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Early Life of Jesus

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The early life and ministry of Jesus Christ

Summary of method

It is impossible to produce a biography of Jesus as understood by the modern use of that term. Since Christianity is a historic religion, it is essential to provide at least an outline of the main events which went to make up His earthly life. It will be valuable by way of introduction to give a summary of the main stages of the story as it can be reconstructed from the gospels.

The thirty years in Nazareth

Although this lasted for so many years, the material preserved is confined to the birth stories and one brief incident when Jesus was twelve.

The period of preparation

This covers the ministry of John the Baptist in heralding the coming of Christ.

The Judaean ministry

This includes the earliest period of the Lord’s work until the commencement of the Galilean ministry.

The Galilean ministry

This section may be divided for convenience into three periods. The first ends with the choosing of the Twelve, the second with the withdrawal of Jesus from northern Galilee and the third with His departure for Jerusalem on His last journey.

The closing period of the ministry

This is a convenient heading for the material fitted into the journey to the time when Jesus enters Jerusalem mainly centered beyond Jordan.

The passion and resurrection narratives

Under this caption are included all the events from the entry into Jerusalem until the Resurrection and the various post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to His disciples, culminating with the Ascension.

In the following outline of events and teaching, it is intended to fill out in considerable detail these main stages to bring into focus the major purpose of Jesus. It is important to recognize that the theology of Jesus is seen both in His acts and in His teaching. An over-concentration on one or the other would have been a mistake. They are inextricably linked. The many deeds of compassion, the demonstrations of power, the human interest, are all part of the total picture, and from the background of the teaching. At the same time the teaching throws light upon the true nature and interpretation of the acts. Nevertheless, in the outline itself the emphasis will be on the events, since a separate section will deal with the teaching, both in method and content.

The thirty years in Nazareth

The most important part of this preliminary section of the life of Jesus is His advent into human life. It is for this reason that Matthew and Luke begin with narratives relating to the birth of Jesus, while John goes back and reflects upon His eternal pre-existence. One would not expect the story of Jesus to begin where John begins, for he sets the scene beyond the realm of history. Nevertheless, by reason of what the evangelists believed Jesus to be, his is the most logical beginning.

At first glance it seems strange that John should introduce his book with statements about the Word, esp. as he does not identify the Word as Jesus Christ until toward the end of the prologue. Evidently the first readers of the gospel would have known what John was describing, otherwise his opening would have been more mystifying than elucidating. One cannot now be certain of its source for John. Philo of Alexandria has much to say about the Logos, which in his system was an intermediary principle between God and man, but he denied the possibility of the Logos becoming flesh. When John says that the Logos did become flesh he is clearly presenting a different kind of Logos from Philo. For all his great erudition, Philo could not present a Logos capable of dwelling among men, who could move men into action and give power to men to become sons of God. This was a new element in the contemporary Gr. world. Jewish thought had also prepared for the coming of Jesus, not only with the Messianic hope, but by its concept of the intermediary Memra, God’s agent in the world of creation.

Far more important than the origin of the idea of the Word are the statements concerning Him which John makes in his prologue. Not only does he stress His pre-existence, but also His divine nature. His power is evidence of His creative energy and of His re-creative activity. The Word is identified as Light shining in an atmosphere of darkness, which describes the moral environment into which Jesus came. The Word becoming flesh is pivotal to John’s introduction to his gospel. The whole account is basically a human and historic story, because the becoming flesh had taken place among men and the glory of the incarnate Word had been seen. There is an unquestionable connection between the prologue and the events that follow. The same Jesus Christ, whose actions and words are recorded is the means whereby grace and truth come to men, and through whom God makes known His revelation. Unless the records of all the gospels are seen in the light of this mission, there can be no proper evaluation of the life of Jesus.

One significant feature about John’s introduction is the mention of John by name, the witness to the Light, before the Light had Himself been identified. This shows, in agreement with the synoptic gospels, the importance of the ministry of John the Baptist.

