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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : III Jesus' Knowledge of Truth

The Life Of Jesus Of Nazareth by Rush Rhees

III Jesus' Knowledge of Truth

242. The note of authority in the teaching of Jesus is evidence of his own clear knowledge of the things of which he spoke. As if by swift intuition, his mind penetrated to the heart of things. In the scriptures he saw the underlying truth which should stand till heaven and earth shall pass (Matt. v.18); in the ceremonies of his people's religion he saw so clearly the spiritual significance that he did not hesitate to sacrifice the passing form (Mark vii.14-23); such a theological development as the pharisaic doctrine of the resurrection he unhesitatingly adopted because he saw that it was based on the ultimate significance of the soul's fellowship with God (Mark xiii.24-27); he reduced religion and ethics to simplicity by summing up all commandments in one, -- Thou shalt love (Matt. xxii.37-40); and at the same time insisted as no other prophet had done on the finality of conduct and the necessity of obedience (Matt. vii.21-27). His penetration to the heart of an idea was nowhere more clear than in his doctrine of the kingdom of God as realized in the filial soul, and as involving a judgment which should take cognizance only of brotherliness of conduct. It would not be difficult to show that all these different aspects of his teaching grew naturally out of his knowledge of God as his Father and the Father of all men; they were the fruit, therefore, of personal certainty of ultimate and all-dominating truth.

243. If the knowledge of Jesus had been shown only in matters of spiritual truth, it would still have marked him as one apart from ordinary men. There were other directions, however, in which he surpassed the common mind. The fourth gospel declares that |he knew what was in man| (ii.25), and all the evangelists give evidence of such knowledge. Not only the designation of Judas as the traitor, and of Peter as the one who should deny him, before their weakness and sin had shown themselves, but also Jesus' quick reading of the heart of the paralytic who was brought to him for healing, and of the woman who washed his feet with her tears (Mark ii.5; Luke vii.47), and his knowledge of the character of Simon and Nathanael (John i.42, 47,) as well as his sure perception of the intent of the various questioners whom he met, indicate that he had powers of insight unshared by his fellow men.

244. Furthermore, the gospels state explicitly that Jesus predicted his own death from a time at least six months before the end (Matt. xvi.21), and they indicate that the idea was not new to him when he first communicated it to his disciples (Matt. xvi.23; Mark ii.20). He viewed his approaching death, moreover, as a necessity (Mark viii.31-33), yet he was no fatalist concerning it. He could still in Gethsemane plead with his Father, to whom all things are possible, to open to him some other way of accomplishing his work (Mark xiv.36). The old Testament picture of the suffering and dying servant of Jehovah (Isa. liii.) was doubtless familiar to Jesus. Although it was not interpreted Messianically by the scribes, Jesus probably applied it to himself when thinking of his death; yet the predictions of the prophets always provided for a non-fulfilment in case Israel should turn unto the Lord in truth (see Ezek. xxxiii.10-20). Moreover, the contradiction which Jesus felt between his ideas and those cherished by the leaders of his people, whether priests or scribes, was so radical that his death might well seem inevitable; yet it was possible that his people might repent, and Jerusalem consent to accept him as God's anointed. Neither prophecy, nor the actual conditions of his life, therefore, would give Jesus any fatalistic certainty of his coming death. In Gethsemane his heart pleaded against it, while his will bowed still to God in perfect loyalty. It is not for us to explain his prediction of death by appealing to the connection which the apostolic thought established between the death of Christ and the salvation of men, for we are not competent to say that God could not have effected redemption in some other way if the repentance of the Jews had, humanly speaking, removed from Jesus the necessity of death. All that can be said is that he knew the prophetic picture, knew also the hardness of heart which had taken possession of the Jews, and knew that he must not swerve from his course of obedience to what he saw to be God's will for him. Since that obedience brought him into fatal opposition to human prejudice and passion, he saw that he must die, and that such a death was one of the steps in his establishment of God's kingdom among men. So he went on his way ready |not to be ministered unto but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many| (Mark x.45).

245. With his prediction of his death the gospels usually associate a prophecy of his speedy resurrection. As has been already remarked (sect.210), it is being generally recognized that if Jesus believed that he was the Messiah, he must have associated with the thought of death that of victory over death, which for all Jewish minds meant a resurrection from the dead. Jesus certainly taught that his death was part of his Messianic work, it could not therefore be his end. The prediction of the resurrection is the necessary corollary of his expectation of death; and it may reverently be believed that his knowledge of it was intimately involved with his certainty that it was as Messiah that he was to die.

