The Deity of Christ
Four Sermons preached during Advent,
1921, in Grosvenor Chapel
The Great Question
"Jesus saith unto them, Who say ye that I am?"
S. Matt. xvi. 15.
THAT question was not an easy one to answer, nor was it at that time finally answered by that little group of men around Jesus. But finally, after all their experiences of Him and after the coming of the enlightening Spirit, we know the answer which the leaders of those disciples gave, and which the whole church since their day has given. It is—"Thou art indeed very man, the son of man, but thou art more than man; thou art God in manhood; very God, the Son of the Father, who for us men and for our salvation hast been incarnate and hast borne for us all the experiences of manhood to lift us into the fellowship of God." And so it is, when to-day people dispute—anxiously, contentiously, scornfully, doubtfully—about the answer to that question, this is what really is in their minds—Is this the right answer? Is Jesus Christ really the Son of God, very God? Well, that is what we are here to consider.
But, first of all, I would have you feel what an astonishing thing it is that here to-day men should be asking the question at all. It is only about this Jesus that men would dream of asking the question. About no other one of the sons of men should we dream of asking it. There have been great founders of religion who have moved, and still move, by their influence great masses of men; like Zoroaster, or that Siddartha Gautama, whom men call Buddha, the enlightened one; or that Mohammed whose influence men feel, and we feel, so profoundly in the world to-day. And there have been great philosophers, great poets, great leaders, men whom we regard, all of them, as extraordinary. Geniuses we call them—and we mean by "a genius" to express one who seems to possess some incommunicable and unique gift. But if we are asked of what sort any one of these was, there is no question at all about the answer. We believe them to have been men with special gifts and special powers, but we do not dream of thinking about them as anything else. About none of them is the question of deity raised by us to-day; it is raised only about One.
Of course that was not so in the early days. In earlier days, in days of polytheism, when men believed in gods many, in the days when Christianity came into the world—outside the influence of the great Hebrew prophets—men could very lightly and easily say that so and so was a god. The founder of Rome, Romulus, the re-founders of Rome, Julius and Augustus, were said without any hesitation to be gods. And those who followed this or that school of philosophy called their founder, their Epicurus for instance, a god. And as they looked up into the heavens, and saw those mysterious heavenly bodies, in which they seemed to see tremendous powers controlling human life, they said, "No doubt the stars are gods." It was not only the vulgar who said this; it was the educated who said it also. God was for them a diffused kind of atmosphere; even any good man might be said to be a god. So much so that one great philosopher, who believed profoundly in the Supreme Being or One, could hardly bear to call Him God; he wanted something above that; the name of God was too vulgar, too common, for the Supreme One.
Thus there was a world in which it would have been an easy thing to call Jesus a God. But into this world there had come a voice which had never before been heard among men—the voice of the Hebrew prophets: and they had taught Israel, and those who caught their message, that God was one only, almighty, the righteous Creator of all that is in heaven or earth, and the just Judge of all rational spirits; and this new faith in God had put new power into men. To believe thus in the one Eternal Creator and Judge had given men a new life; and had made the Jews, although they were a small race, a power which all the world acknowledged and dreaded. And for the Jew, or for all who had accepted the Jewish religion, there was no more any easygoing way of calling a man god; there could be no deifying of a man. There could be no passing from being a creature to being the Creator; that was impossible. Men looked around and they saw all sorts and grades of being as between higher and lower creatures; but all those grades and distinctions of being, as between higher and lower creatures, were as nothing to the tremendous and awful difference between the creature and the Creator. To talk of a creature becoming Creator—that was impossible. And to think of the Creator becoming a creature—that had never occurred to them as possible.
It is this Jewish faith that lies at the basis of our civilization, and still holds its ground. So that we rightly feel it is a tremendous thing to speak of the Deity, of the Godhead, of one who was undoubtedly the man Jesus. It is no easy answer, that answer which the church has given to the question, "Who do ye say that I am?" On the contrary, it seems obvious to say that He was a very good man and no more; a very great man and no more; a supreme religious genius and no more. And yet we are not satisfied; we cannot keep off the old question. You remember that story of Charles Lamb amongst his friends—how, when one had spoken lightly of Jesus, he (though I do not know that he had any settled dogmatic creed) said, "Don't do that, there is such a difference. If Shakespeare came into the room we should all get up; but if Jesus came into the room we should all fall down on our knees." People have always felt that; you cannot get rid of the mystery of His person.
