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By James Stalker -- 1848-1927
Famous For Writings on Life and Work of Christ
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If, in the course of a lifetime, we have been fortunate enough to hear once or twice an orator of the first rank, we talk of it all our days; or, if we can remember a preacher who first made religion real to us, his image is enshrined in our memory in a sacred niche. What, then, must it have been to listen to Him who, spake as never man spake? What must it have been to hear the Sermon on the Mount or the Parable of the Prodigal Son issuing, for the first time, fresh from the lips that uttered them?

For thirty years Jesus had kept silence. During this period the waters of thought and conviction had been accumulating in His mind; and, when the outlet was opened, forth they rushed in copious volume. He began in Nazareth and Capernaum, the places of His abode, to preach in the synagogues on the Sabbaths. But He soon extended His activity to the neighboring villages and towns. Nor were the Sabbaths and the synagogues and the customary hours of worship sufficient for His zeal; by-and-bye He was preaching every day, and not only in the synagogues, but in streets and squares, and in the more picturesque temple of the hillside or the seashore.

The enthusiasm of those whom He addressed corresponded with His own. Almost as soon as He began to preach His fame spread over the whole of Syria, bringing hearers from every quarter; and from this time onwards we are constantly hearing that great multitudes followed Him, the crowd becoming sometimes so dense that they trode one upon another. They detained Him when, wearied out with His efforts, He wished to escape into solitude; and, if at length He got away for a little, they were waiting for Him when He came back.

All classes were to be found in His audiences. Not infrequently the preacher who can move the populace is neglected by the educated, whilst he who can satisfy the cultured few is caviar to the general. But at the feet of Jesus you might have seen Pharisees and doctors of the law sitting, who were come out of every town of Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem; whilst, on the other hand, the common people heard Him gladly; and even the class below the line of respectability --- those who in general cared nothing for synagogues and sermons --- were roused for once to frequent the public religious assemblies: "Then drew near unto Him all the publicans and sinners for to hear Him."

Wherein lay the secret of this intense and universal interest? The ancients represented the orator in works of art as drawing men after himself with golden chains issuing from his mouth. What were the chains of attraction by which Jesus drew all men unto Himself?

When the standard of religious life and of preaching is conspicuously low in a country or neighborhood, the appearance of a man of God who preaches the Word with power is made remarkable by contrast; the darkness of the background making the light more visible.

A darkness of this kind, which may be compared to that of midnight, was brooding over Galilee when Jesus opened His career as a preacher; and St. Matthew, who lived on the spot, describes the contrast by quoting these words of prophecy: "The people that sat in darkness saw great light; and to them who sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up." In the same way, the first criticism passed on the new Preacher by all who heard Him was a surprised expression of the difference they felt between Him and their accustomed teachers: "The people were astonished at His doctrine; for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes."

The scribes were their accustomed teachers, who harangued them week by week in the synagogues. No doubt there must have been differences among them; they cannot all have been equally bad; but, taken as a whole, they were probably the most barren and unspiritual set of men who have ever held sway over the mind of a nation. In the collection of Jewish books called the Talmud, which has come down to us and is, indeed, at present in process of being translated into the English language, we have specimens of their teaching, and those who have studied them declare that they are the driest products of the human mind. To read them is like traveling through endless galleries of lumber, where the air is darkened and the lungs are well-nigh asphyxiated with the rising dust.

The people in their criticism of Jesus exactly hit the principal defect of their teachers. He, they said, taught with authority, and not as the scribes; that is, the scribes taught without authority. This is the leading characteristic of these Talmudic writings. No teacher speaks as if he had ever been in touch with God Himself or seen the spiritual world with his own eyes. Everyone quotes some earlier teacher, to whose authority he appeals; they are all leaning upon one another. This is a fatal kind of preaching, though it has often prevailed and sometimes loudly arrogated to itself the name of orthodoxy.

Have you never heard God spoken of as if He had existed hundreds of years ago, in Bible times, but no longer moved and worked in the life and history of today? Have you never heard joy in God, the happiness of forgiveness, the fullness of the Spirit, and the other higher experiences of the spiritual life, spoken of as if they had, indeed, been experienced by the saints of the Bible, but were no longer to be looked for in these modern centuries?

