The Loveliness of Christ!
William Bacon Stevens
"Yes, He is altogether lovely! This is my Beloved, and this is my Friend!" Song of Songs 5:16
Excellence, either mental, moral or physical — will always command attention. We are so constituted as to admire, almost instinctively, whatever is virtuous, or lovely, or of good report; and the nearer man approaches to God, the greater will be the admiration which such a character will elicit. In vain, however, do we search among men for even one example of perfect excellence in all the attributes of humanity. We can find those who have been distinguished for some one or more excellencies; who have manifested a large philanthropy, or profound humility, or unswerving honor, or heroic devotion, or exulted patriotism, or expansive benevolence; but one cannot be found who embodied in himself all these perfections in full and symmetrical proportion.
Yet our text tells us of one who is "altogether lovely;" in whom every virtue dwelt, every excellence met, every glory was manifested; and we can certainly be at no loss to designate the being who merits this title, as our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. But this is mere assertion — let us now to the proof. This proof, however, naturally arranges itself under two heads, corresponding to the two natures of Jesus Christ, human and divine; and our attention, therefore, must first be given to the human excellencies of Jesus.
But before we can rightly estimate his human character, we must take into consideration the many disadvantages which, in a worldly point of view, tended to cramp his powers, and dwarf his virtues. He had, for example, no advantages of birth; for his reputed parents were so poor, that he was born in a stable. He had no advantages of education in the Jewish schools, for the Rabbis themselves, astonished at his words, exclaim, "How did this man get such learning without having studied?" He had no advantages of society, for he dwelt in the crude district of Galilee, and in the lowly town of Nazareth; and his character in its forming stage, was acted upon only by the harsh influences of base and uneducated men. He had no advantages of profession; he was not a Scribe, or a Priest, or a Levite, or a Pharisee, or a Sadducee, to claim affinity with any of these powerful classes, and by them to be lifted up into notice and influence. He had no advantages of companionship; the first thirty years of his life were spent among the mechanics and peasants of Nazareth; and when he entered upon his mission, he chose as his friends, not the titled and the learned and the powerful — but the brawny sunburnt fisherman, and the outcast publicans. If, then, from any human character you subtract the advantages conferred by birth, rank, education, companionship, wealth, and influence — how little will remain as a basis upon which to erect a broad and elevated superstructure of greatness! But from the character of Jesus these must all be removed; and not only so — but they must be regarded as antagonizing elements, tending to break him down and destroy his influence.
In considering the positive elements of Christ's character, we shall look at him first in PRIVATE life. How simple and frugal in his habits! his ordinary diet seems to have been bread and fish; his journeyings were all on foot, except his last entry into Jerusalem; his lodging uncertain, the casual accommodation provided by friends, themselves poor and needy. He was modest, and seemed to shrink from the intrusive gaze of the populace. Not a jest or slander ever escaped his lips; purity, propriety, and holiness — reigned over every hour of his retirement, and the finger of malice could not point to a single stain or error in his entire private life.
Look at him in PUBLIC life — his characteristic work was "going about doing good." His benevolence knew no bounds, it gushed out in every act, and virtue went out from the very "hem of his garment." At his touch, thousands of sufferers languishing in disease took up their beds and walked; at his word the blind saw, the deaf heard, the dumb spoke, the maimed were made whole, and the dead came back to life and health. The whole ministry of Jesus was a ministry of philanthropy — full of sympathy, full of compassion, full of love. Where can we find him, that he is not doing good or planning good to his fellow men?
Look at him among his friends! He never lowered himself to anything base or ignoble; he never trifled, boasted, or deceived; he had no pride or vanity, no weakness or foible. Though poor — he never coveted riches; though humbly born — he never sought to mingle with the great; he practiced no arts to win and retain his friends; and held out no lures — but spiritual ones, to the multitudes who resorted to him for instruction and discipleship.
Look at him among his enemies! He is calm, self-possessed, void of malice, and majestic in the simplicity of his own goodness and truth. We see no cringing to power, no dalliance with popular feeling, no timidity, no yielding up of truth; but he stood among them in that attitude of conscious virtue, and poised benignity — superlatively grand. No passion tinged his cheek with the red spot of anger; no malice roughened into ridges his serene brow. Composed amidst the wildest tumult, submissive to grossest insults, meek under the most demoniacal mockings — "he was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep is silent before his shearers, so he opened not his mouth." Silent, indeed, to man! but not speechless to God, for when nailed to his cross, when torn with the death throes of crucifixion his lips move — he speaks, and as we listen we hear — no murmur — no reviling — no reproach — but the words of prayer — prayer not for himself — not for his disciples — not for his mother — but for his enemies; and the supplication is, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
Look at him as a teacher! His doctrines are the most holy, interesting, and sublime, that ever fell from the lips of man. They were designed to revolutionize the world — and they will revolutionize the world. Yet with what plainness and simplicity did he deliver them! By the wayside, on the seashore, in the house, around the festive table, in the courts of the temple, and on the grassy mount. A beautiful parable, a touching allegory, a delicate comparison, an axiomatic sentence, an exposition in the synagogue, a night talk with Nicodemus, or a parting conversation with his disciples — were the vehicles of his mighty truths. We observe no magisterial airs, nothing dogmatic or pragmatic — but all comes out in the natural incidents of daily interaction, and with a simplicity worthy of a heavenly mind.