Of course there have been plenty of humanitarian lives of Jesus written by very able men; some of them with incomparable gifts of style. There is no more fascinating book than Renan's Life of Jesus. But one peculiarity of these humanitarian lives of Jesus is that they are so strangely different. In fact no man can re-write on a merely humanitarian basis that which is recorded in the Gospels. And if you eliminate all that is supernatural or miraculous or superhuman out of the story, what remains becomes so uncertain, so malleable, that you can make almost what you like out of it according to your imagination. So you find two things about the humanitarian lives of Jesus. First that, as I say, they are astonishingly different and contradictory. In Renan's Life of Jesus you are presented with the delightful and fascinating figure of a peasant, an idealist, with his intuition of the Father who is in heaven and His love for all men; and as you read the story, there is nothing that is not at first fascinating and attractive to the modern mind, if at the same time it becomes rather insipid, and at points rather disgusting. But the recent critics disclaim it. It has failed to keep its place.
Then you read some more modern life, written under some more modern critical impulse, and there you are presented with a totally different being,—the fiery enthusiast, the apocalyptic Christ: a strange, almost wild fanatic, deluded into the belief that He was coming in a few weeks in the clouds of heaven to be the judge of the world. The two pictures are strangely different; you would hardly take Renan's picture or Harnack's picture on the one hand, and Schweitzer's picture on the other, to be pictures of the same man. They are quite different. Also I think you will find them by the side of the Gospels profoundly unsatisfying. If I try the experiment of reading one or another of these humanitarian Lives of Jesus and become fascinated and interested, and then put it down and take Luke or Mark and read that story, I say to myself as I think of the clever critic's book—No, sir, it won't do; there is something there in this old story that it is not in you either to see or to reproduce. There is a real belief in a God who is revealing Himself in Jesus in judgement and mercy.
But then of course you say, "Can I trust these Gospels?" In part I think the answer lies within the scope of our perceptions without any inquiry into their origin. I confess that as I read these old books, so naive and so small in compass, I receive an impression which is almost irresistible, that this picture is coherent and such as would have passed the wit of man to invent. You would have to take account of this—that the literary generation to which our Lord belonged in time, the kind of men amongst whom He was in Judea and Galilee, and their contemporaries in the great Greek world, though they had many gifts, yet were in what you would call the constructive imagination notably deficient. You cannot imagine any great fiction arising out of that period.
But you may also look out more broadly over the world and still ask—Can I read these stories and think that this is the work of human invention? We have had powerful writers, men of constructive imagination, our Cervantes, our Shakespeare, our great novelists; and do you not note one thing about them? They can picture bad men, eccentric men, comic men, tragic men. They can picture all sorts and kinds of characters. They can picture exceedingly good, holy, pure women; but there has been hardly any successful male saint in fiction. The Sir Charles Grandisons are apt to be as insipid or priggish as the saints of imaginative hagiology. What then is this supernaturally-conceived being, so human yet so divine—this Jesus of the Gospels—so tender and so tremendous, so loving and so stern, so miraculous and so natural? I say to myself as I read that story, told in the simplest language without any pretension, "I am touching reality! This passes the wit of man to invent or to imagine!"
And then make a little inquiry, and you will find that these documents have been subjected to the most searching criticism to which any documents on earth have ever been subjected. Every possible doubt has exercised itself upon them; but I am not exaggerating when I say that they have been given back to us with the best guarantees. There is no reasonable doubt that the second Gospel was written by John Mark; and we know who this John Mark was. He was brought up in his mother's house at Jerusalem. We find him there about fourteen years after the Crucifixion. His mother's house was a large house, so that the company of Christians could assemble there—a large number of people—for prayer when Peter was in prison. It must also have been a large house because it had an outer gateway into a court-yard, and a porteress whose name we know, Rhoda; and it was plainly the place of common gathering of the followers of Jesus.
