« Prev Chapter IV. Jesus. The Call. Next »



CHRISTIANITY arose because a layman, Jesus of Nazareth, endowed with a self-consciousness more than prophetic, came forward and attached men so firmly to His person that, in spite of His shameful death, they were ready both to live for Him and to die for Him. Jesus imparted new values to things: He scattered new thoughts broadcast in the world. But it was only His person that gave these new values and these new thoughts that victorious power which transformed the world. It is men that make history and that imprint their personal character on great spiritual movements. If our century has had reason enough to learn that, then surely it is high time that the senseless chatter should cease about the religion of Christ which each Christian ought to acquire for himself. As if His power as Redeemer, His self-consciousness, His royal humility, could ever find a habitation in our little souls, quite apart from the fact that no one takes His external mode of life for a pattern. The difference between the prophet and the believer belongs to the elementary characteristics 38of every religion. The great historical religions, far from removing it, have but deepened and intensified it. It is impossible that a time should ever come for Christianity when any single Christian should acquire for his fellow-Christians the significance of Jesus.

What is the starting-point of our enquiry? Not the titles of Jesus; their meaning has itself partly to be explained by the self-consciousness. Not the stories of the Birth, Baptism, and Transfiguration; these are possibly but attempts at explanation on the part of the early Church. No; we must begin with Jesus testimony to Himself and with His mode of life.

Jesus comes to a man and says to him, “Thy sins be forgiven thee.” He does on the Sabbath whatever seems good to Him, and calls Himself Lord of the same. As a new Moses He sets His “But I say unto you” against the words of the law. Himself a layman, He sets Himself in the place of the Scribes and declares to His audience of lay people that all knowledge of God has been given Him, and that He will impart it to them. He says: “Here is one greater than Jonah, greater than Solomon, the least of whose disciples is greater than John Baptist.” He exclaims: “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but My word shall not pass away.” He bids all those that labour and are heavy laden come unto Him that He may refresh them. They are to take up His yoke and learn of Him. And, on the other hand, He declares it to be the most grievous sin and one for which there is no forgiveness, if a man should blaspheme against the Holy 39Ghost who through Him works miracles. He comes to this or that individual with the brief command “Follow Me,” and He calls for an immediate break with his previous mode of life. If need be, all are to be able to suffer and to die for Him and for His cause. If any man confesses Him before men and suffers for Him, then Jesus will certainly plead for him in the day of judgment.

These passages have all been taken from the Synoptists; they are the more significant, because Jesus does not here, as in the Fourth Gospel, press His personality upon men’s notice, but rather conceals it. Now it is clear that a self-consciousness that is more than merely human speaks from these words. And this is the mystery of the origin of Christianity. What we need to do above all is to accept it as a fact—a fact which demands a patient and reverent hearing.

For scarcely more wonderful than the lofty self-consciousness of Jesus is the clear feeling of His limitations. Jesus prays to God as to His master, and teaches the disciples to pray to God. The deepest humility and subjection to the Lord of heaven and earth is His characteristic. Jesus will not suffer Himself to be called good—God alone is good. He knows nothing as to the last hour. God alone knows that. It is not His to assign the thrones of honour in the kingdom of God. That is God’s sole prerogative. He speaks of God as the only judge whom man need fear. In Gethsemane He prays to God that the cup may pass, yet so that not His but God’s will may be done. On the Cross there even escapes Him—according to the tradition—words that express a feeling of abandonment 40by God. So He stands, altogether a man on the side of men, with the feeling of the division that separates all things created from God.

