The Teaching of Christ in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke

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By Professor Alexander Balmain Bruce, D.D.,
Free Church College, Glasgow.

Groups of New Testament books representing distinctive types of Christian thought—The teaching of Jesus as presented in the synoptic gospels:—The Kingdom of God; the Fatherhood of God; the inestimable value of man; righteousness, and the relation of faith and conduct to it; Jesus' view of himself; his teaching concerning his own experience; the necessity and value of suffering.

Among the writings that make up the New Testament there are certain books or groups of books that are distinguished from the rest by peculiarities of thought and speech on the great theme of all the books, the good that came to the world through Jesus Christ. They differ in this respect, not only from the other books but from each other. The books, or groups of books, referred to present what we may call distinctive conceptions of Christianity; so many varied types or aspects of the common gospel. The books I mean are the first three gospels, the leading epistles of St. Paul, the Epistle to the Hebrews and the fourth gospel bearing the name of John. No thoughtful reader, even though he be not a theological expert, can fail to notice that these books, as compared with the rest, are full of deep thought on the subject of religion, as distinct from mere historical narrative such as you can find in the Book of Acts, and from practical exhortations to godly living such as form the bulk of the epistles of Peter and James. And it is equally noticeable that the thinking is not all of the same cast, that there is one way of thinking in the words of Jesus as reported in the first three gospels, another in Paul's epistles to the Galatian, Corinthian, and Roman Churches, a third in the Epistle to the Hebrews, and a fourth in the fourth gospel.

These four types of Christian thought it ought to be worth our while to study. Yet diversity of opinion on this point is not inconceivable. The man who looks at the Scriptures from a purely practical point of view—the pastor, e. g., whose interest is in homiletics, not in biblical theology—may think it his duty to ignore these distinctions, or if that be impossible, to reduce their extent and significance to a minimum. His desire is to find one uniform gospel in the New Testament, not a gospel with four phases or faces, still less four gospels that cannot be reconciled with one another. With this last pium desiderium we can all sympathize, as we probably all believe that it finds satisfaction in the writings concerned. Few now accept the dictum of Dr. Baur that in the New Testament is to be found not only variety but contradiction. But short of contradiction there may be very interesting variety which it would repay not only the biblical scholar but the preacher to become acquainted with. Noting such a variety must at the least lend to the books in which it appears, a picturesque interest, the attraction that belongs to well defined individuality. It may also turn out that the books so individualized, while not contradicting, supplement each other, so that from all taken together in their unmitigated distinctiveness, we can gather a larger, fuller, more many-sided view of the gospel than it is possible to obtain from any one of them. With this conviction I propose to make in four papers an elementary study on the books I have named. And first on the Synoptic Gospels, as the first three gospels are named by scholars because of their resemblance to each other.

In these gospels one expression occurs more frequently than in any other part of the New Testament—The Kingdom of God, or as it is usually given in Matthew, The Kingdom of Heaven. It occurs so often as to suggest the inference that it was Christ's name for the highest good, the great divine boon he came to proclaim and bestow. The good news of God, the gospel he had to preach, the synoptists being witness, was that the kingdom of God was come. What he meant thereby is nowhere formally and precisely explained. Jesus gave no abstract definitions of terms such as we are accustomed to; neither of the kingdom of God, nor of his name for God, Father, nor of his favorite name for himself, Son of Man. He defined simply by discriminating use, introducing his leading words and phrases in suggestive connections of thought which would gradually familiarize hearers at once with word and with meaning. One clue to the sense of Christ's great words is, of course, Old Testament prophecy. With the oracles of Hebrew prophets he was very familiar; with the bright hopes these expressed he was in full sympathy, and by their graphic forcible language his own diction was colored. But these oracles, nevertheless, must be used with caution as a key to the interpretation of his words. For Jesus was in a marked degree original, putting new meanings into old phrases, and so transforming many current conceptions that, while the words were the same, the sense was widely different. In his time and in the land of Israel, all men who professed religion talked about the kingdom of God; John, surnamed the Baptist, the teachers in the Jewish schools called Rabbis, and the very strict people called Pharisees. The dialect was one but the meaning various. The Baptist meant one thing, the Pharisees another, and Jesus meant something very different from either. The expression in itself is vague and elastic and leaves room for differences in sense as wide as between political and ethical or spiritual, national and universal.

