By Harris Franklin Rall
It was one of the grave faults of Judaism that it could see nothing outside of itself. To the Jews it seemed that God had spoken only to Israel, and that his plans were for Israel alone. Long ago the prophet had written of a coming better day: "In that day shall Israel be a third with Egypt and with Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth; for that Jehovah of hosts hath blessed them saying, Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel mine inheritance" (Isa. 19. 24, 25). Paul knew that besides the Jewish law there was a law that God had written in the hearts even of Gentiles; that he was the God who had not left himself without a witness, the one in whom all men lived and moved and had their being. To-day we see clearly that God not only spoke through the prophets and used the people of Israel, but that he was carrying out his plans of the Kingdom for other peoples and through them.
The Preparation. —As we come, then, to the supreme event in God's plan, the coming of Christ, we need to ask. How was the world prepared for this new epoch? The early Christians declared that Jesus came when the time was fulfilled (Mark 1. 15; Gal. 4. 4). In what sense was this true? What foundations had been laid ? What forces of the Kingdom were there present, not simply with the Jews, but with other peoples? A brief answer to these questions can best be given under the names of the three great civilizations of the world in that day, the Roman, the Grecian, and the Jewish. There was not one world in that day, but three: the political world in which Rome was supreme, the world of culture and philosophy in which Greece ruled, the world of faith in which the Jews stood first. Each of these worlds had its rich gift for this new day of the Kingdom.
Rome and Jesus. —It was a Roman world in which Jesus was born. The Jews, like all other nations around the Mediterranean, were under her rule. Their high priest and their senate, or Sanhedrin, had large powers of local government, but the Roman procurator was supreme; Rome gathered the taxes, Roman soldiers held the land. From the hills that overlooked his boyhood home Jesus must often have seen the marching legions. It was a Roman order concerning a census that brought it about that he should be born at Bethlehem, it was a Roman ruler that sentenced him to death, and Roman soldiers nailed him to the cross.
Rome and World-Unity. —Rome laid upon the peoples an iron hand. She did not interfere with local customs, but she demanded full measure in taxes. While treasures flowed to Rome, the poor in these lands suffered deeply. The Gospel pages show us plenty of wretched folks: the sick and maimed and blind, the slaves, the poor waiting for work in the market place, the beggars by the wayside or lying at the door of the rich. Yet Rome brought her gifts and the first of them was world-unity. She finished the work that Alexander had begun, she made one world of all the nations of the west. She broke down century-old barriers, she opened wide doors so that the life and thought of all the peoples might mingle around that great inland sea. The Jewish vision of the Kingdom was national and limited; Rome helped to give a world-vision to the leaders of the new faith. It is significant that the outstanding leader who stood for this world-view of the new kingdom was himself a free-born Roman citizen and proud of the distinction. Paul's Roman citizenship helped him to his imperial view of Christianity.
Rome and World-Peace. —The second gift of Rome was that of world-peace. She had brushed aside the hostile boundaries that separated one nation from another. Her roads ran everywhere. Built for her legions, they served for the messengers of a new and higher kingdom. Under Pompey her galleys had cleared the Mediterranean of pirates, and this highway too was free for the busy vessels of all lands. She thus brought in a new day of traffic and travel, and the ways by sea and land were filled with soldiers and merchants, students and laborers, pilgrims and pleasure-seekers. And it was men like these, laymen whose business or search for work carried them from land to land, that did even more than the little group of apostles in spreading the new faith and life. We can hardly imagine the extension of Christianity throughout the empire in so brief a time without this gift of Rome.
