“For this I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth.”—JOHN 18:37.
1, 2. (a) How is the world becoming more divided? (b) What questions will we answer in this study?
“FROM an early age, I saw only injustice,” recalls a sister in southern Europe, who was reflecting on her past. “So I rejected the political system in my country, and I supported what many viewed as radical ideas. In fact, for many years I was the girlfriend of a terrorist.” A brother in southern Africa had also previously justified violence. “I believed that my tribe was superior to all others, and I joined a political party,” he says. “We were taught to kill our opponents with spears—even those of our own tribe who supported other political parties.” A sister living in central Europe admits: “I was prejudiced, and I hated anyone who was of a different nationality or who had a religion that was different from mine.”
2 A growing trend in today’s world is reflected in the attitudes that those three once had. Violent independence movements flourish, political divisions become more entrenched, and in many countries, foreigners are subjected to growing animosity. As the Bible foretold, people of all sorts are “not open to any agreement” during these last days. (2 Tim. 3:1, 3) While the world becomes more divided, how can Christians safeguard their unity? We can learn much by examining how Jesus handled a situation in the first century when the land was unsettled by political turmoil. Let us consider three main points: Why did Jesus refuse to get involved in separatist movements? How did he demonstrate the need for God’s servants to avoid taking sides on political issues? And how did Jesus teach us that violence against others is not justified?
JESUS’ ATTITUDE TOWARD INDEPENDENCE MOVEMENTS
3, 4. (a) What political expectations did the Jews have in Jesus’ day? (b) How did those sentiments affect Jesus’ disciples?
3 Many Jews to whom Jesus preached longed for independence from Rome. Jewish Zealots, or nationalists, stirred up these feelings among the people. Many of those extremists followed the ideas of Judas the Galilean. He was a false messiah in the first century who misled a large number. Jewish historian Josephus states that this Judas “incited his countrymen to revolt, upbraiding them as cowards for consenting to pay tribute to the Romans.” The Romans had Judas executed. (Acts 5:37) Some of the Zealots even resorted to violence to further their goals.
4 Apart from those extremists, ordinary Jews were keenly awaiting the arrival of a political Messiah. That is, they expected that when the Messiah appeared, he would bring glory to their nation and freedom from the yoke of Rome. (Luke 2:38; 3:15) Many believed that the Messiah would establish a kingdom on earth in Israel. When that occurred, millions of Jews scattered abroad would return to their homeland. Recall that John the Baptist once asked Jesus: “Are you the Coming One, or are we to expect a different one?” (Matt. 11:2, 3) John may have wanted to know whether someone else would fulfill all the hopes of the Jews. The two disciples who met the resurrected Jesus on the road to Emmaus also had unfulfilled hopes about the Messiah. (Read Luke 24:21.) Soon thereafter, Jesus’ apostles asked him: “Lord, are you restoring the kingdom to Israel at this time?”—Acts 1:6.
5. (a) Why did the people of Galilee want Jesus to be their king? (b) How did Jesus correct their thinking?
5 Such expectations about the Messiah doubtless led the people of Galilee to want Jesus to become their king. We can imagine that they were thinking that Jesus would be an ideal leader. He was an outstanding speaker; he could cure the sick; he could even supply food for the hungry. After Jesus fed about 5,000 men, he sensed the mood among the people. “Jesus, knowing that they were about to come and seize him to make him king, withdrew again to the mountain all alone.” (John 6:10-15) The following day on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, the enthusiasm may have died down some. Jesus then explained to the crowd the true nature of his work. He had come to bring spiritual, not material, benefits to the nation. “Work, not for the food that perishes, but for the food that remains for everlasting life,” he told them.—John 6:25-27.
6. How did Jesus make clear that he did not seek political power on earth? (See opening picture.)
6 Shortly before his death, Jesus realized that some of his followers were expecting him to set up an earthly kingdom centered in Jerusalem. He corrected that idea by giving them the illustration of the minas. It showed that Jesus, the “man of noble birth” would have to go away for a long time. (Luke 19:11-13, 15) Jesus also stated his neutral position to the Roman authorities. Pontius Pilate asked Jesus: “Are you the King of the Jews?” (John 18:33) Perhaps the governor feared that Jesus could cause political unrest, a principal concern throughout Pilate’s rule. Jesus answered: “My Kingdom is no part of this world.” (John 18:36) He would not get involved in politics, for his Kingdom was to be a heavenly one. He told Pilate that his work on earth was to “bear witness to the truth.”—Read John 18:37.
7. Why may it be a challenge to avoid giving tacit support to independence movements?
7 When we understand our assignment as clearly as Jesus understood his, we will avoid even lending tacit, or unspoken, support for political independence movements. This may not be easy. “People in our area are becoming more and more radical,” notes one traveling overseer. “A nationalistic spirit has taken over, and many take for granted that political independence will improve their lives. Thankfully, the brothers have safeguarded their Christian unity by concentrating on preaching the good news of the Kingdom. They look to God to solve injustice and the other problems we face.”
HOW DID JESUS FACE DIVISIVE POLITICAL ISSUES?
8. Give an example of the burden faced by first-century Jews.
8 Injustice often inflames political passions. Taxation was a hot political issue in Jesus’ time. In fact, the rebellion of Judas the Galilean, mentioned earlier, was sparked by a registration to ensure that the people paid tribute to Rome. Subjects of Rome, including those who listened to Jesus, were required to pay many taxes, such as on goods, land, and houses. And the corruption of the tax collectors increased the sense of being under a heavy burden. Tax collectors might purchase a position of authority at a public auction and then profit from what was collected. Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector in Jericho, had become rich by extorting money from the people. (Luke 19:2, 8) His course was probably typical of that of many.
