Part 2: He was Known Still: Chapter 4
It is not uncommon to distinguish between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of theology -- between the "real" Jesus, who walked the ways of Palestine, and the beliefs about him which developed in the church -- and to suppose that within those two terms the whole meaning of Jesus in the early church is contained. But that way of analyzing the early significance of Jesus leaves out of account what is in some ways its most important element. For Jesus was not merely remembered and interpreted in the primitive church: he continued to be known there. And the key to understanding both memory and interpretation is lost if that fact is forgotten.
The fact itself is unmistakable. The Gospels are concerned, formally, with Jesus as remembered, but one who reads with even half an eye cannot escape the fact that for the Gospel writers Jesus is not merely a person remembered; he is not even, primarily, a remembered person interpreted; he is a person still known who is both remembered and interpreted. This is most obviously true for the writer of the Fourth Gospel, but it is almost as clear for the other three. But what in the nature of the case can be only implicit in the Gospels is quite explicit in the letters of Paul and in other parts of the New Testament.
Paul rarely speaks of the man Jesus. Indeed, he does this so rarely that many students of his letters have decided that he was not at all concerned about the " historical Jesus"; some have gone so far as to affirm that he did not even know of his existence. Even the less extreme of these positions is false, as I hope I have shown: Christ for Paul was the man devotedly and reverently remembered in the community. But there can be no doubt that this man, thus remembered, was also known as a living, present reality. And it is as such that Paul usually speaks of him. One could quote interminably from his letters in support of this point, but every reader of Paul will readily grant it. Later in this lecture we shall be considering more exactly what this living, present Jesus meant to Paul. At the moment we are concerned only with his reality.
There is every indication that Paul was not alone in thus regarding Jesus. The primitive church, for all its debt to the memory of Jesus, actually sprang out of the knowledge of him as alive after his passion. This fact every primitive strain in the New Testament makes quite clear. One may recognize that if Jesus of Nazareth had not been known and remembered in the company of his disciples, there could have been no knowledge of the resurrection, since in that case there would have been no one to receive that knowledge; but it is also true that without the knowledge of the resurrection the company of his disciples could never have become the Christian church. The primitive Christian community was not a memorial society with its eyes fastened on a departed master; it was a dynamic community created around a living and present Lord. Jesus was thought of the more tenderly because he had died; he continued to be thought of at all because he had risen again.
I have spoken of the resurrection as a fact, not as a belief; and we do not begin to think truly about it until we see it as such. The resurrection is a part of the concrete empirical meaning of Jesus, not the result of mere reflection upon that meaning. Beliefs were based upon the resurrection; it was not itself a belief. It was something given. It was a reality grasped in faith. It was the reality of all the concrete meaning of the man Christ Jesus recognized as present in the community after, and despite, his death. This knowledge of him as risen was as well established in the primitive community as was knowledge of him as a remembered person. And one could as well doubt the one as the other. The church, which remembered Jesus, also knew him still and it would have seemed arbitrary to take the memory and to reject the knowledge. The New Testament is quite as sure that Jesus still lives or lives again -- as that he lived at all. The resurrection was part and parcel of the whole event we know as Jesus Christ, and made the same claim to be considered a fact as any other element in that event. Any grounds for rejecting the resurrection would have been grounds for rejecting the fact of Jesus himself.
In making such a statement, it is important to make clear at once that by the "fact of Jesus" I mean more than the merely formal, external fact that an individual by that name had actually lived at a given time and place. Obviously that fact could have been established on other grounds than those which also supported the fact of the resurrection. The bare "historicity" of Jesus could be " proved" in a way the resurrection could not be. But as I sought to show in the opening pages of this book, this merely formal fact, this bare "historicity," has no importance. The "fact of Jesus," in any important and really true sense, was Jesus as he was known and remembered in the community, and the testimony upon which we must rely for any knowledge of this fact must be taken as equally valid testimony to the resurrection. Thus one who denies a priori that there was objective ground for the resurrection faith of early Christianity denies in effect the whole Gospel portrait of Jesus, for the knowledge of the living Christ after the crucifixion is altogether continuous, of a piece, with the memory of the human Jesus.
