Lecture 21: Jesus' Early Galilean Ministry - Part 3
I. The Restoration of Israel
If we follow the basic outline of Mark for the inauguration of Jesus’ wider spread public Galilean ministry, we discover that this is most likely the oldest of the written Gospels which follows a topical or formal outline, at least as often as he does a chronological one. Thus, after the opening collection of information about John the Baptist, without containing any intervening text comparable to what we surveyed in the last lecture on John two to four; we begin in Mark 1:14-15 with the headline as it were over Jesus central message, at least according to the synoptic Gospels. Namely the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God or as Matthew using his preferred circumlocution to avoid pronouncing the divine name, puts it, ‘the Kingdom of Heaven’ rather than ‘the Kingdom of God.’
As we move through these opening chapters, corresponding broadly to opening phases and themes of Jesus’ early Galilean mission, it will prove instructive to apply the criterion of double similarity and dissimilarity to see not only how a core element in each of these themes or facets of Jesus’ ministry can be shown most likely to be authentic, but also to compare and contrast Jesus with the conventional Judaism of his day and indeed with the form of religion which emerged among his followers after his death and resurrection.
With respect to the Kingdom of God, the term, itself, appears nowhere in the Old Testament, but the concept of God as King is ever present. In terms of the New Testament, the expression appears eighty four times in the synoptic Gospels; only three times in John and fourteen in Paul, thus it not a characteristic but a distinctive feature of Jesus’ teaching in the synoptic Gospels. It is rooted in the Old Testament context of a theocracy, a nation led by a King who is subject to God in ways not regularly found in surrounding nations. But Jesus does not envision a restored theocracy, but rather a more spiritual reign along with a realm, a power and a place, namely wherever Jesus’ own followers are present. Nevertheless, there is a sociopolitical dimension to Jesus’ teaching: if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar was not. This was slowly lost sight of as Christianity progressed in the following decades and centuries. After this headline in Mark 1:16-20 and again in portions of chapter three, beginning with verse seven, we have reference to the informal and later formal call of the various disciples, particularly the twelve, who would form the inter core of Jesus’ followers.
In calling his disciples, echoed the common Jewish practice of rabbis having close followers who learned from them, even during iterating experiences. But dramatically different from the practices of the rabbis, Jesus did not wait to see who would come to him wanting to join up and then determining who was worthy from among such a grouping. Instead, he took the initiative to call his followers, including many who seemed to be from very unworthy contexts within Israel. Moreover, Jesus calling the twelve as an enter core, clearly meant to suggest that he is constituting a new restored or freed Israel, like that formed by the twelve sons and later tribes of Jacob, but apart from the typical channels of Jewish power, ordination, institutional office or political networking. Here, one should also include the Nazareth Manifesto in Luke 4:16.
Discipleship continues in the early church, especially, as Paul has companions and co-workers, younger than him, training as he goes on his various missionary journeys. But intriguingly after appearing two hundred and fifty two times in the four Gospels and Acts, the actual term for disciple in Greek is ‘mathetes’; never again reappears in the New Testament. As if to imply something unique about those who were eyewitnesses and companions of Jesus during his life time. The rest of Mark 1 in parallel reflects a series of healings and exorcisms. Other Jewish miracle workers were known in that day, particularly two, whose names appear in later rabbinic literature, ‘Haminna Bendossa and Honie.’ Honie was also called the rain-maker as he was known to pray for rain during drought stricken times. He would not leave the area until God answered his prayer. But this very characteristic of Honie points not only similarities but discontinuities with Jesus; making rain is the one miracle that is never attributed to Christ, and where as other Jewish miracle workers and exorcists prayed to God or in God’s name, Jesus simply makes direct commands to the individuals who need healing and deliverance and they are freed. Contrary to some who have claimed that such miracle working ability was only in the Apostle era or 1st century followers of Jesus, we have records of various kinds of supernatural healings and other gifts well into the 3rd century. However, they do, in fact, become less frequent; no doubt, particularly relating to the growing institutionalization of the church. So again we see prerequisite continuity as well as discontinuity.
Moreover, miracles were predicted in the Old Testament as part of the coming messianic age (see especially Isaiah 35) and there are some particularly close parallels with the miracles of Jesus and especially the ministries of Elijah and Elisha in the feeding of large crowds with a small number of loaves of bread, with the cleansing of lepers, even the resurrection of the dead. But there are also unprecedented miracles in Jesus’ ministry; for example, in giving sight to one born blind, even where they are parallel. However, what is unique in Jesus’ ministry is the claim that with those miracles and especially those of exorcism seen in the middle of Mark chapter 3, and also in Mathew 12 and Luke 11, illustrating that the Kingdom of God has, in fact, come. Spiritual warfare proves to be a crucial dimension of Jesus’ miracles of exorcism as we read particularly in response to the return of the seventy and their ministry in the middle of Luke 10. And again, even as much of this power does continue into the age of the Apostles and beyond, there is never another period of time when it is so intensively clustered around any individual, further pointing out Jesus as the central figure in the events of the arrival of the Kingdom.
