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Common Life

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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COMMON LIFE.—The teaching of our Lord upon this subject is no more restricted and definite than it is upon any other of life’s relations. It was never His purpose to draw up anything like a code of laws for the regulation of human life. Indeed, it is just this indefiniteness, this liberty, this leaving all detail to the spiritual guidance which He promised, that has made the religion of Jesus so far transcend every other religion that has been given to men. Christ left His teaching unrestricted, that by its inner and spiritual power it might be able to adapt itself to the ever-changing needs and thoughts of men. That doctrine which makes itself particular, which binds itself up with the peculiar circumstances of a definite people, a definite clime, a definite era, must of necessity pass away with those circumstances to which it specially applied. Our Lord, in that He laid down principles, not rules, has given us that which will apply to all peoples and climes and eras. Christianity is the universal faith, because it is founded upon the universal needs of the human heart (John 8:31-32; John 14:12-13).

It is, of course, true that Christianity is particular to this extent, that its Founder faces and combats those particular evils which chanced to be most prevalent at the time when He lived on earth. Had renunciation of the world in the monastic sense been as widespread as it became two centuries after His death, we should certainly have had more definite teaching upon our subject. But it was Pharisaism that He had to oppose, not asceticism. There were, indeed, the Essenes at the time of Christ, but that community was never a large one, nor were their tenets so opposed to the truths He taught as to demand His special attention. The Baptist, it is true, was an ascetic (Matthew 3:4 || Mark 1:6, Matthew 11:18 || Luke 7:33); but we never find him commanding others to lead his life. John preached repentance, but a repentance that did not entail renunciation of the world. Even the publicans and the rough soldiery of Herod, when they came seeking his advice, were not required to give up professions so fraught with temptation. All that be asked of them was that they should perform the duties of their callings honestly and honourably (Luke 3:10-14). It was therefore in opposition to the ritualism of the Pharisees alone that Christ had to develop His teaching as to common life. Purity and holiness in the eyes of the Pharisees were matters of ceremonial observance far more than of heart and life; and to such an extent had they elaborated the Mosaic ritual, that it was no longer possible for the poor man and the toiler to attain to holiness in the sense which they had rendered popular. Only the wealthy and the leisured could win their esoteric righteousness. It is for this reason that we so continually find our Lord in strenuous opposition to all externalism. It is ever the religion of heart and life, not that of ceremonial, that He demands of His followers. Consider, for example, His fulfilling of the Law in the Sermon on the Mount. Throughout it is the Law’s moral requirements that He treats of; and the discourse is prefaced by the assertion that the righteousness of the new kingdom must start by exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20). He speaks of least commandments, the breaking of which does not exclude from the kingdom (Matthew 5:19); and which He accounts the greater and which the less is manifested by His saying—‘First be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift’ (Matthew 5:24). From a similar standpoint He treats the observance of the Sabbath, subordinating all external and ceremonial requirements to those spiritual commands of love to God and to our neighbour which He made all-important (Mark 2:23-28, Luke 6:1-12; Luke 13:10-17). In regard to the question of washing the hands before eating, He comes into open conflict with the Pharisees, upbraiding their hypocrisy, and contending that defilement comes not from external things, but from within the heart (Matthew 15:1-20, Mark 7:1-23).

All this tends towards the placing of a higher value upon common life. He is thus clearing the way for the reception of the thought that God may be as truly served in the round of daily life and toil as in those observances distinctively called religious. We have the boldest assertion of this truth in the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:9-14), wherein He points out that the strictest—nay, the supererogatory—performance of ritual cannot win justification in the sight of God, while simple repentance, utterly without these things, is assured of pardon and peace. We are not told whether the repentance of this publican entailed the giving up of his profession; but in the case of Zacchaeus there is evidence that it did not (Luke 19:1-10). Apparently, then, in the eyes of our Lord, even this, the most despised of callings, could be followed by a member of the kingdom. Levi, it is true, was called to leave all and follow (Luke 5:27 f.); but his case we must regard as an exception. He showed a special aptitude, and was called to a special office.

