A Brief Bible History/Section 2/Lesson 6
The Period of Popularity
During the first part of the Galilæan ministry, our Lord had the favor of the people. Great crowds followed him so that he could scarcely enter into a house. On one occasion he embarked in a little boat and put forth a short distance into the lake, so as to be able to speak to the throng on the shore.
This popularity, it is true, was not universal. The common people heard Jesus gladly, but the official teachers were hostile. These teachers, who are called scribes, belonged for the most part to the sect of the Pharisees. At the time of Christ there were two chief parties among the Jews—the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Sadducees were a worldly aristocracy, in possession of the high-priestly offices at Jerusalem, favored by the Romans, and satisfied with the existing political order. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were a strict Jewish party, insisted on a strict interpretation of the Mosaic Law, and added to the Law a great mass of oral "tradition," which ostensibly consisted of interpretation of the Law, but really meant an enormous and oppressive addition to it. The Pharisees were opposed to Jesus for at least two reasons. In the first place, they were envious of his success in teaching, which endangered their own position. In the second place, they were opposed to the contents of his teaching; he rejected their interpretation of the Law, and rebuked them for paying such attention to the detailed rules which were set forth in their tradition as to forget the weightier matters of justice and mercy.
The conflict of Jesus with the Pharisees was precipitated particularly by the attitude of Jesus toward the Sabbath. The Sabbath controversy was carried on partly in Galilee and partly, John, ch. 5, during a visit of Jesus to Jerusalem. The Pharisees had developed for the preservation of the Sabbath an elaborate set of rules which went far beyond what was set forth in the Old Testament. They were offended, therefore, when Jesus refused to rebuke his disciples for plucking the ears of wheat on the Sabbath Day, and when he himself insisted on using the Sabbath to perform works of mercy like the healing of the man that had a withered hand.
But for the present the opposition of the Pharisees was held in check by the favor which our Lord had among the people.
This favor was due partly to the teaching of Jesus and partly to his miracles. He interpreted the Scriptures in a fresh, original way; "He taught as one having authority and not as their scribes." And he had power to heal every manner of disease and to cast out demons. It was no wonder that the crowds followed so wonderful a teacher.
The Galilæan teaching of Jesus began with the proclamation of the Kingdom of God. The message sounded at first somewhat like the message of John the Baptist. Quite like John, Jesus came forward with the summons, "Repent ye; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." But the new teacher differed from John in the more complete account which he gave of the nature of the Kingdom, and especially in the central place in the Kingdom which he assigned to himself.
Matthew, Chapters 5 to 7
The nature of the Kingdom of God is set forth in the great discourse of our Lord which is commonly called the Sermon on the Mount. Matt., chs. 5 to 7. Having gone up from the shores of the Sea of Galilee to the heights which surround the lake, our Lord taught his disciples what was to be the life of those who should have a part in the Kingdom of God. In one sense, the Kingdom lay altogether in the future; it would be ushered in with full power only at the end of the world. But in another sense, it was present already wherever there were those who were truly submitting their lives to Jesus.
The Sermon on the Mount contains certain features which are fundamental in all of Jesus' teaching.
In the first place, God is presented, in the Sermon on the Mount, as "Father." The fatherhood of God, in the teaching of Jesus, is sometimes misunderstood. Jesus did not mean that God is Father of all men. God stands indeed to all men in a relation which is analogous to that of a father to his children; he cares for all, he makes his sun to rise upon all. Matt. 5:45. But in the teaching of Jesus and in the whole New Testament the lofty term, "Father," is reserved for a still more intimate relationship. So in the Sermon on the Mount the great world without is sharply distinguished from the company of Jesus' disciples; it is only the latter who can say, "Our Father which art in heaven."
There was nothing narrow in such teaching; for although in Jesus' teaching the intimate relation of sonship toward God was offered only to those who should be of the household of faith, yet the door of the household of faith was open wide to all who would be willing to come in. Indeed Jesus himself died on the cross with the purpose of opening that door. Our Saviour did far more than teach men that they were already children of God; he came to make them children of God by his saving work.
In the second place, the Sermon on the Mount tells what kind of life is led by those who should have entered into the Kingdom and been made the children of God. That life is far more than obedience to a set of external rules; the purity which Jesus demanded is a purity of the heart. The life in the Kingdom is also far removed from all pretense; the children of God engage in prayer and good works not to be seen by men but to be seen by God. Finally, the life in the Kingdom is a life of perfect trust; all anxious thought for the morrow is banished, since God will care for his children.
One difficulty arises in the reading of the Sermon on the Mount. How can such an ideal be attained? It might be possible to obey a set of rules, like the rules of the Pharisees, but how is it possible for sinful men to attain purity of heart? The righteousness of the Kingdom of heaven exceeds by far the "righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees." How can such righteousness be attained?
The answer to this question was partly understood even by the first hearers of the Sermon on the Mount. The disciples of Jesus knew even then that Jesus alone could give them entrance into the Kingdom; they trusted in him already not merely as teacher but also as Saviour. But the answer to the question is far plainer to us; for we know the cross. The atoning death of Christ it was that gave men the kind of righteousness required for entrance into the Kingdom of God, for it gave them the righteousness of Christ himself. The significance of the cross was spoken of by our Lord even during his earthly ministry, but the full explanation of it was left to the apostles. The saving work of Jesus could be fully explained only after it had been done.
QUESTIONS ON LESSON VI
- What is the meaning of "the kingdom of God," in Jesus' teaching?
- Who were the Sadducees? Who were the Pharisees, and why were they opposed to Jesus?
- Give an outline of the Sermon on the Mount.