These questions look at the teaching of Jesus.
It’s hard to cram everything that the greatest religious teacher in history ever said into a few soundbites, but here goes…
The kingdom of God – the long-awaited rule of God is breaking into the world, through Jesus. He called people to become part of it by turning from their sins back to God, however holy or unholy they might have been. The kingdom of God would be a counter-culture where the poor are blessed and the first will be last.
God is your Father – God looks on us all as his children, and though he is angered by injustice and immorality, he calls sinners to return to him and promises forgiveness. He loves and provides for his children.
Love each other – we ought to love each other as God loves us. We must forgive those who let us down and repay hatred with love. We must do good not only to friends and family, not only to fellow believers, but to those who wrong and hurt us.
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Stories are good. That’s why we enjoy watching films and soaps, listening to stand-up comics and reading books, and aren’t so keen about listening to speeches and sermons.
In fact, Jesus does seem to have done some pretty straight sermons, too. That one about “turn the other cheek” and “go the extra mile”, for example. But some of his words that best stick in your mind are the stories. The Good Samaritan… the Prodigal Son… the Lost Sheep, and so on. Which is probably why Jesus liked to tell stories.
All of Jesus’s stories address spiritual issues in a way that (a) isn’t boring, (b) sticks in your mind, and (c) challenges you to think for yourself.
Take the Prodigal Son, for example. The religious leaders were getting deeply stressed with Jesus for hanging out with the “spiritually unclean” (such as prostitutes and tax collectors). Their attitude was: God doesn’t like them and neither do we.
Jesus explained why he spent time with them by telling a story: the son abandons his father, squanders his money, and ends up on the skids, cleaning out the pigs (and remember, pigs were themselves seen as unclean animals). The son eventually creeps back home when he’s broke and has nowhere else to go.
Does the father give him a good smack and send him packing? No, he is ecstatic and throws a huge party for him. Meanwhile the older brother who has stuck by dad religiously all these years has a big sulk, because his black-sheep brother doesn’t deserve this special treatment.
It’s a wonderful illustration of God’s attitude to sinners, but it also challenges listeners to decide what their own attitude should be, and whose side they’re on.
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The kingdom of God is an idea that is central to Jesus’s teaching and his life. He announced the coming of the kingdom and called upon his followers to work and pray towards that end.
So what does it mean?
“The kingdom of God” is not a phrase Jesus invented. Jewish revolutionaries at the time wanted to throw off imperial Roman rule and get rid of the monarchy, so that there would be no king but God. Many of Jesus’s followers seem to have assumed that he had the same manifesto.
But Jesus clearly had no interest in taking on the Roman army. He called for the people of Israel to become “one nation under God” even under its oppression by Rome, and for his followers to make a start by being a holy community.
For Jesus, the kingdom of God seems to have been more about God ruling in our lives than about who rules the country, and this is one reason why his teaching has made sense around the world – it applies equally to everyone everywhere. In practice, it was a mix of personal spiritual life – such as praying, forgiving, giving, holiness – and social change – such as a new attitude to the excluded, to women, to foreigners and to the poor.
“Now and not yet” is a phrase often used to describe Jesus’s attitude to the kingdom. In one sense he was proclaiming its arrival: the kingdom was coming now through his own life and work, and that of his followers. But there is also a strong sense that he saw the kingdom not only as something that we would always be working towards, but something that would only be fully realised in the world to come.
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It’s probably a mistake to try to fit Jesus too snugly under any modern political labels – left-wing, right-wing, Euro-sceptic. The political world of his time was just too different.
But it’s equally wrong to say that he was of the “bishops should stay out of politics” persuasion, that he was only interested in “religion” and steered clear of the whole political vipers’ nest. For Jesus, like any first-century Jew, politics and religion were inextricably mixed.
So what were Jesus’ politics? Basically: the kingdom of God. Central to everything Jesus said is his announcement of the kingdom of God and his insistence that we should work and pray towards that end. That much is clear. What’s not so clear is what “the kingdom of God” actually means.
It’s not a phrase Jesus invented. Jewish revolutionaries at the time wanted to throw off imperial Roman rule, and even the monarchy, and have no king but God. This wasn’t an excuse for anarchy – like Cromwell in the English revolution, they wanted a regime of holiness and the law of the scriptures.
Many of Jesus’ followers seem to have assumed that he had the same manifesto.
But Jesus clearly had no interest in taking on the Roman army. He called for the people of Israel to become “one nation under God” even under its present oppression, and for his followers to make a start by being a holy community.
Which sounds exactly like rejecting politics for religion. Except that he also called for – and practised himself – some radical social changes: an end to the social exclusion of the “spiritually unclean” (such as prostitutes and people who collected taxes for the Romans), a more inclusive attitude to women and non-Jews, a rejection of violence, and social justice for the poor.
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Delighted that his teaching has been faithfully kept alive for two millennia, and is embraced by 2 billion people across the world. Maybe.
Or horrified that his radical vision of what life can be has been distorted into a backward-looking institution, complete with its own bureaucracy.
How you answer the question says more about your own opinion of the church than Jesus’.
