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The Life Of Jesus Of Nazareth by Rush Rhees

VII The Messianic Call

Matt. iii.13 TO iv.11; Mark i.9-13; Luke iii.21, 22; iv.1-13; John i.30-34

85. In the circle about John all classes of the people were represented: Pharisees and Sadducees, jealous of innovation and apprehensive of popular excitement; publicans and soldiers, interested in the new preacher or touched in conscience; outcasts who came in penitence, and devout souls in consecration. The wonder of the new message was carried throughout the land and brought great multitudes to the Jordan. Jesus in Nazareth heard it, and recognized in John a revival of the long-silent prophetic voice. The summons appealed to his loyalty to God's truth, and after the multitudes had been baptized (Luke iii.21) he too sought the prophet of the wilderness.

86. The connection which Luke mentions (i.36) between the families of Jesus and John had not led to any intimacy between the two young men. John certainly did not know of his kinsman's mission (John i.31), nor was his conception of the Messiah such that he would look for its fulfilment in one like Jesus (Matt. iii.10-12). One thing, however, was clear as soon as they met, -- John recognized in Jesus one holier than himself (Matt. iii.14). With a prophet's spiritual insight he read the character of Jesus at a glance, and although that character did not prove him to be the Messiah, it prepared John for the revelation which was soon to follow.

87. The reply of Jesus to the unwillingness of John to give him baptism (Matt. iii.15) was an expression of firm purpose to do God's will; the absence of any confession of sin is therefore all the more noticeable. In all generations the holiest men have been those most conscious of imperfection, and in John's message and baptism confession and repentance were primary demands; yet Jesus felt no need for repentance, and asked for baptism with no word of confession. But for the fact that the total impression of his life begat in his disciples the conviction that |he did no sin| (I. Pet. ii.22; compare John viii.46; II. Cor. v.21), this silence of Jesus would offend the religious sense. Jesus, however, had no air of self-sufficiency, he came to make surrender and |to fulfil all-righteousness| (Matt. iii.15). It was the positive aspect of John's baptism that drew him to the Jordan. John was preaching the coming of God's kingdom. The place held by the doctrine of that kingdom in the later teaching of Jesus makes it all but certain that his thought had been filled with it for many years. In his reading of the prophets Jesus undoubtedly emphasized the spiritual phases of their promises, but it is not likely that he had done much criticising of the ideas held by his contemporaries before he came to John. As already remarked he seems to have been quicker to discover his affinity with the older truth than to be conscious of the novelty of his own ways of apprehending it (Matt. v.17). When, then, Jesus heard John's call for consecration to the approaching kingdom he recognized the voice of duty, and he sought the baptism that he might do all that he could to |make ready the way of the Lord.|

88. This act of consecration on Jesus' part was one of personal obedience. There were no crowds present (Luke iii.21), and his thoughts were full of prayer. It was an experience which concerned his innermost life with God, and it called him to communion with heaven like that in which he sought for wisdom before choosing his apostles (Luke vi.12), and for strength in view of his approaching death (Luke ix.28, 29). His outward declaration of loyalty to the coming kingdom was thus not an act of righteousness |to be seen of men,| but one of personal devotion to him who is and who sees in secret (Matt. vi.1, 6). As the transfiguration followed the prayer on Hermon, so this initial consecration was answered from heaven. A part of the answer was evident to John, for he saw a visible token of the gift of the divine Spirit which was granted to Jesus for the conduct of the work he had to do, and he recognized in Jesus the greater successor for whom he was simply making preparation (Mark i.10; John i.32-34). To Jesus there came also with the gift of the Spirit a definite word from heaven, |Thou art my beloved Son, in thee I am well pleased| (Mark i.11). The language in Mark and Luke, and the silence of the Baptist concerning the voice from heaven (John i.32-34), indicate that the word came to Jesus alone, and was his summons to undertake the work of setting up that kingdom to which he had just pledged his loyalty. The expression |My beloved Son| had clear Messianic significance for Jesus' contemporaries (comp. Mark xiv.62), and the message can have signified for him nothing less than a Messianic call. It implied more than that child-relation to God which was the fundamental fact in his religious life from the beginning: it had an official meaning.

89. For Jesus the sense of being God's child was normally human, and in his ministry he invited all men to a similar consciousness of sonship. Yet his early years must have brought to him a realization that he was different from his fellows. That in him which made a confession at the baptism unnatural and which led to John's word, |I have need to be baptized by thee,| was ready to echo assent when God said, |Thou art my Son.| He accepted the call and the new office and mission which it implied, and he must have recognized that it was for this moment that all the past of his life had been making preparation.