Look at him in his MENTAL characteristics. He possessed every element of mental greatness and loveliness. His teaching evidenced his divine wisdom. His interactions with various men and sects displayed his judgment. His controversies with the Scribes and Pharisees, and Sadducees, and Herodians, evinced the strength and acumen of his reason. His exhaustless fund of illustration, his ready subsidizing to his use of all nature, manifested his knowledge. And his gigantic scheme of reconciling God and man, embracing as it did two worlds, running backwards to creation's dawn, and forward through all eternity — show the breadth and stature of his peerless intellect.
"The ingredients of genuine human greatness undoubtedly are true wisdom, strength of soul, an invincible will, and an expansive benevolence." Combine these, and you make one altogether lovely. Such was Jesus Christ. He possessed . . .
wisdom unalloyed by a single folly;
strength of mind unimpaired by a single weakness;
calmness and serenity of soul that never, in his darkest hour, forsook him;
and a singleness of aim and firmness of purpose, that knew no shadow of turning.
"A soul full of wisdom, calmly reposing on its own greatness, working out a great scheme of future good, and patiently biding the day of its triumph amidst everything to thwart and discourage, is one of the sublimest manifestations of the human mind."
But you may say that this is a character of Christ drawn by one of his professed followers; well, then, let me give it to you as drawn by a profligate infidel, who, writing of Jesus Christ, uses these remarkable words: "What sweetness! what purity in his manners! what affecting grace in his instructions! what elevation in his maxims! what profound wisdom in his discourses! what presence of mind, what delicacy, what justness in his replies! what government of his passions! where is the man, where is the philosopher who knows how to act, to suffer, and to die without weakness, and without ostentation? The death of Socrates severely philosophizing with his friends, is the most gentle that one can desire. That of Jesus expiring in torments, injured, derided, reviled by a whole people, is the most horrible that one can fear. Yet, if the life and death of Socrates are those of a philosopher — then the life and death of Jesus Christ are those of a God." Thus wrote Rousseau, and such is the testimony of one of Jesus' most daring blasphemers and licentious enemies.
But would we know the full loveliness of Jesus Christ, we must briefly glance at his DIVINE as well as human excellencies. At a time when the human race had completely alienated itself from God, when the wide impassable gulf of sin lay between the creature and the Creator, when the covenant with God had been broken, and the justice of God required the destruction of the sinner — then it was, that Jesus Christ voluntarily, and by the impellings of his infinite love, "Made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant," that he might in our nature mediate between man and God, and work out in this nature, a full and complete salvation.
In order to secure this end, however, there were certain things to be done which could only be accomplished by enduring great sacrifices and sufferings of a mental, moral, and physical nature — such as no mere human being could bear, such as no divine being deserved. Yet such as must be borne, before God could be reconciled to man, and man be pardoned by God. Knowing by his divine foreknowledge all things that would befall him, Jesus Christ most cheerfully assumed our humanity, became "a man of sorrows," endured "the contradiction of sinners," suffered the reproaches of Jews and Gentiles, was persecuted with cruelty, and, after a few years, suffered death for sinful man and by sinful men upon the cross. In consequence of his faithful obedience of the law, of his infinite merits, of his vicarious death, of his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension, of his present exaltation and intercession — he has made himself "the Mediator of the New Covenant," and by his mediatorial work has made it possible for God to be just to himself, to his holy law, to the holy angels — and yet the justifier of all those who believe in Jesus, and accept him in his work and offices, as the Savior of their souls.
All this was love's work. "He loved us," says the Apostle, "and gave himself for us."
Love prompted the rescue of the race;
love robed him in the garments of flesh and blood;
love bowed down his head as a man of sorrow;
love made him obedient to the law;
love humbled him to the death of the cross.
