IV. THE STRENGTH OF JESUS
"And they were all amazed." - Mark 1:27
We have seen that all the authentic materials fox a Life of Christ are to be found in the four Gospels. When we study this material it turns out to be fragmentary and scanty. The writers deal with only three years out of thirty-three, and tell us of less than forty days out of three years, and of these selected days they deal only with shreds and fractions. Possibly somebody may say we cannot write a life of Jesus at all, and that is true, if by life of Jesus you mean a complete biography. But what if it should happen that the men who wrote the Gospels were not trying to write a biography of Jesus, but had something entirely different in mind. When Morley wrote the "Life of Gladstone" he filled three ponderous volumes. When Carlyle wrote the "Life of Frederick the Great" he wrote over six thousand pages, filling twenty-one books. When Nicolay and Hay wrote the "Life of Lincoln" they filled ten good-sized volumes. These Gospel writers evidently did not intend to write a biography of Jesus, otherwise they would not have confined themselves within such narrow limits. We are driven to the conclusion that they were writing not the biography of Jesus but the character of Jesus. A vast amount of material is necessary for a biography, but only a little material is needed for the elucidation of a character. You do not need all the words a man speaks, just a few of them will answer – every word is a flash of lightning, and like a flash of lightning lights up the world front horizon to horizon. You do not need many deeds, every deed is like a sunbeam touching a dark world into visibility. Notwithstanding the Gospels are so small, we know Jesus, his mind and heart and spirit, better than we know any other man who has ever lived upon the earth. Men who study the New Testament carefully feel that they know Jesus of Nazareth better than any other character of history.
Some one may say, "Ah, Jesus lived two thousand years ago, and therefore we cannot be sure what his character really was." You are mistaken. You can understand a great man better at a distance than when standing near him. No truly great man is ever appreciated at his worth by the people in the midst of whom he lives. The world did not appreciate Abraham Lincoln until he died. His great figure has been looming higher each succeeding decade, and the generations yet to come will understand him better than we do. We understand Luther far better than his contemporaries. We understand the apostles better than the fathers did. We understand Jesus of Nazareth better than has any other generation of men that has ever lived. A great man is like a mountain, you cannot appreciate it when standing at its base. You must throw miles between your eye and it before you can catch the symmetry of its sides and feel the majesty of its colossal dimensions. just so it is with Jesus. Each succeeding generation will understand him better. He was so great that the men of Palestine could not take his measure. We are far better able to judge how great he was because we can see the length of the luminous shadow which he has cast across nineteen centuries and we can measure the volume of the stream which has flowed from the fountains of his heart. When you wish that you had lived in Jesus’ day, you are wishing for a great misfortune. Had you lived in the first century you would most likely have been found among those who saw in Jesus nothing but a disturber of the peace. It may be that you would have joined the crowd that cried, "Crucify him!" Let us look at Jesus across the distance of nineteen hundred years. When you picture him, what sort of face is it that stands out before you? That will depend upon the painting with which you are most familiar, or it will depend upon instruction which you have received from teachers, or it will depend upon the working of your own fancy or imagination. We instinctively begin to form the image of a person whom we have never seen; at the mere mention of his name. You have all tried it again and again. The fame of some great man has reached your ears, and your mind has gone to work at once and conceived what sort of man he is. Later on, it may be your eyes have looked upon him and you have said, "I was altogether mistaken in the image I had formed." It may be, therefore, that you have been misled by the painters, deceived by your teachers, led astray by your own imagination. It will be better to do away with all such images and try to see Jesus as men saw him who touched him in Judea and Galilee. Those were the men who heard his voice, saw the light in his eye, caught the expression of his face-they are the best witnesses therefore of what sort of a man he really was, and therefore we shall not listen to anything which Jesus himself said, we shall pay attention simply to the impression which he made upon the people. He was not a hermit or recluse, he pressed his life close to the lives of men, and therefore we have abundant ‘material with which to deal in trying to find out what impression he made upon the people of his time.
What was the first impression Jesus made upon his contemporaries? What has been his first impression on you? Has he impressed you as subdued and meek, calm and effeminate? Have you seen him always as many a painter has painted him; pale and ghastly, sickly, emaciated? When you think of him do you think of some one thin and gaunt, weak and pallid? Not so did he seem to the people of his day. Open the Gospel according to St. Mark. In the very first chapter he tells you in four different places what impression Jesus made upon men. He first tells you of the impression he made on John the Baptist. John the Baptist was a mighty man, none mightier had ever appeared in Judea; but John said there is coming one mightier than I. When Jesus presents himself to be baptized, a remarkable thing happens. John had called men to repentance, he had faced the greatest men of his day without flinching, he had baptized the great and small, the high and low, the rich and poor, the learned and ignorant; but when this man from Nazareth appears, John falters and draws back and says: "I cannot baptize you. I have need to be baptized by you." Such was the impression that Jesus made upon the intrepid reformer from the desert.
