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The Synoptic Gospels
ALL the gospels describe the sufferings and death of Christ with a minuteness which has no parallel in their narratives of other events of His life, and they all, to a certain extent, by references to the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy or otherwise, indicate their sense of its meaning and importance. This, however, reveals the mind of the evangelists rather than that of the Lord. It is in His life, rather than in the record of His death itself, that we must look for indications of His mind. But here we are at once confronted with certain preliminary difficulties. Quite apart from the question whether it is possible at all to know what Jesus thought or spoke about His death — a question which it is taken for granted is to be answered in the affirmative33See the writer’s Jesus and the Gospel, pp. 320-346. — it has been asserted, largely upon general grounds, that Jesus cannot have entered on His ministry with the thought of His death present to Him; that He must, on the contrary, have begun His work with brilliant hopes of success; that only as these hopes gradually but irrevocably faded away did first the possibility and then the certainty of a tragic issue dawn upon Him; that it thus became necessary for Him to reconcile Himself to the idea of a violent death, and that in various ways, which can more or less securely be traced in the gospels, He did so; although, as the prayer in Gethsemane shows, there seemed a possibility to Him, even to the last, that a change might come, and the will of the Father be done in some less tragic fashion. This is what is meant by an historical as opposed to a dogmatic reading of the life of Jesus, a dogmatic reading being one which holds that Jesus came into the world in order to die; and it is insisted on as necessary to secure for that life the reality of a genuine human experience. To question or impeach or displace this interpretation is alleged to be docetism; it gives us a phantom as a Savior instead of the man Christ Jesus.
In spite of its plausibility, I venture to urge that this reading of the gospels requires serious qualification. It is almost as much an a priori interpretation of the history of Jesus as if it were deduced from the Nicene creed. It is derived from the word ‘historical,’ in the sense which that word would bear if it were applied to an ordinary human life, just as abstractly as another reading of the facts might be derived from the words ‘ὁμοούσιος τῷ πατρί.’ If any one wrote a life of Jesus, in which everything was subordinated to the idea that Jesus was ‘of one substance with the Father,’ it would no doubt be described as dogmatic, but it is quite as possible to be ‘dogmatic’ in history as in theology. It is a dogma, and an unreasoned dogma besides, that because the life of Jesus is historical, it neither admits nor requires for its interpretation any idea or formula that cannot be used in the interpretation of the common life of man. The Christian religion rests on the fact that there is not only an identity but a difference between His life and ours; and we cannot allow the difference (and with it the Christian religion) to be abolished a priori by a ‘dogmatic’ use of the term ‘historical. ’ We must turn to our historical documents — the gospels — and when we do, there is much to give us pause.
All the gospels, we remark in the first place, begin with an account of the baptism of Jesus. Whatever may be doubtful about this it cannot be doubtful that it was the occasion of a great spiritual experience to Jesus. Ideas, as Dr. Johnson says, must be given through something; and Jesus, we must believe, gave His disciples an idea of what His experience at baptism was in the narratives which we now read in the gospels. The sum of that experience is often put by saying that He came then to the consciousness of His Sonship. But the manner in which Jesus Himself puts it is much more revealing. ‘A voice came from heaven, Thou art My Son, the Beloved, in Thee I am well pleased.’ A voice from heaven does not mean a voice from the clouds, but a voice from God; and it is important to notice that the voice from God speaks in familiar Old Testament words. It does not come unmediated, but mediated through psalm and prophecy. It is through the absorption of Old Testament Scripture that Jesus comes; to the consciousness of what He is; and the Scriptures which He uses to convey His experience to the disciples are the 2nd Psalm, and the forty-second chapter of Isaiah. The first words of the heavenly voice are from the Psalm, the next from the prophet. Nothing could be more suggestive than this. The Messianic consciousness in Jesus from the very beginning was one with the consciousness of the Servant of the Lord. The King, to whom Jehovah says, Thou art My Son, this day have I begotten Thee (Psalm 2:7),44In Luke 3:22, Codex Bezae gives the heavenly voice in this form. Probably Jesus told the stories of His baptism and temptation often, giving more or less fully, with brief allusions to Old Testament words or fuller citation of them, such hints of His experience as His hearers could appreciate. Certainly there could be no truer index to His life than a combination of Psalm 2:7 with Isaiah 42:1 ff. — the Son of God as King, and the Servant of the Lord; and this combination, if we go upon the evidence and not upon any dogmatic conception of what is or is not historical, dates from the high hour in which Jesus entered on His public work, and is not an afterbirth of disappointing experiences. is at the same time (in the mind of Jesus) that mysterious Servant of Jehovah — ‘My beloved, in whom I am well pleased’ — whose tragic yet glorious destiny is adumbrated in the second Isaiah (42:1 ff.). It is not necessary to inquire how Jesus could combine beforehand two lines of anticipation which at the first glance seem so inconsistent with each other; the point is, that on the evidence before us, which seems to the writer as indisputable as anything in the gospels, He did combine them, and therefore cannot have started on His ministry with the cloudless hopes which are sometimes ascribed to Him. However ‘unhistorical’ it might seem on general grounds, on the ground of the evidence which is here available we must hold that from the very beginning of His public work the sense of something tragic in His destiny — something which in form might only become definite with time, but in substance was sure — was present to the mind of Jesus. When it did emerge in definite form it brought necessities and appeals along with it which were not there from the beginning; it brought demands for definite action, for assuming a definite attitude, for giving more or less explicit instruction; but it did not bring a monstrous and unanticipated disappointment to which Jesus had to reconcile Himself as best He could. It was not a brutal dementi to all His hopes. It had a necessary relation to His consciousness from the beginning, just as surely as His consciousness from the beginning had a necessary relation to the prophetic conception of the Servant of the Lord.
