Chapter 2: Never Spake Man As This Man

Jesus Lord and Christ
by John Knox (current)

Chapter 2: Never Spake Man As This Man

Modern critics have made us aware of the difficulty of identifying in the Gospels the primitive and presumably authentic reports of Jesus’ words and of the uncertainty which must attach to any particular finding even when the most expert and careful scholarship. has been applied in achieving it. Still, although one cannot be altogether sure of any particular saying of Jesus, the body of teaching which as a whole can be relied on as authentic is by no means inconsiderable. This is not the place to indicate the limits of that body of teaching -- needless to say, it has no exact limits -- or even to define the criteria which workers in that field use in testing authenticity. Perhaps it will be enough to say that a majority of them agree in attributing to Jesus -- in essential content and character, and often in precise form -- a large part of the ethical and religious teaching found in the first three, the so-called Synoptic, Gospels.

The objective student in this field can hardly deny that to ascribe this material to Jesus is to credit him with the most amazing originality. This statement is made in complete awareness of the fact that, as Klausner says, "throughout the Gospels there is not one item of ethical teaching which cannot be paralleled either in the Old Testament, the Apocrypha, or in the talmudic and midrashic literature of the period near to the time of Jesus." (This and the following quotation are from Jesus of Nazareth [New York: The Macmillan Company, 1925]. Quoted by permission of the publisher.) This is true, but as Klausner later implies, it has little, if anything, to do with the question of Jesus’ originality. In the determination of originality everything depends upon the particular way in which ideas are conceived, the way in which their force is felt, the way in which they are related to one another in some kind of personal synthesis, and the way in which they are expressed. Jesus was a Jew; his ideas were characteristic Jewish ideas; he was original in a characteristic Jewish way -- but he was original nevertheless.

This characteristically Jewish originality of Jesus appears, if nowhere else, in the concentration of his ethical teaching. Klausner, after citing parallels from other Jewish sources to nearly all the several sayings of Jesus, adds: "But there is a new thing in the Gospels. Jesus . . . gathered together and, so to speak, condensed and concentrated ethical teachings in such a fashion as to make them more prominent than in the talmudic Haggada and Midrashim, where they are interspersed among more commonplace discussions and worthless matter." And not only is this concentration in Jesus quantitative, it is qualitative as well. In no other source, Jewish or non-Jewish, do we find religion interpreted so exclusively and so richly in ethical terms. Jesus was apparently called sometimes a prophet and sometimes a teacher. He seems to have combined in a unique and fruitful synthesis the functions and character of both: the teacher widened and enriched the message of the prophet; the prophet purified, intensified and exalted that of the teacher.

For the Gospels do more than present a number of isolated sayings reflecting a mind singularly rich in ethical and religious insights: one cannot miss also the signs of a distinctive organization of those insights. One catches frequent glimpses of a religious personality to whose thought and life the several ideas integrally belong. I am not suggesting that Jesus had any original religious, or ethical "system"; he almost certainly did not, and in any case we are not in position to recover it. It is probable that the only "system," as the only "church," he knew was Judaism, and there is no reason to suspect that he ever thought of repudiating it. But he did have his characteristic emphases and it is not impossible to determine what some of them were.

I do not believe we should go far wrong if we attributed three such emphases to Jesus, although they were so intimately related to one another as actually to be barely distinguishable. These three foci around which the thought of Jesus seems to have moved were the kingdom of God, the will of God, and the love of God. All of these were characteristic Jewish conceptions, but not only do they have in Jesus a peculiar prominence, they also carry the imprint of his particular genius. May I say something, although necessarily not nearly enough, about each of them? (A fuller statement will be found in the second Book.)

The most important, because the most inclusive, of Jesus’ characteristic ideas is undoubtedly his conception of the kingdom of God. A casual reading of the Synoptic Gospels will disclose how constantly Jesus used that phrase, and if we understood all that he meant by it we should hold the clue to the understanding of all his teaching. Quite obviously, we do not know all that he meant by it -- we cannot hope to, separated as we are by twenty centuries from his time and dependent as we are upon a few meager records -- but we are by no means altogether in ignorance of his meaning, and as historical research enables us to recover more fully the mental climate of Jesus’ environment, our understanding becomes deeper and more adequate.