It is also important to recognize that the real meaning and ground of the resurrection faith in the primitive church was not particular items in the tradition nor particular views as to how Christ’s victory over death was accomplished. On this latter point various views were bound to develop, and these views, as well as the legendizing tendency, which is never absent from a growing tradition, were certain to affect the way in which the story of the resurrection was told. But the resurrection faith at no time rested upon a story; it would be less false -- although that does not mean it would be true -- to say that the story rested upon the faith. The resurrection faith rested upon something given within the community’s experience. The situation in the early church was not that Jesus was believed to be living because he was believed to have risen; it was rather that he was known to have risen because he was known as living.
As far as they go, the "story" of the resurrection and the formal evidence marshaled to support it tend to sustain this view. That evidence is of two kinds: the appearances of Jesus to his disciples and the empty tomb. There can be no doubt as to which is the more primitive. The earliest surviving defense" of the fact of the resurrection is that of Paul in I Corinthians. He cites the evidence which he had received:
He [Jesus] was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that he was seen by more than five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain until this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that he was seen by James, then by all the apostles.(I Cor. 15:5 ff.)
Paul does not mention the finding of the empty tomb, and it may be safely presumed that he does not know of it. Why otherwise should he omit so impressive a fact?
But if Paul recounts appearances but says nothing about the empty tomb, Mark, our next earliest source, tells of the empty tomb, but does not describe any appearances.(I do not share the suspicion, which goes back to ancient times, that Mark did not originally end with 16:8. The matter is fully discussed by R. H. Lightfoot in Locality and Doctrine in the Gospels (London and New York: Harper & brothers, 1938), pp. 1-48. To the earlier literature of the subject to which Lightfoot refers I would add the important article of Martin Rist, "Is Mark a Complete Gospel?" in the Anglican Theological Review, XIV  143 ff.) This does not mean either that Mark does not know about appearances or that he regards the empty tomb as intrinsically more impressive evidence of the resurrection. The young man arrayed in a white robe (presumably an angel) whom the women see in the open sepulcher tells them to say to Jesus’ disciples that they will see their Master in Galilee. There can be no doubt whatever that Mark knew (and knew his readers knew) that this promise had been fulfilled. Mark does not need to recount the appearances themselves: they were too well known. Like the good dramatist he was, he only points to them, preferring to end his book with the marvelously impressive fact which had only recently made its way into the tradition, or, if earlier, had not become widely known -- the empty tomb.
There are, besides Paul’s omission of this item, at least two other grounds for regarding it as relatively late, both of which appear when we compare Mark with the later Gospels. The first of these is the secrecy surrounding the empty tomb in Mark. The only persons who witnessed it said "nothing to anyone; for they were afraid." Here is Mark’s way of explaining why so striking a fact had not been known from the beginning. But when the later Gospels were written, the generation which had known the primitive tradition at first hand had passed, and the empty tomb seemed as early as any other part of the tradition. The explanation was no longer needed. This appears clearly when we compare the last three verses of Mark with the corresponding section of Matthew. The writer of Matthew is closely following Mark up to the middle of the last verse, but at that point he departs radically from his source:
And he [the "young man" ] saith unto them, Be not afraid: ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified: he is risen; he is not here; behold the place where they laid him. And go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you. And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulcher; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they anything to anyone; for they were afraid.
And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead; and, behold, he goeth before you into Galilee; there ye shall see him: lo, I have told you. And they departed quickly from the sepulcher with fear and great joy; and ran to bring his disciples word.
Mark’s Gospel manifestly appeared at a time when such a question might be asked as: "Why did we not hear of this finding of the empty tomb before? I heard Paul once, and a friend of mine once heard Peter, but we heard nothing of this." Mark answers: "They said nothing to anyone: for they were afraid." The question had become impossible and the answer unnecessary when Matthew and the other Gospels were written.
The same significance belongs to the fact that in Mark only certain obscure women see the empty tomb. It was Peter, James, John and other well known disciples of Jesus who were remembered to have first preached the resurrection. But they had spoken only of appearances, it was recalled, not of the empty tomb. This, Mark says in effect, was only because none of them had known of it. That knowledge was given only to some women and they, as we have seen, said nothing about it. But again, the explanation is not needed a little later. And so in Luke we are told that "certain of those who were with us" (24:24) also visited the empty tomb, and in the Fourth Gospel, more definitely, that Peter and another disciple saw it.
