jesus' messianic game plan
Within Judaism there had been a slow but steady rise of messianism (the belief in a messiah) over the centuries prior to Jesus' birth. However during the Second Temple period no real consensus as to the nature or role of the messiah. All of this meant that when Jesus arrived on the scene the messiah field was wide open for interpretation. This can be seen in the wide array of messianic pretenders who came and went before and after Jesus. Each offered their particular slant on the messiah concept. Most, though not all, were leaders of armed gangs who tried to start a people's rebellion (something that succeeded after Jesus' death and ultimately led to the destruction of Israel). Jesus, as we will see, chose a very different tack in his short but world changing ministry.
Jesus' ministry began in about his 30th year with his baptism by John the Baptist. While his baptism, proved to be a slight embarrassment (It is embarrassing because the church claims that Jesus was sinless…so why did he need a baptism for remission of sins? It is also embarrassing because the greater baptizes the lesser…so why wasn't Jesus baptizing John?) the church understood that this event was Jesus' "coming out party." It was in his baptism that Jesus received his commission and call to messianic ministry. Jesus' baptism
was followed by his being driven into the wilderness in order to be tempted and tested. Such tempting and testing was a rite of passage for all who would live as prophets of God. The wilderness was that place where prophets learned dependence on God and God alone.
The Jesus story told by the Gospels diverges at this point. Matthew, Mark and John move directly to Jesus calling disciples. Luke on the other hand has Jesus lay out his ministry game plan before calling followers. For the moment we will go with Luke because the messianic ministry game plan laid out in Luke fits with the work of Jesus in all four gospels. So what is this messianic ministry game plan? It is God's plan for the reclamation of creation. We know this because Luke tells us that Jesus lifted it right out of the words of the prophet Isaiah, who was echoing not only God's word to himself, but was reconfirming what God had been about since the calling if Abram. This longstanding plan was to remake the world into the "good" creation that God had originally designed it to be.
Jesus' game plan for this work was as follows. He was to preach good news to the poor; proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; set at liberty those who are oppressed; and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord's favor. In other words Jesus was going to set right the world that humanity had mucked up. I say this because if we turn to the Torah, to the most basic statement of God's plan for humanity, what we see is that God's desire for creation did not look much like the world into which Jesus was born. God's desire was that there be no poor (Jesus' world was filled with them), that there be no captives (Rome was all about captives and slavery), that all people know what God desired of them (the people around Jesus were being sucked into a Greco-Roman world with different beliefs and codes of moral conduct), that there be no oppression (the rulers, whether Jewish or Roman used force to keep the people in their place) and finally that the Jubilee year when all debts were cancelled and all land that had been bought was returned to its original owners would be proclaimed (this had never happened though the Torah says it should be done).
As you can see Jesus' ministry was not simply about "spiritual" matters. Jesus was about restoring the political, economic, religious and social realities of the world in ways that would be God honoring. It is little wonder then that Jesus quickly ran afoul of those who sought to either maintain the status quo or who desired to change the status quo in order to impose their vision of life on the people of Israel. Nevertheless Jesus maintained his course even in the face of persecution and death. Over the next several weeks we will look at how Jesus went about accomplishing this mission.
jesus as leader of the remnant community
So what was Jesus up to? That is one of the questions which has occupied New Testament scholars for the past century and a half (at least). The debate was about whether or not Jesus was trying to create something new (the church), reform something old (Judaism) or simply trying to be a prophetic agent and/or wisdom teacher in the rural regions of Judea. There are schools of thought which argue for each of these positions. There is a school of thought which argues that Jesus had abandoned Judaism as corrupt and thus needed to create an alternative community of faith. There is another school of thought which argues that Jesus was simply trying to reform Judaism (as Luther was trying to do with Catholicism) but people like Paul took it too far and began a new community. Finally there are schools of thought which simply see Jesus as a wandering prophet or teacher who had no larger plans than to impact the rural regions of Judea.
Which is it then? What I would like to argue is that it is a bit of each. As we saw last week, Jesus' game plan was rooted and grounded in Judaism. The language that Jesus used was consistent with the work and words of the great prophets who had preceded him. In that sense what Jesus was about was a continuation of the great story of God's work in the world to restore creation to its original intent. As part of this process Jesus also picks up the idea that not all of the biological children of Abraham were going to be part of this recreated community. Again, this idea is not new, but is rooted in the concept of a "remnant." The Remnant was a subset of God's people who would, through their faithfulness live into and be a part of this new creation. This idea can actually be seen as early as I Kings 19 where we read the story of Elijah the Prophet who when believing he alone is left to defend God's honor, is told by God that no, there is a remnant of seventy thousand who will stand with him. Remnant theology is brought to full flower later in the work of Isaiah.
