Some say that thou art…Elias,’ and others, Jeremias (Mat 16:14)
Elijah—A Prophet of Wrath; Jeremiah—A Prophet of Tears
It is of the deepest interest to discover what was the common impression about Jesus, and in this report conveyed by the disciples we get a hint of the utmost value. “Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?” said Jesus; and the answer was, “Some say…John the Baptist: some [and probably the greater number], Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets.” Now there are many interesting suggestions in these answers; but one of them to my mind exceeds all the others. Did you ever think of the vast difference there was between the characters of Elijah and Jeremiah? Yet some said about Christ, “This is Elijah,” and others said, “No, it is Jeremiah.” If you read again the page of the Old Testament you will appreciate the gulf between the two. The one is ardent, enthusiastic, fierce sometimes. The other is the prophet of the tender heart and tears. And the remarkable thing is that the common people should have taken these types, which are so wide apart, and should have found in both the character of Christ. In other words, the impression which Jesus made was that of a complex, inclusive personality. You could not exhaust Him by a single prophet. It took the range of the greatest to portray His character. And I want to try to bring before you some of these qualities of different natures, which harmonise so perfectly and wonderfully in the human nature of our Lord.
Christ to Be Obeyed and Loved
First, then, I am arrested in Christ’s character by the perfect union of mastery and charm. It is one of the rarest things in the world to find the masterful man possessed of the indefinable quality of charm. There are some people born to be obeyed, and there are some other people born to be loved; but it is very rarely that the compelling nature, in the language of Scripture, is “altogether lovely.” Think of the masterful men whom you have known; the men whose distinguishing attribute was power; the men who never insisted on obedience, yet somehow or other always were obeyed; the men who were very quiet, and very strong. Such men are always needed in the commonwealth—such men are always secretly admired; but it is very seldom, in this curious world, that such authoritative men are loved. What they lack is the indefinable quality of charm. They can master everything except the heart. They appeal to all that is strong and virile in us. Yet they do not appeal to the imagination. And it is strange what a deal the people will forgive, and how they will cover up a hundred failings, in the man who appeals to their imagination.
Christ Was Characterised by Power and Love
Now when we turn to Christ, the first thing we observe is that the mark of His character is power. Here is no sentimental dreamer from the hills; here is a regal, authoritative Man. Read over His life in the Gospels once again and mark how often that word “power” occurs. “His word was with power,” says Luke. “The kingdom comes with power,” says Mark. “The multitude glorified God who had given such power unto men,” says Matthew. We are quite wrong in saying about Jesus that the first impression which He made was that of gentleness—the first impression which He made was one of power. He spake with authority, and not as one of the scribes. And why did men leave all when He said, “Follow me“? And in the garden when He was betrayed, and said to them, “I am he“—why did the rabble shrink and fall away? There is something so magnificent in that—in the sheer power of that defenceless manhood—that I defy any painter to portray it. Yet look at the little children how they came to Him, and nestled without a tremor in His arms. And think of Peter by the sea of Galilee, “Lord, Thou knowest that I love thee.” Some men are born to be obeyed, some to be loved; but Jesus pre-eminently was born for both. That is why people said, “Lo, here is Elijah,” and others, “No, it is Jeremiah.” All that had marked the noblest of the prophets was harmonised and reconciled in Him. Untold authority, infinite sensibility; a will that would not swerve, a tender heart; the union of mastery and charm.
Christ Characterised by Remoteness and Accessibility
Again, I am arrested in Christ’s character by the union of remoteness and accessibility. There is something in Christ that always suggests distance. There is much in Christ that tells us He is near. Now there are many people who convey the impression of remoteness, though none in the same way as Jesus did. There is the man who is absorbed in some great work, for instance; and we feel that he moves apart when we meet him. And there is a certain type of the religious spirit that is so cold and so icily immaculate that a poor sinner, like the rich man in hell, sees what a gulf there is between him and Abraham. What you feel is, when men are so remote, that you must not trouble them with your small matters. You must not look to them for the sweet word of sympathy. You must not expect them to bother about you. They lift themselves apart like some high alp, which catches the morning, but is always snow clad; while we poor mortals, with hearts so weak, so warm, must struggle along in the valleys as we may.
