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CHRIST’S AUTHORITY1515Preached at Balliol, April 12, 1880..


MATT. vii. 29.

WE should like to carry with us in the mind’s eye the form and features of Christ; we would rather have looked upon that face than upon any other among the sons of men. Whether, in the language of the prophet, His visage was marred more than any man’s, either from the conflicts of His own spirit or from His sympathy with the sins and sufferings of men; or whether we may conceive Him to have been the image of a heavenly calm, of an authority which was given from above, of a divine grace and love; we naturally wish that we could have seen Him as He was in this world, and could have preserved the recollection of Him as we might of some earthly friend whom we always remember; and we may imagine that one look from Him, like that given to Peter, would have rebuked our sins and changed the course of our lives. The genius of the fifteenth and sixteenth 217centuries had many imaginary visions and likenesses of Christ. After a while the artist breaks through the traditional forms in which an earlier generation had hardly dared to give expression to the sacred features; and finally seeks to embody in the face of the Saviour all the attributes of perfected humanity. We see Him full of sadness and dignity as He sits among His disciples at the Last Supper, when He makes the discovery to them that ‘there is one here who shall betray Me,’ and the eager inquiry ‘Who is it?’ passes from one to the other of them; or as He appears in another picture answering those who asked Him of the tribute money, and seeming by His gentle wisdom to reprove the hardness and fanaticism which are depicted in the faces of His questioners; or as He is seen among the doctors, the image of ingenuous youth, yet having in His mind thoughts to which they were strangers; or as He is painted again and again bearing the likeness of suffering innocence in the judgement hall of Pilate, bound, helpless, scourged, yet having a majesty which shows that He is raised above this world. These are lessons which the painter’s art is able to teach, pictures with which we may fill and people our minds; and thoughts too deep for words are to be found in many of them. For there is a noble use of art which by the help of colour and form raises us to the contemplation of the mind within, as there is also a degraded use of art which aims only at a false ideal of sense and 218sensuality; and the change which we observe in the art of painting in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, as we pass from the old Byzantine types to the free and noble representations of Albert Durer and Leonardo da Vinci, is parallel to another change which has taken place later in the history of religious thought. For gradually as time has gone on we have learned to think of the character of Christ more simply and truly, more as if He were one of ourselves, but above us; no longer defined by hard dogmatical lines, but speaking to us naturally, heart to heart; whereas formerly men would have hardly ventured to conceive His character at all; they regarded Him rather as an inhabitant of another world, a divine stranger who passed before them for a moment, and of whom they could form no distinct impression. The great physiognomist Lavater is said to have been inspired in his researches into the human form by the hope of recovering this lost image of Christ. This was the eccentric fancy of a great and good man. But may there not be such an image present with us still? not pourtrayed by the fancy of the painter, nor chiselled in marble by the sculptor’s art, nor capable of any outward representation, but Christ in the heart and conscience of man, Christ in the light of our lives, who is ever shining in us if we look inward and have eyes to see; to which image we repair when, like all things in the past, the vision of the historical Christ seems to be in any degree dim or distant to us.


The text describes one striking feature of the character of Christ. ‘He spake to them as one that had authority.’

A like impression is derived from several other passages in the narrative of the Gospel; wherever He was, He exercised a sort of controlling power over men; and at last no one ventured to ask Him any more questions. The evangelists seem to imply that there was an awe about Him, not supernatural, but natural, which prevented other men from intruding upon Him and becoming too familiar with Him, though He was in the midst of them. He could live among publicans and harlots, the lowest of the people as we might deem them, and yet His dignity is not diminished but enhanced by this. He could defend Himself against all disputants, like Socrates, though with other weapons. He had the sort of influence which is given by the clear and dispassionate knowledge of other men’s characters, for ‘He knew what was in man.’ When the Pharisees and Sadducees asked Him their quibbling questions about the tribute money, about marriage, about the Sabbath Day, He does not enter into a dispute with them, He rises above them to a higher principle—‘Render unto Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’; ‘In the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage; ‘It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath Day.’ Or He appealed from the conventional to the natural, from the rigid 220and precise rule to the feeling of the heart—‘Why do Thy disciples fast not?’ to which the answer is, ‘They cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them; but when the bridegroom is taken away from them, then they shall fast.’ And there are some questions which He will not answer at all. For example, that very one, ‘Who gave Thee this authority?’ And at the last, when interrogated by Pilate, ‘Art Thou King of the Jews?’ when on the point of being led away to death, in the tone of an equal He answers still: ‘My kingdom is not of this world; if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now is my kingdom not from hence.’