The Church did not extend the reverence that it felt for Jesus to these expressions of His humility. In sharpest contrast to what Jesus Himself had said it set up the attributes of sinlessness and Godhead, and made the right to bear the name of Christian dependent on agreement therewith. This tendency can be traced back to the New Testament writings of the Apostle John. In the end this has brought about a reaction. Men have believed only in the humble words of Jesus, while they have increasingly distrusted the declarations of His majesty. But both belong together. The most wonderful feature in Jesus is the co-existence of a self-consciousness that is more than human with the deepest humility before God. The same man that exclaims, “All things are given Me by the Father, and no man knoweth the Father but the Son,” answers the rich ruler, “Why callest thou Me good? No one is good but one, God.” Without the first He is a man just such as we are; without the second He is an idle visionary. Jesus conceived of Himself as a Mediator. The Mediator is altogether man, without subtraction of anything that is human. But He has received from God an especial call and commission to His fellow-men, and thereby He towers high above them. Jesus shares this feeling of being a mediator with other men like Him. Even if it has in His case attained the highest degree of constancy, depth, and reality, yet no formula can define its exact limits.


Let us leave the form of His consciousness, of His call—the Messianic idea—entirely on one side for the present and look only at the fact itself. And how stupendous a fact it is. Jesus is a simple country child without any higher education or knowledge. Above all, He is no theologian. Up to His thirtieth year He was an artizan. In His native town no one pays any particular attention to Him. His parents have no forebodings of His greatness. This layman, an artizan by trade, comes forward in God’s name. He deposes all the Scribes. They do not know God. Jesus alone has recognized Him. He sets on one side the propaganda of the Pharisees. “Come unto Me and I will refresh you!” He sets aside the Baptist John. He belongs to the old order. His simple word shall be God’s word--His help God’s help. And all this without ever falling into the merely fanatical or visionary. He is always modest, humble, sane and sober, and yet with this superhuman self-consciousness. It is quite impossible to realize such an inner life as this. Revelation, Redemption, Forgiveness, Help—He has all those and offers them to such as shall surrender themselves to the impression of His personality. Jesus’ mode of life is as far removed from the ordinary as His self-revelation. He stands entirely outside of human society. He does not mean to be a pattern for ordinary life. He has forsaken His calling, His family and His home, and has given Himself up to the life of an itinerant missionary. He has freed Himself from all the duties of social intercourse. He enters in again amongst men from without, but as a guest and as a stranger. In this manner He 42suffers Himself to be entertained hospitably with food and with shelter and to have His feet washed, and then He will leave the place, never perhaps to return again. He says expressly that He recognizes but a spiritual family—the men and the women that do God’s will.

Besides this separation from the world we must notice the mysterious power of working miracles which Jesus possesses in a very high degree and which He can transmit to others. Even though Jesus uses all these powers in the service of ministering love they only thereby become the more extra ordinary. If He passes nights in solitary prayer, if in His zeal for preaching and healing He forgets both food and rest, if He interrupts the ordinary sequence of natural laws, or, Himself subject to some mysterious power, appears to His companions as a being of another world and to His ignorant relations as one possessed—everywhere there is the same impression of the superhuman. All this is quite peculiar to Himself, and is not intended to be typical. His companions, too, whom He attached to His own mode of life in order that they might help Him in His missionary labours, He distinctly separated by this very fact from the disciples in the world whom He and His companions wished to serve.

It is important to notice that the self-revelation of Jesus coincides with His mode of life. It was the same great calling which filled Him with the consciousness that He was the Redeemer, and which compelled Him to work as a homeless wanderer. Both in His words and in His life He represents the exceptional.


The fact that Jesus possessed a peculiar consciousness of His call stands firmly established as a portion of the New Testament which is proof against all the attacks of controversy. Now we must discover its form, the especial idea under which the call presented itself.

The whole of early Christianity gives one unanimous answer. Jesus is the Messiah, and has considered Himself such. The question now arises whether the belief of the early Church really was the belief of Jesus Himself. For the statement of the Church is attended by difficulties which have caused doubts to arise in connection with it.

The idea of a Messiah originated in narrow Jewish patriotism. It embodies the national aspirations of the Jews for a position of magnificence in the world such as they conceived had already existed in the time of David. The 17th Psalm of Solomon is our chief source for this idea. After the Messiah has driven away the enemies and cleansed the land of every abomination, He is to divide it justly among the Jews and govern them justly and wisely from Jerusalem as a theocratic prince. In reality, the idea of the Messiah had something archaeological about it, even for the Jews. It had been revived by the learned from a bygone age, and had gradually taken root among the people. It no longer quite fits in with the kingdom of God, with the new earth, with the transfigured body, and the whole transcendentalism of later Judaism. Hence the Messiah is a favourite figure in the intermediate state of things in learned apocalypses, whilst in the final state no room is found for Him.