Leaving Rabbis and Pharisees out of account, it is not difficult to discriminate between the Baptist's conception and that of Jesus. The difference may be broadly put thus: In John's mouth the announcement that the kingdom was coming was awful news, in the mouth of Jesus good news. John sought to scare people into repentance by talking to them of an axe that was to be employed by a great coming One to cut down barren fruit trees, and a fan to winnow wheat and chaff, and of fire and judgment that were to sweep away and consume all chaff-like men. Jesus, on the other hand, went about among the synagogues of Galilee speaking about the kingdom in a way that did not terrify but win, awakening trust and hope even among the irreligious and immoral. People marveled at the "words of grace" which proceeded out of his mouth (Luke 4:22). Corresponding to this difference in the preaching, was the difference in religious temper prevailing among the disciples of the two Masters. John's disciples were a sad company; they fasted often and made many prayers on an ascetic method. The disciples of Jesus did not fast. They were in no fasting mood; they rather resembled a wedding party, as Jesus himself hinted in the parable of the children of the bride-chamber, spoken in defense of his disciples for neglect of fasts observed both by the disciples of John and by the Pharisees (Matt. 9:15).

Probably the surest guide to Christ's idea of the kingdom, and the most satisfactory explanation of the happy mood of those who accepted his evangel, is to be found in the name he gave to God, "Father." We do not indeed find anywhere in the gospels a saying of Jesus formally connecting the two words "kingdom " and "Father" as mutually interpretative terms. As Jesus did not deal in abstract definitions, so as little did he think in system. He did not say to his disciples: "My gospel is the announcement that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, and what I mean by the kingdom of heaven is: God obtaining sovereign influence over human hearts by paternal love in virtue of which he calls all men, even the basest, his sons, freely pardons their offenses, and invites them to participate in fullest family privilege and fellowship." But when you find an unsystematic religious teacher using constantly two words representing two cardinal religious ideas, you cannot help concluding that a real, radical, if unexpressed, synthesis unites them in his mind, and that kingdom and fatherhood, though formally as distinct as a kingdom and a family, are for him only different names for the same thing. The king rules by paternity and the father by his love becomes king.

The frequency with which the name Father is applied to God is a characteristic of the synoptic gospels as compared with the other books of the New Testament. It occurs no less than fifteen times in the Sermon on the Mount. And the reference of the name, in many instances at least, is to a relation between God and men. The standing phrase in the Sermon on the Mount is your Father or thy Father. In the fourth gospel it is otherwise. The prevailing expression there is the Father, as if pointing to a unique exclusive divine relation between God and Jesus, theological rather than human. The humanity of the divine fatherhood in the first three gospels is very wide, embracing not only disciples, though they are sons in the first rank, but men indiscriminately, publicans, sinners, evil as well as good, just as well as unjust (Matt. 5:45), prodigals all, nevertheless sons. This also is changed in the fourth gospel. The sons of God there are believers in Jesus, born of the spirit; all others are simply sons of the evil one.

Along with the synoptic account of Christ's idea of God goes an equally characteristic view of his idea of man. From the former we could have inferred what the latter must have been, even in absence of interpretative texts. If all men even at the lowest be God's sons, recipients of his providential benefits, objects of his gracious paternal solicitude for their highest spiritual well-being, what worth man even at the worst must have for God and ought to have for himself and for fellowmen! The doctrine of the divine Father says to all who have ears to hear: Let it never be forgotten that every man even at the lowest has that in him which has inestimable value for God; therefore let no man despair of himself, and let no man in pride despise his degraded brothers. But Jesus did not leave so important a truth to be a matter of logical inference from another truth. He expressly affirmed man's absolute infinite significance. But he did this in his own inimitable way, quaint, kindly, pathetic and even humorous. Instead of saying in philosophic terms: "Man possesses absolute worth," he quaintly asked: "Is not man (any man) better (of more importance) than flowers, fowls of the air, sparrows, than a sheep or an ox, or even a whole world?" The very inadequacy of most of these comparisons invests them with pathos and power. "Of more value than many sparrows!" Men, in the weakness of their trust, and in the depressing sense of their insignificance, need such humble estimates to help them rise to higher faith and bolder self-respect, and the use of them by Jesus is signal evidence of his deep sympathy and also of his poetic tact and felicity. I value greatly these simple naïve questions of Jesus preserved for us in the synoptic gospels as a contribution to the doctrine of man. There is nothing like them elsewhere in the New Testament; nothing so good, so expressive and impressive, so suggestive, so humanely sympathetic, so quietly, yet severely condemnatory of all low unloving estimates of human worth. Compare with these questions of Jesus, Paul's "Doth God take care for oxen?" Jesus could not have asked that question with an implied negative in his mind. His doctrine was: "God does care even for oxen, but for men more."

