God proposes. Man disposes. God proposed a king, and a world-wide kingdom with great prosperity and peace. Man disposed of that plan for the bit of time and space controlled by his will, and in its place interposed for the king, a cross. Out of such a radical clashing of two great wills have come some most surprising results.
The first surprise was for the Jew. Within a few weeks after Jesus' final departure, Jerusalem, and afterward Palestine, was filled with thousands of people believing in Him. A remarkable campaign of preaching starts up and sweeps everything before it. Jesus' name was on every tongue as never before. But there were earnest Jews who could not understand how Jesus could be the promised Messiah. He had not set up a kingdom. Their Scriptures were full of a kingdom.
The Jew, whether in their largest colony in Babylon, or in Jerusalem, or in Rome, or Alexandria, or the smaller colonies everywhere, was full of the idea, the hope, of a kingdom. He was absorbed with more or less confused and materialized, unspiritual ideas of a coming glory for his nation through a coming king. But among the followers of this Jesus there is something else coming into being, a new organization never even hinted at in their Scriptures. It is called the church. It is given a name that indicates that it is to be made up of persons taken out from among all nations.
There comes to be now a three-fold division of all men. There had been with the Jews, always, a two-fold division, the Jew and the Gentiles, or outside nations. Now three, the Jew, the outsiders, and the church. The church is an eclectic society, a chosen out body. Its principle of organization is radically different from that of the Hebrew nation. There membership was by birthright. Here it is by individual choice and belief.
Foreigners coming in were not required to become Jews, as under the old, but remained essentially as they have been in all regards, except the one thing of relationship to Jesus in a wholly spiritual sense. There is constant talk about "the gospel of the kingdom," but the kingdom itself seems to have quite slipped away, and the church is in its place. Such a situation must have been very puzzling to any Jew. His horizon was full of a kingdom--a Jew kingdom. Anything else was unthinkable. These intense Orientals could not conceive of anything else. It had taken a set of visions to swing Peter and the other church leaders into line even on letting outsiders into the church.
This Jesus does not fill out this old Hebrew picture of a king and a kingdom. How can He be the promised Messiah? This was to thousands a most puzzling question, and a real hinderance to their acceptance of Jesus, even by those profoundly impressed with the divine power being seen.
This was the very question that had puzzled John the Baptist those weary months, till finally he sends to Jesus for some light on his puzzle. Jesus fills out part of the plan, and splendidly, but only part, and may be what seems to some the smaller part. Can it be, John asks, that there is to be another one coming to complete the picture? To him Jesus does not give an answer, except that he must wait and trust. He would not in words anticipate the nation's final rejection, though so well He knew what was coming. Their chance was not yet run out for the acceptance of Jesus that would fill out John's picture. God never lets His foreknowledge influence one whit man's choice. It was a most natural and perplexing difficulty, both for John and later for these thousands.
The answer to all this has its roots down in that tragic break. In the old picture of the Messiah there are two distinct groups of characteristics of the coming king, personal and official. He was to have a direct personal relation to men and an official relation to the nation, and through it to the world. The personal had in it such matters as healing the sick, relieving the distressed, raising the dead, feeding the hungry, easing heart strains, teaching and preaching. It was wholly a personal service. The official had, of course, to do with establishing the great kingdom and bringing all other nations into subjection. Now, it was a bit of the degeneracy of the people and of the times, that when Jesus came the blessings to the individual had slipped from view, and that the national conception, grown gross and coarse, had seized upon the popular imagination, and was to the fore.
Jesus filled in perfectly with marvellous fulness the individual details of the prophetic picture. Of course filling in the national depended upon national acceptance, and failure there meant failure for that side. And, of course, He could not fill out the national part except through the nation's acceptance of Him as its king. Rejection there meant a breaking, a hindering of that part. And so Jesus does not fill out the old Hebrew picture of the Messiah. He could not without the nation's consent. Man would have used force to seize the national reins. But, of course, God's man could not do that. It would be against God's plan for man. Everything must be through man's consent.
