The Life of Jesus

By Harris Franklin Rall

Chapter 11


The work in Galilee which we have been studying marks the first great period of Jesus' life. What did he accomplish? Why did he not go on? With what purpose did he turn from Galilee? In seeking the answer to these questions we shall study first the popularity of Jesus and the growing opposition that he met.

The Time of Popularity

Early Favor. —The Gospel pages show plainly the great popularity of Jesus during this ministry in Galilee. Wherever he appears the crowds at once gather. They press into the house so that he and his friends cannot even take food (Mark 3. 20). The throng is so great by the side of the lake that he must get into a boat in order to speak to them (Mark 3. 9). He leaves the cities, but the crowds gather in the country places to which he goes; and when he and his friends try to escape for a little rest, they discover his plan and are awaiting him when he arrives (Mark 1. 45; 6. 31-33). He has the same experience when he crosses to the other side of the lake (Mark 6. 53-56). Populous Galilee could easily furnish such crowds, but by this time his fame had spread and they came from afar as well: from the regions of Tyre and Sidon on the west and north, from Judaea on the south, from Idumaea lying beyond Judaea, from across Jordan on the east.

The Reason for It. —The reason for this sudden response is not hard to see. The nation, already filled with hopes and dreams, had been stirred from end to end by John's message of the kingdom at the door. As soon as Jesus began to attract attention by his healings, men at once began to associate him with this idea of the coming kingdom. Not that they thought of him as the Messiah; he was one of the prophets, John the Baptist risen again, or Elijah, or Jeremiah.

Misunderstanding and Opposition

Early Opposition. —This popularity was largely upon the surface. Beneath the surface there were misunderstanding and opposition almost from the beginning, and this brought its inevitable result in the end. For Jesus himself the attitude of his friends and kindred must have been hardest to bear. When he began his work he did not at first go to his old home. But the news did not take long to reach Nazareth, the astonishing stories of what Jesus, the son of Joseph, was doing: his teaching, his healings, the great crowds, his daring opposition to the scribes and Pharisees whom all acknowledged as leaders. Friends went to see and hear, and at last his mother and brothers came. They heard many things, no doubt, these friends of his, but they seemed to have missed the one and chief matter, the message of Jesus. No wonder that they thought him beside himself and that his mother and brothers sent word to him, wishing to take him home. But that message, God's message, was everything to Jesus. He had put it first in his own life, he must make it the test for all others, even his kindred. "Who is my mother and my brother?" "Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother'' (Mark 3. 31-35). Henceforth his gospel was to be the new tie, rising above kinship and friendship, nation and speech, binding men in a new and universal fellowship. But it was to bring division also, and the sorrow of such division Jesus now felt.

His Visit Home. —It was probably somewhat later than this that Jesus visited his home (Luke 4. 16-30). He had left the first and narrower sphere of work near the lake and with his disciples was moving through the towns of Galilee. At last one Sabbath day he found himself in the familiar synagogue at Nazareth. It was not so man}' months since he had left it, hut how much had happened in that time! The service began. The lesson from the law was apparently read by another; to Jesus was given the lesson from the prophets. It was the roll of the prophet Isaiah that was handed him, and he read the opening verses of the sixty-first chapter.

His Rejection at Nazareth. —After the custom of the synagogue, when Jesus had completed the lesson he began to speak. What would he say to these townsmen and friends? The lesson had spoken of a new and glorious day. "To-day," said Jesus, "hath this Scripture been fulfilled in your ears." They could not deny the grace and power of his words, but such a declaration seemed presumptuous. This was the son of the village carpenter. They knew his mother and brothers and sisters. What did he mean by this manner of authority? Why should he say that the prophet's message was fulfilled that day? Let him do for them some of the wonders that were talked about in Capernaum, then they might listen to him. Jesus read their unbelief in their faces. It was the same experience : cavil and criticism, blindness to his message. He had brought them the glorious word that the day of which the prophet spoke was near; instead of penitence and rejoicing, this was the answer. "And he marveled because of their unbelief" (Mark 6. 6). But when he met their unbelief, not by working wonders, but by the proverb about the prophet honored everywhere except at home, they became angry; "and they rose up and cast him forth out of the city."

Conflicts with the Leaders

Opposition Gradually Rising. —The enmity of old neighbors and the unbelief of his kindred were but passing events, however they may have wounded Jesus. Deeper in its passion and more fateful in its consequences was the attitude of the leaders of the people, the scribes and Pharisees. In freer Galilee the Pharisees were not so strong as in Jerusalem; yet here too they were the acknowledged leaders in piety as the scribes were the recognized authority in religion. They had no occasion to oppose Jesus at first. To them he was one of many teachers seeking to instruct the people in the way of righteousness. He made no attack upon the law, and he and his disciples attended the synagogue and went up to the great feasts at Jerusalem. Very early, however, they found occasion to note his lack of strictness in keeping certain laws and to criticize his association with "sinners." Gradually they came to see that here was a different conception of religion that would overthrow their teachings and their authority, and so there came at last the settled and bitter hostility.

The Cause of Conflict: the Religion of Rules. —The first source of conflict was in connection with those endless rules the keeping of which made up the main part of religion for the average Jew. The study of these rules was the great business of the scribes; their keeping was the very life of the Pharisees. The welfare of men, the demands of mercy and righteousness, were lost sight of. The keeping of these rules was an end in itself to which other things had to bend. A physician, for example, might help on the Sabbath in a matter of life and death, but he was not allowed to set a broken limb or pour cold water on a sprained ankle.