At this point it would appear that Jesus is simply working for the reformation of Judaism. However there are also hints that Jesus is about creating something new out of the midst of the old. First Jesus calls twelve disciples. This number appears to be intentional as if he is going to be creating twelve new tribes. Second, Jesus invites women into his inner circle. Though they are not part of the twelve they are still encouraged to be fully engaged in learning and ministry (something which traditional Judaism would never allow). Third Jesus engages with Gentiles and offers them the benefits of being part of this new community (which by the way is actually based in the Old Testament, though it was certainly not a part of the beliefs of Judaism of Jesus' day). Finally (at least for the purpose of this article) Jesus rejects the Temple as essential to the life and work of God in the world. While he teaches in the Temple he is clear that ultimately God is going to be about creating a new community which is Spirit and not ritual powered (again an Old Testament concept).
Thus what Jesus is creating is both in continuity and discontinuity with what has come before. There is continuity in that it looks somewhat like First Century Judaism (central beliefs about God, humanity and creation) but at the same time looks very different (women and Gentiles as integral members). This new community which ultimately is called the church was never intended to be a replacement for Judaism but was instead intended to be a community which resembled the teachings of Isaiah in which all nations would come and worship God and be Spirit empowered. This understanding is the basis of Paul's writings (which we will look at this week) in which he wants the church to know that it is a "wild olive shoot" that has been grafted into God's people; meaning that Judaism and its story are the church's roots for which the church must be grateful. In the end then Jesus created a new community which emerged from the old in order to be God's agent of reconciliation and renewal in the world.
jesus as wisdom teacher
From the very outset of Christianity there has been no exact consensus on how the church ought to label Jesus. Instead the church used a variety of titles such as messiah, Son of God, Son of Man, rabbi among many. The gift of each of these descriptors is that they give us the opportunity to see a much more well-rounded Jesus than if we only had one or two of them. They allow the church to examine his ministry and his person. Today we will look at the picture of Jesus as teacher…and more specifically as wisdom teacher.
Within the Jewish tradition there was a distinction between knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge concerned the basics of reading and writing; of how to plant and harvest; of how to build a house or restore a roof. Wisdom on the other hand was what one discovered at that sacred intersection of God given insight and the living of a Godly life. This means that wisdom was more than ethics and more than practical advice. Wisdom allowed one to live fully into being a child of God such that one reflected the very wisdom of God into the world. In a sense it allowed one to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Without wisdom one was literally walking in darkness and because of that one would make foolish decisions; decisions that did not honor the fullness of life one might have in God. Jesus spent much of his ministry offering this kind of wisdom to those around him.
Jesus went about his wisdom teachings in two very distinct ways. The first was the use of aphorisms. Aphorisms are short, pithy sayings that cause people to see the world in a new way. Examples are: "Let the dead bury their own dead." "No one who puts their hand to the plow looks back." "There is nothing outside of a man that can defile a man. It is the things that come out of a man that defiles him." "Salt is good, but if salt has lost its flavor who will season it?" "For if you love those who love you what reward do you have?" Some of these aphorisms are contextual (the one about the dead burying their own dead) while others can stand alone (the one about loving those who love you).
Regardless they allow us to see below the surface of specific moments and actions as they invite us to see life in a new way. These aphorisms are also not supposed to be easily understood. They are supposed to engage our minds, hearts and spirits in a complex process of discernment.
The second way in which Jesus went about his wisdom teaching was through parables. The parables are far more familiar to us than much of Jesus' other teaching and work. Parables such as the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan have been taught to us since childhood. While the parables are often seen as stand-alone stories, more often than not they are Jesus' way of either answering specific questions or dealing with specific issues. This is what set Jesus apart from other rabbis or teachers. When asked a specific question most rabbis would quote other rabbis and give a history of interpretation. Jesus often went directly into the parables. The parable of the Good Samaritan was in response to a question about who is my neighbor. The parable of the Prodigal Son was in response to the Pharisees critiquing Jesus about eating with sinners. The gift of parables was that they invited persons into a story through which they could see the world differently. This meant that there was no point or counterpoint in which one person could win an argument or score points. Instead it allowed persons to be transformed by participating in a new reality created by the parable.
The gift of Jesus' wisdom teachings is that they are not bound to a particular place and time. Though some of them may be difficult to understand in our non-agricultural, 21st Century society, the truths that are contained within them remain eternal. Our task is to continue to allow them to invite us into their world, in order that we too might discover some of Jesus' wisdom for our lives.
jesus as apocalyptic prophet
The era in which Jesus lived was filled with the apocalyptic. There were straight forward apocalyptic books such as Daniel (in the Bible) and Enoch (not in the Bible). There were portions of other canonical books such as Ezekiel (38-39), Joel (3:9-17) and Zechariah (12-14) which offered a glimpse into the apocalyptic world. Even in the Dead Sea Scrolls the apocalyptic vision of a final battle between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness was a powerful theme. With this as a cultural background it would not be out of place for Jesus to use the apocalyptic as part of his teaching.
