From History To Faith

Jesus preached the kingdom of God: the Church preached Jesus. Some such formulation often comes to expression as a way of summing up a crucial (and perhaps discomfiting) transition at the roots of Christianity. Like most such succinct statements, this one is as problematic as it is illuminating. It is true that if we concentrate on the first three Gospels (called 'synoptic' because of the amount of material they share, in one combination or another), Jesus' preaching centres on what can best be summed up as 'the kingdom of God'— that is, God's overwhelming sovereignty and its impending realization in a reformed and rejuvenated world. The expression itself and the theme dominate, for example, the tradition of Jesus' parables (Mark 4 etc.). In this respect at any rate, it is generally agreed that these Gospels are more true to Jesus' life than the Gospel of John, where this phrase scarcely occurs (3:3, 5), and where attention focuses on Jesus' own person, albeit as himself pointing to God, with whom he is seen as identified in will and purpose (1:1; 5:17; 10:30).

The move from the first three Gospels to that of John seems in this respect to typify emerging attention on Jesus himself as the centre of Christian devotion and Christian claims. On the other hand, even if the first three Gospels depict a Jesus who preaches God's rule over the world and the urgency of God's call, there can be no doubting that Jesus is the subject of their story, the impulse for their writing and a figure whose person is a matter of some measure of definition. He is, for example, called 'messiah' (Greek, christos=anointed one), a term used in Judaism to designate a leader chosen by God, but now aligned to the character of Jesus' own activity and disposition. He is also called Son of God, again indicating a role as God's special agent in the world; and Son of man, chiefly eliciting apocalyptic associations but again signifying (putting it in general terms) 'agent of God for the purpose of salvation'. Each of these (and other) expressions has a pedigree in Jewish usage which contributes to its application to Jesus and helps to explain why it was felt by his followers to be appropriate. Equally, however, application to Jesus produces a shift in the sense of the expression itself—at least in the general way that usage always involves re-interpretation; and the very concentration of these expressions (and the symbols they evoke) on Jesus brings about a certain merging of their sense. At all events, their prevalence in the Gospels goes to show that the evangelists see Jesus not simply as pointing to God but as a person playing a clear and prominent role on God's behalf—and (especially given the use by Jesus alone of 'Son of man') as not reluctant to articulate that role. To that degree, it may be held that Jesus preached not only the kingdom of God but also his own place within the reality to which it pointed. He was no mere anonymous signpost (see Hahn 1969; Hengel 1976; Lindars 1983; Houlden 1992).

There is, as might be expected, a difficulty in being sure how much of this self-referring material in the first three Gospels is, like a great deal of that in the Gospel of John by general agreement, the result of subsequent church development affecting the way older material was put or the way older terms were understood. On that there is a wide variety of opinion. But it would be hard to maintain that Jesus had no ideas about his own role in his mission: as at least some kind of prophet or messianic figure, however (as especially in

Matthew's and Mark's portrayal of him) self-effacing (Mark 5:43; Matt. 12:15-21; 21:4-5).

This account of the Gospels, though important for clarifying the dictum that 'Jesus preached the kingdom of God: the Church preached Jesus', is misleading in one major respect. Before ever the Gospels were written, the letters of Paul show an overwhelming concentration on 'preaching Jesus' (e.g. 1 Cor. 1:23). There is no question of denying the priority of God ('to the glory of God the Father', Phil. 2:11), but novelty and significance for salvation lie squarely with Jesus, his fully authorized and empowered agent (Ziesler 1983) (Gal. 4:4; 2 Cor. 5:17-21; Phil. 2:6-11). Belief about Jesus, fully formed and articulate christology, is there from the start—or at least from the time of the earliest Christianity observable to us. At the same time, these writings show no sign whatsoever of Jesus having pointed away from himself to 'the kingdom of God', and indeed show little interest in Jesus' own message and teaching. There is an imminent new dispensation but Jesus will be at its heart, even if it is taken for granted that God is its initiator (1 Thess. 4:13-17). Though we do not know how fully Paul's way of looking at the matter dominated the Christian scene in the later first century, when the Gospels were being written (as he came to dominate the finished collection of early Christian writings put together rather later into the New Testament), it may be a general confirmation of the first three Gospels' faithfulness to the true proportion of things that, despite the impulse to concentrate all claims on Jesus, they portray him pointing away from himself—preaching the kingdom of God (Mark 1:14-15).

Yet, whether by direct statements about him or by the very character of the Gospels, Jesus is the subject of early Christian preaching. From earliest times (1 Cor. 15:3-5) that preaching emphasized above all the concluding aspects of Jesus' earthly career—his death and his victory (whether that was, as most commonly, seen in terms of his resurrection, albeit variously identified, or in terms of his heavenly exaltation) (Evans 1970). The instinct was right— if the concern was to home in on Christianity's most striking and distinctive claim. Most elements in Jesus' teaching could be paralleled, more or less, in much Jewish or Hellenistic (or indeed other) moral teaching, and his healing and other activity were not strikingly unique—though its implications with regard to the nature of salvation and the emphases which it displayed were certainly distinctive, especially when subsumed into the great climax to which they led. But it was the ending which rightly came to dominate the Christian picture, as most strikingly demonstrating what Jesus stood for and as achieving what he came to do.

It may be that much of this concentration on Jesus' death and triumph, and especially the former, was due not so much to the desire to proclaim as to the necessity to explain. It was not easy to tell others—or to tell oneself— that an obscure death by the ignominious judicial act of crucifixion was demonstrative of God's saving love and the key to his purposes for the human race. Here is another reason why, whether it came to the fore or (as in Paul's letters) did not, the actual human reality of Jesus, his teaching and behaviour, were crucial to his 'survival' as a major object of devotion and faith. This was no faceless person to whom cross and resurrection as it were fortuitously happened—thereby compelling the highest of claims for his importance. That account is scarcely credible. Again, it is the death and resurrection not of anyone but of Jesus of Nazareth with which we are concerned; and in that sense the transition is smooth between what Jesus stood for and what so soon came to be believed and preached about him. Indeed, it was surely the impact of his life which, in part at least, stimulated the determination of his followers not to permit his effect to cease and to give an account of his death that was consonant with his mission.

