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Vol. 1, Sermon 20 - The Kingdom of the Truth

By Frederick W. Robertson


      Preached at the Autumn Assizes, held at Lewes, 1852

      "Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice." - John 18:37.

      he Church is the kingdom of God on earth, and the whole fabric of the Christian religion rests on the monarchy of Christ. The Hebrew prisoner who stood before the Roman judge claimed to be the King of men, and eighteen centuries have only verified His claim. There is not a man bearing the Christian name who does not, in one form or another, acknowledge Him to be the Sovereign of his soul. The question therefore at once suggests itself - On what title does this claim rest?

      Besides the title on which the Messiah grounded His pretensions to be the Ruler of a kingdom, three are conceivable: the title of force, the title of prescriptive authority, or the title of incontrovertible reasoning.

      Had the Messiah founded His kingdom upon the basis of force, he would simply have been a rival of the Caesars. The imperial power of Rome rested on that principle. This was all that Pilate meant at first by the question, "Art thou a king?" As a Roman, he had no other conception of rule. Right well had Rome fulfilled her mission as the iron kingdom which was to command by strength, and give to the world the principles of law. But that kingdom was wasting when these words were spoken. For seven hundred years had the empire been building itself up. It gave way at last, and was crumbled into fragments by its own ponderous massiveness. To use the language of the prophet Daniel, miry clay had mixed with the kingdom of iron, and the softer nations which had been absorbed into it broke down its once invincible strength by corrupting and enervating its citizens; the conquerors of the world dropped the sword from a grasp grown nerveless. The empire of strength was passing away; for no kingdom founded on force is destined to permanence. "They that take the sword shall perish with the sword."

      Before Pontius Pilate Christ distinctly disclaimed this right of force as the foundation of his sovereignty. "If my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight: but now is my kingdom not from hence."

      The next conceivable basis of a universal kingdom is prescriptive authority. The scribes and priests who waited outside for their victim conceived of such a kingdom. They had indeed already an ecclesiastical kingdom which dated back far beyond the origin of Rome. They claimed to rule on a title such as this: "It is written." But neither on this title did the Saviour found His claim. He spoke lightly of institutions which were venerable from age. He contravened opinions which were gray with the hoar of ages. It may be that at times He defended Himself on the authority of Moses, by showing that what He taught was not in opposition to Moses; but it is observable that He never rested His claims as a teacher, or as the Messiah, on that foundation. The scribes fell back on this: "It has been said;" or, " It is written." Christ taught, as the men of His day remarked, on an authority very different from that of the scribes. Not even on His own authority: He did not claim that His words should be recognized because He said them, but because they were true. "If I say the truth, why do ye not believe me?" Prescription - personal authority - these were not the basis of his kingdom.

      One more possible title remains. He might have claimed to rule over men on the ground of incontrovertible demonstration of His principles. This was the ground taken by every philosopher who was the founder of a sect. Apparently, after the failure of his first guess, Pilate thought in the second surmise that this was what Jesus meant by calling Himself a king. When he heard of a kingdom, he thought he had before him a rival of Caesar; but when truth was named, he seems to have fancied that he was called to try a rival of the philosophers - some new candidate for a system - some new pretender of a truth which was to dethrone its rival system.

      This seems to be implied in the bitter question, "What is truth?" For the history of opinion in those days was like the history of opinion in our own - religions against religions, philosophies against philosophies - religion and philosophy opposed to one another - the opinion of to-day dethroned by the opinion of to-morrow - the heterodoxy of this age reckoned the orthodoxy of the succeeding one. And Pilate, feeling the vainness and the presumption of these pretensions, having lived to see failure after failure of systems which pretended to teach that which is, smiled bitterly at the enthusiast who again asserted confidently His claims to have discovered the undiscoverable. There broke from his lips a bitter, half-sarcastic, half-sad exclamation of hopeless skepticism, "What is truth?"

      And indeed had the Redeemer claimed this - to overthrow the doctrine of the Porch and of the Academy, and to enthrone Christianity as a philosophy of life upon their ruins, by mere argument, that skeptical cry would have been not ill-timed.

