The Jews in the Roman Empire
Jesus was a Jew who lived and taught a small band of followers, which included members of his own family, in the nation of Israel at the beginning of the first century. At that time, Israel was occupied by the Roman Empire, which stretched from the north of Britain to the Sahara in Africa, from Spain in the west to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the east.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the son of Mary, a few kilometres south of Jerusalem, the ancient capital of the Land of Israel. Jesus grew up in the more verdant north of the country, in Nazareth, in the province of Galilee. Jesus was by trade a builder.
Jesus began his public ministry around the age of thirty, and it lasted some three years. Jesus never settled or married. His teaching career ended when he was arrested in a garden outside Jerusalem one night.
He was tried in a cursory manner and summarily executed by the Roman authorities on trumped-up charges of rabble-rousing. The real charge, raised by a faction within the religious authorities of his own people, was blasphemy. Jesus blasphemed God in their eyes because he acted and spoke as if he were God – or, more precisely, as if he were God’s only beloved son.
Jesus the Jew
To understand Jesus, you have to understand his people. The Jews were the only people in the whole world at the time who claimed there was only one God and all the many gods of every other nation were only mythological, not real.
They believed the real God, their God, the one and only God, had made all that exists. God was unique and holy. God expected people to be ethical in their dealings with one another, because God had given them the divine spark of understanding.
God revealed the law first of all to Moses who thereby became the founder of Jewish religion. God told Moses and he told the Jewish people that keeping the divine law would make of the Jews a holy people and a light and sign to all other peoples of the world.
Breaking the divine law may bring short-term gains but would eventually result in total divorce from God and perpetual exile and death.
The teachings of Jesus
Jesus said that by His law God did not want to judge people and catch them out, but to love them and gather them to Himself. Jesus taught that the law was not an end unto itself, but the promise of glory, of God’s kingdom on earth, of a time of peace and prosperity.
Jesus further taught that the time for this kingdom was now and he was himself ushering it into the world at God’s command. For centuries the Jews had believed such a figure would come, who they called the ‘Messiah’ or in Greek, ‘Christ’.
The Anointed One (Messiah) would end history as it was known and start a new reign of God on earth. How the Messiah would actually come, how he would bring about the long awaited kingdom of God and what it would actually look like in the world was unknown, although there were plenty of noisy people with fanciful ideas on the subject.
The followers of Jesus believed he was the Messiah, and Jesus led them in that belief. It was to prove a challenging belief and a decisive one.
Jesus’ ministry and message
The reports of Jesus that come down to us are historical in flavour. They say he healed hundreds, if not thousands of people, sometimes from profound disabilities; people were healed simply by entering his presence, or merely by touching his clothes.
He walked across the water on the Sea of Galilee, he brought dead people back to life, even from a distance, and with just a word. He was also able to control the weather and other elements – turning water into wine and feeding more than 5000 people with five loaves and a few little fish.
He spread love and peace to everyone he met. His teachings were simple, wise and quintessentially Jewish. But this God-man was a living blasphemy to his Jewish religious opponents who regarded him as a threat to their livelihoods and social importance. It was one of Jesus’ own followers, Judas, who betrayed him by organising his arrest.
Jesus died in agony, nailed to a wooden cross, the sagging weight of his body not enabling him to breath properly as his strength gave out. When he died there was an earthquake and the sky darkened. In an age of accurate astrological prediction this was completely unexpected.
Jesus was embalmed and entombed. On the third day after his death this man who had spoken and acted as if he were God appeared alive and well among his followers and remained with them for several weeks.
The Christian religion was born. Jesus founded the first community among his followers, a gathering called ‘the church’ in English, which is the largest and most alive religion in the world today.
The founders of other religions are all dead. Jesus did not die. He did not remain bodily with his followers either, no-one knows how but he was physically removed by God in the same way that God had once, famously, taken the bodies of Moses, Enoch and Elijah, great Jewish prophets.
Jesus is God
While Moses was probably the greatest religious genius of all time, he was a man of God, clearly distinct from the one true God. Only Jesus among those who have walked the earth was not to be clearly distinguished from God.
While Jesus did not remain physically with his followers, he left them his spirit, which is known in the church as the holy Spirit.
The holy Spirit is the invisible but real presence of God acting through the name of Jesus. The holy Spirit acts on Jesus’ behalf in the hearts and minds of those who call on him with a pure and tender heart.
The hard-hearted (vain) and stiff-necked (proud) cannot see the holy Spirit, even if they try, and they will tend to mock the very idea of such a spirit and the church which embodies it in the world. The life of the church is one of witness to Jesus.
Jesus and the Church
The apostles of Jesus planted the ancient churches of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome and Constantinople and the good news of the power and promises of the risen Jesus have gone out from these foundations to the whole world.
The church has continually transmitted the holy spirit down the ages, often being unable to contain it, allowing it to spill out into great new movements: the so-called ‘Nestorian’ churches stretching east from Jordan right across the Arabic countries to the China sea; the great Russian churches in the north; nearer our time, the so-called ‘Protestant’ churches spreading from the north of Europe to the Americas.
The life of the church and the lives of those who comprise it are inspired, governed and led by the holy Spirit. Followers of Jesus believe his promises recorded for posterity in the New Testament, that God is with us if we call upon Him in Jesus’ name, that heaven is reality after death for God’s faithful, and that Jesus will return one day, although even he could not say when that day would be.