246. From the time when he began to tell his disciples that he must die, Jesus began also to teach that his earthly ministry was not to finish his work, but that he should return in glory from heaven to realize fully all that was involved in the idea of God's kingdom. His predictions resemble in form the representations found in the Book of Daniel and the Book of Enoch; and the understanding of them is involved in difficulties like those which beset such apocalyptic writings. In general, apocalypses were written in times of great distress for God's people, and represented the deliverance which should usher in God's kingdom as near at hand. One feature of them is a complete lack of perspective in the picture of the future. It may be that this fact will in part account for one great perplexity in the apocalyptic sayings of Jesus. In the chief of these (Mark xiii. and parallels), predictions of the destruction of Jerusalem are so mingled with promises of his own second coming and the end of all things that many have sought to resolve the difficulty by separating the discourse into two different ones, -- one a short Jewish apocalypse predicting the destruction of Jerusalem and the coming of the Son of Man within the life of that generation; the other, Jesus' own prediction of the end of all things, concerning which he warns his disciples that they be not deceived, but watch diligently and patiently for God's full salvation. The difficulties of this discourse as it stands are so great that any solution which accounts for all the facts must be welcomed. So far as this analysis seeks to remove from the account of Jesus' own words the references to a fulfilment of the predictions within the life of that generation, it is confronted by other sayings of Jesus (Mark ix.1) and by the problem of the uniform belief of the apostolic age that he would speedily return. That belief must have had some ground. What more natural than that words of Jesus, rightly or wrongly understood, led to the common Christian expectation? Some such analysis may yet establish itself as the true solution of the difficulties; it may be, however, that in adopting the apocalyptic form of discourse, Jesus also adopted its lack of perspective, and spoke coincidently of future events in the progress of the kingdom, which, in their complete realization at least, were widely separated in time. In such a case it would not be strange if the disciples looked for the fulfilment of all of the predictions within the limit assigned for the accomplishment of some of them.

247. Whatever the explanation of these difficulties, the gospels clearly represent Jesus as predicting his own return in glory to establish his kingdom, -- a crowning evidence of his claim to supernatural knowledge. It is all the more significant, therefore, that it is in connection with his prediction of his future coming that he made the most definite declaration of his own ignorance: |Of that day or that hour knoweth no one, not even the angels in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father| (Mark xiii.32). This confession of the limitation of his knowledge is conclusive. Yet it is not isolated. With his undoubted power to read |what was in man,| he was not independent of ordinary ways of learning facts. When the woman was healed who touched the hem of his garment, Jesus knew that his power had been exercised, but he discovered the object of his healing by asking, |Who touched me?| and calling the woman out from the crowd to acknowledge her blessing (Mark v.30-34); when the centurion urged Jesus to heal his boy without taking the trouble to come to his house, Jesus |marvelled| at his faith (Matt. viii.10); when he came to Bethany, assured of his Father's answer to his prayer for the raising of Lazarus, he asked as simply as any other one in the company, |Where have ye laid him?| (John xi.34). It should not be forgotten that his knowledge of approaching death, resurrection, and return in glory did not prevent the earnest pleading in Gethsemane, and it may be that his reply to the ambition of James and John, it |is not mine to give| (Mark x.40), is a confession of ignorance as well as subordination to his Father.

248. The supernatural knowledge of Jesus, so far as its exercise is apparent in the gospels, was concerned with the truths intimately related to his religious teaching or his Messianic work. There is no evidence that it occupied itself at all with facts of nature or of history discovered by others at a later day. When he says of God that |he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good| (Matt. v.45), there is no evidence that he thought of the earth and its relation to the sun differently from his contemporaries; it is probable that his thought anticipated Galileo's discovery no more than do his words. Much the same may be said with reference to the purely literary or historical questions of Old Testament criticism, now so much discussed. If it is proved by just interpretation of all the facts that the Pentateuch is only in an ideal sense to be attributed to Moses, and that many of the psalms inscribed with his name cannot have been written by David, the propriety of Jesus' references to what |Moses said| (Mark vii.10), and the validity of his argument for the relative unimportance of the Davidic descent of the Messiah, will not suffer. Had Jesus had in mind the ultimate facts concerning the literary structure of the Pentateuch, he could not have hoped to hold the attention of his hearers upon the religious teaching he was seeking to enforce, unless he referred to the early books of the Old Testament as written by Moses. Jesus did repeatedly go back of Moses to more primitive origins (Mark x.5, 6; John vii.22); yet there is no likelihood that the literary question was ever present in his thinking. This phase of his intellectual life, like that which concerned his knowledge of the natural universe, was in all probability one of the points in which he was made like unto his brethren, sharing, as matter of course, their views on questions that were indifferent for the spiritual mission he came to fulfil. If this was the case, his argument from the one hundred and tenth Psalm (Mark xii.35-37) would simply give evidence that he accepted the views of his time concerning the Psalm, and proceeded to use it to correct other views of his time concerning what was of most importance in the doctrine of the Messiah. The last of these was of vital importance for his teaching; the first was for this teaching quite as indifferent a matter as the relations of the earth and the sun in the solar system.

