"These are written that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God." – John 20:31
WHERE can we find a subject more interesting than the Character of Jesus? It is fascinating to every human being who has the slightest ambition to advance in culture, or who has the smallest capacity for apprehending things that are of deep and enduring significance. Simply as a piece of biography what a wonderful story this is, how exciting his life, how tragic his death! Whether a man is a Christian or not he must, unless thoroughly hardened by prejudice, take an interest in the life of Jesus. No man or woman of intellect can remain unmoved by the death of Socrates. The prison in which he died is one of the holy places of history. So long as men have minds to think and hearts to pity, they will stand in awe before the old Greek philosopher while he drains the fatal cup. But the death of Jesus is more tragic than the death of Socrates. Who is not interested in the death of Julius Caesar? When will Mark Antony’s speech cease to stir the blood? So lone, as men are human they will stand awestruck in the presence of that great tragedy enacted in the Roman capitol. But the death of Jesus is more tragic than the death of Caesar. Moreover, Jesus of Nazareth is the starting point of a thousand influences. The whole world of the last nineteen hundred years becomes unintelligible unless one knows something about him. How can you understand the great art galleries of the world, filled as they are with pictures of his face, and pictures of his mother, and pictures of his disciples, unless you know who he was and what he said and what he accomplished ? Step out of the art galleries into the libraries and how will you understand the great books of history unless you are familiar with his career, for every book is full of his name. Step out of the world of books into the world of men and things, walk along the streets, how will you account for St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine; and all the hundreds of churches and missions scattered over this land unless you know something of the man from whose heart they proceeded and by whose name they are known. We have a theme that must be of interest to every human being.
But as soon as we come to the careful study of the life of Jesus, we are subjected to a series of surprises. The first surprise is that the biography of this man is confined within such narrow limits. If you wish to study the life of Abraham Lincoln, you must consult many volumes. The life of George Washington cannot easily be put into one book. Hundreds of volumes have been written about Napoleon and Frederick the Great and Caesar. But the biography of Jesus is confined to one little book that can be bought for six cents and carried in the pocket. This is the surprising thing that all the story of his life is contained in this one book. There were many Greek writers living in the days of Jesus, but not one of them wrote his life, so far as any scholar knows. Not a scrap of Jesus’ biography at the hands of a Greek poet or historian has come down to us. There were many Roman writers living when Jesus preached in Palestine, they were writing on many different personages and on manifold subjects, but not one of them so far as we know cared to sketch this man Jesus. There were many professional Jewish writers living in Jesus’ day, but so far as we know not one of them took the trouble to write the story of Jesus’ life. This is remark-able! To be sure, there are apocryphal gospels and apocryphal acts and apocryphal epistles and apocalypses, but no one of these, nor do all of them together, throw any light on the character of Jesus that is not furnished by our New Testament. Everything that is positively known of Jesus of Nazareth is confined between the covers of the New Testament. For years men have been ransacking the libraries, digging up the ruins of ancient cities, and delving into the desert sands thinking that possibly a page might be found that would throw additional light upon this Man. Seven years ago two Englishmen, digging in the sands of Middle Egypt, brought up two leaves of papyrus, one of them torn in two. A thrill of delight ran through the world of Christian scholarship at the thought that some new light might be thrown on Jesus’ life. Alas! the new papyrus has nothing new to tell. The whole story must be sought within the narrow compass of the New Testament. But we can bring down the limits to a still narrower area. You can write the life of Jesus from the Book of the Acts, but it is a meager life and contains practically nothing not to be found in the Gospels. You may also piece out a life of Jesus from the epistles of the New Testament, but the life is exceedingly defective and nothing of importance is added to the things already told in the Gospels. And therefore, so far as our present purpose is concerned, we may throw away all the other books of the New Testament and affirm that all which is known of the character of Jesus must be sought for inside the four Gospels. That the life of the greatest and most important man who ever lived upon the earth should be written on pages so small and few is one of the surprises.