The 'resurrection' came to be seen in no single light, indeed there was soon difference of view on precisely what it was. Did it centre on post-death appearances of Jesus to his followers (1 Cor. 15:5-8; Luke 24; John 20-1), or on the emptiness of his tomb (Mark 16:1-8), or on his physicality (Luke 24:42-3; John 20:26-9)? Emphases and even actual beliefs seem to have differed even to the point of contradiction. Some of these ways of looking at the matter had important links with other, more central beliefs (e.g. about divine action through Jesus), others were more related to dispelling incredulity (e.g. the stress on physicality).

In any case, there is a question whether the resurrection belief was at the start itself subordinate to the conviction that God had vindicated Jesus by taking him to heaven and associating him with his own universal rule and its future completion: thus we find references not only to the kingdom of God but also to the kingdom of Christ (1 Cor. 15:21-8; Matt. 16:28); God had brought about the climax to which Jesus' whole life had always pointed. Psalm 110:1 ('Yahweh said to my lord: sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool') is the most widely quoted scriptural text in the New Testament: eloquently it legitimated and assured both Jesus' triumph and the future cosmic consummation to which he had always looked.

Whether it be seen in terms of resurrection from the tomb or appearances to followers or, less physically, heavenly vindication, it is impossible, given the lateness and disparateness of the evidence available to us, to tell exactly what lay at the root of this faith. Explanations of a modernizing kind are put forward: there were hallucinations to people in a state of shock; some modern religious or political movements whose basis has been shattered bounce back to life when, in rational terms, they should dissolve; the disciples embarked on a deliberate process of deception. But here too the distance of time and the nature of the material make it impossible to confirm or deny. What is clear is the broad character of the conviction that Jesus was in authority in heaven, in touch with his followers (cf. 'the Spirit' in John 14-16; Acts 2; 9), and thus a figure of the present and not just of the past.

In the movement of Christianity into the position of a faith, the death of

Jesus was in many ways, given the world-picture and the assumptions of the time (where heavenly exaltation was an 'available' idea), harder to handle than its sequel (Lindars 1961). We know how widely it became a matter of derision and incomprehension as people encountered the Christian faith (Wilken 1984). It was therefore vital that it received positive explanation, that it was shown to be no unfortunate happening but an essential element in God's design, and even characteristic of the profundities of God's dealings with humankind. It was not an embarrassment at all but an outcome wholly to be expected by the discerning, and wholly welcome to those conscious of their deepest needs, for release from sin, futility and death.

In this matter, it is no surprise that Christians turned to their major authoritative resource, the Scriptures: in part those writings came to the rescue in a situation that was potentially one of disillusion and failure; in part, if certain passages (Pss. 22; 69; and, a little later, Isa. 53) were highlighted, they made possible a path of reflection already present as an ingredient in Judaism— concerning the redemptive value of suffering itself. It was indeed a pattern embedded in Israel's history as a people, with its constant memory of liberation from captivity in Egypt and Babylon. So passages such as these, and symbols such as the figure of Isaac in Genesis 22, not withheld from death by his father (cf. Rom. 8:32), and the lamb of Passover (John 19:37), could illuminate the death of Jesus, give it positive meaning and indeed render it exactly what ought to have been expected all along. The Gospels show precisely that expectation (Mark 8:31; 10:32-45), and it is impossible to know how far it is a case of prophecy after the event and how far Jesus, aware of prophetic destiny, did indeed see himself as meant for a martyr's death: there would be nothing surprising in that. It did not necessarily mean that his actual death was much easier to absorb; but it would have meant that the process of understanding and assimilation had already begun in his lifetime, and the development of profound explanation along a number of different lines, apparent so early in Paul and no doubt even antedating him, was already launched.

Though we have, somewhat neutrally, described Jesus as God's agent for salvation, and seen how his death and resurrection were brought within an understanding of that role, it is also to be noted that the particular colour given to belief in Jesus as a result of his death was not without effect on belief in God. Here is an important further aspect of the Christian monotheism that was discussed at the start of this chapter, and it affects the matter of Christianity's position alongside other monotheistic faiths. Those faiths may indeed share belief in the one God, but their perception of him can still differ a great deal. In Christianity from the start, God was now seen as 'the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ' (1 Peter 1:3): in effect, God was such that he showed his hand most characteristically in the suffering of Jesus, not in 'permitting' it but rather in achieving his saving purpose by means of it.

It is not exactly, at that time, that it was seen as throwing light on what has come to be seen as 'the problem of suffering', so that, whatever the difficulties, we can say that God has been alongside us there—however encouraging such a way of looking at the matter may have come to be. It is more that appeal was made to the idea, deeply embedded in Judaism (as indeed elsewhere), of the saving efficacy of the offering of sacrificial animal victims for human sins and ills. That and other imagery enabled Jesus' death to be seen as, and God to be involved in, the possibility of transition from darkness to light, death to life, sin to forgiveness.

The sense of God as involved in human suffering, even suffering alongside us, has not always been equally congenial to Christian patterns of belief—it has been particularly problematic when, as in the patristic period following on from New Testament times, God's transcendence and immunity to change were basic data of belief; but there have also been times, like the present, when it has been much to the fore, and indeed helped to commend Christianity as a faith facing human life realistically (Moltmann 1974).

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