      In these three ways have men attempted the propagation of the Gospel. By force, when the Church ruled by persecution - by prescriptive authority, when she claimed infallibility, or any modification of infallibility in the Popery of Rome or the Popery of the pulpit - by reasoning, in the age of "evidences," when she only asked to have her proofs brought forward and calmly heard, pledged herself to rule the world by the conviction of the understanding, and laid deep and broad the foundations of rationalism. Let us hear the claim of the King Himself. He rested His royal rights on His testimony to the truth. "Thou sayest, for I am a King (a more correct translation); to this end was I born, to bear witness to the truth." The mode in which the subjects of the kingdom were brought beneath His sway was by assimilation. "Every one that is of the truth, heareth My voice." These, then, are our points:

      I. The basis of the kingly rule of Christ.

      II. The qualifications of the subjects of the kingdom.

      I. The basis of the kingly rule of Christ.

      Christ is a king in virtue of His being a witness to the truth. "Thou sayest right, To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth."

      Truth is used here in a sense equivalent to reality: for "truth" substitute reality, and it will become more intelligible. For "the truth" is an ambiguous expression, limited in its application, meaning often nothing more than a theological creed, or a few dogmas of a creed which this or that party have agreed to call "the truth." It would indeed fritter down the majesty of the Redeemer's life to say that He was a witness for the truth of any number of theological dogmas. Himself - His life - were a witness to truth in the sense of reality. The realities of life - the realities of the universe - to these His every act and word bore testimony. He was as much a witness to the truth of the purity of domestic life as to the truth of the doctrine of the Incarnation: to the truth of goodness being identical with greatness as much as to the doctrine of the Trinity - and more: His mind corresponded with reality as the dial with the sun.

      Again, in being a witness to reality, we are to understand something very much deeper than the statement that He spoke truly. There is a wide difference between truthfulness and mere veracity. Veracity implies a correspondence between words and thoughts: truthfulness, a correspondence between thoughts and realities. To be veracious, it is only necessary that a man give utterance to his convictions; to be true, it is needful that his convictions have affinity with fact.

      Let us take some illustrations of this distinction. The prophet tells of men who put sweet for bitter, and bitter for sweet: who call good evil, and evil good. Yet these were veracious men; for to them evil was good, and bitter was sweet. There was a correspondence between their opinions and their words: this was veracity. But there was no correspondence between their opinions and eternal fact: this was untruthfulness. They spoke their opinions truly, but their opinions were not true. The Pharisees in the time of Christ were men of veracity. What they thought they said. They thought that Christ was an impostor. They believed that to tithe mint, anise, and cummin was as acceptable to God as to be just, and merciful, and true. It was their conviction that they were immeasurably better than publicans and profligates: yet veracious as they were, the title perpetually affixed to them is, "Ye hypocrites." The life they led, being a false life, is called, in the phraseology of the Apostle John, a lie.

      If a man speak a careless slander against another, believing it, he has not sinned against veracity; but the carelessness which has led him into so grave an error effectually bars his claim to clear truthfulness. He is a veracious witness, but not a true one. Or a man may have taken up second-hand, indolently, religious views: may believe them, defend them vehemently, is be a man of truth? Has be bowed before the majesty of truth with that patient, reverential humbleness which is the mark of those who love her?

      Imagination has pictured to itself a domain in which every one who enters should be compelled to speak only what he thought, and pleased itself by calling such domain the palace of truth. A palace of veracity, if you will, but no temple of the truth: a place where every one would be at liberty to utter his own crude unrealities - to bring forth his delusions. mistakes, half-formed hasty judgments: where the depraved ear would reckon discord harmony, and the depraved eye mistake color - the depraved moral taste take Herod or Tiberius for a king, and shout beneath the Redeemer's Cross, "Himself He cannot save." A temple of the truth? Nay, only a palace echoing with veracious falsehoods: a Babel of confused sounds, in which egotism would rival egotism, and truth would be each man's own lie. Far, far more is implied here than that the Son of Man spoke veraciously, in saying, that He was a witness to the truth.

      Again, when it is said that He was a witness to the truth, it is implied that His very being, here, manifested to the world Divine realities. Human nature is but meant to be a witness to the Divine; the true humanity is a manifestation or reflection of God. And that is Divine humanity in which the humanity is a perfect representation of the Divine. "We behold," says the Apostle Paul, in Christ, "as in a glass the glory of the Lord." And, to borrow and carry on the metaphor, the difference between Christ and other men is this; they are imperfect reflections, He a perfect one, of God.

