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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Early Development of Christ

By Frederick William Robertson (1816–1853)

From ‘Sermons Preached in Trinity Chapel’

IN the case of all rare excellence that is merely human, it is the first object of the biographer of a marvelous man to seek for surprising stories of his early life. The appetite for the marvelous in this matter is almost instinctive and invariable. All men, almost, love to discover the early wonders which were prophetic of after greatness. Apparently the reason is that we are unwilling to believe that wondrous excellence was attained by slow, patient labor. We get an excuse for our own slowness and stunted growth, by settling it, once for all, that the original differences between such men and us were immeasurable. Therefore it is, I conceive, that we seek so eagerly for anecdotes of early precocity.

In this spirit the fathers of the primitive Church collected legends of the early life of Christ, stories of superhuman infancy,—what the Infant and the Child said and did. Many of these legends are absurd; all, as resting on no authority, are rejected.

Very different from this is the spirit of the Bible narrative. It records no marvelous stories of infantine sagacity or miraculous power, to feed a prurient curiosity. Both in what it tells and in what it does not tell, one thing is plain, that the human life of the Son of God was natural. There was first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn. In what it does not say; because, had there been anything preternatural to record, no doubt it would have been recorded. In what it does say; because that little is all unaffectedly simple. One anecdote, and two verses of general description,—that is all which is told us of the Redeemer’s childhood.

The child, it is written, grew. Two pregnant facts: He was a child, and a child that grew in heart, in intellect, in size, in grace, in favor with God. Not a man in child’s years. No hotbed precocity marked the holiest of infancies. The Son of Man grew up in the quiet valley of existence,—in shadow, not in sunshine,—not forced. No unnatural, stimulating culture had developed the mind or feelings; no public flattery, no sunning of infantine perfections in the glare of the world’s show, had brought the Temptation of the Wilderness, with which his manhood grappled, too early on his soul. We know that he was childlike, as other children; for in after years his brethren thought his fame strange, and his townsmen rejected him. They could not believe that that one who had gone in and out, ate and drank and worked, was He whose Name is Wonderful. The proverb, true of others, was true of him: “A prophet is not without honor but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.” You know him in a picture at once, by the halo round his brow: there was no glory in his real life to mark him. He was in the world, and the world knew him not. Gradually and gently he woke to consciousness of life and its manifold meaning; found himself in possession of a self; by degrees opened his eyes upon this outer world, and drank in its beauty. Early he felt the lily of the field discourse to him of the Invisible Loveliness, and the ravens tell of God his Father. Gradually, and not at once, he embraced the sphere of human duties, and woke to his earthly relationships one by one,—the Son, the Brother, the Citizen, the Master.

It is a very deep and beautiful and precious truth that the Eternal Son had a human and progressive childhood. Happy the child who is suffered to be and content to be what God meant it to be,—a child while childhood lasts. Happy the parent who does not force artificial manners, precocious feeling, premature religion. Our age is one of stimulus and high pressure. We live, as it were, our lives out fast. Effect is everything,—results produced at once; something to show and something that may tell. The folio of patient years is replaced by the pamphlet that stirs men’s curiosity to-day, and to-morrow is forgotten. “Plain living and high thinking” are no more. The town with its fever and its excitements, and its collision of mind with mind, has spread over the country; and there is no country—scarcely home. To men who traverse England in a few hours, and spend only a portion of the year in one place, “home” is becoming a vocable of past ages. The result is that heart and brain, which were given to last for seventy years, wear out before their time. We have our exhausted men of twenty-five, and our old men of forty. Heart and brain give way: the heart hardens and the brain grows soft.

Brethren, the Son of God lived till thirty in an obscure village of Judea unknown, then came forth a matured and perfect Man,—with mind, and heart, and frame, in perfect balance of humanity. It is a divine lesson! I would I could say as strongly as I feel deeply. Our stimulating artificial culture destroys depth. Our competition, our nights turned into days by pleasure, leave no time for earnestness. We are superficial men. Character in the world wants root. England has gained much; she has lost also much. The world wants what has passed away (and which until we secure, we shall remain the clever, shallow men we are), a childhood and a youth spent in shade—a home.

Now, this growth took place in three particulars.

I. In spiritual strength. “The child waxed strong in spirit.”

Spiritual strength consists of two things,—power of will, and power of self-restraint. It requires two things, therefore, for its existence,—strong feelings, and strong command over them.

Now it is here we make a great mistake: we mistake strong feelings for strong character. A man who bears all before him,—before whose frown domestics tremble, and whose bursts of fury make the children of the house quake,—because he has his will obeyed, and his own way in all things, we call him a strong man. The truth is, that is the weak man: it is his passions that are strong; he, mastered by them, is weak. You must measure the strength of a man by the power of the feelings which he subdues, not by the power of those which subdue him.

And hence composure is very often the highest result of strength. Did we never see a man receive a flagrant insult, and only grow a little pale, and then reply quietly? That was a man spiritually strong. Or did we never see a man in anguish stand as if carved out of solid rock, mastering himself? or one bearing a hopeless daily trial, remain silent, and never tell the world what it was that cankered his home peace? That is strength. He who with strong passions remains chaste,—he who, keenly sensitive, with manly power of indignation in him, can be provoked and yet refrain himself and forgive,—these are strong men, spiritual heroes.

The child waxed strong: spiritual strength is reached by successive steps. Fresh strength is got by every mastery of self. It is the belief of the savage that the spirit of every enemy he slays enters into him and becomes added to his own, accumulating a warrior’s strength for the day of battle; therefore he slays all he can. It is true in the spiritual warfare. Every sin you slay, the spirit of that sin passes into you transformed into strength; every passion, not merely kept in abeyance by asceticism, but subdued by a higher impulse, is so much character strengthened. The strength of the passion not expended is yours still. Understand, then, you are not a man of spiritual power because your impulses are irresistible. They sweep over your soul like a tornado,—lay all flat before them,—whereupon you feel a secret pride of strength. Last week, men saw a vessel on this coast borne headlong on the breakers, and dashing itself with terrific force against the shore. It embedded itself, a miserable wreck, deep in sand and shingle. Was that brig, in her convulsive throes, strong? or was it powerless and helpless?

No, my brethren: God’s spirit in the soul,—an inward power of doing the same thing we will and ought,—that is strength, nothing else. All other force in us is only our weakness,—the violence of driving passion. “I can do all things through Christ, who strengtheneth me,”—that is Christian strength. “I cannot do the things I would,”—that is the weakness of an unredeemed slave.

I instance one single evidence of strength in the early years of Jesus: I find it in that calm, long waiting of thirty years before he began his work. And yet all the evils he was to redress were there, provoking indignation, crying for interference,—the hollowness of social life, the misinterpretations of Scripture, the forms of worship and phraseology which had hidden moral truth, the injustice, the priestcraft, the cowardice, the hypocrisies: he had long seen them all.

All those years his soul burned within him with a divine zeal and heavenly indignation. A mere man—a weak, emotional man of spasmodic feeling, a hot enthusiast—would have spoken out at once, and at once been crushed. The Everlasting Word incarnate bided his own time,—“Mine hour is not yet come,”—matured his energies, condensed them by repression; and then went forth to speak, and do, and suffer. His hour was come. This is strength: the power of a Divine Silence; the strong will to keep force till it is wanted; the power to wait God’s time. “He that believeth,” said the wise prophet, “shall not make haste.”