The Politics of Jesus and His Church – Part 1

I have been accused of hardly bothering about Ghanaian politics (just kidding. It wasn’t an accusation but just innocent questions from some friends). They observe that I seem to share and write a lot on the church, Jesus and Christianity in general, and only sparingly on Ghanaian politics. I want to explain why, but I’ll do that in the next post. That explanation however is dependent on making sure my readers understand where I’m coming from theologically, and one such theological angle is what I want to address here. And this is the summary of what I’m abut to say – that I believe that for centuries, many Christians have missed a vital clue to understanding Jesus and his kingdom, and as a result do not see when they are letting their nationality win over their faith (by the way the word nationality here can be replaced by many others like political ideology, political party, tribe, language, race, social status, economic status etc. They suffer the same fate). What results is what Peter Enns calls “The Messiah Complex”. I’ll use a particular discussion we had at our house church lately to illustrate the point.

Who Do People Say I Am?

Recently we wrote a song from Psalm 2, and in the process our thoughts went to Matth 16:13-17. Jesus asked his disciples “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (v 13), and among many answers, Peter responded that Jesus is “The Messiah, the Son of the living God” (v 16). Jesus blesses Peter, and says he could only have known that through revelation by Yahweh himself. Now in other bibles, the word “Christ” is used instead of “Messiah” in v 16, but I’m glad for the choice of words of the NIV 2012. Christ is the Greek form of Messiah, which both mean “The Anointed One”. At the time of Jesus however, the dominant language in Galilee and Judea was Aramaic and some Hebrew, but not Greek. Therefore logically the word used there would not have been the Greek version. But I digress.

I have heard many sermons on this, including one a few months ago from a friend, including sadly from some Christian apologists. Time and time again, most people simply assume that Jesus was commending Peter for realizing that he was divine – aka he was the second person of the Trinity or “God the Son”, when that could not have been what he meant. I have written elsewhere on why the NT usage of “Son of God” originally did not mean Jesus was divine, so I will not go into details here. Note that I do believe that Jesus is divine, but I also realize that this continuous association of “Son of God” with the divine Jesus displays a wider problem within Christendom – for too long many Christians haven’t taken the political implications of calling Jesus “Lord” and “King” seriously. Many Christians have divinized and spiritualized away everything about Jesus, and therefore have left their political passions to be dictated by our worldly leaders today. The early church fought against the heresy of docetism – the belief that Jesus was either not really human or that his divine nature superseded his human nature – and yet somehow many have come full circle when they focus on only the divine Jesus and ignore (albeit giving it some lip service), the human king – the Messiah. As the learned NT Wright puts it

It is only recently that it has been widely acknowledged, for instance, that the phrase “son of God” in many New Testament writings does not automatically mean “the second person of the Trinity”, but is a title which, to a first-century Jew, would have carried messianic rather than “divine” overtones” – NT Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God.

Fundamentalism normally jumps from the word “Christ” not to first-century meanings of “Messiah” but to the divinity of Jesus, which the New Testament establishes on quite other grounds”- NT Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God.

So even though every bible translation has it’s own foibles, I’ll say kudos to the scholars behind the 2012 NIV for such a translation choice. But the question is what does it matter if son of God has “messianic rather than divine overtones”? How does that affect us politically?

A Messiah is a Political Animal

My father introduced me to Handel’s Messiah when I was young, but my love for it has grown in leaps and bounds in recent times, more due to the scriptural groundings of the songs than simply their melodic value. I’m sure my wife must be getting tired of hearing Handel’s Messiah playing in the car repeatedly. Well, too bad for her.

I’m enthralled by how Charles Jennens came up with the words and George Frederic Handel put them to music to create such a wonderful oratorio to tell the story of the kingship of Jesus so beautifully. Listening to “Why do the nations” led me back to Ps 2.

Reflecting on it again, I notice many things.

