How did Jesus handle the
need for our
Liberation from Human Governments?
By the time Jesus began his ministry in
Israel, the Jews had spent years under the harsh rule of the mighty Roman
Empire. Rome could be wickedly cruel to any who disobeyed or rebelled. They
used crucifixion as a horrific public punishment of lawbreakers, dissenters,
and the rebellious. In Israel they had already crushed several rebellions
and most Jews hated everything about these Gentiles. The Jewish people
longed for the coming of the Messianic liberator promised by the Hebrew
prophets, who they believed would come and free them from their oppressors.
During this time, a revolutionary group called the Zealots was founded by Judas of Galilee. According to the historian Josephus, the Zealots "have inviolable attachment to liberty, and say that God is to be their only Ruler and Lord." (Jewish Antiquities 18.23). Before Jesus' ministry, this Judas led a revolt in Galilee. He was killed by the Romans and his followers scattered. (Acts 5:36-37). Later in A.D. 66 these same Zealots would be responsible for a revolt against Rome that would lead to the destruction of the Temple and the dispersion of the Jews throughout the world.
In the middle of this seething cauldron of unrest, Jesus stepped into human history. How interesting that when Jesus picked his inner circle of twelve disciples, he selected Simon the Zealot. Based upon his affiliation, Simon would have been considered a revolutionary looking for the right time to rise up against Rome. Even Judas Iscariot, the disciple who would betray the Lord, is thought to be a Zealot. His surname Iscariot is believed to be a form of the title sicarii, meaning "dagger-men." The sicarii were ultra Zealots who carried daggers at all times so they could quickly assassinate traitors.
In sharp contrast to these selections, Jesus picked Matthew—the tax collector—to be one of the twelve. Tax collectors worked on behalf of the Romans, and most enriched themselves in the process. They were seen as traitors to their country. I can imagine that these three men—Matthew, Simon and Judas—had some interesting conversations as they followed the Lord together on those long dusty roads.
Jesus and Government Power
When Jesus from Nazareth appeared on the scene and began doing miracles, he immediately awakened all of the pent up desires within the Jewish crowds for their coming Messiah. On more than one occasion they were ready to lay ahold of him and proclaim him to be their king. Of course, knowing their motives, Jesus was careful to keep himself away from any attempt at fulfilling their pent-up nationalistic desires.
Right at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus did something unexpected. He essentially turned everyone's expectations upside down by preaching the Sermon on the Mount. He begins by uttering the beatitudes:
"God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted. God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth. God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied. God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy. God blesses those whose hearts are pure, for they will see God. God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God. God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs." (Matthew 5:3-10 NLT).
His words were absolutely revolutionary at the time, and are still so even today. In the 21st century we live by the mantra of power over others. We love sports teams or mixed marshal artists who can crush their opponents. We enjoy watching good guys beat the crap out of the villains in movies. In our world, we root for those who have might or superior skill. We seldom seem to pull for the underdog like we used to.
Against the popular attitudes of our day, Christ's words should be
a wake-up call. He announced that one's personal character is a power that
has to be reckoned with. One man sold out to God can accomplish more than
all of the weapons of men. God sees deeply inside of us and he promises to reward
those who practice good. Then Jesus goes on to say:
"You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles." (Matthew 5:38-41 NLT).
This must have hit the crowd particularly hard. Roman law required a Jew to carry a solder's pack one mile if he met a soldier on the road. Jews would mark off a mile in all directions from their home and would go no further. I'm sure Jesus' words shocked the crowd. They should go a second mile; they should turn the other cheek; they should give their coat away too.
Surely Jesus did not mean, in every situation, that a man is to give away all of his time, money and possessions to those who are evil or demand of tribute from him. But he definitely was presenting a whole new way of looking at oppression. I believe he was saying that we are not to let little things become such grave offenses that we miss the bigger issues of life.
Later, the religious leaders would try to trick Jesus by asking him if it was right to pay taxes to Caesar? The Lord asked them to hand him the coin used for the poll tax. He then asked whose picture and inscription were stamped on it. Of course, the answer was "Caesar's." The Lord then responded, "Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God." (Matthew 20:21 NLT).
So Jesus was saying: obey your government (even a despotic one) and pay your taxes. Somehow that message does not seem to be all that revolutionary or liberating does it? If you lived in the first century and you desperately wanted a Messiah to deliver you from your enemies, this is certainly not what you wanted to hear.
But Jesus didn't offer what people wanted. Instead, he brought to the world something different and vastly superior. He came to show how to conquer both life and death. He came to offer a personal salvation that would be far more valuable than any political or military victory which his people longed for.
Jesus lived out his teaching when they came to arrest him. He refused to fight back. "Put away your sword," he told Peter. "Those who live by the sword will die by the sword." (Matthew 26:52). When Jesus faced trumped-up charges, again he did not resist. He beat them not by fighting on their terms, but by rising from the death. (And of course, in the process, he purchased a ransom for all of mankind over sin's power.)
