First, it will not do to suppose that Jesus came to teach people “how to get to heaven.” That view has been immensely popular in Western Christianity for many generations, but it simply won’t do. The whole point of Jesus’ public career was not to tell people that God was in heaven and that, at death, they could leave “earth” behind and go to be with him there. It was to tell them that God was now taking charge, right here on “earth”; that they should pray for this to happen; that they should recognize, in his own work, the signs that it was happening indeed; and that when he completed his work, it would become reality.
In particular, we must be clear what is and isn’t meant when Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel, speaks about the “‘kingdom of heaven.” Many have wrongly assumed that he was referring to a “kingdom” in the sense of a place called “heaven” — in other words, a heavenly realm to which people might aspire to go once their time on “earth” was over. That is simply not what the phrase meant in the first century — though, sadly, it doesn’t seem to have taken very long within the early church for the misunderstanding to creep in, doubtless because within a century or two the original Jewish meanings of Jesus’ words were being forgotten.
Within Jesus’ world, the word “heaven” could be a reverent way of saying “God”; and in any case, part of the point of “heaven” is that it wasn’t detached, wasn’t a long way off, but was always the place from which “earth” was to be run. When, in the book of Daniel, people speak about “the God of heaven,” the point is that this God is in charge on earth, not that he’s a long way away and unconcerned about it. “The God of heaven” is precisely the one who organizes things on earth (Dan. 2:37) and will eventually set up his own kingdom there (2:44; see also 4:37; 5:23).
Second, was Jesus, then, mounting some kind of quasi-military revolution? Some have thought so. Many, fed up with the way contemporary churches have colluded with corrupt and wicked establishments, have been eager to find in Jesus a different dream, a dream that perches uncomfortably halfway between the Sermon on the Mount and the sermons of Karl Marx. Attempts have then been made to ward off this proposal by insisting that Jesus’ message was “spiritual” rather than “political.” This has been, in my view, another dialogue of the deaf.
The case for seeing Jesus as a would-be revolutionary bent on overthrowing the Roman order (and the Jewish aristocrats who functioned as Rome’s local puppets) and establishing himself and his followers as rulers in their place rests on one very solid foundation: Jesus’ announcement of God’s kingdom. As we saw earlier, first-century Jewish revolutionary movements used “God’s kingdom” as one of their major slogans. They didn’t want other rulers; they just wanted God himself to be king. From some points of view, Jesus does indeed look a bit like Judah the Hammer, going around with his little band of loyal followers, gathering support, managing to stay out of trouble, and eventually going up to Jerusalem, palm branches waving, to “cleanse the Temple.”
From some points of view, Jesus even looks a bit like Simon the Star, mounting a three-year kingdom movement in which the “kingdom” had indeed already begun (remember the year on Simon’s coins), while the great battle and the proper rebuilding of the Temple remained in the future. Jesus, like Simon, seems to have practiced and taught a severe way of life in which Israel’s ancient law was intensified; for Jesus, anger and lust were as much off limits as murder and adultery. And there are some signs in the gospels that people were eyeing Jesus, during his public ministry, to compare him with Herod Antipas. The sources suggest that he was giving his followers instructions on how to behave now that they were living under his rule. There are enough analogies there for us to say that Jesus really does belong on the map of those kingdom movements.
The parallel with Simon the Star is particularly striking, showing how easy and natural it was in that climate to speak of something having already been well and truly inaugurated — the coins, again — and also of something that had yet to be accomplished. Jesus’ way of combining present and future sayings about God’s kingdom has long baffled scholars who were trying to understand him without reference to his Jewish context. Once we put him back in that world, the problem simply vanishes. Of course he believed that God’s kingdom had already begun. Of course he believed that it would take another great act to complete the job. These are not in tension. They belong together quite naturally. The combination comes with the territory.
We can of course see why, faced with the Jesus-the-Marxist theory, many scholars and preachers have reacted in horror. It wasn’t just their possible right-wing sympathies, though those may have come into play as well. It was that the whole thrust of Jesus’ public career, insofar as we can reconstruct it from passage after passage in the gospels, seemed to be going in a very different direction. Whatever else he was, he wasn’t a violent revolutionary. We have already studied his commands to love and forgive and we have set them in their first-century political context. He warned at one point that, if God’s kingdom was breaking into the world, the men of violence were trying to muscle their way into the act (Matthew 11:12; Luke 16:16). He just wasn’t the sort of freedom fighter we have come to know rather well in the last hundred years or so.
It won’t do, then, to suppose that what Jesus was doing was simply advancing a kind of human revolution, a proto-Marxist movement in which the poor would overthrow the rich. Jesus has plenty of harsh words for the rich — far more than for anyone else, in fact. But, just as, to the dismay of his own imprisoned cousin, he showed no sign of launching a movement to oust Herod Antipas and set his prisoners free, so he showed no sign either of joining one of the various already existing resistance movements or of starting his own.
Those movements, clearly, were using the same language as he was, since they too spoke about God becoming king. But what Jesus meant by that, acted out in a hundred vivid demonstrations of God’s sovereign power, and explained in a hundred parables that told the ancient stories in a new way, was quite different from what the ordinary revolutionaries had in mind.
Nor does that mean, of course — in the light of the first point we have just made — that Jesus was saying, “Forget revolution. Go to heaven instead.” It was about giving up the ordinary kind of revolution, in which violent change produces violent regimes, which are eventually toppled by further violent change, and discovering an entirely different nay instead. “Don’t resist evil,” he said, and the words he used didn’t mean, “Lie down and let people walk all over you.” They meant, “Don’t join the normal `resistance’ movements.” The Marxist or quasi-Marxist option simply has too many elements of the story running against it. Clearly, Jesus was not apolitical — how could he be, talking about God becoming king in first-century Palestine? — but his “politics” don’t seem to fit the molds into which many have tried to squash him.
Nor was Jesus simply advocating a clever, philosophically savvy way of living courageously within the present evil world, a way by which his followers might be able to attain some kind of detachment. After the failure of earlier attempts to make Jesus into a Marxist hero, we have seen more subtle attempts to make him a Cynic hero, looking out on the follies and failings of the world with an ironic smile and teaching his followers how to rise above it all. No doubt there are echoes of Cynic sayings and attitudes here and there in Jesus’ words, just as his voicing of the Golden Rule (“Whatever you want people to do to you, do that to them,” Luke 6:3 1) is echoed in many cultures and traditions. But he wasn’t teaching his followers how to rise above the mess of the world. He was training them to be kingdom bringers. As Marx himself said, the point is not to understand the world, but to change it.
Third, and most important, we must avoid jumping to the conclusion, from all that has been said above, that Jesus was doing things that “proved his divinity” — or that the main point he was trying to get across was that he was the “son of God” in the sense of the second person of the Trinity. Here we must be careful. I have already hinted strongly enough, I think, that Jesus saw his own work, his own public career, his own very person, as the reality to which Temple, Sabbath, and creation itself were pointing.
That is, or ought to be, a clear indication that, in terms of the “God” of first-century Jews, Jesus understood himself to be embodying this God, doing things whose best explanation was that this was what God was doing, and so on. My problem with “proofs of divinity” is that all too often, when people have spoken or written like that, it isn’t entirely clear that they have the right “God” in mind. What seems to be being “proved” is a semi-Deist type of Christianity — the type of thing a lot of Christians in the eighteenth century, and many since then, have thought they should be defending. In this sort of Christianity, “God” is in heaven and sends his divine second self, his “Son,” to “demonstrate his divinity,” so that people would worship him, be saved by his cross, and return with him to heaven. But in first-century Christianity, what mattered was not people going from earth into God’s kingdom in heaven. What mattered, and what Jesus taught his followers to pray, was that God’s kingdom would come on earth as in heaven.
Jesus’ powerful acts of healing, then, together with all the other extraordinary things the gospels credit him with, are not done in order to “prove” his “divinity.” If you see them like that, they prove too much and too little. Too much: other people had, and still have, remarkable gifts of healing. That’s always been a feature on the edge of religious movements, and sometimes in the center of them. But it doesn’t mean that the person doing the healing is “God,” just like that.
Were that to be the case, there would be quite a lot of gods. Equally, too little: those who have seen Jesus’ powerful acts as “proofs of divinity” have often just stopped there, as though that was the main thing one was supposed to conclude from a reading of the gospels. They have then allowed the “right” answer to the question about “divinity” to shut down the question the gospels are urgently pressing upon us — is God becoming king?
A considerable amount of “apologetics” to this day, in fact, has consisted of arguing for the “right answers” to two questions. First, asks the apologist, did Jesus do these things? Yes! Second, what does it prove? That he was God! QED! And off goes the apologist in triumph, a day’s work done.
And Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John would call the apologist back. Sorry, but you’ve just scored a home run when you should have scored an end run. You’re playing the wrong game. The gospels are not about “how Jesus turned out to be God.” They are about how God became king on earth as in heaven. The good is the enemy of the best. From one point of view it’s good to see the intimate connection, throughout the gospels, of Jesus with Israel’s God. If you’re trying to score a point against a Deist opponent who sniffily suggests that Jesus couldn’t possibly have been “divine,” because no sane human being could imagine that he was God incarnate, you may end up winning that game. But you may then lose the real one.
Plenty of Christians, alas, have imagined that a “divine Jesus” had come to earth simply to reveal his divinity and save people away from earth for a distant “heaven.” (Some have even imagined, absurdly, that the point of “proving that Jesus really did all those things” is to show that the Bible is true — as though Jesus came to witness to the Bible rather than the other way around.) It has been all too possible to use the doctrine of the incarnation or even the doctrine of the inspiration of scripture as a way of protecting oneself and one’s worldview and political agenda against having to face the far greater challenge of God taking charge, of God becoming king, on earth as in heaven. But that is what the stories in the Bible are all about. That’s what the story of Jesus was, and is, all about. That is the real challenge, and skeptics aren’t the only ones who find clever ways to avoid it.
Once we begin to see beyond these three distracting angles of vision, then, and grasp the story in its own terms, we find ourselves compelled forward into the narrative again. If the time is fulfilled, what will happen to bring even this fulfilled-time moment to its proper conclusion? If Jesus is behaving as though he were the Temple in person, what will this mean both for the existing Temple and for his followers? And if, through his work, new creation is breaking into the world, how is it going to make any headway against the apparently still all-powerful forces of corruption, evil, and death itself?