Out of this perplexity there came to be the four Gospels. They grew up out of the needs of the people. Mark seems to have written his first. He makes a very simple recital, setting down the group of facts and sayings as He had heard Peter telling them in many a series of talks. It is the simplest of the four, aiming to tell what he had gotten from another. But it offers no answer to these puzzling questions.
Matthew writes his account of the gospel for these great numbers of perplexed, earnest Jewish questioners. They are Palestinian Jews, thoroughly familiar with Jewish customs and places. Sitting backward on the edge of the Hebrew past, thoroughly immersed in its literature and atmosphere, but with his face fastened on Jesus, he composes out of the facts about Jesus and the old prophetic scriptures a perfect bit of mosaic. There is the fascination of a serpent's eye in turning from the prophetic writings to the Gospel of Matthew. Let a man become immersed and absorbed in the vision of the Hebrew prophetic books and then turn to Matthew to get the intense impression that this promised One has come, at last has actually come, and--tragedy of tragedies--is being rejected.
This is the gap gospel. It bridges the gap between the prophetic books and the book of Acts, between the kingdom which has slipped out and the church which has come in. It explains the adjournment of the kingdom for a specified time, the church filling a sort of interregnum in the kingdom. The kingdom is to come later when the church mission is complete. It tells with great care and with convincing power that Jesus filled perfectly the prophecy of the Messiah in every detail personally, and did not fill out the national features because of the nation's unwillingness. That is the Matthew Gospel.
Paul was the apostle to the outside nations. His great work was outside of Palestine. He dealt with three classes, Jews, outsiders who in religious matters had allied themselves with the Jews, but without changing their nationality, and then the great outside majority, chiefly the great crowds of other nationalities. These people needed a gospel of their own. Their standpoint is so wholly different from the Jews' that Matthew's gospel does not suit, nor Mark's. Paul, through Peter and Barnabas and others, has absorbed the leading facts and teachings of those three years, and works them over for his non-Jewish crowds. He omits much that would appeal peculiarly to Jews, and gives the setting and coloring that would be most natural to his audiences.
His studious companion, Doctor Luke, undertakes to write down this account of Jesus' life as Paul tells it, and for Paul's audience and territory, especially these great outside non-Jewish crowds of people. He goes to Palestine, and carefully studies and gathers up all the details and facts available. He adds much that the two previous writers had not included. One can easily understand his spending several days with Mary, the now aged mother of Jesus, in John's home in Jerusalem, and from her lips gleaning the exquisite account of the nativity of her divinely conceived Son. He largely omits names of places, for they would be unknown and not of value or interest. When needed, he gives explanation about places.
These three gospels follow one main line; they tell the story of the rejection of Jesus. Then there arose a generation that did not know Jesus, the Jesus that had tramped Jerusalem's streets and Galilee's roads. Some were wondering, possibly, how it was that these gospels are absorbed in telling of Jesus' rejection. There surely was a reason for it if He was so sweepingly rejected. So John in his old age writes. His chief thought is to show that from the first Jesus was accepted by individuals as well as rejected by the nation. These two things run neck and neck through his twenty-one chapters, along the pathway he makes of witnessed, established facts regarding Jesus. The nation--the small, powerfully entrenched group of men who held the nation's leadership in their tenacious fingers--the nation rejects. It's true. But the ugly reason is plain to all, even the Roman who gave final sentence. From the first, Jesus was accepted by men of all classes, including the most thoughtful and scholarly.
He is writing to the generation that has grown up since Jesus has gone, and so to all after generations that knew of Him first by hearing of Him. He is writing after the Jewish capital has been leveled to the ground, and the nation utterly destroyed as a nation, and to people away from Palestine. So he explains Jewish usages and words as well as places in Palestine, to make the story plain and vivid to all. And the one point at which he drives constantly is to make it clear to all after generations that men of every sort of Jesus' own generation believed; questioned, doubted, examined, weighed, believed, with whole-hearted loving loyalty followed this Jesus.
