or uncertainty or speculation; it was not a thing to be reasoned or argued about, but to be felt and known by all men. It meant, not a system of doctrines such as the Christian community afterwards devised, but a spirit of life—the spirit of peace and love, the temper of mind which rests in God and is resigned to His will, which seeks also to fulfil His w T ill actively in doing good to man.
To this simple life Christ invites us; to return to the beginning of Christianity, now that the world has got so far onward in its course. He speaks to us across the ages still, telling us to come back to the first principles of religion. And of this simple religion we have the assurance in ourselves, and the better we become the more assured we are of it. 92Who can doubt that love is better than hatred, truth than falsehood, righteousness than unrighteousness, holiness than impurity? Whatever uncertainty there may be about the early history of Christianity, there is no uncertainty about the Christian life. Questions of criticism have been raised concerning the Gospels; there have been disputes about rites and ceremonies; whole systems of theology have passed away: but that which truly constitutes religion, that in which good men are like one another, that in which they chiefly resemble Christ, remains the same. And it may be regarded as one of the great blessings of the age in which we live that, after so many wanderings out of the way, we are at length beginning to distinguish the essential from the accidental, and to appreciate more than any former age the true meaning of the words of Christ.
And now some one will ask how the life of Christ, which has been thus imperfectly treated, is a revelation of the divine nature. I told you before that it was only through the human we could approach the divine. The highest and best that we can conceive, whether revealed to us in the person of Christ or in any other, that is God. Because this is relative to our minds, and therefore necessarily imperfect, we must not cast it away from us, or seek for some other unknown truth which can be described only by negatives. To such a temper the words of the prophet may be applied: ‘Say not in thine heart. Who shall 93ascend into heaven? or, Who shall descend into the deep? But the word is very nigh unto thee, even in thy mouth and in thy heart.’ Every good thought in our own mind, every good man whom we meet, or of whom we read in former ages, every great word or action, is a witness to us of the nature of God.
And, yet once more, a person may ask, ‘Do science and philosophy teach us nothing about the divine nature? Must not our knowledge of God increase as our knowledge of the world increases? Must not reflection add something to the meaning of the words of Christ? Must not they be read in the light of experience?’ We all of us know, for example, that the world is governed by fixed laws, and the possibility of our doing any good to our fellow creatures depends on our acquaintance with them. Yet there is no word of this either in the Scriptures of the Old or New Testaments, but only such a general confidence in the uniformity of nature as is expressed in the words ‘He hath set the round world so fast that it cannot be moved’; or, ‘The very hairs of your head are all numbered.’ We cannot, therefore, venture to say that nothing is added to our knowledge of God by increasing experience, or that He does not speak to us in history and in nature as well as in Scripture.
Into this subject I propose to enter more at large on some future occasion. For the present let me 94entreat you not to suppose, because you hear sacred things discussed and analysed and spoken of perhaps in a different way from what would have been common thirty years ago, that they are less sacred and authoritative than they once seemed to be. We can no more live without religion now than formerly; it is always returning upon us; we cannot cast it off without weakening and impoverishing the character. We need the support of it in life, the comfort of it in death. There is no other principle by which a man can be raised above himself into a higher level of thought and action. As little can we give up truth without inflicting a wound on our own higher nature. To show how these two may be reconciled in education and in practical life; how the most fervent love of truth may be consistent with the deepest religious feeling; how the spirit of Christ may animate historical and scientific researches without being lost in them—this is a task which seems to be reserved for the coming generation to accomplish.95
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