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   Chapter 21 THAT THE CHARACTER OF CHRIST CONFIRMS THE TRUTH OF CHRISTIANITY.

The Truth of Christianity By William Harry Turton Characters: 29450

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


The character of Christ can only be deduced from the New Testament, any other Christ being purely imaginary.

(A.) The Teaching of Christ.

(1.) Its admitted excellence.

(2.) Two objections.

(3.) His sinlessness.

(B.) The Claims of Christ.

(1.) His claim to be Superhuman-declaring that He was the Ruler, Redeemer, and final Judge of the world.

(2.) His claim to be Divine-declaring His Equality, Unity, and Pre-existence with God.

(3.) How these claims were understood at the time, both by friends and foes.

(C.) The Great Alternative.

Christ cannot, therefore, have been merely a good man; He was either God, as He claimed to be, or else a bad man, for making such claims. But the latter view is disproved by His Moral Character.

In this chapter we propose to consider the Character of Christ, and its bearing on the truth of Christianity. Now our knowledge of Christ's character can only be derived from the four Gospels; indeed, a Christ with any other character assigned to Him is a purely imaginary being, and might as well be called by some other name. Taking, then, the Gospels as our guide, what is the character of Christ? Clearly this can be best deduced from His own teaching and claims, both of which are fortunately given at some length; so we will consider these first, and then the great alternative which they force upon us.

(A.) The Teaching of Christ.

Under this head, we will first notice the admitted excellence of Christ's teaching, then some objections which are often made, and lastly His sinlessness.

(1.) Its admitted excellence.

To begin with, the excellence of Christ's moral teaching hardly needs to be insisted on at the present day, and rationalists as well as Christians have proclaimed its merits. For instance, to quote a few examples:-

'Religion cannot be said to have made a bad choice in pitching on this man as the ideal representative and guide of humanity; nor even now would it be easy, even for an unbeliever, to find a better translation of the rule of virtue from the abstract into the concrete, than to endeavour so to live that Christ should approve our life.'-J. S. Mill.[402]

[402] Nature, the Utility of Religion and Theism, 2nd edit., 1874, p. 255.

'Jesus remains to humanity an inexhaustible source of moral regenerations.' And again, 'In Him is condensed all that is good and lofty in our nature.'-E. Renan.[403]

[403] Life of Jesus, translated by Wilbour, New York, 1864, pp. 370, 375.

'It was reserved for Christianity to present to the world an ideal character, which, through all the changes of eighteen centuries, has inspired the hearts of men with an impassioned love; has shown itself capable of acting on all ages, nations, temperaments, and conditions; has been not only the highest pattern of virtue, but the strongest incentive to its practice; and has exercised so deep an influence that it may be truly said that the simple record of three short years of active life has done more to regenerate and to soften mankind than all the disquisitions of philosophers, and all the exhortations of moralists.'-W. E. H. Lecky.[404]

[404] History of European Morals, 3rd edit., 1877, vol. ii., p. 8.

These quotations are only examples of many which might be given; but it is practically undisputed that the morality taught by Christ is the best the world has ever seen. It is also undisputed that His life was in entire harmony with His teaching. He lived, as far as we can judge, a holy and blameless life, and His character has never been surpassed either in history or fiction.

(2.) Two objections.

There are, however, two slight objections. The first is that Christ's teaching was not original; and, strictly speaking, this is perhaps true. Something similar to all He taught has been discovered in more ancient times, either in Egypt, India, China, or elsewhere. But this hardly affects the argument. An unlearned Jew living at Nazareth cannot be supposed to have derived his teaching from these sources; and it is a great improvement on all of them put together. The important point is, that there was nothing among the Jews of His own time which could have produced, or even have invented, such a character. He was immeasurably better than His contemporaries, and all of them put together have not exerted an influence on the world a thousandth part that of Christ.

The second objection refers to certain portions of Christ's teaching. For example, He urges men not to resist evil, and seems to place virginity above marriage to an exaggerated extent.[405] I have never seen a satisfactory explanation of the latter passage; but it is obvious on the face of it that it cannot be meant for universal application, or it would lead to the extinction of the human race.