This is confirmed if we look from the baptism to that which in all the gospels is closely connected with it, and is of equal importance as illustrating our Lord’s conception of Himself and His work — the temptation. Nothing can be more gratuitous than to ascribe this wonderful narrative to the ‘productive activity’ of the Church, and to allege that the temptations which it records are those which Jesus encountered during His career, and that they are antedated for effect, or for catechetical convenience. Psychologically, the connection of the temptations with the baptism is strikingly true, and two of the three are connected even for many with the divine voice, Thou art My Son (Matthew 3:17 and 4:3, 6). The natural supposition is that Jesus spoke often to His disciples of a terrible spiritual experience which followed the sublime experience of the baptism — sometimes without detail, as in Mark, who mentions only a prolonged conflict with Satan, during which Jesus was sustained by the ministry of angels; sometimes, as in Matthew and Luke, with details which gave insight into the nature of the conflict. It does not matter that the temptations which are here described actually assailed Jesus at later stages in His life. Of course they did. They are the temptations of the Christ, and they not only assailed Him at particular moments, some of which we can still identify (Matthew 16:22 f. and John 6: 15), they must in some way have haunted Him incessantly.55Wellhausen asserts that the temptation in Mark 1:12 f. is not Messianic; the Messianic temptation in Mark does not follow the baptism, but the Messianic confession of Peter at ch. 8:29; and it is Peter, not ‘der leibhaftige Satan,’ to whom the severe rebuke of Jesus is historically addressed. This is one of his main arguments for regarding Mark as older than Q, the source to which the temptation narratives of Matthew and Luke are traced. But it surely needs no proof that however summarily he may refer to it, the temptation associated by Mark with the baptism must have had its character determined by the baptism; and on Wellhausen’s own showing the whole significance of the baptism for Mark is that it indicates the birth of the Messianic consciousness in Jesus. He entered the water an ordinary Israelite, and emerged the Messiah. A temptation in this context can have been nothing but a Messianic temptation. — Einleitung in die drei ersten Evangelien (2nd edition), 65 f. But they were present to His mind from the outset of His career; that is the very meaning of the temptation story, standing where it stands. The Christ sees the two paths that lie before Him, and He chooses at the outset, in spiritual conflict, that which He knows will set Him in irreconcilable antagonism to the hopes and expectations of those to whom He is to appeal. A soul which sees its vocation shadowed out in the Servant of the Lord, which is driven of the Spirit into the wilderness to face the dreadful alternatives raised by that vocation, and which takes the side which Jesus took in conflict with the enemy, does not enter on its life-work with any superficial illusions: it has looked Satan and all he can do in the face; it is prepared for conflict, it may shrink from death, when death confronts it in the path of its vocation, as hideous and unnatural, but it cannot be startled by it as by an unthought of, unfamiliar thing. The possibility, at least, of a tragic issue to His work — when we remember the Servant of the Lord, far more than the possibility — belongs to the consciousness of Jesus from the first. Not that His ultimate triumph is compromised, but He knows before He begins that it will not be attained by any primrose path. If there was a period in His life during which He had other thoughts, it is antecedent to that at which we have any knowledge of Him.
These considerations justify us in emphasizing, in relation to our subject, not merely the fact of Jesus’ baptism, but its meaning. It was a baptism of repentance with a view to remission of sins, and there is undoubtedly something paradoxical, at a first glance, in the idea of Jesus submitting to such a baptism. Neither here nor elsewhere in the gospel does He betray any consciousness of sin. The opinion of a recent writer on the life of Jesus,66O. Holtzmann. who ascribes to the fragments of the gospel according to the Hebrews an authority equal, and at this point superior, to that of the canonical gospels, is not likely to find many supporters. Jerome tells us that in this gospel, which in his day was still used by the Nazarenes, and could be seen in the library at Caesarea, the narrative ran, ‘Behold the mother of the Lord and His brethren said to Him: John Baptist is baptizing with a view to remission of sins’ let us go and be baptized by him. But He said to them, ‘What sin have I done that I should go and be baptized by him? Unless, indeed, this very word I have spoken is ignorantia,’ i. e., a sin of ignorance or inadvertence (cf. ἀγνόημα, Hebrews 9:7, and שְׁנָנָה in Old Testament).77Hier. Contra Pelag., 3, 2. Nestle, Novi Testamenti Graeci Supplementum (77, 81), quotes in the same sense from Cyprian De Rebaptismate: ‘Confictus liber qui inscribitur Pauli predicatio in quo libro contra omnes scripturas et de peccato proprio confitentem invenies Christum, qui solus omnino nihil deliquit et ad accipiendum Joannis baptisma paene invitum a matre sua esse compulsum.’ We should have to suppose in this case that Jesus went up to Jordan half reluctantly, His first thought being that a baptism like John’s could mean nothing to Him, His next that possibly this proud thought, or the utterance of it, indicated that He might have something to repent of after all, and more perhaps than He knew. This mingling of what might not unfairly be called petulance with a sudden access of misgiving, as of one who was too sure of himself and yet not quite sure, is as unlike as anything could be to the simplicity and truth of Jesus;88Soltau, Unsere Evangelien, p. 58: ‘Der Zusatz ist nicht mehr naiv, sondern ganz kasuistisch.’ and surely it needs no proof that it is another mood than this to which the heavens are opened, and on which divine assurance and divine strength are bestowed. We must abide by the canonical narratives as consistent in themselves, and consistent with the New Testament as a whole. What we see there is Jesus, who, according to all apostolic testimony, and according to the suggestion of the Baptist himself in Matthew 3:14, knew no sin, submitting to a baptism which is defined as a baptism of repentance. It would not have been astonishing if Jesus had come from Galilee to baptize along with John, if He had taken His stand by John’s side confronting the people; the astonishing thing is that being what He was He came to be baptized, and took His stand side by side with the people. He identified Himself with them. As far as the baptism could express it, He made all that was theirs His. It is as though He had looked on them under the oppression of their sin, and said, ‘On Me let all that burden, all that responsibility descend.’ The key to the act is to be found in the great passage in Isaiah 53. in which the vocation of the Servant of the Lord, which, as we have seen, was present to our Lord’s mind at the moment, is most amply unfolded. The deepest word in that chapter, He was numbered with the transgressors, is expressly applied to our Lord by Himself at a later period (Luke 22:37); and however mysterious that word may be when we try to define it by relation to the providence and redemption of God — however appalling it may seem to render it as St. Paul does, Him who knew no sin, God made to be sin for us — here in the baptism we see not the word but the thing: Jesus numbering Himself with the transgressors, submitting to be baptized with their baptism, identifying Himself with them in their relation to God as sinners, making all their responsibilities His own. It was ‘a great act of loving communion with our misery,’ and in that hour, in the will and act of Jesus, the work of atonement was begun. It was no accident that now, and not at some other hour, the Father’s voice declared Him the beloved Son, the chosen One in whom His soul delighted. For in so identifying Himself with sinful men, in so making their last and most dreadful responsibilities His own, Jesus approved Himself the true Son of the Father, the true Servant and Representative of Him whose name from of old is Redeemer.99See Garvie’s Studies in the Inner life of Jesus, ch. 4. ‘The Vocation Accepted, ’ pp. 117 ff. ‘It is in His vicarious consciousness and the sacrifice which this would ultimately involve that Jesus fulfilled all righteousness. There is a higher righteousness than being justified by one’s own works, a higher even than depending on God’s forgiveness; and that belongs to Him who undertakes by His own loving sacrifice for sinners to bring God’s forgiveness to them.’ It is impossible to have this in mind, and to remember the career which the fifty- third chapter of Isaiah sets before the Servant of the Lord, without feeling that from the moment He entered on His ministry our Lord’s thoughts of the future must have been more in keeping with the reality than those which are sometimes ascribed to Him as alone consistent with a truly human career. His career was truly His own as well as truly human, and the shadow of the world’s sin lay on it from the first.1010Compare Kahler, Zur Lehre yon der Versohnung, 179: ‘Die Taufe im Jordan nimmt jene Taufe voraus, der er mit Bangen entgegenblickt, die letzte, schwerste Versuchung.’
Starting from this point, we may now go on to examine the facts as they are put before us in the gospels.
