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The Evolution of Jesus' Thought
Jesus Christ has probably influenced our world more than anyone else in the known human history. However, his greatness is often shrouded by a variety of factors. The major obstacle is nothing but the halo that develops around any great person. The brightness of the halo can blind us from seeing the real person behind it. It makes us worship that person rather than accept him/her as a role model. This phenomenon has happened in the case of Jesus Christ, as well.
The next major obstacle is nothing but the people who stand around a great person. It is only natural that a group of people gather around any great person attracted by his/her personality. However, eventually, the same group can degenerate, and become a major obstacle. One third of the world's population today claim to be the followers of Jesus Christ, and it might seem to be a paradox that the world cannot see the greatness of Jesus Christ because of these people who stand around him.
An attempt is made here in this article to break the obstacles created by the people as well as by the halo, and to see the greatness of Jesus Christ as truthfully as possible to the present writer.
The Historical Context
At the time of Jesus, the Jewish community was under the dominion of the Roman Empire. People longed for freedom. Because they believed that they were the chosen people of God, they were hopeful that soon God would liberate them, and make them a free nation. They believed that at that time they were under the dominion of Satan, the arch enemy of God, and that the Roman Caesar was the visible representative of Satan. They hoped that soon the dominion of Satan would be overthrown by God, and of course, the Caesar would be replaced by a Jewish king, representing God. Thus the Kingdom of Satan would be replaced by the Kingdom of God.
The people had mainly two concerns about the Kingdom of God:
The Teaching of Pharisees
Their leaders, mainly, Pharisees, answered the questions as follows: The Kingdom of God would be established when the Jews start observing Sabbath diligently. They supported their answer with the following reasoning: God made a covenant (agreement) with Jews, His chosen people, that God would protect them if they remain His people by obeying His commands, especially, the command to observe Sabbath. They were under Satan's dominion because they had not been keeping Sabbath as they should. When they all observe Sabbath diligently, God would liberate them. Though they disobeyed God, they would remain the people of God because of God's promise to Abraham. The Pharisees prescribed a large number of silly rules of how to observe Sabbath, such as how many feet one may walk, and how many pounds one may lift on that day. They also classified people into righteous and sinners according to how seriously they observed these rules. The majority of the common people, who couldn't follow the intricacy of the rules, were branded sinners by the Pharisees.
The Teaching Of John, The Baptist
That is when John, the Baptist, appears at the scene with a totally different view. "Repent; for the Kingdom of God is at hand," he proclaimed. He believed that the Kingdom of God would be established in the near future. However, he radically differed from the Pharisees in his answer of the second question. He placed a different criterion of who would be eligible to be in the Kingdom. He believed that only good people would be in the Kingdom. He supported his answer with a metaphor as follows: God is like a farmer who lets us, the plants, to be in His garden in order to give Him the fruit of good deeds. God would soon establish His Kingdom, and no one doing evil will be there. It will be open for anyone who does good deeds.
John, the Baptist, believed that any human being is capable of doing good deeds, and what it takes is a decision to turn around and start doing good deeds. To the people who consulted him, he gave suggestions such as the following:
In short, he asked people to be good in their day-to-day life. He didn't even mention Sabbath. The people who decided to turn around were given a choice to be baptized as a sign of getting themselves cleaned of their sinful life, and starting a new life.
The teaching of John had a larger scope than that of the Pharisees. It went beyond the national boundaries of Jewish people, and its roots went deeper than the popular Jewish morality. Hence, he was rightly named as the one who paved the way for Jesus.
The Teaching of Jesus
Among the people who accepted the teaching of John was Jesus, who approached John to be baptized. There are reasons to believe that John became a hero to Jesus while he was young. He seemed to have great admiration toward John for his revolutionary ideas. Once Jesus remarked that John was greater than a prophet-- the very messenger who prepares the way for Christ as prophesied by Isaiah. He also said that among those born of woman, there had not risen anyone greater than John.
It seems that Jesus started proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God after John, the Baptist, was imprisoned. Jesus was actually filling the position of John. He started proclaiming the same message that John proclaimed. We may assume that Jesus began with almost the same beliefs and hopes of John. We see Jesus sharing the belief of John that the coming messiah would separate the sinners from the righteous as a farmer would separate wheat from the chaff, and the sinners would be thrown to eternal fire. However, the originality and greatness of Jesus' thought couldn't let him stay a disciple of John. He soared higher than John, and obtained unmatchable clarity of vision.
Although John's vision was so magnificent, there was a flaw in it. Jesus found this flaw and corrected it. There lay the greatness of Jesus. John asked people to do good deeds and to love the fellow beings unconditionally. However, he told them about a God who was very conditional in His attitude and behavior. God had the role of a judge, and He had no mercy to those who deviated from Him. In short, the God John talked about was not a role model for the people.
Jesus corrected this inconsistency by making God a role model. Jesus moved God from the seat of a judge to the seat of a father. "Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect," Jesus taught them. "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you" because that is exactly what God does. God raises His Sun and gives rain not only to the righteous people but also to the wicked people. Once Jesus made this basic correction, everything else was redefined to suit this.
With a God who is a father who loves all people unconditionally, the Kingdom of God became a family of God, and it wouldn't exclude anyone based on his/her caste, color or creed. It was made a family open to anyone who was willing to be there. The only law of God's family was the law of love. This idea is made clear in the story of the prodigal son. The father in the story represents God, and the sons represent the humans. The father has unconditional love toward both of his sons. His love is not at all affected by anything. He never judges, but he is there to accept, to forgive, and to help. However, his sons do not understand that he has unconditional love toward them. Therefore, they are unable to return his love.