The Highways of the Mind. —If Rome opened the roads on land and sea, Greece built the highways for the human mind; and one was as important as the other. Alexander had carried Greek language and culture everywhere. Rome conquered Greece and then went to school to her. Greek became the universal language of the empire. Jesus probably knew it, although he seems to have preferred his native Aramaic. How much all this meant for early Christianity we can hardly estimate. The modern missionary must struggle long with a strange tongue before he can begin his work. Even then he is limited to one land, and in India or Africa to one province. Paul moved through Syria, Cilicia, Asia, Macedonia, Achaia, Italy, and with his Grecian speech men understood him every-where. He sat down to write to Christians in rude Galatia, or Grecian Corinth, or distant Rome. In every case he used the same language and knew that these men, whose native tongue was Galatian or Greek, Latin or Aramaic, would understand his words. Our New Testament is a Greek book. Outside of Palestine, the Old Testament which the Jews used in their synagogue worship was a Greek translation. Many years before a great prophet had written: ''Prepare ye in the wilderness the way of Jehovah; make level in the desert a highway for our God" (Isa. 40, 3). The peaceful roads of Rome and the common speech of Greece were the great fulfillment of this word.
Influence of Grecian Thought. —But a language is never an empty vessel; it carries its freight of ideas wherever it goes. With the Grecian speech went Grecian thought. There had been many noble spirits among the Greek thinkers. They had stood for the spiritual against the material, for the soul of man and its worth. They had fought against the superstitions of their own land; they had argued or laughed out of court the old polytheism. Greece helped prepare the world for the doctrine of the one God as for that of immortality. When Paul speaks of conscience, it is a Greek word that he uses, not Hebrew. He quotes to the men at Athens one of their own poets, and finds in other thoughts a common standing-ground with them (Acts 17. 22-31). We can understand how early Christian writers like Clement of Alexandria declared that these philosophers brought the Grecians to Christ as the Law did the Jews. "There is but one way of truth," Clement adds, '"but into it there empty many streams from many sides, as into a flowing river."
The Gift of Israel. —As we study the Jewish religion at the time of Christ, we are apt to notice its defects first of all. We have already studied its two main aspects, the law and the hope. As a religion of law, it was hard, calculating, formal. Instead of a simple trustful fellowship with God, we find men weighing how much they must do, viewing religion as a task, asking as to their reward. As a religion of hope it was national and narrow, seeing only Israel. It thought more of power and splendor than it did of righteousness, more of the judgment on its enemies than of the victory over sin. And yet it was as a child of this people that Jesus appeared; here he found the
men that carried on his work; and here alone could that work have been begun. What, then, did the Jews contribute to the coming Kingdom? God had chosen this people for a special service of preparation; what was the fruitage of all these centuries of training? The answer may be summed up under three words: the Faith, the People, and the Writings.
I. The Faith: A Living God. —The greatest treasure of any man or nation is a living faith, and such a faith Israel possessed. For this faith her sons had been ready to offer up even life itself. How lofty that faith was we see only as we compare it with the highest in the nations round about. It was first of all a faith in a living God. Thoughtful men throughout the Grecian world had long since gotten the idea of one God, and the Stoics had taught a providence in nature. But this was in the main simply a theory of philosophers, gathered from the ordered nature round about them. But the Jehovah of Israel was the living God who had revealed himself in their history by his great deeds. It was he who had created the heavens and the earth (read especially Isa. 40), and had led them forth from Egypt "with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm.'' Again and again this note is sounded in the songs of Mary and Zacharias: '"He that is mighty hath done to me great things. He hath showed strength with his arm."
A Righteous God. —This living God was a righteous God. That was the great message of Amos and Micah and Isaiah: Jehovah is righteous, and he demands righteousness in his worshipers, not incense and burnt-offerings. Whatever the philosophers may have taught, the religion of that day outside of Judaism had little to do with morality. Often, indeed, temple and worship were the center of immorality, as Paul found it at Corinth. The Jewish idea of righteousness may have become formal and narrow, but the demand itself was plain to them. Zacharias speaks the conviction of all Israel: "That we should serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days."
A Great Hope. —With this faith there went Israel's hope, which fills with joy these songs in the first chapter of Luke.
And with this national hope, descended from the earlier days, there had come in later times the doctrine of the resurrection and immortality, to speak their comfort to the individual.
