When we compare the work Jesus proposed to do in the world with the schemes of earth's greatest ones we cannot classify him with mere men.
What did he think he came into the world to do? What did he consider his mission to be?
We cannot be in the least doubt for the answer; there was no confusion in his thought, no ambiguity in his words. If we ask what Jesus thought his mission was we will easily find the answerunparalleled by the thought of any, absolutely unique, stupendous, but as unmistakable in meaning as simple in the form of expression.
We will answer in his own words: "The Son of man is come to seek and to save that which is lost." "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." "God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved." "I came not to judge the world, but to save the world." More forcibly, if possible, than in his words, his conception of his mission is shown by his work, his living, and his dying. St. Luke, in the Acts of the Apostles, gives us in a simple statement the whole history; it is, in a line, the biography of the God-man, "He went about doing good."
That Jesus should have seen in the world evil that needed to be remedied, that he should have tried to remedy the evil he saw, does not, in itself, difference him from good and wise men who have observed the facts of human life and have deplored human miseries. All the great teachers and reformers have recognized evil in the world, and many of them have distinctly recognized this evil as moral evil. The doctrine of Jesus is peculiar in this; all the evil that is in the world is moral evil, and all moral evil is, at its root, sin, and sin, considered as a quality in man's character, is a state of being that is out of harmony with God; considered as a fact, it is life in violation of God's law. The bad man is, in his spirit, at enmity with God; in his life he breaks God's law. He loves evil because evil is in him; his life is wicked because his heart is bad.
And Jesus comes to take away sin; to deliver men from it, its penalty, and its power. Said the angel to Mary: "Thou shalt call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins."
In the view of Jesus sin is the one evil; deliverance from sin is deliverance from all evil; it is salvation. He struck at sin as the root of all possible evil; he recognized no evil that was in man's circumstances, as if his evil came out of fate or in some way invincible by him; it is all of sin.
Wherefore Jesus does not set about bettering man's circumstances, by direct effort improving the sanitary, economic, political, or social conditions of life; he works upon man himself. Whatever improves man's condition is, in the doctrine of Jesus, to be desired; but it is not enough to make man comfortable; he must be made good. He teaches that all that is truly good and needful will come to men who are delivered from sin, and that no real good can come to him whose sin remains in him. First, last, all the time, Jesus makes deliverance from sin the one thing needfulthe chief good.
As his manner was, he does not argue about it; he states his doctrine positively, "with authority," as one knowing the whole truth of the case. There is no qualifying word to tone down his statements and to leave place for retreat from possible mistakes.
His doctrine he taught and illustrated in every possible way. It is in his more formal discourses, his briefest comments on men and things, his most occasional conversations and most incidental remarks. His doctrine is in all his efforts to do men good, as it is in every warning and every promise.
And there is never a shadow doubt, a suspicion of hesitation. From his first word to the last, from the beatitudes to the prayer on the cross, it is always the same thing; man's trouble is all in his sin; his only salvation is deliverance from sin.
It comes out in the most incidental way. When the penitent Magdalene washed his feet with her tears, at Simon's table, he said not a word about her lost social position or of its possible restoration. He said, "Thy sins are forgiven; thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace."
When the four kind and loving friends of Capernaumwhose names we would like to knowhad brought their palsied neighbor to Peter's house, and had at last, with much trouble, through the broken roof laid him down at the feet of Jesus, the first words were not about palsy and healing, but about sin and salvation: "Son, thy sins be forgiven thee." This is what the story of the penitent publican, crying out, "God be merciful to me a sinner," means. It is what the story of the prodigal means; it is what the whole life and teaching of Jesus mean.
We must notice particularly that the mere conception of a divine incarnation is not peculiar to the story of Jesus. The notion of incarnation, the idea of the gods taking a form of flesh and manifesting themselves to men, is in the traditions of almost every nation. It has been said, hastily, I believe, that there are some races, at least some tribes, so low in development as to have no idea of God whatever. It is easy to be mistaken in such matters; it is difficult for a cultivated man to find out what a savage really thinks about any subject, least of all his religion. Perhaps the language difficulty is the least bar to understanding in such a case; the differences between men are not measured by differences in speech only. It is certain that the conception of God is, in some form, in most nations. I believe it is in all. And in every nation there is some sort of notion of divine manifestation.
The attempt to represent the gods in stone, in metal, in wood, or even in rude drawings and paintings, comes after a traditional belief has long held its place in men's thoughts of their manifestation in some visible and tangible form.
It is not always a human form; it is generally not a human form, except as it is part of the conception: as in the eagle-headed Belus of Babylon, as in the winged bulls, with the head of a man and the feet of a lion, that Layard found in the ruins of Ninevah. These composite images represented ideas of the gods, not facts concerning them. Thus the image found in the ruins of Ninevah represented strength, swiftness, courage, intelligence. But the ideas expressed in these strange and grotesque forms grew out of traditions of divine manifestation, of incarnation.
All the mythologies tell us of incarnations; but the idea of divine incarnation in the story of the evangelists differs, not in some incidents, but in all essentials from all others. One unique fact, as has heretofore, in a different connection, been pointed out, is that Jesus was simply a man who, as to his appearance, had absolutely nothing that was peculiar. Neither stature, beauty, swiftness, nor strength is attributed to Jesus.
We might speak of the limitations that go with other conceptions of gods incarnate. They are specialized by race and localized by country. This thought has been illustrated elsewhere. It may answer now simply to remind you that Vishnu is Hindustanee, Isis and Osiris Egyptian, Odin and Thor Scandinavian. Not one of them has relations to the whole human race. But Jesus, who calls himself "the Son of man," is of all, and belongs to all.