The question, then, rightly arises, Can Jesus have clothed His lofty self-consciousness in so narrow a national Jewish idea? The answer depends, in the first place, on the reliability of the oldest tradition, and next on considerations of a general character. We have the trial of the King of the Jews, the entry into Jerusalem, the confession of Peter, the dispute for the places of honour on the right hand and on the left of the Messiah, which can scarcely all be inventions of disciples who inserted a later belief in the Messiah into the life of Christ. This result of our enquiry into the oldest Gospel (Mark’s) is confirmed by the oldest collection of Logia, in which Jesus answers the Baptist’s question, “Art thou He that shall come, or do we look for another?” by the simple reference to the beginning of the Messianic age of miracles; and in like manner ascribes to His victories over the demons the signification that in them the kingdom of God has come. Surely facts lie at the basis of these traditions, which, whether they be pleasant or not, demand a hearing and can only be suppressed by forcible means.

In addition to this there are considerations of a general character. The belief of the disciples in their Messiah must be older than Jesus’ death, for it could not entirely arise after that death, which was such a grievous disappointment to so many expectations. If it is older than Jesus’ death it is incredible that Jesus did not share it, and yet suffered it to be held.

If Jesus did not consider Himself to be the Messiah, then He must have thought of Himself as a prophet. This by itself would possibly be sufficient to explain all that was extraordinary in His mode of life. But 45Jesus could not come forward as a prophet—e.g. like John because the prophet always points to one higher than himself, and thereby assigns a provisional character to himself, while Jesus knew Himself to be God’s final messenger, after whom none higher can come. That is the decisive consideration. The superhuman self-consciousness of Jesus, which knows nothing higher than itself save God and can expect none other, could find satisfactory expression in no other form but that of the Messianic idea. That which weighs with Jesus in accepting this idea is not its political but its final and conclusive character.

This last consideration has brought us face to face with the question as to the origin of the Messianic consciousness. It is, however, only honest to confess that this origin is a mystery for us: we know nothing about it. All that we can say is how this consciousness did not arise in Jesus. It was not through slowly matured reflections of an intellectual nature: such are never the basis of certainty. The self-consciousness of a clever theologian might possibly thus be accounted for, but not that of the Son of God. Nor, again, was it owing to the influence of His surroundings; the voices of demons and of the world might make a man of genius vacillate: they could never impart a divine certainty to him. The fact, too, that Jesus appears from the very first with unswerving constancy and immovable certainty as one sent by God causes us to abandon both explanations. There is nowhere any hesitation, or doubt, or development from presentiments to certainty. Jesus learns new things as to the manner of His calling, but never anything fresh as to the fact itself. He acts 46His whole life long under the stress of compulsion. He knows Himself sent, nay, driven by God. He has only one choice: to obey or to disobey.

The Gospels date the Messianic consciousness of Jesus from the Baptism. He saw the Spirit of God descending in the fashion of a dove, and heard a voice, “Thou art My Son.” The great Old Testament prophets were, it is true, called in visions, and St. Paul became a Christian and an apostle by means of a vision. So far the evidence is in favour of the evangelists' story. But there is one consideration which should weigh very strongly in the contrary direction. The strange occurrence at the Baptism could have been told the disciples by none other than by Jesus Himself. If Jesus told them, then it could only be for the purpose of obtaining authority for His mission. But Jesus never appealed to visions. That is just His great distinction, His immense advantage over Mahomet. The whole edifice of Mahomet’s self-consciousness falls to pieces as soon as the truth of his visions is questioned. But in Jesus’ case you may cut out the story of the Baptism and of the Transfiguration and everything remains the same. All the outer processes which served the Old Testament prophets as means of communication with God, fall into disuse when we come to Jesus. That is just what constitutes His greatness. The consciousness of His call does not depend upon voices and visions, which everyone who has not himself experienced them is at liberty to doubt, but simply upon inner compulsion. How this compulsion came upon Him, whether it was in the end connected with some visionary experience, that is not for us to know. And 47after all, the important matter is not that Jesus had some experience of an especial nature with God, but that this experience compelled Him to turn to men. The historian who contents himself with this observes thereby the reverence that is due to this mystery.