  1. It speaks of “The Lord” aka Yahweh and “His Anointed” aka Messiah. Two distinct people – one empowering the other.

  2. Both Yahweh and his Messiah speak. Yahweh declares his unfettered support for the king he has installed in Zion. (v 4-6)

  3. The Messiah recounts Yahweh adopting him as his son (v 7)

  4. He mentions Yahweh having given him the nations as his inheritance and power and dominion over all the kings (v 8-11). That reminds me of a certain Jewish Messiah who told his disciples “All power and authority has been given to me, therefore …” blah blah blah. Hmm…

  5. Everyone is required to submit to him (“Kiss his son, or he will be angry”), and those who seek refuge in him will be blessed (v 12). Apparently that Jewish Messiah told his disciples to make more people like themselves who will “obey” him. Hmm…

Short, but poignant psalm. This Psalm is the clearest indication that calling Jesus Messiah is not equal to calling him God, again not because Jesus is not God, but because that’s not what Messiah or Christ meant.

But if all power has been given to this Messiah, what is he supposed to do with this power? Care only about our spiritual destiny by carrying us all off to heaven and leave this world behind, or do what an earthly king is supposed to do – administer the world rightly? Let’s look at a Messiah’s raison d’etre – his goal, his manifesto from another psalm.

In Ps 72, the Psalmist prays that God strengthen his royal son so he may achieve his tasks – his tasks of maintaining justice and speaking on behalf of the disadvantaged, including the poor, fatherless and afflicted, of rewarding righteous behaviour and punishing wrong. These are the same things that one will expect of any political world leader, not so? Interestingly v 17 links the task of the Messiah to the call of Abraham, showing that it is in him that God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants will be fulfilled. Obviously here we see a Messiah who must be involved in the earthly issues of how to put food on the table, how to work against inequity, greed, abuse and violence. This is a very earthy Messiah. This is a very political one.

And how does this the Jewish Messiah from Nazareth achieve his manifesto? By calling unto himself a people who are washed and cleansed and set apart for him, and giving them the task to show the world what his kingdom is like – to be with the lost, the poor, the outcast, the oppressed and to make them know and experience the difference between his kingdom and he kingdoms of this world. This people he calls his “church” – the elect (1 Pe 1:1; 2:9). This is not surprising, because Yahweh did the same – calling a nation called Israel to be the light to the nations and calling them his elect (Ex 19:5-6). And in both ways it’s the same – the people are called not just to tell the world what to do, but to show the world through living it out.

And yet, walk the streets of Accra, in a country with about 70% Christian population, and ask people if Jesus was a political figure, or cared about politics in any way, shape or form, and the answer you will get 90% of the time is NO. Instead you will receive the standard answer – Jesus came to die for our sins, and he said “his kingdom is not of this world”, so his only usefulness is to the spiritual salvation of man.

You can see why in Ghanaian Christendom circles then, Jesus’ beatitude “Blessed Are the Poor In Spirit” is interpreted as blessings on those who know the depravity of their sin. As Christopher J.H. Wright puts it, it seems that somehow between the pages of Malachi (OT) and Matthew (NT), Yahweh who was so particular in his injunctions on how to care for the poor, oppressed, fatherless and widow in the OT, has totally forgotten that these people exist in the NT, and now only cares about the destiny of their souls.

How Did We Get Here?

The early church however, was very intentional in upholding and working to actualize Jesus’s kingship over the world in their times, not just in a future disembodied reality. They took his injunctions like the sermon on the mount and other such places quite seriously, whiles also acknowledging that he was more than just a king, but was also in some way equal to God. It is primarily this stance – that there is no king but Jesus – which caused them so much suffering and death at the hands of the brutal Roman empire. If it was a simple question of going to heaven, why would that ruffle the political figures?

And although there were temptations to budge (and some Christians did give in to some of these temptations), the floodgates burst open when a certain Emperor Constantine decided to adopt Christianity as his religion and force it on everybody else in the 4th century. Suddenly there was very little suffering for listening to Jesus instead of Caesar. The leaders of the church, to keep from critiquing the usually greedy, violent and abusive behaviour of the Emperors and their governments (to different degrees, traits of every human government this day), adopted one of the most easily abused methods of reading the bible – allegorical readings aka finding spiritual symbolism even in plain, simple commands.

