At some point, possibly in the 27 CE, beside the river Jordan, in a part of the world known to its Roman overlords as Palestine, a charismatic preacher, John by name, was holding forth to all who would listen to him. He was also baptising those who found themselves agreeing with his message, some of whom became his followers, and joined his movement. One such was a man of around 30 years of age, who had arrived from the village of Nazareth in Galilee, and whose name was Jesus.
Sometimes, when we think about Jesus, we’re inclined, consciously or not, to ‘create’ him in our own image, imagining that his thinking, and his view of the world, was the same as ours. It wasn’t. Let’s face it, he lived more than 2,000 years ago, in a very different Palestine, and in a distinctly different world. If he were to make a return visit, he’d be totally taken aback, and deeply grieved, to find such an entirely unanticipated, and deeply lamentable, state of affairs, in the land in which he’d once breathed the air, and walked its ways.
We need to keep reminding ourselves that Jesus wan’t a Christian ! He was born and brought up as a Jew. He believed devoutly in the Jewish God, and in the supreme authority of the Jewish Scriptures. He was circumcised, attended synagogue, observed the festivals, and worshipped in the Jerusalem Temple, with its ongoing bloody slaughter of endless sacrificial birds and beasts. He believed that this world had been created by the Jewish God. but was currently filled with, and menaced by, innumerable evil spirits, who could take possession of people, and wreak havoc in their lives. Most of us no longer think that way.
He believed that the Jews were God’s chosen people, and that they were living in the land God had given them, in fulfilment of an ancient promise to their ancestor Abraham. And yet, this land was now owned by the Roman Empire, governed by its appointees and policed by its legions. Its people, God’s people, were oppressively taxed by an emperor whose coins, to add insult to injury, bore the title, “Divi filius” – ‘Son of God’.
Like John, Jesus believed that this intolerable state of affairs was about to be brought to an end. Whatever God’s reasons for allowing it to happen, enough was finally enough! All God’s demonic and human enemies were about to be overthrown in a violent, divine intervention in human history. As Jesus put it, in language echoing the prophetic books of the Jewish Scriptures, “the Kingdom of God is at hand” or, as John had put it, “even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees.” It was imperative that his people should immediately get themselves right with their God, before this terrifying blow from the heavens above was struck, after which all those rejected by God would be like “branches gathered into a pile to be burned“. Are we still thinking Jesus’ worldview was the same as ours?
And are we remembering that the chief concern of Jesus the Jew, was for his own Jewish people? He’s reported as saying, “I’ve been sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel“, and of telling his followers, when he sent them out as itinerant preachers, “Do not go among people who are not Jewish“. I see no indication here of any thought of being the founder of a Christian Church, first distinct from, then separate from, and historically antagonistic to, his own Jewish people.
This is not to say that Jesus was unmindful of those who were not Jews. As someone steeped in the Jewish prophetic books, especially Isaiah, his belief would have been that God’s sudden, supernatural deliverance of his Jewish people – both those in the past, exiled from, and those in the present oppressed in, their promised land – that God’s re-gathering and spiritual revival of his ancient people, and awe-inspiring renovation of his Temple in Jerusalem, would so forcibly impress the other peoples of the world, that they’d see clearly that the Jewish God is the one and only God, and would gladly join his people in their worship and service of him. “And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it. And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths” (Isaiah 2)
So instead of the Christian Church being the means of ‘converting’ and ‘bringing back’ the Jewish people to God, the vision of Jesus would have been the opposite. The divine restoration of the Jewish people would be the means of ‘converting’ and ‘bringing back’ the rest of the world’s peoples to God. We sometimes talk about the ‘twists and turns’ of history. Well, here’s one worth thinking about, is it not?
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