[405] Matt. 5. 39; 19. 12.

Again, several of the parables are said to be unjust such as that of the workmen in the vineyard, the unrighteous steward, and the wedding garment. But parables must not be pressed literally, and very different interpretations have been put on these. However, we will consider the two last, which are those most often objected to.

With regard to the Unrighteous Steward, though apparently he had been guilty of dishonesty, we are told that his lord commended him, because he had done wisely.[406] But no one can think that his lord commended him, because he had just cheated him. So if his conduct was really dishonest (about which scholars are by no means agreed) we can only suppose that in spite of this, his lord commended him, because of his wisdom. In the same way, if an ingenious robbery were committed at the present day, even the man robbed, might say that he could not help admiring the scoundrel for his cleverness. The meaning then appears to be that wisdom is so desirable that it is to be commended even in worldly matters, and even in a bad cause; and therefore of course still more to be aimed at in religious matters, and in a good cause.

[406] Luke 16. 8.

Next as to the Wedding Garment. It is distinctly implied that there was only one man without it,[407] so obviously the first point to determine is how the other men got their garments. They could not have had them out in the roads, and there was no time to go home and get them, even if they possessed any. It follows then that they must each have been provided with a suitable garment (probably a cloak, worn over their other clothes) when they reached the palace. This appears to have been an eastern custom,[408] and if one of them refused to put it on, he would certainly deserve to be excluded from the feast. Thus the object of the parable seems to be to show that God's blessings can only be obtained on God's terms (e.g. forgiveness on repentance), though there is no hardship in this, as He has Himself given us grace to comply with these terms, if we like. Neither of these objections, then, is of much importance.

[407] Matt. 22. 11.

[408] Archb. Trench, Notes on the Parables, 1870, p. 234.

(3.) His sinlessness.

A most remarkable point has now to be noticed. It is that, notwithstanding His perfect moral teaching, there is not in the character of Christ the slightest consciousness of sin. In all His numerous discourses, and even in His prayers, there is not a single word which implies that He thought He ever had done, or ever could do, anything wrong Himself. He is indeed most careful to avoid implying this, even incidentally. Thus He does not tell His disciples, 'If we forgive men their trespasses,' etc., but 'If ye,' as the former might imply that He, as well as they, had need of the Father's forgiveness.[409] Nor did He ever regret anything that He had done, or ever wish that He had acted otherwise. And though He blamed self-righteousness in others, and urged them to repentance, He never hinted that He had any need of it Himself; in fact, He expressly denied it, for He said that He always did those things that were pleasing to God.[410]

[409] Matt. 6. 14.

[410] John 8. 29.

And this is the more striking when we reflect that good men are, as a rule, most conscious of their faults. Yet here was One who carried moral goodness to its utmost limit, whose precepts are admittedly perfect, but who never for a moment thought that He was not fulfilling them Himself. Such a character is absolutely unique in the world's history. It can only be explained by saying that Christ was not merely a good man, but a perfect man, since goodness without perfection would only have made Him more conscious of the faults He had. Yet if we admit this, we must admit more; for perfection is not a human attribute, and a sinless life needs a good deal to account for it.

(B.) The Claims of Christ.

We pass on now to the claims of Christ; and His high moral character would plainly lead us to place the utmost confidence in what He said about Himself. And as we shall see He claimed to be both Superhuman and Divine; and this is how all His contemporaries, both friends and foes, understood Him. And though it is impossible to add to the marvel of such claims, yet the fact that nothing in any way resembling them is to be found among the Jewish Prophets helps us, at least, to realise their uniqueness. Many of them are spoken concerning the Son of Man; but there can be no doubt whatever that by this title Christ means Himself.[411]

[411] E.g., Matt. 16. 13, 16.

(1.) His Claim to be Superhuman.

This is shown by three main arguments, for Christ declared that He was the Ruler, Redeemer, and final Judge of the world. In the first place, He claimed to be the Ruler of the world, saying in so many words that all things had been delivered unto Him, and that He possessed all authority, both in heaven and on earth.[412] Moreover, His dominion was to be not only universal, but it was to last for ever; since after this world had come to an end, the future Kingdom of Heaven was still to be His Kingdom, its angels were to be His angels, and its citizens His elect.[413]

[412] Matt. 11. 27; 28. 18; Luke 10. 22.