90. The gift of the Spirit to Jesus, which furnished to John the proof that the Greater One had appeared, was not an arbitrary sign. The old prophetic thought (Isa. xi.2; xlii.1; lxi.1) as well as a later popular expectation (Ps. of Sol. xvii.42) provided for such an anointing of the Messiah; and in the actual conduct of his life Jesus was constantly under the leading of this Spirit (see Matt. xii.28 and John iii.34). The temptation which followed the baptism, and in which he faced the difficulties in his new task, was the first result of the Spirit's control. Its later influence is not so clearly marked in the gospels, but they imply that as the older servants of God were guided and strengthened by him, so his Son also was aided, -- with this difference, however, that he possessed completely the heavenly gift (John iii.34). Jesus' uniform confession of dependence on God confirms this teaching of the gift of the divine Spirit; and his uniform consciousness of complete power and authority confirms the testimony that he had the Spirit |without measure.|

91. The temptation to which the Spirit |drove| Jesus after his baptism gives proof that the call to assume the Messianic office came to him unexpectedly; for the three temptations with which his long struggle ended were echoes of the voice which he had heard at the Jordan, and subtle insinuations of doubt of its meaning. Some withdrawal to contemplate the significance of his appointment to a Messianic work was a mental and spiritual necessity. As has often been said, if the gospels had not recorded the temptation, we should have had to assume one. Jesus being the man he was, could not have thought that his call was a summons to an entire change in his ideals and his thoughts about God and duty. Yet he must have been conscious of the wide differences between his conceptions of God's kingdom and the popular expectation. Those differences, by the measure of the definiteness of the popular thought and the ardor of the popular hope, were the proof of the difficulty of his task. The call meant that the Messiah could be such as he was; it meant that the kingdom could be and must be a dominion of God primarily in the hearts of men and consequently in their world; it meant that his work must be religious rather than political, and gracious rather than judicial. These essentials of the work which he could do contradicted at nearly every point the expectations of his people. How could he succeed in the face of such opposition? His long meditation during forty days doubtless showed him the difficulty of his task in all its baldness, yet it did not shake his certainty that the call had come to him from God, nor his faith that what God had called him to do he could accomplish.

92. The gospels show no hesitation in calling the experience of these days a temptation, nor had the Christian feeling of the first century any difficulty in thinking of its Lord as actually suffering temptation (Heb. ii.18; iv.15). A temptation to be real cannot be hypothetical; evil must actually present itself as attractive to the tempted soul. A suggestion of evil that takes no hold concretely of the heart is no temptation, nor is the resistance of it any victory. The sinlessness of him who sought baptism with no confession on his lips nor sense of penitence in his heart offers no barrier to his experience of genuine temptation, unless we think him incapable of sin, and therefore not |like unto his brethren.| Not only do the gospels repeatedly refer to his temptations (Luke iv.13; Mark viii.31-33; Luke xxii.28; compare Heb. v.7-9), but they also depict clearly the reality of these initial testings. The account as given in Matthew and Luke represents the experience with which the forty days' struggle culminated. The absorption of Jesus' mind had been so complete that he had neglected the needs of his body, and when he turned to think of earthly things he was pressed by hunger. A popular notion at a later time, and probably also in Jesus' day, was that the Messiah would be able to feed his people as Moses had given them manna in the wilderness (John vi.30-32; see EdersLJM. I.176). He had just been endowed with the divine Spirit for the work before him; it was therefore no fantastic idea when the suggestion came that he should use his power to supply his own needs in the desert. Nor was the temptation without attractiveness; his own physical nature urged its need, and Jesus was no ascetic who found discomfort a way of holiness. The evil in the suggestion was that it asked him to use his newly given powers for the supply of his own needs, as if doubting that God would care for him as for any other of his children. There was more than distrust of God suggested; the temptation came with a hint of another doubt, -- |If thou art God's Son.| A miracle would prove to himself his appointment and his power. The suggested doubt of his call he passed unnoticed; distrust of God he repudiated instantly, falling back on his faith in the God he had served these many years (Deut. viii.3). His victory is remarkable because his spirit conquered unhesitatingly after a long ecstasy which would naturally have induced a reaction and a surrender for the moment to the demand of lower needs.

