The Life of Jesus

by Ernest Renan

The Life of Jesus > Chapter VII

Development of the ideas of Jesus respecting the Kingdom of God
Up to the arrest of John, which took place about the summer of the year 29, Jesus did not quit the neighborhood of the Dead Sea and of the Jordan. An abode in the desert of Judea was generally considered as the preparation for great things, as a sort of "retreat" before public acts. Jesus followed in this respect the example of others, and passed forty days with no other companions than savage beasts, maintaining a rigorous fast. The disciples speculated much concerning this sojourn. The desert was popularly regarded as the residence of demons. There exist in the world few regions more desolate, more abandoned by God, more shut out from life, than the rocky declivity which forms the western shore of the Dead Sea. It was believed that during the time which Jesus passed in this frightful country he had gone through terrible trials; that Satan had assailed him with his illusions or tempted him with seductive promises; that afterwards, in order to recompense him for his victory, the angels had come to minister to him.

It was probably in coming from the desert that Jesus learnt of the arrest of John the Baptist. He had no longer any reason to prolong his stay in a country which was partly strange to him. Perhaps he feared also being involved in the severities exercised towards John, and did not wish to expose himself at a time in which, seeing the little celebrity he had, his death could in no way serve the progress of his ideas. He regained Galilee, his true home, ripened by an important experience, and having, through contact with a great man very different from himself, acquired a consciousness of his own originality.

On the whole, the influence of John had been more hurtful than useful to Jesus. It checked his development; for everything leads us to believe that he had, when he descended towards the Jordan, ideas superior to those of John, and that it was by a sort of concession that he inclined for a time towards baptism. Perhaps if the Baptist, whose authority. it would have been difficult for him to escape, had remained free, Jesus would not have been able to throw off the yoke of external rites and ceremonies, and would then, no doubt, have remained an unknown Jewish sectary; for the world would not have abandoned its old ceremonies merely for others of a different kind. It has been by the power of a religion, free from all external forms, that Christianity has attracted elevated minds. The Baptist once imprisoned, his school was soon diminished, and Jesus found himself left to his own impulses. The only things he owed to John were lessons in preaching and in popular action. From this moment, in fact, he preached with greater power, and spoke to the multitude with authority.

It seems also that his sojourn with John had, not so much by the influence of the Baptist as by the natural progress of his own thought, considerably ripened his ideas on "the kingdom of heaven." His watchword henceforth is the "good tidings," the announcement that the kingdom of God is at hand. Jesus is no longer simply a delightful moralist, aspiring to express sublime lessons in short and lively aphorisms; he is the transcendent revolutionary, who essays to renovate the world from its very basis, and to establish upon earth the ideal which he had conceived. "To await the kingdom of God" is henceforth synonymous with being a disciple of Jesus. This phrase, "kingdom of God," or "kingdom of heaven," was, as we have said, already long familiar to the Jews. But Jesus gave it a moral sense, a social application, which even the author of the book of Daniel, in his apocalyptic enthusiasm, had scarcely dared to imagine.

He declared that in the present world evil is the reigning power. Satan is "the prince of this world," and everything obeys him. The kings kill the prophets. The priests and the doctors do not that which they command others to do; the righteous are persecuted, and the only portion of the good is weeping. The "world" is in this manner the enemy of God and his saints; but God will awaken and avenge his saints. The day is at hand, for the abomination is at its height. The reign of goodness will have its turn.

The advent of this reign of goodness will be a great and sudden revolution. The world will seem to be turned upside down: the actual state being bad, in order to represent the future, it suffices to conceive nearly the reverse of that which exists. The first shall be last. A new order shall govern humanity. Now the good and the bad are mixed, like the tares and the good grain in a field. The master lets them grow together; but the hour of violent separation will arrive. The kingdom of God will be as the casting of a great net, which gathers both good and bad fish; the good are preserved, and the rest are thrown away. The germ of this great revolution will not be recognizable in its beginning. It will be like a grain of mustard-seed which is the smallest of seeds, but which, thrown into the earth, becomes a tree under the foliage of which the birds repose; or it will be like the leaven which, deposited in the meal, makes the whole to ferment. A series of parables, often obscure, was designed to express the suddenness of this advent, its apparent injustice, and its inevitable and final character.

Who was to establish this kingdom of God? Let us remember that the first thought of Jesus, a thought so deeply rooted in him that it had probably no beginning, and formed part of his very being, was that he was the Son of God, the friend of his Father, the doer of his will. The answer of Jesus to such a question could not therefore be doubtful. The persuasion that he was to establish the kingdom of God took absolute possession of his mind. He regarded himself as the universal reformer. The heavens, the earth, the whole of nature, madness, disease, and death, were but his instruments. In his paroxysm of heroic will he believed himself all-powerful. If the earth would not submit to this supreme transformation, it would be broken up, purified by fire, and by the breath of God. A new heaven would be created, and the entire world would be peopled with the angels of God.