John’s statement that the Word became flesh at once raises the question in what circumstances it happened. Matthew and Luke supply the answer. The narratives, although brief, are nevertheless sufficient to establish the historical reality of the Incarnation. There is a restraint about them that immediately impresses. Matthew approaches the subject from a different point of view than Luke, and yet their narratives are complementary to each other. Both stress the supernatural character of the advent of Jesus. In Matthew this is brought out by the narration of several dreams which reveal various stages of development, from the announcement of Joseph’s reaction when he learns of Mary’s pregnancy until the return from Egypt. In Luke’s account a similar impression is created by the angel’s announcement to Mary. It is at once clear that this is no ordinary birth. It is not surprising therefore that Matthew records a citation that a virgin would conceive (Matt 1:23). It is true that Isaiah’s statement need not refer to a virgin, but to a young woman, but it is equally evident that Matthew intended the readers to understand that the advent of Jesus was effected in a miraculous way by conception taking place in a virgin. Luke’s account supports this in the promise to Mary that the Holy Spirit should come upon her (Luke 1:35).

It is never suggested in these narratives or anywhere else in the gospels that people generally regarded Jesus as any other than the son of Joseph (cf. John 6:4; Matt 13:55; Luke 2:27, 41, 43). Popular opinion is no sure guide to truth, and both Matthew and Luke have set out to stress the uniqueness of the birth of Jesus as a necessary prelude to their accounts of His life and ministry. Whatever modern attempts may be made to approach the life of Jesus from a purely human point of view, it is beyond dispute that the evangelists made no such attempt.

In Matthew’s gospel the Annunciation is made to Joseph and the most characteristic feature of the revelation made to him is the clear statement of the purpose of the advent. Jesus was coming to save His people from their sins (Matt 1:21). At the beginning of the gospel a theological note is introduced. The subsequent doings of Jesus are all geared to this purpose, which provides their motive force.

In Luke’s gospel the Annunciation is to Mary and is accompanied by an account of the promise of the birth of John the Baptist and its fulfillment. The most significant feature of this account is the inclusion of the hymns known as the Magnificat and Benedictus, both of which are formed on the pattern of the OT Psalms. They create an atmosphere of rejoicing over the coming of Jesus that is frequently reflected in the subsequent narrative, for Luke’s account has more references to joy than any of the others.

The story of the angel’s announcement to the shepherds draws attention to the same feature. The day of the advent of Jesus was a day of good tidings of great joy. At the same time, the announcement was made of peace on earth to all men of good will, which gives a distinctly universal aspect to the purpose of Jesus. The mission of Jesus could never be understood against a background of narrow nationalistic aspirations. It needed a broader canvas. The homage of humble shepherds signifies something of the receptivity of the common people, a feature which was to be abundantly illustrated in the subsequent ministry of Jesus.

Matthew’s account of the homage of the wise men presents a rather different aspect. These were Gentile inquirers for the coming Christ. They believed themselves to have been divinely led, and indeed through being supernaturally warned of Herod’s devices were able to frustrate his intention to take adverse action against the child Jesus. This homage of Gentiles is specially noteworthy at the beginning of a gospel which is primarily written with Jewish interests in mind. The Messiah was not so Jewish that Gentiles had no desire to worship Him, and in harmony with this is the conclusion of this same gospel, in which the commission of Jesus to His disciples is world-wide.

It is not possible to be certain when the wise men arrived at the place where Jesus was. Some think it was a considerable time after His birth, a view based mainly on the evidence that Herod sought to kill all the children under two years old. Herod did not know how long ago the child had been born. He knew only when the star appeared. The flight into Egypt, recorded only in Matthew 2:13, 14, is seen as a direct fulfillment of prophecy. This therefore plays an important part in Matthew’s purpose, i.e., to show that the course of the life of Jesus was no accidental happening, but a designed fulfillment of what God had foretold.

