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Chapter Eleven: Practices and Beliefs after Jesus’ Resurrection


Albert Schweitzer asks: “In what does the primitive Christian faith consist? The fundamental element in it is belief in the immediate coming of the Kingdom of God, as it has been preached by John the Baptist and Jesus. To this article of faith, which was already present, now, after his death, another is added: belief in his Messiahship. The believers know through the disciples and from Jesus’ acknowledgment before the High Priest that he regarded himself as the coming Messiah. Because of their belief in his resurrection they are convinced that this is what he is.” (Schweitzer, p. 131)

The disciples were energized by Jesus’ resurrection because they now knew that he was the Messiah. Late Jewish prophecy did not conceive that the Messiah was a man. When Jesus was a man, he was not the Messiah. Now that Jesus had died and was resurrected, he was a supernatural being who was in the proper form of the Messiah. Therefore, Christians believed, the prophecy had come true. What Jesus had said about himself as Son of Man had happened. Christianity could rest upon a firm foundation of truth.

Still, belief in the resurrection of Jesus rests upon uncertain facts. “The earliest tradition does not know of any appearances of Jesus from which the material reality of its bodily presence could be inferred. Stories of this kind arise only in later traditions ... we must take into consideration the fact that the women who had come to the tomb in which he had been laid early in the morning on the third day, in order to embalm the body, found the tomb empty. When and by whom he had been removed from it will never be established.” (Schweitzer, p. 131-132)

The Gospel of John, written almost a century after Jesus’ death, includes the story of “Doubting Thomas”, who was allowed to put his finger inside Jesus’ wound. How could one not believe in the resurrection after an experience like that? However, earlier Gospels do not include this story; and it would have to be assumed that such powerful evidence to support Jesus’ bodily resurrection would have been included in those early writings had the disciples known of it. Apart from stories appearing at the end of the four Gospels, we also have the testimony of Paul who, besides citing the experiences of others, claimed to have seen Jesus himself while walking on the road to Damascus.

Schweitzer holds that belief in the resurrection of Jesus came about primarily because Jesus had mentioned it in his teaching. “This ecstatic experience depends upon the fact that Jesus, when he informed his disciples that he would have to die in Jerusalem, promised them at the same time that he would soon rise again. There has been a disposition to assume that the earliest tradition made Jesus promise his resurrection because belief in the resurrection had arisen in the primitive church. In point of fact the position is that this belief arose in consequence of Jesus’ promise of his resurrection.” (Schweitzer, p. 132)

Jesus’ Own View of the Resurrection

The death of Jesus and his subsequent elevation to a supernatural being put Jesus into the form of the Messiah. But it is not necessarily the Messiah people expected. That Messiah would come on the clouds of Heaven to establish the supernatural Kingdom of God. Nature and human history would then be transformed into a timeless and perfect state of existence. That obviously did not happen. Jesus may have risen again, but he was not revealed as the judge and ruler of God’s kingdom on earth. What are Jesus’ own views about this?

“How does Jesus picture his resurrection and manifestation in Messianic glory? Did he expect to be transformed into the Son of Man immediately at the resurrection and as such to appear on the clouds of heaven, or did he assume that this would happen later, as a separate event?” Schweitzer believes that when Jesus sent the disciples out on their mission, he expected that “during the pre-Messianic tribulation he would immediately be transformed into the Son of Man, whether as one who had survived it or as one who had suffered death in it.” (Schweitzer, p. 132) What about later? When Jesus offers testimony before the High Priest referring to “the Son of Man ... coming on the clouds of heaven”, does Jesus think this will happen immediately after he is resurrected? Schweitzer thinks not. That is because Jesus had told the disciples on the Mount of Olives following the Last Supper that “after I am raised again, I will go on before you into Galilee.” (Matthew 26: 32)

What is one to make of this statement? One interpretation would be that, as Jesus walked from Galilee to Jerusalem at the head of his company, so he would walk with them back to Galilee after being resurrected in Jerusalem. Schweitzer thinks that unlikely since persons resurrected from death to become supernatural beings do not walk in the company of men; they travel “on the clouds of heaven.” A more likely interpretation is that Jesus would simply appear in Galilee because that is where he preached the coming of God’s kingdom and attracted a following. It would be an appropriate place for Jesus to be revealed “in his Messianic glory”. Jerusalem would not be such a place because it was the city that killed prophets.

