By Harris Franklin Rall
Never was there a great movement which began more simply than Christianity. We have already noted that there were certain Galileans who had come down to hear John and had joined the inner circle of his disciples. One day another Galilean appeared: Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth. He too listened to John's preaching, and then joined those who asked for baptism. In that hour of baptism there came the voice from God telling him that he was the Messiah whose nearness John was declaring. There in the heart of that young man, hidden from the eyes of the crowding throngs, was the real beginning of Christianity.
The Preparation of Jesus
The Boy Jesus. —Of what preceded the baptism of Jesus and of how Jesus was prepared, the Gospels give us no account. And yet there are suggestions of real value that we may consider. The mystery of that life nothing can explain, but it will be of interest and profit for us to get what light we can from Gospel page and Jewish custom upon the home and boyhood life of Jesus. For the suggestive words of Luke tell us that Jesus lived the normal life of a boy, subject to his parents and increasing year by year "in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man."
Never was there a people who cared for the training of their children as did the Jews, especially in Jesus' day. There is nothing more hopeful in the life of the church to-day than the increasing attention that we are giving to religious education, but even now we are not giving as much time and thought as did the Jews. "Our ground is good, and we work it to the •utmost," writes Josephus; "but our chief ambition is for the nurture of our children."
The Study of the Law. —There were three elements in the training of a Jewish boy. The first was the study of the Law. That study began at home with mother and father as soon as a boy could speak. The first words that he learned were probably the Shema (Deut. 6. 4-9; 11. 13-31; Num. 15. 37-41). These words every devout Jew recited morning and evening. For most of them, no doubt, it was but a matter of the "vain repetitions" which Jesus condemned, like the Pater nosters and other prayers of some folks to-day. The words had other meaning for him. It is interesting to recall that his answer to the questioning scribe began with the first words that he learned as a child: "Hear, 0 Israel; the Lord our God, the Lord is one; and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength." At the age of six he started to the synagogue school to which was added later the Sabbath service.
Training Through History. —The story of Abraham and Isaac, of Joseph and his dreams, of Moses and his wonderworking rod, of Egypt's discomfiture and the great deliverance, of the exploits of David, down to the tale of splendid heroism under Judas Maccabeus and his brothers: this was the record that filled every Jewish boy with pride and made him, no matter how far from the land of his fathers, still above all else a Jew. To Jesus it brought the sense of a living, working presence of God, and it was this God of his fathers that he proclaimed when he began to teach: the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob.
And this history was not taught by stories alone. The great festivals were an even more powerful mode of stirring religious patriotism. The three principal festivals were those of the Passover, the Feast of Pentecost, and that of Tabernacles. They set forth the great events of the past: deliverance from Egypt, the giving of the Law, and the life in the wilderness. At least once a year each pious Jew sought to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for one of these feasts, especially the Passover. We can hardly realize how deep the impression must have been: the city bursting into view as the pilgrims reached the crest of the hill overlooking its wonderful buildings; the memories clustering about the place, from David onward; the crowding throngs from every quarter of the Roman world, filled with joy and patriotic exultation; and at last the wondrous temple itself, its courts, its sacred inner inclosure, and its solemn ritual. Luke's simple narrative suggests the profound impression made upon the boy Jesus at that first memorable visit.
The Influence of the Messianic Hope. —A third element entered into the training of the youth and must have been strongly present in Jesus' home. That was the hope which every pious Jew nurtured. It was present more strongly with the common people, indeed, than with the leaders. The priestly party had made its compromise with Rome, as it had before with the Greeks, to retain its position. The Pharisees had become quite willing to let political matters remain at one side, so long as they could devote themselves to the law and maintain their place as leaders there. But the ancient hopes still burned in the hearts of the common people. Pharisees and scribes pondered the traditions of the law; but the common people read the apocalypses, books like Daniel, which in vision and under all manner of pictures set forth the glorious triumph that was coming.
The Vision of Youth. —But it was not such writings that made the strongest appeal to Jesus. His later use of the Bible shows what his earlier study was. He loved the psalms, and it was a psalm that was on his lips when he died (Mark 15. 34). Next to them it was the prophets that appealed to him, and Deuteronomy, which itself is a prophetic book. These writings, with their devotion to God, their insistence upon righteousness, their denunciation of moral evil, appealed to what was in his own heart and helped to shape his own hope concerning the Kingdom. He too believed the new day was coming. Every plant which his Father had not planted was to be rooted up. Sin and sorrow were to be done away and righteousness was to come. The Messiah was to bring in a new world, in which only the Father's will was to be done, and every other power was to be overthrown. How this vision must have stirred his heart and filled his waking hours.