In the meantime, Jesus was present at the Temple for circumcision when eight days old, according to Jewish custom (Luke 2:22ff.). On this occasion Simeon and Anna both bore witness to Jesus. Simeon’s song (Nunc Dimittis) again conveys a universal viewpoint, for Jesus was to become a Light for Gentile illumination (2:32) as well as Israel’s glory. At the same time, Simeon foresaw hostility toward Jesus, for some would speak evil against Him (2:34). Both Simeon and Anna typify the realization of the fulfillment in Jesus of long awaited Messianic hopes. The story of the ministry of Jesus is intended to be read against such a background.

Both Matthew and Luke include genealogies. Matthew uses one to introduce his gospel, tracing the list from Abraham to Jesus. Luke, who does not refer to the genealogy until after recording the ministry of John the Baptist (Luke 3), begins with Jesus and traces His ancestry back to Adam. Although some of the names in these two genealogical lists are the same, most of them are not. A partial explanation may be found in the schematic arrangement adopted by Matthew, having three groups of fourteen names (Matt 1:17). This is made possible only by various omissions. It has been suggested that whereas Matthew follows the lineage of Joseph, Luke follows Mary’s, but this supposition seems to run counter to what Luke himself states, since he does not even mention Mary. It is impossible to tell either the sources of these genealogies or the extent to which either author depended upon his own investigations. The major contribution of both lists for the life of Jesus is clear enough—both trace the ancestry through David and Abraham. He came of a royal line which gave rise to the title Son of David, which was used by various people in the course of the narrative.

Of all the evangelists it is only Luke who makes any attempt to set the record of Jesus on the stage of secular history. Even he concentrates on the timing of the appearance of John the Baptist rather than on the appearance of Jesus, although he shows the two events to be inseparable. The dating is sixfold (Luke 3:1, 2) and points to the major political figures in the Jewish world. This note of Luke’s is of great importance in establishing the historical setting of Christianity.

One other contact with secular history which is mentioned by Luke, is the census of Quirinius, governor of Syria (2:2), which is said to be the occasion for Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem just prior to the birth of Jesus. There is known to have been a census held under this official in a.d. 6, but this would be too late for the birth of Jesus. There is some reason to think that an earlier census was held in Syria more approximate to Luke’s chronology, but the difficulty of Quirinius still remains, unless, as Sir William Ramsay supposed, this official held an extraordinary command at the same time as the governorship of Varus.

Contrary to the modern idea of biographical studies that seeks traces from the early years of influences which contributed to the later development of a character, none of the evangelists shows the slightest interest in early environmental factors. Luke alone mentions an incident during the thirty years that Jesus spent in Nazareth. The visit to the Temple when Jesus was twelve was no doubt included to draw attention to the fact that in the home of Jesus the usual Jewish practices were observed. Twelve was the age at which Jewish boys attended the Passover feast. For Luke it had more significance than this because of the opportunity it afforded to illustrate Jesus’ first contact with the Temple teachers.

The incident not only reveals their amazement at the wisdom of Jesus, but also His own consciousness of a divine mission, which His family did not understand. They evidently were incapable of appreciating His fullness of wisdom and His possession of special divine grace (2:40). Mary appears to have understood most, but she kept her reflections to herself (2:51). She must have wondered often at the grace with which He was subject to her. The restraint of the canonical account of the childhood of Jesus contrasts vividly with the spate of childish stories which were later current in the apocryphal gospels. The processes of thought by which Jesus arrived at His Messianic consciousness may claim the interest of some modern theologians, but were never considered important by the evangelists.

In the body of the gospels there are a few hints given of the attitude of the inhabitants of Nazareth toward Jesus. He was known as the carpenter or the carpenter’s son (Mark 6:3; Matt 13:55). Moreover, there were other children in the family—James, Joses, Simon, Judas and some sisters (Matt 13:55, 56). None of the Nazareth inhabitants apparently expected Jesus to show much wisdom or to do mighty works, for they were astonished when His ministry was in progress. The mystery of the hidden years is deepened by the obvious hardness of the people who knew Him best.

