The Life and Teaching of Jesus

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This article is part of the 'Ground Up' project.


(This article needs to be re-worked, and probably divided into different topics, but in the meantime it contains some useful material.  It was originally written in May 2021.)


Jesus was a Jew, brought up within the Jewish faith.  We cannot understand what he did and taught if we ignore this context. But Jesus had a very nuanced understanding of the Jewish faith, and of His own role within it. There has always been a tendency within Christianity to simplify this question: either to claim that Jesus made a complete break with Jewish teaching (so we can ignore the Old Testament), or to say that Jesus was the fulfillment of Jewish teaching (so the Old Testament teaching, properly understood, is still in effect).  Neither of these positions does justice to the ministry of Jesus described in the four Gospels.

We also can't understand what Jesus did and taught if we ignore the religious and political context of His day - and, at that time, the religious and the political were deeply interconnected.  These days, we tend to see religion and politics as being quite distinct, but this was not the case when Jesus lived: almost everything Jesus said and did had a meaning and impact which was both religious and political. There were a number of distinct groups addressing the religious and political issues, each with their own beliefs and agendas; some of them were popular and some were marginal, but Jesus did not identify with any of them.

The most important part of the context is that the Romans were in charge of Israel.  Some Jews were happy to collaborate, many put up with it, but for most faithful Jews, this occupation was fundamentally wrong: they were expecting God to send a messiah (the word simply means 'anointed one') to kick out the Romans and establish God's Kingdom.  By the time of Jesus, there had been numerous failed messiahs, each with their own failed rebellion, but many Jews still believed that one day the true messiah would come, and with God's help would succeed.

Jesus the Messiah

Jesus of Nazareth is often called 'Jesus Christ', and 'Christ' is often treated as a surname; but it is actually a description or title: it means 'anointed one', and comes from the Greek 'christos', the word used to translate the Hebrew 'messiah'.  When a person was anointed, they were being set apart for a task.  So 'Jesus Christ' literally means 'Jesus the messiah' - the person who has been anointed for a specific task by God.

The given name we are familiar with - 'Jesus' - is the Latin form of the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew name 'Yeshua', which comes from the Semitic root meaning 'to deliver' or ' to rescue' or 'to save' and is generally understood to mean 'God saves'.  It is essentially the same name which in the Old Testament text is translated as 'Joshua'.

The people believed that the core task of the messiah was to defeat the Romans, drive them out of Israel, and establish God's Kingdom within Israel's borders (and, perhaps, beyond them).  For the faithful Jews of His day, nothing else was as important.  The core of Jesus' teaching and activity was the Kingdom of God - this was not a surprise, as this was a hot topic at the time, but the content of his teaching and the message contained in His actions was very surprising: He had come to establish God's Kingdom on Earth, but this Kingdom was nothing like what they were expecting.  Jesus taught that His Kingdom was not of this world and His followers would not fight with swords.  In this, He was implicitly saying that they had misunderstood their faith and their history.

The Jewish Faith

The Jews believed that they worshiped the creator God of the whole world, and traced their origin back to Abraham.  God promised Abraham that he (in other words, his descendants) would become a great nation, and through him all the nations of the earth would be blessed.  His descendants went into Egypt, where they grew in number and were enslaved.  Eventually, through Moses, God brought them out of Egypt, and they became a nation with God as their King.  In the ancient world, the Kings set the laws, so God gives His laws to His people.

God is described in many ways in the Jewish scriptures, but Jesus taught that God is above all our Father, and we are His children; He taught that the law is really important, but if you understand it correctly, then all the law will be fulfilled if you love the way your Heavenly Father wants you to.  Jesus was both orthodox and revolutionary, both upholding the basic tenets of the Jewish faith, but also challenging much of the established teaching.  He was constantly surprising people, both His opponents and His followers.

One of the most surprising aspects of Jesus' ministry is that He was neither seeking to reform the Jewish faith (there were a number of reform movements around at the time, and people would have clearly understood this agenda), nor seeking to establish a new, improved religion to replace the Jewish faith (again, new religions were springing up at that time, and people would have understood this agenda). Instead, He worked to re-interpret the Jewish faith, putting Himself and His teaching at the core; and establishing His followers, with Himself at the centre, as the true Israel. This brought Him into direct conflict with both the religious and secular leaders, and this conflict could only end in His death.

At that time, many Jews were ready to rise up in violent opposition to  Roman rule, and the Romans had to put down numerous rebellions.  Almost anyone who was willing to stand up in opposition to the Romans would rapidly gather fighters.  Jesus put Himself at the centre of God's purpose and activity, but this is probably why He was very cautious about naming His role, not wanting the people to take up arms and fight for him.  This nearly happened anyway, as we read in John 6:15.

The Meaning of the Cross

Jesus chose to die.  That is, He knew that His ministry was putting Himself in conflict with both the religious and secular authorities of His day, challenging their authority and their activity - but He didn't stop, He didn't tone down the message, and He didn't move his operations to a safer place.  This conflict had to come to a head; everybody knew it.  Many people assumed that He would call on His followers to rise up against the authorities and, with God's help, defeat them - but it is clear that Jesus had no such intention.  His death was inevitable.

His death has been understood in many ways over the years but, in the context of His life and teaching, just as His life was an example, so too His death has to be seen as an example to us: if remaining faithful to your Heavenly Father means that the people in power want to kill you, and if you cannot avoid this without harming people, then you should allow them to kill you. They can kill your body, but that is all they can do; and you can trust that your Heavenly Father will put it right in the end. It is probably the most astonishing revolutionary message ever preached, and the least believable. But God then did the unthinkable, and confirmed this message by bringing Jesus back to life.

The resurrection changed everything.


[See also Christianity: the Basics]


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