9, 10. (a) How did Jesus’ enemies try to get him involved in a political issue? (b) What do we learn from Jesus’ response? (See opening picture.)
9 Jesus’ enemies tried to trap Jesus by getting him to take sides on a taxation issue. The tax in question was the “head tax,” a tax of one denarius levied on Roman subjects. (Read Matthew 22:16-18.) The Jews especially resented this tax. It represented their subjection to Rome. The “party followers of Herod” who raised this issue hoped that if Jesus denounced the tax, he might be accused of sedition. If Jesus said that taxation was a necessary burden, he could lose the support of his followers.
10 Jesus was careful to remain neutral on the taxation issue. “Pay back . . . Caesar’s things to Caesar, but God’s things to God,” he said. (Matt. 22:21) Of course, Jesus knew that corruption was common among tax collectors. But Jesus did not want to get sidetracked, diverted from the much more important issue. That was God’s Kingdom, which would be the real solution. He thereby set the example for all his followers. They should avoid becoming involved in political issues, no matter how right or just a certain cause might seem. Christians seek the Kingdom of God and his righteousness. They do that instead of forming strong opinions about, or speaking out against, certain unjust practices.—Matt. 6:33.
11. How can we in a positive way channel our desire for justice?
11 Many of Jehovah’s Witnesses have succeeded in moving away from strong political views that they once held. “After taking social studies classes at the university, I developed radical views,” says a sister in Great Britain. “I wanted to champion the rights of black people, since we had suffered so much injustice. Although I was good at winning arguments, I still ended up feeling frustrated. I did not realize that the causes of racial injustice had to be uprooted from people’s hearts. When I began to study the Bible, however, I realized that I had to start with my own heart. And it was a white sister who patiently helped me to make the journey. Now I am serving as a regular pioneer in a sign-language congregation, and I am learning to reach out to all kinds of people.”
“RETURN YOUR SWORD TO ITS PLACE”
12. What kind of “leaven” did Jesus tell his disciples to avoid?
12 In Jesus’ day, religion was often mixed up in politics. The book Daily Life in Palestine at the Time of Christ notes that “the religious sects into which the Jews were divided corresponded more or less to what we term political parties.” So Jesus warned his disciples: “Keep your eyes open; look out for the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” (Mark 8:15) That reference to Herod likely refers to the party followers of Herod. Politically, the Pharisees supported Jewish independence. Matthew’s account reveals that Jesus also mentioned the Sadducees in this conversation. They wanted to keep the status quo. Many of their members enjoyed political power under the Roman administration. Jesus emphatically warned his disciples to stay clear of the teachings, or leaven, that these three groups advocated. (Matt. 16:6, 12) Interestingly, this conversation took place not long after the occasion when the people wanted to make Jesus king.
13, 14. (a) How did political and religious issues lead to violence and injustice? (b) Why does injustice not justify violence? (See opening picture.)
13 When religion is mixed with politics, violence can easily erupt. Jesus taught his disciples that they must maintain neutrality in these circumstances. That is related to the reason why the chief priests and the Pharisees planned to kill Jesus. They saw him as a political and religious rival who threatened their position. “If we let him go on this way, they will all put faith in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation,” they said. (John 11:48) Thus, High Priest Caiaphas took the lead in plotting Jesus’ death.—John 11:49-53; 18:14.
14 Caiaphas sent soldiers to arrest Jesus under the cover of night. Jesus was aware of this shameful strategy, so during his final meal with the apostles, he asked them to get some swords. Two would be sufficient to teach them a vital lesson. (Luke 22:36-38) Later that night, Peter used a sword to attack a member of the mob. No doubt, he was incensed at the injustice of Jesus’ nighttime arrest. (John 18:10) But Jesus told Peter: “Return your sword to its place, for all those who take up the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matt. 26:52, 53) This powerful lesson was in harmony with what Jesus prayed about earlier that night—they must be no part of the world. (Read John 17:16.) Fighting injustice was something to be left to God.
15, 16. (a) How has God’s Word helped Christians to avoid conflict? (b) What contrast does Jehovah see when he observes today’s world?
15 The sister in southern Europe mentioned earlier learned this same lesson. “I have seen that violence does not bring justice,” she observes. “I saw that those who resort to violence often end up dead. And many others become embittered. I was so happy to learn from the Bible that only God can bring true justice to the earth. For the last 25 years, that is the message I have been preaching.” The brother in southern Africa has replaced his spear with “the sword of the spirit,” God’s Word, as he preaches a message of peace to his neighbors, whatever their tribe. (Eph. 6:17) And after becoming one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the sister in central Europe married a brother from an ethnic group she formerly hated. All three made these changes because they desired to be like Christ.
16 And how important these changes are! The Bible likens humanity to a sea that tosses and turns, a sea that knows no peace. (Isa. 17:12; 57:20, 21; Rev. 13:1) While political issues stir people up, divide them, and provoke senseless violence, we maintain our peace and unity. And as Jehovah observes our divided world, it must warm his heart to see the unity that exists among his people.—Read Zephaniah 3:17.
17. (a) What are three ways in which we can promote unity? (b) What will we consider in the following article?
17 We have seen that we can promote Christian unity in three ways: (1) We put our trust in God’s heavenly Kingdom to correct injustice, (2) we refuse to take sides in political issues, and (3) we reject violence. Sometimes, however, our unity can be threatened by prejudice. The following article will look at how we can successfully face this challenge, as Christians did in the first century.