« Prev Lecture VIII Next »


ALTHOUGH the Messianic doctrines prevalent in the Jewish nation in Jesus’ day were not a positive “dogma,” and had no connexion with the legal precepts which were so rigidly cultivated, they formed an essential element of the hopes, religious and political, which the nation entertained for the future. They were of no very definite character, except in certain fundamental features; beyond these the greatest differences prevailed. The old prophets had looked forth to a glorious future in which God would Himself come down, destroy the enemies of Israel, and work justice, peace, and joy. At the same time, however, they had also promised that a wise and mighty king of the house of David would appear and bring this glorious state of things to pass. They had ended by indicating the people of Israel itself as the Son of God, chosen from amongst the nations of the world. These three views exercised a determining influence in the subsequent elaboration of the Messianic ideas. The hope of a glorious future for the people of Israel remained the frame into which all expectations were fitted, but in 143the two centuries before Christ the following factors were added: (i.) The extension of their historical horizon strengthened the interest of the Jews in the nations of the world, introduced the notion of “mankind” as a whole, and brought it within the sphere of the expected end, including, therefore, the operations of the Messiah. The day of judgment is regarded as extending to the whole world, and the Messiah not only as judging the world but as ruling it as well. (ii.) In early times, although the moral purification of the people had been thought of in connexion with the glorious future, the destruction of Israel’s enemies seemed to be the main consideration; but now the feeling of moral responsibility and the knowledge of God as the Holy One became more active; the view prevails that the Messianic age demands a holy people, and that the judgment to come must of necessity also be a judgment upon a part of Israel itself. (iii.) As individualism became a stronger force, so the relation of God to the individual was prominently emphasised. The individual Israelite comes to feel that he is in the midst of his people, and he begins to look upon it as a sum of individuals; the individual belief in Providence appears side by side with the political belief, and combines with the feeling of personal worth and responsibility; and in connexion with the expectation of the end, we get 144the first dawn of the hope of an eternal life and the fear of eternal punishment. The products of this inner development are an interest in personal salvation, and a belief in the resurrection; and the roused conscience is no longer able to hope for a glorious future for all in view of the open profanity of the people and the power of sin; only a remnant will be saved. (iv.) The expectations for the future become more and more transcendent; they are increasingly shifted to the realm of the supernatural and the supramundane; something quite new comes down from heaven to earth, and the new course on which the world enters severs it from the old; nay, this earth, transfigured as it will be, is no longer the final goal; the idea of an absolute bliss arises, whose abode can only be heaven itself. (v.) The personality of the long-expected Messiah is sharply distinguished, as well from the idea of an earthly king as from the idea of the people as a whole, and from the idea of God. Although he appears as a man amongst men, the Messiah retains scarcely any Messianic traits. He is represented as with God from. the first beginnings of time; he comes down from heaven, and accomplishes his work by superhuman means; the moral traits in the picture formed of him come into prominence; he is the perfectly just man who fulfils all the commandments. Nay, the idea that others benefit by his merits forces its 145way in. The notion, however, of a suffering Messiah, which might seem to be suggested by Isaiah liii., is not reached.

But none of these speculations succeeded in displacing the older and simpler conceptions, or in banishing that original, patriotic, and political interpretation of them with which the great majority of the people were familiar. God Himself assuming the sceptre, destroying His enemies, founding the Israelitish kingdom of the world, and availing Himself of a kingly champion for the purpose; every man sitting under his own fig-tree, in his own vineyard, enjoying the fruits of peace, with his foot upon the neck of his enemies—that was, after all, still the most popular conception of the coming of the Messiah, and it was fixed in the minds even of those who were at the same time attracted to higher views. But a portion of the people had undoubtedly awakened to the feeling that the kingdom of God presupposes a moral condition of a corresponding character, and that it could come only to a righteous people. Some looked to acquiring this righteousness by means of a punctilious observance of the law, and no zeal that they could show for it was enough; others, under the influences of a deeper self-knowledge, began to have a dim idea that the righteousness which they so ardently desired could itself come only from the hand of God, 146and that in order to shake off the burden of sin—for they had begun to be tortured by an inner sense of it—divine assistance, and divine grace and mercy, were needful.

