THE GREATNESS OF JESUS
"His name shall be called Wonderful."
- Isaiah ix:6.
WHAT is greatness? Who is a great man? What is the distinctive element in a man that gives him this proud distinction? The dictionaries will not help us. We find it difficult to draw a verbal line between the great man and the man who is not great. And yet the muse of history has no difficulty in picking out individuals here and there on whose heads she places crowns. With a bold hand she inscribes certain names upon the shining list, and bids coming generations revere these names as those of the world’s immortals. If it is difficult to write a definition of greatness, there seems to be no difficulty in finding men whom the heart persists in counting great.
When we scrutinize the faces of this immortal company, we are struck by the variety of gifts and graces. No two of these men are alike. Homer is not like Phidias, nor is Phidias like Pericles, nor is Pericles like Plato. Virgil is different from Caesar, who is different from Dante, and Dante is not at all like Scipio or Raphael or Justinian. Goethe is different from Frederick the Great, and the latter is different from Kant and Hegel, and these two are not like either Mendelssohn or Bismarck. Napoleon and La Place and Racine and Pasteur are all different types of men. William the Conqueror is not like Shakespeare, nor is Bishop Butler like Newton, nor is the Duke of Wellington like Gladstone. Franklin is different from Washington, and Lincoln is different from Longfellow, and Fulton and Morse are different from all. And yet all these are enrolled among the mighty dead. In what respect were they alike? What characteristic is common to all? In such a heterogeneous company is it possible to find any mark which makes them akin? It is possible, and the quality that is common to all is an extraordinary capacity for achievement. These men all did things, enduring things, so that the world was not the same after they had gotten done with it. They carved statues or painted pictures or led armies or ruled states or composed music or framed laws or wrote poems or made discoveries or inventions which enriched the lives and homes of men. They achieved something worth while. They made a mark on the mind of the world. The product of their genius is an imperishable possession of our race.
Was Jesus great? What did he achieve? What did he ever do? He never chiseled a statue or painted a picture or wrote a poem or composed a piece of music or constructed a philosophical system or published a book or led an army or controlled a senate or framed a law or made a discovery or contrived an invention or did any one of the things which have made the names of other men illustrious. He never wore a crown or held a scepter or threw round his shoulders a purple robe. He never held an office either in church or state. He did absolutely nothing in art, literature, science, philosophy, invention, statesmanship or war, the seven kingdoms in which the world’s great men have won their crowns. And yet everybody calls Jesus great. No informed man in any part of the world would today deny him that exalting adjective. Not only is he counted great, but in a large part of the world he is counted greatest – so great that no one else can be compared with him. Charles Lamb gave expression to the feeling of us all when he said, "If Shakespeare was to come into this room, we should all rise up to meet him; but if Christ was to come into it, we should all fall upon our knees." His greatness is greater than that of all others, and it is also different.
Other men are great artists or poets or generals or statesmen, whereas Jesus is a great man. His greatness lies in the realm of personality, in the kingdom of character. His achievement was not wrought with paint or with chisel or with sword or with pen, but by the heavenly magic of a victorious will. There is nothing of him but his manhood.
He wore none of the spangled robes of earth. We do not say, "Behold the poet, the orator, the philosopher, the general, the statesman, the sovereign, we say, "Behold the Man!" A man may be a great general and still not be a great man. Alexander the Great got his title from his genius for massing phalanxes of soldiers and hurling them with irresistible fury against the army that opposed him. As a man he was a weakling. Passion wrecked him before noon. Napoleon the Great was great as a leader of armies, but as a man he was petty and vain and despicable. As a murderer and robber he was great, but as a man he was a pygmy. Great statesmen have not always been great men. Sometimes they have been unscrupulous and cowardly, their whole interior life degraded by appetites and passions that have made them underlings and slaves. The great artists of the world have not all been kings and queens in the graces of manhood and womanhood. It is one of the saddest of all surprises to discover on reading the biographies of the world’s immortal workers how many of them have been narrow and superstitious, selfish and envious, sordid in their ambitions and groveling in their aims, achieving one significant or beautiful piece of work in the glory of which the shabbiness of their character has been swallowed up. Jesus was great in his soul. The dimensions of his mind and his heart were colossal. His spirit was regal august, sublime.
