RELIGION of some kind seems natural to man. He has been described as a religious animal, and it has been said that God never made an irreligious human being. Amid all the changes and varieties of human experience, from the beginning religion has formed an essential part of man's life. At all events, so far as we know the history of the human race no nation or people has ever existed without some form of religion.
The creeds to which the different races of men have given their assent have been various, and have ranged from the most groveling and debasing animalism and superstition to the more spiritual and ennobling conception of God as the Almighty Father and Ruler of the Universe. God has not left Himself without witness, though in times past He suffered all nations to walk in their own ways, still as a loving Father giving them rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling their hearts with food and gladness. Moreover, some grains of truth have been found in all the diversified forms in which man's religious nature has expressed itself, while sentiments occasionally occurring among them have been so pure and elevating as to remind us of the Gospel message.
To the Hebrew race was revealed, in the gradual evolution of the ages, the first clear conception of one God as the supreme Maker and Ruler of the world.
The high-water mark of revelation as to the nature of God and the duty of man before the time of Christ was reached when the Ten Commandments were given to Moses. We cannot wonder that these sublime precepts were held in highest esteem by the Jews, to whom they were first given, for during the more than two thousand years since they have been known they have held their place in the realm of religion and ethics. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that this code of morality as revealed to Moses has steadily grown in the estimation of mankind as embodying the highest ideal of duty known before the advent of Christ. As compared with the teaching of all the great religious philosophers in the pagan world, it stands mountain-high above them in its commanding and comprehensive appeal. But God has not only spoken in these Ten Commandments of the moral law, but at sundry times and in divers manners has He spoken in times past through His prophets.
As we turn back the pages of history we see how particular nations and people seem to possess special gifts. Rome had a genius for law and organization, as Greece had for arts and letters. So, too, the Hebrew people had a special genius for religion. In an unusual and noteworthy sense religion was their life. It molded their national constitution. It directed their national policy. It created their national literature. The Hebrews have been the great religious teachers of the world. We who have inherited so much from them are likely to forget how wholly unique their religion was when it first made its appearance in the world. The religions of Greece and Rome, of Babylon and Egypt, have perished, and of the great religions which still live two--namely, Christianity and Mohammedanism--have their roots in Judaism. The Hebrews, indeed, stand out pre-eminently as selected in order to give religion to the world.
Moreover, it is in the Bible that the religion of the Hebrews finds its highest and noblest expression. Through the medium of their words the Biblical writers of the Old Testament enable us to see God as they saw Him and to share that communion with Him which inspired their writings. This is simply a statement of historical fact.
The Bible is God's Book because it is, in a unique and universal sense, man's Book. It is the record of, and the vehicle for transmitting a great human experience, an experience of God, of human need, and of God's response to that need. This is the real secret of the religious power of the Old Testament. To teach religion, as Carlyle said, the first thing is to find a man who has religion. For most men, their religion is vitalized and sustained by their personal relation with religious men. It is only when we come into contact with men whose lives are guided and controlled by the hand of God and who see the power of the faith which makes them strong that we ourselves become sure of God and of His love. Soul is kindled only by soul. The Bible teaches religion, leads men to God, because its writers were men who had religion. The more we emphasize their real humanity the greater will be the power of their appeal. God has spoken to us all through the history of the world, through men, and not through angels. As these men write they pour out the secrets of their hearts and admit us to the innermost chambers of their lives, and as we read their story our hearts burn within us. We are fired with their enthusiasm. Their faith in God evokes a like faith in us.
This is why men have always read and loved the Bible, not because they regarded it as a text-book of history, or of natural science, or as a code of ethics, or as a compendium of theological doctrines. It was once believed to be all this wrongly, but its real value even then, as now, lay not in this, but in the irresistible appeal of the writers to the heart and conscience and in the power of their faith in God to uplift men's thoughts and words and deeds always and everywhere. Men have read the Bible because in it they have found God speaking to their hearts through the hearts of their fellow-men. The value of the various books for history, for ethics, and for theology must be determined by applying to them the same principle of criticism which we should apply to any other book for the same purpose. But the chief religious value of the Bible depends upon the fact that it is a record, a living and a vitalizing record, of religious experience which must be of worth while human nature lasts. So much for the Old Testament. As God has spoken in it to us through men, so in a very real sense has God always spoken to us through men, not only in the Old Testament, but in human history, outside of the sacred Scriptures. He speaks to us in literature, in Shakespeare, in Milton, in Browning, in Tennyson. He is constantly appealing to us whenever and wherever He inspires the genius of man to interpret the human heart and enkindle the emotions to a higher and nobler effort.