It is only, indeed, after the great day of Caesarea Philippi, on which Jesus accepts from the lips of His disciples the confession of Messiahship, that He begins expressly to teach the necessity of His death. But there are indications earlier than this that it was not alien to His thoughts, as indeed there was much to prompt the thought of it. There was the experience of ancient prophets, to which He refers from the sermon on the mount, at the opening of His ministry (Matthew 5:10-12), to the great denunciation of the Pharisees at its close (Matthew 23:37). There was the fate of John the Baptist, which, though the precise date of it is uncertain, was felt by Jesus to be parallel to His own (Mark 9:12, 13). There was the sense underlying all His early success, to speak of it in such language, of an irreconcilable antipathy in His adversaries, of a temper which would incur the guilt of eternal sin rather than acknowledge His claims (Mark 3:20-30); there was the consciousness, going back, if we can trust the evangelic narrative at all, to very early days, that the most opposite parties were combining to destroy Him (Mark 3:6). And there is one pathetic word in which the sense of the contrast between the present and the future comes out with moving power.
‘Can the children of the bride- chamber fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast. But days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in that day’ (Mark 2:19 f.).
The force of this exquisite word has been evaded in two ways.
(1) Hollmann1111Die Bedeutung des Todes Jesu, p. 16 ff. has argued that 5: 20, in which the taking away of the bridegroom is spoken of, is not really a word of Jesus, but due to the productive activity of the Church. It is irrelevant in the circumstances, and it is only made possible by the parable of Jesus being treated as an allegory. All that is apposite to the occasion is the first clause, ‘Can the children of the bride-chamber fast while the bridegroom is with them?’ But the allegory, which is thus used to discredit 5:20, must, as Wellhausen has fairly pointed out, be assumed if we are to get any pertinent meaning even for 5: 19; and few will follow him in expunging both verses alike.1212See Jesus and the Gospel, 314 ff.
(2) It has been argued that the words do not necessarily refer to a violent or premature or unnatural death, but merely to the parting which is inevitable in the case of all human relations, however joyful they may be, and which perhaps suggests itself the more readily the more joyful they are.1313Cf. Haupt, Die eschatol. Aussagen Jesu, p. 108; Holtzmann, Neut. Theologie, 1. p. 287. But there is nothing elsewhere in the words of Jesus so sentimental and otiose as this. He does not aim at cheap pathetic effects, like the modern romance writers, who studiously paint the brightness and gaiety of life against the omnipresent black background of death. The taking away of the bridegroom from the bridal party is not the universal experience of man, applied to an individual case; it is something startling, tragic, like sudden storm in a summer sky; and it is as such that it is present to the mind of Jesus as a figure of His own death. Even in the Galilean springtime, when His fortune seems to rise like the rising tide, there is this sad presentiment at His heart, and once at least He suffers it to break through.
It is not possible, for critical reasons, to insist in the same way on the saying about being three days and three nights in the heart of the earth, as Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly (Matthew 12:40); in the parallel passage in Luke 11:29 f. the sign of Jonah must be interpreted without any such reference to the fortunes of Jesus. But even if Jesus did make an allusion of this sort to the issue of His life — an allusion which none of His hearers could understand — it does not carry us any way into the understanding of His death. It only suggests that it is not a final defeat, but has the true victory of His cause beyond it. What He came to do will be effectively done, not before He dies, but after He has come again through death. And this is the only sign which His enemies can have.1414Cf. Rev. C. F. Burney in Contentio Veritas, p. 202. ‘If, as is probable, Jonah represents the nation of Israel emerging as though by a miracle from the Exile in order to carry out its mission to the world at large, it may be noticed that the idea of the restoration from the exile as resurrection is elsewhere current in the prophetic writings (Hosea 6 and Ezekiel 37) and that it is thus highly fitting that the allegory of the death and resurrection of the nation should be also the allegory of the death and resurrection of the nation’s true Representative.’
But leaving these allusive references to His death, let us proceed to those in which it is the express subject of our Lord’s teaching.
All the synoptics introduce it, in this sense, at the same point (Mark 8:31, Matthew 16:21 and Luke 9:22). Matthew lays a peculiar emphasis on the date, using it to mark the division of his gospel into two great parts. ‘From that time Jesus began,’ he says in 4:17, ‘to preach and to say — Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.’ ‘From that time,’ he says in 16:21,
‘Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go up to Jerusalem and be killed.’
A comparison of the evangelists justifies us in saying broadly that a new epoch in our Lord’s ministry had now begun. His audience is not so much the multitudes as the twelve; His method is not so much preaching as teaching; His subject is not so much the Kingdom as Himself, and in particular His death. All the evangelists mention three occasions on which He made deliberate and earnest efforts to initiate the disciples into His thoughts (Mark 8:31, 9:31 and 10:32, with parallels in Matthew and Luke). Mark, especially, whose narrative is fundamental, lays stress on the continued and repeated attempts He made to familiarize them with what was drawing near (notice the imperfects ἐδίδασκεν in 9:31). There is no reason whatever to doubt this general representation. It is mere wantonness to eliminate from the narrative one or two of the three passages on the ground that they are but duplicates or triplicates of the same thing. In Mark, especially, they are distinctly characterized by the varying attitude of the disciples. Further, in the first we have the presumptuous protest of Peter, which guarantees the historicity of the whole, if anything could. In the second the disciples are silent. They could not make him out (ἡγνόουν τὸ ῥῆμα), and with the remembrance of the overwhelming rebuke which Peter had drawn down on himself, they were afraid to put any question to Him (9:32). The third is attached to that never-to-be-forgotten incident in which, as they were on the way to Jerusalem, Jesus took the lead in some startling manner, so that they followed in amazement and fear. If anything in the gospels has the stamp of real and live recollection upon it, it is this. It is necessary to insist on this repeated instruction of the disciples by Jesus as a fact, quite apart from what He was able to teach or they to learn. It is often said that the death of Christ has a place in the epistles out of all proportion to that which it has in the gospels. This is hardly the fact, even if the space were to be estimated merely by the number of words devoted to it in the gospels and epistles respectively; but it is still less the fact when we remember that that which, according to the gospels themselves, characterized the last months of our Lord’s life was a deliberate and thrice-repeated attempt to teach His disciples something about His death.
The critical questions which have been raised as to the contents of these passages need not here detain us. It has been suggested that they must have become more detailed in the telling — that unconsciously and involuntarily the Church put into the lips of the Lord words which were only supplied to its own mind by its knowledge of what actually took place — that the references to mocking, scourging, spitting, in particular, could not have been so explicit — above all, that the resurrection on the third day must, if spoken of at all, have been veiled in some figurative form which baffled the disciples at the moment. It has been suggested, on the other hand, that it may have been the idea of a resurrection on the third day, and not on the familiar great day at the end of all things, which put them out. It may not be possible, and it is certainly not necessary, to say beforehand that there is nothing in any of these suggestions.1515It is undoubtedly disappointing that in spite of the reiterated assertion that Jesus did teach His disciples about His death, Mark does not tell us even remotely what He taught. There is no memorable word of Jesus preserved from His teaching. But one may hold sincerely, and with good grounds, that there is very little in them, and that even that little is persuasive rather for dogmatic than for historical reasons. Surely we cannot imagine Jesus iterating and reiterating (as we know He did), with the most earnest desire to impress and instruct His followers, such vague, elusive, impalpable hints of what lay before Him as some critics would put in the place of what they regard, for extra-historical reasons, as impossibly definite predictions. Jesus must have had something entirely definite and sayable to say, when He tried so persistently to get it apprehended. He did not live in cloudland; what He spoke of was the sternest of realities; and for whatever reason His disciples failed to understand Him, it cannot have been that He talked to them incessantly and importunately in shadowy riddles, the thing could not be done. As far, however, as our present purpose is concerned, it is not affected by any reasonable opinion we may come to on the critical questions here in view. The one point in which all the narratives agree is that Jesus taught that He must go up to Jerusalem and die; and the one question it is of importance to answer is, What is meant by this must (δεῖ)?
