By Harris Franklin Rall
"Christianity is not so much the advent of a better doctrine, as of a perfect character," wrote Horace Bushnell. It is this character which we are now to consider. Such a subject might properly conclude a study of the life. of Jesus. It has its place, however, as a part of the study of Jesus' teachings also. As with no other teacher, Jesus' word and life were one. The perfect character is a part of the better doctrine. Indeed, that character gives us his teaching in a way that his words cannot do. It is in the life that he lived that we see all that the heart of God is, all that the children of men should be. The study of his character reveals both his religion and his ethics.
The Friendliness Of Jesus
The Friend of All Men.—The words that inspired a certain well-known poem might have been written of Jesus: "He was a friend to man, and he lived in a house by the side of the road." There is a type of holiness which separates a man from his fellows for fear of defilement, and sends him into wilderness or monastery to cultivate his inner life. The holiness of Jesus was human, loving, friendly. He was the most accessible of men; instinctively men felt that they could come to him. He was a holy man and a renowned teacher, but little children went straight to his arms, outcast publicans and sinners thronged about him, and even the women of the street did not hesitate to draw near (Mark 2. 14-17).
As Companion and Intimate.—He had his more intimate friends, the circle of the twelve, especially Peter, James, and John. Here were men with whom he companied day and night for weeks and months. There were homes where he was a familiar guest. It is a convincing light on the greatness of Jesus that these men who knew him best rated him highest. There is truth at times in the proverb that "familiarity breeds contempt." Close contact with even the greatest of men reveals some frailty, some foible, some point of weakness or defect. But the friendliness of Jesus served only to reveal more clearly his greatness, and it was those that knew him best who called him Lord and Master.
The Spirit of Appreciation.—Closely allied to this was Jesus' spirit of appreciation. He who was so quick to see God in the care of the birds or the color of the lilies, was quick to see God's Spirit when it showed itself in men. He notices those who do the little helpful things, giving the drink of water or the bit of bread. He sees what is rich and fine behind a simple deed. The widow's mite becomes a glorious gift. How full of feeling are those words in which he speaks of the woman who unconsciously anointed him for the burial! We know the faults of the twelve, but how finely he pays tribute to their friendship and loyalty: "Ye are they that have continued with me in my temptations." And this appreciation extends even to those who were despised and hated and looked upon as outcast. The Roman oppressor, the traitor taxgatherer, the woman of the street, the Samaritan—for all these the average Jew had only contempt or hate. But it is a publican whose prayer Jesus holds up as an example for men. It is a Roman officer whose faith he praises. He has appreciation for the earnestness and penitence of the publicans and harlots who are pressing into the kingdom of God. And it is a Samaritan leper whose gratitude warms the heart of Jesus.
Love And Compassion
The Sympathy of Jesus.—The compassion of Jesus stands out on every page of the Gospels. Oriental lands have commonly shown a certain indifference to suffering. It is so common, and it seems so hopeless. In Jesus' day there was no organized care for the poor, the sick, the blind, the maimed, or the insane. Their number was legion, and men were hardened to sights that would not be tolerated for a moment in the streets of any city of our land. The edge of Jesus' pity was never dulled, though these unfortunates thronged his way wherever he went. Nor was there human need of any kind that came before him in vain. He had pity for the hungry and fed them. He was moved by the ills of the body, sightless eyes, stricken limbs, loathsome leprosy. Most of all did the inner needs of men stir his soul. He saw them "distressed and scattered, as sheep not having a shepherd"; foolish, sinful, burdened, unhappy, no one was showing them the truth and the way (Matthew 9. 36). Nor could any evil of men limit that all-encompassing pity. He laments over the city that is to reject and slay him. Fainting under his cross, he bids the women weep not for him, but for Jerusalem. And his last words breathe forgiveness for those who slew him, and who knew not what they did.
The Love of Jesus.—The word "love" sums up this side of Jesus' nature. It is more than pity, and far more than mere sentiment. "Love" was a different word before Jesus gave it its Christian meaning. He redeemed it from all trace of the earthly and sensual. He broke down all barriers and made it as broad as human kind. Christian love is an all-embracing and unconquerable good will that seeks the highest welfare of its object. It is strong as well as tender; it is sentiment, but it moves on to action. It can hate as well as love, for such love is through and through ethical, and it must fight all that harms and destroys. And yet its good will has room for every vilest sinner and every bitterest foe. And Jesus has shown us what this spirit of love is; love does not describe Jesus, Jesus gives the meaning to love.
The Loneliness Of Jesus The Lonely Life.—Jesus was friendly to men and craved their love and sympathy in return, and yet in the deepest .sense he lived a lonely life. He has his friends among John's disciples at the time of his baptism, but he fights his great temptation battle in the wilderness alone. He gathers a little company of followers and shares with them all the common experiences of life. He seeks to give them all his love and his vision of God, and yet there are depths that they cannot reach and heights to which they cannot ascend. As he begins that last fateful journey to Jerusalem we read that Jesus went on before them alone, and "they that followed were afraid." He takes them with him to the garden when he prays, but in that final fearful struggle he was indeed alone though only "parted from them about a stone's cast." When at last he hung upon the cross, they were scattered and he and his Father were .alone. We think of Jesus' perfect union with the Father when we read the words, "No one knoweth the Son, save the Father," but they set forth at the same time the loneliness of his life.