II. The People: Their Devotion. —Besides the faith, there were the people in whom the faith lived. The Jews were a scattered nation even then, living in every part of the Roman world, and everywhere they were a preparation for Christianity. Everywhere they spread the principles of this great faith as a leaven. Then, as now, they were despised by many, but there were those not Jews who came to hear and some who remained to worship. Paul found the synagogue a good place to begin his work and many of his first and best converts were secured there.
If we turn from the Dispersion to the Jews of Palestine, we find here too the preparation of the gospel in the people. Our common notion here has often been wrong, because we have fixed our eyes upon a few scribes and Pharisees, and have seen only narrowness and pride and formalism. We must remember the twelve and the other faithful disciples of Jesus who were Jews, as well as the many others who heard him gladly. It was these Jews that made the first church, that wrote our New Testament in most part, and that carried the gospel throughout the world.
We should be grateful for these first pages of Luke because of the picture that they give us of a circle that we might not otherwise know. The New Testament shows us the Pharisees, but they were only a few thousands; it shows us the Sadducees, but of these there were still less. But it shows us this other circle too, the simple, devout souls like Zacharias and Elisabeth, Joseph and Mary, the shepherds, and Simeon and Anna. You cannot tell the real life of a nation by what you read of its "prominent people," or by the names and tales that figure in newspaper headlines. In these quiet souls was the real heart of Israel; here its deepest faith and devotion lived on; they have been called "the quiet in the land." As we study these songs of Zacharias and Mary, we note how these folks fed not so much upon the traditions of the Law as upon the words of psalmist and prophet. Later we find Jesus drawing inspiration from these same sources. These folks did not teach the people, as did the scribes; nor govern the nation, as did the priests. But they had a higher glory and wrought a greater service: they furnished the homes in which were l)orn and nurtured John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth.
III. The Writings: A Great Literature. —The third gift of the Jewish people was those sacred writings which form the Old Testament of our Christian Bible to-day. For many years this Old Testament was the only Bible of the early church. In its writings Jesus and his disciples were nurtured. It was no new God that Jesus proclaimed, but the Jehovah who appeared in these pages, "the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob." From its pages he took his answer to the tempter, and one of its psalms was on his lips in the last agony of the cross (Psa. 22). Years before this it had been translated into the Greek, a translation that was called the Septuagint, from a tradition about seventy scholars who were supposed to have made it. This Greek translation was carried by Jews throughout the world, and the early Christian preachers took it with them where they went. Its language gave these Christians the words in which their greater message was spoken. Who can measure what this Old Testament, the Bible of Jesus, has meant to men since then?_ We read its histories and see again the living God moving in the tide of human affairs. We read its psalms and they voice our own prayers and confessions, our faith and our worship, our joys and our tears. We turn to its prophets and they speak like men of our own day, scourging our formalism in religion and our social oppression and wrong. And to this day what better word can we find to put on the walls of Christian temples than Micah's great message as to the meaning of religion: "And what doth Jehovah require of thee, but to do justly, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with thy God?"
Directions for Study
Recall the main points of the first two lessons: Israel's fight for religious freedom, her deep zeal for the Law, and the hope which stirred her.
Read Luke 1. 1 to 2. 39. From these pages try to picture the inner religious life of these people and the atmosphere in which Jesus and John grew up. Here, as in all Bible study, the marginal references in the American Revised Version are of great value. The student should form the habit of looking up these references on special points. By the aid of these marginal references note the many Old Testament phrases used in these songs.
Read Acts 17. 22-31. Bring before your mind what was said of the Roman and Grecian world. Think of this as the world to which Paul went forth. Think of it also as the world in which Jesus was born.
At the close of your study try to sum up in turn the contributions made by Rome, Greece, and Israel, and to fix these in your mind.
Outside of the Christian Church, what do you consider the greatest forces in the world of to-day which are making for the kingdom of God?