The Aim and Hope of Jesus

by Oliver Stearns

A learned Historian of the Christian Theology of the Apostolic age observes that what most distinguishes the Jewish religion, at least in its last centuries, is not so much monotheism as faith in the future. While elsewhere we see the imagination of men complacently retracing the picture of a golden age irrecoverably lost, Israel, guided by its prophets, persisted in turning its eyes towards the future, and attached itself the more firmly to a felicity yet to come, the more the actual situation seemed to give the lie to its hopes.

What these hopes were in relation to the future of that people and of the world, what the Messianic ideas and expectations were, we learn from the New Testament, particularly from the Gospels. And we find our impressions from this source made more clear in some points, and in all confirmed, by a study of the Apocalyptic literature,—of those writings of which it was the object to give both shape and expression to the Hebrew thought of the kingdom of heaven, and of the brilliant and miraculous events which would introduce and establish it.

Jewish Theology in the age of Jesus Christ divided the whole course of time into two grand periods; one, comprehending the past and the present, was that of suffering and sin; the other, embracing the future, a period of virtue and happiness. The last years of the former period formed the most important epoch in the History of Humanity, the transition to a new order of things, and was designated by a peculiar phrase,—the consummation of the age and the last days. It would be introduced by the appearance of the great Restorer or Deliverer of the people of God, and of the world, whom the prophets predicted; and who was called the Messiah, the Anointed of the Lord,—i.e., the King by eminence, the King of Israel. He was to be the successor and the son of David. The precise moment of his appearance was not known. The Jewish theologians tried to determine the precursive signs of the near approach of his advent. The first of these was the period of great wickedness and suffering, marked by a particular name, the anguish, and compared to the pangs of child-birth. Immediately preceding the advent of the King, a prophet of the Old Covenant would be restored to life to announce it,—a part in the miraculous drama commonly assigned to Elijah. The Messiah himself would come on the clouds of heaven, with a retinue of angels, and with a pomp and splendor which would leave no doubt of the fact of his advent. He would come to found the kingdom of God. This implied the political, moral, and religious regeneration of the people. A series of most imposing scenes would follow the advent. At the sound of a trumpet, the dead would arise and appear for the judgment of the last day. The just would take part in the judgment of the reprobate, who would be thrown into the lake of fire, prepared for the devil and his angels to suffer eternal torture. And the kingdom of God or of the Messiah would be established immediately on the earth, which, with the whole of the universe of which it was the centre, would be gloriously transformed to fit it to be the abode of the elect of God.

Into the circle of these ideas and expectations Jesus was born. In it he passed his life, acted and suffered; and claimed to found the kingdom of God. He claimed in some sense to be the Messiah; and, though rejected by his people and put to death, he has borne the name in history, and now bears it. He is Jesus, the Christ. How did he regard these ideas and expectations? Did he adopt them? And, if at all, how far? Did he claim to be such a Messiah as the Jews expected? If so, then Christianity may be what it has been called, "a natural development of Judaism." It is not essentially a new religion. It is not an evolution of a perfect universal, from an imperfect and partial, religion. It is essentially Judaism still; and "the kingdom of God, which Jesus preached in both a temporal and spiritual sense, developed naturally and logically into the Popedom, which is the nearest approximation to the fulfilment of the claim of Jesus. Judaism is germinal Christianity, and Christianity is fructified Judaism." Christianity is only what is weakest and most fantastic in Judaism gone to seed. The fruit is the Roman Hierarchy and Ritual. That which is alone characteristic of it is limited and perishable. Jesus himself, though his ambition was a lofty one, was mistaken in an essential point of his self-assertion; and the gospel is not destined to be an universal religion, but only to make some moderate contributions thereto.

It is an important question, then,—one which concerns his worth and position as a man, as well as his wisdom as a founder of a religion,—What did Jesus aim at? and what did he expect as the result of his movement? The answers that have been given may be reduced to three principal forms: 1. He expected to found a political Empire; 2. He expected to introduce a vast Theocracy, to which believers of other nations should be admitted, and which was to be established on the renovated earth, after his death, at his return to take possession of it as King, to reward his followers, and to put all opposition under his feet; 3. He expected to found a purely spiritual communion or society in which he should continue to exercise for ages, by his spirit, word, and life, a power of truth and love over the minds and hearts of men, filling them with the most exalted sense of God.

