Jesus’ “Competition” – Tiberius, the Roman Emperor

Statue of Tiberius

Jesus had lots of competition. When he traveled around Judea and Galilee preaching about the “Kingdom of God,” his listeners had to evaluate this message in the context of their own political realities. As I shared with you in my last entry, the names of Herod the Great and his sons would immediately come to mind, because this powerful man and his family claimed to be “King of the Jews” and he had the power to back up his claims.

But there was another dominant power that people in 1st century Palestine lived under and they must have wondered what this rabbi was talking about when he described the “Kingdom of God.” How did this Kingdom match up with that of Rome?

It’s time for a short history lesson. For several hundred years, Rome had been increasing in power and prestige and expanding its borders throughout the Mediterranean region. While there had been tyrants in Rome when it first emerged as a political power, Roman leaders eventually developed a system of checks and balances that ensured no one would gain absolute control.

But this changed in the century before Jesus’ birth. Julius Caesar became a military hero on the battlefield and, at the height of his military success, he returned to Rome with his army and established himself as emperor. He also encouraged Romans to think of him as a divine ruler.

Opponents had him assassinated in 44 BC and a long and bloody civil war followed. The winner of this civil war was Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian. He took the title “Augustus” (which means “majestic”) and became known as “Caesar Augustus.” Caesar Augustus declared that his adoptive father, Julius, was divine, so this meant that he was the “son of god.” Anywhere you traveled in the Roman Empire during this time, the politically correct answer to the question “Who is the son of god?” was “Caesar Augustus.”

Caesar Augustus also took on a priestly role and became known as pontifex maximus (“chief priest” in Latin). N. T. Wright points out that court poets during this time made Caesar Augustus out to be an emperor who would bring in a “golden age.” By the way, the writers of the American constitution borrowed a phrase from these Roman poets – novus ordo seclorum, “a new order of the ages” – and this appears on the Great Seal of the United States and on our one dollar bill!

Roman coin with Tiberius’ image

When Caesar Augustus died in 14 AD, his successor Tiberius worked hard to continue the memory of his predecessor as a divine figure, so he could make the same claims to be the “son of god.” Roman coins in Jesus’ day showed Tiberius on one side as Caesar and on the other side as “chief priest.” When Jewish leaders asked Jesus what to do about paying taxes to Rome and showed him a coin with these two engravings, you can now better appreciate the challenge this presented.

There is no way Jesus could have avoided this “competition.” He was proclaiming the coming of a new kingdom, but any potential new kingdom would be viewed as a threat by Herod and his supporting elites, as well as by Tiberius and his regional political appointees. Like today’s Middle East, Palestine in the 1st century was a cauldron of political movements with loyal supporters of the status quo, diverse oppositional parties, and those who tried to simply survive the harsh character of their life under foreign occupation. Jesus’ claims added new questions to all of this!

I had the chance this week to talk about some of these issues with Michael Card, the composer/writer/biblical scholar, and we discussed how this situation is not unlike what we face today. Jesus was preaching about the “Kingdom of God” and encouraging his followers to find their identity in this “Kingdom.” They had a identity crisis facing them – were they going to worship the “son of god” from Rome (Tiberius) or the powerful regional ruler (Herod the Great and his surviving sons) or this new rabbi Jesus? To whom would they attach their identity?

Jesus made it clear that God the Father wanted his people to identify with his plans, his “Kingdom,” and he told them what this meant. He laid out his radical “kingdom message” that, among other things, included not just the healthy and wealthy, but also the poor and disadvantaged, Gentiles, women, Roman centurions, tax collectors, and people who suffered with sicknesses and blindness. This same invitation has been extended to us!

So What?

  • Whether we live in America or Russia or anywhere else, there are many pressures on us to place our identity – our meaning – on some person, some ideology, or some political party; or maybe just on our family or ethnic community. Jesus’ “kingdom message” is to place our primary identity here – as a citizen of the “Kingdom of God.” Any other claims on us, if we are followers of Jesus, simply don’t match up to this!
  • What would it mean if we began to live as “Kingdom citizens” and no longer found our primary identity in a political party, a social group, or our professional achievements? Of course we find some comfort (at least at times!) in being identified with the country where we live, but Jesus’ message of the “Kingdom of God” teaches us to lay this identity aside and put our true commitments into building God’s Kingdom “on earth, as it is in heaven.”
  • I hope these last few entries have helped you to see the importance of biblical context in understanding biblical content. This study has helped me and I have enjoyed sharing what I learned with you. Your response or comments are welcomed.
  • Jesus’ response to the Jewish leaders about paying taxes was brilliant. We need to remember this on April 15 and throughout the year as we pay our government taxes owed and consider our contributions to “Kingdom of God” ministries.