Before we look at Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet however I want us to be clear what we mean by apocalyptic. The word apocalyptic simply means an unveiling or a revealing. In other words what apocalyptic literature (such as the Revelation of John) does is reveal what God is up to. God's actions need revealing because we as human beings have limited vision. Our vision is limited first because we cannot see the spiritual dimension of life. We are limited to seeing the physical. Our vision is also limited because we cannot see beyond the confines of the earth and into heaven. I realize that these might appear to be the same thing but in first century cosmology (the way people view the earth and the heavens) heaven is a physical place just beyond the sky and is kept hidden by a curtain. Therefore if we really want to know what is going on we need to have someone unveil (apocalypse) heaven for us.
Apocalyptic literature then needs a couple of things to properly function as a revealing. First it needs a revealer. Sometimes the revealer is God. Other times the revealer is an angel. Second there needs to be a recipient; someone who can receive the revealing. The receiver in the Revelation of John is John the Apostle (at least according to tradition). Finally what is needed is the content that is revealed. Within apocalyptic literature the content will have some basic characteristics. It will allow us to see that the two arenas of physical and spiritual are now one.
They interact on an intimate and immediate level. The content will allow us to see the future. We will get to see what God and evil are planning to do, especially the terrible conflict between God's people (children of light) and the enemy (children of darkness). Finally the content will also allow us to see the ultimate outcome of this conflict. We will almost always get a glimpse of God's great victory over the powers and principalities of the world.
This understanding then allows us to take a fresh look at Jesus as apocalyptic prophet. The most obvious way in which Jesus touches on the apocalyptic is in Mark 13:24-27 where he is the recipient who unveils the future. "But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see "the Son of Man (the Son of Man is an end times character found in the book of Daniel) coming in clouds" with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven." Jesus allows us to catch a glimpse of heaven and earth merging together as well as a vision for God's future victory. The rest of chapter 13 makes it clear that there will be difficult times coming upon God's people (Matthew, Luke and John also have similar apocalyptic passages).
The second way in which we see Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet is that he claims for himself the title, Son of Man. As noted above this was an apocalyptic title take from Daniel 7:13-14 in which the Son of Man is the one who will rule and reign for God over creation. All nations will come and serve the Son of Man. By claiming this title Jesus not only identifies himself with the apocalyptic visions of Daniel but also declares himself to be a major actor in the unfolding of Daniel's vision. The use of this title and its connection to Daniel would not have been lost on those who heard Jesus use it. Thus Jesus engages the apocalyptic tradition in his teaching in such a way as to further identify himself and his mission.
jesus as healer and miracle worker
How many miracles did Jesus perform while he was alive? There are several ways in which we could answer this. The first is that we could go to the Gospels and count. If this were our manner of approaching Jesus and his miracles the answer to our query would be 37. That's right; there are 37 different miracles which are mentioned by one or more of the Gospel writers. Twenty one of them are mentioned by two or more of the Gospels. The second way in which we could decide the number of miracles that Jesus performed would be to listen to the Gospel of John in which we learn that, "And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. Amen." (John 21:25, NKJV). In other words we would no idea how many miracles Jesus performed. The final way in which we could determine how many miracles Jesus performed would be to assume that he performed none…or only a few which were not really "miracles". I say this because ever since the rise of rationalism and science there has been growing skepticism over Jesus' miracles…whether they ever happened at all. So which of these is the correct answer? I'm not sure it matters.
What is of critical importance is that we understand the role that miracles played in the first century and the role that they played in Jesus' ministry. In the first century miracles were a currency of common life. There are a wide variety of stories concerning miracle workers (that's right Jesus was not the only one around) in circulation at that time. Therefore for Jesus to be out and about doing miracles was not considered completely out of the ordinary. It was also not considered out of the ordinary in Judaism because as with many of the prophets before him, miracles came with the territory. Just as Elijah and Elisha performed miracles so too did Jesus. These basic understandings of miracles and miracle workers in the first century help us to rule out two of the most basic misconceptions about Jesus and miracles.
The first misconception is that Jesus was the only miracle worker out there which would prove that he is the Son of God (we saw there were other miracle workers). The second misconception is that the miracles proved that Jesus was divine (again we see that there were other Jewish prophets who performed miracles and were not divine).
