Over the years that I have spent reading the Gospels, I have come to the conclusion that Jesus was not simply a teacher of spirituality as some like to make him out to be. Nor was he some divine figure who went about Galilee healing people.
He was certainly both of these, but Jesus was also a political figure, whose words and deeds challenged the unjust political powers of his time.
This is not to suggest that Jesus was a politician in the way we think about politics today.
Nor should we think of Jesus as seeking to involve himself in any political power system of his day, whether the secular power of Rome or the religious power of the temple leadership.
Indeed, we know very well that Jesus worked outside and in opposition to the religious leadership of Jerusalem.
What I mean by saying that Jesus was a political figure is that his message and his mission confronted the social structures of his day with the politics of God.
In other words, when we talk about Jesus, we need to take very seriously that Jesus’ message was fraught with challenges to the politics of his day; his was a subversive politics.
While eventually crucified in an act of cooperation between the two power centers he confronted, Jesus’ teachings were not principally about sin and salvation, heaven and hell.
His central message was a different politic, a different way of existing in human society.
His politics were the politics of compassion and justice, and central to his political message was his belief and his proclamation that God’s kingdom was coming into the world.
This kingdom was a subversive, revolutionary resistance to the Roman Empire and the religious ruling elite of Judaism.
Jesus did not seek worldly political power through violence, domination and oppression practiced by Rome.
He also did not acquiesce with this system as the religious leaders of Israel did to satisfy Rome enough to keep their religious power.
Instead, Jesus called for a new politic, one that was shaped by the character and presence of God’s rule and would be manifested in the radical living of his followers.
The kingdom of God, as Jesus used the term, was not primarily a spiritual realm to be enjoyed in heaven after we die. The kingdom of God is also not primarily about personal salvation.
God’s coming kingdom does transform us personally as individuals who come into relationship with God, but the kingdom of God cannot be reduced merely to personal salvation.
The kingdom of God was and is a politically charged term, which Jesus chose to challenge the injustice of Roman imperial power.
He viewed the rule of God as coming into the world as the dynamic presence of God in the world.
In calling people to enter the kingdom of God and follow him, Jesus was calling people to join an alternative empire, the empire of God, over which God ruled and in which there was an alternative way of living in community with others.
By proclaiming the coming rule of God, Jesus was calling people out of an existence that focused on the power of this world, into a community over which God ruled.
He was calling them to offer their allegiance to God and not Caesar.
This was the significance of confessing Jesus as Lord in the Roman Empire. This confession was not an individualized conversion experience in the way that we think of today; it was much more.
It was transformation of the person from allegiance to one way of living to another.
It was an act of insubordination against the so-called supremacy of the world’s strongest power and an embrace of the call of Jesus to take up the cross and follow him.
Joining the Jesus movement meant standing in opposition to worldly powers that carried out oppression, violence and injustice.
And yet, the alternative kingdom of Jesus was never a significant challenger to Rome’s military power.
Christians in the empire remained outsiders for centuries, and were, at various points, persecuted by the Roman authorities.
In fact, joining the Jesus movement could quite possibly lead a person to death.
From a worldly perspective, then, this Jesus movement, and Jesus’ message about God’s kingdom, would be seen as an inevitable failure. After all, was not the movement’s leader put to death on a Roman cross?
So how does the rule of God, which Jesus proclaimed as near, continue to come into the world, since the bearer of God’s rule was put to death?
God’s kingdom continues to manifest itself in the world through the transformed followers of Jesus who seek a radical way of living in community with others that challenges the norms of our own politics.
Drew Smith, an ordained Baptist minister, is director of international programs at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. A longer version of this column first appeared on his blog, Wilderness Preacher, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @WildernesPreach.