But then, on the other hand, the inadequacy of the Messianic idea for Jesus Himself is likewise clear. Besides the one thought, the Messiah is God’s last messenger, nothing but Jewish narrowness was connoted by this title. Happily Jesus is something else, something greater than the Messiah of the Jews. The traces are still preserved in the gospel tradition of the wrestling of Jesus with the inadequacy of the idea, of His labouring with the conception till finally its contents were completely transformed.

It is the story of the Temptation that shows us first of all that there is a complete want of inner harmony between Jesus and the Messianic idea. This story signifies the breach of Jesus with all that is fanciful and politically dangerous in the conception of the Messiah. The Messiah is a miraculous being who can do everything. Is Jesus to depend upon this, and thereby win over the people? The Messiah is a king of this world who attains to his dominion by force, deceit, treachery and cunning, just like other kings here on earth. Shall Jesus gain the sovereignty of the world by these means? No. He cries; it is the voice of Satan which is thus appealing to My feelings as Messiah. Away with it. In so doing He had already won the victory over that which presented the greatest danger in the conception of the Messiah, and had subjected Himself in obedient faith to God.


But what next? The Messiah of the Zealots had been cast aside. There remained the Messiah of the Rabbis. According to the true dogma, the Messiah was to remain concealed somewhere or other, perhaps in the desert, until God. exalted Him on His throne. That is to say, He was to do nothing and wait for the miracle to be wrought. But Jesus returned from the desert back into the world, in order to help men and prepare them for the Messianic time. He did not wait, but went about doing good. All the great redemptive activity of Jesus has no place in the Jewish conception of the Messiah; or, in other words, that which is great in Jesus from the point of view of the history of the world, is not a consequence of the idea of the Messiah, but is an original addition of His own.

‘Messiah’ and ‘Israel’ are two ideas that are inseparably connected together in the Jewish mind. The Messiah is Israel’s future king—that and nothing else. Jesus, too, remained faithful to this dogma, and confined His activity during the whole of His life to His own people. But through bitter and grievous deception He had to learn that Israel as a whole was not receptive: that it would not accept the message, and that it was blindly hurrying along the road that led to judgment. At the same time, glimpses that open out into the heathen world fill Him with hope. And so He resigns Himself to be, if God so wills it, the Messiah whom Israel rejects and the Gentiles accept. Thereby all that is merely national is almost entirely banished from the idea of the Messiah. It is turned into the formal conception of king; judged by its contents, it becomes a paradox.


In the Jewish fancy Messiah is surrounded by all manner of heavenly and earthly glory. David’s fame is reflected upon him. But the bitter experience that Jesus has gained in His dealings with His people causes the thought of the necessity of suffering, and even of death, to ripen in His soul. From the day at Caesarea Philippi onwards He begins to familiarize the minds of the disciples with it, and utilizes the very occasion when their enthusiasm bursts into flame, to give them their first solemn lesson.

The thought of death was the stumbling-block to the Jews; it was the simple negation of the Messiah. No Jew before Jesus ever applied Isa. liii. to the dying Messiah. By thus submitting to this new necessity Jesus completed the purification of an idea which was at first by no means pure. The Messianic glory now becomes an object to be aimed at, not one which falls into the lap of some privileged person by some exceptional piece of good fortune, but one which has to be obtained through endless labour and renunciation: yea, even by death itself in voluntary obedience.