How he looms above the heads of his contemporaries! There were men of distinction in Palestine nineteen centuries ago. Jesus measured his strength with the greatest men of his land and generation. But how lacking these men were in insight the Gospels everywhere disclose. They fumbled cardinal questions and stumbled at points that were critical. They lost themselves in the mazes of problems that they could not see through or master. Jesus had eyes that saw to the core of every problem and to the center of every situation. He never missed the essential point or was misled by a subordinate issue. He stripped off the accidental from the soul of the essential, and no matter how tangled or complicated a matter was he seized the dominant principle and made all things plain. Compared with him the Scribes and Pharisees were owls batting their stupid eyes in the glare of noon. Insight is a trait of greatness. Only great men see deep into things. It was his insight that made him formidable to the men who tried to trip and trap him with their questions. Again and again they tried it, but they never succeeded. He always outwitted their subtlety, and always discomfited them at their favorite game. Whenever they dashed at him with a question intended to roll him in the dust, he seized it, turned its point upon the man who asked it, and went on his way triumphant. Never did they get the advantage of him in a discussion or an argument. No more clever man ever lived. He beat his assailants into silence every time they attacked him. His cleverness was too much for the acutest intellect that wrestled with him. He was quick, dexterous, adroit, and yet when we think of him we do not think of his cleverness because cleverness is a scintillation of the intellect, and while intellectual brilliancy dazzles us in other men, we are not impressed by it in Jesus because his cleverness is only one of many talents and endowments which combine to add luster to his princely, transcendent personality. In ambition and ideal he was in comparison with the leaders of his people what Mont Blanc is to the chalets which farmers have erected at its base.
His greatness comes out in his fellowship with his disciples. They were strong and able men, all of them, able later on to turn the world upside down; but they cut a sorry figure in the presence of the man they acknowledge to be their master. They are pitifully and incorrigibly stupid. They cannot understand some of the simplest things the Master says. He is so high above them that they cannot climb to where he is. There is pathos in his oft-repeated question, "Do you not yet understand?" But it is in their temper and ambition that the disciples are at their worst. They were petty, envious, selfish men. They wrangled among themselves as to which one of them should hold the highest place, and even on the last evening of Jesus’ life they squabbled as to the places they should occupy around the table. No wonder he calls them "little children," for that was all they were. They were childish in their temper and ambitions just as most men are. They were as old in years as Jesus; but in thought and aim, in hope and ideal, they were as compared with Jesus only a company of babies.
When we leave the New Testament and walk among the nations of the earth where shall we find a man with whom we should be willing to compare Jesus of Nazareth? Can you think of an Italian or a German or a Frenchman or an Englishman or an American whose name is worthy to be linked with his? The heart draws back shuddering at the suggestion of such a thought. Great men have come and gone, doing their mighty deeds and leaving behind names which shall not die, but what race or nation would dare even in its most egotistic and vainglorious moments to suggest that the most illustrious of all its sons has a right to sit on a throne so high as the throne of Jesus? His soul is like a star and dwells apart. He is unique, unapproached, unapproachable. He is the incomparable. His name is Wonderful.