The purpose of these remarks is not to discredit the story of the finding of the empty sepulcher (although it cannot be denied that serious doubt is cast on it), but rather to point out that the primitive evidence for the resurrection was the actual presence of Jesus. The resurrection was not an inference from the empty tomb; if anything, the empty tomb was a later inference from the known fact of Christ living after his passion. Since he was alive, he must have left the sepulcher.
I have already cited the list of appearances to which Paul appeals. With this most primitive list others only partly agree. In Mark, as we have seen, there are no appearances. In Matthew, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene, "the other Mary," and the eleven. In Luke, he appears to the two disciples going to Emmaus, to Simon, and to the eleven. In John, he is seen by Mary Magdalene, by the eleven except Thomas, by the eleven with Thomas, and by several disciples at the Sea of Tiberias. The harmonizing of these lists is quite impossible. There are obvious reasons for trusting Paul’s as the most authentic, but there is no sufficient ground for placing unlimited confidence even in its accuracy. But the accuracy of such accounts is really unimportant. The knowledge of the resurrection never rested upon such accounts only or as such; it rested upon what was recognized to be the presence of Jesus within the community. It is significant in this connection that although Paul recounts the appearances which he has "received" and expects the Corinthians to be impressed by this evidence, nevertheless he did not himself accept the fact of the resurrection until Jesus appeared to him also. Many to whom such appearances were not vouchsafed were aware of the presence of the Lord Jesus in the fellowship. It was in the experience of that spiritual reality that the faith of the resurrection really consisted.
Must not this be Paul’s meaning in those frequently debated words, "The Lord is the Spirit"? It is sometimes claimed that Paul is here using the term "Lord" in its Septuagint sense to refer to Yahweh or God. That obviously is possible, but seems hardly probable. Paul pretty consistently reserves the title " Lord" for Jesus, to whom he tells us God expressly gave it at the moment of the resurrection and exaltation. I believe that in this disputed passage the apostle is simply identifying the Lord Jesus with the Spirit, known in the Christian fellowship. He can call this Spirit the " Spirit of Christ," the " Spirit of Jesus Christ," the " Spirit of the Lord," or the "Spirit of the Son of God." (In I Cor. 15-45. Paul says, speaking of Christ, "The last Adam was made a quickening Spirit.") Why can he not also say, "The Lord is the Spirit." or "The Spirit is the Lord"? Here is adumbrated the doctrine of the relation of Christ and the Spirit which the Fourth Gospel was to state more explicitly:
I will pray the Father and he will give you another Helper, that he may abide with you forever; even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him; but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you and shall be in you. I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world seeth me no more; but ye shall see me. (14:16 ff.)
Here Christ is identified with the Spirit. This is no late development in Christian reflection; it might be truer to say that such an identification cannot bear much reflection -- which is one reason for the later elaboration of the doctrine of the Trinity. This identification of the risen, living Christ with the Spirit goes back to the moment of the church’s creation. The church was born of the Spirit; and that Spirit was from the beginning recognized to be the presence and power of the living Jesus. It is in that fact (not in any appearances, merely as such) that the resurrection faith was securely based.
And it is based there still, and will always be. Our faith in the resurrection is far more -- indeed, radically other -- than acceptance of the ancient accounts of Jesus’ appearances to his disciples. There is no reason to reject these accounts. However one may conceive of the psychological character of these experiences, there can be no doubt that they occurred. But such appearances by themselves prove nothing: they may be explained in purely subjective terms. As a matter of fact, we are certain to explain them so unless we ourselves "know him and the power of his resurrection."(Phil. 3:10.) But if we do thus know him, we cease to have a priori either any ground for doubting the objective character of the appearances as such or any imperious reason for maintaining it. For if our faith in the resurrection has any vitality or validity, it is nothing less than the conviction that there is even now present and knowable within the Christian fellowship through "the Holy Spirit, which is given unto us," the full concrete personal meaning of "Jesus Christ and him crucified." This is a mystery -- yea, a miracle -- but to deny it means denying not only what is essential and central in the Christian theological position but also what has been for twenty centuries the most intimate and secure conviction of Christian devotion. No one can hope to understand the New Testament or the early church who begins by assuming that this conviction was mistaken. The early church’s knowledge of the living Christ cannot be separated, except by the most arbitrary procedures, from its knowledge of the crucified Jesus. The same person who was remembered was known still.