The School of Common Life. —Meanwhile there was still another part of his preparation that went on, developing out of his simple daily life. He seems to have followed Joseph's calling of carpenter. In daily toil and common duties he learned to know men and life. He read the hearts of folks and saw the good and evil there, their weakness and temptations and needs. He learned the ways of common life, the work of the farmer, the builder, the merchant, the housewife. In beautiful Galilee, so much more fruitful than Judaea, he learned the wealth and beauty of nature which his sayings later reflected: the growing crops, the fair wild flowers, the flocking birds, the glowing dawn and sunset, and all the life which showed his Father's presence and his Father's care.
His Baptism and His Call
So Jesus lived on. Boyhood gave place to youth and manhood. If it be true that Joseph died early, then upon Jesus as the eldest son the cares of the home rested, with its goodly household of at least seven children (Matt. 13. 55, 56). The years of manhood too began to pass. They were not empty years for him either in inner growth or outer service, but his time was not yet come. Nor is there any suggestion that, when he pondered over the coming of the Kingdom and asked himself when it might be, he had yet realized that he himself was to be the chosen one to bring in that day. The words of the boy in the temple tell us only of a spirit filled with the thought of higher things and the devotion to his Father.
The Call of John. —There came a day at last when pilgrims from the south brought word of a wonderful preacher. He wrought no miracles, but those who heard him believed that at last a prophet had again arisen. They told of his strange garb and holy life, of the throngs that moved out to hear him, and of his message. As Jesus heard the report of that message his heart was stirred within him. Here was one that voiced his own conviction. He did not call the people to rise against Rome, but to repent of their sins. Surely he was a prophet, and surely he was right, then, in his declaration that at length the Kingdom was at hand.
Jesus and John's Baptism. —Others had already gone down from Galilee when Jesus answered the call. Who John was he probably knew, but it is an open question whether these two were personally acquainted. Lost in the multitude, Jesus listened to John's preaching. Yes, this was indeed a herald of Jehovah. Then Jesus offered himself for baptism. We have seen that John's baptism had two meanings. It was a baptism of repentance, the sign that men were turning from their sins, thus to make ready for Messiah's coming, and it was a form of consecration, the enlistment of a new Israel to welcome her King. How could Jesus take this baptism upon him?
John himself, we are told, refused the baptism at first. It appears he did not recognize Jesus. But it was his wont apparently to question those whom he baptized, as we see from the directions he gave to the taxgatherers and soldiers. In this Man he saw not the sign of sin, but the presence of a spiritual vision and power above his own, though he had not yet marked him as the Messiah. "I might well be baptized of you," he declared, "instead of your coming to me." But Jesus saw a larger meaning than this individual application. First of all, he believed that John's movement and message were of God. He wanted to enroll himself, to pledge himself to this preparation for the Kingdom. But was there not a second and deeper meaning? His own life had never known any will but his Father's will; it had been without sin. But the sin of his people had already lain heavy upon his soul. Was it not natural that he should share in this ceremony in which the people were thus visibly confessing their sins? He and they were alike thinking, not simply of individual need and desire, but of the nation's sin and of the salvation that was to come to the nation. Even now, before the great call came, he was bearing the sins of men.
The Baptism of the Spirit. —With the baptism of water there came a higher baptism, which John could not give: the baptism of the Spirit of God. That Spirit had been in the heart of Jesus from the beginning in a life of perfect union with the Father. But a new call was coming, a new life was beginning, and with these came a new consciousness of his relation to God, a new need, and a new and fuller presence of God in him. For the Spirit and the call came together, and each interpreted the other. "Thou art my beloved Son, in thee I am well pleased." By such words could be meant only one thing: he himself was the Chosen One, the Messiah whom John proclaimed.
Directions for Study
Review briefly the outline of the first four lessons; think of each point in its possible relation to Jesus as boy and young man. Think, for example, of the story of the Maccabees as told to him by his mother; of what he knew of the Roman world and how he felt when he saw Roman soldiery; of how he learned Greek in Galilee from hearing it spoken (Galilee was hardly half Jewish); of his feelings toward the ways and teachings of the scribes and Pharisees.
Read Luke 2. 40-52 and Matthew 3. 13-17.
Name in order of importance what you consider the principal influences that helped to shape the life of the boy Jesus. How far are these influences working upon boys and girls to-day? What is hindering them?
From the hill crest looking down on Nazareth one can see thirty miles. Using maps and Bible, make a list of the places of historic note upon which the boy Jesus might have looked on any clear day.
Every student should have Huck's Synopsis of the First Three Gospels (Methodist Book Concern; $1, net), or Stevens and Burton, Harmony of the Gospels, preferably the former. These print the Gospel records side by side.