Rule 10

The God of the Christian Bible calls us to resist idolatry and oppression.

A few years before the birth of Jesus, the Roman emperor Augustus introduced throughout the Roman Empire the Julian calendar, named for Julius Caesar. The calendar described the birth of Augustus as "good news" and referred to him as a "savior" and "god" who had brought "peace" to the world. This is the context in which the author of the gospel of Luke proclaimed that the birth of Jesus during the reign of Augustus was "good news" because it marked the coming of a "savior" and "son of God" who will bring "peace" on earth. (Lk. 1:28-35, 2:8-14) The gospel presents a clear choice to its readers between pagan idolatry and Christian faith.

In the gospel stories Roman power is represented by Pilate, who rules in Jerusalem on behalf of the Empire over the Jews and Greeks of Palestine. The climax of the story of Jesus is the confrontation with Pilate that results in the crucifixion and death of Jesus. In this narrative the chief priests of the temple in Jerusalem bring charges against Jesus, and thus are complicit in his death. But the authority that orders the crucifixion of Jesus is imperial. 

The earliest gospel of the New Testament reports that an inscription hung above the dying Jesus read, "The King of the Jews." Jesus is mocked by the chief priests and scribes, who say, "Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe." (Mk. 15:32) But it is a Roman centurion standing guard, who has the last word. When the centurion witnesses the way that Jesus "breathed his last," he exclaims, "Truly this man was God's Son!" (Mk. 15:39) This is not a factual report. It is an imaginative and powerful argument undermining Roman idolatry and imperial oppression.

The gospel story proclaims that Christ died for our sins, but it also calls us to repent, to have faith, and to seek the justice and mercy that scripture reveals to be God's will. The ministry of Jesus shows how to do that by sharing food, caring for those who are ill, forgiving the sins of those who repent, and proclaiming the kingdom of God. The good news is that the God of the Torah, the Writings, and the Prophets is present first in Jesus, as healer, teacher and prophet, and then in the sacraments and service of the church, the body of Christ in the world. The good news is not only the promise of eternal life with God after death. The good news is that the reign of God is present, through faith in Jesus Christ and through the gifts of the Holy Spirit, "on earth as it is in heaven." (Mt. 6:10)

In an age when the Roman Empire claimed divine sanction for its reign, the New Testament was written to resist oppression and idolatry by proclaiming that the God of Israel and of Jesus was Lord of the rulers of the earth. In response to the claim noted by the Roman historian Seutonius, that the form of the deceased emperor had risen from the ashes of the cremation fire into heaven, first century Christians affirmed that Jesus rose from the tomb and ascended into heaven. The gospel of Matthew reports the risen Jesus saying, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me." (Mt. 28:18) In the gospel of Luke the risen Jesus says, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations...." (Lk. 24:46-47) 

Faith in the resurrection of Jesus counters the divine rule claimed for Augustus. Christian witness resists all such idolatry. In witness to this audacious faith Jesus was the first martyr, but he was followed by thousands of martyred Christians. When the Roman Empire required its people to worship the Emperor as God, Christians refused to abandon the God of scripture, the God known through the Torah, the Writings, the Prophets, and finally through the New Testament.

In the fourth century the Roman Emperor Constantine adopted Christian faith. The result was not only that churches were protected throughout the Empire, but the Old and New Testaments were authorized as the Christian Bible by an imperial church. The Christian canon was formed, and the meanings in scripture that had been directed against the Roman Empire were understood differently. The church blamed Jews for the death of Jesus, not the Roman Empire, and its choice of scripture contained material that could be read that way. Moreover, both Paul's letters and the gospels sanctioned Roman authority. (Rm. 13:11, Mk. 12:14, Mt. 22:21, Lk. 20:25) Yet, to this day the gospel of faith and freedom has inspired Christians to resist idolatry and oppression. This is, as the church confesses when it reads scripture in worship: "The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!" © Robert Traer 2016