This meant that clear statements of Jesus regarding how his church must carry forward his vision of a kingdom NOW in waiting for a kingdom FUTURE, were allegorized away into spiritual meanings of how Jesus would reign in the future whiles the political powers could do what they wanted in the present. The church relaxed both in its loyalty to Jesus and in living out his example by itself, and became consultant to the state on morality. The Gospels were robbed of their power, and over the years have been treated as toothless documents whose purpose is to serve as a mine for moral platitudes, children’s stories, guidance on how to go to heaven and in modern times, motivational statements. Allegorization and Greco-Roman philosophy led the church to depart from the Old Testament vision of a new heaven and a new earth reiterated in the New Testament, to a focus on heaven and hell. And the effects of giving our political allegiance to worldly kings whiles we concentrate on worshiping the divine Jesus are obvious through the tracks of history.

  • In loyalty to political, social and economic interests, Christians have engaged in 400 years of slavery, justifying it by appealing to the bible, ignoring king Jesus’s manifesto on justice and respect for fellow human. Even the slavery of the Old Testament could in no way be compared to this one. American Christians had a full-scale civil war between the north and the south over the right to keep slaves. Not only was the country divided, even Christian denominations were divided because of support for or against slavery. Ironically all this happened while there was a “Great Awakening” even amongst soldiers on the battlefield, believing they have received “salvation” and a ticket to heaven when they die.

  • In loyalty to their political leaders, Christians have participated in war and violence against their fellow being, including burning millions of Jews in the holocaust, in spite of king Jesus’s commands to love our enemies.

  • In loyalty to their nations, Christians have participated in abusive exploitation and colonization of countries to further the egos of worldly Emperors and kings, and have left continents like Africa divided and confused about their identities.

  • In loyalty to tribe, religious and ethnic identity, Christians are busy today hacking their fellow Moslem brothers up in the Central African Republic, ignoring the king who would rather die for his enemy.

  • The last straw has been loyalty to self. The influence of revivalism, with a message of “salvation” focused on one’s individual self without any clear sense of community, has spawned the prosperity Gospel, and today is wrecking havoc on already poor African Christians to the enrichment of a few “men of God”. Instead of the church community becoming the people we lay down our lives for (Mark 10:29-30), our personal goals and ambitions is now king.

History has shown it to be more than obvious – nature hates a vacuum. Whenever Christians have devoted themselves to an apolitical Jesus, they get quickly co-opted by the agenda of the powers – be they tribal, political, cultural, socio-economic or personal. Additionally, whenever Christians assume that Jesus’s political methods are like those of this world, there’s compromise and self-deception. This lopsided vision of Jesus only as “God the Son” is the vision that continues to drive much of African Christianity. The missionaries, with all their good intent, have left us with a Christianity that has succeeded in changing the god we worship, but not in changing our attitudes to follow in his ways. And not knowing and following in Yahweh’s ways is tantamount to not knowing him at all (Heb 3:10; Ps 103:7).

Conclusion

So let me wrap up by asking you to do a test on yourself.

  1. If you think “salvation” is all about forgiveness of sins – you’ve lost sight of the political Messiah.

  2. If you think the endgame is either heaven or hell – you have questions to answer about why your New Testament speaks of a resurrected body for a place that doesn’t need a body.

  3. If the term “Jesus is Lord” simply leads you to think of Jesus only as a divine being sitting on a throne instead of the real President or Prime Minister of your country or the world – you’re still in the divine-Jesus-only mode.

  4. If whiles reading the Gospels, the term “the kingdom of God” or “the kingdom of heaven” leads you to think only of angels in the sky playing harps – you need to re-examine your eschatology.

Now that I’ve “cleared my throat” on who a Messiah truly is and what we might be missing in looking at Jesus only with divine glasses on, I can delve into Ghanaian politics in the next post. Suffice it to say that I won’t be pulling any punches on my observations on Ghanaian politics and what Jesus would make of the church’s attitude to politics today.

