According to Mark, (the earliest Gospel), after his baptism and self-questioning in the wilderness, and “after John (the Baptist) had been put into prison”, Jesus launched an evangelistic mission in Galilee, but there’s a complication here. In John’s gospel, Jesus, “in the province of Judea, spent some time with his disciples and baptised”, and, “The Pharisees heard that Jesus was winning and baptising more disciples than John.” That might seem to suggest ‘competition’ and so, perhaps in mitigation, the claim is quickly made that “Jesus himself did not baptise anyone”.
There’s some ambiguity, then, about the nature and history of their relationship, but what we can say is this, that when Jesus began his own mission, his message was the same as the Baptist’s – “The time is fulfilled. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Turn away from your sins and believe the good news.” In this early tradition, Jesus asks people to believe, not in himself as a divine being or saviour from sin, but in God, whose earthly Kingdom was soon to be established. That, says Jesus, is the gospel, the ‘good news’!
If we take ourselves back to 30 CE, how would Jesus’ listeners have understood this? In my previous post, I showed how apocalypticism was at the heart of the message of John the Baptist, Jesus and the Apostle Paul. They were each convinced that the epoch in which the powers of evil had control over this world, was about to become the epoch in which God took back total control. When Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled”, his hearers would have known what that meant.
What seems clear to me, if not to everyone, is that Jesus, at the outset of his mission, had no thoughts about bringing into being a non-Jewish, ‘Christian’ church. His attention was on the present moment, and he claimed that, “This generation will not pass away until all these things have happened”, ‘these things’ being the world-transforming arrival of God’s Kingdom. The time at his disposal was very short, and so Jesus the Jew was focussed on his fellow Jews. He said his mission was to, “the lost sheep of the house of Israel”, and instructed his followers to “go nowhere among the Gentiles”, which seems clear enough to me.
This is where we need to recall my mention of early and later ‘layers’ in the gospels, which is why we later find Jesus instructing his disciples to, “go to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples”. It seems clear to me that the fact that “this generation” did “pass away”, without any appearance of God’s Kingdom, was a major difficulty. Jesus must surely have meant something different, and also given some indication of this. And so the earthly “Kingdom of God” centred on Jerusalem, became the “Kingdom of Heaven” located in the indeterminate future, but available as a ‘spiritual reality’ now, and appropriate words were placed into the mouth of Jesus to sort this difficulty out.
So as we begin to consider what Jesus said and did once his mission began, in my view he did not intend that one day there would come into being, a ‘Christian Church’, separate from, and in competition with, his beloved Jewish people. Had he foreseen that same Church’s growing anti-Semitic hatred, considered totally deserved by those divinely cast off “murderers of God”, “companions of the devil”, and “race of vipers”, his heart would have been broken within him. And all the more so, had he also foreseen the subsequent centuries of persecution and exclusion, the pogroms and ghettoes, and eventually the attempted genocide in the holocaust.
The Jesus I look back to, is a man who believed in an imminent earthly Kingdom of God, centred on a redeemed and restored Israel, which would then welcome the people of all other nations to join in worship of the one, universal God in the Temple in Jerusalem. This didn’t come to pass, but it was, in so many ways, a magnificent, enlightened and inspiring vision, and one which lay at the heart of Jesus’ lifestyle and teaching, which must now command our attention.