This child of poverty and of a despised race, born in the stable of the lodging-house of an insignificant town belonging to a conquered province, did not enter upon life surrounded by associations which betokened a career of earthly prosperity. But intimations were not wanting that the Son of Mary was regarded with the deepest interest by the inhabitants of heaven. An angel had appeared to announce the conception of the individual who was to be the herald of his ministry; [15:1] and another angel had been sent to give notice of the incarnation of this Great Deliverer. [15:2] When He was born, the angel of the Lord communicated the tidings to shepherds in the plains of Bethlehem; "and suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying -- Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." [15:3] Inanimate nature called attention to the advent of the illustrious babe, for a wonderful star made known to wise men from the east the incarnation of the King of Israel; and when they came to Jerusalem "the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was." [15:4] The history of these eastern sages cannot now be explored, and we know not on what grounds they regarded the star as the sign of the Messiah; but they rightly interpreted the appearance, and the narrative warrants us to infer that they acted under the guidance of divine illumination. As they were "warned of God in a dream" [15:5] to return to their own country another way, we may presume that they were originally directed by some similar communication to undertake the journey. It is probable that they did not belong to the stock of Abraham; and if so, their visit to the babe at Bethlehem may be recognised as the harbinger of the union of Jews and Gentiles under the new economy. The presence of these Orientals in Jerusalem attracted the notice of the watchful and jealous tyrant who then occupied the throne of Judea. Their story filled him with alarm; and his subjects anticipated some tremendous outbreak of his suspicions and savage temper. "When the king had heard these things he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him." [15:6] His rage soon vented itself in a terrible explosion. Having ascertained from the chief priests and scribes of the people where Christ was to be born, he "sent forth and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under." [16:1]
Joseph and Mary, in accordance with a message from heaven, had meanwhile fled towards the border of Egypt, and thus the holy infant escaped this carnage. The wise men, on the occasion of their visit, had "opened their treasures," and had "presented unto him gifts, gold, and frankincense, and myrrh," [16:2] so that the poor travellers had providentially obtained means for defraying the expenses of their journey. The slaughter of the babes of Bethlehem was one of the last acts of the bloody reign of Herod; and, on his demise, the exiles were divinely instructed to return, and the child was presented in the temple. This ceremony evoked new testimonies to His high mission. On His appearance in His Father's house, the aged Simeon, moved by the Spirit from on high, embraced Him as the promised Shiloh; and Anna, the prophetess, likewise gave thanks to God, and "spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem." [16:3] Thus, whilst the Old Testament predictions pointed to Jesus as the Christ, living prophets appeared to interpret these sacred oracles, and to bear witness to the claims of the new-born Saviour.
Though the Son of Mary was beyond all comparison the most extraordinary personage that ever appeared on earth, it is remarkable that the sacred writers enter into scarcely any details respecting the history of His infancy, His youth, or His early manhood. They tell us that "the child grew and waxed strong in spirit," [17:1] and that He "increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man;" [17:2] but they do not minutely trace the progress of His mental development, neither do they gratify any feeling of mere curiosity by giving us His infantile biography. In what is omitted by the penmen of the New Testament, as well as in what is written we must acknowledge the guidance of inspiration; and though we might have perused with avidity a description of the pursuits of Jesus when a child, such a record has not been deemed necessary for the illustration of the work of redemption. It would appear that He spent about thirty years on earth almost unnoticed and unknown; and He seems to have been meanwhile trained to the occupation of a carpenter. [17:3] The obscurity of His early career must doubtless be regarded as one part of His humiliation. But the circumstances in which He was placed enabled Him to exhibit more clearly the divinity of His origin. He did not receive a liberal education, so that when He came forward as a public teacher "the Jews marvelled, saying -- How knoweth this man letters having never learned?" [17:4] When He was only twelve years old, He was "found in the temple sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions; and all that heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers." [18:1] As He grew up, He was distinguished by His diligent attendance in the house of God; and it seems not improbable that He was in the habit of officiating at public worship by assisting in the reading of the law and the prophets; for we are told that, shortly after the commencement of His ministry, "He came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the Sabbath-day, and stood up for to read." [18:2]
