Part 1 of series:
What Was the Message of Jesus?
Just about everybody wants Jesus on their side, or so it seems. Yes, there are a few zealous atheists who seem happy to dismiss the relevance if not the historical reality of Jesus. But, for the most part, people like to claim Jesus as a supporter. This includes large numbers of secularists and Muslims, ironically enough. In the United States, Jesus is used to prop up politics on both sides of the aisle. And he is said by conservative Christians to support their theology while liberal Christians think Jesus is clearly on their side. Catholics, Baptists, Mennonites, Episcopalians, and, yes, even Presbyterians (like me) think their theology is a legitimate if not the most legitimate expression of what Jesus himself taught.
Given the popularity of Jesus, you might think that most people would have a reasonably accurate understanding of his message, that which he proclaimed and enacted almost 2,000 years ago in Judea. Yet, in my experience, this is not the case. Most people cannot describe the message of Jesus in a way that reflects the earliest historical records of his teaching, which are found in the New Testament Gospels.
If you were to ask the average person what Jesus’ preached – even the average Christian – you’d probably hear something about love: “Jesus taught about love. He said we should all love each other.” A well-informed person might even remember that Jesus called his followers to love their enemies. So is love the center of Jesus’ message. In fact, he did talk quite a bit about love. Jesus said that loving God is the greatest commandment and loving our neighbors is the runner up, or even an extension of the winner (Mark 12:29-31). So, to be sure, love figured prominently in the message of Jesus.
But love was not the core of his proclamation. If Jesus had been running around first-century Judea telling people to love each other, he certainly wouldn’t have been crucified on a Roman cross. Neither the Romans nor the Jewish authorities would have been particularly bothered by a Jewish prophet who told people to love each other. Truly, quite a few Jews would have been distressed over the thought of having to love their enemies. But the Romans – the obvious enemies of first-century Jews – wouldn’t have crucified someone whose main crime was telling Jews to love them and turn the other cheek! If anything, the Romans would have protected such a peacemaker. So, the rock solid fact of Jesus’ crucifixion suggests that the core of his message must have been more contentious, indeed, more scandalous, than a call to love.
It’s common for people to reduce the message of Jesus to something all too simple and, I might add, all too similar to the biases of whoever is doing the reducing. You’ll see this in many of the contemporary “scholarly” attempts to summarize the message of Jesus. The infamous Jesus Seminar, by the time it stoned Jesus to death with its red, pink, gray, and black beads, ended up with a sage who spoke in esoteric riddles, just the sort of teachings preferred by, well, the voting members of the Jesus Seminar. Such a peculiar preacher would hardly have been put to death as a threat to Roman order in Judea, however. (You can find my in-depth critique of the Jesus Seminar and its approach to Jesus in my series: Unmasking the Jesus Seminar.)
Whatever Jesus preached, it got people excited. Even the demons were riled up. And Jesus’ message angered most of the religious leaders he encountered. In the end, it got him killed on a Roman cross. So what exactly was this inspiring, challenging, goading, and apparently subversive message of Jesus all about?
I’ll begin to answer this question in my next post.