When we inquire further as to the concrete meaning of Jesus, after his death, within the life of the early Christian community, we find ourselves at once forced to deal with two theological issues of fundamental importance: the nature of the church and the nature of revelation; for the essential and permanent significance of Jesus lies in the fact that he was the center and head of the church and that he was the central figure in that revelation of God which we have received and by which we are saved. In other words, he was, as Acts says, "both Lord and Christ." We do not need to share the apocalyptic faith of the primitive church to understand and accept this statement. The rest of this lecture will be devoted to elaborating it.
I spoke just now of the nature of the church and the nature of revelation as being two issues, but they are so closely related to each other that they may almost be dealt with as one. Certainly they cannot be treated separately. This is true because of the double-sided fact that the revelation took place within the church and the church was constituted by the revelation: without the church there could have been no revelation, but without the revelation the church itself could not have come into being.
When we say that without the church there could have been no revelation, we mean, to speak more accurately, that there could have been no revelation without a community prepared to receive it. This follows partly from the fact that revelation has by definition a subjective as well as an objective side. To reveal something is to make it known -- that is, known by someone else. Even God could not reveal what is not seen, any more than he could give what is not received. But involved also in this recognition of the intimate connection of revelation and the church is the fact that the primary medium of revelation, according to both Christian and Hebrew understanding, is events, not words, and that the content of revelation is God himself, not ideas (however true) about God.
This understanding of revelation is of the greatest importance for our thinking about many matters. It offers the key, for example, to a true evaluation of the Bible. The Bible is not itself the revelation of God; it is the record or report of the revelation. It is a human book and has in it the marks of human finitude and sin. But, for all that, it is absolutely irreplaceable and is of supreme and unique importance. This is true, not because it contains, as it does, more exalted religious ideas than any other book, or expresses them better (this would be an explanation of the Bible’s superiority, not of its uniqueness), but because it stands in a unique relation to some unique and supremely significant events. The Bible is an account of some events in which God acted to make himself known, as those events happened (that is, as they were received and understood) within the community of Israel and, later, the community of Christ. It is thus, paradoxically, both less and greater than the church. It is less than the church because it is a product of the church and can be understood only in the context which the life of the church provides; it is greater than the church because it is, by and large, the only record we have of the events which not only brought the church into being but also through which its reality must be continually renewed. The Bible is not most truly described as being the Word of God, or even as " containing" the Word of God; rather, it points to, is a response to, the Word of God. For the Word of God is not a word at all (much less a vast number of words) ; it is an act. The revelation of God is God himself acting within events and making himself known to those who are able to witness the events (and therefore among whom alone they can happen) as a concrete, ineffable Reality.
"Making himself known," I say; not imparting truths about himself. The revelation of the grace of God, for example, is not the disclosure of the truth that God is gracious; it is God disclosing himself as gracious. There is all the difference between the abstract and the concrete, between ideas and reality, in these two statements.