When He was about thirty years of age, and immediately before His public appearance as a prophet, our Lord was baptized of John in Jordan. [18:3] The Baptist did not, perhaps, preach longer than six months, [18:4] but it is probable that during his imprisonment of considerably upwards of a year, he still contributed to prepare the way of Christ; for, in the fortress of Machaerus in which he was incarcerated, [18:5] he was not kept in utter ignorance of passing occurrences, and when permitted to hold intercourse with his friends, he would doubtless direct their special attention to the proceedings of the Great Prophet. The claims of John, as a teacher sent from God, were extensively acknowledged; and therefore his recognition of our Lord as the promised Messiah, must have made a deep impression upon the minds of the Israelites. The miracles of our Saviour corroborated the testimony of His forerunner, and created a deep sensation. He healed "all manner of sickness, and all manner of disease." [19:1] It was, consequently, not strange that "His fame went throughout all Syria," and that "there followed him great multitudes of people, from Galilee, and from Decapolis, and from Jerusalem, and from Judea, and from beyond Jordan." [19:2]
Even when the Most High reveals himself there is something mysterious in the manifestation, so that, whilst we acknowledge the tokens of His presence, we may well exclaim -- "Verily thou art a God that hidest thyself, O God of Israel, the Saviour." [19:3] When He displayed His glory in the temple of old, He filled it with thick darkness; [19:4] when He delivered the sure word of prophecy, He employed strange and misty language; when He announced the Gospel itself, He uttered some things hard to be understood. It might have been said, too, of the Son of God, when He appeared on earth, that His "footsteps were not known." In early life He does not seem to have arrested the attention of His own townsmen; and when He came forward to assert His claims as the Messiah, He did not overawe or dazzle his countrymen by any sustained demonstration of tremendous power or of overwhelming splendour. To-day the multitude beheld His miracles with wonder, but to-morrow they could not tell where to meet with Him; [19:5] ever and anon He appeared and disappeared; and occasionally His own disciples found it difficult to discover the place of His retirement. When He arrived in a district, thousands often hastily gathered around Him; [19:6] but He never encouraged the attendance of vast assemblages by giving general notice that, in a specified place and on an appointed day, He would deliver a public address, or perform a new and unprecedented miracle. We may here see the wisdom of Him who "doeth all things well." Whilst the secresy with which He conducted His movements baffled any premature attempts on the part of His enemies, to effect His capture or condemnation, it also checked that intense popular excitement which a ministry so extraordinary might have been expected to awaken.
Four inspired writers have given separate accounts of the life of Christ -- all repeat many of His wonderful sayings -- all dwell with marked minuteness on the circumstances of His death -- and all attest the fact of His resurrection. Each mentions some things which the others have omitted; and each apparently observes the order of time in the details of his narrative. But when we combine and arrange their various statements, so as to form the whole into one regular and comprehensive testimony, we discover that there are not a few periods of His life still left utterly blank in point of incidents; and that there is no reference whatever to topics which we might have expected to find particularly noticed in the biography of so eminent a personage. After His appearance as a public teacher, He seems, not only to have made sudden transitions from place to place, but otherwise to have often courted the shade; and, instead of unfolding the circumstances of His private history, the evangelists dwell chiefly on His Discourses and His Miracles. During His ministry, Capernaum was His headquarters; [20:1] but we cannot positively tell with whom He lodged in that place; nor whether the twelve sojourned there under the same roof with Him; nor how much time He spent in it at any particular period. We cannot point out the precise route which He pursued on any occasion when itinerating throughout Galilee or Judea; neither are we sure that He always journeyed on foot, or that He adhered to a uniform mode of travelling. It is most singular that the inspired writers throw out no hint on which an artist might seize as the groundwork of a painting of Jesus. As if to teach us more emphatically that we should beware of a sensuous superstition, and that we should direct our thoughts to the spiritual features of His character, the New Testament never mentions either the colour of His hair, or the height of His stature, or the cast of His countenance. How wonderful that even "the beloved disciple," who was permitted to lean on the bosom of the Son of man, and who had seen him in the most trying circumstances of His earthly history, never speaks of the tones of His voice, or of the expression of His eye, or of any striking peculiarity pertaining to His personal appearance! The silence of all the evangelists respecting matters of which at least some of them must have retained a very vivid remembrance, and of which ordinary biographers would not have failed to preserve a record, supplies an indirect and yet a most powerful proof of the Divine origin of the Gospels.
