I view Jesus as a human being, like you and me, but living in a different time and place. Jesus was a Jew, almost 2,000 years ago, and he shared the Jewish belief that God intended for the descendants of Abraham (the Jews) to become a nation. (Genesis 12:2).
The Jewish nation, known as the Kingdom of Israel, had a history of being dominated by other nations including Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, Egypt, and Syria. In Jesus’ day, the Jews were ruled by the Romans. The Jews looked forward to the day when they would become what Abraham had envisioned — an independent nation obedient to God’s laws.
When John the Baptist began preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2), some Jews believed that the time had come for a messiah (“anointed one”) to liberate the Jews and reestablish an independent Kingdom of Israel. Jesus joined this movement and was baptized by John the Baptist.
“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14-15).
At that time, Jesus’ concept of the “kingdom of God” was a nationalistic one. When Jesus sent his disciples out to preach the coming of the kingdom, Jesus told them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles (non-Jews), and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (the Jews). And preach as you go, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 10:5-7).
(Note: The terms “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” are synonymous.)
In the beginning, Jesus was clearly a Jewish revoluntionary and he was eventually crucified as such by the Romans. But as Jesus traveled and preached the coming of the “kingdom of God,” Jesus’ concept of the kingdom began to change.
When Jesus encountered a Caananite (non-Jewish) woman from the district of Tyre and Sidon, the woman asked Jesus to heal the woman’s daughter.
Jesus said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Note: At that time, Jesus was a Jewish revolutionary and he thought that his mission was only to help the Jews.)
But the woman came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord (sir), help me.” Jesus replied, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” (Note: In this statement, Jesus expressed a prejudice that was common among the Jews at that time. Jesus referred to the Jews as the “children” of God and to the Caananites, non-Jews, as “dogs,” implying that non-Jews were inferior to Jews.)
The Caananite woman replied, “Yes, lord (sir), yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith. Be it done for you as you desire.” And the woman’s daughter was healed, according to the book of Matthew (15:22-28).
It seems that Jesus learned a lesson in humility and faith from this Canaanite woman. As Jesus encountered persons of other nationalities and religions, Jesus gradually overcame his prejudices against such persons. Jesus ended his days on earth telling his disciples to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). And Jesus used a Samaritan (a non-Jew) as an example of a “good neighbor” in the parable of the “good Samaritan” (Luke 10:29-37).
As Jesus’ concept of the “kingdom of God” grew, he used parables (stories) to try to explain his new concept. Many of Jesus’ parables begin with the statement, “The kingdom of heaven is like ….” It is in Jesus’ parables that we find the “kingdom of God” defined as the reign of God’s laws (commandments) in the hearts of individuals and in the reformation of society. Jesus prayed to God, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
Jesus summarized the laws, or commandments, of God as follows: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the (Mosaic) law and (teachings of) the prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40).
Jesus, as a Jew, probably never gave up his hope that someday the Kingdom of Israel would be reestablished as an independent nation obedient to God’s laws but Jesus’ concept of the “kingdom of God” contained the hope that God’s law of love would rule in every human heart and in all of human society.
Jesus believed that he had been “anointed” to preach the gospel (good news) that the “Kingdom of God is at hand, repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). In the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus read from the book of Isaiah, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news ….” (Luke 4:18). The Greek word “christos” means “anointed one” so Jesus eventually became known as Jesus “the christos.” And the followers of Jesus eventually became known as “Christians.”
Jesus knew that he was risking crucifixion by the Romans because Jesus was preaching the coming of the kingdom of God. The Romans viewed this message as words of a Jewish revolutionary seeking to liberate the Jews from the Romans. Crucifixion was the Roman punishment for revolutionaries.
Jesus took this risk and was crucified by the Romans. Although Jesus survived his crucifixion, at least for some days, his cross became a symbol of unconditional love for others and a commitment to the mission of spreading the gospel of God. Jesus said to his disciples, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:12-13).
Later, a man named Paul misinterpreted the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion. Paul believed that Jesus died on the cross as a sacrifice to pay a death penalty on behalf of humankind to save people from the “wrath” of God. Paul believed that Jesus was a divine and sinless being who sacrificed his life as a “substitute” to atone (make amends) for the sins of humankind, like a “ram without blemish” was sacrificed as a “guilt offering” to God in the Jewish temple, 2,000 years ago (Leviticus 6:6-7). Today, the so-called “substitutionary theory of the atonement” is based on Paul’s belief.
But Jesus saw himself only as a “man who has told you the truth which I heard from God” (John 8:40) and Jesus did not see his cross as a “substitute” for anyone. In fact, Jesus made it very clear that he expected his disciples to risk their own lives if they chose to follow him. Jesus said, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27).
Here, Jesus is clearly saying that a person must be prepared to pay whatever it costs to live by the commandments — to love God and neighbor. The cost to Jesus was crucifixion. However, it is our willingness to bear our own cross (whatever it may be) that identifies each of us as a disciple of Jesus. The cross of Jesus serves as an example to be followed; it does not serve as a substitute to save us from anything.