Thus in Christ’s time there was a surging chaos of disparate feeling, as well as of contradictory theory, in regard to this one matter. At no other time, perhaps, in the history of religion, and in no other people, were the most extreme antitheses so closely associated under the binding influence of religion. At one moment the horizon seems as narrow as the circle of the hills which surround Jerusalem; at another it embraces all mankind. Here everything is put upon a high plane and regarded from the spiritual and moral point of view; and there, at but a stone’s throw, the whole drama seems as though it must close with a political victory for the nation. In one group all the forces of divine trust and confidence are disengaged, and the upright man struggles through to a solemn “Nevertheless”; in another, every religious impulse is stifled by a morally obtuse, patriotic fanaticism.

The idea which was formed of the Messiah must have been as contradictory as the hopes to which it was meant to respond. Not only were people’s formal notions about him continually changing—questions were being raised, for instance, as to the sort of bodily nature which he would have; 147above all, his inmost character and the work to which he was to be called appeared in diverse lights. But wherever the moral and really religious elements had begun to get the upper hand, people were forced to abandon the image of the political and warlike ruler, and let that of the prophet, which had always to some extent helped to form the general notions about the Messiah, take its place. That he would bring God near; that somehow or other he would do justice; that he would deliver from the burden of torment within—this was what was hoped of him. The story of John the Baptist as related in our Gospels makes it clear that there were devout men in the Jewish nation at that time who were expecting a Messiah in this form, or at least did not absolutely reject the idea. We learn from that story that some were disposed to take John for the Messiah. What elasticity the Messianic ideas must have possessed, and how far, in certain circles, they must have travelled from the form which they originally assumed, when this very unkinglike preacher of repentance, clad in a garment of camel’s hair, and with no message but that the nation had degenerated and its day of judgment was at hand, could be taken for the Messiah himself! And when the Gospels go on to tell us that not a few among the people took Jesus for the Messiah only because he taught as one with authority, 148and worked miraculous cures, how fundamentally the idea of the Messiah seems to be changed! They regarded this saving activity, it is true, only as the beginning of his mission; they expected that the wonder-worker would presently throw off his disguise and “set up the kingdom”; but all that we are concerned with here is that they were capable of welcoming as the promised one a man whose origin and previous life they knew, and who had as yet done nothing but preach repentance and proclaim that the kingdom of heaven was at hand. We shall never fathom the inward development by which Jesus passed from the assurance that he was the Son of God to the other assurance that he was the promised Messiah. But when we see that the idea which others as well had formed of the Messiah at that time had, by a slow process of change, developed entirely new features, and had passed from a political and religious idea into a spiritual and religious one—when we see this, the problem no longer wears a character of complete isolation. That John the Baptist and the twelve disciples acknowledged Jesus to be the Messiah; that the positive estimate which they formed of his person did not lead them to reject the shape in which he appeared, but, on the contrary, was fixed in this very shape, is a proof of the flexible character of the Messianic idea at the time, and also explains how it was that Jesus could 149himself adopt it. “Strength is made perfect in weakness.” That there is a divine strength and glory which stands in no need of earthly power and earthly splendour, nay, excludes them; that there is a majesty of holiness and love which saves and blesses those upon whom it lays hold, was what he knew who in spite of his lowliness called himself the Messiah, and the same must have been felt by those who recognised him as the king of Israel anointed of God.

How Jesus arrived at the consciousness of being the Messiah we cannot explain, but still there are some points connected with the question which can be established. An inner event which Jesus experienced at his baptism was, in the view of the oldest tradition, the foundation of his Messianic consciousness. It is not an experience which is subject to any criticism; still less are we in a position to contradict it. On the contrary, there is a strong probability that when he made his public appearance he had already settled accounts with himself. The evangelists preface their account of his public activity with a curious story of a temptation. This story assumes that he was already conscious of being the Son of God and the one who was intrusted with the all-important work for God’s people, and that he had overcome the temptations which this consciousness brought with it. When John sent to 150him from prison to ask, “Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?” the answer which he sent necessarily led his questioner to understand that he was the Messiah, but at the same time showed him how Jesus conceived the Messianic office. Then came the day at Caesarea Philippi, when Peter acknowledged him as the expected Messiah, and Jesus joyfully confirmed what he said. This was followed by the question to the Pharisees,—“What think ye of Christ, whose son is he?”—the scene which ended with the fresh question: “If David then call him Lord, how is he his son?” Lastly, there was the entry into Jerusalem before the whole people, together with the cleansing of the temple; actions which were equivalent to a public declaration that he was the Messiah. But his first unequivocal Messianic action was also his last. It was followed by the crown of thorns and the cross.

