Jesus of Nazareth.
The most studied man in all of history. He is known throughout the world. His sayings are prevalent. His identity is debated constantly. And he still, after all these centuries, seems to be the most offensive individual to the masses. He both offends me with his love, comforts me with his encouragement, and disturbs me with his actions.
My journey of appreciation and admiration for this man began in April of 2002. I began to follow him with everything I had. I changed my entire life because of what I read in the pages of Scripture about his life. I saw that he lived a radical life of love and purpose and I knew that was the life for me. I knew that in the end it cost him everything and even still I would tell myself—there is no better way to leave this earth than to die for humanity. And so off I went.
I am currently a pastor of a church in Canton, OH. We are not a large church. We have faced an onslaught of challenges symptomatic of the state of Western Cultural Christianity. Where personalities are followed, commitment wanes, and when it gets tough—the church will bolt. It is extremely common with many of my seminary friends as well. In fact, this is the life of many Evangelical churches.
But through it all my wife and I have been obedient to the voice of God—even when it costs us. That has been what we are most proud of: our obedience. We like to remind ourselves that in the end we won’t stand before “people.” We will stand before Jesus. He desires us to create an environment with members, agendas, and leaders that reflect the core ethics of the Gospel. We aim to please him; not people. And so, we sleep very well at night. But through all these hard and trying years of ministry I/ we follow Jesus with the utmost passion. Michelle more so than myself. She outdoes me at every turn in her pursuit of living the “Jesus life.”
Like many, my beginning phase of following Jesus consisted of many shallow and immature understandings of what his sayings actually meant. I would use them as weapons against the “sinner” and I would stand with my nose down at many. I was the epitome of arrogance and pride. I continued like this for some time. My faith and religion were confined to a very legalistic and rigid approach to Christianity. Jesus for me was the strict judge who weighed my every thought and action. The problem was that my understanding of him as a whole was lopsided.
The lens in which I viewed Jesus for many years was confined to the theological Christ; not the historical Jesus. While yes, I am sure we could debate all day regarding the separation or unity of these two—it is extremely important we allow ourselves as Christians to look at Jesus as the Jewish reformer he was. It was when I began to understand this side of Jesus that the pretentious pharisaical part of me began to fall by the way side. And what I began to see with fresh eyes was a revolutionary man who inspired me more than any other.
My journey in studying the Historical Jesus began in Seminary and hasn’t stopped since. I have grown to be both passionate and obsessive in understanding who he was so that I might live his life even more. In fact, donating half of my liver is 100% because of this man and how he inspires me to live. Through the Spirit of God, I have been able to do a descent job in emulating his life. I am still a ragamuffin—full of sin, missteps, and brokenness. But each day is closer to living his life.
In the coming weeks I will blog a few posts regarding Jesus as the radical reformer he was. Of course, we could go on and on regarding the divinity side of Jesus as we understand in our faith. It is however the historical part of this man that I believe the church would be wise in revisiting. For in the discovery of Jesus as the 1stcentury reformer we find the rule of life he beckons all of us to follow. A life that is conformed to the ethics and standards of the heart of Yahweh. More on this in the future. For this post however, I want to bring to the forefront an aspect of his life which is similar to many others of his day. An aspect that can be alarming to some and comforting to others. That yes Jesus was truly one of a kind—however he also hailed from a long line of similar reformers with the same agenda—reform Judaism!
John the Baptist and Jesus both are only the beginning of a series of prophets who bring about eschatological hope. They bring attention to the reign of God and his impending judgment and kingdom. Thus Jesus preaches, “Repent for the Kingdom is near.” As a rule, these reformers were regarded by political authorities as a threat to the status quo as well as a danger to society. They were continually sought after to be executed and tortured. Following John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth there were many other “sign prophets” like them.
- In 36CE there was a “Samaritan prophet” who promised a crowd of people that he would point on Gerizim the missing vessels of the temple that Moses had buried. He brought his disciples. Unfortunately, Pilate was also there and massacred all of them. (Antt. 18, 85-87)
- There was a man named Theudas who persuaded a crowd to follow him with their possessions to the Jordan River. It was there that he said he would part the waters and they would cross with dry feet. Again, there was a blood bath and it ended bad. (Antt. 20, 97-99)
- In 52-60CE there were also numerous “anonymous” prophets who called on their followers to come with them into the desert. It was there they would see many signs and wonders. You guessed it… blood bath. (Antt. 20, 167)
- During this same era there was an Egyptian prophet who came and called individuals to follow him and he took them to the Mt of Olives. It was here that he promised the walls of Jerusalem would come crumbling down just as it happened in the Old Testament. (Antt. 20, 169-172; BJ 2, 261-263)
- In 60-62 CE there was a prophet who came on the scene and promised redemption and an end to the evils if people followed him into the wilderness. The romans put down this movement violently. (Antt. 20, 188)
- In 62-64 CE there was a man named Jesus son of Ananias who came from the country to Jerusalem with the message of judgment upon Jerusalem, the temple, and the people. This is very similar to the prophecy of Jesus who had said not one stone would be left standing in regard to the temple in Mark 14.
Josephus, the Jewish historian, gives us great detail regarding these individuals and the manner in which they lived. Even before the time of Jesus we see individuals similar to both John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. What was their aim? To radically reform Judaism from within. With Rome coming in and occupying the territory, it brought serious challenges to the uniqueness of the Jewish people. While some wanted to make peace and accommodate this new culture pouring in (Hellenization) there were many others who wanted to stand against this cultural wave.
There were others (the sign prophets) who wanted neither. Their effort was to radically reform Judaism to an entirely new standard. They longed to see it realign with the true intents of the heart of God as they understood. While of course this is an extremely simplified version of how this plays out; I believe it still hits it on the head. Jesus was a Jewish man ministering within Judaism longing to see Israel return to its place of being a light to the nations. In order to do so, both Jesus and John the Baptist understood radical reformations within the Second Temple era needed to take place. The parables, aphorisms, and actions of Jesus fall right in line with many others from his era—before and after. And so as we can see, the human side of Jesus is full of many unique aspects we do not often hear about.
Let us remember that as Christians what matters most is not what we know or can recite about this man. What matters most is the degree in which we appropriate the ethics and passions of this 1stcentury reformer into our modern day living. Because I can promise you this… the church and Christianity as a whole needs desperate reform. It is time to return to the dangerous and volatile ethics of this Jewish Rabbi. As we continue down this path we will see there really is a difference of the two. We have the Historical Jesus and the Theological Christ. A difference that, for me, has nurtured true joy and inexpressible freedom in faith like I never thought was possible.
More on this and the Historicity of Jesus next time.