In order to understand the scope of the Lord's ministry in its external aspects, as narrated by the Evangelists, it is necessary to keep in mind certain great facts that gave it form and character. We shall thus be prepared to understand the significance of particular events, and to assign them their proper places in the history.
First, The Lord came to a nation in covenant with God—His elect people. He had chosen for them a land in which they might dwell apart from the nations, and in a wonderful manner had given them possession of it. He had given them laws and institutions, which, rightly used, should secure their highest national well-being. He had established His temple in their chief city, in which He revealed Himself in the Visible Glory, and which was appointed to be " a house of prayer for all nations." How highly they had been honored and blessed of God is seen from His words (Exod. xix. 5-6): "If ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my Covenant, then ye shall be to me a peculiar treasure above all people, and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." And from among them should the Great Deliverer, the Seed of the woman, come. The Messiah should reign at Jerusalem, and from thence establish justice and judgment throughout the earth. He was to be of the tribe of Judah, of the family of David, and His birth-place at Bethlehem; and many other things respecting Him had been foretold by the prophets.
To a people thus in covenant with God, and awaiting the Messiah, Christ came. There was a general expectation that He was about to come, and a general desire for His coming. The appearing of the Baptist, and his message, gave a new impulse to the common feeling, and doubtless in the minds of many changed what had been but an indefinite expectation into an assured hope. But how should the nation discern the Messiah when He came? Should there be such wonderful signs attending His birth that it should at once be known? Or should His infancy and youth be passed in obscurity? How should His public career begin? what His acts as Messiah? Here was a large field for differences of opinion among the people, according to differences in spiritual character and discernment. But the great part of the nation, including most of the ecclesiastical rulers and teachers, seems to have had no doubt that He was to appear, not primarily as a religious reformer, but as a political leader and warrior, and that one of His first Messianic acts would be to cast off the Roman yoke and set the nation free. This done, He would proceed to restore the Mosaic institutions to their primitive purity, and fulfil the prediction that " out of Zion should go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem."
It is apparent that, thus mistaking the character and work of the Messiah, the very intensity of their desire for His coming would but the more certainly insure His rejection. They had formed conceptions of Him which Jesuscould not realize. Their ideal Christ was not the Christ of the prophets. To be at once received by them, Jesus must act in a manner corresponding to their preconceived opinions, and thus fulfil their expectations. But this He could not do, since these expectations were based upon misconceptions of their own moral needs, and of God's purpose. They felt deeply their political servitude, but were unconscious of the spiritual bondage into which they had fallen. They knew not how utterly unprepared they were for the coming of their Deliverer. Hence it was, that Jesus could not openly assume the name of Messiah, because it had become the exponent of so many false hopes, and would have gathered around Him a body of followers, moved more by political than spiritual impulses.
A second fact to be noted is, the wish and will of God that the Jews should receive His Son. Here, indeed, we meet the same problem that we meet everywhere in human history—the foreknowledge and purpose of God, and the freedom and responsibility of man. According to the eternal purpose of God, Christ was " the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world," and without the shedding of blood is no remission of sin. " Known unto God are all His works from the beginning of the world." But the Jews knew not of this purpose, although, as we now see, it was not dimly intimated in their sacrificial rites. The Jews knew not that they should crucify their Messiah. They had not learned this from their prophets. The Baptist said nothing of His death ; Jesus Himself, till near the close of His ministry, said nothing of it; the Apostles, down to the week of His Passion, did not comprehend it. When, therefore, Jesus presented Himself to the nation as the Messiah, it acted without knowledge of the secret counsel of God, and with entire freedom. He desired that they should receive Him. All that God had done for them from the days of Abraham was with the intent that they might be a people ready for the Lord at His coming. The end of all the institutions He gave them was so to develop faith and holiness in them that they should discern and receive His Son. And Jesus during His ministry gave them every possible proof of His divine character, and reproved and warned and beseeehed them, that He might save them from the guilt of His rejection; yet all in vain. "He came unto His own, and His own received Him not." How touching are His farewell words to Jerusalem, (Matt, xxiii. 37): "How often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye wTould not."
Still a third fact is, that as the covenant of God with the Jews was a national one, so must also Christ's acceptance or rejection be. From the beginning of their history God had dealt with the people as a corporate body. Their blessings were national blessings, their punishments national punishments. All their institutions were so devised as to deepen the feeling of national unity: one high priest, one temple, one altar. What was done by the heads of the nation was regarded as the act of all, and involving common responsibility. Only in this way could the purpose of God in their election to be His peculiar people, be carried out. Hence, in this greatest and highest act, the acceptance or rejection of His Son, the act must be a national one. It must be done in the name of the whole people by those who acted as their rightful representatives. If those who sat in Moses' seat should discern and receive Him, the way for the further prosecution of His work was at once opened, and under His Divine instruction the nation might be purified for the glorious kingdom, so often sung by the psalmist and foretold by the prophets. But if, on the other hand, He was rejected by the nation, acting through its lawfully constituted heads, this national crime must be followed by national destruction. A few might be saved amid the general overthrow, but the people, as such, could be no more the holy and elect of God.