If Jesus' miracles did not prove that he was either God or the Son of God, then what were they supposed to "prove?" We can find the answer to this question in the Gospels. In the Gospel of John where miracles are often referred to as "signs" they were intended to show that spiritual healing/liberation had taken place. This spiritual healing/liberation was the demonstration that God's kingdom was present in the world in and through Jesus. In the Gospel of Luke miracles were demonstrations that Jesus was fulfilling his mission. At the beginning of Luke we read that Jesus had come to fulfill the prophetic expectations of Isaiah (giving sight to the blind, healing the lame, etc.). The miracles were proof that Jesus was accomplishing that mission. In the Gospel of Mark miracles were almost seen as a distraction. Jesus was constantly performing miracles but was also telling people to keep silent about them so he could teach (which is the focus of Mark's Gospel). In Matthew the miracles became a battle ground between Jesus and the religious authorities in which Jesus was accused of being in league with Satan. Jesus used the miracles to prove he was working for God.
Regardless then of how we view miracles today (did they or did they not happen) it is apparent that Jesus was not only considered a miracle worker but that being a miracle worker was also important to the church's early understanding of his person and his mission. The challenge for us then is not to either dismiss these miracles as relics of a bygone era (if we do not believe in them) or use them as proof of Jesus special nature (if we do believe in them), but instead to delve into their assigned roles in the Gospels as ways in which we can come to know Jesus better.
jesus as servant
In order for us to fully appreciate the image of Jesus as servant we need to take a quick tour of the Greco-Roman world and its social structure. The easiest way in which to envision this structure is to think of a pyramid. At the very top of the pyramid was the Emperor. There was no one to rival the Emperor in terms of power or prestige. The second level was composed of the Imperial household and the administrators who worked from them. One step down was the Senatorial class. These were wealthy and powerful generational families, who commanded armies, sat in the Senate and exercised some influence over the direction of the Empire. Next in line were the equites (equestrian class) who were wealthy land owners who could afford to ride into battle on horses. The lowest level of the "upper classes" contained the local aristocrats, merchants and small land owners. Once we move below this level we encounter soldiers of all kinds, poor merchants, tradesmen and tenant farmers.
At the very bottom of the society were the servants and slaves. While many of them were intelligent, educated, resourceful and highly trusted by their families they were still considered to be somewhat less than human. Roman law considered them to be a piece of property that could be bought and sold. Slaves were those who did everything from clean the toilets, to take care of the animals, to dress, teach and watch over children. While slaves could be, and sometimes were freed by their masters, this was not the usual way of things. To be a servant then was to be on the lowest and most despised rung of society. It was not a position anyone would choose. It was not a position to which anyone would aspire. It was to be avoided at all costs. Yet is a position that Jesus not only takes on himself but commands his disciples to emulate.
The most profound image of Jesus as a servant comes from the Gospel of John in chapter 13. In this chapter we read of Jesus preparing for Passover with his disciples in the upper room. Jesus takes a towel, lays aside his garments, fills a bowl with water and begins to wash his disciples' feet. His followers are horrified. Even after all of Jesus' teaching about humility (which was looked on as a weakness and not a virtue in the first century) they were not ready to see their rabbi-master-messiah act like a slave. Peter is so offended that in the beginning he refuses to allow Jesus to wash his feet. After Peter finally consents Jesus instructs his followers to be servants themselves. It is hard for us to even comprehend how difficult this command was for his disciples to understand.
Jesus later makes clear what he meant by being a servant when he went to the cross. He was willing to give up his life without a fight in order to save the world. Paul picks up on this servant-cross image in his letter to the church at Philippi. He writes, "Have this mind among yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and become obedient unto death, even death on a cross." (Philippians 2:5-8). Our understanding of this passage is that it was a hymn which Paul quotes, meaning the image of Jesus as servant was already at the heart of the church's theology and worship within fifteen to twenty years after Jesus' death. This is remarkable if for no other reason that it runs, as we have seen, completely against the tide of Roman culture.
While this image continued to be a constant in the life of the church it was never one which was easily taken to. Human nature being what it is the church was constantly struggling for power and control (either secular or sacred) and so living as a servant was never popular. However it lives at the very heart of Jesus' teaching and so the challenge for us is to let it live in our hearts and lives as well.
jesus as the word made flesh
When we look at historic Judaism there are many ways in which it was similar to its religious neighbors. They each had multiple religious sites, had sacrificial rituals and employed priesthood. Yet even with all of their similarities there was one great difference. Jews were monotheists. In the midst of cultures which worshiped multiple gods the Hebrews were driven by a singular conviction that God was one and that there would be no other gods before the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This is not only the focus of the first commandment, "You shall have no other gods before me," but it is also the heart of the "shema" from Deuteronomy 6:4, "Hear O Israel; the Lord your God is one." While the Hebrews at one time believed in more than one "god" they were always called to worship only one. However as is often the case with all religions a strange thing happened along the way to modernity.