“Because of the words spoken (by Jesus) on the way to Gethsemane, the disciples, and with them a hundred and twenty believers from Galilee, stay on after the death of Jesus in Jerusalem. (Acts 1-2) Here they experience appearances of the risen Lord. But still he does not lead them to Galilee. This promise is not fulfilled. It is testimony to the reliability of the accounts in Matthew and Mark that the saying about going before them into Galilee was nevertheless preserved.” (Schweitzer, p. 133)

In a later tradition, the 28th chapter of Matthew includes passages about an angel instructing the two Marys to tell the disciples that they are to go to Galilee to meet Jesus. “In reality,” writes Schweitzer, “Jesus is thinking of taking the lead in a common journey to Galilee,” when he spoke those words to the disciples in Gethsemane. “This is how the disciples actually understood it. They remain in Jerusalem with the expectation of going to Galilee with the risen master who has already appeared to Peter.” (Schweitzer, p. 134)

According to Acts, Jesus continued to appear to people for forty days after his resurrection. When the appearances stopped, the Christian community believed that Jesus “was now in heaven and would descend from there to earth in his Messianic glory.” (Schweitzer, p. 134) Before being martyred, Stephen had a vision of the heavens opening and revealing the Son of Man at the right hand of God. Saul (Paul), too, saw Jesus in heaven. A later tradition holds that after Jesus’ earthly mission, he bade farewell to his disciples and promptly ascended to heaven.

“Strictly speaking, we should speak of Jesus’ coming as the Messiah, not of his return. For the earliest Christian believers his appearance in glory as the Messiah, expected in the immediate future, was so much in the foreground of their faith that they use for it the term Parousia, arrival. His previous human existence is not included in it. We find it more natural to speak of his return, and there is no reason why we should give up doing so. We must only bear in mind that for believers of the earliest period it was not the Jesus who had come forward in Galilee, but only the risen Lord, who was the Messiah.” (Schweitzer, p. 134-135)

Origin of the Atoning Death

“There arose in primitive Christianity another belief beside that in the Messiahship of Jesus. This was the belief that through his death the forgiveness of sins was available for believers.” (Schweitzer, p. 135) During his life, Jesus had taught that one would be forgiven by God and so enter God’s kingdom if one forgave others. That alone is sufficient for salvation. Yet, the early Christian community came to believe that Jesus’ death had brought the forgiveness of sins. A scriptural basis for this view would be passages in the 53rd chapter of Isaiah which spoke of the death of the Suffering Servant as an atoning death: “He was cut off from the world of living men, stricken to the death for my people’s transgression ...” (Isaiah 53: 8) Schweitzer concedes that this passage may have convinced Jesus that his death would serve others; but that was not its primary meaning.

The chief purpose of Jesus’ death was to cancel the pre-Messianic tribulation. Yet, the early Christians accepted without question the idea that Jesus’ death brought about the forgiveness of sins needed for them to enter the Kingdom. Why was this? Schweitzer believes it was because of the baptism of John. John the Baptist had introduced a ritual effective for the forgiveness of sins. In his cult, one needed to be baptized in order to be forgiven. While Jesus’ teaching was different, the principle of washing away sins to gain forgiveness was easily understood. John’s cult enjoyed much prestige among Christians. Therefore, “the idea of a forgiveness of sins to be obtained in a special way with a view to entering the Kingdom of God originates ... with the Baptist. Combined with Isaiah 53 it forms the presupposition for the rise of the view of the death of Jesus which sees it as an atonement.” (Schweitzer, p. 136)

“From the beginning, there were two doctrines of forgiveness existing side by side in Christianity. That contained in the Lord’s Prayer is simple. That which is based on the conception of the atoning death of Jesus involves questions and difficulties that no explanation can settle. How could God conceivably need the sacrificial death of Jesus in order to forgive sins? If knowledge of the atoning death of Jesus and faith in it are really necessary for the forgiveness of sins, how are we to understand that in the Old Testament god forgives sins ... purely out of compassion, and Jesus presupposes such forgiveness? ... The reason for all the difficulties ... lies in this. Something timeless, God’s forgiveness, and something which took place in time, the death of Jesus, are being combined in such a way that the timeless factor is to be made dependent on that which belongs to time.” (Schweitzer, p. 136-137)

Jesus’ straightforward doctrine of salvation put forth in the Lord’s Prayer “has been overshadowed by the doctrine of his atoning death,” Schweitzer observes. “The strict demand that we must prepare ourselves for the obtaining of forgiveness (by God) by a complete forgiving of others at once ceases to dominate the whole view of forgiveness.” (Schweitzer, p. 137) Instead of our having to forgive others, the idea emerged that Jesus’ atoning death upon the cross brings forgiveness of sins (and therefore salvation) for all who accept Him. The other doctrine, propagated by Jesus himself, “has had to accommodate itself for centuries to taking a back place behind dogmatic statements about forgiveness.” (Schweitzer, p. 137)