There are obviously two meanings which it might have. It might signify that His death was inevitable; the must being one of outward constraint. No doubt, in this sense it was true that He must die. The hostile forces which were arrayed against Him were irreconcilable, and were only waiting their time. Sooner or later it would come, and they would crush Him without remorse. But it might also signify that His death was indispensable, the must being one of inward constraint. It might signify that death was something He was bound to accept and contemplate if the work He came to do was to be done, if the vocation with which he was called was to be fulfilled. These two senses, of course, are not incompatible; but there may be a question as to their relation to each other. Most frequently the second is made to depend upon the first. Jesus, we are told, came to see that His death was inevitable, such were the forces arrayed against Him; but being unable, as the well-beloved Son of the Father, merely to submit to the inevitable, merely to encounter death as a blind fate, He reconciled Himself to it by interpreting it as indispensable, as something which properly entered into His work and contributed to its success. It became not a thing to endure, but a thing to do. The passion was converted into the sublimest of actions. We do not need to say that this reasoning has nothing in it; but it is too abstract, and the relation in which the two necessities are put to one another does not answer to the presentation of the facts in the gospels. The inward necessity which Jesus recognized for His death was not simply the moral solution which He had discovered for the fatal situation in which He found Himself. An inward necessity is identical with the will of God, and the will of God for Jesus is expressed, not primarily in outward conditions, but in that Scripture which is for Him the word of God. We have seen already that from the very beginning our Lord’s sense of His own vocation and destiny was essentially related to that of the Servant of the Lord in the Book of Isaiah, and it is there that the ultimate source of the δεῖ is to be found. The divine necessity for a career of suffering and death is primary; it belongs, in however vague and undefined a form, to our Lord’s consciousness of what He is and what He is called to do; it is not deduced from the malignant necessities by which He is encompassed; it rises up within Him, in divine power, to encounter these outward necessities and subdue them.
This connection of ideas is confirmed when we notice that what Jesus began to teach His disciples is the doctrine of a suffering Messiah. As soon as they have confessed Him to be the Christ, He begins to give them this lesson. The necessity of His death, in other words, is not a dreary, incomprehensible somewhat that He is compelled to reckon with by untoward circumstances; for Him it is given, so to speak, with the very conception of His person and His work. When He unfolds Messiahship it contains death. This was the first and last thing He taught about it, the first and last thing He wished His disciples to learn. In Matthew 16:21, Westcott and Hort read, ‘From that time began Jesus Christ to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things,’ while Mark and Luke, in the corresponding passage, speak of the Son of Man.
The official expressions, or, to use a less objectionable term, the names which denote the vocation of Jesus, ‘the Christ’ and ‘the Son of Man,’ show that in this lesson He is speaking out of the sense of his vocation, and not merely out of a view of His historical circumstances. The necessity to suffer and die, which was involved in His vocation, and the dim sense of which belonged to His very being, so that without it He would not have been what He was, was now beginning to take definite shape in His mind. As events made plain the forces with which He had to deal, He could see more clearly how the necessity would work itself out. He could go beyond that early word about the taking away of the bridegroom, and speak of Jerusalem, and of rejection by the elders and chief priests and scribes. And this consideration justifies us in believing that these details in the evangelic narrative are historical. But the manner in which the necessity did work itself out, and the greater or less detail with which, from a greater or less distance, Jesus could anticipate its course, do not affect in the least the character of that necessity itself. It is the necessity involved in the divine vocation of one in whom the Old Testament prophecy of the Servant of the Lord is to be fulfilled.
It must be admitted that in none of the three summary references which the evangelists make to our Lord’s teaching on His death do they say anything of explicitly theological import. They tell us
(1) that it was necessary — in the sense, we now assume, which has just been explained;
(2) that it should be attended by such and such circumstances of pain and ignominy; and
(3) that it should be speedily followed by His resurrection.
The repeated assurances that His disciples could not understand Him must surely refer to the meaning and necessity which He wished them to see in His death. They cannot but have understood His words about dying and rising, unless, as has been suggested already, the date of the rising puzzled them. All that remains is to suppose that the incomprehensible element in the new teaching of Jesus was the truths He wished to convey to them about the necessity, the meaning, the purpose, the power, of His death. But if we observe the unanimity with which every part of the early Church taught that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures — if, as will be shown below, we see how in Acts, in Peter, in Hebrews, in John, in Paul, passages referring to the Servant of the Lord, and especially to His bearing sin, and being numbered with the transgressors, are applied to Christ — it becomes very difficult to believe that this consent, in what might seem by no means obvious, can have any other source than the teaching of Jesus Himself. Hollmann, indeed, makes a remarkable attempt to prove that Jesus never applied the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah to Himself except in Luke 22:37, and that there, when He says (with singular emphasis), ‘that which is written must be fulfilled in Me, — the word’ and He was numbered with transgressors, ‘He is not thinking of His death at all as having expiatory value in relation to sin. He is only thinking of the dreary fact that His countrymen are going to treat Him as a criminal instead of as the Holy One of God.1616Die Bedeutung des Todes Jesu, 69 ff. Ritschl (Rechtf. u. Versohnung, 2. 67) had already described as ‘an unproved conjecture’ the idea that Isaiah 53. had any decisive influence upon the mind of Jesus. He argues that the two express words of our Lord about His death (Matthew 20:28 and 26:28) have no connection with that chapter, and he discredits Luke 22:37 (which Hollmann accepts) as part of a passage (Luke 22:24-38) which he regards as ‘eine Anschwemmung von unsicheren Erinnerungen.’ But there is surely no reason why the most superficial sense of profound words, a sense, too, which evacuates them of all their original associations, should be the only one allowed to Jesus. If there is any truth at all in the connection we have asserted between His own consciousness of what He was and the Old Testament conception of the Servant of the Lord, it is surely improbable that He applied to Himself the most wonderful expression in Isaiah 53. in a shallow verbal fashion, and put from Him the great meanings of which the chapter is full, and which the New Testament writers embrace with one accord. On the strength of that quotation, and of the consent of the New Testament as a whole, which has no basis but in Jesus, we are entitled to argue from the δεῖ of the evangelists — in other words, from the divine necessity Jesus saw in His death — that what He sought in those repeated lessons to induce His disciples to do was to recognize in the Messiah the person who should fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 53. The ideal in their minds was something far other than this, and there is no dead lift so heavy as that which is required to change an ideal. We do not wonder that at the moment it was too much for Him and for them. We do not wonder that at the moment they could not turn, one is tempted to say bodily round, so as to see and understand what He was talking about. And just as little do we wonder that when the meaning of His words broke on them later, it was with that overwhelming power which made the thing that had once baffled them the sum and substance of their gospel. The center of gravity in their world changed, and their whole being swung round into equilibrium in a new position. Their inspiration came from what had once alarmed, grieved, discomfited them. The word they preached was the very thing which had once made them afraid to speak.
