Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 11

First Advent Lecture - The Grecian

Preached December 6, 1849

  Frederick W. Robertson

“I am debtor both to the Greeks, and to the Barbarians; both to the wise and to the unwise. So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome also. For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.” - Romans 1:14-17.

The season of Advent commemorates three facts. 1. That the Lord has come. 2. That He is perpetually coming. 3. That He will yet come in greater glory than has yet appeared. And these are the three Advents: The first in the flesh which is past; the second in the spirit; the third, His judgment advent.

The first occupies our attention in these lectures.

We live surrounded by Christian institutions; breathe an atmosphere saturated by Christianity. It is exceedingly difficult even to imagine another state of things. In the enjoyment of domestic purity, it is difficult to conceive the debasing effects of polygamy; in the midst of political liberty, to conceive of the blighting power of slavery; in scientific progress, to imagine mental stagnation; in religious liberty and free goodness, to fancy the reign of superstition.

Yet to realize the blessings of health we must sit by the sick-bed; to feel what light is we must descend into the mine and see the emaciated forms which dwindle away in darkness; to know what the blessing of sunshine is, go down into the valleys where stunted vegetation and dim vapors tell of a scene on which the sun scarcely shines two hours in the day. And to know what we have from Christianity, it is well to cast the eyes sometimes over the darkness from which the Advent of Christ redeemed us.

There are four departments of human nature spoken of in these verses on which the light shined. The apostle felt that the Gospel was the power of God unto salvation to the Greeks, the Romans, the Barbarians, and the Jews. In the present lecture we consider Christianity presented to the Grecian character and superseding the Grecian religion. Four characteristics marked Grecian life and Grecian religion: Restlessness, worldliness, the worship of the beautiful, the worship of the human.

1. Restlessness. Polytheism divided the contemplation over many objects: and as the outward objects were manifold, so was there a want of unity in the inward life. The Grecian mind was distracted by variety. He was to obtain wisdom from one Deity: eloquence from that Mercurius for whom Paul was taken; purity from Diana for whom Ephesus was zealous; protection for his family or country from the respective tutelary deities; success by a prayer to Fortune.

Hence dissipation of mind - that fickleness for which the Greeks were famous - add the restless love of novelty which made Athens a place of literary and social gossip - ”some new thing.” All stability of character rests on the contemplation of changeless unity.

So in modern science, which is eminently Christian, having exchanged the hold theorizing of ancient times for the patient humble willingness to be taught by the facts of nature, and performing its wonders by exact imitation of them - on the Christian principle - the Son of man can do nothing of Himself but what He seeth the Father do.

And all the results of science have been to simplify and trace back the manifold to unity. Ancient science was only a number of insulated facts and discordant laws; modern science has gradually ranged these under fewer and ever fewer laws. It is ever tending towards unity of law.

For example, gravitation. The planet’s motion, and the motion of the atom of water that dashes tumultuously, and as it seems lawlessly, down the foam of the cataract; the floating of the cork, the sinking of the stone, the rise of the balloon, and the curved flight of the arrow, are all brought under one single law, diverse and opposite as they seem.

Hence science is calm and dignified, reposing upon uniform fact. The philosopher’s very look tells of repose, resting, as he does, on a few changeless principles.

So also in religion. Christianity proclaimed “One God and one Mediator between God and Man, the man Christ Jesus.” Observe the effect in the case of two apostles. St. Paul’s view of the Gospel contemplated it as an eternal divine purpose. His Gospel, the salvation of the Gentiles, was the eternal purpose which had been bidden from ages and generations. His own personal election was part of an eternal counsel. All the children of God had been predestinated before the creation “unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to Himself.” Now see the effect on character. First, on veracity - 2 Cor. i. 18, etc. He contemplated the changeless “yea” of God; His own yea became fixed as God’s - changeless, and calmly unalterable.

Again in orthodoxy - “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, to-day, and forever.” “Be not carried about by divers and strange doctrines.” Truth is one, error manifold - many opinions, yet there can be but one faith. See how calm and full of rest all this spirit is.

Now consider St. John. His view of the Gospel recognized it rather as the manifestation of love than the carrying out of the unity of an everlasting purpose. If you view the world as the Greek did, all is so various that you must either refer it to various deities, or to different modes of the same Deity. To-day you are happy - God is pleased: tomorrow miserable - God is angry. But St. John referred these all to unity of character - “God is Love.” Pain and pleasure, the sign and smile, the sunshine and the storm, nay, hell itself, to him were but the results of eternal love.

Hence came deep calm - the repose which we are toiling all our lives to find, and which the Greek never found.

II. Worldliness. There are men and nations to whom this world seems given as their province, as if they had no aspiration above it. If ever there was a nation who understood the science of living, it was the Grecian. They bad organized social and domestic life; filled existence with comforts; knew bow to extract from every thing its greatest measure of enjoyment. This world was their home; this visible world was the object of their worship. Not like the Orientals, who called all materialism bad, and whose highest object was to escape from it, “to be unclothed, not clothed upon,” as St. Paul phrases it. The Greeks looked upon this world in its fallen state, and pronounced it all “very good.”

