When Jesus began his public ministry and gathered his group of twelve disciples around him, the Gospels tell us that his message was the “good news” of a new kingdom – the Kingdom of God (Matthew 4:23-25; Luke 4:42-44). What did this mean to people living in first century Palestine?
|Herod the Great
If you take a tour of the “Holy Land” today, it is remarkable how often the name of Herod the Great comes up. Many tourists who come to Israel to learn more about Jesus often are surprised that they hear more about Herod the Great and see evidence of his many incredible building projects. During Jesus’ time, if anyone was “King of the Jews,” it was Herod!
When the Romans conquered Palestine and seized Jerusalem in 63 BC, lead by their famous general Pompey, they chose to identify local elites who would rule new territories for them and collect taxes on their behalf. When Pompey was killed several years later and Julius Caesar was assassinated, a civil war erupted and Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian, emerged as the Roman emperor.
Herod was a shrewd political leader and he seized this opportunity — choosing to ally himself with the winning side in this Roman civil war — and was appointed by Octavian as “King of Judea.” Once the civil war ended and political stability was restored, Herod had all the political backing he needed from Rome and he launched a series of amazing public building projects that clearly established him as the primary political force in Palestine. Remnants of these remarkable creations tourists are shown when they travel to Israel hoping to experience the “Holy Land” during Jesus’ time.
Herod’s rebuilding of the Temple was clearly one major achievement, designed to firm up his political support among Jewish leaders. Solomon’s temple, built one thousand years earlier, was now recreated by Herod who employed 1,000 priests as masons and carpenters. Today only the four retaining walls remain standing, including the Western wall, often called the Wailing Wall.
In addition, Herod built fortresses, such as Masada and Herodium – both amazing architectural achievements, constructed aquaducts that brought water to Jerusalem, and founded a new port city, Caesarea, on the Mediterranean coast where no city previously stood and where obstacles to building on a barren shore needed to be creatively overcome.
Herod’s career gradually went into decline and, having gained absolute power, the power corrupted him absolutely; like many dictators, he became increasingly paranoid. Not only did he order the murder of all the babies in Bethlehem in a cruel effort to eliminate a potential new king he had heard about through wise men from the East, he also ordered the execution of his own wife and children. Following his death at 70 years of age, two of his remaining sons became the rulers of regions in Palestine – Herod Archelaus in Judea and Samaria and Herod Antipas in Galilee.
The story of Herod the Great and his sons is important background to the life of Jesus because when Jesus traveled through Judea and Galilee preaching about a new kingdom, the people knew he was directly competing with Herod who was clearly “King of the Jews.” Herod rebuilt the Temple – could Jesus match this? Herod brought peace and stability, at least for the ruling elites – could Jesus do this?
The Kingdom of God that Jesus announced was a threat to Jewish leaders who had become collaborators with their Roman overlords. Jesus was making clear links to Old Testament prophecies that said when God establishes his Kingdom on earth, the result will be justice, peace (shalom), and the removal of corruption and oppression. This made them increasingly nervous and fearful that the people would rally behind this new teacher.
Jesus did not start a new political movement. He did preach about the Kingdom of God and taught his followers to put their allegiance, their faith, in God, not in authoritarian political rulers who oppressed the poor and vulnerable. His was a risky campaign – to declare that a new Kingdom was established and that God, not Herod or the Romans, was the true and only sovereign ruler.
- Although Jesus’ teaching and commandments to his followers were not designed to create a political movement, Christians throughout history have often suffered for their faith when living under authoritarian rulers. Dictators, such as Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Tse-tung, were threatened because Christians refused to make them the sovereign authority in their lives. Many followers of Jesus died as a result. The same is true with today’s dictators.
- Even in our democratic system, followers of Jesus can be viewed as a threat by others because they refuse to “bow down” to political leaders and their fanatical supporters. If we declare that “Jesus is Lord,” all other claims on our allegiance are limited.
- Our challenge, as followers of Jesus, is to put our confidence in God alone and to reject any personal tendency or push from others to make a political ideology – of the left or the right – the place where we put our hopes.