The biblical story of Jesus is a very long one. It reaches back to the creation of all things; it concludes with the re-creation of all things and the symbolic presence of the Lamb in the glorious city of the creator God. If we superimpose on this already complicated biblical story the church’s highly theological account of who Jesus was, is and will be, then we have a biography of massive mythical and metaphysical proportions. But in order to understand the story of Jesus we have to start not with this glorious meta-biography but with the much more modest and limited historical narrative that we find in the Gospels—in Matthew, Mark and Luke in particular.
So the first thing we need to do is strip away all the conceptual trappings from the Second Person of the Trinity, the unique God-man, the exalted Lord, the pre-existent divine Logos, everybody’s personal saviour, the Jesus who has entered my heart, and we need to put him in a small box. On the outside of the box are the words “prophet to Israel in the 6th century”. We need to cross out “6th” and write “1st”. Then we need to close the box. We will have to open the box later and take Jesus out again, but for now it needs to stay closed.
Having done this, we may make an attempt at explaining roughly who he thought he was and what he thought he was doing.
Bad news and good news
The prophet Jesus announced to Israel—and only to Israel—that the “kingdom of God” was at hand. This was both good news and bad news. The bad news was that the nation was heading for a disastrous war against its Roman overlords, which would result in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple and massive loss of life. This would not be an accident of history. It would be an act of divine justice, a judgment of gehenna—“punishment” for the nation’s deeply engrained resistance to YHWH as king. The good news was that YHWH—it is important that we use Israel’s “name” for God here—would provide a way of “salvation” for his people, a narrow path that would lead to life, though Jesus did not expect many Jews to find that path.
Spoken like a prophet
Jesus announced this coming act of divine intervention in three different ways. First, he preached and taught and argued and told stories about it, just as his Old Testament predecessors had done. Secondly, he healed the sick, raised the dead, and cast out the demons that possessed Israel as a powerful sign that YHWH was about deliver his people from their oppressors, forgive their sins, heal their profound spiritual sickness, and raise them to new life. Thirdly, he acted out the coming judgment and restoration of God: he associated with prostitutes and sinners, he calmed a storm, he confused people with parables, he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, he cursed a barren fig tree, he started a one man riot in the temple, and so on.
The way of salvation
Jesus was clear in his own mind that the narrow path of “salvation” would be a way of suffering—it could hardly be anything else given the level of opposition from every quarter of the establishment. He may have thought of himself as the servant of Isaiah through whose faithful suffering God would redeem his “exiled” people, which would be a sign to the nations that Israel’s God was the one true God. He certainly thought of himself as the figure “like a son of man” in Daniel’s vision, who would suffer in the course of Israel’s “end-time” crisis but would be vindicated and given kingdom and authority. It was the price that had to be paid, so to speak, if the descendants of Abraham were to have a viable future.
The fellowship of the Son of Man
So Jesus believed that the way of salvation for Israel would be opened up by his own suffering, and he faced this with the conviction that his Father would not abandon him to death. But he also knew that, practically speaking, this would count for nothing if no one followed him down this narrow and difficult path leading to life. So he gathered around himself a community of renewed Israel, a group of disciples, which would continue his mission. Acting under his authority, they would proclaim throughout the towns and villages of Israel both the bad news and the good news, right through to the climactic moment of divine judgment—within a generation—when they too would be vindicated for their Christlike faithfulness.
Those who joined this prophetic community would have to take up their own crosses; they too would play the part of the suffering servant; they too would be cast in the symbolic role of the “Son of Man” who would be vindicated. They were not the church as we know it. It makes more sense to see them as a transitional community, a community of eschatological blessing, over which not even death would prevail.
An extraordinary coup
In the end Jesus, the charismatic prophet from distant Galilee, directly challenged the leadership in Jerusalem. They had forfeited the right to rule. They imposed intolerable religious and social burdens on ordinary Jews; they were hypocrites, blind guides; they were like whitewashed tombs; they consistently rejected the messengers whom God sent to them. So the seat of their power, Jerusalem and its temple, would be taken away from them, and the “kingdom” would be given to a different people, gathered from the margins of Israel, and to a different king—a king who rode humbly into the city on a donkey to mark the impending liberation of the people from oppression.
The various hierarchies conspired to suppress this extraordinary challenge to their authority, refusing to believe that he spoke legitimately on behalf of God. But Jesus was quite sure of his messianic calling and knew that history would prove him right. As he said to the high priest Caiaphas at his trial, “I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64). At this moment of ultimate powerlessness, the prophet from Galilee was claiming the authority not only to speak against the régime—as John had spoken before him—but to rule over this people in the place of Caiaphas and Herod and Pilate and, of course, the god Caesar.
To be continued…