The strange thing which happened was the development of what is called wisdom. In an earlier article I discussed wisdom as "what one discovered at that sacred intersection of God given insight and the living of a Godly life. This means that wisdom was more than ethics and more than practical advice. Wisdom allowed one to live fully into being a child of God such that one reflected the very wisdom of God into the world." There is also a second way in which wisdom is used on the First Testament. In the book of Proverbs Wisdom is personified as the feminine side of God. The role of Wisdom is twofold. First Wisdom helps God create. Second Wisdom is to be the one who brings the light of God to the world and shows human kind how to rightly live. Wisdom is literally the light of God to the world. We see this throughout the book of Proverbs (look at Proverbs 1, 8 and 9 as examples). There are also non-canonical Jewish sources which see Wisdom as its own entity in the very heart of God.
This understanding the Wisdom tradition then helps set the table for Jesus as the Word of God made flesh. When in the Gospel of John we read that "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God" what we are hearing are echoes of the personification of Wisdom in the First Testament. If we continue in John we also hear of the Word being present at creation and that the Word is the light of humankind. Thus the Word is a new and creative way to speak of the Wisdom of God.
What makes John's use of the Word (Wisdom) unique however is when he speaks of it being enfleshed in a human being. John writes of the Word made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. This claim separates John (and thus Orthodox Christianity) from Judaism and from much of the Greco-Roman philosophical world. It separates Christianity from Judaism because Judaism can never accept that God could be other than the one, eternal, creative being who is not human. It separated Christianity from the Greco-Roman philosophical schools because they believed that the perfect-divine can never become the imperfect-physical.
These two issues did not deter John from linking Jesus with divine Wisdom (Word) in the most intimate way. By so doing John makes several claims about Jesus. First Jesus is the light of the world. Jesus is the very wisdom of God who shows humanity how it ought to live. Second Jesus is the very creative power of God who can bring the dead back to life and usher in a new creation. Third Jesus as co-creator has a claim on all of life. These ideas help us to take hold of Jesus as the way (Jesus as the light of God showing the way), the truth (Jesus embodies the wisdom of God) and the life (Jesus is the one who gives life through creation). For John then (and again for orthodox Christianity) if we want to know the truth about God and what God wants us to know all we have to do is listen to and live like Jesus, who is the very Wisdom (Word) of God in the world. This way of seeing Jesus is far more profound than any other. It is so because it reminds us that Jesus has a claim on our lives; that he is not merely offering us good advice or healing our hurts. Instead as the very Lord of life, we are his and as such we are called to be light to the world, even as he was light to the world.
jesus as priest
In the first century, regardless of one's religion or location, the priest was a constant presence within one's daily life. In the Roman world every temple had priests or priestesses. These were the men and women who received sacrificial offerings, performed the necessary sacrificial rites and were the intermediaries between humans and the gods. Within Judaism priests carried out two very important functions. The first, like their Roman counterparts, was to perform the rites and rituals of sacrifice. The second function was to bless the people. Throughout the year there were rituals of worship centered on the Temple during which the priests would bless the people in order to insure their health and prosperity.
So, you may ask, what does this have to do with Jesus? If all we had were the Gospels there would be no connection between Jesus and the office of priest, other than Jesus occasional conversation with them or stories Jesus tells about them. While Jesus clearly takes on the role of prophet and offers himself as the messianic King (we will look at this next week), nowhere does Jesus perform any priestly functions. He does not institute a new priestly order. He does not build a new temple. He does not create a new religion with new rites and rituals. So, again, what does the office of priest have to do with Jesus?
The answer lies in the book of Hebrews. Within the book of Hebrews Jesus is declared to be a "high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek." (Hebrews 6:20). Then for the next couple of chapters the author of Hebrews unpacks that image and explains the importance of Jesus' priestly role. Before we look at Hebrews however let's take a short detour to find out about this Melchizedek person. Melchizedek is only mentioned twice in the Old Testament. He surfaces in Genesis 14:18 where he is described as the king of Salem and priest of the God Most High. In that capacity he blesses Abraham and receives a tithe in return.
Melchizedek appears again in Psalm 110:4 in which the king (about whom the Psalm is written) will take on priestly duties of blessing the people and destroying God's enemies. Finally in the Qumran texts (texts written around the first century but not included in the Bible) Melchizedek is associated with the angel who will release God's people and defeat God's enemies.