      There are mirrors which are concave, which magnify the thing that they reflect: there are mirrors convex, which diminish it. And we in like manner represent the Divine in a false, distorted way. Fragments of truth torn out of connection, snatches of harmony joined without unity. We exaggerate and diminish till all becomes untrue. We bring forth our own fancies, our own idiosyncrasies, our own imaginations, and the image of God can be no longer recognized.

      In One alone has the Divine been so blended with the human, that, as the ocean mirrors every star and every tint of blue upon the sky, so was the earthly life of Christ the life of God on earth.

      Now, observe, that the perfection of humanity consists in faithful imitation of, or witness borne to, the mind and life of God. Whoever has studied and understood the life of Christ will have remarked, not without surprise, that the whole principle of His existence was the habit of unceasing imitation. Listen to a few instances of this.

      "The Son can do nothing of Himself, but that which He seeth the Father do." "The words which I speak I speak not of myself, but the Father which is with me, He doeth the works." Do we remember the strange and startling principle on which He defends His infraction of the literal, legal Sabbath? "My Father worketh hitherto, and I work." God the Father works all the sabbath-day. So may man, His son. Do we recollect the ground on which He enforces forgiveness of injuries? A strange ground, surely, which would never have occurred except to One whose life was habitual imitation. "Love your enemies; do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you: that ye may be the children of (that is, resemble) your Father; . . . for He sendeth His rain upon the just and upon the unjust."

      This, then, is man's - this was the Son of Man's relation to the truth. Man is but a learner - a devout recipient of a revelation - here to listen with open ear devoutly for that which he shall hear; to gaze and watch for that which He shall see. Man can do no more. He can not create truth, he can only bear witness to it; he has no proud right of private judgment, he can only listen and report that which is in the universe. If he does not repeat and witness to that, he speaketh of his own, and forthwith ceaseth to be true. He is a liar, and the father of it, because be creates it. Each man in his vocation is in the world to do this: as truly as it was said by Christ may it be said by each of us, even by those from whose trades and professions it seems most alien, "To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, to bear witness to the truth."

      The architect is here to be a witness. He succeeds only so far as he is a witness, and a true one. The lines and curves, the acanthus on his column, the proportions, all are successful and beautiful only so far as they are true - the report of an eye which has lain open to God's world. If he build his light-house to resist the storm, the law of imitation bids him build it after the shape of the spreading oak which has defied the tempest. If man construct the ship which is to cleave the waters, calculation or imitation builds it on the model upon which the Eternal Wisdom has already constructed the fish's form.

      The artist is a witness to the truth, or he will never attain the beautiful. So is the agriculturist, or he will never reap a harvest. So is the statesman, building up a nation's polity on the principles which time has proved true, or else all his work crumbles down in revolution: for national revolution is only the Divine rejection stamped on the social falsehood - which can not stand. In every department of life, man must work truly - as a witness. He is born for that, nothing else: and nothing else can he do. Man the Son can do nothing of Himself, but that which He seeth God the Father do.

      This was the Saviour's title to be a king, and His kingdom formed itself upon this law: "Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice:" that eternal law which makes truth assimilate all that is congenial to itself. Truth is like life: whatever lives absorbs into itself all that is congenial. The leaf that trembles in the wind assimilates the light of heaven to make its color, and the sap of the parent stem, innumerable influences from heaven, and earth, and air, to make up its beautiful being.

      So grew the Church of Christ - round Him, as a centre, attracted by the truth: all that had in it harmony with His Divine life and words grew to Him (by gradual accretions): clung to Him as the iron to the magnet. All that were of His Spirit believed: all that had in them the Spirit of Sacrifice were attracted to His Cross. " I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me."

      He taught not by elaborate trains of argument, like a scribe or a philosopher: He uttered His truths rather as detached intuitions, recognized by intuition, to be judged only by being felt. For instance, "Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God." "It is more blessed to give than to receive." "Blessed are ye when men shall revile you, and persecute you." Prove that - by force - by authority - by argument - you can not. It suffices that a man reply, "It. is not so to me: it is more blessed to receive than it is to give." You have no reply: if he be not of the truth, you can not make him hear Christ's voice. The truth of Christ is true to the unselfish; a falsehood to the selfish. They that are of the truth, like Him, hear His voice: and if you ask the Christian's proof of the truth of such things, he has no other than this: It is true to me, as any other intuitive truth is true; equals are equal, because my mind is so constituted that they seem so perforce. Purity is good, because my heart is so made that it feels it to be good.