(EXPLANATORY NOTE from James Dearmore about the first sentence in the next paragraph following this editorial note. The famous writer on the Life of Christ, James Stalker, is speaking purposely in a manner contrary to fact to illustrate how some people then, and now, try to put a straitjacket on God and His Word making it all "deed" or "letter" and no "spirit". He is NOT indicating that God could ever literally be put into a prison, or contained any where, by any thing, or any one. He is using his words in the sentence following to show how some take all the life and spirit out of "religion" and "the Bible" and "God" by the way they handle and present them to others.)

The Bible can be (see webmaster's note above) converted into a prison in which God is confined, or a museum in which the spiritual life is preserved as an antiquarian curiosity. But those who came to hear Jesus felt that He was in direct contact with the spiritual world and brought to them news of what He had Himself seen and felt. He was not a mere commentator, repeating some faint and far-derived echo of the message received from on high by men long dead. He spoke like one who had just come from the abode of the Highest, or rather who was still in it seeing what He was describing. He was not a scribe, but a prophet, who could say, "Thus saith the Lord."

So the fame of Him traveled from Dan to Beersheba; men said to one another, with kindling looks, "A great prophet is risen up among us; and the shepherd left his sheep in the wilderness, the husbandman his vineyard, and the fisher his nets by the shore, to go and hear the new Preacher; for men know they need a message from the other world, and they instinctively recognize the authentic voice when they hear it.

Preaching sometimes acquires an extraordinary influence from the personality of the preacher. Those who have merely read the sermon are told by those who have heard it that they have no conception of what it was: "You should have seen the man." It is well known that the posthumously published discourses of some of the greatest pulpit orators have entirely disappointed the world, posterity asking in surprise where the influence can have lain. It lay in the man --- in the peculiarity of his personality --- in the majesty of his appearance, or his passionate earnestness, or his moral force.

It cannot be said that the printed words of Jesus are disappointing: on the contrary, their weightiness and originality must have attracted attention however they had been spoken. But yet in this case, also, as can easily be perceived from the criticism of His hearers, the Preacher told as well as the sermon.

We do not, indeed, know how Jesus looked --- whether His appearance was attractive, His voice pleasant, or the like; the traditions about such things which have come down to us not being trustworthy. But we do know in some respects the nature of the impressions which He made on His hearers.

Though for many generations the only preachers whom His countrymen had heard were dry-as-dust scribes, yet one of the proudest traditions of the Jewish people was the memory of great speakers for God whose voices had sounded throughout the land in days gone by, and whose characteristics were indelibly imprinted on the national memory; and, as soon as Jesus commenced to preach, it was recognized at once that the great order of the Prophets had revived in Him. They said He spoke as one of the prophets.

But they went further: they actually believed that one or other of the old prophets had risen from the dead and resumed his work in the person of Jesus. In indulging this fancy, they were divided between two of the ancient prophets, and the selection of these two clearly shows what characteristics they had specially remarked in Him. The two were Jeremiah and Elijah: some said He was Jeremiah, others that He was Elijah.

Now these were both great prophets; perhaps the very greatest in the popular estimation; so that it was to their very greatest that they compared Him. But the two were of types so diametrically opposite to one another that it may seem impossible that their characteristics should have been united in one personality.

Jeremiah was the soft, pathetic prophet --- the man of heart, who wished that his eyes were a fountain of tears to weep for the misfortunes of his people. It is not surprising that Christ's hearers discovered a resemblance to him; for it must have been evident at the first glance that Jesus was a man of heart. The very first sentences of His Sermon on the Mount were words of compassion for the poor, the mourners, the oppressed. The most insignificant among His hearers must have felt that He took an interest in him and would take any trouble to do him good. Although He addressed all classes, His boast was that He preached the Gospel to the poor; whilst the scribes flattered the wealthy and coveted cultivated audiences, the common man knew that Jesus considered his soul as precious as that of the wealthiest of His hearers. The sight of a multitude moved Him with a strange compassion. And, like Jeremiah, He was such an intense lover of His country and His countrymen, that even the publican or harlot was dear to Him because belonging to the seed of Abraham.

