THE FIRMNESS OF JESUS
"Get thee behind me, Satan."
-Matthew xvi :23.
LET us think tonight of the firmness of Jesus. Of his tenderness we think often, and also of his gentleness and graciousness. To these lovely graces the heart is joyfully responsive, and in dwelling upon them we are likely to overlook other traits no less beautiful and praiseworthy. Gentleness of nature is not a virtue but a defect unless it is accompanied by tenacity of will. Sweetness of disposition is not enough to make a man useful and noble. Along with the sweetness there must go strength, and underneath the moods soft as velvet there must lie a resoluteness hard as steel.
The weakness of men under the play of social forces is one of the outstanding tragedies of history. To build a will strong enough to resist and control these forces is the central and crucial task of education. It is an ancient adage that evil companionships corrupt good morals. All men are more or less molded by the society of which they form a part. The child yields readily to the ideas and habits of his fellows, and no matter what his ancestry may have been, his environment if corrupt may him speedily to ruin. This impressionability is not a trait peculiar to childhood, but is carried with him through every stage of life. The young man in college is powerfully influenced by those of his classmates who are the nearest to him, and sometimes a few bold, masterful spirits will set the pace for a thousand men. Businessmen are as susceptible as college students and yield in crowds to the influence of a few dominating minds. The slavery of the social world has long been a theme for moralists and satirists. He is indeed a strong character who dares run counter to the traditions and fashions of the world in which he moves. Even the strongest and most independent often bow down before standards against which conscience revolts and submit to customs against which the heart protests. Humanity goes in crowds and droves, and no bondage is too absurd or galling to be submitted to. The majority of mortals are not strong enough to be themselves: they become echoes of their neighbors and walk in paths marked out by others. There is a spirit of the age which leaves itsí impress on every mind. Even the mightiest men cannot free themselves entirely from it. As Lowell, says, "Every man is the prisoner of his date." We apologize for Cromwell and Calvin and Luther, and Hildebrand and Augustine, saying, "Remember the times in which they lived!
But when we come to Jesus of Nazareth we are in the presence of a man whom nobody swerved or dominated, who is so free from the bias of his race and so clean of the spirit of his age that he seems to belong to all races and all ages. He is not the Son of David but the Son of Man, just genuinely, supremely human. He is not a citizen of the first century only, but the contemporary of each succeeding generation. Immersed in an ocean of mighty forces which beat upon him furiously through every hour of his career, he resisted them all successfully by the indomitable energy of a victorious will, living a life unique in its beauty and achieving a work unmarred by the limitations either of time or place.
That he was not insensible to the dominant forces of his time, he himself has told us in the story of the temptation. His countrymen had formed definite ideas of the Messiah. He was to be a wonder worker and the manifestations of his power were to be spectacular and overwhelming. He was to trample opposing forces under his feet and make Palestine the center of the world. This was the dream, this was the expectation. The best men expected this, as did also the worst men. It is a dangerous thing to baffle popular expectations. It is almost cruel to extinguish the fire of a nationís hope. Good and great men have found no difficulty in every land and generation in bringing themselves to yield, at least up to a certain point, to the wishes and demands of their countrymen. It all seems plausible enough. The argument is familiar, for we have heard it even in the present generation. Who is a man that should set himself against the expressed wish nation? Is it not through the people that makes his wishes known, and what is it but egotism, or insanity which would lead an individual to set hisí judgment against the judgment of the people? This is the argument whose sharp edge many a leader has felt, and Jesus of Nazareth felt it too. Wherever he went he heard the people clamoring for a king, a. king who should rise to supremacy over the wrecked empire of Caesar. The nation was ripe for revolution. A word from him would, like a spark, have kindled a mighty conflagration. Expectations had been built up by men anointed by Jehovah, and these expectations were glowing hot, and how could Jesus hope to win the attention of his people or control the current of their life unless he fell in with their ideals and attempted to carry out the program on which their hearts were set? It was a great temptation, so terrific that he told his apostles all about it. He assured them that in this temptation he had been wrestling with the very prince of infernal powers, but that notwithstanding repeated assaults he had come out of the conflict victorious. In choosing the road which led to supremacy by way of Gethsemane and Golgotha, he renounced the ideals of his countrymen and disappointed their dearest expectations, but so firm was he that the hosts of hell, speaking through Godís chosen people, could not move him from his place. The nation hurled itself with frantic force against him, but he did not budge. He was the Rock of Ages.
When we study his life with attentive eyes we see it was one long resistance to the forces of his age. He was a patriot, but he could not go with his countrymen in any of their patriotic programs or expectations. He was a churchman, but he could not go with the members of the Jewish church in their favorite teachings and ceremonies. The religious teachers taught doctrines of the Sabbath that he could not accept. They presented forms of worship that he could not submit to. They laid down lines of separation that it was impossible for him to observe. It is not easy to run counter to the deep-seated feelings of the most religious people of oneís day, or to cut across the grain of the prejudices of the most conscientious men in the town. There were many reasons why Jesus should have conformed to the ideas and customs of the church, but he firmly resisted all the voices which urged him toward conformity, standing out alone in-defiance of what the best men were doing and saying, notwithstanding his nonconformity seemed to the majority impiety and to many blasphemy. For a godly man to be classed among blasphemers is one of the bitterest experiences which the heart can know. But Jesus paid the price and continued firm.
