Jesus, the Politics of His Day and What That Means for Us Now

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Jesus talked about politics more than any other subject, depending on how you hear him. The primary topic of Jesus’ teaching was the kingdom of God. Sometimes we use words and phrases so much that we read right over the very words that are being used. If I say New England you probably don’t think about England and settlers navigating the Atlantic looking for a New start…same with New Jersey and New York…as Jersey and York were both towns back in England. Another biblical example of phrases that take on a whole new meaning that make us deaf to hear the literal words is when we say “sermon on the mount” we usually just think of Matthew 5-7 and not that Jesus is actually preaching on a mountain…which then would remind us of another mountain that Jesus is paralleling in his teaching there, Sinai.

When Jesus preaches the kingdom of God, he is talking about principalities and powers. He is talking about sovereignty and authority. He is talking about who is in charge and who has supreme power. The word kingdom meant a lot more in his day and culture than it does to us in our day and culture so it takes us a moment to step into his world and hear him fresh.

Luke goes to great lengths to remind us that Jesus was born into a world that was just as political then as it is today,

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah…” – Luke 1:5

 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David [who was a king]…Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” – Luke 1:26-27, 31-33

Then in Mary’s song,

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;” – Luke 1:52

Then Zechariah’s prophesy,

68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
    for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us
    in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71     that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” – Luke 1:68-71

Luke 2 continues to put things in a political/historical perspective,

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” – Luke 2:1-2

as does Luke 3,

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. ” – 3:1-2

Jesus was born into a world of kings, tetrarchs, high priests, and emperors. There were local authorities and national authorities. It was a time where various people were christos/anointed over kingdoms and where the lines of your kingdom and who ruled your kingdom mattered a great deal and crossing them meant an even greater deal, just ask John the Baptist who had a run in with King Herod or Jesus and his conversations first with the religious leaders and then Pilate or Paul who chatted with multiple kings and governors along the way and ultimately Nero Caesar. These things mattered a great deal in their world just as they should to us.

Mark tells us about Jesus’ very first public teaching in Mark 1:14-15,

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Many have already pointed out that even the word “gospel” or “good news” was used of Caesar’s proclamation’s of victory over the enemies of Rome. Jesus came preaching or proclaiming about another sort of good news/gospel that pointed people to another sort of kingdom, the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven. Jesus, as Son of God, made it quite clear that this kingdom was his kingdom just as Caesar who was also considered to be the son of god claimed his divine right to the throne.

This is, in a sense, political language and it was that sense of Jesus’ teaching that the Jewish authorities used against him to get him in hot water with the Romans. Blasphemy won’t get you crucified but treason will, hence the charge leveled against Jesus, the way the soldiers mocked him (robe, crown and staff), and the sign above his head on the cross declaring him king of the Jews. Rome’s message was, this is what we do with “Kings” who attempt to rival the true king Caesar. God’s message was this truly is the exalted king of the universe…displayed on the cross but ultimately displayed in his exaltation in the resurrection where he truly was lifted up from the dead.

Jesus’ life reminds us that getting wrapped up in the political structures of the empire often get godly people in a mess.

What Jesus said about the kingdom of God should directly influence our view of politics today. Jesus describes the kingdom and how we live as citizens of the kingdom. If you tune in to Jesus’ teaching on this, the political process of this world becomes more and more exposed for what it is – antithetical to the kingdom of God and largely opposed to the purposes and principles of God.

If we choose to engage in the political processes of this world, it is essential we do it from the perspective, principles and purposes of the kingdom we truly belong to but do not yet fully live in. That can be extremely difficult to do but if it is what we attempt to do we must prioritize things and live, move and exist accordingly. This will force us to not co-opt a political party to leverage our faith or to be political evangelists understanding, like Jesus, that our kingdom is not of this world even as we live in this world and all that entails. So let us live as wise people. Let us live and move and even vote with our kingdom principles remembering the empire will always disappoint the one who has their eyes fixed on Jesus.

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