There Mark had been brought up. I do not think it is possible to doubt, myself, that in his Gospel, when he suddenly introduces the incident of the young man in the linen garment—which has no connection with anything that goes before and after—he means by this to say, "I was that young man, I saw Jesus taken." It is just as in an Italian picture of the fifteenth century, when you see one quite incongruous figure introduced into the sacred subject, you say—Either this was the donor or it was the painter. So when you see these few phrases, quite unconnected with what goes before and after, about the young man in the linen garment who was there when they took Jesus, you say—That was young Mark; there is no other reason why he should have put it in. If so he was probably amongst those first disciples from the beginning. He had the opportunity of constantly seeing and hearing that group all the time they remained in Jerusalem, both men and women.
Well, he was Barnabas' cousin; and (after some fourteen or fifteen years) Barnabas fetched him to help Paul and himself at Antioch, and he was with them there, and went with them thence on their first missionary journey, and suddenly left them—probably because he was conservative with the conservatism of the disciples at Jerusalem, and dreaded S. Paul's progressive Catholicism in opening the door so freely to the Gentile world. Anyway, he left them and came back to Antioch; and there was a breach between him and Paul, and between Paul and Barnabas, Mark's cousin, who took his part, arising out of this. So Barnabas took him, and he started on another missionary journey with Barnabas; and then for ten years we hear nothing more about him.
After that we find that he has been reconciled to Paul, and is there with Paul in his prison at Rome, and Paul loves him and trusts him, for he thinks there is nobody like him for an assistant. Thus he writes about him again from his second captivity; and after S. Paul has been martyred, Peter in the same way writes about him and calls him ''My son"; and there is a quite trustworthy tradition of the early second century which tells us that he was S. Peter's companion and interpreter, and that the "Gospel" which he wrote was the record, as accurate as he could make it, of what he had heard S. Peter teaching about the words and deeds of Jesus.
So we should fill up those vacant ten years of his life by supposing that he went about with Peter, and that it was Peter's habit to tell a certain selection of incidents from his experiences with Jesus. Now the Jewish disciples of rabbis had a marvellous capacity for treasuring the words of their teachers. So, with a like faithfulness, we think of S. Mark retaining and recording the narratives of Peter. He took them down perhaps at once in writing; but whether in writing or in his memory he retained them; and this is the main bulk of his little Gospel. Certainly then this Mark had singular opportunities for learning the truth about Jesus. Then when I read his short Gospel, the impression is to me irresistible. One feels it no doubt more if one reads the original Greek, but I think one feels it sufficiently in the English. You cannot resist the impression that this is an eye-witness's story. There are the gestures, the looks of Jesus. You are living in the group which is round Him, with their murmurings, with their questionings; you are in the presence of the reality; you feel it. And certainly no one can fail to recognize that this John Mark, whose experiences we more or less accurately know, was a personality profoundly qualified to give a true account of what the apostolic experiences had been, and what they taught about their Master.
Then in the third Gospel, S. Luke's, you have the work of a much more highly-educated man. Luke was "the beloved Physician," S. Paul's companion. Doubtless he had been trained as a physician, and he uses the language of a physician and a well-educated Greek. You read the preface to his Gospel, and it gives you a simple and convincing account of what he was intending to write. He was not satisfied with the records already written of the reports of the eye-witnesses about what Jesus had said and done; he wanted something to complete it; and he had had the opportunity of making the most exact inquiries from the beginning; so he was determined to let his educated friend Theophilus have as accurate an account as it was possible to give.
Well then, this S. Luke, this beloved physician and companion of S. Paul, had been with him in his travels, and when Paul was in prison in Caesarea had lived for years either with Philip the Evangelist or in his company: and earlier he had gone up to Jerusalem with Mnason, one of the original disciples, and lived with him; and he had obviously had close intercourse with people connected with the court of Herod, and with some of the circle of women who companied with our Lord, and after His death had been in Jerusalem, with Mary the Mother amongst them. He had been amongst all these; he had had full opportunities of inquiry; and he was a man quite capable of using his opportunities; and his accuracy has been extraordinarily vindicated, both in Gospel and Acts, where he touches upon the secular institutions and events of the empire. He has been vindicated from point to point as a very trustworthy historian. So we may read Luke's writings with the confidence with which we approach documents which we reasonably believe to be written by men well qualified to speak about the subject on which they are writing, and honest men who have no other desire or object than to tell us things as they were.
