How the politics of Jesus informs the politics of the 21st century church

An aphorism attributed to the first century BC Roman orator, Marcus Cicero, goes like this, “Not to know what has been transacted in former times is to be always a child.  If no use is made of the labors of past ages, the world must remain always in the infancy of knowledge.” During his time, the political infighting of the Roman senate reminds us that what we see in the United States House of Representatives and Senate is nothing new. Even the backlash and what we called in “The End of Evangelicalism” the vitriolic reaction of brothers and sisters in Christ on both sides of Mark Galli’s Christianity Today editorial should not be surprising. In fact, it reminds us of the politics in 1st century BC – 1st century AD Israel when Rome was in control of the Judean countryside.

Jesus stepped into this politically divided Israel that is not all that dissimilar from the United States today, perhaps not even dissimilar from the rest of the world as patriotic nationalist movements rise across the globe.

While it might be interesting to rehearse the entire political history of Israel prior to the construction of the second temple, what is of particular interest is the arrival of Jesus Christ among a politically divided nation. By the time of His birth, the political tension in Israel was particularly acute. On the one side were the Herodians, a group of Jews who were theologically aligned with the Pharisees, but had more in common with the political views of the Hellenized Sadducees. On the other side, the Zealots, full of religious fervor, were a grassroots Jewish group that plotted the overthrow of the government.

The Herodians believed that the government provided more assurance for the protection of life and property so they gladly welcomed and supported the reign of Herod the Great, who Caesar declared “King of the Jews.” Herod the Great found favor among the Jews in the restoration of the temple in the second decade of the first century BC. Feeling threatened at the announcement of a new king of the Jews, he also murdered the male children of Bethlehem (Matt 2:16-18), with no apparent recourse from the citizens of the city. Herod’s intentions and actions compelled the Holy Family to take refuge in Egypt until his death in 4BC. His successor Herod Antipas the Tetrarch continued to find favor among the Jews. Eventually, due to being confronted for his immoral behavior, he beheaded John the Baptist at the request of his step-daughter (Luke 9:7-9). John the Baptist, the forerunner to Christ, called people to repentance, indifferent of their political leanings, as the kingdom of God was at hand (Mark 1:15). The politically entrenched Herodians joined the Pharisees in plotting to destroy Jesus after being alarmed by His powers of healing (Mark 3:6), perhaps even thinking His power was demonic (Mark 3:22), and tried to trick Him into taking a public stand on tax issues hoping to discredit Him as a Jewish partisan (Mark 12:17).

After all, we are certainly more civil than the Herodians and Zealots of Jesus’s day; our two-party system far superior. But is it really?

Perhaps the religious fanatics of the day, the Zealots vehemently opposed Roman rule. Later, they would be the leaders during the Jewish Wars that resulted in the destruction of the second temple in 70AD. Even a few of Jesus’s followers – Simon the Zealot for example – were caught up in this movement. No doubt others had similar political leanings, particularly Peter who prepared himself to die by the sword in defense of his beliefs (John 18:10) only to be humiliated when he denied the vary one he sought to defend (Matt 24:35-36).

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Both the Herodians and the Zealots were Bible believing Jews and patriotic nationalists, yet expressing their views in politically different ways. Both hoped for a Jewish Messiah who would re-establish the glory of Israel as a political leader. While their approaches differed, neither group foresaw the incarnation of God Himself who is the Savior, not only of the Jews, but of the world (John 3:16). Jesus stepped into this politically divided Israel that is not all that dissimilar from the United States today, perhaps not even dissimilar from the rest of the world as patriotic nationalist movements rise across the globe.

The Apostle Peter later describes Jesus’s attitude toward the political and religious leaders of His day, “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23). Jesus certainly challenged the system; however, He always pointed His followers to the fulfillment of God’s will. It was, after all, His purpose (John 5:30; Matt 7:21). This challenge to the system came without any political affiliation – He was not a Herodian or a Zealot – yet with an unwavering commitment to glorify His Father (John 17:1-5).

Is there a lesson we might learn from history so we do not remain a child, as Cicero insinuated, in our 21st century politically divided nation? Again, Peter reminds us, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:13-17).

In the context of first century Christianity, Peter is not advocating a politicizing of Christ’s followers. He is not anticipating a two-party system of Republicans and Democrats. Instead, he calls us who are Christ-followers to the gentle and respectful proclamation of the good news that is for all people (1 Peter 3:15-17). Perhaps this is too simple or naïve for our sophisticated society. After all, we are certainly more civil than the Herodians and Zealots of Jesus’s day; our two-party system far superior. But is it really?

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