Jesus and the Church


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Did Jesus intend to be the founder of a “Christian Church”, which would first ‘supersede’, and then separate itself from, his own Jewish religion? To answer this, it seems to me that we must strip away 2,000 years of exegesis and christology, and try to recapture the religious views of a 1st century Palestinian Jew, known as Jesus of Nazareth. (I’m tempted to suggest that some exegesis has led to ‘exit-Jesus’, the historical figure risking disappearance on being transformed into a supernatural, non-historical, Christ figure, but you must make up your own mind about that).

Jesus, I think we need to keep reminding ourselves, wasn’t a Christian, but a believing, practising Jew. He lived at a time when, although the Jewish people had been promised by their God that they’d always live in the land he’d promised to them, under a ruler descended from their great King David, for centuries they had been governed (and taxed) by the Persians, Greeks, Egyptian Ptolemies, Syrian Seleucids, and now the Romans. Many Jews, however, believed their scriptures taught that God would eventually intervene, with a great reversal, to destroy their oppressors, and restore Israel to the greatness and glory depicted in former times. 

This hope can be found in the Book of Daniel and later apocalyptic writings; in the Dead Sea Scrolls of the community at Qumran; in the activities of Zealot militants who aimed to jog God’s memory by self-starting the process; and in a succession of charismatic apocalyptic preachers who included John the Baptist, Jesus of Nazareth and the Apostle Paul.

What Jesus believed is summed up at the start of Mark’s Gospel : “The appointed time has come – the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news”. His Jewish audience would understand by this, that the time for God’s intervention had finally arrived. God’s enemies and Israel’s oppressors, would be destroyed. The 10 lost tribes of Israel would be re-gathered, and it would again be a theocratic nation under a ‘Davidic’ King. The dead would be resurrected, and the final judgement take place. “This generation”, said Jesus, “will not pass away until all these things have happened”. That was his message for the Jewish people, “the lost sheep of Israel”, and so, when he sent his 12 disciples on a preaching mission, he told them to “go nowhere among the Gentiles”.

Some material in the Gospels is thought to have originated decades after the death of Jesus. So whereas Jesus initially says his message is only for the Jews, he’s later reported as saying it should be “preached to all the nations.” What’s going on here? Two things are key. The “appointed time” did not come, but gentiles began to become followers of Jesus, and to rapidly outnumber those who were Jews. If so, then Jesus must surely have anticipated this, and therefore suitably appropriate stories and sayings make their appearance in the Gospel narratives.

What seems to me ironic, is that the Gentiles would indeed have had an ultimate place in Jesus’ thinking. The Gospels report him as quoting from the later chapters of Isaiah, which not only prophesy the promised restoration of Israel, but say that this will cause the Gentile nations to recognise the Jewish God as the one and only universal God. They will then join the people of Israel in worshipping God in his Temple in Jerusalem, and “their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar, for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations”.

That, for me, is what Jesus expected to happen. His message had to go only to his fellow Jews. Everything depended on their response to his call to “repent”, and therefore on their return to loving their God and their fellow Jews as themselves. That is what would be followed by the restoration of Israel as the “Kingdom of God” on earth, because of which, the Gentiles would be converted to the true religion. It was to be the Jews first, then the Gentiles. But the way things worked out reversed that. The Gentiles came first, and their Church is, for many Christians, the only hope of salvation for the Jewish people, provided they relinquish their ‘superseded’ religion and convert to Christianity. 

Strange things happen in history! But the Jewish religion has not been superseded in its eyes, and many Jews continue to wait for that restoration which will finally bring to triumphant completion, God’s ancient covenant and promises to his chosen people. We shall see, perhaps, what we shall see …

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