According to Scriptures Pt 1 – Son of God

Wanted Jesus
Wanted Jesus

One of the problems that I have faced in communicating and discussing the word of God with other Christians is one finds that we have a lot of our definitions messed up. Words and phrases that meant one thing in biblical times have now come to mean different things altogether. At the least, the impact of these phrases have been reduced so we don’t see how profound they are. But at the worst, I find what I believe to be totally flawed understandings of phrases and words in the bible, upon which people are then able to construct all sorts of weird teaching.

This series of posts is my attempt to provide a clearer definition of some of these phrases that are so common in Christendom but which need to be clarified today. Some of these terms are “salvation”, “forgiveness of sins”, “new creation”, “son of God” and “kingdom of God/kingdom of Heaven”, and I will discuss some of them in no particular order. One thing needs to remain clear to the Christian though – when Paul used the phrase “according to scriptures” in 1 Cor 15:4, he was referring to the books we call the Old Testament, and mostly from the Greek translation of it (the Septuagint). The New Testament as we know it didn’t exist then, and was not where the prophecies about Jesus would be found. Note that the writers of the books of the New Testament were not Greeks, Romans, Ghanaians or Germans. They were Jews, and so the text is bound to reflect a Jewish worldview somewhat. If Christians are to understand very well where the terms and phrases we so love to use come from, we need to lay the ground work from what the writers themselves considered “scripture”, before getting ahead of ourselves.

Son of God?

Jesus calls himself (and is called by his disciples) “son of God”. Most good, devout, Sunday school taught Christians immediately understand this phrase to mean that Jesus is the second person of the Trinity i.e. he is a divine being from God and one with the Godhead. Let me state quite clearly here before I am accused of heresy that I side with a million and one Christians in the belief in Jesus’ divine nature and a belief in the Trinity. However, if we apply Paul’s litmus test aka according to the Old Testament – that is not what “son of God” means. What does it mean then?

The phrase “son of God”, “children of God” and “sons and daughters/people of God” has been used in many ways to denote a special election of God of a certain people or person. It is used to refer to the kings of this world here.

I said, ‘You are “gods”; you are all sons of the Most High.’ But you will die like mere mortals; you will fall like every other ruler.” (Ps 82:6-7)

It is used to refer to a particular king of the Jews called the Anointed one (the Messiah)

I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. (2 Sam 7:12–14 cf. 1 Chron 17:11–14)

The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed [Messiah] … He rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, ‘I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.’ I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have become your father’ (Ps 2:2-7).

He will call out to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, the Rock my Savior. And I will appoint him to be my firstborn, the most exalted of the kings of the earth.” (Ps 89:26-27)

And sometimes it is used to refer to the nation Israel itself, and the special kind of relationship between God and his chosen nation. The language of sonship and children vis-a-vis Israel is a language of special status, of election, a concept about which I’ve written elsewhere. Note that nowhere in the OT is anyone refered to as a “son of God/sons of God/people of God/sons and daughters of God” except kings of the world, the Messiah or Israel as a nation.

Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son” (Ex 4:22)

I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people” (Lev 26:12). 2 Cor 6:18 expands this to mean “you will be my sons and daughters”.

Nowhere in all these usages are we seeing a divine, explicitly Trinitarian usage of the phrase “son of God”. The Jews of Jesus day were definitely looking forward to a Messiah descended from David who will come and restore their fortunes against their enemies, as expounded by the totality of the Psalms referenced above and a lot more, as well as the prophets. The fact that in Jesus, the king turned out to be not only human but divine was not what their understanding of Messiah was, and we can now look at the NT and see what I mean.

Son Of God in The Gospels

There are many usages of the phrase “son of God” recorded in the gospels, but the most poignant of them was at the trial of Jesus. The most important reason why the Sanhedrin council had to bring Jesus before Pilate was that the power to crucify a person was the preserve only of the Roman governor at the time. And if they simply went to the Roman governor and said “we don’t like this man’s teaching” or “he’s been criticizing us”, the best he would have done was to put him in jail for a few days and let him go (if he doesn’t end up throwing the case out of court in the first place). They needed a charge that was capital, and given the amount of rebellion that existed at the time and in previous years with the many previous “Messiahs” gone past, the only charge that will catch the attention of the governor was a charge of treason – treason because there was in fact a “King of the Jews” in the name of Herod appointed by the Romans. Any other person calling themselves “king” was attempting a coup d’etat, not only against Herod, but against his appointee – Rome. That was a crucifiable offence. Hear the Sanhedrin’s accusation.

