Jesus often encountered conflict because he went about retelling Israel’s story, but in a fresh way with a new twist. Like the Old Testament prophets, Jesus engaged Israel with a critique from within.
One aspect of Israel’s story that Jesus retold in a startling way was redefining Israel’s enemy. Through the centuries, Israel’s history of exile almost compelled her to tell her story in such a way that the pagan nations were viewed as the enemy. Rabbinic teaching filled her imagination as God’s people so that they believed that just as Adam was over the animals, so Israel was to be over the nations. Just as the “son of man” in Daniel 7 emerged victorious over the monsters from the sea, so Israel would emerge victorious over its oppressive rulers. The Messiah was coming and Israel’s exile would truly end when evil, in the form of the pagan nations, was conquered and YHWH returned to Zion. And her God-given symbols and celebrations only reinforced this story. So in the time of 1st century Israel, Rome was the enemy and resisting Rome was resisting evil.
But Jesus’ radically redefined the story. The enemy to be battled was more insidious than a pagan overlord. The pagan hordes surrounding Israel were not the actual foe of God’s people. Standing behind the entire problem was the satan, the accuser. Therefore, the struggle that was ultimately climaxing was not a national one, but a cosmic one. In this battle, even the pagan rulers who oppressed Israel were fellow sufferers.
But Jesus understood that the satan’s tactics are very subtle and sinister. As Israel looked outward, seeing her enemy in the surrounding nations, Jesus discerned that the satan had actually embedded his values into the God-given symbols, stories and institutions that defined Israel as God’s people!
In other words, the satan used the very God-given elements of Israel’s identity as God’s people to distort Israel’s story, thus driving God’s people further from God while they believed they were remaining faithful to him. As N.T. Wright states in Jesus and the Victory of God, “The satan had made its home in Israel, and in her cherished national institutions and aspirations” Wright unpacks this further:
“From [Jesus’] point of view, he was fighting Israel’s real battle by challenging Israel’s idolatrous nationalism, which was passing off its satan-induced worldview as true allegiance to the reign of YHWH. His opponent, meanwhile, especially the Pharisees (during the Galilean ministry) and the chief priests (in Jerusalem) were resisting his attempts, and so challenging the validity of his mission, his vocation, his blueprint for Israel.”
We can see this unfold in startling detail when Jesus asks his students, “Who do you say I am?” In a moment of revelation, Peter exclaims that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” But the very God-given concept of the Christ has been distorted by satan-induced retellings of the story, evident in Peter’s words following his exclamation. Moments after receiving his remarkable revelation, Peter is rebuked by Jesus, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” (Matthew 16:15-23)
The distortions that held sway over Peter held sway over an entire nation. The choice was there’s – either embrace and align themselves with this “strange” Messiah retelling Israel’s story in a strange way or remain aligned with the satan and suffer God’s judgment through Roman hands. As Jesus entered Jerusalem his last time, he wept because he knew they had made their choice.
I don’t know about you, but this frightens me. What if the reality facing 1st century Israel now faces the 21st century Church (especially in the west). With sincere apologies to N.T. Wright, what if “From [Jesus’] point of view he is fighting [the Church’s] real battle by challenging [the Church’s] idolatrous [values, structures, theology and institutions], which are passing off its satan-induced worldview as true allegiance to the reign of YHWH.”
What if the battle is not “out there” but “in here.” What if the enemy is not Muslims, terrorists, homosexuals, liberals, conservatives, the media, the U.N., postmoderns, etc., but the satan, who has actually infiltrated and subtly distorted our story so that we are actually passing off a satan-induced worldview as allegiance to God. What if our structures, our theologies, our values and our stories, as good and God-given as they are, are actually distorted and reinforce further distortion so that like the Pharisees, we make people “twice as much a son of hell” as we are (Matthew 23:15).
And in this light, what if a similar choice is being offered to the powerful western church – either truly align ourselves with Jesus and his work in the world through complete reformation or experience diminishment or destruction so that either from our reconstruction or from our ashes, the world is actually blessed with a proper telling of God’s Story.