By Harris Franklin Rall
Paul summed up the message of the early church in the words, "Jesus Christ, and him crucified." Through all the ages the Christian Church has made this its message; not simply Jesus' teaching or his life, but first of all Jesus himself. The question of the person of Christ has been of deepest interest. This is not the place to study the church's doctrine of Christ. We have, however, an even more important question: What did Jesus think of himself?
What Jesus Says Of Himself
The Silence of His Earlier Ministry.—It is generally agreed that the first three Gospels give the most faithful account of Jesus' teaching, and the study of these Gospels has shown us that Jesus' great concern was to point men to God. He says little of himself, especially in the earlier days; it is of the Father that he speaks, and of the coming rule of God. It is the life with God that he sets forth, that abundant life which comes only when God rules in men.
Yet even in these earlier days we find expressions concerning himself that would be most astonishing from any other man. There is the note of authority with which he declares, "But I say unto you," an authority which he sets even against the sacred" writings of his people (Matthew 5. 22, 28, 34, 39). Quietly he asserts that he is greater than the temple, the nation's greatest glory next to the law, that he is greater than Jonah or Solomon (Matthew 12. 6, 41, 42). He declares that John the Baptist was the greatest of the prophets, but with himself there has come a new age so much more wonderful that the least in the kingdom of God is greater than John. He summons his followers to rejoice because they live in such an age: "Blessed are the eyes which see the things that ye see: for I say unto you, that many prophets and kings desired to see the things which ye see, and saw them not; and to hear the things which ye hear, and heard them not" (Luke 10. 23, 24).
Sonship Before Messiahship.—What was the underlying fact in Jesus' thought of himself? Was it that he was the Messiah? That, of course, was the thought that dominated the early church: Jesus is the Messiah, the long expected Deliverer. And so it happened very soon that the Greek word for "Messiah," the "Anointed One," came to be used as a proper name, and men called him Christ. Very commonly too, as men have studied the person of Jesus, they have begun with the thought of Messiah and then moved on and up to the thought that he was Son of God. And yet, reading the Gospel pages carefully, we must conclude that the first and deepest fact in Jesus' thought of himself was not Messiahship, but Sonship. He claims Messiahship, but the Sonship comes first (Matthew 16. 13-17).
The Experience of Sonship in Jesus' Life.—This spirit of Sonship is evident in all the life of Jesus. The boy's first temple visit (Luke 2. 41-52) shows the devotion to his Father and the sense of his Father's presence which marked all his life. On the other hand, he knew his Father's love and purpose for him. That fact stands out in his great experience of baptism, when the voice comes to him saying, "Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased." All through his life flows this great current: on the one hand his utter devotion to God and perfect fellowship with him, on the other the knowledge that his life and his work are all of God and in God's hand. That assurance stands the test of the last terrible days. It cries out "Abba, Father" in the struggle of the garden, and breathes forth upon the cross its last words, "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit."
A Unique Sonship
Jesus Is the Son.—But the Sonship of Jesus means something more. We think of him not simply as a son of God, but as the Son of God. Does this rightly represent Jesus' own thought? Certain facts are significant here. Jesus seeks to lead men into the same life of sonship that he lives, and yet it is always apparent that he is the source and they take from him. He teaches them to pray, but it is nowhere said that he prays with them. He bids them repent, but himself shows no need of repentance. And so we are not surprised when he speaks of himself as "the Son"; he knows that his Sonship is unique.
The Great Invitation.—One passage speaks to us here with special power and beauty. It was spoken at a time of disappointment, when to human eyes his work seemed a failure. These great words show how little Jesus was .dependent upon outward approval, how wholly the sources of strength and insight were within. Coming from Jesus' deepest soul, they form a lyric which may well be printed in verse form (Matthew 11. 25-30).
The Son Has Life for Men.—Here is no mere learner saying, "Come, let us seek the Lord together." This is no mere teacher saying, "Here is my message, take it and go." Two facts stand out clearly in this passage: First, Jesus knows that he stands in a special relation to the Father. Second, because of this relation to the Father, he has a special mission to men. In him is the truth of God, in him is the life. And so he calls men to himself: "Come unto me," "learn of me," "take my yoke," "find my rest."
Jesus' Use of "Son of Man."—"Son of man" was the phrase that Jesus used in speaking of himself. No less than eighty times does the phrase occur in the Gospels. What did it mean for Jesus? (1) It does not refer especially to the humanity of Jesus, either as meaning that he was one among men, or that he was the ideal man. (2) It probably means the Messiah. We know that some Jewish writers had already used the phrase in that sense, and had interpreted the passage Daniel 7. 13 as meaning this. (3) Why, then, did Jesus use a phrase whose meaning would not be clear and definite to those who heard it? The answer is most suggestive. First of all, he used it because this title, so humble and so human, of all the Messianic names had the least suggestion of the claim of earthly royalty and power. It fitted in with the whole spirit and life of Jesus, with his ministry of service. In the second place, just because men would not necessarily understand it as Messianic, it made it possible for Jesus to fill it with his own meaning. Messiah to-day is a word that has many meanings, Christian, Jewish, even pagan; but Son of man has only one meaning for us, a meaning full of the glory of love and sacrifice. It is an exalted name, but it does not rest on thoughts of earthly glory or external power.
