A key turning point in each of the Synoptic Gospels is when Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem. He asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter, as spokesperson for the group, declares, “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:29). Then Jesus announces that he will undergo great suffering, be rejected by the Jewish authorities and be killed. Peter, once again speaking for all, rebukes Jesus. Their Messiah would not suffer and die, or so they believed.
Clearly Jesus and his disciples had completely different beliefs and understandings about the role and function of the Messiah. They used the same language, but they held radically different beliefs.
Many of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries, like his disciples, thought of their Messiah in narrow, tribalistic and nationalistic ways – somewhat similar to the way a number of Christians do today. They believed their Messiah would deliver them from the Gentile powers that held them captive, and he would effect this deliverance in a forceful, even violent manner. Some thought he would do this through conventional means. Others thought he would do it through a supernatural intervention of power.
“Many American Christians want little to do with a Messiah who is a humble, courageous peace-maker.”
Some early Christians carried over this same belief into their Christianity. In the book of Revelation, Jesus returns as a general riding a white horse leading forth the armies of heaven. The writer says that “from his mouth goes out a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God.” There is so much carnage that the vultures and birds of prey have a feast. An angel says to the birds, “Come, gather for the great supper of God, to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of the mighty, the flesh of horses and their riders – flesh of all, both free and slave, both small and great” (Rev. 19:11-18).
How different is the portrait of Jesus in the Gospels from the portrait in Revelation 19? The Supper that Jesus shares with others in the Gospels is the exact opposite of the Supper in Rev. 19, except in one way: in both portraits there is no distinction of persons. In the Gospels all persons are recipients of grace and acceptance, not fury and condemnation. Jesus doesn’t wield a sword against his enemies. Rather, he models and teaches his disciples to love their enemies, to pray for them and do them no harm. He doesn’t ride into Jerusalem on a white horse to do battle with the Romans. Rather, he rides a young donkey staging a peace march in protest of all the violence and death with which the powers that be ravage the world. Jesus, in the Gospels, clearly does not come to rule the world with a rod of iron and a heavy hand, but to serve the world as God’s servant.
“They want a Messiah who excludes forever those who believe or behave differently than they do.”
Three times in the Synoptic Gospels Jesus announces that he will be rejected, suffer and be killed by those in power. And all three times his disciples do not hear him, demonstrating that we hear what we want to hear. After the second announcement the disciples get into an argument about who is going to be the greatest, and who will wield the most authority in God’s kingdom. After the third announcement, two of the disciples ask Jesus if they can have seats of prominence as his top two power brokers seated at his right hand and left when he takes the throne. Jesus tells them that the nations of the world appoint rulers who lord it over them, and then he says, “But not so among you.” Jesus instructs them to be servants of all people, just like himself, the Son of Man, the human one, who was sent by God not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life up for the redemption and liberation of all (Mark 10:32-45).
How could they be so blind and deaf? Jesus wonders that too. Time and again he says, “How is that you have no faith? How do you not see or hear?” How could they not get it? Well, how is it that so many of us still don’t get it?
I can’t make an assessment about Christians in other countries, but it sure seems like a large number of American Christians are drawn more to the image of Jesus in Revelation 19 than to the Jesus of the Gospels who is the servant of all. It seems to me that many American Christians want little to do with a Messiah who is a humble, courageous peace-maker. They want a Messiah who will rattle some cages, break some bones and spew out fury and wrath. They don’t want forgiveness and reconciliation. They want vengeance and retribution. They don’t want a Messiah who welcomes all to the table in mercy and grace. They want a Messiah who excludes forever those who believe or behave differently than they do. Maybe this helps explain why so many American Christians still support a president who is almost totally driven by power and personal glory. Perhaps such Christians and our president are not so different.
Do we want the suffering servant Messiah of the Gospels? Or do we prefer the vengeful, conquering general of Revelation 19? The Messianic image we are drawn to reveals a great deal about what is in our hearts. Eventually, the disciples of Jesus opened their minds and hearts, and they experienced a new beginning. I wonder today how many American Christians need to be “born again”?