To be sure, ideas are certain to be associated with the revelation. But the ideas, merely as such, are ours, not God’s. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and even revelation cannot make them so. Our religious ideas are our ways of interpreting the Reality, which alone is given in revelation. Archbishop Temple writes:
Faith is not the holding of correct doctrines, but personal fellowship with the living God. Correct doctrines will both express this, assist it and issue from it; incorrect doctrine will misrepresent this and hinder or prevent it. Doctrine is of an importance too great to be exaggerated, but its place is secondary, not primary. I do not believe in any creed, but I use certain creeds to express, to conserve, and to deepen my belief in God. What is offered to man’s apprehension in any specific revelation is not truth concerning God, but the living God Himself. (BEGINNING OF LONG FOOTNOTE: Nature, Man and God [London and New York: Macmillan Co., 1935], p. 322. See also Temple’s essay in the symposium, edited by John Baillie and Hugh Martin, Revelation [Glasgow and New York: Macmillan Co., 1937], from which I quote the following paragraph: "What is the nature of the ‘object’ in which the revelation is offered? Is it a Truth? -- that is, something primarily belonging to the ‘subject’ though having application to the object world. Or to put the question in another way, does God chiefly give his revelation by introducing ideas -- whether convictions or determinations -- into the mind of the prophet, or by guiding external events in which the prophet sees His hand? The question is of great practical importance for religion. For if God chiefly follows the way of introducing ideas, then revelation itself can be formulated in propositions which are indubitably true. But if He chiefly follows the way of guiding external events [and this, needless to say, is Temples view], these constitute the primary vehicle of the revelation; and events cannot be fully formulated in propositions; the event is always richer than any description of it" [pp. 100 ff.]. [Both of these quotations are made by permission of the Macmillan Company, publishers.]
(LONG FOOTNOTE CONTINUES: The same view is expressed in the very beautiful and moving book by John Baillie, Our Knowledge of God (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1939) . Baillie writes (p. 175) : "Revelation essentially consists not in the communication of truths about God but in the self-revelation of the divine Personality, the truths about Him being abstracted by ourselves from the concrete reality with which we thus become acquainted.’ [Quoted by permission of Charles Scribner’s Sons, publishers.] END OF FOOTNOTE) Now Jesus Christ is an event in and through which "the living God Himself" is offered for our apprehension.(Is not this near to what the Fourth Gospel is saying in 5:39: "Ye search the Scriptures for in them ye think ye have eternal life, but these are they that testify of me, and ye will not come to me that ye may have life" ?) Sometimes Christian scholars have been greatly exercised to prove that in Christ we have a new conception of God. It is a hard point to make and is of doubtful truth. But whether true or not, the significance of Jesus in revelation does not depend upon it. The revelation of God in Christ is not the imparting of a new idea of God; it is a fresh unveiling of the Reality to which ideas, new and old, with greater or less adequacy, apply.
This can be illustrated from the teaching of Jesus. Controversy has often been waged around the question of the originality of Jesus’ teaching. Did Jesus introduce new ideas about God, about the meaning of human life and history, about man’s ethical obligations, or were his ideas derived from his Jewish heritage? Many Christian interpreters, feeling that an issue of critical importance was involved in that question, have defended the originality of Jesus’ ideas as though they were protecting the most precious tenet of their faith. Other interpreters, however, both Jewish and non-Jewish, locating "parallels" to all of Jesus’ teachings (taken severally) in Hebrew or Jewish literature, have denied his originality and, by implication, the reality of any new revelation in him. Many exceptions could be taken to each position; but both are alike wrong in this: both presuppose a false conception of the meaning of revelation. Both assume that it consists in the imparting of new ideas. Now, as I had occasion to hint in an earlier lecture. Jesus did not bring new ideas in the formal sense: the oneness, holiness and ultimate sovereignty of God, his love and care for all his creatures, his requirement of righteousness, his willingness to receive the penitent, our duty of compassion toward all men, especially the needy and helpless -- these ideas, merely as ideas, were familiar within Judaism. Why should we expect that this would not be true, or want it otherwise? To be sure, Jesus presented these ideas -- especially some of them -- with a new emphasis and with a new grace and power; and if the particular manner in which ideas are conceived and expressed is taken into account, the originality of Jesus’ mind is manifest to all but the least discerning. But the greatest significance of Jesus as a teacher does not lie in the novelty of his ideas or even in the new ways in which he felt and expressed old ideas.
That significance lies in the undeniable fact that the God who "made known his ways unto Moses, his acts unto the children of Israel," revealed himself as a concrete reality afresh in and through the words of this man, who "spoke as never man spoke." As Jesus spoke, ideas became vital and concrete; what had been for many merely formal truth became living reality. Men who had long known that God was righteous, knew, as they listened, the reality of God as righteous. Men who were familiar with the idea that God was merciful and would receive the penitent, realized that in Jesus God was being merciful and was receiving the penitent. The words of Jesus were a part of the deed of God.