Jesus As Saviour
Sonship for Jesus Meant Being Saviour and Servant.—The Sonship of Jesus is always to be connected with his Saviourhood. Wherever in the first three Gospels there is a reference to Jesus' Sonship it is always joined with the thought of his serving and saving men. He hears the voice at his baptism, but the voice that speaks of the "beloved Son" is one that calls him to a task. In the temptation story the two thoughts are joined again. "If thou art the Son of God," says the tempter, "then the kingdoms of the world should be thine." "If I am the Son of God," says Jesus, "then I must obey and serve and, if needs be, suffer." Sonship meant for him the task rather than the special privilege. When the disciples confess him as Messiah he begins at once to teach them the law of service and to speak of his death for men (Mark 10. 45). Paul sets forth one side of this truth in the wonderful passage of Philippians 2. 5-11.
The Son as the Saviour of Men.—The Sonship of Jesus leads us thus to Saviourhood; because he is the Son of God he becomes to us the Saviour, and because we know him as Saviour we see that he is Son. He found men burdened and enslaved. There was the load of fear and anxiety, the slavery of greed and selfishness and hatred and lust. And religion itself, which should have brought peace and strength, in many cases had but added to the load. Jesus knew that he had within him the life which men needed. With all his burdens, there was peace in his heart; with all the danger, there was joy and trust in God. Because he is Son of God, therefore, and possesses this, he becomes Saviour of men. Come unto me, he says; leave the yoke of the law and take my yoke, for it will bring you rest.
Jesus As Lord And Master
Jesus Is Lord Because He Saves.—In taking up these aspects of the person of Jesus we have been following a definite order, and there is reason for this. First comes the Sonship of Jesus, his life of perfect oneness with the Father. Next comes his Saviourhood; because this life is in him he can deliver men and give them the new life. And now there comes his Lordship: Jesus is Lord of men because he is Saviour of men. That is true in Christian experience. Men follow him and obey him because of what he has done for them. Because he has given them life, they cry out: "Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life." He is Master because he has the truth. He is our Lord because he has the power to save. What is seen in Christian experience is reflected in the Gospels. Jesus does not begin his ministry by the assertion of authority and the claim of Lordship. He begins by teaching and healing and saving. Then, because he has the truth of God, he asserts his authority to speak; and because he brings life he asserts his right to command.
His Authority As One Who Has the Truth.—Note how Jesus asserts his authority as teacher (Matthew 23. 8-10). He quotes no scribe or rabbi, like other Jewish teachers. He needs no authority, not even that of the Old Testament. He appeals, it is true, to the latter, but he does not depend upon it; he speaks from within. He does not even say with the prophet, "Thus saith the Lord," but simply, "I say unto you"; "No one knoweth the Father, save the Son." When the test comes he is not simply independent but he can oppose all else. He opposes the authority of the scribes, the unquestioned leaders. He denounces the revered traditions, more binding upon the Jew than the law itself. He holds himself greater than temple or prophet. He even puts aside the law itself. And all this is done quietly, simply, as by one who is entirely sure of himself.
His Authority in Healing and Forgiving.—There is utter dependence upon the Father, but there is also absolute independence of all else. He knows that the power of God and the love of God are in him, just as he knows the truth of God within him. "Arise," he says to the sufferer. "Thy sins are forgiven," he says to the sinner.
His Authority in Commanding Men.—Jesus shows his authority by the way in which he commands men. He does not command their bodies; he does not levy taxes, nor put a sword into their hand. But he claims a sovereign authority in the sphere of conscience and will, and he rules as Lord of men's souls. Nor is it little that he asks. He is satisfied with no tenth of a man's income or seventh of his days. Words and forms and outward gifts are not enough; he demands the inmost spirit, the inner thought. He bids men leave home and kindred; he declares that his followers must hold their lives forfeit to him as truly as the man condemned who goes out carrying his cross. He puts all his astonishing claim in two words and says, "Follow me."
His Right to Judge.—And, finally, in one remarkable passage he tells how all the nations are to be gathered before him and how he is to judge them and separate them (Matthew 25. 31-34). Such a claim has seemed to some out of keeping with the life of one who went about humbly to teach and to forgive. But it is this very work of teaching and saving which in the end makes Jesus the judge of men. The fourth Gospel puts it in brief but pregnant words: "This is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light" (John 3. 19). Every truth becomes a test; every opportunity is at the same time a judgment. This fact lies back of the great passage, Matthew 12. 22-45,' the heart of which is found in the words, "If I by the Spirit of God cast out demons, then is the kingdom of God come upon you." Because Jesus is the light and the life of men, he becomes the judge of men. It is God's love and God's will that stand before men when Jesus speaks to them. They judge themselves by what they do with him. In the great judgment scene of Matthew 25, Jesus simply says in effect to those on the left: You refused my gospel of love and good will as the rule of your life; by that you have judged yourselves. It is not the law that judges those who refuse mercy; it is the gospel of mercy itself that condemns.
Directions For Study
Scripture references: Matthew 12. 6, 41, 42; Luke 10. 23, 24; Matthew 16. 13-17; 11. 25-30; Mark 10. 45; Matthew 23. 810; 25. 31-34.
Consider first how utterly unassuming Jesus was, how little he demanded for himself. Then note some of the astonishing claims that he made.
Consider the fact of Jesus as Son. Note how simple the thought is, and how Jesus began with this as boy at Nazareth (read the story of the temple visit). Then note how high this thought leads.
State for yourself in what way Jesus was Saviour to the men of his day. What did he give them? What did he do for them? What does he do for us?
In what ways did he show himself to be Master?
In how far is the Lordship of Jesus a fact in the world today? Consider his Lordship over men in their ideals, their faith, and their life. How far are our ideas of God and our ideals of right and wrong determined by Jesus?