It was under the conditions imposed by these great historic facts that the Lord began His ministry among the Jews. , He came to a people in covenant with God, a people that God desired to save, and that must as a people, accept or reject Him. All the details that are given us of that ministry by the Evangelists must therefore be viewed in the light of these facts.
The first event that meets us in the evangelic narrative, is the mission of John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Messiah. His work was threefold. First, he was to announce that the kingdom of God was at hand, and the Messiah about to appear. In this announcement he especially displayed his prophetic character. Second, he was to bring the nation to repentance, and " make ready a people prepared for the Lord." Here he especially manifested himself as a preacher of righteousness. Of this righteousness the law was the standard, and by the law must the nation be judged. Hence, John was a preacher of the law. The burden of his message was, "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand." As a wicked, disobedient people, they were not ready for that kingdom. True, they were " Abraham's children," and " sons of the kingdom," but this did not suffice. They had broken the Holy Covenant, they had not hearkened to God's voice, and He had punished them terribly in His anger. The Baptist came to awaken them to a sense of their guilt, to make them see how by their unbelief and sin they had frustrated the grace of God; and thus move them to repentance. Comparing the promises of God with their fulfilment, they might see how little He had been able to bestow upon them, how little they had answered to the end for which He chose them. How glorious the promises, how melancholy the history ! Their national independence was gone ; the covenant with the house of David was suspended, and that royal family had sunk into obscurity. Their high priest was appointed by the Roman governor for political ends, and was a mere tool in his hands; the priesthood, as a body, was venal and proud ; the voice of prophecy had long been unheard, and for the teachings of inspiration were substituted the sophisms and wranglings of the Rabbis ; the law was made, in many of its vital points, of none efFect by traditions; the nation was divided into contending sects ; a large party, and that comprising some of the most rich, able, and influential, were infidels, open or secret; some, aspiring after a higher piety than the observance of the law could give, wholly ceased to observe it, and withdrew into the wilderness to follow some self-devised ascetic practices; still more were bigots in their reverence for t^he* .letter of the law, but wholly ignorant of its spirit, and bitter and intolerant toward all whom they had the power to oppress. The people at large still continued to glory in their theocratic institutions, in their temple, in their priesthood, and deemed themselves the only true worshippers of God in the world. They were unmindful that almost every thing that had constituted the peculiar glory of the theocracy was lost by sin ; that the Visible Glory that dwelt between the cherubim had departed, that there was no more response by the Urim and Thummim, that the ark, with its attendant memorials, was no more to be found in the Holy of Holies, that all those supernatural interpositions that had marked their early history had ceased; in short, that the whole nation " was turned aside like a deceitful bow."
To the anointed eye of the Baptist, the unpreparedness of the nation for the Messiah was apparent. He saw how in it was fulfilled the language of Isaiah : " The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even unto the head, there is no soundness in it, but wounds, and bruises, and putrefying sores;" and he would, if it were possible, awake the people to a sense of their real spiritual condition. Unless this were done, they could not receive the Messiah, and His coming could be only to their condemnation and destruction. Deliverance was possible only when, like their fathers in Egypt, they became conscious of their bondage, and began to sigh and cry for deliverance, (Exod. ii. 23.) And as the elders of the people gathered themselves together unto Moses and cooperated with him, so must now the priests and Levites, and all who, by prod's appointment, held any office among the people, be co-workers with Jesus. In this way only was it possible that the promises of the covenant could take effect, and the predictions of the prophets be fulfilled.
To awaken in the hearts of the Jews a deeper sense of their sins, and of the need of cleansing, John established the rite of baptism in the Jordan. He taught that this rite was only preparatory, a baptism of repentance, and that the higher baptism of the Spirit they must still receive at the hands of the Messiah Himself, who was speedily to come. All whom he baptized came confessing their sins. Thus, the extent of his baptism was an index how general the repentance of the people, and consequently how general the preparation for the Messiah.
Third, John was to point out the Messiah personally to the nation, when He should appear. This was the culminating point of his ministry, and would naturally come at the close of the preparatory work.
