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CHRIST’S CHARACTER THE GREATEST MORAL MIRACLE OF HISTORY.
SUCH was Jesus of Nazareth,—a true man in body, soul, and spirit, yet differing from all men; a character absolutely unique and original from tender childhood to ripe manhood, moving in unbroken union with God, overflowing with the purest love to man, free from every sin and error, innocent and holy, teaching and practicing all virtues in perfect harmony, devoted solely and uniformly to the noblest ends, sealing the purest life with the sublimest death, and ever acknowledged since as the one and only perfect model of goodness and holiness! All human greatness loses on closer inspection; but Christ’s character 105grows more pure, sacred, and lovely, the better we know him. The whole range of history and fiction furnishes no parallel to it. There never was any thing even approaching to it, before or since, except in faint imitation of his example.
No biographer, moralist, or artist can be satisfied with any attempt of his to set forth the beauty of holiness which shines from the face of Jesus of Nazareth. It is felt to be infinitely greater than any conception or representation of it by the mind, the tongue, or the pencil of man or angel. We might as well attempt to empty the waters of the boundless sea into a narrow well, or to portray the splendor of the risen sun and the starry heavens with ink. No picture of the Saviour, though drawn by the master hand of a Raphael or Dürer or Rubens; no epic, though conceived by the genius of a Dante or Milton or Klopstock,—can improve on the artless, narrative of the Gospels, whose only but all-powerful charm is truth. In 106this case, certainly, truth is stranger than fiction, and speaks best for itself without comment, explanation, or eulogy. Here, and here alone, the highest perfection of art falls short of the historical fact, and fancy finds no room for idealizing the real; for here we have the absolute ideal itself in living reality. It seems to me that this consideration alone should satisfy any reflecting mind that Christ’s character, though truly natural and human, rises far above the ordinary proportions of humanity, and can not be classified with the purest and greatest of our race.
This conviction has forced itself more or less clearly even upon some opponents of Christianity, and many of the greatest worldly intellects, in proportion as they allowed themselves to yield to the light of truth and the power of facts. Jean Jacques Rousseau, one of the leaders of French infidelity in the eighteenth century, admitted, in his “Émile,” that there could be no comparison between Socrates and Christ; as little as between a 107sage and a God. Napoleon, though a perfect stranger to religion in his heart, saw with his keen eagle-eye that Christ was more than man; and that, once admitting his divinity, the Christian system becomes as clear and precise as a problem of algebra. I refer, of course, to his remarkable utterances on this subject at St. Helena, which may have been somewhat modified and expanded, but bear the unmistakable evidence of the Napoleonic grasp and style. Goethe, the most universal and finished, but at the same time the most worldly and self-sufficient, of all modern poets, calls Christ “the Divine Man,” “the Holy One,” and represents him as the pattern and model of humanity. Jean Paul Frederick Richter, the greatest of German humorists, pays this homage of genius to Jesus of Nazareth: “He is the purest among the mighty, the mightiest among the pure, who with his pierced hand has raised empires from their foundations, turned the stream of history from its old channel, and still continues to 108rule and guide the ages.”46 Thomas Carlyle, the British hero-worshiper, found no equal in all the range of ancient and modern heroism. He calls his life a “perfect ideal poem,” and his person “the greatest of all heroes,” whom he does not name, leaving “sacred silence to meditate that sacred matter.” Ernest Renan, the famous French orientalist and critic, who views Jesus from the stand-point of a Pantheistic naturalism, and expels all miracles from the gospel-history, feels constrained to call him “a man of colossal dimensions;” “the incomparable man, to whom the universal conscience has decreed the title of Son of God, and that with justice, since he caused religion to take a step in advance incomparably greater than any other in the past, and probably than any yet to come;” and he closes his “Life of Jesus” with the remarkable concession: “Whatever may be the surprises of the future, Jesus will never be surpassed. His worship will grow young without ceasing; his legend will call forth tears without end; his sufferings 109will melt the noblest hearts; all ages will proclaim, that, among the sons of men, there is none born greater than Jesus.”47 Dr. Baur, the teacher of Strauss, the master of the modern critical school, and the ablest and most earnest scholar among all modern heretics and infidels, came to the conclusion at last, after all the critical investigations of a long and intensely studious life, that the person of Christ remains a great mystery in history; and that, at all events, the whole world-historical significance of Christianity hangs on his person.48
Yes: Christ’s person is, indeed, a great but blessed mystery. It can not be explained on purely humanitarian principles, nor derived from any intellectual and moral forces of the age in which he lived. On the contrary, it stands in marked contrast to the whole surrounding world of Judaism and Heathenism, which presents to us the dreary picture of internal decay, and which actually crumbled into ruin before the new moral creation of the 110crucified Jesus of Nazareth. He is the one absolute and unaccountable exception to the universal experience of mankind. He is the great central miracle of the whole gospel-history. All his miracles are but the natural and necessary manifestations of his miraculous person, and hence they were performed with the same ease with which we perform our ordinary daily works. In the Gospel of St. John, they are simply and justly called his “works.” It would be the greatest miracle indeed, if He, who is a miracle himself, should have performed no miracles.
Here is just the logical inconsistency, contradiction, and absurdity of those unbelievers who admit the extraordinary character of Christ’s person, and yet deny his extraordinary works. They admit a cause without a corresponding effect, and involve the person in conflict with his works, or the works with the person. You may as well expect the sun to send forth darkness as to expect ordinary works from such an extraordinary being. 111The person of Christ accounts for all the wonderful phenomena in his history, as a sufficient cause for the effect. Such a power over the soul as he possessed, and still exercises from day to day throughout Christendom,—why should it not extend also over the lesser sphere of the body? What was it for him, who is spiritually the Resurrection and the Life of the race, to call forth a corpse from the grave? Could such a heavenly life and heavenly death as his end in any other way than in absolute triumph over death, and in ascension to heaven, its proper origin and home?
The supernatural and miraculous in Christ, let it be borne in mind, was not a borrowed gift or an occasional manifestation, as we find it among the prophets and apostles, but an inherent power in constant silent or public exercise. An inward virtue dwelt in his person, and went forth from him, so that even the fringe of his garment was healing to the touch through the medium of faith which is the 112bond of union between him and the soul. He was the true Shekinah, and shone in all his glory, not before the multitude or the unbelieving Pharisees and scribes, but when he was alone with his Father, or walked in the dark night over the waves of the sea, calming the storm of nature and strengthening the faith of his timid disciples, or when he stood between Moses and Elijah before his favorite three on the mount of transfiguration.
Thus from every direction we arrive at the conclusion, that Christ, though truly natural and human, was at the same time truly supernatural and divine. The wonderful character of his person forces upon us the inevitable admission of the indwelling of the Divinity in him, as the only rational and satisfactory explanation of this mysterious fact; and this is the explanation which he gives himself.113
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