One of the great key-words of the Bible throughout is righteousness. Prophets, apostles, Jesus, Paul, all use the word and mean by it in the main the same thing; yet not without shades of difference. In the synoptic account of Christ's teaching, the idea of righteousness occupies a very prominent place. The aim of a great part of the Sermon on the Mount is to determine what the true idea of righteousness is. Here again we may assume that in the mind of Jesus the ideas of kingdom, father, righteousness were so closely related, that having once ascertained what he meant by any one of the terms you could determine for yourself the meaning of the other two. We find all three ideas connected together in the text "Seek ye his (the father's) kingdom and righteousness" (Matt. 6:33 ). Seeing then, that the kingdom is the kingdom of the Father, therefore, a kingdom of love, it may be inferred that the righteousness of the kingdom, in the conception of Jesus, is, to begin with, a righteousness of trustful surrender to the loving kindness of the Father in heaven. It is not a legal righteousness as between two persons one of whom makes a demand which the other strives to comply with. It is on man's part towards God trust in his benignant grace. God gives, we receive; and receiving is our righteousness towards the divine giver, whereby we give God credit for benignity and cherish toward him the feeling such an attribute inspires. Such trust in our Heavenly Father, we infer, must be a quite fundamental element in the righteousness of the kingdom. Do the evangelic texts bear out this inference? They do. In the synoptic records of our Lord's words, faith holds a prominent place. "I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel." "Thy faith hath made thee whole." "O woman, great is thy faith; be it unto thee as thou wilt," and so on. We may say that faith was Christ's watchword, as repentance was John's. Very significant in connection with Christ's conception of righteousness is the saying,—one of the most remarkable as well as most indubitably authentic in the records—"I came not to call the righteous but sinners." It was spoken in connection with the censured festive meeting with the publicans of Capernaum, and the word "call" must therefore be taken in a kindred sense as denoting an invitation to a feast. That is to say, Jesus conceived of the kingdom of heaven, the summum bonum, for the moment, as a feast, and from that point of view the one thing required of those who are called is readiness to respond to the invitation. That redeeming virtue even publicans and sinners may possess. In this one point they may leave hopelessly behind far more reputable persons, the "righteous" as judged by current standards. They actually did, Jesus himself being witness. That was why he said: "I came not to call the righteous but sinners." He found that the "righteous," however good and worthy they might be, did not come to his call, while the "sinners" did. And he counted the coming of the sinners for righteousness. It was the one bit of righteousness still possible to them. However bad they might be otherwise, they could believe in the goodwill of God even to the like of them. They might have been with equal impartiality breakers of the Ten Commandments and of the commandments of the scribes, yet you could not say there was no root of goodness in men who received the tidings of a Father capable of loving such scandalous reprobates. In intrinsic value and in promise for the future, that receptivity of the worthless might outweigh the abounding moral respectabilities of the worthy.

