International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
JESUS CHRIST, 3
PART II. THE PROBLEMS OF THE LIFE OF JESUS
I. The Miracles.
1. The "Modern" Attitude:
Everyone is aware that the presence of miracle in the Gospels is a chief ground of the rejection of its history by the representatives of the "modern" school. It is not questioned that it is a super-natural person whose picture is presented in the Gospels. There is no real difference between the Synoptics and John in this respect. "Even the oldest Gospel," writes Bousset, "is written from the standpoint of faith; already for Mark, Jesus is not only the Messiah of the Jewish people, but the miraculous eternal Son of God, whose glory shone in the world" (Was wissen wir von Jesus? 54, 57). But the same writer, interpreting the "modern" spirit, declares that no account embracing supernatural events can be accepted as historical. "The main characteristic of this modern mode of thinking," he says, "rests upon the determination to try to explain everything that takes place in the world by natural causes, or--to express it in another form--it rests on the determined assertion of universal laws to which all phenomena, natural and spiritual, are subject" (What Is Religion? English translation, 283).
2. Supernatural in the Gospels:
With such an assumption it is clear that the Gospels are condemned before they are read. Not only is Jesus there a supernatural person, but He is presented as super-natural in natural in character, in works, in claims (see below); He performs miracles; He has a supernatural birth, and a supernatural resurrection. All this is swept away. It may be allowed that He had remarkable gifts of healing, but these are in the class of "faithcures" (thus Harnack), and not truly supernatural. When one seeks the justification for this selfconfident dogmatism, it is difficult to discover it, except on the ground of a pantheistic or monistic theory of the universe which excludes the personal God of Christianity. If God is the Author and Sustainer of the natural system, which He rules for moral ends, it is impossible to see why, for high ends of revelation and redemption, a supernatural economy should not be engrafted on the natural, achieving ends which could not otherwise be attained. This does not of course touch the question of evidence for any particular miracle, which must be judged of from its connection with the person of the worker, and the character of the apostolic witnesses. The well-meant effort to explain all miracles through the action of unknown natural laws--which is what Dr. Sanday calls "making both ends meet" (Life of Christ in Recent Research, 302)--breaks down in the presence of such miracles as the instantaneous cleansing of the leper, restoration of sight to the blind, the raising of the dead, acts which plainly imply an exercise of creative power. In such a life as Christ's, transcendence of the ordinary powers of Nature is surely to be looked for.
II. The Messiahship.
1. Reserve of Jesus and Modern Criticism:
A difficulty has been found in the fact that in all the Gospels Jesus knew Himself to be the Messiah at least from the time of His baptism, yet did not, even to His disciples, unreservedly announce Himself as such till after Peter's great confession at Caesarea Philippi (Mt 16:13 ff). On this seeming secrecy the bold hypothesis has been built that Jesus in reality never made the claim to Messiahship, and that the passages which imply the contrary in Mark (the original Gospel) are unhistorical (Wrede; compare on this and other theories, Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, English translation; Sanday, The Life of Christ in Recent Research). So extreme an opinion is rejected by most; but modern critics vie with each other in the freedom with which they treat the testimony of the evangelists on this subject. Baldensperger, e.g., supposes that Jesus did not attain full certainty on His Messiahship till near the time of Peter's confession, and arbitrarily transposes the earlier sections in which the title "Son of Man" occurs till after that event (Das Selbstbewusstsein Jesu, 2nd edition, 246). Bousset thinks that Jesus adopted the Messianic role as the only one open to Him, but bore it as a "burden" (compare his Jesus). Schweitzer connects it with apocalyptic ideas of a wildly fantastic character (op. cit., chapter xix).
2. A Growing Revelation:
There is, however, no need for supposing that Peter's confession marks the first dawn of this knowledge in the minds of the apostles. Rather was it the exalted expression of a faith already present, which had long been maturing. The baptism and temptation, with the use of the title "Son of Man," the tone of authority in His teaching, His miracles, and many special incidents, show, as clearly as do the discourses in John, that Jesus was from the beginning fully conscious of His vocation, and His reserve in the use of the title sprang, not from any doubt in His own mind as to His right to it, but from His desire to avoid false associations till the true nature of His Messiahship should be revealed. The Messiahship was in process of self-revelation throughout to those who had eyes to see it (compare Jn 6:66-71). What it involved will be seen later.
III. Kingdom and Apocalypse.
1. The Kingdom--Present or Future?:
Connected with the Messiahship is the idea of the "Kingdom of God" or "of heaven," which some in modern times would interpret in a purely eschatological sense, in the light of Jewish apocalyptic conceptions (Johannes Weiss, Schweitzer, etc.). The kingdom is not a thing of the present, but wholly a thing of the future, to be introduced by convulsions of Nature and the Parousia of the Son of Man. The language of the Lord's Prayer, "Thy kingdom come," is quoted in support of this contention, but the next petition should guard against so violent an inference. "Thy will be done," Jesus teaches His disciples to pray, "as in heaven, so on earth" (Mt 6:10). The kingdom is the reign of God in human hearts and lives in this world as well as in the next. It would not be wrong to define it as consisting essentially in the supremacy of God's will in human hearts and human affairs, and in every department of these affairs. As Jesus describes the kingdom, it has, in the plain meaning of His words, a present being on earth, though its perfection is in eternity. The parables in Mt 13 and elsewhere exhibit it as founded by the sowing of the word of truth (Sower), as a mingling of good and evil elements (Tares), as growing from small beginnings to large proportions (Mustard Seed), as gradually leavening humanity (Leaven), as of priceless value (Treasure; Pearl; compare Mt 6:33); as terminating in a judgment (Tares, Dragnet); as perfected in the world to come (Mt 13:43). It was a kingdom spiritual in nature (Lk 17:20,21), universal in range (Mt 8:11; 21:43, etc.), developing from a principle of life within (Mk 4:26-29), and issuing in victory over all opposition (Mt 21:44).