      Brother men, the truer you are, the humbler, the nobler, the more will you feel Christ to be your king. You may be very little able to prove the king's Divine genealogy, or to appreciate those claims to your allegiance which arise out of His eternal generation: but He will be your Sovereign and your Lord by that affinity of character which compels you to acknowledge His words and life to be Divine. "He that receiveth His testimony hath set to his seal that God is true."

      II. We pass to the consideration of the qualification of the subjects of the empire of the truth. Who are they that are of the truth.

      1. The first qualification is to be true: " He that is of the truth heareth My voice." Truth lies in character. Christ did not simply speak truth: He was truth: true through and through; for truth is a thing, not of words, but of life and being. None but a Spirit can be true.

      For example. The friends of Job spoke words of truth. Scarcely a maxim which they uttered could be impugned: cold, hard, theological verities: but verities out of place, in that place cruel and untrue. Job spoke many words not strictly accurate - hasty, impetuous, blundering, wrong; but the whirlwind came, and, before the voice of God, the veracious falsehoods were swept into endless nothingness: the true man, wrong, perplexed in verbal error, stood firm: he was true though his sentences were not: turned to the truth as the sunflower to the sun: as the darkened plant imprisoned in the vault turns towards the light, struggling to solve the fearful enigma of his existence. Job was a servant of the truth, being true in character.

      2. The next qualification is integrity. But by integrity I do not mean simply sincerity or honesty; integrity rather according to the meaning of the word as its derivation interprets it - entireness - wholeness - soundness: that which Christ means when He says,"If thine eye be single [or sound], thy whole body shall be full of light."

      This integrity extends through the entireness or wholeness of the character. It is found in small matters as well as great; for the allegiance of the soul to truth is tested by small things rather than by those which are more important. There is many a man who would lose his life rather than perjure himself in a court of justice, whose life is yet a tissue of small insincerities. We think that we hate falsehood when we are only hating the consequences of falsehood. We resent hypocrisy and treachery and calumny, not because they are untrue, but because they harm us. We hate the false calumny, but we are half pleased with the false praise. It is evidently not the element of untruth here that is displeasing, but the element of harmfulness. Now he is a man of integrity who hates untruth as untruth: who resents the smooth and polished falsehood of society which does no harm: who turns in indignation from the glittering whitened lie of sepulchral Pharisaism which injures no one. Integrity recoils from deceptions which men would almost smile to hear called deception. To a moral, pure mind, the artifices in every department of life are painful: the stained wood which passes for a more firm and costly material in a building, and deceives the eye by seeming what it is not, marble: the painting, which is intended to be taken for a reality: the gilding which is meant to pass for gold: and the glass which is worn to look like jewels; for there is a moral feeling and truthfulness in architecture, in painting, and in dress, as well as in the market-place, and in the senate, and in the judgment-hall.

      "These are trifles." Yes, these are trifles - but it is just these trifles which go to the formation of character. He that is habituated to deceptions and artificialities in trifles, will try in vain to be true in matters of importance: for truth is a thing of habit rather than of will. You can not in any given case, by any sudden and single effort, will to be true, if the habit of your life has been insincerity. And it is a fearful question and a difficult one, how all these things, the atmosphere which we breathe of our daily life, may sap the very foundations of the power of becoming a servant of the truth. Life becomes fictitious: and it passes into religion, till our very religion bases itself upon a figment too. We are not righteous, but we expect God to make believe that we are righteous, in virtue of some peculiar doctrines which we hold; and so our very righteousness becomes the fictitious righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, instead of the righteousness which is by faith, the righteousness of those who are the children of the kingdom of the truth.

      3. Once more. He alone is qualified to be the subject of the King who does the truth. Christianity joins two things inseparably together: acting truly, and perceiving truly. Every day the eternal nature of that principle becomes more certain. If any man will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine whether it be of God.