The first view has been presented by some able adversaries of Christianity, among whom Reimarus led the way in a fragment "On the Aim of Jesus," published with others anonymously in 1778. He charged Jesus with using religious motives as merely a means to a political end; but supposed that, after he found death impending, he renounced the political aim, and pretended that his purpose was only a moral one. A few able scholars have been disposed to blend the last view with the others. They suppose an original Theocratic purpose to have been entertained by Jesus, in which the moral and religious principle predominated, but which was not at first exclusive of the political element. They suppose, however, a progress in his aim; that after his rejection by the people, "which he regarded as God's rejection of any national limitation of his work," he inferred that his mission was to found a spiritual kingdom. Though the direct imputation of a political aim has not been a favorite expedient with ultra-rationalist critics since Reimarus was answered by Reinhard and others, it ought not to be passed without consideration. It is continually reappearing in modified forms. And this happens, because it is impossible to present the hypothesis that Jesus intended to be a Jewish Messiah without involving the supposition of something political in his object, and in his means of accomplishing it. Accordingly a very recent critic of Christianity, writing in the interest of "Free Religion," and representing Jesus as claiming to be a Jewish Messiah, after saying very truly that "the popular hope of a Priest-king transformed itself in the soul of Jesus into the sublime idea of a spiritual Christ ruling by love," is constrained to say, inconsistently, in another place, that, if Jesus had assumed the office, he would not have hesitated to discharge its political duties, and to exercise political sway. Here, then, is a revival of the imputation to Jesus of a political aim. But I am not aware that it is anywhere in recent criticism enforced with any new strength of argument. It is obviously contradicted by the general bearing of his actions, and by the whole tone of his teachings when rightly apprehended. It is contradicted by his utter neglect of political measures. He could not be induced or forced to take the position of a political ruler. Admirers wished to proclaim him King: he sent them away, tore his disciples from them, and went himself into the mountain to commune with God. Asked to settle a dispute about property, he says he has never been constituted an administrator of civil justice. When shown the tribute-money, and inquired of if it were lawful to pay tribute unto Cæsar, he makes the memorable reply in which he at once acknowledges the rights of the government de facto; and the rights of conscience and religion, which to deny would be usurpation. He was the first to distinguish the spheres of the church and of the state so intimately related, but never to be blended. And this is just what the political Messiah, the Priest-king, could not have conceived. The outlines of his church may serve as the model of a free church to-day. There was no political motive to enter it. It had no officer who could exercise political power. There was no authority but in the congregation. It was amenable to no political head. Its fundamental truths were the equal relation of all men with God as his children, and the common relation of all men with one another as brethren. The only end of his church was the moral and spiritual development of its members and of all men; the only condition of membership, the recognition of this end; and, with it, of the providential gift of truth and life given in Jesus Christ's consciousness of God, and an appropriating and co-operative sympathy with his character and purpose. Its method was free conference and prayer in the spirit of unity, and in devotion to the regeneration of the human family; a method, the results of which, he assured them, would be the reaching of decisions which would be in essential harmony with his own spirit, the Spirit of God. He drew more from the synagogue than from the temple. Worship might ascend anywhere from the heart. One need not go to Jerusalem. No political Messiah could have thought of any centre of the restored Theocracy but the holy city, to which the tribes should repair with their sacrifices, and the converted heathen bring their votive offerings to Jehovah, the God of Jews; but the temple must be destroyed, and not one stone of it left upon another, according to Jesus, in order to prepare for that worship of the Father by men in spirit and in truth, which he, as the Christ, would inaugurate.

We thus come naturally to another point in the discussion. The theories which recognize the political aim of Jesus commonly suppose that he regarded it as his personal mission to restore Mosaism to its primitive purity. And, if he shared in the hope of the restoration of the Theocracy, he would probably take the most conservative ground in regard to the Levitical institutions and the Mosaic precepts. He would believe the Jewish people must be made independent, in order to give supremacy to those institutions. The Roman yoke must be broken, and the coming kingdom be inaugurated with war. Nothing of this, however, is found in the ministry of Jesus Christ. When he preached "the kingdom of heaven is at hand," it was no summons to war. The characteristic qualities of those who belonged to this kingdom were opposed to the Theocratic spirit. And the Sermon on the Mount taught, as clearly as the formal declaration before Pilate, that it was not of this world. Why should his followers be ready to suffer social persecution, if his aim tended in the direction regarded with social favor? What mean the non-resistant exhortations, instructing his followers to waive their rights for the sake of the higher interests they were living for, if he and his adherents are charged with the political duty of driving the invader from the sacred soil? The rise and progress of this kingdom, Jesus said, on another occasion, could not be observed like those of an empire founded by force: it would not "come with observation." It had already come unobserved. It began to come with John the Baptist, until whose work the law was in the ascendant; but since whom men had been pressing into the kingdom of heaven, which was tending to supplant the law. And, on still another occasion, if he expected his movement to leave the Jewish ritual intact, how could he say, with pregnant significance, that new wine must not be put into old wineskins, lest they break, and the wine be lost. I know great stress is laid upon his saying, "Think not that I have come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I have not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For truly do I say to you, Till heaven and earth pass away, not one jot or one tittle shall pass from the law, till all be fulfilled." But, if taken literally, they prove too much; for, according to other passages, his teaching on some points—as, for instance, divorce, and, as many think, the Sabbath—directly conflicted with that of Moses. He threw doubt directly upon the tradition that God rested on the seventh day. God, he said, had been always working up to that hour, and in his own acts of healing done on the Sabbath he had been co-operating with God. We must therefore interpret freely this language, and understand by it the everlasting law. The smallest requirement of the true law, however overlooked and despised it may have been in the popular exegesis, would have its emphasis in the new teachings; and whoever slighted it would be the least in the kingdom of heaven. There is not a word which can be fairly construed into commendation of the Levitical priesthood. He gives to the Mosaic precepts cited the most spiritual interpretation, or sets them aside when they cannot be wrought into a more profound system of natural morality. He implies his superiority to all preceding teachers, including Moses. "It was said to the ancients, but I say unto you." Indeed, his tone in this discourse is any thing but that of a Jewish Rabbi of his period. It is that of the most human and universal teaching. It asserts, when we penetrate beyond the immediate occasion of it to its principle, that which is true in all times and places. Those affirmations with which it opens, what are they but declarations, the substantial verity of which it is possible for every man, if he know not now, yet sometime to know in himself. "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." The spirit of those who can set a limit to their wants and curb ambition, who do not live blinded by interests to the demands of a pure soul,—the spirit of such is always blessed. Happy he who imbibes it from the circumstances of his life; and happy he who, amidst the blandishments of riches, is taught it by the discipline of Heaven. These are they to whom has come the kingdom of heaven from Jesus' day until now. Then, "Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God." And is not a pure mind the very moral atmosphere in which man sees God as he is, and rejoices in the sight? A man's moral sentiments are the medium through which comes to him the thought of God. Let those sentiments be perverted, and he imagines either that God is not or that he is different from what he is. His wrong mind either obstructs entirely the beam which darts from the Divine essence, or scatters the spotless white of that Sun, the pure aggregate of Divine perfections, into the particolored tints of the earthly and sensual soul itself. Again, "Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy." It is even so. Those who sympathize with human wants will feel the sympathy of God flowing into their souls, and can never lack assurance of the Divine mercy so long as they keep in themselves that pledge of it,—the merciful spirit. And so it is a grand caution, which every one who has wantonly condemned others knows he ought to keep in memory,—"Condemn not, lest ye be condemned." For the undeserved, heavy sentence of condemnation which a man lifts high to hurl with malignant intent at his brother is arrested by an interposing law of Providence, and falls from his weak hand with its full weight upon his own head. And at length we come to what might be thought a studied satire upon the boasted maxims of human wisdom: "Blessed are ye when men shall speak evil of you falsely for my sake." Is this the sober truth? Is not Christ, so true elsewhere, mistaken here? It is a verity as certain as the laws of God. Do not minds advance unequally in truth, in all the successive phases of a soul's spiritual growth? Whoever goes before others in thought and life will find men laying this to his charge. But, if by following the command of Christian truth to his conscience he has opened upon himself the battery of human censoriousness, he may exult; for every unjust word or groundless suspicion will but remind him of his unbribed devotion, and be changed before it touches his deepest happiness into the benediction of God.