This is the language of authority, more impressive when deprived of all earthly show of power. And with this we may further contrast the language of seeming authority in which there is no intrinsic power of truth. He spake to them as One having authority, and not as the scribes. For they too were teachers of mankind, and they repeated Sabbath after Sabbath in the synagogues their unmeaning interpretations from the Old Testament; their foolish distinctions about the gold and the temple, about the altar and the gift which was upon the altar; their hollow evasions of the law which commanded them to maintain their parents; their false assumptions of the exclusive privileges of the Jewish race. Christ, as we may say in modern language, goes back to first principles 221in religion; the scribes and Pharisees are only capable of disputing about details. Christ comes to bring a sword on earth, that is to say, to make men think, to make them repent, to arouse in a nation a consciousness of sin; to fight a battle against evil and falsehood everywhere: their mission is to make men contented with themselves, to bring down their principles to their practice, to attenuate the stern demands of the law of God, and to reduce them to the level of public opinion and of ordinary life. They are absorbed in routine and custom. They have never risen to the thought of a moral duty or of the nature of God as a Moral Being. To their minds what they supposed to be the revelation of Him to Moses was prior to every consideration of truth and right.

So, not in our own age only, but in many, has false authority tended to prevail over the true, the power of tradition over reason and conscience. Men do not easily or without an effort shake off what they have heard a thousand times. They do not easily or at once recognize how simple the Gospel is: ‘Except a man receive the Kingdom of God as a little child, he shall in no wise enter therein.’ There are some to whom this childlike simplicity only comes when they are quite old. After a long experience they under stand at last that to know a few things in religion is all that is necessary or desirable—‘To do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly before God.’ 222These are the truths about which the minister of Christ should desire to speak with authority; not about baptisms or laying on of hands, or about rubrics or vestments or metaphysical controversies.

If we once more ask the question which the Pharisees asked of Christ in another sense, and which at that time He refused to answer, ‘Who gave Thee this authority?’ the reply seems to be twofold: it was His own, and yet it was given Him by God. The acts which He performed, the words which He spoke, were not in a figure only the words and works of God; they came into His mind, they were suggested to His will, in the same way apparently as the words or acts of any other men. But they were inspired by a power different from that which moved other men; they had a divine force in them, flowing out of an irresistible conviction that He was one with God, and that they were the words of God.

And yet they were His own. He was absolutely one in Himself and had one thought only in His whole life. He was not like a politician trying expedients to adapt His opinions to the multitudes. He says to His brethren, ‘My time is not yet, your time is always ready.’ Whether men accepted His words or not was a matter of indifference to Him, and only elicited a sort of cry of pain from Him: ‘Ye will not come unto Me that ye might have life.’ There are some minds who seem to grow with success; they receive their power from others, and are 223borne along on the wings of sympathy; and then popular goodwill deserts them, and they fall and die. But Christ was not one of these dependent beings; He knew and was His own witness to the truth which He taught; He was Himself the truth embodied in a person of which He could no more divest Himself than we can divest ourselves of personal identity. And had all men been against Him, had He passed away without making a single convert, the truth would not have been the less true to Him. This simplicity, this confidence in God and in the truth, this freedom from the traditional opinion of men, this divine calmness., this union of strength and love, are the features in the character of Christ which we naturally connect with the authority which He exercised. He seemed to be above men because He was above them, because He was at one with Himself and had a hidden strength in God, because the words which He spoke were in accordance with the will of God and the eternal laws of the world.

And now I shall proceed to inquire how far we can imitate Christ in this quality of authority. For we all of us have some duties to perform in which the control of others is required; and in later life such duties increase and multiply upon us; in a school, in a parish, in a household, or perhaps in a public position. How can we exercise authority without seeming to exercise it; be felt without being heard; gain influence without noisy disputes, by the silent power 224of a consistent life? This is a speculation of great practical importance of which I propose to speak in the remainder of this sermon, hoping still to keep present before our mind the example of Christ with which we began.

It is almost a truism to say that he who would control others must control himself. He must have a quieter and more impartial mind than those whom he would restore, he must make allowances for this, and sometimes put himself in their place. He must not either command or reprove until he is fully acquainted with all the circumstances of the case. He must convey the impression that he will listen to the voice of reason only, and not be moved by entreaties, that he remembers and does not forget, and that he observes more than he says. He must know the characters of those with whom he deals, he must show that he has a regard for their feelings when he is correcting or reproving them. The great art is to mingle authority with kindness; there are a few, but a very few, who by some happy tact have contrived so to rebuke another as to make him their friend for life. Kindness and sympathy have a wonderful power in this world; they smooth the rough places of life, they take off the angles, they make the exercise of authority possible. The mere manner in which a thing is said or done, say, in speaking to a child or a servant, makes all the difference. ‘Behold, how good and how joyful a thing it is, brethren, to dwell 225together in unity,’ in a family, in a school, in a college, in a state. And we can only live in harmony when the spirit of order prevails among us, when there is the union of kindness and authority, when personalities are not rife among us, when we recognize that, over and above our individual lives, we have duties which we owe one to another, of friendliness and good will, as well as of mutual help and support. Is it not a fault of worldly prudence, as well as of Christian charity, ever to have a quarrel with another? Why should we say things which rankle in a sensitive mind, sometimes for this very reason, that we are ill at ease ourselves and vent our displeasure upon others? For quarrels and differences and coldnesses arise almost insensibly out of very small matters; a hasty word, a laugh, a command too sharply or nakedly uttered, will alienate the affection of another. Men are weak, and do not like to have their amour propre wounded; we must acknowledge this weakness, being conscious that we also experience the same. Especially persons who have any kind of superiority over others should try to enter into the feelings of those who are placed under them. The satirical word which might be allowable in others is not allowable in them. They cannot trample on the feelings of others and still govern them with a strong hand, although that is a fiction in which inconsiderate rulers or statesmen sometimes indulge. Rather, in the language of the apostle, there is a sense in which they must ‘become 226all things to all men, that they may win some’; or, to express the same truth more popularly, they must find the way to the hearts of men, and then they may do what they like with them. That authority is the most complete which is the least felt or perceived.