And if this is true of his words, it is much more clearly true of his whole life as a person. In and through him God manifested himself afresh in a mighty creative (and therefore redemptive) act. It was not a new God who thus acted, or an unknown God; it was the God who had called the Hebrew community into existence and had revealed himself continuously in the history of the Jewish nation. That same God revealed himself again -- and supremely. However we explain it, the God of all righteousness and love did make himself known with mighty, unprecedented power in Jesus -- living, dying, risen -- and arguments about the novelty of this or that element in his teaching do not touch the point at all.
But Jesus did not live in a vacuum; he lived in a community: the larger community of Israel, and the smaller, more intimate community which formed itself about him and of which he was himself a part. If that group had not been formed, not only would the revelation not have been perpetuated, it could not have taken place at all. What we have in the Gospels is not merely Jesus as he was, but Jesus as he was known in the circle of his associates and their successors. It was in Jesus as known in the church, both before his death and afterwards, that the fresh activity of God among men, which we call the revelation in Christ, first occurred. It was in the fellowship that men had with Jesus and with one another around Jesus -- living, dying, and alive for evermore -- that God drew wondrously near as grace and truth. (BEGINNING LONG FOOTNOTE: In my own thinking about these matters I have been greatly indebted to my friend, Charles Clayton Morrison. His book, What is Christianity? [Chicago: Willett, Clark & Co., 1940], lays a powerful emphasis upon the concrete character of revelation and contains any number of passages in which that idea is presented with extraordinary brilliancy of conception and style. May I further emphasize and clarify the point I am endeavoring to make by quoting two of them:
(LONG FOOTNOTE CONTINUES: "The revelation of God in history is not the dictation of truth to men’s minds; it is divine action in the communal field of events. For history is just this field or continuum of events. Revelation is not a truth uttered, but a deed done. God does not perform the deed and in addition dictate man’s response to the deed. If that were the method of his revelation, we should have to charge God with arbitrary favoritism in revealing himself to one particular community rather than to another. Indeed, if this were God’s way of revealing himself, there could be no reason why he should not reveal himself to all mankind simultaneously. But this is not God’s way. Revelation presupposes as its complement the human capacity and disposition to receive the revelation. And this involves man’s freedom and intelligence. In revealing himself, God does not violate the freedom of man’s will or of his intelligence. Here as every. where he stands at man’s door and knocks, in all revelation there is a divine part and there is a human part, an event or an activity and an interpretation or a response. The living community which has once made a corporate response to the divine revelation does so with an ideology of its own, and it approaches each new revelatory event with an ideology which is as human in its origin and nature as any body of human thought can be. The ideology is man’s contribution to the concrete revelation. . . .God’s revelation does not consist of any absolute deposit of truth of which the community bearing the divine revelation is the custodian. The community is the divine revelation, because it is the creative work of God" [pp. 59-60.]
(MORE OF LONG FOOTNOTE: "Not the Bible, but the living church, the body of Christ, is the true Word of God. His word is not an idea, nor a body of ideas, nor a book containing ideas: God’s word is God’s deed, it is not man’s commentary on God’s deed, nor man’s commentary on his human experience of God’s deed. The Word of God is the deed itself, the actual creative working of Cod in a specific order of human community in which he has revealed himself in history" (p. 208).
(STILL MORE OF LONG FOOTNOTE: I find myself unable to accept Dr. Morrison’s thesis at only one point, although that is a point which, I fear, he would regard as an important one. It seems to me that his absolute identification of the revelation with the church is not accurate: I would say that the revelation took place within the church and is inconceivable apart from it, but I find it impossible to say, as he frequently does, that the revelation is the church. But this difference, which may be less real and important than I think, does not obscure my appreciation of the truth and brilliance of Dr. Morrison’s discussion of the concreteness of revelation and of its inseparable connection with the community. END OF LONG FOOTNOTE)
But if it is true that there could have been no revelation without the church, it is also true that there would have been no church without the revelation. The revelation constituted the church. As the revelation progressed, the community became more and more distinctively the church.
