The Story of God and Us Chapter Six: All Strings Attached (the Story of Jesus 1)
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Chapter Six: All Strings Attached
Today’s story begins with Israel under occupation by a hodge-podge of rulers and governments. The largest force, one that exercises the most control, is the Roman Empire, whose brutal treatment had resulted in a tenuous and dangerous relationship. Four hundred years had passed since Malachi’s prophecy of Elijah appearing, preparing the way for the Lord himself to come and save his people.
And then, things start happening. The angel Gabriel appears to a priest by the name of Zachariah, and then to a young virgin by the name of Mary. Miraculously, old Zachariah becomes the father of a boy named John, who is given the task by Gabriel of turning “the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Luke 1:17). Mary, on the other hand, is told that she will conceive and bear a son, miraculously. This son will be like no other person before or after him; he will be “great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:33-34). As time goes on, both babies are born: John the Baptist in Galilee, and Jesus, Mary’s son, in Bethlehem.
Both of these boys grow up in Galilee, though Jesus spends some of his childhood as a refugee in Egypt (since Herod, a king in Galilee, had sought to kill him). Once John grows up, he begins preaching, preparing people for the coming Messiah. He begins baptizing people in the Jordan river in readiness for the Messiah’s coming, a sign that they had turned from their sin and were eagerly waiting. Then, one day, Jesus comes to the Jordan river and is baptized by John (Matthew 3:13-17), after which he heads into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil for forty days (Matthew 4:1-11).
After Jesus leaves the wilderness (victorious over Satan’s schemes) he heads into Galilee to begin his public ministry. He first heads to his hometown, Nazareth, where he sits in the synagogue and reads from Isaiah 61:1-2, declaring that he was the fulfillment of the promises contained there and in the rest of the Old Testament; i.e., that he was the promised Messiah. The people of Nazareth reject and seek to kill him, and though he escapes, after this point he chooses as his home base a town called Capernaum on the North side of the sea of Galilee.
From Capernaum Jesus moves across northern Galilee, where he begins to amass a large following. He chooses twelve specific people, whom he calls “apostles,” which includes quite a few misfits (a “zealot,” i.e., revolutionary; a tax collector; some fishermen, Luke 6:12-16). Together they assist Jesus as he performs many miracles, from healings, to miracles of multiplication (such as the feeding of the five thousand), as well as miracles of creation (such as turning water into wine), and miracles of power (such as calming the storm). Amazingly, at several points he forgives the sins of those who are brought to him, healing them of their physical ailments as a sign of his power to do so.
As Jesus ministered, he proclaimed that “the kingdom of God/heaven” had drawn near (Mark 1:15). He explained his appearing in terms of a new activity of God that, though prophesied in the Old Testament, was the beginning of a new kind of community. The “Kingdom of God” was the inbreaking God’s intention for the world into our world, and Jesus proclaimed that this was coming through him. Now that this kingdom had drawn near, people must choose either to participate in what God is doing in the world, or to be like unfruitful, dry soil that can’t support growth and is good for nothing (Matthew 13:1-9).
Jesus thus invited people into a new community, one which exists as an outpost and representative of God’s activity on earth. Jesus taught that those who belonged to this kingdom lived transformed lives, lives emblematic of the heart-change that the Old Testament itself had desired from people. He established the commands of the kingdom in a series of teaching on a hillside outside Capernaum, in what is known to us as the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7).
While Jesus’ message was one of hope and restoration, it was not without its hard edges. Jesus was mercilessly critical of the social customs and religious regulations of many groups in his day. He criticized the tendency in the Pharisees to focus on external regulation rather than on “the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23). He called people, not to forget the Old Testament law, but to follow it as members of God’s new kingdom. This message of newness deeply frustrated and intimidated the religious leaders of many different groups.
Another aspect of Jesus’ ministry that frustrated people was his inability to keep the social borders of his society. He ministered to and ate with tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, and other outcasts, and this was a sign of deep offense to the leaders of the day. But Jesus insisted that the Kingdom of God was not defined by social status or even ethnicity, but by one’s allegiance to Jesus. As the religious leaders had forgotten God’s care for the marginalized, vulnerable, and foreigner, Jesus was particularly harsh on them (Luke 16:19-31; Matthew 23). As Jesus’ popularity grew and his messages against them got more intense, the religious leaders sought to kill him.