Let us now survey for a moment the Baptist's ministry as narrated by the Evangelists, and see how far its purpose was accomplished. First, he aroused general attention to the fact that the Messiah was at hand. Second, his preaching brought great numbers to repentance. Multitudes from every part of the land came to his baptism. But of these it is probable that many did not understand the significance of the rite, or truly repent of their sins. Perhaps with comparatively few was the baptism with water a true preparation for the baptism with the Holy Ghost. And it is to be specially noted, that those thus coming to John to be baptized were mostly, if not exclusively, of the common people, and not of the priests, or Levites, or members of the hierarchical party. Many of the Pharisees and Sadducees came to be spectators of the rite, but only with hostile intent; or if some received baptism at his hands, we find few or no traces of them in the subsequent history, (Matt, iii. 1; Luke vii. 29-30.) In the hearts of those who sat in Moses' seat, the spiritual rulers and guides of the nation, no permanent sense of sin was awakened, and they could not submit to a baptism of which they felt no need. To all his exhortations they had the ready, and, as they deemed, sufficient reply, " We have Abraham to our father." Thus John did not effect national repentance. The highest proof of this is seen in the deputation that was sent him from Jerusalem to ask him who he was, and by what authority he acted, (John i. 19-27.) It is plain from the narrative that he was wholly unable to satisfy the Jewish leaders that he was divinely commissioned, or that his baptism had any validity. It followed of course, that they paid no heed to his ^prophetic or personal testimony to the Messiah.
As his last official act, he pointed out Jesus in person to the nation as the Messiah. He whom he had foretold was come. Henceforth they must see and hear Him.
Turning now to the ministry of the Lord, let us consider it in its relations to that of the Baptist, and as under those historic conditions that have been already mentioned. His first work was to present Himself to the Jews as their Messiah, in whom the covenants of God with Abraham and David should find their fulfilment, all the predictions of the prophets be accomplished, and for whom the Baptist had prepared the way. Of His Messiahship He must give proof, first and chiefly, by His words, which should show Him to be the Truth of God ; and second, by His works, which should show Him to be the Power of God. All the scriptural expectations created by the announcement of John were to be realized in Him. Thus, presenting Himself to the people, and especially to its ecclesiastical rulers, and having shown by the evidence of His own works and words, corresponding to the testimony of the Baptist, that He was the Messiah, He must await the action of the nation.
The obstacles that stood in the way of His acceptance are obvious. The nation was morally unprepared for Him. Whilst so many were looking for Him, few were looking for Him in such a guise. To say nothing of the obscurity in which He had hitherto lived, and of His supposed birth at Nazareth, His present conduct in no degree corresponded to their expectations. His wisdom and eloquence could not be questioned, nor the fact that He wrought miracles; but all this did not suffice. He might be a teacher sent from God, or a prophet, but the Messiah must be much more than this. He might perhaps be, as John declared himself to be, a forerunner of the Messiah. A few, mostly or wholly from the ranks of John's disciples, at once received Him as the Messiah, but, as afterward appeared, with most imperfect conceptions of His person and work; the people at large, and its rulers, discerned Him not. It is plain, from the account of Mcodemus, (John iii. 1-2,) that the presentation of Himself at Jerusalem, and His words and works there, had called forth no response from the ecclesiastical leaders. Even now their incredulity was shown in a demand for a sign, which He would not give.
Whatever hostility had manifested itself at this His first public appearing in Jerusalem, still there was hope that it might be removed by greater knowledge of His character and work. The Lord, therefore, still remaining in the province of Judea, and thus directly under the eyes of the priests, begins the work of baptizing. Many gather around Him, and receive baptism at the hands of His disciples. But it does not appear that any of the Pharisees, or of the higher and more influential classes, were among them, and still less any of the rulers. After a summer thus spent, His enemies endeavoring to sow dissensions between His disciples and those of John, He gives up His baptismal work, and retires into Galilee. Near a year had now passed since He had been pointed out as the Messiah to the nation, and yet very few had received Him as such, and all who bore rule, or certainly most of them, manifested an increasing hostility. He found no general, much less a national reception.
After a few weeks spent in Galilee, Jesus goes up the second time to Jerusalem to a feast, and heals the impotent man at the pool of Bethesda, (John v.) The charge is at once made against Him that He had broken the Sabbath by this work of healing, and His defence, based upon His Divine Sonship, so offended the ruling party that His life was in danger. This open manifestation of hostility marks the first great turning-point in the Lord's ministry. It was now apparent that the rulers at Jerusalem would neither listen to His words, nor be convinced by His works. So far from recognizing in Him the Messiah, His acts were violations of the law, and His defence blasphemy. Henceforth they stood to Him in an attitude of avowed hostility, and waited only for a sufficient pretext to arrest Him and put Him to death. How far in this they represented the sentiment of the people at large, it is impossible for us to say, but it appears from the subsequent history, that although many came to Christ's baptism, yet that He had not at any time a large body of adherents in Judea. So far as appears, the people acquiesced in the decision of their rulers.