[413] Matt. 13. 41; 24. 31.

Secondly, Christ claimed to be the Redeemer of the world. He distinctly asserted that He came to give His life a ransom for many, and that His blood was shed for the remission of sins. And the importance He attached to this is shown by the fact that He instituted a special rite (the Holy Communion) on purpose to commemorate it.[414]

[414] Matt. 20. 28; 26. 28; Mark 10. 45; 14. 24; Luke 22. 19.

Thirdly, Christ claimed to be the final Judge of the world. This tremendous claim alone shows that He considered Himself quite above and distinct from the rest of mankind. While they were all to be judged according to their works, He was to be the Judge Himself, coming in the clouds of heaven with thousands of angels. And His decision was to be final and without appeal. Moreover, this astonishing claim does not depend on single texts or passages, but occurs all through the first three Gospels.[415] During the whole of His Ministry-from His Sermon on the Mount to His trial before Caiaphas-He persistently asserted that He was to be the final Judge of the world. It is hardly credible that a mere man, however presumptuous, should ever have made such a claim as this. Can we imagine anyone doing so at the present day? and what should we think of him if he did?

[415] Matt. 7. 22; 10. 32; 13. 41; 16. 27; 19. 28; 24. 30; 25. 31-46; 26. 64; and similar passages in the other Gospels.

(2.) His Claim to be Divine.

Like the preceding, this is shown by three main arguments; for Christ declared His Equality, Unity, and Pre-existence with God. In the first place, Christ claimed Equality with God. He said that the same honour should be given to Himself as to God the Father; that men should believe in Him as well as in God; that He and the Father would together dwell in the souls of men; and that He, like the Father, had the power of sending the Holy Spirit of God.[416] He also commanded men to be baptized into His Name as well as into that of the Father; and promised that whenever and wherever His disciples were gathered together, He would be in the midst of them, even unto the end of the world, which, cannot be true of anyone but God.[417]

[416] John 5. 23; 14. 1, 23; 16. 7.

[417] Matt. 18. 20; 28. 19, 20.

Secondly, Christ claimed Unity with God. He did not say that He was another God, but that He and the Father were One; that He was in the Father, and the Father in Him; that whoever beheld Him beheld the Father; that whoever had seen Him had seen the Father.[418] These latter texts cannot, of course, be pressed literally, as few would maintain that Christ was really God the Father. But just as if a human father and son were extremely alike, we might say that if you had seen the son, you had seen the father; so if Christ was truly God-God the Son-the very image of His Father,[419] the same language might be used. It would at least be intelligible. But it would be quite unintelligible, if Christ had been merely a good man. Can we imagine the best man that ever lived saying, If you have seen me, you have seen God?

[418] John 10. 30; 17. 21; 12. 45; 14. 9.

[419] Heb. 1. 3.

Thirdly, Christ claimed Pre-existence with God. He said that He had descended out of heaven; that He had come down from heaven; that He came out from the Father and was come into the world; and that even before its creation He had shared God's glory.[420] While in another passage, 'Before Abraham was, I am,'[421] He not only said that He existed before Abraham, but by using the words I am instead of I was, He seemed to identify Himself with Jehovah, the great I am, of the Old Testament.[422]

[420] John 3. 13; 6. 38; 16. 28; 17. 5.

[421] John 8. 58.

[422] Exod. 3. 14.

Turning now to the other side, there are four passages in which Christ seems to disclaim being Divine. The most important is where He says that the Son (i.e. Himself) does not know the time of the future Judgment;[423] and the present writer has never seen a really satisfactory explanation of this. But it may be pointed out that if we admit that Christ was both Divine and human, it is only fair to refer any particular statement to that nature, to which it is applicable; even though the wording seems to suggest the opposite. In the same way, the passage, that the Lord of Glory was crucified[424] can only refer to Christ in His human nature, and not in His Divine nature, as the Lord of Glory. And in His human nature Christ may have been ignorant of the time of the future Judgment, just as in His human nature He increased in wisdom and stature.[425]

[423] Mark 13. 32.