But the most notable difference to be considered now, that which alone would place Jesus apart from all others, whether men or legendary gods, is in the end he proposed to accomplish. The gods became incarnate and appeared to men, or dwelt among them, to do many and very different things; Jesus to do just one thing, and to do what no other ever proposed to do, or so much as thought of doing. He, "the Son of man," was of all and for all, and he proposes an end that concerns all. The evil he would remove from all is not a Hebrew trouble; it is in the human race.
This is plainer in comparison. Vishnu, the supreme god of Hindustanee mythology, has condescended, so the old stories tell us, to almost innumerable incarnations. But for what end? Always to work some prodigies; to do some strange things on the plane of men's lives; to do things affecting men's circumstances, not men's character. He comes to do something in a limited sphere; something for his people, Hindustanee people, not for the whole race of man. Vishnu, when he comes in mercy, comes to remedy external conditions; he delivers from pestilence, famine, wild beasts, poisonous serpents. When he comes in wrath it is to crush his enemies.
In mythology, the very conception men had of the coming of the gods grew out of their circumstances. Thus in India the conception of evil itself was determined by conditions peculiar to India. With them evil grew out of the jungles where pestilence was bred, serpents abounded, and fierce man-eating tigers hid themselves and waited for their prey. It was determined by those conditions of life peculiar to dense populations, subject to the scourges that followed was, and evil natural conditionsplague and famine.
The evil Jesus considered was peculiar to no people and to no country; it did not grow out of natural conditions; it was in man himself, and it was sin.
Among warlike nations the gods came down to take part in mere national matters; they fought the battles of their friends and punished their enemies. Your Homer tells you all this in the story of the siege of Troy. Virgil tells you the same thing; your classical authors are full of it. The poor Indians and negro tribes tell of such incarnations.
It was this very human conception of divine incarnation that filled the national imagination and sustained the national hopes before Jesus came. Such an incarnation they were longing for when they rejected him because they could not use him for their ends; it is a conception that to this day lingers in Hebrew thought and hope. They looked and prayed for a divine warrior-king who would lead their armies, restore their nation, and give it dominion over the world.
How incredible the idea that the evangelists have only given is a reflection of popular sentiment, the outgrowth of national traditions! These sentiments and traditions were utterly spoiled by the sort of incarnation the evangelists describe. The nation resented unto death the conception Jesus had of his mission to men; before such a king as Jesus they preferred the Caesar they hated; they put to death the man who only sought to save them from their sins because he disappointed them in their patriotic ambitions.
Speaking in a general way, the gods of the nations, when they become incarnate, come to do a man's sort of work. They work upon the outside of life; they seek to deliver man from external evils and to improve his external conditions. The "twelve labors of Hercules" tell us what men thought they needed a divine man to do; the evangelists tell us what the divine Man thought men needed that he should do. When the gods of mythology become incarnate they work in the realm of circumstances; Jesus speaks only of the man himself, his heart, his character, and seeks only to make him good.
Here is, therefore, the essential difference: his conception of evil, and back of that, of course, his conception of man himself.
As we have seen, in the thought of Jesus the evil and the good, the woes and the blessings of humanity are in man himself; they are not in externals, but internals; not in circumstances, but in character. Jesus does not, therefore, dwell upon poverty or wealth, sickness, or health, enemies or friends, contempt or favor, servitude or freedom, early death or long life. He is not concerned about any circumstances whatever that merely determine man's external life; he is concerned about man himself. If there be any real good or any real evil the good and the evil are inside, not outside the man.
Let us note too, Jesus never places man's moral evil, which is the one evil he recognizes, in mere ignorance of truth, as if instructions and merely changing man's opinions could remedy the evil; he always places it in that something that alienates man's love from God, that something that Jesus calls sin, that something that is sin because it antagonizes the pure will of God. And Jesus teaches that the very constitution of man's nature is such that no bettering of his external conditions can bring any real help whatsoever; that so long as man is out of harmony with God there can be for him, neither in this world not the next, any real good. This he meant in the question that makes a man outweigh a world: "What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?"
Jesus took very great pains to teach men that in themselves, and not in their circumstances, was their real evil and their real good. He used almost every form of speech to teach them to think of a man as a man, and not as the sport of circumstances.
For poverty Jesus did not care; for wealth he had no respect. The story of the barn-builder gives us his solemn judgment upon a man who achieved very great worldly success; who was what most men long and strive to berich and great. But he was a man out of harmony with Godrich in purse, bankrupt in soul. Jesus, in the face of all human opinion, plainly calls such a man "a fool."
The drama of the rich man and Lazarus turns the light of both worlds upon the question of man's chief and only good, and emphasizes, by the despair of the prince in hell, his verdict upon the case of the prosperous and self-satisfied barn-builder, in whose thoughts and plans neither his own soul nor the God who made him had any place.
Alwayswhether speaking of his own personal work or in instructing his disciples as to their workJesus looks to bettering men, not their conditions. He did not care for conditions, except as they connected men with influences that made them good or evil; he cared for men only. Hence he always stressed character and nothing else.
Character, in the teaching of Jesus, is all; it is both test and measure of what a man is, and there is no other test or measure for which man ought to care, for which God does care.
The amazement of comfortable and cultured Nicodemus shows us that these ideas of Jesus were not borrowed from the men of his time and race.
Summing up what is here presented as to the conception of Jesus had of his mission to men, a conception as unique as his own character: only one thing he hated and sought to destroysin; only one thing for man and sought to bestowgoodness.
Only one thing his true disciples hatesin; only one thing is worth striving, living and dying forgoodness: which is another name of Christ-likeness.
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