The writer of Hebrews takes this limited information about Melchizedek and creates an entirely new form of priesthood with which Jesus will be associated. According to Hebrews Melchizedek has no father or mother and so is an eternal priest (7:3). He is greater than Abraham because Abraham gave Melchizedek a tithe (7:4). Melchizedek's priesthood is a replacement for the priesthood of Aaron because the Aaronic priesthood was not perfect (7:11) and this new priesthood brings a new set of laws (7:12). Where all of this is leading is to the claim that because Jesus is a priest after the order of Melchizedek (eternal and perfect) then there is a better covenant; a covenant through which Jesus is able for all time "to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them" (7:25). As this kind of high priest Jesus does not have to daily sacrifice for the people but has offered himself, once and for all, as the sacrifice for humanity (7:27). Finally Jesus ministers in the true tent in heaven, of which the earthly tent (Temple) was merely a shadow (8:2-6).
While the arguments laid out by the writer of Hebrews might appear to be somewhat antiquated and confusing they are never the less important. They are important because they remind us that in Jesus' actions sin was defeated once and for all (9:26); that this new covenant has the power to change our hearts and make us new people (8:10); and that through Christ eternal life is made possible (9:15). In other words, with Jesus as priest we know that we have one who makes forgiveness and new life a daily reality thus allowing us to take hold of the hope that God offers to each of us.
jesus as king
Within the Protestant tradition (we as Presbyterians are part of this tradition because we protested against the control and theology of the Roman Catholic Church) there has long been an emphasis on seeing Jesus as the bearer of a threefold office; that of prophet, priest and king. In two of my previous articles we looked at Jesus as prophet and priest. Each of these offices had clear Biblical references; prophet from Jesus prophetic ministry and priest from the book of Hebrews. The references to Jesus as king are not quite as clear. So let's take a look at the social environment concerning the kingship and the evidence of Jesus being "king".
In the gospels we see Jesus living in a time and place in which the title and role of King is part of the social milieu. Even though the Roman Empire had only one Caesar who acted as king and lord of all, there were many other kings who ruled at the whim of Caesar. In the case of Judea, Herod the Great (proclaimed King of Judea by Rome in 40 BCE) was the first of the great client kings. Upon his death Judea was divided between several of his sons who ruled as kings in smaller sections of the nation. While these rulers were Jews they were considered to be no more than extensions of Caesar's rule and thus were never truly beloved by the people.
This being the case, Judea and Galilee were always hotbeds for those who opposed Herodian rule. Having their own history of freedom and confident that God desired them to be a free nation, the Jews in those areas were always looking for a new messiah/king to lead them to victory over the Romans and into a glorious new age of the national independence. This desire for a messiah/king meant that the common people were always on the lookout for the next candidate for the office. In John 6:15 we read of the masses trying to take Jesus by force in order to make him their king. Even though Jesus avoided this rather awkward situation the rumors of his kingship remained with him throughout his ministry.
We see these rumors come to life in three places. The first is in Luke's account of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem (19:28ff) in which we witness Jesus using a host of verbal and visual clues intended to point to him as king (riding a colt, psalms of kingship being proclaimed by the disciples, spreading their garments on the road…all of which have kingly associations). The second is in his trial before Pilate in which he is asked if he is King of the Jews (Mark 15:2); a charge he does not deny. Finally the sign on his cross states that he is "King of the Jews."
Paul, in his writings, never used the specific term, king when referring to Jesus. However Paul often wrote of Jesus as the "head of the church." (Ephesians 1:22, 4:15; Colossians 1:18, 2:19) By so doing Paul implied that Jesus is indeed "king" of the church; the one who rules and reigns over the lives of believers. Thus the connection between Jesus and kingship is present even if it is not overtly stated.
Even with all of that having been said, for many of us in the 21stCentury the idea of Jesus being a king may seem a bit anachronistic. As those who have never had a king we struggle with the idea of someone telling us what to do. Many churches even avoid using the term "Lord" because it carries kingly (highly directive) connotations. However, allowing God in Christ to rule our lives (meaning both individually and collectively) is a foundational Biblical concept. It is based in the idea that God/Christ as creator knows better than we creatures what makes for a blessed life. We creatures are limited in our ability to know how our choices will impact our relationships with God, others and creation. By allowing God in Christ to set the parameters for our lives we are making it possible for the one who made us and knows us better than we know ourselves to guide us into the fullness of life. This view moves the concept of king from being one of an arbitrary dictator to one of a creator king who always desires the best for the king's creation. This is ultimately how we are challenged to see Jesus as king; as the one who lovingly rules and reigns in our lives in order to lead us to lives well and fully lived.
jesus as sacrifice
The concept of sacrifice, at least in the religious sense, is one that is foreign to most of us. Nevertheless sacrifice has been an integral part of many world religions. Sacrifices included those for propitiation (appeasing the gods) and thanks (for thanking the gods). Sacrifices also included both animal and human sacrifices Animal sacrifices had not only a religious function but economic and social functions as well because the edible portions of the animals were usually shared as a meal following the sacrifice (which was true in Judaism as well as in the Roman Empire). Human sacrifices existed in both the old and new worlds. The Aztecs once sacrificed more than 10,000 prisoners in order to bury them beneath one of their great pyramids. We see remnants of human sacrifice in the Abraham and Isaac story in Genesis 22.
