This is the first of a series of articles dealing with a Biblical perspective of social justice and socio-political issues such as the relationship of Biblical Christianity to the state. In this first article, we consider important contextual aspects of Jesus’ words. Perhaps in part due to the growing popularity of the (erroneous) New Perspective on Paul, there is less emphasis by popular evangelical writers on Pauline theology and more focus on the dialogues of Jesus that took place during His earthly ministry. Notice I didn’t say teachings of Jesus – because many of His recorded conversations were with individuals whom He was challenging to right thinking (repentance). His teachings, on the other hand, fit two general contexts: public discourses and private discipleship.
Jesus’ public discourses announced and described the “kingdom of the heavens” as being near and as a motivation for repentance (e.g., Matthew 4:17). That kingdom referenced God’s eternal spiritual kingdom come to earth in the physical manifestation that was specifically promised through Hebrew prophets (e.g., in the Davidic covenant of 2 Samuel 7; in the messianic passages of Isaiah 9-11; and in the new covenant passages of Jeremiah 31-33). Jesus described the kingdom as being near (or at hand), because He was the rightful King, and was presenting the kingdom to the nation. While His offer was legitimate, it had already been prophesied that Israel would at first reject her Messiah (cf. Isaiah 6 and Matthew 13) and then (much) later long for His coming (Zechariah 12-14), and He would return. Consequently, the coming of the kingdom would be postponed for an unspecified period of time (the purpose of which is explained in Romans 9-11). In the interim the Messiah would die to pay for sin, so that the people to whom God promised eternal blessings could have the kind of life (eternal) necessary to enjoy them (cf. Isaiah 53 and Matthew 16:21). Nonetheless, Jesus public discourses were centrally focused on the character of this kingdom as being truly theocratic – installed and governed by God (Jesus the Messiah) directly.
After Jesus’ Messiahship and the kingdom He offered were rejected (Matthew 12-13), Jesus altered His pedagogy. Previously, He taught plainly, and proclaimed the kingdom in easily discernible detail. However, following Israel’s rejection of His kingdom, He spoke publicly in parables. Contemporary interlocutors often consider that Jesus spoke in parables to illustrate truths and make them more apparent to His listeners, but in fact the opposite is true; Jesus spoke in parables to mask the truth from those who had rejected Him (Matthew 13:10-11). Jesus’ public discourses were still focused on the kingdom, but were presented in a way that His listeners would hear but not understand. Still, we notice that Jesus began to teach His disciples privately with clarity; preparing them for the particular roles they would serve in the founding of the assembly we understand as the church (see Matthew 16:13-20). This church was to be built by and upon Christ (cf. Matthew 16:18 and 1 Peter 2:4-10). The disciples would have a foundational role (Matthew 28:19-20; Ephesians 2:20), and would testify of Him around the world (Acts 1:5-8).
In the Gospels then, we can identify four modes of conversation in Jesus’ public ministry: (1) dialogues – usually intended to challenge particular people to repentance (right thinking about who God was and how one could be justified by Him), (2) pre-rejection public discourses about the kingdom – usually intended for broad audiences with a view to promulgating and clarifying the details of the kingdom, so that the nation would understand clearly what was at stake, (3) post-rejection public discourse about the kingdom – usually in parable form, in fulfillment of prophecy, and for the purpose of hiding the truth from those who had already rejected, and (4) preparation of the disciples – often including private instruction so that those He had chosen would be prepared for the task of founding and leading the forthcoming church (assembly).
Consequently, when we apply the words of Jesus, we must be cognizant of the context – whether we are dealing with dialogues or teachings, and whether words are applicable narrowly (e.g., to Israel in that generation, to the specific disciples, etc.) or broadly (e.g., to any believer in God, or to any unbeliever). If we are not alert to these contextual keys, we will find ourselves badly misunderstanding and misapplying His word.