Of course we do not expect to find that this initial righteousness of the sinful is a full inventory of the righteousness of the kingdom as set forth in the teaching of Jesus. Prodigal sons do well in returning to the Father's house, but once there it will be expected of them that they shall live a truly filial life. The teaching of Jesus, as reported by the synoptists, supplies ample materials for constructing the ideal of that life. The Sermon on the Mount is especially rich in such material. The body of the discourse is really a portrayal in a series of tableaus of filial righteousness. The artist has employed for his purpose the method of contrast, using the righteousness in vogue, that of the scribes and Pharisees, as a foil to show forth the beauty of the true moral ideal. Jesus had never, like the apostle Paul, been a disciple of the scribes, and the fact is of much significance in connection with the difference perceptible between his conception of righteousness and that of the apostle. He had never, I say, been a disciple of the scribes, but he had evidently been a faithful student of their ways. Witness the vivid delineations of their moral characteristics in the gospels, which, taken together, constitute Christ's negative doctrine of righteousness, setting forth what the righteousness of the kingdom is not. There is much of this negative doctrine in the Sermon on the Mount, for not otherwise than by the method of comparison could the preacher have made his meaning clear to his hearers. But we may disregard the contrast and state in positive terms the drift of the Teaching on the Hill on the subject of righteousness. It may be summed up in two words: be to God all that a son should be to a father; treat fellow men as brethren. Unfolded, the first word means: seek your Father's honor (Matt. 5:16); imitate his character, even in its most sublime virtues, such as magnanimity (5:45, 48); trust his providence (6:25 f.); cherish towards him as your Father in Heaven sincere reverence, manifesting itself in devout adoration and humble petitions (6:9 f.); value supremely his judgment which looks into the heart of things and not merely at the surface; so shunning vulgar ostentation, religious parade, in almsgiving, fasting, praying, and the like, with insatiable appetite for the good opinion of men (6:1–6). Similarly unfolded, the second word means: be not content with merely not killing a fellow man; cherish toward him as a brother a love which shall make it impossible to hate him or despise him (5:21 f.); be not satisfied with abstaining from acts of impurity towards a woman, regard her as a sister whose honor shall be for thyself inviolable even in thought, and in reference to others an object of zealous defense (5:27 f.). Be not the slave of legal claims: an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. Assert your moral rights by renouncing your legal ones, refusing to be provoked into retaliation by any amount of injustice or unbrotherliness (5:38 f.). Acquiesce in no conventional classification of men as friends and foes, neighbors and enemies; let all be friends and neighbors, or let foes and strangers be distinguished as the objects of a more chivalrous love, so overcoming evil with an absolutely invincible good (5:43 f.).

More might be said on the topic of righteousness. In the synoptical account of our Lord's teaching the righteousness of the kingdom is sometimes presented under the aspect of single-hearted absolute devotion to the interests of the kingdom, or to the will of its king. Contenting myself with simply hinting this, I go on to notice in the last place the account given in the first three gospels of Christ's way of speaking concerning himself.

The synoptical evangelists do not conceal their conviction that the subject of their narrative is a great personage. They hold a creed about him, viz., that he is the person in whom were fulfilled the messianic hopes of the Jews. And they all further represent Jesus himself as holding this view of his own vocation. Yet they are careful to make it plain that Jesus did not parade this claim, but kept it well in the background, as if it were a secret not to be promulgated till its true significance could be understood. The Jesus of the synoptists puts on no grand airs, but is a meek and lowly man. The meek and lowly mind of Jesus found its verbal symbol in the oft-used self-designation Son of Man. For there can be little doubt that it is in this direction we must look for the true meaning of the name. Jesus nowhere defines its meaning, any more than he defines the name he gave to God. Here, as always, he defines only by discriminating use. We must listen attentively as he calls himself "Son of Man," and strive to catch the sense of the title from the tone and accent of the speaker. To do this successfully wants a fine, sensitive, sympathetic ear, unfilled with other sounds which blunt its perceptive faculty. For lack of such an ear, men may get very false impressions and read all sorts of meanings into the simple phrase, meanings laboriously collected from Old Testament texts or suggested by systems of theology. To my ear the title speaks of one who is sympathetic and unpretentious; loves men and advances no ambitious claims. He may be great in spite of himself, by his gifts and graces even unique; but these must speak for themselves. He will not take pains to point them out, or advertise his importance as their possessor. The Son of Man is the Man, the brother of men, loving humanity with a passionate love which fits him to be the world's Christ, and his attitude is that of one who says: "Discover what is deepest in me and draw your own inference."

The faithful preservation of this name, bearing such an import, by the synoptical evangelists is a service deserving the gratitude of Christendom. It is not to be found elsewhere in the New Testament, at least in the same sense. It is entirely absent from the epistles. It occurs frequently in the fourth gospel, but in novel connections of thought, as a foil to the divine nature of the Logos, as the name for the human aspect of Deity incarnate, theological rather than ethical in its connotation. We worship the Son of Man of the fourth gospel as we worship the "Lord" of St. Paul, but we love as our brother the lowly, gracious, winsome, comrade-like Son of Man, of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. We refuse not the worship, but we wish to begin with fellowship on equal terms, as if we belonged to the inner Jesus-circle, to the band of men who were the companions of the Son of Man.