But whilst the sacred writers enter so sparingly into personal details, they leave no doubt as to the perfect integrity which marked every part of our Lord's proceedings. He was born in a degenerate age, and brought up in a city of Galilee which had a character so infamous that no good thing was expected to proceed from it; [21:1] and yet, like a ray of purest light shining into some den of uncleanness, He contracted no defilement from the scenes of pollution which He was obliged to witness. Even in boyhood, He must have uniformly acted with supreme discretion; for though His enemies from time to time gave vent to their malignity in various accusations, we do not read that they ever sought to cast so much as a solitary stain upon His youthful reputation. The most malicious of the Jews failed to fasten upon Him in after life any charge of immorality. Among those constantly admitted to His familiar intercourse, a traitor was to be found; and had Judas been able to detect anything in His private deportment inconsistent with His public profession, he would doubtless have proclaimed it as an apology for his perfidy; but the keen eye of that close observer could not discover a single blemish in the character of his Master; and, when prompted by covetousness, he betrayed Him to the chief priests, the thought of having been accessory to the death of one so kind and so holy, continued to torment him, until it drove him to despair and to self-destruction.
The doctrine inculcated by our Lord commended itself by the light of its own evidence. It was nothing more than a lucid and comprehensive exposition of the theology of the Old Testament; and yet it, presented such a new view of the faith of patriarchs and of prophets, that it had all the freshness and interest of an original revelation. It discovered a most intimate acquaintance with the mental constitution of man -- it appealed with mighty power to the conscience -- and it was felt to be exactly adapted to the moral state and to the spiritual wants of the human family. The disciples of Jesus did not require to be told that He had "the key of knowledge," for they were delighted and edified as "He opened" to them the Scriptures. [22:1] He taught the multitude "as one having authority;" [22:2] and they were "astonished at His doctrine." The discourses of the Scribes, their most learned instructors, were meagre and vapid -- they were not calculated to enlarge the mind or to move the affections -- they consisted frequently of doubtful disputations relating to the ceremonials of their worship -- and the very air with which they were delivered betrayed the insignificance of the topics of discussion. But Jesus spake with a dignity which commanded respect, and with the deep seriousness of a great Teacher delivering to perishing sinners tidings of unutterable consequence.
There was something singularly beautiful and attractive, as well as majestic and impressive, in the teaching of our Lord. The Sermon on the Mount is a most pleasing specimen of His method of conveying instruction. Whilst He gives utterance to sentiments of exalted wisdom, He employs language so simple, and imagery so chaste and natural, that even a child takes a pleasure in perusing His address. There is reason to think that He did not begin to speak in parables until a considerable time after He had entered upon His ministry. [23:1] By these symbolical discourses He at once blinded the eyes of His enemies, and furnished materials for profitable meditation to His genuine disciples. The parables, like the light of prophecy, are, to this very day, a beacon to the Church, and a stumbling-block to unbelievers.