Elijah was in every respect a contrast to Jeremiah: he was a man of rock, who could rebuke kings and queens to their faces and stand alone against the world. It did not seem possible that one who exhibited the traits of Jeremiah should also exhibit those of Elijah. Yet the people recognized in Jesus an Elijah.

And they were not mistaken. It is an entire misapprehension to suppose that Jesus was all softness and gentleness. There was a sternness in many of His utterances not surpassed even by Elijah's rebukes of Ahab, and the bold denunciation of wrong was one of the most imposing elements of His power. There has never been in this world a polemic so uncompromising and annihilating as His against the Pharisees.

The truth is, both characteristics, His softness and His sternness, had a common root. As in the poorest peasant He saw and revered a man, so in the wealthiest noble He saw no more than a man. As the rags of Lazarus could not conceal from Him the dignity of the soul, so the purple of Dives could not blind Him to its meanness. He knew what was in man --- the height and the depths, the glory and the shame, the pathos and the horror; and men felt, as they faced Him, that here was One whose manhood towered above their own and yet, stooping down, embraced it and sympathized with it through and through.

No preacher has perhaps ever made a profound impression on the general mind who has not studied the form in which to put what he has had to say; or perhaps the fact might be more correctly stated by saying, that the true messenger from God to the people instinctively clothes his message in attractive and arresting words. Beginners in preaching, I observe, are apt to neglect this: they think that, if only they have something good to say, it does not matter how they say it. As well might a housewife suppose that, if only she has something good to give her guests to eat, it does not matter how it is cooked.

The teaching of Jesus owed its attractiveness, and owes it still, in no small degree, to its exquisite form. The common people do not, I think, as a rule remember so well the drift of an argument or a long discourse as remarks here and there expressed in pithy, pointed, crystalline words. This is the form of most of the sayings of Jesus. They are simple, felicitous and easily remembered; yet every one of them is packed full of thought, and the longer you brood over it the more do you see in it. It is like a pool so clear and sunny that it seems quite shallow, till, thrusting in your stick to touch the pebbles so clearly visible at the bottom, you discover that its depth far exceeds what you are trying to measure it with.

But the discourses of Jesus had a still more popular quality: they were plentifully adorned with illustrations. This is the most attractive quality of human speech. The same God being the Author of both the world of mind and the world of matter, He has so fashioned them that the objects of nature, if presented in a certain way, become mirrors in which are reflected the truths of the spirit; and we are so constituted that we never relish truth so well as when it is presented in this way. Nature contains thousands of these mirrors for exhibiting spiritual truth which have never yet been used but await the hands of the masters of speech who are yet to be born.

Christ used this method of illustrating truth so constantly that the common objects of the country in which He resided are seen more perfectly in His words than in all the historians of the time. The Jewish life of Galilee in the days of Christ is thus lifted up out of the surrounding darkness into everlasting visibility, and, as on the screen of a magic lantern, we see, in scene after scene, the landscapes of the country, the domestic life of the people, and the larger life of the cities in all their details. In the house we see the cup and the platter, the lamp and the candlestick; we see the servants grinding the meal between the millstones and then hiding the leaven in it, till the whole is leavened; we see the mother of the family sewing a piece of cloth on an old garment and the father straining the wine into the skinbottles; we see, at the door, the hen gathering her chickens under her wings and, in the streets, the children playing at marriages and funerals.

Out in the fields we see the lilies in their stately beauty rivaling Solomon's, the crows picking up the seed behind the sower, and the birds in their nests among the branches; the doves and the sparrows, dogs and swine, the fig tree and the bramble bush. Looking up, we see the cloud carried over the landscape by the south wind, the red sky of evening promising fair weather for the morrow, and the lightning flashing from one end of heaven to the other. We see the vineyard with its tower and winepress; the field adorned with the tender blade of spring or sprinkled with the reapers among the yellow grain of autumn; the sheep, too, yonder on their pastures, and the shepherd going before them or seeking the lost one far over hill and dale.