Thus in the exercise of authority there must be a basis of kindness and good-will, but many other qualities are also required in those who would influence or control others. Perhaps there must be a degree of reserve, for the world is governed, not by many words, but by few; and nothing is more inconsistent with the real exercise of power than rash and inconsiderate talking. We are not right in communicating to others every chance thought that may arise in our minds about ourselves or about them. There is a noble reserve which prevents us from intruding on the feelings of others, and some times refrain to ask for their sympathy or approbation. Dignity and self-respect are the natural accompaniments of authority, and the essence of dignity is simplicity. We must banish the thought of self, how we look, what effect we produce, what is the opinion of others about our sayings and doings; these only paralyze us at the time of action. We want to be, and not to seem, to think only of the duty which we have in hand, to be indifferent to the world around. We want to see things in their proper proportions; not to be fidgety or uneasy about trifles, nor to be greatly disturbed about any of those evils 227which lightly pass away and are cured by time. There are no doubt some tendencies in this age which are unfavourable to the formation of such a character. Ideas succeed one another so fast; there is so much talk about persons; knowledge is so soon dissipated in criticism, that it is hard for the mind to remain in one stay; we seem to require simpler and deeper notions of truth and of God, and a more even current of life, not liable to eddies and distractions; and this equable life we must make for ourselves. And of this calmness or repose we must have the springs in ourselves, for we shall hardly find them in the world. The peace of God is to be found, not in this or that opinion, but in the sense of duty, in consistency, in simple faith and in the hope of another life. Where we began as children we end as men, confiding in a parent’s love.

Most of us here present are on the threshold of active life, and in a few years we shall be filling posts of responsibility in which we, too, have to exercise authority over others. Then our characters will be put to the test, perhaps in the management of a school or of a parish, or in some other position of command, or subordinate. Shall we be found wanting? unable to control ourselves, and therefore unable to control others; without knowledge of mankind, and therefore incapable of bearing our part among them; with many good qualities perhaps, but, owing to some sensitiveness or levity or want of purpose, unequal to 228the great struggle of existence, and not adapted to the profession or employment which we have chosen for ourselves? Forty years hence men will be passing judgement on us, and telling why one has succeeded and another failed, inverting sometimes the hopes that had been entertained of them in their youth. They will be raising the question why the life of one has been a blessing in the sphere to which he belonged, and another has gone from one thing to another and brought no fruit to perfection. Ought we not to forecast this judgement a little? Many reasons will be given for these failures and successes. Because so and so was or was not weak or vain; because he could or could not make himself respected; because he had no stability in him, or because he had a fixed purpose; because he was selfish or unselfish, hated or beloved; because he could not keep men together or manage them, or was or was not to be trusted in business. And there are many other reasons which will be given. Can we not see ourselves as others see us? For the world is a hard schoolmaster, and punishes us without giving reasons, and sometimes when we can no longer correct the deficiency. And often our own self-love blinds us to the end, and we attribute to accident what is really to be ascribed to some weakness or error in ourselves.

Lastly, let us place before ourselves that image of which I spoke at the beginning of this sermon—the image of Him whose gentleness and goodness, whose 229dignity and authority, we would feign make our pattern, though we follow Him at a distance only. For while we acknowledge the value, of the judgements of our fellow men, which may correct our own judgements, we desire also a higher and perfect standard which may correct theirs. We cannot altogether trust them, and still less can we trust ourselves. And we know of course that the worth of a life is not altogether measured by failure or success. We must live in the world, but we want to live above it; in this way only can we have the true use of it. Self-knowledge and the knowledge of mankind have a great value, but there is a higher knowledge still, which shows us human ends and purposes as they are in the sight of God. The truest rule of conduct is, ‘Thou God seest me’; and the truest dignity and the highest authority which man can attain among his fellows is derived from the consciousness that, like Christ, he is seeking to fulfil the will of God on earth and to do His work.

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