"And they go into Capernaum; and straightway on the sabbath day He entered into the synagogue and taught. And they were astonished at His teaching: for He taught them as having authority, and not as the scribes." MARK 1:21, 22 (R.V.)
THE worship of the synagogues, not having been instituted by Moses, but gradually developed by the public need, was comparatively free and unconventional. Sometimes it happened that remarkable and serious-looking strangers were invited, if they had any word of exhortation, to say on (Acts 13:15). Sometimes one presented himself, as the custom of our Lord was (Luke 4:16). Amid the dull mechanical tendencies which were then turning the heart of Judaism to stone, the synagogue may have been often a center of life and rallying-place of freedom. In Galilee, where such worship predominated over that of the remote Temple and its hierarchy, Jesus found His trusted followers and the nucleus of the Church. In foreign lands, St. Paul bore first to his brethren in their synagogues the strange tiding that their Messiah had expired upon a cross. And before His rupture with the chiefs of Judaism, the synagogues were fitting places for our Lord's early teaching. He made use of the existing system, and applied it, just as we have seen Him use the teaching of the Baptist as a starting-point for His own. And this ought to be observed, that Jesus revolutionized the world by methods the furthest from being revolutionary. The institutions of His age and land were corrupt well-nigh to the core, but He did not therefore make a clean sweep, and begin again. He did not turn His back on the Temple and synagogues, nor outrage sabbaths, nor come to destroy the law and the prophets. He bade His followers reverence the seat where the scribes and Pharisees sat, and drew the line at their false lives and perilous examples. Amid that evil generation He found soil wherein His seed might germinate, and was content to hide His leaven in the lump where it should gradually work out its destiny. In so doing He was at one with Providence, which had slowly evolved the convictions of the Old Testament, spending centuries upon the process. Now the power which belongs to such moderation has scarcely been recognized until these latter days. The political sagacity of Somers and Burke, and the ecclesiastical wisdom of our own reformers, had their occult and unsuspected fountains in the method by which Jesus planted the kingdom which came not with observation. But who taught the Carpenter? It is therefore significant that all the Gospels of the Galilean ministry connect our Lord's early teaching with the synagogue.
St. Mark is by no means the evangelist of the discourses. And this adds to the interest with which we find him indicate, with precise exactitude, the first great difference that would strike the hearers of Christ between His teaching and that of others. He taught with authority, and not as the scribes. Their doctrine was built with dreary and irrational ingenuity, upon perverted views of the old law. The shape of a Hebrew letter, words whereof the initials would spell some important name, wire-drawn inferences, astounding allusions, ingenuity such as men waste now upon the number of the beast and the measurement of a pyramid, these were the doctrine of the scribes.
And an acute observer would remark that the authority of Christ's teaching was peculiar in a farther-reaching sense. If, as seems clear, Jesus said, "Ye have heard that it hath been said" (not "by," but) "to them of old time, but I say unto you," He then claimed the place, not of Moses who heard the Divine Voice, but Him Who spoke. Even if this could be doubted, the same spirit is elsewhere unmistakable. The tables which Moses brought were inscribed by the finger of Another: none could make him the Supreme arbitrator while overhead the trumpet waxed louder and louder, while the fiery pillar marshaled their journeying, while the mysterious Presence consecrated the mysterious shrine. Prophet after prophet opened and closed his message with the words, "Thus saith the Lord." . . . "For the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it." Jesus was content with the attestation, "Verily, I say unto you." Blessed as a wise builder was the hearer and doer of "these words of Mine." Everywhere in His teaching the center of authority is personal. He distinctly recognizes the fact that He is adding to the range of the ancient law of respect for human life, and for purity, veracity and kindness. But He assigns no authority for these additions, beyond His own. Persecution by all men is a blessed thing to endure, if it be for His sake and the gospel's. Now this is unique. Moses or Isaiah never dreamed that devotion to himself took rank with devotion to his message. Nor did St. Paul. But Christ opens His ministry with the same pretensions as at the close, when others may not be called Rabbi, nor Master, because these titles belong to Him.
And the lapse of ages renders this "authority" of Christ more wonderful than at first. The world bows down before something other than His clearness of logic or subtlety of inference. He still announces where others argue, He reveals, imposes on us His supremacy, bids us take His yoke and learn. And we still discover in His teaching a freshness and profundity, a universal reach of application and yet an unearthliness of aspect, which suit so unparalleled a claim. Others have constructed cisterns in which to store truth, or aqueducts to convey it from higher levels. Christ is Himself a fountain; and not only so, but the water which He gives, when received aright, becomes in the faithful heart a well of water springing up in new, inexhaustible developments.