The period of preparation

Before the actual commencement of the ministry of Jesus, there were several significant events—the preaching of John the Baptist, the baptism and temptation of Jesus. All three of these events are of basic importance for the records of the public ministry of Jesus in the synoptic gospels, although Mark makes only a passing reference to the Temptation.

The ministry of John the Baptist must be considered in the light of contemporary Judaism. There was certainly the expectation of the dawning of a new age, and Messianic hopes. There was belief in the approach of the kingdom of God, although popular ideas were mostly materialistic, but John did not follow the normal pattern. In his methods and teaching he was like one of the ancient prophets. In many respects he was the last of an era. He was this only because he was able to point to the Inaugurator of another era and the dawn of a new kingdom. All three synoptic writers mention the testimony of Isaiah to the coming of John the Baptist. The link with the past is thus established and a divine authority is given to the work of the herald of Jesus. All the writers record the preparatory ministry of the Baptist, but it is Luke in particular who carries on the quotation from Isaiah to include the promise that all flesh should see God’s salvation. The records clearly bring out John the Baptist’s call to repent, and his prediction of the Coming One who would be greater than he, and would baptize with the Holy Spirit. Both Matthew and Luke further call attention to the judgment which would follow the arrival of the One to come.

When John preached a baptism of repentance, there was immediate criticism of the Pharisees and Sadducees, who were described as a generation of vipers, a particularly strong expression of adverse opinion which was intended to bring them to a state of true repentance. There is a forthrightness and sternness about John’s message which showed the serious character of his preparatory work. With such a herald as he, whose clothing of camel’s hair drew attention to the sternness of his character, the coming of Jesus was set against a morally challenging situation. Men were being prepared by the serious call to repentance. Moreover, the challenge to moral reformation was made specific by the Baptist, as Luke brings out clearly by samples of the advice given to tax collectors and soldiers.

The rite of baptism was not new with John. The Jews practiced proselyte baptism, and some groups, e.g., the Essenes, appear to have practiced ritual cleansing, which was closely akin to initiatory baptism. The group at Qumran placed some importance on the rite, and it is interesting to conjecture whether John had had personal contact with the community. If he had previously done this, he had certainly departed from their pattern, for they were essentially inward-looking and their rites were exclusively for initiates; John was essentially outward-looking, directing his call for repentance to the multitudes. According to Matthew’s account, he announced the imminence of the kingdom of heaven in the same terms that Jesus began to preach. This is clearly intended to show the continuity between the preaching of both, although the fundamental difference between them is that Jesus is Himself the Inaugurator of the kingdom, whereas John was only the herald.

The baptism of Jesus is the climax of John’s work. When the king arrived, the herald’s work was done. John was expecting to announce Jesus, but he never expected that Jesus would present Himself for baptism. The one he was expecting was surely beyond the need for repentance. His greatness was such that John felt himself unworthy to unloose His sandals. Why did He request a baptism of repentance? Matthew alone records John’s hesitation and for this reason some scholars have regarded this as a later addition, prompted by motives of reverence, but in view of John’s overwhelming conviction that Jesus was infinitely greater than he, it would have been much more surprising if no hesitation had been recorded. At the same time the reason for Jesus’ action must be considered. According to Matthew, it was to fulfill all righteousness (Matt 3:15), by which Jesus made clear to John that it was the right and proper thing for Him to be baptized.

The problem arises concerning Jesus’ submission to a rite which was specifically described as a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. None of the synoptic evangelists gives the explanation, but all record the attestation of the heavenly voice bearing witness to the beloved Son in whom the Father is well pleased. The identification of Jesus with those needing repentance was clearly part of the divine plan. For the multitudes the baptismal rite symbolized their desire to forsake their sins, but for Jesus it meant a call to identify Himself with a sinful people. Neither John nor any of the witnesses could recognize the theological implications of this symbolic act. It was part of the process that Paul later recognized, in which Christ was made sin for mankind (2 Cor 5:21).