Outpouring of Spirit as a Sign that the Kingdom is Near

In addition to belief in Jesus as Messiah and in his Atoning Death, Schweitzer finds a third element in early Christian doctrine: “the belief that the bestowal of the Spirit has actually taken place.” (Schweitzer, p. 137) The Book of Acts reports a miraculous event on the day of Pentecost when the disciples and other followers of Jesus “were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to talk in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them power of utterance.” (Acts 2: 4) This experience was interpreted as a sign that the Kingdom of God was near.

Glossolaly - “speaking in tongues” - was thought to be a spiritual gift. Seized by Spirit, one was able to utter strange words coming from God. The author of Acts may have misinterpreted the Pentecostal experience by stating that the linguistically diverse group of persons who had gathered for a feast in memory of Jesus were each speaking in their national tongue. This “miracle” of speaking in particular languages belongs to a later tradition. Originally, glossolaly “consists in speaking in a state of intense ecstatic excitement in sounds which do not belong to ordinary modes of speech. This was understood by the early Christians as speech in a supernatural, Spirit-given language.” (Schweitzer, p. 138)

The apostle Paul, who had the gift himself, preferred to use ordinary language to instruct Christian communities. Gradually the practice of speaking in tongues disappeared, though it has lately been revived among charismatic groups. Its significance for early Christians was not as a display of religious fervor but a sign that the physical world was dissolving into spirit and, therefore, the Kingdom of God was near.

Christian Baptism

John the Baptist introduced baptism as a means of washing away sins and making a person fit to enter the Kingdom of God. In the Gospel of Mark, John is quoted: “I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1: 8) John was the destined Elijah who would precede the Messiah, the resurrected Jesus. Jesus, who accepted John’s baptism, did not himself baptize. Despite a passage later inserted into the Gospel of Matthew about baptizing men “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit”, the rite of baptism was not a part of Jesus’ routine. How did it enter Christian practice?

“In that it (baptism) was administered in the name of Jesus, it means acceptance into the fellowship of those who believe in the Messiahship of Jesus and await the speedy appearance of the Kingdom of God, certain that they will participate in it. Through baptism the believer obtains the forgiveness of sins which will enable him to enter the Kingdom and which has been made available by the atoning death of Jesus. Through it he obtains the capacity to receive the Spirit ... Belonging to him (Jesus) effects and guarantees salvation.” (Schweitzer, p. 139-140)

Once John the Baptist died, there was no further baptism in his cult. Even Jesus acknowledged that it was a past practice. There was no need for baptism in the period following Jesus’ death and resurrection: “In the view of Jesus the believers who have gathered round him in expectation of the Kingdom of God have no need of baptism to survive the Judgment and enter the Kingdom. Without knowing it, they are in this world companions of the future Messiah who will conduct the Judgment and bring in the Kingdom. This guarantees for them that they will be with him in the world to come.” (Schweitzer, p. 139-140)

The problem was that historical time continued as arrival of God’s Kingdom was delayed. Many people joined the Christian community who had not known Jesus personally. What was the status of these people? They could not be assured of salvation as Jesus’ earthly companions could be. Something had to be done for them. As Schweitzer explains, Jesus “does not reckon with new believers, but only with those around him. He expects the immediate appearance of the Kingdom and not the rise of an ever-growing community believing in him as the Messiah. That, however, is what occurred. A practice by which new adherents could be received into the existing fellowship became essential. The baptism once practiced by John for the forgiveness of sins presented itself as the solution. It was taken over and Christianized.” (Schweitzer, p. 140)

The first Christian baptism occurred at the feast of Pentecost. Here believers who had not known Jesus were baptized by the disciples and others among the “one hundred and twenty” persons who were Jesus’ former companions. The latter had not been baptized because for them the ritual was unnecessary. However, the apostle Paul, a convert to Jesus’ teaching, did need and receive baptism.