We have to note finally the manner in which, according to the synoptists, Jesus expressed himself concerning his experience. Now as to this I remark, in the first place, that Jesus seems to have possessed from the very beginning of his public life intuitive insight into the truth that a genuinely good, godly life could not be lived in the world without trouble. He knew the world he lived in so well, especially the religious world, that tribulation, contradiction, malediction, and worse appeared to him a matter of course for any one who saw, spoke, and acted in accordance with the real truth in religion and morals. This was plain to him, I believe, before he left Nazareth to enter on his prophetic career. His anticipations were very soon verified. He had not well begun his ministry before the scribes and Pharisees began to watch his movements and wait for his halting. Hence those significant hints in the utterances even of the earlier period at days coming when the disciples would have occasion to mourn and fast (Mark 2:20). Jesus divined that the ill will already manifest would ere long ripen into murderous purpose, and that he would become the victim of scribal conceit and Pharisaic malevolence. But of this, always clear to himself he spoke to his disciples at first only in mystic, veiled language. As the fatal crisis drew near, he began to speak plainly, realistically, unmistakably, of the approaching passion, saying that "The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected of the elders and of the chief priests and scribes, and be killed." No sooner did he begin to speak thus realistically of the harsh tragic fact, than by way of reconciling distressed disciples to the unwelcome fact he began to instruct them as to its significance. His first lesson on the import of the passion was a statement to the effect that his coming sufferings were no isolated phenomenon in the moral universe, but only a signal instance of the operation of a universal law: cross-bearing inevitable not only for the Master, but for all faithful disciples. This is a distinctive contribution of the gospels (including John's) to the doctrine of the significance of Christ's death. It is the ethical foundation of the doctrine on which all theological constructions must rest. It is not found in Paul's epistles, in which the sufferings of Christ are regarded as sui generis, and from an exclusively theological point of view. It is Christ's answer to a question handed down from the prophets: Why do the righteous suffer? His reply to that question, so earnestly and yet unsuccessfully discussed in the Book of Job, is, in the first place: "They suffer just because they are righteous; their tribulations are the inevitable reaction of an unrighteous world against all earnest attempts to make God's will law in all things." But this reply while true, can hardly be the whole truth. It is not much of a comfort to be told that suffering for righteousness' sake is inevitable. One would like to know whether the inevitable evil can in any way be transmuted into good. According to the synoptical reports Jesus had something to say on that question also. In effect this was what he said: First, it would turn evil into good for your own feeling, if you could once for all cheerfully accept cross-bearing as the law of discipleship, and take suffering not as an unavoidable, unwelcome calamity, but as an exhilarating experience that lifts you into the heroic region of freedom, buoyancy, and irrepressible, perpetual joy. "Blessed are ye when men shall persecute you; rejoice and be exceeding glad" (Matt. 5:11, 12). Jesus so took his own passion, lovingly, generously, shedding his blood as Mary shed her box of precious ointment on his head (Mark 14:8). But, secondly, it would still more turn evil into good if one could be assured that crossbearing brings not only exaltation of feeling to the sufferer, but benefit even to others, even to those who laid the cross on your shoulders, benefit to the cause for which you suffer. It is even so, said Jesus in effect to his disciples: suffering is redemptive, it is the price one pays for power to benefit the world. He affirmed this truth in reference to his own suffering experience, in two texts, both of which may be confidently accepted as authentic. "The Son of Man came not to be ministered unto but to minister and to give his life a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45 ); "This is my blood of the New Testament which is shed for many for the remission of sins" (Matt. 26:28). These are great, broad utterances, suggesting deep questions which theology has been trying to answer by its various theories of atonement. Pending a final answer securing universal concurrence, this much is clear from our Lord's words: that his death was not a mere fate but a beneficent event serving high ends in the moral order of the world; procuring for man spiritual benefits. It is a legitimate inference that to some extent the same principle applies to the sufferings of the righteous in general, and that no sacrificial life is in vain, that every such life contributes its quota to the redemption of the world. Jesus is the Captain of Salvation who by his unique merit saves all. But the saved are in turn saviours in proportion as they live and die in Christ's spirit.


  1. This is the first of four articles to appear in the Biblical World on Four Types of Christian Thought in the New Testament.