Are there any figures of our own streets with which we are more familiar than the Pharisee and the Publican at prayer in the Temple; or the Priest and the Levite and the Good Samaritan on the road to Jericho; or the gorgeous Dives at his daily banquet and Lazarus lying at his gate with the dogs licking his sores? Nor were these pictures less striking to the audiences of Jesus, though they were familiar; for ---

We're made so that we love
First, when we see them painted,
things we've passed
Perhaps a hundred times,
nor cared to see.

It was because Jesus had exquisite love and consideration for His hearers that He thus sought out acceptable words to win their minds. But there was a reason in Himself besides. It is when the mind of a preacher is acting on the truth with intense energy and delight that it coruscates in such gleams of illustration. When the mental energy is only smoldering in a lukewarm way inside the subject, then you have the commonplace, prosaic statement; when the warmth increases and pervades the whole, you get the clear, strong, impressive statement; but, when the glow has thoroughly mastered the mass and flames all over it, then come the gorgeous images and parables which dwell for ever in the minds of the hearers.

However important the form of preaching may be, the supremely momentous thing is the substance of it. The form is only the stamp of the coin; but the substance is the metal. What is that --- is it gold or silver, or only copper? is it genuine or counterfeit? This is the all-important question.

Never has the substance of preaching been more trivial than among the Jewish scribes. The Talmudical books show this. The topics they deal with are in their triviality beneath contempt. The religion of the scribes was a mere round of ceremonies, and their preaching was almost wholly occupied with these: the proper breadth of phylacteries, the proper length of fasts, the articles of which tithe ought to be paid, the hundred and one things by which one might be made ceremonially unclean --- these and a thousand similar minutia formed the themes of their tiresome harangues. There have been times in the History of the Church since then when the pulpit has sunk almost to as low a level. In our own country immediately before the Reformation the sermons of the monks were, if possible, even worse --- more trivial and low in tone --- than those of the scribes in the time of Christ.

Similarly in Germany last century, when Rationalism was at its lowest, the pulpit had reached an almost incredible stage of degradation. The truth is, there is a necessity in these things. When the minds of preachers grow cold, they move away insensibly from the central things and drift to those on the circumference; and at length they go over the circumference.

Of course the subjects which formed the substance of Christ's preaching cannot here be enumerated, it must suffice to say that His matter was always the most solemn and vital which can be presented to the human mind. He spoke of God in such a way that His hearers felt as if to their eyes God was now light and in Him was no darkness at all. As He uttered such parables as the Lost Sheep and the Prodigal Son, it seemed as if the gates of heaven were thrown open and they could see the very beatings of the heart of the divine mercy. He spoke of man so as to make every hearer feel that till that moment he had never been acquainted either with himself or with the human race. He made every man conscious that he carried in his own bosom that which was more precious than worlds; and that the passing hours of his apparently trivial life were charged with issues reaching high as heaven and deep as hell. When He, spoke of eternity, He brought life and immortality, which men before then had only vaguely guessed at, fully to light, and described the world behind the veil with the graphic and familiar force of one to whom it was no unknown country.

Is it any wonder that the crowds followed Him, that they hung spellbound on His lips and could never get enough of His preaching? Intoxicated as men are with the secularities of this world, they know, deep down, that they belong to another, and interesting as the knowledge of this world is, the questions about the other world will always be far more fascinating to the spirit of man. Whence am I? What am I? Whither am I going? Unless preaching can answer these questions, we may shut our churches. That voice which sounded on the Galilean mountain-side, and which spoke of these mysteries so familiarly, we, indeed, shall never hear, till we hear it from the great white throne.

But the power and the spirit that embodied themselves in these sounds never die; they live and burn today as they did then. Whenever a preacher strikes correctly a note of the eternal truth, it is Christ that does it. Whenever a preacher makes you feel that there is a world of realities above and behind the one you see and touch; whenever he lays hold of your mind, touches your heart, awakens your aspiration, rouses your conscience --- that is Christ trying to grasp you, to reach you with His love, to save you. "Now then we are ambassadors for Christ; as though God did beseech you by us, we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God." ----- Excerpt from James Stalker's "Imago Christi"

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