93. This firmness of trust opened the way for another evil suggestion. In the work before him as God's Anointed many difficulties were on either side and across his path. He knew his people, their prejudices, and their hardness of heart; and he knew how far he was from their ideal of a Messiah. He knew also the watchful jealousy of Rome. Others before him, like Judas of Galilee, had tried the Messianic role and had failed. He, however, was confident of his divine call: should he not, therefore, press forward with his work, heedless of all danger and regardless of the dictates of prudence, -- as heedless as if, trusting God's promised care, he should cast himself down from a pinnacle of the temple to the rocks in Kidron below? A fanatic would have yielded to such a temptation. Many another than Jesus did so, -- Theudas (Acts v.36), the Egyptian (Acts xxi.38); and Bar Cochba (Dio Cassius, lxix.12-14; Euseb. Ch. Hist. iv.6). Jesus, however, showed his perfect mental health, repudiating the temptation by declaring that while man may trust God's care, he must not presumptuously put it to the test (Matt. iv.7). The after life of Jesus was a clear commentary on this reply. He constantly sought to avoid situations which would compromise his mission or cut short his work (see John vi.15), and when at the end he suffered the death prepared for him by his people's hatred, it was because his hour had come and he could say, |I lay down my life of myself| (John x.18). His marvellous control of enthusiasm and his self-mastery in all circumstances separate Jesus from all ecstatics and fanatics. Yet presumption must have seemed the easier course, and could readily wear the mask of trust. He was tempted, yet without sin.

94. As the refusal to doubt led to the temptation to presume, so the determination to be prudent opened the way for a third assault upon his perfect loyalty to God. The world he was to seek to save was swayed by passions; his own people were longing for a Messiah, but they must have their kind of a Messiah. If he would acknowledge this actual supremacy of evil and self-will in the world, the opposition of passion and prejudice might be avoided. If he would own the evil inevitable for the time, and accommodate his work to it, he might then be free to lead men to higher and more spiritual views of God's kingdom. His knowledge of his people's grossness of heart and materialism of hope made a real temptation of the suggestion that he should not openly oppose but should accommodate himself to them. Jesus did not underestimate the opposition of |the kingdoms of the world,| but he truly estimated God's intolerance of any rivalry (Matt. iv.10), and he was true to God and to his own soul. Again, in this as in the preceding temptations, Jesus conquered the evil suggestions by appropriating to himself truth spoken by God's servants to Israel. Tempted in all points like his brethren, he resisted as any one of them could have resisted, and won a victory possible, ideally considered, to any other of the children of men.

95. It is not idle curiosity which inquires whence the evangelists got this story of the temptation of Jesus. Even if the whole transaction took place on the plane of outer sensuous life, and Jesus was bodily carried to Jerusalem and to the mountain-top, there is no probability that any witnesses were at hand who could tell the tale. But the fact that in any case the vision of the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time (Luke iv.5) could have been spiritual only, since no mountain, however high (Matt. iv.8), could give, physically, that wide sweep of view, suggests that the whole account tells in pictorial language an intensely real, inner experience of Jesus. This in no respect reduces the truthfulness of the narratives. Temptation never becomes temptation till it passes to that inner scene of action and debate. Since Jesus shows in all his teaching a natural use of parabolic language to set forth spiritual truth, the inference is almost inevitable that the gospels have in like manner adopted the language of vivid picture as alone adequate to depict the essential reality of his inner struggle. In any case the narrative could have come from no other source than himself. How he came to tell it we do not know. On one of the days of private converse with his disciples after the confession at Caesarea Philippi he may have given them this account of his own experience, in order to help his loyal Galileans to understand more fully his work and the way of it, and to prepare them for that disappointment of their expectations which they were so slow to acknowledge as possible.

96. From this struggle in the wilderness Jesus came forth with the clear conviction that he was God's Anointed, and in all his after life no hesitation appeared. The kingdom which he undertook to establish was that dominion of simple righteousness which he had learned to know and love in the years of quiet life in Nazareth. He set out to do his work fearlessly, but prudently, seeking to win men in his Father's way to acknowledge that Father's sovereignty. There is no evidence that, beyond such firm conviction and purpose, he had any fixed plan for the work he was to do, nor that he saw clearly as yet how his earthly career would end. The third temptation, however, shows that he was not unprepared for seeming defeat. The struggle had been long and serious, -- for the three temptations of the end are doubtless typical of the whole of the forty days, -- and the victory was great and final. With the light of victory as well as the marks of warfare on his face, he took his way back towards Galilee.

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