How great Jesus is can be told by the length and width and depth of his achievement. Greatness is measured by the effect that it produces. Men cannot be judged by stature or physical characteristics. You cannot tell whether a man is great or not by looking at his body. All men are in body substantially alike. They have the same appetites, passions, organs. If you tickle them they laugh, if you prick them they bleed. Nor can you find a man’s greatness always in his words. For all men use substantially the same nouns and adjectives, verbs and adverbs. The same sentence spoken by two men may have totally different results. One man speaks it, and it produces no impression. It dies in the moment of its birth. Another speaks it and it sets hearts blazing and is remembered for evermore. Greatness does not lie in words but in souls. Not even do a man’s actions reveal completely what he is. In their conduct great men act much as do ordinary men. It is for this reason that no man is ever a hero to his valet. The valet hears his master’s words, sees the clothes he wears, the things he eats, the engagements which he keeps, and knowing these he cannot believe that his master is a hero. A valet’s eyes do not see to the ends of things, nor can a valet’s mind weigh effects or trace the track of influence. He does not know what his master is accomplishing in the world, but it is by the total effect of a man’s life that we are to tell whether or not he is great. Great men are all alike in this: They bring things to pass. Things take place when they are present which do not take place in their absence. They change the currents of men’s thoughts and set a new fashion in the world. Men gather round them and criticize them, point out where they fall short, and show how the thing could have been better done in some other way; but the critics die and are forgotten and the great man lives on forever. How he accomplishes his results he never tells. Why he exerts such an influence, we never know. The secret of greatness is incommunicable. It lies hidden in the abysmal deeps of personality.
If Jesus is to be judged by the effects which he produced and still produces, then his name is indeed Wonderful. Upon the men of his time he exerted a power so marvelous that it seemed uncanny, magical, and some people thought he must be in league with the mighty powers of the under world. When he spoke men overflowed with ideas and feelings – feelings of love or feelings of detestation. No man ever stood stolid in his presence. Men went wild over him, some in adoration and some in hatred. Wherever he went he left men seething and bubbling. There were a few men – his apostles – who came close to him. Upon these he exerted an influence which extended to the roots of their being. One of these men – Thomas – was unusually slow and cool. He was not made of inflammable stuff. He was not easily carried away by emotion, for the tides of emotion in him were not strong. But this man when Jesus one day suggested going to a certain place beset with danger exclaimed, "Let us go and die with him." It is not easy to die at thirty. No normal man in his ordinary mood wants to die before the sun has reached the meridian. But this man Thomas had been so wrought upon by the personality of Jesus that he was ready to die with him.
And so were all the apostles. Peter in the upper chamber declared with emphasis that he was ready to go with Jesus to prison and to death. A few hours later his courage oozed out, but that cowardice was only temporary, and Peter later on did the very thing that he declared to Jesus he would do. And what Peter did all of the apostles did, John alone excepted. He has indeed something extraordinary within him who can so work upon the minds and hearts of men as to make them glad to give up their lives for him. There is only one greater thing than dying for another and that is living for another, living a life of obloquy and persecution, suffering all things for his sake. Here is the climax of power. Jesus changed men. He changed their habits and opinions and ambitions, he changed their tempers and dispositions and natures. He changed their hearts. They were never the same after they gave themselves up to him. God and man, the world and duty, were different to them after they had looked steadily into his face. Wherever he went he transformed human lives. He transfigured human faces by cleansing the fountains of the heart. This is greatness indeed.
And what he did in Palestine he has been doing ever since. Wherever the story of his life is carried the climate of thought and feeling changes. Every land across which his name has been heralded has been transformed in ideals and institutions. The forward-looking portion of the world numbers the years from the date of his birth. Richter was not writing poetry but prose when he declared that Jesus’ pierced hands lifted empires off their hinges and turned the stream of history into a new channel. You cannot account for the difference between Occident and Orient without a consideration of the influence of this one Man. Fifteen hundred years ago the civilization of China was what it is today. The social and industrial orders have through all this period remained there unchanged, and Chinese society is no more highly embellished and the Chinese character is not a whit more cultivated than they were a millennium and a half ago. Fifteen hundred years ago northern Europe was a wilderness, and so also was the island of Britain. In these wildernesses there lived various tribes of barbarous people, whose pastime was to make war on one another. Many of them were but little above the rank of savages. Through fifteen hundred years northern Europe and the British Isles have been coming up, up, up, until today there are no higher summits in the world. While China has remained exactly where she was, western Europe has been ascending; and when you endeavor to interpret this wonderful phenomenon, you cannot lose sight of the fact that China has been gazing into the face of Confucius while western Europe has been gazing into the face of Jesus. Jesus of Nazareth has lifted Europe to the seats of power. It is one of the supreme miracles of the world’s history.
