Home  »  library  »  prose  »  The Universal Nature of Christ

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

The Universal Nature of Christ

By Frederick William Robertson (1816–1853)

From ‘Sermons Preached in Trinity Chapel’

NOTHING, in the judgment of historians, stands out so sharply distinct as race,—national character; nothing is more ineffaceable. The Hebrew was marked from all mankind. The Roman was perfectly distinct from the Grecian character; as markedly different as the rough English truthfulness is from Celtic brilliancy of talent. Now, these peculiar nationalities are seldom combined. You rarely find the stern old Jewish sense of holiness going together with the Athenian sensitiveness of what is beautiful. Not often do you find together severe truth and refined tenderness. Brilliancy seems opposed to perseverance. Exquisiteness of taste commonly goes along with a certain amount of untruthfulness. By “humanity” as a whole, we mean the aggregate of all these separate excellences. Only in two places are they all found together,—in the universal human race and in Jesus Christ. He, having as it were a whole humanity in himself, combines them all.

Now, this is the universality of the nature of Jesus Christ. There was in him no national peculiarity or individual idiosyncrasy. He was not the son of the Jew, nor the son of the carpenter, nor the offspring of the modes of living and thinking of that particular century. He was the son of Man. Once in the world’s history was born a MAN. Once in the roll of ages, out of innumerable failures, from the stock of human nature one bud developed itself into a faultless flower. One perfect specimen of humanity has God exhibited on earth.

The best and most catholic of Englishmen has his prejudices. All the world over, our greatest writer would be recognized as having the English cast of thought. The pattern Jew would seem Jewish everywhere but in Judea. Take Abraham, St. John, St. Paul, place them where you will,—in China or in Peru,—they are Hebrews: they could not command all sympathies; their life could not be imitable except in part. They are foreigners in every land, and out of place in every century, but their own. But Christ is the king of men, and “draws all men,” because all character is in him, separate from nationalities and limitations. As if the life-blood of every nation were in his veins, and that which is best and truest in every man, and that which is tenderest and gentlest and purest in every woman, in his character. He is emphatically the son of Man.

Out of this arose two powers of his sacred humanity,—the universality of his sympathies, and their intense particular personality.

The universality of his sympathies: for, compare him with any one of the sacred characters of Scripture. You know how intensely national they were—priests, prophets, and apostles—in their sympathies. For example, the apostles “marveled that he spake with a woman of Samaria”; just before his resurrection, their largest charity had not reached beyond this,—“Lord, wilt thou at this time restore the kingdom unto Israel?” Or to come down to modern times, when his spirit has been molding men’s ways of thought for many ages: now, when we talk of our philanthropy and catholic liberality, here in Christian England, we have scarcely any fellow-feeling, true and genuine, with other nations, other churches, other parties, than our own: we care nothing for Italian or Hungarian struggles; we think of Romanists as the Jew thought of Gentiles; we speak of German Protestants in the same proud, wicked, self-sufficient way in which the Jew spoke of Samaritans.

Unless we bring such matters home, and away from vague generalities, and consider what we and all men are, or rather are not, we cannot comprehend with due wonder the mighty sympathies of the heart of Christ. None of the miserable antipathies that fence us from all the world bounded the outgoings of that Love, broad and deep and wide as the heart of God. Wherever the mysterious pulse of human life was beating, wherever aught human was in struggle, there to him was a thing not common or unclean, but cleansed by God and sacred. Compare the daily, almost indispensable, language of our life with his spirit.—“Common people”? point us out the passage where he called any people that God his Father made, common.—“Lower orders”? tell us when and where he, whose home was the workshop of the carpenter, authorized you or me to know any man after the flesh as low or high.—To him who called himself the Son of Man, the link was manhood. And that he could discern even when it was marred. Even in outcasts his eye could recognize the sanctities of a nature human still. Even in the harlot, “one of Eve’s family;” a son of Abraham even in Zaccheus.

Once more, out of that universal, catholic nature rose another power,—the power of intense, particular, personal affections. He was the brother and savior of the human race; but this because he was the brother and savior of every separate man in it.

Now, it is very easy to feel great affection for a country as a whole; to have, for instance, great sympathies for Poland, or Ireland, or America, and yet not to care a whit for any single man in Poland, and to have strong antipathies to every single individual American. Easy to be a warm lover of England, and yet not love one living Englishman. Easy to set a great value on a flock of sheep, and yet have no particular care for any one sheep or lamb. If it were killed, another of the same species might replace it. Easy to have fine, large, liberal views about the working classes, or the emancipation of the negroes, and yet never have done a loving act to one. Easy to be a great philanthropist, and yet have no strong friendships, no deep personal attachments.

For the idea of a universal Manlike sympathy was not new when Christ was born. The reality was new. But before this, in the Roman theatre, deafening applause was called forth by this sentence:—“I am a man: nothing that can affect man is indifferent to me.” A fine sentiment—that was all. Every pretense of realizing that sentiment, except one, has been a failure. One, and but one, has succeeded in loving man—and that by loving men. No sublime high-sounding language in his lips about educating the masses, or elevating the people. The charlatanry of our modern sentiment had not appeared then; it is but the parody of his love.

What was his mode of sympathy with men? He did not sit down to philosophize about the progress of the species, or dream about a millennium. He gathered round him twelve men. He formed one friendship, special, concentrated, deep. He did not give himself out as the leader of the publican’s cause or the champion of the rights of the dangerous classes: but he associated with himself Matthew, a publican called from the detested receipt of custom; he went into the house of Zaccheus, and treated him like a fellow-creature, a brother, and a son of Abraham. His catholicity, or philanthropy, was not an abstraction, but an aggregate of personal attachments.