It is universally admitted, even by deists and rationalists, that Christ taught the purest and sublimest system of ethics, one which throws all the moral precepts and maxims of the wisest men of antiquity far into the shade. The Sermon on the Mount alone is worth infinitely more than all that Confucius, Cakya-Mouni, Zoroaster, Socrates, and Seneca ever said or wrote on duty and virtue. Men of the world can hardly resist its power. Napoleon Bonaparte had it once read to him and his friends in the solitude of exile by a son of Count De Las Cases, and "expressed himself struck with the highest admiration of the purity, the sublimity, the beauty of the morality which it contained." De Las Cases, who relates this fact in his Memoires, adds: "We all experienced the same feeling."
But the difference between Christ and the great moralists of ancient or modern times is still greater if we come to the more difficult task of practice. All the systems of moral philosophy combined could not regenerate the world. Words are nothing unless they are supported by deeds. A holy life is a far greater power for good than the finest moral maxim or essay. In this respect, the difference between Jesus and the great sages is so radical and fundamental, that all comparison ceases. Cicero, who, with all his excessive vanity, was one of the noblest and purest of old Roman characters, confessed that he never found a perfect sage in his life, and that philosophy only taught how he ought to be if he should ever appear on earth. It is well known that the wisest men of Greece and Rome sanctioned slavery, oppression, revenge, infanticide or exposure of infants, polygamy or concubinage, and worse vices; or, like the avaricious and venal Seneca, belied even their purer moral maxims by their conduct.31 The greatest saints of the Old Testament, even with the help of divine grace, did not rise above reproach; and some of them are stained with the guilt of blood and adultery. It may be safely asserted, that the wisest and best of men, even among Christian nations, never live up to their own imperfect standard of excellency.
But how is it with Christ? He fully carried out his perfect doctrine in his life and conduct. He both was and did that which he taught: he preached his own life, and lived his own doctrine. He is the living incarnation of the ideal standard of virtue and holiness, and universally acknowledged to be the highest model for all that is pure and good and noble in the sight of God and man. Even unbelievers must admit this fact. "Christ unites in himself," says the late Theodore Parker, "the sublimest precepts and divinest practices, thus more than realizing the dream of prophets and sages; rises free from all prejudice of his age, nation, or sect; gives free range to the Spirit of God in his breast; sets aside the law, sacred and true, honored as it was, -- its forms, its sacrifice, its temple, its priests; puts away the doctors of the laws -- subtle, irrefragable; and pours out a doctrine beautiful as the light, sublime as heaven, and true as God."32 And Renan, much as he perverts the life and character of Jesus, freely acknowledges, that both in word and in work, in the doctrine and practice of morality, the hero of Nazareth "is without an equal;" that "his glory remains perfect, and will be renewed for ever."33
We find Christ moving in all ordinary and essential relations of life,34 as a son, a brother, a friend, a citizen, a teacher, at home and in public. We find him among all classes of society, -- with sinners and saints; with the poor and the wealthy; with the sick and the healthy; with little children, grown men and women; with plain fishermen and learned scribes; with despised publicans and honored members of the Sanhedrin; with friends and foes; with admiring disciples and bitter persecutors; now with an individual, as Nicodemus or the woman of Samaria; now in the familiar circle of the twelve; now in the crowds of the people. We find him in all situations, -- in the synagogue and the temple; at home and on journeys; in villages and the city of Jerusalem; in the desert and on the mountain; along the banks of Jordan and the shores of the Galilean Sea; at the joyous wedding-feast and the solemn grave; in the awful agony of Gethsemane; in the judgment-hall, before the high-priest, the king, the Roman governor, rude soldiers, and the fanatical multitude; and at last in the bitter pains of the cross on Calvary.
In all these various relations, conditions, and situations, as they are crowded within the few years of his public ministry, he sustains the same consistent character throughout, without ever exposing himself to censure. As God, according to the Bible, is one and the same always, so also Christ, according to the gospel. Guizot (in his recently published "Meditations on the Essence of the Christian Religion") justly remarks: "The most perfect, the most constant unity reigns in Jesus, in his life as in his soul, in his words as in his acts. He progresses according to the circumstances in which he lives; but his progress produces in him no change of character or design. As he appeared already in his twelfth year in the temple, full of the sense of his divine nature, so he remains and manifests himself during the whole course of his public mission. . . . . Everywhere, and under all circumstances, he is animated by the same spirit, he sheds the same light, he proclaims the same law." He fulfills every duty to God, to man, and to himself, with perfect ease and freedom, and exhibits an entire conformity to the law, in the spirit as well as the letter. His life is one unbroken service of God in active and passive obedience to his holy will; one grand act of absolute love to God and love to man; of personal self-consecration to the glory of his heavenly Father, and the salvation of a fallen race. In the language of the people who were "beyond measure astonished at his works," we must say, the more we study his life: "He did all things well."35 In a solemn appeal to his heavenly Father in the parting hour, he could proclaim to the world that he had glorified him in the earth, and finished the work he gave him to do (John xvii.3, 22).