Within Judaism sacrifice functioned in several different ways, each attested to in scripture. In Genesis everyone from Noah to Abraham to Jacob sacrificed animals as a way of giving thanks to God for what God had done for them. The use of sacrifice expands in Exodus 12 which describes the Passover. The heart of this story is the sacrifice of a lamb, in order that its blood be spread over the door posts and lintels of Hebrew homes so that the angel of death would "pass over" the Hebrew homes (the last of the plagues in Exodus). Finally the concept of sacrifice was formalized within the Jewish Law given to Moses on Sinai. Of the 613 commandments in the Law 100 of them deal with sacrifices. These 100 commandments insure that sacrifices are appropriate for their purpose (thanksgiving as well as propitiation) as well as appropriately conducted. Among those sacrifices is one not conducted in the Temple. It deals with the "scape-goat." This is the ceremony in which the Temple is cleansed of all sins, those sins are ritually placed on a goat, and the goat is sent out into the wilderness. This process was intended to insure that at least once a year, any unknown sins were taken care of.
Each of those images of sacrifice (the lamb, the regular atoning sacrifice, and the scape-goat) is applied to Jesus in the New Testament. The Lamb of God (Angus Dei) imagery is focused within the Gospel of John. In John 1:29 and 1:36 John the Baptist sees Jesus and declares him to be the Lamb of God. The point is that Jesus will be the one who will be killed in order that his blood protect God's chosen people from death. The concept of Jesus as Temple sacrifice is contained within the New Testament book of Hebrews. In Hebrews 9 and 10 we read the author's argument that while Jewish sacrifices were temporarily effective at removing sin, Jesus was the sacrifice which once and for all dealt with sin (Hebrews 9:26). Finally the image of the scape goat is contained in the Gospels as Jesus is crucified outside of Jerusalem. While some people have argued that this was the normal procedure for crucifixion, Christians have long seen the leading of Jesus out from the Temple to the "wilderness" for crucifixion/sacrifice as a scape-goat image.
Throughout the New Testament Jesus and sacrifice are continually connected. These images helped the early church make sense of what Jesus did on the cross. Many conservative pastors and scholars have even argued that God could not forgive without a sacrifice and blood being shed. Where we have to be careful however is in assuming that God's forgiveness could be bound by rules and regulations about sacrifice. I say this because the New Testament offers us other ways of understanding what Jesus did on the cross and how it accomplished our forgiveness, none of which are linked to blood or ritual sacrifice. Nonetheless the image of Jesus as sacrifice is one which can and should help to inform us the fact that God has dealt with sin, once and for all, in order that we might be brought back into right relationship with God, not just for a few moments (until the next sacrifice) but forever.
jesus and women
My wife Cindy has often commented that the pecking order within First Century Judaism was God, men, animals, plants, rocks and then women. While she was being somewhat facetious she was not far off of the mark. Jewish women living in Judea and Galilee were subjected to a much more patriarchal system than were their counterparts within the Roman Empire. Roman law allowed women to head households, sue for divorce, inherit property and goods, go about unveiled and to some extent even engage in extra-marital affairs, just as did men. Women could also hold leadership roles. One example is a woman named Junia Theodora who was one of the leaders of the Lycian Federation of cities (this federation included Corinth). Her role was critical in securing peace and trade agreements. In Egypt the nation could even have a female Pharaoh such as Cleopatra (who interestingly enough was Greek). Thus the wider Roman world was relatively accepting of women as virtual equals of men.
First century Judaism offered no such parity. Women were considered to be property, first belonging to their fathers and then to their husbands. They had no rights of divorce and within Judea and Galilee no real right of inheritance (this was not often the case within Jewish communities in the Roman world where women had more rights). Women were considered to be inferior to men and were even considered to be the root of evil by many Jewish scholars. Because of this position they were not allowed to testify in court, go out of the home without their husband's permission, were to be veiled at all times out of the home and were considered to be ritually unclean during and after menstruation and childbirth, and could not talk to strangers. Women's lives were difficult and demeaning.
It was into this cultural milieu that Jesus began his ministry. Jesus, as a Jew reared in Galilee would have been very familiar with the rules and regulations concerning women. As a rabbi he was called upon not only to uphold these rules in his ministry but to encourage others to do so as well. Jesus did neither of those things and in fact offered a radically different view of women and their place in God's kingdom.
