Is there such a thing as an esoteric Christianity, or did Christ overcome and abolish all such distinctions? It seems to me the answer to your question is … yes!
While it is true that in Christ “the middle wall of partition” has been “broken down” (Ephesians 2:14), St Paul continues to “speak wisdom only among them that are perfect” (1 Corinthians 2:6). Even though “there is neither Jew nor Greek … neither bond nor free … neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:28), the deacon still cries out, “The doors! The doors!”
Much could be said about the eso-exoteric, or exo-esoteric, nature of Christianity, but a good place to begin is with the Sermon on the Mount, and a good way to begin this beginning is to compare the opening verse of the Sermon with the penultimate verse: that is, Matthew 5:1 and Matthew 7:28. Here too we are faced with the same paradoxical “yes”.
Matthew 5:1: “And seeing the multitudes, He went up into a mountain: and when He was set, His disciples came unto him.”
The Sermon, it seems, was delivered not to the many but to a chosen few. Christ withdraws from “the multitudes”, and only the disciples “came unto Him” and are permitted to hear. This of course is a pattern we see several times in the Gospels. After feeding the five thousand, for example, we’re told that “Jesus constrained His disciples to get into a ship, and to go before Him to the other side, while He sent the multitudes away. And when He had sent the multitudes away, He went up into a mountain to pray” (Matthew 14:22-23). In several places, this withdrawal takes place in order that Christ might have a private moment with His disciples to explain to them something He has said to the crowd in a parable. Again an example from Matthew: “All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake He not unto them: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world. Then Jesus sent the multitude away, and went into the house: and His disciples came unto Him, saying, Declare unto us the parable” (13:34-36).
Basing ourselves on these verses and other passages like them, we’re obliged to assume that Christ very deliberately reserved at least some of His teaching for a limited number. How few those few might have been differs at different points in the narrative, for it seems there are circles in circles. There are the Seventy, but then there are the Twelve, and within those Twelve there are three (Peter, James, and John), and then again there is one (John). It therefore makes perfect sense that Christ would have gone apart from the “multitudes” if He had something special or particularly important to say in this Sermon, something presupposing a certain set of qualifications or a certain intensity of commitment.
But there’s a surprise waiting for us at the end of the Sermon, and as you can see, it’s the very same paradox.
Matthew 7:28: “And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at His doctrine.”
The King James translation, which I’m quoting here, masks the surprise I have in mind. You have to look at the Greek instead. If you do, you’ll immediately see that the “multitudes” of 5:1 and the “people” of 7:28 are the same. The term in each case is ὄχλος (ochlos), a word that means, not just a “crowd”, but a moving or jostling crowd, hence a “mob” or a “rabble”, or even “undisciplined masses”. When the Sermon begins, we’re told that Jesus and the disciples had left this ὄχλος behind, this mob of “natural men” (1 Corinthians 2:14), who “seeing see not, and hearing they hear not” (Matthew 13:13). But now here they are, having apparently listened to at least some of the Sermon and having been understandably “astonished” by its power: astonished, yes, but the Greek ἐξεπλήσσοντο (exeplēssonto) might be even more tellingly rendered as “overwhelmed”, “amazed”, “astounded”—even “driven out of their senses” or “panic-struck”.
So what’s going on? Had Jesus’ teaching been reserved for the few, as it seemed at the start, or was it in fact broadcast openly to any and all who happened to be there, however radical a transformation (“Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind” [Romans 12:2]) might be demanded of them?
There are three ways of solving this interpretive problem. A first possibility is to say that we were simply mistaken in thinking that Jesus had initially withdrawn from the crowd. In fact everyone had ascended the mountain. But then why does Matthew mention only the disciples as having “come to Him”? A second, rather pedestrian option is to say that Jesus did withdraw from the masses, but they saw Him leave, knew in what direction He had gone, and secretly followed Him up the mountain. They were either there all along, but perhaps hiding somewhere in the background, or they arrived at some point after the Sermon started, which is why Matthew initially speaks of the disciples alone being present.
But there’s a third, much subtler resolution, and in my opinion it’s the best. Indeed it’s the only one that is true to the Gospel as a whole, serving as it does to underscore as well as to explain our paradox. It consists in saying that Solution 1 and Solution 2 are both true: only the disciples came … but so too did the ὄχλος: the “multitudes”, the “people”, the “mob”—Plato’s οἱ πολλοί (hoi polloi).
But doesn’t it have to be either one or the other? Not at all. It might have to be if the disciples weren’t still disciples, if in other words they had already fully obeyed Christ’s command in the Sermon at Matthew 5:48 and had become “perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect”. But they clearly hadn’t, and neither have we, disciples though we may hope to be. There was still within each of them, as there is within each of us, an exoteric “mob” of passions, a “jostling crowd” of thoughts, and “undisciplined masses” of unrepented sins. This “multitude” couldn’t help but come when they came, and it couldn’t help but be “astonished” and “struck with fear” by the words of the Sermon.
There is indeed an esoteric, inner Christianity, but if my interpretation here is correct—if Solution No. 3 is correct—the line of demarcation between outer and inner is not so much a line between as within people. And it follows, of course, that only those who are, and who know themselves to be, a “jostling crowd”, and who therefore find themselves “panic-struck” by the terror of their situation—those and those alone are the true esotericists.