Were we to go through what was spoken on the Mount, we might show its truth commanding unquestionably the assent of our moral natures. It all takes hold of our mind and life. It comes to us to throw light on what we do and suffer, and to borrow confirmation from it in turn. Though we fall so far short of it, and could not have conceived it originally and from ourselves, as Jesus did, it so accords with the laws of our being as to seem to be the suggestion of our experience, some admonition floating to us by intent of God on that ever-heaving sea of life, of ambition, of passion, of mutual misunderstanding, of strong loves and piercing griefs, of various mingling sympathies, on whose shore we do now stand, and whose tide, for our few seconds here in time, laves our feet and dashes upon us its spray.

We might turn over other pages of Jesus' instruction beyond that introductory statement of the principles of the kingdom of God, and evolve its sense in terms presenting an undeniable spiritual fact to all our race. For instance, "To him who hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken away, even that which he seemeth to have." How true! It is verified in the mental condition of every man at this moment. We only seem to have the faculty we do not use. There is no long, healthy sleep to the mind and the moral will any more than to the body; but the alternative is, live or die. And thus Jesus was ever holding up the law of the spiritual life to the light of that day which dawned with his advent. He dwelt on what is inward. Although you cannot find that once, in his popular teaching, he laid stress upon observances, times without number he studiously distinguished between every thing of the nature of ceremonial and those everlasting obligations of justice and humanity, of inward and outward purity, which ought to be recognized in the home and in the state, in all the intercourse of man with man, and in watching over the secret heart. We may not infer that he was hostile to religious forms. He observed them. He knew that man needed them, and that souls instinct with life would perpetuate them and adapt them to their own wants. But he saw in the spirit of the Scribes the evil of teaching that any arbitrarily imposed outward act can in itself please God; and, in regard to such, the whole emphasis of his teaching was, "These ought ye to have done, and not to have left the other undone." He quoted from the prophets habitually, "I will have mercy and not sacrifice."

Such is the genius of Christianity,—of Christianity as it came from its Founder,—the religion which is said to have ripened into the mediæval theology and the Roman hierarchy. Too little, indeed, has this genius of Christianity been regarded! The old Judaic spirit which brought Jesus to the cross has, among Protestants as well as Catholics, too often crucified the Christianity of Christ. Human metaphysics have been put into creeds and catechisms. Sects have been founded and built up on the importance attached to the form of a rite as a part of essential Christianity. Disputes have raged which the traditions of the Church and the letter of Scripture have failed to settle, and about which Jesus, if teaching among us, would not waste a minute's breath.

If further proof were wanting of the breadth and spirituality of Jesus' view, it might be found in the fact that he was brought to the cross by the pro-Judaism party. His friends would interpret him differently from his enemies. The universality and spirituality of his aim were not at once apprehended by his followers. Their very trust in him would make them slow to perceive his radical meaning; for, to impute to him what was in his mind, would seem to be distrust. They would put a limited construction upon what he said. It would be otherwise with his enemies, who would be sharp and quick to see the full extent to which his words would carry him.

