Was Jesus political?

By Steve Wilmshurst 08 Dec 2005

Israel sealed off biblical Bethlehem in a West Bank clampdown after gunmen killed three settlers in October. What might the political implications be if Jesus had been born into modern Bethlehem? Into modern Britain?This article is published by permission of IVP and is a much condensed version of Steve’s chapter in Tales of Two Cities: Christianity and Politics (IVP 2005). The option of understanding Jesus in political terms has often appealed to those at home in the political world. The claims Jesus makes in the gospels are the claims of the kingdom. It is an uncompromising message of unconditional loyalty; its political implications are best understood in terms of the collision of power structures. In a world where the authority of Rome was equally uncompromising in its claims, such collision was not only inevitable but highly visible.

I use ‘political’ in its usual sense, to mean ‘relating to public, state or civil affairs’ and in particular, public matters against private ethics. Since, in first-century Palestine, there could be no religion without politics, a positive answer to the initial question is almost inevitable. So, ‘How directly does Jesus’ ministry address public affairs?’ or ‘What claims does the Kingdom of God make on earthly authorities?’ In this article we will briefly survey Jesus’ historical context and then move on to the gospel account, focusing on a few incidents in Luke.

Powers and parties

Israel’s sense of identity lay in being the uniquely chosen, Covenant people of God. The prophets taught them to expect the coming of a new age when God’s rule would be made visible and effectual among all nations. God would again break into history; vindicate and establish his own people in their rightful, pre-eminent place; banish idolatry and other sinful, Gentile practices; and make Jerusalem the focal point of his Kingdom on earth. These hopes were overlaid with the traumas of more recent history: the sweep of Alexander’s armies, the rule of the Seleucids and the Maccabean revolt. In 63 the Romans under Pompey entered Jerusalem. At the time of Jesus’ ministry, the last living memory of Jewish self-rule was fading away.

Herod the Great (37-4 BC) and his successors were client kings under Roman rule. In Jesus’ time Herod Antipas ruled Galilee and Perea while Judea was ruled directly by the Romans through prefects such as Pontius Pilate. Pilate clashed on several occasions with the Jews – a case of Roman political demands confronting Jewish religious sensibilities. In this world, politics and religion were inseparable. Meanwhile God’s apparent failure to intervene was a massive national disappointment. Some Jews at least concluded that they might as well still be in exile. The apocalyptic writings of the inter-testamental period bear witness to a sense of near-despair.

Judaism, however, was far from unified. Of the three sects identified by Josephus, two are mentioned frequently in the gospels and one appears not at all. The Pharisees observed the Torah strictly and in addition followed a large body of oral traditions. Politically, they were quite prepared to criticise the ruling authorities, but their primary concern was to maintain their own purity and urge it on others.

The theologically conservative Sadducees have left few historical traces outside the New Testament. Their main significance lies in their holding political power in Jerusalem. The High Priests were Sadducees and were quite willing to co-operate with the Roman authorities in order to preserve the status quo and their own position.

The Essenes, the group not mentioned in the New Testament , are usually associated with the Qumran community. They were a strict grouping devoted to the study of the Law. The Qumran sect was presumably an Essene sub-group who had withdrawn into ascetic seclusion in protest against the corruption of the Jerusalem establishment. The Essenes in general rejected the Temple and its ruling group; and even the withdrawal to Qumran was very much a political statement.

A fourth group we need to identify are the Zealots . In Jesus’ time they were not yet a defined political grouping, but the term could be used more generally of those involved in or sympathetic to revolutionary activity. Acts 5:36–39 and 21:38 show that Jesus’ movement would readily be understood in such terms. Their presence reminds us that violent revolution was an obvious option for anyone serious about changing the status quo. Indeed, since all these groups represent political as much as religious positions, Jesus’ refusal to align himself with any of them is politically significant.

The mission of Jesus

When we read the gospels on the lookout for political overtones it becomes clear that much can be understood in political terms.

MARY’S SONG (LUKE 1:46–55) While we are probably accustomed to spiritualising Mary’s song to Elizabeth, when we read it in context it is very political. Not only will humility be exalted above pride but rulers will be deposed, the hungry (i.e. poor) fed and the rich turned away. Was Jesus political? His mother thought so! The outpouring of God’s mercy on ‘those who fear him’ (including the faithful poor such as Mary and Elizabeth) will bring about a definite change in the social order. So the mission of Jesus, the Saviour, implies as an essential outcome precisely the kind of social justice called for by Amos and the other prophets – and, of course, the Law itself. However earthly rulers may respond, God will bring this about among the people of the Kingdom.

PROCLAMATION OF JUBILEE (LUKE 4:16–21) When Jesus spoke in the synagogue at Nazareth he claimed to be fulfilling Isaiah’s vision of an eschatological Jubilee year. Jubilee was a highly political institution. Properly observed, it would severely limit the concentration of power and wealth. Isaiah’s vision expands the concept from a time-bound cycle into a description of a new regime which truly reflects God’s justice and where his faithful people receive the full measure of his blessing. And Jesus announces the inauguration of this new age ‘today’.