I have said that it is probable that when Jesus made his public appearance he had already settled accounts with himself, and was therefore clear about his mission as well. By this, however, I do not mean that, so far as he himself was concerned,. he had nothing more to learn in the course of it. Not only had he to learn to suffer, and to look forward to the cross with confidence in God, but the consciousness of his Sonship was now for the first time to be brought to the test. The knowledge of the 151“work” which the Father had intrusted to him could not be developed except by labour and by victory over all opposition. What a moment it must have been for him when he recognised that he was the one of whom the prophets had spoken; when he saw the whole history of his nation from Abraham and Moses downwards in the light of his own mission; when he could no longer avoid the conviction that he was the promised Messiah! No longer avoid it; for how can we refuse to believe that at first he must have felt this knowledge to be a terrible burden? Yet in saying this we have gone too far; and there is nothing more that we can say. But in this connexion we can understand that the evangelist John was right in making Jesus testify over and over again: “I have not spoken of myself; but the Father which sent me; he gave me a commandment, what I should say, and what I should speak.” And again: “For I am not alone, but I and the Father that sent me.”

But however we may conceive the “Messiah,” it was an assumption that was simply necessary if the man who felt the inward call was to gain an absolute recognition within the lines of Jewish religious history the profoundest and maturest history that any nation ever possessed, nay, as the future was to show, the true religious history for all mankind. 152The idea of the Messiah became the means—in the first instance for the devout of his own nation—of effectively setting the man who knew that he was the Son of God, and was doing the work of God, on the throne of history. But when it had accomplished this, its mission was exhausted. Jesus was the “Messiah,” and was not the Messiah; and he was not the Messiah, because he left the idea far behind him; because he put a meaning into it which was too much for it to bear. Although the idea may strike us as strange we can still feel some of its meaning; an idea which captivated a whole nation for centuries, and in which it deposited all its ideals, cannot be quite unintelligible. In the prospect of a Messianic period we see once more the old hope of a golden age; the hope which, when moralised, must necessarily be the goal of every vigorous movement in human life and forms an inalienable element in the religious view of history; in the expectation of a personal Messiah we see an expression of the fact that it is persons who form the saving element in history, and that if a union of mankind is ever to come about by their deepest forces and highest aims being brought into accord, this same mankind must agree to acknowledge one lord and master. But beyond this there is no other meaning and no other value to be attached to the Messianic idea; Jesus himself deprived it of them.


With the recognition of Jesus as the Messiah the closest possible connexion was established, for every devout Jew, between Jesus’ message and his person; for it is in the Messiah’s activity that God Himself comes to His people, and the Messiah who does God’s work and sits at the right hand of God in the clouds of heaven has a right to be worshipped. But what attitude did Jesus himself take up towards his Gospel? Does he assume a position in it? To this question there are two answers: one negative and one positive.

In those leading features of it which we described in the earlier lectures the whole of the Gospel is contained, and we must keep it free from the intrusion of any alien element: God and the soul, the soul and its God. There was no doubt in Jesus’ mind that God could be found, and had been found, in the law and the prophets. “He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” He takes the publican in the temple, the widow and her mite, the lost son, as his examples; none of them know anything about “Christology,” and yet by his humility the publican was justified. These are facts which cannot be turned and twisted without doing violence to the grandeur and simplicity of Jesus’ message in one of its most important aspects.154To contend that Jesus meant his whole message to be taken provisionally, and everything in it to receive a different interpretation after his death and resurrection, nay, parts of it to be put aside as of no account, is a desperate supposition. No! his message is simpler than the churches would like to think it; simpler, but for that very reason sterner and endowed with a greater claim to universality. A man cannot evade it by the subterfuge of saying that as he can make nothing of this “Christology” the message is not for him. Jesus directed men’s attention to great questions; he promised them God’s grace and mercy; he required them to decide whether they would have God or Mammon, an eternal or an earthly life, the soul or the body, humility or self-righteousness, love or selfishness, the truth or a lie. The sphere which these questions occupy is all-embracing; the individual is called upon to listen to the glad message of mercy and the Fatherhood of God, and to make up his mind whether he will be on God’s side and the Eternal’s, or on the side of the world and of time. The Gospel, as Jesus proclaimed it, has to do with the Father only and not with the Son. This is no paradox, nor, on the other hand, is it “rationalism,” but the simple expression of the actual fact as the evangelists give it.