Men of light and leading have an influence surpassing that of ordinary men . There were men in Palestine who by learning and position had won the confidence and esteem of their countrymen. As leaders and teachers of the people they had their plans and systems and into these they attempted to work this young man from Galilee. They recognized in him a man of force, and to manipulate him and make use of him was a natural ambition. No man with a noble cause to promote will lightly antagonize the most influential men of his day. He will bend to them so far as he is able, he will yield to their whims and caprices so far as conscience will permit, he will go with them so far as this is possible; but if he is a man of strength, he will not compromise his principles, and he will never jeopardize the victory of his cause by playing into the hands of men whose faces are toward a different goal. Jesus could not be manipulated. He refused to be used. One party after another tried to work him into its scheme, but he was incorrigibly intractable and went on his way independent, unshackled, free. All the seductions offered by the men who sat on thrones could not swerve him from his course, and although his steadfastness made him enemies and finally nailed him to the cross, he was everywhere and always a man who could not be moved.
There are men who are too strong to be manipulated by their foes, but in the hands of their friends they are plastic as wax. Jesus could not be manipulated even by his friends. He had many friends in Nazareth, but he never gave up his principles to please them. They had their prejudices and superstitions, but he never surrendered to them. He knew their bigotry and narrowness, and so in his opening sermon he read the story of Godís compassion on a Syrian leper, and also on a Sidonian widow. His sermon raised the storm that he had anticipated, but he bore the fury of it without flinching. He would not keep silence when he knew he ought to speak, nor would he turn aside from the path he knew he ought to travel even though by sticking to the path he made himself a lifelong exile. The respect and good will of neighbors are sweet indeed, but these must not be bought by bending.
But probably no neighbor in Nazareth was ever so near to Jesusí heart as his dear friend Simon Peter. At a crisis in Jesusí life Peter did his best to dissuade him from a certain course, but the loyal and loving friend succeeded no better than the most hostile Pharisee. This man of Nazareth could not be moved by friend or foe. It was his Fatherís business he was attending to, and therefore all efforts to draw him aside were made in vain. "Get thee behind me, Satan," he said to the astonished Peter, recognizing in him the same evil spirit he had contended with years before in the desert. To defy the threats of powerful enemies is hard, but to turn a deaf ear to the expostulations of loving friends is harder still. Only a man of unconquerable will is equal to a test so taxing. Jesus met it and did not fail.
It was a test he faced in his own home. His brothers did not understand him. Their lack of understanding curtailed their sympathy with him.,, From their standpoint he often did the injudicious thing, and refused to do the thing which would have forwarded his reputation. They were always ready with advice. He could tot take it. They urged him to go to Jerusalem at a time when he could not go. They exhorted him to go home at a time when his duty was to be somewhere else. Only a man who has been driven by conscience to go contrary to the wishes of members of his own family can enter into the experience which Jesus suffered or can measure the strength of will which one must have to resist successfully the importunities of love.
This test of will power reached its climax in Jesusí conflict with his mother. She loved him and he loved her, but he could not always carry out her, wishes. There comes a time in many a manís life when even his own motherís exhortations must go unheeded in order to obey a higher call. Such an experience came to Jesus. It was a sword through Maryís heart, and it was a sword also through the heart of Jesus. The painful experience in the Temple at the age of twelve was probably not the first of the kind in Jesusí life, and it was certainly not the last. The ties to Mary were not so deep as the ties which bound Jesus to the heavenly Father, and when Maryís wish conflicted with the Fatherís will, the wish of the woman was pushed aside to make room for the will of God.
Here, then, we have a situation that is distressing indeed. The most tender and gracious and obliging of men is compelled to resist not only the prayers of his countrymen but also the wishes of his family and friends. He stands like a rock in the midst of a troubled sea, and all its billows dash themselves against his feet in vain. There was something inflexible in his will, something granite-like in his soul. When he found a man whom he thought worthy to be the first member of his church he called him "rock." Are we to infer from this that it is the rocklike quality that is indispensable in the building of an institution that shall endure? It is certain that Jesus loved stability in others, and what he loved in others he had superabundantly in himself. Firm himself, he loved men who could not be moved. Unconquerable himself, he entrusted his Gospel to men who would endure and never flinch. Men who having put their hand to the plow looked back were not men he could make use of in the saving of a world. Men who started to build a tower and then gave up the undertaking were only objects of mirth and mockery. Salvation could not be offered to any one who did not endure to the end.
It is in this tenacity of will that we find an indispensable element of Christian character. Men are to resist exterior forces and form their life from within. They are not to be swayed by current opinion, but by the spirit of the Eternal in their heart. They are not to listen to the voices of time, but to live and work for eternity. We like this steadfastness in human character, and we also crave it in God. Men have always loved to think of Him, as the unchanging and the unchangeable, the one "with whom can be no variation, neither shadow that is cast by turning." And what we desire in God we find in Jesus of Nazareth. He also is unchanging and unchangeable A writer of the first century encourages the hearts of his readers by reminding them that "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today, yea and forever." Jesus never called himself the Rock, but the Christian heart soon gave him that appellation, and few hymns have proved so popular in the English-speaking world as:
"Rock of Ages, cleft for me!
Let me hide myself in thee."
What Jesus was in Palestine, he is today and shall be for evermore. All his promises stand unshaken, all his warnings remain unchanged. His attitude to sinners is today what it has been from the beginning and what it will be to the end. You cannot discourage him by your ingratitude, you cannot make him other than he is by your disobedience. He is not broken down by human folly or driven from his plan by human perversity. From age to age he is about his Fatherís business, and in the midst of all nations and kindreds and tongues he goes about doing good.