But it is rather the whole tendency of the teaching and example of Jesus, than any explicit statement, that in Christianity assigns to common life a dignity which it receives in no other religion. That Christianity so early developed monkish asceticism cannot be adduced as an argument against Christ’s teaching. The life of Jesus is throughout a clear admission of the value of that probation which God the Father and Creator has allotted to mankind. Jesus as the universal Man, the Example for all the world, assumed for Himself the most universal experience. For thirty years He lived the common life of a labouring man, working like any one of His brethren in the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth. We have Him described as a carpenter, as one well known to His fellow-townsmen, as one but little distinguished from His brothers and sisters (Matthew 13:55 f., Mark 6:3). Commonplace daily toil and family intercourse, and that throughout a period of thirty years, were thus the training which the Heavenly Father accounted the best for His Son who was to be the Saviour of the world. In this lowly sphere the Son of God grew ‘in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man’ (Luke 2:52). Than this there could be no stronger argument for the value and the nobleness of common life in the eyes of the Father and the Son. It is impossible to conceive that He who thus honoured the common lot could desire any renunciation of it on the part of those who wished to be His followers. Those who were called to be His missionaries must of necessity give up all to do a higher work, but not to attain a higher life. It is to be noted that when for a time that work is in abeyance, His chief disciples return to their old calling (John 21:3).

The whole attitude of Jesus towards the world of nature and of man is in accordance with His claim to be the Son of the Creator. He clearly recognized the wisdom and the beauty and the love that shine forth in Creation and Providence. The lilies of the field and the fowls of the air, the sunshine and the rain, are used by Him as evidences of the goodness of the Father. His teaching is bound up in closest harmony with the things of earth and time. For Him the family ties are types of Heaven. His kingdom is far more a family than a nation. The names of father, mother, brother, sister, wife, are ennobled by His use of them. From all the callings of men He draws images of Divine things. The physician, the sower, the reaper, the fisherman, the vinedresser, the shepherd, the king at war, the housewife at her baking, the commonest incidents of daily life, the simplest phenomena of nature,—all have a place in His doctrine; all are used to illustrate the character and development of His kingdom. He did not, it is true, enlarge upon the relations of life. That was not His mission. His reformation was to proceed from within, not from without. But everywhere there is the manifest acceptance of the order, alike social and natural, which God has ordained. Even the civil order, with which He came into contact in no ideal form in the Roman domination, receives His sanction. ‘Render unto Caesar,’ He says, ‘the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s’ (Matthew 22:15-22, Mark 12:13-17, Luke 20:20-26). There is duty to God and duty to civil order, and these must not conflict in religion’s name: the former should include the latter. Marriage is recognized by Him as a holy tie, an indissoluble Divine institution, and thus obtains a position more honourable than it had ever held before (Matthew 19:3-9, Mark 10:2-12). His presence and first miracle at the wedding at Cana of Galilee (John 2:1-11)—a miracle which shows His deep sympathy with even trivial human needs—is in itself a consecration of marriage. That episode strikes the keynote of His life,—a life lived amid His fellows, sharing their joys and sorrows, their trials and temptations, their feastings and their mournings. The Son of man came eating and drinking, with no ascetic gloom; came to live in, and thus to sanctify, the whole round of common life.

Yet in the view of our Lord all these things had but a transitory value. They were but means to something higher. They were the temporal and seen, from which the unseen and eternal was to be extracted. In so far, then, as they conflicted with that higher good, that eternal treasure, Christ demanded renunciation in regard to them. His treatment of the young ruler (Matthew 19:16-22, Mark 10:17-27, Luke 18:18-27) illustrates well this attitude. Wealth is not in itself an evil, but it is a great danger, and in certain cases it may destroy the life of the soul. For some, therefore, it is wiser and safer to discard it. It has an engrossing power that deprives the soul of its proper nourishment (cf. the parable of the Rich Fool, Luke 12:16-21). It tends to harden the heart against compassion and charity, to make the man self-sufficient, to give a physical delight so great as to close the eyes to that which is spiritual (cf. the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Luke 16:19-31). But there are other blessings far more innocent that possess a like danger. Things as precious and as natural as the hand and eye and foot may yet lead to sin and obstruct the passage to the higher life (Matthew 5:29 f., Mark 9:43-48). In such cases, too, these must be renounced. Even the family ties, if they become so binding as to come between the soul and its true weal—the service of God in Christ—must be broken; for the kingdom of God is the one aim and purpose of the spiritual man, and nought must be permitted to interfere therewith (Matthew 10:37 || Luke 14:26, Matthew 6:33). Even life itself must be laid down for the sake of Christ (Matthew 10:39, Luke 17:33, John 12:25).

