[This is the second of two lectures in the Carol Grizzard-Browning Lecture Series at the University of Pikeville (Pikeville, Kentucky). It was presented November 12, 2013. The first lecture was "The Old Testament as a peace book" and may be found here.]
Let me start with a bold claim. The New Testament presents a political philosophy. This philosophy has at its core a commitment to pacifism (by pacifism I mean the conviction that no cause or value can override the commitment to treat each life as precious). This commitment is based on the belief that Jesus Christ as God Incarnate reveals the character of God and of God’s intention for human social life.
Jesus’s identity in the Gospel of Luke
In talking about the New Testament as a peace book, I will look first at how the gospels present Jesus. I will focus on the Gospel of Luke. At the very beginning, from Mary, upon her learning of the child she will bear, we hear that this child will address social reality. He will challenge the power elite of his world and lift up those at the bottom of the social ladder. This child, we are told, will bring hope to those who desire the “consolation of Israel.” Those who seek freedom from the cultural domination of one great empire after another that had been imposed upon Jesus’ people for six centuries will find comfort. From the beginning, this child is perceived in social and political terms.
Later, at the moment of Jesus’ baptism, God’s voice speaks words of affirmation, “Thou art my Son” (Luke 3:22). These words should be understood to name Jesus’s vocation more than simply emphasizing his divine identity. “Son of God” was a term for kings (Psalm 2:7). It states that this person is the leader of God’s kingdom on earth, he has the task of showing the way for God’s will for God’s people to be embodied.
Jesus’ baptism was a kind of commissioning service for this vocation. We see that in the events that following shortly afterward. Jesus retreats deeper into the wilderness and there encounters Satan, the tempter. Satan presented Jesus with temptations that all had at their core seductive appeals to his sense of messianic or kingly calling. He could rule the nations, he could gain a following as a distributor of bread to the hungry masses, he could leap from the top of the Temple and gain the support of the religious powers-that-be through his miraculous survival that would confirm his messianic status. That is, Jesus faced temptations concerning how he would be king. He did not deny that he was called to be “Son of God”—that is, king or messiah. But he did reject temptations to be king in ways he knew would be ungodly.