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Unfettered by formalities, the Founder of Christianity was enabled to take powerful advantage of circumstances. This constitutes another trait of his character as a teacher. While the professional teachers of the day were employed in commenting upon the traditions, and in nice and puerile distinctions, Jesus walked amidst the works of nature and the busy scenes of life; almost every object and every circumstance he arrested, and made them the messengers of his instructions. He became a voice to nature and Providence, or rather he made them the witnesses and symbols of the things which he uttered. It is true he frequently expressed himself in general terms, employing those universal forms of speech by which abstract truths or principles are enunciated.* But, as I have already observed, this general mode of speaking is almost always suggested by deep feeling, and special instances. It does not necessarily imply a state of mental abstraction. And if we carefully examine the passages, in which at first sight it appears as if Jesus were merely announcing general truths or principles, we may find reason to suspect that he was speaking on those occasions with profound emotion, awakened by some present and particular incident. But however this may be, his utterances are obviously suggested and modified, in most instances, by circumstances. Does he speak of the Providence of God? He points to the ravens† wheeling about in the depths of the sky, and to the liliest growing in the fields around him. Are little
*See Chap. V. Pt. I. p. 54.
In the exquisite lines of Bryant to the waterfowl, we have an amplification of a passage in the sermon on the mount.
The following Sonnet by Mrs. Hemans may be familiar to the reader, but I cannot deny myself the pleasure of enriching my pages with it.
"Flowers! when the Saviour's calm benignant eye
children brought to him? He takes them in his arms and beholds in them a resemblance to the inhabitants of the spiritual world. Is he athirst? He is reminded of that living water of which if a man drink, he shall never thirst again. Blindness and death suggest spiritual blindness and spiritual death. Is he followed by an immense multitude? He finds in the circumstance an occasion of solemn and emphatic admonition, turning round and declaring that he who would indeed follow him, must be ready to take up his cross, and consider himself a doomed man. Is mention made to him of his mother and brethren? His language instantly is, "whosoever doeth the will of my Father in Heaven, the same is my mother and sister and brother." Has he cast out an evil spirit? He is instinctively prompted to allude to the evil spirit of unbelief which possessed the hearts of many of those around him. Is he sorely tempted? "Watch and pray," he exclaims, "lest ye enter into temptation." But why should I specify instances? Read over the Gospels with this view, and you will find that the sentiments uttered by Jesus were continually suggested by passing occurrences. His discourses were never formal, abstract, studied, but directly and strikingly the reverse. On so many occasions does this appear from what is
That heavenly lesson from all hearts he drew
Eternal, universal, as the sky,-
A voice He set, as in a temple shrine,
That life's quick travellers ne'er might pass you by
And though too oft its low, celestial sound,
Yet, the great ocean hath no tone of power
explicitly related in the narratives, that even when there is no allusion made by the narrators to the particular circumstances under which he spoke, we may fairly infer them from the forms in which his declarations are expressed. When he pronounced himself the light of the world, we may suppose that the thought was suggested by the rising of the sun; and when he said "I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman," it may be conjectured that he was walking with his disciples in sight of the vineyards on his way to the garden to which he loved to resort.
Let us pause over the probable circumstances of one very interesting passage of his life, as related in the 7th chapter of John.
The Jews were celebrating one of their great national festivals, the Feast of Tabernacles as it was called. It lasted eight days and consisted of a series of the most imposing ceremonies. It was designed to commemorate the sojourn of the Israelites in the wilderness after their departure from Egypt. It received its name from the tabernacles or bowers which, formed of branches of trees, were erected by the people in the open air, and in which they ate and drank and spent a large portion of their time during the continuance of the festival. By these tabernacles, which filled the city, and must have presented a most picturesque appearance, the people were reminded of that early age when their ancestors, flying from Egyptian oppression, erected similar dwellings in the wilderness. National enthusiasm and religious zeal brought the Jews from all parts of Judea and from distant countries, up to Jerusalem, to observe this stirring festival. At that celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles to which we now have reference, the people were universally excited by the expectation of the speedy appearance
AT THE FEAST OF TABERNACLES.
of a long-promised and heaven-sent Deliverer, who should emancipate his country from the Roman yoke, and raise it to the highest earthly grandeur. And, what was not a little startling, a strange individual had appeared, one Jesus, of the obscure town of Nazareth. He had already produced a great sensation in Galilee and elsewhere by his astonishing works of power and mercy, and by the originality of his whole career. At the Feast he appeared publicly in the Temple, exciting the wonder of those who heard him by the boldness and authority with which he spake. The leading men of the nation, alarmed at the impression he was making, employed officers to seize his person. They returned to those by whom they were sent, the commission unexecuted. When asked why they had not brought him, they replied, "never man spake like this man.”*
By connecting what we know of the ceremonies observed at this festival with this part of the history of Jesus, we shall perceive an impressive example of that characteristic of his teaching, upon which we are remarking the promptness with which he seized upon occasions and made them speak for him and with him. On the last and great day of the feast, the same day on which the officers, sent to apprehend Jesus, are said to have made the above-mentioned confession, the services of the temple were peculiarly magnificent. Then all the people forsook their tabernacles, and crowded the courts of the sanctuary. The officiating priests were arranged in due form before the altar. A golden vessel of water from the spring of Siloam was brought, the bearer crying aloud, "with joy we draw water from the well of Salvation." The words were taken up and repeated by the assembled multitudes. The
*Here again is an instance of the unqualified manner in which strong feeling expresses itself.
WHAT JESUS UTTERED,
water was mingled with wine and poured upon the altar, amidst the shouts of the people. This was the ceremony of which it was commonly said among the Jews, "he who has not seen the joy of the drawing of water, has seen no joy."* Now we cannot help imagining it was in some sort of connexion with this impressive ceremony, probably in one of the pauses or intervals of the service, that, as we read, Jesus stood up and cried, "If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink, and from within him shall flow rivers of living water." The stirring cry had just burst from all lips, "with joy we draw water from the wells of Salvation." The water of Siloam was pure and refreshing to the sense and hallowed to the mind of the multitude. But Jesus said, 'Come unto me and I will slake your thirst. A full, rich and perennial fountain of blessedness I will open in your hearts.' The circumstances of the occasion were so impressive that, as the narrative goes on to inform us, many of the people when they heard this saying, said, Of a truth this is the Prophet. Others said, This is the Christ.' And then too it was, that the officers sent to take Jesus returned without him, saying, "Never man spake like this man.”
This characteristic of the teaching of Jesus, the constant advantage which he took of circumstances, lets us incidentally into the secret of his extraordinary power as a teacher. It shows that what he said, he said from his heart; that the sentiments he uttered had first become his own sentiments, parts of himself, the irrepressible feelings of his own soul. He spake, because he believed, he knew, he felt with the whole undivided force of his spirit. He did not speak from hearsay, or because he was expected to speak, or with a view to
* Helon's Pilgrimage to Jerusalem, translated from the German of Fred. Strauss. Boston ed. vol. ii. page 231.