In the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, Jesus stands amid a fanatical crowd bellowing out their devotion to him. Simon the Zealot senses an opportunity and shrewdly informs Jesus that:
There must be over 50,000 screaming love and more for you
Every one of 50,000 would do whatever you ask him to
Keep them yelling their devotion, but add a touch of hate at Rome
You will rise to a greater power, we will win ourselves a home
You’ll get the power and the glory, for ever and ever and ever.
In the show, Jesus refuses to cultivate hatred of Rome and retorts that neither Simon nor the crowds understand what true power is. Lyricist Tim Rice is no New Testament scholar—it is open to debate whether Simon’s zeal pertained to religion or included a violent expulsion of Roman power from Judea and Galilee. But Rice did hit upon a genuine theme in Jesus’ ministry: Jesus refused to be the Messiah of a violent revolution, and he called on his fellow Jews to repent of the idea that the kingdom of God can be established by violent insurrection.
What took place at the US Capitol in January happened to be set in America: an unruly mob, some bearing Christian banners, smashing their way into a nation’s halls of power to overturn a democratic election and fulfill prophecies that foretold their political messiah. But the impulses driving the violent act—and subsequent threats of violence—were all too visible to Jesus in his day. He saw their inevitable disastrous end, and he warned his followers not to be seduced by the power of the sword.
Shortly after Jesus’ birth, a man named Judas the Galilean led a popular uprising against the provincial rulers in Galilee. Judas’s militant group objected to Roman taxation in part because it was oppressive and in part because taxation meant recognizing Caesar as king (their motto was “No king but God!”). The Jews resented Roman hegemony, with its puppet rulers, its appointment of their high priest, and the humiliation of being dominated by yet another pagan overlord, of which Rome was but the latest permutation.
The Galilean insurrection was crushed when Varus, the Roman legate of Syria, arrived with his legions to defeat the rebels and destroy the city of Sepphoris, only a few miles north of the village of Nazareth. Varus took the city’s inhabitants into slavery. Jesus grew up amid all this desolation, where physical signs and traumatic memories of Roman imperial violence were palpable.
Over the next 60 years, there would be many riots, incidents, massacres, and prophetic protests against Roman rule. No wonder then that in Jesus’ day, many people like Simeon were waiting for the rescue or the redemption of Israel (Luke 2:25), including the two travelers to Emmaus (Luke 24:21). According to the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, many were inspired by an “ambiguous oracle” from their Scriptures about a ruler rising up from their land to defeat the Romans and dominate the East.
Each of the major Judean factions of Jesus’ day had its own view of how to manufacture the kingdom. For the Pharisees, it was a matter of back-to-basics Torah learning, with purity and piety serving as the path to national deliverance. The Sadducees hedged their bets and threw their lot in with the biggest military power of the day, currying favor with Rome and praying it would all work out. The ascetic Qumranites hoped they could withdraw to the wilderness, keep themselves separate, write a commentary on Habakkuk, and wait for God to send his angels to destroy the Romans and apostate Jews.
In some ways like Christian nationalists in America, the Judean zealots were slow to organize. There was no formal “Zealot party” until the Judean rebellion in the late 60s, decades after Jesus departed the scene. But during Jesus’ lifetime, there were many zealous-minded Jews, who believed in holy violence to protect Israel and the temple’s sanctity. Their approach was a Torah in one hand and a sword in the other, practicing what they thought was divinely sanctioned violence against Gentiles and even Jewish collaborators.
Yet instead of calling on Jews to mount an armed uprising, Jesus critiqued the pro-revolutionary movements of his day.
Most often, those critiques were subtle. When Jesus described what the kingdom of God was like, he did not picture it as a formation of archers, chariots, and legions, but as a man planting a crop or the innocuous growth of a small mustard seed—things that God makes grow and humans do not manufacture by violent hoeing. The seed parables were a way of tacitly saying that the kingdom does not come by might (Mark 4:26–32). The revolutionary aspect of Jesus’ kingdom message was that it was not about a violent revolution.
At times, Jesus redirected his followers’ attention away from earthly worries that he knew could tempt them toward taking matters into their own hands. When Jesus was told about the Galileans whom Pontius Pilate murdered as they were offering sacrifices, and about those who died when the Tower of Siloam fell upon them, he warned of something worse than Roman brutality and natural disasters: God’s judgment for failing to repent (Luke 13:1–5).
