The Group Affiliations the Apostles Had and What It Might Mean for Us

When I look at American expressions of Christianity today, I wonder if we demonstrate the right way to follow Jesus.

Oil painting illustrating Jesus Christ and his disciples on a meadow

I have spent some time lately considering the various influential groups of people in the time of Jesus and the orientation of those groups toward Jesus. I have wondered why Jesus seemed to pick on the Pharisees more than the other, groups, especially since they seemed most aligned with him and had most in common with him.

As I researched and thought about the various groups of Jewish influencers in the First Century in relation to Jesus, I began to think about the apostles, and their connections to these groups. I am always mining for insight as I read Scripture, and today my mind turns toward the relationship of the twelve apostles to those same groups of First Century, Jewish influencers.

We don’t know much about the background of the twelve disciples, except that most of them were “common” men of humble means and many were of uncertain group identity. One disciple was identified with the Zealots (Simon, the Zealot, also known as Simon the Canaanite). Matthew, the tax collector, might have been Herodian (or may have been viewed as one).

We really don’t know about the group affiliation of the other disciples, at least not from the explicit text. They seem to have been more ordinary people with no distinct association with particular groups. They did not seem to be closely associated with any of the five groups Jewish leadership groups in First Century Judea.

Even Simon, who is known as the Zealot, would have left his group behind to follow Jesus. Just as Matthew left behind his livelihood (tax collection) to follow Jesus and Simon (Peter) and Andrew dropped their fishing nets to follow Jesus. It’s no stretch, therefore, to imagine that Simon, the Zealot, would have similarly “dropped” or left behind his affiliation with the Zealots to follow Jesus.

In fact, the theme of leaving behind your group seems to run throughout the teaching and example of Jesus. Jesus said, “[E]veryone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.” (Matt. 19:29)

He called Peter and Andrew and James and John away from their profession of fishing. He called Matthew, the tax collector, away from his profession. I think it’s fair to assume that Jesus called Simon, the Zealot, away from the Zealots to follow him.

The theme of leaving behind family, livelihood and group identity runs deep in Scripture, all the way back to Abram (as Abraham was known) when God called Abram to leave his country, his people and his father’s household and go to the land God would show him. (Gen. 12:1)

Hebrews 11 commends Abraham for the example of faith demonstrated in leaving behind the familiarity of all the things that typically identify people and their place in the world at God’s call. Abraham and all the people of faith commended in Hebrews 11 demonstrated that kind of faith that made them “aliens and strangers on earth”.

Jesus called the rich young ruler to walk away from his wealth. (Matt. 19:16-30) Jesus told Nicodemus, the Pharisees, that he would have to be born again to see the kingdom of God. (John 3:3)

The kingdom of God is something I have been mulling over for many weeks, and months. It’s a theme I have written about often lately, as it has occupied a prominent place in my meditations lately.

The five main groups of Jewish influencers in the First Century had one thing in common – they were operating on a spectrum of relationship to the political structures and religious structures in their world. They were invested and embedded and entrenched into their positions, and identities, people with whom they affiliated.

Along comes Jesus, and he calls people “out of the world”. (John 15:18-19) Jesus calls people to leave their lives, and identities, and associations behind to follow him.

We don’t know much about the backgrounds and affiliations of the twelve disciples, perhaps, because they did just that. They left those things behind to follow Jesus. They became known, simply, as disciples of Jesus, Christ followers.

I am interested in these things because of what it means for us. If we would be disciples of Jesus and Christ followers, how do these things translate to our lives in the 21s Century?

Continue reading “The Group Affiliations the Apostles Had and What It Might Mean for Us”

Jesus Among the Religious and Political Groups of His Time

This is a companion piece to the last article I wrote and published: Why Did Jesus Pick on the Pharisees So Much? The former article was inspired by 40 years of observation that Jesus was harshly critical of the Pharisees. His treatment of them virtually jumped off the pages at me when I first read the Gospels in college.

The Pharisees, though, were only one of the influential groups of Jews in First Century Judea. We see some evidence of Jesus rubbing shoulders with the other groups, but not nearly as much as Jesus engaged the Pharisees.

We might be tempted to assume that the Pharisees were particularly wicked and sinful – far more, perhaps, than the other groups Jesus encountered, but that isn’t so. Jesus was most like the Pharisees, and they were most like him, in their theological leanings and in the social circles in which they operated.

For that reason, I focused in my last article on the question: why was he so harsh towards them? I could have asked: why didn’t he pick on the other groups more?

In this article, I will explore the other groups and the difference between them and the Pharisees. I will send a little time pondering Jesus and the twelve apostles in relation to these groups and, perhaps, provide some insight as it strikes me.