But we are not limited, in investigating our Lord’s teaching on His death, to inferences more or less secure. There are at least two great words in the gospels which expressly refer to it — the one contained in His answer to James and John when they asked the places at His right hand and His left in His kingdom, the other spoken at the Supper. We now proceed to consider these.
Part of the difficulty we always have in interpreting Scripture is the want of context; we do not know what were the ideas in the minds of the original speakers or hearers to which the words that have been preserved for us were immediately related. This difficulty has perhaps been needlessly aggravated, especially in the first of the passages with which we are concerned. Yet the context here, even as we have it, is particularly suggestive. Jesus and His disciples are on the way to Jerusalem, when Jesus takes the start of them, apparently under some overpowering impulse, and they follow in amazement and fear (Mark 10:32). He takes them aside once more, and makes the third of those deliberate attempts to which reference has already been made, to familiarize them with His death.
‘Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of Man shall be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes; and they shall condemn Him to death, and shall deliver Him unto the Gentiles: and they shall mock Him, and shall spit upon Him and scourge Him, and shall kill Him; and after three days He shall rise again’ (Mark 10: 33 f.).
It was while Jesus was in the grip of such thoughts — setting His face steadfastly, with a rapt and solemn passion, to go to Jerusalem — that James and John came to Him with their ambitious request. How was He to speak to them so that they might understand Him? As Bengel finely says, He was dwelling in His passion; He was to have others on His right hand and on His left before that; and their minds were in another world. How was He to bridge the gulf between their thoughts and his own? ‘Are ye able,’ He asks, ‘to drink the cup which I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?’ The cup and the baptism are poetic terms in which the destiny which awaits Him is veiled and transfigured. They are religious terms, in which that destiny is represented, in all its awfulness, as something involved in the will of God, and involving in itself a consecration. The cup is put into His hand by the Father, and if the baptism is a flood of suffering in which He is overwhelmed, it has through the very name which He uses to describe it the character of a religious act assigned to it; He goes to be baptized with it, as He takes the cup which the Father gives Him to drink. That the reference in both figures is to His death, and to His death in that tragic aspect which has just been described in the immediately preceding verses, is not open to doubt. And just as little is it open to doubt that in the next scene in the gospel — that in which Jesus speaks to the disciples who were indignant with James and John for trying to steal a march upon them — a reference to His death is so natural as to be inevitable. True greatness, He tells them, does not mean dominance, but service. That is the law for all, even for the highest. It is by supremacy in service that the King in the Kingdom of God wins his place. ‘Even the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many.’
It is not inept to insist on the sequence and connection of ideas throughout this passage, because when it is really understood it puts the last words — ‘to give His life a ransom for many’ — beyond assault. It is often asserted that these words are an indication of Pauline influence in the second evangelist. Let us hope that one may be forgiven if he says frankly that this is an assertion which he cannot understand. The words are perfectly in place. They are in line with everything that precedes. They are words in the only key, of the only fullness, which answers to our Lord’s absorption at the time in the thought of His death. A theological aversion to them may be conceived, but otherwise there is no reason whatever to call them in question. There is no critical evidence against them, and their psychological truth is indubitable. So far from saying that Jesus could not have uttered anything so definitely theological, we should rather deny that the words are theological, in the technical question-begging sense of the term, yet maintain that in an hour of intense preoccupation with His death no other words would have been adequate to express the whole heart and mind of our Lord.
From this point of view, we must notice a common evasion of their import even by some who do not question that Jesus spoke them. It is pointed out, for instance, that the death is here set in line with the life of our Lord. He came not to be ministered unto but to minister, and (in particular, and at last, as His crowning service) to give His life a ransom for many. His death is the consummation of His life, and the consummation of His ministry; but it has no other end than His life, and we must not seek another interpretation for it. An extreme example of this is seen in Hollmann,1717Die Bedeutung des Todes Jesu, 99 ff. whose exegesis of the passage brings out the following result. Jesus came into the world to serve men, and especially to serve them by awakening them to that repentance which is the condition of entering the Kingdom of God and inheriting its blessings. So far, His ministry has not been without success; some have already repented, and entered into the Kingdom. But even where He has not proved successful, it is not yet necessary to despair: many will be won to repentance by His death who resisted all the appeal of His life. It is scarcely necessary to point out that the connection of ideas here is not in the least that which belongs to the words of Jesus. Hollmann actually speaks of a Glaubensurtheil, a conviction which Jesus held by faith, that even His death (tragic and disconcerting as we must suppose it to be) will, by the grace of the Father, nevertheless contribute to the success of His work, and win many whom He has yet failed to reach. But this completely leaves out the one thing to which the words of Jesus gives prominence — the fact, namely, that the Son of Man came expressly to do a service which involved the giving of His life a ransom for many. Hollmann’s interpretation means that Jesus could by faith in the Father reconcile Himself to His death as something which would, though it is not clear how, contribute to the carrying out of His vocation — something which, in spite of appearances, would not prove inconsistent with it; but what the words in the gospel mean is that the death of Jesus, or the giving of His life a ransom for many, is itself the very soul of His vocation. He does not say that He can bear to die, because His death will win many to repentance who are yet impenitent, but that the object of His coming was to give His life a ransom for many.
The same consideration discredits an interpretation like Wendt’s,1818Lehre Jesu, 2. 509 ff. which finds the key to the passage in Matthew 11: 29 f. Wendt lays all the stress on the effect to be produced on human character by realizing what the death of Jesus is. If men would only put on the yoke of Jesus and learn of Him — if they would drink of His cup and be baptized with His baptism — if, as St. Paul says, they would be conformed to His death, their souls would be liberated from the restless passions of pride and ambition by which James and John, and the other ten not less than they, were tormented, and death itself would cease to be a terror to them. However true this may be, one cannot look at the text without being impressed by its irrelevance as an interpretation. There is nothing in it to explain the introduction of Christ’s death at all as the very end contemplated in His coming. There is nothing in it to explain either λύτρον, or ἀντί, or πολλῶν, or λύτρον ἀντὶ πολλῶν. In spite of the attention it has attracted, it is an ingenious vagary which has surely merited oblivion.
In what direction, then, are we to seek the meaning? The only clue is that which is furnished by the passages in which our Lord Himself speaks of the soul and of the possibility of losing or ransoming it. Thus in Mark 8:34 f., immediately after the first announcement of His death, He calls the multitude to Him with His disciples, and says: ‘If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoso will save his life (ψυχήν) shall lose it: but whoso shall lose his life (ψυχήν) for My sake and the gospel’s, shall find it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life (ψυχήν)? For what can a man give in exchange for his life (ἀντάλλαγμα τῆς ψυχῆς αὐτοῦ)?’ It is clear from a passage like this that Jesus was familiar with the idea that the ψυχή or life of man, in the higher or lower sense of the term, might be lost, and that when it was lost there could be no compensation for it, as there was no means of buying it back. It is in the circle of such ideas that the words about giving His life a ransom for many must find their point of attachment, and it is not only for the simplest and most obvious interpretation, but for the most profound and the most consonant with the New Testament as a whole, that Jesus in this passage conceives the lives of the many as being somehow under forfeit, and teaches that the very object with which He came into the world was to lay down His own life as a ransom price that those to whom these forfeited lives belonged might obtain them again. This was the supreme service the Son of Man was to render to mankind; it demanded the supreme sacrifice, and was the path to supreme greatness, Anything short of this is in the circumstances an anticlimax; it falls far beneath the passion with which our Lord condenses into a single phrase the last meaning of His life and death.