When we come to the New Testament we find that God speaks to man through His only begotten and eternal Son, Jesus Christ. "God, who at sundry times and in divers manners, spoke in times past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the world." "When the fullness of time was come God sent forth his son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons." By this expression, "the fullness of time," we mean that our Lord's arrival on the scene of human history took place when a course of preparation, conducted through previous ages, was complete. But Christ was not the product of His own or any preceding age. What is true of great men, who are only men, is not true of Him. They receive much from the age in which they live. They embody and reflect its spirit. With Him this was in no sense true. He owed nothing to the time or to the country which witnessed His coming. He had no contact with the world of Greek thought and Roman politics and government. He borrowed rabbinical language enough to make Himself intelligible, but no Rabbi could have said, or could have omitted to say, what He did. The preceding ages only prepared His way before Him by forming the circumstances, the convictions, and the moral experience of the world. At last all things were ready, and the hour had struck, and that hour was the fullness of time.
The facts of the birth, the life, and the teaching of the Christ have been made familiar to the world for many generations. It is safe to say that no life has ever been passed upon earth which has been subjected to such scrutiny and has challenged such critical examination and analysis as that of Jesus Christ. During the three short years of His public ministry He so spake, and so acted, and so lived that His influence has become world-wide. The charm of His personality and the potency of His message have revolutionized men and nations. It is also an impressive fact that, while with other great characters in human history their fame has gradually diminished with the passing years, in the case of Jesus the splendor of His name and the glory of His achievements have gathered additional power as time has gone on. Human interest in the Christ has grown with the centuries, and the depth of His character and the many-sided and inexhaustible wealth of His nature have invested Him with all that appeals most strongly to the human heart.
Born in poverty and obscurity, the adopted son of a carpenter and the child of a humble peasant maiden, destitute of social and political influence, without any of the culture which comes from the schools, we find Him to-day commanding the homage and reverence and unbounded affection of the world.
His life, looked at however closely, breathes sinlessness, freedom, peace. While the most humble of men, yet His self-assertion knows no limit. He never confesses to any sin, however slight. He never asks for pardon or forgiveness. He rebukes certain sins with unsparing severity, while yet He challenges the world to convict Him of one single sin. He bids men come to Him, learn of Him, follow Him. He declares that He and His Father are one. Nay, He goes further and says that they who have seen Him have seen the Father. The astounding part of all is that such is the perfect consistency of His life that the world has not resented or denied these claims as if they were unwarrantable. There is that in Him which justifies it. His absolute moral purity is strictly in harmony with it, and separates Him from all men as unique.
Napoleon was right when he said, "Can you tell me who Jesus Christ was?" The question was declined, and Bonaparte proceeded: "Well, then, I will tell you. Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I myself have founded great empires; but upon what did these great creations of our genius depend? Upon force. Jesus alone founded His empire upon love, and to this very day millions would die for Him. I think I understand something of human nature, and I tell you all these were men, and I am a man; none else is like Him; Jesus Christ was more than man. I have inspired multitudes with such an enthusiastic devotion that they would have died for me; but to do this it was necessary that I should be visibly present, with the electric influence of my looks, of my words, of my voice. When I saw men and spoke to them I lighted up the flame of self-devotion in their hearts. Christ alone has succeeded in so raising the mind of man toward the unseen that it becomes insensible to the barriers of time and space. Wonderful! In defiance of time and space the soul of man, with all its powers and faculties, becomes an annexation to the empire of Christ. All who sincerely believe in Him experience that remarkable, supernatural love toward Him. This phenomenon is unaccountable. It is altogether beyond the scope of man's creative powers. "This it is which strikes me most. I have often thought of it. This it is which proves to me quite convincingly the divinity of Jesus Christ."
Renan was right when he said: "Repose now in Thy glory, noble Founder. Thy work is completed. Thy divinity is established. Fear no more to see the edifice of Thy efforts crumble through any flaw. Henceforth, beyond the reach of frailty, Thou shalt be present from the height of Thy divine peace, in the infinite consequences of Thy acts. At the price of a few hours of suffering, which has not even touched Thy great soul, Thou hast purchased the most complete immortality. For thousands of years the world will extol Thee. A thousand times more living, a thousand times more beloved since Thy death than during the days of Thy pilgrimage here below, Thou wilt become to such a degree the corner-stone of humanity that to tear Thy name from this world would be to shake it from its foundations. Between Thee and God men will no longer distinguish. Complete conqueror of death, take possession of Thy kingdom, whither by the royal road Thou hast traced ages of adorers will follow Thee." Thus has God spoken to us, in and through the life, the words, and the victorious death of Him whose name is above every name.