[424]

1 Cor. 2. 8.

[425] Luke 2. 52.

Then we have the passage where a ruler addresses Christ as 'Good Master,' and Christ demurs to this, saying that the word was only applicable to God.[426] And how, it is asked, could He have done so, if He had been both good and God? The best explanation seems to be that among the Jews, it was the custom never to address a Teacher (or Rabbi) as Good. They said God was 'the Good One of the world'; it was one of His titles.[427] Therefore as the ruler had no means of knowing that Christ was God, he was not justified in thus addressing Him as Good.

[426] Mark 10. 18.

[427] Edersheim's Life and Times of the Messiah, vol. ii., p. 339.

The remaining two passages, 'I go unto the Father; for the Father is greater than I'; and 'I ascend unto my Father and your Father, and my God and your God,'[428] are easier to explain, since here it is obvious that they refer to Christ's human nature alone, as it was in His human nature alone that He was ever absent from the Father. And even here He carefully distinguishes His own relationship to God from that of His disciples. For though He teaches them to say our Father, yet when including Himself with them, He does not here or anywhere else say our Father, or our God; but always emphasises His own peculiar position. While we may ask in regard to the first passage, would anyone but God have thought it necessary to explain that God the Father was greater than Himself? Anyhow, these passages do not alter the fact that Christ did repeatedly claim to be both superhuman and Divine.

[428] John 14. 28; 20. 17.

(3.) How these Claims were understood at the time.

We have now to consider how these claims were understood at the time. And first, as to Christ's friends. We have overwhelming evidence that after His Resurrection all the disciples and early Christians believed their Master to be both superhuman and Divine. And to realise the full significance of this, we must remember that they were not polytheists, who did not mind how many gods they believed in, and were willing to worship Roman Emperors or anyone else; but they were strict monotheists. They firmly believed that there was only one God, yet they firmly believed that Christ was Divine. This is shown throughout the New Testament.

Thus the writers of the first three Gospels, though they usually record the events of Christ's life without comment, yet in one passage identify Him with the God of the Old Testament, referring the prophecy about the messenger of the Lord our God to the messenger of Christ.[429] And as to the Fourth Gospel, it begins with asserting Christ's Divinity in the plainest terms, saying that the Word, who afterwards became flesh, was God. And it appropriately ended, before the last chapter was added, with St. Thomas declaring this same belief, when he addressed Christ as my Lord and my God, which titles He fully accepted.[430] Yet immediately afterwards, the author says he wrote his Gospel to convince men that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God. Evidently then this expression, the Son of God, meant to him, and therefore presumably to other New Testament writers, who use it frequently, that Christ was truly God-God the Son-my Lord and my God-in the fullest and most complete sense.

[429] Isa. 40. 3; Matt. 3. 3; Mark 1. 3; Luke 3. 4.

[430] John 1. 1; 20. 28.

With regard to the Acts an argument on the other side is sometimes drawn from St. Peter's speaking of Christ as 'a man approved of God unto you by mighty works,' thus implying, it is urged, that St. Peter did not know Him to be more than man.[431] But since he says he was only appealing to what his hearers knew to be true (even as ye yourselves know), how else could he have put it? His hearers did not know that Christ was God; they did know that He was a man approved of God by many wonderful miracles, because they had seen them. Moreover, in other places the Acts bear strong witness to the Divinity of Christ, as for instance when St. Paul speaks of the Church of God which He purchased with His own blood, or St. Stephen says Lord Jesus receive my spirit; or when the Apostles are represented as working their miracles, not in the name of God the Father, but in that of Christ.[432]

[431] Acts 2. 22.

[432] Acts 20. 28; 7. 59; 3. 6; 4. 10.

