One dynamic that Jesus films help bring out that often gets missed in common Christian teaching is how real and popular the “zealot” movement was in Jesus’ day. These were religious “freedom fighters” who wanted to take up arms against Rome and try to incite insurrection and political unrest in the Holy Land.
Jesus rejected this way completely. “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword,” he taught. The A.D. series is doing a great job bringing out the Jewish-Roman hostility and ill blood between them. Pilate shows the absoluteness of Roman pride and power. Rome’s message is clear: We rule the world. Every knee must bow and every tongue shall confess that Caesar is Lord.
Well, the Zealots would die before they did that.
Interestingly, so would the Christians. (Before long, a courageous Christian named Paul will write a treasonous letter to the believers in the Roman city of Philippi declaring right under Caesar’s nose that “every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.”)
But these two groups could never join together and could never see eye to eye. In episode 4, there is the scene played out where Boaz the violent Jewish assassin shows up in the Christian camp, and Peter and Boaz have a very strong conversation. Boaz reminds Peter that the story of Israel and the Hebrew Scriptures are full of warrior leaders of God, and he doesn’t recognize this “Jesus.”
Peter makes it clear where he stands and walks away with a burning stare and holding his tongue. He knows that Jesus has ushered into history a new epoch for the Jewish people and the world. “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” But I say to you, “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.” Umm, yes, that means those Romans, too.
So he says to Boaz, “Are you so full of hatred…?” Boaz will likely never be willing to accept Jesus’ radical teachings of peace and could never envision a community where Jews and Gentiles, Christians and Romans alike, are welcome at the table. The series brings out just how radical and controversial it was for a Jewish rabbi to have a diverse band of followers that included Matthew the tax collector for Rome sitting at the table with Simon the Zealot who wanted to kill anyone who worked for the Roman government.
This also brings out how crazy it was for the Gospel writers to mention things like the Roman centurion standing at the cross declaring, “Surely this was the son of God.” Or, an even more detestable statement for Jesus’ Jewish disciples to swallow was when Jesus said about the Roman centurion whose daughter he healed, “I have not seen faith like this in all of Israel!” Ouch. No wonder he got crucified.
(Keep your eye on Cornelius, the Roman Centurion who is currently doing Pilate’s bidding. I have a feeling his world is about to be rocked (cf. Acts 10)).
So, Jesus stood alone.
He was considered an insurrectionist and threat to peace by Rome.
He was considered a false teacher and blasphemer by the Jewish leadership.
He was too soft and impractical in the eyes of the Jewish revolutionaries.
The early Jesus movement was already being pressured to use violence in their fight for survival. The church would forever be courted by the powers that be, and she would forever be tempted to use power and the sword to spread her influence. But history will prove that the church of Christ was at its best when she followed the Way of Peace and instead of fighting for her rights, she laid down her life and turned the other cheek.
It was the “blood of the martyrs that was the seed of the church.” The world would watch with wonder at how bravely these Christians faced the sword and as they were being tortured and dying, instead of cursing their killers, they would be following their leader’s example and praying for them and forgiving them.
On the other hand, whenever the church had political power and the ability to wield the sword, she would always end up looking less and less like her Christ, and more and more like the Romans of those early days.
So, when we’re faced with the brutal injustices of our own day, and when we’re are staring the oppressors of our own political landscape in the eyes, which movement do we most resonate with?
Do we want to align ourselves with those who want to use violence to rid the world of such evil?
Or do we want to align ourselves with a movement that refuses to use violence and instead chooses to love their enemies and pray for their oppressors?
I have written elsewhere how Christians ought to re-examine our concept of justice in light of Jesus’ teachings in a series called “A Crucified Justice.”