The claims of Jesus as the Christ were decisively established by the Divine power which He manifested. It had been foretold that certain extraordinary recoveries from disease and infirmity would be witnessed in the days of the Messiah; and these predictions were now literally fulfilled. The eyes of the blind were opened, and the ears of the deaf were unstopped; the lame man leaped as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sang. [23:2] Not a few of the cures of our Saviour were wrought on individuals to whom He was personally unknown; [23:3] and many of His works of wonder were performed in the presence of friends and foes. [23:4] Whilst His miracles exceeded in number all those recorded in the Old Testament, they were still more remarkable for their variety and their excellence. By His touch, or His word, he healed the most inveterate maladies; He fed the multitude by thousands out of a store of provisions which a little boy could carry; [24:1] He walked upon the waves of the sea, when it was agitated by a tempest; [24:2] He made the storm a calm, so that the wind at once ceased to blow, and the surface of the deep reposed, at the same moment, in glassy smoothness; [24:3] He cast out devils; and He restored life to the dead. Well might the Pharisees be perplexed by the inquiry -- "How can a man that is a sinner do such miracles?" [23:4] It is quite possible that false prophets, by the help of Satan, may accomplish feats fitted to excite astonishment; and yet, in such cases, the agents of the Wicked One may be expected to exhibit some symptoms of his spirit and character. But nothing diabolical, or of an evil tendency, appeared in the miracles of our Lord. With the one exception of the cursing of the barren fig-tree [24:5] -- a malediction which created no pain, and involved no substantial loss -- all his displays of power were indicative of His goodness and His mercy. No other than a true prophet would have been enabled so often to control the course of nature, in the production of results of such utility, such benignity, and such grandeur.
The miracles of Christ illustrated, as well as confirmed, His doctrines. When, for instance, He converted the water into wine at the marriage in Cana of Galilee. [24:6] He taught, not only that he approved of wedlock, but also that, within proper limits, He was disposed to patronise the exercise of a generous hospitality, in some cases He required faith in the individuals whom He vouchsafed to cure, [24:7] thus distinctly suggesting the way of a sinner's salvation. Many of His miracles were obviously of a typical character. When He acted as the physician of the body, He indirectly gave evidence of His efficiency as the physician of the soul; when He restored sight to the blind, He indicated that He could turn men from darkness to light; when He raised the dead, He virtually demonstrated His ability to quicken such as are dead in trespasses and sins. Those who witnessed the visible exhibitions of His power were prepared to listen with the deepest interest to His words when He declared -- "I am the light of the world; he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life." [25:1]
Though our Lord's conduct, as a public teacher, fully sustained His claims as the Messiah, it must have been a complete enigma to all classes of politicians. He did not seek to obtain power by courting the favour of the great, neither did He attempt to gain popularity by flattering the prejudices of the multitude. He wounded the national pride by hinting at the destruction of the temple; He gave much offence by holding intercourse with the odious publicans; and with many, He forfeited all credit, as a patriot, by refusing to affirm the unlawfulness of paying tribute to the Roman emperor. The greatest human characters have been occasionally swayed by personal predilections or antipathies, but, in the life of Christ, we can discover no memorial of any such infirmity. Like a sage among children, He did not permit Himself to be influenced by the petty partialities, whims, or superstitions of His countrymen. He inculcated a theological system for which He could not expect the support of any of the existing classes of religionists. He differed from the Essenes, as He did not adopt their ascetic habits; He displeased the Sadducees, by asserting the doctrine of the resurrection; He provoked the Pharisees, by declaring that they worshipped God in vain, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men; and He incurred the hostility of the whole tribe of Jewish zealots, by maintaining His right to supersede the arrangements of the Mosaic economy. By pursuing this independent course He vindicated His title to the character of a Divine lawgiver, but at the same time He forfeited a vast amount of sympathy and aid upon which He might otherwise have calculated.
There has been considerable diversity of opinion regarding the length of our Saviour's ministry. [26:1] We could approximate very closely to a correct estimate could we tell the number of passovers from its commencement to its close, but this point cannot be determined with absolute certainty. Four are apparently mentioned [26:2] by the evangelist John; and if, as is probable, they amounted to no more, it would seem that our Lord's career, as a public teacher, was of about three years' duration. [26:3] The greater part of this period was spent in Galilee; and the sacred writers intimate that He made several circuits, as a missionary, among the cities and villages of that populous district. [26:4] Matthew, Mark, and Luke dwell chiefly upon this portion of His history. Towards the termination of His course, Judea was the principal scene of His ministrations. Jerusalem was the centre of Jewish power and prejudice, and He had hitherto chiefly laboured in remote districts of the land, that He might escape the malignity of the scribes and Pharisees; but, as His end approached, He acted with greater publicity, and often taught openly in the very courts of the temple. John supplements the narratives of the other evangelists by recording our Lord's proceedings in Judea.