John’s ritual was accepted by the early Christian community because its memory was fresh in their minds. Jesus himself had suggested that came from God. (Mark 11: 27-33) Christian baptism required no special authority. Salvation was gained by accepting a relationship with Jesus, the future Messiah. “The baptized now receive from him (Jesus) what had earlier been obtained through the authority of John. Because forgiveness of sins through Jesus replaces that obtained through John, Christian baptism is the continuation of his and corresponds to it.” (Schweitzer, p. 141)

Christian baptism, which confers the Holy Spirit, fulfills John’s statement about “the one who comes after me (who) is mightier than I.” Like the baptism of John, it effects salvation. The two kinds of baptism coexisted for a time as in the case of twelve Christians at Ephesus who were first baptized by John and later by Paul, who imparted Spirit. Yet, it is untrue that to receive spirit one had first to be baptized in water. The book of Acts includes numerous examples of persons (including the apostles) who received spirit without having been baptized in water. Paul consistently argued that Christian baptism brought both forgiveness of sins and a capacity to receive the gift of Spirit. Both indicated future membership in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Yet, baptism had a significant limitation: “The Christianized form (of baptism) had this in common with the baptism of John ... it bestowed forgiveness only for sins already committed. Neither by John nor in primitive Christian doctrine is there any suggestion of forgiveness for those (sins) which the believer commits subsequently. That the forgiveness of sins is limited in this way is to be explained by the intensity of eschatological expectation. It is assumed by primitive Christianity, as it was by John the Baptist, that by making the proper effort the believer can remain in the condition of sanctity which baptism has conferred upon him during the days remaining until the appearance of the Kingdom. But as time went on the days and weeks passed into months and years. Faith had to come to terms with the fact that the baptized would probably not experience the coming of the Kingdom, but would have to pass their whole existence after baptism still in the corporal state, with its inclination to sin. This meant that the forgiveness of sins received at baptism was not enough.” (Schweitzer, p. 142)

Another problem was that the righteous of previous generations would be denied salvation unless they received Christian baptism and believed in the atoning death of Jesus; and both were impossible. The author of the First Epistle of Peter deals with this question in supposing that Jesus preached the Gospel to the spirits of the dead in the period between his own death and resurrection. In the second century A.D., a work written in Rome, known as “the Shepherd of Hermas”, advanced the theory that those who had died before Jesus’ time would have to receive baptism at the resurrection in order to enter the Kingdom of God.

Christian Communion

The Gospels of Matthew and Mark do not show that Jesus ever commanded his disciples to repeat the Last Supper. Yet, it soon became a mainstay of Christian practice. There was a saying of Jesus, which Paul quotes in First Corinthians (11:23-25), to the effect that his followers should repeat that meal in memory of him. Originally, the meal was called “the breaking of the bread”. It was “a community meal at which there was thanksgiving and exultation." (Acts 2: 47) Although it is a repetition of the last meal of Jesus with the disciples, it is not a funeral meal, but a festive one ... Not only bread, but any kind of food can be used ... It is a genuine common meal, to which each believer brings his own contribution.” (Schweitzer, p. 145) Paul called it a “love feast” and a “thanksgiving meal.”

Christians came to associate the Eucharist with a ritual which regards the bread as the body of Christ and the wine as Christ’s blood. The Last Supper became a mystical experience for the community of worshipers. While in the Gospel of Luke Jesus says “this is my body” in reference to the bread consumed at the Last Supper, such symbolism played little part in the early communal meal. Paul referred to it as a sobering influence: The Corinthians were instructed not to allow that joyous meal to degenerate into an orgy but be mindful that it commemorates Jesus’ death. “He (Paul) does not think of expounding them in the sense that the forgiveness of sins earned by the atoning death of Jesus is obtained in the eating and drinking of the elements.” (Schweitzer, p. 145)

No, to the early Christians, the communal meal eaten in commemoration of Jesus’ last supper with the disciples was simply a meal of thanksgiving. Thanksgiving for what? “Not only for food and drink,” but for the “grace” implied by participating in a future meal to take place shortly in Heaven. “The grace involved is of a special and higher kind. In it thanks are given to God for the Messianic banquet to which the believers are looking forward at this gathering to a communal meal with one another, and for the Kingdom which will shortly appear.” (Schweitzer, p. 146)

Indeed, the theme underlying this meal which Jesus’ followers had together in his memory was much the same as that for Jesus’ meal with the disciples shortly before his death. In both cases, those seated at the table were celebrating a feast prophetically linked to the Kingdom of God. Jesus is clear about this. In the Book of Matthew, Jesus asks the disciples to drink wine from a cup. He says: “I tell you, never again shall I drink from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in the kingdom of my Father.” (Matthew 26: 29) From a prophetic standpoint, this meal hearkens back to the passage in the 25th chapter of Isaiah where “the Lord of Hosts will prepare a banquet of rich fares for all peoples, a banquet of wines well matured” on his holy mountain. (Isaiah 25: 6) It means simply that whoever participates in this meal with Jesus will soon be in the Kingdom of God.

