I want to take just a moment to examine very briefly another important dynamic of the Gospel’s setting – the religious context through which Jesus walked and taught.
The Pharisees and the Sadducees were at theological odds with one another. Whereas the Pharisees rejected Hellenism and Roman rule, wishing only to be faithful to the Law and its application to every day Jewish life, the Sadducees belonged to Jewish aristocracy and centered their concern on the Temple. Because of their more conservative methods (both religious and political), it was the Sadducees that found support from Rome. The Sadducess stood opposed to the Pharisees in matters of theology, the Sadducees claiming that much of the Pharisees’ beliefs were mere inventions. The Sadducess didn’t believe in angels or a final resurrection (thus their question to Jesus concerning marriage and the resurrection).
As much as the two parties hated each other, it is interesting to see how they joined forces when it came time to see Christ crucified. Jesus was their common enemy, a threat to both establishments, and they laid aside their differences and hatred long enough to see Jesus hanging, crucified from a tree.
There were also the Zealots roaming about, the Jewish patriots forever rebellious to their Roman occupiers. They were looking for a military Messiah that might help them cast off the Imperial yoke and restore Israel to its former glory. There were different brands of Zealots, like the Sicarii. Whereas the Zealots focused their aim against the Romans, the Sicarii acted as terrorist to their own people, assassinating those who either supported Rome or even conceded to their rule. It was the Sicarii and other Zealot groups that found themselves holding out in the fortress Masada in AD 74, four years after their guerrilla tactics led Rome to invade Israel and burn Jerusalem to the ground. Here’s a link to some more Sicarii information: http://terrorism.about.com/od/groupsleader1/p/Sicarii.htm
There were the Essenes who tried obeying the Law by withdrawing from the rest of society, confident that the end was near. The Essenes rejected Herod’s Temple and its priesthood, believing that it was destined for destruction and judgment. They were looking for Ezekiel’s prophesied Temple, and they clearly saw that the current Temple did not meet the prophetic requirements needed to be such. It was not the Messianic Temple they were waiting and hoping for.
There was also a difference in opinion among all the different groups as to how they should be waiting for the Messiah. Some groups believed that they needed to do whatever was necessary in order to provoke His coming, while others viewed such human manipulation as a sin. This difference of view still resides within present-day Israel, Zionism believing that God wants His people to fight for what was once promised to them, doing whatever is necessary in order to erect a Temple, while more orthodox views condemn such actions, believing that Israel must first return to God and that God will take care of these matters Himself once they have returned their hearts to Him. They believe, like the Essenes, that any Temple built by human hands cannot be the prophesied Messianic Temple and so any subsequent Temple would be destined for God’s judgment.
On top of all the different things going on in Israel, you also had the Roman policy that sought religious uniformity through the mixing of different elements of all religions and emperor worship. Keep in mind that these “mystery religions” were the objects of God’s judgment throughout the Old Testament. Israel had been the sword that God used to rid the land of such demonology. And now it was being imposed, to some degree at least, through the occupying arm of Rome (this was one of the things that kept getting Pilate in trouble, his attempt to honor the emperor while at the same time trying to prevent any type of complaint from Israel, but we’ll explore that incredible element of the crucifixion story when we get there).
There are many more elements that play into the early church that existed at this time, but they don’t become of major importance until the birth of the church and so we’ll leave them off until then.
So, we have a very brief view of the world Jesus was born into, the society in which He grew, the political warring engaged all around Him even as He walked on water, the religious disputing whirling like a storm across the landscape of His people… I think we tend to read the Gospels by supplementing our own context into the story, which is natural to a certain degree for any type of application, but if that application is to be truly accurate, we need to know the world in which Jesus’ words were spoken. As I said before, in western society it is likely that our flat tire might have us running to the Scriptures and being comforted by Jesus’ words, “Stop worrying about your life, what you will eat and what you will drink…” And while that would certainly put things into perspective, a flat tire cannot be compared to all the different elements facing the people to whom Jesus spoke those words (forty years later, Jerusalem would be destroyed). When we see what Jesus was addressing, what fear and worry His words were meant to dispel, a whole new dimension is presented for us here in our day. When we observe how Jesus lived, what He taught in the midst of what was boiling beneath the surface all around Him, I think there are numerous lessons for us now. I think we’ll see that if Jesus truly wanted His church engaged in certain matters, as she is today, He had every opportunity to make it known. As we move forward, acknowledging the challenges facing His country, His people, His faith…we’ll begin to better appreciate His words, “My Kingdom is not of this world.”