Nothing has been gained for the understanding of this passage by the elaborate investigation of the Hebrew or Aramaic equivalents of λύτρον. In truth it does not matter whether כּפֶר or פִּדְיוֹ, whether גְּאֻלָּה or מְחִיר or purkana is most akin to it in the language which Jesus spoke; if δουναι τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτου λύτρον ἀντὶ πολλων does not convey His idea, it will certainly not be conveyed by any of the precarious equivalents for this Greek expression which are offered for our acceptance. The best fruit of these attempts to get behind the Greek has been Ritschl’s reference to Psalm 49:7 f. and Job 33:23 f., as passages furnishing a real clue to the mind of Christ. In both of these the Hebrew word כּפֶר occurs, which Ritschl regards as the equivalent of λύτρον, and in both also the verb פָּדָה is used, with which, rather than with כּפֶר, Hollmann would connect the word of Jesus. But the ideas which the words express are inseparable: the כּפֶר is in both passages that by means of which, or at the cost of which, the action of the verb פָּדָה (to deliver) is accomplished.1919Ritschl, Rechtf. u. Versohnung, 2. 69 ff. Hollmann, Die Bedeuntung des Todes Jesu, 99 ff. The Psalm makes it particularly plain. What no man can do for his brother — namely, give to God a ransom for him (כָּפְּרוֹ) so that he may still live always and not see corruption; what no man can do for his brother, because the redemption (פִּדְיוֹ ) of their soul is precious, and must be let alone for ever, this the Son of Man claims to do for many, and to do by giving His life a ransom for them. It seems hardly open to doubt that the world in which our Lord’s mind moved as He spoke was that of the writer of the Psalm, and if this be so, it is possible to find in it confirmation for the meaning just assigned to His words. Dr. Driver2020In Hastings’ Bible Dictionary, s. v. Propitiation (vol. 4. 128). defines כּפֶר as ‘properly a covering (viz. of an offense), hence a propitiatory gift, but restricted by usage to a gift offered to propitiate or satisfy the avenger-of-blood, and so the satisfaction offered for a life, i. e., a ransom.’ Without going into meaningless questions as to how the ransom was fixed, or to whom it was paid, it is important to recognize the fact that our Lord speaks of the surrender of His life in this way. A ransom is not wanted at all except where life has been forfeited, and the meaning of the sentence unambiguously is that the forfeited lives of many are liberated by the surrender of Christ’s life, and that to surrender His life to do them this incalculable service was the very soul of His calling. If we find the same thought in St. Paul, we shall not say that the evangelist has Paulinized, but that St. Paul has sat at the feet of Jesus. And if we feel that such a thought carries us suddenly out of our depth — that as the words fall on our minds we seem to hear the plunge of the lead into fathomless waters — we shall not for that imagine that we have lost our way. By these things men live, and wholly therein is the life of our spirit. We cast ourselves on them, because they outgo us; in their very immensity, we are assured that God is in them.2121Compare Kahler, Zur Lehre von der Versohnung, 166: ‘We put our whole faith in reconciliation into this word, and have a right to do so.’ I do not think anything whatever is gained by trying all possible permutations and combinations of the words in the text, and deciding whether ἀντὶ πολλῶν is to be construed with λύτρον or with δοῦναι, or with the two in combination, or in some other ingenious or perverse way. It is a sentence which leaves meaning on the mind, not the bits into which it can be broken. Ritschl sums up his interpretation thus: ‘Der Sinn des Ausdrucks Jesu ist also: Ich bin gekommen anstatt derer, welche eine Werthgabe als Schutzmittel gegen das Sterben fur sich oder far Andere an Gott zu leisten vergeblich erstreben wurden, dasselbe durch die Hingebung meines Lebens im Tode an Gott zu verwirklichen, aber eben nur anstatt derer, welche dutch Glauben und selbstverleugnende Nachfolge meiner Person die Bedingung erfullen, unter der allein meine Leistung den erwarteten Schutz fur sie vermitteln kann.’ — R. u. V. 2. 86. For a criticism of Ritschl’s views on כּפֶר and כִּפֵּר see in the last paragraph of Driver’s article on Propitiation referred to above. Feine, in his Theologie des Neuen Testaments, 127 f., mentions four points of attachment for this ransom saying in Isaiah 53, which show in combination that we are justified in using the ideas of that prophecy as a key to it. (1) The words δοῦναι τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ recall theπαρεδόθη εἰς θάνατον ἡ ψυχὴ αὐτοῦ of Isaiah 53:12. (2) The general idea of service pervades both. The subject of Isaiah 53 is the humiliation and exaltation of the Servant of the Lord — His humiliation (as here that of Jesus) as the way to exaltation. (3) The peculiar use of ‘many’ in both: My righteous Servant shall justify ‘many,’ He bare the sin of ‘many’; to give His life a ransom for ‘many.’ (4) The correspondence in meaning between the λύτρον as that by which a forfeited life is redeemed, and the giving of the life or soul as an אָשָׁם or guilt-offering by which legal satisfaction was rendered for an injury or wrong (Isaiah 53:10). There is a worth or goodness in Jesus’ surrender of his life which outweighs the whole wrong which the world’s sin inflicts upon God; and He came that at this cost the sin of the world might be outweighed.
One almost despairs of saying anything about the Lord’s Supper which will not seem invalid to some upon critical or more general grounds. Our main interest is in the words which Jesus spoke, and in the light which these words throw on His own conception of His death. Here we are confronted at once by the paradoxical view of Spitta that in what actually took place on the occasion there was no reference to the death of Christ at all. What Jesus did in the upper room (so we are to suppose) was to anticipate with His disciples the Messianic Supper of the world to come. In that supper, according to Rabbinical and Apocalyptic writers, the good to be enjoyed is the Messiah Himself, and it is to this that Jesus refers when He speaks of the bread and wine as His own body and blood. He is preoccupied with the completion of His work, with the blessed prospect of the time when God shall have brought His kingdom to victory, and when from Him, the Messiah sent of God, the powers of knowledge and of eternal life shall flow unimpeded into the disciples as the gift of the meal which God prepares for those who are faithful to Him. The representation of the Supper in the evangelists is quite different, Spitta admits; but the form it there assumes; is due to the intervening death of Jesus, which compelled the disciples to give His words another turn. I do not feel it necessary to contest this construction of what took place. A conception of the Supper which sets aside the whole testimony of the New Testament to what it meant, which ignores its association with the Passover, the explicit references in every account of it to the shedding of Jesus’ blood, and above all, the character expressly stamped upon it in the evangelists as a meal in which Jesus knew that He was sitting with the Twelve for the last time and was preoccupied with the idea of His parting from them, does not demand refutation. Nor is it entitled to forbid our asking — on the basis of the narratives in our hands — what Jesus said and did, and what is the bearing of this on the interpretation of His death?2222Spitta’s views are given in his treatise on Die urchristlichen Traditionen uber Ursprung und Sinn des Abendmahls (zur Geschichte u. Litteratur des Urchristenthums).