When we study these Gospels we are surprised that they tell us so little, they do not give us a complete life c.’ Jesus. They do not tell us how long Jesus lived, but from scattered hints it would seem that he lived something like thirty-three years. Thirty of these years are passed over with scarcely a word. They are deep sunken in a darkness into which no rays of light enter. The men who wrote the four Gospels did not attempt to deal with ten elevenths of the life of Jesus. They simply let the larger part alone. Nor did they attempt to deal even with all the three years of his public ministry. They mention what he did or said only on from thirty to thirty-five days. That is, they confine their attention to one thirtieth of his public life, twenty-nine thirtieths being a total blank. Or, in other words, if he lived thirty-three years and the evangelists deal with only thirty-five days, they limit themselves to one three-hundredth part of his earthly career, and allow two hundred and ninety-nine three-hundredths to lie hidden. These men have recorded many things that he said, but his recorded sayings can be spoken easily within five hours. They tell many things which he did ‘ but nearly all of them might have been crowded into a day, so meager is their report of what Jesus said and did. It is evident, then, that we do not have as much information as we want. The question is, Do we have as much as we need? There is always a wide gap between what we want and what we need, and we need not be surprised that there is a gap here.
These Gospels attempt to give us nothing but his words. They do not give us his facial expression, the quiver of the lip, the glance of the eye. We cannot see his smile or his frown. Facial expression is a revelation, and that revelation is lost forever. Nor do the evangelists attempt to give us his gestures. Gestures are interpreters of thought. A speaker speaks with his head, his shoulders, his hands, and by means of these gestures the thought is unfolded and made clear. Gesture is a revelation, and it is a revelation that has been lost forever. The New Testament does not give us the voice of Jesus. The voice is the best of all interpreters. By its modulations and cadences, by its inflexions and emphases, it reveals and explains and illustrates. The music of speech lies in the inflections, and many a word takes on a new glory from the way in which it is spoken. Intonation is a revelation, but in the case of Jesus it is a revelation which has been lost forever. And then there is another revelation to which we are denied access: the revelation of his sighs and his tears. We cannot see the tears on his cheeks as he looks down on Jerusalem and sobs, "O!" If we could have heard him weeping in the garden, we could have seen down deeper into his heart. But this revelation is denied us forever. We have nothing but words to deal with, and words are sometimes opaque and ambiguous, stumbling interpreters of the heart. But words are all that God has given us, and with words therefore we must be content.
Right here there springs up a new surprise: we are not to deal with Jesus’ words. He spoke in Aramaic, and there are not a dozen Aramaic words left in the Gospels. He said to the little girl, "Talitha cumi," which being interpreted means, "Damsel, arise!" On the cross he said, "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" which being interpreted means, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Besides these only an occasional Aramaic word has been recorded for us, and with these slight exceptions all the words that dropped from his lips have passed completely away. We read the English New Testament. Its words are not Jesus’ words, they are the translators’ words, the words chosen by scholars who have interpreted for us the Greek text. But even the Greek words were not spoken by Jesus, the Greek words were translators’ words chosen to interpret the meaning of the Aramaic words. It is not unlikely there were Aramaic Gospels before the Greek Gospels were written. But the Aramaic Gospels have long since fallen to dust, and so also have the Greek Gospels. The first Greek copies were written on papyrus, and the papyrus was so frail and fragile that it perished probably in less than a hundred years. We have no copies of the New Testament that run back beyond the fourth century – and this also is a surprise.