Now then read S. Mark's and S. Luke's Gospels. Put yourselves amongst these apostles; put yourselves amongst this little band; try to share their impressions, their experiences. They are under the fascination of this man—"The Son of Man" as He calls Himself; they had accepted His call; they had given up their occupations and had come to be His disciples; they had joined His wandering band as missionaries of His kingdom; they were close to Him. Before they joined Him they had ideas about the Christ who was to come, but all these ideas had been scattered by the reality. They do not ask themselves yet any question about His person; only they are going through experiences the like of which plainly they had never gone through before. Here was one with authority. True, He was not a dogmatic teacher like the scribes. That is to say, He issued no dogmas; He uttered no formal instructions which His disciples must receive submissively, in virtue of His office. He was not a dogmatic teacher like the scribes. But He was a man who spoke "as one having authority." He seemed to have a like authority both in His words and in His works of power. So He impressed an outsider like the Roman Centurion, who knew what it was to have authority in the army—to say "to one, Go, and he goeth, and to another, Come, and he cometh, and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it." That was what he did in the Roman Army. And when his boy was ill, he sent to Christ and said he really did not want to trouble Him to come to his house; he was convinced that He was a man who could order and it would be done; he knew indeed that Jesus was subordinate to God, as he was to his commander, but under God He had such power that he did not doubt He could do what He pleased. So Jesus impressed him, an outsider.
Much more and in a deeper sense He impressed those first disciples. They were there when the paralysed man was told that his sins were forgiven. Introduced by the faith of his friends, he lay there helpless and was told his sins were forgiven; and when those who sat by were scandalized at such an absolution, there came those words "That ye may know that the Son of Man hath power on earth to forgive sins (he saith to the sick of the palsy), Arise, take up thy bed and walk." That was one of many instances. Then they heard Him speaking about the old commandments given by God to the Jews: "It was said to them of old time"; and here was one who dared to revise them. They were divine, those commandments; but now He had something new, something deeper, to inculcate by His mere word—"I say unto you." More than that, He had a strange way of speaking as the judge of all men in their secret hearts. "Many shall come to me in that day." What day? What other day than the day of judgement? They will come with professions of effective service in the cause of Jesus. "Have I not called thee Lord? have I not done many wonderful works in thy name? Have I not taught in thy name? Then will I profess unto them, I never knew you."
What a tremendous experience it must have been for them to be in the company of one who, they felt, was even now knowing and reading their thoughts, as many times He showed that He did; and one who seemed to claim by implication to be the ultimate and infallible judge even of men's secret lives, as again and again it appeared that He did. What an experience to be with such a one! And then plainly He seemed to be deliberately training them to trust Him utterly. In all physical emergencies, like the need for the feeding of the multitude, or the storm at sea, as in all spiritual perplexities, He was found adequate. He could save. It was not so much that He taught them this or that, or explained mysteries; but He led them to trust Him utterly. And whatever He said, there was a sound in His voice as of infallibility: "No man knoweth the Son save the Father, neither knoweth any man the Father save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son willeth to reveal him. Come unto me."
Well, you can imagine the effect of that experience more or less. As I say, they do not appear yet to have asked themselves questions about His person: and you cannot imagine Jesus breaking in abruptly with any statement of Godhead; there is nothing of that kind; that was very far off. And as I have said, an incarnation of God was something which a Jew would not have dreamed of. But it was something amazing and profound which was happening in their souls. It was that they found themselves passing into an attitude towards Jesus in which He had for them the values of God. And as we read that story it seems that such was His deliberate intention.