The movement of Jesus, then, may be called revolutionary, not in the sense of aiming directly at political revolution, but in the sense of his expecting to found a free, spiritual, and universal religion, which would uproot and remove in time the partial religions, Judaism included. Still he designed to connect himself with the Old Dispensation. He recognized the Divine mission of Moses and the Providential office of the prophets in preparing for him. In the expectations which they fostered there was something true as well as something false. When they depicted a glorious and happy political condition of the Jewish nation under the Messiah as an earthly king, Jesus must have regarded them as being in error. We find him pronouncing John the Baptist the greatest of the prophets of the old order, and declaring that the least in the kingdom of heaven was greater than he; and the reason is shown by the context of the words (Matt. xi.) to be that John as a Jewish prophet regarded the kingdom of God in part as a political kingdom. But the fundamental idea of the Theocracy, that other nations would be united with Israel under the dominion of the One True God, was one in harmony with Jesus' thought. This expectation Jesus regarded it as his mission to realize and fulfil. He had only to separate from the Theocratic predictions of the prophets the partial political element, to bring them into unison with his universal aim. Whatever in the hitherto prevailing ideas and hopes was capable of expansion he absorbed into himself, that it might be given out in a wider and higher form, and live for ever. A case somewhat parallel might be found in the changes wrought by our late war. Those who took a radical view of the issue of the contest were exposed to the charge of being revolutionary and destroying the Constitution. They could reply, "Yes: the issue will be revolutionary. There will be a new state of law, and of the relations of the people in important respects, effected by carrying out fundamental principles. But those principles were the essence of the Constitution; and to carry them out is only fully to accomplish its purpose, by annihilating transient provisions at war with liberty and social justice, and giving scope to the principles of the Declaration of Independence. We hold to the Constitution. We have come not to destroy, but to fulfil." So Jesus Christ came not to destroy all that had gone before, but to fulfil whatever in it was fundamental to the Divine purpose in relation to man. In this feeling of a real connection between his movement and the Hebrew ideas and hopes is to be found the principal explanation of his confining his labors, and those of the apostles when first sent forth, chiefly to Judea and Galilee. Not only must his own work be limited in its local scope,—for he could not go everywhere,—but the historical basis of his movement lay in the Hebrew history. Among the Hebrew people only could he find suitably prepared immediate disciples. Salvation was to be from the Jews. And, foreseeing that the nation as such would reject him, he saw that it was essential to the extension among the Gentiles of the truths and hopes he inherited as a Jew, essential to the breaking down of the partition wall which now kept out the true doctrine of God from the heathen world, that he should come to a distinct issue with the Jewish authorities, and make it clear and notorious that it was the narrow spirit of Pharisaism and legal formality which crucified him. (If he were lifted up, he would draw all men to him.) And from the first the ruling sect, with the acute instinct of self-interest, discerned the revolutionary character of his movement,—that it elevated man above the Jew, and struck at the root of the idolized Hebrew pre-eminence.

I pass now to a more subtle hypothesis, that Jesus expected to establish the Theocratic empire by angelic assistance on occasion of his return to earth, which would occur at the same time with the great outward change of the world. It is founded on such passages as this: "For the Son of Man is to come in the glory of his Father, with his angels; and then he will render to every one according to his works." (Matt. xvi. 27. Comp. Matt. xiii. 41, and xxvi. 29-60.) It is thus stated by Strauss: "He waited for a signal from his heavenly Father, who alone knew the time of this catastrophe; and he was not disconcerted when his end approached without his having received the expected intimation." His Messianic hope was not political or even earthly. He referred its fulfilment to a supermundane theatre.