During all of this time, Jesus and his disciples are ministering at Galilee. While many people have followed him, Jesus (rightly) suspects that many of them are only doing so for the benefits that he provides (such as miraculous food), and so he takes the twelve and heads north to Caesarea Philippi. While there, he asks the twelve “who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They reply, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “But,” Jesus responds, “who do you say that I am?” At that point, one of Jesus disciples, Simon Peter, gets up and says,
“You are the Messiah. The Son of the living God.” (Matt. 16:16).
But, immediately after this declaration of Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, the disciples are told that he will suffer and die, and afterward be raised again. His followers are baffled by this (Matt. 16:21-28), but he reassures them of his divine power by revealing his glory to Peter, James, and John (in an event we call the transfiguration, Matt. 17:1-13). The message is clear: the kingdom of God will not come apart from the death and resurrection of Jesus, and so he “sets his face” toward Jerusalem and the sufferings he would encounter there (Luke 9:51). Jerusalem, as the seat of the religious authorities, the center of Israel, and the place of the temple, would be his final focus.
In Jerusalem, Jesus makes it clear that he is the promised Messiah by (1) Riding into the city on a donkey (Matt. 21:4; cf. Zech. 9:9); (2) pronouncing judgment on the leaders and cleansing of the temple (Matthew 21:12-17; 24:1-2; chapter 23 cf. Jer. 7:1-15; 26:1-15: Mal. 3:1-5) and (3) prophesying the “end of the age” (Matt. 24-25). He bests the religious leaders over and over again, eventually silencing them with his ability to argue conclusively from Scripture (Matt. 22:41-46).
Yet, as the Passover draws near, Jesus’ enemies conspire to kill him, bribing one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, to betray him to the authorities. As Jesus sits down with his disciples to partake in the Passover meal, he acknowledges what is coming his way when he takes a loaf of bread and a cup of wine and declares that they are his body and blood (Matt. 26:26-28), and that his blood is “the blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (v. 28). Jesus thus inaugurated a new covenant, bound by his sacrifice, for all who call on his name (John 12:23-28).
After this, Jesus heads to a garden to pray, fully aware of what is coming his way. After a while Judas arrives, leading a band of soldiers, lets them know who to arrest in the dark night by approaching Jesus and kissing him. The soldiers arrest Jesus and take him to the official council to determine his fate (Matt. 26:47-56).
Jesus’ trial by the Jewish authorities is quickly over after Jesus is asked if he is Messiah, and he responds in the affirmative (Mark 14:62). After this, the official council hands Jesus over to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, who’s major concern was not so much his claim to be the Messiah as his claim to be a king. After a short trip to Herod’s court, Jesus is returned to Pilate and is eventually sentenced to die the death of a political criminal: crucifixion.
Following his sentence, Jesus was flogged by the Romans, and mocked with a crown of thorns and purple robe (signs of his “kingship”). He was then forced to carry his cross outside the city walls to Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”). He was stripped naked, and his hands were then nailed to a horizontal beam, which was hoisted atop a vertical beam (or tree) some six-to-eight feet high. His ankles were then nailed together to the vertical beam. He is mocked by many bystanders, though women around him weep at the sight. Finally, he cries out,
“Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
And crying out in pain, he dies.
Jesus is buried in a new tomb, one owned by Joseph of Arimathea. As the sun sets on that Friday before Passover, the disciples lay their master to rest beneath the earth, and retreat together to pray and hide, afraid that the Jewish authorities might come for them next. On that Saturday, hope seems dashed, the world seems dark, and the serpent’s victory seems certain.
But not all hope is lost. When Jesus died, the curtain in the temple, separating people from God’s presence, was torn in two from top to bottom. Visions of the dead rising had been seen throughout Jerusalem, and the earth itself had shaken in anger. It seemed certain that a righteous man had died for a crime he did not commit. And so, the world waited that long Sabbath day, unsure of what would come Sunday morning.
And then, the sun rose the next day, a group of women find something they did not expect …