Next, as to the Book of Revelation. The evidence this affords is important, because nearly all critics admit that it was written by St. John. And if so, it shows conclusively that one at least of Christ's intimate followers firmly believed in His Divinity. For he not only speaks of Him as being universally worshipped both in heaven and on earth, but describes Him as the First and the Last, which is a title used by God in the Old Testament, and is plainly inapplicable to anyone else.[433] And we may ask, is it conceivable that an intimate friend of Christ should have believed Him to be the Everlasting God, unless He had claimed to be so Himself, and had supported His claim by working miracles, and rising from the dead? Is it not, rather, certain that nothing but the most overwhelming proof would ever have convinced a Jew (of all persons) that a fellow Man, with whom he had lived for years, and whom he had then seen put to death as a malefactor, was Himself the Lord Jehovah, the First and the Last?

[433] Rev. 5. 11-14; 1. 17, 18; 2. 8; 22. 13; Isa. 44. 6.

But it is urged on the other side, that the writer also calls Him the beginning of the Creation of God, as if He had been merely the first Being created.[434] But the previous passages clearly show that this was not his meaning. It was rather that Christ was the beginning of creation, because He was its Source and Agent; He by whom, as the same writer declares, all things were made. And elsewhere a similar title is given Him for this identical reason, as He is called the first-born of all creation, because all things have been created through Him.[435]

[434] Rev. 3. 14;

[435] John 1. 3; Col. 1. 15, 16.

Equally important evidence is afforded by St. Paul's Epistles. For though he is not likely to have known Christ intimately, he must have been acquainted with numbers who did, including, as he says, James the Lord's brother.[436] And his early conversion, before A.D. 35, together with the fact that he had previously persecuted the Church at Jerusalem, and afterwards visited some of the Apostles there, must have made him well acquainted with the Christian doctrines from the very first. Moreover he tells us himself that the faith which he taught was the same as that which he had previously persecuted; and that when he visited the Apostles he laid before them the Gospel he preached, evidently to make sure that it agreed with what they preached.[437]

[436] Gal. 1. 19.

[437] Gal. 1. 23; 2. 2.

There can thus be no doubt that the Christianity of St. Paul was the same as that of the Twelve. And all through his Epistles he bears witness to the superhuman character of Christ; declaring, among other things, His sinlessness, and that He is the Ruler, Redeemer, and final Judge of the world.[438]

[438] 2 Cor. 5. 21; Rom. 14. 9; 1 Cor. 15. 3; 2 Cor. 5. 10.

He also bears witness to His Divine character, saying in so many words that He is over all, God blessed for ever; that we shall all stand before the Judgment-seat of God, which elsewhere he calls the Judgment-seat of Christ; that He was originally in the form of God (i.e., in a state of Deity), and on an equality with God, before He became incarnate, and took the form of Man; that in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; that He is our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, Who gave Himself for us; and that the Psalmist prophesied of Him when he said, 'Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever.'[439] This last passage, from the Hebrews, was perhaps not written by St. Paul, but this makes it all the more valuable, as the Epistle is generally dated, from internal evidence, before the destruction of Jerusalem, A.D. 70; and we have thus another early witness to the Divinity of Christ.

[439] Rom. 9. 5; 14. 10; 2 Cor. 5. 10; Phil. 2. 6; Col. 2. 9; Titus 2. 13; Heb. 1. 8.

The most important text on the other side is where St. Paul says there is one God the Father, and one Lord Jesus Christ,[440] which is quoted in the Nicene Creed. But though the statement is a difficult one, it cannot be pressed as implying that Christ is not God; for if so it would equally imply that the Father was not Lord, which few would contend was St. Paul's meaning.

[440] 1 Cor. 8. 6; Comp. Eph. 4. 4-6.

With regard to the above passages, it is important to notice that the allusions are all incidental. St. Paul does not attempt to prove the superhuman and Divine character of Christ, but refers to it as if it were undisputed. He evidently believed it himself, and took for granted that his readers did so too. And his readers included not only his own converts at Corinth and elsewhere, but the converts of other Apostles at Rome, which was a place he had not then visited, and a strong party of opponents in Galatia, with whom he was arguing. It is clear, then, that these doctrines were not peculiar to St. Paul, but were the common property of all Christians from the earliest times. And when combined with the previous evidence, this leaves no doubt as to how Christ's friends understood His claims. Whatever they may have thought of them before the Resurrection, that event convinced them that they were true, and they never hesitated in this belief.