In Mark 2:1-3:6 and parallels, we come to the so-called pronouncements or conflict stories. All deal with crucial issues debated among Jewish leaders and especially the Pharisees in the first part of the 1st century in Israel. Thus Jesus faces issues of ritual purity and impurity and claims about proper channels for declaring a person’s sins forgiven; questions of what may or may not be done on the Sabbath, etc. But while all of these are intelligible within the Palestinian environment of the day, Jesus’ actions were always radical and at times, even unprecedented among the Jewish leaders of his day, thus centering on the newness of the Kingdom and his ministry and this newness generated conflict and led to the climatic pronouncement of the pronouncement stories. Implicit Christology appears with Jesus’ claims to forgive sins and more generally raises the question of who has the authority to make such sovereign pronouncements, including dietary laws, fasting verses feasting or working on the Sabbath. All of the changes introduced by Jesus, did indeed, continue on into the early church, but with a fairly early and wide spread retro version in many instances to an older form of legalism as with the rise in later centuries of prohibitions of working on the Christian Sabbath and resurgence of matters of whether there were certain kinds of food or drink that was inherently sinful or at least, unwise for Christians to partake of. Jesus’ message, however, may be summed up in the notion that holiness is more contagious than impurity, a timeless challenge to both conventional Judaism and subsequent Christianity.
In this context, it’s interesting that Jesus likewise teaches that the only sin that is unforgivable is that which is called blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. But, in context of the latter half of Mark 3, it is clearly not something that any of his followers or would be followers are accused of committing or even being in danger of committing, but rather refers to the outright rejection and attribution to the devil and his power. And the power of God should be unambiguously recognized as good and from God and therefore accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit. The people to whom this warning is addressed are Pharisees and Scribes and particularly that group of whom no subsequent mention is ever made in Scripture who had any desire for repentance and even then Jesus’ words were merely that such a person is in danger of committing such a sin. There is no text anywhere in Scripture that suggest that there is any sin that a Christian can commit that is unforgivable or anyone who is not a Christian can ever reach a point where they sincerely want to repent and trust in Christ and Jesus will refuse to do so. But as one sees in Romans 1:24-28 and elsewhere, there are people whom God, alone, knows that will reach a threshold of consistent rebellion against every wooing of God’s Spirit to them and their lives. Thus, they may cross a point of no return beyond which they will never again want to even consider the possibility of repentance and this alone is the unforgivable sin.
What is most important for Christians to remember is that we do not have God’s omniscience as to know if anyone has crossed over such a threshold. We must treat all as if they were able to repent and offer them God’s forgiveness on that basis. In Mark 3:31-35, the last piece of the thirty three chapters of March contains Jesus’ dramatic redefinition of family; on one hand, he builds on a strong Jewish obligation to honor and submit and care for one’s biological kin, central to the Israelite faith from the time of the ten commandments with the fifth commandment to honor your mother and father. Indeed, this is common to Middle Eastern culture, even before then. But Jesus creates a striking new definition of family pointing out that it’s spiritual and not biological kin who takes center stage. Hopefully, those two do not have to come into conflict when one has Christian family members. But if that is not the case or even with fellow Christians, a believer asks the family member to do something, contrary to God’s will, then loyalty to God and his family must come first. In 1st Corinthians 7 and Ephesians 5, this reads more like conventional Judaism with its domestic code.
Beyond the New Testament period, the church increasingly approved of and promoted a full pledged asceticism, eventually leading to a two tier division between ascetic clergy and non-ascetic laity. Getting the balance right remains a challenge throughout church history, including today; especially in a culture where in both political and religious circles, the concept of family values is widely toadied, but often devoid of details fleshing out and often reverts back to an inappropriate loyalty to family above loyalty to the church and the community of Jesus’ followers. For a particular balanced treatment of the role of family in both Testaments, see the edited volume by Richard Hest and Daniel Carol entitled, the Family and the Bible, published by Baker Books.
Finally, we come to the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount, the body of which will occupy an entire file. Here, we move from applying the double similarity and dissimilarity criterion, per se. Simply making five introductory comments that fit in with the overall theme of this lecture, namely, Jesus the Jew, not yet breaking from Judaism, per se, doing his ministry as the restoration of Israel but at the same time, sewing radical seeds that would eventually germinate a generation and beyond after his death into a more radical break from Judaism. The first sub point is simply to say that a reasonable consensus of interpreters, despite a wide variety of approaches taken throughout church history, which the textbook surveys, recognizes today that the sermon is of a piece with Jesus teaching on the Kingdom more generally, summed up in that now famous slogan already but not yet, a manifesto for ideal Christian living. Indeed, what can at the end of chapter five be called perfection, yet with the full recognition that in this life, both disciples and Jesus’ followers of other generations will always fall far short of perfection, nevertheless, that remains the ideal for which to strive.
