November 16, 2015 Terris Neuman

The Idolatry of a Political Messiah

“Idolatry is worshipping anything that was meant to be used or using anything that was meant to be worshipped.” – St. Augustine

In the story of the Feeding of the 5,000 in John 6, we see Jesus encountering situations where the very nature of his messiahship is being challenged. The people recognize his significance but are governed by a sense of utility that redefines what they think his messiahship should be. Their idea of messianic power is contrary to the nature of the Kingdom that Jesus brings and the kind of King he is. It is their idea of using this Messiah to bring in the kingdom that they want that leads to their idolatrous ideology.

This was the idea of Jesus as a Political Messiah with political power (Jn. 6:14-15). The crowd sees the sign that Jesus did and then comes “to make him king by force.” The Kingdom that Jesus came to inaugurate did not come by means of political power. The theology of the crowd was otherwise: if this man can feed this many people in the wilderness, he can rule from Rome.

Put his name on the ballot; Jesus says take it off. “He withdrew again to a mountain by himself.”

However the crowd was not alone in thinking like this, for Peter had the same theology when he was willing to use physical force to bring in the kingdom of God when he “struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear” (John 18:10). Throughout her history the church has been willing to use swords, bombs, and bullets to eliminate those whom Jesus came to save. Jesus will have none of it: “Put your sword back in its place for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Mt. 26:52; Jn. 18:11).

When Jesus picks up Malchus’ bloody ear off the ground and puts it back on his head the disciples are sure that Jesus’ political philosophy is unrelated to God’s Kingdom. Jesus’ supporters who thought He would usurp Rome fled from him because the Messiah who heals the enemy cannot be their Messiah.

James and John have the same theology when they want to call down fire from heaven upon the Samaritans who do not welcome Jesus into their village (Lk. 9:51-56). Sadly, Jesus must tell them that the Son of Man did not come to kill people but to save them. Then he rebuked them because they did not know what kind of spirit they were of. James and John are willing to use supernatural force to steamroll people in the name of Jesus.

Astonishingly, the first one to acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God after his death was the Roman soldier, a member of the occupation army, the ones the Messiah was supposed to eliminate. Jesus heals the servant of the High Priest and he saves the Roman soldier.

In the Gospels, the wrong types of people keep getting saved while the disciples try to either kill them or escape from them.

Jesus told Pilate that his “kingdom was not of this world. If it was, my servants would fight” (John 18:36). Peter, James and John were all fighting for the wrong kingdom. This was their idolatry: Redefining sonship by political means, making Jesus into a messiah they wanted. Many Christians today are making the same mistake as the disciples did: trying to use Jesus to create the kingdom they want, as opposed to the being disciples in the Kingdom Jesus initiated. This is idolatry.

In the book, UnChristian, What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity . . . and Why It Matters, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons state several reasons why people want to leave the church or do not affiliate with it in the first place. One reason is that some Christians are perceived as too political because of their political agenda. Like the crowd in John 6, they are not informed by the Kingdom Jesus demonstrated in his life and ministry. Here are some comments from outsiders:

  • Christians drown out and demonize the voices of others.
  • Christians expect non-christians to live up to Christian values.
  • They do not seem to prioritize the poor and needy in their political agenda.
  • They run the risk or turning people away from the cause they are trying to promote by losing sight of real people. Christians do not show grace toward people. They judge their actions without walking in their shoes.

David Prior, in Jesus and Power, uses the birth of Christ to demonstrate the nature of power in helplessness. He says, “Perhaps therefore, the power of God is seen consummately in the helplessness of a baby, as a paradigm and a precursor of the helplessness of a crucified man. If this proves to be the case, our notions – not just of power but of God himself – may need to be radically revised . . . God’s nature is to humble himself, not to assert himself; God’s nature is as a servant, not as an overlord; he wins by submitting, by serving, by stooping, by pouring himself out, by emptying himself” (29).

The integrity of the life of Christ lies in the means, not just the goal. How he brings in the kingdom affects the very nature of the kingdom itself! Disciples in the kingdom of God are like salt (not the steak on the plate) and yeast; the Kingdom is like a seed. Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey and dies on a cross. The God of salt, seeds, yeast, donkeys and crosses has not changed. Perhaps the crowd in John 6 was not interested because the way God gets things done looks weak. What kind of power does the church value?

How Jesus brings in the kingdom affects the very nature of the kingdom itself.

“ . . . The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

Article 6 – U.S. Constitution     

Tagged: , , ,

About the Author

Author Image
Terris Neuman Dr. Terris Neuman was born in Pensacola, Florida, and became a Christian at the age of 19. He received an associate degree from Pensacola Junior College, a BA from Southeastern University, an MA from Wheaton Graduate School, a ThM and a DMin from Columbia Theological Seminary. He has published articles in The Journal of Pentecostal Theology, Pneuma, Paraclete, Advance Magazine, Faculty Dialogue, and the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. Dr. Neuman has been a pastor in Michigan.