The results were threefold.

1. Disappointment. Lying on the infinite bosom of Nature, the Greek was yet unsatisfied. And there is an insatiable desire above all external forms and objects in man - all men - which they can never satisfy. Hence his craving too, like others, was from time to time, “Who will show us any good?” This dissatisfaction is exhibited in the parable of the prodigal, who is but the symbol of erring humanity. Away from his father’s home, the famine came, and he fed on husks. Famine and husks are the world’s unsatisfactoriness. A husk is a thing that seems full - is really hollow - which stays the appetite for a time, but will not support the life. And such is this world - leaving a hollowness at heart, staying our craving but for a time. “He that drinketh of this water shall thirst again.” And the worldly man is trying to satiate his immortal hunger upon husks.

3. Degradation. Religion aims at an ideal life above this actual one - to found a divine polity - a kingdom of God - a church of the best. And the life of worldliness pronounces this world to be all. This is to be adorned and beautified. Life as it is. Had you asked the Greek his highest wish, he would have replied, “This world, if it could only last - I ask no more.” Immortal youth - add this bright existence. This is to feed on husks, but husks which the swine did eat. No degradation to the swine, for it is their nature; but degradation to man to rest in the outward, visible, and present, for the bosom of God is his home. The Greek, therefore, might be, in his own language, “a reasoning animal,” but not one of the children of heaven.

3. Disbelief in immortality. The more the Greek attached himself to this world, the more the world unseen became a dim world of shades. The earlier traditions of the deep-thinking Orientals, which his forefathers brought from Asia, died slowly away, and any one who reminded him of them was received as one would now be who were to speak of purgatory. The cultivated Athenians were for the most part skeptics in the time of Christ. Accordingly, when Paul preached at Athens the resurrection of the dead, they “mocked.”

This bright world was all. Its revels, its dances, its theatrical exhibitions, its races, its baths, and academic groves, where literary leisure luxuriated, these were blessedness, and the Greek’s hell was death. Their poets speak pathetically of the misery of the wrench from all that is dear and bright. The dreadfulness of death is one of the most remarkable things that meet us in those ancient writings.

And these men were startled by seeing a new sect rise up to whom death was nothing - who almost courted it. They heard an apostle say at Miletus, “None of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy.” For the cross of Christ had crucified in their hearts the Grecian’s world. To them life was honor, integrity, truth; that is the soul: to this all other was to be sacrificed. This was the proper self, which could only die by sin, by denying its own existence. The rise of the higher life had made this life nothing, “and delivered those who, through fear of death, were all their lifetime subject unto bondage.”

Appeal to the worldly-minded. Melancholy spectacle! Men and women shutting out the idea of death, the courtesies of society concealing from them the mention of their age, by all false appliances of dress, etc., etc., and staving the appearance of the hand of time. You must die. The day will come, and the coffin. Life in God alone robs that thought of dreadfulness: when the resurrection being begun within, you can look upon the decay of the outward man, and feel, I am not dying.

III. The worship of the beautiful. The Greek saw this world almost only on its side of beauty. His name for it was Cosmos, divine order or regularity. He looked at actions in the same way. One and the same adjective expressed the noble and the beautiful, If He wanted to express a perfect man, he called him a musical or harmonious man.

What was the consequence? Religion degenerated into the arts. All the immortal powers of man were thrown upon the production of a work of the imagination. The artist who had achieved a beautiful statue was almost worshipped; the poet who had produced a noble poem was the prophet of the nation; the man who gave the richest strains of melody was half divine. This was their inspiration. The arts became religion, and religion ended in the arts.

Hence, necessarily, sensuality became religious, because all feelings produced by these arts, chiefly the voluptuous ones, were authorized by religion. There is a peculiar danger in refinement of sensuous enjoyments. Coarse pleasures disgust, and pass for what they are; but who does not know that the real danger and triumph of voluptuousness are when it approaches the soul veiled under the drapery of elegance? They fancied themselves above the gross multitude: but their sensuality, disguised even from themselves, was sensuality still - ay, and at times even, in certain festivals, broke out into gross and unmistakable licentiousness.

And hence the greatest of the Greeks, in his imaginary republic, banished from that perfect state all the strains which were soft and enfeebling - all the poems that represented any, deeds of deities unworthy of the Divine - all the statues which could suggest one single feeling of impurity. Himself a worshipper of the purest beautiful, it was yet given to his all but inspired heart to detect the lurking danger before which Greece was destined to fall - the approach of sensuality through the worship of the graceful and the refined.

