Chapter 3: The Earthly Life of Him Through Whom Christianity Began

Christianity Through the Ages
by Kenneth Scott Latourette

Chapter 3: The Earthly Life of Him Through Whom Christianity Began

Christianity begins with a historical figure in a distinct historical setting. The setting was Palestine at the time when the Roman Empire was in its youth. Palestine had been incorporated into that empire. It was seething with the unrest against Roman rule which within a generation of the crucifixion broke out in a revolt that was crushed by Roman arms. Among the Jewish people were a number of religious currents. A clique of worldly Sadducees controlled the central shrine, the Temple in Jerusalem. They were intent on maintaining their hold and identified it with the welfare of the Jewish people. The Pharisees, spiritual heirs of the movement to preserve the Jewish faith against the compromise with Hellenism which had followed the conquests of Alexander the Great and his successors and which under the Maccabees had become political, were adamant in their efforts to preserve loyalty to what they regarded as the law given through Moses and defended by the great prophets. Minority ascetic movements flourished. Among them were the Essenes and the monastic community, presumably Essene, which was brought to light in the 1940’s and 1950’s by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, documents produced by them and preserved in the dry air of caves where their writers lived.

For our first-hand knowledge of the life of Jesus we are dependent chiefly on the Four Gospels which head the New Testament. They arose from the need to instruct inquirers and neophytes in the early Christian communities. Made up predominantly of the remembered sayings and acts of Jesus and of accounts of the crucifixion and resurrection, the Gospels are not formal biographies as the twentieth century understands biography. However, they give a vivid picture of Jesus, of His teachings, and of His death and resurrection. Composed chiefly from the reminiscences of eye-witnesses and intimate companions of Jesus, they enable us to know Him as well as though we had been in the inner circle of His disciples. In addition, in letters of early Christians are fragments of His teachings and especially of impressions which He made on those who knew him best.

We need here to rehearse, and that briefly, only such features of the story as determine the nature and course of Christianity. Jesus was reared in Nazareth, a hill town in Galilee. We know few details of His life before His emergence into the public eye. From His sayings and parables we can be sure that He was a keen observer of the life around Him and of the beauties of the rural scene that lay spread below Him on the plain of Esdraelon. He had learned to read, was a diligent student of the sacred books of His people, and worshipped regularly in the local synagogue. Presumably Joseph, the husband of Mary, died before her son began His public career, for we never hear of him after the childhood of Jesus -- except that fellow townsmen remembered him as the supposed father. Obviously the nativity story as told in Matthew’s Gospel could have come only from Joseph, just as that in Luke’s Gospel bears all the marks of having Mary as its source -- and, incidentally, provides a most illuminating picture of Mary’s characteristics. The home in which Jesus was reared was deeply religious. As we gather from the names of those who are called His brothers, it was in the Maccabean tradition of loyalty to the traditions of His people. The one concrete glimpse which we are given of His childhood discloses a highly intelligent lad who was already beginning to be aware of His mission.

We must remember that across the centuries the relation of the divine and the human in Jesus has been a mystery which Christians have sought to penetrate. They were early convinced that He was God incarnate, that in Him the eternal Word had become flesh. They were also certain that He was fully human. Thus the Epistle to the Hebrews, which begins by declaring that the Son was appointed by God to be the heir of all things, was the express image of God, and upholds the universe by His word of power, also insists that in every respect He was made like His brethren, that He suffered, was tempted as men are tempted, and "learned obedience by the things that He suffered." As we shall see later, a formula, that of Chalcedon, which the majority of Christians have accepted declares that Jesus Christ was "perfect in Godhead and perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man," in whom the two natures, divine and human, were not "separated into two persons" but were preserved and concurred in one person.