His whole mediatorial work, from its conception in the counsels of the Godhead, to its accomplishment on the world's first Easter morning — was but the manifestation of infinite love. Are we not right in speaking of him who did it, as "altogether lovely!" His heart was love's original fountain — and it welled up perpetually with words of love, and dripped over continually with deeds of love, and sent out its ever broadening rills of love to every quarter of the globe, making the else desert wastes of humanity, green and fertile in the graces of his overflowing affection.
As full of love in himself — he must be "altogether lovely." As full of love towards others, illustrating its depth and affluence by its unceasing outgoings, to every living being — he must be "altogether lovely." As planning out for us schemes of release from sin and Satan and death, from misery here and woe hereafter, from the frown of God, and the companionship of devils — he must be "altogether lovely." As bringing us into favor, reconciliation, and relationship with God, as introducing us into the society of saints and angels, as enabling us to overcome death and the grave, as opening to us mansions of bliss in Heaven, as elevating us to be "kings and priests unto God" in his holy temple not made with hands, where we shall sin no more, and sorrow no more, and weep no more, and die no more — but where we shall be forever with the Lord, as one who can and will do all this for us — he must be "altogether lovely!"
Yet there is still one aspect more in which Jesus Christ is altogether lovely. As nothing is truly lovely except as it approximates to divinity; and as everything is lovely in proportion as it is an emanation or reflection of the divine being — so that which is most full of God must be most full of loveliness, "for God is love." In Jesus Christ therefore, this love is perfect; for "in him," says Paul, "dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily." He is the image or human representative to us of the invisible God, for "God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself," and we can behold God only as we see him "in the face of Jesus Christ."
God in his own essence, being, and existence, is absolutely incomprehensible; therefore we can have no direct intuitive notions or apprehensions of the divine nature, or any of its properties. "Such knowledge is too wonderful for us."
God is a spirit — and we are flesh and blood;
God is eternal — and we are mortal;
God is infinite — and we are finite;
God is omnipotent — and we are impotent;
how then, where there is such infinite disparity — can we know God?
Some of the attributes of Jehovah we may indeed learn from nature: "the heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork." The ten thousand varieties of idols which natural religion has carved out for itself, prove, however, that unaided reason could never "by searching find out God." And even when revelation was given, how was it possible by a mere external doctrinal description of the divine nature, without any exemplification or real representation of it — to get a sufficient idea and a right understanding of God? Scripture, it is true, did indeed contain over and over again this doctrinal description of his nature and attributes; but what the world needed and what it sighed after, was an embodying of these in definite form, such as we could look upon, and study, and love, and feel ourselves attracted to, and worship. All this was done in the person of Jesus Christ. He is the image of the invisible God, "the brightness of the Father's glory, and the express image of his person." Hence he is the complete and perfect representation of the Divine being and excellencies. It is God in Christ that we love and adore. It is God in Christ, "reconciling the world unto himself," who is thus "altogether lovely."
This limitless subject opens before us many avenues of thought, any one of which, if followed out, will lead us into boundless fields of high and holy and rapturous meditation.
The character of Christ, either in its human or divine phases, is not enough studied; it is looked at with too much of a passing glance, so that we get only hasty and superficial views, which consequently have but a faint and passing influence upon our heart and lives. We must study it, sit down before it, as a painter would sit down before the masterpieces of a Raphael — gazing upon it, pondering over it, tracing out its developing lines and beauties — until the soul becomes fired by its excellencies, and is changed into His image.
Angels and the saints in Heaven who see Christ in his heavenly glory, and who know something of his divine excellencies — must wonder at the lack of enthusiasm in professing Christians concerning the loveliness of Christ. They are amazed that we . . .
look upon Him with so cold an eye;
speak of Him with so tame a tongue;
love Him with such a lukewarm heart; and
labor for Him with such a drudging heavy spirit.
It is our privilege to love this altogether lovely one, and we lose a rich and precious employment when we fail to do it. There is no higher pleasure for a redeemed soul — than contemplating the glories of Jesus. While we muse, the fire burns. There is no surer evidence of a gracious state — than a thirsting after deeper knowledge of Jesus, and a more thorough conformity to his likeness. The great and crowning bliss of Heaven consists . . .
not in its seraphic melodies;
not in its gorgeous displays of almighty power;
not in its exemption from sorrow and and sighing;
not in its ceaseless round of high intellectual joys — but . . .
in seeing the unveiled Christ with undimmed eyes;
in studying the loveliness of the ever present Redeemer with unfettered mind;
in daily discovering and admiring new points of His beauty;
and in having our souls, through all eternity, made the receptacles of the light, the joy, the peace, the holiness, the love, and the wisdom of Him, who is "the chief among ten thousand, and the one altogether lovely One!"