Was Jesus A Religious Revolutionary?

Many Christians have this picture of Jesus as a religious revolutionary. The story goes something like this.

  1. The Jewish leaders such as the Pharisees were judgemental and oppressive because they were stuck in the ways of Judaism.
  2. Jesus arrives on the scene and brings a revolutionary teaching about God’s love and desire for relationship. Now they can forget about religion.
  3. The Jews who believed in Jesus became Christians and abandoned their old religion.

Conclusion: Jesus was a religious revolutionary

The problem with this version of events is that although it contains some elements of truth, it is not entirely correct.

You see, if we look closely, we find that Jesus was not so much a religious revolutionary as he was a religious conservative.

No, we’re not making any claims about the political affiliation of Jesus today. But the word conservative is what best describes the mission of Jesus.

A conservative is one who seeks to hold on to and preserve traditional values. They work to bring clarity back to things that have become distorted over time. This is what Jesus came to do.

Let’s correct some of our narrative above.

1. The Jewish leaders such as the Pharisees were judgemental and oppressive not because they were stuck in Judaism but because they had added to God’s laws

Let us not forget that Jesus was a Jew. And that he was the most Jewish Jew that existed.

Jesus not only lived under the Torah but he was the one who created it.

When we see Jesus criticise the Pharisees, it’s not because he opposes the Jewish law but the unnecessary additions to it.

For example, what began with God’s command to honour the Sabbath became an oppressive burden with hundreds of different specific rules about what you could and couldn’t do on the Sabbath.

So when Jesus healed on the Sabbath, the Pharisees were angry for breaking their customs. But they were missing God’s original intention because they had added additional traditions that God never created. (See Mark 2:23-27)

Not all of these traditions were bad of course but sometimes traditions can distract us from what matters most. That’s what happened with the Pharisees and we see this happen today just as frequently.

2. Jesus arrives on the scene and reminds everyone about God’s love and desire for relationship. Now they can obey God and practice religion but from a correct heart posture.

Jesus did not bring a new teaching about God’s love. If you read the Old Testament then you’ll find plenty about it. (See Psalm 103 for example). The idea of living by faith (trust in God) was also not a New Testament one.

God was always looking for people to trust in him (relationship) and therefore obey his commands (religion).

We often create a false dichotomy between relationship and religion which often subtly communicates that obedience is not that important. But a much better interpretation of scripture is that true religion flows from relationship with God.

3. The Jews who believed in Jesus acknowledged him as the promised Messiah and continued to follow Jewish customs.

Jesus never told his followers (who were all Jewish) to abandon the Law and the Prophets. In fact he specifically and emphatically stated that this was not his goal. (See Matthew 5:17)

The early church was Jewish and gradually the good news was also shared with the Gentiles. Note that the Gentiles were never required to follow the Jewish law and practices. And over the next centuries as Christianity spread, sadly the Jewish roots of the church became less understood.

Conclusion: Jesus came to bring the Jewish people back to God’s original heart and teaching.

Jesus was not a religious revolutionary. He was the promised Jewish messiah through whom God would unite all peoples.

Recommended reading

Jesus Never Said Anything New by Rabbi Matt Rosenberg

Jewish New Testament Commentary by David H Stern

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