Strauss speaks of Jesus' hope as corresponding with the Messianic ideas of the Jews. It took its form from those ideas. Scherer also represents Jesus' idea of the kingdom as wholly Apocalyptic. The first criticism to be made upon this hypothesis is, that a Theocratic idea arising out of the Jewish expectations and conformed to them could not dispense with all thought of earthly conflict. The struggle could not have been altogether upon a supermundane theatre, nor the triumph of the Messiah achieved without common warlike agencies. The common Jewish idea was founded on the language of some Hebrew prophets, and appears in the Apocalyptic writings of Christ's age; and his own mind in cherishing the hope attributed to him must have quite surrendered itself to the popular expectation. This expectation supposed some outward conflict as the occasion of supernatural interference. Nor do I know any ground for thinking that in Christ's time the Jews expected the Messiah to prevail with angelic aid without a conflict of arms. Whoever will read Ezekiel and Daniel will see that those prophets expected a contest on earth with earthly weapons, as the occasion for the intervention of Jehovah. And whoever will read the wars of the Maccabees will see how Jewish courage, fired with the expectation of celestial assistance, never stopped to compare the apparent strength of the respective forces. Nor did the Apocalyptic seers dismiss this thought of earthly battle. The book of Enoch speaks of the unconverted as delivered at the judgment into the hands of the righteous, whose horses shall wade in the blood of sinners, and whom the angels shall come to help. The Apocalypse of the New Testament presents the picture of the Messiah as mounted on a white horse, and riding forth to judge and make war; and the comment of Dr. Noyes on this and similar passages is that, in the mind of the writer, there was to be war in heaven and upon earth, before Christ should reign in final triumph. This theory has no distinctive character without supposing the angels acting on the stage of sense and time, and giving the Hebrews the victory. With this expectation is probably connected the "sign from heaven" demanded of Jesus by the Pharisees, a sign which should stimulate Hebrew faith to irresistible warlike ardor. The unconverted were to be vanquished by some mysterious exercise of Messianic power. Hence many were not satisfied with Christ's miracles; not that they disputed their reality, but as being not decisive of his Messianic character. Now, if this had been the thought of Jesus, he would have been disposed to seek an occasion for such interference from on high. It is true, in saying this, we say he must have given himself up to the enthusiasm which so often fanatically manifested itself in his age, and was always ready to break forth. But the idea supposed, when one's whole being was yielded to it,—as Jesus did yield his whole being to the ideas which possessed him,—could not have stopped short of practical action. He must have been prepared in his thought to act with fanaticism. Strauss says, "He did not try to bring about all this by his own will; but awaited a signal from his heavenly Father." The actual Jesus did undoubtedly as Strauss says; but the supposed Jesus would have at some time believed the signal to be given. The idea, and the sort of faith in supernatural aid which accompanied it, would lead him to think the moment had come for this demonstration. "If such were the ideal of Jesus in fact, why did he not seek to realize it at once? Why did he prefer the way of renunciation and self-sacrifice to the possession of the kingdoms of the world? Why, in the place of the Son of Man, have we not a Mahomet six hundred years in advance." The logical and necessary result of belief in his Messiahship, and of faith in this sort of supernatural aid in realizing it, was that he should bring about an occasion for this demonstration. It was an encounter with the Romans, in the hope that Jehovah and the angels would fight for God's people, and be more than strong enough against all odds. "The Messianic Theocracy could not exist as a Roman province." But Jesus studiously avoids conflict with Rome. Besides, the second part of the temptation of Christ sets aside at once this ideal. His early consciousness of wonderful power had not the effect of disposing his mind favorably toward such Jewish Messianic ideas. That consciousness tended rather to spiritualize his thought: we may say, it subdued him. It made his whole feeling moderate, and his whole thought wise and temperate. This is a very remarkable part of the representation of him by the evangelists.

But, secondly, I will now suppose the expectation of Jesus to have been purified from every notion of warlike action. The regeneration (palingenesia) was to be not a political revolution, but a renovation of the earth and the heavens, attended by a resurrection of the dead, of whom the accepted were to dwell with Christ in the renovated world,—not the present earth, but the earth restored,—and that his presence and return were to be visible. This is his coming with the angels to set up his kingdom and to reign.

I. The very language which this hypothesis is adopted to explain, taken in its proper sense, proves too much. Jesus was to be a king on the renewed earth, yet his kingdom was to be different from those of this world. "It is not," he says, "of this world." It is a real kingdom as much as that of David; but it is not to be a worldly rule on the one hand, nor a purely spiritual rule on the other. It is political, and not political. According to the writer of the Apocalypse, whose views are supposed to have been sanctioned by Jesus, this king must reign until he has put all enemies under his feet. When the kingdom is consummated, he is to surrender it to his Father. The hypothesis under consideration represents the kingdom as to be consummated at the time of the world-catastrophe which, with the second or real coming of Jesus as Messiah, will occur, according to the alleged words of Christ himself, immediately after the destruction of the city. Why shall not the kingdom be given up immediately to the Father? This king in "the proper sense," and in no purely spiritual sense, who comes visibly, will have no occasion for a reign in the proper sense of the word. Strauss says, "Jesus expected to restore the throne of David, and with his disciples to govern a liberated people. But in no degree did he rest his hopes on the sword of his adherents, but on the legions of angels which the Father would send him. He was not disconcerted when his end approached without the kingdom having come. It would come with his return." But how when he returned was the throne of David to be restored, and a proper, literal reign to exist, and not a mere spiritual reign? This king has no business to perform: his work is all accomplished immediately by a stupendous miracle. And he and his apostles have nothing to do but to sit on idle thrones, or to feast at tables loaded with luxuries which are at the same time mundane and supermundane; to enjoy a sensual paradise, which differs from a Mohammedan paradise only in that it does not consist of the coarsest forms of sensual life. They are to partake of an actual wine, a fruit of the vine,—a new kind of wine; to observe the passover with supermundane food, but food pleasurable to the taste. This Jesus is thought to have expected and promised. I sometimes think this attempt to find a half-way doctrine of Jesus' expectation concerning the future ascribes to him an apocalypticism more inept and fatuous than that of the Jews themselves. It attempts to unite the contradictory. It cannot be stated by Strauss in any thing like the literal sense of the passages on which it is founded, without supposing something of that political element which it is designed to exclude; or else entirely dropping that relation to Jewish hopes to which it is believed to owe its origin, and thus leaving it unexplained. For, if Jesus gave up all expectation whatever of a kingdom of this world, we have no occasion for a visible return.