Let us take another illustration: He walks one day along the shore of the Sea of Galilee and sees two men fishing; he says, "Follow me," and straightway they left their nets and followed him. A few steps farther on he sees two other men, he says to them, "Follow me," and they left all and followed him. Such was the impression he made upon them. He goes into the synagogue and begins to teach, and they are amazed, not at what he says, but the manner in which he says it. He teaches them as one having authority and not as the scribes. There is something in his voice that pierces and cuts and thrills, a tone that they have never heard before. It is the note of authority, the note of strength. Or take another illustration: There is a sick man in the synagogue, and Jesus heals him, and again the people are surprised because God has given such power to a man. In these four instances the first impression of Jesus is the impression of authority, mastery, power, leadership; he is a man of strength. And that, I think, is the teaching of all the Gospels: they give us repeated illustrations of the power of Jesus. He drew men to him. Wherever he went he was surrounded by a crowd. He goes down to the seashore, and the crowd is so great they push him into the water and he gets into a boat. He goes to the hilltop, and immediately the hillside is alive with people. He goes to the desert, and immediately a great crowd surrounds him. Sometimes he dares not go into the city because of the tumult that his entrance will certainly stir up. Every city through which he passes is turned upside down by his presence. Only a man of strength draws to him great masses of men. It is noteworthy that widely differing classes of men are drawn: the publicans and sinners, the great unwashed crowd, they are drawn, but Nicodemus, a member of the supreme court of Palestine, he also is attracted, and the Roman centurion, he also is drawn, saying to Jesus: "I know what it is to command and so do you. There is an enemy in my house which I cannot order out, you speak the word and he will depart." Not only did Jesus draw men to him, but he also stirred them whenever they came near him. Have you ever noted how many times the evangelists say in speaking of the people: "they were astonished" – "they were astonished with a great astonishment" – "they were amazed" – "they were filled with amazement" – "they marveled"? The evangelists never say such things of themselves. Matthew never says, "I was surprised." Mark never says, "I was amazed." John never says, "I marveled." They write all of them with an arm of marble; there is no feeling in the fingers that hold the pen; they simply write in cold blood the effect that Jesus had on others.
Probably no better illustration of the power of Jesus can be found than that which is afforded in the estimate which different classes of people put upon him. One day when Jesus propounded the question, "Who do men say that I am?" the disciples told him that men had different opinions in regard to him. Some said he was John the Baptist, some said he was Elijah, others said he was Jeremiah, while others unable to give his exact name felt convinced he was one of the old prophets. This is remarkable! They went to the grave in order to find a man to whom they could liken him. There was no man then living with whom he could be compared. We do the same thing. When we want to stir men’s hearts, we appeal to the dead; when we search for the great, we descend into t he grave, we talk of Shakespeare and Caesar, of Charlemagne and Alfred the Great, of Lincoln and Webster, we dare not use the name of a man living. That is what the Jews did. The name of no man living was great enough to convey their idea of the strength that they felt resided in Jesus. He was one of the giants of bygone ages who had come back to the earth carrying with him powers augmented by his sojourn in the realms of death. This tells us clearly that to them he was a man of tremendous power.
And if the Jews felt this in regard to him, what was the impression that he made upon the Roman officials? He impressed them in the same way. When the policemen came to arrest him and asked him if he was indeed Jesus of Nazareth, he turned upon them and simply said, "I am," and they fell backward to the ground. What do you suppose his eyes looked like that night when they outflashed the Roman torches and outshone the Syrian stars? Pilate is afraid of him. He is the representative of Caesar in Palestine. He is clothed with authority. Jesus is nothing but a poor unarmed peasant. Nevertheless Pilate is afraid of him, he draws back from him, he wrings his hands in uncertainty, he washes his hands, he tries to get rid of this man. He feels that there is a power in him unlike any power he has ever come in contact with before. But if you would have the finest proof of his power, you can find it in the intensity of the hatred and in the intensity of the love that he excited. How many hated him! They could not hear him talk without sizzling, hissing and boiling like a pot under which the fire roars. He stirred tempests in the heart, he awoke serpents in men. He drove them to madness until they cried out in frenzy, "Crucify him!" Only a great man can do that. You cannot hate a pygmy, a weakling, a ninny. You can hate Nero or Napoleon or any giant, but you cannot hate a nobody. Who was the most detested man in England during the last century? William E. Gladstone. We in America have little conception of the venomous hatred that was poured out upon that man. He stirred men to hatred because he was so mighty. Who are the men most detested in America today? Every one of them a man of tremendous power. The men that are loathed and feared are men of genius, who have in them extraordinary capacity for bringing things to pass.
But if Jesus drove some men to hate him, he drove other men to love him. He kindled a devotion that is superior to anything that has ever been known in this world. He kindled a fire which ran all over Palestine, and then around the edges of the Mediterranean, and then into the German forests, it then leaped over the English Channel, and later on it leaped over the Atlantic Ocean, and now it has leaped over all the oceans and is burning more brightly to-day than ever. And all this conflagration was kindled by his hot heart. These torches that are burning now have been carried down through the blasts of nineteen stormy centuries, and they have never gone out, because he lighted them. He called forth a kind of reverence that has never been granted to any other man who has ever lived. He was so mighty that when men thought of him, they thought of God. The man who stood the nearest to him saw him in a vision after he was gone, and he says, "When I saw him I fell at his feet as one dead."