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Jesus Tells the People He Is the King

Picking up where we left off in the last post, Jesus clearly did not mean what the Pharisees had been teaching, the stuff of second-temple popular theology. He did not mean the anointed (messiah) of God would appear, raise a powerful army of resurrected saints and drive the Romans out of Israel by violence. Yet he did clearly mean to make things right. Look at the smorgasbord of texts Jesus cobbled together when he was reading a scroll at his Nazareth Synagogue one Sabbath day:

The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the lord.” 

“Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18-19, 21b)

What Jesus read is from Isaiah 61 although he embellished with phrases from elsewhere in Isaiah (42:7, 49:8-9, 58:6) as he read. This passage announces, “the year of the Lord’s favor.” It was understood by all as a reference to the Jubilee Year, the seventh-seven-plus-one (or fiftieth) year when slaves were to be freed, debts were forgiven and many other wrongs were made right. This “year of correction” was supposed to begin on the Day of Atonement. It was something which, if it had ever happened in Israel, had not happened in over a thousand years.

Looking Close at the Text

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

Where we are given a glimpse of their anointing, each of Israel’s kings became filled with the Spirit of God (I Samuel 10:10-12; 16:13). In Israel, the spirit of God rested on faithful prophets, priests and kings. For Jesus to read this and then claim that the passage was fulfilled in their hearing was to claim to that the spirit of God had fallen on him! He was claiming to be a Spirit-led leader of Israel!

…because he has anointed me

This is a further claim to leadership; to be a prophet, a priest or a king. Jesus was again claiming to be one with the power to effect real change.

…to preach good news to the poor.

Jesus here established the typeof leader he must be. The word “preach” meant to make an official proclamation. Jesus claimed he was declaring an official proclamation. Of what kind? Of glad tidings!” To whom? To the poor. The Greek word which the evangelists chose to describe Jesus’ announcement is εúαγγελίον (“ew-ahn-gel-AY-on”) which meant the official proclamation of a king concerning a royal favor which was to be extended to those who heard it, in this case, “the poor.” Only if Jesus understands himself to be the legitimate king of Israel can he, on his own authority, announce such a proclamation.

He [the spirit of the Lord] has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners…

Very few political or criminal prisoners were held long in Israel, nor in the Roman world of the first century, AD. Jails or dungeons held people during trials and until they were either executed or released. “Prisons,” however, were for debtors. In the parable of the wicked servant, he is thrown into prison until he pays off the very last tiny coin of his debt (Matthew 18:34). “Prison” in that time referred to indentured servitude. One who was in prison had to work for his master, be tortured (meaning, worked very hard) until he paid off the debt he owed.[1] Here Jesus claims he has been sent by God as Israel’s king to release those who are imprisoned by heavy debt.[2]

Stepping Back from the Text

So Jesus found a covert way at Nazareth of clearly announcing that he is the messiah melech (anointed king) of Israel and that he will also serve as the goel, the kinsman-redeemer/restorer for the entire nation. Jesus made what amounts to a royal announcement that he would make all things right through his service as the Jubilee-correction-bringing goel-king! Without ever saying so out loud, Jesus used the scripture reading for the day to plainly tell his people whom he was! And by implication, what his kingdom would be like. He would be a just king like the one Isaiah envisioned. He would institute reconciliation and truth. He would be the king who made people whole.

The Twist in Jesus’ Kingdom Message

Ah, but there was a catch! If we have read the whole passage, we know the people’s delight with Jesus turned to fury when he allowed that many Jews will not even see all this justice/jubilee but that many from the hated Gentile nations actually would! The text reads, “and they were filled with rage” (4:28). It is very hard to think when one is filled with rage. Rage comes from a part of the lower, primitive brain, the fight-or-flight mechanism: if dirty Gentile dogs were going to make it into Jesus’ kingdom then he was as good as dead!