II. The second objection to this view is that it is incompatible with the most important expressions and opinions of Jesus.

1. The kingdom is to come with the world-catastrophe; and the King is then to come in some mysterious manner on the clouds of heaven. How, then, could Jesus say the kingdom of God cometh not with observation? Could any political kingdom arise in a more outwardly striking manner? How does that saying of Christ comport with his promising a literal miraculous light in the heaven (Matt. xxiv. 30) which shall betoken his own coming and the great world-change? That form of coming with a precursive sign in the heaven is just what he contradicted. Such a kingdom would come with a sign which could be watched for,—a sign very different from those signs of the time, the moral indications, which a spiritual insight might discern. How could he say the kingdom of God was among them already, if it were yet to come at the time of the great world-change? How could he say to Caiaphas: "Yes, I am the Messiah; and moreover from this moment you shall see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven"? It was equivalent to saying, "You have arrested me, you have already doomed me to death. But I am the Anointed of God to introduce the new spiritual kingdom of Humanity; and, from this moment in which you decree my death, my cause takes a Divine impulse, and my purpose strides on to the triumph God has destined for it."

2. This expectation is incompatible with what he says on other topics related to the kingdom, the resurrection, and the future life. This expectation implies the Apocalyptic view of the resurrection. The Messiah was to come to raise the dead. (The Christian world has generally entertained the same view.) The visible return and the resurrection coexisted, probably, in Jesus' mind. If he held the one, he held the other. The two opinions were Siamese twins, connected by a vital bond; separate them and you would kill them both. But Jesus gave a view of the resurrection and the future life totally different from the Apocalyptic one. He taught the continuance of life. His argument with the Sadducees proves that doctrine, or it amounts to nothing. God is the God not of the dead, but of the living. The Rich Man and Lazarus, of the parable, are already in a future state of retribution. He who believes on him has "already passed from death unto life." Jesus could not suppose that one who had received from him the quickening of spiritual life could pass into the under-world, and grope as a shade in the intermediate state. "Whosoever liveth and believeth in him shall never die." Now, to one who is satisfied that Jesus was emancipated from the doctrine of an intermediate state, it must be evident that he could not have held the Apocalyptic notion resting on it of a raising of the dead at the coming of the Messiah, and could not have held to the visible coming of the Messiah who was to come to do that very thing.

The same observation is to be made of the judgment. Jesus shows himself emancipated from the common notion of the judgment, and of a future simultaneous judgment-day. He that believeth on him is not judged. He that believeth not is judged already, in that he has not believed in the only-begotten Son of God. God sent him not to judge or to punish the world, but to save it. The judgment of the world is not to be exclusively at a remote day. It has begun. It is now. Christ says, Now is the judgment of this world; now is the Prince of this world to be cast out; now, when Jesus is about to consummate by dying the moral means of that result. Jesus is not to be a personal Judge of men at a remote time. His principles are for ever to judge men, to judge them finally. Not himself as the personal Logos, or as the reappearing Messiah, is to judge men, but "the word he has spoken." These thoughts in the fourth Gospel must have come from Jesus, not from the writer, who shows himself in places not emancipated from the view of his time.

3. The doctrine of Christ's expectation which I am considering is not congruous with the means which he contemplates for accomplishing his work, and with the view he took of the progress of his kingdom, and of the moral duties and retributions of Humanity. Nothing is clearer than that his kingdom of God was to be a communion of men on earth bound together by the same consciousness of the heavenly Father. It was to extend into another life. But it was to spread more and more widely, and subdue the world to his spiritual dominion. By moral influence he is to be King. This communion is to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world. It is to extend its influence by holy example, by good works. He will be in spirit with the apostles and with his church. He trains them to carry on his work, and tells them to preach the good news to all nations. He does this as if founding a work which shall go on indefinitely. He declares early, in a discourse designed to explain his kingdom, that the law shall not pass away; that it shall in its moral requirements be all realized. Heaven and earth shall not pass away until all shall be. And he directs his disciples to pray as much as for daily bread that God's kingdom may come, and that God's will may be done on earth as it is done in heaven. Is it possible that this teacher expects all this to be closed in thirty or forty years, by a violent catastrophe, and by the substituting of a universal miracle for this moral instrumentality? He says it is not the Father's will that one of the lowliest shall perish. Did he mean to limit the opportunity of salvation for the race to forty years, and to consign to the torment of Gehenna all who did not accept the new truth in that time? And all this impossibility is heightened by the nature of some of those parables in which he treated of his kingdom. "If the kingdom of God were to be established by an irresistible miracle, on a fixed day, in a manner so splendid, what signify those admirable parables of the mustard-seed, of the leaven, of the net, of the grain growing from itself, which suppose a development, slow, regular, organic, proceeding from an imperceptible point, but endowed with a Divine vitality, and displaying successively its latent energies?" Besides, no one ever more strictly enjoined the duties of life, the everlasting obligations. He contemplates such duties as are to be done in such a world as ours was then and is now, as the essential sphere in which the heavenly spirit must be formed in man. His principle of final judgment is, "Inasmuch as ye have done the duties of Humanity unto your fellow-men, ye have done them unto me. Come, ye blessed of my Father." Could that teacher suppose that the opportunity for performing such duties would cease for ever before the last of his apostles should have died? Could he think that within that time the destinies of Humanity as he knew it would be closed?