A few members of the Sanhedrim, such as Nicodemus, [27:1] believed Jesus to be "a teacher come from God," but by far the majority regarded Him with extreme aversion. They could not imagine that the son of a carpenter was to be the Saviour of their country, for they expected the Messiah to appear surrounded with all the splendour of secular magnificence. They were hypocritical and selfish; they had been repeatedly rebuked by Christ for their impiety; and, as they marked His increasing favour with the multitude, their envy and indignation became ungovernable. They accordingly seized Him at the time of the Passover, and, on the charge that He said He was the Son of God, He was condemned as a blasphemer. [27:2] He suffered crucifixion -- an ignominious form of capital punishment from which the laws of the empire exempted every Roman citizen -- and, to add to His disgrace, He was put to death between two thieves. [27:3] But even Pontius Pilate, who was then Procurator of Judea, and who, in that capacity, endorsed the sentence, was constrained to acknowledge that He was a "just person" in whom He could find "no fault." [27:4] Pilate was a truckling time-server, and he acquiesced in the decision, simply because he was afraid to exasperate the Jews by rescuing from their grasp an innocent man whom they persecuted with unrelenting hatred. [27:5]
The death of Christ, of which all the evangelists treat so particularly, is the most awful and the most momentous event in the history of the world. He, no doubt, fell a victim to the malice of the rulers of the Jews; but He was delivered into their hands "by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God;" [28:1] and if we discard the idea that He was offered up as a vicarious sacrifice, we must find it impossible to give anything like a satisfactory account of what occurred in Gethsemane and at Calvary. The amount of physical suffering He sustained from man did not exceed that endured by either of the malefactors with whom He was associated; and such was His magnanimity and fortitude, that, had He been an ordinary martyr, the prospect of crucifixion would not have been sufficient to make Him "exceeding sorrowful" and "sore amazed." [28:2] His holy soul must have been wrung with no common agony, when "His sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground," [28:3] and when He was forced to cry out -- "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" [28:4] In that hour of "the power of darkness" He was "smitten of God and afflicted," and there was never sorrow like unto His sorrow, for upon Him were laid "the iniquities of us all."
The incidents which accompanied the death of Jesus were even more impressive than those which signalised His birth. When He was in the garden of Gethsemane there appeared unto Him an angel from Heaven strengthening Him. [28:5] During the three concluding hours of His intense anguish on the cross, there was darkness overall the land, [28:6] as if nature mourned along with the illustrious sufferer. When He bowed His head on Calvary and gave up the ghost, the event was marked by notifications such as never announced the demise of any of this world's great potentates, for "the veil of the temple was rent in twain," and the rocks were cleft asunder, and the graves were opened, and the earth trembled. [29:1] "The centurion and they that were with him," in attendance at the execution, seem to have been Gentiles; and though, doubtless, they had heard that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah of the Jews, they perhaps very imperfectly comprehended the import of the designation; but they were forthwith overwhelmed with the conviction, that He, whose death they had just witnessed, must have given a true account of His mission and His dignity, for "when they saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying -- Truly this was the Son of God" [29:2]
The body of our Lord was committed to the grave on the evening of Friday, and, early on the morning of the following Sunday, He issued from the tomb. An ordinary individual has no control over the duration of his existence, but Jesus demonstrated that He had power to lay down His life, and that He had power to take it again. [29:3] Had He been a deceiver His delusions must have terminated with His death, so that His resurrection must be regarded as His crowning miracle, or rather, as the affixing of the broad seal of heaven to the truth of His mission as the Messiah. It was, besides, the fulfilment of an ancient prophecy; [29:4] a proof of His fore-knowledge; [29:5] and a pledge of the resurrection of His disciples. [29:6] Hence, in the New Testament, [29:7] it is so often mentioned with marked emphasis.