Thus did Jesus after much labour purify the title of Messiah which He had at first assumed through an inner compulsion. Even for us after all these centuries there is something surprisingly grand as we observe how the idea is emptied of all the merely sensual and selfish elements, so that finally the king in all his pomp and glory is turned into the tragic figure on the Cross. Herein, in one word, consists Jesus’ greatness. He introduces the tragic element where others joyously revelled in material Utopias.

But the end of this work is no renunciation of 50the title of Messiah, but the distinct claim upon it advanced before His death. That was necessary for Jesus, otherwise He would have had to renounce both Himself and God. He left His disciples the hope in the restitution of all things as a legacy in connection, it would seem, with Daniel’s vision of the Son of Man who is to descend upon the clouds of heaven. Jesus died with this belief in His speedy return in Messianic glory.

The belief in the return causes every thoughtful person the greatest difficulty at the present day. Compared with this, even the Messianic problem has but little importance. In the first place, it is a fact that Jesus was mistaken in the point of time: He thought of the return as to His own generation amongst whom He had worked, by whom He had been rejected. If our account of the trial of Jesus has any historical value, then Jesus did in fact say to His judges, “We shall meet again.” But this meeting did not take place either for foe or friend. Yet that is not our real difficulty and stumbling-block. Apart from everything else, it is an altogether fantastic idea for us—that a dead person should return upon the clouds of heaven. This picture is the product of the idea of the world and of the psychology current in antiquity, and it is only in connection with them that it is endowed with any vitality. And so the doubt will arise whether it was really Jesus Himself, whether it was not, after all, His disciples who were the authors of this fantastic and erroneous conception.

But we must silence our modern modes of thought when facts speak so clearly and so decisively. However much may be a later addition in the 51eschatological speeches of Jesus, the constant element in them is just this thought of the second coming. It is this thought around which the whole of the apocalyptic theory has crystallized, and not vice versa. The word ‘Son of Man’ is not essential. Paul has the idea, the expectation, of the parousia without this word. And besides, the chief difficulty is, after all, removed as soon as we place ourselves in the position of one to whom the ancient cosmology and psychology were realities, for then the thought of a ‘homo redivivus’ will become perfectly familiar to us.

The question was for Jesus to find a sanction for His mission. The superhuman in Him accepted the form of the idea of the Messiah. The Messiah is, and remains, king in the kingdom of God. Taking His stand upon this presupposition, death appears to Him to be one of two things. It is either a proof that He is in the wrong, or it is a transition to a higher right that shall manifest itself to a world which now fancies that it is triumphing. By announcing His return Jesus declares that God is on His side, and that He is in the right. And for this very same reason the early Christians laid all the emphasis on the parousia as their strongest piece of evidence. Even though this evidence consisted merely in a hope—a hope unfulfilled—it was yet powerful enough to help Jesus and His disciples over their greatest difficulty.

At the same time, it is obvious that that which is inadequate in the idea of the Messiah, here wins its first and last victory over Jesus. In His prophecy of the second coming Jesus yields its due to the faith of the age. Here for a moment the wild 52fancies of later Judaism, the magic world of the ancient popular belief, intrude in the midst of the grand simplicity of Jesus' consciousness of His call. There was no harmony between Jesus and the Messianic idea. He accepted the idea under compulsion, because it was the outer form for that which was final and highest. He laboured with it, broke it up, re-cast it; yet a portion of the deception which it contained was transmitted to Him.

What were the titles which Jesus chose to express His self-consciousness? The question belongs to the close of our enquiry. In the first place, because the meaning of the titles can only be derived from the self-consciousness and not this latter from the titles; and next, because there is an especial difficulty in distinguishing in this connection between what is to be assigned to Jesus and what is to be referred to the oldest theology of the early Christian Church. The evangelists ascribe to Jesus the titles Messiah, Son of God, and Son of Man. The first He never used of Himself, according to their account. They merely narrate that in His answers to the Baptist, to Peter, and to the high priest during His trial He accepted it—affirming the fact. On the other hand, the two other expressions are handed down to us as self-designations. The word Son of God fell into discredit amongst the Jews in later times, because the Christians showed a preference for this title. But in the time of Jesus it may very well have been current amongst the people as a popular Messianic expression. Does not God address the Messianic King in the 2nd Psalm with these words, “Thou art My Son”?