A radical revolution, embracing even nature itself, was the fundamental idea of Jesus. Henceforward, without doubt, he renounced politics; the example of Judas, the Gaulonite, had shown him the inutility of popular seditions. He never thought of revolting against the Romans and tetrarchs. His was not the unbridled and anarchical principle of the Gaulonite. His submission to the established powers, though really derisive, was in appearance complete. He paid tribute to Caesar, in order to avoid disturbance. Liberty and right were not of this world, why should he trouble his life with vain anxieties? Despising the earth, and convinced that the present world was not worth caring for, he took refuge in his ideal kingdom; he established the great doctrine of transcendent disdain, the true doctrine of liberty of souls, which alone can give peace. But he had not yet said, "My kingdom is not of this world." Much darkness mixed itself with even his most correct views. Sometimes strange temptations crossed his mind. In the desert of Judea Satan had offered him the kingdoms of the earth. Not knowing the power of the Roman empire, he might, with the enthusiasm there was in the heart of Judea, and which ended soon after in so terrible an outbreak, hope to establish a kingdom by the number and the daring of his partisans. Many times, perhaps, the supreme question presented itself -- will the kingdom of God be realized by force or by gentleness, by revolt or by patience? One day, it is said, the simple men of Galilee wished to carry him away and make him king, but Jesus fled into the mountain and remained there some time alone. His noble nature preserved him from the errors which would have made him an agitator, or a chief of rebels, a Theudas or a Barkokeba.

The revolution he wished to effect was always a moral revolution; but he had not yet begun to trust to the angels and the last trumpet for its execution. It was upon men and by the aid of men themselves that he wished to act. A visionary who had no other idea than the proximity of the last judgment would not have had this care for the amelioration of man, and would not have given utterance to the finest moral teaching that humanity has received. Much vagueness no doubt tinged his ideas, and it was rather a noble feeling than a fixed design that urged him to the sublime work which was realized by him, though in a very different manner to what he imagined.

It was indeed the kingdom of God, or, in other words, the kingdom of the Spirit, which he founded; and if Jesus, from the bosom of his Father, sees his work bear fruit in the world, he may indeed say with truth, "This is what I have desired." That which Jesus founded, that which will remain eternally his, allowing for the imperfections which mix themselves with everything realized by humanity, is the doctrine of the liberty of the soul. Greece had already had beautiful ideas on this subject. Various Stoics had learnt how to be free even under a tyrant. But in general the ancient world had regarded liberty as attached to certain political forms; freedom was personified in Harmodius and Aristogiton, Brutus and Cassius. The true Christian enjoys more real freedom; here below he is an exile. What matters it to him who is the transitory governor of this earth, which is not his home? Liberty for him is truth. Jesus did not know history sufficiently to understand that such a doctrine came most opportunely at the moment when republican liberty ended, and when the small municipal constitutions of antiquity were absorbed in the unity of the Roman empire. But his admirable good sense, and the truly prophetic instinct which he had of his mission, guided him with marvelous certainty. By the sentence, "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and to God the things which are God's," he created something apart from polities, a refuge for souls in the midst of the empire of brute force. Assuredly such a doctrine had its dangers. To establish as a principle that we must recognize the legitimacy of a power by the inscription on its coins, to proclaim that the perfect man pays tribute with scorn and without question, was to destroy republicanism in the ancient form, and to favor all tyranny. Christianity, in this sense, has contributed much to weaken the sense of duty of the citizen, and to deliver the world into the absolute power of existing circumstances. But in constituting an immense free association, which during three hundred years was able to dispense with politics, Christianity amply compensated for the wrong it had done to civic virtues. The to the things of earth; the mind was free, or at least the terrible rod of Roman omnipotence was broken for ever.

The man who is especially preoccupied with the duties of public life does not readily forgive those who attach little importance to his party quarrels. He especially blames those who subordinate political to social questions, and profess a sort of indifference for the former. In one sense he is right, for exclusive power is prejudicial to the good government of human affairs, But what progress have "parties" been able to effect in the general morality of our species? If Jesus, instead of founding his heavenly kingdom, had gone to Rome, had expended his energies in conspiring against Tiberius, or in regretting Germanicus, what would have become of the world? As an austere republican, or zealous patriot, he would not have arrested the great current of the affairs of his age; but, in declaring that politics are insignificant, he has revealed to the world this truth, that one's country is not everything, and that the man is before, and higher than, the citizen.