What has been called the public ministry began dramatically. John the Baptist, who we are told was related by blood to Jesus, was preaching the impending judgement of God, urging repentance and moral reform, and baptizing in the Jordan River those who responded. Jesus, then about thirty years of age, was baptized. Presumably He sought the rite as an act of dedication, not of repentance, for, significantly, although He had a keenly sensitive conscience and urged his followers to repent, we have only one slight hint, and that capable of another interpretation, that He thought of Himself as less than perfect. The baptism was accompanied by a sudden and profound conviction of His peculiar relation to God. As a boy He had been partly aware of it, but now it came upon Him with such force that He was impelled to seek solitude to discern its meaning. Deep inner struggle followed and from it came a clear conviction about what that relation entailed. He won through to the knowledge that the relation did not exempt Him from the limitations common to mankind, that He must not compromise with evil to achieve worthy objectives, and that His reliance must always be entirely on God.

From His experience in the wilderness Jesus emerged, we are told, so matured that those with whom He had grown up in Nazareth could not believe He was the one whom they had known. He began preaching and teaching. His theme was the Kingdom of God. He announced that the Kingdom of God was at hand and, indeed, already present, although not as yet consummated. As He saw it, this was good news, news so wonderful that those who were gripped by it would give up all that they had to enter the Kingdom. Membership in the Kingdom demanded a complete shifting of values. Even to recognize the Kingdom what amounted to a new birth was essential -- entrance to it could be only by a change in perspective and purpose which could best be described as being born anew. That new birth was wrought by the Spirit, Who had come upon Jesus at His baptism. To prepare for it repentance, "a complete change of mind," was an inescapable prerequisite. Entrance must be by striving which might have in it agony. But it meant eternal life, life with God in fellowship with Christ. That life was marked by attainment to high ethical standards -- among them complete purity of heart, unswerving honesty, outgoing love, even for one’s enemies, and being perfect as God is perfect.

Yet Jesus was not a legalist. As He saw it, the kind of life demanded by the Kingdom is not a meticulous observance of set rules. That may lead to pride and self-righteousness, and Jesus had nothing but scorn for the self-righteous. He would not let rules, such as the strict observance of the Sabbath which had been one of the marks of those who had resisted Hellenizing tendencies, stand in the way of the welfare of individuals.

Jesus had a great yearning for the sick, the consciously unrighteous, and the underprivileged. He possessed remarkable powers of physical healing, the exercise of which was to Him one indication that the Kingdom of God was arriving. So far as our records enable us to know Him, He was at times physically weary but was never ill. He sought the wayward and those whom He described as lost. Through Him moral and spiritual transformation was wrought in harlots and gouging tax-collectors.

Jesus did not dodge evil. He recognized it and fought it, especially as it injured individuals. He advanced no philosophic or theological reason for its existence. One of His parables, that of the field planted with good seed and in which an enemy sowed weeds, seems to indicate His belief that both good and evil would continue to the end of time, both growing and reaching larger dimensions. Yet Jesus had no doubt of the ultimate triumph of good and the destruction of evil.

Jesus did not actively engage in the political struggles of his day. That is all the more significant in view of the seething currents which were soon to break out in futile resistance to the rule of Rome. Jesus clearly foresaw that disaster -- as any level-headed resident of Palestine should have done. By a tragic irony He was crucified on the charge, palpably false, that He had sought to stir up revolt.

What Jesus did, rather, was to offer His people another way, the only possible one consistent with His convictions; if followed, it would have averted the fateful outcome of the Roman-Jewish tensions. He offered it with the full realization that it would not be followed.