There never lived on earth a Man who so impressed men with His remoteness as did Christ. “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord,” was how Simon Peter reacted to His presence. You remember how Milton in his Hymn of the Nativity says, “Kings sat still with awful eye, as if they surely knew their Sovran Lord was by!” and I tell you there are a hundred touches in the Gospel that confirm that impression of the incarnate Lord. It is the height of childishness for any Gospel student to say that Jesus was just a genial socialist. “Gentlemen,” said Napoleon, “I know men, and you may take my word for it, this is more than man.” For He stood apart; men felt He was remote; there was the touch of the far away about this figure. Some said Elias, and others Jeremiah; no one said, “A genial, pleasant neighbour.” The strange thing is that though Christ thus stood remote, men still should have come to Him with every worry. “Come unto me,” and they came from every rank—from the lady of the court to the poor reprobate. And He who stood so far apart that He could say, “Thy sins are forgiven thee, go in peace“; yet He stood so near that there was not a sorrow He could not appreciate and understand. Some said Elias, that lone figure, standing apart from the surge and flow of Israel. And some said Jeremiah—tenderhearted, whose tears were a river for his people’s sorrow. And both opinions were wrong, yet both supremely right, for Elias and Jeremiah both were here. Christ was far more lonely than the one, and far more sympathetic than the other.
Christ Characterised by Enthusiasm and Tranquility
Once more I am arrested in Christ’s character by the union of enthusiasm and tranquility. His feelings were often powerfully stirred, yet the whole impression is one of profound peace. There are men who can walk unmoved through a vast crowd. When Christ saw a crowd, He was touched with compassion always. There are men who can stand beside a grave emotionless, but by the grave of Lazarus, Jesus wept. There are men who can view all manner of iniquity and never lose a moment’s peace about it; but Jesus, in a mighty surge of indignation, drove out the buyers and sellers from the temple. Clearly, this is no cold, phlegmatic nature. There is nothing of the steeled heart of the Stoic here. Here is a man whose eye will flash sometimes, whose soul can be roused into a glow of passion. And yet the one impression of the whole is not that of an eager, strained unrest; the impression of the whole life of Jesus is that of an unutterable peace. It is very easy to be bold, yet calm; to be uninterested, unimpassioned, and so tranquil. It is very easy to deaden down the feelings, till a man has made a solitude and called it peace. But the abiding wonder about Christ is this, that He had an ardent, eager, enthusiastic heart; yet He breathed such a deep, such a superb tranquility, that men instinctively felt He was at rest.
Christ Was Characterised by Abnegation and Appreciation
Then, in closing, and most notable of all, there is the union of abnegation and appreciation. I regret using such ungainly words, but I know no others that so express my meaning. What is the last word in the ideal of Jesus—is it asceticism, or is it joy? Let me show you in a word how Christendom has leaned at different times to different answers.
Think, then, on the one hand of mediaeval painters who have portrayed for us the Man of Nazareth. It is not the Christ who considered the lilies whom they paint. It is the Christ of agony and shame. You know that figure kneeling in the garden. You know that face with its awful look of agony. You know those hands with the blood dropping from them, and St. Dominic looking upward with enraptured eyes. And even where the suffering is shrouded by an art as exquisite as it is perfect, you know that the appeal of all such art is, “Come, and let us mourn with Him awhile.” It is not joy that animates these pictures; it is a calm and holy acquiescence. It is not intense delight in the glad world; it is unquestioning acceptance of the will of God. He has given up everything, this Christ, to die for men, and the last word of that art is abnegation.
And then I turn to some modern paintings of Christ, and I seem to be moving in a different world. I turn to Renan, to Zangwill, or to Dawson, and I hardly recognise the painter’s figure. He is entranced with the vision of the divine life, says Renan, and He gives Himself with delight to its expression. He is the incarnation of the spirit of joy, says Dawson. And Mr. Zangwill, in his Dreamers of the Ghetto, says, “I give the Jews a Christ they can accept now; the Lover of warm life and the warm sunlight, and all that is fresh and beautiful and pure.” Is this the mediaeval Sufferer, with the blood-drops, and with the crown of thorns? Is this glad poet with His glowing cheek the pallid figure of mediaeval paintings? It is not suffering that is the keynote here. It is positive, intense, and simple joy. It is not abnegation of the world; the keynote is appreciation.
“Some said Elias, others Jeremiah“—have we not here another echo of such judgments? The wonder of Jesus is not this or that; the wonder of Jesus is this and that together. There is a joy that has no room in it for sacrifice; it is too selfish, too sensuous, and too shallow. There is a sacrifice that is absolutely joyless, without a gleam of the sunshine on its cross. But Christ was happy as a child in this green world, because not a sparrow could fall without His Father; yet He gave up everything and died on Calvary, that guilty men and women might be saved. In the deepest of all senses Christ renounced the world, and trampled all its glory underfoot. The first condition of following in His train was that one should lead the life of self-denial. Yet He who so followed Him was never deadened to the call of lovely or delightful things; He was led into a world where birds were singing, and which was beautiful with the lilies of the field. That is why in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek. All are united in that wonderful character. That is why you and I can never say, “He was Elias,” or, “He was Jeremiah.” Embracing both—all that was best in both—and all that is highest and fairest in humanity; we fall before Him and reply, with Peter, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
source : e-Sword