These are the principal reasons which determine me to believe that Jesus did not expect to return visibly to raise the dead, judge the world, and be the head of an external Theocratic kingdom on the renewed earth. What, then, shall be said of the language which appears to express that opinion? "Ye shall drink the wine new with me in my Father's kingdom." "Ye shall sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel," &c. Two considerations are to be kept in sight in establishing the views and expectations of Jesus: first, that he used this language—so far as he used it—in a figurative sense, to represent spiritual and providential facts as he conceived them; second, that the evangelists may have sometimes given to his language a precision and a connection which did not belong to it, as delivered. That he could not have employed this language as it is reported to us, in its literal and proper sense, is to my mind a necessary conviction in the premises. This would suppose that he entertained two orders of conceptions, which were opposed to one another, with a clear profound conviction, and gave them as revelations of God: one his spiritual and rational beliefs; the other his Apocalyptic beliefs. This supposition is the vice of Renan's seventeenth chapter. The language of the Apocalyptic beliefs Jesus might use to some extent as a vehicle for conveying the spiritual and rational to others; and the most explicit language in which he conveyed his spiritual beliefs, so far as it was retained in their feebler minds, might be forced into harmony with their traditional opinions. But that in Jesus' mind, so original, so manifestly filled with fresh thought on every theme of Providence and man, these spiritual apprehensions of a kingdom or communion of God which should act under and within the state, renovating human life and society; of a Messiah who by such a kingdom should fulfil the missionary function of Israel to the race of man; of a resurrection which should be the uninterrupted continuance of the blessed life, or an immediate renewal of the sense of wasted opportunity and law violated on earth; of a judgment both immediate and continual of every soul despising the truth revealed to it; of a retribution to civil societies according to Divine law,—should arise as original conceptions, be held with firm decisive grasp, be of the essence of his instruction, and so pronounced in him that our most advanced modern thought is but the distant echo of his profound and distinct enunciations; and that at the same time he should hold those Apocalyptic traditions, of a visible coming, of a Theocratic throne before whose splendor that of Cæsar would fade away, of a simultaneous resurrection and judgment,—hold them in unimpaired conviction, as truths to be solemnly insisted upon as a part of his revelation,—this, it seems to me, comes as near a psychological contradiction as we can well conceive. And besides, if Jesus had clung to those beliefs as Divine convictions, the language ascribed to him would have had the unity of that of the Epistles and the Apocalypse on this subject. We should not be perplexed with apparent contradictions. As it is, we are obliged to use those words which inculcate his spiritual thought for explaining that part of his language which is conformed to Jewish conceptions.

But, it is said, this language would naturally create misunderstanding, and that it is too bold to be taken in a figurative sense. In regard to the misunderstanding of it, let it be said, if we suppose a mind inspired by God to see far deeper and further than its contemporaries, it must be liable to be misunderstood in proportion to the poverty of the vernacular language. Jesus' inspiration and insight gave his speech a character such as the highest poetic endowment always gives, and made it bold. It is not to be forgotten that he belonged to the east and to the people who have given us the Old Testament prophecies. The boldest tropes were natural to him. In moments of strong moral excitement, they fly from him as sparks from the flint or lightning from the charged cloud. It exposes him to the charge of mysticism. We forget that he was not a lecturer, a systematic teacher; but a prophet, a converser in the streets, a popular teacher, a poet sent from God to re-create humanity. Necessity concurred with inspiration to make his speech tropical and often liable to be misapprehended. He was obliged to use images and terms which the people and the schools applied to the Messiah in order to claim, as he meant to claim, a predetermined, providential connection with Hebrew history and hope. When he said to Pilate, "I am a king," it was a truth; but it was a trope. "I am the bread of life,"—a truth, but a trope. "I am come to send a sword on the earth, not peace;" "This cup of wine is my blood sealing the new covenant,"—truths, but compact with the boldest tropes. When he said, "I am the Messiah," it was a truth, but a trope. It was liable to be misunderstood; but, without it, it was impossible that he should be understood. He saw Satan, after the seventy returned from their mission and related their success, "falling like lightning from heaven." If he foresaw political revolutions which would occur within a generation, and believed they would be employed by Providence to further the establishment of his principles or kingdom, which would then reach a point from which it would be evident, to a sympathizing mind quick to catch the glimpses of a new day, that they would become dominant in humanity, would it be too bold a figure for him to say, "The coming of the Son of Man will be as the lightning which shoots from horizon to horizon," or too bold a figure to describe those precursive overturns and downfalls of the old in language borrowed from Isaiah and Joel, the prophets whom he loved and knew by heart? Might he not believe, identifying his religion and the Divine spirit which would spread it, that at the time of these changes, conspiring providentially with the labors of apostles and evangelists, his voice would call the chosen, those prepared by mental and moral affinity, to the new life-work, to the new order of things; that his call to his own would be like the supposed call of the last trumpet summoning them to come into a spiritual communion of blessed work, and blessed hope? These figures were naturally, almost inevitably, formed in these circumstances.