Next as to Christ's foes. The evidence here is equally convincing. In St. John's Gospel we read that on several occasions during His life, when Christ asserted His superhuman and Divine character, the Jews wanted to kill Him in consequence; often avowing their reason for doing so with the utmost frankness. 'For a good work we stone thee not, but for blasphemy and because that thou, being a man, makest thyself God.'[441] And in thus doing they were only acting in accordance with their law, which commanded a blasphemer to be stoned.[442]

[441] John 10. 33; 5. 18; 8. 59; 11. 8.

[442] Lev. 24. 16.

In none of these instances did Christ repudiate the claims attributed to Him, or say He had been misunderstood. In fact, only once did He offer any explanation at all. He then appealed to the passage in the Old Testament, 'I said, Ye are gods,'[443] and asserted that He was much better entitled to the term, since He was sent into the world by the Father, and did the works of the Father. After which He again asserted His unity with the Father, which was the very point objected to by the Jews.

[443] Ps. 82. 6.

Moreover, not only during His life did Christ make these claims to be Divine, but He persevered with them even when it brought about His death. It is undisputed that the Jews condemned Him for blasphemy, and for nothing else. This is the teaching not of one Gospel alone, but of each of the four.[444] Every biography of Christ that we possess represents this as the real charge against Him; though, of course, when tried before the Roman governor that of disloyalty to C?sar was brought forward as well.

[444] Matt. 26. 65; Mark 14. 64; Luke 22. 71; John 19. 7.

There is only one conclusion to be drawn from all this. It is that Christ did really claim to be both superhuman and Divine; that He deliberately and repeatedly asserted these claims during His life; that this provoked the hostility of the Jews, who frequently wanted to kill Him; that He never repudiated these claims, but persevered with them to the end; and was finally put to death in consequence.

(C.) The Great Alternative.

We pass on now to the great alternative, which is forced upon us by combining the teaching and the claims of Christ. Before pointing out its importance we must notice a favourite method of trying to get out of the difficulty, which is by saying that the teaching of Christ occurs in the first three Gospels, and the claims in the Fourth; so if we deny the accuracy of this single Gospel the difficulty is removed. But unfortunately for this objection, though the Divine claims occur chiefly in the Fourth Gospel, the superhuman ones are most prominent in the other three; and we have purposely chosen all the passages illustrating them from these Gospels alone. And what is more, they occur in all the supposed sources of these Gospels-the so-called Triple Tradition, the source common to Matthew and Luke, etc. Everywhere from the earliest record to the latest, Christ is represented as claiming to be superhuman. And such claims are equally fatal to His moral character if He were only a man. For no good man, and indeed very few bad ones, could be so fearfully presumptuous as to claim to be the absolute Ruler of the world, still less to be its Redeemer, and, least of all, to be its one and only Judge hereafter.

This objection, then, cannot be maintained, and we are forced to conclude that the perfect moral teaching of Christ was accompanied by continual assertions of His own superhuman and Divine character. And as this was a point about which He must have known, it is clear that the statements must have been either true or intentionally false. He must, therefore, have been Divine, or else a deliberate impostor. In other words, the Christ of the Gospels-and history knows of no other-could not have been merely a good man. He was either God as He claimed to be, or else a bad man for making such claims. This is the Great Alternative.

Moreover, it is absolutely unique in the world's history. Nowhere else shall we find a parallel to it. In Christ-and in Christ alone-we have a Man Whose moral character and teaching have fascinated the world for centuries; and yet Who, unless His own claims were true, must have been guilty of the greatest falsehood, and blasphemy. This is the only logical conclusion to be drawn from the facts we have been considering, and all attempts to avoid it fail hopelessly.

Now what effect has this on our present inquiry as to the truth of Christianity? Plainly it forms another strong argument in its favour. For the moral teaching of its Founder is shown to be not only the most perfect the world has ever seen, but it is combined with a sense of entire sinlessness which is absolutely unique among men. Both of these, however, are also combined with claims to a superhuman and Divine character, which, if they are not correct, can only be described as impious, and profane. Therefore, unless Christianity is true, its Founder must have been not only the very best of men; but also one of the very worst; and this is a dilemma from which there is no escape.

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