Over the years that I have spent reading the Gospels, I have come to the conclusion that Jesus was not simply a teacher of spirituality as we like to make him out to be. Nor was he some divine figure who went about Galilee healing people. He was certainly both of these, but Jesus was also a political figure, whose words and deeds challenged the unjust political powers of his time.
This is not to suggest that Jesus was a politician in the way we think about politics today. Nor should we think of Jesus as seeking to involve himself in any political power system of his day, whether the secular power of Rome or the religious power of the temple leadership. Indeed, we know very well that Jesus worked outside and in opposition to the religious leadership of Jerusalem.
What I mean by saying that Jesus was a political figure is that his message and his mission confronted the social structures of his day with the politics of God. In other words, when we talk about Jesus, we need to take very seriously that Jesus’ message was fraught with challenges to the politics of his day; his was a subversive politics.
While eventually crucified in an act of cooperation between the two power centers he confronted, Jesus’ teachings were not principally about sin and salvation, heaven and hell. His central message was a different politic, a different way of existing in human society. His politics were the politics of compassion and justice, and central to his political message was his belief and his proclamation that God’s kingdom was coming into the world; a kingdom that was a subversive revolutionary resistance to the Roman Empire and the religious ruling elite of Judaism.
Thus, instead of seeking worldly political power through violence, domination, and oppression, which Jesus and others witnessed firsthand from the Roman imperial power, and instead of acquiescing with the practice of violence, domination, and oppression as the religious leaders of Israel did as a way of satisfying Rome enough to keep their places of religious power, Jesus called for a new politic, one that was shaped by the character and presence of God’s rule and one that would be manifested in the radical living of his followers.
What we need to understand about the meaning of the phrase, the kingdom of God, as Jesus used it, is that it is not primarily a spiritual realm. It is spiritual in that it comes from God, but it is not heaven, as we might often think, and getting to some place called heaven is not the purpose of following Christ. The kingdom of God is also not primarily about personal salvation. God’s coming kingdom does transform us personally as individuals who come into relationship with God, but the kingdom of God cannot be reduced merely to personal salvation.
The kingdom of God, or perhaps, the empire of God, was, and is a politically charged term. Jesus did not randomly pick this metaphor; he chose it as a challenge to the Roman imperial power that carried out injustice. He viewed the rule of God as coming into the word as the dynamic presence of God in the world. In calling people to enter the kingdom of God and follow him, Jesus was calling people to join an alternative empire, the empire of God, over which God ruled and in which there was an alternative way of living in community with others.
By proclaiming the coming rule of God, Jesus was calling people out of an existence that focused on the power of this world, into a community over which God ruled as king. And he was calling them to offer their allegiance to God and not Caesar.
This was the significance of confessing Jesus as Lord in the Roman Empire. Such a confession in the Roman world signified that one was no longer giving loyalty to Caesar or to the Roman system of domination, oppression, violence, and injustice.
Confession of Jesus as Lord was not just a conversion experience in the way that we think of today as an individualized spiritual transformation; it was much more.
Confessing Jesus as Lord was a transformation of the person from allegiance to one way living to another way of living. It was an act of insubordination against the so-called supremacy of the world’s strongest power and an embrace of the call of Jesus to take up the cross and follow him. Joining the Jesus movement meant standing in opposition to worldly powers that carried out oppression, violence, and injustice.
And yet, the alternative kingdom Jesus was proclaiming could not, in reality, face up to the power of Rome. Jesus and his followers were never significant challengers to Rome’s military power, and Christians in the empire remained outsiders for centuries, and were, at various points, persecuted by the Roman authorities.
In fact, joining the Jesus movement could quite possibly lead a person to death. From a worldly perspective, then, this Jesus movement, and Jesus’ message about God’s kingdom, would be seen as an inevitable failure. After all, was not the movement’s leader put to death on a Roman cross?
So how does the rule of God, which Jesus proclaimed as near, continue to come into the world, since the bearer of God’s rule was put to death? God’s kingdom continues to manifest itself in the world through the transformed followers of Jesus who seek a radical way of living in community with others that challenges the norms of our own politics.