The two sons in the story handle the problem differently. The younger one is honest enough to accept that there is a problem, but the other one pretends that everything is fine. Once he accepts that there is a problem, the younger one leaves his home in search of a solution. When he loses all he has, and when he has to work under a master who treats him worse than pigs, he realizes the greatness of his own father. He goes back as a new person, capable of returning the unconditional love of his father.
Through this parable, Jesus was answering the second question people asked about the Kingdom of God: Who will be in the Kingdom? The answer of Jesus was somewhat like this: God has never cast anyone out of His Kingdom, nor does He have to let anyone in. God likes everyone to be in His Kingdom. He has always been there with stretched hands to receive anyone who turns back to Him. God's side has always been clear. God has never been your enemy. You could not love God because you did not know God like this. Well, this knowledge is not easy to attain. You can know the truth of God if you are honest like the younger son in the story. But if you remain a hypocrite, you will never know the truth of God, and will never enter His home. In short, it is up to you to enter the Kingdom of God or not. It is not God who judges, it is you who judges. You can either accept the Kingdom or reject it.
Jesus compared the Kingdom of God to the mustard seed. From such a small seed grows a large plant. Jesus said this parable probably to answer the other question people asked about the Kingdom: When will it be? Jesus seems to have believed that the Kingdom of God would be realized at a national level or at a global level only in the future though its seed was already there. However, it was possible to experience the Kingdom of God at an individual level right then. Jesus asked people to enter the Kingdom right away without waiting for its national or global realization. Jesus experienced the joy and peace of being in God's home in his day-to-day life, and he invited all people to share that experience.
Here we see the vision of Jesus transcending the immediate context. It is no more about the immediate problem of the local people, but about the basic problem of all humans living everywhere.
John seems to have believed that it takes only a strong decision to turn from a life of evil deeds to a life of good deeds. That is why he made people to take baptism as a sign of their decision. Jesus didn't believe it was just a matter of a decision. He believed that people would turn to doing good deeds when they throw away their masks, and open up their hearts for truth. Hence he said, "The truth shall make you free"
Unfortunately, even the close friends of Jesus didn't comprehend the width and depth of the vision of Jesus. It was easy for them to believe that Jesus was going to establish a literal Kingdom for Jews, and be its king. The leaders of the Jewish community found a very dangerous person in Jesus, who dared to break Sabbath, and to associate with the so-called sinners. They captured Jesus, and handed him over to the Roman authorities, accusing him for organizing a mutiny against the government.
The Origin of Christianity
After the time of Jesus, the Jewish community split into two groups. One group believed that Jesus was the Christ, or the God-sent king, whereas the other group didn't. The group that believed that Jesus was the Christ came to be known as Christians, and the other group continued as Jews.
Peter was the main spokesperson of the Christian group. He stated their beliefs about Jesus as follows:
According to the author of Acts of the Apostles, thousands of people accepted these beliefs about Jesus Christ, got baptized, and joined their group when Peter and others explained these beliefs to the people. This community, which came into existence in the name of Jesus, and grew in number, unfortunately, didn't seem to have the vision of Jesus. The best example would be that they held the same views regarding the kingdom of God as the Pharisees did. They believed that Jesus will come back as king to establish a kingdom, and only those who believe that Jesus was Christ would be eligible to be its citizens.
The Teaching of Paul
When a large number of non-Jews began to join the Christian community, some people thought that they should become Jews first by getting circumcised. However, the other group argued for a simple ceremony of baptism. Paul was the spokesperson of that group. The development of the Christian wing beyond the Jewish religious boundaries made the vision of Jesus clear to Paul. In his letters to Romans and Galatians we read how Paul understood and propagated the good news of Jesus Christ.
He presented the basic problem of human existence as enmity between God and humans, and among humans. Relationship with God cannot be restored by observing laws (as the Pharisees believed). Relationship with God cannot be restored by good deeds, either (as John, the Baptist, believed). The only way to restore the lost relationship is faith (as Jesus taught). The role of Jesus was like a mediator, sent from God to tell us that God has no enmity toward us. He also called Jesus the new Adam in the sense that a new human race that lives in harmony with God begins with Jesus.
When the Christian community developed separately from the Jewish community, there arose the question of identity. They asked themselves: Who are we? Paul answered the question as follows: We are the new Israel. The old Israel was like the unfaithful stewards of Jesus' famous parable. We, the new Israel, are appointed by God as the new stewards. This idea was generally accepted, and became the foundation for the further development of the Christian community, and was explained in greater detail by Mark, Matthew, and Luke in their books.
The old Israel originated when God liberated them from slavery in Egypt sending a savior called Moses, and made a covenant with them. The new Israel begins when God liberates them from the slavery of Satan sending Jesus, the new Moses, and makes a new covenant with them. Jesus himself serves as the sacrificial lamb of the covenant. After Jesus was commissioned to liberate the people while he received baptism from John, he is led to meet Satan face to face. He refuses to kneel down before Satan, and announces the Kingdom of God. He also casts out evil spirits and demons, the agents of Satan. This is how Jesus is pictured by Mark, Matthew, and Luke.
Jesus' vision was of such depth and width to include the entire humanity of all time. However, down through the history, only a handful of people have had the patience and willingness to understand the depth of that vision. The religion formed in the name of Jesus has been the least willing to understand the vision of Jesus. The Christian religion is not a new religion founded by Jesus Christ. It is just the branch of the Jewish religion which believes that Jesus is the Christ, the king sent by God to rule the world. The Christian religion has been more interested in placing him on the throne of God than listening to what he had to say. They were more eager to call him "Lord, Lord" than to do the will of God.
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