The Problem of Christianity. The Kingdom of God.
The great problem Christianity had to face and to solve was one of no ordinary difficulty, and one involving a number of side issues which greatly perplexed the early church. The practical side of the problem as it met the early Christians may be put thus How could Christianity, which was rooted in Judaism, be at the same time a religion equally open to Jew and Gentile; how could the exclusiveness of Judaism and the utter want of exclusiveness in Christianity be reconciled with each other? And the solution of this problem brought the early Christians into conflicts of a special kind with the government and philosophy of the times.
When Jesus proclaimed His mission, and when He sent forth His disciples on preaching tours to make known himself and His work, we find the phrase "kingdom of heaven" perpetually occurring; and it was this phrase and what it suggested that brought the early Christians face to face with the great problem they had to solve. When Jesus announced that the kingdom of God was at hand; His message was quite intelligible to His Jewish audiences. The phrase was sacred and familiar, and their thoughts went back at once to the old theocracy of Israel. And when after the death and ascension of our Lord, His Jewish believers got a truer and deeper insight into the meaning of the expression, still the idea it conveyed bound Christianity, with bands that could not be untied, to Judaism, the Old Testament Scriptures, the miraculous life of the Jewish nation, and the ideal Israel long expected and long announced. Throughout the Old Testament Scriptures we find three ideas connected with the thought of the kingdom of God. It implied first and primarily the share in the inheritance in the land which the Lord gave to His people and to their children; and then it implied security in this possession, deliverance from Egypt and a succession of enemies, and, lastly, the possession of an inward spring of covenant life, which guaranteed them both salvation and possession. These three things were the historical and material basis on which rested the whole spiritual and prophetic superstructure of the ideal kingdom of God, which lay enshrined in the heart of every devout Hebrew. When our Lord by His preaching, by His life, death, and rising again, and by His mission of the Holy Spirit, gave new meanings to these thoughts, He only widened, deepened, spiritualized, and gave personal point and ap-plication to what the prophets and holy men of old had already declared. And when He and His apostles guided by His Spirit taught His early followers that His kingdom of God meant possession of the spiritual blessings of God's grace, and deliverance from sin, death, and Satan, and a life of adopted sonship which guaranteed them in all these blessings, devout Jews could feel that now they were only learning what the prophets had taught, and they rejoiced in the thoroughgoing oneness which existed between the kingdom of God as proclaimed in the Old Testament and the kingdom of heaven which Jesus preached. But if it was a sine qua non that Christianity should spring out of the Old Testament Scriptures and be identical in all essentials with the Old Testament church, it was no less necessary that it should be now a religion for Gentiles as well as Jews, and here the difficulty emerged. Could the old Jewish church be carried over into the Christian church if all that outwardly distinguished it were abolished Could the continuity be preserved if the ceremonies and restrictions which made up the visible life of the Old Testament worship were no longer to be observed? Would not the Old Testament church be entirely destroyed and the continuity between it and the New Testament church be done away with if the Old Testament ceremonial law was abandoned? So long as the members of the Christian church were Jews only or Gentiles who had become proselytes the difficulty was not felt. The Christians had not openly broken with Judaism, and were acknowledged even by their Jewish opponents to be a Jewish sect, -- a sect everywhere spoken against it is true, but still a sect -- just as the Sadducees were a sect. But whenever Gentiles who were not proselytes became believers then a fierce struggle arose between those who thought that the continuity between the Old Testament and Christianity could not be kept up unless it were visibly perpetuated in those observances which distinguished the Jewish religion from all others, and those who were contented with a continuity which was more of the spirit than of the letter and the form. The practical shape which the struggle at first assumed was, whether Gentiles could be Christians without first becoming proselytes, and whether Jewish Christians must cease to be believers if they associated with Gentiles who had not been circumcised, and had not rendered themselves servants to the law of Moses. To understand the difficulty rightly it should be remembered that when the difficulty arose the New Testament canon was not in existence, and the church had to be guided mainly by the Old Testament Scriptures and the memory of Jesus preserved by the apostles. In spite of what has been advanced by critics of the Tübingen school, it seems evident that the apostles one and all in their letters to the church faithfully followed out the solution which Christ's discourses gave. In these discourses our Lord carefully distinguished between the permanent and the temporary elements in the Old Testament dispensation, and assumed that His office as Messiah gave him full authority to abolish or alter the latter. He also pointed out that the permanent parts of the Mosaic eco-nomy were the various modes of expressing that love to God and to man which He declared to be the sum of the law and the prophets. These were unalterable, but any change might be made in the subordinate and temporary elements, if only this great principle was more fully and better ex-pressed by the change. This leading thought Christ used as much to detect and condemn false developments of the Mosaic economy (e.g., Pharisaism) as to test its true development in Christianity. The apostles of Jesus carried out the principles of their Master. There is not a trace in the epistles of Peter, James, and John of the idea that salva-tion and entrance into the kingdom of God could only be obtained by those who were first Jews and then Christians. There is no statement, for example, that Gentiles must be circumcised before they can be baptized. On the contrary, James speaks of the perfect law of liberty, and Peter and John have expressions equally strong. Within the writings of the apostolic circle everything goes to show that the church was taught from the beginning that Christianity was not to be confined within the limits of natural or adopted Jewish nationality.
Read the rest of this article:
Christianity - Table of Contents