During his own life time, Jesus had made several references to this miraculous meal. He had taught the disciples to pray: “Give us today our daily bread” (Matthew 6: 11) Again its true meaning is not to ask to be well-stocked with food in this lifetime but to partake of the promised feast in heaven. Also, Jesus had participated in a miraculous feast with his followers in Galilee when he multiplied the loaves of bread and fish. (Matthew 14: 15-21, 15: 32-39) “In this way, without knowing it, they (Jesus’ followers) became table-companions of the future Messiah, and thereby secured an invitation to be his companions also at the Messianic banquet.” (Schweitzer, p. 146)

When Jesus Might Return

The thanksgiving meal was not a meal of simple thanks for food and drink but for the promise of a similar meal to come in Heaven. Schweitzer finds confirmation of this in the Didache, or “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”, which was written at the end of the 1st century A.D. Its prayer asks God to gather together his church “from the ends of the earth into thy Kingdom,” meaning that those who now belong to the church should also be gathered together in Heaven. The prayer ends with the words “Marana tha. Amen.” “Marana tha” is an Aramaic expression which means “Our Lord, come!” A Greek translation says: “Amen: come, Lord Jesus!” The early Christian community was looking forward to Jesus’ appearance as the Messiah who would usher in the Kingdom of Heaven.

The fact that at the Last Supper Jesus had spoken of drinking wine anew with the disciples suggested to them that they should repeat the supper in hopes that Jesus might attend. “Their interpretation of it was that during a thanksgiving meal he would come to them to celebrate it with them as a Messianic banquet in the Kingdom which would appear at the moment of his return. Day after day, probably from the first Easter on, they and the hundred and twenty believers from Galilee kept on celebrating the thanksgiving meal in order that the hope aroused by that saying might come to fulfillment. They held the daily thanksgiving meal in the same room in which they were with Jesus at the Last Supper.” (Schweitzer, p. 148)

Some believe that Christians first held their communal meals in the house of the mother of John Mark, who accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journey. This might also be the room where Jesus and the disciples held their last supper. Unlike that event with Jesus, however, the post-Resurrection communal meal took place in the morning. “This was necessary because the return of Jesus was expected to take place at it (the meal). In view of the belief that his resurrection had occurred in the morning, it was assumed that his return would take place at this time of day.” The fact that Jesus’ followers expected their Lord to return at one of these meals also accounts for the ecstatic excitement. “It is highly probable that the speaking with tongues on the morning of Pentecost began during the prayers at the thanksgiving meal.” (Schweitzer, p. 150)

As the Christian community became dispersed to many places, the idea that Jesus would appear to his followers at a communal meal became harder to accept. There was no longer a meal in one place (such as the house of John Mark’s mother), but in places throughout the Mediterranean area. Therefore, the earlier view “was replaced by the more general idea, looking to a celebration held in several places at the same time, that the return of Jesus would take place simultaneously with the celebration. This, however, presupposes that the many celebrations are all being held on the same day at the same hour ... In the course of time the celebration came to be held everywhere early in the morning of the day after the sabbath. As the day of resurrection it was especially appropriate for the occurrence of the Lord’s return.” (Schweitzer, p. 151) The Didache called the day after the Sabbath “the Lord’s Day”, which would be the day when the Eucharist would be celebrated each week.

The Easter holiday was also related to expectations of Jesus’ return. “Believers all over Christendom unite on that day (Easter) in looking with a special hopefulness for the return of Jesus and the appearance of the Kingdom. This (however) presupposes that Easter is everywhere celebrated on the same day. There were difficulties about this in the Early Church. Because Easter is a movable feast, the day on which it is to be observed can be established in different ways. The churches of Asia Minor have a different reckoning from that in use at Rome.” (Schweitzer, p. 152) The bishop of Rome demanded that other churches conform to the Roman dating of Easter. When the churches of Asia Minor refused, relations between them and the Roman church were suspended and remained broken for a century. Finally, at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., it was decided that Easter should fall on the first Sunday after the spring equinox.

“The importance of Easter, like that of baptism, has its roots in the hope of the immediate appearance of the Kingdom and the coming of Jesus in Messianic glory. Through baptism and the forgiveness of sins obtained at it, the believer acquires his claim to entry into the Kingdom. Participation in the eucharist means for him the ever-renewed experience of assurance that he belongs to the Kingdom and will share in the Messianic banquet.” (Schweitzer, p. 152 ) Only after hopes of the Kingdom and of Jesus’ return to earth had subsided did the Eucharist become a celebration of “consecrated elements”. (Schweitzer, p. 153)

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