Sabbath Healings. —Jesus' chief interest was not in rules, but in righteousness; not in institutions, but in men. Thus he violated again and again the Pharisaic rules of the Sabbath by his healings on that day. The Pharisees themselves were present on one such occasion (Mark 3. 1-5). There had been brought him a man with a withered hand. In one of the old Gospels, not contained in our Bible, the Gospel of the Hebrews, the man is said to have spoken thus to Jesus: "I was a mason, earning my living with my hands; I pray thee, Jesus, restore to me my health that I be not put to the shame of begging," Jesus read the thought of his enemies, and made his appeal to them. He tried to show them by his question just what their position meant: "Is it lawful on the Sabbath day to do good?" It seemed so clear to him, surely they must understand. But they refused to yield, all the more enraged because they could not answer him.

The Sabbath for Man. —Jesus made his position still more clear on another occasion. The disciples, passing through a grain field on the Sabbath, had plucked some of the ears, rubbed out the grain, and eaten it (Mark 2. 23-28). The Pharisees complained to Jesus. Taking the grain to appease hunger was allowed by the Law, but in doing it on the Sabbath the disciples had performed two of the thirty-nine principal labors forbidden by the rules of the scribes, namely, reaping and threshing. Jesus first answered them on their own plane, pointing to David, who likewise broke a rule in his need, and to the priests, who break the rule of no labor that they may offer sacrifices (Matt. 12. 3-5). Then he set forth the great principle which applies not only to the Sabbath, but to all laws and forms and institutions: "The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath;" to which should be added the word in Matthew 12. 7: "But if ye had known what this meaneth, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless."

The Laws of Purity. —Even more extensive than the Sabbath laws were the laws of purity. These were based upon Leviticus 11 to 15 and Numbers 19, but endlessly elaborated. Holiness was largely a matter of keeping free from defilement by the unclean, that is, the ceremonially unclean food or objects or persons. Men forgot righteousness and mercy in their concern about bathing hands and vessels and shunning "unclean" food and "unholy" men. Here too Jesus came into conflict with the Pharisees, for about all these things he cared very little. The ceremonial washings he and his disciples simply left to one side (Mark 7. 1-5). He seems to have disregarded the laws of food, whether those of the scribes or those in Leviticus, declaring that it was not the food from without, but the thoughts within, that made a man clean or unclean (Mark 7. 14-23). He cared little whether men were ceremonially clean or not when it came to saving them. He was quite as ready to sit at table with Levi as with Simon the Pharisee.

The Conflicting Conception of Religion. —But the difference between Jesus and the Pharisees was far more than the question of obeying certain rules. It was a difference in the conception of religion itself. Long before this the great prophets had waged a similar fight against the popular religion of their day with its emphasis upon sacrifices and feasts and ritual. It is justice and kindness and humble obedience that Jehovah wants, they declared (Isa. 1 and Mic. 6). Jesus stands with the prophets for the religion of spirit and life, not of forms and rules. It is one of these prophets that he quotes: "I desire mercy, and not sacrifice" (Hos. 6. 6). The Pharisees saw only gradually how fundamentally he was opposed to them, but Jesus realized the difference. That appears in Mark 2. 18-22. Mark tells here how the Pharisees were criticizing the disciples because they did not keep certain rules, in this case the rules of fasting. Jesus points out that fasting is a form, and men should use forms only when they express the spirit. In this case fasting- was out of place. "Can the sons of the bride chamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them?" Then, in picture language, he sets forth a still deeper lesson. The wedding feast was a common picture with the Jews to portray the blessings of the new age of the Messiah. I have brought the new, says Jesus, and you cannot shut it up any more in the old forms. You cannot patch the old garments with the new cloth, you cannot put the new wine into old wine-skins. Jesus was bringing the new religion of the Spirit and the old religion of letter and form, of ritual and rule, must pass away.

The Results of the Conflict. —With all this difference, Jesus still made his appeal to the scribes and Pharisees. His spirit of love and hope went out even to them and he sorrows when they do not respond (Mark 3. 4, 5). They were not all alike; it was a scribe to whom Jesus said, "Thou art not far from the kingdom of God"' (Mark 13. 34). But as a class they rejected him. Jesus accuses them of willful blindness because they said he had an unclean spirit and was in league with Beelzebub. It was not the wrong to him that mattered, but the sin against themselves, against the light that was in them. That was the sin against the Holy Spirit, for the light was God's light (Mark 3. 22-30). Their attitude compelled him to take his stand openly and denounce them (Mark 7. 6-13). They in turn soon came to see that his victory would mean their defeat and loss of place. They tried to confute Jesus before the people (Matt. 12. 10) and so destroy his influence, but his answers left them speechless. And so they began plotting with the Herodians, probably followers of Herod Antipas (Mark 3. 6), apparently with the plan of showing up Jesus as a dangerous political character, perhaps a revolutionary. They did not succeed in Galilee, but upon just such a charge they at last secured his condemnation before Pilate (Luke 23. 2).

Directions for Study

Read Mark 1. 45; 6. 30-34, 53-56, and recall other passages which speak of the crowds that thronged about Jesus.

Read Luke 4. 21-30; Mark 3. 20, 21, 31-35.

Read Mark 2. 18-28; 3. 1-6, 20-35; 7. 1-23.

Study these passages under three heads as arranged above: the early popularity, the misunderstanding and opposition of friends, the enmity of the leaders.

The last point is the most important. After reading this chapter through, go back to the Scripture passages again. Try to discover for yourself the fundamental difference between Jesus and the Pharisees in their idea of religion, in their spirit, and in their aim.

What is your conception of religion?