Jesus did not want to be a king installed by people power (John 6:15) but rather the Son of Man who laid down his life as a ransom for others in direct opposition to the self-aggrandizing power of Gentile rulers (Mark 10:41–45). He knew from the ravages of war around Nazareth that “all who take up the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52, CSB). That is to say, violence begets more violence.
This posture contra Judean nationalism, which permeated Jesus’ entire ministry, culminated in his attack on the temple. The temple was not just a religious monument; it was a mixture of cathedral, White House, central bank, and Pentagon. It was the symbol of Judean freedom and the inspiration for Judean resistance since the days of Jeremiah.
The temple was the flash point for many riots and revolts, including the beginnings of the Judean insurrection against Rome in A.D. 66, which began when the priests refused to accept the daily offering on behalf of the Roman emperor. Rather than participate in the imperial cult with worship to the emperor and his family, the Judean priests were expected to perform a sacrifice on behalf of the emperor to the God of Israel as a token of their obedience. Refusing to do so was an act of defiance. The local governor tried to intervene before retreating back to Syria. Eventually, however, the Romans returned in much greater numbers, ravaged the countryside, besieged Jerusalem, and sacked the city, destroying the temple in A.D. 70 just as Jesus predicted.
In fact, Jesus spoke multiple times of what Israel would reap if it indulged its nationalist ambitions. When Jesus approached Jerusalem for his triumphal entry, we are told that he wept over the city and said,
“If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you” (Luke 19:41–44).
In addition, after visiting the temple, when his disciples were admiring its beauty and grandeur, Jesus told them, “Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down” (Mark 13:2). Much of the Olivet Discourse recorded in Luke also focuses on the details of Jerusalem’s siege and sacking (21:20–24).
Jesus, whether as a prophet or a political analyst, could see where Israel was going: It was heading toward a fateful and futile war against Rome, where there would be violence, carnage, and suffering, and the kingdom of God would be no closer.
When Jesus entered the temple and overturned tables, he was not complaining about the mixing of religion and economics, as if objecting to a megachurch gift shop. Exchanging coins and providing animals for sacrifice was more a convenience than a con for travelers from far away. Rather, what was affronting to Jesus was the connection of the worship of God with Judean nationalism.
In the Old Testament, the temple had been intended as “a house of prayer for all nations,” which Jesus made clear by quoting from Isaiah 56:7. The people of the world, including Gentiles, were to throng to Zion and praise God in his temple. But over time, Gentile rulers occasionally encroached upon the temple, and many Jews were embittered by memories of pagan sacrifices being offered within its walls and Roman soldiers entering its holy places. Contamination of the temple by Gentile intruders was such a concern that the apostle Paul’s opponents accused him of bringing a Greek into the temple to incite crowds against him (Acts 21:28). So while Herod the Great’s temple did allow Gentiles into the outermost court, the fear of Gentile defilement was real; any Gentile who ventured into Jewish-only areas of the temple was threatened with a sign warning of immediate death.
Jesus surveyed all of this and declared that the temple had become—in a better translation—“a cave of bandits” (Mark 11:15–17). For him, the temple was meant to be a symbol of God’s presence with Israel for the world. Instead, it had become an emblem of Jewish resistance against Rome, and Herod’s refurbishment of it had only served to resurrect the fallacy that Zion was impregnable. The result was, Jesus said, that when masses of foreigners did one day come to Jerusalem, it would not be with songs and sacrifices, but with soldiers, swords, and siege engines.
If Jesus’ message was not one of violent insurrection, collaboration with Rome, or indifference to political matters, then what was it? Was it purely spiritual?
Jesus taught that the kingdom was partly present through his own work, but that it also was something still to come. And among those who were “near” the kingdom, it had certain characteristics.
First, the kingdom of God is defined by love rather than anger. Jesus repeated the love command of Leviticus 19:18 and taught people to love God, their neighbor, and their enemies (Matt. 5:43–44; 22:37–39). Instead of fanning the embers of anger, he urged his followers to cultivate the virtue of love.
Second, the kingdom is bound up with faith, not fear. Instead of whipping up crowds with fear about the Romans, anxiety over food and clothing, satanic conspiracies, or even fear of death, Jesus told the crowds to have faith in God and in him (Mark 1:15) to bring the kingdom, by the power of the Spirit (Luke 11:20).
Jesus refused the temptation of a shortcut to power by playing on prejudices, goading grievances, or fomenting fear. Instead, he called his followers to replace anger with love and put faith where their fears are.
Michael Bird is academic dean at Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia. He is co-author with N. T. Wright of The New Testament in Its World and author of Seven Things I Wish Christians Knew about the Bible (June 2021).
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.