And yet it is striking how very seldom Jesus uses the word. In reality only once. It was one of the culminating points of His life. In tones of exultation He spoke out of the fulness of His heart to those that were nearest to Him. Just as Father and Son know and trust each other, so do God and He. Thus He uses the Messianic title as the expression of the closest intimacy with God, of the most absolute trust in Him. But the title did not turn out to be a blessing for the early Church, destined as it was to migrate to heathen surroundings. It gave rise to physical and metaphysical speculations, and so caused a long series of misfortunes.

The commonest self-designation of Jesus in the Gospels is the phrase ‘Son of Man.’ Would that we knew for certain whether Jesus used it Himself! The phrase is to be traced back to the vision of Daniel (ch. vii.), where it is still used figuratively and without any Messianic application. Originally it signifies just ‘human being,’ homo. Just as the hostile empires appear in the vision as animals, so the kingdom of the saints appears to the seer as a man. But long before the age of Jesus this ‘Man’ had been transformed into the Messiah. A very slight change was needed for this. Jesus calls Himself the ‘Man,’ first where, referring to the passage in the book of Daniel, He prophesies His coming down from heaven to establish the kingdom of God; next, when he foretells His Passion; lastly, in other passages of various contents. But did He really so call Himself? One is struck by the fact that He speaks of Himself in the third person as 54though of someone else, and that He prophesies His coming as if He were already removed from earth. It is as easy to conceive of these forms of expression being used by the disciples after Jesus’ death as it is difficult to imagine Jesus Himself employing them while He was still in their midst. If Jesus ever did speak of Himself as the Man, then He can only have done so a short time before His death and in the expectation of that death. One will then have to suppose that at the time when the thought of His approaching death gradually grew to be a certainty for Him, and the idea of His future restoration to sovereignty likewise arose in His mind, He drew comfort and confidence from this passage in Daniel. It suddenly acquired a living personal application to Himself. He saw Himself as the ‘Man’ exalted to God’s side after His death and descending from heaven in glory. And now He created the paradox of the Son of Man who first must suffer. We may suppose the term to have originated in some such manner as this, and yet it is quite possible that it was the disciples who were the first to find this explanation of Daniel’s words. But the expression, which was in any case derived from the Jewish apocalyptic writings, was altogether unintelligible to the Greeks, and hence we find Paul already avoiding the use of it. It was only very much later, when the Gospels had come to be regarded as sacred books, that they made an attempt of their own to find a meaning in it.

Thus from the very first the titles turned out to be the misfortune of the new religion. With the titles either the old or the perverted new ideas creep 55 in—‘Messiah,’ ‘Son of God.’ ‘Son of Man.’ How inadequately at bottom all this applies to Jesus. Not one of these words expresses even remotely what He was amongst men, or what He was called to be by God for all time. Hence it is a part of true reverence for Jesus that we should venerate, not the titles, but Himself.

There was in Him something entirely new, a surpassing greatness, a superhuman self-consciousness which sets itself above all authorities, declaring God’s will and promises, imparting consolation, inspiring courage, delivering judgment with divine power, a new mediatorship between God and man, that left all the former far behind it. But this that was new in Jesus appeared clothed in a contemporary and at bottom unsuitable form, His consciousness as Messiah. And in spite of all His labour to change the antiquated, the petty, and the transitory, He did not entirely destroy it. Hence immediately after Jesus’ death a twofold movement can be traced amongst the disciples. Jewish patriots attach to the one word Messiah all the fancies and all the political Utopias of Judaism. But those who understand Him continue His work and set Him entirely free from these Messianic surroundings. The one road leads to the Messiah of the Apocalypse, the other to the ‘Second Adam’ of Paul and the Logos of the Fourth Gospel. The future belongs to the latter alone.

« Prev Chapter IV. Jesus. The Call. Next »


| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |