Quick Sketch: The Story of Jesus

Unexpectedly, an Expected Birth

About two thousand years ago, an impoverished heir to a long-defunct royal line discovered that his betrothed bride was pregnant. And not by him.

Joseph was a generous spirit by the standards of his day, and planned to divorce Mary without a scene. (In those days, betrothal was not simply a fairly loose engagement like what people practice today; it was a full marriage, except that living together and sexual consummation hadn’t yet come about. So it required a divorce to break the bond.)

But Joseph didn’t go through with his plan. An “angel” (messenger) appeared to him and told him that this was no ordinary birth, and that in fact Joseph’s beloved Mary had not been unfaithful after all. Rather, Israel’s God Himself had put new life into her virgin womb: a son who would raise up the defunct kingship of Joseph’s great ancestor, David. A set apart man who would rescue his people from their sins—the things that had brought alienation between them and God; the things that had defaced their humanity and harmed their community.

This child was, of course, Jesus, whose back story traces not only back to David, but on all the way back through the story of Abraham and the story of Adam and on into the story of the creator God. As mysterious as the virgin birth doubtless is, it should not really surprise us what the God who made all things is really capable of.

The World of Jesus

Jesus was born into Israel among the minority of Jews who were actually living in Palestine. But despite being in the land God promised them through Abraham, they were not flourishing, and were under the thumb of the Romans. The purest of Jews were deeply committed to a siege mentality as they tried to draw circles around the law of Moses so that Israel could maintain some sort of distinct character in a hostile Gentile (the word for nations, as distinct from Israel herself) world.

Jesus grew up in this world, a world of Torah (the law or covenant God gave through Moses) and a world of suffering. Already at twelve he affirmed the temple as his home—his “father’s house,” as he put it.

Jesus Gets Baptized

And then at thirty, he followed his priestly cousin John into the Judean wilderness.

John was a bit of a strange bird, dressing in camel’s hair and eating locusts, but everything he said had a prophetic ring. And taking his cue from the levitical laws of cleansing (the rules in the book of Leviticus) as well as various divine actions over the course of biblical history, he was baptizing people in the Jordan river ... where Israel had first crossed into the land of Canaan after God rescued them from slavery in Egypt. The action was rich with symbolism of cleansing, repentance, and renewal all rolled into one.

Jesus came for baptism, but John didn’t need an angel to know that Jesus was different. He didn’t want to baptize Jesus, because he somehow knew Jesus didn’t need cleansing like everybody else did. But Jesus compelled him to do so, and when the deed was done, God put his stamp on the event both by speaking (“This is my own son whom I love!”), but also by sending his Spirit in the form of a dove, a sign of new creation. That amounted to an anointing that transformed John’s simple baptism into a sort of priestly ordination ceremony. So all at once, Jesus was marked out as a new Adam, indeed a new creation, as well as a new sort of anointed priest. Or king. Or both.

A Different Sort of Priest

And “a new sort” is just what he was. He certainly didn’t act like the priests Israel knew; nor could he, since his legal father, Joseph, was not of the priestly tribe of Levi. But he did things that priests couldn’t do. While a priest had a ritual to carry out to restore a cleansed “leper” (a skin disease of the time that isn’t actually related to what we know as leprosy today), Jesus did one better. Instead of waiting for this affliction to “go away,” he did the unthinkable and touched lepers. Equally significantly, when he touched them their condition was immediately healed, and so he didn’t become unclean himself.

That kind of power transcended what the priests and other religious leaders had available in Torah, and just as Jesus’ priesthood was different, he exercised kingly actions in rather weird looking ways too. He didn’t gather a militia, even though other Jews of his day were doing so. His speeches sometimes had a tinge of battle rhetoric, but it wasn’t directed against the Romans all that much, and neither were his actions in general. He seemed to have a bigger foe in view, engaging in a series of dramatic exorcisms (expulsions of evil spirits) and healings.

A Different Sort of King

Judea was begging for a king, indeed for a “messiah”—an anointed son of David whom God had promised to send to bring restoration and wholeness. But the reaction to Jesus was deeply divided. Those who had been healed certainly appreciated him, but many others weren’t so sure. The common people tended to expect a military sort who would lead them into independence from the Romans. The Pharisees and similar religious thinkers supposed that any dramatic rescue to be expected from God would be in response to a nation collectively devoted to Torah—and frankly, if anything, it looked like Jesus was undermining that. Not only did he claim to forgive sins without the help of the temple; he also established a pattern of healing people on the Sabbath. He even let his disciples pluck grain on the day of rest, and when pressed, claimed that he was master of the Sabbath, implying that he transcended its rules.

For the most part, though, the halls of power were not controlled by the Pharisees, but by the Sadducees, and we’re not told much regarding whether Jesus’ strange views of the Sabbath worried them. But like the Pharisees, they were concerned about the claims he seemed to imply concerning his identity. Those claims were as often as not veiled and allusive, but repeatedly it became clear that he did see himself as the Messiah—a Messiah whom few Sadducees would have wanted; they rejected all but the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures and were skeptical about many things, including prophecies of a coming anointed king who would bring rescue. They had present power; they didn’t have an eschatology (a doctrine of “last things”), and for that matter, eschatology was an inconvenience to them at best.

But there was still more. As the son of David and as Messiah, Jesus would be entitled to be called “a son of God”—that was an endearment that God had promised David that his royal heirs would enjoy. But something about how Jesus referred to God as his father; and something about the sort of authority he assumed; and something about how he used language that sounded very much like he were calling himself Yahweh (which means something like I Am)—various leaders came to the alarming conclusion that Jesus really was identifying himself, not simply as the promised anointed deliverer-king (a significant enough claim), but also as the Son of God. In various ways, he was owning up to the fact that John claims for him at the opening of his Gospel: this is “the Word who is God.”

Sentenced to Death

That such a one who was so expectation-bending could make such a grandiose claim was too much for the powers that be. In an unusual show of solidarity, Pharisees and Sadducees linked arms long enough to get Jesus brought before the Roman governor. Since Jesus saw himself as a king, they claimed, he was guilty of sedition against Caesar; and since he identified himself with God, he was a blasphemer of the highest order. Although a bit frightened by the latter claim, the governor was even more frightened by the former, and sentenced Jesus to the sort of Roman punishment one could expect for treason in the provinces: death by crucifixion.

One of the apparently odd twists in all of this is that Jesus had predicted exactly this future for himself. When he said such things, of course, it mystified those around him, and they didn’t know what he meant. After all, they assumed that their Messiah was destined for a great many more successes. So they weren’t sure what he was on about.

Jesus did die on a cross. It was not only what Rome assigned for sedition; interestingly, it was also a penalty mentioned (although not exactly prescribed) in Torah for apostasy and rebellion. If Jesus was baptized, not for the sake of his own sin, but because he wished to represent others, it can be fairly said that he died the same way. He had not in fact raised sedition against Rome (many of his accusers were more than willing to do that themselves), but he bore that punishment. But more, he took the punishment of apostasy and rebellion ... and if he really were king and indeed, if he really were God—what could be more apostate and rebellious than killing one’s own God and king? Seen in this light, he was bound to represent his people to the very end.

Except it was not the end.


Just as he had foretold his own death, Jesus had also foretold that he would “raise on the third day.” Other than the skeptical Sadducees, pretty well all Jews believed in the resurrection of the body. But nobody expected it for one individual. The resurrection was an event that would usher in the age to come.

But on the third day, Jesus did emerge from the tomb, and the age to come ... hadn’t come. Or, maybe it did, in a way and in part. At any rate, the stunned followers of Jesus took his resurrection for what it surely was: his vindication by God himself. A vindication that said once again: Yes, this is my beloved Son. Your Messiah, your king. And your representative, who came to deal with your sins.

And if he was vindicated in that role, the implication is, the resurrection of Jesus validates how Jesus dealt with sin, not only throughout his life, but also on the cross and out the other side.

Upward, Downward—and Onward

Jesus still didn’t go out and conquer the Romans. He spent forty days with his followers and promised that he would send the Holy Spirit upon them in a new way on the Jewish festival of Pentecost, after he “ascended.” That event would show that he was now ruling from a throne they could not see, the throne of God. And then he went up in a cloud before their eyes, leaving them to themselves.

Except, again, he didn’t really leave them to themselves. A few days later, when they were assembled in Jerusalem for the Pentecost festival, the Spirit descended in visible form again. Not as a dove, like at his baptism, but in the form of tongues of fire accompanied by a great noise of wind.

But the tongues of fire were not the only marvelous tongues that day. The tongues of a whole group of Jesus’ followers were transformed at least for a day. Standing in the middle of Jerusalem among Jewish pilgrims and proselytes (non-Jewish converts to Judaism) from all over the Roman world and beyond, these Jews, most of them uneducated Galileans, stood and spoke the languages of their hearers—languages they had never learned.

On that day, when God made public the vindication of Jesus, as his follower Peter proclaimed both his resurrection and ascension to rule as God’s Messiah, no less than three thousand people turned to Jesus, receiving baptism as the mark of entry.

Jesus was dead; Jesus is alive. Jesus was convicted; Jesus was vindicated.

And the assembly (church) of Jesus was born, and his kingdom forged ahead.

— Tim Gallant

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