The Independence of Jesus.—With this loneliness went his independence. He craved sympathy and rejoiced in the friendship of men, but it was the lot of his life to stand out in turn against all to whom he was naturally bound. He had to oppose, for a time at least, his mother and brothers. He had to stand against the revered leaders of his people, learned scribes and "holy" Pharisees. He had to oppose all the expectations of his people which they had joined to the name of Messiah and the thought •of the Kingdom. He had to oppose the civil and religious authorities of his people, the priests in charge of the temple, and the great Sanhedrin. Even from his friends he had to turn, rebuking them for their wrong aims and saying to their leader the sharp word, "Get thee behind me, Satan." One is reminded of the saying of a modern thinker, "He who would be a leader must not be afraid to walk alone."
The Severity Of Jesus The Severity of Jesus.—It seems at first wholly incongruous to speak of the severity of Jesus. Severity is often associated with narrowness, and we have seen how broad and tolerant Jesus' spirit was. It is usually opposed to pity and affection, and these marked the Son of man. Perhaps a better word than severity might be chosen, but there is at times a certain sternness, a certain inflexibility which is very different from the popular thought of the gentle, meek, and mild Jesus. He sets his demands before men uncompromisingly. Sell what you have, take up your cross, hate your life, follow me: so he speaks to men. He has no room for half-heartedness. He has pity for the sinful, but when they turn it must be with their whole heart. This broadest of teachers has about him a certain narrowness. He insists upon the pure heart, the single aim. Strive to enter in, he calls out to men. His rebuke of evil is not only stern but full of deep passion, whether it be the Pharisees to whom he speaks or his friend Peter.
His Severity Booted in Loyalty and Love.—Shallow men take offense at this. Their idea of liberality is indifference. Their conception of love and kindness is sentimentality. They lack moral depth and fiber. With Jesus there was first of all the absolute devotion to truth and right. An utter loyalty to the will of God marked his own life. Nothing could move him from this, neither toil nor peril nor suffering nor death. To be pure in the inmost thought, to be true in the least word, to be obedient with the whole heart, that was his life, and that he demanded of others. Men have sometimes talked as though righteousness like this might come into conflict with love, as though it might demand harshness where love would be lenient. But that is a wrong conception of righteousness as it is of love. The love of Jesus would have been a poor and impotent thing if this righteousness had not been at its heart. It is just because Jesus saw so unerringly and demanded so uncompromisingly, because he so hated iniquity and loved righteousness, that his love has been the saving power that it is. Because he loved men he could not ask less.
Loyalty And Devotion
The Value of Loyalty.—What Jesus demanded of others, that he was the first to yield himself, an absolute and unwavering loyalty to his work, a single devotion that counted no cost and shrank at no sacrifice. Men have not rated highly enough the virtue of loyalty. It lifts men out of petty lives and makes them great by joining them to some high cause. Weak men become strong through it, and timid men are made into heroes. If this is valued in times of war, how much more it means in time of peace when no great wave of public feeling carries men on and only simple steadfastness in duty sustains them. Again and again Jesus praises such simple loyalty: "he that is faithful," "he that endureth," "ye have continued with me." It is such men who win the "Well done" at the last.
Jesus' Devotion to His Work.—Such was the spirit of Jesus' life: a simple but absolute devotion to his work. It calls him from Nazareth. It occupies him through the days of meditation and struggle in the wilderness. It fills his thought in long nights of prayer: What is my Father's will, and how am I to do his work? It carries the secret of his unshaken confidence even with approaching death; he throws himself upon God because he is doing God's work. "My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to accomplish his work." And how that cry upon the cross reveals all the toil and terrible conflict of the past from which his spirit now turns to his Father! "It is finished." He was sent into the world for a great work; now it is accomplished. The unselfishness of that devotion friend and enemy alike recognized. He received no higher tribute than that which came from his enemies in heartless taunt as he hung upon the cross: "He saved others; himself he cannot save." Only, we write it a little differently: That he might save others, he would not save himself.
His Enthusiasm and Passion.—Such devotion was no cold obedience to duty. Righteousness was the passion of his life, and his soul was full of a holy and sustaining enthusiasm for his work. The fourth Gospel gives the picture of Jesus at the well, forgetful of weariness and hunger, his soul stirred with the vision of whitened fields, saying to his returning disciples: "I have meat to eat that ye know not" (John 4. 31-35). With what passion of indignation does he smite hypocrisy and wrong and oppression! With what joy does he look upon the penitence of publican and harlot, and the eager earnestness of those whom he sees taking the Kingdom by storm! It was his holy indignation that swept the temple, not the feeble scourge that he bore in his hands. And with what a deep feeling of love and devotion and confidence has he filled his disciples ever since! Jesus changed the morality of bald duty into a mighty passion; he taught men how to hate the evil and love the good, and thus gave men not only ideals but power. He changed religion into a like passion, which joined a glowing devotion to God with a joyous confidence in the future. But that conquering spirit which has marked his disciples was first seen in its purity and power in himself.
Directions For Study
Scripture references: Mark 2. 14-17; 14. 6-9; Matthew 9. 36; 23. 13-36; Mark 8. 33; John 4. 32-34. Only a few Scripture references are given. The whole Gospels must be the material for this lesson.
Under the friendliness of Jesus, think of his humanness, his kindliness, his warm-heartedness. Recall all the instances you can in which Jesus showed himself thus friendly.
The love and compassion of Jesus take us a little farther. Call to mind the different classes of folks to whom Jesus showed this pity. Did he show it toward his enemies?
Was it hard for one of Jesus' friendly and sympathetic nature to be lonely? State the causes of this loneliness.
Where did Jesus most clearly show his loyalty to his work and to God?
How far is loyalty the test of character?