The way which Jesus offered to the Jews arose from His conception of His mission, reached only after intense thought and prayer and with much inward struggle. The title given to Him was Christ, the anointed of the Lord, or, in Aramaic and Hebrew, the Messiah. Various meanings had been given the term by Jewish leaders and in popular Jewish thought. In general, they included the reestablishment of the kingdom which had had David as its most revered monarch, and through that kingdom a world-embracing regime of righteousness and peace. In the day in which Jesus lived, among the devout Jews the hope of the early appearance of the Messiah was widespread. Jesus was affected by that hope, especially since in His infancy, so we are told, He was greeted as the instrument for the establishment of the kingdom, and in His public ministry His healings and His teaching, given with a sense of authority, stimulated many to hail Him as the Messiah. Precisely what went on in His mind we can probably never know fully. From the records, we can be confident that Jesus refused to fit into any of the stereotypes which contemporaries had of the Messiah. He had come to the conviction that the mission given Him by His Father differed basically from the popular conceptions -- even those held by His immediate disciples. He saw that the road assigned him led inevitably to the cross and to apparent complete frustration. Here seems to have been a conclusion first reached in the temptations which followed His baptism. We have a hint of it -- and of the continuing inner struggle by which it was confirmed -- in the reported sharp rebuke to Peter when that bewildered and loyal friend expressed his horror that the role of the Messiah must be climaxed by the cross. Here may be the reason for the fashion which Jesus chose for His final entry into the city, humble and without an armed company to support Him. Here, too, may be a clue to the report that when He approached Jerusalem on that fateful visit Jesus wept over it, saying that even then it might know what made for peace, but that it was blind and was faced with complete destruction. Jesus was well aware that the response which greeted Him could only be the prelude to His seeming failure. Possibly this is part of the reason for His agony in Gethsemane. He knew that He had failed in His appeal. But He could even then have escaped and, accompanied by the eleven, have gone to the other side of the Jordan to the hills, which were clearly seen in the light of the full Pascal moon. There, temporarily relieved of his enemies, He might teach until at least some would understand Him. Should He do so, and there continue His mission? On Him, too, rested the burden of man’s sin and the tragedy which that entailed for mankind. The conviction He had previously reached was reaffirmed, perhaps because when He saw the approach of the lights of the soldiers brought by his betrayer He knew that escape was impossible.

At His crucifixion, we are told, Jesus prayed: "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do." He was stating a fact, for the priests, Pilate, the multitude, and the soldiers were not aware that they were committing man’s greatest crime, the crucifixion of the Son of God. Yet in His plea for their forgiveness Jesus was exemplifying the love of God which had expressed itself in the incarnation. Here, too, is much of the history of Christianity. Man has been blindly and tragically misusing God’s greatest gift. That gift had come through the self-giving love of the infinite God. Through misusing it men have brought on themselves the judgement of God.

The issue is made the more poignant because Jesus had not taken the steps which human wisdom would have dictated to give permanence to His mission. He had written no book in which to record His teachings. So far as our records permit us to know, He had given little or no thought to a continuing organization. He had chosen twelve to be with Him, seemingly symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel and with the hint that here was to be a new Israel. But, if so, none of the twelve really understood Him. When one of the eleven impulsively sought to fight to prevent His arrest, Jesus commanded him to put up his sword. All our records unite in saying that the friends of Jesus were completely discouraged and felt themselves impotent to prevent the tragedy. We read that two of the wealthy and deeply religious intelligentsia who had hoped that in Jesus might be fulfilled the dream long cherished by the devout in Israel could do no more than ask for His dead body and give it decent burial.

Yet the records also agree that seeming failure was what to the faithful became thrilling triumph. The faithful were assured that the crucifixion, far from ending all, was the necessary preliminary to the resurrection. Here was not the end of the life they had known but a radiant life, a continuation of Him Whom they had known and loved, with the assurance that through faith in Him all men might have the victorious, self-giving life which they saw in Him. Soon, fulfilling the promise which Jesus is said to have given them, the Spirit took possession of them, sent by Jesus and the Father, Who began to bring the fruits in them which they had already seen in Jesus.

In the life, teachings, seeming frustration by the cross, resurrection, and transforming power of the Spirit is the epitome of the history which is to be our theme in the chapters that follow. Here, as the Christian sees it, is the fashion in which God has dealt with men and continues to deal with them. Here, if he is correct, is the clue to the history not only of Christianity but of all mankind as well. Again and again we will see God’s good gifts perverted by men’s blindness and sin to work incalculable harm in individuals, in groups, and in entire peoples and nations. Repeatedly we shall see issuing from the Spirit Who is inseparably related to the Father and the Son healing for individuals, for segments of mankind, and for mankind as a whole.