Looking, then, at these words with which we have to deal, will they tell us anything of the personal appearance of the Nazarene? Nothing. The men who wrote the Gospels were not interested in the stature of Jesus, in the color of his eyes or hair, in the expression of his face, or the build of his body. The New Testament has been often scrutinized by men eager to get some hint of Jesus’ personal appearance, but no such hint has been forthcoming. Expressions here and there have been seized upon and put upon the rack and tortured, in order to compel them to give at least a suggestion as to what Jesus looked like. But under torture every sentence of the Gospels remains absolutely silent on this most interesting question. We must therefore at the very beginning banish all pictures of Jesus from our minds. We do not know what he looked like. The artists have not known, they have simply painted from their own imagination. When an Italian paints the face of Jesus he puts a little of the Italian into it, when a German paints him he paints a little of the German into it, when a Spaniard paints him he paints a little of the Spaniard into it. That accounts also for the variety of the Madonnas. Raphael paints her as a lovely Italian girl, Murillo paints her as an innocent Spanish maiden, Sichel paints her as a German peasant girl. No artist can overcome completely the predilections of his own nationality. The artists then have simply painted their ideal, and their ideal is the creation of their own heart, and that is what you and I have a right to do. Would you conceive of Jesus as he appeared in the days of his flesh, you must form him according to your own ideal. You have the same right the artists have. This, then, is to be remembered, that we are not to study the personal appearance of Jesus, but the stamp of his mind and the bent of his spirit. In other words, we are to study his character.
But while the smiles and frowns, the intonations and modulations, the glance of the eye and the gesture of the hand, have all been lost and lost forever, we must not think that they were unimportant in the history of the world. All those things helped to make an impression on the men that stood nearest to Jesus. They saw his smile, caught the expression of his eye, heard him laugh, sigh, sob, drank in the music of his voice – and the question is, How were they affected? The New Testament tells us they were affected in two distinct and opposite ways. Some men were repelled. They disliked him, feared, hated, detested, loathed him. Their loathing became so venomous that they murdered him. They could not allow him to remain upon this earth. That is the effect that he produced upon one type of mind. There were other men who were attracted by him; they liked him, loved, adored, worshipped him; they were ready to die for him. It should never be forgotten that every one of his disciples, with one exception, laid down his life for Jesus, and that, too, after Jesus was dead. The men who were the nearest to him loved him with an adoration which was boundless, and they communicated the impression to other men, and the impression has come down to this present hour, so that at the beginning of the twentieth century thousands of miles from Palestine men are building churches in the name of Jesus, believing that his name is above every name, and that every knee should bow to him.
At the very beginning then of our study of the character of Jesus let us remember that Christianity is rooted in a life that was lived upon the earth. There is one part of the Christian creed that every human being can repeat without question and without reservation. There are men who might refuse to repeat the first article, "I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth." God is spirit, and a man might refuse to acknowledge that He exists. There are those who might stumble at the last clause in the creed, "I believe in the life everlasting." That also reaches out beyond the sweep of human sight, and there are men who will not affirm beyond that which they can see. But at the very center of the creed there is one little paragraph to which no one can offer reasonable objection, "Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried." There are some who object to the supernatural, they do not like the extraordinary. Very well, let them begin with the ordinary, let them take their stand on the natural. Some of you may think that Christianity is in the air. Its branches, to be sure, are in the air, but its roots are in the earth. Its base is not in philosophy but in human history, not in poetry but in mundane experience. All that you see of Christianity in the world today came out of this man who lived in Palestine, who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.
May I make of you this one request, that while you follow my words you read St. Mark’s Gospel from beginning to end. It is probably the oldest of all the Gospels, the shortest of them all, the most graphic of them all, and seems to come the nearest to Jesus as men saw him in the days of his humiliation. If you will read this Gospel, you will more easily follow me in these studies, and come to know better the one supreme character of history. It is a sad mistake for any man or any woman to leave religious matters entirely to the minister. The Roman Catholic who leaves everything to the priest does not grow in grace and in the knowledge of Jesus Christ our Lord. The Protestant who simply comes to church and listens to the preacher speak, and who makes no earnest effort to study for himself the great literature in which are enshrined the oracles of God – that Protestant fritters away his opportunities and does not build up within himself those deep convictions and that enduring knowledge which will make him a power and blessing in his day and generation. In other words, I cannot study the character of Jesus for you, you must study it for yourselves. All that I can hope to do is to drop suggestions that may possibly assist you in your study.