Christ’s teaching as to worldly good is particularly revealed in the parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-12). There He calls the command of wealth and natural advantage by the name of ‘the unrighteous mammon,’ thus pointing to its seductive power and contrasting it with the true spiritual good. He calls it also ‘that which is another man’s’ in distinction to ‘that which is your own.’ Of earthly good we are but the stewards. Wealth is never really our own. We may use it or abuse it, but sooner or later we must resign its control. The spiritual gifts of God are of a nature totally different. They become truly ours, a part of our true self. Yet the unrighteous mammon can be so employed as to win us spiritual advantage. By its means we can make us friends who will receive us into everlasting habitations. As the unjust steward employed his power to his own worldly advantage, so must we with the wisdom of light use to our highest advantage the worldly power which is ours which is always one with the service of God.

There is a remarkable passage in Mark 10:29 f. (cf. Matthew 19:29 and Luke 18:29), which promises that earthly loss suffered for Christ’s sake and the gospel’s shall receive an hundredfold reward ‘now in this time’ in the same kind in which the loss was suffered. That the Christian in his profession and practice of love to all men must have the family ties strengthened and extended an hundredfold, is readily to be understood: but the promise of lands is not so simple. To the mind of the present writer it suggests the great truth, which Christ’s own life exemplified, that only the child of God is capable of the pure and perfect enjoyment of all that God has made. Only to the eyes of him whose heart is filled with the Father’s love, is all the beauty of the Creator’s work displayed. As one with the Father through Christ, as sharing the purposes of God, as beholding the Divine plan and submitting to and working for it, the Christian possesses the world in a sense in which no other can. It is his to rejoice in and to use for God’s glory. (Cf. Expositor 1st ser. iv. [1876] 256 ff.).

To sum up the whole, we may say that there are two great ideas which underlie all Christ’s teaching:—(1) The inestimable value of the human soul (Matthew 16:26, Mark 8:36 f., Luke 9:25), to the salvation of which all must be subordinated, for the sake of which all things, if necessary, must be renounced: the Gospel, therefore, which gives this salvation is all-important, and its service must have no rival; and (2) the recognition of common life and daily toil, with all that these terms include, as the ordinances of a loving Father by whose Providence they are designed to be the chiefest elements in fitting men for citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven. He who uses well the talents which God gives, in the sphere in which his lot is cast, who is faithful in a little, shall have his reward hereafter in the obtaining of a larger sphere wherein to exercise for God’s glory those very qualities, purified and ennobled, which his earthly diligence has made his own (Matthew 23:14-30, Luke 19:11-27). Work that is the expression of love to God and man is always noble; and there is no work on earth that may not be performed to God’s glory.

Literature.—Beyschlag, New Testament Theology, ii. 250 ff.; Weiss, New Testament Theology, ii. 347 ff.; the standard Commentaries on the Gospels, and works on the Parahles; Stoplord Brooke, Christ in Modern Life, p. 1 ff.; R. W. Dale, Laws of Christ for Common Life, esp. chs. i. xi. xii. xiv.; J. T. Jacob, Christ the Indweller, ch. ix; R. Glaister, ‘Christ’s Sympathy in Life’s Commonplace,’ Exp. Times, x. 360 ff.; J. W. Diggle, Short Studies in Holiness, 197.

W. J. S. Miller.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Common Life'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament.​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​c/common-life.html. 1906-1918.