There is at least a general consent in this, that Jesus took bread, and when He had broken it, or as He broke it, said, This is My body; that He took a cup with wine in it, or a cup into which He poured wine, saying as He did so, This is My blood, which is poured out for many. This is all that is admitted, e. g., by Hollmann, and it enables him to give the same interpretation to the supper as he gives to the word about the λύτρον2323Die Bedeutung des Todes Jesu, 133 ff.. Christ’s death is in question, certainly, but it has no reference to those who are sitting at the table, and who are members of the Kingdom of God. The many in whose interest it takes place — the many who are to have benefit by it — are the same as the many for whom the ransom is to be given; they are the numbers, as yet impenitent, who will be won to penitence by the death of Jesus. According to this interpretation, the idea of a supper is a complete mistake. The persons at the table had really no interest in the death of Christ; they had already all that God could give. Hollmann, therefore, expunges from Mark as a liturgical insertion, intended to adapt the narrative to ecclesiastical custom, the very first word spoken by Jesus, Take (λάβετε). In propriety, the disciples should not have taken, as His death meant nothing to them. He quotes, with approval, a remark of Schmiedel, ‘The most significant thing is, at least in the first instance, the breaking of the bread and the pouring out of the wine, The distribution of these foods to be partaken of attaches itself to this as a second thing. So far as the main matter is concerned, it might have been treated as superfluous; but as they were sitting at table any how, it was natural. ’ It is difficult to believe that this sort of thing is written seriously, if courtesy compels us to acknowledge that it is, we can only draw the melancholy conclusion that it is possible for the human mind to be serious even when it has completely lost contact with reality. The primary narrative of Mark begins by saying plainly, ‘He took bread, and when He had given thanks He brake it and gave it to them and said, Take, this is My body. Then He took a cup, and when He had given thanks He gave it to them, and they drank of it every one (πάντες last and emphatic). And He said to them, This is My blood of the covenant shed for many.’ This is not qualified by any other of the New Testament authorities, nor by the practice of the Church as the New Testament reveals it; and I submit that it is not open to any one to go behind it, and to tell us blankly out of his own head (for that is; the only authority left) that the bearing of what took place was really quite independent of this giving and taking, eating and drinking; and that while the death of Jesus was the subject of the symbolical actions of breaking the bread and pouring out the wine, and was no doubt meant to benefit some persons, it was a thing in which those who were present, and who at Jesus’ word ate and drank the symbols of it, had no interest at all. Jesus made the bread and wine symbols of His death, this is not denied. He handed them to His disciples, pronouncing as He did so the very words in which He conferred on them this symbolical character. this also is not denied. But when He did so, it was not that the disciples might take them in this character. On the contrary, it was only because they were at their supper anyhow, and because bread and wine are naturally eaten and drunk. That is how bread and wine are disposed of in this world, but it has nothing to do with the story. If there is anybody in the world who finds this convincing, presumably it cannot be helped.
But it is not only necessary to insist on the eating and drinking of the bread and wine, which as broken and outpoured symbolized Christ’s death, and as eaten and drunk symbolized the interest of the disciples in that death, and their making it somehow their own; it is necessary to insist on what was further said by Jesus. All the evangelists in their narratives introduce the word ‘covenant’ (διαθήκη) in some construction or other. Mark has, This is My blood of the covenant (14:24). Matthew, according to some authorities (including that combination of Latin and Syriac versions to which critics seem inclined to ascribe a higher value than once seemed probable) has, This is My blood of the new covenant (26:28). Luke has what is apparently a Pauline form, This cup is the new covenant in My blood (22:20). For long it was an admitted point among critics that this was an indubitable word of Jesus. Brandt, whose criticism is skeptical enough, holds that the only historically certain words in the whole story are, This is My covenant blood, drink ye all of it. But even these words have lately been assailed in the determined effort to get behind the gospels. Three grounds have been assigned for questioning them.2424See Preuschen’s Zeitschrift, 1. 69 ff., and on the other side O. Holtzmann, War Jesus Ekstatiker? 110 ff. The first is that the expression τὸ αἷμά μου τῆς διαθήκης is awkward in Greek; the second, that it is impossible to translate it into Hebrew or Aramaic; and the third, that the conception of the covenant owes its place in Christianity to St. Paul. Of these reasons the last obviously begs the question. It does not follow that because St. Paul makes use of an idea he originated it. There are very great ideas, indeed, of which St. Paul says, I delivered unto you that which also I received (1 Corinthians 15:3 f.): why should not this be one of them? Does he not himself declare that it is one, when he prefaces his account of the supper — including in it the idea of the new covenant in the blood of Jesus — with the words, I received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you? (1 Corinthians 11:23). The idea of a new covenant, and that of covenant blood, are Old Testament ideas; and if Jesus was conscious, nay, if it was the very essence of His consciousness, that, in relation both to law and prophecy, He came not to destroy but to fulfill, why should not He Himself have spoken the creative word? As for the other two reasons, that ‘My blood of the covenant’ is awkward in Greek, and that there are persons who cannot translate it into Hebrew, however true or interesting they may be, they are obviously irrelevant. It may be awkward in Greek or in any language to combine in one proposition the two ideas this is My blood, and this is covenant blood; but however awkward it may be, since they really are ideas which the mind can grasp, it must be possible to do it, in Greek or in any language. It does not, therefore, seem open to question, on any serious ground whatever, that Jesus at the last supper spoke of His blood as covenant blood. Now, what does this imply? To what set of ideas in the minds of His hearers, to what Old Testament associations does it attach itself, so as to be not merely a word, but an element in a living mind? We get the clue to the answer when we notice the form in which the words appear in Matthew, This is My blood of the new covenant, shed for many unto remission of sins. The added words here may be no more than an interpretative expansion of what Jesus said, but if they are no more than this they are also no less. They are an interpretative expansion by a mind in a position naturally to know and understand what Jesus meant.
The Old Testament twice speaks of ‘covenant,’ in the sense in which God makes a covenant with his people. There is the covenant made with sacrifice at Sinai, in the account of which we have the phrase,
‘Behold the blood of the covenant which the Lord hath made with you upon all these conditions’ (Exodus 24:8).
