Bodily Afflictions: 2. The Kingdom Movement of John and Jesus
Opposition to Jesus naturally arose because of Jesus’ opposition to the established authorities of His day. His opposition, like John the Baptist’s, came in the form of a movement that challenged the political and religious authorities of his day. This was not just any movement; it was a movement of God’s in-breaking Kingdom, His mission. Neither was it a movement offering undefined liberation or vague values of love and justice; it was a missionary movement calling people to live under God’s rule and authority because of God’s act of salvation in the person of Jesus Christ. Thus, it was, in a word, a movement pointing to and embodied in Jesus Himself. This movement created a great stir in Israel, as it does throughout the world today. The Kingdom of God is a “Jesus Movement” that unsettles the institutional halls of authority that would retain the reins of power themselves, whether in government or in the Church, and not release them to Him who is Lord of all, the author and finisher of our faith, Jesus Christ.
John’s Kingdom Movement
John the Baptist started a movement. Like the Jewish Qumran community in his day, John’s movement was outside of the established authorities in Jerusalem. Both raised true repentance above the sacrificial, institutional worship of Israel, and both sought a piety deeper than the rituals of the Temple. Neither were opposed to institutions per se; they were simply inadequate to carry the weight of being God’s people. Moreover, institutions inevitably become corrupt and need reforming—they need a reforming movement just as much as the kings of Israel and priests of the Temple needed God’s prophets to challenge them at every turn. Institutions of power—whether in government or in the religious establishment—need movements to call them to higher heights of repentance and greater depths of piety.
In John the Baptist’s day, many Jerusalem priests were wealthy, having benefitted greatly from the lucrative benefits of the Temple worship system. Many had compromised their commitments to God. The Sadducees—a generally wealthy group of priests who held religious and political power in Jerusalem—accepted only the Pentateuch as authoritative, denied the existence of spiritual beings, and claimed that there was no future resurrection. As keepers of the Temple and its functions, they loved the liturgies and rituals of worship over the faith and ethical requirements of God’s covenant. They also loved their social and political power in Jerusalem, often colluding with the Roman authorities.
John’s movement called people out into the wilderness, away from the Temple and the synagogues. He called them to the Jordan, where Israel first crossed into the land of promise to live according to God’s Law. He called them from token contrition to full immersion in the baptismal waters of repentance, from the show of piety in the rituals of religion to total transformation. His movement did not so much address the institutions of religion as marginalize them; their reform would perhaps be a good thing, but God was about to do something above and beyond what any such containers of faith could hold. The Messiah was coming, and he would actually remove sin itself in a two-fold, divine act of redemptive sacrifice and outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
John the Baptist and Jesus
Jesus joined John’s movement. More accurately, John’s movement pointed to Jesus.
John the baptizer and Jesus overlapped in many ways, as the following list shows:
1. Both had miraculous births announced by Gabriel (Luke 1).
2. They were relatives (Luke1).
3. John baptised, Jesus’ disciples baptised (John 4.1-2).
4. Both had disciples, even two of the same (Jn. 1.35-40).
5. Both drew crowds in the countryside and travelled (Lk. 3.3).
6. Both proclaimed impending judgement, repentance from sins, salvation, and the coming of
7. Both led “Kingdom of God” movements that challenged the halls of political and religious
8. Both challenged assumptions of privileged position: John said that not all are children of
Abraham, Jesus appointed 12 disciples to represent new Israel.
9. Both were opposed to and by Herod Antipas.
10. Both called for radical righteousness, such as on their views on divorce and remarriage.
11. John was the greatest prophet, like Elijah; Jesus was greater than any prophet and John.
12. Both took the starting point for their ministry in Isaiah’s prophecy of a new exodus (Is. 40.3;
61.1ff): an exodus out of sin and away from punishment, through the waters of repentance and the forgiveness of sins, and into God’s kingdom rule.
15. Both called for the fruit of righteousness.
16. Both were put to death.
17. Both taught their disciples how to pray.
Yet Jesus and his ministry are also different from John’s ministry, as this list shows:
1. John baptised with water, Jesus with the Holy Spirit and fire.
2. John ministered in Judea and the Decapolis, Jesus mostly in Galilee and Jerusalem.
3. John’s ascetic ministry called for repentance; Jesus associated with sinners, called for
repentance, and offered forgiveness, healing, and deliverance from demons.
4. John announced the coming of God’s reign, Jesus inaugurated God’s reign.
5. Jesus, the Passover sacrifice (Jn. 1.29; Mk. 14.24), accomplished the new exodus—and so was
baptised by John as the one who took on Israel’s sins.
Isaiah is the key to understanding the ministries of John and Jesus. Both John and Jesus fulfilled prophecies in Isaiah 40ff: God would restore Israel from captivity, remove their sins, and establish righteousness on the earth for Israel and the nations. What John announced, Jesus the suffering servant (cf. Is. 53) accomplished. Isaiah also spoke of “survivors” of righteous Israel to restore both Israel and the nations to God (Is. 66.18ff). This explains why Jesus chose 12 disciples, God’s commissioned representatives on a mission to the nations to restore Israel’s 12 exiled tribes and also to redeem all the peoples of the earth to the one God of all creation. Through Jesus, not the Temple, would the sins of Israel and the world be taken away (John 2.29).
The Kingdom movement of John and Jesus was a preparation for an ultimate act, a confrontation of a “Kingdom of God” movement with the institutions of religious and political power and authority. This act, Jesus’ willing death on a cross as a sacrifice for the people’s sins, shook the earth on which the Roman soldiers stood and ripped the curtain in the Jewish Temple. The Kingdom movement of John and Jesus rattled the halls of institutional power.
The point is not that institutions are wrong but that they need movements. The point is not that movements in general are right but that the “Kingdom of God” movement of John and Jesus was the movement—among all the other movements in their day—that was the right movement. Neither the liberation movements of so many would-be messianic figures of the first century nor the religious movements of Pharisaism or Essenism were adequate in their attempts to reform Israel. Rather, the movement that Jesus led, that was embodied in Jesus’ own person, was the movement that could deal with Israel’s enemies, her need for redemption from sin, and her need to purify the institutions of power.
As then, so now. The institutions of either government or Church need to be reformed. Not any movement will do, only a missionary movement led by Jesus and pointing everyone to Him is a movement that can offer hope and Godly reform. No abstraction from Jesus, such as we often see in liberation movements or ecumenical movements, will do. As John said of Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John 2.29).
Indeed, missions is the reforming movement of the Church. Not only is it the Church’s efforts in fulfilling its mission, but it is the very movement that can save the Church from itself, from its natural atrophy as an institution into the stale structures of authority and the injustices of power. Mission is the semper reformanda ('always reforming') of the Church. Not just any mission, however, but only that which, like John the Baptist, points all people to Jesus and finds in Him the very embodiment of the mission of God.