But no one had ever yet known the Father in the 155way in which Jesus knew Him, and to this knowledge of Him he draws other men’s attention, and thereby does “the many” an incomparable service. He leads them to God, not only by what he says, but still more by what he is and does, and ultimately by what he suffers. It was in this sense that he spoke the words, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”; as also, “The Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.” He knows that through him a new epoch is beginning, in which, by their knowledge of God, the “least” shall be greater than the greatest of the ages before; he knows that in him thousands — the very individuals who are weary and heavy laden—will find the Father and gain life; he knows that he is the sower who is scattering good seed; his is the field, his the seed, his the fruit. These things involve no dogmatic doctrines; still less any transformation of the Gospel itself, or any oppressive demands upon our faith. They are the expression of an actual fact which he perceives to be already happening, and which, with prophetic assurance, he beholds in advance. When, under the terrible burden of his calling and in the midst of the struggle, he comes to see that it is through him that the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the poor have the Gospel preached to 156them, he begins to comprehend the glory which the Father has given him. And he sees that what he now suffers in his person will, through his life crowned in death, remain a fact efficacious and of critical importance for all time: He is the way to the Father, and as he is the appointed of the Father, so he is the judge as well.

Was he mistaken? Neither his immediate posterity, nor the course of subsequent history, has decided against him. It is not as a mere factor that he is connected with the Gospel; he was its personal realisation and its strength, and this he is felt to be still. Fire is kindled only by fire; personal life only by personal forces. Let us rid ourselves of all dogmatic sophistry, and leave others to pass verdicts of exclusion. The Gospel nowhere says that God’s mercy is limited to Jesus’ mission. But history shows us that he is the one who brings the weary and heavy laden to God; and, again, that he it was who raised mankind to the new level; and his teaching is still the touchstone, in that it brings men to bliss and brings them to judgment.

The sentence “I am the Son of God” was not inserted in the Gospel by Jesus himself, and to put that sentence there side by side with the others is to make an addition to the Gospel. But no one who accepts the Gospel, and tries to understand him who gave it to us, can fail to affirm that here 157the divine appeared in as pure a form as it can appear on earth, and to feel that for those who followed him Jesus was himself the strength of the Gospel. What they experienced, however, and came to know in and through him, they have told the world; and their message is still a living force.

(6) The Gospel and doctrine, or the question of creed.

We need not dwell long on this question, as on the essential points—everything that it is necessary to say has already been said in the course of our previous observations.

The Gospel is no theoretical system of doctrine or philosophy of the universe; it is doctrine only in so far as it proclaims the reality of God the Father. It is a glad message assuring us of life eternal, and telling us what the things and the forces with which we have to do are worth. By treating of life eternal it teaches us how to lead our lives aright. It tells us of the value of the human soul, of humility, of mercy, of purity, of the cross, and the worthlessness of worldly goods and anxiety for the things of which earthly life consists. And it gives the assurance that, in spite of every struggle, peace, certainty, and something within that can never be destroyed will be the crown of a life rightly led. What else can “the confession of a creed” mean under these conditions but to do the will of God, in the certainty 158that He is the Father and the one who will recompense? Jesus never spoke of any other kind of “creed.” Even when he says, “Whosoever shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven,” he is thinking of people doing as he did; he means the confession which shows itself in feeling and action. How great a departure from what he thought and enjoined is involved in putting a Christological creed in the forefront of the Gospel, and in teaching that before a man can approach it he must learn to think rightly about Christ. That is putting the cart before the horse. A man can think and teach rightly about Christ only if, and in so far as, he has already begun to live according to Christ’s Gospel.. There is no forecourt to his message through which a man must pass; no yoke which he must first of all take upon himself. The thoughts and assurances which the Gospel provides are the first thing and the last thing, and every soul is directly arraigned before them.