For a long time it has been recognized that the phrase "the kingdom of God" (or, as Matthew always renders it, "the kingdom of heaven") on Jesus’ lips designated, not heaven, nor yet the church of history, but the coming reign of righteousness and peace among men, to which the prophets had looked forward: the time when God’s will should be done on earth as it is done in heaven, when justice and love should hold universal sway in a redeemed humanity, when peace and freedom should cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. There was no little controversy a generation ago as to whether in Jesus’ thought this fulfillment was to come gradually or suddenly and "miraculously." The more conservative writers, moved by their unwillingness to find Jesus in error, cited the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven and insisted that he looked forward to a long future and to the progressive realization of the new order. The more radical and on the whole more competent critics took the position that Jesus expected momentarily the decisive act of God which would suddenly inaugurate the new age of righteousness and peace. However many similar questions (such as, for example, the way in which Jesus pictured the manner of the kingdom’s coming or the relation in which he thought of himself as standing toward it) may still be unanswered, that particular issue has surely been settled. Jesus did not conceive of a long future during which men would "cooperate with God in "building the kingdom"; such a conception is modern to the core and would have been quite unintelligible to Jesus. He looked only to God for the kingdom. God would bring it to pass in his own time; men had only to wait, to pray, and to prepare themselves to receive it. "Fear not, little flock," he says to his disciples. "it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom." Apparently he did not expect its coming to be long delayed.

Another issue, which has been vigorously debated, is the question whether Jesus thought of the kingdom in predominantly this-worldly or otherworldly terms. An important minority among Jesus’ contemporaries had virtually surrendered the expectation of any fulfillment of God’s purpose within the present world process. For them the prophetic hope of a renewed humanity in a transformed earth had become the expectation of an altogether new and unimaginable order of existence, either in some remote heaven or on an earth so radically changed as to be a new and different earth. That Jesus was influenced by such ideas is not to be denied; but that they do not represent his characteristic way of thinking about the kingdom is, I believe, almost equally certain. The kingdom of God would come, to be sure, as a consequence of a decisive act of God, for only God could defeat the supernatural powers of evil which opposed his rule and only God could release the tides of spiritual power which would give the new age its character; but the kingdom of God was to be a kingdom within men’s hearts and within men’s world. The meek would inherit the earth.

I have referred to the prominence of the kingdom of God in the teaching of Jesus. Indeed, it might almost be called the text of all his teaching. Sometimes he is extolling the infinite worth of the kingdom. It is the pearl of great price, for which the wise merchant gladly exchanges all his other possessions. It is the hidden treasure, which a man sees, and straightway forgets that he ever wanted anything else. To possess the kingdom is to possess everything valuable and desirable; to he excluded from it is to suffer the ultimate and irremediable loss. Frequently Jesus is describing the kind of person to whom the kingdom will be given. The pure in heart, the childlike, the merciful, the meek and those who love justice, the peacemakers and those who are faithful unto death -- of such will God’s kingdom be. Often he is stressing the arduous demands of the kingdom and the devotion which is required of those who would be ready to receive it. Not infrequently he is warning that the fulfillment of God’s purpose will involve judgment as well as blessing, death as well as life. The sheep will be divided from the goats, the wheat from the weeds, the good fish from the bad, the faithful servants from the disloyal and rebellious. But it is not the will of God that anyone should perish, and to those who will repent and turn to him in loyalty and trust God will freely give the blessed life of the kingdom.

This kingdom, it is important to note, was for Jesus not merely a future hope; it was also in some sense a present fact. God’s kingdom was not only waiting to be disclosed at any moment; it was already beginning to be disclosed. "This day" the prophetic promises were being fulfilled, Even then the power of Satan was being broken. In his own words and works, in the life of the little community which had formed about him, the kingdom had already been manifested. The kingdom of God is thus the eternal kingship of God; it is the present and mighty power of God, to be fully revealed only in the imminent future, but visible now in its anticipatory workings to anyone with eyes to see and heart to understand. Jesus’ faith in the kingdom of God was thus his joyous faith in a living, mighty, active and triumphant God.

Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom cannot be sharply separated from his teaching about God’s will. It has already been said that in Jesus’ view man had no responsibility for the actual inauguration of the kingdom. It was God’s kingdom and he would bring it to pass— in a sense was already bringing it to pass. This fact separates his thought from that of many modems and has a bearing on contemporary ethical problems which it is not the province of this essay to discuss. For Jesus, as for the best of his Jewish contemporaries, man’s true life consisted in obedience to the will of God. When God’s kingdom should have come, God’s will should be done on earth as in heaven. Man must submit himself without reservation to God’s demands and must give himself with complete devotion to fulfilling them. He must love God with all his heart, with all his mind, with all his soul, with all his strength. One must not permit even the elementary demands of the physical life to take precedence over the requirements of God’s will. We must seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, regarding everything else as relatively unimportant. Even loyalty to family is to be sternly subordinated to devotion to God’s will. "Whosoever shall do the will of my father, he is my brother and my sister and my mother."

Not only did Jesus require absolute devotion to God’s will, he also defined that will itself in absolute terms. Moses was said to have taken into account the hardness of our hearts, but Jesus did not. He made no effort to dilute the righteousness of God. According to Jesus, God demands nothing short of moral perfection -- that is, absolute emptying of self, absolute renunciation of selfish pride and desire, absolute love for all men. Moral goodness cannot be described in terms more complete or exalted than Jesus used in his most characteristic teaching: it is the ultimate, the absolute righteousness, the righteousness of God.

Because men generally find it intolerable to accept as actually binding a standard of goodness to which they know they cannot attain, innumerable attempts have been made to soften Jesus’ words. We are told that he did not mean that we are to turn the other cheek or go the second mile -- that is Oriental hyperbole; he meant something quite reasonable and practicable, as, for example, that we are not to take vengeance on our enemies. Or we hear that Jesus was merely describing in his hardest sayings what God’s will would be for us when the kingdom should have come, not his will for us now; or again, that Jesus’ ethic was an "interim ethic," consciously based upon the assumption that the end of the whole world process was imminent. I am inclined to believe that all such explanations are either false or irrelevant. Jesus was not trying to be practical, but to be true. He was not seeking to state what man can do, but what God asks. Just as the eternal God stands over against the temporal world, so for Jesus God’s perfect will stands over against man’s utmost moral achievement. God’s requirements are absolute and have no reference whatever to the ability of men to fulfill them. Jesus who said, "Be ye perfect as your heavenly father is perfect," also said, "Why callest thou me good? There is none good but one, even God."

Jesus made no effort to resolve this tension -- the tension arising inevitably out of a recognition, on the one hand, of our moral weakness and wrongness, and, on the other, out of a vision of God’s perfect will -- by qualifying and softening that will. He rather confronted it with an affirmation of the love of God. God makes absolute moral demands but his love also is infinite. He is a God of grace as well as of truth. He not only stands ready to receive the penitent sinner, but he seeks him out, as a shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness and goes Out after the one which is lost until he find it, or as a father watches longingly for his lost son. The hairs of our heads are numbered. Not a sparrow falls without God’s notice; how much more tenderly and solicitously does he regard us!

I could not begin to convey the warmth of Jesus’ apprehension of the love of God. Nor need I try, for who is not familiar with the wealth of material in the Gospels in which that apprehension is expressed? Jesus found release and peace not by resolving a tension within himself, but by affirming a paradox in God. The God who asks everything is eager also to give everything. His moral demands are absolute, but he forgives to the uttermost. Our salvation lies not in the perfection of our obedience, but in the completeness of our submission and in the sincerity of our repentance -- or better, it lies not in ourselves at all, but in God’s infinite compassion, which only our pride and complacency can obstruct.

It is this absolutely righteous and infinitely compassionate God who is even now putting forth his power for the judging and the healing of the nations. God’s perfect will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven! God’s love will soon be fully manifest! "The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the good news!" It was "good news." For John the Baptist the kingdom of God was a judgment about to descend, in fact already casting its dark shadow before it; for Jesus. although emphasis upon judgment is not lacking, it was a glory about to be revealed, the radiance of which could already be discerned by those who had eyes to see.