A good case could be made for the view that the church began when Israel began and that it will not be truly itself until the kingdom of God shall have come. But one can hardly doubt that there have been two supreme moments in the life of the Christian church: one was the moment when Jesus called about him a company of disciples, and the other, the moment when, after his death, he became known to them as alive and with them forever. If I were forced to name one or the other of these two moments as that in which the Christian church in its distinctive character began, I should probably name the second of them, for it was only then that the community became fully conscious of itself. But the resurrection could not have occurred if the church in some real sense had not already come into existence. For the resurrection was not simply Jesus alive after his passion; it was Jesus alive and also known and accessible within the community prepared to recognize and receive him.
lie was known there as Savior and Lord. Although a discussion of these terms as they were used in the early church may appear to belong more appropriately later, when we shall be considering specifically how Jesus was interpreted, some attention to their meaning is necessary here. For underneath all the explanations of why and how men might be saved through Christ was the fact that they were actually saved through him. And underneath all the interpretations of Jesus’ lordship was the fact that he was in truth the Lord. May I speak briefly of both of these terms, reserving fuller discussion for later chapters.
First, then, Jesus was known as Savior. I do not mean that he was called by that name: he may have been, or may not have been, at any particular time or place. I mean that the revealing act of God within the life of the community, which, as we have seen, was recognized as being continuous with what took place through the life and words of Jesus and which could be referred to as" Christ," or" the Spirit," or in other ways -- this act was a saving act. The perennially deepest needs of men are for forgiveness and for new life. Men are not always aware of this fact -- which suggests, as Paul explains, the function and value of law in the spiritual life. But the need is persistent and universal. Man is in bondage to sin and to death, unable either to justify himself or to emancipate himself. This was true in the first century -- and among Jews as well as Greeks -- as it is true still. Now the simple, but miraculous, fact was that within the early Christian community forgiveness and moral renewal were actually found. Men knew themselves to be forgiven and to have been brought into a new relationship with God in which moral resources were available to them of which they had not dreamed before. They had received the "adoption." A new Spirit within them (not their own, and yet more intimately and truly theirs than if it had been their own) cried, "Abba, Father!" This Spirit bore witness within them that they were the sons and heirs of God. All of this had happened ‘ through Christ." This was "the power of his resurrection."
The reason this effect followed upon Jesus’ life and death was a matter for reflection and speculation, as we shall see; but the effect itself was a fact of immediate experience. Because of the events summed up and designated in the term "Christ" (that is, Jesus remembered and still known), the whole situation of man in his relation with God (and therefore with himself and his fellows) had been profoundly changed. Reconciliation (atonement, community) was possible as it had not been possible before. Jesus was the Savior.
He was also the Lord. The Greek term "Lord" is highly ambiguous, as were also the corresponding Aramaic terms. In its primary meaning the term referred to anyone with authority over another, as, for example, the master of a slave; but use in many connections had greatly enriched that original meaning: the word might be employed as a simple title of respect, much like our " Sir," or it might occur in an address to God. In the sacramental mystery cults, which were so influential in the Mediterranean world of the first century, the term (or its equivalent, " Lady" ) was regularly used to designate the deity who was believed to preside over the cult. It has often been argued that the Christian application of the word to Jesus derives from this pagan practice. It would be natural to suppose that early Gentile Christians, familiar with the mystery cults -- perhaps even former members of one or another of them -- would interpret the lordship of Jesus in ways determined, at least in part, by their previous experiences. But there is every indication that the term "Lord " was in use within the church before Gentiles in large numbers came in and therefore before the influence of the mysteries could have been felt. ( See S. J. Case, "Kúpios as a Title for Christ," Journal of Biblical Literature, XXVI (1907) ,151 ff.; and The Evolution of Early Christianity, pp. 116 ff. See also B. W. Bacon, "Jesus as Lord." in Jesus the Son of God (New Haven: Yale University Press. 1911) ,pp. 53 ff.; and, on the other side, W. Bousset, Kyrios Christos (Göttingen, 1913).
The fact that the term had been used to translate the name of Yahweh in the Septuagint also undoubtedly had its effect. We have already observed that from quite early times the Christians were accustomed to read occurrences of "the Lord" in the Greek Scriptures as allusions to Christ. But again, it is clear that the use of the title "Lord" as applied to Jesus did not originate in this way, since he was apparently first called by that name in Palestine itself, where the Bible was read in Hebrew and the Septuagint was unknown.