What was wrong with Jesus’ portrayal of the kingdom was not the healing and financial wholeness nor the end of the grinding, oppressive poverty which many in Galilee knew all too well. It was that many of those peoples whom King David had crushed and King Solomon had thoroughly oppressed were to be included in the good times! Such a thing was intolerable, a kingdom in which enemies were welcomed as friends! How was the messiah-king going to crush their enemies by violence if he was going to then welcome them into the kingdom of God?

Two Different Kingdoms!

And therein was the great difference. Israel imagined that God would once again use his people to do violence against their enemies, yet God had long since ceased to do so. Why? Because God had used violence as a temporary measure. Because once Israel could be turned toward its great mission, the blessing of all the families of the earth, it was God’s intention that violence would never again be used in a vain and impossible attempt to bring permanent shalom/peace.

Violence does not ever bring peace and justice. A war to end all war is a myth. The Romans had made peace through conquest, through terror, through overwhelming shock, awe and propaganda. But it was not shalom/peace; it was an empire’s bizarre facsimile of peace, devoid of justice, full of vain promises and shattered dreams. If Israel would seek to win peace through war it would just mimic the Roman beast. It was in his wilderness testing, prior to his public ministry that Jesus turned down the Satan’s way of making peace through war, terror and misery. Jesus would bring the kingdom another way.

Jesus would indeed bring in the kingdom of God to the earth; he would bring reconciliation, justice and wholeness. His kingdom, however would not be from this world, this society. It would not be built on violence, immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry, anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive speech and pride. Jesus would seek and bring the things which are above down to the earth: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, love, unity, peace and thanksgiving.[3] Jesus’ new gospel, the glad tidings that he had become the king of the whole world and had made peace, not through war but through his sacrificial death, this was and is the kingdom Jesus called forth on the earth. This was the kind of kingdom of God he lived and had died to establish. This was the kingdom he rose to reign at the right hand of his Father/God in order to secure.

But What About Heaven?

Heaven, as we are shown occasionally in the Bible, is the place where God has his throne and it is there King Jesus now reigns with all power and authority at God’s right hand. Heaven is inhabited primarily by angels, beings which are usually not visible to us in our fallen condition but which are just as much creatures made by God as we are. The rule of God we are told, is well-established in heaven just as it is not well-known on the earth in our time.

So was it the plan of Jesus to establish the kingdom of God in heaven? Nope. That would be re-creating the wheel. The place where the kingdom needs establishing is earth. And, if we carefully read passages like Romans 8:18-23 and Revelation 21-22 and merge the sweep of what we find there with the details of I Thessalonians 4:14-18 and I Corinthians 15:20-26, we can see it is the plan of King Jesus to return at the end of our age with myriads of angels and saints to reclaim all creation for his own.

The kingdom which Jesus proclaimed was surely a heavenly kingdom on the earth. Nowhere in the Bible do we read anything that has to do with people living in heaven forever. In fact, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray that the kingdom come to exist on the earth as fully as it already does in heaven. The direction in the biblical story is always down, not up.[4]

Comments? Suggestions? Questions? If I have this wrong, help me out, will you all!

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1 Back to Post When Jesus says, “I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:36) he means, I was in prison and you came and paid my debt so that I could be released. (“Visited you” is an idiomatic expression.)

2 Back to Post In the Law of Moses, the one who paid the debt of another was called the goel or kinsman-redeemer. This was the next of kin who either paid a debt or made a loan or executed a sentence that stood pending against his family. The goel corrected things; he made things right. The law says the goel was not to expect repayment from the one he liberated because God would repay him for his sacrificial service to his family (Deuteronomy 15).

3 Back to Post Notice, these are the very heavenly things which Paul calls on the Colossians to seek and live out of every day on the earth while setting aside on the earth the practices which come from the earth (Colossians 3:5, 8, 12-15).

4 Back to Post Once we see that Matthew uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven” to mean simply “kingdom of God” and once we see that Jesus meant this kingdom to come to exist on the earth, we cannot make the “its-about-going-to-heaven” mistake, what Brian McLaren called the six-line narrative (see my 2nd post on McLaren). Once God makes and blesses anything, he never gives up on it. God has been busy redeeming all creation since Genesis, chapter 3, verse 14.