If there is one thing I’ve learned (or picked up) from N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Kingdom of God, is that:
It is vitally important to place the vocation of Jesus in its historical context
Could Jesus have come at a different time in history? Earlier or later than he did? After all, we often treat the ministry of Jesus as set of universalized principles, so what would it matter if Jesus came during the rise of the Byzantine Empire or early colonialism, or perhaps during a high point in Israel’s history like King Solomon’s reign?
No. We have to understand Jesus’ ministry as vitally important in its historical context. We must engage with first century Judaism’s national ambitions and hopes. Israel’s nationalistic pride was at its height. They wanted a militaristic Messiah who would restore Israel to her former glory. The Messiah would reinstate Israel’s preeminence on the global stage and protect and vindicate her from her enemies.
Jesus entered this theologically charged period of Israel’s history and redefined the kingdom of God. He had to reinterpret Israel’s current view of the reign of God and their eventual vindication. They wanted to be rescued. And God was sending his representative to do just that. However, it was done in a way that ran against the hopes and aspirations of Israel at the time, which eventually led Jesus to his death.
Ironically for Israel, but joyfully for those who believe, Jesus’ death was the true vindication of his people. Those who follow and believe in Jesus’ way, will be rescued and saved, not from the Romans (who Israel thought was the true enemy), but from Satan (who is the true enemy). Jesus’ death and subsequent resurrection brought about a way of escape from the true enemy, and a way of living life according to God’s way which is by faith, administered through God’s Spirit.
Historical context is vitally important for understanding Jesus.
Jesus’ vocation was specifically for Israel (not necessarily for the whole world). The whole world (Gentiles) benefit from Jesus vocation and vindication because he took on Israel himself. And if you know your Old Testament theology well you’ll remember that Israel’s vocation as the people of God was to be a light to the nations, a holy nation, a people who represented God to the world. So Jesus, by taking on Israel’s vocation in himself (that’s what Messiah means: God’s representative, the anointed one), is now God’s representative to the whole world. He is the light. Israel’s mistake, at the time, was holding the light for themselves rather than reflecting that light to the whole world.