2. Apocalyptic Beliefs:
It is difficult to pronounce on the extent to which Jesus was acquainted with current apocalyptic beliefs, or allowed these to color the imagery of parts of His teachings. These beliefs certainly did not furnish the substance of His teaching, and it may be doubted whether they more than superficially affected even its form. Jewish apocalyptic knew nothing of a death and resurrection of the Messiah and of His return in glory to bring in an everlasting kingdom. What Jesus taught on these subjects sprang from His own Messianic consciousness, with the certainty He had of His triumph over death and His exaltation to the right hand of God. It was in Old Testament prophecy, not in late Jewish apocalypse, that His thoughts of the future triumph of His kingdom were grounded, and from the vivid imagery of the prophets He borrowed most of the clothing of these thoughts. Isa 53 e.g., predicts not only the rejection and death of the Servant of Yahweh (53:3,1-9,12), but the prolongation of His days and His victorious reign (53:10-12). Dnl, not the Book of En, is the source of the title, "Son of Man," and of the imagery of coming on the clouds of heaven (Dan 7:13). The ideas of resurrection, etc., have their ground in the Old Testament (see ESCHATOLOGY OF THE OLD TESTAMENT). With the extravagant, unspiritual forms into which these conceptions were thrown in the Jewish apocalyptic books His teaching had nothing in common. The new apocalyptic school represented by Schweitzer reduces the history of Jesus to folly, fanaticism and hopeless disillusionment.
IV. The Character and Claims.
1. Denial of Christ's Moral Perfection:
Where the Gospels present us in Jesus with the image of a flawless character--in the words of the writer to the Hebrews, "holy, guileless, undefiled, separated from sinners" (Heb 7:26)--modern criticism is driven by an inexorable necessity to deprive Jesus of His sinless perfection, and to impute to Him the error, frailty, and moral infirmity that belong to ordinary mortals. In Schweitzer's portraiture (compare op. cit.), He is an apocalyptic enthusiastic, ruled by illusory ideals, deceiving Himself and others as to who He was, and as to the impending end of the world. Those who show a more adequate appreciation of Christ's spiritual greatness are still prevented by their humanitarian estimate of His person and their denial of the supernatural in history from recognizing the possibility of His sinlessness. It may confidently be said that there is hardly a single writer of the modern school who grants Christ's moral perfection. To do so would be to admit a miracle in humanity, and we have heard that miracle is by the highest rational necessity excluded. This, however, is precisely the point on which the modern so-called "historical-critical" mode of presentation most obviously breaks down. The ideal of perfect holiness in the Gospels which has fascinated the conscience of Christendom for 18 centuries, and attests itself anew to every candid reader, is not thus lightly to be got rid of, or explained away as the invention of a church gathered out (without the help of the ideal) promiscuously from Jews and Gentiles. It was not the church--least of all such a church--that created Christ, but Christ that created the church.
(1) The Sinlessness Assured.
The sinlessness of Jesus is a datum in the Gospels. Over against a sinful world He stands as a Saviour who is Himself without sin. His is the one life in humanity in which is presented a perfect knowledge and unbroken fellowship with the Father, undeviating obedience to His will, unswerving devotion under the severest strain of temptation and suffering to the highest ideal of goodness. The ethical ideal was never raised to so absolute a height as it is in the teaching of Jesus, and the miracle is that, high as it is in its unsullied purity, the character of Jesus corresponds with it, and realizes it. Word and life for once in history perfectly agree. Jesus, with the keenest sensitiveness to sin in thought and feeling as in deed, is conscious of no sin in Himself, confesses no sin, disclaims the presence of it, speaks and acts continually on the assumption that He is without it. Those who knew Him best declared Him to be without sin (1 Pet 2:22; 1 Jn 3:5; compare 2 Cor 5:21). The Gospels must be rent in pieces before this image of a perfect holiness can be effaced from them.
(2) What This Implies.
How is this phenomenon of a sinless personality in Jesus to be explained? It is itself a miracle, and can only be made credible by a creative miracle in Christ's origin. It may be argued that a Virgin Birth does not of itself secure sinlessness, but it will hardly be disputed that at least a sinless personality implies miracle in its production. It is precisely because of this that the modern spirit feels bound to reject it. In the Gospels it is not the Virgin Birth by itself which is invoked to explain Christ's sinlessness, but the supernatural conception by the Holy Spirit (Lk 1:35). It is because of this conception that the birth is a virgin one. No explanation of the supernatural element in Christ's Person is more rational or credible (see below on "Nativity").
2. Sinlessness and the Messianic Claim:
If Jesus from the first was conscious of Himself as without sin and if, as the converse of this, He knew Himself as standing in an unbroken filial fellowship with the Father, He must early have become conscious of His special vocation, and learnt to distinguish Himself from others as one called to bless and save them. Here is the true germ of His Messianic consciousness, from which everything subsequently is unfolded. He stood in a rapport with the Father which opened His spirit to a full, clear revelation of the Father's will regarding Himself, His mission, the kingdom He came to found, His sufferings as the means of salvation to the world, the glory that awaited Him when His earthly work was done. In the light of this revelation He read the Old Testament Scriptures and saw His course there made plain. When the hour had come He went to John for baptism, and His brief, eventful ministry, which should end in the cross, began. This is the reading of events which introduces consistency and purpose into the life of Jesus, and it is this we mean to follow in the sketch now to be given.
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Definition for 'jesus christ, 3'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". bible-history.com - ISBE
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