During his first appearance on earth, the Lord's approach did not involve physically rebelling against evil governments, pseudo spiritual leaders or unjust authority. But be clear about his. He will return a second time to planet earth, and when he does there will be a fiery sword in his mouth. At his second coming, violence will be used on those who have rebelled against him.
The Impact of Jesus' Liberation
Keep in mind that the Lord's passive approach to corrupt politicians and religious leaders abusing their power during that day was really not his message. He did actually hate hypocrisy and he did rail against the teachings of the Pharisees. Jesus had strong words of condemnation about their beliefs and their lifestyles because they led people away from the truth.
Although Jesus' message for his people and later for the Church, seems passive, think of it more as a subtle strategy rather than his full message. Remember that the Christian Church learned from his example and followed his approach in order to change the hostile ancient world. This passive approach kept his followers out of a lot of trouble while they systemically uprooted the immoral society of their age.
Now this passive approach obviously didn't keep Christian believers from being persecuted, it just slowed it down somewhat. In a world full of a multitude of gods (each supported by local artisans and statue makers) as well as temple prostitution, the presence of a group who believed in morality brought an incredible backlash. Christians were soon being hunted down, thrown to the lions, and crucified just for the "crime" of following their God.
But for every Christian who was killed many more took their place. Almost overnight Christianity became a force to reckon with. When the persecution broke out heavily, the Church went underground—literally. The catacombs (where bodies were buried) became a preferred choice for Christians to escape some persecution and also to have hidden church meetings.
The basic approach which the Lord left to the early disciples was to concentrate on their mission, not letting the cauldron of local political turmoil surrounding them to sidetrack their message. Their mission was not to change governments, it was to liberate and revolutionize the hearts of men. The difference between them and their world was the difference between light and darkness. And people responded in great numbers because they could see the message was true and right and very needed for the world.
Later, when the Romans outlawed Christianity, it thrived. And in the end, the presence of the Christians in the Empire had a strong impact upon the culture of the day and it has caused a lot of corrupt governments to fall. In the United States in particular, the presence of strong groups fleeing their homelands because of religious persecution spawned probably the greatest nation that the world has ever seen. (Yet that has all changed because American Christians have lost their "salt" and impact in their own country).
Jesus certainly deserves to be viewed as the greatest Liberator of all time because of what he's already accomplished throughout history. No one else has freed more lives from the burden and oppression of tyranny. He has healed and protected people from oppression when they are trampled under the foot of despotic regimes.
The Lord's Future Liberation
Today planet earth is teaming with people frustrated by the governments under which they live. Many suffer under political oppression, burdensome taxes and the heavy boot of over-regulation. So many governments are corrupt, profiting at the expense of their citizens. People feel disenfranchised, and in most cases they truly are.
Since the first government took power in human history, governments have had a habit of behaving in despotic ways. Actually, it is the rare government that is not corrupt and oppressive over its own citizens. In the last century alone, our modern governments have slaughtered over 100 million of their OWN people. I'm not talking about those from other countries killed during wars, but the people who are wiped out by their very own national government for a wide variety of stupid reasons: their religion, their race, their political beliefs, their loyalties, and for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
As the old statement goes, "Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely." The more powerful a government becomes the more likely it will use its power to abuse its citizens. It doesn't matter that a government has laws to prevent those abuses, because those in power are often psychopaths who feel they are above the law and they reveal absolutely no remorse for any of their actions. This is amazing to normal citizens, but it is definitely what happens behind closed doors.
Here is the Lord's response to a tragedy that happened at the hands of Pontius Pilate: "There were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And Jesus said to them, "Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." (Luke 13:1-3 NASB).
Now, you might be wondering why the Lord hasn't intervened in human history more whenever there is an evil or major abuse of power. He has chosen not to do that, giving Satan the opportunity to rule this world for the time being. Satan is called the god of this world and he does rule it (2 Corinthians 4:4). But the Lord is giving men time to repent. He is not willing that any should eternally perish. (See 2 Peter 3:8-9). If the Lord consistently intervened in human history there would be no real choice between good and evil.
On another occasion, Jesus promised he will right the wrongs in the future: "Don't you think God will surely give justice to his chosen people who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will grant justice to them quickly! But when the Son of Man returns, how many will he find on the earth who have faith?" (Luke 18:7-8 NLT).
While Jesus made it clear that he did not come to the world to judge it (John 12:47-48), he is allowing the world to condemn itself through its own actions. Jesus said: "For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed." (John 3:17-20 NASV). So people will be judged by how they respond to the Lord and his message of salvation.
The Lord is not quite ready to interrupt human history to stop evil. But that moment is definitely coming soon. You can count on that. The day is quickly approaching when the Lord's patience runs out. And when that happens, Jesus will return and punish evil doers for their deeds. He has already begun to bring down his wrath upon the earth for man's sin.
People often feel they are getting away with their wicked behavior. No one seems to notice what they've done, and even if they have, it seems no one really cares anymore. But just because someone is not caught and held accountable for their deeds now, doesn't mean that they won't be punished at the time of judgment. So it is true that judgment is coming upon those who deserve it and who have not responded to God's Light found in Christ.