The Militant Messiah

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The New Testament says we are engaged in a powerful battle. But before we get to this, we should understand that another type of battle was taking place in the time of Jesus and that how Jesus fought transforms how His disciples make war.

In the story of the feeding of the five thousand (Mark 6:31-44) Jesus’ mode of combat subverts contemporary uses of force. To grasp this story’s full impact, we need to understand the mindset Jesus was transforming.

Zealot movement

Have you ever heard of a place called Gamala (or Gamla)? Although it’s not one of the better-known cities of Israel during Jesus’ day, and not even mentioned in the New Testament, Gamala created a family that would spell the doom of Israel by influencing the same people Jesus was preaching His gospel to.

Gamala, just northeast of the Sea Galilee, sits on a steep hill and takes its name from the camel (gamal in Hebrew) hump it sits on. On this hill lived about two to three thousand people, a decent-sized city for the region of Galilee. Capernaum, one of the largest cities, had around ten thousand inhabitants.1 Built as a fort during the Syrian wars three centuries before Christ, Gamala never surrendered its military bent. Surrender, however, is not the only way to lose one’s soul or one’s self.

Judas the Galilean,2 who came from Gamala, picked up and developed the anti-Roman sentiment growing in Galilee. Six years after Jesus was born, the Zealots, led by Judas, became a sect of Jewish religion. By using military force against their Roman oppressors, they sought to obtain the freedom God promised.

Many in Galilee at that time latched onto this militant understanding of how God’s rescue would come. So when the taxation demanded by Rome was at its worst — during a census — Judas the Galilean capitalized on the negative sentiment and led a revolt against Rome. The rebellion was quickly squashed, but the movement was not. Gamala was one of the cities in Galilee to fight against the Roman armies in ᴀᴅ 66.3 Judas’ son James was put to death in ᴀᴅ 46 by the Romans, who no doubt saw him as potentially stirring up the same trouble his father did.4 Furthermore, Judas’ grandsons led two of the three groups of Zealots who revolted against Rome and defended the temple in ᴀᴅ 66.5 If you don’t surrender, then you die. And these Zealots refused to surrender.

After the destruction of the temple, the death of Judas’ grandsons, and the massacre at Masada, the Zealot movement dwindled and eventually died in one last attempt at revolution: the Bar Kochba revolt of ᴀᴅ 135.6 But for our purposes, we need to realize that from at least the time when Judas the Galilean began uniting his militia (ᴀᴅ 6) until the destruction of the temple (ᴀᴅ 66), the Zealot spirit was alive and well, especially in Galilee and Gamala.

Feeding Zealots

With this background, let’s consider Mark 6:31-44. Because of the demands of ministry, Jesus was concerned for the disciples’ well-being, so He took them in a boat to a deserted place. However, when they arrived, the desert was not so deserted. Five thousand men were waiting for them.

Men here is gender specific, meaning only people of the male sex.7 And five thousand of them were congregated in the wilderness, which is strange. We must recall that among the three closest cities (Capernaum, Bethsaida, and Gamala) there were probably only about eight to nine thousand men.8 This story gives the impression that every able-bodied man in the vicinity flocked to where the people knew Jesus would be. Only one cause could draw all these men without women or children to this desolate place on the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee: zealotry.

This is exactly what John’s Gospel tells us was happening. John 6:15 says that Jesus knew they intended to make Him king. On that very night, they planned to crown Him and make that the first night of the Jesus revolt against the Roman Empire.

Jesus and the Twelve landed where they intended, not ignorant of this fact. They saw the crowds, and Jesus had compassion on them because He knew what was happening. With deep pity and love, He taught them because they were sheep without a shepherd.

Within this phrase too — “sheep without a shepherd” — we catch the militant nature of the congregation. In four separate Old Testament passages the phrase is used with the same wording, and all four have strong links to a military leader (Numbers 27:17; 2 Chronicles 18:16; Ezekiel 34:5; Zechariah 10:2). Interestingly, in the face of all these revolutionary pointers, Jesus taught and fed. Even though He had all the support He could have asked for militarily, He refused to be the militaristic Messiah in the way people wanted. Rather, He opted to give the people the word of God and instruct His disciples to pass out bread from God.

People wanted freedom from Roman oppression; Jesus wanted freedom from death. They desired to be delivered from the chains of taxation; Jesus desired to deliver them from the Evil One. They were desperate to be loose from impure governors; Jesus was desperate to loose them from sin. Jesus showed Himself to be the militaristic Messiah prophesied centuries before, but to the real enemies of Jews and all humanity.

Fighting Jesus’ fight

We take up arms with Jesus in the same way. Paul says, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). And in another place,

Indeed, we live as human beings, but we do not wage war according to human standards; for the weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).

So let’s engage in the cosmic battle of thoughts and spiritual forces of evil that Jesus defeated through death and resurrection, and will completely defeat at His second coming (1 Corinthians 15:24-28). Let’s not muddle around like the five thousand in militaristic fever against humans, but let’s take Jesus’ compassion as a cue to have compassion on the humanity He died for.

May the compassion Jesus had, and has, drive us to spread His teaching and nourishment to all the world, as the disciples did that day. May we not waste our energies battling flesh and blood but put those energies to proper use in being strong in the cosmic battle that Jesus already won. May God use us powerfully.

Jonathon Hicks and his wife, Danielle, pastor the CoG7 in Lodi, CA. Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Bible.

  1. The sizes of the villages around the Sea of Galilee are contested with a gross divergence between the numbers they cite. The estimate for the population of Gamala is taken from Joseph in Josephus’ Wars, chapter 4, who says that nine thousand died in the battle against Vespasian in ᴀᴅ 66-67, but this appears to be an inflation due to flocking toward a fortified city and exaggeration on the part of Josephus. For Capernaum and Bethsaida, the populations have been estimated anywhere between three and ten thousand. — R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark (Eerdmans, 2014), 268; William Lane, The Gospel According to Mark (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), 232.
  1. This is the same Judas as Gamaliel speaks of in Acts 5:37.
  1. Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 4.1.1
  1. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20.5.2 102
  1. Josephus, Wars 7.8.1 and 2.17.8
  1. N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress Press, 2013), 82.
  1. In Matthew 14:14 there is a line, literally “not counting women and children,” which some translations use to imply that women and children were present at the feeding of the five thousand with words like “plus women and children.” However, the Greek phrase leaves it ambiguous as to whether it was five thousand men “not counting” women and children or five thousand men “with no” women or children. The other three evangelists seem to all agree that it was only men, and so we should take the ambiguity in Matthew, not as a disparaging voice but as added emphasis to the fact that only men were present.
  1. Capernaum (ten thousand), Gamala (three thousand) and Bethsaida (three thousand). These figures are large estimates but appear not to be overestimates because they allow the Gospels to speak as historically valid texts.
Jonathon Hicks
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Jonathon Hicks and his wife, Danielle, serve the Lodi, CA, Church of God (Seventh Day) congregation, who has taught him much and given incalculable support. He is seeking to love those he has the privilege of speaking to week after week.