The Jewish leaders insisted, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.” (Jn 19:7)

Now, Pilate obviously didn’t think they were saying Jesus was divine or the 2nd person of the trinity. Hear him.

But it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release ‘the king of the Jews’?” (Jn 18:39)

Here is your king,’ Pilate said to the Jews. But they shouted, ‘Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!’ Shall I crucify your king?‘ Pilate asked. ”We have no king but Caesar,’ the chief priests answered. (Jn 19:14-15)

It is no surprise then that Pilate had the title “King of the Jews” hang on Jesus cross. And we also note that Jesus never denied that he was king of the Jews during his trial, for that is what Christ or Messiah actually means. The above passages show clearly what Jews meant by “son of God”. A few more examples from the Gospels will suffice.

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mk 1:1)

Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”(Jn 1:49)

Note that his disciples did clearly recognize his claim to be the Anointed one. For example Jesus commended Peter for saying that Jesus was the Christ (the title Christ was Greek whiles Messiah was Jewish for the same thing – “Anointed One”), the “Son of the living God” (Mt 16:15-17), again referring to the title under discussion.

But, But, But …

Yes I know, Jesus DID say he was divine in may places, quite uncountable to mention. But until his death and resurrection, his disciples only understood him to be the Messiah, albeit one with some wonderful powers and gifts.

However, he was always challenging these disciples and other people (including his enemies) to see the Messiah as more than a mere human, quoting Ps 110 and saying that “If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son (Mt 22:45)”? Here, Jesus is appealing to David saying “The Lord said to my Lord” signifie that whoever David was talking about was more than just his son.

But it is pretty obvious not only tracing it from the OT but in the gospels and in all Jewish understanding that although there were hints like Ps 110 that seemed to point to the Messiah being more than just a normal human being, Jews never understood “son of God” to mean a divine person, but rather God’s anointed King, just like Moses was God’s anointed prophet and Aaron God’s anointed priest.

After his death AND resurrection, his disciples now understood that Jesus was indeed divine and expressed that much throughout their words and writings in the New Testament. But they still used “son of God” in the Messianic sense of the expected descendant of David, as depicted by Paul in Rom 1:3-4 and 2 Tim 2:8.

But Are We Not Splitting Hairs Here?

That’s the obvious question. What’s the big deal afterall? And the answer is NO WE ARE NOT. As Jackson Wu, a Chinese missional theologian says “We must not misuse scripture to prove the truth … when we settle for what is merely true (that Jesus has a divine nature), we miss out on what the phrase [son of God] actually means.” It is obvious most Christians have confused the Trinitarian phrase “God the Son” with the Messianic phrase “Son of God”. And this is rather ironic given that the latter is explicitly written and expounded in scripture, whiles the former had to be deduced. I dare say that a misunderstanding of what “son of God” means has left room for 2 very serious errors.

The first is to seriously question the ground on which some Christians stand basing on a flawed understanding of the New Testament’s description of the church as “sons of God” to mean that Christians are somehow divine. Jews believed they were “sons of God” too, but never went as far as to consider themselves divine.

The second and even more tragic one for me is that because we have so “spiritualized” and “divinized” everything about Jesus, much of the church today has totally ignored the real human, earthy and here-and-now task that the Messiah and his followers (his church), empowered by the Spirit of God was supposed to achieve. Bringing good news to the poor, relief for the sick, hope to the fatherless, the widow and the stranger and of writing the wrongs in society – in short we have hammered on personal salvation, and left cosmic justice behind. I intend to take this up further down in the series, but when I read the Messianic Psalms, the prophets and the gospels the trend is clear – the Messiah’s task was a task of changing the world order spiritually, socially, economically and ecologically.

When all we care about is a divine Jesus, we will miss his kingly, this-worldly impact altogether.