Undoubtedly all the evangelists see the baptism as the commencement of the public ministry of Jesus. This is marked esp. by the descent of the Spirit upon Him (in the form of a dove) and by the heavenly attestation. This differentiated Jesus from all others who attended John’s baptism. It is improbable that these supernatural signs were seen by any apart from John and Jesus, but for the evangelists their importance lay in their revelation of the nature of the mission of Jesus. John’s gospel is most specific of all in recording the remarkable pronouncement of John the Baptist that Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the world’s sin (John 1:29). The writer of the gospel gives no indication of the extent of the Baptist’s own understanding of his statement, although he clearly sees its importance in distinguishing the Baptist’s work from that of Jesus. The fact that later doubts gripped the mind of the Baptist regarding the claims of Jesus does not vitiate his confident prediction at the commencement of the ministry.

This was perhaps the most revealing event in the preparatory period. The fact that it followed immediately from the baptism is regarded as significant by all the synoptic evangelists. As Jesus had identified Himself with sinners in John’s baptism, so He exposed Himself to the temptings of the devil. It would be better to speak of testings rather than temptations, since the latter word has too often become associated with a yielding approach which was certainly not present in the case of Jesus. Details of the characteristics of the testings which came to Him are given only by Matthew and Luke, although Mark mentions some important features, such as the presence of wild beasts and the ministration of angels.

In all the accounts the idea of a supernatural conflict is inescapable and clearly forms a basic introduction to the later Passion narratives, in which the climax of the conflict is enacted. The three temptations mentioned by Matthew and Luke are to be regarded not as exhaustive but as exemplary. They are typical of the avenues along which testings continually come. They are, moreover, not to be restricted to the period of forty days, as Luke makes clear when he mentions that the devil’s withdrawal was until a convenient season. The course of the ministry frequently presented occasions in which the testings would be repeated.

To understand the temptations, account must be taken of the Messianic consciousness of Jesus. He was deeply aware of His mission and His power to accomplish it. The testings concerned the methods He would use to accomplish it. The use of miraculous power for His own preservation (to turn stone to bread) was rejected as totally unworthy of His mission. It would amount to a failure to maintain true priorities. Moreover, the urge to use the same miraculous powers to impress upon the world at large His Messianic claims was equally alien to His true purpose. It would appeal to the spectacular, but would be diametrically opposed to the divine methods.

The other recorded testing concerned the character of the kingdom which Jesus had come to inaugurate. Was it to be comparable to the kingdoms of this world? Was it to share its glory with theirs? Such a possibility was unthinkable, and would amount to conceding allegiance to the devil, in whose hands, as Jesus acknowledged, were the imperial ambitions of the present age. His kingdom was of a totally different order.

In all three of the temptations recorded, the Lord overcomes the tempting of the devil by means of the Scriptures, as the most appropriate medium for establishing the principles of divine action.

The difference in order of the temptations in Matthew and Luke are more significant for the respective purpose of each than for the consciousness of Jesus Himself. Matthew places the temptation to an earthly imperial status last, prob. because of his design to show the true kingly status of Jesus, while Luke places last the urge to self-display because of his desire to show Jesus as essentially a man among men. Whether either knew the precise order or whether either attached any special importance to it is impossible to say.

The record of these temptations is generally appealed to as evidence that Jesus was in all respects tempted as men are (cf. Heb 4:15), but this is true in only a limited respect. Since Jesus alone possessed Messianic consciousness and power, the testings which came to Him were unique. But it cannot be denied that they are allied to those which afflict all men. It must be recognized that Jesus was exposed to many more temptations than those recorded, which must be regarded as typical.

The public ministry of Jesus opened against a background of tremendous struggle and a resolute rejection of all methods of achieving His mission which were opposed to the real purpose for which He came.