In all of this there is not a single item which is not at home within Judaism, just as there is no single remark of Jesus which cannot with some degree of closeness be paralleled in the Old Testament or in other Jewish literature, but taken as a whole Jesus’ teaching, without any question, represents a highly distinctive and original apprehension of reality. It was in very truth a "new teaching." There was measureless power in it. It had much to do with the launching of the Christian movement in the first century as it has with sustaining it now. Historic Christianity rests back ultimately not upon a teaching but upon a person, but teaching and person belong together and neither can be understood or even examined without the other.

Quite as striking as Jesus’ ideas are in themselves is a certain characteristic warmth and enthusiasm in the way they are conceived and expressed. There is about the authentic words of Jesus an abandon, an ardor, an extravagance which mark them as his very own. I have already pointed out that in the assaying of originality the particular manner in which ideas are expressed is of the greatest importance. And here I should like to insist upon a qualification of the statement that all of Jesus’ separate sayings can be paralleled in other Jewish sources. If one means that a fundamental religious or moral idea is common in each instance, we can agree; but if one is saying that Jesus’ particular way of conceiving such ideas can always, or even often, be paralleled, then I venture to dissent.

The idea, for example, that one should do good (or at least, not do harm) even to one’s enemies is to be met with among Jewish rabbis, as well as among Stoic and Confucian wise men. But in none of them are to be found words quite so extravagant as: "Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at law and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. . . . Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you. . . . Give to every man who asketh of thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again."

Or again, although warnings against anxiety and covetousness can be found in abundance, among moralists Jewish and non-Jewish, only Jesus could have said: "Take no thought for your life what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink, nor yet for your body what ye shall put on. . . . Behold the birds of the air, for they sow not nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly father feedeth them. Are not ye of much more value than they? . . . And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they toil not, neither do they spin, and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. If God so clothes the grass of the field, shall he not much more clothe you?" There is an extravagance about such statements of which the wise men, just because they were wise men, were quite incapable. In any sense that really matters such sayings cannot be paralleled. They are not the expressions of a school or of a type, whether rabbi, wise man, or prophet. They are Jesus’ own and bear the unmistakable marks of his genius.

Show me the rabbi or wise man who has duplicated the Parable of the Good Samaritan. There are stories in plenty setting forth the virtue of kindness to the needy. Some of them may bear a certain superficial resemblance to Jesus’ story, but the particular manner of the parable sets it apart: the urgent eagerness, the lavish wastefulness of the stranger’s compassion for the wounded man as he "went up to him, bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, set him on his own beast, brought him to an inn, and took care of him." And, as though this foreigner had not already done so much more than enough, the story continues that "on the morrow when he departed, he took out some money and gave it to the host and said to him, ‘Take care of him and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay!’" Who but Jesus could tell a story just like that?

And where will one find the parallel to the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which might better be called the Parable of the Prodigal Father? For the point of the story is not that the son wasted his substance but that the father wasted his love: pouring it out with such utter lavishness upon the boy who has despised and left him, watching so eagerly for his return that he sees him afar off, runs to meet him, falls on his neck and kisses him, cuts short his apologies, gives him not only shoes for his feet but a ring for his hand, calls for the fatted calf and a feast to celebrate the return of one who has just finished devouring half the family living with harlots. "This my son," he cries, "was dead and is alive again; was lost and is found."

These are but a few illustrations of a characteristic ardent, vivid quality in Jesus’ teaching which no reader of the Synoptic Gospels can miss, and, we might add, which no writer of the Synoptic Gospels could have invented. It is not to be paralleled, whether in ancient or modern sources.

This quality is no mere matter of style. It belongs not simply to the expression of Jesus’ ideas, but to the ideas themselves. Indeed, one can say more than that: it belongs to Jesus himself. It is an accent of personality. When we sense its presence, it is like a tone of a man’s voice or a light in a man’s face, and we know that across the centuries we have for an instant seen Jesus and heard him speak.