      It is a perilous thing to separate feeling from acting; to have learnt to feel rightly without acting rightly. It is a danger to which in a refined and polished age, we are peculiarly exposed. The romance, the poem, and the sermon, teach us how to feel. Our feelings are delicately correct. But the danger is this: feeling is given to lead to action; if feeling be suffered to awake without passing into duty, the character becomes untrue. When the emergency for real action comes, the feeling is as usual produced: but accustomed as it is to rise in fictitious circumstances without action, neither will it lead on to action in the real ones. "We pity wretchedness and shun the wretched." We utter sentiments, just, honorable, refined, lofty - but somehow, when a truth presents itself in the shape of a duty, we are unable to perform it. And so such characters become by degrees like the artificial pleasure-grounds of bad taste, in which the waterfall does not fall, and the grotto offers only the refreshment of an imaginary shade, and the green hill does not strike the skies, and the tree does not grow. Their lives are a sugared crust of sweetness trembling over black depths of hollowness: more truly still, "whited sepulchres" - fair without to look upon, "within full of all uncleanness."

      It is perilous, again, to separate thinking rightly from acting rightly. He is already half false who speculates on truth and does not do it. Truth is given, not to be contemplated, but to be done. Life is an action - not a thought. And the penalty paid by him who speculates on truth, is that by degrees the very truth he holds becomes to him a falsehood.

      There is no truthfulness, therefore, except in the witness borne to God by doing His will - to live the truths we hold, or else they will be no truths at all. It was thus that He witnessed to the truth. He lived it. He spoke no touching truths for sentiment to dwell on, or thought to speculate upon. Truth with Him was a matter of life and death. He periled His life upon the words He said. If He were true, the life of men was a painted life, and the woes He denounced unflinchingly would fall upon the Pharisees. But if they were true, or even strong, His portion in this life was the Cross.

      Who is a true man? He who does the truth; and never holds a principle on which he is not prepared in any hour to act, and in any hour to risk the consequences of holding it.

      I make in conclusion one remark. The kingly character of truth is exhibited strikingly in the calmness of the bearing of the Son of Man before His judge. Veracity is not necessarily dignified. There is a vulgar effrontery - a spirit of defiance which taunts, and braves, and challenges condemnation. It marks the man who is conscious of sincerity, but of nothing higher - whose confidence is in himself and his own honesty, and who is absorbed in the feeling, "I speak the truth and am a martyr." Again, the man of mere veracity is often violent, for what he says rests upon his own assertion: and vehemence of assertion is the only addition he can make to it. Such was the violence of Paul before Ananias. He was indignant at the injustice of being smitten contrary to the law; and the powerlessness of his position, the hopelessness of redress, joined to a conviction of the truth of what he said, produced that vehemence.

      It has been often remarked that there is a great difference between theological and scientific controversy. Theologians are proverbially vituperative: because it is a question of veracity: the truth of their views, their moral perceptions, their intellectual acumen. There exists no test but argument on which they can fall back. If argument fails, all fails. But the man of science stands calmly on the facts of the universe. He is based upon reality. All the opposition and controversy in the world can not alter facts, nor prevent the facts being manifest at last. He can be calm, because he is a witness for the Truth.

      In the same way, but in a sense far deeper and more sacred, the Son of Man stood calm, rooted in the Truth. There was none of the egotism of self-conscious veracity in those placid, confident, dignified replies. This was not the feeling - "I hold the truth," - but "I am witness to the truth." They might spit upon Him - kill Him - crucify Him - give His ashes to the winds - they could not alter the Truth by which He stood. Was not that His own feeling? "Heaven and earth shall pass away, but My word shall not pass away."

      There was the kingly dignity of One who, in life and death, stood firm on truth as on a rock.

      In the name of Christ, I respectfully commend these thoughts for the special consideration of the present week, to those who will be pledged by oath to witness to the whole truth they know, and nothing but the truth: to those who - permitted by the merciful spirit of English jurisprudence, to watch that their client, if condemned, shall be condemned only according to the law - are yet not justified by the spirit of the life of Christ in falsifying or obscuring facts; and who, owing a high duty to a client, owe one higher to the Truth: and lastly, to those whom the severe intellectual, and, much more, moral training of the English bar has qualified for the high office of disentangling truth from the mazes of conflicting testimony.

      From the trial-hour of Christ - from the Cross of the Son of God - there arises the principle to which all His life bore witness, that the first lesson of Christian life is this, Be true - and the second this, Be true - and the third this, Be true.

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