There is this danger now. Men are awakened from coarse rude life to the desire of something deeper; and the god or spirit of this world can subtly turn that aside into channels which shall effectually enfeeble and ruin the soul. Refinement - melting imagery - dim religious light; all the witchery of form and color - music - architecture; all these, even colored with the lines of religion, producing feelings either religious or quasi-religious, may yet do the world’s work. For all attempt to impress the heart through the senses, “to make perfect through the flesh,” is fraught with that danger beneath which Greece sunk. There is a self-deception in those feelings - the thrill, and the sense of mystery, and the luxury of contemplation, and the impressions on the senses: all these lie very close to voluptuousness - enfeeblement of heart - yea, even impurity.

This, too, is the ruinous effect of an education of accomplishments. The education of the taste, and the cultivation of the feelings in undue proportion, destroy the masculine tone of mind. An education chiefly romantic or poetical, not balanced by hard practical life, is simply the ruin of the soul.

If any one ever felt the beauty of this world, it was He. The beauty of the lily nestling in the grass - He felt it all; but the beauty which He exhibited in life was the stern loveliness of moral action. The King in His Beauty “had no form or comeliness;” it was the beauty of obedience, of noble deeds, of unconquerable fidelity, of unswerving truth, of Divine self-devotion. The Cross! the Cross! We must have some thing of iron and hardness in our characters. The Cross tells us that is the true Beautiful which is Divine: an inward, not an outward beauty, which rejects and turns sternly away from the meretricious forms of the outward world, which have a corrupting or debilitating tendency.

IV. The worship of humanity. The Greek had strong human feelings and sympathies. He projected his own self on nature; humanized it; gave a human feeling to clouds, forests, rivers, seas.

In this be was a step above other idolatries. The Hindoo, for instance, worshipped monstrous emblems of physical power. Mighty gigantic masses - hundred-handed deities, scarcely human, you find in Hindostan. In Egypt, again, life was the thing sacred. Hence all that had life was in a way divine - the sacred ibis, crocodile, bull, cat, snake. All that produced and all that ended life. Hence death too was sacred. The Egyptian lived in the contemplation of death. His coffin, was made in his lifetime; his ancestors embalmed; the sacred animals preserved in myriad heaps through generations in mummy pits. The sovereign’s tomb was built to last for, not centuries, but thousands of years.

The Greek was above this. It was not merely power, but human power; not merely beauty, but human beauty; not merely life, but human life, which was the object of his profoundest veneration. His effort therefore was, in his conception of his god, to realize a beautiful human being. And not the animal beauty of the human only, but the intelligence which informs and shines through beauty. All his life he was moulding into shape visions of earth - a glorious human being. Light under the conditions of humanity; the “sun in human limbs arrayed” was the central object of Grecian worship.

Much in this had a germ of truth - more was false. This principle, which is true, was evidently stated: The Divine, under the limitations of humanity, is the only worship of which man is capable. Demonstrably, for man can not conceive that which is not in his own mind. He may worship what is below himself, or that which is in himself resembling God; but attributes of which from his own nature be has no conception, be clearly can not adore.

The only question therefore is, What he shall reckon divine, and in alliance with God? If power, then he worships as the Hindoo; if life, then as the Egyptian: if physical and intellectual beauty, then as the Greek.

Observe, they wanted some living image of God containing some thing more truly divine to supplant their own. For still, in spite of their versatile and multifarious conceptions, the illimitable unknown remained, to which an altar stood in Athens. They wanted humanity in its glory - they asked for a Son of Man.

Christ is Deity under the limitations of humanity. But there is presented in Christ for worship, not power, nor beauty, nor physical life, but the moral image of God’s perfections. Through the heart, and mind, and character of Jesus it was that the Divinest streamed. Divine character, that was given in Christ to worship.

Another error. The Greek worshipped all that was in man. Every feeling had its divine origin. Hence thieving had its patron deity, and treachery, and cunning; and lust had its temple erected for abominable worship. All that was human had its sanction in the example of some god.

Christ corrects this. Not all that is human is divine. There is apart of our nature kindred with God: the strengthening of that, by mixture with God’s spirit, is our true and proper humanity - regeneration of soul. There is another part whereby we are related to the brutes: our animal propensities, our lower inclinations, our corrupted will. And whoever lives in that, and strengthens that, sinks not to the level of the brutes, but below them, to the level of the demons: for he uses an immortal spirit to degrade himself: and the immortal joined with evil, as the life to the body, is demoniacal.

In conclusion, remark, In all this system one thing was wanting - the sense of sin. The Greek worshipped the beautiful, adored the human, deified the world: of course this worship found no place for sin. The Greek would not have spoken to you of sin: he would have told you of departure from a right line; want of moral harmony; discord within: he would have said that the music of your soul was out of tune. Christ came to convince the world of sin. And after Him began to brood upon the hearts of Christendom that deep cloud that rests upon the conscience which has been called into vitality of action and susceptibility.

For this Greece had no remedy. The universe has no remedy but one. There is no prescription for the sickness of the heart, but that which is written in the Redeemer’s blood.