Jesus ignored ritual purity laws. When he was touched by the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years (Mark 5:25-34) he not only did not chastise her but healed her with words of love…and then he ignored all the requirements for cleansing himself.
Jesus spoke with foreign women (John 4:7ff; Matthew 15:22-28), recognizing their humanity even when no one else would. Jesus taught women students. In the famous Mary and Martha story (Luke 10:38-42) he allowed Mary to sit at his feet and learn (most other rabbis would have rather burned the Torah than have allowed a woman to learn). Jesus accepted women into his inner circle (Luke 8:1-3), told as many stories about women as about men and even used the unprecedented language of "daughter of Abraham" (Luke 13:16).
These brief references make it clear that Jesus' attitude toward women was not only very different from his contemporaries but was a radical departure from the Jewish norm in which he was reared. The question becomes then why would Jesus take such a different approach to women than what was considered the norm in First Century Judaism? While I have not asked Jesus directly I would offer a possible answer. As was discussed in a much earlier edition of this series, Jesus could have been drawing on the first, rather than the second creation story. In the first creation story (Genesis 1) God created men and women at the same time and God created them both in the image of God. Women were not inferior to men, but were co-equal. Thus Jesus pointed his followers back to God's original intent for men and women at creation. That being the case, Jesus was simply fulfilling his mission of "proclaiming release to the captives" (Luke 4:18b) by freeing women from their cultural bondage and into their rightful place in the Kingdom of God when he engaged women as equals.
The challenge for us is to ensure that Jesus' attitude toward women is one that guides all of our work and witness as Everybody's Church.
jesus and first century politics
For generations Christians have tended to view Jesus as an historical character who, while interacting with a wide variety of people, was basically untouched and unaffected, until the very end of his life, by the politics of his day. More recent Biblical scholarship has begun to alter this view by examining how politics impacted the world in which Jesus lived. What they have discovered is that in both subtle and not so subtle ways Jesus and his ministry were affected by the politics of his day. We will look at only a couple of brief examples.
Let's begin with the politics of money. For generations the people of Judea had worked the land as small peasant farmers using barter as the main means of economic exchange. There was no need for money because most communities were relatively self-sufficient. The political relationship between Herod Antipas (the son of Herod the Great who ruled during most of Jesus' lifetime) and his Roman overlords however was one in which precious metals in the form of coinage were required. This meant that when the tax collectors made their rounds they were no longer looking for produce but for coinage. The result was that local farmers could no longer survive by barter but needed to enter the larger currency economy, thus putting them in a position in which they were often cheated by those who now bought their grain. In addition the required taxes were often so great (sometimes as high as two-thirds of their produce) that farmers were forced to sell their ancestral lands in order to survive. We see the results of this transition in Jesus' ministry through his stories of landless peasants, tenant farmers and his interaction with the hated tax collectors.
Second let's take a look at the politics of food. In the first century most of what was consumed (some estimates are up to 70% of a person's diet) was grains, wheat and barley. These were planted in the late fall and harvested in the spring. Again, as I said a moment ago, for generations most Galileans and Judeans existed as subsistence farmers. This began to change not only with the onset of the monetary economy but with the construction of new Roman-like cities such as Sepphoris and Tiberius.
These commercial centers needed more grain than subsistence farmers could produce. Thus there were great incentives for the wealthy in the cities to purchase land from peasants (whether legally or illegally) in order to create larger more efficient farms. Even with the greater efficiency most of the food was designated for the cities or for export to Rome thus increasing poverty and hunger in the countryside. We can hear echoes of these changes in Jesus' stories of absentee landowners, his negative statements about the rich, and his compassion for the poor who had no one to protect them.
Finally let's take a look at the politics of rebellion. Prior to Jesus' arrival on the scene, there had been a number of small uprisings against Herod and Rome. These included those led by a bandit named Judas, a royal slave named Simon and shepherd named Athrongaues. These disturbances were brutally put down by Rome. None-the-less the growing poverty of Galilee and Judea forced more and more men into banditry and resistance (ultimately culminating in the Jewish revolt of 66 CE). Both the Jewish and Roman political authorities were therefore incredibly sensitive to anyone who even remotely hinted at resistance to Roman dominated rule. This reality forced Jesus to steer clear of any overt references to himself as king or liberator. It also impacted his travels as he tried to avoid preaching and teaching in areas controlled by Herod Antipas who had previously executed John the Baptist. We hear references to this situation in Jesus' story of the Good Samaritan and his refusal to be named king by the masses.
My hope is that this brief look at Jesus and politics helps us to see even though Jesus was not overtly "political" his ministry was impacted by as well as addressed the conditions created by the political climate of his day. This understanding ought to help us see that the church need not be afraid of engaging and discussing the political realities of our day as we strive to be faithful to God.