Still less, however, does the Gospel presuppose any definite knowledge of nature, or stand in any connexion with such knowledge; not even in a negative sense can this contention be maintained. It is religion and the moral element that are concerned. The Gospel puts the living God before us. Here, too, the confession of Him in belief in Him 159and in the fulfilment of His will is the sole thing to be confessed; this is what Jesus Christ meant. So far as the knowledge is concerned—and it is vast—which may be based upon this belief, it always varies with the measure of a man’s inner development and subjective intelligence. But to possess the Lord of heaven and earth as a Father is an experience to which nothing else approaches; and it is an experience which the poorest soul can have, and to the reality of which he can bear testimony.

An experience—it is only the religion which a man has himself experienced that is to be confessed; every other creed or confession is in Jesus’ view hypocritical and fatal. If there is no broad “theory of religion” to be found in the Gospel, still less is there any direction that a man is to begin by accepting and confessing any ready-made theory. Faith and creed are to proceed and grow up out of the all-important act of turning from the world and to God, and creed is to be nothing but faith reduced to practice. “All men have not faith,” says the apostle Paul, but all men ought to be veracious and be on their guard in religion against lip-service and light-hearted assent to creeds. “A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first and said, Son, go work to-day in my vineyard. He answered and said, I will not; but afterward he repented and went. And he came 160to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir; and went not.”

I might stop here, but I am impelled to answer one more objection. The Gospel, it is said, is a great and sublime thing, and it has certainly been a saving power in history, but it is indissolubly connected with an antiquated view of the world and history; and, therefore, although it be painful to say so, and we have nothing better to put in its place, it has lost its validity and can have no further significance for us. In view of this objection there are two things which I should like to say:—

Firstly, no doubt it is true that the view of the world and history with which the Gospel is connected is quite different from ours, and that view we cannot recall to life, and would not if we could; but “indissoluble” the connexion is not. I have tried to show what the essential elements in the Gospel are, and these elements are “timeless.” Not only are they so; but the man to whom the Gospel addresses itself is also “timeless,” that is to say, he is the man who, in spite of all progress and development, never changes in his inmost constitution and in his fundamental relations with the external world. Since that is so, this Gospel remains in force, then, for us too.


Secondly, the Gospel is based—and this is the all-important element in the view which it takes of the world and history—upon the antithesis between Spirit and flesh, God and the world, good and evil. Now, in spite of ardent efforts, thinkers have not yet succeeded in elaborating on a monistic basis any theory of ethics that is satisfactory and answers to the deepest needs of man. Nor will they succeed. In the end, then, it is essentially a matter of indifference what name we give to the opposition with which every man of ethical feeling is concerned: God and the world, the Here and the Beyond, the visible and the invisible, matter and spirit, the life of impulse and the life of freedom, physics and ethics. That there is a unity underlying this opposition is a conviction which can be gained by experience; the one realm can be subordinated to the other; but it is only by a struggle that this unity can be attained, and when it is attained it takes the form of a problem that is infinite and only approximately soluble. It cannot be attained by any refinement of a mechanical process. It is by self-conquest that a man is freed from the tyranny of matter

Von der Gewalt die alle Wesen bindet
Befreit der Mensch sich der sich überwindet

This saying of Goethe’s excellently expresses the truth that is here in question. It is a truth which 162holds good for all time, and it forms the essential element in the dramatic pictures of contemporary life in which the Gospel exhibits the antithesis that is to be overcome. I do not know how our increased knowledge of nature is to hinder us from bearing witness to the truth of the creed that “The world passeth away, and the lust thereof, but he that doeth the will of God abideth forever.” We have to do with a dualism which arose we know not how; but as moral beings we are convinced that, as it has been given us in order that we may overcome it in ourselves and bring it to a unity, so also it goes back to an original unity, and will at last find its reconciliation in the great far-off event, the realised dominion of the Good.

Dreams, it may be said; for what we see before our eyes is something very different. No! not dreams—after all it is here that our true life has its root—but patchwork certainly, for we are unable to bring our knowledge in space and time, together with the contents of our inner life, into the unity of a philosophic theory of the world. It is only in the peace of God which passeth all understanding that this unity dawns upon us.

But we have already passed beyond the limits of our immediate task. We proposed 1to acquaint ourselves with the Gospel in its fundamental features and in its most important bearings. I have 163tried to respond to this task; but the last point which we touched takes us beyond it. We now return to it, in order to follow, in the second part of these lectures, the course of the Christian religion through history.

« Prev Lecture VIII Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection