Openly denouncing Pharisees. Eating meals with prostitutes. Overturning the temple. Jesus was disturbingly confronting to the social structures of his day. Gentle Jesus, meek and mild? Not so much. Jesus cannot be tamed.
And yet, Jesus’ activism was specifically targeted. He protested Pharisees. He argued with scribes. He acted against the temple leaders. These were the religious leaders. Jesus never collected a band of protesters to placard Herod’s palace.
Jesus certainly didn’t trust Herod. Like everyone else in Galilee, Jesus knew “that fox” would eliminate anyone he saw as a threat, Jesus included (Luke 13:31-32). But it’s more than that.
Herod had built two power centres in Galilee. One was the town of Sepphoris, just 5 km from Nazareth. The other was Tiberias, the largest city on the shores of Galilee. It was so significant that people sometimes referred to the Sea of Galilee as “the Sea of Tiberias” (John 6:1; 21:1).
Jesus wanted to proclaim his message in all the towns: “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God in the other towns also, because that is why I was sent” (Luke 4:43). So skipping the biggest town of all cannot be an oversight. Avoiding both Tiberias and Sepphoris can only be viewed as intentional.
Now, it won’t do to depict Jesus’ aversion to Herod as cowardice. Jesus understood the dangers the Jerusalem leaders posed to him (Luke 9:22), but he “set his face to go up to Jerusalem” anyway (Luke 9:22, 51). Jesus’ activist actions were intentionally targeted against the temple leaders, the elders and chief priests, the Pharisees and scribes.
As that sinks in, a word of caution. We must not project our modern beliefs about separation of church and state back onto first century Judaism where they don’t belong. Jesus was not avoiding politics and staying in the religious domain: no one thought that way in the first century. David was a political king. The opening chapter of the New Testament explains that they were hoping for a son of David (Matthew 1:1) who would come and restore the kingdom from the exile to Babylon that had terminated the Davidic kingship (1:11, 12, 17). Announcing the restoration of the fallen kingdom of God was an inherently political message. Naming Jesus as the Christ (God’s anointed ruler) who would restore the kingdom was an inherently political message. There’s a reason John the Baptist lived out in the wild.
So if it wasn’t separation of church and state, and Jesus is confrontational, why confront the Jewish religious leaders and not their political rulers? Why overturn the temple and not attack the Fortress of Antonia that Herod had built right next to the temple so his soldiers could look down into the temple complex? We need to see Jesus’ activism in Jewish perspective.
I’ve always been puzzled by the way Israel’s prophets responded to invading empires in the OT. You never hear the prophets saying, “Oh, it’s okay guys. Given the strength of the Assyrian Empire compared to our little country, we were always going to lose that one.” They don’t blame the invaders; they always blame the people of God. They say (in summary), “The reason we were overrun was that we had been unfaithful to God. We trusted alliances with other nations instead of trusting YHWH. We aligned ourselves with the gods of other nations, so YHWH has showed us how useless those other gods and their nations are. We lost because we were unfaithful to YHWH.” They always blamed the people of God, not the invaders.
They did that because they understood who they were. God had promised Abraham a nation through whom he would restore the blessing of divine rule to the other nations. Israel was God’s servant for reaching the nations (Isaiah 41–53), God’s witness in the case about the justice of YHWH’s reign (Isaiah 43 – 44), a light to the nations to show them earth’s true sovereign (Isaiah 49:6; 58 – 60).
If the world is a dark place, you don’t blame the darkness. The problem is with the people called to be the light.
That’s why Jesus spends zero time and effort in trying to sort out Rome. As oppressive as the Empire was in Jesus’ day, the problem was with God’s people. God set them up as a light on a hill, so Jesus spends his effort calling them, “Let your light shine in front of humanity, so they can see your good works and give honour to your Father who reigns in the heavens” (Matthew 5:16).
Jesus’ activism budget was spent like this:
- confront the oppressive powers of the world: 0%
- confront the people of God, calling them to be what they were called to be — the hope of the world: 100%
Conclusion: For Jesus, the kingdoms of this world couldn’t be fixed. He spent his efforts replacing them — with the kingdom of God.
Application: We’re wasting our time critiquing the powers of this world. Jesus calls us to be the alternative, his kingdom.
Yes, I’ve been turned into an activist by learning about the kingdom of God, but the activism isn’t what I’d imagined. Our king knew what he was doing. He calls his people to be the good news people, the embodiment of his reign, the community where the world can see the reality of God’s reign in practice.
Embodying the kingdom of God on earth is a very practical kind of activism. Don’t waste your efforts trying to drive the darkness out. Be the light.