First Century Judea was broadly possessed by two groups: the Jews, of course, and the Romans. The Jews had long lived in this land that God promised their ancestor, Abraham, and the Romans were the newcomers, the recent conquerors in a long line of challengers to the Jewish occupation of the land.

The five Jewish groups represent a spectrum of relational attitudes towards the Romans and each other in their religious and not-so-religious observances, lifestyles and attitudes. I will tackle them in order of their relationship to the Romans and their religious orientation.

Continue reading “Jesus Among the Religious and Political Groups of His Time”

The Government Will Be on His Shoulder, But What Does it Mean that the Kingdom of God Is Now

How should Christians orientate themselves to the world in which we live and conduct ourselves in the political and governmental spheres of present life?

The following passage from the Prophet, Isaiah, isn’t just a platitude to recite at Christmas:

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
    and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Isaiah 9:6

Jesus has many names, but the one used (perhaps) the most is Lord. All authority on heaven and earth has been given to Jesus. (Matt. 28:18) Christians revel in that statement. In the next breath, after Jesus said this, he said:

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations….”

Matthew 28:19

When we think of the authority and lordship of Jesus, we might jump immediately to the ultimate conclusion – of Jesus ruling and reigning at the right hand of the Father. When Jesus told the disciples that all authority had been given him, however, his instruction to follow does not take us where our minds might be tempted to go. He did command us to take over the government or set up a new government.

His charge to the disciples was to go to all nations and make disciples.

That is still his instruction at this time.

Perhaps, we can be excused for forgetting the last instructions he gave after almost 2000 years. Or maybe not…. He was pretty clear about it. We also have the following reminder from the Apostle, Peter:

“But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”

2 Peter 3:8-9)

Of course, the government will ultimately be committed into His hands. (Is. 22:21) He will ultimately make a footstool of all his enemies. (Ps. 110:1) Jesus will ultimately sit on the throne with throngs of people proclaiming, “Holy, holy, holy. Lord God Almighty!” (Rev. 4:2)

Jesus will be seen as the Lion of Judah and the Root of King David (Rev. 5:5) at that time with a sharp sword coming out of his mouth, striking down the the nations, ruling them with an iron scepter, and treading “the winepress with the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty!” (Rev. 19:15)

But, that time is yet to come. We aren’t there yet.

Even in John’s vision of this future time, the most common description of Jesus is as a Lamb (28 times). Jesus is first the Lamb who was slain, and that is the most prominent name he is given, even in the Book of Revelation.


We have yet to experience Jesus, the Lion of Judah, with sword in his mouth, a scepter in his hand, and a winepress at his feet. That time has not yet come.

Meanwhile, Jesus came not to Judge the world, but to save the world. (John 12:47) Jesus came not for the healthy, but the sick; and Jesus presently desires mercy. (Matt. 9:12-13)

Jesus is not yet the Judge, treading a winepress with the fury of the wrath of God Almighty; He is the Good Shepherd searching for the lost sheep. He is not presently in the business of condemning the world; he is currently in the business of seeking and saving the lost. (Luke 9:10)

So, we should be.

The charge that Jesus gave us – to go and make disciples of all the nations – is still our marching orders. It hasn’t changed.

No matter how close we think we are to the end, God is still currently in the mode of being patient, not wanting anyone to perish, but wanting everyone to come to repentance.

We are easily distracted by many things. We can be so obsessed about the past and we can be so forward-thinking that we forget about the present. We can be so focused on the end times that we do not understand the times in which we live.

We may be close to the end times, but we may yet be far off, by human reckoning. To God, a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years is like a day. (2 Pet. 3:8) Jesus said we would not know the day or the hour. Most importantly, we are still in the times in which Jesus told us to make disciples of all nations.

He didn’t tell us to make enemies of the nations. He didn’t tell us to set up new nations. He didn’t tell us to take over nations. He said, “Go and make disciples of all nations.”

This, so far, is just a preface for talking about politics and government in the 21st Century. Yes, the government will be on the shoulders of Jesus, but what of the Kingdom of God now? How should Christians orientate themselves to the world in which we live and conduct ourselves in the political and governmental spheres of present life?

Continue reading “The Government Will Be on His Shoulder, But What Does it Mean that the Kingdom of God Is Now”

A Plea for Healing and Tending to the Garden in the Middle

The political and social atmosphere in America is playing into the hands of the radical fringe.

The events unfolding, the things going on in the world right now, are troubling from many angles. Racial injustice, polarization, the centrifugal force of political fringes, rhetoric over substance, political violence, conspiracy theories, fake news, the increasing control of popular speech by private monopolies of information, the abandonment of all semblance of non-bias by most media, the ability to choose our own tailored news, the hatred people are developing for others who don’t think like them, the unwillingness to show respect, listen and engage in real dialogue – these are things that are deeply troubling in “the land of the free and the home of the brave”.