There is no fact connected with the life of Christ better attested than that of His resurrection. He was put to death by His enemies; and His body was not removed from the cross until they were fully satisfied that the vital spark had fled. [29:8] His tomb was scooped out of a solid rock; [29:9] the stone which blocked up the entrance was sealed with all care; and a military guard kept constant watch to prevent its violation. [30:1] But in due time an earthquake shook the cemetery -- "The angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door and sat upon it ... and for fear of him the keepers did shake, and became as dead men." [30:2] Our Lord meanwhile came forth from the grave, and the sentinels, in consternation, hastened to the chief priests and communicated the astounding intelligence. [30:3] But these infatuated men, instead of yielding to the force of this overwhelming evidence, endeavoured to conceal their infamy by the base arts of bribery and falsehood. "They gave large money unto the soldiers, saying -- Say ye -- His disciples came by night and stole him away while we slept...so they took the money, and did as they were taught." [30:4]
Jesus, as the first-born of Mary, was presented in the temple forty days after His birth; and, as "the first-begotten of the dead," [30:5] He presented Himself before His Father, in the temple above, forty days after He had opened the womb of the grave. During the interval he appeared only to His own followers. [30:6] Those who had so long and so wilfully rejected the testimony of His teaching and His miracles, had certainly no reason to expect any additional proofs of His Divine mission. But the Lord manifests Himself to His Church, "and not unto the world," [30:7] and to such as fear His name He is continually supplying new and interesting illustrations of His presence, His power, His wisdom, and His mercy. Whilst He is a pillar of darkness to His foes, He is a pillar of light to His people. Though Jesus was now invisible to the Scribes and Pharisees, He admitted His disciples to high and holy fellowship. Now their hearts burned within them as He spake to them "of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God," [31:1] and as "He expounded unto them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself." [31:2] Now He doubtless pointed out to them how He was symbolised in the types, how He was exhibited in the promises, and how He was described in the prophecies. Now He explained to them more fully the arrangements of His Church, and now He commanded His apostles to go and "teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." [31:3] Having assured the twelve of His presence with His true servants even unto the end of the world, and having led them out as far as Bethany, a village a few furlongs from Jerusalem, "he lifted up his hands and blessed them. And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven." [31:4]
Thus closed the earthly career of Him who is both the Son of man and the Son of God. Though He was sorely tried by the privations of poverty, though He was exposed to the most brutal and degrading insults, and though at last He was forsaken by His friends and consigned to a death of lingering agony, He never performed a single act or uttered a single word unworthy of His exalted and blessed mission. The narratives of the evangelists supply clear internal evidence that, when they described the history of Jesus, they must have copied from a living original; for otherwise, no four individuals, certainly no four Jews, could have each furnished such a portrait of so great and so singular a personage. Combining the highest respect for the institutions of Moses with a spirit eminently catholic, He was at once a devout Israelite and a large-hearted citizen of the world. Rising far superior to the prejudices of His countrymen, He visited Samaria, and conversed freely with its population; and, whilst declaring that He was sent specially to the seed of Abraham, He was ready to extend His sympathy to their bitterest enemies. Though He took upon Him the form of a servant, there was nothing mean or servile in His behaviour; for, when He humbled Himself, there was ever about Him an air of condescending majesty. Whether He administers comfort to the mourner, or walks upon the waves of the sea, or replies to the cavils of the Pharisees, He is still the same calm, holy, and gracious Saviour. When His passion was immediately in view, He was as kind and as considerate as ever, for, on the very night in which He was betrayed, He was employed in the institution of an ordinance which was to serve as a sign and a seal of His grace throughout all generations. His character is as sublime as it is original. It has no parallel in the history of the human family. The impostor is cunning, the demagogue is turbulent, and the fanatic is absurd; but the conduct of Jesus Christ is uniformly gentle and serene, candid, courteous, and consistent. Well, indeed, may His name be called Wonderful. "He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world know him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But an many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name." [32:1]