Here, it is sometimes said, is the original of the words found in our evangelists; and as nothing is said in Exodus about the forgiveness of sins, and as the sacrifices mentioned there are not sin or guilt offerings, but burnt offerings and peace offerings, it is argued that the insertion in Matthew of the clause ‘for forgiveness of sins’ is a mistake.2525Holtzmann, Neut. Theologie, 1. 302, says: ‘The figure of covenant blood, which alone retains its validity, points, indeed, to a covenant sacrifice, but not necessarily also to an expiatory sacrifice, with which last alone have been combined the later ideas of exchange and substitution.’ The inference is hasty. Covenant blood is sacrificial blood, and we have every reason to believe that sacrificial blood universally, and not only in special cases, was associated with propitiatory power. ‘The atoning function of sacrifice,’ as Robertson Smith put it, speaking of primitive times, ‘is not confined to a particular class of oblation, but belongs to all sacrifices.’2626Religion of the Semites, 219. Dr. Driver has expressed the same opinion with regard to the Levitical legislation in which the key to the language of our passage must be found. Criticizing Ritschl’s explanation of sacrifice and its effect, he says, ‘It seems better to suppose that though the burnt-, peace-, and meat-offerings were not offered expressly, like the sin- and guilt-offerings, for the forgiveness of sin, they nevertheless (in so far as Kipper is predicated of them) were regarded as “covering,” or neutralizing, the offerer’s unworthiness to appear before God, and so, though in a much less degree than the sin- or guilt-offering, as effecting Kappara in the sense ordinarily attached to the word, viz. “propitiation.”2727Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible, s. v. Propitiation, p. 132. Instead of saying ‘in a much less degree,’ I should prefer to say ‘with a less specific reference or application,’ but the point is not material. What it concerns us to note is that the New Testament, while it abstains from interpreting Christ’s death by any special prescriptions of the Levitical law, constantly uses sacrificial language to describe that death, and in doing so unequivocally recognizes in it, a propitiatory character— in other words, a reference to sin and its forgiveness. But there is something further to be said. The passage in Exodus is not the only one in the Old Testament to which reference is here made. In the thirty-first chapter of Jeremiah we have the sublime prophecy of a new covenant — a new covenant which is indeed but the efficacious renewal of the old, for there is but one God, and His grace is one — a new covenant, the very condition and foundation of which is the forgiveness of sins.
‘They shall all know Me from the least to the greatest, for I will forgive their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more’ (Jeremiah 31:34).
It is this which is present to the mind of our Lord as He says of the outpoured wine, This is My blood of the covenant. He is establishing, at the cost of His life, the new covenant, the new religious relation between God and man, which has the forgiveness of sins as its fundamental blessing. He speaks as knowing that that blessing can only become ours through His death, and as the condition upon which it depends His death can be presented as a propitiatory sacrifice. It is as though He had pointed to the prophecy in Jeremiah, and said, This day is this Scripture fulfilled before your eyes. He had already, we might think, attached to Himself all that is greatest in the ideals and hopes of the Old Testament — the Messiah is sovereignty of the 2nd and of the 110th Psalm, and the tragic and glorious calling of the Servant of the Lord; but there is something which transcends both, and which gives the sublimest expression to our Lord’s consciousness of Himself and His work, when He says, This is My blood of the covenant. It is a word which gathers up into it the whole promise of prophecy and the whole testimony of the apostles; it is the focus of revelation, in which the Old Testament and the New are one. The power that is in it is the power of the passion in which the Lamb of God bears the sin of the world. It is no misapprehension, therefore, but a true rendering of the mind of Christ, when Matthew calls the covenant new, and defines the shedding of blood by reference to the remission of sins. There is really only one objection which can be made, and it is made unceasingly, to this interpretation of the words of Jesus. It is that it is inconsistent with what is elsewhere His unmistakable teaching. The very burden of His message, we are told, is that God forgives unconditionally, out of His pure fatherly love. This love reaches of itself deeper far than sin, and bestows pardon freely and joyfully on the penitent. It is nothing less than a direct contradiction of this gospel of the free love of God when we make forgiveness dependent upon a sacrificial, that is a propitiatory, virtue in the death of Christ. It misrepresents God’s character, and in so doing destroys the gospel. We cannot, it is argued, on the strength of one word, and that a dubious word, run counter to the sense and spirit of our Lord’s teaching as a whole. So, in substance, a large school of critics and theologians. How can we answer such a contention?
As for the alleged dubiety of the word, we have said enough already; it only remains to deal with its alleged inconsistency with the rest of our Lord’s teaching. This is usually asserted in the most unqualified fashion, but if we look back on what we have already seen to be our Lord’s conception of Himself and His calling from the beginning we may well question it. The love of God, according to Jesus, is no doubt unconditionally free, but it is not an abstraction. It does not exist in vacuo: so far as the forgiveness of sins is concerned — and it is with the love of God in this relation that we have to do — it exists in and is represented by Jesus’ own presence in the world: His presence in a definite character, and with a definite work to do, which can only be done at a definite cost. The freeness of God’s love is not contradicted by these facts; on the contrary, it is these facts which enable us to have any adequate idea of what that love really is. To say that it is inconsistent with God’s free love to make the forgiveness of sins dependent on the death of Jesus, is exactly the same (in one particular relation) a, to say (in general) that it is inconsistent with God’s free love that entrance into His kingdom and participation in its blessings should only be possible through the presence of Jesus in the world, His work in it, and the attitude which men assume towards Him. Those who accept the latter should not deny the former. If we give any place at all to the idea of mediation, there is no reason why we should reject the idea of propitiation, for propitiation is merely a mode of mediation, a mode of it no doubt which brings home to us acutely what we owe to the Mediator, and makes us feel that though forgiveness is free to us it does not cost nothing to Him. Of course, if we choose to say that the Son has no place in the gospel at all, but only the Father, we may reject the great word about covenant-blood, or rather we must reject it; if He has no place in the gospel at all, we have no obligations to Him; we do not owe Him anything, least of all are we indebted to His death for the forgiveness of sins. But there is something in such language which when confronted with the gospels can only strike once as utterly abstract, unconvincing, and unreal. It does not answer to the relation of sinful souls to Jesus, to their devotion, their gratitude, their sense of undying obligation. It was not for a forgiveness with which He had in the last resort nothing to do that they poured their precious ointment on His head and wet His feet with tears. No; but in the depths of their being they had the dim sense of His passion in their pardon, and were conscious of an obligation for it to Him which they could never repay. The love of God, I repeat, free as it is to sinful men, unconditionally free, is never conceived in the New Testament, either by our Lord Himself or by any of His followers, as an abstraction. Where the forgiveness of sin is concerned, it is not conceived as having reality or as taking effect apart from Christ. It is a real thing to us as it is mediated through Him, through His presence in the world, and ultimately through His death. The love of God by which we are redeemed from sin is a love which we do not know except as it comes in this way and at this cost; consequently, whatever we owe as sinners to the love of God, we owe to the death of Jesus. It is no more a contradiction of God’s free love to the sinful, when we say that Christ’s death is the ground of forgiveness, than it is a contradiction of God’s fatherly goods rill to men in general, when we admit the word of Jesus, No man cometh unto the Father but by me. In both cases equally, Christ stands between God and man; in both cases equally it is at cost to Him that God becomes our God. Why should we be loathe to become His debtors? The Christian faith is a specific form of dependence on God, and to cavil at the atonement is to begin the process of giving it away in bits. It is to refuse to allow it to be conditioned by Christ at the central and vital point, the point at which the sinner is reconciled to God; and if we can do without Christ there, we can do without Him altogether. The process which begins with denying that we owe to Him and to His death the forgiveness of sins, ends by denying that He has any proper place in the gospel at all. It is not either from His own lips, or from the lips of any of the apostles, that we so learn Christ.
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