This decides the order in which, with such rare wisdom, the churchmen later arranged the four gospels in grouping the New Testament books. The order is that of the growth of the new faith of the church from the Jewish outward. Next to the Hebrew pages lies the gap gospel, then the earliest, simplest telling, then the outsiders' gospel, and then the gospel for after generations.
Man proposes. God disposes. Man may for a time set aside God's plan, but through any series of contrary events God holds steadily to His own plan. Temporary defeat is only adjournment, paving the way for later and greater victory. Another surprise is for the church, that is, the church of later generations, including our own. The old Jew saw only a triumphant king, not a suffering king. He saw only a kingdom. There was no hint of any such thing as a church. The church to-day, and since the day of Constantine, sees only a church. The kingdom has merged into the church or slipped out of view.
There seems to be a confused mixing of church and kingdom, but always with the church the big thing, and the kingdom a sort of vague, indefinite--folks don't seem to know just what--an ideal, a spiritual conception, or something like that. The church is supposed to have taken the place of the kingdom. Its mission seems to be supposed to be the doing for the world what the kingdom was to do, but, being set aside, failed to do.
In reading the old Book there is a handy sort of explanation largely in use that applies all that can be fitted into the theory in hand, and calmly ignores or conveniently adjusts the rest. The Old Testament blessings for the Jewish kingdom are appropriated and applied to the church. The curses there are handed over to the Jews or ignored. There seems to be a plan of interpreting one part of the Bible one way and another part in a different way. This part is to be taken literally. This other not literally, spiritually, the only guiding principle being the man's preconceived idea of what should be. The air seems quite a bit foggy sometimes. A man has to go off for a bit of fresh air and get straightened out with himself inside.
A whiff of keen, sharp air seems needed to clear the fog and bring out the old outlines--a whiff?--a gale! Yet it must needs blow, like God's wind of grace always blows, as a soft gentle breeze. The common law among folk in all other matters for understanding any book or document is that some one rule of interpretation be applied consistently to all its parts. If we attempt to apply here the rule of first-flush, common sense meaning, as would be done to a house lease or an insurance policy, it brings out this surprising thing. The church is distinct from the kingdom. It came through the kingdom failing to come. It fits into a gap in the kingdom plan. It has a mission quite distinct from that of the kingdom.
The church is to complete its mission and go. The kingdom, in the plain meaning of the word kingdom, is to come, and be the dominant thing before the eyes of all men. The church goes up and out. The kingdom comes in and down. Later the church is to be a part of the executive of the kingdom. This seems to be the simple standpoint of the Book.
The tragic break does not hinder the working of the plan. It simply retards it awhile. A long while? Yes--to man, who counts time by the bulky measurement of years, and can't seem to shake off the time idea; who gets absorbed in moments and hours and loses the broad swing of things. To God?--No. He lives in eternities, and reckons things by events. His eye never loses the whole, nor a single detail of the whole.
But yet more. That break leads to an enriching of the plan. Out of hate God reveals love. Not a greater love, but a greater opportunity for greatly revealing love. Man's unwillingness and opposition may delay God's plan, but cannot hinder it. A man can hinder it for his own self if he so insist. But for others he can only delay, not hinder. Though God may patiently yield His own plan, for a time, to something else, through which meanwhile His main purpose is being served, yet He never loses sight of His own plan--the highest expression of His love. And when He does so yield, it is that through the interruption He may in the long run work out the higher and the highest.
And so in the fulfilment of God's plan as given by His Hebrew spokesmen, there is a sort of sliding scale. A partial fulfilment takes place, leaving the full fulfilment for the full working out of the plan. The fulfilment takes place in two stages, the first being only less full than the final. Thus Elijah is to come. But first comes John, a man with most striking resemblance to Elijah. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit prophesied in Joel is to be upon all flesh. But before that takes place, comes the Pentecost outpouring, filling out the Joel prophecy in spirit, but not in the full measure.
As a matter of good faith the King must come back and carry out the kingdom plan in full. And judging simply by the character of God and of Jesus, I haven't a bit of doubt that He will do it. No amount of disturbance ever alters the love of God, nor His love-plan in the long run, however patiently He may bear with breaks.