There was an old dilemma invented I think at the time of the Reformation: "either Jesus was God or He was not a good man"; and the modern critic often laughs at it as ridiculous. I do not think I can laugh at it as ridiculous. What is, after all, the worst kind of spiritual crime? Is it not spiritual arrogance? What makes men hate with a profound hatred the wrong sort of sacerdotalism? It is that it exercises tyranny over human souls. Every man has the right to be himself; he ought not to be dominated or mastered by any other except God. God's service is perfect freedom; He can comprehend all; but for a man to put himself towards any other human soul as it were in the place of God, that is the supreme presumption; that, spiritually considered, is the sin of sins. Yet can I doubt as I read the Gospels that that is what was happening to the disciples? Jesus in their midst was coming to hold that place, which is the place of God, in their lives and in their minds; they did not know it; they could not have put it into words; but it was so. They called Him Christ; and what they meant by that was something much more than in their old days they had ever associated even with that great word. He was coming to have the place of God in their lives. Then there came the crash. Their dawning faith was smashed; it could not stand the test of His complete seeming failure. They saw Him deserted, a failure, crucified, dead. And then we know how their faith recovered, and they were absorbed in the light of His resurrection the third day from the dead; they were absorbed in the one great thought that God had reversed their mistaken human judgement; that the crucified Jesus truly was the Christ and the Lord, exalted into glory. "Jesus is Lord." That was their creed. They were content with this at first. It was only later that the question appears to have presented itself to their minds—Can one be all that we are now treating Jesus as being, if He were simply at starting a man commissioned and anointed of God? Then the question began to present itself to their minds differently; and soon also the answer began to present itself to their minds.
We will follow the course of their spiritual history next Sunday. What I have tried to do to-day is to present to you the question in the way in which I think a thoughtful man ought to present it to himself. I think he ought to feel how strange it is that, after all these generations, the question should still be asked about the person of Jesus. It is only of Jesus we ask the question, "Is He more than man?"—of none other of the great ones of the earth. And we know why we ask it; we know why we cannot be satisfied with those humanitarian lives of Jesus. We read the story of the Gospels; we understand why men have said that He was God, vaguely or dogmatically. For at least here is something which cannot be expressed within the measure of humanity.
Can we think this picture is an invention? It is not like an invention. Can we say that the men who wrote these records, Mark and Luke, were not qualified to write them, or had not the opportunities of real knowledge, or seem to be writing under later influences? No, it is not so. This picture seems to be lifelike and original. So we put ourselves under the circumstances of these first disciples, and we find Christ Jesus growing upon their imagination, their minds, their faith, until, as I say, He was to them taking the place of God. How can this have been? The question must be answered; we cannot get rid of it.
My friends, it is fashionable to be sceptical to-day. Well now, we may desire that the authority of the church should have been of the sort—so conclusive and compulsory—that we could not venture to ask questions; but it has not been so. The church is a very divided thing, and it appears to us often to have misguided men. The history of the church is a chequered thing; it cannot compel our moral assent; it cannot make us feel it is wrong to ask any questions. No, we will question freely. It is plain that our Lord wished conviction about His person, and indeed on all spiritual subjects, to grow in His disciples' minds as something which came of themselves under the divine leading. He did not dictate a doctrine about Himself to them, but wished it to come as the answer of their own minds: "Whom do ye say that I am?" So we will not fear to ask questions.
But on the other hand, if I read history quite frankly, I cannot possibly deny that the intellectuals of every epoch have misled people quite as badly as the priests. You cannot deny that. It is an extraordinary thing. The intellectuals have found out much; on their own ground they have made grand discoveries; but as to those principles which govern the general tendencies of life, the general theory of the world, they have misled people strangely at very different epochs. So we will not believe merely because the priests say so; nor will we disbelieve merely because the intellectuals say that it is foolish. We have got to trust our own judgement; that is one of the most courageous things you have got to do in life: you have got to trust your own best judgement, your own best reason, your own best self. You must win a conviction that you can really feel is your own; the sort of conviction which made Peter say, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." And then Jesus solemnly blessed him and said, "Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven." That is, Thou hast not borrowed it from some other person; it is something which has grown in thine own mind under the divine leading. That is the sort of conviction you want. May God give you grace to grow into such a conviction about Jesus Christ.