Whatever technical theological connotations the term "Lord" acquired, its original intention was to acknowledge Jesus Christ as the Master of life and the center and head of the community. No reader of the New Testament can miss the fact that such in very truth he was. His remembered words and example had unquestionable authority. His will as it made itself known to the community was final and decisive. Devotion to him was the very life of the church. The community offered its prayers and adoration to him, and knew that in doing so it was offering them through him to God.
Principal Jacks has used as the title of one of his stimulating little books on the religious life the phrase, "the lost radiance of the Christian religion," and no one, I dare say, would need to read the book to know what that phrase is intended to convey. For if anything is clear to the average modern Christian with even a casual knowledge of the New Testament, it is, first, that "radiant" is hardly the word he would think of to describe his own religious life or that of his contemporaries, and secondly, that no other term characterizes so well the life of the primitive church. According to one of the Gospels, Jesus said to his disciples just before the crucifixion, "My joy I leave with you." Whether he made such a promise or not, there can be no doubt of its fulfillment. Among the most striking characteristics of the earliest Christian communities was their joy, their radiant sense of adequacy. They had overcome the world.
This joyous consciousness of victory pervades in every part the documents which the early church produced and in which its life is reflected. Scores of passages come to our minds: "Joy unspeakable and full of glory "; "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he hath visited and redeemed his people "; "Thanks be to God who giveth us the victory"; "Mine eyes have seen thy salvation"; "We are more than conquerors" ; "We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God" ; "Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift"; "Thanks be to God who causeth us to triumph in Christ"; "God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness hath shined in our hearts." These are only a few of the passages in which the early community attempted to express a shared experience which lay beyond the power of language to describe. It was joy unspeakable. And in the power of that joy they went forth to possess a world which they believed had already been conquered for them.
When one seeks the ground of this joyous confidence, one does not find it, needless to say, in any outward circumstance or in any spectacular achievement. To the average intelligent pagan of the first century, if we might assume for a moment that he was acquainted with any of the scattered churches, nothing could have seemed more absurd than the happiness of these Christians, not many of whom, as Paul says, were wise, mighty or noble. It was not their numbers, wealth, social position, nor their intellectual or moral virtue, which made of a dozen or so discouraged disciples of a slain and discredited leader the most creative group in human history, a living fire which set the whole Mediterranean world aflame.
If we had asked the early Christians themselves about the source of their joy and power, they would have answered without any hesitation that it lay not in themselves at all -- not in their attainments, not even in their faith -- but in God. "God hath visited and redeemed his people." A new epoch in human history has begun, they would have said; the God of all creation has manifested himself in mighty acts of righteousness and mercy. Because of these acts we know him to be real, accessible, and infinitely gracious, and in that knowledge we find the promise of both the coming of his kingdom and the ultimate fulfillment of our own lives: "Through the tender mercy of our God, the dayspring from on high hath visited us, to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace." (Luke 1:78 f.) It was not something they had thought, but something God had done, which the first Christian preachers proclaimed.
Evidences of this gracious and mighty activity of God they would have found abundantly in the history of Israel. But it had occurred supremely in an event of which they were themselves witnesses, Jesus Christ the Lord. As we shall see, they may well have differed in the terms they used to interpret this experience -- certainly Christians a little later did -- but of the experience itself they would have had no doubt: God had come near in Christ. He had manifested himself clearly, unmistakably, powerfully, in the life of this man, whom their own eyes, strange to say, had seen; whom their own hands, incredibly, had touched; and whom now they knew as a divine reality within the fellowship which he had called into being and of which he was the head and center.
This awareness of the actual presence of the love and power of God as manifested in Christ is the "radiance of the Christian religion." In so far as it has been lost, the church has become futile and impotent. The recovery of it means something more and other than a return to the terms and symbols of the New Testament. It means a fresh apprehension of the working of God in history: a fresh and vivid realization of the God who in Christ revealed himself to men long ago and who, still in Christ, stands ready to make himself known in gracious power also to us and to our generation.