He used the language given him in the speech of his time in a figurative sense, partly because of the want of proper terms suited to his purpose, and partly because as a popular teacher, desirous to impress the common mind, he could not sacrifice all the associations connected with that. But we often find in proximity with it words of his own, or something in the occasion, which he might expect to constrain the listeners to reflect that he was speaking figuratively; as John vi., "My words, they are spirit and they are life," and the reply Luke xxii. 38, to the information, here are two swords, "It is enough." Were the accounts more full, it is fair to suppose we might have more such expressions. They would not be so likely to be remembered as the striking, figurative words.

There are words of Christ at the Last Supper which seem to me to have occasioned quite unnecessary perplexity. "I say unto you I will not henceforth drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom." They were the spontaneous outflow of mingled sadness, affection, and hope. He might expect them to be interpreted to his disciples by his situation, by all he had said of leaving them, and by his habit of conveying spiritual thought under the sensuous images suggested by the moment. They referred to the kingdom he died to establish. They were as natural as to say, "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." But they have been a stumbling-block to students whom we should have expected to be able better to orient themselves in the Master's genius and style.

Colani has spent a page to ridicule it, and show that it is not fit for its place. Yet a similar figure is used by occidental preachers, who would not expect to be reproached for coarseness. A young minister on an occasion not unlike that on which Jesus sat with his disciples—occurring as did that passover in the midst of sacrifice and revolution, the Thanksgiving day celebrated after the close of our great war, in our land at once so afflicted and so blessed—addressed his hearers, some of whom had lost sons or brothers in camp or field, in figurative but very appropriate and touching language, in which we may suppose he felt the inspiration of his Master's words at the last meal. It was to the effect that, although those who had fallen in the strife could no more partake with us in the bounty with which the Thanksgiving table would be spread, they would in all future festivals be with us in spirit, and rejoice in the blessings ever more and more to be realized which had been purchased by their sacrifices for our disinthralled country.

Nor do I see any better cause of the offence which is taken at the language ascribed to Jesus in Matt. xix. 28, in the offer of thrones: "In the regeneration, when the Son of Man shall sit on the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel." Let us think how Jesus must have longed to communicate his thought and his hope to those chosen ones; how he would not be willing to drive them away by his very greatness as he sometimes drove away the careless and cavilling; how his mind, if he were a human being and not an automaton, would alternate between the sternest truth-speaking and the necessity of coming closer to them, and giving them hope, and lifting them a little nearer to himself; how like the mother bird, enticing her brood to their first flight, and finding he had at one moment gone beyond them, he would come back, and alight on a point nearer to their apprehension, that he might tempt them to use the untried pinions of their thought,—and we need have no difficulty in seeing that he meant thrones of moral power. I do not know how those men received it; but I do not believe they thought then of political power. If, after Jesus left them, they recalled this and every other such expression as a means of nourishing the hope of an Apocalyptic return and kingdom, the great Teacher and Comforter was not accountable for that perversion.

Jesus' language, then, can be explained without supposing him to have expected visibly to return after death to erect a kingdom of God of which he should be the visible head.

The result of our inquiries is, that Jesus did not aim at any political sovereignty, that he rose by the force of the special endowment of his nature above the Apocalyptic superstition of his age, and that he looked and labored immediately for the moral and spiritual renovation of humanity on this earth. He claimed to be a Messiah; not a Messiah after the Jewish conceptions, but a man anointed and endowed of God, to perfect by the manifestation of the Divine in the human, the means of this moral renovation of humanity. He regarded the spiritual Messiahship as a divinely appointed means to this end. He aspired to spiritual rule for no end but this, and his aspiration was disinterested, godlike. It has been said that he was ambitious, though it is allowed that his ambition was the most elevated. And he has been compared with disadvantage to Socrates, whose ambition, it is said, was "to serve without reigning," while that of Jesus was "to reign by serving," and the former is justly thought to be the nobler purpose. It is no time to institute a comparison between Jesus and Socrates. I have no wish to disparage the great Pagan. I will allow Grote's estimate, that the Apology as given by Plato is the speech of one who deliberately foregoes the immediate purpose of a defence, the persuasion of his judges; who speaks for posterity without regard to his own life. The aim of Socrates was disinterested, but not so elevated as that of Jesus. The aim of Socrates belonged to the realm of the understanding; the aim of Jesus, to the realm of the Spirit. They both took delight in the exercise of their gift: this is innocent, when not an exclusive motive; but Socrates more consciously sought this delight than Jesus. No self-abnegation can be conceived more entire than that of the Christ as represented by the evangelists with every mark of truth. He sought to reign only as all seek to reign who put forth their powers to assist the development of other minds. He would reign only so, and so far, as this might be to serve his race. He had no ambition. His purpose was not to reign by serving, but to reign that he might serve. He respected the freedom of the mind. He appealed to reason and conscience. He claimed authority in the name of reason and conscience, and believed that he thus claimed it in the name of God. And if his reign has been more extensive, more durable, and more beneficent than that of others, it is because he has acted by the highest kind and with the largest measure of truth and life, on the highest powers and tendencies of man.

Cambridge: Press of John Wilson and Son.