Read in its context, this must imply the dawning of a new day where God’s justice will be seen at work, where wrongs will be righted – specifically the injustices which lead to oppression and captivity. Again, we need to understand these words in a way consistent with their fulfilment ‘today’, not in some still future golden age. Does it not strain credulity to believe that Jesus intended to empty them entirely of their most obvious meaning – relationships between men and women here on earth?

THE GOOD SAMARITAN (LUKE 10:25–37) Who is a true neighbour? For the one who wants to inherit eternal life (enter the Kingdom), this parable makes the answer clear. The representatives of the Temple – priest and Levite – fail to be ‘neighbours’. Instead the Samaritan acts as a ‘neighbour’ to the Jew in need. In addition to the more spiritual lessons with which we are so familiar, the parable makes two important political points. First, as far as the coming Kingdom is concerned, the Temple is a dead end. Its servants are concerned only with their ritual purity and ceremonies, which were never as important as mercy and justice anyway and which will soon be shown to be completely obsolete. The Temple and its associated power structures are finished.

Second, within the Kingdom, previous national and ethnic loyalties are abandoned. In the Kingdom, the Samaritan is not the enemy. Allegiances to political entities such as nation states are undermined by the claims of the Kingdom, where ‘Love your neighbour’ crosses every human boundary. The awkward response of Jesus’ questioner in v.37 suggests that he finds this too much to accept.

The Kingdom and politics

It is the overlap of the ages which produces the ongoing collision of the kingdoms and its attendant conflict: the Kingdom inaugurated by Jesus’ mission is neither entirely ‘now’ nor entirely ‘yet to come’. Thus there are two possible errors here. We could confine the Kingdom largely to the future, denying its effective presence in the world for today and minimising its political dimension. This is the way we are pushed in liberal democracies where the separation of politics from religion has become an article of faith. Evangelicals who want to disentangle the Kingdom of Heaven entirely from the messy world of earthly politics are guilty of this error. Depriving the Kingdom of some of its rightful claims, their tendency is to spiritualise away the statements about the Kingdom which have an immediate, earthly application.

On the other hand, to believe that the Kingdom can be fulfilled within the present age – the dream of certain liberal optimists and Christian socialists – is to ignore the plain teaching of Scripture, supported by our own experience that the power of sin and evil does not look like fading away! This is to attribute too much to the politics of the Kingdom – the error of the social gospel, holding that the Kingdom is active in political movements and human progress even where Christ is not acknowledged. No, we will have to live with evil until the Son of God returns.

Jesus was born into a world awash with political currents. Without exception, every group with whom he interacted had a political agenda, yet he aligned himself with none. His message identified the true enemy of Israel not as Rome but as sin and Satan. And rather than the immediate, visible deliverance which the Jews longed for, he preached a Kingdom with a different identity, both continuous and discontinuous with the hopes of the past. Continuous, in that God would indeed save, gather and rule over his people: discontinuous, in that it would be born and grow quietly, sometimes in secret; and it would co-exist with the kingdom of the present evil age. This Messiah would renounce the sword and conquer through his death.

Was Jesus political? Clearly not in the party political sense. Nor was his agenda political, in that it did not aim primarily at changing earthly power structures. And yet he was political. The Kingdom’s demands are so fundamental that they replace or transform our adherence to every other group, national, ethnic or cultural.

The Kingdom thus makes two kinds of political claim. Firstly, it summons its own members to a radically new and wholly exclusive commitment to Christ the King. This allegiance takes the place of those we previously held and makes us ultimately indifferent to the authority of others. In the Church – the Kingdom’s alternative new society – ethnic loyalties are completely abolished. Nationalism becomes an obsolete anomaly: we are not to confuse the Kingdom and the national flag. Human government we accept gratefully as an institution of God, with a legitimate role to play; but we do not owe it our heart loyalty. It is not ‘ours’. Nor are we to duplicate worldly power structures or attitudes. Jesus renounced violence and coercion in the service of the Kingdom – so must we.

Secondly, the Kingdom issues a political challenge to the world at large. It attacks the very foundation stones of earthly politics by calling rulers to abandon their pretensions to absolute power and to recognise the true source of such power as they do possess. The way of the Kingdom is to scatter the proud and bring oppressive rulers down from their thrones. Thus in the liberal West, the Church will refuse to accept the political consensus that privatises faith and denies any absolute truth claims. At the same time, she will seek out and protect those facing injustice and without a voice, exalting the humble and lifting up the downtrodden. Faced by the rule of tyrants, believers will defy their aspiration to absolute authority over human lives, even if it costs them their own.

The alternative values of the Kingdom are also a positive invitation to think differently, calling rulers away from tyranny and oppression towards its own Jubilee values of justice and mercy. In the shaping of Western society, this invitation has received a response. We do not live under tyranny: our society bears the imprint of the politics of Jesus. The principles of public servanthood and accountability which democracies hold dear are, after all, Kingdom principles. But the Kingdom also bears loud and clear witness to the strict limitations of political salvation. The call is for every knee to bow to King Jesus and every tongue to confess him as Lord: and one day, everyone will.

Dr Steve Wilmshurst is on the staff of Kensington Baptist Church in Bristol and is the Chairman of the Affinity Theological Team.

The article is published by permission of IVP and is a much condensed version of Steve’s chapter in Tales of Two Cities: Christianity and Politics (IVP 2005).

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