17 February 2018

Who is Jesus? – part 2

In this the second of five articles, Dr Desi Alexander invites us to take a fresh look at how the four Gospels give an extraordinary portrait of Jesus Christ.

Who is Jesus?

In the ancient world, a son typically followed in his father’s footsteps. If Joseph was a carpenter, Jesus himself would have been trained in the same occupation. How then did he come to be viewed as a king? It’s a good question to ask. All the more so, because this is no fairytale.

With the opening words of his Gospel, Matthew declares the royal nature of Jesus. Before anything else is said, Matthew describes Jesus as ‘the son of David, the son of Abraham’. By calling Jesus the ‘son of David’, Matthew underlines that Jesus is heir to the Davidic throne.

For Matthew the designation ‘son of David’ is very important. It comes more often in the Gospel of Matthew than in all of the other books of the New Testament taken together. By describing Jesus as the ‘son of David’, Matthew sees him as heir to a dynasty that began almost 1,000 years earlier. This dynasty was founded by David, the first Israelite king of Jerusalem.

To demonstrate Jesus’ link with David, Matthew begins his Gospel with a genealogy listing David’s descendants. Yet, this genealogy links Jesus to David in a rather surprising way. When we come to the end of it, Matthew indicates clearly that Joseph is not the biological father of Jesus. Rather he is the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Immediately after the genealogy Matthew reports how Joseph adopts Jesus as his legitimate heir. Rather than divorce Mary, he is encouraged by an angel to stay with her and accept Jesus as his own son.

Following on from Joseph’s adoption of Jesus as his son, Matthew narrates the visit of the Magi. Mentioned only in Matthew’s Gospel, the Magi come in search of a recently born king. Not surprisingly, their search brings them into contact with King Herod, who disguises his true feelings when they reveal their quest. But for divine intervention, the infant Jesus would have been slaughtered by Herod.

By incorporating into his Gospel a royal genealogy and the account of the visit of the Magi, Matthew intentionally emphasises the kingly nature of Jesus.

As well as introducing Jesus as the ‘son of David’, Matthew also refers to Jesus using the term ‘Christ’. In our contemporary usage the expression ‘Jesus Christ’ is normally taken to be a name. However, in the opening verses of Matthew’s Gospel ‘Christ’ is used as a title, meaning ‘the anointed one’.

Jesus is the anointed one. This further underlines Jesus’ royal status. It reflects the ancient tradition of Israelite kings being anointed to reign. At the very outset of the Davidic dynasty, the prophet Samuel anointed David with oil in order to set him apart as king. In Hebrew the term for anointed one is mashiah, from which we get the word ‘messiah’. In essence ‘messiah’ means anointed king.

Matthew’s insistence that Jesus is a king, belonging to the Davidic dynasty, is surprising when we realise that no Davidic king had reigned over the Jews since 586 BC. Almost 600 years had passed since one of David’s descendants was king. However, throughout this period there remained alive a hope that one day God would restore the Davidic monarchy.

For some Jews, this hope was perceived in strongly political terms. The promised king would bring freedom to the Jews, who were then under Roman occupation. They looked for God to intervene in great power, changing the world by making Jerusalem the capital of an all-powerful new kingdom. God’s promised king would rule over every other nation.

Against this background Matthew proclaims that Jesus is the promised king. However, Jesus does not come

to fulfil these political expectations. He views them as mistaken. God’s plans are for the creation of a very different type of kingdom.

This probably explains why Jesus appears to avoid using of himself the titles ‘Christ/Messiah’ or ‘son of David’. His own reluctance to use these titles is probably due to the connotations that they had at that time.

For Jesus, the popular understanding of ‘Christ’ or ‘messiah’ was inadequate and erroneous for it had largely political implications. This did not reflect accurately how the Old Testament portrayed the coming of the future, divinely-promised king of the Davidic line.

In his Gospel, Matthew highlights early on how John the Baptist calls people to prepare for the coming of the new kingdom. They are to repent, for God’s kingdom can only be entered by those who sense their own failure to live righteously.

Jesus, like John, also proclaims the coming of the kingdom and urges his listeners to become part of it. While almost everything that Jesus teaches relates in some way to this kingdom, Matthew 13 records seven parables that provide important insights into the nature of the kingdom of heaven.

Using the image of a small seed, Jesus reveals that the kingdom will grow gradually, starting as something very small but eventually reaching full size. Whereas many of his listeners expected God’s kingdom to come fully-formed with earth-shattering, highly visible events, Jesus gives a very different picture of slow, gradual growth.

Jesus indicates that during its growing phase the devil will actively seek to hinder the kingdom’s expansion.

Contrary to what some Jews expected, Jesus teaches that the coming of the kingdom will not bring an immediate end to all evil. Those who become members of the kingdom will face persecution from both Satan and those who knowingly or unknowingly side with him.

Even Jesus himself was tempted by Satan. Indeed, at the very start of Jesus’ mission Satan subtly offered him universal kingship. If Jesus would worship him, Satan would give him all the kingdoms of the earth. While Jesus’ mission was to rule over the whole earth, he was not prepared to accept Satan’s bribe.

Starting small, the kingdom will grow as news of it is told to others in the hope that they will freely acknowledge Jesus as king. For the present, people have a choice to make: to side with Jesus or remain under Satan’s control.

Eventually, at the end of this growing phase, Jesus as universal judge will separate the righteous and the wicked. This will have disastrous consequences for those who have not become part of God’s kingdom.

While Jesus reveals the tragic consequences of not being within the kingdom, he also speaks positively about the benefits of kingdom membership.

Nothing is more important. To be within the kingdom is worth everything that a person possesses. It is like a man finding treasure in a field belonging to someone else. He sells all that he has in order to buy the field.

Highlighting the challenge of kingdom membership, Jesus reminds his listeners that not everyone who initially responds positively will remain submissive to his authority as king. And regrettably others will claim kingdom membership, but their actions will reveal otherwise.

Jesus also discloses that the kingdom he has come to establish will not be delineated by national boundaries. Rather, it will exist wherever people acknowledge him as king. To this end, Jesus’ followers are to pray constantly for the coming of God’s kingdom on earth and to be active in making disciples throughout the whole world.

Remarkably, the kingdom of God will not be established by military power. Jesus deliberately shuns such an approach, in spite of displaying exceptional powers over nature. On the contrary, as Matthew graphically reveals, this alternative, God-orientated kingdom is created through the selfgiving, sacrificial death of the king.

Turning everything upside down, Jesus dies on the cross in order to end Satan’s rule over the earth and his control of human beings. Jesus’ death offers release to those who are enslaved to evil.

As Jesus predicted, the kingdom has grown. Today millions of people acknowledge him as their king. With good reason, Matthew’s Gospel portrays Jesus as the son of David who establishes the kingdom of heaven on earth. Read it for yourself and see.

Dr Alexander has recently written a short introduction to the Four Gospels, entitled Discovering Jesus: Four Gospels, One Person (IVP, 2010).

Desi Alexander