Forced to flee from Jerusalem, the Lord goes into Galilee. And now the second stage of His ministry begins. His work in Galilee seems to have had a twofold purpose. It was first directed to the gathering of disciples, such as hearing His words felt their truth, and seeing His works recognized in them a Divine power. To Him, the true Light, all who loved the light would come. Thus He gathered around Him the mo^t receptive, the most spiritually minded from every rank and class, and teaching them, as they were able to hear, the mysteries of His Person and of His Kingdom, prepared them to be His witnesses unto the nation. Through the testimony of a body of faithful disciples, the rulers at Jerusalem might yet be led to hearken to His words, and their own faith be quickened by the faith of others, and thus the nation be saved. But if this were in vain, and neither the words of the Baptist, nor the teachings of Jesus Himself and His works, nor the testimony of the disciples, could convince them, these disciples would still serve as the foundation of that new and universal church which God would build if the Jews rejected His Son. If, because of unbelief, the natural branches should be broken off, and the heathen be grafted in, in that body of followers the Lord had those who could serve Him as the builders and rulers of the new household of God.
Thus the gathering of disciples, whilst, on the one hand, it looked toward the acknowledgment' by the nation of Christ's Messianic claims, and regarded such acknowledgment as still possible, yet, on the other, looked forward to the hour when He, whom the Jewish builders rejected, should be the corner stone of a church, in whose blessings Jews and Gentiles should alike participate. Of this future service the disciples themselves knew nothing, nor could they till Christ had ascended. For the present, he would teach them such truth as immediately concerned Himself and His work. He must deliver them from the false and narrow notions in which they had been educated by their Rabbis, and, so far as they had ears to hear, open to them the purpose of God, as revealed in the Law and the Prophets.
Into the details of the Lord's work in Galilee this is not the place to enter. Suffice it to say that He gathered many disciples, and that His fame spread throughout all the land. But the favor which was showed Him in Galilee did not propitiate His enemies at Jerusalem. They very early sent spies to watch His movements, and in concert with the Pharisees, who were found in greater or less numbers in all the villages, they organized a systematic opposition to the progress of His work. Every thing was done to poison the mind of the people against Him, as a transgressor of the law, and even as in alliance with evil spirits. The fact that a large number believed in Him as the Messiah, was so far from proving the reality of His Messiahship, that it only stimulated them to new efforts for His destruction. Thus, more and more, the hope that the nation, as represented by its rulers, could be brought to receive Him, faded away. His journey to the feast of Tabernacles and reception at Jerusalem, showed in the plainest way that their hostility was undiminished, (John, chs. vii.-x.) It was apparent to Him that the " Kingdom of God must be taken from them and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof," and as preparatory to this, He began to teach His disciples of His approaching death, resurrection, ascension, and coming again.
The false conceptions entertained by the Jews respecting the person and work of the Messiah, had to this time prevented the Lord from publicly assuming this title and proclaiming Himself as the Son of David and rightful King of Israel. He spoke of Himself habitually as the Son of Man. But, as it became evident that His death was determined upon, He will not permit the nation to commit so great sin without the distinct knowledge of His Messiahship. They shall not reject Him as a simple prophet, or as a forerunner of the Messiah, but as the Messiah Himself. In the third or last stage of His ministry, therefore, we shall find His Messianic claims made prominent, both in His own teachings and in the testimony of His disciples, who, to the number of seventy, were sent two and two before Him as He journeyed to Jerusalem. In this city only could He die, for this was " the City of the Great King," and His death could not be by lawless violence, or in secret, but must be in the most public manner, and by a solemn and judicial act, and here He must announce Himself as the true King, the Son of David, the long-promised Deliverer. This He did when He entered the city, fulfilling the prophetic w^ord, "Behold, thy King cometh, sitting on an ass's colt." He accepted, as rightfully belonging to Him, the homage of the multitude, who spread their garments and branches of palm trees in the way, and cried, " Hosanna to the Son of David." " Blessed is the King of Israel, that cometh in the name of the Lord."
Thus in the Lord's public life we seem to find three stages distinctly marked. The first is that period extending from the first Passover (John ii. 13) to the feast when the impotent man was healed, (John v. 1,) and embraced about a year. It began with the purgation of the Tenrple, and ended with the attempt of the Jews to kill Him because He made Himself equal with God. During this time His labors were confined mainly to Judea. Near the close of this period we may place the imprisonment of the Baptist. The second stage is that period following His return to Galilee immediately after the feast, (John v. 1,) and embraces the whole duration of His ministry there, or about a year and six months. This period may be divided into two, of which the death*,of the Baptist will serve as the dividing line. The third stage begins with His final departure from Galilee, and ends with His death at Jerusalem, and embraces five or six months. The peculiarities of these several stages of ministry will be noticed more in detail as each shall come before us.