The political, cultural, sociological, and philosophical winds are swirling chaotically and mixing at all levels into a tornadic gale that is bordering on dangerous. These forces are not coming from outside us but from within. Even if our present chaos is influenced by outside sources, they are merely putting pressure on elements already within us. “We have met the enemy, and the enemy is us.”

For four years, people have been blaming Donald Trump for every evil under the sun. (Pardon the hyperbole.) People have been lumping all Trump supporters into one group and condemning them (or so the rhetoric often goes). People have had good reason to be critical. (No hyperbole or rhetoric there.) But let’s take a step back (it may need to be a giant step) and attempt a look at the bigger picture.

Trump gained support over more than a dozen career Republican politicians in 2016 and was elected president over a person, in Hillary Clinton, who, perhaps more than anyone else, represented the entrenched political machine in America. Bernie Sanders mounted a credible offense with broad support against that machine but could not prevail.

I believe people gravitated to Trump and Sanders for the same reasons: they are tired of politics as usual. They feel that our political system has broken down. It has become big business designed to perpetuate power and control, rather than serve the people. Congress would rather do nothing and let presidents wield executive orders on issues that need their attention and a compromise solution (like immigration, for instance) because they don’t want to jeopardize offending their bases.

They are seemingly more motivated by a desire to remain in office, maintain control and serve themselves than the people who elect them. There is no give and take (in the good and appropriate sense) anymore. At least, not on anything that hits the hot buttons of political platforms.

We only have two choices. Those two choices are becoming increasingly unpalatable for people on both sides of the aisle, but practical wisdom suggests that voting third party candidates means taking a knee as the real game plays on without you.

Polarization is a serious issue that can’t be ignored. It is exasperated by social media that is designed for quick, shallow and knee-jerk reactions that cater to our worst instincts. Almost 100% of political campaigning involves demonizing opponents and “the other party”. We have become a nation that accepts rhetoric over substance.

The extreme polarization has given rise to the voices of the radical fringes who threaten to pull us apart. In a “normal” world, those voices would seem like largely inconsequential and impotent shrills in the distance. Today, they sound like megaphones on the Capitol lawn, infiltrating into the very House of the People.

The Democratic party has always been more diverse (in my lifetime) and has always had its diverse, radical fringes. The conservative fringes have largely operated outside the fold until recently.

I dare say the conservative fringes are more dangerous, ultimately, than the liberal ones, perhaps because they are more unified by common principles. They also bear arms like political badges.

The fringes are pulling good people from the center because the center has largely been abandoned today. It’s a no-man’s land where no grass grows, and nothing happens. People in the center are labeled “other” by the people on either side and ignored by both.

We need a “radical” change. By radical, I don’t mean extreme or fanatical. I mean a different approach to politics and dialogue with each other. We need common sense and a commitment to a bigger picture than political partisanship. We need someone who can bridge the gaps that divide us. We need a voice that brings people together on the common ground that unites us, rather than forcing all conversations to the battle lines.

Continue reading “A Plea for Healing and Tending to the Garden in the Middle”

How Should Christians Act in Times Like These?

If we aren’t responding to current events in ways that display love and the fruits of the Spirit, we are “doing it wrong”

Tyler Merbler from USA, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The events that are unfolding in the United States are troubling from many angles. Many Christians pinned their immediate and long term hopes on Donald Trump. With Biden as President, the fight against the killing of the unborn has been dealt a significant blow.

But there are many other problems. The racial divide, polarization, political fringe groups, extreme rhetoric, threats of violence, conspiracy theories, fake news, increasing control of popular speech by private monopolies of information, an abandonment of all semblance of non-bias by media, our ability to choose our own tailored news, hatred for people who don’t think like us, an unwillingness to show respect, listen and engage in real dialogue – these are things that are deeply troubling in “the land of the free and the home of the brave”.

To my brothers and sisters in Christ, Jesus said we would have tribulation in this world. He didn’t tell us to take up arms and fight it. He said we should follow him, spread the Gospel and make disciples.

His kingdom is not of this world. Jesus didn’t come to empower the Zealots, but to turn them into self-sacrificing servants of God and His kingdom – spreading the Gospel and making disciples.

Islam spreads by the sword. The Gospel spreads by people who wash others’ feet, turn the other cheek and love God, neighbors and even enemies. The Christian wields not a political flag, but a cross that he carries on his own back.

If we are going to fight for the mission of Jesus, our fight should be “to proclaim good news to the poor… to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”. (Luke 4:18-19) This was how Jesus described his own purpose on the day when he stood up in the temple and announced his ministry.

Should we not follow him?

Continue reading “How Should Christians Act in Times Like These?”