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.
Jesus disobeyed the Jewish authorities by turning over the tables in the temple (Mark 11:15-18; John 2:13-25) and working miracles on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6; John 5:16-18). He disobeyed the Jewish system of his day at points where he found it and its leaders to be out of keeping with the Mosaic Law and God's intentions for his people revealed in what Christians call the Old Testament. Jesus disobeyed Rome by claiming to be a king—the King—to whom his subjects must give ultimate allegiance. Paying taxes is one thing, and Jesus did tell his followers to pay taxes to Caesar (Mark 12:13-17). Notice, however, the context for Jesus’ teaching on this subject: certain Pharisees and Herodians were sent to trick Jesus, trap him in his words, and get him into political trouble with Rome by raising this issue. As stated previously, Jesus instructed his followers to honor the religious authorities placed over them (Matthew 23:1-3). However, in the same context (Matthew 23 as a whole), Jesus pronounces extensive judgment on the religious leaders. Jesus is hardly calling for blind allegiance, when he himself strongly condemns the rulers for their disobedience to God. Jesus expects us to obey the governing authorities, as long as such obedience does not collide with allegiance to Jesus and his kingdom and with acting mercifully toward those in need as Scripture exhorts. For example, the healings on the Sabbath involved the breaking of an unjust law—not to be merciful—for the fulfillment of a just law that entailed healing and cleansing those in distress.
As difficult as it might be financially for his followers to do such things as pay taxes to Rome, it was even more taxing for his followers that Rome required allegiance to Caesar above all the conquered people’s gods. The gods of the various conquered peoples were likely viewed as regional deities, or as divinities that could be reframed in view of the Roman pantheon of gods. The orthodox Jews and Jesus would hear nothing of it (though no doubt for different reasons), just as many Jews would hear nothing of Jesus’ claim to be the God who revealed himself to Moses at the burning bush (John 8:58; see Exodus 3). As a result, they sought to stone him for blasphemy (John 8:59). It wasn’t the first time they had tried. Members of the Jewish ruling establishment only succeeded in getting Jesus killed when they appealed to Pilate (Note to the reader: By no means were all Jewish people implicated in Jesus’ conviction and crucifixion; there was a certain powerful faction of anti-Jesus Jews. The same was true of the Gentiles; not all Gentiles were involved in Jesus’ passion and crucifixion, but Pilate and those who carried out the execution of Jesus certainly were guilty).
The Romans had Jesus killed as a rebel, for that is what happened to messianic figures; they threatened Rome’s sovereignty. While Pilate found no basis for a charge against Jesus (John 19:4, 6), and while he was afraid of such claims as Jesus being the Son of God (John 19:8), and so tried to release Jesus (John 19:12), Pilate finally relented and gave Jesus over to be crucified when cornered by members of the Jewish hierarchy: “But the Jewish leaders kept shouting, ‘If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar’” (John 19:12b). The Jewish leaders challenged Pilate’s political allegiance to Caesar: Caesar or Jesus—who will it be? Even the book of Revelation can be read from the vantage point of kingdoms in conflict: Caesar and the supernatural powers to which he himself is subject or Jesus—who will it be? Hopefully, Jesus, for Jesus ultimately wins and Caesar and those supernatural forces to which even he submits will lose. The entire hymn of praise to God and the Lamb in Revelation 5 can be read against the backdrop of the worship of Caesar Domitian coming forth in triumphant procession. But Caesar's triumph will not last forever. Hail—not to Caesar—but to God and the Lamb!
As the King of kings and Lord of lords, Jesus was political, though of an order that transcends this world and intersects this world all at the same time and calls it to account at every turn. As Jesus intersects our paths during this election season and beyond, do we realize that our ultimate allegiance must be to him?
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 numerous works, including Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths. This volume and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.