One thing we can safely say is that Jesus was unsparingly critical of the religious establishment of his time, and even had some harsh words for his own followers, so he’d be bound to pick a fight with some of those who are part of the church today. But whom, and over what issues? Who can say?
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This is seriously maintained by some people. Their argument is not that Jesus didn’t exist, or that Paul wrote the Gospels: the point is that Paul took over the reins of Christianity after Jesus, and – allegedly – his writings took it in a very different direction to what Jesus taught in the Gospels.
Here’s the evidence…
1. In all Paul’s writings (there are 13 of his letters in the New Testament, though some may not have been by him) there is virtually no information about Jesus’s life, apart from his death and resurrection. Wasn’t Paul interested in these stories?
2. Paul seems to repeat astonishingly little of Jesus’ teachings. There are a handful of direct quotes, but little else. No parables, no Lord’s Prayer, none of those pithy sayings.
3. The kingdom of God is the one central theme of Jesus’ preaching, but it gets much less of an airing in Paul.
4. Paul never followed Jesus while he was alive, but was converted by a vision of the risen Christ. Did he lack knowledge of – or interest in – the life of Jesus?
5. No longer having to follow the Jewish Law was a major theme of Paul’s letters, but not something Jesus said much about.
People have tried various ways of explaining this:
1. Paul was a missionary and his writings are merely follow up letters to his converts. This means he has already told them all about Jesus, and he doesn’t need to repeat himself.
2. Not having first-hand knowledge of Jesus, he left all that stuff to people who did.
3. For a Jew, the crucifixion of God’s Messiah was one of the most offensive ideas imaginable, and “the age to come” one of the most glorious hopes. Once Paul accepted that the crucifixion and resurrection of the Messiah was God’s astounding way of bringing in that new age, here and now, this fact dwarfed everything else in the life of Jesus into relative insignificance.
4. He was a bit sensitive about not having been an original follower of Jesus, so he put all his stress on Jesus the risen Lord, than Jesus the Jewish teacher.
5. Jesus was a Jewish teacher, teaching and leading Jews in Palestine. Paul, though also Jewish, travelled the Roman world, preaching to and organising both Jews and Gentiles. This difference in situation meant that Paul had to interpret Jesus’s teachings considerably, even if he stayed true to the heart of them.
In balance, it’s hard to deny that Christianity took a significant change of direction under St Paul, but there’s no reason this was not a legitimate development of what Jesus himself began.
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In a very important sense, no.
Jesus was Jewish, worshipped at the synagogue and the Temple, kept the Jewish religious law (on the whole), and there is no suggestion that he ever told his followers to split away from Judaism and join this new religion he’d just invented called Christianity.
Everything we know about his teaching was directed towards a renewal of the Jewish faith, not at establishing a new world religion.
But this is often how new churches start, because the old ones aren’t always too keen on being “renewed”. Protestantism was originally a movement to renew the Roman Catholic Church, and attempts to do the same to the Church of England have ended up as new churches too, such as the Methodists. The reformers either get kicked out, or they realize that the only way to have a renewed church is to leave the old church. This did not happen in Jesus’s lifetime, though, so he lived and died in the Jewish faith.
However, there is another angle to this question: did Jesus actually believe and teach all the things that became the beliefs of the Christian church?
Jesus certainly never said explicitly many of the things in the creeds of the church:
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven…
The church teaches these things both on the authority of the followers of Jesus who wrote the books of the New Testament, and as its own official interpretation of the surprising claims Jesus is reported to have made about himself. Such as: “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30) and “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58).
Is the church’s interpretation of Jesus correct? That’s the big question, and it’s open for each person to decide.
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As usual, it depends on who you ask. According to traditional Christian understanding, yes. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus predicts that the temple in Jerusalem will be destroyed and desecrated, amid terrible carnage (which happened in AD 70). He goes on to say this:
“At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. He will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens” (Mark 13:26-27).
On the other hand, liberal theologians in recent centuries have said that Jesus would never have talked like that, and that the early church put such words in his mouth when they wrote the Gospels, to reflect their own belief in his second coming.
However, such sceptics usually also say that Jesus cannot really have predicted the fall of Jerusalem, so the passage must have been written after it happened – which makes it somewhat bizarre for Mark to say that Jesus would come back at the same time. It would be like me predicting that Jesus would come back in the year 2000.
On yet another hand, there is a respectable scholarly opinion that the whole thing is simply a misunderstanding of what Jesus says in the Gospels. He talked, in picturesque language sometimes, about his coming, about God’s return to Israel, and about the future destruction of Jerusalem – and later readers have muddled or misinterpreted these teachings as predicting his own second coming.
St Paul was far more expansive about Jesus’s second coming. He proclaimed that Jesus would return to remake the heavens and earth, and judge the world, and he seems to have expected it imminently. Read what he said for yourself in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.
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Is there reliable evidence that Jesus ever lived? Was he a great religious teacher… or an alien? Read our Jesus FAQs pages here. If you have a question about the life or teaching of Jesus, check here first to see what’s been posted about it.
Written by Steve Tomkins
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