Was Jesus political? Absolutely, though not of the same kind as most of us. You don’t find him going in with this or that political party or interest group in his day. In fact, he likely frustrated the Essenes and Zealots and other groups, since one could not get his endorsement and support for any of the candidates or parties. He even had a former tax collector traitor named Levi (Matthew) and a Zealot named Simon as part of his inner core or cabinet of disciples. No doubt, Jesus had to sleep between them every night in his sleeping bag around the fire at Camp David just so that the Zealot wouldn’t slit the throat of the tax collector!
We can’t say that Jesus never looked to governments to solve problems. Just because the canonical gospels do not address the subject does not mean he never looked to governments to take care of certain pressing issues. Such would be an argument from silence. Of course, Jesus did look to the spiritual shepherds of Israel to care for the people and lead them well given their responsibilities of governance; he and his followers were convinced that these shepherds of Israel as a whole had failed to carry out their calling on behalf of God and the people (See for example Matthew 9:35-38 and John 10:1-21).
The political system in Jesus’ day was not a democratic system involving the separation of church and state. Moreover, the Jewish religious leaders did carve out a limited sphere of political rule under the regional governance of Herod and the overarching control of Pilate and Rome. Even so, Jesus’ ministry was not geared toward political activism of this or that particular stripe. He was concerned with the kingdom of God as manifested in his person and work. Again, one cannot take from his practice and mission that he would be against our being involved in politics in our democratic system today. In every case in whatever system, Jesus wants his people to be salt and light in various ways. That being said, he would certainly be against looking to government to solve all problems and placing our ultimate hopes in the political arena of earthly governments. He would also be against confusing his kingdom vocation with the ambitions of this or that political faction or system.
One should not take Jesus’ statement to Pilate—“My kingdom is not of this world” (“My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” John 18:36)—to mean that Jesus was non-political or apolitical. What he said was that his kingdom is of another order, one which intersects this order and calls it to account. That is why he says that Pilate, and even more so those who handed him over to Pilate, are under judgment: “Jesus answered, ‘You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin’” (John 19:11).
Jesus did tell his followers to honor the governing authorities. But that does not mean that he always obeyed the earthly rulers. He certainly did not. Nor did he expect his disciples to obey governing authorities in a blind and sweeping manner. Obedience depended on whether or not such allegiance to governments would compromise allegiance to Christ. The Jewish and Roman systems were both theocracies. Further to what was said above, the Jewish community and its official leaders swore allegiance to the God of Abraham and Moses in all their dealings; there was no separation of church and state. The Caesar system was bound up with the Roman pantheon of gods and Caesar worship. Jesus’ claim of being the king of another kingdom certainly collided with their systems.
Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths. This volume can be found wherever fine books are sold.