From its inception, Christianity has been christocentric, that is, the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus are central to the Christian faith. Indeed, there is nothing more central to Christianity than how we understand Jesus. This does not mean that Christians have always had a homogeneous view of Jesus, but in all the various forms of Christianity that have developed since the first century, Jesus has always been the central figure.
Yet, Jesus remains a somewhat enigmatic figure, whose life has been written about by thousands of authors, scholars, and lay persons alike. Moreover, Jesus’ teachings still speak to our modern world and how we live in that world. This means that each Christian generation must not only reaffirm the centrality of Jesus to the faith, and therefore seek to rediscover Jesus, each must also seek to understand and implement Jesus’ life and teachings in each and every context; a task that is often treated as easy, but when attempted with any seriousness, is very difficult.
Who was this Jesus? What do the Gospels tell us about Jesus? Does Jesus’ life and words have meaning for us, and if so, how do we appropriate them for our own living as his followers in the contemporary world? These are the questions we must address if Jesus is to remain the central figure of Christian faith.
One significant point that must be made from the outset is that Jesus was a first century Jew. While most today know this to be true, an appreciation of the influence of Judaism on the life and mission of Jesus has only recently become important. Many Christians might agree that Jesus was Jewish, but they may see Jesus’ Jewish faith and identity only as a precursor to his founding of the Christian faith. Indeed, in my years of teaching, I have often asked this question on an exam: “What religious faith was Jesus?” The majority of students answer that Jesus was Christian. But Jesus was thoroughly Jewish and remained so throughout his life. Jesus never was what we consider to be Christian.
Yet, when we say that Jesus was a Jew, we must be careful to point out that this does not assume that Judaism was homogeneous in the first century. Much like Judaism today, and Christianity for that matter, first century Judaism was eclectic. While scholars have recognized the importance of the four dominant sects within Second Temple Judaism, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Zealots, the largest population within Judaism, and the one Jesus was from, was the common Jews, the am haaretz, the people of the land.
The Gospels clearly indicate that Jesus was not from one of the ruling groups of Judaism, the Pharisees or Sadducees. While it is possible that the Essenes, that sectarian community believed to be responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls, had an influence on John the Baptist, who then influenced Jesus, there is no convincing evidence that Jesus was associated with the Essenes. And, it is highly unlikely that Jesus was a Zealot, for his teachings on peace and non-violence is not parallel to their ideas about revolution. Jesus was born into poverty and remained a member of the common class of Jews living in the volatile world of first century Palestine.
As a Jew, however, Jesus held in common with other Jews that the God of Israel, who had been revealed through creation and covenant, was the supreme God who had chosen Israel and had redeemed them out of Egypt. Jesus, like many of the Jews of his day, was looking for God’s new redemption of Israel from the chains of their oppressors. He was looking for a New Exodus, not from the enemies in Egypt, but from the power of Rome. He accepted the traditions passed down through Israel’s history that God had set Israel apart as God’s people and had made a covenant with them to be their God. He also believed that Israel had lost her way, as all the prophets testified, and that Israel’s current plight would only be ended by an act of God. So, at one level Jesus’ consciousness of God was influenced by tradition.
Yet, we also must consider that Jesus’ awareness of God was also greatly informed by his own experience of God. Indeed, though he, like many Jews of his day, believed God was going to redeem Israel from Roman oppression, he took on this vocation as his very own mission. While we can point to various events in the life of Jesus that shaped his experience and understanding of God, as well as his own understanding of himself, including his upbringing under the weight of poverty and injustice and his constant encounter with the suffering of his own people, the Gospels suggest that one specific event seems to have played a particular role as the call to mission for Jesus. In his own baptism, Jesus witnesses the opening of heaven and hears God’s commission for him to live out his identity as God’s chosen son, the one sent to bring judgment on God’s enemies of unjust power and oppression, and restoration to God’s people. This religious experience perhaps gave affirmation to Jesus as to who he needed to be and what he needed to do.
But, in his experience of God, Jesus became cognizant of a God that could not be defined by tradition. While he accepted the traditional Jewish views of God, monotheism, creation, and covenant, he also gained, in his own experience of God, an alternative to the tradition. So what did Jesus believe about God?
Foremost in Jesus’ mind was the belief that God was presently acting in the world to bring about something new that would radically shift the Judaism of his day. Nothing clarifies this more than Jesus’ announcement that the kingdom of God had come. Later is this chapter, we will turn attention to the concept of God’s kingdom in the teachings of Jesus, but for now I think it very right to assume that Jesus believed that God was not simply the God of Israel’s history who had somehow become distant. Rather, Jesus’ God was now present in the world, overthrowing the powers of evil and establishing God’s own rule.
Jesus believed that God was establishing a new order in the world, one that reversed the oppressive power of injustice and inaugurated a world of compassion, justice, and peace. In Jesus’ mind, the world had become chaotic, oppressive, and filled with injustice. But he believed that God was presently restoring order and justice to the creation, and Jesus acted on this understanding of God. His miracles serve as vivid metaphors of God’s power to release the captives and to overthrow the powers of the world, and his teachings proclaimed a new ethic that would continue to bring order and justice to creation. In this sense, Jesus lived out his vocation as the envoy of God’s rule.
But Jesus also understood and communicated that God was not concerned with the formal religion that was practiced in Israel, apart from the ethical living demanded by God, particularly having love for one’s neighbors and enemies. While he did not seek to abolish the Law, as he came to fulfill the Law, he did challenge the assumptions others had about the Law, that it was merely the outward pious actions of the religious. Instead, Jesus declared that God was concerned about the inner being of a person and the motivations of a person’s heart that produced acts of goodness.
It seems clear from reading the Gospels that Jesus’ most severe challenge was aimed at the formal religion of his day, and more particularly at the religious elite that controlled religion, when he cleared the temple. It may not have been the temple itself, or the sacrificial system within its walls that Jesus found troubling, although certainly it very well could have been. What seems certain, however, was that Jesus was angry at the abuses that resulted from a religion that was more about ritual than about caring for others. Indeed, many have pointed to the fact that this is the action that got Jesus killed, for he called for the temple to be a house of prayer for all people, opening the doors to those shut out from the worship of God. In this way, he challenged the religious system of first century Judaism that was structured around purity laws that shut people out from the worship of God, and he viewed the temple as that which symbolized the religious formalism of his day. Indeed, his actions in the temple signify his direct claim to speak and act with the authority of God, challenging those who set themselves up as God’s authorities.