249. A more perplexing difficulty arises from his handling of the cases of so-called demoniac possession. He certainly treated these invalids as if they were actually under the control of demons: he rebuked, banished, gave commands to the demons, and in this way wrought his cures upon the possessed. It has already been remarked that the symptoms shown in the cases cured by Jesus can be duplicated from cases of hysteria, epilepsy, or insanity, which have come under modern medical examination. Three questions then arise concerning his treatment of the possessed.1. Did he unquestioningly share the interpretation which his contemporaries put upon the symptoms, and simply bring relief by his miraculous power? 2. Did he know that those whom he healed were not afflicted by evil spirits, and accommodate himself in his cures to their notions? 3. Does he prove by his treatment that the unfortunates actually were being tormented by diabolical agencies, which he banished by his word? The last of these possibilities should not be held to be impossible until much more is known than we now know about the mysterious phenomena of abnormal psychical states. If this is the explanation of the maladies for Jesus' day, however, it should be accepted also as the explanation of similar abnormal symptoms when they appear in our modern life, for the old hypothesis of a special activity of evil spirits at the time of the incarnation is inadequate to account for the fact that in some quarters similar maladies have been similarly explained from the earliest times until the present day. If, however, he knew his people to be in error in ascribing these afflictions to diabolical influence, he need have felt no call to correct it. If the disease had been the direct effect of such a delusion, Jesus would have encouraged the error by accommodating himself to the popular notion. The idea of possession, however, was only an attempt to explain very real distress. Jesus desired to cure, not to inform his patients. The notion in no way interfered with his turning the thought of those he healed towards God, the centre of help and of health. He is not open, therefore, to the charge of having failed to free men from the thraldom of superstition if he accommodated himself to their belief concerning demoniac possession. His cure, and his infusion of true thoughts of God into the heart, furnished an antidote to superstition more efficacious than any amount of discussion of the truth or falseness of the current explanation of the disease. On the other hand, if we are not ready to conclude that the action of Jesus has demonstrated the validity of the ancient explanation, we may acknowledge that it would do no violence to his power, or dignity, or integrity, if it should be held that he did not concern himself with an inquiry into the cause of the disease which presented itself to him for help, but adopted unquestioningly the explanation held by all his contemporaries, even as he used their language, dress, manner of life, and in one particular, at least, their representation of the life after death (Luke xvi.22 -- Abraham's bosom). His own confession of ignorance of a large item of religious knowledge (Mark xiii.32) leaves open the possibility that in so minor a matter as the explanation of a common disease he simply shared the ideas of his time. In this case, when one so afflicted came under his treatment, he applied his supernatural power, even as in cases of leprosy or fever, and cured the trouble, needing no scientific knowledge of its cause. If accommodation or ignorance led Jesus to treat these sick folk as possessed, it does not challenge his integrity nor his trustworthiness in all the matters which belong properly to his own peculiar work.

250. There is one incident in the gospels which favors the conclusion that Jesus definitely adopted the current idea, -- the permission granted by him to the demons to go from the Gadarene into the herd of swine, and the consequent drowning of the herd (Mark v.11-13). On any theory this incident is full of difficulty. Bernhard Weiss (LXt II.226 ff.) holds that Jesus accommodated himself to current views, and that the man, having received for the possessing demons permission to go into the swine, was at once seized by a final paroxysm, and rushed among the swine, stampeding them so that they ran down the hillside into the sea.

251. In recent years the view has been somewhat widely advocated that his power over demoniacs was to Jesus himself one of the chief proofs of his Messiahship. His words are quoted: |If I, by the Spirit of God, cast out demons, then is the kingdom of God come upon you| (Matt. xii.28); and |I beheld Satan falling as lightning from heaven| (Luke x.18). The first of these is in the midst of an ad hominem reply of Jesus to the charge that he owed his power to a league with the devil (Matt. xii.28); and the second was his remark when the seventy reported with joy that the demons were subject unto them (Luke x.18). The gospels, however, trace his certainty of his Messiahship to quite other causes, primarily to his knowledge of himself as God's child, then to the Voice which, coming at the baptism, summoned him as God's beloved Son to do the work of the Messiah. Throughout his ministry Jesus exhibits a certainty of his mission quite independent of external evidences, -- |Even if I bear witness of myself, my witness is true; for I know whence I came and whither I go| (John viii.14).

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