The Big Picture (Continued)
The climactic stage of God’s plan to reclaim the nations from idols finally arrived. By God’s Holy Spirit, the virgin Mary conceived a son. She named Him Jesus, Yahweh saves, for He would save His people from their sins. Right from the start, the works of Jesus and Yahweh are interchangeable.
So Jesus grew up, and He demonstrated superior wisdom and virtue as He did. But He did so quietly for years, until He was 30 years old, the age of priesthood. Then His ministry began. He submitted to John’s baptism, stepping into the shoes of rebellious Israel as her leader into repentance. He was confirmed by the Father and filled with the Spirit, and He immediately went to the wilderness. The climax of everything had begun.
For 40 days, Jesus fought all kinds of temptations. He resisted the desire to use His power on His own terms, to His own advantage, to bypass the hard work God had ahead of Him. In the end, He was offered the rule of the nations. What God sent Him to acquire, Satan held out to Him in arm’s reach. But had He given in and worshiped Satan to gain the world, it would ultimately mean the world remained in Satan’s hands. Jesus resisted the easy “victory” that would really be defeat. He would rather die.
Rather than take Satan’s treaty, Jesus began His own campaign. Satan ruled the nations through his idols. As the Accuser he held Israel—the only witness to the true God—over the brink of destruction for her crimes. So Jesus began to free Israel. Most directly, of course, He cast out demons. But He also chipped away at Satan’s accusations. He purified the sick and the unclean, who had been cut off from worship. He gave out God’s forgiveness without the Temple and taught the people God’s will. With His wise and piercing account of the Torah’s true meaning, He led myriads to repent of their self-serving plans for the destiny of Israel.
In doing all this, Jesus planted the seeds of a fresh Israel. He even chose 12 apostles, like Israel’s 12 tribes. To them and His other followers He promised the kingdom of God and the inheritance of Abraham. God was conquering back the nations, and they would have seats in the new regime.
The message for everyone else wasn’t so good. God had to clean house with His own people before He set the nations right. But most of the leadership wouldn’t accept Jesus as God’s way forward. Instead, they kept lobbing accusations against Him. Of course, they also accused His followers, along with Israel’s masses. They were following in the footsteps of the Accuser, so Jesus rightly called them children of the devil. He promised that these people, and Israel as a whole if she followed their lead, would be judged and destroyed in the near future in order for God to fully establish His kingdom.
Jesus and the Kingdom
And this kingdom was chiefly Jesus’ message. The kingdom of God. What was He saying? This is where the ongoing story is important. God made humanity in His image. They were to bring His glory and presence to creation as kings and priests. But they went off-track by obeying the Serpent. Humanity started serving rebellious spirits, and God formed His own people to be a faithful outpost of humanity under the true God. Eventually cured of idolatry, Israel stood as the one kingdom devoted to the Creator amidst a horde of nations loyal to rebel gods. The key question left was how God was going to restore His worship among those nations. And in the first century, the pagan nations were summed up by the Roman Empire, which dominated most of the known world and loved all kinds of idolatry, even worship of Caesar.
This context gives meaning to the message about the “kingdom of God.” False gods ruled the world through their worshipers ruling the nations. The time for that was over. The true God was going to take back the world and rule it through His worshipers. This is what Jesus declared, and He claimed that it would start with Him. But how? How would Jesus build the kingdom of God?
There were a lot of ideas in Israel about how God’s kingdom would come. Some of the most popular ideas involved the Messiah winning a military conquest against Rome. The great pagan empire would fall to an Israelite empire led by a king on David’s throne. Not everyone agreed. Some people thought that Israel’s situation was too bad for that. Rather than men, God would do it Himself. Rome (and all God’s enemies) would fall by spectacular divine judgments, and God’s faithful would take over.
The Way of the Cross
Now, Jesus, for His part, was closer to this latter view. The time for military conquest was over. The stakes were higher than Joshua’s day, and the war needed weapons much stronger than steel. There would still be fighting and death, but of a different kind. Rome could not be conquered by flesh, but would be conquered by the Spirit.
This was a key theme of Jesus’ preaching. He told God’s people to love their enemies, to submit to authorities, to do good to Gentiles and Jews alike. Rather than preserve their lives and wealth and status under the present order, He encouraged them to give all of this away for better gifts under the coming order. Only people ready to live and die like this could have a share in the coming kingdom. Only this would conquer pagan rulers and their gods, for the only unstoppable army is that which fears no death. A people trusting in God, giving away their lives in hope, doing good to even their enemies: the martyrs’ army of faith, hope, and love would win the victory.
Moreover, this new army would have the powerful advantage of God’s presence. Jesus offered, apart from the Temple and ritual purity system, direct access to forgiveness, grace, and the power of the Holy Spirit. These would be essential to the life of God’s people moving forward. But how exactly could this go on? How could these people, unclean and guilty as they were, be cleansed for God’s presence in the Spirit? Would role would the Temple play in this new vision for Israel’s future, where Israel previously acquired forgiveness and access to God’s presence? All of this will lead to the climax of Jesus’ mission.