Our principles of positive science are offended by the dreams contained in the program of Jesus. We know the history of the earth; cosmical revolutions of the kind which Jesus expected are only produced by geological or astronomical causes, the connection of which with the spiritual things has never yet been demonstrated. But, in order to be just to great originators, they must not be judged by the prejudices in which they have shared. Columbus discovered America, though starting from very erroneous ideas; Newton believed his foolish explanation of the Apocalypse to be as true as his system of the world. Shall we place an ordinary man of our time above a Francis d'Assisi, A St. Bernard, a Joan of Arc, or a Luther, because he is free from errors which these last have professed? Should we measure men by the correctness of their ideas of physics, and by the more or less exact knowledge which they possess of the true system of the world? Let us understand better the position of Jesus and that which made his power. The Deism of the eighteenth century, and a certain kind of Protestantism, have accustomed us to consider the founder of the Christian faith only as a great moralist, a benefactor of mankind. We see nothing more in the Gospel than good maxims; we throw a prudent veil over the strange intellectual state in which it was originated. There are even persons who regret that the French Revolution departed more than once from principles, and that it was not brought about by wise and moderate men. Let us not impose our petty and commonplace ideas on these extraordinary movements so far above our everyday life. Let us continue to admire the "morality of the Gospel" -- let us suppress in our religious teachings the chimera which was its soul; but do not let us believe that with the simple ideas of happiness, or of individual morality, we stir the world. The idea of Jesus was much more profound; it was the most revolutionary idea ever formed in a human brain; it should be taken in its totality, and not with those timid suppressions which deprive it of precisely that which has rendered it efficacious for the regeneration of humanity.

The ideal is ever a Utopia. When we wish nowadays to represent the Christ of the modern conscience, the consoler, and the judge of the new times, what course do we take? That which Jesus himself did eighteen hundred and thirty years ago. We suppose the conditions of the real world quite other than what they are; we represent a moral liberator breaking without weapons the chains of the negro, ameliorating the condition of the poor, and giving liberty to oppressed nations. We forget that this implies the subversion of the world, the climate of Virginia and that of Congo modified, the blood and the race of millions of men changed, our social complications restored to a chimerical simplicity, and the political stratifications of Europe displaced from their natural order. The "restitution of all things" desired by Jesus was not more difficult. This new earth, this new heaven, this new Jerusalem which comes from above, this cry: "Behold I make all things new!" are the common characteristics of reformers. The contrast of the ideal with the sad reality always produces in mankind those revolts against unimpassioned reason which inferior minds regard as folly, till the day arrives in which they triumph, and in which those who have opposed them are the first to recognize their reasonableness.

That there may have been a contradiction between the belief in the approaching end of the world and the general moral system of Jesus, conceived in prospect of a permanent state of humanity, nearly analogous to that which now exists, no one will attempt to deny. It was exactly this contradiction that insured the success of his work. The millenarian alone would have done nothing lasting; the moralist alone would have done nothing powerful. The millenarianism gave the impulse; the moralist insured the future. Hence Christianity united the two conditions of great success in this world -- a revolutionary starting-point and the possibility of continuous life. Everything which is intended to succeed ought to respond to these two wants; for the world seeks both to change and to last, Jesus, at the same time that he announced an unparalleled subversion in human affairs, proclaimed the principles upon which society has reposed for eighteen hundred years.

That which in fact distinguishes Jesus from the agitators of his time, and from those of all ages, is his perfect idealism. Jesus, in some respects, was an anarchist, for he had no idea of civil government. That government seems to him purely and simply an abuse. He spoke of it in vague terms, and as a man of the people who had no idea of politics. Every magistrate appeared to him a natural enemy of the people of God; he prepared his disciples for contests with the civil powers, without thinking for a moment that there was anything to be ashamed of. But he never shows any desire to put himself in the place of the rich and the powerful. He wishes to annihilate riches and power, bat not to appropriate them. He predicts persecution and all kinds of punishment to his disciples; but never once does the thought of armed resistance appear. The idea of being all-powerful by suffering and resignation, and of triumphing over force by purity of heart, is indeed an idea peculiar to Jesus. Jesus is not a spiritualist, for to him everything tended to a palpable realization; he had not the least notion of a soul separated from the body. But he is a perfect idealist, matter being only to him the sign of the idea, and the real, the living expression of that which does not appear.

To whom should we turn, to whom should we trust to establish the kingdom of God? The mind of Jesus on this point never hesitated. That which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God, The founders of the kingdom of God are the simple. Not the rich, not the learned, not priests; but women, common people, the humble, and the young. The great characteristic of the Messiah is that "the poor have the gospel preached to them." The idyllic and gentle nature of Jesus here resumed the superiority. A great social revolution, in which rank will be overturned, in which all authority in this world will be humiliated, was his dream. The world will not believe him; the world will kill him. But his disciples will not be of the world. They will be a little flock of the humble and the simple, who will conquer by their very humility. The idea which has made "Christian" the antithesis of "worldly has its full justification in the thoughts of the master.

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