Jesus’ preaching about the kingdom, and his reputation as a miracle worker, raise the critical question of how he understood his identity and mission. While our limited sources do not allow us to build a psychological profile of Jesus, the implicit significance of Jesus’ words and deeds can tell us a great deal about how he viewed himself in relation to the nation of Israel and her scriptural heritage.
In this article, we will look at a couple of the most widely acknowledged actions and teachings of Jesus in order to discern his mission and goals. (Find more in Introducing Jesus.)
1. Calling Disciples: A New Community of Faith.
One of the most undisputed aspects of Jesus’ ministry is his call of disciples to follow him (Matt. 4:18–22; Mark 1:16–20). Discipleship was common in Jesus’ day, both in Judaism and in the broader Hellenistic world, and students would often seek out and attach themselves to a respected rabbi or philosopher. Jesus appears to have been unique in actively seeking out and calling his disciples. Also unique was the commitment he demanded of them (Mark 8:34–35 par.; Matt. 10:37–39 par.; John 12:25).
While Jesus had many followers, the Gospels agree that he chose twelve “apostles” to form a unique group (Mark 3:13–19; Matt. 10:1– 4; Luke 6:12–16; John 6:67, 70; 20:24; cf. 1 Cor. 15:5). In its Jewish context, the number twelve was profoundly meaningful, signifying the twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus himself made this connection at the Last Supper, when he told the Twelve that in his kingdom they would sit on twelve thrones, judging the tribes of Israel (Luke 22:30; Matt. 19:28). Jesus certainly viewed this new community of followers as the righteous remnant of Israel—the reconstituted people of God.
This conclusion fits well the context of first-century Judaism, in which other groups, like the sectarians at Qumran, viewed themselves as the authentic remnant of Israel. It also fits well with Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom. The twelve tribes had not existed as a united kingdom since the glorious days of King David and his son Solomon. While many Jews had returned from Babylonian exile to reconstitute the nation, the motley band of returnees under Persian rule did not fit the glorious and triumphant restoration—led by Yahweh himself!—that was predicted in the Prophets (Isaiah 40). Many Jews longed for the day when God would bring about a new exodus, a true return from exile to reunify and restore the tribes of Israel (Isa. 11:10–16; 49:6; Ezek. 45:8; 47:13; Mic. 2:12; Sir. 48:10; Psalms of Solomon 17:28). This hope was often linked to the coming reign of the Lord’s anointed, the Messiah from the line of David (Isa. 11:1–16; Jer. 23:5–8; Hos. 3:5; Pss. Sol. 17–18; 4 Ezra 13). Jesus’ choice of the Twelve, together with his preaching about the kingdom, confirms that he saw his mission as the restoration of Israel. It is also important to note that Jesus did not count himself as one of the Twelve. He was fulfilling the role of Yahweh himself, who called Israel into existence.
2. Dining with Sinners: The Universal Offer of the Kingdom.
Another aspect of Jesus’ ministry that is both unique and undisputed historically is his frequent association with sinners and outcasts of society. Jesus had a reputation for being “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34; Matt. 11:19).
The call of Levi illustrates this (Mark 2:13–17; Luke 5:27–32; cf. Matt. 9:9–13). Jesus shocks the religious leaders by calling a despised tax collector to be his disciple and attending a banquet in Levi’s home. Appalled, the Pharisees and scribes demand from Jesus’ disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Mark 2:16). Table fellowship had great significance in the ancient world and meant social acceptance of those with whom you dined. Jesus responds, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31–32). The Great Physician came to heal not the self-righteous but sinners who recognize their need of spiritual healing.
Jesus’ words and actions demonstrate something new and revolutionary about the kingdom of God. No longer is fellowship with God the exclusive right of priests and the religious elite. The new age of salvation means free forgiveness of sins to all who respond in faith. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus’ teaching and parables reflect this great paradox and reversal. The proud and self-righteous reject the kingdom and are rejected. Sinners and outcasts joyfully repent and receive the kingdom.
— Mark L. Strauss, Introducing Jesus: A Short Guide to the Gospels’ History and Message. Read more of Introducing Jesus for an examination of Jesus’ attitude toward the Gentiles, and Jesus’ triumphal entry and clearing of the temple. Strauss notes that Jesus’ aims are closely related to his authority. Explore Jesus’ unique authority—and how Jesus’ establishment of a new community of faith is related to predictions concerning his death—in Introducing Jesus.
How to Use This Book
Introducing Jesus is a compact guide that will help adults in small groups and church classes answer these questions:
- What are the Gospels—are they history, theology, biography?
- What does each Gospel uniquely teach about Jesus?
- What do the Gospels, taken together, reveal about Jesus’ ministry, message, death, and resurrection?
- Where did the Gospels come from? What is known about their context?
- How do we know we can trust the Gospels’ witness?
This new, accessible abridgement of Mark Strauss’ classic textbook Four Portraits, One Jesus includes questions for personal reflection or group discussion in each chapter. Pick up a copy today and see how it could benefit your adult Sunday school and small groups.