Even this phase is in the minor strain of the old Hebrew. "They shall look upon Him whom they have pierced; and they shall mourn for Him, as one mourneth for his only son." There is a future meeting of the rejected King and His rejecting people, and this time with sorrow for their former conduct, which implies different conduct at this meeting time. And to this agrees the whole swing of the New Testament teaching. Peter says the going away of Jesus is to be "until the restitution of all things." He is to return and carry out the old plan.
It's a bit unfortunate that some earnest, lovable people have pushed this phase of truth so much to the front as to get it out of its proportion in the whole circle of truth. Truth must always be kept in its place in the circle of truth. Truth is fact in right proportion. Out of that it begins to breed misstatement and error. Jesus' coming back is not to wind things up. It is to begin things anew. There will be certain phases of judgment, doubtless, a clearing of the deck for action, but no general judgment till long after. The kingdom is to swing to the front, and bring a new life to the earth for a very long time. Then after that the wind-up.
The gospel preached in the Acts is the "gospel of the kingdom." They are always expecting it to come. Paul constantly alludes to the Master's return as the great thing to look forward to, as distinctly at the close as at the beginning of his ministry. The book of Revelation is distinctly a kingdom book, and however it may, with the versatility of Scripture to serve a double purpose, foreshadow the characteristics of history for the centuries since its writing, plainly its first meaning has to do with the time when "the kingdom of the world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ." The King is coming back to straighten matters out, and organize a new running of things. This is the church's surprise, and a great surprise it will apparently be to a great many folks, though not to all.
There is a third surprise growing out of this tragic break, the greatest of all--the Jew. The first surprises were for the Jew, the later surprise for the church; this surprise has been and is for all the world. The Jew has been the running puzzle of history. A strange, elusive, surprising puzzle he has been to historians and all others. Not a nation, only a people, flagless, countryless, without any semblance of organization, they have been mixed in with all the peoples of the earth, yet always distinctly separate.
They have been persecuted, bitterly, cruelly, persistently persecuted, as no other people has ever been, yet with a power of recovery of none other too. With an astonishing vitality, resourcefulness, and leadership, they have taken front rank in every circle of life and every phase of activity, in art, music, science, commerce, philanthropy, statesmanship; holding the keys of government for great nations, of treasure boxes, and of exclusive social circles; making their own standards regardless of others, and with the peculiarity of strongest leadership, pushing on, whether followed or not.
And now the past few years comes a new thing. This surprising Jew is surprising us anew. From all corners of the earth they are gathering as not since the scattering to the Assyrian plains, gathering to discuss and plan for the getting into shape as a nation again on the old home soil. Jews of every sort, utterly diverse in every other imaginable way, except this of being Jews, men who hate each other intensely because of divergent beliefs in other matters, yet brushing elbows in annual gatherings to plan with all their old time intensity a new Jewish nation. Along the highways of earth, made and controlled by Christian peoples, they come. What does it mean? They continue to be, as they have been, the puzzle of history.
This tragic break of the kingdom and the persistency of the King's plan regardless of the break hold the key to the puzzle. The Jew has been preserved, divinely preserved, against every attempt at his destruction. For he is the keystone in the arch of the King's plan for a coming world-wide dominion.
Jesus is God's spirit-magnet for the Jew and for all men. Around Him they will yet gather, with the new Jewish nation in the lead, the church closest to the person of the king, and all men drawn. Jesus is God's organizer of the social fabric of the world. In response to His presence and touch, each in his own place will swing into line and make up a perfect social fabric.
With the new zeal for pure, holy living now in the church, the clearer vision coming to her of the Lord's purpose of evangelizing the world, the evidence in all parts of the world of men turning their thought anew to God, this remarkable Jewish movement toward national life, it is a time for earnest men to get off alone on bent knees, and with new, quietly deep fervor, to pray "Thy kingdom come." "Even so come, Lord Jesus."