Some men are great in their influence for a generation, and then their power begins to wane. They sit on thrones for a season and then abdicate. Will it be so with Jesus ? We only know that through nineteen hundred years he has been climbing to a supremacy increasingly spacious and august. His name has been rising, swallowing up the glory of other names as the sun mounting the eastern sky swallows up the stars. Today his name is above every name. Ours is the greatest of all the centuries. Never have men been so impatient to get on as they are today, and never have they been so indifferent to the past. And yet the most thrilling cry of our day is, "Back to Jesus!" It is heard all around the world. Men once cried, "Back to the Reformers!" but the Reformers did not satisfy, and then the cry was, "Back to the Fathers!" but the Fathers could not help, and then the cry was, "Back to the Apostles!" but the Apostles were found to be shining only with a reflected light, and so now the world is saying: "Back to Jesus!" "Let us go back to him for the sake of getting on, in order to get light for our darkened pathway, and to find principles with which to solve our complicated problems!" More lives of Jesus have been written within the last fifty years than of any other historic character. More pages are printed about him every week than about any hundred of the world’s greatest men. He exerts a power that is so phenomenal that many feel he must be more than man, linked in some way or other with the Eternal.
He must be – men say – the Son of God. In this land alone men contribute two hundred million dollars every year to support the institutions which bear his name. They are not compelled to do this. They do it voluntarily because they want to do it, and because he so works upon them that they count such giving a privilege and pleasure. As Napoleon Bonaparte once said, "This man vanished for eighteen hundred years still holds the characters of men as in a vice." The little Corsican sat dumfounded as he compared his greatness with the greatness of the Man of Galilee. Napoleon’s last biographer devotes two volumes to the rise of his hero and two volumes to his decline and fall. All the volumes of the life of Jesus record the story of his ascent. He goes on and on from victory to victory, from glory to glory, and as men’s eyes become cleansed and their hearts purified they see with increasing certainty that God has indeed so highly exalted him that some day every knee shall bend to him and every tongue confess that he is King indeed.
His greatness is full-orbed. He was complete, and in his completeness we find an explanation of his beauty. Men who stood nearest to him were charmed and swayed by his loveliness. He was full of grace and truth. He had a charm about him that wooed and fascinated. Children liked him, boys sang for him, publicans hung upon him. He had the heart of a child, the tenderness of a woman, the strength of a man. The three dimensions of his life were complete. He had eyes which looked along extended lines running into eternity; he had sympathies wide enough to cover humanity to its outermost edge; he had a purpose which included all lands and ages, his kingdom is to be universal and it shall have no end. He is at every point complete. His virtues are all full statured, his graces are all in fullest bloom. You can no more add anything to him than you can add something to the sky. He pushed every good trait of human character to its utmost limit. His forgiveness was unbounded, his generosity was untiring, his patience was inexhaustible, his mercy was immeasurable, his courage was illimitable, his wisdom was unfathomable, his kindness was interminable, his faith removed mountains, his hope had no shadow in it, his love was infinite. And so it is impossible to go beyond him. We can never outgrow him. He will be always ahead of us. We shall always hear him saying, "Follow me!" He is the ideal of the heart. He is the goal of humanity. It is this completeness of his character that accounts not only for his beauty but also for his perennial and increasing power. He is the lily of the valley, the fairest of ten thousand, the one altogether lovely. He is the image of God!
If Jesus Christ is a man,
And only a man, I say,
That of all mankind I cleave to him,
And to him will I cleave always
If Jesus Christ is a God,
And the only God, I swear,
I will follow him through heaven and hell,
The earth, the sea, and the air.