The teaching of the sermon is not limited to an elite, particular a sanctified group of Christians. Nor are they mean to strike us as an impossible demand, akin to keep all of the Old Testaments laws, meant to drive us to our knees in crying out for a Savor. Nor are they literal programs for governments or societies to implement, but they show how the church should live. And the sermon doesn’t represent an interim ethic, possible only for a short period of time, prior to Christ’s imminent return. Nor, finally, do they represent a manifesto for how Israel was to have lived. They are not entry requirements for anything but how to live out a life of discipleship entering into by faith in Jesus alone. Secondly and particularly striking is Jesus’ attitude to the Torah, the Laws of Moses and throughout. In Matthew 5:17-20, despite Christ’s introductory words that he has not come to abolish the Law, he doesn’t proceed to contrast this with the expected opposite, that he has come to preserve it, unchanged. Rather, the term is to fulfill it and as we have already seen in Matthew one to two, the concept of fulfillment in the Greek and Hebrew of Biblical books, can mean not only the coming to pass of a previous prediction of an event, but also the filling full with additional meaning or understanding of that which was not initially a prediction; as with the text in Matthew’s sermon which are legal principles, initially and particularly in Matthew 5:21-48.
Obviously, many things do change in this so called antithesis, as Jesus says, ‘you’ve heard it said of old,’ but I say to you, ‘with respect to sacrifices, purity laws, the Sabbath, circumcision, the Temple, the land’ and with this cluster of themes, we go beyond topics addressed in the sermon, per se, but throughout the Gospels. Thus, a Christological focus comes to the fore, again, with the question of who has the right to pronounce a correct interpretation of the law with such sovereignty. Apparently superseding or setting the stage for superseding it for a number of points, despite the Torah’s own declarations of their eternal en-viability. Matthew 7:28-29, closes the sermon with a striking response from the crowd that Jesus spoke as one with authority and not like the Scribes and Pharisees. When, in fact, the Scribes and Pharisees would have been viewed as the most authoritative teachers in the land. But they like those more formally called rabbis in generations to come often always demonstrated their authority by supporting any legal mandate, either directly from Scripture or by citing a previously respected authoritative Rabbi. Jesus never does the latter and the only time he cites the former, at least here in Matthew 5, are to drastically reinterpret the Torah that his authority is, not merely quantitatively but qualitatively different; even from the greatest religious authorities most Jewish crowds have ever heard.
Thirdly, the opening verses of Matthew 5, although they make it clear that Jesus is addressing a large crowd, focus also on the enter circle of the disciples who came and sat by him reminding us that the most immediate context of this address is to those who have already agreed to follow Jesus at some level in discipleship and addresses them in community as a group. At the time of the protestant reformation, one could sketch out three main responses to what was viewed as a highly corrupt medieval Catholic Church in the relationship between state and church. Lutherans argued for a clear separation by the doctrine of separation spheres of sovereignty for church and state. Calvin, with his attempt to create a Christian Geneva and the Reformed Presbyterian and Calvinist legacy; his experiment for the most part promoted a Christian state freed from the corruption of the Catholic era. But it was the Anabaptists surviving particular through the Mennonites who perhaps came closest at this point to capturing the spirit of a Biblical theme by seeing Jesus’ ethic as first of all for the gathered church and hence for a church which attempted to define itself as best as humanly possible as a gathering of believers only, immersed in water after an incredible confession of faith and living out separate from the world and its social and governmental structures of Christian ethics. This differs from the Lutheran view, focusing on much more on living wise and demonstrating those ethics in the community lives of gathered Christians rather than just individual Christian behavior and experience.
Today, Glen Staffen and David Gushes, authors of a very helpful book on Kingdom Ethics, as well as other individual writings by both of these men.
Fourthly, a key piece of historical background for interpreting the Sermon on the Mount is that Jesus is speaking to poor people for the most part, coming from rural areas in Galilean villages at the time of Roman occupation and therefore for the 21st century interpreter, this may seem like some of the stranger ethical teachings. So we must always ask the question, what would such imagery have connoted in its original context; commands such as turning of the other cheek, going the extra mile (or kilometer) etc. Fifthly and finally, following up on Glen Staffens work on Just Peace Making while it goes beyond Jesus’ intension to suggest that one can derive a full pledged philosophy of passivism from text, not first of all about individual Christian ethics or governmental ethics but how the church should live in community. The emphasis on peacemaking in the beatitudes on loving one’s enemies, on not returning evil for evil, later in the antitheses that it is clear that the role of the church of Jesus Christ in local communities is to clearly demonstrate before the watching world, acts of righteousness and fair peacemaking proactively whenever possible. Even if Christian individuals or governments made up of Christians or influenced by Christian ethics, may feel at times as a last resort a need for violence. The watching world should be able to tell the difference between the acts of a government and the individual on the one hand and the overall thrust of God’s people in community in ways that sadly, perhaps even rarely are visible in our world and political landscape today.